CANDLES IN THE DARK Part IV
(c) BS 1997

The staggering bolt of awe and discouragement that went through Jonathan made it to the others like an electric shock, bringing them to stand with him.

"What have you done with him?" Jon demanded tersely.

The dark, unmerciful gaze traveled all of them with open amusement. "Perhaps I have destroyed him and kept this form. Or, if you like, I have made him part of this place. Shall I send you away now? I tire of your antics. It is finished."

*She's lying,* Ross thought. *She can't lie to Steve, but she can to us. She's done something with him.*

"We already know you can't make him part of anything without me," Neal said angrily. "And I won't give him to you. So cut the bullshit and the games and let him go."

Malevolence lit her cold smile from beneath, an expression Steve had never worn, malignant and ruinous.

*Careful,* Jonathan thought, seeing something spiraling to life/death behind/inside, stepping away.

"Neal," Steve's voice said in a way Steve never would have said anything, "I think you will give him."

The distance opened beneath Neal, consuming sense of self and will, twisting and distorting negation into acceptance...

Jonathan had been reaching for Neal, to shield him, but when the guitarist whirled away and went to his knees, Jon darted forward desperately and caught one of Steve's/not Steve's hands, searching--

--tumbling away into darkness that wasn't darkness, a Nothing, drowning in it, unable to get purchase. She was not a thing he had words for or could quite understand, and a thought of Steve's that she had heard touched him in the void. This is what being pulled into a black hole is like. Not even light or thought escaped, the pull impossible to resist, and he struggled vainly not to become a part of it--

He was lying on the ground, staring up at the not-sky, and for just a moment it all made perfect sense. It was so much more than just life and death.

Then it was gone.

Neal patted his shoulder and leaned into his line of sight, and he realized he was lying with his head on Neal's legs, the latter's cloak used as a makeshift pillow.

"Are you in there?" Neal said, his thoughts openly concerned.

"I think I zigged when I should have zagged," Jon murmured, squinting.

"Next time," Neal said fondly, "circumnavigate."

Jon grinned even though he didn't feel like it, unable to resist the irony.

"It was my understanding that Neal was the reckless one," Ross said from Jon's left, out of his line of sight. "Steve is rambunctious, I'm the clown, Smith is the centered one, and you're supposed to be the smart referee. If you're going to be stealing someone's gig, you have to warn us."

"She's gone," Jon said, already knowing the answer but wanting verbal confirmation.

"Yeah," Neal said, a fleeting trace of relief behind it, tempered with loss. "Whatever you did, it made her turn tail. She zapped out of here quick. We were afraid she had you, too, until you looked at us and said, 'it's all to keep the circle going.' Then you did a header."

"I don't remember," Jon said, sitting up and putting a hand to his forehead.

"What did you do?" Smitty said from his right, crouching close. "You didn't try to 'undo' her, did you?"

"I just wanted to stop her, see the truth. But that's relative, I guess. It's like...the negative of a picture..." They were staring at him with care; he was standing without memory of getting to his feet, facing them. Only a glimpse of his timeless jump through the void remained, a false echo, and he shared it with them.

Neal vaulted to his feet, horrified. "What is it?"

Jon struggled to answer, running a hand back through his hair as if it would clear his head. He felt displaced, disoriented. "Steve was in there a lot longer than I was, and he can't explain it. It's a between place, a limbo, or that's what it looks like to us. Not like what Steve found behind the illusions. That really is where we are, and our minds weren't constructed to withstand that kind of environment. She is a gate of sorts...but she needs a...wedge to brace open the barrier between the worlds. All five of us were only together for maybe three years before. The first time. When we got back together, later, that particular brand of energy..."

*Another music critic,* Ross grumbled.

"Yeah," Jon said. "Except it isn't the music alone, it's as if it's the by-product of it. It builds other things but diminishes her for some reason."

"And sometimes, Steve makes the most noise," Neal said dispiritedly.

Jon nodded.

"Which is why that first wraith wasted no...time...going after him when he arrived," Ross said.

"Not finding anything didn't matter. Scattering him was enough," Smitty added. "Or at least taking possession however it could."

*But if any of us went, it would solve most of her problem,* Jon thought. *She's worried enough now to try and get rid of us by offering to send us home. We were close to something.* "Now she has him," he spat aloud, bitterly. "Her playthings couldn't do it, so she's going to give it a shot." He sat down again on the nearest stone, shaking his head in disgust. It was silent between them for a long, heavy moment. Then Jon lifted his head to look at Neal, hearing a slight humming he recognized. "Are you all right?"

Neal nodded, looking away, not even bothering to try and cover the lie. "We're all lucky, one way or another, that you grabbed her when you did. But she could have shredded you. I tried to rewind us, to pull you and Steve back and give us another chance, but she had already taken it away. I can't do it anymore."

"It's just as well," Jon said after a moment, startling when Neal's anger hit him, not directed at him but potent nonetheless.

"We might have needed it, somewhere later on!" Neal snapped.

"We need you later on, more," Jon said, and Neal turned away. "Steve knew right away what kind of toll it was taking." Rising, Jon laid a hand on Neal's shoulder, flinching at what he sensed underneath. *She hurt you.*

Neal's shoulders dropped in weary frustration. "She's going to do a lot worse to him," he sighed, and by the time he finished saying it, Jon had lifted the residue of the brief contact with The Lady away from him.

"You wanna try explaining how she didn't hurt you?" Ross asked Jon.

"No," Jon said. "But I think that's why she bounced out of here. I was immune to the wraiths. I'd like to think I'm immune to her too." He closed his eyes abruptly, calling on a level the others recognized but couldn't duplicate. After a moment, he returned to them again, his thoughts as bitter as his tone had been earlier.

"He still exists. Here, it isn't only one or the other."

"What do you mean?" Neal said, not wanting the answer but unable to keep from asking.

"I don't know," Jon said. "I thought I did. It's what Mairiesa meant by 'I am'. It's why The Lady wanted him scattered, because he's most useful to her that way, and he didn't stay scattered when she first pulled him in here because we were all together and put him back together without realizing it. We were expecting to see him sooner or later, so we did. She can scatter him but not have him. I don't know what she's capable of. But I know there are things I can't fix."

"If she's got him back at Dread Castle, we'll go break him out," Smitty said.

"But there's still the matter of the light 'turning over'," Neal said. "All she has to do is hold on to him for awhile longer. She doesn't even have to do anything to him."

"So, to put it simply," Smitty began, folding the fingers of one hand down one at a time, "--all we have to accomplish today is keep it from getting dark, run twenty miles or so back to the Keep, get the Er Rai back and get the hell out of here." He grinned. "No problem."

"We've done worse," Ross said.

"This is a game I'm tired of playing," Jon said, and an unbidden trace of resentment toward Steve leaked out before he could turn it away. Regret followed it immediately. It was no one's fault.

*But why is he always in trouble?* Neal thought sympathetically. *Don't worry about it. Who said you always have to defend everybody?*

"Because sometimes, fairness is all you have," Jon said, regretting that too, wondering why he was slowly unraveling in front of them.

"No such thing as 'fair', kid," Ross said. "One man's fair is--"

"I know," Jon said. "I know. Fair's as relative as truth and justice, etc."

"There's only two reasons I can come up with for why she didn't do you in," Ross said to Jon, trying to distract him. "It's daylight, for one. And I think you're more than immune. I think you could damage her."

"Then we can either head back and face her down now," Jon said, picking up the line Ross had purposely tossed him, "or find Siarion and see if she can help us. Either way, she's got him for awhile. We need a miracle."

"You can hear him," Neal said.

*Not like this,* Jon thought. "I just know he's out there. If she scatters him, I'll know it."

"Can he hear you?" Neal asked.

The suggestion stole through Jon's mind, insinuating possibilities. "If I thought we could all stand against her from here--" *No, he can't hear me like this either. It's tenuous.* "If she destroys him, it doesn't mater if it gets dark again or not. I'm not even sure if we can stand against her. But we'll have to try eventually anyway."

Neal nodded. "Can't help but wonder if Siarion, if she exists, wouldn't be an added distraction, if we could get her to help us. We're already so close--I think--and in the time it takes us to get back to the Keep, assuming she won't screw things around to make that impossible--"

"But she wants you to give him to her," Jon said. "So I think she'll let us back in, easily enough."

"Better to stick with what we know," Ross said. "Or what we think we know."

The decision was made that easily.

"Let's get this bullshit over with," Smitty said. "If we screw up, no one gets older or younger."

Neal sighed, staring up at the tower. "Yeah. Start walking."

* * *

Steve leapt at the window again, and again it didn't give in the slightest. Not glass, not like he knew it. He cursed aloud, again, pacing along the transparent wall like a caged tiger.

There had been the barest warning; a pulling, a snap of thought, and he had been back in the Keep. He had feared, for an instant, what she might have done to the others, but Jonathan still flickered with steady light somewhere, a beacon in the distance. If he was still intact, then so were the others. Jon would not have allowed anything to happen to them.

He traversed the wall again. Before, they hadn't had to find a way out. The entirety of the structure had simply disappeared from beneath them. There was only one--visible--door, and it was at the bottom of the wide stone staircase that led to the dungeon. He kept well away from it, able to hear the scrabblings of the things behind and below it. Fewer, now, but still a deterrent. His lack of anxiety concerning their proximity gratified him, but not enough to test his strength against them unless he had to. He examined the tall, stately columns again, running his hands along the cool, reflective marble of the walls, looking for an exit of any kind. When he found one, the bird...

{you will learn to like it here}

He startled, spinning to face the one who had spoken/not spoken, knowing who it was, wondering why he hadn't heard her before she had addressed him.

The Lady stood against the far wall, serene, motionless. {when i have you, i may choose to keep a manifestation of you. you intrigue me}

"Not a chance," he said aloud, barely voicing the words before he convulsed in agony, arching as every nerve screamed. It was the merest instant but far too long to endure and retain both consciousness and sanity at the same time.

{no words} The Lady reprimanded. {only thoughts, only agreement}

* * *

Miles away, Jonathan gasped and slid to his knees before Neal could catch him.

* * *

Steve lay on the marble floor, waiting for the spinning to subside, unable to discern how much time had passed. The pain was gone but for a dull ache, his bones still thrumming with it. He pulled in one breath, then another, trying to remember how to breathe. He tried to speak, and realized she had taken his voice. The defiance rose anyway. *Screw you.*

Amusement reached him as if from a great distance. {i will keep you}

* * *

Neal shook Jonathan slightly, trying to get his attention. Panic lay just beneath the surface, and they tried to keep it out of their thoughts. "Jonathan," Neal said, "come on, you're scaring the hell out of us."

*Don't get back in the habit of saying his name,* Ross thought.

*She's busy doing something else,* Neal thought.

After a moment, Jon's thoughts snapped back into coherent focus, and he blinked, trying to clear what had hit him away.

"What's going on?" Neal asked him.

"She's not wasting any time," Jon sighed. Once they were sure he was intact, they helped him to his feet. "He's holding her off, but not for long."

"Can he stand against her?" Smitty asked, betraying the doubt behind the question.

"I just don't know," Jon replied.

* * *

Steve regained his feet, the ache following him and refusing to dissipate. *Is that the best you can do?*

She laughed silently, gliding across the floor toward him. He found himself unable to move, unable to focus against her.

{no} she whispered above the laughter. He struggled, unmoving, unable to flinch away when she trailed cool, alabaster fingers through his hair before tracing the line of his jaw. A susurration of pleasure followed the motion, and he slammed down against the invasion, shutting her out as the impassive face reflected a sudden curious surprise. She tangled her fingers in his hair, eyes wide and thoughtful. {i can shatter you into more pieces than your Inverse friend will be able to gather again,} she told him. {but that would be a waste. i will find another way in}

He braced for an assault, steeling himself against her, confused when he felt only hesitant brushings along the edge of his consciousness. Then he realized what she was doing; she was searching for weak spots, for a way in, filtering carefully through rather than battering him. It was insidious and effective, and once he had slammed all the doors she was still looking for cracks and chinks in the armor. surrounding him, trying to blend in...

it will stop

It wasn't the trees this time; nothing like what Jon had chased him through to convince him he should live. He wasn't Becoming this time. There was no up or down, no left-right, much like the Distance but only the one he had experienced being pulled into that world, not the one underneath the illusions. He wasn't standing on anything solid. For that matter, he wasn't even standing from what he could discern. Nothing was solid, just varying shades of colorless shadows surrounding him. It puzzled him how a shadow could be colorless; but he turned his attention to the sphere in his intangible hands, green and warm, glowing into the shadows.

it will stop

The echo again, something he'd heard before. Then Jonathan materialized out of the shadows, eyes the same colorless shade they'd been the first time she had tried such a thing. it will stop hurting if you let me in

Maybe, maybe not, Steve said/didn't say. Might hurt you, though. You do the worst impressions I've ever seen.

Her impression of Jonathan snarled at the glowing sphere, and without words commanded him to throw it away. Steve's hands trembled under the power suddenly thrown at him, and he felt the shadow begin to rise behind him, not strong enough yet in that place. There was a brief gleam of surprise on the false Jonathan's face before the malevolence snapped back into place, the expression hateful. {i can bring them here as easily as i brought you. stubborn? shall we see?}

The Keep was back suddenly, marble beneath his feet and The Lady cradling his head in her cold hands. {look, Steve} The Lady whispered. {look where stubborn leads}

His gaze strayed over her shoulder against his will, toward the transparent wall, finding Ross, Smitty and Neal suspended upside down from the ceiling by rope that bound their ankles. His initial shock took in their open, lifeless eyes, their bloodless faces, death cruel to them in its' casual disregard. That same shock provided negation and denial as well, but not enough to prevent him from opening his thoughts to see if what he saw was real, reaching for them to really see...

She leapt in to the space he provided, returning the two of them to the colorless place, laughing silently again. {if you had not struggled}

Steve never even considered trying to shut her out; the figures had seemed real to him, even though he knew that nothing where she was concerned could be real. Rage obliterated every caution. He pulled her in even as she tried to enter, the shadow rising behind him, green twisting through it in a vortex as he charged her.

* * *

Jon paused again, not quite so abruptly or painfully. *Stephen,* he called, and it was all he thought for a long moment despite prompting from the others in turn. Defeat crossed him, growing stronger as the moments passed. He bowed his head, listening for something no longer obtainable. It was enough; no words would demonstrate what Jon felt more graphically than the gesture and the color of his thoughts. Neal turned abruptly and walked away from them, resigned. Smitty stared after him, considering whether or not he should follow, and Ross shook his head, watching Jonathan.

*I can't hear him anymore,* Jon thought. *If he still exists, it's not here.*

* * *

Her surprise amazed him.

Somehow, she hadn't known about the shadow even though he had destroyed a wraith with it that morning. He caught her by one wrist, not solid but no less solid than he was, searching for a way in as she did. He was too angry to care how, not entirely certain the bodies had been real but hating her for the illusion alone, if it was that. Furious for every insult she had inflicted on them since their arrival--including their arrival. She met him halfway, pleased that he was making it so easy...

Then she recoiled, the green touching her, enveloping them both. The shadow that loomed above him encompassed her, and she tried unsuccessfully to shove him away. He held on, realizing in that moment that he was no more capable of utilizing her than she was him. Something acted as a barrier. Desperate, furious, he hurled the sphere at her--

With a shriek, she tore loose, leveling another barrage of punishing thought on him, trying to scatter him. The shadow deflected her only partially, making her incapable of scattering him but not keeping her from striking him as she had before. The impact sent him back to the Keep, cold marble once again beneath his hands. He choked on the first breath he was able to take, struggling to rise but unable to get his body to obey. The ache was almost an entity of its' own, a low inaudible pitch he'd been tuned to. He braced himself on his elbows, concentrating on breathing and careful not to look up for fear of what he might see hanging before the transparent wall.

Then she was there again, against the far wall, and he didn't need to see her to feel that hateful gaze. His mind's eye took her in as he kept his gaze on the floor, watching her steeple her hands before her face. He heard nothing, within or without, and waited to see what she would do. The shadow still hovered over him, spreading along the floor the way his cloak did, and she kept her distance. He listened carefully for the hint of Jonathan he had grown accustomed to, the distant flicker of candlelight, but encountered only darkness. Not knowing if it was because she had destroyed them or simply because he had clashed with her, he rose to his knees, gathering the shadow about himself. He could feel its' power as well as hear Ross' warning in his mind. He regained his feet, pulling the shadow around him along with his cloak, clenching his fists...

Almost without realizing he was going to, he lashed out at her as he had the wraiths, trying to gather her in. She turned him away without moving, but not before he caught something, some edge of the distance, and he held on without understanding how. Enraged power spiraled outward, and she hit him again, staggering him. He refused to let go.

{i will wait, then, until you dissolve. it matters not how i obtain you}

*I'm going to get you first, bitch,* he thought.

She vanished again, and his surroundings followed her, but this time something tore free even as the marble beneath him became desert sand. The thread he'd been holding snapped, and when her illusion vanished something became part of the three-dimensional illusions he understood and pattered into the sand yards away with the sound of a hailstone.

He walked toward it as the light gave way to solid blackness. This time, the trick only wearied him further. He was no longer impressed or fearful of it. He continued to where he had seen the object fall, feeling around in the sand until he encountered a thin, metallic item maybe three and a half inches in length. It felt like a key. Or that may have only been what his mind had decided it should be the moment he touched it. It was likely that it had only taken the form of whatever he thought it should be. He felt around his neck for the strip of leather his bell had been strung on, finding it and the bell absent. He tucked the key into one side of a boot, rising again to discover at least four pairs of gleaming ruby eyes in the darkness.

They regarded him dispassionately, giving way immediately as he walked through them, devoid of hunger but not interest. Whatever else he'd accomplished by tangling with her, they no longer considered him prey. They skittered alongside him as he headed back in the direction he had left the others in. He hurt too much to care, and hoped he could still fly. Otherwise he would never reach the others in time to discover if she truly had killed them. He doubted they were, but she had planted the idea, and it was hard to shake. He formed the image of the raven in his mind, and at first nothing happened. Something had clicked briefly without catching. He paused where he was and carefully began to will it, trying to keep his anger and the shadow from growing along with it. He opened his arms to the not-sky, an invocation. She can't have it all, he insisted. While I'm here, I'll come and go as I please. The wind picked up suddenly, and the wraiths retreated from him further. Then a bird as dark as the surrounding night winged away, part of it.

* * *

*Be dark soon,* Ross ventured.

*No reason for anything to chase after us now,* Neal thought, and it rang with weariness. It had taken much less time to gain distance from the tower than they had thought it would; they were doing as The Lady wished, after all. They all felt the weariness keenly, but Neal had been thinking about his children in particular, and the possibility of not seeing them again. That was beginning to seem more likely with every step.

* * *

Steve landed where the trees began to thin, outside the boundary of darkness, unable to hold his form any longer than that. They had all passed by there a lifetime ago, and he leaned against the trunk of one tree. I promised it would be all right. I promised to fix it, somehow. Then the struggle and the ache that had resulted from it got the better of him, and he drifted away.

When he awoke, the light had changed, and he startled upright with a muffled curse. Time had gone by that he had no memory of, but at least he was still eighteen. He checked to make sure the key was still in his boot, then squinted toward the tower in the distance that he was just able to make out as he ascended the final slope that led out of the tapering forest. He had to believe they were still alive. After another brief struggle, the raven took wing again, headed back in the direction they had all been traveling.

Maybe a mile or so from where the caves had been before they interrupted the illusion, four figures walked in a close diamond shape. The bird circled around them, looping in behind, intending to land on Jonathan's shoulder. But the joy of having them alive--if they weren't illusion--plus that strange ache, made him miscalculate...

And he didn't really have the hang of being a bird yet, anyway.

* * *

There was the slightest disturbance in the air behind them, enough to make Neal glance over his shoulder too late, the huge dark fluttering thing glimpsed in his peripheral vision coming too quickly to avoid. He sidestepped into Ross, who only had time to think *Look...!* before something crashed into them and knocked the two of them sprawling.

Steve grinned at Neal as the guitarist sat up, and Ross yanked Steve to his feet, laughing, embracing him. They nearly piled on each other in their effort to greet Steve, and he was frantic to assure himself they were all real. He was silent; incapable of emitting his thoughts, or speaking, or even laughing. He held onto Neal for a long moment while the others clapped him on the back and asked him questions they knew he couldn't answer. When he pulled away from them a little there was relief in his face and tears in his eyes, confounding them. Jon turned Steve to face him, worried at the level of emotion in his face.

"She took your voice again," he said.

Steve nodded, one hand still wrapped in the hood of Neal's cloak.

"And you're not lit up from the inside anymore. That's how you got away, she couldn't deal with it. You're still humming from whatever she tried to pull."

Steve nodded again, eyes bright with something other than what Jon was used to even though the singer's eyes were back to the color he was used to. He held his arms out to Steve, embracing him, feeling the dark recede again, searching out the things she'd damaged or taken away and returning them to their former state. Steve sighed in relief, free of a vibration he had finally stopped hearing out of familiarity until Jonathan stilled it. Steve closed his eyes as Jonathan held him reluctantly away.

"She consumes," Steve said, trying for the right word. "You can hurt her, I think," he told Jonathan. "She can't stand you. She hates Neal, but she can't even stand your existence. You can turn her back on herself. If you hadn't lit me up, we would probably still be at it." A brief mental picture of the bodies hanging from the ceiling of the Keep flashed outward, making the others recoil. The grief and hatred that followed were as much a cause of their reaction as the image itself.

"I couldn't get at her any more than she could get at me," he continued, a catch in his voice.

"You attacked her," Jon said. "That's when I stopped being able to hear you."

Steve told them the entire story, substituting pictures when words were insufficient. "Together, we could do her in. I don't know if we could force her to send us back. But I'm going to destroy her."

"Steve," Ross began softly, his thoughts not exactly disagreeing with the pronouncement but disturbed by the source.

"No," Steve told him, cutting him off resolutely. "Everything else was bad enough. That's it. I don't care what she is, she has to go." He turned away, examining now-familiar ground. "You guys made good time. Coming to spring me out, huh?"

"This puts us back at least until midnight, by our count," Smitty murmured. "She put us back. When we get to Siarion, it'll be our last chance. You won't have another ten years to lose."

"We might as well go for it, then," Steve sighed. "And keep a better eye on each other. What she did was too easy."

"Only because you're on her frequency," Jon said. "I don't think she can be that subtle with the rest of us. At least, I hope not."

Night fell completely while they regained half of the distance stolen from them by the diversion. This time, they paid no attention, convinced by Steve's lack of concern. True to form, several sets of dim, red embers paced them in the blackness, only a handful. The wraiths kept their distance, their behavior almost that of an escort detail. Their lack of aggression failed to completely allay the nervousness of the humans.

*I'm like a goddamn beacon,* Steve thought. "They know where I am all the time. If this is all that's left, though, it's something to be grateful for."

"I'd be more grateful if they'd back off a little," Ross whispered.

Neal heard Steve begin to reach out to the shadows, and grabbed him. "Just leave it alone. They're not enough to worry about."

*Where they are, she is,* Steve thought.

Another hand turned his face away from Neal in the blackness, cold, hard. {this is true. come along, singer}

Steve shoved Neal away from him as hard as he could, even as the cold numbed him. *Jay!*

It was not a plea for help; Jonathan understood and leapt for Neal, steadying him from the stumble Steve had thrown him into.

"Jay," The Lady echoed.

"It isn't my name," Jonathan said as Smitty brought a fireball to life.

The Lady had hold of Steve's head in both hands again, his struggle to escape audible to the others if not visible; he was unable to move. *Not lit up,* Steve thought.

*If we can get him out of the way, I'll 'light' her up, all right,* Smitty thought.

"If you do not give him over," The Lady said softly, "I will crush him, and he will be of use to neither of us. I have run out of patience for these games, but not for waiting for another to come along. Sooner or later, I will be able to find another like him. What is your choice?"

*No,* Steve began.

*I can try and stop her,* Jon thought resolutely. *You said--*

*You can't shield anybody else and struggle with her at the same time,* Steve thought.

"Sohne," The Lady said, turning mirrored eyes to Neal, "would you truly rather that I destroy him completely?"

*Don't,* Steve thought. *Don't. It was forev--*

She cut him off, rendering him silent.

"If he goes," Jonathan said steadily, "so do you. I'll at least do as much damage as I can."

There was a brief, weighted standoff. Then The Lady focused on Steve again, her power nearly audible as she leveled it on him. She raised an abrupt hand and struck Jon with the same force across the small distance that separated them, knocking him to the ground. Ross went after her as a result, knocked aside with the same invisible fist almost immediately.

Then Steve's shadow rose in front of her, a spreading pool of ink climbing upwards. Her flawless face reflected confusion again before invisible hands gripped her throat. Enraged, she tried to hold on to Steve but couldn't, and he tore free of her but didn't retreat. She hissed, turning on Jonathan, who despite the blow had managed to reach Steve. When she reached for Jon, the shadow lunged for her again, and she rippled back into the darkness.

The silence brought no relief. All but Steve gathered closer to Smitty and the light, waiting to see what else would be coming out of the dark. *She isn't through,* Ross thought.

"No, but we gave her a scare," Neal said. "If we rattle her chain a little more, she might do something stupid, give us the opening we need."

Jon's eyes widened a little as he watched Steve's turned back, and when Neal stepped toward the reticent figure, Jon shook his head and kept him close to the light. A question began to form in Neal's mind, and Jon thought, *That shadow of his hasn't retreated yet.*

It was true. Steve was still trailing it as a second, darker cloak. He remained with his back toward them, fists clenched.

"Steve," Jon said, and was answered with a raised hand that warded him off.

"Be careful," Steve said. "Valory...you were right."

"What are you doing?" Jon said.

"That wraith, under the Keep...warned us, that I would kill you all. I don't think it meant only by Becoming. This thing is good for chasing her away, but now it won't go back to sleep."

"I'm not afraid of it," Jon said.

"You can't do anything about it, either," Steve said. As he spoke, the shadow pooled back around his feet, shifting.

"Can you control it?" Neal said.

"Not much. It needs me to exist, but 'control' isn't a word I'd use. I had a better chance when I was lit up, I think."

Jon's tone was imploring. "What do you want us to do? Stand here and watch?"

"Since I don't know what'll happen to you otherwise, yeah," Steve said with a calm he didn't feel. "If she comes back, we might need it, but I sure as hell don't want it getting hold of you, after seeing what it's done before."

"The Inverse has nothing to fear," The Lady said from behind them. They turned to discover themselves caught between her and Steve, and Steve turned to face her. The shadow moved restlessly outward, negating Smitty's light.

"Save your friend," she continued, the cold smile in place again.

The shadow strained toward her, as she had intended, its cold fingers finding Jonathan in its way--

Steve raised his arms even as Jon tried to recoil, trying to pull the shadow back. Jon threw his arms up to try and shield himself, a phosphorescence briefly combating something that strange, dark world was composed of, and failed.

"No!" Neal shouted, reaching for Jon, and the shadow vanished when Steve did as the raven shot away in the dark. Jon turned back to The Lady, furious.

"Go on!" he shouted. "You want something done about me, do it yourself!"

Her face was expressionless. The bird coasted out of the darkness to alight on Jon's shoulder, wings remaining outstretched. It hissed at her, and she steepled her fingers in front of her face.

"We shall see," she said, watching Jonathan.

The bird left Jon's shoulder as abruptly as it had come, diving for their tormentor, and Jon shouted a wordless denial. Steve materialized in midair, leaping to the ground in front of her, and the others read Steve's intention even though they didn't agree. She had burned him enough to silence him, but not to keep his thoughts from joining theirs, and he used everything he had at his disposal to get hold of her the way he had the wraiths. They all struck her at once.

* * *

When Steve awoke, it was still dark, and Smitty had struck up a small fire. He turned his head to find Jon sitting nearby with raised eyebrows. "She's gone again," Jon said. "But that's all it did."

Steve sat up, and Neal was shaking his head at him. He could hear a suggestion of the guitarists' dissatisfaction and something about 'reckless children'.

"It did more than that," Steve mumbled. "She was gearing up for something. She has no intention of letting us get to Siarion, and she knows if she's patient enough..." he paused, then shouted, "where the hell did she get the concept of 'patience' from!" He regained his feet, beginning to pace. "She knows she has to do something about the 'Inverse', but me she can wait for. Of course, she can't have me unless I'm given, but at least she'd be rid of me. She was doing something, that humming, she's like a goddamned tuning fork when she's up to something."

"What can she do?" Smitty said, turning his head to follow the singer's pacing. "If she could wipe us out, why didn't she? Why hasn't she?"

"That bullshit about finding something--our power, or whatever, isn't good enough anymore," Ross said.

"We weren't supposed to be so difficult," Neal said. "No one else who's come through here has been, obviously, or we'd be running into them, too. I don't think she knows what to do with us. It's like she can't keep track of what's going on."

"At least we know it'll take more than what we just pulled to get rid of her," Ross said. "And we know the bird and the shadow don't mix. Not yet, anyway."

"It's asleep," Steve said distantly, pausing in his pacing to stare at Jon. "If it got out, while I wasn't paying attention..." he trailed off, the feeling that they were missing something obvious passing by him again. And this time, on its' heels, a possibility. Jon stood at the expression on Steve's face; the singer looked as if he was on the verge of a stroke, and his thoughts were a disorganized jumble.

"Say it," Jon said. "Dammit, just say it!"

"What the hell is wrong with you?" Neal said to Steve.

"He's having a thought too big for his head," Ross said.

"What if she can manipulate time in only so many ways?" Steve said. "What if she's been trying to change what's already been done?"

The confusion in the air was as huge as Steve's conviction that he'd hit on something.

"It's what's been wrong," Steve said excitedly, gesturing with both hands, trying to make them see what he was too agitated to properly show them. "We're in her world. She can manipulate the light in places, she doesn't have a linear sense of time, but...dammit, if Neal can do it, I know she can. This might be our fourth time through, for all we know, and she's still not getting her way! Do you see it!"

"Just finish the thought, Steve," Jon said.

"She knows how it turns out," Steve said almost over Jonathan's words. "She's seen...she's trying to change what happens! Perhaps time will reveal what illusive form!"

They stared at him for a moment. Then Jon said, "I hope you're wrong."

"The Keeper might not have attacked me right away the first time," Steve continued in a rush. "She might not have heard our names before, and Neal might have zapped us all the way through this, to the end. Maybe you," he said, pointing at Jonathan, "didn't find your 'powers' the first time, or the third time, or forever until now. Maybe she's trying different combinations to keep us from making it through yet again. She wants to know how we're doing it, how we're making it through, and maybe we don't even know. Well, neither does she. She acts as if she's learning." He pointed at Ross. "What do you suppose you can do? What if you're already doing it?"

Ross shrugged. "Go figure."

"For all we know, you're the..." he fumbled for a word, the idea of what he was looking for making it through.

"Catalyst," Jon said.

"...for the rest of us, or maybe keeping us linear, or even allowing us to *talk to each other like this.* She hated Neal right away, and she tried to get rid of me before I even got here. What if I wasn't the Er Rai before? What if I've just been getting steadily more obnoxious each time?"

*That, I believe,* Neal thought. "This is the first time you've made sense in however long we've been here. She would have gone after Jay right away if she'd been able to sense he was the Inverse before now. But she might even have caused it by trying to convert you to the wraiths."

"Or we might be adjusting to whatever circumstances we encounter," Jon said. "Maybe it's just my turn to be the Inverse."

*That's why it was forever,* Steve thought. "I remember. It's forever in there because she has forever to deal with. Our sense of time is..."

"Irrelevant," Jon said.

"The door, on the way in," Steve said. "There was something so familiar, something I should have known in the distance. Maybe it was because I've done this all before, and heard the echoes of it."

They digested the revelation in silence, turning it over and beginning to ask each other what the next logical step had to be, if they wanted to stay ahead of The Lady.

"Siarion," Neal said.

"What if she's in on it?" Ross said. "What if she's the reason why we're still in here?"

"We've got a hell of a lot of what ifs," Neal said. "Something might be different this time that'll get us out of here for good. Sure, for all we know Siarion will roast us and serve us up to some of the other 'denizens'. But what other choice do we have? Look what we've had to do, just to get this far."

"Vote," Jon said. "Go on, and try and make this Siarion an ally, or head back for the Keep and use whatever we have to beat The Lady."

"Go on," Steve said immediately.

Ross paused. "If the nose, here, is right, I'm not doing this again. Go on."

"I don't think we have the tools to go up against her, yet," Smitty said. "Go on."

"We'll keep at it for now," Neal said, "and kick her ass later."

Jon nodded. "If she doesn't want us talking to Siarion that badly, then we must be on the right track."

"Again," Steve said.

* * *

They kept to the tree line, watching for The Lady but too weary to be fearful of her reappearance. Steve took the hindmost, purposely hemming Jonathan in between himself and Smitty. Nothing else bothered to crash out of the dark at them, but they knew they were being carefully watched by then.

*This time,* Ross thought, *we're getting up there.*

*It'll have to be in the daylight, though,* Jon thought. *No messing around on those rocks in this blackness.*

*Why doesn't she just take off with me again?* Steve thought sadly. *What's to keep her from doing it? What is she waiting for? She can do, to all of you, what she showed me. Is she waiting for our guard to be down?* Then he was gone, the raven finding Jon's shoulder again, his wings a slight breeze on the night air.

"She can't hear the bird," Jon said. "You know she's been using you to get to us, however she can." He drew a comforting finger along the bird's lowered head. "Don't worry. We'll find a way."

They rested for a short while, sitting in a close circle around Smitty's light, and the bird remained still and silent on Jon's shoulder.

*Do you think she knows an eight year old will be more vulnerable?* Ross thought.

*That's assuming she's even seen a child before,* Jon thought. *Somehow, I doubt this one will be that vulnerable. But eight is eight, and we'll need to be even more careful.*

*We've all had more than enough,* Neal sighed inwardly. *But he's not going to take much more. He's been turned inside out too many times, and I think at eight any more of this is going to shove him over. Like you said, Jay, there are things you can't fix.*

*Making him believe she'd done something to us took the heart out of him,* Jon thought. *He'll bounce back. He always does. When we get to the top of that tower, I think a lot of things will fall into place.*

The bird stretched its' wings, then, and they realized the light was beginning to rise again. The raven coasted away from them, gliding thirty or so yards away and facing into the oncoming light. As it pulled up to land, it became Steve again, and he stood staring away from them, wrapping his cloak around himself tighter. As the light strengthened, he sat down in the grass, thoughts as inaccessible as when he'd been the raven. The others rose and stretched, preparing to travel on as they watched, waiting to see what would happen. Jon ran his hands down his own face, unsurprised at the lack of stubble. They were caught in a loop, and marking the passage of time where there was none only because it was how they were built.

The light touched Steve then, his image blurring as it had the previous morning, shifting in color and shape. He stood, and a smaller image took his place, snapping back into focus as the light reached the rest of them.

After a long moment, the small figure turned, a spindly legged and larger eyed approximation of Steve, a forlorn expression on his small, heart-shaped face. A child.

Jonathan held a hand out to him, and Steve trotted over, hand slipping into Jonathan's with a grateful half-smile before they walked on.

* * *

The silence only lasted until the questions began.

"But what if she switched me while I was changing?" Steve said for the third time. "How would you know? I'm not lit up from the inside any more, and we're not..." he struggled for a word.

"We're still connected," Jon said gently. "Stephen, don't worry over something that hasn't happened. We would just know. Believe me."

"But what if Siarion doesn't like us? What'll we do? What if we don't come up with anything to trade?"

"We might be able to find something, between us, that we won't miss," Ross said.

*Yeah, like me,* Steve thought wryly. Neal turned to him angrily, thoughts already reprimanding, but Steve gasped and leaned over, fingers digging into one boot. "Oh, I almost forgot, with everything else." He withdrew the object hidden within, holding it up for all of them to see. "When I was fighting with her, the shadow got part of her before she kicked me out." He held it out to Jon, who weighed it thoughtfully in one hand.

"We could trade that, I guess," Steve said. Problem solved, he walked away, humming.

Neal looked at Jon. "Well?"

*It's part of her, all right,* Jon thought in a disturbed tone, his expression turning distasteful. *Not alive, not directly harmful, but destructive all the same.* He turned his thoughts to the rapidly receding figure. *Get back here, you. This thing probably helped you lose control of your shadow, last night.*

"Do you think we can use it?" Steve yelled across the distance he'd created.

"The way things are going, this'll probably turn out to be one of those fairy-tale things Siarion's been waiting for," Neal said. "All of a sudden this will be the goddamn 'Wizard Of Oz'. We'll be bringing her the witch's broom, or whatever."

"Raven key," Ross said softly.

Jon stared at him, and the trepidation in his thoughts brought Steve back to him at a run. "Won't it work?"

Jon ruffled his hair automatically without looking at him. "What you said, about all of us having been through this before. It's too much for coincidence."

"It might have just been the first thing he thought of," Ross said. "I think if she knew we had this, she would have tried to snag it from us last night."

"Especially if it could help us, or Siarion," Neal said.

"Maybe there wasn't an Inverse to deter her, before," Jon said.

"I thought it up," Steve said. "You guys told me the story, about the raven key, and I probably thought up a key because of that. She didn't notice. I'm just glad I didn't think up a table!" He giggled, walking ahead of them again, arms out from his sides as if walking an imaginary tightrope.

Leaning into Jon, Neal whispered, "Maybe we can get her to keep him like this, even after we're home."

Frowning, Jon leaned over and tucked the key into his own boot. "Come on. We're almost there."

* * *

Steve grew restless quickly, winding in amongst the others and dashing around them in ever-widening circles, occasionally tumbling into the grass when his legs tangled. His thoughts tumbled more often than he did, memories of having been eight the first time mingling with a myriad of things that had happened to him over the course of his life. He was unaware that the others could still hear him. His thoughts had grown even louder as he'd grown younger, the result uncomplicated and wider. Something else grew the longer he remained so young; an increasing desolation out of proportion with his age. He was many ages at once, and the weight pressed on him in a world where too much was possible and he was suddenly less able to combat it or reason things away.

Less than half an hour from their intended destination, he paused. "I'm tired," he announced, rooted in place.

"We can't rest yet," Neal said. "Not so close."

"We'll rest when we get to the base of the tower," Jon said gently. "We can't risk losing the time. We need to be up there long before dark so we can convince Siarion not to call it down."

Resolute, Steve didn't move, and Neal said, "If you'd quit dashing around like a lunatic, you wouldn't be so tired."

The dour expression of outrage on a much younger approximation of Steve's visage broke Neal up, and he snorted. "One of us'll carry you," he teased.

Steve sat down in the grass with his back to them, thoughts slamming shut.

Shooting an impatient glance upwards, Neal leaned over Steve, making sure his own hands remained at his sides. "Do you want me to carry you? You can get up and keep what little dignity you have left, or I can drag you kicking and screaming."

Silence.

"It's only a little further, Steve," Jon said.

*Don't you baby him,* Neal thought.

*He's scared,* Jon thought. *He doesn't have any other way of dealing with it anymore.*

*And you know as well as I do that the only way to jostle him out of things is to piss him off.*

*If you're wrong this time,* Jon thought severely, *that shadow will be your answer.*

"We're all tired of this bullshit, Steve," Neal said aloud. "We need your help to get out of this. We don't need you acting your present age."

*Well, he's definitely eight,* Ross thought.

"Yeah, so is Miles, and he doesn't act like this."

"You're thinking around me again!" Steve said with audible outrage.

"Because you don't give us any other choice!" Neal shouted.

"It doesn't matter if I do or not!" Steve shouted back. "It doesn't make any difference!"

"That's my point," Neal said in a growl. "Eight, or forty eight, this is usually what I get. All you have now is a supposed excuse."

*Does not play well with others,* Ross thought dryly.

"If you want us to treat you like a child, we will," Neal continued. "No more Mexican stand-offs. I'll even count to three, if it'll make you happy." *If that witch is listening, she must love this--the old dividing line.*

"If you'd stop ganging up on me..." Steve began.

"This isn't about you!" Neal shouted. "Not everything is about you!"

Steve squeezed his eyes tightly shut along with his mouth and his thoughts, face crimson, giving every impression that he was gearing up for a tantrum.

"I'll just bet you were a world champion fit thrower at that age, weren't you," Neal said, nodding, unable to keep the laughter out of his voice. "Go ahead, get it over with. It can't be much worse than the ones you've been throwing for the last fifteen or twenty years that I've known you."

Steve opened his eyes to glare at Neal furiously. He jumped to his feet, small fists clenched.

"Come on," Neal said. "Come up with something original, brat."

"Oh, fuck you," Steve said, spinning and stalking away toward the widely spaced trees.

"Whoa!" Neal laughed. "Tough language, little guy! I might have to take you over my knee!"

Without breaking stride, Steve turned so that he was walking backwards, facing them, arms folded across his chest. "Yeah, you'd like that. Thanks for sharing your kinky fantasies with us, Neal!" He stuck his tongue out, then turned away again, bounding off through the grass.

"Brat!" Neal yelled. Then he laughed, and the sight of Jonathan's face turned it into a fit of hilarity. Ross was already sitting down, chuckling silently, and Smitty was trying to pretend he wasn't paying attention.

*Stay where we can see you,* Jon thought after Steve, watching the small figure wave a dismissive hand at him. "We're way too close to a solution to risk her getting him now." Then he grinned, looking at Neal. "What the hell is it, with you guys?"

Neal shrugged. "Boys will be boys."

"You're gonna have to do better than that," Ross said. "You lost that one."

"Hey, I'm out of practice. He hasn't been around to flip me shit for awhile."

"Both of you cool off," Jon said, "or I'll have to separate you."

Neal laughed again, sitting down. "Man, that doesn't work. We're obviously taking a break."

They sat quietly for several minutes, listening to the strange, encompassing silence and keeping an eye on Steve, who was sitting closer to the trees and further from them than Jon liked. Only hints of his eight-year-old thoughts drifted to them now that he was so close to being out of thought range. None of them heard his initial amazement when the huge butterfly-like creature sailed over him and into the trees. Well over a foot, its size and colors intrigued him, and he ignored Jon's first attempt to tell him it was time to move on. It vanished into the trees, joining the shadows. Something shifted there, at the edge of vision...

Neal rose. "I'll get him." He whistled, clapping his hands together before raising his voice to a shout. "Here boy!"

Ross laughed, and Jon said "Ah, shit," under his breath.

Steve climbed to his feet, stiff with outrage. "I'm not a goddamn dog!"

"Right," Neal yelled. "A dog would know enough to do what he's told. Get back over here, you little sonofabitch!"

Steve raised one hand into the air, flipping Neal off.

"Hey Neal," Ross said, "two birds in one." They watched Steve turn and stalk away.

Into the trees.

*No,* Jon thought sternly, rising. "Great," he said aloud to Neal. "You did it, you can help me get him back here." He started toward the trees as the others rose.

*Shit, he can't hear us, now,* Smitty thought. "I'll come with you." He whistled, a long, sharp sound that echoed back to them from the trees.

A moment later, the first scream reached them.

* * *
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