Tag Archives: New Short Story

A Christmas Story 2019®

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it, Julia?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Call 911!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Julia could answer in reply was a defeated shrug.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would he?

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

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

And she forgave him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shawn Bain

A Christmas Story 2018 ®

December 17th, 2045

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

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

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

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

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

“You too, Jim.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yup.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam nodded. “I do.”

“And you’re okay with that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wishes that they were here with him now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In your dreams, Pearcey.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I help you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excellent. Follow me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s time.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My Lord.”

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas!

shawn_bain_logo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Versvesh,” the scholar said through gritted teeth.

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

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

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

This time he would fight.

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

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

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

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

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

Kssh!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ice.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Christmas Story 2017 ®

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello?” a voice called from upstairs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. Yes I did. But I also…”

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

“I – I’m afraid I can’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I don’t think I could…”

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

“Yeah, but I also…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can smell that caramel, huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Ma’am. Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fenril Valentine: A Bounty of Regret ®

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s Valentine?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Daniela! Anne Marie!”

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

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

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

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

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

He shot.

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

“Kill them!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now to focus on the girls.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The church.”

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

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

“Why do you think I ain’t hidin’?”

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

“Gotta eat somehow… Mikele.”

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

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

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

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

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

BANG!

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

“Where is your master, Demon?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gunari: The Tundra Beatdown ®

Elqanah – 2nd Era
Age of the Gemkith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cade: The Dragon’s Thief – A D&D Origin Story ®

We’ll never find one in this insufferable forest, the illithid thought, its gurgling voice resounding in its mind as it pervaded even the disgusting creature’s inner-voice. I’ve walked these trails numerous times. The only things here for one to find are trees and simple creatures.

The monster raised its slimy arm up to its octopus-shaped head as it attempted to block the Sun’s harsh rays from damaging its sight. Having lived in a cave for the past century, Gorkil had grown accustomed to darkness. Only on rare occasions did he venture out of the seclusion of his home. Often it was at night and at the bidding of its master, as was the case in this instance. But now morning was breaking, and it was forced to decide on calling it another failed mission, and risk the wrath of its master, or force itself to continue the search for another hour or two.

Bah. Gorkil trudged on as the sun began to pour through the trees around him in rays of warm light. This morning did bring it one comfort: The dew of the forest was moistening the monster’s skin whereas it would normally have to journey into a dampened part of its home cave to take a dip in a pool of cold, still water. This was preferable it decided.

Birds chirped as they scattered away when Gorkil crossed into a secluded meadow in the wood. Its frustration was peaking as it stopped to sit on a log; its final rest before exiting the forest. It’s apparent that this day will be unfruitful as well. I can’t face another failure. My calming spells will only work for so long before Zuulnok’s rage is beyond my capabilities to quell, or before he begins to become wise to my enchantments.

Suddenly it sat up straight as it picked up an impression in its mind. The illithid was able to call on its psychological powers to read other’s thoughts. This was what gave Gorkil its value with its master, and quite possibly the only reason it was still alive. The creature followed the waves in its concentration to a small hole at the bottom of a tree in the grassy area and pulled an animal out of the opening.

Gorkil let out a gurgly chuckle as it lifted a squealing raccoon up to meet its gaze, the animal clawing defiantly at the monster. This one. Yes, this one is no simple beast. The nasty tentacles from its mouth-area wriggled with joy as it realized its task had been complete.

I can read your thoughts, little one. Gorkil spoke telepathically to the raccoon causing it to pause its efforts to break free. You are only a few years away from realizing your true nature.

The illithid turned and looked back toward the mountain it called home, the forest it had roamed sitting snuggly at the mound’s base. It sent a telepathic message back to its commander, the ruler of the mountain. The simple message: I have found it. In just a few seconds the rocks shook and the ground quaked. A mighty rush of wind bent the tree tops as the massive creature took flight.

Gorkil laughed as he gave a final message to the poor creature before telekinetically raising him above the treetops: It’s time for you to meet your new master. The raccoon was only visible to the illithid for a moment longer before a giant shadow raced over him. When the shade passed, the animal was gone.

The raccoon’s eyes went wide as he looked upon his new owner. A mighty dragon held the animal up to his eyes as he inspected the creature with skepticism, its scaly fist tight around him. The sun reflected brightly off of its red scales as its massive wings beat back and forth, keeping it aloft.

“You are certain this thing is what we are looking for?” Zuulnok asked, his mighty voice booming loudly over the forest.

Gorkil sent its master the impressions it had received from the animal telepathically, reassuring him of its certainty. Satisfied with what he had received, Zuulnok gave a toothy grin and with a few beats of his massive wings returned home.

As if to further assure its master, and thus secure its life, Gorkil answered Zuulnok’s question in his mind. Yes, Mighty One. That one is what we are looking for. That one is… Hengeyokai!
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“Oi. Ye forgot ta take a bath again, didn’t ye?” a disgruntled dwarf asked his partner as they stood guard at the royal vault. “Ye filthy goblin’s kin. I can smell ye from all the way o’er ‘ere!”

“Leave me alone, Ovund. Me wife’s been hoggin’ the tub.”

“No excuse, Farmin. Get yer smellin’ caboose in there, or ye’ll be pullin’ this shift alone.”

As the two continued to bicker back and forth, a shadowy figure watched, crouched on a ledge above. A flicker of light caught the grin of the furry humanoid as he drank in the chaos. I sense a bit of hostility between these two. If I can just drop a match in this powder keg…

The creature lifted his hand with his first two fingers extended and as he waved them to the side, Farmin swung the blunt side of his axe into Ovund’s head, sending his helmet flying to the ground. Ovund’s face turned as red as his beard as he glared at the other dwarf.

“Ovund… I… I dinna know what happened.”

“Ye smacked me with yer axe, that’s what happened! C’mere ye stinkin’…” He threw his axe and shield to the ground as he threw a punch into Farmin’s face. After falling prone, the dwarf came to his feet in full assault. He couldn’t have convinced Ovund that he hadn’t been the one to make that swing, but that thought wasn’t in his infuriated mind at this time anyway. Both dwarves came in with matched fury as they pummeled each other with heavy blows.

Had the sound of their quarrel not drowned it out, they would have heard the snickering of the mischievous creature that watched on at the events he had set… or coerced in motion. He sat back in a relaxed position as the fight raged on, one leg kicking lazily over the ledge. As Farmin finally fell to the ground unconscious, he thought, And now we have our lucky victor.

The humanoid leapt into a flip and landed a few feet away from Ovund. The dwarf, panting from the exhausting battle, wiped the blood from his lip and with a confused look on his face, asked, “What are ye about? A raccoon man? State yer business!”

Cade bowed dramatically before the dwarf, his black and gray striped tail going into the air behind him. “I am here to collect something in that vault, kind dwarf. Now your commander has told me to ask you to unlock this door for me and you are report to him immediately.” A grin spread across his face as the dwarf looked back at him stupidly.

“Yes. Yes, of course.” Ovund pulled his keys from his belt, unlocked the vault door, and marched past Cade, unable to disbelieve what he had heard. With a smile and a salute to the perplexed guard, the thief adjusted the strap of his bag and marched into the room.

“I bet you’re wondering how I did all of that,” Cade says looking at you. “You see, that raccoon in the beginning of the story, that was me. I was whisked away by an evil dragon before I could turn into this form and be trained to be his numero uno thief. Hengeyokai live their first hundred years in their animal form. Now I’m 135, and don’t look a day past 120, so I can stand here and talk with you.

“That nasty creature with the calamari lips at the beginning of the story, that was Gorkil. He gave me these powers so I could do his master’s evil bidding. Whatever. I get to control people’s minds and take all of their valuables. I can’t complain.

“Oh. How am I talking to you right now? You see, Mystics (that’s what I am) can see more of the world than most everyone else. I happen to know that you are reading this right now and imagining what this mission must have been like in your mind’s eye. Shame on you! Don’t you have your own life to live?”

Perhaps you should get back to your quest, Cade? Your spell, Occluded Mind, only lasts for 5 minutes after all.

“Alright. Keep your skirt on, Princess.”

Cade stepped into a glittering room filled with mounds of gold, gems, and magical items. Any normal thief would have been taken back by the sheer amount of wealth and begun immediately lining their pockets. Cade just shrugged as this wasn’t his first burglary, and that wasn’t his primary objective. He was here for the pseudodragon statue. (Though a few baubles would likely end up in his Bag of Holding)

The thief looked around the room for a moment before his eyes fixated on his target. It sat on a pedestal at the back of the room inside of a glass dome. “Convenient how they always put these things in plain view, huh?” He walked up and looked over the glass suspiciously. Dwarves have a tendency to put protective runes on their most treasured belongings, but that didn’t seem to be the case here. “I guess they thought it was well enough protected. Wrong again!” Cade lifted the casing gingerly and sat it on the floor to the side.

“Easy enough.” After inspecting the statuette and placing it in his bag, the Hengeyokai replaced the glass and turned about to leave, dusting his hands in apparent victory. He stopped quickly as he saw his way blocked by a handful of dwarves, one an angry-looking king. The effect of his charm having worn off of Ovund before he reached his destination, he quickly alerted the king to what had happened to him; a variable Cade hadn’t planned on.

“Hey, so I made a mistake. Shozar makes mistakes too. The common denominator is our creator. Namely you, Shawn.”

Watch it, raccoon, or I’ll give the dwarves magical swords and shields.

“Easy. I’m just making a statement.”

“Ye think ye’ll be taking all me gold, eh?” The king shouted approaching the would-be thief.

“Relax, Puffy, your gold is safe. I’m just here for this.” Cade pulls the statuette from his bag and dangles it in front of the dwarf’s face. As the king reaches to grab it from him, the thief quickly pulls it away. “Ah, ah, ah.”

The troublesome Hengeyokai’s characteristic grin spreads across his face as a thought comes to mind. Any rational person would hand the item over and beg for their life. Even in Cade’s situation where his punishment might be worse from the dragon having returned empty-handed from the mission, a person would be inclined to hide the object and try to escape. But Cade couldn’t resist the temptation to swindle those in power. It was a bane that had almost cost him his life more than once. But he chose to entertain the urge once again.

“Tell you what, Kingy,” he says as he pulls some dice from his bag. “You beat me in a game of dice, and I’ll give you everything in this bag. I win, I keep the statuette and walk free… with a couple handfuls of treasure.”

Now King Dorgrim had the obvious advantage with more men and the exit blocked, but Cade had his focus on his Conquering Mind discipline. This made him more persuasive than the average person. Still, the king was no fool. Cade could see the dwarf had his doubts. With a quick shift of his gaze to one of his lackeys he forced him to coerce the king.

“Do it, Yer Majesty. Ye can whip this idjit. It’s just dice.”

“Quiet. Of course I can.” The king raised his brow as he looked back to Cade inquisitively. With a smile, the thief waved the statue in one hand and the dice in the other. “Bah. Let’s get on with it.”

They sat on the ground with their legs crossed as Cade sat the statuette on one side of their playing area. “We’ll put your statue over here.” He acted like he was setting something invisible on the other side. “And my freedom over here.” With an outstretched hand, he offered the dice to the king first. “House starts?”

Dorgrim snatched the dice from his hand and scowled as he shook them about next to his ear to test their authenticity. Cade smiled knowingly causing the king humph as he tossed them tumbling about to the floor. The bone dice bounced about as the dwarves watched on with wide eyes until they finally came to a stop.

“Ha. Eleven,” Dorgrim said, crossing his arms confidently. His guards behind him hooted and high-fived at their king’s apparent victory.

“Wow. I don’t know how I’ll beat that,” Cade said with feigned resignation as he grabbed the dice from the ground. What Dorgrim didn’t see, though, was his switching the dice out for a pair that was rolled up in his pant legs. A special pair.

Cade rolled the dice around in his hand for a moment before throwing them to the ground. The dwarves watched the dice with excitement while he watched the short, bearded folk with a mischievous grin. After bouncing and rolling, the dice fell and the dwarves’ mouths fell open.

“Twelve?!” Dorgrim asked angrily.

“Well, would you look at that. I did roll a twelve. Lucky me.”

The king reached for the statue, but Cade was quicker, snatching it first and tossing it into his bag. “Give it back, ye filthy…” Dorgrim growled.

“Yer Majesty,” one dwarf stopped the king with a hand on his shoulder. “Ye gave yer word.”

The king scowled at the Hengeyokai for a moment, before waving his men to the side. The one thing a dwarf values more than treasure is his honor. Cade stood and bowed low before scooping a couple of handfuls of treasure into his bag and trotting happily out of the room. The dwarves watched with animosity as their prized possession waltzed away before their eyes, unable to do a thing about it.

Now to get back to ol’ Fire Lips, Cade thought as he walked on with a smile.

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Cade’s knee was beginning to become sore from sitting knelt over for so long. A large, golden, reptilian eye peered down on him, its gaze felt like an anvil sitting on his back. Zuulnok had already been debriefed on Cade’s mission and had been given all of the stolen merchandise. But he was a fickle dragon, and the Hengeyokai had lied to him more than once. A foolish feat that the mischievous creature couldn’t resist from time to time.

Cade had to hide the disdain from his eyes as he looked over at Gorkil standing fat with complacency next to his master. The illithid could read his thoughts and would be more than happy to convey them to Zuulnok to ensure Cade’s punishment as he had displayed before. Even now he could feel the mental probing from the disgusting creature. The thief’s powers were growing stronger, though. He was able to resist more and more of the intrusions, but the dragon had grown wise to that too. Hence the need for this silent interrogation.

With a deep sigh, Zuulnok laid his head back on a mound of gold, confident Cade hadn’t hidden anything from him. “You may go, my Hengeyokai. Return when you have pilfered more treasure for my hoard.”

Cade held back a sneer as he stood at attention, turned in place, and walked toward the exit of the giant, glittering treasure room. His shadow flickered amongst the baubles as the purple light from the brazier by Zuulnok, the one that was used to summon Gorkil, danced about giving little light to the area. The world seemed to brighten around him as he felt the tingling sensation of the illithid’s probing powers leave his mind.

Finally. I’m starting to think that squid gets a little too much enjoyment from hanging out in my thoughts. Guess it’s to make up for a lack of having his own.

As he rounded a massive pillar, a glinting light passing over his face caught his eye. He stopped and looked down at the curious, white light peaking through a pile of gold. With a quick glance in both directions, he knelt down and dug away the treasure covering the object and lifted it up for inspection. It seemed to be a simple orb made of brass, but it was covered with strange runes that had oddly stopped glowing when the object was dug out. The mischievous Hengeyokai grinned as he looked around once more to ensure no one was watching before stuffing it in his bag and walking out of the treasure hall. The thief had little use for the piece, but he was intrigued and it took little to convince him to take something for himself.

Within moments of the piece of treasure leaving his trove, Zuulnok’s eye shot open, his ears flipped up, and he raised his massive head. Fire leapt from his nostrils as he realized something from his collection had been removed.

You dare to steal from the mighty Zuulnok, thief?!?!

Cade stopped with a leg raised at the thundering sound of his master’s voice. He had thought taking a simple little object from such a massive trove would go unnoticed by the beast, but a dragon’s sense of what is in its hoard is uncanny. They know everything down to the value of what is there… or in this case what is missing.

“Well that would have been nice to know before now.”

You didn’t ask.

“You’re writing this thing; you should have told me!”

Aren’t you the psychic here?

“Whatever. Just get me out of this mess.”

Realizing that giving the object back now would do nothing to sate the monster’s rage, Cade broke out in a dash toward the exit. Now was as good of a time as any to make a break for his freedom. He didn’t know where he would go once he got out, where he could hide from a red dragon, but he knew he had to get out of this cave and away from this mountain. He ran down long corridors and avoided as many large rooms as he could to stay out of the dragon’s sight. The ominous sounds of the beating of huge leather wings, the rush of the wind from beneath them, and the angry roars of the betrayed dragon drove him harder into his escape.

When Cade could finally see the daylight in a door across the final room of the complex, he saw a flicker of orange light on a beam ahead of him. The thief quickly plastered himself against the wall inside his tunnel just before the flames entered that would have burnt him to a crisp. When the fiery attack stopped and he looked back into the room, he saw Gorkil standing in a tunnel above with a smug grin on his putrid face. Or as much of a grin as an octopus-mouthed creature could have.

The calamari tracked me! He’s gonna regret that.

The ground shook as Zuulnok landed with his face in the opening of the tunnel, rage burning in his eyes. Smoke barreled from his nostrils indicating another fiery breath attack and Cade reacted before he could think. With a leap he mounted the dragon’s snout and rushed up along his back, his speed augmented by his powers. “This is stupid, this is stupid, this is stupid.” Zuulnok reached back and snapped at the thief, but Cade had jumped from his back and was descending toward the tunnel Gorkil was in.

The illithid wore an expression of terror as it rushed to fire off a mental attack. Cade could feel the pain onset of the ability, but it was too late; he was already airborne. He drew back his fist and threw a strong punch into Gorkil’s squishy head, sending the unconscious creature to the floor.

You can’t escape, Cade! There is nowhere in the realms you can go that I won’t find you!

The speed-enhanced thief rushed out of the door and down the side of the mountain as he looked frantically for some avenue of escape. A few cities dotted the green landscape. He considered them as a hideout for a moment, but he knew they would soon be incinerated by the outraged monster. A guilty thought that he had to bury for now. Then he saw a fishing boat passing on the river below.

If anything is going to give me a chance at putting some distance between us, it’s that. It will take him an hour to get out of that mountain. But I doubt the humans onboard the ship will be comfortable around a raccoon-man. Cade paused for just a few moments and grunted as his body contorted. He got down on all fours as he shifted back into a regular raccoon. With a chittering noise, he ran on down to where a portion of the mountain overhung the river. As the boat passed underneath, he leapt onto the back and crawled into a barrel unnoticed.

Inside his hiding place, the fat, little raccoon was delighted to see that he was sitting on a shipment of nuts. They won’t miss a few of these. He grinned and rubbed his belly as he tossed a handful in his mouth. Though the thief was happy to be alive, he couldn’t help but shutter as he heard the angry roar of Zuulnok one last time before the dragon came out of his cave.  He would have to find a location to hide, and fast.

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“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Cade said as he slammed his fists on the table before him. “I got everything you asked for: The gold, the weapons, even the Cloak of Disguise. You said you’d let me join if I brought you this stuff.”

A half-orc dressed in fine clothes sat smiling smugly across his fine, wooden desk at the Hengeyokai. Light from a nearby candle gleamed from his gold tooth against the soft light of the room. “Did I?” Torg asked, putting his boots up on the desk. “Well the terms have changed. We need another hunnerd gold and another of them magicky items if you want to join the guild.”

“That wasn’t the deal, Torg,” Cade said through gritted teeth, his rage beginning to boil over.

“Like I said, deal’s changed.”

The psion raised a brow as he began focusing his powers of the mind on the half-orc. His determination to ‘persuade’ Torg was only fueled when the creature’s grin deepened at the recognition of what Cade was attempting. Torg let out a bellowing laugh that startled his two kobald henchmen guarding the door behind Cade. The half-orc held up a stubby finger with a ring sitting just past his first knuckle.

“I heared o’ you before ya came, Psion. This thing’ll keep ya outta my head.” Torg slammed his fist down on the table, his demeanor quickly shifting to anger. “So don’t go gettin’ any ideas!” As rapidly as he became mad, he relaxed back into his smug attitude as he leaned back in his chair once more. “Now if ya don’t mind, I got things to do. So take the offer or leave it, but it’s time for ya ta go.”

With a snap of his fingers the half-orc commanded the two kobalds to ‘help’ Cade out. As they began to move toward him, though, the psion’s scowl deepened, his gaze remaining on Torg, and one of the small reptiles rammed its crude spear into its partner’s neck. It looked helplessly at the blood on the end of its weapon as if it didn’t know what had happened but a glowing dagger quickly embedded itself in the unfortunate creature’s forehead, replacing the look with one of pain.

As Cade gave an angered glare to Torg, the half-orc’s expression went from shock to amusement. He laughed with his belly jiggling before setting a dangerous gaze on the Hengeyokai. “You wanna try that with me?”

Cade drew his other dagger and brought it across in an attack on Torg. The half-orc was able to get his hand up between them just in time for the blade to slice off his finger. With a grin, the thief lifted the severed appendage and removed the Ring of Mind Shielding from it. “Thanks, Greeny. If I’m not going to be able to join your crew, I’ll at least get something out of all of this.”

Torg’s chair flew into the wall as he stood and swung his axe at Cade. With a simple leap, the nimble thief soared over the attack. Upon landing, he grabbed the bag with the items stolen for the half-orc, and with amplified speed, burst through the door.

Torg roared in the distance behind Cade as he threw his desk out of his way and charged after him. With a glance over his shoulder, the thief couldn’t help but chuckle at the sudden turn of events. That smile quickly vanished when he looked back forward and came to a screeching halt before a monstrous being ahead. He scratched his nose when the hair from the minotaur’s chest tickled it as he looked up to see its hideous snarl.

“A little on the stinky side, friend. You might try bathing once in awhile.”

Dropping to the floor, Cade dodged the minotaur’s crushing hug, and his dive to the side saved him from Torg’s overhead chop. He burst down the hall into a sprint in search of another path only to be met by a group of kobalds wielding spears. “Does this place have an endless supply of baddies or something?” Without losing stride the psion ran high along the wall, the stone and bone spear points bouncing about as they tried to pierce his furry flesh.

“Furry in a manly way; not some cute bunny-type way…”

As Cade rounded the last corner, he was relieved to discover that the front room was empty. His escapades in the back apparently drew some attention; all of the attention. Without hesitation he burst out of the door and into a dark alleyway. A quick scan of his surroundings found him a wood plank, hanging loosely from a hole in the neighboring abandoned warehouse. With a quick swipe of his short sword, Cade jerked it free from its perch and shoved it through the brass door handles to Torg’s building.

The thief dusted his hands with a smile, thinking himself quite clever as he walked away. Just as he was about to pass into the streets, he stopped and glanced down at his furry hands. Whew. That was a close one. Don’t want the good folks of Trachtenberg getting spooked by a raccoon-man. His body contorted momentarily and his fur sunk into his body as he took on his human form. With silky, blonde hair, muscles toned from years of daring thieving campaigns, and shining, blue eyes, he was the picture of charm.

“Sound hot, don’t I?” Cade said with a wink.

As a pound on Torg’s door drew the Hengeyokai’s attention, he began to quickly devise a plan to get the thug’s off of his scent. “Gotta do something about this get up. They’ll recognize it immediately.” Then he had an idea. He pulled the Cloak of Disguise from his pack and threw it on. “Guess it’s time to give this thing a try.” He watched as the hue of his clothes shifted from leathery brown to green then royal blue before shimmering and turning into nobleman’s clothes. “Much better.” Then he looked at the severed finger in his hand, the ring that once adorned it mysteriously missing. As an unknowing goblin merchant passed by, he sat the appendage on top of his pack and began walking away with his ears focused on the scene behind him.

Torg and his band of miscreants burst through the door and began pouring into the streets. “Find ‘im!” the half-orc shouted, his veins protruding from his neck and forehead. The thugs began looking frantically until a kobald stopped the goblin that had happened by Cade.

“Boss. This uns got yer finga, but he ain’t a coon.”

Torg tore the finger from the kobald’s hand and grabbed the goblin by the collar before he could scurry away. “Course he don’t look like a coon. He’s usin’ that cloak ta disguise ‘imself, ya buffoon.” He tossed the poor creature into his pack of followers and began storming back into his hideout. “Bring ‘im downstairs, boys. We got some talkin’ to do.”

Cade shuddered when he heard Torg reference downstairs, thoughts of the horrors the poor creature would soon be subjected to coming to mind.

“Wait,” the goblin squealed out in vain. “My name’s Tuktok. I’m a goblin, not a raccoon. Please you got…” his voice trailed down the alleyway as he was carried away.

The Hengeyokai sighed in relief as he turned away before stopping quickly. “Hey don’t look at me like that. It was me or him. You would’ve done the same thing.”

The ones hunting him alleviated from his concerns, for now, the thief looked at his surroundings. “I’ve gotta find somewhere to lay low until I can come up with another plan, since that last one went so swimmingly. Now where do the thieves go to hide in this city?” Just as he finished his sentence, he noticed a shifty character in old clothes making his way through the merchant stands that were scattered about the area, obviously looking for an opportunity to make away with something valuable. With a grin, Cade pulled a gold piece from his pouch and began focusing on it. After a few minutes, he relocated the thief and walked by him, dropping the piece on the ground.

The man stopped as he walked past and smiled as he picked up the coin, the gaps in his teeth highlighting the dishonesty in his grin. “Gotcha,” Cade said happily.

Cade stepped behind some crates and closed his eyes. His conscious shifted from his mind into the coin in the man’s hand. The psion could hear everything said and see glimpses of the scene around the man through the cracks in his fingers. The coin’s new owner stepped up to a shop door and knocked.

“Whaddya want?” a voice called from the other side as two beady eyes peered through a slot in the door.

The world around Cade’s view-hole swirled as the man looked about, a look of concern on his face. “Speakeasy, Scully,” he finally said. The eyes in the slot looked him up and down before disappearing into silence for a moment. Suddenly a sliding sound came from inside the building and the thug manning the door jerked the coin’s owner into the building.

“Fine. Get in, an’ ‘urry up. Don’ wan’ anyone ‘earing ya!” As the man walked down some stairs and into an apparent hideout, Cade let his mind return from the coin. He opened his eyes with a grin. A gambling ‘man’ himself, the prospect of running a few tables and gaining some winnings excited him; the winning more than the reward was most stimulating.

Cade stepped away from the crates and cast his cloak wide as he turned around them for dramatic effect. Because you know, he’s a diva. “Hey! Watch it with the name calling. I’m only a product of your imagination any way.”

Just calling it as I see it.

In his stride, Cade accidentally bumped into a man and knocked him to the floor. The shout from the victim stopped the thief in his tracks.

“The mark. It’s gone!” the mysterious man shouted. Cade’s face contorted when he caught a glimpse of a white, reptilian face beneath the hood of the fallen creature before he ran off. A strange pulsing sensation drew Cade’s attention away as it began tingling the thief’s leg from the pouch where he bumped the man. Lifting the lid to the pouch beneath his cloak, Cade saw that the orb he pilfered from Zuulnok had begun to glow as it had when he saw it initially beneath a pile of gold. Oddly he felt a strange magic had been absorbed by the object when he made contact with the man, though he couldn’t explain why. And he wouldn’t have the time to investigate now. When he noticed that others had begun looking at him, he quickly closed the pouch and made his way through some back alleys and around the back of the building that the man he was originally pursuing went into. His wide path gave him confidence that he didn’t have anyone tailing him.

I still have to get into hiding. I’ll have to revisit this later, he thought with his hand on his pouch.

After shaking his head, he strolled up to the door, knocked, and leaned confidently against the frame. When the window slid open, the eyes on the other side were even less inviting than they were with the man from before, if that is even possible.

“Yeah?” the voice called.

Cade cleared his throat, “Speakeasy?” The eyes narrowed as they looked the disguised Hengeyokai over. Cade felt a chill run through him as the thought that the thug was seeing through the spell from his Cloak of Disguise came to him, though he wouldn’t let his demeanor belie it. He had spent too many years deceiving others and working on his Poker Face to let that happen now.

“I ain’t seen ya ‘round here before…”

“Oh come now, Scully! You know me. It’s me Salvatore.” Cade hid a smile when he saw the shock in the eyes as he spoke the man’s name. It always gave him pleasure to see his craftiness have some success. After one more look-over, the window slid shut and the door came open. Remembering what had happened to the man before him, Cade slipped into the room quickly; he preferred not to be handled by other miscreants, particularly since he wasn’t entirely sure how the spell from his cloak worked.

Once inside, Cade made his way about the numerous gambling venues. The weaknesses of each host were glaringly obvious to him, so he chose his table carefully. Once he found the most proficient dealer, he worked his way smoothly into his seat.

“I bet you’re wondering why I didn’t go with the newbie. Hey, he told you I like the challenge. It’s your fault for not following the story closely.”

The Hengeyokai played a few rounds and watched some fights that the club hosted between giant chickens for some time, though the fights pained him more than he would admit. Being an animal himself, it grieved him to see others suffer at the hand of pitiful humans. But he would deal with that soon enough.

He let a plan for where he could go next brew subtly between hands. Just when the perpetuity of all of his running began weighing on his mind, he felt the orb begin to pulsate in his pouch as it had before with the strange man in the market. He looked up to see what the orb could be reacting to when he noticed a couple walking into the building together. He couldn’t explain it, but he knew that they were his ticket to freedom. This mark that the man lost, had to be present with them as well.

When the man approached the barkeep, Cade smiled and made his way over to ‘introduce himself’.

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

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.