“Because either way, I have you.”
Adlis watched in horror as Brother Gestaul wrapped his hands around Kulgan, binding the Ranger as securely as if he'd wrapped a mile's worth of chains around him. The priest glared down at his prey, lips spread in a grin that would have split a normal person's face open. His fingers stretched, looping around Kulgan again and again until he was cocooned just like Adlis had been in the titantula nest.
And through it all, Kulgan kept his eyes locked with Gestaul's, his expression perfectly neutral.
“That's right,” he said, his voice ringing crisp and clear through the dungeon. “You've got me. Now let Adlis go.”
Adlis gasped and, despite herself, took a step toward him. “Kulgan, what—”
“I know you only used her to catch me,” Kulgan went on, not breaking eye contact. “And I can't imagine she didn't tell you how she came to be in this mess.”
Gestaul blinked with surprise. “A witch is a witch, same as a Twister is a Twister.”
His fingers began to squeeze Kulgan, like ten pythons as big around as Adlis' arm.
“But she's no witch,” Kulgan argued, gasping for breath. “She was cursed. She wasn't given any choice in the matter. You know that, Gestaul. You know she's innocent.”
Adlis watched the Ranger and the priest argue. Gestaul looked like Kulgan's complete and utter lack of a reaction had caught him entirely off guard—as it should have, Adlis thought. She felt the same way. More than anything else, though, she wanted to run, run for the door, run like she had never run before. She didn't, though. As close to giving in to panic as she was, she still knew that without Kulgan the guards would catch her long before she found the way out. And so, she stayed where she was, watching as the Ashen Priest stared down the Twisted Gray Ranger. There had to be something she could do. Some way she could help Kulgan. He had come all the way down here, to the most dangerous place on Haroz for someone like him, to save her. She couldn't just stand here and watch Gestaul kill him, could she?
What do you think you can do? a surprisingly bitter voice in her head demanded. Kulgan just shot Gestaul ten times, and Gestaul only pretended that it hurt!
I can't just let him die, though. I can't!
There's nothing you can do. It's like Kulgan's always said, you're useless. Just a spoiled little puff in over her head.
But he's my... She caught herself. Even now, the surprise she felt at the thoughts running through her head was enough to make her stop dead in her tracks.
Kulgan is my... friend.
How strange, that after everything they had been through together, all the times Kulgan had saved her life, that she had never once thought of him as anything more than her guide. A lunatic, perhaps, and certainly brutish and rude, but never her friend. But it was true. Gray Ranger or not, Twister or not, she had bonded with him. Grown fond of him. Now she saw what she never had before: a brave man, charming in his own sarcastic way, who had put himself in danger to help two people he'd just met. Looking at Gestaul, she finally realized how hollow her promise to offer him sanctuary from the church must have sounded to him. And yet, he had agreed anyway. Despite her constant insults, despite her plotting to betray him, he had stayed with her through it all. How strange that it would take until now, when they were both in the clutches of a monster, for her to finally realize that... that she had actually grown to admire him.
And how ironic that it would come just as he was about to die.
And she still couldn't do anything to help!
“Kulgan,” she whispered, reaching a hand out toward him as Gestaul's still-growing fingers threatened to crush him.
Though his face was beginning to turn purple, Kulgan forced his eyes open. “I saw your plaque outside, Gestaul. 'Though you may shroud yourselves in darkness, it is so that Embin's light may shine brighter above.'“
For once, the grin fell from Gestaul's face.
“Do you still consider yourself a servant of Embin?” Kulgan croaked.
Anger filled the priest's eyes, and Adlis thought he was going to destroy Kulgan then and there. “Of course I do. Don't you dare—”
“Then let... her... go!” That was obviously the last of the air in Kulgan's lungs, because as soon as those words were out of his mouth he opened his mouth wide, gasping like a fish.
Silence filled the dungeon. Adlis stared at Kulgan as he hung from Gestaul's grip, dying. Kulgan stared at Gestaul, eyelids struggling to stay open. Gestaul was—Adlis jumped so high she nearly hit her head on the ceiling when she realized the priest was looking at her.
“Very well, Twister,” he snapped, voice dripping with acid. “I will consider that your last request.”
With that, a third arm sprouted from his left shoulder, and with it he pulled open one of the cell doors. His fingers unraveled from around Kulgan, and the priest raised him into the air and threw him into the cell so hard that the metal bars rocked. Kulgan collapsed to the floor, and if he hadn't started coughing Adlis would have thought he was already dead.
“Kulgan!” she screamed. She took a step forward to run to him, but Gestaul stretched his arm out to block her way. She skidded to a stop, barely able to avoid running into his grotesque gray skin.
“Guards!” the priest barked.
As if they'd been waiting for someone to summon them, a small squad of guards rushed into the room, rifles drawn.
“Take the witch and set her free,” Gestaul ordered them.
The men exchanged confused glances. “Sir,” one of them said, “you want us to—”
Gestaul's neck stretched across the room, carrying his head until he was nose to nose with the guard who had spoken. “I said release her. Now!”
The men all cowered before the gruesome display of power, and as one shouted, “Yes, sir!”
Before Adlis could react, two of them had taken her by the arms and were dragging her toward the door.
“Kulgan!” she screamed again. Digging her heels in, she managed to slip her arms out of the guards grip and rushed over to Kulgan's cell. She fell to her knees as the Ranger weakly raised his head to look at her. “Kulgan, no! You don't have to do this!”
To her disbelief, he actually smiled at her.
“It's all right,” he told her. “I knew this was going to happen to me”—cough!—“sooner or later. I'm just glad it happened”—cough, cough!—“because I finally did something right.”
Armed guards behind her, Brother Gestaul in front of her. There really was nothing she could do, she realized with a sickening lurch in her stomach. This was really happening. She was being set free, Kulgan was going to be put to death, and there was nothing she could do about it. Tears threatened to flood down her face. The worst part of it all was that this was all... her... d'yargo... fault!
“I'm sorry,” she whispered, sobbing quietly. “I'm so sorry, Kulgan!”
“It's okay,” he said again. “Listen, Za is just outside. He has some horses. Take them, and get the Pit away from this place. Find yourself a new guide, and get home safe.”
She shook her head. Had her ears ever been this blue before? “I don't want a new guide,” she insisted. “I want you. Kulgan, I... I...”
“I said get her out of here!” Gestaul snapped. He wrapped one of his terrifying hands around her and tossed her away. She hit the ground, rolled, and came to a stop when she collided with one of the guards. The guard grabbed her, hauled her to her feet, and two others wrapped their arms around her to keep her from escaping again.
Giving Kulgan one last sorrowful look, she let the guards carry her out of the dungeon. Her feet dragged behind her as they left the room full of cages, they bounced as they went up the stairs, and when they stopped she looked up to see a blank wall of stone in front of her.
“Consider yourself blessed, witch,” said one of the guards, a surly looking Kashni. “Don't let us catch you around here again!”
The wall in front of her opened, a massive doorway, and the guards gave her a shove. She landed on soft green grass, but couldn't find the strength to pick herself up. The door slammed shut behind her, and thunder rumbled above her. She realized it was raining, but she couldn't bring herself to care.
Kulgan was still down there. Who knew if he was even still alive?
“Miss Adlis, is that you?” a familiar voice asked. “Miss Adlis? Miss Adlis!”
The sound of stamping feet approached, but she still couldn't look up. Her simmk friend knelt down beside her, shaking her like she was asleep.
“C'mon, Miss Adlis!” he said. “We gotta get goin' before they come after you!”
His gloved hands grabbed her by the shoulders and he tried to lift her up. She finally summoned the strength to raise her head. It really was Za, as if there had ever been any doubt. His coat and his mask were plastered to his face by the rain, but she could still detect urgency in his painted expression.
“You ain't hurt, are you, Miss Adlis?” he asked hurriedly. “Because if you ain't, we gotta go now! Mr. Kulgan left us some horses. C'mon, can you stand?”
Through her grief, through her crippling self-hatred, what remained of Adlis' dignity told her to stop bawling like a child who had lost her dolly and go. Kulgan had given his life for her. What would he say if she just stayed here, lying in the grass, until Brother Gestaul or his guards found her here? They wouldn't set her free a second time. And she knew Za, loyal as anyone she had ever met, would never leave without her. If they caught her, they caught him too.
No sense letting two of your friends die in one day, that same bitter voice from before said. Quit blubbering and run!
“All right,” she whispered, her voice ragged. “I- I can stand, Za. Just... just help me up.”
He did, and when Adlis was on her feet he dashed across the road and returned with the horses Kulgan had promised.
“C'mon, let's go!” he urged her, taking her hand and pulling her toward them. “Mr. Kulgan said we gotta ride until we're halfway across Tassendile!”
And then what? she wondered as she climbed onto one of the horses. Go home? That's what Kulgan said to do, but... Her hand brushed one of her ears. Could she bear to show her face in Arborough when she still had these?
You went to the priests to get rid of them. All you got rid of was your friend.
You deserve to go back to that whorehouse.
“Miss Adlis!” Za broke through her thoughts. “Hurry up, before they start chasin' us!”
Adlis shook her head. What she was going to do next, her ears... Kulgan... she could think about all that later. For now, Za was right. They needed to put distance between them and this Embin-cursed place. Lots and lots of distance.
“Okay,” she agreed, taking the reins in her hands. “Lead the way, Za.”
Za sat upright in shock. “M- Me? Take the lead? But I don't—”
“Just do it.”
The grief must have been obvious in her voice, because even the usually oblivious simmk picked up on it and nodded. Clumsily turning his horse around in the direction that Adlis assumed would take them away from Embraus, he kicked it and took off down the muddy path at a swift gallop. Adlis went after him.
The scenery flew past them in a blur. If their situation hadn't been so desperate, Adlis would have told Za to slow down. Atroyo glowed in the sky, drifting toward the horizon, and the storm was weakening because of it. Even so, a steady rain fell from the sky, turning the hard packed dirt of the path into thick, sticky mud. Adlis held the reins tight in her hands, hardly daring to move them. Just one wrong step could send her horse slipping, sliding, and rolling. How terrible would it be for Kulgan to sacrifice himself, only for her to die during her escape?
Even so, the speeds they were riding at frightened her. It was a hollow feeling fear, though. She had felt real fear, true terror, in Gestaul's dungeon. That she would still be afraid of something like falling off a horse almost felt ridiculous. Like being afraid of a bee sting after having a sword stabbed through your stomach.
Adlis quickly lost track of time as they rode. She didn't even know what time it was when she came out of the dungeon in the first place. All she knew was that Atroyo set, the storm passed, and eventually the sun went down. Even then, in the darkness, with their horses panting and frothing at the mouth, Za made them keep riding.
Just ride, she thought. Just run. Everything else can wait. Everything else can...
He died because of me.
Despite all her efforts to keep herself focused, Adlis closed her eyes and cried. Za turned around in his saddle in surprise.
“Miss Adlis?” he called, his voice barely audible over the wind as the horses ran. “Are you hurt?”
She looked up at him. “Za, I... I'm sorry, but I have to stop!”
She didn't wait for his permission. Reining in her horse, which was only too happy to oblige, she guided it over to the edge of the road and climbed down from the saddle. As soon as her feet touched the ground, her strength gave out and she collapsed. All of her emotions, all of her frustrations and angers and grief, rose up inside of her at once, and all she could do was wrap her arms around herself and cry.
Someone sat down beside her. “It's okay, Miss Adlis,” Za said, putting his hand on her shoulder. “You just... you just go ahead and let it all out, okay? When you're feelin' better we can keep goin'.”
Za was a good friend. Just as good a friend as Kulgan. The kind of friend a lying, cheating, spoiled little harlot like her didn't deserve. Right then, she felt like her ears would stay blue forever.
“It's all my fault,” she sobbed, eyes clenched shut. “I shouldn't have gone to the church. I should have listened to him. It was my fault I got caught. It's my fault he isn't here right now.”
“It's not your fault, Miss Adlis,” Za said. She knew he was trying to comfort her, but his words were as empty as everything else right then. “He shouldn't've brought us here in the first place.”
“It is my fault. It is. It is! We would have been fine if I hadn't run off.”
She knew nothing good would come of her beating herself up like this but she did it anyway. It felt right. All her long eighteen years, and Kulgan had been the first person to ever be blunt and honest with her. He hadn't been afraid to tell Adlis exactly what was wrong with her. It was an act of kindness she hadn't even been able to recognize. And how had she responded?
“We were so horrible to him, Za,” she whimpered. Her tears ran down her face to mix with the rainwater on the ground. “We treated him like... like...”
“Like a Twister,” Za finished for her, softly.
Not knowing what else to do, Adlis clenched her fist and began to beat herself on the forehead. “Stupid, stupid, stupid!”
“Miss Adlis, stop it!” Za cried. He grabbed her by the wrist, but wasn't strong enough to hold her in place. Instead, all he managed to do was redirect the swing, and Adlis ended up punching him in the jaw because of it. He fell to the ground, moaning, but Adlis couldn't bring herself to care. Whatever he was feeling, Kulgan was feeling a hundred times worse. A thousand times worse.
“He's dead, Za!” she wailed. “Kulgan's dead, and it's... and it's all my fault!”
A sound came from the forest behind them. Despite herself, Adlis rolled over to see what it was, adrenaline pumping through her veins and chasing her pain away. A shadowy figure stood there in the darkness, just out of sight. Adlis' breath caught in her throat.
Oh, sweet holy Embin, she thought. Gestaul came after us anyway!
The figure stepped forward, and Adlis caught a glimpse of the moonlight reflecting off of something silver it was carrying. A gun, she realized. Was it one of his guards, then? No, they wouldn't have bothered getting this close before shooting her. Had Tikta managed to track them down? No, too small. But then, who was...
The shadow came into view, the moonlight illuminating its face.
“What did you just say?” Kio asked, eyes wide with shock.
Nobody moved, spoke, or even breathed. After a few seconds, Kio cocked her rifle.
“What did you just say?” she demanded again. “What the Pit have you done to my husband?”
NEXT TIME: And then Kio killed them, because just be what Kio do. The end. OR DID I?!