DARKNESS GATHERS Part III
(c)1998 B Stearns



Liz was staring at Jonathan.

"Tell me what you're thinking," he said imploringly.

She glanced at Dina briefly, registering the same shock that must have been on her own face. The younger woman put a hand to her own forehead and returned her gaze. Their children played in the Cain's yard with their two dogs. Giggles, barks and shrieks occasionally drifted in the open windows.

Liz stared at Jon again, trying to make sense of what she'd been told. Siarion had stayed out of sight, giving them room to cushion the blow of what was coming.

"My God," Liz said, "someone drugged all of you."

Neal shook his head. "I wish. I wish it was something easy to explain."

"And we don't remember any of this because time...was set back before you disappeared," Dina said.

"For everyone but Steve," Neal said. "It isn't any easier for us to believe, either. We don't want it to be true. It doesn't make any sense. We were there, and it's happening again."

"And this...Siarion," Dina said. "She..."

Siarion appeared and touched her shoulder from behind, then Liz's, and the two women turned to look at her, perfect understanding in their faces. Jonathan came closer, his face a storm of warning. Both Liz and Dina were pregnant, Liz with twins, and they had already been given enough to worry about.

"Trust me," Siarion said.

Jon looked at Liz, and she said, "She's real. This is all real."

He nodded, glancing at Siarion again.

"I just didn't want it to be," Dina said. "But--I remember." She looked at Neal in horror, standing. "You faded away from me! I didn't know what to do. Steve said he would fix it, and..." she paused in confusion, searching for the rest of the memory and finding nothing.

"But how long was I actually gone?" Neal said.

She frowned, eyes dropping to the floor, then finding Neal's again. "That's all there is. I can't remember if you reappeared the same way, or if I waited all night, or..."

"You won't," Siarion said gently. "The truth is, Neal rewound time back to a point before it all began. It was not my doing."

"But she...I heard Steve say her name, but I can't recall it," Neal said. "She took that ability away from me the last time she tried to make me give Steve to her."

"Steve returned it to you by accident when he shoved you through the gate while still in contact with her," Siarion said. "You wished it had never happened. So from your world's point of view, it never did."

Liz, who had been staring from one to another, said, "Do they really have to go? Can't we do anything?"

Siarion smiled. "The Lady chose these in particular because they caught her attention. It has come back to haunt her. Throwing anyone else into the equation could have dire effects. They would want you safe. What you must do is stay safe."

"But how long..." Liz began, then realized what she was asking and how ludicrous it sounded after all she'd been told. She looked at Jonathan, knowing they were both thinking the same thing. Their twins could be born in the meantime. "I can't even ask that. It could be moments, or forever. I can't believe we're sitting here having this conversation. Isn't there anyone else, that could at least help?"

"There is still my brother and myself," Siarion said. "We would help them wherever we could. But our work will be here. The Lady may try to strike from behind, to lessen the threat they present to her."

"Us," Dina breathed. "The kids. She can get here, and do what? Cause us not to exist?"

"There are...other things that live there," Neal began carefully. "Things she invented only to destroy and be destroyed, that only live in the dark. Letting them touch you is enough to kill you, here or there. They can cross over now, and it's why Jon and I took off so early this morning. One found Steve. We wouldn't leave if we thought there was a chance they would actually be able to get to any of you. Siarion and Sidain have ways of getting rid of them, and that's the kind of help we need the most: having you guys safe."

"We would never let anything happen to them," Siarion interjected softly. "You have my word, and Sidain's. She may send as many wraiths as she likes. It will do her no good." She paused as if considering something, and Steve and Ross appeared directly behind her. Liz gasped aloud, and Ross shook his head exaggeratedly, trying to clear it, then tilted his head and knocked the heel of one hand against it as if to get water out of his ear.

"Can't get used to that," he said.

Steve glared at Siarion in impatience. "No," he said. "You can't just go around zapping people here and there."

"The Er Rai is much less agreeable in this form," she said, keeping a perfectly straight face.

"You cut your hair off," Jon said, stating the obvious aloud out of surprise. Where Steve's hair had been long past his shoulders for more than a decade, it was now well above, and tumbling into his eyes.

"I won't be 'fourth dimensional' this time," Steve said angrily, his eyes still on Siarion, and he swept his hair impatiently out of his eyes with both hands. "I don't want anything trying to grab me by it. It was in the way. And no, the Er Rai is not agreeable. It doesn't matter how light out it is, I shouldn't be here. The fact that I've been here is like leaving an imprint on the house, and you damn well know it."

"I know that there is nothing to fear from whatever may try to visit this house," Siarion said calmly. "You must trust me."

"If you risk these people, these children," Steve said, forcing calm into his voice, "and anything happens to them...alive or not, I will be a hell of a lot more than disagreeable."

"You would do well not to threaten me," Siarion said.

"A couple of sleight of hand tricks doesn't assure me of much," Steve retorted. "You might be confident, but I have yet to see that you have the kind of power to do more than displace people and things."

"After all this, you cannot trust me? You have little choice Do not waste what little time there is with this kind of talk."

The light faded abruptly, as if a sudden shadow was passing the Sun, like that of a commercial airline. Only, this shadow remained, and grew, and Jon looked at Siarion. "Tell us," he said quickly, "that she's not here."

"She is not," Siarion said, beginning to move toward the doorway to look. Neal and Ross beat her to it, and they walked out into Jon's yard, squinting up into the fading sky.

"It's the moon," Ross said, unsurprised.

"There hasn't been anything on the news about an eclipse," Jon said. "And no way in hell do they happen that quickly." Then he walked back into the house with Liz, calling the children in.

"Dad," Miles called excitedly, running through the house with the dogs right behind him. "It's an eclipse! We were studying them just before school ended!"

"I know, kid," Neal said. His own daughter, Elizabeth, and Jon's daughter Madison were close on his heels, looking confused but unperturbed.

"Can't we go out and watch it?" Madison said.

"You're not supposed to look at an eclipse," Miles said with all the authority an eight year old could muster.

"Right," Liz said. "You guys play downstairs for a little while, and close the dogs up."

"But--"

"Go on," Liz said, keeping her eye on the front door.

With a mild grumble, Miles took Elizabeth's hand to pull the little girl to the stairs, and Madison hesitated as her mother turned away. The light had all but disappeared, the afternoon reduced to twilight, and the adults in the room hovered on the edge of panic. Neal and Ross remained near the door, tense, waiting, and Dina looked at Neal with a question plain on her face. He shook his head, leaning over to turn on the nearest lamp, and Siarion remained near the front windows. "It will pass," she said softly. "The Lady can only do this much."

"This much?" Ross said. "Sweetheart, she's made it dark. I think it's a significant problem, don't you?"

"She knows we're all here," Steve murmured. Standing with Jon and Siarion by the front windows, Liz turned again to urge Madison to go downstairs, but Steve made a soft, prayer-like sound and leapt at the toddler. Grabbing her, he spun her up and away as the dining room window to his left exploded inward, admitting a monstrously dark blur that careened into the spot where the child had been. It slammed into the wall next to the stairs, cracking the plaster. It happened too fast, and the wraith had already turned on the pair again before comprehension had even sunk in. Steve, on his knees, tucked Madison in beneath himself and watched helplessly with everyone else as the wraith reached for him, slashing, undeterred by the lamplight...

And it was gone.

In a flash of blue-white light, not even ashes remained, and Steve felt a breath of air rush past him--all that remained of the creature's momentum. Silence followed for a long moment, Siarion standing to one side with a hand sharply raised. Then Madison whimpered in terror, finally finding her breath, and Steve lifted her to see if she was hurt. Liz was already there, taking the child and cuddling her as she checked her over. Their paralysis broken, the others moved, coming closer, and Jon smoothed Madison's hair, shaking.

"Dad?"

Miles' hesitant voice drifted up from the bottom of the stairs.

"It's okay," Neal said. "It was nothing. A tree fell over in the yard and hit the window. You guys stay down there, there's too much glass." Getting real good at this, lying to cover shit I can't explain. He offered a hand to Steve, but the singer refused, and Neal didn't press. His own knees were pretty shaky, and he imagined Steve's were no better.

Sidain walked in the back door, eyes wide, and when Siarion gestured to the window, he snapped his fingers. Light flooded the yard, it's source unexplained and unchallenged. Remaining where she was, Siarion said, "You heard it coming."

Still on his knees, knowing she was talking to him, Steve nodded. "Why the hell didn't you?" he said hoarsely.

"They are not of us, either. We must learn how you do this, even here, and employ it ourselves." She came closer and reached for Steve, and he meant to rise and move away from her, but his legs refused to obey. All he could do was flinch--

Jon stepped in front of Steve, blocking her, and she pulled up short in surprise. "You do not want me to hear them coming?"

"You could at least wait until he catches his breath," Jon said in a low, iron voice. Liz took Madison downstairs, followed by Dina and Sidain. The latter looked cowed and kept his head lowered.

Steve regained his feet behind Jon, shaking glass off of his jeans and shirt, pushing his hair out of his face. "It's okay, Jay," he said, not warding him off but referring to the whole of it. He sighed, stepping around Jonathan with a hand on his shoulder. Jon kept his eyes on Siarion, who frowned at him even as she reached for Steve. The singer flinched again, but she only rested a hand against his forehead, the backs of her fingers brushing his skin briefly. He felt nothing this time, and she smiled.

"Something remained with you when she scattered you through the Evenwhen to obtain you," she said. "I should have known. Now I will listen, as well."

"What's with Sidain?" Ross said. "He seems a little young to pull duty like this, doesn't he?"

Siarion regarded him thoughtfully, choosing her words with care. "There has been darkness for much longer than there has been light. He is young."

"And The Lady isn't here, but she's able to screw things around pretty good anyway," Neal said. "Are the two of you really going to be able to hold her off?"

"Once you have left here, she will turn her attention mainly to you," Siarion said.

Steve glanced at Jon, who was staring at him in a way he wouldn't soon forget. He owed Jon a great deal, but would have made the leap for Madison regardless, and the significance of it was in Jon's face. Steve nodded, dropping his eyes. Natural light was gradually returning to the yard.

"You must go soon, to avoid more demonstrations," Siarion said.

"Leaving is really going to make them that much safer?" Ross said.

"Yes," Siarion said. "And it brings the chance of resolving this issue closer. I will give you time to say your farewells. Then there are things you must know, before you leave."

Yeah, right, Steve thought. 'Need to know basis.'

Siarion walked away, out the still-open sliding doors that led out to the backyard, and a moment later Steve and Ross did the same. Steve continued down the slope behind the back deck, and when Siarion moved as if to follow him, Ross said, "Wait."

When she turned curious eyes on him, he said, "Let us catch up to what's going on before we have to jump back in it again."

"Things may be proceeding too quickly to allow that," she said.

"You're going to save a lot of time by not pushing him to the point where he plants his feet and refuses to move. Leave him alone for a minute."

She nodded thoughtfully, remaining on the deck, and Ross went around to the side of the house to examine the window the wraith had destroyed. When he returned, Smitty was sitting on the deck's railing, stifling a yawn.

"Hey," Ross said. "If we're boring you..."

"That's all right," Smitty said. "Gotta save the universe every so often, no big deal."

Jon and Neal joined them several minutes later, greeting Smitty reluctantly under the circumstances. The brevity of the situation and it's import showed in their faces. When Siarion turned to them again they nodded, and she gestured easily...

Further down the slope, Steve kept his back to their voices, running everything over in his mind again, needing a moment of quiet to try and let things settle into place. She hadn't come close to telling them enough. But even as he thought it, he turned his head slightly into the sun, catching movement out of the corner of his eye.

There was a heartbeat of time, a suggestion of a familiar outline standing close to him...Neal?

Steve, wait!

Then Siarion pulled him away.

There was a desert, not unlike The Lady's but obviously still in their own world. Steve walked toward the others, who stood in a loose group a good twenty yards distant. What he thought of Siarion's tactics obliterated the question of what he might have seen before he'd been pulled out of Jon's yard. They were all dressed, again, as they had been the first time they had seen The Lady's world, breeches and tunics of varying shades, their cloaks somehow unoppressive in the heat. Steve shook his head as he approached. "How appropriate."

"It is not as you remember, there," Siarion said gravely as he joined them.

"Is the basic layout still the same?" Smitty said. "Are there landmarks we can use?"

"She is more connected to her world now," Siarion said. "Some things may be the same, such as the territory she chose for herself early on; the desert where the Keep was placed. She may shift anything she chooses at whim. You were correct in assuming before that the illusions were partly based on what you expected to see. She has borrowed from many. It will be difficult to keep perspective."

"Which brings us to the part where you warn us that at least one of us won't be coming back," Steve said acidly. Siarion turned to him, her expression sad, and the remonstration that had been at the forefront of Neal's thoughts evaporated. Silence fell among them, expectant, dreading, and Steve narrowed his eyes at her.

"Any prophecies, goddess?" he said, the intended sarcasm taken out of the words by the defeat in his tone.

"No, pretty bird," she said in a shallow voice. "Once, perhaps. But all things are possible now, as I have said."

Steve nodded without satisfaction, and Neal said, "Will we have the same...capabilities?"

"Some will be the same," she said. "Others have grown, now that you are aware of them and have leant them the energy of your attention." She turned to Ross, who raised his eyebrows at her. "It wasn't simply the stone. You have command of more illusions than that. Some things you will still be able to change...others will try and change you. Caution will always be necessary."

"But why do we have them at all?" Ross said. "Is it dependent upon what world we're in? Did we come with them?"

Siarion nodded. "As this world grew it developed it's own laws. You abide by them while you are here, and other laws while you are elsewhere. The same is true for all."

"But you," Neal said.

"We walk between," Siarion said. "As do you, somewhat. But you must not, if it is avoidable."

"That's the tricky part," Neal said. "Deciding what is and isn't 'avoidable'. Can I jump ahead as well as back?"

She hesitated, then nodded. "It is possible. But it is even more uncertain to do so. Replaying things you have already practiced is easier, to a linear life form."

"Is it limited to that?" Neal pressed. "What the hell else does traveling the Evenwhen mean?"

"Usually it means all times, all places, all things," Siarion said. "In her realm, you may still be able to cross it even though she has paused it. But you may also be subject to any restrictions she has placed upon it. Only under dire circumstances would I attempt it, and I do not pay a price."

"Then maybe what you and I consider dire differs. In which case, any advice?"

Siarion frowned. "You are difficult to deter."

Steve snorted, and Neal grinned. "Sure."

"It works by using your life force," Siarion said. "The others here mainly gain strength from objects around them, real or not. Energy was used to create them and can be utilized. You have no such choice. Anything you might imagine can be, or not, so long as you are willing to pay the price of it."

"Anything," Neal repeated.

"Anything, so long as the Evenwhen is in it's own order and unrestricted, and you are careful to properly describe what you seek. Otherwise...well, she may not be partial to others employing it's use now. Your power is much less than ours, Neal, but it is related. My final advice is to avoid its use in all but the most..."

"Dire circumstances," Neal sighed. "Right."

"Try not to spend too much time on the optimism," Steve said. "What are we supposed to do?"

"Stay away from The Lady," Siarion said to him immediately. "You must discover how she has entrapped the Evenwhen and free it without encountering her unnecessarily. You must not 'argue' with her as you did before, as you will be as solid as the others this time. Only by scattering you through the Evenwhen before was she able to make you more of that world than this one. This time she cannot make your stay permanent by scattering you. She can simply kill you."

"I seem to remember being killed several times," Steve said sardonically, "and I feel pretty good anyway."

"And Jonathan pulled you back together," she said softly. "You will not be scattered into pieces the Inverse can gather. Any of you may simply die, since rewinding is not possible without risking The Lady taking Neal. You will also not be 'lit up', I believe you called it, and the wraiths will not be able to use you as easily. Nor can The Lady use you as a constant beacon. But they will have ways. They can still hear you in particular."

"Which brings me back to the same question," Steve said. "What the hell are we supposed to do?"

"You are still the Er Rai," she said. "You are still enough of the right...frequency...to go where the others cannot. Only if you choose will you be able to reach her or the wraiths. It did not occur to you to see if there were other manifestations of your powers? A bird was all you required?"

Steve looked surprised.

She turned to Jonathan. "An Inverse does not bring back the dead. Not even in that place. You must remember this. If you attempt it, the result may be worse than simply letting them go. When you revived Steve the times you did, it was because he was 'fourth dimensional'. It would not have worked with anyone else. It will not. If you can get to The Lady, you may be able to put things right. She cannot stand against you, with or without the others. You can discover from her how she has done what she has."

"And I assume we'll know when we've done the right thing," Steve snapped.

Siarion ignored him. "When you are close enough, the namers may be able to help you. If I knew more, I'd tell you. This is not something I have experience in."

"How did we get out, before?" Smitty said. "How was she sealed in?"

"It was possible to open the worldgate by having possession of a part of that world's owner--her name, and the key."

"That's a little too easy, isn't it?" Neal said

"It depends," Siarion replied darkly, "on who you are. It took the Er Rai to brace it open."

"That narrows down our options for getting back out," Jon said, having lost some of the intensity that Madison's close call had brought. "Is that how we can expect to do it again?"

Siarion shook her head. "She will be expecting it this time. That is only how you are getting in. Only by--"

"Defeating our dreaded enemy may we possibly see the light of day again," Steve finished caustically. "This is too cliché' to stand any more of." He walked away from them, realizing the futility of it since they were in the middle of some seemingly endless desert but willing to walk its' entirety if he had to. No one tried to stop him, knowing it was pointless, and Neal shook his head in impatience.

Siarion vanished, rematerializing in nearly the same instant directly in front of Steve, regaining her true mirror-eyed appearance. He halted abruptly, furiously, stepping around her. "I'm too old for this kind of bullshit," he said, refusing to look at her.

She paced him resolutely. "It is difficult," she said, "but you must not let your fear jeopardize the fate of those around you."

"Fear," he snarled, rounding on her. "Fear? All you have to do is tell us the truth. You haven't come close to telling us everything, because otherwise we might not jump through your hoops." He spread his arms wide, hands splayed. "Look at us, Siarion! We're musicians. Do you see a single warrior here? Someone is sacrificing us to something we don't even want to understand. I didn't even like fairy tales as a child, for Christ's sake. I'm not going to live, or die, one. And that's exactly what's going to happen. If we go in there, we'll be picked off in record time."

"If you do not go in there," she countered serenely, "there are enough wraiths willing to cross the barrier to plague you the rest of your days, short as they will be as a result. And she will not be far behind. Anything you hold dear will suffer shortly. Here you have no powers save those given you by others."

Steve closed his eyes for a moment as if gathering his thoughts, but it was more an appeal to himself to remain calm. When he opened his eyes again and could trust himself, he said, "Everything you've said to us has been warning us that we're about to be killed. All you have to do is come right out and say it."

"I have tried to impress upon you that nothing is fixed," she said, laying a hand on his arm. "I do not know the outcome any better than you do. Faith would be a better companion than dismay, now."

"Is that why Sidain gave me that 'gift' earlier?" he said. "It's taken me awhile to figure out what you've done. Not a hell of a lot of faith in that, was there?"

Siarion dropped her eyes, face blank.

"No guarantees, right? Maybe one or even two of us might make it back, only to discover something else needs to be fixed, or is loose, or whatever. This is ridiculous."

"Last time, you were pulled in without warning," Siarion said, her tone subdued, "without realizing you had any defense, with only a riddle and your concern for each other. Yet you returned. Yes, she is more formidable now. But you will be, as well. This time you will be prepared. You must go before she prepares further. Would you condemn another in your place? Another less prepared? All of you are suited to this task. Do not make it necessary for me to jostle you further."

Steve swallowed the enraged retort he meant to shout at her, looking over her shoulder at the four men too many strides away in the desert sand. Their faces were impassive as they returned the stare, refusing this time to judge him, and he looked at Siarion again. "Someone as supposedly powerful as you can't do a thing about it, but five three dimensional guys can make themselves useful by stumbling around and distracting the local troublemaker until she gets mad enough to slip up. Am I getting warm? What's the harm in telling us everything? We won't be alive long enough to put it to any use." He walked away again, back to the others. He held a finger up, warding Neal off, seeing his expression, waiting for Siarion to catch up as she purposely followed.

She stared at Steve again for a moment, then said, "You sealed her in before by creating a loop in the worldgate. Your very passage through it created the loop. The gate is only meant to snap open and shut. By integrating you into it completely, she could have held it open indefinitely. It would have grown until it was a world unto itself."

"And," Steve said.

"And she has not given up on this possibility. She has not found another. She will eventually learn the uses of the Evenwhen and employ it instead, but she is impatient. She still intends to implement you in this fashion, or at least possess you in some manner. Failing that, she will not suffer you to live, at least not as you understand living. She must vindicate her defeat at your hands, your escape when none had escaped her before. It will divert her attention, this obsession. It will permit you to defeat her again, if you use the advantage wisely. But she will be most resolute in her pursuit of your destruction. Death is a simpler thing, given the choice. You may be given the choice."

"What the..." Jon began.

She shook her head, turning him away. "Nothing there likes fire," she said pointedly to Smitty. "Nothing. Your gift seems more elementary, but is not. Many times over, things would have been disastrous if not for you. It will be so again. You are often the last defense. Remain vigilant."

Smitty shrugged as if to say, what else would I do?

"What about the shadow?" Steve said, and the defeat that rang in his tone made Jonathan look at him.

"It was yours," she said. "Remember, Er Rai, you must not let her have the names of the others." She gestured, and a colorless shimmering, as if from the heat of the sand, disturbed the air around them. They continued to stare at her.

"She will close it herself if you do not hurry," Siarion said. "The namers will assist you in returning, when they are free."

Jon looked into the shimmering air for a moment before steeling himself and stepping into it. Neal followed immediately after, then Ross and Smitty. Steve held Siarion's gaze for a wordless moment longer, then looked at the sky, squinting against the glare. He let the blue fill his eyes, then stepped across.

Siarion's voice followed him in, an echo.

"Stephen...Mairiesa is her chosen daughter."

* * *