The town was, as predicted, an ambush. Not like the subtle ambush of all the other times through this adventure, but an outright explosion of violence directed at them. Or would have been directed at them if they’d actually been in the wagon being hauled by the mule.
Eddie had called it a Trojan Horse, and while Roland hadn’t gotten the reference, he appreciated the tact. It wouldn’t have worked on a full on assault against a trained army, but it was enough to have the villagers storming the poor, underfed mule and wagon. A quiet pride filled Roland has he noted that Eddie didn’t start killing until the rage fueled attackers turned to face the group and began running.
The three gunslingers made short work of the citizens and strolled past the corpses and into town.
“Best thing we can do is load up on supplies,” said Roland. “They won’t be needing them anymore.”
The town was silent, with only the wind blowing through the empty streets and the sound of dust scraping against the sides of buildings. Roland closed his eyes and listened, playing over the thousands of other times he’d been through this village, marking each face and whether or not they’d been killed. They were in new territory now, and none of their memories were going to help them.
A day’s walk would take them to the way station and then into the tunnels where the slow mutants had been, and where he’d lost Jake the first time.
“Go then. There are other worlds than these.” Jake’s voice echoed in his head a thousand times.
“We don’t take the same way,” he said. “Get horses and pack everything we can onto them. This time we go over the mountains.”
Susannah and Eddie rode together on a large mare, easily 20 hands high, and the color of warm caramel. Jake took a smaller multi-colored horse, Ted took a dun colored horse about the same size as Jake’s, and Roland took a gleaming white horse who, while smaller than the caramel giant that Eddie and Susannah were riding, show rippling muscle under it’s flawless coat.
“Give him a pointy hat and call him Gandalf,” Eddie joked when he saw Roland sitting atop his steed.
Roland looked at Eddie flatly, then clicked his tongue and guided his horse toward the mountains.
“Where are we going?” Jake asked.
“Lud,” replied Roland. “We need to get to Blaine.”
“Blaine is a pain,” whispered Jake.
“Why the fuck would we want to get to Blaine?” Eddie asked.
“Because Blaine takes us takes us through the realities of this level of the tower. We left Lud and arrived in Topeka, Kansas – a place that’s as far from Lud’s reality as you can get.”
“We arrived in a world ravaged by a plague that had killed off most of humanity,” Eddie said. “Is this a good idea?”
“Is anything a good idea?” asked Roland. “It’s necessary to where we’re going.”
“And where exactly is that?” Eddie asked, incensed.
“The room at the top of the tower.”
“But…” Susannah rested her hand on her husband’s shoulder and squeezed.
“You know you ain’t gonna get an answer when he’s like this.”
Eddie heaved a sigh and hung his head.
“Lead on, McDuff.”
Roland turned away from his friend and headed toward the looming mountains, making certain to keep further to the north.
He really wanted to avoid that way station. He really wanted to avoid anybody who might be there that could be Jake.
Because this time, it would be a lie.
The gunslinger wrinkled his nose as he looked to the south. The way station was close enough to see, and he didn’t like that. A shiver followed his spine down to his fingertips and he found himself watching the small building while his fingertips played over the handle of his gun. If there was something coming, it would be coming soon.
His jaw tightened when he saw the speck make its way out of the building, pause and then start heading toward them. It moved fast, waving its arms over its head, a thin voice barely reaching his ears over the scorched dust of the desert. It was voice he knew well. A voice that had haunted his dreams on so many occasions as to be at once terrifying and laughable.
He was both pleased and disappointed that his ka-tet hadn’t yet noticed the figure running toward them. Still, the shape was little more than a shimmering speck against the heatwaves that rose from the sand. His hand rested on the butt of his gun, the horse continued to make its way toward the foothills and he quieted his breathing until it was time.
The crack echoed across the desert in flat waves before Roland’s hand had barely moved to draw his weapon. The figure in the distance seemed to pause, then waver, then slump down into the sand, vanishing within the heatwaves.
A smile played across the corners of his mouth as he looked back at Jake, who was holstering his weapon.
Roland could see for a moment the look of childlike fear that showed on his young companion’s face before it hardened into the visage of a gunslinger once again. Roland knew that Jake would forever wonder if he’d somehow managed to kill himself with that shot.
Roland wouldn’t have had an answer if Jake wanted to ask. He was certain that whatever it was, while it may have looked like Jake, it wouldn’t have been the young man. It would have been a lie.
Roland wanted to go back and comfort the boy, tell him it was okay to be afraid, be the father that his own never was, but he rode on. He knew now what his father had once known; that there were times to prepare a person for the trials ahead instead of offering comfort. That sometimes you had to let somebody harden so they could do the job that needed to be done.
Did my father know what was coming for me? Roland thought to himself.
Jake needed to be hard, he needed to be ruthless. What was coming wasn’t easy. Where they were going wasn’t anywhere they’d been before. While the Tower had chosen him for this quest, he never felt as thought it had done anything to protect him during the journey. Free agents were the ones who had come to their aid, and even those had been questionable at times. Now he wasn’t even certain there was anybody left to help on this level of the Tower.
Ted leaned back in saddle and looked at the group in front him. He still didn’t know why he was here, why he continued to be here through this loop. He was uneasy about where they were going and what it was going to mean for all of them when they got there. They sometimes spoke as though they’d forgotten he was there. Remembering events of previous loops through the Tower, and talking about them without the need for contextual clues. Ted often had no idea what they were talking about, only that sometimes the tone of their voices made him nervous.
And the number of times that Eddie had died in all those loops they kept talking about. The same with Jake, only Jake seemed to die multiple times if what Ted heard was accurate. He did in the mountains they were riding into and then he died again later, protecting the writer. Except the last time. The last time, Jake had survived saving the writer just as Eddie had survived the gunshot that should have had his head.
Ted thought that Roland could see how staged everything had been to this point, even it was just at a subconscious level. It was likely why he decided to deviate from the path that had been laid before him every other time he’d gone through this loop. If he followed the same path, he was vulnerable to anybody else who might know – like the Crimson King, for example.
As they rode into the foothills, he could see his traveling companions laying their hands on the butts of their guns, getting ready for what might come out of the shadows. While Ted didn’t have a gun, he didn’t think he’d need one. The one thing people forgot about him was that he was a weapon.