“What’s the plan?” Chorrad asked.
In answer, Kulgan turned and sent three bullets through one of the windows at the back of the church, shattering it, followed by a fourth that killed yet another skeleton before it could crawl through the door.
“The Mountain won’t be able to see us from back there,” he said, already making his way toward it. “The skeletons will still be able to get to us, but at least we’ll be safe from their boss.”
He stopped beneath the window, and Adlis went to join him. Before she could say anything, though, he held up his hand to stop her and then pointed at Chorrad.
“You first,” he said. “Keep the area clear until the rest of us are out.”
Chorrad nodded solemnly, and Kulgan drew the gun his injured hand kept him from using. “Here. It’s loaded. I expect to get it back, understand?”
The old Ranger took it, and held it up to the light to inspect it. “Dawniron, eh? Pretty nice gun for a Twister.”
Kulgan, Adlis, and Za all froze. In an instant, Adlis’ ears had turned white. She saw Kulgan’s hand reaching for his other gun. Before he could draw it, though, Chorrad burst out laughing.
“You thought I wouldn’t notice? I may be a Pitting coward, but I’m still a Gray Ranger.” He waved his hand. “Don’t worry about it. The way I see it, I’m no better than you are. Now come on, let’s get out of here.”
Still eyeing him suspiciously, Kulgan laced his fingers together and boosted Chorrad out of the window. The old man vanished from sight, and Kulgan immediately turned to Adlis.
“We’ll only have a few seconds before they figure out what we’re doing. As soon as Za and I are out, run for that bell tower and don’t look back. Do not stop for anything, got it?”
“But what if—”
“For anything! Got it?”
Adlis hesitated, but when another chunk of the door burst open she nodded hurriedly and put her foot into Kulgan’s hands.
“Hey,” he said softly before lifting her up, “what I did before, the…”
“The… mouth to mouth thing?” she asked, her ears turning red with embarrassment.
“Yeah, that.” His cheeks turned red enough to match her ears. “It didn’t mean anything. I’m—”
“Will y’all hurry up?” Chorrad’s voice came from outside. “We don’t have a lot of time!”
“All right, up you go!” Kulgan said, and boosted Adlis up to the windowsill.
Adlis yelped with surprise, and tried to rearrange her skirts to keep Kulgan from— no, no, that wasn’t important right now, she reminded herself, and slid out the window as gracefully as she could. The drop was only a few feet, and Chorrad was there to steady her when she hit the ground.
“Now you,” she faintly heard Kulgan say on the other side of the wall. A moment later, Za came out of the window. He fell with a lot less dignity than she had, and landed hard on his back.
“Embin’s name!” she exclaimed, darting forward to help the simmk up. “Are you all right?”
“Everythin’s spinnin’, Miss Adlis,” he said groggily.
“If he can’t walk, he gets left behind,” Chorrad said. He was peeking around the side of the church. “Nobody’s noticed us yet, but any second now…”
“We’re not leaving anybody behind,” Adlis snapped at him, her ears yellowing.
There was another crash, Kulgan appeared, hoisting himself up onto the windowsill. “They’re in the church. Go!”
He dropped down, landing catlike, and sprinted toward the bell tower. Adlis hooked arms with Za and went after him, with Chorrad bringing up the rear. Za was still dizzy from his fall and stumbling with every step, but Adlis managed to lead him without either of them tripping. She didn’t look back, but she didn’t have to to know that the undead horde had given chase. The sounds of thousands of fleshless feet running on the cobblestone street was like the drumming of rain on a roof, and the ceaseless whispers carried all the way across the distance between them, unintelligible but no less menacing. It was a quarter of a mile to the bell tower, at least. It loomed over them, mocking them, growing a bit larger with every step, but even that was dwarfed by the towering mountain of Tarrug Shel’Vain.
“Get to cover!” Chorrad suddenly yelled.
Kulgan reacted without question, immediately diving behind the closest building. Adlis went after him, pulling Za behind her. The moment Chorrad caught up, everything around them turned bright purple. Tarrug Shel’Vain had fixed his sights right on them. Only the small area they were in, hidden by the building, was shaded. Stepping a few feet away, Kulgan glanced around the corner.
“They’re coming,” he said, though the approaching skeleton army was more than audible from here.
“And we’re trapped,” Chorrad added. He didn’t sound at all surprised.
The Mountain knew it, too, because it staring unwaveringly at the tiny house, and didn’t so much as blink. All it had to do was wait. Either they would make a run for it, or its skeletons would reach them and drag them out. Whatever happened, Tarrug Shel’Vain would get what it wanted. Adlis sat down, hugging her knees to her chest, and began to tremble.
“Well,” she said, managing a humorless chuckle, “I never thought this would be how I died. Either having my soul stolen by a living mountain, or torn apart by an army of the undead.”
“You’re starting to sound like him,” Kulgan said, pointing at Chorrad. “I told you I’d get you home safely, and I meant it.”
Adlis looked up at him, confused. “Kulgan, it’s over! There’s nothing you can do!”
“Yeah?” He grunted. “Then I guess you won’t mind if I take this.”
With that, he snatched Za’s hat off his sackcloth-covered head. The simmk jumped in surprise, but before he could protest Kulgan had drawn his arm back and flung the hat back the way they’d come like a discus. Adlis watched it fly away.
What in the—
The purple light vanished, and then reappeared where Za’s hat had landed.
“Move, move, move!” Kulgan yelled.
Adlis snapped herself out of her stupor and took off after him yet again. Za looked like he wanted to go after his hat, but Chorrad gave him a shove to send him after the others. Adlis held up her dress to keep from tripping over it as they sprinted full tilt toward the bell tower. Kulgan’s trick had been a simple one. She couldn’t imagine that Tarrug Shel’Vain would fall for it very long. They had seconds, at most, to make as much progress toward the tower as they could. But what then? What happened when the Mountain figured out what they were doing? At best they’d be trapped again. At worst, it would catch them out in the open, and that would be the end of everything.
The closer they got to the center of Jordaku, the larger and closer together the buildings became. That was good, because not only did it shield them from Tarrug Shel’Vain’s gaze, it also made it harder for the skeletons to follow them. Even so, Kulgan frequently had to skid to a stop, the others running into him from behind, to keep from sprinting straight into the deadly purple light. Tarrug Shel’Vain knew what they were doing, and it was done playing with them. Now the Mountain actively sought them out, scanning Jordaku like a guard in a watchtower. At times the light vanished altogether. That was what frightened Adlis more than anything else. For all they knew, it would reappear as soon as they stepped outside. More than once, Kulgan pulled them inside an empty building, and they all ducked down within the shadows while the skeletons ran past, searching for them. The combined glow of all their eyes was almost as bright as Tarrug Shel’Vain itself. Slowly, inch by inch, they made their way further into Jordaku, until…
“There it is!” Kulgan whispered.
Adlis looked over his shoulder and saw that it was true. There, no more than forty feet in the distance, stood the bell tower.
“Incredible,” Chorrad whispered, eyes wide. “All this time, I… I never thought…”
“We’re not out of here yet,” Kulgan said. “This could be the most dangerous part. Look.”
He pointed, and Adlis saw what he was talking about immediately. The area all around the bell tower was completely open, with nothing to obstruct Tarrug Shel’Vain’s view. The moment they stepped out there, the Mountain would have them.
“What now?” Adlis asked.
“I’m working on that,” Kulgan grumbled. “Just give me a—”
“We don’t have a minute! If we don’t move, those skeletons are going to find us!”
Kulgan was muttering to himself, staring as intently at the bell tower as Tarrug Shel’Vain had stared at Jordaku.
“There has to be a way,” he was saying. “There’s always a way. Always.”
Adlis could hear the skeletons close by. They weren’t running anymore, they were coming much more slowly, taking their time to search everything. Adlis looked at the tower. It was right there. Escape, safety. It took all of her willpower to keep from making a run for it then and there. A glance upward stopped her, though. Tarrug Shel’Vain was watching the bell tower, its eyes already opened a crack, ready to snag anybody who so much as set foot out there.
“Children… where are you, children? Children, where… come to us, children.”
Silently, Chorrad walked up to Kulgan. “I know what we have to do.”
“I’m all ears.”
“You can all make it,” he said. “Someone just has to draw the Mountain’s eye away while you do it.”
Kulgan raised an eyebrow. “And you’re volunteering?”
Chorrad nodded, and Adlis froze. Before the old Ranger could move, she had thrown herself in front of him.
“Absolutely not!” she yelled. “We’re going to get out of here, but we’re going to do it together!”
“Would you mind shutting up?” Kulgan hissed, looking around frantically. “You’re going to lead them right to us!”
Chorrad looked at her for a few seconds, and then smiled sadly. “That’s the way it has to be, lass.”
“It’s a good thing that you want to give everyone a happy ending,” he said. “But sometimes that just isn’t possible. Someone always has to make a sacrifice for the people he cares about.”
He turned to Kulgan, then. “Don’t count me out just yet, though. If I can, I still want to get out of this Embin forsaken place.”
Kulgan nodded. “Fine. But we’re not waiting for you, either.”
Adlis stared at the two of them, wide eyed with disbelief. No more words were said, and Chorrad began to make his way toward the other side of the building they were hiding behind. With a growl, Adlis grabbed Kulgan’s elbow and shook him.
“Don’t you dare let him do this!” she yelled. “You call him back right now!”
Kulgan yanked his arm free, and looked like he was about to give her one of his sharp, biting remarks. Then he paused. He turned to look at Chorrad.
“Hey,” he called to him.
Relief washed over Adlis. Nobody had to sacrifice themselves. They could make it—
“Give me my gun back,” Kulgan said.
Adlis’ mouth fell open.
Chorrad looked down at his belt, as if surprised to find Kulgan’s other gun still holstered there, and laughed. “Fair enough, fair enough. You’d have to be crazier than a Shapeless to leave something like a dawniron pistol behind.”
“D’yargo right,” Kulgan said, accepting it back. He gingerly wrapped his injured fist around it and thrust it back into its holster.
“You want my advice?” Chorrad asked, leaning closer. He reached out and tapped Kulgan’s chest. “That’s what you ought to leave behind.”
Kulgan’s face immediately paled at the suggestion. “I… I… I can’t.”
Chorrad shrugged. “Makes no difference to me either way. I’m just saying, if anywhere on Haroz is a good place to leave it, it’s here. I guarantee nobody else will ever pick it up.”
Kulgan didn’t reply when he spun around to look at the bell tower again. He didn’t even say goodbye when Chorrad, despite Adlis’ continued protests, took off running in the opposite direction. Adlis watched as he left the meager shelter their building afforded them, and—
Just like that, the entire area was lit up with Tarrug Shel’Vain’s light. Adlis couldn’t stifle her gasp, and her hands flew to cover her mouth in fright. The light only came as a flash, like lightning, before it went dark again. Though the afterimage made it difficult to see, she could still vaguely make out Chorrad making a left turn. She breathed a sigh of relief. He wasn’t out of danger yet, but at least the Mountain hadn’t caught him right off the bat.
She wasn’t out of danger either, though.
“Come on,” Kulgan urged her, taking her by the arm and leading her to the side of the building closest to the bell tower.
Adlis looked back, but let herself be pulled away. There was nothing she could do for Chorrad now. Nothing any of them could do. It was up to him to run fast enough and think cleverly enough to escape Tarrug Shel’Vain. If he made it back —when he made it back— they’d all return to the real world together. But she still had to make use of the chance he was giving her, otherwise his sacrifice would be in vain.
“On the count of three,” Kulgan told her. He was crouched down like a runner before a race.
Adlis turned to Za. “Are you okay to run?”
He nodded hesitantly. “I- I- I think so, Miss Adlis.”
“If you fall behind, call to us and we’ll come help you.”
“Don’t worry about me none, Miss Adlis. You just get yourself in there.”
And with that, the three of them were off. Time slowed down. Kulgan in front of her, Za behind, their footsteps seemed to be coming hours apart from each other. The tower drew closer with each step, but every inch was like a mile. All it would take was for Tarrug Shel’Vain to glance in their direction and they’d be finished. The thought made her want to look up at it, but she forced herself to face forward, forced her feet to move. She jumped a little when Kulgan’s gun went off, blowing the head off of a skeleton she hadn’t even seen creeping up on them, and that almost made her trip. She regained her balance, though, and…
Oh no, she thought as the air around them began to take on a purplish tinge.
The Mountain had seen them. It’s eyes were opening. Did that mean it had gotten Chorrad, or had it left him in favor of easier prey? They were still ten feet away from the bell tower’s door. They weren’t going to make it in time. Still, she forced herself onward. The purple light grew even brighter, and Adlis felt a strange tingle in her fur. It seeped in through her skin, into her body, and then… deeper.
The sound of a hundred thousand voices filled her ears. These weren’t the whispers of the skeletons. These were cries of pain, howls of torment, screams of terror. It was the voice of every man, woman, and child who had lived in Jordaku and seduced into Tarrug Shel’Vain’s promises of eternal life. And there was more. So many, many more. More voices than she could ever have counted in her entire life, voices older even than those of Jordaku’s.
And above them all came the rumbling voice of Tarrug Shel’Vain itself.
STOP RUNNING, CHILD, it commanded her. It was the same voice that the skeletons spoke with, but instead of a whisper it was a roar powerful enough to shake her bones. STOP RUNNING, AND GAZE UPON ME.
She wouldn’t do it. She wouldn’t!
TO LIVE WITHIN ME IS TO LIVE FOREVER. I AM THE ONE WHO BROUGHT HAROZ TO THE BRINK OF DESTRUCTION AND OFFERED THE CHILDREN THEIR SALVATION.
No, no, no, no!
EVERYTHING ENDS, CHILD. EVERYTHING EXCEPT ME. SURRENDER YOUR FLESH AND BE WITH ME, CHILD. LIVE FOREVER.
She felt something pulling at her, but she resisted it. The sounds of millions of people screaming was enough to convince her that the Mountain was lying. The only reason she could resist, though, was because Tarrug Shel’Vain hadn’t completely opened its eyes yet. She was still five feet from the door, but as long as the Mountain’s words echoed in her brain it was as if time had slowed. She wasn’t the only one, either. Kulgan was ducking his head and charging forward blindly, and behind her Za had covered his ears, as if that could block out the voices inside him.
I CAME TO THIS WORLD FROM THE DISEASE BEYOND ETERNITY. I BROUGHT UPON HAROZ AN AGE OF DARKNESS AND STONE. I AM TARRUG SHEL’VAIN, THIRD CALAMITY OF HAROZ! THE LIVING AND THE DEAD ALIKE BELONG TO ME. THE CHILDREN FEARED ME AS THEY FEARED DEATH ITSELF. BUT I AM MERCIFUL. I OFFERED THEM SALVATION WITHIN ME, JUST AS I OFFER IT TO YOU NOW. STOP RUNNING, CHILD, AND GIVE YOURSELF TO ME.
The cries of torment only spurred Adlis to run faster. She was nearly there. Only three more feet. Likewise, Tarrug Shel’Vain’s eyes were almost open. She knew that if they opened the rest of the way before she had gotten inside, there would be no way to stop the Mountain from tearing her soul free of her body, trapping her within itself for all eternity.
TWENTY FIVE WORLDS WERE PROMISED TO US. HAROZ ALONE REMAINS TO BE CONQUERED. UNLAWFULLY WAS IT THAT I WAS BANISHED HERE. BUT THROUGH THIS CITY I CONTINUE TO HUNT. THIS CITY IS MY TRAP. WITH EVERY CHILD WHO IS BROUGHT HERE, MY POWER GROWS. ONE DAY I WILL BREAK FREE OF THIS PRISON AND RETAKE HAROZ. GIVE YOURSELF TO ME, CHILD, AND AID ME. THOSE WHO STRENGTHEN ME ARE HONORED ABOVE ALL, AND YOU WILL BE NO DIFFERENT. STOP RUNNING, CHILD, AND LOOK INTO MY EYES.
LOOK INTO MY EYES, CHILD.
ADLIS. LOOK INTO MY EYES.
Adlis froze midstep, the shock of hearing the Mountain speak her name too much for her already overtaxed mind to handle, and she began to fall. Inside her head, she could hear Tarrug Shel’Vain laughing. Once she hit the ground, she wouldn’t be able to get back up in time to—
“Gotcha!” Kulgan yelled.
With a jolt, Adlis realized that Kulgan’s strong hands were wrapped around her arms. He stood just inside the bell tower, and with a heave he pulled her inside with him. The moment she was out of the horrible purple light, Tarrug Shel’Vain’s voice vanished as if it had never been there at all. She shuddered, sinking down to sit with her back against the wall. So lost was she in her own thoughts that she barely noticed when Za stumbled over to sit next to her.
“A- Are you all right, Miss Adlis?” he asked.
Swallowing, she nodded. “I think… yes, I think so.” She looked at him, and saw him shaking even harder than she was. “What about you?”
Za hesitated for a second, and then hung his head. “I heard… Miss Adlis, I heard that thing talkin’ to me!”
Adlis nodded. “So did I. We all did.”
Outside, Tarrug Shel’Vain’s light vanished.
“We need to get out of here,” Kulgan said after a quick glance out the door. “You said to ring it four times, right?”
There was a thick rope hanging down in the center of the room. Kulgan walked over and grabbed it, but before he could pull on it Adlis was on her feet again.
“We can’t just leave Chorrad here!” she yelled.
“If he’s not here yet, he’s not coming at all,” Kulgan shot back. He made to pull the rope.
“I said no!”
Kulgan grunted in surprise when the zik maiden tackled him. They both fell to the ground, and Adlis struck her head on the floor. Stars danced in front of her eyes, but she stubbornly kept her arms wrapped around Kulgan. He struggled, and she got the feeling that he could have broken free if he’d wanted to, but he was afraid of hurting her. It didn’t matter. She just had to keep him still until—
“Someone’s comin’!” Za exclaimed.
With a gasp, Adlis let go of Kulgan and sprang to her feet to run to the door. Sure enough, there was Chorrad, sprinting down the street they had just been on. She waved at him.
“We made it!” she shouted. “Come on, it’s okay!”
Kulgan was by her side in an instant.
“No, stop!” he yelled, eyes wide. “Chorrad, stop!”
“What are you doing?” Adlis demanded. “He’s almost here!”
Chorrad was halfway to them.
Kulgan’s arms fell limply to his sides in defeat as he watched the older Ranger race toward him.
“The Mountain has its eye right on this place, Adlis,” was all he said.
Adlis blinked, and then realization dawned on her right when it became too late. She reached out toward Chorrad, opening her mouth to warn him to turn back, but before she could say a word the purple light came back in full force. Chorrad froze.
Oh no, Adlis thought. Dear Embin above, please no!
Slowly, Chorrad reached out toward her as well. His eyes were wide with horror. They were almost close enough for their fingers to touch, but Adlis didn’t dare put her hand into the purple light. Kulgan put his arm protectively in front of her anyway. Three seconds passed, then five, then ten, and Chorrad finally opened his mouth and screamed a gut wrenching, blood chilling scream that spoke of pain and terror unimaginable to the living. He screamed again, and his already leathery skin began to wither away. Slowly, bit by bit, Adlis watched the man she had known only a few hours decay until there was nothing left but one more of Tarrug Shel’Vain’s undead minions. Tears stung her eyes.
He was so close, she thought.
The purple light appeared in Chorrad’s eye sockets, and he lunged at Kulgan just like all the others. Zam was already in his hand, though, and with a bang Kulgan put Chorrad’s remains to rest. It was a hollow victory, because they all knew his soul would live on in pain and agony inside Tarrug Shel’Vain for all eternity.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered to him.
“There was nothing you could do,” Kulgan said. Even his voice was heavy with emotion, though he was doing a better job of burying it than she was.
Another skeleton appeared at the end of the street, and then another, and another. Within seconds the entire street was flooded with fleshless ghouls, but Adlis couldn’t bring herself to care. Taking the door, she slammed it and marched resolutely to the bell rope.
“Four tolls to the new world,” she remembered the writing on the church wall. There were scratches and whispers coming from outside the door now, but she didn’t care. Nobody said anything as she pulled on the rope as hard as she could.
BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG.
The shrieking wind returned, drowning out the skeletons and nearly bowling Adlis over. She planted her feet, eyes fixed determinedly on the wall in front of her, until the red light pouring in from the tower’s windows vanished, replaced with the dull gray light of the Graylands. The wind vanished, taking with it the screams of the lost and the whispers of the Mountain. Adlis sighed with relief so strong that her legs buckled beneath her. Nobody stopped her as she sank to the floor.
“Come on,” Kulgan told them. He tried the door, and found that it opened easily. “We’re not out of here yet.”
“Give me a second,” she whispered, and then yelped when he grabbed her arm, hauled her to her feet, and dragged her outside. Za followed them wordlessly. Adlis flinched when she stepped outside, half expecting to see Tarrug Shel’Vain looming over her, or the army of skeletons surrounding her, but there was nothing above them but gray skies and nothing around them but a long abandoned city.
And no Chorrad.
“There… There was nothing we could do, was there?” she asked quietly.
Kulgan, who was pulling his shirt off, paused. “No,” he answered a moment later.
“Chorrad was a Gray Ranger. He made his choice, and you should be thankful for it.”
Adlis’ ears burned, and she whirled around to face him. “That’s heartless! How can you say that?”
“If you haven’t noticed,” Kulgan snapped, “the Graylands are heartless too. That place we just left, wherever it was, was even worse. Sometimes if you want to survive, you have to be just as heartless!”
Adlis opened her mouth, but Kulgan cut her off. “Chorrad spent his entire life hiding in that church. When you showed up, you gave him a reason to take action, and in the end he decided to give his life so that you could keep yours.”
Adlis fumbled for something to say. Nothing came to mind, but her eyes began to sting even more.
Kulgan turned away. “What you did meant more to him than you could ever understand. Sacrificing himself was his way of repaying you. If you can’t agree with what he did, at least be thankful for it. Otherwise, he died for nothing.”
Pulling his pendant from around his neck, Kulgan stabbed it into his wrist. His wings sprouted from his back a moment later, and he held his hands out. Adlis obediently came to him, and let him wrap his arm around her. Za went to his other side. Then, with the powerful hum of his wings filling their ears, he took to the skies. The journey was slow, since he couldn’t fly very far with two other people weighing him down, but he refused to stop until he had cleared Jordaku’s walls and set them down on the hard, gravelly ground outside.
In the distance, the Pit spewed the same ashstorm they had seen going in. The sun hadn’t budged an inch in the sky. It appeared that ringing the bell had brought them straight back to the very moment they had left. Adlis sat down, hugging her knees to her chest. She knew they had lost valuable time in Jordaku, but she couldn’t bring herself to work up the energy to go anywhere. Not today. To her surprise, Kulgan nodded and, without a word, began to set up camp.
While he worked, Adlis stared out at the cursed city. She thought of everything she’d seen in there, what she had felt, and of the friend she had lost. She may not have known Chorrad for even a full day, but what he had done for her cemented his place in her heart forever as a friend. Kulgan said that he’d given his life for her. She wanted to believe that was true, but couldn’t bring herself to do so. His body may have been dead, yes, but he hadn’t passed on to whatever afterlife everyone else did. He was trapped inside Tarrug Shel’Vain, cursed to suffer unending agony for all eternity.
Finally, she looked up. “Kulgan?”
“Hmm?” he asked. He had built a small fire and was busy cooking a meager meal over it.
“I think I understand now about… what you said before.”
He looked at her. “What do you mean?”
“About there being things out there that are worse than death. Things that, if you had to choose, you would choose to die rather than have to endure.” She took a deep breath. “After what I just saw happen to Chorrad, I… I think I understand.”
They looked at each other for a few seconds, but neither said anything.
“I guess what I’m trying to say,” she went on, ears turning pink, “is that I’m sorry for treating you like I did after you… you know.”
“Yeah.” Kulgan nodded. “Yeah. Okay.”
That was all he said, but Adlis could feel the emotion heavy in his words. He went back to cooking, eyes fixed gravely on the pan, and Adlis went back to staring at the city.
BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG.
A strong wind blew across the Graylands, nearly putting Kulgan’s fire out. Jordaku seemed to shift beneath it, like Adlis was looking at it through a wave of heat, and when the wind finally died down it was gone entirely, with not a mark to show that it had ever been there before.
Adlis bowed her head, and a single tear spattered on the ground below her.
NEXT TIME: You know what, guys? This feels like a good place to take a break. From this point on, The Gray Ranger: Unforgiven is going on temporary hiatus. Don’t worry, Kulgan, Adlis, and Za will come back, and in the meantime I’m leaving you with someone else to keep you company. So, on that note, be here on Friday June 8th for the exciting premiere of…