Munn’s voice echoed loud and clear across all of Everdry.
“HE’S GETTIN’ AWAY! EVERYONE TO THE NORTH END OF TOWN!”
Kulgan took off down the street at a dead sprint, Zam and Zagyr drawn. Everdry wasn't a big town, so even though they'd barely been walking five minutes he could already see the edge. Unfortunately, that also meant that the townspeople were able to rally much more quickly than they could have in a bigger city. Kulgan suspected that most of them had still been around the jail, but even now, mere seconds after Munn had cried for help, he could hear them approaching.
Adlis and Za were doing their best to keep up with him, but the two softpaws weren't trained like he was. Grinding his teeth in frustration, Kulgan slowed his pace so they could catch up.
"Are you happy now?" he yelled at Adlis.
She didn't answer.
Kulgan growled and looked in front of them. They were nearing the old schoolhouse, one of the buildings the Red Fang's Dragonthroat had shot the previous night. It was still standing, but just barely. It must have been sturdier than it looked, because even Atroyo's storm hadn't been able to finish what the cannon started.
That gave Kulgan an idea...
"Keep running!" he yelled. "Don't stop, no matter what!"
"There he is! Get him!"
There came a bang from behind them, and the sand exploded around Kulgan's feet. Adlis shrieked, even though they hadn't been aiming for her. A second bang, and the bullet zipped over his shoulder. This time, Za was the one who screamed.
"Put your heads down, you idiots!" Kulgan shouted.
Adlis and Za did as he said as best they could, struggling to run with their heads ducked. A third bullet streaked past above them just as they passed the schoolhouse. Swinging Zam and Zagyr around to his right, Kulgan squeezed both triggers six times each. Bullets exploded from the dawniron pistols, flying straight into the rickety old building. Kulgan aimed low, at the supports, and grinned a tight, humorless grin when the bullets sent splinters flying. The entire structure groaned.
"Move your feet!" he commanded, putting on an extra burst of speed. The schoolhouse sagged, then began to lean even further out toward the road. There came an earsplitting crack, followed by a crash as it toppled forward, the rubble creating a ten foot tall roadblock.
"You're going to kill us!" Adlis screamed.
"You think so?" Kulgan yelled back. "Because I think that'd be a bit counterproductive!"
He chanced a look backwards, and was glad to see that nobody was trying to climb over the rubble. That was good. It meant that they were all going around, which would give them an extra minute or so to gain distance. All they needed to do was get out of town. Everdry's last few buildings flew past in a blur of black and brown, and then there was nothing around them except the wide, open desert.
"Head for the Red Fang's camp," Kulgan said as they made their mad dash away from Everdry. "We'll catch our breath there."
Adlis shot him a surprised look, but didn't say anything. She already looked like she was about to pass out. He probably could have suggested they all turn themselves in and she wouldn't have had the energy to argue.
The bandits had beat a hasty retreat after the thrashing Kulgan had given Speth, and the vast majority of what they'd brought had been left behind. The minute they reached it, Adlis and Za both collapsed in the sand, gasping frantically for breath. Kulgan shook his head. They weren't going to make it halfway across the Taksten at this rate.
The tent still sat where it had been pitched, abandoned and flapping gently in the breeze. "You two sleep in there," he said, pointing at it. "It should be at least a little warmer in there."
"Wait, we're stopping?" Adlis asked, looking up at him in surprise. "We need to get as far from Everdry as possible!"
"We'll be fine," Kulgan insisted. "They won't come after us until after the sun comes up."
"Why not?" Za asked. He was lying face down in the sand, and his voice was muffled.
"Because there are monsters out there."
Adlis looked at him again, eyes wide, but then just sighed and shook her head. "Of course there are."
Kulgan made his way further into the camp. The wagon they had carried the Dragonthroat in on was still there too. Curious, he made his way over to it, and jumped a little in surprise when he found the cannon right where they had left it.
Bloodnoggin may have been insane, but he was cunning, Kulgan thought, bringing a hand to his chin. Without him, the Red Fangs are nothing but a pack of rabid dogs. They won't last a month on their own!
The thought made him smile.
"Mr. Kulgan, sir?" Za timidly called to him, bringing him reluctantly back to the present. "What kind of monsters are out here?"
Sighing, Kulgan turned and made his way back over to where his charges were still sitting in the sand.
"Oh, the usual," he said nonchalantly. "Goyles, giant snakes, centipers."
Za whimpered and looked around, as if the predators were hiding just out of sight. His paranoia wasn't entirely uncalled for. Adlis, on the other hand, fixed Kulgan with a surprisingly stern glare.
"Oh, that's all?" she snapped.
Kulgan shrugged. "You're the one who insisted on coming with me. Don't blame me for what we might run into out here."
Adlis wilted a little at that, and Kulgan turned to go inspect the tent.
"What about wolf hornets?" she suddenly asked.
Kulgan froze. A shiver ran down his spine even as fiery anger rose up and threatened to thaw it out. The pendant around his neck seemed to pulse at hearing its name. He took a deep breath.
“They’ve been extinct for hundreds of years, ma’am.”
The zik maiden crossed her arms. "Really? Because I could have sworn I saw one just this morning."
Kulgan clenched his fist, pushing down the urge to reach for his gun.
"Ma'am, let me be frank with you." He rounded on her, making her flinch a little. "A whiny, spoiled, good for nothing brat like you, who's never even touched a weapon in her life, will never be safe in a place like this. Fortunately, you and I have an agreement, so wolf hornets are the least of your worries."
Adlis' ears turned pale in the silver moonlight, but she didn't say anything else. Nodding in satisfaction, Kulgan jerked his thumb at the tent. "Go get some sleep. If there's a snake hiding in there... get rid of it yourself."
He turned and headed for the wagon again. It wouldn't be much, but it would beat sitting in the sand for the second night in a row.
"Mr. Kulgan," Adlis said, stopping him before he'd taken five steps, "wait."
He growled. "What now?"
"I'm... I'm sorry." She spoke more softly now, and much less accusingly. "I shouldn't have said that. I just... I don't know. Thank you for getting us out of there."
Kulgan rolled his eyes. "Anything else?"
"We'll have to get up before sunrise, right? Otherwise they'll still come after us."
"Don't worry about that." Kulgan looked up at the sky, where the Nameless Moon hung pale and fat above the desert. "I'll wake you when it's time to go."
He walked away, his posture making it clear that he wasn't in the mood for any further conversation. Behind him, he heard Adlis pick herself up and make for the tent. Let the little puff sleep, he decided. They had a long journey ahead of them, one that would be hard even on Kulgan. Besides, he still had work to do tonight, and it would be easier without them interrupting him every two minutes.
He turned back toward the wagon.
"Is it okay, Za?" Adlis asked, stopping outside the tent's entrance flap.
"It stinks like the Pit, Miss Adlis," the simmk said from within. "Pardon my language, if you will. But there ain't nothin' that'll hurt us."
After a moment's hesitation, she opened the flap. The smell wafted out when she did, the rancid stench of unwashed bodies being the least offensive, and her ears turned green underneath the bonnet. She paused, as if the horrid odor was a solid wall between her and the inside of the tent, but when she glanced behind her, where Kulgan was doing something with the wagon, she squared her shoulders and stepped inside. The smell only became stronger, making her put her hand to her mouth to keep from vomiting.
Za's sense of smell is ten times as strong as yours, she thought, watching her friend scurry about, clearing a space for them to sleep. If he can stand it, then so can you!
Even so, she quickly found two of the heaviest items she could and used them to pin the tent flaps open. It wasn't much, but at least it let the fresh air push away the foul stink. It also let the cold air in, banishing whatever warmth the tent may have been able to provide them. Adlis bit her lip, but then shrugged. If she had to choose between one and the other, she would prefer not to spend the night gagging whenever she took a breath.
Reaching to her chin, she untied the bonnet's strings and took it off, shaking her hair to get it untangled. She ran her fingers through it, massaging her scalp, and her ears turned purple with appreciation— a color they very rarely got to be.
"I found a blanket, Miss Adlis," Za said, bringing her mind back to the present. He held up a moldy, moth-eaten rectangle of fabric. "It's big enough that you can lay on it and still cover yourself with the other half."
He set to work spreading it out on the ground for her. Watching him, Adlis felt a pang of guilt bite her heart.
"Or," she suggested, "maybe it's big enough for us to lay side by side on it. We wouldn't be able to cover up like that, but at least you won't be sleeping in the sand."
Za looked up at her in surprise, and she could almost imagine his painted mask blushing.
"Th- Th- That wouldn't be proper, Miss Adlis," he stammered. "But, uh, thank you for the offer all the same."
Adlis shook her head. "No, I insist. How many times do I have to tell you that you're not my servant anymore, Za? You don't have to act like one."
Za stood up, looking down at his feet. "I know I ain't, Miss Adlis. But... it wouldn't be gentlemanly of me, I don't think."
Adlis blinked. He had her there.
"Don't worry, though," he piped up. "As long as we're in here, I can..."
He took his coat off, casting it on the ground a couple feet away from Adlis' blanket. He flinched a little when the moonlight touched the lumpy blue skin that wasn't covered by his clothes, but then he laid down on top of the coat and curled up in it like a big, black blanket.
"See, Miss Adlis?" he said, turning sightless eyes on her again. "I'm fine!"
"Well, if you're sure," she said hesitantly, and then delicately lowered herself down onto the blanket. The old thing smelled as nasty as everything else in the tent, but Adlis made herself ignore it. That wasn't too hard, considering she was already exhausted.
"Za?" she asked, looking at her friend curled up beside her.
"Hmm? Yes, Miss Adlis?"
"What do you think of Kulgan?"
The simmk didn't answer.
"Well?" she asked with a twinge of impatience.
"I shouldn't say, Miss Adlis," came his soft answer. "I ain't supposed to talk bad about my betters."
Adlis huffed. "You are five times the man he is, Za."
"Thank you, Miss Adlis, but he's—"
"He's a Twister," she said grimly. "Even if you were still my servant, you'd still be miles above him. Now, tell me what you think of him."
Za sighed and cast an anxious look outside the tent. When he was sure Kulgan wasn't anywhere near, he answered, "I'm scared of him, Miss Adlis."
She nodded. "That's perfectly natural. He's a Twister, after all."
"I'd be scared of him even if he wasn't a Twister, Miss Adlis. He's one of them stone men, if you know what I mean."
Adlis cocked her head. "I don't, actually."
"It's somethin’ my ma used to call people. She said if you spend enough time killin' people and watchin' other people get killed, you turn hard like a rock. You just... I dunno how to say it, Miss Adlis. You just stop. You don't get happy, you don't get mad, you're just there, all hard and cold, and you don't even care."
"Like a stone," Adlis finished for him. She rolled onto her back, looking up at the roof of the tent. "I see what you mean. Kulgan is a hardened man."
"Is that what it's called?"
She shrugged. "I suppose. But I get the feeling that..." She sighed. "Now I'm the one who doesn't know how to explain it. If he's turning to stone like you said, Za, then I don't think he's all the way done yet."
"Done like... meat?"
"Nothin', Miss Adlis. Sorry."
"What I mean is, he's not all the way turned to stone yet. There's still some humanity in him."
She didn't say it out loud, but she desperately hoped she was right. If she was going to be escorted all the way across Tassendile by him, she needed him to still have a trace of humanity left in him. That little fragment of his soul would be what let him feel hope. Adlis could feed him hope in the form of a peaceful life once they reached Arborough. It would be life offering water to a man dying of thirst.
With that small piece of his humanity, Adlis would have complete and total control over Kulgan.
"But he's a Twister, Miss Adlis," Za said, bringing her out of her thoughts.
She nodded. "Yes, I know. He must not have been one for very long, or else he'd be worse than a stone man. There'd be nothing left of him except that necklace he wears."
Za shuddered at the mere mention of the Vashiila pendant. Adlis didn't blame him. Thinking about it made her want to squirm too. The two of them lay in silence for a few minutes. Adlis closed her eyes, listening to the rhythmic way the tent flaps fluttered in the breeze, but sleep was slow in coming. At first she thought it was because of Kulgan. Braver creatures than her would have balked at the idea of sleeping while a Twister skulked around their campsite. But no, there was something else gnawing at her conscience even more than that.
"Miss Adlis?" Za tentatively asked.
"Did you mean what you told Mr. Kulgan? You know, about givin' him a place to live once we get back to Arborough."
Adlis sighed. It seemed she wasn't the only one worrying about that.
"Of course I did," she said self-confidently. "I'm going to be governor of Arborough, so it wouldn't be right for me to get into the habit of lying, would it?"
"But he's a Twister, Miss Adlis. This ain't gonna be like pardonin' a bandit or somethin'. You're gonna get the church mad at you if you do this!"
"Does it matter? We have to get home, and Kulgan is our only hope of doing that. If I have to make an impossible promise to do it, then I will."
When Za spoke again, his voice was heavy with dread. "So you ain't gonna keep your promise."
Adlis flinched a little beneath her blanket. The d'yargo simmk was smarter than either of them gave him credit for.
"If I can keep my promise, I will," she said a moment later. "If not... well, he's a Twister. It isn't like he wouldn't deserve whatever the church decided to do to him."
"I suppose," Za muttered. "But what if—"
"Just let me handle things, Za," she cut him off. "Trust me and do what I say, and everything will be fine."
Za turned over inside his coat, still clearly uncomfortable with the whole idea, but didn't raise any more arguments.
"There's nothing to worry about, Za. Good night."
"G'night, Miss Adlis."
NEXT TIME: Everdry is behind them, but all of Tassendile still lies before them. Good thing they’re already such great friends, right? I bet the trip’ll go by in a flash!