The rising sun found Kulgan already awake, sitting with his back rigid as he stared out across the Taksten desert. The first hot breeze of the day wafted in from the endless sea of sand, carrying with it an electric tingle that made the hair on the Ranger's arms stand upright. He breathed in deeply through his nose, and noted the scent of fresh rainfall in the wind— an odd thing to experience in the middle of a barren desert. Atroyo wouldn't be long in rising as well.

 

As if to confirm his suspicions, a low rumble came from the distance.

 

"Embin, Father of the Law, protect your child and return him safely home." He would have made the chain around his heart, had his hands not been clasped behind his back. Hopefully Embin would forgive him that much.

 

The zik girl and her servant lay a few feet away from him, curled up together against the cold of the desert night. While the simmk hadn't removed his overlarge coat, at least he had seen fit to help cover the zik with part of it. It probably hadn't been much to the poor girl, especially wearing that dress of hers...

 

That dress, he thought, turning to look more closely at them. That isn't something someone would just choose to wear, especially while traveling to a place like this. She's running from something.

 

Unfortunately, she wasn't going to last long in a gang of psychopaths dressed like that. Most of them wouldn't be able to control themselves with such a prize being dangled in front of their noses.

 

If it was just me, I could get out of here in a heartbeat, he thought. In fact, he had spent the first hour after waking up working his knots loose, and now they would fall free as soon as he let go of the two ends of the rope he had grasped in his hand. He knew where Speth had his guns stashed. He was a trained Gray Ranger. These idiots wouldn't be able to do a thing about it if he decided to walk out of here. Speth, with his Wurstram pendent, was the biggest threat, but the bandit leader was currently passed out drunk in front of the empty firepit. Kulgan might even be able to put bullet in his skull on the way out.

 

The other two captives complicated things, though. Just by watching and listening to them the night before, Kulgan could tell they were both civilians, had probably never been in a fight in their lives. Any attempt to escape with them in tow would have the entire gang on them in an instant. Part of him was tempted to just leave them behind, but he already knew he wouldn't. What little humanity he still had would gnaw at him day and night for the rest of his life, and that would just be annoying. He sighed in irritation. If he was going to escape, those two were coming with him one way or another.

 

There's an easier way out.

 

Kulgan clenched his eyes shut. "D'yargo."

 

The black pendent still hung from his neck, hidden under his shirt. The Red Fangs had taken his guns and knife, but they hadn't thought to check for other things. That was stupid of them. Having a boss who had one himself, moon shards should have been the first thing they looked for. He almost wished they had taken it, as his hands started to tremble with desire again.

 

Why walk? Why shoot? Pierce. Twist. Sting. Fly!

 

Kulgan's fist tightened around the ends of the rope. He wouldn't. He wouldn't!

 

Finally, begrudgingly, the voices went away. Kulgan breathed a sigh of relief. The struggle had taken more energy than he'd expected, though, and now he had to fight the urge to lie down and go to sleep.

 

"D’yargo," he cursed. "I need a drink."

 

It was another hour before the bandit gang began to rouse itself.

 

"Somebody get me somethin' to eat!" one of them hollered, scratching his rear as he picked himself up off the sandy ground.

 

"Get yer own breakfast, ya puken," yelled another.

 

"Hey, I found some jerky."

 

"That's mine! Put it down!"

 

Kulgan watched as two of the Fangs began to pummel each other senseless in the sand. While they were distracted, another one sneaked up behind them and snatched the bag of food, giggling as he beat a hasty retreat. Kulgan briefly entertained the thought that maybe they would all kill each other off before they had a chance to attack the town again. As if he'd be that lucky.

 

Atroyo, the purple Moon of Embin, was hovering over the northern horizon. Below it, Kulgan could see a mass of dark clouds. It was still miles away, but definitely coming towards them. Even as he watched, he could see pinpricks of light appear in the clouds. There would be a storm within the next few hours.

 

He turned to face Everdry. Now that the sun was up, he was able to see the ramshackle wall that had been built between the town and the Red Fangs. It wasn't much, and the wood had probably been scavenged from the buildings destroyed by the Dragonthroat, but at least it would give the villagers some cover the next time the Fangs decided to charge. Then again, he thought, looking at the Dragonthroat, all it would take was one bullet to blow that little wall to the Nameless Moon.

 

The camp was becoming more active by the minute. Taking a deep breath in anticipation, Kulgan began to inch his way toward the other two captives on his backside. He moved slowly, so as not to attract any attention their way, but soon he was sitting beside the sleeping zik and simmk.

 

"Wake up," he muttered under his breath as loudly as he could. Neither of them stirred. "Hey, wake up!"

 

Gritting his teeth, Kulgan looked around to make sure no one was watching them, and then kicked the masked one in the shoulder. The simmk yelped, instantly awake, and Kulgan had to stomp down on his hand to keep him from leaping to his feet.

 

"Quiet down, you idiot!" he hissed, glaring at him with eyes hard as bullets. "Do you want them to kill us?"

 

The simmk whimpered, staring at his hand as Kulgan pressed the heel of his boot down into it, but then finally shook his head.

 

"Good. I'm going to move my foot. Don't move, don't get up, and don't try to run. Understa—"

 

Before he could finish, pain lit up in his leg.

 

"Leave him alone, you monster!" the zik girl yelled, and then bit him again

 

Kulgan grunted in pain, but a twitch of his leg was enough to throw her onto her back.

 

"What the Pit are you doing?" he growled before she could say anything else. "I'm trying to help you!"

 

The girl blinked, and then finally seemed to register the ropes wrapped around his body. With a whine, she crumpled to the desert floor in a pitiful heap. Kulgan didn't blame her for being so high strung— if anything, he was impressed by the way she'd reacted. A situation like this would have had most highborn women sniveling and crying like a newborn kitten, but this one had somehow found the courage to attack him in defense of her friend.

 

Regardless, attacking him wasn't going to get them out of here.

 

"Will you get off my hand now, sir?" the simmk whined, wiggling his fingers feebly under Kulgan's boot.

 

Kulgan obliged and moved his foot, and then leaned in closer to the two of them. "Listen to me. We need to get out of here. Where did they put your guns?"

 

They might have been tenderfooted city folk, he reasoned, but arming them could only make their chances of escape better.

 

The zik girl looked back up at him with red tinged eyes. "What guns?"

 

"Your guns," Kulgan said again. "They probably took them from you before they brought you into camp. Did you see where they put them?"

 

Slowly, the zik shook her head. "We didn't have any guns for them to take."

 

Kulgan stopped short, mouth slightly agape. "You two came this far into the Taksten without anything to defend yourselves with?"

 

"We- We're travelers, not mercenaries!" she hissed in reply, a touch of pink rising to her furless cheeks. Even more noticeably, the fur on her ears turned pink as well, making Kulgan pause a second time.

 

He nodded toward her ears "How did you..."

 

She ducked her head before he could finish. "Don't look!"

 

Kulgan arched an eyebrow and glanced at the simmk. If he expected the cowardly servant to offer any sort of explanation, though, he was disappointed.

 

"Okay, all right," he said, shaking his head to bring his thoughts back on track, "whatever. We're still going to get out of here, but I need your help to do it."

 

"We can’t fight none, sir," the simmk whispered, looking fearfully out at the Red Fangs.

 

"Don't worry, it's easy. You just aim, pull the trigger, and the gun does the rest."

 

It looked like the simmk was going to argue again, but the zik girl cut him off, "What do you need us to do?"

 

Kulgan sat back and looked out across the sandy expanse between them and Everdry.

 

"We can't fight them," he finally explained. "Our only chance is to hightail it back to town."

 

The girl followed his gaze. "It's so far away," she whispered. "They'll shoot us before we're halfway there!"

 

Kulgan frowned. She wasn't wrong. In fact, there was a good chance all three of them would be dead before they even stepped foot out of the camp. Still, it was their only hope. Maybe if he'd had more time he could have come up with a better plan. He didn't, though. They needed to go, and they needed to go now.

 

"You're going to have to trust me," he said.

 

To his surprise, the zik girl narrowed her eyes. "We don't even know who you are. How do you expect us to trust you?"

 

"I expect you to trust me because your only other option is to stay put and wait for them to remember you're here!" he growled, leaning even closer to her. "How long do you think that dress is going to stay on once they do?"

 

The zik girl gasped and her ears turned white.

 

Kulgan mentally kicked himself for snapping at her. "My name's Kulgan. I'm a Gray Ranger. You can trust me."

 

This perked the zik's ears up. "A Gray Ranger? So that explains your..." she glanced at his hair and her voice trailed off. "What are you doing in a place like this?"

 

Kulgan frowned. "Saving a couple of helpless idiots. What's it look like?"

 

The zik hesitated, and then finally nodded. "All right. My name's Adlis."

 

"I'm Za, sir," the simmk chimed in.

 

Kulgan nodded in approval, as if sharing their names was an integral part of his plan. He had to make them comfortable, make them think he had things under control. The more confidently they moved, the better chance they'd have of getting away. If they hesitated or kept looking over their shoulder, they would only be making themselves easier targets to the Fangs.

 

"Okay, here's the plan: I'm going to—"

 

"Well, lookie here!"

 

All three of them snapped their heads up to see a burly Kashni lumbering toward them. His eyes were locked onto Adlis' tight dress, and he licked his scaly lips.

 

"Now that's what I want for breakfast!" he cackled.

 

They were out of time.

 

Adlis gasped in horror, but Kulgan was already moving. Releasing both ends of the rope from his hand, his arms were suddenly free, and he sprang to his feet. The Kashni blinked dimwittedly, and that was all the time Kulgan needed to snatch the bandit's revolver out of his holster. A quick tug of the trigger, and he fell down dead.

 

"Hey, that puken just killed Putis!"

 

Kulgan moved so quickly that, if not for his training, he would have been blinded by the blur of motion.  In an instant he was behind Adlis and Za, his knife was drawn, and he’d cut both of their bonds before the zik maiden had time to scream.

 

"Stay close to me!" He yelled. Thankfully, they still had enough of their wits about them to spring to their feet without question. Kulgan spun, shooting and killing two more Fangs who were drawing their weapons, and took off deeper into the camp. "Head for that wagon!"

 

The wagon that held the Dragonthroat. It was still right where it had been the night before, with the cannon pointing at Everdry. If they could just make it over there...

 

There was a bang, and a bullet whizzed through the air, passing so close to Kulgan's face that he felt the air warp in front of him. He quickly spotted the shooter, aimed, and pulled the trigger, but was rewarded with only a click.

 

D'yargo! he thought. Reaching back, he grabbed Adlis and Za by their shoulders and pulled them both to the ground. Half a moment later, a dozen guns went off, and the air above them was filled with flying lead. There was a cluster of large rocks a few feet away. Kulgan motioned with his head where they were to go and began crawling as quickly as he could. A bullet struck the ground a few inches away from him, spraying sand into his eyes, but he ignored it and kept moving.

 

"We're gonna die, we're gonna die!" he heard Za moaning from behind him. "Miss Adlis, we're all gonna die!"

 

Most of the bandits had been firing rifles, which meant the three of them had a few precious seconds to get to cover while they reloaded, but a few of them had revolvers. Kulgan spotted one of those revolvers being pointed in his direction just as a particularly brave Kashni came running at him with a large rusty knife in hand. Thinking quickly, Kulgan swung his legs around and knocked the bandit's feet out from under him. Howling almost comically, the Kashni fell and Kulgan rolled so that the big lizard would land in front of him. The impact threw a cloud of dust into the air— and a moment later the Kashni lurched as the revolver fired three bullets right into him.

 

Guns!

 

There was a sawed off shotgun strapped to the Kashni's leg, and another revolver holstered at his waist. Kulgan hesitated a second, and then darted in to grab it. Bangs filled the air, and he dropped back behind the hulking lizard just as even more bullets embedded themselves inside the corpse.

 

"Here," he called, tossing the shotgun back to where Za waited. The simmk caught it by reflex, and then flinched like the gun had burned him.

 

"But I can't—"

 

"If you're no good at shooting, you'll find you're awfully good at dying," Kulgan snapped. He kept the revolver and spun the cylinder, making sure this one was fully loaded, and then snapped it shut again. "And I ain't about to make a woman fire a gun when there's a man here to do it!"

 

Before the pathetic creature could argue further, Kulgan leaped to his feet and ran, firing the revolver to send the bandits scrambling for cover. He only had six bullets, not nearly enough to shoot all of the Red Fangs, but they had seen what he was capable of the night before and were wise enough not to stay in the open when he had a gun in hand.  They all dove for cover, but none of the ones he aimed at were quick enough.

 

Adlis and Za came running after him, hunched over and with heads covered. Watching the zik girl run in her constricting dress, he almost thought she was going to trip. If she did, that would have been the end of her. To his surprise, though, she made it to the next piece of cover, a waist-high pile of lumber, even before Za did. Kulgan used the rest of his bullets providing covering fire for them as they ran. That was all right, though, because Zam and Zagyr were almost close enough to touch.

 

A tent made of old, papery animal hide sat a few feet away. Inside there was a trunk, and Kulgan swore he could hear his guns calling to him from within it. As a Gray Ranger he was deadly with any firearm that found its way into his hands, but any Ranger would tell you that there's no substitute for your guns. Zam and Zagyr had been his constant companions during his time in the accursed Graylands, and they had been the only ones to come with him when he'd fled into the Taksten. They had only been gone for a few hours, but it felt as though part of his own family had been stolen from him.

 

And by the Pit, he wanted them back!

 

"What now?" Adlis asked. She looked up at him, eyes wide with fear, and then flinched when a bullet struck their cover and threw a cloud of sawdust into the air.

 

Kulgan held the revolver out to her. "Here."

 

If the zik maiden's eyes had been wide before, that was nothing compared to how large they became when she saw the weapon being offered to her. "W- What? But you—"

 

"It'll just be for a minute," he promised her. "There are three bullets left in there. Just keep them from getting to you and you'll be fine."

 

Adlis finally took the weapon, holding it like the didn't know which end was which.

 

Probably not too far from the truth, Kulgan thought with grim amusement.

 

"Wait a minute!" Za exclaimed, crawling forward on his hands and knees to confront the Ranger. "I thought you said—"

 

"Get up here, you coward," Kulgan growled, grabbing the simmk by his coat and hauling him upright. He jabbed the shotgun with his finger. "I'm only doing it because I have to. That means you had better stay here and protect her. I don't want a single bullet to touch her unless you've already taken twenty, you got that?"

 

Za quivered with terror, but managed to nod. Kulgan knew it was an empty promise— he probably wouldn't so much as peek above the cover once Kulgan was gone. He didn't have time to worry about it, though. Letting go of the simmk's coat and letting him slide down onto his rump, he glanced warily out at the Red Fangs and then took off running for the tent. Bullets immediately sprayed the ground around his feet, but Kulgan didn't allow himself to think about that. Trying to avoid the gunfire would only slow him down, making him even easier to hit. There was only himself and the tent.

 

With a grunt, he dove through the air and disappeared behind the tent flap.

 

"He abandoned us!" Za wailed, clutching the shotgun to his chest like a stuffed animal. "Miss Adlis, he left us to die!"

 

Adlis looked at where Kulgan had gone and pushed down the terror that threatened to overtake her mind. "No, no he didn't. He- He said he'd be back. We just have to—"

 

One of the boards by her head exploded into a mess of splinters, and she had to duck her head to keep any of them from going into her eyes. Beside her, Za let out a pitiful scream.

 

We just have to stay alive until he comes back, she finished in her head. And if she was going to stay alive, she was going to have to keep those bandits from getting to them.

 

Clutching the revolver tight in both hands, the zik maiden inched her head up out of cover— and then ducked behind it when a storm of bullets pelted the pile of boards. She gasped, her hands shaking uncontrollably. She couldn't do this. She'd never so much as fired a gun before, and now Kulgan expected her to kill someone? Her breath was coming out in ragged gasps and she was having trouble thinking straight.

 

Silence fell over the bandit camp. It took Adlis' panicked mind a minute to realize it, but it was because the Red Fangs had stopped shooting at them.

 

What's... what's going on? she wondered. Had they run out of ammunition? Had Kulgan taken care of them? Or were they trying to trick her, planning to shoot her as soon as she stuck her head out to look? Gripping the revolver even tighter, she let out a whimper just as pathetic as Za's.

 

"Hey," somebody called from further into the camp, "someone go see if they're dead!"

 

"Miss Adlis..." Za whined.

 

This is all my fault, she thought. Za and I are both going to die, and it's going to be all my fault! I brought us here. I'm the one who ran away instead of...

 

Her thoughts trailed off when she heard the sound of boots tramping across the sand in their direction.

 

"I'm goin', so I'm the one that gets her," she heard the approaching bandit cackle.

 

"What if she's dead?" asked someone farther away.

 

"Then I still get her! Jus' cuz she ain't livin' don't mean ya can't still have fun with her!"

 

A shadow blocked out the sun, and Adlis looked up to see a nasty looking man staring down at her. Her breath caught in her throat.

 

"Hey there, pretty lady," he crooned. "I am gonna enjoy—"

 

Before he could finish, there was a bang, and his entire head exploded into a fine red mist. Adlis sat motionless as she watched the thug's body flop down atop the pile of lumber. For a moment, frozen by shock, she thought that Kulgan must have come back, but then she realized the bang had come from somewhere closer. Turning to look, she saw Za sitting with the shotgun raised, smoke trailing out of its end, trembling

 

Before either of them had time to think more on it, their meager cover was showered with even more bullets. Adlis hunkered down behind it again, but screamed when one of the planks, weakened by the constant assault, exploded right next to her shoulder. She looked down at the gun in her hand, and then at the tent Kulgan had disappeared into. Where had that—

 

"Okay, time to go."

 

Adlis screamed again, and spun around to find Kulgan sitting on her other side with his back pressed against the lumber pile.

 

"Where did you come from?" she demanded.

 

"Do you want me to answer that, or do you want me to get you out of here?"

 

The lumber pile lurched again as it took a hit from a shotgun. "The second one, please.”

 

Kulgan reached down to his belt and drew Zam and Zagyr, their cold dawniron a comforting weight in his hands. After flicking open the chambers to make sure they were full, he looked at Adlis.

 

"All right. When I move, you move. Don't let me leave you behind, got it?"

 

She nodded in fearful acceptance, too afraid to speak, and Kulgan turned around so he was crouching on one knee beneath the pile of lumber. "Keep those guns, you might need them. Ready? One... two... three!"

 

With that he leaped to his feet, firing both revolvers simultaneously. He was only up for the blink of an eye, and yet his aim was true and he felled six more Red Fangs. While the rest dashed for cover, Kulgan ran deeper into the camp, waving for Adlis and Za to follow. As he ran, Kulgan whipped the chambers open again and reloaded, and then dropped and skidded under more cover. There was already a Fang hiding in there, but Kulgan put a bullet in his head as he was sliding across the sand. Adlis joined him a moment later, and then came Za, screaming as he dove headlong behind the meager cover.

 

"What are you doing?" Adlis shrieked over the din of gunfire. "You're leading us further into the camp!"

 

"Everdry's way over there," Kulgan answered calmly, popping up and firing before reloading again. "We'll have to get across one way or another. If you ask me, our best bet is to distract them."

 

"Distract— eek!" Adlis flinched when a bullet ricocheted off the boulder just beside her shoulder. She caught her breath and asked, "What kind of distraction?"

 

"A big, loud one that can kill a lot of people in half a second."

 

When he saw that Adlis still didn't understand what he was saying, he rolled his eyes, fired three more times, and then pointed Zagyr to their right. The zik maiden followed his gaze, and her face paled visibly when she saw the wagon sitting in the distance.

 

"You can't be serious!" she spat.

 

"One shot from that thing will carve a path straight through the Fangs for us," he argued. "So unless you've got a better idea, shut up and come on!"

 

There was another zik creeping up on them from their right, so Kulgan put a bullet in him and began his mad sprint through the camp again. This had to be it. The wagon was only twenty feet away, but there was no more cover between them and it now. If the three of them couldn't make it all the way there, they'd be blown to pieces. Kulgan fired a bullet with every step, not caring if he hit anyone or not, merely wanting to keep them from shooting back. Fifteen feet... ten feet... He could hear Adlis and Za huffing and whimpering as they followed behind him, but he couldn't spare the time to look back at them. He just had to trust to luck that they wouldn't fall behind or take a bullet to the back. A bullet buried itself in the sand just in front of his foot, but he didn't let himself so much as flinch. If he flinched, they were all dead. He just ran and shot. Only five feet to go, now.

 

Without breaking stride, Kulgan bent his knees and launched himself into the back of the wagon.

 

"Come on, come on!" he yelled as Adlis and Za came just behind him. He didn't waste time with propriety, he grabbed Adlis by her shoulders and hauled her in with him. Za scrambled in after her, a frantic whirlwind of black cloth. The moment he collapsed in the bed of the wagon, a hailstorm of bullets tore holes in the brittle wood.

 

"Stay down!" Kulgan yelled, pushing Adlis' head into the floor. He could feel the bullets whizzing past less than an inch above them and he clenched his eyes shut. This was as helpless as he'd ever been, and all he could do was wait and hope none of the bandits aimed low enough to hit them.

 

“Oh, Embin, Embin please!” Adlis was crying.  Kulgan noticed her fingers making the Chain. “Embin, please protect me!”

 

Her prayer was answered.  After a few more tense seconds, the bullets stopped coming.

 

"Don't move," Kulgan whispered.

 

"They're going to kill us!" Adlis whispered back in terror.

 

"Yeah, well, they haven't exactly done a good job of that so far, have they?" Kulgan tried to sound confident, but his mood was grim. Escape from the middle of the Red Fang's camp with two civilians in tow had been fool's errand to begin with, and now they were surrounded by angry psychopaths with guns. All he had done was speed up their execution.

 

But he wasn't dead yet, and that meant the fight wasn't over.

 

"Someone go check on 'em!" one of the Fangs yelled.

 

"You kidding? Wug got shot in the face when he tried that!"

 

"I'll shoot you in the face if you don't!"

 

Adlis' warm, trembling body was pressed almost intimately against Kulgan's front, but there was a cold, unmoving presence on his back. The Dragonthroat. A quick glance around showed him a bullet sitting in the back of the wagon.

 

While the bandits argued, Kulgan leaned in closer to Adlis' ear. "Listen to me. I'm going to turn this wagon around. While I'm doing that, I need you an Za to get that bullet into this cannon. Can you do that?"

 

Adlis was shaking, but she still raised her head and nodded when she saw the bullet.

 

"I know you heard me, simmk," Kulgan went on, still whispering into Adlis' ears. "When I move, you'd better help her, got it?"

 

"Ooh, we're gonna die!"

 

"Fine, then!" a gruff voice came from outside. "I'll check 'em myself, but don't expect me to share what I find."

 

"Now!" Kulgan said, and leaped to his feet. He hopped nimbly out the front of the wagon, grabbed one of the shafts, and pushed with all his might. He felt the wagon pitching back and forth as Adlis and Za struggled to lift the heavy bullet and carry it to the gun. The bandits shouted their surprise, and Kulgan drew Zam and began firing at them as he hurriedly rotated the big wooden contraption. It was heavy, meant to be drawn by a pair of horses or kashnilas, but he was able to move it by himself thanks to the adrenaline coursing through his veins. Little by little the Red Fang's camp disappeared behind the wagon, and then he finally hopped back inside just as Adlis and Za shoved the bullet into the cannon's opening.

 

"D'yargo! Move!" The bandit shouted

 

Kulgan grinned in satisfaction. The Dragonthroat was now pointed straight down the middle of the Red Fang's camp. He didn't have a flint or tinder, but he didn't need one. He aimed Zam at the fuse sticking out of the massive gun's top, and—

 

"What in Embin's name are you pukens doin'?"

 

Kulgan hesitated and looked up to see Speth come stomping over to stand in front of the wagon. His coat was on lopsided and his hat was missing, but there was murder in his eyes as he turned to regard his gang.

 

"I am tryin' to sleep here!" the zik roared. "How am I supposed to get a good night's rest with you idjits shooting the place up?"

 

A stunned silence washed over the camp. Kulgan and Adlis shared a look.

 

"But boss..." one of the bandits piped up.

 

"But boss nothin'! Y'all're makin' enough racket to wake the dead. Y'all should be ashamed of yourselves!"

 

He glared at the Kashni who had spoken, and the big lizard bowed its head in contrition. "Sorry, boss."

 

Bloodnoggin Speth nodded in cranky satisfaction. "That's more like it. Now, I want y'all to..."

 

Enough of this, Kulgan thought as the crazy zik continued to lecture his gang. He pulled the trigger, firing a bullet straight into the Dragonthroat's fuse. The string caught fire, but it also caught Speth's attention.

 

"Would you mind waitin' your turn?" he demanded, rounding on the wagon angrily.

 

His voice trailed off, and he dove to the side just as the cannon went off. An ear shattering boom echoed through the desert morning, making the wagon buck up on its back wheels like a startled horse. The bullet flashed through the air, missing the bandit leader by less than a foot— but it didn't miss all the Red Fangs who were still standing in front of the wagon.

 

The results were gruesome.

 

"Yes!" Kulgan hissed between his teeth. "Come on, while we still have a—"

 

"Awright, you puken! Now I'm mad!"

 

All at once, the wagon burst into flames. Kulgan reacted without having to think, wrapping his elbows around Adlis and Za's necks and diving backward out of the wagon. They all landed face first in the sand, and Kulgan rolled over and pointed both guns at Speth just as the fire rose up off the wagon just like it had the previous night. Speth stood below the floating river of fire, stamping angrily on the ground. His wrist was glowing red again.

 

"I show ya'll hospitality, let you stay in my camp, and you repay me by tryin' to shoot me with my own cannon?" He pointed at them, and the fire surged toward the three captives. "You pukens need to be taught some manners!"

 

Kulgan began to squeeze the triggers, but before the hammers could fall Zam and Zagyr began to glow red with heat. He dropped them with a hiss, listening with dismay as the bullets exploded inside the chambers yet again.

 

D'yargo! he thought, trying to keep the rising panic from overwhelming him. I can't beat him like this!

 

The Ranger scrambled back to his feet, drawing his hunting knife, but before he could take two steps toward the bandit leader the fire descended in front of him. Like a burning tornado, it spun around him, creating a wall of flame to pen him in. Kulgan stopped. The flames grew even higher, as if mocking him.

 

"D’yargo!" he yelled. Sweat was already making his clothes stick to his skin. Even if Speth didn't let the flames touch him, it wouldn't take long for Kulgan to burn to death in here. Speth knew it too, and leaned his head back and cackled.

 

"That's what you get! Nobody shoots Bloodnoggin Speth. Nobody makes a fool outta me!" he turned to look at what was left of his gang. "You boys can have your fun with the lady. Just don't bother me while I'm takin' care of this puken."

 

Like a flood of foul smelling flesh, the Red Fangs charged at the defenseless zik maiden, their gleeful howls drowning out her screams of terror.

 

"No!" Kulgan shouted, getting as close to the wall of flame as dared, but he could only watch as the band of lunatics all but pounced on her. Adlis was buried in bodies for a few seconds, but then they parted, hoisting her up off the ground to carry her somewhere more secluded. Part of her dress had already been torn free, displaying the brown fur of her leg.

 

"Leave her alone!" Za shouted, picking himself up out of the sand. They had all but ignored him, and why not? Why pay attention to an ugly little simmk when you had a young, shapely beauty like Adlis to play with?

 

"Stop, you idiot!" Kulgan yelled as the servant went chasing after them. He punched a Kashni in the back with his scrawny fist, but the lizard didn't so much as turn around to look. With a sweep of his scaly tale, Za was knocked back onto his rump.

 

Adlis screamed again, looking to Kulgan for help. Her ears were a blinding shade of white. Kulgan gritted his teeth and looked away. He couldn't help her now. Not without his guns, not while he was trapped in this burning prison. It was over. He had failed.

 

Just like he always did.

 

"That's right, Ranger," Speth crooned, stepping up to taunt his victim. The zik's eyes were still glowing red. "Ain't nothin' you can do now except burn for me."

 

Kulgan clenched his eyes shut, refusing to let the tears of humiliation run down his cheeks. He was alone and unarmed. He should just reach out into the fires right now and...

 

Not unarmed.

 

His eyes snapped open again.

 

Not unarmed. Can Pierce. Can Twist. Twist. Twist! TWIST!

 

"I'm gonna push fire up every hole in your body," Speth was gloating. "Burn you from the outside in. You mouth, your nose, your ears, your—"

 

Closing his eyes again, Kulgan blocked out the sound of the zik's voice and collapsed to his knees. With one trembling hand, he withdrew the black pendant from beneath his shirt and clasped it in his fist. Speth had just enough time for his eyes to widen in surprise before Kulgan raised it and drove the point into his arm.

 

Atroyo's lightning flashed above him, and he Twisted.

 

 

NEXT TIME: Wurstramite for fire, Atroyen for lightning, Lisharum for water, and Jaminskite for wind.  But what does a black pendant do?  What is… Twisting?  Be here next week to find out!

Chapter Five

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