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She came awake in the hour before dawn, her ears tuned to something just below the range of hearing. She squatted by the cold remains of last night's fire, chewing mechanically on a strip of jerky, never taking her eyes off the beetling brows of the ridges to the east. As the sun rose, she broke camp and set off towards the west again. The sounds were clearer now: marching footsteps, jingling tack on the horses, the clanging of armor. The Corps. Ten miles away, she decided, maybe 20. It was hard to tell. The desert sands and scraggly outcroppings of rock changed sounds, belying the distance between things. Tieburl's forces couldn't be more than three hour's travel away, anyway.
Lilith trudged on, the sun beating mercilessly on her back. The battered cowboy hat she wore - souvenir of a long-dead father - shaded her face from the sun but not from the sandglare, and before an hour had passed she had slipped on her sunglasses. She walked at a steady enough pace, only stopping every few hours to drink from the battered canteen at her side before going on.
By the time the sun had set, the next settlement was just visible beyond the next set of ridges, perhaps three days' journey. Less for the Corps. Their vanguard was horse-mounted, able to travel faster than Lilith could. Lucky for her Tieburl had sent most of his beasts north. Were the majority of the Corpsmen mounted, they very likely would have been sent ahead of the main forces. As it was, they were still managing about five miles for her every four.
Lilith set about making camp as she had been doing for two weeks, ever since her stolen crawler had run out of gas. She had left it in the ruins of some one-horse town outside Memphis. Damn thing had only lasted a day and a half, anyway. Tieburl wasn't as smart as he thought. The machines of the past might work . . . until the underground gas tanks ran dry. There was no way to manufacture more. Hadn't been since the Y.
But none of that had any relevance to Lilith's situation. What mattered was the here and now, and the problems left behind by the past meant nothing to her. She had a job to do. She could worry about such things after she had reached the Western settlements.
The night was cold, but Lilith did not notice. A gunslinger could ignore discomfort, if she so chose, and if she had reached a high enough level of the khef. At seventh, Lilith was able to transcend cold and thirst and hunger, and only respond to these sensations when her body required. As it now did not, she paid the cold no mind, but lay down by the fire and immediately went to sleep.
Her sleep was dreamless, as it always was, and she knew nothing until the morning. As if by signal she awoke, and the first thing she noticed was that the Corps was closer. She did not have to wonder what the not-so-distant sounds were. However, she continued westward, heeding them no mind, her mind focussed on her quest. Funny, as a child she'd had no idea she'd be instrumental in saving the world one day
Days, weeks of travelling, and now she was nearing her goal; each rise she breasted, each dune-covered road she crossed brought her closer. It was said the Corps ruled everywhere but in the West. During her stay in this world Lilith had lost many comrades to the legendary Western settlements, to the allure of rebel status against Tieburl and his followers. It was for the most sorely missed of these comrades that she was making this journey; it was for him she was travelling thousands of miles, with nothing but her thoughts for grim company.
He had been her lover; he had been her friend. Now he was her savior-elect, the one man who might stand a chance of bringing some peace to this war-torn land. She had no guarantee he was even still living, since anyone who had ever fled West had then disappeared forever, as far as those under Corps rule had known. Even if he was alive he might want nothing to do with her and what she wanted. Their parting had been less than amicable, he wanting to return to what they had had, she protesting that was impossible, that something gone could never be reclaimed. Yet wasn't that what she was seeking now? A journey of three thousand miles, most of it on foot, with a hostile army close behind, and for what? So she could tell her former lover that it was up to him to set things right, to turn the clock back a couple centuries and undo the horrors of the past.
"You're asking him to erase the Y itself," she muttered. It was not the first time she had thought such. It would not be the last.
She walked, she camped, she awoke the next morning at the usual time. The Corps were right on top of her, by the sound of it. She glanced at the dunes to the east, idly expecting to see Tieburl's forces appear: thousands of men, armored and armed with the most powerful weapons known, all with the sole purpose of killing her before continuing on to destroy the Western rebels. The horizon remained unbroken by man or beast. They were not that close yet. Soon, though.
Lilith walked into the next settlement just after sunrise. A sign reading "Welcome to F'nax" in neglected gray letters, a general store, a few desultory farms, a honky-tonk bar from which sullen piano music issued. She went straight for the bar with no hesitation. If anyone in this nowhere town knew anything about the Western rebels, she'd find them in here.
The bar was about half full, perhaps two dozen rough-looking townsmen, who sat silent and watched her as Lilith approached the bar. She knew the run of their thoughts, of course. She was not stupid. Their suggestive leers crumbled one by one as they noticed the shooters she carried. Guns were a rare commodity, and anyone carrying them certainly knew how to use them.
She pulled a silver coin from her pocket and slammed it down on the counter. "Beer," she called to the 'tender, a short man with a decidedly weasel-like air about him. He grinned at her for a moment, but under the weight of her silent stare he suddenly turned and disappeared into the back.
She turned around to face the others in the room. "Looking for some information," she told them. "I'll pay for it."
As always, there was the inevitable comment from the back of the room. "Anything else you'd like, sugar?" General laughter from all assembled. Same as every place she asked. Business as usual.
Lilith turned her head and took up the bottle of beer that the 'tender had plopped down beside her. A glance told her the weasel had thought to show her up by tightening the cap on the bottle; again, not completely unexpected. She brought the neck of the bottle down against the scarred bartop, popping the cap easily. The 'tender glared sullenly at her as she drank deeply of the watery stuff.
She set the bottle back down, her back to the others. Suddenly, with no warning, she drew one revolver and spun around, aiming with thoughtless accuracy at the man who had crept up behind her. "I suggest you sit back down, sugar," she grinned.
"I need information," she repeated to the others as her would-be attacker retreated sheepishly. "You can give it willingly, and be repaid in coin, or you can be difficult." She reholstered her gun without taking her eyes off her audience. "Your choice, boys."
Their eyes were sullen, opaque. They were not used to having their fun interrupted, and they would not let her leave without making sure she knew it. F'nax, Heuss'tn, Sanlus, Nash. In every town, always the same.
The lone dissenter against the surly silence was younger than most of them, without the look of desperation that his fellows shared. His tablemates glared at him from beneath lowered brows; he would be in their black books for some time, Lilith reckoned. So.
She met his gaze levelly, and spoke to him alone. To the others, her novelty was palling quickly. They would not heed her any longer. "Depends on how good the information is."
He nodded. "Fair enough."
As he rose from his seat, the grizzled farmer next to him grinned and spoke. What he muttered, Lilith did not hear, but the others erupted into sneering laughter, glancing at her slyly out of the corners of their eyes. They did not matter. None of it mattered, except that she and this one man do business, and she then continue on her way. Her quest was her only consideration.
She strode out of the bar without a single glance back, and her informant followed. There, away from the too-wise eyes of the bar's patrons, she turned to face him.
What caught her attention about him was the way he looked at her: his eyes bore back into her own, unclouded with fear or the crude male self-assurance she had seen so many times in her life. He stood in the dusty main street of the town, clothed in the garb of a field worker, his dark hair scruffed across his forehead, but his eyes were clear and certain. He might have made a fine gunslinger, had the wheel of Ka turned differently.
They faced each other in the street of that dying town, and some deep part of her stirred and spoke in her ear. And, hearing that inner voice, she roused herself to speak.
"I've journeyed many years," she told him. A dry wind moved across the street, sending litter gusting everywhere, fluttering her hair in a disgustingly melodramatic way. She dismissed it. "Many years, and none to share the journey. But the path is long, and it is harsh. Especially to one travelling alone."
She stopped; his look had changed. He no longer regarded her with the same bland appraisal. His eyes had darkened, had clouded with that same emotion she had seen so very many times. He was thinking, not of her quest or her money, but of his desires. The voice inside her, that deepest core of self that she trusted most with her gunslinger's senses, was still, but she knew all the same it had been right. That voice was never wrong where her quest was concerned. His needs and wants would bow to it, as many had before. Did it matter? It had all been written, and would go as Ka wished it to. She could ask no more than that.
"To the Western Settlements."
"Dangerous place to be."
"For a woman?"
In his darkened eyes was the same shameless lust, the same animal hungering she was by now so weary of. Years of travelling, and a thousand men like this one. And by the gods, it was tiring.
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