DISCLAIMER:
The author is not affiliated with Journey or its members in any way, shape or form.
This is a work of fiction. Their likenesses are being used temporarily for entertainment purposes; the characterizations and stories are mine. No money is being made from this venture. No harm or suggestion of harm is intended. The following contains adult language and situations. It's also probably full of holes and may get tedious, as the author was generally on a caffeine-induced high and it was usually late, late at night and she was listening to a variety of things very loud and reading too much Carl Sagan.

There! Now, with that said, the following was written while working the holiday season at a toy store. That should tell you everything, right there. The idea was to write at top speed without revision just to see where it went. Like a live album. So it still has that rough-draft, 'what the hell was she thinking' feeling to it. It started out as a short joke that grew to novel length. It's okay, I didn't know where I was going either. I know it's hokey. But it's mine and I had one hell of a good time. The only thing rewritten is the ending, to keep from embarrassing some real-life friends. It's a breakup story--why Journey and Perry REALLY parted ways, inspired by ChrisPVs' epic about how the reunion happened (the Trial By Fire trilogy--if you haven't seen this yet, go straight to her page, The Holy Shrine Of Journey. You can't miss out on that!). Only the last two chapters were available to me, not having a computer yet while writing this; I loved the idea of the guys getting caught up in the supernatural and ran with my own idea. This is not intended to be connected to any of her work in any way, although I recommend hers highly; like I said, I'd only read a little of the Kingdoms series when I launched in this direction. It's just an excersize in the blatantly unusual. Toy store. Christmas. Catharsis. Hoo-hah!

CANDLES IN THE DARK Part I
(c)BS 1997

It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.
--ADAGE

The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles.
Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.
--Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World:
Science As A Candle In The Dark

Smitty disappeared first.

Right at rehearsal, in front of the other members of the newly reformed Journey, mid note and in full view of Jonathan Cain, who happened to be closest and glancing in his direction. He paused, unable to fully comprehend the possibility of someone inexplicably disappearing in his direct line of view. There was no sound, no warning of any kind to herald the unwarranted departure; one moment he had been seated behind his drum kit and the next he was not. There was no gradual fade, no movie quality special effects. Like a light snapping off, he was gone.

The drum pattern he'd been laying down behind a reworked version of 'Lights' ceased simultaneously, a new pair of Vic Firth sticks clattering across Smitty's snare before rolling away across the hardwood flooring of Jonathan's home studio. Jonathan made no sound even as the others paused at the cessation of the backbeat, staring in consternation. Ross turned completely around, waiting for the punch line, and Neal let the last note he'd played draw out into natural silence, his pickups humming for a moment before that died also. Steve, too, swiveled a full circle, waiting to catch sight of their drummer diving out of sight. Then he looked at Jon, and the look on the latter's face made him shoot the microphone back into its stand.

"What the hell did we just miss?" he said, keeping his gaze on Jon.

Neal advanced on Jon, leaning forward slightly, glancing around. "Hey, Jon. Did he haul, or what?"

"Hey, Smitty!" Ross called, ducking behind the retaining wall that acted as a sound barrier behind the drum kit.

"He was right there," Jon said softly, frozen in alarm, careful not to move. "He was there, and then he wasn't."

Steve came closer, bracing his hands across the Whale, Jon's cherry red grand piano, purposely trying to catch his line of sight. "One more time, Jay."

"Did you see him?" Neal asked, lowering his voice in response to Jon's sudden obliviousness to their presence. After a minute, Jon nodded a little.

"What's going on, Jon," Steve demanded.

Jonathan leaned back, gesturing toward the vacated drum kit. "He just...disappeared. Look, his sticks are on the floor! He didn't get up, he didn't float away, he just..." he snapped his fingers, shrugging.

"That's not possible," Steve insisted.

"Possible just went to hell," Jon said in amazement. "I don't know what I just saw. He's gone. I'm either crazy, or there's a perfectly good explanation that makes no sense. You guys decide."

They searched the studio twice; Smitty's car remained in the drive out front, a call to his home revealed nothing, and the last thing anyone wanted to do was call the police.

"And tell them what?" Neal nearly shouted. "That he vanished into thin air, in front of us? Four musicians will be getting their blood alcohol level checked about two seconds later, and then they'll want to know what the hell we did with him. Jon, we'll visit you in the nuthouse as often as we can, if we aren't already there ourselves."

Jon shook his head. "You guys have to believe me. I'm not in on some practical joke, or anything. He..." He paused with a sigh, worry beginning to overshadow anything else.

"No one's saying you don't know what you saw," Neal said. "I don't know what we're supposed to do."

"Hang around and see if he reappears," Ross suggested. "Maybe if he can get back, he will."

Ross disappeared, snapping off like a light.

Jonathan yelped, stumbling away, colliding with the wall behind him, and Neal reached to steady him almost instinctively even as he paled in shock.

Steve stood frozen with them, eyes wide with alarm. "I don't believe this! No, no way!"

"We're getting out of here," Neal decided.

Jonathan straightened reflexively. "But what...?"

Neal waved him silent. "Do you want to be next? There's something totally screwed up going on here. Out, Jon, now." He shoved him down the short hallway toward the outer entrance, knowing without bothering to check that Steve was right behind him.

* * *

They stood in Jon's living room, explaining what they could--or dared--to Liz, Jon's wife, who joined Steve in his pacing after questioning Jon at length. The kids were playing in the rec room downstairs, unaware of the confusion that plagued the adults above.

"And when we finally have to explain who saw them last, what do we say? Are we making up some bogus story? Would that help them, if something really is going on and we didn't collectively imagine the last two hours?" Jonathan demanded. "Do we let the police search the surrounding area? Do we tell their families they walked away and never came back?"

"Good question," Steve murmured, staring out the front windows and keeping a bead on the cars still randomly parked in the curving driveway. "A better one is if we'll be here to explain anything to anyone. For all we know we're about to walk away and never come back."

"This is too unreal," Liz burst out, drawing their attention. "This Bermuda Triangle, mysteries of the unexplained bullshit! There has to be some logical explanation, something we can do."

"It's okay," Jon said quickly. "We'll take the kids and cross the bridge to stay with your folks for a day or so. We'll figure out what's going on. We will." He pulled her closer, and she leaned into him, holding him as if the next moment would make him insubstantial. Steve and Neal traded glances, and then Steve averted his gaze to the windows again, leaving Neal to study him in the following silence.

{give in now}

Steve startled at the voice, whipping his head around to see if anyone else had heard it, making Neal the sole witness to an exchange that only Steve heard. "What," Neal said from directly beside him. Steve couldn't remember him moving any closer, and he stared at him in confusion. Jon and Liz had moved away, Jon attempting to reassure her, and Steve stared at Neal long enough to discern that he hadn't heard anything.

"I don't know," he whispered, not realizing it had been the flash of terror that had played briefly across his face that had brought the other man closer.

"Something hit you," Neal insisted.

"I don't think Jon was so far off. We might be crazy." I am, at least. "The alternative is a perfectly reasonable explanation that no one will want to hear. Maybe we'll wish we were crazy." He shrugged, watching the driveway, careful not to look at Neal again. "After all this time, after all we've been through, we're finally together again. And being yanked apart." He was trembling, almost indiscernibly, not enough for Neal to pick up on; not yet, after so long apart. Not after all the time and energy spent shutting each other out.

"Something will turn up," Neal returned. "There has to be something. When this really sinks in, we'll figure it out. If not, we'll have to tell this story eventually. And we'll need to keep it straight. Getting ourselves in deep shit won't help anything."

Steve nodded slowly, eyes traveling a yard now fading into twilight, dreading the coming darkness more than he could ever remember, beginning to realize that his trepidation stemmed not only from the bizarre circumstances they had been dropped into. Something waited in the coming night, and the flash of intuition made him reach out and keep Neal from turning away. "We're too close," he said, dropping his well trained voice into a lower register that made the guitarist shiver involuntarily.

"To...what," Neal heard himself say, wanting Steve to release him without knowing or caring why, feeling a spreading chill at the gleam in Steve's luminous eyes even though they weren't turned on him.

"It's us," Steve said, extricating himself, staring out toward where the studio lay hidden from direct view by a stand of juniper. "It's like we've been through this before. And we're too close."

"Don't you flip out on us now," Neal warned him, keeping the distance Steve had created, not wanting to know what he saw. "Don't start this."

"Jon should take Liz, and Maddie, and get the hell out of here. Tonight. Now. I think we need to get out of here."

Neal didn't agree. This was something they couldn't run from. But where that feeling came from was as unwelcome as the feeling itself, and he turned to go after Jon.

* * *

"Do you think splitting up will help?" Jon queried, keeping a calm front while Liz made a point of teasing a smile out of their daughter just out of earshot, and Neal had posted himself at the rear of the Cain's black Suburban. "You really think it's got to do with us, with who we are."

"It's a feeling," Steve admitted.

"I feel it too," Jon said softly. "This doesn't seem as strange as it should."

"This is nuts, man," Neal grumbled from behind.

"Neal," Jon said in the same tone, "Steve has always been the one not entirely...I don't know. Here. If he feels something, I'm not taking any chances. I'm heading out, and if you guys think it's wise you can come along. I'm not sure I want either of you to scatter beyond reach right now."

Neal glared at Steve, wary of him in a way he was unaccustomed to. "Call it, Perry," he said.

"Scatter," Steve said immediately. "Just get the hell away."

"Now go ahead and say what you're thinking," Jon said, the unsteadiness blatantly audible.

Steve pressed his mouth into a resistant line, an expression they knew too well, running a hand through his hair.

{give them to me}

It was louder then, and Steve recoiled from the silent voice, clapping his hands over his ears. He was listening to something distant, more distant than space alone allowed, something he knew he recognized. Then the impression was gone and Jon was shaking him by the shoulders and saying his name sharply, Neal right behind him. "What the hell is going on!"

"It's us," he said, staring at them in shock, his expression reflecting theirs. "We're like a candle in a dark window when we're all together, and something is looking for us. You have to get out of here."

"You know something," Neal accused. "When are you going to tell us what's going on with you?"

"I don't know," Steve said vehemently, careful to keep his voice lowered. Nothing to worry about--I've gone a little schizophrenic and I'm hearing voices, that's all! "If I knew, I'd say so. Just get out of here. Get out before we're all gone."

* * *

It was a long night.

Everything will make sense by morning, Steve told himself, the phrase nearly becoming a mantra as he tried to regain his bearings. He'd told them to call him, to keep in contact with each other as often as possible during the night, intent on dispelling the improbable.

I imagined it.

That only worked for small bites of time. Neal had told Dina at least some part of what was going on; Jon had called Ross' wife and Smitty's family and made a halting attempt at explaining that they didn't know why either man had failed to make it home from rehearsal. This was, to all intents and purposes, the truth, and until someone knew better that was the line they held to.

Steve sat with all the lights on and the radio turned up, unwilling to deal with the silence and what might come out of it. For a long time, all that surfaced was a sense of loss for friends he wasn't even sure were actually gone. What gone meant in this case was also beyond him. It was the uncertainty that intensified the grief, not knowing if they suffered or were even aware of their own disappearance. It was ludicrous. What if they were all gone by morning? Why were any of them left at all? When all five of them were gone, who besides their families would take up the aimless search?

What will it feel like, when...?

"No," he said aloud to the empty house, truly afraid for the first time, doubting his sanity. The one sided argument went on into the night, punctuated by the phone when the other two checked in periodically. Even that was small reassurance in the face of whatever was going on. What had they done? Or was it a matter of having stumbled into some random, unexplainable phenomena?

Sometime in the early morning hours, he drifted off at the kitchen table, a half full coffee cup at his right elbow, waiting for his turn to call Jon. Exhaustion claimed him only briefly...

Cracking open a door.

{the longer you wait}

He stirred, frowning.

{the more they'll suffer}

No, he argued. Leave us alone.

{come along, singer}

Steve struggled against a door that wasn't, in a place he knew but had forgotten, trying to awaken but finding himself being pulled relentlessly. It wasn't strong enough yet, whatever it was--a face in shadows, a presence that sight didn't allow. He refused to go, and the retaliation was immediate.

{then another}

He heard, across a horrifying distance, a sound beginning to gather strength to reach him...Neal screaming...

He jolted awake, the coffee mug hurled to the floor by the motion, liquid and shards of ceramic spraying across the kitchen in a shower of noise. Then he was on his feet, the remnants of a scream following him into lucidity. A thousand trailing images of Neal danced behind it, merging with the loss of him to unresolvable shadows.

"No," he said aloud. It became a shout of denial when he repeated it to the empty house, to whatever had snapped Neal out of existence. He reached the phone, dialing Neal's number with fingers that wouldn't cooperate, having to try three times before getting it right. Dina answered in terror, trying not to awaken their children but desperate for contact, reassurance, help.

"He's gone," she sobbed. "He was talking to me, and he faded away. What is it? Where's he gone?"

"We'll find him," he told her, the words meaningless but for comfort value. He'd had a glimpse of it, of the door that wasn't, had spoken to the occupant. Once he got over the shock that such a thing was possible, he would figure it out. He had to. "Are you sure he faded away? He didn't just disappear?"

"What difference does it make? He's just gone. Someone tell me what's going on!"

"We'll find out," he soothed. "We'll find him. Dina, go over what happened for me."

"He faded away. It was fast, but it wasn't a blink. There was time to watch him go. He told me what was going on, or he tried. What are you guys into!"

"I don't know," Steve said, trying to keep her talking. Or maybe I do. But I'm not about to say what I'm thinking.

"I watched enough episodes of Twilight Zone when I was a kid, Steve. I don't want any more of it. I sat here and watched him fade away! I'm calling the police."

"And tell them what?"

Silence. A world of it across miles of wire and night and fiber optics.

"I don't think this has anything to do with you or the kids. You're safe. I know it doesn't feel like it. I know this is hard, but don't panic. Take the kids and clear out for a few days." He glanced over his shoulder, around the kitchen, at the darkness beyond the windows. He had been certain there was something at the windows...

"What's that going to accomplish?" Dina demanded through fresh tears.

"It's the best I can do right now," he offered. "I'm sorry. I'll fix it. I don't know how, but I will. I promise."

* * *

"Neal is gone," he told Jonathan.

"What!"

He repeated what Dina had said. "I don't know what the hell it means, if anything. We need some bright ideas here, Jay."

"How did she find your number so fast?" Jonathan began, trailing off.

"I called her," Steve choked. "I heard him go. We weren't close like you guys are, but I heard him go."

"You'd better start talking," Jonathan hissed. "If you think you can explain any of it, I need to hear it. Now, before one of us goes! Jesus, what am I saying? We've all lost our minds."

"I don't know enough to explain," Steve said. "I don't. But whatever it is, it's on purpose. It knows us. Something...threatened us. I heard it."

"Then where is there to run?" Jon asked defeatedly. "How do you stop something you can't explain? If we at least knew they were still alive--"

"They are," Steve said quickly. Then he paused, uncertain. "They're--"

"Steve," Jon said sharply.

"Waiting."

"For us?"

"I think so."

* * *

It was amazing how quickly the mind adapted, how the irrational managed to become reality within such a short time. Steve entertained these thoughts and a myriad of darker things as he drove to meet Jonathan the next morning, wondering what would happen if was taken while the car was still in motion. How did you go about explaining an accident like that? He nearly laughed aloud.

He parked around the corner from Liz's parent's. Being seen was the least of his worries, but he felt it was necessary. As if knowing he was there, Jonathan appeared on foot around the bend of the driveway, out of sight of the house. The set of his shoulders and the hollowness in his eyes wrenched Steve's heart, remembering how long it had taken to stop treating him like a kid brother when he'd first joined the group. Realizing how much he'd missed him without even knowing.

They stood close together, silent for a long moment, acknowledging the weight of the past fourteen hours. Steve felt unintelligible relief, sensing the strength that lay beneath Jonathan's exterior hopelessness.

"Maybe it just wants us apart," Jon said finally.

"Why," Steve whispered.

"Christ, how should I know!" Jon burst out nervously.

"Why would anyone want us apart? Think, Jay. How could we be threatening?"

"If you're trying to say there was more than just a band, I agree. What, there was some kind of...power in the music that's attracted some sort of...God, listen to us!"

"Then why now? Why not before, when we were stronger? We're not together, yet, the distance is still there. We're holding each other at arm's length."

"That's exactly it," Jon cut in, nearly over Steve's words. "We're not together yet. Better now, before we get our footing again. The thing that was bigger than us, that made people stop and listen without knowing why. The thing none of us found separately. That's all I can think of, and it doesn't matter anymore if it makes sense. I don't want my kids growing up without me."

Steve looked away, nearly able to hear the panic that emanated from the house above. He had to let Jon go, to spend what time there was with the people most important to him. "Why are we still here?" he whispered. "How did it get them first? Was it actually because we were all together...or because we weren't?"

Jonathan raised his head slowly, fixing Steve with a gaze full of fearful realization. "You said you felt Neal go."

Steve looked away again, shoving his hands in his jacket pockets and nodding.

"You think you have something to do with it!"

"It went after Neal because it couldn't pull me in," Steve replied shortly, voice low but intense. "You should be standing out here talking to him instead. It came after me. I think you can fight it, if you know what's happening in time. I don't think you have to go."

Jon stared at him, unmoving, unblinking, too shocked to respond.

"Don't go, Jon," Steve said.

"That's not going to work," Jon said angrily when he could find his voice. "What's throwing yourself at it going to solve?"

"This, I have a feeling."

"You're not going!" Jon nearly shouted. "I don't believe this. How will I get all of you back?"

"You may not have to," Steve told him with a calm he didn't feel "It's us, it's all of us, but I might be able to get it to leave the rest of you alone. Haven't you heard anything? Hasn't it threatened you?"

Jon shook his head wonderingly, looking as if he'd been slapped. "What did it say?" he whispered after a long, tense moment. He had a sudden flash of the look that had been on Steve's face the night before as they'd been leaving, shutting them away, insensible. Terrified.

"It's been trying to yank me through since Ross went," Steve said. "I don't know where. But if I could find a way to reach back through..."

"But we don't know what we're dealing with," Jonathan insisted. "We don't know what this thing is, or where it is, and just because it isn't strong enough now doesn't mean it won't be."

"Neal faded away. I can't help but wonder if it was because he was on his guard. If I can get a better idea of where and what..."

"This is insane!" Jonathan said.

"Of the two of us, Cain, who has the most to lose?" Steve snapped, silencing him. They stared at each other again, too long, and Steve finally lowered his head with a nod before turning and beginning to walk away.

"Stephen," Jon implored. The entreaty in his voice was enough to turn the singer back toward him briefly.

Jon held out a hand, shivering, and Steve moved to take it. When their eyes met again, Steve whispered, "I will see you again."

* * *

The waiting.

It was more threatening than the sinister voice that had ghosted through him, more threatening than the uncertainty that went hand in hand with it. I should have stayed with him. We might have been able to fight it off together.

No. He knew he'd been drawing it to him. But what? What the hell was it? Demons? Some other metaphysical, supernatural bullshit he didn't believe in? Did it even matter what it was, now that it was doing whatever it wanted with them?

Then there was the small matter of whether he had the guts to do what he was contemplating. What if he was only making things worse? What if it tore him apart and added his lifeless body to the heap it had made of the others?

No, they were still alive. He knew it. He hadn't merely been reassuring Jonathan, or saying it because he wanted it to be true. Maybe he had no real choice in the matter anyway; maybe the decision would be made for him the next time the shadow tried to pull him through.

So why didn't it just pull me through?

He listened carefully, albeit cringingly, for the demand to give in; the day wore on and nothing approached him. He paced, restless, a thousand possibilities whirling through his mind, each discarded for lack of reason. Fine time to be relying on reason, he thought bitterly. Night approached again, tugging on a memory. It had spoken to him the easiest when he had drifted off

Don't sleep.

He bolted for the phone, his limbs suddenly leaden, every motion languid and ungainly. Jonathan, don't go to sleep!

His hands were on the phone, unable to pick the receiver up, and he began to understand that he was struggling against something that had invisible claws in him, the weight of it palpable as it dragged him down. You didn't give me a choice! he screamed silently. He made a strangled sound, the only thing allowed past the constriction in his throat as he sank to his knees. The air turned heavy, too heavy to breathe, and he choked on it.

The distance opened, horrifying, an exponential millennia of it, immeasurable, laughing soundlessly. Across it, like a flickering of light, came the impression of those already lost. Closer, a struggle raged that made no ripple in the gorge that gaped before him, sound and color that was neither. Jonathan. Doing his damndest to hold on, and losing. Steve reached out toward the disturbance, trying to lend strength to it. Instead it only allowed him to watch the struggle end, and Jonathan spun away from him, into an abyss far beyond his reach.

He returned with a gasp, sprawled on the kitchen floor, stunned. The phone, off the hook, tangled around him. Grief overshadowed anything else for a long while; not even fear overcame it. When coherency began to return, he picked himself up off the floor slowly to go in search of a notepad. Then he sat at the kitchen table and began to write. Everything that had happened, plausible or not. Every detail. Then he left it in the middle of the table and walked numbly through the now-dark house, not bothering to turn the rest of the lights on, feeling his way along the walls as if he were blind. Trying to retain their familiarity and texture. Waiting.

{now?}

This time, a question rather than a demand, bordered with smug laughter.

"Go to hell," he said aloud. "You're not getting anything but a fight, now. You almost had me."

{they will suffer}

"I don't believe you. You can have me when you return all of them."

Silence greeted him again, and he sighed.

Something grabbed him. Nothing physical he could strike out at, but it caught him around the throat, pulling him away from himself. Pulling the breath out of him, pulling...on his heart...

He slammed himself up against the wall, bracing himself against it, anger replacing fear. "Let go!"

The crushing ended suddenly, leaving him gasping on the floor. He rolled, leaning on his elbows, knowing he'd won another temporary reprieve by slamming the door-that-wasn't again.

{too many hands}

The frustration of the intelligence behind the not-door was apparent now, grasping, snapping after him, trying to gain strength. "What are you," he said wearily. "Just what the hell are you?"

{too many hands holding}

Exhausted, Steve fell unconscious in the middle of the floor.

* * *

Jonathan was rarely furious.

"All you had to do was come with me, but you wouldn't even do that much. You can't get us back. You might as well suffer along with us."

Suffer.

"He doesn't even use phrases like that," Steve insisted to the dream form before him, avoiding the use of Jon's name and uncertain why. "You're full of shit, whatever you are. So why don't you just pull me through? How is it that you can't reach me?"

Jonathan/not Jonathan hissed at him, the sound chilling and vicious, eyes a dull, colorless glow as the false image retreated into the shadows. Nothing else came out of them.

was this one not closest?

"Yes," Steve whispered. "For what it matters now. What have you done?"

come along, singer.

"Any of them will tell you I'm not good at doing as I'm told."

think you will awaken to fight again?

There was a point to that. "If you want me so badly, come and get me."

you we cannot pull. but you are asleep now and part of you will come along.

Steve fought to awaken then, struggling out of the morass of unconsciousness. It was like trying to surface from a deep pool, only this time he never broke the surface.

too many hands holding. not too many, this part of you.

It was strangling him, the sensation of being spun away intensifying, and he knew what being pulled into a black hole must feel like; screaming out of existence an atom at a time. Pain came with it, pain a dream-self shouldn't have felt. He struggled, against nothing, toward nothing, but managing to make it difficult all the same. He knew, wherever he was headed, that this was nothing compared to what he would be subjected to. It was better to make a stand now, while he was still together...

The pain increased, and the urge to scream with it, but he ceased spiraling. Rage from somewhere close descended on him, pounding him with its frustration. you will not resist!

The pulling intensified, and he dug in harder, terror beginning to give way to fury again.

they will suffer. we will tear them apart

You can't! he argued. You wouldn't have left them alive to taunt me with. They're too strong, I heard them!

The alien voice dropped to a malevolent snarl. and when your energy is gone, we will have you and we will tear you apart

The distance opened in every direction, space unseen but understood nonetheless, and he was momentarily amazed. It bore down on him harder, and he felt himself disintegrating away into the space, part of it. He began to spiral again, stripped away, existing only as pain that unfortunately had consciousness to go with it.

it will stop hurting if you let us in

He refused, and resisted until he shredded into nothing more than starstuff, a sparkling of light in a formless void, drifting away.

* * *

Jonathan opened his eyes in the darkness again, having been there long enough to become accustomed to it. How long had it actually been? Hours? There was no way of gauging time. They had spoken softly among themselves intermittently to hear the sounds of voices, something comforting in the confines of the cold stone room they had been sequestered in. They knew the width and breadth of their prison and that there was no immediate means of escaping it. The fact was, they didn't need to speak aloud. Not anymore. On arrival, after Jon had regained at least some of his senses, he'd discovered that they'd obtained an extra one. They could all hear each other. Thoughts, emotions, everything. It was reassuring and frightening at once, driving home the point that they were anywhere but home. Of all of them, it had grown on Jonathan the quickest. To him it seemed appropriate; especially when that thing had approached the door they knew was there, in front of them. It had made no sound, but they had heard it all the same. It created a chill, dropping the temp in there below freezing and raising the hair on the backs of their necks. Something twisted and hungry had drifted by them, pausing at the door before gliding on, leaving them aware of its' soulless cruelty. By instinct alone they had stood together pressed into the corner, waiting for it to enter and attack them. Its' thoughts were closed to them, and theirs to it, but Jonathan felt the intent behind its' approach. It was waiting. Smitty had explained to them that the thing had been hovering around the door since he had arrived.

*It's waiting for Steve,* he thought.

*Then we'll all be together and strong enough to take our chances,* Neal replied.

This, they had agreed, was likely. Something had grown out of their short time bound together in this unseen and otherworldly place, making them aware of it by degrees. It was a strength that had grown steadily as, one by one, they had been pulled back into each other's presence again. A similar form, Jon decided, of what had existed between them in the world they'd been born to. Something innate and powerful, enough to make them less fearful of the other inhabitants of this place. If they joined together...

*Toto,* Ross added, *I think we're not in Kansas anymore.* Their combined relief that the thing had moved on for the moment allowed silent humor to pass between them.

That had been some while ago. The next Jon knew, he was opening his eyes in response to what he thought was light, just the faintest hint of it, barely detectable except that he had been in all-encompassing dark for so long. It seemed a trick, his eyes struggling to create sight where none was possible, echoing the points of light you saw after rubbing your eyes too hard. It gained strength slowly, so gradual that he continued to doubt himself until a literal shower of light began cascading into a spiral across the room from them, bright in a way that didn't cause him to shield his eyes, giving shape to the ragged stone walls and floor.

"Jesus," he said aloud, startling the others, and they all gained their feet in a rush, keeping a careful distance. They had all arrived without sound or fury, simply appearing in the dark and confusion. There was no telling what was following them in now.

Something began to take form, the light dulling, a transparent figure coalescing rapidly in layers, the light drawing suddenly inward. Steve snapped back to existence, sparks dancing away from him like embers kicked out of a dying fire. He stood with his head down, unaware of them.

Steve, but not as he had been. Not as they'd left him on the other side. This was Steve the last time they'd been a group, ten years earlier, his face and form one they had known better. The vestiges of the light he had brought with him hung in the air, a blue-white phosphorescence.

"Steve," Jonathan said hesitantly.

Steve jerked awake at the sound of his voice with a gasp, looking at his hands. Sensation returned slowly, sight, sound, comprehension, and he shook his head rapidly to clear it, turning to face them. Then Jonathan was moving toward him with undisguised joy, heard as well as seen. The others were shadows that sounded of a mix of relief, weariness and confusion.

Jonathan was stopped, rudely and abruptly, within ten feet of him, the barrier unseen but absolute and inflexible. He slammed against it, startled, bracing his hands on it as Steve came closer to meet him. He, too, placed his hands against it, adjacent to Jonathan's, and they stared at each other across the space. Neal, Ross and Smitty took places on either side of Jon, trying to figure out where the barrier began and ended. Standing together, something was suddenly right; there was a strength, a framework. Steve and Jon began to smile at each other, neither knowing exactly why.

"This is not what I meant," Steve whispered, "when I said I would see you again."

"Now we're all here," Jon said.

"I'm not here," Steve said softly. "My body is lying in the middle of the livingroom floor, so at least there's proof of something."

"Then how...?" Smitty began.

"It pulled me apart. If this is what dead is like, I've had enough already."

*Always making a real entrance,* Neal commented wryly.

Steve whipped his head around to stare at him. "I heard that," he said incredulously.

*We can hear each other,* Jon explained, regaining his attention, and it was not without fear. *But no one else can. I think we'll need it, so try and get used to it. Fast.*

*What do you mean, no one el...*

The thought was never completed; Steve froze, locking up, every muscle bent on listening. Something stirred, still a ways away but closing with unnatural speed. Something cold and black, not in color but in persuasion. Jonathan stared at him in open alarm, beginning to ask what was happening, but a moment later it was close enough that they all heard it coming.

*Now we know what the barrier was for,* Steve told them, barely realizing he had fallen into thought-speech.

{singer, come to the door}

Steve began to tremble, lowering his hands abruptly from the barrier as if he'd been burned. "Jay," he said softly, "back away from me."

"It wanted us apart!" Jon argued. "It knows we're too strong together."

Steve backed away, careful not to look at him. "And what are we going to do? Wish it away?"

"And what do you think it'll do when its through with you?" Neal asked angrily.

A sharp, irresistible tug began in Steve's chest, and he closed his eyes. {closer}

"You come closer, you coward," he snarled at the wall.

*What's it saying!* Jonathan cried.

*You can't tell me you don't hear it.* "It's afraid to come in here," Steve said aloud. Neal went into a crouch, the four who could stand together pulling into a closer knot. "It knows something we don't. It's afraid we'll find out."

*It knows we're too strong for it,* Neal insisted. *Listen to us, not to it!*

{the others may go if you come to the door}

"You wouldn't have brought them here at all, then, if you were only after me," Steve growled.

The pulling began again, and before he realized it, he had taken a step toward the door. He froze, struggling, the cold beginning to crawl through him, eyes wide.

*Fight! Join your mind to ours!* Jon urged, echoed by the others.

Steve startled away from the contact, reeling from the intimacy of it, shoving them away without meaning to. It was all the black thing on the other side of the door needed. A whiplash of cold answered his unintended refusal of the only thing that could save him, lashing out and snaring him unseen from beyond the still-closed door. There was no slamming of the door-that-wasn't this time; he had no defense against it except his will. It had him around the throat, sinking in, questing for the center, invisible biting tendrils that took him over in the blink of an eye. Dimly, somewhere to one side, he was aware of Jonathan hurling himself at the barrier that separated them.

He regained a step, an inexorable thread finding it's way into his mind, another the rest of the way into his chest, the invasion complete and destructive. Terror and the cold numbed his thoughts but not the rest of him as he sank to his knees, throwing his head back in agony, silent while he died. It traveled through him completely, almost carelessly, not finding what it was looking for.

He turned away from it in his mind, desperate to find a place in the maelstrom it hadn't trespassed into. In response, with a snap of thought, it wrested control from him the rest of the way, reaching through and forcing him to stop breathing. His heart beat on, slowing, stuttering, the part of him that still belonged to him screamed in silence, heard only by the others on an indefinable level.

Then it came through the door.

Physical only in part, it melted through, black and tattered, a faded thing barely visible to them. Hideous needle teeth glinted from a gaping maw, claws dragging along the floor as it moved toward Steve with a spider's speed, reaching for him, pinpoint eyes a dull, eerie red. Still conscious, Steve felt its' claws rake him, dragging him in toward the rending teeth, burning him

.

Something intruded, leaping into the part of him that did still belong, something akin to an outstretched hand. He heard Jonathan scream his name.

*Let us help you! For God's sake just reach for me!*

He did, reaching, making the tenuous connection with thought alone. It was the last thing he understood; his heart fluttered to a stop and he tumbled the rest of the way to the floor, spinning back out of existence.

A flash of blue-white light seemed to burst from the creature itself, blinding them momentarily, then winking away as it drew in on itself. It was devoid of heat or sound, a false but effective nova. The tattered thing collapsed in feathers of ash, a rain of it drifting to the floor and across the lifeless figure beneath it, mixing with Steve's blood. It wisped along to where the others stood, traversing the barrier, making it nonexistent. *We did that,* Ross thought.

Neal reached Steve first, kneeling, resting a hand alongside his throat, finding him already cold. No pulse, no hint of life or even that it once had been. "He's dead," Neal said aloud, astonished, unprepared for it. Beneath that, simultaneously, anguish and the words *There's frost in his hair.*

*No,* Jonathan replied with such force that they nearly recoiled. *Not now, not after all this!* He went to his knees and lifted Steve's upper body clear of the floor. *Dammit, everything else here is impossible! So make him live!*

"We can't just wish him up," Ross said softly. "If we could change things, we'd all be back home."

"And that wasn't the only Keeper," Neal said, referring to the creature by the name they'd given it hours earlier. "We don't have much time. Whatever's out there, we'll have to take our chances with it." Disappointment ran beneath his words. *We can't help him, now. Let's try and get the door open.*

"I'm not leaving him here," Jon choked. "He's not here, he said he's not here like we are. That...thing tried to become part of him. If we could destroy it, there's no reason why we can't create!"

*Then you'd better hope it isn't still part of him,* Neal thought. *Because if we manage to call him back up and it is, we'll be the ones who have to kill him.*

Jonathan closed his eyes, listening for the place that had still belonged to Steve while he had been living, knowing that in this world they had been thrown into, something so recent had to be close, still. In reaching out for him, he had taken partial possession of that place before it had winked out under the Keeper's claws. He found it, still echoing in the aftermath of the bolt they had destroyed the creature with, having become part of everything the energy had touched before it dissipated...the floor, the walls, the ashes of the Keeper. He gathered it up without acknowledging how or that it was possible, knowing only that he recognized it from the memory of his brief encounter with it. Steve wasn't completely there, but could be killed. He could also fail to claim the permanence of death in the form he was in. Of course, it was all supposition, since reality had been turned on it's ear and he was still trying to acclimate himself to it. But the alternative was holding to reason, which left Steve dead and abandoned in the middle of some fairy tale prison populated by things he didn't want left in his memory. It happened so quickly that the others didn't even have time to lend their thoughts to his; one moment, Steve was lifeless, cast in porcelain...

...and the next, he gasped, arms folding in to protect himself, leaning forward in Jonathan's embrace and coughing, choking still in the conclusion of what for him had no pause. But the twisting, icy grip was gone, leaving behind a pervasive cold that was no longer bending him to it's will. The knowledge caused no relief; he was no longer whole in some insubstantial way. It wasn't that he was bleeding from the touch of razor-like claws along his side. Not that alone. It was another touch that had done further damage, wresting something away from him. Upon waking, after realizing the thing was gone, what frightened him was that he didn't know if it had been the glacial touch of the Keeper...

...or the ephemeral contact with the others that had destroyed it.

He braced his hands on the floor, trying to regain the breath given back to him, pain resurfacing and distracting him.

*You're alive!* Jonathan thought, the joy behind it empowering the others. There was not even a fleeting response from Steve, nothing brushing against them from him. It was a barrier as solid as the one that had kept them from him before, and Jonathan lifted his head in dismay. *He can't hear us anymore.*

*Then it's just like old times,* Neal replied.

"You were gone," Ross said, and Steve nodded.

"...how...?" Steve managed weakly, a bare whisper.

"Jon, is how," Smitty said as they helped Steve to his feet. The bleeding was beginning to subside, leaving a noticeable but no longer spreading stain on his clothing.

"Again," Steve murmured, laying a grateful hand on Jonathan's supporting shoulder. "What happened?" he asked, glancing down at the ash that literally covered him and the floor.

"We did," Neal said.

"We've had time to get a sense of what we can do, being stuck down here," Ross explained. "We knew it was possible, but not until we were all together. Not until you reached out."

Steve straightened, amazed. Now was not the time to try to make sense of anything. "The door's open."

It wasn't, literally; they looked toward it to find it still firmly shut, but the impression of imprisonment was gone.

"We have to get the hell out of here," Neal said, "before something else comes to investigate. Can you still hear them?"

Steve nodded. "There are more. They're confused...but they don't...understand fear. I think they'll come, eventually."

"Onward," Ross said, "...if you can walk. It tore you up pretty good."

It did more than that, Steve thought, and it was his alone. Something did. "I'm all right. We'd better finally get a look at where we are."

Neal opened the heavy, wood and metal door, swinging it inward and poking his head out into a dim stone corridor. The same stuff that was keeping the air behind them visible in the wake of Steve's arrival was littered along the floor of the corridor, a dusty glow just within the limits of human sight. *Medieval bullshit,* he decided. *If anything in a suit of armor walks by, this'll be beyond cliche'.*

They left the cell they'd been hemmed up in one by one, Neal followed by Ross, then Steve, Jon and Smitty. From there it was corridor as far as they could see, a long unbending stretch to nowhere. There were interruptions in the light-dust on the floor, utterly black patches that could hold anything or even allow the floor to drop away. They would have to pick their way carefully. *Something tells me the Keepers don't need light,* Smitty thought.

*But something does,* Neal returned. *The fact that whoever's here can't hear us like we hear each other is a damn good advantage.*

*Was,* Jonathan corrected. *They can hear Steve. At least it's not the only advantage.*

*And now that he can't hear us, how do we join up again when another of those--*

Ross' thought was cut off when Steve grabbed him. "Move," he said, voice tight with fear. "Everybody move, it doesn't matter which way we go. They know we're out."

They chose to go to the right almost as one, picking up speed down the corridor until they came to the first dustless patch. Steve paused only momentarily, and because the others couldn't hear him they didn't have time to stop him from purposely stepping into the darkness. With a muffled curse, Neal reached in after him, and he and Ross yanked Steve back where they could see him. "What are you..."

"Playing point man. We can't see, so someone has to be guinea pig." And that's as good an excuse as any, I guess, he thought.

"Anybody got a lighter?" Ross said, and no one saw which direction the wooden torch came from. It crashed against the stones, already lit, sparks flying as it rolled away. Each of them went in a separate direction to leap out of it's way. Then they stared at it as if it would explode.

"Look, " Ross said. "I said Bud Light."

Neal walked over and picked it up before it could gutter on the floor. "I'm not questioning it. Let's go."

They were damn near running the further they went, looking over their shoulders and counting on Steve to let them know where the Keepers were. Several minutes later, the corridor having yet to curve or give them the impression that it was leading them up or down, Jon said, "Where are they?"

"Above, some of them," Steve said breathlessly, and Jon looked at him closer still. "But it didn't need to open the door to get at me, so I don't think walls mean much. They can hear me. If you were to split off..."

"Shut up," Ross said, pulling him along. the corridor finally began to bend gently, then suddenly branched off like any underground passageway meant for escape from invaders...or to irretrievably deceive the same invaders into making the labyrinth their tomb.

Neal grunted in disgust. "Anyone got a coin?"

Jonathan looked at Steve, who was staring intently into the darkness ahead as if waiting for the path to choose itself. Before Neal could stop him, he stepped into the right passageway...and stepped out just as quickly when a faint, primitive satisfaction touched him from somewhere. He turned into the left, gesturing them along. "They're not too smart, either. Whatever it was that pulled us here, it wasn't the Keepers. They don't want us going this way."

The passage began to incline slightly the further they followed it, heartening them but also reminding them that above meant more Keepers, if Steve was right.

*What are they waiting for? Jon thought. *They know where we are. And why the torch?*

*So we could get one good look at the goddamn things when they marched us out of there after finishing with Steve,* Ross decided.

*Better worry about what needed the light in the first place,* Smitty added.

There was a door at the apex of the incline, twin to the one that had kept them in below. Neal tried it unsuccessfully, not surprised when it refused to budge. Breaking it down wasn't an option; if it was indeed similar to the other, it was at least six inches thick and the wood didn't show enough aging to make them foolish enough to try splintering it with their weight alone.

"Suggestions," Neal said aloud.

"If we could throw the same thing at it we did the Keeper..." Jon began, interrupted when Steve exhaled sharply and yanked him closer to the door and the light, staring back into the darkness. Icy air trailed toward them across the floor, chilling, foreboding. Steve pressed himself against the wall in the resulting silence, not necessarily any further from the approaching monster but trying to be less of a target. The others did the same unconsciously, Neal thrusting the torch forward, trying to keep them behind him. A moment later the scraping of claws being dragged along the floor reached them, heralding the shambling creature that had been trailing them. A moment of panic struck them, the urge to flee, but there was nowhere to go. Steve clamped his teeth together to drown the scream he felt building, certain that if the thing touched him he would go mad this time, mad enough to be glad of death and dead enough to keep Jonathan from pulling him back.

It came only within the very outer reach of the torchlight, leering, teeth exposed, hunched over so that the black claws on it's front appendages could scrape unnervingly against the stone, a sound not unlike fingernails on a blackboard. It hissed, blunt snout questing the air as it began to rise on skeletal hind legs. Well over eight feet in height in that position, it towered over them even from that distance. The torch wavered slightly in Neal's trembling hand. The Keeper used one claw to make a gesture at Steve, a fearfully human one asking him to come closer.

{they cannot help you now}

"Screw you," Steve said. "We took care of the other one. Come a little closer yourself, if you like the light."

It made a grating sound in its throat, hunching again. "If you knew what was ahead of you, Er Rai, you would gladly hand yourself over."

They recoiled further at the sound of its voice, bones and dust in a barren landscape, muffled by the overwhelming number of teeth it possessed. Surprise that it could speak at all kept them silent.

"Do you know you're dying?" it wheezed. "Do they know we have you already? If they keep you, you will kill them before your own death comes."

It reached out to Steve, another invisible tendril slamming into him, icy and insistent, looking for something.

Jonathan shouted a wordless denial, snatching the torch out of Neal's hand and rushing the Keeper. A chorus of negation, voiced as well as thought, rose after him. Smitty made a fleeting grab for Jon as Steve went to his knees. The tendril unwound as the Keeper rediverted its' attention to the flurry of light and sound that was charging it, withdrawing reflexively from both. It rose to its hind legs again as it backpedaled, snarling. The others dashed after Jon as they recovered from the sheer defiance of his actions; Neal reached him first and stood behind his left shoulder.

*You think you can set it on fire?* The admiration in his thoughts was plain.

"You leave us alone," Jonathan told the Keeper, voice unsteady. "Or we're going to light you up, you bastard."

It hissed at them again from beyond the edge of the light, the sound becoming a parody of laughter. Steve appeared behind Jon's other shoulder, eyes dark.

"Will you actually let them go?" he said softly.

"Shut up, Steve," Neal snapped.

"It wasn't lying," Steve said even softer, the words laced with a bitter fear, eyes never leaving the Keeper. "It can't lie to me. Just like the rest of you can't lie to each other anymore. For God's sake, get out of here and don't let it touch you."

{they are of no use to us but as they hold you}

Steve suspected the thing didn't know what it had, yet; they didn't know either. The thing was terribly wrong but telling it so was not in his favor. He wavered, then began to step around Jonathan.

And the pulling began again, wringing control of his actions away; instead of stepping away from them and toward the creature, he took hold of the torch in Jon's hand and threw it spinning into the darkness behind them, leaving them exposed as the torch guttered and went out upon striking the floor. Something gave with such violence he nearly heard it, a burst of pain and light behind his eyes. Then nothing else as he pitched to the floor.

The thing rushed them in the dark with horrible speed, their bewilderment and disorder of thought preventing them from forming a united front; even without Steve they weren't helpless. Only one of them managed to strike out in time, an act of desperation. Something collided with the onrushing demon, and it burst into flames.

Shrieking, it leapt away, twisting in an effort to escape its own immolation. It fled back down the passageway faster than they'd thought possible, howling its agony before disappearing from their sight.

*Who did that?* Neal demanded.

*Not me,* Jon insisted.

*It was the best I could think of,* Smitty thought, then repeated it, trying to drive the point home.

*Good enough!* Ross said. He and Jon lifted Steve off the floor, and they collectively returned to the door in the once more absolute darkness. *Now try it on the door.*

*If we all hit the door, we should be able to blow it down,* Smitty thought.

*No time like the present to find out,* Jon added. They focused on the door, wanting it to open in any way possible, not caring if it meant destroying whatever passed for a lock in this world or shattering the whole of it outward altogether. It gave beneath the unseen weight of their will, falling outward and landing with a resounding thud they could feel in the floor. Steve startled awake again at the sound, letting Jon help him to his feet. Neal stepped forward, across the expanse of the door, feeling carefully along to discover what was there. Nothing cold and clutching, at least not yet. Then his foot ran up against a raised surface, and he paused, leaning over to try and get more information with his hands.

*Smith, I don't suppose you could do the fire thing again and give us a clue,* he thought.

*I wish I knew what the hell I did,* Smitty thought. "I'll keep trying."

Thinking around me, Steve decided wearily. Great.

"It's a staircase," Neal said. " A wooden staircase."

"Onward and upward," Ross said. "Careful for missing stairs." They began climbing without hesitation, feeling their way along, essentially blind. Whatever the phosphorescent dust had been, it didn't extend that far. Jon kept a hold on Steve, who had yet to comment on the situation. Jon made a comment to himself about how cold the singer was, not intending for the others to hear, but they did anyway.

He leaned in to Steve and whispered, "Are there any ahead of us?"

Steve shook his head before realizing there was no point to it in the all-encompassing dark. "Behind."

"I thought you said they were above us," Neal snapped from ahead.

"Yes," Steve said. "But only in the walls." He fell silent, realizing what he's just said, and a wave of uneasiness passed between the others.

*After what just happened,* Neal warned, *I wouldn't trust anything he says.*

"I know," Steve said suddenly, and Neal froze. "I can't hear you," Steve assured them, "but after all this time I don't think I need to. They can make me do things..."

"All the more reason to get the hell out of here," Jon said.

They reached the top, Neal putting his hands out and discovering the surface of yet another door. "Shit, not another one," he said disgustedly. Simply for the sake of doing so, he tried it, and it swung slowly outward into another corridor. Natural-looking light greeted them, nearly painful after the absolute darkness. They waited to see what else would come to greet them, gathered at the top of the stairs, caught between the horrors below and a decidedly less certain fate above. No sound reached them, only fresher air and the sight of more ragged stone floors. When the entire scene rippled briefly before them, they shook their heads, deciding it was the change in the light playing tricks on them.

*After all the trouble someone went to to get us in here, you think they're just going to let us walk out?* Ross wondered.

*They'd better,* Neal thought. *I've had enough of this goddamn place.* He swung the door open a little wider, finding the corridor stretching away to their left and straight ahead. To the left it turned abruptly, and most of the light was being emitted from there, suggesting a window. Ahead of them, it terminated again in another staircase, this one stone.

"We're chancing it," Steve whispered.

"Wait," Neal snapped.

"Out, now," Steve said, tone cold and hard. "Something's at the lower door."

They vaulted the rest of the way out, closing the door behind them. Steve sighed in relief, placing his back against it.

"Shit, look at us!" Neal murmured. He was examining himself critically, finding that none of them were wearing what they had come in with. Now it was varying shades of leather and deerskin, from Jon's tawny colored clothing to Steve's black, right down to boots, gloves and cloaks. It was as unnerving as everything else had been. "When did this happen?" *Cliche',* he thought beneath. *Fairy tale, gone wrong.*

Something splattered against the light-colored stone at their feet, and Neal glanced up just as Steve put a hand to his own face. "Your nose is bleeding," he said softly. The others immediately glanced up. Steve's face was bloody, and he wiped at the newest of it with the back of one hand. The rest of it rubbed away as if frozen, and Neal observed with a start, *There's still frost in his hair.*

*There's still about ten years missing off him, too, but I noticed we're avoiding that,* Ross thought.

Gaze cast downward to the blood on his hand, Steve said offhandedly, "It broke something...using me." He glanced up at the staircase before them in the resulting silence. "There must be an outside."

"There must be an owner," Ross said. "Of this, of...what's in the basement."

"What's in the basement belongs to no one," Steve said cryptically. "They're afraid of something stronger than they are. I'm not sure we should meet it." He walked toward the stairs, spinning around when Neal caught his arm.

"What they hell do you think you're doing?" Neal demanded, stilling the urge to shake the singer.

"Finding out what we're walking into."

"We haven't decided what we're going to do, yet, so for once you can sit still until we do."

Steve shook him off abruptly. "I'm dying," he whispered. "The fucking thing poisoned me. So if there's anything else to run into in here, I'm doing it. No more surprises, no more..." he pointed almost accusingly toward Jonathan, who raised an eyebrow at Neal. "...of him trying to kill himself saving me." He turned on his heel and took long strides toward the stairs.

*He's always been dangerous,* Neal thought wearily. *But not like this.* He followed, dashing to catch up with the figure in black. The others trailed along, watching them reach the top of the stairs, joining them moments later in curiosity at the wonder stamped across their faces.

Glassy, marbled floors stretched away from them, veined in black, white and gray, giving the impression of lightning streaking through a roiling sky. White columns joined ceiling to floor; the far wall was entirely glass, letting in an orange-tinged light and showing them a glimpse of what lay beyond. A valley floor, dusty and barren, bordered by a seam of jagged and distant mountains rising out of it. Everything sterile, evincing no sign of life, no blurred edges.

"It doesn't feel real," Steve murmured. "Like it was put here...to confuse us. Too many questions and no one to ask."

"You may ask me," a feminine voice murmured to their right, and they spun toward it in tandem.

A tall, slender figure stood against the marble wall, an alabaster figure in flowing white. A monochrome woman with white hair, face and form perfect, skin as hard and flawless as the marble around her. Her eyes were utterly black, showing no whites or irises, studying them impassionately.

She was taller than they, and the sight of her caused them to gather into a close knot, feeling like children lost in a funhouse without benefit of knowing it was all make-believe.

"Have you no questions?" the soft, toneless voice asked. "Not one among you is impertinent enough to demand answers?"

"Why are we here? Wherever this is," Neal said. Beneath, he added, *And can she hear us?*

"Because I willed it," she said.

"You're the one who pulled us in," Steve said.

"Yes."

"Then you can also send us back," Neal said.

"I will not. You have not given me what I seek, yet."

*What the hell is she talking about?* Neal thought.

"You have not found it yet," she said. "My playthings did not find it, even while the Er Rai was dying. You will find it and give it to me, or you will all die here, perhaps both. Either way it will remain here. You may wander my domain until such time as one or both occur. Perhaps time will reveal what illusive form your power has taken. You will be permitted this freedom to allow you to discover it."

"And then?" Jonathan asked. *She can't hear us, so she's not responsible for all of this. This is our own.*

She extended a pale, smooth finger toward Steve without moving otherwise. "This one will stay. Through his death he will become part of my domain, and the rest of you will become powerless in yours."

"What if we don't like your terms?" Neal said. "What if we decide to find another way?"

The smile that disturbed the flawless face was cold and humorless. "Would you care to take the Er Rai's place, sohne? Remain here to ensure that your like does not come again to catch my attention?"

"No," Steve said quickly. "You have to return them."

"In due time," she said. "You must hurry, now. You have much to learn, and I have grown impatient. My playthings will have permission to come out. The denizens of this world will be rewarded for bringing me news of your progress." She turned bottomless, mirrored eyes on Neal.

"When the Er Rai is mine," she said, "you may return home."

Then she disappeared.

It all did.

* * *

They stood for a long moment, examining the dry desolation surrounding them, feeling the wind begin to pick up.

*It was all an illusion,* Ross thought.

*No,* Jon countered. *It was here. But not permanent. She moved it.* "Now what?" he said aloud.

Neal shrugged. "She said she's letting those things out. We need cover." He looked around. "The foothills? I don't get a sense of direction here."

"That's because there's no sky," Smitty said softly. All but Steve looked up, realizing the light came from no discernible source; dome like, the space above them was blank. Uniform. As sterile and desolate as the cracked ground at their feet. Opposite the mountains, the desert terrain began a gradual sloping, tapering off nearly a mile distant into what looked to be trees.

*That's the closest to shelter we're going to get,* Ross thought. Then he added, *If what lives there isn't worse than what we've already seen.*

*We'll see,* Neal replied. *Nothing's really been able to stand against us yet.* He glanced away from the distant trees to find that the four of them were standing together, Steve apart and to one side. His head was lowered, eyes shut, hands down and clasped before himself as if honoring a moment of silence. He was unaware of them, face bloodless and still. *Except him.*

*He's just been told he's going to die,* Jonathan thought, tone less than reprimanding. *Something is killing him.*

*Something's been killing him for a long time,* Neal corrected. "I'd love to know what the hell 'denizens' means here," he said aloud, "before we run into them."

"I'd love to know what the hell 'Er Rai' means," Jonathan added.

Neal moved closer to Steve, examining him. "I think it's the local term for 'asshole'."

Even before Jonathan's wordless disapproval reached Neal, Steve's eyes slit open minimally and shifted to him, dark but aware. "Fuck you," he murmured.

Neal smiled grimly. "Well, I love you too. Now get your act together, 'Er Rai.'" He turned and walked away, headed for the trees. "It probably gets dark here, eventually, and those playthings of hers will be right at home."

Jon looked at Steve, who remained where he was. "We should leave a marker, in case we need to find this exact spot again. In case..." he trailed off, but the gist of it got through.

"In case it's the only way back out," Smitty finished. "In case that witch's magic is the only magic."

"There won't be another place like this one," Ross said. "I have a feeling the rest of this...world isn't quite as clean. Nothing would live here."

"It looked like what we could imagine," Steve said softly. "Nothing is what it looks like, here. She could be the desert, for all we know. But Neal's right. It'll get dark, and the open space..." he frowned.

"Candles," Jonathan said.

Steve nodded, and they set off after Neal, Steve doing his best to keep pace despite the stiffness in his side where the Keeper had grazed him, burning through him and leaving an indelible mark. He wrapped his cloak about himself tighter, trying to ward off a chill that emanated from within.

Letting them catch up, Neal said, "What do we know so far?"

"Besides nothing?" Ross quipped.

"We have to try to put part of this together, to see if it leads us anywhere," Jonathan said. "We know she couldn't hear us. I don't think she can at all. We were running around in the 'basement' using...whatever the hell that was, and she either couldn't detect it or it wasn't what she was looking for."

"She has the mistaken idea that I'm the one creating it," Steve said. "That I'm the one responsible for it."

"Some people have that mistaken idea back home, too," Neal said, "...about the band."

Steve stopped short, and for a moment Neal hoped and the others feared there would be another clash of wills of the caliber that had broken them apart on more than one occasion. But he stood silent as if listening for fading music, catching something at the edge of his perception. "Too many hands holding," he said distractedly.

Neal frowned, resting his hands on his hips. "Tell us all of it, this time," he said.

Steve did, from the first moment something had reached out to him at Jonathan's house after Ross and Smitty had disappeared. Everything.

"'Too many hands holding'," Jonathan said. *'Not too many, this part of you.' Do you guys see it?*

Something grave rushed between the four who could still hear each other.

"It's the 'we' that gets me," Ross said. "What if there are more of her? What if she has a territory and we wander into someone else's?"

"I'm still working on the fact that you left a note," Neal said to Steve. "And yourself in the middle of the floor."

"It doesn't matter," Steve said with a sigh. "No one can read my handwriting anyway." When they laughed softly, briefly, he cherished it until it faded before adding, "Of course, anyone who can pull us into another dimension can alter the truth into a suicide note. One in which I confess to doing away with the rest of you, before mysteriously dying in the middle of the floor."

They all stopped walking, the brunt of that possibility tossed between them like a ball no one wanted...

* * *
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