The Fall of Darkness

Disclaimer: SAPPHIRE AND STEEL is the copyright of P J Hammond, and anyone who has ever played Zork might suffer a vague sense of déjà vu. No infringement intended.

Rating: Perfectly harmless.

Feedback Yes, please! :) You can reach me at the address given on my main page.

 


 

The Fall of Darkness

 

by Eliann SleepingCat

 

CRASH! The omiphaunt froze for a moment, absolutely stricken. Then it slowly withdrew its giant hoof, mewling softly in fear. It had accidentally trodden through a lot of things in its day, but never anything like this. One moment, there had been nothing but the air and trees around it, the next, there was this invisible, apparently fragile membrane with a great rift in it. And yet this membrane did not look like anything at all, and it had no different smell from the air in this place. Through the rift the omiphaunt could see things moving. Things it did not understand. Moving fast. Occasionally, one of them would hoot like a sea bird, most of the time they just growled. It was a grey world in there, except for the moving things. Many of them were very bright. The omiphaunt had a good sense of colour. The large being turned away, not wanting to see the damage it had caused. It could sense a wind coming from the hole, ruffling its dark fur. It moved a couple of steps, then glanced back cautiously, over its shoulder. The moving things were gone. In their place was a shimmering, undulating piece of fabric that made no more sense than the moving things. The omiphaunt moaned in fear and confusion.

 

*  *  *  *

The man knew that something had changed. He hoped it was for the better. On the other hand, no change could really be for the worse. He had been trapped for years now - at least he thought that years must have passed, although he really had no sense of time any more. And he had been such an organised person...

"Where are we?" he asked of the complete darkness surrounding him. As usual, there was a sort of rustling answer, almost twittering, or perhaps like the whispering of people - many, many people. At least he thought it was an answer - one that he could not understand. He had not expected anything else. He had spoken mainly to hear himself, so he could believe that he was still there. He wondered if he had gone blind in here over the years. No way to tell. Trapped, he was. Trapped in total darkness - and a kind of sentient Darkness at that. It dragged him along with it wherever it went, and he never knew one location from the next. Sometimes he would sleep in the Darkness, sometimes he would bump into a table or something, and there would be some food on it.

"Tully is my name," he said aloud. "George Tully. That's my name. I eat, I sleep, I know my name. I do exist. I do still exist." There was no comment from the Darkness, it seemed to be able to tell his lonely ramblings from his direct questions. He had long suspected that it understood his speech. As so many times before, his thoughts hit upon the reason for his predicament.

Betrayed!

Insidiously betrayed and tricked by those he had come to trust and whom he had tried to help to the best of his ability! Well, perhaps not by the woman... he still could not believe she had been in on it. But the man! Oh, if he could ever meet him again, just once, if he could only... His hands were clenched now, forming tight fists, and his whole body shook with barely suppressed rage. The Darkness closed in around him like a blanket - almost comforting, he thought. Somehow it made him think of his cat... oh, if only he had not told the man that someone would take care of his cat. It had seemed to mean something, to make a difference somehow. The fact that nobody was really dependent on him. His neighbour would take good care of Nelson, there was no question of that, but he missed him! Oh, how he missed that cat... His anger had petered out, given way to grief - again. He could even feel tears on his face. He must still have a face, then... The Darkness withdrew from him again, in disgust. Or frustration? He knew he was antropomorphising. He could not interpret its feelings. If indeed it had feelings.

The Darkness had stopped, was no longer dragging him. Incongruously, he could feel a draft. He had not felt anything like that, since he was trapped. "Where are we?" he asked again, this time actually hoping that he would somehow understand the answer. But all he got was the same twittering... rustling... whispering...

 

*  *  *  *

Pitch black. Silver caught himself at the last moment, holding on to the edge of whatever structure he had come close to tripping over in the dark. He felt around the edge, then the surface. A low table. There was something in the middle of it... A slow, confident smile spread unseen over his features. A lamp. He could do anything with a lamp...

A moment later, he was standing up, holding an old kerosene lantern. It shone now with a bright, steady glare, despite the fact that it was entirely empty, and its wick was long dried up. Silver beamed back at it. "I am good...," he said, to no one in particular, since no one was around to hear him. He looked around him, and his dark red eyebrows slowly rose. Desks of imitation mahogany with small, neat computers on them, dark blue marble like a frozen ocean under his feet, all the way to the steel bar gate at the far end... could it be...? He gave the screw a tweak, and the old lantern obediently increased its brilliance to something more akin to UV rays than normal ceiling lights. Yes! There, on the other side of those bars... the entrance to a vault. "A bank!" he exclaimed delightedly. "Who would have thought it..."

With merry curiosity, he approached the bars and looked in. Just inside the gate was a display cabinet along one wall, and two metres further in was the heavy door to the vault itself. The lock on the barred gate was secured with a heavy chain. He touched it lightly, and it fell to the floor with a clinking sound. A touch to the lock itself, and the gate sprang open. He reached up to silence the alarm - and realised that it had not gone off. Unable to content himself with luck unexplained, he stretched to examine the wire. Ah, no contact. Corroded, must have been disused for years...

He felt the explosion-proof door to the vault, and frowned briefly. This was trickier than the gate... He held up the lantern, its mock sunlight illuminating every corner of the room. "One would have thought that in a bank, they would have a coin or two..." he muttered. Then, looking down, he found what he sought. Right at his feet too. It had to be pure coincidence, some customer or perhaps one of the clerks must have dropped it in here. Well, he was used to being lucky...

He picked up the coin - and threw it away in disgust. Nickel, zink, and a bit of copper. No silver. Inflation had got to this place before he did... He turned to the display cabinet, effortlessly fiddling its glass doors open. As he had expected, it housed a large collection of old coins. He picked one up, turning it over before his eyes, admiring it. Almost solid. A pity really... well, he could always restore it later. Setting the lantern aside, he took the coin between both hands, and gave it a rub. For a moment, the ensuing brilliance between his palms almost outshone the lamp - then it died down, and he was holding a strangely shaped instrument, a skeleton key, perfectly fitted to all possible intricacies of all three locks on the door to the vault.

Whistling, he applied the glittering tool to the locks, and in a moment, the heavy door swung open. A face stared grimly at him. Silver jumped back, before realising that he was looking at a portrait. The man in it was an authoritative type with a no-nonsense stare and a curiously shaped head, topped by a bald pate. A bank type person. An executive type person. But still a portrait. An old portrait with a new, or freshly gilt frame. Apart from this somewhat questionable objet d'art, the vault was empty.

"Having a good time?" asked a melodious voice behind him, and Silver jumped again.

"Sapphire!" he said, spinning around to face her. "I did wonder when you'd show. What's the time?"

"The future."

He took in her deep blue dress with obvious admiration. He was used to seeing her dressed up, but this was something extra. Ultramarine, thin gauze over Prussian blue taffeta, the hem cut high in front, up to the knee, and almost floor length in back. Blue satin shoes, impossibly high heels. "Straight from the ballroom?"

She smiled warmly at him, acknowledging the compliment he had not spoken. "Have you found anything?" she asked then, gently bringing him back to business.

With a shrug, he glanced back at the open vault. "Oh, I was just playing around. Just curious. The place seems fairly straight forward. I haven't found the breach, but then, that's your job."

Sapphire stood as if listening to some distant sound, though Silver knew that she was using more senses than just hearing. Gradually, her eye-colour grew in intensity until her irises seemed close to overbrimming with blue. "This place is old..." she said absently. "Very old... it hasn't been in use for many years..."

Silver nodded. "The alarm is defunct, due to a corroded wire. And yet there are fully modern computers on every desk. All working, incidentally. Well - all but one... Someone must have intended to restore the place to function. Is that how the breach came about? Mixing the old and the new?" He glanced down at his waistcoat - white, almost glittering satin. Adorned by a bright silver chain, the end of which disappeared into a well-concealed pocket. He was very proud of his watch - it was both pretty and accurate - but he was also uncomfortably aware that it constituted a blatant anachronism in his own time. He knew he had an unfortunate preference for antiques. Especially when they could be made to function again...

Sapphire nodded. "Yes." Almost dreamily, she continued, "The place had been disused for so long... When they started modernising it, there was no resistance left. The future broke through..." She stood very still for a moment, searching... "But there is something else too," she said. "Something else broke through. And it isn't here."

"The breach isn't here? Then where is it?" Silver asked in astonishment. Not that he had come across any time breaches yet, but if time had not broken through, what was he doing here? More to the point, what was Sapphire doing here?

"I didn't mean..." Sapphire began, then she fell silent, 'listening' again. "It is here," she said after a while. She frowned in exertion, trying both to sense more, and to analyze what she got, although she knew that concurrent interpretation often blocked the flow of information. "And it's not," she concluded, her eyes reverting to a humanly believable blue. "I'm not making sense, am I?"

Silver raised his hands in an apologetic shrug. He had been too polite to point it out to her, but there was no lying to a Gem.

She smiled again, her lips almost startlingly red against the blue of her outfit. "The perfect gentleman. Steel would have let me know right away."

"Speaking of Steel," Silver said, "where is he? Or did he make you cry again?"

"How did you know?" she asked, flustering him completely.

"I didn't." He tried to smile, then to shrug, but nothing would come of it. "It was a joke... I mean, everyone knows that you two never..." It was no use. He had put his foot in firmly, and he knew it.

"Don't ever assume that you know everything about us," she said, smiling at his discomfort as if she too had been joking.

Silver cleared his throat, trying to get a new grip on the situation. "Anyway, I thought he'd be with you?"

"So did I," she said, frowning slightly. "At least, he left the party when I did... how long have you been here?"

Silver brought out his watch, flipped the lid open. He tried to cut back on the flourish, but knew that he did not quite succeed. Oh well, it was a beautiful watch. And so accurate... though it certainly had not been when he first got it. "Thirty-four minutes," he said. "Local time."

Sapphire looked almost alarmed. "Twenty-three minutes ahead of me? Why were you here first?"

Silver gave her a bewildered look. "I have no idea. I was sent here to help you. You and Steel. I thought you were already here. In a different part of the building perhaps. But here."

"A different part of the building..." she said, absently. "Are there any other rooms in this place?"

"Can't you tell?"

She closed her eyes, searching. Again, that small frown. "There are... no, that's wrong... there may be..." Her eyes flew open. "I'm getting something, but I can't interpret it."

"But you think there might be at least one other room?"

She did not really like it when her more pragmatic colleagues tried to reduce her impressions to fit into their own sphere. "It isn't like that at all..." she began, then acknowledged the futility of making a technician see what she saw. "But yes," she finished abruptly. It would have to do. They could always sort out the greyzone between their perceptions later.

"Good. Let's go look for it."

She smiled indulgently. "Precisely what I was about to suggest..."

 

*  *  *  *

<Sapphire!> No answer, either telepathic or voiced. Steel sighed. He would have to stop calling out to her as soon as he did not know where he was - she might resent it and decline to answer just to tease him. At the same time, he could not help worrying. Ever. He was too afraid of losing her. She could take care of herself, yes, but in their particular line of work, so much could go wrong - and often had.

The darkness was unbroken, and had been since he left the house where they had just successfully completed their latest mission. Sapphire had left only seconds before he did; if they had gone to the same place, she should have been here by now. And they were usually sent to the same place. Often - as now - without spoken instructions, just sent. Assigned. The others would be told that he and Sapphire had gone to deal with the matter, while the two assignees themselves would not even know what the matter was. But that was how things were. Some would not put up with it. Bronze for instance... Steel wondered how long he himself would. Had it not been for Sapphire... but he could not risk her safety. Rebellion was out.

He felt a draft ruffle his hair, and that was his only clue that he had arrived. Where, he knew not, but the limbo he had been kept in lately had been windless. He started feeling about for a time field, but all he encountered was a highly prosaic wall, and an oddly shimmering curtain, whose faint radiance was his only source of light, though it did not illuminate anything beyond itself.

As he turned his head, the light seemed to increase, as if its source could only be seen from the corner of the eye. He probed the air in front of the curtain more carefully. Suddenly the wind increased, then the light, and he saw the Rift for what it really was. It was not surprising he had not seen it earlier, it was a strange one, too complicated for his eyes to make sense of without special effort.

At first, the light spilling in through the breach was blinding, and he could make out no details. Then a shadow obscured some of the brilliance, and a voice addressed him, "Steel? Americium. We've got a beauty here, and I've no idea what to do with it. But I'll help you from this end, if you do what it takes from yours."

Steel squinted against the light but was unable to make out more than a vaguely humanoid shape, no doubt temporarily assumed for social reasons more than anything. There was no way the being on the other side could hold such a form for any length of time. "Americium? You're out of your territory. You're not allowed here."

The shape shifted as if annoyed, or at least impatient. "Don't start that again. I'll have you know, there are circumstances..." The voice broke off. "Anyway, it's all right. True, there are life-forms here; one of them caused this rift - or part of it at any rate - but they are compatible, you might say. My presence can't harm them. And I won't pass through the breach. I'll stay on this side, and you stay on yours. I admit it's bending the rules, but the situation is desperate. You see... this isn't a normal breach. Not just your run-of-the-mill temporal breakthrough..."

Steel looked around, trying to see more than the glare spilling in from the obvious rift. Part of it at any rate... There had to be more to this. Something else, something he did not see... He stretched out his hand to feel instead. Chances were that his fingers and palms would see more than his eyes did.

His hand was brought up short - against a face. Shocked at the sudden encounter, he did not resist the disgusted blow that hit his wrist almost immediately. He allowed his hand to be knocked aside, wishing Sapphire were there to let him know what was going on. "Who are you?" he tried.

"You don't know me?" said a voice that had perhaps once been pleasant but was now too full of venom to do anything but grate. "How odd then, that I know you so well. One might say that your face has not left my nightmares for years..."

"Mr Tully?" Steel asked incredulously.

"The same."

In a way it made sense. Steel cursed the decision he had once made, and yet he knew that given another chance, he would have made the same one. He had been desperate, the force of the Darkness had been too great, it had to be tricked somehow. And he could not let it hurt Sapphire again... At least, that was what he had told himself at the time. And yet, deep down he knew that perhaps he had had another, darker reason as well.

All the same, he understood Tully's resentment, and if the man had had but one dependent, Steel knew he would have had to look for another solution. But a neighbour would take care of the cat, and so Tully was really free for the using...

"Look," Steel said, "I know you are angry - after all, that was the whole idea - but..."

"You know I'm angry?" the middle-aged man said. "But do you know how angry? Angry enough to have brought the Darkness with me, that's how angry!"

Steel cursed under his breath. He should have seen that coming. Should have sensed the Darkness as part of the general murk, as it were. He could feel it now without any problem, now that it had been pointed out to him. Now that it was too late...

 

*  *  *  *

"I don't understand it," Silver said. "We must have tried every possible direction several times by now, and yet we always end up back here, in the same room."

Sapphire's heels echoed slightly on marble tiles, as she walked over to a wall and pressed her hand against it, searching. "It's a maze of sorts. So far, we've only explored the dead ends."

"Well, can't you find a passage that works?"

She quirked her red lips in amusement. "They all work perfectly. We've been returned here every time. We're not lost."

Silver smiled back. "Two sides to everything?"

"To doors, certainly. All we have to do is find the other side. Can't you drop something?"

Silver stared at her for a moment before catching on. "Drop? Oh! You mean, to mark our path? I don't see why - there appears to be only this one room, and the doors leading back to it."

Sapphire left the wall and walked slowly back to stand close to him. Very close. "Please, Silver, just do it," she said.

Silver knew better than to doubt her. Almost fastidiously, he brought out the skeleton key he had made from the old coin, and let it fall to the floor. It bounced once, slid a short distance over the polished, curiously dust-free tiles, and came to rest, glittering in the artificial sunlight from the lantern. Sapphire's blue satin shoe, the deeper blue of the floor with its frozen crests, the fragile little object of brilliant metal... They stood for a moment, as if mesmerised. They both liked glittering things.

Silver was the first to break their semi-trance. Offering his arm to Sapphire, he took a step towards the nearest doorway. "Shall we?" he beamed at her.

 

*  *  *  *

The Darkness had not moved closer. It was as if it were barred by the white glare from the open rift, cut off by it. Between the light and the Darkness, Tully was now visible, looking just as he had when Steel last saw him. His apparel looked neither bedraggled nor frayed; perhaps the Darkness had some preserving quality. The man was undoubtedly still alive, as according to Steel's swift calulation he ought to be.

"As you can see, we have a spliced breach here," said the shadow of Americium from the open rift. "A three-way aperture. There's the regular time breakthrough on your side, from wherever that man and the force behind him turned up. And then there's this..." his movements were far from clear, but he seemed to be pointing at the rift in front of him.

"An opening between parallel worlds," Steel said impatiently. "Yes, I can see that. And you have no idea at all how to close it?"

The shadow moved again, perhaps shaking an imitation head. "Not yet. But I think it must be done from your side, seeing as how the actual time breach is there. Can't you think of something?"

"I doubt I can do anything by myself," Steel said.

"And I certainly won't help you!" Tully butted in, maliciously.

"Sapphire ought to be here," Steel continued, overriding Tully's outburst as if it never had been. "I must find her."

"You do that," Americium said. "And I'll try to find the one who made this hole. At least it will help me understand what happened here..."

The shadowy figure disappeard, and the resulting increase in brilliance forced both Tully and the Darkness back a little. Steel spun around and entered a doorway on his right.

 

*  *  *  *

He saw them right away. They were standing close together - too close - in the middle of a brightly lit room, a glittering object at their feet. Silver. Always Silver. How long had they been here this time - alone together? The thought was acid to his heart.

They turned and smiled at him; Sapphire teasing - how well he knew that smile! - while taking the uncalled-for opportunity to straighten Silver's collar. Silver in turn just beamed his usual, innocent smirk. "Ah, Steel!" he said in greeting. "So glad you could come. We were wondering what had become of you. Nice outfit, by the way. Good to see that you've finally begun to pay attention to how you dress."

"I picked that suit for him," Sapphire said, absently leaning on Silver's shoulder.

Silver beamed at her. "I might have known. Midnight blue coat... mm... nice cut too. Nothing he would have come up with on his own, would you say? As for that frilled shirt..."

Steel ignored him. Marching up to them and almost tearing Sapphire from Silver's side, he sent her a directed thought, screening Silver out. <I once told you that you had the power to destroy me. Is that what you plan to do?>

His eyes were dark with agony, yet he did not wait for an answer. Time, as usual, was against him. Answers would have to wait.

Aloud, he told them, "While you two have been idling around here, I have found the breach. It's a complicated one. I shall need you both, so you might as well quit fooling around and help me think of a solution!"

Sapphire was looking decidedly amused, although she had to make a quick recovery so as not to trip over her own heels as she was pulled towards one of the doors, her wrist in Steel's firm grip. "Do you mind giving me some details," she asked calmly, "or should I look for myself?"

He paused, but without letting her go. "Sapphire, the Darkness is back. I don't think it caused the breakthrough, but it appears to be riding the redirected flow like a river. It's got Tully with it still." He snorted in disgust. "He thinks he brought it."

Sapphire's eyes went wide. "You faced them alone?"

"Not quite alone. Americium is there too - he's trying to help, for what it's worth..."

"Americium?" Silver perked up. "He can't be here, it's a violation. He's Transuranic."

"Thanks for telling me," Steel clipped back, finally letting go of Sapphire's wrist. "He isn't here - exactly. It's a spliced break. Something broke through from a parallel plane - spatial, as near as I can tell - and he's on the other side of that breach. The time break is on our side. Mainly."

"Be careful, Steel," Sapphire said, looking worried. "Stay clear of the Darkness. Perhaps of Tully too..."

"Who's Tully?" Silver wanted to know.

"A human," Steel said curtly.

Sapphire smiled a little, but somehow she could not hold it this time. The memory gnawed at her. The memory of a promise. Her promise, the one that Steel had forced her to break. "An innocent bystander, caught between forces," she explained sadly. "And Steel betrayed him..."

Silver looked from one to the other, intrigued by this small sign of disagreement between them. Reluctantly, Sapphire told him the whole story.

"So in the end, Steel tricked them both," she concluded. "The force we know as the Darkness, as well as the human." She looked at Steel. "The Darkness must be hungry now. It can only feed on the anger of the dead. And Tully still has some time left."

"I told it so, when I bargained with it," Steel said dismissively. "Waiting won't kill it - unfortunately - and when Tully does die, his anger should be enough to sustain it a long time. He's had a couple of years to stoke his fury."

"And when his anger runs out, there's that of the Authority?" Sapphire asked quietly. "And possibly others..."

"The Authority?" Silver asked. "How did he get into it?"

"He hasn't yet, as far as we can tell," Sapphire said, "but when he finds out... Steel broke the rules. He bargained with that force, bribed it to leave time alone, although that did not exactly solve the problem. And he paid with a human life."

"A somewhat unorthodox solution, I admit," Silver said. "And certainly frowned upon." He looked quizzically at Steel. "But surely you would be let off with a warning?"

<Tell him, Steel> Sapphire sent as a directed thought. <I think he should know.>

Steel glared at her. "I used the timeshift to my own ends," he said. "It occurred to me that we wouldn't stand a chance with the Darkness if it decided to trick us, so I tricked it first, though I had to steal a displaced day to do so. As if that wasn't enough, letting it have Tully afore his time caused a temporal - kink." He shrugged exasperatedly, throwing his hands up in frustration. "Oh well, the Authority has been too full of himself for far too long!"

Silver whistled softly. "And after all that, you didn't really solve the problem?"

"I got rid of the time breach."

"And now you've got another?"

This time, Steel did not answer.

"As well as an immensely powerful force and an angry human, both bent on revenge..." Silver mused on. "Well, thanks for telling me. It's nice to know what one is up against."

"Sapphire wanted you to know," Steel grumbled.

"It seemed only fair," Sapphire said. "You should know that you could get tainted by association with us, Silver. If you want to leave now, we won't hold it against you."

Silver looked straight into her blue eyes. "What about you, Sapphire?"

She smiled ruefully. "I didn't stop him. In fact - I was the one who displaced the day he needed."

Silver nodded, quite serious for once. "I shan't leave you."

Steel glared at him, his eyes as hard as his name.

Silver smiled innocently in return. Then, his usual, flippant self again, he looked around him as brightly as ever. "Well, that's settled then. Now, let's seek out your breach. Sapphire and I have certainly spent long enough in this room...," he could not refrain from adding.

Steel's directed thought was like a sword in Sapphire's mind. <You were the one to start our special relationship. Was that only - curiosity? Still experimenting, are you?>

She did not know how to answer him, when he was like that. Most of his moods she could handle, but not this. He seemed forever to be wanting something from her, something she did not know if she could give. Playing at human romance did not seem to be it, did not seem to be enough. Silver always responded well to her playful flirting - Steel did not. It bothered and confused her, because usually, she was the one in the know. On all kinds of subjects, with all kinds of beings. Only with this one base Elemental, her less than sophisticated companion, was she sometimes out of her depth. Perhaps that was why she found him intriguing.

In the end, she spoke up aloud. "Actually, we couldn't get out of here," she informed him. "Each door leads back to this room. How did you get in?"

He stared at her, but although still angry, he accepted her evasion. "By the door from the other room, of course. This one." He grabbed her hand again, and pulled her through after him. Silver followed.

On the other side was the same room, with the same desks, the same computers, the same open vault, and the same marble floor with a small, glittering object on it.

"See?" Silver said, wisely refraining from adding anything else.

Steel glared at him. "All right. So this particular room is caught in a loop, somehow. That's an anomaly in space. You're the Specialist. Any ideas?"

Silver looked at him with an almost comical expression of surprise. "You think that's why I was sent in first?"

Steel shrugged. "How should I know? Were you?"

"Yes," Sapphire said behind him. "Silver was already here when I arrived." She could have added playing around with the vault but didn't. Silver sent her a grateful glance. He knew he had been wasting his time at first, and he felt a little sheepish about it now.

"Well," he answered Steel, "I'm no expert on space. In fact, I was just trying to determine the nature of this anomaly, when you barged in. I should think there's room for some experimentation, though. We could always try to go back to where we came from - without entering the room we see before us."

"It's a good idea, Steel," Sapphire said. "If nothing else, we should find out the span of the anomaly."

"Very well," Steel said. "Do we turn around, or should we simply go backwards?"

"Backwards, I think," she said after a brief deliberation. "If the room is moving about, we had better keep our eyes on it while going in the other direction."

"If it's moving about," Silver said. "It could be that it's in two places at once."

Sapphire shook her head. "I don't think so. I can't sense a split - not quite. It's - something else..."

There she goes again, Silver thought, but he did not say it, and he took care to shield his mind. "All right," he said aloud. "Let's find out, shall we? Everybody step back - now..."

 

*  *  *  *

Sapphire's first impression was darkness. Complete, living - Darkness... <Steel!> she called out in her mind, <it's here!>

<I know> his thought came back, along with a reassuring squeeze of her hand. For all his chafing worry, he could not refrain from that. Then Silver came through also, holding his lantern high, spilling its imitation sun rays into every corner of the room.

"It's the same room again!" he marvelled, as this time he had not really expected it.

"No," Sapphire said. "Not the same..." And indeed there was no small, glittering tool on the floor, although all other things were equal to the first room, including the open vault. The portrait however, was gone. "It's - a copy," she decided, as that was the term that came closest to fitting the facts. "It changes to keep up with the other one. It's not a mirror image, though. And the copy isn't perfect, there's a time lag..." Right then, a glittering object materialised on the floor. But still no portrait in the vault.

"I told you," Steel said. "We have a spatial rift as well. It could be that it's part of the anomaly affecting the rooms."

"Where is your spatial rift?" Silver asked behind him.

Steel turned to glare at him. "If you could shade that lamp for a moment..."

Obediently, Silver turned the screw, dimming the lantern until the room was full of shadows. One of them now appeared denser than the others, filling a corner in which no details could be seen. Right next to it was a beam of light, barely visible when looked at directly, but growing in intensity in their peripheral vision.

"Where is Tully?" Steel asked Sapphire.

She closed her eyes. "He's here also, waiting. Waiting in the dark..."

Steel nodded. "I thought as much. That's why we can't see him. But why did we not see him before?"

"Perhaps my lamp only lit the surface of that thing, though we thought it lit the whole room?" Silver suggested. "Or perhaps it was an effect of the spatial anomaly? On the other hand..." he broke off, continuing his musings in silence.

Tears began to flow down Sapphire's cheeks, slowly, as if she were testing her ability to shed them. "Poor man..." she said, "All alone in the dark for these past four years... alone with his hatred of you..."

"Well, he'll just have to live with that," Steel said. "Until his time is up, anyway." He gave her a disapproving look. "Besides, it isn't four years. More like two. The last two were shoved into his present by the time breach. He did not actually experience them."

Sapphire stared right back, her eyes very blue. "We can't know that he didn't. He may have had time to feel them subjectively." Her tears dried, as if they never had been. "Steel, can't we save him, this time around?"

"I don't think that's likely," Steel countered. "We still need the bargain with the Darkness - such as it is. Besides, Tully's only got about a month and a half left."

"Forty-seven point forty-five days," Sapphire corrected him automatically. "That is, counting from here. He should have had two years more."

<Ever the sensitive one, eh, Steel?> came Silver's thought in Steel's head. Steel seethed. He didn't have time for this.

"We've got to take care of the breach!" he snapped at Silver. "Now will you concentrate on the work at hand?"

The light seemed brighter now that they were getting used to it and had found the best angle to look at it. It spilled from a rift in a shimmering curtain along one short wall. But for this one incongruous tear, the curtain looked exactly like its mate in the other room. The light seemed to be almost forming a curtain itself, keeping the Darkness imprisoned in its corner.

Suddenly, the light was blocked almost completely. Two shadows could be seen on the other side of the rift, one immense and towering behind the other. The smaller shadow was visible as a separate image only because of its shimmering outline, obvious now against a dark background. Steel had seen no such outline earlier, against the light. Of the original illumination, only a shining rim was now left, to one side of the two shadows.

The larger shadow seemed nervous, if its stomping movements were any indication. The other, outlined in radiance, spoke to Steel. "It was an omiphaunt. I've got it here with me. Apparently, the fabric between our worlds was thin here - maybe because you had a time rift already in progress on your side - and this being happened to step through. Must have been a frightening experience."

"Can it do anything to help?" Steel asked.

"I don't know. But it wanted to come along."

"Well, ask it!"

The figure laughed a little, a low chuckle. "They're not exactly sentient. Or rather, I guess they are, in a sense, but their perceptions aren't detailed enough to allow them to communicate with us."

"Americium?" Sapphire said, and the figure seemed to bow in her direction. "Do you know how to mend a composite break?"

"Not really, but I think you have to seal the temporal one on your side first, then I hope I can help you with the spatial one. But you'll need to keep that thing out of my way - " he indicated the Darkness which was gradually edging forward out of its corner, now that the light from the spatial rift was dimmed. " - is that what caused the time break?"

"Caused it or found it," Steel said. "In any event, it's using it."

"Found it," Sapphire told him. "It belongs in the present, not the future. But it can move through time. Steel... I think I know why it chose to come forward."

"If it can move through time, then get it to withdraw," Americium suggested. "Preferably to seal the breach behind it, if it can."

"Steel, it won't," Sapphire said. "It wants revenge. You have nothing to offer it this time."

"He could offer himself," Silver said cheerfully. "His normal mood ought to be foul enough to appeal to it..."

Steel turned to glare at him.

Silver spread his hands. "It was just a thought..."

Steel ignored him, turning instead to Sapphire.

"I can't close the time rift with the Darkness hanging over my shoulder," he said. "However, it doesn't belong in the future, so it has no fixed place here. Do you think you could distract it somehow? Lure it into the other room, perhaps?"

"Can it hear you?" Americium wanted to know. "Can it understand what you're saying?"

"I'm not sure," Steel admitted. "It once understood my thoughts as mediated by Sapphire, but beyond that, I know almost nothing about it. It might understand anyone in close contact with it, but I don't think it can really 'hear' at a distance."

"I could try to lure it," Silver said. "I'd like to keep my lamp for protection though. You'll find it rather murky in here without it."

"I'll manage."

"He will at that," Sapphire pointed out. "Until the spatial rift is sealed, he'll have the light from there. Steel?" she added then, in a low, entreating voice, "please save Mr Tully. He's of no use to the Darkness yet, and it knows it. Please let him go."

"After all, you've cheated that thing before...?" Silver reminded him cheerfully.

"Yes, and I'm not about to try it again - it was difficult enough last time."

"Please?"

"It's my final word, Sapphire."

He could see that she accepted his decision, the way she always had. Yet she lingered. "You know why the Darkness wanted to move forward in time," she said. "Don't you?"

He nodded. "It wanted to get to the point where Tully dies. So that it could finally feed off his resentment." He saw the sadness in her eyes and knew that she could have used her powers to influence him. But she did not. She never had. Never would. "I'm sorry," he added. Not enough, but all that he could offer. He would not yield on this issue. Not even to her.

Silver raised his lantern, beaming one sharp, directed ray of light directly into the corner. There was a grating shriek, sounding more like rubber on a wet surface than anything living, and the Darkness spread outwards with a greater speed than they had ever seen it use before. It seemed to aim for the lantern, so Silver spun around fast, heading for the door he had come in by.

Sapphire hesitated for a moment, and Steel had to push her out of the path of the Darkness. "Help him through!" he shouted at her. "Quickly!"

She caught herself and ran after Silver, her heels skidding on marble tiles, yet never felling her. She caught up with him just as he was about to run through the door, and pulled him back by the tails of his jacket. "Backwards!" she reminded him, and he reversed his direction instantly.

Steel watched them vanish from sight, the Darkness close on their heels.

 

*  *  *  *

The room was dark again, after Silver had taken his lantern with him. Americium seemed to realise, for he started to move out of the way, then to push at the omiphaunt which was still obscuring the aperture. Slowly, a gleam of light began to come through...

A sharp blow caught Steel on the temple, and he raised his hand to block another. In the widening swath of light from the spatial rift, he saw Tully coming at him with the safety chain from the gate to the vault room.

"Free at last!" the man shouted triumphantly, "and no thanks to you!" The next lash cut viciously into Steel's hand, yet by the third he had hardened his palm, and the impact caused no further damage. But he had been brought quite close to the spatial rift, and he could hear terrified mewling and heavy stomping sounds behind him. "Stop it!" he yelled back at Tully, "You're upsetting the omiphaunt!"

At the same time, Americium called out, "The rift is closing! I'll try to keep this beast out of it..." He broke off. "No, it's not... but something is happening on your side... Steel, what's going on?"

His question was cut off abruptly, as if all small, hardly noticeable echoes had died. The wind picked up, and for a while everything became a blur, as something seemed to happen to the light spilling from the rift. Then the effect lessened, and the movement, or whatever it had been, came to a halt. The light became clearer again, though there was less of it now than before. Just enough to display the body of Tully on the floor. Dead, covered with cobwebs and dust.

"Time moved again," Steel said, looking at his hand for confirmation. It was completely healed.

In the rift, a slight shape moved. Alone this time, as the large animal seemed to have left for parts unknown. "Enough for him to die?" Americium asked incredulously.

"He only had forty-seven point forty-five days to live," Steel said. "Sapphire made a spot analysis of him once." He crouched by the body, examining it briefly. "I'd say we're about six months from when we were, no more than that."

"And the spatial rift has closed only a fraction," Americium pointed out. "You think there might be a connection?"

"Interesting theory," Steel said. "I'd like to put it to the test - if I only knew what caused the shift in the first place."

"Maybe you shouldn't have defended yourself," Americium said quietly.

"What's that supposed to mean? Do you think I'm somehow responsible for this?"

The shape moved again, as if shuffling its feet, or perhaps just shifting its weight.

"Elemental blood," the Transuranic said.

"What?"

"I should have thought of it before, but one doesn't encounter composite breakthroughs all that often. Guess I never paid much attention to those stories anyway. Thought they were legends."

"What stories?" Steel asked, his patience wearing thin.

"About composite breaks in time and space. It's been said that they can only be sealed with Elemental blood."

Steel stared at him, disregarding the fact that he could not see much more than a greyish form against the light. "You 'knew' this all along?" he said, sarcastically.

Another movement - oddly reminiscent of a shrug. "I had forgotten - most likely because I never quite understood the concept of a spliced break. I certainly never thought I'd come across one."

"And just how would our blood... never mind," Steel broke off irritably. "It's easy enough to test." He held out one hand, preparing to slash it with the nails of the other.

"Stop!" Americium called out. "You'd better not splatter the rift again. Unless you want time to move forward even further."

"That's assuming there is a connection," Steel reminded him icily. "And that it's inversely proportional."

"Have you seen anything to prove otherwise?"

Steel aimed his glare where the Transuranic's face ought to be. If he had one. "Very well. I shall attack time next. After all, we've got nothing to lose. We're on the wrong track as it is." He moved off from the rift, starting to feel his way in the dark. He would not need his eyes for this.

"How d'you know?" came Americium's voice, somewhat distorted at this distance from the rift.

"If we are not, we are in trouble. It would appear that we did not manage to seal this break in the past six months or so."

Silence from the rift. Steel moved further inside the bank, now losing the light completely from the corner of his eye. Meticulously, he felt his way along the wall. The room with the vault should be just ahead...

"Steel?" Americium called. "What are you doing?"

"Looking for the trigger. I can't work on the time break without it."

"Oh. True. Any idea what it is?"

"Not really," Steel said, finding the gate and holding on to it for a moment, for orientation. "It's a reasonably large time bubble. The entire bank is encompassed by it. Someone started to restore the place after ages of disuse - though they don't seem to have done any more work on it in the past six months. Another indication that we are probably on the wrong time track."

"You believe that whoever was restoring the bank caused the temporal breakthrough?"

"Yes, but not by their restoration work alone. There must have been something specific..."

Silence for a while. Steel started moving past the gate, trying to feel how far ajar it was. He needed to get inside, perhaps all the way to the vault itself... Suddenly, Americium's voice spoke almost into his ear, and he jumped. "Do you think the spatial breakthrough might have affected something in there?"

Steel felt cautiously around him. Nothing. In there? In the vault? Could Transuranics see in the dark? It seemed reasonable. Still, Americium should not have crossed the line... "In where?" Steel asked aloud.

"Why, on your side of things. You think something spilled through and affected your world?"

This time the voice sounded different. And much more distant. Distortion again, Steel realised. "I should say it did," he called out. "If you had heard your own voice just now... You're not in here, are you? You haven't crossed over?"

"Of course I haven't. I've no particular desire to upset things on your side. Besides, I'm not even sure I could get back through this rift again, if I did cross over."

<I wish I could believe you> Steel sent, testing. No reply. Either the Transuranics were not attuned to the telepathic levels of his own kind, or the rift was somehow interfering. Aloud, he called back, "I think I know what the trigger might be. But it isn't here."

"You know? What is it then?"

Steel was on his hands and knees now, feeling his way along the floor. The door to the vault was still open. Good, then time was still consistent throughout the bank. Nobody had been in this part either, for the past six months. "There's a curious duplicating effect on this side," he explained to Americium. This room has at least one replica - I think that's where Sapphire and Silver led the Darkness. I haven't seen any other rooms. I'm not sure whether the replicated rooms are an effect of your spatial breakthrough, though they might be."

"And this helps you locate the trigger?"

Steel smiled to himself in the dark. Just a brief tightening of his lips, no more. "There is a slight time lag, but every object in the other room seems to be replicated in this one. Only one object has not been. I saw a portrait in the vault of the other room, and it has not appeared here. It seems reasonable to assume that that could be the trigger."

"So this is a matter of deduction only? You don't know?"

"I'm not Sapphire!" Steel snapped.

"No need to bite my head off."

"Sorry." Steel closed his eyes briefly - not that it made any difference in the dark. He needed Sapphire at his side, and at this point in time, he did not even know where she was. Anything could have happened in the six months that had whirled past. The familiar anxiety was building up in him, though he was trying hard to clamp down on it. But he needed her, and all he had was this miserable Transuranic in the next universe... "A trigger can't be replicated," he explained curtly. "Or we should have several time breaks on our hands. We don't, so it stands to reason that the one unique object is the trigger. The only problem is that it's not here."

"I see," said Americium's voice. "And you can't fetch it from the other room, because it must stay in place..."

"I can't even find the other room without Sapphire!" Steel grated. "I got through once, by chance, but that room might not even be there any more - or there might be several. I can't risk getting lost! Not this far out of time."

"All right, all right. Can you locate the exact spot where the portrait ought to be, if it were in this room?"

"I think so, yes."

"Then try to sprinkle that spot with your blood. Since it seems that everything about a spliced break is interlinked, it might be worth a try."

Steel shrugged in the dark. It was farfetched indeed, but if everything really was interconnected... He raked his hand and smeared a few drops in the appropriate place on the wall.

The wind started whirling about the place, gathering up dust until suddenly there was no more to gather. Looking from the corner of his eye, Steel saw the light increase, then become obscured again, to the accompaniment of a terrified mewling and some anxious stomping.

"Could anyone please tell me what's going on?" said Tully's voice in the dark.

 

*  *  *  *

"My, you are clever," Sapphire said, not quite seriously. Silver beamed at her.

"It's all in the legends, you know," he said. "Silver crosses against vampires, silver bullets against werewolves... human folklore. These things are all over it."

Sapphire looked appreciatively at the silver mesh of infinitely thin, yet incredibly strong little chains that held the Darkness confined, tethered to the gate in front of the vault. "They are very pretty..." Gradually, she sobered. "They won't hold it forever."

Silver nodded. "I know. We'd better find a way to lure it back where it belongs, and close the time breach after it. No mean task, that."

The Darkness was rippling now, almost bubbling, as if to test the boundaries of its confinement. Silver shone his lamp at it, and it screeched angrily, but did not seem intimidated.

"The lamp upsets it," Sapphire said. "I'm afraid we are only annoying it."

Silver shrugged. "I have to keep it occupied, so you can look for the trigger."

Sapphire closed her eyes. She stood very still, trying to ignore the presence of the Darkness. It seemed closer now that she was not looking at it. And it kept blocking her. "It's no use," she said, opening her eyes again. "It won't let me search..." She started moving about, heels clacking on the marble floor. Blue on blue. Satin spikes on a frozen sea. Suddenly fearless - or perhaps just absent-minded - she walked past the Darkness, through the gate. She paused for a while in front of the vault, her eyes slowly changing. "Silver, it's here!" she exclaimed, "it's -" In a confusing state of double vision, she realised that she was looking straight at the object she also saw in her mind's eye. The excess colour of her eyes subsided. "- the portrait!" She approached it, passing her hands around and before it. "It's the frame," she said. "The portrait is very old, but the frame is new."

"I thought the frame looked freshly gilt," Silver said.

She shook her head. "It's not just freshly gilt, it's a new frame entirely. The old and the new, glued and nailed together." Suddenly she jack-knifed, her tall, slender frame doubling up before the portrait as if forced to pay homage to the grim man depicted in it. "Steel!" she gasped. "He's hurt - badly!"

Silver rushed to her side, but held back at the last instant. It might not be wise to touch her, while she was partly in some other place. "When?" he asked.

"The future. No - the past... no, that's not right either." She frowned. "Soon, anyway. Silver, we must go to him! We must help him complete what he started!"

Silver looked at her. "Is that the only reason we must go to him?"

She stared at him, uncomprehending. "Anything else would be dangerous - the breach might become permanent!"

"That's not what I meant," Silver said softly. "I meant - are you worried about him?"

"Of course I'm worried about him. Silver, please don't waste time, we must go to him!"

But he was still in her way. "Humour me for just a moment, Sapphire. Just answer me this; what worries you more - the thought that our mission might fail - or the thought of losing Steel?"

Her eye-colour rose slightly, as if she were searching again, this time inside her own mind. At least she took his question seriously. But it was clear that she did not rightly know. "If the breach remains," she said, "we could all be lost." She looked at him intently, but he took care to shield his thoughts from her. Finally, she had to ask, "Does that answer your question?"

Silver smiled ruefully. "Yes, Sapphire. I think it does. Stones don't burn, do they?" Before she could say anything, he put his arm around her. "Don't feel bad about it," he teased, since she so obviously did not. "It's of no consequence. Now, is there any way you could bring that portrait?" he added lightly.

"It must remain here, Silver. The trigger must be where it was when time broke through."

There was an excited twitter from the Darkness, and one of the chainlets snapped. The shapeless mass - if indeed the thing had mass - seemed to be expanding.

Silver spun Sapphire around, heading her toward the nearest door. "We'd better get out of here!"

She stopped, holding him back. "Not that way." She walked briskly toward the door by which they had last entered the room. "This one."

"Sorry," Silver said meekly. He paused to set his lantern down, hoping it would help keeping the Darkness at bay a little while longer. Then he followed Sapphire.

She turned, to give him a radiant smile. "Remember to step backwards when I tell you."

 

*  *  *  *

"It's no good, Steel!" Americium called out. "Now time is back, but the rift is bigger!"

In the vault, Steel hastily withdrew his bleeding hand. "When are we?"

"I'd say just before Tully attacked you, and you accidentally sprinkled the rift - so now the rift is back too." His voice was temporarily drowned out by the omiphaunt's mewling. "...so it seems it wouldn't have vanished, had you brought time further back, but rather widened even more," he concluded, after calming the beast to some extent.

"I demand to know what's going on!"

"Please, Mr Tully - would you be quiet?" Steel said. "I'll be with you in a moment. Americium, it would appear that you were right. All aspects of the breakthrough are interdependent. We shall have to deal with the whole complex at once."

"It'll take an awful lot of blood, Steel. You must keep it coming till everything is back to where it was, before there ever was a breakthrough at all - of any kind."

"Well, you'll just have to help me, then. I take care of the time break here; you sprinkle the spatial rift over there."

"Sorry, Steel. But that won't work."

"Why shouldn't it?"

"You never gave me a chance to explain. It's the binding agents in your blood that do it."

"What are you talking about?"

"That's what I should like to know!" came Tully's voice out of the dark.

"Shut up, Tully," said Americium, eliciting a gasp of anger from somewhere close by the rift. "Steel, your kind have a special affinity to the human form. Your human bodies have the ability to connect with your qualities as pure Elementals, and form a unit. This is done mainly - if not exclusively - through the blood. Through the binding agents. Those are what's needed to close a time/space break like this. And Steel - I don't have them."

"How do you suddenly know all this?" Steel asked suspiciously.

A shift in the spare light indicated that Americium had changed his position. "I wanted to find out about my limitations, I guess. I was curious to know why I was considered a menace to your world. I wanted to go places; I didn't like being kept out. So I - read up on it, you might say."

"When?"

"I found a time pocket. Look, Steel, can't we discuss this later?"

"You're a great help," Steel said acidly. "Very well then, but I can't be in two places at once. Not without dislocating time again."

"You shouldn't have to be. Just start with the time break. Then, as you get time moving, get over here quickly and deal with the rift."

"If I start time moving, I might never even reach the rift."

"Ok, walk over here first, then back. That way, you'll have the movement recorded in time, as it were."

Steel made his way across the largely unseen marble floor, guided by the faint rim of light spilling in from the rift. He took care not to look directly at it, lest it vanish from his sight. Close by the rift, he could make out a somewhat rotund, human shape. It did not come up even to Steel's own height, although Steel was by no means tall.

"Mr Tully..." he began.

"Don't 'Mr Tully' me! I have waited long enough to be told what this is all about!

Steel decided to let him have it. "Well, in short, you died. You attacked me, and you died. No, I didn't kill you. You did that yourself, by getting my blood on to the edge of that rift."

"It's a break in space," Americium said helpfully. "Between two universes. But it's connected to a temporal breakthrough, and as Steel's blood began to close the spatial rift, the temporal one increased. In this case causing more of the future to break through. Essentially taking you to a time in which you were no longer alive. Got that?" he added, somewhat derisively.

"I am not stupid!" Tully snapped in the general direction of the rift. To Steel, he said, "But if what you say is true, how is it that I'm alive now? Did time move back again?"

"Yes. We are back to when we started. And we still have to close the breaks. Both of them. Will you help, Mr Tully?"

Tully pondered this. "You know, I don't like you. Not at all. You betrayed and deceived me. You gave me to the Darkness, and I was trapped inside it for years, I'm sure. It wasn't a pleasant existence, I tell you. To make a bargain with something like that -"

"That's what you did," Steel clipped back. "You gave me that idea in the first place. You abandoned Sapphire - those were your own words - thus making a bargain with the Darkness for yourself alone, that it would let you go. Oh yes, you bargained with it first. You showed me that it could be done. Until then, I had not known it could be."

"So that's what it was all about?" Tully asked, as if something had just dawned on him. "You wanted revenge! Because I struck a bargain with your enemy, because I did it for myself without a thought for the two of you, but most of all because I abandoned Sapphire to it! I am sorry about that, but I told you how afraid I was. I see it clearly now - you wanted revenge, that's why you thought of this so-called solution!"

"Have it any way you want," Steel said curtly. "But will you help?"

"Steel?" Americium said. "If he's right, you'd better come over to my side, before the Authority finds out. I could probably hide you here - for a while, anyway."

"Can't you two concentrate on the problem at hand, rather than speculating on the past? Mr Tully, you can help in a way that gets you your own revenge at the same time. Or some satisfaction, at any rate. I need you to attack me again."

Tully, now visible in the light from the rift, looked puzzled. "But I haven't attacked you. God knows I've wanted to for a long time, but..."

"He's right, Steel. We're back to before he started coming at you. Besides, you can't hope to fix the breach all by yourself. Get the others first, have them help you. Between the three of you, you should have the capacity..."

"I won't risk Sapphire," Steel snapped, cutting the Transuranic off.

"All right, but don't say I didn't warn you. You simply may not have enough blood, alone."

"I'm surprised he has any at all," Tully commented, "though it does seem that he has a heart - when he remembers to use it."

Steel glared at him. "I have no need of your opinion, Mr Tully. I want you to attack me, so that I can close this spliced breach. That's all. Do you think you can manage that?"

"But I'm not as angry now as I was. Now that I understand you better."

Steel barely refrained from gritting his teeth. These humans were most exasperating.

"You don't need him, Steel," Americium offered. "Surely you can draw your own blood?"

"I don't fancy giving myself enough wounds to come up with the amount you say would be needed. It would be slow, and I heal fast - as you should know. A quick, deep one should do it. Tully should be quite capable of inflicting it."

"There's always the chance he might kill you."

"A human? I should think not."

"While your arrogance might tempt me," Tully said officiously, "in a manner of speaking, I understand that too. I'm afraid I can't bring myself to attack you."

Steel sighed. "Very well. I shall take time back - or rather, forward - to the point where you could. Americium, make sure he finds me. I shall be at the vault." The omiphaunt had started mewling again, so he added, "And please keep that beast out of mischief." He made his way to the vault, the light fading as he moved. Opening the wound in his hand again, he set the time element of the composite breach moving, backwards, into the immediate future. It felt strange. He had never been able to take time anywhere, that was Sapphire's talent. Of course, composite breakthroughs were something else. He had no reason to believe a plain time rift would have responded in this manner.

He had almost no warning, only an inarticulate outcry from Tully, and then the chain struck his temple, nearly rendering him unconscious. This would not do. Rising, he tore the chain from Tully's grasp, and threw it aside. "Not that!" He broke one of the bars from the gate, shoved it into Tully's hands. "This!" Then he ducked quickly, covering his head. He had to avoid being bludgeoned, he needed to stay aware of what he was doing.

Two sharp blows from the bar, then Tully seemed to realise something, for in his next attack he had turned the weapon, to stab. Steel felt the point go in from the side, and fervently hoped it had not scratched his heart. As long as there was no vital damage, he should be able to heal quickly enough, once all this was over. Yet this wound should be deep enough, as there was very little pain. He knew that superficial wounds were the more painful ones.

He rolled out of the way to avoid further injury, but Tully was already gone, shifted in time. Steel lay for a moment - subjective time - on the floor of the vault, until the light started to reach him from the widening spatial breach. Time had completed its forward loop once more. Steel got up and walked over to the rift, vaguely surprised that he had not been shifted there by time. Could his altered position and his slightly different actions have affected the timeline? Or hadn't he returned to the original one at all? There had been no sign of Sapphire and Silver. Or the Darkness...

As the first drops of blood fell on the rim of the opening, the omiphaunt panicked. It reared and stomped, mewling all the time, and it was all Americium could do to hold it. "More, Steel!" he shouted, "you have to start closing it - fast!"

Elemental blood continued to flow, and eventually, the rift stopped widening. It was as if the entire time-space continuum stood still, poised on the edge of destruction, close to coming apart with its own inner tension. Then, gradually, the rift started closing, and yet time broke its loop, and continued unfolding backwards. Steel groaned in relief, as he collapsed beside the contracting rift. On the other side, the omiphaunt was calming down.

The temporal motion continued, ever backwards. Yet somehow it did not seem to quite reach the point of its breakthrough. The rift was closing slower now, the opening growing ever smaller, yet never quite to the point of being sealed.

"Steel?" Americium pleaded, "I hate to ask it of you, but we need more. Or the break will remain forever, though infinitely small." He looked through the narrowing crack of the space-rift, into the darkening room beyond. With his special vision, he had no trouble at all making out Steel's white face, close to the bottom part of the rift. The Elemental's eyes were closed. "Steel? We're not back on track yet. The others aren't here." No answer. Americium cursed to himself. "In fact," he said to the omiphaunt, since no one else seemed to be listening, "I think we're out of synch..."

 

*  *  *  *

Sapphire and Silver almost fell through the door, as if tripping on a threshold that was not there. Following her senses rather than the vanishing light from the rift, Sapphire hurried over to where Steel was lying unmoving. She knelt beside him, getting her hands covered in blood as she touched him.

"He isn't dead yet," Americium said helpfully. "At least, I don't think he is. Of course, that could be only a matter of time..."

"I know," she said. "I've brought him back before." She held Steel tightly, getting blood on her dress too. "Something is very wrong here - can you tell me what's happened?"

"Can't you tell?"

"I sense that something is very much amiss. But no details. I need your view." She was absently cradling Steel's head on her lap as she spoke, and Silver took note of it, though the light was barely sufficient for him to see.

Americium briefly related what had occurred, taking care both to talk fast and to give as much detail as he could. "So now we're out of synch," he concluded. "Steel was not in the same place as when Tully first attacked him, that could have something to do with it. Also, we were off on a separate track for a while - there were discrepancies. Maybe we never really got back, though we thought we had. Anyway, we're definitely off track now, and somehow space and time aren't reverting at the same rate. Steel bled enough to keep them both going, but to no avail, I'm afraid. We're not when we were, but we're still adrift."

From where Silver stood, it looked as if Sapphire were crying. Surely, it was a trick of the almost non-existent light.

"It couldn't be done that way," she said sadly. "I wish he had asked me first, I could have told him."

"Can you do anything?" Americium asked.

"Yes. First, I shall have to take time back to before he started this - that means your subjective time will move forward, because more of the future had broken through then. From my point of view, it will only be -" she bent deeper over Steel's body, abruptly, as if she were a puppet, and her strings had been cut. At the same time, there was a sharp sound, almost like a loud crack of some hard substance. "He's dead," she whispered, and in the faint gleam of light, her face was suddenly ashen.

"Don't worry," Americium hastily tried to reassure her. "We're still on the wrong track. This isn't even his time. Once you take time back..."

For once, Sapphire's serene features twisted in rage, and Silver took a step backwards. He had never seen her like this.

"Don't you understand, I can't take time back any longer?" she shouted at the shadowy Transuranic. Even Americium seemed to back away, and the omiphaunt mewled softly, as if he had trodden on its toes. If it had toes. Sapphire reverted to her usual calm self, much as her eyes would return to human blue after her reconnoitering sessions. "No, of course you can't know. Silver?" she called out. "I have lost my powers. It's up to you now. Go back into the other room - it ought to be the door behind you. Remember to step back as you enter. Go into the vault on that side, and spill some blood on the frame of the portrait. Just the frame, that's important. Be careful that you don't get any onto the canvas."

"I shall try," Silver said. "But I'm not sure I can find my way back here afterwards."

She smiled a little. "If you succeed, you won't have to find your way back. Now, please hurry!"

Silver dashed into the doorway, remembering at the last instant to step backwards - into the other, still brightly lit room. Quickly, he snatched up the skeleton key from the floor, and turned towards the Darkness. It was bigger now, almost obscuring the gate, and more chains had snapped, but it was not yet free of them. Dismissing the danger from his mind, Silver ran past the shapeless being, into the vault. A quick slash of the skeleton key, and he almost dripped blood on the portrait, then he remembered what Sapphire had said, and smeared it carefully on the frame instead.

He had a disjointed sense of time moving both back and forwards, and he had no idea at all what space might be doing. At one point, the room seemed to grow smaller, then the Darkness was gone, and then the lamp... he could make no sense of it, so he simply closed his eyes and waited.

He opened them at the sound of a mewling, panicking animal. The rift was bigger now, than when he had last seen it - or at least he thought it was - but the light spilling in from it flickered off and on as the great animal stomped around, a frustrated Transuranic desperately trying to calm it. Steel was alive, standing close by the rift, his palm slashed by something or other, though he seemed otherwise uninjured. Silver felt genuine relief. The sight of Steel dead had been most unsettling. Retaining one's memory through all quirks of time wasn't always a boon.

Steel saw Silver appear, dimmed lantern in hand. He waited for time to unroll far enough for Silver to raise his lamp, sending a suddenly bright beam into the corner from where a gnashing screech had just been heard. Then Steel let blood trickle from his hand onto the bottom of the rift.

There was a shift - of focus, of balance, of everything, and then a screech as if something had ground to a halt, as the Darkness floated rapidly out of its corner again, aiming for Silver's lantern. This was too much for the omiphaunt. In that moment of infinite uncertainty, with an entire continuum poised between continuing or breaking off its current time loop, the large being panicked, reached in a long appendage through the aperture, and seized the Darkness as if it had been a blanket. An oddly slurping sound, and the Darkness was gone. The appendage was hastily withdrawn, as if to avoid contact with the edges of the rift.

"Well, I'll be... ," came Americium's voice from the other side, "I never knew it could eat those things! D'you think this will cause any..." Then time and space wobbled again, cutting him off as directions changed once more.

Sapphire came to stand at Steel's side, a slash wound on her palm too. <Silver?> she sent, apparently not trusting sound in this uncertain state of reality. <Go over to the vault and see that time keeps moving. It should, since you used the real trigger, but you can make sure by smearing the spot where it should have been, on this side.>

Silver did as he was bidden, and time started spinning faster. Backwards, ever backwards, and yet, thankfully, the rift seemed to be closing, not widening. At some point, the room fell dark, and he knew he was back to before he had brought the lamp. There was still some light from the rift, if he looked sideways. Then Americium called out, and the rift was gone too. The sense of movement stopped.

Waiting for a moment in the dark, Silver let his hand heal. He could hear movement somewhere, and he wondered if he was still in the bank. Where had he been, just before entering the time bubble of invading future? Just drifting... it didn't feel as if he were drifting now.

Light spread gradually throughout the room, and Silver saw that he was indeed in the bank. The light was coming from the lantern, now in Tully's hands. The human was standing beside Sapphire and Steel, fiddling with the lamp to turn up the brilliance. Silver walked over to help, then saw that there was no need. The lamp now had a wick, and enough kerosene to work, at least to its own feeble capacity.

Tully looked up at the Elementals, then, with obvious apprehension, around the room. Especially into the corners.

Sapphire gave him a reassuring smile. "The Darkness is gone, Mr Tully," she said.

"But I remember being inside it," Tully said nervously. "A terrible experience, I assure you."

Sapphire nodded. "It took you two years into the future. Right now we are back to just after it started." She gave Steel a quick glance. "I - displaced a day, so you would not have to meet it."

Steel's mouth tightened a little at the corners. Silver could not be sure whether that was a smile or not. After all, there was no reason for Steel to be displeased. There was no Darkness to bargain with any more. And hadn't this time displacement rather cancelled out whatever damage he and Sapphire had wrought before? Silver started to figure it out, then decided that he had better forget all about it, in case he were ever questioned by the Authority.

Tully looked puzzled. "But shouldn't it be still taking me through time, at this point?"

"Beings and forces that move through time of their own accord, are partly outside time," Steel explained impatiently. "They leave no temporal record. The Darkness isn't here, because it never really existed in this time, it was just passing through."

"Skipping most of it, actually," Silver added with his usual, contented smile.

"But so was I!" Tully protested.

"Not of your own accord," Sapphire said. "You were never really outside time. There was a record of you. Not a linear one, perhaps, but still a record."

"I'm not quite sure I understand," Tully said. Then, with a hasty glance at Steel, "but I am grateful! It was awful being inside... just awful..." His voice trailed off, as something occurred to him. With a frightened look at them, he added, "Shall I meet the Darkness again, in the future?"

"No," Sapphire reassured him. "It - vanished from the future. Your future. It did not come back with us."

For the first time, Tully allowed himself to relax somewhat. "Good," he said, with obvious relief, setting his lantern down on the small table where he had found it. He looked up at them, from one to the other. "Well, I suppose that's that then. I thank all of you for bringing me back. I'm most grateful to be back..." he looked around him again, as if seeing the bank for the first time. "But back to where?" he mused. "How do I find my way..."

Steel placed his arm firmly around the man's shoulders. "Come with me, Mr Tully," he said, "I'll show you. I do believe it's time you went home and fed your cat."

"Nelson!" said Tully, as if he had just remembered.

"Nelson," Steel confirmed with a slight quirk of his mouth, as he walked, almost marched Tully to the shimmering curtain - and through it.

Silver turned to leave also - but paused at the unexpected sight of the portrait, now properly displayed on one of the walls. The vault was closed, and so was the gate in front of it.

"The computers are gone too," Sapphire pointed out with a smile. "Or rather, they are not yet here. And there is dust everywhere."

Silver looked around. "This is the other room!"

"No, Silver," Sapphire said patiently. "There is only one room now."

Silver walked over to the portrait, to examine it. "It has an old frame. Hmm..." He did something to it, and the frame shone with a new brilliance, giving the old portrait a most distinguished appearance.

"Why did you do that?" Sapphire asked, mostly because she knew he was dying to explain.

"Oh, it wouldn't do for someone to come in and give it a whole new frame again, now would it?" he said. "But now that it's freshly gilt, they are likely to leave it as it is."

"I'm glad you thought of it," Sapphire said, and was instantly gratified by Silver's proud smile. "I shouldn't want to go through all of this again."

Silver's contented smirk vanished. "I know," he said, and the compassion in his voice was unmistakeable. "I shouldn't want to see you go through anything like that again, ever."

Sapphire looked at him, teasingly. <Now do you know why Stones do not burn?>

He gazed back in open admiration. <You knew what I meant all along!>

She smiled indulgently. <But of course, Silver. You have always been an open book to me.>

 

[ The End ]