DARKNESS GATHERS Part IX
(c)1998 B Stearns



When morning came, Jon and Ross broke the dissembling field that had kept them from being detected by the senses of the night things. It had begun to snow again during the night, wiping out the tracks they'd made and adding another layer to the false veneer of calm. Smitty extinguished the small fire he'd set at dark, pointedly avoiding thoughts of where the wayward raven might have ended up. Discussion of how they would continue despite the possible loss of both Steve and Neal would come up soon enough.

*We can't very well send one of the Wisps for something like this. And there's no way we can disguise ourselves long enough to wander around in there.* Jon worried it over for a moment, then said aloud, "Assuming Neal was ever there and that he's still alive. Assuming Steve hasn't been captured. We can't give him much longer. We'll just have to go after him."

"I can try wandering in there," Ross said, "and search every damn building if I have to."

"But if she's hanging around, she'll catch the disturbance in the fields she's set up sooner or later. She's separating us. We're doing what she wants again. I can't help but think that whatever she used to pause the Evenwhen is there, though, in the Outlands. All the guards, the Watch...the wraiths. She isn't even bothering to send them out after us."

Smitty covered the remnants of their fire, shaking his head. "So what are you thinking of doing? Cutting to the chase and confronting her?"

Jon was silent.

"Between us, we could probably stay invisible long enough to get in there," Ross said softly, the words and tone hesitant and disapproving. "Long enough to walk up to her and do some damage before the whole place comes down on us."

"I need to get hold of her long enough to find out what she's done," Jon said. "With or without destroying her. For all we know, we'll need her to put things back the way they were."

"How long are we going to give Perry, before we decide to go jump in with both feet?" Smitty said.

Jon sighed. He didn't want to answer. "I'd like to think she'd come hassle us if she had both of them. I'd like to think she'd give me a shot at her by finding us and gloating. But the longer we wait, the better her chances of getting into things we don't want her to. And if she has them, she's probably taking her frustration out on them. You guys know it as well as I do." Then, underneath, *If they're dead, and we can't convince the namers to reset things when it's over...*

Jon shook his head, rising, surveying the woods and the two day's walk between them and the Outlands. It chilled him to think she had either Steve or Neal. If she did, then she had them all. "We didn't have a chance to go over that with Siarion, did we? Changing things with the permission of the namers. We may have to change some things."

Ross shrugged. "We'll get it done. In the meantime, we keep walking."

* * *

Consciousness returned slowly, but once it did, Steve wished it hadn't.

It was dark again, but a hint of dawn showed through chinks in the not-stone and through the window above. If he was in his right mind--and he was no longer sure of that--then it was the end of the second night he'd been there.

It, like the first, had been a long one.

The wraith had not compelled him to say much. He hadn't revealed Jon's name or the whereabouts of the others. And it had been...thorough. He had to admit, all in all, that the mind numbing fear he'd regained of the wraiths was lessened; but he suspected that freedom was a result of things he didn't want to address in the time he had left. He'd been poisoned, again. He should have been frightened of the prospect of more time with the wraiths. It should have frightened him that he'd lost all feeling in his injured arm, or that he couldn't keep what had happened separate from what might happen in his mind anymore. But if he had any fear left, it would take a great deal more than what he'd already seen to bring it out. He was too weary, too battered, to be frightened.

He sat again with his back against the wall, considering the fact that it was a relief to be left alone for awhile. She hadn't broken all of his bones as she'd threatened, but it didn't make much difference. Maybe she was waiting for him to Become, if he didn't die first. But either way, anything he knew would be gone with him. None of his memories or self would remain for her to gain access to.

Death is a simpler thing, given the choice.

Siarion's words hurled out of the dark at him, followed by something he'd said to Jon long ago in woods that had never existed. What kind of choice is that?

He laid that argument aside.

He wasn't sure how long she'd been standing there, but when he opened his eyes again it was lighter and The Lady was standing over him again. It took him several moments to decide if she was real, or something else his feverish mind had dredged up.

"Someone is here to see you, sohne," she said softly. "He too has been waiting. If you have chosen not to give me the name of the Inverse, you will most certainly tell him. He has forgotten, in death. But he has various means of coercing you."

Steve straightened slowly from the slumped position he'd been in, careful of the ruined arm, and eyed her with contempt. *Don't you have better things to do? Conquering worlds, terrorizing the denizens?*

She smiled. It was a slight, cold expression, and more triumphant than he was accustomed to seeing. Something shifted behind her at the edge of the darkness, faintly amorphous, reduced to tones of gray by the uncertain light. Steve refused to look. It would be another monster of her making, and he was through with monsters.

"But this one took special effort," she said. "He was made for you."

The thing shifted closer, solidifying enough to be visible, and Steve glanced at it involuntarily. He regretted it. The shuffling thing had pupilless, dim eyes that knew little but hunger as it crouched in the half-light and examined him.

"I believe the word in your world is 'vampire'," The Lady added softly.

The creature had been Neal, once.

Steve found himself still capable of fear.

* * *

*Shouldn't we have seen at least a hint of horizon, or anything, by now?* Ross thought for what he knew was probably once too often. There had been so little to break the monotony that they had resorted to basically thinking in circles, hoping they weren't walking in them as well. They had kept to the tree line in case they had to use it for cover in addition to weaving themselves invisible, and had paused to rest in it again when Jon shot back to his feet.

Ross and Smitty regarded him with caution; the expression on his face barred inquiry, and they settled for watching him stare off into the direction of the Outlands.

Finally, Ross ventured, *What?*

Something Jon knew he should have understood was eluding him, and he ignored Ross without intending to, listening so hard it made his head ache. Something had happened out of reach, on a level once known to him, and had brushed by. When he realized what it was, he didn't puzzle over the lack of grief that accompanied it. It would catch up with him, he knew. Right then it only meant that one of them had gotten away. By the time Jon turned around again, they knew what he was going to say, but it didn't lessen the impact.

"Steve's gone," he said woodenly. "He threw the switch."

* * *

They found him at first light of the following day. The snow took on the hue of the silver-orange morning, unmarred for miles. There was no sign of anything being dragged, no foot prints from any scavenger. There was only the black-clad figure that lay tumbled in one of the drifts, as they had expected. Dissembling field intact, only Jon approached him at first, kneeling to assure himself of the bundles' identity. Siarion's warning about trying to bring back the dead came back to him, and he heeded it out of respect. There was, again, a hint of something that made him want to back away; someone--he suspected he knew who--had laid a repellent field over the singer. Probably to keep predators away so that he would serve as an intact example when he was stumbled on.

*She knows where we are,* Jon thought, and there was no anxiety attached to it. Only disappointment. He patted Steve's shoulder lightly. "Gave you a choice, did she?" he murmured. "And I'm sure you mouthed off right up until the end. Well. Your hair's in your face again. You shouldn't have cut it, I guess." He brushed Steve's hair out of his eyes deferentially, amazed at his own stoicism. He reached under the neck of the singer's cloak, finding a slender gold chain that he carefully removed along with the eighth note charm that Steve had been wearing since he was twelve. He fastened the chain around his own neck, determined to keep the item safe until he could return it to the singer himself. *Help me bury him. The snow's deep enough here. We can't just leave him out here.*

It took very little time to honor Jon's request, and when they were through Ross smoothed the overlying snow with a thought, making it look as though nothing had been there. They stood, disheartened, and watched the light grow around them.

*We'll get them back,* Smitty thought.

*That depends on where they've gone,* Jon thought. *And whether the namers care enough to do anything about it. Is it any use to argue with something like that?*

*We'll argue,* Ross thought firmly. *Especially when we remind them of how grateful they are when we shake them loose.* "We have to go on," he continued aloud. "Remember, I knew them longer than either of you did. Or have. I know what they'd say about it, too. Anything can happen here. The faster we get this done, the sooner they'll be back. We have to go on."

He turned and walked away, careful not to leave footprints behind. Jon stood for a moment, gazing into the snow. *I don't think we can finish this, apart,* he thought.

*We're sure as hell gonna try.*

Smitty stared at Jon for a long moment, then nodded and headed off after Ross. Jon bowed his head, whispering a prayer. Then he knelt and pressed both hands into the snow as if to make it all final before he rose, crossed himself and walked on.

None of them, in their distraction, realized they were being watched from close by. A stealthy, predatory figure detached itself from the trees behind them and fell into step, silent in the fresh snow.

* * *

Even though it was just after sunset, the yard immediately surrounding the Cain's house was bright.

It was the tenth night of waiting in their time, the tenth night of warding off the things they could all hear beyond the boundary that waited for a lapse in their wakefulness. Sidain was perched somewhere above on the roof, keeping watch while he provided simulated light. The dogs had been placed in a local kennel for their own safety. Siarion remained vigilant within, seemingly tireless, not bound by the constraints of time or mortal life. During the day the current inhabitants were free to move about as they chose, with the children coming and going between their respective grandparent's homes. The waiting made for a tension that preyed on them all, and even the kids sensed the enormity of the situation even if they had no real grasp of it.

The night things that waited outside were temporarily surpassed by a less physical but no less dogged entity that night when the doorbell rang.

Siarion regarded Liz, who had just put the younger kids to bed, with alarm. "Who are you expecting?"

Liz shook her head, glancing at Dina, who joined her at the window. "It's the police," said with finality and a slight tremble in her voice. "I have to open the door."

When she turned, Siarion was gone, or at least out of sight; she answered the knock at the door to find no visible evidence of Sidain's light. There were, instead, two uniformed officers from Novato PD.

"Elizabeth Cain," the taller of the two said. It was a flat statement.

"Yes."

"Officer Delancey and myself are here at the request of the Lemoore police department. A Mr. Marv Rottman has filed a missing persons report on his stepson, Stephen Ray Perry. The last call made from Mr. Perry's residence was to this residence. May we come in and ask a few questions?"

* * *

Ross was the first to catch the disturbance in the air behind them, just after darkness fell again. But by the time he believed it, or tried to tell the others, it was too late.

Whatever it was that struck Ross from behind, it wasn't physical; he had time only to register it before it threw him, unconscious, into the snow. Jon and Smitty startled, seeing nothing at first as Jon reached for Ross. As he moved, something struck Jon hard enough to drive him to his knees, coming from nowhere in particular. *The Lady!* he thought-shouted in silence, breath gone. Smitty hurled a fireball, illuminating the snow and what stood only yards from them. The fire itself missed the figure but revealed its' identity before darkness crowded in again.

*Neal!*

There was a tainted moment of relief and confusion easily shattered when the snarling remains of the guitarist barreled into Smitty before he could react, sending him tumbling into the snow. Too stunned to regain his feet, and unable to see in the darkness anyway, Jon tried to throw up a shield and call the guitarists' name aloud. He was too slow on both counts; the rest of it emerged in a wail of pain when something insubstantial slammed into him again. Then rough hands gripped his shoulders in the dark, something winding through him and draining everything it touched, murdering while it searched...

Jon felt the emerald warmth of his own power rise to counter the assault almost without his summoning, creating a curtain behind his eyes that shut out whatever he was wrestling with. Then it darted around the barrier he'd thought impenetrable, sliding by and sinking in as he began to panic...

Then everything was lit up, blinding him, not the green of his defense but Smitty finally regaining his bearings. Jon got a full, close look at what had him before the flash blotted it out and sent it away in a flaming shriek. Part of Neal's clothing caught fire as a result of Smitty's intervention, and he retreated several yards to shake the flames out. Smitty stood close to Jon, pulling him to his feet and closer to Ross while keeping a flame at the ready.

*Neal,* Jon thought, unable to find his voice, rubbing his eyes to try and alleviate the spots of light dancing before them.

*I don't think so,* Smitty thought. Neal--the creature--circled around them, wary of the light that reflected off its' eyes even at that distance, looking for an opening. *It was. Does this look like Becoming to you?*

*He hit us, like Steve hit that Wisp...*

*Worry about getting rid of it,* Smitty thought, turning as it circled them to make sure he was always facing it. *Get to Ross, and if I have to really set it on fire, I will.*

Jon did as Smitty suggested with detached compliance, teeth chattering. Ross was easy to rouse, having only been knocked senseless. He sat up and looked around, a question beginning to form in his thoughts that Jon shook his head in response to. *Neal's here,* he thought. *But not really.*

Ross stood, turning until the prowling and determined thing was in his line of sight.

*It'll take another run at us if we just stand here,* Smitty thought. *If you can still set up a field, do it before it hits us again.*

Jon did so immediately, and as if it realized what he was doing, the creature paused, looking no different from Neal at that distance.

"What are the chances that this's just one of those damn butterfly things, trying to reel us in for a snack?" Ross said.

Jon shook his head, and Ross heard the click when the keyboardist tried to swallow. *Be a big damn coincidence, wouldn't it?*

Ross nodded. "Okay. Anything left of him, in there?"

"It's not like what happened to Steve," Jon whispered. "I could reach him, when he was Becoming. There was nothing to get hold of this time. I don't know what he is, now. But he can get around me without much effort."

"Can he get through what you just put up?"

"I don't know," Jon said. Discouragement welled behind it, along with the urge to just sit down in the snow and let everything go. A sudden image of Liz and Maddie startled him into glancing at Smitty.

"We're just gonna have to argue a little harder with the namers," Smitty said without taking his eyes off the still form to their right. It had given up circling them. "If you give up, we all die, and no one'll be left to argue. Play the game, Jay."

*Can you set fire to it from here, if you have to?* Jon thought, unable to say the words aloud, leaning over to brace his hands on his knees. He crouched, putting his face in his hands, trying to choke back tears.

"I'll have to," Smitty said, and Jon didn't hear him. "It's here for you, Inverse, and she won't want it to give up. We won't get far with this chasing us, especially if it can travel in daylight. This light isn't enough to get rid of it, so daylight won't either."

*But he was one of the best friends I ever had,* Jon thought.

*Don't give him up completely, just give him up for now,* Smitty thought. *This was probably her intention, to have you react like this. Move it, kid, or I'll set fire to you, first.*

Jon straightened, folding his arms, colder all the time, and they moved on cautiously. The creature moved with them immediately, keeping pace for all of two minutes before it sank feet-first into the snow and disappeared. Far from relieved, Jon kept the shield up just in case anything decided to pop up in front of them the same way Neal--or whatever it was--had disappeared.

Nearly an hour passed before it tried again, reappearing out of the snow and coming up behind. It made it as close as the edge of Jon's shield before retreating again. Only the disturbance in the field alerted them to its' presence, and Jon was careful not to look directly at it.

*He would want us to destroy it,* Smitty thought. *He wouldn't think twice about it.*

*How can you be so damn impartial about it!* Jon thought angrily, realizing even as the words formed how ludicrous it all was. That too was conveyed across the air, and Smitty nodded.

Of the two of us

Jon looked up sharply. There had been no voice, no thought, exactly, but still he asked, *What?*

Both Ross and Smitty turned their attention to him. The thing following them trudged on resolutely, pursuing with mindless determination, feet making no sound in the crusted snow.

*Never mind.* Jon picked up the pace a little, able to feel the thing's cold gaze on his back, wondering if it would have to rest or if it would drive them into turning on it and fighting for the chance to do so themselves. They would have to sleep eventually, whether they made it to the Outlands or not...

Of the two of us, Cain

Jon startled, his last name unable to harm him, having belonged to so many before. Something about the phrase triggered a memory, and his mind struggled to complete it even as he struggled to make sense of the source. Ross and Smitty heard the echo of the phrase through his open confusion.

*Where the hell's that coming from?* Ross thought. *Is it her?*

"No," Jon said aloud. "I don't know if it's time folding back, or what. I think I know where it came from originally."

They paused, and the thing trailing along behind paused right in step with them, expressionless, eyes trained unwaveringly on Jon. Jon steeled himself to stare back, hope beginning to rekindle in his mind. He stood less than three feet from the creature, separated only by the protecting energy of the field. Still, nothing came to back up the memory that had floated by; there was only the creature, inspecting him with bright, empty eyes.

*Do something,* Jon thought. *Give me a reason to believe you're still in there.*

There was nothing for a long moment but the sounds of their own breathing.

...who has the most to lose?

"I remember," Jon whispered, and he threw the shield down with a gesture to embrace the figure before him. Ross shouted in surprise, and the alarm in his thoughts was even louder. Smitty refused to move, keeping the light on Jon, watching for an opening in case he was needed.

Built purposely for attack, the creature struggled to escape when confronted with such an aggressive move, and it nearly broke Jon's grip. But by the time the mechanical mind it possessed thought to take advantage again, the snow filled night was lit up in a startling emerald. Having no idea what he was doing, Jon decided to leap in regardless, searching for anything familiar in the creature's patterns.

There was.

Enraged, it lifted him off his feet and hurled Jon away, sending him tumbling. It was on him again before he could right himself, grasping, tearing, and the touch of it alone was enough to convince Jon that Steve had little choice in throwing the switch. Cold, colder than the wraiths had been, taking anything it didn't destroy outright. It was a plaything of hers, for certain, and he couldn't let it get around him again...

Or could he?

It dawned on Jon then, while the thing that had been Neal struggled to get a solid grip on him, while Smitty and Ross shouted for him to get clear, that trying to escape was what helped the thing get in; the harder you struggled, the more it took...

...because taking was what it was made to do...

So Jon gave, instead.

Seeing an opening, the creature leaped into the space provided, discovering too late that what it wanted was going to destroy it; Jon opened the door for it, and that alone was enough to give him the upper hand. It had been made to feed on the fear of others and pick them apart in doing so, not to be invited in and turned back on itself. Willingly given, the part of Jon it got--his memories of Neal--lent strength to the remaining spark of the man underneath that had somehow survived the hollowing of the shell. It took only moments to begin tipping the balance, a sudden three-way struggle becoming evident even to Ross and Smitty, and Jon refused to let go of either the shell or the previous occupant. He reached for what he could hear of Neal, and when Neal breached the gulf to make a tentative connection, it was much like trying to reweave a pattern as he'd had to dislodge the specter of the wraith from Steve.

Unable to get between them, the opposing energy that had been in control only moments before used what little it had left to break away from Jon, sending the latter head over heels. Back in control but shaken, the thing wavered, unable to utilize Neal's powers or to simply disappear. It settled for retreating from them toward the trees.

"Goddamnit," Ross breathed, pulling Jon out of the snow. "You're just heedless, aren't you?"

"Fight it!" Jon shouted at the still prowling half-monster. "You can get past it, there's enough of you again!"

It stared at Jon for a moment, eyes still reflecting the dancing light in Smitty's hand before it hunched over and loped for the trees.

"Come back!" Jon shouted, starting out after it/Neal. Ross held him back, trying to tell him how ridiculous it was to chase anything or anyone into the trees, the words lost.

"But the other predators will...!" Jon began, shouting, struggling out of Ross' grip, ready to turn on him.

"Not by yourself!" Ross shouted back, startling him into silence. "The three of us go, or no one does. Figure out what the hell you're doing, first. You don't just go chasing something like that into the dark, no matter how much of Neal is still in there."

Jon nodded after a moment, gathering himself, caught between desperate excitement and wariness. "She must have thought she just had his form," he said. "She didn't get all of him. That's all that's important now. But he's...there's something else...besides what she tried to turn him into."

"We'll get him," Smitty said. "We might not even have to chase him. He'll try for you again, I think."

"He might have to," Jon said. "After all, he was made for me, huh?" His voice broke, and he ducked his head, ducking away from Ross in the process. "And Neal will want to try and come back to us anyway. If we walk closer to the trees, I'll bet neither of them will be able to resist."

"Sounds like a plan," Ross said, staring at Smitty as he did. "Dangling you in front of God knows what...on second thought, I don't think God knows, either. Forget I said it."

They walked back in the direction almost-Neal had taken, veering off just short of the trees and pausing there for a few minutes before continuing toward the Outlands. Smitty kept it as light as he could until the Turning came again, lighting up the not-sky behind them and casting long shadows away from the trees. Nothing moved as far as they could see, there was no sign of Neal, and Jon let the disappointment slow him a little. They stared off into the woods to no avail, watching the shadows change as the light grew, the snow sparkling like so much glass around them. If anything, the light made it seem colder.

"He could be anywhere by now," Jon said, talking to no one in particular.

Smitty tried to keep it from escaping, but *Or nowhere* came out regardless.

Jon nodded. "That's probably how Steve died," he said in an extemporaneous tone. "She made a shell of Neal so he could hollow out whatever he came across, namely us. She probably tried him out on Steve first."

"Therefore the switch," Ross said. "Convenient how that worked out, huh?"

Jon nodded again, distant. "That's what got my attention before, it was something Steve said to me when this all started. Probably just an echo." He walked into the trees, determined. Ross and Smitty looked at each other before following, the three of them fanning out slightly among the trees but careful to stay close.

* * *

Something awoke under the lowest branches of a gnarled tree growing from an outcropping of rock, examining its' surroundings and not quite sure where--or what-- it was. There was a brief clattering of frozen not-stone while it detached itself from the spot it had chosen to hole up in, the human part of it too stiff to move but the rest of it feeling neither discomfort or cold.

There was a moment of clarity when it heard the sound of rushing water somewhere on the other side of the outcropping when Neal regained enough control to have a good look around. How the hell he'd come to be with the trees like a wall behind him, and the edge of what looked like a lake that never ended in front of him was obviously not his to explain, because he had no memory of anything beyond the snow swallowing him...

Then, like a blanket being thrown over him, whatever it was he'd been arguing with for however long began wrestling with him again and he couldn't gain his bearings. There was him at the core again as far as he could tell, then a shell of something else layered over him that managed to keep the world gray for long stretches. All he knew for certain was that he felt like he'd been dragged along a ten mile stretch of pavement, when he was entirely conscious.

Then he was looking out across the water, if it was water, knowing more time had passed without his being aware of it. It was too big to be a lake, stretching out to what should have been a horizon. It confused him that there was none; sky should have met water at some point in his vision, but the world didn't seem to curve and it was like looking out into forever...

There was a memory, of another lake, of a peaceful morning that had become the beginnings of a song.

The memory wasn't his.

He remembered wondering what had happened to the others before he found himself surrounded by the trees again, the water a disjointed memory. He was walking, and had just enough presence of mind to realize it was with the Turning at his back, the way he was supposed to be going.

What the hell happened to me?

Then the creature wandered away again.

* * *