DISCLAIMER: I'm a chronic insomniac. What else would I do with my time?

DARKNESS GATHERS Part V
(c)1998 B Stearns



Ross, wandering purposely toward Jon, put a hand out to touch the boulder's surface, and Steve warned him silently not to. Ross didn't question or react, withdrawing a casual step.

*What the hell are you doing?* Neal thought, frowning at Steve.

Steve smiled grimly. *I thought you told me to keep my spooky thoughts to myself.* "The more of her attention I have, the faster we get this over with. No offense, but your little jerkwater world isn't an ideal vacation spot. You're welcome to it, once we kick her out."

"Why did she give me her name?" Jon said softly. "I thought..."

"Having an Otherworlder's name gives us dominion over it," Mairiesa said.

*It,* Neal thought immediately.

"I would never have given you our names if it required that I give you some sort of control," she continued. "It's an honor to have one of our names. They're not lightly given. But yours? If I chose, I could have you doing my bidding as easily as The Lady would, although I'm not nearly as strong as she is."

Steve smiled unpleasantly at her, moving closer. "The Lady hasn't had much luck with that claim," he said. "I think you'd find yourself eating it."

Ross thought, *Now what?*

*She's pushing him.* Neal's response was flat. The guitarist walked a little closer to Jon and Ross. Jon was watching intently from the right side of Aradia's stone, his arms folded across his chest. Neal began to realize how important it was to avoid a replay of the earlier incident, watching to make sure that no Wisps darted out again to lay hands on Jon.

Mairiesa turned slightly to include Neal in her line of sight, but addressed Steve. "What about this one, then? I have his name, as well, thanks to the Inverse. Should I see if he's useful?"

*Don't take the bait, Steve,* Jon thought, hearing the rage that welled behind the singers' eyes. *I think you'd better pass this test, whatever it is.*

Steve settled for straightening his cloak, rather than threatening the Wisp. The scope of those threats was loud to the others, and the colorfulness of some of them made Neal raise his eyebrows appreciatively. Steve cleared his throat and approached Mairiesa, coming within arm's reach. "Intending to start where she leaves off?" he said. "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, right? Your future subjects should see how you intend to 'rule', if that's what you consider it, and you might as well start with us, right? The Otherworlders."

Mairiesa said nothing, unblinking.

Steve leaned in a little further, his smile wide and expectant as he opened his arms. "Start with me," he said.

Mairiesa grinned. "Everything I've heard about you is true. We've made our point, I think."

"Can we get back to business, then? If you're through scaring us."

The other Wisps vanished, thin puffs of nebulous light drifting away toward the openings of the various other tunnels. The 'meeting' was over. Only Mairiesa, and Aradia, remained.

"Business," Mairiesa said. "Fine. Where would you like to begin? This is a world of predators, now, as I'm sure Siarion told you. They prey mainly on each other, with only the strongest remaining after every Turning. Everything is hunted."

"What about the wraiths?" Neal said, taking a stance between Jon and Aradia's stone.

"Were only the beginning," Mairiesa said.

"How'd she start making them, anyway?" Steve said, beginning to circle around the opposite side of the stone. *Smith's out of hearing range, down here.*

*I know,* Ross thought. *I'd like to think he'd run on down here if there was trouble.*

"I answer now only because it's relevant to how you came here. The majority of them were Otherworlders. The Lady needed a great many of them, from your world in particular. She could not have pulled any of you here, even after hearing you and centering on you, without pulling many of them first to loosen their hold."

Glances shot between the musicians, and Jon was suddenly certain he'd heard enough. *No,* he thought.

Then Neal said, "Too many hands holding."

Catching on, Steve went rigid, eyes widening. *Someone would have noticed. She can't have just--*

"Fans," Neal said. "She was pulling our fans in here, to loosen the hold the music created in the first place. It was like they were grounding us, like we were all linked together."

Jon bowed his head, putting his face in his hands, his grief amplifying theirs. Neal laid a hand on his shoulder, his thoughts disappointed. Ross was staring at Mairiesa, who nodded once in confirmation.

*How many did I kill?* Steve thoughts broke the instant of suffocating silence. A memory of the shrieking horror that had torn a chair out of hands in the darkness assaulted him, followed by the long-ago scene in the field where a greater number than they wanted to contemplate had gone up in a blue-white display. *Is that why I could sing them away?*

"She has done more," Mairiesa said. "She will continue to do more, if you don't stop her. Pausing the Evenwhen is the first step."

"Where is she?" Neal said woodenly. Jon didn't move, barely able to breathe, and Neal put an arm around his shoulders.

"She spends less time in the Keep," Mairiesa said, hushed, mindful of the impact of what she'd already told them. "There are enough denizens now that some of them have created their own shelters at her bidding, nearly four cycles away from here, opposite the Turning side."

"At least you have a Turning side, now," Ross said from behind the stone. Or that was where they thought he was, because he was completely out of sight.

"The light retreats to and returns from only one side now, instead of all sides."

"I guess some direction is better than none," Neal said. *We'll make up for it, Jay,* he thought. Ross and Steve agreed immediately. Jon lifted his head, running a sleeve across reddened eyes.

"They call their settlement the Outlands," Mairiesa said. "She is usually there, now. She has erected towers of her own."

"There're buildings, then," Ross said, still unseen, although Steve could have sworn the bassist had been behind him. "Out of what, not-stone?"

"Among other things. As long as you keep your backs to the Turning, you will encounter the Outlands. She creates and destroys denizens there at will. You won't find help among them. They're to be avoided, if you can help it. Some of her denizens live here, as well, further along the Turning wall."

"How far?" Ross said from Neal's elbow, and the guitarist startled, wondering where he'd come from.

"Closer than we'd like. They call themselves the Sedhi. They respect dominance, but not necessarily hers. They consider themselves the greatest of the predators."

*Sounds like they need a lot more fences,* Jon thought. A hurt bordered it that the others surmised would never entirely leave.

"Any ideas on how she managed to pause the Evenwhen in the first place?" Steve said, his eyes on Aradia's stone, feeling a twinge somewhere in the back of his mind like a reminder.

"The Evenwhen is as much a world as this is," Mairiesa said. "It has entrances, and borders, yet is everywhere all the time. Surely the walker knows this." She studied Neal again expectantly.

"The walker's been using it only out of desperation and with his eyes closed," Steve said, moving closer to the others but avoiding the stone. "I've seen it, and the space between, and your idea of entrances and borders don't coincide with mine, honey. I must have been dropped in the middle."

Mairiesa frowned at him, opening her mouth as if to answer, then paused. "Where is the firethrower?"

*Like she was going to answer that!* Steve thought.

"Above," Jon said. "he wanted to keep an eye on--"

Mairiesa vanished, but not before they saw the panic on her face. They looked at each other with trepidation. Steve broke it first, running for the tunnel that had brought them down in the first place, heedless of the fact that it was too damn dark and the labyrinth split off in too many directions. Close behind, Ross crashed into the singer when he skidded to a halt at the first juncture. *Dammit, which way is out?*

Without waiting for an answer, Steve himself vanished. The wolf was darker than its' surroundings, and with it's nose to the tunnel floor, it darted into the left hand tunnel, claws scrabbling against the packed earth.

*The housepet trick is actually good for something,* Neal thought, running to keep up. Moments later, a Wisp added its' light to the chase, hovering over Neal's right shoulder. Less than a minute after that, the shock of orangish daylight assaulted them, still too bright even though it was fading. Smitty was nowhere in evidence, and somewhere between the darkness and light the wolf had become the singer again without flourish. Out of breath, shrugging the edges of their cloaks away in annoyance after the run, they stood outside the caves and searched the surrounding fields with frantic eyes, calling for the drummer in silence. Unanswered.

*I thought she couldn't get in,* Steve thought furiously.

"You would have heard her," Jon said, the possibility of further loss making his thoughts leaden and difficult to listen to.

"You heard something," Neal said curtly to Steve.

"But it was all I could hear over the noise that goddamn stone was making!" Steve snapped, not having a complete idea of what he meant but knowing it was the best he could do. "Where the hell is he!"

"He has been taken," Mairiesa's cold voice said from close beside him, but instead of jumping he whirled on her.

"Then what the hell was all that about keeping her out!"

"Keeping her out," Mairiesa said. "Not the denizens of this world, you fool! Why do you think we stay underground? The fences we have don't keep the more physical denizens out!"

"The Sedhi?" Jon said, trying to inject something resembling reason back into the situation. "Did she send them?"

"They have been known to act on her behalf, but not by her order. She's too preoccupied with keeping her hold on the Evenwhen to bother with them. Remain caught up with the Sedhi, unseen. They followed you through the valley."

*Shit!* Neal thought. *I thought it was just paranoia.* "I knew it. I knew we were being followed. How would they know who we were? Where'd they take him?" He scanned the visible horizon to their right as he spoke, but the waving grass was all that made itself plain to him.

"You are obviously Otherworlders," Mairiesa said. "And you've put her in a fouler mood than usual. They'll do the same thing with him that they do with the rest of the denizens or predators they catch. They'll sacrifice him."

* * *

"What!" Steve shouted, startling her. "Now she's a religious icon they make sacrifices to!"

"They do worship her," Mairiesa said, creating more of a distance between herself and Steve. "They offer sacrifices of other predators, usually, to prove they have earned their right to exist. They've made an altar to her on one of the steppes leading up to the Great Wall, on the Turning side."

"So how long do we have?" Neal said.

"Until the Turning, of course, when everything is most effective. Why was he out here? What were you so afraid of, that you had to leave a sentry behind?"

"It's called common sense, lady," Ross said.

"If I could wind us back a little..." Neal said.

"No," Jon said immediately, cutting him off. "Only as a last resort, with the Evenwhen paused. You know she'll grab you in a second."

Ross said, "Which way?"

Mairiesa pointed, to their right, further along the Wall. "You can almost see it from here. It's outside our boundary--we don't have any power out that far. They're usually armed, so you'll have to be cautious."

"No more caution, today," Steve growled. "Are they real? Does anything happen if we kill them?"

*Steve, for Christ's sake!* Jon thought. "We're not killing anybody," he said aloud, but Mairiesa was already talking over him, gazing steadily at Steve.

"Are we real?" she said pointedly.

Steve sighed. "I'm not waiting for them to kill him before I do something. You have any better ideas? You think reasoning with somebody who worships her is possible?"

"Let's just see what the hell's going on before we decide what to do," Jon said, breaking into a run in the direction Mairiesa had pointed. "We're rescuing him, that's all."

Neal and Ross took off after him, and Steve paused for a moment, meeting Mairiesa's eyes.

"Point made," he said.

The Wisp was silent.

Steve ran after the others.

* * *

Smitty looked straight up into the darkening not-sky.

It was better than watching the natives argue over him.

He'd never heard a damn thing, and was still cursing himself over it. There'd been four of them, or at least that was his estimation; he'd only had a brief glimpse before one had knocked him over the head. He'd tried to shout, and think to the others, but he wasn't sure if anything had gotten through. He wasn't entirely sure how far from Athyri he was, but it was the same day, with the light bleeding away...

Wrong choice of words, he thought, listening to the closest native whisper and hiss. He'd awoken spread-eagle and tied to a flat, oblong not-stone, classic horror movie 'we're going to sacrifice you' stuff. They hadn't said a word to him directly, and there were more of them all the time. He fought panic down by trying to decide what the hell the ritual was for. The Turning? Purging the land of Otherworlders? But then again, did anyone really need a valid excuse to lop a head or two off, no matter what world you were on?

He sighed and pulled absently at his bonds again, realizing they were rope woven out of grass. Clever folks. He'd been trying to conjure enough of a fireball to burn himself loose, and had been totally unsuccessful. The angle was all wrong, and he'd probably set himself on fire instead. He would have thought that was hysterically ironic at any other time, but he wasn't in the mood quite yet. So he waited, and hoped he could at least set someone on fire once they got close enough to brandish that big goddamn blade again.

He'd seen it. Just big enough to lop his head off.

Some of them had painted their faces with something the same color as the sandstone, as if they were trying to blend in. Otherwise they were dressed in various colors of the leathery stuff everybody else was wearing, and generally as little of it as possible. There was one, though, the guy with the blade...now, he was different.

He was the only one wearing a cloak, a silvery white thing. He hadn't bothered to paint his face. And the claws...

He had them strung up one arm, looped into each other. Long, spidery things that triggered a memory of a silvery blur that had chased an eight-year-old singer out of the trees the last time they'd been through there.

Good. Wonderful. He's wearing a goddamn daywraith, Smitty thought. And something tells me it didn't die of old age.

Something told him he wouldn't either.

* * *

The rest of the band hiked rapidly along the Wall after their initial burst of speed, painfully aware that their approach would be easily seen by any minimally attentive lookout. They kept as close to the rock face as possible, staying to the growing shadows and careful not to stumble on the gravel that rattled underfoot. The light was shifting, and it hurried them along. They could see several tilted plains of rock ahead, some jutting directly out of the cliff wall and a few resting along the ground, providing a flat, elevated surface. They could make out movement on the largest, and it began to look like a large gathering. On the higher side, more raised stones were visible, another flat surface that could have served as an altar.

*More goddamned stones,* Steve thought with disdain that only served to better project a growing nervousness. *These people and their damned stones!*

"We need a distraction," Ross said.

"Great," Neal drawled. "Steve, you run up there, piss them off and get all of them to chase you. You're good at that."

Steve's thoughts were a hum of annoyance laced with obscenities. "Actually, I had something else in mind, but I'm not sure it'll work."

"We need to get closer, fast," Jon said, "and somehow, miraculously, they need to not see us."

Ross brightened. "Hold on, let me work on that one." He stepped to one side and was gone, giving them the illusion that he'd stepped behind something they couldn't see.

*Ross!* Neal thought.

Ross stepped back into view, grinning. "Illusions are great. It's a trick of the light. I was practicing earlier, while you guys weren't paying attention. I'll walk up, break Smith loose, and then Steve'll walk up and explain how he's going to kill them if they don't leave us alone."

"Hey," Steve said.

They jogged on, conscious of the shifting light and the increasing numbers of Sedhi gathering on the plateau ahead. They had yet to be seen, and meant to keep it that way. As they approached, they began to realize there were several ways of ascending the plateau on each side, stones piled in some places or erosion creating ramps of soil and gravel. They could surround the plateau and come up from all sides, surprising the Sedhi, attack from one side or have Ross run in unseen while they confused the denizens into chasing them.

Then Neal saw the lone figure in silver that stepped up to the altar, and they all heard the cheer that went up. *The festivities are beginning,* he thought nervously. *How many of these guys are there? I can't make anything out.*

*Sounds like more than we can intimidate,* Ross thought, and they began running again, caution tossed aside in favor of arriving on time.

Then the light began to turn.

*Dammit, we're not going to make it!* Neal thought.

The raven vaulted past him, shooting away into the fading light and coasting up to the tilted stone, hovering over the very edge of the plateau for the briefest moment before Steve's feet hit the dry, rusty soil. The figure they'd seen from below had approached the altar, and he could see they'd tied Smitty to it. He had landed several hundred feet to the side of the altar. What was more important at the moment, though, as his feet met the ground again, was the fact that the brightly dressed and ornamented figure had what looked like a short sword, and had raised it into the air to show the crowd.

And it was definitely a crowd.

If The Lady had made all these denizens, she'd been busier than they thought; by Steve's estimation there were several hundred denizens swarming over the rock, waiting for the death of the Otherworlder, who to his credit was putting up a relatively stoic front. The drummer was staring straight up into the not-sky and trying to stay calm.

*Who's selling tickets to this gig?* Steve thought.

Smitty raised his head off the stone he was tied to. *I guess I know what the opening act feels like, huh?* Both the bizarreness and tension of his situation carried in his thoughts.

All eyes on him, the would-be priest of the Sedhi raised the blade and gestured toward Smitty again as the light began to fade more rapidly, and Steve began to walk toward the altar, still unsure of what he was going to do. Most of the denizens were angled away, facing the altar completely and unable to see him yet.

The crowd yelled, and the priest raised the blade above Smitty in both hands to do more than just gesture...

The blade remained in midair, trembling, the Sedhi's weight obviously behind a downward stroke but unable to complete it. Steve, just inside thought-distance of the worshipers but too far away to physically intervene, had managed to get a hold on the denizen the same way he had shoved the Wisp, the same way he had lashed out at The Lady. He advanced a few steps, trying to make it to the altar without losing his grip, unable to even get a thought to Smitty with the concentration it required to keep that blade in the air.

It was a moment of murmuring confusion later that several of the Sedhi began to realize something was amiss, and a moment more for one of them to glimpse Steve's advancing form--and recognize him as the cause.

The others were rapidly scaling the stones below when they heard the collective roar of outrage.

*That's our cue,* Ross thought. *What the hell is he doing?*

*Pissing them off, like I said,* Neal thought, and they cleared the top not far from the spot Steve had landed in time to watch the crowd rush the singer. No one noticed them, and they fanned out. Ross blinked out of sight and ran for the altar, praying he could hold the illusion long enough but not counting on it.

Steve hit the priest mentally as hard as he could, sending the man to his knees and the short sword clattering away over the stone with a bright noise. Steve darted forward and picked the blade up, nearly ending up on his hands and knees in his haste to get to it before the crowd reached him. He already knew he wasn't going to make it as far as the altar...

He straightened, turning toward the altar, and as soon as he did, the blade clattered back across the stone when an arrow slammed into his right shoulder from behind.

Then the crowd reached him and Smitty.

If it hadn't already been hell, it broke loose then.

Steve's form melted, the shadow rising over him, and it was a wraith that turned away from the altar to rise shrieking among the throng, swiping at those who had ventured closest. Screams of terror replaced the outrage of the worshipers, and they fell over each other trying to retreat. They fled en masse toward the edges of the plateau, the majority of them not even bothering to look back, much less notice the Otherworlders who were standing frozen in shock among them. The altar was abandoned.

Jon, Neal and Ross watched the wraith chase after the core of the crowd as the remainder either scrambled off the plateau the conventional ways or threw themselves off the edge. The place was empty in less than a minute. The Sedhi had somehow managed to avoid trampling any of their own.

Ross reappeared at the edge of the altar and began to work on Smitty's bonds. Neal and Jon joined him moments later, using the fallen blade to hack through the crude version of rope that had been used to hold the drummer stationary. Darkness fell the rest of the way as they worked.

"Hey Steve," Ross muttered with audible sarcasm, "when you get a moment, we need a diversion."

Smitty sat up as they freed him. "They didn't do anything to me," he said, rubbing at one chafed wrist to try and get some circulation back. "They jabbered a lot, and that's it. I guess I had to be in good condition to be offered up. What the hell was that, that just went through here?"

"Nothing good," Neal said, helping Smitty off of the altar. "Let's get out of here before they figure out what's really chasing them."

"But he's got an arrow through him," Smitty said.

"He'll catch up," Neal said. "No way are we stumbling around out here in the dark. Back to Athyri."

"But--" Smitty said.

"Smith, move," Ross said, and they ended up feeling their way back down in the dark, using the same stones they'd scaled in the first place.

They ran back along the Wall for nearly a quarter of a mile before slowing to a walk, casting frequent glances behind. Smitty didn't even dare to try and light the way. There was nothing to see, anyway. The dismayed howls of the fleeing Sedhi had long since receded, and there was little to hear, either.

* * *

The wraith paused, realizing the objects of his wrath were beyond chasing when it grew too dark to see. Then both the wraith and the accompanying shadow were tucked away with less effort than it might have once taken. Steve stood among the loose stone at the base of the Wall, uncertain how far he'd strayed from the others. The adrenaline began tapering off, leaving him with the painful realization of the wound in his shoulder. He'd lost the arrow some way back, dislodged it. It can't be that serious, he thought, and he was the only one to hear it. I'm still standing. It would be serious before long, though, even if nothing else came out of the dark to hunt him. The pain would sap his strength and the loss of blood would encourage him to just sit and wait for the others to come back for him...

He stood still for a long moment to catch his breath, slightly mortified at the display he'd put on and what it had taken to do it. He pressed his left hand against his wounded shoulder, well aware that the wound itself was placed inconveniently enough that he couldn't reach any part of it.

The dark shifted, a patch of it turning even darker yet. Steve turned his head, expecting the blood red eyes of a true wraith to float by. Instead he found the plain outline of The Lady mere yards away, a darker anger pooling just within the limits of his vision. He didn't understand how he was able to see her, but the understanding wasn't important to him. She was no illusion; he felt her as precisely as he felt the arrow lodged in his shoulder. He was far outside the boundary Aradia provided, and Jonathan was not there to shove him out of the way this time.

"Go on," he said, and it was even wearier and more disgusted than he had intended. "Here I am. Get it over with."

{i will wait. I have much to show you, first. and the others. your actions amuse me}

The darkness fell back on itself, and her impression vanished. The darkness offered nothing else, and it unsettled him that she had chosen to leave him intact. Or at least as intact as he was. She had plans for them he didn't want to dwell on the scope of.

*Guys,* he thought, half hoping they'd hear him and half hoping they were somewhere out of her reach. She would leave them alone, too, until she could subject them to something more to her liking.

Wavering a little, he put his head down, keeping the Wall to his left and retracing his steps in the direction of Athyri.

* * *