The assessment was accurate; by the low, guttering torches set into the walls, they were able to see the scope of their imprisonment. There was soft, red-gold soil loose beneath their feet and hard packed along the walls. The pit was roughly 10' x 12', 6' deep, and bordered by level ground wide enough for the Sedhians to walk around and point things at them from any angle. That deterred a lot of escape routes. But it didn't deter them from standing in the center with their backs turned to the watching Sedhi so they could plot in silence.
Ross was already making internal observations about the likelihood of escape, and Steve half-listened while trying to keep track of Neal.
The guitarist was deeper underground and further beneath the Turning Wall than they were. There was a maze of underground tunnels, branching from each other like the branches of a tree. The occasional ventilation shaft kept anyone from suffocating; some were natural, but others were not, and Neal wondered who or what was responsible.
He wasn't all that far from them, but he was out of thought-range when the Sedhians settled him in what looked like a storage space. A room had been dug out of the soil, and the ceiling rested a bare two feet above his head. It was roughly the size of the average bedroom. There was nothing special about it aside from the contents of one corner.
One entire corner was taken up with them, a pile that nearly reached the ceiling. Charred and bare, they had the look of the remains of some large predator, by their size. Neal couldn't make out any distinguishing features, and didn't want to look too hard. There was a smell to the enclosed space, a combined and underlying reek of soil and burnt meat. He thought about the daywraith pelt that Spiran wore, and wondered who they were really dealing with.
One of the Sedhians who had escorted him in remained by the entrance, staring at Neal impassively.
Neal chose the corner furthest from the bones and sat down on the floor. One way in, one way out.
See, Sport? he thought lightly. No big deal, just a temporary setback.
Returning to his own thoughts, Steve blinked. Neal hadn't called him Sport since the Infinity tour, and only then for a brief period. It had been some risque' joke based on the old Australian ditty 'Tie Me Kangaroo Down', and it had taken Neal six weeks to leave it alone. Something had happened on the road, and Steve didn't even want to try and remember what.
C'mon, Neal, he thought. Being delusional is my job, not yours.
Yeah, well, they're gonna give us a little thinking time, Neal thought. We gotta use it.
*I wish you could still do the illusion thing and melt us through the walls,* Jon thought to Ross, unaware of the other conversation. *Solve a lot of trouble.*
*I think it really is 'cause of how solid the place is, now,* Ross thought. *Sky, and the layout's different, and it just feels a lot more like a real place. Too real for me to affect anything but us.*
*It's great how we can all hear each other so well,* Steve thought openly. *Be even better not to leave the new guy sitting in silence, freakin' out, while we get to the bottom of things.*
*Some of it can't be helped, though,* Jon thought with a small nod toward the Sedhians watching them. He glanced at Aug, who was still pacing the back wall of the pit and looking at the low ceiling above with calculating interest. *They're listenin' to most of what we say, and it's translating. Don't want them in on this.*
*I wish I dared tell him to walk on out of here,* Ross thought. *But...*
Everyone knew the 'but'. No telling how far, how much rock, how many Sedhi. No telling how hard it might be on him. And no way was the younger singer wandering Athyri by himself, should he get free. Too many random variables.
*I wish we dared have you use the old cloaking device and walk on out of here,* Jon thought. *But they know that trick, and one lucky spear...*
Plus, the purposeful way they'd segregated Neal made it plain that their cooperation was encouraged. What the hell the cooperation entailed had yet to be seen.
*He's got some issues with us,* Steve thought, loosely referencing Spiran in his mind. *The thing with Smitty, for starters. Then him not bein' cock of the walk everytime we've shown up. What better way to tell the world how great you are, than to round up the Otherworlders and show 'em off?*
*To who?* Jon thought. *The Wisps? Nobody around to make more 'denizens'. Nobody to show us to.*
*When you're leader of something,* Ross thought, *even if it's a small group, that's your world. Ruby Ridge mean anything to you? Waco?*
Listening in, Neal snorted somewhere in the back of Steve's mind, and the singer's attention shifted. He saw again, briefly, what Neal did; a small underground cavern, smaller than the one they were in. Bones. Too many bones. They were all exhausted, but Jon was having trouble keeping his balance, and Neal was struggling to stay awake. Steve wondered what would happen to him when that struggle ended.
Don't wonder, Neal thought. Try and goddamn sleep. I think we're all gonna need it.
Why did they weed you out? Steve thought, unaware that Ross had nudged Jon and that they were both staring in his direction. Without directly thinking about it, Jon realized Steve looked like he always had while listening for something too hard, like he did while trying to get an exact sound.
They're playin' with us, Neal thought. Got us all worried, don't they? Good luck you all escapin', and gettin' me out too without gettin' punched full of holes. They don't realize we can hear each other.
Steve shrugged internally.
They'll let us know what they want when they get good and ready, Neal thought. No sense worrying it up.
Something else tried to surface, an idea of how things had changed on a personal level, an attachment that was only partly the result of suddenly being tangled. Everything was foreign.
Steve veered away mentally. Not yet. Too many other things to think about, too much to concentrate on. He glanced up and realized Jon and Ross were staring at him openly.
*Neal still okay?* Ross thought.
Steve nodded, realizing again that no one else could hear it when he and Neal were talking in the space between. Neal had begun calling it that in his mind almost immediately. *Yeah. Yeah, he's okay.* Behind and underneath and unintentional went he better stay okay and I couldn't look at him for ten years but now I wish I could just ...
"You guys got quiet all of a sudden," Aug said. He'd stopped pacing long enough to look at them.
Jon nodded. "We've pretty much used up all two good brain cells between us."
"You see the spark it made?" Ross said. "Kind of like when you chew Wintergreen Lifesavers in the dark."
Aug smiled a little. It was pale, but it was game.
Steve sat down against the far side of the pit, wanting his back protected if they were going to rest awhile. "We're all tired as hell, that's all. Might as well take advantage of the quiet."
No sense talking anymore about how long the quiet would last, or what would happen when it was over.
Jon and Ross followed suit. Ross chose the corner, and Jon left enough room between himself and Steve for Aug to sit down. Ross and Jon almost immediately closed their eyes.
"You get any of that?" Steve said to Aug. Aug shook his head.
"You heard something, though," Ross said, keeping his eyes closed.
Aug shrugged. "I don't know. I'm new to this."
Steve smiled. "What am I thinking?"
Ross exhaled a muffled, half-amused curse.
Aug eyed Steve critically and tried to clear his mind. Then he raised his eyebrows. "Bite the wax tadpole?" he said.
"I don't wanna know," Aug said.
Jon opened his eyes and watched the exchange, finding himself wondering if it would have happened at home.
Steve shifted his eyes to Jon. "What," he said, catching the tail end of the thought.
Jon shook his head. "I don't know where it came from."
Steve looked at Aug. "Did you hear that?"
Aug shook his head and leaned back against the wall.
Jon said, "Christ, never mind."
"No, no," Steve said. "Let's get it all out, huh? What did you guys think I'd do, play the ex-wife scene? Call Aug a bitch, maybe critique his singing style?"
Aug snorted, unsuccessfully trying to keep from laughing, and failed when he heard Ross clear his throat.
"Not even if the rest of this shit wasn't going on, would I pull that," Steve said. "Jesus, you guys. Thanks for the vote of confidence."
"Hey, it would be a territorial thing," Jon said. "You'd be in the right to give him the cold shoulder for awhile. I just...I don't know, I didn't expect you to take it this well."
Steve sighed, then turned his head to look at Aug again. Aug shifted his eyes to meet Steve's and was careful to keep out of the conversation.
"Bitch," Steve said, "I want you to work on those high notes in 'Don't Stop Believin'."
Aug laughed a little. It wasn't much, but it was real, and it was better than the fear they'd been trapped under. Steve grinned at Jon.
"Hey, clowns," Ross said from the corner, "sleep would be good, right about now, while we can have it."
"Aug," Steve said, "don't take these guys too seriously, huh? And that goes double for me."
Less than ten minutes later, everyone but Steve was asleep. He listened to everyone drift off, including Neal, and was unable to follow. There was only quiet, and a sense of aloneness, but no rest in it this time. The distance made a difference.
There was nothing to hear for a long while except for a constant, high-pitched sound that hovered just within hearing range. Steve finally identified it as Neal's tinnitus, something he'd hear even when Neal couldn't.
They didn't have any idea of how long they'd slept; not even Steve, who was awake the whole time, had any real sense of how long they'd been there when the trouble really started.
Steve awoke Jon, Neal and Ross with the anger in his thoughts when two male Sedhians came to the edge of the pit to stare at them. Jon reached over a little and shook Aug awake. The singer blinked and kept as still as he could, not bothering to ask what was going on.
One Sedhian pointed at Jon.
"No way," Steve said. "We all go, or no one does."
The Sedhian gestured again, ignoring Steve, who felt Neal's attention focus. The guitarist was alarmed for Jon, and frustrated that he wasn't there physically to do anything about it. Jon didn't move; no one did, until the other Sedhian twirled a spear in one hand and aimed it at Steve.
Steve stood and shrugged, folding his arms. "Come on down here yourself, punk ass," he said. "See how you do."
The first Sedhian gestured at Aug. "Then we'll take him instead."
"No," Jon said quickly, standing. "I'll go."
"Nobody goes," Steve said.
"Jon," Aug said softly, the syllable underscored with panic. He and Ross were on their feet by then as well.
"He must witness," the first Sedhian said. "He won't be harmed, if he does. If he won't, you will all be harmed."
Jon stepped for the side of the pit, and Steve said, "Witness what? What the hell are you assholes up to now?"
The Sedhians lifted Jon up the side and he thought, *Ain't standin' around to watch them start on you guys. If my goin' along keeps them quiet a little longer, then fine.*
Steve cursed. Aug and Ross kept quiet, watching Jon be led away. They stared at each other, feeling helpless, and Steve felt/listened to Neal pace.
It wasn't far to the surface; the orange light seemed severe after perpetual torchlight. But Jon wasn't blinded enough to keep from seeing what they wanted him to.
There was a small congregation of Sedhians, male and female, a variety of shapes and sizes. Most were lean and tan, relatively clean, their faces intense. Jon had never been in a crowd of them before, and the similarities were striking. He had no real idea about their social structure, and right then he didn't care much. But he observed what he could, in case knowing any small thing would help them later. Most pairs of eyes resting on him were dark, but not all. They looked like a cross section of any neighborhood in inner city America, no one truly white or black. They were related to each other closely. Beyond that, he couldn't guess.
They were gathered near the overhang of rock that they had nearly sacrificed Smitty on, the first time they remembered being through there. They stood in two solemn half-rows that Jon was led around, into the shadow of the overhang. They stared at him in collective disinterest save for two or three, who looked astonished.
The fire pit they'd passed on their way in was there, a large ring of rocks set into the soft ground. There was a pole raised in the center. Tied to it, standing on a pile of brush, kindling and split wood, was a young woman with long, red hair and fixed eyes. She was dressed in the standard tunic and leggings that the band had come to associate with the Wisps.
Jon stared for a moment at the scene before him, at the young woman with the grim, determined face and frightened eyes. One shoulder was higher than the other, and he realized she must have struggled, that it was dislocated. It would explain why she didn't struggle further. Her face was bruised and white with pain.
It was all obvious. But Jon spoke anyway, shaking.
"What're you why're you doing this?" he said, trying not to sound as scared, as desperate, as he felt.
"The Rai'an is a spy," a voice said from behind him, and a moment later Spiran came into view. "She crossed our border, then refused to give the payment required by answering our questions. Now she will give other payment."
Spiran nodded, and Jon saw something he never thought he would another flamethrower. Just as Smitty had done on countless occasions, a female Sedhian with short, dark hair stepped forward with a flame dancing in one open palm. Her arms had twisting, colorful tattoos from the elbows down, sharp images of flames. A single stripe of blue down one sharp-boned cheek. Jon heard a whisper of amazement in his head, holy shit, and realized he wasn't out of thought-range of the others. They were all there with him, in a way. Witness.
He wanted to say, wait, there's no reason for this
There were no final words; there was no buildup for anyone's benefit. Without hesitation, the flamethrower gestured.
Smitty would have been able to simply light the brush by hurling a ball of flame, had he been inclined to be cruelly murderous. But flamethrowers, like everything else, came in levels.
The girl was suddenly engulfed in flames, even though there seemed to be no accelerant. Jon screamed as soon as she began to, fighting viciously to get away, to get to her.
~ ~ ~
Underground, Steve rushed the side of the pit and made it out. Three Sedhians propelled him back over the edge, and he slammed to the ground only to roll back to his feet. He felt Ross try to hold him back, and shrugged him off, feeling the buildup of pressure that meant the lid was coming off the box again. The dim, cat's-eye light behind his eyes blazed bright with rage, and he rushed them again.
They leveled their spears on him. "The Inverse is not being harmed!" one shouted.
Steve paused at spear-point, snarling. "Yes he is!" he shouted, voice rising to a scream. "Yes he is!"
The same Sedhian pointed at Aug as the pressure continued to build. "If you strike out at us," he shouted, "this one is next. And we will not be taking him to watch, Er Rai!"
Steve remained where he was, conscious of Aug trying to make himself smaller in the far corner. He was grateful the other singer couldn't see what the rest of them were forced to: a conflagration.
~ ~ ~
Firelight gleamed hellishly off the backdrop of stone; the flames licked at the underside of the overhang, blackening it further. The charred crust of black that had already been there gave silent testimony to the fact that this was nothing new.
The Wisp had only screamed a few times before choking off; a breath of super-heated air had crisped her lungs, silencing her but not keeping her from writhing in the flames. Jon had gone on screaming for her, choking on air that was filled with smoke and tasted of burning hair and flesh. He'd stood there and watched, and done nothing to stop them. Nothing. He'd gagged on it, all of it, finally falling to his knees as the figure in the flames began to collapse on itself. The Sedhians let him fall, but they didn't let him cover his face; they pulled his head back by his hair and made him go on watching. And he did, because he's done nothing but so far but watch. He was crying and didn't know it, the heat from the flames reaching him and drying tears before they could fully form. The heat was suffocating, and he waited for them to throw him in.
As quickly as the fire had been lit, it was extinguished; the flamethrower closed her hands, and the fire obeyed her.
Smoke rolled upward, greasy with ash, smearing the breeze with the life the fire had taken. The pole was charred and deformed; embers still glowed beneath. The remains of the Wisp lay huddled at the base, still humanoid, with blackened, cracked skin that bubbled with grease.
It was silent but for Jon's broken sobbing.
Several Sedhians stepped forward with pronged spears as the flamethrower walked away, watching Jon over her shoulder. Had he seen the look of calculation in her eyes, it wouldn't have mattered to him.
The Sedhians prodded the corpse, and the dislocated shoulder came away with a wet, popping sound, like a drumstick ripped from a well-cooked chicken. The dismembered limb was hefted into the air, but not as a trophy.
Several other Sedhians came forward with a scraped skin of indeterminate origin, and carried the limb away on it.
Then it was eaten.
They stripped the meat from the bones as it cooled, keeping the bones or tossing them back into the embers, where the joints popped as the heat released moisture.
Jon gagged violently. There was nothing but dry heaves; he'd eaten nothing since being trapped there. They were outside time. The shock of the others weighed him down until he nearly couldn't react.
"Hungry, Inverse?" Spiran said from behind and above. "You're welcome to join us."
Jon wanted to put his hands around Spiran's throat, and found two thoughts running crazily through his head: that he wished Steve was there, to smash as many of the Sedhians as he could, like he had the daywraith. And that old Greek myth, of Persephone, consigning herself to the Underworld by eating what was offered.
He could do nothing but curse them.
They finally dragged him back underground to the others, lowering him into the pit and walking away as if nothing had happened.
The shock of it made silence easy, at first; the weight and confusion of disbelief froze them in place.
Jon broke it first, with a scream, and no one heard it coming. No one would have stopped him anyway. He had to do something, anything, to take it back. He could take it back if he could get to her -
The deliberate cruelty hurt, the senselessness of it, the casual lack of regard for pain or terror or loss. Jon wept, hands against the soft dirt of the floor, crying so hard that he made no sound except for the occasional gasp for air.
It was the knowledge that he could have saved her that hit hardest, the understanding of wasted possibility.
At least he reacted. The others had shut down, numb and withdrawn. Aug couldn't stop moving, as if he could stay a step ahead of all of it, pacing the back wall.
Neal was quiet, holding perfectly still, feeling like he didn't want to be seen. He didn't want the Sedhi to notice him for any reason. His eyes strayed to the bones in the corner, to the charred curves and lengths. This time, his eyes picked out femurs and ribs, familiar sizes and shapes. A jawbone with molars still attached. He could hear Jon's grief, and fidgeted under it, gritting his teeth and blinking against how much it hurt.
Something formed in Steve's mind, some molasses-slow but inexorable idea, growing and snowballing behind a resolve not to strike anyone. It was an idea about what they'd done to the Ender, about wiping the place out with a thought. He was thinking about how the tree had helped, about what it might be able to do...how it could reshape the land into a place without...
Steve blinked and returned to the physical present, almost unaware of the destructive daydream.
What's that solve? How much...how much like them d'you wanna be?
Ask me about that when they start burnin' us, one by one, Steve whispered, and Neal would have recoiled from the tone if he'd had anywhere to recoil to.
You ain't a god, here, Neal thought. Or anywhere else. Even if you can wipe the place out, you won't. We got no choice about bein' involved, now. But we ain't adding to this. We got no right, deciding who lives and what stays.
*Why didn't she change?* Ross thought. *You know into one of those light-forms.*
*Maybe they can't, anymore,* Steve thought. *Or maybe they can't when they're hurt.*
*What was it for?* Jon thought, his inner voice as choked as his real voice would have been had he been able to use it. *What was it for? Why?*
No one attempted an answer to that; there was none, would never be one. A life had been wasted in front of them for nothing more than a show of power, and their lives even after the things they'd already seen didn't prepare them for the harshness of it.
Underneath somewhere was the wish that the time could be rewound. But that was still out of their reach.
Ross broke the unarticulated demand to be left alone first, reaching for Jon unbidden. The keyboardist let him kneel and put an arm around his shoulders.
*It's bullshit,* Steve thought openly, *that you could have saved her. What, you against that crowd?*
*You did,* Jon thought, trying desperately to regain control. *You did.*
Smitty's near-sacrifice, so long ago. An angry mob, a blade, a false wraith. *Not the same,* Steve argued, coming to stand just behind Jon, coming close enough so that his knees were braced against Jon's back. Doing it for the contact, to nudge him out of the self-recrimination. *Did you want to save her, so they could burn her again? Reverse it and give her another chance to feel it all again?*
"They killed someone up there," Aug said, "didn't they."
Steve nodded. But he was distracted.
Spiran was headed for Neal.
~ ~ ~
Neal watched Spiran enter the small cavern-room, flanked by two others who remained just outside in the corridor. The self-proclaimed Lhiscan of the Stone People stared at him, trying to stare him down. Neal stood and stared back, trying to ignore the sweat that trickled down his own back. Trying to block out Jon's pain and Steve's sudden, life-dulling panic. He didn't say anything, just watched, wondering if he could talk himself out of whatever was coming. The demonstration wasn't over.
"It used to be known as the Outlands," Spiran said suddenly, without preamble. "While the namers ruled here. The Rai'an have renamed it Athyri, now that we hold most of what used to bear that name. The first time the Er Rai was here, he held a smaller form." Spiran held a hand away from himself, gesturing a figure that came just above waist height. "There's a new Rai'an in Athryi, and there has been for some time. The Rai'an have figured out how to make others, and I would know how it's done."
"He's getting right to business," Steve said. "They figured out how to have kids. They the Wisps, the Rai'an, have kids, and the Sedhians don't."
Ross said, "We knew the place moved on, but I guess we never figured how much."
Jon raised his head, wiping his face, and Aug came closer to listen.
No one saw the Sedhian in the corridor, listening to every word.
Neal bit back every retort that came to mind, letting Steve say them aloud instead
[could bring them a book next time, they already missed the demo we did earlier].
"We ain't showing you," Neal said finally. "If you can't figure it out -"
"The Rai'an we've brought back here are not very forthcoming either," Spiran said, gesturing at the charred bones in the corner. "So we make use of them somehow. The more Rai'an we destroy, the more they'll have to make to replace them. Until we understand how this is done, the new Rai'an will live here."
"You're not goin' about it the right way," Neal said, trying to keep the tremble out of his voice. The bones... "You could've fuckin' asked somebody, before you started killin' 'em."
"Ask," Spiran said with disgust. "We 'asked'. We're done asking. They may not even realize how it was done. So we will keep the new one until we figure out how to make new ones of our own. And once we do, there will be more of us than can be counted. And we will have all of Athyri for ourselves."
He wants a fuckin' army, Neal thought. He wants to take over, and that's all he got out of it. He was trying not to think about the bones, or about the memory-sight he'd gotten from Steve, of the Wisp in flames.
"You're a walker," Spiran continued. "A powerful walker. You will simply go get this new one and bring it here."
Neal stared at the Sedhian in stunned silence.
"Like hell," Steve said.
"Like hell," Neal said. "I'm not for hire. I'm not a kid-thief, either. And I sure as hell don't belong to you."
Spiran tilted his head a little. Then he turned and glanced at the Sedhian who had just walked in.
The Sedhian nodded to Spiran. "It's as you thought," he said.
Spiran looked back at Neal, but was talking to the figure in the corridor when he said, "Then do as I told you earlier."
Neal let that make him just nervous enough to make sure Steve understood something was up. Then he said, "Why don't you mighty hunters go do it yourselves?"
Spiran shrugged. "The Rai'an have...means of keeping us out, for now. We manage to catch the stragglers. They have to come above ground occasionally."
Neal thought about the last time they'd been there, how the Wisps had managed to keep the Lady out, and wondered if it was similar. "But I'm supposed to be able to get in."
"They would never suspect a walker," Spiran said. "And you would be gone before they could react. I suspect you're having difficulty, though. Otherwise you would have been able to elude us earlier, and you'd have found a way out by now."
Neal wanted to yell something along the lines of how he'd never walk away from his friends, to be free or anything else. But he kept quiet and stared. The same Sedhian who had been speaking to Spiran a minute or so earlier was now looking at the rest of the band, and pointing at...Steve.
Two Sedhians came out of the corridor and stared at them for a moment. They stared back, waiting, no taunts or threats. Not after what had happened earlier.
One pointed at Steve. "The Er Rai."
"Fuck you," Jon said.
Half a dozen arrows were pointed at all of them before he could finish the curse, several more Sedhians coming out of the corridor. One arrow was let loose.
Aug spun and ducked. The arrow came to rest inches from him. Had he not moved, it easily would have pinned him to the back of the pit via his midsection.
"The Er Rai," the Sedhian said again.
*They're not gonna eat me,* Steve thought shakily, stepping forward past Jon. *Not yet, anyway.*
*It'd give 'em indigestion they'd never forget,* Ross thought, knowing the joke was lame but realizing that they all had to go on playing their parts.
Steve walked to the edge and paused. He was gestured up, and he climbed. They grabbed him by the shoulders of his tunic and hauled him up roughly. Several arrows remained pointed at Jon and Aug.
"The Inverse cannot save himself and another," the Sedhian said without inflection or even interest. "We will show you again, and again."
Steve kept quiet. The look on his face was enough.
"I'm asking you one final time to consider it," Spiran said. "Then I'll have to...try another route."
"Fuck you," Neal said from the corner. "We ain't helping you with jack, asshole. Our cooperation ended when you separated us."
Spiran smiled, an intentionally unpleasant expression. He nodded, and the smile never reached his eyes the way it reached his voice. "Be sure about it. You're helping me make a decision."
Neal paused. His first impulse was to hold the line of bravado, false or otherwise, and send the bastard packing. But a lifetime spent learning when to laugh someone off and when to watch his back kicked in again, and he let the silence drag out. There was something in the other man's face, a smugness, a promise.
Spiran nodded. "I think you'll help. One of you will."
Neal held his gaze. "Like we said before, no one's makin' it easy for you, asshole."
The Sedhian smiled again, making a cursory gesture. Neal heard a shuffling, followed by a muffled curse before another Sedhian dragged Steve into his sight. Spiran made sure Neal got a good look at the singer and the way his hands were tied behind his back before he kicked the singer's feet out from under him and sent him to his knees.
Neal kept his face carefully neutral, staring down on Steve, reminding himself of where they were, that the singer had been resurrected more than once.
The Sedhian who had sent Steve to the floor prodded the singer with a knee, prompting a snarl but failing to force him to look up.
"Tell me, again, about your lack of cooperation," Spiran said, his voice a low and sepulcheral presence that was muffled by the dirt walls.
Neal remained silent.
"You're wasting your time," Steve said, the tone of it dull. "As a matter of fact, you're gonna bore me to death before you manage to kill me in front of him."
Neal felt the twist in his stomach that told him things were going bad and getting worse, recognizing an instinctive reaction to a prelude to violence in the tensing of the muscles across his shoulders. He wanted to tell Steve to shut up, knew it didn't matter if he did or not, knew Steve heard everything. Did nothing but watch.
It's the same old thing, Steve thought. Two-bit dictator, act one, scene one. Just play along.
But he was scared, and didn't entirely hide it from Neal. Because damage to one was damage to the other, incapacitating both.
Spiran grinned with genuine amusement. "Do you see what's coming, Neal?"
"Leave him alone," Steve said. "You know you can't keep me dead. You'll have to do better than this."
Spiran nodded, and the Sedhian behind Steve reached forward to grab the singer by the hair and jerked his head back, exposing his throat.
Neal dropped his eyes, telling himself he could do this, he could hold his ground. He could do this...
"Look, Neal," Spiran said. "The Er Rai thinks you'll be able to bring him back while you're here."
Neal glanced up, watching Spiran remove a blade the length of his hand from his right hip. The Sedhian turned it in the flickering light of the torch as if examining it for nicks or flaws. Spiran caught the glance and said, "I know the tale of the Er Rai. You fools made quite an impression the last time you stumbled through here. You might even say it was written in...stone." Spiran grinned. "It's common knowledge that, of all the members of your company, this one was the least important to you. Consider that, even though the lot of you can probably bring him back eventually...he'd still be experiencing death, here and now. It's going to hurt. Won't it, Er Rai?"
Steve kept his gaze on the ceiling and his thoughts shut, refusing to acknowledge Spiran. Trying to pretend Neal wasn't there.
"I'm going to start with him," Spiran said, "and work my way through the others, beginning with the talentless one. I'm not sure you can call them back. Are you?"
Neal kept his breathing to a minimum, waiting for the punchline. Will it pull us apart? he thought.
I don't know, Steve thought. We're already pushing it.
"Why were you so fearful of being separated from the walker, when we brought you here?" Spiran said to Steve.
Steve froze, trying to keep his face impassive.
Spiran knelt in front of Steve, placing the tip of the blade against the hollow of his throat.
"Tell me again about how you're not going to cooperate, Neal."
Steve closed his eyes, thoughts blank.
"You're not gonna do it," Neal said, coming within feet of Spiran. "If you draw blood on him, you can forget about gettin' anything from any of us. You're gonna end up killing us all anyway. It don't matter what we do."
That was good, he thought. Almost convinced myself.
Spiran smiled again, and it was too close to approval for Neal's taste. No matter which way he turned, he was walking in a direction the Sedhian wanted him to. Spiran nodded and stood, withdrawing the blade, and the other Sedhian took the signal for what it was. Steve was dragged to his feet and forced to face Neal.
"Look at him, Steve," Spiran said. "He held up. But you knew he would, the way you know that if you try to escape, I'm going to put an arrow through your Inverse from a distance he can't touch us from, enough of them that he won't be able to reverse the damage in time to save himself. That's why you haven't tried to use your powers on us. Touching, isn't it?" he said to Neal. "How you're all willing to stand up for each other. I'm grateful for it. It's helping me more than you'll ever know."
He's fuckin' crazy, Steve thought over the diatribe.
He's already killed someone in front of us, Neal thought, keeping his eyes down. So it's not like we matter much more.
"That's why I'm not going to kill the Er Rai," Spiran said, as if disappointed. "Not now, at any rate. Not when he's so useful. Neal, aren't you dependant on your hands, in your world?"
Neal didn't answer, uncertain of the direction the one-sided conversation had taken. Unwilling to ask how the Sedhian would know anything about their world. He felt Steve bristle, even over his own confusion.
"I know more than you'd like me to," Spiran said.
"You talk more than we'd like you to," Steve said.
There was a brief flash of anger on the Sedhian's face, there and gone so quickly that it seemed a trick of the flickering light. Neal felt his stomach tighten again. Steve, Neal warned.
But Steve had seen the slip of emotion and the opening it gave him. He leapt in with both feet.
"You're not gonna kill the Inverse," Steve said, biting the words off. "Because you'd really be screwed, with the higher ups. You don't have us, you fruitcake. You wanna play standoff? Fine. We'll all be here until fuckin' Judgment Day, because anything you do is gonna come back on you. And when you give me a chance, asshole, I'm going to dismantle you. I don't need to touch you to do it."
There was a moment of silence heavy enough that Neal was convinced it would crush him. Steve wasn't just talking big; Neal could feel how much of it he meant. He didn't like the honesty in it, the sudden turn from I can't hit anyone else to I'm going to dismantle you. The rough, barely-restrained growl wasn't something he'd ever heard from Steve before, not even in his worst moments.
Spiran was staring at Steve expressionlessly. Then he said, "That's why I'm letting you go."
Steve frowned and wrinkled his nose in confusion.
"You have three days to bring the small Rai'an back here," Spiran said.
Holding the Sedhian's gaze in open and mocking defiance, Steve said, "Or what?"
"Or I'll take the walker's hands."
Of everything that Neal remembered about that moment, the thing that stayed with him the rest of his life was the terror on Steve's face, and the hurt in his thoughts. It mirrored what Neal felt, giving him a terrible, 3D view of the moment. But it was more than that; Spiran had them, had found the chink in their collective armor - and it was the last place Neal had really expected it to be.
"The longer you're gone, the more I'll take," Spiran said. "His hands would be the beginning. No matter how soon the Inverse got to him after that, I don't think he'd be able to reverse that damage, Steve. Because there won't be anything to recover."
The Sedhian's eyes glanced to the charred bones in the corner. His voice dropped to a suggestive whisper. "We'll 'dismantle' him. Will your jh'sai forgive you, if he lives?"
Jesus, Neal thought. He knows. He knows!
The word Spiran had used didn't translate. But the 'your' suggested enough.
"You bastard," Steve whispered, pale, trying desperately to shove the emotion back down where it had come from. They had him, and he hadn't seen it coming, hadn't known what was there...
"He'll live, for awhile," Spiran said. "I'll make sure of it. The Inverse may be allowed to do just enough to keep him alive. It doesn't need to happen, if you'll do as I say. Then you'll all be gone. I won't need you anymore."
Steve was breathing rapidly through his nose, trying to keep from flying off the handle. The rage and fear hovered just beneath the surface, and he didn't trust his voice enough to use it.
"I can start on him now," Spiran said, running a finger along the length of the blade. "Which do you prefer? Now, or in three days?"
"You're dead," Steve said hoarsely. "No matter what you do now, you're dead."
"That's what I like to hear," the Sedhian said. "Incentive."
"I come back, when I'm killed," Steve said. "...you won't."
Spiran smiled. "But it's not going to save you, now. Be careful what you say to the others, Er Rai. The less they know, the better."
The threats hung unchallenged; the singer and the Sedhian locked gazes and held them in mutual acknowledgment of where things stood.
"Good luck to you, Er Rai," Spiran said, and the other Sedhian shoved Steve back into the corridor.
Steve, Neal thought.
I'll fix it, Steve thought. I will.
That's what I'm afraid of, Neal thought. I can't see all of what you're thinkin' yet. You better not be sellin' that kid out.
Steve sidestepped him, too easily.
They were shredding an escape plan of Ross's - or lack of one - from yet another angle when there was enough commotion in the corridor to make them look up. Then Steve was shoved from behind, still tied, over the edge of the pit, unable to catch himself. He hit bottom hard enough that it knocked the breath violently out of him and Neal -- and he couldn't breathe for several seconds. Aug got to him first, ready to curse the Sedhian out, but a thought from Jon managed to get through and limited him to a glare.
As emotional as things had been that day, it was suddenly easier to get through to each other.
When they were alone, Jon and Aug helped Steve sit up. Aug started on the ropes while Jon looked him over, finding nothing that really needed his ministrations.
"And?" Jon said tersely.
"He's fine," Steve said with wooden reserve. Aug cursed over one of the knots. Then it gave, and Steve shook his hands free, massaging one wrist to try and get some feeling back, folding himself into a cross-legged position. "But you knew that anyway. We'd all've felt it, if they'd done something to him. They're fucking with us, Jay." He paused. "You ain't gettin' your turn, though. They're all done."
Jonathan leaned back on his haunches and stared at him. "And that means...?"
Steve braced his elbows on his knees and looked at the dirt floor. "Leave it alone. We'll get out of this. I just need to figure it out."
"Bullshit," Jon said. "You're not pulling this cowboy thing. We're all in, or no one is."
"In an ideal world, maybe," Steve said. "Things are different, here." He stood and retreated to the far corner, all but vanishing, folding his arms across his chest and looking at nothing.
"What are you--"
*Get off him, Jon,* Ross thought, cutting him off.
Jon glanced at him in amazement. *We don't know shit about what's going on. Now's not the time for him to clam up. What's with you?*
*That isn't the cocky bastard that went out of here twenty minutes ago,* Ross thought. *He knows we're thinkin' around him now, and doesn't even care. What d'you think 'they're all done' means? They got something they wanted out of him. Don't try and sub for Neal. You won't get far.*
Jon ran his hands over his face and looked at the ceiling. *I don't wanna know,* he thought, *but I have to.*
"When they're through with us - what're they gonna do with us?" Aug said. "No point in killing us. Not really."
"No, I'm sure it'll be more interesting than that," Ross said. *These guys've had awhile to sharpen their movie-villain skills.*
"You can't just go shutting us out," Jon said aloud to Steve. "Keeping us in the dark won't do anything but help these bastards."
Steve looked at him, but kept his thoughts shut. The look was a combination of calculation and sadness that made Jon raise his eyebrows.
"I'll fix it," was the last thing Steve said.
* * *
It was morning again by their estimation when there was movement at the entrance to the corridor again, admitting Spiran, who leaned on the wall with a grin. "So many Otherworlders, so little time."
*Where does this asshole get his cliche's?* Ross thought.
It was all jittery, now; everything they thought or said ran along a fine edge of hysteria, but they kept it up anyway.
*He's probably got a sattelite dish,* Jon thought, playing along, the edge of everything he thought sad and subdued. It would be that way for awhile, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
*Man, I want that kind of reception,* Ross thought.
Spiran hooked a finger at Steve, who had remained in the same corner he'd sequestered himself in the night before. Steve was staring at him with unblinking, unwavering fury, all pretense of derision gone. Jon watched and listened carefully.
"Come along, singer," Spiran said. "We have an agreement."
Steve didn't move, and Jon caught the thread of the insinuation. "No," he said aloud.
Spiran raised his eyebrows. "Do you have a grievance, Inverse?"
"Steve," Jon said, "you're not gonna do it."
"You don't know what's goin' on, Jon," Steve said without looking at him. The singer rose stiffly, unfolding himself from the dirt with a barely supressed grimace. "Doesn't matter, anyway."
"What'd they threaten you with?" Jon said to Steve angrily. "Death? Big deal, in your case. Are you gonna kill another kid?"
Steve paused just a fraction, the jab hitting home. He looked at Jon, just a glance, an instant of something surprised visible in his eyes. "Hey, Jon," he said softly. "That wasn't like you."
Jon dropped his eyes, but not before his thoughts broadcast a moment of horrified guilt. It'd been Steve's voice, but the words had come straight from Neal.
It was as if he hadn't understood, on a conscious level, what had really happened to them until then.
Then Steve shook his head. "You believe what you want to," he said, and the words were his own this time.
"Steve," Aug said.
"Watch out for them," Steve said. "Help Jon keep his head. That's how you can help."
*Dammit, just say something to us,* Jon thought. *Let us know what you're up to. These bastards can't hear--*
"It's none of your business, right now," Steve snapped. *Just shut up, before they pay any more attention to you!*
"The Er Rai's agreed to help me," Spiran said. "Time's wasting, Er Rai. Three days began last night, after all."
Steve climbed the edge of the pit a lot faster than anyone expected him to, coming within inches of Spiran. There were two spears leveled on him instantly, and one on Jon. Ross and Jon could feel a moment of the rage that shot through Steve just before the singer slammed his thoughts shut again. Breathing carefully, Steve stared at the Sedhian. The pressure in the enclosed space was more than the result of emotion.
"Be careful," Spiran warned. "They'll all be dead before you get through gloating over my body."
The wall behind the Sedhian cracked, audibly, an immediately visible division that began at the ceiling and crawled rapidly to the floor in a demented spiderweb. Dirt showered them. The wall held even though the structural integrity had been compromised.
Spiran dropped the mask of smug contempt for a moment, but only a moment. "Impressive," he whispered. "Don't collapse the ceiling on your friends, Er Rai. Don't do my job for me."
"Steve," Jon said hoarsely, "he won't kill us. You know that."
His eyes still on Spiran, Steve said, "No. He won't."
*God,* Aug thought, and for the first time it came through clearly to the others. *God!*
"Goodbye, Er Rai," Spiran said. "Good luck to you."
"Good luck to you," Steve said. "Three days started last night for you, too, asshole. I open things. It's what I was made to do."
Then he walked past, into the darkness of the corridor that led out to open air.
Three Sedhians walked him out and left him. He didn't bother looking at them again, saw no point in starting anything with them. The remains of the fire in the pit, still burning, showed a greasy residue on the surrounding stones. Greasy ash had smeared along the ground, blown in the breeze that had picked up overnight.
He walked past all that without purposely looking at it, not really wanting it on top of everything else. God, God, God. Then there was the map, and someone had already changed it again; the area drawn out to represent the desert had shifted boundaries, had been coated with something. It looked shiny in the orange light, whatever it was. It was supposed to look like the glass he'd turned everything into. Toward one edge that looked like the edge of the cliffs, there was a bone, probably a vertebrae from the looks of it. He knew immediately that it marked where the Ender had come to rest.
I can't, Steve thought, out of range of everyone but Neal. Never, never out of range of Neal. I can't do this.
Gotta do somethin', Neal thought. Not necessarily what he wants.
Assuming I find the Wisps, they'll try and kill me on sight, Steve thought. And that's before I try and take off with this kid.
Neal heard the twinge that came with that, and thought, Jon didn't mean it.
"Neal," Steve said aloud, "I can hear his thoughts, too, while we're here. And guess what. He did mean it." He shook his head, aware that there were still eyes on his back. "I can't fuckin' leave you guys here. They got no reason to keep any bargains. Spiran's got what he wants - the Er Rai runnin' around, doin' what he says to. And goddamnit, how did he find out?"
Neal knew he meant the jh'sai remark. Until we can get that to translate, no telling for sure what it really means. He could be bluffin', or we could be makin' jumps in logic.
Steve sighed, and wondered how long he could stand out there before they came out to make it an issue. Before they started on Neal. If they hurt one of you, he thought, if he touches you, I'll take the whole fuckin' place apart.
It's not gonna come to that, Neal thought, looking down at his own hands, trying to ignore the twisting pain in his stomach. Fear. We'll come up with something. There'll be a chance to turn this thing around, and get out of here. Nothin' we can do with you standing there pissin' them off, though.
Steve took a final glance back at the caves, then turned and began to walk toward the Outlands. He knew it wouldn't work, but he tried changing his form several times anyway. There was no way he'd make it there and back on foot in time. No way, without the bird.
So he'd keep trying. And if he had to take the place apart, he would.
He walked away.
* * *