Outside the hostel waited the boy. Jerent slung an arm around his shoulders, and smiled imperturbably at Lilith as she came down the front steps. "Been a while, hasn't it? Ye've not changed a bit, though - still impulsive, still not cautious enough for a gunslinger."
She glared at him from beneath the brim of her hat. "What would ye know of it? Ye never claimed your guns. Ye're not a gunslinger any more than Tieburl."
His smile finally dropped. "So it is. But I know more of gunslinging than you ever will, Lilith. I was training for me guns - "
"Before I was born. I know. I've heard that too many times for it to matter."
The boy shrank behind Jerent; his pale eyes fixed on Lilith with fearful wonder. She looked back at him thoughtfully for a moment, then spoke to Jerent. "The boy be your spawn, I'm sure." Full of bitter humor, and a species of jealousy she had thought long dead. Nearly maddening was the urge to draw her guns and make sure that smug grin of his would never resurface again. Dammit, if she didn't need him…
Her hands did not so much as twitch, and Jerent did not notice how close he had come to stepping into the clearing that lay at the end of his own meandering path. Instead he was laughing, shaking his head wisely, the same way he always reacted when she said something stupid. "You silly girl, didn't you ever listen to anything I said?"
‘Mayhap I didn't, for I certainly don't remember you ever saying goodbye."
Gods, what was she doing? She gritted her teeth, angry at herself. Only the world was at stake here, and what was she doing? Acting like a lovesick teenager. Then one of her hands accidentally brushed the worn butt of her gun, and she relaxed again. Ka. ‘True, and ye've to believe I've regretted that these seven years. But the rebels needed me. And if I had stayed -
"‘Tieburl would ha' killed you. I know what happened that day." Her stare was angry, unforgiving. "I was the only one that survived when he came after you."
Jerent shrugged. "What can I say? That I'm sorry? It won't bring back the dead. Ye wouldn't believe me if I told you how many nights I've spent awake, wondering whether I was careless - whether I could have stayed hidden from Tieburl longer - but I've learned to accept the past. Mayhap you should do the same."
"Accept it - or forget it?"
He was silent.
"B'ngra is gone, Jerent. Obliterated. Tieburl is not one to be crossed. He came looking for you. You weren't there, so he had to content himself with loosing his army upon the town itself. By the time they were done, there wasn't a cottage left standing."
"You should have heard the screams of those who burned inside their homes."
He nodded heavily. "I have, every night. In my dreams." He then turned and began walking off, heading west along the dead town's main road, the boy at his side. After a moment, she followed.
He lead her out of the ruins, past the leaning hovels that marked the outskirts, into the wastes of desert and sickly shrub. She began to fancy that there was indeed no Western Settlement: just a lone madman, wandering the deserts in the sometime company of a twelve-year-old boy with binocks. Her pace never slowed. Ka. Always ka.
She awoke as the crawler came to a halt in total blackness. Jerent's voice sounded from her left. "This is where we store the crawlers. We walk from here."
She followed his footsteps across the interior of what must have been a huge building, until suddenly a rectangle of glowing light appeared before her. A doorway, she realized as her hand came up to block her eyes from the glare. Jerent held the door open for the boy. He did not even try to do so for her. He knew she would refuse the courtesy.
The night outside the building was bright, lit by seemingly millions of stars in the sky overhead. The small lantern that the boy had produced from somewhere was entirely unnecessary, but rather than chide him for his wastefulness, Jerent only smiled at the whelp, and motioned him on ahead the dirt path that wound through the sickly stands of palmers. Within a few seconds, the sound of his footsteps had faded under the night noises. She and Jerent continued down the path alone.
They walked steadily for perhaps ten minutes, following the sometimes nearly invisible path that lead through the ever-thickening palmers. Once Jerent stopped for a moment, and turned back to look at her, seeming as though he might speak. But after a searching glance -- one which she returned with her own flat gaze -- he merely turned back to the path.
Just as the path seemed to disappear completely -- even with her gunslinger's senses Lilith could not discern it among the undergrowth -- Jerent pushed the leaves of a particularly stunted palmer aside. "After you, m'dear?", he asked jokingly. He moved through the opening he had created, and Lilith followed, holding the leaves up with the flat of one hand while shading her eyes against the sudden onset of light with the other.
Beyond the stand of trees, a series of huge concrete buildings sprawled, looking ancient but well-kept all the same. Bonfires grouped about the perimeter of the complex burned brightly. Several dozen slightly ragged individuals watched their emergence from the undergrowth.
Jerent turned to her, and laughed when he saw the flat disbelief in her eyes. "Aye, it's the Western Settlement. You're here at last, after a journey of however many miles -- what, three thousand? Four?"
"Somewhere about that number, I wot."
He grinned. "Not what you expected, is it?"
She shook her head slowly, and followed once more as he set off towards one of the smaller buildings. "I expected something much smaller than this, to be sure. What was this place? Military installation?"
"Yeup. Quite a lot of them out here, but this was the only one in near this good condition. Fifteen concrete buildings, still standing solid after all this time." They had reached a metal door set in the wall of the structure, and he turned to face her, one hand on the doorknob. "We've some of the standard wooden hovels in the center of the complex; I'll lay wager that's what you were expecting to see."
He laughed again. "Aye," he repeated, but without mockery. He then opened the door and went inside.
The room beyond was small, but well-kept. Two ragged chairs sat near the burning fire, and pictures of people who were probably two or three centuries dead lined the walls. He gestured to the less dilapidated chair, inviting her to sit, then brought two mugs over from the side of the fire. She took the one he offered, and sipped at the contents, unmindful of what secrets the brew might contain. He'd no more poison her than he would himself.
"Chicory," she said, somewhat surprised. She'd not had it in a long while.
"The beverage of choice about these parts." He dropped down with a sigh in the other chair, and put away half his drink at a draught. She sat silent, watching the flames, waiting for him to speak first. She'd have to be careful of him now, lest he refuse to aid her. She could not afford that. He was the only one living with the knowledge to master the Mainframe…
She quelled that line of thought. There was still a bit of time, yet. Let him have his say before she asked him to save the world.
He glanced at her sidelong, the corner of his mouth turned up wryly. "Giving me a few minutes to collect my thoughts before you hit me with your reason for coming out here, eh?" When she snapped her head around to stare at him, startled at how he had read her, he chuckled. "Aye, I'd say we know each other's tricks rather well, even after seven years." He sighed again and settled back in his chair, his eyes not leaving her face. "Ye ever wonder what we missed those seven year, Lilith? What might have been, had I stayed behind?"
Jerent sipped at his chicory, not replying, not meeting her gaze any longer. She glanced at the ceiling for a moment, as though to draw strength from the cracks that ran across it, then fixed him with her pale eyes. "I don't waste my time wondering what might have been, Jerent. I'm more concerned with the present and the future than the past. It is as it is, and nothing can change it."
"True," he replied, staring at the flames. "What's done is done, what's dead is dead." He glanced at the guns, silent harbingers of death held close to her sides in their oiled leather holsters. "I have to admit, that was one thing I never could reconcile with my idea of you - the fact that ye've killed with those things. Killed many, too, I wot." He met her gaze again. "D'ye ever regret it?"
She shrugged dismissively. "'Tis Ka. A gunslinger knows it, even if most don't. Ka does as it will, and it be not my place to try to guess it out."
"And in all the years ye've had your guns… did you ever meet another who followed Ka? Another gunslinger?"
She started to speak, then frowned. "No. Never another, though for a time I did search. I think I might be the last."
Jerent's gaze was sharp on her now as he rose from his chair and walked slowly to the small window set in the thick concrete wall. He had seen her begin to reply, though she had cut the words off before they could be spoken. Lilith cursed her momentary lapse. She had not come here to tell the story of her journey, she had come to -- but it was no matter, or none she need concern herself with, anyway. Ka at work once more.
"There was one woman I had thought was a gunslinger," she said. "By the time I realized otherwise, she was dying in front of me.
"I think that's the only death that's truly sat ill of me in all these years." She stared moodily into the mug of chicory in her hands, not looking up as Jerent paced back and forth before her. He would not mean to pry, no, but neither would he rest until he'd the full story out of her. It was his way, and he was as set in it as she was in hers, wasn't he? Aye, of course. As ever it had been.
"Ye're not content to let me keep it, are you? You've to hear the story or suffer the lack of it?" Her voice was flat, but perhaps he noticed the irony lurking just beneath the surface, for he grinned sheepishly and ducked his head.
"Am I that predictable?"
He leaned against her chair, still grinning. "So. Are you going to make me suffer, my dear, or will you take pity on me and tell me about this woman?"
Lilith sighed and set her chicory down on the rickety table at her side. "Fine. I'll tell ye the tale, since ye'll not rest till I do." Then she surprised herself by speaking her earlier thought aloud: "It is your way."
Lata, the woman in black, stood before her, the chase at an end, the final showdown come. Ka had been with Lilith this time, had brought her to this strange and unexplained objective. Was she to die at the hands of this woman? She did not think so. She had a feeling Ka had plenty more in store for her.
"Hello," the woman said, her dark eyes full of silent smug laughter. Quell your laughter, lady gunslinger, Lilith thought. Quell it lest your laughter quell you.
Aloud she said nothing, but merely met the gaze of the other levelly. "Hile to ye."
Lata smiled elusively, then cast an appreciative glance at Lilith's guns.
"Have you drawn lately?"
"Lately I've had no need."
The voice of the woman in black was silky, like a cat. One with claws. "We came so close the last time we met. Do you remember?"
Her own voice, flat, betraying no hint of emotion: "Yes, I believe I do."
"We should have finished it."
"For what purpose? There would have been one less gunslinger in a world which already has too few."
The woman in black nodded slowly. Then she looked straight into Lilith's eyes, as though she hoped to spy out the other's weaknesses there. "Didn't you wonder, afterwards, which one of us was better?"
"I did. I still do."
Lata looked at Lilith's guns again, seeming to admire the ancient weapons. Her own gun looked to be of much poorer quality, for all that it hung from a fine leather holster. There was a time when no true gunslinger would dare soil herself with such a badly-made machine. But the world had moved on.
"What must I do to call you out, darling?"
Lilith smiled thinly. "I think you would have to prove yourself an enemy of the forces I serve."
Her opponent in this growing battle of wits laughed merrily. "And how do you know I am not?"
"No true gunslinger ever was."
That silenced the woman for a moment. Finally she tossed her head, sending her dark curls flying, and asked, "What if I were to draw right now?"
She stared at Lata with honest surprise. "Turn your gun on another gunslinger? Ye'd be damned, for one."
The other smiled slyly. "But you would have to pull your weapon... would you not?"
Lilith spoke slowly, all but sure her words would fall on deaf ears. She had a feeling no answer she gave would cease this woman's thirst for blood. "I've sworn not to use the guns for anything which would not serve the great Purpose... and I suppose that includes the murder of a fellow gunslinger."
Again a moment of silence, both of them still as statues, facing each other at a distance of perhaps five yards. The wind -- not too dry, they were not in the desert yet, though it was not far away -- moved restlessly about them, tugging at their clothes and the woman's wild mane of hair. "I see. I am very disappointed. I believe if we fought you would die beautifully, if I defeated you... and should you have beaten me... you would help me die with grace and style. Someday." She turned, as though to go. Lilith doubted that was her intention.
"It is better there remain more of us in the world," she called grimly, her hands wanting to stray to the guns, to draw, to kill this foolish woman who dared to call herself a gunslinger. "To rid it of those who do not deserve to remain drawing breath."
As the words left her lips, the other woman suddenly whirled about, drawing her cheap gun and snapping into firing stance in one fluid motion. She fired, but Lilith was already out of sight, safely crouched behind a nearby stand of rock.
"I will not fight you unless I have to, for to do so would damn me, by all I have been taught," she shouted, knowing it was useless. This woman was mad -- had to be, for what other purpose would she have to kill a fellow gunslinger?
A shot ricocheted off the rock, as though to drive the point home.
Lilith tried one more time, knowing already that it was useless, that she would have no choice but to draw. "Is your honor worth so little to you, then? Or were you not taught by one who respected the ancient ways?"
The woman in black started to reply, but her voice was cut off by the harsh bark of a rifle. "What the -- " Lata spun towards the sound, just as the unseen rifleman fired again.
Lilith heard, unmistakable in the half-second after the rifle report, the sound of a bullet striking flesh.
She peered cautiously over the rock, and watched as the woman dropped to her knees. Whoever had fired that rifle must have had the eye of a hawk. The bullet wound lay directly over the woman's heart. "Lilith!," she cried in a strangled voice, her smug self-assurance gone.
Lilith looked about, trying to discern the whereabouts of the unseen bearer of the rifle. "Were you followed here by some enemy?"
Lata seemed not to have heard her. "Help... me... I'm, I'm... dying."
She came out from behind the rock and knelt by the dying woman's side. Mad or not, she had been a gunslinger. For that alone, they were comrades, at least at this last moment. "I cannot help you," she replied flatly. "I've no healer's powers."
The woman in black turned frightened eyes to her counterpart. "Please... I'm frightened. Don't let me die, not alone!"
Gods, thought Lilith. She's not a gunslinger at all, is she? Just an apprentice -- that's why the guns she has are so shoddy. She'd no business engaging a true 'slinger, right mind or no. Aloud she only repeated one of the many lessons she had been taught. "No gunslinger is ever alone, if they've the faces of their fathers firmly in mind."
Lata brought her arms up weakly, trying vainly to staunch the flow of her blood. "Please..."
Lilith thought for a moment, then remembered the medallions she wore around her neck. She grasped one and removed it carefully, the gold chain winking in the sun as she did so. James, it read. Loved of family, loved of GOD. She pressed it into the dying gunslinger's hand.
"This was given me long ago. I've been told it has the power to watch over one's soul, even in the worlds beyond this one. This is all the help I can give you."
The woman in black looked up at her fellow. She was very close to death now, and her voice was a mere whisper. "It would... have been better, better if this was your bullet... in me. At least then..." She winced in pain. "I'd have known who..."
Lilith nodded grimly. "Ka permitting, I'll discover whose bullet that was."
Lata reached for her hand. After a moment, Lilith returned the gesture. The dying woman grasped Lilith's hand gratefully, squeezed it once, then closed her eyes. "Go... go now. 'There is... is no fear... in dying alone.'"
Lilith rose and resumed her journey, not looking back.
She turned to him where he stood behind her chair, his face painted with the dying flames of the fire. "And are ye well satisfied with the tale, Jerent?"
He merely looked back at her for a moment, his eyebrow raised in that disbelieving way she had come to know so well. "Let me see if I understand this. This woman tried to draw ye into a duel on numerous occasions -- knowing that one of you would die, since there never was a duel between 'slingers, even apprentices, that didn't end in death. She then fled across the southa'd baronies, and you pursued her for some reason -- you're not even sure what that reason is. She tried once more to kill you, then, when someone took her out first, she acted as if it were completely undeserved." He was pacing again, gesturing grandly as he registered his opinions. "And, what catches me most of all is the fact that ye gave her one of the medallions that you've been so careful of all these years, and promised ye'd find the assailant!"
She interrupted quietly. "I did no such thing. Merely stated the truth - that if it was the will of Ka, I'd find him."
Jerent waved a hand airily. "But to her, it sounded like a promise." He dropped down beside her. "And you don't know why you had to face her? You just blindly followed after, trusting in Ka to keep you alive for whatever it was that you had to do? I just don't understand it, Lil. Is this some gunslinger thing that I'd get if I'd my guns, or is it just something with you?"
She sipped at her chicory before replying, eyeing him over the rim of the mug. "Still trying to analyze me? I thought you'd given up on trying to figure out the human race, and decided it was just inherently mad."
He grinned cheerfully. "Oh, it is, no question of that. I just can't resist a lost cause."