Chapter Forty Six

“So let me get this straight...”

 

Adlis swallowed, her ears turning gray under the ice cold glare of the Gray Ranger sitting across from her.  Kio's rifle still lay grasped in her hands, reflecting the flickering light of the campfire.  Za sat beside the zik maiden, trembling as hard as he'd ever trembled.

 

Their fire was small but serviceable.  In the aftermath of Atroyo's storm, it had taken them hours just to find enough dry wood to make one this big.  The night was warm, though, even if Kio's expression was not, so what little heat it provided was more than enough. Too much warmth, Adlis thought.  Then again, the sweat running down her forehead could have just as easily been from fear.  In fact, looking again at the Ranger's gun, loaded and waiting for Adlis to make one wrong move, she was sure that was case.

 

“So let me get this straight,” Kio said again, her voice even lower now. “My husband is in the Holy Purge's dungeon, probably already dead, because you were stupid enough to show one of the High Priests of Embin your d'yargo ears.”

 

“I saw him heal a woman and her child in the streets,” she whispered, looking down into the flames. “I- I thought...”

 

“You thought he'd just abandon everything he'd ever believed because you told him a little sob story.”  Slowly, Kio rose to her feet. “Instead, he did what any creature with a brain knew he would, and called the Ashen Priests.”

 

Adlis cringed. “I didn't mean to.”

 

Even to her own cursed ears, her words sounded hollow.

 

Kio sighed. “And that braindead fool husband of mine breaks in and gets himself caught.  And for what?  For you?  Bah!”  She kicked the campfire, sending its kindling skittering across the ground.  Adlis jumped up with a yelp, raising her dress to keep the flames from touching it.  As she watched the fire spark against the dirt, she was surprised when a spark of anger lit up inside her as well.

 

“What else could I do?” she demanded. “I'm not a Ranger like you and Kulgan. I can't fight at all. What would you have wanted me to do?”

 

Kio scowled at her over the campfire, and Adlis tried to meet it with her own.  She couldn't, and averted her eyes to look into the dark forest.

 

Kio's voice was as chilling as a winter wind. “If I were you, I don't think I’d be able to stand the shame.  I probably would have put a bullet in my head at the first given opportunity.  And if I didn't have a gun, a rope or a cliff would be fine options too.”

 

The fur on the back of Adlis' neck rose at this, but no retorts came to her to throw back.  And, really, what could she have said?  Kio's husband was dead. If he wasn’t then he would be before too much longer.  What right did she have to insult Kio now?  What right did she have to speak in her own defense at all?

 

“Please, Missus Kio...”

 

Both Adlis and Kio's heads snapped around to look at Za, still cowering by the campfire.  He hadn't spoken a word since Kio had appeared, and now he looked like he regretted changing that.

 

“D- D- Don't be too hard on her. Miss Adlis is just—”

 

He cut himself off mid-sentence with a strange choking sound when Kio turned the rifle on him.

 

“Shut your Pitting mouth, simmk.” Her finger rested on the trigger. “I'm ready to shoot your master here and now, so imagine how I must feel about you.”

 

The spark of anger in Adlis' chest grew.

 

“Mrs. Kio,” she said, trying unsuccessfully to make her voice sound threatening, “I must ask that you not threaten my friend.”

 

Kio's eyes narrowed... and then she swung the rifle, hitting Adlis on the side of the head with it.  Adlis cried out in pain and collapsed on the wet ground, the world spinning erratically around her.  She heard Za call her name, and was vaguely aware of him kneeling down beside her, but she was too dizzy to focus on anything for more than a second.  She waited for the bang! she knew was coming, and the bullet that would accompany it.  She would deserve it, wouldn't she?  After everything she'd done...

 

Is this how Kulgan feels every day? she wondered.  The thought surprised her, bringing her a little ways out of her stupor.  She doubted it.  Kulgan was a Twister, so whatever guilt he felt was still probably a hundred times stronger than what she was feeling.  How did he live like this?  Even after a few seconds, Adlis was beginning to hope that Kio would shoot. her.  It was like the guilt was a storm cloud, blotting out all the light from her life.  She knew the light was there, but no matter how hard she looked she couldn't find it.  And the more she wallowed in that gray, cloudy guilt, the harder it became for her to even find the energy to keep looking.  There was a sort of peace to accepting the guilt, she discovered.  A cold, sharp feeling, like someone had stabbed an icicle through her chest, but still peaceful.  If the icicle had to be there, at least she could accept that it was there to stay and keep from hurting herself by trying to take it out.  Accept the pain, accept the guilt, accept that everything was there because that was exactly where it deserved to be.

 

Finally, the dizziness began to subside, and was replaced with a throbbing headache so powerful it felt like invisible hands were digging into the wound Kio had given her, trying to pry her skull open and splatter its contents all over the forest floor.  Speaking of Kio, what was taking her so long?  Adlis had expected her to pull the trigger minutes ago.  Cracking her eye open, Adlis saw that the ebony skinned woman had sat back down, and was cradling her rifle like an infant child.  Her head was bowed so that her long gray hair hung down, obscuring her face.  Her back was rising and falling rapidly, almost as if… as if…

 

“Are you crying?” Adlis blurted out before she knew what she was saying.

 

Kio’s head shot up, and she glared at the zik maiden with bloodshot eyes.  Adlis felt a lurch of fear, expecting her to finally raise the gun and put the promised bullet in her forehead, but Kio’s hands were shaking too hard for her to raise the gun.

 

“S- So what if I am?” she snapped, her quivering lips making it difficult for her to speak. “You just… my husband is dead because of you!”

 

Once again, the icicle of guilt pierced through her chest, so sharp and cold that she winced, her ears turning blue.

 

“I’d finally gotten him back,” Kio was sniffling, “and then you stole him away again!  You… you… whore!”

 

Adlis got to her knees. “I told you, Kulgan and I weren’t—”

 

“You shut your filthy mouth!” Kio’s scream rang through the forest like a gunshot, and a flock of birds took to the air a hundred feet away. “You shut it!  I had him, and then I lost him again.  And it’s all your d’yargo fault!”

 

They looked at each of them for a few seconds, and this time Adlis found she could meet Kio’s stare.  On unsteady legs Adlis stood up.  Kio didn’t move.

 

“Whatever problems your marriage is going through, they’re not my fault,” she said, her voice filled with confidence she didn’t really feel. “It might be my fault Kulgan got caught by the church, but don’t blame me for him leaving you.”

 

Kio’s eyes widened in shock.  When was the last time anyone had dared speak to her like that?  Adlis had no idea, but she couldn’t imagine there were many people in Tassendile insane enough to scold a Gray Ranger.  Not her, though.  She had spent the past week travelling in the company of—under the protection of—a Twister.  She had been kidnapped by bandits, attacked by monsters, and dragged through the Graylands themselves.  She may not have known how to fight, or even the right way to hold a gun, but people like Kio were… in a way, they were below her now.  She had experienced true horror, the kind that people didn’t believe could truly exist outside of their nightmares, and walked away standing tall.  Kio was nothing.  She may have been able to kill her in a heartbeat, with or without her gun, but she was still nothing.

 

“I could kill you,” the ebony skinned woman growled, standing up so they were eye to eye. “By the Pit, I should kill you!”

 

“You might think that,” Adlis said, “but you won’t do it.”

 

Kuh-CHUK! Kio cocked her rifle. “You think so, huh?”

 

“I know so.  Because there’s one thing you and Kulgan have in common: you both need me.”

 

Kio narrowed her eyes and raised the rifle so it was pointing at Adlis’ heart.  If she pulled the trigger, the bullet would have to travel less than a foot before it struck her.  With a whimper, Za sprang to his feet, but Adlis held out her hand without looking away from Kio.

 

“You need me,” she said again, “because I’m all you have left.”

 

“What the Pit is that supposed to mean?” Kio spat.

 

“It means exactly what I said.  Without me, you have nothing.”

 

Kio growled and put her finger on the trigger. “I think I’m better off without you.”

 

Panic shot through Adlis’ body, turning her ears white, but somehow she managed to keep her expression calm.

 

“You need me,” she insisted. “Just like Kulgan needed me.  You just don’t know why.”

 

She did her best not to look at the gun pointed at her.  Instead she looked at the woman in front of her.  The one who, like her husband, tried so hard to put on the tough guy act and hide her weakness from a world that had, time and time again, proven to be just as merciless as the Graylands themselves.  After spending so much time with Kulgan, the signs were so clear to Adlis that they may as well have been tattooed to Kio’s face.  They were both broken and desperately searching for the one thing they thought could fix them.  For Kulgan that had been the promise of sanctuary from the church.  Looking into Kio’s eyes, still red with tears, Adlis found she knew exactly what her weakness was as well.

 

Kio didn’t say anything.

 

“Do you know why Kulgan agreed to be our guide?” Adlis asked.  She didn’t wait for Kio to reply before answering, “Because I’m the only person on Tassendile who can give him what he wants more than anything else.”

 

I’m what he wants more than anything else!” Kio snarled.  She thrust the gun forward and jabbed Adlis in the chest. “He’d never fall for some spoiled, selfish little brat like you!”

 

Adlis’ heart was racing so hard now that she could feel it brushing the rifle’s barrel with each beat.  Slowly, trying to keep her hand from shaking, she pushed the gun away from her.  To her surprise, Kio let her.

 

“What he wanted was peace,” she said. “I promised to keep him safe from the people hunting him if he got me home safely.”

 

“And look where that got him!”

 

Adlis kept talking as if Kio hadn’t interrupted. “I can offer you the same thing.  Help me, and I’ll give you what you want more than anything in the world.”

 

In a flash, Kio had the gun pointed at Adlis again.  She pressed the muzzle directly in the spot between Adlis’ eyes.  Suddenly, it looked like there were two guns aimed at her, and she had to clench her fists so hard that her nails cut into her skin to keep herself from shaking.

 

“What I want more than anything,” she screamed, spittle spraying Adlis in the face, “is for you to Pitting die!”

 

“I can give you Kulgan back.”

 

Adlis wasn’t sure how she managed to make the words come out so confidently, but just as she said them she finally gave in to her fear, closed her eyes, and shied away from the gun.  Any second now, Kio would pull the trigger, blow Adlis’ head off, and that would be the end of things.

 

Kio lowered the gun.

 

Hesitantly, Adlis opened her eyes, not knowing what to expect.  What she got was Kio giving her the coldest, most hate-filled look she had ever laid eyes on.  Somehow, she found she felt no safer now than when the gun had been pointed at her.

 

“All right,” the Ranger said. “You’ve got two minutes to explain, and you’d better hope I like the explanation.”

 

Adlis didn’t waste any time. “You think Kulgan’s already dead.  Maybe you’re right, I don’t know.  What I do know is that you’ll never leave without knowing for sure.  Well, I’m the one who knows where the Holy Purge’s hideout is.  If you kill me, you’ll never find it.”

 

Kio’s eyes widened. “You think I’m going to walk straight into that… thing’s den?”

 

Adlis nodded. “If it means saving Kulgan, I know you will.”

 

Kio hesitated, but then snorted. “Whatever.  Why do you think I need you?”

 

“Because I’ve been there.  Trust me, even a Gray Ranger wouldn’t be able to find this place if they didn’t already know where it was.” Kio opened her mouth, but Adlis cut her off, “That’s why they made the place, isn’t it?”

 

Kio paused, and then shut her mouth.

 

“So, you don’t kill me, I take you to their hideout.  If Kulgan’s still alive, you rescue him.  And then…” Adlis hesitated.  What happened after that?  They would really be on the run from the church after that.  As if her ears weren’t reason enough for Gestaul to hunt her down, she’d also be guilty of aiding with the escape of a Twister.

 

We’ll worry about that later, she told herself.  At the very least she wouldn’t have to worry about Kio killing her at that point.  Kulgan wouldn’t let her.  Assuming they survived that long.  Assuming Kulgan wasn’t already…

 

WORRY ABOUT THAT LATER!

 

Kio stepped back, letting her gun point at the ground, thinking.  Za, who was still standing behind her, finally stepped forward.

 

“Are you all right?” he asked softly.

 

“Yes,” she said, nodding. “Just a bump.”

 

The simmk raised his hand, his gloved finger hovering just over her wound. “That’s more than just a bump, I think, Miss Adlis.  You might have con… conk…”

 

Adlis couldn’t help but chuckle. “A concussion?”

 

“Yeah, one of them.”

 

She shook her head. “I think I’m fine, Za.  But…” She hesitated. “Keep an eye on me, just in case.”

 

“You know I don’t got no eyes, Miss Adlis.”

 

“I know, I just—”

 

“I was just kiddin’, Miss Adlis.  I know what you meant.”

 

Adlis raised her eyebrow and gave him a sidelong look. “Is my simmk making jokes now?”

 

Za looked down, shuffling his feet. “I’m sorry, Miss Adlis.  I shouldn’t’ve said that.  It won’t happen—”

 

“Because that was funny.”

 

Za froze as suddenly as if she had pulled a gun on him.  Adlis swore she could see him blushing under his mask.  Before she could say anything else, though, Kio spoke up.

 

“This could work,” the Ranger said in a quiet, contemplative voice. “You show me where he is.  If he’s still alive, I can save him, and then…” She looked at Adlis, and her eyes lit up. “And then we’ll be together again!  He won’t be able to leave me behind because I’ll already be there!”

 

Until he decides to tie you up in your sleep again, Adlis thought, frowning.  She didn’t dare say that, of course.  Instead, she only nodded.

 

Then, just as suddenly as it had come, the light disappeared from her eyes. “No, wait, that wouldn’t work.  That could…” Slowly, she sat back down. “That could never work!”

 

Adlis’ ears paled. “What?  Why not?”

 

“The Ashen Priests, you idiot!” Kio snapped, all of her earlier enthusiasm gone. “The d’yargo priests.  Nobody knows anything about them, or what they can do, or what their weaknesses are.  All we know is that they hunt down Twisters, and even a Gray Ranger can’t stand up to them.”

 

She had a point there.  Adlis thought back to her encounter with Gestaul, the way he had…

 

Her ears perked back up. “That’s not true!” she exclaimed.

 

“What’s not true?”

 

Adlis hurried forward and knelt in front of Kio. “I know what the priests can do.  I saw one of them use their powers!”  She took Kio’s forearm and squeezed it. “Shapeshifting.  They’re shapeshifters.  Brother Gestaul could reshape his body however he wanted to.  He could stretch his limbs, make himself bigger, even… I don’t know how to say it, but it was like he was a liquid.  I even saw him change into a female zik.”

 

Kio narrowed her eyes. “That’s impossible.”

 

“I know what I saw!  In fact, when Kulgan saw him do it, he said…” Adlis paused, her ears turning white again. “He called him a Shapeless.”

 

Slowly, Kio withdrew her arm from Adlis’ grip, got up, and took a step back. “That’s impossible,” she said again. “The Shapeless are monsters.  Brainless monsters.  How could one be a d’yargo priest?”

 

“I don’t know,” Adlis admitted, “but what other explanation is there?  I saw a Shapeless when Kulgan took me into the Graylands, and… it fits.” She shuddered. “The way the Shapeless stretched and reshaped itself, the way it created other body parts when it needed them, it’s all just like what Gestaul did.  It’s just that Gestaul had control over himself.  He was definitely out of his mind.” The image of the ghastly priest filled her mind, and she gritted her teeth, trying to banish it. “But he wasn’t mindless.”

 

Kio seemed to consider this, but then shook her head. “How does that help us?  If Gestaul really is a Shapeless, that just means things are even worse than I thought.”

 

Adlis stamped her foot. “Honestly!  Are you a Gray Ranger or not?”

 

Finally, a spark of anger appeared in Kio’s eyes. “Of course I am, and if you say I ain’t—”

 

“Then why are you so afraid?  You’ve probably fought hundreds of Shapeless before.  That’s what Gray Rangers do!”

 

“But if this one’s sentient…”

 

Adlis held up her hand, forestalling any more arguments. “Do you want to save your husband or not?”

 

Kio’s expression hardened and she nodded. “All right, fine.  Just show me where this place is and I’ll take care of the rest.”

 

Adlis nodded. “Come on, Za.  You can ride with me.”

 

The zik maiden turned to make her way to her horse, which was grazing nearby, but stopped when Kio grabbed her by the shoulder.

 

“Why are you doing this?” the Ranger asked.

 

“Because I want to save him just as much as you do.”

 

“Why, though?  He’s a d’yargo Twister.  You’re not supposed to save him, you’re supposed to hate him.”

 

With a sigh, Adlis turned around to face her. “He might be a Twister, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a good man too.”

 

Kio hesitated for a minute, searching Adlis’ face—and her ears—for any trace of a lie.  There wasn’t any to be found, though, so eventually she nodded, released Adlis, and mounted her horse.  Adlis did the same, letting Za boost her up into the saddle before climbing on after her.

 

Then, turning the beast around, she dug her heels into its side and took off into the night, galloping back toward Embraus.

 

Toward danger.

 

Toward Brother Gestaul.

 

Toward Kulgan.

 

 

NEXT TIME: *sniff sniff* What’s that I smell, readers?  Something big. Something awesome.  Something coming right over the next hill.  Could it be… THE FINAL SHOWDOWN?!

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