The light faded from Kulgan’s eyes less than a second after Gestaul rammed the pendant into his heart. Gestaul watched with silent intensity. The soul contained in the pendant, a wolf hornet if he wasn’t mistaken, had overtaken the Ranger’s soul as if it were nothing but another piece of the prey it had hunted in life, smothering it and snuffing it out.
Despite its restraints, Kulgan’s body twitched and spasmed. A wave of worried voices rippled through the audience, and as one they all moved back. Gestaul smiled at their reaction, but otherwise ignored them. Kulgan’s spasms were getting more erratic, as if it were no longer just his body that was moving, but a dozen smaller creatures thrashing about inside his clothes.
With a rip, Kulgan’s insectile legs burst free of his clothing. Long, spindly, and each of them as long as the limb of a grown man, it was almost enough to make even Gestaul shiver—almost. Screams tore from the throats of more than one of the spectator’s though. Twisting was a nightmarish sight. It made Gestaul wish that he was human like them, so that he could witness the transformation in all its terror.
Kulgan’s stingered tail erupted from the base of his spine, forced downwards by the Shame so that it scratched the wooden platform beneath it. It was so sharp that it carved grooves into the boards like they were made of butter. The tatters of his pants fell to the ground. A series of pops and cracks signaled the reshaping of his bones beneath his skin as his human legs and arms withered away to match the new ones he had just grown.
Gestaul peered closer at him. Kulgan glared back, but there was nothing of the rebellious Gray Ranger left in those eyes. Only the bloodthirsty animal remained, erasing Kulgan from existence as it dragged itself back into the world of the living. Kulgan’s eyes grew, threatening to outgrow his skull until it expanded as well. They turned dark and shiny, like a million tiny mirrors, and his mouth split down the middle to become scissor-like mandibles.
In less than a minute, Kulgan was gone. In his place was the wolf hornet, furious and desperately struggling to escape its restraints. Gestaul watched as the pendant was slowly drawn further into its body, like a man sinking in quicksand. Soon nothing but the cord Kulgan had worn around his neck remained visible, hanging limply from the hornet’s chest. Its wings buzzed menacingly, as if it could fly out of the Shame, and the crowd backed up further. None of them had ever seen a wolf hornet. Their grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents probably had not seen a wolf hornet. They had been driven extinct not long after the Graylands themselves had been created. And yet, by Vashiil’s forbidden powers, one of those ancient terrors now stood before them in the flesh.
The black pendants truly were an amazing thing. Terrible and disgusting, yes, but fascinating nonetheless. It was a shame nobody else would ever understand that.
You and I were the same, Kulgan, he thought, watching the giant insect squirm. You saw the value in Vashiil’s power. You took it, thinking you could use it for good. You were wrong. I’m the only one who can do that, and even I’m not immune to its corruption. Still… I’m almost sorry that I have to kill you.
Almost. Right now, the voices in his head were too loud, too demanding. They wanted the Ranger’s pendant. Gestaul had dozens inside of him already, perhaps hundreds, and yet the hunger of the voices was never satisfied. In a way, he envied Kulgan. Every Twister heard voices. He imagined that they were the voices of Vashiil itself. But Kulgan’s agony was comforting compared to what Gestaul went through every waking moment of his life. There were some days where he wondered who he truly was. Was he still Gestaul? Were these thoughts really his own? Or had he been absorbed into the sea of voices, now nothing more than an extension of Vashiil itself? Those thoughts were some of the very few things that could frighten him anymore. If he could just—
“My children!” he said, spinning around to face the audience. “Now you see this creature as he truly is. Unmasked, exposed before the good followers of Embin! I shall not prolong his suffering, though.” He turned back to Kulgan and extended his hand. A guard scampered up onto the stage to hand him an axe, trying to stay as far away from the wolf hornet as possible.
Gestaul hefted the axe in both hands. It was a gigantic, bulky thing, passed down from ancient times when guns had not yet been invented, and yet he only held it in two hands for show. Had he wanted to, he could have swung it between two of his fingers with enough force to cleave Kulgan’s head from his shoulders.
“Wretched beast,” he said, “go back to your master. Return to Vashiila in the Gray—”
He didn’t get to finish because, at that moment, a bullet entered his brain from the back of his skull. The people cried out in terror as Gestaul pitched forward, his head striking one of the Final Shame’s arms, and landed face down on the stage.
Kio was on the move even before the echo of her gunshot had faded from the air. She scurried across the rooftop on bent knees, rifle clenched tightly in one hand, and didn’t stop until she was clear of the area she had taken the shot from. A quick glance told her Gestaul wasn’t moving. Not that she expected him to, having shot him in the head after all. The crowd was in a frenzy—again, not surprising. In fact, that was exactly what she wanted. Going to the edge of the roof, she leaped down, catching hold of a windowsill halfway to the ground, and then dropped the rest of the way. After holstering her rifle on her back, she charged straight into the crowd.
Just like she’d hoped, everyone was too busy trying to get out of there to notice a single person fighting to go the opposite direction. She wore her Ranger’s poncho and her gray hair was on full display, so if anyone did take notice of her, they’d assume she was a Gray Ranger going to help put the Twister down.
The guards, however, were a different story.
“Hey, you!” one of the black clad soldiers demanded when he saw her coming. “What do you think you’re—”
A raging torrent of water cut him off. It blasted from Kio’s palm hard enough to knock a horse off its hooves. She doubted the guard survived. She doubted she could bring herself to care, either, as the other guards all took aim at her. She whipped her hand from side to side, and every single one of them followed the first guard’s example before a single shot could be fired. The glowing blue veins in her arm began to dim, so she took her pendant and Pierced again, renewing her power.
She glanced at the pendant. The small Lisharum gem was beginning to go dim. After taking down the guards, and the ones on horseback from before, she maybe had enough left in it for two more attacks like the one she’d just used. She resisted the urge to let a jet of water carry her up to her husband, and instead climbed up the old fashioned way.
Once on top, she froze.
“Kulgan…” she whispered when she saw the raging monster chained to the cross. No, not Kulgan. She could tell by the hate-filled look in its eyes. That thing may have come out of Kulgan, but it was not her husband.
The wolf hornet buzzed angrily when it saw her. The Final Shame kept it from escaping, but its tail was still free to whip and thrash at anyone who came too close. In fact, upon closer inspection, it became obvious that the giant insect could easily escape its bonds if it calmed down enough to try. Its arms and legs were significantly thinner than Kulgan’s human ones, and could slip through the iron manacles with room to spare.
Now came the hard part. To her relief, she saw the pendant’s cord still sticking out of the hornet’s chest. If she could grab hold of that, she could tear it out of Kulgan’s chest. She wouldn’t have to cut in there to get it, which meant all his wounds would be inflicted by the pendant itself—and would then heal themselves. The problem was, she doubted the wolf hornet would let her close enough to do that. A single drop of the poison on that stinger was enough to kill a person, and the bug was swinging it around so wildly it would take a miracle to get close without being hit.
And the day Embin sends a miracle for a Twister is the day I wear a dress and behave myself, she thought.
She crouched down, watching the monster through narrowed eyes. To anyone else, its thrashings would have looked completely random. Only a Gray Ranger, whose eyes were trained to see the unseeable, could pick out the pattern. It was difficult even for her, though, but after a minute a plan began to form in her head. She should be able to run, dive, and yank the pendant out of his chest if she did it at just… the right…
Gasping, Kio spun around to see the Ashen Priest put his hands underneath him and raise himself up. His arms extended as he rose, putting him back on his feet without having to bend his knees. His neck twisted around so that he was looking at her, directly behind him. She saw the ravenous, predatory gleam of a Shapeless in those eyes, barely restrained behind a transparent wall of humanity. He turned the rest of his body around to match his head, and then opened his mouth.
Her bullet rolled off his tongue to fall onto to wooden platform below.
“D’yargo,” she whispered.
Brother Gestaul smiled. “I thought I was going to have to—”
For the second time, Kio interrupted him with a hail of lead. She practically twirled the rifle like a baton, reflecting the sunlight blindingly as she reloaded, fired, reloaded, fired. Gestaul twitched, as if the bullets were nothing more than bee stings. They punched a dozen holes in him, all black and gaping like the Pit itself, but not a single one of them bled. The last one went between his eyes, snapping his head backwards so far that it should have torn his neck open. Instead, his throat stretched with the movement.
“Now that is just rude!” he yelled, whipping his head upright again to look at her.
Kio took a step backwards. Any single one of those shots should have killed him, and yet he merely sounded offended that she had even tried. Even as she watched, the wounds closed themselves up. A dozen tiny bumps crawled up his chest and down his arms, like an army of bugs beneath his skin. Those bumps—her bullets—emerged from the tips of his fingers, falling to the ground in a shower of metal. Then he raised his hands and grew them to three times their normal size.
Kio’s eyes went wide and she took a step back. “She was telling the truth after all. You really are a Shapeless!”
Gestaul frowned. “You are a most unpleasant woman.”
Then he swung his arm faster than Kio would have believed possible, and swatted her off the stage. The wind whistled in Kio’s ears as she flew, and then landed hard on the cobblestone square nearly fifteen feet away from the platform. She let herself roll onto her back, picturing where the priest was in her mind’s eye, and when she came to a stop she fired another shot at him. He took this one without even flinching, and it passed straight through him like his body was made of putty.
“I thought that once I had executed your husband, I would have to hunt you down as well.” He unfastened the cord tying his priestly robes closed and shrugged it off, revealing the featureless gray body beneath. “How kind of you to come to me, instead.”
He lunged at her, and his torso stretched to cover the distance between him and her. His upper body melted into a bullet-shaped blob, and then split open to form a mouth filled with dozens of jagged teeth. Kio rolled out of the way with a yelp, just in time to keep from being chomped on when those jaws snapped closed with enough force to crack the cobblestones where she had just been. Eyes grew out of the side of the beastly head, more than Kio could count, and swiveled around to look at her. A pair of massive arms sprouted from the sides of Gestaul’s neck, itself as big as a human’s body, and hoisted itself back up. A big clod of dirt and cobblestone was wrenched free of the road, still clamped in Gestaul’s teeth, and a quick shake of his head sent it flying toward her.
Extending her hand, Kio let loose another jet of water, powerful enough to propel her out of harm’s way just before the stone crashed down, and then sprang back to her feet.
Keep calm, she told herself as Gestaul’s body slithered into itself on the street.
Her question answered itself when Gestaul exploded into a different shape, a four legged beast charging straight for her. She might have thought it was a wolf by its speed and lithe form, but the size was more like a bear and the shape was more like a nightmare. No fewer than five mouths gaped in its slate-gray body, each of them gnashing its teeth, looking for something to bite. For a split second, ice-cold panic flooded through Kio’s body. Yes, she had fought Shapeless before. Big ones, small ones, she’d fought them with a team and all on her own. They had all been mindless creatures, though, growing new limbs and flailing about aimlessly, relying on their lethal touch to kill their foes. Not this one. Gestaul, deranged though he might be, clearly had all his wits about him. He had all the powers of a Shapeless, and the discipline to control them.
The panic passed in a heartbeat, though, and she raised her rifle. Two quick shots blasted Gestaul’s feet out from under him, and he fell, skidding across the street. Kio dove out of the way again as he went sliding past her—but was jerked to a stop.
A brand new arm had grown from Gestaul’s side, and was wrapped around her ankle.
D’yargo, she had time to think before she was whipped back up into the air. Gestaul released her, flinging her across the entire length of the courtyard before she slammed back into the ground. Pain flared in her body. She didn’t have time to feel it, though, because Gestaul was already upon her again. A gaping maw full of sharp gray teeth bore down on her, and she desperately thrust her gun up at it. The barrel slid into its throat, and Gestaul instinctively bit down on it. His teeth gouged holes in the metal, but the gun managed to hold it at bay for the moment. Kio’s skin crawled when she saw a second head begin to emerge from the beast’s shoulder, and did the only thing she could think to do: she pulled the trigger.
Gestaul’s first head exploded in a fountain of gore. Chunks of gray skin, bone, and muscle rained down on them from above, already withering away like Kulgan’s extra body parts did after he Twisted. Kio knew by now that Gestaul wasn’t dead, but it still seemed to stun him, and she used the opportunity to get up and put some distance between them.
“D’yargo rock,” she muttered, looking down at the dimly glowing blue gem around her neck. Not for the first time, she wished she had been given a Wurstramite pendant instead. The water powers granted by Lishara were enough to wash away even the most stubborn of the Grayland’s monsters, but against something like Gestaul it was next to useless. If she’d been a Scorcher like Kulgan, she could light Gestaul on fire and be done with it.
There was no point in dwelling on that, though. Gray Rangers used what they had, no matter what it was. Taking the pendant in one hand, she Pierced her other arm with it, letting the blue moon’s power rush into her body. The light in the gem went out entirely, powerless now until Lishara shone on it again. Lishara’s energy was like a river raging inside her veins, devastatingly powerful yet agile and flexible.
Kulgan had used those same words to describe her…
Clenching her fist around the lightless stone, she faced Gestaul as he finally regrew the head she had blown off. The priest, still in his bestial, four legged form, snarled at her and pounced. Its leap carried it thirty feet across the courtyard.
Kio’s pillar of water launched it forty feet into the sky.
Gestaul’s howl of rage could be heard all the way from the ground. Kio grinned. Then, pulling her arm behind her back, she thrust it upwards, sending a second pillar of water up toward the plummeting priest at an angle. This one solidified into ice at the last second, striking Gestaul with the force of ten speeding horses. With a howl of rage, he went flying across Embraus like the world’s ugliest bird before crashing through the roof of some poor sap’s house several streets away.
Kio pumped her fist in victory as the last of the blue light faded from her veins. The smile fell from her lips when she turned to look at the monster chained up on the stage, though.
She sighed. “Let’s get it over with, then.”
Marching back up onto the wooden platform, she stared down the wolf hornet. The giant bug thrashed its tail around some more, as if begging her to come closer and give it something to sting. The thrumming of its wings was like distant thunder, and the look in its eyes was pure hatred. It wasn’t for no reason that the wolf hornets had been hunted to extinction almost two thousand years ago. That thing may have been her husband until a few minutes ago, but Kio held no doubts that it would happily tear her to pieces if she gave it half the chance.
“All right, listen up,” she said, her voice low. “I’m here to see my husband, and I’m pretty d’yargo mad at him.”
The wolf hornet buzzed.
She pointed at it. “You’re not my husband, but you’re standing where he should be.”
It buzzed again, but paused when she took a step closer.
“This is the second time my husband has abandoned me and left me tied up in my own house. Last time, I left my entire life behind to stay with him. Last time, he made me kill two of our closest friends. Last time, he left me to grieve for our unborn son alone. This time,” her voice began to grow louder with every word, “I intend to make the lousy, crap eating puken pay for everything he’s done to me!”
She still gripped her rifle white knuckled in her fist, but she holstered it over her shoulder as she took another step closer to the wolf hornet.
“I don’t see my husband anywhere,” she told it. “So if you don’t make yourself scarce and bring him back, I’m just going to have to punish you instead.”
The hornet, obviously used to being the scariest thing around, overcame its surprise at her third step and lashed out at her with its stingered tail—and Kio stomped down on it as hard as she could. The tail was suddenly pinned to the floor beneath her boot, and no matter how hardly the wolf hornet tried, it couldn’t do more than twitch it. A trail of slimy green blood leaked out of it, and Kio ground her heel even further in.
“You see that?” she muttered. “You feel it? That’s just a fraction of what I’m going to do to Kulgan. So if you’ve got even two brain cells to rub together in that ugly head of yours…”
She leaned forward, grabbed hold of the cord, and pulled with all her might.
“You’ll get the Pit out of here before I really get mad!”
The Vashiila pendant came free with a sickening pop, spraying green blood and bits of exoskeleton everywhere. The wolf hornet opened its pincers in a silent scream, its wings beating uselessly. It thrashed, its body already convulsing, but Kio didn’t move an inch. Soon, the tail on which she stood began to flatten under her foot, like a balloon loosing air, its muscles liquefying and leaking all over the stage before decaying. Its wings went next, crumbling to dust, and its flapping only hastened their disappearance. The rest of its body followed suit, some parts of it falling off and withering away, others widening, thinning, whatever it took to get them back to their original shape until…
With a gasp, Kulgan drew his first human breath just as the gaping wound in his chest closed up on itself, and then he sagged in the Final Shame, unconscious. Kio stepped up to him and cupped his cheek.
“Welcome back, you lousy puken,” she said quietly.
NEXT TIME: D’aww, that’s sweet! Relationship goals, amirite? Hopefully now they can get out of the city alive so that all those warm, fuzzy feelings don’t go to waste. Shouldn’t be too hard, now that Gestaul is out of the picture. Because he is out of the picture… obviously… right?