A/N: This isn't serious social commentary. It's much too scrambly. Maybe some day I'll do something properly reverent, but this ain't it.
Permafrost is for professor Enoch, who taught me that the sins least likely to be forgiven are the ones you never committed.
It's also for professor Welburn, who taught me that maybe being forgiven isn't the point.
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
Weary footsteps break the snow, snapping past the crust to crush at the powder beneath. Across the white expanse, the shape of a man staggers through the falling dusk.
He knows that he is walking through the high places in the world; that the nights here are not kind. He knows that he lost his pack, and his tent, and the two little rocks from which he can evoke fire. The blizzard that took them was not his fault, but the cold doesn't care. The tundra has picked him out to die.
Step. Crunch. Step. Crunch. Breathe.
He almost wishes he hadn't. Freezing fingers rip the warmth from his mouth, reach past his teeth, and root around in his guts. His entire body quivers with the shock of it, forcing him to breath harder. His lungs work like bellows, polluting the air with waste-heat, spilling defiance into the winter.
As if in reply, the wind shrills predatory past his neck. "Keep going," it whispers. "Run yourself empty. When at last you lie down to sleep, I'll be there. Waiting." He shudders, but can't deny it. They both know it to be true.
Step. Crunch. Hobble. Gasp.
A frozen loop of grass, half-concealed under a drift, catches at his ankle and pulls. There's a numbing twist followed by a sharp pop and he pitches over, waiting for the pain to come. It hesitates for a minute, held off by a cocktail of chemicals and cold, then sweeps ruthless through his flesh. Everything is noise and fire.
Gritting his teeth, he rolls. Pulls his senseless limbs towards his core. Strips off the boots and peels away the sheet ice lining his socks. His ankle lists sideways, ugly and crooked. Radial pulses of pain wash off of it. He extends a finger, just to touch.
Screaming; sharp and unabated. It filters through the dark—the lonesome howl of a pitiful, fleshy wolf.
Okay, so it isn't going to be set. He can't run on it. It won't go back in the boot. There's nothing else for it but to start pulling himself forward.
Drag. Stop. Drag. Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop.
He can feel the pulse ebbing in his veins. Can feel the burning ache of his blood becoming slush. He knows he has to move. Has to get warm. He hisses for his skin to obey him, but all is quiet on the tundra.
Fine. That's how it ends, then. It's not a comfortable bed, surrounded by grandkids and weeping admirers, but nobody gets to pick their own terms. It's better than some ways he could think of going. At least it'll be gradual, and calm.
He closes his eyes, buries his right cheek in the white, and waits for non-being to sweep over him. He's so lost in the expectant rush of death that he never even hears the footsteps approaching.
Death is a smokey tent through which vague ghosts drift. It smells of charred flesh and of wet, smoldering pine. There's a fire in the center, busily belching a greyish-white stream out through the hole in the roof and into the heavens. It's hard to quite see through the mist but, somewhere high overhead and lost in their own private eternity, stars blink coldly in the black.
In death there is peace, but also there is thirst. It starts as a kind of rawness, baked sharp by the heated air, then slowly slides up the spectrum of discomfort until it becomes actual pain. Maybe this is why dying soldiers cry for water and dead emperors are buried with wine. They know what's to come.
In the flickering, licking firelight of Death, a voice cries out. It comes from nearby—too close to belong to one of the shapes. Abruptly, the dead man realizes it's his own.
And then there's a blade at his throat.
"Give me a reason not to kill you." The hand behind the knife is rough, but it rests softly against his cheek. He can feel the calluses barely brushing his flesh.
"I don't think I have one." The dead man speaks, and the words are low and raspy. He hesitates for a moment, moistens his lips, and adds, "But I can't think of a reason for why you'd want to kill me, either."
"I can come up with a few. Trespassing. Poaching. The wholesale slaughter of my people." The words are as casual as only an armed man can make them. There's no need for threat when he's holding six inches of sharpened promise in one hand.
"We both know I didn't do that." The dead man gulps slowly, letting his throat rise into the blade, which doesn't move. A thin red line begins to well with blood.
The knife digs a little deeper. "I'm not sure we do. You're a long way from home, boy. You want everyone to assume that you're as blameless as a fresh whelp, you should'a stayed there."
"I've never killed anyone." The dead man wants to raise his voice, to push some anger into it, but instead he just feels tired. "I guess I did trespass on your land, but nobody ever told me not to."
"Huh. Never thought of it that way. Guess we should put signs up." The shape standing over him spits derisively. "Little bit a' wood and nails, huh? Or maybe we write it in the snow. 'Here's the one thing we have left to us, and we'd appreciate it ever so much if nobody took it away?' Piss on that. We admit that we want something today, you'll be carting it off by sunset tomorrow."
"So you're gonna kill me anyways, no matter what I say?"
"Then why'd you drag me in here?"
The knife doesn't exactly waver, but it does ease off a little. "Clothes were frozen to your body. Shame to waste 'em on a corpse."
The dead man allows himself a funeral grin. "And you didn't strangle me in my sleep because? There must have been plenty of time for it."
"I was busy making dinner." There's a brief wave towards a cooking pot. "Wasn't gonna just let it burn. That's good stew. Worth a whole lot more than your corpse."
"But you didn't stab me after that, either."
"Yet." And all of a sudden the knife is right back to where it was, gouging and bleeding. "The word you're looking for is 'yet.' I speak your language perfectly well. I don't see why you do not."
The dead man grits his teeth. This is maybe his last chance at keeping himself whole. "I've never done anything to you."
"Is that so? Well, now I've done something to you." The knife lifts, flashes, and scores a livid living line across the dead man's cheek. Then it vanishes back into its sheathe. "You got a name?"
The dead man howls in reply.