A small gray stone jutted from the ground just in front of an even smaller hillock of dirt.
Strale Matru, had been chiseled into the stone in sharp, angular letters. Beloved Son, Though We Never Knew You. Rest in Peace.
Kulgan stood in front of the tiny grave, his eyes staring and face completely blank. Kio stood by his side, while Adlis and Za hung back a few feet behind them. As soon as she saw what he was looking at, Adlis raised a hand to her mouth in shock, her ears turning a deep ocean blue.
I think I understand now...
“When?” Kulgan asked in a quiet voice.
“Birth,” Kio answered. She folded her arms, scowling at the small mound of dirt, but her anger wasn't able to mask the grief she felt. “If you could even call it that. He came two months early. Dead before he saw the light of day.”
Kulgan was shaking now. “And he's... he's...”
Kio gave a quick nod of her head. “Yep. He's yours.”
Kulgan stood like an image frozen in time for... Adlis wasn't even sure herself. The clouds passed by overhead, the wind pulled at her hair and dress, and the sun began its descent toward the horizon. Eventually Kulgan shook his head.
“Why?” he asked. “Why would you show me this?”
“Because he's your d'yargo son, you self-centered puken,” Kio hissed back, her voice almost as quiet as his.
When Adlis peered closer, she saw that Kulgan's cheeks were wet with tears. Had she ever seen him cry before? She didn't think so. Even his episode after killing the Kashni had left his eyes as dry as the Taksten.
“I don't need this,” he said, taking a step back. “Haven't I been through enough, Kio? Haven't I felt enough pain?”
He stalked back toward the cottage, his hands trembling, while Kio yelled after him, “He's your son, Kulgan! You think that rock hanging from your neck means you're not responsible for him?”
Kulgan didn't say anything, and Kio took off after him. “You're his father. You should have been there for him. For both of us. Then maybe...”
Kulgan stopped in his tracks and spun to face her. “Then maybe what? He wouldn't have died? What does it matter if I had been there or not? What do you think I could have done?”
“I...” Kio hesitated, blinking away her own tears. “I don't know. But Kulgan, you never even got to meet him!”
“Yeah, well,” Kulgan grunted. “Neither did you, by the sound of it.”
Adlis gasped, and her ears went white. Kio took a step back in surprise. Clenching his fists, Kulgan turned and walked away, dragging his boots through the grass.
“Fine,” Adlis heard Kio muttering. There were tears running down her face now too. “Fine! You just... keep walking. Keep feeling sorry for yourself. You just keep thinking that's going to do you any Pitting good at all!”
Kulgan reached the cottage. He stopped right in front of it, head downcast—and then he punched the wooden wall with all his might. With his face screwed up in agony, he let out the loudest, longest, most gut wrenching scream Adlis had ever heard. In that one long, wordless cry, she felt in his pain, his sorrow, his shame, his regret, and his fear. All of it. Everything he had felt since the moment he'd picked up his Vashiila pendant came flooding out of his mouth in a flood of indescribable torment.
He took his hat off and threw it on the ground and stomped on it. Then, bracing both hands against the wall, he began to beat his head against the side of the cottage. Adlis stumbled backwards in shock, her ears turning green. With every strike, a sickening CRACK would fill the air. Once, twice, three times—Adlis spotted a red mark on the wall, growing larger every time his skull collided with it.
“Za, stop him!” she exclaimed in a shrill voice.
But before the simmk could move, Kio was there, grabbing Kulgan around the middle and tackling him to the ground.
“You d'yargo idiot!” the female Ranger yelled, lying atop him in the tall grass. Kulgan didn't struggle. He laid there as limp as a scarecrow. “Are you trying to kill yourself?”
“What else can I do?” he moaned. “I don't want to do this anymore, Kio. I'm tired of hurting. I'm tired of running. Just let me die.”
He reached up and grabbed her wrist. Kio struggled for a second, but eventually let him guide her hand to the pistol holstered at her waist.
Adlis sucked in a breath. No!
“Just do it,” he whispered.
He pressed her hand closed around the gun—and Kio slapped him with her other hand.
“Do you really think I'm going to let you off that easy?” she snapped. “Grow up and quit your whining already!”
Kulgan stared at her with dead eyes, unmoving. After a minute, Kio's expression softened a little.
“I know things are hard,” she said, speaking more gently now. “But you're wrong about one thing. You do still have something worth living for.”
She raised his hand and pressed it against her chest. “Me.”
“I don't deserve you,” he replied in a hoarse voice.
“You keep making those decisions like they're your decisions to make. Now get up. You've got a couple friends to pay your respects to.”
She rolled off of him, and for a few seconds Kulgan didn't move. Then, with a groan, he picked himself up and shuffled away like he was carrying all of Haroz on his shoulders. Kio sat where she was, watching him until he rounded the corner, and then got up with a sigh.
“He's more broken than ever,” she said.
Adlis jumped a little when she realized the Ranger was talking to her. “I- I'm sorry. I'm... not sure what to say, actually.”
Kio shook her head. “You don't have to say anything. None of this is even your business.”
Adlis nodded, and yet her curiosity continued to gnaw at her. “You two were married, weren't you?”
Kio turned and gave Adlis a dark look. “Young lady, we are married.”
Adlis bobbed her head again. “Yes, I apologize. Now I understand why you seemed so angry at me earlier. I just want to tell you again that Kulgan and I are... well, we're not...”
Kio waved her hand. “Forget it. I knew the two of you weren't sleeping together.”
Once again, the Ranger's bluntness hit Adlis like a ten-horse carriage, and she looked down, the fur on her ears turning bright red.
“Yep, that's exactly why,” Kio sneered. “If there's one thing I don't think will ever change about Kulgan, it's how much he can't stand you soft, pampered little city people. It's something me and him have in common.”
Adlis' ears turned pink, but she didn't say anything. If it had been Kulgan she would have, but Kio... she got the distinct feeling that Kio would actually kill her if she pushed her too far. She had a deal with Kulgan, but Kulgan also seemed more controlled. It was an odd thought, a Twister being having more of a handle on his feelings than a normal human. Then again, perhaps it was because he was a Twister that he was like that. Maybe he knew that he was unbalanced, and so he put forth the extra effort to keep himself in line, while people like Kio were more free to act on their impulses.
Then again, he seemed to be at the end of his rope right now. Adlis frowned, looking worriedly in the direction Kulgan had gone.
“Is he going to be all right?” she asked.
Kio folded her arms and leaned against her cottage, not seeming to care that she was getting Kulgan's blood on her clothes. “What do you care? He's a Twister.”
Adlis frowned. “Maybe so, but he did agree to guide me and Za back to Arborough when he could have just as easily left us in the desert. He may be rude and mean...” Kio scowled at that, and Adlis rolled her eyes. “Oh, don't pretend he isn't! But the fact remains that he's gone out of his way to help us, even though it's put him in danger. That must mean that, Twister or not, there's still some good left in him.”
Kio hummed in her throat, staring intently at the zik maiden. Adlis stood there, unmoving, unsure of what to do or say. Her ears turned pink again from the Ranger's unblinking scrutiny, and then lightened to gray. Had she made her mad? Was she about to wind up on the wrong end of a punch too? Or worse... she remembered how casually Kio had pointed that rifle at her in the pit.
Adlis was so deep in thought that when Kio jerked her thumb toward the door, she nearly jumped out of her fur.
“You,” Kio said, looking at Za, “go inside and get started on dinner. There's meat in the icebox and vegetables in the cupboard. Have another stew ready in a couple of hours.”
Adlis turned to look at her simmk friend. He was standing a few feet away, still trying to tug his sleeves over his wrists. He jumped when he heard her, just like Adlis had. Adlis frowned. They had only met Kio an hour or so ago, and yet those were the first words she had spoken to Za. Za turned to her, as if waiting for permission. Adlis thought about rebuking Kio for ordering him around like that, but decided against it. Kio still had a gun holstered at her side.
To her surprise, though, Za came to his own defense.
“I- um, uh...” he stammered.
“You deaf or something?” Kio snapped. “I told you to go get supper ready!”
Za took a deep breath, clenched his fists by his sides, and stood up straight.
“No, ma'am,” he said.
Stunned silence. Adlis' mouth fell open.
Kio pushed herself away from the wall. “What'd you say to me?”
“I- I- I said no, ma'am,” Za told her. He was shaking so hard Adlis thought his clothes would fall off, and the vibrations were only making his stutter worse. “I- I am a f-f-free simmk, and I don't answer to n-n-no master. S-S-So no, I ain't gonna go m-make you your supper, ma'am.”
Kio's expression darkened, and she looked at Adlis. “You hear what your simmk's saying to me?”
Oh dear Embin, Adlis thought. Her ears were as white now as they'd ever been. I'm going to die.
Out loud she said, “Um, Za? I think it might be prudent for you to do what Mrs. Kio asked. She... She's our host after all, and we want to be gracious guests, don't we?”
The look Za gave her was one of utter betrayal. Once again, she was struck by just how much emotion he could radiate through that mask of his.
“Miss Adlis...” he whispered.
Adlis' ears turned blue again, and her chest tightened, but she made herself shake her head resolutely. “Go on inside, Za. I'll come join you in a little bit.”
Za wilted like a flower under a late spring frost. He didn't say another word, but the way he hunched over and dragged his feet through the dirt told Adlis everything she needed to know.
“You've let him get mouthy,” Kio said, leaning against the wall again. “A couple good beatings'll take care of that.”
It's... It's only because Kio would have hurt him if he hadn't obeyed, she thought, watching him disappear through the door. I had a good reason. He'll understand once I explain it to him.
Why, then, did it feel like she had just stabbed him in the back?
She needed a way to distract herself before her guilt took her over, so she turned to Kio again. “How did Kulgan get his pendant?”
Kio turned to her so suddenly that Adlis flinched. “What business is that of yours?” she demanded.
“I... I was just wondering,” Adlis said, taking a step backward. “We've been travelling with him for...”
She paused. They'd spent a night together in the bandit camp, then another after chasing the Red Fangs away. Kulgan had driven the wagon through the night after getting supplies from Hammeth, and then they'd spent two nights in the Graylands after escaping the titantulas.
“It's only been five days,” she whispered, eyes wide. “But... how? It feels like it's been weeks. Months, even!”
Kio chuckled. “Soft and pampered, just like I said. Show you a little action, and it scars you for life.”
Suddenly Adlis' knees felt weak beneath her. “I think I... need to sit down,” she gasped. She put her back against the wall and sank down onto the ground beside Kio. Five days. Everything she'd seen, everything she'd been through, and it had only been five measly days.
Kio was saying something. Adlis looked up at her. “What?”
“I said, I remember when I was like you.”
Adlis blinked. “I find that very hard to believe.”
To her surprise, Kio leaned her head back and laughed at that. “It is, isn't it? I told you I hate city folk, didn't I? Well, part of that's because...” She sighed. “Because you remind me of who I used to be. I was born into a rich family. My grandfather's land had oil, and it got them so much money overnight that they didn't know what to do with it. I had everything I could have ever wanted...”
“Everything your parents thought you wanted, anyway,” Adlis cut her off. Kio looked down at her in surprise, and Adlis just shrugged.
“Yeah... Anyway, I never liked it. We were living the fancy life. My father didn't even have the decency to be eccentric in his wealth. That meant being prim and proper all the time. All those d'yargo dresses, all those d'yargo lessons, all those d'yargo tutors telling me not to say d'yargo. I told my father I wanted to ride horses, and he bought me a pony that only stood as high as my knees. When I told him I wanted to shoot guns, he just about died from a heart attack.”
Adlis found herself nodding. “You ran away too?”
She froze when she realized what had come out of her mouth. Kio looked down at her. “What?”
“I asked, did you run away?” Adlis blurted out, her ears turning white again. Her heart was pounding a mile a minute. How could she have been so careless?
Luckily, Kio didn't seem to have noticed anything. “Yeah, I ran away. I waited till midnight on my eighteenth birthday, and then I climbed out my bedroom window, stole one of my father's horses, and rode to the nearest city. There I joined the Gray Rangers.”
She sighed and shrugged. “I wondered for a long time if that had been a bad idea. I was angry and I was excited. Probably not the best time to be making decisions. But I'd already signed on. There was no going back. Didn't stop me from questioning myself every single minute of every day. You know, the day I stopped second guessing myself... was the day I met him.”
Adlis looked up to see Kio looking out into the distance, where her husband had gone.
“Kulgan?” she asked.
“Of course, you daft bimbo. Who else?”
Adlis' ears pinkened, but Kio didn't seem to notice.
“He was a Son of Gray, so training for him was barely a formality. That's where we met. I don't know what it was, but we just... connected with each other. He liked me for my enthusiasm. He said I had spunk. I told him he sounded like an old geezer. And I liked him because he could be tough and genuine at the same time. He was serious when he had to be, and really sweet when he didn't.”
She paused, and a smirk rose to her lips. “Didn't hurt that he was handsome too. Even moreso when you got him out of his clothes. The way he touched me... ran his hands across my skin... the way he touched my—”
“Miss Kilo, please,” Adlis cut her off. Her ears were burning pink again.
Kio laughed, a wicked gleam in her eye. “Fine, fine, I'll skip the good parts. Spare your poor little virgin ears. It didn't take us long to get hitched. Now that was a party. Do you know how many weddings the Gray Rangers get to celebrate? I'll tell you, when we had ours it probably raised that number back up to zero. Everybody was drunk, everybody was fighting. I knocked my commanding officer out for three days straight. It was great.”
The smile fell from her face. “It didn't last, though. We did our job with the Rangers, patrolling the Graylands, for about two years. We had our own squad by that point. Me, Kulgan, and a couple of ziks. They were brothers. Twins. Everything was going about as well as it could in the Graylands, but then...” She paused and took a deep breath. “We were being chased by a Shapeless. It knocked Kulgan off his kashnila, and he went rolling down a hill. The twins took care of the Shapeless and I went after him. And when I found him...”
I think I can guess, Adlis thought with a sinking feeling in her chest. Wings, a tail, a stinger. Maybe more.
“It was lying there on the ground,” Kio went on, looking more downcast with every word. “Who knows how long it had been there? And Kulgan just happened to scrape his arm on it when he went rolling down the hill. That was all it took. It wasn't his fault. It wasn't...”
Adlis' ears turned blue again. Suddenly, every foul thing she'd said about Kulgan came back to her, each like a knife in her chest. All this time she'd thought he had chosen this of his own will. Betraying his people, his god, and all of creation itself just because he'd wanted to. But to think it had been an accident all along, that he hadn't had a choice in the matter... It made her want to cry for him.
Kio's story wasn't done yet, though. “By the time the others found us, the changes had finally worn off. Kulgan was scared out of his mind. And who could blame him? If the other Rangers had found out, they would have killed him without a second thought. We managed to keep it a secret, though. Kulgan hid the rock, and we kept going on our patrol like nothing was wrong.
“Kulgan and I knew that we couldn't go back to base. Even if the rest of our squad didn't find out, someone eventually would. We didn't know what to do. When we happened across an undiscovered gate, it felt like a miracle.” Kio snorted. “As if Embin would ever give a Twister and his wife a miracle. But it was exactly what we needed. We could stay there, and never go back. The church wouldn't be able to find us if nobody told them what had happened.”
“The twins didn't agree, did they?” Adlis asked.
Kio shook her head. “They were our friends. Our best friends. We thought they'd understand like I had. But they said they had to stay loyal to the Gray Rangers. They said they were sorry, but they were going to turn us in. So we...” she closed her eyes, exhaling slowly. “We killed them. Kulgan and me both. We pretended like we were going to let them go, and then ambushed them in the mineshaft. I can still see the look in their eyes when we...”
Kio had to stop, sniffling. She wiped a thumb across her eyes, drying her tears.
“I think that was when Kulgan truly broke,” she said once she'd collected herself. “We buried them, and he took their guns to remember them by. A pair of dawniron pistols, forged from the links of Embin's chain itself. Family heirlooms. He went for weeks after that not saying a word. He helped me build the cottage. I thought we'd stay there the rest of our lives, but the day after we put the finishing touches on the place, I woke up tied to a chair. Kulgan said he had to leave. He didn't deserve me, he said. He was going through the gate, and if some Grayland monster didn't pick him off he was going to go into hiding for the rest of his life. We'd never see each other again, and that was the only way he could keep me safe from himself.”
“Why didn't you go after him?” Adlis asked.
“I wanted to. I planned to. But nobody can tie knots better than a Gray Ranger. It took me two days to get free, and by the time I did, I knew.”
“You knew what?”
“I knew that I was pregnant,” she whispered. Her hand came up and caressed her stomach as if she could still feel the bump. “I was torn. Did I go after my husband or take care of my child? Eventually I chose the child, but then...” Her eyes drifted toward the tiny grave again. “And by that time the trail had gone cold. I had no way to find him. All I could do was stay here, all alone, never leaving, and hope that someday he'd... come... back.”
Overwhelmed by the power of her own memories, Kio sank down until she was sitting next to Adlis. She buried her face in her arms, sobbing, the polar opposite of the cold, imposing woman she had been before.
“I'm sorry,” Adlis said. She reached up to pat her on the shoulder, but stopped herself. Kio didn't reply anyway, drowning in her grief like she was. It was all Adlis could do to keep from breaking down herself.
Eventually, just as the sun was beginning to set, Adlis stood up and left Kio to grieve alone. Not knowing what else to do, she rounded the corner of the cottage where Kulgan had gone earlier. She spotted him in the distance, kneeling down in front of two more headstones. These ones were bigger. Slowly, she made her way over to him. He looked up when he heard her footsteps.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“The day I can honestly say I'm all right,” he answered, “is the day I'm buried alongside these two.”
Adlis shook her head. “Don't talk like that! You still have things to live for.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
A spark of Adlis' contrariness came back to her, and she pointed back in the direction she'd come from. “Like that poor woman you left over there. She's crying her eyes out right now, all alone.”
Kulgan looked sadly toward the cottage and shook his head. “She's better off without me. Everyone is. She doesn't even have to stay here anymore. She can leave, start a new life somewhere else. Maybe even rejoin the Rangers. But all I'll do is make things worse.”
Adlis opened her mouth to argue, but Kulgan cut her off, getting to his feet. “We'll stay here for the night. Kio wouldn't let us leave before that anyway. But once morning gets here, be ready to start travelling again.”
Adlis' ears turned blue again. “You're just going to leave her again? How heartless are you?”
Kulgan walked past her, his sleeve brushing her arm. “I'm a Twister. That's just what we do.”
And then he was gone, disappearing through the cottage door again. Adlis sighed. She wished she could do something to help him, but, just like everything else that had happened today, it wasn't her place. The smell of stew was coming out of the chimney again, reminding her that she hadn't even finished the bowl Kio had given her earlier.
It's his decision, she thought. Only he can make it... even if it's the wrong one.
Before she turned to go back inside, she took a step closer to get a better look at the two tombstones. Just like the child's, their names had been chiseled into them as if someone had used a nail and a hammer to do it.
Zam Ushtira, said one.
Zagyr Ushtira, said the other.
Twins betrayed. Wherever you are now, we hope you can forgive us.
NEXT TIME: Sorry, guys. No jokes this week. Be here next week for the next chapter.