It stretched out in front of them, acre upon acre of tall, waving corn, but all Norman could hear were the screams as he choked on the dust. He hated this place. Heck, he even hated this holiday. While other boys his age were eager to prove how brave they were, he hung back, afraid of his own shadow, Daddy said. He didn't like ghost stories, or scary movies or even the dark. Well perhaps he was a scaredy cat, but he didn't care. The dark was scary and Norman didn't like scary – not at all.
That, of course, didn't stop his older sister from dragging him here. He'd been happily playing with his dinosaurs when she announced that she and her friend were going to the corn maze. And since she was babysitting him… she called it being saddled with him... he was going as well.
Norman cried and protested. He promised he'd be good and stay in his room, but it didn't matter. Martha grabbed his hand and dragged him along.
He was trembling now even as his sister was buying the tickets. He locked his knees, but she merely pulled him, tripping and stumbling, until he had no choice but to walk.
"He doesn't look very keen on going. He can stay here if you'd prefer." The ticket taker pointed to a small, hay-bale ringed area. Inside were a few young kids playing a ring toss games, toddlers for the most part, but he didn't care.
"Yes, please, Martha? I'll be good." Norman tried to fight his way free from her, but Martha's grip only tightened.
"Not on your life. Mom and Dad told me to not take my eyes off you and I'm not going to," she said loudly. "I need that money."
Once they got inside, she suddenly let go of him. She and Leslie laughed as he tumbled down the cut edges of the corn stalks, gouging his palms and knees. Almost instantly, he was back up and clinging to her as the corn threatened to smother them.
"Get off me." She tried to push him away, but he held on that much tighter. "You are going to stretch out my new sweater." Martha was proud of her pink cashmere sweater. She had buttoned it and proudly displayed her figure to her mirror. So she had breast like Mommy. Norman couldn't figure out what was so great about those…
"Damn, Martha, what's with the rug rat? Did you have to bring him?" Leslie, Martha's best friend, glared at Norman and he tried to make himself invisible.
"A girl has to do what a girl has to do if she wants a new dress for the Christmas prom. I've got my sights set on something that is going to blow Doug's eyes right out of his head. POW!" She spun suddenly and Norman jumped back in terror. Laughing, Martha took off running, Leslie right behind her.
Norman ran to catch up, but suddenly they were gone and he was alone in the rows of waving corn. He could hear people shouting and laughing. It took everything he possessed to make his feet shuffle forward. Overheard, the night was starting to draw in, painting the clouds a blood red and rosy purple.
"Martha?" He cried at the top of his lungs. He heard his sister laughing close by, but he couldn't see her anywhere. Tears of panic started to track down his cheeks, then he looked down at the sheet of paper he held. On one side was a jack o' lantern smiling at him. It was the other side that made him gasp aloud with happiness. It was a map; he could get out all on his own. All he had to do was to figure out where he was and then he could get out.
It seemed as if he'd been walking for hours when he abruptly found himself in a clearing. In the middle was a lone scarecrow and Norman laughed out loud. He knew where he was now! All he had to do was take that row to the scarecrow's right and he'd be out.
He shouted with happiness, then the words strangled in his throat as the scarecrow's head turned to glare at him. Spindly arms reached towards him even as he shrunk back away. Then it paused and the horrific head shook slowly…
"Not yet ripe," it hissed and Norman fell back a step as the eyes glowed red at him. Then he saw Martha's sweater, bloodied and torn on the broken cornstalks that littered the ground at his feet.
"Ssssooo good, ssssooo ripe," it hissed back and, screaming, Norman snatched the sweater up and began to run blindly down one row, jigging and jagging as the path went. Behind him he could hear an odd shuffle, but he didn't dare to look, lest he see the scarecrow on his heels.
He could hear people shouting and he headed in that direction, hoping beyond hope that his sister was waiting for him just outside the maze. Norman saw the exit looming before him and he felt a surge of fresh strength. He started to run and suddenly he was snatched up and lifted into the air. That's when Norman really started to 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.
"Be quiet." The voice was harsh in his ear and Norman felt his voice catch then. "Here, Sapphire, you do something with it."
"It's not an 'it,' Steel, he's a small, very frightened boy." He was passed over and a lovely scent of vanilla enveloped him. His breathing calmed as the arms held him close. "Shh, be a good boy now, Norman."
He was carried from the maze to a hay trailer and set down on the lip of it. Only then did he see the woman holding him. "Wh…who are you? How do you know my name?"
"I'm Sapphire and this is my friend, Steel." She motioned to a man who was wearing a gray, three- piece suit. He looked very much out of place among the cornstalks and pumpkins, as did she in her bright blue pantsuit. However, he did like her eyes. They seemed very kind. "You are in trouble and we've come to help."
You don't need to involve him, just send him on his way.
His sister has been taken. He has no one else.
He can't stay with us.
Steel flashed her a look of annoyance and stalked away back to the start of the maze.
"Sorry, sir, the maze is closed for the night." The ticket taker held up a hand, then involuntarily took a step back as Steel glared at her.
"My… daughter went in there, she hasn't come out yet," he muttered and started in.
Sapphire smiled at Steel's comment, but returned to the boy. "Norman, what happened to you in the maze?"
"There are monsters in there."
"I'm sure there are, but what happened to you?" She took off her blue sweater and tucked it around him. It was almost as good as her holding him. It smelled really nice and Norman pulled it tight about him.
"I was in there with Martha, but she ran off. She thinks she's so hot; she's just mean. Doug isn't going to look at her anyways. Doug doesn't like girls. He likes boys."
"I beg your pardon."
"That's what Daddy said. And Daddy knows everything."
"I see." Sapphire's eyes were kind and gentle. "Is that her sweater you're holding?"
"Uh huh, it's brand new." He held it up and then added. "Well, it was… it's all messed up now."
"May I see it?" Sapphire held out her hand. It might have been his imagination, but Norman swore her eyes started to glow even bluer than before.
Cashmere from an intact buck, Capra hircus laniger. Chemical makeup 2-ethylhexanoic, 4-ethylhexanoic, 2-ethyloctanoic, 4-ethyloctanoic, 6-ethyloctanoic, 2-ethyldecanoic, 4-ethyldecanoic, 2-ethyldodecanoic, 6-ethyldodecanoic, 4-ethyldodecanoic, 2-ethyltetradecanoic, 6-ethyltetradecanoic, 4-ethyltetradecanoic, 2-ethylhexadecanoic and 4-ethyloctadecanoic acids.
That's not incredibly helpful, Sapphire.
There is also O positive blood belonging to a young girl, approximately fifteen years, seven month, five days old.
Can't you manage to be more precise than that?
Well, I could, but I'm trying to be helpful.
"Norman, was your sister wearing this the last time you saw her?"
"Uh huh, she wouldn't take it off." He glanced left and right to make sure no one else could hear him. "She likes the way it shows off her… breasts," he whispered
Sapphire smiled. "I see." Steel?
Sapphire returned to the boy. "Where did you find this?"
"At the center of the maze." He edged closer to her and shuddered. "The scarecrow got her," he whispered softly. "She's really and truly gone."
Steel walked slowly along the dusty path, oblivious to the dirt marring the shine of his shoes. The night wind was picking up, making the cornstalks rattle and rustle. He knew they were here; he could feel them, watching, waiting , ready for him or Sapphire to make the slightest mistake. Any hint of an emotional crisis and they would become a feast for the Skittlebones. They were as close to being a true emotional vampire as you could comfortably get. The more complex the emotions, the more they feasted. A young teenaged girl, according to Sapphire, would be a prime rib and lobster dinner to them. Thankfully, both he and Sapphire were practically immune.
Why didn't they take the boy, Sapphire? He's a bundle of nerves.
They don't want simplicity, Steel. The more complex the emotions, the more sustenance they can draw from them. The fear of a little boy would be no more filling than a single peanut, just a snack. Be careful.
Of what? He caught his toe and stumbled.
The ground is littered with hidden obstacles, some of their choosing. The more upset and confused you are, the better it will be for them.
I am neither upset nor confused, Sapphire.
He walked into the center of the maze having cut through many of the twists, turns, and dead ends by simply walking through the corn stalks.
You've rather missed the point of a maze, Steel. Sapphire's voice was half laughing and he smirked.
I'm not here to play, Sapphire, but rather to return these creatures to their own universe.
They are not going to go willingly. They have all but devastated their own world.
That is none of my concern. This world is important… according to Them.
He stood there and looked around. It was dark, but that was of no matter to him. He saw what he needed to see. Walking to the center, he reached out and touched the pole, its occupant long gone.
They are hunting, Sapphire.
Where? She looked around at the people milling about. There was a snack bar and a hay ride about to leave. People were still wandering through the acre sized pumpkin patch or playing games at the Arcade. Even though it was dark, huge lights cut through the night and bathed everyone in an eerie bluish glow.
She felt the boy in her arms shiver and pulled him closer. Glancing back up, she saw it and her eyes narrowed.
I know where they are. She watched a handful of teens swagger up to the entrance of the 'haunted house' attraction.
Suddenly he was standing beside her. "Where are they?"
"In there." She pointed to the garishly decorated façade and he frowned.
"Are you certain?"
"Where better for them to feed?" They watched as a pair of young girls stumbled out, their faces pale against their dark hair. They were clutching at each other and looked as if they were ready to collapse.
"Come on." Steel started in that direction and Sapphire moved to follow him, but stopped as Norman began to whimper.
"No, please, I can't…" Sapphire looked at the terror in his eyes and smiled.
"No, of course not."
Steel sighed and shook his head. Just once I wish you were a bit more hard hearted.
That's your job.
So it would seem. He stalked up to the girls and they cringed at his approach.
"What did you see?" he demanded and they seemed to visibly collapse into themselves. He wasn't an empath or particularly gifted at reading people, but he could tell these two were in shock… or victims of a Skittlebones. "Go home." He walked up to the entrance just as a young girl stumbled out, crying and wailing into the arms of her mother.
"I told you it was too intense for you," the woman scolded as she hugged the girl. "Stacy, what is wrong with you, child?"
Immediately the ticket taker was at her side, a walkie talkie in his hand. Steel used that moment to walk in.
Darkness enveloped him, but his senses operated differently than humans and he simply shifted to another spectrum. His vision wasn't clear, but it was enough to keep him from having to grope his way along. He noted that the corridor split and he followed the left branch as it turned back onto itself dumping him back into the initial corridor. Obviously, its point was to separate a group and then have them run into themselves. He continued along, glancing as a light flashed on his right. It was a medieval torture chamber, its victims in various stages of abuse. The hooded monk snatched at him, but didn't touch him. The cries and moans from the victims were mournful, but Steel could tell it was not real.
He turned a corner and the floor beneath him lit up. A woman, her body clothed in live snakes, looked up at him and hissed at his passing.
He sighed and continued on, through this room and that. A giant spider, a man wielding an axe, these were all more of an annoyance than anything else.
Steel stepped into a room and winced as a horn began to blare. Suddenly he became aware that the walls were closing in on him. Just before things became too tight, a door opened and he stepped through it.
Facing him was a man, his face concealed by a loose mask of skin, who pointed a chainsaw at him and gunned the instrument. Steel became aware of the walls. They were decorated with various bits of human anatomy, an arm a hacked up torso, a head dangling by an eye. The man screamed at Steel and jabbed at him with the chainsaw.
Steel caught the chainless blade and pushed it aside, knocking it from the man's hand.
"You aren't supposed to grab it, you idiot!" the man shouted as he rushed to retrieve the saw.
"You aren't supposed to use it on people." Steel answered back and continued to walk on. "Idiot," he added as he slipped from the hall into yet another maze. He was getting impatient and a little anxious to get back to Sapphire. He knew she was perfectly capable of protecting herself, but when they were in certain situations, he felt more protective towards her. It wasn't love or at least he didn't think it was. The intricacies of the emotion had always been a little tough for him to grasp. Rather, he felt it was his duty to look out for her, especially with the TransUranics coming around more and more. There was something very disquieting about their resurgence and their seeming attraction to his partner.
That's when he saw them, the two Skittlebones. They were standing in the corner of the maze, looking more dead than alive, although he knew they'd been feeding off the emotions of the people stumbling through the attraction.
He walked up to them.
"You have no place here. I am ordering you back to your own dimension."
The Skittlebones looked at each other, their eyes glowing red in the darkness. "Human, but not now."
"Not likely ever," Steel snapped. "You are commanded to leave."
"No one commands ussss…"
"I do." Steel reached out and grasped the arm of the one closest. He applied the least amount of strength and the creature wailed.
"Leave…Now! Or do I have to further illustrate my point." Steel permitted his core temperature to drop and the Skittlebones began to writhe in his grip.
"Banished here." The other creature moved and Steel tracked it easily in the dark, moving to block its path.
"Banished ? To the World of Plenty? I tend to think otherwise and permit me to elucidate. I think rather you are an advance scouting party, sent here to see if the rumors are all really true." Then suddenly he gasped as icy needle sharp fingers were thrust into what felt like his very soul.
Sapphire gasped and staggered back a step. Instantly, Norman grabbed her hand.
"What's wrong, Sapphire?"
"Steel," she managed to say and collapsed to a hay bale. STEEL! She looked around frantically in hopes of seeing her staid and steadfast partner striding towards her with a no-nonsense look on his face. Instead a Skittlebones stood there.
"He issss oursss," the creature hissed and Sapphire felt her face grow pale. It took a step towards her and Norman suddenly felt a surge of protectiveness rush through him. He looked around and grabbed a pumpkin, throwing it at those glowing red eyes as hard as he could.
"Get away from me!" he screamed at the top of his lungs, loud enough to make everyone nearby turn and look. "Help me! He's trying to kidnap me."
Instantly, people responded, rushing to the boy's aid. The Skittlebones hissed and then began to groan as it was pummeled not by fists, but by the emotions. Too many emotions for it to process.
When it was grasped and yanked away, the creature shrieked and collapsed into a pile of ragged clothes.
Sapphire? Sapphire glanced around, but there was still no sign of her partner. He sounded so weak, so unlike Steel. Sapphire, what happened?
Where are you?
In the maze, they brought me here to feed… but they've…
Gone, they collapsed into nothing.
Stay there. I will come to you.
She pulled Norman to her, hugging him tightly. "Norman, you are a hero."
"A what? No, I'm just a kid."
"You saved me and you saved Steel. You're braver than you think you are." She released him to arm's length. "I need to go back into the maze now. Steel's there and he needs me. Can you stay here by yourself?"
"Don't worry, lady, I'll watch him." The woman looked around at the crowd of people. "We all will."
"Thank you." Sapphire stood and walked away, smiling as the woman asked.
"So what was that, honey? Some sort of Halloween trick?"
Quickly Sapphire picked her way through the rows of corn to the center of the maze. She looked around, sighing with relief as she spotted Steel sitting on a bale of hay beside an empty pole.
"Are you all right?" She glanced down at the piles of clothes, stepping over them as she knelt before him.
"Yes, just a little… dazed more than anything else."
Sapphire stood and sat beside him. She took his hand and let her energy flow to him. It was shocking just how weak he seemed, just like when he would lower his internal temperatures without using Lead as a shield. "It was Norman," she explained, chafing his hand. "He stood up to one of them, drew the crowd's attention to it and they attacked it, not with weapons, but with their emotions. The Skittlebones just evaporated."
"Too much is the same as too little for them. They are surprisingly delicate creatures." Steel's voice was growing strong, more reassured. "That is one of the things that has saved this planet from them for so long."
"But what happened to you?" She looked down at their joined hands. "You're an Elemental. They shouldn't be able to feed on you."
He sighed and shook his head slowly. "Part of me wants to make a very bad joke and say that it's elementary, but another part of me just wants to go home."
There was a soft sound, almost like the mewing of a kitten and they both turned. From the maze, two shapes moved out from the waving rows of corn stalks. It was two young girls, their clothes disheveled and torn, their steps slow and staggering.
"I think we just found Norman's sister and her friend."
Norman looked over at the exit to the maze as Sapphire and Steel appeared. Steel was carrying two shapes and Normal whooped with delighted when he realized one of the bundles was his sister.
"You found her!" he shouted as he raced up to the pair and danced around them until both girls were set down on hay bales.
"Rather they found us."
"What happened, Miss?" The woman who had been tending to Norman offered Martha something to drink and then gasped.
"What's wrong?" Her husband was quick to take his place by her side; there had been far too many odd things happening this night.
"Nothing… I just thought… it's just the light and her eyes." But the woman was backing away from Martha, who looked confused at her friend and then at Norman.
"What's biting her, rug rat?"
"I dunno, but I'm gonna call Mom to come and pick us up. I don't think you should be driving."
"Hey, I'm supposed to be watching you."
"I think you are the one who needs watching at the moment," Norman said, softly. He started to walk away, but paused before Sapphire and Steel. "She's one of them now, isn't she?"
"Possibly." Steel wasn't about to lie to the boy. "You know your charge."
"I do. I'll watch them both. How will I find you if I need you?"
Sapphire smiled and bent to kiss his forehead. "We will find you. You are very brave, Norman, never forget that. The fate of this entire planet and race is firmly upon your shoulders."
"Don't worry, I can handle it." He sighed, proud of the burden he'd assumed. "I can handle anything."
Can he handle it, Steel? They started to walk away. It wouldn't do to disappear in front of all these people.
We will have to see. He will be watched until a time when it's determined whether the sister and her friend are a danger or not.
He's a brave little boy. Sapphire took Steel's hand and he looked down at it. I imagine you being just like that as a child.
Nonsense. He lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed the fingers gently. I was never ginger.