Well, I'm never on my own, but there's no one in sight.
--Alan Parsons Project, Psychobabble

Memory Bound - Chapter XXI
© 2001 B Stearns
______________

Steve Smith, December 1999

The minute I realized I had a detective – a detective – on the phone, I knew I couldn't really ignore it anymore.

I listened to her explain why she was calling, about the disappearance and the damage at the studio, let her get through with it. Because acting like it was normal was gonna get me in trouble. So I sounded surprised, and made little…exclamatory noises where I was supposed to, and all that. Asking if Liz and Deen were okay, though, I didn't have to fake getting stressed out about that. I'm glad they're okay.

I knew we had the usual suspects. Namers. And I figured the guys were back in Athyri again, if they were still alive at all. You know, they're a little too stubborn to die, Perry and Schon especially. Namers are a problem, but not an unknown factor, right? Business as usual with us. But not the torn-up studio thing. Not the singer-getting-shoved-in-the-street thing.

When I talked to Neal just before they vanished, I knew they had something bad after them this time, even though he sort of downplayed it. He didn't tell me everything. He never tells anyone everything. I got a feeling that when he finally goes, we're all gonna get together and talk, whoever's left, and we'll finally get the whole picture of that guy. He was just warning me, sayin' watch out, we're in it again, even though the lineup's changed and we tried to get rid of the singer. Mostly, whoever they were – namers, etc – they were after that singer in particular, and then came the part about that singer staying with Neal.

That whole part got mentioned and skipped over. What good it does having the two of them hang together, I don't know. More than a week of that would normally mean the namers wouldn't have much left to do.

Nothing came out to bug me. I never had any pretensions about how important I was to the namers or the whole scheme of things anyway, kind of a bit player, really. Thing is, it's the bit players that turn the plot when no one's lookin'. If I can stay out of their sight, I got no idea what I could do – but if they're not payin' attention to me, there's no reason why I can't sort of mess around behind the scenes. They have Ross and the new guy, Augeri, so I wonder how exempt I really am. They didn't get Deen, though. Something went really nuts over there, at Jon's.

The detective gets done telling me about the circumstances and how there was more to it – that whole thing at the mall. I don't know why she's telling me all this at the time except to see how much I'll say, maybe. I couldn't really tell if she knew anything about us disappearing before. I was in the band once, so guilt by association, I guess. I kept my mouth shut. But I hate it that something took Neal's door off – I'm thinking Keepers, but there's no claw marks.

I hate it that there's a dead kid with a gun.

She wasn't really interviewing me. She wasn't usin' that cop tone. She really wants to know what the hell's going on, like me. And I got nothing to add, and I'm sorry.

The minute I got off the phone with her, I called Liz. Liz is smarter than hell and on the inside of all this, and from her I got the extras, about what really happened at Neal's house and the mall. I heard about the knife on the floor in her kitchen and the broken back door, how Steve was alone in the house with something that's got issues with him. Seems like it went after him, lost him, and went out to the studio to search. I know it wasn't the other way around, because why search the studio if it had gotten what it wanted from Steve? It lost all of them somehow. I think Neal was walking even though I didn't know he could do that over here, and something went way off and threw them all out of there. Not Deen, though. Things have changed. If they had any say about where they ran to, it was probably Athyri.

I already knew I'd be getting a call from somebody, about something. Wherever they are, they've already been…I don't know. Killed, or tryin' to get home, or struggling with something big. Because I heard it. Whatever they're up to, it came across lines and times and places, and hit me upside the head. Something's happened.

Deen is still hyped up about it like it just happened, and it's been a few days. He's pretty much still freaking out, and I don't blame him. He's not used to seeing stuff like this. Hell, there was a time I wasn't either, I guess. He tells me the guys vanished in front of him, that his ears were ringin' like crazy, and that hiding behind the drum kit was enough to keep him alive. He didn't really see what came through. I know I'm right, that it went after Perry and blew it, then tried for everybody else. These namers or whatever, they don't seem to get any smarter. The walker and the Inverse and the Er Rai exited stage left because anywhere was better than there, right then.

I wonder what the new singer, Augeri, can do. Something, if he got caught up.

I gotta laugh, though, at the mental picture. Neal and Perry were living together, and the new Journey is rehearsing with Perry a hundred yards away. That's weird enough without the rest of it. Oh, and Liz did mention the additional weirdness that explains why Neal and Perry didn't manage to kill each other before the namers got around to it. It's about time. Funny that Neal finally came around – I think one of us should have told him about twenty years ago and saved everybody a lot of grief. Gotta wonder what tipped him off. Perry'd die before admitting he's been carrying that torch.

Gregg didn't have anything to add, when I talked to him. He's new to the whole thing…I think. He felt something too, so I know I wasn't just tweakin' out. They've messed with something huge, wherever they are. I think I'd know if they were dead, though. I hope.

It's the last guy I talked to that really scared me.

He didn't intro himself, or bother acting human. He didn't even really blend in. Anyone who saw him was staring at him. There was something real familiar about him, maybe because of the company I've been keeping until real lately. I was talking to Tom – Coster, you know - about a jam we've been doing in our shows that would work into something we're doing for the next album. We're hanging out by the pool at the hotel, talking, and I'm thinking about how I gotta talk to Ian about his college grades, the kid is having trouble with chemistry and he's really not a kid anymore. Then Tom gets this look on his face and glances up like, uh-oh.

I felt it coming before Tom got that look on his face. I didn't really wanna turn around 'cause it felt like Siarion would be back there, and since when do these folks pop up in crowds? I turned around and there's this tall guy in a duster. No shit, an ankle-length, dark brown duster, in ninety degree heat. He's not sweating, though, 'cause he ain't human. For all I know he's from Hell and this is cool for him. I remember short, reddish, almost auburn hair, and blue eyes, eyes way too blue. Blue enough to be glowin' in daylight, like he couldn't hold it in, or didn't want to. It looked like he stepped right out of Dune after doing too much spice.

He stood there and looked at me, just at me, and said, "Things have changed."

Before Tom could open his mouth, I told him I'd be back and I gestured this guy away to an area by the pool gate where nobody's gonna hear us. I don't wanna go nowhere private, though. If he was gonna do anything, it had to be with witnesses.

In my brilliance, I say, "Who the hell are you?"

He goes, "Would a name make a difference to you? The explanation is lengthy." Like that. And he's talking like he's all that, but the tone of voice is boy next door. Like he's in a hurry because his dad's about to get home and he put a dent in the car. Like he's hoping I can help and knows a lot more than I do at the same time. Don't none of these guys need my help.

I say, "Are you a namer?" And he got this look on his face like maybe he thought I was kiddin' him. 'No,' he says, 'But we're all pieces of the same puzzle. Would you help, if you could, even if it was one small thing?'

That's got no answer. So I ask him why he doesn't help. I'll never forget the answer to that : because no one learns anything from being rescued. Then he said he'd see me again, and he walked away.

There's nothing threatening about him or any of it, it's like he was just scoping the available Otherworlders for reinforcements.

I'm not worried about him coming back.

I'm worried about who's not coming back.

***

Theresa sat by the window the next morning before Rinte was awake, watching the streets come to life again. Caught between two major holidays, the world bustled. Christmas decorations had sprung up almost overnight, the frantic signs in shop windows screaming that time was almost up.

She'd been having nightmares again. Faceless reminders of something lost, faceless beings she seemed to be searching for. None of it really made any sense, and she didn't need it to. She simply wondered why it was happening again. She hadn't seen the images or felt so odd since just after the accident. It had been nightmares every night for months after that, stress and lost memories trying to reassert themselves until they'd faded to nothing. Something had been lost, some understanding of herself.

Time was almost up.

***

It finally got dark while Steve was out there, the glass growing even cooler beneath his feet, a breeze picking up across the desert.

He paused to look around again, trying to make certain he was staying opposite the Turning Wall. He was still in the desert, unable to cover enough ground to free himself of it before dark. He was constantly recalculating how much time he had, how fast he'd have to go to make it in time. How much force he'd have to use to get the whole thing done. Neal was asleep again and was free of listening to him fret.

He tried for the bird again, and cursed in frustration when it didn't work. He needed to fly, if he was going to pull this off. He was too slow on foot, and he could feel something blocking him, a mental stretch of quicksand. It felt the way an inability to understand something felt, that slow, dull blockage of ideas and will. He had a feeling it was because he wasn't quite himself anymore. That, and having a false hip joint, were too much to overcome. Reasoning it out didn't stop him from getting enraged over it.

He picked up the pace again, trotting over the glass, desperate to get off it, trying to pretend he couldn't hear the Ender behind him. Waiting.

Neal awoke a little, stirring in response to how loud Steve's frustration was.

Sorry, Steve thought. Ignore me.

Like I've ever been able to, Neal thought, and Steve wasn't sure what came with it. Not annoyance. Some sort of begrudging amusement.

Once I hit solid ground, things should pick up, Steve thought.

Neal had no answer to that, just a low undercurrent of fear and a resolve not to try and push Steve.

Steve heard it and felt fear slam into him again. His thoughts and the gathering dark were equal threats, and the combined assault weighed him down to the point where he stopped and didn't realize it.

Neal tried to keep it from snowballing, but he was too late; a moment later, it was the least of their worries.

It started the way most awful things do – with one small, insistent feeling that something was wrong. Steve felt it first, as annoying and sharp as a paper cut. Much like an earthquake, there was a small jittering of pain along some central fault he wasn't used to yet. By the time Neal was aware of it, the secondary wave hit, sending Steve to his knees.

It was a gnashing, tearing pain, and all Steve knew was that it wasn't physical. It was the place the Ender had been aiming for, the space between.

Steve folded his arms across his midsection, eyes squeezed shut, holding on as hard as he could. It wasn't the same; he wasn't losing Neal or the bond to death. The space itself was killing them. They hadn't finished sealing things up, and Jon had only been able to repair so much. Now that they were separated …

Gasping, feeling the glass beneath his knees and knowing Neal was already unconscious, Steve cried out in the dark.

~~~

Jon was standing again without realizing it, unable to hear Ross or Aug ask him what was happening. He stood and listened, realizing something was going wrong but unable to place it.

~~~

It was cold and dark, and he was bleeding again in a place that had come to mean everything. There'd been the Ender, and that kid at the mall, and things in the floor. Daywraiths, Sedhians, an unfinished Keeper. Trapped, failing at everything he touched and running out of time, Steve sat huddled on the ground and wept. The pain was fading; they hadn't come apart. But it didn't matter. Damage had been done, and would go on being done until they finally came apart.

I can't, I can't I can't.

There was no one to hear him.

He wanted the world to end, all of it to be over, no sense waiting for it. He could just –

There was a soft humming sound somewhere to his right, and he didn't open his eyes to look. It was probably something coming to eat him, and he didn't care. The sound was repeated somewhere in front of him, a little louder this time.

He opened his eyes a little, startled into opening them wide and wiping them when he saw the cause of the sound.

There was a twirl of soft, phosphorescent light, a spiral shape that swirled briefly to life and faded an instant later. Another came out of midair immediately after it, to his left, a faint blue dust devil of light. He sat up straight to watch, reminded of fireflies and something else, something he couldn't quite put his finger on. A white spiral sprouted from the ground yards away with a gentle hum, whirring away and fading.

Steve scrambled back to his feet, remembering. The memory wasn't his, but was potent nonetheless: the deadly spiral shape beneath the towers in the Outlands, the guardian of the labyrinth that had nearly caught Jon, Smitty and Ross. They'd never found out what it was capable of…

Another mini-twister sang out of the desert behind him, and when he looked he wasn't sure what color it was, since orange and blue were the best he could do. He couldn't run; one of them might sprout up beneath him, and he wasn't sure what the effect would be. So he stood and watched, unwillingly lulled by the beauty of it, wondering if they were sentient or just some phenomenon typical to that place.

By then the pain had dulled to nearly nothing. Time was running through his hands doubly fast by then; if it went on for too long, Neal would die either when the bond tore completely or when the Sedhians got through with them. Jon didn't realize that he'd had no choice but to reconstruct Neal only in relation to Steve and the bond they now had. Without it, there was no way Neal would be able to survive, not on his own, not with the kind of energy that had been sent through his form. If walking, without Steve, had been that hard on his physical form before, then there was no way he could go on after what he'd been through since. And the dream – no, the glimpse of the future he'd had – had shown him what would happen to the guitarist if their bond didn't stay solid.

What was kinder? To keep him asleep now, let him fade off without ever knowing? Or to let the Sedhians torture him to death? Both options forced Steve to go on, and on, once Neal was gone. But it wasn't like he didn't expect it to happen anyway. He'd seen it already. There was nothing to stop him from tracking Neal and Jon down in a later time and place and killing them.

What'd we start, what are we now, that ruining it would kill us?

He was weeping again, and didn't realize it. There was no point to going on. Sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I –

Stephen.

Startled, Steve opened his eyes again as another night-twister sprang to life nearby. Neal was awake again.

It's all bullshit. Go on.

Steve didn't bother thinking that he couldn't; solid words or even concepts weren't necessary. There was no point to any of it, and his entire internal attitude screamed it. They were a little fainter to each other, the signal wavering a little. Still, they were together, for now.

Then he was being held, like when the daywraiths had cornered him and he'd been frozen in terror. Everyone had been by the fire, but someone had held him, shaken him out of his fear.

It was you. How –

Everything's how and why, with you, Neal thought. Keep going. If I want you to put me to sleep, I'll tell you. That's mine, and you don't decide it.

Somewhere further down the desert valley, toward the tree line, another spiral danced, and was joined by a second. It was just enough light to show him part of the way. The false blue sun was beginning to rise opposite the Turning Wall, more than enough light to see by.

Without arguing any further, Steve began walking again, almost eerily calm. They'd find a way. He'd get the bird back, and they'd find a way. The bird…

He felt it happening, a half-start, a gathering. Then it faded. He paused, wondering if it had only been a memory of what it had been like to change form.

No, try it again, Neal thought. Somethin's there, this time.

Steve hesitated another moment, afraid of failing even further. Then he put a mental shoulder against the barrier that hadn't allowed him to change, putting more force into it than he probably needed to, and something gave.

It was worse than it had been when he'd thrown himself from the building to get away from Neal days earlier; much worse. It would never again be the effortless trick he'd flaunted since its discovery. He'd pay for it every time now, but it worked, so the rest made no difference to him.

The bird dropped back to earth almost immediately with a vain fluttering, changing to human again midair and slamming into the glass faceup. Not able to hold it, then. But he'd fix that, when he got his breath back.

Neal kept his back to the wall, gasping vicariously for Steve, cursing in a steady stream at the pain. Jesus, Perry!

Yeah, Steve thought, rolling over and trying to sit up. Wouldn't it be great, if I could only get partially changed? Wouldn't Ross love that!

There was an absurd mental image of a half-bird half-human hybrid, but Neal couldn't find it amusing. You didn't know, if it would still work, when you threw yourself off the building. You just didn't know. You wanted away from us that bad.

Steve sighed, trying to get his breath back. He was careful to focus on that, on the feel of the glass beneath his hands, on listening for the hum of another twister. His blatant refusal to answer, his attempt at diversion, was noted. This is gonna hurt, he thought. But I'm gonna do it until it works, because the alternative hurts a lot worse.

Neal didn't answer in any solid way, just agreed without expressing it. You fuckin' scare me, he thought.

It's mutual, Steve thought. How's reckless feel, from the other side? You don't remember half the shit you've done, that scared the rest of us.

We're a really bad match, Neal thought. The worst.

Steve sat up and took a few deep breaths. The ache abated to where he didn't really care about it anymore, so he stood and brushed himself off. Brace yourself, he thought.

Turn your head and cough, Neal thought.

Steve laughed aloud. "You asshole," he said. Then he tried again, and this time the form held until he reached the treeline – in an eighth of the time it would have taken on foot. Neal was silent through it, both because of the pain and because he'd never seen anything from a birds-eye view before, never actually flown without being encased in metal. It was a shock, but he kept quiet because distracting Steve at that point wasn't smart. If he held still, it would free up enough energy and attention to keep the bird in the air.

Steve paused at the treeline to change forms again, needing the rest and knowing he'd be able to do it again. Human to bird was difficult, but the reverse was damn awful, and he didn't expect it would ever be different. Neal reacted to it as badly as he did, suffering half the pain, and Steve apologized without words.

Oh bullshit, Neal thought. It's the price for keeping my hands. I can take it.

"If I can do this," Steve said aloud, "then there's no reason that you can't do your thing, eventually. It means maybe we'll get everything back. We should be more of everything, not less of ourselves."

He froze, as soon as the words were out.

Sometimes you actually talk sense, Neal thought. Maybe we're not less of ourselves. Maybe we're fucking everything up by thinkin' we are. We've been tryin' too hard, on our own, to do our own thing. There IS no more of 'our own thing', just 'our thing'.

"What if the only reason I got the bird back is because we're comin' back apart?" Steve said. "What if…what if I caused the separation to start because I was trying so hard with the bird?"

Do you really think anything you do could cause that? Neal thought. After what the Ender had to do? No. Give that up.

Steve rubbed his arms, trying to get the circulation going. He was tired, deadly tired, and wanted to sleep badly. That wouldn't happen anytime soon. Probably never again.

We'll find a way around that, too, Neal thought. But not with the distance.

Steve shrugged, trying to pretend it didn't matter. But God, they had a lot to cover, when this was over. There was no time to even think about it yet, but it hovered there above them, waiting. One big mess after another. He shrugged again, trying to work the knots out of his shoulders, swinging his arms, and keeping an eye on the blue-tinted trees around him. The daywraiths would be hunting at night again, if they were too hungry, and he didn't want a repeat of the last time he'd seen the treeline.

By morning, he was on the other side of the trees and had taken to the air to circle the Outlands several times, waiting for full light. They knew exactly what Steve should do, especially after seeing how the Sedhians had been handling the Wisps in the band's absence. So when he came down out of the trees at first light and headed for the towers of the Outlands on foot from nearly a half mile off, Steve thought he was prepared for almost anything.

He was wrong. As usual.

***

There was a lot of the silver-leafed kind of underbrush, the kind that daywraiths liked to hide in, and Steve was careful to skirt a lot of it and stay alert. The trees were close together in spots, so he was grateful when he found the path.

It was nothing more than a lot of stamped dirt, but it was better than crackling through the underbrush. And a trail meant he was still headed in the right direction – and that someone felt safe enough to travel through there often. While not completely reassuring, it was at least a little heartening to think folks walked around through there without constantly worrying about being eaten.

Don't forget about Spiran's little complaint about what keeps them outta here, Neal thought.

I'm thinking it's Aradia, Steve thought. The chick who was keeping Tuirnarin out. But how she'd do it, I don't know. If they don't want me in here, I won't get in. They'll be shooting first and asking questions later, if they're afraid of getting eaten.

Something snapped off to his left in the underbrush, something that sounded like a foot being carefully placed.

Steve paused, the hair on his neck and forearms standing up. The sound didn't repeat, and nothing was visible but a hell of a lot of brush. He let paranoia get the best of him for a moment, feeling Neal hold his breath right along with him. Not-squirrels. Just a not-squirrel, looking for not-nuts or whatever the hell they did here.

Steve heard the noise again and paused long enough to turn his head parallel to the breeze. Without it rushing past his ears, he could hear fainter sounds. There'd been a rustling in the underbrush this time that couldn't have been the breeze.

What? Neal thought.

Steve shrugged as he looked around, looking for whatever didn't blend. Then he realized how dumb that was; if something didn't want to be seen, it would blend in, especially there. He didn't want to encounter anyone or anything until he really had to.

That easily, it had him.

He'd been looking straight at it without realizing it, a deathly white thing that crouched among the silver leaves only yards to his left. It stepped out onto the path to face him, barely disturbing anything as it moved.

A daywraith.

Black, pupilless eyes stared at him, assessing him.

Steve's shock rooted him to the spot for an instant, panicking him into freezing. For a moment, Neal panicked too, waiting for a slash of claws to either sever their connection or kill them both. There was no way the singer was going to outrun the thing. Then Neal thought the trees and the bird!

Steve ran blindly, his direction chosen at random. He ran full out between the trees to his right, jumping whatever he couldn't avoid, making a noisy mess of it. The daywraith paced him from close behind, keeping a step behind but making no move to pull him down. Trying to tire me out, Steve thought wildly, so it didn't have to work at it. The idea increased his terror, and he didn't even attempt to change his form, or attack it. He didn't have the presence of mind. There was only panic, and memories of the whole band being attacked numerous times.

In two swift, compact leaps, the creature overtook him and cut him off, sending up a shower of detritus from the forest floor. Steve yelled in fear and tried to change directions, stumbling over himself. The daywraith moved with him, but didn't make a hostile move for him otherwise. Sobbing for breath, Steve ran for the nearest tree, launching himself into the lowest branches and pulling himself up, knowing he wouldn't be fast enough and it could still pull him down.

The daywraith paused directly below him, gazing up but making no move to grab for him.

Steve continued climbing until he was reasonably certain it couldn't reach him. He held onto the nearest branches in desperation, shaking, gasping for breath, listening to Neal do the same miles away. When he could look down, he found the thing staring up at him.

It sat down while he watched, acting as if it was waiting for him to do something. Then, almost deliberately, it stretched, raking its front claws down the trunk and peeling away long strips of bark.

Steve looked out across what he could see of the woods. Nothing but trees, and silence, for miles. He wasn't high enough to see how far he was from the towers of the Outlands. He had visions of sitting in that tree for days, drawing other predators...running out of time. He went on shaking.

What the fuck is wrong with you?

Neal had recovered enough to be angry.

You'll kill one to keep it from eating Jon and me, but not to save yourself?

Steve rested his forehead against a branch, keeping the daywraith in his peripheral vision but unable to look directly at it. He was that afraid of it. The concept of coward was alluded to in his thoughts along with a wordless shame.

Failure.

Had Neal been able to get his hands on Steve, it would have been worse, but what the singer got was bad enough. It was the mental equivalent of shaking him.

After everything else we've been through, a daywraith is NOTHING! Kill it, and go on!

It was enough to make Steve cover his ears in a vain attempt to protect himself from the onslaught. It was also enough to center him again. Bastard, he thought, when he could do it above the ringing between his ears.

That's right, Neal thought. It's fucking local wildlife, and that's it. It's the least of your worries! Now get your ass back out of that tree and get to business! Try the bird trick and just fly away!

"Jiminy Cricket, you ain't," Steve said aloud. But he'd stopped shaking.

Or your fairy godmother, either, Neal thought. It's not just you, anymore. Next time something walks up on you, you act like it's me or Jon that's gettin' attacked. You understand?

"Fairy something, huh?" Steve said.

"Najh!"

Steve startled and looked down, toward the voice. The daywraith's head whipped toward the sound, and the voice called again. Someone was coming down the path.

"Stay away!" Steve shouted. "There's a...shaitan!"

There was nothing in return. Then a small figure came walking between the trees without wariness, a dark-haired boy of maybe – maybe - 12.

Steve watched in shock as the boy walked directly up to the daywraith and extended a hand to rest on its side. He murmured to the creature, which dipped its nose to the ground before raising it to stare at Steve again.

The boy followed the creature's gaze, and his eyes widened.

"Najh," the boy said slowly, "you treed another somebody."

Steve stared between the two, feeling one leg begin to go numb from the position he was sitting in. Neal was laughing. It was near-hysterical, but he was laughing.

The boy raised a hand. "By the Turning," he said, "you're a sight. You up there long?"

"Long enough," Steve said. "Is that...yours?"

The boy laughed. "Najh? Najh doesn't belong to anyone. He just is. He won't hurt you."

"Really," Steve said acidly.

"Really. Lots of wild 'changers about, but this one's tame. Normally he won't touch a stranger, 'cept the Stone People. You must have set him off."

Steve kept his eye on the 'changer.

"Come on," the boy said. "What're you afraid of? Me?"

"How about if both of you wander off, and then I'll be on my way?" Steve said.

"Ah," the boy said. "Hear that, Najh? He thinks we're dangerous. Thinks I'm a 'changer, too." The boy laughed. "'Changers don't talk. Where're you from, that you don't know it?" Then his expression turned to one of suspicion. "You don't look like the other Stone People."

"I'm not," Steve said. "If I was, I'd've put a spear through you already. And your friend."

"Where'er your people, then?" the boy said. "What're you doing out here by yourself?"

My people, Steve thought. My people are all waiting to get eaten, when I fuck up.

"I used to have friends, here," Neal said, and he used Steve's vocal cords to do it.

"Used to," the boy said. "Hmm."

Goddamnit, Neal, you got used to that a little too easy. "The Wisps," Steve said. "You know where they went?"

The boy eyed him for a moment. Then he said, "You haven't seen your friends in a very long time, if you're still calling them Wisps. You gonna make me talk to the tree all day?"

Steve thought about it, staring down on the pair. A boy and his dog. A boy and his five foot high, silver-white land shark.

The land shark sat back on its haunches and held its forepaws out, palms up, as if begging Steve to jump so it could try and catch him. It would have been comical if not for the teeth and claws.

After a long moment, with a reluctant sigh, Steve came down a step at a time. The last few feet, he held his breath and jumped, trying to turn quickly so he could face the pair. He never got the chance; one leg was half asleep from the position he'd been in, and he fell into the leaves.

Najh was on him immediately.

The creature grasped him with both front feet, rolling him over in the leaves like a raccoon washing something in a stream. Steve made a keening, high-pitched sound of fear and tried to tuck himself into a ball, waiting for teeth and claws to tear. There was a moment where anything could have happened, where Steve could have lashed out, or opened his thoughts, and neither happened.

The boy was already there, shoving at the daywraith's shoulder, shouting at it to let Steve up. The daywraith snuffled Steve's back before backing away and sitting down again.

The boy thumped the daywraith on one massive shoulder with a fist and said, "What was that all about!"

The boy's voice brought Steve back to lucidity, and to the realization that he was still alive. Neal was quiet, shocked to silence. Steve raised his head out of the leaves, untucking himself from the protective ball he'd rolled himself into. Panting for air, dizzy from how hard his heart was pounding, he sat partially up but kept his face turned to the leaves, too stunned to do more.

"Okay, then," the boy said. "You all right? He was just lookin' at you."

Steve didn't respond, still trying to catch his breath. He nodded a little and wiped his face on the sleeve of his tunic, sitting back against the base of the tree he'd essentially fallen out of.

"He's done," the boy said.

"Jesus, I hope so," Steve said, and it came out much more shallow and breathless than he'd intended. After another moment, he rose to brush himself off. Najh, now several feet away, dug at the ground, eyes bright and staring, and Steve froze.

"Won't hurt you," the boy said. "It'll be getting dark soon. We should start heading back."

"Back...?" Steve said.

"Home," the boy said, using the same tone of voice any kid his age would have. Duh! "The Outlands. Where the 'Wisps' live. You can come along with us, if you like."

Steve said, "Aren't you worried I might be one of the Stone People, trying to get you to take me in?"

"No," the boy said simply, turning to head back to the path. "Najh will eat you if you do anything he doesn't like." He walked away, and the daywraith trailed behind.

Steve stayed where he was. Neal had the grace to keep quiet.

"He seems to like you, though," the boy said.

Steve still didn't move. His thoughts were a circular acknowledgment that he was yards from a daywraith, a daywraith, a daywraith, and he was caught between an instinctive need to run and a desperate need to get where he was going.

"Like I said," the boy said without looking back, "it'll get dark, and Najh'll keep the night things off. But I guess if you wanna take the chance..."

Steve reached the path, keeping the boy between himself and the daywraith. "How'd you end up pals with this thing?" he said, gesturing at Najh carefully, trying not to get his attention.

The boy glared at him. "Najh isn't a 'thing'," he said.

"Okay, sorry," Steve said. "I'm not used to 'changers, as you can tell."

Softening a little, the boy said, "He was left by himself a whole ring of Turnings ago. 'Changers started having little 'changers just before that, and this one was one of three. Wasn't room for him, I guess, because they left him, and the other 'changers were set to eat him. So I took him home."

Oh, there's a hell of a lot more to that story! Neal thought. Steve waved him away and thought, Later. "What's...why do you call him 'Najh'?" Steve said.

"It means, 'the dream before dying'," the boy said.

Steve was quiet for a long moment, thinking on the appropriateness of it. Neal had nothing to add.

"What're you called?" the boy said.

Lots of things, Neal thought. Give him a few to choose from, Perry.

"Steve," the singer said, mentally waving a hand at Neal again, too distracted to realize what he'd done.

The boy paused and stepped back. "I only wanted what you're called," he said, horrified. "I didn't ask for your name. I'm not rude, you know!"

Steve frowned. I guess what's-her-face left a long impression, he thought. On more than just us. "It's okay," he said. "It's what I'm 'called'. You weren't being rude. It was my choice."

The boy frowned back. "Now I might as well give you mine," he said. "You went and made us bond-friends. Can't say we're strangers, after all that, I guess." He tapped Najh on the shoulder, and the daywraith moved further out of the way. He held a hand up as if asking Steve to high-five him.

Steve looked at him uncertainly for a moment, then held his left hand up, keeping a slight distance.

The boy reached forward and put their palms together so that they were clasping hands at face height. "Boy," he said, "you're really not from around here. Seem familiar, though. I'm Rall. Welcome to Athyri. It's not the original, but it's ours."

Perry, Neal thought, look at him again. Were you expecting, what, an infant? A toddler?

Spiran said 'small', Steve thought.

Spiran's idea of small, Neal thought. A kid's a kid. I think our answer found you.

Steve wanted to scoff at the idea. But, he had been thinking infant when Spiran said small. He hadn't been paying attention to the fact that the Sedhian had also been holding a hand level with the floor, high enough to be a boy the age of the one he was looking at now. Ain't that easy, Steve thought. But if it is him, I ain't grabbin' him here. The land shark might take it personal.

Then you go the right way, Neal thought. You talk it over with his folks, you come up with somethin'. They might damn well solve the whole thing for us, maybe they've been planning somethin' and we can help.

"All this is Athyri?" Steve said aloud.

"It is now," Rall said, scuffing his feet on the path and kicking up dust. "Right up to where the trees end and the desert begins, it's all Athyri. The desert all belongs to the Stone People, and they're welcome to it."

"They give you trouble?" Steve said, trying not to think much about the Wisp from the day before.

"Nobody goes out alone," Rall said. "But we do fine, once inside the boundary. We're in it now. Didn't you feel us cross it?"

"No," Steve said. "And what're you doing out alone, then?"

Rall gave him a look that said stupid adult! and pointed at Najh.

"Right," Steve said. He could see the towers of the Outlands by then, stretching above the trees. The place had become overgrown in comparison with the last time he'd seen it, so when the trees opened into a courtyard area, it seemed sudden. They paused at the edge to watch several Wisps walking between several large, stone-lined holes in the ground that seemed to have stairs leading downward, and an open hole in the wall of one of the towers. Some were in their drifting light-forms.

"Are you the youngest, here?" Steve said softly.

"I'm the newest," Rall said.

Jesus, Neal thought. I was right. He found you.

One by one, the Wisps began to notice them, to pause to stare at Steve in particular. Those that weren't in bipedal form changed quickly. Some vanished altogether. There was silence.

"We're the Rai'an, now," Rall said softly. "The Raven People."

Before Steve could do more than react internally to that bit of info, one of the Wisps – a tall male – came closer, his eyes on Rall only. "Come away," he said.

Rall obeyed without thinking twice, and Najh padded after him automatically. Steve remained where he was, uncertain about the looks he was getting.

As soon as Rall was out of the way, a myriad of weapons became visible, mostly bows.

The Wisp who had spoken to Rall spoke again, gesturing at Steve but speaking to the others.

"Kill it."

* * *