"We beseech thee, oh Embin above, wrap thine chains around this cup and bar the way against all that is strange and perverse as I partake of it."
Kulgan moved his hand in a ring around the rim of the shot glass, touching his thumb and forefinger together every half an inch. Embin's Chain. He couldn't help but smile ruefully as he raised the glass and downed it in one gulp. If the invocation worked, it didn't work very well. He was living proof of that.
Do it. Drive it into your skin. Pierce!
The feeble light of a candle and a bottle of whiskey were all the Gray Ranger had to chase away the cold desert night, and yet he sweated. His hair, as gray as his title, clung to his forehead with perspiration. He hunched forward over the table, facing the wall, and poured himself another shot. He said the prayer again, as he always did, before draining that glass as well. Useless as it may be, old habits were hard to break, especially ones hammered into his head by the church and its insufferable priests.
The sound of a gunshot came from outside, but Kulgan barely flinched. After a moment's hesitation he filled his glass again, unconcernedly brushing a strand of hair out of his eyes. If they needed him, they would find him.
While his right hand was pouring, his left hand unconsciously wandered down under the collar of his shirt, and he jumped in surprise when his fingers wrapped around the black pendant concealed underneath. Soft and yet sharp, coarse and yet slimy, the small stone was an impossible twisted mess of contradictions, and he loved it almost as much as he hated it. Kulgan drew in a shaky breath, but couldn't bring himself to unclench his fingers. Instead, he drew it out of his shirt and held it up to the candle flame, letting the flickering light dance across its polished black surface.
Another gunshot rang through the night, but Kulgan barely heard this one his attention was so focused on the pendant. Small enough to fit in the palm of his hand and as black as pitch, it looked like a nail forged out of the midnight sky. He ran his thumb across it, enamored by the sensations it oozed into skin. Ugly beyond words, and yet the most beautiful thing he'd even laid eyes on. Putrid, rank, disgusting, and wonderful. There were times he was even convinced it was alive, despite the aura of decay that radiated from it like a cloud of the sweetest sewage.
Almost as if the pendant were whispering to him, Kulgan's eyes shifted to his other hand, still holding the whiskey bottle motionless above his glass, and noticed how the angle made his sleeve slump back from his wrist.
Do it. You want to. Stab it in. Make it bleed. Pierce. Twist!
Kulgan's left hand began to shake.
Do it. Pierce. Twist. DO IT. DO—
The gravelly voice broke through Kulgan's trance, and he jumped, spilling whiskey across the table and onto the floor. He blinked, took a moment to gather his wits, and then slipped the pendant back under his shirt just as a sharp rapping came from the door, which swung open with a creak. A large Kashni stood out in the road, and he raised his lantern to see inside.
"D'yargo drunk," he spat in disgust when he saw Kulgan hunched over his table. "This is the fifth time you've—"
"This is the eighth time I've broken into Munn's pub this week, Tikta. You just didn't catch me the last two times."
Tikta hesitated, and Kulgan gave a cocky smile at the wall in front of him.
"You gonna tell me what's going on out there, buddy?" he asked.
The burly Kashni growled, but his shadow didn't move, telling Kulgan that his double barreled shotgun was still pointing safely at the floor.
"It's the Red Fangs," he said at last, like he was reluctant to tell him anything.
Kulgan sat up a little straighter, but still didn't turn around. "Huh. I didn't know they came this far south."
"Does it matter?" Tikta demanded. "They're just outside Everdry, and you know what those pukens do to people!"
"Burning, raping, pillaging," Kulgan counted, "and if they're in a particularly good mood, they might even cook us up and eat us."
The crack of gunfire rang through the night again, and Kulgan tilted his head.
"A Dragonthroat 37," he noted. "Powerful enough to punch a hole straight through any of these walls, and accurate enough to do it from five hundred feet away." He smirked and finally turned to look at the Kashni. "They mean business."
Tikta glared at him, and Kulgan saw how the scales around his knuckles turned a shade whiter as he clutched his shotgun.
"Is that a Tenryvol Thunderstick?" he said, gesturing towards the gun. Tikta blinked in surprise and shifted it to a more comfortable position.
"My pa gave it to me," he said with a trace of pride in his voice. "Her name's Scatter."
"A decent enough gun," Kulgan said. "More than enough to scare off the usual predators that prowl around these parts at night. Against a gang of armed killers it'll be next to useless, though."
Tikta growled again. "What'd you say? Scatter's the best gun in Everdry! She can—"
"Tikta, that scattershot couldn't hit anything more than thirty feet away," Kulgan snapped back, rolling his eyes. "If the Red Fangs ever get close enough for you to use it, you'll probably be dead already."
Tikta's eyes grew wide with trepidation, but he still stood firm. Kulgan to hand it to him, the proud Kashni wasn't easy to scare. That didn't make messing with him any less fun, of course.
The Dragonthroat fired again, and this time it was followed by the sound of splintering wood as the bullet tore through one of the nearby buildings. Kulgan smiled and took a drink from the bottle itself, slamming it back down onto the table before standing up and making for the door. Three more empty bottles were left in his wake, and yet he walked without the slightest stagger.
"Come on, then," he said, patting Tikta on the shoulder on the way past. "Quit lollygagging."
He made his way out into the streets, where the other Everdryers were gathered, torn between their instinct to run and take cover and the grim knowledge that their town had nowhere to hide. The population was mainly made up of Kashnis like Tikta, but there were a few ziks and a couple humans mingling in the crowd. Out of all of them, human or otherwise, Kulgan stood out as the only one with gray hair.
It wasn't often that anyone took notice of a derelict old village like this. To call Everdry backwater would have been an insult to other backwater towns— especially since there was scarcely a drop of water to be found within a hundred miles. It was exactly the kind of place someone would go if they didn't want to be disturbed, which in Kulgan's opinion was the only charm the Embin cursed place had.
A chilly breeze blew from wide sandy plains, making Kulgan's untucked shirt flutter around his lean chest as he came to the edge of town. The Taksten Desert, at the far southern tip of Tassendile, was as flat as Tikta's personality, and by the blue light of Lishara he was able to see the Red Fang gang clearly, even though they were far in the distance. A campfire, set ablaze by wood they must have lugged all the way across the desert, gave them an orange glow that contrasted eerily with the moon's blue light. More than that, it brazenly displayed how insignificant a threat they thought the Everdryers were. Kulgan huffed in his throat. Annoying as it was, they were right. The one downside to being left alone was that when some Pit-born puken showed up to harass you, they caught you completely unprepared.
"Um, should we be standing up here?" Tikta asked, coming to join him. He had set the lantern down, and was now clutching the Thunderstick in both hands. "If they got a Dragonthroat—"
"How many of the other villagers have guns?" Kulgan asked.
"Just three," the Kashni answered. "Mawth and Jokane have revolvers, and ol' Carn has a rifle."
He pointed, and Kulgan saw an elderly zik clutching a rifle that looked even older than he was. It was made almost entirely of wood and didn't even have a bolt, which meant Carn would have to plunge the barrel after every shot, effectively making Tikta's shotgun the second most useless gun in Everdry.
"D'yargo," Kulgan cursed, looking out at the Red Fangs again. "Fine, it'll have to do. Gather up everybody with a bow and arrow, a sling, anything that can be used as a ranged weapon, and have them form up a line between the town and the gang. Get the women and children indoors on the other side of town, and any man that has... get down!"
Kulgan tackled Tikta just as the Dragonthroat fired again, launching a bullet as large as Kulgan's forearm at the town. It didn't come anywhere near the two of them, but another Kashni twenty feet away wasn't so lucky, and the other villagers scattered when he was turned into a shower of blood and bone. The bullet continued on its path, smashing through the side of the village's schoolhouse, and the whole structure sagged. The Red Fangs howled and laughed like madmen, the sound carrying across the empty expanse of sand.
"And get these Pitting idiots out of there!" Kulgan roared, standing back up and rounding on the other villagers, who were staring at the bloody spot where their neighbor had been standing mere seconds ago. "Do you all want to be smears in the sand? What's wrong with you? Go!"
Tikta seconded the command, and the villagers began to retreat further into the town. As the town’s sheriff, that effectively made him the mayor too. So little went on in this sleepy, sandy town that electing a board of officials would have been a waste of time. Tikta upheld the law, and that was all the authority anyone here needed.
Kulgan turned around and surveyed the town with a disapproving eye. Everdry's thin wooden walls, bleached and made brittle by the relentless desert sun, wouldn't offer the townspeople much protection, especially against a weapon like a Dragonthroat, but at least they would be off the streets. More importantly, they would be out of Kulgan's way.
"So, what's the plan, Ranger?" Tikta asked once the area was clear.
Kulgan scowled into the night, watching the Red Fangs dance around the fire. Two of them struggled to carry another bullet to the Dragonsthroat, which sat atop an uncovered cart. More like a small cannon than anything else, the fearsome weapon could tear the entire town apart by itself if they had enough ammunition for it— and by the looks of it, they did.
"They aren't attacking us," Kulgan said. "Not yet."
"Say what?" Tikta demanded. "They've been—"
"They're trying to scare us," Kulgan interrupted him, warming his hands in his pockets. "I told you the Dragonthroat is accurate up to five hundred feet, but right now they're at least a thousand feet away. They're not shooting to kill, they're just showing off their firepower."
"D'yargo," the Kashni hissed, and this time Kulgan caught a trace of genuine fear in his voice.
"Set up a line of fire right at the edge of town," Kulgan said again. "Then get every able bodied man and find them something they can use as a weapon. Hammers, pickaxes, shovels, anything. Have them wait inside the town just behind the long range fighters, and then... duck!"
Kulgan shoved Tikta out of the way and then dropped to the ground just as the Red Fangs fired the Dragonthroat. This time the bullet came straight for them, but the aim had been so low that it rocketed directly into the desert floor. Lying prone on his belly, Kulgan saw the geyser of sand closing in on him and rolled out of the way just as the bullet drilled a shallow trench to his left, so close that he could feel the heat radiating from its metal shell. With his heart beating in his ears, Kulgan sprang back to his feet.
"You okay?" he asked, giving the Kashni a quick glance.
"I'm fine," Tikta grunted, getting back up with a little more difficulty. Panting, he came to stand beside Kulgan again.
For a few seconds, the two of them stared out at the Red Fangs in silence.
"Well, this' what we hired ya for, ain't it?" Tikta said, and spat a glob of yellow slime in the sand. "I say it's about time you earned your keep."
Kulgan smirked and couldn't help but chuckle. "Are you saying you're glad these maniacs are here?"
"Pit no! But at least we ain't been payin' you for nothing."
"Tikta, you're a shining beacon of common sense. It almost makes up for the fact that your head is full of rocks."
Tikta growled, but kept his eyes on the Red Fangs. Kulgan watched them too. The two who had been loading the Dragonthroat so far had stopped, and were looking at another figure standing by the fire. This one held himself with an obvious sense of authority, and the silhouette of a tall hat sat atop his head.
"That one must be their boss," Tikta said, pointing towards that same figure with his gun.
Kulgan bit back his smart remark and nodded. Tales of the Red Fangs were told all over Tassendile. They were psychopaths, plain and simple. While other bandits gangs were out to rob, pillage, and make themselves rich by any illegal means necessary, the Red Fangs cared more about killing people. If the rumors were to be believed, they were prone to massacring entire towns, and then leaving everything of value behind. As sick as it was, Kulgan hadn't been joking about the possibility of them cooking and eating the Everdryers. And their leader... a zik crazy enough to keep a small army of maniacs in line, but also cunning enough to make them the most infamous gang in Tassendile. If half the things Kulgan had heard about him were true, then Embin help this little town.
"You've got your own weapons, right?" Tikta asked.
Swallowing his uneasiness, Kulgan patted the two dawniron revolvers holstered at his sides. "Zam and Zagyr, the Twins Betrayed," he answered. "I know them better than I know my own mother. Don't worry about me."
"It ain't you I'm worryin' about," Tikta snapped, and then hesitantly added, "Anything else? You got any... you know..."
Kulgan gave him a sharp look. "I've got my charming personality, if that's what you mean."
"D'yargo, you're a Gray Ranger!" Tikta yelled. "Ya gotta have one of them fancy necklace things, right?"
Kulgan stayed his hand, which suddenly wanted to jump up and caress the pendant hanging under his shirt, and shook his head.
"Zam and Zagyr and more than enough," he answered, looking out at the Red Fangs again to avoid Tikta's eye.
Tikta eyed him suspiciously, and then growled, "You better be right, Ranger. If I found out we been payin' you for nothing, then—"
"Then it won't matter, because we'll all be dead." When Tikta opened his mouth to argue, Kulgan cut him off, "Now hurry and get the defenses set up before it's—"
A crazed howl came from the bandits out in the desert, and Kulgan snapped his head forward again to see their leader take his hat off and wave it like a flag. Joining him in his war cry, the Red Fangs surged toward the village, the campfire making their shadows dance eerily across the barren landscape. Even from the distance, Kulgan could see the firelight glinting off the weapons in their hands.
"We're too late."
NEXT TIME: Looks like we picked the perfect time to join Kulgan! Adlis and Za are heading straight for him, but will he be alive by the time they get there?