Author's note: I don't usually put entire song lyrics ahead of a tale; it's a verse or so of some phrase that I think sets the tone. But for this one, well...the whole thing has to go in. So, more indulgent than most, but everyone's humored me this far. The majority of it was written in a couple of hours, just a drabble. Special thanks to ChrisPV for setting this one off with some of her recent writing; hello, shared brain. Everything comes around again. If you like it, blame her. If you don't, blame me. This is an accidental extension of 'Memory Bound'.
WARNING: Sad. Mean. Unfair. Spoilers for parts of book 4.
Wielding An Absent Hand III: Still Unsaid
(c) 2000 B Stearns
A thousand years, a thousand more
A thousand times a million doors to eternity
I may have lived a thousand lives, a thousand times
An endless turning stairway climbs
To a tower of souls
If it takes another thousand years, a thousand wars,
The towers rise to numberless floors in space
I could shed another million tears, a million breaths,
A million names but only one truth to face
A million roads, a million fears
A million suns, ten million years of uncertainty
I could speak a million lies, a million songs,
A million rights, a million wrongs in this balance of time
But if there was a single truth, a single light
A single thought, a singular touch of grace
Then following this single point, this single flame,
This single haunted memory of your face
I still love you
I still want you
A thousand times the mysteries unfold themselves
Like galaxies in my head
I may be numberless, I may be innocent
I may know many things, I may be ignorant
Or I could ride with kings and conquer many lands
Or win this world at cards and let it slip my hands
I could be cannon food, destroyed a thousand times
Reborn as fortune's child to judge another's crimes
Or wear this pilgrim's cloak, or be a common thief
I've kept this single faith, I have but one belief
I still love you
I still want you
A thousand times these mysteries unfold themselves
Like galaxies in my head
On and on the mysteries unwind themselves
Eternities still unsaid
'Til you love me.
--Sting, A Thousand Years
He'd been sleeping. Again.
He did a hell of a lot of it lately. He did a hell of a lot of thinking, too, more than he wanted to. But he was in his eighties, and both were all he had time to do, as tired as he was.
Jon sat up a little straighter in his chair on the porch, and looked out across the yard. Afternoon had stretched on to another midsummer evening. Midsummer to the day, as a matter of fact; solstice. The longest day of the year. He closed his eyes again.
He'd been thinking about the singer. Not the one they'd ended with. The one they'd begun with.
No. No, none of them had seen the singer again, not after they'd found out what they'd accidentally done to each other.
At first it had been a figurative vanishing; Perry had sequestered himself somewhere in Larkspur and put up the front of working on another solo album. Still tangled, both he and Neal had learned how to sidestep each other on a regular basis by then, how to live with each other but lie, and the distance helped.
Until the first payment of what they owed came due.
Neal's first heart attack, ten years after the last time he'd used his powers, had been mild. The price for channeling that kind of energy through a physical form was delayed, but high, and his heart had finally given out.
Steve had come out of the woodwork then, after years of shutting them out. Of trying to give them a chance to live in the world they'd been born to without wearing the same neon sign he was. And it'd been a shock; the singer was no older, hadn't changed. Another ten years should have shown on him by then, the way it was showing on the rest of them.
Steve had come to see Neal right after the guitarist got out of the hospital the first time. And no one had spoken of it. No one had to. Jon knew an invitation had been made, and been refused. Neal had taken one final walk across the lines soon after that, and had chosen to go on.
It had been a blow to them all. Jon had taken small comfort from the fact that Neal had gone on, in many ways. Ways he chose not to confide to the guitarist's children. It wouldn't have lessened the impact of the loss. It was still loss. But it was only theirs. The walker chose a different path.
And the Er Rai reeled.
Finally free of a bond he'd spent a decade trying to sidestep, he found himself reaching blindly for something similar, never having realized how much he'd come to depend on the low hum of thought that had been Neal. Of not being alone. There was sudden silence in a place they'd both inhabited, and Steve filled it with a screaming that only he heard. Lost, and directionless, and unable to live with what he'd become. Unable to listen to a silence he'd fought to regain, he'd left the world and vanished into it at the same time. Choosing to do it. They hadn't seen him again.
Jon opened his eyes to look across the yard again, and saw the singer come through the trees and fading light. Almost as if summoned. At first Jon wasn't sure he hadn't fallen asleep again, and he blinked.
At the risk of being maudlin, Jon's first thought was, this is it. The Angel of Death is making his rounds.
How long had it been, anyway? At least a good thirty years. Forty, since the last time they'd seen Athyri.
And the singer was still the exact age he'd last seen him at. Not a day over fifty one.
"Samael," he said aloud. The true name of the Angel of Death, if he remembered correctly.
Steve came closer, walked up on the porch, his feet soundless against the boards. Caught between worlds, he was only able to make sound that very few could hear by then. "What?" Steve said.
"You're not supposed to speak his name, I don't think," Jon said. "The ramblings of an old man, Steve. Just ignore me."
"I'm really here, you know," Steve said.
"No," Jon said. "You're not. And you haven't been for a very long time. I think you know that."
Steve looked visibly sad for a moment; it was in the way he drew his brows together, the slant of his eyes. And the light in the eyes themselves was visible to Jon's fading sight. A light he'd put there again without meaning to. And God, how they'd all paid for it.
"What are you doing?" Jon said softly. "Here, I mean. I don't mind seeing you. But I thought you knew better."
"You'll be going back," Steve said suddenly. "If you ever believed that stuff. It's true, isn't it."
Jon sighed, settled himself back a little further in his chair. "Back to my old life?" he said. He wanted to deny it, even after all this time. But he couldn't. They'd been back, since, to remind him. The namers. Still willing to take a tainted Formless back into their fold, and learn from it. "If life's what it is. I don't know what it all means."
"You'll have to decide," Steve said, "about whether you wanna go around again." He looked up at the sky then, quickly, as if listening.
Jon was suddenly terrified of what the singer would say next, wanted to put a hand out and shove him away. But he only stared, and waited for the thing with the shining eyes to say what it had come to.
"I found Neal," the singer said.
Jon couldn't speak for a moment, and Steve didn't lower his eyes from the sky.
Not so directionless, after all. Not so lost.
"I know I'm supposed to stay out of the Evenwhen," Steve said. "I know. I waited as long as I could."
"You," Jon said softly, his tone flat, "don't know anything about waiting."
Steve looked at him then, still looking sad but not reacting otherwise.
"If you came to hear I'm glad, to keep yourself from feeling guilty for fucking around with the lines, you came for nothing."
"I didn't," Steve said. "Come for that. I didn't get into the lines, either. I thought you'd wanna know, Jon."
"That he went on?" Jon said. "You didn't need to stick your goddamn head in the Evenwhen to find that out."
"I had to know if we'd know each other," Steve said, "if we came around again. If we'd recognize each other." He paused, the final two words nearly lost to choking grief.
Jon waited a moment, then said, "You're already hurting yourself. Don't do this to the rest of us."
"We need to be as separate from each other as Existence will allow," Jon said. "We've done enough. You have to let it go."
And letting it go was out of Steve's reach. Steve might have found Neal again, but he was one step out of balance with him, on another plain that didn't run at the same frequency. And he needed that same frequency, to be able to get loose. There was no way Steve had been able to reach Neal, not across time or place lines; it took another hand in addition to Steve's to open those doors. Keys didn't turn themselves. There was nowhere for the singer to hide, and no one to return him back to the circle. The one being capable of that had gone on somewhere else. Out of reach.
But the circle would come around again. They had to scatter to allow things to fall back into place. All of them would come around again, and eventually do this again, even if it took a span of astronomical time.
It was the awareness of that time that was the problem; if things had gone the way they were intended, none of them would have felt it. But now the Er Rai would see every moment of that time and watch the whole thing turn. He stood still in the middle of a river, the current passing without affecting him.
A prisoner, holding his own key. A key that, on Neal's death, had changed shape slightly and made him incapable of using it. Leaving the singer to realize later that it left him in place.
Holding a clock with no hands.
"We'll know you," Jon said softly. "The Formless are awake. We'll all know each other. It'll be different. We just won't remember."
"I will," Steve whispered. "Because I'm awake. And I'll always be awake."
Unrelenting consciousness, Tuirnarin had said. Their second time in Athyri, when she'd confronted them just outside it. She'd said she'd leave him to consider it all in unrelenting consciousness, when she was done with him. But it was Jon, in the end, who'd done that. And Neal who'd put that final nail in the coffin without meaning to.
They'd pulled him back, taken his choice away. Twice. Now they were leaving him to consider it all in unrelenting consciousness. And one in particular had refused to share it with him.
It hadn't been a refusal of Steve, in the end; it had been weariness and an overwhelming desire to go on.
Do you remember forever?
Jon felt himself trying to sidestep a long held and bitter guilt, the same way they'd all learned to sidestep each other. The same way Steve had learned to sidestep Neal even though they'd been mixed together like two different colors of sand shaken in a jar. None of it did them any good, now. And Steve didn't need his pity. Pity was a form of abuse, after awhile. So was guilt. He'd have done it himself, if he could: sever the singer from life and return him to the circle. But he couldn't, not in any meaningful way. Not in any lasting way. Not anymore. Not after forcing his own living energy into the singer's lifeless shell forty years earlier.
If Steve had blamed him for any of it, that time had passed. Jon had only to live with himself over what he'd accidentally done.
But not for much longer. His clock had hands. If he wanted them.
Steve took his hands suddenly and said, "I forgive you."
Jon opened his mouth to say, it doesn't matter if you do. But he couldn't say it. He owed Steve that much. If it was true, if Jon returned to his origin, he would see the singer again much sooner than intended. But he wouldn't do it. He'd let him go on alone until the frequencies matched up again. Existence would collapse, otherwise. And he'd done enough damage...for a lifetime.
Steve rested his forehead against one of Jon's knees briefly, then tore himself away, backing off the porch. "I'll see you again," he said softly.
"Yes," Jon said deliberately. "Yes, you will."
And the singer walked away, back into the longest day.
* * *
10,481 years later, linear time
8 placelines over
After awhile, there had been no point in moving at all.
He no longer remembered being a singer; he occasionally grasped a bit of music and recognized it. But the details had frayed over an amount of time that was hideous to his barely human mind. Most of his original--or he thought it was original--life was lost in the landslide of details, in the things he'd seen since. He held on to only a few things with any real clarity. Jon. Neal. And the way things had ended.
He'd held that one shining beacon up to his mind's eye through millennia, searching for them, the original reason for it corrupted by time. Twisted back on itself into a parody. While he'd still been walking Earth, he'd found Neal, once. And then lost him again, so much sand through his fingers.
For the first several decades, then centuries, he'd marked the time carefully. He'd held onto himself and the life he'd understood even though his world had moved on without him. He failed to change with it and made himself incapable of living in it. When that day came, he walked away across the placelines to a world he'd accidentally built, and remained there.
You don't know anything about waiting.
He remembered those words, clearly. And they were no longer true. He knew nothing but waiting.
The Formless had left him alone. He'd mostly forgotten what they had done, or why. No one had challenged him again until a few centuries into the Longest Day, and he had scattered that being to the winds. His power had built over time, the energy condensing in him until it sifted the human out of him. The amount of time he'd been awake wasn't enough to jeopardize Existence. It had begun to slow, and the entropy was noticeable to few. But there would come a time when it wouldn't be ignored. He was on his last revolution. Time was a concept Jon had brought to the Formless, but it began to lose meaning to a linear lifeform introduced to forever.
He'd seen civilizations--hell, worlds--come and go since. Changed his form. Changed his mind. Lost himself, and everything else, and rebuilt again several times over. Forgot the name he'd been born with.
Born? Born which time? Which version of me was me, really? What am I?
He recognized himself as the Er Rai and left it at that. He forgot how to speak, then learned how again. And he failed to recognize his own voice, at first.
There were different levels of awake. And there had been centuries where moving was too much, and he'd remained in one place, hibernating. It had been Siarion's Tower that he'd chosen as that resting spot, sometimes not even breathing for years. Listening, always listening, waiting for the circle to come around again. It made everything tolerable. It was almost like sleeping.
The Wisps--and the Sedhians, and the cultures that arose after that--left him alone.
But Siarion had come, once. He remembered that much. To turn him off the path he'd chosen? To appeal to his sense of fairness? Or simply to comfort? That memory was gone. She hadn't come again, and time had stretched out into a numbing span of similarities.
He had occupied that tower now much longer than the Nightbringer ever had.
And brought something much darker than night, after a time.
The tree, his tree--that had grown nourished from his original form planted in dry, barren dust at the foot of the tower--kept watch over him. It's roots flowed throughout the entire world, a world they named Athyri in honor of it's first settlement. Growing. Changing.
He did not do either, after awhile. He did nothing but wait. And listen. And the tree watched over him.
And then the static, white background noise of Existence took on a particular, faint tone; a barely discernible chord that he only needed part of.
Brothers. They're brothers, this time. But they always were.
* * *
They'd been hiking when the scenery changed.
The older brother, Colin, cursed over the useless compass before shoving it back into his pack. "It's like the whole place is magnetized," he said to the younger. Three years separated the two, but it may as well have been moments. Neither had memories of living without the other. One moment they'd been hiking in the Rockies, and the next they were--
The light was unfamiliar; it could have been any stretch of plains on Earth if not for that. A blue-white sun, too distant to give off any more heat than the standard yellow star their world revolved around, hovered above a blood-red horizon. The landscape broke into gentle waves that didn't show more than dry, brittle grass until the treeline. Beyond that, a forest of indeterminate size and depth stretched out a good day's walk away from them toward where the sun hovered.
At their backs was a forbidding, sheer wall of red stone, a blade-sharp cliff that sliced the world in half and gave no indication of what lay on the other side. It stretched on either side of them as far as the eye could see, broken only by a valley of steppes and towers. The tallest of these rose starkly against the others, standing apart. At it's base was the only true growing thing for miles--the tall, spiral curve of a tree.
Each leaf was a blue-green spiral shape that made bell-like sounds in the growing breeze. Each branch twisted gracefully about the others, giving an impression of purposeful design. There was nothing random about it, to the eye. The lushness of the upper branches could have hidden any number of things. But it was alive.
By then there wasn't enough light to see the dark figure that stood in the tree's shadow. The wind whipped at a dark cloak that became feathers and bore the figure away.
"We're lost," Greg said, shaking his head at his older brother and reshouldering his own pack. The words were true in a sense he didn't yet grasp.
"There's no way," Colin said. "There was a goddamn stream, and you started humming that freakin' song again, and then here we are."
"Well, there weren't enough mushrooms around for us to be hallucinating," Greg joked. Then his face fell when he realized how scared Colin was. "There's nothing we can do about it right now," he said. "We'll get it straightened out."
You can't get straightened out on another fucking planet, Colin thought. You can't. But he kept it to himself.
The brothers made camp and built a small fire, intending to remain awake and puzzle over what had happened to them. The sky was as unfamiliar as the terrain, and yielded no clues. Sooner or later one meant to keep watch while the other slept. Soon after that they were both asleep.
* * *
When they awoke, they were indoors.
Cold, marble-like floors of a dark, roiling gray stretched out before them, shot through with streaks of lightning white. One entire wall to their left was glass, facing into a desert that didn't seem to end. There was a wide staircase before them, bordered and topped in shadows they couldn't see into...
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, Colin thought. "Fuckin' spooky," he said aloud. "Now we're just zapping around from place to place. We fell in a hole somewhere, or someone put acid in those Granola bars, or--"
Greg was already up and looking around, turning circles on the expansive floor, touching the opposite walls and the pillars that spiraled from floor to ceiling.
"Cut it out," Colin said.
"We can't just sit and worry," Greg said.
"You're gonna trigger some secret passage or something," Colin said. "And we'll be somewhere worse."
Greg didn't answer, and Colin said, "Sooner or later, someone'll tell us what they want. They have to. Someone has to know why we're here."
"You think this's--" Greg began, then paused. Something stirred in the shadows of the staircase, and he walked quickly back to where his brother stood. Something dim and green floated in that darkness, advancing on them.
* * *
There had been four others, at one point. He remembered that much. There were only two now, all he truly required, a younger and an older. Brothers.
The Er Rai stood in the shadows at the top of the staircase and watched. He listened to them try and reason with their predicament aloud to each other, rather than use thought. He heard everything they did and didn't say. The younger--not more than seventeen this time--displayed more curiosity than anything else, running his hands over the various surfaces of pillars and walls. He was thoughtful and sensible, much like every other incarnation had been. The older was impatient and ready to confront whatever known factor he thought would come out of the shadows, full of hidden fear.
"Sooner or later, someone'll tell us what they want," the older said. "They have to. Someone has to know why we're here."
"You may ask me."
His voice startled them, echoing off the cold illusion of marble. He walked to the top of the staircase, showing himself. They turned to stare up at him, shoulders touching, silent with amazement. He looked down on them from the staircase, listening to them breathe, listening to their fear. They stood close to one another and pinned him with wide eyes that held no recognition, no remorse.
The first, the younger one, had been Jonathan, thousands of linear-years ago. He could see it in the eyes, hear that particular tone that rung out in silence and said Inverse. But it was more than that. There were so many things that had made him Jonathan, and those things were still intact.
The second...the older...was Neal.
That one, he recognized immediately and without question. The face was different, the skin darker, the shape taller. But that one he'd known better, for a time, than he'd known himself. And knowing himself was a thing long in the past.
They didn't recognize him. He'd known they wouldn't, that they'd gone on and couldn't remember, but he blamed them for it anyway. In past centuries he might have torn them apart on sight, or thrown himself at their feet and wept in relief. But time had stripped away rage, and regret, and love. Common sense and compassion had burned away in the light of the star that beat down on his form while he'd been sitting for time immemorial on the tower.
The younger man looked up with startled wonder on his face. The one who had been Jonathan.
"Living life again, Inverse?" the Er Rai said. "Not allowed to remember the rest of it? Convenient."
"Who are you?" the Inverse said.
"You don't recognize the setting?" the Er Rai said. "It's not enough to convince you to stop playing around with Existence? I would've thought you, of anyone, would have learned. You were watching me, for a long while there, and then you turned away."
The walker grabbed for the Inverse, pulling him partially out of sight. "You're nuts," he said. "Leave him alone. Leave us alone. Let us go."
The Er Rai stared down on them, suddenly calm, focusing on the second. "You turned away," he said again. "I don't know, anymore, what I want most--for you to finally do what you were meant to, or for you to find out what it's like to go on for no reason. Unrelenting consciousness."
The walker swallowed hard, then visibly gathered himself. "Are you gonna kill us, or not?"
The Er Rai looked at him with something that could have been surprise, had the face not been so frozen. Then there was more, a suggestion of affection that frightened the young man more than the malice or accusations had. "No," he whispered. "No, I'm not done with you yet. You have a hell of a lot to account for."
"You got us confused with someone else," the young man said.
"No," the Er Rai whispered. "You'll remember. I'll make you. You'll remember for me." Then he paused, watching their frightened faces. "Your names."
At first, they didn't understand him. Then the one who had been Neal said, "I don't think so. We're not gonna be around long enough for you to refer to us."
That cold smile again, a hint of something that would have been humor once. "Maybe you're right," he said. "Maybe you won't."
There was a swirl of dark cloak in the half-light, and the Er Rai retreated back into the shadows, becoming nothing more than a green stare. The windows facing the desert rippled away, leaving one whole side of the building open. Freedom was implied, but both men knew there was nowhere to run.
They remained in the relative shelter of the building, uncertain of braving the desert even though the thing at the top of the stairs went on staring at them. They neither approached it or tried to talk to it again, knowing enough to realize it was less human than it looked. Frightened of talking even to each other, they sat shoulder to shoulder in silence and waited.
* * *
Colin awoke without remembering having laid down to sleep; neither he or Greg had done so. They were too rattled. The light outside had faded, and they'd sat in the dark waiting for that green stare to come out of it at them.
He sat up, looking around at yet another unfamiliar room. This one was close, circular, not the expanse he'd seen the last time he'd been awake. It was grayer, constructed of blocks of stone. It was cold and dry, and he leaned his back against one wall to look around.
There was no door. And...
Greg. Where the hell was his brother?
"Greg," he said aloud, even though he could see the entirety of the room. He stood slowly, bracing himself on the wall. "Greg!"
"You'll see him again," a voice said beside him, and he spun to meet it. The creature with the green stare had dark hair and was too pale to be human, too stiff, as if it wasn't accustomed to moving. Colin stumbled away to an opposite wall, fearing the thing would touch him.
"When that'll be depends on you," it said. "This turn, or another, it doesn't matter."
"Where is he?" Colin said, trying to make a demand out of it and failing.
It smiled. The expression was as stiff as everything else it did.
"Oh my God," Colin said.
It was on him that quickly; it seemed to only take a step, yet it had him flattening himself to the wall an instant later. He scrabbled at the stone for purchase to try and keep the figure from touching him.
It didn't work; the creature grabbed him by one wrist, cold hard fingers digging into flesh and bone. Digging into more than that. Something snapped to life behind Colin's eyes in a breath's worth of time. Another life. Shattered pieces culled from a memory too long in use to represent them properly found each other behind his eyes, and it was just enough to make him understand. One life out of a thousand had stood out to the thing in front of him, and he'd met it before. He struggled to get free of the grip it had him in, and couldn't.
"God?" it whispered. "Where is your God, walker? Turned away? Or standing here in front of you?"
"You're a monster!" Colin shouted, close to a scream. "It doesn't matter, anymore, if I ever loved you! You're no better than her. You're worse, because you know what happened before and you're doing this anyway. You should've moved on, you should've been put back in the circle. Now I don't care if you sleep forever!"
He broke into sobs, and the Er Rai turned away, releasing him.
"Steve would never have done this to us," Colin/Neal sobbed, the words barely comprehensible, and the Er Rai paused. "That was only one turn out of a thousand. We should've been together for all the turns, but I didn't want to live forever!"
"You knew I would," the Er Rai snarled. "You abandoned me because of it."
"You were already dead!" Colin screamed. "Goddamn you, you understood at the time! I didn't wanna leave you!"
"You took my choices away from me," the Er Rai said coldly. "You, because you had part of me, and the Inverse, because he could. Now I'm taking yours away from you." And the creature turned on its' heel and left him, vanishing into the dark and cold.
Terrified, the young man went on sobbing, alone with the dark and terrible certainty that not even death would solve this problem. There was nowhere to run from what held him. It'd been looking for him too long, and he didn't even remember that life. He had one shining moment of it, recognized himself in a place and time totally foreign to him. There was only a handful of memories of it, things that had gone into the whole of who he was now. He was barely beginning to understand what a walker was. Something slumbered within him, something only triggered by the monster stalking outside those walls.
Oh God, I'll do anything, please get me and Greg out of this. Oh God, please, and even his internal thoughts were nothing but terrified sobs.
If he was what the thing outside had shown him he was, then he could get them out. He had to find that trigger, figure out how it worked. If he did...it wasn't only a matter of getting them out. This thing could go on for another turn, for another thousand, ten thousand, tens of tens of thousands--
He would go back through the timeline and repair the damage. He swore to himself, to the sky, to the memory of a short and fragile union that had been an eternity. He would set things right. He would put the Er Rai to rest. Otherwise, there was a long chain of destruction ahead of him. If this thing held onto him long enough, poisoned him the way it was poisoned, it would spill over into the actions he took in the following years. If he succumbed to the madness he was faced with, sooner or later he'd go back far enough in a time/place line and snuff out this incarnation of the Er Rai while he was still young. Before the damage and suffering could begin.
We knew each other for thirty, maybe thirty five years, he thought. We were tangled, truly tangled for ten. It's nothing, when held up to ten thousand.
But somewhere along the line, those ten years had become worth ten thousand. And had brought him to where he was now, huddled frightened in a world that his captor had created.
* * *
He must have slept; it seemed like he was waking the next time he saw the angry figure in the cloak. It stood over him, glaring, and he stood to face it, feeling less panicked. He'd gotten rid of most of it by shouting at the thing, by crying. It hadn't affected the monster. But it had affected him.
"You don't wanna punish me," he said. "Steve doesn't, anyway. You soulless bastard, you don't remember who I am. Who you were. It's got nothing to do with me and Greg anymore. You're just locked into this idea because you forgot how to be human."
The Er Rai struck him without moving, and he slammed to the stone floor without even the chance for his reflexes to kick in and let him put his hands out. It took a moment for him to be able to pull breath in again. He didn't think he was hurt. Not physically, anyway.
"Learn," it hissed. "Learn how to turn yourself back, how to walk, or I'll give you a reason you can't ignore."
"You've already given us more than we can ignore," Colin snapped from the floor.
"You have until the light turns over again," the Er Rai said. "After that, you'll be doing it to get your brother back. Do you understand?"
"No," Colin said. "You don't make any fuckin' sense. You probably don't even understand yourself, anymore."
There was only silence behind him, and he didn't dare look up. He didn't want to even accidentally find himself looking in that flat, eerily green stare.
"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm sorry, for whatever it was we did. For whatever I did."
"You haven't begun to be sorry," the Er Rai hissed.
After a moment, the pressure in the room vanished, and Colin knew he was alone again.
* * *
He watched the shadows play on the opposite wall and knew the day was waning. He focused carefully on the idea of walking and wasn't sure what he was looking for. Having a few of Neal's memories didn't help much; he was still barely able to comprehend the fact that he was on another world. He couldn't grasp what the monster wanted even though he had a sense of it; that sense came from the memories of another. He might have been Neal once. But he wasn't Neal anymore and didn't understand how the feat was accomplished. Maybe not even the monster did, anymore.
Part of the problem was that the monster hadn't always been one. Some part of him recognized the dark figure and had no fear of him. He would stand up to the singer, get him to see reason. There had to be a spark of Steve still in there, the way Colin was still Neal without wanting to be.
He was wrong.
He heard them before he saw them; Greg was trying to reason with it, to no avail. Then they were there, the monster holding his brother by one arm in an unshakable grip. Colin stood and faced them, meeting Greg's eyes. He tried to silently promise his brother everything would be all right, even though he didn't know how it would be.
"Walk," the Er Rai said.
"I don't know how," Colin said, keeping his eyes on Greg. The trust in the latter's face was damning.
One side of the room opened, a section of wall evaporating into the air like a mirage. Colin startled away from it, feeling the space and realizing it wasn't an illusion; he could feel the cool, dry air on his face, feel the pressure of the height trying to drag him to the edge. It looked like they were stories in the air. High enough that he could see far out across the desert for miles. He realized what was happening even as he stumbled away from the edge and turned to face the thing holding his brother again. "No. You won't," he said. "You won't do it. You can't."
"Colin," Greg said softly, his voice shallow with fear, "if you can get us out of here, if you even think you can, do it."
"I don't know how!" Colin shouted desperately at the creature, afraid to move closer. "I don't understand it! Just tell me what you want and I'll try it!" He dropped his voice just as suddenly, gesturing imploringly with his hands. "Steve," he said. "You waited this long. Just give me time to figure it out."
"I waited as long as I could," the Er Rai said, the words and tone mechanical, rehearsed. Spoken over and over to no one for too long. Then he shoved Greg from the tower, out into the open space.
The boy never screamed; Colin did that for him.
* * *
He couldn't find the strength to do much more than mourn his brother, for some time after that. And when that was wrung out of him, there was nothing but cold that wound in from the stone and settled into him in places it could never be shaken out of. After a time, he was as dry and cold as the nighttime desert somewhere outside those walls.
He had no idea how long it had been when the thing rippled back out of the dark to stand and watch him. It didn't matter, anymore. He refused to acknowledge the monster's presence.
"Go," it whispered finally. "Go back, or ahead, and stop me."
"I can't," Colin whispered. "Not by myself."
"I'll help you."
"Then why didn't you help me, before?" Colin said woodenly.
"Because you believed I wouldn't hurt you. You needed a reason to do what you're about to."
"I hate you," Colin/Neal whispered, and for just that moment, the Er Rai was talking to both, to all Neal had ever been or would be. "I hate you, and I always will."
It was a calm, flat statement, unemotional and certain.
"Good," the Er Rai said aloud, the voice an audible caress. "Because your love kept me awake for ten thousand years." It held out a hand, then, beckoning the young man to take it. "Go and find him, walker, the monster who started all this. Put an end to him--to me--before the beginning of it all. Or so help me, I'll be here when you come around again."
Colin reached out for the hand, not wanting to touch the creature but knowing there was no other way.
"This will never have happened," the Er Rai said, and it was as human as he'd been in millennia. There was a flash of regret, too brief to acknowledge or retain. It was only the memory of the emotion. The young man's fingers brushed his own.
Colin/Neal vaulted over a point of the sphere of the Evenwhen without really understanding how, and was gone.
* * *
At first, there was only murder.
He had endless possibilities, and the choosing took great consideration.
Revenge for his brother had been the foremost consideration in making that choice, and there were many times when he nearly took that revenge in a common and bloody way.
Perry was easy to find, across the lines; the first time he saw that face, he wanted nothing more than to put his hands around the singer's throat and throttle the life from him. But that was too easy. Cause him to never exist? No. Painless. Murdering him in his sleep in a thousand possible places was also too easy. He wanted the Er Rai to see it coming.
But the Er Rai was hard to find. At first it made no sense; he saw Perry across the lines, but didn't hear the ringing that heralded the taint of the Raven Key. He had to narrow his focus, stick to only one timeline, even though he wanted to murder every version of the man and wipe him off the face of Existence.
His anger had made him blind, and by the time he realized how much time he'd wasted, the walking had begun taking a toll on him. Terror of having to go around again and face the Er Rai made him slow down and plot his course. There were thousands of singers, but only one of them was the Er Rai.
He went back to the original timeline, tracing that thread back with careful hands, and nearly succumbed to the desire to rend the life from the singer again. There were too many opportunities; the singer had stood in front of millions over a course of years, a moving target on a stage of lights. But he couldn't do that to the incarnation of himself that had lived, then. Or that version of his brother. Not in front of him.
He couldn't bring himself to be like the monster he'd faced in the tower.
The right moment would come, to avoid the damage that had been done. But trying to discover it was wearing him out.
He was afraid he'd taken too long in finding that moment, the one that stood out but left the rest of the choices intact. But he knew immediately when he'd narrowed things down to the correct and obvious choice. And he acted almost too quickly.
* * *
10,511 linear years earlier
8 placelines back
They sat in another span of silence that was anything but; to a casual observer, it would have looked like the singer had come to do nothing more than sit by the guitarist and stare. But it was a simple invitation on another level, met with solid refusal.
Jon had been unable to reverse the damage the heart attack had caused; he'd come as soon as he'd heard, and done what he could. But in this case, because of what had done the damage in the first place, Jon only exacerbated the problem. Too much energy had been channeled through a form that had never been intended for it; too much time spent skirting the Evenwhen, too much time rewound. And the Inverse had been made of that same energy. The attempt Jon had made had nearly killed Neal.
And Neal didn't have much time left.
So the person so uneasily sharing his soul had come to make amends, and offer a solution. Two souls in the one body instead of caught between two. Like candles, Steve had said/not said. You can blend the flames and it doesn't require any more room.
Neal had been tempted. God, how he'd been tempted. Because at first he hadn't been ready to go, or hadn't thought he was. Even knowing there was always something else, that they would all go on. And he wasn't ready to leave Steve. The singer never put it into words, but he was pleading steadily not to be left alone.
In the end, though, Neal had realized they would eventually be 'heard' again if they remained together. He realized how tired he was. And he remembered that Steve was caught between planes and had been since throwing that switch in the tower. The switch he'd thrown to escape Neal. The singer's form was unstable and could get caught between circles without ever choosing one, and might never go around again.
Or he could go on forever.
The final answer had been a weary, regretful no.
Steve had met it with silence. No anger, no grief. Neal had the right, and Steve would not counter it by being selfish. But he'd been disappointed. Neither of them had any idea what would happen if one died. For all Steve knew, Neal would have no choice about remaining linked. Tangled.
Steve thought he had forever to worry about, thought they might be together forever. It alternately panicked and reassured him. He was as caught between those emotions as he was caught between circles, wanting to be alone and horrified at the thought of it. He spun between in many ways and settled nowhere.
A bird, circling endlessly in an empty sky with nowhere to land.
He had walked away from the house, from Neal, leaving behind an admission that had been echoing for years. Still unsaid.
Hands grabbed him from behind, spun him roughly. Before he could react, an angry face was close to his own, an older set of eyes boring furiously into him, holding him in place. An elderly man of indeterminate age with burning eyes and dark skin, and nowhere near the age he seemed to be.
"Quiet," the man said, shaking him, and the voice was a younger man's, steady and even. "It's taken me too long to find you, find this one place. And now you'll listen."
"You know," the voice hissed, the hands stronger on his arms than they should have been. "You know who I am, you've always known. It doesn't matter anymore. Go back in the house, Er Rai."
Steve startled, the shock of the words settling over him like a net, trapping him in place and keeping him from attempting to tear away.
"Go back in the house and try again. You can't take him with you, but he can take you with him."
Steve took in the angry gaze and the knowledge behind it. "My God," he whispered. "Who are you?"
"Someone you've murdered with your selfishness, with your ignorance," the man said. "Look at yourself. You haven't aged. You won't, not ever. The Inverse brought you back and froze you in place."
Steve continued staring. Any hope that he'd run into a raving old man by sheer accident had left him. Neal's attention stirred somewhere in the peripheral vision of his mind's eye, listening, hearing it all.
"Go back in the house, and ask what you should have the first time. Go now, or go on forever. There's only one being that can return you to Existence, Er Rai, and you nearly convinced him to share your fate. Go with him. Or I'll return you myself."
He released Steve as roughly as he'd grabbed him, and Steve took a quick step away, rubbing his arms. He knew. He knew this man, had always known him, and quailed at the hatred in his eyes.
"Go now or go on forever!" the man screamed, and Steve turned to walk away, back to the house, stilling the urge to run. A single word ran beneath the scream, a constant refrain of hatred and offered redemption.
By the time he reached Neal's front door again, the harbinger in the yard was gone.
* * *
Somewhere, sometime, the tree at the base of Siarion's Tower bent slightly under a gentle breeze. And a single spiral leaf fell, drifting to the dust below.