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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.

A Christmas Story 2015®

The snow is falling on a cool mid-December afternoon. Street lights have begun to shine as the sun has nearly completed its descent to the horizon. The downtown streets are bustling with several shoppers making their way from store to store. Nary a face carries a frown or disheartened expression. Everyone is happy to share a smile and a hearty ‘hello’ with each person they pass. It is nearly Christmas!

One brown-haired and freckled boy walks with his parents, who are delightedly chatting with one another. The boy, Sam Coffey, watches the crowds of people closely, showing his advanced maturity for his six short years of life. He passes many people who all greet him with friendly faces and remarks. A warm joyous feeling wells in his little heart as he takes in the kindness being spread amongst the stirring crowd.

Sam and his parents, Sadie and Phred, make their way into the city square. It’s a concrete lot surrounded by a sheet of fresh snow and a large fountain in the center. Just a few short months ago the surrounding area was green and lush and the fountain sprayed a dazzling display of water. That lustrous view, though changed with the season, lives on as the new snow has given a white sheen and the fountain is well-lit with multi-colored lights that dance to the merry Christmas music playing from speakers at its base. It is a postcard holiday scene.

A shadow from an overhanging tree pulls over the family like a sheet as they pass by a darkened corner of the square. Suddenly Sam trips over a pair of outstretch legs, barely catching himself with his hands. While he stopped the blow, his knees do begin to sting immediately. He looks up and sees his parents are still chatting as they stroll, oblivious to his falling.

As he groans quietly and begins to stand, a soft voice calls from the shadow, “I’m so sorry.”

The proud little six-year-old stands quickly and dusts the snow from his brand-new jeans. “It’s okay,” he replies. He fights the urge to cry, more from embarrassment than pain. He’s been through tougher bouts than this, he tells himself. He’s not going to let a little thing like tripping make him cry. Especially not in front of all these people.

He looks over to see a woman sitting with her young boy, both in dirty, worn clothing. Most people probably haven’t noticed the pair either. She has intentionally chosen the dark corner to sit in. They have been run off from most of the stores over the years by their owners. Most of them don’t want the downtrodden appearance of her and her son to hinder their sales during their most lucrative season.

Sam, being wise for his age but not completely understanding social standards, smiles at the pair. “I’m Sam. What’s your name?” A smile comes to their faces at the uncommon warmness. The boy sits up from huddling next to his mother, both to keep warm and out of shyness borne from circumstance, to greet the boy.

“I’m Bobby, and this is my mom.”

“What are you doing over here?” Sam asks.

The mother, Amanda, smiles gently. Without having any money to buy much for her son for Christmas, she brings him out every year from the homeless shelter where they live. On these days they get to enjoy the merriment of the season vicariously through others. It is a small gift, but it is thoroughly enjoyed by her son.

“We’re just looking at the lights and listening to the music,” she answers.

“Oh. Where are you from?”

“We live in a church!” Bobby exclaims. “Cornerstone Church. They have games and beds and everything!”

“Cool! My parents are over there,” Sam says with a gesture. “Wanna come shopping with us?”

Bobby’s mother offers another smile. The youthfully-unknowing offer warms her heart, but she can’t accept. As she opens her mouth to respond, she is cut off by Sam’s mother:

“Sam, we have told you not to talk to strangers.”  She has returned with his father after noticing their missing child. Though they were lost in their conversation, it didn’t take long for them to notice Sam wasn’t with them. She grabs her son’s hand and they begin walking off.

“But they were nice. I was just…”

“No, Sam. You don’t know that lady. She could have been dangerous.” Sadie says with a gentle firmness.

The confused boy looks over his shoulder to see Bobby returning to his timid position next to his mother. She is still offering an understanding smile to Sam, but he is struggling to understand.

At that moment another family walks by and steers their course away from Bobby and Amanda without a smile or a ‘Merry Christmas’. That same family had just been so kind to Sam only a few moments ago. Why aren’t they being as nice to them as they were to me?  he thinks as he wipes away a snowflake that has fallen onto his eyelash. With a look of confusion, he finally turns away.

The rest of the young boy’s night is spent pondering things that six-year-olds shouldn’t have to ponder. He thinks about that family and how they came out just like everyone else, but sat alone under that tree. He wonders why everyone was so kind to one another, but not to them. He wonders what makes him so special to receive those kind greetings.

Sadie and Phred go on through the night, blissfully unaware of the profound impact the situation had with their young and impressionable son. To them, they had just passed another homeless person, but to him it was something much more.

A bell jingles as they walk back out of a store and his parents call back a “merry Christmas” to the clerk. As they walk outside, Sam looks around and notices that everyone else’s merriment hasn’t swayed either. Just his. The cheerful music and smiling workers has seemed to carry through the shoppers and into the very air itself. Much like it had so recently done with Sam. As much as the season typically fostered a merry spirit in him the past few years, he just can’t shake the sympathetic feeling for Bobby and his mother.

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The moon has taken its place in the cloudless sky and the bedtime ritual in the Coffey Household is done; dinner is eaten, teeth are brushed, jammies are on, and Sam has slipped under his comfy sheets. After saying his bedtime prayers, his mother leans in to kiss him good night and he asks her, “Mom, why did you think that lady was dangerous today?”

“Sam, dear, I don’t know that she was dangerous, but we just have to be careful. We didn’t know her.”

“Was it because she was dirty?”

The dimness of the blue glow from his superhero nightlight amplifies her concerned look. “Well… no. It was just…”

“Because I saw everyone else treating her different too,” the curious boy goes on. “I know she smelled different and her clothes had holes, but she was a really nice lady. And her son’s name was Bobby. They live in a church.”

“Do they?” she asks, more than happy to keep the conversation detoured from his original inquiry.

“Yeah. I liked them. They really weren’t dangerous, Mom. Can…” he pauses to gather his courage to ask the question he knows will undoubtedly get shot down. “Can we have them over for Christmas?”

“Sam…”

“I know they would have fun, Mom. They live at Cornerstone Church. That’s close, isn’t it?”

“Well yes, but…”

“See we could go get them. Please, Mom. Please!”

“Sam, now listen,” she responds evenly, growing tired of the subject. “We have a long day tomorrow, and you need to get rested up so you can go to your last day of school before Christmas Break. Then it will just be one more week and Santa will be coming, and you’ll get to open presents and see all of your cousins.”

“But what if Bobby doesn’t have any presents?”

“Sam, that’s very nice of you to think about Bobby’s Christmas too, but we can’t buy presents for every little boy that doesn’t have any.”

“We don’t have to, Mom. We can just buy one for Bobby.”

Sam’s big green eyes burn a whole through his mother. A message so profound should not come from such a young child: She doesn’t have to change the world, but she can easily change that family’s world. The little boy’s hope peaks when she hesitates. Just maybe she is starting to see his side.

“Okay, that’s enough. I love you. It’s time to go to sleep.” She kisses his forehead before walking to the door. “Good night,” she says as she slips out of the room and pulls the door tight.

The defeated boy slinks down into his bed, his little mind straining to understand it all. Bobby and his mom were so nice. Why won’t his mom just have them out for Christmas? She wasn’t dangerous, she even said she was sorry when she tripped him. The lingering thoughts keep the young boy from his slumber for another couple of hours before he finally drifts off.

Just on the other side of his door, his mother leans against the wall fighting an internal battle. She couldn’t even refute her six-year-old son’s logic on this. But there would be so much involved. She would have to entertain another family, and she doesn’t know them. They could be dangerous. But they had been with her son all that time and didn’t do anything to harm him or take him away.

A stern look of finality makes its way onto her face. No. I’m not having strangers into my home on Christmas. Maybe after the New Year I’ll take them a casserole or something. She knows the likelihood of the thought is miniscule, but it sates her conscience. With a deep breath and a nod, she makes her way off to bed as well.

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The week has passed and the day has finally arrived; Christmas is here! Still quietness fills the house and the only luminance shed is that of Sam’s night light and the blinking rainbow of colors coming from the lights on the Christmas tree in the living room. All are asleep, peacefully dreaming of what the day may bring. The excited young boy is sleeping the lightest. He could barely force himself to doze off the night before. The Holiday Spirit is dancing merrily in him.

As the sun peaks over the neighbor’s houses and reflects off of the freshly-fallen snow, it lends its light to Sam’s room. Like a veil being pulled away from his window, the light creeps across his floor and onto his bed. The moment it passes over his eyes they shoot open and in a short moment he leaps from his bed. Even before he has time to think of anything else the recognition of what day this is stands at the forefront of his mind.

The excited six-year-old dashes down the stairs, skipping as many as he can in his stride. He darts into his parent’s room and tugs on their covers as he shouts, “Mom, Dad, wake up! It’s Christmas! Let’s go open my presents!”

Phred sits up and attempts to rub the weariness from his eyes as Sam runs back out of their room. He yawns loudly and looks over with a tired-but-sincere smile as his wife rolls over and looks at him.

“Well, here we go.” He says as he stands up and scratches his back. Heavy blinks help invigorate him as he walks around the bed, his feet dragging. “Want me to put on a pot of coffee?”

“Yes, please,” Sadie responds before issuing a yawn herself.

They walk out of their room to see Sam eagerly inspecting his gifts. He takes in the weight and sound as he shakes them hoping to discover some clue as to what they are. Sadie heads into the living room and takes a seat next to the arm of the couch as Phred goes into the kitchen.

Sadie smiles as she looks at her ecstatic youngster and takes in his joy. With the passing of time that long conversation with her son has moved to the back of her mind behind the noisy Jingle Bells and that recipe for her mother’s famous fudge. She’s had a lot to prepare for this Christmas; her family is expecting her best effort for all of the holiday goodies this year. Or so she thinks.

“Now hold on, Sam,” Phred says over the counter as he pours steaming coffee into two cups. “Do you want to start with those presents or see what Santa got you first?”

The young boy’s eyes light up as he looks at his mother. She gives him a wide-eyed smile to affirm his excitement.

“From Santa! I wanna open the one from Santa first!”

“Okay. Wait right here, and I’ll bring it in.” Phred hands Sadie her coffee and sets his on the end table next to the couch before making his way into the garage.

Sam nearly shakes with anticipation as he waits by the tree. “Why didn’t Santa put it under the tree, Mom?”

“Well, since we don’t have a chimney, we leave the garage door open for him. He must have just left your present there. Or…” she lets her statement linger for a moment to heighten his eagerness. “Maybe it was too big to go under the tree.”

“Is it?!”

“You’ll have to wait and see.”

The little boy can hardly contain himself. It’s taking all of his effort to not jet out the door after his father. Before long Phred steps back in the house holding a large blanket with something squirming beneath it. Sadie watches happily as Sam’s expression shifts to curious excitement.

The door squeaks as Phred pulls it to before setting the bundle on the floor. A quick smile is shared between the parents before Sadie pulls out her phone to video it all. As Sam pulls back the edge of the blanket, he is met with a wet tongue on his cheek.

“It’s a puppy!” he shouts. It begins to pant and wag its tail as the boy wraps his arms around its neck. His little hands sink beneath the dog’s shaggy, blonde hair as he pulls it in tight. As Phred makes his way to the couch, Sadie moves some mail to open a spot next to her for him to sit. A postcard in the midst of the parcel catches her eye as she is moving it. She glances at it for a moment as she bounces lightly when her husband plops next to her.

“What’s that?” Phred asks.

“Oh, just a postcard from the church up the road. It’s from when they had their Christmas play last week.”

“Oh.”

They scoot into each other as they watch their son play with the new addition to their family, giving him a few moments to enjoy the puppy before moving on with opening presents. The boy and the dog seem to immediately share an intimate bond. They roll around in the floor, the puppy frantically licking its new best friend and Sam laughing hysterically.

When Sam finally sits up from playing with the pooch, Sadie asks, “so what are you going to name him?”

Sam looks at his new dog for a moment before stating, with finality, “Bowser.”

His parents share a confused look before Phred says, “Bowser it is then.” He gets up from the couch, squats down, and rubs the dog’s head before looking over to his son. “You ready to open the rest of those presents?”

Sam nods emphatically. “Yeah! Yeah!”

“Alright then. Sit tight for a minute and I’ll pull ‘em out,” his dad says with a wink. He quickly digs all of the gifts from under the tree while Bowser waits next to his giddy friend. Sadie watches happily as she finishes off her coffee.

The rest of Sam’s Christmas morning plays out perfectly. His excitement grows as each present he opens is more perfect than the last. Though Bowser came first and kind of stole the show. He gets a shirt with his favorite superhero, a remote-controlled car, and finally that game he has wanted all year! Or at least since he saw the commercial for it six weeks ago.

When he comes to his final two presents, he stops. A couple of people come to his little mind as he looks at the red and green wrapping paper. He turns and looks back at his parents who have become lost in a conversation planning the rest of their day; who they’ll visit, who’s going to grab the presents, when they’re going to leave. He looks back to the gifts for a moment. Multi-colored lights twinkle in his eye as a smile grows across his face. He quickly shoves the presents behind the loveseat in a darkened spot where they are sure to go unnoticed.

“That’s it, Mom. I’ve opened them all.”

“Okay. Let me and your daddy get everything picked up so we can get ready to go to your Grandma’s. You can take your new toys to your room and play with them for a little bit.”

Sam’s little heart flutters as he gathers all of his toys. He’s almost more excited for his formulating plan than he is to play with Bowser. Almost. Bowser, he thinks. When he turns and looks back at the puppy sitting in the floor it catches Phred’s eye.

“Go ahead. I need to take Bowser out to go potty before we go.”

With a hesitant nod and smile, Sam heads on up to his room. He doesn’t want to leave Bowser downstairs, but he understands that his dad will need to take him out before they leave. Plus he needs his parents to believe he is in his room.

Shortly after stepping inside his door, Sam hears his mother’s phone ring and his dad fighting Bowser to get a leash on him. The boy rushes back down the stairs as quietly as he can, the rustle of the garland on the handrail the only sound he makes. He grabs the two presents he had hid and ducks down beside the couch out of sight. A quick glance into the kitchen tells him that his mother has gone into her room to carry out her phone conversation and that his father has stepped out of the front door. To Sam’s fortune, his father has left it slightly ajar. A habit Sadie desperately wishes he would break.

The young boy darts over to the door and silently slips out. He watches as Phred turns around the corner following the energetic pup as he finds the perfect spot to relieve himself. Perfect timing again. Sam quickly makes his way down the street, a wide smile on his lips.

The walk is a long one, and, being a six-year-old boy, Sam is only partly sure he is going the right way. He’s never had to guide himself on a noble quest before. And he is sure that his quest is noble. Thoughts of how happy everyone will be when he finally arrives at the end of his journey dance around in his mind. He is blissfully unaware in his youthful ignorance of the negative significance of his actions. A young boy like Sam has little need for anything but the positive effects anyway.

When he comes to beginning of another row of houses, he sighs under the weight of the boxes as his arms begin to strain. He doesn’t remember them being this heavy before. As the excitement of beginning his grand quest has begun to wear off, the bitter cold has also started to become more noticeable to him. A biting wind picks up and pulls at his flannel pajamas that offer little protection to begin with from the cold out in the elements.

With a tinge of fear showing in his narrowed eyes he looks through tears formed from the blustering of the cold wind back to where he came from. Should he give up now? The fact that he isn’t completely sure where he is going has become a more notable thought to his little mind. No, he decides. I have to get these presents there. A look of determination sets on his gaze as he hoists the presents up with renewed vigor and trudges on past another block.

To his relief, the lucky boy comes to the building he has been looking for when he rounds the next corner. A twinkle dances in his eye as the sun peaks out from behind the clouds for the first time since he has left home. He smiles with his mouth agape and nearly laughs aloud as he looks around expecting to see someone congratulating him for completing his journey. No one answering that hope doesn’t hurt his happiness as he runs up the stairs and into the large, wooden doors, an obvious spring to his step.

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“Sam. Come on, Honey,” Sadie calls absently up the stairs as she finishes putting in her earrings; the finish touch to her beautiful Christmas outfit. “We’re going to be late to Mama’s house.” The light in the room gleams off of her silky, brown hair as she pulls it back to inspect the trinket. She calls to her husband when she notices she doesn’t hear Sam coming. “Phred, can you go get your son, please? I’ll go grab our coats.”

“Let me put the dog up,” he calls back before setting the new puppy in the utility room and pulling the door to. “Sam, come on, buddy.” The old stair in the middle of the case creaks as he makes his way up them.

When he opens the sticker-covered door to Sam’s room, his call becomes more inquisitive: “Sam?” He checks in all of the usual spots, under the bed, inside the closet, in his large toy chest, but Sam is nowhere to be found.

“Honey, Sam’s not in his room. Is he down there?” he asks, trying to mask the fear in his voice.

“What? Sam!” his mother’s call is becoming more frantic. The next minutes fly by as the two panicking parents check every nook and cranny of their house calling desperately for their missing son. When the whole house has been checked, they put in calls to their neighbors asking if they have seen him. Their hysteria deepens when they come up with no leads.

“Where would he go?” Sadie asks in tears.

“I don’t know, but he isn’t in the house, and we aren’t going to find him waiting around here. Where’re the keys?”

“They’re over here on the end table.” The keys jingle wildly as she yanks them from their perch.  Shortly after turning around, she stops when she realizes she noticed something. She wipes the tears from her eyes to clear her vision as she looks back at the table. Her eyes widen as a memory plays back before her.

“Phred! I know where he is!”

The husband holds the door open for his wife and follows her out of the house, without another word spoken from either of them. The brief crank of the car’s starter rings out in the silent house and in moments they have sped away.

The object that reminded Sadie of a conversation a few weeks back sits on the end table. Next to the arm of the couch. Staring at a partially-ajar door.

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A thud echoes in the empty foyer to a church as Sam lets the door close behind him. He shivers as toasty warmness finally begins to melt the frost from his bones when the final gust of cold air from the closing of the door dissipates. Soft, ambient Christmas instrumentals play from an overhead speaker as he looks around for any sign as to where to go. The sign over the welcome desk looks down over him as he begins walking into the building. It reads, ‘Cornerstone Church’.

“Why hello there,” a voice calls from the hall and startles him. “Are you looking for someone?” A heavy-set black lady with kind eyes and a gentle smile bends down next to him.

“I’m looking for Bobby and his mom.”

“Are you now? And where are your parents?”

“I came all by myself,” Sam says, his chest puffed out with pride as he states his accomplishment.

The lady purses her lips to hide her sheer concern as she knows it is important to keep the boy from becoming scared or intimidated. A scared boy won’t give her the information necessary to find his parents so she can notify them. “Well! Aren’t you just a brave soul. My name is Mary. What’s yours?”

“I’m Sam!”

“Sam. I like that name. What’s your last name, Sam?”

“Coffey.”

“Well, Sam Coffey, what are your parents’ names?”

“Mom and Dad.”

Mary holds her hand over her mouth as she chuckles. “Oh dear. Do you know their real names? What do your Grandma and Grandpa call them?”

“Well I call my Grandma and Grandpa Mama and Pepa. They call my mom Sadie and my dad Phred.”

“Sadie and Phred Coffey,” Mary says to cement her mental note. “Well, Sam Coffey. I happen to know just where Bobby and his mother are. Do you want to go see them?”

“Yeah!”

“Okay then. Follow me. And are these for them?” she asks as she puts her hands on the presents Sam is still vigilantly holding.

“Uh huh.”

“Well why don’t you let me help you carry ‘em down here and I’ll let you give ‘em to your friends when we get there.”

“They aren’t my friends. Well, just Bobby, not his mom.”

Mary laughs again at Sam’s youthful honesty as they walk around the corner into a hallway. The squeak of Sam’s shoes, wet from snow, carries through the building as they make their way across the linoleum floor. He looks around at all of the paintings and holiday decorations while they travel through a few corridors before coming into a hallway with a several doorways lining both sides. Mary walks him to the last door on the right and stops just outside of it.

“Okay, this is their room. Here are your presents. You go in there and say hi while I call your parents to let them know you are here.” The kind lady smiles genuinely as she hands the boxes back to Sam before returning to the direction they came from.

Sam looks into the small, barely-furnished room to see Bobby in the floor, rolling a blue toy car with a good portion of the paint worn from its sides. His mother is sitting behind him on a cot reading an old hardback book with the title worn off. When Bobby looks up to see Sam standing in the doorway, he jumps to his feet and shouts, “Sam! Did you know it’s Christmas?”

“I know. That’s why I brought you presents!”

“Whoa!” Bobby looks at his mom with a huge grin. “Two toys? Mom I got two toys this year!”

His mother, not quite knowing what to make of it all, nods with a wide-eyed smile. “Well… that’s…” She turns to Sam. “Where are your parents, Sam?”

“They’re at home.”

“Do they know you are here?”

“No. I came all by myself!” This time some of the wind is let out of his sails when he gets a different response.

“We need to let them know where you are right away.”

“Don’t you worry about that,” Mary calls from down the hall. “I’m on the phone with his mother right now. She’s on her way.”

Sam looks back to Amanda with a with a hesitant and confused look. He had expected a much warmer welcome. Was his mother right? When the woman sees a scared tear forming in Sam’s eye, her features soften and she smiles.

“Thank you for bringing Bobby two presents. That was very kind of you.”

A smile slowly returns to Sam’s face. “They aren’t both for Bobby. I brought you one too.”

“Oh, well, thank you.”

The six-year-old offers out the presents and her smile deepens. He is knocked a little off balance as Bobby quickly snatches the top present from him.

“Is this one mine?”

“Yeah,” Sam answers. It wasn’t. That was the one he was going to give Amanda, but he doesn’t want to embarrass his friend.

The ecstatic youngster rips into the gift before another moment passes. “A Leonardo!” he shouts. “He’s my favorite! Thank you, Sam!” After a quick hug, and ripping open the packaging, Bobby is running down the hall making fighting sounds with his new Ninja Turtle.

Sam smiles as he extends his arms to Bobby’s mother with his present between them. After giving a nod she accepts the gift and says, “thank you.” She meticulously separates the tape from the present, as she has learned to do to preserve the wrapping paper. Sam watches with excitement as the paper is folded away piece by piece to reveal what is underneath.

When the gift is uncovered, she sits back and puts her hand over her curled lips as she fights back tears. It’s a useless gift for a 37-year-old woman – a superhero action figure. But she realizes that there is much more worth in this gift than anything else a little boy could have given her. It wasn’t something thoughtful that he had gone to the store and purchased with her in mind, but it was something so much more:

It was Sam’s own unopened gift that he brought to her.

She looks back to the young boy with tear-filled eyes and lightly shakes her head as she marvels at the thoughtfulness. It’s something so many others many times his age don’t even exhibit. “Thank you.” The words come out as a whisper. “Thank you so much, Sam.”

“Do you like it?” he asks with a hopeful look in his eyes.

“I love it.”

The magical moment is interrupted by Mary’s voice as she comes down the hall: “Yes. Sam’s just down here, Mrs. and Mr. Coffey.”

They hear the clopping of frantic footsteps before Sadie and Phred come rushing into the room. With utter relief on their faces, the two parents bend down and embrace their son.

“Sam! Oh my gosh,” his mother exclaims after pulling back and looking into her son’s eyes. “I thought we lost you. Why did you run off?” As she looks over his shoulders and her eyes meet the woman sitting alone in the small, unadorned room, she understands. She doesn’t need to hear Sam’s response to know the answer; the toy on her lap tells her all she needs to know.

“I was just bringing her…” his answers stops short when his teary-eyed mother embraces him again.  Not much else could have kindled her pride so fully in her son at this moment when she knows she should be angry.

Phred sits back with a look of confusion for a few moments when he notices the look on his wife’s face. He thought they were here to find, hug, then scold their son. But when the superhero action figure catches his attention as well, he starts piecing it all together.

After Sam and his mother separate, Amanda offers the toy back to his parents. “Here. I’m sorry, I didn’t know he would come. I was just…”

Phred looks at his wife with a smile then puts out his hand to refuse the offer. “Sam wanted you to have it.”

She smiles and brings it back onto her lap. Sadie wipes a tear from her eye with a smile on her face. “She doesn’t want a toy, Phred. Here, we’ll get you something you can use.”

After looking at the toy again and back into Sam’s innocent eyes, Amanda smiles as she turns her gaze to Sadie. “This one is perfect.”

Sam and his parents share a smile. They understand what makes this gift perfect for her.

Christmas spirit invades the room, and they all feel their souls warm. Five strangers, having not known each other for more than a month, are sharing what they can mutually call the best Christmas of their lives. Not being able to find words, nor feeling the need to, they sit for a moment in peaceful quiet.

The beep of Phred’s watch breaks the momentary silence. “Mom’s house,” Sadie exclaims with wide eyes. “They’re sure to be waiting on us and worried sick about Sam.”

“You’re right. We need to go.” Phred stretches his hand out to Amanda. “It was nice to meet you. Have a merry Christmas.”

“Wait,” Sadie says as she puts her hand over her husband’s and Bobby’s mother’s where they meet. With sincerity in her eyes, she looks at her and says, “come with us.”

“I… I couldn’t do that.”

“Sure you can. We’ll have plenty of food, and Sam loves Bobby. Come with us.”

Sam is beside himself. Nearly shaking with elation, he looks at Amanda expectantly as he waits to here her answer. She’s wants to be persistent in resisting; with a son herself to worry about, she has to think of their safety. The gift tells her that Sam’s intentions are pure, but she doesn’t know his parents. A glance at Same and that gleaming look in the little boy’s eyes melts her walls. She looks back at Sadie with an accepting smile.

As Bobby runs in the room, his loud playing slows to a halt when he notices that everyone is silent. He looks at his mother and asks, “what’s wrong, Mom?”

She wipes a tear from her eye. “Nothing, Honey. How would you like to go with Sam to his grandparent’s house for Christmas?”

Her son’s eyes go wide as he shouts, “yes!” Nearly tackling Sam in a hug, he yells, “we’re going with you!”

“I know! It’s awesome, huh, Bobby? We’re going to have fun, and you’ll love my Mama and Pepa, and there’ll be toys and ham and…”

The excited six-year-old boy goes on discussing all the fun he is going to have with his new friend as the group heads back to the Coffey’s car. This Christmas has already been filled with joy and fear, laughter and tears. And much of the day still remains.

Leaping with joy, the boys lead the way from the door to the car where two families join as one. Contrasting clothes tells of their separation in the status of the world, but the warmth in their souls tells of the nearness of hearts.

Sadie looks in the rear view mirror at the merry boys chatting about their favorite things. Superheroes, toys, video games, and many other important subjects are being discussed. She shares a smile with Amanda then looks back to her son. Who would have guessed that one of the deepest lessons in empathy she would ever learn would come from such a young boy.

She didn’t change the world, but she changed one family’s world.

God bless you all. Thank you for reading, and may your holidays be filled with joy and peace!

Merry Christmas,

Shawn Bain

Ephraim: The Afflicted Tome ®

The chirps of the indigenous birds of the rainforest hang on the air as Ephraim and Roald make their way down the beaten path. The humid air causes their silken robes to cling to their moistened bodies. With each step that draws them closer to their destination, they feel the threats of the jungle’s wildlife and harsh environments diminishing. The trek has been long and hard, but they will soon be rewarded by reaching their the city they set out for.

Ephraim’s agitation begins to show through as exhaustion from the trip takes its toll on his emotions. “I find it hard to believe that this is the only scribe that could put a tome together for us.”

“The only one? Certainly not.” Roald answers as he casts a smirk over his shoulder. “If you want a tome that will subsist during the journeys you and I will be taking, you must be willing to traverse wherever necessary to find the best at their craft. We are drawing near now anyway, so keep up and stop your grumbling.”

“I’ll stop my grumbling when I can get a bite to eat and stop walking.” Ephraim replies under his breath. When Roald glances back over his shoulder with a look of indignation, the student quickly looks into the forest to avert his gaze. I’ve gotta learn when to keep my mouth shut, he thinks.

As the splendorous city of Queloria peaks over the hill, Ephraim’s contention is all but washed away, setting a look of awe on his tired face. The beautiful city with white walls and towers sits back in an alcove in the light gray mountain behind it. A beautiful blue waterfall cascades behind the castle at the back of the province. Dark blue accents dot the serene whites of the city’s buildings, giving the city a beautiful contrast in design.

Ephraim takes a deep breath. Aromas of a floral spring fill the air making the city’s aura all the more pleasant. The combination of being nestled into a mountain and the grand waterfall backdrop combats the calefaction of the jungle air around the magnificent city, bringing it to a temperate climate. Everything about the environment calms their nerves and refreshes their spirits.

Roald turns around to face his apprentice as they approach the city’s ivory gate with beautiful designs that reveals the excellent craftsmanship of its makers. “You appear to be in a better mood already. Stay here for a moment, and I’ll talk to the guards. Perhaps they will grant us entry without taxation I can help them understand the urgency of our quest.” As the teacher makes his way to a guard standing by the doors, Ephraim continues to take in the splendor of the scenery. A movement in his peripheral vision catches his attention. He’s able to make out that it is a dirty child holding an empty drinking pouch and it seems to be approaching him. With a quick turn of his body he is able to ignore the oncoming inconvenience and put some distance between them.

I should help her. Ephraim feels a pull to turn around and comfort the child, and pulls his Topaz from his pouch. He runs his finger across its cool, smooth surface as he examines a small crack on it while keeping his walking pace. I can’t use up my Topaz though. I am definitely going to need it to make myself some drinking water soon. She’s right outside one of the grandest cities in Elqanah. Surely someone will see her and help her. He peers into the reflection on the gem to see that she has diverted her attention to someone else that is giving her the same consideration as he is. An approaching figure startles him, causing his abrupt stop that narrowly keeps him from plowing into it. His teacher, who is returning from talking to the guards, stands before him. The student’s heart sinks as he sees Roald’s angered expression.

“Wow. You scared me.” Ephraim chuckles. The teacher’s unrelenting gaze gives him further discomfort. “So are they going to let us in?” He attempts to make casual conversation to deter the inevitable scolding he feels is approaching. He winces as Roald tears the Topaz from his grasp and walks over to the little girl. The teacher bends over and uses the last of the gem’s essence to fill the little girl’s drinking pouch. The jumping and laughing she exhibits in elation that should be a heart-warming sight is like daggers in Ephraim’s heart as he watches her thank his teacher for an act he knows he should have committed. After exchanging a hug with the girl, Roald hands her a nice-sized pouch with gold coins and rubs his hand on her shoulder. He begins walking back to Ephraim as she runs back out to a little hut outside the city walls.

“How are we going to make water for ourselves without Topaz or gold to buy more?” Ephraim asks sheepishly in a poor attempt to mask his embarrassment.

Roald’s scowl slowly fades away as he pauses for a moment. He takes a deep breath and habitually rubs his hand over his beard to smooth out the area around his mouth. Ephraim reads this telltale sign of his teacher’s attempt to calm himself and gathers a little relief. “You don’t understand this now, but you will soon, Ephraim. Just have faith and when you read the tome we are here to get, it will all begin to make sense.” Ephraim looks away in discomfort as Roald begins walking toward the now-opening gate.

“I wanted to help her, you know. I just don’t see how much help one pouch of water is.” The pupil’s words cause Roald to pause and look back at him. The instructor turns back puts his hand on Ephraim’s shoulder.

“Everyone wants to help, Ephraim. Intentions are good, but you have to be driven to action. It’s only through compassionate action that poverty is slain; one small act at a time.” As Roald turns back and begins walking into the city, Ephraim oddly begins to feel challenged and empowered. Where he recently felt shame, he now feels compelled and eager. He feels his shocked expression shift to a determined grin as he follows his leader into Queloria’s gates.

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The pair make their way through the hustle and bustle of the crowds in Queloria to The Redeemed Scribe. The tranquil sound of the rushing waterfall at the back of the city lends itself to the serenity of the city as merchants and townsfolk converse in a scene that would be a little chaotic in any other township. Mist that sparsely hangs high casts a glorious rainbow over the pristine walls, but doesn’t prevent the sun from giving light to the kingdom. Ephraim glances over as he notices a blue gleam in his peripheral vision, but quickly looks away as he notices it is on the ring of a stern-faced guard. He is quickly reminded of his lessons about the aristocratic Mayim Nation. The wearing of the gems by their Gemkith in their rings is symbolic of the role the nation plays in the grand scheme of the world. Rings signify a ruling position, and the Mayim consider themselves nothing less than worthy of that classification. Ephraim focuses his attention back to his path as the pair walk under an azure canopy set against the white walls of the scribe’s shop and walk through the door.

An aromatic wave of ink and wood floods their noses. Ephraim takes a moment to pause and admire the craftsmanship of the room. The white walls, floor, and ceiling are fashioned so seamlessly that it appears as if the room was naturally formed from the building itself. The walls are lined with ornate walnut bookshelves filled with books of all shapes and sizes. Large, arched windows at the back of the shop give light to the laborer who is milling away at meticulously binding books. The beauty of the room soon tarnishes as Ephraim meets the shopkeeper’s grim gaze from across the counter. He is a tall, dark-headed man wearing a fine silken robe. His work in the press has earned him a few black ink stains on the red and gold material as well as on his cheeks.

“It’s about time you got here, Roald.” He scorns. “You know I’m not supposed to be making these books for you, and I received your request six months ago. If King Zolia were to find out…”

“I know, Saul, and I thank you.” Roald interrupts, “This is the soonest we could journey here, I swear it. What can I pay you for your labor?”

“Just… consider us even for that time you saved me in the jungle.” The shopkeep says as he sets the two tomes up on the counter.

Roald grasps Saul’s shoulder with a grin and says, “Thank you, brother. Our friendship is valuable to me beyond words.” He turns and hands one of the books to Ephraim. The apprentice leans into catching the book as he expects the weight of the deceptively large object to drag his arms to the floor. Roald fights back a grin as his student regains his composure. He runs his fingers over it as he studies the amazing workmanship of the leather cover and the facets embedded into it. The art depicts an armored angel spreading its wings over the city of Queloria.

With a look of puzzlement, Ephraim turns his attention to the book’s maker and asks, “So what is so dangerous about this book?”

Saul looks at Roald with mild disbelief. “You didn’t tell him what’s in the book?”

“I thought it best to keep a little ambiguity until we made it out of Queloria. The less he knows of it in these walls, the better.” Roald exchanges nods with the scribe and turns to Ephraim. “Come. We risk our ally’s lives by staying here any longer than need be. We will make our way to the lapidary to get these gems fitted for the facets in these tomes.” He turns back to Saul to issue one more statement as they step out of the door. “Farewell, and may the next time we meet be under better circumstances.”

“Take care, Roald. I pray your path is made safe for you by the One who watches over us.”

As the pair walk out of the room, the shop’s workman in the back wipes beads of sweat from his brow and watches with a look of desperation and malice in his eyes.

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The next morning, Ephraim steps out of the Rosehall Inn at the town’s center. Rushing waters from the backdrop of the city enhance the repose of the dewy morning in Queloria as the lingering mist shifts about through the streets. He assumes that the bustle of the townspeople reserves itself to the afternoon, leaving the morning even more tranquil and pleasant. The sounds of the waterfall and the revisited floral fragrance add to the peacefulness of the scene. He can’t help but find himself wondering how a king of such a peaceful and beautiful kingdom could entertain the idea of punishing someone over a book.

After a few moments, Roald steps out of the inn and hands his pupil’s tome to him. He thought it better to keep it himself for the night in case someone were to catch wind of the book’s creation in the city and the guards were to search the inn that night. The teacher certainly didn’t want to risk his apprentice’s life, but he also didn’t want him reading it without first being told the importance of what its pages contained.

Ephraim is compelled by the book’s exquisite craftsmanship to run his hand over the cover once again as he collects his thoughts for the morning. His mind drifts as the art on the book draws his loose focus. The grooves in the design naturally draw his fingers from one side to the other. As his appendages reach the edge, he has to remember his promise to his teacher and fight the urge to crack it open and read its contents. Roald finishes lacing his boots and notices his student’s fanciful state. He draws Ephraim’s attention back into reality by saying, “Right then. Are you ready to go?”

Ephraim lingers in his trance momentarily and lightly shakes his head with a smirk as he tries to imagine a reason for such a fuss over a collection of words. “Yeah. Let’s get going.” As the two begin making their way down the city’s stone walkway, the pupil’s fleeting resolve loses out to his curiousness. “You are going to tell me why it’s so dangerous to have this book, right?”

“I promise to tell you the moment this city’s walls disappear behind the hill, but right now we need to focus on making it that far.” Roald pauses for a moment as he hears a crowd jeering and chanting. The pair follow the sound, and as they round a corner and emerge from an alley way, they see why the streets are empty this morning. A crowd of people have gathered in a corner of the city that has obviously not been kept as well as the merchant’s square where they have been. The dusty streets lead to a platform where a man in an executioner’s hood bearing a giant axe is standing. The crowd standing around the platform is restless and calling for blood. A town guard leads a man with a hood over his face onto the platform and next to the executioner’s block. The mage feels his heart sink as the soldier jerks the black veil off to reveal the face of doomed man.

“Saul the Scribe, you have been charged with printing religious propaganda that has been outlawed by the state of Queloria.” The guard declares. “The penalty for said crime is death by beheading and is sentenced to be carried out immediately by order of King Zolia. How do you wish to plea?”

Saul looks over his shoulder at the soldier with an icy glare. “Does it matter?”

“The criminal wishes to not give a plea, what do the good people of Queloria say?”

“Kill him! Kill him!” The crowd begins to chant. Roald’s rage builds flushing his face as the watchman allows the humiliation to ensue momentarily.

Ephraim turns to him to ask, “What should we do?” But his query doesn’t penetrate Roald’s fixation on the scene unfolding before them. The guard raises his hand to calm the crowd so they can hear him speak.

“The people have spoken! Do you have any last words, criminal?”

Saul’s skims the crowd. He ponders on how the city that he had so loved, and had so loved him, could so quickly be calling for his life. A rogue tear streaks through the dirt on his cheek as he tries to find the words to express what his heart feels though his resolve does not break. His eyes meet Roald’s. He reads the anger in them as Roald reads the call for hesitation in Saul’s eyes.

“If there is one among you that has sympathy for me, I tell you not to grieve. Do not make it known if you do have sympathy for me, for you would do so at the exchange of your life.” Ephraim glances at Roald as he begins to understand that Saul is speaking to them. His teacher’s expression is gradually softening from hard anger to disconcerted sorrow for the inevitable loss of his friend. “You have many important things ahead of you in your life. Do not risk them for one that is doomed. Go be the change the world needs. I go now to meet my Creator; the merciful Savior of manki…” The guard punches him, ending his proclamation.

“You won’t spew your religious nonsense from my stage, filth.” He shoves Saul to his knees. Roald spins Ephraim around and they begin making their way toward the city gate in an attempt to prevent himself from acting out. His fingers begin to clutch his tome tightly as his anger continues to rise. The feeling of helplessness and sorrow sends a cold shudder down his spine as their pace hastens. He can’t escape the vicinity soon enough to prevent hearing the cheers calling from behind him that affirm his fears. His friend is dead. A torrent of emotions flows through him as they round the last corner, placing the town gate just ahead of them.

“Come on, Ephraim. We have to get out of the gates before the people of the town lose interest in what’s going on back there. They will undoubtedly begin searching everyone to find the books he made.” Roald says. Ephraim looks at his teacher sympathetically as he follows his command. “I have a good rapport with the guard here, so let me talk to them, and maybe they will let us through without checking us.”

Ephraim waits as Roald makes his way over and begins speaking with one of the guards at the left side of the gate. As he notices a guard from the right side of the gate giving him an unnerving glare, he begins to slightly shift uncomfortably in place. A cold bead of sweat accumulates on his brow as he feels the guards eyes make their way to his tome. He quickly slides the book into the arm opposite of the guard which only further raises the sentry’s suspicion. Ephraim knows he is about to be found out. To his fortune, the gate begins to slide open as Roald approaches him. The keen teacher notices the alert guard and casually turns from moving toward Ephraim to leading him through the aperture to hasten their exit.

“Hey! You!” The guard shouts from behind them. “Let me see that book!” As the pair pick up their pace, the guard becomes certain he has found who they are looking for. “It’s them! Quick, shut the gates!”

“Run!” Roald shouts as the pair barely clear the opening to the closing gates. Ephraim breathes a sigh of relief as they emerge on the other side of the city walls and the doors slam shut behind them. The moment is short-lived as he sees the impending handful of guards that keep watch from outside the city. Roald turns back to his pupil to say, “Ok. The Mayim Empire is known for using water-elemental gems, so you know what to counter with, right?”

Ephraim issues an eager nod with a determined grin as his eyes begin to shine green. A glowing mist of the same color begins to trail from the Peridot on the face of his tome as he throws his empty hand overhead. The ground beneath them quakes as a nearby boulder separates from it and barely blocks an incoming razor-sharp, liquid wave. Like controlling a marionette, the mage swings his arm around and sends the boulder smashing some of the guards and pins them against the city wall. The white barrier cracks behind them from the pressure of the attack. As he focuses on controlling the boulder, he begins to feel the air condensate around him. He turns to see two remaining guards with sapphire-colored glowing eyes; one creating a liquid bubble around his head and the other preparing to unleash another slicing attack. The back of his throat collects moisture as he takes one more deep breath before his head is completely encased in a fluid sphere. Unable to keep his concentration, he drops the boulder and covers his mouth and nose. Desperation sets in as he realizes he can’t gather the focus needed to block the attack from the second remaining guard. His vision begins to darken and he feels his consciousness beginning to fade as he tries to keep his footing.

Roald turns back from taking down a few guards to see his struggling pupil. His rage that is still burning at the loss of Saul is fueled beyond control at the sight. His eyes begin to shine with all of the colors represented on his tome simultaneously, causing them to take on a malicious purple hue. A trail of mist of the same shade follows his book as he begins his assault. In fluid motion he causes the two guards to turn their attacks on each other. He turns and ignites two men that are recuperating from being slammed into the wall by a boulder. With a spin of his body he sends the boulder that Ephraim used crashing into the four poor charred and bleeding people he has just overcome. As his relentless onslaught presses on, the guards inside the city have gotten the gate back open and are beginning to advance on them. Roald’s darkened gaze petrifies them with fear as he sends a mountain of earth rising in front of the gate to trap them behind it.

Ephraim coughs and gasps for air as he begins to regain his focus. The realization that Roald is getting dangerously close to becoming drunk with power exhorts him to call to his mentor, “Roald! We’ve won! Let’s get out of here!”

Roald’s eyes quickly lose their shine as he regains his composure. A glimmer of shame skims his eyes as he pauses momentarily. He doesn’t let the moment linger, knowing that the people of Queloria wouldn’t remain behind his wall for long. As Ephraim runs past him, he quickly falls in line behind his student as they vanish back into the jungle overgrowth.

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As Ephraim emerges from the jungle with his teacher, and he finally feels that they are safe from the Quelorian guard, he looks down the road ahead. The seeming unend and mystery of what lies beyond the mist connecting the forest on both sides of them a metaphor for his destiny. After travelling a short distance, his anticipation overcomes the flurry of other emotions their time in the city gave him, causing him to finally swallow the lump in his throat and ask the question that had been circling his thoughts since he first touched his tome: “Why are they killing people for this book?”

The discerningly somber look in Roald’s eyes makes Ephraim’s soul cry. The student offers a wry smile in solace to his teacher’s misery. Roald responds, “Do you remember the lesson you were taught about the turning of the eras, and the Hero of Elqanah?” Roald finally asks.

Ephraim is hesitant to offer his answer. “I do. Of course I do. But why don’t you tell me what you know so I can make sure you’re right,” he says jokingly. The wisecrack does little to lighten the mood. Roald stops and throws his head back with his eyes closed in disappointment. He takes a deep breath as he runs his hand over his mouth again, smoothing out the short hair of his beard. He looks over his shoulder for a moment to assure they are alone and glances around for a spot for them to sit. He gives a slight head gesture towards a small alcove off of the path with a few logs laying about. As Ephraim passes by the tree line, he notices a green mist trailing from Roald’s tome. The creaking of tree trunks causes him to look back and see that the trees have bent in and are blocking the clearing from the sight of the road. Roald takes a seat on a log and pats the spot next to him as he looks at Ephraim.

“Have a seat, Ephraim.” A hurricane of thoughts blows through the pupil’s head as he follows Roald’s command. “How much do you really know?”

“Uh,”

“Honestly.”

Ephraim lowers his head. “Not much.”

“Okay. I’ll start from the beginning: when Elohim created Elqanah, He made two humans to live on it. They lived peaceably for many years amongst the wildlife and vegetation. One day, a dragon that was jealous of the relationship the humans had with Elohim convinced the humans that they should use their magic to create a being of their own so they could be like their Creator. So the couple worked their magic together to create a creature unlike anything that had been created before. They made the creature and named it Maveth.”

Ephraim’s jaw dropped open. He remembered the beast Maveth from several stories. It roamed the world killing mercilessly and leaving many dead in its wake. It was said that no person every died of natural causes in those days. That Maveth eventually found you and ended your time when he was ready. He was an indestructible, unwavering force of destruction.

“I see you remember that name,” Roald lightheartedly jested. “I would hope you didn’t forget him. The humans went into hiding and the races of the world grew out of their children. During Maveth’s time on Elqanah, many prophets gave hope to its inhabitants by foretelling of a Hero that would come and destroy the creature. After centuries of the races of Elqanah surviving the beast’s grasp, the Hero came. He lived His life teaching people of the ways of Elohim until His time to meet Maveth came.”

Ephraim’s happiness bubbled out as he said, “And He killed Maveth?”

“No. Maveth killed Him.”

Roald’s abrupt delivery of the unexpected turn of events shocked his pupil, causing him to suddenly lean back. Ephraim turned the thoughts over in his mind momentarily before asking what anyone likely would in that situation: “what happened to Maveth?”

“That’s where it gets beautiful, Ephraim. Everyone expected an epic battle between the Savior of Elqanah and death incarnate, but He didn’t fight him. In fact He accepted His death willingly in spite of being the Chosen Savior. Many people battled the beast before Him, but he could never be bested. It was the necessary sacrifice for the Savior to be raised from death by Elohim to conquer Maveth once and for all. His death saved us all from Maveth’s tyranny over the races of Elqanah.”

Ephraim’s face lit up as he began to feel a little overwhelmed with joy. Then he began to wonder, though, as his thoughts drifted back to the events in Queloria and the book in his hands. “But what does that have to do with them killing the scribe back there?”

“The book in your hand has been attacked since it was written. Men have tried for years to wipe it from the face of Elqanah. It is a combination of the scrolls written by the prophets that tell how people of the time should live, the history of Elqanah, the prophecies of the coming Savior, and eye witnesses that walked with the Savior during His time here. It helps us understand the nature of Elohim, the Creator, and how we can grow closer to Him.”

“But why would someone want to destroy that?”

“You’ll understand more when you get the time to read and study it, but generally men don’t want to be told how to behave and act. The dragon that was present with the first humans still imposes his malicious intent amongst men, and tries to destroy the book as well. It is only under Elohim’s guidance that this tome has survived through centuries of attempted destruction to be in our hands today.”

Ephraim has a hard time processing it all. He rubs his fingers and thumb back and forth across his forehead to alleviate the swirling sensation inside of it as he tries to take it all in. “Why would that matter though? Don’t people still want to know what happened?”

“Well, with the passing of time, and the spreading of lies by the dragon, some people have come to believe that the history of the Savior is a myth. Nothing more than a legend told to the youth and weak of the world to give them a false hope.”

“But what do they think happened to Maveth? He isn’t around killing people anymore.”

“They tie him with the records of the Savior and question his existence too.” Ephraim leans back with his hands on the log behind him for a moment and contemplates what he is being told. Roald reads the look on his face and stands up before the student can question further. “As I said, you’ll understand better when you have ample time to read and study it. For now, we need to separate ourselves from Queloria and make our way to our next destination.”

“Which is where?”

Roald looks back as the trees begin to unfold ahead of him and smiles with a shake of his head. “That, my student, will be revealed to you in time.”

A Christmas Story 2014 ®

This is sequel to A Christmas Story 2012 ®

You can read it by clicking the picture below and add to the experience of this story

StuyTown_Xmas_tree

Snow is falling on a Christmas Eve night as a man makes his way across a factory parking lot to his small truck with an armload of boxes. The hood to his thick, brown denim jacket protects his shiny, bald head from the chilly night. He lifts a tarp that is covering the contents of his truck bed, and snow slides off as he lays what he is carrying inside. A radiating smile lights up his face as he takes a moment to glance at the contents under the covering before laying it back down. The creak of his old truck door sounds out on the silent air as he opens it. “Thanks for helping me get these boxed up, Frank.” He shouts as he waves to a man in the doorway to the factory building and plops down in the seat.

“No problem, Nick. Merry Christmas.” Frank yells back before stepping back into the shop. As Nick turns the key over in the ignition, the truck cranks and sputters to a start. He pulls off one of his gloves to send one more text before he leaves. It reads, ‘Got them loaded up. On my way’, to an unnamed contact. The blinking red battery indicator in the corner of his screen catches his attention. 

Looks like my phone’s going to die, he thinks. At least I got that last text out. He backs out of the lot and starts making his way down the road. This is a trip he makes every year during this season. He knows the quicker route through the countryside will likely not be plowed, so he opts for the longer route through the city to be safe. The quiet of the drive doesn’t seem to match his mood, so he turns on the radio to some joyful Christmas music to sing along to and make his drive more pleasant. Memories of Christmas past flood his thoughts as he sings along to the happy tune.

When Nick gets about halfway through town, he comes to a roadblock. Construction? In winter? He thinks. The only option he is left with is to take the detour back out of town and take his chances with the outer roads. All he can do is hope that the trip won’t be as treacherous as he thinks it will be.

The merry Christmas tune plays on his radio helping to calm his nerves as he drives slowly down the freshly snow-covered asphalt. The falling flurry limits the length of his vision which adds to the stress of driving the unfamiliar route.  He strains his eyes as he sees a red flicker ahead of him. Soon the silhouette of a car appears through the white sheet and he realizes that flicker was a set of taillights. In a panic, he slams on his brakes and veers off of the pavement, causing his truck to slide to a stop in a ditch off to the side of the road. As he jumps out of his truck to get the attention of the car ahead of him in hopes of getting help, it seems to disappear. Was the car an apparition; merely a figment of his imagination? Or was the driver just unaware that he had ran off of the road? Either way, he was now alone.

The panicked man pulls his phone from his pocket and hopes against logic that his battery has held out. Dead, he thinks as he tries to open the screen. To his fortune, the snow has finally let up as he turns to assess his surroundings. Middle of nowhere. A fine place to get stuck. Without a house in sight, he jumps back in his truck and tries to get back on the road by backing up and darting forward. Reverse, drive, reverse, drive. No luck. He knows he is only making the problem worse by digging ruts with his tires, so he stops trying to drive out.

Feeling disheartened, Nick looks over his shoulder at his cargo again. As he turns back and lays his head on his arms atop the steering wheel, he turns down the volume of the cheery music at the realization that it is now adding to his stress. His whispering voice is almost drowned out by the hum of his running motor as he says, “Lord, please help me get there. You know how important this is to them.”

The moment he finishes the prayer and raises his head, he sees a car with a pizza delivery sign on top of it coming to a stop. The driver’s happiness as he gets out of the car and approaches the truck seems a little strange to Nick considering the cold night and inclement weather. The slick roads had to have made his job incredibly more difficult that night. The desperate man cautiously rolls down his window as the delivery driver says, “Hey, man. Ya need some help?”

Beginning to feel hopeful, Nick lets a smile roll his up his cheeks. “Yes, please.”

“Alright. Just put it in drive and give ‘er all you got and I’ll give you a push.” The delivery driver pats the truck’s window sill and makes his way to the tailgate. A small seed of fear takes root in Nick’s gut as he thinks about the ruts his tires dug with his first attempt to get out of the ditch.

Please help us out. He thinks as he slides the shifter into drive. A glance in the rearview mirror and a nod from his accomplice gives him the signal he needs to give it the gas. Almost without effort, the truck slides right up onto the road and stops in the right lane. Nick feels so elated, though a little bewildered, that he almost doesn’t believe what happened. He steps out of the truck to thank the man who helped him.

“Man, I can’t tell you how much of a help this was.” Nick says as he pulls his hand from his glove to shake the driver’s hand.

“No problem, buddy. I owed someone anyway, and your predicament was perfect for it.” The driver says as he vigorously shakes his hand.

Nick is almost as confused by the man’s enthusiasm as he is his statement. “What do you mean?”

“Well,  you see, when I was at the grocery store earlier, I came across a card that someone had left behind with a hundred bucks in it. I wasn’t going to have enough to get a gift for my boys or a Christmas dinner, but the money the guy left behind more than helped me with that.” The giddy man pauses and holds a finger up as if he remembers something. “Oh, wait a second.”  He goes back over to his car and pilfers for a moment before coming back over to Nick and handing him a card. “See, this is what he left with the money.”

The front of the card has a decorated tree and a baby in a manger underneath. The card says; ‘The greatest Christmas Gift.’ He turns the card over to read; ‘I’m passing on the happiness given to me. Take this $100 and have a joyous Christmas season.’ Nick nods and smiles as he now understands the source of the man’s happiness.

“And here’s yours. I’m sorry I don’t have any money to give you.” The driver says as he hands a card to him. He feels the stark contrast of his warm heart against the cold weather on his skin as he looks at an image of two figures leaning over a manger with a baby in it and a bright star above them.  It reads, ‘Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:11’

Nick looks up with glistening moisture in his eyes as he pulls the man in for a hug and says, “you’ve given me more than money can buy, my friend.” He walks back over to his truck and lifts the tarp covering his truck bed. A smiling head-gesture signals the pizza delivery driver to look underneath.

The revelation brings a bright smile to his face. “So you’re going…” His sentence trails off as Nick nods in affirmation. “God bless you, sir. And a merry Christmas.” He says as he shakes Nick’s hand again. “But you’ve got an important place to be. I don’t want to make you late, and my family is waiting up on me.” He rushes back over to his car and yells back before sitting back in, “what was your name again?”

“Nick.”

“Nick, I’m Larry. Merry Christmas!” He shouts one more time as he gets in and starts heading back down the road.

Nick whispers back, “merry Christmas,” before getting back in his truck and leaving as well. Sheer glee fills his heart as he thinks about the turn of events. What a coincidence that someone who had no other means to give someone else the joy that he himself had been given to happen across him when he was stuck. Even more so since the detour had given him a route that put him in the man’s path. And the ease at which they were able to get him out of that ditch, that he had tried so hard to get out of on his own, was starting to boggle his mind. As he thinks of it all, the only thing he can do is let out a smile from ear to ear.

When Nick gets about a mile down the road, he realizes his thoughts have kept him from turning his radio back on. Christmas tunes during the holiday season is one of Nick’s greatest pleasures, and he only has one more day to enjoy it, so he plans to make the most of every minute. The delight of listening to his favorite music adds to the splendor of the moment that could have ended so badly.

The crunching snow mixes with the chug of the engine as he pulls to a stop in a driveway. He pulls down his hood and throws on a red Santa hat as he throws open the door and steps to the back of the truck. With a shake and a toss, the tarp is off on the ground beside the truck. He grabs an armload of boxes and makes his way to the door. A quiet thudding sounds out on the quiet night as he uses the concrete step to knock the snow from his boots. Before he can knock, the door opens to reveal excitement and laughter. A woman stands to greet him with several children running and playing in the room behind her. Nick peers around the boxes to ensure his footing before looking at her. “Sorry I took so long getting here, Linda.” He says with a wide grin on his face as he sets the boxes in the floor next to the Christmas tree. “Had to take a detour and wound up in the ditch.” He knows she isn’t upset that he is late, but he wants to let her know why he is regardless.

“That’s ok. At least you aren’t hurt.” Linda says with a smile as she leans in to give him a hug. She turns back to the room of noisy children and shouts, “Kids! Look who’s here to see you!” The room falls quiet for a brief instant before erupting in joyful cheering. A group of kids run up and hug his legs as the rest run over and begin inspecting the boxes.

Nick picks up a cute, little brown-headed girl and gives her a big hug. “How are you, Miss Emily?”

“Good! Thank you so much for bringing us Christmas presents!”

“You are so welcome.” He says before setting her back down. “There’s a special present in there with your name on it.” The giddy girl runs over and starts picking through the boxes to find her gift. Linda walks up next to him and they watch the kids together for a moment in all of their excitement.

“This orphanage wouldn’t be the same without you, Nick. These kids never had presents like this before you came along.”

“I couldn’t live with myself if I hadn’t started doing this for you guys. When I heard about all of these parentless kids that had nothing to open on Christmas…” He pauses for a moment to bite his quivering lip then wipes a tear from his eye. “Every kid deserves a merry Christmas.” Linda lays her head gently on his shoulder and puts an arm around him for comfort. The flashing Christmas lights create a dance of colors on his tear-streaked face.

After giving himself another moment to take it all in, he starts back toward the door. “I’ve got another armload. I’ll be right back.” Linda looks back and smiles at him before turning back and stepping into the kid’s chaos to attempt at bring some order to it.

As Nick steps outside and closes the door behind him, the cold air gingerly bites the areas of his exposed skin. He feels like he has stepped into another world as the wild screams of the kids get muffled by the closed door. The snow-covered town makes the scene before him peacefully silent. Swirling emotions make him feel as if he is light enough to walk on top of the soft, white blanket covering the yard as he crosses it. He looks at the remainder of presents in the bed of his truck and takes a moment to lower his head. His soft chuckle is amplified by the silent night as he shakes his head and thinks about the last few hours. “Paying it forward.” Almost without conscious thought, he looks up at the sky. The beauty of the softly-falling flakes and thoughts of the happiness of the children in the house behind him overwhelm him for a moment as he simply whispers, “thank you.”

The awestruck man scoops up the few presents left and dusts the snow off of them before making his way back to the house. As he approaches the door, a youngster pops his head out and says, “Nick, you didn’t bring me a present!” As the statement brings Nick out of his blissful trance, he lets out a hearty chuckle.

“I’m comin’, I’m comin’. You didn’t really think I would forget you, did you?” The door closes a final time and once again the joyous laughter of the children inside is quietened to the noiseless town. The scene of playful children in the window is lost to the night as Linda pulls the drapes closed.

Another Christmas is made merry for the children of the orphanage by the acts of one man and the many events that fell into place to get him to his destination. A seemingly insignificant act by a kind pizza-delivery man assisted in bringing the kids their holiday joy. Who knows how many acts before that took place to lead to this moment? Or how many acts will take place from this night going forward? One small act of kindness can have an innumerable effect.

May you enjoy this holiday season, spend time with the ones you love, and spread holiday cheer.

Merry Christmas,

Shawn Bain

Ephraim: The Temple’s Dark Secret ®

The unforgiving heat makes the windless day all the more unbearable for a pair of travelling mages. The haze of the heat coming from the hot sand makes their target on the horizon hard to recognize. Identifying the distance proves to be even more of a challenge. The men’s lavish robes sit beneath coarse tan cowls that provide little comfort for their heads from the sun’s unforgiving rays. Ephraim lifts his water pouch to his parched lips to get some relief. To no avail.

“Empty.” He sighs. As he begins digging in his gem pouch in search of a Topaz, he looks over to his teacher with exhaustion in his eyes. “Are we even gaining any ground? Every mile we travel towards the temple, it seems to travel two away from us.”

His teacher keeps a calm resolve in the unrelenting weather. “All the better. You need quizzing prior to entering the temple anyway. It is sure to be lined with challenging traps. Elsewise someone before us would have obtained the Owl Agate from the statue’s eyes long ago.” Ephraim drops his shoulders with a sigh.

“Quizzing… How do you expect one wizard and his apprentice to get the stones if so many people have tried before us and failed?” He holds his topaz over his water pouch and his eyes begin to glow a light blue. As a light of the same color shines from inside of his hand, water pours out of it into the empty pouch.

“We’ll worry about that if we get there.”  Roald adjusts the strap of his gem pouch. “Now, if you were to be attacked, by say bandits, what gem would you use for defense in this unforgiving desert? Concurrently, what would you use for offense? You favored Peridot when you were retrieving the Moonstone at the cave, but numerous granules of sand will prove too great of a challenge for an amateur Gemkith such as yourself to control. (From Ephraim: A Test of Aptitude) So I’m afraid the gold you spent on that Peridot when we stopped in Limone will have turn into a long term investment.” As the student finishes drinking the water in his pouch, he ties it back to his belt, reaches into his gem pouch, and pulls out the rest of his jewels with his Topaz.

“Well, I haven’t used my Aquamarine yet.”

“Ah.” The teacher raises his finger. “The arid desert air won’t provide enough humidity to use the water in the atmosphere, and you don’t want to use any of your Topaz’s essence to create water or we won’t have enough drinking water to make it home.” Ephraim sighs and drops his Topaz, Aquamarine, and Peridot back into his pouch, then opens his hand to investigate the remaining gems.

“Okay, well.” He takes a moment to study the minerals. “You want me to stick to elemental gems before moving on to the harder ones, so maybe my Citrine?”

“While there is a surplus of wind for you to control with your Citrine, the winds out here can already be fierce. Most bandits are geared with armor to withstand high winds, particularly if they spend any amount of time in this region, and most beasts that survive out here were created to endure them as well.” The apprentice begins to show a little aggravation as he drops the yellow stone into his pouch.

“All that leaves is my Garnet, but I don’t have any Ruby to create fire.”

“You’ll have to be creative. Fire is in any spark, and it will be easy to ignite in this dry air.” Roald pauses and runs his index finger and thumb down both sides of his jawline as he thinks. The black, and occasionally grey, hairs in his finely-trimmed beard bristle against his fingers. “I’m going to break one of my rules though in favor of a lesson. While fire is among the best offenses, it makes for poor defense. You may use your Amethyst for defense for this test. Normally I would have you use a different gem in this test than you used in the last one, but Amethyst has a plethora of ways it can be used.” Ephraim’s eyes light up as he looks back at the magnificent purple gem. He quickly drops the rest of the stones into his pouch and holds his Garnet in one hand and his Amethyst in the other. His memory drifts back to how he was able to project an image of himself to deceive the imps and dodge some attacks. “Last time you projected images of yourself, so you may not do that this time.” Roald’s statement deflates excitement, as his statements have a tendency to do. “Since Amethyst has so many capabilities though, you’ll need to make your focus shielding at this time.”

“What all can it do?”

“Another time.”

“How do I choose what I do with the power? All I have done until now is control the element that the stone’s…” Ephraim’s words trail off as he begins to feel the ground shake. “Wha.. what’s that?” He looks over to see a look of knowing determination on his trainer’s face as he surveys his surroundings. The sand beneath their feet begins to sink into a forming hole nearby, causing the men to fall back. With just a short distance left to reach the temple, he contemplates making a run for the entrance, but after the realization that he won’t reach the building in time, Ephraim fixes his gaze on the hole forming in the sand. Suddenly a tower of putrid pink flesh emerges from the void in the silt and leans in their direction. As the grains sift from the top of the creature, the tip opens into three flaps that are lined with teeth.

“Braaaaaww!” It screams.

“Sand worm!” Ephraim yells. He looks over for a glimpse of hope from his trainer only to find the vacant seat in the sand he once occupied. “Are you kidding me? We get attacked by a monster and you leave me?”

“The teacher is always quiet during the test.” The invisible mage states. “This is an excellent learning opportunity for you. Just focus on our conversation and show this thing what you are made of.”

Excellent learning opportunity. Ephraim thinks. The young student looks back as the colossal beast begins to lunge at him. Sand flies from his arm as he quickly raises it across the top of his head as if to block the blow. A purple light begins to glow from his eyes as a translucent bubble forms in front of him just before the worm collides with it. The monster lets out another boisterous scream and begins snapping feverishly at the translucent dome. Panic begins to set into Ephraim’s face as he begins looking around for a comburent. The creature biting down on his shield is only worsening the feeling. He uses his free arm to quickly wipe the sweat from his brow that has been stinging his eyes as it pours into them. As the beast’s teeth clash against the purple guard, something catches the mage’s eye.

He is able to calm for a moment to think to himself. The clanging of the worm’s teeth and its irritated growls quieten as Ephraim is granted a moment of artificial peace while he concentrates on his thoughts. When his plan is set, his expression transitions from grimace to excited-determination. The glow of his eyes gains a red tint in the preexisting purple rays. His shield begins buckling under the invertebrate’s blows as Ephraim times his attack. Going to have to do this. The worm regroups for a massive strike.

“Your shield won’t take another hit, Ephraim. Find your fuel and attack now!” A voice shouts from beyond vision. The pupil throws his blocking arm from in front of his face, launching the bubble into the behemoth’s mouth. It bites down causing the shield to shatter into pieces. The glow from Ephraim’s eyes turns crimson red as he jumps to his feet and raises his other arm over his head, a red misty light in tow. A flame ignites in the sand worm’s mouth, and as its creator throws his fist to the ground, causing the blaze to travel down into its stomach. He remains silent and focused as the creature writhes and screams in pain, sweat glistening his body and his face contorted in determined rage. After a moment the fire explodes from within the monster. Flames spurt from its mouth as it falls to the ground and lays lifeless. After a short moment the body begins to slink slowly into the hole from whence it came, and the instructor fades into visibility between the beast and its conqueror.

“Great job, Ephraim.” Roald says, fighting back a proud smile. The teacher has long held the belief that keeping a solemn demeanor instills faith in his actions to his students and teaches them that cool, logically thinking in the heat of battle leads to more favorable outcomes. The belief stemming from a lesson that remains firmly in his memory. His teacher from Gemkith college let his emotions dictate his actions in battle, and in a fit of rage gave his advantage away to the enemy. It was a mortal mistake for the teacher. For Roald it is a lesson forever etched in a small scar above his brow, keeping it at the forefront of his thoughts. It is a mistake he does not plan to make with his teachings.

As he approaches his pupil a mighty wind picks up. All of their exposed skin begins to sting as the sand pelts them. They throw the loose material of their cowls in front of their faces to soften the burn of the bombarding granules. “Quickly! The temple is just ahead!” The teacher’s voice is muffled by the sound of the sandstorm, but Ephraim follows the instructor’s movements to the nearby safe haven. The sand has piled up from the frequent sandstorms of the desert to make the once profound staircase into a handful of steps. They quickly ascend the stairs and teacher and student push on the giant, stone doors but the wind and loose sand on the floor make it impossible to gather their footing. “Stand back!” Roald yells as he grabs a Peridot from his pouch. A green light emanates through the thin material of the cowl and another matching light trails his hand as he throws his arms out, commanding the doors to swing open. The teacher’s years of practice in gem magic make the tons of earthen rock slide as if they were pebbles. Ephraim’s amazement at his teacher’s prowess is quickly suppressed as the two run inside. Roald immediately turns inside the temple with a swing of his arm and slams the doors back shut. They pant for a moment, their short breaths stinging their lungs with grains of sand and hot, dry desert air. They look at each other as the sand in their lungs constricts their breathing. Almost simultaneously they realize that they have stepped out of the frying pan and into the fire by entering the temple. Slowly, they turn around expecting to find rooms and hallways filled with traps, but to their surprise they stand in one giant room. The room is a large rectangle that is lined with pillars. The architecture is as simplistic as the floor that is composed of large, square blocks of sandstone. In a corner of the room a mirror reflects a light from a hole high in the wall that gleams off of two gems that sit as an owl statue’s eyes across the room.

“Huh,” Ephraim huffs as he stands, stilling catching his breath, “it’s that easy? How could no one else, have made it here? All we have to do, is walk across the room, and grab the gems.”

Roald takes a deep breath through his nostrils trying to quickly regain his composure. “It pays to always be on your guard, Ephraim.” The instructor stands and brushes off his robe. “Things are not always as they seem.” As the teacher and student make their way across the room they notice piles of bones sitting atop the stone floor. Ephraim begins to become uneasy as he thinks of the sight. He looks to Roald to see if the view is as unsettling to him, but as always the teacher keeps a steel resolve.

“What do you think happened to them?” The apprentice’s question is hollow. He knows they were the ones who had tried before them and failed, but he asks the question with a false hope that his teacher will comfort his fear. Roald reads this in his tone.

“Ephraim, it is better to look at the situation accurately than in a false light with false hope. Painting an ugly picture with beautiful colors still creates an ugly product. If I didn’t think we could overcome this challenge I wouldn’t have brought you here. Sometimes you just have to call on your Faith for comfort.” While not the ease in spirit he was looking for, the words do queerly calm his nerves. He is able to, tentatively, square his shoulders and walk with more confidence.

As the two approach the statue the teacher’s firm beliefs slip, and he begins to show slight signs of discomfort. Ephraim notices his change in body language, closes his eyes, and hones in on his Gemkith senses to see what is causing Roald’s change in composure. A strange pulsing sensation washes over his body dizzying his balance slightly. Back and forth, back and forth almost drawing him in with each pulse toward the statue. He concentrates deeper. The pulse is coming from one of the gems in the statue. Immediately after he opens his eyes, the gems in the statue’s eyes begin to glow. Almost as if the statue was sentient and knew what the Gemkith was doing. Strangely both eyes aren’t glowing with a gray tone as he thought they would. One is a deep black that is emitting unnaturally dark rays of light. Roald turns to his pupil with a look of grimace. His typically strong and certain voice carries a tone of distress. “Ephraim, that is Black Topaz. Its essence carries the repulsive power of necromancy. I’m sorry that I brought you here.” As the instructor finishes his sentence, Ephraim’s stomach turns in knots. All of the bones in the room lift from the floor as if a puppeteer pulled their strings. The bones all lock together with unnerving knocking and crunching, furthering the unsettled feeling in the student’s stomach. There is a brief silence. After a brief moment it is abruptly ended when the shifting sound of the skeleton’s sliding feet fills the room as they all turn toward them. The holes of their skulls are suddenly and simultaneously ignited with light blue flames. They all bend down to pick up weaponry before standing. Deafening screams come from the animated bones and fill the room as they all begin to advance toward the two Gemkith. Ephraim covers his ears and his face gives a distressed look as the steeled composure returns to his teacher. Roald has resigned himself to his fate.

“Get behind me!” Roald yells. Ephraim scrambles to pull jewels from his pouch as he follows the command. The teacher’s eyes glow green lighting the look of solemn determination on his face as he lifts his hands to bring two stone slabs from the floor into the air by a skeleton. The large rocks slam together as the gem-master claps his hands. He separates them and places the flooring back in place as the heap of bone shards fall into a pile on the floor. In moments the shards reform to make two whole skeletons again. “That’s what I feared. We can’t physically kill something that is already dead. All we can do is fight to hold them back as we formulate a strategy.” Before he can finish his statement, a skeleton has reached them and swings an axe at Ephraim, but the attack freezes mid-swing. He looks over to see Roald’s eyes emanating a light blue light. As the grand mage raises his hand, the skeleton is lifted off of the ground. With a sweep of his arm, Roald slams the monster into its neighbor causing them both to explode into pieces.

The noise snaps Ephraim out of his trance. He quickly looks at the stones in his hand. Amethyst and Garnet. Manifestation and fire control. A sudden scream from behind him breaks his concentration. He turns around to see another skeleton about to strike him, but its skull gets crushed between two rocks. “Ephraim, focus!” Roald shouts. “Use this to get started.” The two rocks rub against each other and cause a spark. Ephraim seizes the opportunity by igniting a fire from the flash using his Garnet. As the flame floats by his face, it lights his look of hesitant confidence. In one motion he turns and swings his arm causing a giant flame to crash into a wave of skeletons. The clacking of bones knocking together accompanied by the whoosh of the flame fills the room as skeletons are pushed back into each other. He continues to move his arms to keep control of the blazing flame. One by one the skeletons are blasted by the flare.

“Do we have a plan yet?” The student yells.

“Hardly, but I am open to ideas.”

“It’s hard to focus while we are doing all of this fighting.” Suddenly Ephraim remembers the gem in his other hand. He lets the fireball dissipate as he uses the Amethyst to form a bubble around them that quickly becomes surrounded by skeletons pounding on it with weapons.

“Great thinking, Ephraim, but I’m afraid we are delaying a sure fate. There hasn’t been an instructor that has lived to tell how to defeat such a wealth of undead.” The student shakes his head in despair as he feels the knot returning to his stomach. In a last hope he pulls some gems from his pouch to look at every last option. He glances over every precious stone.

Citrine, wind control, nope; Garnet, fire control, nope; Pink Tourmaline, powers of the mind, nope. Just as he begins to lose all hope, he fixates on one particular jewel. “Diamond!” He shouts. “What if we tried to use the pure healing qualities of the diamond to counter the impure dark qualities of the necromancy?” Roald’s issues a well-earned look of pride in his pupil.

“Now you are thinking, Ephraim.” Several skeletons pound on the waning shield as the apprentice opens his hand toward his teacher, offering the diamond to him. Roald closes his student’s hand back around the gems. “You can do this. This is your lesson, even if it fails to our doom. Now, you have to focus much harder on a quality gem like this than you do with elemental ones, but I have faith in you.” The instructor takes the Amethyst from Ephraim’s other hand, and the shield glows a little brighter as his stronger power over the gem’s essence takes over. Ephraim’s body tingles with a mixture of excitement, pride… and fear. He drops the rest of the gems back into his pouch as his eyes turn white and glow. He looks up at a skeleton that is about to swing a hammer at the bubble with ferocity and throws a punch at it. It shatters to pieces and the shards emit a white light as they disintegrate. Roald looks over his shoulder at his student, his shoulder hiding his smile.

Suddenly a roar bellows from the stone owl. The ground around it crumbles as a body stands from beneath the floor. The owl head sits atop a well-toned, male, human body that towers almost as tall as the 100′ room. It raises its arm to pound its enemies. “Ephraim, you only get one chance at this! Make it count!” A hole forms above Ephraim and Roald’s eyes get a blue tint as he uses his Apatite’s telekinetic powers to launch Ephraim into the air. The statue’s giant fist smashes the shield which causes it to stumble back momentarily. As the teacher holds Ephraim in the air, completely exposed to attacks, the apprentice closes his eyes and clenches the diamond at his chest. The world feels like it slows down around him and the noise of the room turns to a whisper. He focuses, deeply. His veins begin to feel as if a hurricane is flowing through them. A light begins shining through where his eyelids meet. Finally he opens them and an immensely-bright, white light radiates from his eyes. When he speaks it sounds as if he and the feminine essence of the crystal speak as one.

Be at rest!” He throws a punch and a massive beam projects from his fist as he is suspended in air. The temple begins to quake at the unleashed force of the beams projection and sand filters through the cracks in the ceiling all around him. As he slowly turns waves of skeletons evaporate in the beam.

During this time the giant effigy has prepared its second attack and swings its colossal arm at Roald. “Finish it, Ephraim!” He shouts as the stone fist bats him into the wall. As Ephraim begins his descent, he finishes the last undead enemy and pulls all of his gems from his pouch. He lifts his hand and a rainbow of colors shine from inside. In seconds the giant sculpture becomes contorted. Its body shifts into unnatural shapes for several moments before turning iridescent and blowing into tiny pieces. As Ephraim hits the ground, he falls to his knees and the shimmering shards of statue float as they fall around him reflecting light like a mass of glitter. He is physically and mentally exhausted. Every ounce of his being aches and screams in agony as he closes his eyes in utter weariness. He knows that he isn’t finished though. Looking into his hand, he notices that the Diamond is beginning to crack as what is left of its essence starts to leak out.

“I know you’re tired too, but I have one more job for you.” The Gemkith gathers what is left of his strength to stand. His body groans defiantly as he hobbles over to his fallen trainer. The echo of his feet dragging carries through the room for what feels like an eternity as he pushes himself across the battle-ridden floor. He falls to his knees again as he reaches Roald. With his last ounce of strength he puts the Diamond against the grand-mage’s chest. A faint light glows from underneath for a second before it fades and the diamond crumbles to pieces on the trainer’s fallen body. Ephraim collapses. Minutes of uncertainty pass in silence. Slowly Roald’s eyes open. He lets out an unobtrusive moan as he turns his head to look around the room. The muscles in his neck tense painfully. His subtle laugh is intruded by a small cough.

“You did it.” He whispers more to himself than anything as he looks on his unconscious student. Every muscle in his body screams in pain as he reaches into his gem pouch. He pulls his hand out slowly and picks out a quartz before dropping the rest of the stones back into the pouch. His fist smacks as it falls against the cold, stone floor as his strength fails and a faint orange luminance begins to shine from inside it. The two men begin to feel as if lightning is coursing through their broken bodies as the crystal gives them renewed strength and energy. The weariness of battle still sits heavily on them from the outside, but the vigor of strength from the Quartz dances with life inside of them. Roald stands up and dusts off his robe. Ephraim rolls onto his back with a look of confusion on his face. The teacher looks at him with his regained composure. “This is the first time you have been under the effects of Quartz I take it.” Ephraim sits up and rubs his forehead, the unmistakable ache remaining.

“Am I supposed to feel like I could lift off of the floor any second?”

“The feeling will pass.” As Roald bends down next to him, the orange light from his eyes glean off of Ephraim’s cheek, even at the foot and a half distance between them. “I’m not entirely sure what I saw before losing consciousness is correct, but I think you might have reached Cumulative Mass when you were using that Diamond.”

“Really? That’s.. wow.”

“Do you understand fully what that is, Ephraim?”

“Well, I remember a brief conversation in class.” Seeing the look of disbelief in his professor’s eyes, the illusion that he is fooling him fades and he changes his tone. “Uh. What is Cumulative Mass exactly?”

“I thought you might want to know.” Roald says with a mockingly raised brow. “Cumulative Mass is when you get so attuned with the jewel’s essence that it emanates within you. Almost to the point of combining with your essence. Your soul that is. It’s a dangerous process though, because your soul uniquely designed for you. Allowing the process to take full effect would be a great offense to your being.” He pulls Ephraim to his feet. “Ultimately when the two essences resonate so closely together your physical being expounds upon itself to the point of exhaustion. That’s why we are depending on this Quartz to get us to a safe place to rest.” Roald begins walking with his apprentice toward the jewels that fell from the statue that rest across the room. “Let’s go collect your prize before this Quartz gives way.”

As Ephraim bends down and picks up the Agate, he looks over at the Black Topaz. It captivates him, placing him a trance. The allure of the gem pulls at him as if a magnetic force was pulling him toward it. The room darkens in his sight and the only glimmer of light he sees is fixated solely on the mesmerizing jewel. The draw is broken as a stone hammer smashes the Topaz to bits. Ephraim jumps up in a fit of rage. His blood boils unnaturally as he stands with his face inches from Roald’s.

“Why did you smash that? We could clearly have used it! Can you imagine the hordes of armies we could obliterate with an undead army?”

Roald fights back his anger as he knows Ephraim is speaking from the remnants of the control of the gem. He speaks firmly. “Black Topaz uses a dark magic that tempts the user. Just as every time a man accustomed to doing good sins he can feel his soul blacken, every time you use that stone’s magic you feel a part of your being ripped away.”

“So don’t use it. I can use it. You shouldn’t have a say in what I use.”

“It would tear you apart, Ephraim. Take a look at how you are behaving now. You are clearly not yourself, and that’s after only looking at it.” The words ring clearly for Ephraim’s. He looks down to realize that he has grabbed his professor’s robe unknowingly. As he releases Roald and steps back he feels like a dark veil has been lifted from his mind, and it is replaced with embarassment.

“You’re, uh,  right. I’m sorry.”

“Worry not. You weren’t yourself.” The instructor assures as he pats his pupil’s shoulder. The gesture does little to calm Ephraim’s shame. “We need to get moving to the nearest inn or this Quartz will give out and we may find ourselves resting unwillingly in a dangerous place.” Roald’s arm moves to the middle of Ephraim’s back for both physical and emotional support and the two continue to talk amongst themselves as they work their way back to the temple entrance.

Ephraim: A Test of Aptitude ®

The air is cold and wet in a pitch black cave where a lack of sight heightens the sense of hearing. The cave is all but silent, save the intermittent splashes from drops of water falling from the ceiling into puddles on the floor. The shuffle of footsteps echoes through the quiet cavern as a light begins to glimmer at the entrance. A man with short black hair, peppered with gray and a short beard is holding a small, glowing object that lights his way above his head as he leads a young man. The older man is wearing long purple robes and black sandals, both with extravagant white trimmings. The younger man has shiny, brown hair that reaches the bend in his back. It is tied low, just a few inches from the bottom. He wears simple brown sandals and his long blue robes are outlined in golden yellow. The leader suddenly stops and puts his arm out to bring his apprentice to a halt as well. As he shines the light to survey the room, the walls shimmer and dance with reflections. He nods his head.

“This is it, Ephraim. Where I let you take the lead.” The light he is holding extinguishes and the leader grabs Ephraim’s arm. He places an object in the apprentice’s hand and closes it around the smooth, hard surface. The darkness lending to Ephraim’s heightened sense of feeling makes it easy to distinguish the item as a well-cut gemstone. His heart begins to beat against the inside of his chest as the reality of the impending task begins to set in.

I’ve known this time was coming, but now that it is here, I don’t know if I’m ready. He thinks. The thoughts have to be pushed aside as his teacher continues.

“Extracting the essence of Opal will make it a source of light. Remember your lessons, focus on its essence, and draw it out.” Ephraim clutches the gem tightly and silences his nerves as he closes his eyes to concentrate. He pauses, allowing his conscience to go deep into the center of the gem as he searches for the source of its energy. Seconds seem like minutes as he feels his thoughts digging deep within the stone. Suddenly he feels the corners of his mouth raise in a smile in the dark cavern.

“Found it.” He whispers.

“Good, now draw it out. Remember not to force it out, rather tempt it into leaving the stone.”

As Ephraim persuades the stone’s essence to leave its locality, slowly a light begins to glimmer through the cracks in his fingers. “There it is. Now give it a little push.” The mentor says. Ephraim concentrates a little harder and the light begins to shine bright. Ephraim opens his hand and the bright light illuminates his delighted expression. The euphoric feeling of accomplishment beginning to overwhelm him, extinguishes quickly as his mentor brings his focus back to reality. “Now give it some direction and push it a little more.” The teacher explains. Ephraim holds the gem above his head, he magically causes the light to split behind them, and draws the sides of the light in front of them into a cone-shaped directional beam. “Your progress is exceptional, Ephraim. Let us continue.” The student hides a grin at the compliment from his mentor.

As the two continue toward their destination, Ephraim grows more concerned about the task ahead. “Teacher, tell me again about these imps I will be fighting.”

“You are a graduate, Ephraim. You don’t have to address me as your teacher any longer. Call me by my name please.” The younger mage acknowledges his request with a nod. “As to your query, the imps are cave-dwelling creatures that command different forces of nature. The creatures that inhabit this cave will likely be lightning imps. They are nimble creatures, and their ability to fly makes them a hard target. Wide-arc range spells will work best against them.” Ephraim’s brow furls while he makes mental notes of his teacher’s answer as the two duck into a narrow passage in the cave. “While battling these creatures, you must remember to keep focused on your task. If you feel you are losing the fight, look for an escape first, and look for a route that allows you to grab your objective on your way out second. Don’t take long though, because you will most certainly have the surviving creatures in tow.”

A drop of water falls onto Ephraim’s cheek as they are walking through the tunnel. He wipes the cool water from his face and notices another light ahead through an opening at the end of the tunnel. “Put your Opal away. We want to have the element of surprise on our side.” His teacher explains. “We should ample sight from here forward.” They squat near the end of the tunnel and Ephraim pulls up his nice robes to keep them from sitting on the dirty cavern floor before placing his gem back into his pouch.

“Tea…” Ephraim stops himself from using his mentor’s title, “Roald, I don’t understand why we wear our best garments on a quest into a filthy cavern. It’ll take me forever to wash the dirt out of them.”

Roald hides a chuckle as he shift his gaze from ahead to Ephraim. He answers matter-of-factly, “your attire speaks directly of you. If you were to dress in rags and ran across enemies, they would think you were an easy target. We wear our best apparel to give the impression that we can afford the best gems, which detours most lowly bandits. It creates a facade that we are able to afford the best gems to defend ourselves.”

Ephraim nods and looks around the corner of the tunnel wall. The room is a large, open space with a healthy amount of sunlight shining in through an opening in the elevated ceiling. With the absence of the offsetting light from his Opal, the light pouring in from the ceiling becomes much more imposing. The sting of the brightness causes him to shield his eyes as he searches the room for signs of life. Nothing catches his attention for a moment, but then he notices something glimmering in the light. Across the room, a slanted wall has formed a natural shelf for a shiny, white gem that sits in the perfect spot to reflect an array of dazzling colors that couldn’t have been better placed if it were intentional.

“It looks like I found the Moonstone, but I don’t see any imps.”

“Do you have a Spinel?” The teacher asks. Ephraim turns away to hide a look of confusion as he digs through his satchel and finds the small, peach-colored stone.

“I do. What does it do again?”

“Use it and find out.”

Ephraim closes his eyes and begins searching for the gem’s essence. He almost feels as if he is beginning to get lost in the stone as he wanders. After a few moments he opens his eyes to a whole new sight. The walls seem to blur and his sight is the only one of his senses that doesn’t fade. Ephraim is startled when he looks at Roald and notices a glowing aura around his teacher.

“The life-detecting gem.” Roald says with a voice that sounds distant and muffled as he instructs Ephraim. “It is a true treasure for Gemkith that like to hunt in dense forests for wildlife. Take a second to look around the room and see if you notice the imps now.”

The dreamy haze is almost dizzying as it causes the walls to wave slightly while he looks around the room. Suddenly he notices two similar auras floating on the other side of a cavern wall off to the side that lies between him and the Moonstone. The loud thump in his ears is almost deafening as his heart begins to race. “Roald, I have only studied battle magic. I don’t know if I…”

“The highest importance of spell casting is confidence.” Roald interrupts. “In the heat of battle you don’t have time to doubt or think about your next action. You have to react to the situation as it arises.” The guide pulls a light purple stone from his pouch as he steps into the room. “I’ll be keeping an eye on you.” He says as he begins to fade away. “I won’t let you die. Now get out there and retrieve that stone.” He vanishes leaving only the sound of his footsteps.

“I wish I could just use Alexandrite.” Ephraim grunts with a whiny tone. “It would make this a lot easier.”

“In time, my young apprentice. You need to be able to use the Magestones before moving into Wizardstones. They are much harder to understand and communicate with. Now which spell are you going to attack with?” Ephraim puts his Spinel away and crosses his arms thoughtfully as he thinks before issuing an answer.

“Wind has a high arc attack spell.”

“But we are in a cavern where wind is relatively scarce. What is the most abundant resource in here?” Roald asks. Ephraim thinks, and thinks… and thinks, the task ahead of him harming his focus. His already-lacking train of thought is disturbed as he hears the sound of his guide’s foot tapping. The hint goes unnoticed by the apprentice. “Look under your feet, dear boy.” Roald says in as much of a shout as he dares. Ephraim’s eyes widen as he looks down, finally coming to the correct answer.

“Earth…” He smiles gleefully as he quickly reaches into his pouch to find a Peridot. He clinches it with his eyes closed for a moment to gather all of his courage, then begins walking into the room as he reopens them.

“Hold one moment.” Roald’s command causes Ephraim to slide to a halt, the shuffle echoing in the quiet room. “You have your offensive stone, but what will you block their attacks with? You need to be able to put up a barrier as well, so grab an Amethyst in your other hand.”

Ephraim grabs the gem from his pouch with a bit of hesitation as he thinks about how he can use the new stone, pauses to take a breath, and starts making his way toward the winged creatures. He sprints behind the wall that the imps are behind to gather himself one last time. He takes a deep breath and looks down at the Peridot in his hand. “Confidence.” He whispers. His body tingles as the excitement and fear, but mostly fear, of battle sets in. The nervous heat of his cheeks begins radiating as a rogue bead of cold sweat runs down his brow. At this proximity, the apprentice can begin to hear the vermins’ movements. One of the imps begins sniffing as if it knows that someone else is there before letting out a low, gurgled growl. Ephraim realizes that he is about to lose the edge of surprise so he looks around the room quickly for a projectile for his first attack. His eyes come to a stop as he notices thinly-connected stalagmite sitting a few feet away from him. He clinches the Peridot and as he begins to use its essence, a green light begins shining through his fist and out of his eyes, the magnitude of the emanation matching that of the determination set in the fleshy orbs that they come from. The large rock snaps as it lifts off of the ground and he spins around the wall toward the imps. The green light trails like a mist with the swing of his arm as the rock follows the movement and smashes one of the imps into the wall. The other foul creature whips its wings downward, launching it into the air.

“Screeeeee!” It shouts as it throws a ball of lightning at Ephraim. The sphere of electricity gets within inches of his face, and he lifts his other arm to block the attack with a force field. While the block stops the spark from hitting him, the force from the blast launches him across the room into another wall in the cavern.

“Ugh!” His grunt echoes loudly in the chamber as a bolt of pain shoots up his spine. He shakes his head letting the spare strands of hair that escaped his low ponytail whip around his face and slide over his angered expression as he looks up to see the monster approaching quickly. With a quick jump he is out of the line of the Kamikaze dive of the imp. The Mage uses the manifestation essence of the Amethyst to project a ghostly image of himself where he once stood. The trick is successful and the imp runs straight through the ghost and into the wall behind it. While still aloft, Ephraim swings the arm holding the Peridot to break off a stalactite above the imp and brings it crashing down as he lands simultaneously. Dust from the smashing rocks billows out and soon after the imp comes flying through the cloud at him. The mage doesn’t have time to react, allowing the imp to sink its sharp teeth into the top of his shoulder. A deafening wail pierces his ears, to be recognized seconds later as his own voice as the piercing pain shoots through him. He throws his hand with the Peridot up and brings a large chunk of rock from the floor smashing into the creature and forcing it to release its hold on him. Just as the rock is about to smash into the ceiling, the imp flies out from behind it and its path is quickly redirected back into an attack.

“You are blindly swinging, Ephraim.” Roald’s voice surprises his apprentice, causing him to glance around. “Remember to stay on defense and wait for the right moment to attack.” Ephraim steps out of the way as the beast swoops past him. Quickly the imp circles around for another attack.

Defense. Wait for the opportunity. Ephraim looks through the strands of his messy hair with angered determination as he lights up his Amethyst to create a dozen ghostly copies of himself. He and his images scatter in different directions causing the imp to pause. It takes a moment to look around, lets out a furious scream, and curls up into a ball. Bolts of electricity swirl around the creature like fingers reaching into the cavern before concentrating into a ball around the beast. Suddenly the imp throws his body open and a large surge of electrical energy bursts into the room. All of the ghostly images evaporate and Ephraim is thrown to the ground. The imp has to land to gather its energy for the next attack which leaves time for Ephraim to stand and gather his wits.

“I’ve had enough of this!” Ephraim shouts. A fierce green light emanates from his eyes and the jewel in his hand again. Suddenly rock from different places in his vicinity gathers around him before forming on him like armor. The imp sees its impending danger and is back in the air again with a flap of its wings. Its energy hasn’t recovered enough for a lightning attack so it begins flying toward the mage for a physical assault, its basic intellect not grasping the physics of the protection the armor affords. Ephraim waits for the creature to get close before throwing all of his strength into a jumping uppercut. The shot lands on the imp, and sends it flying into a stalactite on the cavern ceiling causing its impalement. Ephraim lands and lets the essence of the Peridot fade causing the stone armor to fall off of him. He bats his eyes when the exhaustion of the fight begins to set in as the adrenaline begins to dissipate in his system.

“Well done, Ephraim.” His instructor states plainly as he becomes visible again. The look of solemn pride in his eyes softens the pain Ephraim is masking. “Let’s take this Moonstone to be cut into a usable gem.” Ephraim puts the Amethyst into his pouch and as he opens his hand to look at the Peridot, it turns into green sparkling dust and falls through his fingers. “It appears that you got all of the essence from that gem. You were fortunate that it ran out after the fight.” Roald clasps his pupil’s shoulder causing him to wince in pain. The teacher smiles unapologetically as he holds a Peridot in an open hand toward the Moonstone. The gem breaks out of the rock wall and flies into his hand as they make their way back out of the cave.

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The stinging light from the sun blinds them as they emerge. Ephraim holds his hand over his eyes as they walk back out into the open field. When the two get back onto the road, the ache of the student’s weary body begins to heighten causing him to lightly limp as Roald explains their course.

“We will travel to Limone. There is a lapidarist there that will give us the best cut to get the most essence out of this Moonstone.”

Ephraim looks at Roald in confusion. “Wouldn’t we get more out of the stone if we didn’t cut it? Doesn’t cutting the stone make it lose some of its essence?”

Roald lightly shakes his head before responding. “Think of the gem’s essence as its soul, for lack of a better word. If you cut off your finger, do you lose a part of your soul? The essence is the gem’s being. That’s why when you used up the essence from the Peridot, it crumbled into dust.” He explains before turning a leery eye on him. “You must have forgotten this from class.”

“I learn better from experience. I can be taught something from a book, but until I see it in the outside world, it doesn’t become real to me.”

“Well then, we need to keep you in these training quests as much as we can.” Roald looks down the road as he finishes his sentence. There is a horse-drawn carriage making its way down the road in their direction. The apprentice begins to feel worried as he sees his mentor straining his eyes to investigate the oncoming group.. but his heart sinks when Roald’s eyes go wide. “ Just as I feared. Ephraim, step off of the road quickly.” The teacher pushes his student and the two begin following the road alongside it, just a few yards away.

“What’s wrong, Roald?”

“That is a caravan from the Romi Empire.” Roald notices Ephraim’s vacant stare but can’t tell if it is from nerves rendering him incapable of comprehension or lack of attentiveness in class; he suspects the latter. “Another detail you missed in class, I suppose. They are the gypsy tribe from the south. Since they are wanderers, constantly blowing from one location to the next, they favor wind stones, which can be a hard magic to combat. They are crafty charmers, Ephraim, and they like to use stones that control your emotions. If they can gain control of your emotions, they can get you to trust them, or even blindly serve them. Even with only trust on their side, they can rob you blind and be gone before the enchantment wears off.”

Ephraim blinks for a moment, stunned and unable to find the words to accurately convey his inquiry. Whether from exhaustion or fear, he is unsure. “How do you fight control over your emotions?” He finally asks.

“There is no stone magic that can block those abilities; it is all in the power of your will. The best way to keep from falling under their spell is to not look into their eyes. It’s a lot harder for their magic to work on someone who isn’t giving them their full attention. As they get closer, you will need to keep your hand on your pouch so they can’t snatch it away, and your eyes straight ahead of you. Now keep quiet, they are almost upon us.”

As the cart gets closer, Ephraim has to fight the urge to look at them. The squeak of the wagon wheel taunts him and the allure of the legendary beauty of the gypsies makes it hard to continue to look away. As if an undeniable magnetic force is drawing him to the cart, a wave of seductive power washes over him, pressing down on his will to the breaking point. His curiosity gets the better of him and he glances up to see a beautiful young woman riding on the cart. Her fine garments set her apart from her raggedly dressed, albeit colorful, companions. Her loose fitting apparel and thin sashes drift behind her majestically in the wind while the two men with her wear rags on their heads and clothes fitting to a bandit.

Ephraim can’t make himself look away as her magnetism gets more and more strong. She looks over to him and their eyes meet. His peripheral vision begins to blur, his skin goes cold, his heart races, and he soon finds that he can only focus on her gaze. Time seems to slow as the caravan rolls by, but the eye contact is eventually broken as Roald’s lowered head passes through their line of sight. Ephraim shakes his head, which causes Roald to look up at him. The guide considers him curiously for a moments before realizing the head shake’s connotation; that Ephraim just came out of a spell. He quickly looks down to his pupil’s hip and Ephraim’s eyes quickly follow.

“You didn’t keep your hand on your pouch, you fool!” They quickly look back to see a gypsy hopping back into the travelling cart carrying Ephraim’s stone pouch. Ephraim’s face flushes in embarrassment. “She used a concentration spell to keep you in a trance while her lackey grabbed your gems.” Roald breaks off into a sprint with Ephraim close behind. “You have some field experience with Peridot, so use this.” He says as he tosses a stone to his apprentice while in stride.

“They’re coming. Yah!” The wagon driver shouts as he whips the reins of the horse after noticing the two magisters advancing toward them. Ephraim stops and throws his arm up with the Peridot, a look of renewed determination replacing that of exhaustion on his face. The sudden rush of adrenaline purges the pain of the last fight from his body as it courses through his veins. Suddenly a large mass of earth rises in front of the nomads causing their horses to stop abruptly.

“We can’t get away. We’ll have to kill them!” The gypsy that charmed Ephraim yells. The nomads jump out of the cart and begin rushing toward the two mages.

“Here they come, Ephraim! They keep their gems in anklets, so watch their feet!” Roald calls back as Ephraim begins to give chase once more. As the young female rushes toward Ephraim, a light trails behind the gems in her anklet. A yellow light twirls behind her looking almost like a mist as she leaps into the air. Her majestic call to entice the weak of will as she performs amazing leaps and twirls in her feats of agility. With a final twist of her body she spins a kick around and a blade of wind blasts into Ephraim. His hair whips in front of him as he is thrown back into some bushes in the nearby wilderness.

The gypsy turns to see Roald preparing an attack, and begins rushing toward him. The mage swings his arm in a semi-circle over his head releasing stones in an arc around him. One of the gems, a White Moonstone, begins radiating and the world seems to come to an abrupt stop around him. The mage’s time-slowing spell causes the gypsies to run so slowly that it seems as if they aren’t moving, and the stones seem to practically float over his head. Roald looks at the approaching nomad and lets a look of grim satisfaction sneak onto his face. A rainbow of colors begins to shine from his eyes as the gems over his head begin to glow. As the Quartz begins to shine brightly, he feels the aches of a tired, old body melt away. He closes his hand and a flame engulfs it as he breaks into a dash. Colorful mists trail behind him as he runs past the first gypsy and toward his other sloth-like targets.

He moves swiftly as the Quartz nullifies the wear age has left on his body and gives him super-human physical qualities. A fiery punch causes the first male nomad to go flying into his wagon. The once crawling speed of his approach is multiplied into a fiery bolt of speed in his departure. The carriage explodes in a ball of flame causing pieces to go flying in all directions. Roald catches one of the wagon’s wheels as it floats by, and with a quick spin, launches it toward the drifter that snatched Ephraim’s gems. He uses the wind power of his Citrine to give the wheel a boost to maximize its speed. As the wheel crashes into the thief, he flies backward and releases Ephraim’s pouch. After a shallow attempt to fight back his laughter, he holds his hand out and uses his Apatite to telekinetically carry the bag back to him.

He turns back to where his stones are floating in place and glances back to the female gypsy as he walks by. Standing beneath the gems he makes a quick swing of his arm and retrieves all of the stones he released earlier. He places all of them but a Peridot back in his pouch as he looks back to the gypsy. With one more look at his accomplishment, he feels his excitement peaking and with a flick of his wrist he raises a pillar of earth inches in front of her face. He slowly raises his arm in the air and snaps causing time to return to normal. The gypsy plows into the pillar and falls onto her back with a grunt. She sits up quickly with a her eyes widened to what appears to be dramatically past their physical capabilities as she stares at the mage. She opens her mouth to speak, but she is silenced as Roald makes the earth beneath her encase her hands and feet with the Peridot that remains in his hand.

Ephraim pops out of the bushes with stones in hand and ready for action. As he begins to look around dazed, the green lights emitting from his eyes begins to dissipate. Roald smiles a bit pretentiously back at his pupil as he drops his stones into his pouch. The student shakes his head in disbelief, his mouth agape.

“How… All I heard was an explosion!”

“That is why we have three semesters of lessons on Moonstone. Time Magic can be a powerful weapon.” The teacher explains with a smile.

“So I can do that with that Moonstone we just got from the imps?”

“First of all, it’s only White Moonstone that has time essence. Secondly, it’s expensive and you would not use it properly so you’ll get a stone when you are more trained with it.” Roald begins walking down the road. “Come, before we are met with more trouble.” Ephraim looks around the battlefield once more, not completely able to comprehend what took place there before rushing to catch up with his mentor. As pair begins traveling back down the road toward the city, smoke from the smoldering cart pours into the colorful dusk sky. The trapped gypsy tugs defiantly with her hands and feet, stubbornly trying to free them before she spits on the ground and waits for the trapping spell to wear off.

“Don’t think this is over, mage.” She hisses through her gritted teeth. “You’ll see me again.”

A Christmas Story 2013 ®

This story is a sequel for one of the characters in the story I released last year.
Feel free to read that story by clicking here.

William Howard sits in his lush office working on his computer the night before Christmas Eve. He’s finishing his end-of-year paperwork before calling it a night. As he types up a report, his cell phone buzzes at the end of his desk. He picks it up to read a message from his son, who is away in the military, ‘Couldn’t get the time off to come home for Christmas. Sorry love you.’ He sits back in his chair as his heart sinks. This makes the second holiday season in a row that he will be without his family. He has seen his son, Little William, only a couple of times this year since he has deployed to hostile locations.

He looks over to a picture on his desk of his family and focuses on his wife. She had gotten tired of never getting to see her husband due to his extensive work schedule, and that he only had a negative attitude when she did get to see him. So she has stayed with her parents while the two have been separated for the past few months. What had he done to deserve this? How had he become so miserable? The thoughts make him unable to finish his work, so he powers down his computer and throws on his coat. Looks like I’ll be working on Christmas Eve again this year. He thinks. He pats his coat pockets as he begins to look around his office for his keys. I thought I put them in my coat when I got here. The recent realization of another lonely Christmas prolongs the search by making it hard for him to focus. Finally he opens a drawer on his desk to find his keys sitting inside. He picks them up to reveal a Christmas card underneath that causes him to pause. It is the one he received last year from the girl who bought his dinner in the drive-through. As he takes a second to pick it up, all of those feelings that made his lonely Christmas last year so joyous come rushing back.

The card has a night scene, a bright star, and a manger and it reads, For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. When he was younger, he went to church every Sunday with his parents and learned about what Christians believed, but that knowledge had become unimportant during his college years, so he eventually stopped going. Before he can think about what he is doing, he closes his eyes and lowers his head. God, if you are real and you really love me, don’t let me be lonely this Christmas. I just need one more chance to make things right. I just want to be a family again. He quickly opens his eyes and feels childish for praying. With a shake of his head, he throws the card in the drawer before shutting it, locking the office up, and getting in his black luxury car to head home.

On the drive home, though he feels dumb, he can’t help but feel more open and refreshed somehow. Whatever, he thinks as he turns up his radio to help cover the thoughts. When he does though, the same joyful Christmas song that was playing on his drive home last year is playing again. As all of the same thoughts and feelings from last year come rushing back again, he can’t help but wonder why he isn’t filled with joy. He remembers getting the card and how happy it made him. He remembers the delight he felt when he passed that generosity along. All he can seem to think about is how alone he felt Christmas day and that he would be alone again this Christmas. Infuriated he thinks, I’m going to need a drink.

His tires screech as he jerks the car into a supermarket parking lot. Patrons of the store watch as he barrels through the lot into a spot near the door. He slams the car door before pushing the lock button on his key fob as he walks through the automatic doors to the store.

“Happy holidays.” The store greeter exclaims. William glares at him and grunts as he walks hastily by toward the liquor section. The store seems to stretch out in front of him as he makes his way to the back.

Has it always taken this long to get back here? I just want to get home and have a drink, sheesh. When he gets into the aisle, he walks directly to the scotch section and grabs the first bottle he sees with three digits behind the dollar sign before heading back toward the registers. As he rounds the corner to the front of the store, he sees three people in the only-open checkout line. One register? Are you kidding me? Just as he finishes his thought though, another clerk comes out from the back and opens another line. He hustles into the line before anyone notices that it is open and slings his bottle up on the counter. The clerk scans the bottle, looks up at William, and lights up when he recognizes him.

“Hi, sir! How are you doing this evening?” The clerk asks. William churns inside at the thought of conversing with someone, but when their eyes meet, he remembers the clerk. The businessman looks around and realizes for the first time that he is in the same supermarket he was in a year ago when he taped that card with $100 to the end of the checkout. He suppresses any feelings before they have the chance to arise though and looks back at his wallet.

“Fine.” He responds as he shuffles through his cash to find a couple of the $100 bills he remembered putting in there this morning.

“Someone got your gift last year.” William is shocked when he realizes the boy remembers him but he hides the emotion with his unchanged expression.

“Did they? That’s good.”

“Do you want to know what happened?” The clerk asks, unable to hide his excitement.

“That’s not necessary. My total please.” The worker is taken back that William didn’t want to know how much it meant to the man that received his gift. He follows the customer’s instructions though and scans the scotch.

“$124.53” He says disheartened. William hands him two $100 bills without changing expression. He begins to wonder what happened with his gift though. It had to be a good story if the clerk was so excited to tell it. As the clerk finishes counting his change, William’s curiosity gets the best of him.

“Were they, ahem, happy with the gift?” The customer’s question causes the clerk’s excitement to instantly return.

“Happy? He about passed out! He walked up here with almost nothing to eat and when he opened your card, he ran back into the store and spent it all on Christmas presents and dinner for his family!” William’s change crinkles in the cashier’s hand as he points at his customer. “You made that man’s, no, his family’s Christmas like a thousand times better!” Suddenly memories from last Christmas come flooding back to him again. This time though he doesn’t remember the solitude, but happiness instead. He begins to remember what made last Christmas so joyous to him when he could have felt so sad and alone. William’s face begins to visibly show the happiness saturating him on the inside as it begins to light up with a smile. He clutches the clerk’s hand with both of his hands.

“Thank you.” He says as he accepts his change before heading back into the store. His shoes make a short sliding sound as he comes to a stop in the card aisle. He rifles through the Christmas section looking for the perfect one. He pulls one out, Too sad. He thinks as he puts it back in place before pulling out another. Not specific enough. He spends another few minutes looking before he finally stops on one. This is it, he thinks, this is the one. The card has a beautiful scene with people around a baby in a manger. It reads ‘For unto us a child is born , unto us a son is given : and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor ,The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.’ He starts to make his way back to the checkout, but something makes him stop to think. Why stop at one? I can make more than one person happy. He looks in his wallet to find five $100 bills. Before another thought can cross his mind, he grabs up four more cards with envelopes and hurries back up to the checkout.

The supermarket employee is eagerly waiting when William gets back up to his counter with the gifts. They are too excited for words as the cards get rung up and paid for. William puts one with a $100 bill in the envelope, pulls a $20 bill from his wallet, and hands them to the clerk. “Give this to someone who has little to make their Christmas merry and you keep the twenty.” The store employee smiles uncontrollably back at the generous man across the counter.

“Bless you sir, and merry Christmas!” He says as the businessman makes his way back to the exit.

“Merry Christmas!” William shouts back. The clerk looks down to notice the liquor bottle that is still on his counter.

“Sir, your scotch!”

“Put it back on the shelf, I won’t be needing it anymore!” The yell carries from the front of the store. He gets out of the door before stopping suddenly. With a quick turn he is back in the door and approaching the greeter. He shakes the man’s hand and says, “Merry Christmas, sir.” The greeter looks stunned as he mutters back,

“M, merry Christmas.” William smiles wider and heads back into the parking lot. He jumps into his car and heads to the next store. The radio blares as he sings a merry tune along with it and delivers the next four cards to stores in the same fashion as he did the first. Each clerk is handed an extra $20 for their trouble.

At the end of the night he pulls into his driveway and sits in his car for a moment after turning it off. He finally comes to the realization that though he won’t be spending Christmas with his family this year, he will be able to be happy nonetheless. The snow crunches as he steps out of his car and makes his way into the house to call it a night.

The next workday drags by while he finishes his end-of-year paperwork as the only person in the building. The happy Christmas tunes on his laptop, fortunately, help to fill the empty feeling of the office while he works though. He smiles as he locks up the office to head home after finishing his last report. The whirling thoughts in his head of yesterday’s events make the drive home feel unusually short. Exhausted from the long day at work and roller coaster of emotions over the last 42 hours, he unlocks his door, steps inside, and closes the door behind him. The click of the light echoes in his quiet, large house as the foyer chandelier comes to life with luminescence.

“Surprise!” The shout startles the near-delirious businessman causing him to stumble back against the door. “Working on Christmas Eve eh, pops? I’m not surprised.” William looks on in disbelief as he sees his son standing in his foyer wearing his military uniform and smiling back. He musters the thought to speak as he looks at Little William,

“Y, you said,”

“Yeah, I know. By some miracle one of the other men in my squad that got the time off gave that time up. I was the next soldier on the list, so here I am!” The father’s body tingles as he hugs his soldier and fights back tears.

 

Miracle. He thinks as he recalls his little prayer in his office. Indeed. William stands back and puts his hands on Little William’s shoulders. He looks his son in the eyes for a moment before saying, “Welcome home, my boy.”

“Thanks, dad.” The happy dad puts his arm around Little William as they start to head into the living room.

“Have you made arrangements with your mother to see her while you are in? I know she will want you to stop by so she can see you.”

“Well, I did and I am going to see her. But she had a different idea in mind.” The two round the corner as Little William finishes his sentence to see another surprise standing in the living room. William can’t believe his eyes.

“Patricia?” His wife stands in the middle of the room wearing the red turtleneck sweater that William had told her he loved so much. She tucks her hair behind her ear and looks up at him. The warm light of the room makes her glow like an angel in William’s eyes.

“William.” A few moments of deafening silence pass as they both try to find words. A tear leaves a streak as it runs down the man’s cheek. His voice quivers as one word escapes his lips,

“Why?”

“Well, we have had our hard times. We have both said things we didn’t mean.” She pauses and holds her finger above her lip as she tries to keep from crying. “I signed the papers, I put them in an envelope.” She wipes her eyes to stop the watering. “But then I saw you. I was buying Christmas cards when I saw you put money in the card envelope and hand it to the cashier. When I heard you tell him to give it to someone in need, I thought my God. He has changed. Then I thought if I could have my old William back for Christmas, I would be the happiest woman on earth.”

The statement is all that William needs to hear to make him rush over and embrace the love of his life so he can whisper in her ear. “You’ve got him.” As the two weep together, their son comes and wraps his arms around them. With joy and love in his heart, William thinks, thank you, Lord. Thank you.

May you enjoy this holiday season, spend time with the ones you love, and spread holiday cheer

Merry Christmas,

Shawn Bain

Sentinel: The Offer ®

Rain beats down on a small two-bedroom house in the suburb town of Oak Park, Illinois. The revving engine of Archer Reed’s motorcycle can be heard as it approaches the house. The garage door begins to open as he quickly rounds the corner onto his street, and barely slows his pace to pull onto the driveway. His expensive weather-proof tire chirps as he quickly comes to a stop in his garage. Water patters on the cold concrete as he pulls his helmet off to reveal his buzzed dark hair. He turns the motor off and steps off of the street bike. As the overhead garage door closes, the door to the house opens with Wyatt Ison, in his shorts and cartoon character t-shirt, standing in the doorway.

“You really need to get something with a roof. You’re gonna ruin your clothes like that.” He says as he shovels a scoop of ice cream into his mouth straight from the carton. Archer sets his helmet on his bike and begins removing his leather gloves.

“It’s not in the budget.”  Archer drops the backpack that carries his Sentinel Armor and throws his black leather bomber jacket over his helmet on the bike. Wyatt has to step back out of the way as he walks through the door.

“Budget,” Wyatt scoffs, “What budget? There is nothing coming in, and you blew all of the settlement money when you bought all of this Sentinel stuff.” Archer drops the backpack that carries his Sentinel Armor and throws his black leather bomber jacket over his helmet on the bike. Wyatt has to step back out of the way as he walks through the door.

“I’ll figure it out.” Archer says dismissingly as he walks into Wyatt’s bedroom. Wyatt closes the garage door, sets his ice cream on the counter, and begins walking toward his bedroom.

“You’d better figure it out quick, Archer. All of this surveillance equipment uses a lot of electricity, and our next bill was due a week ago.” As he walks around the corner into his bedroom, Archer turns back to him from looking at the surveillance equipment.

“I know our situation, Wyatt. When I say I’ll figure it out, then I’ll figure it out. We may have to both take part-time jobs, but we will make it work. Chicago needs Sentinel, so throwing in the towel is not an option. We might be able to trim down some of the electric by eliminating a few gadgets. Regardless, we can not stop,”  his sentence trails off when he notices Wyatt studying one of the screens behind him.

“Uh, Archer. Who is that at the front door?” Archer spins around to see a S.W.A.T. Team about to use a battering ram to bust down the door. He quickly turns back to Wyatt.

“You go out the back; I’ll go out the front and draw them off of you. Meet me at the downtown warehouse.” As he finishes his last word the door busts open and police pour into the house. Archer grabs a smoke capsule from a shelf in the room and launches it around the corner and into the living room with the S.W.A.T. Team. He looks back to see Wyatt climbing through a window to the back of the house before darting into the living room. The smoke is so thick in that he can’t see anything so he continues to run hoping to not run into anything. Before he can make it to the garage door though, pain suddenly rushes from his hip and he hears a loud bang.

“Bean bag deployed.” An officer yells. As Archer falls to the ground and doubles over in pain he begins to wonder how they saw him. Was it a lucky shot? He looks up to see a hand reaching through the smoke. As the smoke wisps around the figure, he can see that it is an officer wearing infrared goggles.

“Got him, got him!” The officer shouts. Two more officers rush over and quickly put their weight on Archer to keep him from getting up while another policeman cuffs him. As he is stood up to be led out, he feels as if time has slowed down. He looks over to see police pulling his gadgets from the shelves and others going into Wyatt’s room. He is led out the front door and sees Wyatt being sat down into a police cruiser. He looks back into the garage to see police pulling his armor from his backpack in the garage. ‘How can it be over so soon?’ The thought resonates as he is sat down into a cruiser. He leans back against the seat and as the door shuts, he can’t help but feel that the door is shutting on Sentinel as well.

Later that day, he finds himself sitting at a table, with his arms cuffed behind his back, in a small interrogation room. The room has nothing but the table, a light hanging from the ceiling, and a mirror on the wall in front of him. After what feels like an eternity of waiting, a detective walks into the room carrying his Sentinel Helmet. He sits the helmet on the table and leans forward onto his hands.

“You mind telling me what this is?” The detective has a stern look on his face.

“I still haven’t been told what charges I have been arrested on, officer.”

“We’ll get to that soon enough. You tell me why I found this helmet at your house.” Archer turns his head away from the officer casually.

“I’d like to have my lawyer present.” The detective turns around, looks at the mirror, and points to a corner in the room.

“Kill the camera.” There is a quiet electronic sound as a small red light goes off in the dark corner. He turns back to Archer and says, “It would be in your best interest to just answer my questions. This helmet has been linked to many assaults, weapon charges, and traffic violations. And guess who’s house we just found it in.” Archer stares back at him silently. “Officers are still bringing in weapons from your home and the charges are just piling up.” Archer leans in over the table.

“All the more reason to have my lawyer present.”

“Alright.” The officer turns back and motions to the mirror before walking over to the wall and leaning against it. Shortly after the door opens again and police chief walks in carrying a file. He pulls up a chair and sits down staring across the table at Archer. After a short pause, he lifts up the file and reads it.

“Archer Reed, aka The Sentinel.” He looks over the top of the file at the prisoner as he opens it. Then he looks at the first piece of paper in it. “Assault, illegal weapons, assault with illegal weapons, fleeing the scene of a crime, excessive speeding, running a red light, and the list goes on.” He sits the first paper down and picks up the second sheet. “Master of Ninjitsu, trained under the guidance of Master Ro in Oshima, received the highest accolade in Hapkido, Tazer certification, OC aerosol certification, and handcuff certification among other things.” He sits the paper down and looks back up at Archer. “Now we have a unique situation here.” He leans forward and folds his hands on the file.

“It’s against the law for you to hold me here and deny me a lawyer.”

“Son, I know the law. We are going to offer you an opportunity to, start over. You see, the way you handled Steven Parrie’s group in that office building (see Sentinel: Office Work) and got out before my boys could get up there. We could use a man with your, abilities. And, we can’t have you running around like some vigilante superhero unsupervised anyway.” He sees that Archer is getting noticeably thoughtful. “We also happened to notice that you have gotten behind on some bills. Superhero work doesn’t pay much these days, huh? And keeping all those gadgets going keeps that electric bill high.” Archer looks a little shocked when he looks up at the chief.

“Have you been looking at my bank account?” Archer stands quickly causing his chair to slam to the ground. “How many laws are you going to break, chief?” The detective quickly reaches for his sidearm, but the superior officer puts his hand out to calm him.

“Now settle down. No one’s been in your bank account. It just so happens that a friend of mine works for the electric company and they noticed you have been late with your past few bills. Now this puts the ball in my court, but, you are being offered a sweet deal as well. Past criminal transgressions, gone, plus you get paid, quite handsomely I might add, to keep doing what you are doing. And as a bonus, your friend gets off the hook. What else could you ask for?”

The detective sits the chair back up and pushes Archer down into it. The prisoner looks up at the policeman with disgust for a second then looks down in contemplation. ‘I don’t want to work for the government. I just don’t have any options though. Even if I do my time and come back out, they have all of my gear. I can’t afford to buy all of that stuff again. The paycheck would be nice too.’ The police chief’s impatience gets the best of him.

“Well, are you going to be a free man and provide justice for this city, or rot in jail?” Archer pauses for a moment, looks up at his helmet on the table, then to the police chief.

“Where do I sign?”

He is coming! ®

How delicate the leaves of grass blow

Ever slightly, side to side

The blinding sun still pants across the sky

From east to west, dividing day from night

Waves still roll onto the quiet beach

The sand unturned under their salty surf

The once mighty wind steer their course

Still carrying them across the open sea

Hark, a Hero rises on yonder horizon!

By boat, no by sea and by foot

Ready your weak and ready your broken

Ready your tired, meek, and sick

He comes to break your chains of ailments

And comes to heal your grief-stricken bodies

Take heart dear friends, hard times are over

He comes for me, and He comes for you

Be still children, for He is coming!

Be still dear children and worry not,

For He, is coming