Adlis had never seen Embraus before. She had spent her entire childhood hearing about it though, and its wonderful towers that reached to the skies. Legends said that the roads were paved with precious jewels and that when the sun shone on it just right the entire city sparkled with a rainbow of colors. The greatest of priests mingled with the lowest of beggars in the streets, and a festival was held in honor of the Great Moons every time they passed overhead. If the stories were true, there were times when they would have festivals every day of the week, without fail, when the moons came close together.
Kulgan had quickly rid her of those fantasies.
Even that didn’t dampen Adlis’ excitement by much. Embraus was filled with more history than even the greatest museum could boast. It was here that Embin had emerged to battle Vashiil two thousand years ago. Back then it had only been a small shepherds' village. Now it was a holy place, and time had transformed it into the biggest city in Tassendile. At its very center was the Temple of Embin, built over the place the priests claimed was the exact spot Embin had first appeared in a flash of light. It was said that the Ordermaker's presence was still so strong there that you could extend your hand and feel him hold it.
That's why, despite the danger the city presented, Adlis' heart raced with excitement when she crested the hill and saw Embraus for the first time. Her ears turned purple with glee underneath her hat, and she couldn't help but gasp when she laid eyes on the gleaming city walls, the towers that pierced the skies. Banners hung from the ramparts, fluttering in the breeze. Soldiers stood guard atop those walls, but there were also clusters of people in white. Choirs, she realized. Even from here, Adlis could hear their voices as they sang hymns.
“It's beautiful!” she said, breathless with wonder.
Kulgan came to stand beside her and folded his arms. “It loses its charm after you've lived there a few years. After that you just wish the place was smaller.”
Adlis turned to him in surprise. “You used to live here?”
“The Rangers are technically part of the church. Before you're allowed to start your training, you have to spend at least five years as an acolyte.”
He set off down the path. Adlis allowed herself a few more seconds to take in the sight before hurrying after him. They were on the path that led to Embraus' main gate, and it was far more crowded than any of the roads they had taken thus far on their journey. Even though she had only lagged behind a few seconds, Adlis almost lost Kulgan in the crowd. Luckily, she caught up with him by pushing through the swarm, even though it earned her a few ugly looks. Za followed half a step behind her, head bowed like a dutiful simmk servant.
He hadn't said a single word to her since their break that morning.
“You were an acolyte?” she asked once she was walking beside him again.
“Is it that hard to imagine?” he chuckled, almost having to yell to be heard over the din. “I was apprenticed to Father Corstan on my thirteenth birthday. Probably the closest thing I ever had to a father.”
“Oh.” Adlis felt her ears turn a light shade of blue. “Do you miss him?”
Kulgan laughed. “Pit no! The old coot whipped me day and night for the stupidest things. My butt still burns sometimes.”
“That's horrible!” Adlis exclaimed.
Kulgan just shook his head. “I'm grateful for it anyway. It made me strong. Got me used to the pain. Both of those helped me when I joined the Rangers more than you can imagine.” He frowned. “I think that's why he did it, in fact.”
Kulgan wouldn't say anything more on the subject, though, so Adlis let it drop. They were drawing nearer to the gate by the second, and when Adlis saw the guards posted outside it her earlier fears returned. A Kashni, two ziks, and a human, all armed with rifles and sabers.
“How are we going to get in?” she whispered to her guide.
“Through the gate,” Kulgan whispered back.
Adlis' ears yellowed slightly, but she was too worried to notice. “I mean, how are we going to get past the guards?”
“They won't stop us unless we give them a reason to,” he promised her. “Remember, just act like you belong here and nobody will give us a second glance.”
She nodded, but her guts were still tying themselves in knots inside her. Those men looked dangerous, and she swore they were all looking at her.
“They hardly ever see any action,” Kulgan said, noticing her worried look. “They carry weapons more as a formality than anything else.”
He paused, an uncertain expression falling over his face.
“All right,” he said, whispering again, “on the off chance that we do get stopped, you're from Geterra. I'm a Gray Ranger here on leave, and I agreed to escort you since we were going the same way. Got it?”
Adlis looked at Kulgan from the corner of her eye. So, he's not as confident as he wants me to think, she mused.
She nodded without bringing it up, though. “What about Za?”
“Za is Za. He's your simmk servant that you brought along to attend to you.”
She nodded again. They were barely twenty feet from the gate. “A- All right.”
“Just act natural,” Kulgan whispered one last time before they passed under the great shadow of the gate.
One step after another, Adlis thought, her ears turning white with terror underneath her hat. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Just keep walking.
It felt like every eye in the city was watching her. Judging her. Witch, they seemed to be thinking. One of the guards glanced at her as she passed by. Her breathing quickened, and she had to fight the urge to bolt. They weren't really staring at her, she told herself. It was just nerves. Keep calm. Don't act guilty. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Left—
“You can breathe now,” Kulgan chuckled.
Adlis jumped a little and looked around. They were through the gate. More than that—they were a good ways down the road leading from the gate. She let out the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding.
“You did good,” Kulgan told her as they meandered aimlessly through the streets.
“I felt like I was going to faint,” she admitted. Her brow was damp with sweat. “I- I think I need to sit down.”
Kulgan nodded toward some benches by the side of the road, and Adlis happily sank into one with a sigh.
I don't think I could do that again, she thought. It was almost funny. She'd survived a trip through the Graylands, escaped Jordaku, and yet a few normal guards were nearly enough to send her running for the hills.
She looked up at Kulgan, leaning against the wall behind the bench, surveying the crowd. To anyone else he would have looked completely relaxed, but Adlis was getting to know him well enough to see the signs. The rigidness in his back, the way his eyes twitched whenever someone new came into sight. He was even more on edge than she was. How could he hide it so well? Even now, Adlis was half convinced that some priest or another would come marching up to her and snatch her hat away.
He's used to it, she realized. He's a Twister. No matter where he goes, he'll never belong. All this sneaking around... that's just how he lives.
There were certainly priests out in abundance. Just like the stories had promised, they walked the streets like normal citizens, even stopping to speak to the commoners. As she watched, a woman limped up to a white-and-gold robed zik, holding her crying infant out in front of her.
“Please, Father Rychar,” she begged, “my child is sick and dying. Bless him, Father, please!”
Father Rychar smiled and bowed his head. “Certainly, my child.” He extended his hand and gently placed it on the baby's forehead. “Embin, Organizer and Ordermaker, we call upon you. Please, seek out the abnormality in this child and set him free of it. Let his body find order in your presence!
“And,” he added after a dramatic pause, “bless his mother as well so that she may raise her son to follow in your good footsteps.”
If anything happened, it wasn't visible. The child continued to cry, but the mother hugged him to her chest and beamed at the old priest anyway, thanking him gratuitously before hobbling away.
To her surprise, Adlis found Kulgan smiling at the scene.
“You don't actually believe he just healed that child, do you?” she whispered, leaning in closer to him.
Kulgan raised an eyebrow. “Be careful where you say things like that. You're in the holy city, remember?”
Adlis' ears flashed white under her hat, and she snapped her mouth closed.
“Besides,” the Ranger said, “I spent five years as an acolyte to a priest just like him. I've seen my share of miracles—more than enough to convince me that this is all real.”
You're also a Twister, she thought bitterly, turning to face the road again, so you'll forgive me if I don't find your—
“Father Rychar! Father Rychar!”
Adlis' head perked up when the same woman as before went running past them, chasing after the priest. She was holding her baby over her head. She ran with surprising speed, barely more than a blur in Adlis' eyes before vanishing around the corner.
There, see? she thought to herself, a sense of grim smugness washing over her. Her child died, and now she's running to...
Wasn't she limping before?
Adlis' mouth fell open, staring blankly at the place the no longer crippled mother had just ran. Then, with unladylike urgency, she sprang to her feet and chased after her.
“Adlis!” Kulgan shouted in surprise, but she ignored him. What she had just seen... it couldn't be true. It wasn't possible. She had to get a closer look.
She found the mother and the priest a couple of streets away.
“My son is cured,” the woman was practically screaming, holding the child up for everyone to see. “Praise Embin!”
Father Rychar was positively beaming. “And he is not the only one, good woman. Look! You're no longer limping!”
The woman froze, so ecstatic for her son that she hadn't even noticed. She took a few tentative steps—and then began spinning and dancing in the street.
“I'm healed!” she sang. “My son! My leg! Praise Embin!”
A hand alighted on Adlis' shoulder, and the zik girl jumped. It was only Kulgan.
“Don't go running off like that!” he hissed. “Do you have a death wish?”
Adlis shook her head so hard the hat nearly fell off. “No, it's just... look! How is this possible?”
“Miracles happen every day here in Embraus,” Kulgan said, sounding far less in shock over this than Adlis thought was warranted.
Adlis shook her head again. This had to be a trick. Something the priest and the woman had worked out together beforehand to catch people's eye and bring them to church. But this was Embraus, she reminded herself. Who here would have to be tricked into coming to church? And that wasn't all...
She had seen the mother' limp. That hadn't been fake. But that didn't stop her from prancing and leaping all across the street now, either. There had to be a logical explanation. It wasn't that Adlis didn't believe in Embin or in miracles—she considered herself to be a devout follower—but things like this only happened in books and stories. Not in the present day, and certainly not right in front of her.
So strong you could extend your hand and feel him hold it.
“Everyone, bear witness to this!” Rychar called, raising his hands. “Embin's does not pick favorites amongst his children. His love is for all to take! Come and share in this woman's joy. If you have an ailment or an illness, come forth and be healed!”
With a gasp, Adlis' hand reflexively shot to her ear, nearly knocking her hat askew.
“Kulgan,” she whispered, “I have an idea.”
Turning, the Ranger gave her a long, concerned look. Then, without a word, he took her by the hand and pulled her away from the still-celebrating mother.
“Wait!” she exclaimed, trying to pull free. His grip was too tight, though, and he forcibly led her down a side street. “I have to talk to him!”
Adlis dug her heels into the pavement, but even that wasn't enough to stop him. It wasn't until they had left the woman and the priest far behind that he finally stopped and released her. Adlis immediately jerked her arm away, rubbing her wrist where his hand had been like an iron vice. Her eyes prickled with tears.
“What did you do that for?” she demanded, her voice humiliatingly shrill. A few people gave them curious glances as they passed, but didn't stay.
“Because we're trying to avoid the priests,” Kulgan shot back. “They don't take well to people like us here, remember?”
“But didn't you see what he did to that woman? Maybe he could have done the same to me. Maybe he could have fixed these... these...” she gestured wildly at her head, afraid of saying too much out in public. “Things!”
Kulgan just shook his head. “Maybe, or maybe he would have had you arrested and executed, witch.”
Adlis' ears yellowed under the hat, and she took a challenging step toward Kulgan. “Don't you dare call me that, Twister!” she hissed under her breath. “I have to get rid of these sooner or later. You don't think I'll be able to rule Arborough with magic ears, do you?”
“No, you'll definitely have to do that,” Kulgan agreed, nodding, “but you're not going to do it here. Not while I'm in charge.”
“I don't recall ever putting you in charge, Mr. Kulgan. In fact, if I remember correctly, I'm the one who hired you!”
Kulgan met her gaze and pointed at her. “You put me in charge the minute you said you wanted to get back to Arborough alive. Unless you've suddenly changed your mind about that, I suggest you keep doing what I say.”
Adlis slowly shook her head in disbelief. “You are unbelievable,” she said. “You're like a hen fussing over her chicks!”
“Maybe so, but that would make you the chick who wants to run out and play with the foxes.”
Adlis opened her mouth to argue again, but before she could Kulgan's eyes went wide as dinner plates and the words died in her mouth.
“Wh- What's wrong?” she asked, a chill running down her spine.
Kulgan's head snapped to the side and he stood on his toes, trying to see above the crowd.
“D'yargo,” he whispered.
Adlis followed his line of sight, but she wasn't as tall as him so she couldn't see what he saw. There was some sort of commotion coming from the far end of the street, but she couldn't see well enough to tell what was causing it.
“Kulgan, answer me! What's going...”
Kulgan was gone.
Adlis gasped and recoiled as if an explosive had gone off right in front of her. She looked around frantically. Where had he gone? She couldn't see him anywhere. It was like he had vanished into thin air. A pit formed in her stomach. She had seen him fight bandits, angry mobs, and giant spiders without flinching—so what in the Pit was coming their way?
“Za,” she said, turning to her silent simmk servant, “where did he go?”
“I did not see, mistress,” he said, bowing his head. “I apologize.”
“Oh, cut that out!” she snapped, patience wearing thin. The crowded street was beginning to split down the middle, like an invisible boat parting the waters of a lake. “Just tell me where he went!”
“I'm sorry, mistress, but I did not see.”
She caught a glimpse of a black banner rising above the people's heads. It was coming her way.
“How could you not have seen? You can see everything you little—”
“Is something the matter, young lady?”
The words were like oil flowing across a sheet of ice, smooth and pristine yet indescribably filthy, and the mere sound of it made Adlis fur stand on end. She saw Za shiver, and he ducked his head even lower.
Slowly, Adlis turned to see the one who had spoken to her...
And could barely contain her gasp of fright.
“Is there anything I could be of assistance with?” the tall, gray skinned man asked.
He truly was tall for a human. Over seven feet tall, in fact. And yet he was so thin that Adlis couldn't imagine there being a centimeter of meat between his flesh and his bones. The street suddenly seemed far darker now than it had been before. The tall man was blocking out the sun—and yet, the shadow he cast was far greater than what his feeble frame should have created.
He loomed over her, arms clasped behind his back, waiting patiently for her answer.
“N- No, sir,” she said, edging backwards as discreetly as she could. Every eye in the street was on her—and this time she wasn't imagining it. “I'm just... just lost. I'll be fine. Th- Thank you!”
“Mmm, how unfortunate,” he crooned, his words pouring into her ears like poisoned honey. His tone was respectful, yet deep inside she felt rankled, like he was mocking her. “A young lady such as yourself has much to be wary of in a big city such as this.”
Why was he still talking to her? Why wouldn't he go away? Adlis wanted so badly to run right then that it almost felt like her skeleton would claw its way free of her skin and make a mad dash for freedom if she kept resisting.
“Oh, I- I'm sure I'll be fine,” she said, trying and failing to smile at him. “This is the holy city of Embin, after all.”
The man chuckled. It sounded sincere and sarcastic at the same time. Was he making fun of her or trying to help? She couldn't figure it out. Everything about him seemed to contradict itself. Nobody else came to her rescue, they all seemed equally terrified by the strange man.
“One would think so,” he said, then leaned his shaven head back so his nose pointed into the air. He drew in a long, deep breath, then looked back down at her contemplatively. “But no matter how beautiful the city, there will always be rats in the sewers.”
He slowly brought his right arm around to his front. The sleeve of his long black robe fell away, revealing a hand with unnaturally long, bony fingers. More distressing than that, though, was the slate-like shade of gray his skin was. It was like looking at a statue chiseled from a nightmare and then brought to life.
“I am Brother Gestaul,” he said. “You may think of me as the... caretaker of the sewer.”
“That sounds charming.” The words escaped Adlis' mouth before she realized what she was saying, and she immediately sucked in a panicked breath.
To her relief, though, Brother Gestaul merely chuckled, showing his gray teeth in a too-wide smile.
“It isn't,” he said, “but it is necessary.”
His hand was still being held out in front of her. With a jolt, Adlis realized he wanted her to shake it. She couldn’t think of anything else that she wanted to do less. And yet, with what seemed like half the city standing there staring at her, what choice did she have? Clamping her mouth shut for fear of vomiting, she accepted his hand and shook it. She expected it to feel cold, like a corpse.
She wasn't expecting it to feel like sticking her hand in a basket of writhing centipedes.
Her ears paled to blinding snow white, so much so that she worried they would shine straight through her hat, and she jerked her hand out of his as quickly as she could. She didn't care if he thought she was rude, all she wanted was to never, ever lay a finger on him again.
He smiled and inclined his head respectfully. “It has been a pleasure, Adlis Arbor, but I'm afraid I must be on my way. Until next time.”
With that he turned and walked away, almost seeming to glide underneath his robe. Nobody moved until he disappeared around the corner. Gradually, life returned to the city. Within a minute nobody would have guessed that anything had been wrong at all. At first Adlis felt only relief at being rid of the strange priest. But then came the wave of ice cold panic.
“How did he know my name?” she whispered.
“You're lucky that's all he found out.”
Adlis let out a little scream and spun around to find Kulgan standing behind her.
“You... you... puken!” she shrieked at him. “How could just abandon us like that?”
The look he gave her was almost as cold as the priest's—almost.
“Adlis,” he said gravely, “if I hadn't left you, we'd all be dead right now.”
Adlis took a step back in surprise. “Wh- What do you mean?”
With eyes hard as steel, he turned to look in the direction Brother Gestaul had gone.
“You just met a Minister of the Purge,” he answered.
“That's... I've never heard of them before.”
“Most people outside this city haven't.” Kulgan looked around. “In fact, if you were to ask anyone here, they probably wouldn't even be able to tell you exactly what they did.”
Another chill ran down Adlis' spine. “And what do they do?”
Kulgan's eyes shifted back and forth, and then he leaned in closer to her. “They make it their business to find people like me and exterminate them.”
Gestaul's words came back to her. I am the caretaker of the sewers. She clamped her hand over her mouth.
But Kulgan wasn't finished yet.
“And in the event there aren't any Twisters around,” he whispered, his face so close to hers now that they were almost kissing, “they make do with hunting witches.”
Hunting... witches? Suddenly, the world around Adlis began to spin so violently that she fell forward, right into Kulgan's arms. She felt like death itself had passed by, coming so close that his cloak had brushed her nose. She was trembling, she realized.
“Lucky for you,” Kulgan was saying, though she could barely hear him through the ringing in her ears, “it's a lot harder for them to smell magic than it is Vashiila.”
“And if he had...” she breathed.
“He would have killed you. Maybe he would have done it here in public, maybe he would have dragged you back to his lair. I don't know. All I know is that you would have died.”
Tears began to spill down Adlis' cheeks. She was in shock, she realized through hazy thoughts. Bandits, Shapeless, giant spiders... somehow, none of them had come closer to ending her life than that one measly handshake.
“And that, Adlis,” Kulgan said, still holding her up, “is why you need to keep doing what I say.”
NEXT TIME: Spooky scary Gestaul-etons send shivers down your spine! At least he’s gone now. We won’t be seeing him again, right? Don’t know why I even bothered introducing him…