Joe Labelle crunched through the snow, exhaustion making each step a bit more challenging than the last. The winter wind whipped his face and even through his thick muffler he could feel its bite. It was nights like this on Lake Anjikuni that separated the men from the boys. It was also the sort of night that would kill a man. His only hope was to make the nearby Inuit village. He was known there and they would be willing to give him shelter for the night, as well as food and drink.
In the distance, he saw the village, but not a bit of smoke came from the chimneys. No yells of children or barks from dogs came to his ears, even as he strained to hear something, anything beside the rustle of the wind through the trees.
Concerned, he increased his step. As he neared the village, his concern became fear as only eerie silence greeted him. There was not a sign of life even though he knew over thirty families live in the huts by the lake. Then a thrill went through him as he saw smoke curling through a chimney.
He hurried to the hut and pushed aside the door, only to grimace and wave his hand in front of his face. The stink of burning stew filled the small room and he staggered back out into the cold fresh air, choking and coughing.
Looking around, he spotted the food locker and jogged quickly to it. It was filled with dry fish and meats. Why would an entire village leave their food behind?
In the fading light, he looked to the road. Two people stood in the middle of it. Their clothes were unfamiliar to him, but obviously far too light for the winter cold. The wind plucked at the woman's dress and raised it to a scandalizing height on her leg. Then abruptly they were gone. With a cry, Joe Labelle fled in the opposite direction, away from shelter, away from food, and away from those ghosts and into the arms of certain death from the elements.
ALL IRREGULARITIES WILL BE HANDLED BY THE FORCES CONTROLLING EACH DIMENSION; TRANSURANIC HEAVY METAL MAY NOT BE 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.
The pair grew visible again as they watched the man depart. It was strange that they'd been brought back as they'd finished their assignment or at least that was Steel's opinion. He'd been experiencing an odd sense of discontent as of late and this merely added to it.
Well, that did it. Steel watched as the man raced from the deserted village. Well, he raced away as fast as one could while on snowshoes and carrying a heavy pack. He's certain to alert the officials now. Within a few days, there will be hundred crawling over this spot. I thought They said this was a safe time.
They did. We certainly couldn't have known that an outsider would be arriving today of all days. Sapphire stared into the distance, her eyes a vivid blue. They have arrived at their new home and a good half day before deadline.
I am still trying to understand why we had to take the villagers at all. What did They tell you?
It was Their wish, Steel. That is enough. Sapphire shifted her clothes to something more suitable for the weather. She wasn't exactly cold, but she loved to have an excuse to try different looks. Her light summer dress faded and was replaced by a fur-trimmed parka with matching leggings mittens and a hat. All were perfectly coordinated and she admired the results.
Not for me, it isn't. Why must we not question? Why can't we know what's going on and not be left trying to second guess them?
It's not our call to judge. Sapphire began to walk from him, intent upon returning back home.
Maybe it's time to start. Steel broke off complaining to shiver suddenly, feeling chilled. He concentrated, but nothing seemed to help, so he merely shifted to something warmer. Or tried to, but nothing happened, nothing at all happened. Sapphire? He waited for her to acknowledge him, but she remained studying the horizon. Sapphire, answer me.
"Steel, what's wrong? You've gotten very quiet." Sapphire suddenly turned to him, concern turned her blue eyes gray. "Why don't you answer me?"
"Why wouldn't you answer me?" He shivered again and blew on his hands.
"You're… you're cold?"
His teeth started to chatter. "I am and I can't seem to change into anything warmer."
"I'll help." She closed her eyes. "There." Her eyes opened and then widened in surprise. "You didn't change."
"Believe me, I know." He wrapped his arms around his upper body, the three piece suit he wore no real protection from the wind and cold.
"We need to get you inside quickly. There." She pointed to the nearest structure. The leather shoes, of no concern a moment earlier, slipped on the packed snow and Sapphire had to help him stay on his feet. Struggling, they made their way to a nearby hut.
Inside was almost colder than out, but the spark of an ember still lived in the fireplace and, with some careful coaxing and much fuss, Sapphire managed to bring it to life. She'd never built a fire from scratch although she was familiar with the process and relieved that it seemed to work. "The trick will be not to let that flame go out. Our greatest enemy currently is the cold."
"I would second that opinion." Steel had wrapped several furs around his body and sat close to the fire, his eyes never leaving the flame as he slowly began to warm up.
"Steel, what has happened to us?" Sapphire asked as she divested herself of the heavy coat, shivering for a moment until she became used to the cooler room. The hut was small and was growing steadily warmer, but it was also dark and hard to see into the corners. Usually she could see, no matter the amount of light, but now, it was very difficult to see beyond the flickering light offered by the fire.
Steel, warmed now, started to move about the confines of the building. There was the main door which they'd come through and several windows that were shuttered from the elements outside. Two narrow interior doors had hides hung across them. There was a rough hewn table and two chairs, a narrow bed across from the fire and a narrow bench. "I don't know, although I've heard stories."
"Agents who, for one reason or another, became more for Them to handle. They responded by making them human."
"Human?" Sapphire repeated dully. She lifted her hand and studied it. "We're human?"
"From what I can ascertain, yes." Steel found a kerosene lantern and carried it back to the fire. Using a small twig, he lit the wick and adjusted it. It threw more light onto their situation.
"Steel, how are we to survive?" There was a gnawing in the pit of her stomach. Hunger or doubt, she didn't know, as neither were a familiar sensation to her.
"I don't know. I can't say that it comforts me or reassures me, but that man who went running out of here, might just be our only hope. Providing he makes it to civilization, he's likely to bring someone back. We can leave with them."
"What good would that do?" She blinked as tears formed in her eyes. She never cried before and this new experience merely added to her concern. "Neither of us is trained for survival in this time period. How will we live?""
"How should I know?" he shouted and then turned from her, as if to hide from her hurt expression. Sighing he moved to her side and squeezed her shoulder. "I'm sorry," he murmured. "I'm… lost, Sapphire. I have no point of reference for this."
"I know." She patted his hand and knelt to move a larger log into the fire, watching a sudden swarm of embers race up the chimney. She held her breath until it caught and she looked over at the woodpile. If they were conservative, it should last until morning.
"However, for the moment, we are warm and safe. I suppose that should count for something." Steel pushed aside the cloth blocking narrow door and stared into the dark. Fuming, he went to the mantle and retrieved the lantern to try again. "There appears to be some sort of larder in here."
Sapphire joined him and looked at the baskets of dried fruits and preserved vegetables. "There is no meat."
"It is kept in the communal food shed outside. The chief showed it to me when he was taking me around the village. I saw deer, beef, and a variety of fish."
She liked to cook and she set her mind to it. The familiarity of the movements reassured and calmed her anxiety for the moment. "Steel, would you also bring me some water after you've gotten some meat for us?" She held out the bucket to him and after a moment he took it.
"What?" He looked around the small room, obviously confused.
"There is the lake or you can just collect some snow just outside and melt it by the fire." She watched him walk towards the door. "You'd better put something on. It will be even colder outside now that it's night. And take the lantern with you. There might be wild animals."
He glared at her, but snatched up a fur pelt and wrapped it around himself. "I'm not a child, you know."
Stepping out into the night, Steel nearly gasped at the impact of the cold. It made his eyes water and he blinked several times to clear them. Just breathing was a struggle as his lungs protested the frigid air being drawn into them.
Looking up at the night sky, he noted that the clouds had left and the moon was painting the snow a watery blue. It was strangely… beautiful and serene. It made him stop and think. He'd never thought of his surroundings, at least no more than he needed to in order to accomplish his task.
He walked to the locker, his feet cold before he was halfway there. He grabbed the nearest cut of meat, a side of beef, grunting as he hefted it to his shoulder. Everything was a bit heavier than he was used to. He carried it back to the door and rested it against the wall as he turned his attention to the bucket.
Locating a clean snow back seemed an easier task than walking to the lake and trying to break through the ice. Steel scooped up some snow and packed it into the bucket, gritting his teeth against the biting cold of the snow. He knew what it was like to be cold. He frequently brought his internal core down to absolute zero, but it was nothing like this. That cold radiated from within and this cold was pressing him from all sides trying to get in.
He wiped a quivering hand across his upper lip, wiping away the moisture that leaked from his nose. What was that all about? He wondered. It was a new and not very pleasant sensation for him. Mostly what bothered Steel was the quiet in his head. He usually could hone in on Sapphire's thoughts with little effort and the rest of his elements with a bit more. Now his head was silent with only his own thoughts for company. Shivering now, not from cold, but from the sense of being truly alone, he carried the bucket back to the beckoning hut.
"There you are. I was afraid you'd fallen in." Sapphire stopped as Steel dropped both the meat and the bucket to the table top. "An entire side of beef, Steel? You are hungry." At the lack of response, she touched his arm. "Steel?"
"What have we done, Sapphire, to exact this punishment?" His voice was a whisper, but also a scream as he put into words the horror they faced. "We don't know what we are doing. We are merely going through the actions of what we have observed over the years.
"I don't know."
"What if it is permanent? We can't survive like this. We might last a day or two, but to live?" He pulled the furs from him and shook his hands to warm them. "Like this? Would you even want to?"
"We shall have to make do and cope with it the best we can."
"How, Sapphire? This isn't some rosy make-believe world. Outside there are dangers, real dangers, how am I going to protect you from them?"
"We will protect each other. As long as we are a team, I have confidence we can do this."
"I'm glad you do." He used his handkerchief to wipe his nose and coughed. "I'm not as certain."
"Sit by the fire and warm up."
Steel did just that. He sat and stared into the fire. Outside he could hear wolves howling to each other and that brought him to his feet. He prowled around the perimeter of the hut's interior, checking to make sure all the doors and windows were securely shut.
As he walked back to the fire, Sapphire handed him a metal plate heaped with steaming hot food. He sat and studied the food as if unsure of how to start. Watching Sapphire he mimicked her.
"Mm," he said after swallowing a mouthful.
"This is very good. I've never appreciated food before."
"You've probably never been hungry before. That's that gnawing pain you've felt in your stomach."
"How did you…" Can you-?" His voice grew excited. If one of them had their powers back, it would be enough.
"No, I'm sorry. It was merely an educated guess."
They ate in silence after that, each lost in their own thoughts.
Steel's head felt heavy and twice it dropped, only for him to jerk it upright.
"I think it's time for bed." Sapphire carried the plates to the table and rinsed them off in a shallow bowl. She set them to dry on a cloth she found. "We shall have to be alert that the fire doesn't go out."
"That's fine, I don't sleep." He yawned widely
Sapphire didn't bother to hide her smile. "I think perhaps tonight you will, but where?" She looked around the cabin towards the narrow bed
"I imagine that's our best bet." Steel nodded towards it.
"Together?" Sapphire sounded suddenly shy.
"It would not be the first time and I would think it a better choice than the floor." Steel smiled at her, and then winked. "Even as a human, you can still trust me."
"I hope not." She laughed to let him know she was teasing, but Steel cocked an eyebrow and remained solemn looking.
"Why do I have the impression that you are enjoying this?"
"The thought of sleeping with you?"
"This whole set up."
"No, our situation frightens me because for the first time in my existence I am not in control. The control is out there. However, I am with you and that gives me a sense of security and comfort."
Steel nodded and began to undo his tie. It wasn't often that he has to physically undress himself. "And I'm not, you know."
They climbed quickly into the bed for the cabin, while warm while they were fully dressed, was cool. Steel climbed in between the skins and blankets and held them open for here. Sapphire didn't need a second invitation. She slipped in and up against him, shivering slightly. The blankets, hides and Steel's arms enclosed around her and she nestled down against him.
"You smell like smoke," Steel murmured, nuzzling her hair. She titled her head back to answer him and he kissed her, gently, as if afraid to be too aggressive.
"You smell like security," Sapphire whispered and slipped an arm over his waist. "You are not as hard as you normally are." Something prodded her stomach and she giggled. "Well, perhaps there are exceptions to that."
It was not the first time they'd taken comfort in each other's arms, but it was certain the most awkward. Steel felt as if he had one too many legs and not enough hands. Sex had always been a release for him, but this time it was a pleasure. He never wanted it to end, although it did and far too soon for him.
Sapphire, too, seemed overwhelmed by the emotions and physical sensations, all much more intense and explosive. When she climaxed, she cried out, arching in his arms, even as he strove to hold her that much closer.
Sated and exhausted, finally, they slept as the fire cracked in the fireplace and the wind sang a lullaby.
A noise woke Steel and he remained still, listening. There was a loud thump against the wall and a grumbled whine.
"Steel?" Sapphire's voice sounded small. "What is that?"
"I don't know." His voice was raspy and he coughed. Then his eyes fell upon the thawing side of meat and another whump hit the wall near the door. "I think something is trying to get in, probably for that."
"It's probably why they keep the meat away from the living quarters." Sapphire sat up as Steel climbed out of the bed and hurried pulled on his shirt and pants. A moment later, Sapphire followed and turned her attention to the fire.
"I know. I will try and lead it away from here." He coughed again and inhaled, or tried to. His nose was entirely plugged up.
"How?" Sapphire was tracking the sound of the animal with her eyes.
"I don't know." He sat to put on his shoes. "I am hoping it will follow me away from here."
"But you could be injured or even killed." She poked the fire and it flared up.
"That might just be acceptable to the way I am feeling." He coughed again.
At that, Sapphire turned. Steel's eyes were rheumy looking and his face was flushed. Frowning, she walked quickly to him and placed a hand on his forehead. "You are hot. I thought it was merely our physicality in bed."
"I know. I believe it's called a fever." He grabbed a fur and wrapped it around the meat, then picked up a second fur for himself. The noise had moved from the door. "This might be my only chance. Secure the door behind me and don't open it up for anything."
"Steel…" She reached out stroked his cheek. It was rough and it took her a moment to realize it was whiskers.
"I will be careful." He caught her hand and kissed its palm.
He opened the door and came face-to-face with a large creature. It had a name, but he didn't know what it was. He didn't care. It was the size of Lead and it did not look happy.
It reached out a massive paw and swiped at him, knocking both him and the meat to the ground. He cried out as the claws raked his leg and he crawled away as quickly as he could across the room.
The animal dropped to all fours and growled menacingly as it sniffed the meat that Steel had dropped. With any luck it will take it and leave, Steel thought.
He reached Sapphire and pushed her behind him, using his body to shield her. It was his job to protect her. On assignments, he kept her from harm and he fully intended to do what he could now.
Closing his eyes, he thought, Please, I will accept my fate and perish, but not Sapphire. She is too valuable. I will take her punishment and mine, but protect her. Please… He could feel the animal's breath, rank and hot, against his face and Sapphire's trembling hands on his shoulders. Please, save her.
A massive searing pain that shot through him and it was followed by a wave of dizziness. Suddenly, it was light and he was standing in the middle of the road, watching a stranger snowshoe away as quickly as possible.
Steel? He nearly whooped at the sound of her voice in his head and gathered Sapphire up in his arms.
What just happened?
I have no idea. Are you cold?
Then I don't care what happened. He looked down at his leg and his trousers were in perfect repair. There was no pain. At least we are left with no ill effects from our adventure. Then he sneezed and coughed. Or near enough.
Sapphire's eye glowed bright blue. The villagers have arrived at their destination.
He reached out his hand and took hers. He kissed her fingers and smiled. "And so have we. Let's go home."
With a swirl of snow, they were gone.
The disappearance of the Inuit Village was based on actual fact. For more information, link is here: /2011/07/village-of-the-dead-the-anjikuni-mystery/