“So… what happened back there?”
Kulgan looked up from the fire he’d built, to Adlis who sat on the opposite side. The light flickered, making shadows dance around the tired foursome. Za was to Adlis’ left, hunched over so that his painted yellow eyes stared at the ground between his knees. He hadn’t said a word since everything had ended. Kio sat to Kulgan’s right, so close that their legs were brushing against each other, but he hadn’t made a move to touch her any more than that.
Only a couple scant hours had passed since the battle had ended, and though in the real world it wasn’t even noon, here in the Graylands it was already full night. For once, nobody complained. After all they’d seen and done today, lying down, closing their eyes, and doing whatever they could to forget everything was exactly what they needed. And seeing as how their only way out of here had disappeared when they’d destroyed the old mineshaft, they didn’t have many options but to stop and rest.
The fire was kindled with what few timbers Kulgan had been able to retrieve from the mine. It was a small thing, a pinprick of light in an ocean of endless darkness, but nobody complained. Even a little bit of light was welcome to chase away the nightmarish things they had just witnessed. Even Kulgan, a Gray Ranger hardened by experience, wasn’t sure how long it would be before he stopped seeing Gestaul be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the body of another Shapeless. The thought still sent shivers down his spine.
Finally, he said, “I’ve never heard of anything like it. A Shapeless that doesn’t try to eat every living thing it sees? You might as well say that Za has eyes under that mask.”
Za jumped a little when he heard his name, but didn’t respond.
He hesitated. “But…”
“But what?” Kio asked, putting her hand on his arm.
“I just… I don’t know.” He shook his head. “The best theory I can come up with is that it, you know, got full.”
Everyone was quiet for a few seconds, and then Kio said, “You’re right. There’s more chance of Za having eyes than that being true.”
“Hey,” he snapped, cheeks reddening, “she asked, I answered. But… what else could it be? Yeah, a Shapeless is always hungry, but what if Gestaul was, I don’t know, enough to finally satisfy it? Think about it.” He held up his hands. “He was a Shapeless himself. That meant he had a ton of other people in him. A ton of souls, a ton of Vashiila.”
An ominous rumble came from the Pit, miles and miles in the distance.
Kio shook her head. “I don’t know, and I don’t care. All I care about is that I finally have you back.” Her grip on his arm tightened painfully. “And I’m never letting you out of my sight again, got it?”
Kulgan lowered his eyes. “I could tie you up and leave you here…”
“If you try it—”
“... and you’d just catch up with us by sundown, wouldn’t you?”
“With a fist in your face and a few choice words,” she agreed, and hugged him.
Kulgan hesitated, and then hugged her back. She was such a wonderful woman. He didn’t deserve her.
“I don’t know why you do this,” he muttered, rubbing his hand up and down her back.
“Because I love you.”
She turned her head up to look at him. “Because no matter how hard you try to deny it, I know the truth: you’re a good man, Kulgan. And you’re my good man.”
Kulgan stared blankly into the fire. She said she knew the truth, but if she really did…
Why shouldn’t she?
“Kio,” he said slowly. “I have to tell you something.”
She sat up, sensing the unease in his voice. “What?”
Why am I doing this? Why am I trying to push her away?
He already knew the answer. It was because he loved her just as much as she loved him, and he couldn’t keep her in the dark anymore, even if it meant she would stop loving him. Especially if it meant she would stop loving him.
With a trembling hand, he brought out his pendant. “I… I’ve been lying to you, Kio. I didn’t find this by accident when that Shapeless threw me off the cliff.” He clenched his eyes shut so he wouldn’t have to see her. “I already had it.”
Nobody said anything. The only sound to be heard was the crackling of the fire.
“I went looking for one,” he went on a minute later. “I thought that… I thought if I could show the other Rangers what they were capable of, I could change their minds. We could learn how to use them against Vashiil, and I’d be… I’d be the hero who changed everything.”
He opened his eyes to see Kio looking at him in shock. That wasn’t surprising. He had just turned her entire world upside down for the second time. First her husband had become a Twister, and now he hadn’t even had the decency to do it by accident. Any second now, she would slap him, punch him, something, and then get up and storm away, never to be seen by him again… just the way it should be.
Instead, she lunged forward and tackled him, wrapping her arms around him tightly enough to choke him.
“You d’yargo idiot,” she said, voice muffled, face pressed against his chest.
Kulgan sat there, stunned. “But… you… I… why?”
She looked up at him. “You think this changes anything?”
“Do I—yes! I didn’t become a Twister by accident, it was on purpose. How does that not change anything?”
Kio drew herself up so that the two of them were eye to eye. “Kulgan Matru,” she said in a low, dangerous voice, “I love you. I decide who I love and why I love them. That’s my decision to make, nobody else’s. If you keep trying to make that decision for me, I’m going to put a bullet in your foot, and then I’ll love a man with a d’yargo bullet in his foot! So just,” she grabbed his shirt and pulled him closer, “stop fighting me every step of the way, and let yourself be loved.”
With that, she kissed him. Kulgan resisted at first, as rigid as a board, but finally melted into her embrace and kissed her back.
If I can’t make her stop, I may as well let her have what she wants, he thought. He still felt no small degree of guilt for it, but Kio was a stubborn woman. And a smart one, and a strong one. If she truly wanted to love him, what right did he have to tell her no? His heart fluttered with happiness when they separated.
“So, what’s the plan now?” Adlis asked, her ears pink with embarrassment.
Kulgan cleared his throat. “I still plan on getting you home.”
“You can’t,” Kio argued. “Everyone saw her helping me bust you out. If you bring her home, she’ll find the church there waiting for her.”
“Not really.” He allowed himself a small grin. “Adlis here is the daughter of the governor of Arborough, and next in line for succession. If we get her back, her father will have all the connections she needs not to get arrested.”
“And you, too,” Adlis added. “I haven’t forgotten what I promised you. Get me home safe, and I’ll make sure the church never bothers you so long as you stay in Arborough.”
Kulgan turned to his wife. “How does that sound? A nice quiet life in Arborough.”
Kio frowned, but then shrugged. “Why not? I’ve never been to the Shadetower Woods.”
Kulgan nodded. “Then it’s settled. We set out for Arborough first thing in the morning. The next Gate is about twenty miles that way,” he nodded into the distance, “and will put us out somewhere in the middle of the Shi Valen mountains.”
Adlis’ ears paled at this. “The mountains? But… is that a good idea? Tolk is in the mountains.”
Slowly, Kulgan nodded. “Yep. Someone needs to do something about those ears of yours before we get you home. Madame Caruzo is the one who did that to you, so she’s the only person I know who can take it away.”
Kulgan looked into the fire.
“That’s why our first stop on the way to Arborough is Tolk, the City of Sin.”
The blazing Taksten sun shone bright in the sky, warming Tikta’s scales as he sat in front of the long, tall fence. The marshals had left days ago, claiming that if Kulgan and the others hadn’t come out yet, they weren’t coming out at all. For anyone else, Tikta would have agreed.
Not Kulgan, though. Kulgan was crafty, and not afraid of danger. In fact, he seemed to leap in front of it as if he wanted to die. No, the filthy Twister was still alive in there, biding his time.
Or so Tikta had thought. Nearly a week had passed since the three of them had passed through the Forbidden Gate. He didn’t know much about the Graylands, save that they were dangerous. Why would Kulgan choose to spend this much time camped out on the other side of the gate?
The answer came to him like a bullet to his skull: because he wasn’t there.
“D’yargo,” he spat, getting to his feet. Kulgan was alive, of that he was sure, so the fact that he hadn’t emerged meant that he was making his way through the Graylands themselves, planning to come out through another gate. Which one he would choose, though, Tikta had no idea. He didn’t even know where the other Forbidden Gates were. He could scour Tassendile till the day he died and still never see hide nor hair of the cursed Twister.
Tikta blinked in surprise. The very fact that he was even considering this meant he had to be just as insane as Kulgan. And yet, consider it he did. He had to find Kulgan. He had to make him pay for what happened Everdry. The Red Fangs had been the one to cause all the destruction, but it was Kulgan’s fault they’d come in the first place. Embin had looked down from the skies, seen the Everdryers giving shelter to a servant of Vashiil, and had brought that gang of maniacs to punish them. Now Tikta’s city lay in ruins, a good fourth of the population dead, but Kulgan was alive and well. There was no question about it: to gain Embin’s forgiveness, Tikta had to hunt the Twister down and kill him. Then, and only then, could Everdry prosper again.
And so, with a determined stride, he propped up the ladder the marshals had left, clambered over the fence, and dropped down to the other side. Forbidden Gate Tarz loomed in front of him, inviting him into the Graylands, inviting him to seek out vengeance.
“Kulgan,” he whispered, swallowing nervously, “I’m comin’ for ya.”
For just short of a week, unimaginable pain had burned Dastril Bloodnoggin Speth from the inside out, from his skin down to his very soul. The thought made his eyes light up with exhilaration, and his manic cackle echoed out across the sandy plains.
“I still got one!” he howled, arching his back as the poison seared his veins like liquid fire. “I still got one!”
Oh, what a wondrous day it was! There was still a soul trapped inside that wicked little heart of his. And here he'd thought he'd lost the cursed thing years ago. It was tiny and shriveled up, like a rotten piece of fruit, but it was there!
He grinned up at the blazing sun. The pain was exquisite. Of course it was. It was poison from a wolf hornet's stinger, from the body of a Twisted human. That was like the royal cuisine of poisons, and he savored every second that it spent trying to tear him apart. A lesser man would have died within minutes of being stung by a wolf hornet, but this wasn't the first time Speth had been poisoned. In his younger days he had made a hobby out of sampling Haroz's finest poisons. They were like wine, and experimenting with the effects they had on his body made him feel like a high class gentleman. He would take them in small amounts, sipping them from brandy glasses, and then revel in the gut wrenching pains they would create inside of him.
But this... this was something special. He giggled again, rolling onto his stomach to bash his face into the sand of the Taksten. It was like his entire body had been sent to the Pit. No, as if he had become the Pit itself! He rubbed his face in the sand, letting the microscopic stones scrape at his skin, but he barely felt it beneath the beautiful, heavenly storm of agony that raged inside of him.
Finally, when he was on the verge of suffocating, he rolled over onto his back and sucked in a lungful of life giving air. Reaching up with trembling fingers, he tore his shirt open. It was so d'yargo hot! When that didn't help, he grabbed clumps of his thick, matted black fur and began to tear it free. Oh, sweet, succulent pain!
At first he'd actually been afraid that the poison would kill him. During those first couple hours, he had experienced a different kind of pain. A kind of pain he didn't like. He had writhed on the ground, screaming, convinced that every ragged breath he forced down his throat would be his last. It hadn't been until the dawn of the second day that he'd finally realized the truth: all his previous samplings of poison must have built up his immunity. He would survive. All he had to do was enjoy the pain until the poison passed.
To his disappointment, though, it seemed that time was finally coming. While the pain still racked his body, it was doing so to a lesser extent than it had an hour ago. He sighed, but couldn't deny it was for the best. He had work to do, after all.
Everdry still stood, peaceful and happy, and with an irritating lack of everybody being dead. He desperately wanted to go back and finish the job, but there were more pressing matters at hand. Like the Ranger. Speth clenched his fist as another wave of agony rolled over him. As much as he appreciated the pain Kulgan had been kind enough to give him, it was a gift given in defeat. Defeat. Shame. Those were two other types of pain he wasn't fond of.
“I'm gonna get ya,” he mumbled up at the giant ball of fire above him. “I'll find ya and I'll kill ya, but not before I make ya suffer.”
Oh yes, he would make him suffer. And it wouldn't be a kind of pain Kulgan would like.
With that last comforting thought, he allowed himself to sink into the poison's agonizing embrace once again. His screams echoed across the desert.
Deep in the shadow-cloaked Graylands, a Shapeless crawled across the craggy ground. As always, a thousand voices bounced ceaselessly around inside of it. Vague, meaningless thoughts that were even less than meaningless to the creature that listened to them. They were not important. The only thing important was food. Food was everything. For a little while, it had actually felt… not hungry. There were no words to describe the not-hungry feeling. There were no words to describe the hunger. There were no words for anything at all. All it knew was that, for a few hours, the urge to eat, eat, eat had gone away. The hunger was slowly coming back, though, and so its hunt resumed. There were only two things of any importance in the world: hunger and food.
Like everything else, the voices simply… were.
That was why it stopped, confused, when one single voice rose above all the others. So plain and crystal clear, it reminded the Shapeless of another time, of memories beyond reaching, when it hadn’t been a Shapeless. When it had been… something else. The memories were re-forgotten within moments. In a world that consisted only of hunger and food, something new had suddenly appeared. Three words, etched into its mind like a knife carving into flesh.
KULGAN… IS… MINE!
To Be Continued
AUTHOR’S NOTE: That’s it for The Gray Ranger: Unforgiven… for now! Thanks for taking this journey with me, and be here next Saturday for the epic return of Juryokine: Exile of Heroes!