Kulgan heard the simmk whimper as he came back down the stairs, and moved to pull another match out of his pocket before he realized that it would be pointless. The d'yargo thing could probably make his way around in the dark better than Kulgan could.
"I'm fine, Za," said the zik girl, coming down close behind him. "You can relax."
"I know, Miss Adlis," the simmk said from the corner of the room by the door, as if he'd been ready to bolt at a moment's notice. "I heard everythin' up there."
"Good," Kulgan grunted. "Then you don't need me to explain why I'm coming with you."
The simmk gulped audibly, and the zik girl went to him, walking cautiously in the darkness.
"It'll be all right," she said, speaking so softly that Kulgan could barely hear her. "Mr. Kulgan and I have worked out a bargain. We'll be perfectly safe."
There was still a tinge of nervousness in her voice that Kulgan didn't miss. He ignored it and went to the pantry. A small pack was slung over his shoulder, and he quickly swept the contents of the pantry into it. The food didn't belong to him, and the old Kashni who lived here would definitely be surprised to find his cupboards bare, but Kulgan wasn't worried about him going hungry. These Everdryers were a close knit group, after all. They wouldn't hesitate to give him whatever he needed, especially if he told them the accursed Twister had been the one to steal it all.
Adlis and Za, though... He'd forgotten those names after getting back to Everdry, and who could blame him? Being found out and thrown in prison was more than enough to occupy his mind for one day. Who had the time to remember what two ungrateful city slickers were called? He tucked them into his memory now, though. Travelling with them all the way to Arborough would be infinitely easier if he had something to call them besides You Idiot.
"So, what's the plan?" Adlis asked.
"Unless you already changed your mind, the plan is to get you to Arborough."
Adlis gasped a little. "That's not a plan, that's a goal!"
"Well, unless you have something better..."
"We need a way to get there! Do you have any horses? Kashnilas?"
That got a laugh out of Kulgan. "Do I look like I own any?"
"You can't tell me you walked all the way out here."
"Oh, yes I can, ma'am." He crossed the room again, to where he knew the owner of the house kept his coat rack.
"That's insane! You would have died from the heat, or from dehydration, or—"
"Ma'am, I survived for two years in the Graylands. Your little desert can't hurt me."
That shut her up. Kulgan felt around the coat rack. He didn't need a coat, his poncho was enough, but despite his tough words there was something he needed. His fingers brushed one of the wide brimmed hats that hung from the upper prongs, took it down, and placed it on his head.
"Perfect," he said under his breath when he found that it fit.
That hat had been on his host's coat rack since the day Kulgan had moved in. It was human sized, and made out of soft gray fabric with a black leather belt running around it. He'd never once seen the old Kashni take it down, much less wear it. Seeing how it was too small for the old lizard anyway, Kulgan doubted he would miss it much— especially when he realized all his food was gone.
He went on, "So, assuming that you don't have a horse and carriage hidden up your dress..."
Adlis spluttered indignantly, and Kulgan grinned.
"... then we're going to have to walk."
With that, he made his way to the door, which still stood partly open to let the moonlight in.
"Mr. Kulgan," Adlis said tentatively. "We're not Gray Rangers like you. We'll never survive that."
"Doesn't seem to me like you've got much choice." He turned to face her. From here, he could vaguely see her standing in front of him. "Unless you want to stay in happy, friendly Everdry, you're going to have to come with me."
"Ma'am," Kulgan cut her off. "I promised I would get you back to Arborough safely. The key word there is safely. It wouldn't do me much good to bring your father a sack of bones, would it?"
Adlis shuddered visibly, and then nodded. "A- All right."
"Are you sure about this, Miss Adlis?" the simmk asked, tapping her on the shoulder with a shaking hand.
"He's our only choice, Za. We have to trust him!"
Kulgan glanced out the door. Smoke was filling the sky now, and even from here he could feel heat wafting down the empty streets. The jail was probably little more than a pile of ashes by now, he estimated. Old, dry wood like that wouldn't take long to burn. That meant the celebrators wouldn't be long in coming home.
Sure enough, he could hear the sound of cheering voices coming from nearby.
"I don't want to rush anybody," he said casually, "but those people think I'm dead. If they see me, they'll probably tear me limb from limb— and anybody who's with me, too."
"Mr. Kulgan's right," Adlis said decisively, grabbing Za by the hand. "Let's go."
Kulgan didn't need any further encouragement. Throwing the door open, he looked both ways and then motioned for the other two to follow him. He brushed his palm against Zam and Zagyr to reassure himself as he crept out onto the dusty road. Adlis came immediately behind him, and Za stayed behind just long enough to close the door before scurrying after his mistress.
He held the bag of food out to the black coated simmk. "Here, you carry this."
Za recoiled from his hand. "What? M- Me?"
"That is what you fancy simmk servants are for, right?"
Adlis huffed. "Za is my friend, not my servant."
"Sure." Kulgan rolled his eyes. "Come on, now."
Za took the bag as commanded, and Kulgan almost laughed at the look of outrage on Adlis' face. "If you want, feel free to carry it for him."
Adlis' brow drew low over her eyes. "Can we go already?"
Chuckling, Kulgan led the way down the street, his two new companions in tow. He felt a little bad for antagonizing Adlis like that, especially after the promises she had made for him. Was that any way to treat the person who had promised to give him the only thing he still wanted out of life? The problem was that, after so long being the outcast, sarcasm and condescension came more naturally to him than sincerity.
Plus, he still wasn't sure he could trust the zik girl.
She was being honest with him. He didn't think he'd met a more sincere girl in his life. She honestly and truly believed that her authority as governor would be able to protect him from the Church of Embin once they reached Arborough. The problem was, she had no idea what she was talking about. To her, all it would take to keep the church from getting their claws on him would be to sign a paper saying they couldn't do it. She didn't know how far the monks' and priests’ hatred for Twisters went, how their burning rage twisted them on the inside almost as much as Vashiila Twisted him. She didn't know the lengths they were willing to go to catch even a single one of them.
She didn't know about the Ministry of the Purge.
A minute later, Adlis bustled up to walk beside him. "I hear voices."
Kulgan nodded once. "Yep."
"Shouldn't we get off the road?"
Kulgan paused and looked around. "No. They're still far enough away that hiding from them would be a waste of time. We need to keep moving toward the edge of town, and we'll only hide when they're close enough to see us."
Adlis look like she wanted to argue more, but Kulgan hastened his step, leaving her behind. The zik maiden huffed angrily, and then hurried to keep up with him. He could hear Za muttering worriedly under his breath. He smiled a little and shook his head. Just his luck, getting stuck babysitting a little puff like her. Still, if Adlis was capable of keeping her promise...
A cold wind blew in from the north, kicking up sand and dust along the road. Kulgan didn't so much as blink, but Adlis gasped and shivered.
"I should have brought a coat," she said through chattering teeth. "Who would have thought the desert could go from being so hot to being so cold?"
Kulgan shook his head without turning around. "You're better off without it. Once the sun comes up it'll get so hot that you'd probably die if you wore it. You'd have to take it off, and that would be an extra burden that we don't need. Just put up with it until dawn. Then you can complain about how hot it is, instead."
Adlis huffed, but it was Za who spoke up next. "I wouldn't mind carrying Miss Adlis' shawl during the day."
"Thank you, Za," Adlis said, her voice sickly sweet. "I'm glad someone knows how to be a proper gentleman!"
"Oh, I'm no gentleman, Miss Adlis. I just—"
"Hey, I've got a better idea, Sackhead," Kulgan interrupted him. "How about you just give her your coat?"
He turned to look as Za stopped dead in his tracks, his shock evident even with his entire face covered.
"Go ahead," the Ranger went on, waving impatiently. "She can give it back as soon as the sun comes up."
Za began to shake again. "But- but- I can't- I would..."
Suddenly, Adlis stepped protectively in front of him. "You don't have to take your coat off, Za," she snapped, giving Kulgan her coldest glare. "Mr. Kulgan is just being cruel."
Kulgan shrugged and turned to continue the journey out of Everdry. "You were whining. I offered a solution. If you don't like it, then I'd advise keeping your mouth shut."
"I was not whining!" she shouted.
"You were. You still are, and quite loudly at that. You might want to shut it before—"
"What the Pit?"
Everyone froze and turned around to see an old, gray-scaled Kashni staring at them from further down the road.
"Before that happens," Kulgan sighed. Then he waved and called out, "Hey, Munn! Come to see me off?"
The pub owner took a step back, his eyes wide with disbelief. "How did you..." He turned to look back at the glow of the burning jail. "You're supposed to be..."
Kulgan shrugged. "You didn't really expect that little jail to hold a Gray Ranger, did you?"
Munn blinked a couple times, and finally seemed to overcome his shock. He sucked in a breath and opened his mouth to sound the alarm.
Kulgan pulled Zam out of its holster. "This is exactly what I wanted to avoid. Sorry, Munn."
He held it at arm's length, pointing the narrow dawniron barrel at the old Kashni. Just as he pulled the trigger, though, something threw itself in front of him, shoving his arm aside. Zam went off regardless, and a nearby window shattered into a thousand pieces.
Adlis stood before him with a horror stricken look on her face.
Kulgan blinked. "What the Pit are you doing, woman?" he finally asked.
Her eyes were wide and her breathing was frantic, but she managed to gasp out, "You can't kill him!"
"Unless you want to leave Everdry with an angry mob on your tail, I can!"
"THE TWISTER IS ALIVE! HE'S ESCAPIN'! EVERYBODY TO THE NORTH SIDE OF TOWN!"
"D'yargo!" Kulgan wrenched his arm free of Adlis' grip. "Come on, hurry!"
NEXT TIME: Did you guys really think I’d just let them walk out of town? When have I ever made things that easy on my characters? Be back next week, and we’ll see how well Adlis runs in high heels!