If ringing the bell had made Adlis go back in time, Kulgan’s appearance seemed to stop it altogether. The priest froze at the pulpit, arms spread wide and mouth half open beore the congregation. The people in the pews all seemed frozen as well. It was eerie, like sitting in a church full of very lifelike wax statues. Adlis wasn’t overly concerned with that, though.
Kulgan had opened the door, interrupted the sermon, and disrupted the cycle.
“D’yargo,” Chorrad whispered, eyes widening as he watched the younger Gray Ranger march angrily down the aisle.
“I have been lost in this Pitting city all day, and my patience has long since worn thin,” he ranted. He was heading straight for the pulpit where the priest was still frozen. “I want somebody to tell me what’s going on, where I am, and how I get back, and I want them to do it now!”
“Kul—” Adlis said, beginning to rise from her seat, but she was silenced when Chorrad wrapped his hand around her mouth and pulled her back down. She tried to fight him, but all he did was shake his head, staring at Kulgan with an expression of pure horror.
Kulgan stopped in front of the altar. “Well? What’ve you got to say for yourselves?”
The priest’s head snapped forward, his eyes glowing purple and his lips drawn back in a rabid snarl. He lunged at Kulgan, but was immediately thrown backwards again when Kulgan’s bullet drilled into his skull.
“No?” he asked, and whirled around to face the rest of the congregation. “Anyone else?”
A zik woman howled and dove at him, her eyes lit up, and Kulgan killed her just like he’d done the priest. Same with the zik man, the Kashni, and the human woman who came after her. With each one he killed, another awoke to take its place, but never more than one at a time. Adlis began to stop worrying. She had seen him fight plenty of times, and these people were unarmed. He could kill everyone in the church before they could even touch him.
Chorrad didn’t seem to share her optimism.
“He’s gonna have the whole d’yargo city on us,” he whispered.
Adlis blinked. What would happen when everyone in the church was dead? They still had all of Jordaku to contend with after that.
She leaped to her feet. “Kulgan, stop!”
Kulgan whirled around, leveling his gun at her, and for one terrifying second she thought he was going to shoot her too. Recognition dawned on him before he could pull the trigger, though, and instead he shot the zik who was about to pounce on him from the second row. He was only using one gun, she realized, but that didn’t seem to matter. As long as they kept coming one at a—
“Miss Adlis, look out!”
Before she knew what was happening, she had been tackled from behind by another member of the congregation. By shouting her warning to Kulgan, she had unwittingly disrupted the cycle herself, and alerted it to her presence. The person on top of her was an old woman, but she wouldn’t have known it by the vice-like grip she had around the zik maiden’s neck. Adlis’ head collided with the floor once, twice, as her assailant tried to throttle her, her eyes an endless tunnel of purple light. She could see Za try to jump up and help her out of the corner of her eye, but Chorrad forced him back down. Neither did the Ranger try to help her, for fear of disrupting the cycle himself.
The old woman loomed over her and let out an inhuman howl of rage. Her skin began to rot even as Adlis watched, decomposing, falling off in disgusting soupy chunks until her skeleton was all that was left, and even then her grip on Adlis’ neck didn’t loosen. Shadows began to creep in around the edges of her vision, and her thrashing became weaker. Still, Chorrad refused to help her. Kulgan was occupied with finishing off the rest of the congregation, and he probably didn’t even know Adlis was in danger. Za couldn’t budge an inch with Chorrad holding him down. Adlis’ thoughts began to come slower.
I’m on my own, huh? she found herself thinking. Fine. You all think I’m so weak. That I can’t take care of myself. Well… you may be right… but I can still… try!
Summoning what was left of her strength, she put her hands against the skeleton’s sticky rib cage and pushed up as hard as she could. The skeleton, without any skin, muscles, or organs, weighed only a few pounds, and rose up easily from Adlis’ push. Her grip around her neck stayed the same, but Adlis was still able to roll them over so that she was on top of the skeleton. Then, grabbing the old woman’s skull in both hands, she slammed it against the church floor just like the old woman had done to her. Once. Twice. On the third time, she heard a sickening crunch, and the skull exploded into a dozen pieces. The lights in her eyes stayed put for a second, hovering in thin air, but then blinked out. Her grip loosened, and her fleshless arms fell to the ground with a clatter.
I… I did it… she thought dimly. Her strength ran out, and she collapsed on top of the skeleton coughing weakly. Her vision faded in and out of darkness, and it felt like she was about to fall into the deepest sleep she’d ever had. The sounds of battle faded away, darkness rising up to wrap her in its embrace and carry her away...
Suddenly, clarity returned to her. Air was in her lungs— being forced into her lungs. She blinked, the red light seeming a lot brighter than it had been before. Something was pressed against her face… against her lips… Her eyes snapped open to see a gray-topped face so close to her’s that she couldn’t see anything else.
The Ranger immediately recoiled, sprang to his feet, spun around, and drew his gun. “What? What is it?”
Adlis lay on the floor, ears white from shock, and put her hand over her chest. “What in Embin’s name do you think you’re doing?”
Kulgan paused, looking at her with a raised eyebrow. “It’s called mouth to mouth resuscitation. It may have just saved your life.”
“Oh, is that so?” she demanded, gathering up her skirts and getting to her feet. “I can’t think of anything that would—”
Kulgan cut her off, “That thing nearly choked you to death. If I hadn’t helped you breathe, you probably would have died, so I’d appreciate it if you’d cut back on the attitude.”
Adlis looked down at the headless skeleton, still lying where she had left it, and shuddered.
“Whatever,” she snapped. “Just don’t do it again.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Kulgan snapped back before stalking away toward the door. Adlis still didn’t miss how red his cheeks had become.
A loud thump came from the back of the church, and she spun around with a yelp of fright to see Za and Chorrad closing the doors.
“Come on,” the old Ranger said, nodding to Kulgan. “We’ve got to barricade this somehow.”
Kulgan did as he was ordered without comment, and with some effort the two of them managed to carry one of the church’s heavy wooden pews to barricade the door. After a moment’s thought, they went back and added a second, and then a third.
“What are you doing?” Adlis asked, watching them work.
“You’d prefer to let them right in, would you?” Chorrad grunted, stacking the fourth bench on top of the others.
“Well, no, but what are we barricading them against? Nobody ever comes in through there.”
“Not normally, but this puken,” he shot a venomous glare at Kulgan, “went and broke the d’yargo cycle.”
There was a flash of purple, and the sound of screams came from outside. Adlis froze, and then ran to the window. Sure enough, Tarrug Shel’Vain had opened its eyes and was laying waste to the people of Jordaku yet again. But… that was impossible. She spun around and looked for the priest’s body just to make sure. Yes, there it was just in front of the altar, where Kulgan had left it.
“I don’t understand,” she said for what felt like the thousandth time that day. “I thought you said everything always happened the same way.”
“The cycle’s broken,” Chorrad said again, coming to glance out the window as well. “And it’s going to stay broken until the next time the bell rings, and this all starts over. Since he changed the way things happened, the Mountain can too. For as long as this timeline lasts, it can do whatever the Pit it wants. Look.”
He stepped aside to let Adlis look outside again. What she saw turned her stomach upside down. Tarrug Shel’Vain was going about withering away the townspeople like it always did, but this time when the bones fell to the ground, they didn’t stay there. They picked themselves up as naturally as if they had merely tripped and fallen, a veritable army of undead ghouls… and then they turned to look at the church.
“D’yargo!” Adlis gasped, backing away from the window.
“That’s what I’ve been saying this whole time!” Chorrad griped. He sounded more offended by this than afraid. “Don’t change anything, don’t disrupt the cycle, and what do you do? Exactly what I told you not to do!”
“She’s good at that,” Kulgan remarked, looking out the window at the other side of the church, arms folded.
Chorrad spun around and leveled an accusing finger at the younger Ranger. “I was talking about you, you stupid puken!”
Kulgan paused, but then shrugged. “I came late. Didn’t get to hear the rules.”
Still grumbling, Chorrad looked out the window again, and sighed. “They’re coming.”
Sure enough, Adlis could hear the oncoming whispers. Each of them were exactly like the one she’d heard coming from the house earlier, only this time there were more of them. Many, many more.
“This- This is okay, though,” she said, more to herself than anyone else. “All we have to do is wait until the bell rings, and everything will reset itself again, right?”
“Yeah, when it comes,” Chorrad said. He was watching the door unblinkingly, his old hand curled into a fist. For the first time, Adlis realized he didn’t have any weapons. “We don’t know when that’ll be, though. Could be five minutes, could be five days.”
“They don’t seem that tough,” Kulgan quipped. “I mean, if Adlis could kill one…”
Adlis ignored the jab, but Chorrad growled, “You fought a few of them, boy. You think you can take on a hundred? How about a thousand?”
Kulgan glared out the window and didn’t respond.
Adlis turned to Chorrad. “So, unless the bell happens to ring soon…”
“Yep. We’re all dead.”
There came a thump from the door, and a bone chilling cacophony of voices.
“Oh, children… Children, let us in. We have been waiting for you. Let us in.”
A louder thump, and the pews they had stacked up against the door shuddered.
“They’ll be in within an hour,” Chorrad muttered, hooking his thumbs in his belt with a look of resignation on his face. “If they don’t come in through the windows first, that is.”
“That mountain over there is what’s doing this, right?” Kulgan asked. “Any chance we could just kill it?”
Chorrad didn’t answer, he only laughed. The door shook again, and this time the pews were pushed back enough for the door to open a crack. Everyone realized what was happening at the same time, and dove out of the way just as Tarrug Shel’Vain’s light blasted through the door. It was only a thin line, but Adlis didn’t doubt that it would be just as effective as being in the Mountain’s full view.
“Let us… Children, let us in… Children…”
Kulgan and Chorrad, on opposite sides of the church, looked at each other and nodded. Getting to their feet, they charged at the door, ramming their shoulders into it, and closed it. The chapel went dark again.
“We can’t stay here,” Kulgan shouted, coming back to join Adlis and Za.
“Well, we can’t very well leave, either!” Chorrad snapped back.
“What’s your solution, then, old man?” Kulgan whirled around to face him. “Stay here and die?”
Chorrad came to stand nose to nose with the younger Ranger, looking as if he were on the verge of punching him. “I don’t have a solution because there isn’t one! If you stay here, you die. If you leave, you die. Do whatever suits you best, I don’t care.”
There were more and more voices joining the ones already outside. They attacked the door again, and this time the crack that opened was twice as big as the one before. Tarrug Shel’Vain wasted no time in shining its light through again, and everybody retreated to stand against the wall.
“Whatever we’re going to do, we’ll have to decide fast,” Kulgan said.
“The bell tower!” Adlis exclaimed.
Chorrad shook his head. “You’ll never make it! Tarrug Shel’Vain’s eye is on the d’yargo church! He’ll have you the minute you—”
“It’s our only chance. Either we run, or we sit here and wait to die. Are you coming or not?”
Chorrad hesitated, but then hung his head. “Even if we could make it, I don’t deserve to live.”
Adlis was about to say something, but to her surprise Kulgan beat her to it.
“The last person on Haroz who should decide whether you deserve to live or die,” the younger Ranger said, “is yourself.”
“What do you know about that?” Chorrad snapped, eyes narrowing.
Kulgan’s empty hand wandered to his chest, where the pendant made a bump under his shirt, and he spoke so softly Adlis almost didn’t hear him over the chaos.
“A lot more than you think.”
Chorrad looked at Kulgan long and hard, and then hung his head.
“If I go back, everyone will know what I coward I am.”
Adlis reached out and took his hand. “You’re not a—”
“Yeah, he Pitting is,” Kulgan spat. “What kind of Gray Ranger wastes away in a place like this? When you can’t fight, you escape. And even if you can’t escape, at least you die trying!”
A crash came from the door, and Adlis whipped her head around to see that the skeletons had managed to break a large hole through it. They still couldn’t get through, and the light wasn’t where it could shine on them, but it wouldn’t be much longer.
“Make up your mind, old man,” Kulgan said, rising to his feet. “Either come with us and try to make something of yourself, or die like a mouse in a trap.”
“What right do I have to live?” Chorrad demanded. “Even if there’s a way out of here, what right do I have to escape after letting all my brothers and sisters die here?”
Kulgan shrugged. “Don’t know. Don’t care. But I do know this: redemption doesn’t come when you’re sitting and hiding. It happens when you crawl out of your hole and do something.”
A second crack rang through the church as the hole grew wider. A skeleton poked its head through, testing it, and when it found that the hole was big enough Kulgan blew its skull to pieces. The rest of the skeleton fell apart, its arms and rib cage tumbling into the sanctuary while Tarrug Shel’Vain’s other minions fought to be the next one through. Finally, Chorrad nodded.
“All right, I’ll go with you.” He chuckled ruefully and shook his head. “We’re not gonna make it halfway there, but I guess I’ve been stuck in this d’yargo church long enough. What’s the plan?”
NEXT TIME: Cue the gearing up montage! Preferably with some classic 90’s metal. Just not Eye of the Tiger, because I have more respect for my story than that.