Chapter Twenty Eight
Adlis froze until the echoing boom of the church doors had faded back into silence. Even then, the only movement she made was the rapid rise and fall of her chest as she sucked in panicked breaths. When nothing grabbed her, eventually she finally worked up the courage to look around. It was so dark she couldn’t see even an inch in front of herself.
“Z- Z- Za?” she asked. She was shaking so hard that it was difficult to talk.
“I- I’m here, Miss Adlis.” His voice came from her right, and she spun to look, even though she knew she wouldn’t be able to see him.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“Yeah, I- I think so. What about you?”
Adlis tried to tell him she was fine, but the words wouldn’t come out of her mouth. She wouldn’t be fine until they left this horrible place far, far behind. Instead, she said, “I can’t see anything, Za. Are… Are we alone?”
Za didn’t answer for a second, but she could hear him breathing just as frantically as she was.
“I dunno, Miss Adlis,” he finally answered. “There ain’t nothin’ movin’ in here but us, but…”
A pit formed in Adlis’ stomach. “But what?”
“But there’s one’a them skeletons up toward the front.”
Adlis gasped. Then, hiking up her skirt, she scurried across the church as quickly as she dared, not caring what she bumped into until…
“Oomph!” the simmk exclaimed as she ran straight into him. “Miss Adlis, what’re you—”
“It’s not moving?” she interrupted him. “Are you sure?”
Za paused. “Y- Yeah, I’m sure. It’s just sittin’ there.”
“Sitting there, like… a dead person?”
She felt stupid asking, and was relieved when Za answered without any hint of mocking in his voice, “Yeah, Miss Adlis.”
She breathed a sigh of relief. After what she’d just seen, she wasn’t about to trust any skeletons they found in this city, but as long as they weren’t up and walking around…
“A light,” she finally said. “Can you find us a light?”
“Uh…” She heard the rustle of Za’s clothes as he looked around. “I think there’s some torches over there.”
“Can you light one?”
“I still got Mr. Kulgan’s flint and tinder, yeah. Do you think that’s a good idea, though, Miss Adlis?”
“Whatever those things are, they obviously like the dark,” she said, trying to sound decisive. “Maybe if we light a torch, it’ll scare them away.”
It might also provoke them into attacking, but she didn’t mention that to Za.
She listened as Za walked away, stepping carefully even though he could see infinitely better than her, and lowered one of the torches from its sconce on the wall. She heard him strike his flint, sending up sparks that were, by themselves, almost blinding in the pitch black room, and then a fwoosh as the torch caught fire.
Adlis had to shield her eyes as light flooded the church. In actuality it wasn’t all that bright, but after several minutes in absolute darkness it felt like she was looking directly at the sun. She blinked a few times, and the room came into focus. She slowly turned in a circle to look around. She wasn’t sure what she had expected, but it hadn’t been for the place to look so… normal. The city’s unnatural state of preservation extended to inside the buildings, it turned out. Everything inside the church was in as pristine of condition as they day it had been built, though it all had the pallid gray color that everything in the Graylands did.
“Do you think we’re safe here, Miss Adlis?” Za asked timidly. His trembling sent the torch’s light bouncing all over the church, making it difficult for Adlis to focus on anything.
“I don’t think we’re safe anywhere, Za,” she answered. She paused for a second. “Here, let me take the torch.”
Za reluctantly handed it to her, and she turned and to regard the skeleton at the front of the church. Though his priestly robes had long since rotted away, the fact that he stood at the pulpit even in death marked him as the church’s priest. His bony hands gripped the wooden podium, and his skull rested atop it, like he was taking a nap standing up.
“Miss Adlis, what’re you doin’?” Za exclaimed when she walked up to it.
“I don’t think this one’s alive,” she answered. Sure enough, even when she came close enough to touch it, it didn’t move an inch. Its empty eye sockets stayed dark.
“Well, don’t just stand there and wait for him to come back!”
Adlis looked at the corpse for a few seconds more, and then nodded. Za was right, there was no guarantee that this one would stay dead, but just as she was about to turn and make her way back to him the flickering light caught something.
Words, painted in blood, adorned the back wall of the chapel. Despite the centuries it had to have been there, the blood still looked wet.
“Four strikes to the new world,” she read, “and we will live forever in the Eyes of Stone.”
“What’s that, Miss Adlis?”
“I- I’m not sure.” It sounded like gibberish, but it had to mean something.
Something else caught her eye. Up on the altar where the priest stood, below the words written in blood, there was something lying on the floor, Long, thin, and bright enough to reflect her torchlight back at her. It was…
The Chain of Embin.
“Za, we need to get out of here,” she said suddenly, spinning around so quickly that she almost fell over.
The simmk was at her side in an instant. “What happ—”
She ran past him to where the church’s big, wooden doors stood closed, and pushed against them with her free hand. They didn’t budge.
“Come help me!” she yelled.
Za came and slammed his shoulder against the door, and then stumbled back, holding his arm. It still didn’t move. It was as if there was a stone wall on the other side holding it closed. Grabbing the wooden handle, she pulled on it with all her might. Za rejoined her a moment later, but they may as well have been trying to move a mountain for all the good it did. Finally, gasping for breath, they both let go and sat down.
“M- Miss Adlis,” Za panted. “Wh- What’s the matter?”
Adlis shivered, and refused to look back up at the front of the church. “The Chain of Embin. They tore it down.”
“And what does that mean?”
“It’s the ultimate sign of disrespect for the church, Za! Embin used his chain to fight Vashiil. Every church has a replica of it, and they always put it in a place of honor in the sanctuary. If they take it down, that… that means that they’ve abandoned the faith!”
Za craned his head around to look, but Adlis could tell he wasn’t convinced.
“No offense meant, Miss Adlis, but I think we got bigger things to worry about right now.”
Adlis shook her head. “No, don’t you see? I ran here because I thought if there was any place in this city that would be safe, it’d be the House of Embin. But if the church was in on whatever happened here, then—”
Adlis and Za both jumped. This whole time, the church had been entirely silent. Whatever noises there were had come from them, and so the sudden intrusion of Jordaku’s bell shocked them both to the core.
Slowly, Adlis stood up, a pit forming in her stomach.
Za stood up with her. “Miss Adlis?”
“Four strikes to the new world,” she whispered.
Something horrible was about to—
An incredible gust of wind blasted through the church, even though the doors were still closed. Adlis and Za both cried out, raising their arms to shield their faces. The windstorm was strong enough to throw Za off his feet, and he rocketed backwards into one of the pews. Adlis managed to stay standing, though just barely since the wind tore at her hair, her clothes, anything it could grab onto.
She almost thought she could hear screams.
And then, all at once, the wind vanished. Breathing raggedly, Adlis slowly lowered her hands. She didn’t know what to expect, but she did know that she didn’t want to see it. Still, she forced her eyes open. The church looked completely unchanged, as if the sudden windstorm hadn’t affected anything. One thing was different, though: now there was bright red light streaming in through the stained glass windows, as if a dozen Wurstrams were shining in the sky. It was so powerful that, no matter what color the windows were, the light that filtered into the church was a deep, blood red.
“Za?” she whispered, and hesitantly turned around to face him— and froze. Za was there, picking himself up off the church floor and rubbing his head, but that wasn’t what had startled her.
The church was full of people.
“Miss Adlis, are you—”
She darted across the distance between them and pressed her palm against his mouth, silencing him. Za stiffened with surprise, but before he could do anything she nodded over his shoulder. She let him go when he turned to look, and then he froze too.
Rows upon rows of people sat in the pews, all dressed in their finest clothes as if this were any normal Embinsday. The priest wasn’t at the pulpit yet, but the congregation was as silent as if the sermon had already begun. It was difficult to tell in the red light, but Adlis realized that every single one of them, no matter how old, had hair, fur, and scales as gray as an old man’s.
No, she thought. It’s as gray as Kulgan’s!
A man rose from the front row of pews, and Adlis instantly identified him by his robes as the priest. The way he wore those robes, though, could be called sloppy at best. It wasn’t tied shut, and only one of his arms were in the sleeves, as if he’d started to put it on and then decided he couldn’t be bothered with the rest. Even so, he walked with the stiff, strict posture that every priest seemed to have as he climbed the steps to the podium and—
A pair of hands wrapped around Adlis and Za’s mouths, and before they could react they had been pulled to the floor.
“Be quiet!” someone hissed. “Don’t say a d’yargo word!”
Trying to keep from screaming, Adlis rolled over and found herself looking at an old man. No, not old. Ancient. His face had the look of someone who’d once had wrinkles, and then outgrown even them, and now his face was white and featureless as new parchment. What few wispy hairs still clung to his head were white, not gray. He barely looked more alive than the skeletons.
“My children!” the priest declared, though Adlis couldn’t see him from the floor. “The day of eternity has finally come upon us!”
The old man drew a raspy breath. “Sit down. We have to sit down. Come!”
He let go of them both and stood up, surprisingly agile for a man who looked ready to fall into his grave at any moment, and made for the end of the pew. There was just enough space for him, Adlis, and Za to sit together. Adlis didn’t move. She couldn’t. When the old man realized she wasn’t following him, he turned and waved frantically. Not knowing what else to do, she forced her arms and legs to move, and went to sit down. Za followed obediently, whimpering softly behind his mask. The old man waved for Za to go first, then Adlis, and then he sat down closest to the end.
“Today, my children, we pass from this frail, feeble existence, and go into life eternal!”
“Life eternal,” the congregation muttered back. The old man didn’t say anything.
“What’s going on?” Adlis whispered, leaning closer to him.
“Every time, it’s the same place, the same day,” he whispered back, staring blankly at the priest. “Never changes. No matter how many times, or who comes, it’s the same.”
“What do you mean?” Adlis demanded.
The old man started, as if he’d forgotten she was there, and then raised a finger to his lips and said, “Shh!”
Adlis realized several of the people sitting next to them had turned to look at her. Their eyes were cold as frozen stone, and they made Adlis’ ears turn white just looking at them. When she didn’t say anything else, they eventually turned back, as one, to look at the priest.
“I’ll not keep you long,” he said with arms raised. “Let us sing our hymn to Tarrug Shel’Vain and then go forth to join it!”
“Sing of dark, sing of light,” the congregation chanted. It wasn’t a song. Their voices never went up or down, or followed any rhythm that Adlis could discern. It sounded like an incantation. “Sing of feasting, sing of blight.”
While they chanted, the old man leaned his head down. Adlis did the same.
“Whatever you do, don’t go out those doors!” he hissed.
Without meaning to, Adlis sat up and looked behind her. The doors looked as unchanged as anything else.
“But the doors are shut tight,” she whispered back. “We can’t—”
“Don’t go out the doors!” he said again, and then snapped his head forward.
“Sing of love and sing of pain, in the end it’s all the same,” the rest of the church continued. “We go into the shadows now, before the mighty Mountain bow. Give up flesh and give up bone, live forever in Eyes of Stone.”
“Amen,” the priest finished with a formal bow of his head.
Unbidden, the congregation rose to their feet. The priest raised his hands again.
“Go to eternity, my children,” he said. “Be with the Mountain.”
The congregation rose to their feet and, without a word, began to file out of the pews and toward the doors. To Adlis’ surprise, the doors opened easily for them, as if to mock her. She found herself standing up as well, until the old man’s leathery fist wrapped around her arm and pulled her back down.
“Stay!” he hissed. “Just stay!”
Adlis looked over her shoulder, where the blood red light was flooding in even more powerfully now. “This is our only chance!”
The old man shook his head vigorously. “If you go out there, you become one of them!”
Slowly, she sat back down. “What do you mean? Who are you?”
The man didn’t say anything at first. He faced forward, looking at the priest, who in turn waited until the entire congregation had left the church— all except for Adlis, Za, and the old man. Adlis tensed up, ready to run when he noticed them, but instead all he did was lower his arms and, with slow but eager movements, follow the others out of the church. He didn’t so much as glance at them, and left the doors wide open behind him.
As soon as he was gone, the old man sighed with relief. “Don’t do anything to call attention to yourself, and they won’t even look at you.”
“Who are you?” Adlis asked again, rising from her seat.
The old man blinked, as if surprised. “I’m… my name? It’s…” His mouth worked silently, as if trying to recall some long lost memory. “It was… is… Chorrad.”
Adlis nodded. “All right, and what are you doing here, Chorrad?”
Chorrad stood up as well, wincing as his old bones protested. “Same as you, I expect. Stupid enough to wander into this city. Thought the church would be a safe place. I was wrong, and got brought here.”
“And where is here?”
Chorrad turned to her, and his old lips lifted in a joyless smile. “Exactly where you just were. The question is, when?”
Adlis blinked. “Are you telling me that we went back in time?”
“To the day everybody in Jordaku vanished.” Chorrad nodded. “Best I can figure it, anyway.”
Adlis stared at him for a minute— and then, before he could stop her, dodged around him and ran to the door.
“Miss Adlis!” Za yelled.
“Don’t do it!” Chorrad at the same time.
Adlis had no intention of going outside, though. She came to the doors, and stopped with one hand resting on the thick, polished wood. What she saw on the other side was enough to make her blood run cold.
At the bottom of the hill was a mass of people. Thousands of them. It must have been everyone in Jordaku, Adlis realized. They were bunched together so tightly that the ones in the center of the crowd couldn’t move, and still they spilled out of the town square and into the side streets. Men, women, and children of all ages and species, all of them waiting, all of them facing the same direction, all of them looking at…
Adlis followed their gaze and raised her eyes to see a hulking shadow looming over the city. Just on the outskirts of Jordaku, yet still easily visible from its sheer size. It rose up above them for miles and miles, wide at the bottom but tapering to a sharp point at the top.
The priest’s final words came back to her, unbidden. Go to the Mountain.
Only this was no mountain. It may have been as big as one, shaped like one, and even been made of solid stone, but its dark, scowling face made it clear that, whatever is was, it wasn’t a mountain. She might have thought it was just a strange formation in the rocks, had it not been so perfect, if “perfect” could be used to describe something so monstrously ugly. Its eyes were shut, but Adlis got the feeling that it was watching them anyway.
She could see the priest fighting his way to the front of the crowd. It was difficult, but the people pressed themselves to the sides as best they could to let him through. Once was there, he looked up at the mountain, raised his arms, and fell to his knees.
“Mighty Tarrug Shel’Vain!” he cried, his voice audible even from the church. “Blessed be your stones! It was you who showed us the gateway to your realm. Now we have gathered here as you commanded so that we might live forever!”
“Praise be to Tarrug Shel’Vain,” the entire city chorused, “the true god, the Mountain Beyond Sight.”
“Open your eyes, oh great one!” the priest called. “Let us shake off the oppression of the false god Embin! Take us into your wondrous gaze!”
The entire city fell silent— as silent as Jordaku had been when she and Za had first entered. Then there came a deafening, ground shaking rumble… and the mountain opened its eyes. Two brilliant beams of violet light cascaded out of them, lighting up the town square. It was the same shade as Atroyo’s light in the real world, but this one seemed tainted somehow. The entire center of town was covered by it, ending about thirty feet away from the church. There was almost a physical impact when the light struck Jordaku, and Adlis even saw a lot of the townspeople stagger beneath it. Adlis took a step back, her ears turning gray with dread.
And then the screaming started.
Though she could barely believe her eyes, she couldn’t deny what she was seeing. All of the townspeople were withering away. It was as if they had all suddenly died, and their bodies were decomposing at an accelerated rate. Even their clothes rotted away, stitch by stitch, leaving them naked so that Adlis could see in even greater detail as their bodies were robbed of their flesh. Adlis’ stomach churned as they screamed. They were obviously in agony, but the ghastly purple light seemed to hold them in place as Tarrug Shel’Vain’s gaze tore them to pieces, leaving nothing behind but bones that fell apart, clattering to the ground as soon as the light left them.
The initial beam of light only encompassed the people in the very center of the city. As soon as it was done, with a great rumble that shook the ground under Adlis’ feet, Tarrug Shel’Vain turned to regard the rest of Jordaku. Many of them stayed put, obediently letting the mountain take them as their friends and neighbors had, but others lost their nerve and ran. Those, Tarrug Shel’Vain hunted down first, passing over the obedient ones to wither away the deserters. Screams echoed down every street.
The light began to move toward the church…
Chorrad’s arm wrapped around Adlis’ neck, pulling her away from the door and throwing her to the ground. She hit the floor hard enough to knock the air from her lungs, and Chorrad dove away from the doorway like he was in a firefight. Not half a second later, the putrid purple light shone into the church, barely an inch away from where Adlis lay.
Everything fell still. If Adlis moved at all, or if the Mountain were to look just a little further left, she would meet the same fate as the people of Jordaku. Her heart pounded so hard that she was sure it would burst out of her chest and throw itself into the light. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Chorrad and Za watching her. They had both managed to find places underneath the windows, where it was still dark. The simmk was trembling. So was she. She knew that she should move, crawl over to them where the light wasn’t shining, but terror had rooted her to the floor. All she could do was wait. Wait and hope that Tarrug Shel’Vain would give up and look elsewhere.
After what felt like an eternity, the light moved on. Adlis let out the breath she had been holding, her body flooded with so much relief that she felt like she would melt. Even after that, it took her another minute to summon the strength to get and join Za.
“Are you all right, Miss Adlis?” he asked.
She nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
“Wh- What did you see out there?”
Adlis raised her head to look out the window, at the blood red sky. At random times it would flash purple. The sound of screams still echoed everywhere. Adlis’ ears turned white, and she hunched her back to stare at the floor between her knees.
“I… I think we’re in trouble, Za.”
NEXT TIME: Spend your vacation at lovely Jordaku! Hear the wonderful sermons, view the beautiful living mountain, and never… ever… ever… leave.