All posts by Michael DeAngelo

Michael is the creator of the Tellest brand of fantasy novels and stories. He is actively seeking to expand the world of Tellest to be accessible to everyone.

Concept Art – The Smoke Marble and the Carbuncle Cure

Hey there folks!  We’ve got our final Azot artifact concepts up for display today, and I must say, they’re some of my favorites.  Two beautiful pieces with that special touch that Azot is known for.  Let’s get right to it.

The Carbuncle Cure is incredibly important to the Tinker’s Tale saga.  This magical potion is integral to making sure people in the valley around Seramore survive the awful affliction known as the carbuncle.  It’s essentially Tellest’s version of tuberculosis, so you know it’s a pretty awful disease.

Some of those clergy from Seramore have up somewhat of a positive spin on the magical concoction.  It doesn’t come in some mundane bottle, but this gorgeous container.  Those priests and paladins sure know how to turn a bad situation into a profitable one.

I’m also happy to show off the smoke marble, one of the many items in Kaos Kreegan’s repertoire.  He uses it to enter the fray or to confuses his enemies, as it billows out a tremendous amount of smoke.

I think this may have been the coup de gras of Azot’s work with us in this set of concept art.  I’m happy to leave you off with this final look at one of our awesome artifacts from the world of Tellest, and I’m excited for the opportunity to do another set with Azot at some point in the future!

Ghost Hunter, Part Three

Ghost Hunter
A Story by Aaron Canton
-Part Three-

The monastery in the middle of Daimyo Tatsunori’s domain was an imposing structure. A gigantic square pyramid that rose fifty meters into the air, the building was visible from a great distance and had been ever since its construction one thousand years before. Unlike the cave temple, the monastery was long-abandoned, but unlike the mountaintop tomb, no robbers had managed to cart away any of the ancient sculptures that adorned its eleven levels. Officially, that was because the Tatsunori clan and its predecessors had always protected this most famous monument. Privately, locals whispered that the monastery ghost had killed all those that had tried.

But as Yasuoka used her bo staff to help pick her way up the worn steps, a sense of peace filled her. Yes, the upcoming battle would be dangerous, possibly the most dangerous she’d ever fought. In an ordinary fight, the monastery ghost might well be unbeatable; certainly the scores of other shamans who had tried to slay it over the centuries hadn’t been able to do so. But now she had another plan that wouldn’t require her to channel the chi of twenty different monsters just to have a chance at victory. She was poised, she was calm, she was…enlightened. If she used the strategy the monk had helped her to understand, she knew she just might be able to win even without his spirit.

“All that, and he told a pretty good story too,” Yasuoka mused as she continued. She’d heard the children’s tale of the monk and the lotus blossom before, of course; her mother had taught it to her as a child, and so had the mothers of almost all her childhood friends. But the monk had told it with an energy and passion all the more remarkable for his deeply advanced age, and he’d seemed truly concerned that all the children were listening and learning and having fun. It would almost be a shame when his spirit too passed on, though she could tell he knew it was getting to be his time. Once the new school was set up—and the local lord had seemed interested in the idea, as had Daimyo Tatsunori when she’d stopped to visit him before going to the monastery ruin—she knew it would happen. Then the children would be taken care of, and Anand Chah’s quest would be fulfilled at last.

But that was for later. For now, she had a job to do, and as she climbed the final step to the top of the pyramid, she knew her target was near. She could feel a dark, malevolent, deeply powerful spirit moving all around her, and as she looked around the flat surface ringed with statues of long-forgotten gods, she sensed it gathering its power. “Spirit,” she called in a calm, clear voice. “I would speak with you.”

After a long moment, the space in front of her seemed to ripple. Then a mass appeared—a cloud of silver and black that somehow seemed to have more weight than the solid stone statues around them. The sun was starting to set, but the cloud was lit with its own inner glow. Despite everything, Yasuoka had to fight not to look away. “Shaman,” the spirit intoned. “Know you who I am?”

“You are Goh O-Kai,” said Yasuoka after a moment. “The abbot who once led this monastery.”

“The abbot who once—and still—rules all you see,” corrected the ghost of O-Kai. Its voice held no anger, or rage, or spite—just conviction, the strongest Yasuoka had ever felt, and a staunch refusal to brook even a hint of dissent. “This land, all of it, was once consecrated to my sect. I serve as its caretaker and ensure no other hand takes what the gods decreed would be ours.”

Yasuoka gently inclined her staff to sweep over the edge of the monastery. Beyond the base of the pyramid was rocky, arid soil, stretching on as far as she could see in every direction. This ghost was the reason, everyone knew, why the soil refused to yield to even the most tenuous of farmers. The weather, water, and everything else was just right for growing rice, but thanks to the spirit’s power, nothing—not even a blade of grass—would grow around the monastery. “You have destroyed the crops of farmers for a thousand years. And every year, your influence grows. Now it reaches to the very edges of the capital city.” Tatsunori’s family had been monitoring the “dead zone” around the monastery for at least six generations and trying to deal with the problem for at least that long, but to no avail. There was no fertilizer or irrigation technique that could reinvigorate the soil once O-Kai had corrupted it. “I have been sent to ensure the capital survives and to recover the use of our land.”

“It is not your land. It is mine.” O-Kai’s voice was as implacable as steel. “And my influence will continue to grow, shaman, until it is returned to my sect in its entirety.”

There was no malice in his voice, but that didn’t matter. O-Kai’s influence would extend until the entire province was a barren wasteland, a collection of skeletal ruins crumbling in on themselves and one single stone monastery standing over all. Yasuoka took in a steadying breath and looked at the spirit. “I cannot permit you to continue.”

“You cannot stop me,” said O-Kai. “Return to your lord and tell him he cannot change my mind or withstand my power. Or fight me and fall, and let your lord know the futility of challenging me by your loss.”

“I am not here to fight you.” Yasuoka took a piece of chalk and drew a large lotus petal in front of her, then sat cross-legged behind it and focused. “I know I cannot. Humans can only harm ghosts who become agitated, and I sense that you are…implacable.”

“Indeed.” O-Kai’s spirit bobbed slightly. “In my lifetime I achieved enlightenment. I cannot be angered or frightened against my will. If I manifest and become vulnerable to humans, it is by choice.”

In other words, O-Kai’s ghost could control its emotions enough that Yasuoka wouldn’t be able to hit it—it would make itself calm, even zen, when she struck—but it could stimulate its own anger for just long enough to hit back at her. Her blows would pass harmlessly through it, while it could attack her at will. No wonder all the other shamans had lost. “Then I will not attack,” said Yasuoka. “I will talk instead.”

“I cannot be placated,” said O-Kai. “I cannot—”

Yasuoka smiled slightly. “I did not mean, revered abbot,” she said, “that I would to talk with you.” She clapped her hands together as she forced chi into her voice. “Zhu Ni, I ask for your strength! Song-Nyun Park, I ask for your skills! Kiyoko Bakasami, I ask for your abilities! Truc Nguyen, I ask for your memories!”

The abbot’s ghost tilted slightly. “Who are these beings you summon?”

“Them?” Yasuoka looked squarely at the ghost. “They are the shamans you have killed, revered abbot.” She spread her arms wide. “Fallen shamans of the monastery, I call upon you! I am here to fulfill your final desire: that of defeating Goh O-Kai at last. Come to me, and help me achieve the goal for which you all died to achieve—and for which you have remained all these centuries. Come to me.”

And they came.

Yasuoka smiled, and O-Kai floated backwards, as ghost after ghost floated up through the layers of the monastery. Some wore familiar styles of clothing, while others were so ancient she couldn’t even name their garments. But all carried the tools shamans had used ever since there were shamans; they had staves, and knives, and chalk at their sides. And all looked upon O-Kai with burning desire in their eyes.

O-Kai said nothing, but suddenly the statues around the roof began to move as bright silvery light filled their eyes. They raised their hands and turned to Yasuoka—but the spirits were there, forming a protective wall. They had lain dormant for centuries, but no ghost could resist coming when summoned by a shaman who knew what she was doing. Before meeting Anand, Yasuoka wouldn’t even have believed these spirits had persisted all these years, but that would have been her own foolishness. After all, she knew shamans were more likely than any other people to come back as ghosts. She knew the shamans had all wanted to defeat O-Kai and had failed in the process. And she should have known, even if she had ultimately needed Anand to teach her, that the spirits of those who died with good desires unfulfilled could last just as long as those who died upset they hadn’t stolen every gold coin in the world. She didn’t need to call upon monsters and beasts for help in this battle. She had scores of allies to call on instead.

The ghosts took positions around Yasuoka as the statues moved in, fending the ancient sculptures off with a dozen different combat styles. She watched as a statue of a dog-headed man was flipped by a ghost and shattered against the ground, then turned just in time to see another flung off the side. Then she looked back at O-Kai’s chi and saw it falling back under a flurry of attacks. “How can you strike me?” he asked. “Humans cannot—”

“No human has touched you,” said Yasuoka. “Only spirits.” She rolled to one side as a statue made it through the ghosts surrounding her and smashed a fist into the temple roof, but even before she could strike back, she saw another two shaman spirits grab it and begin wrestling it away. “And they will overwhelm you.”

“For my sect, I have defeated them all before,” said O-Kai. But now there was strain in the voice of the spirit, and the cloud that masked its presence flickered slightly. “I will defeat them again.”

“You defeated them individually. You cannot face them all at once.” Yasuoka slipped a hand forward and erased a tiny fragment of the lotus petal outline in front of her so the shape was incomplete. “You will lose. And the last traces of your sect will be erased.”

O-Kai’s spirit shuddered. “You cannot—”

“You cannot stop me,” said Yasuoka. “There is nothing you can do to stop my lord from destroying this old ruin and erecting temples to his own gods. Or building a palace where he himself is worshipped. Your sect ends tonight.”

And the cloud vanished, revealing a very fit monk holding a long naginata blade. “You cannot!” the ghost yelled, its enlightenment broken by the first sign in a thousand years that it might actually be defeated. “I will not allow a heretic to—”

The spirit stepped into the image, and Yasuoka immediately closed it again with a stroke of her chalk. Then she drew her dagger as O-Kai’s ghost jumped at her and the statues surged forwards. But the lotus blossom glowed, and O-Kai’s chi bounced off its edge, trapped inside. At the same time, the spirits around Yasuoka fought mightily and pushed the statues away for one more crucial moment. She drew her dagger and cut her palm, then began to chant.

O-Kai’s spirit wailed. “Do you want my powers that badly?” it cried. “I will give them to you—just release me!”

Yasuoka turned to the ghost, and though she continued her chant, her question was evident on her face: what powers?

“You will be able to use this place as a sanctum!” continued O-Kai’s spirit. “As a base where none can hurt you! All I ask is you reestablish my sect—if you do, I will teach you how to use my powers to turn any patch of land in the province to dust! People will have to bow to you, revere you—”

But Yasuoka shook her head. She did not want to rule the province; she only wanted to please her lord, who in turn wanted to protect his city and to provide more land for his farmers. And so as her chant finished and O-Kai’s spirit vanished, she did not bind it to herself. Instead, she aimed her dagger and stabbed into it. She heard a faint cry, then felt it dissipate as she banished it from the world—and every statue around her suddenly crumbled to rubble.

“Well done,” she heard someone say, and when she turned, she saw the shaman spirits looking at her. They were beginning to fade, but she could see the relief and glee evident on their faces. “You have saved the province,” said the ghost which had spoken. “The land will recover. Its people will thrive.”

“You have saved us,” said another. “Thank you.”

She bowed her head to the shamans as they bowed back to her, and they all exchanged smiles. After a few more seconds, the ghosts faded, and Yasuoka knew they had finally passed on, released from their decades or centuries of moldering in the old monastery and wondering when somebody would finish their quest. More than a hundred souls were able to move on at last. It wasn’t a bad night’s work.

In fact, Yasuoka thought, she should do it more often. Yes, of course she would continue to hunt down evil spirits and banish them or bind them so they wouldn’t hurt innocent people anymore. But she would also put more time into finding good spirits, those trapped in this realm past their time by their unfulfilled desires to do good. If she could help them move on, surely that was just as important a use of her time as ensuring the spirit of some vile thief got what was coming to it.

But that was all for later. Duty urged her to report to Daimyo Tatsunori and tell him the monastery ghost was finally gone, his domain was secured, and his trust in her for all those years was not misplaced. And so she moved to the edge of the pyramid, bowed one more time to the memories of the shamans who had given their all, and slowly walked down into the deepening night.

Art – Sisters of the Crimson Veil

Hello folks.  We’ve got a cool treat for you today.  A few weeks back, we showed off Isabella, a vampire from the Crimson Veil.  The Sisters of the Crimson Veil was to be one of my Tales of Tellest Legends novellas, but we didn’t quite hit the goal we set out for.  That’s alright, though, because it gives us time to let the idea grow and expand.  Beforehand though, we commissioned Rigrena to do some awesome concepts of the six-strong sisterhood.

The two biggest characters are center.  Isabella is the newest member of the pack, and she’s been taken under Beatrice’s wing.  Beatrice shows her the strength in vengeance, and teaches Isabella the arts of combat, stealth and seduction.

The other members of the sisterhood round out the group.  From left to right, we have Faina, Eden, Sylvie and Anna.

A little bit of shading shows a bit more of our characters.  The Sisterhood exists in kind of a stand-in for India/the Middle East in Tellest, so there’s a lot of beautiful fabrics and body art displayed.

In full color, you can see everyone a bit more clearly.  I can’t wait to finally get the opportunity to work on this story.  It’s going to be a bit of a passion project once 2019 rolls around, I believe, but we’ll see what happens eventually!

Ghost Hunter, Part Two

Ghost Hunter
A Story by Aaron Canton
-Part Two-

“Business for Daimyo Tatsunori,” said Yasuoka as she glanced from the face of the sentry in front of her to the mouth of the cave stretching away behind him. One week had passed since her victory over Sovann, and she had finally reached the location of the last spirit she would need to deal with the haunted monastery; despite her attempts to stay controlled and wary, she couldn’t stop herself from speaking a little faster and more urgently than usual. “Let me pass.”

“But shaman…” The sentry hesitated for a long moment. “Surely you wish to come back during the daytime? The temple opens at sunrise, and I assure you the view is—”

“I am not here for the view,” This temple was as dissimilar from the tomb ruins as two sites could be; the ruins were on top of a mountain while the temple was deep within a series of caves; the tomb was a shrine to the dead while the temple’s monks worshipped life and the gods which made it possible; and most of all, while the tomb had been abandoned for many years, this cave temple was still operational. She had in fact attended services earlier that day to scout out the site and make some preliminary efforts in finding her quarry.

The sentry still seemed hesitant, so Yasuoka took a step closer to him. “My seal from Daimyo Tatsunori,” she said, holding the carved block up to his torchlight. It bore the Tatsunori crest, an image every retainer of the powerful noble could be expected to know on sight. While this particular cave wasn’t in Tatsunori’s domain proper, the ruler of the local fiefdom had become one of Tatsunori’s vassals in exchange for financing and military support, and that obligated every samurai and guard in the realm to treat Tatsunori’s orders as if they came from their own ruler. “Let me in, guard.”

At long last, the man nodded and stood aside. “Do you want a guide?” he called as she lit her torch and walked into the cave mouth. “Some of the monks meditate late into the night. They might be awake and willing to—”

“No!” snapped Yasuoka. The last thing she needed was someone else the ghost could attack or even possess. “Remain at your post, guard. If I do not return by dawn, send word to Daimyo Tatsunori.” And with that she strode around a corner in the tunnel, and the guard was lost to sight behind her.

A few steps into the tunnel, Yasuoka slowed and put a hand to her head. She had been rude to the sentry, she acknowledged—ruder than he deserved. She ought to apologize. But she was so close to obtaining the final spirit and finishing the mission. She had been working towards this moment for the past six months, traveling across the Numasa archipelago and seeking the most dangerous, strongest, and obscure ghosts to add to her collection so she could call on them when she needed to. It was perhaps understandable she would get snappish—

No. That was the attitude of the ghosts she fought, the monsters whose hate and spite for every other being was so strong that it prevented them from falling into death. She did not claim to be perfect, but she knew if she let little spites build in her, the same could happen to her when she died—shamans came back as ghosts more than any other profession. And so, after taking a few moments to steady herself, she returned to the cave mouth and apologized to the guard for her rudeness. Only when he assured her he had forgiven her did she return to the cave and resume her progress.

The tunnel opened into a large cave temple of the type common on the island. Shrines were set up at various points around the cave, and paintings of local deities and scenes from the local mythology had been layered over the rock walls. She stopped under a rocky overhang covered with an excellent painting of a bird-headed man pulling a sheep from a well, then turned and examined a series of bulges in the wall she’d observed earlier that day. They were small, but a nimble child or a sufficiently skilled adult might still be able to use them to climb on top of the overhang and maybe from there into one of the higher passages set along the upper wall. She’d checked the other routes out of the room, and they all dead-ended in shrines or just blank rock. The way before her was the only one she hadn’t been able to examine during her previous visit.

Yasuoka knew she would need both hands to climb the outcropping, so she reluctantly put out her torch and focused on the chi she carried within her. She chanted, and the masses appeared in front of her, struggling to escape as always. After a moment, she nodded at the newest one. “Mik Sovann,” she ordered. “Damned thief. Lend me your eyes.”

The chi slammed into her with enough force that Yasuoka almost took a step back. She managed to jam her staff down and catch herself, however, and when she looked around again, she could see the cave as if it was out in the midday sun. The paintings and shrines were so clear, she could even pick out the little grey patches where paint had flaked away over the years. On the ground, she could see the six different tunnels she’d gone through earlier that day that all led to auxiliary shrines, and in front of her was the overhang, now with clearly visible handholds for her to grab.

Yasuoka began to climb, hauling herself about ten meters into the air in a span of a few minutes. When she reached the top of the overhang and looked around, though, she saw only a featureless rock wall. There was no trail to the higher passages there she could find—but now that she was higher, she could see the top of another overhang a few meters farther down the cave from her. And at the back of that overhang, there was a faint, steep trail up the wall and into the upper tunnels. Of course, that didn’t help if someone couldn’t get between that overhang and the one she was standing on, but after a few moments of searching, she found a loose rock at the back of her overhang and shifted it to reveal a tiny tunnel running parallel to the cave. A child could fit through it and make his or her way to the other overhang, then rush to the upper tunnels. She, however, wouldn’t fit, and she couldn’t see any other way for a normal adult to reach the opposite overhang.

That didn’t mean Yasuoka was stuck, but the option she did have would be dangerous even if she didn’t have good reason to believe the temple complex was haunted. Still, there was no other choice, so she reluctantly dismissed Sovann’s chi. Darkness slammed down around her as she began to channel again, this time choosing the rhinotaur with its powerful legs. Then she lit her useless little torch, looked out in front of her, prayed she remembered where the next overhang began, and jumped for it.

The wind whistled around Yasuoka, and she tensed, but the ground slammed into her boots, and she stumbled forward before catching herself against the far wall. She took a few relieved breaths and wiped sweat from her brow before switching back to Sovann’s chi so she could see once more. “Well,” she murmured. “At least once I get this ghost, that won’t be a problem anymore.”

As she scrabbled up the trail, she thought back to the tales she’d heard about the temple. There were the usual problems caused by an angry and vengeful spirit: broken or vandalized objects in the shrines, children caught wandering around the grounds having claimed someone was calling to them, and the occasional child who vanished from the surrounding houses. The monks who worshipped in the temple had also told their lord they felt an odd presence sometimes, though none seemed to have been able to deal with the spirit directly. There had even been strange laughs heard by locals late at night, the sounds any evil spirit might make if it thought it was close to achieving its goals.

It had taken longer to work out who the spirit might be, but after Yasuoka went through the temple archives, she’d eventually come up with a suspect. Centuries ago, the temple had been home to the famed monk Anand Chah, whose enlightenment was said to be so great he could channel the minds of those around him, know what they thought, and provide advice to the dilemmas in their hearts they dared not speak aloud. It was said he had once sat in front of a crowd of hundreds for a few moments and wrote messages that were taken by his pages to the people in the crowd; each person who got a slip of advice later said it had led them true, though Anand could have had no more than a few moments to consider each one. He had vanished one day, disappearing into the temple and never coming out, and his despondent disciples had assumed he had left them on some spiritual quest. Yasuoka, though, was of a more practical mind; she guessed the monk had wandered into a far tunnel in the temple, died, and came back to haunt it in revenge for his death.

His motives didn’t really matter to Yasuoka, but she was interested in his ability to channel the thoughts of those around him, particularly in his ability to do so for many people at once. If she had that ability, she might be able to channel the chi of multiple entities at the same time. That would let her use all her powers together, which would mean she wouldn’t need to choose between Sovann’s sight and Kuang’s hearing. Or Kuang’s hearing and Cho’s combat skills. Or any of the others. She would be at her peak, and she would be able to battle the monastery ghost where every shaman before her had failed.

But first she had to beat Anand and stop whatever evil he practiced there, so she walked through the entrance of the upper passage and moved through a corridor she could tell wasn’t much used. Most of the wall paintings were dustier and faded, not having been touched up in many years. A few looked newer, but these were crude, like children would draw. One in particular was still wet, and Yasuoka frowned as she touched it, but then she saw a faint light ahead and hurried forward. She quickly dismissed Sovann’s chi and summoned the warrior Cho’s again, then burst into a room—

And saw about thirty living children aged seven to nine sitting cross-legged in a semicircle around a smiling ghost. The ghost was bald, with tanned, wrinkled skin, voluminous robes, and a stocky frame. Around his collar he wore a necklace with a holy symbol on it; Yasuoka recognized it from her research as a symbol granted to Anand Chah by the highest monk of his order. It was her target.

“And since you’ve been such good students, I’m going to teach you the story of the monk and the lotus blossom!” Anand said. The students clapped and cheered as Yasuoka watched, baffled. “This was one of my favorites when I was a child, but if I tell it to you, you have to promise me one thing.”

“What is it?” called one of the children in front.

“That you share the story with others who might want to hear it. Knowledge and stories should not be hoarded, but should be made available to all.”  Anand turned slightly to look at Yasuoka. “Ah, and for this story, we have a very special guest! Children, please say hello to the shaman Yasuoka Takako!”

“Hello, Miss Yasuoka!” the thirty children chorused. They didn’t seem possessed to Yasuoka, which she would at least have been able to understand. They just seemed like regular kids—who were up at midnight taking lessons from a ghost.

“Do you know what shamans do?” Anand asked. “They go all around Numasa and protect people from evil ghosts! Like—”

“Like you,” Yasuoka interrupted. If the monk was putting a spell on the children through some demented sermon, she couldn’t let it continue. “Kids, go home. I’m going to deal with him.”

“But he didn’t get to the story yet!” complained one of the kids, a girl of about eight with a large bow in her hair. “And we were really good! We meditated, an’ we tried to do good things like helping sick puppies an’—”

Yasuoka shook her head. “That’s not the point. He’s an ancient spirit. They’re evil.”

“Why?” asked Anand, with a genuinely puzzled expression on his face.

“What?”

“Why am I evil?” Anand looked down at himself, a hint of a smile playing over his face. “I mean, I don’t think I am…”

The children giggled, and Yasuoka flushed. Normally she’d have started fighting by now, but the kids had to leave first so Anand couldn’t use them as shields. There were too many of them to simply haul away. She’d have to talk them out. “A ghost is created when a creature—usually, but not always, a human—dies with a deep desire unfulfilled,” she said. “Someone might want to win a contest, or protect a loved one, or be proven right. Because they want their desire so badly, their spirit remains even after their body fails.”

“True,” said Anand. “But that does not make them evil, does it?”

Yasuoka glared at him. “Ghosts fade when they achieve their desires or realize their desires cannot be achieved. A ghost who wants to protect a loved one will fade from this realm when the loved one is protected or the loved one dies and is beyond protection. A ghost who wants to be proven right will fade once he is in fact shown to be right, or wrong and knows he can never be proven right, or nobody remembers the argument and nothing will ever be proven. In this way, most ghosts fade within a few years or decades as their desires either come true or become impossible. But…there are some ghosts with desires so vast and grasping they will never be fulfilled: a thief who wants all the treasure in the world or a conqueror who wants to rule it all. These are the kinds of ghosts that last for centuries—as you have, Anand Chah.” She swept her bo staff at him, earning a chorus of squeaks from the children. “I do not know your desire. But I know that if it is so vast that after all these centuries it is still unfulfilled, it can be nothing good.”

“Can’t it?” Anand asked. “Perhaps my unfulfilled desire is something beneficial.”

“I’ve encountered thousands of ghosts. I’ve captured dozens. None—”

“Yes,” interrupted Anand. “I can see them.” He shuddered slightly. “Poor souls… perhaps they are deserving of their fate, but it is still most regrettable. You would bind me as you bound them?”

Yasuoka nodded. “I have need of your abilities. And these children need to be protected.”

“No!” yelled the girl with the large bow. “He’s not bad! He’s a good teacher! He’s funny, and he has good stories, and when I scraped my knee, he held me and made it feel better!”

The other children chorused their agreement, and Yasuoka slammed her bo staff on the ground to quiet them. “I have fought many ghosts,” she said. “No ghost who survived for more than a century was anything other than a monster.”

“Perhaps I am the first,” insisted Anand. “Although… I am curious. How do you know the others were monsters? Did you investigate them?”

“Yes,” snapped Yasuoka. “Very thoroughly. I could recite all their crimes—”

Anand shook his hand. “Strange, then, that you don’t seem to know why I am a monster. Only that I must be one because I am ancient.” He was silent for a moment. “Are you in a hurry for some reason?”

Yasuoka hesitated. It was true she had studied her other targets more thoroughly, but that this one was better at hiding meant nothing. She hadn’t yet found an exception, and she doubted Anand would be the first. “I have an urgent mission from my lord. I must drive out a monstrous ghost which has defeated and killed more than a hundred other shamans. To win, I require your ability to channel multiple ghosts at once.”

“And for this ability,” said Anand in a quiet, serious voice, “you would reduce me to…that?” He gestured in Yasuoka’s direction, and she figured he was referencing the spirits. “Do you think that is just, and that your lord would approve?”

“I wouldn’t do it if you didn’t deserve it!” insisted Yasuoka. “You’ve—”

Anand stood incredibly quickly as the children huddled around each other. “Can you name,” Anand asked, “one misdeed I have committed?”

“Children in the area have been found wandering at night, no doubt lured—”

“Hey!” said the girl with the bow. “That’s not fair! It’s not his fault we gotta come here at night when all the adults are asleep to hear his stories!”

“Yeah, and so what if I got lost on the way home that one time?” asked another kid. “It was dark!”

Yasuoka scowled. “Some children vanished,” she said. “Just last year one child, the son of the local fishmonger—”

“I knew him,” said a third kid. “He didn’t disappear! I saw him stow away on his uncle’s boat one day, the one that got caught in a storm and sank! That’s what happened to him.”

That was technically possible; Yasuoka had read all the information she could find on the missing child, but none of it precluded the child having drowned at sea. The other missing children, a few every decade, could be similar stories. “Well—the temple has been defiled, things broken and taken! What excuse would a good monk have for that?”

Anand tilted his head, then turned to the children. “Have any of you anything to say?” he asked in a gentle voice. “Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble. But if you’ve done something, you should admit what you’ve done.”

A few kids raised their hands. “We mighta broke one of the shrines a few weeks ago,” said a little kid. “Sorry. It was dark, and we tripped over it.”

“I took one of the offerings,” said another kid. “It was my favorite type of orange. But I’ll replace it! I promise!”

Anand looked back at Yasuoka. “That doesn’t…” she growled. “Okay, then, what’s your desire, if it isn’t to do wrong? What do you want that has kept you going for hundreds of years?”

“To teach.” Anand paused for a moment. “I admit, despite my best efforts towards enlightenment, I maintained one desire. I wanted a school, a place where children could be educated in matters of the spirit as well as the world. I approached the local liege lord time and again, but was denied every time, and since then…well, I couldn’t stop. Not when the children needed me.” He smiled, and the children all began to talk about how great of a teacher he was. “Is it so surprising that someone might have a good desire that sustained them for centuries?”

“It has never happened,” growled Yasuoka.

“Never that you were aware of. But if—before you began hunting quiet, obscure, ancient ghosts for this quest of yours—you only went to places troubled by dangerous ghosts, would you have had the chance to meet any good ones?” Anand shrugged. “In any event, that is the case. But tell me—why are you reluctant to believe this? Surely you would want to think the situation is less dire than you had feared?”

“Because—because I can’t let you confuse me!” Yasuoka insisted. “I need your powers to defeat the monastery ghost! My lord has demanded it. He’s made me everything I am; I need to do this for him!” She pointed her bo staff squarely at his head. “I can’t—”

“Would you really,” asked Anand quietly, “bind me if you weren’t really sure whether I deserved it?” He spread his hands wide. “Perhaps your suspicions are correct. Perhaps I am hiding something and deserve punishment. But if not…well. Hold you your own spirit so cheaply that you would take mine just to make your task easier?”

Yasuoka hesitated, trembling. She could strike now, she thought; if Anand wanted to keep up this pretense, he couldn’t use the children for shields, and if he abandoned it, she could at least get the children out. And she couldn’t be wrong. She’d never been wrong before. She had to strike, to beat this ghost like all the others so she could use his powers to cleanse the monastery. The worst that could happen was—

The worst that could happen was she became the kind of person who hurt innocents to fulfill her own desires, she realized. And if that was the case, then no matter how many evil ghosts she defeated, when she died she knew there would be one more. Maybe it would battle the other ghosts of the world forever, or maybe it would haunt Tatsunori in a mad quest to protect him and his clan for all eternity. It would lead to nothing but pain and despair…until another, better shaman found a way to defeat her and bind her for use against others.

She realized she was sweating, and she slowly sagged against her pole. Anand made a vague gesture, and then the children were by her, helping her to a cushion and fetching a cold drink from a deep, cool crevice of the chamber. “I…” said Yasuoka at last. “I—no. I can’t bind you if I can’t prove you’re hurting anyone.”

Anand smiled slightly. “You see?” he told the children. “Even adults sometimes need to be reminded of the right thing to do. That is why we all must look out for each other. Do you promise to do that?” The kids nodded. “And you, Yasuoka?”

“What? Um, of course…” Yasuoka shook her head slightly as she began to grasp the magnitude of what the realization would cost her. “If I don’t take your powers, how can I possibly vanquish the monastery ghost? It has killed a hundred others—”

“Each one, no doubt, channeling some special ghost he or she was confident would bring about victory.” Anand tapped his fingertips together. “But perhaps with what you have learned tonight, you can perceive another approach.”

That confused Yasuoka, but after a few moments, she understood. “Of course,” she said. “I…I’ll try that. Thank you. I’ll talk to your liege lord—and mine too. See if we can get a school set up.”

Anand looked startled for the first time, and a faint red blush tinged his ghostly cheeks. “I would very much appreciate that, shaman Yasuoka,” he said. “Children, what do we say?”

“Thank you, shaman!” they all chorused.

“Excellent. And now, since I think we still have a little time, would you like to hear the story of the monk and the lotus blossom?”

The kids clapped and cheered. “Yes!” called the girl with the bow. “Yes, please!”

Anand turned to Yasuoka. “You may stay as well. Perhaps you will find it…enlightening.”

Yasuoka smiled, and for the first time in a while, the cold chi bound to her own didn’t seem as heavy. “Yes,” she said. “I would like that.”

Urban Fantasy Promo – Sirenhawk Book 2: Misborn of the Wilding River

Hello everyone! We’re back, and so are our favorite authors with their own awesome series.  Last week we showed off one of our most fervent allies, and today, we’ve got another one who crushes it every chance she gets.

L. E. Parr has written more books than I can count on a good day, and every time I check out her site, it seems she has more on the way.  If you’re a reader who loves a diligent storyteller, Parr is the right one for you.

Her latest and greatest is the follow-up to her awesome Sirenhawk book.  This sequel, Misborn of the Wilding River, puts the focus on another shifter.  And the book starts as wildly as you can expect.  Once again, Parr delivers a stunning and beautiful look at another way of life, and develops her characters in interesting ways.

 

Keenan of the wild river country has spent months  imprisoned after she and the sprites were defeated  at the Great River Corridor. With the she’ravens using human thugs to push their way into the hawk protected west, Kee and her sprite allies are looking for a miracle. Enter a god-stag shapeshifter who brings mystery  and love to a sirenhawk who just wants to do right by the people who depend on her.

The misborn war between sirenhawk and she’raven continues along the Great Rivers with Keenan and her familiar, the fennec fox, Sydan, leading the sirenhawks against their hereditary foe.

This is the eighth book that we’ve had the privilege of showing off for L. E. Parr.  And as strong as she started, her stories keep getting bigger and better all the time.  The Sirenhawk series is a fun urban fantasy saga, and it has a certain sexiness to it that you’ll understand when you pick it up.  So what are you waiting for?  Check out Misborn of the Wilding River on Amazon today!

Character Art – Dirk

Hey there folks!  It’s about time to ring in the New Year with some new art. We’re taking a look today at one of the awesome pieces that Hozure did for us.  This time, it’s of our favorite werewolf, Dirk.

We started a little different than usual with this one, because Hozure wanted to determine the concepts of the character, in addition to his pose.  So we had a couple of different options for how he would be presented.  We ultimately wanted him to have this kind of chivalrous feel, so we gave him a sword and shield combo.

After that, it was time to pick a pose.  As always, Hozure gave us a hard time picking our favorite.  Each of these options could have been cool, but I think we ended up going with the option he least expected.

Expectations aside, he crushed it, even from early on.  His presentation was so much different than the other works we’ve done.  It’s really impressive how dynamic of an artist he is!

Once he added the other objects and some textures, it looked even more impressive.  Over the years, Hozure has gained proficiency in shading and movement.  It’s really a feat to behold.

Finally we have the character on a background with some shadows beneath so we can really see what he looks like.  It is incredible what Hozure can do.  I’m just beyond impressed, really.

We can’t wait to show you more of the work that Hozure has done for us.  Stay tuned!

Ghost Hunter, Part One

Ghost Hunter
A Story by Aaron Canton
-Part One-

 

The crumbling walls of the ancient tomb complex shone in the moonlight, their white stone standing tall on the mountaintop despite the damage wrought by six hundred years of tomb robbers. A stiff breeze blew through the stony plain leading to the walls, and a few pebbles made eerie plinking noises as they bounced off the rubble before rolling to the other side of the complex and tumbling down the cliffside to the forest far below. But besides those rocks, there were no other sounds; not a single animal scampered about looking for a late-night snack. Nor did a single bird fly overhead, and even the buzzing of mosquitos and other pests had died away within a hundred meters of the summit. It was as if the site was dead, motionless as the tomb before it and silent except for the occasional pebble…and the faint vibration, too low to be a sound proper, emitting from the magical wards scattered all over the landscape.

Yasuoka Takako, though, knew how to listen for the wards, and she murmured a faint sigh as she finally stirred from the trance she’d been sitting in for the better part of an hour. Yasuoka was a tall, slender woman with a fit build, dark eyes, and darker hair tied into intricate braids. She wore the traditional shawl of a shaman, but beneath it, she was dressed for the road, with tough leather clothes and belt pouches full of everything she had reason to think she’d need. She also carried a long bo staff on her back, and it was the staff she reached for after shaking off her stiffness with a quick stretch. “These wards weren’t set up with the tomb,” she murmured as she swung the staff in front of her. “Too recent. The army, I’m sure…”

In the six hundred years since the civilization that had built the tomb complex had fallen, the mountain had been seized by neighboring kingdoms at least three times Yasuoka knew of, and now it seemed another of the local warlords had tried to stake a claim on the ruins by rigging the entire plain with magical wards that would surely afflict horrible consequences on anybody who stepped on one. No doubt if she went back down the mountain and did some research, she could find a local with a map of the safe paths; there was bound to be a veteran who helped lay the wards or a treasure hunter foolhardy enough to plot a way through and lucky enough to survive the attempt. There always were, after all. But she was running out of time on this job already and had no desire to spend another three days slogging back to the town on the mountain’s base just to get someone to tell her how to cross a hundred meters of rock.

So instead, she pointed her staff in front of her, aimed at the ground, and began to chant. After several moments, the air in front of her glistened, and dozens of faint, luminescent masses appeared, each swirling rapidly as if to flee from the shaman. Her eyes flicked between the masses before settling on one. “Wen Kuang,” she ordered in a voice of absolute authority. “Damned musician. Lend me your ears.”

The other masses vanished in a blink as Kuang’s spirit, or soul, or chi as Yasuoka thought of it, writhed all the faster. Then the chi was drawn into Yasuoka’s body, and she stiffened at the blast of pure, utter cold that swept through her—no matter how many jobs she performed, she knew she would never grow used to that sensation. Moments later, though, the cold receded, and she was again alone on the mountaintop. But when she listened, it wasn’t just her.

She could hear a ward exactly three steps to her left, vibrating a fraction of a note higher than the ones around it. And she could hear another ward half a meter to her right and just in front of her, this one warbling a little slower than the others. Right in front of her, though, there was nothing at all; the ground was empty of magic. She pressed down on the spot with her bo staff, then took a step forward and listened again. Now the only safe place to advance was one pace in front of her and half that distance to her right, so she stepped there and continued.

Yasuoka sighed again as she reached the halfway point of the magical minefield. She hated channeling Kuang, a wandering zither player once notorious for having used his remarkable skill to charm his way into rich, isolated estates before slaughtering the inhabitants at night and fleeing with all their treasure. He had been executed on the grounds of the conservatory where he had trained, but even that hadn’t stopped his depredations. His ghost had appeared days later and had driven no fewer than seven of the most promising students to suicide with his haunting, beguiling music. Yasuoka had dealt with him as she dealt with all the ghosts she encountered, and she had to admit he had his uses, but she always felt unclean when she drew upon his skills. At least some of the monsters she dealt with were just brutes acting according to instinct. Kuang was evil.

Still, the musician was much more tolerable than being blasted by the wards, so she suppressed a grimace and continued to channel his spirit as she walked. It was several minutes later when she reached the end of the minefield and stepped on the ancient slabs of the complex’s upper level, and only then did she dismiss Kuang’s chi with a wave of her staff. The warbling of the wards behind her faded, and she took a few breaths to center herself.

The visible tomb ruins had truly been stripped bare, she found, and there was nothing left of even the faintest value to anyone. Those walls that remained had been carefully scoured and every bit of statuary or molding chipped off, no doubt long since sold to private collectors. She saw a couple fallen columns, toppled so some valuable item could be removed from the top, and empty holes in the rock where other columns must have once been—perhaps taken in their entirety to decorate some daimyo’s living room. Hallways that were said to have once led to beautiful chambers now led only to piles of rock. The fabled gemstone murals and lifelike carvings were long gone as well. But she knew there was something here, and so she kept looking as she paced through the complex. There would be something that didn’t fit—some clue or hint to further treasure. After all, if there wasn’t any more treasure, then the stories wouldn’t have—

She froze and took a closer look at a slab lying on the ground. It was old, but not as old as the ones surrounding it. Most of the ruins were six hundred years old, and the walls and floor, though still shining, were pitted and covered with cracks. This slab, though, was entirely intact. Plus, the other stones didn’t fully fit together anymore since the wear and tear of the centuries, a legion of robbers, and at least three separate armies had driven them apart. But this stone made a perfect fit amongst the others around it. It was as if it was put in later, after the other stones had already been worn down.

Yasuoka chanted again, this time drawing on the chi of a different defeated enemy. “Rhinotaur, wild beast, lend me your strength,” she ordered. Cold slammed into her, followed by a feeling of pure exhilarating power, and she smiled as she walked to the slab. She raised a foot and kicked down with her channeled might, shattering the slab of thick stone as easily as breaking a twig.

The broken pieces of the stone collapsed into a downward-sloping tunnel as Yasuoka dismissed the rhinotaur’s chi, and after the rubble settled, she climbed down as well. She had nothing to help her see in the dark—yet—so she took flint and tinder from a pouch and lit a torch before descending. The tunnel itself was bare, no doubt having been looted before the upper slab was installed, but Yasuoka continued anyway. There was something more to the tomb; there had to be. And when she found it, she’d find what she was really looking for too.

After several minutes of traversing the coiling tunnel, it opened, and Yasuoka found herself in a large square chamber with one door in each of its four walls. This room too was empty of gemstones or art that could help indicate which door led to which room, but Yasuoka didn’t need directions anymore. She could see a faint glow through the door to her left and could even hear someone whispering. “Almost got it!” someone gibbered. “Almost there, just a bit more!”

Yasuoka took a breath to prepare. Then she turned and strode through the door.

The new room she found herself in had at least a dozen doors leading off into all kinds of little passages, most likely smaller rooms where servants, family members, and pets could be buried. As for the room itself, it had a high ceiling and many three-sided columns surrounding a central platform. No doubt the platform had once held a coffin, but it was long gone, and truthfully, Yasuoka didn’t care about it. What she cared about was the skeleton lying next to the platform and the ghost crouching over it and blathering on about how he ‘almost had’ something or other.

“Mik Sovann,” called Yasuoka, instilling her voice with a bit of chi so the ghost would be sure to hear her. “I come for you.”

Sovann’s ghost turned, startle evident on its long, lean face. “You know me?”

“Even two hundred years later, children still grow up hearing tales of Numasa’s most famous tomb raider,” said Yasuoka, taking a few steps closer. “They hear how you looted the treasures of the dead snake-kings of Ashanti from inside a pit of one thousand deadly vipers. How you brought seven companions to burgle the tomb of a great archmage and guided each one into a deadly rune, killing them but depleting the runes and enabling you to seize the archmage’s dread staff. They even say you dared rob the tomb of the emperor’s daughter, and though the four hundred guards in the complex were all executed for their failure to stop you, you escaped to tell the tale.”

“Yes, yes, that’s me,” said Sovann. “But why are you here? Nobody’s been here in so long and—wait!” His expression clouded. “You’re not here to steal my treasure, are you? I found it. It’s mine!”

Yasuoka shook her head and looked at Sovann’s skeleton. One of his arms was extended into a small hole that had been blasted into the base of the platform. “I read the people of this kingdom buried their king’s greatest treasures in the base of the platform that bore his coffin, so as their king’s spirit sank into the afterlife, he would be able to take his wealth with him. This was a sacrifice on their part, but they were blessed with virtuous kings and did not mind the sealing of their treasures. It looks like you tried to dig them up regardless. But…”

“I did dig them up!” protested Sovann. “I dug the hole, I could see the gold! But the stone shifted when I stuck my arm in, and—and—oh, it doesn’t matter! I can reach it now!” He stuck his ghostly hands into the platform to demonstrate. “And even if I can’t touch it yet, I’m sure I’ll figure out how soon! And then I’ll have it at last! And—how did you know I was here anyways?”

“My research at the local monasteries showed that, two hundred years ago, this tomb was rumored to be haunted,” said Yasuoka. No doubt the tunnel had been sealed shortly after Sovann’s spirit had manifested; some local ruler had probably blocked the entrance to prevent any helpless people from falling into its grip. But then two centuries passed without anyone going into the tunnel or seeing the ghost, and gradually both the lower tomb and Sovann himself had been forgotten except in a few ancient scrolls. “The same time when your own tales vanished from legend. It was a reasonable guess that there was more to this tomb than commonly known and that you were lurking somewhere in its depths searching for one last piece of treasure.” She stepped into the center of the room. “Speaking of those legends. The tales say you can see even in complete darkness. Is that fact or fiction?”

“See in the dark?” Sovann smiled. “Yes, I found a magical scroll in one of the first tombs I robbed. Why, do you want to know what that scroll said so you can cast the same ritual? Well, I could teach you…if you carry that treasure to my hideout. But if you steal it away from me, I swear I will—”

Yasuoka grimaced. If the spirit got what it wanted, it would fade and be at peace…but a man who killed seven companions and consigned an army to death just to sate his own greed did not deserve to be at peace. “No,” she said. “I am not here for the treasure. I am here for you, Mik Sovann.” She pointed her bo staff at him. “I am here for your soul.”

Sovann’s face flashed. “No, you’re here for my treasure! And you won’t get it! Because it is mine! And—wait. If you’re here to attack me, why didn’t you do so?”

For a ghost, Yasuoka thought, Sovann was unusually perceptive. “Ghosts can only hurt humans when they get angry or upset enough to manifest in the physical world,” Yasuoka explained. “But that’s also the only time when humans can hurt ghosts. If I’d snuck up on you without disturbing you, I wouldn’t be able to actually bind you; all my spells would just go through you.” She walked to Sovann’s body and kicked the bones aside. “Which is why, if you don’t stop me, I’m going to steal your treasure myself.”

“Wait. You can’t—” Sovann’s body trembled for a moment, but Yasuoka knew the ghost would give in to its anger. A human might be able to resist, but ghosts were really a creature’s strongest emotions, memories, and desires made manifest. Sovann was little more than greed incarnate now. The ghost was literally incapable of resisting her provocation.

And it didn’t. With an angry scream, a wicked knife appeared in its hand—it even looked like the one in the legends, Yasuoka noticed—and it dropped down into the ground.

Yasuoka chanted, and the spirits she had defeated and bound appeared before her again. She picked one of her most frequent summons, the ghost of the infamous military officer Yong-Il Cho who had slaughtered his own daimyo and a hundred retainers after being passed over for promotion. As the damned soldier’s strength flowed into her body, she dropped into her usual combat stance and focused. Sovann’s ghost could come at her from any direction, but this was probably the first real fight it had undergone in this form, so it wouldn’t know any tricks. The ghost would do something obvious, which probably meant coming from behind her or from beneath the floor. Her boots had runes in the soles to stop ghosts from simply stabbing her through the bottom of the floor, so if the spirit did come from below it would likely sneak up behind her and—

A prickle on the back of her neck told her the ghost was near. She took a small piece of glass from a belt pouch and held it so she could see behind her, and moments later, she saw Sovann’s ghost leap from under the ground. It moved to slit her throat—but she was already turning with a veteran soldier’s reflexes, and his blade skidded harmlessly off her bo staff. She slammed the butt of the staff into Sovann’s nose hard enough to send the spirit back through the wall.

Sovann’s ghost came at her again, first on one side and then the other, but both times Yasuoka managed to parry the blows. “Why are you doing this?!” roared the ghost as it fell back again. “Just let me have my treasure!”

“I’ve been commissioned to defeat a very powerful ghost in an ancient monastery,” Yasuoka told him as she blocked another blow. “The monastery is shrouded in magical darkness. To defeat that spirit, I will need to be able to see in the dark.”

“I’ll never let you bind me!” screamed the ghost. “I—”

Yasuoka smashed her staff into its head, and it fell back, stunned and floating a short distance above the ground. Before the spirit could get up, Yasuoka drew a lotus petal symbol around it with chalk she’d taken from her belt. “No!” it yelled. “No!”

“Damned spirit,” Yasuoka began to chant, holstering her bo staff and cutting her palm with a little dagger from yet another pouch. “Your strength, I take it for my own. Your skills, I take them for my own. Your memories, I take them for my own. Your—”

Sovann screeched loud enough to cut off Yasuoka and then charged at her. Her bo staff was in its holster, and her dagger wouldn’t be able to stop the ghost—but Yasuoka had been doing this for many years, and she had some tricks of her own. Sovann was greedy, and she knew it, so she took a gold coin from one of her pouches and tossed it into the center of the lotus petal. Sovann immediately wheeled around to grab it.

And Yasuoka finished her chant. The lotus petal drawing glowed, and Sovann flickered and vanished. Moments later, Yasuoka felt the settling of new chi within her, another sharp, cold sensation at the back of her mind along with the other monsters and criminals she had defeated and pressed into service. Though most of her enemies had no useful powers for her and were simply banished so they could no longer haunt and persecute humans, dozens still remained bound to Yasuoka. Their presences were like cold icicles piercing into her bright, warm chi, but she knew how to bear them. And with them, she could beat even worse monsters. Protect more people. Defeat more evil.

And please Daimyo Tatsunori, the lord who had found her as a begging orphan, who had listened to his mystics when they told him what she could be, and who had trained her into a shaman that kept all Numasa safe from wandering spirits. She owed him everything, and she would not fail him. If he wanted the ancient monastery in the center of his fiefdom cleared of its ghost, though that ghost had stayed there for a thousand years and a dozen shamans before her had tried and failed to fell it, she would purge it. She already had almost all the spirits she thought she would need. Now she just had one more ghost to capture before she could perform the most important job he’d ever asked her to do

As she moved to leave, she looked down at the hole Sovann had drilled. With his body out of the way, she could see several ancient treasures, precious gemstones set in jewelry and the most expensive of metals worked into beautiful shapes. She paused for a moment, then summoned another ghost: Liu Huang, a famous sapper who had betrayed his people and undermined their fortifications so an enemy could conquer them, only to be executed by that same enemy and haunt the abandoned fort for decades until Yasuoka had dealt with him. She used one of Liu’s spells and shifted the stone platform just slightly, sealing the hole. The king’s treasures would be out of sight, kept safe for him and his spirit just as they were intended.

She sighed, feeling a wave of weariness pass through her, but forced herself to stand and retrace her steps. She’d have to channel Kuang one more time to make her way back through the wards, and she wanted to get that over with as soon as possible.

Fantasy Promo – Khalla’s Play by Eric K. Barnum

Hello everyone, and welcome to a glorious new year.  2018 is sure to be spectacular, as new books are coming your way, both within Tellest, and from other fantastic authors.  One such author, Eric K. Barnum, has been an inspiration and a wonderful ally of the Tellest brand for the past year.  Every chance we get to praise his accolades is an awesome opportunity for everyone.

That time is now, as Barnum has a new book out today.  Khalla’s Play takes what he’s done with priests and paladins and extends it to the thieves of the Forsaken Isles.  As always, the story is deep and rich with lore, and the author grows his world with ease.  You’ll swear you’re in the city streets, watching the thieves work their craft.

It’s been a long while since we had the opportunity to bring attention to another author’s work, but starting off the New Year by showing off Khalla’s Play was well worth the wait.  Read on to see just how interesting this new novel is.

When the Jade God of Necromancy dies, Taysor and Tania’s smugglers and thieves turn on each other to control the black market and powers to be gained by harvesting the god’s body parts. Set against this serpentine street war, the Tanian Thieves Guild ‘Perdition’ rallies behind Khalla as their new leader. The former leader, Ash, just wants to cash in on the map given him as payment by the Dread Lord of Ice. That map points him and the archmage mage Halgrim, to Merakor. The ancient civilization, destroyed by the dark elves nearly 3,000 years ago, has sat ripe and untouched until now.

The fighting stirs and ancient evil lying dormant below the templed streets of Tasor. The Dark Legion guild, specialized in human trafficking, abduction, and ransom, craves the blood of the Jade God. Instantly addictive to them, the turf battles mask their lust for more. Without a god controlling the dominion, necromancy runs amok and the Dark Legion realizes it may just have the power to take all that it craves. Syand, the vampire, is coming for more. Powerful heroes are already at play against her, like Ayden who now commands the Nineteenth Bloodstone Legion under King Malcor’s reign.

As allies turn on friends, orc armies march, and the gods themselves fight for control over necromancy, join Ash, Halgrim, and Khalla as they make ready to depart for Merakor. Their mission is simple: find the Tower of Aler Alerest in the ruins of the Arati Grasslands. They need a team of heroes, strong enough to fight the dark elves and their minions but wise enough to stay on course. Strength and wisdom… these do not describe Khalla. It’s okay, Khalla: your friends have your back.

Join the heroes of Tania and Sora as they sort out the aftermath of Orcus’ fall, and make ready to depart for the ancient civilization of Merakor.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Eric K. Barnum is an author to watch out for.  His writing gets better and better with every book that he writes, and he puts out books like a fiend.  His literary work ethic is incredible, and you can feel the passion with which he writes for the Forsaken Isles.  He’s already got so many books out, but Khalla’s Play is sure to be your new favorite.  Check it out on Amazon today!

Some other interesting news:

The ebook version of Khalla’s Play will be free from Tuesday, Jan 2nd through Friday, January 5th.  And also during this period, the ebook version of Dar Tania will be discounted to $0.99.

Want some more cool news?  Any folks who head over to the Forsaken Isles site and subscribe to the newsletter in January will receive the exclusive short story “Temple of the Golden Serpent” to be released mid-January.

Concept Art – Devlin’s Helmet and the Mythril Spear

Hey there folks!  I hope you had a wonderful holiday and are eager to start a great New Year with 2018.  We’ve been showing off a lot of character art, but it’s time to turn around and show off some more of the awesome artifacts from the world of Tellest today.

First up, we have a headpiece from one of our exclusive newsletter short stories.

Devlin is a character that we introduced in Hunters, a story you can only read (for now) if you subscribe to the Tellest newsletter.  He’s a somewhat scrupulous fellow who is tracking down people with powers and capturing them, though as of now, no one knows for sure why.

Of course, to track and capture a powered person, you need to have powers.  Since Devlin doesn’t have any innate abilities, he amasses magical equipment to help even those odds.

Among Devlin’s repertoire of equipment is his helmet, which lets him see through objects.  It works very well with the bracer he owns that expands into a shield.  Being able to see your target through a barrier is a huge boon to Devlin, and one he utilizes regularly.

 

Let’s shift over to offense, and look at the mythril spear that was meant to kill a mighty frost giant.

The entirety of Bolt and Keota’s quest in Lord of Thunder hinges on being able to craft a deadly spear that can puncture the icy chest of a frost giant that is endangering the lives of a struggling avarian people.  You can’t talk about the spear and not make it, so of course it ends up being forged.

Keota goes on to wield the impressive weapon, bringing it to bear against his enemies despite the dangers.

We’ve got one more Azot grab bag to show you next year, so stay tuned.  Enjoy the rest of 2017, and we’ll see you in an even more amazing 2018!

First Christmas

First Christmas
By Michael DeAngelo


Once upon a time, many days and nights ago, a loving family visited a land of ice and powdered snow.  Though they didn’t know the details—the whys and whens and wheres—there was one thing they knew for certain: a Christmas wish had brought them there.  Their time spent there was filled with merriment and cheer, and the man who summoned them could not wait to see them that next year.  As the weeks and months flew by, they tried to quiet their anticipation.  This didn’t work of course, and as the holidays drew near, they knew it was time for a celebration.  You’re invited, too, friends and family, to join us on this quest—to visit Santa, his wife, the elves and even all the rest.  So sit back, relax, get cozy, and prepare for a tale of endless elation.  Get ready to visit a land of magic and make-believe, and pure imagination.

 

Blind to the steps below him, he ventured forward with the utmost caution, seeking solid ground with his foot as though he was on the edge of a hazardous cliff.  He could hear the frantic pacing of the petite, brown dog behind him, eager to follow him wherever he went—but there was no making sense of being on the stairs at the same time.

“We should have got a real Christmas tree this year,” his beloved insisted from firmer, flatter ground to his side.  “We say we’re going to do it every year.”

“And every year I have to remind you that with your allergies, it would never work,” he teased.  “You say we’re going to do it every year, and then you relent because I’m always right.”

“Yes, and I hate that about you,” she agreed.

He arrived on the floor then, and set the potted tree down before sidling out into the living room proper.  Free of his burden, he noticed the peculiar object in the auburn-haired beauty’s hands.

“What is that?” he grumbled, though he already knew the truth.

“Custom made!” she cried, holding the ornament ever closer.  The small dire penguin stared at the man with beady red eyes, and fangs protruded past the inanimate creature’s beak.  “Can you believe it’s almost been a year since all that happened?”

Michael shrugged.  “It feels like a dream, doesn’t it?  Nobody believes it happened besides us.  They think we just sent out bookmarks for funsies.”

“Oh, none of that matters,” Rhianna said.  “We know what happened.”  The woman moved the tree into place in that room, and hung the penguin in place.  “We saved Christmas for Santa last year.  I think that’s a pretty big deal!”

“I just remember almost being a snack for those things,” Michael replied.  “That was the kind of harrowing experience I wasn’t expecting earlier that day!”

“Are you saying you wouldn’t do it all over again?”

An impish grin was on Michael’s face the next moment.  “I didn’t say that,” he said.

“Well that’s good.  It’s getting to be that time of year again,” she replied.

“You think we’re going to have another adventure?”

The beautiful woman tapped on the penguin ornament and watched it bobble in its position on the tree.  “He said he wanted to see us again.”  She snapped her fingers, and ran over to their china cabinet, and sorted through piles of junk, scraps of paper, and a plethora of envelopes before she found what she was looking for.  “Aha!  And I quote: ‘It was so nice having the four of you here for a visit.  I couldn’t have done so well last night if it wasn’t for the help of the DeAngelo family.  Merry Christmas and Happy Wintertide!  I can’t wait to see you again next year!’”

The man turned to her with an arched eyebrow.  “You mean to tell me that you can’t find one thing in this house—ever—but you had the location of that card memorized?”

“Not exactly,” she said with a smile as she dug through the collection in that drawer again.  She plucked out another pair of objects, and pulled them onto her hands.  “I remembered where these were.  How am I supposed to forget a gift from Santa?”  She rubbed her hands together, the archery gloves warm and cozy.  “Speaking of which, where did you put your present from Santa?”

He winked at her, and pulled up one of his pant legs.  “Already wearing them,” he said.

“Oh?” she said.  “You haven’t been wearing them every day this month, have you?”

Michael snickered.  “Ew, no!  It’s the 23rd.  It’s exactly one year from when we made our trip.”

“So you do think we’re going to go back!”

“Wishes do come true,” he said.  “The three of you got exactly what you asked for last year: You wished for our animals to be able to talk, and they were yappy as you can believe; Zelda wanted to fly, and she took us for a whirlwind tour in an icy canyon; even Peanut got her wish.”

“Thanks to Santa letting her call it in a few hours later,” Rhianna reminded.

“A big juicy bird,” Michael recalled.  “I’m kind of glad it wasn’t one of those penguins.  They looked like they’d be a bit tough.”

A bright smile appeared on the redhead’s face.  “The Christmas turkey was appreciated well enough!”

“That’s right.  So you all got your wishes,” the man said then.  “I was just smart enough to make a perpetual wish.  Every year—that’s what I said!”

“It’s true, I remember it!” a reply from a voice they hadn’t heard for an entire year piped up.

The married couple looked at one another before passing a glance at their adorable little dog.

“Zelda, you’re talking again!” Rhianna said.

“I know!” she exclaimed.  “And I would have had more to say earlier if you two would ever let me get a word in!”

“Wait a minute,” Michael said.  “Does that mean Peanut can talk again too?”

All three of them looked to the lazy feline, cuddled up in her bed.  A trio of inquisitive stares landed on the cat, who gazed back with a perturbed visage.  “No,” she finally replied.

“It’s happening!” Rhianna exclaimed.  She ran through the kitchen, looking out the back door of the house.

Michael was quick to follow her, though when he arrived there, he noticed the sour expression on her face.  “What’s the matter?” he asked.

She shrugged.  “There’s no snow like last year.  How are we supposed to get a portal to Tellest without any snow?”

“I’m not sure that’s how it works,” he teased.

Just then, however, they heard a knocking at the front door of the house.

“A roo roo roo roo!” Zelda cried.  She tilted her head to the side, then.  “Is that how I always sound?” she wondered.

The man walked past the confused pup, patting her on the head as he went.  He opened the front door, and noticed the small parcel on the front step.  “It’s kind of early for mail,” Michael said.  “What could that be?”  He swung the screen door open and plucked the item up, bringing it inside and shutting the way behind him.  “Whatever it is, it’s light.  What did you order off Amazon now?”

“That’s not from Amazon,” Rhianna said.  “Look at the side.”

Her husband turned the parcel until he could see the label affixed to it.  He grinned when he saw the address on the return label, in colorful lettering.  “Santa’s Workshop,” he read aloud.

“Open it, open it, open it!” Zelda demanded.

He did as commanded, prying open the cardboard box and spotting the contents within.  A round, silver object was there, polished so well that he could nearly see his reflection in it.  A clicking sound echoed out from there without the box lid there to muffle it.

“What is that?” Rhianna asked.

Michael pulled it free of its container, and held it out in front of him.  “It’s a clock.  That’s strange.”  He alternated glances at it, and the digital clock that always displayed in their entertainment center.  “But hey, at least it’s showing the right time.  Look: almost five o’clock.”

As he said that, the delivered item ticked one last time, sending the big hand straight over the twelve.  A loud bell tolled, frightening everyone in that room.  Zelda ran into the corner of the room, sitting beside the nonplussed puss, Rhianna jumped and grabbed her chest and Michael released his hold on the clock.

But that timepiece wasn’t let to fall, no.  It hovered in the air where it had been dropped, shaking as the gears and components continued to move.  To his surprise, Michael noticed that the clock’s hands spun backward, and they were gaining speed.

“What is going on?” his wife asked.

Before he could answer, the face of the clock broke away, sucked into the device only to disappear.  In its place, a bright light shone out, blinding the man who once held the object.  He brought his arm up to shield his eyes, and that light seemed to dim.  It was only then, when he thought to venture another glance that he saw another land displayed in the far reaches of that timepiece.

“Huh.  You know that snow you were hoping to see?” he asked his wife.  “Well it is right in—”

Before he could finish the sentence, the clock tolled again.  Michael existed in that room for only another instant, and then he was sucked into that beacon, his words left to hang in the room.

“Michael!” Rhianna cried.

Almost as if responding to her yelp, the clock, still hovering in the air, spun about and faced the woman.  Her eyes grew wide and she silenced herself, only a single gasp escaping from her lips then.  She saw the same land that her husband did: trees and a nearby field all covered in snow.

She couldn’t even offer up a warning to the fluffy animals to her side before that loud noise chimed again.  Just as before, that next victim of the clock was only there for a moment before she was stretched into the device itself.

Zelda spun about and pushed behind Peanut, burying her nose in the blanket beside the cat’s rump.

“What are you doing?” the feline asked.  Our humans were just sucked into another dimension, and you’re going to run and hide?”

“I’m scared!” the dog admitted.

“That’s not the Zelda I know,” Peanut said, standing up from her cuddle spot.  “Where’s the dog who bravely leapt into the portal to Santa’s manor last year?  Where’s the pup who pulled a magical sleigh through a canyon of toothy penguins?  Where’s the Zelda who annoys me incessantly?”

The little brown chihuahua perked up at that last bit.  “That doesn’t sound very encouraging.”

“I know.  That last bit was just for me,” the cat confessed.

Letting a nervous sigh flare her nostrils, the dog rose to her feet once more, and walked to the edge of the couch, just as the clock was spinning in their direction.  “You’re coming with too, right?” she asked.

Before she received her answer, that bell chimed again, sucking Zelda into that other world to join her humans.

Peanut spun around in a circle, finding a comfortable groove in that bed once more.  A small feline smile showed up on her face then, and she tilted over to the side.

“Now that I have some peace and quiet, perhaps I can get some work done,” she said.  At that, she lifted her paw just before her nose, and licked between the padding on her foot.

It didn’t take long for her to realize that the clock had not finished its task.  It floated over toward her and pointed in her direction, and Peanut knew that it had one more victim it meant to claim.  She rose up to spring away, but that bell chimed one final time.  The cat was whisked away, leaving the room empty.

A puff of snow shot out from the face of that clock, and it fell to the bed where the animals once were.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

With a confused shout, Michael plunged through that portal, landing on that snowy, icy ground without any manner of grace.  He lost his footing and rolled over several times until he came to a stop on his back.

“Welcome back, Mike,” he muttered as he looked to the spinning sky.  As the man sat up and rubbed his head, he realized that none of the area around him looked familiar.  “Where am I?”

Behind him, he heard that strange toll of the bell once more, though that time it was dissonant and warbled.  He looked over his shoulder, watching the rippling portal pulse and thrum.  Without any warning, his wife went racing through that gateway.  She managed to land on her feet, despite the awkward journey through that rift.  The woman slid for a few moments on that icy ground before she lost her footing, and fell to her rump.

“Rhianna!” Michael cried, scrambling to her side.

“I’m okay,” she assured him.  “I’m going to have a huge bruise on my butt though, I just know it!”

He helped her to her feet, and wrapped her in a tight embrace, as though he hadn’t seen her for years.  “I’m just glad you’re okay.  Nothing got scrambled going through there, did it?”

She shook her head.  “I thought it would be far worse.  That clock was so small.”

“Definitely not the same way we traveled last year,” he agreed.

“And not the same place we traveled to,” Rhianna replied.  “This isn’t Santa’s home.  Where are we?”

Michael turned to look at that vast field of white.  There were some coniferous trees here and there, but he couldn’t see much else.  “I’m not quite sure,” he confessed.  “Wherever we are, it’s cold enough where I wish we could have packed a sweater or a jacket or something.”

“I came in pajamas last year,” Rhianna reminded him.

He snickered at that memory, but couldn’t reflect on it for long.  That bell tolled again, the trilling noise announcing another arrival.

“Help!” the husband and wife heard then.

“Was that—?” Michael began.

“It’s Zelda!” his beloved said.

They both turned to the portal, where a chestnut-colored swirl went tumbling toward them, bigger and bigger, until it was the size of their dog.  Michael lunged forward, and caught the pooch against his chest.  Zelda shook her head, clearing that befuddlement before she looked at her humans.

“I remember flying being a lot more fun last time we did it,” she said.  Michael and Rhianna could tell by her voice that she was a bit woozy.

“Are you alright little puppers?” Rhianna asked.

Before they could pry much further, another chime of that bell announced the final member of their family’s arrival.  Zelda yipped and launched herself away from Michael’s arms, just in time for Peanut to come shooting out of the portal.  She slammed into the man’s stomach hard enough to knock him off his feet.

“No!” she cried when she saw herself surrounded by all that snow.  “It was nap time!”

Rhianna couldn’t contain her laughter.  “It’s always nap time for you, Peanut,” she said, scooping her up off Michael’s chest.

“See, you understand!” the cat lamented.

Zelda jumped around the woman while Rhianna held the feline close to her chest, petting her just behind her ears.

“I’m fine by the way,” the man said, still lying on his back in that snow.  His taunting gone unnoticed, he was the only one left to watch as that portal shuddered before finally closing.  No longer obscured by that magical rift, the other side of that snowy landscape was visible to him.  With mouth ajar, he climbed to his feet, in awe of the sight before him.  “What is this place?” he muttered.

The rest of his family turned to observe what he saw then as well.  Beyond another long stretch of snow, they saw a heap of shaped metal, Christmas lights hung on them in interesting patterns, and large spotlights casting their glow into the grey sky.

“We are definitely not at Santa’s manor,” Rhianna said.

“Or his workshop,” Michael added.  “Either way, there’s no other place I can think of to go besides there.  We were brought here for a reason.  Shall we?”  Once he saw that Rhianna and the animals made their way in that direction, he led them forward.

As they drew nearer to that stunning locale, they could hear festive music from within.  A far cry from their last visit, everything seemed so modern.  A giant slab of concrete was under their feet, recently swept clear of snow.  Michael looked at his wife, his eyebrow arched in confusion.

“Is that…symphonic metal?” he wondered.

“Something is definitely strange about this place,” Rhianna said.  “Don’t let your guard down.”

They proceeded forward, following the sound of that music.  The building at the center of the area seemed as good a bet as any, and before long, they were standing in front of the thick, steel door.

“I could really use a sword right about now,” he said.  “Just in case.”

“It’s okay Daddy!” Zelda offered up in a quiet but eager voice.  “I’ll protect us!”

With a smile on his face, he reached down and patted the pup on her head.

“What about you, Peanut?” Rhianna asked.  “Are you going to pull your weight?”

The cat looked up at the woman with pleading eyes.  “Whatever you do, don’t put me down on this cold concrete.”

Michael sighed.  “We all ready?”  Without waiting to hear if they were, he pushed open that door, and the music roared out of that building.

Inside it was dark.  None of the visitors realized that there were no windows fashioned in to the building.  The only traces of light were far inside that singular room, except for when another one sparked into existence.

The lone inhabitant of that building jerked upright then, noticing the light that poured into the room.  They turned around, and their oversized goggles, set into a mask to shield their face, reflected the outside world back at the visitors.  Michael brought up his arm to shield his eyes from that illumination, aided only a moment later by the flare of a welding torch.

“I think we’re in the wrong place,” he said, backing away with his hands upraised.

The dweller of that strange structure stood up, and advanced on the entrance to that building.  “You’re in the right place, alright,” a deep voice resonated.  He could see that the being was smaller than he first considered, standing just slightly taller than navel level.

“Michael, let’s get out of here,” Rhianna said.

“You’re early,” the masked individual said.  A deep laugh echoed out behind that mask as they considered those words, and they reached up and plucked the mask off their face.  Free of the headwear, the DeAngelos realized their host was not at all what they expected.  The gnome laughed again, shaking her head.  “Imagine that: early to this place.”  A bright smile was on her face then, and she slapped her palm against her forehead.  “Of course, we haven’t met yet.  I’m Narala.  I’m one of Santa’s helpers.”  She continued across the way, dropping her welding mask on the ground.  As she drew closer to the light, the visitors could see her a little clearer.  She wore a work uniform that was comprised of plenty of leather—mostly covering her hands and her feet, though she also had a sturdy apron—though some metal was affixed to her outfit on her knees and shoulders.  A red headband kept her hair up and back, away from her eyes and her mask when she wore it.  Wearing that mask kept her face unmarred from her work.

“You’re the DeAngelo family, right?” she asked.  “Oh, what am I saying—of course you are!  You’re just as Revan described.”

“You know Revan?” Zelda piped up, stepping into the workshop.  She spun around, unable to contain her excitement.  “Mommy, Daddy, that’s the one who gave us the potions last year!”

“This doesn’t look like Santa’s workshop though,” Rhianna said.  Peanut leapt from the woman’s arms then, crawling into the building and letting her nose draw her toward interesting scents.  Zelda was inspired by that curiosity too, and fell in line behind the cat.

Narala snickered again.  “Well you don’t think the big man has just the one workshop, do you?”  She walked up and scratched the pup beneath her chin before taking a step to her side and flicking an unseen switch.  The workshop buzzed with activity then, brass and copper machines coming to life against the perimeter of the building.  “Revan and her folks are in charge of making sure Santa’s sleigh gets airborne, and stays there.  Then there are the people who work making toys and gifts.  Me, I’m in charge of making sure there’s enough time to do everything.”

“Oh, I get it,” Michael chortled.  “That’s why this year’s portal was the clock.  So it was you that sent for us.”

That grin on the gnome’s face grew wider.  “You liked that, huh?  Just a small piece of equipment to get you here fast.  Most of my stuff moves a bit quicker than all that, of course, but I wanted to get you here in one piece!”

“Not to be rude or anything,” Rhianna said, “but we were expecting Santa.  He said he’d see us again this year.”

The gnome interlocked her fingers together, and extended her arms, flipping her hands over to crack her elbows.  “That’s not rude at all,” she assured her guests.  “And you’ll definitely see the big man before your trip is over.  It’s just that, well…it might not be the way you were expecting.

“You see,” Narala went on, “Santa has tasked you four with a super-secret mission this year.  It’s not just the fate of Christmas that’s in your hands, but the fate of  every Christmas, across all of history and into the future.”

“No pressure or anything,” Michael said.

“What do you mean by that, Narala?” Rhianna asked.

Clapping her hands together, the gnome gestured with her head to the opposite side of the room.  “Come this way,” she said.  “Santa couldn’t be here to welcome you because of how clandestine this meeting had to be.  If our enemies knew you were here, they would try and come up with some sort of plan to stop you.  We couldn’t chance that, as you can guess.  We needed you to be able to go back in time unobstructed.”

“Did you say back in time?” the man asked.

“To the first Christmas,” Narala said with a forceful nod.  “Santa’s first Christmas.  Let me explain.”  She grabbed a small remote, and clicked the sole red button on it.

Behind the married couple, a loud noise resonated, and a large screen began descending from the ceiling.

Rhianna leaned over, and whispered in Michael’s ear.  “We could use a TV that big in our living room.”

The device finally clicked into place, and the husband and wife waited for the presentation to begin.  Behind them, another pop resonated, and they heard a faint buzz.  They looked back to see a warm light projecting in front of them, but after that could not shed their eager anticipation.

That screen was awash in that glow, illuminated so that it looked like parchment.  Just then, a tremendous shadow took shape over the screen.  It didn’t take long for it to morph into a form they could make sense of.  Michael chortled to himself and smacked his hand against his face.

Rhianna looked back and confirmed their suspicions.  Narala set her hands together in front of the lamp she turned on, and a series of mirrors threw that light show onto the screen.

“Shadow puppets!” the redhead giggled as she drew in close to her husband.

“Hey!” the little gnome shouted.  Rhianna jerked upright, embarrassed at her scolding, but when she cautiously turned about, she noticed that Narala wasn’t looking at her.  Instead, she was gazing across that workshop, to the animals who were investigating the perimeter still.  Peanut was on one of those workbenches, sniffing at the brass objects there, while Zelda investigated on the floor.  “Hey!” Narala called out again.  “Be careful over there.  That’s some pretty important stuff!”

“It’s not dangerous, is it?” Michael asked.

“Nah,” the gnome said.  “It’s just my lunch.  Anyway, where were we?”

“At the beginning, I think,” the man replied.

“Ah yes!” Narala said.  “The very beginning.”  Once again, those hands went up, creating rudimentary shadow puppets.  Birds and wolves were just the start, and once the gnome was warmed up, she put together some very impressive impressions.  “Thousands of years ago, before the gnomes were even here on the surface of Tellest, a man, his wife, and their friend arrived on an unfamiliar shore.  That man was destined for greatness, but he had lost faith in himself after some terrible happenings in the land he came from.  His wife assured him they could make a new life in this unfamiliar place, but he didn’t know where to begin.

“That man,” the gnome went on, “was Santa.  In time, he grew used to this place and flourished here.  But more important than that: he helped it get better as well.

“Not everyone has been so content with his time on Tellest though.”  Narala sighed, and put her hands together to make what looked like a vicious fiend of a person.  Angry shadow eyes seemed to stare at Michael and Rhianna, and though they knew it was just the gnome’s doing, they still shifted in that discomfort.  “This is Shathlin, and he’s the worst grouch you’ll ever see.  He’s an elf that blames all his problems—and those of his greater family—on Santa’s arrival.”

“Seems like a Grinch,” Rhianna said.

“I don’t know what that is,” Narala replied.  “But if it’s bad, I agree!”

“So was this…Shathlin—is that right?” Michael asked.

“Yup!”

“Was he around when Santa first arrived here?”

Narala shook her head.  “No, but his father was.  He poisoned his son’s mind with false accusations against Santa, and no matter what we’ve tried to tell him, Shathlin cannot be swayed.”

“So what’s the problem?” Michael pressed.  “What’s he done that is worth worrying about?”

“It’s what he’s going to do,” the gnome said.  “And what he’s already done.  Nothing is set in stone yet, but within the past few weeks, he attacked this very laboratory and stole some of my equipment!  Now, we’re lucky because what he found was pretty rudimentary.  He won’t be able to do exactly what he wants, but he knows enough people who have it out for Santa that he’s going to be a problem for us.  If they figure out how to tweak the settings on the things they pilfered, we’re all in a lot of trouble.”

“And how do we fit into all this?” Rhianna wondered.

Narala smiled and hopped from her perch.  She approached the husband and wife, and tossed a blue velvet bag to Michael.  “Do me a favor and look in there, will ya?”

The man righted that bag and opened it up, spotting nothing unusual inside.  “It’s empty,” he declared.

“Alright, now Rhianna, verify that for us.”

He handed the bag to her, and she nodded when she too saw nothing of value inside it.

“Now watch this,” the gnome said as her eager grin grew even wider.  She approached the perimeter of that room, and looked at one of the many work desks.  “Ah,” she said as she found the item she was looking for.  Turning about, she saw the little animals, still conducting their search of the workshop.  “You there, on the tables,” Narala said.  “You’re Peanut, right?”

The feline sat up upon hearing her name, and tilted her head to the side to consider the strange gnome.  “I only give up that kind of information to those who are willing to part with treats.”

Narala chortled upon hearing that.  “Well then I think I have just the one for you.  How’d you like to chase this little mouse?” she asked, holding out her hand and presenting a small copper rodent.

At once, Peanut was ensorcelled by that artificial animal.  She jumped to the ground, her eager eyes looking up at the engineer who was only a few feet taller than her.

The gnome was careful to place the mouse on the stone floor, and when it was there, she gave a few twists of the dial.  At once the clockwork mouse was filled with life, and it moved across the ground.  Peanut went into hunter mode at once, chasing the rolling rodent as it wheeled away.  She didn’t notice as Zelda skittered away from the strange noise, hiding beside her humans.

Drawing close, the cat placed her head near her paws as she raised her haunches.  As soon as she pounced though, a blue light pulsed from the mouse, and it disappeared from sight.

“What?”  Peanut cried, looking about in every direction.  “Where did it go?”

Narala chortled as she looked at the humans again.  “Rhianna, would you do me a favor and look back in that bag again?”

The auburn-haired beauty spread the velvet bag open, and sure enough, the little brass mouse was inside.

“You teleported it!” Rhianna said.

“That’s right!” the gnome giggled.  “So we’re going to essentially do that same thing to you guys, okay?  Only we’re going to teleport you through time.”

“Uh, what?”  Michael asked.

“You four are going to be Christmas guardians,” Narala said.  “It’s only a matter of time before Shathlin manages to figure out the gear he took from this workshop.  When he does, he’s going to end up heading back in time to try and stop Santa from putting together that first Christmas.  If he does that, every Christmas will be ruined!”

“This sounds incredibly unsafe,” Rhianna said.  “How do we know we’ll end up in the right place?  What about the right time?”

“And for that matter,” Michael added, “how do we manage to get back here?”

“You sill humans and your ‘safety precautions,’” Narala teased.  “Don’t worry about anything.  Shathlin might not know what he’s doing, but I have extensive training in the art of chronomancy!  I’ve been doing this since you were in grade school, Rhianna.”  The gnome turned about and rooted underneath the work desk before plucking out an object that was considerably bigger than the mouse she used to taunt the cat.  That device, a twelve-sided, brass object, was heavy enough to elicit a grunt when Narala hoisted it onto the table.

“This is a time travel buoy,” she said, knocking on it with her knuckles.  “This is what’s going to get you into the past, and what’s going to get you back from it.”  She waved Michael over, and pushed a button on that brass device.  One of those panels slid away, revealing a black screen.  At once, a blue light shone out in a triangular formation.  “Put your finger right there, would you?” the gnome asked.

With trepidation, Michael pushed his index finger into that blue light.  A two-beat tone sounded, and the man took his hand back, almost cradling it against his chest.

“There we go,” Narala said. “Aaaaand boop!”  The gnome lunged toward the device, and pushed another button.

That brass dodecahedron rose into the air with a quiet thrum, and hovered in back of Michael.  Without warning, the blue light on the buoy expanded a hundredfold, enveloping Michael in its glow.  A surprised shout was the only noise he could produce before he and the device disappeared from the room.

Peanut skittered across the floor then, hiding behind Zelda, who couldn’t keep from shaking.

“What did you just do?” Rhianna shouted.

“Not to worry,” Narala said.  “I configured the device one hundred percent to the correct specifications.  At least I think I did.  Anyway, he should be back in a couple of minutes, so why don’t we get the rest of you synched up with your own buoys?”

“Maybe because you just made my daddy vanish!” Zelda yipped.

“That’s right,” Rhianna said.  “We’re not doing anything until you bring my husband back!”

Narala brought up her hands.  “Alright, that’s fine.  I suppose it is a little harrowing to go through all that and watch the patriarch of the family just—poof—out of existence.  While we wait for him to come back, let’s get the missus out of those plain clothes and into something a little more specific to the time you’ll be visiting.”

Somehow, that proposal did offer up a fine distraction to the woman, and the two animals that followed her.  Narala led the trio to the back corner of that building, where a rudimentary closet had been fashioned.  The gnome opened the door, and a candy cane striped outfit with bells on it was prominently displayed.

“Uh…” Rhianna muttered.

Narala couldn’t stifle a giggle then.  “That ones for Revan.  Sorry!”  She spun the base of the closet, and the outfit rotated out of view, bringing another one into sight.  That one, a leather outfit that was lined with fur with some matching boots, was much more to her liking.

“Ooh,” the woman said as she drew nearer to her new clothes.

The cat behind her scoffed and shook her head.  “Typical,” Peanut said.  “Michael is missing and she’s busy being distracted by clothes.”

“Actually,” Narala said as she looked down to her wrist, “it should only be a few more moments before we see him again.  Everybody count to three!  One…two…”

Nobody counted along with the gnome, but her anticipation was wrong, as that blue light came back into view on the count of two.  A crackle of electricity accompanied that light, and when the DeAngelo family looked back to where they once stood, Michael stood there.  The man stared ahead with wide eyes, unable to focus on anything in particular.  His clothes were torn and tattered, and covered with smudges and grime.  The time travel buoy was floating by his side again, bobbing in the air like a ship on the ocean.

Rhianna was able to wrench her focus from the outfit, and she ran to her husband.  “Honey!  Are you okay?”  When he didn’t answer her, she wrapped him in a tight embrace and turned him toward her.

“There were dinosaurs,” Michael said.  “There were dinosaurs.  She didn’t give me any warning, but there were dinosaurs.”

Narala let a sheepish grin stretch across her face.  “I may have forgotten to change the settings on that buoy after my last vacation.  Let me just tweak a few things here.”  She hopped up and grabbed that device from the air, pushing on the buttons here and there until she saw Michael’s angry face not far from her.

“Do not send me back there!” he demanded.  “Don’t you dare push any more buttons!”

The gnome let fly a nervous chuckle.  “I’ll let you decide when it’s time to go, and I’ll show you how to read it before you push the button to time hop on your own, kay?”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Decked out in new clothes, the husband and wife appeared much more prepared to face the hardships of Tellest, in any era.  Michael’s outfit was also a warm leather ensemble, but he also wore black trousers whereas his wife showed some skin between her boots and the hemline of her dress.

“Next year I want an outfit,” Zelda declared.

The man and his wife leaned over the table while the gnome pulled up a chair to get a better look at each of those items.

“Alright,” Narala said.  “Is it all to your satisfaction?”

“If all this information is correct, and you’re not sending us back to dinosaur times again, I think we can handle it.”

“Alright,” the gnome said.  “You’ll have to touch that blue spot to synchronize it to your bio-signs again, and then I’ll show you once again how to make the jump.”  She grabbed two smaller versions of the device and turned to the DeAngelo pets, which shied away as Narala drew closer.  “Now which one of you wants to go first?”

Rhianna looked to her husband and tapped him on the arm.  “So should I be worried?  What was it like going back in time?”

He forced a not-too-convincing smile to his face.  “Remember when we went to that waterpark earlier this month, and I went on that trap-door slide?  It was kind of like that.  Although I guess this was nicer, since I didn’t get any water in my nose.”

“What about once you were there?”

“Well, if our lovely host hadn’t dropped me right into a pachycephalosaurus nest, everything would have been fine.”

“A pachy-whatsit?” Rhianna asked.

“Yes,” Michael replied.  “You know…those head-butting dinosaurs?  I was so busy watching my time buoy disappear in front of me that I didn’t realize I was in any trouble.  But if she puts us in the right place and the right time, I don’t think we’ll have anything to worry about.”

“Do…not…want!” they heard Zelda shout then.  Narala struggled to put the dog’s paw on the blue light, with the pup tugging away with all her might.  “Help, help, help!” she pleaded.

Michael snickered as he walked to his frazzled fur-baby.  “She’s just like this when we take her to the vet.”  He looked to the dog then, and bent down to kneel beside her.  “Do you want to do it yourself, Zelda?  High five!” he said as he moved the buoy in front of her.  She slapped the black screen of the device, and a tiny tone registered the success.  The blue light pulsed for a moment, and the object floated up into the air beside the pup.

Rhianna sighed and pushed her finger against the glowing spot on her buoy as well.  When it floated into the air, she approached Narala with concern in her eyes.  “Any advice you’d give us?  I get vertigo on long car rides,” she said.  “And Michael said the buoy disappeared, and there were head-butty dinosaurs and—”

“Relax,” the gnome said with a laugh.  “I’ve got everything configured perfectly now.  You guys won’t see any big ol’ monsters on this trip, and you’ll be there quicker than you think.  It won’t even feel like a bump in the road.  And as for the buoy disappearing, that’s not a defect, it’s a feature.  You can’t very well show up in the past with all kinds of future technology following you around.  But it’s not gone, just cloaked.  It’ll follow you around and won’t let you get stuck anywhere you’re not supposed to be!”

As Narala finished that statement, Michael arrived beside them, cradling each of their pets under his arms.  Two of those floating buoys followed behind them.  “I’m the only straggler,” the man said.  He placed the animals on the ground, and pushed his finger against the dodecahedron that was configured for him, and sure enough, that tone sounded and it floated up beside him.  “Truth be told this thing is starting to grow on me.”

“You’re sure you can’t go with us?” Rhianna asked.  “You’ve done this so much, I feel like we could use your expertise.”

“You probably could!” Narala teased.  “But the problem is gnomes weren’t there yet in Tellest’s history.  If Santa or his wife or his companion saw me, that could arouse some suspicion that I’d rather avoid.  Plus, if you do run into Shathlin, he’ll recognize me, but you four won’t even be a blip on his radar!”

“No problem,” Michael said.  “Except we don’t know what he looks like either.”

Narala chortled.  “Trust me: you’ll know him when you see him.  Millennia of being an old grouch definitely made him an angry looking fellow.  Now, if we’re all set, we should get you moving.”

“Off to save Christmas,” Zelda piped up.  “Again!”

“I guess we’re ready then, Narala,” Michael said.  “Any last bits of advice you can give us?”

“Nah, you’ll be fine.  Just look out for any yetis or things like that, and stick to the plan.  You’ll be back here before you know it.”

“Yetis?” Rhianna echoed.

“If there are any, I mean,” the gnome replied.  “Not that I’ve ever seen any.”

The woman sighed.  “This keeps getting better and better.”

“Alright everyone, grab your buoys.  You’re just going to hit that little button right behind the—no not that one—this one right over here—you’re sure I can’t do this for you?”

“We’ve got this,” Michael said.  “See you all on the other side!”  He pushed that button then, and that blue light encompassed him completely.  Just like before, he vanished in that powerful glow; leaving the rest of his family wondering if everything went as planned.

“No sense waiting, I guess,” Rhianna said.  “Here goes nothing!”  She followed her husband’s lead, and pushed that button, and in an instant, she was gone as well.

The pup blew air our through her nose before she spun that device about, locating the button that her family was pushing to activate the buoy.  After a moment’s hesitation, she looked away and slapped her paw against it.  “See you there Peanut!” she said before that blue light enveloped her and whisked her away.

For a few moments, Peanut just stared at the beacon, floating in the air in front of her.  Narala stared at the cat, which finally looked back up at the gnome.  “I refuse,” she said.

“But your family is already back in time,” Narala said.

“Why is that my problem?” Peanut asked.

“Fine, I’ll just push your buoy’s button myself,” the gnome replied.

“Nuh uh!” the cat yelled as she darted away from the engineer.  The device followed after her, and Narala just missed it when she lunged for it.

“You have to save Christmas!” she cried.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

A gentle snow was falling when that man fell a few inches to land on his feet.

“Much better than dinosaurs,” he said as he looked about on those wintery plains.  It was quiet in that field, the snow leaving the place sounding silent for miles.  And without the man’s family nearby to offer up witty remarks or curious observations, he couldn’t discount the loneliness there.  Far beyond there though, just beyond a line of trees in the distance, he saw a column of smoke rising into the air.

“Is that where Santa lives?” he heard.  When he turned about his wife was there, and the time buoy she traveled with was just beginning to fade away, cloaking itself the way Narala had indicated it would.  “I was kind of hoping we’d be dropped off a little closer.”

“I didn’t even hear you arrive,” he said, crossing through that tall snow and wrapping his wife in a hug as though he hadn’t seen her in quite a long time.  “That’s a first,” he teased.  He spun about then, looking at that smoky pillar once more.  “I suppose it makes sense to be this far away.  If he was out and about, he’d certainly have seen us.  And if the buoys didn’t have time to disappear…”

“Yeah, yeah,” she said.  “You’ve always got to see the bright side of things, don’t you?  Can’t you just complain with me for once?” she asked, playfully poking him in the ribs.

He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and pulled her close.  “You’re not too cold are you?” he asked.

“I’m fine,” she replied in an exuberant tone.  “Even with all this snow on the ground, it doesn’t feel as chilly as it looks.”

“You’re right.  And that’s good.  The snow is firm and a bit crunchy, but it’s tall.  Hopefully our fluffies don’t end up caught in any of it.”

“It’s as tall as they are,” Rhianna chortled.

“So I guess we’ll just wait here until Peanut and Zelda come through.”

“It shouldn’t be long.  They were both right by me when I made my jump.”

Michael nodded, but was left waiting there for some time.  He crossed his arms over his chest and starting tapping his foot against the snow.  When yet more time passed with no sign of their pets, he clicked his tongue, mimicking a clock’s pendulum.

As soon as he opened his mouth to speak though, a bright blue light pulsed thirty feet away.  Even from that distance, they could see the cat and her brass buoy.

“That little twit,” the feline grumbled.  “Faster than she looked.”

“You had us worried for a moment Peanut,” Rhianna said.  “We were worried you weren’t coming.”

The cat jumped at the surprising sound of her human’s voice, but when she turned around she wore a saccharine grin.  “I couldn’t possibly let you three come here on your own.  We’re a family—we go on adventures together.”  She couldn’t discount the cold sensation under her foot much longer, and she brought her paw off the ground, flicking it several times.

“What a brave kitty,” Rhianna said, plucking the cat from the snow.

Michael was there a moment later, running his gloved hand across Peanut’s furry spine.  “We’re glad you got here safely, Peanut.  Did you come through before Zelda?”

As if finally understanding that the final member of their family was nowhere nearby, the cat crooned her neck to look over the woman’s shoulder.  She looked all about those plains though, and didn’t spot the little copper-colored pooch.  “She should be here already,” Peanut muttered.  “She came through a while before me—that is, uh… I had a lot of questions for Narala.”

“It’s just the three of us,” Rhianna said, though she couldn’t disguise the nervousness that made its way to her voice.

Peanut’s ears flicked a few times, and she stepped onto Rhianna’s shoulder, looking in the direction of those trees and that pillar of smoke in the distance.  “I hear something over there.  I think it’s Zelda!”

Michael was already running in that direction before the cat made her thoughts clear.  “C’mon,” he called out to Rhianna.  “Maybe Narala’s calculations weren’t as well as she thought they were.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“Hellooooo!” the dog shouted, her little voice echoing through that forest.  “Mom?  Dad?”  After a short pause, she bowed her head a little.  “Peanut?”  She swallowed away the anxious feeling that was welling up in her throat.  Those trees were so big, though, and she knew beyond all doubt that she was lost.

The buoy had faded from view minutes before, but she could still hear the subtle thrum that followed her with every few steps she took.  It would have been lost to human ears, no doubt, but that hidden device did offer her some solace.  If she somehow wasn’t able to find her humans, at least they would all return to the workshop together again.

She recalled the gnome’s explanation for everything, though.  Those buoys wouldn’t pull them back to that place for hours.  Zelda bowed her head again, and sniffed at the thought of being alone all that time.

Just then, though, she heard the crack of a fallen branch.  The pup gasped and moved to hide beside the nearest tree.  Though her reddish-brown coat was sure to be seen against that white canvas, the bark of that evergreen disguised her well enough.

Zelda heard whatever was out there drawing nearer to her, loud breaths echoing against the ground.  She looked all around, noticing that nearest to her, the snow wasn’t able to stack as abundantly.  The branches above protected the ground, and some strands of grass poked out through the frost.

A noisy snort preceded the sudden appearance of a huge furry face.  Zelda gasped and her body locked up as the creature inched forward, grazing at that grass surrounding that tree.  The horns on its head came into view then as well, as well as its massive body.

The reindeer spotted the dog, then, and gazed at her for a second before grunting and returning to eating.

“Hi!” Zelda said once she was sure the creature meant her no harm.  “You’re a really pretty dog, and I like those things on your head.  Is that like a hat?  I’m going to call you Svetlana, is that alright?  It’s nice to meet you Svetlana.  Oh, I’m Zelda!”

A moment later, the reindeer was upright again, looking out past the nearest trees.  It grunted again, almost sounding like a cow’s bellow.

“You heard me trying to call my family?” Zelda wondered.  “Thanks for trying to get them to hear me!”  She spun about to face the same direction as the reindeer and sat down, crooning her head back.  “Hellooooo!” the dog howled again.

Whether it was because of that noise from the dog, or just because it sensed something out there, the reindeer bellowed again, lifting its own head toward the canopy above.

“That’s right,” Zelda said.  “If they’re around here, they’ll definitely hear both of us!  Hellooooo!  We’re over here!”

Her tail was wagging before she ever saw her people.  She could hear their hasty approach, and in a moment, she saw Michael and Rhianna just beyond the furthest trees.

Michael spotted her, and quickened his steps.  As he sprinted toward the little dog, kicking up snow along the way, she stood up on her hind legs and kicked at the air.  “Daddy!” she cried.

He plucked her up and grabbed her tight.  “We were worried, little puppers!”

“I’m alright,” she said, licking his face before he set her down.  “Svetlana was keeping me company.”

“Svetlana?” Michael asked.

“Yeah, this big dog,” Zelda said.  She spun around to introduce her new friend, but the reindeer was nowhere in sight.  “That’s odd.  She was just here.”

“You sure you weren’t just playing make believe?” the man teased.

Before the dog could answer, Rhianna arrived.  “We were so worried!” she exclaimed as she bent low beside her.

“Daddy said,” Zelda replied with a big smirk on her face.  “But it’s okay.  We’re all together again.”  She looked past her humans, and saw the careful, deliberate approach of the cat.  “Even Peanut’s here!”

“Come on, Kitty,” the woman said.  “We still have to go a bit farther to meet Santa at his lodge.”

“Do you think it’s the same place we’ve been before?” Michael asked.  “Maybe we’re in the same location, just thousands of years earlier.”

“That would be cool!”

Together, the family pushed through the woods, until they reached another wide open field.  In the middle of that area though, they could see the cabin that was sending that pillar of smoke into the sky.  Another small building was off to the side, but it didn’t appear that it was in use.  Still, it looked festive enough, with giant candy canes strewn about outside.

“That’s got to be it,” Michael said.  “Remember, nobody tell him that we’re from the future.”

“Or from another world,” Rhianna added.

“You know what, it might be better if you guys don’t talk either,” the man said as he looked at the DeAngelo animals.  “Where he’s from, they probably don’t have talking dogs or cats.”

They walked across that snowy field, noting that it felt somewhat colder then.  The sun began its descent, and dark clouds rolled across the area.  That dark sight had each of them moving a little quicker, and before they realized it, they were in front of the cabin, close enough to hear the raucous group of people inside.

“I thought we’d only be seeing Santa and his wife, and like…one friend,” Rhianna said.

“It sounds like a party in there,” Michael agreed.  “Be on your guard for anything everyone.”  He moved up to the stone step in front the door, and knocked on that sturdy wood.

It only took a few moments, but the way swung open, and a man not much older than Michael answered the door.  “Nanna, I think some of your friends are here!” he called out.  If she heard him beyond the ruckus of that celebration, nobody else knew.

The folks outside the door looked at that man, a broad, fit fellow who had a thin beard lining his beard.  Speckles of silver were apparent in that beard, the same as the long mop of hair on his head.  He arched his eyebrow at the sight of that observation, revealing piercing blue eyes.  The man chortled and shrugged.  “So, who exactly are you?”

Michael shook his head and extended his hand.  “Sorry about that.  I’m Michael, and this is my wife Rhianna.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said.  “For the first time.  Ever.”

“And these are our pets, Peanut and—”

The dog simply couldn’t resist her cheerful urges.  She ran up to that step and sat before the youthful fellow.  “Santa!” she cried.  “I’m Zelda.  I can’t talk.”

Michael simply stared at the fellow and slowly allowed a sheepish grin to appear on his face.  “We’ve…uh…we’ve told her not to talk to strangers.”

The youthful version of their friend let out that big belly laugh that they had heard when they first met him.  It set everyone at ease—even Peanut.  He waved them inside, and they were eager to oblige him.

When everyone was safe inside that warm cabin, they realized just how many people were sharing in the mirth of the spirit of Christmas himself.  Several of them were humans, but the majority of the guests appeared to be dwarves. Ale was spilling from tall wooden mugs, and a great feasting table was abutted against the wall opposite the fireplace.  More than once, as those visitors moved from one place to another, one of the animals was forced to dodge out of the way of a sturdy boot or frothy liquid.

“So how did you meet Nanna?” Santa asked as he led them through the room.  “We haven’t met a lot of humans around here.  They—uh, that is, we—don’t usually like the cold that much.”

“Oh, um…” Michael started.

“We didn’t actually meet Nanna,” Rhianna piped up.  “We heard about this little shindig while on our travels and wanted to drop by and see if you needed anything.”

“That’s very thoughtful!” Santa declared.  “We’ve only been here about a year now, so I apologize if I’ve seen you around and haven’t said hello just yet.”

“No, it’s alright,” Michael said.  “We’re only in this area about once a year as it is.  And we may not be neighbors, so to speak, but it’s good to know that good people are living out here.”

“Thank you for the kind words,” Santa said.  “Well, there’s plenty of food and drink to go around, so please help yourselves.  And if there’s anything you need, just let me know.”

Michael took a step after young Father Christmas then, holding up his hand.  “Uh, actually…travelers might not be the right word for us.  We’re more—”

“Helpful adventurers,” Rhianna said.

Her husband nodded.  “We sort of go wherever we’re needed, and more often than not, we don’t even know why we’re needed there.  But we were drawn here, so maybe there’s something we could do to help you.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Santa said, lifting up his hands as though he were about to be robbed.  “My wife and I have spent a considerable amount of money setting up a shop in Thurn Todur. We don’t really have anything left to spare.”

The visitors were already shaking their heads.  “I’m sorry,” Michael said.  “We help out of the goodness of our hearts.”  He turned a bit to the side, and looked at Rhianna in his peripheral vision, then.  “Though if you remember this for thousands of years, I really wouldn’t mind a new laptop,” he muttered.

“Really?” Santa asked.  “That’s a truly selfless attitude.”

“We live to serve,” Rhianna said.  As if pushing back a headache then, she placed her hand upon her temple.  “Ah, I’m getting something.  Are you by any chance having any problems with any nearby elves, or anything of that sort?”

Santa’s eyes grew wide at that question.  His mouth hung open just a bit, and he looked around, as though he were trying to see if anyone was playing a joke on him.  “Come with me,” he said.  He led the DeAngelo family into an adjoining room, where his bed was made with thick maroon blankets.  Once the door was shut behind them, he looked at them with concern in his eyes.

“We have been having some trouble with the elves,” he divulged.  “As I said, my wife and I have been here for nearly a year, and we’ve made inroads with a lot of the locals.  But the elves have been a little more reticent to make any alliances.  Some of them are pushing for some kind of agreement, and the others almost seem prone to violence.  Nanna and I are worried that if we push things, we might incite some kind of civil war between them—or worse.”

“Maybe we can be sort of like your ambassadors,” Michael said.  “We could try and ease the tensions.”

Before they could talk much longer, everyone heard a knock on the door.  It swung open, then, and they saw a woman who looked to be no older than Rhianna.  Long blond hair hung down past the fur lining of a cloak, and draped onto a beautiful ornate cuirass.  She pointed her piercing blue eyes at the man draped in red, and offered up her lovely smile.

“There you are, Baldur.  I didn’t know we had more guests.”

Michael turned to his wife and arched an eyebrow.  He mouthed the name that the woman had used.

“Everyone, this is my wife, Nanna,” Santa said.

“Pleased to meet you all,” the woman said.  “I just wanted to let you know, the snow has begun to fall.  The envoys from Shene Thalore are on their way.”

“Ah, thank you my love.  I’ll be out to welcome them in just a moment.”  When the door shut, he turned back to his guests, and gave a nervous nod.  “That’ll be them, then—the elves I was talking about.  I don’t know if you caught what my wife said, but this particular tribe of elves can do something really amazing.  Whenever it snows, they can send one of those snowflakes back into the sky with a story.  That single snowflake tells all the rest of them whatever the elf said, and when they all come down, anyone touched by the snow as it falls can hear the story like a voice inside their head.  It really is unlike anything I’ve ever heard of.  Of course, they use it for things like this too, letting us know when they’re on their way, or warning of danger.  It really is amazing.”

“It certainly is,” Michael agreed.  “So if you’re going to be meeting these elves, do you want us to come along with you?”

He brought his hand up to his beard and stroked toward his chin.  “That is a kind offer, but it may not be wise to bring strangers to this meeting.  Though we’ve been here a year, we’re still somewhat unfamiliar to the elves.  Bringing yet more faces to the summit may make things uneasy.”

“We understand,” Rhianna said.  “So…Baldur.  That’s an interesting name.”

“Is it?” he asked with a smile.  “Where I’m from, it was a fine name.  We had to leave, though—there were some problems with some members of my family, and…”  He looked out the nearest window at that falling snow, letting those words drift away then.  “But on to better things, as they say.  My wife and I are here now, and we’re making the best of our lives here.  We were lucky enough to have our friend Litr along with us on the journey, too.  Without him here, I don’t think we would have as easy a time making allies of the other dwarves.”

“Well, you can tell by your guests out there that you’ve made some good friends,” Rhianna said.

“We’ve been very lucky in this new land.  When we first arrived, there was nothing but snow and blustery cold.  You couldn’t see the sun, and we were running out of food.  But then one year ago today, the sun came out, and we met the dwarves from the nearby city—all in one day.  Everything changed from there on out.”

“Turning the tide of winter,” Michael said with a bright smile on his face.

“Wintertide,” Santa replied.  “I like that.  Now if we could only get the elves on terms that friendly.  I suppose we’ve got a good start ahead of us.  When they learned that Litr and I were craftsmen, they gave us a mighty hammer to forge some of our goods with.  I’ve actually been using it to work on something for the leader of the elves for some time and just wrapped it up yesterday.  I’m hoping it will be a symbol of our friendship for a long while.”

“I have a feeling you and the elves are going to have a long history together,” Rhianna teased.

“Let’s hope!” he said.

Another knock on the door came then, though that one was far more urgent.  A dwarf flung open that room and ran inside, gasping for air.

“Litr!” Santa said, rising from his seat on the bed.  “What is wrong, my friend?”

“The elves that are on their way,” the dwarf said between pants, “they’ve come under attack.  They just sent a message to us through the snow.”

A look of worry came over the figurehead of Christmas.  “Stop everyone from drinking.  Get Mammok, and let him know we’re going to the aid of the elves.  Get the horses ready tacked and ready.”  Santa turned to his new visitors and shook his head.  “I’m sorry, but might I ask for your help with all this?  We’ve come too far with the elves to let something happen to them today.  Sometimes they can be a superstitious bunch, and I don’t want them to think they can’t depend on us.”

“We’ll be right behind you,” Michael agreed.

Santa rushed from the room then, and when the door was left ajar, the visiting family was impressed with how quickly his other guests had mobilized.  That buzzing cabin was empty of people, and they could feel the draft that was let in from the open front door.

“Something’s not right,” the DeAngelo patriarch said when he was sure Santa was far enough away.  “Shathlin wouldn’t attack his own people, would he?”

“Not unless he’s trying to scare them,” Rhianna said with a shrug.  “But I’d imagine they’d easily outmatch him.”

“And he’d have to be pretty stupid to risk running into some of his own elven tribe—what if he changed the course of history?”

The husband and wife looked at each other before looking at the one who spoke that wise remark.

“That was a pretty smart observation, Peanut,” Rhianna said.

“What?” the cat said with a shrug.  “I pay attention whenever you’re watching Doctor Who.”

Michael chortled, but then he narrowed his eyes as those words reached him.  He snapped his fingers then, and looked to his wife.  “Shathlin isn’t after the elves.  He’s after the hammer.”

Rhianna nodded then.  “Of course!  If Santa lost such an important symbol of friendship with the elves, it would create a schism between them.”

“We have to get to the forge,” Michael said, pushing out of that room and into the gathering area.  “Hopefully we don’t look too cowardly staying behind.”  He gestured outside, where they saw Santa and his guests riding toward the woods on horseback, while several dwarves raced forth, the snow coming halfway up their greaves.

Zelda was the first of the family to make it outside, and when she turned to the forge, she saw the distant figure approaching from the woods.  “There he is!” she cried.

Michael and Rhianna arrived outside then as well, and spotted the sinister looking elf as well.  “That’s got to be him,” the man said seeing that dark armor with the impressive looking spaulders.  Gold inlays were affected on it, leaving it looking quite impressive.  The elf had long, raven black hair, and war paint covering his eyes.  “Yep.  Not imposing in the slightest.”

“We’ve got to get that hammer,” Rhianna said.

Together, the four of them rushed into that forge, and sure enough, there was a mighty looking hammer resting on the anvil before the fire there.  Michael went forth and grabbed it then, noting that even though it was tremendous, it felt quite weightless.

“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” Zelda said.  “He’s getting closer!”

“Get to the stables,” Michael said.  “He won’t be able to reach us if we’re mounted.”

Keeping their pace, the four of them rushed to that other building, steam rising from their lips as they panted and gasped for air.  As they entered the stables, though, hope left them.

“No!” Rhianna said.  “All the horses are gone!”

Michael growled.  “I should have seen that coming.”  He looked about, spotting the other end of the building, and the secondary exit there.  “Rhianna, take the hammer, and take the fluffies.  Get out of here through that door back there.  Find safety.  I’ll buy you some time.”

“What the heck do you know about fighting elves?” his wife protested.  “You’re going to get yourself killed!”

“I don’t have to fight him,” Michael said.  “I just have to distract him long enough for you to take the hammer away, alright?”

Rhianna sent an angry gaze in her husband’s direction.  “I’m getting out of here, but it’s not to run away from you, you jerk.  I’m going to find a weapon of my own, and I’ll be right back!”

A groan escaped Michael’s lips.  “Just don’t be seen by this guy, okay?”

She leaned forward and planted a kiss on those lips.  “See you soon,” she whispered.  “Come on you two,” the woman said to the anxious animals.  Peanut and Zelda hurried after her, out into the snow at the rear of the stables.

Rhianna didn’t realize that Zelda had slowed her pace, and turned around to look back into that building where her daddy lay in wait.  The pup heard the deliberate footsteps of that intruder inside, and peeked around the corner of that doorway.

“You did not leave with the others,” the elf said.  He led with his sword drawn, and Michael raised his hands as he stepped away.  “That is unfortunate for you.”

“I’m not sure what you want, but we don’t have much to give you,” the man replied.  “We’re just visiting.”

“I’m sure you are,” Shathlin replied.  “And you just so happened to walk away with the one thing I needed.  Oh, you’re visitors alright—sent through time, perhaps?”

Michael couldn’t hide his grin then.  He lowered his hands and drew out his own blade, a loud scrape echoing out in that building.

“Fool,” the elf spat.  “You’ve no training, and no idea who it is you’re trifling with.”

“You’re trying to ruin Christmas,” Michael replied.  “That’s all I need to know.”

 

Outside, Rhianna could hear the chorus of steel on steel.  She snuck around to the side of the building, and peered over, spotting those footprints that the elf had left behind.  The woman blew out a sigh, conflicted with whether she should listen to her husband.  “Just this once, Michael,” she whispered.  “Come on, you two,” Rhianna said, her gaze leading her to the forge once more.

 

“You are nothing!” Shathlin roared as he came forth with that sword once again.

Despite his lack of training, Michael was able to bring his weapon to bear, parrying against that onslaught of attacks.  Those swords kept singing into the stables—but the elf was done testing his foe.  With one deft sweep of his blade, he outmaneuvered the human, sending Michael’s longsword flying out of his hand.

“Just as I suspected,” that elf from the future spat.  “You lack any discipline.  And now, you’ll pay for trying to stand against me.”  He advanced on the unarmed man, then, bringing that sword closer and closer.

Michael could move no further back.  With the horse trough behind him, and wooden pillars on either side of him, his only hope was for mercy.  He put up his hands and sent Shathlin a pleading gaze.

“You should have reconsidered helping Claus,” the elf said.  “I’ll send him your regards—along with, perhaps, some of your entrails.”

Just outside the stables, the little brown dog gathered up her courage.  “I don’t know what entrails are,” she muttered, “but here are my claws!”  She raced into the building and leapt at the vile elf.

Caught off guard, Shathlin couldn’t prepare move his arm out of the way as Zelda clamped down on his bracer.  Despite her small stature, she packed a ferocious bite, and he felt it through that leather piece of armor.  Flailing about, he couldn’t escape her.  Snarling, he turned his sword toward her.

Her human only saw red after that.  Gone was any fear for himself as Michael charged in, grasping the elf by the wrist and driving forward.  That enraged attack sent the elf’s sword flying then as well, and he could feel his arm starting to bend into an uncomfortable position.

Not to be deterred, even against those odds, Shathlin grimaced for a moment, fighting against the pain in his arm.  He sent his sinister glare toward the human, the only warning he would receive before he drove his head forward, smashing it against Michael’s brow.

The man lost hold of his opponent at once, and he stumbled backward.  He was too disoriented to see as Shathlin flailed his arm enough to send the dog flying. Zelda yelped as she landed, but she was otherwise alright.

“Help!” she cried.  “Help!  My daddy is about to be pummeled!”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Michael muttered as he struggled to stand once more.

Sure enough though, that elf’s fist went flying in, and knocked the man back to his knees.

 

“Did you hear that?” Peanut said as she followed Rhianna to the stone entryway into the forge.  It was only then that she realized Zelda wasn’t with them anymore.  “Hey!” she cried to her mom.  “Hey!  The dog isn’t with us anymore.”

“What?” Rhianna exclaimed.

“I think she went back into the stables to help the other one.”

Rhianna looked around, lost in the confusion of all that was unraveling around her.  She found the answer to her problems when she looked up, then.  “Peanut, come here,” she said.  “I need a little bit more height.”

 

His head was spinning, and colors weren’t showing up the way he knew they should, but Michael fought hard to stay cognizant.  He blocked another of those vicious hooks then, and sprang up, jabbing Shathlin in the nose.

The elf used his other arm to retaliate then, spilling Michael to the floor.

“Enough!” Shathlin cried.  He ran to the man’s side, and plucked him off the ground.  A moment later, Michael’s face was submerged in the horse trough there.

“Help!” Zelda cried again.  “Now he’s drowning!”

Michael could hear the distraught pup, but beneath that water, it was obscured and warbled.  The elf pulled him up by the hair, and Michael took a deep breath.  Everything seemed foreign and distant, and he heard a buzzing just to his side.

A knowing look crept to his face then.  Shathlin pushed him toward that trough again, but Michael placed his hands on the rim and kept himself upright.  While the elf struggled, the man kicked back, sending his opponent stumbling backward.  In one fluid motion, Michael reached to his side, his fingers wrapping around the camouflaged object there.  Shathlin didn’t even think to avoid that blow, but he surely felt it.  The invisible brass object slammed into his head, and spilled him to the floor.

“Yeah, buoy,” Michael panted.  “That sounded a lot better in my head.”

Despite that tremendous blow, Shathlin labored to his feet.  “You’ll pay for that, human.  I’m going to send you back to the future piece by piece.”

Zelda gasped that next moment, and the elf looked back at her with that angry gaze he was known for.  She wasn’t looking at him though.  He turned about and noticed what she had.

“Doggy!” Zelda cried.

But it was no dog.  The reindeer she met earlier was there, and it offered the elf no warning before it barreled forward with those antlers leading.  Svetlana struck him hard, and he flung into the nearest stall with a loud grunt.

“Friend of yours?” Michael asked his pup.

 

“This is never going to work,” Peanut said.  “I’m a cat, and even I realize the physics won’t work!”

“Shh,” Rhianna said.  “It’s Christmas, it’s magical, it’s fine.”  She finished knotting that fabric around the large red and white post, and blew out a sigh.

The woman, nor the cat, could hold back their surprise when they saw the reindeer burst from the stables.  Even more impressive was the man and the dog on her back.

It only took Michael a few moments to notice Rhianna’s contraption, and he steered Svetlana away from the stables.  How he was able to convince the reindeer to endure the bit and bridle or that blanket that served as a saddle was lost to the woman on the ground.

She didn’t allow that curiosity to distract her.  Though Peanut didn’t have much faith in the plan, she kept to her duties, and finally rolled that snowball toward the oversized slingshot.  Rhianna bent low and scooped it up; noting that by then it was bigger than the cat.

“Need…more…upper body strength,” she groaned as she hoisted it into the air and into place on the ribbon.

Rhianna timed that feat perfectly, for the elf stomped out of the stables at that moment, eager to follow the man and his allies.  He was confused at the sight before him though, for the woman had the hammer at her side, but opted to remain behind.  Instead, she had tied together two of those large striped crooks with ribbon, and held some object aloft atop it.

She pulled back on that ribbon, keeping that cold ball of snow in between her hands.  Whether it was perfect planning—or magic, as she said to the cat—when she released her hold on that ribbon and launched that projectile across the way.

Shathlin could only stare, mouth ajar, as that massive snowball went soaring at him.  It collided into his chest, sending him flying back into the building.

Michael came back around, urging Svetlana to the front of the forge.  “That was brilliant!” he commended his wife.  He looked at the contraption, and noted the wreath lying on the ground in the entryway as well.  “Very smart thinking.”

“You seem surprised,” Rhianna teased.  She accepted his hand, and he hoisted her onto the reindeer’s back.  “I have good ideas sometimes.”

Michael reached down and plucked that hammer off the ground, passing it along to his wife.  “Let’s keep this away from Shathlin until Santa gets back, shall we?”  He turned his attention to the cat then, and extended his hand once more.  “Come on Peanut, it’s time to go!”

That finicky feline scoffed at the thought of riding on that beast.  “I’m not getting on that thing,” she protested.

Michael grumbled at his cat’s dissent.  “Zelda, a little help?” he asked.

The dog grabbed her mommy around the arm and stood up on her hind legs, then.  “Go ahead, Svetlana.  You know what to do!”

With a little grunt and a bellow, the reindeer lowered her head, and swept up with those massive antlers.  Peanut couldn’t escape them, and clung on for dear life when Svetlana was upright again.

By then, they could tell that they were no longer alone.  The furious elf was outside of the stables again, his sword drawn once more.  “You will give me that hammer!”

“You’ll have to catch us first,” Rhianna dared.

Michael clicked his tongue and squeezed his legs together, urging Svetlana around and back toward those woods where they first reconvened with their pup.  Though the reindeer had quite a burden on her back (and dangling from her antlers), she pushed through the fatigue.

Shathlin never gave up though, pursuing those fleeing humans and their pets with unbridled zeal, even as they passed between the trees.

A whistle above was the only warning he received before he saw that metal ball soaring in his direction.  “Not again,” he growled, once again accepting his fate.  That ball struck his breastplate and opened up, a net expanding out from within.  In mere moments, he was covered in those ropes, unable to pursue any longer.

As Michael slowed the reindeer’s pace and turned about, they saw a diminutive figure drop from the bough above.

“Narala?” Rhianna asked.

The gnome turned to the other time travelers and lifted up her goggles.  “You didn’t think I would make you do everything on your own, did you?” she teased.  “I couldn’t risk being seen by Santa or any of his friends, but once you brought this grouch far enough away from the cabin and the forge, I could offer a little help.”

“But how did you we’d come through this way?” Michael wondered.

“Time travel,” she said matter-of-factly.

Struggling to free himself of that netting, Shathlin let fly an exasperated cry.  “You will release me!”

“We will do no such thing,” the gnome assured.  “You’re coming back with us, and that’s final.”  Narala left him entangled there, and approached the family atop that reindeer then.  “We’re running out of time before those buoys pull you back to the correct time.  You’ve got to hurry and get that hammer back to the forge, alright?  I’ll meet you back at the workshop, and we’ll get you home with a new story to tell!”

Michael nodded and led that reindeer back through the woods and across the field, and in mere moments, they were back to Santa’s forge.  One by one they hopped from Svetlana’s back, landing in the snow just outside the building.  Michael plucked the dangling cat from the reindeer’s antlers, and tossed her onto the dry wooden floor of the forge.

While Rhianna went inside and placed the hammer on the anvil once more, Michael heard the beeping tones beside him.  “It’s time, Rhianna,” he said.  “I’ll see you in a few moments or a few thousand years!”  He hurried to her side and planted a kiss on her lips, and in that next moment, the blue light of the beacon enveloped him, and he was gone from sight.

“Get ready you two,” the woman said as her own beacon sounded off.

While Peanut paced in that forge, Zelda’s attention was elsewhere.  She looked up at the reindeer that rescued them, and tilted her head to the side.  “Thanks so much for helping us, Svetlana,” she said.  “I’m glad we met you!”

Before she could say anything more, another blue light pulsed, and Rhianna was whisked away to the future again.

The little dog sighed, and looked back to the reindeer one more time.  “Hopefully we get to see each other again!”  Her own buoy began to pulse then, and she sat down, waiting for it to take her back to her own time.  “I won’t forget you!” she called out as the blue light rippled over her.  Her voice echoed out into the area, caught in that snowy landscape.

Svetlana let fly a sad bellow, and she lowered herself to the ground.  With her new friend gone, she laid her head in the snow.

The cat, the only member of that family left behind then, simply shrugged.  A few moments passed, and she started clicking her tongue just to pass the time.  “This is where I pay for avoiding coming back here,” she said.  When her beacon starting buzzing, though, she sat up straight, and waited for her time to leave.  “I’ll tell the dog you miss her too,” Peanut said.

One last light flashed, then, and the four members of the DeAngelo family were whisked back through time, to return to whence they came.

On the edge of the forest, the gnome who brought them there watched and waited.  She saw the sad reindeer remain there for some time.  It only stood once more when it heard the approach of the man that lived there.

Narala brought a set of binoculars to her face, and looked on as Santa and his guests—including the elven ambassadors—returned to his cabin.

“I’m sorry once again for any confusion,” one of the elves said.  Beneath that calm snow, his voice seemed to travel for miles.  “One of my tribe that doesn’t quite agree with this arrangement must have created a story to put you on edge.”

“It’s alright,” Baldur, the young Santa Claus, said.  “We’re just happy that you weren’t in any danger.”  As he neared the cabin, though, he saw the strange sight of that reindeer with the bit and bridle.  “What the…?”

Svetlana walked off, back to the stables, while Santa hopped off his horse, and made his way to the forge.

“Training reindeer as beasts of burden?” the elven ambassador wondered.  “Not a terribly bad idea.”

Confused as could be, Santa was caught looking at the other things that were out of place.  He saw the ribbon tied around the candy canes, and the wreath it once hung on discarded on the floor of the lodge.  From that vantage though, he couldn’t see inside the forge though, and his heart started beating as though it would pound out of his chest.

“I want you to go ahead and look at something,” Narala whispered to the captured elf.  She handed him the binoculars, and he labored to put them in front of him.

The elven ambassador waited outside of the forge, but dismounted his own horse and surveyed the place where Santa lived.

“Everything alright in there?” he asked.

Santa breathed a sigh of relief, then, as he stood beside his anvil and placed his hand upon the hammer.  It was still there, but he could tell it had been moved from its original position.  Somehow, against all odds, it remained in his possession.

“I have something for you,” he said to his guest outside, then.  Santa rummaged around in the forge for a few more moments, but he exited the building bearing that gift.

“Look now,” Narala whispered.

Santa presented the elven ambassador with a beautiful set of armor.  Dark with ornate shoulders and lined with gold inlay, it didn’t look unfamiliar to Shathrin.

“That’s my great-grandfather’s armor,” he muttered.  “My armor.”

Narala nodded, then.  “And it’s stood the test of time.  Just like the friendship between Santa and the elves.”  She watched as he continued peering through those binoculars.  “Now then, are you ready to come back home with me?” the gnome asked.

He was quiet for some time, watching as that elf that was gifted the armor clapped his hand on Santa’s back, and swung around to walk back to that cabin.  Shathrin’s mouth hung ajar, but he finally shook his head.  “Let’s stay,” he said.  “Just for a little while longer.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Hot cocoa and coffee sat side by side that morning, little wisps of smoke still rising into the air in front of the Christmas tree.  On the other side of that coffee table, the dog and the cat eagerly noshed on their treats, leaving the house sounding quiet, except for the subtle hum of the heater off to the side.

A knowing smile stretched across both the husband and wife’s faces when they heard that rapping on the door.

Michael hopped up from the couch, and made his way there, swinging the way open and looking at the front step.  Sure enough, a package was there waiting for him, a wreath with a red ribbon lying on top.  He scooped it up and brought it inside, laying it down on the table.

“What did we get, what did we get?” Rhianna asked.

Her husband set aside the wreath, and began plucking items out one by one.  Neither of them could hold back their laughter as he displayed the small headband with antlers upon it.  He giggled as he nestled it into place upon her head.

Peanut’s eyes went wide at the sight of another red ribbon, that one long and thin.  Michael let that ribbon hang from the air while she swatted away at it, her paw sending it flying with adorable little smacking sounds.

While he was distracted, Rhianna scooped up the next gift.  An old-looking tome, its front cover was written in an old runic language that she couldn’t hope to understand.  She was relieved to see English on the first page when she opened it.  “Norse Mythology,” she read, and she smiled as she saw the heart drawn onto that page, and the signature from Narala.  “Alright, we’ve got all our stuff,” the redhead said.  “What’d you get for Christmas, my love?”

He set the ribbon down and turned yet again to the box.  There was one more box inside, and he set to opening it up.  It only took a few moments for him to realize what was left for him.  “Yes!” Michael said.  “He remembered after all these years!”  He plucked the object from its container, and his wife laughed once she saw it in his hands.

“A new laptop, huh?” she teased.  “That’s got to be the longest inception ever.”

“And timed perfectly,” he agreed.

Pleased with the gifts, and excited by the memories, the DeAngelo family gathered on that couch to breathe in another Christmas.  While Michael waited for that laptop to boot up, Zelda, in all her antler-y glory laid her head on his lap instead.  Peanut cuddled up on Rhianna’s lap on the opposite side of the couch while the woman flipped through the pages of that old book.

Her eyebrow arched as she read that entry of the book that had a familiar name upon it.

“Michael,” she said.  “I think I know where Santa came from before he went to Tellest.”

 

Happy Holidays everyone!