“What?” Kulgan roared.
The ticket salesman, a surly old Kashni whose scales had turned almost as gray as a Ranger's, didn't so much as blink.
“Carriage fare is fifty krellings.” He turned to Adlis and Za. “Per person.”
“Last time I was here, it was fifteen per person!” Kulgan yelled, slamming his fist on the counter in frustration.
“When was the last time you were here, sir?”
Kulgan paused. “Seven years ago,” he admitted.
The Kashni shrugged. “Prices go up, sir. That's what they do. Fifty krellings per person.”
Kulgan growled. “That's extortion! Don't we even get, I don't know, a servant discount?”
“If he's riding in the carriage, he's paying for a carriage ticket,” the clerk said.
Kulgan had to admit, the Kashni's patience was impressive. He probably had to deal with angry customers day in and day out—but with the prices they were charging, those customers had every right to be angry.
He sighed, deflating. “Fine. When does the next carriage for Evsondale leave?”
The Kashni pulled out a ledger, eyed it, then said, “Tomorrow at noon.”
“Fine,” Kulgan said, turning on his heal and marching away.
“Are you going to buy a ticket, sir?” the Kashni called after him.
“Eventually, yes,” Kulgan said over his shoulder. “First I have to find the money. D'yargo swindler.”
He left the ticket station in a huff, Adlis and Za scampering after him.
“I don't see why you even bothered asking,” Adlis said, coming to walk beside him. “It's not like you could have bought a ticket anyway. We're out of money, remember?”
“Because I had to find out how much I need... appropriate,” he answered. “He was right about one thing: ticket prices are always changing. The higher the demand, the more they charge. Fifty krellings per passenger may be outrageous, but at least now I know.” He stopped and sighed. “A hundred a fifty, though. That's going to be tough.”
Adlis scowled at him. “You're just going to go around slitting people's purses, aren't you?”
She seemed to be recovering well from her encounter with the Ashen Priest. Only an hour had gone by, and she was already smart mouthing him again.
“Unless you'd prefer to stay in this charming little town, yes I am. I'd give you two, maybe three days before Brother Gestaul shows up again.”
Adlis took a step back. Perhaps she hadn't recovered entirely, then.
“The carriage isn't leaving till tomorrow,” she said, changing the subject. “What are we going to do until then?”
They began walking again. Kulgan took the lead of course. Things were always changing in a city this big, but the years he had lived here as an acolyte still helped him find his way without trouble. That, plus his training as a Gray Ranger. There probably wasn't a place in Tassendile he could get lost in. One thing that never changed, though, were the crowds. Some parts of Embraus were easier to move around in than others, but there was no such thing as an empty street. Merchants peddled their wares in booths, citizens made their way to and fro, and beggars knelt on every corner, holding out bowls and tin cans.
“We're not going to be sleeping on the streets, are we?” Adlis asked when Kulgan didn't answer.
“It builds character,” he quipped. Adlis scowled at him, and he scowled right back. “It's a joke, puff. Don't get your knickers in a knot.”
“Then where?” she demanded. “The sun will be going down soon. I don't want to be stuck out on the streets after dark!”
She had a point there. Even in the holy city, thieves and other vagrants still stalked the roads at night.
“I know of a place nearby,” he finally said, nodding in the direction they were going. “We should be able to spend the night there.”
“We still don't have any money, though.”
“We won't need it. Or, rather...” he glanced at her and the simmk, “I won't need any, at least.”
Adlis raised her eyebrows. “What does that mean?”
“Just come with me. You'll see.”
Adlis consented, keeping her mouth closed the rest of the way there. Ten minutes of walking later, a familiar building caught Kulgan's eye. He breathed a sigh of relief. He'd suspected it would still be there, but... well, carriage tickets weren’t the only things that changed.
“We're here,” he said, stopping in front of it. It was a three story building with walls made of gray cobblestone and a peaked wooden roof. A sign hung from a post above the door, swinging gently in the breeze. It had been painted gray, but had no words written on it. Just an ominous black circle. Light poured from the numerous windows, and from them came the sounds of people's voices.
“I don't understand,” Adlis said, stopping beside him. “What is this place?”
“It's a Gray Haven,” he answered. “A place built specifically for Gray Rangers on leave. The church funds everything, so we get to stay here as long as we need to without paying a drop.”
“So they'll let you in, but what about me and Za?”
He nodded. “That's the problem. They might let you in if I claimed you were my wife...”
“Never!” she spat.
“Exactly. They'd want to argue about it first, though. Only Gray Rangers are supposed to stay here. That'd draw too much attention to us.”
Adlis gave him an acidic look. “So, what? You get to have a hot meal and spend the night in a bed while Za and I find an alleyway somewhere to sleep?”
Kulgan rolled his eyes. “Of course not, puff. I'm going to get a room, assuming they have any available, and then I'll let you in through the window. Good enough for you?”
Adlis looked away, chastised.
“Good. Wait here, you should be safe. I'll give you a signal once I've got a room.”
He took one step out into the street—but then stopped when Adlis grabbed him by the arm.
“Kulgan?” she asked sheepishly, her eyes fixed on the stones below her feet.
Kulgan pushed back a twinge of irritation and turned to face her again. “Yes?”
“Am... Am I a freak?”
He blinked, surprised. “Why would you ask me that?”
She shrugged meekly. “I don't know, you just... seemed like the right person to ask.”
“You are aware that I'm a Twister, right? And that my perception of what's normal and what's not is probably skewed beyond mortal comprehension?”
“Actually,” she said, finally looking him in the eye, “that's exactly why I think you're the right person.”
Kulgan paused, and then put his hands on his hips. “And what's your reasoning behind that, exactly?”
“Because you're a Twister!” she snapped, and then clapped her hand over her mouth.
“Be careful how loud you say that,” Kulgan growled, leaning closer to her. “Don't forget where we are.”
“Sorry,” Adlis whispered. Her ears were probably white as snow under her hat. That, or red with embarrassment. Kulgan wasn't sure which she was more likely to feel after an outburst like that. When she spoke again, it was barely a whisper, “It's just, you are a Twister. You've had people calling you a freak and a monster for years, before they even know your name. How do you do it?”
Kulgan shrugged, patience beginning to run thin. “How do I do what, Adlis?”
The zik girl clenched her fists in front of her chest. “How do you keep from believing what they say? How do you keep telling yourself that you're not a monster?”
Kulgan looked at Adlis for a few seconds, then asked, “Is this about the priest you saw earlier?”
Adlis blushed and looked away again without answering—which was all the answer Kulgan needed. He groaned and covered his eyes with his hand.
“You're not still thinking about going to see him, are you?” he demanded.
“No!” she exclaimed. “I... you were right. It's too dangerous.”
Kulgan could practically see images of Brother Gestaul flashing before her eyes.
“But all of that, it made me start thinking,” she went on, hand wandering unconsciously up to her hat. “What if we make it back to Arborough and I still have these? What will happen then? Will my father decide I'm not fit to be his successor anymore? Will they throw me out of Arborough? Will... will they turn me over to the church?”
She was getting more frantic with each word, her breathing coming more erratically. Finally, she looked pleadingly up to Kulgan.
“How do you do it?” she asked again. “How do you keep convincing yourself that you're not the freak that everyone says you are?”
Kulgan's heart sank into his stomach. He didn't even need to ponder her question, he already knew the answer. The only honest answer he could give her.
It would break her heart, his kinder side told him. Just lie to her. Comfort her somehow!
If you lie to her, his other part argued, it'll only be that much more traumatic when she finds out the truth. Just tell her. She's a grown woman. She deserves to know what's in store for her.
She deserves to know.
“There is no secret,” he whispered.
Adlis blinked. “What?”
Kulgan sighed. “I said there is no secret. There's no magical way to make everything they say about me not be true.”
“Adlis.” His eyes grew hard, and he locked gazes with Adlis. “I am a monster.”
A spark of anger ignited in her eyes. “Stop saying that!” she hissed. “I've been travelling with you for almost a week now. You may be rude, you may be mean, and you may be spiteful, but you're still a good person!”
This time, it was Kulgan's turn to blink in surprise.
Adlis folded her arms. “And you most certainly are not a monster, even if you are a Twister.”
Kulgan didn't say anything for a long minute. Then he began to chuckle.
“There's still so much you don't understand,” he said, smiling and shaking his head. “You just said it yourself: I'm a Twister. Twisters are monsters. You can't be one without being the other. When I picked up this rock,” he patted the bump on his shirt, “I betrayed the Rangers, Tassendile, Haroz, and even Embin himself. The Words of Order says that those who take Vashiil's power are the lowest of the low, beyond any hope of salvation.”
Pull it out. Stab it in. Pierce. Change. Twist!
“We're like the Shapeless,” he whispered.
Adlis was still scowling at him, but at least she stopped trying to convince him that he wasn't what he was. He was grateful for that. It took a lot out of a man to condemn himself in front of someone who was pleading his case on his behalf. Suddenly, all he wanted to do was go into the Haven, get one of their nice, soft beds, and sleep all night.
“Then what does that mean for me?” she finally asked.
Kulgan shrugged again. “Can't say. You and me are entirely different kinds of freakiness. You were enchanted against your will. Enchantments can be removed, if you know how to do it. It's possible maybe someone can break it for you. That's more than anyone can say about me, though.”
“But am I a freak?”
Kulgan looked her in the eye. “Yes, Adlis, you are.”
She took a step backward in dismay. Kulgan mentally kicked himself for being so blunt. Still...
“Magic was banned by Embin himself,” he went on, “and everything that teaches people how to use it is supposed to be buried in the Graylands. Being a witch is only a few steps above being a Twister.”
“But I'm not a witch!”
Kulgan waved his hand around. “And do you think these people know the difference? Magic is magic to them, and anyone who uses it needs to be killed before they turn the entire city into grasshoppers or something.”
She backed away again, but this time Kulgan stepped forward so they were still face to face.
“We're both freaks. The only difference is that someday, maybe you won't be a freak anymore.”
Then, without waiting for Adlis to reply, he spun and made for the Haven. The noises became several degrees louder when he opened the door, letting the smell of fresh cooked food spill out onto the road. A wall of fear kept him from going right in, though. He didn't have anything to worry about. So long as he didn't take his pendant out and Twist right in front of the other Rangers, they'd never know. Still, the idea of walking into a place like this was like a mouse contemplating whether or not to spend the night in the lion's den. The clerk was giving him a strange look, though, so he quickly stepped inside and shut the door behind him.
“One room, please,” he said quietly as he walked across the foyer to the desk.
The foyer led directly into the dining room, and Kulgan counted no less than twenty other Rangers sitting at those tables. They ate and drank in small groups, or completely alone, but at the same time they spoke to the other groups, happily trading jokes and crude insults. That was something Kulgan had grown used to seeing in the Rangers. Once you were assigned a squad, they became like family to you. In Kulgan's case, one of them had literally become his family. The downside was that, after years of patrolling the Graylands you couldn't help but develop a strong sense of paranoia that didn't go away once you stepped back out through the gate. With training a new Ranger could learn to put that distrust aside, like the ones here at the Haven, but it would never go away completely.
“Lemme see,” the receptionist immediately ordered him.
Kulgan stopped short. “I'm sorry?”
“Your hair, young man. Let me see it.”
Suddenly, Kulgan understood what she meant, and he removed his hat. One could replicate, or even steal, a Gray Ranger's poncho, but there was no way to fake the gray hair that came from spending time in Vashiil's realm. The receptionist smiled and nodded her approval. She was a human like him, but much older and more homely. She had a pleasant smile, though, and that immediately put him on edge. Ironically, one of the easiest ways to make Kulgan distrust someone was to try too hard to convince him that they were trustworthy.
“Here you are, dear,” she said, ambling back to the keyboard and producing a shiny silver key. “Room 315, on the third floor.”
Kulgan eyed the key in surprise. “Oh. You... don't need my name or anything?” he asked.
“Not here, dear,” she said, smiling again. “The other Havens might, but if you came here to Embraus then you're here for a reason, and that reason's no business of ours. We respect your privacy, young man.”
And we have an Ashen Priest waiting for you upstairs. The words came unbidden to Kulgan's mind, and he shuddered. No, that was ridiculous. He had no reason to distrust the old woman. He still had to force himself to reach out and take the key, though.
“You're certainly looking high strung, aren't you, dear?” she asked with a chuckle. “No worries, though. Your business is your business. Feel free to get something to eat and drink if you're hungry, and there's a tub in each room if you need a bath.”
Adlis will like that, he thought, nodding his thanks to the old woman and heading into the dining room. He didn't stop to eat, though. That could come later. Right now, he had to get Adlis and Za inside where they'd be safe.
Kulgan froze, one foot on the stairs. His first impulse, shameful as it was, was to bolt like a frightened deer. He wiped the terrified look from his face as quickly as he could, trying to ignore the way his heart was trying to pound its way free of his chest, and turned around. A massive gray-scaled Kashni raised a frothing mug of beer.
“Have a drink with us, little brother!”
Little brother. Those two words hit Kulgan harder than any bullet on Haroz could have, nearly knocking him off his feet. He wavered. How long had it been since anyone had invited him to drink with them? Kio had given him a beer, but she was his wife. That didn't count. Even before the Everdryers had learned his secret, they had been hesitant to even be in the same room as him. His status as a Gray Ranger was as intimidating to normal civilians as carrying a gun. Suddenly, the brightly lit, sweet smelling dining room looked like the happiest place in the world, and the other Rangers were the friendliest folks he'd ever met.
It physically hurt him when he tore his eyes away from them.
“Maybe later... brother,” he said, almost choking on the word. He wasn't their brother. He didn't deserve their kindness. He was a Twister.
The urge to spin around and whip out his pendant was surprisingly strong. At least then they'd know what he really was, and he wouldn't have to keep deceiving them. He couldn't do that, though. Adlis and Za were still waiting for him outside, and he was the zik maiden's only way home. Trying to block the happy sounds and delicious smells from his head, he tromped up the stairs.
The size of his room surprised him. It was big enough to hold a bed that three people could sleep side by side in, a bathtub on the opposite wall, and a large chest of drawers that, when he thought about it, was completely pointless. How many Gray Rangers had enough possessions to fill a chest like that, and of those few how many would it all the way to Embraus?
He quickly grabbed the sheets from the bed and knotted them together into a rope. Then, going to the window, he pushed it open and waved his hat like a flag. Not the most subtle signal he could have used, but he doubted that Adlis and Za would be able to pick up on anything less obvious. A few seconds later, he saw motion in the alleyway beneath him.
Taking the makeshift rope, he lowered one end out the window until it reached the ground. Nothing happened for a few seconds, but then he felt a couple of heavy tugs on it. Bracing his foot against the wall, he gave a heave—and the person on the other end let out a high pitched yelp.
“D'yargo!” Kulgan growled, freezing. “Keep your Pitting mouth shut!”
He waited for a few seconds before giving it another tug. This time they stayed quiet. Kulgan pulled the rope in hand over hand, like a fisherman fishing right out of his window. It took a couple of minutes—he didn't want them to lose their grip because he pulled too suddenly—but eventually he reached the end of the knotted sheets and found...
“Let me in! Hurry!” cried the flailing storm of limbs.
“Za?” Kulgan exclaimed in confusion. He grabbed one of the simmk's hands and hauled him into the room. He landed flat on his face.
“Mr. Kulgan, you gotta get after her!” Za yelled, scrambling upright. “Hurry, she can't be far!”
Kulgan grabbed him by his shoulders, holding him in one place.
“What's going on?” he demanded. “Who can't be far? Where's Adlis?”
Za turned his big, sightless eyes on the Ranger, and then broke down crying.
“I didn't wanna let her go, Mr. Kulgan!” he sobbed, sinking to his knees. “But I knew I couldn't stop her, so I came straight to you!”
A pit formed in Kulgan's stomach.
“Where is she, Za?” he asked again. “Where did Adlis go?”
Za was still blubbering on the floor, but he managed to get control of himself long enough to catch his breath and look at Kulgan.
“That priest from earlier. She went to find him!”
NEXT TIME: *spit take* Dang it, woman! But I guess we can’t blame her after everything Kulgan just said. Will Kulgan find her before she finds Brother Rychar… or somebody else?