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light your way, but that is all

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Sometimes, it's more than a bit of a tragedy that real life can't be structured like a film.

I haven't seen many films, you understand. My job doesn’t exactly allow for time off, so the only ones I've ever been to see have been for reasons of business only, and I didn't have much of a chance to appreciate them at the time. Nevertheless, I have liked what bits of them I have seen.

Humans are so clever, really – no matter how some other people seem to dislike them and the constant problems they cause for us, I've always believed that they're a remarkably versatile and adaptive species, capable of producing the most ingenious solutions to problems. Human cleverness produces things that are unforeseen and (even for me) unforeseeable, and sometimes this can lead to complications, such as the ones that I have to deal with repeatedly in my job. But there's always balance, and humanity has produced just as many, if not more, good things, almost as if they were actively working to balance out the bad. Ice cream – delicious and sweet! – , self-opening doors, medicine and antibiotics – they managed to conquer the very things that were wiping them out in the millions-, and not so long ago, a group of humans actually managed to go into space! It's something I could have never dreamed that they'd do when I first saw them, so many hundreds of years ago, but I do love being surprised.

It's not good protocol, I know, to get so attached. I'm always being told that I shouldn't care so much about humanity. And so I've stopped displaying it so much on the outside. But I do think I'd miss them ever so much if they were gone.

And oh, I've gone so far off topic! Back to films, then. Another one of those deceptively simple-seeming things that you just have to stop and shake your head at, because you yourself could have never come up with it in a million years. A series of still images that, when shown on a screen, create an illusion of motion image. And how far it's come from its simple roots! I could talk for hours about the phi effect and everything from Edison and the Lumière brothers to Disney and Hayao Miyazaki -

- but on second thoughts, you probably wouldn't enjoy listening to that as much as I would enjoy talking about it.

The reason I say that real life should be structured more like a film is because of how wonderfully cinematic moments in life would be. Some moments feel as if they should be played out in slow motion, because the emotion packed into them is too much, too raw for the few seconds they take to occur. Other moments feel as if there should be incidental music accompanying them, because they're just missing something crucial otherwise. And of course, wouldn't it be nice if you could rewind your life, even for a few minutes, just to see how a certain past experience had played out in detail?

Maybe that's why films are so popular among humans – a way of viewing life that you could never possibly do on your own. The mode of seeing things that you will only ever have in fiction.

And… well, the point! I need to get to the point. Non-existence is odd that way; we simultaneously have all of the time in the world, and none of it at all, which is a difficult concept to wrap your head around. No matter – it simply means I tend to go off on more tangents than usual, with nobody here to stop me from doing so.

I said I’d tell you this story, but I didn’t even stop to think of how I’d do it! Which leaves me with so many options. On one hand, I could tell it to you direct, stating the events as they happened and my perspective on the matter. But as thrilling as the subject matter may be (and I don't doubt my own abilities of recounting it, not for a second!) I fear you would quickly tire of it. My perspective – as of all perspectives – is rather limited. And, well! What's the good of temporary omnipresence if you can't use it to spin a good tale!

So I shall do my best to set the stage, and to tell the events in as much thrilling detail as I can manage, in order for you to get the full picture. I must admit, despite the circumstances, I'm fairly delighted to try my hand at this. I haven't had the opportunity to do so for, well… quite a while, I should say.

There is no further ado to be made, so let's begin.


 

We see a sea; a vast stormy ocean dyed black by the night and the lack of light and the grey clouds hanging ominous as can be overhead. The moon isn't visible at all, and the mainland is only barely so – a rough jagged strip lining the horizon. And as we pan across the rolling, bucking waves, stirred up by some godly force far beyond the imagination, we see the Island.

We'll call it simply ‘the island’ here and now, since its actual name is not important, in the scheme of things. It's an unremarkable island by any measure, with only a very small settlement made up of the bare minimum of buildings, no roads or cars to speak of, a small port to allow passage to and from the mainland, and of course the small lighthouse that rises from the rocks on the eastern side; a jagged, ugly blight on the otherwise bland landscape. And even though it's the most unattractive feature of an overall unattractive island, it is at this lighthouse that this story will primarily take place.

This lighthouse is nameless, and while no official reason was given for its lack of title, the obvious explanation is that it was so unremarkable that nobody ever bothered to dignify it with the honour of having a name. A nameless lighthouse on a nameless island.

Let's move into the lighthouse now, and for the moment, let's see it as it was several days ago. And let's freeze it in time while we're at it, just because we can.

Here, see the large thick wooden door with the double-deadbolt holding it fast against unlikely intruders, and see the bristling, threadbare welcome mat with no message of welcome to be seen. And there's a small collection of broken lanterns and broken bottles of wine swept into the corner like a pile of regrets, and on the ground floor there's nothing else to comment on – so the only thing to do now is to move up the stairs.

And now the stairs – the only thing that could be considered slightly attractive in this miserable, forgotten place. A perfect spiral, sweeping round and round and up and up the fifty-or-so metres it will take the reach the top. The steps are even and well-made, if more than a little dusty from lack of care, and if you ran all the way up without stopping you would be thoroughly winded by the time you reached the top.

And here at the top, just before you reach the hatch that leads to the incredibly old but still-working light that beams out across the nameless ocean, there is the engineer's room. As cold and as stone as the rest of the lighthouse, and with only two beds, identical twins of each other, a desk and a table as furnishing. It's almost aggressively impersonal – everything is just-so, set out neat and tidy, like the occupant expects to have to leave at any time, and quickly give up the room to the next occupant.

There's only one item that looks non-regulation, but – wait just a moment, we'll get to it in a second.

Standing in the middle of the engineer's room is the engineer himself, the very opposite of resplendent in grease-stained, dirty grey shirt and trousers. He is the only occupant of this lighthouse, and his bed is the one furthest away from the window, so as to escape the frequent draughts of wind that blow in through the gap between glass and stone. His beard is scraggly, hair going grey, and he looks ever so grim; resigned to his fate. He is frozen for the moment, placed on pause for our convenience, with a curious expression in his eyes that might be fear and might be suspicion, and his arm is halfway to rising up from his side. It's as if he's in the process of reaching out to touch something – and if you follow his line of sight, you'll see exactly what that something is.

On top of the singular table in this room is a telephone. It is bright red, and old-fashioned – the type that requires you to input the numbers by spinning your finger around and around its oversized rotary dial. Its cord trails off the edge of the desk like an unfinished question and droops to the floor where it then goes out of sight completely.

Well, why is the engineer so intimidated by this admittedly unusual but nevertheless rather common household item? There's no way of knowing at the moment, since it's trapped, crystalized in a moment of eternity. But this is my realm, my storytelling, and so at a second's notice I can simply hit the play button, so to speak, and –

The first thing we notice as motion returns to this scene is the sound of the telephone ringing. It's rhythmic and fast and alarming. The sound cuts across even the constant pounding of the storm overhead, which is thunderous and deafening.

The engineer moves towards the phone before we even have a change to process it, and now we can properly pinpoint that elusive look in his eyes. It is absolutely and completely fear. He is afraid, afraid of this phone – and yet he's reaching for the handle of the receiver, and he's absolutely about to pick it up, but then.

There's another noise. Not quite loud enough to deafen the storm and the ringing, but distinctive enough to echo all the way up the even stone stairs and reach the engineer's ears, and it's enough to make him pause.

There is somebody knocking on the large wooden door of the lighthouse, crisp and sharp.

The engineer hesitates, casting his attention between the phone – ring, ring – and the stairs with the door at the foot of them – rat-a-tat-tat. He seems to come to a decision after a second, and practically scurries out of the door, slamming it behind him as he goes.

The phone continues to ring, even without his presence.

And down, down, down, the engineer goes, this nameless, tired engineer, taking the stairs at a moderate pace that allows no room for him to trip and fall and break his neck. Nevertheless, there's a certain urgency to his movements.

The person at the door is still knocking as he clears the last few steps. Above, he can hear the phone, distantly, ringing. Off go the deadbolts – both of them – and then he takes the bar-hold with both hands, and pulls it inwards. The storm is tugging at his clothes and hair and it's difficult to stay upright for long, even with his stout stature. That might be part of the reason why he's staring at his unexpected visitor with an expression of complete disbelief, since the woman standing in the doorway opposite him is perfectly composed with barely even a strand of hair being ruffled by the vicious storm raging around her.

"Good evening," she says pleasantly, adjusting her round glasses. Her voice is pitched at exactly the right tone to be heard over the crashing waves and crackling thunder. "Rough night, isn't it?"

The engineer takes a singular step back, looking horrified. He says nothing.

"Well," says the woman – she is wearing a long green skirt that is swirling in the wind, and a neat white blouse, but over that is a thick green peacoat that's doing the job of keeping the wind off her, although let us admit, just between you and me, that she really doesn't need it. "Aren't you going to invite me in?"

Silence from the engineer. The woman sighs, and takes the initiative of stepping across the doorway, into the relative safety of the lighthouse, and even closing the door behind her. She examines the locking mechanism for a second, and then delicately, carefully slots the two deadbolts back into place, sealing the storm outside.

She hums to herself lowly as she takes in the engineer, standing there, trembling, and the lowermost floor of the small, nameless lighthouse, and after a second, she unbuttons her coat. "No coatrack, I see. Not very considerate, but I suppose I'll ignore it for the moment." And she unceremoniously dumps it on the stone floor, next to the pile of broken lanterns and wine bottles.

I will now take the opportunity to apologize for Jade's behaviour. And – oh, of course, she never did introduce herself, did she? It's rather typical of her, and I doubt she will go on to reveal it later on, so I think I should do it here. It's easier to refer to her as 'Jade' rather than 'the woman', anyway. Jade, of course, has the same job as me – yes, the one that doesn't leave much time for enjoying films or ice cream. She is brilliant in her field, which happens to be focused on the more scientific side of things, and I greatly admire her for it. She has the same flaw as many of my other co-workers, however – a tendency to dislike and be horribly dismissive to members of the human race.

Jade pauses, moments after discarding her coat, and frowns. "Is that a phone I hear?"

Let us skip forwards a bit – I know I said I'd describe this in detail but it doesn't need to be too much detail, does it? Let's move past the part where Jade brusquely introduces herself and her reason for coming to the lighthouse to the engineer, and he fails to say anything in return. Let's skim the long section of time where Jade takes readings of the stone walls and floor and stairs, and comes up with nothing unusual, and let's cut out entirely the long trek up the spiral staircase, with Jade leading the way decisively and the engineer trailing mutely in her wake.

We'll return to the story at this point: the point where Jade is emerging into the engineer's room, pulling open the door easily, and waiting for the engineer himself to enter too before closing it behind the two of them.

The red phone on the table, of course, is still ringing. Why wouldn't it be? It never stopped.

The engineer still says nothing. He might be shaking at this point, it's hard to tell with the erratic lighting. Jade surveys his room with a keen eye, and then casts him a slightly pitying look. She doesn't comment on his sparse accommodations, but he knows she knows, and maybe to him, that's even worse.

Or maybe not, since he shows no outward sign of acknowledging this.

"I told you before that there was a disturbance in this lighthouse," she says – and she did, I can confirm this, this is the part we missed out, but it wasn't very important anyway.

The engineer shifts, foot to foot; looks over at the phone and keeps on looking; trembles.

She follows his gaze, and makes a speculative noise as she sees it, and then she adjusts her glasses and does something that's hard to explain – she looks further into it, and whatever she sees there makes her wince and shut her eyes briefly.

When she opens them, there's cold scientific curiosity in her gaze. "That phone – how long has it been ringing?"

The engineer shrugs, halfway, and mumbles something – it could have been anything, frankly, but Jade doesn't ask him to repeat himself. She's frowning. Then the engineer’s mouth flattens out into a thin line, and, well… 

They move at practically the same time – Jade lunging forward to grab the engineer's arm, and him diving for the phone. Jade catches him by her fingertips at the elbow, and tries to tug him backwards, and Jade is disproportionately strong for how slight she looks, but even she can't hold him for long with such a tiny grasp. The engineer spins free of her, shoves her back with a vicious look akin to that of a cornered animal.

It's appropriate to imagine that, in the distance of this scene, Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries is playing.

Jade struggles to her feet, yells something along the lines of, "don't you dare!-" but:

The engineer has already snatched up the line, pressing the receiver tightly to his ear and the mouthpiece millimetres from his lips. The phone stops ringing abruptly. And there is silence.

There is a moment where neither of them moves, and even the storm outside seems to pause for a second. Jade, hands pressed to the wall behind her for support with her long dark hair falling out of its neat bun, and the engineer staring at her wild-eyed and blank, clutching to that phone like a lifeline, seemingly paralysed.

There's one beat of silence; two, and then this is what happens next. The engineer jerks to life with a horrible little noise of pain that sounds like a deathrattle, and all but throws that phone receiver back onto the table, where it clatters loudly. He stumbles backwards and hits the far wall, sliding down to the floor with his hands clasped tightly over his ears, and he's whimpering too, a terrible, dreadful sound because no grown man should ever have to make a noise like that.

Jade takes a step towards him with an expression like a tsunami on her face, but then she stops mid-step. Just stops, takes a step backwards and stands stock-still.

"Wait," she says, looking back and forth at nothing at all. There's an expression on her face that we haven't seen on her before, one that seems completely wrong for a woman like Jade, and it might just be fear. "Wait, this isn't-"

And then, without warning or preamble, Jade simply disappears. One moment she is there, and the next she is not.

If you slowed down this scene a million times over and then did so again, you might have been able to see her physical form being torn in strips from this plane of existence: being plucked off of the realm of reality bit by bit at an unimaginable speed. And just before she left, you would have been able to see the look of pure, senseless terror from a being that has no business feeling that emotion, and see her mouth forming the opening that precedes a scream. And you would never have seen her begin that scream, because by that point she would have been gone.

The engineer sees none of this, of course – and within less than a hundredth of a millisecond he is left alone in an empty lighthouse, trembling on the floor with his hands still clenched painfully tight around his head.

Outside, the storm is beginning to clear.

Chapter Text

Elsewhere – and I want to make it perfectly clear that this is, in every sense of the word, as 'elsewhere' as it is possible to get, this is a place several steps removed from what you would consider 'reality' – there are a group of beings, walking along the memory of a beach.

These beings have been known by many names since humanity became aware, in bits and fragments, of their existence. Angels, transients, seraphim, protectors, the fae, the faerie, and elementals – every one of these is simultaneously absolutely correct and completely wrong.

The opinions of the beings themselves on what they ought to be called are many and varied. Quite a lot of them believe that they are above labels altogether, and plastering a name onto their species would be undignified and demeaning. Those tend to be the older ones, though, the ones that were formed so long ago that they (with their perfect eidetic memories) can barely remember that far back. The general consensus, though – and the one I favour myself – is the title of 'element'. Although only some of us are what humans would consider truly elements, it makes a good overarching title for us, and the word itself is rather elegant too.

An outsider looking in would not understand the layout of our organization, and if they were human, they might question the logic of it. Why, they might ask in a suitably exasperated tone, why would you take members of the periodic table – good, solid reliable elements, such as Silver, Magnesium and Cerium! – and place them as if they were on the same level as non-elements! 'Steel' is not an element! (they might continue, growing more and more outraged) – and neither is Jet, or Diamond, no matter how pretty they may look – and we are going to cut off our hypothetical observer's lengthy monologue right here, for the sake of our collective sanity. It's over now; and thank goodness for that.

Elements have been around for far longer than humans ever have, and as such they don't need to fit into any charts or tables that humans have made up. Mendeleev was a very smart man, but he didn't manage to capture all of us, and the ancient Greeks were more correct than they knew in some respects. Our forms and names aren't limited to chemicals and metals and gemstones and the like – there are many more of us than you, or our hypothetical observer, would ever be able to imagine.

Let me think for a second… oh, yes. I haven't seen them around lately, but I can assure you that Rhythm and Pitch and Melody are all members of our ranks. They're Elements of Music, you see? They don't often take humanoid form, and they're rarely around at all, but I can assure you that Pitch appears with the most gorgeous braided hair, and a singing voice that's absolutely divine.

And then there's the older ones – the ones that I mentioned before, a bit outdated in their thinking, but more than worth listening to. Again, they're rarely seen, and they rarely get assigned either, but they are awe-inspiringly powerful. The one time I met one – Fire – they scorched my skin and warmed my soul and filled me with flames and took my breath away, and it was wonderful.

But – oh, I'm off on a tangent again, aren't I? I do apologize.

As I was saying, there are four elements, and they are walking along a memory of a beach. This is a place outside of time and space, somewhere that exists between dream and reality, between mind and matter, and it only looks like a beach because they desire it to be.

And it's quite a nice beach, too – waves lapping slowly against a pebbled shore, and traces of rocky piers off in the distance. There are no birds in the grey sky above. The four elements are making tracks along the beach as we watch, and they are not speaking to each other as they do so. It's a comfortable, companionable silence, one that comes from spending so much time together that there's simply no need for them to speak aloud.

The one furthest ahead – ambling at an easy pace with his hands in his pockets, toeing at the pebbles and shells with his shiny boots – well, that's Silver. He sparkles so well, doesn't he? – if not just in appearance, but in personality as well. I can practically guarantee that you’ll never meet anybody that shines as much as Silver does.

Behind, there are a woman and a man, walking almost entirely in synchronization with each other. They are smiling – the woman rather more so than the man – and the woman is carrying an excellent approximation of an old-fashioned parasol. Her name is… well. I suppose you already know her, don’t you? There’s no need to introduce a girl again, after all. Her partner (and no, not in that sense, that’s a human connotation there) is short and sour-looking and rather grim too, but oh, but he really does have a kind heart, underneath it all. He is Steel, in all senses of the word. Steel by name, steely by nature.

And bringing up the back of this silent, companionable procession at the back is easily the tallest of all of them. Lead, a giant of a man who looks like he could easily crush your skull in one hand with no trouble at all. But he has the widest smile and the loveliest laugh and a singing voice that’s just so enthusiastic that you can’t help but join in with him. And he would never hurt anybody that didn’t deserve it.

The four of them are between assignments at the moment, as they have been for a while now. I will tell you now, it’s somewhat unusual for there not to be any problems calling for their attention for this long. Usually there should have been at least one minor misdemeanour demanding their presence by this point, but there has been a stifling lack of those lately. None of them would ever admit it – aloud or to each other – but things have been beginning to get rather boring of late.

And then, just like that, an assignment comes through. It comes from somewhere and something higher up, further removed from their level of being, and it immediately demands all of their attention.

The information is communicated directly to them in a way that humans would find difficult to understand or process, and it comes all at once.

Silver stops picking through the recollections of shells on the seaside, and turns to face his companions, and Lead simply stops where he is, frowning as he goes through the assignment in his head. Sapphire closes her eyes to do the same – always having worked better with her eyes closed, and while Steel makes no outward sign of checking the information, he too is processing it.

There is no real way to exactly reproduce the knowledge that they have received in a way that you could properly interpret, so I am going to tweak this scene ever so slightly, and change things so that you may understand what has just transpired.

“We have received an assignment,” announces Sapphire less than a minute ago, in this slightly altered version of reality, and her three companions turn to look at her.

(In this scene that I am creating for you now, Sapphire is the only one that has received the aforementioned knowledge, and in turn will need to communicate it to the others. Rather heavy- handed, maybe, but I feel as if this is a mode of storytelling that will fit our uses.)

“We have received an assignment,” says Sapphire – she is not saying it again, I am just repeating it for your benefit, to maintain continuity – “and by ‘we’, I mean all of us.”

“Why?” Steel asks, frowning – little lines of displeasure cracking out all across his face. “We’ve never needed backup before.”

“That could be argued,” Silver says; Lead makes a little rumbling noise of amusement/agreement, and Sapphire lets herself smile briefly, before her attention turns inwards again, and that fades to one of slight puzzlement.

“Tell me,” she says, rather suddenly, “have you seen Ruby lately?”

“Ruby? No,” says Silver. “I assumed she was on one of her, oh, you know – her long-term assignments.”

“I tend to avoid her,” Steel says with an undecipherable jerk of his head. “You know how she gets. No, I haven’t seen her either.”

Lead seems to consider this for a long moment. “That does seem a bit odd, now that you mention it. Sapphire, has something happened?”

“According to this-” and Sapphire taps the side of her head twice “– Ruby never returned from her last assignment. And she’s not the only one. Has anybody heard from Cerium?”

Nobody has.

Sapphire nods, looking grim. “It seems as if quite a few of our number were assigned to this particular place, and they never came back. All contact has been lost with them.”

“And so Their solution is to just send more of us?” Steel looks more than slightly annoyed. “Just how many of us ‘never came back’?”

Sapphire lists them out aloud, and there are many: Magnesium, Charm (a newer addition), Titanium, Copper (Silver looks noticeably devastated when he realizes this is the case, they were always rather close), Sandstone, Bismuth (and here Lead’s mouth tightens almost imperceptibly; he and Bismuth were the closest you could get to siblings), Jet, Agate, and at the very beginning of the list there is Jade, who was the first to go missing, nearly a week ago – relative time. By now you should have worked out what’s going on, since I’ve been so relatively transparent in my recounting. But in case you haven’t –

“Jade’s assignment was a low-risk one, in a lighthouse somewhere east of New Zealand,” Sapphire says. “It was unspecified what sort of irregularity it was. After losing roughly,” she pauses for a moment, apparently thinking, “ten Operators to this unknown force, the risk has increased to a high enough level that more than one of us should be assigned. Hence, the four of us.”

And this is all they need to know, because it is at that moment that their assignment is due to begin, and without any indication of it having begun to happen, the four of them are gone.


 

From a linear perspective, the trip from the remembered beach to the lighthouse’s island is almost instantaneous. They are there, and then they are somewhere else – as simple as that. From a non-linear perspective thing are (as they always tend to be) quite a lot more complicated than that.

This is how they arrive – with barely a stumble, fading into existence on the path leading up to the lighthouse. They are poised, already looking at the top of it before they have a chance to see anything else, and Sapphire nods. “This is the place,” she says, and Steel moves to the front of the group to lead everybody down the path to the door.

It is daylight now, and many weeks have passed since we last saw this lighthouse, but it has not changed in appearance at all. It is still nameless and unremarkable, and the sound of Steel rapping briskly on the large wooden door echoes around the inside of the lighthouse before fading away.

“It doesn’t look as if anybody’s home,” says Silver after a minute of waiting. “Ah, perhaps we should-?”

Lead grins and reaches out to push at the door. The wood cracks and crumples, even though to the casual observer, it would appear that he’s only using the barest of effort. Within seconds, the door is swinging open, although the lock is more than slightly ruined.

“Thank you, Lead,” says Silver graciously.

Steel unceremoniously wrenches the door the rest of the way open, and steps into the bottom floor of the lighthouse. He stops at the foot of the stairs, turning to look all the way around. “Sapphire. Spot check.”

Sapphire hums lightly, her eyes flickering blue for a second, and then – “nothing especially unusual here. This lighthouse doesn’t seem to have much history at all.”

“It’s safe to continue?”

“As safe as any of our assignments are.”

And while that conversation is happening, Silver’s moved to examine the pile of shattered lanterns and shattered wine bottles, and he’s digging through them, eyes narrowed. After a second, he shoves all the glass to the side and scoops up the item that had been rather purposefully buried beneath it all.

“Well, this is definitely the place,” he announces grimly to the world at large, and holds up a dark green pea-coat, stained slightly from old wine that had been dripping from the abandoned bottles. “I recognize this – it’s Jade’s.”

“Up,” says Sapphire suddenly, looking to the stairs. “I can feel something; it’s tugging at me Whatever it is, it’s at the top of this lighthouse.”

And so Silver folds the jacket carefully and places it back on the ground, and they ascend the stairs, moving upwards, but even as the four of them reach the engineer’s bedroom, Sapphire lets out a tiny, uncharacteristic noise of frustration. “It’s gone.

“What does that mean?” Lead asks.

“It could mean anything. It could have hidden itself, or left the area, or…” Sapphire looks around the room, the bare, impersonal room, and shakes her head. “Well, either way, it looks like nobody’s home.”

“Shouldn’t there be a lighthouse keeper on duty at all times?” Silver asks, examining the military-style that the twin beds have been made up in. “It seems irresponsible to just leave it like this.”

Lead laughs; sits down on one of the beds. It creaks beneath him. “It might not have been their choice!”

“These marks on the ground,” Steel interrupts, frowning at the chalky residue that had been left in the vague forms of footprints. “Sandstone was up here at some point.”

Sapphire comes over to examine them, and brushes a finger along the marks. “So she was. Well, that means we’re in the right place, at least.”

“Aha!” exclaims Silver, and abandons his search of the mostly-empty wardrobe, practically leaping across the room to the table with the bright red phone on it. “What’s this?”

“It’s a phone, Silver,” says Sapphire indulgently.

“Well yes, I do know that.” Silver frowns at her briefly, and then picks up the receiver, placing it to his ear. “Hm, no dial tone.” He plays with the rotary dial absently for a second or two, and then abandons the task. “The line’s dead, for whatever reason. Maybe the power-?” He finds the power cord that’s trailing off the edge of the table, and follows it all the way down to the floor, and to where it disappears into the shadows. “Ah, now that’s strange.”

Sapphire sinks down to the ground, sliding herself neatly underneath the table to join him. She has to duck her head down slightly in order to fit in. “What is?”

Silver pulls a lightbulb out of nowhere, and taps it once, causing it to flare with golden light in his hands. He passes it to Sapphire, indicating for her to hold it out for him, and then starts examining the skirting board and wall closely. “Take a look at the phone cord.”

Sapphire finds it, and tugs, pulling it into her free hand. The metal prongs of the part that would normally plug into a wall socket are cold against her skin. “It’s not plugged in.”

Silver finishes his examination of the wall. “Yes, and there’s no place for it to be plugged in, either.”

“Is this really relevant?” Steel asks testily. “So whoever lives here has a phone that they never bothered to use. How does that affect us?”

“It probably doesn’t.” Silver takes back his lightbulb from Sapphire, and the two of them emerge from beneath the table. “It just strikes me as rather odd, that’s all.”

Sapphire rests her hand lightly on top of the phone, and appears to concentrate hard for a moment, her eyes going bright blue. “There’s nothing at all inside this phone,” she reports.

“Good to know,” Silver says, and then glances around the room. “I say, where has Lead gone off to?”

In response to this, there’s a faint shout from above them – not panicked or any such thing, just an indication of existence – and the three of them make their way to the stairs, going upwards. The stairs end at the top of the lighthouse, the part where the actual light resides. Lead is leaning on the balcony surrounding the light, and it’s creaking rather alarmingly too. He turns at their entrance; grins; laughs.

Silver discards his comparatively smaller lightbulb into thin air, like a child forgetting an old toy in favour of a newer, shinier one, and stares in open delight at the open mirrored dome in front of him. “Now this is more like it!”

“This isn’t the time, Silver,” says Steel, but Silver has already pried open the control box somehow, and is fiddling about inside it.

“On the contrary,” he says with a dazzling grin, looking up from it, even as his hands keep moving. “I think it’s perfectly necessary to figure out all the secrets of this place –” and then he looks down and frowns. “Oh, how disappointing.”

Steel doesn’t humor him by asking the obvious question.

“This light hasn’t been lit for years,” Silver says, even though nobody’s asked. He gives it a pointed thump. “At least three, by my guess. Everything’s rusted through. I could restart it, I suppose, but –what would be the point?”

“Not a very effective lighthouse, in that case,” says Sapphire. “How strange.”

Silver abandons the mechanism within seconds. “There’s nothing to see here, I suspect.”

“It would be counterproductive for us to spend too much time searching areas that might not have any relevance,” Sapphire says, adjusting her hair slightly so it isn’t caught in a non-existent breeze. “We have an entire island to cover, after all.”

Silver nods. “I believe that the best thing for us to do at this point would be to – how do humans put it, again? – ‘split the party’.”

“Lead and I can circle the outer limits of the island,” says Sapphire with the slightest of blueish tints lighting up her eyes. “I can feel something odd about it; something related to the perimeter. I can’t quite pinpoint it right now, but it’s a lead that we should follow up on. And Steel, you and Silver can go down to the town.”

“The town?” Silver closes up the access panel with a sharp little snap, and turns to look outwards. From the top of the lighthouse, they have an excellent view of all of their surroundings, and a small settling can be clearly seen, although it would be flattering to even call it that. ‘Town’ is rather a stretch.

[Sapphire, is this really necessary?] Steel isn’t whining – he would never do anything as mundane as whine, but the cadence and inflection of his silent words are edging into that territory.

Sapphire quirks a smile in his direction. [Not exactly. But it’s rather fun to mix things up a bit, wouldn’t you say?]

Steel’s response to this – a mental grumble, and then a sort of dull, tired acceptance radiating from him. [I’d really rather not.]

Which, of course, means yes.

Chapter Text

Lead offers Sapphire a beaming smile and an outstretched arm. Sapphire returns the smile and tucks her arm into his, and they set off down the lighthouse stairs and out the door and onto a path leading towards the outer parts of the island. And as they leave, Silver and Steel exchange glances and depart too, in another direction – heading for the town below. And of course, we can only follow one of these stories at a time, so it may as be the one that I am more familiar with.

So, imagine, if you will. The camera (such as it is) moving upwards for an overview shot of the two of them as they continue down the path and down to the beaches that encircle the entire island. As soon as they are out of sight of Silver and Steel, they release each other, deigning instead to simply walk side by side – the act of linking arms, while adorably charming, is hard to maintain when Lead is so much larger than Sapphire. They don’t speak much, although Lead hums and sings almost the whole way there – little snippets of songs and carols and shanties, and sometimes Sapphire hums along too, adding her sweet soprano voice to his lower bass.

And before long, they are there at the beach, and it takes them a little under an hour to circle the entire island and make it back to where they started.

“Nothing,” says Sapphire, the first words spoken between them for quite a while, and it’s almost tinged with disappointment. “I was sure that there was something to do with the outer limits of this island, and yet, it’s as though nothing is wrong.”

Lead hums in agreement, a low rumble of sound. “As far as I can see, the only thing odd about these beaches would be the sand.”

“The sand? Yes, I did find that strange.” Sapphire kneels down, lifting up the fabric of her long blue skirt as she does so, and runs her hand through the silt that’s built up on the land over the centuries. “Black sand tends to be a result of placer deposits, or else the residue of basalt from nearby volcanic activity. But I’ve never once heard of grey sand – not like this, anyway.”

And the sand of the beaches is indeed grey, grey like the afternoon sky above, and not the sort of grey you’d expect. No, it’s a uniform, almost solid color, each grain exactly the same as the next, and it doesn’t feel any different from normal sand either. The color starts at the place where the beach meets brown, crumbling grass, and continues down to where it all disappears into the ocean.

Lead laughs after a second, which tends to be Lead’s reaction to anything and everything. “That really is bizarre. Is there any history to it, Sapphire?”

Sapphire’s eyes glow bright, startling blue, but only very briefly, and after a second she’s shaking her head. “No history; none at all. Which is odd in itself, come to think of it. Everything has to have a history.”

Lead inclines his head, and then they’re left with nothing to say. The two of them stare out at the ocean for a second, looking at the mainland on the horizon, and slightly closer than that, a set of rocks that jut out of the water at jagged, sharp angles, like a kraken’s stolen teeth.

And then Lead chuckles after a second, in an almost startled manner. “Maybe we’re going about this wrong.”

Sapphire’s head turns sideways, and she looks at him curiously. “Wrong? Whatever do you mean?”

“You said that there was something odd with the outer limits of the island,” says Lead, and raises a hand to gesture outwards, at the ocean. “Maybe we just haven’t gone far enough.”

Sapphire’s eyebrows rise. “You’re saying the outer limits of the island stretch beyond the land that it occupies?”

“Why not?” laughs Lead. “Seas rise over time, and the outlay of Earth’s landmass has changed drastically over the last couple of centuries.”

Sapphire considers this for barely a second. “That makes more than a lot of sense. If I can find the exact point where the border begins – but that will require going into the ocean, of course.”

“I don’t much enjoy water,” Lead says, smile dropping away briefly. “It and I tend to be a rather toxic mix.”

And besides, the wind is picking up and so are the waves, and even for the two of them, not-quite-human, going into the water at so rough a time would be dangerous.

“It’s a shame that Aluminium isn’t here,” sighs Lead. “This job would be right up her alley.”

“I wonder…” said Sapphire suddenly, and then trailed off. “Lead, it may be a bit much to ask of you – Steel usually takes upon this job, of course, but he isn’t here right now. Would you mind acting as my anchor?”

Lead laughs again, eyes crinkling up at the corners. “Dear Sapphire – do you even need to ask?”

Sapphire clasps his much larger hands in hers briefly, and then drops one of them to her side, closing her eyes. [I’m going to take time back,] she explains silently to Lead.

[To a calmer day?] Lead inquires. [Some time when it would be easier to swim out to the border?]

[If that were the case, then I wouldn’t need you as an anchor, would I?] says Sapphire good-naturedly, and then her eyes snap open, and they’re brightest blue. Around the two of them, time begins to shift, rewinding back and back. It’s slow at first, a vague swirl in the scenery around them, a slight twitch of the sun, but it quickly speeds up. It’s day, then night, then day again.

Lead’s delighted laugh at how fast everything is going is lost in the noise of the cacophony of time. [How far back are you going?]

[Far back enough that Steel would be furious with me if he were here.] There are beads of sweat tricking down Sapphire’s face, and she looks pale and haggard even though it’s been seconds since she began, but she keeps going anyway. Time warps and distorts, and Lead tightens his grip on Sapphire and she squeezes back, and it’s hard to tell whose grip is stronger at this point.

And a very strange thing is beginning to happen. The edge of the shoreline is receding – it’s moving back and forth as the tides shift, but that’s happening almost too quickly to process. Quite apart from that, you can actually see the grey leeching out from the sand, slowly fading back to white, and you can also see the land drying and the beach stretching out longer, and now the jagged rocks in the ocean, once so difficult to get to, are neither in the ocean or difficult to get to any more.

The rate of rewind is slowing once more. Sapphire is gasping aloud – great, heaving breaths, and there might be tears in her glowing blue eyes too. They’ve gone back hundreds upon thousands of years. The island behind them is not populated by people anymore, but there is a jungle there, thick and green, and strange, animal noises are leaking through the blur of time.

[Sapphire.] There’s concern in Lead’s voice. [We’re far enough back now. You can stop.]

[I – yes. Of course.] Sapphire’s free hand clenches tight, and time stops moving. It’s night now, close to midnight if the position of the moon is any indication, and there’s no wind and no clouds. The sand beneath their feet is not quite completely white – there’s still a tinge of grey to it. And the island is bigger now, the ocean having retreated a good hundred metres or so, past the jagged rocks.

“Go,” says Sapphire from between gritted teeth, her voice weak and thready, and then she repeats it in their minds, [go. Find the border point.] It’s not much stronger there either, which Lead definitely seems to find worrying.

[Can you hold it long enough without an anchor?]

[I don’t know.] She looks pained. [There’s only one way to find out. Hurry.]

Lead squeezes her hand once more, and then goes, dashing across the open beach with a pace and grace that doesn’t fit his size and stature at all. He crosses the sand within a matter of seconds, slowing slightly as he reaches the rocks, which are taller than he is and embedded into the ground, and as he reaches the new (old) shoreline, he stretches out a hand as if he’s already anticipated what’s going to happen next.

He slams hand-first into a barrier, initially invisible but at contact, it becomes alive with blue lightning, lighting up the night which had up to then been calm and silent. He lets out a pained, shocked yell, reeling back to fall to the ground. Lead is usually considered a good conductor of electricity, but now this ability fails him – he is effectively stunned.

The lightning continues, radiating out from the point of contact, and now Sapphire can see how large the invisible shield is – it doesn’t just stretch all the way around the island’s border, it is a dome; a large, vast one that blots out the sky and is currently cracking with blue lightning and reflecting in the glow of her eyes. There are no gaps in it, no escape from the island, and there’s probably some sort of connection to be made there, but it is at that very moment that Sapphire loses her fragile grasp on time, and everything un-rewinds – snapping Lead and Sapphire back to the present like a rubber band breaking under too much stress.

And then they are back, and Lead is on the ground with his feet barely in the water, and Sapphire is now kneeling in the sand with her hands to her temples, eyes no longer so very bright.

Lead gets up first, and then offers a hand to Sapphire, pulling her to her feet.

“Well,” says Sapphire eventually. “I believe I just remembered why Steel doesn’t like it when I do that.”

“It certainly was an experience,” agrees Lead, brushing himself off, and then eyeing Sapphire critically for any sign of blemish or injury. “But we did find some valuable things out.”

“Such as the massive force field surrounding this island?” Sapphire says, and then glances over at Lead, who’s now looking to the sky. “‘Force field’ being a human colloquial term derived from a genre they call ‘science-fiction’. A bit kitschy, but it does hold up. But that’s beside the point. "Do you suppose it’s still there?”

“After several million years? It would have to be maintained constantly,” Lead says, and then goes over to where several large rocks have become piled up over time. He picks up the largest of them – as big as his own head – like it weighs absolutely nothing, and then hefts it from hand to hand almost playfully. “Only one way to find out.”

And he crouches down like an Olympian athlete, reels back, and throws it as hard as he can manage, directly upwards. It goes sailing up like a rocket, faster than the eye can process, and after only seconds, collides with the same invisible barrier that was there a million-plus years before. The rock explodes, showering down on them, and the blue lightning flashes across the dome. It’s not quite as stark in the daytime, but the effect is still spectacular.

Steel’s voice echoes in their heads without warning. [Sapphire, was that your doing?]

Sapphire exchanges a smile with Lead. [Yes. That was us. No need to worry, just testing a certain theory we had. How are things where you are?]

[Deserted,] Silver reports, chiming in from nowhere. [We haven’t encountered a single person the entire time we’ve been here, but – oh!]

[What?] Lead wonders when Silver doesn’t expand on this. [What have you found?]

There is complete radio silence for several minutes, although ‘radio’ isn’t really the right term for it. Steel and Silver do not talk for a good long while, and so it’s startling when that silence is broken – by Silver yelling out in shock, no less.

[Steel, watch out! – he’s got a knife!]

Chapter Text

And now let’s take things back a while, to where we were just before we began following Sapphire and Lead’s progress. We won’t be going as far back in time as Sapphire just did, but it’s effective enough for storytelling purposes to rewind to follow Steel and Silver all the way through their side adventure, so to speak.

So let us skip the walk down to town, wherein Silver proceeded to annoy Steel greatly all the way in many ways, and let us subsequently get to the interesting part of the situation – the town itself.

At first glance, the town might have appeared to be an extremely welcoming, friendly place – after all, all the doors to houses and stores alike have been left wide open! And the ones that aren’t, well, they’re unlocked anyway.

But of course, things can never be that simple, because the streets of this tiny, unnamed town are completely empty, with not a soul in sight except for the two well-dressed men making their way down the central street leading through it. And as Silver goes up to check each and every house while Steel waited impatiently on the sidewalk for him to finish, something very important becomes apparent.

“There’s nobody here,” Silver says, descending down from the thirtieth house that they have checked so far. “All of these residences are completely empty.”

Steel scowls – well, his current scowl deepens, anyway – and starts walking a bit faster down the main street, shoes clicking on the rough gravel road. Silver has to hurry to keep up.

“It’s strange, though,” Silver adds, now keeping even pace with his colleague. “Everything else is in place. Furniture, belongings – even some food is there, as if the residents were about to start eating. But there’s not a living being anywhere.

“Living being?” Steel asks, with a quirked eyebrow. “Does that include-?”

“Well, I certainly haven’t seen any birds around, have you?” Silver glances up to the sky, grey as anything above them, and gestures aimlessly. “Let alone cats, dogs, mice… oh, whatever humans keep as pets nowadays. Axolotls?”

As they approach the last house on the block, something happens above them. The sky above explodes with crackling blue lightning, and for a second an invisible dome scoping across the sky goes terrifyingly opaque. But within seconds, things are back to normal. The sky is grey once more, and Steel is already speaking silently, words echoing around all of their heads. [Sapphire, was that your doing?]

[Yes,] says Sapphire promptly, [that was us. No need to worry, just testing a certain theory we had. How are things where you are?]

[Deserted,] says Silver, now ascending the steps to the final house – the door of which is wide open. [We haven’t encountered a single person the entire time we’ve been here, but – oh!]

He’s stopped in the doorway, hands braced on either side of the frame, and he’s staring with a slightly startled expression on his face inside.

“Silver?” Steel asks aloud after a second, approaching.

[What? What have you found?] asks Lead, from somewhere very far away, but Silver is speaking over him, so his words are lost.

“There’s somebody here,” says Silver, nodding towards the kitchen of the small living space, which is visible from where they are. They can see somebody’s leg and bare foot, not entirely visible but definitely still there, and hear the sound of rustling and clinking – cutlery and food, by the sounds of it.

Steel takes an audible step forwards into the house. The rustling and clinking abruptly stops.

 “We know you’re there,” Steel says. “There’s no need to make it any harder for you. Kindly show yourself, now.”

Silver sighs, somewhat long-sufferingly. “Steel, there is no possible way you could have made that sound more threatening. Why don’t we just –”

The shadow of the person in the kitchen moves suddenly, darting across the room and grabbing something that neither of them can quite see. And then everything’s still again.

“We don’t intend to hurt you,” Silver says, quite reasonably. “Don’t mind Steel – we’re only here to figure out what’s going on.”

A second passes; and then two, and then Steel starts forward, fists clenched lightly by his sides. He reaches the doorway, and Silver is still hanging back in the entrance hall, but he sees what’s coming before Steel does. A glint of silver – no pun intended, of course – flashing, swinging in Steel’s direction. He starts out of his position, one hand outstretched – [Steel, watch out! – he’s got a knife!]

Steel barely reacts to this, and only turns slightly, folds his arms, and levels a completely unimpressed glance at his attacker.

Down comes the blade – slashing fast, edge wickedly sharp – but although it slices easily through the finely-tailored material of Steel’s coat and shirt, it doesn’t even graze his skin. The blade simply stops, unable to pierce any further.

The man that’s holding the knife – now fully revealed to both Steel and Silver – is glancing between Steel’s stony expression and his apparently useless knife with his eyes wide and his mouth slightly open. Steel and Silver don’t recognize him – well, of course they don’t, they’ve never seen him before – but I highly suspect you and I will. Grease-stained, dirty grey shirt and trousers, scraggly beard and uncombed hair, perpetually terrified – yes, it’s the lighthouse engineer.

“Nice try,” says Steel – this is possibly the most humorous thing he will ever say in at any point in his life, so please take a moment to make a note of that – and grabs the engineer’s hand, the one that’s holding the knife, twisting it sharply around so it flies out of his hand and lands with a clatter on a linoleum side table. “But completely useless.” He grips the man’s other hand too, locking both of them in place. The engineer whimpers faintly.

“Ah, but of course,” Silver says, with an almost relieved smile. [There was never any need to worry about that, how silly of me. Your relative density is high – you’re quite the man of steel, aren’t you?]

Steel turns his furious glare from the engineer to Silver, and looks like he’s about to say something cutting and acerbic, but that’s all the opening the engineer needs to squirm and wriggle his way out of the deceptively small Element’s grasp. Even before Steel has a chance to react, the engineer has already lunged, scooping his abandoned knife off of the side table, and he holds it up, hands trembling. “Stay back.”

“Oh, be reasonable,” Silver says, utterly exasperated. “We’ve already established that Steel can’t be blemished by anything short of a plasma cutter, and sometimes not even that – believe me, I’d know. Now, why don’t we talk this over like civilized beings?”

“I said stay back!” The engineer’s voice steeply increases in pitch. His hands are still shaking, but he hasn’t dropped the knife yet. “I’m warning you –”

“Oh, you are?” Steel’s smile is strangely sharp around the edges. He takes a step forward. Even though he’s much smaller than the engineer, the movement is still oddly threatening.

Silver mirrors him, lightly resting his hand on Steel’s elbow. He shoots him a warning frown – and here we see time freeze for a second, because the following stream of communication takes place faster than any human could process.

[Steel!] reprimands Silver. [Really now – can’t you see the poor man’s terrified?]

[You seem to have missed the part where he tried to stab me,] Steel returns, less than a millisecond later, and taking about that much time to do it, too. [The time for diplomacy is long past, Silver.]

[If you’d just let me talk to him –]

And here time resumes, with Steel already in motion to grab the human man’s hands again, to restrain him – but the engineer is already moving, ducking swiftly underneath Steel’s arms and dodging towards the still-open door.

[Silver!] Steel barks out silently, swivelling – Silver’s closest, of course, so it would make more sense for him to complete the task. And Silver, despite not being an Operator (and having refused taking part in the more active parts of assignments endlessly in the past) is already moving to intercept the engineer, with one hand outreached and the other digging around in his pocket, presumably to pull out some kind of device –

But he never gets to retrieve it. Before Silver – or Steel, for that matter – can do anything at all, the engineer has spun around with a glint of bright, deadly metal shining in their hands and slashed – one, two, one, two – four times across Silver’s upper chest.

The fabric tears.

So does Silver.

There’s a brief moment where he lets out the tiniest of gasps of surprise, and then he goes down like his strings have been cut, crumpling to the ground in a manner that would be almost comical in any other situation.

The engineer is already gone, dashing out the door like the hounds of hell are behind him. Steel spares him perhaps half a glance, and then all his attention is on Silver, who is breathing quickly and shallowly, using one elbow to half-prop himself up. His free hand is pressed tightly to his chest. He looks pained and shocked.

Steel is by him in an instant, kneeling awkwardly on the ground next to him and lifting his head into his lap. “How bad is it?”

“Quite bad,” Silver coughs, wincing. “If I were human… I – I suspect I would be dead already.”

Steel peels Silver’s hands away with an easy strength, despite the other man’s protests. He’s bleeding quite profusely from the central wound. The color of the blood isn’t quite right, of course, and neither is the consistency. It’s shiny and metallic and thicker than a human’s, but the amount of it is still rather alarming. The cut itself, at least, is clean – nothing caught in it, no debris.

Steel shoves Silver’s hands back onto the wound rather inelegantly. “Press here,” he instructs.

“That was what I was already doing –”

Element biology is never quite the same from individual to individual – all of us tend to have different makeups, and often certain quirks that differentiate us from the rest. Steel, as you’ve already seen, has abnormally hard skin, and there is an entire section of us that will bubble and occasionally explode in contact with water. But all of us, while we’re in humanoid forms, at least, are vulnerable to harm. We can gain injuries. We can be hurt – although it often takes more effort than it would a human. And of course, we can die. (Although it almost never comes to that.)

[What’s happening, Steel?] says Lead – both he and Sapphire have been both trying to reach them for the greater part of the last ten minutes, but it’s the first time that Steel is registering it.

[Silver got stabbed,] Steel says curtly.

[It’s not that bad,] Silver says – lies, of course, but his mental voice is a lot stronger than his physical one, [although I must admit, I feel extremely cut up about the whole situation.]

[Stabbed? What happened?] Lead says.

Sapphire chimes in too. [I thought there were no humans on this island – ]

Steel sends her a brief flash of the confrontation as it happened several minutes ago, and then Sapphire sends back the mental equivalent of a tense nod. [Meet back at the lighthouse as soon as you are able,] she suggests. [And Silver needs to leave. Now.]

Steel hums in agreement, and then her presence is gone from his mind. He turns back to Silver. His eyes are closed, but he’s still applying pressure to the wound. “Silver?”

His eyes remain closed, and he sounds annoyed that Steel’s talking to him. [Yes, Steel. I’m awake.]

“Silver, you need to leave before your condition deteriorates.” Steel waits for a second, and then two, and Silver still isn’t answering, so he snaps: “Silver! This is no time to be obstinate! Get a hold of yourself!”

[Hm – leave?] Silver’s eyes open halfway. [To the… ah, yes, of course. I had been meaning too, but I was…]

Silver.” Steel grips his colleague’s arm painfully tight.

Silver lets out an audible yelp, and then glares at him. “I’m leaving – I’m leaving!”

He takes a moment to shut his eyes once more, but this time he’s concentrating, hard. After a second, he opens them. He looks immensely puzzled. [It’s not working.]

“Silver, really now,” Steel snaps, “now is not the time for your games – you are dying as we speak!”

[I’m not – Steel, do you really think I would gamble with my own life like that?] Silver shifts, wincing, and directs a hard stare at the other man. [I can’t leave. Something’s not letting me.]

[That’s ridiculous.] And then Steel tries to leave, himself, and he frowns as he realizes that he can’t. There’s a presence of some sort, blocking him and preventing him from moving past the boundaries of the world he’s existing on. [Well, then – transform. Take on another body, anything will do.]

Shifting from one material form to another and then back again should allow Elements to return the first form to normal, like erasing a chalkboard. Silver clenches his hands tight and briefly flickers into the form of a taller man with dark hair and brown skin, but just as quickly he’s back into his normal body, looking exhausted and ill. He’s still bleeding, and maybe it’s even more than before.

[Blocked again,] he tells Steel. [It’s no use, I suspect. Whatever doesn’t want us to leave is obviously much stronger than we – well, than I am.]

Steel looks grim. “Well, we need to get to the lighthouse, and I can’t leave you here.” He slips an arm underneath Silver’s legs, and one under his shoulders and then – “Keep pressing on the wound.”

[I – yes. Right. Of course.]

Steel lifts Silver easily. Maybe a little too easily, because he overbalances slightly, tipping backwards and stumbling into a wall. Silver nearly slides out of his arms and to the floor, but Steel catches him quickly, and with a (delightfully rare) muttered apology, too.

“I didn’t expect today… to end… with me falling for you…” Silver mutters in barely a whisper.

“I may drop you,” Steel says flatly, straightening up as he does so. “On purpose, this time.”

“And then I’d really be falling for you.” Silver’s voice cracks slightly towards the end of the sentence, and then he audibly swallows. [Let’s get going.]

Chapter Text

The four of them converge on a central point within only minutes – the lighthouse. Sapphire and Lead arrive first, which means that they can see the prints of bare feet leading up the dirt path, and the way that the door to the lighthouse has been shut again and bolted as tightly as it can be. But Steel isn’t there yet, so they wait.

And not long after that, they can see Steel walking briskly up the path, his progress entirely unimpeded by the fact that he’s carrying Silver in his arms. Sapphire and Lead exchange worried glances when they realize this, and then go out to meet them.

“I thought Silver had left,” Sapphire says as they meet each other halfway down the path. She touches Steel’s arm lightly by means of greeting. “It’s not safe for him to stay like this.”

“He tried,” Steel says, adjusting his position. “There’s some sort of block that we couldn’t manage to get around. We need to find the source of the disturbance, fast.”

“It’s moved back to the lighthouse,” Sapphire says, looking absently up the path. “I distinctly felt it travel back up there.”

Lead joins them. “Hello there, little Silver,” he says, and pats Silver’s arm with one massive hand. “You aren’t looking so well.”

Silver cracks his eyes open, which have up until now been closed, and quirks a sort of half-smile in Lead’s direction. [I’m not feeling so well, either.]

Steel takes charge, as he frequently tends to do. “Lead. You stay out here with Silver. Sapphire and I will go in to confront the Time breakage.”

Silver is dropped unceremoniously, but not ungently, into Lead’s arms. He mutters something indistinct and then winces again. His hands are now sticky and dark with partially congealed blood, and the pressure he’s applying isn’t as strong as it was ten minutes ago. Lead sits down, his back to a tree, and nods at Sapphire and Steel. “I have him. Go.”

Sapphire pauses for a second, and then comes to kneel next to Silver. She brushes some hair to the side, and then kisses him on the forehead. “As soon as you think you can, leave this place.”

Silver tilts his head to one side, and then, improbably, winks at her.

At this, Sapphire laughs, barely – it’s just a faint, silent chuckle and a shake of her shoulders, and then she stands up. “We’ll be quick,” she promises.

As they approach the lighthouse once more, the sky is already beginning to darken. Vast grey clouds are gathering, shooting across the sky as if moving into place. A storm is coming, and when it hits, it won’t be pretty in the least.

The door – that thick, double-bolted door – well, that’s barely a problem. It’s already weakened and cracked from Lead’s earlier assault, but there’s no time to grapple with it now. So instead, Sapphire takes time back fifteen minutes; allows them to enter the lighthouse when the door was still open, and then lets everything snap into place once that’s done. It’s a crude way of doing it, and They certainly would not approve, but desperate times call for desperate measures. They need to be quick, they need all the time they can muster.

The two of them, Sapphire and Steel, halt just before the steps for a brief second, and exchange glances. From up the stairs, they can hear the distinct sound of a phone ringing, and beyond that there’s thunder rumbling in the distance.

And then they run – Sapphire hitching up her long blue skirts and kicking off her heels so they disappear into thin air even as Steel simply dashes. And as fast as they’re running, it still doesn’t change the fact that even as they pass the halfway point of the spiral staircase, the phone abruptly stops ringing and then there is silence.

Sapphire is first into the engineer’s room, and she sees instantly that there is nobody there. The beds are neatly made. There are no personal items, or impersonal ones for that matter. The wardrobe door has been left wide open, and there are no clothes of any sort inside. There’s no indication that anybody ever resided in this room.

And then there’s the matter of the telephone, which her eyes fall onto just as Steel joins her in the doorway. The receiver is lying on the table, face-up, in a manner that seems to invite the observer to pick it up.

After a split second, Steel continues up the stairs, going up to the lighthouse’s peak. It’s only moments before he reports back – [the man, the person who stabbed Silver. He’s not here.]

[I’m positive he entered the lighthouse,] Sapphire replies. She hasn’t moved since she arrived in this room. [Either there’s a hidden exit we don’t know about, or he was taken.]

Steel returns, descending the stairs to join her once more. [The disturbance moved back into this place, you said? Where is it?]

“I’m not sure,” says Sapphire aloud – and she reaches out a hand into the air, as if feeling at the currents, at the ebb and flow of the space around her. She finds nothing there, and looks as if she’s about to withdraw, but…

…but then the phone begins to ring again, loud and plaintive. Sapphire’s eyes narrow.

“Found it,” she says sharply, and moves forward to snatch up the phone. She holds it to her ear, and the ringing stops – of course. She hears nothing – it’s as if the line’s dead, and she frowns. After a second, she presses the receiver closer, straining to hear, and after another moment, she can hear something. A faint hissing in the distance, and if she listens very closely, she can almost make out shadowy, faint words.

“Hello?” she says, as if it’s only a regular phone that she’s answering. One that’s plugged in, someplace normal, and not filled with an unknown, malevolent entity.

And then there’s more static in her ear, rising and receding in a distant tide. It, quite suddenly, swells in volume, fizzing and buzzing inquisitively and there’s a clear, unspoken understanding that whatever inhabits the phone has heard Sapphire’s greeting.

 The whispering seems closer now – wheezing loud, and then soft, like a person who can’t quite breathe properly.

“Hello. My name is Sapphire,” she says into the receiver, enunciating her words clearly. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see Steel – hovering in the doorway, watching silently with an unreadable expression his face. “I’m afraid you’ll have to speak up – we have a terrible connection.”

There’s a scratchy rattle in her ear that might have been a feeble chuckle, but sounds flat, with any mirth drained from it. It sounds dead, like laughter curdled and gone sour.

“We know you’ve done something to the people on this island and to the island itself.” says Sapphire. “We’re here to help.” But maybe not you, is the unspoken addition to that. "If you remove the barriers preventing us from leaving this place, we can negotiate,” Sapphire continues. She is uncharacteristically nervous, although she is barely showing it. A slight tightening of her hand, bunching up the fabric of her skirt, is the only outward sign she would ever give. “Whatever it is you want…”

Something like a sigh breathes softly through the earpiece followed by the distinctive sound of something snuffling and growling in pleasure. And then the scratchy whispering and hissing is echoing down the line. “Yhhhh…

 Sapphire tilts her head inquisitively, and says nothing. Waiting for it to make some sense.

“Yhhh… orrr… hisss….

The voice – or voices, there’s a multitude of them there, all speaking together in a jumbled, tangled mass – are nightmarish and ghastly.

Hisssss… ttorr… ee….

“My history?” Sapphire asks, piecing together the words, and frowning. “What about my history?”

Isss… deeee… liciousss….” The last part of the sentence trails off sibilantly, and then there’s that faded, curdled laughter once more. It could almost be a chuckle.

“My history… is delicious,” says Sapphire aloud. She sounds half-puzzled, half-horrified. To Lead, still outside, she asks – [how is he?]

[Fading,] is the terse response. There’s no laughter, no levity. It’s completely unlike Lead’s usual jovial personality. [Hurry.]

“You took the engineer, didn’t you?” Sapphire asks the phone; the entity inside it. “And the rest of them – Jade, Sandstone, Bismuth… everybody on this island. Why?

“Deliiiii…cious…” it crackles again.

“You ate them,” she says, speaking to herself more than anything else. “Ate them – no, not them, you ate their history. Their time. That’s how you’ve survived for so long, isn’t it? Sustaining yourself at the expense of others!”

A long, long silence occurs – not even the crackling of shadows, and then – “Yyyyou.

“Me?”

That laugh, that laugh, that blasted, dreadful, cursed laugh. “Next. Yyyou – are next. Sapphire.

And this is what we see happen next, and we see it do so in slow motion.

We see Sapphire, drawing the receiver away from her with a shocked expression on her face, moving as quick as she can manage. But it’s not quick enough, because even as she moves to throw it away from her, she is fading, collapsing into millions upon thousands of particles, being torn asunder from this plane. And she is already opening her mouth to scream something, but she can’t quite form the words because for her, it’s too late.

And we see Steel, reaching out for her, fingers ready to grasp hers if he could reach. He’s already too late, and on some level he already knows this. But his mouth is already forming her name, and he looks so utterly desperate, and –

Flash.

Everything goes blue.

And outside the lighthouse, just off the rough dirt path, there’s Lead, who’s watching the storm clouds gather overhead with a solemn expression. Silver, silent and pale as death, is cradled in his arms, unmoving. But when there is a flash of brilliantly blue lightning from the top of the lighthouse, Silver opens his eyes and turns to look, and so does lead. The lightning flashes, connecting with the barrier surrounding the island, and lighting everything around them. There are wildly moving, crazily scattered shadows everywhere the eye can see.

And then, inside the lighthouse, Steel reaches the spot where Sapphire had been, but the lightning is clearing as quickly as it came, and she is already gone. Not a speck of her remains.

The red phone receiver clatters to the ground.

Steel is alone.


 

And then… hm.

Right now, I’m wondering if it’s really necessary to describe the next part of the story, since all it really would do is bring us to where we are right now, and you know it already, don’t you? But, I suppose, for completeness’s sake…

All right.

Sapphire, or the representation of her that is formed in this… other way of existing – she is standing at the edge of the barrier separating her from everything else, with a spectral hand hovering just before touching it and a look of absolutely devastation on her face. She has been cut off from everything. She has no sense of time, of knowledge that she could have easily plucked from a vast pool of information in any other place – for all intents and purposes, Sapphire is just as human as the rest of the lost souls inhabiting this place.

Here, her skirt is no longer blue, and she has faded along with it to a dull tone of grey.

For a while, or lack of a while, she attempted to find others like her – her colleagues, her friends. She reasoned that, since she still had full use of her faculties, they would have had no problem retaining their sense of self. But that was not to be the case – every being in this place is as faceless as the next, and none of them seem to retain their memories. They could have been animals or humans, it didn’t matter. They wander, blank-eyed, listless, muttering indistinctly and drifting past each other, and – Sapphire had understood, with a dawning sense of dread, she would soon become one of them.

It’s only a matter of time, and she knows this. She can feel herself fading into the crowd, and has no real way of preventing it, and – she now realizes, horrified, that her memories are leaving too. Old houses full of clocks and errant nursery rhymes – nothing but fog. Train stations and flowers and barbed wire and lanterns and séances – gone too, even more quickly. And the assignment, that horrible, awful assignment that she had always wished to forget, the one that ended with them trapped in the void for all eternity until they weren’t (and oh, what a thrilling escape that had been), she can feel it fading too, and for the first time she wishes that it wouldn’t. And then it’s gone, and she wants it back so very much, but there’s no stopping this numbness that’s creeping over her – not here, not in this place.

I’m Sapphire, she tells herself over and over again, I’m Sapphire, that’s who I am, and then she starts to tell a story aloud to herself, words spilling out of her mouth in an incomprehensible stream, but she’s got to keep the tale of her last assignment alive in her head, because even if she doesn’t know what the assignment was for, it’s all she has left.

And at some point midway through these retellings – her words growing shaky and her voice shattered, somebody interrupts her, and Sapphire physically reels back, eyes wide. And then her expression softens, and she stops talking, and she smiles, slowly.

“Excuse me,” they say – they are as nameless and featureless as everybody around them, but they are talking, which is a miracle in itself – “I don’t remember who I am, or what I’m doing here, or – or, anything, really, but…” And they swallow, or do the equivalent of it anyway. “I think. I mean. I think I remember – I really like stories? And I heard you, and you were…” and they trail off, out of courage, and they look like they’re going to fade back into the crowd, but then Sapphire turns from the barrier, and reaches to place a hand on their shoulder.

“You,” she says, looking a little more colourful than she was a few seconds ago. “You – you really are something special, I think.”

This person – and they are you, of course, although you knew that already! – looks distinctly uncomfortable, and shifts from one foot to another. “No,” you say, “I’m not something special, I’m… I’m nobody.”

“We all are, here,” says Sapphire, and there’s a touch of sadness to it, and then she quite suddenly sinks down to the ground, crossing her legs neatly and smoothing down her now slate-grey skirt. She’s patting the ground next to her, and after a second, you join her on the ground, albeit slightly less elegantly. “You enjoy stories, you said?” And at your nod, she chuckles, a bit deprecatingly, and confides: “I’m afraid I may have only one left to tell. So if you don’t enjoy that one, we may be at a bit of a loss for things to pass the time.”

“I think any story would work at this point,” you tell her.

And Sapphire – although you don’t know her (know me) as that yet – oh, she smiles thinly again and bows her head for a second, trying to pull her shattered thoughts together, and then she begins to speak, and she begins in a rather unorthodox way too: “Sometimes, it's more than a bit of a tragedy that real life can't be structured like a film, don’t you think?”

You know how the rest goes.

Chapter Text

And now here we are, and I fear that all the story I had in me is gone. We are here in this place, and as strong as you were and are to pull yourself from nonexistence in order to listen to me, you will undoubtedly be gone soon. And then, soon after, I will follow.

What was that?

What…? No. I don’t especially think that –

I –

Oh!

No, you’re right, you’re right, of course you are. There is absolutely no point in giving up. I don’t know what I was thinking – it must be the effects of this place. I would normally never – I wouldn’t – I –

Never mind that, now, we must find a way to leave this place. I am without any sort of powers, so we will have to be creative. Do me a favour, look beyond the barrier with me. Maybe if we both concentrate, we will be able to see beyond it – back into the real world.

Do it now. There’s no time to lose!


 

Back in the realm of existence, a long way removed from where we are now, Steel has just seen Sapphire fade and collapse, and oh, he is furious. He is quite the sight to behold – brows narrowed, lips tight; an utterly intimidating immovable object and unstoppable force all at once. He is trying to contact Sapphire, but she is not responding – any signals sent out to her just reverberate back to him, as if they are hitting a solid surface and bouncing back, unheard.

The storm is still raging outside, and the telephone has begun to ring again, which means that the creature within the telephone can’t be done yet, and it’s only a matter of time before Steel is taken the same way that Sapphire was. Now that it knows they’re there –

So there’s no time to lose, and Steel needs to think fast. And think fast he does.

Here is what he knows.

The creature in the telephone isn’t necessarily always in the telephone, and at the first sign of danger it is able to retreat to somewhere else, somewhere that it can’t be caught, not by them anyway.

The creature is connected to the people it has consumed, and directly – you cannot have one without the other.

The creature needs to feed – on living history, no less, and by the look of it, it’s been requiring more and more of that energy recently. Desperation equals recklessness – more chance for success.

If the creature could be convinced to stay inside the telephone, then it is more than possible that breaking the telephone itself could restore sense and equilibrium to the island. Or maybe not convince, not in the traditional sense – forcing it to stay within would work equally as well.

So this is what happens. Steel forces himself to a state of calm, and steps back towards the walls of the room, away from the telephone, even as lightning crackles and thunder roars like the furious howling of an ancient god. And as rain begins to fall all over the island, and the temperature outside drops, so does Steel’s own temperature. Down, down – edging closer and closer towards below zero, and dropping quicker and quicker. He’s shaking almost imperceptibly as he stands up, but he steps towards the phone with the bright red telephone on it with a singleminded determination.

Seconds before he touches the phone, it stops ringing, and the thunder above cuts off abruptly – as if the creature has suddenly become aware of what is happening, and is trying to escape what it does. But for the thing inside the telephone, it’s far too late.

As soon as Steel’s hands contact the red plastic, frost spreads instantly – covering the phone in a thick layer, spreading out to the table, freezing it in place. It shouldn’t work to actually hold the creature inside the phone for a great deal of reasons, but Time and Elements have always worked in strange ways.

There is a scream – terrible and distant, with the voices of a million horrors. And outside, the storm freezes – clouds stop moving and the rain stops falling – actually halting in place, like it’s been put on pause. Then the raindrops crystalize into ice, and fall – shattering as they hit the ground.

Everything’s silent and still outside. But it’s not over yet – no, not quite.

Steel’s movements are stiff and shaky as he leans heavily on the table, frost forming on his ashen skin. He never should have attempted a full lowering of his body temperature without insulation, but there was simply no time to call Lead in for help.

He has one last thing to do. The irregularity may be inactive for the moment, but it is still there; trapped like a malevolent genie inside its bottle. And there is only one way to deal with it.

Steel swings clumsily at the table with an elbow, and knocks it over. The telephone tumbles off it and skids across the ground, practically frozen in a block of ice, cracks already beginning to form.

And Steel looks down at the telephone with an impassive expression, and violently brings down a foot on it. The force behind it is enough to shatter the phone completely, breaking it into millions of tiny, frozen pieces. And that’s enough. Just like that, the irregularity has been dealt with – it is gone forever.

And then something, somewhere changes. There is a burst of light, a ray of sunshine, a crescendo of song, and –

With a sound like an eternity’s worth of rushing wind, everybody spills out of the other place. Hundreds of thousands of years of vanished beings – animals and humans alike – all end up in the lighthouse, crammed into the engineer’s room, tightly packed around the balcony of the light, spilling down the stairs. It’s noisy and chaotic; everybody is talking at once – emotions ranging from confused to joyful. The residents of the previously-empty village are reuniting with each other, with people that they had once assumed to be lost. Mothers rush to their children; husbands to their wives, and Steel is pushed to the side in the rush of people trying to get to each other.

And he’s scanning the crowd impatiently for a flash of blue fabric or blonde hair, but she’s not there. Not yet.

The Elements, the ones that were trapped alongside with all of the humans and animals in the telephone, they come next. Maybe it’s because they just had so much more history, or maybe it was something about their biological makeup, but they took slightly longer to emerge from the other space. And all of them, they’re there. 

Magnesium, sparking and crackling as she lands inelegantly halfway down the stairs and has to steady herself against a wall. Charm, who appears completely unruffled by the experience, and levels one of their inscrutable smiles at Steel, who is sitting down heavily near a wall – the change in everything has warmed him considerably, but he’s not quite recovered yet.

You can tell Ruby’s there because she starts singing, the melody rising up above the crowd without any words necessary. And then there’s Cerium and Titanium and Copper and Jet, and there’s already silent, not-quite out loud questions flying this way and that as for the first time in millennia, a large group of our number are together without any idea what’s going on.

Sandstone emerges from the top of the stairwell, tracking chalky dust as she goes, and right behind her Agate’s there too, skin sparkling faintly in the light that’s now streaming in from the windows.

The door opens, and Lead is now visible, holding it open so everybody can leave. There are large bloodstains all over his jacket, but it’s mostly disguised by the darkness of the fabric. And he’s grinning ever so widely, so nothing could have gone that wrong. His booming laughter echoes out around the lighthouse, and it gets even louder when he sees Bismuth, who has just arrived and is beaming like the sun at his presence.

This place has been cold and empty for so long, and now it’s filled with all of the sounds of warmth and happiness.

“Aha,” says Jade, who abruptly begins to exist halfway through her bending down to retrieve her peacoat from the ground, where Silver folded it earlier. “You kept my coat,” she says to Lead, which is the closest she will ever get to thanking somebody, and gives him a nod and what might be the beginnings of a smile.

The crowd is beginning to move down the stairs – they are all quite confused, but know that the lighthouse isn’t a place that they want to be in. The animals that haven’t already left are herded out – birds and cats and donkeys and the rare horse.

And during all this, Silver arrives, materializing rather suddenly to land cross-legged on one of the engineer’s beds. He is grinning widely, and completely whole. There is no indication that he was ever stabbed in the first place. “I take it that the irregularity has been dealt with?”

Steel looks him over once, then lets slip a rare, genuine smile. But then he looks grim again, and eyes the shattered pieces of the red telephone without a word. He’s shivering lightly still.

“Whatever’s the matter?” Silver says lightly, teasingly. “No need to look so unhappy, Steel – aren’t you relieved it’s all over? Why –”

And then Silver realizes. You can tell by the look of realization that creeps across his face that he’s seen it – seen what, or rather who is missing.

“Oh, no,” he says softly, “oh dear. Steel – where’s Sapphire?”

And all Steel can do is shake his head.


 

But I’m fine, of course. Silly man. I’ll be with them in a moment, but I have some things to deal with first.

Back in the other place – the place where all the souls were up until very recently residing – there are three beings left. There is you, of course, who has elected to stay with me until the end of this little misadventures, and there’s me.

And then there’s the engineer.

He is no longer faceless, but he looks horrified at what he’s done and terrified of me. And rightfully so. He caused all of this – perhaps not directly, but he was the one who fed thousands upon hundreds of people to the creature in the phone so that he, personally, would not have to stop existing. He did it to them all, until he was the only one left, and when the creature inside it because too impatient for ready-made, pre-packaged meals, it ate him as well. Poetic justice, in a way.

The greatest monster of all – humanity, at its worst, at its most desperate.

But now he’ll be allowed to leave. He’ll be allowed to go back to his lonely job at the lighthouse, and continue work – and now that the barrier is gone, he’ll have to do the work he is meant to do. Maintaining the lighthouse, not feeding innocents to a creature beyond his realm of imagination.

He’s so scared right now. He thinks I’m about to snap, or perhaps snap him. Maybe that would be poetic justice, too, if he died in this place that he himself enabled the creature to create. It might even be satisfying.

…but you’re right. That isn’t the type of story we are telling here.

So we’ll let the engineer go – see, he’s leaving already – and let Time take its course on him however it wishes. Perhaps he’ll drown tomorrow, or in a week, or maybe he’ll live long enough to see new generations move on and off the unnamed island. Maybe he’ll move off the island himself, or maybe he’ll stay there forever. Maybe he’ll die. Maybe he’ll live. Who knows? He’s already gone.

Now there’s just the two of us, alone in the place.

I wonder how this story ends?

Well, I can promise you this – when you leave this place, you’ll have forgotten everything that I’ve told you. I’m really very sorry about this, but there’s really nothing I can do about it. All of the other humans that have already departed are already going about their lives as if nothing had ever happened, and maybe that’s a good thing. Humans really aren’t meant to experience that sort of trauma.

And – yes, well, maybe you could be trusted to carry all this knowledge, but I can’t go around making exceptions, and besides, it’s not really up to me. It’s up to Time, and Time isn’t very lenient.

We should be going soon. I’m sure this place will cease to exist shortly, and I don’t think we want to be here when it does. That sort of thing is never pleasant, trust me.

Ah. I see. You don’t want to forget.

That’s reasonable, I suppose. But as I’ve told you already, there’s nothing I can do.

I –

Hm.

Well, maybe there’s something. It really isn’t much, but… well.

I’ve been telling this story to you the whole time, and that’s mainly because I played a leading role in it. But you’ve become a character too, in the time that we’ve spent in this place, and I feel that you have just as much of a right as I do to tell it. So, here’s what I propose.

I will leave this place first. And by the time you exit, I will be gone, because the only reason the rest of the Elements are still outside is because they’re waiting for me. But while you still have that moment of uncertainty – a lack of knowledge of what’s going on – you can finish the story for the both of us, and describe how all of this ends. I know it’s nothing grand, but perhaps the act of concluding will fix it in your memory better than anything else ever could.

Oh, I know. Whatever you decide to tell may not be accurate to real life, but it’s not as if anybody is going to come and tell you that your version of events is different to reality, because nobody will remember. What you make up will be as real as anything else ever could be.

I will likely never see you again, my friend, but it was a pleasure telling my tale to you. You are a truly remarkable specimen among humans.

Goodbye.

How you decide to end all of this is up to you.