Memory Bound Chapter XIX
(c)2001 B Stearns
Never asleep, never awake, and something was bothering him anyway.
Steve opened his eyes and remembered immediately where they were and what had been happening, and regretted not having that final few moments during waking that made everything seem fine.
He didn't focus immediately on any one thing that might be bothering him. It was all bothering him.
He opened his eyes and listened to Neal breathe. It was quiet otherwise. Everyone else was outside; he could just make out the sound of Ross and Jon talking, their thoughts filtering in where parts of it weren't audible. It's done. There's no way to undo it, without killing them both.
He folded his thoughts shut, not wanting or needing any more of that. When he did, something else whispered in anyway: an idea of cold, sharp and stinging, almost electric.
Steve jerked completely back to alertness, dragging Neal with him full force. He swung out of the berth and stood there, hyperalert and staring around the cave, trying to pinpoint where the trouble was coming from.
"What," Neal said, sitting up. "Goddamnit, what!" But he was hearing it like Steve was, recognizing it just as quickly, something he'd never encountered on his own. His voice brought Ross and Jon inside. Neither of them asked any questions aloud, knowing it would be quicker just to listen.
There was an inaudible tang both in the air and below it, as metallic as blood. Something cold and black and starving with desperation.
"Where," Jon said. "Steve, where is it?" But he already knew, had known the tunnel entrance in the back of the cave led down into the bowels of the world and that the fire would have to be enough.
Steve couldn't answer anyway, panicked as he was, and for a moment the others thought it was his fear of the wraiths. But then Neal said, "Oh Jesus, where the fuck is Aug?"
Jon didn't need to tell them that no one had passed him to go outside. The younger singer had simply walked past the fire and into the back of the cave. "But why?" Jon said. "God, why would he--"
*Jon, what's Aug?* Ross thought. *What's he been, his whole career?*
A Journey fan.
Jon crossed to the fire. There was nothing truly suitable he could use for a torch. He grabbed a twisted piece of branch that stuck out far enough from the flames and withdrew it. It stayed lit. It wouldn't last, especially if they moved too quickly and it blew out, but it was all he could think of.
*Then think harder,* Ross thought. *Can't you reverse just about anything? If it goes out, reverse that.*
Jon nodded and stepped around the fire, headed for the back of the cave, knowing Steve would be right behind him. He'd taken one step into the darkness when he heard the singer say, "No."
Neal had been intent on following, and Steve had stopped him. Whatever followed wasn't anything Ross or Jon could really hear, but Neal looked confused for a moment and then backed down. What should have been an argument took a handful of seconds to resolve without a word spoken, and then Steve closed his eyes and tried to change his form again. When it failed he followed Jon without arguing about it.
* * *
It'd seemed like a good idea at the time.
Aug didn't remember walking away from the others, or passing the fire at the back of the cave. He couldn't imagine a reason for doing it. He'd heard something, maybe. And now he was underground, in the living quarters of the people the guys had told him about. The Wisps. Or that's where he figured he was; it was too dark to see his own hand in front of his face.
He shouted once, to see if he could hear an echo or attract attention from above. His voice was muffled, the space confining. No one answered.
Okay. Don't panic, no big deal, it's just dark. Never mind that you don't know what lives here. Just never mind. He found the nearest wall and felt along its rough surface, trying to get a sense of direction, feeling for a slope in the floor. He seemed to be level, so at least he wasn't descending further. God, how the hell had he ended up there? Was he sleepwalking?
A chill drifted by him, a sense of cold hands against his face. He stumbled back, trying to keep a hand on the wall. He was cold suddenly despite the borrowed cloak, and he found himself holding his breath for a moment to see if he could hear anything.
There was motion to his left, the sound of sand compressed under a weight. Something hissed.
"Hello?" he said, hating the fact that it came out in a quaver. "Who's there?"
There was silence; then the unmistakable sound of violent motion and disturbance in the air when something rushed him.
* * *
Jon paused at the bottom of the slope, realizing the main gathering room was there and that it branched off. Nothing moved in the shadows created by the faint light they had with them, and they looked toward the other corridors.
*We can't split up,* Jon thought.
*He can't've gone that far!* Steve thought, and headed for the far side of the room. He had a fifty percent chance of being right about which passage the other singer had taken.
They never had to make the choice. They heard a faint, muffled shout down the corridor on the right, and ran without worrying about what the hell they'd encounter.
Jon paused maybe fifty feet in, laying one hand against the stone. *Aug! Aug, it's us!*
Both Ross and Steve added their mental voices to the mix, hoping the force of it would get through. Ross put both hands against the stone and tried to move it, but it resisted; there was too little illusion and too much solid world, since they'd been gone.
* * *
Aug threw himself to one side, praying that whatever it was couldn't see in the dark any better than he could. He rolled in the sand, getting himself tangled in the cloak, and fought his way back to his feet. Running blindly.
He ran to the opposite side of the cave and skidded to a halt, hearing the motion of the thing behind him. On the other side of one of the rock walls had to be another cave. He'd almost thought he heard his name being called, heard the buzzing in his head that happened when the guys thought to each other. Panic worked to help him find the mechanism that had allowed him to do whatever he had in the water, the thing he and Steve had talked about, and he gathered himself. Something drifted across the floor after him, a shifting of black rage. He wanted to scream, but didn't waste his breath.
How far? How thick is the rock? How did I do it?
He'd be dead regardless, if he didn't move. It was only a matter of choosing how he'd die.
He spread his arms and willed himself into the wall without understanding how.
Further down in the other cave, Steve and Jon 'heard' Aug make the leap, felt the distortion of space. "Steve!"
No one could tell who had shouted.
Aug came through the other side and fell to the floor only yards from them, unable to draw breath at first. He remained conscious this time, but just barely. And something melted through the wall right behind him.
There was a moment when everyone wanted nothing more than to run; the wraiths they remembered were horrible, tattered shells of non-life, shambling and painful to look at. But this, this was a mockery of even that horror.
Whoever had constructed this one had failed to finish it.
There was the same tattered, blackened skeletal frame, torn in places, impossibly tall. It bent and shifted along the cave's walls in the uneven torchlight. But where there should have been a blunt, almost saurian head with ruby pinpoint eyes, there sat a human skull, strips of melted and blackening flesh still attached, wisps of hair trailing. The jaw hung loose on one side, the remnants of molars gleaming in the yellowing bone. What should have been long, black and spidery claws were blunted human fingerbones, held together with what remained of hardening tendons.
A scream started somewhere in Jon's throat, but there was no air to voice it.
The Keeper bent down with halting, stiff motions, groping. Nothing remained in the eyesockets with which to see them, so it felt for Aug along the floor, undeterred by the light. Too stunned to move, Aug remained where he was, gasping, unable even to look at what was trying to grab him.
Steve fought past the sight of it, and reached out without thinking. Incorporeal hands grabbed the creature and wrenched it into immobility. It wasn't nearly as strong as any of the ones he'd met outside Athyri, but he wasn't who he'd been, either. And there was no one to set the thing on fire this time.
Above them, Neal, already stunned from the sight of it he caught from Steve, recoiled unintentionally. He'd never really touched a wraith, had never had to deal with them personally. Unprepared, his reaction made Steve's efforts stilted and hesitant. His horror transferred itself to the singer, and it was too much for Steve to battle at once. The wraith shrugged him off and shrieked its rage in the close confines of the cave.
Aug rolled at the sound, dredging up enough adrenaline to move on his own, and he got his first look at the apparition. He tried to back away, breath coming in terrified gasps, the flickering torchlight making the scene even more hellish than it already was.
Ross was already moving, grabbing Aug by the back of his shirt and yanking him by putting all his weight behind it.
The Keeper was already moving, reacting to the sound, skeletal fingers scrabbling forward and closing around one of Aug's legs. And the torch guttered, closing the blackness around them in a shroud.
The sound shook Jon out of his stupor, and he reversed the blackness, causing the torch to spring back to life. He earned the dose of deja' vu that hit him when he stepped forward over Aug and thrust the torch at the thing's skull, remembering the labyrinth beneath the Keep.
It reeled back, hind legs buckling, another shriek rending the air. A panicked swipe of one blunted forehand caught the torch out of Jon's hand and spun it away, plunging them back into darkness.
Steve felt the remnants of the Keeper he was trying to hold onto, and felt Neal's fear, and used a mental hand to shove the guitarist to both the physical floor of the cave above them and the mental floor of his mind. He felt Neal lose consciousness, and he turned his full attention to the wraith, letting it burn him when he slammed into it.
He was dimly aware of Ross thinking he had Aug clear and upright, of Jon searching for the torch. Then he shut his thoughts to keep everyone else out and pulled at the life - or death - strings of the thing, knowing he was alone in it this time. There'd be no flash of light, no reducing the thing to ashes with the help of the others. Smitty wasn't with them, and none of them were equipped for the job anymore.
Once he had hold of it, once it couldn't get away, he cracked the lid on what had kept the Sedhi from attacking them, the thing that had killed the kid at the mall. He wasn't sure the physical force of it would be enough, was afraid that letting it loose in the confines of the cave might hurt the others. He chose the uncertainty over the very real possibility of the Keeper tearing them apart in the dark.
It unraveled with a sudden, dry thud, the cracking of dust-ridden bone audible to them all. He dismembered it on the first try, his own energy dissipating what little the thing had left to hold it together.
Its final thought was as papery and thin as its skin had become, whispering across the part of Steve's consciousness it had access to through the connection he'd created. It was already gone. A memory, an idea. Forgotten.
Steve reeled, no longer hearing Aug's gasps for breath or Ross shouting at him to answer them. There was a walk along the beach, a room decorated in posters, a golden retriever, a box of pictures. Journey CDs, scarab emblem after scarab emblem, a symbol of eternity and rebirth, of going on and on and changing...
Someone grabbed him by one arm and jerked him upright, and he never realized until then that he'd slid down the nearest wall. Sound returned but no light, and he wondered for a moment if he'd gone blind until he remembered where they were.
"Steve," Jon said, fighting a tremble in his voice, "you're not hurt, there's nothing for me to lift off you, so goddamnit, talk!"
Steve immediately felt for Neal, and found him sleeping. A base to stand on. He opened his thoughts. "It's..."
"Dark, yeah," Jon said. "I can't find the torch. We gotta get out of here." *Before anything else comes out of the dark.*
The last was purposely thought so Aug wouldn't hear, because everyone could hear the younger singer's fear and no one wanted him to suffer anything else.
Steve pulled himself up along the wall, trying to gain his bearings in a place that would never allow it. His eyes were the only light, a soft emerald glow that even he could see now that there was nothing else. *The way back up, it's...over to my left. Feel for it.* "Hey," he said aloud for Aug's benefit. "We're okay. We'll be back up top in a second." He reached out and one hand encountered the other singer's shoulder, which he clapped like they'd been out doing nothing more than fishing. Trivializing what no one could stand. Surviving.
They moved for one side of the cave, feeling along the wall, finding the gaping entrance to it and the long slope upward. Holding onto each other for the support and assurance, they moved as quickly as they could.
*Who's Tracy?* Jon thought to Steve.
Steve brushed him off, his refusal to answer the same as if Jon had asked him to reveal some intimate detail. *No. I don't know what the hell you're talking about.*
*You said it when it got quiet,* Jon insisted.
Steve shut him out, shutting his thoughts, unable to deal with him.
The first hint of light was like water in the desert, and it took all they had not to break into a run to meet it. They could smell the fire at the back of the cave before they reached its light and passed it.
Neal was sprawled face up on the floor of the cave only a couple of yards further.
Jon moved for him, positive something had made a move while they were gone. Steve stopped the keyboardist with a hand on his arm, hearing Ross and Aug come to a stop beside him. "He's okay."
Jon twisted in his grip, his thoughts an angry demand to be released before they could be spoken. Steve shook him once, hard. "I would know if he was hurt."
Jon stared at him, trying to respond, too much surfacing, and Steve released him to step past. Aug collapsed into the berth furthest away from the dark entrance in the back of the cave, and Ross watched, keeping quiet and still.
Steve knelt at Neal's shoulder, hands braced on either side of the guitarist's head. He wasn't sure how he'd done what he had, and wasn't sure if he wanted to know. He reached for the same place between them, that had made it possible to 'shut' Neal off, and once he found it, he knew there was no way he could do it again. He couldn't reverse it, but he could find Neal beneath it and clear the way for him to surface.
Neal's hands came up and grabbed the front of Steve's tunic, and the singer was well aware of the guitarists' wordless rage long before Neal shoved him away, long before Neal got to his feet and slammed him against the nearest wall. He kept his eyes closed and waited it out without a struggle, waited until Neal released his furious hold. Then he opened his eyes. The previous ten minutes would have been shared regardless, but Neal caught up, living them the way Steve had, from that perspective only. The anger drained, and they stared at each other for another long, silent moment. Neal smoothed out Steve's tunic, running his hands over the singer's shoulders and not releasing him this time.
"Aug," he said without turning, "you okay?"
"Yeah," Aug said, watching them with subdued shock. "Considering."
Steve dropped his eyes, and Neal released him, the exchange requiring nothing more.
"We can't stay here," Steve said softly. "That'll go on happening, more of 'em will hear us." *And Aug can't fight 'em off.*
"Where the hell are we supposed to go?" Jon said. "The next nearest thing that we know about is the Outlands, and we gotta take a hell of a detour now that we got all these cliffs."
"It's real simple," Ross said. "Choose the lesser evil."
They fell silent, glancing at each other. Then Steve said, "The daywraiths and the Sedhi, or the Keepers."
"We haven't seen a daywraith, yet," Ross said. "And we've been able to keep the Sedhi off us so far. I'd suggest..." He paused to look pointedly at Steve. "Not repeating what just happened."
Steve stepped past Neal and walked over to the far wall, finding the branch Aug had been carrying. He hesitated for only an instant before picking it up. When nothing happened, he brought it to Aug and held it out, but didn't let go of it when Aug took it.
"You don't go anywhere without this," he said softly, keeping his hands on the branch, gripping it hard, his hands close to Aug's. "Understand?"
Aug nodded, unable to look at him yet.
"I can't say it's all it'll take, to keep stuff off you. But you have to be exempt from some of this. I ain't burying you here. We've got your back, but you listen only to us, and you do whatever you have to, to live."
Aug nodded a little. "What was it?"
Steve told him the basics the way Mairiesa had explained it so long ago, of fans turned against them. When he was finished, the other singer's eyes were luminous with tears of sympathy. "These are the last of 'em, though," Steve said. "There's no one left to keep pulling people in here. Just don't let 'em call you." He released the branch, and Aug let it drop to his lap, keeping a firm grip on it.
*I should get rid of the rest of them, before we get out of here,* Steve thought, turning away. *I didn't...even try and sing her away.*
Jon looked at Neal, knowing he'd missed some crucial part of the whole thing. Neal was sitting in one of the other berths, looking stunned, looking like he understood something he didn't want to. Jon looked at Steve again and realized what had actually happened.
An unfinished Keeper. That still remembered its name.
"How long did it take us, before, to make it to the Outlands?" Steve said. "A couple of days? If things have changed this much, there's no guarantee what we'll find, but I know the Wisps are out there. We know for sure we'll get hassled, here."
"Can you guys handle that?" Ross said softly.
Neal glanced at Steve, then at Ross. "Not much choice," he said. "We'll figure it out."
Ross walked away, out into the daylight, melting into it for a look around to make sure they wouldn't all be walking into anything. They waited wordlessly for him to return, tucking away some of the flint that had been left in the cave. When he did return, they walked away into the day, skirting the edge of the cliffs, headed in the direction of the Outlands. They left the fires burning behind them.
* * *
The landscape sloped in places it never had before, and the desert took hours to leave behind. Then it tapered off into the dry prairie-like terrain they remembered. They rested frequently to let Steve and Neal catch up, when the two of them couldn't walk and talk at the same time without confusion. At one point, Neal stepped in a hole and twisted his ankle, sending Steve to the ground with him even though the singer was more than an arm's length away. Jon reversed the damage while Ross made jokes about shooting horses.
Aug and Steve recounted their time in the Turning Wall without making much of how they'd gotten out.
"I still wanna know how the hell you managed to get through the wall, earlier," Jon said. "I saw you do it, but I still can't figure out - "
"Perfect speed," Aug said, "is being there."
The others looked at him, but didn't say anything, and Jon started to laugh. Aug had sounded like he was quoting something. "Okay."
"I been thinking about it," Aug said. "I think it's sort of like folding space, y'know? You sort of fold it and hop from fold to fold. S'alot shorter than trying to travel the whole way."
Jon glanced at Aug from an angle. "How do you--?"
"Aug knows that because Aug is a walker," Steve said.
Jon spun to look at both singers, coming closer to stare at Aug intently. "You what?"
"Not Neal's variety of walker," Steve said. "Just a placeline walker, instead of the whole time/space thing. Christ, you guys really know how to pick 'em, huh? Still think the choice was yours? Still think you weren't pushed?" He went on without looking up. "Ever wonder about Rolie? Ever wonder why he really left?"
Jon shook his head. "Christ. No. It's got something to do with the--"
"Music," both singers said at once. Then Aug laughed lightly.
"You owe me a Coke," Aug said.
"You East coasters," Steve said. "I'm gonna open a fuckin' 7-11 out here, right at the bottom of 'rion's tower, and teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. Then you'll get your Coke."
Aug laughed aloud.
"You're goddamn right it's got somethin' to do with the music," Steve said. "But the music changed, over time. You came by, Jon, by accident. Oh, and Aug's an accident, too, isn't he?"
"I feel like an accident right now, I'll tell you that," Aug said. "I just wish I knew how the whole thing worked."
"Don't we all," Jon said. "Part of me wants to tell you to practice it, and most of me wants you to keep it in the hat. Talk to Neal about how hard it is on you."
"I think he knows," Steve said.
"Yeah," Aug said. "So, Jon...where'd you guys learn CPR?"
Jon glanced at him, and Neal burst into laughter. Even forced lightness was better than nothing.
With the extra detour around the cliffs, it took them until nearly nightfall to reach the treeline, and they chose to go no further in the dark.
They cleared a small area down to the dirt and piled a decent amount of dried grass nearby, gathering branches. They wouldn't even attempt a fire unless they had to; the light would make them visible for miles, and they didn't want the Sedhi tracking them yet. Then they wrapped up in their cloaks and stared into the dark, too tired to talk.
One by one, exhausted from the emotional and physical rigors of the previous day, everyone slept but Steve and Neal. Steve moved off a little and kept his eyes on the trees, waiting for movement, listening.
First watch. Last watch. Every watch. Awake, always.
Finally, Neal rose and came over, settling cross-legged beside him.
"Haven't you had enough?" Steve said softly, not wanting to risk an open thought.
Neal nodded. They sat shoulder to shoulder in silence for a long moment, watching the blue pseudo-sun begin to rise opposite the Turning Wall. The light spread over the open landscape, thin. There was little to see yet as a result. Are you gonna tell Jon? Neal thought into the connection only they shared.
Steve waited a long moment before he answered aloud, knowing exactly what Neal was referring to. Their connection told the guitarist he was trying to phrase something correctly, but not what. Steve was sidestepping him again, putting up a minor screen of background noise and mental motion that was hard for his mind's eye to follow. Tangled, but not a close fit. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
"I think Jon already knows, somewhere deep down," Steve said, keeping his voice soft. "He'll never admit it, though. How do you feel about it?"
The question was rhetorical. But it was Steve's way of giving Neal a chance to vocalize something and finalize it, rather than have it picked up against his wishes. "I just see there's more than what we define as life," Neal said. "I knew, right away. But I thought it would...that you'd get better."
"No one gets out alive, though, huh?" Steve said, then laughed under his breath. "I've been dead by definition for a long time, Neal. I'm caught between, now, that's all. The only reason I was able to hold on was because of the times I was fourth dimensional, and the times Jon lit me up. I think Jon already knows he wasn't successful, that he didn't really bring me all the way back. I don't know what it means for you eventually, though. I think you're caught between now, too."
"We don't know what any of this means, down the road," Neal said. "No sense thinkin' about it yet. We're here, and we're okay so far." He thought briefly of Miles, of Amber, of what was back in the 'real' world.
"Day at a time, huh?" Steve said, then snorted. "Just like AA. We need a 12 step program for this fucking place, don't we?"
Neal nodded again. "More like 33 1/3."
Steve thought that was funnier than hell, and couldn't explain why. He didn't need to, not even to himself. "I won't do that again," he said, suddenly serious. "I can't, anyway. But I wouldn't."
Neal knew he meant shutting him off. "You put me away," he said softly. There was no recrimination underneath that; it had already been worked out.
"I meant to," Steve said. "It was kind of an accident, but I had to."
"Yeah," Neal said.
"There's worse, down there," Steve said, meaning Athyri.
"I know," Neal said.
They fell silent and let the rest of it go. They saw it from each other's viewpoint without wanting to, and it made them incapable of holding anything against each other. After years of basing an entire relationship on opposing viewpoints, it was staggeringly confusing.
"What the fuck are we gonna do?" Neal said.
Steve shrugged. "Hope we can figure out enough of the 'new' us to use it and get the fuck out of here," he said. "I dunno how we're supposed to do that. I'm hoping we get a chance to hole up somewhere safe long enough to practice." He paused, acknowledging that something external was bugging him, and Neal listened with him.
Steve shook his head. "No point talkin' about what we're gonna do about us, yet."
I think we both already know, Neal whispered internally.
There was a voice behind them, deep in the trees, high and thin. An unintelligible, wordless plea for help.
They both rose, breath held, straining to see anything in the dark. Listening so hard they could hear each other's blood run.
The others didn't awaken; the noise had been too faint. Neal and Steve kept still, waiting.
The voice came again, a little further to their right, maybe a hundred yards off. Ricocheting off the trees. A child's sobbing.
Steve slammed his thoughts open and broadcast his alarm to Jon and Ross, who startled awake but held still. *If we can start a fire, we'd better do it,* Steve thought.
*What the hell is it?* Jon thought.
*It's the Blair Witch,* Ross thought. *Jesus, the monsters here are gettin' cliche'.*
They all heard Steve's apprehension except for Aug, who was still asleep. They all heard the hope that it wasn't another marauding horror of a fan hoping to be released. What they didn't hear was his near-panic at the thought of hitting something - anything - again. Only Neal heard that.
Ross got up and dug a couple of pieces of flint out of one of his boots, heading for the pile of grass they'd gathered and working on lighting it. Jon rolled to his feet and shook Aug, hating to do it. The trees were suddenly looming over them, the rest of the night too open and dark. Nowhere to hide.
The ghostly voice came again, echoing thinly off the trees. It wavered a little, then broke into childish sobs that were undoubtedly human. Pre teen, male human.
"Okay," Jon breathed as Aug sat up. "We fuckin' can't handle this. What is that?"
Neal seemed to be standing quietly, but he was listening hard, on the verge of panic. Steve said, "No."
"It is," Neal said unsteadily, and Jon snapped his head around to look in their direction.
"Don't fall for this," Steve said. "Neal, come on."
Aug was on his feet and trying to help Ross. Sparks flew from the rocks and nothing caught.
Neal went on staring into the dark in the direction that the voice had come from, and Jon came closer and said, "Now include the rest of us."
"It's Miles," Neal said.
"You were thinking of Miles a few minutes ago," Steve said. "It's a daywraith, tryin' to get you to walk in there."
"Whatever sucked us in could do the same to anybody else," Neal said, louder, and the voice in the woods fell silent.
I'm not lettin' you go in there, Steve thought only to Neal. "If I have to, I'll go see what it is. If I can get the bird to cooperate, nothin'll see me in the dark. Ross can do the invisible thing and go look."
*I thought daywraiths hunted in the goddamn light,* Jon thought.
*They do, unless they're real damn hungry,* Ross thought. Another set of sparks landed in the dry grass, and smoke began to rise.
The crying began again, and this time it rose to a shriek. It was a twelve year old boy's shriek, and Steve felt parental terror for the first time in his life. He was no match for it; Neal tore away from him, from them, into the trees, shouting for Miles just as flames caught in the grass.
Jon went right after him, the keyboardist's hands catching a trailing edge of Neal's cloak and slipping away. Ross phased himself out of sight, and Steve shouted for Aug to stay close to the fire, to do whatever he could to keep it going.
Neal made it by several yards into the treeline, running full out. Jon was close behind, shouting for him to stop audibly and mentally. There was a shifting of the shadows in the growing blue light, a glaring white shape forming out of them, stepping between the closely-knit trees.
Bone white. Blue-white, now. A blunt, heavy-jawed head, a massive predator's form. A pale, nightmarish attempt to emulate a velociraptor.
The Sedhi called it a shaitan. The band knew it as a daywraith.
Neal skidded to a halt, finally remembering the thing that had chased Steve the first time they'd seen Athyri, finally remembering how it had snared the singer's eight year old form. Some part of his mind still insisted that Miles was further on and needed his help. But the rest of him in the now could only lock up in fear.
Six feet at the shoulder when on all fours, the daywraith hissed at him from only feet away. The bristle of fur on its neck and spine was raised, jaws gaping. Spidery foreclaws raked at the nearest tree while it sized him up, and bark curled away to the forest floor.
Jon, who'd been in Neal's wake, reached him in another step and stood at his shoulder. Steve was still in full run somewhere behind them. Jon grabbed the back of Neal's cloak and yanked forcibly, pulling him away, and the daywraith moved, stiff legged and hissing, stalking them.
Still several yards off, Steve watched a second daywraith come out of the darkness to their right, and all he could think of was the timeline he'd seen where the creatures had decimated the band...
The daywraith in front of Neal and Jon rose on its hind legs, and lunged.
Steve's terror was a sudden, invisible wall that the daywraith came up against. It slammed into a layer of thin air and was stopped cold, inches from Neal's face. There was a thud that could be felt in the ground, and the creature smashed into the earth as if a giant fist had landed from above.
Crushed and misshapen, it rested in a depression caused by the blow, a mass of splintered bone and twisted muscle. Split like a butchered carcass.
Neal and Jon scrambled away without a drop of blood on them. Jon pulled Neal into a half run back toward the fire, watching over his shoulder, never seeing the second daywraith, never seeing Steve. When Neal stumbled, invisible hands helped him to his feet.
Aug stood brandishing his walking stick, his back to the flames. He'd seen and heard but couldn't quite believe.
The advancing daywraith that had been on their right was joined by another, and Aug shouted to Steve, who still hadn't moved.
Steve shook himself back to the present, hearing Aug, and turned in time to watch the second daywraith advance. It paused feet from him and rose on its hind legs, blunt snout testing the air. It bristled at the smell of death, dropping to all fours again and coming straight at him.
Neal froze, seeing it only from Steve's perspective, caught facing the daywraith while safe by the flames.
Steve tried to run; his knees locked, the world spun, and for a horrible moment he thought he'd actually fallen. He was numb with fear, too numb to react this time, and stood watching the thing come within inches of him.
Somewhere behind him, Neal struggled to get away from Jon and Ross. The guitarist screamed his name internally and railed against his fear. Steve had no thought left to answer with; only that he hoped it didn't hurt Neal the way Neal's death had hurt him.
The daywraith confronted him in full bristle, hissing, head raised. The heavy-jawed head swung close, the gaped jaws only inches from his face. The breath of a carnivore washed over him, the heat of the thing almost visible even in the dark. It radiated heat like a furnace, pulling great drafts of air in through its nose, trying to scent him. It saw and felt him, but couldn't identify him; he had no scent, and therefore didn't exist.
Steve had the front of his tunic pulled up to his face, balled between his hands in terror, hyperventilating. Lightheaded, he struggled not to pass out while Neal went on shouting for him to move. The daywraith continued to give him a once-over, undecided about what he was.
The creature backed away a little, lowered its head, and shrieked, and Steve clapped his hands over his ears.
Walk toward us.
Neal was begging him, trying to argue with his own fear and everyone else's.
Just walk, walk away from it and come back to the fire.
The other daywraith was circling the fire by then, the orange of the flames reflecting off huge black eyes and glaring white pelt as it paced. Its gait was so measured that one step to the next was seamless, and it looked too much like floating, in the half-light. The 'wraith with Steve turned its attention to the corpse of the first, whistling through its teeth, the sound eerily like whalesong. For a moment they held the possibility that it was mourning a mate or fallen comrade. Then they watched it attack the carcass and begin to feed on it. The wraith circling the fire broke off its pacing to join the other, ignoring Steve completely.
*Come away from there,* and this time it was Jon. Hands pulled the singer into a rough embrace. There was no one there, but he was being held, and he stopped hyperventilating. His hands loosened from his tunic, and he began a shaken, stiff legged walk back to the others.
They let him sit close to the flames without having to speak. The 'wraiths made short work of their companion, and circled the fire for several minutes before melting back into the dark. The resulting silence was resounding.
*Monster,* Steve thought clearly.
"Yeah," Jon said softly, a note of near-awe in his voice.
Only Neal understood that Steve was referring to himself.
* * *
At first light, they broke camp wearily. No one had been able to sleep after the encounter with the daywraiths; all eyes had searched the dark, and talk had been scarce. The fire was extinguished, and they set off in the direction of the Outlands again, heading straight into the trees.
Since they'd been able to see the majority of the landscape from where they'd camped, they were reasonably confident that the fire hadn't brought anyone out of the woodwork, but it didn't keep them from watching over their shoulders.
They didn't speak of the thing in the glass behind them, or what kind of reception they'd get from the Wisps. They didn't speak of daywraiths, or missing fans, or being trapped. They didn't acknowledge that they were all too tired, too drained, to fight anything else off.
Nothing more threatening than the occasional skittering tree-thing caught their attention for the first half hour, things that stayed out of their direct sight but flirted with their peripheral vision. The light and the possibility of putting more distance between themselves and the Sedhi were heartening.
At first, Neal wanted to blame it on the small, flighty things that scrambled in the trees. 'Not-squirrels' was how he referred to them in his head, forgetting briefly that whatever he referred to automatically caught Steve's attention. A snap at ground level, like weight on a twig. Behind them and to the right. It almost hadn't been audible over their own footsteps. Then a second one followed it that only Neal heard, and Steve paused midstep.
*That's not us,* he thought openly.
They all paused immediately, breath held, eyes darting. Weary paranoia and collective dread pooled between them, weighing them down even further. Exhaustion and hyperalertness warred for control. There was nothing else to confirm what Neal had heard.
*Daywraiths?* Jon thought.
*Could be anything,* Neal thought, waving a hand at Aug to draw him even closer. Nothing disturbed the morning for a long, silent moment.
*Ross,* Jon thought, *is there any way you can still hide us all?*
*I'll damn well try,* Ross thought, but it was already over.
A Sedhian stepped out from behind a tree behind them and to their right, soundless, a spear leveled at Jon. Before they could react, there were three more behind Aug, a fifth at Steve's shoulder. Two more behind Ross. All armed, with spears and set faces.
There was a silent acknowledgment in the glances that darted between the band. It was even more apparent in the glances between captors and captives.
*How the hell did they follow us?* Neal thought, trying to keep the panic down, trying to locate the part of him that once would have guaranteed that no one stayed hurt for long. Or dead.
*They may have developed talents of their own,* Ross thought.
*We're just guys,* Jon thought. *Suburban family guys, and musicians who've been listening to our own stuff too loud for too long.*
"This isn't gonna work," Steve said aloud, and the nearest Sedhian startled. "It didn't before." *I can't,* he thought. *I can't hit nobody else. I'm not killin' anything else.*
One of them stepped further forward, dressed in white, claws strung as ornamentation from every aspect of his clothing. A daywraith's pelt. He was taller and more muscular than the other Sedhians, his gaze direct and dark where the others shifted their eyes away. He wore no paint or other ornamentation beyond the claws.
There was something familiar about him, and it took them a moment to register what it was. He was the same one who had once attempted to sacrifice Smitty to The Lady.
The Sedhian looked between Steve and Neal for a moment, gaze calculating. Then he said, "I am Spiran, Lhiscan of the Stone People."
*Leader?* Jon thought when the word didn't translate.
*Something like it,* Steve thought. *More like 'omnipotent overseer'. Nice.*
*Since when do these folks not care about giving their names to everybody?* Ross thought.
Aug stood still, eyes darting between the others, gripping the branch tightly in his hands, trying hard to keep from looking at the Sedhians.
Steve meant to smart off, but thought twice when Neal vetoed it without a direct word or thought. It confused Steve into just staring at Spiran.
The hesitation gave the Sedhian the chance to leap into the space, and he said, "You're the Er Rai. We understood that you stopped existing."
"I did," Steve said, his eyes on the nearest spear. "But I - we - are powerful enough that it made no difference. We're a lot stronger than you. Leave us alone, or we'll show you."
"Why are you here?" Spiran said.
They were silent.
"Hiding, I think," Spiran said. "You belong to me, now."
"Whoa," Jon said. "No, no way. We are."
"He speaks as the Rai'an," one of the other Sedhians - the one behind Jon - said.
Spiran silenced him with an unblinking glare.
*No way we're talkin' our way out of this one,* Neal thought. *This is the shit, right here.*
*I can't,* Steve thought again. *There's too many...I'll hit everybody, you guys too.*
*You guys gotta see if you can rewind us,* Jon thought. *Anything.*
Spiran glanced between Neal and Steve again. Then he held out a hand. The Sedhian nearest him handed him a spear. The musicians tensed, ready to dodge - or attack - if they had to.
Spiran weighed the spear carefully in one hand, the wickedly barbed head catching an instant of light. "You'll come with us," he said.
There was silence for a moment. Then Steve said, "No one's makin' it easy for you."
"Then the hard way will do," Spiran said, and turned in the swift, easy way hunters do, throwing the spear at the end of a powerful and practiced motion meant for large prey.
The spear slammed into the muscle of Jon's left thigh, glancing off the bone and narrowly missing the major artery. The head made it all the way through to the other side, just breaking the skin at an angle above the back of his knee.
It was intended to be a painful shock rather than immediately life ending, and it did its job on many levels. Jon barely felt it at first, letting surprise and adrenaline momentarily dull it. To his credit, he didn't scream; he gasped and stumbled back, falling to his right knee, hands reaching for the weapon, the shaft already slick with blood.
Their collective shock took only an instant to become murderous rage in Steve's case, his thoughts a storm of retribution as he turned his eyes to the offending Sedhian. Another was already moving, though, another spear pointed at Aug's throat, backing the singer against the nearest tree.
"Stop!" Spiran was screaming at Steve, pointing at Aug, forcing Steve to realize what was happening. "You'll be making a choice!"
Steve kept his eyes on Spiran, feeling Neal move for Jon, hearing Jon sob for breath, feeling a mix of agony and panic that wasn't his own. Neal tried to rewind them again and it failed, like they'd known it would. Aug's fear feathered over the top, felt because of its severity, and Steve closed his eyes, overwhelmed.
His anger was physical, a tangible presence even the Sedhians could feel. It hung over Steve's shoulders, slavering for release, begging him. He wanted to answer it, wanted to taste the result of it, and no part of him had time to feel hesitation or remorse.
It balanced on a razor sharp point, the point at Aug's throat.
"The Inverse can't repair himself in time to help the other," Spiran said in the resulting silence. His voice was strained, the pressure almost unbearable. Had they been inside any kind of enclosed space, it would have crushed the life out of anyone nearby without being released.
Steve was unable to speak. He wanted to turn for Jon, and couldn't move. If he moved, someone would die. He breathed, feeling Neal grip the shaft of the spear in weak hands and apologize to Jon, who was rapidly going into shock. Steve and Neal would go into shock with him, would become helpless with him, their connection making them more than just sympathetic.
Steve struggled for center, tried to keep himself within his own boundaries, tried to shrug off the weight of anger. Neal somehow wasn't part of it. The plea was a reminder of an open, snowy field, of firelight and a Keeper that had nearly done its job. Neal hadn't been there but the memory was shared.
Steve twisted the anger in intangible hands, understanding the greater need, reaching across the connection he still shared with Jon. He offered the unused strength to the keyboardist, who was struggling for consciousness.
Jon took the intangible, offered hands.
*I can't,* Neal thought, the spear trembling in his hands. He was as light headed as Jon was, horrified, sharing only a fraction of the pain. Knowing the thing had to come out. *I can't. I can't break it.*
Ross' hands were there with him, silent encouragement over thoughts just as horrified. *We have to. He can't help himself until we help him. We'll run out of time.*
*Give it to me,* Steve thought. *Jon...let me take it.*
*Don't...know how...* Jon thought, trying to brace himself.
The Sedhians watched in silence, still life in feral poses. They seemed to know what was happening, seemed to understand the struggle beyond what they should have been able to.
Steve opened his thoughts a little, reaching along the connection he and Jon shared. Jon was fading quick, shock and blood loss stripping layers of life away, and he jolted at the connection.
*You gotta stay conscious or you can't help yourself,* Steve thought. *But you don't have to feel it all.*
Neal saw and understood; couldn't help but, and pulled on the spear the same moment Steve 'pulled' on Jon.
There was one bright moment where it was all obvious, how they could go on overcoming anything, where it all balanced and no one was exempt from sharing what was happening. Spread out between all of them, shared equally, nothing was intolerable or impossible.
Then it collapsed. The spear was free in a tearing of muscle and a scrape of bone, blood spreading along the forest floor. But there was no pain to it for Jon, nothing but a sudden clear headed resolve, and he began reversing the damage with clinical calm, sweat pouring off him while his body reacted even though he couldn't feel it.
Neal dropped the spear, hands aching, confused. He didn't feel any of it. Steve had slammed his thoughts shut and was unable to shut Neal completely out, never again able to shut him out, but the guitarist barely felt what sent the singer to his knees. He felt Steve press his forehead to the ground and clench his hands and little else, the wall of pain held away by the still-breathing wall of anger. Steve was trapped behind the anger, trapped inside with the pain he'd taken from Jon, and Neal gaped at him. He felt only the edges of it, only what leaked out, and he stared.
Somehow, the singer had managed to trade his own strength for Jon's pain, without involving anyone else, even someone who shared his being.
The only sound for nearly a full minute was Jon's ragged breathing.
Ross looked at Aug, watched the singer concentrate solely on keeping still, on not letting the razor point pierce his skin accidentally. Afraid even to swallow.
The bleeding slowed and stopped; the muscles and tendons knit seamlessly; and Jon raised his head again. He felt disoriented and slow, like he was losing something anyway. Exhaustion made even lifting his head difficult. If he'd had to attempt reversing anything else, he'd have failed. He knew it, they all did.
After raising Neal at the bottom of the cliffs, after putting him back in his body -- even with Steve's help -- he'd overstepped his bounds. Somehow, the Sedhians had found his limits. After all they'd faced, all the impossibilities, they were succumbing to old fashioned weapons and treachery.
It seemed fitting.
He needed to sleep, to recharge, and knew it wouldn't happen. They'd drive him to make certain he couldn't intervene if they wounded someone else. He saw the sense of it. It was blackmail they could enforce, their only way of gaining an edge on Steve.
Steve was unable to lift his head, unable to unclench his fists. The pain alone might not have been so completely debilitating, but the amount of strength he'd given up to take that world's pull off Jon left him pinned to the ground. Even with the anger to reinforce it, it nearly hadn't been enough.
Even with the tree.
If it hadn't been for the tree, the pull of that world would have stayed.
"Do you understand?" Spiran said out of the silence. "You won't be quick enough again."
No one answered him.
"You belong to me, now," Spiran said.
* * *
They were herded ahead of the Sedhians right back the way they'd come, back toward the Turning Wall, headed for the Sedhian's camp. No one bothered trying to restrain them; there was a spear leveled on both Aug and Jon at all times. No one had enough left to try anything that would guarantee they all got out unscathed. Several hours passed that way with no rest, the Sedhians tireless and silent.
Of any of them, Neal was having the most trouble; as if the disorientation alone wasn't enough, there was the fact that he'd been thrown out of his body and right back in the day before. Without the luxury of a three day hospital stay. Steve had at least had that, had time to fill himself back out.
During the last stretch of the walk, Steve was walking for both of them. And with every step, Neal grew angrier, a wide and unspecific suggestion they all heard.
*What the hell are you mad about?* Steve thought, unable to catch more than the others did.
"You know," Neal said under his breath. One of the Sedhians looked at him, but nothing changed otherwise. "Don't keep askin' me questions you can answer. You fuckin' know."
*I wasn't about to - * Steve began.
"You could've," Neal shot back. *You're a selfish bastard.*
"You -- " Steve cut himself off, ignoring the barrage of words he meant to hurl. *You wanted that? Really? I don't think so.*
*You took the choice away,* Neal thought, and a vague agreement echoed back from Ross. *Was everyone's right, to share that. Would've been faster, easier, between all of us. You risked everybody by not lettin' us help.*
Steve stared at Neal in amazement, seeing it from his perspective, seeing what it'd meant.
*I think we'll be gettin' another chance,* Ross thought.
Steve went on staring at Neal.
Don't you shut me out again, Neal thought into the place they shared. Not while we're like this. Don't you ever.
* * *
Upon reaching the Sedhian camp, they were too exhausted to do more than be only passingly interested in the map that Ross had seen before, or the way the place was laid out. Too tired to do more than be herded into the caves that were cut into the Turning Wall.
Until they were separated.
When they moved Neal in a different direction, they all tensed, but Steve planted his feet and turned. There was a pause, where the possibility of the anger arose again, and spears were raised.
*No,* Steve thought. *No, no no -- *
*Nothin' you can do right now,* Neal replied, trying to fight down an answering echo of his own fear. *Our chance'll come, they ain't that lucky.* He tried to keep things to surface thoughts only, tried not to add to the growing panic.
"Go on, Er Rai," Spiran said, and there was a spear at the singer's back and another several leveled at Ross and Jon.
*Not here,* Jon thought. *Not yet.*
Steve stared at Neal, beginning to hyperventilate.
*Don't,* Neal thought. *Shh. No reason, for them to do anything to me yet. Psychin' us out. We're always together, nothin' they can do about that.*
Steve remained in place a moment longer, then complied, watching over his shoulder while they dragged Neal in another direction.
It was dark inside at first, and they waited in disorientation for their eyes to adjust. Then one torch appeared, set into the wall, and another. But they still didn't see in time.
They shoved Ross first, the ground dropping away in front of the bassist, and he flailed for purchase. Mercifully, the drop was short, only enough to drive the air out of him when he landed.
There was a shallow pit before them, just deep enough to need both hands and feet to escape from.
Just deep enough to bury and forget them.
They shoved Aug next, and Ross partially caught him. They waited for Jon, but the keyboardist wasn't shoved. The Sedhians grabbed him by the back of his tunic and cloak and lowered him down. There was little in the way of respect in the way he was handled, but they'd obviously been told not to damage him purposely now that a point had been made. He dropped down into Aug's and Ross's hands, then glanced up to Steve.
The Sedhians were staring at Steve, who was staring back belligerently, purposely turned to face them. For once, he didn't say anything, didn't hurl threats or expletives. His anger was silent and radiated off him in waves that Jon and Ross felt the urge to duck from.
The closer Sedhian reached forward deliberately and shoved Steve back, sending him over the edge.
The others caught him, and the four stood looking up.
The Sedhians backed away out of sight, taking up several points at the entrance to the cave.
* * *