A soft clap of thunder came from outside as Adlis turned away from the window.
"The Twister," she said again. "He's our ticket out of Everdry and back to Arborough."
She saw Za standing with his back against the wall on the other side of the room. His hands were visibly shaking again, and she'd been able to see his face —if he'd actually had a face for her to see— she knew it would have terror etched all over it.
He meekly raised a finger. "If you'll excuse me sayin', Miss Adlis, you've gone and lost your mind, haven't you?"
Adlis' ears turned pink with embarrassment. "So, you've started sassing me, have you? You're acting less like less like a proper simmk by the minute."
Za laced his fingers together and looked down at the ground. "I'm sorry, Miss Adlis. I don't know what came—"
"Don't worry about it," she cut him off, turning away from him with a flip of her hair. "We've got more we’ve got more pressing concerns at the moment."
She crossed the room to the chest of drawers, where their meager possessions lay. They'd had little enough to begin with, and being kidnapped by the Red Fangs had separated them from most of it. They still had the clothes Mystle had given Adlis, as well as the scandalous red dress she'd been wearing before. She shuddered when she looked at it, and had to fight the urge to crumple it up and throw it away. The horrid, revealing garment wasn't large enough to modestly clothe even the most plain of women, and yet somehow it managed to hold a lifetime's worth of terrible memories inside it. Adlis' hands began to shake as well, and she could feel her claws poking holes into the delicate fabric.
In the end, she forced herself to take a deep breath and set it down. As sinful as it was, the dress was still an elegant piece of clothing. Adlis didn't know if she could force herself to wear it ever again, but perhaps they could find someone to sell it to. It had been torn and scuffed during their encounter with the Fangs, but that was nothing a skilled seamstress couldn't fix.
Adlis pushed it from her mind and took stock of the rest of their possessions. Five coins, a knife that had probably never been unsheathed, a map that had been ruined in the rain, and a pocket watch that didn't look like it had worked in years. All of it had been in Za's coat pockets.
Adlis' spirits sank a little further, causing her ears to turn gray.
"I know it isn't ideal," she said brusquely, "but nothing about this situation is ideal. We have to get home, and if that Twister is our only hope then..." she gulped. "Then so be it."
"But Miss Adlis, you heard the stories! They're traitors to Lord Embin, ain't they?"
That much was true. Not only did they break Embin's most sacred laws, the laws of nature, Twisters had disowned the Great Organizer entirely by giving in to the temptations of Embin's greatest foe. As the priests and monks told it, there was no lower form of life on Haroz.
"Well," she said, trying to sound chipper, "Embin works in mysterious ways. Perhaps he sent the Twister to be our guide."
"I'm not sure I follow, Miss Adlis. Why would he—"
"Perhaps this is the Twister's chance for redemption. Helping two lost and helpless travelers like us to get home might be enough for Embin to forgive him."
She turned to look at Za,. and Za looked away, as if he were afraid to let his painted eyes look into Adlis' real ones.
"Well, what do you think?" she asked, folding her arms. "You're in this just as much as I am, so I want to hear what you think."
Za hesitated. "I... I don't think it's gonna work, Miss Adlis. I don't think Twisters ever get forgivin', if you'll pardon me sayin' it."
Adlis sighed. "Maybe not, but that doesn't mean he won't try. Twisters are desperate creatures. If we offer him the chance, perhaps he'll believe us."
"And if he don't?"
"He will, trust me."
Adlis hoped that her voice sounded more confident than she felt. On the other side of the room, Za looked down at the floor with sightless eyes and began to pick at one of his claws. Adlis sighed.
"I can tell you're still not convinced," she said. "If you have something else to say, then say it!"
"It- It's just that..." He looked meekly up at her. "Miss Adlis, he's in jail, ain't he?"
Adlis froze. He had her there. Not only was Kulgan in Everdry's jail, Munn had said that his nephew was going to dispose of him as soon as possible. How did one dispose of a Twister? Would bullets be enough? Or would it take something more gruesome, like dismemberment or burning? The Church of Embin went to great lengths to keep stories of what Twisters were capable of from spreading.
And if Kulgan was still alive, he’d be behind bars with guards everywhere. Failing to rescue him would be one thing, but making an enemy out of the town that had graciously taken them in after rescuing them from the Red Fangs was another. As much as Adlis hated to think it, staying in Everdry until they could spare a guide to help them cross the Taksten was probably their best option. Then again...
She reached up and touched her ears, and the fur turned gray with dread again. No. She didn't have two months, did she?
"We'll have to break him out," she whispered.
Anyone else wouldn't have been able to hear her, but Za was a simmk.
"We have to what?" he shrieked, and then clapped his hands over his mouth. Both of them tensed up, waiting for Mystle to knock their door, asking what was wrong. A minute slowly passed, and no questions came, so Adlis eventually relaxed.
"Miss Adlis, forgive me, but you ain't talkin' sense right now!" Za protested in a softer voice. "You wanna break the Twister outta jail?"
"It's our only choice," she insisted. "We can't wait for them to fix their town, Za. We have to leave!"
"But... Twister... in jail!" Za whined.
Adlis' stomach was turning somersaults inside of her, making her feel like she was going to throw up the meal Mystle had given her earlier, but she made herself smile bravely at Za anyway.
"I know what I'm doing," she lied. "Just trust me and do what I say."
Nodding reluctantly, Za began to gather up their meager belongings and stuff them back into his pockets. Even with the rain and shade, the day had been a hot one, and yet Za never once showed the slightest hint of discomfort in his oversized garment. He seemed perfectly comfortable in what would have made Adlis pass out from heatstroke in an hour. Not that that was strange, she told herself as she crossed the room again. His people were accustomed to climates even hotter than the Taksten desert, or so she was told. As long as he could keep the sun and moon from touching his skin, the temperature wasn't likely to bother him.
Opening the closet, she withdrew the dress Mystle had given her. It was probably the least fashionable thing Adlis had ever seen, more suited to grandmothers than young women like her, but at least it was her size. More importantly, the bottom was more than big enough to conceal her tail. Thinking back to all the days she'd spent with it completely uncovered for all the world to see, she still couldn't help but blush furiously. Well, those days were over, she promised herself. As soon as they got back to Arborough, she would ensure that she never wore anything but the finest clothes in Tassendile.
Father may protest, she thought idly, but that's never been a problem before.
Well... except for...
She shook her head, wiping those thoughts from her mind. Laying the dress on the bed, she raised her fingers to unbutton the nightgown, but then paused.
"Za," she said softly, "turn around, please."
For a moment Za looked confused, but then he did as she said.
Unbuttoning the gown, she let it fall to the floor, leaving her in her undergarments. Even though he wasn't looking, Za's presence in the room —his very male presence— made her fur stand on end, so she hurried to put the dress on. Her rich brown fur was tangled and matted and she wanted nothing more than to spend some time brushing it, but she'd spent enough time looking indecent in front of men already. The slight discomfort of dirty fur was still preferable to being half naked in front of their lusty, hungry eyes.
"Beggin' your pardon, Miss Adlis," Za spoke up, still looking at the wall, "but you know I don't got no eyes, right?"
Adlis' ears turned a shade pinker. She began to lace the dress up. "Even so, Za, it isn't right to stare at a woman when she isn't... proper."
"But how can I stare if I don't got no—"
"If I wasn't afraid you would wake up Mystle, I would have you wait in the hallway. Don't argue with me, Za. This is how civilized people behave."
"Oh, I ain't no civilized person, Miss Adlis."
Adlis sighed. "Not yet, you're not. But that's what we're trying to change, isn't it?"
"Y- Yes, Miss Adlis. Thank you."
"Ah, that's better," she sighed once the dress was fully cinched up around her. Unfashionable though it might be, it was obviously made for comfort. She wouldn't dare be seen in it once they returned to Arborough, but that was something she could worry about once they got there. Giving the slim red dress one last contemptuous look, she said, "Za, stuff that thing into one of your pocket and bring it with us."
"Can I turn around now?"
She rolled her eyes. "Yes, Za, you can turn around."
While he did as she said, Adlis went to stand in front of the door. After a moment's hesitation, she pressed her ear against it, which had returned to its normal brown color, and listened. She couldn't hear anything. A zik's hearing wasn't much better than a human's, despite how much larger their ears were— but she knew whose was.
"Za, come listen at the door," she said. "Tell me if you can hear Mystle moving around out there."
It wasn't likely that an old woman like her would be up this late, even with the celebrations going on outside, but she didn't want to take any chances.
Za, however, just stopped in the center of the room. "I don't need to put my ear to the door, Miss Adlis. I can hear her snorin' just fine from right here."
Adlis blinked in surprise, but then nodded. "All right. We need to get out of here without waking her up. When I open the door, we're both going to creep through the house as quietly as we can, and then leave through the front door. Understand?"
"Yes, Miss Adlis."
"Right, then. Let's go!"
She was still trying to sound confident, but her ears gave away how she was really feeling when they turned gray again. It wasn't Mystle she was afraid of— the old zik probably couldn't stop them if she tried. It was what was coming next. She was planning to break a Twister, the most horrible of monstrosities, out of jail. Then she was going to ask him to accompany them all the way across Tassendile in order to get her home. Her ears turned from gray to green.
It was too late to back out now, though. Taking a deep breath, she grabbed the doorknob and pulled the door open.
"Quietly," she whispered so softly that nobody but a simmk would have been able to hear it. Za nodded, and she stepped into the hallway.
Now that the door wasn't in her way, Adlis could faintly hear Mystle snoring from her bedroom as well. That made a little bit of her tension go away. Judging by the sound, the old zik was fast asleep, and wouldn't be waking up anytime soon. Walking on the tips of her toes, Adlis made her way from the guest room into the living room. Za followed close behind her on clumsier feet. The floor creaked a little with every step he took, but not so much that Adlis was worried they would wake Mystle up. Slowly, step by step, they made their way across the house until the front door stood before them.
"There are still people in the streets," she whispered. "We need to stay out of sight as much as possible. Stick to the shadows, got it?"
Za nodded, and she reached for the doorknob. Just before her fingers touched the cold metal, though, something dropped out of the sky, directly onto her head. Her eyes were covered, and she would have screamed if a gaunt, clammy hand hadn't wrapped around her mouth.
"Miss Adlis!" Za whispered into her ear. "It's just me!"
He released her, and, gasping for breath, Adlis wrenched the blinding object off her head.
"Za," she hissed, "what do you think you're doing scaring me like that?"
He backed away and looked at the floor. "Sorry, Miss Adlis."
"Why did you do that?"
Timidly, he pointed at her hand. With her heart still racing in her chest, she looked down— and found a bonnet clenched in her fist.
Oh, she thought. Her other hand reached up to feel her ears. She had almost walked outside without anything to cover them. If she'd done that...
"Thank you, Za," she whispered. "I'm sorry."
With that, she put the bonnet on her head, hiding her treacherous ears, and reached for the doorknob again. The cool night air blew in, making Adlis' dress ripple, but she stepped outside without hesitation. Za followed her a moment later, looking up and down the street with sightless eyes.
"In the future," Adlis said, shutting the door, "I expect you to hold the door for me, like a true gentleman."
"Sorry, Miss Adlis."
"It's fine. Now, where is the jail?"
"You're askin' me, Miss Adlis?"
She put her fists on her hips and looked around. "Well, this isn't a big town. It shouldn't be hard to find. Come on."
"Finally," Kulgan muttered as he raised the chest's heavy lid to find Zam and Zagyr lying at the bottom. It had been a simple thing to break the lock —he hadn't even bothered to pick it— but every moment he spent without his guns made him more anxious. Not that anyone in Everdry posed much or a threat to him, but after spending time in the Graylands he practically felt naked without a weapon.
He picked the guns up, running his thumbs across their cold dawniron shells, and then holstered them. When he stood back up, he walked a little more naturally. His hips felt so light without them! Walking out of the sheriff's office, he made his way to the jail's front door. He could still hear the townspeople celebrating, but they weren't anywhere near him. Judging by the direction the noises were coming from, he guessed they had made their way to Munn's pub.
The room he had rented was half a mile from here. Kulgan had all he needed to survive with Zam and Zagyr hanging from his belt, but the things in that room had a certain... sentimental value to him. The other Rangers would have laughed at him, had laughed at him, for keeping items with no practical use. In the Graylands, a little bit of extra weight slowing you down could mean the difference between life and death. They weren't wrong, but Kulgan still wasn't leaving without those things.
Besides that, he was still wearing his tattered clothes from when he'd Twisted that morning.
This wouldn't be easy. Even if most of the villagers were celebrating, there would still be others in their homes. He would have to go the long way around, through the alleys and shadows, and just hope that he wouldn't run into an Everdryer returning home. Fortunately, he was a Gray Ranger. He had learned to creep before he could walk.
Making quick work of the jail's lock, Kulgan pushed the door open and grinned.
He loved a good challenge.
NEXT TIME: Kulgan sure is a considerate guy, isn’t he? Adlis is coming to break him out, and he’s already done it for her! Now he just needs to sit tight and let her come find him… oh, wait.