It's around here somewhere.
Of course, "around here" could mean anywhere within a twenty mile radius of where they were now.
Kulgan drove the wagon in silence, the only sounds coming from the rattling axles and the crack of the reins. Adlis and her simmk were both asleep in the back, bringing some much needed peace and quiet to the mismatched troupe. Even the kashnilas weren't cawing or squawking, probably spooked by the sandgoyle's appearance back at camp. Kulgan was impressed. A lesser trained lizard would have bolted at the first scent of such a predator, but these two had stayed put and waited for their master.
He appreciated the chance to think, rather than argue with Adlis. It had been years since he'd been this way. As a Gray Ranger, his tracking skills were the best in Tassendile, but even he had his limits. This part of the Taksten was flat and featureless. Only the occasional rock or cactus served as landmarks, each just as forgettable as the last. Flicking the reins again, Kulgan racked his brain for any recollection of the area. He was a Gray Ranger, even if an exiled one. This was what he was trained for. He was better than this.
To be fair, he thought wryly, I wasn't exactly in a sound state of mind the last time I was here.
His memory flashed back to that day, so long ago, when he had crawled out of that hole in the ground with wings, a tail, and six spindly legs thrashing with a mind of their own. Blood pouring from a dozen wounds. Zam and Zagyr, back before they had been called Zam and Zagyr, clutched in his fists without a single bullet in their chambers. The bright, scorching sun had been such a shock to him that he had collapsed, convinced he'd been shot. It hadn't been until the sun had set, bringing the cold desert night with it, that he'd finally woken up, his extra limbs long since decayed.
That night bore a striking resemblance to this night. It was an idle thought, since every night in the Taksten was largely the same, but it still caused his gut to clench. Bad memories. He would have preferred to keep them buried, but tonight he needed them. It was out there somewhere.
Though sunrise was still hours away, a red glow began to emanate from the horizon in front of them, along with a hot breeze.
"Wurstram," Kulgan muttered. "Well, if it's going to show up it may as well be at night."
Fifteen minutes later, the First Moon of Embin was in full view, bathing the desert in its scarlet light. The chill was quickly chased away, but without the sun in the sky it was a pleasant warmth. Kulgan flicked the reins, spurring the kashnilas to run even faster.
Adlis assumed that he was bringing her to Tak Buran, the closest village bordering a pass through the Shi Valen mountains. He didn't fault her for it. The next closest mountain town was five hundred miles to the east, and short of scaling the mountains like spiders there was no other way over them. Not to any sane creature, at least.
Luckily, Kulgan was a Twister.
"You should have thought twice about betraying me, Adlis," he said under his breath.
She had hired him to escort her to Arborough, and he intended to do just that. However, if she insisted on turning him over to the church and finding a new guide at the first given opportunity, he would simply have to alter their course to make sure that didn't happen. He had begun the journey with every intention to go through Tak Buran. Not anymore, though. Now the three of them would be taking a much more... interesting path.
He grinned, his teeth turning blood red in Wurstram's light. Adlis wasn't the only one who could scheme.
It wasn't a minute later that he spied their destination. A small building, little more than an outhouse, sat next to a surprisingly sturdy wooden fence. The planks were fitted so tightly together that not a speck of light could shine between them. Even from here, Kulgan could see the three men standing guard outside. Wurstram’s light glinted on their rifles. They would also have fully charged Shards around their necks. That was going to be the tricky part.
He jerked the reins to the side, swinging the wagon around in a wide arch and stopping it behind a small copse of stubborn, half dead trees. The Rangers had seen him —they weren't worthy of their title if they hadn't— but he knew they wouldn't do anything. Their orders were to stand guard at the fence at all times. They wouldn't budge an inch to eat, drink, or relieve themselves until the next watch arrived. Not unless Kulgan were to do anything to threaten them or what they were guarding. That could wait for the moment, though.
"All right, wakey wakey!" he shouted, leaping from his seat. "Up and at 'em, you two!"
Za, ever the nervous wreck, sprang to his feet at once and ended up overbalancing and tumbling out of the wagon. The zik maiden, pampered little puff like she was, took a much longer time to wake up. She raised her head, blinking groggily, and then yawned.
"It's not morning yet," she complained, finally sitting up. She had slept with her hat on, and now it hung lopsided from her head.
"May as well be," Kulgan said, waving for her to get out of the wagon. "Wurstram's shining bright and we've got places to be."
Za scrambled back to his feet, and Kulgan grabbed one of their bags and handed it to him.
"What's going on?" Adlis asked.
"We can't take the wagon any further. We're going on foot from here on out."
Adlis was on her feet in an instant, towering over Kulgan as he continued to unload the wagon. Kulgan chuckled. That had woken her up pretty fast.
"What do you mean we're going on foot?" she demanded, ears turning a blinding shade of yellow. "You expect me to walk across Tassendile?"
"Assuming you ever want to get home, yes." He hefted the final two bags. One he slung over his shoulder. The other, he tossed to Adlis. "Catch."
"Wha- ooh!" She caught the bag in outstretched arms, and nearly fell out of the wagon. When she had regained her balance, she gave the Ranger one of the most scathing looks he had ever seen— which was saying something. "Mr. Kulgan, do you really expect me to carry this bag?"
Kulgan rolled his eyes. "Are you going to ask me that every time I tell you to do something?"
"I don't see why I shouldn't! I am a lady, and I do not appreciate..."
Kulgan let her rant, ignoring her as he crept toward the edge of the trees to peer at the Rangers. None of them had budged, as Kulgan had known they wouldn't, but their heads were all turned toward the trees where he had driven the wagon. He ducked back behind them before they could spot him and turned to his wards again.
"Where are we? Adlis asked, looking around. "I don't see the mountains anywhere."
"That's because we're not going through the mountains. We're taking a shortcut."
The zik girl raised her brow. "A shortcut? Across a mountain range?"
"We're going through the mines!" Za exclaimed. Kulgan glanced at him. The simmk seemed happier in that instant than he'd ever seen before. "The Free Simmk Mines! Everybody says they have tunnels that go all the way across the Shi Valen mountains."
Adlis paused. "Oh. Yes, I suppose going under them would be something of a shortcut, wouldn't it? I don't know, though. It'll be so dark down there..."
Kulgan shook his head. "If you know where they are, then by all means lead the way."
Za wilted like a punctured balloon. "Oh."
The entrances to the legendary Free Simmk Mines had been lost hundreds of years ago. There were even some who claimed they didn't exist at all. Kulgan tended to agree with the skeptics. An entire society of the fragile, helpless servant race existing underground, completely independently, seemed highly unlikely at best.
"I don't understand," Adlis said. "If we're not going over the mountains, and we're not going under them, then where are we going?"
Kulgan smiled. "How about we go right past them?"
Adlis and Za both stopped. They shared a look, and then Adlis shook her head.
"I still don't understand."
Kulgan pointed toward the trees, through which he could vaguely see the other Rangers standing guard. "Behind that fence is Forbidden Gate Tarz. Through that gate lies the Graylands." He turned to face them again, looking Adlis dead in the eye. "That's our shortcut."
This revelation hit the zik maiden like a punch to the gut, and she retaliated in kind. After taking a step backwards, her ears turning pure white in shock, her hand lashed out and struck Kulgan on the cheek.
"You Twisted madman!" she shrieked. "Is this your idea of a joke?"
Kulgan's head snapped to the side, and he reached up to rub his stinging cheek. When he looked at Adlis again, her eyes went wide and she took a step back. If her ears hadn't already been as white as snow, the glare he gave her would have been more than enough to do it.
The only thing crazier than becoming a Twister, he thought ruefully, is slapping one.
"Ma'am," he finally said, speaking slowly, "even a madman wouldn't joke about going into the Graylands."
"Yes. That means if I suggest it, I'm being dead serious."
Adlis took another step back. "You really are insane," she whispered.
Kulgan nodded. "Probably. But I also know that you want to get home as quickly as possible." He pointed at the trees again. "That makes the Graylands your best option."
"Mr. Kulgan, I hardly think anything related to the Graylands can be considered our best option."
Kulgan put his hands in his pockets, trying to act natural. She was right, of course. Going into the Graylands was extremely dangerous, even for a Gray Ranger. There was a reason the Ranger's Cemetery took up more than twenty square miles of land. Bringing civilians in there was a suicide mission. And yet, he had to do it. It was his only hope of ever living a peaceful life again. The trick was to get Adlis to go along with it.
Fortunately, he had a plan for that too.
"You said your father was on his deathbed, right?" he asked, looking her in the eye. "What happens if he passes away while you're not there?"
Adlis' ears turned blue. "Then my little brother becomes the governor in my stead."
Kulgan gave a quick, short nod. "And how much longer do you think he has?"
"I..." She looked away, unable to meet his gaze anymore. "I don't know."
"Then getting to Arborough as quickly as possible is obviously what you want to do. That means that gate," he pointed behind the trees again, "is your best method of doing so."
Adlis didn't reply right away, so Kulgan used that as an opportunity to keep explaining.
"Space and time work differently in the Graylands," he said. "Even if we spent weeks in there, we might come out and it'll only have been a few hours."
"Or it could be years," she countered.
Kulgan shrugged. "And the locations of the other gates are messed up too. I happen to know that Forbidden Gate Leister is only four days journey from Tarz."
"Gate Leister is..."
"In the middle of the Shadetower Woods." He nodded. "Less than a week away from Arborough, and that's on foot. So by going through there," he jerked his thumb at the trees separating them from the gate again, "you just turned a three month trip, at least, into a two week one."
For a few seconds, it looked like Adlis was actually considering this. But then she shook her head, her ears turning yellow.
"We're not going through the Graylands," she insisted. "That's suicide!"
"It's not all that dangerous," Kulgan lied. "The stories are full of exaggerations. If you have a guide you'll be fine."
Adlis took another step back, and took Za by his sleeve. "You'll forgive me if I find that hard to believe."
Kulgan shrugged again. "Believe whatever you want. Either way, you're going through that gate."
Adlis, who had been turning to head back to the wagon, froze. "Excuse me?"
Kulgan grinned. "Looks to me like you don't have a lot of options. I'm going to the Graylands, with or without you. You either go with me, or you stay stranded out here in the middle of the Taksten."
Adlis' ears turned a shade yellower with indignity. "Za and I are far from helpless."
Kulgan laughed, and her ears yellowed even more. "If that were true, you wouldn't have asked for a Twister's help."
"We'll take the wagon and find another guide!" she retorted.
"The town you've already been run out of?"
Adlis hesitated. Kulgan grinned wider.
"Do you even know how to get back there?" he pressed her. "You were asleep the entire ride here."
Adlis drew herself up, clenching her fist so hard that her entire arm shook, but didn't say anything.
"You'll die of thirst before you're even halfway there. That is, of course, if you don't get picked off by the monsters first."
The zik girl's ears whitened again, but to her credit she managed to put on a resolute face.
"Come on, Za," she said, taking her simmk by the hand and leading him back to the cart. "We're leaving."
"A- Are you sure, Miss Adlis?" Za asked. Kulgan chuckled. The poor idiot looked like he was ready to bolt, with or without his mistress.
"Completely." She shot a contempt-filled glare at Kulgan over her shoulder. "We'll be fine."
They came to the wagon, and Za hopped obediently into the driver's seat. For someone who claimed to have freed him from servitude, Adlis still liked to order him around. Did she even realize what she was doing, Kulgan wondered? Probably not. Her father was the governor. She was probably raised with simmks to see to her every whim. Treating him like this was as natural to her as treating Kulgan like monster dung.
"I hope you're right," he called to them.
"I assure you, I am," Adlis shouted back, sitting as primly as she could in the back of the wagon. "You go play in the Graylands if you want, but Za and I will have no part of that!"
"That sandgoyle probably still has your scent."
That was another lie. Sandgoyles were extraordinarily stupid, a byproduct of having sand for brains, Kulgan reckoned. It probably forgot about her the minute it lost sight of her. Still, whatever it took to get her through that gate…
And sure enough, Adlis froze. Even if Kulgan hadn't been able to read her expression like a book, the way her ears instantly flashed back to pure, snow white told him all he needed to know. He could practically see the sandgoyle looming over her in her eyes. She took a shuddering breath, unable to look him in the eye. For a second, Kulgan thought she was going to cave in right then and there, but then she regained her composure.
"We'll take our chances," she snapped. "Whatever's waiting for us here has to be preferable to what's the Graylands."
Kulgan shrugged. "Suit yourself, then."
Without another word, he turned and marched out from his cover in the trees. The three rangers immediately pointed their rifles at him. There were two humans, a man and a woman, and a large male Kashni.
"Halt!" the Kashni ordered him.
Kulgan stopped fifteen feet from the fence and took stock of his situation. The Kashni's scales were a faded pink color, and the hair on both the humans was still brown and blonde. New Rangers, left in the middle of the desert to protect a minor gate. Upon closer inspection he could see the rings under their eyes, their sleepless nights haunted by memories of the Twisted country. They had spent time in the Graylands, no doubt about it, but not enough for it to truly leave its mark. You weren't considered a true Gray Ranger until your hair or scales were as gray as slate.
"State your name and purpose!" the Kashni demanded, still aiming his rifle at Kulgan.
"Kulgan Matru," he answered. He was still wearing his poncho, and he pointed at the black circle. "Gray Ranger."
"Why are you here?" the Kashni asked. Kulgan wasn't at all surprised that the giant lizard had taken charge of the inexperienced trio. Kashnis had a tendency to do that. "Our relief is supposed to come out of the gate!"
Kulgan cracked a smile. "Funny story about that."
"Who was in that wagon?" the woman asked, gesturing toward the trees with her rifle. Adlis and Za still hadn't left.
"Funny story about that."
"Who deployed you?" the Kashni demanded.
Kulgan waited, looking at each of them in the eye. "Funny story about that."
"Arrest him!" the Kashni ordered them. The two humans lowered their weapons and cautiously crept toward Kulgan. The man drew a pair of handcuffs from his belt. The Kashni stayed where he was, keeping his rifle trained on Kulgan.
"No, please, don't do this," Kulgan said, his voice sarcastic. "We can talk this out."
The two human Rangers converged on him.
"You have the right to remain—"
Kulgan's arms shot out. Before either of them could react, he grabbed them both by their hair and slammed their heads together. He sighed as they fell to the ground, out cold.
"The new blood is disappointing," he said, looking back up at the Kashni. Then he dove to the side.
A bullet flew into the sand where he had just been standing. Kulgan hit the ground, rolled, and when he got back to his feet Zam and Zagyr were both pointing at the other Ranger. He pulled Zam's trigger, fire exploded from its muzzle, and the Kashni's rifle went flying out of his hands.
"And here I thought we could be friends," he quipped.
His words may have been sarcastic, but inside him Kulgan's guts were twisting themselves into anxious knots. These were good, upstanding Gray Rangers, inexperienced though they were. He was a Twister, a traitor. What right did he have to make fun of them like this? Just like the Vashiila pendant around his neck, the situation felt wholly unnatural. He couldn't stop now, though. He was too far down the Pit.
He grinned even wider to hide his shame and charged at the Kashni.
The other Ranger spun around, striking Kulgan across the chest with his long, musclebound tail and sending him sprawled out on the sand. While he was down, the Kashni pulled his pendant from under his shirt. This one glowed purple. An Atroyen shard. He ripped it from his neck, snapping the cord, and drove the tip into his arm. Glowing purple veins immediately spread out from the Pierce wound, and he held out his hand.
"D'yargo!" Kulgan spat, rolling out of the way just as a bolt of lightning ripped through the air. It zigzagged past him into the distance, where it struck a cactus and blew it to pieces. A peal of thunder loud enough to deafen him immediately followed.
Idiot, he mentally kicked himself. Let my guard down. Nearly let him get me.
The Kashni took aim again, and Kulgan sprang back to his feet. New Ranger or not, all it would take was one shot from an Atroyen shard to fry him. The sheer speed of their attacks alone made Shockers some of the most dangerous Gray Rangers there were. Dodging a lightning bolt was like dodging a bullet: you either did it preemptively, or not at all. Luckily, Kulgan had fought Shockers before, and the Kashni was still a new recruit. The big lizard was easy to read, even in the blood red light of Wurstram, so when he unleashed a second bolt Kulgan was already out of the way.
He dashed around the Kashni's side where it would be harder for him to aim, and fired Zagyr. He intended to hit the other Ranger in the shoulder, incapacitating him without killing him. He wasn't sure why he still held back. He was a Twister. He was the bad guy whether he wanted to be or not. What he had said to Adlis back in Everdry came back to him. He had never been good at being a bad guy.
That's going to get me killed sooner or later, he thought.
It was a moot point though, because as his bullet zipped across the distance between him and the Kashni, its journey was suddenly halted by a bright flash. The air around the Kashni crackled, and Kulgan's heart sank into his stomach.
A static shield? How did he—
Before he could finish the thought, the other Ranger had wrapped his huge, scaly hand around Kulgan's head and lifted him up off the ground. Caught off guard like he was, Kulgan hadn't been able to dodge. Another surge of electricity shot from the Kashni's hand, directly into Kulgan's body. Pain flashed through every fiber of his being, and his limbs twitched as he dangled from the bigger Ranger's grip. He could smell burning hair— his hair.
With a grunt, the Kashni flung him aside, and Kulgan's head struck the fence. Had he not already been close to passing out, the skull-rattling impact would have sent the world spinning around him. He collapsed face down in the sand.
D'yargo he thought. Wasn't expecting that.
The Kashni was a new recruit, there was no doubt about that. If he were a veteran, his scales would have been as gray as Kulgan's hair. And yet, he'd been able to cast a static shield powerful enough to stop a bullet. That wasn't something a rookie could do. Manipulating an Atroyen shard's power in such a subtle way took years of practice— and even then, most people could only stop a punch with it. The Kashni had deflected Kulgan's bullet at point blank range. That could only mean one thing...
"A Son of Gray," he croaked when the Kashni grabbed him by his hair and raised his head out of the sand.
"That's right," he confirmed. "Born and raised for the Rangers. You picked the wrong fight, puken."
The Gray Family. Perhaps the most controversial branch of the Gray Rangers in existence. Sometimes when the Rangers felt they were low on voluntary recruits, they would scour the orphanages of Tassendile, seeking out young boys and girls that would suit their needs. Ones that were angry and bitter at the world, prone to picking fights. These children would be raised in the church for the sole purpose of becoming Gray Rangers when they turned eighteen. The priests claimed it was a benevolent cause, meant to give these troubled youngsters a purpose in life when they would most likely grow up to be thieves and outlaws otherwise.
While most volunteers never touched a Moon Shard until they signed on, a Son or Daughter of Gray was often trained to use them from the moment they were old enough to stand.
Kulgan opened his eyes and smiled. "It's good to see you... brother."
Before the Kashni knew what was going on, Kulgan sprang back to his feet and punched him in the throat. The Kashni released him, hacking and coughing, and Kulgan used that opportunity to go for the purple pendant hanging from his fist. His hand wrapped around it, but the Kashni's grip tightened when he tried to pull it free. The other hand reached from him again, crackling with electricity, but the glowing veins in his arm had almost faded. Abandoning the pendant for now, Kulgan lunged at his other hand. Grabbing it by the wrist, he threw all his weight against it, and the lightning bolt that was meant for him fired straight into the sky instead. The glowing purple veins disappeared.
"You ain't no brother of mine!" the Kashni snarled, throwing Kulgan off of him. He landed hard on his back. "You either stole that poncho, or you're a deserter. Either way, all that makes you to me is dead!"
He raised the shard again, but before he could Pierce a loud BANG rang through the air, and the pendant exploded into a hundred tiny pieces. A single crackle of electricity flashed in the air where the stone had just been as the energy escaped. The Kashni froze, staring at his empty hand in shock, and then looked at Kulgan. Smoke was still curling from Zam's barrel.
"You puken," he said in a quiet voice.
Kulgan lowered his aim, now pointing the gun directly at the other Ranger, and cocked the hammer back with his thumb.
"We've only known each other for a few minutes, and you've already called me a deserter, a thief, and a puken," he said. "Truth is, I'm none of those things. I'm something much worse."
He reached his hand into his shirt, and his fingers brushed the black pendant underneath.
Do it. Drive it in. Pierce. Twist. TWIST!
He pulled it out, letting Wurstram's scarlet light play across its shiny black surface.
The Kashni's eyes went wide as dinner plates. "A Twister!"
"That’s right," Kulgan corrected him. "And now I'm the only one with a pendant. So are you going to make me kill you, or are you going to turn around and pretend—"
The Kashni tackled him before he could finish.
"If you think I'm letting you leave, you're wrong!" he roared. Both of them hit the ground together, and he drove his fist into Kulgan's face. "I'll kill you, you d'yargo filthy traitor!"
Kulgan brought his knee up into the Kashni's crotch, but he barely seemed to notice
"I'll tear you apart and feed you to the Shapeless!"
A heavy fist came down on Kulgan's head, making the world spin wildly around him. He was barely able to regain his senses before the fist fell again, nearly knocking him out a second time. Through the pain, he vaguely felt a trail of blood running down the side of his head and into his ear. This wasn't good. The Kashni had worked himself into a blind rage— the exact opposite of what Kulgan had intended. His plan had been to reveal his Vashiila pendant and send the new recruit running for the hills. He hadn't counted on the Kashni being a Son of Gray. No human could stand against a Kashni in a fist fight, and yet that was exactly what he had landed himself in. The Kashni was still a new recruit, though. Trained from birth he may be, but he lacked the experience of a veteran Gray Ranger, and the ruthlessness that experience brought with it. If there was one lesson the Graylands had drilled into his skull, it was that fighting fair was a luxury a Ranger couldn't afford.
"Sorry about this, brother," Kulgan said, scooping up a handful of sand and throwing it into the Kashni's eyes.
The other Ranger howled in anger, and Kulgan used the momentary distraction to draw Zagyr from its holster. His soft, fleshy fists may not have been enough to even make the big lizard flinch, but cold, hard dawniron on the other hand... Holding the pistol by the barrel, he swung it upward, striking his foe square in the mouth.
"Pitting freak!" the Kashni screamed, recoiling from the attack. Kulgan rolled out from underneath him and sprang back to his feet. Flipping Zagyr back around, he aimed it at the Ranger and pulled the trigger. A bullet exploded from the barrel, clipping the Kashni on the shoulder and flipping him onto his back.
"I gave you the chance to run," Kulgan said, keeping his weapon trained on him as he slowly walked forward. "This was your decision."
The Kashni opened his eyes, now bloodshot from the sand, and growled, "Glory to the Gray, traitor."
His tail lashed out, knocking Kulgan's legs out from under him. Kulgan landed face down again, but didn't stay there for long because the Kashni grabbed two handfuls of his clothes and hauled him back up into the air. Kulgan barely had time to yelp before he was thrown like a ragdoll. He landed hard and rolled and skidded across the sand before the fence brought him to a sudden halt. The Kashni was upon him again before he could stand up.
"That pendant belonged to my grandpa!" the Ranger growled, picking him back up again. Then he slammed his head against the fence. "It was all I had left of him!" He slammed him against the fence again. "And you just took it from me!"
Red lights flashed behind Kulgan's eyelids as his head was propelled into the hard wood a third time, and then a fourth. His hand twitched, and he realized he must have —WHAM— dropped Zagyr when he'd been thrown. He couldn't remember when he had —WHAM— dropped Zam, much less —WHAM— where it was.
This was a mistake, he realized with sluggish thoughts. I shouldn't have come here. I shouldn't have even made a deal with that spoiled brat.
"I'm supposed to save you for the Ashen Priests," the Kashni growled, drawing him close. Blood was running down Kulgan's face from both nostrils and at least three different cuts. "Give you a proper Twister's execution. But since you broke my grandpa's pendant, I think that gives me the right to finish you off myself."
He raised a long, razor sharp claw.
Doesn't have to end this way, the familiar voices said from inside his head. On your neck.
Suddenly, his pain faded away and all he could feel was his pendant's weight around his neck.
Drive it into your skin. Pierce. Twist. Kill. Twist. Win. Twist. TWIST!
His hand groped for the little black stone. The Kashni seemed to think this was funny.
"Go ahead," he growled. "Show me what you really are. Let me kill the real you. Vashiil can't save you now, traitor."
PIERCE! TWIST! CHANGE! TWIST!
His left arm began to tingle, as if begging for him to stab the sharp stone deep inside it and let its wicked power turn him into something else. The Ranger was right. He wasn't human anymore. The mangled, nightmarish mess the pendant Twisted him into... that was who he was now. Wearing his human face was just as much a lie as wearing his Gray Ranger poncho.
This wasn't a new realization to him, though. He had learned that within days of becoming a Twister. It was something he had come to terms with. True or not, sometimes a comforting lie was preferable to the cold, harsh judgment of reality.
And he wasn't ready to accept the truth just yet.
Gripping the pendant so hard that his knuckles turned white, Kulgan raised his pendant... and drove it into the Kashni's shoulder.
The Kashni's eyes went wide, and then he recoiled, screaming. He dropped Kulgan, ripping the pendant out of his body in the process, but didn't even seem to notice. Kulgan's legs threatened to give out beneath him, but he steadied himself by putting his hand on the fence. The Kashni backpedaled, and in his panic ended up tripping over his own tail and falling over backwards.
"No, no, no, no, no!" the Kashni was howling, lying on the ground and holding his shoulder. His eyes were fixed on it, waiting for the changes to start. The pendant hadn't been inside him for more than a second. Whatever changes it gave him would probably be too small for him to even notice. Not that it mattered to Kulgan. The longer he was distracted, the better.
Spotting where Zagyr had fallen, he gathered what strength he had left and dove for it. He slid the last few feet on his stomach before snatching it out of his sand and rolling over onto his back and pointing it at his foe. The Kashni, finally tearing his eyes away from his wound, looked up at him.
"What have you done?" he asked quietly.
"What I had to do," Kulgan answered. He stayed lying on his back, barely having the strength to keep the gun pointed at him. The Kashni didn't move either.
"I'm a Twister now," the other Ranger whispered. His eyes widened again. Kulgan could see tears beginning to run down his scaly cheeks. Despite his fearsome exterior, suddenly he looked like nothing more than a small child. "It's all over."
Kulgan's hand froze.
"It's over, Kio. Look at me. It's all over."
"You're not a Twister," he found himself saying.
"You used a Pitting Vashiila pendant on me!"
"That's right." He started to nod. "That's right. It was me. I used it. I Pierced you with it. You didn't do it yourself."
The Kashni squeezed his eyes shut. "They're going to kill me."
"No, no they're not," Kulgan promised him. "The wound's already healed. The changes aren't visible. By the time anyone gets here, they'd have already worn off anyway. Nobody has to know about this."
Why are you doing this? he demanded inside his head. Just end it. Stop wasting time!
He couldn't bring himself to pull the trigger, though. Kashni or not, the image of that pathetic lizard, sobbing, sniffling, and rocking back and forth in the sand, was too familiar.
Because I was him, a voice he wasn't used to hearing answered. Only... he didn't make the wrong choice. I made it for him.
The Kashni was right, though. If the other Rangers found out he'd been Pierced by a Vashiila shard, he would be condemned and executed as a Twister. It didn't matter if his changes were visible or not. The fact that the power of the Black Moon had been inside him would be enough to convict him. That was only if they found out, though...
"They don't have to know," Kulgan said, his voice strangely hoarse. "We'll be gone by the time your relief gets here. Just pretend it never happened."
The Kashni wasn't looking at him anymore. His eyes were closed, and his head was bobbing up and down with every sob. Kulgan's hand began to shake, and he set Zagyr down.
What have I done?
I... I really am a monster.
"Stop crying!" Kulgan commanded him. "You call yourself a Gray Ranger? Pull yourself together!"
It was too much, seeing the tough Kashni fall apart like that. Kulgan had thought he had grown hard during his time in the desert, that nothing could get to him anymore. He had been wrong, though. Somewhere inside of him, there was still that stubborn piece of humanity that refused to die. Right at that moment, with all the unwelcome emotions it was flooding him with, he hated it more than the Pit itself.
"I said stop your crying! It's not over. Just don't tell anybody!"
Finally, the Kashni looked up at him.
"You'll be fine," he promised him. "Just pretend it never happened. When the others get here, tell them a crazy Twister came through and beat the daylights out of you all. Don't even mention me stabbing you and they'll never know."
Kulgan caught a flutter of movement in the corner of his eye, and looked up to see Adlis watching him from behind the trees.
D'yargo. She's never going to let me live this down.
"You understand?" he asked. It looked like the Kashni was finally calming down. "Everything is going to be just fine."
The Kashni looked at him for a long minute. Just as Kulgan was beginning to think he had gotten through to him, though, a glint defiance suddenly appeared in the other Ranger's eyes.
"You think I'm like you?" he growled, getting to his feet. "You might have made me a Twister, but I've still got my honor. I... I know what I have to do."
He drew his knife. Kulgan's eyes went wide.
"No!" he shouted at the top of his lungs. "Wait, stop! Don't do it!"
The Kashni took a deep breath. "I still got my honor, you filthy puken. I ain't gonna... I ain't..." He closed his eyes again, spilling another wave of tears down his cheeks. "I can't."
He raised the knife.
"Glory to the Gray and praise... praise be to Embin."
"Stop!" Kulgan yelled. His hand scrabbled to pick Zagyr back up. He could shoot the knife out of his hand if he was just...
Too late. The Kashni's body collapsed face down, the sand beneath him turning black in Wurstam’s light as blood gushed from his throat.
Kulgan blinked. "No..."
He had no idea how long he laid there on his back staring at the dead Ranger, but eventually Wurstram passed over, leaving the night sky as black as ever. The sun began to rise not long after. The light of day only served to make the sight even more horrific. He could see the Kashni's pink scales, already turning pale in death. The scarlet stain in the sand burned his eyes like looking into the sun. Never once did he look away from the fallen Gray Ranger.
Soft footsteps approached him from the side, but he didn't look up when Adlis knelt down next to him.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
"What have I done?"
"You..." the zik girl hesitated. "You stabbed him with your pendant, and then he killed himself."
Her voice was hoarse as well, and she choked on nearly every word. This was a scene she would never forget, Kulgan knew. Perhaps even worse than the time she'd spent in the bandit camp. And yet, her own feelings were nothing to compared to the gloom that was settling over Kulgan's heart. A gloom so gray that it made his hair look positively radiant by comparison.
Slowly, he shook his head. "No. I killed him."
NEXT TIME: Well, that was… surprisingly depressing. Yay? But what will Kulgan and Adlis do next? The Forbidden Gate is still there, completely unguarded, with the Graylands right on the other side. Will Kulgan convince Adlis and Za to come with him, or will they taker the safer path through the mountains?