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 in the back 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 with a squeal

"Mis- Mistress, it's just me!"

The zik maiden froze and looked down at him.

"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, and grimaced at the way it left her tail completely exposed. While not forbidden, a zik woman showing her tail in public was considered scandalous. The males were allowed to leave theirs bare, but women were expected to wear dresses that either covered them entirely, or else had a sleeve sewn into the fabric for ir. Not for the first time, she had to resist the urge to stuff it beneath the hem of her dress and wrap it around her waist like a belt. That idea was quickly discarded. The tiny red garment was so sheer 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 endless 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 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 bouncing chest 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. The carriage 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 it, "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 kashnilas in turn. "A better pair of lizards you'll never find."

Puela cawed, and Trullud stiffened with surprise. Turning to her, 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 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 actually capable of talking to common 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, turning 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.

NEXT TIME: That's Adlis and Za, everybody! The first two parts of our mismatched trio. Be back next week to meet the final part, Kulgan the Gray Ranger.