Kulgan's wings thrummed in the night, carrying him swiftly over the hilly landscape. He soared twenty feet above the ground, but to his Ranger's eyes Brother Gestaul's tracks were clear as day. It helped that Atroyo was passing over Embraus, casting its purple light over everything from behind a curtain of storm clouds.
There they were! Kulgan arched upwards into the clouds just before he passed over their heads. He looked around desperately for a place to land. If he spent too long up here, he'd get struck by lightning for sure. Thunder rumbled in his ears, as if Atroyo itself was warning the Twister to get out of its sight. A boulder as large as a house loomed in the distance, so Kulgan zipped toward it.
He should have been beyond sight range of any human, and yet when he looked down he swore that Brother Gestaul was looking right up at him. His blood ran cold, and not for the first time he asked himself what the Pit he thought he was doing.
He hovered for a few seconds, and when Gestaul lowered his head and kept walking, Kulgan continued on his way to the boulder and landed on it, making sure to circle around so Gestaul wouldn't see him. When he'd Pierced, he had allowed his hands to develop some of the wolf hornet's mucus secreting glands, so he was able to cling to the side of the boulder as if gravity weren't pulling on him at all. Tucking his wings behind his back, he climbed to the top of the huge rock and peeked his head over to look at Gestaul.
He had followed the priest more than a mile past the city walls. With Atroyo out, most people had fled the roads, seeking shelter from the storm that would undoubtedly be coming soon. The Ministry of the Purge's headquarters was a closely guarded secret. Most people weren't even aware that this sect of the church existed, and the other priests were more than happy to pretend they didn't either. Even the Gray Rangers weren't privy to much of what they did. Seeing as how the Ashen Priests were the ones who hunted down Twisters and rogue Gray Rangers, that was sensible. Frustrating, but sensible.
Just as he'd feared, Adlis lay clutched in his grotesquely enlarged hand, unconscious, and he dragged her carelessly across the dusty path. Kulgan shuddered again, the urge to fly away—far, far away—even stronger than he had expected. He had grown up with stories of the Ministry of the Purge the way most children were raised with legends of the marshals, but he'd never actually seen one until today. Very few people had. They never left their hidden lair except to hunt Twisters and witches. The fact that one had been out on the exact day, and in the exact place, to bump into a girl touched by magic bothered him immensely. Were an Ashen Priest's senses so keen that they could smell their prey from that far away?
If that was the case, then Kulgan was in serious trouble, because Brother Gestaul was heading straight for him.
Water was beginning to gather on his wings, so he gave them a quick shake. If Gestaul found him, he'd need to make a quick getaway. The powers of the Ashen Priests were legendary, and Kulgan wasn't even sure he believed all of them. Judging by the way he had grown his hand and his arm, though, he assumed that shapeshifting must be one of them. How powerful was that ability, though? Unfortunately, he was here to save Adlis, not study them. That meant that, no matter what the priests were able to do, he was going in all but blind.
His heart began to beat faster as Gestaul walked directly up to the boulder he was hiding on top of, and he prepared himself to take off. To his surprise, though, Gestaul merely held up his empty hand and extended one finger. That finger doubled in length, and the bone erupted from the skin in a painful looking pattern. The priest rammed that finger into a hidden recess in the stone, twisted his arm to the side, and...
A deep thunk sounded from inside the boulder. Kulgan tensed. Then, with a groan, the front part of the rock split open, swinging outwards like a door.
No, Kulgan realized. Not like a door, it was a door.
The scent of rot and death billowed from the door like some Graylands scavenger's belch, and Gestaul ventured inside. Kulgan stayed still for a few seconds, hardly able to believe that the priest hadn't detected him. The door swung shut on its own accord, the false parts of the boulder joining so close together that even Kulgan's eyes couldn't detect the separation. He took a deep breath. It looked like he had found the Purge’s headquarters.
Kicking his wings back into motion, Kulgan took off and flew back in the direction he'd come. Half a mile away, under a thick copse of trees, Kulgan found Za right where he had left him. The simmk sat atop a horse, looking thoroughly uncomfortable with that fact, and held the reins to another in his trembling fist. When Kulgan came crashing through the branches, skidding across the dirt to stop right in front of the horses, Za jumped so hard that it nearly spooked the horse more than Kulgan did. It rose up on its back legs, and Za went tumbling head over heels from its backside.
“Easy, easy!” Kulgan said, grabbing the reins and rubbing the horse's neck. “It's all right. You're okay.”
He had gotten back just in time, because as soon as his feet touched the ground he the power his pendant had given him run out, and his wings crumbled to dust.
Pierce again! the voices urged him. Twist again. Twist more. Change more.
Za got to his feet and handed Kulgan his shirt. “Did you find her?”
“I know where they took her.” Kulgan said, nodding as he slipped the shirt over his head. He hesitated. “This is bad.”
“H- How bad?”
“The very reason we shouldn't have come here bad.”
He expected that to set the simmk off, complaining about how it had been his idea to come to Embraus in the first place. If not that, then it at least should have gotten the skittish creature trembling again. Instead, Za just clenched his fists by his sides and “looked” Kulgan in the eye.
“Let's go get her, then!” he said without a hint of a stutter in his voice.
This isn't the loyalty of a servant to his master, Kulgan realized. This is the loyalty of a friend.
He shook his head. “You're not coming.”
“By Embin's name, I am too comin'!” he shot back. “And there ain't nothin' you can do to—”
“You are going to wait outside and keep the horses ready,” Kulgan cut him off. “When she comes out, you're going to get her on one of those horses and you're both going ride like Vashiil itself is chasing you until you're on the other side of Tassendile. Got it?”
Za froze, and Kulgan grimaced and led one of the horses away from their hiding place. He had hoped that the simmk would be too...
“You ain't plannin' on comin' out of there, are you Mr. Kulgan?” Za asked, coming to walk beside him, leading the second horse.
Kulgan scowled down at the forest floor. “Don't act like you're upset or anything. I know you've hated travelling with me ever since we first met.”
“But- But why?”
“Because hunting witches isn't what the Ministry of the Purge does. Not primarily, anyway. They only go after witches when their primary targets are all taken care of.”
Kulgan could hear the leather in Za's gloves creak as his fist tightened nervously around the reins. “And let me guess...”
Kulgan nodded. “They hunt Twisters. If I show up, they'll forget all about Adlis and come chasing after me. Hopefully by that time I'll have managed to get her out, so you can get her away from here.”
They came to a clearing, where the boulder leading into the Ministry of the Purge's hidden monastery was clearly visible, and Kulgan stopped. This was really it, wasn't it? He was going down into that hole, the hole he'd been running from ever since he'd found this d'yargo pendant, and he had no illusions what was going to happen in there. And for what? For some spoiled rotten little puff? What had gotten into him?
“Mr. Kulgan?” Za asked, obviously thinking along the same lines as him. “Why are you doin' this for us?”
“Because Adlis made me an offer I couldn't refuse,” he answered quickly. Too quickly.
“Beggin' your pardon, Mr. Kulgan, but I don't think that's it.”
It's because she didn't just give me a way to keep living, he thought, she gave me a reason to live. Even though I've only known her a few days, I haven't felt this alive in years. I'm not just drifting through life day by day, year by year anymore. I have a purpose again. A mission.
And I want to see that mission through to the end!
“What do you know?” He snapped. “You're just a dumb simmk.”
He turned to lead his horse off the road, looking for a good hiding place for Za to wait. How much good would a hiding spot do against a—
“And you're a good man, Mr. Kulgan.”
Kulgan stopped in his tracks.
“Why does everyone keep saying that?” he asked.
Even with the mask covering his face, Kulgan could hear the smirk in Za's voice when he said, “Maybe cuz it's true.”
This time, it was Kulgan's hand that tightened around the reins, gripping them so hard his knuckles turned white and the leather almost cut into his skin.
“There's a spot over there,” he said, nodding. “Get the horses hidden and stay put. Think you can handle that?”
Za nodded solemnly. “If you get Miss Adlis outta there, I'll make sure she gets away safe.”
“All right, then.” Kulgan turned to look at the rock. “Get going.”
Za hesitated, but then said, “If you can, sir, I'd like it if you could get outta there safe too.”
D'yargo simmk's trying to make me cry, he grumbled in his head. Out loud he said, “I'll see what I can do. Now go!”
Za took the reins to both horses and passed into the spot Kulgan had chosen. Once Kulgan was satisfied that he was sufficiently hidden from anyone who might happen to pass by, he took a deep breath and set off toward the boulder. No hiding place was safe from an Ashen Priest, but at least Za would be safer there than where Kulgan was planning to go.
He got to the rock undisturbed. No guards, not even a lookout. He ran his hand over the stone's rough, weathered surface. There were lots of little pockmarks in it, any of which could be the keyhole, so Kulgan called upon his memories of a few minutes ago, trying to remember exactly where Gestaul had put his finger. It should have been... right... here!
He hesitated. He didn't have a lockpick. Without that, he could only think of one way to pick the lock. His mind drifted back to the night he'd spent in Everdry's jail...
Do it! Stab! Pierce! Twist! Change!
“Fine,” he spat, pulling the pendant out a second time. He barely let the tip prick his skin of his arm before pulling it out again. His tail erupted from his spine, and he hurriedly grabbed the stinger and jammed it into the keyhole. He had no idea what to expect down there, and he didn't want his tail encumbering him, so he'd only given himself enough power to last a few seconds. That meant he also only had a few seconds to pick the lock before...
The lock sprang free just as the tail began to wither away, and once again the massive door swung open. Thunder rumbled ominously in the sky. Kulgan stood there in front of the entrance, transfixed. It was so dark. Unnaturally dark, like someone had draped a black curtain across the door. Not even Atroyo's purple light could illuminate more than a couple of feet inside. It was almost like looking into the houses in Jordaku.
The lock had been easy to pick. Too easy. That bothered him. The lock was, in its own way a message. It doesn't matter if you break in, you'll regret it soon enough.
This is an evil place, he thought with a shiver. His hand reached up to feel his pendant. I should feel right at home, then.
Adlis was still down there somewhere, so, swallowing his fear as best he could, Kulgan stepped inside—and the door immediately swung shut behind him. The deafening bang echoed down the rocky corridor. Kulgan whipped Zam and Zagyr out, blinded by the darkness but listening. Once the echoes faded, there was nothing. Heart pounding in his chest, Kulgan holstered his weapons and took a step forward.
With his Ranger training, Kulgan was able to get a sense of the room he was in just by standing in it. He was standing at the top of a long spiral staircase carved into the stone itself. Hesitantly, he put his foot on the first stair, found it safe, and continued downward. Knowing the size and shape of his surroundings was all well and good—he sometimes thought this must be how simmks were able to “see”—but that didn't help him with whatever the priests might have decided to leave lying around. Traps, perhaps. Even something as simple as a discarded piece of cloth would be dangerous enough to send him sliding down the stairs to a broken neck, and what good would he be to Adlis if that were to happen? So, he proceeded slowly and cautiously, feeling each step with the toe of his boot before putting his whole weight on it. The entire time, he kept one hand on Zam, ready to draw and shoot at a moment's notice. Down, down, down he went. The silence was absolute, so that even Kulgan's stealthy footsteps seemed to echo as loudly as the door had when it'd slammed.
Finally, he saw a flicker of light ahead. It was dim and still far away, obscured by the curve of the staircase, but it was there. With that he was able to walk more confidently, and he arrived at the bottom of the staircase a minute later. A lone torch protruded from the wall, illuminating the black stone that formed the staircase as well as the small chamber he now stood in. The Abbey of the Holy Purge, it seemed, was a cave. Whether natural or handmade, their headquarters was hidden away entirely from the light of day. How fitting.
A sturdy wooden door barred his way. Glittering in the torchlight, Kulgan saw a bronze plaque embedded in the wall. He leaned in close to get a better look.
Glory be to Embin, for though we enshroud ourselves in darkness it is so His light may shine brighter on the surface, it read. Kulgan shivered. Those words carried a familiar sense of desperation with them. The desperation to justify one's actions, no matter how depraved they were. He had done the same when he'd first found his pendant.
“I can use this,” he had spoken to himself, sitting in his dark room with wings and tail twitching and alien voices screaming into his head. “The priests, the other Rangers... they're all wrong. So what if this a piece of Vashiil? I can use this to fight against it!”
The problem with that kind of reasoning was that you never truly believed it. No matter how many times you repeated it, like a hymn in church, you knew that you were lying to yourself.
Kulgan put his palm against the door and gently pushed it open. The hinges moaned loudly, and he flinched.
“Halt, who goes there?” someone on the other side demanded.
“D'yargo!” Kulgan spat. There was nothing for it now. Drawing Zam and Zagyr, he kicked the door the rest of the way open. Five guards waited on the other side, lined up with their rifles pointed directly at the door. Before anyone could pull a trigger, though, a loud, grating voice rang through the dungeon.
“Leave him. He is mine!” it commanded. Though it was distorted and echoing, Kulgan instantly recognized Brother Gestaul's voice.
The guards hesitated, and then, as one, pointed their rifles at the ceiling.
“You heard him, men,” said the one Kulgan took to be in charge. “Leave him for the priest.”
They turned and raced away, lost to the darkness as soon as they left the light of Kulgan's torch. Somewhere in the shadows, Kulgan heard another door slam.
“D'yargo,” he muttered again. He holstered Zagyr and took the torch down from its sconce, but kept Zam in his hand, finger on the trigger. For a long, tense minute he steeled himself, and then he ventured through the door.
This chamber held rows upon rows upon rows of cages. Most of them were empty, their bars rusted, but more than a few of them had shapes inside—nonmoving shapes. They made a path to the center of the room, where he found an area clear except for a single chair. Chains dangled from it. He knelt down next to it and studied the ground. A layer of dust covered the floor, and... yes! The dust around the chair had been disturbed. Someone had moved the chains recently, and judging by the state of the other prisoners he'd seen, Adlis must have been the one they were binding. He looked again. A part of the floor leading from the chair and into the darkness had been swept almost entirely clean of dust, which meant that after... whatever had happened in the chair—he didn't want to think about it—the guards must have dragged Adlis that way!
He lifted the torch again, navigating his way through the maze of cells and cages until...
“Who's there?” someone asked in the distance.
“Adlis?” Kulgan called out.
“Kulgan?” she replied.
Almost dropping the torch in his haste, Kulgan sprinted the remaining way down the corridor, skidding to a stop when he spotted a familiar face pressed against the rusty iron bars.
“Kulgan!” Adlis cried, tears of joy running down her cheeks. “I- I can't... is it really you?”
“Yeah, it's me,” Kulgan said. “Are you all right?”
“Do I look all right? Hurry up and get me out of here!”
Kulgan knelt down in front of her cell's door. The lock holding it shut was smaller than the one at the entrance, too small for him to pick with his tail. Instead, he flipped Zam over so he was holding like a hammer, positioned it over the lock, and one... two... three!
The lock fell apart surprisingly easily, and the door swung open. He looked up to see Adlis cowering at the back of her cell.
“Are you crazy?” she hissed, eyes darting back and forth. Her ears were white with snow. “What if they heard that?”
Kulgan looked away as she stood up, flipping Zam around so he was holding it right again. “They already know I'm here.”
Adlis' eyes widened. “Then how did you—”
“Come on, let's get you out of here while we still can.”
Putting Zam away, he extended a hand to help her up. Adlis reached out to take it, but then hesitated.
“Y- You're the real Kulgan, right?” she asked.
Kulgan blinked. “What's that supposed to mean?”
Adlis shook her head and grabbed his hand, letting him pull her to her feet. “Nothing. It's just—”
The rattle of metal against metal came from nearby, and a familiar voice called out, “Hello? Is someone out there?”
Kulgan and Adlis both froze, Adlis' ears paling again.
“Hello? Kulgan, is that you?”
Kulgan turned to look at Adlis in bewilderment. “That- That's your voice!” he exclaimed.
Adlis immediately grabbed his arm in both hands. “I'm sorry, I should have told you!” she blurted out, speaking so quickly Kulgan could barely understand her. “Gestaul, he... I don't know what he did, but he turned into me!”
“Turned into you?” Kulgan echoed back.
“Yes! Literally, he turned into me!” She squeezed his arm tighter, giving it a little shake. “And then he went and locked himself in one of the cages, hoping you would find him first. But I'm me. I'm the real Adlis. Just leave him there and let's go!”
Suddenly, the world felt like it had turned upside down. Two Adlises... and one of them was Brother Gestaul. Things had just become more complicated, and a lot more dangerous. Adlis was still pulling his arm in the direction he'd come from. Or, at least, he thought it was her...
“All right, come on,” he said, yanking his arm out her hands. He grabbed her wrist and, without explanation, pulled her down the corridor toward where the other voice had come from. “Let's get this over with.”
Adlis immediately dug her heels into the floor, but it didn't matter. Kulgan dragged her, torch lighting the way in front of him.
“Wh- What are you doing?” the zik girl screeched. “Don't go over there!”
“Kulgan?” the other Adlis called out. “What's going on?”
He rounded the corner and, sure enough, there was a second Adlis staring at him through the bars of her cage. Her eyes lit up with happiness when she saw him, and she opened her mouth to say something—but then her eyes landed on the Adlis he already had with him, and all the joy fell from her face in a heartbeat.
“You let him out?” she screamed, backpedaling until she struck the wall behind her.
“Go to the Pit!” The one beside Kulgan screamed right back. “I'm the real Adlis!”
They both looked at Kulgan, who looked at each of them in turn. He honestly couldn't begin to think how to figure out which one was which. He wanted to say that it was the one he'd freed, since she hadn't shapeshifted back into her true form and attacked him. That made sense. That was logical. But the fact that Gestaul was playing this game with him wasn't logical in the first place, so could he really trust that feeling?
As if sensing where his thoughts were leading him, the Adlis in the cage lunged forward, gripping the bars again. “Kulgan, it's me!” she yelled. “I'm the real Adlis! Can't you tell?”
“She's a fraud,” said the one beside him. “Come on, we need to get out of here!”
And if you are the real one, Kulgan thought, eyeing her, then what will Gestaul do when we leave him here? D'yargo, what are you going to do if you're Gestaul after all?
“I'm not the fraud, she is!” argued the caged one. “I- I can prove it. I'll tell you something only the real Adlis would know!”
“Like what?” Kulgan asked.
“Like... Like...” the caged Adlis clenched her eyes shut, pounding on the side of her head. She looked back up at him with inspiration in her eyes. “The bandit leader who kidnapped me! His name was Trazmar Speth.”
Kulgan's eyebrows rose. If she knew that, then...
“But his nickname was Bloodnoggin,” the other Adlis blurted out. She pointed at the one in the cage, her ears turning yellow. “He read my mind before you got here, Kulgan. He knows everything I know!”
“Shut your lying mouth, you monster!” the caged Adlis screeched, pounding her fists on the cage in frustration. Her ears were turning bright scarlet.
So both of their ears still change color, Kulgan thought. Gestaul even has... that...
He hesitated. The Adlis standing next his him's ears were yellow. The one in the cage's were red. That... that wasn't right. They were both angry, but their ears were changing to different colors. That meant that Gestaul, whichever one he was, hadn't memorized the colors of Adlis’ ears before changing into her. Kulgan's heart began to beat harder. That was it. That was the key. But...
A bead of sweat rolled down Kulgan's brow as he watched the two Adlises yell at each other. Which color were her ears supposed to turn when she was mad? Red or yellow? He had seen enough of both colors while traveling with her to know that they were both bad emotions. But which one was anger?
He couldn't remember.
But there was one thing he did remember!
Before either of the Adlises could react, he dropped the torch, drew Zagyr, and aimed one gun at both of the ziks. The Adlises' eyes widened in surprise, and then he pulled the triggers.
Two bangs. Two bullets. Two ziks screaming as the lumps of hot metal whizzed by, clipping a few strands of fur from both of their necks. Two cracks as they embedded themselves in the walls behind their targets.
The Adlis beside him collapsed to the ground, unhurt but unable to realize it. The one in the cage nearly did the same, but managed to grab hold of one of the bars to keep herself upright. Both wore convincing expressions of shock and terror. Kulgan didn't pay any attention to their faces, though. He looked at their ears.
The one on the floor's were white. The one in the cage's had turned yellow.
Without a word, Kulgan turned both guns on the caged Adlis and pulled the triggers five times each. The dark dungeon was suddenly filled with light and noise as Zam and Zagyr spat death at the helpless zik maiden in front of them. Each bullet flew straight and true, piercing Adlis' flesh and bone before coming out her other side in a spray of blood to clatter against the metal bars behind her. Then, once all his bullets were spent, Kulgan lowered his weapons and watched as the imprisoned Adlis slumped back against the wall, then slid down onto her backside, coughing up blood. Beside him, the other Adlis got back to her feet, trembling.
“You... You...” the dying Adlis croaked, looking at him with eyes wide with disbelief.
“Cut the act,” Kulgan snapped. “I figured it out.”
The dying Adlis looked at him, and then let out a bark of laughter. The laugh started high, a young woman's voice, but then distorted to become that of a man. Her body began to writhe, her limbs lengthening and fur retracting into her skin. The dress she wore, quickly becoming too small for her, tore down the middle as her skin turned a dark, ashen gray. Bit by bit Adlis disappeared, until she was replaced by Brother Gestaul.
“Kulgan!” the real Adlis screamed. She backed away, looking from him to Gestaul.
“Clever little Twister,” the priest crooned, standing up. The tattered dress fell from his shoulders, leaving him in nothing but his gray, unnaturally smooth skin.
“Nothing clever about it,” he said. “You didn't get Adlis' colors right.”
Gestaul shrugged. He was having to stoop to keep from hitting his head on the roof of the cage. “A foolish mistake, but an inconsequential one nonetheless.” He grinned down at Kulgan.
With that, the priest's body seemed to liquefy, and it lunged forward as a limbless tendril of flesh, flowing through the openings in the cell's bars like water being poured through a colander. As soon as he was all the way through, Brother Gestaul reformed himself, towering above Kulgan.
Despite his efforts to stay brave, Kulgan's face paled and he took a step backwards.
“Shapeless,” he whispered.
Gestaul reached out, his hands growing as large as Kulgan's own body, and wrapped his fingers around him.
“An inconsequential mistake,” the priest said again, “because either way, I have you.”
NEXT TIME: Excellent! Kulgan has infiltrated the villain’s lair, pissed off Clayface, and gotten himself captured. Everything is going… according to… plan?