DARKNESS GATHERS Part VIII
(c)1998 B Stearns



That quickly, Steve was human again, his scream of denial picking up where Jon's had left off, watching Jon slide to a lifeless and final stop on the frozen ground. Steve ran toward the wraith, purposely searching for the thread that would give him a foothold to destroy it, knowing it for what it was and had once been. Bent on murdering Jonathan, it afforded him only the most superficial attention as it reached for the Inverse again. It only paused because it recognized the mental scent of him, but it was enough. Steve reached out, and it rose on hind legs to regard him with curiosity. A fireball struck it a moment later. There was no struggle from it as it burst into flames, becoming a ghoulish burst of yellow-orange that lit up the snow around them before becoming a melting patch of darkness.

Steve slid to his knees next to Jonathan, turning him, a keening noise rising from the singer's throat that would have better suited the wolf.

Jon was all but dead, rent beyond repair, and there was nothing any of them could do. Smitty landed beside him a moment later, still watching the dark around them for what they knew had to be coming now that Steve had given himself away again. The snow was rapidly turning red...

*Reverse it,* Steve implored, unheard, and he lowered his head to Jon's chest, remembering a dash through woods that had never existed and the argument that had ensued. But Steve wasn't an Inverse, or a healer, and there would be no argument.

But I was lit up, Steve thought, and it never reached the others. He was no longer 'lit up', that was true, but he remembered the part of himself that had been lit up, the part that Jon had managed to reach out to when the first wraith had tried to kill him beneath the Keep. It has to go both ways!

The same impulse that allowed him to close his thoughts clicked in the opposite direction in his desperation, allowing him to throw them completely open. He hadn't known how far they could open, and the scope of it was made plain in the next moment.

There was a suggestion of unbelievable space, much like there had been when he had been forced through the Evenwhen, but this time it was the relatively contained space of that particular world. He could see all of it for a moment, hear the approach of the rest of the wraiths that had been looking for them, see Tuirnarin look up from far off

yes, I remember your name

as she diverted her attention to acknowledge him. There was nothing on that world that didn't hear him then, including the dying man before him. Anything could have leaped into the amplitude of space he created out of the memory of Jon bridging a gap long ago, out of the part of himself that had been lit up.

He was only able to maintain it for a moment; of the many beings on that world, two responded out of recognition and desperation in time to reach him. Jon leapt in and drew enough strength to ignite his own powers; the other slipped away, too insubstantial to grasp, but leaving an indelible mark. Neal.

The green began nowhere in particular. Within moments it was creeping along the snow Jon had been thrown into, evening to a steady glow along Jon's battered frame. He took a breath of the cold air, his first in too long, gasping for it.

*Wraiths,* Steve thought, and Smitty rose to watch the woods. Both he and Ross were staring at Steve with a mixture of fear and awe, as stunned as Steve himself was.

Steve lifted Jon partially out of the snow, and with Ross' help brought him back closer to the fire that Smitty was quickly adding fuel to.

*How did you...* Ross began.

*What matters now is how we pay for it,* Steve thought, his head ringing with the after-echoes of the things he'd seen and heard all at once. *And we'll pay for it. But he's alive...and so is Neal.*

The first wraith to respond to the disturbance they had created was also the first to turn tail, slipping out of Steve's grasp and returning to the blackness. Ross tried to set the dissembling field and failed, managing only to disguise himself with it. He tried again, a dull realization beginning to form. Without Jonathan--or for all he knew, without the cohesion of all five together--the limits were stricter. Jonathan had been able to shield Steve from something that would have shattered a boulder; he had probably been helping in ways the rest of them hadn't even realized.

Moments later they could feel as well as see the frenzy of blood red eyes emerging from the deeper gloom of the trees. Anything in the trees remained in them, though, mindful of Steve. Sitting partially upright and leaning against Steve, Jon began to cough, the fit ending in a cry of pain. Steve held onto him a little tighter, keeping part of his attention on what was in the trees but lending what he could to Jon. They both smelled of blood and fear, and any predators willing to brave the wraiths would start descending on them soon, Steve figured.

*It burns,* Jon thought, opening his eyes to darkness, blinded by the invasion the wraith had attempted, trying to hold on to consciousness. *I don't know...if I can...*

*You can,* Steve insisted. *You can have my strength, if yours isn't enough yet.*

*You can't. She'll...she's coming.*

*Don't argue with him, Jay,* Smitty thought. Momentary but strained silence descended, punctuated by Jon's harsh breathing while he tried to reverse the damage the wraith had done. Steve left his thoughts open, letting Jon into them, and the latter was able to sit up on his own moments later.

Gasping, he kept a hold on Steve, who turned him a little closer to the fire and stayed between Jon and the trees. *Neal,* Jon thought.

*He's alive. We'll find him.*

{or he will find you}

Steve turned his head slowly. The Lady stood just inside the tree line, alone, face impassive. She was a dull gray, hands folded before herself as she watched them. She made no attempt to enter Steve's thoughts even though they stood wide open, even though doing so would have been entering Jonathan's also.

"Riddles," Steve said. "Screw you, they're all you have. Let Neal go, and you and I can go another round. It's what you want, isn't it?"

She smiled in response before turning her back on them and walking away into the trees. Jon sat up a little further, regaining more of his strength.

*What the hell is going on!* Smitty thought.

*I don't think she was really here,* Steve thought, then said, "She's got bigger plans for us."

Jon was able to stand several minutes later with Steve and Ross' help. He winced and leaned on Steve's shoulder. "We have to go on," he said.

"But you're not..." Steve said.

"Go on," Jonathan insisted through clenched teeth. "I'm almost through, I'm fine. We can't let her slow us down."

After another few minutes by the fire, they did go on, and Jon grew visibly better as the minutes passed until their worry over it ceased. Steve returned to the wolf, watching the shadows even more closely than he had been. By morning they reached the final edge of the trees, leaving nothing between them and the Outlands but miles of white, open space. The snow sloped in drifts before them, driven by the inconstant wind and hiding any physical features from them. They knew they were still headed in the right direction, because the Turning still lay behind them.

The raven landed on Jon's shoulder as they surveyed the emptiness, signaling Steve's intent to continue on alone, and after a long moment, Jon nodded.

The raven vaulted away, and was quickly out of sight.

* * *

Neal awoke yet again.

He'd stopped counting; he'd been trying to jump back, ahead, or even sideways to see if it would work, over and over. Each time, he'd returned to exactly the same spot, some not-stone cell in what he figured had to be the Outlands. Faint daylight leaked in from under the barred door as well as the opposite window. The window was set far too high in the wall to get to, even to look out of. And he'd been as unsuccessful with the door as with the Evenwhen. She'd blocked him in, somehow, although there'd been no direct contact, but he figured the whole place was her doing, so what couldn't she do, under those circumstances? He'd hoped to catch her not paying attention so he could slip through, but he knew even then that she could snatch him back out of the air like an insect. It'd be just as easy to pull any of them anywhere she wanted them, again and again. He only wondered what had taken her so long.

It was probably fair to say the only thing he didn't wonder, sitting there against one wall in the unusually spacious cell, was what she wanted.

He'd already decided she couldn't have it, and he was careful not to think of Jon in particular as he contemplated his fate. There was no telling what she could hear anymore. The fact that she had Steve's name, and his own, was bad enough. He had the disturbing feeling she could make him do relatively anything, after having tangled with her more than once. She'd already made him do things he'd wanted no part of. She was either going the short way and dragging everything she could out of him, or she would basically force the others to come after him. Either way it was on her terms.

But finally, mostly, he'd been thinking of his son. How tall he was getting; how his hair, as blond as his mother's at first, was beginning to take on his father's hue. The kid was going to be a musician someday. Both his current wife and his ex-wife would see to it that their kids would be able to do whatever they wished. Five year old Elizabeth's memories of him would fade over time, assuming their world went on. It was Miles who would miss him the most...

His fatalism would have infuriated a certain longtime friend, neighbor and bandmate, so he abandoned his line of thinking in favor of trying to figure a way out of the whole mess.

She chose then to show herself, appearing as if she'd been standing there unseen in the shadows while he struggled with himself. Neal stood, watching her monochromatic shape with circumspect care. Neither made a move, and Neal steeled himself under her gaze.

"It will be dark, soon," she said finally.

He heard the unspoken threat in that, and refused to reply.

She made sure the words had their full impact before continuing. "Until then, there will only be myself. After that, there will be wraiths. You have never dealt with one directly, have you."

Even though he tried to keep his thoughts quiet, the unbidden image of the chair in the wall returned to him. *Screw you, and I hope you can hear me,* he thought, and she showed no reaction. There was still at least that.

"Tell me the Inverse's name, Neal," The Lady said casually, and Neal put his hands to his head, the floor opening beneath him but only in his mind. "Tell me what you have learned from Mairiesa."

Gasping, Neal found himself on his knees, but otherwise intact.

I didn't do it! She didn't make me!

"It will be dark soon," The Lady repeated.

* * *

The orange light had faded almost completely before the raven coasted into the outskirts of the Outlands. Even from that height, Steve had to admit to being surprised. The orderliness and geometrical harmony of the not-stone buildings was apparent, and more than he'd expected from a mind as bent on destruction as he knew The Lady's was. Most likely it was the work of the various denizens who had gathered there, but she had constructed them, as well. Why or how they had chosen to live in such a close, tense gathering was beyond him, but he basically didn't give a damn, either.

Low rectangular buildings rested at orderly, uniform angles to each other, somehow managing to rest uneasily against each other in the dying light. They would have taken up at least two city blocks in the world he was from. Rough but apparent trails wound between--and only between--the buildings; there was nowhere else to go. An occasional shock of greenery broke the monotony of snow-topped gray and rust-red, almost purposely placed. Beyond that, another miniature desert leading to more trees called a halt to the Outlands away from the Turning side. The snow also ended there, a thin line of it marking the boundary.

Then there were the towers.

Their similarity to Siarion's Tower was disturbing; they reminded him of tombstones with sharp spires, two concentric corkscrews rising to a threatening, tapering point as if she had intended to pierce the not-sky. He didn't doubt that it had been her intention. It screamed of her presence as well as her ambitions.

Nothing moved below him as he made his first sweep, a wide arc around the perimeter of the settlement. He took in the general layout and worked at committing it to memory. The denizens, if they still existed, weren't showing themselves, and he was grateful for it.

He swept around again before lighting carefully atop the nearer spiral, taking a moment to rest his wings and take a closer look at the tower itself. It gave little away from the outside, the slippery surface affording little purchase; and he was unable to decide what she had made it of. He remembered the difficulty he'd had landing on Siarion's Tower minutes after learning the bird trick and wondered why the same spell hadn't been applied in this case as well.

He didn't like the answers he was coming up with.

He heard nothing from his perch, and a few minutes later as final darkness descended, so did he, perching on the edge of the nearest building. Faint light was being emitted from fortified windows he couldn't see into.

I need to be closer yet, he thought. Ground level would reveal more. The darkness would hide the wolf as easily as it did the bird. The layout itself would have been good enough if Neal had been left with them. Now he wanted a better understanding of how to get into the towers, because if Neal was anywhere, it was in one of them...

I wish I could be human long enough to try and listen for him, he thought.

Moments later, the wolf padded between the buildings, keeping to the shadows as he encountered evidence of the first denizen. A creature even taller than Remian came blundering between two of the buildings, dressed in the standard tunic and leggings that she had somehow come to consider as the uniform of the fourth-dimensional. It appeared male and was stalking back and forth, feeling around at everything it encountered. Steve figured it was probably a member of the Watch Mairiesa had warned them about. It wasn't until the denizen came a little closer that Steve caught a glimpse of its face and realized it was eyeless. He shrank further into the shadows. The denizen continued shuffling by him, scuffling its boots into the snow and listening to the echoes bounce off the nearest objects.

When it had passed, Steve wound further toward the towers, passing each low building with interest, finding that some had low, awkward looking doors as formidable as the windows. Keeping Keepers, he thought, noticing the bells on some of the doors. Jonathan had used the phrase the first time--or whichever time--they had been through that twisted, wrong-ways place. Why she allowed the denizens to keep bells in the first place confused him until he realized that the denizens who had been within probably weren't anymore.

He turned another corner, keeping close to the wall of yet another stone cottage, staying well out of the ambient light from the windows. There was still nothing to hear but his own breathing. No conversation among the denizens, if there were any.

One's punishment...is to Become.

He remembered the words well. More than that, he felt them, having been well on his way to Becoming, once.

The raven fluttered away on the night breeze again, pulling up on one of the turrets above. Not even a suggestion of the light below made it to that height. He took one last look of what little he could see of the small city from that vantage, gliding to the other turret, listening. There was a moment of sound, faint and far off, enough to make him wonder if he'd even heard it, a keening that could have been the wind.

I can't. I can't leave him here! Jay, you wouldn't either, even if it meant your life.

He hung on the edge of the decision as well as the turret for another few seconds before returning to the ground and to the wolf, keeping close to the walls of the buildings he ran between. There had to be a way to get in those towers.

When he heard the shuffling step of another guard, he ducked into part of the greenery between buildings and lay there watching the creature meander from shadow to shadow. When it was gone, he crept out of the greenery on the far side, concentrating on not rustling any of the thin, sharp leaves...

He felt the thing snap shut on his left foreleg, the pain instant and intense. A long, wailing wolf's cry split the darkness, a lament in response to feeling the bones snap and the teeth of a trap rend the limb to uselessness.

Losing his concentration, Steve was human again, trying desperately to pry the metal teeth apart but unable to find purchase with only one hand. His breath rasping in his throat, he struggled blindly with the thing, teeth clenched against a scream. It was the kind of pain that screaming wouldn't alleviate, anyway, and he didn't have the breath for it. He knew he was revealing his whereabouts to The Lady, but all he cared about right then was getting his arm free. He braced a foot against one side of the thing, feeling for an opening of any kind with his free hand. It was like one of those old-fashioned bear traps, but with rows of teeth that had caught him in several places down his arm and had torn the hell out of his hand. It was the kind of thing that would end the career of anyone who needed their hands...

...like a musician...

There was a sensation of cold against his forehead, and he realized he had pressed it to the ground in an effort to stay conscious. He wasn't sure how much time had passed, but the pain began to abate slightly as shock set in. Lightheaded, he panted for air, the injury sending an alarm through his entire body. He braced a foot against the trap again, looking for leverage, still sane enough to realize that hands had set the thing and should be able to release it, as well. There had to be a catch, or a spring...anything.

There. There was a lever of some kind on the hinge of the trap. Bracing himself, trying not to jostle his arm, he put his other foot and all of his weight against the lever. It began to give a little, and as the teeth pulled slightly apart he realized it would be better to do it quickly. He stood still, pulling in as much air as he could and trying to gather the strength to slam the thing back open.

There was a scraping to his right, hints of rapid movement converging on him. The Watch...

This is a world of predators. Jay had said it. And the denizens didn't want them, or any wayward Otherworlders, sneaking up on them in the dark. Traps and bells, and nowhere to run.

He slammed the trap back open, able to brace it only part way. It was unwilling to give him up, and he saw stars while he tried to pull himself free. He heard and felt a metal point scrape against bone, and adrenaline alone kept him from sliding to his knees. He refused to scream, using both feet and his free hand to disengage himself. The metal--if that's what it was--was slippery with blood when he kicked it away into the first shadow that loomed over him. He crashed out of the bushes, listening to the trap snap shut again behind him.

Cradling his injured arm against his chest, he darted back between two buildings, every step jarring his arm, wanting only to put distance between himself and the stumbling, incompetent Watch. He no longer knew or cared which direction he was headed in. When he slowed to catch his breath and listen several buildings away, he allowed himself the luxury of cursing the fact that there would be no hope of reaching the others before light. Or long after, the way things were going. The bird was done for the night.

He turned another corner and pressed his back to a wall, using his good hand to push his hair out of his eyes. He squinted out into the dark, able to make out an open space with the rising shapes of trees edging one side of it.

The desert.

Shit.

He debated changing his form to keep anything else from hearing him, but decided against it. He'd been heard. It didn't matter anymore, and only the form he was currently in would be mobile with his arm like it was.

So much for riding to the rescue.

A hand snaked out of the wall he was leaning against, catching a handful of cloak at his shoulder and yanking him viciously back against a construct that was solid only to him. He yelled in surprise and pain, bracing a foot against the wall and propelling himself away from both the hand and the wall, losing his balance in the process. He rolled away in the snow, coming to a stop facing the building in time to watch a figure melt out of the wall and feel blindly along it. The Watch.

Not so incompetent, after all.

He rolled to his knees, trying not to use his hands, and stumbled back to his feet. He realized he'd allowed himself to be driven out into the open. He felt the snow give way to sand beneath his feet as he backpedaled, and he turned and struck out for the trees. He needed somewhere to hole up and try to stop the bleeding, needed somewhere to wait for the light to turn over again...

Something drifted by him in the open, soundless and invisible, undetectable save for the hair rising on the back of his neck.

Yes, it was a world of predators, and a freely bleeding man running around in the open reeking of injury and panic would be a green light to the rapacious things whose home he was stumbling through. He was willing to face almost anything but what he knew was out there with him. There were no candles this time, and singing would only announce his position to more guards. In returning to his true form, he had announced himself to one particular breed of predator.

Crimson eyes floated out of the chilled darkness, eerily silent. Another pair blinked to life on his right, liquid and depthless. Then another.

It was all pointless, he thought. All of this. Instead of terror, there was only a pervading sense of weariness.

{i was hoping for the Inverse. but you are a satisfactory prize, until i obtain him. perhaps he will come looking for you, now, as well.}

Without breaking step, Steve concentrated above her words, reaching for and trying to become a wraith himself. He failed, and realized the truth too late: only anger made him capable of that form. Only anger brought the shadow. He hesitated, and when he did she was upon him as if sensing his failure, his weariness. Cold, furious fingers grabbed him by the hair on the back of his head, hair he had cut to avoid just that. And that easily, he was unable to move, his limbs leaden with the cold The Lady wound through him. His outrage was gone. There was no one to defend but himself, and that was suddenly more than he could face or bother with.

{i have been waiting for you. you and i have much to discuss}

* * *

"I shouldn't have let him go."

"Jay," Smitty said, his tone indicating he was tired of saying it, "he would have gone anyway. There was never really a decision made by anyone but him, and you know it. You don't see the rest of us turning into birds and being able to cover ground like that. He was the best one to scout the place out."

Jonathan shook his left hand out absently, easing a momentary discomfort. "I just wish we were still connected, so I'd know what was going on. She would really enjoy getting a crack at him."

"She really wants a crack at you," Ross said. "No way are we giving her the chance, yet."

Jon sighed, pushing away the thought that hung between them unformed: the fear that Neal was already dead and that they wouldn't be given the chance to save him. Or even of falling into a trap on his behalf. Jon wanted to believe that he would have at least felt something if Neal had died, after all their time together. *She's picking us off. We have to get the upper hand, somehow.*

"I'm all for blunt at this point," Smitty said. "If Steve manages to figure out what they've done with Neal, we can at least make a grab for him and start tipping this place over. No more subtlety."

* * *

For creatures not bound by the constraints of time, they had much less patience than he would have imagined.

When Steve had regained consciousness, it had still been dark. His arm hummed with pain that had made its' way into his shoulder and back, and he was careful to avoid moving it. There was cold, damp stone against his back, and he realized he was sitting partially upright against a wall. He was still sitting there trying to take stock when he noticed a change in the darkness high up on the wall to his right. There was a window, too high up to reach, allowing the first light of the Turning to enter. Stiff and aching, he watched the light crawl across the floor and then cease, finding no opposite wall. He puzzled over that for a short while until he realized he couldn't find where the floor ended, couldn't find any evidence of walls other than the one with the window and the one he leaned against. For all he knew, the floor dropped off almost twenty feet away. It all looked unfinished, like a charcoal drawing someone had walked away from. He had a feeling that he was in one of the towers, and that she had left many things unfinished.

He drifted for awhile, staring at the light and keeping his eyes averted from the darkness where The Lady had forgotten to pencil in walls and floor. His ruined arm was wrapped in his cloak, the limb a dull, throbbing ache he tried to ignore. He was freezing but burning with fever at the same time, and he wondered dully if he should tell the The Lady to hurry up before her chance to kill him herself was taken away.

Finally, he climbed to his feet, disgusted with himself, not wanting to sit there and just accept whatever happened. He trailed his good hand along the wall, ignoring the slight dizziness that had followed him upright, and placed himself beneath the window. He couldn't see anything but the growing light.

The Lady came out of the darkness to his left, white from head to toe. Even her eyes bore the color. He didn't startle, and he refused to look at her, keeping his eyes raised to the window.

"Tell me the Inverse's name," she said simply, as if inquiring about nothing more consequential than the weather.

Steve didn't move or reply.

"Neal did not, before I finished with him. If you tell me, I will put aside my intentions and let you die. Otherwise I will keep you alive long after you would prefer not to be."

He dropped his eyes to hers at mention of Neal. "I love it when you talk tough with me," he said, his voice emerging rusty and hoarse with pain. He cleared his throat and shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs. "Why don't you just yank it out of me?"

She stared at him expressionlessly, almost as if most of her attention was elsewhere, and he grinned lopsidedly at her. "Oh, that's right. You can't. I can keep you out of my head as long as I want, and you don't wanna get close enough again to tangle with me anyway. You lose, bitch. Neal told you the same."

She nodded thoughtfully, the motion so slight that he nearly didn't catch it. "He was uncooperative. He did little more than scream, at the last."

He lashed out at her without moving, as she had expected. As she turned the invisible blow aside, she caught hold of him by it long enough to take his voice. He saw the wraith out of the corner of his eye, lurking in the darkest part of the room.

"I tire easily of screaming," she said.

* * *