CANDLES IN THE DARK Part III
(c) BS 1997

They struck out directly for the pinnacle ahead of them, pondering what they'd learned or hypothesized and continuing the discussion in silence. This time it was a matter of getting used to Steve's addition to their already established mental rapport. He darted in and out of their shared thoughts, never interrupting but somehow maintaining a separateness that kept them at arm's length despite the intimacy.

*Don't forget,* he thought finally. *She hears me, the wraiths hear me, as well as I hear them. That discussion you had in front of her in the Keep would never have been possible had that wraith not burned me.* "I'm more of a liability, being on her wavelength."

"Maybe," Jon said. "But then why allow the wraith to burn you?"

"It wasn't trying to," Steve replied, dropping his voice. "It was...looking." The memory of it, of cold and invasive fingers tearing life and will away made him slam down against it. It was reminiscent of the 'door' he had slammed to keep The Lady out. This time, it shut the others out as well.

Jonathan paused abruptly, looking at him with a mixture of wonder and dismay. "How did you do that?"

"I don't know," Steve said without looking at him, wondering why he felt vaguely guilty for it. Then he realized that only he was able to tell he felt guilt over it. Be good to have a thought to myself. "I can't hear any of you, now."

"Then neither can she," Neal said. When Jon flinched, the guitarist added, "What, you don't like the truth?"

"She doesn't have to know anything I don't tell her," Steve agreed.

*Did Steve just agree with Neal?* Ross thought to Smitty.

*This is still an alternate reality, last time I checked,* Smitty replied.

"I don't know if I'm glad or not," Jonathan said, frowning a little. "We can't hear you, either. You can get them open again, can't you?"

The look Steve gave him was dark, a flash of something distant and forbidding passing over him, reminding Jon of the luminescent, crimson-eyed entity the singer had been. *I would have thought you, most of all, had heard enough.*

Jon shook his head.

Steve began walking again, thoughts determined. "The bitch isn't getting in this way, again," he stated flatly. "We'll get her, first."

The light began changing as they traveled, not as the smooth, even transition in three dimensions but in fits and starts that baffled them.

"So, how long is a day in the fourth dimension, Mr. Wizard?" Neal asked Jon, watching the sky.

Jon declined to answer, his thoughts a wordless buzz of frustration.

"Has anybody else noticed we sleep but don't eat?" Ross said. "So far, nobody eats here. We don't even get hungry."

"If we did, and anything was edible, would you eat it?" Smitty retorted. "I can see it now. 'Hey, have some of this, Persephone.'"

Jon snorted. "Either this place has that effect on us, or time means nothing, so..." he paused, something else occurring to him that the others could hear before he spoke again. "Maybe we're still on our own time. Maybe none has passed at home. Or for all we know it's been ten years."

The possibility sobered them further in addition to the fact that they weren't getting tangibly closer to their goal. The towers remained just as far away even as it began to feel like miles had passed. They were no longer able to see the fence behind, yet they may as well have been standing still.

*We're being screwed around, and there's no way around it,* Neal thought.

Smitty paused mid stride and announced, "We might as well go around." When they looked at him, he continued, "Nothing else in this damn place is straightforward. What's the shortest distance between two points here?"

"The long way around," Steve said, grinning. "And that's how I went around the block to cross the street. Hey, Smith, where've you been, man?"

"Dammit," Neal sighed.

"At right angles," Ross added.

They abruptly changed direction, heading to their left and angling in toward the tallest peak. After another short while, more of the landscape became visible, tending more toward brush. Further on there was another line of trees. But the towers finally began to loom closer.

*If any of the denizens happen to ask us what the hell we're doing,* Neal thought, *we're sneaking up on the mountain.*

Steve made a shushing sound. "It might hear you." Then he laughed, and Neal glanced at him.

"I'm remembering you used to be funnier, too," Neal said. "But you still don't behave any differently."

*Miss me?* Steve replied, expression the epitome of wickedness. Then he laughed again at the look on Neal's face.

"Like I said," Neal murmured.

"I guess we'd better decide how we're going to do this," Ross said. "Are we making a dash for the trees, or trying for the main goal?"

"Neither's going to save us from the Keepers," Steve said. "Neither's gonna protect us from something that can melt through walls."

"We've heard you sing all night before," Neal said. "I hope you've been keeping your chops up."

"I can handle it," Steve said, and they all heard the defensiveness, but Neal chose to leap in.

"Not from what I heard on that last solo album," the guitarist said, and Steve slammed his thoughts shut again that easily, stalking ahead of them and away.

"Good," Jon said. "That was smooth. We're in it as it is. You wanna lay off?"

*Have you ever noticed how much more he can get done when he's pissed?* Neal thought. *And didn't you want to know if shutting us out was an accident? He'd better be able to do that on a regular basis, or the Keepers will swallow him whole.*

*And if he's closed up like that, we can't join against anything as a unit,* Jon thought. *Don't take shots at his voice.*

"The trees are too far off to dash for," Ross said. "Since we don't know when it gets dark, even if we start running now we may not get there."

They picked up the pace regardless, trying to come up with an alternate plan, tossing ideas back and forth until the light began to wane. Alarm passed between them, and they began to collectively tense, closing Steve in without realizing it. They were still completely in the open.

*She calls twilight down,* Jon thought. "That's exactly what it's like, as if someone suddenly decided it should start getting dark."

"Now what?" Neal said. "Keep walking and hope we don't get ambushed?"

"At least we're a little better armed, if we do," Ross said.

Neal nudged Steve, who startled as if he'd been awakened. "The statute of limitations on being pissed at me is up. Pay attention. I didn't mean it, anyway."

Steve smirked at him.

*Can they still...use you?* Neal thought when Steve had opened his thoughts again.

Steve sent back a resounding negative, denying the possibility, but beneath ran a distinct fear. "They can get in, I think," he said. "But that's all they get. This time you guys don't have to ask me twice to help blow them up."

Neal nodded. "At least maybe, in the open, we'll see them coming and not have to depend so much on you hearing them."

Even though there hadn't been any background noise to speak of, an even further hush seemed to fall, the air gathering itself for the beginning...or end...of something. The light continued to wane quickly the way they remembered it from the previous night, not progressing from any one direction but falling in on them from everywhere at once. Soon it became difficult to see, the horizon a ring of light from all sides.

*Where do we want to make our stand?* Smitty thought. *Just watch all sides from here until it gets light again?*

"Keep going," Jon said. "We don't want them to force us to do anything."

Full darkness came minutes later, with a suddenness that was as disconcerting as the continuing silence. They pulled their bells from inside their cloaks, holding their hands over them but finding the resulting chime reassuring despite the peculiarity. The darkness was, by all accounts, complete; no starlight, or moon, or distant artificial light of any kind marred the totality of it. They could no longer see each other or mere inches in front of themselves.

"Christ," Neal said softly, "there's no point in walking. We could get turned around and never know it. A goddamn marching band could walk up to us."

Smitty, having been noticeably distracted since darkness had fallen, snapped a fireball to life between his fingers. He held it there long enough to illuminate all of them for several seconds before it sputtered out on it's own. The feat was met with instantaneous congratulation, tempered by Jon's quick mental warning that it might make them more visible.

"It doesn't matter," Steve said, still pounding Smitty on the back. "It would more likely scare them off. We're--"

"Candles," Jon finished with a sigh. "I forgot. Smith, light the whole damn place on fire."

Smitty laughed. "A good old fashioned brush fire might be nice."

"And it doesn't even burn you?" Neal asked.

"No," Smitty said. "Go figure. We're really out of our element, huh?"

"Do that again," Steve said with audible enthusiasm, and Smitty snapped his fingers, holding the resulting flame in the palm of one glove for them to see.

"Keep your nose out of there, Beaky," Neal said.

"Immediately followed by 'stop, drop and roll,'" Ross added. "And speaking of flammability, too bad there's no kindling to speak of. A good wall of fire'll keep 'em away."

"We could gather the grass into piles," Jon said. "It's pretty dry. Any of those bastards run up, Smitty can pitch a spark and give them a surprise. And a little artificial daylight."

Neal shrugged as the flame Smitty had been holding blew out in the breeze that was picking up. "Won't hurt. We'll need the distraction."

Jon agreed silently, then aloud. "I guess we're making a stand, then."

They set about pulling up handfuls of the grass, purposely making sure they didn't separate from each other while they were doing it. Intermittent heaps of the straw-like matter grew in a loose circle around them, not close enough to include them in any resulting conflagration. Longer bunches were tied into knots to create longer-burning fuel, and the rest they kicked into place with occasional light from Smitty to guide them.

Then it was silent again.

*Like the Keep, but too open,* Smitty thought.

*But the walls didn't make any difference, anyway,* Steve replied.

"Don't start on that again," Ross said. "You weren't in there as long as we were. Sensory deprivation does wonders."

"Yeah, so does Becoming," Steve retorted. "I'll take sensory deprivation."

"Well, here it is," Jon said sharply, and they all fell silent again. Left alone with the buildup of tension, Steve began to pace, and Smitty lit a small, central pile of twisted grass. It dispelled a modicum of their anxiety, but not much.

The darkness continued undisturbed, and they settled for talking about virtually anything, letting time, or the lack of it, pass. After awhile Smitty let the small fire burn itself out to conserve what they had.

"You stop that pacing," Neal said finally to Steve, "or you're not going to need to worry about the wraiths."

Steve yawned. "You're not going to kill me again, are you?" He winced at what went through Neal's mind. "Hey, dammit, I'm joking."

"Guess what," Neal said, "if we can't keep these things off us, we're all going that way. How many can we blow up by ganging up on them? How long are you going to keep your thoughts open with them running around?"

Steve came closer, alarmed that Neal was anything but brashly confident. *That brings up another question, then,* he thought. *Are you thinking what I'm thinking?*

*I don't have any fucking choice,* Neal replied. They let the thought settle. Then Neal burst into laughter, and Steve was close behind. When it went on without sign of letting up, the others found themselves trying to keep from joining in, able to hear their hilarity internally as well as externally.

"You were supposed to gather the grass, not smoke it," Ross said, and Steve went to his knees with laughter.

Jonathan pulled his hood up over his head. *This can't get any more ridiculous. We might as well laugh.*

Then Steve said, "Listen."

They froze, breaths held, thoughts quiet. There was nothing to hear, not the way they were used to hearing things. A chill crept across the fields, barely discernible, reaching Steve in no physical sense but too familiar to miss. He straightened, waiting, trying to get a sense of which direction trouble would approach from, turning away from the others. Something besides dread accompanied his first moment of sensing the wraiths this time, the confrontation beginning to seem almost...welcome.

He turned back to the others to see if a closer proximity to them would help him get a fix on what little he could hear. Neal gasped, stumbling away from eerie, disembodied lights that appeared directly in front of him, shoving Ross out of the way as he went. Eyes, glowing a soft green at face height. Minor panic erupted at his thought/shouted warning, and Steve jumped, looking frantically around in the blackness, having thought the wraiths weren't close enough yet for the others to detect. Smitty snapped another fireball to life, trying to decide where to throw it--

And the lights disappeared, drowned in the harsher yellow of the flames. Steve blinked, continuing to look around. *What the hell is it!*

Jonathan gaped at him. Where the lights had been, Steve stood in confusion. "I think I know what happened," Jon murmured. "Smith...lights, please."

Smitty shook the fireball out, leaving them in darkness again, and the lights returned. *It's my fault,* Jon thought. *That remark about candles. It's literal now. I not only changed the color of your eyes, I lit you up from the inside.*

Neal sighed. "Steve, dammit, close your eyes."

The singer complied, his thoughts a wide question mark, and the ghostly lights vanished.

"You're almost enough to read by," Jonathan said, amusement audible in his tone. "We thought you were something else."

"He's something else, all right," Neal said. "Now if I can convince him to keep his mouth shut that long, we'll be all set."

"You know, you can just--"

"Okay, okay," Jon said, cutting Steve off and leaving him to finish the obscenity in silence. "Are they coming, or not?"

"They're coming," Steve said, annoyance with Neal running beneath the words. "But I can't tell which direction they're coming from. It's almost like they haven't decided for themselves."

"If we don't feel them yet, then they're still a ways off," Jon said. "The only reason we can see you in the dark is because you're hearing them."

"What I'd like to know," Neal said, "is how many of them there are. And whether she ever runs out of them."

*One's punishment...is to Become.*

The thought was Ross', echoing Mairiesa's words. "I wonder if our Wisp friend is still around."

"The Lady doesn't run out of them so long as she has denizens," Jon said. "Or so long as she pulls people in here. How many people do you suppose are missing because of her?"

"We just need to outlast them, that's all," Neal said. "Between Smith with that fire of his, and the bells, and Perry serenading them, the bastards don't have much. We just can't turn our backs..."

"On me," Steve finished, tone hard.

Neal faced him in the blackness, angered. "That wasn't--"

"I not only hear what you guys think, I hear what you don't," Steve snapped. "I hear what you decide not to say, what you try not to think, what you keep from each other. So I wouldn't be resentful when I slam that door on all of you. You're all better off. Don't turn your backs on me. For all you know, by the time you turn around, you'll be looking at her."

Steve's eyes glowed a dull, resentful emerald in the darkness before he closed them, as well as his mind briefly before turning both back to the task of trying to detect the wraiths. Some part of him felt the outburst had been childish; the rest of him relegated it to necessity and left it at that.

Neal shook his head unseen, but felt. *Dangerous.*

"They found us," Steve said softly out of the resulting silence. "That's what took them so long. They weren't sure where we were, at first. Probably not until I heard them." *No heroics,* he thought pointedly to Jon. *You brave, crazy bastard.*

"What direction?" Jon asked, ignoring him.

"That's the thing. They've either figured out how to cover themselves, or..." he trailed off.

"What," Neal demanded tightly.

"Or they're coming from everywhere," Steve finished.

Smitty hurled a fireball straight up, illuminating the field around them from above for several hundred yards. Nothing but dry grass stretching out around them into the night. When the light above arced away and faded, Smitty lit another and held it before them. Immediately after that, they all felt the chill, and drew in toward each other automatically. Still, no visible sign, no coals of furious glowing eyes heralding their destruction, from any direction. Confusion grew between them again, bordered by the dread of waiting.

There was only the tense silence, and their measured breathing, in a world that didn't exist.

A strange, irrepressible thought spiraled up in the silence, its' author uncertain for a moment. *If a musician falls in the fourth dimension, and no one's around to hear it...*

Then it didn't matter, because something landed on Smitty from above, a black and twisted shadow that tore the life out of him with a slash of gleaming claws before leaping away again just as quickly. They all felt his death even as the fireball he'd been sheltering fell into the grass, igniting the nearest pile of it in a sudden rage of light and heat. Before the shock had even finished descending, another wraith did, careening into Jonathan and knocking him down with another flash of claws. His panic galvanized the others; Steve tore the bell from around his own neck and charged the creature, howling as he leaped, shoving it as he pounded it with the bell. The combination of the light and the sound of the bell sent the creature scrambling away, hissing with rage, but not before Steve realized his mistake in touching it. It twisted through him, and the bell tumbled from his nerveless fingers...

Neal pulled Jonathan closer to the blaze, shaking his bell at the first wraith, screaming at it, watching it circle back toward them. Ross joined in, and pair upon pair of hateful crimson eyes gathered beyond the edge of the light to observe. A moment later, Jonathan faded away, extinguished.

"No!" Neal shouted, grief choking him. "Wait!"

Steve, at the edge of the light, paused just out of reach of the nearest wraith, aware as the others were that Jon was gone along with Smitty. Nothing surfaced at the realization, burned away, and he stared dispassionately into the dark, never hearing Neal.

{come along, Steve}

And he walked away into the blackness.

Almost simultaneously, another wraith caught Ross from above.

Neal screamed, throwing the bell he still had, refusing to believe he'd lost them all so quickly, so easily...*No,* he cried, denying it. *It can't end like this!* He closed his eyes, the flames and the night disappearing, equally unimportant. *NO*

There was a whirling, a sound almost like wind in his ears, and then nothing.

* * *

*Leave him be. He's not hurt, he's just worn out.*

*I hate to tell you this, but I think I might know more about it than you do. He's more than worn out.*

The latter mental admonition was Jonathan's.

Neal opened his eyes to twilight, the way the light had been maybe fifteen minutes before disaster had struck. If they were all dead, it wasn't much different from how they'd been before. He was lying in the grass, leaning on someone. The first thing he saw was Jonathan. Smitty was kneeling to one side, and Ross was leaning into his view. He blinked at them stupidly. Not even thought would form, just slow realization.

"Welcome to some nameless alternate dimension," Ross said, grinning, "where time has little meaning and guys who play guitar can shove us back through it by leaps."

He tried to let that sink in. Jonathan smiled at him, patting his shoulder, and all that would come was relief and, "It didn't happen."

"It did," Jon countered. "But you rewound everything. Pretty good trick, I'd say."

"Everyone's alive," Neal said slowly, glancing at whoever was in his line of sight, waiting for the punch line. They were real, this wasn't some new and more elaborate illusion drummed up to drive him insane. They all thought real, and looked real, and felt real.

Smitty nodded. "We get another chance. We all owe you."

"Jesus," Neal said. Steve and Jon helped him to his feet, and he brushed himself off. "The next question is, how did I do it?"

"How do we do anything?" Jon said. "Can't help you there, guy. This one is yours. I'd say be careful using it, though. It seems to be pretty hard on you."

"Well, an emergency's an emergency," Neal sighed.

"I'm feeling a little left out here, you guys," Ross said.

"Hey, if I'm getting into this shit, your turn's coming," Neal assured him. Ross laughed. "Now, this time has to turn out a little better. Last time sucked."

"This time we light the fire first and stick close to it so nothing grabs us from above," Steve suggested, and Smitty agreed wholeheartedly. "It's getting dark again already."

"Anybody noticing a pattern in this mess?" Neal said, and the idea behind it drifted to the others.

"I undo," Jon said. "You rewind, and Steve is aging backwards."

"One of these things is not like the other," Smitty said, and Ross laughed again.

Within minutes, the darkness descended again, and they set about gathering the grass again, listening. Steve's eyes lit up again in the waning light, and he said, "Better to remember mistakes than obliterate them."

Neal nodded, not realizing the unformed thought had been so plain to Steve, grateful for it in a vague, unconscious way.

"Here they come," Steve said.

Smitty sent a fireball into the grass, lighting up a large portion of the immediate area. The heat was enough to drive them all away but they stayed as close to it as they could. *We all need to be alive long enough to gang up on them,* Smitty thought.

*They know,* Steve agreed. *And obviously the guy with the light goes first.*

*Followed by the Inverse,* Neal chipped in. *They did everything right.*

*Except imagine you,* Steve thought, the appreciation in his thoughts immeasurable. *We're being pushed toward something, tested, I think. But if she could wipe us out, why are...* He paused, turning and looking up, and after years of taking cues from each other on stage, Smitty pitched a fireball into the air. It struck part of the night above them, engulfing it in flames. It shrieked, dropping in amongst them in its' death throes, causing them to scatter to avoid joining in its' immolation. The action caused Ross to stumble too far from the light, and even as the first wraith burned another came in close enough to yank the bassist away. He never even had the chance to scream before he was gone.

"We have to go back!"

Neal awoke in the grass again, this time with the light already mostly gone and Jonathan kneeling over him.

"That's way, way too hard on you," Jon said.

"The alternative is a lot harder," Neal sighed. They helped him to his feet again, and after taking stock of the rest of them, he looked at Steve. "You started to say something, about--"

"If she could zip in here and snap her fingers and have this over, why all the wraiths?" Steve said. "We're not doing too well against them, so it's not like we're being given a fair chance to find whatever the hell we're supposed to find. I don't think that's the point. Maybe she just doesn't want to get her hands dirty. Or maybe she's trying to get us to do stuff we wouldn't normally do." He swallowed hard, the nervousness in his thoughts betraying him. "I think there's too many to sing away, all at once. But they hear me, inside, so I might be able to hold them off so we can keep walking. At least to the trees."

"You'd have to let them in to do that," Neal said, "and you're not even Becoming this time. Anything could happen."

"And the Inverse, here, had to wake you up this time, because whatever you're doing, the price is getting higher. You didn't have gray at your temples before."

Neal looked at Jon, who nodded and said, "We have to find another way. You're screwing around with an entire dimension, or world, or whatever, and he's right about the price. What the hell's it doing to you that we can't see?"

Steve tensed, looking away into the dark. "They're getting quicker at this."

Smitty lit the grass in two places, keeping a spark lit between his fingers for hurling above. Steve faced out into the darkness, already cold, closing his thoughts to the others. He felt a tug on his cloak and glanced back to find Neal keeping a grip on its edge.

"You're not walking into them," Neal said firmly. He thought he saw the beginnings of a smile, but Steve had already turned away. Something hummed in the darkness, something monstrous, a note of discontent and warning from more dark things than the band wanted to contemplate. Steve tensed further, holding his hands out, reaching for the wraiths every way he could, struggling not to slam down against them. Furious red pinpoints began multiplying in the darkness, stretching out in all directions, thousands of them. The others drew closer to the flames, horrified.

"They're not all real," Steve gasped, clenching his hands. Whispers surrounded him, angered, chaotic, the same as before when they had surrounded him in the desert. Disorganized, they milled, singular in desire only, and he began pulling whispers/threads together, sharp threads that bit. Before, he had already been burned by them and had been part of them. This time there was no dulling cushion resulting from that belonging that made it easy for them to use him, and the contact stung every nerve. The urge to run and hide was overwhelming; the only thing keeping him from it was the fact that they would all die again if he did...and there would come a time when Neal wasn't quick enough.

The milling pinpoints slowed, hissing. One by one, they began dropping completely beyond the light, hovering closer to the ground, stilling. One of them shrieked its' frustration. Then all was still, the hatred and fury resonating from all directions. Steve raised a hand in a halting gesture, a fist raised into the darkness, and the dark thing Neal had seen in the caves rose behind the singer again. "No!"

A wraith dropped in mid-leap, falling in amongst the others, shrieking its rage. It came just within the circle of light, barely visible, claws outstretched and needle teeth exposed, struggling with both the light and Steve's hold on it. Terror stricken, the other men stared at the sheer size of it--much larger than the one that had confronted them in the tunnels of the Keep. *How the hell is he doing this?* Neal thought, staring, no longer able to feel the grip he had on Steve's cloak.

Jon was barely able to answer, the noise in his head almost more than he could bear. *They were in before...it's like it opened a pathway for them, like they're compatible now and the using goes both ways. He's on the same wavelength!*

"You cannot hold us all," the wraith grated, claws clicking together suggestively.

"What does this look like," Steve said, tugging on one thread in particular, and the wraith sank to the ground with the others, claws digging ragged furrows in the rocky soil.

"Foolishness," it hissed. "Steve."

Steve cried out at the sound of his own name, the threads snapping almost audibly when he lost his hold on the wraiths. He stumbled back, and the wraiths began milling again, closing in. It broke the paralysis the rest of the band had been under, and Smitty sent a fireball into the largest wraith, sending it shrieking away.

Neal felt a ripple in the air then, nothing tangible, but something cold touched him as if across a distance he would never understand. {Neal}

He stiffened at the invasion, wanting to scream, tightening his grip on Steve's cloak.

{give him to me}

"No," he whispered, pulling Steve toward him, his free hand reaching down to one of his boots and withdrawing the blade Mairiesa had given him. Somehow, he still had it. Somehow he was yanking Steve toward himself, spinning him. *No, I won't do it.* Numb, powerless, he raised the blade, the other hand catching Steve's cloak close to the throat, strangling him while he gathered momentum for the killing blow. Then Ross had hold of his arm, trying to keep him stationary. There was shouting but Neal couldn't make any of it out, and the blade remained in place, inches from Steve's throat even though both Ross and Smitty were trying to pry it away from him and keep his arm from moving. Steve began to turn blue, unable to break Neal's grip.

*The Lady has him!* Jon thought, reaching for Neal, wondering how he was going to undo something that was being done from a distance. He tried to unwind the pattern that didn't match Neal's, and Ross was able to get the knife out of Neal's hand.

"I can't get her to let go!" Neal shouted.

"We were finding a way out, so she stepped in," Smitty said. "If she holds on to you, we can't go back and fix anything. Steve was right, she only needs the Keepers to break us down."

*Reach for us,* Jon thought. *I think we can pull you free!*

"I can't," Neal gasped.

{give him}

"No," Neal said, and then he released Steve. The others held on to Neal for another moment while Steve caught his breath and readjusted his cloak, staring at Neal warily. The wraiths were silent, waiting. Neal shook the others off, the fire dancing behind him and throwing bizarre shadows. "I'm all right," he said, knowing the words weren't his own, unable somehow to get out from under the weight of her control, unable to warn the others. He/she looked at Steve, seeing only the shadow that had hovered over him...

...and shoved him violently out of the light. He was gone from one moment to the next, the nearest of the wraiths snatching him away. Jonathan shouted a wordless denial; he, Ross and Smitty leveled their thoughts against Neal, the combined force rendering him stationary. Jonathan grabbed his arm, and warmth flooded in where only numbness had existed before.

*I didn't notice that she still had you,* Jon thought. *I won't make the mistake again.*

Then everything whirled away.

"Don't let go of him," Steve said.

"Never," Jon confirmed, keeping a grip on one of Neal's hands. It was already dark again, the piles of grass again in place and burning around them. The wraiths had yet to arrive. Ross had the blade tucked securely in one boot, standing slightly apart from the others. Neal was unconscious, color barely beginning to improve from the deathly gray he had begun with. "This is our last chance. The next time will probably kill him, and he's still three dimensional. I don't think that little gathering trick will work with him."

Steve rose. "Just shield him from her, if you can. I'm used to her. He isn't."

"I don't know if I can undo something that hasn't been done yet," Jon said. "But I can try. When she starts up again, I'll already be there. She has your name too, you know. We almost had things covered, there, until that wraith said your name."

"But she didn't say it. And that wraith only caused me to let go of all of them. This time we're blowing up everything that comes within a mile of us."

"And we'll do that by...?" Jon began. "You know something else, don't you."

Steve only smiled, unable to lie but turning Jon away slightly. "She doesn't have nearly as much of a hold on me, that's all. I'm lit up from the inside." Jon glanced up at him, and he turned away. "They're coming. We're not playing grabass with this thing anymore."

It was unnervingly quiet for several minutes, too long, and then Jon could hear them too. Steve made a sharp slashing motion with one hand, and again something dropped audibly short of the light. It screamed, out of their vision until Smitty tossed a fireball toward it. It burst into flame, replaced immediately by others, dozens of them beginning to circle. Steeling himself, Steve began gathering threads again, trying not to recoil, each addition scoring him cruelly. Each struggled against the imprisonment, and he opened his mind further, sharp things rending him from inside. *We have to get them all!* Steve thought. One of them tried to batter him, not waiting to be gathered, and he felt the tendril slam into him, frozen and buffeting. It drove him back a step, but this time he embraced it, letting it in, turning it back on the owner. Another sharp motion brought the owner inside the first reaches of the light, the one who had spoken his name before. It rose to its full height, trying to twist away.

*Don't try to hold on to any more of them!* Jon thought. The wraith screamed, and Neal startled awake, looking around in horror. *Don't give it a chance,* Jon went on. *Don't give it a chance to say your name!*

Something rose behind Steve, the thing Neal had seen in the caves, all Steve claimed for a shadow in that world. "Let it say whatever it wants," Steve said through clenched teeth, yanking the wraith further into the light. The creature began to smoke, the light destroying it by degrees. That was when his nose began to bleed again; something gave a little, too many threads beginning to shred him. He held on anyway, gathering more, hearing the wraiths cower in rows, their anger palpable. Neal, fully awake, stood next to Jonathan, watching in the resulting silence. Jonathan, shaking, finally put his hands over his ears to try and still the shrieking between them, beginning to realize his connection to Steve was more than he had surmised. Neal steadied him, confused.

*Steve,* he thought-whispered, *it's enough. Let's try and get rid of them.*

*Should I try and light up the one he has?* Smitty asked nervously.

*No!* Steve shouted. *I don't have all of them yet!*

"We'll get them in parts, then," Jonathan said, reaching for him physically as well as mentally...

Something tore free, white hot needles of pain blistering Steve from the inside out, and before Smitty's fireball struck the closest wraith, it lashed out as far into the light as it could reach, catching Steve across the face. The force of it spun him completely around and threw him down, even as he gave in and reached for the others. The moment he hit the ground, so did Jonathan, pitching backwards into the grass but remaining conscious and keeping a hold on Neal, who shouted in alarm.

It created a cascade effect when they linked together for only that moment; the nearest wraiths went first, blue-white flashes of light illuminating the fields, moving outward in a pinwheel as they self-destructed. Every wraith Steve had gathered went up in the selective conflagration, a soundless fireworks display that the three-dimensional humans finally had to shield their eyes from. The grass fire guttered, embers kicking up from the falsely generated wind. They were left with little light by the time the destruction finally ceased minutes later. The few wraiths who had escaped kept their distance, unable to gain their bearings.

Rage reached Neal from somewhere, passing by him in the dark, unable to touch him because of Jon's hold on him. He knew, then, that they'd won for the time being. Smitty lit another pile of grass, revealing piles of ash as far as they could see--and Steve partially out of sight beneath one particular pile. Ross leaned over him, unwilling to touch him until Jonathan okayed it.

They all acknowledged the temporary silence and what had wrought it, trying to catch their collective breath. Neal helped Jon sit up, startled to find the latter's nose bleeding, his brown eyes dark and stunned. "What happened?" Neal asked him.

"He did," Jon answered dazedly, wiping his nose on his cloak as he gestured at Steve. A thought caused the bleeding to stop and the humming in his head to subside. "He didn't realize he was pulling me in. I'm the one who walked in." Realizing he wasn't making sense to anyone but himself, he shook his head, rising. "He isn't scattered this time."

He moved to turn Steve over, recoiling as soon as he made contact; it was like static electricity on a cosmic scale, the snapping almost audible. "They got him, all right," he sighed. "He's humming with whatever they're made of. Why he hasn't scattered, I have no idea. That first wraith, in the Keep, had hold of him when we blew it up. He knew one of them had to touch him before we could do it again. Then they would all go." He sighed again, then bent to the task of untangling the fresh but invasive pattern the wraiths had woven through Steve, grateful it hadn't had time to sink in. He was also grateful the wraith hadn't taken Steve's head off. Routing around in the grass and ashes for his head would have been too much, even though he realized he would have been able to reverse that damage as well.

"Dammit, Jay," Neal said, and the next thing Jon knew, the thoughts of the others had joined his, making his task easier. *We all could have done without that image,* Neal continued. They moved Steve closer to the fire, finding themselves trying to stay awake. Most of what Steve had taken on had been lifted away by the time Steve snapped awake, shivering.

"Well?" Neal said. "How's it feel, you masochist?"

"Cold. I think I've been the bottom of someone's shoe," Steve said hoarsely. "Are they gone?"

"Almost all of them," Neal replied. "Next time, fill us in on the plan, huh?"

"If I ever know what it is ahead of time," Steve said, sitting up.

*I can believe you don't even know what you'll do, most of the time,* Ross thought.

When they'd had time to rest, they were up and walking again, wearily, uncertain of remaining so exposed even though there were few wraiths left to bother them for awhile. They were almost too weary to try puzzling things out, but were unable to afford ignoring what they'd learned. Neal caught one of Steve's elbows in the darkness, the grip reassuring, apologetic. *Sorry,* he thought. *I didn't--*

*You didn't have a choice,* Steve thought. "I know. No offense taken. I think we've been disqualified from carrying sharp objects, though."

Ross' thoughts assented to that, and Neal snorted.

"And anyway," Steve continued, "Jay can shield you from her. That's really going to piss her off. She can go to hell."

"What about you?" Neal said, giving him a shake.

"Oh, she wants to try getting that close," Steve said, the grin audible. "I think we can blow her up, if she wants to get that personal with me. She already knows what the wraiths didn't; that close, she has to be vulnerable too, I think. It goes both ways. And I already told her I'm not good at doing what I'm told. We're obviously doing pretty good, if she felt she needed to step in. Fuck her, we're getting out of here, and her fourth-dimensional bullshit is staying here."

Neal nodded unseen but felt in the darkness, and Smitty threw another fireball ahead to make sure they were still on course and headed for the towers, if only in a roundabout way. Something ran past them, too quick to be living or real, both and neither, wary of them but more wary of the Lady. They all but ignored it.

"Go tell her," Steve told the darkness.

*I don't think she realizes that I know,* Neal thought. *She would have been angrier if she realized I knew what she was doing.*

*What,* Steve thought-whispered. *Be careful. The wraiths, me. She's still here, in a way, and anything you think to me you might think to her.*

*The alternative is thinking around you,* Neal warned.

*Then do that, for now. Tell me in the morning. If you know something, share it. I should have, before.* Steve's thoughts slammed closed, sealed away, and Neal hated it suddenly.

*She wanted me to give him to her,* Neal thought. *Before, when the wraiths scattered him, she didn't mind, but it wasn't what she wanted. When we were all in the Keep, she looked right at me and told me that when he was hers, we could go home. She can't use him unless I give him to her.*

The idea stunned them. *Who do you suppose chose you for that?* Jon thought. *And why?*

*Because I'm the most likely to do it. And now that she has my name, she can make me do it. I have, but not the way she wants, I think. And you keep putting him back together. My job, sooner or later, is to make sure she gets him. But I have to give him.*

Ross laughed aloud, unable to keep it in after the night they'd had thus far. *He's going to love this. Make sure, first thing in the morning, to tell him all about how he's yours to give!*

Neal nudged Steve to let him know it was safe, never realizing that he had yet to let go of him. Steve was distracted, keeping tabs on the wraith that was still pacing them, his eyes lighting up again. To Neal's horror, the thing came closer suddenly, skittering alongside, seen through Steve's perception of it. He renewed his grip on Steve's elbow, feeling the singer's sudden urge to chase the thing. The others paused, and they drew into a circle.

"No," Neal told Steve.

"It can't do a damn thing," Steve said softly. "After a thousand or so, one is a joke." Smitty snapped another flame to life, and the wraith melted back into the darkness. The nervousness would not leave Jonathan, though, and he made a point of keeping everyone as close together as possible. The trees and the towers were closer, but not anywhere near as close as they should have been, and after awhile no one could go any further. Jon, Ross and Smitty set up a watch schedule between them, and they again gathered as much of the dry, lifeless grass as they could, keeping a small fire going and talking quietly. Steve and Neal fell where they'd stood.

* * *

Steve snapped awake again to find it still dark, feeling the night begin to 'turn over.' He had his chin braced against Neal's shoulder. The guitarist was on his side with his back toward him, sound asleep. A low fire was still burning, tended by Smitty. He felt Jonathan behind him, nodding off, and Ross was between them and the darkness, facing out into it. Then Steve realized what had pulled him back to consciousness; close to the ground to his left, just beyond Jon and Ross' vision, the wraith who had paced them for the remainder of the night waited. Morning was too close, but it wanted one final chance. He heard it, and the urge to chase it returned. He raised his head, pulling his legs beneath himself, unnoticed.

{Steve}

The summons was powerful. He carefully shut his thoughts, letting them dwindle closed and rolling soundlessly to his feet. Yes, he thought, unheard by any but the wraith. *I know.* He was part of the darkness, melting away into it, leaving the circle of light. Jonathan stirred, stretching...

The wraith crept closer, rising to meet him, triumph in its' thoughts.

{Neal}

Neal startled awake, cold, unable to move. The first hint of light made a blue-gray line along the part of the horizon he was facing.

{agree}

Helpless, Neal let the demand remain, his refusal thin but present. Steve paused in confusion only briefly, the rage behind it tempered only with the need for silence. The light was coming, turning over, and he felt the wraith's nervousness. Just a little closer...

{give him}

Neal felt something slipping through his fingers, some immaterial but priceless thing, and he faded with it...

Something slammed into the wraith, driving it back and pinning it to the ground, something larger and equally as heartless. Equally as incorporeal and capable of destruction. A thin line of dawn lit the horizon from every direction, the light rising from everywhere. Within moments there would be no return to the Keep, and for the first time in its' existence the wraith knew fear. Steve stood mere feet from the wraith, and it howled, the murder in its' thoughts turning back on it.

Jonathan jumped up, followed by Smitty; Ross spun toward the sound, and Neal rolled to his feet, free. The thing in the grass twisted beneath Steve's shadow, the light growing stronger as he leveled his rage on it.

*Don't use his name again,* Steve warned anything that could hear him, knowing The Lady was listening. *You have no right. You want me, come and get me yourself.*

Dawn broke as rapidly as the light had failed the night before, the first rays shattering the darkness and reaching for them. The wraith screamed again, the sound horrible, and they realized that something was standing behind Steve, pinning the wraith down. The shadow was barely visible, indistinct, hovering over him. Then the light reached the thing in the grass, vaporizing it from one thought to the next. Steve blurred for an instant, reforming, another span of time leaving him. Changing his face and form. The land became visible to them again by degrees, and when Steve turned to them again, he was eighteen.

* * *

"So let me get this straight," Steve said.

The trees were closer, and they walked parallel to them, uncertain of the shadows that played directly within the tree line and what they might contain. They had been outlining what they knew thus far to make sure they weren't missing anything. Steve was finding it amusing, finding everything amusing suddenly for that matter, and it was driving Neal to distraction. Steve at eighteen was even more difficult to handle, his thoughts often more exuberant than they could tolerate for the sheer 'noise' level alone. His age combined with his involuntary affinity with his surroundings made him something they weren't prepared for.

"You're telling me in so many words that she can't 'have' me unless you give me away. This place is full of rules, and apparently she doesn't make them all. This is the dumbest thing I've ever heard."

"The catch is, she has my name, and she can make me give you to her," Neal said.

"This morning, in the dark," Steve said, dropping his voice, "I knew what she was doing, I heard. She hates you. She chose you for this on purpose. Isn't it worse to make her force you? What if I can make her let us go?"

Neal shook his head in impatience, and Steve flinched. "Aren't you afraid of anything? Were you this dumb when you were eighteen the first time?"

"We're not giving you up to her just to see what's possible," Jon said gently as Steve's thoughts closed. "If the wraiths can pick you apart like that, there's no telling what something capable of yanking us in here in the first place can do. We'll talk to Siarion..."

"But I know, if I got that close to her, for her to--" Steve gestured vaguely, shrugging, opening his thoughts again. "When this all started, she kept demanding I give you all to her. That's what happened in your driveway," he told Jon. "Why would she do that? Whatever the hell it is she's trying to do, maybe I'd be just as dangerous to her. Maybe it's the way home. Besides, what are you really giving up? Me?" A touch of humor accompanied the question, but somewhere underneath was the truth, impossible to bury; a trace of hurt, of never belonging. *No real loss.*

Neal grabbed Steve by the front of his tunic roughly, yanking him closer and shaking him despite having promised himself all morning that he wouldn't. He propelled the singer away from the others, looking close in his wide, startled eyes, keeping a hold on him and ignoring the questioning confusion in the younger man's thoughts.

"There are two things we're gonna clear up, here," Neal said, voice soft but a step short of furious. "The first thing is that we're all going back, together, without anyone staying behind or making decisions about how to do that on their own. You don't do anything without all of us agreeing on it first. Do you understand?"

Steve nodded shortly, mouth dry, cowed. Several yards away, Ross leaned close to Jonathan and whispered, "Did you ever love someone so much you couldn't stand them?"

Jon shook his head a little, watching the altercation intently, careful not to listen in. It had been coming for a long time, years, but where the adult had been unapproachable the teenager was not, and Neal had been a father long enough to make it less an attack than a lesson. "No," he whispered back. "But my daughter is still awfully young."

"The second thing," Neal continued, administering another shake before taking Steve's head between his hands, "is that we stay together, at all times. You won't chase anymore wraiths. And you don't shut us out unless there's no other choice. Our only way out of this is together, we're most powerful together, and we all need each other. Don't you ever think for a minute that any one of us would rather do without you. Do you understand that?"

Steve nodded again, looking up at Neal from underneath, unblinking. There was no resentment in him, just a pervading sense of remorse for having angered Neal that he silently conveyed. It was the first time in collective memory that the singer had shown throat to Neal in any way since the day they'd met. They had always been equally matched and friends in a fierce, uncompromising way. Neal released him, ruffling his hair the way he would have a child's, and they returned to the others without comment. Steve's eyes were downcast with embarrassment, and he remained silent, thoughts a rueful mental hum.

Finally Ross said, "We need to come up with an actual plan, here, don't we? I suggest we avoid spending another night like we just did."

Jon sighed. "If we look at it from a scientific, theoretical standpoint, none of this is magic or impossible, it's just a point on a curve in space-time. In theoretical physics it's conceivable, like we were saying before, for something to find our little three-dimensional world and mess with it, altering time and making people disappear."

"I think we have proof of your theoretical physics, don't you?" Neal said.

Jonathan shrugged almost dispiritedly. "The point of it, then, would be to think along the same terms and apply the rules to our best advantage. What if we're seeing what we think we should, because our three-dimensional minds don't grasp what's really here?"

"Or not here," Smitty said. "We'd all be having the same hallucination, then. The whole thing is an illusion--at least we have a good grasp of that. And whatever it is underneath, we don't want to see it again."

"What do you mean, 'underneath'?" Steve asked, finally joining in. "We know the Keep was an illusion, and the caves, but how do you know there's an underneath we don't want to see? It might tell us more."

"That's for sure," Smitty mumbled.

Jonathan shook his head. "It's there. We have to play along that far, at least, stay in these boundaries. We can either beat her at her own game and find a way to make her send us back, or we can figure out how to destroy all of this altogether. I don't think we can destroy the whole dimension, if that's what this is. Maybe this is just one manifestation of a dimension. We can worry about the repercussions later."

"There've probably already been repercussions just from our being pulled in here," Ross said. "No sense second guessing every step. For all we know, the other 'manifestations' or dimensions, or whatever, don't like her either."

Jon reached into his cloak to shake a bit of grass free, frowning. "Let's say there is this Siarion person, then, who supposedly comes and goes between here and wherever at will. It would stand to reason that there're others even more powerful."

Unwilling to be put off, Steve said, "The distance."

No one said anything.

"You guys really suck at keeping me out of things," Steve continued, a laugh at the edge of his tone. "There's this little spark of thought jumping between you guys, and it's screaming, 'don't think about it!', and you can't even hear each other doing it. Jay saw it, the distance I saw on the way in here. He's right, about the end of up-down and left-right, and no direction or time. But there was something else." He paused, thoughts drifting away to something that was only a suggestion, a vague feeling the others caught a glimpse of. "The doors," he said softly. "Yeah, it was like that..." he trailed off, then said, "this place is full of doors. Is that what your problem is? It's all distance underneath, and to really get in there yourself, you have to..."

He stopped to stare at Jonathan. "You have to stop existing. I did something stupid, and you've made me forget it."

"Steve..." Jon began.

*The distance is like a sphere,* Steve thought, cutting him off. *It's always and everything but no real shape like a sphere, nothing to hold onto.* "Coming in was one thing but getting out is another, I think."

"We don't know anything for sure," Neal said, wishing Steve would get the hell off the subject and letting him know it. "We'll figure it out. Assuming we get close enough to these damn cliffs eventually, what are we supposed to trade? Any ideas?"

"She may not want anything material," Ross said. "In which case we'd better start imagining what we can invent. Or give up."

"No way," Steve insisted, suddenly furious. "We're not giving anything up to keep it from getting dark! What if she does something to you guys just so I don't get any younger?"

"Do you have any better ideas?" Neal demanded.

Steve stopped dead, face resolute. Neal sighed heavily, temper fraying. Jonathan stepped between them in a single motion, hearing Neal's urge to shake Steve again. Neal grinned and thought, *It's not like I'm going to kill him again. Knock some sense, maybe...*

*I'm not protecting him from you,* Jon thought. *You guys are--*

*Thinking around me again,* Steve condemned.

"What the hell is the problem!" Neal shouted, throwing his arms in the air. "You don't even know what's going to happen and you're already throwing fits about it!"

"I could make her let us go," Steve said. "I know I can."

The look on Neal's face would have been more than enough to convey what he thought about that at any other time, even if no one could have heard his thoughts. "If you can't, something like her is going to be loose back home. We're not risking that. You don't know."

"And in the meantime, the goddamn cliffs are barely getting closer," Steve said angrily. "We're just playing along!"

"You have to be patient, this once," Ross said.

"What happens to you happens, to some degree, to him," Neal said, pointing at Jonathan. When Steve looked at Jon, Jon looked away. "Because you let him in. If you go bounding off taking on this and that, he has to do the same. You guys are connected, now. You've only had your own consequences to consider all this time. That ain't going to work anymore, because every time you attack something here, you're risking him as well as yourself, and that we won't let you do."

"Plus, every time you attack something, that shadow of yours gets bigger," Ross said. "And I have a feeling it's not doing you any good. You said it yourself, about the price of things."

"We watched you destroy that wraith this morning," Smitty added, "as if it meant nothing. And she heard you, all right. There was nothing in the whole dimension that didn't hear you."

Steve looked at Jonathan again. "Why didn't you say anything?"

Jonathan refused to look at him, a repetitive melody running through his thoughts, blocking Steve. They were all developing ways of tuning each other out, a little at a time.

"I could have killed you at least twice!" Steve yelled. "Can't you get loose?"

Jonathan shoved Steve abruptly, sending him stumbling several steps away. "I don't want to get loose. Just this once, pull your head out of your ass!" He spun on his heel and walked away, ignoring their amazement at the uncharacteristic display. "Now goddamn it, come on. I'm tired of this fucking place and we're getting the hell out, one way or another."

They stared after him for a moment before following along.

It must have been what they agreed was midday before they realized they could see the other side of the towers; the trees veered away sharply some distance ahead, revealing a drop-off and rolling hills beyond. The cliffs and towers loomed closer, beginning to suggest how steep and forbidding they were.

"You guys don't suppose we have to go all the way around the other side to get close enough to those towers, do you?" Smitty asked.

"Dammit, to get up there at all, you'd probably have to fly," Steve said.

Without warning, or so much as a disturbance in the air, Steve was gone. In his place, from one thought to the next, was a large raven, flapping frantically in midair to remain upright...

Jonathan leaped out of the way as feathers brushed against him, his expression of shock matching the others'. "Holy Christ!" Ross yelled, watching the bird flutter backward to try and gain some momentum. *Is it...?*

Just as quickly, the bird was gone, and Steve fell back into the grass with a thud. He sat up, stunned, scowling. Neal pulled him to his feet, looking him over. "Did you actually mean to do that, or did someone do it for you?"

"I'm pretty sure it was me," Steve said, beginning to grin. "Wow, did you see that?"

"Well, you asked for it," Ross said.

"You're hard enough to keep track of on two legs," Neal said. "But wings..."

"You have to admit, he does have the beak for it, though," Ross said.

"I guess," Neal said. "Well, are you going to do it again, or not?"

Steve lit up with excitement before he vaulted several strides away from them. Then there was only the bird, shooting straight up and veering off past the trees.

"We're in so much trouble," Smitty said.

"He can't hear us anymore, either," Jon said softly. "But I suppose it's not like we can tell him he can't fly. I just hope he's alone up there."

"'Raven key'," Neal commented softly, and Jon nodded. "Great."

"If we didn't have proof before that he was more subject to the rules of this place than we are, we just got it," Ross said. "Now, just hope he doesn't crash. He took to that a little too easily."

"We're playing along with something," Smitty said. "Playing our roles, right?"

A minute or so later, the raven came back into view high above them, spiraling downward gradually on whatever wind current existed. When the bird had coasted in close enough, Jon lowered his head, and the raven came to rest on his shoulder, folding its' wings. Ross applauded. Neal walked around behind Jon, taking a closer look, and the bird unfurled its' wings to reveal a wingspan of nearly four feet before leaping down. In a blink, Steve stood before them again, laughing, lifting Jonathan nearly off the ground in a bearhug.

"There was the desert we walked away from," Steve said breathlessly, the words tumbling over one another, the thoughts underneath just as excited if not moreso and nearly an assault. "But not the Keep, and the trees go on forever, and those hills over there, but there's no curvature like there would be from the sky at home, it just drops off suddenly into darkness, like she only took the trouble to make so many illusions, or she's making it up as she goes along, and I couldn't land on the tower because it wouldn't let me, so we'll have--"

Jonathan clapped a hand over Steve's mouth. *Wait. A bit at a time, you're bludgeoning us with it.*

"You mean you were actually paying attention while you were up there?" Ross laughed.

"She's making it up as we go along," Steve said when Jon released him. "It's all...distance underneath. Nothing. The whole thing's an illusion. It's just like sailors used to think, that the world was flat, and when you fell off, the dragons..."

"Okay," Jonathan said. "Okay. Was there any shape to things? Did it seem like we're being pushed in any direction?"

Steve cocked his head again, considering, and Neal rolled his eyes. "You weren't lying about getting beaten up as a kid, were you."

Steve blatantly ignored him. "We're missing something big," he said. "Something that should be obvious to us. She doesn't want us on that tower. The wraiths were sort of herding us." *And nothing hears me in that form--not you, not her. I'm invisible. It's like--* he paused, looking away toward the sky visible beyond the tower. "I don't exist," he finished softly. He shrugged, then began walking again. "Come on, guys," he said wryly. "The rest of you aren't getting any younger."

* * *

The wind began to pick up, and to their surprise Steve remained on the ground with them. Nothing watched them from the trees as far as they could tell, and no other denizens made themselves known. The silence was eerie to them, foreboding, and they kept to the tree line just in case Steve was not the only one capable of swooping in on them. They made further progress around the near side of the tower, the ground becoming rockier and beginning to slope upward. The tower loomed over them, spuriously close. There seemed to be no way to ascend it, assuming they ever reached its' base; no visible trail or, at the worst, handholds marred the rough stone.

*This is her all over,* Neal sighed inwardly when they paused to rest for a moment. They sat on the varied boulders that were strewn around, and Steve began to pace restlessly after a moment, wandering from them slightly to look at the middle distance visible around the side of the tower, fascinated with what was/wasn't beyond, and its implication.

"Is it an illusion we can break?" Jon said softly. "Like the caves? We might be able to just damn well walk up, if we focus on it."

"It's worth a try," Ross said. "What's the worst that could happen? Getting stuck sneaking up on it the rest of the way?"

Something intruded on Jonathan while he was listening, a lightning flash of surprise almost too brief to register. It wasn't his own, and he glanced at the others, finding nothing to back it up. He turned to glance at Steve, realizing how apart the singer was standing, finding him facing away, thoughts closed.

"...still on the ground after dark," Smitty was saying. "We've had enough of that. They might be able to get airborne, but not well enough to surround us up there. In case we don't get up there beforehand."

A sensation of cold crept along Jonathan's shoulders, dancing along his perception. He rose and moved toward Steve without knowing why, unwittingly transmitting his apprehension.

"Jay," Neal said, rising, knowing that something was happening but not what. Jon didn't ignore him but couldn't answer him either, approaching Steve as the others all regained their feet. He paused within arm's length and placed himself in Steve's peripheral vision without asking himself why. Steve turned his head toward him slowly, a slight, cold smile making Jon's gaze shoot questioningly upward...

...to eyes a solid, alien black, devoid of white or iris. Devoid of little else save the malicious power they had already been brutally exposed to.

"Well," The Lady murmured in Steve's voice, "I think I may become fond of this form."

* * *
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