I've been here before...but not as I stand here today.
--Def Leppard, Desert Song

DARKNESS GATHERS: Part XII
(c)1998 B Stearns



The raven was aware of crossing the barrier that kept The Lady from getting into Athyri, banking past the the twin towers and landing on the fence once meant to keep the wraiths away. He cawed a few times, waiting to see if it brought any result. For several minutes, only the slight breeze greeted him, rustling the long grass and disturbing the remaining bells. He opened his wings to fly in closer...

"We were certain that you were no longer," a male voice said from behind, and Steve left the fence in a startle of feathers before his feet hit the ground.

"Remian," he said, relieved. "I remember you."

"I'm glad. But you're not the actual Er Rai."

Steve began to answer, then hesitated. There was a ring of truth in the words, and he turned it over in his mind, wondering if they'd missed something. "But I am," he said, trying to sound convinced of his own words. "I'm not the original who came in here, but..." He paused, the sinking feeling growing by leaps and bounds. Loopholes. It's just a loophole. "Neal brought me in. Is Mairiesa here?"

"There is nowhere else," Mairiesa said from behind. "You're a curious sight! Neal's a better walker than I thought."

Despite the exclamation, her words were rueful, and Steve watched her and Remian share a loaded glance. He felt like an impostor, suddenly, and shook it off. Fuck it. Jay needs our help. "Yeah. Yeah, he is. Uh...are you guys familiar with rocks about so big..." he gestured with both hands, estimating the size of the thing, "...with green centers, that when picked up by the intended victim put them out like a light?"

Mairiesa frowned at him in alarm "Who has such a thing!"

"Jay does. What do we do about it?"

"Chances are, by now, nothing. It would've been intended to incapacitate him, and by leaving the others alone, you've made it easier for her to destroy them, even in daylight."

"They've been without me for awhile, and been fine," Steve snapped.

"But with the Inverse awake," Mairiesa said.

Steve frowned at her in impatience.

"Where are the others? And where did they find this stone?"

Steve waved her off. "For Christ's' sake, what do we do about it!"

"I can't just tell you, it isn't that simple," Mairiesa said.

Remian nodded to Mairiesa. "She's been trying to draw you out," he said softly.

Steve stared between them. They were nothing like the Wisps he'd met, the last time he'd been there. The enormity of what he'd missed only outlined his conviction that he was out of place.

Mairiesa glanced at Remian before returning her attention to Steve. "It was too convenient to let the Otherworlders do it for us. I knew this was coming. If the Er Rai was brave enough to sacrifice himself towards the end of all this, I can do no less." She turned without preamble and embraced Remian, drawing quickly away.

"I'll come with you," he said.

"No," she said immediately. "I need your eyes here, and you know it. They'll need you, if this turns out badly." She looked at Steve. "How far from the Outlands did they make it?"

Steve shrugged. "I didn't get that many details. I've been playing catch-up since I got here."

Mairiesa vanished, and a spark of light just bright enough to be seen in daylight shot past Steve and rose into the air. It hovered for a moment before streaking away, in the direction opposite the Turning.

Steve stared dumbly for a moment before realizing that was his cue. He nodded at Remian, who returned it.

"Goodbye again, Er Rai," he said.

The raven shot off after the Wisp, relieved to be out from under that too-knowing stare.

* * *

"This is a powerful work of destruction," Mairiesa said, frowning in disappointment as she eyed Jon from a slight distance. Smitty had nearly made short work of her when she'd arrived without Steve; none of them had been immediately convinced it was her. The only thing that had kept Smitty from setting her on fire just to be safe had been the arrival of the raven, who had swooped in and landed on Jon's shoulder.

"More good news," Ross said.

Mairiesa nodded. "Was it given to him, or did he find it?"

"He found it," Neal said. "But it was left for him to find. It caught everyone's attention, in a way we couldn't ignore. But he was the one who found it."

Mairiesa moved a little closer to Jon, examining the object around his neck carefully but making no move to touch it. "It's a good thing you didn't make any serious attempts to remove it. Succeeding would have killed him, and whoever removed it, as well. This is a Saros stone. The more powerful the wearer, the more destructive it is. The Inverse is being absorbed from the inside, slowly, and won't awaken. These are difficult to create, and can only be used once--but once is enough, understand. This one's compatible with his energies, so chances are it was created specifically for him. He'll sleep until it finishes him off."

Neal was on the verge of panic by the end of her explanation, and doing anything he could to hide it.

"Is there anything you can do?" Ross said in the hush that followed.

Mairiesa shook her head. "It takes a power equal or greater to the one who created it, to break it. That wouldn't be me."

"Why was it important to know where it came from?" Neal said, trying to latch on to some part of the puzzle, to see where it led.

"Because there are other stones like it," she said, turning toward him. "Stones that were here before we were, that increase the powers of the wearer. This version's created. You've disturbed The Lady with your efforts, if she's going to this kind of trouble. This takes more effort than the playthings she's been making."

*So ask the obvious,* Smitty thought. *She's avoiding the whole goddamn question.* "Then who, besides her, would be capable of breaking it? There has to be something we can do."

She regarded the drummer gravely for a moment, aware of their eyes on her and the import of Jon's role in the outcome. Her expression was torn. "I knew she would force my hand," she said.

*Here comes the part about sacrificing ourselves for the greater good,* Steve thought.

Mairiesa looked at each of them in turn, sighing in resignation when she met Steve's eyes. "She's either too confident or too weary to bother showing herself, with all of us standing here like this. She'd settle for me. But standing here is less of a risk than trying to explain what I'm going to. Freeing the Inverse requires a...price."

Neal was a step away from shaking it out of her.

*Hold still,* Ross thought.

"A price, or a sacrifice?" Steve said, without the acerbity the others had expected.

Mairiesa stared at him.

"Take a number," Steve said.

"You have to understand," she said, "there are two basic types of beings among the Worlds. There are Destroyers, like The Lady. Then there's everything else. Walkers, firethrowers, light-bringers, denizens...the wide variety of creatures that represent life, or non-life."

"That's like saying in order to have light, you need darkness," Neal said.

Mairiesa nodded. "In order to leave room for continuing or new life, death has to have a free hand every so often. That's true in every corner. There were many factors involved in how you were all chosen, initially by The Lady, and now by the namers. One of the largest considerations, for the namers, was that it often requires one Destroyer to eliminate another. There's one among you."

A cold, lingering anticipation descended on them as they stared at her. Steve sighed in impatience. He opened his mouth to say something, but Mairiesa continued.

"A Destroyer often becomes a conqueror of worlds if left unchecked. Without them the changes that some worlds require would never occur, and they'd stagnate into oblivion. What's happening here has happened, will happen, through the circle forever. Destroyers are necessary, but shouldn't go unchecked. This is the problem with this world." She looked at Steve, who kept his eyes on the boulder Jon was sitting on.

"Uh...how does someone go about 'checking' a Destroyer?" the younger Steve asked, dreading the answer. Dreading all the answers.

"They serve their purpose, then are destroyed themselves. Sometimes several are born at once to a world, but they're usually spaced carefully. Most are born without knowing what they are, and do their work unconsciously before destroying themselves. We all play our parts. It's the luckiest of us who play them without knowing."

Steve raised his eyes to hers wearily. The game was wearing thin. Siarion's words came back in a bitter twist of memory. You must take your key, raven, and change a world. "Convenient," he said. "Cut to the chase, huh?"

"Steve," Ross said.

"Look," Steve said, voice lower but hard, his eyes darting momentarily to Neal before fixing on Mairiesa again. "It's obvious, isn't it? From what I've heard, all I seem to know are predators. Everything I've done here's been destructive."

"Except for your voice," Neal said.

Steve looked at him. "Can't be only one thing all the time, I guess."

"This is a world of Destroyers," Mairiesa said, drawing his attention again, "and far out of balance. It needs to be cleared. The Lady chose her own Destroyer. It's you."

Steve nodded. "Here, yeah."

"Everywhere," Mairiesa corrected.

"Really? Then what's my part, exactly? I wasn't destroying anything at home."

"There are different levels of Destroyer, as in many things. You don't need to consciously set things in motion. Look what's happened, throughout your life, to the people around you."

Silence, immediate and stifling, fell on them while Steve stared at her in horror with a hurt surprise coloring his thoughts. The implication staggered him, and it showed on his face even as his thoughts slammed shut. Neal understood, better than the rest of them, better than Steve realized.

After a moment, Neal ventured, "He's done a hell of a lot more good than damage. Thousands of people..."

"From a distance," Mairiesa said.

That terrible silence again, and Steve took a step away. Without knowing why, he met the eyes of the younger version of himself. There was a wide gap in time and experience between them, and he had no urge to rectify it.

He took a deep breath, careful not to look at the others. "So," he said with forced lightness, "when people automatically blame me for everything going wrong, they're not just guessing, huh?"

"What exactly is gonna happen to this particular Destroyer afterwards, then?" Ross said, gesturing at Steve.

Mairiesa returned his gaze without comment.

"Oh, bullshit," Smitty said.

"Need to know basis," Steve muttered.

"You were right," Neal said angrily to Steve. "We're being sacrificed to something. We've had to swallow a lot, but dammit, this is bullshit."

"So who do we trust?" Steve said, shrugging at Neal. "The Lady wants me dead beforehand, and the rest of the world wants me dead after. Damned if I do and damned if I don't."

"But you will," Mairiesa said. "You have to. You could be her with little effort--a conqueror of worlds."

"She killed the version of me who came in here. He died without finding anything to beat her with," Steve shot back. "What kind of provocation does it take, if that wasn't it?"

"The destruction so far has been exclusively to help your friends," she said. "Your...predecessor...didn't realize the potential in time."

"Then what the hell am I supposed to do?"

Mairiesa looked at Jon. "Knowing is enough. You have to find that part of yourself. Once you do, you're on your own."

Steve shook his head, then turned and walked away. "Looks like I'm already on my own."

The younger Steve took a step after him, and Neal shot out a hand in time to grab his arm.

"But I..."

"No," Neal said.

The younger turned instead to Mairiesa, who was regarding him with less than fond curiosity. "Then I'm the same," he said.

She nodded.

"How can someone basically be good and a Destroyer at the same time?"

"It's not a matter of good or bad," she said. "It is. Life and death, or light and darkness, aren't good or bad, themselves. They just are."

"Then I'll help him," the younger Steve said. "With two of us--"

"You'll cancel him out. You might be more of a hindrance than anything else. The walker shouldn't have been tampering with the timelines like he has. But when you're gone, your timeline will go back to its intended run."

"And I won't remember this," he said.

"No, providing the others are successful. If they're not, you'll vanish from your timeline as well. That would...significantly change things."

The younger looked at Neal, then back at Mairiesa. "Back to the original question, then. How do we wake Jay up?"

"A Destroyer can break the stone by challenging it," she said.

"Is Neal a Destroyer, then?" Smitty said. "Since he's got the original Steve's capabilities..."

"He's not," she said. "Some of his own capabilities absorbed the Er Rai's energy and conformed."

"Then Steve can break it," Neal said, turning to follow the singer.

*Never mind,* Steve thought. *I heard you from over here. Ask her, instead, whose job it is to get rid of me when this is all over.*

Neal swung back to Mairiesa, ignoring her expression of concern. "Hell, I know this is a long shot, but since I've been elected to kill him a few times before, I don't suppose the job is still mine at the end of all this." *Done a damn good job of it so far.*

"As I said," she told him, "that's the domain of another Destroyer."

"And I'm not. So what've I been doing since all this started?"

"We waste time on this now," she said. "There's more urgent--"

"Not until we get the question answered," Ross said. "Who do we actually have on our side?"

Mairiesa shook her head. "I was never part of the decision making as to what happens to the Er Rai."

"Who do we take it up with, then?" Smitty said.

"That would be the domain of the namers."

"The same namers we'd be releasing to regain control of the Evenwhen," Neal said. "The same namers who decided we'd be the guys for the job. Maybe we need to discuss a few things with the namers later on."

Steve walked up behind him, thoughts closed again. "To hell with it," he said to Mairiesa. "What is, is. I'm not what you say I am. I'm whatever I make myself." He walked past her to Jon, affording her little more than a sidelong perusal. "And as for your namers and what they do with us after..." He paused. "Good luck to them."

He reached forward and took hold of the stone around Jon's neck, and it stung but he was able to ignore it and stare into the verdant eternity of it.

Without knowing how, he recognized the handiwork of The Lady. The subtleties of it made sense to him. Brute force alone wasn't going to break it; it was another key of sorts. But beyond that, he was lost. Holding it, he felt the invasiveness of it. But nothing of Jonathan, yet. It shifted its attention, not sentient but attracted to Steve as if recognizing him. The surface of it seemed to shift as well, more than a trick of the light...

Torn between two equal powers--one close to what had made it and the other its opposite--the stone's power broke with another audible snap, sending Steve stumbling away. He righted himself in time to watch Jon open his eyes.

No one dared move for a moment, waiting to see if it was real. Waiting to see if he was 'real'. Then Jon slid off the stone, and his confusion prompted Neal to come closer.

"What happened?" Jon said, trying to sound matter-of-fact and failing.

"The stone," Neal said, eyeing the thing that was still around Jon's neck. "It was meant for you. You picked it up to see what it was..."

"It told me to put it on!" Jon said. "I don't remember anything else."

"You slept, that's all," the younger Steve said, pounding Jon on the back.

Steve walked up and took the item from around Jon's neck, examining the now-blank surface critically. "But a beauty, you're not," he said.

"You're back," Jon said softly, his thoughts still disjointed but overwhelmingly relieved. He gripped Steve's arms, then pulled him into an embrace. "Damn, you're back."

"Neal pulled me out of your backyard," Steve said when Jon held him away. "It's me, but not the one you came in here with."

"Still," Jon said, not awake enough to decipher or understand the weight of the words and the tone of the thoughts that ran beneath them. "It's the same you." He glanced at Mairiesa. "Had to go for the cavalry?"

Steve's laughter was cynical.

*What...?* Jon thought in response to the surfeit of irony that was running between the others.

*Later,* Neal and Ross thought together.

Mairiesa nodded to Jon. "You've been close to The Lady," she said.

"A little too close, and not close enough." Jon brushed himself off aimlessly out of a sudden nervousness, put off by the block of time he was missing and the circumstances he'd awoken to.

"But you don't have any idea of what she left unguarded in her carelessness," Mairiesa continued, stepping closer to Jon with a look in her eyes that Steve didn't like. She immediately came up short, unable to move, and the look her eyes had harbored was replaced with shock. "Let me go," she said angrily.

*Steve,* Neal thought. *She can't do anything to him, with all of us standing here. Let her go.*

Steve looked as startled as Mairiesa did, turning to look at Neal in confusion. When he did, Mairiesa regained control of herself, her face furious with offense.

*Was it me?* Steve thought, and Neal nodded, remembering the Wisp who had moved for Jon in Athyri.

*We could have brought you up to speed a little better, I guess. I keep forgetting which you I'm talking to.*

The hurt behind it left Steve staring at him a moment longer. Then he turned back to Mairiesa. "I'm...sorry," he said, and the word destroyer ran beneath it, fraught with meaning Steve had disregarded before.

"There's not much I could do to the Inverse," she said, holding a hand out for Jon. He took it reluctantly and was surprised to feel little from the contact despite the amazement on Mairiesa's face.

"Aradia," she said, and Jon's face reflected her amazement.

His understanding came across as only a hint to the others. "That's why she hasn't really taken the time to do us in," he said. "She's spending all her time and energy sitting on the Evenwhen to hold it in place the way Aradia sits on her stone to keep The Lady out."

"So how do we kick her off?" the younger Steve said from the other side of the boulder Jon had been sitting on.

"She's diverting a lot to keep things the way they are," Mairiesa said. "She won't be able to continue holding the Evenwhen and manage to fend all of you off at the same time."

"That's why she's been picking us off one at a time," Neal said. "But yeah, how do we kick her off?"

Having yet to let go of Jon, Mairiesa said, "A being who travels the Evenwhen has all access to it, the way flying things travel the air. But flying things don't have possession of the air. Only the makers of the air have possession."

"So it would take a namer?" Steve said impatiently. "Would one of them have been helping her?"

Mairiesa paused again as if on the verge of letting something slip. Then she said, "Not necessarily."

*Domestic dispute,* Ross thought. *No wonder cops hate walking into them.*

*You'd think it would be easier to be straight with us,* Steve thought.

"Information taken from a namer would be sufficient," Mairiesa said. "The important thing is that she can be shaken loose, if the Inverse and the Er Rai joined up against her. It'll take all of you, one way or another. But these two..." she trailed off, motioning toward Jon and Steve with her chin. "There was nothing on this world that didn't hear the Er Rai trying to save the Inverse, and The Lady knew better than to tangle with what resulted. The Inverse could unwind her, alone. But the outcome would be a certainty if you were together."

*Apparently the Er Rai's been up to a lot,* Steve thought. *You guys gonna explain that, later?* Jon braced his forearm across Steve's shoulder and smiled.

"Unwind her, how?" Neal said.

"You already know, by now," Mairiesa said with a shrug. "He's her opposite." She looked at Jon. "You've reached her, twice. You'll need to try again."

"Yeah, we already figured that much out," Ross said. "Siarion told us, anyway. Trouble is, getting close enough to actually do it."

Steve had returned to examining the Saros stone while they talked, turning it over in his fingers. At the last, he raised it to smash its glass-like face against the boulder Jon had been sitting on.

"No!" Mairiesa shouted, too late. The Saros stone shattered outward in small shards, and everyone jumped in response to the Wisp's vehemence. Steve dropped the remainder of the stone into the snow, feeling the buildup of power even as she shouted, even as the boulder shimmered suddenly beneath his hands. He spun around and grabbed Jonathan, knowing the latter was still too dazed to run, intent on shielding him with his body if nothing else. He heard Mairiesa shout something else, several syllables he couldn't decipher as he knocked Jonathan down, knowing the younger version of himself was still on the other side of the boulder.

The noise alone would have knocked them all down if the force of the explosion hadn't. But nothing hit them. No fragments of super-heated rock tore into them; Mairiesa had created a crude buffer in the moment before detonation, providing enough cover to keep them from being killed, but little else.

Neal and Ross were unconscious, and Steve struggled to his feet with an effort, finding Smitty doing the same. He helped Jon to his feet, looking around to find that Mairiesa had vanished back into the air. The boulder itself was gone, having taken on the properties of the smaller stone and demonstrated their incompatibility.

The figure that had been on the other side of the boulder had fared no better.

Steve stared, stunned more by that than the blast itself.

Destroyer.

* * *

They buried Steve's younger self where the boulder had been, burying the remnants of the Saros stone with him. No one said a word. Mairiesa didn't reappear, and they set off for the Outlands again under orange-gray skies made grayer by their collective mood. Jonathan and Ross laid another dissembling field over them to cover any advance warning of their approach in the open while Neal filled Jon in on what had transpired.

"She could have followed you home," Jon said. "Neal, dammit!"

"Yeah, well, she wasn't paying attention," Neal said. "We had to have him back." He gestured at Steve, who was walking slightly ahead of them obliviously. "The Destroyer."

"That can't be the end of it. After all this, they can't just...execute him," Jon said. "Do you guys believe this Destroyer stuff?"

"Hey, are you awake yet?" Neal countered. "Do you believe any of this? It makes as much sense as everything else in this place."

Jon sighed, still trying to clear the cobwebs, and as he did he remembered something. He reached into his tunic, withdrawing the chain and the eighth note from around his own neck, intending to return them to their rightful owner. He cupped them in one hand, lengthening his stride to catch up with Steve.

"Hey," he said, waiting for Steve to turn his head, holding the items out on one palm.

Steve stopped, staring into Jon's hand intently, expression unreadable.

"I couldn't just leave it," Jon said. "I figured..."

He trailed off, hearing the spiral of emotions in Steve's thoughts. The singer had drawn his brows together slightly and closed his eyes, and Jon startled at the memory of the last time he'd seen the expression. They'd been so close to finishing their last album, so damn close, and Steve had been on the verge of losing his mother, showing up at Jon's house to work, like a bird unable to find somewhere to land...

Why can't we ever save what's really important, Jon?

Our music, this band, has to go on.

Steve reached into his own tunic and showed Jon the same eighth note, still on a chain around the neck of it's rightful owner. He cupped his hands around Jon's, folding Jon's hand back around the second necklace. "You hold onto it," Steve whispered, opening his eyes to meet Jon's horrified gaze. "You keep it, for me."

Neal looked over Jon's shoulder, gaze darting between Jon and Steve, realizing something had come back to haunt them, but not grasping it yet. Ross came to a stop on Jon's other side, and Smitty stood next to Steve, watching.

*Steve,* Jon thought.

*It doesn't matter, now,* Steve thought.

"It does," Jon whispered. "My God, we don't have you back at all."

"He's here," Neal said. "It's the same Steve."

"You pulled him in here," Jon said, eyes still on Steve's. "From as close to the moment we left as you could get, but you still pulled him in here."

Neal nodded. "Yeah, exactly. What difference does it make?"

Steve released Jonathan, turned, and walked away.

"Makes a lot of difference," Jon said. "This one didn't come across with us. He didn't cross any barriers and become exempt from time, or his timeline. He's here the way the younger Steve was. You told me Mairiesa said he'd go back if we were successful here."

"And even if we do succeed, and this one goes back to his timeline," Ross said, catching on, "he'll be the one who was preparing to come in with us. He'll be the Steve from just before we came in, filling in the spot he's supposed to."

"The one who crossed over with us is dead," Jon said, shoulders dropping defeatedly as he gazed into the white desert of snow before them. "If we fail or not, he's still dead."

It was like losing the singer all over again.

* * *