Leena knew something was wrong from the moment she walked into the B&B.
It was a cold summer day, and she was wearing shorts even against her Mama's wishes. But no one expects cold on a summer day and they were her favorite pair, but she regrets it now as she stands with her feet planted in the door frame. It shouldn't be colder inside than outside. Mama always kept the inside warm, said the world was too cold itself. The inside of a home should be warm. There was also an eerie silence as Leena cautiously stepped into the drafty inn, her steps creaking.
"Hello?" She whispered loudly, her voice echoing. Definitely something wrong. And if something was wrong that meant it was Warehouse related and she was supposed to get her mother. And if her mother wasn't there, an agent. She called out their names.
"Mama?" No answer. "MacPherson?" No answer. "…Artie?" Still no answer. She frowned, crossed her arms and warmed them. It really was chilly in here. She called again for her mother, wandering into the kitchen to see if she was making dinner. No one there. It looked untouched since breakfast. Cold eggs were left uneaten. Her stomach clenched uncomfortably. Something was really wrong. And it was so silent. Like she standing in a vacuum. She backed away from the kitchen and ran up the stairs at full speed, shouting for her mother and panic rising with every step.
The Warehouse must be in trouble. But Leena was all alone, and she didn't even have a tesla! And she didn't know how to use one even if she did. How could they leave her all alone?
As she rounded corner to her mothers room she heard a noise in a crash coming from the exact opposite direction.
"No! It must be…"
Leena could have jumped for joy. It was Artie! Artie would know what was going on. He always did. She liked that about Artie. He always knew everything. Except for his own aura. That she could tell him. And she told him a lot, especially if he was in a grumpy mood. Which was a lot. But she didn't like it when he was grumpy. When he wasn't he sometimes played piano, or showed her something new about the Warehouse. He says he doesn't like children but that's strange considering he doesn't mind having her around.
Knowing that Artie was there, however, only slightly elevated her fears. She dashed to the other side of the house, ignoring the silence she felt and the cold and focussing on Artie's voice. It was only when she came to the door from where she heard the crash did she realize that Artie was shouting in pain. Fear constricted her again and she burst through the door, gasping when she saw Artie writhing on the floor, a snake coiled around him and squeezing tightly.
"Lee…n…a." He gasped, looking up at her as his face turned purple. Her limbs froze, unwilling to move an inch. He looked frightened. Tough as a rock Artie who never flinched looked frightened. And Leena was a deer caught in the headlights; she didn't know what to do. His aura was dark, almost black. It was suffocating. All she ever wanted to know was everything about the Warehouse, but she'd never faced a situation like this. What if Artie died? It would all be her fault.
"Leen..a..o…ver….there." He gestured to a bag, and she quickly picked it up. She recognized it as a neutralizing bag, like she'd seen agents carrying before. She started to panic, tears sprung in her eyes. Where was the Artifact? Was it even here?
Her voice wavered and broke as she spoke.
"Artie! Artie are you okay?" She cried out.
He couldn't speak out.
"Artie, Artie please-"
"Leena." He writhed a bit in the snake's coils, the snake hissing every time he tried to move. His eyes bore into hers. He was trying to calm her down. She took deep breaths, trying to will away tears. She was big now, she wasn't supposed to cry. But yet they came, spilling down her cheeks.
"L..oook..for something. Something that-" A gasp of breath.
"Something that…doesn't belong."
She looked at him confusedly. Something that didn't belong? Nothing specific? Harriet Tubman's Thimble or something like that? The panic rose a bit more now as she glanced around the room, taking in every object.
"You…can…do it. You're…a….res..ourceful kid. What's….here…that shouldn't…be?" The snake hissed louder as Artie wheezed, unable to say anymore. She stared into the Snake's yellow eyes as it hissed menacingly at her. She narrowed her gaze and glared. She wasn't going to let this thing kill Artie, not if she could help it.
She moved around the room, frantically trying to find something that didn't belong. She went over to the dresser. A box of tissues? …No, Artie had bad alleges a few days ago. He was sneezing when he came in for breakfast. She glanced at the side table by the bed. A hairbrush? Artie never brushed his hair… She wanted to curl up and cry. She looked in circles around the room, analyzing every bit and part. The handles on the doors, the paintings on the walls. What didn't belong? The pillows were the same as her Mama's, the carpet was the same as the one downstairs.
She felt something contort within her then as her gaze came upon a cane topped by a silver snake head lying against the side table. She drew closer to it, recognizing the same bright yellow eyes, even painted as they were. She gasped and grabbed hit, feeling the cold increase ten forth. She could almost smell the sea. It was so strange as it seemed to carry her away, instill in her a thought of total…..freedom. Freedom from what she had no idea, but it was pure relief, elation. She almost went forward with her instinct, toward that envisioned sea, when Artie shouted out, strangled:
"The neutralizing…bag! Leena!" She snapped out of it almost immediately, although the smell of the sea was still there, lingering on the frays. She stuck the cane in the bag, leaning back and closing her eyes as a strong purple bolt struck the air.
The cold dissipated. Warmth filled the room. Light seemed to too, running through the hallways and into Artie's bedroom. The snake was gone, faded. Artie stood and took the bag carrying the Artifact from her. She breathed a sigh of relief, the tears still not gone from her cheeks. She glanced up at Artie fearfully.
"Everything's okay now?"
He was still a bit purple, but he still smiled faintly. His aura was lightening, it seemed that strange light was affecting it too.
"All fine, all fine. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get this to the Warehouse immediately."
He turned around but Leena called out,
"So that was an Artifact, huh?"
He made a famous Artie grouch grimace but nodded.
"Indeed, that was an Artifact."
Her eyes widened in fear.
"Did I do alright?"
He smiled then, for real. She could tell. His aura briefly brightened.
"I'm alive, aren't I? I think I would consider the day a success." He turned around again, but paused once more to turn his head, and lift his hand."
"Thank you, Leena. A job well done."
Mrs. Frederick told her to go, but she couldn't she just couldn't. She stood there rooted on the floor unable to move, trying to search Artie's face for the person she'd known for so many years, since she was young and just learning the ways of the world. But he was leaving, she could tell. His aura was changing, becoming unrecognizable. Dark, malignant. Not Artie. This person could never play piano at Christmas time.
She felt helpless as she pleaded with him, to stop, to come back. But there was no Artifact to neutralize, nothing she could do. There was nothing around, nothing but the ground, the bronze statues of people frozen in time. Everything had it's place here. And he had a gun, was shouting. He didn't even see her. Tears streamed down her face and she didn't even make a move to stop the flow. She just kept pleading.
"Let me help you! …Artie, what's going on?"
At last he stopped, looked down. His aura was still shifting. All was silent, a chilling silence. She reached for him, wanting all to be well, to be able figure this out, use their resources to-
And then he looked up. His aura settled into a deep darkness. A black hole. No beacon of life having a hope of getting through.
"It's in the dark vault." He said as if just describing what they were eating for breakfast. No emotion, so matter of fact. So opposite of anything she had just seen. She trembled. He began to move them, past her. She couldn't let him, not like this.
"Artie, stop. Look at me."
He did, slowly, surely. With a small quirk of the lips. His eyes were dark, so dark. He was empty, a face so full of malice it was empty. A chill raced down her spine and she just couldn't stop trembling. She pleaded again, panic running through her. It was so cold.
"Who are you? Who are you?"
"You're in my way."
It had been her first words to him, holding her mothers hand as a scruffy man with a beard hauled a suitcase into the front door, a freshly baked cookie held in her hand.
Her final thoughts, of him, of he taught her, of what he gave her, of how she didn't save him, not this time, came with the cold.