Kulgan pulled on the reins.
"Why are we stopping?" Adlis asked from behind him. "It's barely noon."
Kulgan pointed out in front of him. "Hammeth."
Hammeth was small, but after spending all those months in Everdry, to Kulgan it looked like a proper city. He sat there for a minute to take in the sight, letting the kashnilas catch their breath. These buildings were made with good wood, some even with stone, and it all shone with a pleasant, if faded, coat of white paint. No less than five wells were there to keep its citizens cool and well hydrated in the blistering heat. They even had enough water to raise a sizeable field of palewheat. The bread it made was bitter and hard to chew, but it would keep the desert dwellers from starving if their other food supplies ran out. He had to hand it to them: you had to be tough and resourceful to survive in the Taksten, and these people were both.
Adlis stood up, shielding her eyes to get a better look. Za stood up with her, though Kulgan wasn't sure why. He knew simmks had better senses than anything else in Tassendile, but he was pretty sure they weren't strong enough to sense the town from this far off.
"Miss Adlis," Za whispered, his voice suddenly going high pitched with worry. "Isn't that..."
Or, maybe he was wrong.
When Adlis spoke, her tone was every bit as concerned as his. "Yes, it is."
Before Kulgan could wonder what they were talking about, Adlis hurried to the front of the wagon and knelt down by his side. "We can't stop here."
Kulgan turned to look at her. "Why in Embin's name..." He paused when he saw how white her ears were. He sighed. "D'yargo. You two caused a scene here on your way to Everdry, didn't you?"
Adlis' ears pinkened, but the glare she leveled at him spoke more of anger than embarrassment. "You're not the only one whose life is going to the Pit, Mr. Kulgan."
Kulgan's eye twitched, and he turned to face her. "Ma'am," he said softly, "do you really want to start that argument?"
Adlis' ears paled to gray again, and she slunk back into the rear of the wagon again. "No, Mr. Kulgan. I'm sorry."
"Lucky for you, I'm a forgiving guy." Setting the reins down, he leaned back and crossed his legs. "It's just as well, I guess. I wasn't planning on letting you two anywhere near Hammeth anyway."
"What?" the zik girl asked hotly. Why n— oh, right."
Taking the reins again, Kulgan gave them a snap and drove the wagon over to the left of town. There were no shadows to hide in out here in the desert, and the wide, flat openness made Kulgan's skin crawl. Hammeth was still a good mile or two in the distance, but the incline they were on would still make it easy to spot them. Luckily, there was an area roughly half a mile from the town where a series of tall rocks broke the surface of the sand. Kulgan steered the wagon that way.
"Wait, where are we going now?” Adlis asked when she saw where he was headed.
“Serpent’s Nest,” he answered.
Adlis’ ears paled. “I don’t suppose it’s called that because it doesn’t have snakes, is it?”
Despite Adlis' continued protests, he drove the wagon behind the rocks, stopping it in the shadow of the largest one. The place was aptly named. Not even ten seconds after halting the kashnilas, Kulgan could already see three different kinds of poisonous snakes watching them.
"Oh, I hate snakes!" Adlis whined from behind him.
"I doubt they're overly fond of you either, ma'am," Kulgan said, hopping over the edge of the wagon without a moment's hesitation. His boot came down a few inches away from a copper-headed viper. The snake hissed its displeasure at the trio of invaders, but before it could strike Kulgan had kicked it nonchalantly away. It went flying a good five feet before hitting one of the rocks and falling back to the ground with a splat. Giving Kulgan one last resentful look, it slithered away into one of the many crags in the walls.
"I hope that's not what you meant by getting rid of them," Adlis said coldly.
Kulgan shook his head. "Too much effort, and I'd be up all night doing it. Toss me my pack."
Adlis moved to retrieve his bag, but stopped when she saw another large snake peering at her from eye level a crack in the wall. With a squeal, she scooted back against the opposite wall of the wagon fast enough to nearly upend it. Her ears were so white they nearly hurt Kulgan's eyes to look at.
Kulgan sighed. "You get it, Sackhead."
"Y- Yes, sir," the simmk said. He was every bit as afraid as Adlis was, if not more, but he was obviously more afraid of Kulgan than he was of the snakes because he hopped up and grabbed the pack and threw it to him. Kulgan snatched it out of the air and started rummaging through it. Another snake tried to creep up on him from behind, and he brought his heel down on its head without even looking.
"Aha!" he said a minute later, pulling a clay jar out. It was twice the size of his fist, and had a large wooden cork stoppering it.
Turning to look, Adlis couldn't help but lean forward a little in curiosity. "What is it?"
"A little brew I made myself for this very reason. It’s got crushed mothballs, pepper, garlic, and excrement from the Aquila Chrysaetos," he answered. A firm tug pulled the stopper out, and a wet, rancid smell almost immediately spread through the area. Turning it on its side, Kulgan began to splatter its white, goopy contents onto the ground around the wagon.
"What was that last one?”
"Eagle crap, ma'am."
Adlis' white ears took on a greenish tinge, and she shied away from the edge of the wagon. "That is disgusting!"
"Sure is, but it's effective." Kulgan finished making a ring around the wagon, and then proceeded to splatter more on the walls around it. "Eagles eat snakes. Put enough of this down, and they'll go running scared."
"Slithering," Za blurted out.
Kulgan stopped and turned to look at the simmk. "Excuse me?"
Za ducked his head timidly, as if he expected someone to hit him. "Nothing, sir. Just... snakes don't run. They slither."
Kulgan looked at him for a few seconds longer, making him squirm in discomfort, and then shook his head. "Whatever."
Kulgan ignored him and finished pouring the bird poop around the area. Once he was satisfied, he stoppered it again, the jar now more than half empty, and replaced it in his pack.
"It smells horrible," Adlis complained, covering her nose with one hand. "If we stay here long I'm going to have it stuck in my nose for days!"
"It's either that, or have them crawling up your dress,” Kulgan snapped.
Adlis' ears turned white, and then pink as she desperately tried to flatten the hem of her dress, as if that would stop the snakes from getting into it.
"Why are we even here?" she demanded a minute later. "If we can't go into Hammeth, then we should keep moving. You're wasting our time, Mr. Kulgan!"
Kulgan rolled his eyes. "This might come as a shock to you, ma'am, but Arborough isn't just across the street. It's on the complete other side of Tassendile. Now, I could sit back down and drive us out of here, but then you'd have the pleasure of starving to death out in the middle of the Taksten."
Adlis glanced at his pack. "But you brought food..."
"I brought enough food to last two days, maybe three. If we're going to survive this journey, we're going to need more. A lot more."
"So, you're going to sneak into town and steal some," Adlis concluded, understanding lighting up her eyes.
Kulgan nodded. He fully expected Adlis to start wailing about how horrible that was, and how innocent people were going to starve if he did. Those same thoughts had plagued him when he'd first become an outlaw, but a few nights of going hungry had taught him how take those worries into the back of his mind and shoot them like diseased livestock. Adlis was more innocent than he'd ever been in his life. She would never condone stealing.
To his surprise, though, she merely returned his nod.
"All right. When you go, would you mind looking for something for me, as well?"
Kulgan blinked. "What?"
"A hat," she answered. "Or a bonnet. Anything, really, to cover up these..." Her voice trailed off, and she reached up hesitantly to touch one of her ears. As if reacting to her touch, it turned pink, and then green.
Slowly, Kulgan nodded again. "Yeah, all right. I'll see if I can find you a hat big enough to cover your ears."
Adlis looked down, her ears reddening to scarlet with shame. "Thank you," she whispered.
It was still barely noon, and Kulgan wasn't going to try sneaking into Hammeth in broad daylight. That gave him a whole eight hours with nothing to do but wait for the sun to set. Going to the back of the wagon, he found two sacks of dried meat he'd swiped from the Everdryers who had tried to drive them out of town. The smell was almost as rancid as his snake repellent, though, telling him it wasn't for human consumption— or any sentient creature, for that matter. Instead, he brought it to the front of the wagon, and dumped it onto the ground in front of the kashnilas. The two lizards cawed their appreciation, and stooped down to devour the feed. He glanced back at his two wards, who, despite the fact that every snake within twenty feet had fled as fast as their slithery little bodies could carry them, still sat huddled together in the wagon. When the kashnilas had finished their meal, Kulgan withdrew his canteen.
"Here, open your mouth," he said to the first one.
The giant lizard ignored him at first, Kulgan not having a Kashni's ability to speak in their crude, animalistic language. When he reached out and tweaked the loose flap of skin by the corner of its mouth, though, it gave an irritated squawk. They had a muscle there that, if prodded, could be made to cramp. It didn't hurt the big creatures overly much, more of an irritation than anything, but they would have to open their mouths to stretch the cramping muscles again, giving Kulgan the perfect opportunity to pour a healthy splash of water down its throat. The kashnila squawked again in surprise, but then blinked, closed its mouth, and swallowed.
"Atta boy," Kulgan said, giving its neck a pack. It chirped softly at him, hoping for more. "Sorry, that's all for now."
He repeated the process on the second kashnila before taking a short pull from the canteen himself. Now that they were fed and watered, he pulled a thick, ragged sponge out of his pocket and spat into it. The kashnila, recognizing the scrubbing sponge, began to chirp at him in anticipation.
"I know, I know," he muttered, setting to work on scrubbing the animal down. Just like horses needed to be brushed, kashnilas needed to be scrubbed. Ideally, their owners would have an ample supply of water and soap to wash their scales with until they gleamed like gems in the sunlight. Kulgan didn't have any soap, and he didn't want to waste any more water than he already had, which meant they would have to get by with an old fashioned spit shine.
It's a shame, too, he thought to himself as he worked. These are a beautiful pair.
The one on the right had a head as blue as the sky, which transitioned into dark purple on its neck and down to around its midsection. It's bottom half was dominated by two bright green legs and a mostly green tail that tapered off to blue again at the very tip. The kashnila on the left also had a blue head, but there was a splotch of red around its right eye that almost made it look like someone had thrown a tomato at it. Its neck and right leg were both yellow, and its left leg was blue. Its tail was a dazzling ruby red. The colors of both were marred by the sand and dust they'd collected on their journey, but it still couldn't hide the natural beauty of the two proud creatures.
Just as he was beginning on the second one, another voice drifted into his thoughts. "... very good with them."
Kulgan blinked and turned to see Adlis standing at the front of the wagon, watching him.
"What?" he asked, still trying to gather his thoughts after spacing out for so long.
Adlis nodded toward the kashnilas. "I said you're very good with them. You've had them for less than a day, and they already seem to trust you."
Kulgan turned to look at the big lizard, which craned its neck around to return his gaze. It chirped playfully, and then bumped its forehead against his.
"I've always liked kashnilas," he said at last, reaching up to rub its scales. "They're not as strong or as fast as horses, but they're just as smart. Sometimes more, I think."
"They must be, if the Kashnis can actually talk to them." Adlis hesitated. "Is it true that they can do that?"
"What, talk to them? Of course it's true."
"Oh." Adlis' ears turned a shade pinker. "I never really thought..."
"That they could talk to animals?" Kulgan finished for her. "It's not so much as talking to them as it is understanding what they're thinking. The chirps and caws they make are just like the ones baby Kashnis make when they hatch. They don't have words, per se, but different sounds and combinations of sounds do mean different things to them."
"Oh," Adlis said again. "So, they're just using baby talk?"
That made Kulgan chuckle. "Yeah, pretty much."
"So, if it's not an actual language they're speaking, then could someone else..."
"No, you can't learn to speak kashnila. Our brains aren't made for it."
Adlis sat down in the driver's seat. Behind her, Za was still sitting with his back in the corner and his coat wrapped around him.
"I don't understand. If it's just baby talk, then all we have to do is learn what each sound means."
Kulgan shook his head. "There's more to it than that. Kashnis are born able to understand this kind of speech because it's natural to them. To anyone else, it's unintelligible. To us, the sound they make for food might sound the same as the one they use to tell us they're sick. A Kashni's brain is able to differentiate them automatically, but for the rest of us..."
He let his voice trail off. It wasn't an easy concept to explain to anyone who wasn't a Kashni.
"I think I understand now," Adlis said, though her tone told Kulgan that wasn't entirely true. Instead of giving herself a headache over it, though, she changed the subject. "Did you work with them a lot in the Graylands?"
Kulgan froze, his hand stopping even as he scrubbed the kashnila. Suddenly, the lizard's bright colors seemed to fade away into nothingness, leaving only...
He was moving fast. There was a shriek that hurt his ears. Now he was falling. He landed on something hard. Sharp. Shale and slate. He was sliding across it. Tearing his clothes. Tearing his skin. He could only pray to Embin that he didn't cut himself on a shard of raw Vashiila. He stopped. Looked up. Trewa lay a few feet away. Scales gray from spending so long in the Graylands. Dead.
It seemed to liquefy as the Shapeless absorbed it.
Suddenly, with a gasp, he was jerked back into the world of colors and light, and he spun to see Adlis standing in front of him. Her hand was reaching out toward him, and there was worry in her eyes.
And her ears had turned gray.
"Get away from me," he snapped, taking a step backwards out of her reach.
Adlis flinched at his sudden movement, and her ears lightened from gray to white. "Mr. Kulgan, what's—"
"Just leave me the Pit alone," he growled, backing away further. His heart was racing and cold sweat ran in rivers down his brow. With a start, he realized his hand was resting on Zam, ready to draw it— and shoot it.
Kulgan glared at the zik maiden with eyes hard as his dawniron pistols, grinding his teeth. He needed to calm down. He wasn't in danger. Not from these two, at least. He wasn't in the Graylands. He was in the Taksten.
He closed his eyes, letting the gentle darkness block out the lights and colors that threatened to overwhelm his panicked brain, and took a deep breath. When he opened his eyes again, his heartbeat had slowed from a frantic gallop to an uncomfortable jog. He fixed his eyes on Adlis again, who still stood by the side of the wagon, ears blindingly white.
"D'yargo," he muttered under his breath. With a shaking hand, he released his grip on Zam.
For a full minute, nobody moved or said anything. Even the hot breeze rolling across the Taksten, the desert seemed to be holding its breath. Za still sat in the wagon, watching them both with wide, unseeing eyes.
Adlis hesitantly raised her hand, as if to touch Kulgan again. "Are you—"
"I'm fine," he said before she could finish, his voice harder than he meant for it to be.
With legs that suddenly felt too tired to support his weight, Kulgan walked back to the wagon, giving Adlis a wide berth in doing so. Going to the rear, he began sorting through his pack again, though he wasn't sure entirely what he was looking for. It didn't matter. It was something to do, and he needed to do something. He could still feel Adlis' eyes crawling over him, but refused to return the stare. He was fine. He was.
As if to contradict his own thoughts, Adlis asked, "Are you sure you're okay?"
Kulgan's hands stopped moving, and he looked blankly down at the bag for a few seconds before sighing heavily. "It was just a flashback," he said without looking up.
"A flashback?" Adlis echoed. "What do... oh."
He nodded ruefully at his pack. "When you see the things a Gray Ranger has seen, done the things we've done, coming away with nothing but flashbacks is considered a mercy."
Za scooted around inside the wagon to face him. "What was it of?" he asked.
"Za!" Adlis snapped, rounding the wagon, to confront him. "You can't ask those kinds of questions!"
The naive simmk turned to give her a blank look. "I... what did I do this time, Miss Adlis?"
Adlis gave Kulgan a wary, sidelong look, which Kulgan pretended he didn't see by opening up his pack again, and whispered, "Because it means there's something wrong with him, Za. It's rude to ask people about things like that."
Kulgan barked a short, humorless laugh that made both Adlis and Za jump, and finally looked up to glare coldly at them. "You two are something else, you know that?"
Adlis' ears turned pink. "I'm only trying to help, Mr. Kulgan."
"I think you'd be more help," he grunted, and tossed the pack further into the wagon, making Za flinch, "if you were to nail my feet to the floor."
Adlis' ears took on a yellow tint. "That could certainly be arranged."
Kulgan laughed again, and vaulted himself up onto one of the nearby standing stones. From here, he could see all the way across the sandy plain to Hammeth. The town seemed to shimmer in the late morning sun as heat rose up from the ground. In about seven hours, the sun would set, and he would go into the town to steal supplies. By sunrise, hopefully, they would be a dozen miles from Hammeth.
That left another problem, though. Adlis was still planning on betraying him at the first given opportunity. He could read it on her face and hear it in her voice. He'd told her she couldn't go into Hammeth because of her ears, which was reason enough on its own, but she also wouldn't be able to speak to anyone.
A hiss came from his right, and he found an adder with a head the size of his fist peeking out at him from a crack in the stone. The eagle poop he'd spread around earlier was still stinking up the place, though, so the adder seemed content merely to glare at him from its hole.
"Leave me alone, little friend, and I'll do the same," he muttered, looking up at the town again. That was all he wanted, from the snake, from anyone. To be left alone. Why in Embin's name did the rest of Haroz find that so difficult?
He sighed. Feeling sorry for himself wasn't going to solve anything. He needed to keep his end of the agreement with Adlis so that she'd be forced to do the same. He briefly considered not bringing back the hat she had requested, but threw the idea out. Having her ears exposed would certainly keep her from seeking help elsewhere, but that would only last while they were still in the wilderness. Sooner or later they would have to go into civilization, so the hat was going to be a necessity one way or another.
Kulgan's eyes lit up with inspiration when a stray thought came to him. He knew he ought to cast it aside as well, but like a tick it had already burrowed into skin and latched on. Slowly, he started to nod. It was stupid. More than that, it was dangerous. But it would work.
"Mr. Kulgan," Adlis called up to him. "I think you owe Za an apology for the way you spoke to him earlier."
The adder cringed at Adlis' high pitched voice, and finally began to creep out of the hole, hissing angrily. Kulgan sighed. So much for being left alone. In a lightning quick motion, he grabbed the snake by its tail, and cracked it like a whip. It's neck broke, killing it in an instant, but its body continue to writhe.
"Mr. Kulgan," Adlis called to him again when he didn't answer.
Kulgan tossed the snake over his shoulder, and smiled at Adlis' and Za's panicked screams.
NEXT TIME: Adlis has a scheme, but now it looks like Kulgan has one too. What’s he cooking up in his Twisted little head, and how is it going to keep Adlis from betraying him?