I left my body lyin' somewhere in the sands of time.
--Three Doors Down, Superman

Candles In The Dark Part II
(c) 1997 BS

Song lyrics in this chapter are from '#40' by U2 ©1983
________________

They let the supposition settle among them before Jon protested it.

"Dina and Liz would..."

"Know the truth?" Steve said. "And have who to convince? After awhile, what's going to seem easier to deal with? They won't give up on you. But they can't reach us."

"But if you're only partially here..." Neal began.

"If I'm still alive, there," Steve interrupted. "Maybe we can assume I am. But I may be six feet under by now. We'd better hope that isn't our only link. She's not sending us back anytime soon."

They resumed walking, even their thoughts silent for several hundred yards. The trees began to loom closer, and Jonathan found himself hoping it wasn't another illusion. The sloping land began to give way, in fits and starts, to small clumps of brush and grasses that were trying to find purchase in the dry soil. They paused once to let Steve rest, noticing that the light had not altered in any way since they had set out.

*We don't even have a way of marking time,* Neal thought. *We don't know when it might get dark.*

*That thing in the basement, the one I set on fire,* Smitty thought, *said if we 'keep' him...*

*He'll kill us,* Neal finished. *We heard it. He may be closer to the mark about what's going on back home than he knows. But the thought could have been planted, too. We don't know if she, or they, still have control over him. It may have been planting thoughts for us to consider, playing with us. He said they're not too smart. Sometimes the lowest gives away the battle plan.*

*Or it wanted us to turn on him and give him up,* Jon pitched in. *It would want that if it really did believe he was key to our survival.*

*But it did get hold of him. We have to keep an eye on him...and find whatever passes for a doctor among the 'denizens'.*

Several minutes later, they were close enough to the trees to see within the shadows between, finding no direct evidence of life. There was no sound, nothing harmless or otherwise fluttering between the branches. Simplistic, tall trunks, unbroken and resembling evergreens, spiraled toward the not-sky. Their roots arched away from the ground, giving the impression of kneeling giants contemplating their fate. They had only another several minutes of walking to reach them and pause for another rest break.

It was then, without warning, that darkness came.

* * *

One moment it had been the semi-light of an overcast day; then, like a switch being thrown, darkness. The suddenness of it was a shock they stood frozen under, wondering if they had been pulled elsewhere by their less-than-gracious hostess. Their collective thoughts ran to momentary chaos until Jon made a half-audible, half-felt sound of comfort. They gathered closer together and tried to let their eyes adjust, beginning to pick out the even denser darkness of the trees. They began walking again as if on cue, faster, approaching a trot. Their time had run out.

Steve froze a thirty second dash away from the supposed cover, knowing he'd heard something behind them, waiting for confirmation, rooted with dread. Jon caught one of his hands and forced him forward. "They're out," Steve gasped, feeling each breath come with more reluctance than the last, each grinding against the last in passing.

"Run for it!" Jonathan cried.

Steve stumbled, tumbling hard into the brush and away from Jon. Jonathan spun, intent on collecting him, but something shoved him roughly to the ground. The contact was savage, burning him, something twisted making brief but damaging contact, and he knew exactly what it was, wondered how Steve had tolerated it. It burrowed through him as if it had a life of its' own. Then something flared up to meet it, and before he had a chance to begin to understand, it was gone, leaving him unscathed. He was back on his feet just as quickly, searching for Steve in the darkness.

He froze at the sight of dozens of pinpoints of blood-red light hovering before him, milling, too many of them between him and Steve. He began backing away, hearing the fearful thoughts of the others, some an appeal for him to retreat, the majority dispirited. "Steve," he said aloud.

"Go on, Jay," Steve replied softly. One of the Keepers turned on Jon, noticing him again, only to redirect its' attention when Steve snapped his fingers at it.

Of the two of us, Cain, who has the most to lose?

Jonathan had a fleeting hope that Steve had regained his ability to transmit his thoughts, but it was his own saddened, weary mind returning to words spoken mere hours and several lifetimes earlier. Steve was surrounded by creatures bent on tearing them all apart and he had no recourse to offer. *Smitty...?*

*I'm willing to try,* the drummer answered.

Steve stood in the circle, confused as to why none of the Keepers had touched him yet, shivering, hearing their greed-laden impulses leaping around him. Cold, impossibly cold, hissing amongst each other, engaged with each other now that they were secure that he was in their grasp. Not wanting to feel the contact, nearly overcome with the proximity of such a number of them when one had been too much, he settled himself into a calm moment of waiting. Then a hateful explanation rushed by him in the dark: they were arguing about which was going to bring him down. Dividing him up.

The absurdity was nearly enough to make him laugh. But he would do better.

Smitty retreated from the cover of the trees, wondering if he knew what he was doing, when the first of it reached him.

“I waited patiently for the Lord
He inclined and heard my cry
He brought me up out of the pit
Out of the miry clay.”

Steve was singing.

The creatures paused in their milling, some of them backing a pace away. One snarled, a note of loathing. {that will not save you}

But he heard their bewilderment at a sound they didn't understand, their lack of cooperation with each other further diminishing their power. He discovered something else in that brief connection; outside of her lair, they weren't able to concentrate their power as quickly or easily. He did what should have been the end of him then and there in the middle of their circle, opening his mind to them...

Do they know we have you already?

He had been poisoned; some part of the creatures remained through which they had been better able to use him. He turned it against them, now, reaching out to them when before he had only recoiled in desperation. *Listen!*

And, his thoughts audible only to them, they had to.

“I will sing, sing a new song
I will sing, sing a new song…”

One of them fluttered away as quickly as it had come, keening, the sound like light to it. The sweet, powerful voice soared over them, and he advanced several steps. They gave way to him, some infuriated, several more shrinking away. None of them attempted to stop him. He walked away from the circle, taking Jonathan's arm and falling into step beside him. The others had gathered several yards away, and moments later they were all headed for the trees again, nothing running between any of them as Steve broke into 'Amazing Grace.'

They passed the treeline, climbing over the roots they couldn't get around, grateful they didn't have to dash blindly through them. Steve's voice, softer by then, echoed among the trunks. Nothing followed them into the woods. As the minutes passed, Steve fell to humming. A quarter mile in, the darkness ended as abruptly as it had begun, and they stepped across a threshold into light.

They had only amazement. Ross turned to look behind, as did the others when he gasped. The darkness remained, several steps behind them, intact, hiding their path from view. An invisible line of demarcation decided day from night. Steve looked up. "Still no sky," he murmured. Faintly orange light shone down on them from no immediately discernible source. The unbroken dome of grayish-orange still curved above. Something sang a distant, mournful note in the thickening foliage.

"This is where she ends," Steve said. "Maybe she can get through, but she has limits."

*Not while he's with us,* Neal sighed inwardly. *She's standing with us, and I think she knew what she was doing.*

"That must have been an industrial-size Clapper," Ross said, breaking the tension, and they burst into muffled laughter. The giddiness Steve had been suppressing bubbled out, and he sat on the nearest upraised root to give vent to it.

"Now what?" Smitty said finally.

"Darkness probably falls here eventually, too, " Neal said. "And I can't imagine that line will do us any good then. We should probably get as far from her as we can for now, at least until we can come up with some sort of plan."

"This is assuming, of course, that there is a place here considered 'far' from her," Ross said. "This whole thing could be her doing."

"And passing up a chance to do away with all of us a little while ago just so she could see what kind of blundering around we do from here," Jonathan added. "Why bother going to all that trouble only to kill us right away? We're supposed to be out here learning things. It would be boring to end it so quickly."

"Which is why they only went after him," Neal said, gesturing casually at Steve, who was examining the loam of the forest floor. Too weary to pay any attention to the fact that Neal was discussing him as if he weren't there, when before it would have enraged him. "She wants him to stay here, one way or another." *Which leaves the rest of us trying to protect him all the time and eventually failing.*

*Which is why she made a point of telling us we could go home when he was gone,* Jon thought sadly. *Does it matter now, Neal? He is dying. And I know why. If we don't find another way, it'll only be a matter of how.*

*We're all going home,* Ross thought resolutely. *Everybody goes. End of discussion.*

There was a moment of wordless agreement among them; then Neal looked pointedly at Jonathan. *One of them touched you.*

Jon nodded, blanching. *I won't share that with any of you. They are, inside, like they sound from a distance. Poisonous. But something didn't allow it to...take hold. Maybe I'm immune.* His gaze shifted to Steve, pityingly. *He's not. They break in and shred you.*

*How long before he shreds us?* Neal thought with none of the acerbity he had intended. Unexpected grief escaped instead--for everything left behind, for not wanting to watch any of them die. And for spending too much time battling someone who had incited it. He turned away, realizing suddenly the other edge of the 'gift' they'd been dealt, envying Steve his silence if nothing else. And understanding why he had unintentionally pushed them away. *We are still playing our roles,* he thought. *No matter where we are. If he isn't taken he will still find a way to leave us.*

Jonathan awoke Steve, who had drifted off while they conversed, and they set off again in the direction the light seemed to be heading. The light itself wasn't the quality they would have expected from any type of sun. It wasn't enough to dispel the mist that curled around their feet, but it did gradually change the shadows around them, and they took it as proof enough that it did eventually 'set'. When it did, they had to have shelter of some sort, if there was any that would resist the advance of the creatures hunting them.

The trees began to thin, following the slope of the land and keeping the mist to themselves. Reddish-brown soil became more readily visible, thin above a layer of coarse rock. An obvious trail became apparent, beaten by what manner of life it wasn't clear. No tracks remained to herald the most recent inhabitants. Minutes later there were only occasional trees guarding the edge of the path, sentinels announcing their departure. Dry hills rose and fell before them, the foothills of some long-eroded mountain range, coated sparsely with a veneer of bleached grass. Larger chunks of stone littered the ground around them, and rust colored towers of it reached up from the horizon in the far distance. It seemed their best shot, if they could make it before darkness fell. When that would be was anyone's guess.

They had spent the time tabulating what they had at their disposal; a flame thrower, if Smitty got the hang of it. A possible measure of immunity against the Keepers. Steve's voice, and what they were capable of as a whole. All they needed were the keys to the whole mess and a way out.

*Some tall order,* Neal thought. *Anyone else feeling magical?*

Steve, who had been utterly silent since Jonathan had awoken him, spoke softly and hoarsely as if losing his voice. "Lost."

When they glanced at him collectively, he said, "The word she used. Sohne. It means lost."

"Not for long," Smitty said.

Jonathan continued staring at Steve, realizing they had been avoiding the sight of him for some while. He was ashen. Not quite death's pallor but lighter yet, approaching the marble-like quality of the Keeper's mistress. He moved too stiffly, nothing left of his usually determined, fluid stride. Something else was walking along with them, only pretending to be oblivious yet watching them with cold detachment. Waiting.

*She dressed him in black to match the rest of her playthings,* Jon thought, then regretted it instantly. It had been laced with fear he hadn't realized he was harboring. It was echoed by the others, vague whispers like memories circling between them, elusive but certain. He glanced at the singer again, only to have his gaze met this time with a flicker of half-closed hazel eyes in his direction and an intimation of cold humor lifting one corner of the generous mouth. A hint of frost on long lashes...

Jonathan pressed his lips together in fear, making a tense white line of them, resisting the urge to dash away from the statue he'd tried so hard to keep close. Instead he offered a hand to him, knowing he would be cold to the touch. The malice, so palpable one moment, vanished in the next as if imagined and Steve took the hand almost gratefully. He was indeed cold, bone numbing cold, but Jonathan refused to let go.

The foothills dragged on, but the towers in the distance never seemed to begin to loom closer. Their sense of time continued to evade them even as the shadows began to lengthen. In its' place came a heightened sense of expectation, knowing darkness was coming and with it any number of things they had to try and prepare themselves for. The grass began growing more abundantly again, taller the further they progressed, to their knees in places. The whole of it felt unfinished, carelessly wrought. Still no wildlife showed itself with the negligible exception of what might have been small birds. The intermittent wind in their ears and the sounds of their own movement remained all there was to break the all-encompassing hush...

Until they found the fence.

It rose up out of the long grass, at first hidden by the fact that it had been painted to mimic the grass that surrounded it. The only reason they noticed it from a distance was the soft, lilting bell-like sound that drifted to them from that direction as the next breeze hit it.

At the first chime, even as it caught their attention and made them aware of the artifice, Steve halted stiffly and his hand slipped from Jonathan's. The rest of them paused several steps later, trying to make some sense of the structure like they had tried with everything else, without much success.

*Denizens,* Ross thought.

*Definitely someone's idea of a border,* Neal agreed. *Good fences make good neighbors.*

*Make good live neighbors,* Smitty amended, sighing aloud and taking a more careful look into the grasses in their immediate area. *Any ideas on what the deal is with the bells?*

*Hey, you're the percussionist in this outfit,* Ross chided.

*Keeping Keepers,* Jon thought. *They don't feel like anything negative from here. It's a good bet it's to keep the night things out. This world's version of a crucifix.*

The slight chiming sounded again, many small, silver tones mingling pleasantly. It was a sweet, innocuous sound, wind chimes on a summer afternoon.

"Someone probably lives further on," Ross said. "Someone willing to turn us in. Or not. Or turn us into something."

"We should at least try to make contact, though," Jon said. "They're intelligent enough to build things, and they probably don't like the night things here any more than we do. they might be able to help us, even if it's inadvertently. She'll know where we are, but circumnavigating them altogether doesn't give us any chances at all."

Neal grinned. "Did you really just say 'circumnavigate'?"

Jonathan smiled a little, and Ross snorted. Smitty almost audibly rolled his eyes.

"Man, you'd better hope they speak our language," Neal continued. "Because you don't."

The bells chimed softly again, the light from above making them into glints of haphazard light strung between the close slats of the fence, just visible as the light continued to shift and fade. It was fading rapidly by then, making them uncomfortably aware of the time constraint even though time had begun losing it's meaning.

They each added rapid, silent points to the argument with the exception of Steve, deciding that they might at least acquire information they hadn't had if they approached whoever lived beyond the fence's perimeter. They set off directly toward it, and Jonathan glanced over his shoulder to keep track of Steve's progress.

Steve was well back of them, stock still in the long grass, a shadow with an incandescent face and its' hands flat against its' chest. Shining in the gathering dusk.

"Jesus, God," Jonathan whispered. *Candles. He said we're like candles.*

The others turned in response to the alarm in Jon's thoughts. Neal cursed softly. "Come on," Jon said to Steve.

There was no response of any kind. Impatient and mindful of the coming dark, needing to keep some control of a deteriorating situation, Neal stalked toward him, angrily brushing off Jon's wordless suggestion to keep a distance. Steve stood as if unaware of him, gaze fixed on the fence, failing to react even when Neal stood close and demanded, "What the hell is it now?"

Jon came to a stop several paces away with Smitty and Ross on either side of him, his thoughts and stance demanding caution. "Not so close," he told Neal. "The darker it gets, the less of him there is."

The small, grim expression of amusement Jon had seen earlier surfaced again on the ice-white face. The contrasting dark of his eyes acknowledged Jonathan briefly. "Yes, careful," he whispered.

"You're going with us," Neal said. "We don't have time for this. Move, or I'll move you."

Those eyes flickered to Neal, the amusement dying, something more human breaking through again. "I can't," he whispered. "The fence is to keep me out." He paused, and before Neal could reply, added, "I would never hurt you."

Neal stared at him for a moment, surprised. "What are we supposed to do?" he said. "We can't stand out here and have you sing them away again."

"My voice is gone," Steve whispered with obvious effort, straining to remain himself. "It was the last there was of me. Should I try and be realistic in a world that isn't? Don't be out here...when it gets dark."

Neal looked to the darkening not-sky, shaking his head slightly, his expression unchanging but his thoughts defeated. He backed an unconscious step away from the chill Steve was radiating, folding his arms across his chest. Smitty was standing slightly apart, facing away, uncertain of how dark it needed to be before the Keepers were comfortable. Then Neal looked at Steve again, not believing for a minute he'd seen a hint of red in the hazel eyes before he said, "You're coming with us. So plug your ears."

Steve struggled visibly for a moment more, then lashed out quicker than he'd seemed capable of, catching the front of Neal's tunic in an iron grip that lifted the guitarist clear of the ground in an instant. Jonathan shouted, darting forward and catching hold of Steve's other arm.

Things grew hazy; one moment it was the simplicity of keeping Steve from killing Neal. The next it was a matter of keeping perspective in a place already beyond belief. Jonathan grabbed Steve's arm, finding it not far from the marble they had imagined their captor was composed of. It was too close to what being knocked down by the Keeper had been like, a blackness reaching in hand in hand with the cold. Jonathan had him not only by the arm but by everything underneath--the poison twisting through him, the inhuman rage that had spurred him to attack Neal, and far below that a remaining spark of the Steve he'd always known, battling for space.

It was an eternal flash of time, something reaching into Steve from Jonathan's hands even as he was spun away when Steve hurled Neal to the ground. He gaped at Jonathan with wide, wounded eyes, eyes only momentarily his before the ruby glare set in again, turning on Jon savagely with an open snarl. Neal rolled to his feet on Steve's other side, remembering the wariness he'd felt in Jon's driveway. Steve had a temper, was capable of rages, but had never invoked fear in any of them until that moment. They faced a monster, one with inhuman strength and speed that stood in indecision of which of them to attack first.

Something came sailing through the air from one side, making bright noise as it came, and Steve flinched at the sound but didn't duck quickly enough to avoid the impact of the object. It sang merrily as it struck him in the chest, and he clapped his hands over his ears as he leapt away from the bell that bounced off him and rolled away into the grass. The others whirled to get a fix on where the golf-ball sized article had come from.

Two figures stood apart from them, a man and a woman, dressed as they were with the exception that each wore a bell like the one just thrown on a strip of leather around their necks. The woman, dark haired and diminutive with sharp features, held a lantern before them in one hand and a wooden longbow in the other. The man, fair-haired, also held a bow, one hand still extended from throwing the bell. Their expressions were severe.

"You have a problem," the woman told them, handing the lantern to the man and nocking an arrow. "Step aside, sohne, and we'll be done with it."

"Wait," Ross said. "No way. He's--"

"Got two choices," she said, nodding. "Dying and Becoming. This one's doing both. Go on and tell me how he's one of you, a friend, and this is all just a big misunderstanding. I see it. But he's wraith-struck, and unless you've got an Inverse amongst you, you'd be doing him a kindness to put him out of his misery."

"No," Jonathan said in anguish, coming closer to them. "There has to be something else, there has to be another way."

"You're not saying anything I haven't," she said. "Sooner or later, everyone loses kin to the wraiths, careful or not. It's getting dark, sohne. We'll all be going with him, soon, unless we get this taken care of and back to safety."

"You'll have to get past us, first," Ross told her.

"It can be done that way," she said evenly, "if it's a choice between letting him run loose or keeping it quiet here another night."

"Do you know where we can find an...Inverse?" Jonathan asked.

"There's none here," the woman said. "The one we had went off with the night things. This is the best way. Go on, now." She raised the bow again, drawing the string taught and taking unerring aim on Steve.

"All right," Neal said, raising a hand to stop her. "All right. But...let me do it."

"Neal!" Jonathan all but screamed. *What are you doing?*

Neal's thoughts were formless, static, turning all of them away. They were staring at him as the strangers were, in shock.

"Here's a first," the woman said, dropping her arm only slightly. "Tricks aren't going to save you when true dark comes. Best not to be stalling or lying to me." She approached Neal without wariness, reaching to take a short blade from her own hip. She held it out to him gravely. "That's not someone you know anymore," she told him, tossing her head at Steve. "Not much of him, there. Whoever he was, if you ever had a thought for him, put him to rest. It's a bad state he's headed for. Don't mistake me, brave one. If you falter we'll shoot anything we have to, to be rid of something like him so close to the only home we have."

Shaking, Neal took the blade, nodding stiffly and turning to get a bearing on Steve without looking at any of the others.

Steve stood further up the field, the very last of the light outlining him. Embers beheld them with open hatred where his eyes had been, the entirety of him waiting for full darkness. His hands were steepled together in front of a face so startlingly white as to give off a light of it's own. A slight breeze moved his cloak and pulled his hair across his face, the only hint of animation. He was beautiful and terrible at once, and Neal resolved not to remember any of it, no matter how it all turned out.

He walked toward him quickly, instantly flanked by Jon and Ross, Smitty trailing behind to watch their surroundings. His thoughts scattered and emotional, Jon said, "You can't do this."

"If you have any options to offer me, I'm all ears," Neal said in a low, unsteady voice. "One of the Keepers touched you. You know this has been coming. So unless one of us is a damn Inverse, whatever that is, and can figure it out real quick, they're going to pick him off like a rabid dog. He doesn't deserve that. Would one of you rather do it? I'd be happy to back out."

"You want a diversion, I'll take a shot at it," Ross said, keeping pace with Neal. "But what we do with him after that is where it gets sticky. Killing him ain't the way to go."

"Something happened, when I tried to make him let go of you," Jon said in a rush. "I don't know what, but I could hear him again. They burned something away from him. He's still in there, somewhere. Maybe I can get to him."

"Do something," Neal whispered. "Because the wraiths will be here anytime, now, and by then not even this--" He gestured with the blade. "--will be enough."

Steve showed no reaction to their approach save for the rage in his eyes. Neal showed him the blade, hoping he would either pelt off into the twilight or try and kill him then, making it all easier. "This is it, Stephen," he said, ignoring the tears that blurred his vision, struggling not to choke on them. Ross and Smitty had fallen utterly silent, thoughts still, waiting. Jonathan approached Steve's right, edging closer.

*You're not really going to do this,* he thought. But Neal's thoughts were determined.

"Look at me," Neal said to Steve. "All these years we've driven each other crazy. But I always loved you."

The ruby eyes narrowed, flickering for an instant before sliding closed. One gloved hand darted out, resting on one side of Neal's face. Neal did everything he could not to jerk away. The touch was hateful and loving and destructive, a distortion that whirled through him. The dead thing they were facing wanted to break his neck, but the remaining spark of Steve had simply made contact for another reason, struggling somewhere under the surface. {help me}

Jonathan leapt forward before Neal could move, catching Steve's elbow and purposely concentrating on what ran beneath. The hand slipped from Neal's face, Steve's eyes flying wide with insult at the warmth that suddenly pervaded him, and he turned on Jonathan, hands reaching for his throat.

Jonathan stumbled away, refusing to let go, trying to turn his head away from the attack leveled on him. He grasped Steve's wrists, only momentarily deflecting the obviously stronger creature. He was propelled backwards as Steve tried to gain enough purchase to take his feet out from under him, the voices of the others reaching him peripherally. The warmth spread, infuriating Steve even further, each abhorring contact with the other. Steve yanked his arms down abruptly, breaking Jon's grip and finding his throat...

Then, everything was green.

False light erupted in the field, encompassing those nearest to Jon, winding through Steve much the way the wraiths had, less design than accident. Steve screamed much the way he had the first time, silently but heard nonetheless. He released Jonathan, who tumbled into the grass, stunned and reaching out blindly to break his fall. Steve backed away from him, his hands clapped over his ears again, the glow fading by degrees.

*Jay!* Neal thought/shouted, the only thing that didn't come across disjointed.

*It was me! I can reach him!*

A fireball arced over them, exploding when it struck an almost invisible wraith that had been closing on them. It shrieked, and Smitty hurled another in it's wake. Almost simultaneously an arrow whizzed by their heads, too close. Jonathan was on his feet again, running back toward them as the lantern came closer and Steve spun toward Neal.

*Stop him! Stop him but don't kill him!* He and Ross placed themselves between Steve and the lantern as Smitty hurled another fireball, permitting them the sight of another of the tattered horrors before it too went up in flames. Neal saw the conflagration in Steve's eyes just before the singer reached him, saw the intent, and realized the choice was out of his hands.

*He's going to make me,* Neal thought. *They're here for him, and he'd rather have us kill him.*

Steve knocked him to the ground, pinning him, scrabbling for the blade. Something cold reached into Neal as contact was made, slamming into him and wrenching away whatever control was possible. It was over that easily; Neal slid the blade between Steve's ribs and the cold evaporated. Smug satisfaction that seemed to originate from nowhere in particular reached him, almost congratulatory.

Steve stiffened, his forehead meeting Neal's chest long enough to make a final attempt at contact, nothing more or less than relieved gratitude. Then that too was gone, and Neal realized his hand was not the only one on the hilt of the blade. Steve had helped as well as forced him to comply. He did not realize that there had been a third hand, as well. Someone made a keening, high-pitched sound of grief, and Neal wasn't sure if it was himself or Jonathan; Steve pulled the blade free and tossed it into the grass to his right, before lifting his face to the sky. It was devoid of stars, or moons, or anything. He tumbled into the grass, his final thought one of disappointment.

A chime sounded close to Neal, the light of the lantern washing over him, hands dragging him to his feet. "Come along, brave one," the woman was saying. A bell on a strip of leather was unceremoniously strung over his head, the sound dull to him.

Ross grabbed him, and pulled him along. *Jon and the others are already heading for the fence.*

*But...Steve is...* Neal turned his head to find the other denizen, the man, tossing Steve over his shoulder and dashing toward the fence with the rest of them.

*Coming with us,* Ross explained in a rush. *Mairiesa says Jay is an Inverse...and I mentioned it might not be a good idea to shoot the Er Rai, whatever the hell that means.*

There was a break in the fence, a second lantern illuminating it, the way behind suddenly lit as well when another wraith burst into flames, too close. And not close enough; something hurtled into Neal, knocking him out of Ross' grip violently. It wasn't the blow or even the force with which he struck the ground that caused him to reel; it was the nothingness of whatever had touched him. The same physical/incorporeal grasp of a thing that had drifted by him in the dark in an underground cell, the waking nightmare made real. Cold beyond understanding--

Then it too was gone, burned away into a sheaf of ash drifting on the night air.

Jonathan helped him to his feet, having left the safety of the fence when he had gone down. The moment Jon touched him, the chill vanished, leaving only the memory of it. It was a revelation to him, making Jonathan a miracle. *What did you...?*

*I reversed it,* Jon answered.

Smitty caught up to them, smelling of charcoal and gesturing them on. *For Christ's sake, get behind the goddamn fence!*

*Ross said--* Neal began.

*He knows what I said,* Ross told him. *Hurry, Neal.*

*I think she's right,* Jon added as they passed the fence, following the trail of light, an urgency beyond their flight in his thoughts. *Steve isn't beyond us if I can get to him. I don't know what I'm doing, but I don't think it'll matter that much.*

*He isn't dead,* Neal thought, the relief nearly undoing him.

*Not dead, or alive,* Ross answered. *The 'denizens' know more about it than we do, and they seem hopeful.*

A gate slammed behind them with a resounding crash, and from scant yards outside it came the shriek of a frustrated wraith/Keeper.

"This way," the woman, Mairiesa, called, holding her lantern up higher. They caught up to her, breaking into a trot, creating a riot of bell sounds. "Remian has the Er Rai, below, in the caves. The Inverse had best run on ahead of us. You can see the light once you clear this rise."

Jonathan bolted away, intent, his thoughts a flurry of apprehension and hope. Neal, Ross and Smitty sent a mixture of surprise, shared strength and assurance after him. Then he was over the rise and out of their sight. Moments later, he was out of their hearing, as well.

*Who wants to ask her what's going on?* Smitty thought.

*What's the point now?* Neal replied. *We have so many questions to ask in this upside-down, godforsaken place that there's nowhere to start.*

Before one of them could say anything aloud, Mairiesa said, "The Lady brought you here."

A flash of discomfort ran between them; there was no safe way of discovering what reaction any answer would bring, the way Ross had risked everything in telling the strangers what 'The Lady' had called Steve. Then Neal shrugged. *What the hell.* "If you're referring to the woman who told us she was responsible for it, yeah. 'The Lady' pulled us in here, wherever here is."

"This," she said, "is Athyri. What the world is called, I don't know. It's just the world. But we knew right away, even from a distance, that you are from behind the wall that keeps us here. You are not the first. But you are, so far, the most interesting."

"Who is The Lady?" Ross asked, searching the dark ahead for any sign of the caves she had mentioned.

"She made the world," Mairiesa said. "It is said that she made herself, as well, but no one speaks of The Lady if they can help it. The wraiths do her bidding, and usually speaking of her brings them. The lot of you are at least that powerful, so no sense keeping silent. An Inverse and the Er Rai, all at once?" She laughed shortly, the sound less than joyful but more, they could tell, than she was accustomed to. "It might as well never get dark again. The Lady may as well snap herself back out of existence."

*Somebody ask her,* Neal sighed inwardly. *I'm not going to.* He, too, waited for the top of the rise, eager to keep them all together and discover what the hell was going on. He could hear nothing of Jonathan, and it confused him how easily they had grown accustomed to being connected. It was as if things had never been any other way.

"You have to excuse us," Ross said, "being visitors and all. But what, exactly, is an Er Rai?"

She swung the lantern around in surprise, glancing at each of them in turn. "To The Lady, it means one thing, to us, another. She's brought many here that attracted her attention, looking for the one who will allow her beyond the wall. She believes the Er Rai is the last, and when she has that, she will go beyond for herself. But we believe the Er Rai will destroy her." She turned away again, nodding to herself as if to confirm that her version was correct.

"What does Er Rai mean literally?" Smitty ventured.

Mairiesa lowered the lantern away from her face, her voice dropping with it. "Raven key," she said ominously.

*Oh, good,* Ross thought. *Raven meaning dark, and she'll try using him to get back and forth. *

*I hate this place more all the time,* Neal asserted. then they topped the rise, and below they could make out a network of lights, some in the shape of entrances. Caves. And it didn't occur to Neal or any of them until then that the lantern carried with such reverence by their self-appointed guide had no flame; Neal noticed only long enough to consider it before discarding the mystery, not caring enough to pursue it.

The ran the last stretch, glad to be out of the dark...

*Why don't the Keepers just leap the fence?* Neal thought, the incongruity troubling him only as long as the lantern had. Then they were in the nearest of the caves, stopping short in amazement.

*I think this is what Jon would call a violation of expectations,* Ross thought.

The low, curving granite-like walls were bright with the combined light of dozens of airborne spheres, spinning in languid spirals, rising and descending at whim. Whose, exactly, it was uncertain. Most of them remained close to the ceiling, a select few hovering directly above an outcropping in the rock into which an impression had either occurred naturally or been shaped into a curve large enough for the average human. There were several of them, intermittent and uneven, stretching back out of their view. The one in question held Steve's inert form. Jonathan was perched on one edge of the wide berth, leaning over Steve, eyes closed and expression resolute. He had both hands on the latter's chest. The other light in the room, they realized, was Jonathan's; the green they had seen flare to life in the field minutes and ages ago surrounded Jon in a softer phosphorescence than it had earlier. The radiance lay in his hands, calmer than the lights above an around him. His thoughts were elsewhere, trancelike.

"They're Wisps," Mairiesa explained, setting her lantern down and flicking open a latch, releasing the light to join the others. It floated serenely away, hovering near the ceiling. "These are helpers. The Inverse must be left to do his work. If the Er Rai had not tried to kill him, it might have been much later that he discovered his gift."

"His name's--" Ross began.

"No," Mairiesa said harshly. "You mustn't ever tell any of us your names. It binds you here. It gives others dominion over you." She gestured at Neal. "It is bad enough that we know this one's name."

"But you..." Ross began again.

"Only after it was obvious who we were dealing with," she said, her gaze as recriminating as her tone. "We don't give our names to anyone who comes by. Now come away, or we will disturb the Inverse."

"We have to stay," Neal said. "We're part of him. Of them."

She sighed, then nodded. "You are exhausted," she conceded, "and keeping you apart will serve nothing. You come from a place where there is still time, don't you? It must seem like much of it has passed. Things can be explained later. I will check on you before light." She paused, looking uncertain. "If we could remember the last Inverse, we could be of better help to you. But he is on his own. We remember little."

"Where...are you from?" Smitty asked her.

She shook her head. "I am not 'from'," she said. I simply am." She bowed her head and backed away from the cave's mouth, descending into shadow.

When she was gone, Neal thought, *This is one fucked up place, but at least it isn't all Keepers and witches.*

They fanned out around Jon and Steve in the other berths, trying to remain alert, hypnotized by the glow and the spinning creatures creating it. They were each investigated in turn by several of them, at least four settling around Neal at one point. *It's good to find something in this place that isn't trying to kill us,* he thought. *At least, I don't think they are.*

*We can't even help him, can we,* Ross thought.

* * *

Steve was running, faster than he thought he could, dodging trees and rocks that littered the half-obscured path before him. It was a path they had already taken on their way through the woods, still trapped in a land they had never imagined. He realized he was dreaming, and dreaming that place only because he was becoming part of it. He wasn't fearful of who chased him, exactly; but he was dangerous in a way he didn't even understand. It was only Jonathan. But Jonathan would change him as surely as the poison had, making him into something he had not wrought himself.

"Steve," Jonathan cried. "Steve, wait! Just talk to me!" He was closer, but less familiar with the ground. None of it existed, except in Steve's mind. Jon was the visitor there, the invader.

It was getting dark.

Steve dodged behind another tree, spinning and keeping it between them. "No," he gasped. "You can't have me either!"

"You haven't been with us," Jonathan argued. "You don't know what's happened. I only want to help. I can't unless you let me."

"I remember," Steve accused. "I can't. Look what happened to me the first time!"

"The wraith did it," Jon said gently. "We didn't burn you, we didn't take anything away. If that were true, it would have happened to all of us. "

Steve shook his head. "It would be a different version of the same thing. leave me alone, let me go! It hurts, and I don't care anymore."

"It will stop hurting," Jon whispered, "...if you let me in."

Steve's eyes flew wide, and Jon knew he'd lost him but not why, not until the accidental flood of memories hit him, surrounding him...

Memories of not existing, of infinite distance...of becoming component parts and being conscious for it, being carelessly raided in mind, body and soul by something heartless; invaded, compromised, ruined...

{it will stop hurting if you let us in}

"It wasn't us," Jonathan sobbed, reeling, finding himself on his knees. "I'm only trying to help, and I don't know how!"

"You're somewhere I've never let anyone," Steve said, further away. "What kind of choice is that?"

"Would you rather die?" Jonathan shouted after him. "You're giving up. I've never known you to give up!"

"You've never known me," Steve said from out of sight. "Except for the parts I accidentally gave away. You always said you had to love someone to write music with them. You were right. Now leave it at that."

"I can't force you," Jonathan said. "I wouldn't. I wouldn't bother chasing you if I didn't want you back. I understand! If I thought you really wanted to die, I'd let you. But it's only escaping. There's another way out. It doesn't have to get dark. I can't lie to you here, remember?"

There was no answer, and he hung his head. "I won't leave without you. You wanna be stubborn, fine. When you scatter this time, I'll go with you." The horror of it was that he meant it. It frightened him. The faces of his wife and child whirled through his memory, regretfully, tugging at him.

"You damn fool," Steve growled from much closer.

"I'm not leaving without you," he repeated. "I always thought you were braver than this, and for Christ's sake it won't be any worse than what you've already seen. Those things have been all through you, and I can't be that bad."

Steve came back into sight. "For all you know, I'll only do the same to you that they've done to me."

"If I'm willing to take the risk, why aren't you?"

Steve lowered his head, shaking it slightly.

"For all we know, we can't get home without you. There's a lot to this we don't understand, and our strength is only in each other. I think we're capable of getting out of here, together. I know that much, and I only got the briefest glimpse of it when you finally reached out for us before the Keeper killed and scattered you. We have to find out what we can really do, here and later. We need you. I need you."

Steve faltered.

"It might hurt at first," Jonathan told him. "But I'll share it with you. We'll walk back together, and things will even out. I promise."

"This could have killed you," Steve said softly. "Still could, but you're here anyway."

"Then that should explain things to you," Jonathan said. He held a hand out to Steve, fearful and hopeful and feeling a growing certainty of what he could do. The edges of the darkness were tinged with green...

Steve was staring at him in wonder.

"Try," Jonathan said. "Just try. I won't ask anything else. It'll all stay just between us."

Shaking, Steve reached out a tentative hand, knowing it would change him again but not necessarily for the worse, trusting Jonathan. And more than that, not wanting to let him down. Jon was careful not to move, knowing the choice had to be Steve's. Hands clasped, and Jon stood as the trees disappeared.

They walked away in the silence.

* * *

"Hold on to him!"

Neal had Steve's hands above the latter's head, and Ross and Smitty were trying to keep from being kicked. Steve was doing his best to get away even though he was far from conscious, straining against Jonathan. Jon had shouted the direction more as a warning than anything else. if Steve got loose the way he was, it would be disaster. His color had changed, true, darker than the iciness he had begun with, but there was still much to do. Jonathan was winning. There was more than mere physical injury to reverse; he had only begun to understand how it all fit together, but it made sense the way music had his whole life. It wasn't far from music itself, patterns woven about one another, separate yet dependent. Once broken, it was a matter of weaving the patterns back to harmony, something he had been doing his whole life. In this case it was a matter of backpedaling over what had caused the disruption and undoing the damage. But an inability to put this particular pattern back where it belonged didn't mean having to shelve a project until the right idea came.

He found himself trying to save one pattern by unraveling another; the pattern belonging exclusively to Steve had been forced to incorporate something it wasn't meant to, the wraith's poison merging when it could and destroying when it couldn't. It was difficult, routing out something so invasive, something that had been allowed too much time to take root and become analogous with parts of Steve. The alien pattern was almost a separate life form of its' own, struggling to keep its' stolen place, torn away at expense of further injury to the host. The cure was nearly as bas as the affliction itself, a reverse of the original process that had brought them to their current situation.

They held him down until he suddenly ceased struggling, and Jonathan felt the last of it tear away, a shadow lifting. Exhausted, he collapsed, spiraling down a familiar corridor into silence.

* * *

Daylight.

The first hint of it awoke him, a slight change in the air of that strange place where time meant so little. It was a turning over, the night things almost audibly retreating, relinquishing their claim. Much the way they had been forced to relinquish him. Steve stirred and realized two things; Jonathan was tangled with him in a depression of stone set into a cave wall. And he was right again.

*I belong to myself again,* he thought. Memories, fragmented and seen as if from a perspective other than his own, suggested themselves. He opened his eyes completely, looking around. One by one he found the others in the gray light, sleeping. Safe. He hadn't done it. They were all still alive. He carefully moved the arm that was looped around Jonathan's head, sitting up a little, holding him. There was something about Jonathan...

The joy in his thoughts was loud enough to wake first Ross, then Smitty. When they realized where they were and what they were seeing, the joy in theirs awoke Neal, who scrambled out of his berth to come closer. "Jesus," he said aloud, softly, rousing Jonathan, who sat up quickly in surprise. Nothing was the same. Steve was not how Jon remembered him--not from the day before, not from any time.

Steve shook him lightly by the shoulders, the delight and relief in his thoughts nearly blinding them. *I didn't do it! We're all here.*

Jonathan passed his hands over his own face, trying to gain his bearings. "Didn't do what?"

"Kill you," Steve said. he leaned back and took in the sight of Ross and Smitty, grinning at them. *Boy, am I glad to see you!*

Ross tousled his hair, grinning. "Likewise."

Jonathan nodded, a memory leaving him and passing between the others, of scarlet eyes and a sly smile in a frozen face. Steve gaped at him in shock. "I know," Jon said. "I didn't let you. What's the last thing you remember?"

Steve saw, again, an outside perspective, a short stuttering film played to a horrified audience. *The fence,* he thought. *I wasn't allowed near the fence.* "What happened?"

The battle in the field was rendered again from memory, each perspective adding something else, ending with the flash of a blade in lantern-light. Steve looked at Neal, who looked quickly away. There was nothing else to say about it, but Steve tried anyway. *Thank you.* Neal shook his head, refusing.

Steve returned his attention to Jonathan. "You've always been the heart of us, haven't you."

*Who's going to tell him?* Neal thought.

"Tell me what?" Steve said, looking up again. Neal grimaced, having forgotten already that Steve could hear them again.

"You're about as old as you were the first time Neal and I saw you," Ross said. "maybe twenty-eight. You were missing ten years or so when we got here. You're missing another ten."

Steve looked at his hands skeptically, and Jon showed him a mental picture of how he appeared to them. His eyes widened. "I'm aging backwards."

"And," Jon added, "your eyes are green. I mean, green, like Christmas lights..."

"Like the light in the field last night," Neal said.

Steve looked at Neal. "There's no time here like we know it, but I'm in reverse, so..."

"So every time it gets light again, you're younger," Ross said. "Until..." he paused, raising an eyebrow.

"Thirty eight yesterday," Steve said. "Twenty eight, and tomorrow--if that's what it can be called here--eighteeen."

"Like you would mind seeing eighteen again," Neal laughed.

"Eight," Jonathan said gravely.

"And two years before I was born," Steve finished. "Great. I love deadlines. A time limit in a place that doesn't measure time."

"Well," a bright, lyrical voice intoned from the caves' entrance, "...the Er Rai made it, after all."

They looked up to find Mairiesa standing framed in the light, leaning against the entrance wall. Jon started to say something, but Steve's still-unfamiliar mental voice made him pause. *Wait. Wait, she isn't real.* "Who are you?" he demanded aloud.

"Steve, she--" Neal began, cut off when Steve jumped to his feet, blocking Jonathan from Mairiesa's view. The dark haired woman gasped, clapping both hands over her mouth and staring at Steve in alarm.

Steve's expression was severe, suspicious, and he said, "Now show them what you really are."

Mairiesa showed a trace of panic. "The Er Rai isn't well," she said. "He needs rest."

*She's made of the same stuff the Keepers--the wraiths--are,* Steve insisted. *It's an illusion. The wraiths are shadows. She has none.*

It was true. Even though she stood framed in early light, no shadow preceded her into the cave. *She's done nothing but help us,* Jon pointed out. *Related, maybe. Everything here seems to be an illusion. But not the same.*

"From the moment I got here, until now, I've been turning into something like this," Steve said, pointing at Mairiesa. "You're hiding things, this is a trap! Show them."

She looked, for a moment, as if she would cry. Then she complied.

In an eyeblink, the place she had been standing was occupied by a Wisp. The dancing light hovered near the ceiling before dropping to within a foot of Steve. He stepped away from her, and she rematerialized.

"You didn't save us at all," Steve said.

Mairiesa shook her head. "But you must understand..."

"If Neal hadn't offered to do it for you, you would have tried to kill me first, then all of them. She keeps you here for that alone."

"But everything I said after that, I meant!" she cried. "Once we knew who...you can't blame us for doing as we are instructed! We gave you our names!"

"I have a feeling," Steve snapped, "that we won't want to know why. You're here only to destroy whoever or whatever gets this far. Why?"

She shook her head miserably.

"Then what is it with the bells?" Neal demanded. "Why the fence, why all that stuff about 'losing kin' to the wraiths?"

Mairiesa put her hands over face, momentarily losing her composure, then dropped them again just as quickly. "One's punishment," she said brokenly, "for not obeying is to Become. The wraiths are kin to us, yes, but they exist only to destroy. We do not. We are left alone simply to be so long as we do as The Lady instructs. All strangers must be kept from going further. Otherwise, one serves in the darkness of the Keep rather than in the open air and light."

"What else!" Steve shouted. "I can hear there's more. Don't keep anything else from us!"

"Your names!" she shouted in return, as if he was forcing it from her. "Stop saying each other's names!" She fell to her knees as if releasing the information had undone her. "I told you in the darkness, not to say your names! I tried to warn you!"

"What the--?" Neal began, pausing, a memory drifting between those who had spoken to her the night before. *'It's bad enough we know this one's name',* Ross quoted. *She said it binds us here.*

"You may not leave here," Mairiesa said to Neal. "Neither you or the Er Rai. We know your names, and so The Lady knows. She was not listening, before, but now you have given them to her!"

"How?" Steve demanded.

"I don't know. I only understand that what keeps the wraiths out, keeps you in now. We have part of you."

*I said your name,* Steve thought to Neal in anguish.

Neal shook his head, turning to look at Steve over his shoulder. *Jon said my name last night without knowing. I just said yours. If she's right, I've made it worse.*

"How do we break it?" Jon asked.

"I don't know," she insisted. "You must believe me. It has never been done. I have never lied, only kept silent. I am of her making, I know only what I am supposed to do, not why."

Steve angled around her, keeping a wary eye on her as he passed, headed toward the entrance. He stopped abruptly at the threshold, not as if by any physical barrier, but as if he'd chosen not to cross it. He looked out into the fields beyond, at the rapidly spreading light, unable to step further. One more game, one more ploy to make him part of a place that didn't really exist. *Can't blame her for trying,* he thought. *Jay? Walk out of here, if you can. Ross, Smith, follow him. we're really going to have to think our way out of this one.*

They did as he asked, walking out into the light without difficulty and turning to face him. Neal remained where he was. Jon reached across the threshold to take hold of Steve's arm, intending to try and pull him across, and Mairiesa yelped and covered her eyes. Jon yanked his hand back just as quickly and Steve rolled his eyes.

"We said each other's names in the dungeon of the Keep," Smitty reminded them.

"She already had us," Jon said, stepping back into the cave. "She might not have been listening. She was going to get rid of Steve then and there, and see what the rest of us were made of. It wasn't necessary yet to set up any other traps. Or maybe she just didn't think of it. That's what all this is for, for the idiots who make it this far."

"If she had heard us earlier," Steve said, "she would have stopped calling me 'singer' or Er Rai long before now."

"She won't be calling you either anymore," Mairiesa said cryptically. "When she calls you now, you will do as she says."

Steve whirled toward her, and she jumped with a cry. "She's been trying to get me to do as she says since before we got here, and I'm still not playing, or we would all be dead by now!"

"Mairiesa isn't to blame," Neal said, and Steve turned to him instead, the anger dying when he saw the look of disappointment on Neal's face.

*I won't be held against my will,* Steve began, something pooling into existence behind his thoughts, larger than he was, looming. *I've had enough of this, and I won't have you held, either.* He clenched his fists, then whirled again and threw himself at the cave's entrance, diving toward it, never hearing Mairiesa scream...

And like a swimmer diving into a transparent pool, he was gone.

Shock held them all in place for a moment. Then Neal ran to the threshold, pausing as Steve had without understanding why, held in place. There was nothing to see but the sloping fields beyond. Ross and Smitty, righting themselves after trying to get out of Steve's way, reentered the cave. Neal turned to Mairiesa, who had a stricken look on her face.

"Where'd he go? How did he do that?"

She shook her head. "It's all only an illusion. The Lady governs what runs underneath. We do not question."

She vanished.

Jon startled visibly, but not from her disappearance as the others at first assumed. They began to realize he was hearing something, whispers like those Steve had left behind when the first wraith had scattered him but louder. He turned a full circle, listening.

*Jon,* Neal thought, questioning him.

*He had to let me in,* Jon replied. *Part of him...I have part of him, he's still--* Jon paused, eyes closed, calling. Gathering. He didn't know how he knew, but if Steve was left where he was, he would become that place as surely as if he had finally become a wraith.

The light gathered as it had in the confines of the Keep when Steve had first been pulled there, the layers coalescing again into human shape. Sparks cascaded away from the blend of light and form, dimming, pulling inward, and Steve's dark figure snapped back into focus. Unmoving, eyes closed, he did not acknowledge them. They drew closer to him hesitantly, and Neal took one of his arms. The singer was cold, almost too cold to touch, frozen as if he'd been exposed to the reaches of space.

He startled awake as he had before, but sightless and senseless this time a disturbing lack of life behind unblinking sea-green eyes. Jon took Steve's chin in one hand, beginning to grasp what had happened, if only marginally. Steve had seen what ran underneath; what he had called back was cold, lifeless. Mad.

"Forever," Steve whispered. "It was forever."

"Jesus," Neal whispered, unable to let go of him.

Green light flooded over them again while Jon reversed what had been accidentally done to him, and when it dissipated, Steve blinked at them, squinting against the daylight. "What happened?"

Neal lied quickly and automatically. "You tried to cross the barrier, and it knocked you out, you dumbass."

"And that was enough to scare you guys? Shit, you're usually willing to do that yourselves."

"The younger you get, the dumber you get," Neal chastened, hearing Steve begin to look through their thoughts, diverting him. The lie had to stand. "I'm beginning to wonder how the hell you lived to adulthood. Assuming you even classify as an adult."

Steve pulled away from him, expression sour. "Where's--what's her name? Mairiesa?"

"You scared her off with all your carrying on," Ross said. "If wraiths and doors can't hold up against all of us, we might as well try getting out of this the same way."

Jon nodded. "We still don't know what we can do, with--"

*The walls have ears,* Steve thought, and silence fell. *Jesus, does everything here lurk around in the walls?*

*You tell us,* Ross replied. *How did you know she was a Wisp?*

*There was no shadow on the floor, but there was one over her. Her shape wasn't solid.*

*You don't have a shadow, either,* Neal pointed out, remembering for a moment the size of whatever had hovered over Steve before he dove into the barrier, careful not to visualize the dive itself.

Steve shrugged. "Let's get the hell out of here."

*If she had decided this was what she was looking for, we would have known before we got out of the Keep,* Smitty thought. *All we can do is try. But where are we going?*

"We'll cross that bridge later," Neal said aloud. "Out of here is good, in the meantime."

They reached out to each other, one at a time, gathering in a rough circle and laying their hands atop one anothers'. Steve hesitated.

*It wasn't us,* Jon reminded him. *We didn't hurt you.*

He nodded, keeping his gaze averted and adding his hand.

It changed everything.

One moment, it had been the semi-light of the caves. The next, it was full daylight, and they stood surrounded by sloping, bleached fields again. Steve looked up suddenly, face wary. "That pissed somebody off," he said. "But it's light now, and she can't do much."

They looked around, finding no trace of the caves below them, just dry, rust-colored towers rising in the direction opposite the light. "To hell with her," Steve said.

"I'm not sure if we passed that test or not," Neal said. "This is like some weird-ass obstacle course."

"That's what we get for being the first band with a video game," Smitty said, trying to look serious.

"Uh huh," Ross added. "It's like Outward Bound for rock stars. Quit stealing my lines, drummer boy. While we're at this, why not just wish ourselves home? There's no way it's that easy, she'd just come and get us again. But won't we feel stupid if we don't try?"

They considered it for a moment, then rejoined.

Nothing.

*Don't tell me we have to go back out the way we came in!* Steve thought, the colors of it tinged with dread.

"It has something to do with the illusion," Jon said. "It's all a goddamned illusion, but in its' own way, it's as solid as we are." He sighed, walking toward what he could see of the fence, their only proof that any of it had happened, aside from the bells. He turned suddenly to Steve again, pointing at him angrily, startling him. "You're not going out the way you came in," he stated flatly, then continued walking, leaving Steve to tilt his head at Jon's retreating form in bafflement.

"Don't ask," Neal said brusquely, giving him a light shove to keep him moving. "And knock that off, you look like a puppy."

They examined the fence, purposely making the bells ring by shaking it, and Steve tilted his head again, listening to something else. Short snippets of a film he'd helped make the night before unreeled again, from an omnipresent view...

His shout of anger made them jump. "She was here!" he shouted, throwing his arms up in the air. "'Start with the gentle one', she said! She was walking right next to you the whole time, she knew what was coming!"

"We know," Ross said. "You were never really with us again, after you sang the wraiths away. We thought around you so she wouldn't know what we were up to."

Furious, Steve looked further up the field, listening to the wind for several long seconds before stalking away on an unerring path to where they had been the night before. The others traded glances behind him, watching him hunt around in the grass. He found and picked up the bell Remian had thrown at him. As he straightened, he nearly ran into two figures suddenly flanking him on either side.

"We have made the Er Rai angry," Mairiesa said dolefully. "Forgive us. We never meant any harm."

The other, Remian, nodded. "We had no choice. But we were able to warn you." He held out another bell to Neal, who was behind Steve. They had made a mad dash after him the moment the Wisps had appeared. "The bells may keep the wraiths from attacking you outright," Remian continued. "But they have ways of getting around defenses."

"Fine," Steve said sardonically. "Make up for it by giving us a clue on how to get out of here."

"You must know," Mairiesa said. "You're--"

"Yeah, yeah," Steve interrupted. "That. In the meantime--if you have any concept of that--I would be happy not to get any younger."

"Only The Lady can undo that," Remian said. "She is attempting to keep you here in any way possible. It works only when the light turns over. She has managed to gain that much of a hold on you. You would have to keep the light from turning over."

"You mean keep it from getting dark," Ross said. "Adorable."

"For that, you must talk to Siarion," Mairiesa explained. "She calls twilight down, from the highest part of Athyri." She turned and pointed to the rusted peaks, the tallest of them a day's walk away. "But you must convince her she should do so. She may not be impressed that the Er Rai has come. You may need something to trade. Even then, she may not agree. The Lady is powerful and means to keep you any way she can."

"Don't I know it," Steve muttered. "Is Siarion a plaything of the Lady's, too, or does she belong to herself?"

The intended jab hit the mark. Mairiesa blushed. "Siarion belongs to no one. The Lady may have made the world, but Siarion comes and goes as she pleases. The Lady did not make her."

*Something to trade,* Smitty thought. *That sounds ominous, huh?*

"So, if we convince her not to call twilight down for awhile, we might have a chance," Ross said.

Mairiesa nodded. "There are only few of us left, and we do not wish it to go on this way," she said. "You must not let her through the wall between. We have borrowed our shapes from others who came from there. your people do not deserve the wraiths. I have not, would not lie to you. If you must end this world to keep her away, do so."

"And if The Lady finds out how much you've helped us?" Jon said.

"She is gone from here, from you, until the light turns over again. More I cannot say. We do not question. We are."

They vanished without a trace.

"Hey," Ross said. "No problem."

Almost as one, they sat down in the grass, eyeing the towers in the distance. "Gives me an idea for the cover art of a single," Steve murmured. "Did anyone, by any chance, happen to ask what the hell an Er Rai is somewhere in the middle of this mess?"

Neal nodded sagely. "Yeah. We found out. You won't believe it."

"Well?"

"It means, 'big nose'."

Steve rolled his eyes and flopped over backwards in the grass. Ross howled with laughter.

*It means 'raven key',* Jon amended. "You mean something to the 'denizens' of this place, I guess. I mean, they were going to pick us off until--" he paused, pointing at Ross, "--this guy yelled, 'don't shoot him, he's the Er Rai!'"

Steve laughed. "Thanks."

"Sure," Ross said. "Just be glad it didn't backfire." He went on to explain what Mairiesa had while Steve had been unconscious.

"The Lady made the world," Steve mused. "But the world is an illusion. This isn't a where, it's a..." he trailed off, searching for a word that fit, letting the gist of his thoughts do the rest.

"I remember reading somewhere the explanation of what a fourth dimension would be like," Jon said. "Something about the right side being in and the wrong side out."

"Carl Sagan," Ross said.

"What the hell are you guys talking about?" Neal implored.

"We would understand a fourth dimensional creature about as well as two dimensional creatures would understand us. So we've been given illusions, to give us something to work from."

"No up-down or left-right," Ross said. "Things able to change shape or disappear whenever they want to. And he said a fourth dimensional creature could also conceivably yank people out of locked rooms, make them disappear."

"And turn them inside out," Jon finished, opening his mind enough to give everyone the sense of understanding he was beginning to feel. He glanced at Steve enigmatically. "The entire Cosmos on the inside, everything you are on the outside."

Steve nodded, understanding but not wanting to. He and Jon stared at each other. "I'm going to have to go back the way I came. I'm not here."

"You're fourth dimensional," Jon said. "You're more subject to everything here because you're actually more here than the rest of us. There is no time where you're concerned, s o you can be made to run backwards, or change, or blend in. By struggling with her in three dimensions, you did exactly what she wanted. She got the part of you she could really deal with. three dimensional people in a fourth dimensional realm."

"And three dimensional illusions to keep us running in circles. I can't believe I'm sitting here catching on to this bullshit. I'm glad you guys read the same books."

"If a fourth dimensional creature could break into our silly little third dimension, she could order things any way she wanted to," Ross said. "She'd have all kinds of playthings."

"Having her own world isn't enough?" Smitty asked.

"And how is she managing to get there now?" Steve asked. "How is she yanking people in here?"

"The frequency of noise we made, all together," Jon said. "I think she listens for something that transcends that barrier between. some people can probably do it themselves without even knowing it, catching her attention just by existing or with something they're doing, some sort of harmonic nobody else can hear. I always thought the band was something bigger than us. maybe that's what caught her attention."

"But she isn't all-powerful," Steve said. "Maybe in that one area. She doesn't like the light. And she said, 'perhaps time will reveal what illusive form...'" He let it trail off. "We're missing something, something huge."

"She's going to use you to get to where all the noise is coming from," Jon said. "You may not even be the most powerful she could get her hands on, but you fit better than anyone else has so far. It's all of us in a way, and you in particular, and once we stumble on what she's looking for, she'll try something."

"But she has limits," Smitty said.

"Man," Neal sighed, "just don't start telling me that the fate of the world or universe or whatever is dependent on what we do."

Jon shrugged. "I'll settle for just getting the hell out of here and leaving her to her own dimension, if I thought she'd stay here. But I have a feeling she won't. This place has rules, just like any other. We need to figure out what they are so we can break them."

"Now, that's what I like to hear," Neal laughed. "It's what we're good at, isn't it?"

They all regained their feet, looking away to the towers again. "They're further away than they were before," Smitty said without any real surprise.

"This should be interesting," Ross said wryly. "Anyone want to bet they'll keep getting further away at least until it gets dark?"

"Back to the game," Neal said.

* * *
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