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CHRISTMAS DAY!! – MIDDLE GRADE: What Money Can’t Buy by Kristen Strassel

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IT’S CHRISTMAS DAY AND YOU SHOULD ALL BE DRUNK ON EGG NOG! Hope you are all having a WONDERFUL day, and here’s your present from me: a story by one of the best people you could ever meet. I love her. Kristen usually writes adult urban fantasy and horror, but today she channeled her inner child and wrote a story for children. Read this in between rounds of Trivial Pursuit.
 


 
What Money Can’t Buy
Kristen Strassel
 
“Don’t sit with me, Maddie.” Katelyn put her backpack on the bus seat. She used to be my best friend. This year she was more interested in being friends with the cheerleaders. Everyone laughed as I turned around, looking for a seat at the front of the bus. I didn’t cry until I sat down in the front seat, my face plastered against the window. They said worse things when I cried.
 
“Hey, Maddie,” Jake called to me from the middle of the bus. “Is your dad working tonight?”
 
Ignoring them didn’t work. I shrugged.
“I hope so. I’m going to go sit in his lap.” More laughter.
 
My dad worked as a mall Santa this year. No one would have known if Katelyn didn’t tell everyone. Now everyone in my class made a big deal out of having their picture taken with them, they’d even made a Facebook page with all the pictures.
 
I begged him to quit, but he insisted that working as Santa was the only way we could have Christmas.
 
Jake moved up to my seat. Of course nobody would be caught dead sitting next to me. He pulled on my braid. “So Mads, are you an elf? Do you make toys in a workshop? Santa’s little helper?”
 
“No.” I still didn’t look at any of them.
 
“She’s on the island of misfit toys.” Somebody yelled from one of the middle seats. I was the only one of the bus who didn’t think this was funny at all. Today was the last day of school before Christmas vacation. I didn’t know how much more of it I could take. I wished Christmas would just go away so I didn’t have to deal with this anymore.
 
“Maybe she can make herself a coat that doesn’t come from Walmart.”
 
“Maybe she can make some wooden boobs!”
 
I’d never been so glad to see my house in my life. Sitting in the front of the bus was good for one thing: I could get off before anyone could grab my bag, or push me back into the seat. I walked fast, watching for ice patches. If I was out of reach, none of the neighborhood kids could get one last swipe at me before vacation.
 
Our house was the only one not decorated on the block. My parents used to go crazy, competing with the houses on the block. It was awesome. We had a Santa sleigh and reindeers that lit up on the roof, and the way that the lights flashed, it looked like Santa was flying away after leaving our presents.
 
But everything changed after my little sister, Bella, got sick. Two years ago, she stopped acting like a normal baby. The doctors found a tumor in her brain. Some of the cancer that causes the tumor kept popping up in other parts of her body. Any day without new bad news about Bella was a really good day.
 
She didn’t come home much, lately. She’d just had a round of treatment to make the tumors shrink. The doctors said it was working, but I didn’t see much difference. She laid in that bed, connected to a bunch of tubes, and didn’t do much. Mom insisted Bella was always happy to see me.
 
“How do you know?” I asked her a few weeks ago. “She doesn’t do anything.”
 
“Don’t say that, Maddie.” My mom looked so tired, without her fancy work suits and makeup. She had to quit her job when taking care of Bella made it too hard for her to work. “Her face lights up when you walk in the room.”
 
“How does she even know who I am?” I didn’t buy it. She’d been so sick for so long. Half the time she wasn’t even awake.
 
“Honey, of course she knows who you are.”
 
Every time Bella got a little better, my parents got so excited. For a few days, they were happy again, they didn’t fight. Those were the best days, but they never lasted. She always got worse again. And so didn’t everything else.
 
Some days, I wished Bella had never been born. Then nothing would have changed. My mom would be working at the law firm, and my dad wouldn’t have had to take that awful Mall Santa job. My parents would have had the time and the money for me to try out for cheerleading, and maybe I would have made the team. I hadn’t practiced in forever. Katelyn wouldn’t be embarrassed to have me as a friend.
 
No one was home. Dad was at work and Mom was at the hospital. We were having good days right now, the doctors insisted this round of treatment was working wonders. Hopefully someone would come get me soon and bring me to hang out at the hospital. It wasn’t the cheeriest place, but at least there were people around. I didn’t like being all by myself at home. Some of the older kids in Bella’s wing were really cool, when they felt good enough to hang out.
I was afraid to get too close to them. The worst days were when I went to visit Bella and found out one of my friends had died.
 
I microwaved some leftovers, I didn’t dare eat lunch at school anymore, and looked at the note Mom had left me for the day. She needed my help around the house now. Today’s list wasn’t long, just laundry. Laundry was easy. It did itself and I could do whatever I wanted.
 
After putting in a load of towels, I wrapped myself in my favorite blanket and decided to watch Elf. Dad’s Santa suit was the only decoration we had around the house. We were going to spend Christmas at the hospital.
 
My cell phone buzzed. I didn’t get up to check the message right away, it was probably just someone from school posting a new picture of my dad working at the mall. It kept buzzing, and I was scared to look. It could be important. It could bad.
 
It was my Nana. Get ready. I’m bringing you to see Bella.
 
“We have a surprise for you!” Nana exclaimed as soon as she walked into the house. She shook snow out of her hair.
 
“You do?” I could hardly believe it. It didn’t seem like anyone ever did anything special just for me anymore. But then I remembered we were going to see Bella, and my hopes fell back down.
 
“I’d tell you what it is, but it’s a surprise!” She practically danced in the foyer as I put my jacket back on.
 
I tried to make school sound like it was good on the way to the hospital. It was too embarrassing to tell her the truth. I didn’t say much to my parents about it, either. I didn’t want them to feel like they were the reason I didn’t have any friends anymore. They weren’t around enough to notice, anyway.
 
The hospital always smelled the same. They tried to make it festive, with garland in the hallways and the nurses in holiday scrubs, but it just made me sadder we were here.
 
I knew the nurses who worked in the pediatric oncology ward pretty well by now, and they smiled and waved when they saw me. I peeked in the rooms as we made our way to Bella, and all my friends looked like they were in good shape. I knew they had a special visit from some football players the other day, and I couldn’t wait to hear all about it. Maybe some of the cute ones showed up.
 
My mom sat on Bella’s bed, nothing different there. Nana kissed her on the head, then squeezed Bella’s hand, the one that didn’t have the IV in it.
 
“We have a surprise!” Mom said, almost in the same sing song tone Nana had said the same thing.
 
“Nana told me.” I tossed my jacket on the chair. “Is it OK if I sit on the bed?”
 
Bella watched the activity in the room, a good sign. A lot of times by this time of the day, she was already sound asleep after all of her treatments.
 
“Sure.” Mom moved over to make room for me.
 
“Hey, Bella.” I said as I sat down. Her eyes really did light up.
 
Mom put her hand on Bella’s tiny leg. Even though she was three, she wasn’t that much bigger than a baby. “Bella, honey, what do you want to tell Sissy?”
 
Bella sat up a little on her mountain of pillows, and took a deep breath. “Love you, sissy.”
 
I looked back and forth from my mom to Nana. I had to be imagining things. Bella couldn’t talk. Sometimes she could communicate by sign language, when she felt up to it.
 
“It sounded like she said, ‘Love you, sissy.’”
 
Mom nodded. “The speech therapist has been working with her, now that the tumor shrunk. She’s been teaching her little phrases.”
 
“Oh my God.” Tears fell down my cheeks, but I didn’t feel embarrassed about it. These were happy tears. And Mom and Nana were crying, too.
 
Maybe she was going to get better, for real this time.
 
“We wanted to surprise you with it on Christmas, but I just couldn’t keep it to myself any longer.” Mom blurted out, like she felt guilty about keeping a secret.
 
“It’s awesome.” I blinked back more tears. “I love you too, Bella.”
 
She wiggled around a little bit, looking happy.
 
“Does Dad know?”
 
“Not yet.” Mom couldn’t wipe the smile off the face. “It’s going to be his Christmas present.”
 
Some Christmas presents you couldn’t get at the mall, even if you worked there as Santa.
 



3 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – ADULT: Letting Go by Cassandra Page

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Christmas is getting so close now, so I thought you deserved a special treat – it’s Cassandra Page, author of Isla’s Inheritance, stepping out of her urban fantasy comfort zone into the world of the Adult. Cass is one of my nearest and dearest, and she’s a damn good writer. Check it out.
 


 
Letting Go
by Cassandra Page
 
 
Michelle decorates the house in silence.

In previous years, her home had been filled with carols and laughter. Her family decked the halls to Deck the Halls, and the night was anything but silent. At fifteen, Ben was too cool to hang baubles, and he’d ceded the right to top the tree back to his father after ten years of hogging the privilege. But Michelle caught glimpses of childhood delight behind his surly exterior, and hid her smile behind her hand.

That was before she found the emails.

Now she strings the tinsel alone, performing the familiar ritual not out of celebration but because she’s fallen into a rut with steep sides—too steep to climb. There is no joy in it. She hangs out his stocking next to hers, over the mantelpiece. The pair hang limply.

The phone rings, piercing the silence like a scream. A glass bauble slips from her fingers, shatters on the empty tiles beneath the tree.

“Hello?”

Silence on the other end. Then a familiar voice speaks. “Michelle.”

“Darren.” Her voice is as sharp as the glass shards. Glittering crimson.

“How are you?”

She fishes the dustpan and brush from under the sink, cradling the phone against her shoulder. “Fine,” she says. It’s even sort of true. She is hollow, mercifully empty of emotion behind carefully constructed walls. “Why?”

“Well, it’s the first of December, and I thought…” He trails off.

He knows her. After twenty years of marriage, he ought to. The first of December is when the decorations go up. And she’s alone.

“I’m fine.” A white-hot spot of anger flares, burning away some of the numbness. She grits her teeth, suppresses the emotion. If she lets anger in, the rest will follow. When she speaks, her voice is cool. “The divorce papers arrived yesterday.”

“You don’t have to do anything with them right now. Wait till after the holidays.”

“I signed them already.” She sweeps red shards onto the dustpan.

“Oh.” He sighs. “Did you want some company?”

“No.” She frowns. Why is he pretending to care? He left her after Ben— She can’t even think the word. “Is there anything else? I’m busy.”

He’s quiet for so long she wonders if he hung up and she didn’t notice. Then he says, “Have you read the emails yet?”

This old argument. When will he stop blaming her for what happened? “I read them last year.”

“Read them again. Properly, this time.”

“Leave me alone.”

“Goodbye, Michelle.”

She hangs up and tips the glass in the bin. It patters down onto a shrivelled banana peel, an empty milk carton, Darren’s discarded stocking.

It has been almost a year since her fight with Ben about the emails. Electronic love letters between him and that girl. Brittany. Bad enough that her boy was fourteen. Worse that the girl was so far from the wrong side of the tracks that she couldn’t even see them. Her older sister had died of a drug overdose; her father was an alcoholic who spent all his time at the RSL, feeding his welfare cheque into the poker machines.

Ben had stormed out of the house, hared off on his bike. The car hadn’t seen him in the dark.

The guilt claws at the walls around her emotions, tearing through them. Its talons are her grief, its wings her regret. She’s familiar with the beast. But before it can drag her down again, in a tangle of self-loathing and bourbon, a little mouse, curiosity, creeps in behind it.

The next afternoon, when the hangover recedes a little, she reads the emails.

***

The soup kitchen is bustling, the queue almost out the door. The first smell that invades her nose is of salty gravy, the next of unwashed bodies. She holds her breath and ducks inside.

“Hey, no cutting,” a bearded man mumbles, glaring at her from watery eyes.

“I’m not here to eat.” Her stomach churns. “I’m looking for someone.”

He smiles, gap-toothed. “Is it me?”

“No. Sorry.”

“Well, if you change your mind…” He winks, and she finds herself smiling back. Just a little.

“You might be able to help me. I’m looking for this girl.” She shows him the printout of the photo. It is pixelated, poor quality. Ben took it on his phone.

“Sure, I seen her. She’s up there.”

Michelle turns, squares her shoulders. Walks along the queue till she finds the girl.

“Excuse me.”

Brown eyes turn to her. There is no flash of recognition. Ben never introduced them. “Yes?”

“I’m Ben Rigby’s mother.”

Now there’s recognition. Also anger and grief. Brittany swallows the feelings, but Michelle can see they are old companions. As they are Michelle’s.

“What do you want?” Brittany says, eyes narrowed.

“To see you. I—” Michelle hesitates, looking the girl over. She’s the same age as Ben would have been, still a teenager, but looks older. Her hands are calloused from work; her bare arms bear faint green and yellow bruises, like bracelets.

“What?” The girl stares back, examining Michelle just as Michelle examines her. “If you came here to yell at me, forget it.”

“I didn’t. Actually, I’m planning Christmas dinner, and I wanted to invite you.”

Brittany’s mouth falls open. Then her expression hardens. “I ain’t interested in being your charity case.”

“It’s not about charity. I know you and Ben … cared for each other.” Brittany’s cheeks redden and she lifts her chin. Michelle looks down at her shoes, conspicuously expensive next to Brittany’s scuffed slip-ons. “I’ve spent the last year blaming you for taking him away from me, as much as I blamed myself for driving him away. And, well, Christmas is the season for forgiveness.”

“I don’t want your forgiveness,” Brittany says.

“No.” Michelle looks up, meets her gaze. “But I need to give it. If you’ll let me. I need to let go.”

The girl gnaws her lip, thinks for several moments. “I reckon Ben would want me to,” she murmurs. “Sure, I’ll come.”

Michelle feels something then that she hasn’t felt for almost a year. A tiny piece of joy. She gives the girl a piece of paper with details written on it. Brittany folds it, slides it inside her purse next to a battered photo. Ben smiles back at Michelle from the image, reminding her of Darren when they’d first met. She can’t help but smile back.

She pulls her phone out of her pocket. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s someone else I need to invite.”
 



5 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – APOCALYPTIC FICTION: by J. Elizabeth Hill

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CAN YOU BELIEVE THERE ARE ONLY FIVE DAYS UNTIL CHRISTMAS? ME EITHER. Today the fantastical J. Elizabeth Hill begins the Christmas apocalypse. If you don’t know her, freaking follow her on Twitter. She’s ace, and so is this…
 


 
by J. Elizabeth Hill
 
 
I look around the yard outside the door leading down to our underground shelter, then down the road that leads to our town. The sky is grey overhead, the same shade as the ground. Snow mixes with ash as both fall, robbing the world of color. No one’s sure if the volcanoes have stopped. The radios stopped working a couple of days ago, so we haven’t had any news.
 
That’s bad, but even at twelve, I can tell things are getting worse. There’s almost no food left and now my brother’s disappeared. I have to find him before they shut the door for the night. Once that happens, no one will open it until morning, no matter what. They won’t even check who’s knocking, because it might be the others, those we turned away because there wasn’t enough room or supplies in the shelter. Ben, one of the grown ups, was talking the other day about how many they’ve refused to let in in the past week. He said if the others organized, they’d overrun us, but there’s no sign of them doing that. He called it a small mercy.
 
I understand why they can’t let everyone in, but I wonder if my parents were turned away, or if they’re just gone. I hope they’re at least out there and okay, but I don’t know anymore. I haven’t seen them for so long, not since before the sirens went off.
 
I look around again, trying to think if there’s anywhere downstairs I didn’t look, but I don’t think so. I’m almost certain he left and if he did, I know why. Last night, one of the grown ups had mentioned it was Christmas Eve as we were collecting our small ration of beans. Liam had brightened up for a moment, but then he’d asked how Santa was going to get to us without a fireplace. The shelter has an old furnace, enough to keep us from freezing, but Liam was certain it wouldn’t work for Santa. I don’t have the heart to tell my six-year old brother there’s no such thing. I’ve overheard some of the grown ups talking about how this might be the end of the world, depending on how bad the volcanoes are and how many have gone off now. How can I take Santa away from the kid?
 
The snowy ash is falling again, so it’s hard to pick anything out in the yard. Then I see it, a smaller shape than the other footprints, then another one a foot or so away from it. Footprints. And they’re the right size. I swear, then look behind me at Tom and Nick. Either they didn’t hear me or they don’t care if some kid who’s a stranger to them swears.
 
I take a step to follow my brother’s trail, but Tom calls after me.
 
“You shouldn’t go off, Matthew. It’ll get dark soon. You know what that means.”
 
I nod to show I heard him, but I go anyway. I’m all Liam has, and I have to find him. I can’t let anything happen to him.
 
Walking down the road in the dim light, my eyes never stop searching. I listen for any sound that shouldn’t be there. Only I don’t really know what our town should sound like when everything’s this messed up, so I jump at every sound, even my own coughing from the ash in the air.
 
The end of the road comes into sight and with it the rest of the town. It’s not much, really. Dad called it a wide place in the road, but he always smiled when he said it. Mom said it was a great place to raise a family. To me, it was the most boring place on Earth. Or at least it had been before the closest volcano had gone off.
 
I stop where the shelter road and Atterly Road meet. Atterly’s the major road in Vernon. Practically everything in town leads to it. From where I stand, I can just see the mouth of Tomkin, our street.
 
I’ve lost the tracks I’m sure were Liam’s. There are too many others around here, proof that there are still people around town. What if Liam’s been taken by one of them? Would they try to use him to get in the shelter?
 
The crash of glass nearby interrupts my thoughts. I see a chair lying in the street in front of David’s, the local diner. Someone’s tossed it out through the now broken front window. I hide behind a large tree, peaking around the trunk. I can’t let anyone sneak up on me and I need to know what’s going on.
 
I see two guys come out through the busted down door of David’s, each with a large sack slung over their shoulders. Both have cloths over their mouths, but they’re coughing a anyway, worse even than the grown ups who take turns at the door of the shelter. The two men talk for a few minutes, though I can’t hear what they’re saying. I think they’re arguing though. One shoves the other, but then they go off together. Grown ups never make much sense.
 
I wait as long as I dare before darting out to check that the two guys are out of sight. They are, and I breathe a sigh of relief. The street is empty.
 
Standing there at the corner, I try to decide what to do. Where do I even begin to look for my brother? My eyes are drawn again to Tomkin. I can see Mr. Smith’s house just a bit down the street, the porch columns wrapped in broad red and green ribbons. Our house is just three away from his. It’s not that far. I should be able to make it without anyone seeing me. I know I have to try.
 
I move as quickly as I can down Atterly, then turn onto Tomkin. As I pass Mr. Smith’s, I smell something familiar and look up to see smoke trailing from the chimney. I don’t stop or even think of going inside, though Mr. Smith’s always been nice to us. Maybe if Liam’s not at our house, I’ll try there.
The more I think about it, the more certain I am that’s where Liam’s gone. Last year, he discovered where Mom and Dad always hide our presents. He came running to me about it, as if he thought I didn’t know already. He might be after those, instead of looking for Santa.
 
I’m only one house away from ours when I hear a shout back down near Atterly. I leap over the hedge that borders the Richards’ yard without turning to see who it is. My back hits the ground and for a moment, the breath is knocked out of me. I hear running feet approaching and I know I have to move. If they saw me, they also saw me jump the hedge. I roll onto my hands and knees, the cold, crusted snow biting into my palms and fingers. Crawling toward the fake well, my chest is on fire the whole way. The moment I’m behind it I draw my knees to my chest and drop my head, trying to make myself small enough that whoever it is won’t see me.
 
“I’m telling you, it wasn’t one of ours. Do you think they opened the door at last?”
 
The voice is so close that I flinch. She’s got to be standing right where I went over. I pray she won’t see the trail I probably left in the icy, ash-laced snow.
 
“Probably. Can’t hide in there forever,” a male voice says.
 
I swear silently, using words Mom would yell at me just for knowing. Two of them, and both sounded like grown ups. I can’t possibly outrun them and the light is fading at an alarming rate. Even if I find Liam at our house and he comes with me willingly, I’m not sure we can make it back in time. The idea makes my stomach clench and my heart race, but I don’t have time for it.
 
“You think they’ve got any more supplies than we do?”
 
After a pause, the woman says, “I don’t know, Brad. Maybe. I mean, it’s the emergency shelter, but they built it during World War II. And that mountain went off before the scientists thought it would, and way worse. I’m not sure the supplies in there are any good. It’s possible we’re doing better out here than they are in there.”
 
She’s only partly right. They’d added to the canned food and other stuff, but the new ones were long gone. Now all we had were old cans of beans and corned beef, things like that. And every third or fourth one we opened was off. The grown ups were worried about it, but I was too busy worrying about trying to take care of Liam.
 
“Look, I’m not keen on waiting around here. I know you’re worried about some kid wandering around, especially with that bunch that blew through here yesterday destroying stuff, but we’re going to be in danger soon too. We need to get back to the house before dark.”
 
Brad sounds as anxious as I feel and I will them to give in to that. I need them to go away. I can’t possibly get anywhere without them seeing me, not if they’re standing there looking for me.
 
“But we can’t let a kid–”
 
“If the kid’s hiding, we’re probably not going to find them, not before we have to get back. Even if we do, whoever it is will probably be too afraid of us to let us help. Tara, be reasonable.”
 
After a long silence, Tara says, “All right. We’ll stop in to check on Greg though, and while we’re there, we’ll ask him to keep an eye out for anyone coming down this street.”
 
I hear them walk away after a moment, but I don’t move right away. They sounded so nice, like they were really worried. Were the others at the shelter wrong about those we’d locked out? What if they wouldn’t take everything, as I’d been told?
 
I shake my head and concentrate on listening for them or anyone else. I can’t afford to think about anything but finding Liam and getting us back to the shelter. It takes me a while to be sure I don’t hear anything. I peek around the fake well and no one’s there. I make myself wait for another moment, then run across the Richards’ yard, trying to stay low to the ground. I hop the low wood fence and land in my front yard.
 
It’s the first time I’ve seen the place since we evacuated to the shelter. Dirty snow lies everywhere, grey crusting the top. Our windows are coated with the stuff to the point that I can’t see in them. Mom would be pissed if she saw this. If she’s still alive. I’m starting to doubt that, though I keep putting on a brave face for Liam when he asks about them.
 
On the walkway, I see what I was hoping for. Footprints, though they’re barely visible under the fresh snow. But it’s not exactly what I wanted to see. Liam’s small ones are there, but so are larger ones. I can’t tell which are older and which are newer. Did someone follow my little brother back to our house? Is Liam even still here?
I can’t go in the front door. For one thing, anyone might be watching. I don’t know who’s out there. But that’s okay. I know another way in, if it isn’t locked.
 
I run along the side of the house toward the back, looking everywhere for watchers as I go. Suddenly I fall to the snow, my palms stinging as I try to catch myself. My feet are tangled in something. I look back, first to see if anyone’s there and coming for me, then to see what I tripped on.
 
It’s a belt, one I know well. It’s his favorite after all.
 
I glance around but there’s no sign of Liam or any more of his clothes. I’d check for any remaining signs of what happened, but I’m sure there won’t be anything left after all the flailing I did on the way down. I grab the belt and scramble back to my feet, running for the small window beside the deck, just above the ground.
 
Mom was forever telling us to leave all the windows of the house locked. Every time she found one unlocked, she fixed that. And I would come along behind her every time to unlock this one. It wasn’t an act of defiance. I just liked to go out and skateboard in the park at night. It was quiet and the stupid, cool people from school weren’t around to give me a hard time. The question now was whether Mom had discovered it unlocked before she and Dad left that last time.
 
I slide my fingers around the frame until I find the end of the fishing line. I tug lightly and the latch moves. The window opens a little. I pry it the rest of the way open, then look in the basement. Nothing’s out of place there. Along one wall, I see the boxes of seasonal stuff Mom keeps. Kept.
 
Rather than think about this, I climb through the window and drop to the floor. The sound of the window closing behind me is loud in the silence, but I know from experience it’s not even loud enough to be heard in the living room above me.
 
I make for the stairs and head up, skipping over all the places where they squeak and creak. At the top, I crack the door open and peer around. When I don’t see anyone, I open it all the way.
 
There’s dust and not much else. No one’s in sight, and I hear nothing. I don’t see any footprints in the dust here, but it’s the back end of the house, so I didn’t really expect to. As I make my way up the hall, I’m amazed at the way the floor is coated. I look back at my footprints, clearly visible. Mom would have a fit. It’s got to be the ash in the air causing this.
 
The front hall finally gives me some sign that my brother’s at least been here. His footprints are there, going to and from the door, but I don’t let it discourage me. All the footprints actually stop in front of the narrow glass panel beside the door and I can see smaller, grey handprints on the white curtain there.
 
I follow the tracks up the stairs and, to my surprise, most of them lead to our parents’ bedroom, not his. When I get to the door, I hesitate. I haven’t seen any sign of a grown up here in the house, so he’s probably alone, but what if he’s not? I know I’m letting fear take hold. I can’t afford to, not if we’re going to make it back to the shelter, but I can’t stop it.
 
I open the door and just about laugh with relief. There’s Liam, sitting in the middle of the bed with Dad’s box of mementos. It’s always been my little brother’s favorite thing and no matter how many times Dad tells him not to play with the stuff in that book-sized box, Liam goes straight for it every time he can. Only usually he’s got it spread everywhere, and this time he’s just holding it in his lap as he stares at me. There’s a bruise on his forehead, but he looks okay other than that. Except his eyes are wider than I’ve ever seen them. If he wasn’t smiling, I’d be more worried than I already am.
 
“I knew you’d come, Matty.”
 
Ugh. The nickname I hate the most. It took me forever to teach him not to call me that around anyone, not even Mom and Dad. Still, I’m so happy to see him I don’t really care this time. I cross to the foot of the bed.
 
“You can’t run off like that. We have to get back.” I try to hold off the scolding tone, but I’m failing. “What were you thinking?”
 
“I had to drop my letter to Santa off.”
 
I stare at him. “There’s no mail pick up anymore, Liam.”
 
“But Santa’s magic. He gets the letter the moment you drop it in the box.”
 
“Who told you that?”
 
He rolls his eyes at me. “Everyone knows it. All the kids at school were talking about it, how we shouldn’t let our parents take our letters, because they don’t need to.”
 
I decide not to argue with him. “Come on. We’ll talk about it when we get back to the shelter.”
 
“No! We can’t go now, Matty.”
 
Glancing at the window, I try to judge the time. It’s hard, with the windows so grimy and the sky always grey, but I’m sure the light is slipping away faster than ever. “There’s no time to argue. We have to go now. If we run, we can probably make it back in time.”
 
I reach for his arm, but he scoots back on the bed, all the way to the pillows.
 
“You’re not listening!”
 
Trying not to sigh or yell, I say, “Then tell me.”
 
“We have to wait here because Christmas isn’t over yet and Santa might still bring them.”
 
I can’t believe what he’s asking. He knows it’s dangerous outside the shelter. He’s been told that by everyone, yet he wants us to stay out here. “What did you ask for that’s so important?”
 
He looks down at the box and chews his lip, telling me I haven’t masked my irritation as much as I’d hoped to. His reply is too quiet for me to make out, even in the otherwise silent room.
 
“What was that, Liam?” I ask in the kindest voice I can manage while every instinct is screaming at me to just grab him and drag him back.
 
“Mom and Dad.”
 
I can only stare at him. Suddenly I wish I’d told him the truth, that Santa’s a myth. Instead, I’m stuck with this line of crap. “I don’t think he does that sort of thing.”
 
“But he has to. When I wrote my letter, I told him he had to bring them home, because then you’d smile again.”
 
“What?”
 
His eyes are shining now in the dim light. “You never smile anymore, and you don’t play. You’re not fun. You act like everything’s fine but it’s not. You’re sad all the time and you’re getting all grown up and I hate it, Matty. I want my brother back!”
 
I feel like someone punched me in the gut. Have I really been like that? The more I think about all the extra stuff I’ve been doing, trying to show we can pull our weight around the shelter, the worse I feel.
 
“Please, we have to stay until the day’s over. There’s food in the pantry. Remember? We didn’t take it with us. We can have a dinner that’s not beans. Our Christmas feast. Please, Matty?”
 
I look into his eyes and sit on the edge of the bed. I don’t have the heart to tell him what I really think will happen, anymore than I can bear to tell him Santa’s not real. Besides, I want to believe with him. I want to wake up in the morning and find our parents have come home. It’s a stupid idea after so many days, but I hope for it all the same.
 
With a heavy sigh, I nod and Liam throws his arms around me in the most crushing hug his little body can manage. When his grip finally eases, I grab the blanket from the end of the bed and wrap it around him. Darkness is falling anyway, so it’s too late to get back tonight. “We’ll stay until morning, then go back.”
 
“We’ll take Mom and Dad with us.”
 
He grins at me and my throat closes up for a second. I pull the comforter around us. At least he’ll still have me in the morning, and I swear to myself I’ll do better at being his brother. He deserves that much, since he can’t have his Christmas wish.
 



9 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – STEAMPUNK: My Brother’s Christmas Wedding by Bridget Shepherd

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I am so excited to be bringing you a steampunk Christmas story by the one and only Bridget Shepherd. I love steampunk, so I’ve been really excited about this one, and Bridget doesn’t disappoint. Although she usually writes sci-fi, fantasy and horror, Bridget kicks some clockwork ass in My Brother’s Christmas Wedding, so sit back and enjoy.
 


 
My Brother’s Christmas Wedding
by Bridget Shepherd
 
 
I slipped through the hive of bustling workmen rushing all manner of brass statues, figures and gears through the grand ballroom entrance without drawing more than a glance. Everyone here was fresh off the Fine Mechanical Services airship. They’d know my father and brother’s faces but not mine. Being the second son had its perks. It helped that I had dressed down in a black shirt and grey vest with matching slacks. At this time of day I should have been wearing an afternoon suit and jacket, preferably in brown or blue. Changing clothes four times a day had always seemed like a waste of time to me.

I ascended two flights of stairs and met Mrs. Mina Judson, the house staff overseer, on the mid-level balcony. My mother had asked me, without my father’s knowledge, to ensure that the decorations would be perfect for my brother’s Christmas wedding. Mina wouldn’t like this one bit. Sure enough, she wrinkled her nose when she saw me.

“Good afternoon to you too.” I smiled sardonically.

“Those mourning gloves give me the creeps, milord,” she said, staring at my hand like it might strangle her of its own accord.

“They’re not mourning gloves, Mina,” I said, though we’d been over this before. She’d been with the family since I was three and Martin five, and we were as close to friends as our stations allowed. “They’re work gloves. The black grease stains anything.”

“The Honorable Arthur St. Gale should not be wearing work gloves. On a lord, any black gloves look like mourning gloves.” She crossed herself superstitiously. “What’s milord’s fiancé going to think when she sees you in those?” She folded her arms over her well-worn mahogany corset and cream shirt.

“Good thing I haven’t got one then, isn’t it?” I grinned.

“As I heard it, you will soon enough.” It was her turn to grin.

“What in the world do you mean?” Please let her be kidding, I thought.

“Mr. Henley told me that Lord St. Gale has already drawn up a short list of suitable ladies. Lord Thornton will be married by December’s end. Milord will be married in the summer, no doubt.”

Lord Thornton was my brother Martin’s courtesy title as firstborn and heir to our father, the Earl of St. Gale and Viscount of Thornton. Mr. Henley was my father’s valet and the information was likely accurate. Me, engaged? I should have known this day was coming but it still hit me like an iron wall.

“If she doesn’t like them then she’s not the girl for me,” I managed to mumble, but the problem was so much deeper and more widespread than that. For one thing, I only felt that kind of attraction toward men. The enormity of my discontent with my lordly duties began to overwhelm me. I needed to do the one thing in my life that made sense to me. I needed to work on the machinery. “Anyway,” I said before Mina could say anything more on the subject, “mother asked me to personally oversee the installation of the mechanical decorations.” She made a face like she very much wanted to tell me that wasn’t a job for a man of my position, so I added, “You know my mother’s father dabbled in engineering and mechanics, and taught me what he knew. While you may find it unseemly, mother wants me to make sure the workmen don’t cut corners for Martin’s big day.”

“Begging Lady St. Gale’s pardon, I’m not the only one who finds it unseemly,” Mina said, “I can’t imagine them being very keen to work with you, milord. They’ll turn a cold shoulder as often as they can get away with.”

“What do you mean? Once I’ve shown them my skill shouldn’t they accept me?”

“It’s not about your skill, milord, it’s about your breeding. These workers would find me upscale while I’m decidedly middle class. The senior mechanics are upper working class and the junior mechanics and general laborers are lower. They’ll do their job because they have to put food on the table down below, but many of them resent your father and everything he stands for.”

“I’m not my father.” The venom in my voice surprised us both.

“I-I know,” she said, “I wouldn’t dare to talk about this with Lord St. Gale. Have I overstepped?”

“I’m sorry. No, I’d rather hear your thoughts.” I respected my father but on a bad day I’d call him a bloody tyrant under my breath.

“The fact is, they don’t know you, milord. Many of them have built up resentment, even rage coming from poverty down below. Many of these decorations,” she indicated the tall bronze statues and gold plated Christmas trees, “could feed their family for weeks, some even months. I’ve got a cousin down there who even I send money to when I can.”

I thought about it and frowned. “Frankly, I don’t know why we have so many expensive decorations, or a hundred sets of fine clothes for that matter. And I wish I understood large-scale economics, but I’m afraid I don’t.” I sighed.

“Milord really isn’t cut out to be a nobleman is he?” She smiled wryly.

An idea clicked into place like the last gear of a panel.

“You’re right,” I said, “that’s how I’ll do it.” I turned to leave.

“Milord?”
 
“I need to go talk to Jory. Thanks, Mina,” I said over my shoulder and trotted off.

*
 
Lucky for me, Mr. Jory Stedman, my father’s chief of security, had a soft spot for me. I explained that Mina felt my being a nobleman would get in the way of my mother’s task for me and therefore I had decided to go in disguise. I assured him that if my father found out what he was doing for me, he would blame me and not Jory. The next day Mina reluctantly introduced me to the supervising mechanic, Cole Ferris. Except I wasn’t the Honorable Arthur St. Gale anymore. I wore a mechanic’s uniform and my nametag read “Arthur Porter.”

“Mr. Ferris,” Mina said smoothly, showing no trace of the discomfort she must have been feeling, “might I introduce Arthur Porter. Here is his reference from Mr. Stedman.” She handed him a document stamped with the official wax seal. “He is a relative of Mr. Stedman who would be very much obliged if you would allow him to shadow your men. Of course, Mr. Stedman has made the arrangements for his wages. This will not deduct from your men’s existing pay in any way.”

“I won’t turn away extra help as long as he’s capable.” Ferris shrugged. “I reserve the right to show him the door if he gets in the way.”

Something passed over Mina’s features, I couldn’t be sure if she found the thought of him kicking me out unthinkably unseemly or unthinkably hilarious. Either way, she maintained her composure and said, “Of course.”

“Welcome aboard, Porter,” Ferris said and offered his gloved hand. A gentleman would have removed his glove before shaking but I appreciated not having to bother.

“Thank you, sir,” I said and gave him a firm gloved handshake. Mina must have been dying inside.

“I got Miller here shadowing me already,” Ferris said. A big gruff looking fellow behind him nodded to me, then glanced at Mina but didn’t acknowledge her. “He’s a transfer from an energy plant down below. So, you’re shadowing David Weldon.” Ferris turned to a man polishing brass figures a few feet away. “Oi, Carlson, grab that extra tool box and show Porter here to Weldon. Tell him he’s a local to shadow him. My authority.”

“Yes sir,” Carlson dropped his rag and rubbed his gloves on his pants. “How are ya?” He gave me a quick handshake. “It’s this way.” He turned to head off toward the small auditorium.

“Thank you for the introduction, Mrs. Judson,” I said to Mina.

She twitched. “You’re most welcome,” she said, swallowing the “milord.” Miller made a disgusted sound. I was beginning to think what Mina had said was true. He seemed to associate her with my father’s offices and didn’t find her worthy of thanks.

Carlson led me through the small auditorium. Despite its name, it still had space for both a dance floor and dining room seating for one hundred people. Mother had asked me to pay particular attention to this room as the groom’s banquet was to be held here next month and it was meant to be themed after Martin’s favorite Christmas decorations. I looked around furtively for estate servants who might recognize me but as I’d thought, I saw nothing but Fine Mechanical Services workmen. Relieved that my plan was not in danger of discovery, I took in the many works in progress all around the room.

On two sides men assembled eight foot tall nutcracker soldiers and mice. During dinner, a chamber orchestra would play a theme and they would spring to life and lumber across the dance floor, opening their mouths and raising their swords on cue. I knew because we’d had a much smaller set made by my grandfather which was among Martin’s favorites. Good for Mina for thinking of them.

Three giant brass Christmas trees with gold plated branches and tiers of rotating candle rings sat in various stages of completion. Elaborate flashing-candle arrays replaced the usual chandeliers. Everything was coming together nicely. I just wondered where the trains were. Martin had a fascination with trains that I didn’t think Mina would overlook for this occasion. I spotted a foot long brass train engine sticking out of a crate filled with train cars. It sat off to one side and a young man of similar age to Martin and I stood a few feet away working on an automatic meat slicer. He looked up when Carlson said “Hey, Weldon.”

The first thing I noticed about David was the warmth in his brown eyes. He shook my hand firmly as Carlson explained Arthur Porter’s situation in life.

“Great to have ya,” he said as Carlson left. “How’d ya like to get to work on setting up the punch bowl serving arm?” He said it with such enthusiasm that I smiled, knowing he shared my love for these machines.

“Would love it.”

I grinned and pulled the lid off of the labeled crate which was already on the temporary work bench. From the first piece I pulled out I saw the thing was a mess—just how I liked it. I vowed internally to get the thing working better than it had when it was new. David looked at the state of the punch bowl arm and then at me. Apparently satisfied, he got back to work securing the blades in the meat slicer. We worked in happy silence, the sounds of the fifty or so other workers providing cheerful background noise. The rusted iron in the arm’s joint began to pleasantly glide after a little spray and hammer. I recalibrated the spring loading action and had just finished applying a polish to the brass when David finished the meat slicer.

“That’s a great job ya done, Porter,” he said as we carried our machines over to the cooking appliances table. “It’s dinner time now. Would ya join us in the airship mess hall?”

“Thanks, but I’ve got other arrangements.” I wanted to go with him but I’d be missed at dinner and they weren’t getting paid any extra to feed another mouth.

“See ya tomorrow then?” He offered his hand.

We shook. “Wouldn’t miss it.”

*
 
I worked on cookware, serving ware and the odd automatic shoeshine machine the rest of November, until one day, three weeks into our time together, he asked for my help.

“Ya got a real eye for this work, Porter, maybe you can troubleshoot a little problem with me.”

“Bring it on.”

He led me over to the long neglected crate of trains.

“When I saw these trains on my list I knew I wanted them to run overhead here where Lord Thornton will be able to watch them while he’s dining. Seems trains are a favorite the lord and I share,” David said, gazing up at the ceiling like he could already see them chugging along in the air. This was the first time we’d talked about anything other than the machines. He hadn’t scoffed at my brother’s name. I wasn’t sure if that meant he didn’t hate the nobility or if he took such pride in his work that the art came first.

“That sounds like a wonderful idea,” I said. I knew Martin would love it.

“The problem is the fresco,” he said, pointing at the arches and angelic figures painted into this section of the high ceiling. “Can’t exactly drill holes in something like that.”

“Do you have any old train engines?” I asked.

“We have a few but nothing presentable for this kind of event.” David squinted at me like he was trying to read my mind about where this was going.

“That’s okay, they won’t be seen.” I grinned slyly. “Got any match-calibrated magnet boxes?” Grandfather had used them to put floating toys in our nurseries years ago.

David brightened. “If the middle attic above this room is accessible then you’re a genius.”

My face hurt from smiling so hard but I couldn’t stop. “I can get the key from Mr. Stedman.”

“Perks of knowing the local guy, eh?” He beamed at me and I realized that I liked this guy. Really, really liked this guy.

*
 
I went to Jory for the key and David went to get the magnet boxes from the airship. We met up at the door to the middle attic. It was nestled between the small auditorium and the guest rooms above. I felt like some damn kid sneaking around on Christmas night. I opened the latches, pulled a lever and the mechanical lighters brought all the wall candles to life. Boxes of summer decorations and sporting equipment were stacked two high on snaking rows of racks built up to the low ceiling.

“If these run the whole way we’re screwed,” David said.

“I haven’t been up here in years, but if I’m right, they don’t.” Everything looked so small now. The shelves were so tall when I was six years old and running amok anywhere and everywhere inside the estate walls.

We made our way through the maze of racks. As I had hoped, when we reached two thirds of the way through, the shelves ended. The rest of the room was like a ghost from my past. Illuminated by two small windows on the right, each chair, sofa and table was covered with a dusty white sheet but they were all exactly where I remembered them.

“When I was a child,” I said, “there were many live-in servants who had children. I used to play in here on rainy days.” I didn’t add that my father had forbidden me to and my mother had covered for me. My mother’s father had been possessed of some unusual views when it came to just about everything, including whether a gentleman should wear greasy work gloves from time to time, and whether or not a nobleman’s child should be allowed to associate with servant children.

“Hell’s bells, this is a common servant’s living room? Not just for the butler’s family or something?” David lifted a few sheet corners and whistled at the fine furniture.

“Is it not like this on other sky cities?”

“They call St. Gale a prize catch for an honest servant,” David said. “They say Lady St. Gale has a soft spot for her servants. Seeing this I believe it.”

Pride swelled in my chest at my mother’s kindness.

“And… none of your family or friends ever caught hell from Lord St. Gale then?” David looked at me like he wasn’t sure he should even be broaching the subject.

“I tend to fly under his radar these days,” I said wryly.

David blinked at me. “Is it not true then? Rumor is that any servant caught stealing, even food, loses a hand before he’s turned over to a jail down below. The lady’s the carrot and the lord’s the rod, they say.”

I went cold in the clammy attic. My father, have a man’s hand cut off?

“I-I don’t know anyone it’s happened to, anyway. No one talks about it.” Doubt formed a knot in my stomach.

“Sorry to ask,” David said. “Truth is, I’ve been penning a list of injustices.” He looked embarrassed. “I don’t rightly know what I’ll do with them, who I’d give them to, but I think people ought to talk about these things. The lords ought to abide by a kind of justice that’s fair. I try and get at least two people with firsthand knowledge of an injustice before I add it to the list. No sense writing up some bloody list of rumors.”

“Wow.” I was struck speechless. David Weldon, charismatic mechanic. David Weldon, man of fairness and justice. “You-You’re amazing.”

He turned beet red. “I don’t know.”

“I’d propose to you on the spot if I could,” I blurted, then flushed too.

David chuckled. “At least we could confirm whether Lord St. Gale punishes for that.”

“What would he chop off then?” I laughed.

David’s face fell.

“Wait, you’re not telling me…”

He nodded gravely. “It’s confirmed on St. Risden.”

I went pale.

“I know, no man wants to think of that, but it’s a real danger for some men,” he said quietly, and I saw then that he was like me.

“David,” I said, realizing I’d been thinking of him by his first name all along.

He caught the tone in my voice. “Then you’re..?” he asked barely above a whisper.

“Not only am I a man who loves other men, but I’m also Arthur St. Gale. The Earl’s second son. I’m a nobleman in love with mechanics. And I’m in love with you, David Weldon.”

David gaped at me and I steeled myself for rejection. I saw my mechanics career crashing and burning. It could never have lasted anyway, I thought.

But then, David kissed me.

*
 
After taking—ahem—far longer than necessary in that old middle attic, we had the magnet boxes installed in the tops of the shiny brass train sets and in the bottoms of the motley train engines. We left the latter running on a track and returned to the small auditorium with the former. Using a wooden ladder, I held up each engine until the matching engine passed by overhead and the magnet boxes zeroed in on each other. All in all we had five rings of train sets each floating along in the opposite direction of the one next to it.

“It’s perfect!” David shouted.

I grinned and almost fell off the ladder.

*
 
Mid December was upon us, and that meant David switched from fixing machines and designing displays to checking over the work that the junior mechanics had done without direct senior supervision. Not being an official Fine Mechanical Services workman, I wasn’t allowed to officially grade anyone so David gave me some homework.

A decoration’s interior would be designed and assembled in part on the airship and then matched with the gold plating and other fine pieces which belonged to and were kept here at the estate. This way the internal mechanics could actually be improved from year to year. My assignment was to compare a list of components and their respective weights with the weight that the preassembled pieces had been logged as when they were brought in for final assembly here at the estate. Of course, David expected them all to match up, this kind of comparison was only routinely done on parts made outside of Fine Mechanical Services, but since I had never performed such an examination before he considered it good practice for my future. Sweet that he thought I had a future in mechanics.

When I got to the grand Christmas tree directly behind the podium where my father would give his speech to Martin, I found a large discrepancy. I called David over.

He frowned. “You actually found something?”

“The spinning mechanism in the midsection of the tree is unaccountably heavy, look.” I pointed out the figures in the documentation.

“It must be some kind of upgrade. Maybe an extra stabilizer?”

“There’s another grand Christmas tree near the door.” I ran my thumb down the page until I found its figures. “Why upgrade only one?”

David sighed. “No dinner for us then. We’ll check it out after everyone’s left for the day.”

*
 
He went back and finished his examinations of the juniors’ work and at the end of the day when everyone had cleared out for dinner we both went hungry and opened up that sucker.

Doing so saved my father’s life. The middle spinning mechanism had been replaced with a time-bomb set to go off at the exact time my father was scheduled to be in the middle of his speech.

“My God,” I said. “What do we do?”

“Close it slowly,” David said. “And we’ll call the King’s explosive experts.”

Before I could, a slot that had read “set” flicked to a red panel that read “tamper.”

“Damnation!” David scrambled for a tool kit. The clock that had been ticking normally sped up and up, ringing in my ears.

“Have you done this before?” I asked hopefully.

He stuck a screw driver in the status slot and pulled it back to “set,” then to “off.” “Hold this,” he barked. I grabbed the handle from him and held it firm against the machine’s resistance. David sprayed an instant-dry fixative into a vent in the front of the bomb.

The ticking slowed.

And stopped.

“Oh God, thank God,” I gasped.

“Never,” he said.

“What?”

“I’ve never done that before.” He looked at me with a twitchy smile.

“Oh God.” We both laughed in hysteria.

Once we had composed ourselves, David and I closed the tree back up like nothing had happened and quietly took the matter directly to Mr. Stedman. David researched who had been assigned to that piece of the tree and it turned out to be Mitch Miller, the new guy shadowing Ferris. Somehow Miller had found out that we knew and was caught a few hours later trying to leave the city by trash barge. One of the King’s own explosives experts would be in the next morning to dispose of the device and take a sniffer dog around to check for any other explosives.

Mr. Stedman was called in to give an account to my father and, inevitably, David and I were named as his saviors and my whole charade was exposed. He called us to him separately. David would see him in his official receiving room and I would be sent into his study like the child he still considered me to be. Mother met with me in the adjoining library before I was to see him.

“He thanked your friend properly,” she told me, “your case is obviously more complicated.” She smiled sympathetically.

“Exposed because I saved his life. Good grief, the irony.” I groaned.

“What are you going to do with yourself, Arthur?” she asked, straightening my tie and tucking it back into my vest. “How are you going to have a happy future under your father’s thumb?”

“How do you have a happy life under his thumb?” I quipped.

“Your father has his problems,” she replied, “but he’s a smart enough man not to try to rule his wife the way he tries to rule his sons. Don’t worry about me, I have a happy life.”

I looked into her wise hazel eyes and believed her. “Does father chop off the hands of thieves before he sends them down below to jail?”

Her expression saddened. “Legally, he has the right. There’s nothing I can do besides try to counsel mercy.”

“And Martin? Will he continue that practice when he is Earl?”

“Oh, no. I’ve taught my boys better than that.”

Well, that was something at least. “And what would you recommend for my life then? The priesthood?” I asked somewhat feverishly.

“Why don’t you join Fine Mechanical Services?”

“Wha-” I sputtered.

“I looked it up,” she continued, smoothing the collar of my jacket. “Your father can’t disinherit you legally under the crown unless you commit a crime. Joining Fine Mechanical Services is not a crime. Just don’t tell him about your boyfriend.”

I sputtered some more and stared at her incredulously.

“I’m your mother,” she said in the same matter-of-fact tone, “I know everything.”

I shut my mouth and tried not to turn red.

“Stand up, shoulders straight.” She clapped me on the back. “Go in and face your father.”

I took a deep breath and entered my father’s study. I spoke to him frankly for the first time in my life.

*
 
Needless to say, my father was infuriated, but not enough to cancel Martin’s wedding. It helped that, as much as he considered my choice in career a wasteful embarrassment and mar on the St. Gale name, I had just saved his life. I told him not to worry about the mar. I was happy to keep the name Arthur Porter and leave my identity as Arthur St. Gale a secret until it suited me to reveal myself. Arthur St. Gale would be a target and I couldn’t put David in danger. As far as the servants of the house knew, Arthur St. Gale was going away to study business economics. And for all I knew, my father would actually pay tuition to a university to keep up the ruse. I couldn’t have cared less.

*
 
Christmas week was a wonderful success. Martin loved the trains, and the day after the groom’s banquet, he invited David and me to see him privately.

“Thank you for coming, and again for the trains.” He shook our hands, gloves off this time. “Mother’s told me everything and I wanted to tell you personally that you have my support. There are many areas where I agree with my mother rather than my father, and I hope you’ll feel more at home in St. Gale in ten or fifteen years when father’s retired and I take on the earldom.”

“Thanks, Martin,” I said and hugged him for the first time since we were kids. “I’m sorry we haven’t spent more time together as adults.”

“We’re on different paths, little brother.” He clapped me on the back, another trait he got from mother. “I’ll find a way to write to Arthur Porter, don’t worry about that.”

“I’ll count on it.”

“Lord Thornton, if I may,” David said and withdrew a folded envelope from his jacket pocket. “I took the liberty of copying you this list of injustices I have discovered in my travels around the kingdom. They are something a man of integrity like milord ought to be aware of.”

“David tries to get two firsthand witnesses before he adds anything to that list,” I added, and nodded for Martin to take it.

“Thank you for entrusting me with this list, Weldon,” Martin said solemnly as he took the envelope from David.

*
 
On Christmas Day, after the wedding and after Martin and his new bride had departed for their honeymoon on a luxury aircruiseship, David and I met in our cozy little middle attic. To our surprise, mother had furnished it like a bedroom, complete with candles and flower petals.

“She went overboard.” I rolled my eyes and blushed.

“It’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen,” David said, beaming.
“I should be grateful,” I said, becoming pensive. “Who knows the next time we’ll be able to safely sleep in a bed together.”

“Let’s enjoy it, worries are for the morning.” David sat down on the edge of the bed. “But before that, know this, Arthur. I love you. I’ll never tell your secrets, and you can always rely on me as a reference for your mechanical skills.”

“I love you too, David Weldon.”

***
 



12 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – CRIME FICTION: All I Want For Christmas by Greer M. Robinson and Melissa Petreshock

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Just 12 days until Christmas! Today I bring glad tidings and a gruesome present in the form of a Christmas Crime fest courtesy of two lovely ladies. Check out Greer M. Robinson and Melissa Petreshock on Twitter. Melissa is one of the best people you’ll ever meet; Greer is a young author, like me, and I think she absolutely nailed this. Show her some encouragement and love, peoples. I know I can count on you.
 


 
All I Want For Christmas
by Greer M. Robinson and Melissa Petreshock
 
 
“She’s not fucking here! What the hell do I do?”
 
“Are you sure the plane isn’t late?” I ask and nudge a full cup of percolator coffee around on the diner counter.
 
“No! I just forgot to mention it was delayed four hours,” Marge snaps.
 
“Okay. And you tried calling her?” I guide Marge through some logic. Someone has to keep his cool.
 
“Every minute! Jesus, the customer service desk has been paging for almost an hour, and I’m still running around looking for her. What are you doing?”
 
A waitress pops out of the kitchen, opening her mouth to ask if I want anything, but decides against it. “Waiting for Dan at Jay’s. I told you he has a twelve hour layover on the way to Indonesia and we’re going to the range.”
 
“I can’t find Kirstie and you’re going to play with man toys?”
 
“Maybe she missed the flight and her phone died.” Chances are Kirstie’s sitting in Chicago O’Hare in her leggings, purple neon leg warmers, and boots. Now that it’s cold she’d have stopped running as much, sporting an oversized sweater to blanket what she calls lumps. Bumming over her dead iPhone and forgotten charger, I’m sure slumping in those black covered airport seats, impatiently waiting for a lady from the gate desk to squeeze her onto another flight isn’t improving her mood either. “So she’s getting a hotel, or she’s already on another flight and her phone’s off.”
 
“Mark. Her bags are here. The stewardess told me she’s on the flight manifest.”
 
“Marge, honey, listen to me. Let’s assume she landed and someone else didn’t board the plane with her ticket. It means she left in a rush.” It’s all too easy to imagine her running out of the airport, mousy hair flying around those glasses she begged for after that pop country singer brought them back from the eighties.
 
“I swear to God if Jackson convinced her to come to his house I’ll—”
 
“Now, hon, don’t make me come out of retirement just to arrest you. Why don’t I swing by and see if she’s there as soon as Dan gets here. Just try to remember she’s engaged to Jackson.”
 
“I’d rather try to forget,” Marge snorts. “We’re not done talking about that either. Don’t you come back without her!”
 
The bell hanging above the diner door dings. In all these years, Dan still hasn’t changed, all slick business attire and buzzed hair. He clutches a box wrapped in Christmas theme paper, fitting in with much of the diner’s cliché Santa statues and white paper snowflakes.
 
“I know. I’ll call you when I’m at Jackson’s. Bye, hon.”
 
Dan sets the box, complete with a red reflective bow, on the counter, and I throw my arm around his shoulder. “It’s been way too long, man. How’s the Bureau treating you?”
 
“Considering you left me your position, I’m doing better than I ever could have.”
 
I’ll be damned if Dan ever owns up to any of his accomplishments. The boy’s humble to the end. “You’ve made it your own, I’m sure. You know you can always call me with questions, even the dumb ones. I never judged you, not once.”
 
“Thank you. I’ll keep that in mind. How’s the family?”
 
“Oh, good. Actually, I’ve got a little something I need to take care of. Kirstie came home from winter break today.”
 
“University of Chicago, correct?”
 
“Yeah. She’s only got one more semester. Marge is all in a twist, though, ‘cause she can’t find Kirstie at the airport and thinks she slipped away to her fiancé’s house.”
 
“Fiancé? When did that happen?”
 
“Oh, here about a year ago, I guess. Jackson’s a great guy, got his heart in the right place and all, but Marge just doesn’t like him. I promised I’d swing by his house and see if she’s there, but you can stay and have a cup of something.”
 
“It’s not a problem at all. I’ll come if you don’t mind—haven’t seen Kirstie since your retirement party.” Dan tucks the present under his arm and I slug down the last of my coffee, leaving a five under it.
 
“Sheesh, she’s a grown woman now. Sharp, too. She’ll remember your face just from that party.”
 
“She will,” Dan says, smiling. “I’m sure she will.”
 
#
 
“Well,” I say and shut off the grumbling engine. “This ‘ere’s the place.”
 
We both pile out of the truck—I didn’t trust that rental of his to handle to snow and hill up to Jackson’s—and hesitate crossing the white banked road. The two story bungalow is light up with Christmas strands round the porch rim, and the drawn curtains expose an ornamented tree through the front window.
 
“Lovely home.”
 
“Like I said, Jackson’s a solid man.” We cross the road and head up the drive, past the SUV. Least someone’s home. “I got no problem with ‘em.”
 
I knock on the door, and Jackson opens it within seconds, wiping his hands on his jeans. Kirstie always says he’s ruggedly handsome.
 
“Mr., Mr. Adams I wasn’t expecting you, if I’d know I’d—”
 
“Calm down, son,” I say. “I’m just dropping by.”
 
“C-come in, please. They say it’s the coldest day in fifty years.”
 
“I heard that.” Dan and I shed our jackets in the coat hall, leave them on a bench. Right inside is a cozy living room, a sofa and matching chair creating a sitting area with a crackling fireplace and luminous tree across from them.
 
“I was just about to make some espresso—would either of you like one?”
 
“I just had some, but thank you. Oh, sorry, this is Dan Harper, my trainee when I was back at the Bureau.”
 
“Nice to meet you,” Dan says and they shake hands. “Thank you, but I’m avoiding caffeine for the nerves.”
 
“I’ll just put one on for myself, then.” Jackson slips through a door next to the staircase, into the dated kitchen, and we crash on the couch.
 
Marge would never stand to live here, never stand for Kirstie to live here. She couldn’t imagine having one of those old white fridges or yellow laminate countertops, and God forbid a beautiful hand carved coffee table like this one. Something still so close to the outdoors would flare up her allergies.
 
“That’s how they fell in love, Kirstie and Jackson. Coffee. A new place opened up in town some years back and he was working it, made Kirstie the best damn espresso ever. No more percolator for her. Turned out he owns the entire shop, started a business and everything. Marge thinks it’ll go under, but I say it’s steady. Nothing like good Joe.”
 
“Interesting.” Dan’s mouth don’t even open as he says it. He pulls at the bow on top of that present. I bet it’s something he can’t leave out in the cold.
 
Jackson returns and perches on the air chair, no coffee. His eyes shift between us, settling on me as he fidgets with a throw over the arm of the chair.
 
“Jackson, I’m just looking for Kirstie. Marge went to the airport to pick her up, but she’s not there. Did she split and come here?”
 
“No, no sir. I haven’t seen her since September when she went back to school.”
 
“You know I’m fine with it,” I sigh. “The engagement. You’re a good kid. I just want to know she’s here. That’s all. Marge’s blood pressure is about to lose it.”
 
“She’s not here, I swear! She really isn’t at the airport? Where is she?”
 
The espresso maker dings and Jackson jumps up. “Oh, I’m sure she’s around. Probably just lost. You mind showing me how to work one of them espresso things? I’ve always wanted to learn.”
 
“No, um, it’s really easy. That was the noise for the water finished heating. I’ll show you real quick.”
 
Inside the tiny kitchen, I step away from in front of the door, out of sight. Bringing Dan along probably wasn’t the best way to make Jackson come out with it. “Is she here?”
 
“No, sir. She’s not.” Steam rises out of the espresso maker. “Sir, there’s something I have to—”
 
Jackson jerks forward, mouth wide open with a strangled, gargling sound, and keels over. He hits the wooden floor face down, arms straight at his sides, red hole in the back of his head staring me in the face. Above, a perfectly circular hole in the window. Through the window, a plethora of trees for camouflage.
 
I lunge forward and slam against the cabinets under the window, out of range. It’s the only damn window in this kitchen.
 
“Dan! Man down—sniper’s in the forest facing the kitchen!”
 
“I got it!” He shouts and the screen door bangs behind him.
 
No more shots. Just the one. Doesn’t mean there won’t be more. But no, this was targeted. Jackson. Kirstie.
I whip out my phone and dial 911. Dial tone, dial tone, dial tone. …
 
“911, what is your emergency?”
 
I assert my formal FBI credentials and prattle off the address, GSW in the back of the head. …
 
“Sir?” The operator’s voice rings in my ears. “You were saying you also have to report something?”
“A missing person. My daughter. Kirstie Meyers.”

 
#
 
I stick Jackson’s photo up on the murder board with a magnet. Between that and a town map, the entire surface is covered. The local station just doesn’t have the resources we have in New York, but for now it’s all we’ve got.
“Ballistics came in from the rifle I found in the woods. Just an M40 sniper rifle.” He sticks the picture of the murder weapon under the same magnet holding Jackson’s photo. “How long ago did the hospital call?”
 
“Hour or so. They tried to operate but the damage was irreparable.”
 
Kirstie most definitely gone, Jackson assassinated, cops are going door to door at this point. Thank God I was FBI or no one would’ve responded like this. It would’ve been, “Oh just wait. I’m sure she just ran off a bit—college girls and all.”
 
So many families lose kids with the same treatment, the message they receive when their stomachs know otherwise, tumbling, rolling around with the truth that someone has their baby.
 
“Oh, God Marge. I have to go home, Dan I have to—”
 
“I know. I’ll drive you. The entire station is on this, and they’re sending over other guys from New York. My guys. It’s going to work out.”
 
“Work out? How can you say it like—what do you mean other guys?”
 
“I have a plane ticket, Mark,” he says stiffly. “And the Bureau says I can’t work this, even though you trained me. I’ve gone too long without taking time off.”
 
“You’re leaving? Kirstie is gone and you’re—you know what, fucking go. All you’ve done is walk around with that stupid present anyway. I swear to God I trained you better than this shit.”
 
“I’ll take a cab, then.” Dan sets the present down next to a cup of coffee on the conference table and leaves with perfect composure.
 
I collapse in a chair. Dan flying off to Christ-knows-where Indonesia and Kirstie’s gone and there’s nothing except for Jackson’s body—poor Jackson—and the sneaking suspicion Kirstie just fled on childish impulses to be free and avoid Marge’s lectures on the engagement and—
 
My phone ringing pierces the silence. It’s the cop temporarily heading up the investigation, name elusive.
 
“What is it?” I grip my phone.
 
“We searched Jackson’s phone calls and found a new phone number started calling roughly ten days ago, every day for no longer than three minutes. He never calls it back.”
 
The number. Of whoever did this.
 
“Shit, Mark,” the commander continues. “We tracked the cell to an apartment. It’s here, but the place is covered in evidence. Whoever did this has known Kirstie for at least a year—there’re pictures of her before the engagement ring. But a lot more of the ring.”
 
A type, a profile, someone obsessed with Kirstie, someone who can’t stand the ring.
 
“I want it all in. I want to see all the evidence when I get back.” I shrug on my coat and grab the present. The tag is addressed to me and Marge. He probably couldn’t bear to give us whatever he planned. “I have to see Marge.”
 
“It’ll all be at the station, sir.”
 
I hang up. I don’t want it, any of it. I want my little girl.
 
#
 
I hand Marge the tissue box next to the present on the coffee table and she blows hard into it before discarding it to the floor with all the others. She curls back up against my side and squeezes my arm, a dense lump of tears discoloring the back of the couch.
 
She’s out of water again.
 
“I’m going for water, hon,” I whisper and run my fingers through her colored hair briefly, taking longer to detach myself from her.
 
The water dispenses slowly out of the fridge, drops grabbing on to each other and holding tight. God, if I had listened to her maybe we would’ve found Kirstie by now—because now she’s gone. Kidnapped kids don’t come back. And I was the one who said it was nothing, who let her get engaged so young, who let her drift into the unknown.
 
“Mark,” Marge cries from the living room. The glass is full, almost too full, but she needs water after crying for hours.
 
“Hon, I—”
 
She stares at me with wide eyes, mouth open, but blank, so blank.
 
A severed finger like a hot dog, the bloody end covered with gauze, sits at the bottom of the box. Matching the manicured nail, the bright red bow tied neatly around the middle joint does not obstruct the humble diamond engagement ring between it and the bloody stump.
 



13 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – HIGH FANTASY: The General by Josh Hewitt

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Merry 13 days ’til Christmas, readers! Due to a dramatic turn of events and a twist of fate, today you’ll be treated to a High Fantasy tale by none other than Josh Hewitt. This guy ran the amazing Worlds End project, and now – after much bitching – he’s put words on screen for you people once again. Hewitt usually writes literary fiction, so this was kind of like feeding peanuts to someone with a nut allergy, but not only did he not swell up and die, he wrote one amazing story. You will love this. He wrestled with the genre, wrangled it, poked a little bit of fun at it and, boy, did he stick the landing.
 


 
The General
by Josh Hewitt
 
 
The general was amazing with a knife.
 
The major watched him, that gigantic bear of a man, turn the small wooden object with one hand, while using the other to carve into it. The details the Major could see were beautiful–intricate and delicate and almost unreal all at the same time.
 
He didn’t want to stop the General–he could have stood in the General’s greatness all day and watched that man, that hero to so many poor souls, continue to put all of his focus on that small wooden trinket. He could have stood there and absorbed that moment for just a bit longer.
 
But he had a job to do.
 
“General. It’s time.”
 
The General looked at his work, showing just a faint smile, barely visible behind his large bushy beard. He then placed the object on the desk next to him and rose. He stood a good two feet taller than the Major, and a good deal heavier. He walked over and placed his thick cloak over his broad sholders.
 
“Your name is Azaral, correct?” The General’s voice bellowed out, that low growl that reminded Azaral of the sounds of the werecats howling in the light of the third moon. He nodded.
 
“Yes sir.”
 
“And, you have children. Isn’t that correct, Azaral?”
 
“Yes sir.”
 
The General smiled at him, a warm one. It was so odd to see such a look from him, Azaral thought. He had never met the General in person before this time, but he had heard the legends. He had heard the tales.
 
The greatest warrior the land had known. The one who would finally end the war. The one who would defeat the Kairn once and for all.
 
The champion the people had hungered for. Had prayed for.
 
Yet, with all the accolades, with all the stories and myths and legends that follow one such as the General, there were the other tales too. The ones Azaral would never breathe around the General, no matter how much ale he had drunk.
 
That he once slain an entire Kairn village by himself. Men, women, and children.
 
That he ate Kairn flesh.
 
That he had sold his soul to the dark lord Drammagus for invincibility in battle.
 
All those stories hit his mind, and all ran like frightened children from the light and warmth of his smile.
 
“Children are our most special treasures. They are the hope and light of the world. After old men like me have left here for the other realms, they will shape this world in ways we could never.” The General smiled and turned away.
 
“Hopefully, for the better.” he whispered.
 
Azaral saw the General reach for Nithguan, “The Northern Wind”, the largest battle axe anyone had ever seen. The enormous weapon glinted in the light of the lanterns surrounding them. Azaral could see the spells carved in the blade, letting the weapon chop through even the most enchanted armor. Nithguan was the General’s oldest companion. And there were nearly as many legends of it as there were of the General.
 
“We must do now what must be done. Though I dread to do it.” The General said, his voice low where only Azaral could hear. “Now is time for us to close this book.”
 
How long had the war gone on? Even Azaral knew that was an unanswerable question. For nobody could remember a time when they were not locked in battle with the Kairn. His grandfather, the oldest of his kin, had told him years ago remembering his grandfather talking about when his grandfather would tell of his grandfather recalling his grandfather referring to it as the “Millennial War”. But for many, many, far too many generations, it had been only known as the “Forever War”.
 
Now, on this day, it could be ending.
 
As they exited the General’s tent, he turned towards Azaral one more time.
 
“Your children? Boys?”
 
“One boy, strong. One girl.” The General smiled at Azaral’s answer.
 
“Good.”
 
Azaral knew better to ask if the General had children. It would have been a pointless question.
 
The General didn’t even have a name.
 
Azaral wondered what it had been like for him–growing up not as a child, but as a soldier. One of the “Children Of Forever”, the youth who had been born and bred from the greatest warriors and strategists they had known. Whose entire world had revolved around battle, the clash of iron and steel, the blood and flesh.
 
“Azaral, gather your men. And get the others to as well.”
 
Azaral just nodded.
 
Soon, they were all in line, ready to proceed to the death. Azaral looked at the General, surrounded by his troops. He could hear his men muttering silently under their breaths about the General’s warriors–those dark feys known only as the Nigh.
 
He felt a shiver run up his spine just thinking their names. How many times had he been told, as a child, to watch out in the dark of the forest?
 
“They’ll eat you alive, then use your skins as clothing. If you are lucky.”
 
Many, many years before they had stood with the Kairn. Nobody knew what it was that caused them to convert and follow the General. The most commonly accepted tale was that the General had killed their king, making himself their new ruler.
 
(There were other far more terrible and terrifying tales.)
 
“Today, we draw sword and axe and wood and iron to defeat our enemy,” The General spoke, his voice soft, yet each word almost broken with anticipation. “Today, we end our world, as we know it. What shall we build?”
 
“In the frozen lands of our home, in the snow, there is a saying that a village must be formed on the ashes of something else. For a new world to begin, an old world must die. Do we have it? Do we have what it takes to set ablaze our world?
 
“Can we destroy this war, this fight that we have known forever, that we have only known? Can we end it, and give our children, give our future, a fresh blanket of snow which to build? Which to shape?”
 
The General paced in front of the men, and caught their gaze. Soon, he bellowed loud, “We must! For our world! For our land! For our future! We must now strike the final blow to the Kairn. Today! Today, we start fire to destroy–for we know what will be raised again will be a better world!”
 
With his last words, he thrust his axe high, to much cheer and applause. Azaral himself felt his hand find the hilt of his blade, ready to fight.
 
Azaral saw the General’s chariot approach, eight cloven hoofed beasts pulling. In the lead was a dragon–fire leaping from his nose. Even as the sunlight cracked the darkness, the nose of the beast beamed bright as a torch. The General took his place in the chariot and held tight the reigns with one hand.
 
Zzazzn, the leader of the Nigh and the General‘s right hand fey, stood next to him on his transport. The Nigh were slight anyway, small of stature and lean of weight, but next to the General, he looked almost like a child. Azaral approached them both.
 
“Sir, we are ready.”
 
“The Nigh will fight to the death as always.” Zzazzn slithered. Azaral felt another chill just from hearing the voice.
 
“As it was meant to be.” The General held Nithguan high, and looked back at the troops.
 
“Friends, warriors, soldiers, protectors of this land and its future….TO THE NEW WORLD!”
 
With that, the General cracked the reigns, and his chariot raced off towards the Mountains of Suralim. Towards the home of the Smoke King and the Kairn.
 
The men raced with him, Azaral high on his steed, as they approached the land of their enemies. The Kairn were ready for battle that morning, sounding their horns and filling the air with a horrible sound. They were flanked by the men of Nigliman, the traitors who had sided with the Kairn. Around them were the wild beasts of the woods, the snakes and the raithelborn and the spiders and the yven.
 
Azaral looked to see their own forces, the men of the realm and the Nigh and the noble creatures of the world–lions and werecats and dragon and jeravons. They attacked the front lines of the enemy with ruthless abandon and righteous aggression.
 
Ahead of him, Azaral saw the General swing his mighty axe, lopping off head after head–with other body parts mixed in. He was more than a fighter, more than a soldier. The man who had been so patiently creating art that morning had become death incarnate. Azaral was struck by a mighty fear–a fear that all the stories he had heard, every single one of them, might actually be true.
 
“To me, Azaral!” He heard the General call after the first hour of battle. He fought and killed his way to the General’s side.
 
“You are the most skilled soldier I have ever seen.” Azaral said, while watching Zzazzn dispatch two Kairn with his small knives.
 
“I take such compliment with high regard, seeing your skill in battle.” Zzazzn hissed. “The General calls for you because of it.”
 
“We must make our way inside the stronghold, to the throne room of the Smoke King.” The General said. Azaral and Zzazzn acknowledged his command. They fought their way through the Kairn and the traitors, invading into the heart of the enemy, moving at a fast pace it was as if the winds of the east were pushing them. Finally they reached the stronghold.
 
Azaral looked around at the large wooden door that led into the darkest territory known. There were no windows, and the walls were tall and steep, with no stray mortar work to put a foot on and climb. He walked to Zzazzn.
 
“No way in. Only cracks in the door are too small for even you to fit in.”
 
“Shhh.” Zzazzn sneered. Then pointed to the door, where the General was standing, his hands folded in front of him. Azaral stood and watched as the General slid somehow stretching his body through the narrowest of cracks.
 
“By the sons of Nilioh.” he muttered once the General had gotten inside. He ran to the door and examined the crack the General had slipped through–it was less wide than his thumb.
 
He heard a loud clank, and then the snickering of Zzazzn.
 
“I suggest you move.” Zzazzn said, and Azaral scooted to the side, as the large wooden door suddenly crashed down, the chain holding it up had been split by Nithguan. The General stood, battling nearly a dozen soldiers, hewing their heads from their necks with ease. Zzazzn raced in with Azaral quickly in tow.
 
“How did he…”
 
“Nigh magik is powerful.”
 
So. He was a sorcerer too.
 
Azaral followed the General through the front guard, into the main keep. They met many foe, fighting furiously as they heard the battle rage outside. Soon, they faced the last obstacle–the notorious Razolon Guard, the most fearsome of the Kairn. They battled as they could, but it was the General who struck the final blow on most of the Guard. Soon, they walked into the final room.
 
There, sitting on his throne, was the Gray Man, the Living Ash. The Smoke King. A silver crown sat on his head, and around his neck was a long silver chain. Hanging on the chain was the gem Varlon, one of the three Simiron Stones. His hand clutched it and stroked it for a second.
 
The heat from the room was unbearable to Azaral, who loved the ice of the land and the winds that had fueled him.
 
“Smoke King! I challenge thee to end this war!” The General said, gripping Nithguan with both hands. The Smoke King chuckled.
 
“If it isn’t a Child of Forever come to challenge me.” The Smoke King cackled in a rasp, raising his sword. The flames leapt off of it. “Is this battle what you want? I know it isn’t so. You are too peaceful.”
 
“I be a man of war today, foul ruler.” The General held his gaze steady.
 
“Then, war it shall be.” The Smoke King jumped from his chair, floating across the room. The General held his hand out, signaling to Azaral and the Nigh to stay behind. They watched as the two combatants circled the room together.
 
Suddenly, the General moved as quick as a winking eye, swinging his blade at the Gray man. Nithguan flew through the King’s abdomen, which moved like a dark cloud, reforming as soon as the blade had passed.
 
“Not even your axe can harm me.” the King laughed. “And now you know your doom.”
 
The king struck out his sword, but the General easily parried it. The General laughed.
 
“Of course I knew your strength, Smoke man. I know your weakness too.” He sliced at the arm holding the sword, and watched as his axe went innocently through.
 
Then the sword hit the ground.
 
“Whatever he’s holding,” Azaral said to Zzazzn, “that part is solid.”
 
Zzazzn just nodded.
 
As the Smoke King was picking his sword back up, the General started chanting some words.
 
“What is he…” Before he could finish the sentence, Azaral watched as the Smoke King’s head flew across the room.
 
For no reason at all.
 
“What…what happened?”
 
Zzazzn smiled as the General caught the chain holding the gem Varlon with the edge of his axe while the Smoke King‘s dead body hit the ground.
 
“Time froze. Except for him. Nigh magik.”
 
“Oh.” Azaral could only reply.
 
The young king sat in his court, surrounded by his subjects. His beautiful wife on his right, on his left was the older sister who had given the throne to him, who had passed on her birthright. In his hand, he held the final Simiron Stone, ready to be reunited with his two brothers.
 
And the war that had defined his fore-fathers, and those before that, had ended.
 
The General stood before the young king, his eye on the stone the man held.
 
“For you, my warrior, my protector–there is no honor too high to bestow upon you. No treasure too priceless.”
 
“I only ask to go.” The General replied. Azaral stood there, next to his king, in wonder. The king was offering any riches, any treasure. And all he was asking for was to leave?
 
“You wish to go? Well, if that’s your reward…”
 
“No. I wish to leave here. Leave these lands. I would have you use the Simiron Stones to open the doorway to the other worlds.”
 
“The last time the doorways were open, the Kairn slipped through. This is a very dangerous boon you ask. Why do you ask it of me?”
 
“I wish to go somewhere where I do not see the blood of my fallen brothers. Where I do not hear the screams of battle. I wish to go to a new world. One where I can no longer be the General. But something…someone new.”
 
“The last time..”
 
“I know. I know what I ask. But that is my reward. I wish to leave these lands and never return.”
 
The king looked at him, wary of the request. Then he heard the snakelike sounds from the childlike darkling next to him.
 
“The Nigh wish to go with our master. We wish to go with him to the new land.”
 
Suddenly, the King’s sister spoke.
 
“I wish to go too.” The voice belonged to the King’s sister.
 
“You?”
 
“My brother, my dearest brother. I passed on the throne because I didn’t want to be queen during such a time. I didn’t want to be known as a queen of blood. Or of war. But now, I would wish to go with our General, to find something new to be a part of. If, of course, he would have me.”
 
“I would, m’lady. I would.”
 
The General walked up to the King and presented him with Nithguan. Then he looked to Azaral.
 
“For your daughter.” He held out the object he’d been carving the first moment they met. Azaral took it.
 
It was the most beautiful doll he had ever seen.
 
“She will love it, General.”
 
The ancient words were spoken, and the door opened to a new world, one of ice and snow like their homelands. The Nigh bounded through first, followed by the dragon with fire in his nose, anxious he was to follow his master. The General walked through, holding hands with the King’s Sister, the maiden.
 
When they were through and the portal had shut, the General surveyed around him. Suddenly, he heard Zzazzn speak to him.
 
“So, what will we do now?”
 
“I will do what I’ve always wanted to do.” The large man smiled. “I will make children happy. No longer shall I be known as the General. I shall be the Toymaker.”
 
“No, my love,” the King’s sister spoke. “You shall be known in this world by the tongue of our land, so we will never forget our past. No longer shall you be Varnisa Mordoni, the General. Now you will be Santa Claus.”
 



14 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – DYSTOPIAN: Keeper of the Flame by Jacqueline Czel

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Behind today’s magical door we find a dystopian tale courtesy of Jacqueline Czel. Jacqueline termed it ‘tolkeinesque’, and I think that’s an apt description of a story that takes us to a fantastical dystopian world.
 


 
Keeper of the Flame
by Jacqueline Czel
 
She was a Keeper. Vale knew it. Something deep in his bones told him so. He also observed from across the spacious hall that she was very young. Being around thirty years of age she was by far one of the youngest keepers they’d ever had. According to the ancient legends, young keepers were far more powerful than most. It had been about six hundred years since the last Keeper blossomed before the age of seventy or eighty. It gave him and others much hope.
 
He scratched his red beard while he studied her as she moved among the growing crowd. Christmas was upon them and gathering together at the great hall was tradition. Clans from all over the northern lands they called Álfheimr trekked to Gimlé for the Yuletide festivities. They travelled at great risk. Bands of Dökkálfr, the dark ones from the south, had increased their raids on small villages and attacked all kinds of moving caravans. Making the journey to the hall was dangerous but most of them believed their traditions needed to be preserved at all costs.
 
Her long braided locks swept across her lush curves. She had shed her furs and her exposed bronze shoulders and arms glistened in the firelight. He watched her lean down to kiss the forehead of a small child who looked up at her with large blue eyes that sparkled like sapphires. It was a pure child and there weren’t many of them left. Vale wanted a child of his own. He knew it would be a well-loved halfling but unbound, fertile women were hard to come by.
 
Bands of humans passed over the ancient bridges that mysteriously appeared over a thousand years ago, as their dying planet became increasingly inhospitable for humans. Those who crossed over the crystal bridge hidden in the Aurora Borealis, were welcomed by the Ljósálfar in the place their ancients called, ‘still further above’ or third Earth, so long as these humans chose to leave all of their poisonous technologies behind. Other bridges opened to the southlands and humans from warmer regions merged with the Dökkálfr and other kinds of beings on the planet.
 
While the average ljósálfar could live to be over six hundred years, their chances of siring children were very slim. Inter-marriage with the humans brought more children into the fold but a long life without a family was still slow torture for many of them. It was believed that having a child was a gift that was only given to those possessing true faith in the eyes of God. Risking death in exchange for new life was the greatest gift a ljósálfarian woman could bestow upon her beloved mate.
 
Vale continued to stare at Kenna and wondered if she would willingly stare death in the face for him or any man. Her waist, the sway of her fine hips and curve her of thighs beneath her leathers, entranced him. A flood of desire filled him as well as a sense of guilt. It was considered sinful to lust but Vale couldn’t refrain. Even from afar, he thought her beautiful. She was worth wading through hellfire for.
 
He though she wouldn’t notice him anyway. His beard, incredible height and broad stature were sure signs that he was more human than elf. Vale also lived the life of a warrior. The scars on his cheeks and hands were evidence of many battles fought against the dark elves and ice giants. No beautiful, soft skinned woman would want such a hard man, an axe wielding killer who easily took life away from others.
 
Kenna knew many pairs of eyes were upon her in the hall because she was a new keeper, but one particular set burned a hole in her. They were very human, too. She felt his warmth, curiosity and desire. She had not actually gazed upon the man who had been staring at her, but knew what he was thinking. His longing, sadness and self-doubt warmed her heart. He had not seen her up close. He didn’t know she was a halfling too. Kenna understood the inferiority he felt in the face of pure blooded Ljósálfar. They were fair, lithe and graceful and possessed many unusual abilities. Even after centuries of intermarriage most halflings inherited very few of them.
 
Rather than turn around to look at him, Kenna scried him through the eyes of an old crone stitching a leather pouch on a bench nearby. He was rugged, a hot blooded warrior. She liked his beard and long reddish brown hair which fell in a thick braid down his back. She felt a pressing at her own mind and quit the third eye of the elderly woman. An older keeper sensed what she was doing. Keepers weren’t supposed to use their powers for personal gain.
 
As the sun set and stars illuminated the big northern sky, clans from afar kept arriving at Gimlé. While they settled into their quarters, the elders and keepers gathered at the far end of the hall to discuss the tree. There couldn’t be a true Yuletide celebration without an evergreen. In addition to cutting down a fir tree, boars needed to be culled from the forest for feasting. While many of their people worshipped the One True God, the Ljósálfar had a longstanding sacred oath with the ancient ash tree, Yssgdrill. It was forbidden to kill any of the trees in Álfheimr. A party must crossover the crystal bridge to retrieve the evergreen back on old Earth where the forests had regained their pristine glory.
 
Kenna watched as Baron Harald smoked his wooden pipe and blew curls of clove into the air. He was the reigning elder this year. The Baron studied the elders and keepers sitting before him long and hard. One elder, as well as one keeper would have to make the journey with the warriors that would be selected. Kenna’s eyes connected with his. His icy blue gaze beneath a thick, white brow tried to penetrate hers. She knew he could not. He blinked and shook his head. Kenna knew her dark eyes disturbed him as did her new powers. Halflings with elfin powers were rare. Halfling keepers were rarer still. She could easily cloak her still unknown abilities and Baron Harald didn’t particularly like or trust powerful women.
 
“Egill, he cried out in a raspy voice a moment later, bring the runes!”
 
A covey of thirteen would make the journey this year. The ancient stones sung the names. Egill, the blind caster, interpreted their song. Kenna’s was among them. A four hundred year full blooded ljósálfar elder named Meryl was sung too. Vale was the last warrior chosen by the stones. When his name was called, Kenna’s skin began to tingle. Something was not right. There was more to this journey than the fetching of the yuletide tree from the forest into which they were going to venture. A second message from the stones lingered in the air.
 
Kenna felt it but runes were not her gift. She could not hear their song or read the meaning of the etched markings laid out before her. She did however notice the nods of some of the much older elders and keepers. They knew something she didn’t. As they chatted quietly amongst themselves in the ancient elfish tongue they often spoke when discussing important clan matters so as not to disturb others, Kenna followed Meryl’s lead and excused herself. She had not yet studied the archaic tongue so she could not follow the conversation.
 
The uneasy feeling she had, stayed with her as she settled onto her sleeping furs in her quarters. She wondered what role Vale had in the unseen event that would surely unfold on their journey. She fought her wild thoughts and forced herself to sleep because the party was leaving at first light. Long before Kenna awoke the next morning the warriors had already saddled their horses, tied supplies to their mounts and hitched the sled to a team of wolf dogs that would pull the tree back to Gimle.
 
On hearing the din outside in the courtyard, a sleepy Kenna righted herself, pulled on her leathers and furs, laced her boots tightly around her calves and ran out of the hall to join them. She pushed her honey colored braids out of her face and quickly counted the number of horses. There were thirteen members of their party and only a dozen saddled horses. Before Kenna could protest at not having her own steed, a pair of strong hands lifted her off the ground. Vale planted her in front of him on the saddle. He slung his arm around her waist, picked up the reigns and kicked at his white dun which broke into a slow trot.
 
“Why don’t I get my own horse?” Kenna fumed.
 
She resented being treated like a child. She was a keeper, albeit a new one, but surely she was far more powerful than warriors with axes, swords and arrows.
 
“Because you’d be a burden if you did, he said in a smooth, deep voice. It was the first time he’d actually spoken to her. “You’re no horsewoman. The Dökkálfr and wild wolves would snatch you away in no time, little one.”
 
Kenna bucked against him and squirmed so she could jump off but was stilled when Vale tightened his arm around her waist. The words ‘do not’ crossed her mind at the same time. She turned her head towards Meryl who rode past them his own dappled steed. He looked regal in all white furs over which his long, white mane of hair cascaded.
 
“Don’t waste your time fighting, girl. He’ll over power you every time. He is a man who can easily protect or kill. That is all he knows. It is his duty to protect you on this journey. Let him.”
 
The full blooded Ljósálfar knew Kenna could read minds and therefore receive any messages he’d send to hers. He had a number of his own abilities, which he kept, like any wise elder, in reserve until they were absolutely needed. Meryl was being kind by explaining the way of the warrior to her.
 
Kenna was a child of the fields and had been kept away from the war being waged between the Ljósálfar and Dökkálfr by the old woman, Siggy, who found and raised her. Tales of battles reached their small cottage but she had never encountered any warriors until her powers exerted themselves. Soon after that, a couple of keepers showed up unannounced at the small croft. A handful of warriors escorted her and the other keepers back to the sorcerer’s hall in Andarsfjord.
 
She settled as best she could against Vale and let him guide his dun out onto the open trail leading to the Northern Lights. She kept her eyes focused on the warriors in front of them, Leo and Gilt, as they rode out. As the morning wore on, she shuttered her mind as she had been taught by older keepers so she wasn’t constantly assaulted by Vale’s thoughts. Most of the images in his mind involved him burying his thick cock inside her as he held her beneath him on a bed of furs by the crackling fire in his cottage. She had encountered Ljósálfar males who had entertained such thoughts about her before but his lust was unyielding.
 
Kenna reasoned by early evening that having her rear settled on the same mount in front of him for hours on end was fueling his incredibly vivid imagination. At every attempt she made to pull herself slightly forward on the steed, to put space between them, he swiftly drew her back.
 
The rest of the day passed uneventfully until they reached the borealis which floated between the worlds. The iridescent colors and shimmering flux awed Kenna who had never seen such wonder. Meryl had been there many times. He was one of the few elves who frequently ventured regularly back and forth between the worlds. Kenna and the others let him lead them across the glassy bridge.
 
Vale found himself enchanted not only by the handiwork of the God but the awe on Kenna’s face. He tightened his hold on her as his steed took them across the bridge. He noted the childlike wonder on her pretty face as she tilted her chin upwards to look at the moving colors. At one point she extended her arm and hand to touch it but he pulled it back without hesitation. Although he worshipped the one God, there was always the danger that some other deity or sky dragon might snatch her out if his arms.
 
At that moment she turned her face up at him. Vale blinked. Her eyes weren’t the ice, elvish blue he expected. They were large, almond shaped and almost black – human eyes. He gazed into her limitless pools and felt a stab in his chest. Vale noticed how the colors danced over her dark eyes and along her soft, curved cheek. She smiled innocently at him. She was far lovelier than he ever imagined. He set his jaw and looked away. It wasn’t wise for warriors to show their emotions.
 
Two more days passed and on the third a large blue spruce was found and cut down by the men. Later that night, Kenna studied Vale from across the fire pit while enjoying the scent of the tree. He hadn’t pay her much attention on the journey and even scowled at her on occasion. He still thought about undressing her in his mind and taking her on his furs, though. His thoughts were often more intense. She was still curious to know what the runes sung. Kenna was attracted to him but also annoyed by his incessant thoughts. She was more than a play thing and a pathetic charge on the back of his horse.
 
“Will you stop!” Kenna finally snapped in front of the other warriors and Meryl, who took to sharpening their blades. “I can read your mind, you foolish man.”
 
Vale turned his face toward hers, steeled his jaw and glared. He inhaled deeply, and exhaled a wave of anger. He had no idea Kenna possessed powers to that extent. Vale inwardly railed at having his private thoughts read by the very woman he’d been fantasizing about for days. His desire for her was undeniable. He normally didn’t spend hours pining over women but he had never been so drawn to one particular woman before.
 
“Don’t you think that’s a bad habit and bad manners?” He chided.
 
Before Kenna replied Meryl raised a hand to silence them. All ears perked up and the wolf dogs began to growl. They were not alone.
 
Vale quietly shifted his position and pulled his halberd from its sling. It was the second time in minutes he was caught off guard and it angered him further. He swore to himself he would make Kenna pay someday for being such a distraction. She deserved to be placed over his knee and given a good spanking. On the other side of the fire he noticed her jaw dropped. She picked up his thought. He suddenly realized he was going to have fun with his little mind reader.
 
“Enough!” Commanded Meryl while reprimanding their minds with his own. “Your lover’s dance is going get us killed.”
 
The other warriors had risen to defensive positions. Their axes were drawn. Leo and Gilt readied their bows. They would loose arrows into the darkness if they had to. Meryl, who stood closest to the fire, concealed an ancient Ljósálfar sword under his white cloak.
 
“Use your dust, girl,” he ordered. “Put that fire out now!”
 
Kenna reach into the small leather pouch slung her shoulder and quickly withdrew a small green bottle. She stepped closer to the fire. While doing so an incoming arrow flew through the air and narrowly missed her body. She took another brave step and unplugged the vessel.
 
“Quick, we’re open targets!” Meryl seethed.
 
She shook the dust in the bottle over the flames. All of the embers magically died before the powder hit the pit. They were now standing under the big, moonless sky. Starlight and their senses were their only guides.
 
Enemy arrows continued to slice the air. Meryl told the bowmen to loosen their own. They let out a round and heard a few cries as their arrows struck targets hidden in the darkness. They hit a couple of the Dökkálfr attempting to ambush them. As one of the warriors from the enemy party fell, Kenna crept into his mind with her own seizing his last thoughts.
 
“Help me, Luri,” cried the dark elf as his eyes closed forever. Kenna wondered who Luri was and passed the thought on to Meryl.
 
“Show yourself, Luri!” The elder commanded.
 
“Give us the girl, Meryl,” replied a menacing voice. “Then you can go back to hauling your rotten wood.”
 
Kenna blinked. She tried to press into the mind of that voice but met a sealed door instead. It was a well-protected mind. She instinctively knew Luri was quite sinister.
 
“Nice try lovely,” was followed by an arrogant laugh.
 
Vale snarled and the wolf dogs growled. They were dealing with a dark magician. It put him and his men at a disadvantage. He adored Kenna but at the moment wished they had a more seasoned keeper with them. She would be no match for Luri. The dark elf’s ruthless reputation preceded him and the fact that he came in person for her meant the Dökkálfr wanted her badly. Vale realized that Kenna’s powers were unsurpassed. He swore to himself he wouldn’t let Luri get his hands on her.
 
Kenna caught Vale’s thought and recalled the dire feeling the runes left her with.
 
“Get over here, little one!” He seethed.
 
That sinister laugh followed. Kenna turned towards Vale but she inwardly knew his axe was useless now. Luri wasn’t going to physically fight. Unpracticed Kenna pushed at her palms with her mind. She was a keeper of the flame and had seen what the more seasoned keepers could do. She felt a brief burning on the inside of her palms before cobalt blue flames swirled inside them.
 
“You Northerners are all fire and air,” Luri laughed.
 
Kenna inhaled deeply. She knew she was different, the dark ones did too. They wouldn’t have followed them to old Earth without reason. Kenna needed more information. She quickly realized that although Luri was a seasoned magician who knew how to shutter his mind, those with him weren’t so skilled or wise. She deciphered his second’s thoughts quite easily.
 
Long ago the Ljósálfar were given the command of fire and air while the dark elves were granted power over earth and water. Luri and his men believed she might possess the power of all the elements.
 
She thought about it for half a second. Was it possible? Why did they believe this? She pushed the thoughts away when an incoming arrow hit Vale. She heard him swear. She reached for him in the darkness and in doing so fell and sliced her hand on a jagged rock protruding up from the ground. The blue light in her palm went out as blood oozed from the cut.
 
Vale had pulled the arrow out his shoulder and flung it to the ground. He reached for Kenna and pulled her against his chest. She heedlessly pressed her bloody palm to his fresh wound. Vale growled as she touched him. Kenna felt all of his love and desire for her flow into her. She felt all of his remorse from his hard life and his desires for peace and a family. She saw herself and the world through his eyes as a burning sensation flooded her body. They were being bound by blood.
 
Kenna understood the smiles of the elders now. They had been fated and her warrior wasn’t just a life mate. He was also a key. Kenna understood. She called forth fire and cauterized the wound on his shoulder. Vale grimaced then gave her a knowing look before they heard Leo cry. They both turned to see a large, whirling dervish of blackness towering above them. Without thinking, Kenna stood up, raised her palms, focused her powers and stilled the sand. The particles were suspended in midair.
 
Others gasped as the older magician’s handiwork bent to her will.
 
“The full gift!” Meryl whispered.
 
The others gasped. None of them had ever seen a keeper who possessed the power of the four elements before.
Kenna muttered words that came to her mind and transformed the sand into snowy powder and let it fall to the ground. She then let a flood of new sensations wash over her. The feeling she had carried for many months of being an untrained keeper were gone. She knew her powers. Their secrets filled her.
 
Vale stood up next to her but partially guarded her figure out of habit. Kenna placed her hand in his. He looked down at her in awe. Because of their bond, Vale knew what she was pondering. He told her with his mind what he would do.
 
He shouted to Meryl and the other Ljósálfar warriors. The elder cast a safe guard around them before Kenna chanted a few words in the ancient elvish tongue, waved her free hand and called the power of air. The fastest way to end the fray was to take it instead of stirring it. She drew it from the Dökkálfr half a lea away. The sounds of gasping and rasping echoed in the darkness. The dark elves where suffocating as she called for the breath in their bodies.
 
“Retreat!” Cried Luri.
 
His distraught mind leaked his thoughts for the first time.
 
He had cast a quick safeguard for himself, his second and another dark elf standing close by but he knew it wouldn’t hold for long. He knew his other men were dying behind him. He turned and fled with his two remaining warriors into the Scandinavian forest, abandoning the rest of their entourage.
 
Kenna felt wobbly after destroying the Dökkálfr. She had never willfully sought to hurt or kill anyone before. She leaned against Vale as she regained her composure. He put his arm around her and stroked her hair.
 
“You have all four powers, little one.” He said in deep voice. “What do you think this means?”
 
“For starters, she replied, “We can bring the tree home in peace.”
 
Four days later, the massive tree was hauled up with ropes, steadied and tethered. Afterwards the young and old decorated it with wooden stars, pinecones, white feathers, and hundreds of small candles. After the Yule tree was finished, Kenna stepped back from it and lifted her palms. As the keeper who selected the tree, she had to light it this year.
 
She closed her eyes and concentrated. Every candle wick flared to life illuminating the great hall. Light flickered off the crystalline stones and granite containing bits of mica giving the walls a golden glow. The feasting tables were lined with tall candles which roared to life as did the lamps in the wrought iron sconces lining the walls. The warm light, a happy mood and scent of fresh pine filled Gimle. People reveled in the magic of the moment. Musicians perched in the corner of the room began to play Christmas reels which added to the festive air.
 
Kenna felt a familiar pair of eyes on her and turned around. As her smiling mate stepped closer to her, the ground began to rumble. Vale’s thoughts of stripping her naked and consummating their bond on his furs were interrupted by the shaking walls. He cupped Kenna’s chin and tilted it upwards. He stared into her dark eyes.
 
“I will bed you after we deal with those ice giants out there.”