DISCLAIMER: Yeah...well, my hovercraft has beetles.

DARKNESS GATHERS Part VII
(c)1998 B Stearns



It began to snow not long into a walk across fields they had unfortunately come to know. It didn't seem nearly cold enough to bring on that kind of weather, but reason wasn't something they considered innate in that world. The orangish light continued to beat down on them as the snow fell heavier by the minute, the not-sky above remaining uniform. The dry grass collected the precipitation rapidly, and after a few minutes Jon leaned over to swipe some of it up in one glove. He removed the other glove to feel it, and raised an eyebrow. *Actual snow.*

"As opposed to God knows what," Neal muttered. "Jesus, you have to admit any weather is usually a good sign, but it's August back home. What the hell is she up to?"

"She can have all the seasons she wants, every day if she wants," Ross said. "Snow is the likeliest thing to slow us down, isn't it?"

"And freeze us to death, if she tries hard enough," Smitty said. "I can probably keep melting it enough to keep it out of our way. But come on, she's really distracted if this is all the attention we're getting."

"Not unless she's got playthings that can that can burrow up on us through the snow," Jon said, and he was answered by nervousness from all but Steve.

The singer shook his head. "Her playthings make noise. She can send it, but it has to be quiet enough to get past me. She's just not that subtle. Smith's right, she's reduced to trying to freeze us while she sits on the Evenwhen."

Jon agreed silently, eyes on the looming trees a half day's walk away. "She can't make us that uncomfortable, if it's only weather she's screwing with. Is there anything in the trees?" He was asking Steve, knowing the singer had been keeping his attention on the forest since they'd left Athyri.

Steve shrugged, glancing away from the trees long enough to look at Jon. "Not to worry about yet. But after dark, you can bet there'll be a lovely variety of the local flora and fauna."

"Then we need to either get the hell back out of the trees by dark," Neal began.

"Which she dictates the onset of," Ross said.

"...or we need to figure out how to make us all invisible before we even get in them."

"Okay," Ross said.

"No," Jon said, "I think we can."

Neal stared at him with interrogative disbelief.

"I think it has to do with the light in here and how it bounces off things," Jon said. "Illusion. It's all illusion."

"My God," Ross said, "are you channeling David Copperfield?"

Steve cleared his throat, covering a laugh, and Jon shrugged ruefully. "So long as it works, I don't give a damn."

"Yeah, so long as it works," Neal said. "Steve, go stand over there while Jon and Ross make us all invisible."

"Why me?" Steve said, not liking the turn things were taking.

"Just go, drama queen."

Steve walked off, muttering, tucking his hands beneath his cloak. He stalked several steps away before glancing over his shoulder.

They were gone.

He turned completely around, staring into the slowly drifting snow. He spent a moment wondering if he'd been pulled somewhere else again, but he knew she just wasn't paying them that kind of attention. And she would never have bothered to wait for a moment as perfect as that one.

*But can I still hear you?* he thought. Not even the snow was disturbed where they had been standing.

He went unanswered, and he hovered between amazement and alarm until Neal shoved him off his feet and into the snow from behind.

Steve stood, brushing himself off in annoyance. They had circled him undetected before the field Ross and Jon had erected was dropped.

"It's just bending the light, a little," Ross said almost to himself. "We're sort of lying to everyone a bit, dissembling the light."

"Be good to dissemble the hell out of here," Neal said. "If you couldn't hear us, then the bitch won't either."

"Thanks for equating me with her so easily," Steve snapped.

"Let's at least dissemble ourselves through the trees," Ross said.

* * *

By the time darkness fell, they were well within the trees, and managed to go unmolested by the seen as well as the unseen. The trees were all the same nondescript breed they had encountered before, uniform with little variation except for an occasional break in spacing that amounted to meadows. The snow continued to fall steadily, and as expected the temperature began dropping steadily in response.

*I think the only reason she allows light at all is because some of her predators need it,* Jon thought.

*Yeah, she likes her predators,* Neal thought.

They began searching the leftmost edge of the forest, remembering the boundary between The Lady's desert and the remainder of her world. The trees tapered off slightly as they should have, but only an expanse of snow-covered emptiness was evident once they reached the edge. There was no distinct boundary, and no evidence in the fading light of the mountain range that should have been in the distance.

"She's changed the whole goddamn place around," Neal said.

"Or she's hiding parts of it," Ross said. "It wouldn't do to have us crashing around in the Keep while she's away."

"Too bad she's never actually 'away'," Smitty mumbled.

"I vote we stick close to the trees, if not in them," Jon said. "Out in the open isn't looking like a real smart option."

*You guys see that?*

The thought was Steve's, and Jon strained to see into the growing darkness ahead of them. There were small variations in the drifts ahead, creating shadows and illusions of their own.

*There's something lying in the snow, over there,* Steve thought, loathe to disturb the silence.

*Could be a trap,* Smitty thought, bringing a hand up to illuminate the way. Steve interrupted him with a thought, unable to explain why.

*There really is something there,* Ross thought, and as he did, something shifted in the direction they were all looking, fluttering in the breeze. *I don't like it. Go around?*

*If it doesn't like us, there's no 'around' to go,* Neal thought. "What's got you?" he said aloud to Steve, who had slammed his thoughts shut and whose eyes he could practically see in the dimness. The singer had widened them to the point where any available light was reflecting off the whites. It shook Neal, after watching the singer attack anything and everything without the slightest misgiving, to witness such complete agitation. *Is it her?*

Steve shook his head, and the visible nervousness vanished.

After a moment or two of deliberation, the other four decided to approach the object before putting it behind them, wanting to know what they would be turning their backs to. Steve withheld comment, trailing along behind and bringing Neal a breath away from grabbing him and demanding some sort of accounting for his skittish behavior. Then they were close enough to realize what it was; the huddled form in the snow was humanoid. The motion they had seen on approach had been the fluttering of the breeze through the cloak it was wearing. Only death brought such inanimation to the living, and they advanced carefully, never realizing that Steve had paused behind them.

The closer they got, the more Jon felt a suggestion of resistance to their cautious approach. *Some kind of repellant field,* he thought. *Like the one that must have been on Siarion's Tower, last time. The one that wouldn't let Steve land.*

*To keep us away?* Neal thought. *From what? A dead man?*

When nothing more than the field transpired, Jon drew even closer, ignoring the primal urge in his brain that suggested he should back away. It would have worked on a predator. It didn't work on him. He knelt by the figure, lifting the edge of the cloak in the near dark. Smitty crouched across from him, nurturing a small flame and trying to shield it from the eyes of any possible onlookers.

Jonathan gasped aloud even as Smitty extinguished the flame, and they both rose quickly. Neal and Ross had both managed a quick glimpse of the figure's face, barely enough for it to register and not enough to believe it. Jonathan immediately felt he knew what was happening, his mind working furiously as he stepped around the body in the snow and gathered the others around him, realizing that Steve had purposely distanced himself. Jon could barely see him, but he felt their eyes meet across that space. The singer's thoughts remained closed, and it was just as well.

*I don't get it,* Smitty thought, and there was a jittery edge to the admission.

*It's an effect preceding a cause,* Jon thought. *Not a premonition. It hasn't happened, in our time--it hasn't not happened, either. I don't know how else to put it. This isn't linear time, in here, and I think space bent itself around to a point where we're seeing the result of something before the cause is even in place. We might even be able to hear each other say or think things before we think them. Whatever she's doing, it's bending this place around all to hell.*

*Since the Evenwhen is all places and times, her screwing with it could make a pretzel of all this, then,* Ross thought, and Jon nodded quickly, wrapping his cloak tighter around himself and shivering. It had gotten colder, and he couldn't decide if it was the reality--if they even had one anymore--or his own state of mind.

*Then how will we know what's real, how will we know if we can change anything?* Neal thought, glancing over his shoulder at Steve, who had gone so far as to turn his back to them.

*We don't,* Jon thought, torn between sadness and frustration at the implications. *We don't know if what we just saw happens because we tried to prevent it. Maybe just knowing about it changes it.*

*No sense saying anything about it,* Ross thought, inclining his head toward the reticent singer behind him.

*He already knows,* Smitty thought. *He knew when we came out of the trees.*

They walked back toward Steve, and Jon hazarded a backward glance at the figure in the snow only to find it gone. He shivered again, knowing it was a harbinger of things to come if they didn't stay on top of things. The lifeless man in the snow had been badly misused before being discarded in the now-frozen wasteland. What was left had been easily and painfully recognizable as Steve.

Steve regarded them with malaise when they returned to him, arms folded against the cold. Jon stood close to him and said, "How did you know?"

"The echoes," Steve said. "I heard us walking through and talking about seeing something, and when I looked it actually was there."

"If we walk back through, it probably will be, again," Jon said. "What did you hear?"

*'She had him for awhile'.* "Only, no one thought it this time. Not yet, anyway. It was you thinking it, but not yet."

Jon turned abruptly and headed back in the direction of the time-pocket but closer to the trees. Neal shook his head at Steve, and the color of his thoughts was mildly incriminating. Steve understood why and nearly laughed.

"You think I'd throw myself away?" Steve said. "I'm not looking forward to it, Schon."

"You're fucking careless, sometimes," Neal said aloud. Then he walked after Jon.

Nothing else confronted them as they cut a wide berth around the time-pocket, and they walked on without further comment about what they'd seen.

* * *

Light came again while they trudged on. They had paused briefly on several occasions to rest and try to start some kind of fire. The trees around them provided a modicum of fuel and shelter as well as an occasional look at skittering things of various sizes that no one wanted a second glance at. At one point, deadly white and damn near invisible in the snow as a result, a daywraith came through the trees to their right while they were already invisible under Ross' dissembling shield. Steve saw it first, and his fascination with it alerted them before he could even articulate what he was seeing. They gathered into a close knot, not quite able to believe they were really invisible to it. It paused, the blunt serpentine head swinging around in their direction, and before Steve's thoughts slammed shut, the terror in them was obvious to the others, and more obvious when he dropped to a crouch where he'd been standing between Jon and Ross. He did everything but hide his face, and the others were frozen staring at the thing, which turned its attention to the base of the nearest tree for a long moment. It dragged its claws along the bark listlessly as if only passingly investigating something. Then it vanished, a winged thing just as white coasting away through the trees.

Ross had opened his mouth to say something about the merits of being ignored, but something crashed into him from Jon--an almost unreasoning fear.

*It could stand the light,* he thought in a near-scream. *She's got them wandering around in the daylight.*

Neal grabbed him. "No. Think about it. It wasn't a wraith." He knew Jon was thinking about their kids, about no one being safe in the dark or the light no matter where they were.

"Jay," Ross said, "it was a predator. One of those butterfly things we ran into last time, that almost ate the kid. It didn't care who we were, not like the real wraiths did. That was no card-carrying Journey fan. She won't be sending those over. They'd just eat anything they ran into, where an actual wraith is built for one thing only--us."

It made perfect sense, and Jon knew it. He wanted to believe their families were safe, had to if he was going to be able to go on. But Neal was thinking about the chair in the wall in Steve's kitchen while trying to reason with him...

Steve had straightened again, and Neal rounded on him angrily, knowing what had set Jon off; the singer's uncharacteristic terror of the daywraith had sent the most sensitive of them into a spiral of anxiety.

"Bullshit," he said to Steve. "It's a little late for it now, don't you think? Make up your goddamn mind. After what happened with the Sedhi, you're pulling this?"

Still white faced with fear, panting with it, Steve stared at him in shock. "You don't..."

"Bullshit!" Neal said again. "She's got you either way. That's what the wraith in your house was for. If it didn't kill you, it'd at least give you the scare of your life. She's got you frightened of 'em again. I can't figure out what's worse--you charging into everything like a brainless maniac, or this...this cowering from every shadow!"

Stung, the singer walked away, and Neal showed his disappointment openly. Ross broke the dissembling field, waiting for what he knew was coming, amazed when a tirade didn't follow before Steve was out of earshot.

*He walks away,* Neal thought, and his anger rang in their collective minds the way it had in Steve's the day before. *Where'd the temper go? What happened to the mouthy bastard who would have been right in my face any other time?*

Ross stepped on another comment, but Neal heard the gist of it anyway. "Yeah, I've got the temper, now," Neal said. "This shit used to be the other way around. You know what? He's dead already."

The others kept their silence, careful to. Jon began walking again, trying to catch up with Steve, grateful that the singer had at least stormed off in the right direction.

The terrain grew monotonous; trees and snow for as far as their eyes could see and probably further. The idea that she could confuse them into running in circles by moving things around until they froze to death occurred to them when Steve and Ross became convinced that they'd seen one particular grouping of trees before. Using several snapped-off branches to make a pattern in the snow, they tested the hypothesis by walking on. It was proven an hour later when they came upon the same pattern of branches. They changed directions slightly, hoping to break free of the loop. The day became a long cycle of trying to keep warm, avoiding things in the trees, and trying not to snap at each other in frustration. The lack of discernible progress grew to be too much for one of them by the time it began to get dark again.

"We need a break, here," Neal said, calling a halt. "She could keep us screwing around in these trees forever. We need to do something she doesn't expect." What exactly he meant by that and how he intended to do it carried underneath the words.

"Don't," Jon urged softly.

"But we have to figure out what's going on," Neal said. "No one here is going to help us. We're on our own. If I could just vault across for a second, I might at least get a sense of things, like the boundaries and doors Mairiesa was talking about. We can't afford to stumble around in here for days while she learns how to get back and forth."

"Look," Jon began angrily, "it's real simple. If you do, and she--"

"No," Neal said curtly, cutting him off. "The only other way I can see is for you to come in contact with her. No way. No way in hell." He swung around to point at Steve suddenly. "You stay the hell out of it!"

Steve raised his hands to shoulder height, closing his thoughts as he did so and interrupting his opinion on the matter.

Jon's voice hovered on the edge of anger again as he began to rapidly lose his grip on his own temper. "When, not if, she gets hold of you while you're jumping around in there, she'll have to come in contact with me when we try and get you back. Did that occur to you?" He, too, pointed at Steve, but for different reasons. "This isn't what Mairiesa meant by dire circumstances. Using the Evenwhen and actually being in there are two different things. Ask him! This isn't the only option."

Neal and Jon stood staring each other down, and the shift in the balance of things kept the others out of the way.

"It's too dangerous," Jon said finally, lowering his voice. He was unaccustomed to bringing his will to bear on the man in front of him. But he had been unaware of the power he inadvertently held, over all of them.

Ross cleared his throat, shifting his weight and hearing a twig crack beneath him. "You guys need to remember where we are," he said softly. "Too dangerous? We're in another goddamn world. Almost everything here wants to kill us. Just standing here is too dangerous, when you get right down to it."

"Sooner or later, if she gives a damn, she's going to try and force him to jump anyway," Smitty said.

Jonathan folded his hands behind his head, tilting his head back to examine the uniform orange-gray of the not-sky above. His impatience with all of them would have been apparent even without the accompaniment of his thoughts. "What the hell is wrong with all of you," he said deliberately.

"We're playing the game," Neal said. "You know that's all this is. I'm not trying to be stupid. I think she's too distracted..." He threw a pointed glance at Steve. "...to bother with me."

"We don't have to throw ourselves overboard just to get this over with, though," Jon said

"Guys," Steve said suddenly, voice tight. "Argument's over."

"Would you..." Neal began, then trailed off when his eyes picked out the dim flash of blue headed toward them, a ring of light converging on them low to the ground.

*What the--* Smitty thought

*Didn't you hear anything?* Jon thought to Steve.

*No,* Steve thought in amazement. *I still don't!*

Smitty illuminated the trees around them, but no shapes were discernible beyond or within the eerie, floating ring. The closer it came, the dimmer it got, until it sank into the snow within yards of them and vanished. They stood close together, listening, waiting.

*It was a way of locating us,* Jon thought, convinced.

*What the hell for, if she can hear Steve anyway?* Ross thought.

*Not as well as she used to,* Steve thought. *Or it wasn't enough, anymore.*

Then, even though it was only a few inches deep, the snow beneath Neal's feet gave.

He was yanked downward, hands lashing out reflexively to try and stop his fall, too surprised even to shout in alarm. The others did it for him, though, and Ross caught hold of one of Neal's arms while Jon managed to catch the end of the guitarists' cloak, trying desperately to keep him stationary. Nothing else showed itself; there was no ringing in the ears to announce the arrival of anything The Lady had made. There was only a struggle in the snow against nothing...

"Hold on!" Jon shouted.

*It's an illusion!* Steve thought-shouted, grabbing for Neal's other arm. *Like the caves! Focus against--*

The thought was never completed, or acted on; Neal was jerked out of their grip and scattered into the snow that quickly. Jon and Ross looked at the undisturbed snow, at their empty hands, in fearful shock. They were startled violently out of it when Steve screamed, the rage of it echoing through them and off the surrounding trees.

"She took him," Steve snarled. "Right through the damn Evenwhen, she took him."

The unspoken thought beneath cornered each of them in turn: they had been too busy arguing to unite and prevent it.

* * *

Long minutes were spent considering the magnitude of the loss. Not even Jon wasted time venturing the how of it, only the basic why. It was simple to use Neal to lure the rest of them, if nothing else.

"I guess she doesn't need to be on the same wavelength to grab somebody, anymore," Steve said. "She can do that anytime she wants to, to any of us."

"But she won't bother," Jon said softly. "We'll just go to her, now, won't we?"

Their voices were hushed, as if they feared disturbing the blanketed suppression of the snow, as if they feared giving The Lady any further ideas. The content of their previous argument and what had ended it were too similar to be coincidence.

"Based on what Mairiesa told us, she probably doesn't have him in the Keep," Ross said. "It'd be helpful to have some idea of what the Outlands look like ahead of time, figure out where she'd be keeping a hostage."

Both Smitty and Steve thought something at the same time, and Jon and Ross heard it. "Yeah," Ross said aloud. "The bird would have a good...well, bird's eye view. You could at least get an idea of how the place is laid out, from a distance. Maybe even figure out where she's got him, if you're careful."

"But that's all," Jon cut in. "If we're gonna face her, it has to be all together."

"Not if it means I'm the only chance he has," Steve said. "She might dangle him in front of us, or she might start on him right away. He might not have much time."

"Don't goddamn argue with everything everybody says," Jon snapped.

"Don't goddamn rationalize everything all the time," Steve retorted. "Jesus, if I happen to find a way to get him out--"

*You'd do what?* Jon thought over him.

Steve paused.

"You can't walk the Evenwhen," Jon said softly. "The two of you are going to hoof it back, if you can get him out? And maybe meet us halfway, depending on what condition he's in?

We have a better chance if you just fly over, maybe eavesdrop. Don't mess with her yet. Don't let anything see you. We'll need both of us...all of us...to really go up against her. I'm not going to be able to destroy her without you. This once, just this once, take somebody else's suggestion."

Steve closed his thoughts again to drown out the uncharitable tone they were laced with.

"I don't want anything to happen to him," Jon said pointedly. "To any of you. Don't push it. Not with the shit we've already run into, not after what we've seen."

Grudgingly, Steve nodded. "I get it."

"We'll compromise," Smitty said suddenly. "We'll go at least part of the rest of the way together, and when we're closer, the bird'll fly over. We're already going there anyway, no matter what. Knowing the layout this far ahead of time isn't going to help us, or Neal. We'll stay together as long as we can, just in case she decides one at a time isn't enough."

"Reasonable," Ross said, hazarding a sidelong glance at Steve, who made no comment. Jon nodded after a moment, eyes still on Steve.

Finally, dropping his eyes, Steve said, "I'll keep a lower profile, then, so she doesn't necessarily know where we are all the time. Part of it may have been luck, but I've helped us find her."

Jon let a memory slip, of Mairiesa warning Steve against the forms he chose, and Steve's eyes snapped back to his. "Make up your damn mind!"

Jon shrugged. "I trust you with it," he said. "Choose one. If this goes on and on, and we can't get you out of it..."

"We'll make sure and take good care of you," Ross finished for him. "You can be our mascot."

Steve smirked, and wolf's expression was a reflection of the same when it joined them.

Somewhat agreed, they walked grimly on, pausing several hours later near the tree line to gather some of the drier branches and light a small fire. Nothing else had approached them in the time between.

The trees seemed to hover over them, and they let the fire dwindle slightly as they settled in to doze, needing the rest despite the impulse to keep moving and resolve the day's events. They knew well enough that exhaustion on top of everything else would make them less effective. The wolf laid down on the far side of the fire, between the others and the tree line, head resting on forepaws. Something mid-sized rustled the underbrush to their far left at one point, skittering away again when the wolf growled.

But he never 'heard' the bigger predator an hour later; it was a smaller predator's attention to the subtle shift of the dark air that alerted him. He barked a furious alarm, leaping to his feet and startling the others awake. Smitty scrambled up, one hand already ablaze, and the three humans came to stand close to the dying fire and face out into the dark. Reduced to tense growls, the wolf paced around them.

"Don't change," Jon said as the wolf paused close to his left. "You'll only make it worse. There might just be one scout."

The wolf whined his dissent, and they strained to catch a sign of anything approaching, living or not.

*I thought you couldn't hear him,* Ross thought to Jon.

*I can't,* Jon thought. *But I have dogs.*

Ross would have laughed if he could have found anything funny. But there was too much cold darkness to watch, and they had lost enough as it was.

It was over so quickly that not one of them was able to piece it together on their own afterwards; one moment there was the unholy stillness and flickering firelight. The next was a flurry of panicked motion when part of the darkness near Jon congealed and gained shape. A set of long, piercing claws snaked out of the shadows, snared Jon's cloak from behind and yanked him lightning-quick out of the protective light even as Ross was turning to face the disturbance. His breath choked off by the motion, Jon was unable to make a sound until the wraith spun him and sank its teeth into his shoulder while puncturing him with the rest of its claws. He screamed then, and it was his last conscious act as it shook its head and threw him into the snow.

* * *