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Other Worlds Than These

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Beneath fields gone to bracken and devil grass, he sleeps. Beneath once-noble castles fallen to moss and rats and the occasional Bumbler, below even the ak-sess tunnels of the Great Old Ones, still and silent as tombs, he sleeps.

He sleeps, and he dreams.

***

His dreams are not peaceful ones. His consciousness swims and shivers like the air over desert hardpan, hot and feverish. The warping that seems to affect the rest of his world, distance and time alike, does not leave him untouched. He remembers the rise and fall of dynasties as passing shadows on a cloudy day, or the rolling crash of a single wave on the Great Western Sea drawing out for eons. He remembers conversations between him and his baronies that at more lucid times he realizes could never have happened. He is also, on occasion, seized with the oddest of notions that he used to be something else. Someone else. Female, maybe, with round, swelling curves tracing the shape of fertile lands and subtle, courtly smiles half-hidden behind silk fans. No longer, though. His…fragmentations, his hardships have stripped him down to the very core, reduced him to the reflection of someone’s father’s face and an unforgiving, steely determination to see yet one more moonrise, one more turn of the seasons.

Again, strangely, he seems to know whose fault this is.

Often, when he dreams, it is of one man. His Champion. The last scion of his most noble house, and maybe his best hope at resurrection. The thought fills him with a fierce elation, and also with a crawling dread, for this champion is not what he should be. Capable, yes -- a gunslinger true if there ever was one. But for all that, loveless. Broken. Driven, but not by passion. Justice without the temperance of mercy. In his dreams, he cannot tell if the Champion truly remembers what he is fighting for, what he rails against, or if he’s just too damn stupid and spiteful to quit his quest. His Champion’s obsession burns in him like a Reaptide bonfire. No, it is close...but not quite right. Reap is for dancing, young love, stolen kisses and the exhilaration of collapsing, exhausted but laughing, into new-mown hay with your sweetheart. His Champion doesn't know of such things anymore. He knows only the cold, steady burn of the Demon Moon overhead, distant and sneering.

***

But then one day, like a door opening in his mind, the dreams change. New people, strangers in a way beyond the typical meaning of the word, enter. They bring with them the scent of the sea and cries of gulls and a strange, electrical frisson. Ka. There’s the Prisoner, who jokes even as he breaks, then mends himself. The Lady with skin like chicory coffee who rolls on silver cartwheels. The Boy, face reflecting unclouded youth except for the eyes, which bear witness to a terrible age. And behind them, he can sometimes see another -- one like him -- but only in glimpses. He is left with the impression of eyes of boundless blue: not the hoarfrost of his Champion, but the bright blue of a summer sky infinite with possibility, glinting at him from behind two flat crystal disks. He can almost hear the laughter in those eyes. “Other worlds than these, dude.”

He doesn't understand why he is addressed as such -- “dude” is not a term used among friends to his people. But he is grateful for the help, even if he cannot express it, or see why it has come.

And these people from the other world start to change his Champion, even as he shapes them into the gunslingers that they, too, were meant to be. The four of them whet themselves against each other, honing each other into one weapon, with one purpose. Ka-tet, aye. Even the Bumbler is a prince of his kind, and a piece of the whole. All of them, moving toward the Tower.

He worries, during his darker dreams, that they may not be moving fast enough. He can feel the dark tendrils of the prim creeping into his thoughts, hissing and writhing. The tethers that once kept him centered are slowly fraying, and the few remaining threaten to snap. His Guardians have mostly gone broken or mad (Templeton, Shardik, Shêtân) or in some cases simply and alarmingly silent (Maturin, Toomai, even the oddly named but deeply wise Billy Bass, motionless at the bottom of his pool). The Old Ones had designed them to mirror and reinforce in the waking world that which was once only metaphysical mystery. They didn't seem to realize that in so doing, they opened the Guardians up to the inevitability of earthly rot and decay. The irrefutable moving on of things.

***

He can feel it, how the quest has become more of a race against time, against darkness. While his Champion moves ever closer to his goal, he becomes increasingly unaware of the bodies he leaves in his wake, not unlike the bullets he has spent in his trade. The number of the meager ka-tet decreases, and for a span (impossible to say how long) the ones remaining disappear to that other world, the visions of their times there appearing to him only dimly. When they return to his world, they are diminished still, and the Champion grows more distant, more fanatically devoted.

He wonders if the Champion even notices that they are being followed.

In the swirling haze that is all the consciousness left to him, he can see the final confrontation, the shattering of the ka-tet (in yet more blood and expected betrayal and unexpected crying off) and then the lone figure, bleeding but not beaten, of his Champion finally at the steps finally finally at the center of that field of red roses the center of all things and he’s actually got the temerity the balls to be knocking at the door as the Tower shifts and twists on itself and oh whatever Gods there may still be above or below the door opens it’s opening and he’s stepping inside and....

The sound of a great and ancient horn rings through the underground cavern, and Gilead wakes with a shout.