by Laurence Raphael Brothers
On the third day in the desert, we stopped at a dusty old creek bed full of drift sand. I was hoping we could dig a shallow well but—”No dice,” said my horse, so we moved on.
I sighed. “At least we’re out of the rain.”
“Rain,” he said, shaking his head, “Come on, Susannah, don’t torture me like that.”
We kept going. Pioche, Nevada was supposed to be out here somewhere, said to be the last outpost of humanity in the sprawling desert covering the western half of the former United States. The change was supposed to have started around here, and the people in Pioche might have clues to reversing it. Or maybe we could call for help from the space aliens who were supposed to have landed nearby back in the day, at a place called Area 51. Both were feeble hopes, to be sure, probably no more than hoaxes or myths from a hundred years ago, but we had nothing left to us back east.
Before the change this had been scrub land, dry but livable, but now it was a barren mix of salt flats and sandy dunes. With the exception of some black specks overhead that were probably rocs or teratorns keeping watch in case we should stop moving, there was no visible sign of life, not even a cactus or a tumbleweed.
“Break time,” I said after a while. “Okay?”
“Sure thing, Sooz.” My horse formed a nipple for me in the back of his neck, just behind his silvery mane, and I sipped some of his water.
Later that night, we made a rough camp in the middle of nowhere. Since there were never any clouds or haze, the stars shone like rhinestones and the milky way shimmered overhead. My horse stood a few yards off, looking up at the sky. I wondered what he saw there, how it affected him. After a minute, he shook his head like he’d decided something, and turned to face me.
“Something’s out there,” he said.
“Really? You think so?”
“In the desert. It’s like it’s calling to me.”
I looked in his big blue eyes, put my hand on the soft skin above his nose, felt his warm breath on my cheek. Just like a regular old horse, which was pretty much the opposite of what he was.
“What about you?” he asked. “You got any feel for what’s out there?”
“Nope,” I said. “But I’m not a magical horse critter, either.”
He sighed and I petted him on the nose again. “I’m sorry, horse. Wish you didn’t have to slog all the way out here with me. I know how hard it is on you with no water around anywhere.”
“Come on, Sooz. Can’t hardly be your horse no more if we split up, now can I?”
I hugged him tight around his neck, buried my face in his mane. “Damn it, horse, don’t you make me cry.”
He snorted. “Shouldn’t waste the water. Case you were wondering, that’s why I’m still standing here on four legs stead of hugging you back the way I want to. Takes too much water for me to change right now. Got to conserve.”
“Oh. How much do you have left?”
“Three-four days at this rate.”
“Yeah. This place’s as dry as I’ve ever been. You know I can dowse like anything, but it ain’t working here.”
“Shit,” I said. “It’s not your fault. It’s just— it’s not right the way you’re always doing everything for me. I don’t feel right about riding you, even.”
My horse shook his head and pulled his lips back a little from his big yellow teeth. “I go where you go. No matter what. Unless you want me to leave.”
“Oh no,” I said. “Not ever. I know when I got it good.”
“So why don’t you bind me?” he asked. “Then it really would be forever. And you could use my name, too, ‘stead of just calling me horse.”
I sighed. “We’ve been through that. It’s not fair. You’d have to do whatever I said and—”
“I’d like that, though.”
“Damn it, horse, you know I wouldn’t. And that’s why I can’t use your name, with you unbound, because maybe someone would hear me say it, and then they’d be the one to bind you.”
“I guess it makes sense,” he said. “I just— Well, let’s see what happens tomorrow. We’ll find the place for sure.”
But we didn’t. Just more desert. We started spiraling out from the place we thought Pioche should have been, looking for something, anything at all, and not finding it. On day six, we played dead for half an hour, and lured a pair of teratorns out of the sky, change-born birds so big they shouldn’t have been able to fly, but that didn’t stop them any more than being impossible stopped my horse. I got the first one with my revolver while it was considering who to take a bite out of first, and then I had to pull out my Winchester and waste a precious 30-06 cartridge on the other when it took off. My horse drained the water out of the birds in under a minute, leaving dried out husks behind.
“How much?” I asked.
“‘Nother day’s worth, maybe.”
There were no more black specks in the sky after that.
I kind of lost track of time then because I wasn’t taking near as much water as before, and I think it was making me a little crazy. Everything was hurting, especially my head and my throat. My next drink was the only thing I could think about, after a while.
It was day eight, past midnight, when my horse staggered and fell. It was either luck or him trying to spare me, because I didn’t get my leg crushed even though I wasn’t paying attention to my riding. I had to help him up, and it was scary-easy to do; he weighed no more than me by then. And where he used to be a silver-tone gray with a coat so rich it was almost like a cat’s, now he was pale, bleached white, and I could see his bones under his skin. I felt terrible, because I hadn’t noticed how bad off he was, wrapped up as I was in my own misery.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I just can’t anymore.”
The shame in his voice woke me up from the fevered trance I’d been in, and it made me as angry as I’d ever been. Angry at myself, really, but I didn’t want to admit it.
“You big old idiot!” I shouted at him, though it made my throat hurt even worse. “Why’n’t you tell me you were out of water?”
“You know why,” he said.
“Damn you. You think I want to leave you behind?”
“You got to.”
“Well, I’m not going to. You better take some water from me, and we’ll go on together till we both can’t anymore.”
“From you? No way—”
“Listen,” I said, “I know you love me. I do, okay? But you got to admit I love you too. So for once, let me be the one to give you something.”
“God damn, horse, do what I tell you.”
I thought I was dying, but for his sake I didn’t cry out or flinch, even though I could feel the water draining out of my blood and muscles and guts and eyes and everything. But he started filling out a little, getting a touch of color back in his coat, so that was okay, and when he was done, I was still standing, so that was okay too.
We walked on, side by side, me leaning on him, and I don’t know which of us was slowing the other down, but it wasn’t exactly speedy travel. Then the sun came up, and all I saw in four directions was the hazy flat desert horizon.
“Camp?” asked my horse.
“Nah,” I said, choking on the words. “No point.”
The sun was halfway up to the zenith, and it was already hot as hell and way drier, when my horse shuddered. I thought he was going to collapse again, but he raised his head and I could see his sunken blue eyes gazing fiercely off to the west.
“Water,” he said. “That way. If I ain’t crazy, anyhow.”
I looked, but it was all flat dry sandy nothing. Any other time I’d give him shit, but not today. So we changed course and kept going.
Noon. We were neither of us going to last much longer, and I was wondering if it was okay to just quit. But my horse was still trudging onward, and I decided I’d be damned if I gave up before he did. And just like that, there it was, a big old crater not more than a hundred yards away. I was on my last legs, sure, and so was my horse, but no way could we have missed seeing it from miles off. We went up to the lip and there was just a shallow grade down to the crater floor, and half a mile away a cluster of small structures.
It took us a good fifteen minutes to make it that far. The town wasn’t much, a dozen clapboard buildings. That was strange, because where’d they get the wood from anyway, but just then neither of us was wasting time on little things like that. My map said Pioche was supposed to have a couple hundred buildings spread out over a few square miles of ground, but then it was a pre-change map, so who knew, anyway.
My horse said “Water: there,” and there turned out to be an old-timey trough with a lever pump beside it. And don’t you know it pulled water on the first swing of the handle? Yeah, right, impossible, except we were both head-down in the trough drinking the impossible water instead of arguing with it.
Half an hour later, I recovered enough to realize how messed up I’d been, and how close to dying. My head was pounding, I had the worst sore throat ever, my eyes were burning, and when I got up, the world spun around for a minute before settling down. It was wonderful. I never felt so good in my life, despite feeling like hell, because I was still alive. And my horse was… he was beautiful. He’d filled out back to normal, drinking at least twenty gallons, maybe sucking even more out of the ground or wherever the pump was connected to, and his hair was perfect. I mean, he could have been coming from some horse beauty pageant or whatever like they used to have before the change.
But he was still a horse when he didn’t need to be, and I was going to ask why when he whinnied and slobbered his tongue over my face. Then, his mouth right by my ear, he said quietly, “This place ain’t right. I’m gonna stay a horse for a while. Just in case.”
It only took five minutes to survey the buildings from the outside. It was an old-west town in miniature, with a saloon, a general store, a telegraph office (but no wires or poles), and a stage station with an attached stable that housed neither horses nor coaches. The rest of the buildings were either private homes or just didn’t have signs outside saying what they were. Back east when I was a kid, I used to watch old movies on one of the last videoplasts that was still working at Chapel Hill, and this place had the look of the westerns they made before the change.
There wasn’t a single person to be seen anywhere around. Looking through the glass window of the general store (the other establishments had wooden windows latched shut), I saw it was dark inside. The door was locked, so I went on to the saloon. That door opened when I pushed on it, but with the windows shuttered I couldn’t see much to begin with.
“What the hell,” I said, not specifically to my horse, who just happened to be standing nearby, and I walked inside.
The room was pretty dark, but apart from the light through the doorway which cut off as the door swung closed, some sunlight filtered through cracks in the shutters. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust, but then I could see well enough not to trip over anything. A bunch of wood tables were scattered around the room. Behind the brass-railed bar on the far wall, there were shelves of shot-glasses and steins, two big kegs and a double row of bottles. There was no debris, no sand, no dust even. Couldn’t be more than a couple of days since it was cleaned. But the place was obviously empty, so I headed out again.
Back with my horse, I pretended to mess around with his cinch and so on, in case anyone was watching, and under my breath I muttered. “You’re right. This place is impossible. If we hadn’t just almost gotten killed getting here, if there wasn’t a chance of finding something to help the folks back east, I’d want to turn around right now. You got any ideas?”
He shook his silver-maned head. “Nothing. What’re you gonna —” He jerked a little and I saw the way he was looking. There was motion behind the windows of the general store.
“I’m checking it out,” I said, and walked that way, my hand not far from my holster. My horse ambled along behind me, casual like he was just following me the way any old horse might do. I got close and saw a man in there, standing behind a counter. Well, what was I going to do? I opened the door and walked inside.
“Howdy, miss.” The man was around fifty, salt and pepper hair with a walrus mustache. He was wearing an apron over a gray three-piece suit with a black ribbon tie. Except that he was dressed like an actor in one of those old movies, he seemed pretty normal to me. “What can I do you for?”
“New in town, miss? Just come in?”
“Well, we got a little of everything in this shop. But if we don’t got it, you ain’t getting it, cause this’s the only shop in town.” He chuckled. “Now then, want some rolling tobacco? Some snuff? Trail rations? Ammo?”
I’d got some of my composure back by now.
“Some information would be nice,” I said.
“I got some of that. And it’s on sale, too: free today. What you want to know?”
“Okay. First off, where is everybody?”
The man frowned. “Not sure what you mean by that, missy. This ain’t exactly a big town.”
“I mean you’re the only person I’ve seen so far.”
“Oh, well…. No one in their right mind’s going to walk around at noon in the high summer, are they? But you check out the saloon, I’m sure you’ll find a passel of folk. And if you’re new in town, I recommend it, cause you can probably get a room there for the night too.”
I was going to complain that I just had, but I decided to leave it be.
“Second thing, I heard Pioche was bigger than this. Like ten times bigger.”
“Pioche?” He laughed, cut himself off. “Not laughing at you, miss. But this here is Rachel. Population 34. Don’t know about no Pioche, ‘mafraid.”
I traded him a .45 cartridge for a string of rock candy and got out of there without asking him about where he got all his stuff, or about the telegraph office with no wire and the stage station with no horses. The whole deal was too weird for me just then.
When I got back to him, my horse told me, “Just saw someone go into the saloon. And now there’s music coming out of the place.”
“Uh, huh.” I told him what the shopkeeper had told me. That this was Rachel, not Pioche.
“Don’t make much difference to me. Shouldn’t be here, either way.”
“I’m scared,” he said. “There’s something bad here.”
I’d never even imagined my horse might be scared of anything. I wanted to hug and comfort him, but I didn’t because it would’ve looked weird if anyone was watching. So I just muttered in his ear, instead.
“I’m scared, too. But I guess we better check out that saloon again. Be silly to run away without finding anything out, right?”
“Suppose so,” he said, but he didn’t mean it.
Before I even got to the door, I could see the window shutters were open, and I could hear a piano playing inside. And when I entered, there wasn’t just one person in the room but eight, the saloon keeper behind the bar, two cowboy-looking men bellied up to the bar with a bottle between them, four townies sitting around a table playing cards, and a piano-player at a small upright I hadn’t noticed the first time through. He was smoking a cheroot and playing “Beautiful Dreamer.” But where had they come from? My horse had only mentioned one person going in, and he could hardly have missed the others.
There’s a standard scene in those old movies where the gunslinger steps into the saloon and the music stops and everyone stares at him. Not this time. Everyone just kept on doing what they were doing. None of them looked to be armed, and at first glance they seemed like ordinary folks except for the old-time outfits. I hesitated because right now more than anything I wanted to get on my horse and head on out of this place. But I steeled myself and walked up to the bar.
“Howdy,” I said, because that’s how it goes in the movies, and the saloon keeper nodded at me. She was a tall woman with weathered brown skin and rich russet hair, not young or old, and her eyes were an amazing apple green. But there was something cold about her appearance, something cruel hiding behind her smile. I realized I’d seen the same thing in the shopkeeper’s face, but I’d shrugged it off. In the woman, it seemed more blatant, more forceful, and more terrifying too.
“What’ll you have?” she asked.
“Whiskey,” I managed, still pretending I was in a movie. “Straight up.”
She slapped a shot-glass down on the bar top with a satisfying crack and filled it just to the rim from an unlabeled bottle. I tapped it back. Not bad. At this point something was supposed to happen, like a bad guy barging in, but nothing did.
“You take barter?” I asked.
She shook her head. “We don’t get many visitors. Your drinks’re free. Welcome to Rachel.”
She poured me another; I drank it in two sips. Warmth blossomed in my throat and belly. I could feel the buzz, which was alarming after just two shots, but I guess the almost-dying-of-thirst thing takes it out of you. No one paid me much attention; the saloon keeper didn’t say anything more; and no gunmen showed up, either. I sighed. Wasn’t going to get anywhere this way.
At last I said, “Little town like this, I figure if anyone’s in charge, it’s the saloon keeper.”
She smiled, showing white, even teeth. “Mebbe so.”
“Don’t want to be rude,” I said.
“You ain’t been yet.”
“Okay, then. What the actual fuck is going on here?”
I said that pretty loud, and this time I got a reaction from the room. The piano guy stopped playing; the four at the table turned to look at me; and the two men further down the bar turned, too. No one spoke at all for a moment.
“Fair question,” said the saloon keeper, then, and the others turned back to their piano, their drinks, and their game. “I ain’t gonna answer it today.”
“Gonna set you up with a boarding house room across the way, draw you a bath, get you some dinner later, let you have a night’s rest on a proper bed, then tomorrow’ll be for answers. ‘Kay?”
I hesitated. All those things sounded pretty good, I had to admit. I was worn down with travel and dehydration, not to mention a whole lot of worrying. It wasn’t like I could just make her talk if she didn’t want to, anyway. “Okay.”
“Good! Petey, show her a room, make sure it’s set up nice, and Jen, you do her bath, you hear?”
Two of the card-players got up. They all looked different from one another, but I thought they had the same hard eyes, the same meanness lurking behind their bland expressions. The man tipped his hat, and the woman smiled at me. “I’ll start the hot water,” she said, and left ahead of me.
“Right this way,” said the man, and I followed him outside.
“Got to see to my horse, first.”
“Sure thing. Stable ain’t seen much use lately, but there should be some oats and dried fruit and like that still there.” He pointed across the way. “That place’ll be yours tonight. I’ll just make sure you got clean sheets and all, and when you’re done with your horse, Jen’ll have your bath ready for you too.”
I led my horse over to the little stable, caught him up to date on what was going on.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It just ain’t natural, none of this is.”
I thumped his side. “You should talk, horse.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yeah. I know. And I know you’re natural, too; just a little weird, is all.”
He licked my face and I had to laugh. “Want some rock candy?”
“That stuff’ll rot your teeth,” he said. “But I’ll keep watch. Anything come up, just shout and I’ll get you out of it.”
The hot bath turned out to be the third nicest thing I’d ever had done for me. The second nicest was dinner: a delicious roast with greens and potatoes on the side plus a bowl of cold ice cream afterwards. The nicest came when the sun finally set, and I went to bed. Just as I’d settled in among the crisp white linens and the fluffy pillows and the soft down comforter, I heard a rapping at the shuttered window. I went to look with my gun in my hand, and there he was.
“Sorry,” he said, “I just couldn’t bear it no more. You gonna let me in?”
“Get in, quick, before someone sees you!”
He clambered through the window in his human form, silver-blue skin and long shimmery-metallic hair and every other part of him exposed because he wasn’t wearing any clothes.
I was going to play at being angry with him, but the truth is I couldn’t wait any more myself, so I threw myself at him, and he caught me like I was nothing; and he carried me to that bed. You don’t need to know any more than that what we did, except I’ll say he didn’t ever get tired, he could tell, somehow, everything I wanted and when I wanted it, and when what I wanted was to satisfy him, he let me do that too. In the end, I knew that I had done just that, satisfied him I mean, and I went to sleep in his arms.
When I got up the next morning, the new-risen sun pouring bloody light through my open window, I felt kind of tragic not having my horse there. Of course, he’d snuck out after I fell asleep to go back to being a horse again and not alarm the locals, assuming the locals were capable of being alarmed, which I wasn’t so sure of.
I walked over to the stable first thing, and my horse was fine, but “Ghost town again,” he said. “I’m pretty sure there was nobody in any of the houses overnight.”
“Shit. You’re the one who knows about magic. And you got no idea?”
“I didn’t go to no school for this stuff,” he said. “So I don’t know what all is going on here. I’ll tell you one thing, though, I did figure out.”
“You know I can dowse pretty good. Well, when we first got here, I was so thirsty I didn’t stop to wonder where all this water they had was coming from.”
“I don’t blame you. I think I lost half an hour myself, just pumping and drinking.”
“Ha,” he said. “The two of us, snuffling around in that trough together. I bet we looked cute.”
“You think they were watching?”
“Dunno. Probably maybe, I guess? But what I wanted to say is on the way back here last night, I stopped by the trough again, cause water’s good, right? Except this time I tried to figure out where it was coming from. In my head, like. And I followed it a long way. There’s some kind of cistern thing right there below the pump, but it’s got a channel the water feeds into. And it ain’t like regular groundwater, a layer down there mixed in with the earth. It’s like a goddamn pipe is what it is. It goes down and down all the way.”
“All the way?”
“All the way to the center.”
“You don’t mean the center of the Earth, do you, horse?”
He tossed his head. “Dunno. Know it’s impossible, but that’s what it seemed like to me. But that’s not all. I was following that water channel and I felt it, something else down there. Something mixed in with the water”
“You don’t know what it was?”
“Nope. Powerful stuff, though. Almost scary. I had the feeling I knew it from somewhere, too. But I couldn’t remember where. Frustrating.”
“Okaaay. Anything you think I should do about it?”
“Sorry,” he said. “I really got no idea. Just thought you should know.”
I left him then and ambled over to the saloon. The door was open, but with no one inside. There was a platter on one of the tables, though, with griddle cakes, eggs, bacon, hash-browns, and coffee, piping hot like it just came out of the kitchen, not that this saloon even had a kitchen. Like whoever made it knew I was going to be coming just this minute and started cooking it at the right moment fifteen minutes ago or whatever. And it occurred to me I hadn’t wondered last night where my dinner came from, either. No animals here, no crops, and all this food looked and tasted fresh and delicious.
“Hope you liked it.”
I’d just finished my last bite. I looked up and there she was, the saloon keeper behind the bar like she’d always been there.
“It was great,” I said. “Haven’t eaten this well since— all my life, I guess.”
“Thanks. Always like to see a person who enjoys their food.”
Her words were just what you’d want them to be if you were me, friendly and kind and all that. But there was that something in her face that scared me. I wished I didn’t have to be there, that I didn’t have to be beholden to her, but I couldn’t think of any way out of this situation.
At last I said, “I guess you’re not even pretending anymore you’re regular folks.”
“Never said we were, did we?”
She had me there. “But why all the play-acting and… why all this?”
“We going to get started on real talking, we better have your friend here too, don’t you think?”
Figures she knew all along. I got hot for a minute, thinking maybe she was watching us last night, and then I shrugged inside. Not like it mattered, really.
“Okay,” I said, “I’ll get him.”
“No need. I’ll do it.” But she didn’t move, just smiled at me in a way she might have meant to be kindly, but I thought looked downright vicious. Like a cougar, maybe, or one of those griffins we were starting to get back east, contemplating a deer with a broken leg, anticipating a meal. A minute later the man she’d called Petey led my horse into the saloon. He was in his human form, dressed this time in clean new denim, cowboy boots, and a T-shirt that read “Welcome to the Little A’Le’Inn” and had a picture of a bug-eyed critter on it.
My horse took a chair at my table, scooted it over so I could feel his presence and put his hand on my shoulder. I felt nerves I didn’t know were tensed up calming down, and I put my hand on his, and we just looked in each other’s eyes for a bit. It was rude, maybe, but whatever. I glanced up and Petey was gone, vanished I guess back to wherever he’d come from, but the saloon keeper was still there, staring at us.
“I promised I’d give you answers,” she said, “but first, tell me why you came. I mean, I know why, but it wasn’t no easy journey, that’s for sure.”
“I guess that’s fair,” I said. “You know how fucked up things are back east?”
“Maybe I do,” she said. “But tell me, anyway.”
“Every year, the desert takes more land. Crops are failing, they never grew right after the change, but lately they’re even worse. Seed’s no good anymore. What wildlife is left is mostly mutants and monsters. The ocean’s poisoned too, it’s all salt and green slime, and there’s no fish left. We’re dying out, is what’s happening.”
“Bad news,” she said. “But why come here?”
“We still got a few things left over from before the change. Videoplasts and some comps and phones and stuff that run on solar and don’t need a network. Some folks who study the old times, they were looking into how the change started. And they found out two things. First, the change seems like it began here, a hundred years ago or so. Second, before the change there was a place around here called Area 51. Supposed to be a place where aliens came, space aliens, you know?”
“Like on this shirt your Petey gave me,” offered my horse.
The saloon keeper said. “Yep. That’s a gen-u-ine pre-change tourist-trade shirt you got there, boy.”
I took a closer look at it. I wasn’t impressed. Seemed kinda shoddy, really. But then it was over a hundred years old.
“Anyway,” I said, “It wasn’t much of a hope, but those… those scholars figured that there was nothing else they could do to fix things, and there was at least a chance something could be found out from around here. They asked me because with my horse we stood a chance of getting through the desert. And if there were such things as space aliens, they might be the only ones who could help us, if we could just convince them to do it.”
“Seems mighty thin to me.”
“Yeah. But we had nothing better to try. And as we traveled out west, we began to hear stories about a town still hanging on in the middle of nowhere. No one had been out that far west for years and years because of the desert, but there were still stories being told. Last settlement with people was Grand Junction, and they named the place. Pioche, they said it was. So we wanted to find out if the stories were true, and—”
“And you found us.”
“Yeah. Is it my turn to ask questions yet?”
“Almost. What about you, Mr. Kayful Door? Why are you here?”
“That ain’t my name,” said my horse.
“No, but it’s what you are. What the old-time Celts used to call your kind. Water-horse. And if you got a name, why don’t your girl here use it?”
“She ain’t my girl. I’m her horse.”
“The hell I’m not,” I said. And he looked at me and I looked at him, and we had another of those moments, but this time we were sharing something, something that said don’t trust her more than you can throw her.
The saloon keeper walked out from behind her bar and sat down at our table. I had to force myself not to shy away from her.
“Now it’s my turn,” she said. “Lemme give you some ancient history. Once upon a time history, right?”
“Once upon a time, there was something big and scary outside the world, and it wanted to eat all the world’s magic.”
“Wait up. There wasn’t any magic before the change.”
“But there was. Way far back. Anyhow, the world-spirit back then figured she couldn’t fight the thing, the eater, so she hid all the magic away in a secret world down deep inside this one where the bad old thing couldn’t find it. That was the first change, when all the magic in the world went away. And almost all the magic folk with it. Like you, Mr. Horse.”
“Hold up,” he said. “I never—”
“Yeah, you’re special. Stubborn-like, I bet, so you didn’t go with ’em, and you must’ve turned into a dumb old horse for a long time before the change woke you back up again. Wonder how you got here from Wales, anyhow. Must have been quite a story.”
“Don’t remember,” he said. “Don’t remember anything from back then. Only thing I remember now is Sooz finding me running wild a couple years back. She woke me right up.”
The saloon-keeper shrugged. “Anyhow, the world-spirit’s trick worked for a time. The eater went away and ate some other worlds instead. Just sucked ’em dry. But after a while it come back. Cause it was starving by then, starving to death almost. It had run out of food, and even with no magic around it still liked eating the life out of a world, ’cause that was better than nothing. So it latched onto this world, eating and eating, and after a while it found the secret world where the great spirit was hiding, and it drug her back out again. So we got the second change, the two worlds connected again, with magic coming back and all, but with the world pretty well ruined due to all the eating the big bad had already done.”
“That sucks for us, then.”
“Don’t it? But anyways, there’s always been a few connecting spots between the worlds, because they were never completely separate. And it turns out this place is one of them.”
“Yeah. The eater struck here first, ’cause it sensed a way down to the spirit world. That’s why it’s so dead everywhere around here ‘cept this little spot, where there’s a link all the way down there.”
“You sure got a way of not answering a question and taking forever about it, too,” said my horse.
The saloon keeper kept her face calm, but inside I felt like she was snarling. It took her a moment to answer, then she said, “You got me there. Been a long time since I had anyone to talk to but my own shadows. What did you want to know that I ain’t telling?”
My horse said, “First off, what’s the deal with this place? Why the fake town and fake people? And second, we need help, not stories. We’re dying off. We don’t care about the old world, where magic come from, nothing like that. We don’t got the time to care.”
“I was getting there. But to answer you straight, I’ve been stuck here for a hundred years all alone. Maybe I went a little crazy after a while. Got to distracting myself with games and such, but all this time I was sending out a calling, too. Hoping to snag some folks like you to brave the desert and make it here. Anyhow, it took me a while to wake up and get back to myself after you finally showed. Sorry ’bout that.”
She smiled again, and it seemed to me like she was showing her fangs more than being polite, but she didn’t seem to realize what it looked like, just kept on talking.
“So that was your number one. Number two, I got all this reserve… essence you could call it, magical stuff, stored up from back when the two worlds were separate. Stored way down deep, along with all that other world’s water. But I’m stuck here ’cause of this damn desert.”
“That’s a problem for you?”
“Yeah. See it’s totally dead, so I can’t cross it myself. I can only go where there’s living stuff, at least a little of it. Been stuck here all this time, hoping someone like you would come. And here you are. So all you got to do is carry me across…. And I’ll do it. I’ll fix the world.”
I guess she’d been building to this the whole time, but it still felt like she hit me between the eyes with a mallet. I had to ask. “You’re her? The world-spirit you were talking about?”
“Used to be, anyways. Maybe will be again someday.”
“Okay. Okay. What about the eater? Isn’t it still waiting to get you?”
“Oh no,” she said. “It’s dead now. Or it’s gone. Think it starved to death. So I can come out. That’s why you’re here, you understand? I called you. Your scholars back east, they heard me, and those refugees in Colorado, they heard me, and you heard me too, down deep somewhere, which is why you came all this way across the desert even though you nearly got yourselves killed doing it.”
My horse took my hand, and he didn’t say anything, but I could tell what he was thinking. Not because magic or whatever but because, well, yeah. There was no way we were going to have any chance to talk this out without her listening in on us. I just had to hope she didn’t know what I was thinking, and that she didn’t know people enough to be able to guess, either. So I squeezed my horse’s hand, and he smiled at the saloon keeper and said, “So, what do we gotta do, then?”
* * *
Three days later, we were back in that damn desert again, this time heading straight home instead of wandering around like before. By my reckoning, we were about halfway between Rachel and the beginning of the regular kind of desert with scrub and scorpions and groundwater, where the saloon keeper said she wanted to get to. She’d jogged beside us for three days, totally unaffected by the heat, the lack of water, everything. She just kept a hand on my horse the whole time, even while we were sleeping, I guess because of that connection to something living she said she needed.
The sun was just setting, the red orb glowering on the western horizon like a bloodshot eye. My horse pulled up to a stop, and I dismounted. Around here, the desert was a flat salt plain, broken up into big cracked tiles like someone’s messed up bathroom floor from before the change. There was a thin layer of fine sand on top of everything, but not so much you couldn’t feel the hard desert floor under your feet. Hard enough so my horse clip-clopped on top of it, instead of punching through the crust with his hooves.
“Time to camp?” asked the saloon keeper.
“Nope,” I said. “Time to say goodbye.”
“Say what, now?”
I drew my revolver and pointed it at her, just in case it would do some good. You never know. “This is where you get off.”
Give her credit. She didn’t waste our time pretending she had no idea what I was talking about.
“How long did you know?”
“Almost from the start,” I said. “I mean, you’re creepy as hell. But when you said the eater had died just like that, I was certain.”
“Damn. I went to a lot of trouble making that food for you, too. Didn’t work, huh?”
“Yeah, no. Figures you’d put in extra effort on stuff to eat.”
She shrugged. “So, what’s your plan? Going to shoot me? Is that it?”
“Plan?” I shook my head. “No plan. Just figured you can’t get across the desert without us, and it’d be best to ditch you right in the middle of it. And that part of what you told us must be true, too, or you’d already’ve eaten us all up, back east. Somehow you got trapped here, I guess. Maybe the real world-spirit sucked you in, if you didn’t make her up. But either way, best if you just die right here, I mean, begging your pardon.”
“You figuring to die along with me?”
My horse flinched at that, and I think he would have reared up and pulled back from her, but the saloon keeper was keeping some kind of grip on him, even though she just had a hand up on his withers, and he shuddered and rolled his eyes when he found he couldn’t break away.
“We only got a few years left anyways,” I said. “No sense in dragging it out. Best night I’m ever going to have I already had, thanks to you. It’s all gonna be downhill from there. But we’ll see what you can do in a minute. Maybe we won’t die after all. Maybe you’re just bluffing.”
“The best night of your life, thanks to me. You don’t feel bad about that? About stranding me here to die?”
“I sure do.” I thumbed back the hammer on my gun. “Makes me sick to think about it. What you did for me. For us. Not so sick I’m not going to kill you, though.”
The saloon keeper laughed. It was mean laughter, but it was honest, too. She really thought it was funny.
“All right,” she said. “All right. You got me fair and square, but it don’t matter. See, it was all over and done with when you got into Rachel and woke me up. Nothing you can do to me here. Guns sure won’t work. I mean, you know what I am.”
I looked into her eyes, and all at once I saw it. The spaces between the stars. The place she came from. The void. The darkness. The hunger. It was all there. I knew she was right. There wasn’t any point in pulling the trigger.
“Okay,” I said. “But you’re still stuck here. If you could have crossed the desert on your own, you’d already have done it. We sure ain’t taking you any further.”
“Oh,” she said. “You don’t get it, do you? I don’t need you, girl. I was just taking you with me for fun, so you could see what I was gonna do when I got free. What I need is him. And I got him, too.”
My horse screamed then, and he did rear up, but she kept her grip on him. That’s when I pulled the trigger. Six times, and I put six bullets in her, two in the chest, two in the head, right through her mean, snarling mouth, and two in the chest again. She staggered back, and blood gushed out of her, and for a moment I thought I might actually have done something. But then her body just fell apart into black smoky stuff, and it all swirled around my horse and into his nostrils and his eyes and like that, and he came down on his hooves all at once, like he wasn’t comfortable with four feet anymore.
“Now, girl,” he said, or she did, “you get up on my back, and I’ll show you how the world ends.”
A compulsion grabbed me, like I’d turned into a marionette. I dropped the gun I was trying to reload, and I stumbled over to my horse, herky-jerky. I found I could still talk, which was a relief. “What have you done to him?”
“Same thing I did to the world spirit. I’m inside your sweet little stallion, and he’s inside me. And soon all of you little grub people will be in me, too. And every animal and every tree and every paramecium, but you’ll be last of all. Ain’t you lucky? And then I’ll be moving on, and maybe I’ll find somewhere new to eat, and maybe I won’t, but you won’t be around to care.”
“You’re inside him, too?” She was trying to make me mount up, but it was awkward, because she was having trouble getting my foot into the stirrup. It slipped out and I fell, and she made him laugh while she forced me back to my feet.
“That’s right, girl. We’re two parts of a whole, but I’m a million times stronger. That’s how it goes. Everything I eat becomes me, sooner or later. He’s fighting back, you know, but there ain’t nothing he can do because I’ve eaten a million worlds and even diminished as I am, he’s just one little old water-horse. Takes a while to digest folks, till they’re all gone, you know. He’ll be screaming on the inside, and you’ll be screaming on the outside. Until the end of the world, and I eat you too. Ain’t that nice?”
She got my foot seated in the stirrup this time, and she started puppeting me into the saddle.
“Well, okay then,” I said. “In that case, Milafon Ysbrid, I name your true name, and I bind you to me.”
My horse reared up, and since I wasn’t seated properly yet I just fell backwards off his rump. I landed hard, smacking my head against the salt tile floor, but nothing was broken. I could still talk, so I said, “Milafon Ysbrid, I name you. You are mine, and you always will be mine.”
She screamed a terrible equine scream with his lungs, and I think she was trying to do something, to control me, to shut me up, maybe, but whatever magic or power she’d been using on me didn’t work anymore, because it couldn’t. I struggled to my feet. Too late it occurred to her, she was in a horse’s body, and she could maybe stomp me with it, but even as she was turning to try it, I told her, “Milafon Ysbrid! I’ve named you three times! You’re mine, now and forever!”
And it was true. I could feel him now, and her too, like they were both part of me. It was like I’d grown a second heart, a huge and powerful one too, only it was rotten with cancer, shot through with corruption, and in its center, a kernel, a seed, a mote of infinite coldness and darkness— An awful thing, the eater of worlds, but she was mine now, just like he was, and there was nothing she could do to resist my will.
I took a step toward my horse, and I put my hand on his soft nose. He made a terrible choking noise, and he snorted out a writhing wormy thing, cold from the depths of interstellar space, right into my hand. I dropped her to the ground, and ground my boot heel into her, and because she was part of me, I could feel her breaking up, dissipating, and fading away. It was like having my heart cut out of me then, and I staggered and would have fallen except my horse had his arms around me and was holding me up.
“Told you I wanted you to bind me,” he whispered into my ear.
“Oh yeah? What’s my name, then?”
“Susannah, but— oh, you don’t mean it, do you?”
“I do,” I said. “My full name. Three times.”
“It ain’t gonna work,” he said. “It can’t work. You’re a human. You’re not the kind to be bound. And even if it could, I couldn’t be the one to bind you. It don’t work that way.”
“For me,” I said. “Please. It’s what I want.”
He stopped protesting. “Susannah Leah Apterbach, will you be mine?”
“Forever,” I said.
He told me my name twice more; and I could feel the balance shifting, and like that I was a part of him, the same way he was a part of me. For a while we just sat there together holding hands, he in his human form, me in mine, exploring one another from the inside out, and by the time we were done, it was full dark and the stars were out, shining bright in the sky overhead.
“Well, okay, then,” he said at last. “So it did work. But about that forever thing, the world you know, we only got—”
“A few more years? I think we got more than that, horse.”
I pointed. “Three days, thataway. All the water the world-spirit got stowed away in her secret world. All the essence stuff the eater latched onto to make that faked-up town. It’s all there, and it’s waiting for us.”
“You’ll see. It’s all going to work out. We’re two parts of a whole, now, can’t you feel it? It’s all there waiting for us.”
“Oh… oh, yeah. It really is.”
“Come on then,” I told him. And a minute later, if you’d been there, you’d’ve seen two horses, a stallion and a mare, galloping side by side through the desert, galloping together under the bright shining stars.
* * *
About the Author
Laurence Raphael Brothers (he/him) is a writer and a technologist. He has published around 30 short stories in magazines such as Nature, PodCastle, and Galaxy’s Edge. His WWI-era fantasy novel Twilight Patrol and his romantic urban fantasy novella The Demons of Wall Street are available on Amazon.