DARKNESS GATHERS Part II
(c)1998 B Stearns


"What can we do?" Neal said, and Steve looked at him as if he'd gone mad, something else passing by him as he did. Do they know we have you already?

"The Evenwhen must be restored," Siarion continued. "You were the only ones to survive your time in her world. The ones who gave me my name would have things restored, and believe you can help. You were successful before in keeping The Lady from doing harm."

"Why can't the ones who gave you your name help?" Jon said. "They can't step in? Her fate isn't meant to be 'dealt by Otherworlders', but now you're asking Otherworlders to do just that?"

"As I said, you were the only ones to survive. Understand, Inverse, that the ones who gave me my name are part of the Evenwhen."

Neal contemplated her. "We're screwed," he said.

"How do we know you are who you say you are?" Steve said.

Siarion nodded at him. "The Lady is not fond of the light, and her playthings cannot tolerate it. I am not one of hers, or I would not be standing out here in it trying to convince you. I would simply destroy you. You would know this, if your memories were intact. I am able to remedy that."

"I don't want you to," Steve said.

"Night will come again while your world still turns, Er Rai," she said. "And when it does, another of the strongest will return to do what she is thus far unable to do herself. There will be other wraiths turned loose upon your world, night after night, and sooner or later she will follow, if you survive them. Her power would be diminished here, but make no mistake; that will make little difference. Here you have the light and your voice, and little else but for a key that is only that in this realm. In her domain, you are much more and stand a chance of succeeding. Here you may only temporarily escape your inevitable death. The wraiths can hear only you now, but sooner rather than later, they will discover the others as well and destroy them if they can. It is my understanding that they have small ones, creatures such as you were when I saw you last. The wraiths will perhaps seek them out first, and--"

"Stop!" Steve shouted, and Siarion paused to stare at him. "Goddamnit, that's enough."

"What price," she continued softly, the early sun striking silver sparks from her long braid, "for the children of an Inverse? Or for those of one who walks the Evenwhen?"

Neal turned away, and Steve didn't need to see him or hear his thoughts to know what he had to be feeling. "Assuming we can get over there," Steve said, "assuming we have a chance in hell of stopping her, assuming any of this is real at all, what the hell is there to stop the wraiths from coming over here while we're gone?"

"Myself," Siarion said mildly.

Steve and Jon gaped at her openly. "The night bringer of the Evenwhen is going to watch our families while we save the universe," Jon said, sounding as if he was on the verge of laughter.

"Yes," Siarion said. "Sidain and myself are locked out of the Evenwhen, and have little in the way of specific power. But the wraiths will be of little concern to us." She paused. "Those who govern the Evenwhen have asked that you intervene. They would not like to see her destroyed, but if she cannot be persuaded to change her course, there is no other option. Her existence is in jeopardy by her own hand."

"Smith is in New York working on solo stuff," Neal said softly with his back still turned to them. "Ross is doing some production work for a new band with CBS in Frisco. We need time to get everyone together."

"Time," Siarion echoed. "Yes. My understanding is that your northern hemisphere keeps the light longer during what you call summer. How long, then, until darkness falls again?"

Steve glanced at his watch. "It's seven thirty now. Absolute darkness probably won't fall until ten, ten thirty."

"After that, you and anyone near you will be dealing with another wraith, possibly a number of them," Siarion said. "She will be most impatient to have you, and will be displeased that you escaped."

"They'd find me, no matter where I was," Steve said.

"Yes. You yourself once claimed to be as a candle in the darkness to them."

Steve frowned, uncertain as to why he wasn't putting up more of a fight. He should have gone back into the house and back to bed, because none of it was really happening.

"Why hasn't she pulled us back in?" Neal said suddenly. "If she wants him, and us, why hasn't she just yanked us in and finished us off already?"

"She cannot merely 'finish you off' in her world," Siarion said, coming closer. "She does not want you there. She risks defeat at your hands yet again if she subjects you to the rules of her domain. It is much easier to destroy you here. You must already realize this. Together you can accomplish much. It is why she became aware of you in the first place."

"Then how do we get in?" Neal said, sounding as if he didn't really want to hear the answer.

"Before, it was merely a matter of her recognizing and pinpointing your particular wavelength," she said. "You became individuals to her, a set of frequencies that transcend the barrier between. She simply opened a gate."

"Then why wouldn't Steve go through?" Jon said. "How did she get him?"

"She pulled him through the Evenwhen," Siarion said. "Purposely, to leave part of him here, to make him more subject to her rules. He was pulled through the worldgate the first several times, and she paid the price for it each time when you returned home victorious. He learned to resist the gate because of his contact with her. And his stubbornness," she added.

The singer was paying no attention, watching the birds on the eaves of the house with wary eyes.

"Then you were right," Jon said to him wearily. "You knew we'd all been through it before. She had to scatter you to get you through that last time, and make you fourth dimensional--or whatever." He turned to back to Siarion. "How do you know all of this? Were you listening in the whole time, watching us struggle through it all?"

She shook her head. "I have seen it in the Evenwhen. After hearing your story, I requested a replay. It keeps all. Your minds were not meant to traverse the Evenwhen. You are not inferior, but you are not set to the correct...frequency...to tolerate it. That was why the illusions were so important. Some of them you added yourselves, but most were already in existence from the minds of those who never escaped. Beneath and between is the Evenwhen." She turned to Neal, who was standing with arms folded and eyes lowered, half-turned back in her direction. "It is why, you understand by now, you must be sparing in your use of it. You employed the Evenwhen to rewind that particular world, yet only walked the outskirts of it. The energy you expended doing so could easily have killed you. You are not compatible with its' energies."

"Tell me about it," Neal murmured.

"To answer the question," Siarion continued, "I will simply open one of these gates myself. I have been traveling between the worlds since before the invention of time." She held a hand out to Steve again. "Come along, singer," she said gently. "Or shall you run away?"

Steve hesitated, careful not to look at the others, staring at her hand, then into her face. She was telling the truth. But it did not permit him to trust her completely.

"Certainly you have not become a coward," she said, her tone as sardonic as it had been soothing.

"Hey," Neal said, turning fully, "that's not--"

"You said yourself that the only way to jostle him out of things is to piss him off," Siarion interrupted. "Did you not?"

Neal raised his eyebrows at her, mouth open to reply but unable to. Steve looked at him, and the urge to laugh hysterically returned full force, the bizarreness of the situation washing over him. "Neal?" Steve began, "did you say that or not?"

Jon broke the whole thing open by snorting, almost against his will. Steve was close behind, suddenly giddy with laughter, leaning over and bracing his hands on his knees. Neal struggled to keep from grinning outright, covering it poorly.

"You have to excuse us," Steve said to Siarion when he could speak. "We've had a bad night." Then all three men descended into uncontrollable laughter, barely understanding why. Steve sat down in the grass to give vent to it. Confused by the display, Siarion paid close attention. When they wound down, wiping their eyes, she said, "This is amusing?"

"No," Jon said. "In no way is this amusing," which began the laughing all over again. Neal walked away, and several of the ravens perched along the roof took wing on the morning breeze. He walked back up on the porch, keeping his back to them again. The sight of the dead raven sobered him quickly, and he remembered the one on the side of the road, that rainy afternoon when they had returned. Moments later Steve examined the bird over his shoulder, once again at least partially sane.

When Jon and Siarion joined them, Steve stepped carefully aside to keep a distance from the woman. "Did you bring the birds?" Steve said.

"No," she replied. "But they know something is at hand."

They stepped back inside, leaving the door open, once again inspecting the damage. Steve turned to ask Siarion what else there was to know, but she had taken advantage of his inattention to take his arm. The resulting explosion behind his eyes blocked everything else out.

When he returned to himself seconds later, Jon had him by the shoulders, looking frightened. Steve blinked. Siarion was still holding one of his hands, a pleased expression on her face, and Neal stood behind Jon, glaring at Siarion. Where there had been mundane, everyday memories only moments before there were now days of something he'd forgotten, spanning a lapse he hadn't realized existed.

At the comprehension on Steve's face, Jon backed away a step, waiting to see what surfaced. As it all fell completely back into place, Steve said, "You were right to lie." Then he grabbed Siarion, startling her, walking her through the house to the kitchen and facing her toward the chair in the wall. "Look," he said. "It was bigger than the one in the corridor under the Keep, bigger than the one in that field that knew my name. She's making them industrial strength, now, and since you don't call twilight down here, tell me what you think you're going to do when they find out where our families live!"

She gazed at him placidly, unconcerned with the grip he held her arm in. "Sidain calls up the light," she said. "That doesn't necessarily mean a Turning, or the presence of any parent star. We walk between, Stephen. The wraiths cannot stand against us, no matter how they have been fortified. This world will obey us as others do, only in different form. We are like forces of Nature. I am what some humans would consider a goddess."

Steve stared at her, considering the matter-of-factness in her tone. "I wish I could believe you," he said. In response, she faced him completely, leaning in and kissing him on the mouth.

Before he could react beyond releasing her, she smiled and said, "Now you do." Then she patted the side of his face and walked back to the living room. Neal and Jon let her pass, remaining in the kitchen doorway. Staring at Neal, Steve shook his head, realizing he suddenly did believe her.

Jon came closer, stepping around a scrap of the demolished table. "Did it say anything to you?"

Steve thought for a moment, trying to keep the jumble of recovered and more recent memories straight. "No. It screamed a lot, but it never said anything." He turned to Jon sadly. "I said your name while I was on the phone with you. Who do you want to pray to that it didn't hear me?" Lowering his voice further, he added, "And if The Lady's been in the Evenwhen, like Siarion was, she knows all our names."

"She does not," Siarion said from the living room. "I blocked your story from the Evenwhen after viewing it."

"Do you hear everything I say?" Steve whispered.

"You are the Er Rai," Siarion replied.

Steve leaned around Jon and, aloud, said, "So what? What's it all mean now?"

"You must take your key, raven, and change a world."

"No," Steve said. "I don't care what happens to any world but this one. None of this 'if she can be persuaded' bullshit. She has to go." He turned to Neal. "And since when do you defend me to anybody?"

"Since goddesses started showing up in your yard," Neal sighed.

* * *

That afternoon, Ross walked in the still-open door, looked at Siarion and said, "Shit, it is you."

Jon and Neal were still trying to figure out how to explain any of it to their families, if there was no way to disguise it altogether.

Siarion regarded Ross with interest from her seated position on the couch by the windows, ignoring the remark.

"You don't have to do this," Steve said. "You have the choice of staying out of it this time and keeping your life sane."

"I don't think so," Ross said, glancing at Neal and Jon over Steve's shoulder. "You want me to sit back while the rest of you go saving the world? Besides, who's going to talk to the rocks? Smith is coming, right?"

Steve nodded. "He doesn't have to be within driving distance to go along, I guess. Gee, when you can open a worldgate, distance hardly means a thing!"

Ross smirked at the sarcasm. "Reunions are fun, huh?" He glanced around what he could see of the rest of the house from that angle. "Love what you've done with the place."

"I'm remodeling," Steve said. "It's based on that kind of rock-star-in-a-hotel-room thing."

"Ah, yes," Ross said. "Right down to the furniture. One wraith do this?"

Steve nodded, eyebrows raised. "Be back tonight to finish up, maybe start on the bathroom. No extra charge."

The sigh Neal emitted was exasperated. "Will you clowns stop the routine and get to business? This time we actually have a chance to plan."

Steve looked at Siarion. "Will it all end up the same?"

Siarion looked startled. "I don't understand."

"Liz and Dina don't remember any of what happened because it never happened to them. Are we going to be able to do the same this time, and rewind things back to a point before we even leave?"

"It is possible," Siarion said.

Steve stared at her unblinking, becoming very still. Siarion rose and came to stand close in front of him. Jonathan stood as well, uncertain as to why but knowing something was happening, something he was certain he wouldn't want the particulars of.

Looking close in Steve's eyes, Siarion said, "Do not ask this of me. I will not answer this question!"

"I was in your Evenwhen at least twice," Steve said almost under his breath. "Don't you lie to us."

"You must not ask this question." Visibly agitated for the first time, Siarion drew her silver brows together, her gaze furious.

Steve was suddenly just as furious, pointing a finger at her. "There's no time and all time in there," he said. "You've already seen all things, in all times, the circle turning back on itself forever. You already know how this turns out, don't you?"

"Just by pursuing this line, you have changed the circumstances," she said. "The Evenwhen is not fixed. What is shown there may be altered."

"Then why hasn't she altered it?" Steve snapped.

"She may not. The actions of worlds alter it. But only the namers may unravel something already wrought."

"How did you take us out of it, then?"

"With permission, so that it would stand without the risk of alteration."

Steve made a derisive sound in his throat, glancing at the ceiling. "Then you knew, the namers knew, that sooner or later she would manage to take things to the next level."

"I knew only of the risk," Siarion said, lowering her voice.

"But you've still seen what happens. Anything you wanna tell us before we walk back into that hell?"

"Only possibilities," Siarion said, placid mask back in place.

"Steve," Jon said softly, urgently, seeing something the others didn't. Steve's anger was a substantial thing in the room, something that would have become much more where they were going. Steve dropped his shoulders with an audible sigh, finally dropping his hands as well before leveling his attention on Siarion again.

"You and I both know the Evenwhen is a hell of a lot more than possibilities," he said slowly. Silence fell again for several long, uncomfortable seconds before he added, "So at least tell us what the hell she's been doing over there so that we're not walking into too many surprises."

Relieved, Siarion described a place no longer as barren, quickened mainly with creatures they hadn't seen. Things that lived in the light as well as the darkness. The Wisps still existed, what few of them remained, and The Lady had added a turning of seasons as well as weather, beginning something that would allow a marking of time. She had borrowed creatures and ideas from her glimpses of their world, and the outcome now that she was more powerful was anyone's guess.

"It isn't impossible," Neal said. "But it sounds like our chances have gone down a little."

"Make it," Steve said deliberately to Siarion, "so that any nonsense our families end up being subjected to, including the half-assed explanation they're about to get, disappears when we reappear. If we get back, it'll be because she doesn't have control of the Evenwhen anymore, and rewinding things shouldn't be that much of an imposition."

Siarion inclined her head, the motion purposely vague.

"But," Steve said defeatedly.

"But I have no control over the true laws of this world," Siarion said with audible regret. "Death, as Neal has shown you, may be rewound in her realm. Not in this one. If something truly terrible occurs here despite our best efforts, the time may be rewound. But not the consequences of what has taken place within it."

They absorbed that in weighted silence.

"That's why I asked you about seeing forever," Steve said tersely.

Siarion gave him a bitter frown. "For the last time, sohne, it is unanswerable. And it is pointless to ask. Have you not been listening? Has your music made you deaf? The Lady has paused the Evenwhen! Anything within it is stilled indefinitely." She spun and walked away, out the open door, pacing the length of the porch angrily.

Steve pursed his lips thoughtfully. "She can probably snap me out of existence, if I annoy her enough," he said.

"You're trying pretty hard," Ross said.

Steve managed to keep from grinning, but the gleam in his eyes gave him away.

"Don't you fuck around with this," Neal said wearily. "She might be all we have."

"But we're on a 'need to know' basis here, aren't we?" Steve countered. "This time it would be good to know it all before we have to. There's a hell of a lot she's not saying, either because we're not tuned to the right frequency to tolerate it, or because she doesn't want to risk scaring us off. We're all she might have, Neal."

"Scary," Neal said.

"Mercenaries of the Evenwhen," Ross said.

"Steve Perry, doorstop between the worlds," Steve said. "I think I'll have business cards made up." Then he turned to Jon and Neal again, something in his face no one wanted to address. "Go home. If you guys decide not to say anything about this, if you just want Siarion to stay the hell out of sight unless something happens, at least spend time with your kids. It'll be a long time to us before we're back." Before they could reply, he turned a circle as if committing the details of the house to memory. "I'm not coming back here again."

"Don't start talking like that," Neal said sharply.

"No. I mean the house. I'll have it fixed up, but I'll never come back to it. Not after this morning."

"It scared you, didn't it," Jonathan said. "Even now that you have your memory back. You know how I mean that."

Steve shrugged. "It's in the walls. Everything it touched, it left part of itself in." Then he leaned out the front door and said, "Hey, goddess, if you've used up your pouting time, Jon and Neal are going home."

Neal shook his head. "Pissing her off isn't getting us..."

"I can be jostled, as well," Siarion said, pushing past Steve. "Have you decided on telling your families?"

"Telling them will only frighten them," Jon said, "and we'd rather not do it. But we're going to. It wouldn't be fair to keep them in the dark. They should be...aware of what could happen."

"They will need convincing," Siarion said, "and to trust Sidain and myself."

She was going to continue, and Steve stopped her. "Where is Sidain, anyway?"

Someone took his arm from behind and turned him, and a suggestion of unreasonable space breathed past him, unthreatening but overwhelming. Something else came along with it and stayed, beyond his comprehension but noted. A young man his own height with silver eyes and hair greeted Steve warmly, dressed as Siarion was but in white.

Then Steve fainted.

Jon was leaning over the singer a moment later, placing a hand on his shoulder, and Steve opened his eyes to the ceiling. The first thing he heard was Siarion's admonishing.

"He is not of us, Sidain. You must learn to be more subtle."

"But he is the Er Rai," Sidain said, looking crestfallen.

"He is not of us," she repeated, her tone indicating that the matter was dropped.

Sidain leaned over Steve. "My apologies," he said solemnly.

"That's all right," Steve sighed as Jon and Ross helped him back to his feet. "It's been one of those mornings."

"You were supposed to be awaiting us at our destination," Siarion said to Sidain.

"But I haven't met the Er Rai," Sidain argued. "I missed everything else, and the namers said..."

"We must be going," Siarion said sharply. "Darkness is never as far away as any would think." She gestured, and vanished, taking Sidain, Jon and Neal with her.

Ross stared at Steve. "Do you believe this?"

"No," Steve said distantly, staring into the space the others had vanished from, knowing there was too much going on and that he'd been rendered momentarily incapable of arguing about it. What did he do? What the hell did the kid with the silver eyes do to me? "Apparently it just doesn't need my belief to keep happening."

* * *