"There, we measure shadows and...search among ghostly errors of measurement for landmarks that are scarecely substantial."
--Edwin Hubble, 1936

CANDLES IN THE DARK Part V
(c) BS 1997

Steve followed the path he'd seen the butterfly take, thoughts a dark hum of anger that part of him recognized as childish, battling with the actual child. He was caught between, needing to be out of their sight for a moment. Something ahead flashed in the half-light between shadows...

Then, from one shadow to the next, a figure stepped between as Smitty's whistle echoed along the trees, ignored. The figure smiled and beckoned to him, one so familiar that he froze, his heart leaping. Disbelief was all he could manage in those precious seconds; his mother had been gone for nearly a decade, but she was kneeling before him with her arms out just the way she had when he was a child, long before she was ill. Nothing about it was right, but he disregarded the cautionary alarms that went off in his head. He wanted so badly for it to be true that he didn't care if it wasn't. He stepped toward her...

...and her form shifted, silver white and reptilian, extended claws slashing.

* * *

It was a high-pitched child's shriek of terror and hurt, and they were all running for the trees. A heartbeat later the small figure bolted out of the trees with a silver blur directly behind. Steve made sharp, desperate turns, changing direction as abruptly as he could, the shape shifter swiping at him with long, spidery claws. Smitty had no chance at throwing a fireball, fearing he might hit Steve. Before they could close the distance, the creature hooked its claws into the edge of Steve's cloak, dragging him to the ground. He screamed again, and the others joined their thoughts at a run, leveling them as they had at a long-ago door. The creature rolled away as if struck, claws still caught in Steve's cloak, backing away in stunned confusion.

Gasping, Steve backed out of the garment, yanking it over his head and leaping in the opposite direction. As soon as he was clear, a fireball shot past him, striking the changer. It shrieked, retreating back into the tree line but not catching fire.

*What the hell is that?* Smitty thought. *I could almost swear it's a wraith, but...*

*It's not,* Ross thought. *I think our hostess is modeling things after them, though. Jesus, if Todd McFarlane made velociraptors...*

Neal was closest, catching Steve in midair as the latter leaped for him with his arms out. Sweeping him up and heading in the other direction, Neal was careful not to turn his back completely on the creature. Smitty passed him, walking over and picking Steve's cloak out of the grass. He returned to the others, joining them in gathering around Steve and Neal, keeping a wary eye on the thing in the trees. It blurred, becoming almost indistinguishable from the trees themselves.

"Are you okay?" Neal asked Steve, using a tone he'd reserved for his own children while Jon checked him for injuries. The eight year old's heart beat like a rabbit's, his small hands wrapped in Neal's cloak. Still gasping, he stared after the creature, eyes wide and wounded. "Don't wander from us anymore," Neal said softly, taking the reprimand out of it.

Steve whipped his head around to look at Neal, looking so hurt that Jon said, "What happened?"

The hazel eyes filled with tears, and the wordless thought-image of a butterfly becoming more spilled over as the first tears did.

Horrified, Jon said, "Mary. Oh...Steve, it must have pulled her out of your mind."

Steve's misery reached all of them before he leaned forward and pressed his face into Neal's shoulder. Neal put a hand on the boy's head, walking a short distance further before lowering himself cross-legged into the grass. His head tucked in Neal's arm, Steve closed his thoughts as he began to sob quietly and disconsolately. Jon crouched next to them, the sympathy in his thoughts no less echoed by the others. Exhausted and overwhelmed, Steve wept until he ran out of tears, beginning to drift off the way any young child would under the same circumstances. *I don't want to go any further,* he thought, and there was no doubt about his sincerity.

When Steve had hiccuped to silence, Neal thought to Jon, *Can you 'undo' that? There's a lot of shit none of us needs to remember. But that was just mean, whether it was only hunting or not.*

"I'll try to do better than that," Jon whispered. "Let me have him, and I'll light him up again while we walk, if I can."

Neal rose and frowned slightly at Jon, his choice of words causing a brief but tangible suspicion. Jon smiled and said, "I know. But you'd know by now if it wasn't me." He held his hands out, and Neal reluctantly handed the sleeping child over.

* * *

Steve awoke abruptly, pulling his head away from Jon's shoulder and looking around. Startled and disoriented, he yawned and rubbed at an eye before twining his arms around Jon's neck. The light had changed, he noticed, but more importantly they stood a mere hundred yards or so from the base of the tower.

"How do you feel?" Jon murmured.

"Fine," Steve said. "But how'd we get here?"

"That can wait."

"Did I do something stupid again?"

"No. Not at all. All we need to do now is break the illusion that keeps us from getting closer to the tower. Think you're up to that?"

"Yeah." Jon put him down, and Steve stretched with another yawn, looking up at the not-sky. The others were watching him, and he eyed them self-consciously, folding his arms behind his back. He looked at Jon again. "Wasn't I too heavy?"

Jon shook his head, then gestured at the tower. They focused on it, causing no discernible change, but when they began walking toward it again moments later, it took only another minute before they stood directly at the base. Steve climbed over the tumbled boulders, sitting atop the largest while the others discussed what they had at their disposal.

"Steve said it wouldn't let him land on it," Neal said. "Probably because of the illusion we just destroyed. But even if he can get up there now, there's no way in hell he's going alone. And there isn't anything remotely resembling safe handholds."

"This is a place of illusions," Ross reminded him. "What if the tower isn't even here?"

Jon hooked a finger at Steve, who slid off the boulder to run to him. Jon put his hands on the boy's shoulders, facing him toward the tower. "Is it just an illusion, too?" Jon said. "I know that's a stupid question, in a way, because everything here is. You knew Mairiesa wasn't real, and remember the caves? They disappeared after we thought about them."

"The caves disappeared because I was in them," Steve said distantly, a dreamy, unfocused look in his once-again green eyes.

"What do you mean, kid," Ross said.

"Because I scattered into the not-stone while we were there," Steve sighed. "It's like...well, we only blew the wraiths up because they touched me. I was the caves for...a minute, forever..."

"No," Jon said. "We'll find another way. Besides, Siarion might not appreciate it if we make her tower disappear."

"It doesn't have to disappear," Ross said. "It just has to alter so we can get up there. "It's an illusion, but whose? Steve's subconscious decided on a key, so that's what he got. What if we just altered the outside?"

"Assuming we can get it to cooperate," Neal said.

Ross walked up to the base of the tower, resting a hand against it. The not-stone wasn't cool or warm, which was disturbing in itself. He leaned his back against it. "We might as well try. Who's it going to kill?"

"Don't answer that," Steve said quickly. "Just think at the illusion."

They gathered against it, and at first nothing happened.

"Maybe if we--" Ross began. The sentence was never completed; the not-stone melted around Ross like mud, nearly enveloping him. With a shout of alarm, Neal and Smitty grabbed for him, yanking him free. The tower regained its shape behind him as soon as he was free of it, solidifying.

"That," Jonathan said, "was not us."

"Ross found his magic!" Steve shouted, and clapped a hand over his own mouth when Jon thought, *No names.*

Neal approached the tower cautiously, resting a hand against it where Ross had been standing, finding it solid. "Okay, so you were saving that, right?"

Ross was laughing despite the close call. "Man, when I'm right, sometimes I'm extremely right."

"Jesus, Valory," Neal said. "Pull one out of the hat, why don't you. That definitely wasn't us."

"I knew it," Steve said. "It was just waiting for the right moment, that's all."

Ross fell serious, examining the tower. "If I can keep doing it." He looked at Jon. "So, do we want stairs, or what?"

"You're the one who's talking to the rocks," Jon said. "Go for it."

Ross placed both hands against the tower, more cautious this time, and it indented in several places, the material shifting to accommodate Ross' thoughts. Lacking uniformity but no less useful, intermittent stairs began to form, set back into the stone in a loose upward spiral.

"Must be about seven or eight stories," Neal said. "I'm glad we're not going to be climbing this damn thing." He paused, then said, "It's not going to keep moving when we get on it, is it?"

"It better not," Ross said, pulling his hands away. "I think that made it all the way to the top. You guys trust me enough to give this a shot?"

"Duh," Steve said, running for the stairs, and Smitty caught him.

"Listen, guinea pig," Smitty said, "let someone who's grown into his legs already take the lead, huh?"

"Single file only," Ross said. "No hand railing."

"Good enough," Neal said. "More than. Everybody up, before she appears out of nowhere and does her thing."

They wound carefully upwards, waiting at every turn for anything to jump out at them. But it was almost too easy after that, causing them to be far from relieved.

*Oh, but if we don't like the illusions now, Ross will fix them for us!* Steve thought.

Ross laughed. "It's not that easy, kid."

*Names, brat,* Neal thought.

They reached the top without incident and stood looking down on the world of illusions from the highest part of what Mairiesa had called Athyri. It was a high, narrow plateau, devoid of growing things, relatively flat and featureless. Steve immediately found a few small stones and busied himself gathering them when he wasn't staring at where the illusions ended.

"Now what," Smitty said. "Just hang here until she shows up? If she's in a form we'll recognize."

"Stay away from the edge," Neal said automatically as Steve toured along one side to find more stones. The look he got for it was classic Steve at any age, asking him without even thought if he was insane.

"I'll just turn into a bird if I fall off," Steve said brightly.

"Number one," Neal said, "you're just not good with high, rocky places, remember? And two, if you panic and don't change in time, splat."

"So just do as I say and stay away from the edge," Steve said, mocking Neal's tone almost perfectly.

Neal could hear the amusement in the others' thoughts, and he refused to look at them. "Oh, by all means," Jon said under his breath, "let's keep him this way."

"Smitty," Steve said, "why didn't the wraiths bother you?"

What he meant by it carried underneath the words; they shared the same name, yet the drummer had been unaffected the times it had been spoken.

"They weren't talking to me," Smitty said.

Steve stared at him for a moment, then said, "What if she never comes? Mairiesa wasn't lying, but what if this is the wrong place? Or what if she won't come because we're here?"

"You're the biggest worrier I've ever seen," Jon said. "We've done the best we can with what we have. If we thought there was any other option, we'd have taken it."

"I wasn't--"

"You're worrying. Don't. Maybe she won't come unless you believe."

Steve considered that, returning to the stones, looking out to where the illusion broke up into shadows. "Siarion!" he shouted. "Sia-rion!"

Neal reached forward and put a hand over Steve's mouth, pulling the smaller figure in under his arm. "I don't think that's what Jay meant, goofball," he said. "Don't attract anything you don't have to, huh? Anything could come to answer."

*Nothing bigger than us!* Steve thought. Ross laughed.

Neal released him. "Children should be seen and not heard."

Steve rolled his eyes, returning to arranging the stones to his liking without quite knowing why. A circle...another circle...

"It's late enough," Ross said.

"Maybe she has other dimensions to attend to," Jon said.

"Maybe she makes it get dark back home," Steve said.

"And maybe Earth is the center of the universe," Neal said. "Come on."

"I'm eight," Steve said. "I'll believe what I like for a little longer, thank you. It was fun the first time."

"And who has the audacity to shout my name from the top of Athyri?" A soft, lilting female voice said. They turned abruptly, finding a tall, slender figure before them, dressed in black similar to Steve's but for a trailing silver belt that hung down with a small silver hoop holding it stationary. Her shining silver hair was done in a waist-length braid that hung over one shoulder. Her face was young and serene, eyes uniformly silver and tilted upward at the outside corners. The inner curve of her cloak sparkled as if she had something hidden in its' black fold.

"Are you Siarion?" Steve said. "Are you the night bringer?"

"It's what the name means to the one who gave it to me," she replied, voice as serene as her expression. "Who is it that so clumsily summons me?"

"We..." Jonathan began, then paused. "Can't give you our names."

"The Lady pulled us here," Steve said quickly, coming closer.

"And what manner of creature are you?" Siarion said, leaning down. "I have not seen your like here before. Humans, yes, but not so small."

"She made me this way," Steve said. "I'm the Er Rai."

Siarion straightened again, frowning. "Yet you have made it this far."

"She's trying to keep me. You can't let it get dark, or she will keep me."

Peering over their shoulders, Siarion said, "You have made the proper signs." She pointed to the circles Steve had made of the stones.

Steve shrugged. *I told you guys, we were here before.*

Siarion knelt before Steve, examining him. "And why shouldn't I let the Er Rai join us here?"

The answer came to Jon immediately, as if rehearsed. "Because you belong to yourself, and not The Lady. We don't belong here, or to The Lady."

"She has found a way to capture the Er Rai," Siarion said, "and the Turning will finish it?"

"Yes," Neal said. "She's going to use him to get back to our world."

"Withholding the Turning is a very serious thing," Siarion said, watching Steve. "My brother and myself watch over the Evenwhen. Many things do not continue if we fail in our duties. This world is not finished, and disrupting it..."

"Our world's finished if you don't," Neal said.

Siarion frowned again. "Shall you be beholden to me, then? Or do you have something that proves you are the Er Rai?"

Steve looked at Jon, who held the key out to him. Steve in turn held it out to Siarion, and she accepted it with interest. Her expression quickly turned to concern, though, as she held the object in the palm of one hand. "How did you come to be in possession of this?"

"We were arguing," Steve said soberly.

Siarion lowered herself, cross-legged, to the not-stone, regarding him with curiosity. "You must tell me everything," she said.

They did, cautiously, remembering not to say each other's names. They unraveled the entire tale for her, from their failed rehearsal, to the dungeon of the Keep, to the wraiths and The Lady's constant harassment. Siarion sat quietly through it all, her wide silver eyes paying close attention, especially when Steve demonstrated his shape changing ability for her.

"But," she said finally, "you are leaving something out. You must not."

They glanced at each other uneasily. *I don't know,* Neal thought.

*She can't take it away,* Jon thought. *This is just us.* "We can hear each other's thoughts," he said aloud. "It's given us the advantage."

Siarion smiled, rising. "I've never heard such a tale. It is worth a great deal to me. I will accept it and pass it on to my brother. And as for the proof you have brought me..."

She hid the key in her hand for a moment, then handed it to Steve. The tarnished, antique form appeared no different, yet seemed to shine with a light of its' own. "You will need this to return home. I would have you stay, but I see you cannot. You have already done much."

"But who is The Lady?" Steve said. "What was it all about?"

Siarion smiled. "She was given this world by the ones who named her, and this is what she chose to do with it. There are others like her, and they...compete. My brother, Sidain, and myself maintain the Evenwhen between the worlds, including yours. Normally we try not to interfere, but we are messengers of the namers and do as we please. I see she would perhaps benefit from a little direction. I cannot send you home myself. But I will aid you in another way." She gestured Steve closer, and when he approached she cupped a hand and whispered in his ear. His eyes grew wider, and when she leaned away he stared at her in disbelief.

"Really?" he said breathlessly.

"And you must tell no other," she said. "You may use it only once, little one, to get you back to where you belong. You already understand how and why it works. But to make use of it, you must be willing to risk much; you must do as she has asked." Siarion turned her mirrored gaze to Neal. "You must give the Er Rai to her."

Neal straightened abruptly, looking as well as sounding startled to the others. "No," he said. "No way in hell."

"Otherwise," she continued, "he cannot get close enough to do what he must, and none of you will get home. This is your choice."

"But what if she destroys him?" Neal said. "We've seen what she can do, you know."

"You must believe that he is the stronger. There is also an Inverse among you, which she cannot stand against. She is only as powerful as you allow her to be. Between you there is more than enough to escape."

Neal continued to shake his head.

"She doesn't realize, then, that what she's asked for is more dangerous to her than to us," Jon said.

Siarion nodded. "She sees only what she means to accomplish. By branching the worlds, she would have an advantage. For now, there is a reason she is unable to come and go as she wishes. She is young."

"Were we...here before, then?" Steve said.

Rising, Siarion glanced at each of them, the direction of her gaze obvious even though she did not have pupils or irises. "'Before'," she said softly. "Your part of the Evenwhen is very specific, isn't it? You have many measurements that we do not use. That question I am certain you can answer for yourselves. You must remember, though, that since I am pausing the flow of this world, it will lengthen the duration of the constraint put on the Er Rai." She dropped her eyes to Steve. "You will get no smaller, nor will you vanish completely. But it is something I cannot break, and the failure of the Turning alone will not stop it. You will begin to fade in other ways if you continue here."

"Fade how?" Jon said. *Steve, is she lying?*

*No. But she's not saying everything.*

"When you leave me, the Er Rai will begin to forget everything that has occurred, including the instruction I have given him. If you do not hurry, that will also include what has happened to him outside of his experiences here--his sense of self, his memories--and soon there would be only an empty shell to accompany you home, assuming you are able to return there without his help."

Jon sighed. "But will we have to destroy her to do it?"

"I would not suggest that," Siarion said quickly. "The ones who named her would not appreciate it. She is troublesome, but her fate is not to be dealt by Otherworlders."

"I'm tempted to say that neither is ours," Ross said evenly.

Siarion nodded. "As you say. You have among you the capability to destroy her. You must not."

"Then there's nothing to stop her from yanking us right back in here," Neal said. "We could go on doing this forever. We're not willing to."

"What Steve knows is enough to seal her out of your world for the rest of Evenwhen," Siarion said, and they stared at her in alarm. "You did not need to tell me your names. I have always known them. There's no need for alarm. I do not control others. That is for another type of being, and I am not subject to the rules of this world."

"When we get back to the Keep," Steve said, "can't she just make it dark herself? Won't I disappear then?"

"No," Siarion said. "That isn't true darkness. She is trying to mimic your world in whatever ways she understands, and light is one of them. Her manipulation of it is only an illusion, as most of this world will be until she completes it."

"She should stop pulling people in here," Steve said. "No matter where they're from."

Siarion tilted her head. "That, also, is not for me to decide. That you caught her attention completely is all you may know for certain in this place. Hurry, now, before the way becomes even more difficult."

*Sounds like a threat to me, guys,* Neal thought.

"But we have so many questions," Steve said. "What's an 'Evenwhen'?"

Siarion smiled again, sliding the end of her braid between her fingers. "For another...time," she said with a small laugh. "It should have been dark, already. Go, now, and make certain never to lose your key."

Her image rippled, and she vanished.

*I wonder how many times we've had that conversation with her,* Jon thought, *and I have a feeling she remembers them all.*

"Does anyone else think we know even less now than we did before?" Ross said.

"I know we're still in the dark in a lot of ways," Smitty said. "Can't tell us, huh?" he said to Steve.

Steve shook his head. "It'll lose all its' power if I do. Plus, she'll know what we're up to, probably."

"Did she tell you how we can leave here?" Jon said.

"She showed me a bunch of things, in here." Steve touched one temple briefly, dropping his voice to a whisper. "Then she told me The Lady's name. We have to remember what to do, but not think it, or we'll give it all away. We have to make up something else in its place."

"Fair enough," Neal said. "Let's get the hell out of here, then. For the last time." Without looking, he held a hand out for Steve, and they turned back the way they had come.

* * *

They traveled as rapidly as possible, watching the tower receded. Silence descended on them while they outlined what to coach Steve on once he began to forget what had actually happened. He would not be able to lie to The Lady. Steve hurried along resolutely, doggedly, the childishness gone out of him for the moment, and when he couldn't keep up any longer Jon scooped him up onto his shoulders.

When they reached the fence, only the chiming of the bells greeted them. There was no longer even the sense of being watched, as far as they could discern.

*But she knows,* Steve thought. *She's angry.*

"I have a feeling she isn't done with her tricks," Jon said. "That's why I lit you up again. We need all the help we can get."

It took the equivalent of what might have been half of what they had come to consider a day--or night, by then--to return to the edge of the tree line. They spent the time making up what Steve was going to actually 'remember' by the time they returned to the Keep, which was made easier by the fact that he had already begun to forget minor details. He hopped down again, leaping over what few roots tangled aboveground at the thinning edge. It wasn't long after that when the wall of blackness betraying the beginning of her true domain came into view.

They paused briefly at it's boundary, reluctant to step in yet again but knowing there was little left to be fearful of.

They stepped across all at once, having braced for the sudden surreal change in the light but still put off by it. They knew which direction the Keep was in, and nothing shot out of the dark to either accompany or harry them. Smitty brought a spark to life between his hands, more for reassurance than anything else, and they welcomed the small break in the monotony of blackness. Steve began humming again, something no one recognized, and no one thought of stilling him.

"Jay," Steve whispered, "I don't remember how we got here, anymore."

"That's not a bad thing," Jon whispered back. "It's okay if you don't remember. All that's important now is that you make sure to remember all that Siarion told you, and what we're supposed to do. It'll be all right."

"Will I stay this way?"

"I don't know," Jon said honestly.

"Can I live at your house?" Steve said softly but excitedly, and Jon's amusement passed through all of them.

*No,* Neal thought. *We're going to trade you back and forth.*

"Okay," Steve agreed. "But you can't tell me what to do."

They rested only once out of sheer exhaustion for the pace they'd been keeping, huddling around Smitty's small light now that there was nothing in that barren landscape that would catch fire. After a moment, a pair of red eyes glared at them out of the blackness from several hundred yards away, circling around them. They all but ignored it out of weary familiarity until Steve caught sight of it and shot to his feet, the low sound of apprehension he made in his throat causing Ross, who was closest, to grab him.

*What is it?* Steve thought/cried. *What is it?*

"They're pets of The Lady's," Jon said, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. "That's all. They can't hurt you, and even if they could we wouldn't let them."

Only partially reassured, Steve crouched between Jon and Neal, and moments later they headed off again. Steve kept a careful bead on the marauding wraith, which steadily began coming closer as they continued. Smitty's light allowed him a brief glimpse of the bent, shambling thing, and he gasped, sudden despair and sorrowful fear in his thoughts as he covered his face. He had barely done so when Neal swept him up and tucked him under his cloak, covering him from the sight of the creature and keeping him from its eyes as well. Steve hugged him fiercely, desperate to feel safe, and they all joined their thoughts against the wraith. It vanished, and Jon turned his thoughts instead to dispelling the cold the creature had brought, knowing it had probably tried to make use of the tenuous connection Steve had with its kind. Steve poked his head out of Neal's cloak once it was gone, determined, and said, "I'm okay. I can walk. I'm b-brave."

"We know you're brave," Neal said softly. "But we're not going to have you for very much longer, so I'm going to carry you."

Hours seemed to pass; without any way of judging time or distance in the blackness, they trudged on, surprised finally by the cool breeze that picked up along the sand. Smitty threw a fireball into the air above and ahead of them, revealing the forbidding marble columns of the Keep not a quarter mile away. They stood still and silent for a moment, absorbing the impact of it. Then they walked on, dreading but relieved to have it nearly over, no matter what the outcome.

When they reached the spot where they had stood in half-light nearly an eternity before and contemplated their fate, they paused again, examining the wide stone stairs that they had not had a glimpse of before. It was utterly dark beyond, seemingly empty, but they knew it wasn't.

*I can't* Neal thought. *I can't do it.*

*None of us can,* Jon thought, *but you're the one that has to. Hurry, before there is no chance at all.*

Unable to move, Neal stared wretchedly at the stairs, frozen in indecision. He couldn't let any child walk into something so uncertain, so unreal.

*He is many ages,* Jon thought.

Steve brought his face close to Neal's, close enough to see the soft green glow of his eyes, and whispered, "Don't be sad, Neal. It'll be all right. I'll fix it."

Neal held him closer for a moment before putting him down on the first step. Steve patted his boot to reassure himself of the key's security as he had been every few minutes since they had set out, in order not to forget that it existed. Then he straightened and said, "Just give me away."

Neal crouched and looked into his wide, somber eyes. "We'll see you again on the other side," he said. "You won't be alone."

Steve nodded. Then he smiled a little.

"I give you away," Neal said, meaning it, and something went with the words, something he'd been holding without realizing it.

Steve turned and ascended the rest of the stairs, pausing a moment at the door between the columns, careful not to look behind himself. The people behind him were grieving him, and that was suddenly more important than being afraid. He pushed at the large, impenetrable-looking door...

...and it swung easily inward, admitting him, the darkness beyond beckoning. He took one hesitant step, then another.

{come along, singer,} she whispered.

And he did.

* * *

He changed as he stepped the rest of the way through the entrance; everything did. False light illuminated the inside of The Lady's lair, giving the illusion that true daylight was coming in the windows. She no longer needed to try and snare him, since he'd been given to her, and he returned to his true age. The others outside saw nothing. The light before him was either his imagination or for him alone.

He looked at his hands as he had done in the first few seconds of his time there. When he looked up, it was still the same marbled expanse of floor, the same columns, the same transparent wall that didn't really exist, letting in light that didn't really exist.

He remembered very little of it, but he knew it was the same.

He was tired of it.

{Neal has chosen wisely. it is a shame it took such effort to convince him}

"They just want to go home," he said, the line rehearsed. It didn't mean anything anymore. Only the key, and a chance to return to a world they didn't necessarily understand but claimed as home, mattered. He looked to the corner where she stood, her monochromatic white form motionless but far from serene.

{then why did you convince Siarion to stop the light!}

The thought was furious, and barely tolerable from so close. He winced, putting his hands over his ears, knowing the motion was futile. "Siarion explained..."

She struck him without moving, and he fell soundlessly to his knees. {i will not listen to your voice a moment more}

*Siarion explained that I would stop growing younger if the light remained,* he thought, keeping his hands over his ears, *but that the spell could only be broken by you. She convinced us it would be easier to give me over, so they could go home, since I will eventually become part of this place anyway.*

"Did you think I would truly send them home?" she said softly.

"No," he said aloud. "That's why I'm here. I'm going to make you."

A cold smile crept across her still, white face. "You belong to me, now," she said. "You no longer have power here. I think you will be the one made to do as I wish."

She seized him then, and he no longer had a way of resisting her. That easily, she reached the others through him, pulling them into the Keep with a thought.

* * *

It ended much the same way it began.

That is, if anything truly ends.

Jon opened his eyes in that same blackness, feeling a mix of dread and relief, knowing immediately where he was. Again.

"I still hate this fucking place," Neal said aloud.

Smitty snapped a flame to life between his fingers, and they examined the interior of the dungeon again.

"Ditto," Ross said, then promptly made a hand shadow of a bird on the wall.

"He's forgotten almost everything," Neal said.

"But he won't forget this," Jon countered. "He was 'in' the stone here like he was in the caves. He'll remember."

* * *

Above, The Lady smiled at Steve in the resulting silence. "Now," she said softly, "you will bridge the worlds for me, and remain as a door I may open any 'time' I choose."

Steve centered his thoughts, watching the smile fade from her face. "But first," he said, "fair's fair." He reached for her as he had before, not quite remembering the incident but successful this time, reaching through her and propelling himself to the others. Her scream of rage followed him, disregarded.

When Steve appeared, Jon opened his mouth to say something, but The Lady was there behind Steve as soon as the singer appeared, her face a mask of rage.

"You are delaying the inevitable," she snarled. "Shall I make an example of each and every one of the others? Shall I convince you in that manner before I force you to comply regardless of your foolishness?"

Steve already had the key hidden in his hand, thoughts closed to the others. The object was warm in a way that had nothing to do with being kept close to his body--not alive, but more than inanimate. He stepped closer to The Lady, knowing he needed to be as close as possible. He could hear the not-stone around him, having been scattered there once. It was only one of the reasons that what he would attempt would work. He held a hand out to her and said, "No. I only meant to see them again."

She centered on Jonathan then, and her attention was a force he was unprepared for.

"The Inverse has finally shown himself," she said. "You will not escape me again."

Then she lashed out at Steve physically as well as mentally, winding through him and beginning to scatter him almost immediately, slowed by what Jonathan had left him with. The impact left him momentarily incapable of thought...

Jon stumbled away. "Now!" he shouted. "Don't let her...!"

With a careless gesture, The Lady sent Jonathan spinning to the floor, and Steve leaped into the space her minute lapse of attention created, spiraling back through her instead of outward into the not-stone as she had intended. She tried to stop him and immediately realized she couldn't. By taking him over, she had made herself as subject to his power as he was hers.

{you will not resist} she shouted, their individual lines beginning to blur as they struggled.

*They're even,* Ross thought. *Now what!*

Jonathan was back on his feet with Neal's help, and thought, *He's not going to get the advantage until he uses that damn key. And I think I know what'll do it.*

Neal heard what Jon was going to do in time to register it, but not in time to stop him. The keyboardist threw himself against the barrier he knew was there, the same one that had been erected when they had first been pulled there. "You're not going to be able to hold onto your world! You can't even hold onto a bunch of mortals! You're losing again, you crazy bitch!"

The Lady diverted her attention again, turning it on Jonathan, and Neal grabbed him as rivulets of black began to give her monochromatic form the appearance of cracked ice. When their ears began to ring, Ross said, "I think you got her attention, Jay."

The Lady raised a hand toward Jonathan, and Steve said, "Leave them alone, Tuirnarin."

She froze, turning her eyes slowly back to Steve again, undisguised amazement on her face. The blackness left her, retreating only to her eyes again, eyes that were no longer simply a gleaming black but the opposite of light itself. "Who has told you my name?"

"Doesn't matter," Steve said. "What matters is what you do about it."

She paused only a moment longer. Then she went after Steve in a murderous rage.

As soon as they began grappling again, Steve's form began to blur as it had when the light had hit him at every Turning. She leveled her anger on Steve, purposely trying to scatter him, and he let her. The not-stone around him began to become indistinct along with him, a faint, swirling blue. The barrier dropped, forgotten.

*He's opening a gate himself,* Jon thought in amazement. *He's using her--she is a gate, and he's using her, and keeping the damned thing braced open!*

Intent only on destroying Steve and bridging the worlds with him, Tuirnarin failed to see the escape route she was inadvertantly providing for the rest of them until Steve opened his thoughts enough to reach them.

*Get out! Go, while I can still--*

The Keep was gone. In it's place were colorless shadows again, all sense of direction gone. He held an emerald-colored sphere in his hands that leant color to the nearest shadows, and he stared at it foolishly, not understanding what it was.

Then she descended on him.

The first blow was intended to shatter; instead it deflected off him and back into the shadows. Something dark rose behind him, taking the sphere out of his hands and hurling it toward Tuirnarin. She recoiled...

The dungeon returned, but the shadow that had hung over him remained, more solid at that point than he was. It pooled along the floor, which had grown transparent while he had been elsewhere. The wall nearest him was a swirl of electric blue, moving restlessly. Smitty and Ross had vanished, and Jonathan was trying to force Neal to walk into the wall. Steve was holding Tuirnarin at bay by virtue of that shadow and having been 'lit up', but she was slowly gaining the upper hand regardless, continuing to scatter him and reach the others at the same time. She had realized too late that she had no control over the gate, or him. Jonathan was shouting for him to hurry.

*The sooner you go, the sooner I will,* Steve thought, breaking part of his concentration to reach out with that thought, forcing Neal into the wall by will alone. The action left Jon partially in the gate with a hand outstretched to him, trying to reach across the tenuous connection they still shared while Steve continued to dissolve. Tuirnarin took the opportunity, leaping for that connection to do what damage she could to Jonathan.

Steve shoved them both away, severing his connection to Jon, who was unable to resist the push and fell into the non-existent wall, his last sight of the singer that of a nearly transparent man with a bright outline.

*I will see you again,* Steve whispered across a distance that held no meaning, and there was something of him in the flash of blue that closed over Jon. *I will see you

again.

Jonathan looked up, looking at Smitty first and not knowing why. They were in his home studio, staring at each other, trying to regain their bearings.

And he remembered.

"God," he whispered. "We made it. We made it home." The whoop of joy that built behind the words died suddenly, died on all their faces even as they felt the relief of it. They weren't all there.

Neal put his guitar down, assured of the solidity of things, looking around. "Steve isn't here," he stated flatly, far from surprised but disappointed all the same.

They searched anyway, and Jonathan ran into the house to startle the hell out of Liz by grabbing her and holding her as if he hadn't seen her in days, refusing to explain his suddenly bizarre behavior. Then he called Steve's house, and when not even his machine picked up he began to wonder what the hell they'd done by messing around with things they didn't begin to understand. Liz didn't ask any questions when, with the others standing in a small group in the kitchen, Jon announced that they would be back in awhile.

"None of this ever happened," Jon said on the way down the driveway. "It never happened in this time. We rewound." He glanced at Neal.

"Don't look at me," Neal mumbled, keeping his eyes down. "That--I can't remember her name. She took it away, so I didn't do it."

"What the hell else do you suppose is messed with?" Jon said, and the catch in his voice made Smitty shoot him a questioning glance.

"Just say what you're thinking," Ross said tightly. "Go ahead. We can't hear you anymore, remember?"

"What if...because of this...he never was?"

They paused, staring at him in horror. "But we remember him," Smitty said.

"Because we were there," Jon said. "What if only we remember him? Why wasn't he back here, with us?"

"No way," Neal said. "No. Because we wouldn't be here the way we are now. Someone else would have answered his phone, and someone else would have been at rehearsal with us. He just didn't make it back, that's all."

"You don't suppose he changed his mind and tried to fix things himself," Ross said.

Jon shook his head. "It didn't...feel anything like that. He didn't pull away, exactly. He was just trying to force us through."

"If we find him lying in the middle of the floor," Neal said, "we'll know, won't we."

"And then what," Jon said.

Neal stared at him across the hood of Jon's Suburban. "I don't know, Jon."

* * *

It began to rain on the drive over, the sky and streets darkening with it. Little was said except to recount what had happened, making sure it was real, or at least that the hallucination had been shared. Then Jon shouted and pulled over, bolting from the car without saying another word. The others had barely gotten out of the vehicle when Jon stopped roughly thirty yards behind it to stare at something dark on the shoulder of the road. The asphalt gleamed in the half-light as Neal joined him, revealing the crumpled remains of a raven. Its' wings were spread across the pavement, eyes and beak open as if in negation of its' fate. Not long dead, its' feathers repelled the rain, and bright black oilspot eyes glared up at a sky the bird would no longer traverse. Jonathan bent to examine it more closely, fearful.

"Jon," Neal said softly, "it's not him. It's way too small."

Jon nodded, wanting to be relieved by the fact. It was true. He wanted to believe that if Steve was there in another form that the rules of that form would continue to hold. He rose, heavy hearted, and they walked back to the car.

Steve's small house was dark when they arrived; it evinced no signs of life, and there was no hint of movement when they rang the doorbell. The house felt empty, as if it had been empty for a long while.

"Or if someone else answers the door," Jon said, picking the thought up again, unwillingly.

"Screw it, I'm kicking it down," Neal said.

Jonathan made a motion for him to wait, leaning down to fish an extra key out from underneath the doormat. They stared at it for a long moment, yet another key, yet another world, before Jon let them in. The first thing they encountered was Steve's prone form, in the middle of the living room floor. Jonathan and Ross turned him over, finding him alive but unresponsive, his tale of a struggle substantiated by an upended chair. He was unmarked, for all the world asleep except for the fact that he would never awaken.

"I don't know," Ross said softly. "If he didn't come through with us, we can't find him. He'll probably try and find a way on his own."

"Somebody wanna try explaining how, if this all got rewound to a point before we even got mixed up in it, he's exempt?" Smitty said. "In reality, he never struggled with her. Why's he lying in the middle of the floor?"

"It's a paradox, buddy," Ross said. "And for those, there's only one rule."

Smitty shook his head. "Yeah, yeah. Don't think about them."

They moved Steve to the couch that had been shoved up against the wall under the front windows, covering him up with the afghan that was folded across its' back. "If he doesn't come back," Jonathan said, "we'll need to come up with a plausible explanation for finding him in the middle of the goddamn floor and not calling an ambulance. How long do we give him to make it back? Weeks? Years?"

"If time even means anything where he is," Neal said.

Jon sighed. "I just don't want to think he's still wandering around in there, unable to get back. That we left him there."

With her was the unspoken addition, but they could no longer hear each other, and the silence was deafening.

Lightning flashed somewhere close, a burst of radiance, blue-white and enveloping. The thunder came directly on top of it, a clap that shook the windows. Jon jumped a step away from those windows, startled, looking out into the gathering twilight the rain had brought.

"Jesus," Ross said when it had died away, and as he said it something caught Jon's eye out in the rain-veiled grayness of the yard, a darker form sailing toward them...

The largest raven he'd ever seen.

"No!" he shouted, startling the others further, causing them to follow his line of sight in time to see the bird coming in too fast, to see it not pulling up in time to keep from colliding with the glass...

There should have been an impact of some sort; the raven should have at least bounced back from the window, if not smashed it in altogether. But there was no collision when the huge winged form reached the boundary the window created directly above Steve's more tangible if insensible configuration. Instead, it ceased to exist altogether, a burst of sparks traversing the single pane and scattering over Steve, melting away in front of their eyes.

Stunned, they watched, not even realizing they were collectively holding their breath. Nothing happened for a long moment, long enough to cause them to begin losing their hopes. Then Steve stirred, opening his eyes to the ceiling, blinking at it in confusion and beginning to frown. No one moved, and when his eyes shifted toward them he was instantly awake, bolting upright in alarm.

"What the hell!"

Jon held his hands up, palm outwards. "It's okay," he said. "It's over."

Steve stared at him as if he'd lost his mind, his gaze sliding over the rest of them in turn. He threw the afghan off, looking around the rest of the room. "Over," he echoed.

"What do you remember?" Neal said, beginning to wonder if the spell had hung on longer than they'd thought it would.

Steve searched a long, blank span of time in utter confusion, wondering how it had begun getting dark so quickly, and when it had begun to rain. "Rehearsing," he said, his tone indicating he was waiting for the punch line. "What the hell is going on? What are we doing here?"

They regarded him with slightly nervous silence. "You fell and knocked yourself out," Neal said, knowing it was ridiculous, but hoping the same lie would work twice. Steve stood, gaping at him, putting a hand to the side of his own head.

"You don't remember anything," Jon said.

Steve blinked at him, then out the window. When he looked back, he said, "No." He peered closely at Jon for a moment, dropping his hand. "You guys expect me to believe that I tripped or whatever and fell hard enough to knock myself out? And I was out long enough for all four of you to decide to bring me here? I don't have any lumps, my head doesn't even hurt, so you guys are jerking my chain."

"Well," Ross said, "actually, a section of the ceiling came loose. One of the acoustic panels."

Steve shook his head. "Anyone ever hear of a hospital?"

"We were there first," Smitty said. 'They said you were fine and to...bring you home..." He stopped because Steve was already shaking his head again in disbelief, the look on the singer's face telling him to give it up.

"This is the lamest string of bullshit you guys have ever tried to pull on me."

"Okay," Neal said, "here it is. You were abducted by aliens."

Steve regarded their uneasy, humorless faces and burst into laughter. "Oh, I don't believe this. Something really horrifying must have...must have happened..." Then he fell serious just as suddenly, turning back to Jon, pinning him under his gaze. "Just tell me what happened. I didn't fall."

Jonathan stepped forward then and simply embraced him, holding him tightly and stunning him into silence. "You did fall," he said, "but you're fine now. Everything's okay." He pulled away a little, holding Steve's face between his hands, looking close and carefully in his eyes, and some small vestige of what had passed between them before in another world did so again...

And for the first time in collective memory, Steve let something alone to take care of itself. The lie stood unscathed, and Jon stepped away reluctantly.

"Come home with me," he said to Steve, "so I can keep an eye on you. I don't want you alone out here tonight, and that way if you're feeling okay we can get an early start in the morning."

Steve continued to stare at him, wondering what had happened when Jon had embraced him, wondering what had happened period.

"Then what'd we bring him here for," Ross said, "if you wanted him at your house?"

"I wasn't thinking," Jon said with a shrug. "Sue me."

"I guess I'll head out then," Smitty said with forced nonchalance. "Long drive."

"Yeah, me too," Ross said. Steve then watched them all shake hands and embrace each other as if they hadn't seen each other in ages, or might not again. They clapped him on the back as they went, promising to see each other at Jon's in the morning. Then Neal looked Steve up and down and said, "You've been quiet for like two minutes. Are you still in there?"

Steve nodded dumbly, still waiting for the punch line.

"Because I usually can't get you to shut up. There must be something wrong with you." Then he too embraced him, holding him away by his shoulders and smiling, and Steve picked up on little else but that Neal had been frightened out of his wits and was covering for it.

"Get your stuff," Jon said to Steve. "Neal left his car out at my place, so he has to ride along with us anyway."

Steve nodded dumbly again and walked away in a daze. When he was gone, Neal said, "What'd you do to him?"

"Whatever I had left," Jon whispered. "If he didn't get a chance to do whatever Siarion told him, and seal her in there, we'd know it by now. We'd be back in there again without realizing we'd ever been out."

"And he wouldn't have come back at all if he couldn't seal that place up. We made it."

"Yeah," Jon sighed. "Now if only we didn't remember it either." Something dawned on Jon even as he said the words, and he walked quickly toward the kitchen with Neal close behind after having seen the look on Jon's face. There, in the middle of the kitchen table, scattered pages of note paper remained. The shattered mug and its contents were still on the floor. Jon gathered the pages quickly, glancing over his shoulder to ensure that Steve would not discover them and renew the argument. He had, as he'd said, written out what he'd seen and heard. They scanned it rapidly, skipping through, recognizing the events of the first two pages...

But not the rest.

That's when the argument started. Neal and myself haven't always gotten along, but I never meant for things to get out of hand...

"Holy shit," Neal whispered. "He killed all of us? Like anybody would believe this..."

"'Their bodies will never be found'," Jon whispered, reading on. "'I can't live with the damage my temper has done...'"

Neal tore the pages out of Jon's hands, but Jon stopped him in the action of crumpling them. "No. This, when you come right down to it, is the only other solid thing we have besides the key to prove that any of it happened."

"Bitch had a wild imagination," Neal whispered. "You're not really gonna keep this, are you?"

"For now. We might have to prove this to him, someday. I'm not going to ever just try and explain it. He can stay in the dark forever, unless he remembers on his own." Jon gathered the pages, folding them carefully and jamming them into an inside pocket of his jacket. Neal picked up the remainder of the coffee mug and disposed of it, wiping the floor. Then he and Jon stared at each other for a long moment.

"When you figure out what that was really all about, you let me know, huh?" Neal said finally. "Give it a few weeks, though."

Jon nodded, and they left it at that.

* * *

They went back to work on the album that spring as if nothing had happened. By the middle of August it was virtually completed, and that plus arranging an impending tour demanded their full attention. It was a world they were familiar with, one that provided some sense of balance and sanity.

For awhile.

End, book I
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