“Here.” Adlis held out a slice of sausage, long since cooled. Kulgan barely glanced at it before looking at the ground again. The sun had risen over an hour ago. The two Rangers Kulgan had knocked unconscious lay in the distance, their arms and legs tied and their heads covered with sacks. They had yet to wake up.
They hadn't touched the Kashni.
Adlis sighed. “Kulgan, eat something!”
Why was she suddenly so worried about him, she wondered? Not only had he tried to drag her and Za into the Graylands, he had assaulted three innocent Gray Rangers in the process— one of whom had wound up dead. If anything, she should be even more repulsed by him now. Here she was, though, cooking without him even having to ask, practically trying to force feed him.
Za was acting much more sensibly. He sat a good ten feet away from the fire, and from Kulgan, trembling. He kept glancing out into the distance, like he was waiting for someone to show up and attack them.
He's probably right to be worried, Adlis thought, looking out across the desert herself. Her ears turned gray. Besides the fence and the copse of dead trees Kulgan had hidden the wagon behind, there was nothing to see except sand, sand, and more sand.
“I don't see why you're so upset,” she said, trying to sound more snappish than she felt. “You're a Twister. You've probably killed dozens of people.”
She immediately felt bad for saying that, and then felt even worse when Kulgan's head drooped lower. He hadn't said a word since the Kashni had killed himself, save for his claim that he had been the one to kill him. That bothered Adlis more than anything. Seeing the Kashni slit his own throat had been traumatic enough —she was surprised she hadn't gone catatonic herself— but seeing the effect it'd had on Kulgan was perhaps even worse. The smug, derisive Twister genuinely acted like he blamed himself for the other Ranger's actions— and even stranger, he seemed to feel bad for it.
He stabbed the Kashni with his black pendant, she thought with a shudder, ears turning green. But... I didn't see him change. Maybe it didn't stay inside him long enough? Either way, Kulgan wasn't the one who...
“It's my fault.”
“Hmm?” she asked, looking back up at him.
“It's my fault. I killed him.”
His hands were clasped together, shaking. Adlis wasn't sure, but she suspected he was holding his pendant in them.
She shook her head. “You didn't—”
“I did. It was me.” His voice was monotone and emotionless, yet somehow still weighed more heavily with grief than Adlis had ever heard before. “I shouldn't have... I didn't mean to...”
Adlis bit her lip. What should she do? Her whole life, she'd had servants to take care of everything for her. They fed her, they cleaned for her— they even cleaned her. Her father had hired special servants to listen to her when she complained, who would then pour praise and pity upon her, gently soothing away her worries. Somehow, she doubted that would work on a hard man like Kulgan. What to do, then?
Acting on an impulse, Adlis cocked her head and put on her best sneer. “Last I checked, you weren't the one holding that knife.”
She tried to mimic Kulgan's effortless mocking tone, but to her ears she sounded utterly ridiculous. Her ears and her cheeks turned matching shades of pink and she looked away.
Kulgan, however, finally stopped shaking and looked at her.
“It's still my fault,” he whispered. “I knew what would happen and I did it anyway.”
Adlis paused. “You can't blame yourself for what other people do,” she finally said, more gently this time.
“I knew what would happen and I did it anyway.”
“You didn't know he would kill himself.”
To her surprise, Kulgan's eyes turned hard at this. “I didn't? I didn't know what the Gray Rangers, what all of Pitting Tassendile, think of this?” He unclenched his fist, letting the pendant drop down and bounce at the end of its string. “I didn't know what the penalty was for... for doing what I've done?”
Adlis frowned. After everything Kulgan had put her and Za through, how was it that she could still feel bad for him?
“You told him they wouldn't find out,” she reminded him. “He made his own decision.”
Kulgan laughed, a dry, bitter, humorless laugh. “Not everyone is as weak as me. He did...” he paused, looking back down again. “He did what I should have done from the start. What I was expected to do.”
While the pendant dangled from one hand, his other hand strayed toward his waist. Toward his...
“Stop!” Adlis exclaimed, lunging forward. Kulgan jumped, but she grabbed his wrist just before his fingers brushed the handle of his hunting knife.
Adlis found herself looking into Kulgan's eyes, and he looked back. For the first time, his eyes weren't filled with scorn or disdain. Neither of them moved. She vaguely realized that her ears were turning a bright, burning red.
His eyes are blue, she realized with a start. Why did that surprise her so much?
“Don't,” she said again a minute later. “Just... don't, all right?”
She began to draw back, but jumped again when Kulgan grabbed her by her own wrist.
“Don't leave me,” he said, his voice thick with desperation.
“I, uh… what?” she stammered.
“I messed up,” he said. “I killed that Ranger. You were right about me. I- I'm a monster.” His grip tightened. “Let me make up for it, please! I'll bring you back to Arborough. I promise I will. Just don't leave me alone!”
That's it! Adlis suddenly realized. That's what's different about him! He's actually acting like a human being!
All at once, she felt like she had figured Kulgan out. The tough, sarcastic face he always put on— it was a mask. A mask to hide the broken, pitiful man inside. Only something like this, something that could pierce him straight through to his soul, could make him show his true self to her.
“I'm still not going into the Graylands,” she whispered.
To her relief, Kulgan shook his head vigorously. “No. I was wrong to bring us here. We won't go through the Graylands. We'll go through the mountain pass like everyone else. It'll take longer, but it'll be safer.”
He pulled her closer again, until their faces were inches apart. A fire had been lit behind his eyes, making them look like a gas flame.
“I'll get you home safe. I promise.”
“Kulgan, you're... you're hurting my arm.”
Kulgan's face turned pale, and he let go of her without a word. Adlis leaned back, massaging her arm where he had grabbed her, and looked at the Ranger. For once, he struck her as being entirely sincere. And how could he not be, with his proud facade shattered? Slowly, she found herself nodding.
“All right,” she agreed. “Let's do that.”
Kulgan nodded too, and stood up. He still didn't seem to notice the food Adlis had set in front of him, even going so far as to kick sand into the pan as he stood up. He set about collecting their supplies. After a moment’s hesitation, he removed his Ranger poncho and stuffed it into one of their bags.
“I don’t deserve it,” Adlis heard him whisper.
“Um, Miss Adlis?”
Adlis looked to where Za was still sitting, off on his own, and noticed the way he was cocking his head.
“What is it?” she asked.
“I think there's somethin'...” he began but then his voice trailed off. On the other side of the makeshift camp, Kulgan froze. Then he burst into motion, dropping his bags and leaping up onto the wagon. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he scanned the area.
“D'yargo!” he spat, jumping back down.
Adlis got up. “What is it?”
She needn't have asked, because as soon as the words left her mouth she spotted the cloud of dust. It was still a good ways in the distance, but it was getting closer. She could see a line of black specks in front of it.
“Where are my binoculars?” Kulgan demanded, lunging for one of the sacks. After rummaging around in it for a minute, he produced a pair of binoculars and got back onto the wagon. After taking a look through them, he cursed again.
“What is it?” Adlis demanded a second time.
“Marshals,” Kulgan answered. “And guess who's with them?”
Before she could ask, he handed her the binoculars. They were heavy and more than a little warm from the desert sun, but she lifted them to her eyes anyway. The sudden change in perspective was jarring, but after a few seconds she was able to find them. A group of thirteen men, all dressed in dark blue pants and jackets and riding kashnilas. Even through the binoculars, Adlis was able to see the sun glinting off their weapons. And there, riding toward the back of the group...
“Is that the Kashni from Everdry?” she exclaimed.
“Yep,” Kulgan grunted. “Looks like he's not going to let me off the hook for what happened back home.”
Adlis lowered the binoculars and handed them back to Kulgan. “What does this mean?”
“What do you think it means? They're here for us!” Kulgan snapped, grabbing the sack again and throwing it over his shoulder. He looked at her, eyes hard. “And I doubt they're going to take prisoners this time.”
He brushed past her to grab the last of the supplies. She turned to watch him. It looked like he was back to his old self. That was probably a good thing, seeing as how a brigade of armed men were riding straight for them.
“Here, Sackhead” he said, tossing one of the bags to Za. “Make yourself useful.”
“Miss Adlis?” the simmk asked, shooting her a worried look with his painted eyes.
Surprisingly, Adlis found herself remarkably calm. “Just get in the wagon, Za. Mr. Kulgan will get us out of here.”
Both of them spun around to see Kulgan looking out at the oncoming marshals again.
“No what?” Adlis demanded.
He shook his head. “We can't outrun them. They're too close, and there's too many of them.”
Adlis glanced at them again. The dust cloud was getting even bigger. She wasn't sure if she could really hear the pounding of scaly feet, or if that was just her imagination.
“What do you suggest, then? Fight them?”
“No, there's too many of them.”
“Then we'll hide somewhere!”
Kulgan didn't reply for a long minute, but then he shook his head again. “They're marshals,” he said quietly. “They'll know every possible hiding place around here. There's only one thing we can do.”
Adlis, who had been in the process of climbing into the wagon herself, stopped and looked at him. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that they're marshals. They can —and will— chase us anywhere until they've caught us. There's only one place on Haroz they won't come after us.”
Adlis' ears turned gray. “You're not saying...”
“I'm sorry.” Kulgan looked away. “But unless you want to take your chances with them, we have to go through that gate.”
It felt like blocks of ice had frozen around Adlis' limbs, and her ears turned so white that the fur tingled. Slowly, she got back down from the wagon, walked across the distance to where Kulgan stood, and—
“Please don't slap me again.”
She raised her hand anyway, her ears turning yellow. “What did you just get through saying to me? What happened to 'we're not going into the Graylands?'”
She swung at him, but he caught her by the wrist before she could hit him.
“I thought I asked you not to do that,” he snapped, and then looked over her shoulder. “They're getting closer. We need to go.”
“No!” She jerked her hand out of his. “Get this through your thick gray skull, Kulgan: we are not going into the Graylands!”
“It's either the Graylands or them,” Kulgan nodded toward the oncoming cloud of dust. Adlis definitely wasn't imagining those sounds anymore.
“I'll take my chances.”
“They're not going to let you go! You've been travelling with me for two days. They'll consider you my accomplice. And him too!” He jerked his thumb toward Za.
The simmk froze when they both turned to look at him. He was right, Adlis realized. While nowhere near as shrouded in mystery as the Gray Rangers, the marshals were nearly as notorious. They would chase them to the bottom of the Pit before... no, she corrected herself, her ears turning a shade greener. The Pit was the only place they wouldn't chase them.
“Look, we don't have to make the entire journey in there,” Kulgan said. “We only have to go far enough in so that the marshals won't be able to get us.”
Adlis brought her fist to her mouth and bit it. “Za? What do you think?”
Za glanced at them, and then at the marshals. They were less than a mile away now. “I'll think whatever you want me to think, Miss Adlis, but you gotta decide fast!”
Adlis glared at him and, even though he didn't have eyes, Za cringed. D'yargo simmk.
“I- I don't know,” she admitted. “People die in the Graylands, Kulgan!”
“People die from bullets too,” he said, watching as the marshals drew even closer. “My way, you'll only have a chance of dying. With them, they'll kill you for sure.”
Adlis clenched her fist, her ears now blindingly white— and then sprinted for the wagon.
“Hey!” Kulgan yelled after her in surprise. “You'll never get away from them in that thing. Can you even drive it?”
Instead of climbing inside, though, she snatched her hat from the driver's seat and ran back to her companions.
“Oh,” said Kulgan as she dashed past them.
“We may be going to the Cursed Country,” she snapped, “but I'm still going to be properly dressed for it!”
Kulgan seemed just as stunned by this as he had the marshal's appearance. He shook himself out of it, though, and made for the fence.
“All right, there's no gate to get inside,” he said decisively, taking charge again. “Za, can you climb it?”
Za paused, studying the wooden wall with his senses. Fifteen feet tall and as smooth as river stone, a spider would have had trouble climbing it.
“I dunno if—”
“Fine,” Kulgan cut him off. “Wait here.”
With her head start, Adlis reached the fence first. “Is there a ladder?”
“The idea is to keep things in, not make it easier for them to get out,” Kulgan said, coming to a stop next to her. “This is just a minor gate. The bigger ones have entire fortresses built around them.”
“Then how do we get over it?”
Kulgan looked at her. “You're not going to like the answer.”
“Kulgan, I don't like any of this!”
“Fair enough,” he said, pulling off his shirt.
Adlis took a step back. “What on Haroz are you—”
Then he whipped out his black pendant and drove it into his arm.
She would never admit it to anybody, but Adlis shrieked like a dying animal when Kulgan's wings exploded from his back in a fine mist of blood. Ignoring her reaction, Kulgan wrapped his arms around her and launched them both into the air. His wings buzzed as they flapped, moving too fast for her eyes to track, and the next thing she knew they were going back down. The trip lasted less than two seconds before Kulgan dumped her down onto the sand and went over the fence again.
Gasping for breath, Adlis took stock of her surroundings. There was nothing noticeably different on this side of the fence, just more sand and a bit more shade. When she got up, though, she saw what the fence had been built to separate Tassendile from.
Forbidden Gate Tarz was little more than a cave. A pair of boulders protruded from the ground, the gap in between them unnaturally dark in the bright desert sunlight. “Gate” was an honorary term, but a shiver ran down Adlis’ spine as she looked into it. On the other side of those shadows was...
“Hey, no, don't!” Za's voice came from the other side of the fence, sounding strangely muffled when all that separated them were a few planks of wood. “Put me do— OH, DEAR EMBIN!”
A moment later, Kulgan flew over the fence again, dumping the screaming simmk on the ground next to her.
“Miss Adlis?” he asked without getting up. “Am I dead?”
“Don't be so overdramatic, Za,” she chastised him, giving her friend a nudge with her foot. “Get up!”
“Come on,” Kulgan ordered them both. He immediately made for the crack. “We don't have much time.”
Pulling Za upright, she shot the Ranger a scathing look. “I thought you said they wouldn't follow us.”
“I said they wouldn't follow us into the Graylands. Does this look like the Graylands to you?”
Without another word, Kulgan turned sideways and slipped into the gate. The shadows swallowed him up in less than a second. Adlis took a step forward, but then hesitated.
“Are you sure you wanna do this, Miss Adlis?” Za asked, voicing her own concerns. He sounded like he wanted her to change her mind so that he wouldn't have to go in either.
She wasn't entirely sure she wouldn't do just that.
“The Graylands are cursed,” she could remember the priests reciting every Embinsday. “Filled with nothing but death, suffering, and disorder.”
Slowly, Adlis backed up until she was pressed against the fence. What had she been thinking? Cursed ears or not, the marshals had to be a better option than—
“Where'd they go?” someone shouted on the other side of the fence.
“Their wagon's still here,” said another. “They can't have gotten far.”
“I told you, one of them's a Gray Ranger.” Adlis put her hand to her mouth to stifle a gasp when she recognized Tikta’s voice. “Check over the fence.”
One of the other marshals laughed at that. “You think they went through the gate? They're dead, then.”
“Two Rangers tied up, one dead,” the Kashni argued. “You think one of them ain't a Gray Ranger?”
“Doesn't mean he took two civilians into the Graylands.”
“Still,” said the first one who'd spoken, “they may be hiding on the other side.”
“D'yargo!” Adlis and Za whispered in unison.
“Someone get a ladder!” one of the marshals called. “If you see them, shoot on sight!”
That was all Adlis needed to hear. Grabbing Za by the sleeve, she made a mad dash for the gate.
“Miss Adlis, wait!”
“What was that?” one of the marshals exclaimed.
“That's her simmk! Get that ladder over here!”
Making herself as thin as possible, Adlis slipped into the crack. The bright sunlight vanished almost immediately, plunging her into darkness blacker than midnight. She whimpered, but the marshals' voices were still hollering outside, so she forced herself to go forward. Za was right behind her, whimpering even louder than she was.
What in Embin's name have I gotten myself into?
NEXT TIME: Here’s where things get really interesting, guys! Be sure to tune in next week, because… over the desert and through the gate, to the accursed Graylands we go!