Chapter 17

Steel and Silver watched the Primordial as he paced behind the wretchedly ugly modern art sculpture; the monster was keeping the thing between itself and them. Silver wondered whether it wary of them also. Perhaps it was contemplating the Elemental child, whom Sapphire was guarding in her arms, as if her arms alone could defend him from the creature. She was composed, but they both could see she was close to collapsing in terror, remembering what had happened the last time they had encountered the Primordial. The child was staring at the creature, looking confused at all the commotion.

Well, Steel, let us hope your plan works. Silver directed his thought to Steel alone.

If you do what we discussed, then we have a slight chance of making it out of here alive, Steel responded. And one more thing, Silver…

Yes?

If I fall here…take Sapphire and the child to the Sanctuary. Give me your word that you will do this.

I'll do my best. Silver looked at Steel. You know I will, but you had better not, for Sapphire's sake.

Antonia watched all of them warily, keeping as far back away from the aliens as she could, while also trying to keep within range of her sister. She was prepared to grab her and run as soon as it looked like it was going to hell. Annalia however, seemed to be in a separate reality. She was watching Maasaw – whatever he was calling himself – circle that sculpture, which she thought looked like a giant melted club, with an expression that could only be described as adoration. She was possessed.

A sense of unreality hit her. She still couldn't believe what was happening, that this was some kind of colossal showdown between opposing alien forces. Maasaw, despite his changing appearance, still looked like the scruffy homeless vet he originally presented himself to be, dressed in his torn gym shirt and camouflage pants, barefoot and sleeveless, while the two Elemental men looked like a pair of undercover cops about to jump him. But Antonia could see that Sapphire was obviously terrified of Maasaw, even though she was trying to protect her little boy. Antonia suddenly wished she could help her, but she didn't know what to do. What do I do? Antonia thought.

Abruptly Maasaw stopped moving around the sculpture, and his head twitched.

"Sapphire, Silver, and Steel…and something else," he said, his voice also altered, sounding deeper and oddly, like it was coming from underwater. "What it is, I do not know exactly, but what I do know anyway?" He made a hrh hrh hrh noise as if he were laughing. "I know what you want to do. Now, it would be best for you, and for it, if you give it up."

"Ah, I think not," Silver interjected. "You see, we're here to send you back to the darkness, where you belong."

"What I did?" The Primordial shook its head; something black was falling from his head, and to Antonia's horror, realized that his hair was falling out of his head, strand by strand. "You people have hindered everything that should have been, but now your time is over. Things will be as they were again, and everything will be the better for it. The Fifth World will emerge and erase this old and sad world."

What is he talking about? Silver wondered.

He means the corridor of Time, Sapphire's thoughts were faint. He wants to destroy the barriers separating the universe and Time. That is why he went after the Authority.

"Your Authority is no more, and there are only a few of you left anyway," Although he was speaking to them, the Primordial's eyes never left the child, who clung tightly to his mother as if he knew that the creature meant danger for it. "And I know are thinking of using that child's power against me. Your motives are very transparent, and foolish."

Steel stepped forward. "You can't have the child," he said firmly. "And if you try to attack us you will be destroyed. You have no element of surprise now."

Steel…. Silver's voice sounded worried. Be careful...

Maasaw held out the Kevlar helmet with its goggles out in front of him. His head started to swell hideously, his hair falling out in clumps, his eyes sinking into his skull. The room seemed to darken, and his eyes glowed like tiny sparks of flame in his head. Antonia stared in horror, while Annalia drew in breath sharply, eagerly anticipating the victory, pumping her fist.

"You can leave the child with me and I will let you leave. Go to your 'Sanctuary' and wait for me there. You can enjoy what time you have left together, in your Old World."

Sapphire stood up, gently but firmly pushing the child behind her. Antonia saw that weird blue glow of her eyes, and for the first time, anger: the anger of a mother when her child is threatened.

"Go back" Sapphire commanded. "Go back to the darkness."

Maasaw seemed to brace himself, but then seemed to be pushed backwards. He stumbled, and for a moment they all thought he would be hurled backward as the air particles coalesced around him, partly obscuring him, then he vanished.

"No!" roared Annalia. Snarling she rushed at the Elementals, but Antonia grabbed her. She cursed in Spanish, but Antonia was physically bigger.

"Is he gone?" Antonia shouted.

For a moment it was deathly quiet in the gallery, and all of them held their breath, the Elementals not daring to hope that this might have actually worked.

"Antonia," Steel said. "We were wrong to keep you here. Take your sister and get out of here, both of you."

"No," Antonia said, and that was a surprise even to her. "There was a reason you brought us here. What was it?"

"It doesn't matter now," Silver said impatiently. "Get out of here before-"

The air swirled again, and an invisible gust of hurricane-force wind nearly knocked them all backwards. The child cried out in fear, and Sapphire grabbed onto him again. Maasaw re-appeared, wearing his "helmet" but now it was a mask that covered his entire head, which appeared twisted, elongated grotesquely, his mouth shrunk to an oval, He had huge goggle eyes, fanged teeth, and his head had the look of a bloated, blood-red nearly un-fleshed skull. Maasaw in his god-form as he was known to the ancient humans, Silver realized in horror. For a moment, he could understand why Steel had left the Bunker.

Maasaw made a sharp downward cutting motion of his arm and the blue light vanished from Sapphire's eyes, and she collapsed to her knees, stunned. Steel and Silver rushed to her side.

The child made a high, keening noise, and rushed at the creature, hands outstretched. Instinctively, Antonia grabbed for him and pulled him away, before he could touch the monster. Annalia also tried to grab him, but Antonia batted her sister away.

"Give him to me!" Annalia roared, clawing at her sister. Furious, Antonia struck out, popping her sister with a well-placed punch. The failed grad student dropped like a brick. Maasaw simply watched, his head tilted slightly as if in amusement.

He took a step towards them, but then Silver pulled Antonia and the child away, leaving Annalia unconscious on the floor.

"Silver, unhand that child!" Maasaw roared.

Sapphire struggled to her feet, and her eyes began glowing again. Maasaw stretched out his arm towards her, and abruptly she began choking and fell back to her knees, her hands going to her throat, as if struggling to free herself.

"Sapphire!" Steel turned towards the monster then froze as the creature stretched out its other arm to him.

"You can try to reach me in three steps, Steel," Maasaw said in a low, dangerous voice. "If you can I'll let all of you live to reach the Sanctuary. But I don't think you will. You'll run, like you did before."

Steel rushed towards Maasaw, but before he achieved more than a few steps he recoiled back as if struck; there was a horrendous tearing sound, the sound of cloth and metal ripping, and Steel cried out. Shocked, both Sapphire and Silver saw a crimson gash spurt from his shoulder to chest. Steel fell to his knees, but he kept his eyes fixed on Maasaw.

The Primordial had not moved, or said anything. He simply stretched out his arm, his fist closed - he opened his hand, and revealed his grisly trophy: a strip of flat metal, which glistened as if wet.

"One," Maasaw said, through his helmet, his voice sounding ironic.

Gritting his teeth, his eyes set in grim fury Steel forced back the pain and struggled to his feet. He came towards Maasaw again, closing the distance between them by half, before he cried out again and fell on his side. They now saw that his trouser leg was torn down to the knee, everything above it a mass of crimson.

"Steel!" Sapphire screamed, unable to move or to help him.

Maasaw stretched out and opened his other hand, revealing another strip of the dripping metal. He dropped both pieces on the ground, and they clattered loudly.

"Two." The strange hrh hrh hrh sound came from beneath the macabre helmet, and Antonia could not tell if he was laughing or choking himself.

Shaking, Steel braced his hands on the floor and pushed himself up, a pool of blood (or so Antonia assumed, but it wasn't quite the right color) appearing beneath him. He staggered unsteadily to his feet, but he was standing again, favoring his left leg. His eyes drifted towards his partner, saw her anguish.

Sapphire…

A memory flashed into his mind, of the time they had fled the Bunker. Sapphire had looked the same when they had teleported away. Then, Steel had vowed never to see that look on her face again.

"Will you try for three?" Maasaw asked. "Do you want to go on? Just stop it."

Steel's only response was to drag himself towards the Primordial. Antonia suddenly felt a drop in temperature, and goose bumps on her arm, and realized, as they all did, what he was trying to do.

Maasaw knew it also. A distinct angry, irritated noise emanated from beneath his mask, and he gestured sharply at Steel, who collapsed again, viscous red fluid spilling from his stomach and side. He writhed in pain, feeling consciousness drain from him.

Sapphire...

He opened his eyes, seeing this time the child, their child, his eyes starting to glow...

Behind them was Silver, his eyes fixed on Steel's, waiting for the cue.

Now, Silver!

With the last of his strength Steel thrust his body forward, arms reaching out. Maasaw stepped back, thinking that Steel was trying to freeze him, but instead he grasped the metal sculpture, which promptly froze into a solid pillar of ice; it began to crack. The fluids dripping from Steel stopped, the droplets freezing to the floor.

Antonia was never quite sure what happened next. She saw Steel grasp the pillar, his inhuman adversary hesitating in confusion. Perhaps that was what they needed all along. Suddenly the pillar exploded away from Steel towards Maasaw, who dropped his arms and turned away to avoid the flying metal shards. Antonia turned and thought she saw Silver and the child...the child's eyes were glowing like Sapphire's only with a pale white light. Antonia was suddenly reminded of an old horror movie she saw on one of the cable channels, about alien children taking over the Earth. Silver had...Antonia wasn't sure. She thought she saw a glowing orb hovering behind the child, shimmering like silver...was that...their true form?

Antonia, Silver's voice suddenly emerged in her head. Antonia, help us...pull the child away quickly!

What is happening?

No time...hold him or he will be sucked away with the Primordial!

A vortex of wind was forming behind the Primordial, who was yelling something in a language she didn't understand - the metal shards had pierced his helmet, and he seemed stunned, like a heavyweight boxer who was punch-drunk. The child's eyes pulsated and Antonia rushed to do as Silver said. She touched the child, and for just a second, felt the incredible power that little form contained, as if she were touching a live wire, but not being shocked. At the same moment, out of the corner of her eye, she saw Anni rush forward and step between Maasaw and the child just as a pulse of energy seemed to shoot forward.

"Anni, no!" Antonia screamed, but it was too late. The invisible pulse seemed to pass through her sister, and Maasaw collapsed, as if folding inwards, and he disappeared. The vortex swirled, and vanished, and so did the wind, and it was still again in the gallery. Anni collapsed, unconscious again on the floor. Anni let go of the child and ran to her. The child, seemingly normal again, ran to his father, and placed his hands on him as he had done before. Steel coughed violently, and looked around him, as if in disbelief that they had managed to fling the Primordial back out of this world.

Free from the Primoridial's restraint, Sapphire ran to Steel, clutching his bloodied body in her arms, stroking her hands through his hair. He was battered and weak, but he managed to return her embrace, clasping her face in his trembling hands, his eyes staring for a long moment into hers. They said nothing, out loud. The child laughed, a strange sound, clapping his little hands.

Silver saw them. He could not hear their thoughts. It was obvious that mental conversation was only for the other, but he could deduce what they were saying. It had something to do with an emotion he had always assumed were nonexistent, or at least unnecessary, to his kind. Oh, it was practically a given that Agents would become close, perhaps even engage in a liaison or two…or three. That was only to be expected when their job was of such high importance and danger, one had to relieve one's tension somehow, but for it to become anything more than that…well, that was only appropriate for the lower order of beings in the universe…or so he had thought. Silver had thought such a thing was beyond them, until now. He could not share in what they felt for each other, it was… an alien emotion…but he could only look on in wonderment, and also a tinge of envy. He cleared his throat, discreetly.

"Well, that seems to have worked," Silver acknowledged. "But that was very, very risky, Steel. We were lucky."

"Luck has nothing to do with it," Steel said hoarsely, Sapphire helping him back onto his feet. "Now, do you see?"

"The Primordial has been thrown back, but you know that's only temporary," Silver was not quite convinced. "Nothing has changed, really."

"Something has indeed changed," Sapphire murmured.

The Elementals looked at Antonia, sitting next to the motionless body of her sister, a look of numb shock on her face.

Will the sister live? Silver asked.

She is in a coma. She acted as the insulation for the Primordial. Because of her action, the Primordial is only temporarily thrown back into Time. She will live, but whether or not she can ever fully recover, I cannot say. But the human mind is remarkably resilient.

Antonia also acted as insulation? Silver was amazed.

Yes...I don't know. If she hadn't...perhaps the effort would have been too much for the child.

You really must think of a name for him!

Silver could tell that she regretted that this family was shattered in order to preserve hers. But, he knew that sometimes that was common in war. He sighed. "We need to get Steel to the Sanctuary right away, he's very badly wounded," he said to Sapphire. She seemed not to hear him, still looking at the young humans sadly.

From a distance, but growing louder, came the sound of wailing sirens. Someone in the neighborhood had eventually noticed the goings-on next door and called 911. That seemed to bring Antonia partly out of her shock.

"Antonia…" Silver began hesitantly, but for once he wasn't sure what to say.

"Go, get out of here," she whispered. "You shouldn't be here when they come."

"We'll never forget what you did," Steel said. "Thank you."

Antonia looked at them, and at the little boy. All four of them were looking at her with mixed sadness and compassion, or maybe she was imagining it. Could these beings feel such emotions? She wanted to be angry, raging angry, but much more than anger at the destruction of everything she had known, she felt an immense pity for them. Her life would eventually return to what it had been, maybe even become normal and mundane again, but for them, their war was forever. Now that was truly tragic, she thought.

"Go," she repeated. "Go and fight your war. I'll pray for you."

Sapphire nodded to her silently, and as if that was a signal, the Elementals grasped hands together. In the next second, they were gone, just like that, as if they had never been here at all. Only memories Antonia had to show that they were once real. Antonia held her sister's motionless body close, and only hoped that she would not forget.

Epilogue

The EMTs came, and the of course the police, but Antonia hardly took any notice. She rode along with her sister in the ambulance, feeling her body and mind growing numb, holding Anni's hand. At the hospital, Mama met them, and peppered her and the doctors and police with questions, but she could only give the barest, short answers. She knew it was frustrating them, but she could hardly do any more, she was so tired.

Some lady detective took her aside and started to grill her about what had happened, why the house had nearly shaken itself apart when there was no registered earthquake, and where were the owners, what were they doing there, and so on. Antonia didn't recall what explanation she had given, but somewhere along the line Antonia had mentioned the residents…she wasn't sure how much she told of what really happened, she clearly couldn't tell her what had really gone on…but something must have come out, since the police woman started grilling her harder: How many of them were there, what did they do, what did they look like, where did they go, and such blah blah blah, but Antonia had finally given up making any coherent sentences. It was all a waste of time. The lady detective then tried threatening her with arrest and ICE and Homeland Security and all other kinds of nonsense, but Antonia kept ignoring her, and finally the lady stomped off in a huff. She didn't care.

Finally the doctors came back to where she and Mama were sitting in the waiting room. Yes, Annalia was in a coma, but still alive, still had brain activity, but they were puzzled, they could not determine the cause of her coma. They needed to run more tests, hospitalizations…

It was all more or less what Antonia had expected. Sapphire and Steel had said as much. There was nothing else they could do for the moment and finally they went home.

Months passed, relatively uneventfully. Mama still worked and worried. Anni stayed in a nice hospice: some grant had appeared from some charity somewhere that would pay for her life support, care, everything. Antonia didn't consider that source of funds, it had nothing to do with her; she stayed at home, watching endless TV, endlessly surfing the Internet, the days blurring together. Mama was worried about her and got her to go live with some relations in Mexico, to get a change. She didn't argue.

It was a very hot, summer day nearly a year after the events in the mansion. Antonia decided to go out for a walk, after a call from Mama. Anni's eyes had opened, and she was awake, but the doctors had said she would probably be at the level of a two-year-old. They guessed possibly some rare virus. Mama tried to sound optimistic, but Antonia felt guilt that she couldn't reveal the true reason. She needed a walk to clear her head. She didn't have any particular place in mind, just decided to get out of the little house she shared with her Spanish-only speaking relations, whom she barely talked to, even though they were friendly, but they also kept trying to get her to talk. She suspected that Mama was giving instructions to them. She wandered aimlessly for a bit, not really paying attention to where she was going, until she heard some bits of English. British English, similar to how Sapphire and Steel and Silver sounded. It snapped her out of her lethargy, and she looked around quickly, for a moment thinking it was them. Of course, it wasn't them. It was a group of foreign tourists, elderly, retired, paunchy, who were following their tour guide into the museum.

Antonia followed them in. She wasn't one for museum-going but something seemed to draw her in, and she followed the group as they looked at old bits of pottery, dioramas of the ancient Aztecs, bits and pieces the conquistadors had not stolen or smashed or burnt. Their chatty tour guide led them to a particular statue, a faceless, shapeless image, and began talking about Aztec mythology.

"This is a representation of Xipe Totec, who was worshipped throughout Mesoamerica. His name means roughly "Our Lord the Flayed One." He is represented as a person wearing a robe of flayed human skin, which his priests also wore. He was worshipped at the Spring Equinox, and represented new beginnings," the guide clearly was warming to his subject. "Some scholars believe that this worship spread as far as the American Southwest, and that the Hopi Indians worshipped him as Maasaw, a god of war and a trickster deity."

Antonia stared entranced at the statue of Xipe Totec, the Flayed God, or Maasaw.

Antonia, a voice whispered in her ear. It was not the voice of the tour guide still chattering away or the distracted conversations of the English tourists. Antonia.

Where are you?

I'm still here. The Fifth World has not come yet, but it will soon. Are you interested?

Not really.

Your sister was. She tried to protect me.

Antonia clenched her fists. She was crazy! She made a crazy choice!

It was still her choice. What is yours? Soon every human will have to choose.

Go away, I'm not dealing with this now.

Very well. You will know where to find me.

In a cardboard box underneath the bridge? Antonia's thought was bitter.

The voice disappeared, and Antonia was just alone with a bunch of tired tourists.

"Excuse me love, where's the loo?"

Antonia sighed and shrugged and pointed in a random direction. Yes, they would all choose eventually, she supposed. Maasaw was right - she had seen Anni's face as she had thrown herself in front of the unearthly chid's attack, and her face was once of defiance. She had wanted to do it, and that was another thing she couldn't explain. The Elementals though, did they have a choice? Maybe they did. The Transient Beings - Mr. Zamorra - had chosen. She wasn't sure, though, what kind of choice it was. She was sure of only one thing...that she was not going to let anyone make it for her. If, or when, she saw any of them again, she would make that clear.

End.

thanks for reading first S&S story! all references to real or imagined persons are strictly fictional! i have at least 2 more ideas for further stories in the "Insurgency" arc...one set in Scotland and one set in the Mojave Desert.

Maasaw is an actual deity from Hopi Indian mythology, and may have some distant relations to Mesoamerica - all speculation, and I should point out he is not necessarily considered antagonistic to the Hopis! thus disclaimer.