Kulgan’s arms burned with exhaustion after spending the entire night in the Final Shame. That was part of the Shame’s torture: by holding him completely up off the ground, he was forced to support his upper body with his arms to be able to breathe. The fact that he was completely immobile only made that harder. In order to move even half an inch, he had to come agonizingly close to breaking his own bones. And so, after twelve hours of constant pain and shortness of breath, he was almost relieved to see Brother Gestaul again, grinning like a madman, because the Ashen Priest’s return could only mean that it was time to die.
“Your judgement day is at hand, Twister,” he said, spreading his arms wide. “Soon the people of Embraus shall gather to witness your death with the rising of the dawn.”
Kulgan grunted. “Any chance you could do it now and get it over with?”
“And let you off easy? I think not,” Gestaul laughed. “I intend to make an example of you. That means that before you die, you must be humiliated in front of a crowd. What better way to ensure they never follow in your footsteps?”
Extending one hand, he traced his black-nailed finger up and down Kulgan’s chest. If he’d been able to move, Kulgan would have shivered. Gestaul leaned in close to whisper in Kulgan’s ear.
“What is the one rule that Twisters must always follow?”
His breath smelled like decaying, sunbaked meat. Kulgan swallowed, forcing the bile that was rising in his throat back down. Gestaul placed his palm on Kulgan’s chest, where the pendant was hidden beneath his shirt.
“Such a rule must be very, very important if even a disgusting, lawless creature such as yourself follows it.”
He pressed down, pushing the flat side of the pendant into Kulgan’s chest, toward his...
“Stop!” Kulgan yelled, clenching his eyes shut.
“Tell me what it is!” Gestaul wheedled him, grinning stretching even wider.
The pressure was becoming painful, like Gestaul intended to crush his ribcage then and there. Kulgan was tempted to let him, but knew the priest wouldn’t go that far. Not when Kulgan’s punishment was still incomplete.
“Don’t… Pierce... your heart.”
“Indeed,” Gestaul removed his hand, and Kulgan gasped for breath. “Your heart is the sacred vessel that contains your Embin-given soul. It simply wouldn’t do for another soul to be placed in there.”
Kulgan’s eyes widened with realization, and Gestaul grinned at him.
So that’s his plan. Pierce me through the heart so everyone can see what happens. If he does that, then…
He couldn’t force himself to finish that thought. Using a Vashiila pendant was one thing. An unforgivable thing, but at least it only affected the Twister’s body. Gestaul was right, the heart was where a creature’s soul was. That was where it was torn from when someone touched a shard of raw Vashiila. That was why a Twister never, under any circumstances, Pierced himself through the heart. Because when the alien soul entered the body through the control room, as Kulgan put it… it took control. The wolf hornet’s soul would come rushing in like a burst dam, pushing Kulgan’s soul out of the way, and his body would transform to fit its new host. It would be as if the wolf hornet had been brought back to life, and Kulgan had never existed at all, and it would stay that way until someone removed the pendant.
The problem was, the window to do so was small. Wait too long, and the Twister’s body would suck the pendant down beneath the skin. After that, the only way to get it out would be to cut the host open and tear it free. Pierce wounds always healed themselves, but that power didn’t extend to knife wounds.
Once the pendant was fully in the Twister’s body, removing it would kill them.
“Sunrise is in less than an hour,” Gestaul advised him with a smile. “I would tell you to make peace with your creator, but—”
“Just shut up, would you?” Kulgan snapped. “You’ve already won. Let me think.”
The smile fell from Gestaul’s face for a second, but then he smirked. “As you wish, Twister. I will be back when the time comes.”
The priest waved, and a squad of guards came to take his place as he slithered away into the darkness. It didn’t matter one bit to Kulgan who was guarding him. The Shame was more than enough to keep him where he was. Even if he could break free, he wouldn’t. This was it. The end. The thought of death wasn’t exactly a happy one, but there was still a cold comfort in knowing when, where, and how he was going to die.
He thought back to what Gestaul had said about Piercing him through the heart.
That doesn’t change anything, he told himself. So what if everyone in Embraus sees you transform? You can’t hurt anyone, not in this thing. He tugged at his bonds to reassure himself. The Final Shame held fast. And the end result is the same. Within a couple of hours, you’ll… you’ll still be dead.
That didn’t stop the frantic beating of his heart, or the cold sweat on his brow, though. He took a deep breath.
Be strong. Just for a little while longer.
Adlis reined in her horse, bringing it to a skidding stop on the muddy path. With a yelp, Za wrapped his arms around her to keep from falling off, and she gently led it into the trees. Kio did the same just behind her.
“All right, where is it?” the Ranger demanded once the horses were hidden.
Adlis pointed. The gigantic stone she had been ejected from the monastery from was easily visible from the road, not that it mattered since the priests obviously expected the facade to adequately disguise the door. It did, at least to anyone who didn’t know what they were looking for.
“The… rock?” Kio asked.
Case in point, Adlis thought. Out loud, she said, “It’s a door. That’s where they threw me out. I… don’t know how to open it, though.”
Kio’s eyes narrowed, as if the boulder had just insulted her, and hopped down from her horse. “I’ll figure out how to open it. If Kulgan did it, then—get down!”
Before Adlis could react, Kio had grabbed her by the arm and pulled her out of the saddle. The fall was only a few feet, but she still cried out when she hit the ground. Za, who still had his arms around her waist, was pulled down as well, and he landed on top of her.
“Quiet!” Kio hissed, kneeling down next to them and peering through the trees.
Gently pushing Za off of her, Adlis got to her hands and knees and looked. Five of the Holy Purge’s black clad guards, two Kashnis, a zik, and a human, were marching down the path that led to Embraus, and there was only one place they could be going.
“Who’s got the key?” one of them asked.
“I do,” said one of the Kashnis, drawing it from his pocket. “Hold on.”
The ruby scaled guard stuck the key into the hidden keyhole, turned it, and the door swung open.
“Now’s our chance!” Adlis exclaimed, whispering. “If we can get there before the door closes—”
She turned her head, and found the spot Kio where had just been kneeling empty.
Before she could wonder where the Ranger had gone, ten deafening cracks filled the air. The guards barely had time to flinch before the bullets struck, two for each of them. Blood sprayed on the forest floor behind them, spattering even on the door itself, and their dying breaths escaped their lips before they could scream. Kio leaped out of the tree branches she’d been perched in—when had she gotten up there, Adlis wondered?—and landed in a crouch, rifle clasped tightly in both hand.
“Come on, if you’re coming at all,” she said without looking back, and took off toward the dark doorway.
Adlis was on her feet in a moment. “Come on, Za!”
“Miss Adlis!” She came to a halt when his hand wrapped around her wrist. “What are you doin’? Let Missus Kio handle it!”
“I have to help,” she argued. “Za, stay here and watch the horses.”
She tried to slip her hand out of his, but his grip tightened. “You know I ain’t gonna do that, Miss Adlis,” he said softly.
Adlis hesitated. “Then come on.”
With her skirt raised, she turned and raced into the cave—the cave that, just hours before, she would have given anything to never see again. Kulgan was in there because of her, though. After everything he’d done for her, she wouldn’t be able to live with herself if she didn’t do something. Whether she’d actually be able to save him, she had no idea, but she had to at least try. Then again, with Kio with them, perhaps they stood a fighting chance.
He’s going to be so angry when I come charging back in there, she realized. She could almost imagine what he would say.
“I went and sacrificed myself so you idiots could get away safe!" he would yell. “And you come charging right back in—and with my d’yargo wife, no less!”
The thought was almost enough to make her smile.
Kulgan saw Gestaul’s shadow long before the priest ever arrived. He watched it, the black silhouette ten times the size of the man it belonged to—if Gestaul could even be called a man. It danced and flickered in the dim light, and at one point Kulgan was almost convinced it even waved at him, but quickly settled into the pose of its master, rigid backed with hands clasped before itself.
Gestaul himself rounded the corner a moment later.
“It’s almost time,” he whispered, his voice carrying easily across the distance between them. He crept closer, eyes practically glowing with anticipation. “Indeed, a great crowd has gathered to see this.”
Kulgan looked up. The priest obviously wanted him to react somehow, to show his weakness. Kulgan wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. He wasn’t even sure he had it in him to provide a satisfying reaction. Instead, he asked what had been on his mind ever since he’d first seen Gestaul:
“How are you doing this?”
Gestaul blinked. “Whatever do you mean?”
“You can’t fool me.” Kulgan shook his head. “I know what you are. I lived two years of my life in the Graylands. I can tell a Shapeless when I see one. But… everything about you defies everything I’ve ever known about them.”
Gestaul glowered at the defenseless Ranger. “I thought,” he said in a low voice, “that I told you not to call me that.”
Kulgan chuckled. “What are you going to do? Kill me before you get to put on your big show?” Gestaul’s frown deepened. “Just give me this one thing. What exactly are you?”
Gestaul clenched his fist, grinding his teeth together. For a second, Kulgan thought he wasn’t going to answer. It didn’t matter one way or the other. Kulgan was curious, but as long as Gestaul didn’t put off killing him much longer, he could die without knowing. He would—
“What do you think happens to the Vashiila pendants after their Twisters are executed?” Gestaul asked, his voice contemplative.
“What do…” Kulgan blinked. “What?”
Gestaul asked again, drawing closer to him. “What do you think happens to those pendants?”
“I… never really thought about it.” It was true. When Kulgan thought about the Ministry of the Purge, all that came to mind was how they would kill him if they caught him. He’d never given a single thought to what would come afterwards. “I guess they take them somewhere no one will ever get to it again.”
Gestaul’s eyes widened, the pupils becoming snake-like slits. “Where would they take them?”
“I don’t know.”
“What part of Embin’s holy church would be willing to desecrate themselves by keeping such a wicked thing within their walls? Where could they possibly put them where there would be no fear of them being stolen again?”
“That’s what you do, isn’t it?”
Gestaul’s smile came back, creeping up the sides of his face until it nearly touched his eyes, but didn’t answer. Kulgan opened his mouth to ask again—but then froze.
“It’s… you, isn’t it?” he asked. “The place where the Vashiila pendants go after they’re taken from their Twisters… you are that place!”
Gestaul drew himself up straight again. “That is the duty of the Ashen Priest, to find those who defy the will of Embin, destroy them, and contain their unholy tools.” His hand went to caress his own stomach. “Every pendant taken from every Twister I have ever encountered rests inside my body, and there they will remain until my dying day. Then I shall pass them to my successor, just as the previous priest did for me.”
Even if Kulgan could move, he wouldn’t have been able to tear his eyes off of the man… no, the monster in front of him. How many Twisters had he hunted down? How many pendants would that have given him? No wonder he had become a Shapeless. But… that still didn’t explain how he had kept from going insane.
Gestaul looked at his gray-skinned hand, the disgust plain in his own eyes, and said, “True, my body may have been corrupted by Vashiil’s evil, but I do so in the name of Embin.”
Kulgan opened his mouth, but Gestaul cut him off, “And I am the only one who does so. All others are condemned!”
Kulgan closed his mouth.
“And you are no different,” the priest concluded. He crossed the room, his robe remaining still as if he weren’t moving his feet at all, and reached his long, spiderlike fingers down the collar of Kulgan’s shirt, fishing out the pendant. He held it up so they could both see. “Once this is over with, your pendant will join the others.” He leaned in closer. “Inside of me!”
Adlis could hear gunshots and screams of pain even from the top of the staircase. She found her first body before she was even halfway down, and more joined it the further she descended. All of them were wearing the black uniform of Gestaul’s guards.
Dear Embin, please don’t let her get herself killed! she thought.
The irony that she was praying for the safety of a Twister’s wife, who was attacking a monastery, was not lost on her.
She reached the bottom of the stairs, gasping for breath, to find three bodies piled on top of each other. They had, apparently, tried rushing through the narrow door single file, and Kio had killed each of them as they’d come into view. The wall behind them was painted red with their blood. More gunshots were coming from the other side of the door.
Adlis poked her head in to see Kio standing atop one of the box-like cages. Her mouth fell open. She had seen Kulgan fight before, aiming his twin pistols as if he had eyes on every side of his head, but his wife was something else entirely. She carried only the rifle she’d had before, but the way she aimed, fired, and reloaded in the blink of an eye made it look as if she were wielding a revolver like her husband. The room was filled with bodies, and their reinforcements never made it farther than a couple steps through the door before a hail of lead sent them to join their fallen comrades.
“Where the Pit is he?” she roared, the gunfire not even coming close to drowning her out.
“Sweet, holy Embin!” Za whispered, cowering behind Adlis.
Adlis stepped out into the room.
She ignored him. The guards were focused entirely on Kio. None of them could spare her even a passing glance. She was as safe right here as if she’d stayed outside.
“I want my husband!” the mad woman on top of the cage screamed, finishing off five guards as they raced into the room, and then blasting the one behind her without even turning around.
The guards stopped coming. Kio stopped shooting. The silence that followed the firefight was deafening.
She… she killed every guard here! Adlis realized, her ears turning white with horror.
“D’yargo,” Kio snapped, and jumped down from the cage. Keeping her rifle in hand, she began to wade through the bodies, not caring what or who she stepped on, until…
“You!” she yelled. Dropping her gun, she reached down and grabbed one of the bodies, hauling it out from underneath the others, and slammed it against one of the cages. “Where is my husband? The Twister!”
The zik coughed. Not entirely dead, then. Not yet.
“Go to the Pit!” he managed to croak out, and spat a gob of blood on Kio’s cheek.
Kio ignored it. “You have two choices: tell me where my husband is, or die slowly and painfully.”
“I… I won’t…”
“You think you’re in pain now?” Kio growled, slamming him against the cage again. “I can make it even worse, and you won’t die a minute faster. Tell me!”
The guard was silent, but then he laughed. “You’re too late.”
Kio froze. “What did you say?”
“They already... took him. Going to… Embraus.” He chuckled. “Execution.”
Kio’s eyes widened.
“By the time you get there… he’ll already be… dead!”
Gestaul walked to the edge of the wooden platform. It had, as far as Kulgan was aware, been erected overnight for this very purpose. A thick curtain hung around the edges to keep anyone from seeing in, but Kulgan could still hear the crowd on the other side.
A curtain. This wasn’t an execution, it was a show Gestaul was putting on. The priest may claim that he was doing it as a warning to Embin’s followers not to stray from the path, but Kulgan knew better. Nobody who lived inside Embraus’ walls needed to be warned against the evils of Twisting. They would sooner saw off their own legs than touch a piece of Vashiil. This show was for Gestaul’s benefit, and nothing more.
It doesn’t matter as long as I die at the end, he thought.
“The time has come,” Gestaul said, taking the rope that would drop the curtain. “Are you prepared?”
Kulgan didn’t answer.
It doesn’t matter as long as I die at the end.
With a smile, Gestaul pulled the rope, and the curtain fell, exposing Kulgan to the people of Embraus.
It doesn’t matter as long as I die at the end.
In an instant, the air was filled with jeer, boos, and curses the likes of which Kulgan wouldn’t say to the worst of his enemies.
It doesn’t matter as long as I die at the end.
Despite his best efforts, Kulgan felt shame begin to creep into his heart.
It doesn’t matter...
It did matter, though. No matter how many times he told himself it didn’t, it really did. It mattered.
And he cared.
NEXT TIME: Hey guys, why is Shrek 2’s I Need a Hero playing in my head? That sacred, holy song is only to be played during the most epic of castle storming scenes. Could that mean… what is Kio about to do?!