The shadows were more of a home to Kulgan than any house he'd lived in in years. True, they blinded him just as much as anyone else, but his training as a Gray Ranger let him navigate as easily as if it were a clear summer day anyway. The small room on the second floor of the small house would have been a poor man's hovel anywhere else, but here in Everdry it bordered on lavish. A bed with not one, but two blankets to fight off the cold desert nights, a chest of drawers that had collected only a little bit of sand over the years, and curtains to block the brutal sun during the day were comforts that many Everdryers had never known, and likely never would. Not that it mattered. They were a close knit group, these desert dwellers.
By all respects, Everdry should have been a hive for thieves and murderers. Instead, its residents had banded together, instigated laws, and built the best little town they could out in these dry, unforgiving conditions. What should have been the most Pittish place in Tassendile, second only to the Pit itself, was instead home to the most loyal bunch of creatures Kulgan had ever met.
"Judge not the surface, or else be made a fool," Kulgan muttered under his breath, "for the purest waters often rise from the well thought poisoned, and the well thought pure is tainted."
The Words of Order, the Chapter of Wisdom, verse thirty five. Kulgan couldn't help but smile at how easily those old verses still came back to him. It was a bitter smile, devoid of joy. Then again, was it really so surprising? Six years of training under the heavy thumb of the church had ensured that those verses would forever ring in his ears. There had been some trainees capable of quoting the entire thing. Kulgan hadn’t been quite so studious, but he estimated his knowledge of Embin's holy book was greater than that of anyone save a priest's.
Kulgan shook his head. Now wasn't the time for reminiscing. Good people or not, the entire population of Everdry still wanted him dead. Judging by the bright yellow glow coming from down the road, visible even with his curtains drawn, they had already set fire to the jail. He was only mildly surprised. A Twister trapped in an easily flammable cage? Even the most disciplined creature on Haroz would be hard pressed to resist such a temptation. Kulgan didn't blame them. Having a Twister in town was like knowing there was a massive, venomous spider perched on your wall. You could ignore it as long as you liked, but everyone would feel better if you hurried up and squashed it.
Not that it mattered. If anything, Kulgan was glad they were burning the jail down. If the townspeople thought he was in there, they wouldn't think to look for him once he sneaked out of town. He would still have to be stealthy, but nobody would expect a pile of ash to make a run for it.
He crossed the room and knelt in front of the chest that sat below the window. He turned the dial, unlocking it even without being able to see the numbers, and threw the lid open. An image flashed in his mind of the chest's contents, telling him exactly where everything was, and his fingers wasted no time in snatching up what he needed. Some people said the Gray Ranger's memories were magic, and that they were secretly allowed to use the forbidden powers that Embin himself had sealed away in the Graylands. That was about as true as saying Kulgan was a Kashni, but the Rangers didn't do much to discourage such rumors. They added to their reputation, making them even more frightening to the normal people. The Gray Rangers existed to protect Tassendile, and a little fear could go a long way toward keeping people away from dangerous places.
No, the truth was that the Rangers just had really, really good memories.
Soon, Kulgan's pockets were stuffed almost to the breaking point with his possessions. A life on the run had taught him to only keep things that could easily be transported. He was bordering on breaking even that rule, though, he thought as the fibers of his pants groaned as he stood up. If he collected much more, his pockets would either explode, or he'd have to buy new pants. His belt was heavier now too, with precious bullets hanging from every spare inch he could fit them into.
Finally, he withdrew the final item lying at the bottom of the chest. It was dusty and creased from being put away for so long, but a quick shake sent it unfolding in his hands. Kulgan hesitated for a few seconds, staring at it even though he couldn't see it, before finally slipping it on over his head. The heavy cloth fell down around his shoulders, both the front and back narrowing to a point down below his waist. Wearing the poncho felt as conflicting to him these days as his Vashiila pendant. It sent his emotions into turmoil. Did it comfort him with memories of a better life? Or was he disgusted by the way those happy memories had come to an end? He had a feeling it was a mixture of both, and that only served to confuse him further.
In the end, he decided to ignore his feelings altogether. Thinking about the past distracted him from the present. Failing to see what's going on around you is a good way to walk right into your grave, one of his mentors had been fond of saying. Or maybe he'd just been forced to say it to Kulgan more than the other trainees.
And speaking of...
"Didn't your mother ever tell you it's rude to spy on people?" he asked without turning around.
There was a squeak of fright, and then some tentative footsteps as the zik girl came into the room with him. She walked slowly. The darkness may have been Kulgan's ally, but it was still an enemy to the helpless zik girl.
"I'm sorry," she said at last. "I wasn't really spying on you, if that helps."
Kulgan snorted. "You have to be able to see to be able to spy, don't you?"
He waited for a few seconds, but when the zik didn't say anything else, he asked, "I seem to recall telling you to get the Pit out of here, didn't I?"
"Yes," she answered. "But..."
"But you still want me to help you. You want to help save my soul!" He wiggled his fingers sarcastically, even though he knew she couldn't see it.
"It- It's not just that," she whispered. Kulgan could detect the hesitance in her voice, but not the kind he expected to hear. Most people, when they found out he was a Twister, were hesitant to talk to him the same way they'd be hesitant to try talking to a tornado. In that it was ridiculous, and would probably get you killed by something that wasn't capable of reasoning with you in the first place. Despite himself, Kulgan found himself listening more closely when she spoke again.
"The truth is, Mr. Kulgan," she whispered, "that you're my only hope. Our only hope."
"No, please listen! I have to get back home, Mr. Kulgan. I know you think I'm just some spoiled girl out touring Tassendile or something, but I'm not. My father is the governor of Arborough!"
Kulgan stood up a little straighter. Now that little revelation he hadn't been expecting.
"Or, he was, maybe," she added sadly. "I don't really know."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Kulgan found himself asking.
"It means that my father is old. He had me late in his life, and now that I'm full grown he's... he's..."
Kulgan didn't need for her to finish.
The zik girl continued. "I'm his eldest child. That means that I'm supposed to take over for him as governor of Arborough."
"You're in the wrong end of Tassendile, then," Kulgan grunted.
"Yes! Exactly! That's why I need your help. Please, you have to help me and Za get back to Arborough before..." She paused. "That is, if he isn't already..."
Her voice trailed away again. Kulgan tried to roll his eyes, but found that he couldn't quite bring himself to do it. There was something in her voice, her words, that spoke of sincerity and innocence. The kind he hadn't seen since even before he'd first set foot in the Graylands.
"I don't think you understand," he said, speaking more softly now than he had before. "I'm a d'yargo Twister. If someone caught me on our way there, they'd hold you guilty too just for associating with me."
He reached up and felt the bump of his pendant beneath his shirt. "We're the bad guys. Nothing’s ever going to change that."
To his surprise, the zik spoke up again. "You saved me and my friend from the bandits this morning when you could have just saved yourself. That's not something a bad guy would do."
Kulgan froze, his wide eyes staring blindly into the darkness.
"Listen," she went on. "You said earlier that all a Twister can ask for is a place to live without being hunted down, right? If you get me to Arborough, I'll become the governess. I'll have complete power over the entire city. What..." She paused again. "What if I were to promise you sanctuary in exchange for getting me home safely?"
An unexpected spark of anger appeared in Kulgan's chest, and he spun around to where the zik was standing.
"Shut up!" he growled. He pointed at her, even though neither of them could see each other. "Just shut up!"
"Don't make those kinds of promises to me!" he yelled. That was stupid and he knew it, but he couldn't control himself. How dare this spoiled little brat play with his emotions like this? "Don't get my hopes up like that. I can't afford to feel hope. There is no hope for me!"
He could hear her stumbling backwards until she struck the wall behind her.
"I- I- I didn't mean to offend you!"
Kulgan clenched his fist and forced his rage to fade from a fire to a dull heat again. "You have no idea what you're promising."
"Yes I do," she insisted. "Do you know how much power a governor has? They're practically kings! Once I get home, that power will be mine. If I tell Arborough that we're sheltering a Twister, they'll have no choice but to accept it!"
To his surprise, she actually chuckled at this. "The Church of Embin can scream and cry all they want, but they can't arrest any of my subjects without my permission."
A chill ran down Kulgan's spine. What she was saying... it actually made sense. Despite all his efforts not to, he could feel hope, that forbidden emotion, rising up inside him. It was an unfamiliar sensation. How long had it been since he'd felt it last? He honestly couldn't remember.
But... no. It couldn't be true. The zik girl was sincere, but that still didn't mean she could keep her promise. He was a Twister, for Embin's sake! The entire universe was against him. That was what it meant to Pierce with Vashiila. He no longer belonged on Haroz, or anywhere else. He was a cursed man trespassing on existence itself until the day he died. The idea that hope, any hope at all, could exist for someone like him... it was utterly ridiculous.
And yet... if she was the governor...
Something touched his hand, and Kulgan jumped. In his distraction, the zik maiden had managed to walk over to him, even in the darkness. She took his hand in hers, raising it up to chest level.
"You may have made some wrong choices," she said softly, "but I don't think anyone is beyond forgiveness. Help me, and I swear I'll give you a place where you can live in peace." She brought her other hand up to grasp his, and squeezed it tighter. "This is what Adlis Arbor, future governor of Arborough, swears to you!"
Kulgan took a deep breath. Slowly, he inclined his head.
"Okay, fine," he whispered. "I'll get you back to Arborough."
I am going to regret this.
NEXT TIME: And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen! The journey of a lifetime begins now… assuming they can make it out of Everdry alive, of course.