I find her where I usually do, standing on the rim of a canyon on an unnamed world. I'd followed the canyon to find her; in my head I'd pictured the last crevasse I'd seen her near, then tweaked it slowly with my mind until I caught a glimpse of her. Her dog waited just like always near her side, tongue lolled in patient evaporative trembles.
The canyon was immense, a world's skin gone dry and cracked - no erosion feature this. No water ran down its twisted base, nor was there sign that there'd ever been. She stood on the precipice's edge, along one side, a saddened mien about her which caught flight on the gentle breeze and left a fog of wishful thinking just downwind. She still had no features, just a smear of light and forgotten place where once (there must have been) a unique and identifying face.
I saw them turn to face the gamma breeze of my entry, some feet away from where I'd stepped from Herakles across the years. The dog raised his ears just slightly, tongue slipping back inside as he took a sniff; my scent was familiar to him, though, and he crossed the several feet to nudge at my hand with his soft-furred head. I scratched behind his ears for the umpteenth time, squatting to give his loyal pate the stroking it deserved.
"I haven't seen you in quite some time." Her voice was quiet, slightly muffled by the wind, for she still faced away.
"This isn't it, you know."
I nodded to the vista spread before us, spread my arms to frame it for my eyes and grant it scale. "I suppose it's not."
"It's quite beautiful, though. Even if it's not mine, it's one to remember."
"How is it different?"
"Oh, I don't know. Too deep, too narrow, no river at the base - all manner of small things that leave a twinge in memory, that label this as 'not that place.' A canyon, yes, and long enough, but not the same. Perhaps one step closer down the line, towards home; but another dice roll in the game, and for today that's fine."
I waited for some minutes while she gazed about herself, then turned to face us, the dog and I.
"Where have you been?"
"Around and about, and in and out. I came quite close a time or three, and he came closer still one day. Yet both of us still walk the lanes, and for the moment we're both still free."
She nodded, moved to a weathered rock and sat down upon it. The dog moved to her and placed its warm soft head upon her lap, a small sigh of contentment that she was seated at long last where now his ears could be presented for her expert hands to idly stroke them.
We waited, there, a time.
"You've come to ask me something, I can tell. You never sit that way, words closed up inside, unless you're trying to figure out how to broach the subject well and truly say what it is you need. It's been too long, though, and your face still can't hide."
I laughed once. "It's true. My face is still upon me. Do you think I'll shed it ever and anon?"
"I hope not, for your sake. For with its loss comes others deep inside, where mirrors aren't required to find the empty spots." She looked out across the edge again, her head rising to peer out into the middle distance there. "It's not the same. This one is closer still, but yet, it's not the same."
"Do you recall the one you seek, well enough to picture it? Or is this a journey of relatives, with each waypoint some small fact closer to the end?"
She sat in silence for a moment. "I think I can remember it. I have a picture in my head, and these all-" she waved out across the yawning deep- "-are coming closer to it. I see the ones I've seen, changing in a flow, and I try to morph them into mine. One day, perhaps, I'll manage it, and then I'll know that I've arrived."
"Where are we?"
A laugh. "I have no idea. I don't keep track in any way except the scenes - how close to my city? And how close to my canyon can I come? I'm no more than fifteen boulders away, perhaps - a quarter mile width, and one small river. You tell me; you found me here and made the trip."
"You know that that's not how it works. I followed you. The single step could hide a million jumps that way, when all I have is destination and the destination's live."
"I know." More silence. The dog whuffled and lay down flat, resting its muzzle against her leg. "But why are you here? Why not wait until I returned, and find me there, where's it's not so lonely or so old?"
I looked away and tried to find a cloud that spoke to me, but the sky was unbroken green. "I have a thing I need to ask."
"When you found your quarry...did you kill them?"
She went silent for a bit. "Why do you ask?"
"No." A sigh. "I suppose it's dangerous to admit this, but I did not. I couldn't make myself. We'd dueled and fought for so many years across the lanes; so many wounds and almost gots that somehow it seemed pointless when the time came. I faced her across an activ hand, and could have had her; she wasn't set when I caught up. But I let her go."
"When was this?"
"I don't know. Perhaps a hundred years subjective. A long time to be at peace with one's worst fear. I see her still, from time to time - always, across a canyon like this one. We wave, now, every time, and I know she's doing what I am - searching for the scene that tells her that she's home." There was a moment where nothing moved. "I hope she finds her way there one day."
"I...caught up with him."
She smiled at me, the emotion burning through the mask of facelessness enough to show me upturned lips and crows-feet near where her eyes must be. "I thought you might. Of all of us. You've got the hunter there in you, and the prankster right alongside."
"He made me think..." this was harder than I'd foreseen. "When we faced each other, either one of us could have made the kill, or both. But neither did. And then we asked ourselves, why haven't any of us been told that our quarry is ourself? Why are we all haunted by impassive unknown copies of our lives, and they by us? Is there a purpose in the chase?"
"So many questions."
"Which would you like answered most, if I gave you but the one?"
I considered, frowning at the loose-packed soil beneath my feet. "Is there a purpose to the game, one that you know?"
Exasperation caught me out. "That's all I get?"
"For now. Indeed."
"Then let me ask you this instead - having come face to face and let him go, am I in danger now that I was not before?"
"It's possible. There are no rules. There are no habits to the game. It just was, and is."
"Who runs it?"
"No-one. The universe itself. There are penalties for misplays, indeed, but it's hard to tell if they are wrought by persons or by greed or fear or panic or life itself. But there are penalties."
I stood. "Thank you."
Her smile was wry. "I haven't told you anything you hadn't figured out yourself."
"No." I smiled back. "But deduction and conversation are not the same. Some small surety is added to my own spun thoughts."
"I'm glad, then, I think."
"May I find you later if I have need?"
"Of course. You know where I'll be. I think the river at the bottom, that's the direction in which I'll go."
I moved across to her, patted the dog, and laid my hand atop her head. She did not move or look towards me, her eyeless gaze fixed out across the verdant air. I stepped back, not wishing to gammaburn her with my passing, then; she raised up one hand in what might be farewell. I nodded.
As I surrender out my name, my glance passes out across the canyon; on the other ridge I spy two figures seated, looking back. Before I can determine if a third has just left my vision blanks into the phosphenes of the Lane and I curse my laggard wits.
Some ten thousand more seconds have passed by the Stone; soon comes the rendezvous.
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