The Red Fangs' howling war cry rang through the desert night. Tikta held a hand up to his ear.
"What'd you say?" he shouted.
"I said we're too late, you idiot!" Kulgan yelled back, drawing Zam and Zagyr. His heart was pounding in his ears again, but the comforting weight of his guns calmed him. With a flick of his wrist, he ensured that both chambers were full. He kept his guns loaded at all times, but it was better to be sure than to run into battle without bullets.
"D'yargo!" Tikta shouted, raising scatter to take aim at the approaching Red Fangs. Kulgan hooked the barrel under one of his revolvers and tugged it downwards.
"Not yet," he said. "They're still too far away."
Kulgan didn't hear the rest of what he said, because he leveled Zam and Zagyr out in front of him and squeezed both triggers. Their hammers snapped forward, and two bullets exploded out of the muzzles in a flash of orange fire. In the distance, a pair of Red Fangs fell, dead. Breathing in the tang of gunpowder through his nose, Kulgan's blood came alive with excitement and he pulled the triggers five more times, felling ten more gang members.
"Holy Pit!" Tikta exclaimed, looking from Kulgan to the approaching gang. "How'd you do that?"
Kulgan twirled Zam and Zagyr on his fingers before producing more ammunition and reloading.
"We have a word for Gray Rangers who can't shoot," he said, grinning.
"Do I wanna know?"
Kulgan held out both guns again, but before he could fire he heard the crack of a rifle, and dove to the side just as the sand at his feet caught the bullet that was meant for him. Three more shots followed, and Kulgan couldn't do anything but curl into a ball as the ground around him was peppered with metal and hot lead. The moment the last bullet sank into the desert he sprang back to his feet and returned fire. These shots were haphazard, fired from the hip, more to keep the bandits from shooting back fire while Kulgan retreated to cover, but he still felled another three of them. He ducked behind a barrel meant to hold water when the rains came, but was now as parched and brittle as the rest of the wood in Everdry. It was better than nothing, though.
Tikta followed his lead, firing his useless shotgun before taking cover behind the porch railing of the town doctor's office. He was so tall that, even hunched over, his red scaly head poked out over the top. Kulgan rolled his eyes.
"There's too many of them!" the Kashni yelled, flinching when a bullet turned one of the posts near him to splinters. "What do we do?"
Kulgan hunkered down behind his barrel for a moment and thought. It was too late for the villagers to rally a line of defense. Hopefully they were all locked inside one of the more sturdy buildings at the other side of town. It wouldn't protect them much, but like Kulgan's barrel, at least it was something. Once the bandits found out where they were, though, it would be over. The buildings here in Everdry were as fragile as parchment. Breaking down the door and shooting them would be doing things the hard way. It would be easier, and probably more fun, to just light the place on fire and...
Kulgan's head shot up.
"I know what we're gonna do!" he yelled, and turned and ran out from behind his barrel. A few bullets zipped through the air, but he ducked his head and kept running, confident that the bandits wouldn't be able to hit a moving target from so far away. A quick glance at them revealed that they had already closed half the distance between their camp and Everdry. Not so far away, then. He put on an extra burst of speed and then slid across the sand, coming to rest by the trench the Dragonthroat bullet had carved into the ground. Trying to stay as low as possible, he dug his fingers into the coarse sand and grabbed the bullet, hissing in pain when the still-hot shell burned his hands.
"What d'ya think you’re doing?" Tikta yelled, scrambling to hide behind the barrel Kulgan had just abandoned. "You’re gonna get yourself shot, ya puken!"
Ignoring the pain, Kulgan wrapped his fingers around the bullet and yanked it out of the ground, showering himself with dirt and sand, and toppling over backwards when it came free. Another bullet whizzed past over his head, and Kulgan sucked in a breath. He was in a bad spot, but he needed the shell. Rolling over onto his belly, he got to his knees and hefted the gigantic bullet in both hands. It weighed less than it would have before being fired, but it was still a good forty pounds, at least. Getting shakily to his feet, Kulgan hurried back to cover as fast as he could go.
"What the Pit do you want that for?" Tikta demanded as soon as he'd ducked down behind the burly Kashni.
"You'll see," Kulgan said, gasping for breath. He leaned back against the wall, allowing himself a few seconds of rest before picking the shell up again. Luckily, the cold night air had cooled the metal, but his hands were still going to have blisters once this was all over. "Follow me!"
Setting off down the street in the quickest waddle he could manage, Kulgan lugged the bullet into Everdry. Tikta followed with a grunt of confusion, ducking when another shower of bullets came flying at him. A quick glance backwards told Kulgan that the Red Fangs were almost to the edge of town. They had seconds left. Looking around, he spotted a two story building rising above the other shorter ones. It was omr of only two in Everdry with more than one floor, used as an inn whenever a very, very lost traveler wandered into their ramshackle little town.
"Come on!" he yelled.
"What're you planning?" Tikta asked, jogging past and spinning around to face him.
"You're in luck," Kulgan grunted, setting the shell on the ground. "Looks like you're going to get to use Scatter after all."
Kulgan raised his hand to cut him off. The screams were so close now that they were almost deafening.
"When I give the word, fire!" Kulgan ordered him, having to shout to be heard. "And then we both hightail it into the inn, got it?"
A swarm of Red Fangs ran past the alley with their eyes fixed manically in front of them. They would have gone right past without noticing either of them had Kulgan not whipped out Zam and shot one in the head. The ones behind him skidded to a halt, some of them tripping over their fallen companion, before turning face Kulgan. Tikta took a hesitant step back.
"Not yet!" Kulgan snapped, picking the shell up again and stepping back with him.
With a howl of rage, the Red Fangs charged at them, the narrow alleyway forcing them to bunch together and run in rows of two and three— just like Kulgan wanted.
"Tikta," he yelled at the top of his lungs, and flung the shell into the air, "fire!"
He dropped to the ground just as Tikta pulled the trigger, but kept his eyes trained upwards, not wanting to miss what he had planned. Sure enough, the scattershot from Tikta's shotgun struck the Dragonthroat bullet point blank, launching it in the opposite direction almost as if it had just been fired from the Dragonthroat itself. It rocketed down the alleyway, punching holes straight through the first five Red Fangs it met and bowling the ones behind them over like tenpins before finally coming to rest out on the main road.
"Ha ha!" Kulgan crowed, springing back to his feet and pointing at the mess he and Tikta had created in a rare moment of exaltation. "Did you see that?"
Summoned by the gunfire and screams, more Red Fangs warily peeked their heads around the corner. The manic lights in their eyes had faded for a few seconds.
Kulgan spread his arms wide in challenge. "That's right, you pukens! We did that! What're ya gonna do about it?"
A wave of anger so potent that Kulgan could almost smell it rippled out of the bandit horde, and one particularly brave zik stepped out to aim his revolver at Kulgan— and then fell backwards with a hole in his head.
"That one, I did by myself," Kulgan said, blowing smoke out of Zagyr's muzzle.
The bandits stared at him for a minute, as if they weren't able to comprehend what he was doing. The Red Fangs killed people, people did not kill the Red Fangs. Then, as one, they abandoned their cover and charged into the alleyway again. The Dragonthroat shell was still in road, the way blocked by more than a dozen gang members and unarguably out of Kulgan's reach, so instead the Ranger spun around and ran further down the alley.
"I'm out of ammo!" Tikta yelled as he ran past, his golden eyes opening wide with terror for the first time all night.
"Then you'd better not let them catch you!" Kulgan replied just as the wall beside him exploded in a shower of splinters.
Tikta hesitated only a moment before chasing after Kulgan, the murderous outlaws a few steps behind them. He could hear the Kashni muttering panicked curses under his breath, but he still obediently followed him into the inn, as planned.
"Leave it open!" Kulgan said when he saw Tikta pause to slam the door shut behind them.
Tikta hesitated, but then tore his scaly red hands away from the door and chased after the zik, who was making for the staircase. "How're we gonna take cover in here if we leave the—"
"We're not here to take cover."
"WILL YA QUIT INTERRUPTIN' ME!"
Kulgan ignored him and dashed up the stairs, pausing only long enough at the top to make sure the Red Fangs had followed them in. They had, and the inn's lobby was already flooded with dirty, foul smelling bandits. Ducking to avoid an onslaught of bullets, Kulgan drew Zam and quickly fired a round into one unfortunate Kashni's chest, and then bolted down the hall. Tikta followed, spouting profanities when a bullet clipped his long, musclebound tail. Down to the end of the hallway they sprinted, and Kulgan kicked the door open. Tikta barreled in a second later, and Kulgan slammed the door behind him.
"I think that went well!" Kulgan cackled. His blood was on fire again. How long had it been since he'd felt this way? Too long.
"That was your Pitting plan?" Tikta roared, rounding on him. "Get us trapped up here like a couple rats?"
The door shuddered as a Red Fang outside threw himself against it, and Tikta hurried to slide one of the beds in front of it. Then, after a moment's thought, he threw the chest of drawers in front of it too.
"Calm down," Kulgan said, moving over to the window. "We're not trapped."
Pulling Zam out of its holster, he took it by the muzzle and smashed the window.
"Do you have a flint?" he asked, holstering his gun again.
"Yeah," Tikta reached into his pouch and produced it. "Why?"
Kulgan snatched the flint out of his hand and knelt on the floor, immediately setting to work. He struck it three times, throwing sparks out across the floor, before the wood finally caught fire. After blowing on it to strengthen the flames, he stood back up with his fists proudly on his hips.
Tikta looked from the smug Ranger to the fire on the floor and shook his head. "There's something wrong with you, Kulgan."
"We'd better get out of here before we get cooked too," Kulgan said, already halfway out of the window. He braced both feet against the wall and dangled there, taking a few seconds to look out over the town. He could see flashes of gunfire further down the road, but at least the inn seemed to be the only one on fire. The next building was only a short distance away, which was one of the reasons Kulgan had chosen the inn for his trap. All he had to do was jump, and—
Or you could fly.
Kulgan sucked in a breath. Oh no...
Kulgan shook his head, trying to banish the unwelcome voices.
Do it. Do it!
"Get movin', ya idjit!"
Tikta's voice broke through Kulgan's silent argument, and he flung himself across the gap between buildings. He hit the roof and rolled, his momentum carrying him back to his feet again, and when he came to rest he had both guns out of their holsters. Tikta came flying out after him a few seconds later. Having elected to jump through the window instead of climb out, he brought a shower of splinters and broken glass with him, and Kulgan had to dive out of the way as the falling Kashni came crashing down. The dried wood of the roof proved too weak to support his weight, and the burly lizard suddenly found himself with his top half outside, while his legs dangled uselessly from the ceiling.
"D'yargo!" he exclaimed, scrabbling madly with one against the roof while the other clutched Scatter, refusing to let it go. "Help me, will ya? I'm slippin'!"
"Pitting idiot," Kulgan grumbled, holstering Zam and Zagyr before grabbing Tikta's outstretched hand and hauling him back onto the roof. Once the Kashni was safe, Kulgan turned and regarded the inn. The flames had spread fast, as he'd known they would, and already more than half the building was ablaze. The cold night winds were warmed by the raging fire, and Kulgan smiled when he heard the Red Fangs' screams of agony coming from inside.
“Holy Embin,” Tikta whispered, and made Embin’s Chain around his heart.
"Come on," Kulgan said, jogging to the side of the building. "Let's make sure none of them make it out."
Before Tikta could reply, he hopped nimbly over the edge and landed on the wooden awning that extended over the building's front door. Another jump put him on the ground. With revolvers already in hand, he ran for the inn's door, or what was left of it, and fired just as a bandit came running out. His clothes and fur were burned off and his skin was a sickening shade of black. He wouldn't have lived for much longer, but Kulgan's bullet put him out of his misery anyway. Kulgan took up position outside the door, shooting two more bandits as they tried to fight their way free of the flames, and then reloaded his guns. To his right, a second floor window exploded, and Kulgan shot the Fang before he’d even hit the ground. A second crash came from Kulgan's other side, and he spun around, but then lowered his guns when he saw it was only Tikta smashing through the same awning Kulgan had just used to climb down. Kulgan rolled his eyes and turned back to the burning inn.
The entire gang wasn't in there, probably not even a quarter of them. The rest were still running rampant through Everdry. Once Kulgan was sure these ones weren't going anywhere, he'd have to hunt down the others down as well. He'd have his work cut out for him and, if he were to be honest with himself, he didn't expect the village to last till sunrise one way or the other. Still, it would be worth it. He grinned at the flickering flames as another bandit screamed his dying breath. Life was suffering, after all. It was only fair that he would get to spread it around now and then. Tomorrow morning, assuming he was still alive, he'd gather what he could salvage and—
The fire rose up off the building.
"What in the Pit?" Kulgan exclaimed, taking a step back.
Like a great orange bird rising from its nest, the fire flew up into the sky, leaving the inn's timber charred and dilapidated, but cool to the touch. It hung there in midair for a few seconds, thirty feet above the ground, as if showing itself off, before curling around and circling the area in a long, snakelike stream. Kulgan's initial shock wore off, and he tightened his grip on Zam and Zagyr. This was something he had seen before, more times than he could count. He just hadn't expected to see it tonight.
The culprit wasn't difficult to spot. Standing in plain view at the other end of the street, the zik in the top hat obviously wasn't even trying to hide. And why would he, when had a giant river of fire up in the sky obeying his every command? Kulgan took a hesitant step forward, Zam and Zagyr held defensively out in front of him, and squinted against the light of the fire when it swooped down to form a pillar behind the bandit leader.
"And mighty Embin brought ruin to the houses of his enemies," he said, arms spread wide, "and he did rain down fire and ice upon them. Blessed be the name of the Organizer."
Kulgan looked down at the zik's arm, and his heart started beating harder when he saw the jagged, glowing red lines that crisscrossed his wrist, like the veins under his skin were filled with fire.
"I wish I could say I was surprised," Kulgan said, his eyes raising to meet the zik's stare, "but having a Scorcher in the Red Fangs would actually explain a lot."
The bandit cackled and reached into his shirt to withdraw a pendant. Like Kulgan's, it narrowed to a needle-sharp tip, but this one glowed with the same scarlet light as the zik's wrist.
"You mean this little thing?" he asked.
Kulgan's eyes narrowed. "Who'd you take it from?"
Instead of answering, the zik swept his hat off with a dramatic flourish, letting a couple flies escape from the nest of matted black fur atop his head, and bowed to Kulgan. "My name is Trazmar Speth, boss of these here stupid pukens you were kind enough to cook for me."
He stood up stood back up, clasping the pendant between his figners, and drove it into his arm. Ina flash of light, his veins began o glow even brighter, and his eyes lit up as well. He grinned, revealing that even his teeth were glowing faintly red.
"But please, call me Bloodnoggin."
A chill ran down Kulgan's spine, but he hid it behind a grunt of contempt. "Bloodnoggin Speth? I've heard stories about you..."
The zik's grin widened.
"... but I'd always hoped they'd just made that name up." He spat on the sand. "Most ridiculous thing I've ever heard."
The smile fell from Speth's face as quickly as if he'd been slapped, and the pillar of fire behind him flared brighter. His finger twitched, and it rose from the ground again, arching above his head so that it loomed over him like a snake waiting to strike.
Sweat began to bead on Kulgan's brow, but it wasn't because of the fire. Kulgan was far from being a coward, but it would take a far braver man than him to face down a Scorcher unarmed. He thrust both Zam and Zagyr out in front of him again, his fingers on the triggers, but then hissed in pain when the iron started to glow red with heat. They hit the sand, and a series of bangs told him that the bullets were exploding in the cylinders.
"I could burn you just like you did my boys," Speth said, raising his hand. The fire quivered. "But I think that'd be too quick. I think I'll cook you nice and slow, let you feel the fire burn you! Turning you to ash bit by bit. First your skin, then your muscles, then your—"
A loud boom rang through the streets, and Speth stumbled forward before collapsing on the ground. Behind him, still underneath the awning he'd fallen through, stood Tikta. Smoke curled out of Scatter's barrel. Above them, without Speth's will to keep it burning, the pillar of fire simply winked out of existence. Kulgan looked from Tikta to Speth, and then back again, blinking as his eyes tried to adjust to the sudden darkness.
"I thought you said you were out of ammo," he called, trying to keep his voice from shaking.
"I found another," Tikta replied, coming to join him. He kept his gun trained on Speth as he walked, and Kulgan was glad to hear by the Kashni's voice that he wasn't the only one shaken the night's events. A Scorcher in the Red Fangs, and their leader no less!
Tikta hesitated at the side of the road. "Is he dead?"
Before Kulgan could answer, pain exploded in the back of his head. He fell to the ground as dozens of creatures came to surround him. A couple of them gingerly picked up their fallen boss.
Speth howled in pain. "Careful, ya puken! Can't ya see I'm injured?"
Shadows swam in front of Kulgan's vision, but he was still able to see Tikta watching him, apparently unnoticed on the other side of the road. The Kashni hesitated, and then turned tail and ran. The Fangs hoisted Speth upright, and he fixed Kulgan with the most hate filled glare he had ever seen.
"Take him, boys," he finally spat. "I gotta think of something proper to do it him!"
Another Red Fang stepped up to him, raised his rifle, and brought the butt down on Kulgan's head.
Everything went black.
NEXT TIME: I think that went pretty well, don’t you? Kulgan’s in the hands of the Red Fangs and, unbeknownst to him, Adlis and Za are heading his way as fast as they can.