"YOU ARE KA-TET; ONE MADE FROM MANY. SO AM I. WHOSE KA-TET IS THE STRONGER IS SOMETHING WE MUST NOW PROVE."
There was a moment of silence, broken only by the hard steady throb of the slo-trans turbines bearing them on across the waste lands, bearing them along the Path of the Beam toward Topeka, where Mid-World ended and End-World began.
"SO," cried the voice of Blaine. "CAST YOUR NETS, WANDERERS! TRY ME WITH YOUR QUESTIONS, AND LET THE CONTEST BEGIN."
CHAPTER 1 BENEATH THE DEMON MOON (I)
The town of Candleton was a poisoned and irradiated ruin, but not dead; after all the centuries it still twitched with tenebrous life - trundling beetles the size of turtles, birds that looked like small, misshapen dragonlets, a few stumbling robots that passed in and out of the rotten buildings like stainless steel zombies, their joints squalling, their nuclear eyes flickering.
"Show your pass, pard!" cried the one that had been stuck in a corner of the lobby of the Candleton Travellers' Hotel for the last two hundred and thirty-four years. Embossed on the rusty lozenge of its head was a six-pointed star. It had over the years managed to dig a shallow concavity in the steel-sheathed wall blocking its way, but that was all.
"Show your pass, pard! Elevated radiation levels possible south and east of town! Show your pass, pard! Elevated radiation levels possible south and east of town!"
A bloated rat, blind and dragging its guts behind it in a sac like a rotten placenta, struggled over the posse robot's feet. The posse robot took no notice, just went on butting its steel head into the steel wall. "Show your pass, pard! Elevated radiation levels possible, dad rattit and gods cuss it!" Behind it, in the hotel bar, the skulls of men and women who had come in here for one last drink before the cataclysm caught up with them grinned as if they had died laughing. Perhaps some of them had.
When Blaine the Mono blammed overhead, running up the night like a bullet running up the barrel of a gun, windows broke, dust sifted down, and several of the skulls disintegrated like ancient pottery vases. Outside, a brief hurricane of radioactive dust blew up the street, and the hitching post in front of the Elegant Beef and Pork Restaurant was sucked into the squally updraft like smoke. In the town square, the Candleton Fountain split in two, spilling out not water but only dust, snakes, mutie scorpions, and a few of the blindly trundling turtle-beetles.
Then the shape which had hurtled above the town was gone as if it had never been, Candleton reverted to the mouldering activity which had been its substitute for life over the last two and a half centuries . .. and then the trailing sonic boom caught up, slamming its thunderclap above the town for the first time in seven years, causing enough vibration to tumble the mercantile store on the far side of the fountain. The posse robot tried to voice one final warning: "Elevated rad - " and then quit for good, facing into its corner like a child that has been bad.
Two or three hundred wheels outside Candleton, as one travelled along the Path of the Beam, the radiation levels and concentrations of DEP3 in the soil fell rapidly. Here the mono's track swooped down to less than ten feet off the ground, and here a doe that looked almost normal walked prettily from piney woods to drink from a stream in which the water had three-quarters cleansed itself.
The doe was not normal - a stumpish fifth leg dangled down from the center of her lower belly like a teat, waggling bonelessly to and fro when she walked, and a blind third eye peered milkily from the left side of her muzzle. Yet she was fertile, and her DNA was in reasonably good order for a twelfth-generation mutie. In her six years of life she had given birth to three live young. Two of these fawns had been not just viable but normal - threaded stock, Aunt Talitha of River Crossing would have called them. The third, a skinless, bawling horror, had been killed quickly by its sire.
The world - this part of it, at any rate - had begun to heal itself.
The deer slipped her mouth into the water, began to drink, then looked up, eyes wide, muzzle dripping. Off in the distance she could hear a low humming sound. A moment later it was joined by an eyelash of light. Alarm flared in the doe's nerves, but although her reflexes were fast and the light when first glimpsed was still many wheels away across the desolate countryside, there was never a chance for her to escape. Before she could even begin to fire her muscles, the distant spark had swelled to a searing wolf's eye of light that flooded the stream and the clearing with its glare. With the light came the maddening hum of Blaine's slo-trans engines, running at full capacity. There was a blur of pink above the concrete ridge which bore the rail; a rooster-tail of dust, stones, small dismembered animals, and whirling foliage followed along after. The doe was killed instantly by the concussion of Blaine's passage. Too large to be sucked in the mono's wake, she was still yanked forward almost seventy yards, with water dripping from her muzzle and hoofs. Much of her hide (and the boneless fifth leg) was torn from her body and pulled after Blaine like a discarded garment.
There was brief silence, thin as new skin or early ice on a Year's End pond, and then the sonic boom came rushing after like some noisy creature late for a wedding-feast, tearing the silence apart, knocking a single mutated bird - it might have been a raven - dead out of the air. The bird fell like a stone and splashed into the stream.
In the distance, a dwindling red eye: Blaine's taillight.
Overhead, a full moon came out from behind a scrim of cloud, painting the clearing and the stream in the tawdry hues of pawnshop jewelry. There was a face in the moon, but not one upon which lovers would wish to look. It seemed the scant face of a skull, like those in the Candleton Travellers' Hotel; a face which looked upon those few beings still alive and struggling below with the amusement of a lunatic. In Gilead, before the world had moved on, the full moon of Year's End had been called the Demon Moon, and it was considered ill luck to look directly at it.
Now, however, such did not matter. Now there were demons everywhere.
Susannah looked at the route-map and saw that the green dot marking their present position was now almost halfway between Candleton and Rilea, Blaine's next stop. Except who's stopping? she thought.
From the route-map she turned to Eddie. His gaze was still directed up at the ceiling of the Barony Coach. She followed it and saw a square which could only be a trapdoor (except when you were dealing with futuristic shit like a talking train, she supposed you called it a hatch, or something even cooler). Stencilled on it was a simple red drawing which showed a man stepping through the opening. Susannah tried to imagine following the implied instruction and popping up through that hatch at over eight hundred miles an hour. She got a quick but clear image of a woman's head being ripped from her neck like a flower from its stalk; she saw the head flying backward along the length of the Barony Coach, perhaps bouncing once, and then disappearing into the dark, eyes staring and hair rippling.
She pushed the picture away as fast as she could. The hatch up there was almost certainly locked shut, anyway. Blaine the Mono had no intention of letting them go. They might win their way out, but Susannah didn't think that was a sure thing even if they managed to stump Blaine with a riddle.
Sorry to say this, but you sound like just one more honky motherfuckerto me, honey, she thought in a mental voice that was not quite Detta Walker's. I don't trust your mechanical ass. You apt to be more dangerousbeaten than with the blue ribbon pinned to your memory banks.
Jake was holding his tattered book of riddles out to the gunslinger as if he no longer wanted the responsibility of carrying it. Susannah knew how the kid must feel; their lives might very well be in those grimy, well-thumbed pages. She wasn't sure she would want the responsibility of holding onto it, either.
"Roland!" Jake whispered. "Do you want this?"
"Ont!" Oy said, giving the gunslinger a forbidding glance. "Olan-ont-iss!" The bumbler fixed his teeth on the book, took it from Jake's hand, and stretched his disproportionately long neck toward Roland, offering him Riddle-De-Dum! Brain-Twisters and Puzzles for Everyone!
Roland glanced at it for a moment, his face distant and preoccupied, then shook his head. "Not yet." He looked forward at the route-map. Blaine had no face, so the map had to serve them as a fixing-point. The flashing green dot was closer to Rilea now. Susannah wondered briefly what the countryside through which they were passing looked like, and decided she didn't really want to know. Not after what they'd seen as they left the city of Lud.
"Blaine!" Roland called.
"Can you leave the room? We need to confer."
You nuts if you think he's gonna do that, Susannah thought, but Blaine's reply was quick and eager.
"YES, GUNSLINGER. I WILL TURN OFF ALL MY SENSORS IN THE BARONY COACH. WHEN YOUR CONFERENCE IS DONE AND YOU ARE READY TO BEGIN THE RIDDLING, I WILL RETURN."
"Yeah, you and General MacArthur," Eddie muttered.
"WHAT DID YOU SAY, EDDIE OF NEW YORK?"
"Nothing. Talking to myself, that's all."
"TO SUMMON ME, SIMPLY TOUCH THE ROUTE-MAP," said Blaine. "AS LONG AS THE MAP IS RED, MY SENSORS ARE OFF. SEE YOU LATER, ALLIGATOR. AFTER AWHILE, CROCODILE. DON'T FORGET TO WRITE." A pause. Then: "OLIVE OIL BUT NOT CASTORIA."
The route-map rectangle at the front of the cabin suddenly turned a red so bright Susannah couldn't look at it without squinting.
"Olive oil but not castoria?" Jake asked. "What the heck does that mean?"
"It doesn't matter," Roland said. "We don't have much time. The mono travels just as fast toward its point of ending whether Blaine's with us or not."
"You don't really believe he's gone, do you?" Eddie asked. "A slippery pup like him? Come on, get real. He's peeking, I guarantee you."
"I doubt it very much," Roland said, and Susannah decided she agreed with him. For now, at least. "You could hear how excited he was at the idea of riddling again after all these years. And - "
"And he's confident," Susannah said. "Doesn't expect to have much trouble with the likes of us."
"Will he?" Jake asked the gunslinger. "Will he have trouble with us?"
"I don't know," Roland said. "I don't have a Watch Me hidden up my sleeve, if that's what you're asking. It's a straight game . . . but at least it's a game I've played before. We've all played it before, at least to some extent. And there's that." He nodded toward the book which Jake had taken back from Oy. "There are forces at work here, big ones, and not all of them are working to keep us away from the Tower."
Susannah heard him, but it was Blaine she was thinking of - Blaine who had gone away and left them alone, like the kid who's been chosen "it" obediently covering his eyes while his playmates hide. And wasn't that what they were? Blaine's playmates? The thought was somehow worse than the image she'd had of trying the escape hatch and having her head torn off.
"So what do we do?" Eddie asked. "You must have an idea, or you never would have sent him away."
"His great intelligence - coupled with his long period of loneliness and forced inactivity - may have combined to make him more human than he knows. That's my hope, anyway. First, we must establish a kind of geography. We must tell, if we can, where he is weak and where he is strong, where he is sure of the game and where not so sure. Riddles are not just about the cleverness of the riddler, never think it. They are also about the blind spots of he who is riddled."
"Does he have blind spots?" Eddie asked.
"If he doesn't," Roland said calmly, "we're going to die on this train."
"I like the way you kind of ease us over the rough spots," Eddie said with a thin smile. "It's one of your many charms."
"We will riddle him four times to begin with," Roland said. "Easy, not so easy, quite hard, very hard. He'll answer all four, of that I am confident, but we will be listening for how he answers."
Eddie was nodding, and Susannah felt a small, almost reluctant glimmer of hope. It sounded like the right approach, all right.
"Then we'll send him away again and hold palaver," the gunslinger said. "Mayhap we'll get an idea of what direction to send our horses. These first riddles can come from anywhere, but" - he nodded gravely toward the book - "based on Jake's story of the bookstore, the answer we really need should be in there, not in any memories I have of Fair-Day riddlings. Must be in there."
"Question," Susannah said.
Roland looked at her, eyebrows raised over his faded, dangerous eyes.
"It's a question we're looking for, not an answer," she said. "This time it's the answers that are apt to get us killed."
The gunslinger nodded. He looked puzzled - frustrated, even - and this was not an expression Susannah liked seeing on his face. But this time when Jake held out the book, Roland took it. He held it for a moment (its faded but still g*y red cover looked very strange in his big sunburned hands . . . especially in the right one, with its essential reduction of two fingers), then passed it on to Eddie.
"You're easy," Roland said, turning to Susannah.
"Perhaps," she replied, with a trace of a smile, "but it's still not a very polite thing to say to a lady, Roland."
He turned to Jake. "You'll go second, with one that's a little harder. I'll go third. You'll go last, Eddie. Pick one from the book that looks hard - "
"The hard ones are toward the back," Jake supplied.
". . . but none of your foolishness, mind. This is life and death. The time for foolishness is past."
Eddie looked at him - old long, tall, and ugly, who'd done God knew how many ugly things in the name of reaching his Tower - and wondered if Roland had any idea at all of how much that hurt. Just that casual admonition not to behave like a child, grinning and cracking jokes, now that their lives were at wager.
He opened his mouth to say something - an Eddie Dean Special, something that would be both funny and stinging at the same time, the kind of remark that always used to drive his brother Henry dogshit - and then closed it again. Maybe long, tall, and ugly was right; maybe it was time to put away the one-liners and dead baby jokes. Maybe it was finally time to grow up.
After three more minutes of murmured consultation and some quick flipping through Riddle-De-Dum! on Eddie's and Susannah's parts (Jake already knew the one he wanted to try Blaine with first, he'd said), Roland went to the front of the Barony Coach and laid his hand on the fiercely glowing rectangle there. The route-map reappeared at once. Although there was no sensation of movement now that the coach was closed, the green dot was closer to Rilea than ever.