At a point of intersection between worlds stands a Tower. The Tower - a linchpin that both binds all worlds to each other and ensures the partitions between them remain intact.
More than a few of those worlds are at least peripherally aware of one man’s quest to seek it out, to ascend to the top, and - if possible - to ensure it and all those worlds reliant upon it don’t fall to the Prim. He will be the last of his kind, a noble from the long line of Eld, a gunslinger for whom those many worlds could descend to ruin so long as the less laudable of his goals - to simply ascend that Tower - is met.
Preventing the Tower’s fall is incidental. Gan has entrusted everything to a man who straightens paintings in strange hotel rooms and retains a code that failed his family, his home, and most of In-World itself. A man equal parts honorable and terrible.
This is not the tale of Roland Deschain, however.
It may be that we’ll catch a glimpse of Gilead’s last and his ka-tet during the course of events, but our attention lay elsewhere for the time being. Mid-World has a handful of new arrivals and we should greet them soon.
Before we’re introduced to this other ka-tet in the making, one whose origins are far stranger and their ka uncertain, there are several key pieces of information to bear in mind:
-The Tower doesn’t support the many worlds on its own. Beams, twelve in total, act as struts supporting them. Some of those struts have fallen. A few remain, but signs of the losses are seen throughout these worlds.
Call it slippage, perhaps. Time sometimes passes and pauses in bursts rather than continuing uniformly forward. Fraying of the partitions between those worlds is increasing, some spots thin enough to permit passage between one world and another. Magic behaves erratically or bleeds from worlds with magic into those where magic is normally nonexistent, creating strange and catastrophic circumstances for the latter while the former suffer for its absence.
-The worlds supported by this Tower and its Beams are not identical. Some are very nearly so, and there are variations aplenty before the differences become too severe to recognize one world’s relationship to another. Some are known as “Earth.” Some are known, at least by a few, as “the Territories.” Deschain’s own is known as Mid-World. Still others are known by the name “Gielinor.”
Each level of the Tower - or “universe” if you enjoy that term - houses one of these worlds. While one level may contain multiple worlds bearing sentient life, there is always one through which the Tower is threaded. Events on some levels of the Tower also influence others; a war on one Earth is often mirrored on another, and some Earths are close enough to the Territories that said war may be replicated even there.
-The legend of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table isn’t exclusive to any one world. Earth knows him as a myth-figure who rebuffed Saxon invasion in Britain. Gielinor knows of him, too, though the Arthur with which they’re familiar both is and is not that legend. In the Territories and Mid-World, Arthur Eld was the first of the gunslingers, establishing their organization in Mid-World’s Gilead and devoting his life to defending the Tower.
-Finally, though Deschain is cursed to be the last, the Line of Arthur Eld does not yet end with him, nor is that line exclusive to In-World. The Territories harbors its own gunslingers, including a man known on his native level as Parkus and on Earth’s California Coast as a retired blues musician named Lester “Speedy” Parker.
There are others whose lineages have been touched by Eld, each going on about their mundane lives in ignorance of that heritage. A heroin junkie, a wheelchair-bound heiress to a dentistry fortune, and a boy coming into his teens, all of New York. A President, John F. Kennedy.
Farther along the Tower, originally of Gielinor, another who unknowingly bears the mark of the first gunslinger has traveled beyond many partitions alongside several other people to In-World. A magician who might, were the opportunity for introductions to come to pass, be recognized and called “brother” by Roland Deschain’s black-clad nemesis.
A man nameless save somewhere in the darkest recesses of his own memory and to one other. A traveller whose life’s course could fairly be described as “nomadic.”
A man who’s forgotten the face of his father.
Parkus watched with a mixture of troubled mind and satisfied heart as Jack Sawyer led Sophie away from the speaking ring. They walked hand-in-hand, fingers interlaced, one a Queen and another a traveler whose last adventure had excommunicated him from the world of his birth. Leaves rustled and fell in a sprinkling of green and gold around them, as though the Territories offered its more permanent welcome in light of Earth's denying him return.
Jack had performed admirably both as a child and again as an adult, each time thwarting the machinations of the Crimson King almost in passing and only peripherally aware how influential his actions were in the grand scheme of things. There was awareness in him - his contact with the Talisman had broadened it considerably during his youth, and that glimpse into the true nature of things hadn’t abandoned him even in adulthood - but, while certainly a tool of Gan, he was not of the Line. A good man gifted with a small measure of White Magic. There were many such gifted people on virtually all levels of the Tower, and not all were of the Line.
Someone nearby was, however. Parkus knew that as well as he knew the feel of his revolvers’ smooth, sandalwood grips against his palms. “Right church, wrong pew” was the phrase on Earth, but the feeling didn’t call him back to that place where the world hadn’t yet moved on.
No, the feeling was, for lack of a better term, from the other direction.
Another. Ka’s wheel turns again.
Parkus pulled the string and cinched his purse, standing with a grunt. Flipping between the Territories and his Twinner Speedy’s self on Earth was like exercising a toned, well-used muscle. Shifting over to that other world, one which had moved on and suffered for the Beams’ collapse in greater extreme than most others, was more akin to overextending an atrophied muscle. Unreliable. Painful.
He didn’t look forward to it, but ka had little interest in the ‘druthers of one Territories lawman. Even if the metal on that lawman’s guns bore a trace of Excalibur’s blade in its makeup, ka played no favorites and dispensed mercies only as it saw fit.
Arthur’s line moved here, albeit on another version of here. He could no more ignore the pull of that White Magic kinship than he could escape any other part of his fate. Bag settled, guitar settled above it, Parkus closed his eyes and rolled his shoulders in preparation.
He feels wrong. He’s of the White, and yet...
Mid-World’s air wasn’t so acrid and foul as that in Earth’s cities, but it, too, fell short of the Territories’ crystal clarity. Parkus stumbled as his feet shifted to accommodate the new ground beneath them. The speaking ring still rose behind, the imposing stones forming a rough circle whose first purpose had been long forgotten, bearing deeper, more pitted signs of aging in this place. The path ahead followed much the same route from the circle out toward the road, but the green in this grass was sun-bleached and lacked the vitality of its Territories counterpart.
The feeling was close, more distinct now that he shared a level of the Tower with it, and its owner was on the approach.
Parkus swung his guitar around front and settled himself on a log. The strange tincture of the visitor’s presence in his mind had unsettled him, and music calmed him no matter the world in which he found himself. Whoever this was, they were no gentle soul like Sawyer.
Perhaps he shared more with the one from Gilead.
Tuning became plucking, and before long the sweet sound of John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” filled the area just outside the speaking circle. Parkus’s voice wasn’t quite so smooth as his Earth Twinner’s, but it was passing pleasant, low and melodious. He’d ramped up the pace a bit before his objective came into sight.
Footsteps crunched gravel closer to him, a few pebbles ticking over their fellows where a booted foot took its last step, and Parkus looked up as his fingers continued coaxing notes from the strings. “Cam-a-cammal, pria toi, Gan delah. Come and be at ease, gunslinger. Bit warm for a scarf.”
Something - age, disease, environment - had leached pigment from the man’s skin, leaving it pale and making the network of veins below it uncomfortably visible. His eyes glowed, too, but blue rather than a slow mutant’s sickly green, and no mutie had ever been of Eld or carried guns like those strapped to the man’s hips. Leaf-shadows danced over his long coat and across his bald head.
Those odd eyes met Parkus’s as their owner spoke from beneath the scarf wound about the lower half of his face. “What is this place?”
Not native. Parkus had guessed as much; with the rest of the man’s strange aura was a strong sense of the foreign. He kept his relief that the man spoke clearly - not a mutie - to himself. For all the other obvious signs suggesting at least a questionable condition, this man from some other world sounded nothing like a man suffering poor health.
This fey-eyed stranger wasn’t of the Territories or Earth, though. The accent was wrong, clipped, and the nearest thing to it in Parkus’s experience was a mixture of Earth’s Britain and the Callas of this world.
How far did you come? What wonders lurk on your world that such a weathered being is so hale?
“Mid-World, sai.” Parkus’s fingers continued plucking Hooker’s melody absently as he spoke. “Not your world, and I’ll set my watch and warrant you’re still shaking the jangle of todash from your ears.”
Cerulean eyes narrowed suspiciously in the visitor’s face. “Do not underestimate me, stranger. I may be-”
“Your ease, gunslinger,” Parkus snapped, fingers growing still over the strings. “For your father’s sake, sit down. I can’t speak for this world and most others, but I mean you no ill.” He gestured to another log across from him. “As it happens, I’m here to help you.”
Expression wary, the stranger bent long legs and sat. “My father’s sake hasn’t been a concern for many years. He’s dead.”
Nothing. He knows nothing at all. Parkus sighed inwardly. “An expression on this world, sai. One with which a gunslinger should be familiar, lest those machines you carry be turned against the little good that remains.” He slid the guitar along its strap to his back and laced his fingers between his knees. “When I speak of your father, I mean your honor. The honor that extends back through the men and women of your line to Arthur Eld himself.”
“Honor is not a concern of mine, either, stranger.”
“Parkus.” Fingers unlaced and one brown hand reached out to the other man’s gloved one. “I suggest you rearrange those priorities if you wish to survive here and whatever ka has in store for you.”
Fey eyes regarded the hand for a moment before he reached out and met it, shaking once and letting go. “Nomad.”
“‘Nomad’ it is, then.” Parkus withdrew his hand and began rifling through his purse, pulling a pair of simple tin cups and a waterskin from it. Water splashed into both cups, and he held one out to Nomad. “While the sharing of khef is a matter for those whose destinies are interwoven by ka, water’s water and not all you’ll find in Mid-World is fit for drinking. Here.”
Nomad accepted the cup, pausing. His free hand reached up and unwound the scarf to free the rest of his face. “I understand twenty of your words for every twenty-one. Khef? Ka? I know neither Arthur Eld nor ‘gunslinger.’”
Parkus swirled the water in his cup, thoughtful. “I’m not surprised. I suspect whatever world spawned you is farther along the Tower than I’ve ever travelled. Surely there are lawmen on yours? Peacekeepers?”
“Guards?” Nomad settled his cup on his knee. “Of course. Most towns have them.”
“No, not guards. These would be…” Parkus took a drink as he thought, grimacing at the stale taste, “...people of a certain code. Proficient with guns and other weapons, but no mere grunt standing post somewhere or keeping miscreant hands out of others’ pockets. These would be held to a higher standard. They’d negotiate peace, lead armies, perform the duties of a statesman, blend into various circles yet maintain that code. Noble. Their weapons and their way would mark them for a different breed, and as agents of fate and the greater good. Agents of the White. Even kings and other leaders on your world would recognize them for something special.”
Nomad blinked slowly. “We have no organization of such individuals, but our world knows one. A World Guardian. The… that is fitting for them. Largely.”
Parkus smiled, relieved. “They call you such? ‘World Guardian?’”
Nomad’s laugh echoed around them both from the sparse trees and great stones. “Me?” Water sloshed from his cup as mirth gripped him. “Never, Parkus. I sought something of that position in the past, but…” he gave up speech and leaned back, giving full voice to the feeling before settling enough to speak again. “No, I am not she.”
She. Parkus marveled at it. Sex and such things were immaterial among gunslingers in the Territories, but he knew Gilead’s were uniformly male. Not for the first time, he wondered how many worthies had been passed up to inherit their families’ guns under the gimlet eye of Mid-World tradition.
“Ka and your heritage bring you here, now, to this place, Nomad. Perhaps your world has room only for one, but a chance to play guardian to the many worlds - all of them - has come. Like as not, you are a gunslinger. I can offer you what I know, if you’re willing to learn.”
Nomad stilled. “I’ve had masters before. They-”
Parkus snarled. “Not a master, and you’ll forget that word exists if you wish to go on about your peace in this world.” He forced the tension out of his voice. “‘Dinh’ will do for now. We aren’t ka-tet and so it’s a slight misuse of the term, but it’s better than the one you chose.”
The fey-eyed man tasted it. “Dinh.”
Parkus nodded. “It is very well. I would first have you speak to me dan-dinh, Nomad, and spare no detail. Not of your past - that doesn’t interest me and I suspect the tale would be too long to fit in an evening - but of what happened when you came to this world. The changes.”
He listened quietly as Nomad described it. First he’d heard the bells, high and discordant, that had signalled the beginnings of going todash, or travelling between the worlds. He’d tried to spellcast his way elsewhere in panic.
A wizard. A wizard with Eld pulsing through those discolored veins. I’d laugh if he didn’t sit here before me with those guns and strange eyes.
Nomad went on, speaking with badly-disguised fear of the darkness in which he’d been shrouded, the feeling he hadn’t been alone, sensing those great monsters that inhabited todash space. Then the receding of the darkness and the revelation of Mid-World, the strange smells and lay of the land, and the gunslinger spoke at length of the changes he noticed about his person.
“My staff was no more. These,” he reached down with his free hand and patted one of the machines strapped to a hip, “existed instead.” The same hand tugged at his long coat and then at his pants. “My armor was gone, this odd garb in their place. Unfamiliar. But the wood in the handles of these machines is the same as my staff. I have tried to call spells with them and they no longer answer my call. I feel the connection to them as before. They are mine, I suppose, but they no longer serve the purpose.”
Parkus shifted on his perch. “I promise you they do serve a purpose, Nomad. Perhaps not magic as you understand it, but what they’ve gained far outweighs whatever was lost.” He tapped one of his own guns. “Your staff has not ceased being a weapon; only the nature of it has changed. Perhaps for the better.”
Nomad’s thin eyebrows lifted and deepened the lines above them. “I’d hear more, Parkus.”
Parkus lifted a hand. “I know, and you will.” He lowered the hand. “I’m no instructor by trade, but I’ll do what I can to see you unburdened of ignorance. And you will be capable with those guns before we part ways.”
At last, something eager crept into Nomad's tone. “I accept. Where do we begin?” Mistrust lingered in his strange, blue gaze.
Parkus both rued and found satisfaction in that mistrust. At least I’m not teaching a young boy. There is steel in that spine and bite yet in those teeth. I don’t know that I can do well enough by this man, but I will try, and there’ll be water if God wills it. The rest is ka’s business.
He stood, and Nomad stood with him. Parkus lifted his gunna and accepted the empty cup, storing it in his purse alongside his own. “First, we make use of yon deserted encampment. The Little Sisters have moved on. Their leavings may be grisly, but there will be beds and protection from the cold, and it will do. Tomorrow we begin.”
Parkus shifted on his cot, ignoring the sour odor that wafted from the mat, eyeing the man several cots away as he turned fitfully in his sleep.
He’s dangerous. Greedy, too. I wonder what for.
The gravel in the man’s voice, softened in sleep, chilled Parkus. “Let’s see how well your senses serve you.”
Thankee-sai, but my senses have done me fine for many years, say delah. You’ll need yours more in the weeks to come. Your sense and senses both.
Parkus bunched his pillow and settled in, satisfied that the other man slept.
Nomad spoke again. The words were slurred but comprehensible enough. “I speak for the rose and deny Discordia. White over Red. The Tower will not fall.”
Smiling, relief undoing a knot somewhere in the recesses of his mind, Parkus dozed.
The first of autumn's cool air brought with it a newer, cleaner sunlight to the thin forest around them. Leaves struck each other in the breeze, the sound crisp, and the smell that heralded winter's slow crawl over the land was all tense energy and flora retracting in on itself in preparation for the snows to come.
“Say your litany, Nomad, and be true.”
Elbows bent and gun pointed skyward, Nomad turned to Parkus with a look of disdain. “I see no purpose in repetition. I’ve memorized this several times over.”
Parkus returned the disdain with a contemptuous stare of his own. “You’re familiar with the words, right enough. What you haven’t done is heed the lesson.” He leaned against the tree behind him, pointing at the rocks lined up along the half-submerged boulder which sat like a frozen birth in progress forty paces away. “Say it again. Focus.”
Nomad turned, pointing his revolver and peering down the sight. “I do not aim with my hand; he who aims with his hand has forgotten the face of his father. I am with my eye.”
Birds chirped above them, small things flitting between branches and quarreling for nesting territory. Both men ignored them.
“I do not shoot with my hand; he who shoots with his hand has forgotten the face of his father. I shoot with my mind.”
Parkus listened as disdain bled from Nomad’s voice, replaced with something calm. Certain. Murderous. The old catechism as spoken by a gunslinger.
“I do not kill with my gun; he who kills with his gun has forgotten the face of his father.”
There wasn’t silence, the air itself paused around them. A sense of waiting, anticipating.
“I kill with my heart.”
“DO IT, NOMAD! LET NOT A ONE OF THEM LIVE, FOR YOUR FATHER’S SAKE!”
Thunder didn’t pour from Nomad’s gun. It wasn’t sound, really, but an inversion of it - a force that rolled outward while drawing sound in, leaving high-frequency, vibrating hum in the ears of both men. Each shot after the first captured the the trail of its predecessor and swallowed it in a fresh vacuum. Birds scattered above, their competitive dance forgotten.
Parkus smiled as the remnants of the last shot rolled through the thin trees around them. “It is very well.” He left his tree and walked down to the boulder, flick-crooking a pair of fingers over his shoulder at Nomad. “Come and let’s see what happens to those who cross men who deal in lead.”
Nomad’s long stride closed the distance and he slowed, walking with Parkus. “Rocks, Parkus. They’re no more dead then they were before I shot them.”
“Play a fool and be thought one, Nomad.” Parkus never cuffed the other man - Nomad had left his childhood in some other world long ago along with his name - but his voice would do well enough. “Had yon rocks been alive, they’d have reached the clearing at the end of the path, each and every one.”
They stopped in front of the boulder. All five rocks were gone, replaced three of five with hard burn streaks in the cool blue-gray of the stone.
“‘Tis fine shooting, say true. Let’s hope these men remembered the face of their fathers as well as you just-”
“-Quen? Quen I swear to fuck please let that be you-”
A number of things happened in rapid succession.
Nomad turned, spied the figure who’d spoken, and his voice betrayed relief. “Razwan?”
Parkus turned with him, spotted the figure behind the first, and went for his gun. “TAHEEN!”
The figure who’d first spoken, a small woman dark of eye and brown of skin - though not so dark as Parkus himself - paused. “Quen? Who… what are you doing? Put that down, he’s-”
The last figure, a bird the size of a man with white and bronze plumage, stood stock-still behind the woman and took in Parkus and Nomad with wide, alarmed eyes.
Parkus leveled his revolver at the woman. “Step aside, lady-sai. I hope to Gan you don’t serve the Crimson King,” he gestured slightly with the barrel of his gun, “but I know his kind, and all of them do.”
Nomad held his free hand up at Parkus. “Your ease, Parkus. They’re both of my world.”
Feathers lifted on the birdman’s crest. “I don't know any Crimson King, only a red god who thinks himself one. I serve Armadyl.”
“Your ease, Parkus.” Nomad pleaded. “I know no taheen, but this woman is… with me. The one behind her is an aviansie. Both of my world. Parkus!”
Parkus’s stare flicked to Nomad and back to the two arrivals. “Nomad, I must have the absolute truth from you right here and now. You know them both and they mean no ill?”
Nomad’s hand still held out as though to push the gun away, he spoke stiffly, strained. “I swear it. Upon my guns and yours and both our fathers, I swear.”
Parkus glared at the birdman a moment before lowering his gun. He was slower in holstering it. “Cry your pardon, both of you. Your avian friend looks mightily similar to a taheen, but I’ve never seen one with feathers below the head. Their lot look human from the neck down. I should’ve been sharper of eye.”
The avian - aviansie - blinked at him. “My feathers don’t do me much good. I’m not old enough to fly very far.”
Tension bled off in the woman’s stance. “Quen? Where the fuck are we?”
Nomad’s hand lowered and he strode up to her, holstering his own revolver. “How did you get here?”
Parkus approached, still a bit warily, until he stood next to Quen again. “Before you answer, lady-sai, and before we all begin pelting each other with questions, I think it wise to set camp. We can hold palaver and each say our piece, turn and turn about.”
He looked at the other three in turn, thin filaments of sunlight carved by the trees above wavering over black hair, gold-tipped white feathers, and hairless head. “Ka has brought you three together from your own world. I’m not a man who sets either watch or warrant by coincidence. Whatever is to come, there’s much you three need to know and I cannot remain with you indefinitely. A meal, a sharing of khef, and we will part ways.”
The three shared a questioning look among each other, something communicated in silence.
Ka and ka-tet. They share thoughts already. I hope it’s an omen for good.
Parkus turned in the direction of the Little Sisters’ abandoned encampment. “Come on. Time has a funny way in this world and we’ve a great deal to discuss.”
They followed him, Nomad’s arm wound about the woman’s shoulders, and the aviansie’s hand occasionally seeking the woman’s as if for reassurance.
Not gunslingers, not those other two. The woman has some mark about her. It isn’t of the White, but it is magic of a kind. The birdman is barely older than Sawyer when I first met him, if that searching hand is anything to judge by.
He chuckled quietly to himself as the others spoke to each other behind him, all moving down the slope toward tents whose tops billowed in the wind. The chuckle trailed off as they began to pass stakes driven into the ground, their strings pulling the tents’ framework taut, and Parkus’s thoughts grew grim.
Two magicians and a not-taheen. Gan help us all if they face real agents of the Crimson King.
The four of them sat around the campfire as light poured into the horizon and grew colorful in the west. Nomad had taken down a deer - threaded stock, too, with nary a trace of mutation - which had provided enough meat for their stew. The rest he and Parkus salted and hung high over the fire.
Nomad spoke first as water was shared between the four of them, detailing his experiences and the changes to his person. He mentioned the new form taken by his old weapon, this time less with a sense of loss and more a sense of satisfaction. Parkus was pleased with the new tone.
The aviansie, Tal’feek, spoke next. “It was flight practice.” The feathers on his crest sank low, and Parkus was beginning to catch on to his little expressions. He looked ashamed. “I’m not very good yet. Falling behind the others, but my flight instructor says it happens sometimes and not to worry yet.”
Tal’feek’s eyes flicked between the others. “I was talking to a girl in my flight about maybe…” his crest feathers splayed to either side, “...I don’t know. Maybe about seeing the festival in Lumbridge. But this noise started, this awful noise, like someone was rolling little metal things in their hands. Everything got dark, and I could hear this breathing somewhere. Just somewhere in the dark and I was really scared but this hand caught mine and it was over.” The aviansie reached for the woman’s and held it. “I didn’t know where I was, but the World Guardian was with me and pulled me through the dark. Now we’re here.”
Razwan squeezed his hand. “It’s okay, kiddo. We got here just fine and we’ll find a way back.”
Parkus felt guilt settle in his stomach. “I cry your pardon again, Tal’feek. There are beings on this world bearing the heads of birds, weasels, rats, and other animals with the bodies of men, dangerous folken in the service of the Crimson King. Had I seen everything my eyes had to show me, I wouldn’t have drawn against you.”
Tal’feek’s crest rose tentatively, tiny feathers on either side of his beak puffing out in his version of a smile. “It’s okay. Nobody ever treats me like I’m dangerous or strong. It was scary, but awesome, too.”
Parkus smiled back. I was never that young. He looked to the woman holding the boy’s hand. “And you, Razwan. The todash chimes, the travel?”
“Weapons changed, too.” She narrowed her eyes, and Parkus again caught a glimpse of the thin gold rings around her pupils. “I had my swords over there, but here-”
She opened her bag and spilled a number of metal plates onto the dirt in front of her. “-here, I get these. They’re sharp around the edges and there’s a groove carved on the undersides. There’s a dull spot where those painted designs cross on top, but mostly they’re just the most useless dishes I’ve ever seen.”
Parkus’s tone grew sharp at the sight of fine weapons dumped to the ground like trash. “Don’t treat them so casually, lady-sai. Those are orizas, throwing-plates. I can’t teach you - never was one for knives or the plate - but there are women in the Callas who’ll know them on sight. You’ll have to cross through that part of the world. Take instruction from them when the time comes.”
He watched as she replaced them in her bag with more care than she’d revealed them. “Fair enough. I won’t throw them away.” She looked up at him and set her bag aside. “We’ve told you our tales, but there’s a mighty lot we don’t know and you haven’t told us much about yourself. Who are you? What is this world? Can we go back home?”
He held up a hand. “In order - my name is Parkus, and I’m a lawman on my own level of Tower. This is Mid-World. To the last - yes, there are means of travelling back, but the journey isn’t going to be easy for any of you. You will have to go to the Callas and convince the Manni-folk to aid you, or move beyond that into Thunderclap and use the doorways there.”
Razwan waved her cup in a frustrated circle. “Not my first quest. But there’s more, isn’t there?”
Not a gunslinger, no. Parkus smiled. “You have the Touch, lady-sai. A way of seeing into hearts. There is more, a great deal more, if you’re willing to listen. Tomorrow you will go your way and tonight I mine, but before that I would share what wisdom I have with you.”
Tal’feek’s crest rose and his gold eyes brightened with interest. “A story?”
Parkus nodded. “As you say. Perhaps the most important story you’ll ever hear.”
He spoke long into the night, the other three gathering closer to the fire and each other as the tale wove deeper. Parkus told them of Arthur Eld, that knight of White Magic whose lineage spanned many worlds, and the gunslingers - knights who followed in his wake and vowed to protect all existence by protecting the Tower. Gilead, too, he spoke of in tones of reverence, the grand city which was the last bastion of the world as it had been before it'd moved on.
Tal’feek interrupted him. “What does that mean? Looks like this world is still right here.”
Parkus shook his head. “It is, but it isn’t what it once was. When I say, ‘the world has moved on,’ I mean it’s decayed, after a fashion. Magic grows dimmer and fouler. Life falls prey to blight and is seared by the sun, or is warped by mutation in places gone to rot. The good of the world is bleeding out. It has moved on from better times.”
The young aviansie looked back toward the encampment, no doubt remembering the dessicated remains of unfortunate travellers - victims of the Little Sisters and their vampiric cabal - they’d seen as they’d sought supplies, and his crest went flat again. “Oh. I guess it has.”
Parkus smiled reassuringly. “Goodness isn’t yet gone from Mid-World, sai. There’s plenty to be found in the Callas ahead. The White still calls Eld to its aid, too, and as such not all is lost.”
He spoke then of the Tower itself, the many worlds and variations thereof, and of the Crimson King. The King was the high agent of Discordia, the force which sat opposed to the Tower and to life itself. Many of the King’s agents made use of old technologies left by the Old Ones, beings long gone even before the rise of Arthur and Gilead, to their advantage in this world, although - like most things in Mid-World - they, too, had been subject to decay.
He told them of ka-tet, or a group bound together by ka, or fate. That White Magic seemed to flourish in such groups, represented in small mental links that allowed for the sharing of khef, or thoughts, without words.
“I say, ‘sharing thoughts,’ but that doesn’t do it justice. In the High Speech it means to share water. You will pick up on each others’ thoughts given time, but there will be other small boons - knowing whether your ka-mates are alive and well, if one is in danger. Or ka-shume, knowing that your tet is nearing its end either by a breaking of trust or the death of one of its members.” Parkus set his cup on the ground before him and looked at the three huddled closer together on the other side of the campfire. “Those magics are of the Tower, and as such you’ll find you pick up on certain pieces of knowledge despite never being told. Nomad,” he nodded to the fey-eyed man, “is of Eld’s Line, and is thus connected to it anyway. He’s picked up the sayings of this world faster than I’ve been able to explain them. So it will be for the rest of you.”
He stood, and the other three got to their feet. It was Nomad who spoke. “Travel west, first the Callas, then Thunderclap beyond should there be no aid among the Manni-folk. Do I have it right?”
Parkus responded as he dug into his purse. “You say true, I say thankya.” He pulled out a belt with pouches, their contents clacking in the way of metal against each other, and held it out to Nomad. “No crops to wish life to, but bullets for your weapons.”
Nomad accepted them. “My thanks. Are we to-”
“-A moment more, gunslinger.” Parkus dug again and withdrew one of the tin cups and a needle, dropping the latter into the former and handing them to Nomad. “When you set off in the morning, fill this cup with water. Leave the needle in it. Cast about a bit and keep an eye on it.”
The cup was accepted with a raised eyebrow. “What am I looking for?”
Parkus hefted his bag over his shoulder and hopped-shook it into place next to his guitar. “You will see your path when the needle floats. West isn’t precisely the direction, but you’ll be following the Path of the Beam to the Callas proper.”
Razwan met Parkus’s gaze with her billy-bumbler’s eyes. “Can’t you come with us?”
He shook his head. “No. I’m needed on my own world, and I’m not part of your ka after this night nor your ka-tet. You have a gunslinger among you. Look to him as dinh. As your leader.”
Nomad came forward and extended a hand. “Thank you. Or thankee-sai, as you put it, Parkus.”
Parkus shook the offered hand and shook. “Long days and pleasant nights. To all of you.”
The other gunslinger offered a rare smile. “And may you have twice the number.”
Parkus matched the smile. “Now you have it.”
He rolled his shoulders, closed his eyes, and flipped.
Whatever ka has in store for you here, I hope you three live to see your world again. And may whatever darkness I sense in two of you not prevail.
Morning broke and camp with it as Nomad, Razwan, and Tal'feek packed their bags with cured meat and as much water would fit in their skins. They began casting about with the cup.
Nearly an hour passed, and Nomad was strongly considering giving up when Tal’feek spoke next to him. “Nomad, Nomad look! At the needle!”
All three watched as the needle rose to the water’s surface and began to turn. Slowly, as though responding to the lightest of magnetic fields, the point sought a direction roughly west and held there.
Nomad grunted his satisfaction. “It looks as though we’ve found our Beam’s-”
“Nomad look up!” Razwan’s voice was high in excitement. “Quickly, before your eyes adjust. Just look!”
He did. At first he saw nothing but dry grass, the odd tree, and…
“I see it!” Tal’feek nearly squawked. “No, don’t look at the ground! Look up!”
Nomad looked up and his breath caught.
Above them, thin clouds moved lazily over the sky. To the left and right they appeared unremarkable, but at their center they dipped and stretched, ignoring their trek northward and seeming to respond to a thin line pulling them west as they passed. They straightened again once beyond that line, but the herringbone pattern was unmistakable.
“The Path of the Beam. We’re on the path.” Razwan spoke calmly, but beneath that calm was excitement. Hope. “It’s in the grass, too. Look at the shadows under the grass.”
They looked, and all three spotted it right away - once seen, never unseen, it seemed. Thin shadows below the blades of parched grass bent in the same herringbone pattern as above.
Nomad plucked the needle from the cup, drained the water, and replaced both in his bag. “I don’t think we need these to keep our course.” He looked up first to Razwan and then Tal’feek. “Are we ready?”
Razwan curled an arm around his and offered a hand to Tal’feek, who took it carefully in his own. “I am.”
Tal’feek nodded enthusiastically. “I’d like to go home.”
“So would I.” Razwan looked up at Nomad again. “Let’s go home.”
They moved together as one, as ka-tet, along the Path of the Beam and in the direction of the Dark Tower.
Somewhere farther along that same path, Roland Deschain of Gilead awoke and listened for sounds of intruders. The ghost of a feeling, already fading, told him something in this world - his world - had changed. Something important.
His ka-tet slept peacefully around their campfire and nothing seemed amiss. He closed his eyes again.
He knew better, but there was nothing for it now and the pragmatism of his nature knew he needed sleep more than he needed to ponder the machinations of ka at this hour. He allowed his consciousness to drift.
Dreams carried him to a field of red roses. They sang to him.
At their center, a sooty spire rose against a burning sunset, clouds circling its top in spirals that glowed brilliantly in the fading light.
A final thought crossed his mind before even the dream faded to nothingness.
There are other worlds than these.