They decided that the only way to recover the time stolen from Steel was to directly face the entity, and the only possible solution was entering the portal all together. To avoid getting lost in different entry points, Lead embraced both Sapphire and Steel in a bear hug and stepped into the gateway, lifting them like two weightless dolls.
As soon as they entered the foggy environment, Sapphire warned: "Be careful, this fog will alert the entity that we have stepped into the portal. It may come any minute now."
The three agents waited nervously, but nothing happened.
Steel asked: "Well? What are we supposed to see?"
She answered: "I don't know. I never actually saw the creature, I only sensed its presence one split second before it attacked me. But it should be here, by now."
Steel pondered: "It just stole most of my adult life: how many years are we talking about, approximately?"
Lead said: "Hard to say: could be anything between four to five centuries. You are still relatively young."
"Then the entity might be busy digesting all those years. How would you feel after an unusually lavish meal?"
Sapphire brightened: "Probably very sleepy. You're right, Steel: it could be sleeping somewhere."
He answered: "Most likely in its den. We've got to find it now, while it's not alert, and destroy it."
Lead warned: "Let's not talk about destroying it before we have recovered your time, Steel. If you kill it, you might lose your experience forever."
Steel's expression was unreadable. "I don't care. Our top priority is destroying the creature to prevent it from making any more damage. Recovering my stolen years is less important."
Sapphire started to see why he had grown to be one of the top elements of their community: he was totally dedicated even before becoming an agent.
Lead asked: "How do you propose to find it? It's not easy to move around in this fog."
Steel answered, looking at his partner-to-be: "I seem to understand that you have special probing abilities, is that correct?"
"Yes. Do you want me to try and search for the creature from here?"
"Can you do it?"
"I'm not sure. I usually need to touch something to make a probe."
A glimmer of the older Steel flashed in those resolute grey eyes. "You can do it, Sapphire! I know you can."
She automatically set to the task. She concentrated, and her eyes immediately turned a brighter blue. Steel heard a rhythmic vibration resonate around her, and felt the power waves that were pouring out from her. The skills of that woman were outstanding: he wondered whether she realized it or if one of his tasks as her partner was to push her beyond her limits, till the last drop of energy.
When she started to tremble with the effort, her eyes lost their alien glow and she closed them, exhausted.
Steel urged: "Well?"
Sapphire recognized her partner's relentlessness. "I did feel something, but it was very unclear. It was comparable to a source of heat."
Lead offered: "Better than nothing. Maybe we should investigate."
Steel agreed: "By all means. Can you lead us, Sapphire?"
"I think so."
She headed left and kept following the same direction, moving resolutely in the thick fog, the two men at her heels.
After less than half an hour, she slowed down her pace. "We are getting close. I can definitely feel something now."
Steel concentrated. "Yes, I can feel it, too. It's not just heat: it's a live energy, but coming from many different sources."
She agreed: "Yes. So many of them. But one is the strongest, and is behind all the weakest ones. They are very close, watch your step."
The fog was getting much thinner, allowing them to finally see the environment surrounding them. They were walking on a bare ground, flat and covered with large rocks. No vegetation thrived in such a barren land. The whole area gave off a sense of desolation that increased the feeling of danger the three agents were experiencing.
As soon as Sapphire, who was still leading the team, turned around a particularly large rock, she stopped short, and a loud gasp escaped her mouth. She shivered and cuddled herself.
Steel asked, worried: "What's wrong, Sapphire?"
She pointed her chin straight ahead and said, in a very small voice: "Look."
The two men cautiously peeked behind the rock, and what they saw froze their blood.
Thousands of round white shapes were laying on the ground in clusters.
Lead was the first to utter the word they were all refusing to say out loud: "They're eggs."
Steel added: "And some of them have already hatched." Then he pointed at some multi-legged creatures roaming about the fragments of some open eggs.
Sapphire said: "They're spiders. How can that be?"
Steel asked: "What do you mean?"
She explained: "When I first entered the portal and found the fog, I compared it to a cobweb. I even wondered if it was inhabited by a poisonous spider. And now I find out that they are spiders. It can't be a coincidence."
Steel commented: "I don't believe in coincidences. It's probably using the image it found in your mind to manifest itself."
His no-nonsense voice and his logical reasoning infused some confidence in Sapphire. She realized it was something she used to rely on, maybe too often.
Then Lead said: "That's how it's using all the energy it earned from Steel's time: not to sleep, but to reproduce."
A sudden thought made Steel blanch. He asked: "What happens if that creature's offspring has the same time-stealing power as its mother?"
Sapphire and Lead just stared at him, dumbfounded by the implications.
Ever the down-to-earth element, Steel said, with a resolute tone: "They must not be allowed to hatch. We must destroy them. All of them."
Lead asked, in a flat tone: "How?"
Sapphire answered: "Eggs need warmth to hatch. Did you notice that this area is much warmer than the surrounding environment? There is no fog here: the fog absorbs heat. If we somehow remove the warmth, they will not be able to open."
Lead commented: "Sorry, I forgot my portable air-conditioner at home." And then he could not resist laughing at his own joke.
Steel scowled at him, and he immediately stopped laughing. But then he added, smiling affectionately: "I've missed that look, Steel!"
Even Sapphire could not suppress a smile, then she said: "But we have our own portable air-conditioner right here, Lead." And she pointed at Steel.
The blond agent felt quite uneasy under their expectant gaze, and commented: "I might have lost my memory, but I'm positive I cannot freeze an area this big." Then he added, with a questioning look: "Or can I?"
Sapphire answered: "As far as I know, you have never done anything like that. On the other hand, you have never tried it, either."
Lead offered: "Maybe if you freeze yourself up and then just walk around the eggs, the temperature drop will be enough to stop the hatching process. I will provide you with enough insulation to prolong your stamina."
Steel didn't need any more encouragement: "Very well. Give me a few minutes." He stilled and closed his eyes, preparing his body for the temperature drop.
When he was ready, he moved toward the eggs, with Lead trailing behind, holding his shoulders. They slowly walked on that white landscape, spreading waves of cold around them. From time to time, a baby spider tried to bite Steel's feet, but it got frozen.
When they were approximately half way, a sudden earsplitting shriek made their blood curdle. Sapphire said, in a small voice: "The mother just realized what's going on. It's coming to stop us."
Although they had been warned, they were not prepared for what they saw: a gigantic spider, the size of a three-storey house, was towering in front of them, its deadly fangs dripping a poisonous-looking viscous liquid. Its many black eyes were threateningly and hungrily studying them, and its huge mouth clicked nervously, almost foretasting its preys.
Sapphire's face grew pale, and even Steel hesitated. He said: "I haven't got enough freezing power left to stop it."
Lead asked: "How can we fight such a big creature?"
Steel was thinking furiously. He intensely looked at Sapphire: "This is just a projection, remember? It's not really a spider, and its size is fake, too. Can you show us its real shape?"
She nodded, nervously. "Yes, but I need time. I cannot concentrate while that horrible thing is about to attack us."
Steel's eyes were as cold as ice. "I will give you the time you need. Just make sure you don't waste your chance." Then he turned and moved resolutely toward the spider.
Sapphire grabbed his arm, stopping him, and asked: "Wait! What do you think you're doing? It will steal time from you again."
He gently removed her hand but, before releasing it, he lightly kissed it. "I've already lost most of my adult life. What difference will it make if it takes a few more years? Please, Sapphire, let me be of help." He looked into her eyes one last time, then turned and slowly walked toward the creature.
Lead placed a comforting hand over her shoulder. "He's always our brave Steel, isn't he?"
She commented, in a worried tone: "He's too rash for his own good."
Lead answered: "His own good is not his top priority. That's why he's bound to become one of our best agents. Get ready, Sapphire."
She concentrated as hard as she could. Her eyes turned a brighter blue, but the process was disrupted by her seeing Steel seized by the creature's dreadful paws, which slowly dragged him toward the disgustingly slobbering mouth.
She yelled: "STEEL! NO!", but Lead grabbed her by her shoulders, placing himself between her and that appalling sight. He said, in a soothing voice: "It's not real, Sapphire! It's not really a spider, it's not going to eat him up. Don't look, and just concentrate!"
She did as Lead said, not wanting to waste the chance Steel was giving them, and her eyes started glowing again.
Meanwhile Steel saw the mouth of the spider getting closer and closer, and in a last attempt at self-preservation tried to lower his body temperature again, although he knew that without Lead insulating him, he would soon be helpless. The creature touched his mind, probing and searching, but it found only frozen thoughts. Its attempt at stealing more years away from him was only partially successful. When it couldn't bear the cold anymore, it let go of Steel's body, which slumped to the floor, shivering and powerless.
But before the monster had a chance to turn its attention to the other two elements, Sapphire managed to reach inside its mind, and got hold of its real appearance. She clung to it and didn't let go, forcing the creature to reveal its true aspect. Shrieking, the colossal spider slowly morphed and started to turn into a much smaller shape. But the entity refused to surrender to Sapphire's control and, with its last drop of energy, forced its body into another false image.
Lead started to walk threateningly toward the creature, determined to kill it with his bare hands, if need be, but he stopped short when the metamorphosis was complete: Steel was standing in front of him, a bewildered expression in the unmistakable grey eyes. He was the older Steel again, and when he spoke Lead recognized his voice: "What happened?" he asked.
Lead was dumbfounded: "Steel? Is that really you?"
Steel frowned at him and answered: "Of course it's me. What do you think you're doing, Lead? I don't like that look in your eyes."
Lead was confused, and lost all his belligerency. He turned to Sapphire for help. "Is he real?"
She said, in a resolute tone: "No! It's the entity! It's taken Steel's present aspect because it's stolen his memories, but it's not him. Kill him, Lead, now!" It was chilling to hear Sapphire asking him to kill Steel, but he had to convince himself that it wasn't really his friend.
Lead started walking toward the entity again, trying not to think about its aspect. Steel – the creature – spoke again: "Do you really know what you're doing, Lead? You want to kill a fellow operator? You want to kill a friend in cold blood?"
Lead forced himself to advance despite what his eyes and ears were telling him, and quickly reached the creature. He put both his powerful hands around its neck and started squeezing.
Steel's voice gasped: "Lead! You're hurting me! Please, stop it! You don't want to murder me, do you?"
Lead relaxed his hold slightly, now unsure.
Sapphire spoke in his mind: [Lead, call Steel's mind. If he won't answer, then he's not real.]
Of course! Why hadn't he thought about it? He called out to Steel's mind. [Steel, can you hear me?] No answer. He tried again. [Steel? It's Lead! Can you hear my thoughts?]
] It was Steel's mental voice, but it sounded far away, as if coming from a great distance.
Lead called out to Sapphire: [He answered! That's really him!]
[No! The real Steel answered. Look.] Sapphire pointed at the younger Steel, still laying on the ground, helpless but conscious. He was still blinded by the cold, and his bewildered eyes were those of a young adult.
Lead sent out one last thought: [Steel, if you hear me, I want you to tell me to kill the creature who's taken up your shape, but I want you to speak aloud.]
The younger Steel forced his still frozen vocal cords into uttering three simple words: "K… kill it, L…Lead!"
Lead didn't need any more proofs: his hands squeezed again, relentlessly, and quickly suffocated the creature still keeping Steel's aspect. The huge operator had to close his eyes, because he couldn't stand the sight of his friend dying by his own hands.
He released his deadly grip only when he felt the body change under his hands. Slowly Steel's face and body melted into an incorporeal substance, not unlike the fog still surrounding that strange environment. But this formation was thicker than fog, darker, and, above all, alive. It easily escaped Lead's grip and moved away, curling and rippling. It quickly faded from view and, as soon as the fog evaporated, the three operators could see two tall trees standing conspicuously in the barren landscape. No eggs – and above all no spiders – were in sight.
Lead and Sapphire immediately went at Steel's side. He was not his younger version anymore: he was the Steel they both knew. Lead grabbed him by his shoulders, laughing, and easily lifted him from the ground, making him grunt. His voice boomed: "Steel! You're your old self again! It's so good to have you back, memory and all!"
Steel's indignant look elicited another laugh, but the giant operator finally put him down, feeling that his insulating powers had restored a comfortable level of heat.
Sapphire flashed an affectionate smile at her partner: "Yes, Steel: it's nice to have you back."
"Thank you. I rather missed my hard-earned experience, although I must admit that it wasn't so bad to feel young again."
Lead commented: "But you are still young, my friend: you are not even a thousand years old, yet!"
The three agents stepped beyond the portal for the last time and, as soon as they set foot on the forest again, the two trees disappeared for good.
Sapphire said: "Well, I suppose all the people who lost their memories have recovered them, just like Steel."
Steel replied, with a small self-satisfied smile: "Yes. We can file this as another successful assignment."
He was about to teleport, but Sapphire added: "I still need to clarify one small but crucial detail."
He looked at her with a questioning glance, but she had already taken hold of Lead's arm and was walking away with him. Steel barely heard her question: "You know, Lead, I've always wondered: how hold is Steel, exactly?"
When Lead's laughter faded, the two were too far to allow Steel to hear his reply.
- THE END -