She came awake in the hour before dawn, her ears tuned to something just below the range of hearing. She squatted by the cold remains of last night's fire, chewing mechanically on a strip of jerky, never taking her eyes off the beetling brows of the ridges to the east. As the sun rose, she broke camp and set off towards the west again. The sounds were clearer now: marching footsteps, jingling tack on the horses, the clanging of armor. The Corps. Ten miles away, she decided, maybe 20. It was hard to tell. The desert sands and scraggly outcroppings of rock changed sounds, belying the distance between things. Tieburl's forces couldn't be more than three hour's travel away, anyway.
Lilith trudged on, the sun beating mercilessly on her back. The battered cowboy hat she wore - souvenir of a long-dead father - shaded her face from the sun but not from the sandglare, and before an hour had passed she had slipped on her sunglasses. She walked at a steady enough pace, only stopping every few hours to drink from the battered canteen at her side before going on.
By the time the sun had set, the next settlement was just visible beyond the next set of ridges, perhaps three days' journey. Less for the Corps. Their vanguard was horse-mounted, able to travel faster than Lilith could. Lucky for her Tieburl had sent most of his beasts north. Were the majority of the Corpsmen mounted, they very likely would have been sent ahead of the main forces. As it was, they were still managing about five miles for her every four.
Lilith set about making camp as she had been doing for two weeks, ever since her stolen crawler had run out of gas. She had left it in the ruins of some one-horse town outside Memphis. Damn thing had only lasted a day and a half, anyway. Tieburl wasn't as smart as he thought. The machines of the past might work . . . until the underground gas tanks ran dry. There was no way to manufacture more. Hadn't been since the Y.
But none of that had any relevance to Lilith's situation. What mattered was the here and now, and the problems left behind by the past meant nothing to her. She had a job to do. She could worry about such things after she had reached the Western settlements.
The night was cold, but Lilith did not notice. A gunslinger could ignore discomfort, if she so chose, and if she had reached a high enough level of the khef. At seventh, Lilith was able to transcend cold and thirst and hunger, and only respond to these sensations when her body required. As it now did not, she paid the cold no mind, but lay down by the fire and immediately went to sleep.
Her sleep was dreamless, as it always was, and she knew nothing until the morning. As if by signal she awoke, and the first thing she noticed was that the Corps was closer. She did not have to wonder what the not-so-distant sounds were. However, she continued westward, heeding them no mind, her mind focussed on her quest. Funny, as a child she'd had no idea she'd be instrumental in saving the world one day…
Days, weeks of travelling, and now she was nearing her goal; each rise she breasted, each dune-covered road she crossed brought her closer. It was said the Corps ruled everywhere but in the West. During her stay in this world Lilith had lost many comrades to the legendary Western settlements, to the allure of rebel status against Tieburl and his followers. It was for the most sorely missed of these comrades that she was making this journey; it was for him she was travelling thousands of miles, with nothing but her thoughts for grim company.
He had been her lover; he had been her friend. Now he was her savior-elect, the one man who might stand a chance of bringing some peace to this war-torn land. She had no guarantee he was even still living, since anyone who had ever fled West had then disappeared forever, as far as those under Corps rule had known. Even if he was alive he might want nothing to do with her and what she wanted. Their parting had been less than amicable, he wanting to return to what they had had, she protesting that was impossible, that something gone could never be reclaimed. Yet wasn't that what she was seeking now? A journey of three thousand miles, most of it on foot, with a hostile army close behind, and for what? So she could tell her former lover that it was up to him to set things right, to turn the clock back a couple centuries and undo the horrors of the past.
"You're asking him to erase the Y itself," she muttered. It was not the first time she had thought such. It would not be the last.
She walked, she camped, she awoke the next morning at the usual time. The Corps were right on top of her, by the sound of it. She glanced at the dunes to the east, idly expecting to see Tieburl's forces appear: thousands of men, armored and armed with the most powerful weapons known, all with the sole purpose of killing her before continuing on to destroy the Western rebels. The horizon remained unbroken by man or beast. They were not that close yet. Soon, though.
Lilith walked into the next settlement just after sunrise. A sign reading "Welcome to F'nax" in neglected gray letters, a general store, a few desultory farms, a honky-tonk bar from which sullen piano music issued. She went straight for the bar with no hesitation. If anyone in this nowhere town knew anything about the Western rebels, she'd find them in here.
The bar was about half full, perhaps two dozen rough-looking townsmen, who sat silent and watched her as Lilith approached the bar. She knew the run of their thoughts, of course. She was not stupid. Their suggestive leers crumbled one by one as they noticed the shooters she carried. Guns were a rare commodity, and anyone carrying them certainly knew how to use them.
She pulled a silver coin from her pocket and slammed it down on the counter. "Beer," she called to the ‘tender, a short man with a decidedly weasel-like air about him. He grinned at her for a moment, but under the weight of her silent stare he suddenly turned and disappeared into the back.
She turned around to face the others in the room. "Looking for some information," she told them. "I'll pay for it."
As always, there was the inevitable comment from the back of the room. "Anything else you'd like, sugar?" General laughter from all assembled. Same as every place she asked. Business as usual.
Lilith turned her head and took up the bottle of beer that the ‘tender had plopped down beside her. A glance told her the weasel had thought to show her up by tightening the cap on the bottle; again, not completely unexpected. She brought the neck of the bottle down against the scarred bartop, popping the cap easily. The ‘tender glared sullenly at her as she drank deeply of the watery stuff.
She set the bottle back down, her back to the others. Suddenly, with no warning, she drew one revolver and spun around, aiming with thoughtless accuracy at the man who had crept up behind her. "I suggest you sit back down, sugar," she grinned.
"I need information," she repeated to the others as her would-be attacker retreated sheepishly. "You can give it willingly, and be repaid in coin, or you can be difficult." She reholstered her gun without taking her eyes off her audience. "Your choice, boys."
Their eyes were sullen, opaque. They were not used to having their fun interrupted, and they would not let her leave without making sure she knew it. F'nax, Heuss'tn, Sanlus, Nash. In every town, always the same.
The lone dissenter against the surly silence was younger than most of them, without the look of desperation that his fellows shared. His tablemates glared at him from beneath lowered brows; he would be in their black books for some time, Lilith reckoned. So.
She met his gaze levelly, and spoke to him alone. To the others, her novelty was palling quickly. They would not heed her any longer. "Depends on how good the information is."
He nodded. "Fair enough."
As he rose from his seat, the grizzled farmer next to him grinned and spoke. What he muttered, Lilith did not hear, but the others erupted into sneering laughter, glancing at her slyly out of the corners of their eyes. They did not matter. None of it mattered, except that she and this one man do business, and she then continue on her way. Her quest was her only consideration.
She strode out of the bar without a single glance back, and her informant followed. There, away from the too-wise eyes of the bar's patrons, she turned to face him.
What caught her attention about him was the way he looked at her: his eyes bore back into her own, unclouded with fear or the crude male self-assurance she had seen so many times in her life. He stood in the dusty main street of the town, clothed in the garb of a field worker, his dark hair scruffed across his forehead, but his eyes were clear and certain. He might have made a fine gunslinger, had the wheel of ka turned differently.
They faced each other in the street of that dying town, and some deep part of her stirred and spoke in her ear. And, hearing that inner voice, she roused herself to speak.
"I've journeyed many years," she told him. A dry wind moved across the street, sending litter gusting everywhere, fluttering her hair in a disgustingly melodramatic way. She dismissed it. "Many years, and none to share the journey. But the path is long, and it is harsh. Especially to one travelling alone."
She stopped; his look had changed. He no longer regarded her with the same bland appraisal. His eyes had darkened, had clouded with that same emotion she had seen so very many times. He was thinking, not of her quest or her money, but of his desires. The voice inside her, that deepest core of self that she trusted most with her gunslinger's senses, was still, but she knew all the same it had been right. That voice was never wrong where her quest was concerned. His needs and wants would bow to it, as many had before. Did it matter? It had all been written, and would go as ka wished it to. She could ask no more than that.
"To the Western Settlements."
"Dangerous place to be."
"For a woman?"
In his darkened eyes was the same shameless lust, the same animal hungering she was by now so weary of. Years of travelling, and a thousand men like this one. And by the gods, it was tiring.
"There is the matter of the information I need."
He licked his lips. "Of course."
She rummaged in her bag for an instant before withdrawing a small, creased fotter-picture. He seemed to forget his desires as he leaned closer, his lips parted slightly in amazement. Nobody had cammers anymore…but Lilith had known one who did. Perhaps he still had it, wherever he was.
"I'm looking for this man," she told him evenly.
He glanced at her, and his eyes laughed slyly. "Your lover?"
The word fell upon the desert air, harsher than the sand that would scour the bones of the dead in this part of the world, and he returned his gaze to the picture. "What's he to you?"
"That be none of your ken." She flicked the fotter before him one more time before returning it to her bag; an instant's glance of dark, tousled hair, laughing eyes, impressed itself upon her vision. A shred of an earlier time, when the Consolidation had been but a myth in Lilith's part of the world and there had been other things to be besides a gunslinger; there had been innocence, of a sort, and mayhap even contentment…
She nodded. "I'd share this knowledge, if would were could."
Her informant waved a hand off towards the West. "He comes from there, perhaps once a fortnight. Buys some of the useless scrap the smithy turns out." He sneered, the veneer of reserved intelligence she had seen in the bar now gone. Spirit of a gunslinger or no, his character had been well soured by the decay of his peers. "We call ‘im the trashboy; aye, he takes the name willingly, fool he is."
She resisted the impulse to draw, and concentrated on the task at hand. She fell into the Low Speech with practiced ease. "How long ago he be in?"
"Couple days, mayhap."
Lilith nodded. "Very well." She turned and began walking towards the west end of town. Seemingly as an afterthought, she looked back over her shoulder at him. "Coming?"
His steps sounded in the dust behind her as she turned back towards the setting sun. Eager, like a dog's. He was looking forward to a bounce around the campfire tonight, and why not? She was not a beautiful woman, but she would most likely do for him in a pinch, she reckoned. Her mouth turned down in disgust at the thought.
But she was not worried about what might befall her later, for that was the job of ka; she simply looked to the now. And now, as he followed close behind her, there was a dry snap, followed closely on by a high whinging sound, and the thunk of wood hitting flesh.
She turned and was not at all surprised by what she saw. The weasel from the bar stood in the road, a broken bow in one hand. The arrow which had been the last flung from this deadly relic jutted out of her informant's back. His blood splattered in the dust as he fell. Had he not been behind her, it would be her blood spilling upon the road, her breath and heart and life ending in an inglorious instant. But he had been there to take the shot, and the ‘tender would fire no more. Like a small animal (aye, mayhap even a weasel), he turned and ran, and Lilith let him go.
So that was F'nax.
No one followed her from the town, and when the sun set hours later she slept, unafraid of ambush. There would be no pursuit. The Corps would have arrived in F'nax, and the townspeople would do quite well to satisfy that horde of thousands without taking the effort to come after her. Her informant would be buried along with whoever did not survive Tieburl's arrival, and she would be forgotten.
The morrow dawned hotter than the yestereve. Lilith's view was blurred by sweat as she strode endlessly towards the West; as the sun reached its zenith, she was forced to take refuge in the shade of a stunted palmer. She allowed herself only a short pull from her waterskin, and sat watching the shadows of the dunes around her until she judged it was about three o'the clock. She had no clock on her. Hadn't seen one for years.
As early evening turned to late, and that to night, she walked. And as she walked, she tried not to cast her mind back to the past, as preferable to this as it had been. This was all she had to cling to now, her thankless searching, her great quest. Better bitter reality than belladonna illusion, he had been fond of saying, before he had left. Another one of his affectations. Better to step into the clearing with eyes open, to eschew the lure of surrender and walk the path as meant. To remember the face of your father, but to remember your own as well. And to stand true.
Days melted, one into the other, oceans of featureless sand surrounding her. She did not know how long she had been between F'nax and her goal. Perhaps one week later, perhaps two, perhaps twenty years, she stumbled over yet another dune that lay across the road, and at its summit beheld something she'd not laid eyes on for quite some time: smoke. A single ribbon of it, rising from somewhere over the next hill, perhaps from a cooking fire, perhaps from a chimney. Smoke. And where there was smoke, there would be a settlement. Perhaps the Settlement. The West.
The end now nearing, her quest close to its end, Lilith found her pace slowing. What was the use of going on? He was dead. He was alive, but not here. He was here, but would have nothing to do with her. He would laugh in her face, her purpose dashed in an instant, and the world would thus end; not with a bang, but with a cheated dying whimper.
She continued on. There was nothing else to do, after all, and what if he was not here? She could search him out were he fled to the ends of the earth. What if he did refuse to hear her? He would listen. He might be the wiser, but she was the one who had completed her training. She was the one who bore the guns.
That night her sleep was plagued, for the first time in years, with the dreams of ‘mare. The guns dangled in front of her, the face of her father far from her mind. "Catch them, catch them and make them your own," a voice whispered in her ear, "Come, any puling maggot can do it!" And she reached for them, leaping to grasp them, but as always they vanished, and as she fell the voice boomed around her, "Failed gunslinger! Failed gunslinger! Failed gunslinger! Failed -"
But the guns were real; she awoke with them in her hands, and their heft and weight gave her strength, as they always did. Ka had given them to her, and ka would see her through her quest. She packed up and set out, her scuffed boots leaving tracks in the sand for the moonlight to fill. She went on, her pace steady and deliberate, and the sun was nearly set when she finally walked into the Western Settlement.
It was dead. The knowledge struck her with grim finality, and she stood in the center of the town square, her bag and waterskins slung in an ungainly pile by her feet, gazing with weary eyes at the ruins around her.
Half the settlement had been destroyed in a fire untold years ago; the charred buildings still stood, their windows unblinking eyes. The very few still standing were in various states of decay - smashed windows, collapsed roofs, holes in the walls. He was not here. How could he be? No one could live here; the town was dead. But the smoke -
She turned about in a circle again, this time scrutinizing the buildings more carefully. As she did so, from the upper-story window of what must have once been a hostel came a flash of light, as if reflected off moving glass -
She was off in an instant, charging up the rotten front steps of the hostel with guns drawn. Inside, she pounded up the stairs, shouting, "You're covered! You're covered! You're covered!" The door at the head of the stairs exploded in a storm of woodchips as she kicked it in.
Inside, a boy of perhaps 12 stood facing the window, his hands in the air, an old pair of binocks in one of them. Guns leveled at him, Lilith moved closer. "I'm a gunslinger, and right now I've got both guns aimed at you. I want to know where the Western Settlement is. Now." She stopped an arm's length from him. "Turn around."
He did so, slowly, the binocks still clutched in one of his hands. Her guns were the first thing his eyes fastened on as he did so, and at the sight of them - six rounds each of death in grinning steel - he paled visibly. His first attempt to speak produced little more than a moan.
His eyes flicked up to hers, saw no mercy there, and fixed on the guns again. He swallowed and tried again. "The - the Settlement? There be no -"
"Where is the Settlement? Tell me now!"
"Well, there's no need to shout at the poor boy." The voice from behind her was wry, somewhat amused, and infinitely familiar. She spun around to face the speaker, her guns still held at the ready. He leaned relaxedly in the broken doorway. The small smile on his face did not falter for an instant, though it would be impossible to miss at this range should she choose to fire. His dark hair fell unattended across his forehead. They stood that way for perhaps half a minute, in tableaux, she in firing position, he regarding her with nonchalant good humor.
At length, Jerent spoke. "So, you finally showed up."
It was she who moved first, dropping her arms, reholstering her guns. He merely gazed back at her from under his tousled hair with that same mildly amused look on his face.
"Go," she said to the boy over her shoulder; and, giving her one last fearful glance, he moved from his position by the window, sidled along the walls of the small room, and dashed out the doorway, binocks still trailing from his hand. She ignored him.
"What mean you by that? Ye'd no idea I was seeking you."
Jerent stood up straight, and his face broke into a broad grin. "Oh, but I did, dear girl, I knew exactly when you'd left. The Oracle is a fascinating person, really she is. You'd be amazed the sort of things we learn from her…" He looked at her more closely, and his grin widened. "No, I take that back. You're never amazed at anything."
He took a step towards her, and Lilith resisted the impulse to step back from him. He stopped, though, as if sensing her discomfort, and merely looked at her again, the grin smaller now, more reflective, but still undaunted. After a moment or two like that, he turned and walked from the room. Lilith listened to the sound of his feet on the stairs, and numbly followed. This was not going at all how she had thought it would, and, gunslinger or no, she was finding herself hard-pressed to remember her father's face, when that of he who had been so dear to her was so much closer in space and time.