Within minutes, Kelraji and Linus are snoring loudly into their straw-filled pillows, their eyelids twitching as they pass deep into the valley of sleep. Jake sits by his lonesome next to the fireplace, picking over the remains of their dinner and contemplating his next move.
Jake wraps his coat around himself and sits crosslegged, staring into the fire. After a while, he takes his guns apart and meticulously cleans them, shining the barrels and getting the discharged powder out of the rifling.
He stays awake through the night while his partners sleep, keeping vigilance over their strange new apartment and mulling over the day’s events. He comes to the conclusion that he doesn’t know enough about the locals or their new hosts to take much decisive action. Frustrated with waiting, he drifts off to sleep early in the morning, trying his best to keep one eye open, back to the wall and facing the door.
Jake’s uncanny fortitude keeps him up through most of the night, but in the end he allows himself a brief period of rest, drifting off to join his companions in the nether of his subconscious.
As usual, Jake’s dream is vivid, all-consuming and as real as any given moment of his life these days. He finds himself in a simple bunkhouse built of plain wooden slats. The floorboards are well worn, and three beds line one wall, each strewn with the trappings of young men—gunbelts, riding boots, serapes and wide-brimmed field hats. A handful of firecrackers poke out from a saddlebag thrown over one headboard. A cool breeze blows in through the door, where Jake can see fields of grass rippling in the distance.
A round mahogany endtable stands conspicuously in one corner of the room, and the gunslinger is drawn to it. Arrayed across the table are a handful of pistols, most of them revolvers, fanned out like the hour-marks on a clock’s face. Jake leans in to inspect them, counting eight in total, with an empty space for a ninth.
The weapon at the twelve o’clock mark is larger and grander than the rest by a fair margin, a huge revolver forged from gleaming steel, its handles finished with a fine-grained wood.
Moving clockwise, the next two pistols seem to go together, both revolvers of similar manufacture to the first, but of a more modest size, and crafted from more mundane metal. The first of the pair looks lightweight, yet unbalanced, and sports a rook’s skull carved into the grip. The other pistol is solid and sturdy looking in contrast, steadfast and reliable while its match seems loose and unpredictable.
After these comes another apparent paired set of revolvers, matching in shape but different in coloration. The first is stained a tough gunmetal black with delicate ivory grips, creating a sharp, almost befuddling contrast. The other is coated in bronze with carved wooden grips. Its foresight has an odd, S-shape design to it, like the teeth of a key rounded down with use.
The remaining three weapons depart entirely from the traditional revolver designs of the first five. The one following the bronze revolver at roughly six o’clock is also made of bronze, though its design is incredibly strange, seemingly alien. Instead of a barrel this one has two solid metal prongs which jut forth in parallel like the arms of a tuning fork, their purpose unclear. Behind this contraption is a mechanism which seems to rotate like a revolver’s cylinder, though it has only two chambers, each for impossibly large slugs, with nothing behind the chambers to serve as a base or firing pin.
The next gun Jake at least recognizes, an exotic design of modern revolver with the cylinder in line with the trigger rather than above it. A slide-like mechanism signals the revolver’s ability to fire semi-automatically. A silhouette of the statue of liberty is stamped in pink upon the weapon’s barrel.
The eighth and last piece is another strange one, a stolid semi-automatic model reminiscent of a brick in shape and stature. The handgun’s sighting rails and safety mechanisms, if there ever were any, have all been stripped down, adding to the weapon’s rectangular image. A raised metal nub sits at the center of the grip where the shooter’s palm might lay, though its purpose is unclear.
There is an empty space for a ninth pistol between this gun and the first, occupied only by a faded spot in the wooden surface of the table in the shape of a Ruger Old Army.
Jake, not one to stand on ceremony, runs his hands across each revolver in turn, feeling the cold metal. The dream, if it is one, is complete and consuming, and he finds himself regarding each firearm as an individual, like a person. They each have their own personality, power, and flaws. They are beautiful. His eyes linger on the alien, two-pronged revolver. The owner of this weapon was no gunslinger of this world.
He draws his father’s weapon, so plain next to these, but with all the memories and power of his family. ‘E.C.’, his father’s initials, grace the handle and his fingers trace their familiar lines as he lays it in its assigned spot with the other eight.
The table begins to turn as Jake completes the wheel. The pistols brush beneath his fingers one at a time, and now with each touch he hears voices in his head, a different voice for each gun. Some are rough and bitter, others jovial and laughing. With each new pistol, he feels as if he is crossing some bridge within his mind, reaching out across vast distances to hear the murmur of other voices. The slow revolution of the table mesmerizes him, dragging him into a deep revery where time seems to stop.
After what seems like ages the gunslinger looks up to find that he is no longer in the shabby bunkhouse. Now he stands with the table in the middle of a long, grassy rectangle lined with hedges on all sides. A thick white line of chalk bisects the field in two. In the distance, Jake can make out a castle of grand design built into a bluff. Gilead, a voice from somewhere within provides.
The table continues to turn in front of him, clicking with each rotation like a tumbling cylinder as the pistols pass beneath his open palm one by one.
‘Gilead.’ The word is alien to his tongue, but fits in the palm of his mind like an old friend. ‘Gilead.’ His memory is wracked by another name, but it slips from him before he can pin it to reality with a word.
The revolvers are mesmerizing, certainly, and each radiates a different power and voice, speaking to him out of place and time. He wonders if Gilead is a clue to his next step, and his curiosity gets the best of him; he places his hand back on his father’s gun and listens with his heart for what it has to say.
The table ceases its rotation as Jake’s hand comes to rest upon his gun. A dizzy thrill rolls over him, a seasick excitement which recalls his encounter with the interplanar knothole of yesterday night. A man materializes from absolute nothingness in the middle of the grass lawn some ten paces away, opposing him from the other side of the white stripe.
Jake is not completely surprised to find himself staring back at him, their deadshot-blue eyes locking with immediate tension. Well, some version of himself, at any rate. This Jake Chambers looks a sight older, his face more gaunt and creased, his form thinner and stringy. He wore an eye patch over his left eye, and his right arm was not his own but some alien appendage in its place, thick and bark-covered like the skin of a living tree. His jacket and hat were of his style, but done all in black. Two pistols hang low on his hips in the gunslinger way, the right his father’s Ruger, the left a strange bronzed handle, recalling the mysterious pronged shooter from the spinning table.
The double bows low, one leg straight out in front, tapping his left collarbone three times with that claw-like hand of living bark. “Hile, gunslinger.” He stands straight and looks around. “Feh, I remember this. Let’s see which way the wind blows this time. So, Jacob Chambers of New York city, what will you have? Palaver, or straight to business?”
’It’s only a dream,’ Jake assures himself. Only a dream. He is wary of these doppelgangers—something in him tells him that despite its obvious falsehood, there is something portentous in this vision. A warning of things to come, mayhap? He looks the thing over: if this is his future, he had best wrest what information he can from it. Dreams in this Outworld, like his dreams in New York, are far from the random mutterings of an unshackled mind.
He bows low, one foot out in imitation of his guest, and sweeps his hat across his body. He removes his father’s gun from the table and holsters it—the familiar weight comforts him, giving him confidence which he projects through his voice, “Palaver. Spirit or demon—what has brought you here to my dream-world? Since you have played this hand before, with what intentions of ka are we met?”
Jake’s doppleganger loops his thumbs into his gunbelt, his expression one of true contemplation. “The skin between worlds stretches thin when one walks the sleeper’s isle. Things bleed through, crossing over space and time. Even now you must know that you are set apart from the other two. We see ’cross worlds the way other men see ’cross a line of fence.”
The man in black smiles. "Your intuition serves you well, gunslinger. I had the same thought when I was in your when, and it is true now as it was true then. You ken three cards on the table, your hand full of could-be’s and what-if’s, while I ken all five, my fortune all but told. You have but the flop, freshly drawn, while I stand in the river, the brink of one last wager, my followers scattered, broken and turned traitor, my ka-tet divided and at the mouth of ruin. Trust no one Jake, not those you meet along the path, not your men, not the three, not even yourself.
“And that’s all you’ll get for free. Prove your meddle and you’ll earn another spin. Too slow and its last stop, everyone off.” The other Jake hovers one hand above his father’s gun, elbow cocked and fingers waggling.
Jake’s face remains stony, but he can’t help but cock an internal smile. ‘So simple, the rules of this place.’ He believes now that this is him from another when, but cannot digest yet the thought that his companions might betray him; though fresh-met they are, he feels as though Linus and Kelraji would not turn on their group without just cause.
His opponent readies himself and he follows suit. One last time, two gunslingers square off under the alabaster peak of gilded Gilead, opposing sides of an extinct race of natural-born warriors, the cursed guns of Fate. Jake’s keen eyes are locked and loaded, fingers flex slowly over his weapons, his pulse quickens and time seems to slow.
The first draw is like lightning.
Jake goes for his father’s gun like quicksilver, but he is dismayed to see his opponent clear his weapon first. The other Jake levels his own Ruger Old Army in that alien, tree-like hand of his and fires. Even in the face of death Jake does not flinch, choosing to go for his own guns rather than dodge or turn aside. A tongue of fire and smoke licks at him from across the grassy lawn, and a force like a sledgehammer strikes him in his chest, lifting him from his feet.
Jake narrows his eyes, battling through the pain as he finally clears leather with both of his revolvers, loosing two shots as he travels backward through the air in the exaggerated crawl of the ’slinger’s battle fever. The first round catches the black-clad Jake in the hip, sending him spinning sideways. Jake volleys with his left, but the second round flies wide, unable to connect with the man tumbling through his dreams.
Jake lands hard on his back, knocking the wind out of him and giving fresh life to the gaping wound in his chest. He hears the other man thud to earth before the world goes black. When he is able to open his eyes again, he gathers that mere seconds have passed, but already it is too late. The man in black stands over him, his father’s gun still clutched in his bark-covered fist and trained squarely at Jake’s head. His other hand is pressed firmly against his blood-soaked gut.
The other Jake grimaces as he speaks. “You dueled well enough, but you’ve lost, same as my when. I’ll give ye one last morsel before I send ye home: You must save Henry from himself. Show him our way, or his addiction will betray you all.” Without waiting for a response, the other man pulls the trigger. Jake watches the hammer fall with a crash of gunpowder, and suddenly the earth beneath him has turned to liquid, and he is sinking, cast into the depths by the revolver’s fiery report. The endtable above him tips sideways, sending the myriad of pistols cascading after him. Together, they fall through space, and Jake twists around to see a spot of green in a field of blue rising slowly to meet him. Sure enough, the spot widens to become an island wreathed in clouds. Trees cover its majority, though some of its coast has given way to beaches or cliffs. Mountains dominate the island’s northern shore, but he falls towards a peninsula on its southern tip. The pistols of his extended ka-tet pass by him, reaching the island ahead of him and disappearing across the hills, forests, beaches and caves.
Jake jerks awake with a start in his chair by the fire. He runs his hands over his forehead and chest, and though they ache with the memory of pain, he finds no wounds. The fire has died down to a handful of glowing embers, and the first fingers of dawn creep through the meurtriere dotting the stone walls of their bedroom. Kelraji and Linus are in their cots, still dozing fitfully in the depths of sleep.
Jake only has a few moments to himself before a hushed knock sounds in the murky gloom of dawn. It comes again after a beat, painstakingly quiet, but definitely coming from the other side of their stout wooden door. The slumber of the other two travelers is not disturbed in the slightest by the appearance of their guest.
The fog of sleep lifts from Jake’s mind quickly, as always, and he finds himself again in their tiny chamber, the embers of the coals dying at his feet. He decides to think on the message from his other self later; the message on the other side of the door may not wait for his introspections.
Lifting himself from his seated position quietly and carefully, he dares to draw one of his weapons as he makes his way across the chamber. He stops at the door and thinks for a moment whether to wake his companions, but the voice in his head tells him that this message is for him alone. Besides, what consequence might it bear to wake unexpectedly from a dream in this place? If his own nightmare were any indication, they are busy battling demons of their own.
Pistol raised, he knocks once on his side of the door, ever so softly.
a man’s voice with a British accent responds, his strained whisper barely audible. “It’s Arthur Glass! Please let me in. I’m not supposed to be out here.”
The bedraggled slave squeezes through the door, his features strained and breath short. “Thank God you’re awake! I can only imagine. . .” Glass looks over at Jake’s Indian companion. “And I am glad he is asleep as well.”
Arthur unrolls what looks to be a square of leather etched with some sort of drawing. He hands it to the gunslinger. “Please, sir, I beg of you. Help me get out of here. Help meescape.” His eyes grow large. “I know things about this place. Look, I made you a map based on some stuff I found in Mer’veloth’s library, along with my own observations. I’ve marked what I know of the land already. Death is better than the life I have here.”
Jake takes the leather scrap and glances at it quickly; it’s crude, but it would tell them enough to see whether they were being lead astray by their dark elf guide. He pockets it silently.
He places one hand on Arthur’s shoulder reassuringly. Whispering, “I will help you escape, Arthur. One way or the other. I know what it’s like to be stuck in a place you do not belong. For now, I need to know more about Mer’veloth and his motives. I am not wrong in assuming he knows more about the book than he is letting on, am I? And who was the sorceress at his side—might she be plied for more information, or is she as deadly and twisted as he?”
The man’s eyes begin to brim with tears of joy at the gunslinger’s words. “Oh thank you, thank you Jesus! Yes, I imagine Mer’veloth knows more about your book than he lets on. His people have lived on this island a long time, and no doubt have collected some knowledge of Telen’oeran and his mystic items. The sorceress Zan’esu likewise may know a great deal; from what I have seen she is as powerful as she is beautiful. You are right to distrust them—the elves’ society is depraved, valuing cruelty, deceit and backstabbing over all else. I have no doubt they will turn on you the second they believe you can no longer be manipulated. If I were you, I would run from them at first light, and never look back.”
The slave cocks his head nervously, listening for footsteps in the hall. The veins at his neck pulse with anxious fervor.
Jake senses the anxiety in Arthur’s mannerisms, and quickens his speech, sensing their time grows short. “I know these elves are not to be trusted—we have a saying in my world, ‘never trust an elf’. I will deal with them carefully. One more question, if you can. Who are the people that have captured Mer’veloth’s castle? Are they our friends, or our enemies?”
Arthur bobs his head nervously and wipes a bead of sweat from his upper lip. “Ah yes, the Myrmid, a strange people indeed, more alien than any even I have seen. They ride giant insects to war, ants the size of tanks and just as deadly. They use the bug’s chitinous plating for arms and armor, and even seem to worship them like some sort of terrible god. Mer’veloth had me captive when they came for us, swarming up from the deep beneath the castle and annihilating everything in their path.”
The slave’s eyes seem to light up as he mentions this last bit. “The deep. . . of course! There is an extensive system of caverns beneath the castle, with tunnels that seem to go for miles in every direction. I know of one entrance here,” he points to the map in Jake’s hands, indicating a crossed pick and hammer with ‘Deeproad by the Sea’ etched beneath it. “The tunnels go all the way to the base of the castle,” he continues, running his finger along the map to the marker labelled ‘The Iron Mountains.’
Arthur shrugs. “Anyway, it might be one way to avoid being caught by Myrmid patrols, or the giants. Giants hate going underground. As to whether the Myrmid are friend or foe, I cannot say. I know they are human, or look like it at least, and I know they speak English, though God knows why. What knowledge I have is the tidbits I’ve been able to observe of them as what was left of the elven host fled south to set up camp here.”
Jake rubs his stubbled chin thoughtfully. “Interesting, interesting. Giants, you say? Ant riding warriors? What place-out-of-time have we stumbled into?”
He motions Arthur to the door, sensing his partners are near waking. “Arthur, I would ask one last question before you leave. Can our guide be trusted to take us to the castle safely?”
Arthur scratches at the bedraggled hair on his head. “Tis. . . Tis is like all dark elves. He will do as you ask for as long as it is in his favor to do so, and not a minute longer. He may take you to the Myrmid, but that doesn’t mean he won’t stab you in the back when you’re through. When we’re through,” the slave adds hopefully.
“Aye,” Jake nods in assurance, “You need not worry on that count, Arthur. Count on me. Now please, I don’t want to delay you any further. Thank you for your help on our quest.”
The slave bobs his head once more, grasping the gunslinger’s hand graciously. “No, thank you, thank you my dear man. I will find you on the road once you set out from Splinterhold. You need not wait for me.” With that, Arthur Glass slips down the hallway, padding into the gloom with painstakingly care.