Kulgan stabbed the pendant into his arm, letting Vashiil’s wicked power flow into his body. It was like swamp sludge in his veins, and it burned and froze at the same time. It repulsed him and aroused him, wonderful and terrible. He hated it and loved it. The power coursed up his arm, into his shoulders and down his back, separating into three different streams of energy. Two of them stopped at his shoulder blades, and the last one went down to the base of his spine.
Kulgan groaned as a pair of bumps formed on his back. They grew bigger by the second, and soon burst free of his shirt. Two translucent wings extended from his spine, jerking and shivering in the hot morning air. Kulgan's body was shaking now, the fingers of his left hand spasming in the sand as the third pool of energy began to do its work. A long, segmented tail erupted from his back, leaving shredded strands of flesh on the sand. It thrashed with a mind of its own as it grew larger, eventually growing a curved, wickedly sharp point at the end.
With a gasp, Kulgan yanked the pendant from his arm, halting the transformation. His thoughts were both sluggish and crystal clear, an aftereffect of absorbing another creature's soul, but he forced himself to focus on the black furred zik standing on the other side of the flaming wall.
"Well I'll be," Speth muttered, crouching down to look at Kulgan in fascination. "So that's why you're hidin' out here." He began to chuckle, which turned into a full blown laugh. "Oh, this is rich! And you got the gall to call me dirty, boy." He pointed at him. "By the Pit, I may be a murderer, but I ain't got nothin' on—"
Before he could finish, Kulgan began to flap his wings. They beat up and down in a blur of motion, too quick for the eye to see, whipping the sand around him into a frenzy. Bracing himself, Kulgan launched himself at Speth, passing through the wall of fire so quickly that it didn't even singe him. Speth yelped in surprise as he was bowled over backwards. Kulgan grabbed him by his coat and kept flying in a straight line, dragging the bandit leader through the sand as they went. He spied the rocks he had taken cover in before, and changed course to fly directly at them.
"LEMME GO LEMME GO LEMME GO!" Speth was screaming as the desert floor scratched at him from below.
Kulgan obliged, releasing him and sending him flying on his own toward the rock. Speth crashed into it going full speed, and fell to the ground in a broken heap. Taking a deep breath, Kulgan alighted on the ground and crept toward the Red Fang's fallen leader. Part of him wanted to get down on all fours and crawl, but he ignored it. Even more of him wanted to take his pendant and Pierce again. He ignored that as well, though it was harder.
With a feeble effort, Speth rolled himself onto his back and looked up at the Twister. He coughed, blood spattering his chin, and gave Kulgan a weak smile. The impact with the rock must have broken at least five bones in his body, but the psychotic zik still managed to laugh at him.
"You're a monster," Speth chuckled. "A d'yargo monster! I could never be as bad as you even if I tried!"
Kulgan clenched his fist around the pendant. "Shut up."
"You know it's true! You're a traitor to everythin'. The Rangers, the church, the whole Pitting planet. You're nothin' but a—"
With a shout of rage, Kulgan whipped his tail around and drove the stinger into Speth's chest. The zik's eyes went wide again as he convulsed on the ground. Kulgan pushed down even harder.
If the chest wound didn't kill him, the poison would.
A gunshot killed the silence, and Kulgan spun around as the bullet whizzed over his shoulder. The next moment, it was followed by a dozen others.
"He took out the boss!"
As much as Kulgan wanted to stay and watch Speth suffer, his job wasn't done yet. Beating his wings, he rose into the air, letting the bullets pass harmlessly beneath him, and took off across the Red Fangs' camp.
They're going to be even more scared of me than they are of the bandits...
He landed, skidding across the sand, and grabbed Zam and Zagyr off the ground. They were empty and he didn't have time to reload them, so he shoved them back into his holsters and took off again before the Fangs could get a bead on him. A small cluster of them were gathered thirty feet in front of him, so he flew until he was right above them and then dropped right into their midst. A quick swipe of his tail threw every one of them to the ground, bleeding and poisoned.
A scream cut through the air, and Kulgan whipped around to see Adlis struggling against at least twenty more Red Fangs who were doing their best to ignore the fighting and enjoy themselves. The young zik woman tried to push her way between two of them, but someone grabbed her tail and pulled her back into the ring. Adlis shrieked again, slapping at the bandit until he let go of her tail, laughing.
Anger turned Kulgan's face red. He may not have been a zik, but he knew zik culture well enough. Grabbing a zik woman by her tail was akin to groping a human woman's breasts. Grabbing a shotgun from one of the fallen bandits at his feet, Kulgan checked to make sure both barrels were loaded and then took off flying towards them. A Kashni turned around to look just as Kulgan flipped himself over in the air, his feet colliding with the bandit's ugly face. The Kashni went stumbling backwards, taking a row of his buddies down with him, and Kulgan spun and pulled the shotgun's trigger, blowing the bandits to his right to pieces. Adlis screamed again as blood rained down on them, but Kulgan ignored her.
"He's a d'yargo Twister!" someone yelled, and the other bandits all backed away from him. Kulgan's grip on the gun tightened. Even a gang of psychopaths and cannibals were disgusted by him.
Holding the shotgun in front of himself as a warning, Kulgan slowly circled around them until he was standing next to Adlis. For a moment, she looked relieved to see him. Then she saw the wings.
"Oh, dear Embin above!" she gasped, her ears turning white again. "You- You really are a..."
Kulgan gritted his teeth and gave her a quick nod. "A Twister. Yeah, I am."
He reached for her with his empty hand, but she recoiled from him. "Don't touch me! Get away!"
"Would you rather stay here?" he demanded. The Fangs were still milling around them, unsure of what to do. It wouldn't be long before they worked up the courage to attack. Gray Ranger or not, Twister or not, he couldn't fight off the whole gang.
Despite the circumstances, Adlis managed to gather herself up with regal indignation. "I think, Mr. Kulgan, that I might prefer to die than accept help from the likes of you."
The fact that they were surrounded by bandits told Kulgan that she meant what she said.
He rolled his eyes. "Don't be so overdramatic, you little puff."
With that, he reached out and grabbed her faster than she could react. Whirling around, he fired the second barrel where the bandits were huddled closest together, and then took off again, leaving the shotgun behind. Adlis added extra strain to his wings, but it wasn't so much that he couldn't stay airborne. The zik girl screamed again, but he blocked the sound out and angled toward Everdry. More bullets zipped past them. Kulgan began to lurch in the air, first up, then down, then left and right, making himself a harder target to hit.
Everdry was getting closer. They were going to make it!
"You can't leave Za behind!" Adlis' high pitched voice broke through his concentration.
"Are you serious?" he yelled back. "He's just your servant. Leave him!"
"He's not my servant, he's my friend!"
With a groan, Kulgan arched into the air, looping back the way they'd come. Za was a black smudge in the pale sand, still ignored by the Red Fangs as they shot at the Twister and the prize he'd stolen from them. Kulgan dove for the ground at an alarming speed with Adlis' shrieks burrowing into his ears like nails, and pulled up just in time to keep from flying straight into the ground. With his empty hand, he reached out and snatched Za by the back of his coat, and then shot back in the direction of Everdry.
"No," the simmk moaned. "I don't wanna die!"
Suddenly, a spike of pain drove itself between Kulgan's shoulder blades. At first he thought he'd been shot, but then he realized how tired his wings felt. They still propelled the three of them through the air, but he couldn't fly with the same speed as he had before. Their flight slowed, and his wings grew even heavier on his back.
"No," he grunted as they dipped lower toward the ground. He was so close. He couldn't lose now!
He couldn't stop it, though. The effects of his pendant were wearing off, and with Adlis and Za in his hands he wasn't able to Pierce again. Everdry was a mere hundred feet away now. If he could just hold out that long...
His wings began to disintegrate. It didn't hurt, but the feeling of a part of his body turning to dust was something he'd never been able to get used to. They lost another few feet. With a rip, his tail disconnected from his spine, falling to the desert floor below. It would rot away to nothingness within the minute.
"Can't... fail... now!" he gasped. The town was still fifty feet away, and now there were holes in his wings big enough for him to put his fist through.
Lower and lower they flew. Thirty feet left. Kulgan could see the Everdryers watching them in awe from behind their makeshift barricade. Twenty feet. He could do this. Ten feet. He could!
He passed over the barricade by a mere three feet, and as soon as he did one of his wings fell free of his back. With a yelp, all three of them landed face first in the sand. Kulgan raised his head, spitting sand out of his mouth, and watched as his wing drifted down to rest in front of him, like a leaf falling from a tree. It crumbled to dust even as he watched, and his other wing soon followed.
He didn't care. They had made it. All three of them. For once in his life, he'd actually done something right.
Then he felt the shotgun press against his head.
"D'yargo," Tikta spat in disgust. "I should've known."
"Blow his brains out!" one of the other villagers called.
A chill ran down Kulgan's spine, but he forced himself to lie still. They knew what he was now. This was all to be expected. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see what looked like half the population of Everdry gathered in the streets and alleyways to watch. There wasn't an ounce of pity for the fallen Ranger in any of their eyes.
Above him, the gruff Kashni growled. "I should've known," he said again. "Why else would a d'yargo Gray Ranger be all the way out here? You been hidin' from the church!"
Slowly, with his head still pressed into the sand, Kulgan nodded. "Yeah," he said at last. "It's true."
Adlis and Za both still lay where he'd dropped them. An old zik lady was gingerly helping the younger zik to her feet, while two other men had to hoist Za off the ground between them on their shoulders. Adlis kept her hands covering her ears the whole time.
"I can't believe it," Tikta went on. Kulgan could feel the shotgun's muzzle quivering just the slightest bit as it was shoved against his head. "We let you live here with us. We paid you to protect us! This is how you thank us?"
"I was a Twister long before I came here," Kulgan answered. "I just needed—"
"Shut up before I blow your Pittin' head off, you freak!"
Kulgan fell silent. Tikta was agitated, which meant he was unpredictable. He very well could choose to kill Kulgan right here in the streets. The worst part was that nobody would say a word if he did. Part of Kulgan actually wished he would do it. Stop the suffering, end the loneliness, silence the voices. All it would take was one twitch of that scaly red finger. Another part of him, the part that was still a Gray Ranger, was disgusted that he would even consider giving up so easily.
Give up on what, though? his subconscious argued. What do I still have to live for?
The Ranger part of him didn't have an answer for that.
Above him, Tikta growled. "I don't have time for this. I'll figure out what to do with you later."
For half a second, Scatter's cold metal pulled away from his head. Then he slammed the wooden butt into his skull. Everything went dark.
NEXT TIME: Vashiila, a pendant made from the Black Moon, gives people the power to change their shape, twisting the natural order. These people are called Twisters. They are, without question, the most unholy things on Haroz. Now that Everdry knows what Kulgan is, what’s going to happen to him?