The dim light of dawn peeked through the window as Kulgan fished a new shirt out of Kio's closet, his old one lying buttonless on the floor. He had been gone for four years, and yet she had kept every item of his clothing just in case he ever came back. For that, he was grateful—even if it was her fault his old shirt was ruined.
They had been at it for hours. Kulgan had lost track of time pretty early on, but he was sure that night had become morning before they'd finally both collapsed from sheer exhaustion, cradling each other in their arms. He doubted he'd even gotten four hours of sleep, and yet he felt surprisingly rested. More rested than he'd felt since...
Since the last time he'd left her.
He frowned, clenching his fist. He had hoped she wouldn't wake up until after he was gone. He should have known better.
“Kulgan, what is this?”
Slowly, he turned around to see his wife looking at him in terror. Thick, strong ropes were wrapped around her, winding all the way under the mattress to ensure that she wouldn't get out of bed. She struggled against them for a few seconds to no avail. Kulgan had tied those knots so tightly that he, himself, would have had a hard time getting out.
“I'm sorry,” he said softly.
Realization dawned on his wife's face. “You lied to me,” she whispered.
Kulgan nodded. “You said it yourself: that's what I'm good at.”
She thrashed underneath her restraints, as if she could break them with her sheer force of will. “You double crossing puken!” she yelled, spittle flying from her mouth in her rage. “Let me go this instant!”
With a sigh, Kulgan crossed the room to retrieve his boots. “I can't do that, Kio. I know you don't understand. You probably never will. But I can't let you be with me.”
“The Pit you can't!” she spat back at him. “You lying, thieving sack of kashnila crap!”
“You used me, you puken!” There were tears running down her cheeks. “You got me in bed with you, and now you're running away again!”
Kulgan raised a finger. “Okay, let's be fair here. You dragged me into bed, not the other way around.”
“Shut your whore mouth, Kulgan! How can you keep doing this to me?”
He sighed and shrugged. “This isn't any easier for than it is for you. But someone has to do it. So I will.”
“Why, though? You want to be with me. I know you do, Kulgan. Why do you keep doing this to yourself? To both of us?”
“Because of this.” He closed his eyes and fished his pendant out from under his shirt again. The one thing on Haroz he loved more than his wife, and hated more than himself. Even as he showed it to her, his fingers barely brushing its oily black surface, he could feel his emotions warring with each other. He could hear the voices...
Do it. Drive it into your skin. Stab. Pierce. Twist!
What frightened him even more were the other voices. The ones that only came out when he was with her.
She doesn't understand.
He put the pendant away before the tempting voices could take over. In those few seconds, his skin had broken out in cold sweat, and he was shaking. Kio was still glaring at him.
“You love that d'yargo rock more than me, is that it?” she demanded, still writhing under the ropes.
He shook his head. That was another lie, but only half of one. Only half of him loved the pendant, but all of him loved Kio. The real him, and the Twister. That scared him too. How much of the real him was there left? How much of him had been eaten away by the pendant? If he did what she asked and brought her with him, how long would he be able to keep her safe? Protecting her from bandits and monsters was one thing. How long would he be able to protect her from himself?
Every time he went into the Graylands, he discovered another fate that was worse than death. Seeing Kio become like him, corrupted and unnatural, was worse than any of those.
“I want you to do something for me while I'm gone,” he said, looking at the wall above her head, unable to meet her gaze. “Learn to hate me.”
Kio fell still. “Kulgan...”
“Convince yourself that you're happier without me. Curse my name every time you think of me. Forget all our happy memories. Remember every time I've ever wronged you. Make up new ones if you have to. Just... one way or another, stop loving me.”
“Are you an idiot?” she screamed. “No, wait, of course you are! You know I could never do that, Kulgan!”
He shook his head and turned away. “Then there's nothing else I can do for you.”
“You can untie me and—”
He reached for the doorknob.
“Kulgan, please,” she beseeched him. “Don't go. Don't do this to me again, I'm begging you! Please!”
He turned the doorknob and opened the door. “Goodbye, Kio. I hope you have a happy life.”
He put one foot out the door.
“I love you.”
Finally, he turned to look at her. Directly at her. Seeing his wife tied to the bed so soundly that she could barely move, crying her eyes out... it was like someone was prying his ribs open with a rusty bar and tearing his heart out.
“I love you too,” he said.
Then he shut the door.
Kio's wails were audible even through the wall as he stepped into the kitchen, where Adlis and Za were waiting. He had woken them both before tying Kio up and told them to get ready. Za was wearing a new coat Kulgan had nicked from their closet, and Adlis had replaced her torn up dress with one of Kio's. Kulgan didn't give a wolf hornet's tail about fashion, but he knew that anything that helped them pass through unnoticed would be worthwhile. More important than the dress was the hat she now wore on her head. It was the same kind of hat Kulgan wore, only her’s was brown. The material was heavier than the sun hat he'd gotten her before, which meant it would be harder to lose. She might get a few strange looks for wearing a rugged man's hat with a lady's dress, but strange looks he could deal with when the other option was showing off her ears to everyone.
“Ready to go?” he asked, picking up his sack. Za was carrying one as well. Not much—he didn't want Kio to go hungry—but enough to last the next part of their journey.
Adlis looked at the bedroom door, frowning. “Kulgan, this isn't right.”
“I don't know if you've noticed, puff, but not a lot of what's happened over the past few days can be called right. “
“That doesn't make it okay, though,” she argued.
He made for the door, trying to block out his wife's heart wrenching sobs. “Tell you what: if you want, you're more than welcome to stay here with her. Za and I'll go to Arborough by ourselves.”
He glanced at the simmk, waiting for him to declare that he wasn't going anywhere without Miss Adlis. Za remained silent, though. Odd.
His words had the intended effect anyway. “I'm coming,” Adlis said, scowling at him. “I just hope you can live with yourself after leaving your wife in this state.”
“KULGAAAAAN!” Kio howled through the wall.
Kulgan paused. “I've learned to live with a lot of things I wish I hadn't,” he said so softly he could barely hear himself under Kio's cries.
He could feel his resolve weakening with every passing second. If he didn't leave soon, he was going to... No. He couldn't allow that to happen. Steeling himself, he marched up to the door, swung it open, and stepped outside. He waited for Adlis and Za to come out behind him, and then he set off into the wild grasslands. Eventually, Kio's screams faded to silence.
He didn't look back once.
The three of them walked in silence for more than an hour. Kulgan was fine with that. He didn't feel like talking to anyone. The only thing he did feel like doing was turning tail and running back to his wife. It took more concentration than it should have for him to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Of course, the silence didn't last much longer than that.
“So, where exactly are we?” Adlis asked. By then the sun was a little less than a quarter of the way up the sky.
“The Hyeva Grasslands,” he answered. “Off in the northeast part of Tassendile.”
Adlis' head perked up with excitement. “The northeast? Then that means we're across the mountains!”
He nodded. “I told you the Graylands were a shortcut. Even with everything we went through, we still made it past the mountains in a couple of days.”
“And that means,” she rattled on, “that we're almost there! It should be a straight shot from here to Arborough!”
“That's what I said last night. Once we get to a big enough town, we should be able to take a carriage the rest of the way.”
Adlis leaned her head back luxuriously. “Oh, that sounds heavenly. Now more walking! Can we stay the night in an inn, too? What I wouldn't give for a bath and a few hours with a hairbrush.”
“Doubt it,” Kulgan grunted. “Not unless you've got some money hidden away where I can't see it.”
Adlis blushed, but shook her head. “That's a good point.” She immediately perked back up again. “Oh, well. I suppose I can wait another few days for that. Did you hear that, though, Za? We're almost—”
She looked at the simmk, and cut herself off. When she faced forward again, Kulgan saw a grimmer look on her face than he'd ever seen before. He gave Za a curious glance.
“Yes, Mistress,” the simmk replied, voice emotionless. “I heard him.”
Mistress? That's new. When did Za start acting so... normal?
He put that from his mind. The last thing he wanted was to start yet another argument. Adlis was acting strangely compliant. No need to ruin things just yet.
The group lapsed into silence for another couple of hours, the only sounds being the wind rustling the grass, their footsteps, and some birds singing somewhere in the distance. Eventually, once the sun told him it was noon and—more importantly—Kio's house had long since vanished from sight, Kulgan called for a break.
“Za's pack has water and food,” he said, sitting down in the grass. “Drink as much as you need. If you're hungry, eat.”
Adlis arched an eyebrow as she sat down across from him. “You're not rationing things this time?”
He shook his head. “No need. We only need this to last until we get to town. We can restock there.”
“You mean steal,” the zik girl said wryly.
“I don't mean starve. Good enough for you?”
Adlis sighed, but didn't reply. “Za, can I have a little bit of bread and cheese?”
Kulgan squinted at Za as he wordlessly fished what Adlis had requested from the bag.
“Do you require anything, Master?” he asked, turning to Kulgan.
“Uh, yeah. I need you to stop with the Master thing. You're creeping me out.”
Za bowed his head subserviently, closing the bag. “I apologize, sir. It won't happen again.”
Kulgan pointed at him. “All right, Sackhead, who are you and what did you do with Za?”
“I am Za, sir. Is there anything I can do for you?”
“What are you doing?” Kulgan's patience was beginning to run thin. “You're acting like every other simmk.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Well, why? I thought you were free or something!”
Za didn't answer right away. He looked down at his gloved hands, resting neatly in his lap.
“I'm not free, sir. I'm just your humble servant.”
Adlis made a choking noise, and Kulgan turned to see her hand clamped over her mouth, tears running down her cheeks. His eyes widened.
What happened last night? he wondered.
No point in worrying about it now, though. Whatever spat those two were having, they could work it out on their own. All Kulgan needed to do was guide them onwards and get them home safely. He gave them a few more minutes to rest, and then they set off again.
They came across a road not much later. It was a crude road, barely more than a path, but the hard packed dirt had managed to keep from getting overgrown by the wild grass that walled it in on both sides. Kulgan didn't even have to pause before turning left and following it.
“Aren't you worried about someone seeing us?” Adlis asked.
“So what if they do?” he asked back. “We're just two travelers and their simmk servant.”
“But what if someone sees my ears? Or your pendant?” She looked warily up and down the path. There was no one in sight, but that didn't mean someone wouldn't come wandering over the next hill at any moment.
Kulgan shrugged. “Are you planning on taking your hat off in front of them?”
“Well, no, but...”
“Then you don't have to worry about them seeing your ears, do you?”
Adlis scowled at him. “I'm just saying, you're taking a lot fewer precautions than I think are necessary when we're just walking along a public road.”
“The thing about precautions, puff,” he said, “is that the more of them you take, the more obvious they get. Sometimes the best way to blend in is just to act like you belong wherever you are. That's how I lived in Everdry for four years, after all.”
Adlis still didn't look satisfied, but when she didn't argue further, Kulgan didn't either.
His point was proven a half hour later when a horse and cart trundled up the path behind them, driven by a Kashni. He pulled up beside them, and despite his imposing size his eyes twinkled with good humor.
“Howdy,” he said. “Y'all look like ya've had a long trip.”
“That we have, stranger,” Kulgan said with a polite tip of his hat.
“Well, ya still got a long ways to go 'fore ya get anywhere worth gettin' to. How 'bout ya hop in and ride a ways?”
Adlis began to shake her head. “Oh, we'd love to, but—”
“But nothing,” Kulgan interrupted her. “Hop in.”
Adlis looked at him with wide, frightened eyes, and Kulgan returned it with a cold stare of his own.
“Get in the wagon,” he whispered so the Kashni couldn't hear.
Finally, the zik maiden spurred herself into motion, and with Kulgan's help got into the back of the Kashni's cart. It had a thin layer of straw over the floor, but nothing else.
“You're mighty kind, stranger,” Kulgan said once Za was aboard, hopping in after them. “We appreciate it.”
“Ain't no reason not to be!” the Kashni cackled, cracking the reins to get his horse moving again. “This here's a good place to be. Ya can trust just 'bout everyone ya meet.”
Adlis gave Kulgan a sour look, and he shrugged.
“So, where you headin'?”
“To Embraus,” Kulgan answered. “Yourself?”
Adlis' sour looked suddenly turned to alarm.
“Yahmen. Y'know, just ‘bout everyone I meet on this here road’s goin’ to Embraus.”
“Well, it's the holy city, after all,” Kulgan said, reclining against the side of the wagon. “The day people stop flocking there is the day everyone’s gone.”
The Kashni nodded. “True words, friend. True words. Well, it's a few hours ride from here to the crossroads, so feel free to stick around till then.”
Kulgan smiled. “I think we just might, stranger. Thank you.”
He felt an unexpected rush of affection for the old lizard. Genuine kindness was so hard to come by, even if one wasn't a Twister. He sighed. If the Kashni knew what he was, he wouldn't have even stopped the wagon. Kulgan's chest constricted for a second. The Kashni thought he was just another well-meaning traveler. Just by sitting in his wagon, pretending not to be anything out of the usual, Kulgan was lying to him.
On a whim, he sat up and grabbed their bag of rations.
“Fancy a drink, stranger?” he asked, fishing out the small canteen he had filled with Kio's beer.
“Y'know, don't mind if I do!” the Kashni agreed, accepting the canteen and taking a long swig from it. “Friend, now that is some well brewed beer! Did ya make it yaself?”
“My wife, actually.” Kulgan took the canteen back and finished off what the driver hadn't drank.
“Friend, don't ya ever let a woman like that go!” The Kashni cackled again and cracked the reins.
Kulgan wilted a little as he sat back down. A little too late there, stranger.
A couple of minutes later, Adlis scooted over to sit next to him, her eyes practically glowing from anger.
“Are you insane?” she hissed, keeping her voice low.
Kulgan shrugged. “Probably. After all...” He touched the bump under his shirt.
“You told Kio that we weren't going to Embraus!” she whispered. Under her hat, her ears must have been bright yellow. “You said we were going to Yahmen!”
Kulgan held her gaze for a few seconds, but then had to look away.
“Yes, that's what I told her,” he admitted. “Did it occur to you that maybe I did that on purpose?”
“Why lie to her, though? You tied her up before we left!”
Kulgan pounded his fist on the wagon's floor. “And do you think she's going to stay tied up forever? She'll get out eventually, and this time she won't have a baby to make her stay put. She'll come after us. I just made sure she'll go the wrong way when she does.”
“But what about us?” Adlis demanded. “You said we wouldn't make it ten feet through the city gates!”
“I was exaggerating.” He lied. “We'll be fine.”
He didn't dare look Adlis in the eye when he said that. He may have been a good liar, good enough to fool even his own wife, but that lie had been so monumental anyone could have seen it in his eyes. Going into Embraus, Tassendile's holy city and Embin's place of emergence, was practically suicide for people like them. There were monks and priests there that normal people had never heard of, ones who had dedicated their lives to finding people like him and Adlis and exterminating them.
The Ministry of the Purge.
But nothing was more important than keeping Kio safe. Not even Adlis.
“Just trust me,” he said, staring blankly ahead at the horrors in his mind. “I'll get us through this.”
NEXT TIME: I would say “into the lion’s den!” but I get the feeling this is more along the lines of “the lion goes into the lion hunter’s house… and the lion hunter has a machine gun.” And that’s way harder to say. No wonder it never caught on.