"Miss Adlis, wake up!"
Adlis' eyes shot open and she sat up, striking her head on the top of the hearse. Rubbing her skull and cursing under her breath, she looked out the window to find that the sky was dark. Stars speckled the great black void, and the Nameless Moon cast its pale white light onto the desert. Za was standing just outside her window, which she suddenly realized wasn't moving.
"What is it, Za?" she asked, sitting up with a yawn. "Where are we?”
Za looked nervously at something she couldn't see through the window. “Y- You know that town the man back in Hammeth said was down this way? I- I- I think we found it, Miss Adlis.”
Adlis blinked drowsily. What was he… oh. The memories of what had happened in Hammeth came rushing back to her, turning the fur on her ears blue with sadness. Slowly, she scooted to the end of the hearse, opened the door, and looked expectantly at Za.
"Oh, right," he said, offering his hand. She took it, and stepped down onto the sandy ground.
"Just because you're not my servant anymore doesn't mean you can neglect your manners," she chastised him, letting go when she had safely disembarked. "If a lady is getting out of a carriage, you offer your hand to help her down."
As far as she was concerned, the fact that this was a hearse and not a carriage was irrelevant.
"Yes, Miss Adlis," Za said, bowing his head. "I won't forget again, I promise!"
He kept his painted eyes respectfully lowered, but Adlis didn't miss the way his head jerked to the side, glancing anxiously into the distance. Turning to look, she saw that they were, indeed, on the outskirts of a town. The tiny village was less than a quarter mile away, and she could see lights twinkling in the windows. Even though the cold desert night nipped at her, the sight of civilization warmed her. She couldn't wait to get a hot meal, a bath, and sleep in a proper bed.
I hope they have those, she thought. Even if they're a derelict old desert town, they should at least provide travelers with the basic necessities.
"Th- That's not all," Za piped up again. Adlis turned to him, and he pointed a gloved hand into the distance just to the left of town.
Adlis peered forward, raising a hand to her brow even though the sun had set hours ago. It was difficult to make out details from so far away, but she could still see the glow of a campfire and dozens of small shadows moving around it.
"Is that a campsite?" she wondered aloud. "It's so close to town, though. Why would they—"
Before she could finish her sentence, a gunshot rang through the night, and one of their kashnilas fell down dead. Adlis screamed and froze, the shock completely shutting down her brain. The surviving kashnila, Puela, panicked and tried to bolt, dragging the cart and her dead sister behind her for a few steps before the gunman fired again, killing her as well.
"Look out!" Adlis heard Za scream, and the next thing she knew she was face down in the sand with her simmk friend on top of her. Any other time, she would have protested, but right now she was on the verge of panicking like Puela had, and rational thought was crushed under the flood of terror.
A few long seconds crept by in utter silence, and Adlis could feel Za's abnormal simmk heartbeat coming from where his stomach should have been. She shivered, half because she was afraid and half because neither her immodest dress nor the desert sand retained heat at night. No more shots came. Had the gunman given up? Why had he shot at them in the first place? Had he mistaken them for a threat and decided to open fire without asking them to identify themselves? Her terror grew with every foreboding thought, and soon her heart was pounding as hard as Za's.
Just as she was beginning to think they were going to lie there until the vultures started circling above them, she heard footsteps approaching in the sand. She squirmed a little to be able to raise her head, which wasn't hard because Za wasn't very heavy, and saw someone standing ten feet away from them, his figure framed by the Nameless Moon so that she couldn't make out any details. The rifle in his hands, however, was plainly visible.
"We- We're just innocent travelers!" she stammered, trying to sit up with Za on top of her. "Are you—"
"Don't talk to him, Miss Adlis!" Za shouted, trying to pin her protectively to the ground again. "Don't tell him anythin'!"
"Both'a y'all shaddup!" the gunman snarled. "Get on yer feet."
Za made no move to obey, but then Adlis elbowed him in the gut.
"I think it would be a very good idea," she hissed in a low voice, "to do what the man with the gun says."
"But Miss Adlis—"
Reluctantly, her masked companion stood up, and immediately raised both hands and put them on top of his hat. Adlis got up after him, keeping a wary eye on the gunman. He wasn't nearly large enough to be a Kashni, but from what she could see he didn't have the ears and tail of a zik either. A human, then. He didn't raise his weapon, but the mere fact that he had it terrified her. With a flick of his wrist, he could put a lump of hot lead inside either of them, maybe even both of them if he had enough bullets.
Adlis felt the telltale tingle in her ears, and resisted the urge to clamp her hands over them. The magic had sensed her emotions, just like it always did, and now her ears must be the most blinding shade of white anyone had ever seen. She waited for the man to say something, but he didn't. Even when his eyes passed over her, he didn't react. But why...
It's dark out, she realized. Even the Nameless Moon doesn't give much light. He can't see them!
With that comforting thought, she was able to make them change back, though it was difficult to focus given their circumstances.
The man turned his gun on Za, and Adlis' gut tightened with fright until she realized he was only gesturing with it. "Ya got any weapons in that coat?"
"No sir," Za answered, his voice as high pitched as a child's.
"Show me. Take it off!"
"Take it off?" Za echoed in horror. "I can't do that! I'll—"
"You want to die, puken?" This time he really did point the gun at Za.
Adlis looked over at the two dead kashnilas, and imagined the same thing happening to Za.
"You'll be all right," she reassured him. "The sun's gone down already."
"But the moon—"
"You'll be fine if you get it back soon enough," she promised him, and turned to the man. She was playing a dangerous game, and she knew it. The gunman was obviously agitated, and probably wouldn't hesitate to shoot them if they made a wrong move. Still, whether by bullet or by moonlight, she couldn't just let her friend die. "You'll give it back when you don't find any weapons, won’t you?"
The gunman glared at her, as if he was considering blowing her head off then and there, but then he glanced back at the campfire and gave an impatient nod. "Yeah, fine, whatever. Now move it!"
At an encouraging nod from Adlis, Za slipped his arms out of his coat sleeves and dropped it on the ground in front of him. The man stepped forward to pick it up, but kept his gun pointed at the two of them, finger hovering over the trigger Adlis’ tail was waving anxiously like a flag behind her, and she could do nothing to stop it. While the gunman rifled through the coat as best he could with one hand, Adlis spared Za a glance. The simmk wore a long sleeved button up shirt, but the gaps between his sleeves and his gloves were still exposed to the moonlight, and he hissed and began to rub at his knobby, light blue skin.
"Don't rub it," she whispered. "You'll just make it raw faster."
"But it burns!" he whined.
"Quit yer whisperin'," the man growled, and, satisfied with his search, threw the coat back at Za. The huge, billowing thing struck him in the face, covering him like someone had dumped a pot of tar on the poor simmk. Za whimpered, but wasted no time putting it back on.
Next, the gunman stepped forward and inspected Adlis. The zik girl bit her lip and tried to keep herself from trembling. More importantly, she tried to keep her ears the shade of brown they were supposed to be. He leaned in close, closer than he needed to, and Adlis could hear his nose snuffling as if he were smelling her. Despite her best efforts, a shudder ran down her spine.
His eyes took in the tight red dress, and widened in hunger. It was all too clear what was going through his mind, and this time Adlis couldn't stop her ears from turning white. This caught the man's eye too.
"Well now," he purred, a sadistic grin creeping up his face. He reached out with one hand and tugged on the fur of her ear. Adlis let out a squeak of fright and shied away from him, only making his grin widen. "What's one'a yer kind doing out in a place like this?"
Adlis clamped her hands over her mouth, not trusting herself to speak, and shook her head. The gun toting man laughed.
"Looks like tonight's gonna be fun!" he cackled, and then motioned towards the camp. "The boss'll wanna see you. Get movin'!"
Looking into the man's crazed eyes, Adlis' feet refused to move. It was if she'd sunk into quicksand up to her calves. That trance was broken, though, when the man cocked his gun warningly, and she scuttled towards the fire as quickly as she dared. Za caught up to her and walked by her side, his hands still planted firmly on top of his head.
"They're gonna kill us," he whimpered.
"No," Adlis whispered back, unable to keep her voice from shaking. "No, they're not. We're going to be all right."
"They know what you are."
Adlis' breath caught in her throat, and she almost tripped. Za was right. She had seen the hunger in the gunman's eyes. He knew exactly what she was.
Maybe being shot really was the better option...
Luckily, or not so luckily, they reached the camp before she could dwell on it further. It wasn't big, at least not considering how many people were living in it. Five tents circled the edge of the firelight, but no less than seven times that many creatures were milling around the campsite. Ziks, humans, and Kashnis, but no simmks. Not that that was surprising. There was only one wagon between all of them, and it seemed empty except for a...
She wouldn't have believed it possible, but Adlis' heart sank even further into her stomach when she realized she knew exactly why these people were camped outside the town. They were bandits. She and Za had stumbled onto Everdry in the middle of what looked like a siege!
As if sensing her realization, the man behind her nudged her forward with the end of his rifle.
"Don't you think about runnin', now," he sneered. "I ain't got nothin' against shootin' women."
Adlis' blood turned to ice inside her veins, but she didn't protest as their captor steered them towards the center of the makeshift camp, where the largest fire was burning. A ring of bandits circled it, swaying back and forth as they sang a bawdy song and howled with laughter. More than a few of them were passed out drunk. Adlis swore one of them had a knife in his chest, but the gunman forced them onwards before she could look again.
At one end of the ring, the line of bandits broke a slight bit, and a single zik sat by himself, staring wide eyed into the fire. Judging by how still he sat, Adlis didn't guess he was drunk like the others, but his eyes were bloodshot from looking at the flames. The gunman brought them up to him and then, without warning, kicked them both in the backs of their knees so that they fell down kneeling in front of the zik.
"Found these two just over there," he said, motioning back the way they'd come. "Thought you'd want to meet 'em, boss."
The zik didn't move a muscle. He kept staring into the fire, his top hat sitting lopsided atop his head. There was a foul scent about him, noticeable even over the smells of all the other unwashed bandits lounging around, as if by being their leader he had inherited the most noxious odor of all. His gaze was unblinking, his body still as a statue. A string of spittle bridged the gap between his mouth and his ratty black duster.
"Boss?" the man said again.
"Shaddup," the zik croaked. His voice sounded like he had just drank a bottle of whiskey and then chewed up and swallowed the bottle as well. "I'm concentrating."
For a moment, the fire flared brighter. Adlis turned to look at it— and froze.
There was nothing feeding the fire. No wood, it just sat on the bare sandy ground, and yet it burned brighter and hotter than any campfire Adlis had ever seen. As she watched, the fire began to waggle back and forth, like the tail of some Pit-born beast, and then ballooned outwards and threw a cloud of glowing orange embers into the night sky. They drifted slowly down, and Adlis clenched her eyes shut when they didn't burn out, singing her fur and dress whenever they fell on her. When she opened them, she was looking at the zik again.
He laughed softly, like a baby whose parents were jangling keys in front of his face, and finally turned to look at them. His eyes were still red, but now Adlis could tell that it wasn't because they were bloodshot. A quick glance at his wrist, and the glowing red veins that crisscrossed it, confirmed her fears.
He was a Scorcher.
The zik's eyes passed over Za without interest, but paused when they fell on her. Just like before, his lips slowly rose in a savage, yellow-toothed grin. "Well now," he crooned, "that's quite a catch, Bunkin."
The man grinned back. "It weren’t nothin', boss. But hey, look at 'er ears!"
He knelt down behind her and ran the top of his finger tantalizingly over her ear, and she shuddered. Her ears, which had darkened to gray over time, immediately turned stark white again. The zik didn't move for a few seconds, staring blankly at her, and then began to chuckle again.
"I've heard of you before," he said, pointing lazily at her ears. By now, other members of the gang were starting to look their way. "What's one of Madam Caruzo's girls doing way out in a place like this?"
The hunger was in his eyes too, and Adlis’ ears turned green with disgust at the very thought of it.
She shook her head, trying to act firm and in control. "I'm afraid you're mistaken, sir. I don't work for Madam Caruzo. In fact, I've never heard that name in my..."
The zik wasn't listening to her, though. Getting to his hands and knees, he began to crawl towards her. She tried to back away, but the man behind her put his gun against her back, halting her. The zik stopped when he was only two inches away, his crusty face filling her entire vision. Slowly, he reached a hand up and placed it against her cheek, right where the fur ended to leave her face bare.
"Such smooth skin," he murmured, running his thumb up and down her cheek. He moved it further back and began to stroke the fur on the side of her head. "Soft fur... like silk."
Adlis' ears turned an even more violent shade of green, and she fought back the urge to vomit on him. Would he even care if she did? Part of her thought he would get angry, but the other part speculated that he might just eat it.
He paused, looking into her eyes, and for a moment they actually looked tender. He leaned in even closer so that his lips were right beside her ear, and whispered, "It's been so long."
Before she realized what he was doing, his tongue snaked out from between his teeth, and he licked her all the way from the side of her skull to the tip of her long, pointed ear. Adlis' willpower broke, and she finally screamed, pushing the vile zik away from her. Sitting on his haunches, he lost his balance and fell flat on his back.
"Why you little—" the man yelled, and struck her between her shoulder blades with the butt of his rifle, knocking her face down in the sand. She heard him cock the gun, and wondered briefly if he'd be merciful and kill her with one shot. It would certainly be better than the fate these Twisted monsters had in store for her. She lay there, unmoving, waiting for him to pull the trigger. But instead of a gunshot, she heard...
The zik was laughing. Lying on his back, he twitched like he was having a seizure, giggling like a lunatic. Unable to resist, Adlis turned her head to look at him, just as he sat up.
"I like you," he said, still chuckling. "Bunkin, put that thing away. We don't shoot our guests."
The man hesitated, but finally pulled his gun away from her. Adlis wasn't sure whether to feel relieved or terrified. She wasn't going to die, but that only meant that she was still going to have to be alive for whatever perverse plans the bandit gang had for her.
"Take a seat," the zik said, waving toward the unnatural fire. "Have a drink."
"Yeah, boss," Bunkin said, and plopped down in front of the fire. A solid punch knocked out the bandit beside him, and Bunkin stole his liquor bottle and drank the whole thing in one gulp.
"As you've probably guessed," the leader said, coming to sit down next to Adlis, "we didn't exactly come to Everdry to sightsee."
"You're bandits," Adlis managed to choke out.
On her other side, Za moaned. He still sat with his hands on top of his head, but at least nobody seemed to notice him. Then again, that was because all their attention was on Adlis.
"Not just any bandits," he cackled, waving a finger in front of her face. "We're the Red Fangs, and I'm their brave and chivalrous leader, Bloodnoggin Speth!"
Adlis' urge to panic became even stronger. These were the Red Fangs? If Speth was telling the truth, then the situation was even more dire than she'd thought. She'd grown up hearing the stories and her nursemaids warning her that the Red Fangs would come get her if she didn't go to bed on time. This was no story, though. This was really happening, and she had the distinct feeling that Speth wasn't lying. These must be the real Red Fangs.
An idea seemed to take form in Speth's head, and he sat up straight. "Have you ever wondered why the call me Bloodnoggin?" he asked eagerly.
Before she could answer, Speth looked over at his gang and called, "Hey, Bunkin!" The man who had taken them captive turned to look at them. "Ask me why they call me Bloodnoggin!"
Bunkin's eyes immediately widened in horror, and he shook his head. The smile fell from Speth's face, and he growled before getting up and walking over to him. His duster fluttered in the breeze as he reached underneath it and pulled out a wicked looking knife.
"I said," he hissed, placing the blade so the tip tickled the inside of Bunkin's ear, "to ask why they call me Bloodnoggin."
Now the entire gang had fallen silent, watching with eager anticipation.
"No, no, no," Bunkin whimpered, still trying to shake his head without pricking himself on the knife. "No, boss, please! Ain't I done good? Why're you—"
Speth's wrist twitched, and a thin stream of blood began to leak out of Bunkin's ear. The man yelped and tried to bolt, but three other bandits darted forward to hold him in place, giggling like idiots.
"Come on, Bunkin," Speth crooned, using his other hand to stroke his hair. "I been havin' such a good night. Don't ruin it for me, bud. Don't disobey your boss."
"No, no, no, no," Tears were running down Bunkin's face now. Adlis couldn't decide whether she felt sorry for him or not, but she definitely felt like she was going to throw up at any minute.
Speth sighed and rolled his eyes, and moved the knife so the tip was just underneath the soft part of his chin right before is joined with the throat.
"Last chance, Bunkin."
Bunkin broke down into pitiful sobs. "Okay, okay! Why..." he paused, and clenched his eyes shut. "Why do they call you... Bloodnoggin?"
Quick as a flash, Speth leaped to his feet, drew his revolver, and shot Bunkin between the eyes. The bullet went straight through Bunkin's head and out the other side, blowing a hole in the sand as well. Gore spattered the ground, and the other bandit's released their former comrade, letting his corpse collapse in a pool of his own blood.
"Because I hate stupid questions!" Speth screamed, his voice high pitched with outrage.
Blood oozed out of the wound in the front of Bunkin's skull, turning his skin and hair red, seeping into the crevices of his face and into his mouth, which hung open in a permanent cry of terror...
A bloody noggin, Adlis realized.
Then she threw up.
With a grunt of disgust, Speth kicked Bunkin's body into the fire, finally giving it something to feed on. The scent of burning flesh filled the air, and if Adlis hadn't just thrown up everything in her stomach she would have done so again. Speth turned to look at her and Za, and for a horrifying moment, she thought they were next.
Instead, he just curled his lip in a sneer, shrugged his shoulders, and sat down to stare at the fire again.
Within seconds, five more Red Fangs had pounced on the unfortunate travelers. Adlis screamed, powerless to resist as the three strong bandits forcibly tied her arms to her sides with a coarse, itchy rope. Laughing maniacally, they threw her on the ground at the edge of the firelight. Za joined her a moment later, whimpering like a child. In the dim light of the moon, Adlis could see even more of them tearing their hearse —and the dead kashnilas— apart. She felt empty, like all her emotions had been drained. Any other time, she might have been happy that there was nothing to make her ears change colors. But not tonight. Tonight, she curled into a ball as best as her ropes would allow, and started to cry.
"Are you all right?"
Adlis looked back up with a gasp, and found that they weren't alone. There was another captive sitting beside them, his arms tied just like theirs were. She couldn't see his face in the shadows, but he didn't have long ears or a tail so he must have been another human.
"W- Who are you?" she asked, sitting up and scooting away from him.
The other prisoner sighed and turned to look back at the campfire, twenty feet away. "My name's Kulgan. Looks like we're both in a jam here."
NEXT TIME: Our three heroes have met at last! Now begins their magical adventure to do… something. After they get away from the Red Fangs, of course. IF they can get away from the Red Fangs, of course.