Chapter 4

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.

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Chapter 4

Chapter 3

Roland rolled the words over in his head. The redhead had told him that the man in black had been here the previous night. He wasn’t certain if that would be the case, but it didn’t surprise him. That meant that Merlin was alive, that his grinning face wasn’t still slumped in his throne outside of Topeka. Instinctually Roland also knew it was the same man, though Roland wondered if he were at all aware of the constant circles the two of them had been running in for countless years.

How was it that he continued to end up being yanked up levels with him every time? Who moved him? Or is it the nature of the timeline? Roland knew that to try and untangle the web of reality that surrounded the tower, and his own journeys through it, was futile and likely to cause insanity. Best to simply accept what was there and move forward.

Roland took a deep breath. He had never been a man to over think anything. The man in black was the same every time around. How that happened to be, he didn’t care. It was just a fact of his life.

Ted sat by the fire after the sun had gone down and stared into the flames. He had been utterly silent since their ascension into the desert and continued his silence through dinner. His old eyes sparkled with the flickering of the flame while Roland asked questions of the redhead that he’d asked a million times before.

“Kill him,” Ted said out of the blue.

Roland didn’t hesitate, the sandalwood grip of his revolver in his hand and the bullet through the redhead’s skull in less than a second.

“Are you going to tell me why I just shot an unarmed man?” Roland asked.

“The answer doesn’t make sense to me,” Ted replied. “But if we keep walking the road the way you’ve walked it before, then we’re all going to end up dead before we’re out of the desert.”

Ted lifted his gaze and met the Gunslinger’s eyes. “You know what I’m going to say next.”

Roland nodded. “We go to the town,” he said. “We kill them all.”

Ted nodded and turned back to the fire.

Rachel began to cry.

“Roland,” Eddie said. “You woke the baby.”

“You gone a hafta put her back down,” Susannah drawled.

“Let me clean up,” said the Gunslinger, tossing the body over his shoulder and carrying it out to the garden. They could either bury it or leave it for the crows in the morning. He went back inside, picked up the baby with his rough, calloused hands, and looked down into her impossibly blue eyes.

“They’ll turn brown,” Susannah said. “Probably.”

Something always shifted inside Roland when he held the baby. All that hardness seemed to fall away and he could feel the resonance of the Tower all around him. It was a feeling that made him uncomfortable and so he tended to hand the child off as quickly as he was able.

When Rachel had quieted and gone back to sleep he laid her on the deerskins and put himself on the floor, crossing his hands behind his head. Every other time there had been singular drive to his momentum. That drive would change as he found his companions through magic doors on the beach, and the knowledge of the Tower and the breakers and the last beam.That purpose was different now, while still retaining the spirit of the past. Find and kill the man in black had become save the tower, kill the Crimson King, and bring back harmony to all the levels.

“We can’t follow the path of the beam,” Roland said. “It’s a lie.”

“What are you saying?” Susannah asked.

“The path of the beam led to the stairs,” he replied. “The stairs dump you on another level of the tower at a time and place you needed to be. There are no more stairs, not that need to go up so many levels, so there are no more false towers. The path of the Beam was never about getting to the Tower, but to the next stairwell. On this level, it won’t be about even a stairwell. There may not even be a beam to follow here.”

The realization for Roland hit hard. All the other beams on all the other levels had been destroyed. It was only the Beam of the Bear that had survived on all of them. Roland could see the design of the tower. Every level of the tower was offset by the next level, just a little. In this way, the tower could continue to stand if all the beams on all the levels save one had been destroyed. The Beam of the Bear ran up the tower in a spiral, ever so slightly offset. For the Crimson King to topple the tower, a massive number of those beams would need to be broken at the same time for a failure to occur.

Moreover, it would have to be done at the same time based on the time of the Tower as a whole. Each level had its own timeline, it’s own flow of time, and its own events. That was why he would always walk out of the staircase at the same point in time. But for the beams to fail, they would all need to fail at the same moment outside the timeline of every level of the tower. Was the Crimson King able to accommodate that? Or was he taking out the beams on levels of the tower that Roland hadn’t visited? Was it possible that every time he went up a stairwell it was to protect a Beam that was critical to the continued support of reality? What if the beams between those levels he’d gone up had failed?

He may never know the answer, but he suspected he was at least close to the truth of the matter. He believed that the Crimson King was waging a successful war on the beams on other levels and that, unless he was stopped, the support that he’d managed to keep in place over all these thousands of years would be for nothing.

If they were at the top of the tower, if this was the Prime level, Roland doubted that any beam would lead them to the final antechamber, but instead a trap set for those who sought the room at the top of the tower.

“I have been guided to where I’ve needed to go, set me up for what needed to be done, and guided me to the next level. It’s all the same here, except this time it’s setup to kill me. Maybe not intentionally, or maybe it’s setup to kill somebody who is looking to reach the door before me. We can’t follow the path of the beam. And tomorrow, we have a town to kill.”

“Who’s been guiding you,” Eddie asked.

Roland looked up and met his eyes. “I don’t know.”

*

It was cold out when Eddie stepped out the door with the shovel. Roland was already digging, and Susannah was nursing the baby. Ted continued to stare into the fire without talking. The old man creeped him out, plain and simple. He liked him well enough, but it was just weird and off-putting having him around. He was not Ka-tet, but he still felt necessary.

Eddie dug his shovel into the sandy ground and began the hole where the redhead would rot away into the earth.

There wasn’t a moment that Eddie thought the Gunslinger an idiot, but sometimes the single-mindedness of his friend and companion was enough to make him want to punch him a few times. Wasn’t it good to sometimes question the things you were doing? Especially if what you were doing was killing an entire town? He shook his head and continued digging.

Eventually he was going to have to talk to his companions about his memories. He’d not said anything, but he knew that Susannah was remembering things as well. Roland, well, he was a closed book, but if he were to hazard a guess, he’d say there was something in there.

He remembered dying. So many times, dying. Shot in the back of the head most times, though there were a few little differences that surfaced here and there over the course of the webwork of memories.

He played with his scarred ear again and sighed, wondering why the hell his psyche wasn’t falling apart like Roland’s had when Jake was still alive, but dead, but still alive. Also wondering if he was the only one, or if everybody was remembering.

Back inside, Susannah took his hand and squeezed it as he lowered himself to the floor next to his wife. Their baby was sound asleep in the little papoose they’d made from deerskin, drooling happily, and the smoke from the fire smelled like home in a way a boy from New York City never would have thought possible. That life was so far gone, he didn’t even know how it was he’d ever been a junkie in a dirty city barely getting by with his life.

It seemed an impossible dream that any of that had ever happened, though he still remembered and treasured the memory of his brother, regardless of his failures.

He took a deep breath, and smiled at his wife.

Roland was still outside, looking up at the stars as far as Eddie knew. Ted unfolded his legs and walked out the door.

Susannah touched the back of Eddie’s skull, which sent a shock through him.

“You died,” Susannah said. “So many times.”

“You remember, too?” Eddie asked.

She nodded and looked into his eyes.

“The baby never made it before,” Susannah said. “Always stolen by Flagg, always turned into some kind of monster.”

Eddie nodded and touched the cheek of his sleeping daughter, sighing.

“Everything is different,” she said. “Everything is dangerous.”

“So are we,” said Eddie. “So are we.”

“Well then,” Susannah whispered, “they’ll be outside for a bit, let’s be dangerous.”

Eddie grinned and lifted Susannah’s shirt off her body, gently cupping her milk swollen breasts. They made quiet love, pulled their clothes back on, and fell asleep next to their daughter.

Rachel was a boy in the other memories, Eddie thought as he drifted off. And she was Roland’s kid, not mine.

*

Roland heard Ted walk out the door as he stared up the stars. They were unrecognizable from the stars of his youth, a slate of pinpricks that meant next to nothing. Suns burning unfathomable distances away, worlds spinning, and all of it somehow dependent upon the Tower and his ability to save it.

“We are but specks,” said Ted.

“I cary a great weight,” said Roland.

“Perhaps you are an ant,” Ted laughed quietly.

“Perhaps,” replied Roland.

“What happens tomorrow?” Ted asked.

“We wake, we walk, we kill.” said Roland.

“Why?”

“Because anything less is a waste of time,” he said. “I’ve done this thousands of times. There is nothing to learn there that I don’t already know. Any part of this could be a trap now. The Crimson King is afraid of what’s coming, and he should be.” Roland patted the horn that hung from his hip.

“Even the Old Ones must adhere to the ancient magic,” said Ted.

“When I need to know what that means, I suspect I will.”

Ted nodded silently in return.

“Do you know what’s coming after the town?” asked Ted.

“I do,” said Roland. He rested his hand on the butt of his gun. “I’ve known since writer was hit by the van.”

“There’s something you need to know,” Ted’s words were quiet.

Roland said nothing and waited.

“There are countless levels to the Tower,” said Ted. “Within each level is a universe in and of itself, and within each universe one may find a copy of one’s self. Maybe not on every level, mind you, but most. Except for us and Flagg. It is you and I and Flagg.”

“Why is this important?” the Gunslinger questioned.

“Because we all come from the bottom,” Ted responded.

“How have you moved between floors?”

“I don’t know if it’s the Crimson King, or something else that moves me. We part ways and upon my first waking I find myself back with breakers, and the cycle repeats. Unlike you, I remember every time it happens.”

“I don’t trust you,” said Roland.

“I don’t expect you to.”

Chapter 3

Chapter 2

The Crimson King was not a crazed little man hurling grenades and other ordinance while trapped on the balcony of the Dark Tower. No, those little men were the gatekeepers of each stairwell until the last one. Those little men were supposed to stop people from using the stairs to move between levels in the tower. While it was possible to find thinnies to move between different levels, using the stairs was the only way to reach the top, what the Crimson King had once called the Prime Level when he stormed it so very long ago.

From the room at the top of the Tower, it was possible to see the whole construction of the Tower itself, the webwork of powers beyond anything even he could hope to control, but he could destroy it, which was the driving force of the last million or so years. It would be done by now if Roland hadn’t shown up and started mucking around in things. How many times had the man stopped the destruction of the final beam? And why was it every time he went up another staircase the beam managed to repair itself? Not completely, mind you. Oh no, just enough that it would survive another thrilling adventure of Roland of Gilead trouncing through the desert to stop the man in black.

The man in black. Randall Flagg, or Richard Fannon, or Merlin, or whatever he went by, was another one who had survived all these ascensions, though not with the knowledge that Roland now had. The number of times the man in black had been killed was likely countless, because every time life left his body, he would reappear with hardly a memory of what had come before – except the history that he’d shared with Roland would remain.

Once Roland made it up a staircase, the Man in Black would be back in the desert with Roland chasing after him. Wash, rinse, repeat.

What’s worse is that Randall Flagg believed he was also some agent for the Crimson King. Randall Flagg was frequently talking with a being whose origins that Crimson King didn’t know, and that worried him. He should have been able to determine everything about everybody from where he sat, but instead there was nothing to be found about this creature that would meet with and speak with The Man in Black from time to time. There was nothing about this creature, no sense of who or what it was, no idea what agenda it might possess. While he could, in very specific, and complicated ways, interact with the reality that existed outside of the room, it wasn’t as easy as it had been when his mate had been loose and could help with communication. Those kids and their discovery of the Ritual of CHÜD had ruined that. Not even he was immune to the old magic, mostly because he was a part of the old magic.

Despite his current appearance, the Crimson King was not human, nor had he ever been human. In the darkness of time’s dawn he was one of a very few entities that fully understood the makeup of the universe. Prior to the decision to storm the top level of the tower and take command of all of creation, he’d found a mate and they had fallen deeply in love. In their own way, his kind was a type of symbiotic relationship upon mating, the two joining together to form a whole. While they could separate and live apart, they would never feel completely whole unless they were together. When together, they existed a single entity with a singular mind. When apart, their minds could still touch, even across incredible distances.

When they stormed the room at the top of the Tower, they’d separated for tactical advantage. They’d surged to the top and the massacre began. He’d used his own soldiers as shields to advance to the door and gain entry, closing it behind him.

Closing the door was his own undoing. He walked inside believing that he’d battle whomever existed here and instead, he found the room empty, but for himself. When he turned to leave, he found that the door was locked. It could only be opened if somebody from the outside knocked, and only be one other than himself, he would later find in a dense book in the massive library.

When his mate reached the door as well, she was unable to open it because she and he were part of the same. When the explosion hit, which was all he could call it, she was flung away until she streaked across the sky of  a young planet earth and crashed where Derry now stood.

She was stuck there, waking only when she had to so that she could feed and keep her babies safe. The rest of the time, she was hidden in slumber, or sending communications out to the rest of the tower. It was how he built the Breakers, and began the process of destroying the beam. By the time humans began to appear on the scene, she was having to wake more frequently, the brood of children in her abdomen demanding more and more food.

She learned something, as she shuffled around for a place to hide. She learned that as far as she’d been thrown, she was still near the door to the antechamber, though she could not cross the vast distance between the door to the top of the tower and the door to the room where he waited for her.

When the children fought back, she’d become afraid, but when they’d arrived in her lair, in the antechamber, she saw the Ritual of CHÜD as an opportunity to open the door and join her Mate. All she had to do was use the energy from the Ritual to travel to the door and make the little bastard knock on it before eviscerating him and sending him back to his friends with his intestines spilling out of his gut.

Yet somehow he’d managed to get the upper hand and trounce her to the point of near death. She should have waited longer to awaken, but the babies were hungry. When they faced off again, the boy might have been an aging man, but she was still damaged from the first round. She tried to shake him by telling him the Turtle was dead, having choked on some galaxies, when in fact it was just shedding its shell, something the damn thing did every billion years or so.

It had thrown him off enough that she thought she’d had him, believed that they’d be through the door in moments, though again she was defeated and, this time, killed.

Along with his children.

It was also right around the time that Roland had first entered the City of New York. Had he been able to get Roland to Derry while his mate lived, there might have been a different story because, and trying to comprehend this would sometimes make his own head hurt, she existed in Derry at every level of the tower while she had lived. The children had, in every level of the tower defeated her twice, killing her the final time.

To think that the Turtle hadn’t had some hand in that would be folly. It was possible that the Turtle had nothing to do with any of it, but unlikely. They were essentially two sides of the same coin. It had crossed the Crimson King’s mind on more than one occasion that they couldn’t live without each other. When the Tower fell, it wouldn’t matter as they would both be snuffed out of existence.

“Are you so certain of that,” a slow, melodious voice echoed through the room. “You seem to forget that we existed before the Tower.”

“Shut up,” he growled.

The past few thousand years he was never certain if the Turtle was actually speaking to him, or if he’d started to go a little batshit crazy in his solitude.

There was a conversation he’d had with that blasted Turtle long ago, sometime after the Tower had been built, but before he’d stormed the room at the top. It was, more likely than not, a conversation that had gone on for thousands of years. The basic crux of it had been their own origins because, as both would admit, neither had any clue what had come before their existence. They had no memory of parents or of growing up, no memory of anything outside of simply existing.

That conversation had been the crux of what had turned into a million years long imprisonment of his own making. The Turtle was happy to simply exist in the universe without asking questions, while he needed answers. He needed to know where he’d come from, when he’d come from, why there were others similar to him in existence, but it appeared as though the Turtle was the only one of its kind, not including the small, shelled creatures that crawled in the mud on the earth.

The longer he thought about where he’d come from, the more agitated he’d become until he finally wanted answers. He wanted into that room at the top of the tower and he wanted to demand the truth from whomever was in the top.

Except that it was empty.

He threw a tumbler against a wall where it shattered into a million pieces, the glittering shards sprinkling the carpet under the window. For a few moments it looked like a star field had landed in the room, but the tumbler quickly pulled itself back together and lay there as though nothing at all had happened to it.

There wasn’t a single thing in this room that he could permanently destroy, and he’d tried more times than he could count. He’d even tried burning it all down at one point, but the flames wouldn’t even catch the paper. In fact, the only thing that would burn in here were the cigarettes that just kept reforming after he’d smoke them.

He went to the window and looked out across the vast expanse. Below was the field of roses in which the tower stood, though how he could see them from the very top made the same amount of sense as the idea of a Turtle vomiting out the universe.

Finally pulling himself away from the view, he sat down at one of the terminals, took a deep breath and closed his eyes. It might hurt like hell, but he needed to contact somebody before it was too late.

Chapter 2

Chapter 1

The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.

Roland staggered a moment, but managed to hold onto himself. Then he stood up and grinned from ear to ear, and looked behind him at his companions who stood with slack faces and open mouths staring at the hot sand that surrounded them. Only Oy seemed utterly at ease, grooming himself as though nothing out of the ordinary had just occurred.

Roland gripped the horn that bumped against his hip and once again thought of Cuthbert running down that hill, blowing it for all to hear.

Cuthbert was gone, but his friends were still with him, even through the doorway of what he’d once believed was the Tower.

“Where are we?” Eddie asked. “What happened?”

Gleaming in Roland’s mind was the webwork of impossible memories. Of chasing the man in black thousands of time across this desert. Of finding Jake and losing Jake and finding Jake and then losing him all over again.

“Go then,” Jake’s words still haunted him. “There are other worlds than these.” Only now, Jake was standing with him. Did that mean that Jake would still be at the outpost at the base of the mountains? Roland didn’t know, but they weren’t going to find out.

Everything was different. Everything had been different.

Not long ago, hours perhaps, they’d been standing in a sea of roses outside what appeared to be The Dark Tower, looking up into the swirling sky above. Of all the thousands of times Roland had pushed through that doorway, climbed those stairs, and come out in the desert it had never been with his Ka-tet. Not until this time.

“We are at the beginning,” Roland said. “One of them, anyway.”

“What are we doing here?” Susannah asked.

“Chasing the man in black,” said Roland. “Or I was. This time it’s different.”

It wasn’t until Susannah had become pregnant that the fractures had begun to appear in his memories. Much like the time when Jake had been dead and alive, he could feel parts f his sanity slipping as differences in the timelines began to separate in his mind. First there had been the Good Man from Farson, but he had also been The Good Man Farson. Susannah’s baby had actually been Roland’s child, twisted into a nightmare creature that had killed Oy, but this last time it hadn’t happened that way and now Eddie carried their daughter in a sling around his back so he could still access his guns.

Instead of Eddie being shot in the head, he was missing a chunk of ear because there had been a memory of Eddie getting shot mere seconds before it happened. Roland had killed the man without even looking, though the bullet had taken off part of Eddie’s ear.

Little differences for the most part, until now. He’d saved Jake from getting run over by that van, and saved the town from the Wolves, hardly lifting a finger in the process. The trip had still been perilous, and when things changed, it gave rise to more dangers. Now, standing in the hot sun and watching the pale blue sky overhead, he couldn’t stop smiling.

Now it was dangerous. Now he didn’t know what to expect, because staying on this course was an act of futility at this point.

“We walk,” said Roland. “There’ll be a house with a small garden and some food. We’ll stop there for the night and then see where the morning takes us.”

He started walking, the rest of his group trudging along behind him through the sand. He flexed the hand that had, on so many occasions, been devoured by the dudachuck, dudachum sea monsters, but this las time, with the horn, was whole and functioning.

It was because of that whole hand that Merlin, or Randall Flagg, or Richard Fannon, or whatever his name was, never made it out of the Castle in Kansas. Instead, he sat slumped his mock throne with a bullet in his brain while the Ka-tet continued on their adventures.

Upon reaching the base of the Obelisk he’d so many times believed to be the tower, there was no Mad Crimson King trapped on a balcony throwing ordinance with great abandon. Roland understood now that he wasn’t the true Crimson King. Instead, just a puppet put in place to try and stop him from advancing another few thousand levels up the tower.

The real Crimson King was far more dangerous than a mad man with some grenades.

Together he’s stood with his Ka-tet and their companion Ted Brautigan walking around the smooth base of the thing. The back stairway that would take them up to the final level of the tower, the one below the antechamber that would lead to the room at the top. In that room, the Crimson King was trapped, trying to stop Roland at every turn.

At the same time, Roland had begun to understand that there was something more at work trying to help him. Something more than the writer, something that could send Roland down a path thousands of times, reliving the same few years of his life repeatedly for thousands of years until he was ready, until he could take up the horn and set siege to King.

All of his pasts echo through the Gunslingers head, though with this latest trip up the stairway, they no longer cause him the shakes or the jitters. They no longer cause him pain. They are string of memories, each one slightly different, each one unique.

“Wheres the fucking door?” Eddie had asked after circling the base for the third time.

Roland turned his stern face to his friend and smiled. Eddie had come so far from the scrawny junky that came through the door on the beach. He took a deep breath and filled his almost barrel chest with air before exhaling.

“Can’t you be happy for two seconds that we’re standing at the base of the fucking thing?” Eddie asked.

“It’s not the Tower.” Roland ran his hand along the smooth stone.

“Looks like a fucking tower to me.”

“We’re already in the tower,” Jake said. “Kind of in it and outside it all at once?”

“This is a stairway,” Roland nodded at Jake. “This is how we get to the top.”

Oy loped along in front of Roland for a bit, not seeming to mind the hot, dry sun despite his thick layer of fur.

Insulation works both ways, Roland thought. Anyway, it wasn’t much longer before they were at the house.

Roland recalled just a few hours early staring toward the top of the obelisk. He didn’t want to tell either of them that he’d only reacted, not yet. For a moment, there was the crystallization of a memory from one of the other times he’d stood before a visage of the tower alone but for a dumb (unable to speak, not stupid) artist. Eddie was dead in that memory, killed during the battle for the breakers.

Roland held his tongue, not wanting to trigger anybody else’s split memories and watched as Eddie fingered the top of his ear where the bullet that had been intended for his head had sliced through.

Jake rested his hand on the butt of the gun strapped low on his hip. His eyes had cooled down since the incident with the writer and the van and he looked as though he’d grown up. Looking at Jake, Roland saw a dim reflection of himself at that age, that same hardness was setting in. Part of him mourned the passing of the young boy he had both let die and saved.

“Everything’s going to change in there,” Jake said.

“Everything’s already changed,” Roland commented. The words had come unbidden to his lips and left silence in the air.

Roland said nothing and ran his hand along the smooth surface of the horn again. I thought I’d lost this with Cuthbert, he thought for a moment. It fell with him on that last insane ride But then he’d gone back. The memory was both old and new, ancient and fresh and twisty.

He realized as he stared up at the obsidian giant before them that his mind was beginning to feel frayed around the edges. Was it the effect of the tower?

“Go then. There are other worlds than these.”

“We’ve done that three times.” Eddie let out a sigh, but Roland knew him well enough to know he wasn’t going to fight any more.

Oy nudged Roland’s boot and looked up with wet, gold rimmed eyes. “Oy,” exclaimed the billy bumbler.

“Yes,” nodded Roland. “Exactly.”

The billy bumbler trotted on ahead of them and the rest followed behind, Roland’s eyes moving along the tower, his mind uncluttered and waiting for some kind of inspiration to strike.

What had happened here before?

Roland had found himself holding his body in check from the sound of phantom grenades flying toward him. A flash of young artist they had liberated from the psychic vampire huddled behind a rock drawing something, pricking his finger and adding the red eyes to a visage of the mock Crimson King.

The writer had lived.

Jake had died again.

Jake was walking behind him.

Even trudging through the desert now, he couldn’t help but smile again at the memory of the final stairway opening to them.

He’d stopped as Oy took to walking in circles and talking rather incessantly. “Oy! Oy! Oy!”

What had been different? Aside from the lack of a Crimson Guard, and the fact that his friends were here waiting for him, what was different?

In his head, Cuthbert laughed. It’s right there, his old friend giggled inside his mind.

Roland picked up the horn as though he’d not seen it before, then slowly brought it to his lips. He hauled a lungful of air and blew. The sound blasted out across the sea of flowers. The obelisk shuddered and an entryway opened in the stone, the way a mouth might open. Inside there were only black stairs that spiraled up into darkness.

They ran up those stairs, faster and harder, each landing showing them something different, something from their past, each landing wanting to pull them away from their goal of the top. They ran for hours until there was nothing but a wooden door before them. A door that, when opened, led them to the desert.

“Not much further now,” Roland said. In the distance he could see a speck that would grow to be a small shack.

“We’ll talk when we get there,” he said. “But know this; I don’t know what’s going to happen. I know what’s happened just about every other time this had occurred, but everything is different. We’re at the top of the tower now, below the antechamber and the room at the top. The Crimson King knows where we are, and while limited from within that room, that doesn’t mean he won’t be trying to stop us. We must be cautious at every turn.”

Chapter 1

Prologue

Bill Denbrough sat in his bed, soaked in sweat and shaking worse than when he’d had influenza when he was twelve. Before Georgie died. Before IT had become part of their lives.

The last time he’d thought about any of this, even remembered any of it, was 1985. Now thirty-one years later and he can’t get the images out of his head. Last time, in 1985, when the memories started to come back, they were slow at first, puzzle pieces coming together as they all got to sit around and work their way through what needed to be done.

This time there was no such building. It had come back all at once while he slept, like a freight train, or maybe like a dinosaur killing asteroid slamming into the bedrock of the earth. Now in his seventies, he was amazed the shock hadn’t killed him outright.

Next to him Audra continued to sleep, oblivious to his shaking, sweat, and near inability to catch his breath.

There was a voice in his head before he woke up that reminded him of the Voice of the Turtle from when he was twelve years old and first took part in the Ritual of CHÜD with IT.

“The Gunslinger comes,” the voice had said. “And he carries with him the means to undue the Crimson King. All he needs is the key to hell.”

For Bill, there was only one place in the world that was hell, and the entry was a small door, maybe sized for a child, with a strange symbol painted upon it.

Beverly thought it was a fist, Bill thought. I thought it looked like a newspaper boat.

What would this Gunslinger see?

“The Gunslinger cannot accomplish his quest on his own,” the voice had continued. “Frequently he is too proud to ask for help, so there are times when help must be placed before him. Doors, companions, hints, and ten thousand lifetimes of reaching what he believed to be the Tower, when all that he found were the stairways between levels in the Tower. Not the little stairways, the ones that flit one reality to another, but the big stairways, the ones that let you skip a few thousand levels at a time, though he didn’t know it.”

Bill sat in silence as his shaking finally began to ease up, he shivered and shuddered one final time and wiped the remaining sweat from his brow.

The Turtle never died, he thought. It was IT scaring him one final time, trying to get past his defenses so that IT stood a fighting chance. He didn’t know how he knew this, only that he was certain the Turtle lived, and not because of the voice from his dream memories. All reptiles must shed. They go colorless and dull, they pull back and go into hiding when this happens.

What happens when the Turtle sheds?

Bill stood up, feeling his knees creak under him, feeling the weight of the world and his past bearing down on a spot directly between his shoulder blades. It made it hard to move, hard to pack.

As far as Bill knew, there was only that one little door to hell, and if that were the case, then he must be the key to open it.

He didn’t take much. A backpack with some jeans, underwear, and t-shirts. He’d worry about his ticket at the airport; he only needed one way, after all. He didn’t think he’d be coming back.

He looked at his Audra and kissed her soft, wrinkled forehead softly.

Prologue