Excerpt from 'Where The Sidewalk Ends' is © Shel Silverstein.
Memory Bound Chapter XXII
© 2001 B Stearns
"Don't!" Rall shouted, beginning to run back toward Steve.
Steve reacted on instinct and froze Rall in his tracks, keeping the boy from coming closer. He didn't think they'd shoot at him with the boy in the way, but he wasn't about to hide behind a kid. Not another kid hurt, not one more.
Rall froze, startled and showing it. He tried to struggle, but another Wisp had already grabbed him and pulled him away, and the weapons came out in earnest.
Steve reached for the internal switch to change, knowing he was really pushing it by then with how much energy it had taken and how little rest he'd had. Adrenaline did the job, and by the time the first arrow reached him, the bird was vaulting into the cover of the nearest trees and out of sight.
There was a collective gasp, but no one was more startled than Rall, who wrenched himself free of the hands on his shoulders. "I don't believe it," he said.
"It's a trick," came a voice to his right.
"No," Rall shouted, turning to face those gathered nearly two dozen by then. "You attacked the Er Rai!"
"The Er Rai is dead," came another, newer voice, one Rall wouldn't argue with. Mairiesa stepped out of the nearest stone-lined entrance to the ground. "You brought an Otherworlder, or worse, straight into your own home."
"Najh would have eaten him!" Rall said.
"He's right," said another female voice from the trees. "I never met the Er Rai, but if he was other than he said he was, the 'changer would have attacked." A crimson-garbed figure stepped from the trees, her white-blond hair blowing in the breeze that had picked up. "I watched them come in, and Najh took no offense."
"The Er Rai is buried at the foot of Siarion's Tower," Mairiesa said. "I helped bury him with my own hands, Aradia. If you had been awake, you would agree."
Aradia shrugged, coming to stand a few feet from Rall. "Little one, Mairiesa may be correct. The Er Rai is a tale, nothing more, and even should he appear to us, you don't bring anyone to this place without asking our guidance."
"But the bird," Rall said. "And he called us Wisps!"
Aradia looked at the others, then back to Rall. "I'll go have a look at him, then. You stay here."
"Listen to the one who made you," Mairiesa said sharply. "Below ground, now. We still have no idea who's trick this is."
Rall glowered for a moment, looking at Najh, who sat placidly as if he hadn't seen the bird. Then he turned and stalked past Mairiesa, into the nearest opening in the ground, and descended out of sight.
Aradia smiled a little. "I'll need to stop calling him 'little one.' He isn't, anymore." She shrugged at Mairiesa. "It's best that one who hasn't met the Er Rai go see what he wants."
"That's not the Er Rai," Mairiesa said. "And if it were, we should still put an end to him. Nothing but disaster follows that one around."
"Nothing but disaster is where we're headed anyway," Aradia said. "This is no longer our world. We'll let the creature talk. He's always brought change, from the tales I heard afterward. Change and destruction are equal, to my mind."
She turned and walked away, back into the woods.
"I'll go with you," Remian said.
Aradia shrugged. "You'll go where you will. But let me speak to the dark bird alone." She melted into the trees, keeping her eyes raised, watching for a telltale sign of motion. Najh remained where he was, unwilling to go anywhere without Rall. Remian and several others entered the trees behind her and spread out, bows at the ready.
She walked a little ways, dodging branches that hung down too far, keeping her footfalls quiet. She moved between shadows, looking like a bit of autumn foliage in a world that would never see autumn, or any season but the one it was already showing. She paused occasionally, watching the trees, and decided on one in particular. She felt something watching.
"Er Rai," she said, "after Tuirnarin, surely a few 'Wisps' with bows won't trouble you."
There was no answer or movement for a long moment. Then there was a scraping of claws on bark, and a shadowy form edged around the tree she stood at the base of. Bright black eyes stared down on her.
"Why is the Er Rai walking with the littlest Rai'an?" she said.
Steve cocked his head to see her better with his side-mounted, avian eyes.
"I think it's as we predicted, that the Er Rai was small once and has come to do whatever he wants with the one 'Wisp' born of this land," Aradia said. "Am I right, Er Rai? Did you come to take him away?"
Steve left the tree and banked down, pulling up just short of Aradia and waiting to see if she'd do what he figured she would. She did; she bent her head, and he landed on her shoulder. She didn't even flinch. She waited until Steve had settled in, then began walking slowly back toward the camp, her hands clasped behind her back, strolling as if having the Er Rai on her shoulder was a perfectly natural thing.
"Mairiesa said we'd never see you again, that you were too cowardly to return and finish what you started here even if you were alive," Aradia said.
Steve ruffled his feathers, his thoughts a stream of obscenities.
Aradia paused and said, "At least face me in a form I can talk to. Everyone's impressed with your tricks already."
Steve leaped from her shoulder to the ground and sat at her feet a few moments later, panting and sweating. "Yeah," he said, "well, me too. Why aren't you still sitting on a rock, keeping namers out?"
She smiled, looking down on him. "Not a lot of the Formless are bothering us these days, Er Rai. I can't say the same for you, though. We all felt the desert change. Did you wipe out the Sedhians as well?"
Steve stared up at her, unsure of what to make of her flippant tone.
"I'm not one of your supporters," she said, as if knowing what he was thinking. "There may be a number of us who look on you as our one final hope, as the one who brought us about and saved us from Tuirnarin. I'm not one. You may have lifted Tuirnarin off us, but I'm one of the few who realizes you're not through ending things here. I'm just not fearful of you, as many of the others are."
Steve stood, looking around a little. They were still alone for the moment. "You gonna have a crack at me now, too?" he said.
Aradia shook her head. "There's still the chance that they're right."
He didn't ask any further about that, just looked at her, adopting the same pose she was using, hand on hips. "Not here to end or start - a damn thing," he said finally. "I'm trying to get the hell back out of here without anybody getting hurt."
"Anybody?" Aradia said. "Where's the rest of you?"
"With the Sedhians," Steve said, not realizing what she was really asking.
She looked at him oddly but didn't question further. "Najh chose not to eat you," she said.
"No, so I guess there's my one big vote of confidence," Steve said. "Where do you get the idea I'm here to take off with the kid?"
"We have only one thing anyone could want," Aradia said. "Others have been trying to take him since they discovered his existence. Are you going to tell me I'm wrong, that you're here simply to visit, alone? You just told me the Sedhians have your Other. I think I can put the rest together."
Steve watched her for a moment, then glanced over his shoulder into the trees. "You gonna have them poke a million holes in me, now?"
"No," she said. "I don't give instruction, here. If you do something harmful, you'll earn your own trouble. We've been having some difficulty."
"Who's missing?" he said suddenly, and felt Neal try and shush him a moment later.
Aradia looked at him for a moment. Her face had closed down. Steve listened to Neal and kept his mouth shut. Telling them what had happened wasn't necessary or wise. They probably already knew.
She continued walking away. "If you're going to explain yourself, you'd be better off doing it in council and not at arrow point. You're welcome to follow me back. If we don't like your reasoning, we'll try and stop you from involving Rall. But the final decision will be his."
"He's just a kid," Steve said.
"He's smarter than you," she said.
Ain't that the truth, Neal thought.
No one aimed anything at him this time; he walked along behind Aradia, past a good portion of the Rai'an, unaccosted. Still, it reminded him too much of being taken in by the Sedhians. Rall, Mairiesa and Remian were nowhere to be seen, but Najh was perched at the mouth of the nearest stone-lined hole, looking bereft.
"He's not allowed underground," Aradia said. "He will, however, not allow anything else down there either, once instructed. He's a very useful deterrent."
"Rall said he 'found' Najh," Steve said.
Aradia nodded without looking at him or answering, just led him underground.
The stairs spiraled around, and it grew cooler immediately. There were no torches set in the walls; the Rai'an didn't need them, as they probably took those stairs in another form and lit their own way.
Then why stairs at all? Neal thought. Why not a hole straight down that only they could use in their Wisp forms?
Got me, Steve said. I'm not asking. They're already pissed at me.
They reached a level spot as the stairs vanished. Aradia floated ahead in a light-sphere form, leading him through several twisting hallways.
"It's the Er Rai," Rall was saying as they approached a corner. Finally, there was light as the underground cavern began to open up. "If the Er Rai wants me to go along, why would I say no?"
The three figures sat around a circular pit that reminded Steve too much of the pit in the Towers above them, the one Tuirnarin had tried to shove him into years earlier. Much smaller, but similar in design. There were sleeping berths lining the walls, stones intricately carved into tables. Something that looked like a game of some sort had been carved into the floor, its pieces scattered about. Some sort of common area, a far cry from the one they'd had in the old version of Athyri.
"Because the Er Rai may demand a sacrifice," Mairiesa said, eyeing Steve over the boy's head. "After what you did to the desert, what do you need Rall for?" she said. "You can obviously handle this in the way you handle everything by destroying yourself or something else."
Steve purposely didn't say anything. For one, there was nothing he could say without giving too much away in his anger. And for another, she was right. Neal remained quiet.
"You can't wander in here and expect us to do your bidding," Mairiesa said.
"First off," Steve said softly, "I didn't wander in. I want out of here as badly as you want me gone. And I'm not expecting anybody to do anything. So, since you're so fond of me, wanna tell me why the Wisps are now named after me?"
Mairiesa glared coldly at him for a long moment. Then Aradia said, "You were a myth to us long, long before you became a reality. No one considers the Er Rai as a person. It's the representation, not the reality."
"Story of my fuckin' life," Steve said. "There's a classic groupie line, if ever I heard one. If I was as big a pain in the ass as you think I am, why am I sittin' here talking to you about it? Why didn't I grab the kid and take off?"
"Najh would have protested," Remian said. "But you could also have chosen to kill Najh and move on."
"Where did you guys get all these ideas?" Steve said. "Not even the rest of Journey thinks I'm this much of an asshole." He looked at Mairiesa. "You and Remian are about the only folks who have anything to say about what went on here before. And you guys can't say shit, because you fuckin' helped the namers in a few spots, when we could've been left alone. So shove your attitude. I'm not here to screw up your little oasis. I'm tryin' to get out and stay out. That plan involves everybody stayin' intact, because I've had enough of folks getting hurt."
"What are you going to do with Rall?" Remian said.
"Not 'doing' anything with him," Steve said. "If he wants to help, he'll help. You want the Sedhians to go on burnin' folks, to go on asking questions you can't answer? This is your big defense, hiding underground and behind a shaitan?"
"We're not going to start raiding their territory the way they do ours," Remian said. "We're not like them."
"Does anybody remember where this started?" Steve said. "Anybody remember seeing the first Sedhian, remember how many Wisps you started out with?"
No one answered him. He hadn't expected them to. Something even weirder than he was accustomed to was going on.
"You would be in a better position to answer that than we would," Mairiesa said. "You, and the Inverse."
Steve stared at her for a moment, then glanced at Aradia. There were a lot of questions he wanted to ask, a lot of things he was beginning to suspect, but he just didn't have the time. "Rall," he said, "you barely know me. I'm just some nutcase who wandered in out of the desert who also happens to be the Er Rai. The Sedhians have my family and won't give them back until I show them I have you. You know they've been looking for you, for a long time."
Rall nodded. "Why don't you just use your powers?" Rall said.
"Because I've lost most of them," Steve said. "So I need your help. I won't let them have you. I just need them to see you so they'll let their guard down a little."
Rall seemed to think about it in a more adult fashion than the older Rai'an did. "I'll go," he said.
"You don't have to," Steve said. "I'm not gonna do anything to you, or the others, if you don't."
"I would ask Najh to solve that problem, if you did," Rall said, and it was all Steve could do not to shiver. "Er Rai or not. I choose to go, to help."
Can't have been that easy, Steve thought.
That seemed easy to you, wiseass? Neal thought. Treed by a daywraith, shot at?
"How long did they give you?" Remian said.
Steve thought, they've done this before, and it made him feel cold. "Three Turnings."
"We should go, then," Rall said. "Najh might let me ride on his back, but still, it'll take time. You flew here, right?"
Steve nodded, feeling like the whole thing was moving too fast for him to follow, like everyone was part of something he could never quite grasp. Rall stood and walked past him, headed for the tunnels that would lead up.
Steve looked at the others, waiting for one of them to have at him again.
"We never quite reach a smooth place," Mairiesa said. "We've become something else, made something our own, become who we are. If not for you, we would still be complacent playthings to The Lady. But if not for you there wouldn't be new life that we're afraid to lose."
"How long are you gonna let him be a playing piece?" Steve said. "What would be the harm in telling them how you made him?"
"Because no one really knows how he's possible," Mairiesa said, glancing at Aradia. "No one remembers, what it was like, to be small. If we did know, we would wait to see if it was wise to have more of them."
Steve watched Aradia place an unconscious hand against an abdomen that wouldn't be flat for long, he figured. Neal, he thought.
Get the hell out of there, Neal thought. There's questions we don't have time to get answered. Leave all that stuff to them.
"I won't let him get hurt," Steve said. "I'll bring him back. I just "
They stared at him, gazes flat. Steve nodded and walked out, hoping to catch up to Rall.
That was easier than he'd thought; the boy was waiting around the first curve in the dark, and walked ahead of him wordlessly until they reached the stairs and daylight.
"Why don't you just float off, like they do?" Steve said.
"I can't change," Rall said. "They said maybe...when I'm older. No one knows. No one's been 'older' before. Maybe I never will change. I'm not like the others." He paused. "They say the 'changer's started having smaller 'changers, Turnings ago. They didn't think there'd be me." He paused again. "So they thought stairs would be a good idea."
"You can still change your mind, you know," Steve said, feeling slightly panicked that the kid would. "I'm not gonna force you to do anything. Your folks don't want you to go."
"I go where I will," Rall said. "I am. I love the ones that made me, but I came through them. I don't belong to them. I listen to what they say, because they've been longer and I respect them. But, I go where I will."
"I won't let anything happen to you," Steve said.
"Najh will take care of me," Rall said. "I'll get along fine. If you want me to fight the Stone People -"
"No," Steve said. "I want them to think I've done as they say. It won't come to that."
Rall shrugged. "I'd be happy to fight them, after the times they've attacked us. But that was before Najh."
It took only maybe about twenty minutes by Steve's count for the older Wisps to supply Rall with the things they thought he would need; water, a bow, food. At some point, probably the same time that Rall had become possible, everything on that world had started eating. Living, growing, dying.
I think you know when that started, Neal thought. Steve ignored him.
It was late afternoon when they set out for the Sedhian camp, goodbyes said, Rall astride Najh. The daywraith had decided it would be all right to carry things, and Steve doubted that the creature would go against any of Rall's wishes anyway.
They traveled on foot for a little while, until the towers of the Outlands were well behind them, and Rall had been telling stories about Najh and why you never turn your back on a baby daywraith. By the time they were well in the trees, Steve knew a hell of a lot about daywraiths: how they hunted, what their basic family structure was like, how big their litters were, the things that kept them away from places you didn't want them to be. After awhile, Steve stopped realizing that Najh was walking right alongside him. The thing was like a furnace, radiating heat for anyone who stood close enough. He patted Najh's side absently, finding the dusting of fur on the white hide to be coarse and short. The mane was almost equine, except that he knew it could stand up straight as the fur on a dog's spine. Steve began thinking it would be a good idea to change forms and coast the rest of the way to save time, letting the kid and the land shark catch up
Then he was on the ground.
He wanted to scream and didn't; just sat bent over until his forehead was touching the dry grass, waiting for it to pass. He reached for the edges that were tearing, trying to gather them back in and failing. Nothing was pulling on him; the Ender was still in the desert; the bond was breaking down on its own.
When it finally faded and he could raise his head again, he reached along the connection, trying to make sure Neal was there. There was the reach of an intangible hand, two figures standing close together in the desert.
You know what that was? Neal thought. You remember, every time we were apart, you bounced through the lines?
That's all it'll take to kill us. Steve thought. Bein' apart.
Spiran's gotta know that, Neal thought. Three days may be all we can take, which is why he's in such a hurry.
Steve sat up the rest of the way, using slow, deep breaths to try and get his strength back. What're we supposed to do, to keep that from happening? Steve thought.
Neal's reply was wordless uncertainty. Maybe there was nothing they could do. Maybe it would never work at all.
Then if this's all the time we have, why am I out here? Steve thought.
"Are you all right?"
Steve lifted his head. Rall stood watching him in something that wasn't quite worry.
Steve nodded and stood. "I'm just "
"Where is the rest of you?" Rall said.
Steve shook his head, wondering if Rall had just structured the grammar of the question incorrectly. "There's--"
"Your jh'sai," the boy said. "You've got one, I can tell."
Steve understood the word immediately this time. When Spiran had used it, it hadn't translated. It took him a moment to get over the shock enough to think the word in English. Soulbond. He heard Neal snort and was careful to ignore him. "How can you tell?"
Rall gave him that look again, the one he'd received countless times from the boy's elders. Stupid Otherworlder. "You're shining, but not like you would if the rest of you was here. Why are you separated?"
"That's part of why you're here," Steve said. Now he knew what Aradia had been trying to say to him earlier. Jesus, was it obvious to everybody but him and Neal? "The Sedhians have my jh'sai. They want a trade."
Rall stared at him. "Why didn't you say?"
"Because we don't want anyone else involved," Steve said. "I got no intention of letting those bastards have you. I want them out here where I can get at them, that's all."
Rall looked at Najh. "I came of my own free will," the boy said. "But we would've helped, if you'd asked."
"Your folks aren't exactly fond of me, Rall," Steve said. "I'm not riskin' you or them with these guys. Listen, I'm gonna fly for a bit, help us cover some ground. Can you guys keep up?"
Rall grinned. "Nothing outruns a 'changer, really," he said.
Steve took to the air for awhile, until they'd passed the treeline again and were well into the grasslands, keeping the figures below in sight. When he came back down, Najh seemed to take no notice of the bird. But when Steve became human again, the daywraith reached for him.
Steve gasped and flinched, still fearful, trying to avoid the spidery claws. The daywraith grabbed him anyway, snuffling through his clothes, checking him over. "I told you," Rall said. "He won't hurt you. He thinks you're interesting."
"I could be a little happier if he found me boring," Steve said, sighing with relief when Najh released him.
They walked on in the gathering dark, reaching the beginning of the desert and pausing to stare it for a moment. Steve stood with the edge of it at his feet, marveling at how it simply stopped. He doubted it would advance any further, not encased in glass like it was. The crumbling edge of where the glass began was visible, making it look as though someone had poured the whole thing from the sky and left it to dry unevenly.
"'We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,'" Steve quoted, and it came from Neal, from a book his youngest daughter had. "'And watch where the chalk-white arrows go, to the place where the sidewalk ends.'" He looked out across the span of the Turning Wall, making out the tree at the base of Siarion's Tower. It was almost too dark for it. But he could make it out.
He didn't want to touch the glass until he had to, so they traveled parallel to it, headed for the Turning Wall. The Turning came and went. They traveled on in silence, even when the first light-devil sprang to life.
"It's a spirit," Rall said.
Steve wanted to ask him if he really believed that, but kept quiet. Then Rall said, "It's just a tale. The Sedhians think they're spirits, though, of everybody who's died. Don't you sleep?"
"No," Steve said. "I used to."
"I still do," Rall said. "Sooner or later, I'll fall off Najh."
"We'll stop for the night," Steve said. "We have time. Najh will keep you warm enough, I guess."
"Najh'll keep anything warm," Rall said. He slid off the daywraith's back and patted the animal's shoulder, and Najh shook himself like a dog coming out of a lake would. Then he took off, back toward the treeline. "He'll hunt for a little bit," Rall said. "It's not good to let him get hungry, you know."
"I guess not," Steve said. "He won't run into other daywraiths, will he?"
"Daywraiths. 'Changers. It's the word we made up," Steve said.
"They're only out during the day," Rall said.
"We were attacked by a batch of them two nights ago," Steve said. "And it was darker than this, and close to the treeline."
"You must have been in a nest, then," Rall said. "They're not starving, around here, they've got plenty to eat. So you must have been too close to a nest." He then launched into how daywraiths nested, setting up huge breakers of tree limbs and brush. By the time he was done, Najh had returned and was sitting by Rall's shoulder. There was no blood on him, but he seemed to have done what he'd intended, because when Rall tapped him again he laid down, claws folding in. Rall curled up beside the daywraith, laying his head against its massive side. "He'll probably let you lie right on him," Rall said. "He likes you enough."
"That's okay," Steve said, sitting down in the sand close by. "I'll just keep an eye out. You guys get comfortable."
It was silent for several minutes, and Steve thought the boy had fallen asleep. Then Rall said, "What's your jh'sai like?"
Steve looked over at him, watching Najh flick an ear at some unseen annoyance. Rall was leaning against the daywraith's side, his hands folded across his stomach, looking up at the sky. "We didn't choose each other," Steve said finally. He could feel Neal listening, watching through his eyes, and he was suddenly frantic to stop the conversation.
"It wouldn't have worked at all, if you didn't choose," Rall said. "That doesn't answer anything."
"How would you know so much about it?" Steve said. "How old are you, anyway?"
Rall said, "I listen, and watch, and discover things, unlike the Er Rai, who talks to divert attention."
Steve sighed. He'd be quiet, and the kid would go to sleep. Neal laughed in the back of his head and thought about Miles.
"No wonder your powers don't work," Rall said.
"What happened to me being this big myth to you, and you being all reverent and stuff?" Steve said.
"You don't like being worshiped," Rall said. "You were small, once. What was it like?"
"Not like it is for you," Steve said. "There were a whole bunch of kids my age around, and we ran around and did stuff we weren't supposed to every chance we got. Nobody was hunting me. I had family and friends."
"You didn't have Najh," Rall said.
"No," Steve said. "I had a beagle named Linda."
"What's a beagle?"
"It's an animal that thinks and eats like a daywraith but sleeps on the bed with you and never gets bigger than Najh's head," Steve said. "You realize, you're gonna be running this place in awhile."
Rall was silent for a long moment. "The Rai'an don't need a Lhiscan," he said.
"No, they don't," Steve said. "They need a leader, though. You don't have to be like anyone else. I think they'll listen to you."
Rall was silent again, and after awhile, Steve realized the kid really had gone to sleep.
He spoke quietly to Neal about what little they could piece together until the guitarist fell asleep, trying to pretend the silence didn't bother him. He watched the blue light cover the sand again, listening to the hum of the Ender somewhere beneath the desert.
At first light, they headed out again, knowing it would only take them until late morning to be close enough to the Sedhians to stop and wait. They were approaching an outcropping of rock that was big enough to completely hide them, and Steve was trying to give Rall an idea of what he intended to do when Najh hissed and rose just slightly on his hind legs. Steve flinched automatically, stilling the urge to cower. There was movement a ways to their left, and the flat plain suddenly bore several figures, moving slowly.
Three figures, and there was something familiar about them. Steve had Rall duck out of sight, and Rall whispered to Najh.
Steve let his eyes travel between the figures, keeping Rall slightly behind him, momentarily forgetting about the daywraith. Najh scuffled at the dirt with his claws and made a snuffling noise, not quite agitated or hostile but disquieted. Rall hushed him. He made out the walking stick first, and identified Aug by it. Ross. And Jon.
The possibility that they were free and wandering the place looking for him was somehow worse than if it was a mirage set up to draw him out.
"Are those your people?" Rall whispered.
"They look like my people," Steve said. "But things aren't usually what they look like here, so we're gonna wait until they get closer." He glanced at Najh. "Please tell me he won't just go eat them."
Rall shrugged. "I don't always know what he feels like doing."
Steve squinted back across the sand, watching Ross say something to Aug, watching Jon keep his head down.
If you think at 'em, and they don't hear you, that'll be all you need, Neal thought.
Steve cursed. What had he been thinking? It was that simple.
"There's no tilt," Ross was saying. "Not like we have at home. We have seasons because Earth is tilted at 23-something degrees relative to the plane of the solar system. This world doesn't have that, it's straight up and down, so the ecliptic is right above us. No seasons, no change."
"So we'd think it's weird not to have things they way they are at home," Aug said.
"I guess we're just kind of geocentric," Ross said.
*Funny, most rock stars think the world revolves around THEM,* Steve thought.
Ross froze. Aug and Jon froze with him, and Aug raised the walking stick a little.
*Perry?* Ross thought
Steve came from behind the rocks less than ten yards away, and Najh came with him. *It's fine,* Steve thought, seeing their faces. *It's nothing.*
Najh snuffled, nose tilted up, rolling his eyes down to watch the Otherworlders.
Ross swallowed, hard. The silver-white beast behind Steve's left shoulder snuffled again, wide black eyes peering at them. It sat on its haunches, using its forepaws to reach for the singer and pull him back. It rubbed its blunt head across his back like a cat, as if it were marking him. The singer's face showed a moment of fear that was echoed in his thoughts, but he stood still for it.
Very quietly, Aug said, "Holy shit."
Steve gestured a little, and Rall came out from behind the rocks to stare at the others.
"You've been busy," Ross said.
"This is--" Steve paused suddenly, looking at Rall. "They're friends," he said. "You can have their names. Can they have yours?"
Rall regarded them without suspicion for a moment. "Otherworlders?" he said. "Your people?"
"I'm Rall," the boy said after a moment. "This is Najh. He won't hurt you."
*A daywraith,* Ross thought. Jon was utterly silent. *Where the hell'd he get a daywraith?*
*We'll get to that,* Steve thought. "This is Jon, and Ross, and Steve."
Rall glanced at him. "I thought you were 'Steve'."
"Where we come from, more than one person can have the same name," Steve said.
Rall looked at Aug. The expression on his face indicated that he thought they were irresponsible. "There's no point to that," he said.
"That's why they call me by another name," Aug said. "There's so many people where we come from that we ran out of names." He grinned at Rall, who raised an eyebrow.
Rall looked at Steve and said, "None of these is your jh'sai."
"No," Steve said, ignoring the open question on Ross's face and in his thoughts. "I still gotta talk to 'em, though. Can you and the land shark watch for other locals?"
Rall looked like he might argue, but he clucked his tongue, and Najh followed him back to the rocks.
"Nice to see you guys," Steve said, "but what the fuck are you doing loose?"
"Nice to see you too," Ross said. "They let us out. At first we thought it was a joke, you know? Open the door and shoot the first guy who walks through, claim it was a prison break, right? But they kicked us out, said they didn't need us anymore."
"And you guys walked away from Neal," Steve said.
Hey, Neal thought. What the fuck were they supposed to do?
Steve shook his head, closing his eyes briefly before anyone besides Neal could answer him. "Yeah, okay, I know. Fine. Jon, you're kind of quiet."
Jon stared at him with open nervousness.
Steve looked at Jon. Neal looked, too, and didn't like what he saw. Something's wrong, the guitarist thought.
Ross thought, *Cut him some slack. He hasn't been talking since they burned that Wisp.*
Steve nodded a little. He didn't buy it. Jon's thoughts were too low, too low-key. "You guys here to stop me, or what?" he said.
"Yeah," Ross said. "If you're thinkin' of doing what we know you are. But it'd be good to find out what Spiran's got on you, first. Maybe I can blackmail you later. No way just threatening to kill us got this much reaction out of you."
"There's gotta be a way around, whatever it is," Aug said. "Like in...shit, what was that? Snow White, where the hunter has to bring her heart back in a box, or else..."
"And he brings a pig's heart back instead," Steve said wearily. "Yeah, well, there aren't any pigs here, gang. There's only one kid in this world, and no substitutes."
"So what's to stop you from tailing it back there?" Ross said. He was staring hard at Steve. "What's stopping you from flying back and killing everyone in the place?"
Aug turned to Ross. "That isn't..."
"That is," Steve said, keeping his eyes on Ross. "Me. That is. They're gonna cut his fucking hands off, and eat him a piece at a time so there'd be no way for Jon to 'undo' it. They're gonna take him apart. I don't like the idea. Do you?"
Aug and Ross traded glances. *Christ,* Ross thought. "What's with you?" Jon said to Steve.
"I'd be pissed about that if it was any one of you," Steve said. "If it was anyone." He made sure Jon saw him looking at him. Then he leaned over and picked up a golf ball-sized stone, weighing it in one hand.
"But there's more to it," Ross said softly. "You do that -- you kill anybody back there -- and you're gonna be Tuirnarin all over again. You're gonna do yourself in, in the process. You know it."
Steve glanced at Aug, then at Jon, before looking at Ross again. "End of discussion," he said curtly.
"You can't do this," Ross said. "You and Neal got something else planned, I know you do. You two were always up to shit when it didn't matter, so I know you got something worked out."
Steve sighed. He didn't want to say anything in front of Jon, not yet. "What I'd really like is to turn Najh loose on these guys, see how they like it."
"I don't think Najh will kill anything he doesn't intend to eat," Ross said. "I saw your face. I saw what you did to the wall. We're the good guys, remember?"
"I didn't hear any complaints when I kept them from attacking us the first time," Steve shot back.
"Defending yourself, or someone else, is different from premeditated murder," Ross said.
"Spiran's murdered dozens of Wisps," Steve said, "one right in front of us. What the hell is that? Was it all right with you?"
"Their world, their rules," Ross said. His thoughts were an open question in Steve's direction, because by then he'd picked up on Steve's penchant for staring at Jon. "He gets turned over to the Wisps. It's not your call. This is something else bugging you."
Steve rolled his eyes. *Ross, sometimes things are right in front of your face.*
"Were you really gonna turn that kid over to that sicko?" Aug said. "After what you've seen him do?"
"If I had to...if there was no other way...yeah," Steve said. "Trade for the kid and rescue him later. With a lot of pissed off Wisps behind me."
"And a land shark," Aug said, tone disapproving.
Steve looked carefully at Aug. At no time in the other's hearing, yet, had he called Najh a land shark. Only in his thoughts. If they were lucky, Aug was catching up.
Ross was watching Steve carefully, hearing the bullshit in his tone, realizing how low and static Jon's thoughts were.
"Day's wastin'," Steve said. "In the morning, Neal is gonna be short his hands. I'm not letting it happen."
"No one wants it to happen," Aug said. "Neal wouldn't want you handing that kid over, either. We can do better."
"We don't have time to do better," Steve said. "Jon....catch."
Steve tossed the stone he'd been holding to Jon, who caught it in his right hand, surprised.
In that moment, Steve lashed out without moving, sending the keyboardist sprawling violently away and into the dust. Jon lay there gasping as Aug shouted in alarm and Ross grabbed Steve from behind.
"What the fuck are you doing!" Ross shouted, pinning Steve's arms behind his back.
Steve made no attempt to free himself, keeping his eyes on the moaning figure in the sand. "The Inverse already knows what's 'with' me," he spat. "He would never leave Neal without a fight. He's also left-handed. Whoever that is, it isn't Jonathan. You idiots walked all the way out here with a fucking clone!"
Aug, who'd knelt next to the figure, laid a hand on his shoulder. "Jon...?"
The figure gasped, and collapsed into the sand, leaving only a vaguely human outline.
Aug stumbled back, regaining his feet. "Shit," he said, wiping his hands on his jeans. "Shit, where's Jon?"
Ross let go of Steve, stepping around him to look at the outline.
"Maybe losing his hands in the morning," Steve said, "or worse. You guys still like the kindler, gentler Journey idea? Let's let the locals handle themselves, even after they've dragged us into their bullshit? Let's give them a chance to let the newest despot run loose, so maybe we can get dragged in here again?" He turned Ross with a hand on his shoulder. "Is that fine with you?"
Ross shook him off, and his eyes strayed over Steve's shoulder.
"How crazy am I now, Ross?"
Najh nudged Steve from behind. When he turned, Rall was there, staring. "I'll go," he said softly.
Steve shook his head. "And I guess you heard all of that."
"You're not goin' anywhere," Steve said. "Not to that nutcase."
"It's not for you to say where I go," Rall said. "I am."
Steve looked like he might argue, but Neal thought, Something bigger's got Jon.
"Every time we turn around, it's something bigger," Steve said. "The Sedhians don't have him, they don't do the clone thing. Only one species we keep running into pulls that shit. Somebody wanna tell me what they want with him?"
Ross shrugged. "They've always been a little fond of the Inverse," he said. "After we lost you over here, it was him that got you back. Was him they'd talk to about stuff, not the rest of us." He sounded calm, but he looked stunned. He was looking at the outline in the sand and trying to calculate when Jon had been taken, because Jon had been talking to him when they were released. Jon had been arguing about leaving Neal. Then he'd just
"He stopped," Steve said. "That's how Tuirnarin got me, you guys turned away for a second, and she zapped me out of there. All you had to do was turn your head. Not your fault, Ross."
"I thought he was just upset," Ross said.
Steve nodded. "We don't have time for this," he said. "We got too much else to worry about, and then the goddamn namers jump in. Goddamnit, what do they want now?"
"Don't go slamming through there with that kid, just to get this done," Ross said. "You can't."
Steve turned and leveled a glare on him. "I don't hear any other ideas comin' from you. And what the hell do you know about it, anyway? This isn't some fuckin' democracy."
"Never was," Ross said.
"Whatever," Steve snapped. "You guys go on about fairness and the goddamn Prime Directive, and in the meantime we're getting yanked into shit like this. I don't even remember all of it, and I'm tired of it already! I want quiet. If I have to kill everything on this world to get it, fine."
"The thing is," Ross said, "you could do that. It ain't talk. You can snap this place out of existence if you want."
Steve knew where he was headed, and waved him off. "I don't care, Ross. I wanna know where Jon is. I want Neal loose, I want us all the hell out of here. I want this place sealed up so no one else is going back and forth. That's the minimum. Do you want me to be good, and rational, and promise you I won't touch Spiran? Fine. So long as I don't see the bastard, I'll leave him alone. But he's not gettin' away with--"
"With what?" Ross said. "Since when do you care if a Wisp is killed? You never did before. You haven't since we got here, this time. You don't like it, but you're not willing to kill over it. Who cares if he threatened us?"
Steve looked at him, hands on his hips, the beginnings of a cynical smile on his face. "Listen, Herr Freud. We're dealing with the fuckin' unreal, here. You can't stop me, you can't provoke me, you can't change any of this. We have a little more to do than stand around and get to the root of my psychosis right now. Work on what we're gonna do now, not when I get my hands on the Sedhians again."
Ross found himself backing down for more than the look on Steve's face. He was thinking of the demon in the field outside Athyri years earlier, when Steve had been becoming.
*You're not afraid of me, are you, Ross?* The cynicism vanished from the smile Steve was still wearing; it had scaled down to something sad.
Ross didn't answer.
Najh hissed then, the sound loud from where he crouched by Rall. Aug startled visibly, even as the others turned to see what had the daywraith's attention. A lone figure, coming across the sand, dressed in sand-colored hides and bare from the waist up. Najh hissed again, and the mane along his spine rose the way a dog's would. The hiss became loud and intimidating. Najh was impressive when docile, but the sight of the daywraith in full bristle was enough to send the Otherworlders ducking for the cover of the nearest rocks, away from the pearl colored menace.
"Shit," Ross said breathlessly.
"Sedhian," Rall said without inflection. "But just one." He tapped Najh on the flank, and the daywraith dropped back to all fours and scrabbled at the dry soil in frustration. The figure wasn't armed, from what they could tell.
"Scout?" Ross said. "Probably weighin' his chances. A little out of his territory, isn't he?"
"The Stone People don't honor boundaries," Rall said. "They only honor strength."
"Which explains why Najh recognizes the scent," Aug said, watching Steve. At the sound of his name, Najh swung his head briefly toward Aug.
The Sedhian began moving toward them openly, and Rall said, "Najh will probably eat him."
A ripple of unease passed through the others. Seeing it, Rall said, "But only if he's hungry. And if the Sedhian attacks us."
"They were probably following us," Ross said. The advancing figure was no more than 50 yards off by then, and walking rapidly. There was no hesitation in his stride. And they still couldn't see a weapon.
Rall turned bright, fearful eyes to Aug. "The Sedhians have the Er Rai's jh'sai. I can do no less than offer myself."
"No," Aug said quickly. "No. Listen, Rall. There's no way--"
Najh hissed again, lowering himself to the ground when Rall laid a hand on one massive shoulder.
"Rall," Aug said. "The Er Rai doesn't want to trade you. We're gonna trick them."
"Aug," Ross said softly, "the guy's in earshot, and we don't know what their hearing's like."
"You can't separate a pair of jh'sai," Rall said. "Even I know that. The longer it goes on, the more it hurts. They won't hurt me, not really."
"Rall," Steve said. "Don't say anything. You need to let us handle this."
Rall wiped his face roughly. "I know this one," he said. "This is...he made me. We don't have a word for it."
Steve stared at the Sedhian, then back at Rall. "You know him? Like, he visits?"
"No," Rall said. "He doesn't have to, he can see me every day. But we've met, once. Let him walk up to us, we won't do anything with Najh here."
Steve, Ross and Aug looked at each other. Ross shrugged. *I can't believe this,* Steve thought. *This is the kid's father? That's the big fuckin' secret, it takes a Wisp and a Sedhian to get kids made around here? Good luck to them!*
Did you think any of this would be predictable? Neal thought.
*Wouldn't Spiran just shit?* Ross thought. *We ain't tellin' him.*
A moment later, the Sedhian came within maybe twenty yards of them and paused. "I could have killed all of you from much further away than this," he said.
"Hail and well met to you too, asshole," Ross said.
"I think that's how they say hello around here," Aug said. "Friendlier than before, anyway."
"Then what do you want?" Steve said, leaning on the rocks.
"Give me the small Rai'an," the Sedhian said.
"No," Steve said.
The Sedhian blinked, looking among the Otherworlders. Either he hadn't expected refusal, or he hadn't expected such blatant refusal. He had no response.
"Give me the walker," Steve said.
The Sedhian looked at him and straightened a little as if he was back on sure ground. "No," he said.
"Guess we got a problem, then," Steve said. "You can see the small Rai'an, and I can't see the walker. Why should I hand over my part first?"
"You don't need to see the walker to know the walker is fine," the Sedhian said. "You made that very plain. Now we will simply kill the walker and take the small Rai'an from you." The Sedhian turned and began to walk away.
He froze just as quickly, unable to take another step when Steve held him in place. "No you won't," Steve said. "You're gonna stand here and deal with us, and answer a couple of questions."
The Sedhian turned back around of his own volition once released. He looked genuinely confused. "Then you're not going to kill me."
Steve shrugged. "Tell me about the small Rai'an and how he came about," he said.
"It's not common knowledge," the Sedhian said, "that Rall is from both people. Aradia and myself are jh'sai. Spiran has sent me to retrieve Rall from you."
"You don't even know what Spiran will do with him," Aug said. "You'd do this, to your own blood, just turn him over?"
The Sedhian eyed Aug dispassionately. "Spiran feels I am expendable," he said. "He sent me to see if you would react favorably. He has no idea that Rall is my blood." He paused. "He has never asked any of his own, how the small Rai'an came about, and I will not say in any case. I will not hurt my jh'sai. I don't approve that you've done as Spiran said. But I'm always glad to see Rall."
Steve nodded. "Then go back and tell Spiran to get his own expendable ass out here, because the kid's not goin' anywhere."
"Then your own jh'sai will see the flames," the Sedhian said.
"No," Steve said. "If Spiran wants the kid, he can come out himself. We're not dealing with you."
The Sedhian looked at Rall. "You're taller," he said. "You'll make a good warrior, eventually."
*Ah, parenting in foreign lands,* Ross thought. *Touching.*
The Sedhian looked at Steve again. "I'll return your message," he said. "The next time I see you, you will be dying along with the other." Then he turned and walked away.
"I think it went well," Ross said. "Perry, what the fuck are you doing?"
"Funny, Neal wants to know the same thing," Steve said. "Change of plans. You guys clear out, I'm gonna do this the old fashioned way."
Ross thought about the desert turning to glass.
"Not comin' to that," Steve said. "I mean it, clear out. We're gonna get this done, and go find Jon. I'm tired of the whole place."
"You gonna tell us what the hell you're gonna do?" Ross said.
"You remember how they got us in the first place?" Steve said. "No magic, no special effects, just spears. Just knowing the prey and how to take it down. It's that simple. I don't even need a spear. Just me, and the land shark."
"No," Ross said. *Grandstand over something a little less vital, huh?*
*No one standing around,* Steve thought. *No one taking an arrow - or a spear - by accident. No one seein' what I'm thinkin' of doing to that * Steve paused angrily, not wanting to assault Ross or Neal with the intensity of the thought.
"That's not a good idea," Ross said.
"Ross," Steve said deliberately, "there hasn't been a good idea since the whole fuckin' thing started. Originally, by the time I got done, there wasn't gonna be anything here at all. I could wipe the Sedhians out. But I won't. Neal is right, it ain't my place. I ain't a god, here. But this one, this one needs a lesson."
Steve turned his head to look at the daywraith, and Najh trotted over as soon as Steve's attention was apparent. The daywraith's breath ruffled the singer's hair, and Steve laid a hand against the massive head. His fear of the thing had vanished somewhere behind him in the desert, somewhere around the time he'd realized how unimportant it was to be afraid. "I don't need the land shark. I'm gonna make a point, that's all."
He turned and walked away, toward Rall. Before he could speak, Rall said, "Najh doesn't belong to me. He is. If he chooses to go with you, he'll go."
Then he walked away in the direction of the caves they'd so recently been imprisoned in.
Najh looked at Rall for a moment. Then he trotted away after Steve.
Aug looked at Rall and said, "Any chance somebody else is gonna come clip us and take you while Steve is making nice with the Lhiscan?"
Ross said, "No one else can see us, Aug. We've been invisible since the Er Rai walked away. I'm not gonna give anybody a chance at us, this late in the game."
Steve walked out into the open, trying to ignore Neal. Najh sat down in the sand about halfway to the caves, and Steve paused about ten steps later. And waited. He'd stand there until Spiran either came out, or made a move on Neal. If the latter happened, Steve was going to see how much the tree would let him do. The bird was possible, so Neal would be able to walk if they tried hard enough. The thing was, he knew they wouldn't get far unless they were looking at each other. He wouldn't be able to pull Neal out of there, and trying would probably get them both hurt.
You're not gonna start killin' folks, Neal thought. Not to save me, not for nothin'. You're thinkin' crazy.
"You be quiet," Steve said aloud. "You've been listening to Ross, and Jon, and still workin' by who you think I am. If they touch you, I'm gonna touch back."
You can't bring things down to a pissing contest. Callin' him out like this is just gonna piss him off.
"He's getting challenged, and he's gotta respond," Steve said. "I ain't gonna risk collapsing the place on you, and he knows that too. He's gonna come out here and play tough guy with me." He began slowly counting to 60 while he was standing there, concentrating on that and listening to Najh breathe behind him, shutting Neal out and settling himself down. He had counted off nearly ten minutes when he saw movement from beneath the overhang. A lone figure, striding purposefully. Steve waited.
Spiran came to stand nearly ten feet away, examining him like an undesirable bug. But Steve knew him by then, knew he was nervous. He either hadn't been challenged in a long, long time or he truly had a fear of Steve.
After the thing with the wall? Neal thought. Yeah. But you got a fuckin' daywraith with you, and that outweighs you in the scary department by a little. It takes balls to walk out there, with that starin' him down.
"What did the Formless offer you?" Steve said to Spiran. "Did it tell you the world would be yours, if you captured us? Did he promise you the Rai'an, all of them?"
Spiran didn't answer. He was trying not to make it obvious that he was watching Najh.
"You chose the wrong side," Steve said. "You lost with Tuirnarin, and you didn't learn. I put the Ender away."
"Did you?" Spiran said with a smirk, eyes cold and hard. "I can see what you are. You're newly joined, and unable to use each other's powers. I can hold you here until the Formless awakes from the glass, and then watch you all come apart. I'm only too happy to get rid of all of you, starting with the talentless one and working my way straight to the Inverse. The other Formless won't like it, but the truth is, they're no match for the Formless in the glass."
His thoughts closed, Steve made an internal comment about Aug being far from talentless. I should put my foot up his fuckin' ass for that alone, he thought only to Neal. He wanted to ask more about why the namers if that's who he was referencing - would be unhappy, and why Spiran knew anything about it.
He doesn't know about Jon, Neal thought. He still thinks the Inverse is with us.
"So what do you want, Er Rai?" Spiran said.
"I'm gonna make a deal with you," Steve said. "I think you've had it too easy. You need to work for this a little."
Spiran raised his eyebrows. "A 'deal'. You wish to fight me?" He sounded incredulous.
"Just you and me," Steve said. "Over the walker. That's the deal."
Spiran looked him over, still trying to ignore Najh. The daywraith kept his place several yards behind Steve's left shoulder, eyes calm. "More than that," the Sedhian said. "If I win, you, the small Rai'an, and the walker are mine."
"The boy has nothing to do with it," Steve said, keeping his temper quiet. For once it was Neal who was the voice of reason, who hushed him into patience, even though the guitarist was somewhere underground. "Listen to me, Spiran. You know who I am?"
Spiran smirked. "The question is, do you know?"
"I'm the Er Rai," Steve said, his voice remaining conversational. "I don't have a choice about that. But I do have a choice about the other half of it. What's my other name?"
Spiran shook his head, discounting Steve. "You posture."
"You wish," Steve said. "Destroyer. I don't need the walker for it. You're a wall to me. I don't need to deal. It'll take me a thought to wipe your kind right off of Athyri."
"Then do it."
Steve smiled a little. Can you believe this guy? I think he really is this fuckin' tough.
He is, Neal thought. That's why you've got him.
"Why?" Steve said. "That way you never find out what it's like to really catch hell for your mistakes. No sense wiping out a people when I only need to take care of you." He punctuated the final word with a stab of his index finger in the Sedhian's direction.
"Go ahead," Spiran said. "Make me an example that my people will build enough strength from to rule this world. Make yourself a Destroyer."
"No," Steve said. "You don't get to play martyr. Not here. I won't kill you."
"You propose a contest, then?" Spiran said. "Between myself and the mighty Er Rai? You either think that much of me, or you wish only for revenge."
"I've got plenty of reasons for revenge," Steve said. "But I don't need that, either. No powers. I won't be the Er Rai, for now. Just you and me, no interference."
"You're willing to die, over the walker?" Spiran said.
"I already have," Steve said. "I'm willing to stand out here and fuck around with you over it, when I don't need to."
"Then why the shaitan?"
"The shaitan is my end of the bargain," Steve said softly. "If you lose, we're gonna see which one of you really is the top of the food chain. I think he's taken offense at your choice of clothing."
Spiran widened his eyes slightly, but made no other motion to show nervousness. Without missing a beat, he said, "If I win, I will scatter the walker a piece at a time. Slowly. And then I will wear you instead of the hide of a shaitan."
Steve raised his eyebrows.
That singer you're wearing is so last season, Neal thought with a nervous laugh.
"No," Steve said. "The walker goes free, period. I'll have to be enough. It's you, or me, and that's it. Take it or leave it."
Stephen, Neal thought. You gotta remember, you got beaten up a lot as a kid.
Stay out of this, Steve thought, knowing what Neal was hinting at. This isn't me and you.
It is if he fuckin' kills you, Neal thought.
I got a lot of practice getting the shit kicked out of me, Steve thought. I know how to get over it.
You're a goddamn singer, Neal retorted. You haven't been out in the desert your whole life, killin' things with your bare hands and livin' off your wits.
"Funny," Steve said aloud. "I think that describes the music business pretty well."
Spiran eyed him with a touch of uncertainty. "What if I say no?" he said. "What if I choose not to allow you to challenge me?"
"Then I'll kill you here and now, walk through your tribe, and get the walker," Steve said, his voice low and hard. "And anyone trying to stop me dies."
"There's nothing to stop you from taking whatever you want, even if I win," Spiran said.
"It's your choice," Steve said softly. "You're the one who took the gamble in the first place, by messing with us. If you're that worried about it, then turn the walker over now, and I'll leave you alone. But you'll lose a hell of a lot of face in front of your people. Your whole existence is based on strength. Just because I can take what I want doesn't mean I will."
Steve paused, and they stared at each other for a moment. "All you want to do is talk," Steve said. "You afraid an Otherworlder will beat you?" He spat on the ground near Spiran's feet. "You're a coward."
The Sedhian's lips curled back in an open snarl. "I'll eat your heart," he said.
Steve made a 'come on' gesture with both hands, grinning. "I was just about to tell you to eat me anyway."
Spiran made the first move, out of rage and certainty, and Steve let him, sidestepping him just a little.
It was followed by another rush, and another. By the end of the third, Spiran was out of breath, and Steve was standing there purposely waiting to be hit.
I'm gonna have to let him get a couple in, Steve thought. To keep him interested.
Despite everything, Neal laughed. Nice try.
Spiran turned to face Steve again and said, "You're too afraid to fight."
"You're slow, old and fat," Steve said. That got the desired effect again: the Sedhian made another dive for him, and Steve stepped out of the way again. He'd learn eventually, but hopefully not in time to keep from getting worn out. This time, the Sedhian lashed a hand out and caught Steve a grazing blow, trying to grab him by his clothing. Had Steve been dressed the way he was accustomed to, looser fitting, layered clothing, it would have worked. But the dark leathers he was in left little in the way of anything to grab, and Steve slipped away, turning out of his grip.
It didn't occur to Steve that it might be a feint; as he turned out of it to the left, Spiran connected with a roundhouse that caught Steve beneath his right eye. Stars exploded in the singer's vision, and for an instant the inside of his head went dark. He kept spinning anyway, staying on his feet and staying conscious. When he was facing Spiran again and able to see him, he watched the Sedhian try and shake his hand out.
Hard head, Neal thought. I always knew it.
His eye already beginning to swell, Steve circled Spiran, keeping his hands up. He needed Spiran to swing at him without doing that kind of damage again. Spiran was out of breath but grinning.
"You will kill me, I think," he said. "But it will be worth it." He dove after Steve again, aiming low, a forearm headed for Steve's waist. Steve picked up on the intent to get an arm around him and pummel him, and he let the other man get close and duck his head. Then he spun away, using an elbow to nail Spiran in the side of the head as he did so. Spiran stumbled, stunned, and Steve went right after him, applying a foot to the Sedhian's ass and propelling him face first into the dust.
Enraged, Spiran rolled and came after Steve in a blind rage, making the same mistake yet again. He swung wildly at Steve, and Steve turned it away with a forearm, going with the blow and letting it pass his head without ever having to really block it. Spiran had his weight behind the blow and turned his shoulder into it, so Steve was able to shove him in the direction of his momentum. Spiran came back swinging, taking reckless shots at the singer. Steve took one on the shoulder by accident while trying to stay close enough to keep the Sedhian swinging, and he felt his arm go numb. It distracted him enough to allow one more to connect, this one a grazing blow to the jaw that split his lower lip. It didn't do the damage it would have had it been thrown earlier in the fight; there was little power left behind anything the Sedhian did by then. Steve let Spiran keep swinging at him, and less than two minutes after the whole thing had started, it was over.
Steve gasped for air, feeling it aggravate his shoulder, feeling blood trickle down his throat. They were all things he'd felt before, so no big deal. It was the shock of being hurt that did most people in; if you could think and move past that, you would be fine up to a certain point. So he kept his head down and his hands braced on his knees and breathed past it. It was only pain. He wasn't truly hurt, just battered.
Spiran was in worse shape. Steve had known he would be; the Sedhian was used to short scuffles, to overpowering smaller opponents with brute force and intimidation and ending it quickly. He had no wind or stamina for long battles. He barely stayed on his feet.
And he wasn't a stubborn son of a bitch, either.
"You done, tough guy?" Steve said hoarsely. "You through showin' me who's boss?" He straightened, feeling for loose teeth and discovering they were all still intact for the moment. His eye was swelling shut, and he gingerly wiped blood and sweat out of the one he could still see out of. He walked to the Sedhian and shoved him, sending him sprawling into the dust. Spiran struggled to regain his feet, rolling onto his elbows but able to go no further. He had nothing left. Steve waited. "You feel better?"
Spiran hung his head to the ground and continued gasping for air. Finally, he said, "You...are...the Er Rai."
Steve wanted to say so what but kept quiet.
"You...are the true leader, here," Spiran said.
"No," Steve said. "Goddamnit, no. You fuckin' don't get it, do you. This wasn't about who's tougher, or who's in charge. This is just me, making sure you understand what it's like at the other end of the stick. Do you like it?"
Spiran didn't answer.
"No one fucks around with my family," Steve said. "Lot of other folks feel the same about theirs. You got work to do here, and I got no right tellin' you how to handle your business. But you let that Formless get you to do his dirty work. You got war as a result. You better learn to put two and two together, here, about how you want things to go from now on."
Spiran was silent a moment. When he had the breath, he said, "Are you not going to feed me to the shaitan?"
"I don't have shit to say about what the shaitan does," Steve said. "I'm not dumb enough anymore to think I can boss him, or anyone else, around. Do you understand?"
Spiran kept his head lowered but nodded a little. Steve wasn't sure if it was actual understanding, or just an acknowledgement that he'd finished a sentence.
"It's up to the shaitan, if he feels like eatin' you. I hope he doesn't. I hope you bought a clue and can figure out how to set things to rights, here. Because if you don't, there won't be nothin' left on Athyri but the shaitan. You leave the Rai'an alone and keep to your own business."
"If I survive," Spiran said, "I will be seen as weak."
"Deal with it," Steve snapped. "Now we're gonna go back and let the walker go."
A couple of minutes passed. Spiran took some effort getting back to his feet, then stood staring at Steve. "You would walk right into us? And expect to live?"
Steve sighed. "I said no powers during the fight. Fight's over, if you haven't noticed. You guys try anything, and you'll be rebuilding from scratch."
And he walked away. It was a good pace back to the caves, and he didn't have much left to get there with.
Najh looked at his retreating form, then swung his massive head to eye Spiran. Spiran raised his head to watch Steve walk away. It occurred to him to attack from behind, and bring the Er Rai's head back on his spear. But the moment passed. Najh gaped his jaws at the Sedhian, who slowly began to scramble back.
Then the daywraith padded after Steve.
Steve stood and stared at Neal a few minutes later, making sure his relief didn't show outwardly. "What's a nice walker like you doing in a place like this?"
"You look like hell," Neal said, glancing at Spiran. But so does the other guy.
"So what else is new?" Steve looked pointedly at Spiran, who jumped when a bit of dust fell from the ceiling. "Let's get the fuck out of here while you still have your hands."
He made Neal walk out ahead of him, watching the guitarist's back. No one did more than watch them. No one moved their hands, or moved suddenly at all, standing aside and watching them pass. When they were outside again, Steve turned back to the Sedhian, who met his gaze squarely, to his credit.
"Don't touch my family again," Steve said. "Don't touch the Rai'an, either. Next time, no bets. The Formless won't have a fuckin' thing on me. Get it?"
Spiran eyed him contemptuously. "Stay out of our territory," he said.
Steve snorted, but didn't add to it. There was no getting the last word, not there.
He and Neal walked back toward the others. Najh, who had waited for Steve by the map of Athyri, met them halfway and circled, watching Neal but not coming close enough to touch. Neal did everything he could not to cringe at the sight of the thing. Seeing it through Steve's eyes, touching its hide with Steve's hands, didn't take away the shock of meeting it in person.
It's okay, Steve thought. Seems like bullshit comin' from me, but it's okay. It's like a really big dog. A really big pit bull.
That makes me feel so much better, Neal thought. You're a dumb, stubborn bastard, you know that?
Are you hitting on me? Steve thought.
"Wait," Neal said aloud, and he didn't need to say it; Steve was already pausing, having heard the intent. Neal was grabbing him and pulling him in for an embrace. Steve held on, trying to pretend it didn't mean as much as it did, that it hadn't been killing them both to be apart. They stood there in silence, not caring about the Sedhians or the fact that Aug, Ross and Rall were standing further off staring. The distance was gone, and nothing else mattered. It only slowed the inevitable. But right then, that was good enough.
When they were close enough, Ross dropped the dissembling field and let everyone become visible again. He, Aug and Rall walked out. Aug was grinning.
*Happy with yourself?* Ross thought, but there was a grudging admiration beneath it.
"Yeah," Steve said. "Wasn't any worse than dealing with Neal in the studio."
"Fuck you," Neal said wearily.
"Again, already?" Steve said. "At your age?"
Ross bit his tongue as hard as he could without drawing blood.
"How much of a beating do you need before you stop being an asshole?" Neal said.
"More n' 'at," Steve said, pressing his fingers to his lower lip to try to get it to stop bleeding.
"This is your jh'sai?" Rall said, not bothering to keep the incredulity out of his voice.
"Yeah," Steve said. "I don't know, d'you think I could've done better?"
"Jesus," Neal said, rolling his eyes.
Rall looked between them, obviously wanting to say something but not sure how, or if he should even try.
"It's okay, Rall," Steve said. "This is Neal. He's -"
"A walker," Rall said. "I know. Many Turnings, Neal."
Neal nodded. "Thanks for keeping these jerks in line," he said. He had laid a hand on Steve's back without realizing he was doing it, keeping contact, trying to keep them from coming further apart with that alone.
"How can you tell he's a walker?" Steve said.
Rall looked at Steve to see if he was serious, then said, "It sort of came across in all the stories everyone's been telling since the day I opened my eyes," he said.
"Duh," Ross said.
Steve looked around. "Can't really stay here," he said. "Guess we should've thought of that. We need to get under cover, find Jon, and get out of here. Rall, we need to get you home."
"I can get home on my own," Rall said, watching Steve change his form and settle on Neal's shoulder.
"No way," Aug said. "I don't care how many daywraiths you got. Somebody brought you out here, somebody's taking you back. The Sedhians are probably mad enough to try something with you."
"Which means we don't keep standing out here and givin' 'em ideas," Neal said. "Let's move. This was all smokescreen, and we gotta get to the bigger thing."
They headed for the Outlands again a boy, a daywraith, an illusion-maker, two walkers, and a raven.
"This feels like one of them fuckin' Disney 'Incredible Journey' things," Neal said.
"Yeah," Aug said. "'The Far Side' version. All we need is a cow and an octopus, and we'd be golden."
Ross cloaked them, and they were gone.
Jon opened his eyes to a place that looked sane and familiar.
A garden. A garden with wide flagstones and small stone benches, one of which he was sitting on. Another was directly opposite him. He was surrounded on three sides by life, flowers and trees bursting out of the ground, the scent of damp green almost overwhelming after the dryness of the desert. Calm, serene, safe. Nothing held him in place, visible or otherwise. He wasn't warm or cold, just rested and safe. Clean. He didn't think he'd see a day again when he wasn't covered in dust.
He remembered the caves, remembered being told to go ahead and leave. He'd been sure there would be a spear in someone's back, had at first been weak-kneed with the fear that they would be burned like the Wisp had. They'd managed to get outside and still be alive, it hadn't been a ruse to pick them off. When he realized they were going to live, he'd started arguing about Neal.
I can't leave him here, we can't just walk away from him!
Jon, there's not a damn thing we can do FOR him, Ross had said. You wanna go back inside? You wanna try fighting these guys now? Or you wanna try and find Steve and plan something?
Ross had made that point. And then Jon remembered nothing else.
The memory made him sit up straight. He'd been leaning against something hard and cool. He twisted a little to investigate, and found what looked like an adobe wall. It was rounded and not quite smooth, a reddish gray mass of hand-wrought stone and earth. There was an archway to his right, part of the wall he was leaning against. Beyond that, he couldn't see without getting up. The building curved away, and the rest was obscured by greenery. Light slanted across the flagstones through the arched doorway, summer afternoon sunlight. Light dappled him from above through the leaves of numerous trees that shaded but didn't completely block out the sky. Blue sky. Yellow sunlight. Home.
He looked down at himself. Street clothes, the same jeans and shirt he'd worn the day they'd been taken. How long had it been? It seemed like weeks. Home how would he have gotten home, without
Jon startled, looking up, looking in the direction of the voice. There was an elderly woman sitting on the bench across from him, a walking stick in her wrinkled, fragile looking hands. She wore a white dress, plain and simple but stately nonetheless, looking amused and wise and settled. Satisfied with something. She looked like the queen mother of something, and for a moment he would have sworn he knew her. But it passed.
"Are you all right?" she said kindly. "It was difficult, I know. But you did well."
Confused, Jon said, "Where am I?"
"Home," she said, and didn't elaborate or allow Jon to ask further about it. "I needed to speak to you alone, without the others."
"The others," Jon echoed. "They're where are they?"
"Still in Athyri, I gather," she said. "They're all still alive, except for the walker and the Er Rai but they haven't been alive for quite some time."
Jon stared at her openly. Instead of asking her about that statement, he said, "You're a namer."
"If that's the only way you recognize us," another voice said, slightly to his right in the arched doorway. For a moment, Jon thought Steve was there, but then he realized what he was looking at; the namer who had taunted them before, when Steve had been in a child's form and the namers had wanted to take him. "Did you really expect us to leave two beings, capable of destroying us, in the same timeline?"
"Fuck you," Jon said between his teeth, voice gruff with sudden, barely contained rage. "We would never've known a thing about you, or any of this, if you hadn't started screwing with us in the first place. So don't bitch to me about it. You bastards deserve whatever you get."
"You see?" the namer in Steve's form said. "Dangerous to himself and others."
"Quiet," the elderly namer said, bringing her staff down onto the flagstones with a sharp crack. "We have also drawn out the weakest among us, the vengeful, the envious. You were not one to take his place. Don't speak against him." She turned her attention back to Jon, her expression once again kind. "We tried to hide you," she said. "Alone, you might have been heard anyway. But you gathered others around you that made you impossible to ignore. We're not omnipotent. If we were, the Evenwhen could be contained and ordered to our liking. The ones who made us gave us all our boundaries."
"Who made you?" Jon said.
The elderly namer smiled. "They left their mark, but we never saw their faces. There are many planes of Existence, Jonathan. The exploration of these planes has always been our goal. That's why you were born to this world. You'll remember, in time. You've been starting to remember a little since coming to Athyri again."
Jon let several heartbeats pass, finding himself staring at her hands. Her current form had nothing to do with the impression of advanced age she gave him. He had a feeling that millennia had passed through those hands like water, without a thought.
"What are you saying, exactly?" he said without raising his eyes, feeling drowsy suddenly. He couldn't think. "What is it you're trying to say?"
"We were the Unseen," she said. "The silent watchers, the keepers of order. Now we're feared. Before this goes any further, before you have more attention, we will end the experiment. We will call those of us who volunteered to be born to linear lives - to places and times - home, where it's safe.
"Jonathan it's time to come home."
* * *