Christmas Feast

Christmas Feast
A Tale by Michael and Rhianna DeAngelo

 

A blustery cold blew through the town, convincing its residents to keep inside to stay warm.  In one of the snow-covered houses along the corner of one of the streets, what had been a quiet winter night in years past was filled with raucous growls and grumbles.

When Zelda began running in circles, it was in excitement and anticipation.  It didn’t take long for Maisie, the little black-and-white dog, and newest member of the DeAngelo family, to surmise that those loops around the living room was an invitation to play.  Back and forth they nipped at each other, spinning about the area, completely unfazed by the gazes that landed on them.

Rhianna and Michael, sitting on the couch, watched in silence as Zelda sent playful snarls toward her younger sister.  They alternated glances at each other as well, and at the clock, waiting for the coming hour.

The cat, sitting atop the back of the couch, had no means of telling time, and tested the timing every few moments with a curious meow.  Michael reached up and back, scratching Peanut on the back of her head.

During a break in the dogs’ chase, Rhianna began laughing at the sight of the pups.  Zelda still grumbled, but Maisie’s face was almost entirely engulfed in her older sister’s mouth.

Though it was faint, the wind seemed to grow in force from the back of the house.  Nobody seemed to notice that sound, however, as another shift came from within as Zelda’s muffled grumbles became something else entirely.

“An dunth ftherget: yerftha pthuppy, awm the adthult,” Zelda said.

For a moment, there was a pause, even as Maisie contemplated the strange noises coming out of her sister’s throat.  She hopped back then, her eyes gone wide.

Zelda chomped at the air and licked her lips.

“Finally!” Peanut spoke then, sighing for good measure the next instant.  She hopped from her perch atop the couch and lingered by the silver water bowls beside the kitchen.  “I’ve been waiting all year for this.  Huamns: I demand a separate bowl.  This one insists on drinking out of mine!”

Once again, Maisie nearly hopped in shock at the sudden new voice in the house, so strange yet so familiar.  She let out a befuddled whimper and tilted her head sideways, listening as the feline spoke her dismay.

“Aww!” Rhianna exclaimed as she rose from the couch.  “She didn’t know they were going to talk.”

“You guys didn’t tell her?” Michael asked.

Zelda’s ears lowered as though she were being reprimanded.

Peanut simply sat where she was, arching one of her furry eyebrows.  “So that’s it?  That’s the end of our water bowl discussion?”

Rhianna bent down and scooped Maisie off the floor, holding her against her chest as she lifted her up.  Confronted with the odd sounds coming out of her sisters’ mouths, Maisie felt confused and vulnerable.  She nuzzled into Rhianna’s neck, finding comfort and safety there.

“It’s alright little one,” Rhianna said, kissing the top of the little dog’s head.  “This is a magical time of year, and we’re so excited that you’re old enough to experience it with us this time.”

“I guess we better get ready, huh?” Michael asked, rising from the couch.  “What dangers do you think we’ll have to deal with this year?”

“Mean ol’ polar bears!” Zelda exclaimed.

“Another trip to the vet,” Peanut muttered.

“Sentient Christmas wreathes that try to land on our heads and squeeze us until we pass out,” Rhianna suggested.

“I like that one,” Michael said.

Rhianna, still holding Maisie aloft, walked through the kitchen and peered outside.  Together, they could see the wind whipping the snow this way and that.  But when it began moving in a circular motion, the woman couldn’t hold back her smile.  “Are you ready?” she asked Maisie.

At once, as though she had predicted its arrival down to the second, a flash of magic appeared in the back yard of the DeAngelo household.  Maisie began following that swirl of wind and snow, almost like she was drawing circles against the glass of the door with her nose.  Beneath her, Zelda stepped up against the door as well, her mouth spread into a smile.

Wider and wider the portal grew, its power causing the door to shake a bit as the wind pressed against it.  Though loud noises often frightened Zelda, she was more than eager to dive into the portal, and she scratched at the door to get her chance.

“What do you think?” Michael asked.  “Are we all dressed warm enough to take our little trip?”

“The excitement is what keeps me warm,” Zelda insisted.

Rhianna chuckled.  “Don’t you notice that every time we go to visit Santa, he’s always got a new outfit for us?”

“Alright, so what are we doing just sitting around here.  He’s waiting for us.”  He looked back at Peanut, still pacing around her water bowl.  Without any hesitation, he reached down and scooped her up, holding her under her arms.  “Let’s get to it!”

The portal in the back yard seemed stable then, its light flashing against the shed at the far side of the yard, and even the neighbor’s house.

Rhianna pulled on the door handle, and the wind jerked it forward.  Maisie skittered against the wind, even as Zelda charged forward, unable to rein in her excitement.  She skittered to a stop then, when she heard a tiny little whimper.  The older dog spun about, seeing how fiercely she nuzzled against Rhianna’s neck.

“It’s okay Maisie!” she promised.  “You’re going to love it.  It’s Christmas!”  She spun about then again and leapt into the swirling vortex.

Though it took all her courage to pry herself away from her safe little nook, Maisie lifted her head and noticed that Zelda was gone.  With a slow turn of her head, she looked to Rhianna, her ears tucked back.

“It’s alright, pig butt,” Michael teased, patting her on the head as he passed her.  “We’ll keep you safe, and before you know it, you’ll be having the best time!”  He closed the door behind Rhianna, and walked on, stopping at the lip of the portal.  Peanut kicked off his chest then, springing into the gateway.  Chuckling, Michael spun about, nodding to his wife and the little pup.  With a little backward hop, he disappeared into the swirling magic.

With all the rest of their family gone from view, Maisie looked back at Rhianna, nervously licking her lips.  The woman gave her a few loving pats down her spine, but she was already inching toward the portal.

“It’s okay Maisie,” Rhianna said.  “We’ll do it together, alright?”

Letting out a little whimper, the newest member of the DeAngelo family peered into the gaping maw of the incredible magic portal.  She closed her eyes and smashed her head back into Rhianna’s chest.

Though she was sympathetic to the dog’s nervousness, Rhianna couldn’t hold back a chuckle.  She grabbed the pup extra tight and jumped into the vortex.  With a roar of mystical power, the way closed behind them.

The DeAngelo family was once again on their way to visit an old friend.

 

*          *          *

 

Covered in snow, the black spots on Maisie’s body were lost in a sea of white.  It was only the darker coloring on her head that made her stand out then, and she barked in dismay when she looked ahead and didn’t see anyone around her.  Far in the distance, trees speckled the landscape, and mountains dotted the horizon, but there was nothing else, and she felt all alone.

The snow surrounding her body gave way then, and a warm hand scooped under her belly and plucked her off the ground.  In an instant, she was snuggled against Michael’s chest, and he brushed the remnants of frost off her body, planting a kiss on her head for good measure.

“We found you,” he said, rubbing her ears to warm them up.

As he turned about, Maisie could see that the rest of her family was there too.  Zelda marched through the snow, dismissing the cold and the uneven ground.  Peanut was more careful with her steps, working hard at keeping above the powdery snow.  Still, she moved in the same direction—toward the lodge not so far away that seemed to be awash in warmth and light.

The light framed Rhianna, who reached out to her husband and the little dog.  He took her hand, and together they made their way through the cold, though it seemed not to bother them in the slightest.

When they neared the door, it swung open, and a figure seemed to dance there for a moment before stopping and staring out into the cold.  Obscured by lanternlight, the DeAngelo family couldn’t quite identify who it was, but they sensed warm-heartedness.

A tiny, happy gasp escaped the maiden, who moved out onto the stone step at the lodge’s entrance.  With peach-colored skin that was made rosier by the nip of cold that rushed out at her, and fern-green hair that framed her angular face, she looked unlike any elf the family had seen.

They recognized the friendliness of one of Santa’s helpers though: an exuberance in her eyes, a mischievous yet welcoming smile parting her lips.

As pleasant and outgoing as Santa’s elven friends were, though, the DeAngelo’s were completely caught off guard by her unrestrained excitement as she threw out her arms and hopped into the air.

“You’re here!”

The maiden charged forward, unfazed by the snow.  She passed Zelda and Peanut, who sneered at being ignored.  She raced by Rhianna, who arched an eyebrow.  And as the chipper elf neared Michael, his eyes grew wider by the second, for she seemed unwilling to stop.

Stop she did though, just before knocking into him.  She brought her arms back together, playfully poking Maisie while making impish little noises.

The little dog’s eyes opened a bit wider then, and she passed glances at Rhianna and Michael, who simply shrugged at the peculiar behavior.

Her looks to her family weren’t lost to the elf maiden, who took a step back and tilted her head.  “You mean you don’t recognize me?” she said.

“I’m sorry,” Rhianna said.  “I don’t mean to sound rude, but…we don’t recognize you at all.”

“Well of course not, silly!” the maiden chirped.  “I haven’t met any of you—though of course I’ve heard all about you from Revan, and Leoden, and Narala, and Rosewyn.”  She turned back to the black and white dog cradled in Michael’s arms then.  “But you and I know each other very well,” she said to Maisie, “even if you don’t quite remember me.  I was the one who chose you for your family.”

Maisie’s eyes seemed to twinkle as she looked at the maiden.  She tilted her head to the side as though she was trying to understand her.

“You mean you’re the reason we can’t have nice things?” Peanut grumbled.

The maiden waived that notion away.  “You just have one really great thing,” she said, placing her hands on either side of Maisie’s face and lifting them up as if to make Maisie smile.  “When Santa realized Zelda needed a new friend last year, he asked me to help you find each other.  And I think I chose just right, because these people seem to love you very much.”

“She’s alright,” Zelda yipped.

“You can feign interest all you like, but we’ve seen you snuggling with her,” Michael said, eliciting a shrug from the other dog.

“So, you know us,” Rhianna said.  “But we haven’t quite been properly introduced.”

The maiden closed her eyes and shook her head.  “Of course.  Where are my manners.  I’m Cecelia,” she said, offering a slight curtsy to the guests for good measure.  “No need to introduce yourselves, I already know you well.”

“Have you been spying on us?” Peanut asked.

“We just observe you every now and again,” Cecelia informed.  “It’s nothing to worry about.”

“Then you’re aware of all the things she’s eaten,” Michael speculated.

“I am,” the maiden returned.

“The safety-pin?” Rhianna asked, squinting as if to deflect from the embarrassment.

“The cords?” Michael wondered.

“My toys!” Zelda exuberantly added.

“The couch,” Peanut sneered.

Cecelia chuckled then.  “Along with so many other things.  But it’s fine.  Some people are curious with their eyes.  Maisie is just curious with her mouth.”

“Well she’s certainly been an expensive gift,” Michael teased.  “But it’s a cost that is certainly worth it.”

“She won’t always be so mischievous,” the elf said, petting the pooch on the head.  “Anyway, we should be getting you all inside, and out of the cold.  I’m used to it, but I can see you all starting to shiver!”

“We’re fine,” Zelda said, through chittering teeth.  “But we are ready to meet up with Santa and finding out what the next big catastrophe is.  We’re ready to save the day!”

“Why are the rest of you always ready to jump headfirst into danger?” Peanut muttered.

Cecelia giggled.  “It’s alright, kitty.  We didn’t bring you here for danger this year.  Just dinner.  Come along,” she said, waving the rest of the family into the lodge.

As Michael and Rhianna walked side by side, he leaned over to her.  “Not fiskeblugen, I hope,” he whispered.

They felt warm at once upon entering the lodge, its lanterns offering up meager light, but the crackling fire in the main room burning brightly.  Cecelia closed the door behind them, strengthening that toasty feeling they enjoyed.

As they made their way through the building, the maiden gestured toward a room in the back.  Two new ensembles were strewn out atop a bed there, looking to be about the sizes of the human guests.  “As you said earlier, Santa is always happy to provide you a new outfit upon your arrival here in Tellest,” Cecelia said.  “These clothes should allow you to look a bit more appropriate for the other guests that we’ll be expecting.”

“Thank you,” Rhianna said, hurrying into the room to observe her new wardrobe.

When the rest of the family joined her there, Cecelia closed the door.  Rhianna held up her outfit—a brown, laced vest that would sit upon a puffy white shirt.  A pair of black slacks and new boots were present as well.  Some jewelry sat atop the pile: a pair of gold bands meant to clasp onto the arms just below the shoulders.

“This is going to look very slimming,” Rhianna teased.

Michael was already setting out his own attire.  “It’s times like these where I feel more dressed up than you, honey,” he said.  His garb included a shiny, short sleeved leather tunic with an assortment of buckles, with fancy leather bracers to match.  A fancy red shirt, along with black trousers of his own, completed the look.

After a few moments, the husband and wife donned their new apparel, and emerged from the room, looking dapper and elegant.

Cecelia hopped off the settee in the main room and burst into applause.  “You two look great!”

“Hey, what about us!” Zelda piped up then, eliciting a chuckle from the maiden.

“You know, after your costume changes last year, we thought maybe you could just be yourself this year.  After all, last year you were all wound up,” Cecelia joked.

“Wait a minute…” they heard then, and they looked down to see Peanut tilting her head sideways.  She alternated glances between the elf maiden and Rhianna, finally narrowing her eyes and letting her face go sour.  “You talked about the outfit back in our house.  They have been spying on us!”

“You have?” Michael asked.  “All the time?”

Cecelia simply shrugged and nodded.

Michael covered his chest with one arm and reached for his trousers with the other.

“I’m sure you know by now, Santa takes decency very seriously.  He watched you throughout the year to make sure that even though there were some stressful times, you still cared for and loved one another, and the rest of your family and friends as well.  And not just those folks, but the strangers you meet too.  After all, who is Santa if not the epitome of joy, purity and peace?”

Peanut clicked her tongue and looked away, as if bothered by the concept.

“Oh, come now, kitty,” Cecelia said.  “I’ve seen how friendly you’ve been to Michael and Rhianna’s friends that come over.  You’re very personable, even though you pretend not to be.  Even you skittish puppies let your guard down after a little bit when you know there’s no trouble!”

“Until our guests leave again,” Rhianna mentioned.  “Then they try to act all tough again and ‘chase’ the intruders out.”

“We have to earn our keep,” Zelda stated matter-of-factly.

While everyone spoke, Maisie kept looking at her sisters, confused by the way they seemed to speak the same strange noises as their people usually did.

“So how does he see us?” Rhianna wondered.  “Santa, I mean.  Does he just tap into our security cameras whenever he needs to check in on us?”  She gave Michael a playful smack on his shoulder.  “I told you we always have to unplug that thing.”

Cecelia giggled.  “I’m sure that if he wanted to, he could employ your surveillance golem to do his bidding.  But you must remember, Santa has powers beyond our imagining.  And some things are meant to be secret, aren’t they?”

The members of the DeAngelo family stood there, contemplating that sentiment.

Zelda, though, had other things in mind.  “I’m just going to ask him next time I see him.”

The people around her couldn’t help but laugh at that innocent manner of thought.

“You be sure to do that,” Cecelia said.  “Come along.  I’ll bring you to the kitchen where we can wait for our other guests to arrive.”

“That’s right, you did say that we’d be meeting with other folk,” Michael recalled.  “Are these people we’ve met before on our prior trips here, or are we making the acquaintance of someone new?”

“I suppose Santa wouldn’t mind if I told you all a little of why he’s brought you here today,” Cecelia said.  “You’ve already proven your heroism and helpfulness on countless occasions, and he’s excited to tout your achievements to the others once we all settle in.  You are to be our ambassadors this evening—heroes and diplomats who have saved alliances in the past, and even Christmas itself!”

“Ambassadors,” Rhianna echoed.  “I like that.  So, what kind of peace are we trying to broach, exactly?”

Cecelia nodded.  “You should be aware of the parties involved, if for nothing else to know and understand the situation.  I assure you though, all the troubles have nearly been rectified already anyway.

“Not long ago,” she continued, “the three races that populated this valley managed to live in relative peace with one another.  The giants of Hjelle Mountain, inhabiting the caves there, slumbered for months at a time, and then went into the northern wastes to hunt katarak mammoths.”

Zelda tilted her head to the side.  “But isn’t this the North Pole?” she wondered.  “How is it possible for them to go even more northerer?”

Cecelia shrugged.  “I guess that’s just what the southerners call it, and we call it that for consistency’s sake.”  She waved her hand, focusing back on her story.  “Anyway, the giants mostly ignored the other two races, for they were much too small to bother with, and they would keep to themselves in their own areas of the valley.

“The elves of Andal Forest communed with the smaller animals there, hiding from the cold of endless winter, and spending their days looking at the stars in the twilight of the frozen north.  They live close by—Santa has offered them employment on more than one occasion to help make his toys.  As you know, we elves have nimble fingers, so whenever something requiring a deft touch is needed, we’re usually the first that Mister Klaus asks.

“The dwarves of Clan Lochmoor are the final race that calls these frigid snows home, although they usually keep to themselves within the mines to the southwest.  Santa would probably never admit this, but he holds a special place in his heart for the dwarves, having carried on with their kind a great deal in his former home.”

Rhianna gave Michael a light elbow in his ribs and sent him a knowing glance when he looked her way.

“Everything was going rather well,” Cecelia went on.  “Santa was just about to establish a new alliance with the giants to help him put together a new workshop on the other side of the tundra so that we could get twice the work done.”

Cecelia bowed her head a little bit as she recalled the goings on in the area.  “But some things happened more recently that caused a schism between the three races, and it all started with a beautiful gem that was found recently out in the wilderness.  When a pair of giants were out on a hunt, chasing down a katarak, one of their clubs smashed into the ground, tearing through ice and earth and revealing the stone underneath.  But when the snow settled, and the katarak fled to safety, the giants realized they didn’t quite care to give chase anymore.  Below them, in the divot they’d carved out by mistake, a beautiful scarlet glow seemed to radiate into the frozen waste.  Though it was small, the ruby embedded in the stone entranced them, and they worked at plucking it from the stone.  Without tools though, even the fierce and powerful giants couldn’t tug it free.”

Cecelia led them into the lodge’s kitchen then and sat them at a small table.  With a smile, she moved her way through the room, fetching cured meat treats for the animals, and cookies for the humans.  “It didn’t take long for the other races to hear of its discovery,” she said then, as she placed two large glasses of eggnog at the table for Michael and Rhianna.  “In fact, it didn’t help that it was far enough away from Mount Hjelle as it was.  All three races claimed that the ruby was a part of their territory, and each of them were ready to go to war for it in that frigid place out there in the open.  But, well…something happened before then that caused even more problems than that.”

Before Cecelia could go on, the family heard the jingling of bells from a door on the opposite side of the lodge.  At once, Michael and Rhianna wore grins, for they sensed who had arrived, even without seeing him.

“Ho, ho, ho there,” a husky voice cried out.  “I do believe my great friends are here.”

Though Maisie was unfamiliar with the voice, her sisters knew it well three years later.  Zelda and Peanut finished up their snacks and sat upright and at attention.  While the cat kept her cool upon seeing Santa, Zelda couldn’t shroud her excitement, and her enthusiasm had her spinning in circles at once as the Christmas wizard entered the room.

“Santa!” the auburn-colored chihuahua shouted.  She jumped up against him several times, smacking her paws upon his burly legs.

“Welcome back, you four—ah, pardon me, it seems there are five of you now,” he said with a wink.

As he drew closer, Peanut too approached him, coiling around his leg in a gesture of reacquaintance.  Michael extended his arm, and Rhianna prepared to curtsy, but Santa was there in an instant.  “My friends, there is room for many things in the great north, but one thing we have no room for is politeness.”  Without offering up any other warning, he reached forth, and embraced the husband and wife in a great bear hug, squeezing them tight until each of them pressed out a little squeak.

“And we have yet to be introduced, little one,” Santa said as he neared Maisie.  She cowered away, just a bit, but the jolly fellow was quick, and his reach was long.  In a mere moment, he was there upon her, tousling the fur on her head.

“So, Cecelia,” he went on then, “how goes my dear friends?”

“Everything is going splendid, Sir,” she said.  “Their trip here went off without a hitch, and I’ve just been explaining the situation at hand.”

Michael nodded.  “Cecelia mentioned that there was no catastrophe to clean up this year, but it sounds like war is ready to break out right at your doorstep.”

“Ah, then you’ve heard about the ruby,” Santa surmised.

“And we heard that there was something else that caused even bigger problems,” Rhianna added.

“That is putting it mildly, yes,” Santa said.  “And it didn’t help that the ruby struck one of the races with a seemingly relentless curiosity.  Where there was one gem, they figured, there were sure to be more.  Almost at once, the dwarves set out, aiming their mine in the direction of where they thought the ruby was.  Well, there is perhaps nothing so important to a dwarf as something shiny—at least in these parts—and their mirth and their interest drove them forth faster than anyone could have imagined.  All told, everyone in the region can take some inspiration in their hard work.”

“But…” Cecelia said, urging Santa back toward the point he was trying to make.

He nodded, understanding that he had steered a bit off track.  “That unyielding persistence and determination wasn’t without its own troubles,” he went on.  “In their blind craving for more gems, the dwarves dug straight through many days and nights, causing near-irreparable damage to more than just their bodies.  They pushed right past where the ruby was originally found, underneath the tundra, and into the earth right below where the giants slumbered.  You can imagine how upset one of the giants was when he collapsed into a tremendous sinkhole that opened up right beneath his bed!

“Enraged, the giant erupted in a fit of violence, reaching for the dwarves who attacked his home,” Santa continued, waving his hands and looking at the ceiling as though he were watching it all play out before him.  “The mine shaft that the dwarves constructed to that point fell in on itself as he knocked away support beams and stabilizing pillars.  It was all the dwarves could do to sneak past the giant while he flailed and hollered.  In the darkness, they saw much better than he did, and could scale the shallow pit that they’d accidentally opened up with some manner of ease, thanks to their mattocks.

“They didn’t escape his gaze for long though,” he clarified.  “Once he climbed out of his new basement, he saw the little dwarves exiting right through the front door of his cave and pursued them again.”

“I get it,” Rhianna muttered to Michael.  “I’d be mad too if someone woke me up without any coffee.”

“While all this was going on, mind you, I was in the frozen wastes, solving our ruby problem,” Santa said.  “Imagine my surprise when a half dozen dwarves and a mighty giant charged across the area, looking like they thought I was aiming to steal the thing.  But they just passed me by, completely unconcerned with what I was doing—mind you I was working at stabilizing the relationship between the three races.”

“So, what ended up happening?” Michael wondered.  “I don’t see this ending well.”

“It nearly ended in bloodshed!” Santa confirmed.  “The giant chased the dwarves into the Andal Forest, tearing a whole tree out at the roots.  He swung it about like a mighty club, knocking over other trees while he was at it, and opening up a new sinkhole right into another branch of the dwarves’ mine.  Some of them managed to scramble into that, but the giant blocked it off with one of the fallen trees before they all could.

“By the time I arrived, and tried to invoke some calm, the elves had gathered up arms and drawn their weapons,” he stated.

“To be fair,” Cecelia chimed in, “they probably thought it was an invasion.”

“I am not in disagreement about anyone’s feelings or fears,” Santa agreed.  “But a whole series of accidents nearly thrust the region into chaos that I was completely unprepared for.  It took a great speech and an impassioned plea to make sure that the area I stood within didn’t become a battlefield.  But, with luck, I settled the tensions, and didn’t end up a splattering on the snow-covered forest floor, or a pincushion filled with elven arrows.”

“And now we’re here to celebrate!” Zelda cried out.

“That’s right!” Santa cheerfully confirmed.  “I brought you here for reasons twofold: first, you’ve done me a great kindness for three years already, and if anyone can speak to the importance of everyone getting along, especially during this time of year, it’s the DeAngelo family.  I also know that every time I bring you here I have you risk your lives, so I’m hoping it will be a nice change of pace for you to come here without everything falling apart around you!”

“We’re just happy to be able to visit you again,” Rhianna said.  “Though of course none of us are the kind of people to turn down free food.”

“Except for Peanut,” Michael muttered.  “She can be pretty finnicky when she wants to be.”

The cat sneered at him.  “If it’s finnicky to request three sardines, all perpendicular to one another, carefully strewn upon a velvet pillow, I’m afraid I am.”

Before anyone could react to that absurd comment, they heard a hasty pounding on the door.

Cecelia stepped forward, tapping Santa on his shoulder.  “You stay here and talk to your friends.  I’ll go tend to our latest guests.”

“Thank you, my dear,” came his joyful reply.  He turned back to the DeAngelo family and clapped his gloved hands together.  “What do you say I bring you to the dining area?  We have plenty of goodies and treats to be had, and I know that even though Cecelia is helping where she can, my attention will be divided.  Better I leave you in the presence of some tasty refreshments than here tending to the kitchen.  I don’t want anyone to think you’re the help,” he said with a wink.

The DeAngelo family took what little remained of their drinks, cookies and meat snacks, and followed Santa into what felt like a maze of corridors.

“Santa?” Michael asked.  “I’ve been wondering: how exactly are you supposed to indulge the delegate from the giants?  The lodge is roomy in some places, but it’s hardly big enough to…”  His words trailed off then, as they entered the main dining area of the evening.

A series of steps descended somewhat into the ground, but the walls remained high, without a second floor to ruin the scene.  The view was beautiful as well, for the ceiling in the chamber was made of glass that was so fine, it seemed to be invisible.  Santa’s guests looked at the sky in awe, observing the starry tapestry, and the aurora that passed by overhead.

A wide banquet table was situated on the far side of the chamber, and to one side, a tall evergreen stood, adorned with many lights and baubles, along with long strings of garland.  The tree itself would have been as tall as a giant, they realized.

“You were saying?” Santa said.

“Don’t worry about him,” Rhianna teased.  “He’s just way too cynical.”  She nudged him on his side.  “You see?  Everything works out fine if you just believe.”

Their jolly host let a hearty laugh shake him to his core.  As that laughter continued, he turned about, heading back through the lodge to meet his companion, and the arriving guests.

Left alone, Michael and Rhianna and their pets looked across the room, spotting the food that the north had prepared for them.  Nuts, dried, thin cuts of meats, grapes and cheeses rested on the table on the other side of the room.  The food sat illuminated by a beautiful fireplace across the way, and the mugs and dishware seemed to shine in that light.

While the sight of it was enough to make anyone salivate, the lot of them could hear the frantic licks of one of their family members.  They all looked about, until they sensed the desperation of the newest member of the household.  Maisie licked her lips, and only ventured a glance elsewhere when she felt everyone’s gaze land upon her.  She looked back to the food a moment later, her whole body shaking at the prospect of the tremendous dinner that was about to be in her belly.

“Come on babies,” Rhianna said with a laugh.  “Let’s go see what we can get you to tide you over.”

“Assume the begging position!” Zelda said as she hopped on her two back feet as they drew closer to the banquet table.

When they passed closer to the far end of the room, Michael and Rhianna noticed the tremendous double doors built into the side of the lodge.  No doubt that was fashioned just for the delegate from the giants—they wondered if the lodge was built with them in mind, or if that gateway was added later.

Their attention shifted elsewhere, then, for as they passed the sides of the table, they saw the magnificent gem that was responsible for the event that evening.  The beautiful ruby sat at the center of the table, lying against an ornate horn that seemed a hollow attempt at seeming anywhere near as attractive as the real focal point.

Michael and Rhianna approached the table and picked a few pieces of food off the table and fed the animals that crowded around them.  Once the dogs and the cat were somewhat placated, Rhianna picked up a silver goblet, taking a gulp of the crimson drink inside it.

“Whoa!” she said.  “That’s the best wine I think I’ve ever had.  Santa knows his stuff.”

Michael shrugged.  “I don’t know if I’ll like whatever’s in here,” he said as he reached for a golden mug that seemed to overflow with foam.  “I wouldn’t mind some more eggnog though.”

“Give it a try,” Rhianna suggested.  “Who knows?  Maybe Tellest beer is something you can actually enjoy.”

He couldn’t argue with that idea, and he took a small sip of the beverage then.  His eyes grew wide and he licked his lips.  “Oh wow.  That tastes just like butterb—”

“Don’t say it!” Rhianna interrupted.  “Even in Tellest we’re not safe from trademark infringement!”

Michael accepted that wisdom with a nod, and happily drank from the mug again.

“I see the party started without me,” they heard then.  On the other side of the room, a newcomer emerged from the corridor they had exited from a few moments earlier.  “The big man always sets up one heck of a feast, so I’m surprised ye left anything fer the rest of us!”

They could see, even from that distance, that the first of Santa’s other guests was a dwarf—the delegate of Clan Lockmoor, no doubt.  Neither Michael or Rhianna had ever seen a dwarf dressed quite so dapper though.  He wore golden bands in his dark brown beard and hair, keeping his coif proper and clean.  A fancy vest, lined with black and yellow trim, rested over a linen shirt that was tucked into leather bracers as well.

“Halgrum’s me name,” he said as he drew closer.  “I’m sure our mutual friend told ye all about the spat we dwarves had with the elves and the giants, eh?”

“He told us bits and pieces,” Rhianna replied.  “It’s good that you were able to avoid a dangerous conflict.”

“Aye,” Halgrum said as he rounded the table.  “The big man has a habit of bringing out the best in people.  Why, just a few months ago, before all the mess with…”  His words trailed off once he realized the humans weren’t the only “ambassadors” that Santa had brought to the feast.  With a gasp, he threw his hands up to his face.  “Puppies!”  He fell to his knees then, petting the dogs with his stubby hands.  Peanut, not immediately revered, sneered and strolled beside him then, earning a few pets of her own.

“I think I see why Santa invited us here this year,” Michael snickered.

Before Halgrum could reign in his thoughts to speak to Santa’s ambassadors again, the DeAngelo family were attended to by another of the delegates.

“I could have sworn I heard one of those malodorous tunnel-carvers from Lochmoor,” came an unexpected voice.  Neither Michael nor Rhianna could hide their surprise, having hopped back a few steps at the sudden appearance of the elf from the Andal Forest.

Halgrum grunted, and rose from the floor, peering past the table.  “Ye got to be careful around this one,” he warned.  “He’s sneakier than a shadow, and greedier with gold and gems than a dragon.”

Though the two delegates slung harsh words at one another, their tones were a little less callous.  Still, when Halgrum circled around to the other side of the table to meet the elf there, nobody could dismiss the tension there.  At any moment, it seemed, a war was fit to break out.

Though the well-dressed elf looked unarmed, his auburn tunic, etched with silver thread, seemed like it could hide a small blade here or there.  Wide eyes caught underneath a furrowed brow did nothing to stave off the thought of sinister intentions, either.

A moment later, both the elf and the dwarf cracked a smile, exchanging a handshake as though they had known each other for some time.

“I think you’ll find it hard for anyone to express any ill desires here under the shelter of our gracious host’s sanctuary,” the elf said, somehow aware of the worries of the ambassadors.  “You must be the friends that our mutual companion spoke of.  I haven’t been around humans much, but my guess is that you’re Michael, and you’re Rhianna?” he asked, pointing to each in turn.

“That’s right,” Rhianna said.  “And these fluffkins are Peanut, Zelda and Maisie.”

“It is my honor to be meeting you,” the elf said.  “I am the delegate from the Andal Forest.  My name is Beroras.”

“You two seem to know each other pretty well,” Michael said.  “But you don’t seem all that hostile to each other.  Forgive me for mentioning it, but weren’t you two and the other delegate supposed to be on kind of uneasy terms?”

Halgrum shrugged, but Beroras nodded at the assessment.

“It’s true that we’ve had a tumultuous few months,” the elf said.  “Indeed, it looked like the ivory white of the wasteland would be stained crimson thanks to our greed.  It wasn’t always like this, of course.  I’d run across Halgrum a few times in the past, and we always got along without much fuss.”

“We kept to our own, which is what makes good neighbors,” the dwarf teased.

“Ah, but great neighbors learn to see the value in one another,” a hearty voice called out.  Santa entered the room then from the same corridor that the rest had emerged from.  Even in that short while since they had seen him last, Michael and Rhianna realized that the jolly fellow had cleaned himself up somewhat, wearing a tighter-fitting red tunic that was inlaid with golden etchings.  “We are almost ready for the feast!”

“That must mean Rurnar is around,” Halgrum said.  “Though I can’t say I felt him bearing down on us like a crash of wooly rhinos.”

“That’s because his invitation specifically requested a soft and reserved approach,” Santa joked.  “You’ve seen all the decorations we have in place here.  I can’t have them toppling from their shelves.”

Santa passed the other delegates and his ambassadors and walked toward the towering double doors.  With a powerful shove, he thrust the doors open, and the rest of the attendants saw the tremendous final guest of the evening.

Wearing matted furs and donning a scraggly beard and unkempt hair, the giant, Rurnar, seemed a little underdressed for the occasion.  He took one step forward, and as soft as it was, everyone in attendance could feel the seismic shift beneath their feet.

A little whimper emerged from Maisie’s throat, and she ran behind Michael, pawing at him for protection.

Halgrum and Beroras acted with more courage, approaching the doorway and drawing up behind Santa.  They offered salutations of their own—a nod from the dwarf, and a bow from the elf—before Rurnar dipped his head beneath the doorway, just shy of being tall enough to accommodate his immense size.

“He must eat even more than Maisie,” Zelda whispered to Peanut.

“Ye don’t exactly look the part of a fancy delegate,” Halgrum teased then.  “We should have felt ye comin’, surely.  But I’m as surprised as I would be if I had a new nose growin’ on me face that we didn’t smell ye.”

The giant said nothing—just offering up a low grumble—but their host turned around and raised his hands to limit the smelly jokes.

“Now, now,” Santa said.  “It’s not exactly easy for a giant to find or make such fancy attire as you have brought with you,” he said to Halgrum and Beroras.  “I told Rurnar he didn’t need to worry about things.  I have a change of clothes for him right here.”

The rest of the attendees looked around, trying to spot where a new outfit might be, but they couldn’t find anything out of sorts.

Then, with a snap of Santa’s fingers, a bright light filled the lodge, reflecting off the large glass windows.  When the illumination faded, Rurnar had transformed.  His matted furs were replaced by a huge linen vest that was lined with fluffier, fancier fur.  His breeches now fully covered his legs and tucked into boots that looked like it would have taken ten cobblers a year to make.  Rurnar’s beard and hair were more deliberately placed then as well.  With large golden bands bundling the many strands together, he looked somewhat like Halgrum, though perhaps ten times as large.

“Thank you, Santa,” Rurnar said in his low, deep voice.  “Now I don’t have to worry about taking my annual bath.”

Beroras stepped forward then, tossing his hands out to the side.  “Umm, I don’t think that is any reason to—”

Santa turned and gestured to the elven delegate to not bother with that train of thought.  “We’re here to have a good time,” he joked.

Michael raised his mug then.  “I’ll toast to that.”

“Not everyone has their drinks,” Rhianna chided.  “You just wanted an excuse to get a refill.”

Her husband shrugged and nodded, unwilling to contest that assessment.

“It’ll take a bit of time to get the appropriate flagon for our mighty tall friend here,” Halgrum said, pointing to Rurnar.  “But the food looks ripe for eatin’.”

“Oh that?” Santa asked.  “Those are just the appetizers.”  He clapped his hands, the sound seeming to resound through the lodge.

“Christmas wizard,” Rhianna whispered to her husband.

As the echo of his hand clapping dissipated, the attendants heard another noise take its place.  Like the sound of soldiers marching, boots tapped against the floor, approaching the banquet area.

“It’s an invasion!” Zelda cried out.

She soon learned, along with the rest of the attendees, that more companions of Santa’s were tapped to lend a hand to the all-important event.

One by one, a parade of elves entered the room, led by Cecelia.  She sent a wink in Beroras’s direction, but kept to her route, leading the procession of helpers toward the table.  Twelve elven maidens and an elf male carried covered foods to the guests, the aromas of the meals filling the room.  In a concerted effort, the elves placed their dishes upon the table, and in unison pulled the metal coverings from atop them.  Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, candied yams, beans and corn and carrots, heaping piles of bread, and so many more smatterings of food lay strewn across the long table, causing the delegates’ mouths to water.

The elves weren’t done though, it seemed.  For while the procession of elves brought food and further refreshments for the smaller of the delegates, a quartet of burly dwarves pushed a pair of carts into the room from a corner corridor of the lodge.  The first cart carried an entire barrel of ale, and the one following it held a stack of mammoth ribs—enough to sate any giant’s appetite.

“This is incredible,” Michael said.  “I feel like royalty or something.”

“That you should, my friends,” Santa said.  “You’ve helped save Christmas on three occasions, and now, you finally get your much deserved…”  His words trailed off, and he tilted his head to the side as he stared at Michael and Rhianna.  “Something seems to be missing.”  He bent over, looking underneath the banquet table then, where he saw the other three members of the DeAngelo family.  “Why, what are you doing under here?  You’re also our guests of honor!” he said.

With smiles on their faces, Michael and Rhianna lifted Maisie and Zelda onto seats at the table, watching their eyes go wide at the sight of the food.  Peanut, however, refused any assistance in the matter.

“Get your hands away from me, peasant,” she told Michael.  Once she arrived there, however, and saw a plate of fish not far from her spot at the table, she eased up, and even pressed her head against Michael’s hand.

“Thank you to my lovely friends for all their assistance this evening,” Santa said, addressing the wait staff and attendants.  “You’re all getting something extra nice in your stockings this year.”  Recognizing their cue, the elves flashed cherubic smiles at the guests and their host before taking their leave.  Santa turned and looked about to his eight other guests, bringing his hands together, before indicating toward the table.  “Please, my friends: take your seats and eat, drink and be merry.  We have a great deal to celebrate.”

One by one, the other ambassadors and diplomatic delegates took their seats at the table.  Rurnar recognized that no seat would possibly accommodate him, and rested on his rump, taking up a spot on the floor closest to the doors from which he had entered.

“Hi, how are you?” Rhianna asked, keenly aware that if he wanted to, he could probably eat her in far fewer bites than the ribs Santa prepared for him.

“I’m better now that I’m indoors,” Rurnar said in his rich timbre.  “The cold is harsh this time of year, and it’s not exactly easy to find shelter when you’re this big.”

“I rather like the cold,” Rhianna said.  “But we also have like twenty blankets at home to bundle ourselves up in.”

“And we’re always looking for more,” Michael said from the far end of the banquet table, clicking his tongue and sending a wink their way.

Rurnar let out a chuckle that nearly shook the room.  “I have a blanket that was made out of mammoth fur that could cover this whole building.  Of course, it’s at the bottom of a sinkhole now,” he grumbled, keeping his gaze on Halgrum until he turned to regard him.

“Are ye still on about that?” the dwarf asked.  “I told ye, a lot of people spend good money to get a basement, and ye got one for free.  We did hard labor for ye out of the goodness of our hearts.”

“Most folks get something like that while they aren’t in their home,” the giant insisted.  He looked back to Rhianna then, squaring his jaw.  “I know this doesn’t make sense, but I’m a bit afraid of heights.  Don’t you ever have those dreams where you’re falling and then you have a sudden stop?  Well imagine my surprise when that dream turned out to be real!”  He reached back and rubbed his rump.  “Truth be told, the dwarves were lucky they made it out of there alive.  There’s a tremendous crater where I landed.”

“Shaped like his rear-end, if the rumors are to be true,” Beroras said as he passed behind Rhianna and grabbed a nearby glass of wine.

Rurnar narrowed his large eyes.  “Those allegations are wildly exaggerated.”  He paused to consider things.  “Alright, there’s some truth to it.  Clan Lochmoor is still on retainer to repair my bed or make me a new one.”

“Well when we have a spare month, we’ll send half our craftsmen,” Halgrum said before tearing into a succulent turkey leg.  After bringing up his arm, ready to wipe his beard on his sleeve, he looked to Michael who sent a discerning glance his way, reminding him where he was.  With a little sigh escaping his lips and shaking the bristles in his beard, Halgrum reached for the nearest napkin.  “What was I saying ‘afore I was so rudely interrupted?  Ah, yes: the winters this far up north can be beautiful, surely.  But the summers?  They can be—”

“Oh, what do you know?” Beroras said from behind them.  “You spend all your time underground anyway.”

Halgrum turned to the teasing elf, who warmed himself by the fire.  “And yet, even though I do, I have this lovely bronze complexion, and ye look like a pasty white snowman.  How’d that happen?”

Michael took a moment to enjoy his surroundings while the delegates participated in another round of verbal sparring.  Snow started to fall outside, landing upon the glass ceiling above.  Far higher above, even the stars looked like wintry snowflakes.  Michael hummed to himself as he took another sip of his tasty beverage, before setting his sights on the magnificent tree to his side.  Many of the decorations were small wooden discs, with illustrated sigils of the cities and settlements of Tellest depicted upon them.  While he scrutinized the few that he didn’t know, the lights upon the tree seemed to flicker, and he tilted his head to the side to try and understand why.  Before his eyes then, they rose off the branches, and fluttered to new spots.

“Lumibugs,” the man cheerfully said to himself.

“If I might have everyone’s attention,” Santa said then.  He walked along the open area of the floor in front of the banquet table, preparing for his speech.  “I am so glad that you are all here with us tonight.  This is a very special time of year where togetherness is very meaningful.  Today also marks a very special occasion because our three delegates who represent the elves, dwarves and giants are signing a special agreement that reiterates years of friendship, alliance and cooperation.  And it’s all thanks to that tiny, sparkling jewel there,” he said, pointing to the ruby at the center of the banquet table.

The animals, eating the various fish, meats and cheeses, paused for a moment to look upon the gemstone, before resuming their feast.

Try as she might though, Maisie couldn’t wrench her gaze from the shimmering ruby.

“I was lucky enough to be called to help when I was,” Santa went on.  “You all claimed to have the right to it, citing how you were harmed by the others after its discovery.  But as much as it glitters in the light, at the end of any day, it would have just been a rock.  Together, though, you were able to make something magical.

“Rurnar, you found it—and I don’t think it would ever have been revealed if not for your hunt in the frozen wastes,” Santa insisted.  “Beroras, you and your people took something simple and imbued it with great magical power, utilizing a millennium of experience to turn it into something more than just a shiny stone.  And Halgrum, you worked together with some of your finest craftsmen to fashion a pendant powerful enough to house what became a fine artifact the likes of which this region hasn’t seen in quite some time.  And now, with the ruby fixed into a pendant, we’ve made not just a symbol of solidarity between all the people of the great north, but a tremendous tool that we can use to not only repair the damage that was done to your homes, but also the strain that has built between the giants, dwarves and elves.  As per the agreement, you’ll each alternate using the pendant, employing its enhancements of strength and speed to restore your forest, mine and cave.  Afterwards, we’ll…”

As Santa went on, the delegates and ambassadors watched in wide-eyed wonder.  Their host had tremendous poise, and a charismatic gift for planning, and everyone in attendance truly felt united.

But one little guest, who could not quite understand the words, couldn’t help but remain distracted.  Maisie’s gaze remained fixed on the jeweled centerpiece, and she licked her lips as she considered how it might taste.

“With our friendships renewed, I see a time of great prosperity in place for us over the next century or more,” Santa said.  “So, if I may, I would like to ask that you all raise a glass.  Here’s to an alliance that will result in great things for our region, for now and for long to come.”

The delegates raised their glasses, mugs and barrels, and Santa’s ambassadors did the same, toasting to the grand plan.

By the time those drinks reached the table once more, however, the attendants realized that there was a subtle change about the place.

“Ahem,” Peanut said.  “Humans?  We have a problem.”

For a moment, Michael and Rhianna looked about, not realizing what had occurred.  They spotted Zelda’s tucked back ears then, and watched as she lowered herself down toward the table.

“What’s wrong, Zelda?” Rhianna asked.  “Why do you look so sad all of a sudden?”

Michael arched his eyebrow as he considered her odd behavior.  “She never does anything wrong,” he speculated.  “But she always looks worried whenever…”  He looked at Maisie as his words trailed off and watched as she looked away in shame.

Maisie licked her lips again and moved her head forward as she burped.  It didn’t take long for her humans to realize what had transpired.

By then, the other delegates, along with Santa, noted the strange shift of mood in the room.

Rhianna remained quiet, but her widening eyes gave away her feelings of concern.

“What’s the matter dear?” Santa asked.  “Is everything al—” He gasped upon realizing what happened, and his face went red once he realized that the pendant was gone from the center of the table.

“You seem surprised,” Michael deadpanned.  “Aren’t you always watching?  Shouldn’t you have seen this coming from a mile away?”

“That’s…that’s one of the great embellishments of my character,” Santa claimed.  “What, do you think I never sleep?”

By then, the other attendants began to understand what occurred.

“If we don’t have the pendant, the mines might not last long enough to be properly reinforced,” Halgrum stated.

“Let alone my cave,” Rurnar added.

“And as hard as the soil is, it’s tremendously difficult to plant new trees,” Beroras stated.  “We were going to use the pendant to aid us in that endeavor.”

“Now, now,” Santa said, raising his hands to placate his guests.  “Let’s not worry ourselves too greatly here.  There is a simple solution to—”

“Where’s the elf that took me dagger?” Halgrum asked.  “A little incision right on her belly ought to get us right to the ruby.”

“Whoa,” Michael said, pushing out his chair and rising from his seat.  “Are you a board-certified veterinarian?  Because if you aren’t, you can forget poking at our puppy with any pointy objects!”

“We don’t need a knife,” Rurnar said.  “I’ll squeeze it out of her and get the ruby back in no time.”

Rhianna held out her hand and pushed it against the giant’s as he reached forward.  “Settle yourself down there, big guy.  Nobody squishes our dog but us.”

While everyone else grew louder and louder, the elf pacing behind the table offered up a quiet solution that nobody heard.

“You know,” Beroras said, “we could always just…wait.”

The stern voices filled the banquet hall, and Maisie, still unable to understand them, let her eyes dart from one place in the room to the next.  She looked to Michael, who rose from his seat and yelled at the dwarf.  She looked to Rhianna, who used her “angry” voice toward the giant.  She looked to Peanut, who shook her head at the young dog in disappointment.  And she looked at Zelda, who returned a look to her before saying some more words that she just couldn’t quite understand.

“You know you’re not supposed to eat stuff that isn’t given to you,” Zelda said.  “Now everyone is mad and worried about you!”

Against that chorus of louder and fiercer voices, Maisie hopped from her seat, and looked about for any sign of peace.  Her gaze settled upon the giant doors that Rurnar had entered from, and though she knew that they were closed, she thought perhaps she could scratch them open.

Maisie darted in that direction, and to her surprise, bolted faster than she ever had before.  Unable to stop before she reached the doors, she collided into them.  Rather than hurt herself though, she barreled right through them, tearing one of the doors off its hinges.  A cold gust of wind burst into the room, sending shivers down the spines of those in attendance.  Maisie had moved so fast that nobody quite realized what happened, but it didn’t take long for her family to realize she was there no longer.

“Maisie?” Michael called out.

“What just happened?” Rhianna asked.  “Where’s our puppy?”

“She just…took off,” Michael replied.  “She was here one second, and the next it was like a bolt of black-and-white lightning.”

The delegates rose up, and looked about as well, peering this way and that, and approaching the battered doors.

“She has the ruby pendant,” Santa explained.  “She has the power of the enchanted gemstone, so she can move as quick as the wind, and she’s as strong as Rurnar—if not more so.  Fret not, though.  We can see where she went, and—”

“I can see her trail!” Halgrum shouted.  “Little puppy footprints, leading out into the snow.  Beroras, you’re good at tracking, ain’t ye?”

“I’ve got keen eyes,” the elf confirmed.

“Then let’s get after her!”

Rurnar stepped out into the cold then as well, shaking the ground with his urgency.  “She’s moving far and fast,” he said, pointing to the distance between her paw prints.  “Come on then.  A higher vantage will give you a better chance at seeing her trail.”  He lowered his hands, letting the smaller delegates climb onto his palms before he lifted them up to his shoulders.

“Will you kindly…” Santa tried to say.  “…And they’re gone.  Well this is a right proper mess that I wasn’t expecting.”  He turned to his remaining guests, his ambassadors who had saved Christmas on more than one occasion, and realized they had one of their own that needed help that year.  “I’m surprised you aren’t out there as well, charging after them.”

“We don’t even know where to begin,” Michael said, his eyes wide with confusion, and his voice crawling with exasperation.

“We couldn’t possibly keep up with the others,” Rhianna said.  “But we can’t let them catch her Santa.  None of them are thinking clearly!”y6667

“Alright,” he replied, offering a reassuring nod.  “You all are calm and listening to reason, which is more than I can say for the others.  They can try to track her, but as frantic as she was, and in an unfamiliar region, I’m sure she’ll be darting all over the place before she finds somewhere that she feels safe.”

“But we don’t have any tracking skills,” Peanut declared.

“What?” Zelda piped up, clearly offended.  “I am always checking the perimeter for signs of any mischief.  My nose is a finely tuned machine!”

Peanut narrowed her eyes.  “I’ve seen them throw you food that you’ve missed before, and you couldn’t sniff it out even when it dropped right under you.”

“Luckily, I won’t be asking anyone to track anything,” Santa said.  “With a little Christmas magic, I think I’ll be able to help you find your missing pup before you know it.”

“And before the others find her,” Rhianna said.

“They’ll tire themselves out before long, and they’ll need to come back here to regain their strength,” Santa assured.  “Why don’t you four follow me?”

The DeAngelo family did as instructed, shadowing their host as he walked out into the cold of the snowy night.  They saw Maisie’s tracks as clearly as the delegates had, but they didn’t linger there, for Santa turned to the side, and walked alongside the lodge until they passed its far edge.  There, not so far away, was another building that looked just as warm and inviting as the lodge had.  Santa led the family there and pressed through the swinging door at the front of the building.

In the soft light of the building, they couldn’t see much, but Santa wore a smile as he turned to regard them.

“I’m not sure what’s in there, but you seem pretty happy,” Zelda said.

“I’ll be lending you three things to aid you this night,” Santa said.  “I think you’ll recognize this first one well enough.”  He turned toward the building once more, peering into the darkness.  A moment later, he brought his hand to his mouth, blowing a puff of air off of his hand as though he had plucked magic from the aether and scattered it into the building.  Sure enough, that magic took form, brightening the lanterns that were strewn about the building.  There, in the center of the main room, was a familiar-looking sleigh.

“Is that the one that we—” Michael began.

“The very same,” Santa expressed with his joyous tone.  “Only this year, I won’t be asking your little pup to pull it on her lonesome.  Perhaps one of my friends could help you in that regard.”

Santa placed two fingers in his mouth and let a high-pitched whistle pierce the air.  Almost at once, his guests heard the clip-clop of hooves, and they saw shadows moving from the pens in the building.

“Now, I can’t let you use all of my friends here,” Santa said.  “I need them strong and rested for Christmas Eve.  But I think you’ll find that even one of them will give you the strength to outpace Halgrum, Beroras and Rurnar.”

As he finished speaking, Santa’s friends emerged from deeper in the stable.  One by one, a dozen reindeer entered the room—including one with a shiny red nose.

Zelda gasped, and her eyes grew large.  She sprinted forward.

“Svetlana!” she cried out, running past the more famous deer, who grumbled and returned to his pen, just a little dejected.

When Zelda reached her reindeer friend from their previous adventure, Svetlana playfully tapped her hoof at the ground and reached down to nuzzle the pup.

“I see your little one has a strong memory,” Santa said.

“That night when we returned, she would not stop talking about her favorite reindeer,” Rhianna said.

“And even when the next day came, and she couldn’t talk, she still woofed at us like we could understand her,” Michael added.  “For weeks.”

Peanut clicked her tongue then.  “So, we’ve got a sleigh and someone to pull it.  What good will that do us?”

Rhianna flashed a half-hearted smile.  “Ignore the cynical kitty.  But…she does have a point.  Your other friends have an experienced tracker with them.  I have a hard time finding my glasses when they’re on my face.”

“Fret not,” Santa said.  “I think the last item I’ll lend you will be the one that helps you most.  Follow me.”

Michael and Rhianna did as they were told, chasing after their host as he moved toward a desk in the corner of the room.  Peanut remained in front of the sleigh, taking the opportunity to groom herself, while Zelda continued speaking with Svetlana the reindeer, regaling her with all her tales and exploits over the previous two years.

“Here we are,” Santa said, pointing toward a mirror that hung from the wall above the desk.

“Ah yes,” Michael said.  “The power of self-confidence.”

Santa snorted and laughed at that notion, steadying himself on the desk before shaking his head.  “I’m sure you’ll have no need of that.  But what you might benefit from is a little magic.  Rhianna, no doubt you’ve been reading that tome you were gifted a couple years back?”

“Front and back,” she replied.  As she considered his words, her eyes widened in anticipation.  “You’re going to use ‘old world’ magic, aren’t you?”

“Do you want to see how I always see the things I need to?” Santa asked.

His guests couldn’t keep their heads from nodding, though they were shocked still when they saw as Santa lifted his hand and pointed toward the mirror again.  His skin began to glow, and before either of them could lift their hands to stifle the illumination, the whole room was awash in light, stealing away their vision.

A moment later, the light faded, and their vision slowly returned to them.  Santa stood there, a proud smile on his face.  Together, Michael and Rhianna looked to the mirror, realizing that it no longer offered up a reflection.  Instead, it showed their lost dog—Maisie charged through the falling snow, toward the massive forest before her.

“Is this right now?” Michael asked.

“You think I run my magic mirrors on a delay?” Santa asked.  “This is live.”

“A real-life Santa tracker,” Rhianna muttered.

“Only it’s tracking Maisie,” Michael added.  “Look at how fast she’s moving.”

“I think it’s about time we get you moving,” Santa said.  “Svetlana will carry you quickly, but the others have a head start on you.  There’s no way they’ll catch your little one, but they could scare her into running farther away or into a dangerous situation.”  He plucked the mirror off the wall and handed it to Rhianna.  “You’ll need this, I’m sure.  Just remember to keep it safe.”

“Because if it falls into the wrong hands, it could lead to disaster for Christmas?” she wondered.

“No,” Santa said.  “The magic I’ve enacted will only work for a day, and then it will revert to just another mundane mirror.  But if it breaks, it’s still seven years bad luck!”

“And we won’t be able to find Maisie,” Michael added.  “Come on everyone.  Before the others get too far ahead of us.”

While Michael, Rhianna and Peanut climbed into the familiar sleigh, Zelda hopped upon the ground by Svetlana.  Santa set everything in place, gently placing the bit inside the reindeer’s mouth before urging the chihuahua into place alongside her family.

“I’m sure that I’ll be seeing you all soon,” he said.  “When you get back, we can resume our feast in full—I’ll keep things warm until then.”

“Thank you, Santa,” Michael said.

“It’s just another adventure,” he said with a laugh before lightly tapping Svetlana on the rump to get her started.

The reindeer pulled the sleigh out into the snow, and immediately set to work, building up speed and tugging the DeAngelo family along.

“You go Svetlana!” Zelda cried, peering over the lip of the sleigh.

Rhianna held up the mirror, squinting past the falling snow as it whipped by them.  She caught Michael looking at him and clicked her tongue.  “What?  You know how I can’t look down at my phone in the car without getting sick?  This is practically the same thing.”

He just snickered, and clung tight to the reins.  “How’s she doing?” he asked a few moments later, peering at the mirror.

“She’s coming up on the forest,” Rhianna said.  “When she gets in there, it might be too dark to see anything, so we have to move fast.”

“Faster then them, anyway,” they heard.  Michael and Rhianna looked between them then, to see that Peanut had joined them at the front of the sleigh, hanging over curling front of the vehicle.  “Look,” she said, pointing to the snowy horizon.

Each of them—and Zelda, too—followed that gesture, and noticed the towering giant who trudged across the icy plains.  From that distance, they could only just notice the two figures on his shoulders.

“Alright, Svetlana,” Michael said, giving the reins a light snap, “let’s beat them to the forest, okay?”

With a horse-like snort, the reindeer dipped her head and pushed ahead.  Rhianna grabbed Michael’s arm when she lurched back from the extra boost of speed.  She buried her head against his shoulder a moment later, and Michael lifted his arm to combat the rush of snow that blew forth.  Peanut dropped to the floor of the sleigh, grabbing Zelda and pulling her back when she drew too close to the edge.

“You do care!” Zelda exclaimed.

The cat narrowed her eyes.  “If you fall out, we have to stop and come back for you.  It’s too cold out here to stay any longer than we have to.”

Zelda stared for a moment, digesting the allegedly callous reason.  She subsequently ignored it and began bobbing her head from side to side.  “You like me, you like me!”

“Stop that,” Peanut groaned.

That request was granted then, for Svetlana carried them along fast and true.  As the sleigh sped on, Rurnar’s large feet showed alongside them, and the cat and the dog looked up to see the elf and the dwarf on his shoulders.

Michael handed the reins to his wife then and cupped his hands around his mouth.  “We’re going to go on ahead guys,” he yelled.  “But don’t worry, we’ll make sure we get the pendant—safely—and we’ll meet you back at the lodge!”

That explanation seemed to do less to placate the delegates, as Rurnar took longer strides and increased his pace then.

“They think we’re going to just grab our super dog and run off,” Rhianna said.

“That pendant had her burst through a giant pair of doors,” Michael replied.  “We don’t need to give Maisie any more powers than she already has.  Our house will be knocked down to the studs.”

“I’m more worried about how quick she is,” Rhianna said, her voice quavering just a bit.  “If only she could understand us.  She doesn’t like hearing us yell, and it’s all just noise to her.”

“It’s okay.  I’m sure she’s nervous out there all alone,” Michael insisted.  “She’s going to be overjoyed to see us.”

Zelda drew close to Peanut and tilted her head upward, offering up a thoughtful look.  “If Maisie gets excited and jumps up on Mommy or Daddy, will they squeak like one of our toys?”

“It’s more likely they’ll be tattered like the rug, or the couch, or the—”

“Not helping, you guys!” Michael cried.

“We have to hurry,” Rhianna pressed.  “She’s in the forest, and it’s so dark I can’t see where she is anymore.”

“I don’t think that will be a problem,” Michael replied.  “Look,” he said, pointing with his chin.

As they barreled toward the Andal Forest, they could see the battered trees that Rurnar had knocked down during the skirmish between the elves and the dwarves.  Those felled trees had deep scratches in the bark, and the DeAngelo family knew that they were on the right track.

“Stress scratches!” Rhianna claimed.

“She definitely went this way,” Michael said.

They plunged into the forest, avoiding the uneven terrain as they went.  Svetlana was forced to slow as they weaved between standing and fallen trees alike, but she still moved as fast as she could.  When the canopy above grew dense, the husband and wife looked at one another in confusion.  The starlit sky seemed to pour between the boughs, light enough to illuminate the path forward.  They couldn’t understand why it seemed so dark around their lost pup when they scrutinized the mirror.

“That can’t be just the forest, right?” Rhianna wondered.  “We can see this clearly; why is it we can’t see her just as well?”

Michael urged Svetlana around some snow-covered rocks before peering at the mirror.  “You’re right,” he said.  “That’s way too dark.”

“We better find her soon,” they heard between them again.  Looking down, Peanut was clinging onto the front lip of the sleigh.  “Our trail is starting to disappear.”

Sure enough, the fallen trees were far sparser then, and the scratches that indicated Maisie’s path of escape seemed to fade from view.

“Even the mirror isn’t helping us enough,” Rhianna said.

“Wait a minute,” Zelda said.  She sniffed the air, tilting her head to the side.  “Svetlana, slow down!”

The reindeer instantly slowed her pace, adhering to her friend’s request.  No sooner did she slacken to a trot, and Zelda bolted from the sleigh.

“What are you doing, puppy?” Michael said, hopping from his spot and shuffling after her.

“I’d recognize that stink anywhere!” she cried.

Unable to wait there, Michael charged after her, hoping not to lose another dog in the process of Zelda following her nose.

Rhianna scooped Peanut up then as well and stepped out into the snow.  She turned to regard their reindeer guide, stroking her back a few times.  “We’ll be right back Svetlana, okay?  Maybe hide so that the others don’t see you while we’re looking for Maisie.”

The reindeer grunted, but slowly tugged the sleigh further into the woods, away from the small clearing there.

Peanut cleared her throat, then, gathering up Rhianna’s attention.  “Don’t even think about adopting another pet,” she said.

“We would need a much bigger litter box,” Rhianna considered.  “Let’s make sure we have our current family safe and sound before we think about that though, shall we?”

She trudged through the snow then, hoping that she would be able to find her way through the trees before long.  Some barking not far away helped her narrow her direction, and a few moments later, she saw rocky, mountainous terrain before her.

“This way,” Michael called out when he saw his wife wandering about the area, juggling the mirror and the cat between both her hands.

She looked over and saw her husband in his striking new outfit, standing out against the backdrop of white and grey.  He stood before a gap in the rocks, which seemed to lead into a dark and twisting tunnel.

“Zelda went inside,” he said.  “She swears that she can smell Maisie, but I can’t see past my own hand in there it’s so dark.”

“We didn’t think to bring a torch,” Rhianna said as she drew close.  “Do you think we need to go back to the lodge and get one?”

As she spoke, the way forward seemed to brighten, and they saw Zelda at the end of that illuminated path.

“Thanks!” she said.  “I’m not scared of the dark or anything, but…”

Michael and Rhianna looked at one another, trying to understand how they were able to drive away the darkness.  Peanut kicked away from Rhianna’s hold then, landing upon the cold stone floor of the tunnel entrance.  Left with just the mirror in her hand, Rhianna realized why there was a sudden glow around them.  The looking glass grew bright, giving off an otherworldly light that brightened the cave entrance.

Awash in that light, Peanut strode into the cave, passing the pup who still sniffed at the air around her.

“Hey…don’t run off,” Michael pressed.

“I’m not running anywhere,” the cat scoffed then.  “While that one blindly follows her nose, you missed an obvious sign that the one that bites and chews and scratches everything has been here.”  She looked at the side of the cavern wall, and sure enough, some deep gouges were there, thanks to the enhanced strength lent to the pup by the enchanted pendant.

“Well that’ll make things easier than looking at the darkness in the mirror,” Rhianna considered.

“Give me a minute,” Zelda said, still sniffing the area.  “I’ll find her.”

As Michael and Rhianna walked on, following Peanut with the powerful equivalent to a modern floodlight, Michael tapped Zelda on the side, gathering up her attention.  “Come on,” he said.  “We figured out where we’re going.”

“I helped!” she cried as she fell into step behind the rest of her family.

“You sure did, little puppers!” Rhianna commended.  She handed Michael the mirror then, before reaching down and plucking Zelda off the floor and snuggling her close to her chest.

With the light source in his hands, Michael looked about the area, realizing where they were.

“Do you know what this is?” he asked.  When he didn’t get a response from anyone, he pointed to the joists along the side of the walls, and to the runic inscriptions that they passed here and there.  “These are the tunnels that the dwarves built—there must be a mine down here.”

“Or this is the tunnel they were trying to carve out to find more of those rubies under the wasteland,” Rhianna speculated.

“Ooh, good thinking,” Zelda joined in.

Michael chortled at her little addition, but his face grew stern soon after.  “If that’s true, Halgrum is going to know these passageways like the back of his hand.  We need to move a little faster.”

A loud grumble echoed in the cavern, and when they looked down, they saw Peanut displaying a sourpuss.  “All her scratches are way down here, and she moves so fast they’re few and far apart.  I’m doing the best I can.”

“You’re doing great, Peanut,” Rhianna assured.  “Let’s just keep moving and do our best.  Between your eyes, Zelda’s nose, and our magic mirror, we’ll find Maisie in no time!”

They traveled on for some time, but with every new intersection in the mines, they had to stop and study the walls or sniff the air for any stray scent of their lost pup.  They went on and couldn’t ignore the chill that crept into the air, all of them beginning to shiver in the cold, damp place.

“I’m less worried that the others are going to find her before us, and more worried that she’ll freeze before anyone can!” Rhianna said.

“It’s okay,” Michael promised.  “I’m sure we’re close.”

As he spoke though, the cold became almost too much to bear.  They walked forth into a much larger chamber, and the ceiling seemed to stretch far too high.  Far above, moonlight shone into the cavern, offering the faintest light to the mine shaft below.  Illuminated as it was, the room could be seen for what it was.  Debris was scattered here and there, with large planks of wood smashed to bits, and piles of rocks and stone spread throughout the chamber.  A large blanket lay against the wall on the far side of the room—much bigger than one a human would use.

“It’s a dead end,” Peanut said.  “But…how?”

Zelda still sniffed at the air, but with all the dust that had built up in the dilapidated room, she couldn’t stifle a sneeze.  “Bleh!” she said.  “I can hardly sniff anything out anymore.  But I know she’s nearby.  She has to be!”

Without any other means to carry on the search, Michael turned the mirror over careful not to blind himself with its illumination.  As he stared into the looking glass, the light it offered seemed to settle, and his wife drew nearer to get a glimpse as well.

“I don’t understand,” Michael said.  “It’s still just showing nothing.”

Rhianna narrowed her eyes, peering into it still.  “Say something again,” she instructed.

“Did you just tell me to speak like one of the dogs?” he asked.

“Look,” Rhianna said, pointing to the mirror.

He did as he was told then, taking a closer look at the enchanted device.  Sure enough, it wasn’t as empty as he first thought.  The mirror displayed the tremendous blanket, and the sweeping motion that moved a few layers of it.  It grew brighter then, as if indicating that it wanted to be used to brighten the room once more.  Michael was happy to oblige, and as he turned it toward the discarded blanket, it was like a spotlight shone on whatever lay underneath it.

“Is that…?” he asked.

“I think it is,” Rhianna said in a much more cheerful tone.

Every time either of them spoke, the back-and-forth motion beneath the blanket grew faster.  Zelda took note of it then as well and began digging at the heavy covers.  She soon realized the futility of that, for the blanket was simply too substantial to move any which way.

“A little help here!” she cried.

Michael placed the mirror down against the wall behind them, positioning it in such a way that it would offer its light up to them.  And he made his way to the blanket, Rhianna followed alongside him.  Together, they gathered up armfuls of the covering, shifting it this way and that.  Zelda helped where she could, her anticipation growing with every swat of her paws.  Behind them, Peanut took a breather, and groomed herself.

“Keep up the good work,” the cat said.

Together the DeAngelo family moved layer after layer, until they could see a wagging tail beneath the piled-up blanket.

“Whacha doin’ in there, Maisie?” Rhianna asked.

Zelda let a little growl pass through her lips, that sounded somewhat like a disappointed grumble, and somewhat like a relieved huzzah.

That noise did little to ease Maisie’s tension though.  She began noticeably shivering, and with the strength of the pendant flowing through her, everyone there could feel the cave begin to shudder.

Michael dropped to the ground and sat next to the nervous pup, petting her back.  “We were so worried about you Maisie.  You scared us so much.”

Rhianna joined him there, and gently pulled Maisie away from her little burrow.  “I thought we talked about this,” she said in a teasing, playful voice.  “You’ve got to stop eating things.  It’s one thing to chew up the stuff in our house, but it’s another thing entirely to devour a symbol of peace that’s meant to unite three clans.”

“And you can’t just run away!” Zelda added. “You’ve got to take your lumps when you do something wrong.”

“Or just stop doing bad things,” Peanut said.  When Michael and Rhianna sent her disapproving looks, she sat up straighter.  “What?”

Maisie bowed her head in shame, her ears drooping down.  She snuck glimpses at her family, who all looked at her and spoke in a language she couldn’t understand.  The little dog licked her lips nervously, but nuzzled alternately between Michael, Rhianna and Zelda.

As everyone pet her and tried to ease her nerves, a small burp escaped her mouth.

“Umm,” Rhianna said.

Maisie’s head kept moving back and forth then, and she started making hacking sounds.  Michael slid out of the way as the pendant—covered in ick—landed on the floor of the cave.

“No, no, no,” Rhianna said as she sprang off the ground.  “This is the worst thing that’s ever happened.”

Michael couldn’t hold back a chortle, but even he blanched a bit as he picked up the pendant and wiped it on a corner of the giant blanket.  “Remind me to wash my hands when we get back to the lodge.

“Ew!” Rhianna groaned.

“Let’s say we get out of here,” Michael said.  “Why don’t you take the mirror since I’m sure you don’t want to carry this.”  He let the pendant dangle from his hand as he rose up, but as he looked at it, he saw the black and white pup still huddled up on the ground.  With a happy sigh, he stuffed the pendant in his pocket instead, and reached down to pluck Maisie off the ground.  “Actually, let’s hold onto something more important.”

“Yeah!” Zelda cheered.  “Squish her so tight she can’t possibly run off.”

Together, the five of them began their departure through the cavern.  Michael leaned down and kissed Maisie on the head, and knowing that she was safe once again, she nuzzled against his chest.

Almost as soon as cold dissipated, it returned, for they began nearing the entrance.  Not one member of the family could tell which one of them yipped as they exited the stone tunnels and saw the three delegates from the feast.

“It seems ye found the wee pipsqueak,” Halgrum said.

“You saved us the trouble, it seems,” Beroras added.

Before the giant could talk, the woman below looked up at him with more confidence than she thought she could muster.  “There’ll be no squishing here,” Rhianna said then, taking a step forward and placing her fists on her hips.

“No need for it, anyway,” Michael said.  He balanced Maisie on one arm even as she cowered away a bit, avoiding any eye contact with the noisy trio of delegates.  With his free hand, he reached into his pocket and retrieved the magic pendant.  “She was all too happy to give it up.”

Halgrum clenched his jaw and leaned back, narrowing his eyes.  “Lad, which side of that mutt did the thing come out?”

“It came out the same way it went in,” Michael revealed.  He pulled his eyebrows down into a slight frown as he looked up at Rurnar.  “I’m sorry to say though that we…we kind of used your blanket to wipe it off.”

Rhianna took another step forward and clapped her hands.  “But enough about all that.  We must get back to Santa’s lodge.  There’s a feast to be had, and he’s sure to be worried.”

“No harm, no foul, right guys?” Zelda asked.  “Except for the turkey back at the lodge.”

Peanut smacked her face with her paw.

Beroras sighed and folded his arms over his chest.  “We came here to get the pendant, and it seems you’ve already retrieved it.  It seems we traveled through the cold with the utmost haste for no reason.  And so, we begin the long trek back.”

“Well, wait a minute,” Michael said.  “I think I have a way to get us back to the lodge in no time at all.”  He turned to Zelda and pat her on the head.  “Will you do us the honor of calling over your friend?”

Her mouth curled up into a big smile while she panted in excitement.  She turned to the trees and tilted back her head.  “Svetlana!” she cried.

A moment later, the reindeer burst through the dense forest, still tugging along the sleigh.

“You think she can carry the lot of us?” Beroras asked.  “Even when Santa travels by himself, he has to line up nine reindeer.”

“Aye, but he has all them toys,” Halgrum reminded.  “Of course, they barely fit…and Rurnar is a bit bigger than that sack of goodies.”

“All he’s got to do is hold on,” Michael said with a chuckle.  He approached the furry reindeer, nudging his wife along as he went.  “Can you give me a hand?  I can’t unclasp the pendant while I’ve got this noodge here,” he said, smooching the pooch again for good measure.

Rhianna was happy to oblige, and she set the pendant in place around Svetlana’s neck.  “Now don’t get going until we’re all ready,” she told the reindeer.  “You’re going to be like a shooting star flying across the sky!”

Svetlana stamped her foot at the joke, leaving a somewhat bigger dent in the packed snow than she intended.  Rhianna just laughed and waved on her family.  She waved more enthusiastically when she tried to summon the three delegates as well.

“Alright everyone,” Michael said as they crammed into the sleigh.  “This wasn’t as disastrous as we thought—merely a hiccup and a bit of an adventure.”

“With a little bit of magic, I’m sure the feast they prepared will be just as warm as it was before we left,” Rhianna said.  “Food we can eat,” she reminded, playfully poking at Maisie.

“Alright, enough of the pleasantries,” Halgrum said.  “I’ve got a rumbling in my belly that feels like Rurnar’s taking a jog on it.”

“We’ll be back there in no time,” Michael assured.  “Now, Svetlana! Just Svetlana! Now dash away!” he cried with a light snap of the reins.  The reindeer took off at once, bolting into the snowy night.

 

*          *          *

 

Dusted free of the snow that covered them all, the delegates and Santa’s special guests were pleased to be inside the lodge once more.  Svetlana had joined them inside the building, shaking off remnants of the slush she’d kicked into the air along their return trip.  She’d earned her respite, and she happily crunched on a carrot that Cecelia held up for her, the maiden giggling with every twitch of the reindeer’s whiskers.

At the banquet table, Halgrum regaled Michael with one of the exciting tales of heroism from his clan—no doubt exaggerating with great details some aspects of the story.  At the same time though, he chomped down on a plump turkey leg, the juices dribbling down his face and getting caught up in his beard.  Every now and again, Michael could hear a word or two between his chewing—a “dragon” here and a “snow monster” there.  He nodded and smiled to the dwarf, raising his mug whenever he heard a particularly funny portion of the tale.  But his focus always drifted to the center of the table where the three fur babies chomped down on their treats.

Likewise, on the other side of the table, Rhianna half-heartedly watched while Beroras and Rurnar good-humoredly bickered back and forth, arguing about who was more integral to tracking down the runaway pup.

“If it wasn’t for the height advantage that I gave you, you would have never seen her wee tracks,” Rurnar boomed, taking a gulp from his barrel as if he had proved his point.

“I would have found them eventually,” Beroras said.  “It might have taken a little extra poking around, but I’d have found them.  Unlike you, who were too far away to see those tiny footprints.”

Rhianna laughed at their ongoing feud, and she took the moment to look to the fluffiest guests at the table.

Maisie’s eyes grew wide as she licked the plate beneath her.  Some kind of carved meat had sat there, but it was all but gone in those few moments afterward.

“Ooh try these ones,” Zelda excitedly said as she nudged another plate closer toward her sister.  “They’re orange like pumpkin, but they’re…I don’t know…starchy like potatoes.  But they’re kind of sweet too!”

Peanut stopped eating her fish just long enough to lift her gaze toward the chihuahua on the opposite side of Maisie.  She sent her an unamused stare that went unnoticed.  Unperturbed, Peanut set back to work, sinking her teeth into the large fish filet that was stretched out before her.

Everyone enjoyed that merriment, but they grew even more excited when their jolly host strolled back into the room, dangling a jeweled pendant from one of his white, unblemished gloves.

The delegates and human ambassadors broke out into applause, happy to have the ruby back in the room, cleaned up and sparkling.

“Now let’s try this again,” Santa said, though he kept the pendant close at hand, rather than placing it on the table.  “This ruby is a symbol,” he said.  “At one point, it was a symbol of disagreement, of competitiveness, and yes, even of greed.  But at some point, over the last few weeks, and even earlier today, it became a symbol of collaboration and solidarity.  It united your three clans, and you came together to bring it back, so that you could make things right about your homes.

“Of course, it didn’t quite work out the way we had hoped, because this little one was a lot quicker and stronger than anyone could have predicted,” he went on, smiling as he towered over the table and looked at Maisie.

Even though his tone was jubilant, and he was as happy as he could be, the little dog lowered her head and looked up with guilty eyes.  A little whimper escaped her lips, and she looked to Michael and Rhianna for some assurance.

None of the delegates noticed, but his human ambassadors smiled when they saw Santa snap his fingers, and they detected the presence of new magic in the feasting hall.

“What was that?” Santa asked.  “I couldn’t quite understand you before.”

Maisie gulped, and looked back at him.  “I said, ‘I’m sorry I ate the shiny thing’.”  As her words lingered in the air, it took a moment for her to realize she had spoken words that sounded different to her.  Her eyes crossed as she looked to the end of her nose.

Santa let fly a belly laugh then, winking at Rhianna and tossing a smile at Michael.

“Does this mean she’ll be able to talk every year like the others?” Rhianna asked.

“It wouldn’t seem fair otherwise,” he said.  “Now go on, I’m sure there’s much to talk about!”

Maisie still looked at her nose in confusion while Zelda squirmed onto the table and in front of her little sister.

“Maisie, you can talk!” she exclaimed.  “And more important: you can listen.  So, there’s a lot that I must teach you, and only so much time to do it.  Lesson one: How to fetch.  The key instruction here is that you have to bring the ball back.”

“That’s less important than recognizing where you’re walking,” Peanut pushed.  “Why do you always have to walk around like everyone’s black and white shadow?  One of these days I’m going to stop walking and people are going to have a hard time figuring out where I end, and you begin!”

“We can’t lose another ball, Peanut!” Zelda insisted.  “I won’t have it!”

“The last thing we need is for Little Miss Stalker to sweep the legs of one of our humans,” Peanut countered.

“Thank you, Peanut,” Michael exuberantly said.

“If they can’t get the food, we’ll starve.”

Michael’s smile faded then, and he stared at his cat with narrowed eyes.

As the feline’s latest words reached her, Maisie’s eyes grew wide with excitement.  “Food!  That’s the most important thing!”

Everyone laughed at that thought, for they all knew how dangerous her appetite could be.  With her newfound voice, Maisie was eager to talk all about her exploits over the past year.  She told taller tales than Halgrum and spoke more than Beroras and Rurnar combined.  And despite all that, her sisters were happy to talk to her.

One by one, the other delegates excitedly rose to talk to the new, talkative pup.

Beroras ran his hand down her back, and Maisie wore a contented smile.

“I’m sorry I chewed on all those trees,” she said.

The elf laughed.  “It could have been much worse!  With your powers, you could have knocked a whole lot of them over.  Truth be told, we elves always like to use a fallen tree to its fullest, and I’m glad you used them to ease your nerves.”

Halgrum was there a moment later, patting her on her head.

“I’m sorry I scratched up all those stone walls,” she apologized.

A deep chortle escaped the dwarf’s lips, as did a burp he tried to stifle with his hand.  “It’s okay there, little doggie.  It’s just a mine.  There’s no need for it to be fancy.”

When the giant approached, and towered over the table, Maisie couldn’t ignore her feelings of unease.  She gulped and looked up at him, his face so far away from her.

“I’m really, really sorry I hid in your bed, sir,” she squeaked.

Rurnar’s laugh shook the banquet room, and he shook his head as he dismissed any of her worries.  “It’s alright, very little one,” he said.  “I’m glad you found a place to sleep and settle yourself.”  He reached down and scratched her head with the very tip of his pinky, making sure to be extra careful with the small pup.

With apologies and forgiveness out in the open, the delegates and the ambassadors returned to the festivities in full.  Santa regaled his guests with stories of his own past exploits, happy to have a year where most everything was in place.  Surrounded by warmth and merriment, everyone celebrated long into the night.

 

*          *          *

 

When the DeAngelo family returned to their world, none of them could pretend in the slightest that they weren’t as exhausted as they could remember.  Michael stumbled on ahead, opening the door for everyone else.  Peanut and Zelda were eager to get inside out of the snow, and they bolted past the curtain.  Rhianna cuddled their other sleepy dog against her neck.

Maisie, with her newfound voice, had spent nearly all the rest of their time at Santa’s lodge speaking.  Once she realized who Santa was, and what he represented, she rattled off a list of things she wanted (which, though they started as small and reasonable requests, quickly became a bit greedier and more ridiculous as she went).  Santa listened to her for longer than everyone else believed he would, and all his other guests laughed whenever the pup took a deep breath to continue her demands.  It was his turn to laugh—quietly—when the dog blinked and yawned in the middle of her thoughts.  Within a few seconds, she stretched out on the floor, quietly continuing her speech.  She was blissfully unaware when Santa stepped away and prepared to say his farewells to the rest of her family.

When she was startled awake by the gasp of her older sister, she resumed her list without missing a beat.

“…and maybe another bag of pork chomps—just in case the other ones get lonely.  And then of course we need to get Zelda a bag of her own, so that I have something to steal, and…”  Maisie blinked her eyes and looked around, realizing that they were no longer at the lodge.  “Santa?”

“Don’t you worry,” Rhianna chuckled, kissing the pup on the side of the head.  “He knows exactly what you need, and you’ll get it on Christmas day.”

“But look!” Zelda shouted.  “We’ve already got some presents under the tree!”

Sure enough, several wrapped presents were there, with a huge burlap sack lying against the wall there as well.

“What did he get us this year?” Michael asked.  “Another couch?  That thing is huge.”

“Whatever he got us, I hope this year there’s no more woofing coming any of these boxes.  Or worse: meowing!”

Peanut sent a salty look toward Zelda, squaring her jaw and narrowing her eyes.  She looked up at Michael and Rhianna with a sneer.  “I, too, am done collecting little sisters for the moment.”

“What do you say?” Rhianna asked.  “Should we get to it?”

“Those presents aren’t going to open themselves!” Michael said.

Rhianna set Maisie down, and she curled up next to the other members of her family, who plucked the presents out from under the tree, and set to unwrapping them.

Michael grabbed his first and looked at the tag on top of it.  “Hey, this one is from Halgrum.”  He pulled the wrapping paper apart and removed the lid from the box within.  “A new pair of slippers!” he said.  “And look: there’s a note inside.”  He took it out and laughed before he showed it to his wife.  “Since Maisie ate my old ones,” he explained.  He leaned over and smooched the pooch before he kicked off his boots in excitement to try on his new slippers.

Zelda, too, couldn’t contain her excitement, and set to work chewing and clawing at the box with her name on it.  With a box that was bigger than her before her, she nudged the top off it, and was startled for just a moment when a card sprang up out of it, in the shape of a reindeer’s head.

“It’s from Svetlana!” she giggled, and she sprang back up to see what else was in the box.  She gasped with delight and couldn’t keep her tail from wagging.  “It’s a whole bunch of toys!” she cried, taking hold of one and plucking it out from the pile.

“No doubt because Maisie ate all your ones,” Michael said, teasing the other puppy, who started to shake off her fatigue in the presence of all the excitement.

“Ooh…look what Beroras sent me,” Rhianna said.  She pulled two beautiful midnight blue-colored velvet pillows from a box of her own.  “Because Maisie ate our old ones!”

Peanut swatted at the gift box with her name tagged upon it.  “Open this one for me, peasants,” she demanded.

Michael chortled at that stern request, but he was happy to oblige.  When he picked it up though, he could hear rattling from within.

“That’s strange,” Rhianna said.  “You know what, there is a bit of a theme with the rest of these.  And Maisie really didn’t eat anything of Peanut’s.  I wonder what it could be?”

Michael shrugged.  “It looks like this one is from Cecelia.”  He ripped the wrapping paper off the small box, and opened it up, noticing the small tube within.  When he reached inside though, he felt a rolled-up piece of parchment first and pulled that out.  “For Peanut,” he read.  “We noticed you’re losing a bit of weight, and this will make you feel better.  Take two a day.  Forever.  Love, Cecelia.”

“What?” Peanut cried.

While she dealt with that unpleasant news, Michael grabbed hold of her and set her down in his lap, squishing her in his arms.

“There’s only one present left,” Rhianna said.  “You know what that means, right?” she asked Maisie.

“Is that one…for me?” the youngest fluff asked.

“Come on, open it, open it!” Zelda cheered.  She ran behind the tree and started tugging at the mound of burlap, barely able to move it at all.  “I could really use that pendant about now!”

“I’ll help,” Michael said, handing the kitty to his wife.  He rose up and moved to the burlap sack, tugging with all his might to move it toward the center of the room.  In exhaustion, he collapsed once he arrived there.

“Whatever it is, it must be really nice!” Zelda said.

Rhianna leaned over, then, noticing the tag sticking off it.  “This one is from Rurnar, the giant,” she said.  “And there’s another little scribble on the bottom.  ‘It’s had its annual wash. -Santa’.”  She arched her eyebrows in curiosity and pulled at the twine ribbon that cinched the sack shut.  With a magical puff of smoke, all that sack disappeared, leaving the gift behind.

Maisie’s eyes grew wide as she recognized the blanket she cuddled beneath back at the North Pole.  She sprang on top of it, settling into the comfortable folds of it.  That time though, she looked around eagerly at the rest of her family.  “Come on!” she said.  “There’s plenty of room for everyone!”

Nobody could resist that invitation, nor the comfort of that massive blanket.  One by one, all the rest of her family joined her there in the warmth and coziness.

Even Peanut.

Together, the DeAngelo family cuddled next to the tree, watching the snow fall outside their window, wondering what joys the next year would bring.

 

Happy Holidays everyone!

 

If you enjoyed this story, check out the DeAngelo Christmas Archive.

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Michael DeAngelo

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.