DARKNESS GATHERS Part XIII
(c)1998 B Stearns



Steve returned to them, forced to come closer and address what he couldn't change. "If I were you," he said almost under his breath to Jon, "I'd be more worried about how you're going to explain my disappearance. The last call I made was long distance to you, at three in the morning. Someone's gonna start asking questions, if you guys get out of here, and you and Neal are gonna be in a spot. Your fingerprints are all over my torn-up house, and depending on where the namers dump you when this is over, some time might've passed from the moment you guys kicked my door in. I'm gone. I suggest you figure out how to avoid being suspects."

"There has to be another way," Jon said, clenching the necklace in his hand until it left an imprint in his palm.

Steve stepped away, then turned and began walking again. "So I can do what? More destruction? I just became expendable. We might as well make the most of it."

"It never occurred to me," Neal said, hushed. "It was so close to the time that it really happened, it just seemed..." *Jesus, did I kill him again? Is there any fucking end to this?*

"You had to do it," Ross said. "You didn't have that much choice. We can't get out of here without him. We can't get rid of her."

*I'm going,* Steve thought. *We need some idea about the layout of this place.*

*Are you waiting for permission?* Neal thought.

Steve paused. There had been something in that, something close to his own voice in Neal's response. He turned back and looked at the guitarist, and without knowing why, said, "I'm sorry."

Neal looked as if he couldn't decide if he should hit Steve or cry, and his thoughts weren't much different.

"Let's go over what we're gonna do, first," Ross said. "Let's get something down, before we're separated again."

They leapt into the discussion as if reaching for a lifeline, throwing themselves into what little there was left that they could control. Enough had happened to tip them off to what needed to be done, both to remove The Lady and keep themselves in one piece. Jon and Ross came up with the majority of the ideas, and with some augmentation from Smitty, an actual plan began to form. There was enough between them to pull it off. They were considerably closer to the Outlands when they finished hammering it out and could agree to the finer points. The rest, improvisation would have to cover. And if it was one thing they'd been good at, as a whole, on the road or otherwise, it was improvisation. That had never changed.

Darkness began to fall in the meantime, and from there they were able to glimpse a suggestion of their final destination. There were two towers, sharp spires still several miles off, just coming into view before the light vanished and revealed an occasional dim light lower to the ground. Buildings.

"I'll be back, this time," Steve said.

A doubtful something escaped from Neal, something close to yeah, right, and Steve inclined his head at him, raising his eyebrows.

"Well, I will."

*If you don't come back, we're done. Don't try being expendable yet,* Neal thought.

"We can't...stand out in the open, visible," Jon reminded him.

"I'll find you," Steve said.

He stared at them a moment. Then the bird was gone, a brief, dark blur vanishing into the blackness above.

Jon stood still with his eyes closed until the whirring sound of pinions beating the air vanished along with the bird.

"We'll fix it," Smitty said.

"I'm beginning to feel a little destructive, myself," Jon grated between his teeth.

* * *

The distant lights of the Outlands made eerie apparitions on the visible horizon, fixed but flickering in the chill night air, when the raven dropped out of the not-sky to land on Jon's shoulder again. Waiting for the bird had been tense, knowing they didn't have enough time to do anything about it if he'd been taken again. As Ross had so laconically put it, they'd reached their quota of Steves. But then that strangely comforting weight was back on the keyboardist's shoulder and they continued on through a fresh layer of snow. As agreed, Steve would remain as he was until he absolutely had to return to his own form, guiding them through what he'd learned of the Outlands. When they were past worrying about whether she heard them or not, Steve would probably be standing behind The Lady anyway and it would basically be over.

They encountered their first patrol soon after sighting the wavering, dim lights. Eyeless but stealthy, the Watch was unaware of them thanks to Jon and Ross. They made a wide berth around the stumbling denizens regardless, even though it managed to bring them closer to a drifting wraith several minutes later. It thrust its blunt head into the air as they passed, nearly convincing them it heard their passage, but they went unmolested. When they came in full view of the settlement, it seemed to waver much as the torchlights had, a mirage in the frozen desert.

*Here we are,* Ross thought.

They passed several low buildings before wandering in among the paths between, staring at everything in the minimal light from the buildings themselves. The raven left Jon's shoulder to alight on the roof of the nearest building. Unable to see or hear them beyond the dissembling, he gave the others time to catch up before fluttering for the next, leading them further in. The place was bigger than they'd expected, and strangely well organized, and Jon had to wonder what the purpose of it was.

*It means she doesn't know what the fuck she's doing,* Neal thought. *Some of this and some of that, borrowed from all over. It's still unfinished, like the rest of this crazy place, rough around the edges. We're dealing with someone who can't color inside the lines.*

*It's her idea of what she thinks a town is,* Ross added. *From maybe a two year old's point of view--not really understanding what goes into it, just that people live there. A concept without detail.*

*Takes all kinds, I guess,* Smitty thought.

*Had enough of this kind,* Neal thought.

Even though the towers had been visible from a distance, they walked up on them before they realized they were there. She'd put some sort of field around them, difficult to reach from up close but not impeding their visibility from a distance. There were no foundations to the dark, spiraling structures, giving the impression that they'd grown from below.

*The Keep had underground passageways,* Smitty thought. *I suppose these will, too.*

"They will," Jon whispered.

*And they'll be goddamn dark,* Neal thought. *That's where Smith comes in handy...again.*

*Let's find them and get out of sight until morning, then,* Jon thought.

It was just impertinent enough to work: walking straight up and hiding directly in her sight, the last place she'd look. Jon had reasoned that, while she knew they were coming, she wouldn't expect them to stay put right under her nose. There would only be one more distraction. After that, either they were gone for good, or she was.

*You can't tell me she won't notice this,* Ross thought, examining the side of the nearest tower critically.

*She's not paying the kind of attention she was,* Jon thought. *There wouldn't be guards, and wraiths all over the place, if she could.*

Ross rested a hand high on the tower, and a portion of it rippled away into the darkness beyond. *Hurry up, if you want me to be able to put it back the way it was before someone notices!*

Jon stepped outside of the dissembling to gesture to the bird as Smitty and Ross cautiously stepped inside the tower. The raven opened it's wings to join them from the nearest structure, and as it did, something else stirred in the shadows. A wraith they hadn't seen shot out from between buildings, intent on the bird...

"Steve!"

Neal had just enough time to leap beyond the dissembling, shout, and shove Jon back at the same time. The raven shot straight into the air as the wraith plowed into the building just beneath it. Between the shout, the leap of the wraith, and Jon stumbling into him, Ross lost his grip on the tower, and the opening he'd created snapped shut with Neal still outside.

*Open it!* Jon thought frantically, his hands against the slick, cold surface, unable to see. The darkness inside was complete.

*I can't,* Ross answered in shock, his hands against the wall as well. *It's not working, it won't open from the inside!*

*Neal,* Jon and Smitty thought at the same time.

Neal heard them but was too preoccupied with keeping the wraith from catching sight of him now that the dissembling was down. The bird was out of reach, and he saw the monster drift by the windows of the building the bird had been perched on. The dim light from within made the thing apparent, and he didn't want it any closer than it was. He inched around the tower, trying to keep one eye on the ground so he didn't stumble, watching the wraith look at the sky.

*I'll find another way in,* he thought. *Don't give yourselves away by trying to get to us.*

*Where the hell are you gonna hide from a wraith all night?* Ross thought. *Not with the denizens!*

*I'll get up on one of these roofs and lie low,* Neal thought. *We still have a shot at this.*

He continued around the tower, and the nearest building on the other side turned out to be roughly a hundred yards across open space. If the wraith heard him, or came around to his side hoping to catch sight of the bird, it would be a choice between the Evenwhen or the monster. He stood with his back pressed against the tower, psyching himself up, and heard something coast by overhead. A moment later, the bird was back on the same building it had started from, eyes on Neal, aware of what was going on.

The wraith screamed then, from between the buildings, and Neal nearly blew it. The only thing that kept him from running for it was the knowledge that it would catch him. The bird cawed, an obnoxious, taunting sound in the lull after the wraith's shriek, then shot back into the air when the wraith centered on it. The bird made it just out of reach before the wraith landed on the building, and this time the wraith went airborne after it...

Neal never saw the rest of it. He ran from his temporary cover toward the small grouping of structures directly ahead, hoping there wasn't anything else lying in wait. He made it to the closest building, clearing the corner of it and dodging the windows. Nothing in its right mind would be anywhere near the windows after hearing the wraith scream, but he wasn't taking any chances. He made a leap for the corner of one slanted roof, bracing his feet against the stone wall of the structure and managing to haul himself up without unnecessary noise before rolling flat onto the roof itself. Had there been a moon, or stars, the light would have given him away to anything within miles.

He laid there trying to catch his breath, keeping himself flat against the roof, careful not to move. He heard absolutely nothing and hoped it was only because he was out of range to the others.

*Jay?*

There was no answer.

* * *

Smitty dared to snap a flame to life once it had been determined there wasn't a way to get back outside. There was no sense waiting in the pitch blackness to see if the commotion had brought The Lady down on their heads. Their immediate surroundings were nearly identical to the passages under the Keep--high ceilinged and fully enclosed. This time, as far as they knew, they were still above ground.

*What now?* Ross thought.

*We'll just keep going,* Jon thought. *If they can find a way in here, they will. If I can get to her, it won't matter after that who hears us. Can you see if there's anything under us?*

Ross opened the floor, and nothing confronted them from below, even when Smitty found the guts to lower a flame down there and poke his head through to look.

*Like I said, drummer doesn't get enough credit,* Ross thought.

*You first,* Smitty thought.

They all lowered themselves through the opening and looked around. Again, another set of passages, this time staying level. Ross closed the ceiling above, shaping part of the not-stone into a point that extended enough from the ceiling that they'd be able to recognize it again. No sign of a dungeon, just an occasional alcove in the walls, evenly spaced, deep enough for them to fit into if they had to. It was as if she'd considered rooms but hadn't bothered to finish making them.

*Let's go a little further,* Jon thought, *and if nothing else runs out at us...this looks as promising a place to hide as anywhere.*

*That says a lot,* Ross thought.

Disturbingly, the passages never curved around to follow the shape of the base of the tower. They decided it either meant that the underground passages extended beyond and covered a lot more ground, or shape and space meant nothing where they were. In either case, not wanting to distance themselves from the tower, they backtracked a little and chose an alcove at random to huddle in, finally extinguishing the light and beginning to wait.

*How'll we know it's morning?* Smitty thought.

*We'll know,* Ross thought. *The two outside will tell us...or they'll be here.* He paused, then added, *I hope we're in the right tower. Maybe it doesn't matter.*

* * *

Neal didn't know how long he'd been there, freezing half to death, when the bird returned. Unfortunately, it landed right on him to keep it's claws from making any noise against the icy not-stone, nearly startling Neal into making noise of his own. He'd been sitting cross-legged up there for some time, occasionally hearing something drift by, holding his breath until whatever it was had passed. A couple had probably been guards, shuffling around blindly in the dark. But the rest...he tried not to think about the rest.

He didn't say anything to the bird for a long while, just sat in the cold and shivered. He realized for the first time how bizarrely comforting the weight of the raven was on his shoulder. Not soothing, but something close to the security of being armed. It brought a question to mind, one Jon would have asked, about how a full grown man didn't weigh the same once he became a bird. That was something about transfer of mass, and before he went any further wondering about it, something had to be said for guys turning into birds in the first place.

He turned his head, and the bird leaned in. "Thanks," he whispered, knowing Steve would understand what he meant, about leading the wraith away. He wanted to say something else, about how he had a ways to go to make up for all the times he'd killed him, but silence was the best way not to get them both killed right then. He heard the bird click it's beak, and somewhere in the back of his mind he heard Steve laugh. Not the polite one he reserved for record execs and strangers he didn't like, but the full-out one that usually meant something was too funny to keep to himself. There was no way Neal heard the bird, but he didn't need to. Steve was a hell of a lot closer than that.

He never heard what came around the building adjacent to theirs; there was no hearing involved, but his ears rang faintly, a pressure building in his head, and he knew it was another wraith. That was how Steve had been hearing them all that time. It was like when you first turned an old TV on, before the sound and picture caught up, the high pitched sound of building electricity. Automatic fear came with it, and this time he knew it wasn't Steve's. This fear was his own, and he wondered again how he would have fared had the wraith come through his house.

The thing coasted across to their building, pausing where Neal had climbed onto the roof, and Neal shrank further away from the edge, watching the dull red eyes float between the buildings. It would only have to rear up on monstrous legs to peer over the roof at him.

The bird shoved off his shoulder, purposely knocking him flat. By the time it reached the opposite corner of the roof, it was another wraith, with eyes a sullen crimson may times brighter than those of the real one below.

The first rose to look at the second, and a tense moment passed while they hissed at each other. Then, to Neal's utter disbelief, the first wraith backed down and melted away between the buildings. Neal had been clenching his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering and didn't realize it until bright, blood-red eyes focused on him again. He wasn't going to complain about what Steve changed himself into again, he knew that. When the wraith--Steve--leaped off the building, Neal shoved himself over the edge and followed, knowing without knowing how that Steve had to be furious to turn himself into the wraith at all. He kept it in mind.

It took him a second to catch on to what Steve meant to do; the wraith was looking in one of the building's windows. When it reached for the door, Neal found himself gesturing for it to wait. The wraith turned a huge, misshapen head and grinned at him with more teeth than should have been possible, and he wished it hadn't. Then it shoved the door in and went down on all fours, disappearing inside.

Neal cringed, but no screams followed, and no denizens came running out into the night complaining of a Keeper. After a moment he wondered if Steve had simply killed them before the alarm could be raised. Then he bit the thought back, inching toward the door and stealing a glance inside, hoping there was little to see.

There was less than that; the building was empty. No denizens, no objects of any kind, an unfinished non-building in an unfinished non-town. It was all not-stone floors and walls, bare and gray. There was something resembling a lantern on the far wall, emitting the faint light they'd seen from the outside. It reminded him immediately of the lantern Mairiesa had been carrying the first time they'd seen her, and he wondered if it too contained a captive Wisp. But he didn't wonder enough to go any closer.

Either no one wanted to live so close to the towers of The Lady, or the denizens weren't real in the first place. He had a feeling they had been real--as real as they were allowed to be-- but that they'd ceased before the arrival of the Otherworlders. Or run for the hills.

The flickering light made him think of candles, and as he did he heard the wolf sneeze. It sat by the far wall, and drummed its tail on the floor when he looked at it. That smartass grin was on its face, and this time he was glad to see it.

He shut the door behind himself, looking to see what it was made of. Solid wood, from what he could tell. He looked at the ceiling, finding it just as featureless as the rest of the place. No rooms, no variation in the stone, just a box-like place that wasn't half as cold as the roof had been. Now, if nothing happened to look in the windows, or wander in, and if the wraiths didn't pick up his trail, they had a chance until morning. He nodded at the wolf and walked over to the rightmost wall, where something looking in the windows would be less likely to see him, and sat down with his back against the wall. The wolf joined him, lying down alongside and resting its head on huge forepaws with a sigh that said everything. Neal scratched it absently behind the ears, and again, somewhere, he heard the laugh.

* * *

Jon startled awake, having dropped off without meaning to. He was nowhere near comfortable, so it had to have been exhaustion alone that permitted the lapse in consciousness...

He'd forgotten where they were for a moment, until Ross thought, *I woke you. Something's coming.*

Jon sat up a little straighter in the cramped position he'd folded himself into in the alcove, staring out into the direction he knew the passageway was. The blackness remained unbroken, total enough to fool the eyes into making their own patterns out of it...

No. Something else was out there, further up the passageway, making its own patterns. Patterns that built on each other as they watched with growing alarm; the blackness was changing perceptibly without light being involved. It confused the hell out of them, and all they could do was watch.

*I'm not gonna bother asking what it is,* Smitty thought.

Then a glow did become visible, creeping along the floor and walls, and the patterns in the blackness faded in its wake as if they'd been forerunners pushed ahead of some force. Greenish phosphorescence, the common color of any child's glow in the dark toy, spilled along the passageway without growing stronger as whatever brought it approached. They jammed themselves further back in the alcove, not trusting the dissembling to hide them completely if the thing was sentient. The phosphorescence flowed into the alcove with them, spreading along the wall around and behind them, and Jon set up a shield to go with the dissembling. Whatever it was, it crept along the floors as well, pooling briefly beneath them but held off by the shield. They huddled away from the walls, staying in the middle of the alcove and staring at the floor, mesmerized. When Jon thought to lift his head again, he thought, *Oh my God, look!*

The center of the luminescence swirled noiselessly down the passage by them, a slowly spinning whirlpool of dim light not much different from a dust devil. It extended from ceiling to floor, touching nothing directly but touching everything nonetheless, searching.

*Another guard,* Smitty thought.

*Any guesses on what happens when it finds something?* Ross thought unsteadily, unnerved by the sweeping thoroughness of the thing.

*I imagine she'd know about you,* Jon thought. *Then, maybe you'd melt.* He was fascinated by the eeriness of the thing and its obvious purpose. It was another plaything, because she had so little attention to divert from her most recent acquisition. Far from causing him the fear it did the others, it instead gave him hope. The glow began to fade gradually and almost reluctantly as the rotating sentinel made its way past them, pulling the light after it. When it was gone and had left them with only impressions of it on their retinas, Ross thought, *The scariest home security system I've ever seen.*

Jon nodded to himself in the blackness. *Exactly. Home security for someone basically on vacation.* The sentinel had left a dusty residue on the floor that triggered a memory he passed to the others. *The Keep. The dust on the floors under the Keep.*

*As badly as I don't want to come face to face with that witch again, I hope it gets light soon,* Smitty thought.

* * *

When it came, it was a lot slower than usual.

The wolf felt the change first, the Turning dragging along the edge of that world by bare degrees. He waited until it was a palpable force that would be sure to drive the wraiths back to wherever they spent their daylight hours. Then he used both forepaws to knock Neal over. Cold and exhausted, the guitarist had fallen asleep nearly an hour earlier, slouched against the wall. When Steve knocked him unceremoniously sideways, he jolted awake with a start, scrambling into an upright position in disoriented panic.

"What!"

The wolf sat in the middle of the room, grinning, and Neal looked at the windows. "Shit, it's time," he said. "I hope we know what we're doing." He stood stiffly, still cold, and yawned. He glanced at the door, then at the wolf. "You ready to do this?"

It was a stupid question, and the wolf's silence was blatant. Steve was looking forward to this, and Neal supposed he was, too. He wanted The Lady destroyed. He wanted to go home. He just wanted it over, period. But Steve was going to get a chance to attack something after all the bullshit they'd been through, and Neal wasn't going to mind seeing it. "Good boy," he said, and the wolf lowered its head, the long graceful nose pointed nearly to the floor to look at him from below, the eyes Steve's in all ways and telling him what he could go do with himself. Then that grin again, and the laughter in Neal's head to go with it...

If Neal took time to think about that and what it might actually mean, he wouldn't be good for anything, he knew, so he moved for the door instead. He opened it slowly, making sure there was nothing between the buildings to divert them. Then he gestured the wolf out into a frozen morning that was still trying to drag itself lethargically out of the darkness it was chasing.

* * *

*The light's coming,* Jon thought.

Without bothering to even consider asking him how he knew, Ross unfolded himself from the alcove and stepped into the passageway, feeling his way along. Smitty warned them to shield their eyes before he lit the darkness; then they all surveyed the passage. Uncontested, they headed back in the direction they'd come, finding the spot that marked where they'd entered. Ross opened the ceiling of the passageway again, hoping he wasn't doing it right beneath whatever might be looking for them in the daylight hours.

They crawled back to ground level, and Ross sealed the floor behind them. They walked rapidly down the original passageway they'd entered the tower by, finding it beginning to curve...

Into a maze.

The walls before them, as the passage began to curve, broke into sections the further they investigated, each headed somewhere else. For all they knew, there were more sentinels waiting in the darkness the fragmented walls offered. It was a labyrinth that was most likely impossible to navigate in the time available to them, even if Ross melted through it bit by bit.

*I hate her,* Ross thought. *I just really, really can't stand her.*

*If she knew we were in here, she would have come down on us by now,* Jon thought. *She can't know we're here.*

*But she can plan for the possibility,* Smitty thought. *After all the other trouble she's gone to, to set up defenses, she's not gonna reward anybody who makes it all the way in, is she?*

Cursing inwardly, Ross began pushing his way through the not-stone wall by wall, headed in the direction of what they hoped would be the center, or at least something that would give them a clue as to where The Lady was keeping herself while the Evenwhen was in her care.

*We need that distraction to get her attention and maybe rattle her cage enough to do something stupid again,* Ross thought.

*Our distraction should be doing his thing shortly,* Jon thought. *We'll take our cue from that. Hopefully, so will she.*

* * *

The towers were more intimidating in the gathering light than they had been in the dark, looming over the Outlands from their central point and reminding everybody dense enough to forget just who was running things. Neal and the wolf stayed behind their chosen building until they were relatively sure a member of the Watch wasn't going to come shambling around the corner of anything. Then they walked straight toward the spires across the open space as if they had every right to. Steve was still dead as far as The Lady was concerned, and that would serve it's purpose if they were quick enough.

Neal flattened himself against the nearest tower as soon as they reached it, and after staring at him with knowing eyes for a moment, the wolf turned and padded back out away from the tower.

"Psst!"

The wolf looked over its shoulder at the sound, and Neal gestured him back over. When the wolf returned, Neal realized he had nothing to say and that he was just wasting time trying to make a gesture he didn't know how to make. He shrugged. "Good luck."

The wolf sneezed before loping off, putting a fair distance between them by running out into the middle of the open space. He was more of a target that way, and Neal would have room to do what he needed to when it came to it...

Then Steve was standing in the middle of the open, human again, thoughts open and unmistakably his.

* * *

Jon paused in the middle of the labyrinth they were trying to investigate, listening.

*Here we go,* he thought.

* * *