"Do you think she'll come?" The voices were low, a mere whisper.
"That's what they say, but I still don't believe in ghosts." The youngest of the three was full of bravado. He could afford to be. He wasn't a blond.
"Then why are you here?"
"Duh, you have the car keys, stupid." Shove followed and an ungraceful stumble backwards. Cheeks flared red.
"Duh, you could have walked home." A shove back, to save face.
"Two miles, I'm not gonna walk it. Duh!" A punch now.
"Duh!" And a harder one in return, an attempt to show his older brother he was just as tough, just as brave.
"Will you two shut up?" Matt Jopper snapped at his two friends, brothers, before they beat each other senseless. There were times when he was glad he only had a sister. "And I have the car keys, so knock it the hell off!"
Slightly drunk, they'd come out here for what was considered a teenage rite of passage. Tonight, they were going to meet the White Witch, providing she decided to make an appearance. They had grabbed some six packs that Matt's dad had hidden in the garage and driven up to Haunted Point. The asphalt road gave way to dirt and then the dirt gave way to low bushes and long grass. A dead end road – it was the perfect site for a ghost to hang out.
Tonight it was dead still. Even the crickets had fallen silent, victims of the heat and humidity. It was said these were the nights she preferred, nights when the air was so calm not even a leaf or blade of grass stirred. Even the moon, full and low in the sky, was said to be the type she preferred. It was so bright you could almost read by it – all the better for ghost spotting. Problem was, she didn't always show.
However, they had the perfect bait. Jerome wore his blond hair loose and shaggy, much to the distress of his parents and teachers. His father kept warning him that when the military got through with him, he'd know what a hair cut really was. Jerome just laughed and let it grow even more. Now it was longer than Matt's sister's hair, although Jerome's was stringy and unkempt. Still it was blond and that's what they needed. The witch hated blond men after one left her and her daughter to burn to death. Now she prowled to find and dispense justice to that man or any blond she could get her hands on.
"What is the whole point of being out here anyhow, Matt? I'm frigging bored out of my skull."
"You were the one who wanted to write some sort of song about her for the talent competition next month. First prize is $500. We could use that money."
"Yeah, to bail us out of jail when your old man finds out we copped all his beer."
The moon cleared a cloud and Matt gave Jerome a nudge forward. "Go on, man. She can't see you hiding back here."
"I'm not hiding!" Jerome protested, finishing the last of his beer and tossing the can into the nearby bushes. "This is where the beer is."
"Your lips are moving, but I keep hearing, cluck, cluck, cluck" Denny did a credible imitation of a chicken and Jerome gave his kid brother a hard punch on the arm. "Ow… bastard."
Matt pointed to the clearing. "Jerome, it's time to take those glistening locks of yours and see if you can work some magic. Go get us some inspiration!"
"All right, whatever floats your boat. I'd rather have a chick." Jerome climbed out of the car and walked over to the large patch of grass. He flung his arms out and tilted his head back to the sky. "Okay, White Mama, come to Daddy!" He howled with laughter and both Denny and Matt joined in.
Then Denny slapped Matt on the arm. "Matt, what's that?"
"Over there… by that bush."
A vaporous white cloud was forming, slowly taking the shape of a tall white figure. It floated a few inches off the ground and was headed straight for Jerome.
"Jerome, look out, man!" Denny shouted and pointed. Jerome followed Denny's point and screamed like a little girl, a high pitched wailing thing.
Matt climbed in the car and started it, gunning the engine while Denny held the door open and yelled, "Get your ass in here, Jer!"
If Jerome had been just a little less drunk, perhaps he would have made it to the car. Perhaps if he'd been a bit more sober, he wouldn't have tripped on that rock, but he wasn't and he did, taking a header down into the long, dried grass, rolling over and over from the impact of his landing. It knocked the air from him and he sprawled there, a gulping mass of hair and limbs.
Denny started toward his brother, but Matt caught his arm, keeping him inside the car. Jerome frantically screamed and flailed his arms and legs. The white figure caught up with him, hovered for just a moment, and then fell upon him. Jerome was simply and suddenly… gone.
The two friends looked at each other in terror and sped away, never daring to look in the mirror, lest they see the figure chasing after them. All they could hear was the roar of the car engine and the echo of Jerome's last scream.
ALL IRREGULARITIES WILL BE HANDLED BY THE FORCES CONTROLLING EACH DIMENSION; TRANSURANIC HEAVY METAL MAY NOT BY USED WHERE THERE IS LIFE. MEDIUM ATOMIC WEIGHTS ARE AVAILABLE: GOLD, LEAD, COPPER, JET, DIAMOND, RADIUM, SAPPHIRE, SILVER, AND STEEL. SAPPHIRE AND STEEL HAVE BEEN ASSIGNED."
Sapphire paused before the door, letting her hand rest lightly upon it. Like everything else here, the door was metal, a combination of several different types, strong enough to withstand anything, should a war actually make it this far. She didn't think even the TransUranics were crazy enough to try that, but with them, it was always hard to know what they would do.
Steel, are you there?
She smiled, that economy of words was so typical of like her partner. When she was first paired with Steel, Copper had taken her aside and spoken in cautionary tones about the difficulties of working with him. The redhead had patted her hand affectionately and spoken of Steel's cold demeanor, lack of any emotion or warmth. He was simply and only committed to completing his task and to hell with his so-called partner.
From their first meeting, there had been a connection between them. Steel trusted and valued her, not just as a fellow agent, but also as a confidant. No one else had ever done that and she appreciated it, just as she appreciated his dedication and no nonsense approach to their work.
The door slid open and she walked in. Steel was sitting, stiff backed, on the corner of a slab. It was meant to be a bed, but Steel eschewed sleep, one of the few Elements who did. They didn't need to eat or drink or sleep to survive, not really, but they had, one-by- one, succumbed to those human pleasures - all of them, except Steel. Even with Sapphire, even when they had been at their most intimate, Steel didn't sleep. It was as if he feared that the moment he relaxed, he would lose control, and Steel was all about control.
"They want us," Sapphire started without preamble.
"Why didn't you respond?"
"I don't know." She sensed his discomfort and confusion at his disobedience.
"Then why -?"
"I don't know," he snapped and then sighed. "I am still processing the changes, Sapphire."
Those changes had taken reconfigured him down to the molecular level. It made him into something more… not just him, them. Sapphire had been changed as well, but she felt no different than before. She could process things faster, see things a bit more clearly, but she was still the same Sapphire. Steel, on the other hand, struggled with what he'd become, as if he wasn't sure it is was for the good or not.
She sat down on the bed beside him and took a baseball mitt-sized hand in both of hers. You don't need to do this alone. I can help.
You've done so much already, Sapphire. I can't ask more of you.
Of course you can. I'm your partner. Besides, it wouldn't be asking, it would be helping. But for now, we need to work. They have asked nicely, for them, and soon will not be asking, rather telling. That often carries some less-than-pleasant conditions.
"I know." He squeezed her hand carefully, mindful of the strength he now possessed. She smiled at his thoughtfulness, but in reality, she was second only to Diamond in hardness. He couldn't hurt her, nor would he. She trusted him completely.
She stood and waited for him to join her. With a heavy sigh, Steel got to his feet and gestured to the door.
"Whatta we gonna do, whatta we gonna do, whatta we gonna do? Huh? What?" Denny was frantically pacing back and forth. They'd driven about a mile from the point where they'd seen the White Witch and were now drinking and worrying.
"First, you are going to breathe and calm down." It wasn't working with his stomach, but Matt didn't care. If he didn't get Denny calmed down, the kid was going to spontaneously combust.
"What am I supposed to do? Tell Dad he ran off to join the Army?"
"Do you think that would work?" Matt winced as his joke fell short. Denny kept running a hand through his hair and looking back up the road, as if fearful that the Witch would suddenly reappear and snatch him away, dark hair and all.
"Give me a break! Just give me a fu… oh my God. Look!" Denny pointed.
"What? The witch?" Matt followed the point, terrified, and then slapped his friend hard as he saw the couple walking towards them. "Don't do that to me!"
"But where did they come from, Matt? No one drove by us and it's miles from town." Denny started easing back to the car, ready to leap in at a moment's notice.
The woman was tall and very slender. Her dress was the softest blue Matt had ever seen and it shimmered as she walked. Her eyes were huge and her lips glistened in the moonlight. Her shoulder length blonde hair fairly glowed and swayed gently as she moved. She walked with a grace that didn't seem possible given the height of her heels and the unevenness of the ground. She was like a waking wet dream.
The man, on the other hand, was dressed in a gray suit that was perfectly tailored and perfectly pressed. He looked as if he'd stepped from the pages of GQ. His hair was also blond, although it was a slightly darker and longer than Jerome's – weird for an adult. He looked as uncompromising as the woman looked compassionate. There was a sense of unforgiving hardness about him and it made Matt's stomach clench just a little. Even though he was a good five inches taller than the guy, Matt knew instinctively that he wouldn't want to get into a fist fight with him. The guy just looked hard.
Talk about your odd ducks, Matt thought as the couple drew closer. A light breeze had picked up, plucking at the skirt of the woman's dress. But her legs are so frigging sexy.
"Thank you. " She spoke to him, her accent sounding British.
"For what?" Matt exchanged a look with Denny.
"Steel never compliments my legs." She held out a manicured hand to him. "My name is Sapphire. We've come to help."
Matt took her hand and his penis stirred. There was a sexuality about her that sent his senses into overdrive. She was a hundred miles apart from the giggly, boy-crazy chicks at his school.
"Blue, like your dress," Denny blurted out and then his cheeks reddened. He dropped his gaze to the ground and kicked a clump of grass. Matt could tell Denny was having the same reaction to her as he was.
"Yes, exactly like that. This is my companion, Steel. We understand you've lost your friend."
That took a bit of the heat out of Matt's groin. "How… how do you know that?"
"What difference does it make?" Steel snapped and looked around, mapping the immediate area. "Did you or did you not have someone taken tonight?"
"My brother, Jerome," Denny murmured, looking completely miserable.
"Tell us what happened." Sapphire's voice was gentle, coaxing, inviting the truth from them.
"We came up here to see if we could see her." Matt spoke quietly, keeping his focus on the ground at Sapphire's feet, lest he lose complete control.
"Who?" Steel's voice had a no nonsense edge around it that reminded Matt of their high school principal – a man totally devoid of humor and charm. He certainly looked a lot like Steel, gray and cold.
"The White Witch."
"White Witch?" Steel echoed back. Sapphire?
Her eyes glowed slightly and then she slipped an arm through Matt's and started to lead him back up the hill. He was powerless to stop her and the story seemed to just pour from his head and straight to her lips for she said, "The story goes that the White Witch was an old woman who had a young and very beautiful daughter. Many men were interested, then one day a handsome sailor came along. He quickly became her steady boyfriend, and they made plans to marry. One night, the man came to dinner as usual. There is no description of the man other than he had long blond hair, which was the fashion then. It was the common thought that he tied them up and robbed them, but while ransacking the house, he knocked over a candle and the fire spread. He escaped, but left the old woman and her daughter behind to perish in the fire. From that night on the old woman, nicknamed the White Witch, is said to appear and spirit away blond men, in an attempt to punish the one who caused her and her daughter's death." Sapphire smiled at first Matt and then Denny. "Did I get that right?"
"It was like you took it straight out of my head, man, as I was thinking it." Matt was staring at her now, then abruptly realized where he was headed and balked.
"So what happened?" Steel pushed past him, anxious to reach the clearing.
"Don't go there, man!" Denny shouted and grabbed Steel's arm. After a second he snatched his hand away as if it had been burned. "You can't!"
"You're blond. She'll take you as well." The boy's anguish was very real. Sapphire abandoned Matt for him and stroked his head, the way a mother would pet a child.
"That I seriously doubt, unless I so wish it." He resumed his trek to the clearing.
"Jerome was our bait, man. She saw him and started chasing him, but he tripped and she caught him."
"He just vanished right in front of us."
"You let your companion be taken away from you?" Steel paused, but didn't turn. "Didn't you even try to help him?"
"No… we… ran. We were scared."
Rite of passage indeed. Steel mentally snapped at her and resumed his climb.
Sapphire tried to keep her smile from her face. Steel, they are just young, not even adults yet. They are still boys in men's clothing.
"Isn't that comforting? Are you coming?
"Stay here and we will investigate." Sapphire started to join Steel and Matt caught her arm.
"Please, stop him. Don't let him go. You have to save him from himself."
"I learned a very long time ago that when Steel sets his mind to something, nothing will change it. He'll be fine."
"I will never understand humans." Steel made the statement, staring straight ahead into a grove of trees.
Sapphire had joined him in the clearing and looked around the immediate area, seeking something, anything that was a clue to the young man's disappearance. "What do you mean, Steel?"
"They purposefully seek dangerous situations and then complain when they turn against them. They're fools."
"Not fools, they are just young, Steel. Didn't you do foolish things to prove your bravery when you were young?"
"I didn't need to."
She smiled at him. "No, I suppose not. Humans however, especially young men, are always trying to prove they are braver than the others."
"Why?" Steel hefted up a tree branch, examined it, then tossed it aside.
"I would imagine it would be to prove they would be the better mate."
"Why would a woman choose to be with a man who would likely die in his attempts to impress her? Wouldn't the safer bet be the man who remained safely at home, alive to help her raise the children?"
"You're right, Steel. You don't understand humans." She paused and held out her hand, letting it glide over an invisible object. "There's something here."
Steel was at her side in a few brisk steps. "What is it, Sapphire?"
"I don't know… a portal, perhaps… like a swinging door into the Corridor."
"I would assume to permit movement from one side to the other."
"Signs of activity?"
"Can we pass through it?"
Sapphire's eyes glowed such a brilliant blue they practically lit the surrounding area and she slowly shook her head. "I can't…"
"Can I pass through it, Sapphire?" Steel's voice had a sharp, no nonsense edge to it.
"No, not of your own volition. You must be taken through."
"By the White Witch?"
I am sensing a 'but' in that, Sapphire. The merest hint of a smile formed on his lips.
It's the Corridor of Time, Steel, you don't know what to expect.
I've been in the Corridor before and survived. He reached for her shoulder and squeezed it, gently but firmly emphasizing his next thought. And I am stronger now. I am not concerned, neither should you be.
Sapphire nodded, knowing there was little she could do to sway her partner once he set his mind upon something.
"More importantly, can you close it when I tell you to?"
Steel's question caught her by surprise. "Of course I can close it. I'm not some junior agent," she snapped. They were taught how to seal a break in the Corridor practically the moment they agreed to become agents. It was their first lesson.
"I wasn't doubting your ability, Sapphire." Steel voice grew gentle. "I need to know if you can do it if I am still inside."
"You'd be trapped… permanently."
"Hence the necessity for my asking the question. Can you seal the break under those conditions?"
"Yes." But I wouldn't like it.
Neither would I necessarily. "So what do we need to do to attract this witch of yours?" He looked around restlessly. "Do I just stand here then?"
"Yeah, man, that's it." Matt and Denny had joined them. "She comes or she doesn't."
"Where was your friend when he disappeared?" Sapphire turned to the pair as they stood to one side, huddled together.
"Um, a little bit more to your right." Matt pointed to a scuffed spot on the ground.
"Has he been the only one taken?" Sapphire walked with Steel to the spot and knelt to touch the earth.
The boys exchanged glances and Denny finally shrugged his shoulders. "Dunno, only one I know of."
"Why him?" Steel reached down a hand to her and she took it, straightening. Anything?
Residual energy, the sort we generate when we travel from plane to plane.
"Maybe it's the first one she's ever caught…. Shit!" Matt broke off as he stared at the forming mist. "There! Look!"
Sapphire followed his stare. "Is that her?"
Denny was already easing away, back towards the car. "I'm not staying here."
"Why are you afraid?" Steel asked, sparing the boy a look. "Your hair is dark."
"Yours isn't… Oh, God, it's gonna happen again, ain't it?"
"If all goes well, yes," Steel said, returning his attention to the mist. It had formed into the tall thin shape of a woman. She hovered a few inches off the ground and started to move towards the little group.
"Step away from me, Sapphire."
"But, Steel -"
"I can protect myself, but not you as well. Leave me, Sapphire!" He gave her a shove towards the boys and Matt impulsively grabbed her hand. "Take her with you."
The White Witch, not fully formed, floated towards him, obviously puzzled as to why the man chose not to run.
"I'm not afraid of you," he said. "Tell me what you want?"
Justice! The word formed in Sapphire's head as the figure swirled around Steel. Then he was suddenly gone as if he'd never been there at all.
Denny dropped to his knees and began to wail; this had been the last straw for the young man. While Sapphire was distracted by his obvious mental collapse, he was of secondary importance.
"We tried to warn you, but you wouldn't listen! You shoulda listened!" Denny shouted and curled up into a tight ball.
Matt watched his friend for a moment, then turned to Sapphire. "Why is he acting like that? He didn't know… uh, Steel."
"I'd say delayed stress." Sapphire swallowed her concern and schooled her face into a mask of serenity. Steel? There was still no response. "Perhaps if you were to get him something to drink it would help." She looked around at the pile of beer cans. "Something non-alcoholic?"
There was a loud snap and suddenly Steel tumbled out of thin air. He had with him a limp form. He toppled to the ground, grunting as he landed with his burden.
"Seal it now, Sapphire, quickly!"
Sapphire had taken a step towards him, but at his command, she froze and stared at the invisible tear, concentration wrinkling her brow. There was a trace of white vapor and then it disappeared. Sapphire fell to her knees beside Steel as he sprawled out on the ground, eyes closed, chest heaving. The young man with him struggled to crawl away a few inches, then collapsed as well.
Steel's jacket and pants were torn. There were long scratches on his face and, Sapphire decided, probably on other parts of his body as well, judging from the blood staining the fabric. His hair was sweat damp and hung limply as if he'd just climbed from the shower.
"Steel?" She set a hand on his and he brought it up to his mouth, kissing her fingers gently, thankfully, before opening his eyes. They were blood shot and looked very old.
Sapphire suddenly remembered the young man and rolled him over.
"Jerome!" Denny shouted and climbed to his feet to stumble to his brother's side. "Is he dead?" Matt joined the pair, brushing the blond hair from his friend's face, his eyes searching for injuries.
"I'd say he looks in shock more than anything else. You need to get him to a doctor," Sapphire suggested, her hand still in Steel's. You as well, I think.
I'm fine, just… tired. It was a very determined individual.
What was it?
One of the many banned to the Corridor. It found this weakness, learned of the legend and began to come through trying to snatch someone. Iif It had gotten another victim, It would have had the strength to come through permanently.
That's why They were so concerned.
You weren't gone long.
To you, it was a few seconds. To me, I was gone a week, a month, perhaps even a year; it's hard to tell in the Corridor. You can't measure time linearly in there.
"Is she gone? The White Witch, I mean?" Denny cradled his brother in his arms and the older boy moaned softly.
"Yes, It can't pass through the barrier any more. Sapphire closed it."
"But she could have closed it before you were taken?" The truth was starting to dawn on Denny.
Steel propped himself up on his elbows and nodded. "She could have, but I needed to take care of a few things on the other side to assure It wouldn't try breaking through again."
"And you brought Jerome back with you?" Matt murmured. "You saved him."
"He was helpful… in a small way. To leave him would have permitted It more power and that couldn't happen."
Was he really helpful or are you just becoming a bit more compassionate in your old age? Sapphire asked as Matt arrived with his car. With Denny's help, Matt loaded Jerome into the back seat. While Sapphire sat beside Steel and watched. He leaned against her as much for support as for the comfort of one of his own.
I'm not old. He kept It distracted while I was correcting the situation that permitted It to break through the first time.
And you rescued him.
Rescued is such a helpless sounding word; he escaped as much as I did.
Matt and Denny approached them slowly. "You aren't from around here, are you?
"No," Sapphire murmured, her attention still upon the reclining Steel. He'd gone strangely still beneath her hands.
"Can we give you a lift to town or somewhere? It's the least we can do to thank you for getting Jerome away from that Witch."
"No, we'll be fine. Get your friend to the doctor and that will be thanks enough."
"But what about your friend? Will he be okay?"
"He'll be fine." She watched them drive away and stroked Steel's hair. We need to leave Steel.
Just a moment more. He collapsed back down, wincing as he stretched out his arms and legs.
"All right, rest. I don't imagine it will matter much to Them how long we stay as long as we were successful." She guided his head to her lap and continued to gently finger comb his hair.
She sat there for several minutes as slowly the forest began to wake. The moon was starting to dip towards the horizon and Sapphire could hear one lone bird begin to sing, hopeful as it began to court the rising sun.
The early bird, she thought and a second bird answered, then a third and suddenly the forest was alive with sound, heralding a new day. Then she realized Steel didn't answer her. Steel?
Suddenly concerned, she shifted slightly and then smiled in relief. Steel, the lone agent, the rogue among the elements, was sound asleep, his head pillowed on her lap. Sapphire knew she'd never breathe a word of this to anyone. She would stay silent and keep his secrets, just as he kept hers. After all, that's what partners do.