I was done with this story. I swear I was. The 'short joke' was over. Christmas at the toy store was over. Then one of those industrial-size suburban raccoons was poking around under my bedroom window in the wee hours one January morning. My eyes snapped open in the dark and I thought, they didn't destroy her.

At least...I hope it was a raccoon.

This is set five months after 'Candles' ends, the summer of '96, while 'Trial By Fire' was still under construction.

DISCLAIMER: Sony is big, Columbia is big, Journey is big...Barb is little.
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DARKNESS GATHERS
(c)1998 B Stearns

Time and I against any two.
--Spanish proverb

*
Everyone's a prisoner holding their own key.
--Steve Perry/John Bettis, Running Alone

*
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is
sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is
dreaming,
And the lamplight o'er him streaming throws his shadow
on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow
Shall be lifted--nevermore!
--Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven

* * *

He waded out of sleep slowly, the consciousness unwelcome.

He had heard something.

He rolled over in bed, blinking at the dim glow of his bedside clock, simultaneously realizing what time it was and that there was something wrong with the darkness around him. Three thirty, but not accompanied by the darkness that nearby LA afforded; not the twenty-four hour half light provided by a city with millions of people. It was utterly black outside, as if something had pulled an impenetrable curtain.

Then the scraping, again.

Like an animal outside the window, dragging it's claws along the siding.

He sat up, throwing the covers back and rising. It knows I'm here, but hasn't caught my scent yet, he thought, then paused at the oddness of it. What the hell was he thinking? There was a stray dog, or other urban wildlife out there, something he'd shoo away before going back to sleep.

But he didn't want that either, did he? Not after the award-winning nightmares he'd been having since the rehearsal he didn't remember five months earlier. The ones with state of the art special effects. The impossible, disjointed fairy tale starring a pack of twisted, black and tattered things running him to ground, their claws tearing at him. He shook himself out of it yet again, knowing he had to be losing it, somehow. The scratching made a hollow, rough noise at the wall beneath the windows again, and he knew without beginning to understand how that he couldn't go near the window, because the thing would see him and there would be no escape.

Steve dressed hurriedly in the dark, moving into the hallway to do so, reflecting that he was too old to be acting the way he was, or contemplating escape from a raccoon. But he knew--knew--there was no dog or raccoon. Even something human would have been welcome compared to what some part of him knew was out there. He had been waiting, in a way, leaving his shoes close to the bed and keeping clothes laid out in case he had to leave in a hurry.

What am I doing?

The last of his reason battled with the subconscious instinct that had awoken him in the first place. And lost.

He walked into the living room, pulling tennishoes on, and as he did, his bedroom window and the frame around it shattered as something huge smashed it inward.

He dove for the back door in sheer panic, running blindly through the kitchen, grateful that his eyes had adapted to the darkness. Something was quicker, though, hideously fast, failing to maneuver around the kitchen table as he did, smashing into it. There were two red pinpoints of light...

He scrabbled for one of the chairs, holding it in front of himself, gasping in panic. The half light had returned to the windows, and the hellishly blacker thing rose above him, rising on hind legs to the ceiling. Hissing.

He groped in terror for the light switch, not wanting a better look at the thing but needing the light, knowing he needed it the way he knew he wouldn't simply die if he let the thing touch him.

It dropped to the floor again, making a sound that was nearly a parody of laughter, backing him the rest of the way into the corner. He continued to feel along the wall with one hand while using the other to keep the chair between him and his visitor. It had grown cold in the house, negating the eighty degree weather outside, and he'd lived there for years but couldn't find the goddamned light switch!

It should have just attacked him; he couldn't imagine what it was waiting for, couldn't imagine it. He was unable to truly see it but could feel the size and shape of it, unable to take his eyes off the blackness. It crouched lower as his fingers finally brushed the light switch, time freezing when the thing leisurely ripped the chair out of his hands, hurling it away and rising in front of him. Then the light was on, a shock after the density of the darkness, exposing the thing towering over him. It dropped away, a clattering of claws across the linoleum as it snarled with rage and shot for cover in a motion too quick for his eyes to follow. But not quick enough to spare him a glimpse of it close up; bony claws and tattered, leathery skin on a misshapen frame, needle teeth in a blunt snout that had been inches from his face. It blurred away from him, leaving only the sound of his gasping.

He sank to his knees, trying to catch his breath and begin convincing himself that there had been nothing but another nightmare...

...and a dank stone corridor lit by torch light, the torch trembling in a hand he knew, and a thing scraping its claws on the stones just beyond the circle of light.

A rending sound along the wall across from him startled him out of the lull, and he scrambled to his feet again, keeping his back to the door. The noise sounded again immediately, and he saw the wall across from him bow inward slightly. It, whatever it was, was real and trying to remove the barrier. It shrieked then, a Jurassic Park, mind-splintering noise, and he pressed his ears shut with his fingers, clenching his teeth to keep from screaming, because he knew if he started he would never, never stop.

It leaped back into view, out of reach of the light but darker than the shadows around it, rising again and baring its teeth. The red eyes blinked rapidly, snout tilted upward as it quested for something. Then it attacked the wall again, the flash of motion barely registered before the sound of the impact reached him along with a realization: it was looking for a way to interrupt the electricity to the kitchen, not quite smart enough to go back outside and sever the power lines altogether.

Steve dove for the phone, knowing as he picked it up that it was ludicrous, that there was no one to call. The police? And tell them what, exactly? That there was something, maybe a mutant bear, tearing up his house? And when they arrived, would it have vanished without a trace--or would he be bringing it more victims? Would the cops look at him and decide another musician had torn up his house in a drug-induced frenzy and take him somewhere the lights wouldn't come on in time?

The thing barreled into the wall again, another shriek tearing the air, and somehow it was Jonathan's number he dialed, unaware of it until Jon answered sleepily and warily an eternity of rings later.

"Turn on every light in your house. Get your kids, and turn on every fucking light in the house!"

"Stephen," Jon said tersely, instantly awake, "what the hell is going on!"

"There's...something here," Steve said, backing up when the tattered thing hit the wall again. The violence of it shook the house. "It doesn't like the light, whatever it is, but it isn't going to be light long, the way it's tearing into the walls."

"Jesus, God," Jonathan said. "No. Stay in the house, and no matter what, don't let it touch you!"

"You know what it is, don't you," Steve said accusingly, backing around toward the sink to keep from having more of a view of the creature than he had to. "Jonathan, what the fuck is it!"

"Do you have a flashlight?' Jonathan said. "Candles, anything to keep it light if it gets the power off. Light anything you can, light the damned house on fire if you have to. Just keep it light. I'm coming."

"No!" Steve shouted. The beast in the living room made a grating, gnashing sound before a clawed appendage snaked around the wall and gripped the door frame, the sound turning to one of frustration. Steve purposely lowered his voice, shivering, trying to inject reason back into the unreasonable. "No. First of all, you're an hour away. What are you going to do, wish it away?"

"That's what you said the first time," Jonathan said. "They won't come for us, they can't hear us the way they hear you. Dawn is an hour away, and it'll leave. You have to keep it light somehow in the meantime."

"And what the hell do I do when that doesn't work?" Steve said, nearly shouting again.

"Sing it away," Jon said. "It worked before. Just sing it away. We don't have any powers on this side, but that should still work."

"You're not making any sense!" Steve yelled, and a section of wall gave way across from him, by the stove, making the creature more visible before it shrank from the light again.

"Does the thing in your house make any sense?" Jonathan said, his voice catching. "You have to believe me. We've been through this, and you have to survive it again. We're going to be there at first light, and you're going to be alive when we get there, do you understand?"

"No," Steve whispered. "But God, you meant it, you lied to me for a reason. There were thousands of them. Why didn't you tell me they were coming!"

"Because they're not supposed to be capable of crossing over," Jon said. "We sealed that place off, but she found another way. We didn't destroy her."

"Then you owe me one hell of an explanation," Steve said through clenched teeth as the creature dug at the wall again, the plaster flaking away from the perforation it had made.

"You live so I can give it to you," Jonathan replied harshly. "Dammit, I can't gather you back together here."

"Hey, I have no intention of letting it do anything." Steve moved along the cupboards and drawers nearest to him, searching for candles and matches.

"I don't want to hang up," Jon said, "but I have to get to you."

"You just make sure there isn't one in the dark out there somewhere looking for you," Steve said. "You be damn sure there's only one, and that I have it."

"You have it," Jon said. "I will see you in an hour. Less, if I can help it. You be there."

"Yeah, well, tomorrow I'm calling an exterminator."

Steve hung up the phone and began rifling through the drawer nearest the sink, coming up with a pack of birthday candles. He cursed aloud, stilling the urge to laugh as successfully as he'd kept from screaming. I'd like to wake up, now, anytime!

It had been silent on the other side of the wall for too long. He began searching more frantically, yet he felt much calmer since talking to Jon. He knew better than to trust the sudden reprieve, wondering why the damn thing wasn't still hitting the wall. The quiet was more unnerving for the promise it held. He found three white pillar candles jammed in the back of the lowest drawer by the sink, holding them up and brushing the dust off them. All he needed were matches. He'd never smoked, but didn't everyone have a pack of matches somewhere? He returned to drawers he'd already looked through, trying not to keep his back completely to the wall. In the same drawer the birthday candles had been in, a pack of matches surfaced, the name of some convenience store chain emblazoned on the cover. He lit all three candles, placing them close together on the one chair that had survived the previous ten minutes. As an afterthought, he kicked the largest surviving piece of the table into the doorway, knowing it would do little as a barricade but needing to make the effort.

The silence drew out intolerably.

"Dad and I made that table, you son of a bitch," Steve said aloud. "Thanks a lot." He clamped down on the laughter again. "I can't wait to tell him what happened to it. 'Well, Dad, you see, the Bogey Man was here'. And what's my insurance company going to say about the walls?" His voice broke, and he made a disgusted, dismissive gesture in the general direction of the rest of the house. Then he dragged the chair and it's cargo over to the counter by the sink, choosing the corner he was going to make a stand in. The window above the sink was eastern-facing, and dawn was coming...

It occurred to him again to make a run out the back door. But it was dark outside, and he already knew outrunning the thing wasn't an option.

With a wrenching sound of finality and a shower of sparks, the lights went out.

Steve crouched behind the candles, as close as he could get to them, too frightened to do more. A moment later, the demon sent the remainder of the table back across the kitchen and into the back door, shattering the glass in the door's top half. The creature followed, claws clicking along the linoleum, jaws triumphantly agape. The red eyes sought him out above the wavering, almost insubstantial light. Steve knew then that the candles weren't enough, that they might hold the thing at bay for a minute or so before it swiped at them and put them out.

Then it would put him out.

He closed his eyes for a fleeting moment, every prayer his Catholic-raised parents had taught him flooding back to him. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil...

Sing it away!

It was Jonathan's voice, and it was so real that Steve opened his eyes again, expecting Jon to be there. The creature had crept along the floor toward him, along the edge of the pool of light, the size of it blocking out the rest of the world. One of the candles guttered a little, and Steve knew he would never be as frightened again as he was at that moment. His life unraveled behind him, an all too short film played for his mind's eye.

She was here, she was walking right next to you the whole time!

"God help me," he whispered, and almost by design, a hymn followed the plea, 'Angles We Have Heard On High', as easily as any other time he'd opened his mouth to sing. As if fear hadn't constricted his throat and stolen the oxygen from the air.

The creature shank away, teeth bared again as Steve's voice made light out of the song, the music gaining strength the further the creature retreated. In excelsus dei...

It shrieked again, and Steve didn't pause even as the thing lashed out, barely missing him, leaving one candle intact as the other two spun off into the darkness in pieces. Steve snatched the remaining candle and backed into the counter. The thing did not follow him, frozen in place, hissing as it dug furrows into the floor with its claws.

Steve sang every hymn and spiritual he'd ever heard, the standoff continuing minute after interminable minute while he waited for the light. The creature refused to back down but wouldn't advance either, and Steve swore he could feel the earth slowly turning beneath them, the Sun's light bending along the sphere they lived on and through the layers of atmosphere...

It was when he realized that he could just make out details around him that he discovered his hands were locked around the candle and wouldn't obey him. Someone would have been prying it out of his cold, dead fingers had he not taken Jon's advice and spent the previous forty minutes singing to the bent, impossible horror on the floor before him. He was seated up on the counter, legs crossed, pressed as close to the window as he could get, the sliver-blue summer morning revealing in detail the length of the creature's teeth and the skeletal cruelty of its frame. It rose again in that last moment, unwilling to admit defeat, wanting to strike at him again but too close to the morning it despised. The light grew rapidly, overshadowing its hunger for him, and it snapped at the air before leaping into the shattered wall, becoming insubstantial as it phased away back to darkness.

Unable to believe it was truly gone, Steve continued singing for several minutes afterward, singing the same phrase over and over without realizing it. When he finally fell silent out of exhaustion, that too was without conscious realization, and he kept his gaze fixed on the shattered wall, still singing somewhere no one heard him. As the first rays of sunlight hit him and traveled through the holes in the retaining wall, he did not move or look elsewhere, even when someone pounded on the front door sometime later, even when it was kicked in.

* * *

Jon barely waited for the door to swing inward before he was through it, calling Steve's name. Unanswered, he stood momentarily staring at the obvious destruction with Neal at his shoulder. The wall across from them, barely blocking their view of the kitchen, was a ruin of plaster and bare, shattered studs, drywall leaking out in strips and spread in a wide ribbon on the floor below the holes. Electrical wiring twisted outward, singed. Footprints stood out graphically in the resulting powder, huge and determined, the claw marks in most of the walls even more fearful in their suggestion. Neal leaned over and picked something up, half of a white pillar candle, a piece of wick dangling from one end, claw marks marring the remainder.

"Stephen," Jon demanded of the silence, rooted to the spot, unable to go any further. Neal put a hand on his shoulder and stepped past, stride stilted with unwillingness, and Jon followed immediately, shaking. The first thing Neal saw was the grooves in the floor of the kitchen and the smashed table, only shattered pieces remaining. The thing that stayed with him, though, the thing he never forgot despite everything else he'd seen and would see, was the chair in the wall. Intact, the back of it stuck out of the wall by the cupboards above the stove, all four of its legs fixed into the plaster at an angle. It reminded him of the stories about tornadoes driving pieces of straw through telephone poles.

A twister, he thought. No one could have survived this.

They both saw Steve at the same time, the cross-legged figure sitting on the counter back lit by a late August morning, the candle in his bloodless hands still burning steadily, eyes stunned and comprehending only what had gone before. He didn't hear or see them, unconscious until Jonathan shook him. Then he startled, gaze snapping back into focus, regarding them each in turn with undisguised horror.

"They're in the walls," he said.

* * *

"I don't understand," Steve said.

Nearly half an hour after finding the singer, the three of them were in his living room drinking coffee and doing their damnedest to pretend everything was business as usual. He had finally stopped shaking, finally been coerced into releasing the candle, and was listening as Jon and Neal tried to explain.

"Maybe not now," Neal was saying, "but you probably remember bits of it. You're probably having the same nightmares we have been."

Steve looked at him sharply, and Neal knew he was correct.

"No way in hell," Steve said slowly, "did any of that happen."

"One of them just tried to shred you," Neal said. "Was that real? Did that happen? Look what it did to the house. And that was only one."

"What...did it want?" Steve said.

"Not just to kill you," Neal said, tone hard. "But you knew that, the way you knew the lights had to come on."

"Where's the key?" Jon interrupted softly.

Steve dropped his eyes. He'd found something on the floor after that day four months earlier, and Jon had told him to keep it safe. It was a heavy, antique key he hadn't liked the feel of. He raised his eyes again to a section of wall near the ceiling that separated the dining area from the living room. They followed his gaze, finding the key hanging from a framing nail.

"We did lie to you for a reason," Jon said, drawing his attention. "It was better to leave your memory the way it was. Things happened to us I hope you never remember. But you have to believe us. You saw that thing."

"Tell me," Steve said.

Leaving nothing out intentionally, they did, from the moment Smitty had disappeared right up to finding the singer on the floor.

Steve looked at Neal. "Was I really eight?" he said, nearly smiling.

Neal did not return it, a small sadness passing over him. "You," he said, "were very, very eight."

"Then...she's here?" Steve said, referring to The Lady.

"Not necessarily," Jon said, looking down into his barely touched coffee. Bird song sounded from outside, ludicrously cheery and failing to lighten the pall in the house. "But she's up to something. We don't know if the wraiths have always been able to cross over. She could have sent it over the same way she pulled us in there. She and the wraiths can hear you and figure out where you are. Only one would have been necessary."

"One was more than enough," Steve said vehemently, gesturing at the walls. "Why? What the hell am I doing, that I need to be..." He trailed off, looking for a word that said more than killed.

"Extinguished," Jon said. "Because she probably doesn't need you anymore. She's found a way to break the seal, and now we're just a threat to her. If we crossed over to stop her, we could try and make it a little more final this time."

"Stop her?" Steve said incredulously. "Jesus, assuming I've even caught up and can begin to believe this crazy bullshit, you can't tell me we'd go back there for any reason."

We'd go back there," Neal said, "because we can't have her loose here, not her and not the wraiths."

"But I destroyed them," Steve said with forced certainty. "You said I did."

"She's had...time...to rectify that," Jon said. "She doesn't even really understand time."

"She has forever, remember?" Neal said, then regretted it, watching something pass over Steve, some sort of fleeting hint of memory that vanished as soon as it presented itself. Steve rose, walking back toward the kitchen, a shaking hand tracing a scored outline left in the wall by something he could barely tolerate the thought of. He pulled his hand back just as quickly as if the wall had been hot, and in an indefinable way, it had. Something truly dark had left more than just furrows behind.

"And you guys have kids," Steve said aloud. "No, we can't have them loose here."

Then the bird slammed into the window.

It startled Jon and Neal to their feet, spinning in time to watch the end of the winged creature's rebound, a crack visible in the glass. They got a glimpse of dark plumage before it struck the boards of the porch. They looked at each other, Jon and Neal remembering the dark avian form that had melted into the same glass on another occasion. Then Steve was out the door ahead of them, pausing to stare at the now dead raven. It wasn't until he lifted his head that they followed, the disbelief and dread on his face drawing them after him.

On the eaves of the house, on the nearby telephone poles and power lines, in the trees surrounding them, there were ravens. Silent and watchful, the birds peered down with bright and knowing eyes.

Steve tried to say something and failed. He walked out into the yard, looking around. They were surrounded with ravens.

"Stephen King was here," Neal said, not a trace of humor in his voice.

"Somebody's here," Steve said. "If it's not her..." He turned and looked at Jon. "I heard you," he said. "This morning, when that thing cut the power, I'd forgotten what you said, but I heard you."

Before Jon could make sense of that or reply, a feminine voice behind them said, "Well, all grown up, I see."

They turned, finding a tall, silver haired and silver eyed woman, this time as human as they were. Her eyes were no longer mirrors, but her manner of dress remained the same.

"Siarion," Jonathan said, his tone neither surprised or relieved.

She nodded, smiling. "Inverse," she said. "I do not manage to visit here often. It was an unfinished world, too, the last I saw of it. It is still unfinished, and perhaps always will be. Many things are unfinished, or I would not be here." She gazed at Steve, smile still intact. "You're not as I remember, but I would know the Er Rai anywhere. Do you not remember me?"

Steve shook his head slowly, forcing himself not to back away from her, feeling the world begin to spin out of control again.

"Whatever else she did to him reversed when we got back here," Neal said. "But his memory didn't come back."

Siarion looked at Steve again. "You will need all the knowledge you had to help you," she said. "There were things only you knew, little one. Shall I give it all back to you?"

Steve simply stared at her. I watch over the Evenwhen...

"Not from what I've heard so far," he said, finding his voice. "Not after this morning."

"Do you still have the key?" she said.

Steve nodded. "It was looking for that too, wasn't it? It was supposed to kill me in my sleep and bring her the key."

Siarion held a hand out to Steve, and it was all he could do not to run. "How did you cross over?" he stammered.

Frowning slightly, Siarion dropped the hand. "I still move between worlds. Unfortunately, so do The Lady's denizens now, the stronger ones. She has accomplished much, and she has not forgotten you."

"You told us she'd be sealed away for the rest of Evenwhen," Jon said without accusation. "What happened?"

Siarion sighed, a very human sound. "The Lady has paused the Evenwhen," she said gravely. "It will not touch your world, yet. But the consequences of it will, soon. She is free to move about in the darkness she prefers, and there are worlds that no longer know light at all. She has branched several worlds, as she meant to. She has not been able to make the transition to this one, but she grows more powerful the longer the Evenwhen is in her grasp. The longer she has it, the smaller the chances that Sidain and myself will be able to restore it. Things will cease growing and changing. You call it time and mark its passage. But it will cease."

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