Adlis peeked her head over the top of the wagon as Kio dragged her unconscious husband across the courtyard.
“Come on, hurry!” she urged them. The area had been cleared of guards for now, but it wouldn’t be long before it was crawling with their reinforcements. That, and she didn’t believe for a second that Brother Gestaul was finished with them.
“Keep your dress on,” Kio snapped. Kulgan was beginning to wake up, and she set him down against a wall and opened the hatch in the back of the wagon to climb in. It was box shaped, covered on all sides, and was painted black as a hearse. Each of the walls were attached to the base with hinges, which Kio had been excited to find.
“It’s a military wagon,” was all she would say when Adlis had asked why.
She also hadn’t explained when she’d sent Adlis and Za to get saddles for the two horses pulling it.
“Wha…” Kulgan groaned, shaking his head. “Whass goin’... Kio?”
“That’s right, you filthy puken,” the ebony skinned Ranger snapped, hopping back out with a bundle of clothes in her arms. “Thought you got rid of me, didn’t you? Now get dressed!”
She threw the clothes at Kulgan, hitting him in the face, and he sat up straight, blinking.
“I… What’s going on? Where am I?” He looked down at himself. “And why the Pit am I naked?”
“Not the time nor the place, hon.” Kio climbed nimbly on top of the wagon and made her way to the driver’s seat. “Out of the way, you two. I’m driving!”
Kulgan looked up. “You two… you brought Adlis and Za with you?”
Adlis looked over the top of the wagon again, grinning smugly. “Actually, we brought her!”
Kulgan stared at her in shock, but then shook his head. “I’m going to skin you both later. For now, get us out of here, Kio!”
“With pleasure.” Kio cracked the reins, and—
“Hey, wait until I’m in the wagon, will you?”
Adlis watched as Kulgan, still naked, sprinted to catch up and leap into the back, slamming the door shut behind him. Kio sniggered.
“Don’t look at me like that,” she snapped when Adlis glanced at her. “He deserves it after what he put me through.”
Gestaul groaned from three mouths as lucidity returned to him. The first thing he noticed upon waking up was that he was in pain. It had been so long since he’d felt it that the sensation was almost alien to him. When one could change their form at will, even going into a near-liquid state, bodily harm was not something one needed worry about. Whatever wounds he took, he could heal in an instant just by replacing the injured body part with an uninjured one.
Pain. He had almost forgotten what it felt like. He had almost forgotten how much he hated it.
He opened his eyes. He had at least seven of them, and all together he was able to get a good look at his surroundings without moving a muscle. It was mostly dark, with a sizeable hole above him letting in the light. He was in someone’s attic.
Gestaul had no discernable shape. That tended to happen on the rare occasion that he slept. Without his conscious effort to maintain a single form, his body would melt and spread itself out however it wanted. He had to make sure he was alone when he rested, because it wasn’t uncommon for him to unconsciously snag some unfortunate bystander and consume them like a common Shapeless. He despised that, and so slept as little as possible. He wasn’t a Shapeless. He wasn’t.
Slowly, he gathered himself up, taking on his human form again. The pain didn’t go away. There were splinters in his body from when he’d crashed through the roof, frostbite where that witch had struck him with her pillar of ice, and a sorely bruised ego. Kulgan had gotten away. He didn’t need to go back to the execution site to know that. The woman had been his wife, the one Gestaul had seen in the Twister’s memories. She could only have come for one reason.
They had gotten away. Both of them. Gestaul had never let his prey escape him before, and it was… infuriating. Claws sprouted from his fingertips, gouging holes in the floor beneath him. The pain, the humiliation, it was too much. He began to breathe heavier, and his thoughts began to think on their own.
“No,” he moaned, putting his head in his hands. After all these years of keeping them subdued, of keeping it buried deep inside him… not now...
But despite his efforts to push the voices of Vashiil back where he could ignore them, the Black Moon’s influence rose up within him, feeding on his anger and his pain.
The voices were getting louder, drowning out his own thoughts. To his horror, he found himself listening to them.
“Yes,” he whispered, a smile rising to his face at the images Vashiil put into his head.
What little struggle Gestaul still put up was meaningless. He was fading the same way Kulgan had faded when he’d stabbed his pendant through his heart.
“Yes,” he said again, more loudly this time. “Yes!”
Kulgan and his wench hadn’t gotten away. And they never would. He would chase them, hunt them down, devour them all and anyone who got into his way.
Smiling wide enough to split a normal man’s face, Gestaul sprang to his feet… and grew.
The wagon trundled through Embraus as fast as Kio dared make it go. The streets were packed with people wondering what was going on in the execution court but too afraid to go look. Going any faster would have drawn too much attention to the fact that the military wagon was heading away from the chaos, and the risk of running people over would only make it worse.
“You shouldn’t be here!” Kulgan insisted from inside the wagon. There was a tiny window near the front, and his eyes appeared behind it, glaring at them. “Do you think I turned myself in just so you could come straight back and—”
His voice faded away when a bloodcurdling sound echoed through the city. It began sounding like a human, but quickly devolved into something much more savage. Beastial. A flock of birds nearly thick enough to black out the sun took to the air, startled from their rooftop perches. It was the sound of a hundred voices all crying out at once. Adlis had heard it before, in the Graylands...
“Kio,” Kulgan said slowly, “what did you do to Gestaul?”
Kio’s cheeks colored slightly. “I might have, you know, thrown him across Embraus.”
“Oh, wonderful! We’re all dead.”
A rumble came from somewhere behind them, followed by cries of horror from the townspeople. Adlis, Kio, and Za exchanged glances, and then, heedless of the pedestrians, Kio snapped the reins, spurring the horses into a gallop. People jumped out of the way, just barely missing being run over as they sped through the city streets. The wagon bounced erratically on the cobblestones, and Adlis could hear Kulgan cursing as he struggled to keep his balance.
“Miss Adlis,” Za whimpered, “there’s somethin’ comin’ after us. Somethin’ big.”
Before Adlis could ask him how big, the ground beneath them shook. The wagon jumped. People screamed. With her ears turning white, Adlis turned around in her seat to look. At first everything looked normal…
And then the building behind them exploded.
Stone, timber, dust, and people were blown everywhere, and charging through the middle of it all was the most nightmarish thing Adlis had ever laid eyes on. At least fifty feet tall, it walked on four legs with claws and teeth sprouting from every conceivable angle. The grayness of its skin stole away any doubts of what—of who—it truly was. The ground rumbled with every step as it came for the tiny wagon, its claws gouging holes straight through the cobblestone. It rent the air with its cry. Adlis had to cover her ears.
“Kio? Kio, drive faster!” Kulgan yelled from inside.
Gestaul raised one of his monstrous arms just as Kio snapped the reins, and it came down mere feet behind them. The shockwave was enough to make the buildings on both sides of it shake.
Kulgan sounded genuinely worried now. “Kio…”
“We’re almost out, just hang on!” she promised him.
Adlis looked ahead, and saw the city gates less than half a mile in front of them. Her heart leaped in her chest for half a second, but immediately fell into her stomach when Gestaul’s foot came down again, this time close enough that Kio had to drive the wagon between his toes. Another crash immediately followed as he snapped his jaws closed just behind them.
“He’s not going to stop just because we get out of the city,” Kulgan said. “What’s the plan? Please tell me you have a plan?”
“Of course I have a plan, you stupid puken!” Kio snapped back. She sounded more annoyed than afraid. “Did you bother to look at the present I got you?”
“Present? What…” Kulgan paused. “Oh, honey, you shouldn’t have!”
Kio cackled, swerving the wagon around to avoid Gestaul’s arm as it crashed down in front of them. “Just wait till we’re out of Embraus to use it!”
How can they be so calm? Adlis asked. Her ears were as white as snow, almost to the point of glowing in the dark. Gestaul roared again, making the fur on the back of her neck stand up.
Kulgan wasn’t the only one who wanted to know what Kio’s plan was, but Adlis knew this wasn’t the right time to ask. Still, she was cracking the horses’ reins every other step, as if she were convinced that safety lay just on the other side of the gate. Gestaul stayed behind them the entire time, thrashing his massive limbs around trying to crush them. It soon became apparent to the zik maiden that the only reason they were still alive was because the monstrous priest’s movements were clumsy. Though he was succeeding in causing mass destruction everywhere he went, Gestaul was stumbling and tripping over himself, as if he didn’t know how to properly use his body. That gave her some small amount of hope, until she remembered that he could change himself to look however he wanted.
He doesn’t even care that he’s destroying the city, she thought as she watched him sweep his arm out in front of him, turning an entire row of buildings into rubble. People screamed. Smoke filled the air. What the Pit was happening? She knew that Gestaul, somehow, was a Shapeless, though she couldn’t imagine how he had come about those powers without losing his mind like the ones in the Graylands. There was only one thing about this that was clear as day to her: whatever was keeping the priest sane had stopped working. They may as well have been facing a real Shapeless for all the restraint and rationality she could see in the eyes of the monster behind them.
The wagon rocketed out of the city gates. Their horses were wide eyed and foaming at the mouth, and no matter how much Kio tried to steer them they ignored her. It was just as well, because all that mattered was that they get as far from Embraus as possible in as little time as possible.
With a roar of frustration, Gestaul reached the gate as well, plowing straight through it as if it were made of sand. There he stopped, watching the wagon get smaller as it raced down the dirt road, and for a second Adlis let herself hope that the mad priest had given up. Then he started after them again, his body warping and contorting with every step.
“He’s still comin’,” Za warned them.
“Get ready, Kulgan!” Kio yelled.
“Do I get to use it now?” Kulgan’s mood seemed to have improved greatly at the sight of whatever was in the wagon with him.
“Wait till I give the signal!”
Gestaul had shrunk to less than ten times his previous size, his body rearranging itself to be sleeker, swifter. The thing that chased the wagon now almost looked like a giant cat, if not for the human face growing from its neck. Gestaul grinned wickedly as he closed the distance between him and the wagon, loping along at speeds Adlis could barely believe possible. The horses were running as hard as their legs could carry them, the landscape a blur as it flew by, and yet he was still coming up fast.
“Are you ready?” Kio asked when he was only twenty feet behind them.
“Been ready!” was his answer.
Kio craned her neck around, watching. “Wait… Wait… now!”
Adlis heard something unlatch, and the walls and roof of the wagon immediately fell away, revealing Kulgan sitting behind a…
Oh, no, Adlis thought.
“Surprise!” Kulgan yelled, gleefully turning the crank of his gatling gun. Adlis clapped her hands over her ears as a series of deafening explosions came from the big metal cylinder, so close together that she almost couldn’t tell one from the other. More bullets than she could count sprayed from the tip amidst sparks of light just as Gestaul pounced at the wagon. Some of them missed, but most of them found their mark, and he was thrown back the way he’d come. Even then, as Gestaul rolled and skidding in the dirt, Kulgan kept firing, making his body twitch as it was filled with lead. He didn’t stop until they crested a hill and lost sight of him.
“Do you like it?” Kio asked over her shoulder.
“Have I ever told you how much I love you?”
She smiled. “Well, don’t forget to share later.”
Adlis looked from one of them to the other, and then shook her head. These two really are perfect for each other.
“So, what’s the—oop,” Kulgan spun back around as Gestaul’s roar rang out from the other side of the hill again.
The priest came bounding over the hill, and Kulgan opened fire again. This time, however, Gestaul leaped into the air rather than run all the way down the hill, and his body morphed into a long, sinuous shape as he fell.
“Look out!” Kulgan yelled as the priest drew closer. He titled the gun up as far as he could and spun the crank, but Gestaul’s rope-like body easily wove in between the bullets. He landed just behind the wagon, flattening into a puddle of gray skin when he hit the ground. Two long arms shot from that puddle, and before Kulgan could shoot them they had grabbed hold of the wagon.
“D’yargo!” Kulgan yelled.
For a few seconds, the wagon pulled Gestaul along behind it, but then he dug himself into the ground and pulled back, bringing the entire thing to a halt. Had Kio not grabbed Adlis and Za by their collars, they both would have been thrown off the driver’s seat. The horses neighed in fright, tossing their heads and trying to run, but their hooves slid uselessly in the dirt. Behind them, Kulgan swung the gatling gun back and forth, cranking as hard as he could. The bullets tore through Gestaul’s skin, but every time a limb was severed a new one would emerge, grabbing hold of the wagon and pulling it further backwards.
Adlis’ ears paled as she saw Gestaul’s face rise from the writhing storm of arms, grinning wildly as he drew closer to his target.
“You can’t escape me,” he growled. “I’ll never let you—”
Kulgan filled his mouth with bullets.
“On the horses!” he yelled, abandoning the gun and joining the others. “Now!”
“Wait, what?” Za exclaimed. “But they’re—”
“Do it now or get left behind!”
Without waiting for the others to follow, Kulgan leaped from the wagon and landed on the back of one of the horses. Kio did the same, taking the other horse. Adlis rose and, despite Za’s protests, leaped onto the back of Kulgan’s horse. Za hesitated a moment more, and then looked back at Gestaul, his fleshy mass engulfing the wagon, and then jumped onto Kio’s horse. Kulgan and Kio whipped out their knives, severed the bonds tying the horses to the wagons, and in the blink of an eye they were off again.
“Okay, spit it out!” Kulgan yelled over the winds. “What’s the plan?”
“I dunno,” his wife quipped. “I thought we’d invite him home for dinner—”
“—maybe show him the mineshaft out back.”
Kulgan blinked. “Yeah, that might work.”
Before they could discuss it further, Gestaul’s roar rang out again, and they all turned around in their saddles to see the priest chasing them again. He’d reverted back to his catlike form and was running with blinding speed. Adlis’ breath caught in her throat. Even without the wagon slowing them down, the horses couldn’t outrun him.
“Kulgan, he’s coming!” she yelled, grabbing two fistfuls of his shirt in panic.
Out in the middle of the Hyeva grasslands, there was nothing in between them and Gestaul. The Ashen Priest came for them, his four feet carrying him faster than any mortal creature was meant to go. Twisting around in his saddle, Kulgan pulled out Zam and Zagyr and fired. The bullets flew straight and true, tearing through Gestaul’s legs and sending him tumbling through the grass. That proved to merely be an inconvenience for him, though, as he sprouted new legs, reabsorbing the old ones, and resumed the chase, losing distressingly little distance each time. Kulgan shot his legs out three times before giving up and looking at Kio for help. His wife grinned.
“I’ve been saving this,” she said, sliding something out of her pack. It was long, narrow enough to fit in her hand, and a dull red color.
Adlis’ ears paled, and she clapped her hands over them again as Kio lit the fuse and threw it over her shoulder. One second went by… two seconds… three—
“Everybody duck!” Kulgan yelled.
Even from so far away, the blast nearly threw Adlis from Kulgan’s horse. A flash even brighter than the sun threatened to blind her.
“I think I got him!” Kio cackled, coming over to ride beside her husband.
Kulgan frowned. “Don’t count on it.”
Adlis glanced behind them again. The explosion had started a fire in what little grass it hadn’t destroyed entirely, and she remembered what Kulgan had told her about the Rangers’ pendants. Fire was the easiest and most effective way to kill a Shapeless, but he had been referring to the typical mindless ones he saw in the Graylands. Gestaul was something nobody had ever faced before. She wouldn’t have been surprised if…
With a screech, what looked like a hundred gray snakes, each as thick as Adlis’ arm, came slithering after the horses. One by one they merged together, growing larger each time, until they were being pursued by an actual snake that looked big enough to swallow one of the horses whole—which was exactly what Gestaul planned to do. Adlis screamed as he opened his mouth wide, rearing back to strike.
“Kio!” Kulgan yelled.
In response, Kio pulled out her rifle and fired a few shots into Gestaul’s face. While it didn’t do any more damage to him than Zam and Zagyr had, it did appear to annoy him enough to leave Kulgan for the time being—and lunge at her and Za instead.
Kulgan’s eyes went wide, and time seemed to slow down. Adlis looked from him to the other horse as he reached out, screaming his wife’s name.
Gestaul’s mouth was big enough to fit the entire horse into it, and he sank his teeth into its middle. The horse roared in pain, but that soon ended as Gestaul absorbed it. The poor animal seemed to melt, its skin becoming gray and featureless, merging so that the snake suddenly had a horse’s front legs and head at the end of its long, sinuous body.
“D’yargo, d’yargo, d’yargo!” Kio yelled, watching as the grayness seeped up the horse’s body, coming closer to her and Za.
Kulgan yanked the reins as hard as he could, bringing his horse to a skidding halt, and raced back toward them. Adlis could see them both standing atop what was left of the horse, looking anxiously from Gestaul to her and Kulgan.
“Jump!” he yelled at the top of his lungs.
They did so, Za not raising a single complaint this time. Gestaul’s human torso erupted from the snake’s forehead, arms swinging wildly as he tried to stop them from escaping again. He was too slow. Kio landed in her husband’s arms, Kulgan somehow managing to steer the horse while holding her at the same time.
Za, on the other hand, missed entirely. He hit the ground, rolled, and scrambled back to his feet. Gestaul eyed the simmk for a second, and then lunged at him, the human part of him stretching more than ten feet to reach him. Za barely managed to dance out of the way.
“Za, run!” Adlis screamed as Kulgan turned the horse around again.
Za did as she said, and sprinted the opposite direction. Gestaul, apparently having forgotten about Kulgan and the others for now, roared and gave chase. His serpentine body had lost its shape somewhat, so rather than slither after him he sprouted six gigantic arms to drag himself across the ground. His human torso increased in size, so that the nightmarish snake had two heads—one human head, and one snake’s head. All of the unnecessary protrusions slowed him down, but Za still wouldn’t be able to outrun him for long. Kulgan rode as fast as the horse could run, but Adlis noticed that he wasn’t taking the most direct route possible toward Za.
“What are you waiting for?” she demanded. “We have to save him!”
“I can’t get close enough without running him over!”
Za screamed as one of Gestaul’s hands came down hard enough to shake the ground, nearly flattening him beneath it. An idea came to her. She didn’t like it, not one bit, but she still only hesitated a second before turning around and grabbing the back of her dress in both hands. A quick tug tore a hole in the fabric, and her tail slid out of it.
With ears burning red, she turned around to face Kulgan again. “Get me close enough to reach him.”
Kulgan stared at her for a couple of seconds, then exchanged a glance with Kio and finally nodded. Yanking the reins to the side, he spurred the horse closer to Za and Gestaul.
“Za!” Adlis yelled. “Hold on, we’re coming!”
If he could hear her through his panic, Za didn’t give any indication of it. He just ran. Using Kio’s shoulder for balance, Adlis slowly got to her feet. She had to do this right on the first try. If she slipped, or if she couldn’t reach Za, there would be no second chances. The speed they were going, and the way the horse shifted beneath her, meant that a fall would likely kill her. And if it didn’t, it would still put her right in Gestaul’s path.
Do it for Za, she told herself. For your friend!
There was no more time to think about it. They were coming up on the fleeing simmk fast. Pushing all her misgivings to the back of her mind, Adlis brought her tail up so that Kio could grab hold—she blushed when the Ranger’s fingers wrapped around it—and leaned forward as far as she could.
“Za, grab on!” she yelled.
She extended her arms, her feet braced on the horse’s side. The grassy ground zipped past below, a deadly blur of green and brown. Za looked at her—and jumped! For one terrible second, she thought he had missed. Then their hands met, and Adlis grabbed hold with all her might.
The sudden weight on the end of her arms was almost enough to jerk her tail right out of Kio’s fist, but the dark skinned Ranger’s grip held true. Even so, Adlis cried out in pain as she was suddenly pulled behind the horse by her tail, with Za on her other end. Za yelped as his knees skidded on the ground. It was all she could do not to let go of him, much less pull him up onto the horse with the rest of them.
“Kio, get them on!” she heard Kulgan yelled.
Adlis felt Kio pull her tail, hand over hand, like it was rope. Inch by inch the ground disappeared as she was pulled back to the relative safety of the horse. She began to breathe easier—until she made the mistake of looking at what was chasing them. Gestaul’s mouth opened, roaring in fury, and a long tongue darted out. The tip was capped with a single claw, and Adlis closed her eyes in terror as it raced straight for her.
Kulgan, reacting at the last second, jerked the horse’s reins so that it turned just enough to get Adlis out of the tongue’s path. It plunged into the horse’s side instead, and the next thing Adlis knew their mount was crying out in pain, and they were all flying through the air.
The ground rushed up to meet her, and she landed hard enough to knock the air from her lungs. The world continued to spin even after she’d stopped moving, and darkness crept around the edges of her vision. She groaned, but couldn’t hear herself over the buzzing in her ears. Everything hurt and didn’t hurt at the same time, and that frightened her more than anything. She was tempted to just close her eyes and pass out…
A shadow appeared in front of her, and she instinctively flinched.
“Miss Adlis, you gotta get up!” Za’s voice echoed urgently in her ears. “Come on!”
His hands wrapped around Adlis’ shoulders, hauling her upright with difficulty, and Adlis shook her head to clear it. That only made the pain worse, but she got to her feet anyway.
“There,” Za said, pointing. Adlis followed his finger, squinting, and noticed…
“We’re back?” she asked in surprise when she recognized Kio’s cottage and the hill with the mineshaft beyond it. It had taken them a day of walking to make it to Embraus. Could they really have made the return journey in less than an hour?
Gestaul’s roar startled her out of her thoughts, and she sprang to her feet just as he finished absorbing the second horse. She could see Kio a good ways in front of them, already sprinting toward the hill. Where was Kulgan? She couldn’t see him anywhere.
“Miss Adlis!” Za begged her.
Gestaul was looking the other direction. Slowly, Adlis nodded. Kulgan was the Gray Ranger here. He could take care of himself. Turning away, she started toward the mineshaft—and skidded to a stop with a scream when a massive pillar of flesh crashed down right in front of her, like the leg of the titantula queen. Gestaul roared, dragging himself over as quickly as he could. Dozens of eyes were fixed on them.
“This way!” Za yelled, using his simmk senses to duck around the convulsing limb. He grabbed Adlis’ hand, leading her, but had to stop again when a second limb leg came down in front of them. They looked back as five more burst from Gestaul’s body, piercing the ground all around them, and other thinner strands of skin shot from one to the other, creating a cage. Gestaul opened his mouth, stretching a long tentacle to where they waited. A second head, smaller than the first, was at the end of that tentacle, and it too opened its mouth to release another tendril. The head at the end of this one grinned savagely at them.
“Cannnn’t… escaaaaape,” it rasped. “Mmmine!”
Adlis screamed. If Gestaul so much as touched them, that was the end of it. He would absorb them just like he’d absorbed the horses. She could still remember what Kulgan had told her about the people who were eaten by the Shapeless, doomed to live forever as part of the very creature that killed them. Suddenly she wished that she’d kept one of Kulgan’s guns. Just like with Tarrug Shel’Vain, a quick bullet to the head would be a preferable death to what the Ashen Priest had planned for them.
“Allll miiiiine!” Gestaul howled. He opened his mouth wide, stretching his jaw, lunged at her…and exploded in a shower of soupy gray slime.
Gestaul screamed in rage as he grew another head to replace the one he’d lost, and Adlis looked behind her to see that the flesh-cage he had made around them was dissipating. A low thrumming filled the air, and the next thing she knew Kulgan was landing next to them, Zam and Zagyr in his hands and his wings and tail on his back. He fired off a few more shots to distract Gestaul and then turned to his friends.
“Both of you, run! Now!” He pointed to the mineshaft. “I’ll hold him off until you’re through.”
Adlis hesitated. “But you—”
“I said now!” Kulgan screamed.
Za turned tail, grabbed Adlis by her hand again, and dragged her away. After a few steps, Adlis started running on her own, away from Kulgan and the unnatural monstrosity, and toward the Graylands that, somehow, had become the safest place on Haroz for her. Still, she looked over her shoulder and saw that Kulgan had taken to the air again and was flying crazy patterns around Gestaul. Countless arms, heads, eyes, and other body parts that Adlis didn’t want to think about rose from his undulating mass, snatching and clawing at the Ranger.
“Twisterrrrrr!” the voices of a thousand creatures screamed at him.
And then she and Za were in the tunnel, and the battle was lost to sight.
“Stay close to me,” she heard Za say in the darkness. He was still gripping her wrist hard enough to hurt, so she doubted she could lose him if she tried. They walked together in the darkness, faster than when they’d come but slower than Adlis would have liked. She remembered what Kulgan had said about them rigging the tunnel with explosives, though, so she stayed with Za and let him set the pace.
A few minutes later, a circle of dull gray light appeared in front of them, and Za broke out into a run again. As soon as they emerged, Adlis yanked her hand out of Za’s and spun around to look back into the tunnel, waiting.
There was nothing. Not a sound to announce Kulgan’s coming.
“Where is my husband?”
Adlis yelped in fright and whirled around to find Kio standing behind her, her eyes like venom.
She pointed back into the mineshaft. “He- He told us to run, that he would distract—”
“D’yargo!” Kio screamed. She pushed Adlis out of the way, and would have gone charging back in if the zik girl hadn’t grabbed her arm the same way Za had just grabbed hers.
“You can’t!” she yelled. “Gestaul is still out there!”
When Kio looked at her again, Adlis could see almost as much murder in her eyes as she had seen in the Ashen Priest’s.
“If you don’t let go of me,” she said in a low, menacing voice, “I am going to…”
Her voice trailed off when she heard something come from within the tunnel: humming wings. A split second later, Kulgan rocketed out of the darkness, nearly knocking Adlis and Kio over in the process.
He didn’t ask what they were doing there, he only yelled, “Get out of the way! He’s coming!”
As soon as those words were out of his mouth, Gestaul’s roar echoed through the mineshaft. Adlis and Kio stared into the shadows for a second, and then together turned and sprinted after Kulgan. The male Ranger touched down a good distance from the tunnel and turned to his wife.
“Did you get it?” he asked.
She nodded. “Right over there.”
They hurried to the rock she had indicated, behind which was hidden a TNT plunger and a fuse that led back to the mineshaft. Kulgan wasted no time in grabbing it and thrusting it down with all his might. The fuse ignited, and they all watched as it zipped into the tunnel, the flame briefly lighting it up before it was swallowed up by the shadows.
“Cover your ears,” Kulgan warned them without bothering follow his own advice.
Adlis did exactly that, and…
The explosion was loud enough to make Kio’s dynamite from earlier sound like a firecracker in comparison. The ground rumbled as if it were going to buckle beneath their feet, and the mineshaft lit up bright enough that it hurt Adlis’ eyes to look at it. A huge cloud of fire erupted from the mouth of the tunnel, and then the entire roof of the hill exploded, sending fire and stone flying everywhere.
“Take cover!” Kio yelled, and all of them hunkered down behind the rocks with the plunger. It took over a minute for the debris to stop falling, and when it finally did Adlis stood up and looked at big, empty spot where the mineshaft had just been. A raging inferno still burned, sending thick clouds of smoke billowing up to join the roiling Grayland clouds, but the hill where the Forbidden Gate had been was simply… gone.
“Did… Did you kill him?” Adlis asked, her ears still ringing from the explosion.
Kulgan and the others stood up with her. “If we’re lucky, yes.” He frowned. “But past experiences tell me we’re not.”
As if waiting for its cue, Gestaul’s howl rose from within the flames, and the priest himself rose from it, throwing himself towards safety. His enormous body was engulfed with flames, and judging by the cries that came from his mouths, he was in absolute agony.
“Everybody stand back!” Kulgan ordered them. They did as he said, and he drew his guns.
Moaning pitifully, Gestaul dragged himself to the edge of the fire and onto the pale craggy ground. He was every bit as big as he had been when he’d destroyed Embraus, but in that moment he seemed as helpless as a newborn kitten. The fire seemed to be consuming him unnaturally quickly, as if it wanted to erase him from existence. He opened his mouth, and from there another Gestaul emerged. Its skin was free of the horrific burns that marred its larger form, though it was much, much smaller—barely larger than his normal human form.
“He’s shedding his injured skin,” Kulgan whispered in explanation. “If he stays all in one piece, he’ll die, so he’s separating what little of him is still unburned.”
This smaller, weaker Gestaul detached itself from its larger body, and what he had left behind immediately collapsed in on itself, like a corpse that had been waiting hundreds of years to decompose and was now making up for lost time.
“Is he dying?” Adlis asked, watching Gestaul make a feeble attempt to reach them.
Kulgan shook his head. “Not anymore, but he is weakened. If we leave him here, I doubt he’ll have the strength to—look out!”
As if to defy Kulgan to the very end, Gestaul got to his feet and charged at them. He didn’t shapeshift this time—Adlis doubted he had enough left of himself to alter his body anymore—it was merely a last ditch effort from a crazed mind to complete his mission. His arms windmilled spastically as he ran, flinging tiny droplets of gray skin from his body with every swing, but he didn’t notice. Kulgan, his target, his prey, was right in front of him, and nothing else mattered except to devour him.
Adlis spun around to run, but before she had taken two steps another sound echoed through the Graylands. The exact same sound that Gestaul was making, but this time coming from the other direction. She skidded to a stop, her friends doing the same, and she gasped when the unmistakable outline of a second Shapeless came barreling straight for them.
It followed us all the way here, she thought, stunned, and then waited for us to come back?
There was no time to react. Gestaul was too close behind them, and the Shapeless was too close in front of them. In the mere seconds they had to contemplate the situation, both were on top of them. The Shapeless reached them first, gathered itself into a ball, and then lunged at them like a tidal wave of flesh, a dozen tormented faces staring at them from within its folds and crevices. Everything went dark as it blotted out the sun...
And it attacked Gestaul.
Nobody could do more than stare as the Shapeless completely ignored them, instead focusing all of its attention on the insane priest. Gestaul seemed no less taken aback, and he screamed in horror as the monster that was practically his cousin descended on him, crushing him under its greater size. Their skin colors were exactly the same, so Adlis wasn’t able to tell which part of the roiling mass was the Shapeless, and which was Gestaul. It writhed, throbbed, and convulsed as the two of them fought, sometimes throwing up random tendrils, other times tightening itself as much as possible.
Adlis stared at the scene in horror. “What… What… What…” was all that she could force out of her mouth.
“Everybody just back away,” Kulgan said, though he sounded no less horrified than she did.
The Shapeless continued to shake and quiver—and then, with a scream, Gestaul burst free. It was only his upper body, the rest of him was merged perfectly with the Shapeless, but he still howled with animalistic anger and clawed his way across the ground toward them. Though the Shapeless was obviously doing all it could to pull him back into it, he stubbornly kept his eyes locked with the Gray Ranger’s.
“K- K- Kulgannnn,” he managed to croak.
Then, summoning what remained of his strength, Gestaul released his grip on the ground and stretched his arms toward them.
“Look out!” Kulgan yelled, spinning around to push the others away. He didn’t move fast enough to save himself, though, and Gestaul’s fingers wrapped around the closest part of him: his wolf hornet tail. Kulgan’s eyes went wide as he was jerked off his feet, sliding uncontrollably toward Gestaul as Gestaul himself was pulled back into the Shapeless
“Kulgan!” Adlis screamed, and was about to spring to help him when she was tackled by Za.
“No!” he shouted. “I- I can’t let you, Miss Adlis!”
Fighting to push the simmk off of her, she turned her head to look at Kulgan. Gestaul’s fingers had already merged with Kulgan’s tail, and were slowly creeping upwards toward his spine. Kulgan still seemed to be alive and well, though, his soul right where it belonged.
The tail isn’t his! she realized. It’s from the wolf hornet’s soul, not his.
That wouldn’t help him if Gestaul managed to absorb the whole thing and move on to his real body, though. Adlis watched in horror as it got closer and closer, desperately wanting to help but knowing there was nothing she could do except get eaten right along with him. She stopped fighting Za and just stared. She and Kulgan’s eyes met.
A Gray Ranger, a Twister, an outlaw, a guide, a bully, a bodyguard, a hero, a friend, and… and the greatest man she’d ever met. He was so much more than those labels. In the end, he had been something both far greater and far worse than any of them could ever let on: he was Kulgan. Tears pricked her eyes as she watched her friend get dragged into the Shapeless.
“You… are… minnnnne!” Gestaul hissed, now sunken up to his armpits in the Shapeless’ disgusting body.
In an instant, Kio was there, her knife glittering in the pale Grayland sun.
She swung the knife, cutting cleanly through Kulgan’s tail just before it reached his spine. Kulgan cried out in pain, but Kio ignored it, grabbing him under the arms and dragging him away where Gestaul couldn’t reach them.
The Ashen Priest, or what was left of him, stared at them in horror.
“No,” he whispered. Then he screamed, “No! No, no, noooo!”
The Shapeless’ other mouths all echoed his cries unemotionally as he slowly sank into it. “Noooo. Nooo. Nooooo....”
His face disappeared, and then his arms. His fingers groped aimlessly for a few seconds, as if still hoping they could catch something, and then they too were gone, and the only thing left was the Shapeless.
Kulgan gasped in pain a few times, and then sighed in relief when his pendant finally wore off, and his wings and tail rotted away.
“N- Never do that to me again!” he managed to say between panting breaths.
“We’re not out of trouble yet, hon,” Kio responded.
Everyone turned to look at the Shapeless. It hadn’t moved an inch after it had eaten Gestaul. Adlis half expected him to break free again, but he didn’t. The formless ball of skin simply sat there, utterly motionless…
And then it crawled away.
NEXT TIME: Husband? Saved. Bad guy? Beaten. Consequences for everyone’s actions? Dodged. Now all that’s left is for everyone to live happily ever after! In the Graylands… with the Shapeless and the titantulas and the evil moon volcano… Yay?