Lightning flashed, and Kulgan's eyes popped open. It took him less than half a second to assess his situation, and then he closed his eyes again.
He was in a jail cell. That much he hadn't even needed to open his eyes to figure out. Where else would he be after Twisting in front of the whole village? Everdry's jail was one of the biggest buildings in town, now probably the biggest since Kulgan had burned the inn down, but his Gray Ranger training kicked in, and with a moment of thought he decided that he must be on the second floor, second cell from the stairway on the left side of the corridor.
Wait, no... third from the stairway.
Furthermore, Tikta sat just outside the cell door. Scatter lay in his lap, and even with his eyes closed Kulgan could feel the Kashni's vengeful glare crawling all over his body. Tikta didn't say anything, though, so Kulgan surmised that he must not have realized that he was awake yet.
Unobservant, he thought critically. He wouldn't have survived a day in the Graylands.
Feigning sleep, Kulgan began to take stock of his condition. He identified five scrapes, and no fewer than a dozen bruises all over his body, but he had gotten those during his escape from the Red Fangs' camp. More concerning was the throbbing ache on the back of his head. Not because it was particularly painful, but because of who had given it to him.
He sighed quietly. You knew this day was coming. You can't keep something like this secret forever.
That was how it went, no matter where he ran. Turmoil seemed to follow so close on his heels, in fact, that he sometimes wondered if it was Embin himself punishing the sinful little Twister.
"You awake in there, Twister?" Tikta asked.
Kulgan sighed. Time to get it over with, then.
"I've been awake for hours, Tikta," he said without opening his eyes. "I'm surprised it took you this long to notice."
"Shut yer trap," Tikta growled. "You ain't even been in there an hour!"
With a big, fake yawn, Kulgan sat up and blinked tiredly at his new captor.
At least he’s doing it properly, he thought. An actual jail cell with thick iron bars. This will take a little effort to break out of.
He gave Tikta a grin. "So, what's for breakfast?"
"I ain't wastin' none of Everdry's food on the likes of you, Twister."
"You're just going to let me starve in here, then?"
Tikta's scaly lips pulled back from his teeth in a savage grin. "Not hardly, Twister."
Kulgan didn't have to ask what he meant, but Tikta patted Scatter anyway.
Kulgan frowned. "You're going to shoot me?"
"Waitin' till the rain's done," he confirmed with a nod, "then I'm takin’ you out of town so Scatter can fill you full of lead!"
Hearing this, Kulgan leaned forward. "Don't say that."
For a second, Tikta looked taken aback, but then he barked out a laugh. "What's that? Some Gray Ranger, gettin' all scared just talkin' about—"
"No." Kulgan shook his head. He spoke quietly, but somehow Tikta still stopped talking as if he'd been interrupted. "Don't say Scatter's going to do it. Take responsibility."
This time, Tikta looked really taken aback. "What're you talkin' about?"
Kulgan pointed at the shotgun. "Scatter's not alive. It's a weapon, a tool. Scatter isn't going to kill anyone." He raised his head and looked Tikta in the eye. "You are. So if you want to kill me, that's fine. But take responsibility for it yourself."
With that, Kulgan laid back down on the bed. He didn't know how he expected Tikta to react to that, and he didn't really care. He just needed to—
Something brushed against his chest as he lay down, and a familiar, creepy, oily feeling spread through his skin. Lightning flashed outside, and Kulgan sat up against as quickly as if he'd been struck.
"You didn't take my pendant?" he demanded.
Tikta jumped at his sudden movement, and suddenly Scatter was pointed at him through the cell's bars. "Don't you move!" the Kashni yelled. "Don't you try nothin', boy!"
Ignoring the gun, approached the bars, reaching under his shirt and pulling out the black pendant.
That only served to agitate Tikta further. "You put that away, you hear?"
Cold sweat broke out on Kulgan's body, and he held it out to him with a trembling hand.
"Take it!" he gasped. "Take it, hurry!"
Pierce. Twist. Drive it—
Kulgan grabbed his forehead, his face contorting with effort as he struggled to resist.
"Take it!" he yelled again.
He thrust his arm through the bars, offering the pendant to Tikta, all while the voices assaulted him inside his head. He barely heard the click, but his Ranger skills kicked in again and he threw himself to the side just as Scatter went off, lighting the dark little jail cell up for a split second. Kulgan felt the air just beside his face flare with heat, and then there was a rapid series of cracks behind him as the scattershot embedded itself into the wooden wall.
A shadow fell across him, and he looked up to see Tikta towering over him.
"You keep that filthy, Embin-cursed thing away from me," he growled. "I'm a Child of Order, you hear me?" He kicked the cell door and yelled, "I ain't touchin' it!"
With one hand, he clumsily made Embin's Chain around his heart, his claws clicking every time they touched.
"You can't leave me in here with it," Kulgan insisted, still lying on his back. "It's too dangerous."
Tikta hesitated. His eyes narrowed. "What're you gettin' at, Twister? You're actin' like you wanna get killed."
A chill ran down Kulgan's spine, but he ignored it and got to his feet, moving slowly so as not to startle Tikta again. When he was standing, he looked the Kashni in the eye. "It certainly would fix a lot of my problems."
Tikta's grip on Scatter tightened. Kulgan could tell how intimidated he was by his mere presence, even separated as they were by these iron bars. To his credit, though, the stubborn lizard didn't back down. Locking eyes with Kulgan, he returned the Twisted Ranger's glare with one of his own.
The staring contest lasted a whole five seconds.
"D'yargo. To the Pit with you," Tikta grumbled, looking away. He tried to act natural, as if he'd just gotten tired of dealing with him, but Kulgan knew the truth.
Tikta sat back down, but refused to look at Kulgan. Silence fell over the jail again, broken only by the pattering of rain on the roof and the occasional clap of thunder. With a sigh, Kulgan went and sat down on his cot again.
"You really don't care if you live or die, do you?" Tikta asked.
Kulgan looked up in surprise. "I would prefer to live, I suppose. But living with this," he hooked his thumb under the string around his neck and held it out, "means it'll never be easy. Sometimes I wonder if I'd be better off dead after all."
Tikta grunted and went back to staring at Scatter.
"Why'd you do it?" he asked a few minutes later.
Kulgan chuckled ruefully. "Why did I start Twisting? That's a long story, and one I don't feel like telling."
Tikta shook his head. "No. Why'd you help us? Twisters are soul snatchin' monsters, and there ain't no arguin' that. So, why'd you come here and help us instead of... I dunno, eatin' us?"
"Because I needed food, water, and a place to stay," Kulgan answered simply. "And Kashnis taste like the Pit, they honestly do."
Tikta paused, and then said, "I don't wanna know how you know that."
Kulgan chuckled, and the conversation lapsed. From outside, Kulgan could hear the townspeople cheering in the streets. How many of them had given themselves up for dead, he wondered? How many corpses were hidden in Everdry's cellars and back rooms? How many fathers had turned their guns on their wives and children, granting them quick and painless deaths in what they assumed was a hopeless situation? The people might cheer and dance, but Kulgan knew the dead were there. He had seen this before. Hope was one of the most fragile things in the world, and it was always the first thing people lost when the storm clouds rolled in and the shadows grew darker.
Lightning flashed and thunder boomed, eliciting another cheer from the Everdryers.
Then again, he thought, sometimes the storm is something worth celebrating too.
Kulgan wasn't the only one lost in his thoughts. Tikta had such a look of concentration on his scaly face that it was almost comical. His claws were stroking Scatter in his lap, like some kind of long, skinny cat. Every once in a while he would mutter something under his breath. Sometimes he would raise his head and stare down the jail's hallway. Not once, though, did he ever look at Kulgan. Without the Kashni's conversation to distract him, Kulgan's thoughts turned back toward the situation at hand.
What do I want?
Should he escape? Fight for his life? Or should he just wait for Tikta to take him out and shoot him like a dog? He had been telling the truth when he'd said he didn't want to die, but did he still have it in him to live? Scatter rested in Tikta's lap. One pull of that trigger would be all it took. It was Kulgan's personal gate out of Haroz, and the troubles that plagued him. No more running, no more hiding, no more —Pierce! Twist!— voices in his head.
The hours passed slowly, and eventually the light outside Kulgan's small window began to fade. By then the storm had subsided into a weak drizzle, Atroyo continuing on its path to shine on other parts of Tassendile. Before long the skies would be clear, and by this time tomorrow Everdry would be living up to its name once more. Kulgan lay on the cot with his arms crossed behind his head. He was tired, but sleep eluded him. That was all right, because he had more important things to do than sleep.
Scatter's blast weakened the wall just behind the cot, he thought. Just like everything else in Everdry, the jail's walls were dry and brittle. Perhaps if he threw all his weight against it, he could break through. It would definitely take more than once push. Would he be able to do it before Tikta could aim Scatter? The Kashni may have been thick, but he wasn't a complete—
Tikta rose from his chair, and Kulgan turned to look at him in surprise. Tikta looked at him long and hard for the first time since the conversation had ended earlier. Then he squared his shoulders like he was bracing himself to do something difficult.
"It's gettin' late," he said. "I'm heading home."
Kulgan raised an eyebrow. "You're what?"
"The storm'll be gone by morning," he went on as if Kulgan hadn't spoken. "I'll take you out and finish you off then. That means you'd better be here when I come back, got it?"
Propping himself up on his elbows, Kulgan watched in surprise as the sheriff picked up the few things he'd brought with him and left.
"What in the name of Embin is wrong with him?" Kulgan muttered to himself. Tikta wasn't as stupid as he looked. He had to know that if he left Kulgan alone in here, he would...
Unless Tikta wanted him to escape!
"Son of a gun," he said, standing up.
Standing facing the wall of bars before him, arms crossed impatiently, Kulgan began to mull over his options. He could escape from the cell, he was certain of that. The question was, did he want to?
"Tikta expects me to be gone when he comes back tomorrow morning," he muttered to himself. "But if I'm still here, he'll have no choice but to execute me like he promised."
He could end it all, right here in this dusty, edge-of-the-world town. The addiction, the voices, they would all go away. All he had to do was lay back down in his bed and wait.
Kulgan's face broke out in a smile.
Life was practically on its knees, begging him not to throw it away. The Ranger was tired, so very tired, and yet... well, if things were going to make themselves this easy, who was he to say no?
The back wall of his cell was still peppered with little holes where Tikta had fired Scatter. Scraping his finger along it, he noted how easily it fell to pieces. These Everdryers were a close knit group, loyal to each other to a fault, so this building probably served more as a warning for misbehaving children than any practical purpose. It would only take Kulgan a few minutes to smash through the wall, and he would be free.
As free as a Twister could ever be, but still...
And yet, Kulgan hesitated. He could still hear the townspeople celebrating outside. They would likely be at it all night, and exploding out of the jail's second story wall wasn't exactly the most subtle means of escape. No, he thought, shaking his head and standing up. He would use that as a last resort, but not unless all other options had been expended. And for a Gray Ranger, there was always another option.
Turning, Kulgan paced across the cell to the door, where the iron bars crisscrossed in front of him like the world's most symmetrical spiderweb. He flicked one of the bars with his finger, and listened as the ping echoed up and down the jail's corridor. Yep, that was good, strong iron. Everdry's wood may have been rotten as Speth's heart, but their metals were still as sturdy as the day they were forged.
Even the hinges are too strong to break, he thought, putting his hand on his chin. If he had Zam and Zagyr, he could have blasted them off, but of course Tikta wasn't going to leave his guns with him. Embin had never expressed any distaste for those, after all.
"How to get out?" he muttered as he pondered the situation. Perhaps through the roof?
You know how to get out.
Kulgan shivered, but ignored the voice. Perhaps he could drag his bed into the middle of the room and punch a hole in the ceiling. The jail only had two stories, so a big enough hole would put him safely on the roof. Assuming he kept away from the edges, the townspeople below wouldn't be able to see him and he could—
You know how to open the door.
"And I could climb down when nobody's looking!" he growled, doing his best to drown out the voice inside his head.
The flaws in that plan were already glaringly obvious. If he did that, how would he get his guns? They must still be somewhere in the jail, and once he was out it was unlikely he'd be able to get back in.
"Shut up!" he snapped, and hurried across the cell to grab the bottom of the bed. With a heave, he lifted it up, but it refused to move. Kulgan blinked in surprise, and then braced himself and heaved again. The bed still didn't budge an inch.
"D'yargo!" he said, panting slightly from the effort. They had bolted the bed to the floor. Whether it had already been that way, or they'd altered it specifically for him, he wasn't strong enough to wrench it free. Letting go of the bed, he took a step back and leaned against the wall.
He couldn't reach the ceiling without the bed. Kulgan wasn't short by any means, but the cell had been built to be able to hold a Kashni, if the need arose. As a human, that put the top of the small room firmly out of his reach.
You know how to—
"I'll break through the wall," he decided. "I'll wait for the celebrating to die down, and then I'll break out and climb down."
It bothered him a little that he'd given in to using his last resort plan so easily, but that couldn't be helped. Besides, if he was honest with himself then this wasn't even his last resort. For a Twister, no matter how bad things got, the last resort would always be...
You know how to open the door. Pierce. Twist!
With a jolt, Kulgan felt his hand wander under the collar of his shirt. His stomach turned when his fingers brushed the disgusting, wonderful stone that hung around his neck. And yet, he didn't stop himself from pulling it out and looking at it by the meager light of the lantern Tikta had set outside his cell.
The answer really was so simple...
It would be so easy...
"D'yargo," he said again, whispering now. "Twice in one day? When did I get so weak?"
With trembling hands, he pulled the pendant from around his neck. He raised it above his head with one hand.
"I... I don't want to," he whispered.
Yes you do.
"Yes I do," he echoed back. He tightened his grip on the Vashiil pendant, making gooseflesh rise on his arms from pleasure and revulsion simultaneously.
Then, taking a deep breath, he drove it into his arm.
The pendant's power immediately, eagerly, flowed into his body. It spread through his arm, travelling through his veins, and Kulgan had to clench his teeth to keep himself from throwing up. He pulled it from his skin a couple seconds later, and focused all his will on the power. When he concentrated, he was able to control it. Otherwise it would wander through his body wherever it pleased, changing everything it touched until it had used itself up. Instead, he forced it up his arm, into his shoulders, and down his back. A bulge formed on his lower back, and then it erupted into his tail with the sound of tearing flesh.
Kulgan groaned in pain and nausea. A thin film of slime coated the tail, just as it always did when he Twisted. It twitched as if of its own accord, but as Kulgan's brain adapted to the alien protrusion he quickly gained control of it.
"D'yargo," he cursed for the third time, getting to his feet. The tail was an added weight on his back, but his body adapted its normal posture to account for it. That was another way Vashiila affected its user, it altered the Piercer's body and mind so that the new additions to their body felt natural.
Kulgan slid the pendant back around his neck and regarded the cell door again. He had only pierced long enough for his tail to last for a couple of minutes, so he would have to work quickly. If it rotted away before he had escaped, he didn't think he had it in him to Twist again. He would rather wait for Tikta to come back and shoot him.
"Focus," he muttered to himself.
He knelt in front of the door and located the lock. Just like all the other parts of the door, it was strong and sturdy. Kulgan wasn't planning on breaking it down, though.
At his command, his tail snaked around in front of him, sliding in between the bars. Then he raised it up and turned it around. The motions made him wince in pain. His tail might have been flexible, but it wasn't meant to be that flexible. Even so, he ignored the discomfort and pointed the stinger at the lock.
"All right," he said, standing up as best he could. Taking the stinger in his hand, he guided it into the lock. It didn't have many nerves, making it difficult for Kulgan to feel his way around, but it didn't matter. He was a Gray Ranger, and there wasn't a lock in the world that was a match for—
"Aha!" he said as the tumblers moved and the door unlatched. With a smile of satisfaction, he pulled the tail back in through the bars and then pushed the door open, free. And not a moment too soon, because as soon he stepped into the corridor he lost all feeling in the tail, and it fell to the floor with a wet splat. He didn't even turn to watch as it withered away to nothingness.
He had to get out of Everdry.
A final clap of thunder rang through the town, making Adlis sit up with a gasp.
"Are you okay, Miss Adlis?" Za asked drowsily. He was sleeping on the floor, with only a thin blanket to separate him from the rough wood, but he hadn't complained. Adlis hadn't protested either. As the lady, it was only right that she be given the bed.
That wasn't what was bothering her at the moment, though. Getting up, she clenched the nightgown Mystle had given her tighter across her chest and went to look out the window. She felt far more modest in this than she had in weeks. It wasn't much, but at least it was big enough to conceal her tail. Atroyo's storm had weakened to a light drizzle while she'd slept, but she could still hear the Everdryers celebrating outside. Their voices all mixed together into a loud, unintelligible storm of noise even more chaotic than the one that had raged in the skies, but if she focused she could pick out bits and pieces of what was being said. Some were singing praises to Embin in thanks for delivering them from their enemies. Some further away were singing a bawdy love song that made Adlis' ears turn pink just listening to it.
"Miss Adlis?" Za asked tentatively.
She was distracting herself, she realized. And why shouldn't she? The issue that had kept her awake, tossing and turning in her bed for hours, was far less pleasant. Better to focus on the happy people outside, perhaps even try to share their joy. Unfortunately, such comforts weren't hers to take yet.
"Za," she finally answered, still staring out the window. A dim bolt of lightning flashed up in the sky, followed by a barely audible rumble of thunder. "I know how we're going to get home."
"You do?" the simmk asked. "How?"
Adlis hesitated, hardly able to believe what was about to come out of her mouth.
"The Twister," she said. "He's going to take us there.”
NEXT TIME: Two decisions have been made. One to survive, the other to escape. Adlis knows she’s going to need Kulgan to succeed, but does Kulgan realize just how much he needs Adlis?