All posts by Shawn Bain

Shawn is a father to two amazing children, and a husband to a fantastic wife. He has played video games since he was 2 years old and has immersed himself deep within the geek culture. He began his writing journey by writing short stories and releasing them for free to the public. He does this to show his desire to entertain with his work in lieu of entertaining to make a profit. His hope is that his life would exemplify a follower of Christ and lead people to accept salvation through His grace. He wants to be a good father, husband, son, and friend to those around him.

A Christmas Story 2021®

December Prison Log 1.

My name is Major General Thunder, and I have lost count of how many days I have been locked in this prison. Somehow Charlie captured me during the war. I’ve been in here so long, I don’t even remember anything about the war. The only thing in my memory is this small, cold prison.

I would punch through this flimsy plastic holding me in, but they’ve tied my arms and legs back with some sort of wire. Even though I can see others in their plastic cells staring back at me, I still feel utterly alone. They keep the ponies and other brightly-colored animals in cells similar to mine stacked on the other side of the aisle from me. 

In some sort of twisted sense, they’ve made the prison more festive. It must be the holidays out there. The shelves that hold the creatures’ cells across the aisle have been trimmed with garland, multicolored lights, and shiny, red balls. Musky smells have been replaced by smells of cinnamon and sugar.

They’ve begun to use music as torture. If I hear this woman tell me that all she wants for Christmas is me again, the madness might finally take hold of me. I have tried to communicate with the animals across the aisle to form an escape plan, but the language barrier and lack of use of my hands has proven formidable. Their vacant stares and glossy smiles tell me any attempt I made would be fruitless anyway.

Charlie has some sort of sick method of using children to choose who stays and who gets freed. The kids are giants. Some thunder down the aisle in excitement, some jump up and down, and others just knock a bunch of the cells off into the floor and leave them for a person in uniform to pick up and replace later.

It isn’t known where they take the prisoners when chosen by a child, but the excitement in the children’s voices seems to indicate it is a pleasurable place. We all secretly hope to get chosen. It is the only way out. No one escapes.

It has been several months that I have been in containment. I can’t tell if the clear plastic holding me in is helping or making me desire to be out more. The loneliness has set in though. It’s something you never get used to. 

As the holidays approach, more and more of my comrades have been taken to the land beyond. A few children have looked my case over, but none have selected me. One left a fair-sized booger on my containment cell. It took the uniforms weeks to finally clean it off. 

One second. A child has poked my cell. His parent came back and placed me in a carriage of some sort. I think this is it. I’m finally getting out of here. I will report back when I reach my new location. 

Thunder out.

December Prison Log 2

I was wrong.

Charlie moved me from one prison to the next. This one, though warmer and more homie, offers no light. As soon as I arrived my prison was wrapped in a decorative paper. Now I can’t even see the other prisoners. 

It’s strange though. I feel as if this is where I am supposed to be. There are many voices that pass by periodically, but when I hear one of them, a little boy’s voice, I get a sense of belonging I don’t quite understand. This boy is familiar to be deep down in my bones, but I don’t recognize his voice. Perhaps it is due to the effects of Charlie’s memory wipe. Somehow it feels like more though. Somehow we are connected. 

The conversations I hear now are from outside are less orderly and more intimate. Where before I heard orders on where to store the prisoners, now I hear conversations of close friends or perhaps family. 

Whatever my situation, I feel my imprisonment is coming to a close. And not with a sense of doom or dread. There is an electric sense of childlike anticipation in the air. It is only a matter of time now. I will report back when I am able.

Thunder out.

December Prison Log 3

The day of my release has come and passed. 

On Christmas Day, the boy ripped open the paper over my cell, tore the cell open, and cut my ties. He has played with me all day. My plastic joints already feel loose from all of the fun we’ve had. 

I understand my purpose now. I will serve this boy as I served my country in my life before Charlie took my memory. We have already slain enemy soldiers, dinosaurs, and brightly-colored ponies. The boy’s sister was upset about the latter of these.

This is my final transmission. I am no longer imprisoned. I have begun my mission. My purpose has been realized. 

Carry on, HQ. And Merry Christmas.

A Christmas Story 2020®

Tipsy the elf ran down the hall of Santa’s workshop carrying the present. I knew I shouldn’tve had those headphones on, he thought. I wonder how long ago the bell rung. I’ve gotta hurry!

The elf’s little legs were in overdrive as he whizzed past Santa’s workshop office. He stole a glance inside to make sure he didn’t happen to be a little lucky and Santa would be running late. He wasn’t lucky this time. It was something he could have guessed from the vacancy of the once-bustling workshop halls. His little heart raced as he ran with all of his might.

Tipsy rounded the last corner. The door to the center of the workshop where the presents were loaded and Santa launched his sleigh from was in sight when Tipsy’s feet went out from under him. WHAM! He hit the cold polished floor and elf and present slammed into the solid-wood wall. His shoes had flown into the air and landed with a slap on his big nose.

Tipsy laid there for a moment and wondered if being a Christmas Elf was the right job for him. How silly he looked laying there with his shoes on his face and a toe sticking through a hole in his socks. Finally, he rubbed his hip, sat up, and scooted on his bottom to slide on his oversized shoes. The bell on the toes jingled as he fidgeted with getting them on his little feet.

As the elf grabbed the present and stood to leave, a bright red glimmer on the ground caught his eye. He had knocked a small ornament off of a tree in the corner. 

Tipsy glanced at the doors then looked back to the ornament. I can’t leave that for someone else to pick up. It’ll only take a second. He sat the present down, gingerly grabbed the ornament, and oh so carefully slid the string over a limb. Stepping back slowly, he watched the ornament to make sure it would stay. He put his hands on his hips, puffed out his chest, and breathed out slowly in relief. As he grabbed the present and turned around, a crash behind him made him stop mid stride, close his eyes, and clench his teeth.

Oh, how Tipsy didn’t want to turn around. He opened one eye to see that the whole tree had fallen and thrown ornaments everywhere.

“What was tha…” Floormaster Jingle stepped out of his office. “Oh, Tipsy.”

“I’ll get it, Boss. Don’t worry.” Tipsy turned around and began to pick up the ornaments.

“Is that a present?” Jingle exclaimed.

Tipsy felt his face flush in embarrassment. 

“Santa’s ready to go! You need to get that to the Middle. I’ll get the tree. Go, go, go!”

Tipsy didn’t waste any time. He scooped up his present and held on to his hat as he sprinted to the workshop door.

He burst through the door and held his ear with his free hand as the sound of elves cheering washed over him. Looking up, he caught a glimpse of the back of Santa’s sleigh passing through the opening in the domed ceiling as the doors began sliding shut. One last “Ho ho ho” from the Big Man joined the noise of the cheers as the ceiling closed. 

Tipsy felt tears begin to well in his eyes as he thought of how big he messed up this time. Heat rose in his face as he felt a million little eyes turn on him.

“Oh, Tipsy.” Juniper said as they all noticed the present in his arms.

“Great. Now you’ve really done it, Tipsy,” Peppermint said. “Now a child is going to wake up on Christmas morning without a present to open from Santa.”

Tipsy was beginning to feel useless like he did every year, but when an idea popped in his head, he got a determined look on his face. He squeezed the present like a football and dashed toward the front door.

“Where are you going?” an elf asked.

“You’ll never catch Santa!” another shouted from behind him.

Tipsy thought of the disappointed look on a little child’s face and shook his head. “I have to try!”

He burst through the large doors that Santa led his reindeer into after long Christmas Eve nights when they were too tired to fly any longer. Without slowing his pace, he turned the corner and made straight for the stables. She has to still be there.

As Tipsy ran, he kept thinking of that child so he would push on. Heat pressed against his skin from the inside as the sting of the cold blasted against the outside and mist rose from his mouth as he panted. Elves didn’t run this much. Unless a polar bear happened by their fishing hole while they were trying to catch some arctic grayling of course.

He stopped by the stables and put his hand and forehead against the wall as he tried to catch his breath. The cold air sending an aching chill inside his lungs was no help. I don’t have time for this, he reminded himself. Taking a deep breath into his nose, he went into the stables. 

The room that was typically filled with the sounds of stable hands working, reindeer munching oats, and the smell of a barnyard was empty of all of these things. Well… it did still smell like wet animals. 

Tipsy listened closely as he began checking the stalls. C’mon, c’mon! His heart began to sink as it seemed his idea was going to be a bust until he checked the last stall. 

“Astrid!” he shouted as he stood over a reindeer laying on the ground, sides rising and falling with slumber and her tongue hanging out of her mouth. He rushed over and pushed on her side, rolling her slightly back and forth. “C’mon, Astrid! We have to go. We have to take this toy to a young girl or boy, or their Christmas will be ruined.”

There was no response from Astrid.

Tispy scratched his head and looked around the stable for an idea. His eyes shot wide, then he sat his gift down, ran into another stall, and returned with a carrot. He stopped and inspected the carrot, then ran back stuck another in his pocket and a few acorns for good measure.

“Astriiiid. I got a juicy carrot for you.” When she didn’t respond, Tipsy waved it in front of her nose. When that didn’t work, he shoved it into her nostril. Astrid stopped breathing for a moment, then her sides grew large as she took a deep breath, and when she blew out, the carrot shot past Tispy’s ear and stuck in the wall.

Tispy grimaced then wiped his brow before pulling the carrot back out and looking back over Astrid again. “No wonder Santa never uses you.” 

Tipsy rubbed the carrot on Astrid’s tongue, and her eyes began to bat awake. She slowly sat up and smacked her lips.

“Astrid!” Tipsy quickly explained his dire situation and there was silence when he finished. After a moment Astrid let out a quiet grunt. Tipsy snapped his fingers. “Almost forgot.”

He rushed over to the front of the stables and grabbed a bag full of dust. When he got back to Astrid’s stable, he sprinkled some of the dust onto her head. She promptly sneezed, and Tipsy frowned as he wiped off his face.

Astrid opened her mouth and instead of a grunt she said, “What do you want, Tipsy? It’s my year off.”

“Every year is your year off.”

“Okay, but that means this year is my year off too. Now give me that carrot so I can go back to sleep.”

“Can’t,” Tipsy said. “I need you for an errand.”

“What could you possibly need me for on Christmas Eve? Isn’t your job finished for this year?”

Tipsy blushed as he turned around, picked up the present, and showed it to Astrid. 

“Oh, Tipsy,” Astrid replied. “I would love to help that child get their present, but I can’t. Santa is ahead of us. How on earth would we catch him?”

Tipsy raised a finger and sat the present back down before pulling a scroll out of the pocket inside his coat. He showed it to Astrid. “I have Santa’s flight map. You see, this present goes to Springfield, Missouri. Santa starts here in North Maine Woods, Maine and works his way west. If we went straight for Springfield, we would get there before he does.”

“I can’t fly that far, Tipsy. I haven’t flown in years. I’d be lucky to get you to New York and still have the energy to get back to the North Pole.”

Tipsy rubbed his chin. This wasn’t turning out to be a good plan after all. He just needed a little time to come up with something else. He shook his head. I don’t have time for anything else. I will have to make this work.

“Take me as far as you can, Astrid. I’ll come up with what to do next on our way there,” he said as he rolled up the scroll and stuck it back in his inside coat pocket.

Astrid rolled her eyes as she stood up. “I’m only doing this for that kid. You know that, right?”

“Sure, sure. Just eat this.” He shoved the carrot into Astrid’s mouth and her eyes went wide in shock. She gave him a disapproving look as she munched the carrot.

Astrid’s muscles began to fill out, and her eyes got brighter as the carrot began imparting its magical properties on the reindeer. When her hooves began to sparkle, Tipsy knew the carrot had done its job. He quickly threw a saddle on her, and they took off into the night. 

When they had gotten out over the ocean, Astrid looked back and shook her head. “Tipsy, tell me you grabbed the present.”

Tipsy looked around and then looked at his hands. He pulled his head down into his coat to hide his blushing cheeks. “No.”

With a huff, Astrid turned around, and after they had grabbed the present, they made off into the night toward America.

As they rode through the sky, the wind whipping his hair and pointed hat behind him, a multitude of thoughts raced through Tipsy’s mind. Would they make it in time? How was he going to get from New York to Springfield? What is Christmas going to look like out in the rest of the world? (This thought excited him.) What would happen if he didn’t make it to Santa? He didn’t like how that thought felt, so he decided to begin working on a way to get to Springfield.

His first thought was a train. No, that will take days, he thought. Next, he thought of taking a bus. I don’t have any money though. Hitchhiking might get him there. He shook his head. Too dangerous to ride with strangers. 

Just then a whirring noise behind him caught his attention. He looked back in time to pull Astrid’s reins to the side and miss an oncoming plane. 

Astrid huffed. “Watch what you’re doing back there, elf!”

“What in the world was that?” Tipsy shouted.

“Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of a plane before.”

Tipsy looked at her with raised eyebrows. “Like the toys?”

Astrid sighed. “I guess you don’t see many of the real ones. We don’t have any airports at the North Pole.”

“Do you think it could get me to Springfield in time?”

“How am I supposed to know?”

Tipsy looked down and saw another leaving a long stretch of road next to a building. “Take me down to that building.”

Astrid took a hard turn and came into a spiral descent. Tipsy held the present tightly and screamed in horror. The reindeer’s hooves made a clanking noise as she slid to a stop on the airport’s metal roof. As Tipsy climbed off of her back with his teeth chattering and his eyes glued wide, Astrid chuckled to herself. 

“Good luck, Tipsy.” She suddenly steeled her expression. “This is a strange world, so be careful.”

Tipsy nodded nervously and looked around at the wide world around him as Astrid took back off into the night. The snow seemed to have followed Tipsy to New York, but things were so different. The buildings weren’t made of wood, they were made out of steel like his hammers and wrenches. And the buildings weren’t warmed by cozy fireplaces or adorned with multicolored lights, they all had plain old yellow lights that just lit up the rooms. Where were the carollers? Why didn’t he smell cinnamon or hot chocolate? What was that smell? He decided it was best not to find that one out.

Tipsy noticed a metal door that appeared to lead into the building. He was scared, but he summoned all of his courage, breathed in deep to puff out his chest, and pull the door open. He took the ladder inside and came out on a walkway high above people walking about below. After a little searching, he found another door with a stairway that took him out onto the floor with the bustling people.

A man bumped into Tipsy and almost knocked him over.

“Outta the way,” he shouted. For the life of him, Tipsy couldn’t understand why everyone seemed so unhappy. It was Christmas time! The most wonderful time of the year. There wasn’t any merrymaking or people singing or anything.

When Tipsy heard the familiar melody of Jingle Bells playing, he felt some of his fear melt away. Finally, a little piece of home. It didn’t sound like home though. It sounded… electronic. Like one of the toys he put together. It wasn’t deep and rich like the Yule Tidal Waves – his favorite band back home. He would have to make it work for his courage.

As he stood looking for where to go next, a woman in a navy-blue uniform came up to him. Her lips were red, and her face was kind. Her nametag said Alissa. “Hi, little one. Where are your mommy and daddy?”

“Mommy and daddy?” Tipsy said. “Why do you want my parents?”

The lady gave him a puzzled look. “Are you lost?”

“A little. You see, I need to take a plane to Springfield, Missouri.”

“Is that the plane that your parents are on?”

Tipsy realized he must look like a child to such a big person. Instead of taking the time to explain that he was most certainly not a child, he decided to just go with it. “Yep. That’s where my parents are. Can you help me get there, please?”

The lady smiled and offered her hand. “Sure thing. Let’s go find them.”

Tipsy looked at her hand for a moment then decided she seemed nice enough and grabbed it. She led him through the airport from one terminal to the next for what felt like an eternity. Tipsy was beginning to wonder if this was truly going to be any faster than finding that train. Santa’s going to be so disappointed.

As they passed a stand in the airport, Tipsy saw a sign that said, “Free Maps,” and grabbed one. It was certainly going to help him later. Then the lady stopped and looked up at a screen on the wall. 

Her eyes searched the letters on the screen for a moment then she smiled and looked back at Tipsy. “Are they going through Atlanta?”

Tipsy didn’t know where Atlanta was, but he smiled and nodded. This was getting messier and messier.

She turned her attention back to the screen and scanned it again. “Then you need to get to Terminal A7. This way.” 

Alissa led him through the bustling crowd from one hallway to the next until they finally walked under a sign that said A7. She walked him right up to the front counter and spoke to a lady behind a computer.

“This young man has lost his parents, and we think they’re on this flight.”

The lady began typing on the computer. “Okay, what are their names?”

When both of the ladies looked at Tipsy, he felt himself begin to sweat. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to stretch the truth. He thought and thought about what he would say, but he was too embarrassed and flustered to think.

“I… it’s okay. I think I can find them on my own.” Tipsy began to step away and Alissa gently grabbed his hand.

“It’s okay. I’m happy to help you.”

When Alissa touched his hand though, Tipsy panicked. He jerked his hand free and ran toward the exit, leaving his glove in her hand.

Tipsy didn’t know how long it had been since he left the airport, but the ache in his legs told him it was a long time ago. He rubbed his glove-free hand with his other and blew his hot breath on it to try to keep it from freezing as the night grew old. He knew he’d never walk there in time, but he couldn’t just stand there while he thought. At least he was getting closer to his goal. Now if he could just figure out how to get to Springfield by morning.

Tipsy looked around. All he could see was a sea of people walking between the giant buildings of metal. To his right was a huge park, but it didn’t offer much more in the way of excitement or help in getting halfway across the country. A few lights and more angry people. He had tried to ask a few of the people if they knew of a way to get to Springfield, but the nicest ones ignored him or told him to go away. The meanest ones… well, he didn’t want to think of that now.

“How are these people not merrier? It’s Christmas time for Santa’s sake!” Just then a squirrel hopped into an alleyway just ahead of him. “Now there’s someone who would listen to me. If only I were at the North Pole with my…” Tipsy widened his eyes as he remembered. He dug an acorn he had stuck in his pocket out as he followed the squirrel into the alleyway and held it out for it.

The rodent hopped up, stood on its back legs, and sniffed the treat. Tipsy slowly slid his other hand in its pocket. “Go on, little guy. Take it.”

When the squirrel got close, Tipsy threw a handful of the magic dust from his pocket into the squirrel’s face. It sneezed and yelled, “Hey!” in a deep New Yorker voice. Its eyes went wide, raised a brow, and twitched its nose. “What on earth? I can talk.”

“Good ol’ Christmas Magic.”

“Whoa. This is cool. Say, you got any more o’ this stuff, buddy? I got some pigeons down on 5th Avenue I’d like to have some words with.”

Tipsy chuckled. “No, not right now. Right now, I need your help.”

“Look, fella. I can help you, but you gotta help me too.”

“But I did help you,” Tipsy replied. “You are talking, right?”

The squirrel pondered for a minute. “Okay, you got me there.”

“What’s your name?”

“Poot,” the squirrel replied.

Tipsy wrinkled his nose. “Poot? Who would give you such a terr…”

Poot frowned at the elf.

“…rrific name? That’s great.”

Poot continued to frown at Tipsy. “The girl who feeds me is real nice, ‘kay?”

Tipsy cleared his throat. “Anyway. Do you know any way for me to get to Springfield, Missouri tonight?” Tipsy pulled out a map and pointed to where he wanted to go.

Poot scratched his head. “Geez, kid. I dunno. That’s a long way to go in one night. Did you try the airport?”

Tipsy nodded with a frown on his face.

“No luck, huh?” Poot went on. “Well, I would take you there, but unless you can make me grow ten sizes larger and fly…” Poot shrugged.

Tipsy grinned then pulled an acorn and a bit of carrot from his pocket.

“Oo, goodies! Wait. A carrot? What do I look like to you, the Easter Bunny?”

“Just trust me, you have to eat it.”

Poot eyed Tipsy before chewing up the carrot with a look of disgust on his face. Then he immediately scarfed two acorns down before giving Tipsy a puzzled look. “Waitaminute. What’re these gonna do to me?”

Tipsy smiled and shrugged as he stood up and stepped back.

Poot burped and widened his eyes. “What are these gonna do to me?!” His eye grew ten times larger, then his tail, this his back legs. Soon he was as tall as a horse, looking down at Tipsy.

Poot looked down at his hands. “Whoooa. Now I really gotta go pay those pigeons a visit.”

“Later. First I need you to get me to Springfield.”

“Uh, I don’t know if you remember this, Chief, but there were two parts to what I said.” He counted on his first two fingers as he talked. “Big. Fly.”

Tipsy smiled knowingly and climbed onto his back. “Do you believe in Christmas magic, Poot?”

The squirrel looked himself up and down. “Do I have much of a choice now?”

“Well believe really hard and jump into the air.”

“Listen, kid, I don’t know the first thing…”

Poot and Tipsy turned their attention back to the street as a lady stopped and looked down the alleyway. Her eyes went wide, and her mouth opened slowly before she let out a deafening scream.

Tipsy held his ears and Poot winced. “You don’t have time to fight with me about it, Poot. Just fly!”

The squirrel tilted his head and said, “Okay. Here goes!” 

Poot leapt into the air and almost collided with a tall building before correcting his course. “That’s it! I’m doing it.” 

Tipsy handed Poot the map. “Lead the way, Captain!” And they sailed off into the night.

Triangulating from where they came in New York with the map of the United States and Santa’s flight map, Tipsy and Poot quickly found the house of the present’s owner. And wouldn’t you know it, they landed right next to Santa’s sleigh on the roof when they arrived. 

Tipsy was filled with a mixture of excitement and fear. He had secretly hoped he could get the present there before Santa knew it was missing, but he was also excited to be concluding his journey and to see the Big Man again. How had it only been a few short hours since he left the workshop at the North Pole? That seemed like days ago.

After telling Poot goodbye and watching him soar off into the sky, Tipsy looked at the chimney and blew out a deep breath, mist rising from his lips. He just knew he was going to hear it from Santa. He had really messed up big this year. 

“Might as well get it over with.” Tipsy threw his leg over the lip of the chimney and climbed down. As he got closer to the bottom, he felt his bottom getting warmer from the fire. He knew, as Santa had said, that the fire would go out as he got there. The Christmas Magic on his and Santa’s clothes was made specially to put flames out. Of course the fire would light right back up when he was out. He still wondered how Santa had figured that formula out. 

When Tipsy stepped out of the fireplace, he was taken aback by how warm and cozy the house felt. The multicolored lights on the tree gave the room a warm, Christmasy glow, the garland and wreaths about the living room made Tipsy’s heart feel warm, and the cinnamon scented candle reminded him of his favorite holiday drink.

As he scanned the room, his eyes came to rest on someone familiar. Santa was standing next to the tree with his hands on his hips. Tipsy winced, but he noticed that Santa’s face wasn’t one of anger or even disappointment. Santa was smiling, and his cheeks were rosy.

“There you are, Tipsy. I wondered when you would get here,” Santa said in his deep, jolly voice.

“Y… you were expecting me?”

“Well of course. My bag felt about one present light, and when I found out it was the one you were working on, I knew it would find its way here on time.”

Tipsy furled his brow in confusion. “But if you knew it was missing, why didn’t you come back for it? Why did you make me come all the way here?”

Santa gave Tipsy a knowing smile, the one that always warmed his heart, and squatted down to put a hand on his shoulder. “Do you remember last year, Tipsy?”

Tipsy looked at the floor. “You mean when I tore that arm off of the Tickle Me Elmo, and you almost didn’t get out in time for Christmas?”

“That’s the one. Do you remember what you said when you handed it to me, all fixed up and ready for Sammie?”

“No.”

A tear formed in the corner of Santa’s eye. “You said it so quietly that you didn’t think I heard you, but you said that you always messed everything up. That you were the worst elf ever, and you didn’t know why you didn’t quit.”

Now Tipsy remembered, and a tear like Santa’s was forming in his eye. 

“It broke my heart to hear you say that, Tipsy. So, this year I told myself I was going to help you fix it. I let you go on this journey to let you prove something to yourself.” He put a finger on Tipsy’s chest. “You have the biggest heart of any elf I have ever known. I knew that it didn’t matter what stood in the way, that you were not going to let Christmas be ruined.” Santa held up a finger and almost whispered, “Not even for one little girl or boy. Tipsy, you don’t ruin everything, you bring joy and laughter to everything you do. You caring more about a little girl or boy you don’t know than yourself is what Christmas is all about. My boy, you don’t ruin Christmas, in fact this Christmas you saved it.”

Santa wrapped Tipsy in a big grizzly bear hug, and they twisted in place together for some time. Tipsy now understood. Santa wasn’t disappointed, he wanted Tipsy to know what he saw in him. The elf tingled with joy.

When Santa stood from their embrace, he motioned to the tree. Tipsy stood tall with his chest out, turned on his heel, and marched over to where the presents were. Gingerly, he stooped down, pushed the plush nativity scene out from under the tree a little to make room, and put the present with the rest. Somehow, though the present had been on quite the journey, the shiny wrapping still reflected the glow of the multicolored lights on the tree flawlessly.

Tipsy turned back to Santa with the biggest smile his face could hold, then he let his smile turn to a look of confusion. “Santa?”

“Yes?”

“Do a lot of squirrels name their children Poot?”

Santa chuckled and his belly jiggled. “You’ve seen a big, new world, my boy.” He put his hand on Tipsy’s shoulder and led him to the fireplace. “We’ll have plenty of time to talk about it all on the trip.”

As they bent down to go back into the fireplace, they heard a female voice behind them say, “Hello?”

Tipsy and Santa looked at each other then turned back around. There a woman stood in her night robe. She had a kind face and looked very familiar to Tipsy, but he couldn’t remember where he had seen her.

The woman smiled. “Santa, you’re being too loud. You’re going to wake my son.” Santa grinned and the lady looked at Tipsy with a knowing smile. “Now I know why we couldn’t find your parents.”

Just then it hit Tipsy: This kind lady was Alissa from the airport. Tipsy gave her a confused look and asked, “How did you get all the way here?”

“I am a stewardess. I was finishing my last flight before I came home for Christmas.”

Santa put a hand on Tipsy’s back. “Tipsy was at the airport, no doubt, because he was finding his way to your house. The present he had, that was your son’s. So, Tipsy saved your son’s Christmas.”

“Tipsy, how can I ever repay you?”

Tipsy dug his toe into the carpet with his arms behind his back. “It was nothing.”

Alissa held up a finger. “I know just what to give you.” She disappeared into another room for a moment, came back, and handed something white to Tipsy.

“My glove,” Tipsy said as he smiled.

“You left it with me at the airport, and something just told me to hold onto it. Now I’m glad I did.”

Tipsy slid his glove on and looked at his hands. “I’m sorry we don’t have a present to give to you.”

Alissa smiled and winked at Santa. “We parents have a deal with your boss here. Every year we just ask for a merry Christmas for our children. That’s why we don’t get any presents and all the children do.”

Tipsy’s mouth dropped open. “You don’t ask for anything?”

Alissa kissed Tipsy on the cheek and he felt his face blush. “Thank you for saving our Christmas,” she said.

“C’mon, Tipsy,” Santa said climbing back into the fireplace. “If we don’t get a move on, we’ll have a lot more Christmases to save.”

With a wave, the two climbed back out of the chimney and Alissa went to bed. That Christmas every present was delivered, and everyone had a merry Christmas.

Merry Christmas!

Advent of Elven Autumn®

Elqanah – 1st Era

Pre-War of the Races

Draugolë strode into the forest clearing, the elf’s skin warming against the chilling late-summer air as he stepped out of the shade of the forest. The Sun’s rays cast a shine off of his well-maintained black hair and simple silver circlet on his brow.

She had better be here this time, he thought, or I’ll be sending a servant to do this next time, king’s orders or not. The elf’s high brow, pointed nose, and half-lidded eyes gave a natural look of disapproval and superiority, mirroring his soul as he walked over to a small pool of water between two old oak trees. He pulled a pumpkin seed from a pocket in his robes, and his eye caught a snag that a thorn had torn on this trip. He sneered. It was good that these were his old robes. Though they showed no sign of wear, he would be glad to throw out last year’s robes to be rid of them. He didn’t want to be seen in something so old.

Draugolë tossed the pumpkin seed into the water and stepped back to watch. “Hurry up, spirit,” he said under his breath. He hated this task. It was so trivial a thing. While once a young, ambitious Draugolë was excited to be handed such an important task, now as advisor to the king, he felt the job was so far beneath him.

His patience worn thin, he finally shouted, “Yávië!”

Leaves from the forest floor gathered into a pile and swirled as if a whirlwind had started before him. The wind caught his hair and robes pulling them forward as he shielded his face. The leaves swirled up into a cone shape as they turned from their luscious green color into a beautiful blend of orange, yellow, and red autumn colors. As they reached their pinnacle, the top of the cone opened up and the form of a beautiful maiden grew from them. Her long, chocolate-colored hair was capped with a circlet of twisted vines and autumn flowers as her hair grew and cascaded down her beautiful ivory skin. She opened her eyes and her piercing brown irises and her gaze took Draugolë’s breath as it had every year.

“Tunuvu quenuva Draugolë.” As she spoke, the elf felt a cool, autumn breeze on his face and smelt a faint scent of spiced apples.

Draugolë held a sigh of relief that the spirit had finally arrived, his hair and robes still disheveled. “I would hardly call it a good morning, Yávië,” Draugolë replied, preferring to speak in the common tongue rather than the ancient elven language they usually spoke in. He was in no mood for cordiality and ceremony. “I have come to these woods a dozen times this past month. You know that I have other important matters to attend to. I do not like to be kept waiting.”

Yávië smiled innocently, obviously ignoring the elf’s coarse attitude. “The time of my arrival is not for me to decide. I come and go as the Master wills it. It is only you mortal races that believe you have control over His desires.”

“We mortal races,” Draugolë started, a calm anger in his voice, “do have control over our choices. That’s why one can help a beggar, strip him clean, or kill him, whatever they so choose.”

Yávië turned and looked toward the forest, the sun gleaming off of her skin. “This is true. You are the ones foolish enough to incur the Master’s wrath, while we spirits are bound only to act within His will.” She turned her gaze back on him with such intensity that a shiver went down his spine. “I would not trade places with you for all the wealth of the world. One has tried that temptation and failed.”

Draugolë took the opportunity to straighten his hair and robes as she talked. “Yes, well, I quite like the wealth this world has offered me, and I have yet to see this Master of yours. Though I have seen many other spirits.” He looked Yávië up and down indicating her.

Now Yávië was wearing an expression of annoyance. “Have you brought the offering, elf?”

Draugolë curled the corner of his nose in disgust at the degrative tone at which the spirit spoke the name of his race. He knew better than to respond however. Though he was an experienced master of the arcane arts, there was little doubt in his mind that Yávië could tear him apart without a second thought. The tension between the elves and the spirit world was palpable, the elves trusting in the earth to provide all of their answers through the art of KemenGûl caused a natural rift between them and the realms of the supernatural.

The elf pulled an unassuming disc from his robe and opened the lid revealing a glowing green liquid inside. He sat it on the ground and dipped both of his index fingers and thumbs into it. Holding his hand in a diamond shape to his right, he slowly pulled them apart. As his hands separated, an oval-shaped portal appeared, ringed in a light the same color as the liquid on his fingers.

Draugolë gave a disapproving look as his eyes searched in the portal then he stuck his head in. On the other side, there was a vast room with high ceilings and rows of vines on fences down the center. The ceiling was painted with blue skies and storm clouds, and there was rain falling from the clouds. Must be watering day in the Spring Garden, he thought.

When a gardener walked by, he called out to her, “Gardener! Where is my offering?”

The elf searched for the voice and jumped when she saw it was the King’s Advisor. She rushed into another room and quickly came back with a blanket-covered wicker basket. “I’m so sorry, Your Grace. It’s just that you had gone so many times and the spirit hadn’t come that…”

“Keep your excuses,” Draugolë said as he snatched the basket and disappeared through the portal.

Draugolë snapped as he handed the basket to Yávië and the portal closed.

Yávië smiled as she took the basket and gingerly removed the blanket. “Kiwi, passionfruit, cherries, strawberries, and apricots. Oh,” she said as she pulled a purple flower from the basket and put it in her hair. “A hyacinth too. What a nice touch.” She smiled again at Draugolë.

Draugolë put the disc in his pocket and bowed at his shoulders. Someone in that garden actually did something right, he thought as he pondered who must have put the flower in there for the spirit. No matter.

Yávië’s smiled deepened as she smelled the kiwi. A tear rimmed her eye as she sat it back in the basket and inspected the rest of the fruit. “What is she like?”

Draugolë’s brow furled. “She?”

“Spring. I imagine she is lovely. Her flowers and fruits are so beautiful.”

Draugolë was taken aback by the request. This was the first time that the Autumn Spirit had shown so much emotion with him. “We…” He cleared his throat and straightened himself, reasserting his confidence. “These fruits came from the Spring Garden we maintain in Lostariel, not from the Spring Spirit. They are fresh. They certainly wouldn’t have kept all Summer long. And we only have the covenant with you.”

“Pity. I would so love to meet her. Summer is here when I awaken, and Winter is here as I return to rest, but…” She looked up at him and her tears vanished like glimmering glitter. “You have honored our covenant, and so shall I. Relay to Orthorien my gratitude, and the trees will be turned within the week. The forests around Lostariel will be as beautiful as they are every year.”

Draugolë bowed once again and pulled at his robes as he turned back toward the city.

Yávië pulled the flower from her hair and smiled as she inspected it. She began to hum a calming tune as she replaced it, turned toward the forest, and took a bite out of a strawberry.

The leaves of Autumn’s dress rustled and swayed as she walked about the forests of Lostariel. As she looked up into the trees, she took a bite out of a strawberry. Juice glistened as he trailed down her chin and sparkled as it shimmered away into mist around her, leaving her youthful skin as dry as if it had never been covered.

The spirit came to a stop when she reached a giant tree. She smiled as she sat her basket down and stepped closer to the old beech.

“I’ve returned, friend. It is time once again.” The language she spoke was an old one. One that had been heard by very few people of the mortal races. It was the tongue with which she was most comfortable.

Autumn placed the side of her head against the trunk, closed her eyes, and ran her fingers through the grooves in the bark. The tree groaned in what almost sounded like a sigh of relief. “Yes. Rest, child. Twilight is upon us. Let your weariness take you.”

She began to hum, and the tree quivered beneath her touch. She hummed a melodious song that was older than the tree itself. It was a song that she filled the woods of Elqanah with every year. It was a lullaby as old as the earth.

As Autumn hummed, the tree’s limbs began to sag, and the leaves turned to vibrant shades of golden bronze. The wind swept up and carried her song deep into the forest, and all of the trees along the path followed suit, shifting to various shades of beautiful orange, yellow, and auburn.

The spirit kissed the tree and stepped back, looking into its branches. “Good night, dear friend.”

Picking up her basket, she turned back into the forest. As she began walking, the volume of her melody grew to unnatural heights, as if the forest around her carried the notes too. She walked about with a smile on her lips, and soon the entirety of the forest had taken on the beautiful shades of Autumn.

As Autumn stepped out of the forest, she finished the last bite of the fruit from her gift. She sat the basket on the ground and placed her hands on both sides. The wicker untwisted and sank into the earth along with the rinds from the fruit, returning to where it had come from.

When she stood, a giant, monstrous form landed before her, shaking the ground with its might. It let out a mighty roar sending frost bellowing around her and whipping her hair about violently. As the torrent went on, she stood staring at the beast without emotion.

When it had finally finished roaring, a mist evaporated around her, the beast’s shape finally taking form. A mighty dragon towered over her, its scales shimmered like ivory and its eyes glowed deep blue. Its breath was frost and its glare carried death.

“Bow before me, Autumn. I am the ender of life, and my kingdom is nigh.”

Autumn stared at him without blinking for several moments. “Your ambitions grow. Your reign has not yet come, Winter. Now is my time. The mortal races are harvesting, and you have no power yet.”

“My reign grows, Empress, as yours diminishes. As each day passes on this age, your time grows shorter as mine grows longer. The Time of Winter eats at your kingdom, and soon you’ll be no more.”

“If the Master wills it,” she replied. “But I have seen no such decree.”

Winter grinned. “You need no decree. Look around. Each year you wake later, and each year my power returns sooner. Soon, you will wake no more.”

“Temper your ambitions, dragon. You know what happened to the spirit that betrayed Him. Do not overextend your reach lest you join him in his punishment.”

Winter roared again. “Keep your commands, Empress! They will mean nothing anyway. You will see. Your eyes will tire and your limbs will grow weak, and I will return sooner this year.”

The dragon beat down his mighty wings as he lifted back into flight. He flew with intensity and before long he had disappeared in the mountains he called home.

Autumn stared after him for some time. A cool breeze stirred her hair, strands drifting on its current reminding her that it was still her time. She couldn’t help but wonder if Winter was right though. Would he ultimately overtake her? What was the Master’s plan in diminishing her reign? She smiled and her heart warmed as she remembered Him. It didn’t matter. Her time was His to command.

Autumn returned her gaze to a forest on the horizon, still lush with Summer green. A rabbit leapt in the tall grass. The field before her carried the promise of sweet smells, laughter, and life. Her time was now. She began her walk to the other side of the field where she would sing her song for as many trees for which she had time.

A Christmas Story 2019®

The sound of the garage opening next door drew Julia’s attention from making her world-famous wassail. Well, maybe not world-famous, but all of her family and everyone at church sure loved it.

Julia raised her upper lip in a snarl at the sound. It was that infernal Jamal Hudson heading out to do God-knows-what again. Here he was interrupting her wassail making too. Now I’ll probably cook it too long and make it sour, she thought as she scuffled across her small, one-bed, one-bathroom house. She was more than capable of walking, but her red slip-on houseshoes were getting old, so she was just keeping them from sliding off.

Julia glanced at her reflection in the glass of the small tv in the cabinet in her living room and fluffed her white hair. That tell-all would probably tell everyone in town if I didn’t have myself put together. 

Turning the tv on, Julia turned the knob to the station showing It’s a Wonderful Life. She wasn’t in the mood to watch it, but it would suffice for appropriate background noise while she worked on her favorite holiday drink.

She walked over to the front window, and standing on her tippy toes, reached the cord to open the blinds. Another hand around the house to help with things like this would sure be nice, but she wasn’t about to admit that she could use the help. Julia Winston was as independent and strong as she had ever been. With a zip, she drew the blinds up to watch outside. She squinted her eyes against the brightness of the sun reflecting off of the snow.

Sure enough. Jamal was scraping the ice off of the windshield of his old, blue Chevy truck while a white cloud poured out of his exhaust, freezing from the cold. 

Julia scowled at her troublesome neighbor. He has a garage. Why in the world doesn’t he keep that old truck in there. It’s probably full of old junk he won’t throw out. She watched in disapproval as he pulled his corduroy coat tighter and beat the frost off of his scraper onto his tire.

That was it. She had had enough. Julia stepped out of the front door and pulled her thick robe tight around her to shield her from the cold. “Looks like your driveway is nice and clean,” she said snidely.

“Yep,” Jamal said not looking up from reaching across his bed to scrape his back window. “Cleaned it off last night.”

“And I don’t suppose you could be bothered to help an old lady by clearing hers.”

Now Jamal looked up and raised a brow of mock disbelief at his neighbor. “After you having that boy cut the limbs off of my tree last week? I don’t think so, you petty woman.”

“They were hanging into my yard! Squirrels were jumping from them into my birdfeeders.”

Jamal rolled his eyes as he sat in his truck before slamming the door shut signalling the end of the conversation.

Rage boiled in Julia’s veins. She huffed and slammed her front door as she came in the house.

Their feud was an old one. They had been neighbors for the better part of three decades and they had hated each other every second of it. If Julia was honest, she would confess that she didn’t know what ignited their animosity for one another, but she could easily tell you that last week Jamal shoveled the snow from his driveway into her yard, which was a good ten feet away from his driveway.

Julia looked back out the window at her own driveway, still covered in snow. A real man would have offered to help a 76-year-old lady clear it. That certainly wasn’t Jamal. She would just have to wait until some teenagers came by on their way home from school and offer them $20 to do it.

When Jamal drove by, a scowl on his face and his rotted exhaust rumbling loudly, she dropped her blinds shut and stormed back into the kitchen. 

“One of these days that old jerk will move out of this neighborhood,” she said as she stirred her wassail. She put the wooden spoon to her lips and tasted it. Her face puckered and she threw the spoon down in the sink. “Sour.”

Julia struggled to carry her crockpot, with new wassail that Jamal hadn’t ruined, across the church parking lot. The little handles were trying desperately to slip out of her slick mittens. At least the warm liquid inside was helping to ward off the cold.

Today was the Christmas play, so there would be a lot of guests. There was no way she was going to serve soured wassail today of all days. Then everyone in town would think she didn’t know how to make wassail. Sally May’s eggnog was certainly not going to outdo her drink either. She cursed Jamal again under her breath.

“Here, let me get that for you, Miss Julia,” a voice from behind her called. 

Julia turned around and smiled. “Why thank you, Curtis Lee. We could use more men like you.”

The two struggled to make the exchange without spilling any wassail or burning their hands on the side of the old, tan crockpot.

“You’re welcome, Miss Julia. I wouldn’t want to spill any of your famous wassail. What a waste that would be.”

Julia slipped her arm under Curtis’ and the two walked slowly to avoid any slick spots still in the parking lot. Their merry chatter carried on the still, cold air.

Inside the usual greeting and hugging that accompanied a church service took place. Everyone asking each other how their week went or how their sick loved ones were doing. Shortly everyone made it into the sanctuary and quieted for service.

The play was perfect, as always. Mary, the music director, had such a talent for making stories come alive. Her voice was amazing too. She definitely needed to go on one of those singing shows. 

The actors all lined up at the front of the stage donning clothes from the 1800s and bowed as the crowd clapped. Pastor Jerry came out and called for another applause as the actors walked offstage. Then the pastor gave an exhorting and stirring sermon examining the lesson of the play. He talked about forgiveness and the biblical parable of the man who was forgiven for a lifetime’s debt then turned around and punished a man who owed him just a week’s wages.

“”You see, we owe much to God for His forgiveness, and when we don’t forgive the little transgressions of others, we look like this man who didn’t forgive the little debt owed to him,” Pastor Jerry explained.

Julia smiled contently. I sure hope some of these people are listening to this, she thought. I know several people who could learn something from this. 

After service was dismissed, it was Julia’s time to shine. The pastor asked everyone to come by the visitors’ booth for a quick beverage and an invitation to the Christmas dinner. 

Julia grabbed her purse and was the first one out the sanctuary door. She loved her after-service chat with Rose, but that would have to wait for another day. People needed their wassail poured… and of course if she admitted it, she liked being able to tell them it was her secret recipe when she poured it for them. 

Julia hustled across the foyer and slid her purse under the draped folding table before setting the styrofoam cups on top. She took the lid off of her crockpot and the sweet aroma of cinnamon rose with hot steam, washing her with nostalgia. Looking around the room, it seemed like the Christmas lights glowed a little brighter. Soon the Christmas music was playing, and the mood was perfectly set.

The sanctuary doors slid open, and a lady of similar age and stature joined her behind the table, wrapping her in a warm hug.

“Sally May. It’s good to see you, honey. How’s Bob? Did his surgery go well?”

As Sally pulled away, she gave Julia a warm smile. “Yes. Thank you for asking. He should be healed up in a month or so. He’s kind of being a baby about it though. That was his excuse to stay home today.”

The two shared a chuckle and Julia said, “He’ll do anything to sit in that recliner and watch football.”

“Yes, yes he will.” Sally May reached under the table and pulled out a jug of store-bought eggnog and some plastic cups. 

Julia held back a gasp and her face flushed. “You didn’t make your eggnog this year?”

Sally May looked away sheepishly. “Well, with Bob’s surgery, I was busy taking care of him. I didn’t have time to make my own. It takes a long time.”

“Well. I think I would have made time,” Julia said sitting her ladle in her wassail. I’m definitely not going to have any competition this year.

Sally May turned to respond but a tall, blonde woman with a fur-rimmed coat had made her way to the table with a young boy and a tall, dark-headed man in tow.

Julia was quick to be the first to greet them. “Well hello, Michelle. Want some wassail?”

“You know I do, Miss Julia. I wait all year for some of your famous wassail.”

Julia was beaming as she poured some of the drink into a cup, steam dancing blissfully from its rim. Michelle pulled it to her face and sniffed deeply. “Mmmm. Thank you.”

As Julia poured two cups for Michelle’s family, she smiled at Michelle’s son. “Benjamin, you did a great job in that play. You mark my words, you’ll be famous someday.”

“Thank you, Miss Julia.” The family accepted their drinks with gratitude, grabbed a Christmas dinner flyer, and stepped out of line. A line that was growing quite rapidly, Julia thought. Especially compared to Sally May’s. 

She should have left that hospital long enough to make her homemade eggnog. She’s going to make visitors think we don’t care about them with that stuff from the store. Though she could hardly contain her disapproval of the store-bought eggnog, she was loving being so popular.

As the people began to disperse, Julia made light chatter with some of the regular churchgoers. She was as happy as she had been in some time. Whether it was the holidays, the compliments on her drink, or a little of both, she was practically glowing with excitement. Then she caught something out of the corner of her eye that drained her mood.

It can’t be, she thought. Sure enough, Jamal was talking to her pastor. He was dressed in the nicest clothes she had seen him in. The look on his face made it apparent he felt awkward talking to Pastor Jerry though. When Pastor Jerry gestured toward the welcome table, Julia panicked. 

That hooligan is not getting any of my wassail. Julia looked around for an excuse before deciding to quickly slide her cups under the table.

“Hey, Julia,” Pastor Jerry said, startling the old lady. She quickly stood and smiled at Jerry before he continued, “This is Jamal. I was just telling him that he had to try some of your amazing wassail.” 

Jamal and Julia looked at each other, terror in Jamal’s eyes and disdain in Julia’s. Julia shrugged. “I would love to, but I’m out of cups.”

Jerry shrugged and began to reach for Sally May’s cups. “I’m sure Sally May wouldn’t mind if you borrowed some of…”

“Can’t,” Julia interjected, a bit too quickly. Jerry raised a brow at her. She tried to laugh it off. “I mean, wassail’s hot. It’ll melt those plastic cups and make it taste weird.”

Jerry began to reply, but Jamal interjected. “It’s okay. I’m… more of an eggnog guy anyway.” 

When Sally May began pouring for the visitor, Julia came from behind the counter and pulled on the pastor’s elbow. “Pastor, can I talk with you for a minute?”

Jerry’s look of confusion deepened. “Okay, Julia. Just a sec.” He grabbed a flyer and handed it to Jamal. “Anyway, we hope to see you at the Christmas dinner.”

Julia could feel her face flush as she tingled with anger. They walked to a quiet corner of the foyer next to one of the couches and Julia turned to Jerry with her arms crossed.

“What is it, Julia?”

Julia took a deep breath to calm herself. Her pastor didn’t know this man or he wouldn’t have been so chummy with him. He definitely wouldn’t have invited to the Christmas dinner.

“Pastor, now that Jamal is my neighbor. He’s nothing but trouble. He has no consideration for me. Just last week he dumped his garbage into my trash bin. I’ve had to call the law on him 5 times already.”

Jerry looked across the foyer at Jamal who was talking politely with Sally May and back to Julia. “He seems awful nice to me.”

“He’s just hiding who he really is to you…” She thought really hard for a reason that Jamal might be putting up a false pretense. “Probably because you’re a pastor.”

Jerry smiled knowingly. “You did have some cups behind the table, didn’t you?” 

Julia sighed and shook her head in frustration. She knew what he was trying to do. Jerry was good at lightening a situation with humor, but this was not the time for that. There was definitely no room for Jamal in this church, and he needed to see that.

Seeing his trick wasn’t working, Jerry gave her a resigned smile. “Look. I understand why you’re frustrated and what you want me to do, but we don’t turn people away from this church. Maybe you guys will get to chatting at the Christmas dinner and put your differences aside.”

Julia couldn’t believe her pastor wasn’t seeing her side. She narrowed her eyes at him and kept eye contact as she stomped past him. 

“Julia…” Jerry tried to stop her, but it was too late. 

Julia threw on her thick, maroon coat, grabbed her empty crockpot and purse, and went straight for the door. When she got halfway across the room, a pain started shooting straight from her heart into her arm. Her eyes widened in pain and her mouth dropped open.

“Julia?” Curtis came running from the nursery door and sat her crockpot to the side. “Pastor!”

Jerry came running over and put his arm behind Julia, a look of panic in his eyes. “Julia, are you okay?”

The pain intensified in her chest, and her breathing became labored. She looked at Jerry with tear-filled eyes, pleading for help. Her vision blurred and narrowed and the last thing she heard before losing consciousness was Pastor Jerry’s shout.

“Call 911!”

Julia blinked her eyes open. When she saw that she was in a hospital room, she began to panic. Her heart started beating wildly against her ribs, and she broke out in a cold sweat. She couldn’t remember where she had been or what happened to get her here.

When Julia sat up quickly and began to look around at the IV in her arm, the oxygen hose in her nose, and everything else attached to her, a familiar voice began to soothe her.

“It’s okay, Julia. It’s okay. I’m here with you.” Pastor Jerry stood and put a hand on her shoulder.

Julia looked at him and tears began to well in her eyes. Bit by bit she began to put it all back together. “Di… did I have a heart attack?”

Pastor Jerry gave her a strained smile. “The tests haven’t come back for sure, but that’s what Dr. Palinski thinks it was.”

Julia sat back with shock in her eyes. It couldn’t be. Julia had never had a heart attack. She had never had any trouble with her heart. What did this mean for her living on her own? Her daughter, Patricia, lived so far away, there was no way she could help. Oh how Julia wished Patricia was here now.

A knock on the door drew their attention that way. “Hello, Ms. Winston,” Dr. Palinski, a tall, gray-haired man with handsome features stepped into the room. “How are you feeling?”

All Julia could answer in reply was a defeated shrug.

The doctor gave Jerry an understanding and sad half-smile then looked back to Julia. “Listen, you did have a heart attack, but it looks like your heart is still in good shape. It may have just been a combination of that and stress that caused you to pass out. Are you currently under any stress at home?”

Julia eyed Jerry then turned her head away sharply. She looked out of the window and paused for a moment. “I’m fine.”

Dr. Palinski looked at her for a moment before patting her leg. “Well, just try to take it easy. Okay? You may just need to stay at home for a few days. I’m going to write you a prescription and we should be able to get you out of here today.”

Julia heard him walk out of the room before shutting the door behind him. She and Pastor Jerry sat in silence for a few moments, neither knowing what to say. What luck. The Christmas dinner was just around the corner, the one she looked forward to all year, and now she was going to have everyone fussing over her there. If they even let her go.

Then something caught her attention from the corner of her eye. Someone had bought her flowers. She was curious to see who, but she wasn’t ready to be done sulking yet so she turned her eyes back out the window. But really. Who brought her the flowers? They were so pretty too.

Julia raised a brow and strained to read the name hanging on the card. She could hardly contain her shock when she read it. Jamal! What was that nosy neighbor doing here?

Almost as if reading her mind, Jerry said, “You’ll never guess who stopped by.” It was obviously an attempt to cheer her up, which she did not appreciate.

Julia took a deep breath through the tube in her nose. “I already know. Your best friend Jamal. Why did you let that nosy man in here?”

“I didn’t think it would be right to kick the man who saved your life out.”

Julia turned so quickly her neck tensed. She looked at Jerry in utter disbelief. 

“Yep. Jamal was the one who gave you CPR until the ambulance got there. It’s a good thing. None of the rest of us knew how to do it.” Jerry shrugged with a smile.

Julia didn’t know what to think. What was his gain here? There had to be some angle that Jamal was trying to work. He wouldn’t have just saved her.

Would he?

Her pastor must have read the struggle in her eyes, because he spoke as if she had said it out loud. Laying a hand on her hand, Jerry said, “I think Jamal is ready to move on. I talked to him. He said the play and the service really moved him. I was thinking… maybe it’s time for you to do the same.”

Pastor Jerry’s deep smile was so disarming, Julia believed every word he said. She wanted to stay mad, to hold onto that well-cultivated hatred for that man that had caused her so much trouble for so many years, but… she just couldn’t. It felt like one hundred layers of ice and stone just melted off of her heart.

And she forgave him.

Julia began to cry, and Pastor Jerry just hugged her. They sat in an embrace that both felt like it went on forever and that it was over in a moment. When they finally pulled apart, Julia looked him in the eyes, put a hand on his cheek, and said, “Thank you.”

Jerry patted her shoulder and said, “You’re welcome.” 

The pastor stood and slid on his black peacoat. “I’d love to stay and chat with you, Julia, but the church staff needs my help setting up for the Christmas dinner.” He paused and looked at her with sincerity. “I’ll pray that you can make it.”

As her sweet pastor walked out of the door, Julia became more determined than she had ever been in her life. I’ll be there.

The night of the Christmas dinner party had finally arrived. The places were set, and the mood was right. Volunteers milled about the events room that doubled as the youth room on Wednesdays. Red tablecloths were set on long tables arranged in a U-shape around the room with chairs sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with each other to make as much room as possible for all of the dinner guests. The pillar in the middle of the room was hugged by a square setting of tables with crockpots, tinfoil-covered plates, cups, and bottles of soda covering every square inch. All food that everyone had chipped in to bring.

Lights and garland with large red bows and poinsettias set in them dotted the room, and the giant Christmas tree stood as the center of attention against the back wall with a little manger scene set before it. The wonderful scent of cinnamon filled the air sharing space with the joyful sound of Angels We Have Heard on High playing softly.

Julia took a deep breath as she stood in the doorway. She was preparing herself for the onslaught of questions she knew was coming. They all meant well, she knew, but that wasn’t the attention she wanted today. It didn’t really matter though. She was just glad to be released to come to the dinner in the first place. As if the doctor was going to keep her away anyway.

Julia smiled and strode in. The first to greet her was Curtis. He asked the question she dreaded, but the look of genuine concern in his eyes disarmed her. She politely let him know that she was fine and that she was glad to make it to the dinner.

With the first one inquiry out of the way, the rest felt less and less intrusive and soon she was no longer being asked. She was truly grateful for a church family that cared so much.

Julia went over to check her crockpot with wassail and stirred it once for good measure. She wafted the scent toward her and smiled. This dinner was going to be the best yet. Her hospital scare and time to reflect at home was giving her a new appreciation for reasons to be joyous in life.

Out of the corner of her eye, Julia spotted Sally May struggling to carry a couple of store-bought jugs of eggnog into the room. Julia hustled over and took one from her. “Here let me help you, Sally May.”

“Julia. I’m sorry. I tried to find time to make homemade eggnog, but I just couldn’t…”

“Don’t you worry about that, Sally May,” Julia interrupted. “I’ve always liked Hiland’s eggnog anyway. Everyone’s going to love it.”

Sally May looked at Julia for a moment, obviously unsure what to think, but then a smile grew on her face she recognized Julia’s authenticity. They carried the eggnog over together and sat out their cups before helping to prepare where they could with everyone else.

Soon people began filtering in and the sounds of clanking and preparation were replaced by the sounds of light and joyous conversation and laughter. Friends and family were hugging one another, and then the finger food began to run low.

Julia smiled and greeted people as they came in, shaking their hands and hugging them, but she kept watching the door for one person. I really hope I didn’t scare him away…

Before long, she saw Jamal step into the doorway and was washed with relief. His face wore the same awkward look of uncomfort that it had when he talked with Pastor Jerry all those days ago. He pulled his hat from his head and began ringing it in his hands, apparently nervous about meeting all the new people.

When he began walking in, he and Julia made eye contact. He looked away quickly as if he hadn’t seen her and started trying to pick his way through the crowd in another direction. 

Julia’s heart hurt. Not in a physical way, but she knew she had done this. She was ashamed of herself for the first time in as long as she could remember. After pouring a cup of wassail, she headed straight for Jamal.

The bustling crowd of people seemed to part before her, opening a way straight to her neighbor while Jamal still struggled to find a way through them elsewhere. It was almost as if this meeting was supposed to happen.

When Julia approached him, Jamal looked at her nervously. “Oh. H.. hi, Julia. I was just…”

“Would you like some wassail?” Julia asked offering the cup up to the tall man.

Jamal paused and looked down at the wassail for a moment then back to Julia. When he saw her smile, he returned the favor and it seemed as if all of his apprehension about the dinner began to melt away.

“Some of Miss Julia’s famous wassail? You’d better believe it.” He took the cup and put it straight to his lips. His eyes went wide and he pulled it away from his mouth quickly with a pained look on his face. “Sssss.”

Julia chuckled. “Sorry, I forgot to say, ‘careful it’s hot.’” The two shared in a short laugh.

Julia began to feel conflicted. There was so much to say. So much to apologize for. Jamal seemed to be accepting her now, but would he accept an apology that was decades late? And was right now, in the middle of this Christmas dinner, the right time to do it?

Before she could stop herself she was blurting out to him.”Jamal… I’m so sorry.”

Jamal raised a hand to her. “Julia we both have so much to be sorry for. Let’s just enjoy each other’s company this Christmas and leave the past in the past. Besides, I don’t need that bowl of Jack’s anymore. That dog’s been gone for more than 10 years.”

Suddenly Julia remembered what started this whole feud. She must have worn a look of shock on her face because Jamal gave her a knowing smile. 

“I… I think I know exactly where that bowl is,” Julia replied. “It’s on the top shelf in my linen closet. I had completely forgotten. I was so sick of the cats coming on my porch because you kept leaving that bowl out…”

“That you just took the bowl to solve the problem,” Jamal finished with a laugh. “It’s okay. If I hadn’t put the cat bowl on your porch when you did that, things probably wouldn’t have got so hot between us anyway.”

They both laughed at the pettiness of it all. Their conversations got much lighter as they reminisced about all of the inconsequential things that kept that fire stoked between the two houses at the end of Lyon Street. 

When the pastor announced it was time to begin eating, everyone gathered into a circle and held hands as he said Grace. When it was time to sit down to eat, Jamal and Julia sat side by side sharing in merry conversation the whole night. 

Julia looked at Jamal as he was taking a bite of mashed potatoes and just smiled as she was flooded with warmth. Who would have ever guessed this Christmas would bring so much joy that she didn’t know she needed.

May you have a Merry Christmas filled with as much joy as Julia and Jamal share.

Shawn Bain

A Christmas Story 2018 ®

December 17th, 2045

The horn sounded in the old warehouse, and the whirring of the machines ground to silence almost instantly. A handful of workers gathered quickly at the computer that they would use to clock out from their work for the day. They chatted gleefully as they waited for the last minutes to tick away so they could enjoy the freedom of the weekend.

One of the ladies turned from her conversation back toward the empty workspace. “C’mon, Sam,” she said. “We just got one more minute!”

“I’m coming, Stacy,” a deep voice answered. “Just getting the last lights.”

A gentle-looking, middle-aged man with a short, graying beard and short brown hair reached up and tugged on a string, clicking one of the last overhead lights off. He made his way toward the group, turning off the remaining lights as he went. Not going to be doing this too many more times, he thought. Just got a week or two left. The finality of it all was both intimidating and satisfying at the same time. As the last of the group clocked out, he smiled. This was the day. It was payday, and he finally had enough to get the gift he had been saving up for.

“Have a good weekend, Sam,” one of the workers called from the doorway.

“You too, Jim.”

Sam strolled up to the computer, drug the mouse across the screen, and leaned back, straining his eyes to bring the pointer into focus. Getting old sucks, he thought as he finished clocking out. Guess it’s about time to look into those glasses Jim has been on me about. Zipping his coat, he headed out of the plant and checked to make sure the door latched behind him. They didn’t want those raccoons getting in again and going through the trash cans before the cleaning crew got there to empty them.

Sam made his way across the parking lot, the fresh snow crunching beneath his steel-toed boots. He climbed in his truck, shut the door, started it, and pulled his phone out. While his truck warmed up, he eagerly clicked the bank app just to be sure the check had made it into his account. It had never failed to show up on time in his 30 years at the plant, but that didn’t stop him from checking every Friday.

Yep. It’s there. He couldn’t help but grin. The wait was over. Glancing back at the shop, he put the truck in drive. The glow of the Christmas lights from the old building reflected off of the window between them. He was excited, but man, he was going to miss that place. That time hadn’t come yet though.

Sam sighed, turned up the merry tunes on his radio, and headed toward town.

Bells jingled above the door as Sam walked into the store. He walked past the home décor products displayed about the room and took in a deep breath. Cinnamon aroma filled his nostrils. His favorite Christmas melody was playing on a piano through the speakers too. Suddenly he was reminded of Christmases past, and he smiled softly. They were warm memories, but they still reminded him of his losses, so the nostalgia held a bitter tinge.

Sam walked up to the end of the counter and looked down to the register on the other end. The store owner was in that same blue button-down shirt that was faded from years of consistent use. He was holding a figure from a porcelain nativity set over a lady’s plastic bags. Never missing an opportunity to tag on a sale, he was obviously trying to convince her of her need for this wise man. Judging by the reluctant smile on the woman’s face, the pitch wasn’t going well.

Sam grinned and shook his head. He knelt down in front of the glass case and eyed what he was after, the light from behind the glass creating a twinkle in his eyes. It took me a year, but I’m here for you tonight. He’s going to love ya. Tears welled in his eyes, and he felt his whole body warm from the inside as he imagined that little face looking into the gift box as it opened.

“Good evening, Sam.” The voice from behind the counter drew him from his thoughts. He stood to greet the store owner.

“Hey, Mitchell. You having a good night?” Sam asked.

“Yes, I am. What can I help you with?”

Sam spread his index and middle fingers, pointing them onto the glass countertop. “I’ll take those two.”

Mitchell looked down at the items then back up at Sam, eyeing him curiously. “Those? Both of them?”

“Yup.”

Mitchell stood for a moment and stared at his customer with his lips pursed and a frown on his brow, obviously trying to find words. Sam fought a smile. He didn’t expect Mitchell to understand. Preparing himself to answer patiently and kindly, he looked back at the store owner and waited.

“Sam… you know… I’m a little worried about you. I don’t doubt you’re still hurting. But I’m sure these are going to take a lot of paychecks to cover.”

“Almost a year’s worth,” Sam responded while retaining his cheerful demeanor.

“Don’t you think you’re just spending out of grief? Trust me, I would love to sell these to you, but I would feel so guilty knowing you made the purchase while your mind wasn’t right.”

Mitchell was always a little… blunt… but this conversation was starting to perturb Sam more than he expected. I told myself I’d be patient. He wanted to grit his teeth. He continued to smile instead.

“Thank you, Mitchell, but I’ve had a whole year to think about it. This is what I want to buy.”

Mitchell leaned his upper body back with his hands on the counter, tapped his foot, and twisted the corner of his mouth as he studied Sam. Shaking his head and glancing at the other customers in the store, he pulled a pen and paper out from behind the counter and scribbled something down onto it. He grabbed the items and gestured toward the register with his head.

Sam grinned and followed as Mitchell led him. Mitchell rang the items up and grabbed a bag to put them in.

“Ohp. Sorry, Mitchell.” Sam pointed toward a shelf behind the store owner’s head. “I want one of those boxes to put them in.”

Mitchell looked at the boxes behind him then back to Sam confusedly. He shook his head and pulled one down before punching some numbers into the register.

Sam picked the box up and ran a finger over its lid. It was painted with a beautiful blue and made of solid oak. Ornate silver designs wove around the box like ribbons and silver sparkles like stars adorned all sides.

Mitchell looked at the register display with widened eyes and pursed lips as if he was trying to tell the screen, ‘I told you so’. He turned it toward Sam and pointed at the total, almost looking like he half expected his customer to pass out.

Sam smiled, pulled out his phone, and handed it to Mitchell. Mitchell held it over the register, handed it back to Sam, pulled out the receipt, and marked something out on it. Sliding the receipt and the paper he had written on across the counter, he leaned in and whispered, “I’m only doing this because I’m afraid you’ll regret buying this later.”

Sam looked down and saw that ‘All Sales Final’ was marked out on the receipt. “I’ve signed this paper. You have a year to return this. Do me a favor, and just wait until next Christmas to give this to… well, whoever you’re planning to give it to. Give you some time to think.” He turned and then added as if he had almost forgotten, “and don’t tell anyone about this.”

Sam smiled again. What do you know? Mitchell is a nice guy after all. There was no way he was going to take him up on his offer, but the kindness of the act warmed his heart.

Mitchell had put the items into the box and tied a silver ribbon around it. Sam grabbed the gift and nodded to the store owner. “Merry Christmas, Mitchell.”

“Merry Christmas,” Mitchell said almost rushedly. As Sam headed out of the store, he could hear Mitchell already giving a sales pitch to another patron of his store. Sam just really didn’t know what to think about that man.

“Pass the gravy, Sam.” Levi’s request drew Sam from his thoughts for the moment. He smiled and handed the bowl to Kay for it to be passed down the length of his old table. As he watched the gravy go from one friend’s hand to another, a bittersweet feeling came over him. Sam loved these Christmas dinners with his closest friends. He knew that his friends pulled the first one together out of pity, so Sam wouldn’t be alone for the whole Christmas season, but he was glad he put his pride aside to let them set up this tradition. So many fond memories were made right there at that table in his little two-bedroom house. It was a shame that this would be the last one.

The conversation had been light, and the food was tasty. Sam looked around at his friends and sighed. The quiet, cheerful Christmas music sat in contrast to the emotional climate of the room. All of the friendly faces wore a smile, but he could feel the tension between them all. How could they understand what he had decided to do? They couldn’t. But that was okay.

“Stuck with the same ol’ red sweater, huh, Coffey?” Michelle asked.

Sam chuckled. “You know it. Sort of a lucky sweater. It’d be a shame to miss a Christmas party with it.”

Michelle smiled and rolled her eyes as she chewed the food in her mouth.

Valerie turned her electric blue eyes on him. “So, Sam. Still thinking of being a test subject with that time machine down at the Howitt Labs?”

The hushed conversations went silent and the clanking of silverware on plates was quietened as everyone waited to hear the answer to the question they all had been wanting to ask. You could always depend on Valerie to say those things everyone else was too afraid to say.

Sam smiled knowingly, sat his fork on his plate, wiped his mouth, and looked at his dear friend. “Yep. I think I am.”

“You know they haven’t really found a way to bring people back from where they send them, right?”

Sam nodded. “I do.”

“And you’re okay with that?”

“I was a little nervous at first, but I’m okay with it now.”

Levi shoveled a spoonful of mashed potatoes and gravy into his mouth before asking, “What if you can’t come back? Aren’t you going to miss this place?”

“I will miss this place. I’ll miss you all, I’ll miss my job at the old plant, I’ll miss it all.”

Valerie looked down at Levi then to the others before asking her next intrusive question: “Is it because you lost your family in the wreck? Are you going back to see them?”

Michelle nudged Valerie in the ribs, and Valerie shrugged at her and mouthed what. Sam felt his face flush. He knew they wouldn’t understand, and while Valerie had a knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, that question was too far. A slew of things he wanted to say came to mind, but he was working on being lovingly patient, so he held his tongue. He didn’t know how long his restraint would hold out, so he needed to get away.

Sam slid out from the table calmly while intentionally turning his attention from Valerie, and said, “I… gotta use the bathroom.”

As Sam walked left the kitchen, he heard someone say, “Nice one, Valerie.”

Sam tried to keep his gait steady as he strode across the living room. He didn’t want to let on how upset he was, though he guessed most of them likely knew. Closing his swelling eyes, he stepped into the restroom and locked the door behind him. He sat on the covered toilet, crossed his hands with his elbows on his knees, and stared at the wall in front of him. Shortly, the tingling feeling of anger left him as he slowly blew out a deep breath. It was a simple question, but it sent his mind down that track that he tried to avoid as much as possible.

A hot tear formed at the corner of his eye as his thoughts were flooded with memories, then the memories gave way to wishes. Wishes that he had taken a different road that night, wishes that he had just slowed down, and wishes that he had taken more time to spend with them while they were here.

Wishes that they were here with him now.

The tears were coming freely now. Sam tried desperately to sob quietly. He heard people mingling now, which meant that they had finished eating and had begun setting up games and chatting, scattered about the house. There would certainly be people outside of the restroom in his hallway soon, so he needed to dry it up.

Why is this still so hard? It’s been years. Sam sniffed as he started to think on the joyful times and reminded himself of where they are now, wiping the tears from his cheeks. This was a practice that he had gotten good at over the years when these thoughts surprised him in moments like this. I don’t have to miss them much longer.

Sam stood and checked himself in the mirror. His eyes weren’t that red. Maybe people wouldn’t be able to tell. He stopped and listened carefully when he heard some voices outside the door.

“I feel so bad for him. This time of year has got to be tough.” It was Michelle’s voice.

“I know. Not having his wife and kids is bad enough, but he lost his mom last year too.” That voice was definitely Levi.

“Yeah. Hopefully Valerie has enough sense not to ask him about that too,” Michelle said.

“You…” Levi’s voice quietened. “You don’t think he’s going back to see his mom then, do you? I mean, he didn’t say he was going back to see Sarah and the kids.”

“I don’t know, Levi. I think we need to stop worrying about it. Sam isn’t telling us for a reason. We need to drop it.”

Sam smiled. Michelle had always been such a good friend for him. Here she was sticking up for him when he wasn’t around. She was the one he would miss the most. Now he thought he would help her out in changing the awkward subject. He opened the door quickly.

“Ohp, sorry, Levi. Didn’t know you were out here,” Sam said as Levi stepped out of the way of the swinging door.

“Oh, Sam. No problem. I should have watched where I was standing.”

Sam smiled at Michelle, and she returned the favor. Then Sam headed back to the living room. His friends almost had the table cleaned off and ready for games. He noticed that Valerie was reaching up to the top of the mantle above the fireplace with her back to him. She had pushed part of his nativity set to the side to grab the gift he had gotten from Mitchell’s store. No doubt to be nosey and see what he bought, betting perhaps that it held a clue to her question.

“Want me to change the song, Valerie?” Sam’s question made his friend turn around quickly with her hands behind her back, a guilty expression on her face. “I have to change it from my phone, you know. The speaker doesn’t have any controls,” Sam said pointing to his phone screen.

“Oh, yeah. I just don’t like Mariah Carey,” Valerie said. Sam smiled at her. Of course, he knew it was a lie, but she had taken the ‘out’ he had given her. He pushed the button on the side, lighting his face up as the screen turned on, and hit the skip.

“Sorry. It’s just a favorite classic my parents used to listen to,” Sam said, sliding his phone back into his pocket.

“It’s okay, I should have asked anyway.”

A voice from the kitchen broke the awkwardness. “Guys, the table’s ready. Who’s ready for some Monopoly?”

Sam nodded toward the kitchen. “After you.” He was being cordial, but he was definitely not going to be stupid. As soon as he turned his back, he knew Valerie would be right back on the mantle.

Valerie smiled and headed into the kitchen. Sam stepped back and watched everyone else walk past as they went to the table.

Michelle smiled and winked at Sam as she walked past. “Ready to give me all those railroads, Coffey?”

“In your dreams, Pearcey.”

Sam followed Michelle in and joined the rest. The night went on without another hitch. There was laughter, games, joy, and virgin eggnog for everyone. Lots and lots of eggnog.

Sam stood petrified in front of the tall glass doors staring up at the sign with his bow-tied box in hand. The sign read “Howitt Labs.” Well, it would have read that way if the i and b hadn’t burnt out. All this time he hadn’t second-guessed himself, and now, standing at the doors to the labs on Christmas Eve, he wondered if he was being a little crazy.

Sam blew out a breath, the hot air turning to vapor as it passed through his cracked lips and into the snow-dusted air. He looked down at the gift in his hands as thoughts raced through his mind. The silver ribbon was laden with blue snowflakes. Would it even be snowing there, he wondered? Almost giving into the urge to turn around and never return, he quickly jerked the bow from the package and peeked back inside.

With a smile, Sam closed his eyes and nodded, reassured of his decision. He looked back up at the doors and marched inside with confidence.

The room was plain white, rectangular, and sparsely decorated. Clicking from an analog clock overhead echoed about the room. A few chairs lined the far wall and a window sat in a cutout on the right. When Sam walked up to the window, half of it slid to the side and a receptionist greeted him.

“Can I help you?”

“Yeah, I’m Sam. I’m here for the experiment. I’m a little early,” he said chuckling with a hint of nervous shaking on his voice. No matter how sure he was, experimental time travel was still a little unnerving.

The receptionist typed on her computer for a moment then looked back at him with a smile. “Mr. Coffey. Go ahead right through the doors just to the left here, take a right where the hallway tees, and have a seat in the waiting area. Dr. Gonzalez will be right with you.”

Sam smiled. “Thank you.” He tucked the gift under his arm, pushed the door open, and followed the instructions. The waiting area looked much like the front room except it had a vending machine that must have been from the 2020s. A credit card slot? Sam quirked a brow and chuckled.

Before he could sit down, a Hispanic man in a lab coat stepped around the corner with a smile on his face. “Mr. Coffey?”

Sam nodded and shook his hand. “Call me Sam.”

“Sam. Nice to meet you. The team is eager to get the experiment underway. If you’re ready, we can go on back now.”

Sam’s heart sank a bit. He didn’t have any hesitations, but things were moving much quicker than he was prepared for. “Um. Yeah. I’m ready if you are.”

“Excellent. Follow me.”

They turned a corner and the walls went from white plaster to concrete, building on Sam’s anxiety. This is what a lab is supposed to look like. It’ll all be okay.

Dr. Gonzalez opened a door at the end of the hallway and held the door back, gesturing for Sam to go in. When Sam stepped inside, a group of scientists turned from their conversation with beaming smiles on their faces. Sam smiled back awkwardly.

“Don’t worry,” Dr. Gonzalez said, patting Sam on the back as he walked by. “They’re just excited to give the new adjustments a try. Now, you did sign the waver, correct? You know this may be a one-way trip?”

Sam nodded. “Yeah, Doc. We’re all squared away.”

“Great. Your clothes are right over there. Go ahead and get changed in that room. We’ll wait right here.”

Sam picked up a pile of clothes from the chair beside the door, sat his gift down, stepped into the room, and changed quickly. He stepped out and looked at his new outfit to make sure all was in order. The plain brown robes and white turban from that Christmas play 10 years ago still fit, even if they were a little snug.

“Perfect,” Dr. Gonzalez remarked. “You can step right in.”

The scientists stepped aside, revealing a cylindrical tube with a door handle on the front. It was a pale steel color with a narrow window on the front. Practically nothing about it gave any indication that it was a time machine besides the small dial with the analog number display and the word “years” in white stickers beside it.

The walk across the small room felt like an eternity. Clopping from his boots echoed, and Sam looked between the excited faces about him as he stepped into the machine. He pulled his gift to his chest and took a deep breath as he closed his eyes.

As his back touched the cold, hard steel, Sam thought about his mom, then he thought about his wife, his son, and his daughter, then he thought on his destination. That thought was helping to calm his soul.

A muffled conversation outside the door caught Sam’s attention, and he looked through the glass window. Dr. Gonzalez appeared to be giving some sort of instructions. Sam put his hand to his ear, and Dr. Gonzalez crossed his arms with an expectant look on his face. Sam acted in kind. The scientist gave his subject a thumbs up and stepped out of view of the window.

As Dr. Gonzalez stepped away, Sam caught a reassuring sight. A small Christmas tree sat on a table in the corner with twinkling lights and an angel with its arms spread wide on top. He smiled, leaned his head back, and closed his eyes again.

The whirring of the machine didn’t faze the once-anxious man. He waited patiently with a smile and hummed an ancient Christmas melody, “Angels We Have Heard on High,” as he slowly drifted into sleep.

The sudden rush of sand spreading around his back brought Sam out of his slumber. He sat up and looked around dazed for a moment. Did it work? He wasn’t in the lab anymore, but was he there?

Sam stood and wiped sand from his lap. It definitely looks like it worked. He shook his head to fight the wave of nausea that came over him. Welp, they told me I’d get sick. Standing tall with his hands on top of his head as he’d been instructed, he took a deep breath. In a moment, the feeling passed. Okay, I’m good.

A brilliant light caught Sam’s attention, and he turned with his hand over his brow to get a better look at it. With a smile, he confirmed his guess: “A star.”

Sam’s eyes went wide as he had a thought and started patting himself erratically. “The gift. Where is it?” He fell to his knees and swiped his hands through the sand sending grains showering in all directions. A glimmer a few feet away caught his attention and he rushed over on his knees, pulling the object from the silt. He sat back, put his hand on his chest and gave a sigh of relief. Quickly checking to make sure it was still in the box, he smiled, clasped it closed, and looked back toward the star.

“It’s time.”

Sam stood and began marching toward his destination. The walk through the sand and over the dunes was more tedious than he had anticipated. Trekking in the night gave him some time to think and build his excitement. For about a mile he plodded, each step closer invigorating his spirit. He couldn’t wait to see him.

The tired, excited man stepped over another dune and stopped when his destination was in sight, the star casting a bright light on his gleeful face. He was nervous, thrilled, exhausted, and unsure what else he felt. Unable to wait anymore, he trudged the last few yards and peaked around the wall.

Inside, a man and woman in robes like he was wearing sat with animals and hay all about them. Starlight shone through the separated boards of the ceiling giving the stable a pure-white glow. The man looked at Sam inquisitively while the woman looked wistfully at the child with a dreamy smile on her face. Contemplation and gratefulness were in her eyes. When the woman turned her gaze on Sam, she gave an inviting smile and nod.

Sam stepped around the corner and smiled at her. He wasn’t sure what to say. What could he say? Then he had a warm feeling of peace come over him as the Hebrew phrase he knew came to mind. Turning to the woman, he said, “Hallelujah.”

The woman’s smile deepened, and she looked back to the child. Sam looked at her baby as well, and he became awestruck.

A babe laid swaddled in a feeding trough with animals laid all about him. Sam stepped forward with tears in his eyes as he looked upon him.

“My Lord.”

The child was making goos and coos looking about at the world as any other child would. Sam was quite shocked honestly. He didn’t know what he expected the Christ child to look like, but somehow what he saw was both more glorious and more humble at the same time. He appeared as a normal baby. No rays of light surrounding him, angels singing choruses, or kings bowing down to him. He supposed all of that was taking place in Heaven at the moment.

When the baby’s eyes met Sam’s, he felt everything within him tremble. Though the babe appeared as any other, there was a quiet wisdom, passionate love, and a fierce fire in his eyes. A tear streaked down Sam’s cheek as he knelt next to Jesus. His hands trembled as he opened his gift, showing it to his Redeemer.

“It isn’t much, my King.” Sam pulled two small items from the box. He sat a gold lamb and a gold lion next to the baby in the manger amongst the hay. Jesus gave Sam a toothless smile. For a man that had lost so much, he could not complain. Every thought, worry, fear, and sorrowful memory melted away. He had now seen everything. He had seen the best Christmas of all: The first Christmas.

May your Christmas season be bright, merry, and filled with the love of those you hold dear.

Merry Christmas!

shawn_bain_logo

Kirrin: The Pact of the Blade®

Elqanah – 2nd Era
Pre-Age of the Gemkith

Kirrin Belledair’s eyes batted as he felt his consciousness begin to wane. The ritual was drawing more from him than he had anticipated. It didn’t matter, he was going to see it through.

Purple energy crackled from his hand as it danced in bolts across his steel sword as it lay on the pedestal. The dark light gave an ominous glow to his determined countenance. A dark, hollowing feeling washed over him forcing him to redouble his concentration. He bared his clenched teeth as a bead of cold sweat ran down the side of his face.

Just as Kirrin was about to give in to his failing resolve, the runes that ran up both sides of the blade filled with a purple light. He barked a laugh in excitement. Almost there, he thought. I can hold out for a few more minutes.

A drop of blood ran from the mage’s nose and down his lip. He let go of the sword long enough to wipe it away with his sleeve as he kept his focus on transferring the life force into the sword with his other hand. This was his last chance. He was failing at the traditional approach to magic, and he was certainly no sword master. If he was going to get that insufferable Sebastian, he needed something extra. This was it. This had to be it. Suddenly the blade turned a dull black and an unearthly moan echoed in the small, dark chamber. Finally, Kirrin could stop casting the spell. He staggered backward and smiled as he said “Hukvah Shly.” At his command, the lights swirling about the sword immediately sank into the blade as if being sealed to it. With the words spoken, he collapsed against the wall as darkness overtook him.

Kirrin….” A soft, raspy voice called to the mage at the edge of his consciousness. Kirrin fought to awaken, but he was still too frail. “Kirrin, wake up…” There was a shuffling of footsteps, and Kirrin felt himself being lifted by two strong arms. He was too weak and dazed to care. Moments passed and he felt his head bob from his carrier’s steps.

Soon, Kirrin felt the familiar softness of his bed and the warm rays of sunlight as he was laid down. “Thank you. I will stay with him for a time,” the voice said. Kirrin fought once more to force his eyes open and finally let himself slip back into slumber.

When Kirrin finally awoke, he opened his eyes hesitantly. The bright glare of the sun through his window stung worse than he could ever remember. He closed them for a few more moments in an effort to let them adjust. Strangely, in that moment he felt something new internally. Something about him had changed that he couldn’t put his finger on. He felt somehow less than his former self; he felt… emptier. His brow furled as he thought, If that is the price, so be it.

Finally braving the sting of the sun, Kirrin opened his eyes once more. The room swirled for a moment and finally started to settle in recognizable patterns. He blinked once, twice, thrice, then shifted his gaze about the room. A blurry figure came into focus. It was an old man with a long beard in worn blue robes that sat in a chair looking out of the four windows that reached to the ceiling and folded into half of an octagon.

Great. The young mage sat holding himself up with his arms behind him. He looked down at his bare, well-defined torso. Well apparently they took my robes. Kirrin searched his room from where he was and stopped his gaze on the man with a knowing look. “Where’s my sword?”

“Somewhere that you will not find it,” the man replied, never shifting his gaze from the scenery outside. “When I was a young man, I desperately wanted to be a legendary wizard. I studied hard, practiced often, and stayed awake long into many nights. My instructor was a great wizard, and an astounding teacher. He was a strong speaker and a kind critic, unless strict discipline was necessary.

“I often times found myself at odds with this man. I thought I knew all he had to teach me, as absurd as that sounds. But he was patient with me. I imagine that was very trying for him. When I came across the teachings of Sandre, I all but abandoned his classes and training. Sandre thought that one could forgo the unpleasantries of training, studying, and practice by skipping to graduate studies and picking up the rest by context. Of course, there is a reason you do not hear the name of Sandre spoken amongst the great scholars of magic. His lessons failed demonstrably. And I was set back in my studies as a result of my time with his works.”

The man turned his gaze to Kirrin with a look of saddened disappointment in his eyes. “What you have done is reprehensible, Kirrin. You have given up a part of yourself in the name of expedition, and you will suffer the rest of your life for it.”

Kirrin’s face flushed as proud anger swelled in his chest. What made this old fool think he knew what he had been through or what hardships a Viscount had to endure? “Touching story, Raoulin, but don’t pretend to know what’s best for me. The Belledair name is at stake here.”

Hurt came to Raoulin’s eyes as he looked on at his pupil. It was a look Kirrin had seen many times before, and each time he saw it, the demeanor seemed to grow a little softer. The proud student’s outbursts appeared to be becoming more expected by his tutor. “That is no excuse, Kirrin. In time you could…”

“I don’t have time! Don’t you get that? Besides, I suck at magic. You and I both know that. I had to do something, or I would never be as good as I need to be.”

“So be it. Time has shown that you will refuse any advice I offer, so be on your way. Do battle with the Kallifaxes over some petty land disagreements to show the world that you are stronger than they are. You will find yourself emptier in the end for it anyhow.”

As Raoulin turned his gaze back to the beautiful morning outside, Kirrin stood from his bed, slid on his mithril chain mail and white tunic over it, then threw on his black, leather long coat. He ran his hand down the coat’s tough exterior, outlining the elaborate designs along its length before connecting each clasp with care over his torso. One of the benefits of being wealthy was being able to afford armor that was as stylish as it was effective.

Kirrin rubbed his short, blonde hair angrily. He doesn’t get it. It just takes one man in the family being lax for the name to be destroyed. I’m going to make darn sure it isn’t me.

 Hukvah Shly.” As Kirrin spoke the words, a sword-shaped purple light appeared in his hand. The light slowly faded into his black weapon.

’My power’ in the old tongue. How appropriate,” Raoulin commented snidely.

Kirrin looked over his shoulder and curled his lip up in defiance before sliding the blade into its sheath and storming out of the room. The ritual was nearly complete. The blade just needed to take a life, and Kirrin had the perfect victim in mind.

As the door slammed behind him, a tear ran down Raoulin’s face. He stared out of the window for some time, an apologetic look in his eye as if she were sitting outside looking back at him.

Kirrin followed the giant, green orcs down the dark hallway stoically. A pungent odor hung about the cavern so heavily that he felt he was trudging through a light layer of muck and grime in the air. The mage closed his eyes momentarily to gather his senses once more. He knew this was going to be a dangerous and disgusting affair, so he steeled his resolve with that fact in mind.

One of the orcs ahead held up his blade as he chatted with the other guard. “Tur rach da schoor ra.” As the other monster laughed, his hunched over form bounced up and down causing the light from his torch to flicker on the walls.

Kirrin narrowed his eyes at them. He wanted to know what they were saying, but he would have to wait. Who knew how long the exchange before him would take? Taking in the orc’s massive size, Kirrin had the sudden urge to flee. His legs grew heavy and his head light. With a shake of his head, he tried to remember every time Sebastian Hallifax had come to visit. He forced himself to remember.

Kirrin’s mind went back to every instance that conniving son of a marquess would visit to “celebrate” expansion of his family’s land. In reality Sebastian was there to rub it in the faces of the Belledair Family as their share of the kingdom continued to wane. Kirrin’s parents played the role of nobility well, but Kirrin wasn’t so keen on the vanity. His parents would host, wine, and dine the Hallifaxes knowing well they were being mocked but swallowing their pride to protect their family from attack. Kirrin had to choose not to attend those banquets. Two outbursts were too many.

Kirrin took a deep breath, his ambition steeled once more. Never again.

The guards stopped at a tall archway at the end of the tunnel and stepped to the side. Kirrin walked into a huge cavern with orcs strewn about eating, drinking, and engaging in typical revelry. Bones like a ribcage from whatever monster they slew ran from the floor to the ceiling of both sides of the room, and the center led up to a flight of stairs with a throne at the top. An old orc with several rings in the two large teeth that protruded from his large under bite sat back lazily gnawing on a half-eaten leg of poultry with two scantily-clad female orcs chained to his seat. When he noticed Kirrin, he stood quickly and howled boisterously.

Kirrin covered his ears as the room joined him in howling. He genuinely feared the roof would cave in on them, the sound reverberating and causing the cavern to tremor visibly.

After a moment, the orc Kirrin presumed to be the chief held up his hand and the howling stopped. Every yellowed eye in the room fixated on the pink fleshling in their midst.

Kirrin’s heart raced, but he stood with confidence knowing that weakness would not earn him what he came here for. Any crack in his façade, and his leg bone could be the next one the chief was gnawing on. He quietly mouthed the words to his spell. His ears softly grew more jagged and the tip came into a point. When his tongue grew fat and rutted in his mouth, he held back a gag.

Kur ra ruk cuk cha. Sor re voo lei nah,” the chieftain began. Though the language was Orcish, Kirrin understood him clearly, his spell taking effect just in time. He heard, “Tiny pink one. Why have you chosen to enter the Orc Kingdom to die?

The room erupted in what sounded like apes whooping and hollering. Kirrin opened his mouth to speak, and the room feel silent. He silently prayed his spell would work as the tome had said. “Coor roh tay. Keer ree Vookra nawk shey.” (He said, “I have come from far away. I wanted to see the Vookra tribe of legend.”)

The chieftain ran his hand down the long strip of hair that ran from his lip to the bottom of his chin and beyond. “Jeerie coonie voo loo nah. Kume Vookra shu too meh loo.” (“It was foolish to come so far to die. Why do you want to see the legendary Vookra anyway?”)

Shere rat Vookra ah vuhl rhoop myoo tah. Boo lah koo vere ree!” (“To challenge your champion for the Vookra’s allegiance. In a fight to the death!”)

The chieftain’s eyes went wide and he beat his chest as the orcs let out a wail then began dancing and chanting a tribal melody. They threw bones in the air and slapped the ground, some even slugging their brethren if they were close enough. Drool ran from their lips as freely as if they were staring at a freshly cooked meal.

The chieftain raised his hand and stopped the chaos in an instant. He looked around the room with his eyes narrowed. Closing one eye and slipping his tongue into his nose in concentration, his gaze stopped on an orc. Silently he raised a finger and singled his target out.

An unimposing minion stepped through the crowd. He was smaller than all of the other orcs, even smaller than Kirrin. With his skinny arms and boney joints, he couldn’t have weighed much more than one hundred pounds. He sauntered over to a table with an assortment of bone and wooden weapons testing them contemplatively. When he stopped at a massive jawbone with teeth that had been artificially serrated, Kirrin quirked a brow in incredulity. The orc attempted to lift it with a heavy grunt and veins protruding from his neck.

The orc turned and smiled knowingly at Kirrin when he saw the human’s disbelief. Walking over to his master, the monster bowed before him. The chieftain ran his hand over the smaller one’s wiry hair and pulled an upside-down skull from a bubbling vat next to him. Tugging at a tuft of hair, the master pulled the tiny orc’s head back and poured the liquid into his mouth.

The orcs about the room began chanting and swaying back and forth as the little one sat still for a moment. When he fell to the floor, the room quieted once more. He convulsed for a moment, his limbs bouncing about wildly, before jumping to his feet and screeching an unearthly sound causing the room to whoop and holler again. Everything about the small orc’s demeanor changed. His skin turned darker, his back expanded, his bones stuck out further, and most especially there was a new crazed, murderous look in his eyes. He ran erratically back the table and lifted the jawbone with ease.

Kyyaaahh!

Kirrin gulped hard and his eyes went wide as he was beginning to second guess his plan.

The chieftain lifted his tribal scepter into the air and shouted, “Vere ree!” (“To the death!”)

At the proclamation, the smaller orc charged Kirrin wildly with speed that surpassed anything he had ever seen. Kirrin leapt to the side and avoided an overhead chop that sank the teeth of the jawbone into the dirt where he was standing. As the orc jerked the weapon free, a bolt of arcane energy slammed into him, setting him off balance. The crazed monster shouted thrice, each utterance louder and more maniacal than the last, then rushed toward his opponent.

Kirrin took a deep breath, widened his stance, and mouthed another quick spell. Just as the orc’s weapon bore down on him, a translucent bubble appeared and took the impact, electrified shards scattering into the air around them. The spell did little to deter the mindless orc. He slammed his weapon down furiously crushing teeth from the jawbone and cracking the shield in the process.

As the weapon broke through the shield, Kirrin used the opportunity to reverse the momentum of the swing. He thrust his arms forward on either side of the weapon and magically sent it flying across the room.

The ravenous orc bit down into Kirrin’s arm and twisted frantically. “Arrgh!” Kirrin cried out as he wracked his brain for a plan quickly. He knew trying to pull free now might leave him with one less limb, but he had little time to think of much else. He put his hands together on the other side of the orc’s head, closed his eyes as he turned his head. A blinding light blasted into the room.

The dazed orc stepped back and held his head giving Kirrin time to look at his wound. Quickly placing his hand over the bite marks and clenching his teeth in preparation of the searing pain, he sent a small flame into the marks to cauterize the wound and stem the bleeding. Pain washed over him, nauseating him and making him nearly pass out. He shook the feeling quickly knowing any short lapse in cognition could spell a gruesome death. Kirrin needed this to work. His family’s legacy depended on it.

With steeled resolve, Kirrin looked back at the orc that was quickly regaining his composure as well. “Hukvah Shly,” he said, drawing an audible gasp as his sword returned to his hand. The orc that had been holding it turned a dumbfounded look to his hand.

I’m going to end this now. I have to.

The one orc that was incapable of being phased by Kirrin’s trick, his demented opponent, was bearing in on him again, massive jawbone in hand once more. A waver in the small orc’s arm and a bloodshot look of exhaustion in its eyes drew Kirrin’s attention. The potion must be wearing off… or he’s reaching his physical limits. Either scenario played well into the mage’s favor. Even with the laceration in his arm, he could use this to his advantage.

Kirrin smiled.

When the orc swung the now-mostly-blunt weapon around his side, Kirrin brought his sword up for the parry. “Lahadof!” he shouted. The jawbone met the sword, and the bone disintegrated into shards of light and ebbed out of existence.

Unfazed by the display, the orc leapt toward Kirrin, but the mage was ready. Kirrin slid his sword between the monster’s ribs. An energy coursed over the orc’s body as he stared absently at the mage before the monster went limp. Kirrin threw the body to the dirt beside him, a wave of relief and doubt washing over him.

The orcs of the room whooped and hollered, and Kirrin casually slipped his blade back into its sheath. His movements were cool, but his heart was racing. He only had to keep up the ploy a little longer. The chief needed to see him as a strong warrior and ally.

Kirrin turned to the chieftain, fought the swimming feeling in his mind as the room quietened, and reenacted his translation spell. “Koo roo kai. Sei fye nai.” (“I have bested your best. Swear your allegiance to me.”)

The chieftain regarded Kirrin closely for a moment, rubbing the elongated tuft of hair on his chin. Deafening silence pervaded the room as every orcs’ eyes were glued on their leader. Finally, he gestured to a female warrior to his side and she handed him a horn with an exaggerated curve. He threw it into the dirt at Kirrin’s feet.

Vookrani valishe doo. Fye shee ree voyanah.” (The Vookra honor their words. You have our allegiance.) The chieftain pointed to the horn. “Jay rah pah voo Nasutogon. Blei nah shjee nah.” (“That is the horn of the mighty Nasutogon. Blow it when you seek our aid.

Kirrin picked up the horn and tied it to his belt. He hit his chest as he looked at the chieftain in respect, and the chieftain acted in kind. The mage turned and walked out of the cave triumphant. He would need to return home to tend to his wounds. Pieces were falling into place, just as they needed to. The Hallifax’s day was coming.

 

Shozar: A Position of Prestige – A D&D Origin Story ®

The cold, steel hilt of the fighter’s sword stung the Dragonborn’s face as it knocked him to the ground. Pages from the victim’s book scattered as he fell to his back.

“Puny Shozar,” the towering brute taunted. “Pick up a sword like a real Dragonborn, you suorra (the Draconic word for baby).” He looked around at his chuckling accomplices and grinned as his massive ego was stoked like like the billows on a forge.

Rubbing the sore spot on his copper-scaled face, the scholar shot an angry glare at his attacker. “Scoff at knowledge then, Versvesh. Ignorance suits you.”

The crowd’s laughing died away as the red lizardman scowled at Shozar. With a whack from the flat of his sword, Versvesh drew a line of blood from the sitting sage’s face and the laughing erupted once more. Shozar’s scowl returned as he met Versvesh’s gaze, but kept his mouth shut as the sting of the weapon resonated the lesson that came from taunting someone so much larger than himself.

“Go ahead, librarian. Shout at me. Call for your master so he can punish me for beating up his weak little helper. They aren’t going to hear you out here on the road, so far from your precious library.” Versvesh knelt close to Shozar’s face, the heat from his fiery dragon breath threatening the smaller Dragonborn. “Besides, if they do hear of this little talk, our next one won’t be so pretty.”

Shozar’s eyes narrowed as he met Versvesh’s glare. With another laugh, the fighter stood and kicked his prey knocking him prone. He strode away toward the city, the long tendrils on the back of his head falling over the shoulder pad of his armor as he turned about. His friends in tow, the bully called out behind him, “Goodbye, little one. We’ll be seeing you again the next time you venture out of the city.” His final statement was as much a threat as a promise.

The defeated Shozar casually stood and dusted off his navy-colored, silky robes. He was used to this type of behavior. Worse than that, he had even begun to expect it anytime he ventured outside the walls of the city. It was common in his tribe’s culture for those compelled by knowledge to be picked on and disparaged by stronger members. After all, a weak Dragonborn would cast an unwanted image on the Vokrii and fighters like Versvesh weren’t about to let that happen.

“Versvesh again?” A familiar voice caused Shozar to look over his shoulder in start.

“Ah, Quogan. Yes, it was the typical knuckle-dragger this time.”

“When are you going to learn to limit your trips to library outings?”

Shozar shook his head and grinned. “Free time is not granted on those field trips. If I am to gain any knowledge from outside the Vokrii walls, it must be done independent of the library.”

Quogan looked around sarcastically. “What is there to learn? We inhabit the entire island.”

“That thinking is what is going to give me the advantage in our competition for the library Maekrix.”

“I don’t believe there is much of a competition, Shozar. The Master has already expressed a strong interest in you.”

Shozar spread his hands in the air as if he were opening a banner. “Vokrii Shozar the Knowledge Seeker,” Shozar said with a smile.

“Dream all you want, friend, but we’ll be the ones giving you the title. You may just as well end up Vokrii Shozar the Book Stacker.”

The two shared a laugh as they began making their way back toward the city. Their conversation was light but meaningful as they worked through the details of the days to come. The quest for knowledge is not accomplished in a day, and a scholar’s planning and duties are perpetual. There are tomes that need read, books that need written, and mysteries that need to be unraveled.

Shozar stared reverently through the glass ceiling from inside the offices of the Vokrii Library, the bright moonlight casting his shadow on the still marble floor. The architecture of the tribe was something many of its inhabitants marveled at and rightly took pride in. White, squared walls were accented with gray stone, and their roof corners were adorned with ivory shaped like the teeth of the creatures of their lineage: Dragons. The glass ceiling to these offices came from the hexagonal walls to a point at the center where a majestic sculpture of a dragon sat.

Shozar looked on at the model for that sculpture now. Resting atop the mountain on which the library sat was the great dragon, Vokraxx, the stars in the night sky his backdrop. His giant white abdomen rose and descended as the mighty creature carried on its millennial slumber. The white hue of its skin gave those fortunate enough to gaze on it a false impression of the creature. Though its cousins of the same color were notorious for the chaos and destruction they wrought, Vokraxx favored justice and order.

I am charged with a great responsibility, Shozar thought as he watched Vokraxx sleep. The Vokrii bloodline could be traced back to the dragon, who established the tribe to watch over its slumber with a legendary dragonborn of the same color. Its library contained many secrets entrusted by the ancient being to the Order of Vokrii Scholars, to which Shozar belonged. This was a task that weighed heavily on the Dragonborn’s shoulders.

After many moments of wonder, Shozar finally returned to the task at hand. His shadow danced on the wall outside of the domed office, cast by the dim candlelight from the sconces on the walls. The only sound in the silent room, the soft shuffle of his padded footsteps mixed with the intermittent tapping of claws hitting the hard tile.

I’ve perused all of the tomes on Drow, Shozar thought as he scanned a bookshelf with his hands clasped behind his back. Perhaps I should find something that has not been read for some time.  After studying the room for a moment, his eyes fixated on the only corner that received no light. He smiled as he grabbed a candle from the candelabra next to him and made his way into the corner.

The scholar tapped his chin as he looked over the unfamiliar titles. Shozar didn’t excite for much, but the prospect of finding a book that Quogan hadn’t read was making his nerves tingle. “The Behaviors and Gestation of Slaadi?” he said with a raised brow as came across a title of interest. With a grin he pulled the work from its shelf. As he turned to walk away and opened the book, he heard the tinking sound of an object falling next to him. Holding the candle out, he saw an odd crystalline object fastened to a leather necklace.

Odd. Shozar picked up the object and held it toward the sky to get a better look at it. A faint purplish glow shown across his face as he inspected it. At first he thought it an illusion, but after losing the glow when he pulled it into a shadow, he understood that it wasn’t. What an interesting trinket. I must investigate its purpose when the time is available. He slid the necklace on, slid it into his robes, and found a table to study his newfound tome.

The hours ticked by in silence as the Dragonborn sat alone reading on the frog race from another realm. Many facts from the book shocked and amazed him. Magic gems that control their minds… Astounding. After reaching the chapter on their gestation, and particularly how they emerge from their host as infants, Shozar became squeamish and paused from his studies. He shuffled silently to his gazing spot in the moonlight of the domed ceiling to digest the wealth of information he had just attained.

A smile spread across his face once more as he looked on at Vokraxx. He knew the knowledge on the curious race would likely never serve for more than just knowledge that he possessed over Quogan, but he couldn’t help but feel a little accomplished in learning it. As his mind wandered through the information and his gaze absently sat on the sleeping dragon, a movement in the distance snatched his attention.

“Wha.. wha… V… Vokraxx?!” The scholar could hardly find the words as he saw the dragon’s head shifting slightly. He had remained unmoving as long as Shozar had remembered, and now he was present for the dragon’s changing of positions. But there was something more to this event. Something he would never have imagined in his wildest dreams.

The dragon’s giant blue eye slid from behind its lid and fixated on the city. His gaze wasn’t shifting, it wasn’t searching, it had locked on its target; it locked on Shozar! The quiet scholar was thrown into a fit of convulsions as the dragon stared on at him. He tried to scream, but no sound would find his lips. After what felt like an eternity, he was thrown to the ground.

Shozar laid still for quite some time after the shocking event. He wasn’t sure what had happened, all he knew was that he felt as if his blood had turned to ice. No. It was more than that. It was as if an icy spirit had awakened inside of him. When his thoughts finally returned to him, he sat up and looked at his palms as if he could see what had happened splayed across them.

“What was that?” was all the sage could find to say. He finally shifted his gaze back to Vokraxx who had returned to his slumber. After closing his gaping maw for the first time since the encounter, Shozar looked back at his hands and began rolling them over. Then he saw something he didn’t expect: A single white scale stood out against the copper background on his wrist. All he could manage was a look of confusion. No thoughts; no words.

At the sudden sound of footsteps in the stairwell, he turned his frightened gaze on the door. After running the rare tome back to its spot, he slid his hands into the large sleeves of his robe and quickly rushed past the stunned patrons of the library. He feared what others might think if they discovered his oddity. Not knowing how to process the events of the day, he returned to his room, locked the door, and turned in for the day. His duties would have to wait.

Days had passed and Shozar had managed to stay away from those who knew him, keeping his studies to the night while others slept. He knew he couldn’t hide forever, but right now that didn’t matter. The solitude he had, however temporary, was providing him comfort while he sorted this out.

The scholar bent down and studied a rare flower as he jotted notes in his book alongside his sketch of the plant. “Wormflower. Its enticing scent would make a fine perfume, but if collected correctly, could create a potent poison.” He smiled at the completion of the record before clapping the book closed. The joyful expression quickly turned sour as the sight of the back of his hand reminded him of the reason for his self-exile. He knew he needed to look into the cause of the spreading pigmentation of his scales, but if he was honest with himself, he would say he feared the results the investigation may bring.

“Well, look who we have here.” Shozar shoved his hand into his sleeve as he heard the familiar voice behind him. “If it isn’t the suorra out of the city on his own again.”

“Versvesh,” the scholar said through gritted teeth.

“You say that like you didn’t miss me, Shozar. Don’t go hurting my feelings now.”

Shozar’s demeanor remained challenging, but his thoughts went into a panic. Should he run or would that make things worse? The last Vokrii he wanted to discover his problem was Versvesh. If he found out the whole tribe would know before the days end, if the sage lived to care about it. Any excuse the fighter could use to add fuel to his tormenting, he would.

Shozar ran a claw down the healing mark on his cheek from their last encounter to use the reminder to give him courage. He wouldn’t run. Not this time.

This time he would fight.

Seeing his target’s expression shift to anger and his hands double into fists, Versvesh cried out in laughter. “What are you going to do, librarian? Hit me?” His laughter stopped abruptly as he drew his sword from its scabbard. “C’mon then.”

As Shozar fought his fear and drew back to launch a punch, a sharp, fiery object burst through the front of Versvesh’s chest. The two Dragonborn looked at each other in shock before the fighter fell to the ground lifeless. As his body dropped, the attacker came into view. A small, flying fire demon laughed wickedly. Its visage with sharp features, a long nose, orange skin, and jagged teeth played on the scholar’s fear.

Shozar turned and ran with all of his might, and the fire mephit gave chase. The large-leafed plants rustled as the dragonborn flew by, shadows from the overhead leaves rushing over his body. Shozar felt his heart racing, terror gripping his every thought. If this creature could put down the hulking Versvesh, a scholar like him stood little chance.

Shozar looked back over his shoulder to catch a glimpse of his pursuer as he emerged from the tall foliage. He slid to a stop and teetered as he felt the ground beneath him come to a point. The terror gripping him magnified as he looked back ahead and noticed he was standing on the edge of a cliff. Sharp rocks speckled the shore below, waves washing over them with intensity.

The scholar looked back just in time to see the mephit emerge from the forest. It looked about and locked in on Shozar with an evil grin. As it flew toward him, he threw out his palm and covered his face with his other sleeve. A cold sensation shot through him, starting at his heart and extending out past his hand.

Kssh!

 Shozar shivered in fear for a moment before realizing he hadn’t been attacked. He worked up the courage and looked over his arm with one eye closed and his teeth clenched. Scattered about the ground were frozen shards with orange cores. It became immediately obvious that something had frozen his attacker. What happened?

First looking over the corpse then the surrounding area, Shozar was filled with curiosity. He poked at an icy chunk of flesh. Did I do this? That was when he noticed his hand. The spread of his white hue had exacerbated dramatically. His whole hand was now white, front and back, and his claws had turned a sapphire blue. Shozar’s eyes went wide, and he quickly covered it back up.

“I must visit Master Aak,” Shozar said as he scooped up a frozen piece of demon and rushed back toward the city. He wanted desperately to keep his secret, but too much was at stake now. Knowledge from an elder was essential, and that meant he would need to share his dilemma to discern what exactly the dilemma was.

The scholar panted as he pressed on. He pulled his sleeve back and looked down at his arm while keeping his pace and blanched. Snow white pigmentation crept up his arm at a visibly accelerated rate. Shozar’s veins were freezing, and he couldn’t tell the effect was a result of his shock, a figment of his imagination, or a side effect of this disease… or whatever it was. He picked up his pace in desperation.

A startling scream from inside the town walls ahead made Shozar slide to a halt. What could possibly be happening now? He snuck up to one of the giant, wooden gates that led into the city, once an impressive door with an ornate depiction of Vokraxx embossed onto it in silver, it was now hanging on its hinges. He peaked around into the town and his jaw dropped as he felt his heart sink further.

Dozens of demons just like the one he had just slain were flying about attacking villagers and causing havoc. Shozar wondered for a moment how the well-protected Vokrii could be struggling so hard against something he killed so quickly. As one of the soldiers ran past, he could quickly see why. A giant, red-scaled brute with a massive blade was swinging wildly as one of the mephits buzzed around him effortlessly, an occasional flame blast striking out at the dragonborn.

They’re nearly impossible to hit. The scholar looked over in time to see a handful of the creatures gather together, a young and eager warrior gazing at them from behind some toppled barrels ready to strike. The dragonborn leapt from his hiding spot and took in a deep breath. He pursed his lips and exhaled a fountain of flame, consuming the creatures entirely. The warrior stood back with his chest stuck out in victory, but he quickly deflated when the flames dissipated and all of the mephits remained unharmed.

The demons snickered at him and took off in pursuit.  Once eager, and ready to earn his tribe name, the dragonborn flailed his arms wildly and ran away.

Shozar was aghast. How could he have killed one of these creatures so easily when the best fighters in the city couldn’t handle them. He looked down at his hand, a frosty feeling coursing through him, and came to his conclusion.

“Ice.”

But how? Shozar didn’t mean to blast the last one. How was he going to do it intentionally now? He held his hand out before him, hoping to send another ice shard flying… to no avail. “Come on, come on.” Another scream from inside the gates drew his attention away. He looked back into the city and saw three mephits pulling the tendrils of a mother trying to rush away with her child in hand.

Shozar knew he needed to do something, but he froze, his claws digging into the side of the gate and fear clutching at his chest. Then he saw his library in the distance behind the mother. His mind rushed back to when he got accepted into the ranks of the scholarly, and his first day at the world-renowned library. The Vokrii had so many charges: a wealth of ancient and modern knowledge, protection for Vokraxx as he slept, and their community. Visions of his precious library burning to the ground pushed him into action.

The scholar rushed toward the struggling mother. He grabbed a broom from the doorstep of a nearby house and swatted one of the attackers from the sky. As he drew back to strike another, the remaining two turned their gazes on him in anger, and he stopped. In an instant, they had grabbed his arms, holding them back, and the broom bounced helplessly into the dirt below.

The demon that Shozar whacked shook his head to regain its senses, then turned an angry glare on its assailant. It flew up into the air and whistled, drawing more of its kind to it and talked to them in some form of demoniac language. Their high-pitched voices would have been humorous in another setting. Right now, Shozar could only look on in terror.

Shozar had no options. He looked to his hands and struggled to pull them free, but he had no way of utilizing them, even if he could figure out how to blast the creatures. Breathing fire on them before had proven ineffective for warrior… but maybe that would give him the distraction he needed.

The scholar took in a deep breath and paused as he raised a brow. Typically, his nostrils burned as if he was intaking hot ash when he prepared a breath attack. This was a different sensation. With bulging cheeks, the dragonborn smiled.

The demons turned their attention to Shozar, apparently having finished deliberating. As they bore down on him, they were met with an icy blast. Shozar blew his frosty breath in an arc from side to side, covering the mephits in ice and sending them plummeting to their shattering death in the dirt.

The two demons holding Shozar’s arms looked on in shock as pieces of their brethren slid about the ground beneath them. They immediately released their captive, and flew off into the sky.

Shozar smiled, a course of adrenaline and courage reinvigorating him. He puffed out his chest and exclaimed awkwardly to the mother watching helplessly from beside a nearby house, “Never fear, ma’am. Shozar shall defeat these demons.” He noticed her shocked expression, thinking for a moment that his deeds had won her affection. Her face looks as white as… In terror he pulled his sleeve back, then looked down his collar. Me!

 The white pigment had nearly covered the dragonborn’s entire body and was now creeping up his neck. He looked up to the library. I must seek counsel with Master Aak. The visions of a burning library with dragonborn bodies strewn about the grounds returned to his mind, and he set in a look of determination. No. First, I excise the demons and save the Vokrii.

 Shozar rushed toward the remaining few mephits. Perhaps the Vokrii will excuse my appearance if I am able to relinquish the city from the demons’ control. He shook his head. The ever-thinking scholar would have to put his thoughts to rest for the moment.

When Shozar came close to a mephit running its tongue along the hay to a barn and setting it ablaze, he stopped and trained his hands on it. He focused hard on his hands, trying desperately to will the ice to shoot out from them. For what seemed like an eternity nothing happened, and Shozar’s countenance darkened. How was he going to figure this out? What was the source of this power?

The scholar’s mind trailed back to his initial blast. He had felt the power welling from within him; from within his core. Closing his sky blue eyes, he focused, and thought, and felt something… cold stir inside him. Taking hold of the chill, he forced it into his chest, then his shoulder, then his arm, then… he opened his eyes, and a bolt of ice struck the demon as he forced the power out of his hand.

“Woo!” Shozar leapt with joy. The wonders he would discover now. But again, those thoughts would have to wait. He turned his attention back to the city with a grin, frost drifting into the air through his teeth.

For the next few moments, the screams throughout the town shifted from that of dragonborns to the high-pitched, otherworldly squeals of dying demons. When the sound died down, the city’s inhabitants were hesitant to approach Shozar at first, staring in a semi-circle quietly at their hero, the now-fully-white, quiet scholar from the library.

Shozar stood like a statue, unsure of what to think or do. Then a young dragonborn stepped from the crowd, drawing a hushed gasp and the attention of the town. She stared for a moment then leapt and shouted, “Yay! Vokrii Shozar!” Instantly the crowd broke into a roar of cheering and rushed in, hugging the scholar.

Shozar was barraged with pats, rubs, and pokes from the crowd. In truth, he wanted to like the attention, but in reality, he was just ready for it to end so he could return to his studies, and explore this newfound power growing inside him. Amongst the bumps and cheers and smacks, he looked back down at his white palms and smiled.

A dragonborn stood regally before Shozar on a stone dais lit by a high skylight, his hands behind his back and his head held high. His once-bright-green scales had dulled to a minty color, and the tendrils on his chin had grown long in his many years, but he had the composure of one nearly half his age. He swept his arm out toward Shozar, and the wide sleeves to his robes drifted behind in kind.

“You have made the keepers of the Vokrii library proud, Shozar. When our city was in peril, you answered the call that no one else could. It is here before your peer, that I am overjoyed to honor you with your Vokrii name.”

Shozar bowed his head. “Thank you, Master Aak.” The scholar stole a glance behind him at his friend, Quogan, and gave him a grin. Where many other races and tribes hold elaborate ceremonies with several witnesses, the Vokrii have a different focus. While their minds are always on their community as a whole, their ceremonies remain intimate, preferring their work to support the Vokrii clan in its entirety instead of providing emotional support to the individual. Which was okay with Shozar. He had all he needed in his solitary witness.

“It is with great pride and honor that I bestow upon you your title,” Master Aak went on. “Vokrii Shozar the Beastslayer.”

Shozar’s eyes went wide as his head remained bowed. Beastslayer? He was grateful to finally earn a name for himself, but Beastslayer? That is the name that he would be remembered with in his tribe? In many civilizations a name is nothing more than something to speak in reference to a person, but in the Vokrii, the name you were given meant more. Your name was tied to your identity, your credentials, and your legacy.

Shozar, ever the student and scholar, completely expected his name to reflect his academic nature. Vokrii Shozar the Mind, the Scholar, or the Scribe. Heck he would have even settled for Vokrii Shozar the White! Beastslayer? That belonged to a soldier!

“Thank you, Master Aak. Zyak shaik valome. (So it shall be.)”

“You are truly worthy of leading the keepers of Vokrii knowledge.” Master Aak’s words made Shozar’s stomach flutter. Was it really happening? Would he be named Maekrix?

Master Aak went on, “To begin your apprenticeship, I bestow upon you this scroll.” He drew a rolled-up piece of parchment from inside his sleeve and handed it to Shozar. “It is sealed and should remain so until the appropriate time. You will know when that moment has come. In the meantime, you are to begin acquiring your contribution of knowledge to the Vokrii library, so you may attain the prestigious position of Maekrix. You are to travel to the newly-discovered isle of Kaol. A boat leaving for the location is putting out within the hour. May Vokraxx guide your path.”

Shozar bowed once more, somewhat deflated but hopeful, and turned to leave. Quogan stood with his hands behind his back, obviously fighting to hide a grin. Shozar bared his teeth at him and walked out of the room, the only sound his padded feet shuffling across the floor and the large door creaking to a shut.

The scholar said his goodbyes to what few friends he had, gathered his belongings, and got on the boat long before departure time. He spent a few moments cataloging the events in his journal, and the remainder he spent on deck, staring out into the sea. As the boat left harbor, the salty mist on his face and the cool breeze reminded him of his heritage. He looked to the sleeping giant atop the mountain and felt humbly grateful for the journey he had set Shozar on.

A Christmas Story 2017 ®

Paul sat with his knees against his chest in the empty, snow-dusted alleyway counting the money he had just acquired. The merry, multi-colored Christmas lights that shown on his face from the overhang above and the joyous music playing from the nearby shop stood in contrast to his gloom countenance and the dirtiness of his worn-out clothing. His conscience weighed heavier on him with each dollar bill he counted, though the sound of his rumbling stomach helped to quell the guilt.

Stealing on the day before Christmas. What have I become? The homeless man thought. He stared blankly at the paper for a moment wanting to break down into tears. Knowing it wouldn’t help matters, he wiped his cold nose and sniffled as he stood and pocketed the meager $26.

Paul pulled his corduroy coat tight around him and walked along the store fronts keeping outside of the bustling crowds of holiday shoppers that had come downtown to make their last-minute purchases. The townspeople’s mixture of conversations was light and joyful, centered on holiday traditions, their favorite flavors, and what perfect gift they were picking up for their loved ones. Paul was making his usual trip to the Kum & Go on 7th and Mt. Vernon Street.

Hopefully this would be the last time he would have to endure the judging glare from the attendant as he picked up his ham sandwich and that fifth of his favorite liquor to drown out the nagging voice in his mind that was telling him to give the money back. This is the last time, he thought, though he was having a harder and harder time convincing himself of that fact every time he was forced to think it. Besides, what options did he have? None of the local restaurants would hire him, and he gave up on his dreams of being a concert pianist long ago.

When the convenience store came into view, Paul stopped to gather his courage, as he had done so many times before. Just as he took his next step, he noticed a husband and wife getting out of their car and stopped out of their sight.

“Bodee’s going to love it,” the woman exclaimed.

“Yeah, and it’s 4k, so all of his games are going to look sweet on it,” the husband replied.

“Uh huh,” she said as she rolled her eyes.

Paul watched silently in the distance, thinking of what it would have been like to receive a gift like that when he was a kid. One car door latch resounded loudly on the still night. Just one though? His eyes went wide when he noticed that the woman’s car door didn’t close as they walked into the store. The brand-new Samsung TV sitting in the back of the SUV seemed to taunt him.

Man, selling that would give me enough money to get me through the winter. Paul shook his head. I couldn’t take a little boy’s TV. I don’t need it that bad. He started toward the station, but couldn’t help but turn his attention back to the gift. How easy it would be to reach in and pull it out. Another growl of his stomach was all of the motivation he needed. Besides, they had nice clothes, and the SUV looked expensive. Maybe they could just buy another one.

Paul snuck up beside the vehicle and put his back against it. He glanced into the store and saw the man standing outside the restroom checking his watch. Plenty of time. Quickly and quietly he pulled the door open and pushed the unlock button on the door. He stepped back, pulled open the back door and in a moment he had his hand on the television box.

He paused at a sight in the back seat. The little brown teddy bear sat in the car seat, and though it had a smile on its face, it seemed to be asking him, “Why?” Paul stopped and bit his lip. How could he do such a thing? The door to the store jingled, and Paul made his decision hastily.

In a moment, he was around the side of the building, his heart racing, breathing heavily, and… clutching the TV to his chest.

“Honey, did you leave the back door open?” Paul heard the wife ask. He closed his eyes to bear the sting of guilt.

“On your side?” The man asked with a laugh.

The woman rolled her eyes again and shut the door. Paul’s heart sank as he heard the vehicle start up and drive away. He wanted desperately to run out and scream, “Wait,” but it was too late. He looked down at the television box and saw the bear in the car seat staring back at him.

Paul breathed on his freezing hands, the frosty mist from the cold air drifting from his scraggly goatee and through his paled fingers. He hugged his shoulders and kept his gaze on the window as he shivered. Inside a familiar husband held his wife close to his side with her head on his shoulder as they stood behind a young boy excitedly opening his presents in his pajamas. The room was lit with an array of colors from Christmas lights hung about the wooden walls and shelving, and garland dotted the vicinity. Against his better judgment, the homeless man had followed the family home.

It was Christmas morning. The last thing Paul wanted to do was make himself feel more guilty, but there he stood. Why am I doing this? He glanced down at the stolen television in the snow behind the bushes with him. Paul had already convinced himself that he needed this television more than the child it was intended for. Quickly surveying the area, he could see he had still gone unnoticed by the neighbors. His gaze returned to the scene inside.

As the boy crawled under the tree to search for any presents that he may have missed, his mother looked at her husband and they shared a sorrow-filled smile. Paul’s heart broke, and a tear streaked down his cheek glistening against the white backdrop. How could he let himself be convinced that he deserved that gift? Now a child’s Christmas would be ruined. And for what? Whiskey?

The regretful man rubbed the inner part of his sleeve against his eye, wiping his tear away. Then his remorseful look was replaced with a smile as a thought set in. It wouldn’t be ruined, he decided. He could return it when they weren’t looking. All of those skills he had acquired in entering someone’s home to take something could be used to return something as well. Paul’s heart warmed and his spirits lifted. He could do one thing right this Christmas.

When the young child turned back to his parents, their demeanor shifted back to joy and he jumped into a hug between them. The boy grabbed a toy plane from his haul and flew it through the air. He playfully ran from his parents, apparently playing keep away, and they gave quick pursuit. As they ran up the stairs, Paul knew this might be his only chance.

The homeless man made haste to the door looking about for anyone who may be watching, his feet crunching softly on the new snow. He closed his eyes, clenched his teeth, and hoped against all odds that they had left the door unlocked. He twisted the knob; no such luck. He couldn’t help but wonder if they would have felt safe enough to leave the door unlocked just a few days prior, had he not taken from them.

Paul looked in the window and made sure the room was still vacant, then fished a lock pick from his coat pocket. His tongue worked as he ran the hooked object through the lock until he heard a click. He smiled and ran back to the television kicking his knees high in joy. Grabbing the gift, he ran back and slowly slid the door open.

The room was warm. Oh, how much he missed warmth. Paul breathed in deep. Inside the house smelled of cinnamon and fresh-brewed coffee. A thud upstairs made him jump.

“Get back here, Mommy,” the father cried out. “We’re gonna get you!”

The woman laughed and the boy made whistling sounds like a plane chasing a target.

Paul smiled with a tear in his eye. He stopped himself from getting too attached though. If this family caught him in their home, no matter what his intentions were, he would be spending the rest of the holiday in jail.

Paul quickly surveyed his surroundings. He was in a big living room with hardwood floors, a high, cathedral-styled ceiling, and wooden stairs against the wall to the right. A double-wide doorway to the left revealed a dining room with large windows facing the front of the house. To the right was a room with similar windows and lush carpet, apparently a wreck room of sorts. Straight ahead was a hallway and at the end standing prominently on the wall was a cross hanging on the wall.

Satisfied he was alone, Paul crept quietly to the tree, and laid the snow-dusted television between it and the crackling fireplace. The box was a little worse for wear, so he lightly blew on it and brushed off some of the snow hoping to restore some semblance of newness to it before sneaking back to the door. He caused a floorboard to creak in the floor and his blood to froze.

“Hello?” a voice called from upstairs.

Paul rushed through the door and slammed it shut with little time to focus on being silent. He rushed away and dove behind the bushes before quickly turning back, pushing the shrubbery aside, and looking back in the window.

The father came down first. He stopped on the stairs when he noticed the television by the tree. Scratching his head with a look of confusion, he appeared to call back up the stairs. The wife came down clutching a tennis racket, ready to strike with her son close behind, clinging to her robe. It didn’t take long for the son to notice the new gift, and he was downstairs checking out the box.

Paul smiled for a moment, but his face dropped when he noticed his tracks in the snow leading straight to his hiding spot. When the front door began to open, he beat a hasty retreat. He huffed as his legs pumped harder than they had in years, his hard breathing leaving a trail of frosty mist behind him. After what felt like hours, he ducked under a nearby bridge and clutched his chest as he tried to calm his breathing. Paul closed his mouth and tried to breathe through his nose; the cold air was burning his teeth.

When he felt he could finally relax, he sat down and his stomach growled. “I could really use the money from that TV right about now,” he said with his gruff, time-worn voice as he put his hand on his belly. No, you did the right thing. He sat for a moment then nodded in contentment. “Yeah, I did the right thing.”

Paul rested his head back against the cold concrete arch behind him with his eyes closed and smiled. Thoughts of Christmas seasons past played like a movie in his mind. That holiday at the foster home, the one he really liked, before his father got back out of jail and got custody back. The George’s gave him the warmest hugs, and Mrs. George made the best pecan pie. Paul licked his lips, and he could practically taste the caramel.

Paul remembered that Christmas at his parents’ home, before his dad lost his job and before his mom… He only had two presents under the tree, but that was all 6-year-old Paul needed. Lifting his new Mr. Potato Head up with a toothless smile in his G.I. Joe pajamas, little Paul had no idea how many hours of joy that hunk of plastic would provide.

Paul sighed and frost drifted from his lips as he thought about how he wasn’t going to prevent that warm feeling he was getting in his heart for another child. Then he sat up thoughtfully as he tried to imagine how the boy was using his present. How happy he must be. I have to go see. He shook his head. What’s wrong with me? I can’t go back there. But then again, they’ve probably gone back to their Christmas. He rocked with his knees pulled to his chest for warmth as he mulled the thought over. It was probably a bad idea, he knew, but he couldn’t help himself. Paul stood quickly and made his way back to the house.

Paul ducked back behind the bush he had hid behind and looked around the neighborhood again to ensure no one noticed. He was clear. Peaking his eyes over the top of the shrubbery, he grinned once more. Sitting at the table in the dining room was the dad swiping his finger up the screen on his phone sipping a cup a coffee, the mom spreading butter on a piece of toast, and the son who was much more interested in flying his new toy plane than eating the bowl of cereal sitting in front of him.

A brisk wind pulled Paul from his thoughts as he pulled his coat tighter about him. The breeze caught a piece of paper that was stuck in the bush in front of him and carried it into his face. He pulled the paper away and stopped when he noticed writing on it.

“To whoever returned                                                                                                       my son’s TV.                                                                                                                   Thank you.                                                                                                                    Please join us                                                                                                                      for Christmas.                                                                                                                  Just knock.”

 Paul’s mouth dropped open. Why would a family ask a stranger to join them for Christmas? Did they not know that he was also the one who stole the TV? Of course they did. That was probably the point. They were going to have him come in and call the cops. Paul pulled his beanie down further on his forehead and stood up to walk away with a look of unassured resolution. His job was done here, and he could see that the family’s Christmas was indeed restored. The man stopped before he took two steps, though, and looked back down at the paper. He really wanted to join them though. The smell and warmth of the house rushed back to his mind, and he closed his eyes. No.

“’Scuse me, Mister,” a small voice said, startling him from his thoughts. “Did you bring me my TV back?”

Paul looked down at the little brown-headed boy then back to the house. The door stood wide open and the mom and dad were no longer in the window. He looked back down at the boy who was staring at him with an innocently expecting look. Paul wanted to run. The boy’s parents would surely be coming after him soon. But there was something about the boy that reminded him of something. Perhaps he reminded him of himself at another time in his life. He knelt down and looked into the boy’s big brown eyes.

“Yes. Yes I did. But I also…”

“I thought so. I saw you from my house. My Daddy said he hoped you would come back. He said he wanted you to come inside with us. Are you going to come inside our house?”

“I – I’m afraid I can’t.”

“Why?” the boy said, tilting his head with a look of confusion.

Before Paul could answer, a shout from the door made his blood run cold.

“Bodee! What are you doing?” The father made a hasty walk toward them.

This was it. No need in running now. Judging by his athletic physique, the younger man would surely catch him and any pure intentions Paul had would go out the window. He could only hope the man’s message on the paper was sincere.

“Daddy, this is the man who brought me my TV.”

“Oh, hi. I’m Jack Bauman,” he said with his hand extended.

Paul looked at the hand for a moment before taking it and shaking.

“It’s okay. We’re just thankful you brought it back. Little Bodee here sure liked his new TV.” His son nodded emphatically and Paul just stared silently not sure what to think or feel.

Jack looked at him for a moment before grabbing his own shoulders and mimicking shivering to break the silence. “Bvvv. It’s a cold one this year. Won’t you join us inside?”

“Oh, I don’t think I could…”

“C’mon. We thought we were going to be missing a big portion of our Christmas, and you returned it. You really saved the day.”

“Yeah, but I also…”

Jack interrupted him with a waved hand. “It doesn’t matter. You saved our Christmas.” The father and husband smiled as he motioned with his head back to the house. “C’mon. My wife is cooking up some pecan pie.”

Paul felt his mouth water and his stomach tense. What did he have to lose after all? He nodded reluctantly. Jack patted his shoulder and Paul flinched.

“That’s the spirit.” Jack winked and ushered Bodee back toward the house. “C’mon, son.”

“Are you proud of me, Dad?” Bodee asked.

“You and I are going to have a talk about going outside by yourself.”

The young boy’s chest deflated and his shoulder’s slumped. Paul looked down at his dirty coat and hands before quickly pulling his hat from his head and wiping his hand across his hair, vainly attempting to conform it to his balding scalp.

As Paul walked back into the house, he was washed over by the amazing smells and warm air from inside once more. He must have inhaled loudly because Jack looked back at him with a knowing smile.

“You can smell that caramel, huh?”

Paul nodded, holding his hat in front of him with an embarrassed expression. “Um, I’m sorry if I smell. I haven’t had a chance to wash in awhile.”

Jack waved a hand dismissingly. “Nonsense. My wife’s burning so many candles I think my sniffer’s burnt out anyway?”

Jack’s wife came around the corner as he was speaking giving him a dangerous ‘oh-really?’ look. She smiled at Paul as she wiped her hands on a dish towel. “Oh, is this him?”

“It is. Joyce, meet… I’m sorry, I don’t believe I caught your name.”

Unsure of how to really respond, Paul bowed as if addressing royalty. “Paul. I’m Paul. Nice to meet you.”

Joyce suppressed a kind-hearted laugh and curtsied obviously attempting to draw some embarrassment from her guest. “Well nice to meet you too, Paul. Please, make yourself at home. The pie’s got about 5 minutes left.”

Joyce turned and walked back out of the room. “Do you like ham? I can warm some of the ham from my parents’ yesterday if you’d like,” she called from the kitchen.

“Yes, Ma’am. Thank you.”

“Dining room’s in there,” Jack said pointing over his shoulder. “I’m going to run Bodee upstairs to get him outta these pajamas.” He put a hand on his son’s back. “C’mon, Sport. Let’s get changed.”

The two rushed up the stairs, Jack playfully poking Bodee’s ribs causing him to laugh and run faster.

Paul took a deep breath and looked around the house. He couldn’t believe how this Christmas was turning out. In fact, he was still having a hard time convincing himself that this was all real. He saw a piano in the hallway and walked up to it. As he ran his hand over the finger guard, memories of playing at his recital came flooding back to him.

“Came with the house.” Joyce’s words pulled Paul from his thoughts. She leaned against the kitchen doorway and looked down at the instrument. “We couldn’t find anyone to give it to, so it’s sat as a decoration in our hallway. You play?”

“Oh. I did a long time ago,” Paul said with his gaze still on the wooden object. “I don’t know if these old fingers could remember now.”

Joyce smiled back at him. “I bet you’d be surprised.”

Paul smiled at her then looked back at the piano. Why not? Not like anything could make this Christmas any weirder. He slid the stool out from beneath the keyboard and picked up a little brown bear sitting on top of it. His smile deepened as the toy that once had a judgmental glare from a car seat now seemed to embrace him warmly. Paul sat the toy to the side and seated himself at the keyboard. When he pulled the guard back and sat his fingers on the keys, his hands looked like his 9-year-old hands in his eyes. Suddenly he was sitting at a black grand piano in his mind on a stage with a giant Christmas tree. He looked out in the crowd and saw his dad sitting there with a smile, a rarity in those times, and an empty seat to his left.

The young Paul looked back to the piano and plunked out a few notes. Then he played a few notes with his other hand. As if on instinct, he played a melody from memory.

“Just hear those sleigh bells ringaling ring, tinga tingaling too.” Joyce’s sang, correctly identifying the song and bringing Paul right back into reality. He looked at her stunned for a moment then smiled and continued playing.

“C’mon it’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you,” Joyce continued, her beautiful voice resonating with the notes from the piano.

Jack’s deep voice resonated from the stair well as he leaned over and joined in. “Outside the snow is falling and friends are calling yoo hoo.”

All three joined in, “C’mon it’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you.”

Paul played better than he could have hoped, and laughed, and sang, and nearly cried. For the first Christmas in years he wasn’t alone, cold, and starving. If for only one day, he had a family. And all because of the forgiveness and love of a few strangers.

Fenril Valentine: A Bounty of Regret ®

The vampire hunter grinned as he wiped the blood from his gold coin. It was the last piece he had counted from the payment he received for his last bounty, and the bounty was plentiful.

“It never ceases to amaze me how much people are willing to part with when they hear the word vampire,” Fenril Valentine said, his smooth, calming voice carrying on the silent night as he slid the gold from his palm into his money pouch. Hunting vampires had a high learning curve, but it was becoming as easy as sliding a hot knife through butter to him now. “As long as the hunting stays lucrative, I’m happy to oblige.”

As he approached the first house in his small hometown of Bran, Fenril grabbed his large-brimmed, black hat that matches his western-influenced black ensemble from the horn of his saddle. He placed his middle finger and thumb on opposing sides of his head and drew his medium-length hair back revealing his handsomely-squared features as he sat his hat on his head. With a deep breath, he looked about the town with its humble hay-roofed houses and smiled. Though he loved the western nation of his birth and raising, Bran held his family, and thus a large portion of his heart.

A blood-chilling scream rang out from the center of town, changing Fenril’s countenance immediately to fierce determination. “Yah!” he shouted as he kicked the sides of his horse without a moment’s hesitation. The clop of his mount’s hooves on the cobblestone street rang out as he leaned into the ride holding his hat to his head. His long coat fluttered behind him as he navigated through the townspeople emerging from their homes to investigate the alarming sound.

The center of town was becoming steeped in havoc. Townspeople scattered and vampires flew about grabbing their victims. As his horse was in stride, Fenril drew his pistol from his hip and effortlessly blasted a fiend through the heart as it tried to carry away a man in ragged clothes. The vampire screeched and crumbled into dust that drifted into the night air.

Pressing the button on the side of his firearm, the barrel of Fenril’s pistol fell forward, ejecting the casing of his bullet. In one smooth motion, he slid the barrel against a bullet on his bandolier and the leather slid open, dropping the ammunition in place. With a flick of his wrist, the barrel clicked back against the stock, and Fenril put another bullet through another vampire.

“Gah,” the vampire hunter cried out as one of the undead creatures slammed into the side of his horse. Fenril hit the ground rolling and drew his crossbow from his back in the action. The vampire that hit his horse was within inches of his bolt when he launched it into the creature from his weapon. Fenril took the moment’s reprieve to rush into a neighboring home and reload.

The vampire hunter’s eyes went wide as he looked in the room to see the terrified faces of the family staring at him expectantly from behind their furniture. Well, this is awkward, he thought, sliding the bolt into his crossbow. They’re probably looking for me to say something reassuring. “Hey, uh, they seem to be eating other people right now. You’ll be fine in here…” he slides his crossbow on his back, starts back out of the door, and leans back in, “…probably.”

Gotta get to my house, Fenril thinks as he slides another bullet into his gun and flips it closed. When he looks toward his home, a voice cries out above the chaos.

“Where’s Valentine?!”

For the first time in his life, Fenril’s face shows a look of sheer terror. A white-skinned vampire stands in the city square, his long, purple cape lightly blowing on the night breeze. His red velvet vest is peaking out from behind a remarkably clean nobleman’s suit. He smiles as he looks at the dumbstruck Fenril.

“Surprised to see me, Fenril? You didn’t think I would let you kill off all of my clan without paying you a visit, did you?”

How’d he find my home? Don’t matter now. I’ll have to make sure his attention is on me so he doesn’t try to find my family. Fenril’s mind reeled as he tried to come up with something, anything, to say. He slid his gun into its holster and put his hands up. “Okay, Razvan. Let’s talk. We’ll work something out, just leave these people alone. They had nothing to do with this.”

“It is unfortunate, isn’t it, Valentine? A day ago, the simple people of Bran milled about zeir insignificant lives, and now zey have become a target of the Vlad Clan through no fault of zeir own. Ve vould never have bothered to travel zis far for such a little town, but zen you made var vith us. Zeir blood is on your hands.”

Fenril couldn’t bear to look around at the glares he knew were boring into him, so he kept his gaze locked into Razvan’s cold, dead eyes with his hands raised high. “Alright. Well you found me, so take me with you, and leave them out of it. You got me.”

“Not yet, I don’t.” He snapped his fingers and two vampires drug a kicking and screaming woman and child in front of their master.

“Daniela! Anne Marie!”

“Oh, you know zeese girls?” Razvan’s evil smile deepened.

“I already told you, I surrender. Let them go. You got me!

“Yes. I do ‘got you’, Cowboy. I have you and everyvone you love.”

Fenril could see he wasn’t going to make any ground verbally, which made his stomach tense into a knot. He lowered his arms and his head dejectedly, but kept his eye trained on the vampire’s heart from beneath the brim of his hat. “You win, demon. Please don’t take my family.”

As Razvan laughed, Fenril made his move. Time seemed to slow as he retrieved his pistol and brought it to bear in fluid motion. His heart thumped in his ears, and his palms sweat making him doubt he had a strong grip on the weapon. It didn’t matter. This was his one shot to save his family. He took aim.

He shot.

The bullet zipped toward its target. It was a perfect shot. The projectile barreled directly toward the monster’s heart. In the second it should have connected, the vampire disappeared in a cloud of smoke. Fenril looked on in horror. The vampire’s eerie command sounded distant and muffled as it echoed from beyond.

“Kill them!”

“Noooo!” Fenril shouted, breaking into a sprint toward the vampires holding his family. He was too late.

In his desperation, the fiend approaching him from the side escaped Fenril’s notice, and it grabbed him by the arm. Its wicked bite tore through his arm at the elbow, removing it from its place. In fury, the vampire hunter drew his short sword from his side and sliced through the monster. He stabbed it again and again and again, tears floating from his face. Adrenaline coursing through his veins, he didn’t feel the pain of his arm nor care to tend to the wound. He locked his eyes on what mattered to him the most: His precious wife and daughter.

When Fenril turned his attention to his family, he noticed that the vampires had all left. He rushed to his daughter and scooped her up in his arm. “Anne Marie. No.” He wept into her chest as he pulled her close.

A tear rolled from Fenril’s cheek and fell onto the cupcake pendant he had bought Anne Marie for her sixth birthday. “My little cupcake,” he said with a quivering voice. As he ran his dirty finger over the gold necklace, he remembered the look of sincere joy on her face as she had opened the gift. With great difficulty, he worked the necklace off of her body with his remaining arm and stuffed it into his pocket before embracing her again.

As the seconds ticked by, reality crept further and further from Fenril. The loss of blood from his wound caused his consciousness to wane. Battered, bruised, and broked, he soon succumbed to his condition, and fainted.

Fenril awoke to the sound of bubbling liquid and the smell of sulfur. He tried to sit and put his hand on his throbbing head, but he couldn’t pull his arm from the leather strap holding it down.

“Hey, what is this?” The vampire hunter surveyed the room. He saw his hat and pistol on the table before him, and took note. Potions lined the shelves, scribblings and sketches of demons lined the walls, and a circle with runes and designs surrounding it sat in the middle of the room with two bodies atop it. Fenril woke right up.

“Daniela! Anne Marie! Let me offa here! Where am I?”

“Relax, Fenril. I’m here to help,” a sinister-sounding voice hissed.

“Stop it, Creed. I don’t want your ‘help’.”

The warlock stepped from behind the table Fenril was strapped to and looked him up and down. Creed was once a handsome man with long locks of auburn hair. Now he stood before the vampire hunter, a shadow of his former self. He carried himself with a dignity that spoke of his former days, his red hair slicked back, his attire pomp, and his arms resting behind his back as nobility would stand. But his time spent consorting with evil had warped his behaviors. He had told himself it was for the good of the town, but his gain was marred by new interests. The warlock had the simple townspeople fooled into believing him the only semblance they had at a doctor. Hence Fenril being brought to him for ‘help’ when he had passed out.

“Come now, Bounty Hunter. That’s no way to speak to the one who’s going to restore your arm…” Creed waved his arm toward his circle, “and your family.”

Fenril kicked and struggled with all his might against his restraints, his skin tingling with anger. “If you so much as touch them, Creed…”

“You don’t want to see them again? To hold your little girl, and caress your wife once more?”

“Not the way you’re going to do it,” Fenril screamed, his veins bulging from his neck.

“Well, be that as it may, I’m afraid you have no choice in the matter. As you can see, the ritual for your absent appendage has already begun.”

Fenril’s eyes went wide as he looked down at the stub where his arm was. For the first time he noticed the runes etched into the flesh around his wound. The vampire hunter looked back at the warlock in angered disgust as Creed smiled back at him.

“Koryo shum ainee shopuyo…” Creed’s chant reverberated with the sound of many deep voices calling out at once. Fenril kicked frantically trying to break free of his bonds, but they gave no concessions. A sudden and intense burning sensation washed over his stubbed arm.

“Gaaaahhh!” Fenril cried out and looked down to see glowing orange flesh growing from his wound. Infuriated at his helplessness, he watched with hot tears of anger streaking from his eyes as a demonic hand extended from the flesh.

“It worked! Never before in all of our circles has someone summoned a demon’s appendage on someone, but the great Creed Cordova has succeeded!”

Fenril didn’t hear the ecstatic warlock. He stared blankly at his new hand as he flexed his clawed fingers. He did hear Creed’s next exclamation loud and clear.

“Now to focus on the girls.”

Fenril knew this was his last chance. He was going to prevent his family from becoming… whatever Creed was going to turn them into, or he was going to die trying. As he began to struggle against the restraints again, he had a strange moment of clarity. The ranger remembered the spell he had prepared.

Fenril closed his eyes, spoke the incantation, and worked his hands in the proper motions. As he finished, the caw of a bird rang out through the window. Creed stopped his spell, the light of the circle beneath the bodies fading, and turned to the window. The shudders thumped once, twice, thrice, and burst open, black feathers showering into the room. Two ravens flew into the warlock’s face clawing and screeching, sending him to the floor with his hands flying wildly in front of his face.

A third raven flew in and landed on Fenril’s shoulder. It cocked its head back and forth before flying down and biting at the vampire hunter’s bindings, its wings fluttering wildly. Soon the leather gave way, freeing Fenril’s demonic arm. He began working on freeing his other arm and paused to spread his fingers and look at the orange hand in disgust. Forcing himself to push the thoughts aside, he freed his other arm as the raven bit through the bindings holding his feet.

Creed had worked his way back to his feet and noticed his prisoner had been freed. “No!” He threw his hand out and sent a crackling purple bolt at Fenril. The vampire hunter saw a golden moment of opportunity and took it. He dove and grabbed his pistol from the table in front of him, rolled, and came up aiming. In the blink of an eye, his barrel was aimed and his shot rang out.

Creed clasped his chest in shock, looked at Fenril with his jaw agape, and fell without a word. Fenril breathed heavily. He did what he couldn’t do in the town square. He saved his family. The vampire hunter was finally able to lay his wife and daughter to rest. Now he would have to invent a life alone, without the joys and laughter of his girls.

“Please, please, Fenril! He has my child,” the woman exclaimed frantically, pulling on the bounty hunter’s sleeve.

Fenril stood placidly, working a toothpick in his mouth and rolling a bullet between his fingers. His thick goatee and long hair reflected the apathy the tragic events had planted in his heart the year prior. “I’m going to help you, Miss. Just tell me everything you remember about him.”

The woman went over everything she remembered, her tears streaking down her face and falling onto her kitchen apron, mixing with the soot into tiny charcoal balls. Such a pretty lady to be working the kitchen, Fenril thought. Her eyes kinda remind me of Daniela… He subtly shook his head. Can’t let that affect my work. This is business. I gotta eat. Won’t help no one to cut her a deal on account of her appearance.

“Pleeease. The longer you stay here, the less time Timothy has,” the woman finished.

Fenril tipped his hat to her. “If what you say is true, your boy has a few hours yet. This type o’ vampire likes to keep a reserve of victims in their dungeons. I’ll get your boy back, Ma’am. You just have that gold ready for when we return.”

It pained him to say it. He knew this lady would need the money as much as he did, but if word got out that he did a job for free, everyone would expect a handout. And a bounty hunter can’t eat on handouts.

“Yes, yes. I promise. Please just get my son.”

Fenril turned and began making his way in the direction the vampire left, his boots clopping on the cobblestone street. He looked about his bandoliers and pouches taking another quick inventory of his affects. It was all there, he knew, but Fenril Valentine risked little when it came to his work. One misplaced potion could mean the difference between life and death.

In a little under an hour, the bounty hunter came to a fork in the road. To the left was wilderness, to the right was a city that was destroyed years ago in war, and down the center was a road that led to a mansion. He knew this monster and the clan to which he belonged, the Vlad Clan, though proud would not be so arrogant as to set up their hideout in a mansion.

Too cliché, he thought, looking at the wrought iron fence to the Victorian castle on the hill. That really only left one option, but he would make sure before following a cold trail and wasting precious time. A child’s life depended on it. Dust flew about as he kicked around looking for a footprint. Carried him in vapor form. Pulling a match from his pouch, he struck it against a nearby tree and watched the flame flicker. It danced for a moment before settling in a shaky pattern toward the right, a trail of cinder floating from the fire toward the city.

“Sulfur trails don’t lie.” He dropped the match, spit out his toothpick, drew his pistol, and approached the city.

The cool wind blew dead leaves through the holes broken in the sides of the homes. Fenril’s eyes narrowed against the biting breeze as he looked for the first building he would investigate. It had to be large. Large enough to contain a few cells for forthcoming ‘meals’, yet intact and elaborate enough to sate the proud clan’s need for lavishness. His hazel eyes locked on a prime target.

“The church.”

Fenril kicked his pistol open to make sure it was loaded and walked up to the large, decorated front entryway. The door squeaked in protest as he slid it open. He stepped onto the filthy red carpet that ran down the aisle and ran his finger in a circle around the trigger guard of his gun as he looked about.

“I could smell ze gunpowder from a mile avay, Gunslinger,” a hollow voice echoed throughout the cathedral.

“Why do you think I ain’t hidin’?”

“Because you are a fool, Valentine. Just like you are a fool for tracking me here. Vat, did some poor helpless citizen ask you to come rescue zeir family?” came the shadowy reply.

“Gotta eat somehow… Mikele.”

“Oh, so you know my name?” A black cloud of mist floated from the rafters and coalesced into a humanoid form in front of Fenril. “Zen you are even more of a fool than I thought. You tracked a lieutenant of ze Vlad Clan to his home. Zis church shall be your tomb.” Mikele’s bloodshot eyes glared menacingly into Fenril’s indifferent stare. His tomb or his bounty, it mattered not. But if the bounty hunter managed to walk out of here, it wouldn’t be without the boy and some information on his ultimate target: Razvan.

“Then what are you waiting for?” The bounty hunter threw a punch with his demonic fist at the vampire knowing it wouldn’t hit. He was right. In a puff of smoke, the monster vanished and reappeared behind Fenril. He leapt into a roll dodging the bite he knew was coming, his long coat fluttering behind him and his hat floating off to the side. In fluid motion he drew a glass globe of water and threw it into Mikele’s face as he turned in his roll.

“Eeeeeeeee!” The vampire let out a screech as he grabbed his marred head. He looked through his fingers into the rafters and about the pews for support, showing a lack of judgment in his moment of panic.

“Oh, I’m afraid your boys won’t be back for some time. Daylight hasn’t broke, and you’ve always been one of the fastest hunters, haven’t you, Mikele?”

With blinding speed Mikele flew into Fenril, sending the two tumbling end over end. The vampire opened his mouth to bite his enemy, but Fenril shoved a full clove of garlic into the opening. Mikele vanished and reappeared behind the altar, gasping for air and clutching his throat.

BANG!

Fenril’s shot blew a giant hole in Mikele’s knee. The bounty hunter leapt over the pulpit with a stake held high above his head. With amazing precision, he drove the wooden weapon into the creature’s heart pinning him to the floor. He grinned viciously as he twisted it in place, causing Mikele to cry out once more.

“Where is your master, Demon?”

Mikele rasped and coughed obviously trying to speak. The look of defiance in his eyes told Fenril he wouldn’t have been pleased with what the vampire would say could the words come.

“Tell me, or I’ll destroy every last one of your clan. I’ll give them a more torturous death than I’m giving you.”

The vampire’s eyes went wide, he opened his mouth to speak again, and his body fell into a pile of ash.

Fenril stood and cursed. “I’ll find that fangboy if it’s the last thing I do,” he said retrieving his hat and placing it back on his head. He paused and thought for a moment. The bounty hunter remembered his wife and his beautiful daughter. He remembered the way Anne Marie’s long, flowing brown locks used to bounce as she ran into his arms to embrace the father she loved so dearly. He remembered why he had to find that vampire and make him pay. The sinister voice for the clan leader echoed in his mind as his memory drifted to that moment.

Fenril closed his eyes and turned his head as he winced at the thought. A crowing rooster caught his attention. The sun would be rising soon.

“The boy.” Fenril reached into the ash and retrieved a key. He brushed the filth off of it and ran to a side room where he heard moaning in the new silence. The lock clicked as he turned the key in it. He burst through the door in a hurry. Strung about the cramped room was about a dozen starved and scared victims.

“C’mon. Day’s about to break, and they’ll be back soon.” Fenril waved them out of the door and his gaze locked onto a boy with a face very similar to the woman he met in town. Tears welled in the boy’s eyes as he froze in fear. Fenril stooped down and picked the boy up, rushing in line behind the crowd exiting the church. “I gotcha, Kid.” With one hand, he cracked his pistol open sending the spent cartridge clanking onto wooden floor. He slid the barrel into his bandolier and reloaded it.

The group made a hasty retreat down the dusty road back to town. Fenril kept a close eye on the area around them for any signs of vampires with the boy on his waste. They were lucky. Soon, he heard the screeching of the clan that returned to an empty home in the distance behind them. The sunlight of dawn caught his eye, and he sighed in relief. “We made it, Buddy. You’re safe.”

As the boy wept on his shoulder he looked at him with drawn lips, the impending task of exacting payment for this venture weighed heavily on his heart. He would fight his way through the feelings, as he had so many times before, but that wouldn’t make it easy. With the clan’s base so close, though, he knew he’d make a fortune on selling defense training to the town’s residents. Maybe he could take a smaller payment from the child’s mother. Maybe that would help quell the unease. Maybe…

Gunari: The Tundra Beatdown ®

Elqanah – 2nd Era
Age of the Gemkith

Gunari didn’t hear the predator stalking behind him any more, but he knew it was back there sizing up its strike. The wind blew his light gypsy clothing about and whistled in his ears making it difficult to keep track of the beast. But he wasn’t afraid. The fighter had trained himself to use all his senses. To take in every minor variance in the world around him to assess his situation and challenges with the utmost care.

He stood deathly still, his black, Middle-Eastern eyes staring out into the frozen tundra, the mountain he had just climbed at his back. She’s still back there, he thought. Gunari closed his eyes to focus on his other senses. This made the bitter cold all the more difficult to endure, particularly for his bare feet.

The fighter had travelled from the lands his empire, the Romi, wandered where their light clothes helped them survive the unbearable heat. They were poor protection from the bitter cold of the Skræling Tundra. But he knew it would come to an end soon.

A soft crunch in the snow drew his attention, and he grinned. There she is, he thought, clinching his fists. A brief moment of silence, then with a quick twist at his waist Gunari evaded the leaping snow leopard. In a moment, the cat had landed, turned on her paws, and leapt back after the Romi Fighter. Gunari’s fighter’s reflexes kicked in and he ducked under the second pounce as fast as it was issued, snow dusted over him from the leopard’s paws as she glided over him. He slammed his fist into the cat’s rib cage, causing her to cry out in a vicious roar.

The snow leopard’s body spun end over end onto the rocky mountainside with a thud, but the cat’s agility aided her in landing on her feet. With a snarling growl, the cat swiped her paw at Gunari, and her sharp claws tore a gash in the caramel-colored flesh of his abs.

“Gah!” he cried out as he doubled over in pain. Throwing out his palm on instinct, he connected with his enemy’s chin and sent her back into the rocks, giving him time to glance at his wound.

The cold is slowing my reflexes. I’ll have to fix that. His eyes took a luminous orange glow as he began using the mystical power of his Quartz. The gemstones on his anklet radiated an orange, misty light, and the fighter stood straight, the pain from his wound and the bite of the cold melting away.

As the leopard shook its head to regain its senses and stood for another attack, Gunari spread his legs and stomped into his power stance. He knew he didn’t have long to finish this fight; he would need to save the physically-restoring powers of his Quartz for the rest of his trip.

The cat leapt… and so did Gunari. The two opponents glided toward each other, the leopard’s claws and fangs reaching to sink into the human’s flesh, Gunari’s foot preparing to lash out into the animal’s face, the mist of his Quartz trailing behind. With blinding speed the fighter’s kick came to bear, knocking his opponent senseless to the rocks below once more.

Gunari’s flight carried him into a rock wall behind the cat where he kicked off back into the air on a course toward his opponent. Just as the leopard began to raise her head, the Romi’s fist came down on it, smashing into the stone with a sickening crunch.

The gypsy stood confidently and wiped the blood from his knuckles onto his open shirt, the light of his eyes giving his indifferent stare a menacing glow. Now to get what I came for. The hue of his eyes shifted from orange to purple as the gems from his anklets lost their glow and the Amethyst in his bracers illuminated. He winced once more as the pain mitigation from his Quartz dissipated from his wound.

The fighter shook off the pain and with a flick of his wrist, a purple, translucent blade formed at the back of his wrist, extending past his hand.  He gritted his teeth and plunged the blade deep into the leopard’s torso.

The sounds of the crowed roared through the slums in the city of Skara. Hundreds of Valdr filled the streets and circled around two men in the center of the northeastern side of the city. Mugs clanked, beer frothed over their brims, and the fur-laden townsfolk chatted, cheered, and jeered in anticipation. Though there were too many people to gather in the immediate circle, every man, woman, and child could see the combatants plainly. Fighting was a highlight for the Skarians, and they had built their arena at a decline so all the town could watch from the streets… and squander their money on betting.

The giant man in the center laughed heartily, sharing in drink with his fellow Valdr. “Njördr! Njördr! Njördr!” his fans chanted, ready to see him pulverize his opponent, as he had in every fight before. The gargantuan fighter turned his attention to Gunari, his opponent in the ring, and his eyes narrowed as his demeanor shifted.

“This is the best jou could find for Njördr? A little Romi?” his taunt bellowed drawing cheers from the crowd. He wiped the froth from his long, golden beard and laughed. “Jou are a lung vay from home, little Romi. Did jour mother make jou that leopard coat?” The crowd joined him once again in laughter.

Gunari stood silent, his jaw steeled as he analyzed his opponent. The champion underestimated him. Good. Unless it was a farce. If the champion was underestimating him though, Gunari wouldn’t replicate his mistake. A drop of blood fell onto his cheek from the tooth of the hood of his newly-crafted leopard fur coat. The droplet ran along the streak that its predecessors had formed before falling onto the snow-dusted dirt.

The lack of response from Gunari was wearing on the proud Njördr’s patience. He gritted his teeth and scowled before telling the referee, “No. Njördr von’t fight the Romi. He must make hees vay to the top to fight the champion.”

“Njördr, the people vant jou to crush the Romi quickly. He doesn’t deserve to fight in the Skara tournament. Hees presence is a disgrace to the legacy. They vant him gone,” the referee said.

Njördr’s anger works against him, Gunari thought. Now was the perfect time to work his way into the upper hand. “Or does Njördr fear the leetle Romi?”

The champion’s head whirled toward his insolent foe, his long beard and hair whipping past following the momentum. He shoved the referee to the side, his face red with anger. “Njördr vill keel the Romi!”

The crowd went into an uproar knowing how much the intensity of the battle had just increased. Gazes locked, the combatants seemed not to notice. The referee stepped forward and addressed the fighters, though he spent more time looking at the foreigner as he relayed the rules.

“There vill be no veapons, and no using stone magic. Jou break the rules, ve break jour skull.”

Njördr’s visage remained unchanged, his stare locked onto Gunari as he pulled the massive double-bladed axe from his back and tossed it aside. Snow flew as it skidded across the arena. Gunari continued to meet his gaze as he kicked his anklets off, untied his gauntlets, and tossed them onto the floor next to him.

“Thees ees not a fight to the death. Jou may knock jour opponent out, or maek him beg for mercy.”

Right. Gunari knew this would end in victory or his demise, though he didn’t know which was preferable. With no home or family to return to, he often wondered what kept him pressing on. It certainly wasn’t the money, as it left a lot to be desired. Fame certainly didn’t appeal to him either. Whatever it was, he had it to thank for getting him into this mess.

The referee looked at Njördr, then back to Gunari before raising his arm and bringing it down. “Begin!”

Njördr broke into a rush with a roar and the ground around him shook beneath his monstrous footsteps. Gunari waited, unmoving. Terror that usually glared from his opponents’ eyes was missing in the Romi’s. That should have been a red flag for Njördr, but his rage was blinding him, just as Gunari had hoped. Reaching to bear hug the Gunari, the giant caught nothing but air. When he paused to look into his arms, Gunari shoved his heel into Njördr’s cheek.

Gunari spun and went into a series of punches in Njördr’s ribs. He finished the combo with a leap and another kick to the face. The Romi stepped back into his power stance and fought back a blanch when he looked upon the unfazed Valdr. Njördr ‘s shadow crept over Gunari as he stood, towering over him.
Gunari quickly leapt back as Njördr brought his two fists into the ground with amazing speed, sending dirt and snow into the air around him. The Romi ducked under a two-handed haymaker and leapt back again to dodge the Njördr grasping at him. “Come here, puny Romi!” The Valdr was becoming visibly irater.

He may be tougher than anyone I’ve ever faced, and he’s unbelievably fast. Gunari kept the dance going, moving fluidly between the erratic strikes. He continued to land occasional blows to test for Njördr’s weak spots. Unfortunately, there were none.

When Njördr’s massive hands finally wrapped around Gunari’s torso, his confidence began to waver. The giant lifted Gunari into the air, his grip tightening with every passing second. The Romi gritted his teeth holding back a scream as he felt Njördr’s thumb slide into his wound from the leopard and press against his exposed rib.

The crowd’s cheering grew intensely as they saw victory drawing near for their champion. Njördr laughed as he squeezed, and Gunari felt his vision waning from the intense pain. Through the slits of his eyelids Gunari saw what could be his ticket to victory. The glimmer of hope returned to his demeanor as he glanced down at Njördr’s knees.

Now I just have to get free. Gunari used every last ounce of his strength as he released Njördr’s hands removing the last bit of resistance from the squeeze and shoved his thumbs into the Valdr’s eyes. With a bellowing roar, Njördr threw his opponent to the ground, sending him tumbling through the dirt and snow.

The world spun in a haze as Gunari forced himself to his knees. He looked over to his Quartz wishing he could let its empowering qualities wash away this pain. Shaking away the worthless thoughts, he stood, wobbled as he regained his strength, lifted his hands into a fighting stance, and looked back to his recovering enemy.

Njördr was rubbing his eyes rabidly in a vain attempt to wipe away the pain. When he noticed Gunari standing once more, he locked his bloodshot gaze on him. Gunari ignored the impending danger and made sure he had seen correctly in his desperate state.

Yeah. The right knee doesn’t have any snow on it. He took that brace off so I didn’t see his weakness. He grimaced as he fought through the pain and broke into a sprint. Njördr stood ready to intercept the Romi. They both knew this would be the end, whatever the outcome may be. The crowd’s silent anticipation showed they understood the importance of this moment too.

Feigning left, Gunari drew the Valdr’s strike away from his target. He threw his palm into Njördr’s face sending him off balance momentarily. It was enough. With one wide step, he put himself into the perfect position as he lifted his leg.

Nyaaaaaaaahhhh!” Njördr’s cry rang out as Gunari’s heel struck through the side of his knee. His state weakened, the Valdr fell prone, giving his opponent the much-needed opportunity to strike. Gunari leapt into a kick to the back of Njördr’s neck, and the giant went still.

Gunari breathed heavily, the hot air drifting in mist from his lips. He wiped blood from his mouth and looked about at the silent crowd. With a smile, he accepted his winnings from the gawking bookie. He limped to his gear, sat down, and slid it on tenderly as the group of Valdr began dispersing. If anyone was excited at winning bets for the underdog in this fight, they weren’t letting it on. It would almost certainly spell a fight for them amongst their proud tribe. Or worse.

“Hey, mister” a young, fur-clad Valdr boy called out as he ran up to Gunari. The Romi turned back a little too quickly and winced in pain. “Good fight, mister! No vun has been able to beat Njördr before.”

As Gunari smiled and opened his mouth to respond, a woman ran up and grabbed the boy by the arm, dragging him away. “Jou don’t talk to Romi, Eluf. Come geet home and vash up for dinner.”

Gunari just shook his head. The innocence of children never failed to amuse him. What exactly happens as people grow to drive them apart at racial lines? He stood slowly and focused on his Quartz. As his eyes began to glow, he picked up his bag and made his way back toward the city gates and onward to whatever city held his next challenge.

I thought the Valdr had the toughest fighters. Maybe the next one will be it for me. Or maybe I’ll find what I’m looking for. Whatever that is…