"You two are pathetic."
"Please don't speak to us, Mr. Kulgan."
"You threw away a perfectly good snake!"
"It might have been poisonous!"
"Just ignore him, Za."
The mismatched trio sat around a campfire Kulgan had built by prying off a few pieces of the wagon he had deemed less than necessary, and the smell of cooking sausage filled the small rocky enclosure. Adlis sat closest to the fire, not by choice since the sun still hovered stubbornly in the sky, as if reluctant to sink below the horizon. But since Kulgan had deemed her their cook for the duration of the trip, Adlis endured the heat while the Ranger lounged comfortably against the jagged rocks. It was a small fire, so as to keep the smoke from giving away their position too easily, but Adlis' dress was still soaked with sweat minutes after starting.
Za sat just to her right, the wooden buttons on his coat clattering ceaselessly as he trembled. Adlis doubted there had been a single moment when he hadn't trembled since they had met the Gray Ranger.
No, she thought, giving the skillet a shake to keep the meat from sticking to the bottom, the poor thing hasn't had a moment's peace since I took him out of Tolk.
Once again, she felt regret brush her heart— regret for having taken Za out of a place that may have provided a horrible life for him, but was at least safe. Huffing angrily, she shoved that thought aside. Things were bad now, and not just for him. It would be better once they reached Arborough, both for Za and for her. As for Kulgan... Adlis had to push away another wave of shame. She hadn't been lying about giving him peace and freedom once they reached Arborough, she told herself—she hadn't! But as the future governess, she had to think about the big picture, didn't she? Traveling with a Twister was perhaps the most dangerous thing she could possibly do, short of marching straight into the Graylands themselves. And the danger didn't come solely from Kulgan, either. If the Church of Embin found out she was consorting with his kind, rather than turning him in, how likely were they to consider her guilty by association?
I could ask everybody in Haroz, and I doubt a single one would say I was wrong for betraying him.
"It's ready," she said a few minutes later, taking the pan off the fire to cool. The sausages were hissing and spitting in the hot evening air. Adlis' stomach growled in a very unladylike fashion, but she resisted the urge to grab one and eat it then and there. Even though common sense demanded that she wait until it wouldn't burn her fingers, her hunger made that harder to ignore than she expected. The zik maiden sighed, her ears turning a shade bluer. All this nonsense about roughing it and surviving in the wild was going to be the death of her. She was born for an easy life, inside her family manor at Arborough. Let the Pit have this Embin-forsaken desert!
Kulgan, however, had no such inhibitions.
"What?" he asked, holding the piping hot slice of meat in his bare hand. Adlis cringed, watching the grease coat his fingers, turning them a bright shade of red. Kulgan didn't even flinch when he stuffed the entire thing in his mouth, chewing it slowly before swallowing it.
"Nothing," Adlis muttered, looking down at her lap. He was insane. Well, of course he was. He was a Twister, after all. But that little display of gluttony was uncalled for, even by his standards.
Stretching himself back out across the jagged rocks, the Ranger chuckled at her expression. "Food is food. That's one lesson every Gray Ranger has to learn fast. If you don't eat it when you have the chance, something else will. More often than not, it'll be another Ranger."
Adlis' ears burned, turning a dark shade of pink. "That's horrible," she snapped. "I would assume that you Rangers would look out for each other."
Kulgan raised a finger. "They do. But they have to look out for themselves too. That's another lesson they all have to learn: whether to ensure their own survival, or that of their brethren. Not everyone gets to survive in the Graylands."
"And the idea of working together to—"
"If it's all the same to you," Kulgan said, sitting up again. His eyes were cold. "I would rather not talk about the Graylands."
A chill ran down Adlis' spine, but she made herself sit up straighter. "Then you shouldn't have brought it up, Mr. Kulgan."
Kulgan huffed in his throat, but didn't offer another rebuttal. Laying back down, he pulled his hat down so that it covered his eyes. Adlis looked smugly down at him, but the smile didn't stay there long. It was a hollow victory. When your opponent was as torn apart and hollow as Kulgan, every victory was empty. He didn't care about her insults or her witty jabs. He had been through the Pit— literally. Sharp words were nothing to him.
Scowling, her ears turning red, Adlis poked at her slice of sausage, dubbed it cool enough, and began to eat.
"I think you're very brave, Miss Adlis," Za said in a quiet voice, reaching past her to pluck up his own share of the food.
Adlis smiled. "Thank you, Za."
Did he really mean that, she wondered, or was he just trying to make her feel better? Adlis looked down at her lap again. She didn't know. As her ears darkened to a deep, ocean blue, the sausage she nibbled on seemed to lose its flavor.
Kulgan licked the sausage grease off his fingers. He could still feel Adlis' petulant glare, but he refused to return it. What would his old mentor say if he could see him now, squabbling with a child as if he were a child himself? Kulgan honestly couldn't say, but he had a feeling he wouldn't have walked away with less than a dozen bruises, and maybe even a cracked rib.
Besides, he thought, wiping his hand on his pants, It isn't like I don't deserve it.
That single thought lowered his spirits more than anything that had come out of Adlis' mouth. Suddenly, the pendant hanging from his neck felt like it weighed a hundred pounds, and he had to struggle to keep from hunching his back beneath the weight. Adlis sat on the other side of the fire, as prim and proper as possible in conditions such as these, while Za had curled up inside his coat again like some kind of mutant snail to remove his mask and eat. They both thought they were going through the Pit. The idea was enough to make him want to laugh. Neither of them had any idea what hardship meant. So they'd been harassed by some bandits, and Adlis' ears changed colors. So what? As far Kulgan was concerned, until someone had seen their best friend get absorbed by a Shapeless, doomed to live forever in its...
Kulgan clenched his eyes shut and shook his head like a rabid animal. No, no, no, no, no!
"Are you all right?" Adlis asked. Her tone of voice didn't suggest the slightest bit of sympathy.
Taking a deep breath, Kulgan opened his eyes and looked at her. "I'm fine."
She gave him a wry look. "Was it another flashback?"
Kulgan narrowed his eyes. So, she still wanted to play that game, did she? Fine. He'd play with her.
"Actually," he said, trying to make his voice sound as civil as possible, "I think it's your turn to answer a few questions."
Adlis blinked in surprise and leaned back from him a little. "W- What? No it's not! What could you possibly want to know about me?"
"Oh, I can think of one thing," he said. He raised his finger and tapped his left ear.
Adlis' ears turned gray, and she looked down at her lap again. "That's none of your business, Mr. Kulgan."
Kulgan didn't let his eyes leave her, and had to suppress a grin when the young zik's ears whitened even further.
You've got no right to do this to her, what remained of his conscience griped at him. She may be a brat, but you're a—
Kulgan grabbed that annoying little voice by the throat and chucked it out his ear.
"Actually, I think it is my business. You see, if I'm not greatly mistaken, that's forbidden magic in your ears."
Adlis stifled a gasp and, almost without seeming to realize it, clamped her hands over her ears.
"Twisting isn't the only thing that's been forbidden by the church. In fact," He idly put his fist to his chin in mock thought, "witches and warlocks are considered almost as bad as Twisters themselves."
Now Za wasn't the only one trembling.
"But... But I..." Adlis stammered.
Kulgan shrugged. "Not quite as bad, but in the end the punishment is the same."
The zik girl was crying now. She was sitting in just the right position for the sun to reflect shimmering light off the stream of tears running down her face. Her ears were still white, but had a hint of blue in them as well. Fear and sadness. Or shame, judging by the look in her eyes.
"Using magic is one of the greatest sins against Embin," Kulgan pushed her. "The priests probably won't bother asking any questions. They'll just convict you,
"THEY AREN'T MINE!"
Kulgan's lips twitched, fighting down the urge to smirk. "From where I'm sitting, they look like they're attached pretty firmly to your head, ma'am."
Adlis drew in a shaky breath, trying and failing to look Kulgan in the eye. "I... I mean that... I didn't do this to myself."
A dozen witty remarks came to Kulgan in an instant, but he pushed them all aside and said nothing, instead leaning forward to encourage her to keep talking. Adlis raised a hand to brush a lock of hair out of her eye. She was breathing raggedly, on the verge of breaking down and crying.
A minute later, she swallowed hard. "I didn't do this to myself," she said again. "I was kidnapped."
"Kidnapping a governor's daughter sounds like a good way to get a hefty ransom," Kulgan said when she didn't continue, "but why would they enchant your ears like that?"
Adlis bit her lip and shook her head. "They didn't."
"Will you be quiet? Do you want to know what happened or not?"
Anger flashed in Adlis' eyes, and a bit of yellow tinted her ears. Kulgan smiled, but didn't reply.
"They weren't the ones who cursed me," she went on. "I don't think they even knew I'm Governor Arbor's daughter. They just... just wanted..."
"Fresh meat," Kulgan finished for her. Adlis nodded.
During the pause, Kulgan took note of her choice of words. Using magic, forbidden or not, to make someone's ears change color wasn't a curse, it was an enchantment. By definition, a curse had to injure, kill, or otherwise have a direct negative impact on the person it was cast on. Some dusty old philosopher might argue that the ensuing manhunt the church would go on if they found out could be considered such, but Kulgan wasn't one for riddles and tongue twisters. Adlis had been enchanted, not cursed, though he doubted she would care much at the moment.
"They kidnapped me and brought me all the way to Tolk, in the Shi Valen Mountains," she continued a few seconds later. "Have you..."
"The City of Sins," Kulgan interrupted her. "Only people who know where it is are the ones who've been shown the way. I've been there."
Adlis looked down again. "They brought me there and sold me to a woman named Madam Caruzo. She owns a... a whorehouse." Her ears turned green, and she had to stop talking, as if the mere thought made her want to throw up.
Kulgan hummed in his throat and looked up at the sky. Caruzo. He'd heard that name before...
"The Rainbow Girls!" he exclaimed, looking down at Adlis again.
Adlis' ears turned pink, and then dark red. "You've heard of them?" she asked timidly.
Kulgan chuckled. "Have I heard of them? They're the most famous harlots in Tassendile! A whorehouse stocked with nothing but the finest zik girls. They say their fur changes color when you..."
Adlis' ears had turned so red that they almost seemed to be bleeding. An unexpected arrow of shame struck Kulgan's chest, and his voice trailed off. Adlis looked like she was about to start crying again.
Kulgan cleared his throat. "Anyway, yeah, I've heard of them. You can't live in the seedy places I have without hearing about things like that. So, Caruzo's the one who enchanted your ears?"
Adlis nodded mutely.
"And I'm guessing you escaped before she could do the rest of you?"
Kulgan frowned. On the surface, her story made sense. But there was something wrong with it. Something he couldn't quite put his finger on. Deciding to think about it later, he nodded toward the simmk who had been sitting silently beside them the entire time.
"And where does he come into it?"
Adlis finally looked up, as if she had forgotten the simmk was there. "Za? He..."
"Miss Adlis rescued me!" Za piped up for the first time. "I was supposed to be her servant. All Madam Caruzo's girls have simmks. But then she got me out of there, and she freed me, and—"
"Yeah, should've figured," Kulgan cut him off.
"It really wasn't all that impressive," Adlis admitted, her ears only a dark shade of pink now. "All we did was sneak out the back door."
"Ain't nobody else ever done it, Miss Adlis," Za insisted. "As far as I know, we're the only ones who ever got away!"
Kulgan narrowed his eyes. "If you two are the only ones who've ever escaped, I can't imagine it was as simple as walking out the door."
Adlis' ears turned gray again. "It wasn't... I..." She stopped, and took a deep breath. "I set the brothel on fire."
Kulgan blinked. Now that he hadn't been expecting.
"I poured perfume all over my room, and then broke the lamp on the floor. Za and I managed to escape during the commotion."
Adlis folded her hands and looked down, as contrite as a child caught stealing sweets before dinner, and didn't say anything else.
"It's true, sir," Za chimed in a few seconds later, having emerged from his coat. "Every word. On my life, sir, she really did it."
Kulgan looked long and hard at the zik maiden, and rubbed his chin. Finally, he couldn't hold back his smile anymore, and a grin that was half proud, and half cruel amusement spread across his face.
"Well, color me surprised," he said. Adlis squirmed at his choice of words, and he smiled a little wider. "I never would've thought you had it in you, little puff."
"I'm not proud of what I did!" she snapped at him without looking up. She sniffled a couple times, and then asked, "So what if my ears are cursed? You're a Twister! Why do you even care?"
Kulgan's manic grin fell away, leaving a smug smirk where it had been. And there's the question I've been waiting for.
Leaning back against the rocks again, he said, "Because it seems someone here is suffering from the delusion that she's better than the rest of us. I just want to put that idea to rest."
Adlis was gripping her forearms so tightly now that her nails were nearly puncturing the skin beneath her fur. Her ears turned from gray to pink, and then, almost instantly, to yellow. Finally, she raised her head to look at him. Her eyes were red and bloodshot.
"The only person I think I'm better than," she hissed, "is you, you filthy Twister!"
Kulgan held her gaze, waiting for to look away again. When she didn't, he stood up. Adlis stiffened, but was too stubborn to shy away as he walked around the fire to stand directly in front of her. He knelt down, arching his back so that his pendant slid out of his shirt to dangle in front of the zik girl's face.
Adlis' ears turned white as snow.
"You shouldn't," he said in a low, dangerous voice. "Because you and I are the same. If we get caught, the church and its priests won't care whether you enchanted your ears yourself or not. The only thing they'll care about is the forbidden magic in them. And that," he reached up and wrapped his hand around his Vashiila pendant, "will get you the same punishment as me. So, ma'am, I highly suggest you throw away these fantasies of superiority. Out here, we're all equal."
He backed away, leaving Adlis looking like she had been confronted by a ghost, and sat down. "All of us."
The campsite was completely silent, save for the crackling of the flames. Kulgan idly watched the sun set in the east, bringing night in its wake. A quick glance around ensured him that none of the Great Moons were planning on rising any time soon, which meant only the pale Nameless Moon would be there to provide light. He would have liked it to be a little thinner, but all things considered these were optimal conditions to sneak into town. He would just have to—
"You shouldn't talk about Miss Adlis that way."
Kulgan blinked, jerked from his thoughts like a fish on a line. He turned to look at Za, who was shaking even harder than ever now.
He raised his eyebrows. "Excuse me?"
Za flinched like he expected to be hit. Probably because he did expect to be hit.
"I- I- I just- ohhhh..." He pulled his floppy black hat down over his head, even though he didn't have any eyes to cover. Adlis was watching them now too, her eyes flicking from Kulgan to Za nervously. With the hat still covering his face, Za said, "Shmmergrrbwbn."
"Can't hear ya, Sackhead."
Za hesitated, his elbows knocking together, before finally lifting the hat off of his head again. "I... I said that Miss Adlis is... she's a great woman, so you shouldn't talk bad to her like that!"
Kulgan looked back to Adlis, who looked back down at the sand and didn't reply.
"You don't know how lucky you are, kid," the Ranger said, standing up again. "Let's hope you stay that way."
Za began to stammer again while Kulgan made his way to the wagon. "Wh- Lucky? How do you mean?"
"It's a lucky puken who thinks words are the most hurtful things you can throw at someone."
Before either of them could say anything else, he threw his poncho on over his head, the light-as-air fabric coming to rest on his shoulders, and patted his guns. Zam and Zagyr were both loaded— they had been all day. Only a fool would wander into the Taksten without a loaded weapon, even during the daylight hours. The Graylands had taught Kulgan that lesson years before ever setting foot in this hot, sandy wasteland, though.
"Both of you should get back in the wagon," he said without turning around. "I'll need you in there just in case we have to make a run for it."
He didn't intend to get caught. In fact, he would probably have to make a conscious effort to get caught in a place like this. Still, it never hurt to take the proper precautions.
"Should we do anything?" Adlis asked, speaking up for the first time since Kulgan had scolded her.
He shook his head. "Just try and get some sleep, if you can." He turned toward the town and took a step, but then stopped. "Oh, and keep that jar of snake repellant where you can reach it. If it wears off while I'm gone, you'll have to splash more around to keep the snakes from swarming all over you."
Adlis and Za looked at each other, and then simultaneously leaped to their feet and raced to the wagon, trying to clamber inside in an undignified flurry of limbs and clothing. Kulgan chuckled as he heard Adlis clear the edge, only to tumble onto the wagon bed in a heap. Once he was satisfied that he had everything he needed, he turned back to their fire, and stamped it out, plunging the small rocky enclosure into darkness.
"Mr. Kulgan," Adlis' voice came from the direction of the wagon. "Is it safe?"
Kulgan snorted and turned back toward the town. "Of course it isn't."
NEXT TIME: And away he goes, leaving Adlis and Za alone… in the desert… with the snakes… and monsters… wheeeee!