Kulgan didn't stay in his cell for long. Almost as soon as Adlis had been ejected from the abbey, Brother Gestaul returned for him, clothed in one of his black robes. The two of them were alone now, the guards having been sent elsewhere to see to some meaningless task, and Gestaul had lit some more torches. His too-large shadow seemed to be dancing in glee in the flickering light, first here, then over there, and sometimes even disappearing completely. He raised slender hand and ran a finger down the iron bars.
“This won't hold you for an hour, will it?” he asked idly, a small, smug smile on his face. “Why don't we find you some more suitable accommodations, little Twister?”
Kulgan didn't say anything, but Gestaul was right. This dungeon was a place for people who had already been broken, whether physically or mentally. The locks were thin, the hinges rusted, and the spaces between the bars more than big enough for a full grown man to stick his arm through. You didn't need to be a Gray Ranger to escape it, you just needed a bit of muscle and a brain between your ears—perhaps not even both. Even if it had been more properly constructed, it wouldn't do much good against a Ranger. If Kulgan wanted, he could have been free of any cell within a matter of minutes. The jail in Everdry had been proof enough of that. And speaking of which...
Kulgan resisted the urge to touch it, but he could still feel his pendant pressed against his skin underneath his shirt. That, more than anything, caught him off guard. Gestaul had to know he had it, so why let him keep it? That was like throwing a known criminal in jail, but letting him keep his guns. In fact, Zam and Zagyr were still holstered at his waist. Even Adlis could have escaped like this.
Of course, Kulgan had no intention of escaping. Maybe that was why. Adlis had said Gestaul could read people's minds, see their memories, and he believed it even if he didn't know how they did it. Could the priest see far enough into him to know just how tired Kulgan was? He was finished. Adlis was free, even if her ears were still cursed. Kio was probably still tied up in bed, safe and sound, and even if she had already managed to break free he had given her a false trail to follow. She might hate him—in fact he hoped she did—but at least she was safe from him.
This was as good as things would ever get for someone like him. He could at least feel some small amount of satisfaction for that. And because of that, he was content to stay right here.
Gestaul raised his finger and reshaped the bones to make the key, just like he had for the gate into the monastery, and unlocked the cell. Kulgan didn't move an inch, but the priest still didn't waste any time in enlarging his hand and wrapping it around Kulgan. A tingle ran down his spine when Gestaul's flesh touched his own. It was slightly irritating, but nowhere near as mind numbingly horrible as Adlis had described. With that, he yanked Kulgan out of his cell and dragged him across the room. The rough cave floor bumped and scraped at him, but Kulgan didn't offer a word in complaint. It would all be over soon one way or another.
“Here we are,” he heard Gestaul say, and then the priest's hand raised him up off the ground and slammed him bodily into something on the wall. Kulgan didn't need to look to know what it was. Two beams of wood nailed together in an X-shape, with a series of metal clamps big and small running up and down each of them. With one massive hand Gestaul held him in place, and his other arm grew a second forearm at the elbow. With those two hands he spread Kulgan's arms, and then his legs. Another two arms burst from his chest, and those two set about fastening all the clamps. Through it all, Kulgan couldn't help but watch, amazed.
“You really are a Shapeless,” he said.
Gestaul paused, frowning. “I am no such thing, Twister. I am a priest, and a humble servant of Embin.”
“But your body...”
“The Shapeless,” Gestaul yelled, his temper suddenly spiking, “are monstrosities of Vashiil. I am no… such… thing!”
He turned angry gray eyes on Kulgan, expecting him to cower in fear. No such luck. Kulgan knew good and well he wasn't getting out of this alive, so there was no reason not to push the Ashen Priest's buttons a little more.
“Then how?” he asked.
“That is of no concern to he who has turned his back on all that is natural,” Gestaul said. He took a step back, and smiled in satisfaction.
What Kulgan now hung from was called the Final Shame. A band of cold iron was wrapped around every joint in his body, no matter how small. Even his fingers were held at the knuckles by three tiny ring-sized manacles. Only the most dangerous of evil doers were held in them. It was one of the few things on Haroz that could safely contain a Gray Ranger.
Gestaul stepped forward again, an eager gleam in his eye as he steepled his fingers. “Now,” he said, “it's your turn to answer my questions.”
Brother Gestaul drew closer to Kulgan, his flowing robes making him look like he was slithering across the floor. For all Kulgan knew, maybe he had grown a snake's tail underneath it. The priest raised his hands and grabbed Kulgan's head with them. The tingle ran through his skull, and he shivered.
“What are you doing?” he demanded.
“The fact that you are a Twister is indisputable, so a trial would be but a formality,” Gestaul admitted. “But it is a legal formality, so have one we must.”
The room began to grow dark, and the tingle in Kulgan's skull grew stronger. A strange feeling began to come over him—strange, yet familiar. It was the same feeling he would get whenever he Pierced with his Vashiila pendant, the same feeling of sludge flowing through his veins.
“Y- You're...” He struggled to speak, finding his mouth reluctant to obey. “In... my...”
“Yes,” Gestaul said inside his mind, as if his thoughts were thinking themselves. “I am inside your soul.”
For the first time, a barb of panic stabbed into Kulgan's heart, and he thrashed against his restraints—or rather, he would have if he could still move. All his motor skills were gone, and he could barely even feel his body anymore. He floated in the sea of endless darkness behind his eyelids. Gestaul was in there with him, even though he couldn't see the priest, and that only made things worse.
“Let's see,” Gestaul said, his mocking voice like needles in Kulgan's spine. “Why don't you show me how you first became a Twister?”
A tunnel of swirling colors appeared, and they washed over him, driving away the darkness in a barrage of rainbow light. If Kulgan's eyes hadn't already been closed, he would have clamped them shut. Instead, he was forced to watch as he was pulled through the colorful vortex, onwards and onwards until...
There came a flash, and when Kulgan looked around he found the multitude of colors replaced with a single color: gray.
D'yargo! he thought.
“Ah,” Gestaul said, his voice coming from everywhere, yet nowhere. “Judging by that reaction, I'd say we've arrived.”
The vision was taken directly from Kulgan's memory, so naturally everything he saw was what he had seen through his own eyes that fateful day. He sat cross legged, back hunched forward while he stared at something in his hand. It was black, and his shadow fell over it so that it was difficult to see, but Kulgan already knew what it was.
“That's it, I've found one,” he could hear his past self thinking. “And it's... it's got a soul in it and everything.”
The present day Kulgan's stomach turned over inside of him. He wanted to look away, throw it away, but this was only a memory. It had already happened. There was nothing he could do but watch as history repeated itself right before his eyes.
“T- Turn it off,” he demanded. “I don't want to see this!”
Gestaul chuckled. “Consider this the first part of your punishment, then.”
Kulgan could remember the flutter of anticipation in his chest the day he'd found the Vashiila shard. He had been out tracking a pack of shiskels to make sure they weren't getting close to any of the gates. He had been volunteering for every such mission for over a month now. His officers assumed he was showing initiative, planning to climb the ranks as quickly as possible, and had been happy to assign him any amount of work he wanted, provided he could complete it to their satisfaction. And complete it he did, but that wasn't the reason he wanted to return to the Graylands as often as possible. Scouting missions sent the Ranger out alone, unsupervised. Many of his brothers and sisters called them suicide missions, and they did so only half jokingly. Still, Kulgan had proven himself capable of surviving on his own, even in the Graylands, and the solitude afforded him plenty of time to work on his own mission.
The results of which now sat in the palm of his hand.
“This can change everything,” the younger, stupider Kulgan thought, wrapping his fist around the vile stone in excitement. “And I'm going to be the one to change it!”
The shard was only that: a shard. Picked up off the ground, only the oily black surface differentiated it from any rock you might find in the real world. It wouldn't have its point until a week later, after Kulgan had chiseled it down. Even so, there was an edge to the rock that, while nowhere near as sharp as a blade, could still cut skin if the person holding it was careless.
Or, in Kulgan's case, stupid.
I- I wonder what kind of soul's been trapped in there, Younger Kulgan thought.
“No, don't!” Kulgan screamed at his younger self. It wasn't too late. Touching Vashiila was discouraged, but not forbidden. You couldn't take two steps in the Graylands without finding it underfoot, after all. No, it only became a sin, the ultimate sin, when it Pierced your flesh. And as older Kulgan watched, younger Kulgan brought his hand to the sharp edge preparing to do just that.
Maybe I could just...
The hand hesitated. Kulgan's heart was pounding in his chest as he silently begged for the memory to change, to not go where he knew it would.
What if they find out? younger Kulgan thought. I'll be... they'll hunt me down and kill me for sure.
“Then throw it away, you idiot!” Kulgan screamed.
Younger Kulgan leaned over a little bit further, and another pendant slipped free of his shirt. This one was already sharpened to a point, and glowed blindingly red in its bleak gray surroundings. Wustramite. When Kulgan had been a real Ranger, before any of this had started, he had been a Scorcher. For a split second, Kulgan remembered the way it had felt to Pierce with Wustramite. It had been fire in his veins, and fire was power. It had felt so much better than the sludgy, swampy feeling of Vashiila creeping through his body. A day didn't go by that he didn't wish he had his old pendant back, convinced that Wurstram’s mighty fire would be enough to purge his body of Vashiil's toxic influence.
It hadn't been enough. He saw all that unclaimed Vashiila, knew what power it offered. Power that, if the other Rangers were too afraid to touch, could be his alone. The fact that those stones had come from Vashiil, enemy to Embin and all of Haroz, meant little to him. Oh, no doubt that the black moon was evil incarnate. But surely those shards and scraps, small enough to fit in the palm of his hand, couldn't each be considered equal to Vashiil as a whole, could they?
That wasn't to say he intended to abandon the Gray Rangers. Far from it. He intended to change them. All this power, just lying around, waiting to be used. Vashiil obviously thought it was spreading a curse, and everyone else in Haroz was more than happy to agree, but Kulgan saw it a different way. Why not use it to their advantage? The power to transform into a completely different creature, to take on a brand new body and the strengths it possessed... if used to its true potential, it could be more powerful than any of the other four moon's shards.
But if it didn't work, he would lose everything. The Gray Family was the only family he'd ever known, patrolling the Graylands the only life he'd ever wanted. And Kio... only his wife for two months. If he was found out, how would he be able to stand the way she would undoubtedly look at him? Her eyes full of disgust and betrayal...
And yet, the younger Kulgan still didn't throw the wretched stone away.
“It's worth the risk,” he told himself. “Once I learn how to control it, I'll show it to the others and they'll see. And if they don't, then... then...”
He couldn't finish that sentence. He knew good and well what would happen if they refused to see things his way. Some small, nagging part of his brain told him they would refuse, and he was signing his life and soul away just by holding the accursed rock. He felt like he should listen to that voice, but the longer he held the Vashiila stone the more he became aware of another voice speaking in his head. Voices. Ones he had never heard before, but were becoming clearer and clearer with every passing minute.
DO IT. PIERCE. TWIST. CHANGE. TWIST. INVITE ME. ACCEPT ME. TWIST. TWIST!
The older Kulgan clenched his teeth as his younger self raised the stone and turned it so the sharp edge was facing the wrist of his left arm. He couldn't Pierce with it, not until it'd been sharpened, but a cut... a cut should have the same effect, right?
With a swift motion, he swung the stone, slicing through his skin like a knife through water.
The scene went black. Kulgan hovered in darkness again, breathing hard.
“All right,” he shouted into the blackness. “You saw what you wanted, now get out of my head!”
Gestaul's voice chuckled. “But there is more you have to tell me, Twister.”
“You have your proof!” Kulgan yelled.
“For instance,” Gestaul went on as if he hadn't been interrupted, “you're wife?”
Kulgan froze, his face in the real world turning as pale as Adlis' ears.
“If you so much as lay a finger on her,” he growled, “I will send you to the Pit myself!”
Gestaul burst out laughing, the sound so loud that Kulgan flinched. “At last, a bit of fire in you! Unfortunately, you're in no position to be making threats. Now let's see...”
The swirling rainbow vortex returned, sucking Kulgan into his past once again. He hurtled through at such a high speed that, even if it was just in his mind, he was convinced his flesh was going to be torn from his bones. The colors vanished just as quickly as they'd come—but Kulgan was still falling.
He hit the gray, razor sharp ground, rolling and sliding down the slope as the shale tore apart his clothes and skin alike. A brightly colored kashnila tumbled past him, cawing in pain and fear, but the younger Kulgan wasn't in any state to care. He came to a stop a few seconds later, his body coursing with pain and his head spinning.
The sounds of battle were coming from up above. Rolling over, Kulgan could see three other people at the top of the hill—
“Stop!” the present day Kulgan screamed.
—their kashnilas forming a triangle around a gray blob of flesh that, even as Kulgan watched, rose up and lunged at one of the riders. The Ranger, a zik, raised its hand and a bolt of lightning shot out of it, striking the Shapeless dead on. The monstrous blob—
“Turn it off!”
—lurched back, retreating, and sank into itself until it became a quivering ball. Then, as if already forgetting what it had been afraid of, it lashed out at another of the three riders. A tentacle of flesh shot from its body, and a Kashni's head formed at the end. Teeth sprouted in its mouth, snapping as it came for the dark skinned woman sitting bravely atop her lizard. She, too, raised her hand and—
—a torrent of water blasted from her fingertips. It collided with the Shapeless, and, though it didn't physically harm it, the creature was still pushed backwards by the force. It began to slide down the slope as well before a dozen arms bust from its fleshy body, scrabbling for something to hold onto.
“Is Kulgan all right?” one of the ziks asked.
“Kio, go check on him!” the other one ordered.
“To the Pit with that,” Kio said, stabbing her Lisharum pendant into her arm to recharge her powers. “Not until we take care of this thing!”
The Shapeless howled in rage and began to pull itself back up. It was hungry—Shapeless were always hungry—and there was food right there in front of it. The only thought going through its head, if such a monstrosity was even capable of thinking, was to get to the food and devour it. This time its sights landed on Kio.
“K- Kio!” Younger Kulgan tried to yell, but his head was too addled from the fall. In his half-conscious state, the only thing his brain was able to process was that his wife was in danger. It never even occurred to him that the other three were all skilled Gray Rangers as well and could undoubtedly take care of the Shapeless themselves. He had to save Kio. His hand reached up toward his neck to grab his Wurstram pendant. Fire was the Shapeless' greatest weakness. Their boneless fleshy bodies were highly flammable, and the smallest tongue of flame could light the entire creature up in seconds. While the other three moons' powers were certainly enough to defeat them, fire was by far the most effective way of doing it.
To his own surprise, though, his hand didn't go for his Wustramite pendant.
It grabbed the Vashiila one.
Younger Kulgan had long since chiseled it down to a more suitable point, and he had practiced with it every chance he got. He was getting more confident, even if the strange voices egging him on never seemed to go away. In fact, if anything they were getting louder.
PIERCE. TWIST. STAB IT IN. CHANGE. TWIST!
This was the perfect opportunity, he realized through thoughts that were only half his own. He would Twist, fly up there with wings and a stinger as sharp as a sword, and take out the Shapeless all on his own. Then Kio, Zam, and Zagyr would all go back to—
“No, shut up!” Kulgan yelled.
—base and tell everyone how amazing he had been. The other Rangers would see how useful Vashiila could be. They would start letting—FORCING!—everyone to use it. Kulgan would—
“That's not how it works, you idiot!”
—be a hero. Almost unconsciously, he raised the black pendant—
—and drove it into his arm.
Wings and a tail erupted from younger Kulgan's back just as the three Rangers up above finished off the Shapeless. Kio froze it in a block of ice and Zam used his Jaminskite pendant to blow it away in a powerful gust of wind, flinging out into the distance until it became a black speck in the gray sky, and then disappeared entirely. Kulgan blinked in surprise. He was too late.
But he was still Twisted!
“Kulgan?” Kio called, turning back toward the slope he had fallen down. “You alive down there?”
Younger Kulgan's eyes widened with terror. Immediately, all of his pride and confidence leaked down his pant leg.
“No, no, no, no!” he whispered, frantically crawling backwards. He couldn't let her see him. Not with his body like this. Not now! His wings and tail twitched anxiously, as if eager to betray him. There was nowhere for him to go, though. His kashnila lay at the bottom of the gorge, either dead or unconscious, and there were no caves or crevices to hide in. What was he going to...
Kio's head popped over the edge of the hill he had tumbled down. Kulgan froze.
“There you are!” she called down to him. “Why didn't you say anything? You all right?”
She didn't react to his wings and tail. She must not be able to see them from up there, he realized.
“I- I'm fine,” he managed to call back, though his voice was shaking so much he doubted she could understand him. “J- J- Just got banged up a little.”
“Your lizard's dead,” his wife remarked wryly. “Guess you'll have to share Piskin with me. Hold on, I'll—”
“DON'T COME DOWN HERE!”
Kio paused, halfway off her kashnila.
“D- Don't come down here!” he said again. "I think there's raw Vashiila down here!”
“There's raw Vashiila everywhere, you dumb puken,” she replied. “Hold on, I'll be there in a second.”
“No, no, don't! Kio, don't...”
She ignored him, as she always did, and hopped down off of Piskin's back. After tugging her gloves on to make sure she didn't accidentally put her hand down on any raw Vashiila, she ventured down into the gully toward her husband.
A pit formed in Kulgan's stomach. He wasn't going to get out of this, was he? This must be an act of Embin, righteous retribution for daring to Pierce with the forbidden moon. He clenched a fist. His gun was still holstered at his waist. Maybe if he put a bullet in his head right now, he wouldn't have to see Kio's face when she...
“Why are you still laying there?” the dark skinned Ranger asked, finally reaching him. “Did you break your...”
She froze, just as Kulgan knew she would.
Oh, holy Embin!” she whispered.
Kulgan looked down at the ground, hot tears running down his cheeks. “Kio, I'm sorry,” he sobbed. “I'm so... so sorry!”
The modern day Kulgan knew his own cheeks in the real world were probably moist as well. He hated this memory. It physically hurt him to relive this day. His last day as a Gray Ranger, as a person at all.
At that moment, he made a decision. He wanted to see Kio one last time. No matter how she was looking at him, no matter the terror in her eyes, he wanted to see her. The younger Kulgan raised his head to look at his beautiful wife...
And everything froze.
“Perfect,” Gestaul crooned. “Excellent!”
The images vanished, taking Kio with them and leaving Kulgan in the sea of darkness yet again. That didn't last long, though, because within seconds another light appeared. Not a memory this time, it was his eyes opening.
“You... Pitting... puken!” Kulgan groaned as he came out of his stupor. Gestaul was only now just removing his hands from Kulgan's head.
“Perfect,” the priest said again, looking extremely pleased with himself. “Now I have a face!”
Kulgan jerked in his restraints, but true to their purpose he couldn't move an inch. “If you so much as look at her, you unnatural, Shapeless—”
Gestaul's hand whipped around faster than Kulgan could see it, and his knuckles collided with the side of Kulgan's face so hard that lights exploded in his eyes. He slumped forward, dazed.
“You will not call me that,” Gestaul said, examining the back of his hand. There was a small cut on his knuckles, but even as Kulgan watched the gray skin stitched itself back together. “Anyway, it doesn't matter. Once I am finished with you, I will seek her out and she will share your fate.”
The scream that tore from Kulgan's throat did not sound human. Brother Gestaul merely smiled at it.
“I can think of very few things that are more horrid than sleeping with a Twister.” The priest paused, and shuddered visibly. “Imagine, allowing something so demented to enter your body...”
“You d'yargo hypocrite!” Kulgan yelled. His face was scarlet, and spittle flew across the distance between them to land on Gestaul's robes. “Look at you! You're no better than I am!”
Gestaul folded his hands patiently. “Regardless of what you think, your part in this ends tomorrow.”
Kulgan stopped struggling.
Gestaul turned with a dramatic sweep of his black robes. “Tomorrow you will be brought to Embraus so that all of Embin's children may witness what happens to those who rebel against the Organizer.”
And with that, Brother Gestaul left, slamming the heavy wooden door behind him and leaving Kulgan all alone.
NEXT TIME: It’s here, it’s the future, it’s… KULG-O-VISION! Now airing only the most depressing stories on planet Haroz! Get yours today from your local place of hell incarnate. KULG-O-VISION!