Memory Bound Chapter XIV
(c)2001 B Stearns
For awhile, Neal floated.
He felt dry, warm stone under his hands first, slippery with dust. It took his vision a moment to clear, resolving the black into grays and then full color. The roaring in his ears went last, fading to silence that was interrupted only by the wind that was whipping around him. Comprehension took a few moments more; when he moved a hand, there was a faint clattering below him, and he realized with horror that he was face down, his head and shoulders out over a drop of hundreds of feet. Jagged spires of rock and tumbled boulders lay far below him. The space tugged, the enormity of it inviting him over the edge.
He dug his fingers in and pushed himself back from that edge, clearing it completely by several feet before pushing himself to his hands and knees. The rock beneath his hands was solid and relatively flat. There was something familiar about all of it, and he sat up into a crouch to look around.
He was on a plateau of some sort, most of it flat but for a raised ledge to one side. It had maybe only a 50 foot circumference, and seemed to be the highest thing for miles. Out in front of him ran a desert that broke into plains miles distant and what looked to be trees even further off than that, lit by orange light from above. Sandstone towers stood in intermittent spaces around him, and when he stood and turned around he saw the backbone of that world, a high, sheer cliff of rock that slammed a final piece into place in his mind. He was on Siarion's Tower.
He looked down at himself and found he was wearing the same outfit he'd worn everytime he'd been there, the same rust colored leathers and cloak.
He cursed aloud, then realized how lucky he really was. He remembered the thing pulling on them all, and it had been ten times worse than when Tuirnarin had done it. It had been after Steve, and for all he knew had meant to simply shred the rest of them through the Evenwhen. It had been using Steve for that, had been unable to really get in but had managed to slingshot them around anyway. He and Steve had done something at the last, scattered them all somehow...
And he'd chosen a familiar spot to hide them. If he had to be stuck somewhere, at least he knew where he was.
Neal turned a full circle, realizing there was a hell of a lot more desert than there had been before. It had all been plains around the towers the last time they'd been through there, and now it was mostly desert. The sand had spilled its boundaries and blown across the plains, consuming nearly everything. There was orange sky to go with orange sun, and thin, light-orange clouds to go with that. Something had happened there, something had tipped a balance and he was no longer looking at a partially finished world. At least he knew he wasn't further back in time, not if things had advanced so noticeably. Tuirnarin wasn't there to listen to his thoughts.
*Jonathan,* he thought. *Steve, Ross, anybody!*
Only the wind answered him, and he tried not to think it was because he was completely alone. They could have just been out of range.
The spiraling slope Ross had created the first time they'd met Siarion was still there, offering him a way down. He sat on the ledge a moment and watched the sand below him for movement, wondering if Siarion still perched there occasionally and if she would come to tell him something he wouldn't want to hear.
I am afraid your world is gone, now, and you are the only one left.
No. It had been after them specifically, Steve in particular, and hadn't given a rip about any world. He wondered if it had gotten to Steve, finally, wondered if he'd know on some level if the singer had been taken over. It would have to hold on to him awhile and figure out how to get in...
Neal swallowed, hard, and closed his eyes against that thought for a moment. If he'd thought that was the case, he would have killed the singer himself.
There was a day where he wouldn't have cared that much, or at least told himself it didn't matter. But that wasn't true anymore.
He didn't even dare try and leap back across, assuming it was possible. He'd be announcing himself to that thing again, maybe putting everyone in danger. It probably had no idea where he was, not yet.
He looked out along what he could see of the base of the Turning Wall, looking for the flat stone the Sedhians liked to use for sacrificing things to a deity that no longer existed. It lay in shadows, but he could just make it out, miles off. He wondered if they were still there, and if they were still as much of a pain in the ass.
After awhile he got up and began the long descent off the tower, not sure where the hell he was going or why he was really bothering. If he was alone there, without the others, he'd be doing nothing but hiding there, useless.
That would really piss him off.
At least Ross' path hadn't been changed, or destroyed. He descended carefully, keeping one hand against the tower itself and keeping an eye out for any movement below. It wouldn't hurt to see if the caves were still around, or the Wisps either. He'd have to figure out how to go about finding the others. He couldn't count on getting any help; that was a life rule of his anyway, and he'd never been sorry for it. He still remembered most of the layout of the place, and he'd cover what he could however he could. If he was alone, he'd have to decide when to start poking his head into the timelines, if he could. And see how long he survived it.
He leapt off the final few feet of the tower and looked around. The valley between Siarion's Tower and the outcroppings around it hadn't changed much. There was still a beaten trail that led back through the valley. He wondered if there was a way through the Turning Wall if he went further back the other direction, but he was in no mood to scout. He'd start from the most likely place -- Athyri -- and do what he could from there.
He started walking, following the curve of the base of the tower. The tumbled boulders were still there, and he knew the one he'd been looking for immediately; the sections of the one Tuirnarin had smashed. It still sat in a depression, cracked through. There was still a ledge at the base of the tower, enough shelter for something to hide in, and he paused near it to make certain there was nothing there. It made him realize how far off the caves were -- if there still were caves -- and that he wasn't certain how far off the Turning was.
He sighed and looked up at the sky again, amazed that there was a sky. The sun, if that's what it was at all, was a hand's breadth away from the wall. He wasn't sure if it had moved while he'd been there. He hadn't been paying any attention. If he had to, he'd hang around there until it got light again, maybe stay under the ledge. Out in the open hadn't been a good idea the last time he'd been there, and who knew what the hell else had come to life there. Daywraiths, at the least. Be real happy not to run into one of those fuckin' things again, he thought. And Steve had raised the question of whether he'd gotten rid of all the Keepers.
He checked under the ledge a little closer, walking in beneath it and crouching over. It ended in a slant, allowing access through one side only, a thin shelf of sandstone. The next order of business would have to be a makeshift weapon.
He walked a little further around the base of the tower, almost into the open, looking out across the miles of sand. A flash of the nightmare Steve had accidentally pulled him into came back to him, glass and bloody hands...
That stopped him for a moment. Jesus fuckin' christ. Glass, and bloody hands.
...and a rust colored cloak buried in sand. Nothing growing for miles, nothing moving, nothing--
Then he saw the tree.
It sat at the base of the tower, like a precursor to it. Like a gateway, Neal thought. The sand hadn't reached it, somehow; it sat on a slight incline of star-bleached grass, surrounded by rocks. The only green for miles. He hadn't seen it from his vantage on the tower because it had been in shadow, and he'd been too busy trying to scramble back from the edge. It would have been visible to him, hanging out over the edge like he'd been when he first opened his eyes. At first glance he thought it was some sort of oak.
Then he heard it whisper.
A slight breeze disturbed the leaves, and they made a whispering bell tone, barely audible to him. He stepped out into the open, amazed by the symmetry of the thing. It stood roughly thirty feet tall, with a perfectly round leaf canopy. Like a cartoon rendition of a tree. The closer he got, he realized the leaves were spiral shaped, each exactly the same size and length. The beginning of the root base stood above ground and seemed to grip at the earth, kneeling there. In spots the roots were large enough to sit on as if at the knee of a benevolent parent. He didn't get anything sinister from the tree, no sense of being lulled or snared. But he knew not feeling it didn't mean he wasn't in danger of such things, and he kept a slight distance, watching the leaves. They went on whispering a little, miniature bells tolling just inside the limit of human hearing. Nothing else stirred within the leaves, nothing leapt down and chased him.
He finally approached it, staring up into the canopy and wondering what the hell it was doing there anyway. The desert wasn't touching it, even though it seemed to be trying to take everything else over.
He shouldn't have done it; he knew it and did it anyway, walking up and sitting on one of the exposed roots. Nothing happened to him. The breeze went on making a rustling bell sound in the leaves, and the pattern of it seemed familiar. After awhile it was hard to stay awake, and he folded his arms and leaned his back against the trunk.
He was asleep moments later, and never knew it.
* * *
By the time Steve was aware of himself again, it was because he was choking.
There was darkness, and damp rock, and the smell of water. He sat up a little, grateful to know which way was up, and went on coughing. It was a wonder the Ender hadn't crushed his larynx in that one furious hand.
That was how it had chosen to try and get in, this time. Throttling enough life out of him to get no resistance. Or so it had thought.
When he could catch his breath a little, he opened his eyes. Having them closed had allowed his eyes to adjust to the darkness he opened them to, and he made out basic shapes around him. Rocks, tumbled boulders. He reached his hands out and encountered more of them, confirming his surroundings.
He stretched a little and discovered he wasn't injured. He hadn't fallen. Wherever he'd landed himself, he'd managed not to make it too rough.
He blinked in the darkness and sat up a bit more, trying to determine if he was looking at the darkness of night, or if he was inside some structure. It was a large open space of some sort, but he couldn't tell if it was not-sky or a ceiling. It felt open, but not as open as it should have if he was outside. He made it to his feet and stood listening, trying to make anything out. There was nothing to hear but his own blood in his ears. The bare amount of light that made the difference in shadows came from no discernible source and wasn't enough to help him.
Nothing moved around him. He felt around a little more, hoping there wasn't something out there waiting for a snack.
Where the hell am I? And where the hell is everybody else?
He sighed and moved a few steps, scraping his feet lightly to make sure he wasn't stumbling into anything or walking into a hole. There was a slight weight across his shoulders, a tugging when he moved, and when he felt he found a hooded cloak.
There was only one place he knew that would toss him into a cloak just because he'd crossed its borders. Athyri, or close to it. His intent, to hide them all somewhere familiar, had at least partially worked.
He stepped over a few rocks, then picked up a small one and tossed it to his left.
It rattled against a hard surface, probably another rock, and clattered away. It was solid path to his left, then, the sound coming back to him at a level that was even with where he was standing. But there'd also been an echo that bounced off walls. A ceiling. It was a cavern of some kind, maybe underground. He tossed several more stones in a variety of directions, getting an idea of how big it might be. It was pretty damn big, from what he could gather.
One stone made no noise at all.
He acknowledged what direction that had come from, a good throw to his left. He climbed over a few more rocks and hit level ground, and stood there for a minute, listening. Still nothing.
Ah, sensory deprivation, he thought. If there was something waiting in the dark for him, he didn't want it to surprise him, so he said, "Anybody there?" aloud, and waited. There was no answer, so he took a few more steps...
And stumbled over something warm and human-sized on the ground in front of him. He caught himself on the way down, trying not to land on who or whatever it was directly. He knelt next to the figure and felt around, finding a hand, then an arm. Thankfully, they were attached to a warm, breathing torso. No cloak. Male, slightly taller than he was, long, curly hair --
Steve shook the figure. "Aug?"
At first there was no response. When he shook harder, the figure groaned a little and lifted an arm.
Then there was a yelp, and the figure rolled away from him in a frantic, disoriented move.
"Aug?" Steve said, leaning back a little, hoping it actually was Aug.
"Get away!" a voice yelled, and there was a movement of darker shadow, a scrabbling along the rocks.
It sounded like Aug. "Aug," Steve said. "It's me, it's Steve. Perry."
"Bullshit!" Aug yelled, sounding fearful, rattled. "Fuck you, since when does Steve Perry glow in the dark!"
At first, Steve just stood there and listened to Aug continue backing away. It hadn't occurred to the older singer that he would be visible in the dark. He'd forgotten that he was lit up.
"Aug," Steve said, still trying to sound reasonable, "you gotta stop where you are. I don't know if there's any dropoffs or whatever. Just wait." He listened to Aug pause, listened to the other singer's harsh breathing, and all he could feel was relief that he wasn't alone. "You remember, about Jon and the green light? Did you think that's all it was, a light show?"
Aug's only response was to catch his breath.
"I got hit by a bus, and I wasn't gonna live, and Jon got to me," Steve said. "Three days later I'm out of the hospital. You see the connection, New York? You with me?" He closed his eyes, knowing they were shining an eerie green into the darkness of the cavern, the reflecting, backlit green of cat's eyes.
Aug blew out a nervous breath, trying to regain control. "I don't..."
"You don't have to take that all in at once," Steve said. "But you been thinkin' about it, I know you have, the way you looked at me in Jon's yard. You wanna ask the other guys what really happened, but you're the new guy and don't wanna risk pushing it."
"Where the hell are we?" Aug said, taking a slow step back in Steve's direction.
"I'm not sure," Steve said. "What do you remember?"
"We were warming up," Aug said. "Neal was plugging in and we were laughing about what you said in the yard, about the hip thing, I couldn't leave it alone. Then Neal and Jon, and Ross, got this look on their faces, like something was happening. My ears started to ring, and something passed through the building. Not like an earthquake like you folks have out here...I was gonna ask what was happening. But then Ross and Neal were gone." He paused to take a shaky breath and another step toward Steve.
"Are you okay?" Steve said. "You didn't fall or anything?" He still thinks we're in California, he thought, then paused to see if he was heard.
"Yeah and no," Aug said. He was several feet away now, listening to Steve's voice and the echoes of the cavern, wrapping his arms around himself, chilled in the t-shirt he was wearing. "I'm freakin' out, here, but I'm all here."
Steve snorted. "Then what?"
"Then Jon turned like he was gonna yell something at me, and he..." Aug shrugged. It was what had happened, but he felt foolish saying it, even standing there unseen in the dark. "You'd think I was crazy, if we weren't already in it."
Steve nodded, unseen.
"He started to fade," Aug said. "And...it looked like it hurt."
Steve flinched. *Jonathan? Are you here, anywhere?*
"What was that?" Aug said, taking another several steps toward Steve. He sounded on the verge of panic again.
Steve said, "It's okay. Did you hear something?" He opened his eyes again, and this time Aug didn't recoil.
"No, there was this...feeling in my head, like when you're in an elevator," Aug said.
*Can you hear this?* Steve thought. *Have you been with them long enough?*
"There it is again," Aug said. "But it sounded like something, like it had a voice under it."
"It's okay," Steve said again. "Tell me how long you saw Jon."
"It was just a few seconds," Aug said. "He faded, and then winked out altogether. I wasn't sure what I was seein', and Deen was freakin' out, yelling what's happening, and I just stood there like an idiot."
"Nothing you could've done," Steve said.
"Then I woke up here," Aug said. "I don't know what happened to Deen. What the hell happened?"
Steve sighed. "I got a hell of a story to tell you, New York. We gotta find a way out of here, wherever here is, and we've probably got the time for me to tell the whole thing."
"What whole thing?" Aug said, the trepidation audible in his voice. He was within arm's length, and Steve reached out a tentative hand and laid it gently on the other singer's shoulder. Aug jumped but stayed where he was.
"It should've come from all of us," Steve said. "I've only got my perspective of the whole thing. But I'll do the best I can. You're freezing." He shrugged out of the cloak and handed it over. "Put this on. I don't need it."
He listened to the rustle of clothing, saw the darker shadow of Aug's presence move. "What the hell is this?" Aug said.
"Every time we get stuck here," Steve said, "they dress us funny." He sighed again. "Come on. Let's pick a direction and start walking, and hopefully we won't get so damn lost that we never get out."
* * *
Ross opened his eyes to strangers.
He remembered the pulling, like when Tuirnarin had originally done it to them but worse. Much worse. Steve had somehow scattered them. Why or how, he didn't know, and right then it didn't matter. It had all happened too fast.
He heard low chattering that he couldn't identify, and opened his eyes. At first he thought he was still at Jon's, that something had nearly happened and been averted. The light was low; he was wedged into an outcropping of rocks.
Jon doesn't have any fuckin' rocks in his backyard.
He sat up a little and blinked in the low light. Low, orange light. He moved a little further, checking to see if he was intact, and nothing seemed to hurt. He sat and let it all sink in for a moment. Then footsteps came toward him, a soft scuffling, then silence. Low voices spoke again in a language he couldn't understand or identify. Nothing Asian or Latin, nothing European or African. None of the major earth-bound ---
Shit! Oh, shit!
He made the connection just in time to avoid being discovered; he concentrated on making himself indistinguishable from the rocks and prayed it would work.
Two figures passed within inches of him a moment later, and didn't pause to look at him. Figures wearing hides and carrying weapons, with rust colored clay painted in symbols over what skin wasn't covered.
Sedhians. He'd been dropped right into the middle of them.
* * *
"I know I saw daylight," Aug said.
They had no idea how far they'd traveled; however far it took to tell a long, bizarre story to a guy who'd done nothing more than join a band. Aug asked few questions, letting Steve talk, letting him pause when his voice got rusty. The Ender had bruised the older singer's throat and he could only talk for so long at a time. They paused often to toss stones ahead of themselves to test the solidity of the darkness. It seemed as if a couple of hours had passed, when the light started to show.
It had occurred to Steve that he had been away from Neal for some time, yet hadn't gone bouncing around the lines again. He was too grateful to question it. He felt the onset of it several times, something trying to pull him to other times and places, but it misfired each time. That was fine with him. He'd puzzle it out later.
Steve felt further along the wall, realizing the stone was getting even damper. "You hear that?" he said, keeping his voice barely above a whisper.
Aug paused, breath held. "Sounds like an underground river," he said.
"Mmm hmm. Watch your step. Be funny as hell, we run into a soft spot because of it."
"Well, it means this has to come out somewhere," Aug said. "We follow the river, then--"
"You don't watch your step, we'll be following it in ways we don't want to," Steve said.
"Pessimist," Aug said.
"Realist," Steve replied evenly. "Shut up, Polyanna."
Aug snorted, but his thoughts were a subdued admiration. Steve was able to pick that much up, although it didn't seem like Aug could hear much of him in return.
"Aug," Steve said.
Augeri glanced up, not wanting to because of the darkness but compelled to out of politeness.
"Knock it off," Steve said.
Aug raised an eyebrow, uncertain how to take the admonition or react to it.
*You know what I'm talking about,* Steve thought carefully and clearly, wary of overwhelming the other singer.
Augeri shook his head, trying to clear it, feeling light headed.
"You're still gaping at Jon and Neal," Steve said. "You couldn't even look at me. You've got 'Journey fan' written all over you, and it's the main reason we can 'hear' you a little."
Augeri frowned, feigning impatience. "I don't--"
"You're Journey's singer," Steve said over him, and Aug fell silent. "Not my stand in, or understudy. I don't like how and why it happened, but that's got nothing to do with you. We're people. I won't go so far as to say 'regular people', that's bullshit and you know it. You're one of us. You earned it. Now dammit, face up to it."
Nodding, Aug said, "And we got work to do, yadda yadda."
Steve grinned. "That's better than 'can I have your autograph'."
Aug looked away. "I'm no big help, though. This world is off the scale, and right now it looks like I'm the only one not up to speed."
"Ross was here for days the first time before anything happened to him," Steve said. "You don't need magic -- or whatever it really is -- to help us. You're here. It's good enough." He paused. "That concludes our obligatory male-bonding moment."
They walked on in the semi-darkness for another several hundred yards in silence, listening to the echoing sound of rushing water grow louder below them. It grew lighter by a few degrees, just enough to be able to make their surroundings a little more visible. The light source was still somewhere too far ahead to give itself away. The tunnel was beginning to open up into what looked like a true cavern; the ceiling began to arch above them, marred by the occasional stalactite. They picked along carefully, feeling for soft spots, watching for a slope in the floor.
"Doesn't look like anyone's ever been down here," Aug said.
"Don't be too sure," Steve said, keeping an eye on the semi-row of tossed boulders looming on their left. "After seeing what lives above ground in this place, you can damn well bet whatever's under is ten times worse."
The caves opened completely into a cavern another hundred yards after that, and the sound of water became loud enough that they had to raise their voices. It sounded far down enough to suggest that it had worn a canyon into the rock. The light grew stronger, bending out of sight ahead.
"How big do you think it is?" Aug said. "The river."
"I know what you meant," Steve said, gesturing at his head. "Probably bigger than it sounds. Probably further down, too." They could see the opposite rock face across the canyon. "Water level must be low."
The next thought hit them at the same time, and they traded glances. They would be better off if the water level didn't rise until they were long gone.
"You live anywhere near a river, you live in the river," Aug said. "Water's pretty fast, too, from the sound of it." He paused. "Be good to know what's up ahead, how far the opening is."
Steve tilted his head at him. "You just wanna see the bird trick," he said.
Aug shrugged. "So sue me."
Steve smirked at him. "No...I know what you make. You don't really quite believe this, do you."
Aug looked uneasy. "It's...kinda..."
"Okay," Steve said. "I gotta scout around, or I wouldn't do it. Stay here, stay down, and wait for me."
Before Aug could either comment or argue, the other singer's shape rippled a bit as if there was a distortion in the air. One moment to the next, far from seamless, Steve's form disappeared in a dark shape, and then the raven's pinions were whirring away toward the light.
Aug stood, mouth open, watching. "Holy shit," he said.
* * *
Miles off, a group of Sedhi passed the tree and the sleeping guitarist, and never saw him even though they passed within only yards of him. Even though they looked directly at him.
* * *
"I swear to God," Deen said again. "I absolutely swear to God, we were just rehearsing. Everybody looked up for a moment, and then they were gone. Somethin' took the door off, and I got on the floor. I swear to God."
When he'd been able to move, he'd gone up to the house and called the police, not knowing what else to do.
"Okay," the officer said again, scribbling in a notepad as he did. "You absolutely certain the damage to the door didn't happen before the other people disappeared?"
Deen looked at him. "No," he said slowly. "I don't know if it was actually...I just heard something after they were gone."
"Did you hear anything in the yard, or the direction of the house?" the officer said.
"No," Deen said. "Steve was in the house, alone, and you already know he's gone. After I was sure there wasn't anything in the studio with me, I ran up to the house and found the door up there all busted up."
"Did you think there might have been someone else in the studio?" the officer said.
Deen paused, looking at the studio from his vantage point in the backyard. They were standing next to the pool fence. He could see two more officers looking at the outer damage to the studio. There were several more in the house. Liz is absolutely going to shit when she gets home, he thought. "I dunno," he said. "I didn't hear footsteps, but..."
But something had been in there with him. Something besides the door being smashed inward had kept him plastered to the floor. The pressure had been awful, had kept him pressed flat to the hardwood, holding his breath. Something angry. He couldn't make sense of it, so he didn't voice it, because it would make him sound crazier than he already did. "I don't know," he said again.
"Did you hear any kind of an engine, any vehicle leaving?" the officer said.
"No," Deen said. "What, you think they were grabbed, or something?"
The officer glanced at him. "All I can do is ask, and see if there's anything that points in a particular direction," he said.
Deen nodded. None of it made sense to him, but he nodded.
* * *
Detective Jessica Keenan picked up her cell phone and glanced at the caller ID when it beeped at her. A friend, from Novato PD. Another detective.
She sighed a little and whistled her dog, Jack, back from further down the trail. The beagle had been dying for a run in the dog park, and they'd only been there maybe ten minutes. Days off only happened to normal people.
She hit the talk button and said, "Frank, my dog is going to bite you in the ass."
"Well," the voice on the other end said, "I gotta start somewhere, with you. How's it going?"
"Peachy. I wish this was a social call," Jessica said.
"Me too. Listen, you asked me to keep an eye for any calls out to a particular residence out here. Cain."
"Yeah," Jessica said, tensing. Frank's tone said that rock star. Frank Lewis was a devout country music fan, and held little affection for most of those rock stars. Something had happened, she knew it instantly, something as bad as the mall. Her instincts had told her to keep an eye on them, all of them, even if it wasn't her case or her jurisdiction. She listened to hunches. "What's going on?"
"Well, seems we got forceful abduction, here," Frank said. "You wanna come out?"
"Yeah," she said. "You're damn right I do. Tell me what happened."
"Nobody knows," Frank said. "I guess the whole band was together to rehearse in the backyard studio, and the next thing anybody knows, there's damage to the building and the drummer's the only one left."
* * *
She drove out there, bringing Jack along, and had a look at what she could. The minute they pulled into the long driveway, Jack began to bark and wouldn't shut up. She left him in the car.
She talked to Deen, who went on swearing to God. She believed him and didn't bother trying to lead him on anymore than he already had been led. Cain's wife was home by then, and she was far calmer than Jessica expected.
Something had been going on, for some time. Jessica didn't know what. But there'd been trouble before. There was no way she'd try to get anything out of Liz right then.
And the Cain's dogs, a German Shepherd and a Husky mix, were cowering under the back deck and refused to come out.
She looked at the kitchen, at the damaged door, at the knife on the floor. No blood. Perry had been in the house, alone. She thought about the enhanced version of the security tape from the mall. It had cleaned up pretty good, though not all the way -- enough to convince her it was Perry and Schon.
A guy is fatally injured, and walks away. He screams, and a kid with a gun is dead and a section of building is destroyed. Whatever he'd run into in the kitchen, he'd been unprepared for it. And now the whole band was gone except for the drummer. She'd never seen a door kicked in like what she'd seen out at the studio. No heavy-booted foot had done it, not even a battering ram. Something had shattered the molding, taken the hinges right off, and splintered the door into kindling. The doorknobs and the wrought iron security bars were twisted. Serious force had been used, in no one central place. She thought about the scene at the mall and wondered if Perry had done it.
After getting permission from the lieutenant in charge to consult on the case, she took Jack and went home to make several calls, setting about obtaining phone records. They'd try to keep it out of the news, but sooner or later there'd be a leak.
* * *
Aug whistled to himself, leaning on one of the boulders that had tumbled against the side of the cavern. Then he thought about what Steve had said about what lived underground, and fell silent, crouching down with his back against the boulder. When several minutes passed without a sign of the bird, he let himself begin to imagine the things that could snatch a bird out of midair.
Jesus, he thought. Then he said, "What the hell is there to look at, that it takes this long?"
Never mind that he was supposedly on another world. Never mind that guys turned into birds.
He never heard a thing; one moment he was contemplating a fate of wandering through there alone, and the next something hit him from behind, digging into his shoulder. He shouted in surprise, trying to turn enough to get a bead on the thing and tear loose. Claws gripped his shoulder...and feathers brushed his face.
"Goddamnit," Aug growled, straightening, and the bird on his shoulder mantled its wings. "You sonofabitch. You did that on purpose."
The bird sat composed on his shoulder, bright oilspot eyes mocking him in the semi-light. Aug stifled the urge to protect his own eyes from the creature's beak, even though he knew he didn't have to. The bird leapt away from him, and Steve was crouching on the cavern floor moments later, gasping for breath. "Weren't paying attention, were you," Steve said.
"Are you okay?" Aug said.
"It doesn't usually...take this much effort," Steve said. "It's easier than it was on the other side, but it's still pretty bad. Nothing I can do about it, though."
Aug folded his arms across his chest. "Well?"
"Well, it curves way the hell around to the right by maybe half a mile," Steve said, sitting down against the boulder Aug had been leaning on. "The river itself is maybe a quarter mile across. The whole thing opens up on the other side of the curve...into a waterfall. And it's the biggest goddamn waterfall I've ever seen in my life."
"Niagara?" Aug ventured.
"My ass," Steve said. "There's no barrel-riding this one. It's miles down if it's an inch. It's like someone took half the world and shoved it down, so the whole thing doesn't even up. You can see out over valleys, and I think maybe some woods. But I can't tell where the waterfall lands."
The only reason that made sense to Aug was because of the view that went with it; Aug saw the whole thing from the raven's view, a waterfall that fell forever, into nothing. There was no corresponding river below it that wound through the picturesque countryside; there was no black, bottomless pit that it vanished constantly into. There was just Nothing below it.
"Jesus," Aug whispered. "I see it. How did you -- "
"Someone's not finished painting the picture," Steve said. "maybe the longer you hang around with us over here, the better you'll be able to hear us. I've never written music with you, so I don't know if you'll ever be able to really hear me." *But you're also a fan, so who knows.*
Aug pondered that for a moment, not hearing the last part, still trying to get over his basic amazement. "Then how the hell do we get out of here? I can't fly."
"We'll see if there's another set of caves or something further on," Steve said. "There's gotta be a way down from here. We'll get closer to the mouth of the waterfall and see. Maybe the water's eaten its way through in more than one spot."
Aug thought again about the merits of being able to fly, and Steve said, "Forget it. I'll scout, but I'm not leaving you here. Everybody walks out, or no one does."
Aug shrugged, pulling the cloak tighter.
Steve turned and began walking in the direction of the light again.
And the ground slid from beneath his feet.
There was a huge, gathering sound, as if the world had sighed; then the ground dissolved, shifting away from beneath Steve's feet, sliding in an incredible mass toward the unseen canyon beyond. Aug yelled, finding himself standing unscathed on the very edge of what remained of the cavern floor. It lasted only seconds; at first he couldn't see Steve at all, and he was positive the slide had swallowed him along with the row of boulders that had been standing silent watch over the edge of the canyon.
The world seemed to settle uncertainly, nothing moving for long seconds, and Aug could see the boulders had tumbled further down the slope but not off the lip into the river below. He imagined any number of things -- Steve crushed by the boulders, trapped beneath; or slowly suffocating under tons of loose soil. Or even gone off the lip itself and swallowed by the water.
"Steve!" he shouted.
There was no answer.
He didn't dare move, yet; it had happened so suddenly, and everything around him looked so unstable that he didn't attempt more than shouting. "Dammit, Perry!"
"Stay where you are," came the strained, faint answer, and Aug leaned back against the stones behind him in relief.
"Are you hurt?" he shouted.
"Not sure. Stay there. Backtrack, if you can."
Steve sounded hurt. He felt hurt. Aug wasn't sure how he understood that, but it made perfect sense to him. "No, I'm coming to get you."
"The hell you are!" Steve yelled. "You're gonna kill us both!"
Aug looked around himself carefully, trying to figure where to place his feet. He moved to step off the ledge he was on...and couldn't. He paused in confusion while his brain told his feet to move, and he remained frozen in place. He made a conscious effort to move one foot, and again there was no response. He tried to step back, and his legs obeyed immediately. For a moment, it frightened him. Then the pieces clicked, and he remembered the story Steve had been telling him about rescuing Smitty from the Sedhi. How the singer had held the one Sedhi in place. Aug leaned against the stones with a sigh. "You're really, really gonna piss me off. Let me go."
"Who the hell do you think you are?" Aug yelled. "Talking me out of something is one thing. Forcing me to do what you want is another."
"Are you trying to bullshit me into believing I can talk you into staying where you are?" Steve yelled.
Aug let that settle before he responded. "I have the right to decide where I go and what I do. Where I'm standing isn't exactly safe, either. If the whole thing slides again, you'll be dead anyway, so it's not like I'll kill you. But if I don't try, if I just leave you there, that'll kill me too."
Silence. Then Steve said, "Bitch."
"Bitch, yourself," Aug said. "Don't move."
Aug moved forward again, relieved to find himself capable of movement again, and stepped forward off his ledge. The soil below was surprisingly solid; he'd expected his feet to sink into it as if it had been freshly turned. Slowly, waiting for the whole thing to slide, he took one agonizing step after the other down the incline the floor of the cavern had become, inching his way toward the set of boulders he knew Steve was behind. Every sense was hyperalert, listening for movement, feeling for the slightest shift in his own footing. It was slightly darker as he moved down the decline; the section of the cavern floor ahead that hadn't fallen began looming to his right and filtered out what light they'd had.
Minutes later, after feeling his way toward the boulders, Aug rested a cautious hand on the nearest one, afraid even to breathe on it too hard. The rocks felt rooted into the soil, half buried in the slide, and he felt along them. If he moved wrong...if they slid forward and crushed Steve...
"Where are you?" Aug said.
"I think I'm on your left," Steve said aloud, raising his voice. Aug followed the sound, walking along the boulders until he found two that had rested loosely against each other. There was enough space for him to wedge himself between them, get to the other side...
One of the boulders further down shifted suddenly, rolling forward. Aug froze, breath held. The stone seemed to pause, then rolled forward again, out of sight further down. There was a crack, then nothing.
"Shit," Aug said aloud. It'd probably slammed against another boulder...
Then he heard it hit the water below.
God. God, that was a long way down. And not very far to the edge, from here.
He shook that off. There was no sense freaking out now. He was long past that point, anyway. "Marco," he said.
Steve laughed, a pained sound, and Aug grinned to himself in relief. "Polo," Steve said, still laughing.
There. There, if he could just slide between the two boulders, there was a third that was lower down and braced the first two apart, forming another ledge. A flat place he could crawl out on, and get a look at how things stood. Now all he had to do was convince himself that the stone would take his weight without sliding away.
Aug looked around the base of the boulders, seeing how the two on either side of him had slid straight down, remaining upright, lodging in the soil. Only the one between them had tumbled forward, providing the flat ledge he was contemplating. It, too, looked firmly rooted by the dirt it had taken down with it. Not to mention the singer it had taken down with it...
He took a breath, and leaned his weight on it. When it held, he grew a little bolder, inching out onto its surface, feeling the cold grittiness of it beneath his hands. He flattened himself out on the stone to distribute his weight evenly and inched forward until he could peer over the edge of it into the greater darkness below and the steeper part of the incline.
"Steve?" he said aloud.
"Here," Steve said from below.
It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the greater darkness, but when they did Aug could see Steve, roughly six feet down, angled on an incline. Half buried, but still visible. It looked like a violation of gravity, the way the stones hung in place, but he told himself again the ground was soft from the slide and that the stones were half-hidden in the soil.
"Well," Steve said, "I've finally gone over the edge."
"What about the bird?" Aug said.
Steve tried to move his left arm again, and the pain made him think twice. "Nah. I think my shoulder's thrown. That law is gonna stick, no matter what form I'm in."
"You're gonna be a bitch about this, aren't you," Aug said, leaning over further and testing the stability of the stone he was on.
"I gotta be me," Steve said. "Go on, Aug. This won't work, and you know it. You got kids, and I'm not going with that on my head."
"You're not going," Aug said, staring down on him. "Just 'cause you're ready to give up doesn't mean I am."
Steve snapped his head up to glare. "Don't you --"
"Don't you!" Aug shouted, startling the other singer to silence, listening to the words reverberate on the opposite rock face. "Don't you. You wanna die, you do it at home, of old age. You think you're through? We're not through with you. I'm not leaving. That's what'll be on your head, Perry. The fact that you gave up, and took me with you."
Steve sighed heavily and looked away. He was so damn tired... "No one needs a hero, Aug. Heroes are dumb bastards that don't understand how bad a situation is, and make it out alive by accident."
"I'm pretty accident prone," Aug said. "Everybody walks out, or no one does."
"She would've hated you," Steve said suddenly, and Aug paused in confusion. For a moment, there was only the rush of the water far below echoing off the rock faces, as disconcerting as it was disorienting. It made gauging distance a chore.
"Tuirnarin," Steve said. "Two singers in one place. God, she would have turned herself inside out. Two living instruments." He sighed again. "I come back, Aug. The guys...can call me, or I wouldn't still be in this life. I don't know for sure if we can call you. I'd like to think so. But you'd be better off gettin' out of here and goin' for help."
"Who'd be better off?" Aug said.
"Come on," Steve said. "Not you, too, not all this 'hey, let's play six degrees of Steve Perry from every known mental affliction'. I'm not playing martyr. I'm trying to do better than I did before. I expect more from you than I do the others, so pony up, all right?"
Aug shook his head. "Can I have your autograph?"
Steve looked up again, and Aug grinned.
"If we get out of this," Steve said, "I'm gonna autograph your ass with my foot."
Aug slid closer, trying to keep his own clothing from getting snagged and wondering if he wouldn't be better off trying to use the cloak as a rope of sorts. He felt along and between the rocks for snags that the uneven light didn't allow him to see.
"Dammit," Aug said aloud. "Hold on." He tested the third stone again, crawling further out on it, hoping his weight didn't tip it forward any further. When it held, he flattened out on it again, stretching over the edge and extending a hand toward Steve. He could just barely reach the other singer, if he stretched...
"Back away and take your cloak off," Steve said. "Use it as a rope. You'd have more leverage that way, and wouldn't have to get so close. Dammit, that's what you were thinking a moment ago!"
"I'd be bracing myself against the back side of the stone, then," Aug said. "I might push it right on you, that way."
Aug leaned out even further, his hand less than two feet from Steve's face. "Come on," he said.
Steve took a deep breath. "I'm gonna regret this."
Steve dug his good hand into the soft soil and raised himself up a little, stretching forward. Then he raised that arm above his head and toward Aug's waiting hand. For a moment, it didn't look like they were close enough, but then fingers brushed. Aug slid forward another few inches, and their hands clasped solidly. Aug paused to catch his breath, then tugged experimentally. When the stone didn't give, Steve worked his way to his knees, using Aug as an anchor but pulling on him as little as possible. He worked his way free and inched upward, levering himself up on one foot.
A moment later, he stood against the rock Aug was stretched out on, catching his breath. Aug sat up with a sigh of relief, and they grinned at each other, hands still clasped. "Thanks," Steve said.
"Can you climb over this thing, with that hip?" Aug said.
Steve made a sound of derision. "This hip is better than the old one. I can probably climb better than you can. Get out of the way." Steve moved to one side of the stone to make use of the one next to it, meaning to climb into the crevice between to avoid placing all of his weight on the one stone. Aug slid back on his knees, offering Steve a hand...
...and the stone gave, sliding down the incline, narrowly missing rolling over them but pulling them along in its wake, taking tons of soil with it.
Steve shouted and grabbed for Aug with both hands, trying to dig his feet in, refusing to let go of the other singer.
They tumbled off the edge of the canyon into dark, damp space, and were gone.
* * *