Adlis froze, staring up at the gray skinned priest for several seconds.
Then she screamed.
Brother Gestaul's smile only widened when she darted around him, holding up her dress so she wouldn't trip over it as she made for the door as quickly as her feet could carry her. Gestaul had left it wide open when he'd come in. Or maybe they'd never been closed at all. She didn't know, nor did she care. Her mind was as blank as the whiteness of her ears. All that mattered was that Father Rychar had betrayed her. Gestaul knew her secret. If she didn't escape, she'd be dead within the hour.
The door was wide open and inviting, promising freedom to her irrational mind...
Until it slammed shut.
Adlis couldn’t react in time, and ran face first into the door. Pain crashed through her skull, the world spun around her, and she collapsed in a heap on the polished stone floor. Now her ears weren't just changing colors, they were ringing as well, but she forced herself to focus through the pain. The door had been open, and nobody was close enough to have shut it. How in Embin's name had...
A gray skinned hand was lying flat across the door, the black nails at the end of its bony fingers digging tiny trenches into the wood. It was attached to an equally gray wrist, which extended into a long gray arm. A very, very long gray arm. Adlis followed it with her eyes. It stretched the entire length of the massive sanctuary, and ended where Brother Gestaul was standing, disappearing into the sleeve of his black robe. Her eyes widened as the arm retracted into itself. It reminded her of a taffy puller she had seen at the fair once, except in reverse.
It also reminded her of a snake slithering into its den.
Within seconds, Gestaul's arms were back to normal, but the predatory gleam he had in his eyes was not normal at all. He raised his other arm, and it too began to stretch toward her. Adlis screamed again and scrambled backwards on the floor. Gestaul's smile widened even further, beyond the point any human should have been able to stretch their lips. He was obviously getting some sort of perverse pleasure from this, even wiggling his fingers as he stretched his hand closer to Adlis. It had exactly the effect he'd intended, but before Adlis could scream a third time the hand expanded, becoming three times as large as it had been before, and wrapped itself around her face, muffling and blinding her.
It began to retract again, pulling her across the floor with it. She screamed even though the sound didn't escape and beat her fists against the arm. It felt like striking a wet noodle that refused to break. The entire time, the horrid sensation of having insects crawl beneath her skin was filling her head, driving her mad...
The hand released her.
“... do this because I wanted to,” Rychar was saying, his voice suddenly audible without Gestaul's flesh clogging her ears.
“Naturally,” Gestaul crooned, still looking down at Adlis. “You did it because your duty as High Priest of Embin demanded it.”
Rychar waved a tired hand. “Regardless, this girl is innocent. She did not do this to herself.”
“So she says.”
“You must have mercy on her, Gestaul!” the old zik demanded, stamping his sandaled foot. “Has the church of Embin fallen so far as to kill a young woman because of what someone else did to her?”
Gestaul didn't seem to care what Rychar was saying. “She must still face trial, Father. That is how it must be.”
Rychar looked like he was going to argue further, but then wilted. “Very well. Do what you must. Just get out of my church, creature.”
A spark of irritation flitted across Gestaul's face, and he stretched his arm down to pick Adlis up by the back of her dress. He set her on her feet, and then extended his fingers so that they wrapped all the way around her, like ropes. The crawling insects came back, and Adlis thrashed, trying to be break free to no avail.
“Embin smiles upon you for your faithfulness,” he said, turning to leave.
“Please,” Adlis begged him, her voice hoarse and ears as white as snow. “Please, no!”
Gestaul grinned down at her. “My dear child, you could not be in safer hands.”
She turned desperately to Rychar. “Father, please stop him! Don't let him do this.”
The old zik shook his head, unable to meet her eye. “There is nothing I can do. I am sorry, young lady. Truly I am.”
Young lady. Those two words echoed through her panic stricken mind Not my child or my daughter anymore. Young lady.
Gestaul forced her to the door, his hand still wrapped around her. He was incredibly strong, especially for being so thin. Adlis tried to fight him, but his grip only became tighter.
“Now,” he said, stopping before the great wooden doors, “are you going to walk to where we're going, or am I going to have to drag you?”
The crawling sensation was too much. Squirming like an insect herself, Adlis leaned her head back and whimpered to the ceiling. Her legs gave out beneath her, and only Gestaul's hand kept her from falling.
Gestaul sighed, though he still seemed incredibly pleased with himself. “Very well, then.”
His other fist struck her skull.
Everything went dark.
Kulgan watched from the dark window of an empty house as Gestaul dragged Adlis’ limp form from the church.
“Wake up, little witch.”
A throbbing pain greeted Adlis as she came back to the waking world. She tried to raise her hand to feel her head, but found she couldn't. In a fit of panic, she became convinced that she was still in the titantula web, cocooned and waiting to be eaten. Her eyes snapped open and she threw herself forward, but only for a few inches before she was halted by something long, cold, and hard.
Gasping for breath, she looked down at herself to see, not webs, but manacles binding her to a rugged wooden chair. That was some small relief—but not much, when she remembered what had happened before being knocked out.
Her eyes focused some more, and she saw a tall, slender figure standing before her.
“Welcome back, my little witch,” he crooned, grinning savagely at her.
The panic that Adlis had begun to force down suddenly came rushing back to her. They were in a dark, musty room. The walls were black iron bars, supported by pillars of gray stone. The smell of mold and decay was thick in the air, and beyond Gestaul, in the next cell, Adlis could faintly make out a skeleton still chained to a chair exactly like her own.
“I- I- I'm not a witch!” she stammered, straining against her bonds. They held her just as tightly as Gestaul's unnatural arm had. “I swear on Embin's name, I didn't do this to myself!”
Gestaul steepled his fingers. “Oh, I would hope so, little witch,” he said mockingly. “You know what the punishment is for using the magics forbidden by Embin, don't you?”
He paused, waiting for an answer. It took a few seconds, but Adlis managed to nod. “Y- Yes, I know.”
“Good.” He began to pace, walking circles around her chair. “Tell me what it is.”
Adlis' ears whitened so much that they hurt. “To have your tongue cut out, your fingers cut off, and be b-buried alive in a coffin of thorns.”
“Indeed.” He came around her left side, and delicately ran his finger down the length of her ear. The crawling sensation returned, and despite her situation the ear turned green with disgust.
“I'm not a witch!” she exclaimed again, trying to lean as far away from him as she could. Gestaul only smiled wider.
“Perhaps, perhaps not,” he cackled. “We shall soon find out. Tell me, how exactly did you come to have such unnatural ears?”
“They were forced upon me,” she said, voice trembling. Was it possible that she might actually get out of this alive? Father Rychar had said that the Ministry of the Purge could help her. If she convinced Brother Gestaul that she was telling the truth, would he cure her ears and let her go? Or was the gray priest just toying with her emotions?
She had the dreadful feeling that it was the second one.
“Explain, child,” Gestaul commanded her.
“I was kidnapped by bandits. They sold me to a brothel in Tolk. The woman who owned it, she enchants all of her girls to change color like this. I managed to escape before she did more than my ears.”
A sudden thought occurred to her, and she leaned forward in her bonds. “That woman, Madam Caruzo, she's the real witch! She had a book, and that book was...” Her voice trailed off.
“Alive?” Gestaul asked with amusement.
“Y- Yes,” she answered, thinking back to that night in Madam Caruzo’s chambers. That book had sat upon her reading table, and though nobody was even in arm's reach it had shaken and shuddered like a living thing. At one point she'd even been convinced that the book had spoken. She shuddered.
“Yes, magical texts have a tendency to take on life,” Gestaul mused, circling around her again. “As do most things touched by the unnatural forces.” He chuckled, as if he found the idea humorous.
“I can show you where she is,” Adlis said. “I can even take you to her if you want. I- I escaped Tolk once. I'm sure I can find the way back in again!”
“Is that so?”
Adlis nodded energetically. “Yes! Like I said, she's the real witch. If you want to take care of the problem for good, you'll go after her. Let me live and lift the curse on my ears, and I'll show you the way.”
To her surprise, Brother Gestaul burst out laughing at this. High pitched and manic yet somehow also low and ominous, a vocal contradiction. It was dark and Adlis couldn't see much, but she swore that the bones in the next cell flinched at the sound.
“Oh, little witch,” he said once he had regained his composure. He swooped in from her left side, like some combination of a vulture and a snake. “You are in no position to be making such demands.”
Adlis found herself looking into his eyes. Gray, dead, but also alive with malice. She had to look away.
“You said it was your job to hunt down Twisters and witches,” she gasped. “I'm not a witch. Killing me won't do you any good. You have to go after Madam Caruzo.”
“I think I just might, little witch.” He came to stand in front of her. “It sounds like an entertaining diversion. But make no mistake, I do not need you to accomplish that.”
Before she could ask what he meant, his long, bony hands shot out, grabbing her by the sides of her head. The terrible crawling sensation returned, even stronger than the last times, but before she could scream the world went black again.
Had she lost consciousness? No, she could still feel Gestaul's hands on her head and the insects crawling beneath her skin. Then what...
Show me the witch.
Adlis gasped. Gestaul's voice had spoken directly into her head. A new sensation washed over her, one even worse than the insects. It was like every molecule in her body had been flooded with sewage. It rose up inside of her, threatening to drown her. Deep inside her mind, though she didn't know how, she knew that she was feeling Brother Gestaul's soul creep into her own.
An image appeared before her eyes. It was faint at first, but grew more solid by the second. It was a person. Not just any person, she realized. It was Za.
“Miss Adlis, where're you takin' me?” he asked.
“Far away from here, Za,” she heard her own voice say. “I’m going home!”
Adlis gasped. Suddenly, she recognized where she was. The stones all around them, the starry sky. This was the night she and Za had fled from Tolk.
Hmm, too far, Gestaul said, making her shudder again. Let's rewind a bit, shall we?
“!emoh gniog ,m’I,” the past Adlis said. “,aZ ,ereh morf yawa raF”
“?em 'nikat uoy er'erehw ,sildA ssiM,” asked Za.
Before she could wonder what was going on, she began to back away from her simmk companion. He watched her for a second, and then turned around and ran after her—backwards.
Gestaul was playing the memory in reverse.
Everything that had happened, she was watching it happen backwards now. They ran for a minute, the rocky landscape flying by, and then the first building came into sight. They had passed through the magic gateway into Tolk. From her perspective there was nothing blocking the path out of town, but anyone looking at it from the other direction would have seen an impenetrable wall of stone.
They continued running backwards for a few minutes, and then Adlis abruptly spun around to see a brightly painted building. Madam Caruzo’s, the sign over the door proudly proclaimed. Smoke billowed out of a window on the second floor—or billowed into it, rather. People were running backwards into the burning building, many of them only half dressed, or less. In the few seconds she stood there, Adlis saw Sillow, Tenny, and Jima, three other girls she had met during her time there, dash back into the brothel. Unlike Adlis, every strand of fur on their body was as white as snow. That was obvious, because none of those three were wearing a speck of clothing.
Adlis blushed, her ears turning red in the real world as she unwillingly recalled her time spent in Caruzo’s care. Then she too turned back around, wrapped her hand around Za's wrist, and ran backwards into the building.
Everything went dark again.
“That should be enough,” Brother Gestaul said in his real voice.
Suddenly, Adlis was thrust back into the real world. The insects vanished from her body, and dark as it was in the dungeon it still seemed blinding to her after what she had just experienced. Gestaul stood up straight, clasping his hands behind his back again.
“W- What did you just do?” Adlis gasped. Though she hadn't moved an inch, it felt like she had run a mile.
“Oh, nothing you need worry yourself over, little witch,” he chuckled, and went back to pacing.
Adlis closed her eyes. She felt... filthy. Violated. She didn't know how, but he had invaded her soul. Had it been magic? She doubted it. As sadistic as he was, Gestaul didn't seem like the kind of man to make a hypocrite of himself. Especially not if he was an actual priest in the church of Embin. Still, what he had done to her... it almost felt like rape.
Regardless, she tried to focus her thoughts again. “Well, you got what you wanted. You believe me now, right? I'm not a witch!”
Gestaul paused in front of her, thinking. Finally, he nodded. “Yes, I do indeed think that I believe your story. That is most unfortunate.”
Adlis' ears paled again. “Unfortunate?”
He nodded a second time. “Very unfortunate. Because you see, I still can not let you go.”
Adlis tried to stand up, but was halted by her chains. “You have to let me go! You can't keep me here if I'm not a witch!”
“You may not be a witch,” Gestaul agreed, “but who has to know?”
Adlis fell still. “Y- You're really going to keep me here?”
The priest's face lit up with glee. “Indeed I am. You see, I never brought you here for... you, I suppose you could say.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that I have my eye set on an even better prize than you, my dear. You are merely the bait I chose to lure him in.”
Adlis stared at him for a long minute, but then horrible realization came upon her. “Kulgan,” she whispered.
Gestaul perked up. “Is that his name? Interesting. Regardless, yes, I am referring to the Twister.”
“I- I- I don't know him!” she blurted out. “I have no idea who you're talking about!”
Gestaul laughed again. “Oh, you are indeed funny, child. Even so, the trap has already been put in place. He will come here to rescue you, and I will capture him.”
To her own surprise, Adlis actually sneered at this. “How do you plan to do that? Kulgan is a Gray Ranger. He's fought things a hundred times scarier than you!”
“Was,” Gestaul corrected her with a raised finger. “He was a Gray Ranger. Now he is nothing more than a Twister, a despicable form of life even lower than the witches and sorcerers.”
“He won't come,” she snapped. “He's far too self-absorbed to try to risk himself like that.”
That was a lie. She knew that if Kulgan were to find out where she was, he would try to rescue her. Just like he had with the Red Fangs. Just like he had with the titantulas. He would risk his own safety to find her and save her because, no matter what anyone else said, one thing would always hold true: he was terrible at being the bad guy.
“I should hope you are wrong,” Gestaul said with a knowing gleam in his gray eye. “Because if he doesn't come, then you will pay the price.”
Adlis sat up straight again. “What? But you just admitted that I wasn't a witch!”
“Indeed, but you are still guilty of associating with a Twister. Rather than turn him in, you traveled with him. Even promised him sanctuary from the church if he were to get you home safely, Miss Arbor.”
Adlis went rigid. Just how deep into her memories had he gone?
Gestaul chuckled at her reaction. “So yes, I should hope that he does come to rescue you. You see, my child, this is your only chance of redemption.” His expression grew dark. “Fail me here, and you shall not live long enough for another.”
Neither of them moved or spoke for over a minute. What could Adlis have possibly said? Gestaul continued to loom over her, and eventually his predatory smile returned.
“Would you like to see a trick?” he asked, almost boyishly playful.
Adlis shook her head. Gestaul giggled.
He stepped back so that he was plainly in her sight—and then cast off his robe. It fell around his feet, leaving him entirely nude in front of her. Despite her disgust, Adlis couldn't help but inspect him. His entire body was the same shade of gray as his hands and face, though perhaps not as tan from being covered up. It was also strangely smooth and featureless. Like a wax doll molded in the shape of a human. There were no wrinkles, no lines, just smooth flesh. He was even, Adlis realized with repulsion, lacking any genitals.
“Let's make this a game,” he said, bringing her attention back to his face. “The one he finds first... keeps him!”
Before she could ask what he meant, Gestaul's body changed. He shrank, his abnormally long limbs, spine, and neck shortening until he was only Adlis' height and properly proportioned. Fur erupted from his gray skin, and within seconds it covered him entirely. A long, prehensile tail burst from the base of his spine, and his ears lengthened and sharpened to points. His chest swelled, and his hips and rear rounded themselves into youthful, feminine curves. The fur he had grown atop his head grew even longer until it hung down to his shoulders.
Gestaul opened his eyes, and Adlis found herself looking at herself.
“Hmm,” Gestaul said, his voice sounding even more atrocious coming from the mismatched body, “a perfect match. Or close enough, at least.”
With a jolt, Adlis realized what his plan was.
“You monster!” she shouted.
“Oh, but how could I be a monster when I feel so... pretty?” Gestaul ran his hands down his body, fingers tracing lines through the fur, and struck a sultry pose. “How will he resist me?”
“He has a wife, you... you...”
Gestaul smirked. “Then I'll have to hunt her down once I'm finished with this Kulgan.” His voice changed as he spoke, and when he finished he sounded just like Adlis. “Marrying a Twister is even more perverse than traveling with one, wouldn't you say?”
“How can you call anyone perverse?” Adlis demanded. Was this courage she was feeling, or foolishness? “Look at yourself!”
“I think I just might.” Gestaul stroked him—herself one more time. “But first, I have work to do. Guards!”
The doors at the end of the room burst open, and a few guards in black uniforms marched in. Surprisingly, they didn't give the naked zik girl a second glance.
“Take her and put her in a cell,” he instructed. “And then... find me something pretty to wear.”
While the guards unchained her and dragged her away, Gestaul's feminine voice echoed through the prison again with a psychotic laugh. Then the door slammed, cutting off her view, and Adlis closed her eyes. A tear ran down her cheek.
I'm sorry, Kulgan.
NEXT TIME: Gestaudlis refuses to conform to your list of genders, cis scum. He turns into pretty zik girls and uses whatever restroom he wants at Target.