CHAPTER ONE

The woman, tall and blonde, materialized inside an old building. She walked around, curious to explore her new assignment's grounds. The briefing was very, well, brief, and the information scant. She tried to do a spot analysis of the few objects that she found in the room she was in, but they were strangely silent.

"Well?" The man's voice was cold, as were his grey eyes.

"Nothing."

"What do you mean, nothing?"

She could tell that her answer annoyed him. She tried to probe deeper, but she still could not feel anything.

"These objects are not broadcasting."

"Are they real?"

"I think so. They look pretty real to me, but then again I cannot be sure without a spot analysis."

"Can't you try harder?"

"I already did, to no avail. These objects won't respond to my probe."

Now he sounded surprised. "That's never happened before."

She smiled. "I guess there's a first time for everything."

He frowned at her, and her smile disappeared.

"Is there something blocking your probe?"

"There has to be. But I have no idea what it might be."

"We'll find out. Let's walk around and see what else is in this building."

They walked from room to room. Each one of them contained furniture from a different historical period.

The man's voice sounded harried. "This place is full of triggers. Anyone of them could virtually be responsible for some time anomaly or another."

"Is there a time anomaly developing here?" The woman asked.

"Why would have they sent us, otherwise?"

"I don't know, but this assignment is quite unusual. What were you told, exactly?"

"Not much, but that's not unusual."

"No, it's not, but as a rule we arrive when time has already been tampered with, and the outcomes have already developed. Why aren't we feeling anything? Why hasn't the tampering become evident, yet?"

"Maybe it will. Soon."

She shook her head. "No. The authority cannot anticipate time anomalies, it can only sense them after they have been triggered."

The man's look became even more somber. "You mean we haven't been sent by the authority? That someone else summoned us here?"

"Someone or... something."

"Then where is it? Why bring us here and then not try to communicate?"

"Maybe it doesn't want to communicate."

"Whatever it wants, it still has to show up to accomplish its goal, whatever it is."

"Maybe it's here, we just don't see it."

The man was still dubious. "But in that case you would at least sense it. No, Sapphire, it doesn't make sense."

The woman insisted." Steel, I'm sure there's something terribly wrong with this assignment."

"Then you are feeling something."

"No, it's more like a gut feeling."

"A 'gut feeling'?"

Despite the danger she was feeling, she smiled at his questioning look.

"That's what my instinct is telling me."

"Ah. Well, I have developed a healthy respect for your instinct, so let's suppose we are not alone here. What entity could go totally undetected by us both?"

If she was touched by his implicit compliment, it didn't show.

She was walking in a corridor between two rooms, when all of a sudden she swayed and had to lean against the wall. The man was immediately at her side to support her.

"What's wrong, Sapphire?"

The woman was grateful for his support: if it weren't for his hold on her shoulders, she would have fallen. She covered her face with one trembling hand.

"I don't know. I lost my balance. I felt as if I were displaced."

The man cast her a quizzical look. "Displaced?"

"Yes, out of place. As if I weren't in this house anymore, but in another place. And in another time."

"Looks like we found our time anomaly." He almost sounded pleased.

But she shook her head. "No, Steel, there wasn't any anomaly. I was the source of the displacement."

Now he was confused. "You? Are you sure, Sapphire?"

She straightened: she was regaining her balance and didn't need his support anymore.

"Of course I'm sure. I can feel it very clearly. What I cannot feel, though, is the cause of this displacement. What forced me out of synch with the present?"

"Or who?" he added.

"Do you think there is some kind of entity operating in this place?"

"There has to be. And it has to be very powerful, too, for disrupting your time sync. Can you still feel it?"

She concentrated, but she shook her head after a few seconds. "No. Whatever it was, it's gone. At least for now." She added, as an afterthought.

He nodded.

"I agree. It will show up again."

"How do you propose to lure it back here?"

"I think that our mere presence is attracting it. Let's keep walking around. Be careful, Sapphire."

She always felt moved when he worried for her.

They resumed their search, wandering aimlessly around the house. Sapphire's senses were at their maximum intensity, ready to detect anything out of the ordinary. What she wasn't expecting, though, was seeing Steel freeze. She looked at him, but his eyes were unfocused. His hair was ruffled by a nonexistent breeze, and for a moment she thought he was wearing different clothes.

Then everything was back to normal again. Steel's eyes regained their focus, and he looked at her with a puzzled expression. Also his voice sounded baffled, when he asked: "What has just happened?"

Regrettably, she couldn't give him any explanations.

"I don't know. You stopped abruptly and were looking as if you were somewhere else. I also thought you were dressed differently, but that only lasted for a split second. What did you feel?"

"I'm still not sure. I was looking at something dark and looming, and it felt as if I had met it before."

"What was it? Some sort of creature?"

He still looked confused. "I don't know. But one thing I'm sure of: it scared me."

Now Sapphire was really worried: whatever had the power of scaring Steel, had to be considered as a major threat.

Steel looked upset. "I don't like the idea that it can hit us anytime and anyway it wants to, without us being able to react properly."

"What do you suggest?"

"We should find a way to anticipate its moves, or at least to realize when it's about to strike. It could just be assessing our capabilities, and I don't want it to. I need a probe, Sapphire."

"I told you: these objects are not talking to me."

"I don't mean the objects: I want you to probe the environment. The atmosphere, if you like."

She was doubtful. "I've never done it before."

He smiled smugly. "Didn't you just say that there's a first time for everything?"

She didn't bother to answer. She knew that, once that his mind was set, nothing could change it. She sat on a chair and started concentrating hard. Her eyes were glowing an unnatural shade of blue, and a deep vibration was resonating around her.

Unnoticed by the two agents, a dark shade slowly began to form on one corner of the floor, on the opposite side of the room they were in. It rapidly grew wider, and was accompanied by a chorus of ghostly voices whispering incomprehensibly.

Sapphire was too concentrated to notice, but Steel jerked his head sideways, feeling a change in the atmosphere. As soon as he realized what was going on, he tried to break his partner's concentration.

"Sapphire, wake up. It's the darkness. It's back, somehow, and now it's after us. Wake up!" He shook her, but she didn't respond. She sat motionless, eyes now closed. The dark shadow was getting wider and wider, and was slowly swallowing the whole room. When it was about to reach them, Steel lifted Sapphire unceremoniously from the chair, and dragged her outside the room. He closed the door, hoping beyond hope that it could slow it down. Strange enough, it didn't come out of the door, so Steel relaxed slightly. Maybe the darkness could only operate in certain rooms of the house. He eased Sapphire on a chair and tried to wake her up.

He shook her gently. "Sapphire! Snap out of it! The darkness is back."

"I know." Her voice was uncharacteristically cold, and when she opened her eyes, they were pitch black. Steel was abruptly reminded of the first time the darkness took possession of her. Startled, he took a few steps back.

It only took him a few seconds to regain his self-control. "What do you want?"

Seeing a wicked smile on Sapphire's usually serene face was chilling. "I need another source of resentment."

"What happened to the one we gave you a few years ago?"

"Mr. Tully? He died. He was an acceptable source of feeding, but now I need something else."

"We are not your food suppliers."

"If you don't help me feed, I will have to find other sources of resentment, and I will recur to my old methods again. Is that what you want? To have this place filled with dead men's ghosts?"

Steel was thinking furiously. First of all he had to free Sapphire. He needed her. And he couldn't bear seeing her at the mercy of the darkness. He knew very well what it could do to her.

"I need time. I haven't got the authority to take such a decision."

"You had no problems in sacrificing Tully four years ago. Why do you hesitate now?"

"Now I have no Mr. Tully to give you. I must find a suitable replacement first, and I cannot do it alone. Set Sapphire free."

"How can I be sure you are not trying to deceive me?"

"I guess you will have to believe my words."

"I don't trust you. You have tricked me before."

"What do you expect, a written guarantee?"

"No, I have more than that: Sapphire will be my guarantee."

Steel didn't like the sound of it.

"What do you mean?"

"Don't you get it? If you try to trick me again, I will take her. I'm sure she can be a gratifying source of resentment."

"All right, no more tricks. But I do need time. Will you set her free, now? I need to discuss the matter with her."

"Very well," the darkness conceded. "Do what you need to do. You have until tomorrow morning, no more."

As soon as the entity left Sapphire's body, she collapsed like a rag doll. Steel caught her just in time before she fell and eased her to the ground.

"Sapphire? Are you all right?"

His uncharacteristically shaky voice shook her from her trance. She blinked a few times before her eyes were able to focus on Steel's worried face.

He lightly stroked her hair and his lips creased in a small relieved smile.

She grabbed his arm. "Steel, it was the darkness!"

"I know. Did you hear what it is expecting from us?"

"Yes. You are not planning to sacrifice another human, are you?"

"Even if I were, I have no one to offer. We will have to find another way."

"The only possible solution is to destroy it once and for all, or it will always be back asking for more."

"I know. But we were not able to destroy it before. What makes you think we will be successful this time around?"

"Now we are familiar with its nature, we know its weaknesses."

Steel was dubious. "We do? Name one."

She pensively chewed her lower lip. "Well, we know that it is parasitic: it needs a constant source of feeding. If it doesn't feed, it might grow weaker and its powers might lessen. It could become vulnerable."

"Suppose you're right. How do you propose to stall it long enough to starve it? It will take you long before it feels seriously hungry."

"In that case, we will let it believe we found another source of resentment."

Steel shook his head.

"No. If it finds out that we are trying to trick it again, it will take its revenge on you."

"Then we will just have to make sure it doesn't find out. All we need is a convincing 'victim'."

Steel though over Sapphire's proposal.

"It's risky, but it might work."

"Who do you think we could use?"

Steel flashed a mischievous smile at his partner. "What about an old acquaintance?"