"That must be it," Adlis whispered, crouching down in the shadows. In front of her was a large building that wouldn't have caught her eye if not for the iron bars covering the windows. The exterior was made of the same dry, brittle wood as the rest of the city, making it look completely inadequate for the holding of dangerous criminals.
"There's gonna be guards in there, Miss Adlis," Za said, crouching behind her. "How're we gonna break him out without gettin' caught?"
"It won't be hard," she promised him. "Look at the place! It looks like it would collapse if you breathed on it too hard."
"So you... want me to go breathe on it?"
Adlis rolled her eyes. "It's a figure of speech, Za. Now come on, let's go!"
The zik maiden's stomach was roiling with fear, but she still put on a brave face and, standing up, marched resolutely toward the jail. There was nobody on this road either, so she wasn't worried about being spotted. Za stayed where he was, hidden in the shadows for a few seconds, but then got up and scrambled after her with a yelp. They reached the door unchallenged, and when Adlis tested the knob she found it unlocked.
"Odd," she noted. "You would think that, of all the places in town they would lock the door, it'd be the jail."
"Especially if they got a Twister in there," Za added. "We should run."
"We're not running. He's our only way back to Arborough."
Swinging the door open, she regarded the shadowy interior of the jail.
There's a Twister hiding somewhere in those shadows...
Adlis' ears paled beneath her bonnet, and this time she couldn't even pretend to be brave in front of Za. In her mind's eye she saw the Twister sprouting his long, stinger-tipped tail and insect-like wings. What else could he do, she wondered? Could he cling to walls like a spider? Spin webs? Was he dangling from the ceiling right above her, ready to suck her blood and—
Adlis looked up, and let out an audible sigh when she found it free of monsters.
Za stepped in after her. "Miss Adlis, I don't think—"
"Hush, Za!" she whispered. "We don't want the guards to know we're here!"
Still fighting to stay brave, Adlis took a couple more steps into the jail. To her right, the door to the sheriff's office stood open, but the room was dark. There was nobody in sight.
Where are the guards? she wondered, cautiously making her way further inside. Kulgan is a Twister. I would have thought every square inch of this place would be guarded.
Again, images of Kulgan breaking free and slaughtering the townspeople clawed their way into her mind, and this time they were harder to ignore. Then again, the rational part of her mind interjected, if Kulgan had, indeed, eaten the guards, then why was the jail still so... clean? There was enough dust on everything for her to write her name, true, but nothing that would have indicated a massacre. No blood, no entrails strewn about...
Adlis cut off that line of thought before she made herself sick.
Where was he, then? Looking around, Adlis saw a staircase leading up to the second floor. Pushing back the rest of her uneasiness, she made her way toward it.
"Miss Adlis, I don't think—"
"Be quiet, Za! Someone's going to hear you!"
She put her foot down on the first step, and cringed when it let out a high pitched squeak. She froze, her ears as white as snow, waiting for someone to sound the alarm and come barreling down the stairs to apprehend her. Nothing happened.
Get yourself under control! she chastised herself. Steeling her nerves again, she took the railing firmly in her hand and marched up the stairs. Behind her, Za fidgeted nervously for a few seconds before following. She wasn't sure what she was expecting to be greeted by at the top of the stairs, but it definitely wasn't what she found.
"There's nothing here," she said in surprise, walking up and down the corridor, looking into every one of the cells. "Nothing, nobody!"
"I told you, Miss Adlis—"
One of the cell doors was standing halfway open. Forgetting her fear for the moment, Adlis marched over to it and looked inside. There wasn't much to see, it was exactly the same as the other cells. A small barred window looked out over Everdry, and a bed sat against the wall.
"Wait a minute," she said under her breath.
There was something different. A marking on the wall at the back of the cell. Stepping inside, Adlis knelt down to inspect it.
"Bullet holes!" she exclaimed, standing upright in shock. "Somebody was shooting at him!"
Za raised a finger. "Miss Adlis, I think—"
"But his body's not here. There's not even any blood. That... that means they missed!"
"And the door's open, so..." She paused, her eyes opening wide. "He's free. He's escaped, Za! He's somewhere in Everdry!"
Adlis stood up, tugging anxiously on the fur on her arms, a bad habit her mother had never been able to break her from. "We have to find him before someone else does. Or before he leaves town. He can't be far. He- He couldn't have broken out very long ago, right?"
Adlis froze, the sudden outburst from her mild mannered simmk shocking her almost as much as finding Kulgan missing had. Za looked just as shocked as she did, and hurriedly backed away from her, ducking his head timidly.
"I didn't mean to Miss Adlis," he whimpered, "I'm sorry!"
Now that was more like it.
"It's fine," she pardoned him. "What is it?"
"I was just tryin' to tell you, Miss Adlis, I knew he wasn't here right when we stepped inside."
Adlis crossed her arms. "How would you have..." She paused, and then slapped her forehead. "Your sense of smell!"
Za nodded. "I smelled where he left the jail, Miss Adlis. He ain't nowhere around here."
With a groan, Adlis grabbed his hand and pulled him back down the stairs and toward the door. "Well, then what are we still doing here? Come on!"
Za sighed, but went with her without protest.
"Here." She stopped in the road in front of the jail. "Can you smell where he went from here?"
"Miss Adlis, I..." He stopped when Adlis put her fists on her hips. Even without eyes, he was able to sense the stern look she was giving him. He pointed down the road and sighed. "He went that way."
Grabbing him by the wrist again, Adlis took off at a very unladylike sprint through Everdry, kicking sand up with every step. He was still in town— he had to still be in town. Za would lead her to him, and he would take them back to...
She heard voices. Cursing, Adlis skidded to a halt in the sand. A bright glow was coming from up ahead, and the voices were getting louder by the second. With a gasp, she realized that the celebrating townspeople were coming her way.
"Quick, in here!" she said, pulling Za into a nearby alleyway. Keeping herself between the simmk and the road, she backed up until they were both completely engulfed in the shadows. The voices were steadily growing louder out in the streets.
"Miss Adlis, why are we hidin' from them?" Za whispered once both of their backs were pressed against the wall.
Adlis thought for a moment, and realized she didn't have an answer. Why was she hiding from the townspeople? She wanted to keep a low profile while they made their way out of Everdry, true, but that didn't mean the Everdryers meant her any harm. For Embin's sake, she thought huffily, she was acting as if she'd been the one to break Kulgan out of jail!
Even so, when the crowd of celebrators walked past her alleyway, Adlis didn't come out of the shadows.
The townspeople took longer to pass than Adlis expected. Even after half a minute, she still hadn't seen the last of them. They were practically a parade, making their way through town with torches held above their heads. They were singing— no, she realized. Not singing. Chanting.
"Burn the Twister!" they were shouting, their voices echoing down the streets in eerie unison. "Burn the Twister! Burn the Twister!"
Oh no, Adlis thought, her ears turning gray as the last few stragglers finally disappeared from view. They were heading straight for the jail. That was...
Perfect. That was perfect, she realized. Kulgan had already broken out. The Everdryers were scared stiff of him, which meant they probably wouldn't go inside to look for him. They would stand outside on the road and throw their torches through the windows. They would set the jail ablaze and watch it burn down, and never once realize that Kulgan wasn't in there.
"This is our chance," she exclaimed, pulling Za back out of the alley again. "Hurry, tell me where he went!"
"We're gonna get in so much trouble for this, Miss Adlis!"
"Za, you'll have plenty of time to complain when we're on our way back to Arborough. Now tell me where he went!"
Za moved his head slowly from the left to the right. "It's hard to say, Miss Adlis," he admitted a few seconds later. "All the other people've gone and covered up his scent, but..."
He pointed the way they had been going before.
"Are you sure?"
The simmk hesitated, but then nodded.
"Wonderful. Thank you, Za."
Before Za could reply, she was towing him through Everdry again. They sprinted through the streets, Adlis having to lift her skirt to keep from tripping over it, only slowing down when Za told her the scent was going a different way. Everdry wasn't a large town, though, and within minutes Za dug his heels into the sand.
"Miss Adlis, here!"
Adlis stopped and let go of his wrist. Both of them were sweating and breathing heavily, even in the cold desert air.
"What is it now?" she asked.
He was trembling. Even in his oversized black coat, she could see the way he shook. He raised his hand again and pointed across the street.
"There," he answered in a high pitched, wheezy voice.
He was pointing at a narrow two story building. Completely unremarkable, she wouldn't have given it a second glance if Za hadn’t pointed it out to her. Its windows were dark and its doors were closed, but Adlis swore that it was radiating an aura of fear.
"And he's still in there?" she asked, breathless.
"I don't smell him comin' back out, Miss Adlis."
Adlis drew herself up confidently, even though the urge to turn and run was back and even stronger than ever. She didn't doubt Za. Quite the opposite, in fact. She could practically feel Kulgan creeping around inside that house, his stinger scratching on the floor and his wings twitching spastically. Her throat closed in on itself, making it hard to breathe.
She turned to face him. "Stay outside and keep watch, Za. Warn me if anybody comes this way."
She took a step across the street, but stopped, nearly jumping out of her fur, when Za grabbed her by the elbow.
"With all due respect, Miss Adlis," he said, "I ain't lettin' you go in there with that thing by yourself!"
Adlis hesitated. "Are you sure? You're not my servant, so—"
"But if I'm your friend, that just means I gotta go in there with you even more."
He had a point.
"All right," she consented. "Stay with me, and whatever you do, don't panic."
"Don't worry, Miss Adlis, I think all my panickin' leaked out on the road a ways back."
Adlis wrinkled her nose. "Ew, Za! Don't say things like that!"
"Sorry, Miss Adlis."
Adlis motioned for him to be quiet, and led the way toward the door. Her heart was pounding in her ears as she reached for the knob, praying to Embin that it would be locked. If it was locked, then she could turn around, go back to Mystle's house, and find another way out of Everdry. One that didn't involve asking—
The door opened easily for her.
"D'yargo," she whispered.
"Nothing. Come on."
They stepped inside the house. With the curtains shut and not a single candle lit, it was darker in here than it was outside. The only light came from moonlight streaming in through the door, and that only illuminated a long, narrow rectangle on the floor. She couldn't see Kulgan anywhere.
"He must be upstairs," Adlis whispered, beckoning Za further in. "Follow me, and try not to surprise him."
"You couldn't if you tried."
The rectangle of light vanished as the door slammed shut. Adlis and Za spun around with identical shrieks of terror. Adlis tripped over her own feet in the darkness and fell to the floor with a thud. Za landed beside her a moment later.
A scratching sound came from the other side of the room, and a light flickered into existence. Kulgan stood by the door, a match in one hand... and a gun in the other.
"What the Pit are you two doing here?" he asked. His voice was cool, his expression was calm, and yet when Adlis looked at his hand she could see his trigger finger twitching restlessly.
"We- we- we-" she stammered, her ears as white as snow beneath the bonnet.
"I'm in a bit of a hurry here," Kulgan said, clicking the hammer of his pistol back with his thumb. "So if you don't mind, spit it out!"
The pistol moved a little when Kulgan shifted, and Adlis' eyes followed it like she'd been mesmerized by the tiny black hole at its tip. Her breath was coming in short, shallow gulps. She couldn't speak, she couldn't stand, she couldn't even think. Coming here had been a bad idea, a horrible one. Now she and Za were both going to pay the price for her stupidity. Kulgan's eyes narrowed when she didn't answer, and Adlis closed her own. Hopefully he would be kind enough to grant her a quick death. Would she still hear the bang? Would there be any pain? Would he—
Kulgan sighed and holstered the gun. "D'yargo."
Adlis opened her eyes in surprise. "You- You're not going to kill us?"
Kulgan shrugged and turned away from them. "I really should. I've never been good at this whole bad guy thing, though."
"Who knows, though? Maybe all I need is a little encouragement." He turned to face them again with a dark look in his eyes. "You sure want to push me, ma'am?"
Adlis' ears, which had begun to darken to gray, immediately turned white again.
"I don't know what you two are doing looking for me," Kulgan said, looking from one of them to the other. "Don't much care, either. I suggest you both get back to whatever kind soul agreed to take care of you during your stay in this lovely little town, go to bed, and forget you ever saw me. Don't worry, I'll be long gone by morning so you won't have to worry about breathing the same air as me anymore."
The match ran out, plunging the room into darkness again. A moment later, the sliver of moonlight reappeared as Kulgan opened the door for them. A cool breeze wafted into the house, and the scent of what Adlis swore must have been freedom filled her nose. Perhaps not freedom from Everdry, but at least freedom from the Twister she had been foolish enough to seek out. What more could she possible ask for?
And yet, she didn't move.
"Mr. Kulgan," she said, her voice still quavering, "we came because we need your help."
Kulgan chuckled, and Adlis jumped when his voice came from somewhere else in the room than where she'd last seen him. "Gee, now doesn't that sound familiar? The last time that happened, I seem to remember you saying that you would rather die than accept help from the likes of me."
A flash of guilt ripped unexpectedly through her chest, and Adlis' ears turned red.
"Yeah, that's what I thought." Kulgan's voice came from yet another place. "Now get out. A pretty little lady like yourself shouldn't be consorting with ne'er do wells like me."
Adlis heard that, and the fur on her arms stood up straight. She followed suit, practically springing back to her feet, and rounded on where Kulgan's voice had come from last, even though she knew he probably wasn't there anymore.
"You watch your mouth, Twister!" she hollered. "I came here to ask you for help out of the goodness in my heart, and I do not appreciate being treated in such a way!"
The room was silent for a few seconds, apart from Za's whimpering on the floor. Then Kulgan laughed.
"You're asking for help out of the goodness in your heart? I'll give you credit, I haven't heard that one before."
"Don't mock me," Adlis hissed into the darkness. "I know you're on the run from the church. Why else would you be all the way out here? I would have thought that you'd jump at the chance to earn your redemption, but I guess I was—"
She heard a match strike, and a dull yellow glow lit up the room beside her. She turned to look, and found Kulgan's face less than a foot away from hers.
"Boo," he said.
Adlis screamed and fell over backwards again, this time landing right on top of her simmk friend. The rush of air from her flailing arms blew the match out.
"I can't decide if you're trying to con me," Kulgan said, "or if you're really that ignorant to how all of this works. Giving in to the temptations of Vashiil, becoming a Twister, is the most heinous sin anyone can commit. There is no redemption for me."
She heard him stomping across the floor, toward the back of the room. After the way he'd slunk around before, as silently as if he'd been riding the wind, Adlis realized he must have been making that noise on purpose.
"Miss Adlis, please!" Za whispered from underneath her. "The door's open. Let's go before he eats us!"
"You should do what your servant says," Kulgan said. "You came here pretending to be doing a good deed. You weren't really, but even if you were it wouldn't matter."
He paused for a second, and when he spoke again Adlis heard real sadness in his voice.
"All we can do is hide and hope Embin lets us live another day."
She heard his feet going up the stairs, and even though she couldn't see him she could feel his presence leaving the room. Her eyes were locked on the place where his footsteps were coming from, unblinking even in the darkness. Za stirred beneath her again.
"Miss Adlis," he grunted.
"Sorry," she muttered, rolling off of him. The simmk leaped to his feet, and she could hear him hurriedly making his way to the door.
"Come on, let's go!" he urged her. "Hurry, before he comes back!"
Adlis hesitated. The doorway was practically pulling on her like a magnet, trying to drag her out of the house and onto the safety of Everdry's dusty streets. She resisted that pull, though. Why? She didn't know herself.
"No," she whispered.
"Miss Adlis?" Za asked in confusion.
"We're not leaving," she said. "Not yet. Come on."
NEXT TIME: One offer has been rejected, but will Kulgan be able to say no to whatever’s behind door number two?! Wow. I suck at writing these, don’t I?