DISCLAIMER: George Lucas says he isn't 'into' science fiction either. Go figure.

DARKNESS GATHERS Part VI
(c)1998 B Stearns



*If he isn't back in the next ten minutes...* Smitty began.

*I have Kevin Chalfant's number,* Neal thought.

The outrage of the others descended on him in force, and he shook them off. "What the hell is wrong with you guys!" he said. "Didn't any of you see that? The guy can take care of himself, he's always been able to take care of himself. He'll be here. In what form is what I'm worried about."

They had reached the boundary of Athyri twenty minutes earlier, and stood listening to the night sounds that had begun to intrude on them, of creatures hunting each other in the blackness. Not one of them was going back underground unless the singer was with them.

After another minute, Jon said, "I'm going back."

"The hell you are," Ross said. "If you go, we all go. No splitting up."

*Not anymore,* Neal thought.

"Jesus," a voice huffed out of the darkness, "you guys are like a bunch of old women, you know it? 'Nah nah nah, what should we do'."

Smitty's light revealed Steve approaching them from nearly ten yards away. He had approached unheard, and Neal tensed. *If it looks like a duck...*

"Just this once it really is a duck," Steve sighed, pausing, leaning against the rock face of the Wall. His right arm hung nearly useless by then. Jonathan examined him with a grimace.

"That's gotta hurt," he said.

"Yeah, well, that's life," Steve said. Each was equally relieved that they were all together again; it was enough, at the moment.

"Let's get back underground," Jon said finally. "Standing out here any longer's gonna bring anything and everything out here after us." He laid a hand on Steve's good shoulder, trying to reverse what he could while they walked.

Ross said, "How did you--"

Neal cut him off. *Not yet. We'll get to it later.* A world of disapproval towards Steve fringed the thought, unnoticed by the singer.

"Anything and everything has already been out to have a look at us," Steve said. "She found me while I was out there." He made a shushing sound at the alarm that greeted the information. "She's waiting for something. We need to be a little more amusing before she really starts up."

Remian met them just outside the boundary, alarmed to discover the Er Rai was injured.

"But you can do something about it?" he said to Jon.

"It's nothing," Steve said. "I do this for fun."

Several more Wisps gathered around them and lit the way as they descended back into the caves, and when they tried one of the alternate tunnels they discovered a set of berths cut into the stone like the ones they had seen the first time they had been to Athyri. Steve settled into one and used his good hand to unfasten his cloak while Jon examined the wound again in better light. "If these bastards have crossbows, we're in for it," Ross said.

"There wasn't that much weight behind it, though," Steve said. "If there was, the thing would have gone right through me."

Jon braced a hand against Steve's shoulder, and a few moments later there was nothing left to suggest that there had been an injury; even the damage to the tunic had been reversed.

"Aren't you handy," Steve said.

"It's an illusion," Jon said. "If I can repair you, I can repair a damned illusion."

Smitty reached forward and laid a hand on Steve's newly repaired shoulder. "Thanks," he said simply, and even without thought behind it, the word carried volumes.

Steve tilted his head. "No problem. I'm sure you'll get another chance."

"It's always the drummer that gets sacrificed," Ross said. "It says right there in the fourth dimension Otherworlder manual. 'Offer up the drummer'."

Neal had been about to say something about how the noisiest one should go first, but Steve had fallen asleep in the meantime and the rest of them decided to follow suit in the neighboring berths.

* * *

Steve awoke the same way he had the first time he'd been to Athyri, with a jolt. He lifted his head and glanced around, finding the others still asleep in the low light provided by a Wisp that hovered near the ceiling.

*Not here,* he groaned inwardly. *Not this again.* He looked toward the entrance of the room they'd settled themselves into, idly stretching the shoulder that had been injured...

And startled violently enough that it carried over to the others, wrenching them from sleep. A half dozen figures stood staring at them in a silent half circle close to Steve's berth, curious Wisps who'd been watching them sleep. It was disconcerting, and they straightened warily.

*Welcome to the Otherworlder cage at the zoo,* Ross thought. *Come and see the boneheads who have The Lady frothing at the mouth.*

"Good morning," Steve said, and almost as one the Wisps vanished.

"Hey, Mr. Charm," Neal said.

Within minutes, they were fully awake and discussing the best way to proceed, perched around Jon's berth and keeping it limited to thoughts in case the walls had ears yet again. They were hoping The Lady would expect them to head for the Keep, rather than her new haunting ground. And it was immediately agreed upon that they should stay the hell away from the new variety of denizens, before and after entering the Outlands.

*From what we've seen, most of them can probably be scared off,* Steve thought.

*By you, you mean,* Neal thought, a trace of the previous night's reservation toward him returning.

Steve regarded him with care, listening for whatever else might come out of the silence, disturbed by the accordant lack of follow up. "I had to come up with something. It worked, didn't it?" He felt mildly defensive all of a sudden, put off by it.

"After what's happened, it was a little too easy," Neal said, and Steve heard the nervousness behind the words.

"You mean, was I a wraith altogether," Steve said softly. "And no, before you ask, I didn't kill anyone."

"It just seems...everything you've been so far..." Neal faltered, on uneasy ground for once.

Jon said, "There's nothing here but predators, so it makes sense to become a predator. But it's easy to get lost in a form like that. Maybe it's because homo sapiens isn't that far up the evolutionary ladder, I don't know."

Steve looked from Jon to Neal and back, feeling mildly chastened and trying not to lose his temper. "Bunnies don't do well in the intimidation department," he snapped.

"I'm trying to be the worrier for once," Jonathan said gently. "Be careful."

"It's not like I would accidentally attack any of you if you pissed me off," Steve said.

*I just never thought of you as a predator, that's all,* Neal thought.

Steve swung out of the berth and walked away, thoughts closing with a resounding thud.

When the singer was out of sight, Smitty stared at Neal's chagrined expression. "You think of him as a bunny, maybe?"

Neal shook his head in exasperation. "Let's go."

* * *

Out in the open, under the orangish light of day, Mairiesa looked them over skeptically. "This isn't a simple jaunt," she said. "She'll hear you long before you arrive."

"God, I was positive you were going to use another word," Steve said. "Near miss."

She ignored him, as she had quickly become accustomed to doing. "The Lady doesn't like to be disturbed. When she is in the Outlands, it's to create things no world would want, usually, and a host of wraiths always accompany her."

Jonathan winced.

*We'll get it taken care of,* Neal thought. *There won't be any more, after this.*

"There are patrols," Mairiesa continued, "usually in sets of three per Watch. The denizens of the Outlands will be armed, and like to demolish things before they discover what they are. The Lady prefers one of the towers that overlooks most of the land up to and including the Woods. She, or a patrol, will see you even before she hears the Er Rai. The aggressive approach you're attempting is self-destructive. Something a little more canny might be in order."

Her tone of voice said stupid barbarians, and they were glad they couldn't hear her thoughts.

"Such as?" Neal said, unconsciously adopting the same tone. "We have a guy with us who's getting pretty good with the illusions around here. We can probably get by pretty far."

"And the creator of the majority of these illusions won't notice you, just because you've learned a few tricks?" she shot back. "Especially when a member of your company serves as a beacon to her, visible or not."

"Not when I'm in another form," Steve said. "I can walk right in front of her, then."

Mairiesa stared at him with obvious displeasure. "You didn't use it enough the last time you were here to start invoking the price that comes with it. The longer you're in another form, the more accustomed you'll become to it. That's fine, until you get caught up in it and forget which one is yours. Now, do you intend to stay a raven, or a wolf, the entire time you're here?"

*Here, boy,* Neal thought.

*Don't rub my nose in it,* Steve thought, keeping a steady gaze on Mairiesa.

"I need to talk to the Inverse," she said abruptly, and gestured for Jonathan to follow her back in the direction of the cave entrance. Steve started after them immediately and over her shoulder, Mairiesa said, "Alone."

Jonathan shrugged at them and followed. *There's not much she can do to me, Steve.*

Steve watched them go, then stretched with a yawn. "Here we go," he said. "We're on a need-to-know basis again. What the hell, when in Rome, right? I'm sure she knows more than we do."

"I hope so," Neal said. It was quiet for a moment. Then he said, "Listen, about..."

"No," Steve said, having heard the beginnings of what Neal was going to say in something like a Doppler effect. "Just never mind about it."

"You took it the wrong way," Neal said. Ross and Smitty were carefully diverting their attention elsewhere.

Steve folded his arms, his expression of barely tolerant indulgence too familiar to the guitarist. "Leave it alone. I probably would have said the same things, except it would have been 'what the fuck are you doing' and 'are you crazy', which you guys won't say because I might turn into something and tear you limb from limb."

"You lost your temper," Neal said, and look what happened slipping through underneath unintentionally.

"And I'm losing it again," Steve said tightly. "One of them fuckin' shot me, they were about to kill Smith and me without a second thought, and a wraith was the scariest thing I could think of at the time."

"That's my point," Neal said softly.

Steve swallowed his anger and everything that went with it, staring at Neal expressionlessly. Neal's worry, impatience and concern drifted across to him in incomplete pieces. Off to one side, Ross was whistling 'That Old Black Magic' to himself almost inaudibly. Steve found himself on the verge of laughter again. "Touché'," he said instead.

Just inside the cave entrance and barely out of thought range from the others, Jon was shaking his head at Mairiesa. "What's with the secrecy?"

"There's no sense for all of you to know everything," she said. "Has it occurred to you, if she can capture one of you, that each of you knows what the rest of you know? Everything. You're all vulnerable, and you're not treating this seriously enough."

"You don't think so?" Jonathan snapped. "We'll do whatever we have to get out of here and be left alone. We're pretty serious about that."

"I am sorry...about your family," she said.

Jon froze, his breath catching in his chest. "What do you mean?"

"Your--the walker said fans. They're your family, aren't they?"

Jon stared at her, caught between relief and regret, unable to ignore the lump in his throat. Then he nodded a little. "In a way, yeah. You could say that."

"The loss, and your worry for the others, is clouding your judgment. She'll take advantage of it. You were able to hear her before she shattered the boulder in the valley. I suggest you concentrate on listening very carefully from now on. You were able to shield the others from her the last time you were here. Make a habit of it."

He nodded, dropping his eyes to the cave floor.

"Beyond that, I can't help. I don't know how she's paused the Evenwhen. All I know is that you should be more cautious than you are--and that you're not responsible for the recklessness of the others."

He looked up at her again, searching her face.

"I'm trying to tell you you're stronger than you know," she said. "The others will be stronger, or not, depending on what you allow."

"What--" Jon tried to ask her to explain, but Steve's words came back to him from another time. You've always been the heart of us, haven't you?

Mairiesa waited to see if he would say anything else, then turned and walked out of the cave. He remained where he was for a moment, eyes on the cave floor again. Then, with a sigh, he followed her back toward the others.

*How can you manage to look so confused but sound so pissed off?* Steve thought when Jon was close enough to hear.

*It's an acquired talent,* Jon thought back.

Mairiesa eyed each of them as if she intended to give them more advice, but she simply said, "What you have between you is enough, but I wish you luck anyway. It's the existence of two worlds in the balance, you know."

"No pressure," Steve said.

"We'll try and stop by to visit on the way back out," Ross said.

Mairiesa nodded. "Goodbye, then," she said, and she was looking directly at Steve when she said it.

* * *

They walked away from Athyri, keeping the Turning at their backs as they'd been instructed. No amount of prying would persuade Jon to divulge the content of his conversation with Mairiesa, and they eventually gave it up. He was surprised that they did. But, he decided, they probably didn't really want to know.

They didn't bother pausing at the boundary, or trying to be surreptitious about crossing it. There was no point to it. The Lady was either going to wait until they were close enough to be an annoyance to her, or she would attack them outright. They didn't have a say either way. Steve would hear her coming regardless.

But he didn't.

One moment they were navigating the uneven ground with assiduous care, loosely single file with Steve at the head, and the next The Lady was walking alongside. She kept a distance of several feet, a creature of monochromatic gray that nearly floated along. Steve never broke stride, glancing at her and warning the others with the sudden disdain that coiled through him.

{you are insignificant. return to your world and die, or die here. that is your choice}

"Talk to all of us, or go back to talking to yourself," Steve said without looking at her again, keeping his eyes on the ground. "That's your choice."

He could hear the nervousness of the others, and Jon's contempt. But on his part, there was an impetuous desire to attack her that bordered on giddiness, the same impulse that had goaded him to chase the wraiths. It was too much like a dog's impulse to chase cars. But this time, he vowed, she had to start it.

She rose to his expectations.

Both he and Jon felt the buildup of power this time, and Jon had Steve's arm in both hands when the invisible bolt struck. They all felt the shock of it even as Jon turned it back the way it had come. The Lady took a step back from them under the assault of her own power, her features reflecting a malignant fury.

"Couldn't wait for dark, could you," Steve said, marveling at the rebound Jon had caused.

The corpse-gray eyes shifted coldly to Jonathan, a greed driven rage surrounding him under her attention. "I wonder if you can shield them all," she said tonelessly. "I wonder if I should destroy you now, or trifle with you until the diversion loses appeal. Your existence has dwindled to that."

Standing close on Jon's other side, Ross said, "Then why are you wasting the energy posturing for us?"

She didn't even acknowledge him. "It will amuse me to watch you stumble through a world you are helpless to affect. Then I will take you apart to see how you are made." She came a step closer, and Jon realized the grip he had on Steve was intended to keep him from harm in more ways than one; the exhilaration in the singer's eyes and thoughts was intense enough to infect him as well, that close. Jon's hold kept him from attacking her.

She folded her hands, the suggestion of a sadistic humor subtly changing her face while she studied Steve during a silence of nearly unbearable proportions. Their thoughts linked momentarily against it, against her, but they were unable to get Steve to participate. He was too intent on the gray Lady, eyes shining with fierce anticipation, mindful of Jon's restraining influence.

"You I will keep, this time," she said to Steve. "Would you like to live forever, sohne?"

"Baby," Steve said nearly under his breath, "if that's your pickup line, it needs work."

"When the others are dead, your first task will be to give me access to your world," she continued as if she hadn't heard. "I will eradicate your kind, beginning with the kin of the Inverse."

Steve and Neal grabbed Jon, feeling his anger and fear in response to the threat in addition to their own. "And you've been so successful so far," Steve said. "Keep talking, honey. It's all you'll be able to do."

"When I get hold of you," she said to Steve, "every impertinence will be rewarded. You are careless. You will give me the opportunity. And then I will discover how amusing you can truly be."

"You're not my type," Steve said.

"I wonder if you will remain impertinent after I have shattered every bone in your fragile, mortal body and left you to consider it in unrelenting consciousness," she said. "Do you remember being pulled through the Evenwhen, Stephen?" her voice dropped to a satisfied, chilling croon. "Do you remember not existing? Do you remember forever?"

"Listening to you drone on like this is beginning to make it sound more appealing," Steve said.

"Yes," she whispered. "After a time, you will find it appealing." Then she was gone, and it was a long moment before Jon released Steve, making sure nothing else was forthcoming. He started to say something, but Steve halted him.

"You're beautiful when you're angry," the singer said to the air, and the ringing in his ears vanished. It had not preceded her this time. They were left in silence.

"She talks a lot more than she used to," Ross said. "She must be picking up all kinds of--"

He was cut off in surprise when Neal grabbed the back of Steve's cloak, spinning him violently around by it. Steve was off balance and unable to react when Neal drew back a fist. Ross caught the guitarists' elbow in midair, shouting in surprise, and Jon shoved between Steve and Neal. A scuffle developed that Steve and Smitty watched in amazement, Steve pushing his hair out of his face again. Jon and Ross shoved Neal clear of the others, trying to keep a hold on him.

"Dammit, that's enough!" Jon said.

Neal glared at Steve. *You,* he snarled, and his inarticulate anger rang between Steve's ears with wrathful volume, startling the singer into slamming his thoughts shut.

*Stop,* Jon thought. Neal quit struggling, breathing hard. After a moment, he shook Jon and Ross off angrily. When he could speak, his voice was gruff with rage.

"While you're smarting off, asshole, consider the fact that she's working on taking it out on our children," he said to Steve. "Once, just once, you could shut the fuck up!"

Steve didn't reply for a long moment, letting Neal blow off steam. His anger still echoed in the singer's skull, and it had to recede before he attempted an answer. "Did anyone else hear Siarion say 'diversion'?" he said finally. "Here I am. The angrier she is, the more risks she'll take to get me. And in the meantime, the rest of you can be sneaking around her virtually unnoticed. While she's chasing us, she won't be sending wraith after wraith after your kids. She's so used to everyone cowering in fear at the sight of her that she can't deal with someone who won't." He pointed at Jon. "Ask him about it. You guys would never have gotten me off your clothes." His voice rose to a shout. "Do you think I'm enjoying this?'

Neal continued to glare at him. "That's the problem," he said. "I do think you're enjoying this."

Steve shook his head, turning away. "She'll get angry enough to leave herself open, and we'll nail her. We can't overpower her." He examined the spot where she'd been standing, then glanced over one shoulder at Neal. "She left you alone for once, didn't she?"

"So when you finally do something dumb enough to give her an opportunity, what are you gonna do then, smartass? While she's using you to get back home."

Steve turned back, coming within arm's length of Neal now that he had obviously cooled down by several degrees. "Well," he said softly, "since my bones will all be shattered and I'll have forever to think about it, mostly I'll still just be diverting her."

Neal was careful not to broadcast his intentions before he moved this time, so only Steve heard the veiled thought that flickered behind Neal's eyes before the guitarist grabbed him. Neal caught Steve's tunic in both hands close to the throat. Ross and Smitty made a grab for him this time.

*Let him go,* Steve thought quickly. Neal propelled him backwards, shaking him once furiously.

Through gritted teeth, Neal said, "You're going to go right back to the same bullshit, doing whatever you think is right and ignoring everyone else. You're gonna fuck around with this like you do everything else you don't take seriously, and we're gonna be stuck chasing your ass around in here like we did before. You seem to've forgotten that Siarion told us that you get one shot at being killed. No one's gonna call you back up out of the air this time, Er Rai."

Wide-eyed, his hair in his face again, Steve pried Neal's fingers loose from his tunic. Neither man backed away.

"Go ahead," Steve said after a long, charged moment. "Hit me. You've been wanting to for a long time. If it'll make you feel better, do it."

"You're going to get yourself killed," Neal said, enunciating every word deliberately.

"I don't have a hell of a lot to say about it," Steve said just as deliberately. "Siarion didn't let Sidain say anything else back at my house because he was about to say he'd come to see the Er Rai, and the namers said there wouldn't be one for much longer. When he touched me, I blacked out because he, not Siarion, gave me something new that isn't settling in well with the rest of the hardware. Most people don't come with a switch they can shut themselves off with. 'Death is a simpler thing', huh? All I have to do now is figure out when I should throw it. I'm pretty sure it'll be before she forces me to do something you guys wouldn't approve of."

Neal continued staring at him, less angrily but still severe. "That's why you were arguing with her in the desert," he said.

"Yeah, she told me to have faith!" Steve said. "I feel real positive about all of this, don't you? I don't know how the fuck it'll turn out. But I'm gonna do my job, and cause as much trouble in here as I can before I have to throw that switch."

He turned and walked away, continuing in the direction they'd chosen to start out in, thoughts open again in a hum of dissent.

*When were you going to mention this?* Jon thought.

*Oh, from the afterlife, of course. I'm gonna keep bothering all of you from there, too.*

Jon nodded with a heavy sigh, releasing some of the tension. They were being used, and the singer's irascibility was more than justified. He patted Neal's shoulder, stepping past him and after Steve. Ross followed suit, but he was unable to keep from commenting as he passed.

"Next time," he said to Neal, "to save a little time, I think you guys should just scream 'I love you' at each other and get it over with."

Neal shoved him away, thoughts more eloquent than any invective he could have hurled.

Jon caught up with Steve and whispered, "You could've stopped Neal from hitting you, yourself. Why didn't you?"

"Because unlike the rest of you, my 'powers' are all destructive," Steve said. "I'm happy to use 'em on whatever lives here. But I'm not about to pull that shit on any of you." *And you're about the last one in a position to pull the righteous act with me where caution's concerned,* he thought openly to Neal.

*That should tell you something,* Neal thought back evenly.

* * *