A hot gust of wind blew through the open tent flap, sending a shower of sand into Adlis' face. She scrunched up her nose and, with her eyes still closed, sneezed.
"Huh? Whuzzat?" Za exclaimed, sitting up on the other side of the tent. He turned his head around, letting his powerful senses scan the room in place of his eyes, and then put a hand over his stomach to calm his racing heart. "Oh, it's just you, Miss Adlis."
Adlis was sitting up now too, blinking away the sleepiness from her eyes. She was still wrapped up in the blanket Za had found for her, but the freezing cold she had felt the night before felt as far away as Arborough now that the sun had come up. Groaning, she cast it off of her and grimaced when she saw how wet and sweaty her dress had gotten.
"Za, do we have any food?" she asked with a yawn.
"I didn't bring any," he admitted, rising from his makeshift bed on the sand. Adlis couldn't help but stare a little as he went to rifle through the boxes strewn about the tent. He was in good shape for a simmk, but an unknowing eye might have mistaken his twig-thin build for emaciation. If anyone but a simmk were to be as scrawny as he was, they would probably already have been dead from starvation.
"They might have left some food here when they left, Miss Adlis," he went on, "but I don’t think you’ll wanna— ow!"
He jerked his hand back, clutching it to his chest like it'd been burned. Adlis sprang to her feet, instantly alert, and hurried to his side.
"What is it?" she demanded. "A spider? A snake? Did it bite you? Show me!"
"It wasn't none of those, Miss Adlis," he said, and slowly raised his hand for her to see. The blue skin on his wrist, in between his sleeve and his glove, had an ugly red splotch on it. "The sun just burned me a little, is all."
Adlis rolled her eyes and took a step back. "Well, hurry and put your coat back on before you get burned even more!"
"Yes, Miss Adlis," he agreed eagerly, doing as she said. Adlis had to look away, or else get even more sand in her face in her face when he swung the big black garment up off the ground. As soon as it was on, his scrawniness disappeared.
"Honestly," she said as he turned back to the boxes. "You should take better care of yourself, Za."
"Sorry, Miss Adlis. It's just that you asked if we had food, so I started looking for it."
"I appreciate your concern, but that doesn't mean you have to torture yourself for my sake."
"But a simmk is supposed to—"
"You're not my servant! Embin almighty, Za, how many times do I have to say it?"
Za ducked his head in shame as he continued to search. "Sorry, Miss Adlis. I'll figure it out someday, I promise."
Adlis sighed and laid back on top of the blanket again. As annoyed as she wanted to feel, her pity for the poor creature was stronger. She'd always taken it for granted how simmks were treated. They were known to be some of the best servants one could have. Docile, hardworking, and completely submissive. A well-bred simmk could fetch a small fortune, which meant only the wealthy could afford one. They were easy to discipline, too. A simple slap on the wrist would hurt one of them as much as a whipping, and the threat of their protective clothing being taken away was horrible enough to cow even the most rebellious of simmks— not that there were many. Unfortunately, that only encouraged their owners to treat them like garbage. Lots of people made jokes about how easy the simmks had it. If they misbehaved, the worst punishment they could expect was to have their gloves confiscated and made to sit on the porch for an hour. How nice it must be to be a simmk.
It made Adlis' ears turn red just thinking about it.
"Have you found anything?" she asked.
Za shook his head. "Nothin' 'cept old, rotten stuff, Miss Adlis. I think..." He paused and put his hand over his mouth. "I think some of it might even be people."
Adlis' ears turned green. Pushing away her disgust as best she could, she rose to her feet again.
"That's all right. Hopefully Mr. Kulgan has something for us to eat. He's a Gray Ranger, after all. He's supposed to be prepared for things like this."
Za shuddered noticeably at the mention of their guide. "Y- Yeah."
A stray thought tickled the back of Adlis' mind. Something wasn't right here, but she couldn't quite put her finger on it. It had occurred to her when she'd mentioned Kulgan, so it had to be something to do with him. But what? She turned to look out the tent flap, trying to jog her memory. The desert was tinted green as Jaminska hovered overhead for the second time in three days, which explained why the wind was blowing so erratically. On the horizon, though, the sun was only just beginning to peek over the...
The sun was coming up!
"That puken!" she yelled. Za spun around at her sudden exclamation, knocking into one of the boxes and collapsing on the ground. Adlis ignored him. "He was supposed to—"
Kulgan's head appeared around the corner of the tent flap, and this time it was Adlis' turn to scream and fall down. The Ranger looked down at her with a smug expression that made her blood boil.
"You said," she snarled, trying to get back to her feet with as much dignity as she could manage, "that you would wake us up before sunrise!"
Kulgan came to stand all the way in front of the tent and shrugged. "I didn't say that. I said not to worry because I would take care of things."
Adlis ears were so red now that they almost felt hot to the touch. "You told us that the townspeople would be after us as soon as the sun came up!"
Kulgan pointed at her. "Now that I did say. And I was telling the truth. They're all lining up at the edge of town right now, getting ready to charge the camp."
Adlis' ears turned from red to white.
"Th- They're what?" she asked in disbelief. "What happened to taking care of things?"
"That's what I'm doing right this second, ma'am. If you wouldn't mind, please take yourself and your simmk over to the wagon."
He pointed, and Adlis followed his gaze over to where the Red Fang's old wagon sat. Most of its wood was black from when Speth had used his Wustramite pendant on it, but it still stood on four wheels. It only had one problem...
"What good is that going to do?" Adlis whined. Her knees were shaking now, and she could faintly hear the cawing of kashnilas in the distance. "We have nothing to pull it!"
Kulgan rolled his eyes. "I said I would take care of everything. Do you really think I would have stayed here overnight if I didn't have a plan?"
"Well, that's..." Kulgan paused. "Okay, fine, it's a fair assumption. Now get your tail to the wagon!"
Adlis' ears turned a shade yellower with embarrassment —a gentleman did not talk about a zik woman's tail— but did as he said and turned to help Za back to his feet.
"You had better not let me down," she dared to say when she faced him again. "I'm your only hope for a peaceful life, and I think you know it, Mr. Kulgan."
Kulgan's face hardened for half a second, but relaxed again so quickly that Adlis almost thought she had imagined it. He stepped to the side and waved for her to go.
"Hurry," he said, nodding toward the wagon again. "Once you get in there, lay down and cover your head. And don't come out for anything."
A chill ran down Adlis' spine, paling her ears yet again, but she nodded anyway. Taking Za by the hand, she set off for the charred wagon at a brisk walk.
Kulgan stood facing Everdry while the other two hurried to the wagon. There was a line of kashnilas at the edge of town, their rainbow colored scales shining bright in the morning sunlight. All the riders were already mounted except for the one in the center. Tikta stood beside his steed, its reins grasped tight in his fist, and Kulgan could see the rigidness in his posture. Even though they were hundreds of feet apart, somehow the two of them managed to make eye contact.
I gave you a chance, the Kashni was thinking. Kulgan didn't need to hear him say it out loud to know. You should have run.
"Maybe you're right," Kulgan muttered under his breath. "But there's still a way you can help me."
Adlis was right. Without anything to pull it, the wagon was less than useless. It had taken all of Kulgan's strength just to turn it around the day before. There was no way in Haroz or in the Pit that he was dragging the Embin-cursed thing all the way across Tassendile— especially not with two lazy weaklings like Adlis and Za lounging inside it.
Luckily for him, the good people of Everdry had seen fit to supply him with a fine team of kashnilas.
"Well, let's get on with it, then," he whispered, his right hand twitching. The tension in the air was palpable. He wanted to draw Zam and Zagyr, even if he was too far away to aim with any accuracy. He wanted to feel their dawniron bodies, cold even with the desert sun shining on them. He wanted to feel their comforting weight in his hands. He wanted to take his pendant out of his shirt and—
"D'yargo!" he exclaimed when his left hand slipped involuntarily under the collar of his shirt. Reclaiming control of his rogue limb, he wrenched it back out again. Now there was a sheen of sweat on his brow so thick even the heat couldn't have caused it. He stood there, holding his own wrist so tightly that it hurt, until the urges went away.
Judging by the nervous way their kashnilas were toeing the sand, Kulgan deduced that the riders must be working up their courage. The thought almost made him laugh. Seven men, armed to the teeth, against one man, a simmk, and a helpless young lady. Just because one of them had a Vashiila pendant under his shirt, they were ready to lay bricks like chickens laid eggs.
They must have seen Kulgan reach under his shirt, because the cawing lizards began to dance even more excitedly. Putting one foot in the stirrup, Tikta hoisted himself into the saddle. Sunlight glinted off Scatter's barrel as the Kashni raised it above him and swung it forward like a sword. The riders spurred their kashnilas, and charged.
"Mr. Kulgan?" Adlis called anxiously to him from the wagon.
He ignored her. While the lizards came sprinting across the open sandy plain, he turned and walked unhurriedly to a pile of sand a few feet away and crouched in front of it. This was what he had been working on all night. The Dragonthroat sat in front of him, halfway buried in sand so that it was pointing up into the green tinted sky. Another gust of wind ripped through Everdry as Jaminska drifted closer. The pounding of the kashnilas' feet was drawing nearer, too.
Hefting one of the giant bullets, Kulgan loaded it into the cannon. He hadn't counted on Jaminska coming for a visit, especially so soon after Atroyo had left. The priests would probably have called it a sign, but to Kulgan it was nothing but a nuisance. Heavy wind could alter a bullet's course, which meant he would have to calculate his shot on the fly. If he messed this up, they were all dead.
They were dead without those kashnilas though, too.
"Almost... almost..." Kulgan whispered to himself. He held a flint and tinder in his hands, poised directly over the Dragonthroat's fuse. Tikta and his boys had already covered half the distance between them. If his estimation was right, and he prayed to Embin that they were, then he needed to light the cannon... right... "Now!"
He struck flint and tinder. With the hiss of the fuse in his ears, he dove to the side, ducking his head and covering his ears. Three seconds passed, and then...
The ground shook beneath him as the cannon went off, firing its bullet almost straight up into the sky. The smell of gunpowder filled the air, and the Gray Ranger rolled over to watch. At first, nothing seemed to have changed. The kashnila riders were still charging right for him.
And then the bullet came back down.
Falling so fast Kulgan almost couldn't see it, the massive hunk of metal plummeted out of the sky like a meteor, right into the midst of the oncoming Everdryers. It didn't hit any of them, Kulgan was a bit relieved to see, but it still sent a cloud of sand spraying a hundred feet into the air. More importantly, the shockwave threw all seven kashnilas off their feet.
Cackling with exhilaration, Kulgan sprang to his feet and took off running toward the fallen riders. He had to move fast, before any of them got back to their feet, but he wasn't worried. A blast like that would have left their ears ringing and their heads spinning. It would be a minute or two before they could even see straight. Even so, he drew Zam in his right hand, just to be safe.
The kashnilas had gotten to their feet before their masters had, but even they looked off balance. The high pitched squawks erupting from their throats spoke of their panic, but they didn't bolt. That was good. That meant they were well trained. Kulgan quickly snatched two of their reins.
"Come on, now," he said in a low, calming voice. The big lizards hesitated at first, but when he continued to pull they eventually gave in and followed him. Turning away from the town, hopefully for the last time, he started to lead them back toward the wagon.
Kulgan stopped in his tracks and looked down to see Tikta glaring up at him.
"You Twisted... puken!" he growled. The burly kashni put his hand underneath him, trying to hoist himself off the ground, but stopped with a pained moan and collapsed back into the sand. "I tried to let you go, but you... you couldn't resist, could you?"
Kulgan looked out at the wagon, where his two charges waited, and then back down at the Kashni. He sighed.
"That girl needs help," he admitted, though he wasn't sure why. "She'll never survive in a place like this. I may be a Twister, but even I'm not heartless enough to just leave her to die."
Tikta chuckled humorlessly. "You expect me to... believe that?"
"I don't care what you believe, Tikta. You were ready to let me break out of jail and leave town, even though I'm a Twister."
"You're gonna..." Tikta stopped and gasped in pain. Kulgan wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d had a couple cracked ribs. "You're takin' em out there to eat 'em!"
"No." Kulgan looked, and saw Adlis looking back at him from the wagon. "I'm taking her home."
"Not if I can... stop you!"
Kulgan heard Scatter click, and spun around and kicked it out of Tikta's hands without a moment's hesitation. It landed ten feet away, its barrel stuck in the sand so that its butt pointed up at Jaminska.
"You can't," Kulgan said softly. "None of you can. If you could, I might just let you."
Tikta didn't say anything, but the coldness in his eyes spoke volumes.
"Every day, there's a part of me that hopes it will be my last here on Haroz. I'm a Twister. What else do I have left to hope for but a painless death? That's the problem, though: I'm not just a Twister, I'm a Ranger of the Graylands. The only people capable of killing me are another Ranger, and..."
He couldn't make himself finish his sentence out loud.
"Anyway," he continued a moment later, "if I'm going to stick around, I may as well make myself useful, right? That's why I agreed to protect your little town instead of just taking it over." He closed his eyes. "And it's why I'm taking those kids home."
That, and because of her promise.
Tikta didn't seem convinced, though.
"Go..." he wheezed, "to the Pit!"
Slowly, Kulgan nodded. "I will, someday. Right now, though, I have to go to Arborough. Goodbye, Tikta."
With that, Kulgan raised his boot and brought it down on Tikta's skull, knocking the bullheaded Kashni unconscious.
"He's comin' back this way, Miss Adlis!"
Adlis reached out and put a comforting hand on the simmk's back. "I know. Be calm."
"But he just—"
"I saw what he did, Za. Just... be calm."
Watching Kulgan wipe out an entire squad of kashnila riders with one shot was the most incredible thing Adlis had ever seen. The zik maiden knew next to nothing about guns, but even she could tell that the level of calculations and strategizing it would take to fire a cannon directly into the air and still hit your target... it was mind boggling. The casual way in which he walked, leading his stolen kashnilas, was perhaps the worst part. How could anyone cause so much destruction, and still not show a shred of emotion on his face afterwards?
Both of them ducked beneath the sides of the wagon when he walked past, strolling as leisurely as this were just a walk in the park. The kashnilas cawed anxiously at having been taken away from their masters, but followed obediently behind him all the same. Adlis peeked her head up over the side— and found him looking directly back at her.
"Is there a problem, ma'am?" he asked, tilting his head toward her with a challenging glint in his eye.
Adlis' ears turned gray. "Y- You just killed seven people!"
Kulgan snorted and led the kashnilas forward to hitch them to the wagon. "Unfortunately, no I didn't. They're all just taking a nice, long nap."
"But the cannon—"
"Threw them off their lizards, knocked them out cold. Only lasting damage will be to their pride, ma'am."
It took him less than a minute to get the two kashnilas ready, and then he hopped into the driver's seat and cracked the reins. Adlis half expected them to rebel, but to her surprise they took off into the desert at a swift jog, bringing the three fugitives along with them. The burned wagon creaked alarmingly as its wheels spin in its axles, and the ride was a little bumpy, but it didn't seem like it was going to fall apart so a minute later Adlis relaxed and sat down next to Za.
"I saw him," the simmk whispered. Adlis had to lean close to hear him over the rattling of the wagon. "I saw him reach for it, Miss Adlis."
A chill ran down the young zik's spine. He hadn't actually seen anything, of course, but the other senses that simmks used were said to more than make up for them. Between his hearing and his sense of smell, he could probably "see" even better than Adlis could. Adlis' eyes had been covered almost the entire time, but if Za said he'd seen Kulgan reach for his pendant then she believed him.
"It'll be all right," she said, leaning on him a little so that he could feel her presence. "Everything will be fine."
NEXT TIME: Actually, no. This is an Adam Bolander story, so everything with NOT be fine. The only question is, how not-fine do I feel like making it?