DARKNESS GATHERS Part IV
(c)1998 B Stearns



They opened their eyes to the highest point of Athyri, Siarion's place of calling, with her words still echoing across to Steve. Once across, his thoughts were open to the others again, and he passed her final comment on to them, along with his own frustration.

"Dammit," Neal said. *She had to get that last word in, huh?*

Satisfied that nothing was going to attack them immediately, they took the time to look around. The base of the tower sported outcroppings of rock that hadn't been there prior, and now rose on either side without enclosing the tower itself. Siarion's Tower had been left as the highest vantage point, with the outcroppings creating valleys between. A connected wall, too sheer to even consider scaling, extended on either side away from them and behind, stretching out of sight. Beyond, a half-day's walk away from the base, the edge of the forest began.

Steve knew immediately that it wasn't the same forest. There would be much more than hints of small fluttering things this time, more than shape-shifting butterflies.

Ross' downward spiraling staircase remained, as did the stone circles an eight year old's hands had laid to summon an otherworldly night bringer. They glanced over these things as a peripheral consideration, deliberating what lay ahead.

*She knows we're here,* Steve thought. *And where. It wouldn't surprise me if she's been waiting. Walking in here like we did was as good as waving our arms and screaming.*

"This is still better than the dungeon of the Keep," Neal said. "But I still hate it."

"Let's move before she decides to have the first crack at us," Jon said softly, not bothering to question Steve's earlier statement. If the singer said The Lady was watching, that was good enough for him.

"And this time, we're out of the open before dark," Smitty said. "A wraith's a wraith, no matter where the damn thing is. If there's worse things in the trees..." He paused abruptly, glancing at Steve. At mention of the wraiths, a memory had ricocheted amongst them from the singer, of a bony, clawed hand clutching an open door frame.

"I don't think there are worse things in the trees," Steve said softly but clearly, examining the sky. Or lack thereof; the light was dimmer than they remembered but steady, the orange glow reminiscent of a dying star. The light had little warmth to go with it, but it wasn't cold enough to make their breath visible. The air was dry and still, framing an oppressive silence. Steve was amazed that there was light at all.

Another memory passed along their shared thoughts, of a dead raven on the shoulder of a rainswept street. This time the author was Jon, and Steve nodded at him.

"'Take thy beak from out my heart,'" the singer said, a bitter laugh lacing the words. "'Take thy form from off my door.' Maybe I just need to decide which road I'll be found on."

He stepped off the edge of the tower without hesitation, into the empty space.

No one had time to even begin a negation of the move. Then the raven glided away on an updraft.

"He's gonna crack up on us," Neal said angrily. "He'll either stop and think about something so long he gets killed, or he'll rush into something and take the rest of us with him. Goddamnit, we can't be chasin' him all the time!"

He wasn't looking directly at Jon when he said it, but the impression of who he was talking to was clear. *I can't keep him in line,* Jon thought. *I thought he was yours.*

"Not this time," Neal snapped. He turned abruptly and began trotting down the stairs, one hand trailing along the inner wall for support.

Ross waited for Jon to turn and look at him before he grinned. "Just like old times," he said.

Jon shook his head, heading for the stairs. "I'm on vacation," he said. "You two keep an eye on them for awhile."

When they gathered again at the bottom, there was no sign of Steve, and they stood around one waist-high boulder.

"We're gonna have to find the Wisps," Ross said. "No matter what Siarion said, no matter who they are, we're stuck with 'em. They were the closest thing to friends we had here."

"Look," Jon said, "nothing's where we left it. We can't go wandering around until we stumble on the caves, if there are caves this time. But we can't stand around and let her find us, either."

"I'm all for wandering around, if we're deciding on a lesser evil," Smitty sighed, keeping an eye on the overhang several yards to their left and the shadows it had gathered.

"The mouth isn't with us," Neal said. "She can't find us while he's up there, showing off, so it doesn't matter what we do. But it would be good to find them before they find us, this time."

Something dark padded out of the shadows of the overhang, and Neal jumped as Smitty kindled a flame in one hand. Before he could throw it, a black lupine form poked it's nose into the daylight. It leaned on it's haunches and stared at them, a wolf grinning at some private joke.

"Adorable," Neal said. "Quit screwing around, huh?"

Steve reappeared, the same grin apparent on his face. "I can spy on the locals until one makes me a pet," he said.

"How the hell did you know?" Ross said to Neal, pointing at Steve.

Neal shook his head in disgust, turning his back on Steve and walking away from the overhang, headed for the open space of the fields beyond. "That smartass grin is the same no matter what the rest of him looks like."

Jon examined Steve, watching him snap his cloak back into place as Smitty and Ross went after Neal. "Is that all?"

"Oh, I don't think so," Steve said, a laugh still at the edge of his voice. "There's a lot more, but investigating it'll have to wait." He paused, looking at Jon and the mild confusion on his face, careful not to let what he was referring to slip out into his conscious thoughts. "A long goddamn time," he said, and the laugh finally escaped after it, low and ironic. He walked away, gesturing Jon along. *No dawdling, Inverse!*

And again, almost as an undercurrent to his thoughts, came the memory of claws raking the walls.

Jon trailed the group, purposely distancing himself and completing the single file line they made along what was becoming an obvious trail in the dry, rocky soil. Something had been walking that same route long enough to pound out a well worn path without leaving distinctive footprints. The shadows of the valley between the tower and one of the outcroppings that had grown alongside it swallowed them moments later, forcing them to consider the nearly ninety degree angle of the cliffs surrounding them and the lack of cover they provided. The sense of being hemmed in was palpable. Their one advantage was that there was nowhere for anything else to hide, either. But they knew enough by then to realize that, in that world, shadows could easily do more than conceal.

The pathway broadened as the valley did, even though the terrain became rougher, and the boulders that had once been strewn at the base of Siarion's Tower stood guard alongside. They were more numerous, as if someone had taken the trouble to make sure there were enough of them. The reddish gold sandstone reflected the already golden light, glowing like false hope around them.

"Now that we're here," Jon said finally, "I've been thinking."

*Thank God,* Steve thought, and Jon was ready to snap at him until he realized the singer was sincere.

*Ignore him,* Neal thought.

*You can't seem to,* Ross chimed in. *Tough luck for the rest of us.*

"Jay," Smitty said, "spill it, before we get to bitching at each other again."

"I think I figured out how we can all hear each other--it's like we're on the same frequency, remember? We've been writing music together for years, so it's like we're all tuned to the same radio station and can send and receive on the same wavelength. Maybe it's always been like that, and it's just magnified here. But we're in tune with each other, and no one else."

"So she probably can't hear us because her station's somewhere else down the dial," Ross said. "Acid rock, thrash metal or something."

"Then why can I--" Steve began, then stopped, snapping his mouth shut almost audibly. Hear her made it through regardless, along with a muffled curse.

Neal glanced at Jon, who looked away quickly and said, "Somewhere along the line, you two intercept each other without including us, that's all." His tone made it sound like he was commenting on the weather, and it raised the hair on the back of Steve's neck.

The singer left it alone, not wanting the explanation to wander around to the supposition that, of all of them, he was the most like her. "And what the hell ever happened to that note I left, anyway?"

"I have it," Jon said. "I took it off your table that night and put it away. I thought I might have to show it to you someday, if you started getting your memory back."

Steve let a beat of expectant silence pass. "Well," he said, "what the hell did it say? Anything close to what I originally wrote?"

*Let's just say you were right about something for once,* Neal thought. *It was a confession. You babbled on about hearing voices--that much was left from the original, definitely your phrasing. But after that, it was all hers.*

"And you're keeping it?" Steve yelled in affront.

"Just never mind," Jon said softly. "It's physical evidence of something we would never have been able to explain to you."

Steve burst into laughter, and it quickly accelerated into a fit that caused him to lean over forward. None of them were able to get more than a fleeting glimpse of what had sent him over. "Neal actually told me the truth," he gasped between bouts of laughter. "I can't believe it. I asked you guys what really happened, after I woke up, and you said I was abducted by aliens!" He burst into laughter again, joined by Ross.

"Jesus, I'm glad you think it's so funny," Neal said.

Straightening, Steve looked at Jon pointedly, wiping his eyes. "Don't be blackmailing me."

"I'll get rid of it," Jon said.

"Now say the rest of what's in that busy head of yours," Neal said.

Jon shrugged. "General Relativity allows for a class of transit systems in the fabric of space-time called Einstein-Rosen bridges. They're a class of wormhole similar to black holes, but not caused by the collapse of a super-massive star."

"No wonder people like magic better," Smitty mumbled.

"These things, usually, are highly unstable, snap open and shut before they can be used, and take an infinite amount of time to traverse--to an outside observer, anyway. So what we're dealing with..."

"Is a race of people like Siarion and Sidain, who can use these types of things without having to worry about time," Ross said. "So we've been getting in and out of here like that."

Jon nodded. "Not just walking between easily, like they probably do, but using these 'gates'. Some people--namely what's-her-face--might need something to hold these gates open. I don't know. The whole frequency thing got me thinking, that's all."

*Doesn't take much,* Neal thought.

"Yeah, well. I'd still like to know why The Lady would need a brace to get through to our side. Steve would have been like some kind of tension field when she was through with him. Maybe she doesn't hold up well to the kind of tidal forces you would find in one of those gates. Siarion and Sidain do, though, I guess."

"All right, Inverse," Neal said. "Explain Smitty, then. Explain you and the green light."

Jon shrugged, watching his footing. "You'll have to ask Smitty."

Smitty laughed. "I already told you guys, it was the best I could think of."

*Makes no sense,* Neal thought. *When I think of 'flaming', it's usually Perry that comes to mind.*

Steve passed his hands over his face and through his hair with a sigh. *Okay. You're fucking hysterical.* "What if you tried to 'reverse' a denizen?" he said aloud to Jonathan.

"I don't think I could," Jon said. "They're not on our frequency. Be interesting to see what happens, though. For every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction, right? Maybe I'm her opposite reaction."

"So instead of it being a matter of someone's magic--or science--being bigger than someone else's, it's a matter of following the rules, even here," Smitty said. "Sometimes just knowing something is enough to save you, even if you can't directly change it."

"You're actually willing to say we know something?" Ross said.

*A gram of observation is worth a ton of theory,* Jon thought wryly, and Neal laughed.

"A fourth dimension primer would be nice," Ross said.

Neal glanced over one shoulder. "We need to find Mairiesa, if she still exists. No matter who she is. She probably knows what's really going on in here."

"And she probably knows what it takes to pause the Evenwhen," Ross said, following Neal's gaze. The guitarist was jumpy, and trying to cover it. There was still little more than rock to see. "Something like that would have to have a safety valve to keep undesirables out, don't you think? Siarion said she got in there with permission, before the namers were trapped."

"And if the namers are part of the Evenwhen," Neal said tiredly, "then they're probably our safety valve. Shit. I don't want to talk about this anymore." He paused, and they listened to their boots crunching on the gravel. "I can get in there," he finished, and they knew he meant the Evenwhen.

"Without breaking in?" Jon said sharply. "Without getting killed?"

"You shielded me from her before," Neal said, and the casual tone of his voice belied the uncertainty in his thoughts.

"And she's waiting for you to try it so she can stomp you like a bug," Jon shot back. "It would be on her terms. You need to stay the hell out of there until we know more about what's going on."

The verbal argument ended. But it was by no means over, and Jon realized it.

The valley opened up as they began navigating the foothills and bluffs leading to the cliffs they were leaving behind. The light had begun to gradually fade behind them in perfect line with Siarion's Tower, and they found it disturbing.

*Someone else is calling twilight down, I guess,* Ross thought.

*And it'll be getting dark back home,* Jon thought. *Sooner or later.*

*We'll distract her,* Steve said, meaning The Lady. "If we keep her hands full, she won't be wasting much time causing trouble back home." He angled around another boulder, able to glimpse the grasslands further on. "Yeah, we'll give her something to worry about."

Jon was staring at him unseen, a dull realization stealing over him. Every time the singer had used the word 'we', the word 'I' had replaced it in his thoughts. Jon knew he was unaware he was doing it. And he's probably been doing it for a long, long time.

Steve looked at Jon quickly, catching the tail end of the thought in his distraction. "Who's been doing what?" he began, then froze, pausing so abruptly that his feet slid along the pebbled surface, and he braced his hands on another waist-high boulder. *The welcome wagon's here.*

They all paused, glancing around. There was nothing to see but patterns of stone, nothing to hear but each other and the light breeze that was passing through the valley.

*What is it?* Jon thought.

*She's here,* Steve thought-whispered. *She hums like a--*

Jonathan shoved the singer as hard as he could without warning, throwing him roughly to the ground and knocking the breath out of him. Steve was barely clear of the boulder when a low thud seemed to emanate directly from it. The stone settled slightly into the ground, making a depression in the dry, cracked earth beneath as if a giant invisible fist had struck from above.

Then, slowly, a crack developed across the surface of the stone, traveling from top to bottom, branching outward. Everyone scattered, backing further away from the stone, and Steve rolled to his knees, stunned.

Part of the top of the boulder succumbed to gravity and crumbled away, a loud clatter that broke their startled silence.

*Don't move,* Jon thought, and they kept their distance from each other and the stone, waiting. Nothing else came out of the air, and after another moment Steve rose, brushing himself off and listening to the gathering shrill of a song he had heard often enough to recognize. Jonathan glanced at him. *Is she still here?*

Steve nodded, staring at the boulder. With a grinding snap, a cracked section of it fell away from the far side. It landed with another thud several feet from Ross, who regarded it solemnly.

*Ah,* Ross thought. *Distraction, huh? Keep her hands full, right?*

Steve twisted his mouth into a sardonic expression. "Wow," he said to the air, drawing the syllable out. "You really missed me, huh?"

He went unanswered, and moved cautiously around the stone. *She's playing with us,* he thought. *Jay, how the hell did you know?*

*There was a buildup of something in the air just before she did it,* Jon thought.

*Christ, Perry,* Neal thought. *We all felt that one.*

*She missed on purpose,* Steve thought to Jon. *You saved my ass, all right, but a near miss drives the point home better, don't you think?*

Jon kept his eyes on the stone, edging away from it and following Steve. They walked on cautiously but a little quicker, clearing the foothills ten or fifteen minutes later and finding themselves in the open. The grimness that settled over them brought the silence back with it until Neal said, "We might as well see if the fence is still there."

Ross squinted into the fading light. "I don't see it, if it is."

"There's something on that rock," Smitty said, gesturing at another boulder that lay just off the beaten path.

"No one's getting close enough to look," Ross said.

"It's writing," Neal said, and they paused. He was right. Figures were cut into the stone at regular intervals, covering it's slightly raised face. It looked like a cross between hieroglyphics and Japanese characters interspersed into something new and unrecognizable.

"Fourth dimension graffiti," Ross said. "'Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.'"

"You are not far wrong, sohne," a female voice said behind them, and they turned to confront it.

Mairiesa stood examining them with a grin, a wooden longbow slung over one shoulder. "You still make such a noise wherever you go."

"You're still here," Ross said. "Obviously."

"And now so are you," she said. "Missed us, did you? Come to show The Lady the error of her ways?"

"You don't sound a hell of a lot like Mairiesa," Steve said, angling slightly away from the others. *I don't believe this, for a minute. She's all magic, still, or whatever form of science she falls under. I don't like it.*

*It's too convenient,* Jon thought.

Mairiesa regarded Steve with open amusement. "You sound like the Er Rai, yet you don't look the way I remember. Have you changed?"

Steve narrowed his eyes at her, and Neal said, "You borrowed everything before--your name, your form, right?"

"I have become myself," Mairiesa said. "I am."

"Siarion said there'd been some changes," Ross said.

"She also said you're The Lady's 'daughter'," Steve said, making the word into a curse.

Mairiesa raised her eyebrows at him. "That's a term from your world," she said. "Certainly I was created with the others to serve The Lady, and she intended me to become more. Eventually I was going to watch this world while she...tended to others. I realized early on that the namers didn't approve, and decided to assume my watch early. Siarion spoke to the namers on my behalf. I have chosen my cause. The Wisps haven't always been as obedient as she would've liked."

"And now?" Steve said.

"And now you're back. You'll destroy The Lady, and I'll take her place."

*Ambitious,* Ross thought.

"Why don't you guys try it yourselves?" Neal said.

"We will assist you. There aren't many of us left since she realized the error of allowing us enough room to imagine being free. We've gone into hiding, but not for much longer."

Steve was on the verge of laughter again, and Neal shot him a venomous look.

*Can't help it,* Steve thought. *I'm waiting for the liberation slogans to start. *

*It's sounding like we're trading one dictator for another,* Ross thought.

Mairiesa was watching them as if she was aware of their debate.

"And you've been waiting for us because...?" Jonathan said.

Her eyes snapped back to Jon, and Steve stilled an urge to shove him away from her.

"I knew from the namers that the Er Rai would be the beginning," she said.

To Steve, Neal thought, *What the hell is wrong with you?*

Steve shook his head. "Beginning of what?"

Mairiesa smiled a little. "The true beginning of this world." She turned to their left and gestured for them to follow her. "You haven't seen this version of Athyri. Let me show it to you. She can't get in here properly, anymore, so we'll be able to talk freely."

"Properly enough to knock us around a little," Neal said.

"But she was shut out again," Mairiesa said, walking away, taking them back toward one side of the valley.

*She knows about that!* Steve thought accusingly.

*It measured on the fucking Richter scale,* Neal thought. *Give it a rest, huh?*

"What's written on the stone, back there?" Ross said.

The smile reappeared on the Wisps' face, but it was slightly bitter. "Siarion's Tower is a place of great significance to us, for many reasons."

"Great," Steve said with acerbity. *'Here lies Journey'.*

* * *

They didn't walk far.

Even though they hadn't seen much past the original caves, they could see it had changed long before they reached the unobtrusive entrance that was cut at an angle into the rock face. They had walked completely past it without noticing. There was little light beyond, and one by one they balked as Mairiesa entered ahead of them.

*Someone's gotta hang around outside just in case,* Smitty thought. *I think she's okay, for what it's worth. But not all of them might be, and if things get weird down there...*

*The drummer never gets enough credit,* Neal thought. *We don't have straws to draw. Who wants first watch?*

*I'll take it,* Smitty thought, pausing at the entrance, unnoticed by Mairiesa.

The others entered, and Jon thought, *Check in every so often.*

Inside was a labyrinth of tunnels branching off in every conceivable direction and lit by their inhabitants. Wisps floated freely about them as they descended, and there was more than enough room in the main tunnel for two people to walk side by side. The sandy floor sloped gradually for several hundred yards before the tunnel opened suddenly on a wide, well lit room that was obviously the end of many other tunnels. Within the apartment-sized space, a handful of beings were grouped around a boulder at the center of the room, Wisps discussing something in earnest.

*The rabbit loves the shining wire,* Jon thought, the phrase coming to him unbidden as a subconscious whisper of warning.

*Whoa,* Ross' thought came almost on top of Jon's. *This is macabre enough as it is. Knock it off.*

*What the hell was that?* Neal thought, glancing at Steve. The singer was taking in the scene before them with fascinated eyes, oblivious to the exchange.

*Jay's been reading to his kids again,* Ross thought. *'Watership Down', for God's sake? This look like Efrafa to you, Hazel?*

*I don't know why I thought of it,* Jon thought. *Just never mind.*

*I'd say Steve's definitely gone tharn, though,* Ross thought.

Mairiesa was completely in the room before turning to them again. "This is our meeting place, our commons. There are tunnels winding through much of the valley above."

Ross examined the ceiling carefully as the first of the Wisps began to notice their arrival. "This isn't daylight, in here," he said.

"No," Mairiesa said. "We create our own."

Before anyone had the presence of mind to ask for an elaboration, a noticeable silence fell around them as the gazes of many were fixed on them. All but one had turned to stare at them, the one seated atop the boulder itself ignoring them completely. The remainder of Mairiesa's tribe came in all the shapes, colors and sizes that could be found in the world the musicians had come from. Their original shapes had been borrowed, as Mairiesa's had, from those who had been pulled in and made to run the gamut of Athyri and it's surrounding lands. One in particular detached himself to approach, a pleased smile of recognition on his broad features.

"The Er Rai is with us again," Remian said, nodding to Steve, who snapped out of his daze in reaction to the phrase.

"Remian," he said, realizing for the first time that the fair-haired Wisp was taller than he was, maybe a little taller than Jonathan's six feet. "I'd say it's good to see you, but under the circumstances..."

"I understand," Remian said. "We all know why you're here. There's a lot to catch up on."

Another Wisp came forward from the group by the stone, smaller and dark-haired, reaching for Jon as if to shake his hand. Whether Steve mistook the motion or the Wisp actually had dubious intentions, the result was the same.

Something unseen struck the Wisp, sending him sprawling to the floor of the cave. He laid there for a long moment, looking stunned and uncertain about how he should deal with it.

No less stunned, Jon looked at Steve, whose expression of stricken accountability gave him away.

*How--why did you...?* Jon began.

*I don't know,* Steve thought. *I didn't think. I don't know!*

Remain helped the errant Wisp back to his feet beneath Mairiesa's glare, and Jon took advantage of the momentary confusion. "You said The Lady can't get in here, anymore."

Mairiesa cast a calculating glance in Steve's direction before moving toward the center of the room and the boulder. "We keep her out," she said slowly. "Now that we're awake, we've found ways of shielding ourselves, and our home. One of us in particular does only that, above and below."

"Only that," Jon echoed, and the stray thought about rabbits and wires drifted under it.

Mairiesa nodded towards the motionless Wisp who was perched on top of the boulder. "The energy of this one keeps her out. She heard you arrive. We all did."

Jon was visibly distressed by the prospect, beginning to walk around the boulder. The Wisp, a white haired but youthful looking woman, sat as if insensible, eyes closed, her hands folded in her lap. She was dressed as they were, but in a uniform shade of crimson. The other Wisps were silent, eyeing them with expressionless faces.

*The stones.* Steve's thought was full of suspicion and something more, something larger he was unable to convey.

*Don't start,* Neal thought. *Keep your spooky thoughts to yourself.*

"She doesn't mind? Aradia," Jon said, emerging on the other side of the boulder and gesturing to the motionless figure.

"No," Mairiesa said. "She volunteered. And she approves of you, if she's given you her name."

*Where the hell did you get her name!* Steve nearly shouted in silence.

*I heard it, but not as if she thought it,* Jon thought. *Calm down. They're not going to do anything to us.*

"But what kind of existence is this?" Neal said. "Doesn't she do anything else?"

"Existence," Mairiesa said thoughtfully. "Otherworlders are very wrapped up in their perceptions of things, aren't they? She is. That isn't good enough for you?"

"We're not from around here," Ross said, "but it seems to me The Lady still got in long enough to take a good shot at us earlier. How safe are you guys, really?"

"Safe enough," Mairiesa replied, leaning against the boulder and examining Jon. "She was willing to do a great deal to reach the Er Rai. She'll be weary enough for awhile to ignore us, now." She shifted her eyes to Steve, and the suggestion of something ridiculously larger insinuated itself again in his thoughts. He returned her stare coldly, resisting the urge to snarl.

"She will risk all to be rid of you," she said with finality.

"Why should she be different," Steve said.

* * *