Adlis looked from Kulgan to the shadowy figure standing at the edge of the pit.
Did he just call her Honey? she wondered in bewilderment.
The shadow moved so that she was holding her rifle in both hands, her finger on the trigger, and for one terrifying minute she thought their captor was going to kill them then and there. She hesitated, though, and Kulgan looked hopefully up at her.
“So, uh, any chance of you letting us out of here?” he asked.
The woman motioned with her gun toward Adlis and Za. “And who're these two? Your new partners in crime?”
“You, uh...” Kulgan chuckled weakly. “Yeah, you could say that.”
Adlis wasn't sure what bothered her more: the way Kulgan nonchalantly accused her of being a criminal, or the fact that she wasn't sure whether he was telling the truth or not.
The woman above grunted. “That one's a girl. Young one at that. Is she your new...”
“No, nope, nope, no,” Kulgan interrupted her, waving his hands frantically. “It's not what you think. She's just...”
Adlis' ears went pink, and then bright red when she realized what the woman was insinuating.
“Why I never!” she shouted, cutting Kulgan off. Despite his earlier warnings, she tried to stand up on the net, fists shaking in her fury. “How dare you? I'll have you know that my... relationship to Mr. Kulgan is purely professional!”
The shadowy woman chuckled. “She's certainly mouthy enough for you.”
“Adlis, sit down before you kill us!” Kulgan snapped. Adlis ignored him.
“To think that anybody would accuse me of... of...”
“Adlis, stop talking.”
... of having such a relation with a...”
“Adlis, shut up!”
“... A horrible, disgusting...”
“... Twisted man is possibly the most insulting—”
Adlis blinked. The woman had moved fast, so fast that she hadn't even seen it, and now she was staring down the shiny chrome barrel of a rifle. A rifle that, judging by the way the woman was cocking it, she guessed was probably loaded.
“Adlis,” Kulgan said again, more slowly and softly this time, like he was trying to keep from startling a wild animal, “shut your Pitting mouth and sit your tail back down. Now.”
This time, Adlis did as she was told. As soon as she was seated on the net, the woman raised the gun again.
“You're going to need to refrain from saying things like that around me, girl,” she said.
Kulgan breathed an audible sigh of relief. Adlis looked from him to the woman in confusion.
What's going on? she thought. Who is this?
“So... about letting us out?” Kulgan asked again.
When the woman spoke again, her voice was hard with anger. “Kulgan Matru, the last time I saw you, you tied me to a chair, took half our rations, and said we'd never see each other again. I set that trap specifically for you, but I never thought I'd get to use it. Can you give me one reason I shouldn't cut that net right now and be done with you?”
Kulgan opened his mouth, eyes gleaming like he was going to deliver one of his cutting remarks, but then he closed it and looked down in shame.
“No, I can't,” he admitted.
The woman barked a laugh. “Is that honesty coming out of your mouth for once? Girl, what parts of the Pit have you been dragging him through?”
Adlis wasn't sure if she expected an answer or not. Remembering what had happened last time, she chose to keep her mouth shut. Luckily, Kulgan brought her attention back to him a moment later.
“You're right, I did wrong by you,” he said, still looking down. “And I’m... I'm sorry for it. I can't fix things now, and I can't expect you to forgive me. But please, I need your help.”
The woman laughed again. “You've still got a lot of nerve, Kulgan. I guess some things never change, do they?”
She vanished from the side of the trap, and Adlis' fear spiked with the thought that she'd left them there to die. A few seconds later, though, she reappeared, throwing a rope ladder down to them.
“Come on up, I guess,” she said. “You've got a lot of explaining to do.”
The ladder unrolled as it fell, bouncing when it reached its limit a few inches above the net.
“Adlis, Za, you two go first,” Kulgan said. His voice sounded dull again, dead.
Adlis leaned a little closer to him. “Kulgan, who is that?”
Kulgan looked up at her, and she could see the guilt in his eyes. He shook his head. “Don't ask any questions while you're here, okay? Just keep quiet and hope she lets us leave with all our limbs attached.”
Za was already at the ladder, holding onto it with one hand to try and keep the net from bouncing. “Come on, Miss Adlis!” he whispered, motioning for her to hurry up.
Adlis began to rise, but then a thought occurred to her.
“What about my ears?” she asked, turning to Kulgan again. “Will she...”
He shook his head. “You don't have to worry. Just go.”
His soft, defeated voice was the opposite of reassuring to her, but given the choice between facing whoever was up there and staying here in the spike pit, she grabbed the first rung on the ladder and started her ascent.
The midday sun was almost as blinding coming out of the pit as it had been when she'd come out of the mineshaft, and she had to raise her hand to shield her eyes. The soft grass was a welcome feeling to her sore feet, though, after days trekking through the rocky gray wasteland. She sat down in it, waiting for her eyes to adjust again.
When they did, she was greeted by the sight of a stern looking woman clutching a rifle in both hands. Her skin was dark, her eyes darker, and she wore a button up shirt and a pair of pants instead of a dress. Her arms were hard with muscle, and yet her body still retained a sleek feminine figure. It was her hair that caught Adlis' attention, though. She was obviously only in her midtwenties, but her hair, hanging down past her neck in a braid, was as gray as iron.
Just like Kulgan's.
“You're another Gray Ranger,” Adlis breathed as Za crawled out of the hole, followed closely by Kulgan.
The woman eyed Adlis with displeasure. “Ain't no Rangers here, girl. Just a couple of sorry pukens who used to be.”
“Kio.” Kulgan got to his feet, looking at her. The woman turned to him. “It's good to see you.”
The woman, Kio, Adlis guessed her name must be, narrowed her eyes. “Are you telling the truth, or are you lying again?”
Kulgan smirked. “Does it matter?”
“I never could tell. You were always so good at it.”
“And what do you want the answer to be?”
Kio didn't move or say anything for almost a full minute. Then, with a sigh, she dropped her gun and wrapped Kulgan in an embrace.
“I hate you,” she said into his shoulder, “but it's good to see you too. I missed you, Kulgan.”
“I missed you too,” Kulgan said, hugging her back.
Adlis was the only one who saw the way he cringed when he said that.
Who are you, Kio? she wondered. She kept her mouth shut, though, just like Kulgan had told her.
A moment later they separated, and Kio retrieved her gun. “Well, you all may as well come in.”
She turned and led the way through the grass and over a hill. Kulgan followed right behind her. Adlis and Za hesitated a second. They shared a glance.
“Do you think it's safe, Miss Adlis?” the simmk asked.
Adlis thought for a minute, and then shook her head. “No, I don't think it is. That woman is clearly not in her right mind.”
“What do we do, then?”
She took a deep breath. “Kulgan's already gone with her, so we have to too. What other choice do we have?”
Za turned and grabbed her by the forearm. “We could leave 'em both, Miss Adlis! Set off on our own again, just like when we started!”
“And go where? Back into the Graylands?”
“We could just...”
“Za, we have no idea where we are, and we have no supplies! We have to go with them!”
Before Za could argue further, Adlis hiked her dress up a bit so it wouldn't catch in the grass and took off after the two humans. Just like she'd known he would, Za groaned and caught up with her a few seconds later.
When they reached the others, Kulgan and Kio acted like they'd never been missing.
“So, are you going to tell me why you've come crawling back now of all times?” Kio asked.
Kulgan sighed. “Things have been happening, Kio. Things are... changing.”
The woman huffed. “I could've told you that. How long have you been with the puff back there?” Adlis' ears turned pink. “And how've you not put a bullet in her head already?”
Adlis' ears went from pink to gray.
“You know, I wonder that myself every day.”
Before they could talk further, they crested the hill they were climbing and stopped. Adlis came to stand beside them a moment later, and looked down to see a little cottage waiting for them at the bottom of the hill. Smoke curled gently from the chimney, carrying the faint scent of food before being carried away on the warm breeze.
“It's exactly how I remember it,” Kulgan said, his voice barely a whisper.
“Well, what'd you expect?” Kio asked. “I couldn't very well do anything to it by myself.”
They set off, going back down again. Kio opened the door, impatiently waving them all inside. Adlis went in first, eager for a chance to be indoors after so many nights spent out in the elements. It was a simple home, sparsely decorated, and a thin layer of dust covered almost everything.
It's almost like a man lives here, she thought idly, making for a chair by the fireplace. A pot of stew boiled in there.
“I have to say,” Kulgan said, stepping inside as well, “I'm a little surprised how well you're taking this.”
Za came in last, and Kio shut the door behind him—and then backhanded Kulgan across the face. Adlis rose from her seat a little, her ears paling, but when Kulgan didn't react and Kio didn't hit him again, she slowly sat back down.
“It's lonely out here,” Kio snapped, brushing past him and heading for the stewpot. “Anything's better than talking to myself. I'd invite one of those Ashen Priests in for dinner and a nice chat if one of them stopped by. So...” she hesitated, “don't go feeling like I'm not still ready to kill you for what you did.”
Ashen Priest? Adlis thought, casting a curious look at Kulgan. What's...
Kulgan stood still as a statue, one hand on his cheek where Kio had slapped him, his face as white as chalk. That only served to make Adlis even more worried.
Kio retrieved four bowls from the cabinet, pausing to spit into one and wipe out a smudge with her sleeve, and began to fill them with stew. Adlis' ears took on a green tinge, and watched the bowls carefully as they were passed out. Did Kio give her the one she'd spat in? She wasn't sure, and only the desperate growling in her stomach was enough to make her dip her spoon in and take a bite anyway.
It was good. A little bland and spiceless, but the vegetables were ripe and the meat was juicy. Adlis took another bite.
“So,” Kio said, sitting back down by on a stool. She took a swig from her own bowl, not bothering to use a spoon. “You gonna tell me what this is all about? Who are these two?”
Kulgan was staring into his soup without taking a bite. His spoon hung limply from his fingers.
“The zik is named Adlis,” he finally answered. “The simmk is Za. They... happened upon me while I was hiding out in the Taksten.”
Happened upon? Adlis wondered, arching an eyebrow. Is that what he calls it?
He shrugged. “Adlis needs to get home. There was nobody else to do it, so...”
“So, you're bringing her there?” Kio finished for him.
For a long minute, nobody said anything. Adlis took a few more bites of her stew, and then became aware of someone's eyes boring into the top of her skull. She looked up to see Kio glaring at her with undisguised hostility. Her ears grayed again.
“What's with the ears?” the Ranger woman asked.
Kulgan opened his mouth to answer, but Adlis was already talking. “I was... kidnapped by outlaws. They sold me to a brothel in Tolk, and used magic to make my ears change color. Za helped me escape,” she looked at the simmk, who was sitting alone in the corner with his soup, “but we got lost. Mr. Kulgan is helping us get back to Arborough.”
When Kio didn't say anything right away, Adlis cringed a little.
“We- We're very grateful for all his help,” she added lamely.
Kio turned skeptical eyes on Kulgan. “Is this what lights your fire these days, Kulgan? Little Miss Submissive?”
Adlis jumped so hard when she heard this that her bowl of stew toppled out of her lap. Her ears and Kulgan's face were both identical shades of red.
“I told you, it isn't like that,” Kulgan snapped.
Kio wasn't listening to him, though. “Yes, Mr. Kulgan. No, Mr. Kulgan,” she wheedled in a sappy sweet voice, batting her lashes. “Do I have permission to wear clothes today, Mr. Kulgan?”
Adlis wanted to jump up and scream at the gray haired woman. She wanted to slap her. She wanted to run out of the cottage and cry. As stunned as she was, though, all she could do was look helplessly at Kio, tears welling up in her eyes, and utter a pitiful, pathetic squeak.
To her surprise, though, it was Kulgan who came to her rescue.
“That's enough!” he yelled, standing up so quickly that his chair toppled over backwards, and his stew splattered across the floor, untouched. “Kio, I know things aren't right between us, but don't take it out on Adlis. This doesn’t involve her.”
Kio put her hands on her hips, regarding the other Ranger. “I see you're not wearing your ring anymore.”
All at once, the anger fell from Kulgan's face, and he looked down again. “I still have it. I just... it didn't feel right to wear it.”
“Because...” He shrugged. “It was over. I knew you wouldn't want to... with me... with a Twister.”
Some of Adlis' humiliation faded away as she watched the two of them argue. Things were getting stranger here by the minute.
His words only seemed to make Kio even angrier.
“And you didn't think I should have been a part of that decision?” she demanded, taking a step closer to him. “What, my opinion doesn't matter? Kulgan, you may be a complete and total puken, but did it ever occur to you that maybe I still lo—”
“Don't say it!” Kulgan exclaimed. He turned away from her, facing the wall, and covered his ears. “Don't say it Kio. It's wrong, and I don't want to hear it!”
Adlis looked from him to Kio. For a split second, the female Ranger looked like she was going to cry. Then she collected herself and folded her arms.
“Maybe it's wrong, maybe it's not,” she said softly. “But it's still my decision. And I do.”
Kulgan drew in a long, hissing breath through his teeth, but didn't reply.
“You're not evil, Kulgan. To the Pit with the church, you're a good man. You always have been, and that d'yargo rock doesn't change anything!”
That made Adlis sit up a little straighter. At eighteen years old, she wasn't old by any means, and yet that was a statement she had never heard in all her years. She had a feeling she could live to be three hundred and never hear another person say that a Twister could be a good person. And yet here Kio stood, saying just that as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
Kulgan shook his head. “You don't understand, Kio. You never have. It does change things. It changes everything.”
Silence fell over the cabin for a long time. Anxiety gnawed at Adlis' stomach as if Kio had mixed live termites into her stew, but she didn't dare break the silence. Kulgan was an enigma, and Kio even moreso, but she knew that this wasn't something that she should interfere in.
Finally, Kulgan drew himself up. “We're leaving as soon as we can. Adlis, Za, and I. We only came this way because we had to.”
Kio's mouth fell open. “So you... you didn't come here because of... because...”
He shook his head. “I told you, I never wanted you to see me again. If I'd had any other option, I would have used it. Even when we walked through that gate, I hoped you wouldn't see us. I thought maybe you'd be...”
“You hoped maybe I'd be dead?” Kio's voice was low and dangerous.
Kulgan spun around. “No! Of course not! I just...”
His voice trailed off, and this time Kio didn't say anything. The two of them lapsed into silence again.
“Before we leave,” Kulgan eventually said, “I'd like to pay my respects. Are they still where we left them?”
Kio scowled at him. “Where else would they be, you idiot?”
Kulgan bobbed his head. “Okay. I'll just—”
“No.” Kio stepped between him and the door. Kulgan's eyes widened in surprise. “First, there's somebody else you need to meet.”
Kulgan stared at her, nonplussed. “Who?”
Kio narrowed her eyes, and her mouth became a thin, hard line.
NEXT TIME: Bum bum BUMMMMMMM! Kulgan’s a daddy! I love babies. Babies are awesome. I wonder, when two Gray Rangers have a kid, are they born with gray hair? Find out next week!