Thanks to Stephen King, a story inspired by his Dark Tower series.
The gunslinger hiked along the rusty tracks and far behind him, a man in black followed.
The heat was oppressive. The gunslinger felt like he was standing at the base of a giant sized terra cotta roasting dish, like the kind the old servants had used to make roast chicken. Just the thought of the succulent food sent a wave of moisture to his parched lips and throat. For the countless time that day he uncorked his waterbag. Not time for water, he thought. Then took a small swig anyway. The red canyon walls to either side of him reached to a cloudless azure sky. He thought that the tall walls would give him relief from the direct overhead sun by now, but time worked strangely these days. The world had moved on. By the sun it should be only about two in the afternoon. It was just starting to lower enough for thin shadows to draw on the hard stonewalls. His legs told him he had been walking for much longer, that it was well past the dinner hour. The sun had risen incredibly fast that morning and had hung there, showering him with bright heat for the following hours. Two weeks on this path, following the rusty Northline Station to East Irondale rail lines had shown him that relying on the sun for the time did him no good.
He stretched his back. As the gunslingers call it, his gunna was stored in an exterior frame backpack he had picked up in a looted store called Rei’s. On his hips were his five-shooters. Ball and casing guns, the kind Wild Bill would have recognized if he had lived in this where and when. The two black steel and yellow brass weapons were tied neatly to his hips and always loaded. As the last of his line these weapons were as important and central to his character as Arthur’s sword or Cuchulainn's lance. The rest of his wear was a mixture of western, and college outdoorsman. He wore old work jeans, but his worn cowboy boots had been replaced with modern leather hiking shoes, with bright yellow accents. He found they were more breathable on his feet than any shoe from his where or when. His shirt, a thin cotton plaid of tan and light blue he wore open, it was stained with trail dust and sweat. On his head was a battered canvas hat he found at the Rei’s. Light and cool he had left his old leather hat on the floor of the store with out a moment’s hesitation. It was thin fabric, but kept the much too resident sun off his bronzed face. The most striking contrast between his five-shooters on his hip and the rest of his mismatch of modern hiking gear were the bright red sunglasses that fit on his face like slashes of glass. The only article of clothing truly from his original when and where that he still wore, besides the irons, was a leather satchel that always hung over his left shoulder, despite the discomfort sometimes caused.
His face was young when he started his walk, out of the kingdoms his kind once protected. Now it was pot marked, dried from sunburns and tired. His age would have been difficult to guess from the appearance of his face and any guess would have been wrong. Time was working differently, days and years were becoming interchangeable.
He sighed, feeling the weight of his gunna and his mission more heavily on his shoulders then anytime he could remember. An unsettling feeling had taken root in his psyche and without constant maintenance those roots could spring branches of doubt that could mean death in a close fight. To a gunslinger, a hardened warrior-knight who relied on his own supernatural reflexes and abilities for survival, he knew any doubts or weak mindedness could be fatal. The one pursuing him would have no such doubts and would certainly never hesitate. He wiped his brow and settled in, his legs said he had walked for much to long today, but as long as the sun was up, he would keep moving.
The gunslinger found that walking in the center of the canyon, right down the middle of the train tracks was difficult work. Trying to step on every splintered and sometimes heat warped cross-timber was hard to do. He had come close to twisting his ankle. So he walked parallel to the tracks, off to the side on what could have been a dusty access road for motor coaches, before the world moved on and the King ruined all. His footsteps in the hard pack clay were all the sound in the canyon, the old saying “a place that time forgot” was ringing in his ears. A trained trailsman and survivalist he would have expected to hear the occasional bang from rocks tumbling off the nearly shear walls. Instead, he was alone and the only source of sound as he walked. Up ahead the canyon began a slow turn to the south. He thought he was walking west, but the sun was starting to set to his left. Directions like time were falling apart too.
Around the bend he saw what he first took to be an illusion. Stuck in the middle of the canyon, sitting on rusty tracks he saw the back of a train caboose and to the side of it an ancient water tower. He froze, letting his gunslinger’s eyes and trained ears pick up any threat. After weeks of the same food, no sound but his own and nothing to look at but red rock walls, dusty hot earth and the monotonous visual stimuli of a ruined set of train tracks, he knew his reaction to danger could be dulled. The caboose was at least half a mile up and around the slow curve, yet when he focused his eyes he could pick up details on it like the make of the lantern (Coleman) hanging motionless off the back eave. He saw the windows were caked with dirt, hiding anything within the car. It was made of wood and had once been painted red. The sign on the back was the logo he recognized from the train station in the last town, Union and Santa Fey Railroad. Looking at the back half of the car, he was suddenly filled with a dread that was preternatural. Not something learned, but something that the ‘slinger had come to count on. I don’t have much, but my guns, my luck and a healthy dose of paranoia, he thought as he walked forward.
A welcome breeze began to stir the two-week beard he had developed as he approached the caboose. As he walked, more was revealed. The water tower, built out of weathered and sun bleached timbers stood within 20 yards of the tracks. The paint had long faded from the circular reservoir on top of the stilts. And it wasn’t long that his suspicions were confirmed, the caboose was still attached to the last train it had traveled with. Ten passenger cars were stacked in order along the track. A sailor would recognize this instantly, any sailor that had seen a ghost ship, he thought. The passenger cars had been built to match the style and design of the caboose, probably the other way around, he thought. On the sides of the cars were the large yellow U. and S. F. railroad logos, faded but visible. All the windows were darkened with accumulated interior dust. Not a sound escaped from the cars, he was still alone with the sound of his feet and now his breathing and heart rate.
The canyon widened here and along the walls he saw out buildings, one was a two-story rest depot. A place where conductors would trade out and sleep in apartments above the small offices on the first floor. Finally he saw the engine car, it also matched the design of the passenger cars and the caboose with the exception that it was obviously made of solid metal. On the side of the engine was the bright yellow insignia with black triangles that he recognized from times long past. Just the sight stirred emotions in him. This was an atomo drive train. His alert guard suddenly dropped as he approached the engine, how old is this train? Atomo drive was out of fashion before the world moved on. He had though that his father had once owned an atomo drive car, but that was when the gunslinger had been very young. No one knew how to fix them when he was a child and only the very old people could even remember hearing stories of how they were built.
He took his eyes off the engine to look at the reason why the train had stopped where it had. A crossing rail had fallen down in the path of the train, just before a gorge, perpendicular to his canyon. The cool breeze he occasionally felt on his face was blowing down from the snowcapped peaks a long distance on the other side of the gorge. He passed the train’s engine and stopped, feet from the edge of the gorge and looked down. It could have been miles, the river at the base looked to be the width of his finger from where he stood. At the edge he could see across to the far wall, where grotesque looking, half-bird half-lizards had roosted, and were circling out from their rock wall homes. They looked to have wings spans at least twice the width of his full height and were covered in black and gray leather skin and short spiky black feathers. The liz-irds gave him no mind and he hoped to keep it that way. The one consistency between all of them was the sharp claws on their feet and on the thin fingers at the tips of their wings.
From here he saw the real reason the train had come to a stop where it had. The black iron bridge that spanned the wide crack in the earth had come apart at its center. At sometime repair supplies had been built up on the far side, but so far no one had made an attempt to fix the section that had fallen away. As the wind blew through the iron trelliswork it made a lonely whine. He hooked his thumb in his waistband and turned around, looking back down the canyon. Then he looked up at the shear walls. This will be it, after all this time we will meet again. His gunslinger’s mind could find no immediate options. He knew his adversary was only days behind him, at the most. The sense of dread and completion that had been weighting him down since he set out from that last town looked to be correct. Here I will make my last stand and he will kill me. The gunslinger set his jaw and for a moment listened to the faint moan of the wind through the ruined bridge, the unnatural mutant screeches of the liz-irds and his own breathing.
In the span of a heartbeat he had registered the sliding of metal on metal as a door somewhere in the train opened and his hands, a blur, had drawn his five shooters. His heart was only halfway through the second compression as his finger tightened on the trigger, removing the slack and his eyes focused his aim on the head of the man that walked out of the engine’s steering house. As his heart valves began to open and draw in new blood his mind registered that this would not be a threat, and stayed the tension in his index finger. In his sights was something he had come across before, not in his homeland, but on his journey. A robot stepped through the door. It was man-sized and unlike some of the others he had come across it was covered in a waxy skin in an attempt to make it look more human. The effect was to make it look just human enough to be ghastly and unnatural. Its glass eyes swung towards him and it quickly raised its hands in the air. He wore the black and white uniform of a conductor, all the way up to the silly hat.
“Hail traveler, no need to shoot,” it cried, in a synthesized male voice that sounded clicky in a way the gunslinger couldn’t describe. When the thing talked just its chin moved to simulate the moment of lips and jaw. Again the designers missed their mark, trying to make the robot seem more human, made it look less.
The gunslinger lowered his weapon just an inch, taking the bead off the head of the machine and more towards its chest. His experience told him that robots were made of tough stuff and a couple metal balls in the chest or head would likely just make it mad. If the damn thing can get mad, might not want to find out.
“We have come to a bit of a problem,” it said, “luckily our forward track sensors worked just as they were designed and saved us all. Thank the beam for North Central Positronics, bringing tomorrow’s advances to the world.” It paused and did an opened mouth version of a smile. Something about it made the gunslinger edgy.
“If you are a passenger on the train I would ask that you return to your cabin, we will be getting underway as soon as I give the signal for the bridge repairs to begin,” the gunslinger frowned.
“You waiting for Harvest Night to let them know the bridge is out?” he asked. His voice, so long unused sounded raspy to his ears, but the sarcasm cut through just as he had hoped.
“We are waiting for a paying passenger that we are to pick up here, as soon as he arrives we will repair the bridge and be on our way,” the gunslinger went suddenly cold.
“Who are you here to pick up?” He asked, hoping that the answer wasn’t what he already knew it was.
“A paying customer, he should be here in three days,” the robot attempted his smile again, failing to look anything close to human. It took out a gold pocket watch, flipped it open, nodded once and closed it. “Been a while, but looks like the wait’s almost over. Three days and counting.” He slipped the watch back in his pocket.
The gunslinger was so taken back he had slowly lowered his gun another few degrees, “How will you know him?” Now his voice was raspy not from the days of non-use, but from the weight of the current events.
“He will be dressed all in black and will be garrying ‘ard steel on his hips, a gunny if you ‘ken,” the robot responded, the last parts coming out like a trail dusted hick, slurred words with none of the robotic tics. The gunslinger’s stomach knotted, how did it know? The watch, you’ll need to get your hands on that.
“Where is the train headed after you pick up you passenger?”
“Fremen Station and all points west, final stop Discordia,” Land of the King. All hail the King, the gunslinger thought.
The gunslinger took a few steps forwards towards the robot, readying his weapon, “I mean to kill your passenger when he arrives,” he said grimly, “Will you stand in my way?”
“I am bound not to injure another human being, so I would not injure you if that is what you mean. I would offer that the rules of the land, set by the King, all praise, state clearly that murder is a capital crime. I am bound to record and report all criminal activity that happens in or around the train. Especially on U. and S. F. property,” it said, with a singsong quality the gunslinger neither liked nor trusted.
He approached the first ladder at the front of the engine that would take him up to the gangway the robot now stood on. It ran the length of the engine and was made for maintenance. Although access to the atomo drive was from the inside of the crew compartment, located at the back of the engine.
The gunslinger’s stomach growled, “Got any food up there,” he said, starting to climb. His sense told him immediate danger did not exist.
With impressive dexterity the conductor moved toward him down the gangway, “I would ask you not to climb that Sai. No one is allowed on the engine without prior approval from a division level manager. You did not indicate that you are a paying passenger, so you will also not be allowed on any train cars,” it said, a simulated scowl on its simulated face. The gunslinger stopped and reached into his bag. Memories flooded back to him as he touched the foil ticket in his hip bag.
The village had once been a major train juncture, before the world moved on. Now it was empty, save a few mutie dogs that he had managed to avoid as he walked down the wide, once paved but now cracked, streets. He had crossed a grassy plain to get here. This land had become drier and hotter as he made his walk. He had seen the town from the top of the hill and ever since had been making his way towards it. From the vantage point he could see that one of the rail lines had gone directly from the main station into the broken land before him. It would be a good and easy path to follow through the shattered land he was approaching. So he had walked into the village. Thousands could have lived here once, but like everywhere else evidence that the King had been through greeted him at the furthest outskirts of town. Dry human bones were littered across a field that was also littered by nearly a dozen motor coaches. His gunslinger’s eye could tell where the residents of the town had modified them to turn ordinary civilian vehicles into something that would pass for a tank. Their vehicles, made to act like tanks, had not been very effective against actual tanks, from the evidence at hand.
It had not been hard to find supplies in the town, another indication that when the King’s men came through the people still lived here. Otherwise he would have found the houses emptied. Instead he was hard pressed to find a house that didn’t have bleached skeletons lying throughout the place. Most of the houses still had a meal of some sort at the table, or at least dishes containing dried up and dusty remnants. Perhaps the King had simply used some of his air poison on this town. There were burnt out buildings and motor coaches in the streets that were black and gutted from fire as well. A first strike then with his gas, then he let his armies march through to finish the job, wearing their plastic suits and protective masks, he thought. It turned the gunslinger’s stomach.
He stocked up at a convenience store. Finding plenty of food in sealed cans that were still good. Not wanting to spend any extra time in the village then possible he slept only a few hours in the shadows at the back of the store, then was back out on the night darkened streets, using his internal compass (the only kind that still worked the majority of the time) and made his way to the train station. He walked through the dusty lobby and passed the ticket counter, still manned by roboticals (without the human not human skin). One of the robots still had light behind his eyes, so the gunslinger walked over to it. The dim night-light seemed to gather on its metallic face and get recast, strangely amplified.
“Good evening,” the manbot said
“Evening,” the gunslinger responded, “got a map for the U. and S. F. through the shattered lands?”
“No sir,” the robot responded, “but that is a special route we are still selling tickets for, if you hurry you might still be able to catch it.”
Catch a ride on a train? That would put some distance between us.
“4 dinero for the one way, 7 for the round trip.” The gunslinger fished into his gunna and pulled out some coin, money had moved on just like the rest of the world and since he wasn’t sure which where and when he was he put a handful down on the counter, hoping the robot would accept it.
“The Crown Coin is always accepted by U. and S. F. rail sir,” it said, pulling out the coins that it needed, it looked up at the gunslinger, standing alone in the dark. “Would that be a one way or round – “
“One way,” the gunslinger said quickly, he was getting nervous. He was an easy target standing in the lobby the way he was, talking to a robot that had half an inch of dust on his moth eaten suit coat.
“Here you go Sai,” it said as the printer somewhere under his desk impacted the foil ticket. The robot reached for a cardboard envelope in a slot that was empty on his desk. Then like a mime opened the non-existent envelope and placed the real foil ticket inside, then slid the non-envelope covered ticket under the security bars to the gunslinger. “Track fourteen Sai, hurry so you don’t miss it. On behalf of U. and S. F. rail lines, we thank you for your patronage.”
The gunslinger took the foil ticket, noticing that it was stronger then he would have thought from its thickness and met the steel stare of the robot, “Can you tell me what happened here?”
“I wouldn’t know Sai, I am only a Model Number 3320-553, ticket clerk specialty robot. I apologize for the limitations in my design,” the crimson light swelled behind its eyes and it said, “Yar, the King’s men did whip ‘em up good, he did.” The gunslinger turned and walked quickly away from the ticket booth. He pushed open the rusty doors on the back of the lobby and found lines of trains trapped forever under the steel roof of the large rail station. Following the numbers he turned his head to track fourteen and saw that it was empty.
His fingers closed on the thin foil and brought it out, recognition flashed across the robotic face of the funny dressed Conductor.
“Oh,” it said with a few clicks under the voice, “I see that you are a paying customer, welcome to the U. and S. F. rail –“
“Enough, I have heard that before,” the gunslinger said, handing the ticket up to the Conductor, keeping his finger taunt on the trigger with his other hand.
“The galley open?” He asked, walking back towards the train, still on the ground.
“I am afraid the galley has been closed since we stopped, Sai. All passengers have been retained in their compartments until we get moving again. For safeties sake.” The Conductor said. The gunslinger turned, paused in mid-step.
“How many paying passengers on your train?” He asked, darkness spread across his face.
“We had a full train, Sai,” it said with what the gunslinger thought was an air of pleasure, “290 men, 75 women and 42 children under 5.” It stood above him on the gangplank showing no reaction to what it had just said. The gunslinger looked at the long train, realizing now that it was a rolling tomb. Had the windows been darkened by dirt, or by the spirits that still lived there?
The brutal sun had passed over the far canyon wall in the time that he had been talking to the Conductor. Without a word the gunslinger turned and walked away towards the square conductor’s building. It sat peacefully near the edge of the gorge and at one time flowers grew from well-tended planter boxes along the front walk to the door. He wasn’t sure how he knew that, things just came to him, but he knew. The two windows on either side of the door were not as grimy as those of the train, he saw to some relief. As he approached it became obvious that the lower floor was built to be an office area. He tried his hand on the door, and it opened with a creak that he had come to expect from every door he opened since the start of his journey. The age of well-oiled door hinges had apparently ended.
The lengthening shadows outside seemed to draw the light out of the square building. He entered into a waiting area that had a large desk. The desk was like that of a hotel, which greeted whomever walked through the door. There was a cash register behind it and he was grateful no robot tending it. To his left was a small office, which had been emptied of all contents except the wooden desk and a couple chairs when the last station chief left. He was sure it was a Station Chief, because that’s what is said on the office door. On the wall next to the office door was a switch that he had seen before. Curiosity being what it is, he walked across the dusty floor and flicked it up with his index finger, the upside down mushroom shaped light fixture in the center of the lobby glowed with orange light. He smiled to himself.
A hallway led to the back of the station, around the hotel desk and past the office. He passed a staircase and another one of those switches, which he found illuminated the staircase when he flicked it up. The back room was a galley. Most of the cabinet doors were opened and the cabinets were empty. Along the wall to his right were a sink and a stove (he thought). To his left was a lot of counter space, a large ice chest and a wall with a door in it. The wall on the far side of the galley had two large windows and another door, all in direct line with those of the front of the square building. Those windows looked out on a garden area, with a lot of dead and dried up plants and shrubs. One lonely dead tree filled the back left corner of the lot.
He walked to the door on the left wall confident of what was behind. There was a switch on the wall, which he again pushed up. A thin bead of light escaped under the door the instant it was in the up position. With his left hand he opened the door slowly, his right still gripped his iron. No noise escaped the pantry as the door opened. The walk in food closet was lined with evenly spaced shelves all around the inside walls. On some of those shelves he was happy to see there were food cans, and boxes. He reached out and picked up a blue box with a picture of bent yellow tubes on the front and a kid happily woofing them down. His iron went back in its holster in a quick flick, and he tore open the box, disappointed to find that the food inside had gone bad. All the yellow tubes were now pale cream colored and had apparently dried out to the point of being completely inedible. They might have been good if that kid liked them so much. Best not to eat out of a box that you can’t read the letters on, though.
He placed the box back on the shelf with the others and grabbed some tin cans that all had a green man standing on the front with his hands on his hips, and a faded picture of green spears (as he would call them), behind him. He briefly wondered if he was going to be eating vegetables mixed with some kind of green human mutie meat, but then thought he would probably be okay, so grabbed as many as he could carry and left them out on some open counter space. It’s all open counter space.
Returning to the stores, he grabbed a bag of cornmeal and a few cans with letters that he recognized. Canned meat was never the dish that you hoped to find, but with a stomach that was growling louder by the minute he figured he could make something work. A secondary benefit of canned meat (probably the only one) was that in a world that had moved on one knew immediately if the contents had gone bad. Immediately. He returned one last time and grabbed a few more staples, he wanted the white powder in the Red Indian can, he knew that from his when and where and returned to the kitchen.
It took him mere minutes to find the light switch for the kitchen, figure out how to get the stove top hot, find a can opener, drop his heavy gunna near the door and get started on a meal that would surely satisfy. Trusting that the water that came out of the well pump out back, his can of green giant meat and spears and his meat and cornmeal concoction were all not going to kill him within three days, he dove in. At the end he had eaten three cans of the green spears (heated on the stove), two cans of the meat, mixed with handfuls of cornmeal, flour and water, and a pitcher of the well water. He sat back in his chair looking at the cleaned plate and dirty kitchen and stole a moment to feel full and satisfied.
With his gunna stored safely by the back door, his guns at his hips and his leather bag slung over his shoulder (this never came off, even to sleep), he headed upstairs to see what he could see. As expected there were living quarters there. One room looked like it had been the Station Chief’s. It was small, but had a single bed in it. The other two rooms were larger and had multiple bunks in them. By count, twelve plus the Chief could have stayed here at the same time. The upstairs windows gave him a great view of the damaged bridge and the rail cars on the far end with plenty of supplies to fix it. He shook his head despite himself. Just over the top of the atomo engine he saw the other side of the canyon, which he hadn’t walked down. That side opened up a bit more, or the rail tracks were no longer down the dead center of the canyon as they had been before. On the far side were ragged tents and what looked like mine shafts going into the rock wall. In the time he had heated and cooked dinner the sun had fallen out of the sky so only a residual twilight gloom remained. He would check that out tomorrow.
His eyes wandered back to the train, which before his eyes became illuminated. Running lights all the way down. The interior lights came on as well, some of them flickered before taking hold. He still couldn’t see through the grim of the windows. Probably best. The condocobot wandered out of the engine’s steering room and walked along the maintenance gangway to the front of the engine, pulled out a rag and cleaned the sun bright light at the front. The bright bean illuminated to the far edge of the gorge and the rail cars there, waiting to repair the bridge.
His shoes had a dull thud on the wood floors as the gunslinger walked back down stairs. Sleeping in the building didn’t seem like a good idea to him, for some reason. So he picked up his gunna pack and head to the back yard. To his surprise there was a good-sized pile of fire wood stacked neatly under one of the windows. He was quickly angry with himself for not noticing when he had been busy gathering water from the pump, just to the other side of the pile. What else didn’t you notice while you were running around like a housemaid, trying to make supper in time for your master? Then, try to stop talking to yourself.
He set his gunna down on the ground and pressed in the ingenious clips on the bag that held down the rain flap. The top of the gunna was nothing more then a drawstring, held tight with another kind of clip. To be truthful the reason the pack had caught his eye in the first place was that it looked like it had a lot of clips and features. There had been innumerous times through his journey that he was glad that he had. The pack was so adjustable that he sometimes wondered if it had its own legs for walking, but he just hadn’t found the right clip to open yet.
With years of practice his campsite came together in a matter of minutes. When he had raided Rei’s store he had also picked up a tent that weighted so little compared to any from his when or where he couldn’t pass it up. It was made of material no one from where he was from could have imagined such stuff. Many a rainstorm it had kept him dry and the flexible tubes that held the tent up had withstood at least one serious wind storm.
All set with his tent arranged, sleeping bag inside (also from Rei’s) a fire started in a ring of sharp red rocks on what had been the Station Chief’s beloved lawn and a full belly, the Gunslinger sat. He would have liked to pack his pipe, but he had nothing to pack it with, so instead he reached into his leather bag (the one that never came off) and careful not to touch the velvet draw string bag inside, pulled out his cleaning tools and de-holstered his guns.
There was much to plan for, but he wanted to calm his nerves and settle on the task at hand. Cleaning his guns had always done that for him. As he broke apart the firing mechanism he let his mind wander and the place it settled was the night that his quest began. He had never forgotten the face of his father, figuratively or literally. It had been so strained that afternoon when he had gathered the gunslinger, his older brother Jed and three of his most trusted other guns. Maxwell, Gervous and Rick were contemporaries of the gunslinger and his brother. They were all friends and brothers of the gun. His father had drawn them into his tent, the gunslinger remembered the view from the entrance to the battlefield immediately south. Jericho hill was visible, being the next large rise east. Another band of embattled gunslingers had gathered there. They had been there for more days, based on the better defenses they had built around themselves. The back of thier hill was bare of trees, the long tall cottonwoods had been fashioned into rows of fences to channel the on coming hordes into killing lanes. The gunslinger looked the work over and with his trained eye could see the obvious channels they had left, and the more subtle ones that an experienced commander might think were mistakes left by the defenders. He reached down and scratched behind the ear of his great hound, who sat patiently at the tent entrance as he went inside.
The sunlight filtered through the incomplete patches on the ceiling of his father’s tent. A former King, sitting in a folding chair throne under a patchwork roof looked over his two sons and their guard.
“I gather you here today for a final mission,” the King said, he deep resonate voice still held the kind notes the gunslinger always associated with his father. He was a man of the gun because he had to be, a man of faith and diplomacy because he wanted to be. In the gunslinger’s mind was etched this last image of his father. Here was a King who raised two sons without souring them with the burdens of their birthright. Now years of war were evident in his clothing and his face. Just a week before his band, making an exodus from their kingdom, had fought a running battle to avoid the forces of the mad king. Tomorrow he would face those same forces and there would be no retreat. A stern resolve had taken hold in his father’s eyes, one the gunslinger always hoped to emulate when his time finally came.
His father reached down and picked up the leather satchel the gunslinger now wore over his shoulder and never took off.
“I brought with us the greatest treasure of our kingdom, besides the land we once owned,” he slowly opened the leather bag and reached inside, “While it had always been rumored the knowledge of this treasure had always been the King’s alone.” He pulled out a black velour sack drawn tight with black cord from the beaten leather pouch. Like a pearl from a dirty and crusted oyster, it held the attention of all in the room.
“Our family since the beginning has been the keeper of Tolesn’diar,” his washed hands pulled the black cord apart and slipped the bag over the now obviously spherical contents of the bag. A faint turquoise light shown from within the bag and as it slipped away, the wizard’s glass filled the room with its glow. Lighter and darker shades swirled within its center. The magical sphere was the same size as the bowl formed by the King’s palm, thumb and fingers.
“Tomorrow our house, the last of the Guard of Suolen, will stand with our brother’s on Jericho hill and our conscripts in the field below. Lord of Good willing, I will stand true with the rest of our men and with strength I shall die as a Gunslinger shall, with his guns in his hands and his chambers empty,” his tone was solemn, reverent.
“This fate is not for you, my five. I call upon my right as King to name you Champions, so as to free you from the coming battle. Instead I turn the safety of the glass to you,” his eyes turned to it, despite himself, he paused for a moment lost in its glow, “Some of the glasses are cursed, tortured and maddening things, our is not and never has been. I fear its goodness would be lost to the world the moment the Red King has it in his possession.” He slipped the velour over the sides of the sphere and re-tied the knot at the top of the bag. The old King stood and gave the bag to his eldest son, standing next to the gunslinger.
“Jed, eldest son, I name you Ka-tre, leader of my chosen band. I give to you all the treasure of importance from a land that once was. Do you accept my offer to abandon your brothers-in-arms at their time of greatest need?”
Following the script, his brother responded, “If it serves the purpose of the King,” and the gunslinger’s older brother bowed his head. The King turned to his younger son, the gunslinger, then just in his late teens. On a patch of dead grass leagues and centuries from this event the gunslinger wept silently.
“Aulucard, I call upon you to be the second, carry the burden of the glass so that your brother may lead. Do you accept my offer to abandon your,” the younger gunslinger was already nodding his head. Grateful that he hadn’t shown emotion at the time, he simple said, “I accept your request.” And bowed his head.
In turn the King went to the other three gunslingers. Maxwell, a tall, lean fighter with little hair on the top of his head but a bushy mustache that was the envy of all others had trained Aulucard in many of his marksmanship skills. He was the oldest by far, maybe just younger then the King. Certainly trusted.
Gervous was a gunslinger that was born generations after his time. In age, he was close to Jed, in temperament and style he was older than any other in the tent. Master of the long gun he stood his rifle up from the floor and struck the ancient pose of respect one gunslinger showed to another. He was the only gunslinger Aulucard had ever met that could stand that way and not look hopelessly foolish and out of date. But in his mind’s eye he stood there now, nodding to his King and making the correct words. He was the only gunslinger to tap his throat three times, to show his respect to the King, in the old style.
Word spoken and questions formally answered, there was nothing left for the band to do, but turn and leave the tent. Despite himself, Aulucard turned and gave a last and long look at his father, the King, as they left the tent. His last vision of his father, standing with a firm and determined smile on his face was quickly added to a vision of his coming doom. Leaving the tent Aulucard saw the first waves of the Red King’s men marching down the valleys towards the hills that would be the Gunslinger’s last stand. Aulucard could see them now, thousands of them, some as he knew from previous fights, nothing but armed farmers. Sometimes they carried pitchforks. Few had firearms and none of them could match the prowess of the gunslingers. He knew that on his father’s hilltop there were little more than one hundred gunslingers and squires. The ammunition they had would certainly run out before the Red King ran out of men. Aulucard could see what any other honest member of their group could; this was their last stand.
His memory of the night, when it came to him in this fashion always skipped a few hours. It had been just after mid-day when he had seen his father for the last time. The memory picked back up that night, late after the sun had gone down. Aulucard and the group of glass protectors had traveled all day, making as much ground as they could, having killed a band of twenty Red King scouts along the way. Now they were pushing exhaustion and had agreed to catch a few hours of sleep before going on the next morning. The campsite was on the side of a ravine, well below the trail they were following and within stones throw of the rocky edge. Faint whispers of water crashing against the rocks below made it to their ears. As requested by his father, Aulucard carried the leather pouch with the treasure. The campsite was up the hill from him, but hidden in the thick brush. He had gone to relieve himself and over the edge of the ravine had suited him fine. Aulucard had just finished when the night was cracked open with four gunshots. Adrenaline surged and Aulucard instinctively reached for his guns. They were at the campsite, he had removed the belt when his brother had offered to clean them during his watch after they had been used to good effect against the scouts. Panic surged through him. Fear and anger at his stupidity mixed in equal parts. Yet his mind had still not realized the truth of the events. At the end of the fourth staccato shot he thought he had heard a whimper. Aulucard turned to start up the hill. Training told him not to cry out, but to move. Through the brush came the unmistakable shaft of his brother’s gun. Then his tall form crashed between bushes, easy to make out with his gunslinger’s sight in the faint moonlight.
“Last twos for you,” his brother drawled. Aulucard’s horror was nearly paralyzing, the adrenaline coursing through his blood screamed run, but he only took a few steps back. Years of travel and death dealing had only begun to cement strength in him that night. His breath was shallow, his training frozen as if his brother’s treachery had already killed him.
Aulucard tried to manage a word, but nothing escaped dried lips.
“I want the glass. I shall offer a choice, come back with me, or die tonight. We might be able to ransom the Glass for Father’s life,” Aulucard took a few steps backwards and to the side. His training hadn’t completely left him. Jed moved as well, the gun, always centered on his brother’s chest. They stood parallel to the ravine, Jed with his arm outstretched, his finger tight on the trigger.
“Liar,” Aulucard managed, it was something about his brother’s face, his behavior of the last few weeks, now seen with the clarity of hindsight. There would be no ransom. One of only thirteen Wizard’s Glasses in existence would belong to the Red King and would be twisted to malevolent purposes. A suicidal jump off the ravine to keep the Glass from them entered his mind and was quickly added to the very short list of possible outcomes.
His brother smiled and in the moonlight his mouth looked black, “The Red King has a plan. He needs the Glass to save the world. He let me see ‘Card. He let me see. He loves us, don’t you understand?” His brother’s voice was turning manic, screechy.
Aulucard saw the movement before his brother acknowledge he was there. Reginald the great hound had silently moved through the brush to within striking distance of Jed. The great hound, nearly half as tall as Aulucard at the shoulder, leapt the last few feet from the brush to the traitor. His animal speed and strength was no match for Jed’s human abilities. Reginald caught Jed’s right arm in the center of the outstretched forearm, shattering bone and nerve with his deep bite. From a rivulet of blood coursing down his fir, Aulucard could see that his brother’s bullet had found purchase in the side of his hound, probably missing the great hound’s heart by hair widths. In reaction to the movement Aulucard turned and dove to the ground, hoping to miss the bullet that never left the chamber. His face hit against night cool ground as he watched his beloved dog, a member of their family, bring his full weight down to the earth, with his brother’s arm trapped in locked jaw. The hound’s legs crumbled under him, Aulucard wondered if the hero was already dead before he ended the leap that saved his the gunslinger’s own life. With the weight of the dog, the force wrenching at his shoulder and the slope of the land Jed lost his footing and tumbled. Fur and human corkscrewed together the last few feet to the edge of the ravine, then both went over.
Aulucard was on his feet, leaping and crawling the distance to where they had fallen. Hoping to see, perhaps hoping to save. Below in the ravine, partially covered in the shadow of the night two shattered bodies lay upon sharp rocks. Reginald had not let go of Jed’s arm, his body lay broken, half in the pouring creek. Jed lay face up, having hit all of a rock. Aulucard watched in his mind’s eye the part of the memory that made him sweat cold in the hottest air. Jed twisted on the rock, the fall had been as high as any building, and the rocks were angular breaking his back in the middle at almost a right angle, yet he twisted. Then righted himself, bending his back until it was again straight. Then he walked to the dog and yanked on his arm, still captured in the maw of the old dead friend. Aulucard watched as his undead brother began to pummel the corpse of his dead animal companion, he couldn’t turn his eyes away. The horror stays with him to this day, his brother’s single fist slamming down on the skull of his dog, raised from a pub, until it was pulverized and he could remove his arm. Aulucard watched until the end, Jed raised his forearm out of the gore and in seconds it was healed. Then in mad rage the creature at the bottom of the ravine that was once his brother pounded the rest of the hound with both of his fists, mimicking apes Aulucard had seen at the Zoological Park. The snapping of ribs over powered the gentle sounds of the creek. Aulucard could see the gore slicked fists dance in the pale moonlight. Then he was up, running back to the camp, gathering what he could.
The last portion of the memory that came to him was the campsite. A pile of firewood, unlit was at the center of the death field. Each of the gunslingers had taken a bullet to the head. Aulucard’s brother had always carried a large caliber and it had worked as designed on three old friends and mentors. None of them had been given time to react. Gervous had taken his bullet to the back of his head and lay face down in the dirt. Aulucard could do nothing for them, so he grabbed packs and ammo and ran. Since that night he had always felt his brother’s presence behind him and now in three days he would finally catch up.