It took a couple of hours, but eventually the screaming stopped. The sudden silence was almost as shocking as when the screams had started, enough so to jerk Adlis out of her terrified stupor. She looked up at the window. The sun was setting, the red sky fading to black. Occasionally Tarrug Shel’Vain’s light would pass the window, but even that came less and less frequently until, with another rumble, the Mountain closed its eyes. Za had long since fallen into a fitful sleep. Hesitantly, Adlis turned to Chorrad.
“Is it over?” she whispered.
The old man nodded. “Every time. All of them. They walk right out and let it take them.” His gaze went vacant. “How many times? Hundreds. Hundreds of hundreds. All the same.”
Adlis sat up a little straighter. “What do you mean ‘every time’?”
Chorrad blinked, as if he’d forgotten they were there, and shook himself a little.
“It always starts again,” he explained. “Right from the minute you showed up, until… sometimes it lasts longer, sometimes it doesn’t even finish. But it always goes back to right there.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“Neither do I.” Chorrad paused, and then chuckled. “Neither do I. But you’ll see, sooner or later.”
Adlis looked out the door, which still stood wide open. “So, it is over?”
She nodded. “Good. Now tell me what’s going on!”
Chorrad laughed, a wheezing, humorless laugh. “I don’t know any more than you, lass. I came in here, the bell rang, and I’ve been stuck here ever since!”
“But where are… You said we went back in time, right?”
“I said I don’t know!” Chorrad yelled. Adlis recoiled, and the old man put a hand to his chest to calm himself. “I don’t know. I have some ideas, but… I don’t know.”
Adlis folded her arms. “Fine, then tell me those, at least.”
Chorrad looked at the floor, then at her, then out the window, then at Za, then back at her.
It happened in the blink of an eye. One second the sky was dark, the church filled with shadows, and then light was streaming in through the windows again. At first Adlis thought Tarrug Shel’Vain had reawakened, but this light was red, not purple. Somehow, in the space of an instant, it had gone from night to day.
That wasn’t all. The church was full again. Every pew was filled with people in their Embinsday best, all staring silently at the empty pulpit. If Adlis hadn’t known better, she would have thought they were the same people.
“Sit down in the pew!” Chorrad whispered urgently, springing to his feet.
Not knowing what else to do, Adlis shook Za awake, pressing her finger to her lips to keep him quiet, and did as Chorrad said. This time she was the one sitting at the end of the pew, with Za between her and Chorrad.
And then, to her disbelief, the priest walked back up the pulpit, his robe only half on, and faced the congregation.
“My children! The day of eternity has finally come upon us!”
Adlis’ eyes widened. “This is impossible,” she whispered.
“Miss Adlis, what’s goin’ on?” Za asked.
“Quiet, both of you!” Chorrad hissed.
Adlis shut her mouth, trapping the ocean of questions she had inside it, as the priest began the same exact sermon she had heard him preach a couple of hours ago— before he had died. Word for word, it came out of his mouth. Even the congregation echoing back his words was exactly the same. Adlis’ ears turned gray. Could this really be… no, it had to be a trick of some sort…
“Amen,” the priest finally concluded.
Once again, the congregation rose and made their way out the doors, leaving Adlis, Za, and Chorrad behind. As soon as the priest was gone, Adlis leaped to her feet.
“What just happened?” she shrieked.
Chorrad laughed. “You’d best get used to it, lass. This is all you’ve got to look forward to from here on out.”
“What do you mean?”
“This has been my life for… for…” His eyes went vacant again. “I don’t even know how long I’ve been here. I- I think was just about your age, but…” He looked down mournfully at his leathery, liver-spotted hands.
“Tell me what happened!” Adlis screamed, her white ears taking on a yellowish tinge in her anger.
“This is how it goes here in Jordaku,” he explained. “This one day, over and over and over again. When it ends, it starts all over again. Sometimes it lasts longer than others. Once, I went a whole week before I had to hear that d’yargo sermon again. Sometimes it starts over before he’s even done. And it never ends. We’re stuck here, you see?”
The purple light appeared, and the screams began again.
“Come on,” Chorrad said, leading them back underneath the windows, where the light couldn’t reach them.
The anguished screams pierced Adlis’ eardrums, right down to her brain, and she covered her ears as if that could block out the sound. It didn’t— if anything, it trapped them in there, bouncing and echoing inside her skull.
“I still don’t understand,” she said, trying to drown them out. “How is this even happening?”
“You said you have some ideas!”
Chorrad paused, but then nodded. “I don’t know anything for sure, but best I can figure it… these people came to the Graylands and built this city.”
“How? The Shapeless would have killed them.”
“Pit if I know! I’m just telling you what I think!” Adlis looked down, cowed, and Chorrad continued. “Maybe they didn’t build it. Maybe it was already here, left over from before the Corruption, and they just moved in. I don’t know. But they did things here. Magic things.”
Adlis’ ears paled at those words. Chorrad hadn’t seemed to notice her ears yet, though, or perhaps he didn’t care.
“They worked their magic, and I think Vashiil may have… I don’t know, Twisted it. Magic’s already Twisted enough, though. Somehow or another, they ended up making a door.”
A shiver ran down Adlis’ spine. “What kind of door?”
“A door to another world. A world just like ours, but different. And they found something in there.”
He nodded. “They worshipped it like a god, and when it told them to… to do that,” he jerked his thumb over his shoulder, toward the door, “they did it.”
Adlis looked out the door again, where the screams of the townspeople were still deafening. The Mountain’s light washed over the church now and then, but never stayed very long.
“So, this Tarrug Shel’Vain,” she finally said, “it’s Vashiil?”
A grave look came over Chorrad’s face, and he shook his head.
“No, lass, I think it’s something even worse.”
Adlis’ ears paled. “Worse than Vashiil?”
“Much worse. So much worse that somebody, or something, banished it to another world, same as when Embin banished Vashiil to the Graylands. Only, Tarrug Shel’Vain’s so bad that whoever did it made sure they did it right. No Forbidden Gates, no way in, no way out.”
Chorrad laughed. “They didn’t just walk here, lass. They used magic to break in. And they needed Vashiil’s corruption to help them, at that.”
The Mountain’s gaze passed over the church again. Something even worse than Vashiil… the very idea was insane. Vashiil was Embin’s sworn enemy, the opposite of everything that was good and orderly. What could possibly be worse than that?
“And there’s no way out of here?” she asked.
Chorrad shook his head.
“That can’t be true, though!” she argued. “If there’s a way in, there has to be a way out!”
“It’s a one way trip, lass. When the bell strikes four times, whoever’s inside the buildings gets brought here. There’s no way back.”
Adlis hesitated, but then got to her knees and peeked out the window.
“Miss Adlis!” Za exclaimed.
“Get down before it sees you!” Chorrad yelled.
Tarrug Shel’Vain’s gaze was currently on the other end of Jordaku, though. From here, Adlis could plainly see the bell tower. Satisfied, she settled back underneath the window before the Mountain decided to look her way.
“If the bell brought us here, why doesn’t it bring us back?” she asked.
“Have you heard it ring once since you got here?” Chorrad snapped.
“So, it never rings at all?”
“Everything starts when everybody’s down there waiting to die. Who do you think is left to ring the bell after it’s over?”
Adlis had dared to get her hopes up, but at the hands of Chorrad’s brutal honesty she felt them all get dashed on the floor again. She sat down, making sure her head was safely below the window, and looked at the floor. The idea of being stuck in this Embin-cursed place was the most terrifying thing she could imagine, but the old Ranger was right. Even if ringing the bell would send them back to the real world, that didn’t do them any good if nobody was there to ring it. And if everybody in Jordaku had been killed by the Mountain, then…
“Us,” she exclaimed, looking up at Chorrad again.
“Huh?” he asked.
Za sat up a little straighter. “Miss Adlis, you don’t mean—”
“We don’t need one of the townspeople to ring the bell for us, we can do it ourselves!”
She expected Chorrad to leap to his feet, demanding that they leave immediately. After spending his entire life here, reliving the same heretical sermon time after time, she’d expected him to be halfway to the bell tower before she’d even finished talking. To her surprise, though, Chorrad only scowled at her and shook his head.
“Sit down,” he grumbled, “and shut up, would you?”
Adlis stared at him, stunned. “But… But…”
“You take one step out that door, Tarrug Shel’Vain’ll pounce on you.”
“So what?” Adlis threw her hands in the air. “It killed everyone else, and look at them! If it catches us, we’ll just come back and try again.”
“Girl, I said shut up!”
“You call yourself a Gray Ranger?” she demanded. “Cowering in your hole for years and years instead of facing a little bit of danger?”
“You think that didn’t occur to us??” Chorrad demanded, finally rising to his feet. “Go to the Pit, wench! We thought of that. We all did!”
Adlis faltered. “You… all did?”
Chorrad spat on the floor. “I didn’t come here alone. There were five of us in my squad when we got stuck in this place. They all thought if they could get to the bell, we could all go home. They tried, and…” He spread his arms. “Do you see them?”
Slowly, Adlis sat back down, numb. “What happened?”
Chorrad glowered at her for a few more seconds, but then the anger fell from his face. He sat down too, back to the wall, and rubbed his eyes.
“Tarrug Shel’Vain caught them. They didn’t come back. None of them.”
“But the townspeople…”
“They belong here.” He motioned at himself and her. “Us? We’re outsiders. The only people who come back are the ones who were here the first time it happened. My partners… my brothers and sisters… they were gone for good. I’m the only one who didn’t go. I’m the only one left.”
Adlis raised her hand to her mouth, her ears turning white again.
“I- I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“Bah.” Chorrad waved his hand disdainfully. “It’s been years. I still had most of my hair then. Just don’t bring it up again.”
He lay down on the floor, curling up and closing his eyes. “I recommend getting some sleep before it all starts again. You’re going to be here for a while.”
You’re going to be here for a while.
The words echoed in Adlis’ head like the screams of the townspeople outside. Tarrug Shel’Vain’s light shone through the windows, lingering only a second before passing on. Five Gray Rangers, the people most qualified on Haroz to deal with a mess like this. Four of them dead, the fifth cowering inside a church, too afraid to so much as stick his head out the door. And now she was stuck here with him, in this place that made the Graylands look as welcoming as Arborough. Stuck here to grow old like he had, hiding, with nothing to look forward to but more hiding, listening to the same Twisted sermon day after day, hour after hour, with no end in sight until she just died of old age.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
“No,” she said.
Chorrad’s eyes opened. “What?”
She stood up. “I’m not staying here.”
“I told you—”
“If I go out there, I’ll die. But if I stay here, I’ll die too. It’ll just take longer.”
Chorrad sat up. Adlis expected him to protest, tell her how stupid she was being. Instead, all he did was give a sad nod.
“You’re not going to try to stop me?” she asked in surprise.
He nodded. “I’ve got no right to keep you here. If you want to try and escape, I don’t blame you. You’ll die, but I don’t blame you for choosing that death over sitting here and waiting for it like I am.”
Adlis glanced at the doorway. Tarrug Shel’Vain’s light had vanished completely, meaning the Mountain had gone back to sleep. Would it wake up again if she so much as stepped out the door? Chorrad seemed to think so. And how long would it be before the bell rang again in the real world and started the cycle over again? Chorrad said it was unpredictable. So…
Slowly, she walked to the door. Za came scampering up to her.
“Miss Adlis, wait!” he said, grabbing her shoulder.
She turned. “You don’t have to come with me, Za. If you want, you can stay here with—”
“I’m comin’ with you, Miss Adlis, and there ain’t nothin’ you or nobody else can say to change my mind!”
“You might die, though, Za.”
He waved his arms. “Ain’t nothin’ you can say! I’m with you no matter where you go, Miss Adlis!”
Adlis hesitated, but then nodded. “All right. Thank you, Za.”
“If you want to go, do it now,” Chorrad advised them. Getting up, groaning, he came to join them by the door. “Tarrug Shel’Vain’s asleep. It’ll wake up if you step outside, but maybe you’ll at least get a head start.”
“And there’s nothing…” Adlis stopped herself.
She had been about to ask if there was anything they could do to stop it, but one look at the monstrous Mountain told her that was as fruitless a hope as one could have. She could bring the Tassendile military, the marshals, the Gray Rangers themselves, and all the cannons between them to this accursed place, and they wouldn’t even be able to dent that creature.
“Once you start, there’s nothing I’ll be able to do to help you,” the old Ranger warned them. “You’ll be on your own.”
“I understand.” Adlis turned to him, wondering what to do now. One way or another, this was the last they were going to be see of him. “Thank you, Chorrad.”
“Ah,” a bit of color rose to the old man’s cheeks, “don’t thank me, lass. Being honest here, I wish I was as brave as you.”
“You could come with us if you wanted.”
He let out a weak chuckle. “No, you go on without me. I’m an old man. I’ll just slow you down.”
Adlis frowned. “But—”
“Lass, I’ve lived my entire life hiding in this hole like a coward.” A new edge came into Chorrad’s eyes now. “I did it while watching my brothers and sisters die fighting to leave this Twisted place. It’s only right that I carry out my own sentence and stay here til I die of old age.”
The thought made Adlis shudder, but she knew from the tone of his voice that there was no talking him out of this. Reluctantly, she nodded. She took a deep breath and turned to face the newly made necropolis outside. Tarrug Shel’Vain loomed over her on the outskirts of Jordaku, eyes closed but still waiting. Waiting to suck the soul out of her and turn her to a pile of bones on the ground.
Suddenly feeling much less confident than she had before, she turned to her companion. “Are you ready, Za?”
“A- As ready as I’ll ever be, Miss Adlis.”
“All right, we make a run for the bell tower on the count of three, got it? One… two…”
Red lights. Doors closed. Church full of people.
“Back to the pews! Now!” Chorrad commanded them, grabbing them both under their arms and hauling them back to the long wooden seats with surprising strength for someone as old as him.
Adlis looked around in shock as she and Za were all but thrown into the pews. This couldn’t be happening. She had been ready to do it. Even knowing she probably wasn’t going to make it, she had been ready to try. But now… now the moment was ruined, and she wasn’t sure if she could work up the nerve to do it again. Not now that she was surrounded by people she knew would be dead in a few minutes, knowing that their cries of agony would remind her of what exactly awaited her if she made her mad dash for freedom.
“I’m going to do it now!” she whispered as the priest climbed the steps to the pulpit.
“What?” Chorrad asked in disbelief.
“I’m going to do it now! I have at least ten minutes before the Mountain wakes up. I can easily make it to the bell tower in that time!”
She began to rise, but Chorrad grabbed her by the wrist. “No! You’ll upset the cycle!”
“Who cares?” she hissed. “They’ve got all eternity to do it the right way!”
Chorrad still shook his head stubbornly. “You don’t understand. Everything has to be allowed to go the way it did before.” He looked behind them. “Those doors aren’t supposed to open until the congregation goes to meet the Mountain.”
“And if I open them early…”
“The cycle will be disrupted, and everything’ll go insane! I told you, we’re outsiders to all this. Intruders! They won’t notice us unless we do something to make ourselves noticed. And if we do, they’ll destroy us.”
For a moment, Adlis was reminded of one of her tutor’s lessons. If a germ entered her body, an army of white blood cells would hunt it down and devour it. She looked around. Was that what Chorrad meant? After everything she’d seen, it wouldn’t surprise her.
It’s okay, she told herself. It’s all right. Just wait and then leave with everybody else. As long as you don’t disturb anything, you’ll still have time to—
The church doors flew open. Adlis jumped a mile in her seat, and she, Za, and Chorrad all spun around to see somebody new enter the church. Somebody very familiar.
“Will somebody please explain to me what the Pit is going on?” Kulgan demanded.
NEXT TIME: Oh boy… ohboyohboyohboyohboyohboy, ooooooh boy. That is all.