Excerpt for The Gray Ranger: Unforgiven by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Gray Ranger Unforgiven






©Adam Bolander, 2017





Chapter One


The blazing desert sunlight mixed with the vivid green light of Jaminska as the coach pulled into the station. Eight bipedal lizards pulled it, their clawed feet padding softly on the sandy ground, occasionally letting out a caw or a squawk. Twenty people sat in the large wagon's hard wooden seats, sweating and fanning themselves.

"Final destination, Hammeth," the driver, a ruby scaled Kashni called, pulling up on the reins and bringing his kashnilas to a stop. "All off!"

The passengers rose from their seats, muttering gladly. Hot as the Taksten was, it would certainly be cooler outside of the cramped coach than within it. They took their bags down from the overhead shelves, stretching their cramped muscles, before slowly filing out through the door. It was empty within minutes, save for two people sitting in the back seats. One of them was a simmk, dressed all in black with a large floppy-brimmed hat atop his head. He was scrawny despite the voluptuous coat he was wearing, and he turned to the girl next to him, staring at her unblinkingly with the bright yellow eyes that had been painted onto his sackcloth mask.

"Mistress? Mistress?" he asked, leaning closer to her.

She was a zik, her body covered in soft brown fur. The sheer red dress she wore, stained and ripped from their travels, was cut so low that her tail was bare for all of Haroz to see. Her head was resting against the side of the coach, upon which she wore a ratty straw hat that was completely out of place beside her dress. She snored softly, and didn't respond to her nervous companion's whispers. Hesitantly, as if he expected to be struck for it, he reached out and poked her on the arm.

"Mistress, wake—"

"GET YOUR HANDS OFF ME!"

The zik girl sat upright, slapping at hands that weren't there, and the masked creature fell out of his seat, scrambling to get away.

"Mis- Mistress, it's just me!" he squealed.

The zik maiden froze, looked down at him, and lowered her hand.

"Za," she gasped, putting a hand to her chest, "you frightened me!"

Za picked himself back up, gloved hands shaking. "B- B- Beggin' your pardon for that, Mistress, but I think this is our stop."

"Really?" the girl looked out the window, but couldn't see anything but the side of the building the coach was parked beside. "That didn't take nearly as long as I expected." She clapped her hands. "Lovely! Get my bag, please, Za."

"Yes, Mistress," he said, bowing his head as she rose from her seat.

"And I thought I told you to stop calling me that," she snapped. "My name is Adlis!"

Za froze, the young woman's bag halfway out of its compartment. "Beggin' your pardon, Mistress, but it ain't my place to call you by your name."

"'Mistress' is a name servants call their masters. You're not my servant anymore, Za, you're my friend."

"I just don't wanna cause no offense, ma'am."

Adlis turned her nose up with a sly twinkle in her eye. "You couldn't offend me if you tried!"

Za sighed. "Yes, Miss Adlis."

While Za retrieved their meager belongings, Adlis paused by the carriage door and looked down at her clothing. Namely, her tail. While not forbidden, a zik woman showing her tail in public was considered scandalous. Not for the first time, she had to resist the urge to stuff it into her dress. The thin red garment was so thin that the bump it made would be obvious, and only serve to call even more attention to her, like walking down the street with only a towel to cover her breasts.

Instead she turned to Za and asked, "Does my hat look all right, Za?"

"Beggin' your pardon, Miss Adlis," he said, hefting the bag and coming to join her, "but I'm not sure if I'm the right one to ask. I don't know nothin' about style."

"No!" she hissed. Leaning closer to him, she whispered, "I mean, are my ears covered?"

Za stiffened. "Oh, right. Yes, Miss Adlis, they're covered."

Adlis nodded in satisfaction. Even without eyes, a simmk could "see" well enough with their other senses to put most creatures' eyesight to shame. If Za couldn't "see" her ears, nobody would be able to. Taking a breath to steady her nerves, she stepped out of the carriage...

And froze.

"What's wrong, Miss Adlis?" Za asked as he stepped out behind her.

Terror flooded through Adlis' body as she looked around at the barren landscape. Even Jaminska's green light couldn't distort the ocean of pale yellow all around her. Sand. Miles upon miles of sand. Her mouth fell open, eyes stretched wide, and underneath her hat she felt the telltale tingle in her long, pointed ears.

"Za?" she whispered without looking at the simmk.

"Y- Yes, Miss Adlis?"

"Where are we?"

Za fidgeted behind her back. "Um, I think the driver said we were in Hammeth."

Adlis still didn't blink. "And where is Hammeth?"

"Um... well, you know I ain't never been out of Tolk, Miss Adlis, but I think we must be somewhere in the desert."

With her ears tingling again, Adlis rounded on him. "And why are we in the Embin-cursed desert, Za?" she shouted.

A few passersby looked at her, and Adlis clamped her hands over her mouth. Her wretched ears were tingling again. She waited until they had all gone on their way, and then grabbed Za by the arm and pulled him into the alleyway.

"Why are we in the desert?" she demanded again through gritted teeth.

Even though Za was easily a foot taller than her, he cowered with his back against the wall. "I- I'm sorry, Miss Adlis! I didn't know! Y- You just said you wanted to get as far away from Tolk as possible."

"Yes, that's what I said," she moaned, putting her hand on her forehead. "But I wanted to go home, Za. You brought us to the wrong side of the mountains!"

Za was shaking again, his knees knocking together like drumsticks. "I'm sorry, Miss Adlis! Really, honest, I am. I just asked the man at the desk which one was goin' farthest away and bought us tickets!"

Adlis closed her eyes and held up her hands. "Okay, this is all right. We can fix this. We just have to get tickets for another coach. This time, I’ll buy them, Za."

Za wilted. "I'm sorry, Miss Adlis."

Taking a breath to calm herself, Adlis put on the bravest face she could, folding her hands in front of herself like her father's tutors had taught her, and set off back into Hammeth. The ticket desk was a few feet away, and there was only a short line. Adlis took her place at the end of it, Za coming to stand awkwardly behind her, and waited. Another gust of wind blew through the town, kicking up sand and tugging at people’s clothes. Adlis put her hand atop her head to keep her hat from blowing away. Of course they would arrive while Jaminska was in the sky. The bothersome green moon always made the wind act up.

Dear Embin above, she thought, I can feel their eyes on me!

It wasn't surprising. That was why the dress had been made in the first place. That didn't make her hate it any less, though. Silently, she cursed herself for not thinking to nick some changes of clothes before they'd made their escape.

I wonder if Madam Caruzo will send people after me? she wondered. The thought was enough to make her ears tingle again, and she tugged her hat down tighter onto her head. Focus on what's important, she snapped inwardly at herself. If they see your... those things, you'll wish the Madam's men had found you first!

She doubted that Caruzo would waste precious resources trying to find her, though. Not when she had dozens of other girls to take her place. If anything, she probably expected Adlis to come crawling back to her once she found out how impossible the task of getting home seemed.

Well, she can go to the Pit! Adlis thought, her ears tingling with anger. I'll sooner die than go back to that horrid place!

"How can I help you, miss?"

Adlis jumped, startled out of her cynical musings, to find that she was now at the front of the line.

"Ah, y- yes, I..." she stammered. "I'm afraid there's been a mistake. You see, I need to cross the Shi Valen Mountains, but I got on the wrong coach."

The man behind the desk, another zik, shook his head. "If you're going to ask if I can put you on another coach for free, miss, the answer is no."

Adlis’ tail lashed restlessly from side to side, a nervous habit her tutors had never been able to break her of completely. She blushed when she caught the clerk looking at it, her ears tingling in unison with her cheeks, and did her best to make it stay put behind her back.

"No, of course not,” she said, trying to pretend nothing was wrong. “I was just wondering, when does the next coach for Arborough leave?"

"Arborough?" the zik arched an eyebrow. "Can't say I've heard of it."

Adlis frowned. "How could you not have heard of Arborough? It's the biggest city in the Shadetower Woods!"

"Well, that explains it." The zik ducked behind his desk for a second and produced a map. "That's clear on the other side of Tassendile, miss. You're not going to find a coach that'll take you all the way there."

Adlis' frown deepened. "But, then..."

"If you'll just show me where it is on the map, I'll try to find you the coach that comes closest to— whoops!"

A sudden gust of Jaminska's wind nearly sent the map flying out of the clerk's hands. It almost blew Adlis' hat right off her head, too. If she hadn't clamped both hands onto it and held it down with a white-knuckled grip, it would have been carried away down the street.

The zik paused, eyeing her strangely. "Are you all right, miss?"

"Fine, fine, thank you!" she said, managing a weak smile. "Please, you were saying?"

He stared at her a moment longer, and then pointed at the map. "Just show me where you're trying to go, ma'am."

I just went from miss to ma'am, Adlis thought, looking over the map. I wonder what that means?

After a moment she pointed at a spot in the northernmost reaches of Tassendile.

"Here," she said. "Are you sure you don't have any coaches going there?"

The zik looked where she was pointing, and then shook his head. "Ma'am, I don't know how often you leave home, but that isn't how this works. If you want to go that far, you're going to have to take multiple coaches."

"Multiple coaches?" Adlis exclaimed, taking a step back as if he'd just suggested she dump a barrel of spiders on her head.

The zik nodded. "You could take one of ours to here," he traced a finger along a path on the map she couldn't see, "then take another one to... probably here." He tapped the map. "Maybe someone there will take you the rest of the way to Arborough, but even from there a trip like that is going to cost an arm and a leg."

"Miss Adlis," Za said, tentatively, "we don't—"

"Are there any other towns nearby that might offer more accommodating service?" Adlis cut him off.

The clerk frowned back at her, but Adlis didn't care. This was an emergency, and this stubborn zik was only making things worse. Let him think nasty thoughts about her. Soon enough she would be miles away from this Pit.

"The only other town is about seventy miles south," he finally answered, "but that'll only take you even further out into the Taksten."

D'yargo! she cursed inside her head. No, she couldn't very well make the trip even longer, could she?

"Besides that," the zik was going on, "there's talk of..." he hesitated, "bad folks heading down that way."

Despite her situation, Adlis cocked her head. "What sort of bad people?"

He shrugged again. "Can't say. But if what we've heard is true, you don't want to go any further south than this."

Za whimpered, and Adlis didn't feel much better. The line was getting longer behind her, and she could hear the other customers muttering about her holding things up. Her ears were tingling under her hat, but she refused to think about them. She forced herself to keep a confident face.

She gave a long, suffering sigh, as if it were the clerk's fault. "Oh, very well. When is the soonest carriage over the mountains, and how much will that cost?"

The zik checked his ledger. "There's one leaving at sunrise tomorrow," he said. "And it'll cost fifty krellings per passenger."

Adlis froze. "Fifty? You can't be..." she took a deep breath. "Very well. Za, give the man his money."

She stepped back to let the simmk do as she said. When he didn't move, she gave him a sharp look.

"I'm sorry, Miss Adlis," he said, trembling again. "I tried to tell you..."

A pit formed in Adlis' stomach. "Tell me what, Za?"

"We're all outta money!"

A chill ran down Adlis' back so powerful that it felt like she'd jumped into a frozen lake.

He didn't really just say that, her panicking mind told her, grappling for any comfort she could find. That's impossible, because... because without money, I'm stuck out here. And if I'm stuck out here, then...

"Please excuse us," she said without looking at the clerk, her voice numb. Grabbing Za by his wrist, she pulled him none too gently out of line to another secluded alleyway. Once they were out of earshot, she demanded, "What do you mean we're out of money?"

"I'm sorry, Miss Adlis! I tried to tell you, I really did!"

She grabbed him by his coat collar and shook him. "We left Tolk with plenty of money! Where did it go?"

"I- I spent it all on the tickets gettin' here, Miss Adlis." The simmk was practically sobbing now, though he didn't have eyes to make tears. "You s- s- said to get you as far from Tolk as possible, so I did! But the tickets cost everything we had, Miss Adlis!"

Adlis let him go, and he fell to his knees. Turning away from him, she grabbed two handfuls of her hair. "No, no, no! This can't be happening!"

"I'm sorry, Miss Adlis. I should've—"

"I'm never going to get home now!"

Tears rolled down her cheeks falling silently onto the sandy ground below. Her ears tingled treacherously.

"Are you all right, miss?"

With a yelp, Adlis spun around to see another Kashni standing at the end of their alleyway. His ruby scales sparkled in the sunlight, casting tiny red specks across the walls.

"Don't mean to intrude," he said, holding up a placating hand. "I just heard you crying and, er, well..." He scratched be back of his neck awkwardly.

Tell him you're fine, the angry voice inside her head demanded. Make him go away!

She knew the words would ring hollow, what with her being in her current state. Not that it mattered, because she couldn't have forced the words out of her mouth anyway.

"It's nothing, sir," she sniffled, drying her eyes with the fur on her arm. "I'm... I'm just lost, and I'm trying to get home."

The Kashni grunted and nodded. "No wonder you're crying, then. Where's home?"

Adlis took a closer look at the Kashni. Despite his gruff appearance —all Kashnis looked gruff— there seemed to be genuine kindness in his eyes. Adlis dared to feel a spark of hope...

"Arborough, sir," she answered as sweetly as she could. "That's—"

"The Shadetower Woods, right?"

"Uh, y- yes, sir!"

The Kashni chuckled. "I haven't lived here my whole life, miss. I know my way around Tassendile."

Adlis smiled. "Can you—" She stopped, collected herself, and then more calmly asked, "Is there any way I might persuade you to give me and Za a ride there?"

"Mmm," the Kashni scratched his chin. "I can't take you all the way to Arborough, no."

Adlis' spirits fell.

"But I can't just leave a young woman in trouble either, can I? I'm fixing to head out in a couple of hour to visit my nephew in Granitesdale. It's no coach, but you and your servant are welcome to ride along, if you want."

Za perked up. "I'm not her—"

"Yes, yes thank you!" Adlis shouted, dashing forward to take the Kashni's hands. "Oh holy Embin, yes! How can I ever repay you?"

The Kashni cracked a smile. "No payment necessary, miss. Just doing what I can to help."

He turned, his long, thick tail marking a trail behind him in the sand. "C'mon, I'm over this way."

Adlis watched him go for a few seconds, unable to believe her luck. She said a quick, silent prayer of thanks to Embin, then turned to Za.

"Come on," she said, pulling him to his feet.

"Miss Adlis, are you sure this is a—"

She didn't wait for him to finish, dashing after the Kashni with as much dignity as she could manage in the revealing dress she was wearing. Even so, she cringed when she caught a passing man ogling her with wide eyes.

"D'yargo," she hissed under her breath. "As soon as I get a proper dress, I am burning this unholy thing!"

The Kashni stopped in front of another carriage. Only two kashnilas pulled this one, and the kind Kashni rubbed one of their long necks as Adlis approached. It was smaller than the one she'd just gotten out of by far, but it was thin and abnormally long. A row of windows ran the entire length of the carriage on both sides. She paused, a chill running down her spine.

"This is very kind of you, sir," she said, and pointed at the carriage, "but is that..."

"Hmm?" The Kashni looked up. "Oh! Yes, I, uh... I'm actually Hammeth's undertaker. Trullud's my name. I'm afraid this is all I've got in the way of transportation. It might draw a few eyes, but it gets the job done." He gave Adlis a sidelong look. "That's not a problem, is it?"

Adlis blushed. "Oh, no, of course not! I just... didn't expect to be riding in a hearse. No offense."

Trullud laughed, slapping the black carriage so hard that it rocked. "None taken. Nobody does, but eventually they all end up in one anyway. There's no seats in the back, I'm afraid, but there are some curtains you can put down so that nobody's looking at you during the ride."

"That sounds wonderful, actually," she said, stepping up to inspect it closer. She felt the Kashni looking at her, and just like she always did she suddenly became agonizingly aware of how tightly her dress hugged her body, displaying her curves... not to mention her tail.

The Kashni coughed when he realized she knew he was watching her. "This here's Puela and Mag," he said, patting each of the rainbow colored lizards in turn. "A better pair of lizards you'll never find."

Puela cawed, and Trullud stiffened with surprise. Turning to the lizard, he made a strange sound in the back of his throat. Puela responded with an indignant squawk and jerked her head towards Adlis. Adlis eyed them both, frowning. Everyone said that the Kashnis could talk to kashnilas. They insisted it was because they were distant relatives. While Adlis could accept that much, she could never bring herself to believe that they were capable of talking to simple animals. Trullud made the noise again, followed by a couple of sharp caws, and Puela finally turned her head forward again.

"Sorry about that," Trullud said, rubbing the kashnila's neck. "Puela's not used to strangers. Thinks there's something wrong with you."

The Kashni chuckled, but Adlis tensed up, ready to run. "She's a very beautiful animal, sir."

"Ain't she, though?" Trullud put his fists proudly on his hips. "Don't worry, I set her straight."

Adlis nodded her thanks. "This really is kind of you, sir. Surely there's some way we can repay you."

"Bah!" Trullud waved his hand. "If I'm heading that way myself, no harm in taking a couple passengers."

"When do we leave, then?"

"In a few minutes. I just gotta grab the gift I made for— gah!"

Jaminska sent another strong gust of wind through Hammeth's dusty streets, and Trullud raised his arm to keep the sand out of his eyes. Adlis reached up to hold onto her hat— and realized she was too late. It whipped off her head as if grabbed by an unseen hand and went bouncing down the road.

Adlis froze. Oh no.

"D’yargo windstorms," Trullud grumble, lowering his arm. "Wouldn't be so bad if not for the..."

His voice trailed off when he saw her. Terror raced through her veins, rooting her feet to the ground... and turning the fur on her ears white.

"Sweet, merciful Embin," he whispered.

"M- Mr. Trullud," she said, reaching out a desperate hand to him. "It's not what you think. I just—"

"Witch!" he screamed, backpedaling away from her outstretched hand. "Magic! Witch! Witch!"

Not knowing what else to do, Adlis grabbed her suitcase with both hands and swung it with all her might. It slammed into the side of Trullud's head, cutting him off mid-shriek, and he fell to the ground, unconscious.

Za was at her side in a heartbeat. "Miss Adlis, wha—"

"What's going on over here?"

Both of them looked up to see no less than a dozen people come running to see what the commotion was. Her ears tingled again as they turned even whiter. If they caught her... if they saw her ears...

"Za, drive!" she yelled, turning tail and running to the back off the hearse.

Za spun toward her. "Say what now?"

She wrenched the back of the hearse open and threw her suitcase in. "Get in the driver's seat and drive!"

"But that's stealin', Miss Adlis!"

"Hold it right there!" Adlis turned to see a man wearing the dark blue uniform of a marshal coming toward them. There was a gun in his hand. "Don't move!"

That was all the encouragement Za needed. He sprang into the driver's seat like a grasshopper, fumbled with the reins for a second, and then snapped them, spurring the kashnilas into a quick trot. Adlis barely had time to leap into the back of the hearse. The carriage bounced on the uneven sandy ground, tossing her around a bit before she managed to grab the door and slam it shut behind her. She chanced a look behind them— and screamed when a bullet punched a hole in the glass.

"Faster, Za!" she hollered. Za complied, cracking the reins again. The kashnilas sped up. Buildings whipped past them in a blur, but Adlis could still feel the eyes of each and every person they passed. Watching her. Judging her.

They left Hammeth in less than a minute. Adlis watched as the town gradually disappeared over the horizon. Then she reached out, drew the curtains shut, lay down with her eyes covered, and cried.





Chapter Two


"We beseech thee, oh Embin above, wrap thine chains around this cup and bar the way against all that is strange and perverse as I partake of it." Kulgan moved his hand in a ring around the rim of the shot glass, touching his thumb and forefinger together every half an inch. Embin's Chain. He couldn't help but smile ruefully as he raised the glass and downed it in one gulp. If the invocation worked, it didn't work very well. He was living proof of that.

Do it. Drive it into your skin. Pierce!

The feeble light of a candle and a bottle of whiskey were all the Gray Ranger had to chase away the cold desert night, and yet he sweated. His hair, as gray as his title, clung to his forehead with perspiration. He hunched forward over the table, facing the wall, and poured himself another shot. He said the prayer again, as he always did, before draining that glass as well. Useless as it may be, old habits were hard to break, especially ones hammered into his head by the church and its insufferable priests.

The sound of a gunshot came from outside, but Kulgan barely flinched. After a moment's hesitation he filled his glass again, unconcernedly brushing a strand of hair out of his eyes. If they needed him, they would find him.

While his right hand was pouring, his left hand unconsciously wandered down under the collar of his shirt, and he jumped in surprise when his fingers wrapped around the black pendant concealed underneath. Soft and yet sharp, coarse and yet slimy, the small stone was an impossible twisted mess of contradictions, and he loved it almost as much as he hated it. Kulgan drew in a shaky breath, but couldn't bring himself to unclench his fingers. Instead, he drew it out of his shirt and held it up to the candle flame, letting the flickering light dance across its polished black surface.

Another gunshot rang through the night, but Kulgan barely heard this one his attention was so focused on the pendant. Small enough to fit in the palm of his hand and as black as pitch, it looked like a nail forged out of the midnight sky. He ran his thumb across it, enamored by the sensations it oozed into skin. Ugly beyond words, and yet the most beautiful thing he'd even laid eyes on. Putrid, rank, disgusting, and wonderful. There were times he was even convinced it was alive, despite the aura of decay that radiated from it like a cloud of the sweetest sewage.

Almost as if the pendant were whispering to him, Kulgan's eyes shifted to his other hand, still holding the whiskey bottle motionless above his glass, and noticed how the angle made his sleeve slump back from his wrist.

Do it. You want to. Stab it in. Make it bleed. Pierce. Twist!

Kulgan's left hand began to shake.

Do it. Pierce. Twist. DO IT. DO—

"Ranger!"

The gravelly voice broke through Kulgan's trance, and he jumped, spilling whiskey across the table and onto the floor. He blinked, took a moment to gather his wits, and then slipped the pendant back under his shirt just as a sharp rapping came from the door, which swung open with a creak. A large Kashni stood out in the road, and he raised his lantern to see inside.

"D'yargo drunk," he spat in disgust when he saw Kulgan hunched over his table. "This is the fifth time you've—"

"Eighth."

"What?"

"This is the eighth time I've broken into Munn's pub this week, Tikta. You just didn't catch me the last two times."

Tikta hesitated, and Kulgan gave a cocky smile at the wall in front of him.

"You gonna tell me what's going on out there, buddy?" he asked.

The burly Kashni growled, but his shadow didn't move, telling Kulgan that his double barreled shotgun was still pointing safely at the floor.

"It's the Red Fangs," he said at last, like he was reluctant to tell him anything.

Kulgan sat up a little straighter, but still didn't turn around. "Huh. I didn't know they came this far south."

"Does it matter?" Tikta demanded. "They're just outside Everdry, and you know what those pukens do to people!"

"Burning, raping, pillaging," Kulgan counted, "and if they're in a particularly good mood, they might even cook us up and eat us."

The crack of gunfire rang through the night again, and Kulgan tilted his head.

"A Dragonthroat 37," he noted. "Powerful enough to punch a hole straight through any of these walls, and accurate enough to do it from five hundred feet away." He smirked and finally turned to look at the Kashni. "They mean business."

Tikta glared at him, and Kulgan saw how the scales around his knuckles turned a shade whiter as he clutched his shotgun.

"Is that a Tenryvol Thunderstick?" he said, gesturing towards the gun. Tikta blinked in surprise and shifted it to a more comfortable position.

"My pa gave it to me," he said with a trace of pride in his voice. "Her name's Scatter."

"A decent enough gun," Kulgan said. "More than enough to scare off the usual predators that prowl around these parts at night. Against a gang of armed killers it'll be next to useless, though."

Tikta growled again. "What'd you say? Scatter's the best gun in Everdry! She can—"

"Tikta, that scattershot couldn't hit anything more than thirty feet away," Kulgan snapped back, rolling his eyes. "If the Red Fangs ever get close enough for you to use it, you'll probably be dead already."

Tikta's eyes grew wide with trepidation, but he still stood firm. Kulgan to hand it to him, the proud Kashni wasn't easy to scare. That didn't make messing with him any less fun, of course.

The Dragonthroat fired again, and this time it was followed by the sound of splintering wood as the bullet tore through one of the nearby buildings. Kulgan smiled and took a pull from the bottle itself, slamming it back down onto the table before standing up and making for the door. Three more empty bottles were left in his wake, and yet he walked without the slightest stagger.

"Come on, then," he said, patting Tikta on the shoulder on the way past. "Quit lollygagging."

He made his way out into the streets, where the other Everdryers were gathered, torn between their instinct to run and take cover and the grim knowledge that their town had nowhere to hide. The population was mainly made up of Kashnis like Tikta, but there were a few ziks and a couple humans mingling in the crowd. Out of all of them, human or otherwise, Kulgan stood out as the only one with gray hair.

It wasn't often that anyone took notice of a derelict old village like this. To call Everdry backwater would have been an insult to other backwater towns— especially since there was scarcely a drop of water to be found within a hundred miles. It was exactly the kind of place someone would go if they didn't want to be disturbed, which in Kulgan's opinion was the only charm the Embin cursed place had.

Until tonight.

A chilly breeze blew from wide sandy plains, making Kulgan's untucked shirt flutter around his lean chest as he came to the edge of town. The Taksten Desert, at the far southern tip of Tassendile, was as flat as Tikta's personality, and by the blue light of Lishara he was able to see the Red Fang gang clearly, even though they were far in the distance. A campfire, set ablaze by wood they must have lugged all the way across the desert, gave them an orange glow that contrasted eerily with the moon's blue light. More than that, it brazenly displayed how insignificant a threat they thought the Everdryers were. Kulgan huffed in his throat. Annoying as it was, they were right. The one downside to being left alone was that when some Pit-born puken showed up to harass you, they caught you completely unprepared.

"Um, should we be standing up here?" Tikta asked, coming to join him. He had set the lantern down, and was now clutching the Thunderstick in both hands. "If they got a Dragonthroat—"

"How many of the other villagers have guns?" Kulgan asked.

"Just three," the Kashni answered. "Mawth and Jokane have revolvers, and ol' Carn has a rifle."

He pointed, and Kulgan saw an elderly zik clutching a rifle that looked even older than he was. It was made almost entirely of wood and didn't even have a bolt, which meant Carn would have to plunge the barrel after every shot, effectively making Tikta's shotgun the second most useless gun in Everdry.

"D'yargo," Kulgan cursed, looking out at the Red Fangs again. "Fine, it'll have to do. Gather up everybody with a bow and arrow, a sling, anything that can be used as a ranged weapon, and have them form up a line between the town and the gang. Get the women and children indoors on the other side of town, and any man that has... get down!"

Kulgan tackled Tikta just as the Dragonthroat fired again, launching a bullet as large as Kulgan's forearm at the town. It didn't come anywhere near the two of them, but another Kashni twenty feet away wasn't so lucky, and the other villagers scattered when he was turned into a shower of blood and bone. The bullet continued on its path, smashing through the side of the village's schoolhouse, and the whole structure sagged. The Red Fangs howled and laughed like madmen, the sound carrying across the empty expanse of sand.

"And get these Pitting idiots out of there!" Kulgan roared, standing back up and rounding on the other villagers, who were staring at the bloody spot where their neighbor had been standing mere seconds ago. "Do you all want to be smears in the sand? What's wrong with you? Go!"

Tikta seconded the command, and the villagers began to retreat further into the town. As the town’s sheriff, that effectively made him the mayor too. So little went on in this sleepy, sandy town that electing a board of officials would have been a waste of time. Tikta upheld the law, and that was all the authority anyone here needed.

Kulgan turned around and surveyed the town with a disapproving eye. Everdry's thin wooden walls, bleached and made brittle by the relentless desert sun, wouldn't offer the townspeople much protection, especially against a weapon like a Dragonthroat, but at least they would be off the streets. More importantly, they would be out of Kulgan's way.

"So, what's the plan, Ranger?" Tikta asked once the area was clear.

Kulgan scowled into the night, watching the Red Fangs dance around the fire. Two of them struggled to carry another bullet to the Dragonsthroat, which sat atop an uncovered cart. More like a small cannon than anything else, the fearsome weapon could tear the entire town apart by itself if they had enough ammunition for it— and by the looks of it, they did.

"They aren't attacking us," Kulgan said. "Not yet."

"Say what?" Tikta demanded. "They've been—"

"They're trying to scare us," Kulgan interrupted him, warming his hands in his pockets. "I told you the Dragonthroat is accurate up to five hundred feet, but right now they're at least a thousand feet away. They're not shooting to kill, they're just showing off their firepower."

"D'yargo," the Kashni hissed, and this time Kulgan caught a trace of genuine fear in his voice.

"Set up a line of fire right at the edge of town," Kulgan said again. "Then get every able bodied man and find them something they can use as a weapon. Hammers, pickaxes, shovels, anything. Have them wait inside the town just behind the long range fighters, and then... duck!"

Kulgan shoved Tikta out of the way and then dropped to the ground just as the Red Fangs fired the Dragonthroat. This time the bullet came straight for them, but the aim had been so low that it rocketed directly into the desert floor. Lying prone on his belly, Kulgan saw the geyser of sand closing in on him and rolled out of the way just as the bullet drilled a shallow trench to his left, so close that he could feel the heat radiating from its metal shell. With his heart beating in his ears, Kulgan sprang back to his feet.

"You okay?" he asked, giving the Kashni a quick glance.

"I'm fine," Tikta grunted, getting back up with a little more difficulty. Panting, he came to stand beside Kulgan again.

For a few seconds, the two of them stared out at the Red Fangs in silence.

"Well, this' what we hired ya for, ain't it?" Tikta said, and spat a glob of yellow slime in the sand. "I say it's about time you earned your keep."

Kulgan smirked and couldn't help but chuckle. "Are you saying you're glad these maniacs are here?"

"Pit no! But at least we ain't been payin' you for nothing."

"Tikta, you're a shining beacon of common sense. It almost makes up for the fact that your head is full of rocks."

Tikta growled, but kept his eyes on the Red Fangs. Kulgan watched them too. The two who had been loading the Dragonthroat so far had stopped, and were looking at another figure standing by the fire. This one held himself with an obvious sense of authority, and the silhouette of a tall hat sat atop his head.

"That one must be their boss," Tikta said, pointing towards that same figure with his gun.

Kulgan bit back his smart remark and nodded. Tales of the Red Fangs were told all over Tassendile. They were psychopaths, plain and simple. While other bandits gangs were out to rob, pillage, and make themselves rich by any illegal means necessary, the Red Fangs cared more about killing people. If the rumors were to be believed, they were prone to massacring entire towns, and then leave everything of value behind. As sick as it was, Kulgan hadn't been joking about the possibility of them cooking and eating the Everdryers. And their leader... a zik crazy enough to keep a small army of maniacs in line, but also cunning enough to make them the most infamous gang in Tassendile. If half the things Kulgan had heard about him were true, then Embin help this little town.

"You've got your own weapons, right?" Tikta asked.

Swallowing his uneasiness, Kulgan patted the two dawniron revolvers holstered at his sides. "Zam and Zagyr, the Twins Betrayed," he answered. "I know them better than I know my own mother. Don't worry about me."

"It ain't you I'm worryin' about," Tikta snapped, and then hesitantly added, "Anything else? You got any... you know..."

Kulgan gave him a sharp look. "I've got my charming personality, if that's what you mean."

"D'yargo, you're a Gray Ranger!" Tikta yelled. "Ya gotta have one of them fancy necklace things, right?"

Kulgan stayed his hand, which suddenly wanted to jump up and caress the pendant hanging under his shirt, and shook his head.

"Zam and Zagyr and more than enough," he answered, looking out at the Red Fangs again to avoid Tikta's eye.

Tikta eyed him suspiciously, and then growled, "You better be right, Ranger. If I found out we been payin' you for nothing, then—"

"Then it won't matter, because we'll all be dead." When Tikta opened his mouth to argue, Kulgan cut him off, "Now hurry and get the defenses set up before it's—"

A crazed howl came from the bandits out in the desert, and Kulgan snapped his head forward again to see their leader take his hat off and wave it like a flag. Joining him in his war cry, the Red Fangs surged toward the village, the campfire making their shadows dance eerily across the barren landscape. Even from the distance, Kulgan could see the firelight glinting off the weapons in their hands.

"We're too late."





Chapter Three


The Red Fangs' howling war cry rang through the desert night. Tikta held a hand up to his ear.

"What'd you say?" he shouted.

"I said we're too late, you idiot!" Kulgan yelled back, drawing Zam and Zagyr. His heart was pounding in his ears again, but the comforting weight of his guns calmed him. With a flick of his wrist, he ensured that both chambers were full. He kept his guns loaded at all times, but it was better to be sure than to run into battle without bullets.

"D'yargo!" Tikta shouted, raising scatter to take aim at the approaching Red Fangs. Kulgan hooked the barrel under one of his revolvers and tugged it downwards.

"Not yet," he said. "They're still too far away."

"Then what—"

Kulgan didn't hear the rest of what he said, because he leveled Zam and Zagyr out in front of him and squeezed both triggers. Their hammers snapped forward, and two bullets exploded out of the muzzles in a flash of orange fire. Two Red Fangs fell dead in the distance. Breathing in the tang of gunpowder through his nose, Kulgan's blood came alive with excitement and he pulled the triggers five more times, felling ten more gang members.

"Holy Pit!" Tikta exclaimed, looking from Kulgan to the approaching gang. "How'd you do that?"

Kulgan twirled Zam and Zagyr on his fingers before producing more ammunition and reloading.

"We have a word for Gray Rangers who can't shoot," he said, grinning.

"Do I wanna know?"

"Corpses."

Kulgan held out both guns again, but before he could fire he heard the crack of a rifle, and dove to the side just as the sand at his feet caught the bullet that was meant for him. Three more shots followed, and Kulgan couldn't do anything but curl into a ball as the ground around him was peppered with metal and hot lead. The moment the last bullet sank into the desert he sprang back to his feet and returned fire. These shots were haphazard, fired from the hip, more to keep the bandits from returning fire while Kulgan retreated to find cover, but he still felled another three of them. He ducked behind a barrel, meant to hold water when the rains came, but now as parched and brittle as the rest of the wood in Everdry. It was better than nothing, though.

Tikta followed his lead, firing his useless shotgun before taking cover behind the porch railing of the town doctor's office. He was so tall that, even hunched over, his red scaly head poked out over the top. Kulgan rolled his eyes.

"There's too many of them!" the Kashni yelled, flinching when a bullet turned one of the posts near him to splinters. "What do we do?"

Kulgan hunkered down behind his barrel for a moment and thought. It was too late for the villagers to rally a line of defense. Hopefully they were all locked inside one of the more sturdy buildings at the other side of town. It wouldn't protect them much, but like Kulgan's barrel, at least it was something. Once the bandits found out where they were, though, it would be over. The buildings here in Everdry were as fragile as parchment. Breaking down the door and shooting them would be doing things the hard way. It would be easier, and probably more fun, to just light the place on fire and...

Kulgan's head shot up.

"I know what we're gonna do!" he yelled, and turned and ran out from behind his barrel. A few bullets zipped through the air, but he ducked his head and kept running, confident that the bandits wouldn't be able to hit a moving target from so far away. A quick glance at them revealed that they had already closed have the distance between their camp and Everdry. Not so far away, then. He put on an extra burst of speed and then slid across the sand, coming to rest by the trench the Dragonthroat bullet had carved into the ground. Trying to stay as low as possible, he dug his fingers into the coarse sand and grabbed the bullet, hissing in pain when the still-hot shell burned his hands.

"What d'ya think yer doing?" Tikta yelled, scrambling to hide behind the barrel Kulgan had just abandoned. "Yer gonna get yerself shot, ya puken!"

Ignoring the pain, Kulgan wrapped his fingers around the bullet and yanked it out of the ground, showering himself with dirt and sand, and toppling over backwards when it came free. Another bullet whizzed past over his head, and Kulgan sucked in a breath. He was in a bad spot, but he needed the shell. Rolling over onto his belly, he got to his knees and hefted the gigantic bullet in both hands. It weighed less than it would have before being fired, but it was still a good forty pounds, at least. Getting shakily to his feet, Kulgan hurried back to cover as fast as he could go.

"What the Pit do you want that for?" Tikta demanded as soon as he'd ducked down behind the burly Kashni.

"You'll see," Kulgan said, gasping for breath. He leaned back against the wall, allowing himself a few seconds of rest before picking the shell up again. Luckily, the cold night air had cooled the metal, but his hands were still going to have blisters once this was all over. "Follow me!"

Setting off down the street in the quickest waddle he could manage, Kulgan lugged the bullet into Everdry. Tikta followed with a grunt of confusion, ducking when another shower of bullets came flying at him. A quick glance backwards told Kulgan that the Red Fangs were almost to the edge of town. They had seconds left. Looking around, he spotted a two story building rising above the other shorter ones. It was the only one in Everdry with more than one floor, used as an inn whenever a very, very lost traveler wandered into their ramshackle little town.

"Come on!" he yelled.

"What're you planning?" Tikta asked, jogging past and spinning around to face him.

"You're in luck," Kulgan grunted, setting the shell on the ground. "Looks like you're going to get to use Scatter after all."

"What're you—"

The screams were so close they were almost deafening.

"When I give the word, fire!" Kulgan ordered him, having to shout to be heard. "And then we both hightail it into the inn, got it?"

"I guess."

A swarm of Red Fangs ran past the alley with their eyes fixed manically in front of them. They would have gone right past without noticing either of them had Kulgan not whipped out Zam and shot one in the head. The ones behind him skidded to a halt, some of them tripping over their fallen companion, before turning face Kulgan. Tikta took a hesitant step back.

"Do I—"

"Not yet!" Kulgan snapped, picking the shell up again and stepping back with him.

With a howl of rage, the Red Fangs charged at them, the narrow alleyway forcing them to bunch together and run in rows of two and three— just like Kulgan wanted.

"Tikta," he yelled at the top of his lungs, and flung the shell into the air, "fire!"

He dropped to the ground just as Tikta pulled the trigger, but kept his eyes trained upwards, not wanting to miss what he had planned. Sure enough, the scattershot from Tikta's shotgun struck the Dragonthroat bullet point blank, launching it the opposite direction almost as if it had just been fired from the Dragonthroat itself. It rocketed down the alleyway, punching holes straight through the first five Red Fangs it met and bowling the ones behind them over like tenpins before finally coming to rest out on the main road.

"Ha ha!" Kulgan crowed, springing back to his feet and pointing at the mess he and Tikta had created in a rare moment of exaltation. "Did you see that?"

Summoned by the gunfire and screams, more Red Fangs warily peeked their heads around the corner. The manic lights in their eyes had faded for a few seconds.

Kulgan spread his arms wide in challenge. "That's right, you pukens! We did that! What're ya gonna do about it?"

A wave of anger so potent that Kulgan could almost smell it rippled out of the bandit horde, and one particularly brave zik stepped out to aim his revolver at Kulgan— and then fell backwards with a hole in his head.

"That one, I did by myself," Kulgan said, blowing smoke out of Zagyr's muzzle.

The bandits stared at him for a minute, as if they weren't able to comprehend what he was doing. The Red Fangs killed people, people did not kill the Red Fangs. Then, as one, they abandoned their cover and charged into the alleyway again. The Dragonthroat shell was still in road, the way blocked by more than a dozen gang members and unarguably out of Kulgan's reach, so instead the Ranger spun around and ran further down the alley.

"I'm out of ammo!" Tikta yelled as he ran past, his golden eyes opening wide with terror for the first time all night.

"Then you'd better not let them catch you!" Kulgan replied just as the wall beside him exploded in a shower of splinters.

Tikta hesitated only a moment before chasing after Kulgan, the murderous outlaws a few steps behind them. He could hear the Kashni muttering panicked curses under his breath, but he still obediently followed him into the inn, as planned.

"Leave it open!" Kulgan said when he saw Tikta pause to slam the door shut behind them.

Tikta hesitated, but then tore his scaly red hands away from the door and chased after the zik, who was making for the staircase. "How're we gonna take cover in here if we leave the—"

"We're not here to take cover."

"WILL YA QUIT INTERRUPTIN' ME!"

Kulgan ignored him and dashed up the stairs, pausing only long enough at the top to make sure the Red Fangs had followed them in. They had, and the inn's lobby was already flooded with dirty, foul smelling bandits. Ducking to avoid an onslaught of bullets, Kulgan drew Zam and quickly fired a round into one unfortunate Kashni's chest, and then bolted down the hall. Tikta followed, spouting profanities when a bullet clipped his long, musclebound tail. Down to the end of the hallway they sprinted, and Kulgan kicked the door open. Tikta barreled in a second later, and Kulgan slammed the door behind him.

"I think that went well!" Kulgan cackled. His blood was on fire again. How long had it been since he'd felt this way? Too long.

"That was your Pitting plan?" Tikta roared, rounding on him. "Get us trapped up here like a couple rats?"

The door shuddered as a Red Fang outside threw himself against it, and Tikta hurried to slide one of the beds in front of it. Then, after a moment's thought, he threw the chest of drawers in front of it too.

"Calm down," Kulgan said, moving over to the window. "We're not trapped."

Pulling Zam out of its holster, he took it by the muzzle and smashed the window.

"Do you have a flint?" he asked, holstering his gun again.

"Yeah," Tikta reached into his pouch and produced it. "Why?"

Kulgan snatched the flint out of his hand and knelt on the floor, immediately setting to work. He struck it three times, throwing sparks out across the inn room's floor, before the wood finally caught fire. After blowing on it to strengthen the flames, he stood back up with his fists proudly on his hips.

Tikta looked from the smug Ranger to the fire on the floor and shook his head. "There's something wrong with you, Kulgan."

"We'd better get out of here before we get cooked too," Kulgan said, already halfway out of the window. He braced both feet against the wall and dangled there, taking a few seconds to look out over the town. He could see flashes of gunfire further down the road, but at least the inn seemed to be the only one on fire. The next building was only a short distance away, which was one of the reasons Kulgan had chosen the inn for his trap. All he had to do was jump, and—

Or you could fly.

Kulgan sucked in a breath. Oh no...

Pierce. Twist.

Kulgan shook his head, trying to banish the unwelcome voices.

Do it. Do it!

"Get movin', ya idjit!"

Tikta's voice broke through Kulgan's silent argument, and he flung himself across the gap between buildings. He hit the roof and rolled, his momentum carrying him back to his feet again, and when he came to rest he had both guns out of their holsters. Tikta came flying out after him a few seconds later. Having elected to jump through the window instead of climb out, he brought a shower of splinters and broken glass with him, and Kulgan had to dive out of the way as the falling Kashni came crashing down. The dried wood of the roof proved too weak to support his weight, and the burly lizard suddenly found himself with his top half outside, while his legs dangled uselessly from the ceiling.

"D'yargo!" he exclaimed, scrabbling madly with one against the roof while the other clutched Scatter, refusing to let it go. "Help me, will ya? I'm slippin'!"

"Pitting idiot," Kulgan grumbled, holstering Zam and Zagyr before grabbing Tikta's outstretched hand and hauling him back onto the roof. Once the Kashni was safe, Kulgan turned and regarded the inn. The flames had spread fast, as he'd known they would, and already more than half the building was ablaze. The cold desert winds were warmed by the raging fire, and Kulgan smiled when he heard the Red Fangs' screams of agony coming from inside.

“Holy Embin,” Tikta whispered, and made Embin’s Chain around his heart.

"Come on," Kulgan said, jogging to the side of the building. "Let's make sure none of them make it out."

Before Tikta could reply, he hopped nimbly over the edge and landed on the wooden awning that extended over the building's front door. Another jump put him on the ground. With revolvers already in hand, he ran for the inn's door, or what was left of it, and fired just as a bandit came running out. His clothes and fur were burned off and his skin was a sickening shade of black. He wouldn't have lived for much longer, but Kulgan's bullet put him out of his misery anyway. Kulgan took up position outside the door, shooting two more bandits as they tried to fight their way free of the flames, and then reloaded his guns. To his right, a second floor window exploded, and Kulgan shot the Fang before he’d even hit the ground. A second crash came from Kulgan's other side, and he spun around, but then lowered his guns when he saw it was only Tikta smashing through the same awning Kulgan had just used to climb down. Kulgan rolled his eyes and turned back to the burning inn.

The entire gang wasn't in there, probably not even a quarter of them. The rest were still running rampant through Everdry. Once Kulgan was sure these ones weren't going anywhere, he'd have to hunt down the others down as well. He'd have his work cut out for him and, if he were to be honest with himself, he didn't expect the village to last till sunrise one way or the other. Still, it would be worth it. He grinned at the flickering flames as another bandit screamed his dying breath. Life was suffering, after all. It was only fair that he would get to spread it around now and then. Tomorrow morning, assuming he was still alive, he'd gather what he could salvage and—

The fire rose up off the building.

"What in the Pit?" Kulgan exclaimed, taking a step back.

Like a great orange bird rising from its nest, the fire flew up into the sky, leaving the inn's timber charred and dilapidated, but cool to the touch. They hung there in midair for a few seconds, thirty feet above the ground, as if showing itself off, before curling around and circling the area in a long, snakelike stream. Kulgan's initial shock wore off, and he tightened his grip on Zam and Zagyr. This was something he had seen before, more times than he could count. He just hadn't expected to see it tonight.

The culprit wasn't difficult to spot. Standing in plain view at the other end of the street, the zik in the top hat obviously wasn't even trying to hide. And why would he, when had a giant river of fire up in the sky obeying his every command? Kulgan took a hesitant step forward, Zam and Zagyr held defensively out in front of him, and squinted against the light of the fire when it swooped down to form a pillar behind the bandit leader.

"And mighty Embin brought ruin to the houses of his enemies," he said, arms spread wide, "and he did rain down fire and ice upon them. Blessed be the name of the Organizer."

Kulgan looked down at the zik's arm, and his heart started beating harder when he saw the jagged, glowing red lines that crisscrossed his wrist, like the veins under his skin were filled with fire.

"I wish I could say I was surprised," Kulgan said, his eyes raising to meet the zik's stare, "but having a Scorcher in the Red Fangs would actually explain a lot."

The bandit cackled and reached into his shirt to withdraw a pendant. Like Kulgan's, it narrowed to a needle-sharp tip, but this one glowed with the same scarlet light as the zik's wrist.

"You mean this little thing?" he asked.

Kulgan's eyes narrowed. "Who'd you take it from?"


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