The city was quite beautiful. It stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction. Its boulevards were filled with greenery and, from the vantage point of High Tower it looked more like a park: a sequence of gardens, some geometrically laid out, some flowing and free. Tall spires emerged above the trees at regular intervals to create a skyline of delicate points and soaring filigree.
The only limit to the city was the imagination. Though, Sapphire thought, not entirely kindly, imagination could be quite limited at times. Beside her Steel was still, but she could feel impatience emanating off him. For him, the view was of little interest.
"I'm sorry to have kept you waiting."
Air was suddenly with them. These days her form was barely human, she was opaque like thin clouds and it was difficult to tell where the swirling drapes that covered her form ended and flesh and skin began. Here and now, their forms were as illusory as the city outside and the high tower room they were in, but most still reverted to some semblance of the humanity they dimly recalled.
Sapphire inclined her head and smiled. Hers was the role of diplomat, even among their own kind. "It was no trouble."
Air glanced at Steel and a small smile hovered at the corners of her mouth, but she said nothing.
"To business then," she said.
"You have a task for us?" Steel demanded.
"Of sorts, though it is not of the usual kind and you will need to proceed with caution."
"What is it?"
"I'll start by asking you a question. Who among us is the eldest do you think?"
Steel looked at Sapphire, then shrugged and turned back to Air. "I don't know. One out of you, Fire and Earth, I would say."
Air nodded. "Don't you find that curious?"
Steel shook his head. "Each one of us that is created is an echo of someone lost into time. As an echo we are shaped into something that that person considers one of the fundamental building blocks of their world. In ancient times those elements were Earth, Air, Fire and Water. These days they are things like Photon, Tau Neutrino, W, Z, Strange and Charm." There was a note of disapproval in Steel's voice about the fads of the young, with particular disdain for Charm who, Sapphire felt, embodied all the aspects of Silver that Steel found most irritating.
Air raised an eyebrow.
Sapphire clasped her hands together, quickly reviewing the conversation from the past thirty seconds. "Where is Water?" she asked.
"Indeed," Air said.
Steel frowned. "Has there ever been a Water? Maybe they were very old. All echoes fade eventually."
Air shook her head. "I have no memory of a Water; I find that very strange."
"And you've never wondered about it before now?" Sapphire asked.
"That is very strange as well, especially considering that the current moment is so unusually difficult," Air said.
"There have been a lot of missions." Steel said. He said it like a fact but Sapphire could tell it was intended to press for more information. She hoped he wasn't as transparent to Air as he was to her.
Air just nodded.
"We've been stretched thin for some time. Time is constantly breaking through," Sapphire added.
Air nodded again. "I think we are fighting the symptoms of a bigger problem."
"And that problem is related to Water's absence," Sapphire said.
"Suppose there was a Water up to, say, forty years ago. That was when things became noticeably more chaotic." Steel said. "Then something happened so that Water was unmade. Water became a never was. That would be a massive disturbance. It would create echoes and crises throughout the web of time."
"Your thinking concurs with mine," Air said.
"But who or what could be powerful enough to do such a thing?" Steel asked.
"I might be able to, just, if I knew enough about the being I wished to excise. If, for instance, I knew the point where the echo was formed," Air said.
"But to go back so far in time to change something like that. That must be virtually impossible," Sapphire objected.
"It would depend upon many things, luck among them, but I think it is just about feasible."
Sapphire realised where the conversation was going. "You think it was one of us that did this, one of the most powerful."
"Fire or Earth, then," said Steel.
"Or possibly Aether. They are very old too," Sapphire added.
Air nodded. "Earth's echo has almost faded. He is sleepy and difficult to waken. I think it unlikely it was him."
"Fire has always been difficult to deal with," Steel said.
Air nodded. "I would tend to suspect Fire, but I have no evidence."
"Why are you telling us this? Can't you investigate on your own?" Sapphire asked.
"I believe Fire watches me closely. It will be difficult to do much without catching his attention. The two of you, on the other hand, are a relatively new team, possibly beneath his notice and yet you have been remarkably successful."
"Is there anything more you can tell us? Any idea how this might have been accomplished or what signs that might leave?" Steel asked.
Air shook her head. "I have little more to give you, beyond an assurance that you will not be entirely on your own."
Sapphire, who was sensitive to such things, saw the slight shimmer as Air altered her own composition. She felt a faint breeze brush across her face and lift her hair.
Sapphire breathed in
"We have nothing to go on. No idea how the removal of Water from the time-line could have been accomplished or even if it happened at all."
Steel was pacing up and down in frustration. Sapphire had created a null space for them. She had kept it small and hoped it would thus be inconspicuous. Inside the null space, their actions, words and thoughts would not be visible. They were taking no chances.
"If all the current temporal breakthroughs are linked we might be able to trace them back to a cause," Sapphire mused.
"Is that possible?" Steel asked.
"It would be difficult. They go back a long time and while I can manipulate and trace time a little, I'm more used to working with minutes than years," Sapphire said.
"If Water was as old as Fire, Air and Earth, then you will need thousands of years to find their origin."
"Maybe I could help, if you would let me in?"
Sapphire and Steel both turned to see Silver hovering at the edge of the null space.
Sapphire waved a hand, allowing him entrance.
"So kind," he said, brushing the lapels of his suit, as if the suit and any dust upon it was something he hadn't thought into existence himself.
"How did you find us?" Sapphire asked anxiously.
"Well, I do know you pretty well. I reasoned that you would create a null space and then it was just a matter of looking for one."
"What made you think we might need a null space?" Steel asked suspiciously.
Silver looked mildly surprised. "Oh well, I've been talking to Aether."
"No one talks to Aether," Steel said.
Silver raised his eyebrows, "Well I just did. They said to say that Fire was looking for you. I think Air may have underestimated how suspicious summoning you might look."
"Well that at least confirms that Fire has something to hide," Steel said.
"Fire is very powerful. I'm not sure there is much we can do against him," Sapphire said.
Silver smiled gently, "but I'm here now."
"With all due respect..." Steel began.
Sapphire gasped. She heard a rushing sound in her ears, a combination of a mighty wind, drumming hooves and the calls of frightened animals.
"Fire comes," she said.
Instinctively she began throwing up barriers around the null space. Fire rushed down upon them, a blazing wall that carried all before it.
"Time to go! Catch!" Silver tossed something at Steel and then vanished, just as Sapphire's barriers crumbled.
"Sapphire!" Steel cried out and then they were consumed.
The years unwind.
The machine stood in pride of place in the centre of Madame Lavigne's study. It was getting dark and a maid had entered to light the Argand Lamp. Of late, Madame Lavigne had been working into the small hours on her device. Once the lamp was lit the maid stoked up the fire in the grate and placed the fire guard before it.
The maid cast one last glance at the twisting edifice of metal and glass on the desk with the delicate basket that would hold the gem in pride of place. Then she left, shutting the door behind her.
The fire in the grate flared. The lamp fell. Glass smashed and burning oil slicked across the table. Moments later half the room was burning and the delicate metalwork of the machine twisted. It was half an hour before the fire was discovered and by that time nothing remained of Madame Lavigne's study.
And the years unwind some more.
The beast at the heart of Brocéliande was hungry. It was an age since it had fed and hunger was drawing it forth. It was almost mindless, a fragment of a thing, lost and alone and when it didn't sleep, it ate.
Somewhere in the forest was prey and so the hunt began. As the beast passed through the undergrowth, flowers withered. Leaves turned first brown and red with autumn finery, then curled and dried on the branch until they fell finally, lifeless to the earth. The trees endured, for trees have roots and branches that spread far in ground and air and time.
A road now ran through the forest. The humans must have put it there while the beast slept and a knight would be coming along the road. Not just now, but close enough in time that the beast could feel it. It gaped wide its maw and waited.
Then the fire came. The beast ignored it. Fire could not harm time. It was with surprise that the beast felt the flames fall upon it and before it was truly aware of the danger, it had been consumed. The forest fire swept on.