Christmas Misfits

Every year, we post a personalized Christmas story here on Tellest.  You can see all the ones from the past several years by going to the DeAngelo Christmas Archive.  Or you can just jump to the latest story, Christmas Misfits, below (although you will benefit from reading the older stories first).

 

Christmas Misfits
A DeAngelo Christmas Chronicle
By Michael and Rhianna DeAngelo

 

“How am I supposed to tell this story?” Michael asked, a weary smile stretching across his face.

The trio of pups all snuggled together on the couch in the human-sized dog bed—one that was not originally intended for them, mind you—and had no energy left for that cold day.  Maisie was safely tucked under a blanket, just her nose sticking out, while Luna leaned against her, the dog’s eyes drooping as she gave in to fatigue.  The only one who still had some semblance of energy was Zelda, the older dog rolling over on her back as Michael aimed his phone camera at the trio of animals.

“That’s right Zelda.  You’ve got to get your glamour shot practice in for all your Christmas posts on social media.”  He hummed to himself and turned to the kitchen then.  “Hey Rhianna, do you think we take some videos of them talking once the Christmas magic kicks in, and post that?”

“No,” she called out from the kitchen.  “At best, the internet just thinks we’re hamming it up and faking the voices with one of our own.  At worst, they try and take our dogs and put them in the circus!”

Michael chuckled to himself.  “Well, Luna is as big as an elephant.”  He ruffled the fur around her neck, and she yawned in response.

“You’ll give her a complex,” Rhianna said.  “Here, distract yourself with this.  I think it’s done!”

As Michael turned around to head toward the kitchen, his wife emerged from there, holding an ornate wand in her hand.  It had all the elements of Christmas there.  Nestled at the base was a large quartz point that looked at a glance like an icicle, and it was surrounded by sculpted holly leaves with red berries.  Small, glittering rainbow tourmaline crystals were haloed by shimmering paints that seemed to set the evergreen color of the wand handle aglow, a nod to the lumibugs of Tellest.  The shaft of the wand was carved in a spiral and painted in bright red and white.

“Wow, that’s beautiful,” Michael said, his eyes glowing from the sparkle of the crystals.

“Do you think they’ll like it?” Rhianna asked.

“Well, we’ll know soon enough,” her husband replied with a smile.

The dogs seemed not to know what day it was.  On such occasions, just two nights before Christmas, the pair with more experience were usually a little keener on what was happening.  It was not often those days that the family stayed up that well into the evening, with even Michael seeming to tap into some energy that he had on reserve.  Luna, however, had made a habit that year of growing incredibly tired long before Michael and Rhianna had even had a thought about beginning their nighttime routine.

But as soon as the wind whipped about just a bit more than normal, Zelda popped up her head.  Though she was the smallest of them, that action was the biggest and loudest that any of the trio had made in the time since they had snuggled up in the oversized bed.  Maisie sat up then, the blanket draping over the top of her head, leaving her looking as though she was wearing a cloak.  Luna, meanwhile, tilted to the side, looking bleary-eyed and caught halfway to oblivion still.

“All right, doggies,” Rhianna said, drawing a little closer with her yuletide wand in hand.  “Think about all the things you want to say, because in just a few moments, Christmastime will officially be upon us.”

She pointed at Maisie with the wand then and raised her voice a few octaves.  “Please, authorities, arrest this woman.  She’s starving me.”  Then, returning to her own voice, Rhianna swept the blanket back off the pup’s head, and gave her a few loving pets.  “Oh, but Maisie, you’re looking so good, and it’ll help your bum leg a lot in the long run.”

“We need someone to make sure we’re eating the right amounts,” Michael said, smacking his stomach.  “Otherwise, what’s going to help us with our bum legs?”

Rhianna pivoted on her heel and pointed the wand at her husband.  “Silence,” she said with a feigned deep, wizardly voice.  The wand crafter turned back to the trio of dogs then, and pointed her Christmas wand at Zelda then, switching up her voice again.  “I demand that every inch of this house be constructed of the same material as this bed.”  She moved on to Luna then, pointing the wand at her.  But before she could say a word, Luna licked the gemstone at the end of the wand.

Michael pretended to gasp, then.  “A blessing!” he cried with mock exuberance.

Luna didn’t react much to that exclamation of her sacred duty, her eyes lightly shutting as her mouth opened for another big yawn.

“So sleepy,” she said, and her eyes grew wide at the sound of the translated words squeaky out from her throat.

“Yay!” Rhianna shouted then, waving her wand.  “The magic works.”

Maisie and Zelda were the first to pry themselves from the bed, immediately exploding with energy that seemed like it might not have arrived.

“Here’s the food I want,” Maisie said.  “A leg of lamb, some cheesy crackers, a dozen—”

“Give me my medicine!” Zelda shouted.  “My bones are creaky!”

“Oh,” Rhianna said, turning about to hurry to the kitchen.  “I had been working on the wand for so long today, I completely forgot.  You have to remember to tell me these things, Zelda.”

“I couldn’t speak until ten seconds ago!”

Luna was ready to descend from the bed and the couch then, and the largest of the trio seemed to ooze from her comfortable spot.  Once her front paws were on the ground, she stretched out as far as she could.

“Will there be naps where we’re going?” she asked.

Michael tousled the fur on her head then.  “You all seem a bit quieter this year.”  As the words seemed to descend from his lips, he bowed his head, and let his gaze draw toward the stairs.  “Come on then.  Aren’t you excited to see Santa and all your friends?”

“Will they want to take naps when we get there?” Luna asked, failing to stifle a yawn.

Rhianna chuckled and reached down to pet the other two pups, who had made their way into the kitchen.  “You might be tired now, but remember, it’s always a good time whenever Santa sends us on our adventure.”

Almost as soon as she spoke, she could see a few flurries begin to form outside the rear door of the house.  They swirled about slowly, spinning above the grass, with no other signs of snow having fallen.  As she neared the sliding door, she could see that the snow hadn’t come from the sky, but from below.

“The portal is forming!” Rhianna said with glee.  She slid the door open and hurried outside, eager to take their annual trip to Tellest.

Zelda and Maisie were quick to follow her, with no hesitation about heading out into the unseasonably warm night air.

Inside, Michael tried to encourage Luna forward, but she let a little grumble slip from her mouth, and she rolled to her side instead.

“We can’t stay here,” Michael said.  “You don’t want everyone else to have all the fun without you.”

Luna rolled on her back, then, and thrust her arms into the air.  “I’m in a grumpy mood!” she said in an almost singsong tone.

Michael smiled then, grabbing her by her outstretched arms and gently pulling her toward the kitchen.  “That’s okay.  We’re all allowed to have those.  You’re just going to have yours in the snow at the North Pole!”

As Michael reached for her, the biggest of the DeAngelo dogs shook her body, flailing her arms unceremoniously.  It didn’t serve her well enough, for she was scooped up in the next instant, and rolled to her feet before Michael placed her on the ground.  Once there, it was as if all the grumpiness subsided, and she skittered forward, across the living room and kitchen floors, and out the sliding door to meet the rest of the family.

Rhianna waved her on, and then waited a moment later to wave her husband closer as well when he emerged from the house.

Michael hesitated at the door, keeping it open for a moment.  He shook his head though, seeming as if he drew himself from a trance.  When he spotted his wife there, a bright smile appeared on his face, and he shuffled forward.

“One good thing about the warmer night,” he said.  “My legs don’t ache nearly as much as they normally would.”

“Well, I don’t mean to give you any bad news, but I suspect we’ll be playing in the snow in just a little bit.”

He remained smiling and grabbed his wife in a loving embrace.  “It’s all right.  These kinds of trips are all worth it.”

While he spoke, the ground seemed to crumble away, and a growing sinkhole appeared instead, a radiant white light spilling up and out of the aperture.  The quintet could see the portal spinning and they looked a bit hesitant to take a step closer.

“Why is it that this looks a bit different every year?” Rhianna raised her voice as the vortex churned and grew louder.

“It keeps us on our toes?” Michael wondered aloud.  “Maybe Santa is experimenting with new technology all the time.  “This is the Santa-Portal-Twenty-Three.”

“Patent pending,” Rhianna said.

Maisie sniffed a little close to the portal then, and Luna hurried on ahead, shepherding the little black and white dog back.  “If we’re going in, we’re going in together!” the big auburn-furred dog shouted.

“That’s right,” Rhianna cried, though her voice could barely be heard over the sound of the portal then.  “We stick together!”

Zelda did not seem inclined to listen to that mantra then.  The oldest of the dogs burst forward, leaping into the air.  “To adventure!” Zelda cheered, and for a short while, she hovered in the air above the portal, until the pull of the magic spun her about to face her family.  “See you when we get there!”

With a fwoomp, Zelda disappeared into the depths of the portal, fading out of sight.

The rest of the DeAngelo family took turns looking at one another, and then, in unison, sprang forward, to jump above the portal as well.  They watched as more puffs of snow seemed to greet them from the other side, but before they could focus on any flakes in particular, the magic tugged them through time and space, toward an enchanted place far, far away.

 

*          *          *

 

Zelda, first to leap into the pull of the portal’s magic, was the first to arrive at the snowy North Pole.  She landed with grace and poise, prancing forward as though she was one of Santa’s majestic reindeer.

Behind her though, the portal announced its activation once more with a subtle hum.  She turned around to see the rest of her family arrive together, and they did not land with the same elegance that she did.  The four other DeAngelo family members landed in one jumbled mass, tumbling in the snow until they came to a stop as a tangled mess.

“Ooh, ooh, charley horse!” Luna groaned as she pulled herself from the group.

Michael, Rhianna, and Maisie all glared at Luna as they rubbed their legs or lifted it off the ground in order to alleviate the pain that came from old age and disagreeable limbs and joints.

The portal had brought them far closer to Santa’s home than in their most recent Christmas trips.  Indeed, they could feel the warmth—if not from the burning hearth within, than from the legendary figure of the season himself.  The burly fellow stretched his arms out wide in salutation.  Luna thought it was an invitation, however, and she leapt at Santa, landing across his broad chest.  Even the powerful Norse god-turned-holiday figurehead stumbled backward a step. In shock and surprise, he erupted into a big belly laugh as he lowered the dog back to the ground.

“My friends, it is wonderful to see you again—and on solid ground to start this year, no less.  Everyone here has been talking about your escapades, and I must say, your reputation is starting to precede you quite a bit.  The five of you have become heroes of Christmas in your own right.”  He feigned a more somber appearance then and waggled his gloved finger at the family then.  “Don’t go thinking you’re at the top of that list though.  You’ve got a long way to go before you take my crown.”

When Santa noticed his mirth was not as infectious as he liked, receiving only polite smiles instead, he cleared his throat, and waved the group on.  Together, they began heading toward his house, the smoke puffing from the chimney and raucous laughter erupting from within.

“What great journey do you have us planned for this year?” Rhianna asked.  “Did another of your brothers use a mighty hammer to accidentally break a continent in two, and you need us to put it back together again?”

“Are we traveling to Alpha Centauri to deliver presents to aliens?” Michael wondered.

“Is there a feast in desperate need of eating?” Maisie piped up.

Santa turned around and tapped his finger to his nose then.  “Your little one is absolutely right with that last one.  Things are not so bad this year that we need to send you on any quests or have you saving the world.”

He opened the door to his home, and the sounds of jubilation poured out.  It truly did seem like everyone was having a wonderful time, and that there were far fewer pressing matters than in years past.

It also seemed like there was food aplenty, and the trio of dogs lifted their snouts to the air to take it all in.

“Well go on, then,” Santa said.  “We’ve got a full spread in there, and your friends would no doubt love to see you after all this time.”

Luna and Maisie, a little more inclined to search for some of the food, let their noses guide them.  But Zelda took a step in the house and tilted her head one direction or the other a few times, and then called out “Svetlana” with elongations on all the syllables, drawing laughter from the others who remained behind at the doorway.

“Before we go inside, there is something special I wanted to give to you and your wife,” Rhianna said.  She reached into her pocket then and drew out the special wand that she had crafted.  It seemed to sparkle even brighter in the presence of all the snow outside.

“My, my,” Santa said, taking the wand gently into his hand.  “This is incredible craftsmanship.  If I didn’t know any better, I would say you’re going to be taking control of your own workshop before long.  Perhaps you’ll even put me out of business!”  He accentuated his joke by slapping his hands against his broad belly and letting fly another of his loud laughs.

“Come then,” he said, clasping his hands on the husband and wife’s shoulders.  “Let us get inside and have a lovely time today.  I’d like very much to show everyone the new gift you just gave me.”  He hummed for a second and arched an eyebrow.  “You know, I’m the one who is supposed to be giving you gifts.”

“We always love receiving the things you give us,” Rhianna said.  “But we wanted to say thank you for all the wonderful things you’ve always done for us.”

Santa nodded.  “Well, I certainly appreciate that.  The season is, after all, about the cheer we can spread, not merely the presents that make our way under the tree—though they certainly help.  In any case though, spreading cheer is something that I am keen on doing for your family this year around.

“I’m pleased to say that there are no emergencies this year,” Santa went on.  “No wayward dragons, no ancient feuds gone unanswered for millennia, no villains desperately trying to stop Christmas from going off without a hitch.  This year, you’ve earned yourself some respite.  I know that it has been a difficult one for you, and you deserve the chance to heal.  After the job change and job loss, the fire consuming your childhood home, and…”  His words trailed off before he could say the final item on his list, but even Santa seemed to have some moisture on the rims of his eyes.

“Instead, today we’re going to have a lovely dinner with some good friends.  We won’t have any magically infused stones or treasures for your pups to grab hold of and cause any issues with, so you can just focus on listening to some good stories and telling some of your own.”

Michael and Rhianna looked at one another, and after a brief pause, they nodded at each other in agreement.

As they proceeded deeper into Santa’s house, they saw familiar faces—elves, dwarves, giants, and wizards—and spent a fair amount of time explaining all the different things that they had aimed to complete and accomplish that year, and all that they aspired to in the following one.

The two human visitors kept watchful eyes over the three pups they arrived with, but all three of the DeAngelo dogs seemed blissful in their time in the North Pole.  Zelda sat down in front of anyone who held a piece of food that looked as though they might be willing to share.  Maisie, a bit timid comparatively, hovered just farther back.  Luna, on the other hand, did not hesitate to stand up and try and take a few nibbles out of whatever food her snout could reach.

After a while of mingling and talking to the various friends they had met throughout the years, Michael and Rhianna finally found each other in one of the common areas.

Michael looked at his wife then and sighed.  “I’m glad the dogs are having a good time.  And I know that we had a lot of good news to share about what we did this year.  But…”

“Everyone here has gone on epic journeys and adventures,” Rhianna said, nodding.  “There is a lot of noise here, but for some reason it still feels too quiet.”

“There is something missing,” Michael agreed.

As soon as they let shared their feelings with one another, they watched as one of the elves—one they had not met during prior visits to the North Pole—hurried to Santa’s side and whispered something in his ear.  The jubilant fellow had a momentary flash of contrary emotion.  Was it fear or surprise or something different altogether?

In any case, as the elf took their leave, Santa hurried to the front of the room, standing in front of the fireplace to address his visitors.

“Ladies and lords, my esteemed guests,” he bellowed.  “I have to take a short leave to attend something of concern for one of our allies.  I should not be gone for long, and if luck will have it, I may even return before you’ve finished the first course of the feast yet to come!”

Michael and Rhianna exchanged glances as their host spoke those words, wondering if that was the moment they had been waiting for.  The DeAngelo pups hurried to the room when they heard Santa speak as well, conditioned at that point for the missions that the jolly fellow often sent them on.

“We are ready, Taskmaster!” Zelda cried.

Santa looked in the dog’s direction, but Michael and Rhianna were already there before him, nodding enthusiastically in agreement with their oldest pup’s sentiment.

“What can we do to help?” Michael asked.

“Just point us in whatever direction, and we’ll do what you need,” Rhianna added.

“What?” Santa asked, confused by the bid for work during the celebration.  “No… No, my friends, this task is truly beneath you.  It’s something that I can handle in moments once I arrive.  There’s no call for heroism, no need for a dangerous adventure.  You have earned the respite after all these years.  I want you to at last have a moment where you can simply sit back and breathe.”

“Oh,” Rhianna said.  “Of course.”

“If that’s what you want,” Michael said.

The trio of dogs at their feet watched the conversation unfold, but were a bit confused by what was being said.  As the family stood there, the voices of the other partygoers began to fill the building again.  Santa nodded, and stepped forth, patting Michael and Rhianna on their shoulders as he passed.

“No adventures?” Zelda asked as the Christmas legend departed from the room.

“But we always help Santa,” Maisie said.

Luna didn’t speak with her words, but a little hrmph slipped through her lips, and the rest of her family could see that she was about to descend into one of her tantrums.  As she started to lean, Michael bent down, wincing as his knees cracked, and held his hand at her side.

“We don’t need to make a scene,” he said.  “If Santa wants us to relax, then that’s what we’ll do, I guess.”

“He’s right,” Rhianna said.  “The six of us deserve a break.  After fighting Loki’s army, evil elves, and dire penguins, we—” Her words trailed off as she looked at her husband and saw that his face looked a little drained in that moment.  She realized her error in counting then, and she bowed her head, and let a sigh exit her body.

Before anyone could explore those thoughts further though, the quintet heard a sound from the closest adjacent room.

“Psst!” they heard again, and when they turned to investigate, they saw a familiar face looking their way.  The elven maiden was one of the first ones that they met in their time spent at the North Pole in years past and spotting her left a sudden warmth in the hearts of those who remembered her.

“Revan!” Rhianna cried, and she hurried to reach the elf, and wrapped her in a fierce embrace.

“It’s the pretty lady!” Zelda said, recognizing the maiden who had give them the potions that made her fly—and had her towering in a way that would even make Luna jealous—all those years ago.

“Hello again, Pretty Miss,” the elf said as Zelda hurried to her side.  Revan bent down to pet the auburn-furred dog, and Maisie and Luna could not hold off their jealousy at seeing their sister getting love and attention from someone else.  “Oh, it’s nice to finally meet you,” she said to the other dogs.  “I’ve heard such good things about you.”

Maisie flashed a canine grin, and almost looked as though she would start panting.  “You did?  What did we do?”

Her sister’s words permeated the air then, and Luna’s eyes went wide, and her ears went back.  “You didn’t hear the bad things about us too, did you?”

Revan merely tousled the hair on the back of Luna’s neck and rose to her feet once more.  “DeAngelo family, it’s so nice to see you again,” the elf said.  “If you wouldn’t mind following me for a moment, there’s something we need to discuss.”

Michael and Rhianna looked at each other with concerned countenances, but they did as they were instructed, falling into step beside one of Santa’s most trusted elves.  The trio of dogs hurried up behind them, almost bumping into their feet as they walked.

“Now look, I know that when you arrived here, Santa may have made some comments about trying to give you all a break, and that you deserve it after all these years—and you truly do, I’m not trying to say you aren’t—but there’s something that might just need your particular set of skills.”

Together, the six of them exited the rear of Santa’s house and walked through the snow for a bit.  A line of majestic pine trees, still covered with fresh powder, sat in front of them, and Revan brought the visitors around them, until they saw another building not so far away.

“Santa doesn’t quite know about what we’re going to discuss with you.  It’s sort of a favor to me and some of the other helpers.  I hope that’s okay.”

As she reached the door, Revan turned to her side, holding the way open for the members of the DeAngelo family.   When the family walked through the doorway, and saw what was inside, their faces lit up a bit.

All around the central room, which stretched far into the distance, old toys were carefully staged.  In the presence of the visitors, they seemed to come alive, clapping cymbals together, dancing in place, or chugging along on a track sitting high above the rest of the shelves.

The elven maiden hurried up again, overtaking the family while they investigated all the toys that seemed as though they were fashioned ages before.

“Is this Santa’s first workshop?” Michael asked.

“The same,” Revan replied.  “We don’t use it as such anymore—it’s more of a museum of that time—but we take special care of it for just that reason.  We elves will watch over it in sort of shifts, and it’s a very sacred duty to be in here.  But my partner and I have all our tasks wrapped up for the rest of the year.  The only thing left to do is… Well, I’ll let him tell you.”

As they passed into the next room, they found another elf who they were familiar with, but had not seen in quite some time.  The bearded fellow looked down at an old piece of parchment on a table, magnifying various places there with a piece of glass.  For a moment, the family members didn’t notice him, as he had a more studious look than the last time that they saw him.

“Leoden?” Rhianna asked.

The elf looked up then, and blinked a few times, adjusting his vision to something farther away than the table just below him.

“Ah, you’re finally here!” he exclaimed.

“I thought that was you!” Rhianna said.  “It was hard to tell now that you’re actually wearing appropriate clothes.”

The elf wore a feigned look of insult.  “When I work Santa’s forge, it gets exceedingly hot.  But I’ve since traded those days.  The work I did with your family actually saw me getting a promotion, and I’ve become an advisor of sorts.  Revan, too,” he said, gesturing toward the elven maiden who circled around to his side of the table.  “And it looks like you two are a bit underdressed today.  Where’s your special Tellest attire?”

“Well, we were told that we were just supposed to sit back and relax this year,” Michael replied.  “To be perfectly honest, I’m missing getting our outfit for the year.”

Revan flashed a smile and a wink.  “We’ll just have to remedy that, then.”

“And we’ll have to ask that you toss Santa’s promise of a relaxing time out the window as well,” Leoden said.  “We have something special to ask of you that Santa has been a little too busy to concern himself with these past few weeks.”

Rhianna’s eyes lit up.  “We’ll help with anything that needs doing.”

“I thought you’d say that,” the elf replied.  “You see, sometimes when the craftspeople who are working in Santa’s newer workshops are creating their toys, a little too much Christmas magic can find itself coming through the veil, and the toys that end up being created are a bit…different.”

Rhianna merely stared at Leoden for a moment, but Michael arched his eyebrow and tilted his head.  “Are you serious?”

“Oh, very much so,” Revan said with an enthusiastic nod.

Leoden continued.  “Because they’re different, these toys often achieve sentience, and, knowing they aren’t your typical toy, they—”

“They ran away to an island where they could commiserate and lament that they weren’t going to be loved by children on Christmas.”

Staring back at him with widening eyes, Leoden’s lips parted as he tried to make sense of the bizarre divination.  “That’s… Well, that’s absolutely correct.  How did you…?”

“This is just like the stop-motion special,” Rhianna said.

“The what now?” Revan asked.

Both Michael and Rhianna shook their heads then.  “Never mind,” they said in unison.

“So, do you want us to find this ‘Island of Misfit Toys’ to convince the toys that they can find happiness if they just believe?”

“No, not at all,” Leoden replied.  “We know where the island is.  We’ve actually sent a sort of ambassador there to help us out, but we’ve lost track of it.”

“And that’s not even the least of the problems,” Revan said.  “The island they call home is sinking.”

“So that’s the reason you sent the ambassador,” Rhianna said with a nod.  “You want them off the island before something terrible happens.”

“Exactly.”

“And it’s our job to pick things up where the ambassador left things off,” Michael understood.

“And to find the ambassador, if they’re still with us,” Leoden said.

“Well, we’re all for it, right everyone?” Rhianna said, looking at the rest of her family.

The younger two pups hesitated a bit, but Zelda stepped forward, striking a confident pose.  “To adventure!”

“It’s better than sitting here feeling…” Michael’s words trailed off then.  He folded his arms over his chest and blew out a sigh.  “It’s better than feeling fat and lazy the day before Christmas Eve.”

Revan clapped her hands together, a look of festive mirth upon her face.  “That’s wonderful news.  Now we just have to get you prepared and on your way.”

“Are we going to travel in another of Santa’s sleighs?” Rhianna asked.  “Another piece of old driftwood hanging around?”  She emphasized the one word in a peculiar way, and that had Leoden smiling as he considered what she said.

“You remembered!” he said.  “What did you think of all that?”

“Our second year helping out, Narala sent us a special tome that explained everything.  And, uh…I think Santa signed off on it as well.  The funeral boat that he was sent off on when he left Scandinavia became his sleigh.”

“That’s absolutely right,” Leoden confirmed.  “Though, the boat was big enough that they used parts of it to build their house as well.  It was tremendous enough where they had to have a frost giant push it from the shore—and she was much more powerful than most.  Even the gods weren’t able to move it.”

“And Nanna and Borti’s ancestor were the only other two who joined Balder—Santa, I mean—on his quest to a new world,” Michael surmised.

“Well, to the rest of the gods, it was to their certain doom, for the ship was bound to sink,” Leoden mused.  “How lucky we were that things did not quite transpire like that!

“But regretfully, you won’t be using Santa’s sleigh this day—any of them,” Leoden continued.  “We had a problem with the guidance issues on several of the ones that we typically have lined up for him for Christmas Eve night.  The one he is using today is the only one that doesn’t seem to be causing any issues.”

“Oh, that’s strange,” Rhianna said.  “But then, how are we going to find our way to the…the place where all the misfits are from?”  She paused and looked at her husband, leaning in close.  “I don’t know what we’re allowed to say.”

Leoden and Revan didn’t appear to hear her, but the elven maiden bent down, and plucked a few items out from under the table that everyone crowded.  “We’re going clockwork today,” she said with a smile.  The first figures she presented were ones that represented the DeAngelo family.  A quintet of small, perfectly carved wooden statuettes was placed on the table, and Michael and Rhianna seemed to realize that they had been placed on a map, right where they presently were, in Santa’s oldest workshop.

While they gazed on, Luna, the only dog tall enough to do so, stood on her hind legs and peered onto the table as well.  “Is that us?” she asked.

“Bring the table lower so we can see!” Maisie demanded.

Michael and Rhianna both grabbed hold of one of the smaller dogs and lifted them up so that they could see as Revan described the plan.

“This is indeed you, Poochie,” Revan said.  “Now, we can’t very well go and give you reindeer or a sleigh this year, and portal magic is going to be a little iffy, so we figured out something else that will be able to get you to where you need to go.”  She reached under the table again, and produced a pair of additional wooden figurines, each of them shaped like dolphins.  “One of our most prominent toymakers constructed these a few years back, and then Leoden worked some additional magic on them.”

“I’ve had them equipped with special sonar to make sure none of the people who would want to see Santa fail are successful,” Leoden explained.  “These cute clockwork critters are the reason that we were aware of Loki’s attack those few years back.  Now they’re going to be taking a much more leisurely quest alongside you.”

“Getting you there is only part of the planning, and we’ve pooled together with some of your other friends here at the North Pole to prepare you with a few other things,” Revan said.  “First, let’s get you equipped for the trip!”

The elven maiden stepped away from the map table, and into an adjoining room.  When she returned, she had a changing screen in her hands, decorated in reds and greens, befitting the upcoming holiday.

“We can’t very well have you showing up in your pajamas,” Revan said with a giggle.  “The toys need to know that you’re associated with Santa.  That ought to give you a bit more prestige to try and convince them with.”  She looked at the pups then and smiled all the brighter.  “And as for you little ones, well… You’ll see.”

Maisie and Zelda exchanged concerned glances, but Luna merely panted in excitement.

Revan tilted her head at Michael then.  “Age before beauty?”

The man’s lips parted, and he furrowed his brow in mock offense.  “I look great for forty,” he said, but he placed Maisie back on the ground, and started to make his way behind the folding screen, scowling at Revan as he went, the elf hiding her growing smile behind her hand.

As Michael made his way around the folding screen, a magical buzz resounded, and by the time he exited from the other side, a new outfit was upon him. A tan climbing coat sat upon a blue, long-sleeved woolen shirt.  Those sleeves matched the ski pants he wore that tucked into a pair of sturdy black snow boots.  Michael already had a backpack strapped on, and a bedroll rested atop that.  A tactical belt cinched around his stomach completed the outfit.

“I look like an old-timey prospector,” Michael lamented.

While Revan didn’t quite understand the context of his joke, Rhianna worked hard to stifle any laughter.  She set Zelda down on the floor and covered her mouth for a second before failing to disguise a chortle.  Then, she smiled brightly and took a step forward.  “Hey Michael,” she said.  “Yu-kon do it!”

Michael glanced down at himself and realized what he looked like, and he laughed as he shook his head.  “All I need is a red beard, and I’m set.”  His eyes sparkled and he pointed to his wife.  “This should have been your costume,” he teased.

“Oh, but you look so dashing,” Revan said before she turned toward Rhianna.  “And the one that we chose for you is quite stylish.”

“Okay, okay,” Rhianna said.  But as she passed by Michael, she whispered to him.  “I know I’m going to regret this.”

She slipped behind the folding screen, and the same sound that announced the change in Michael resounded for her.  When she emerged from behind there, she wore a teal overcoat with fur-lined sleeves and a fuzzy collar to match.  The coat swept open below her thighs, revealing a warm and heavy pair of burgundy stockings.  They tucked into a pair of shoes that curled at their tips.  Though Michael noticed them, it was the little pointed hat she wore upon her head that caught his attention the most.  It matched her coat, but it had a little red feather that pointed out from a band cinched around it.

Rhianna narrowed her eyes at the sight of her attire, and she looked at her husband with a warning glare.  “Don’t.”

“Don’t what?” he asked.  “Just admiring my favorite dentist.”

Revan looked to Leoden as if to try and understand the reference, but both of elves seemed a bit confused then.

It didn’t matter, for someone else eagerly wanted to take a pass behind the folding screen.

“I love costume changes!” Maisie cried, and she hopped forward until she disappeared from view for a moment.

Michael and Rhianna waited eagerly for their little black and white pup to emerge from behind the folding screen, expecting her to be wearing some canine-friendly outfit.  But instead, they watched as she exited the other side with no more articles of clothing—only a series of pink spots upon her fur.

She glanced at the rest of her family, who wore perplexed looks.  “I don’t feel any different.  What happened?”  Maisie looked down then and realized what had happened.  “What are all these?”

Zelda stepped forward and let a gasp part her muzzle.  “Doggie pox!”

Revan chortled, and leaned over to better see the auburn-furred pup who voiced her concern.  “Silly, those haven’t been around for at least a hundred years.”

Before anyone could really take the moment to consider that comment, Leoden piped up as well.  “Though the two of you are dressed for utility, and will certainly appear as ambassadors of Santa, we figured your dogs, already a bit of a rarity in these parts, could use a different sort of change of view.  Their costume change ought to make them look a bit more akin to the residents of the island, and there’s some magic at play to keep them warm in the cold of the far reaches.”

“We’re bringing misfits to the misfits,” Michael said.

“As long as they don’t think we’re leaving them there,” Rhianna said.  “That will never happen!”  She bent low to allow Maisie to come close, and as she patted her fur, she noted that the colored circles moved with the hairs and did not appear to rub away.  Rhianna smooched the pup on the head and smiled.  “Now you’ve got pinky spots just like your sisters.”

As she doted on the dog who had already gone through the process, Michael looked at Zelda.  “What do you think, puppy dog?  Now that you know you don’t have to wear any clothing, does it sound a bit better for you?”

Zelda hummed, and began to step toward the folding screen, but she stopped and looked back at Michael.  “But what if I look funny?”

Michael bent down at his knees, wincing as they cracked.  When he was closer to their oldest pup, he gave her a loving pet on the head.  Then he tousled all the hair there until it seemed to spring out in different directions.  “You look funny now,” he said.  “Go ahead.  We’ll all look silly together.”

Zelda shook her body, setting her fur in place again.  Whether it was that motion or the inspiring words, she took her trip around the folding screen.

Before she even arrived on the other side, the family could tell what had happened, because a little red glow appeared to light up the room.  When Zelda emerged, she had her eyes crossed, looking at the red circle that appeared atop her nose.

“Do I look silly?” she asked.

“Your pinky spot just got bigger!” Rhianna said with a laugh.

She patted Luna on the rump then, and the biggest of their pups trotted forward.  “No one make fun of me okay?”  A bit more curious of the folding screen than the rest of the dogs, she took her time walking around it.

“Whatever happens, I hope they don’t try to give her a hat,” Michael said to his wife.  “Speaking of which, you better keep track of yours.  I’m surprised she hasn’t already been so deeply offended she hasn’t tried to rip it off your head!”

“She does hate hats, doesn’t she?” Rhianna said with a snicker.

A hat was not one of the things they had to worry about when Luna appeared around the other side of the folding screen.  Instead, a large, pink ruffled collar appeared around her neck.  She sat on her behind, and started to kick at it, but it did not appear to be going anywhere.

“Does it itch?” Rhianna asked.

“No,” Luna said.  “But I see it, and that bothers me!”

Revan snickered, and she waved over the two humans.  “While she’s busy coming to terms with her new collar, we should talk about some of the other preparations we’ve made for you.  Some of your allies here at the North Pole have come together to craft some things that will no doubt be imperative for your journey.”

She reached under the table once more, and produced a small wooden box that, when opened, displayed a trio of bulbous flasks.  Each of them had a different color, though the bottles were all marked by a golden band across the widest part of the vial, and another that was situated perpendicular to the first.  At the points where the bands crossed, a little mouse symbol had been etched.

“Your friend Raskagar prepared some potions for you that your eldest pup should be at least somewhat familiar with.”  She pointed to the blue potion first, just as she had all those years ago.  “This is the potion that will make things smaller.  The green potion will make things bigger.”

“And the silver one will make things fly,” Rhianna recalled.

Despite the height of the table, everyone in attendance was surprised by the sudden appearance of the eldest dog, who had somehow managed to hop there from the ground.

“I remember that one!” Zelda said, reminded of the family’s first adventure at the North Pole.

Revan chortled again, offering up an enthusiastic nod.  “That’s right.  It was your first wish, little pup!”  She turned to the humans again, closing the box and sliding it their way.  “You’ll know when to use these, I’m sure.  But that’s not all that we’re preparing you with.”

It was Leoden’s turn to gather up some items from under the table, though they were the biggest items that were produced so far.  One of the items slammed down with a tremendous thump, but the other, a red sack that looked like the one Santa carried with him, gently rested upon the table.

“Narala crafted us two very special items for you, and both have a sort of magical presence over space.”

“Oh no,” Rhianna said.  “Don’t tell us we’re going to have another breathing sack and are going to have to go underwater!”

Spotting the confused looks the elves wore, Michael nodded.  “Last year we helped Santa with a mission from his base on the moon.  We needed special breathing apparatuses.”

Revan’s shoulders sank.  “It paints me a color I’d rather not wish to be, but I must admit I’m jealous.  I’ve heard the view from there is incredible.”

“It’s something else,” Michael replied.

The elven maiden’s gaze drifted toward the ceiling until Leoden cleared his throat.

“In any case, no, you won’t have to use this for breathing anywhere,” the elf said.  “And if you’re lucky, the only time you’ll come anywhere close to the water is while you’re traveling to the island.  Remember, we’re trying to get the inhabitants away from there before the island sinks.

“These two items ought to help you,” Leoden continued.  “The sack is extradimensional.  That is, it has a vast amount of space inside that you can use to gather up the misfits, once you’ve convinced them of our plan.

As he moved the sack aside, the second item could be seen better.  A pickaxe that looked as though it was made of glass, it seemed to resonate with magic as well.

“You’ll no doubt remember the delegate of Clan Lockmoor you met several years ago,” Leoden said.  “The dwarf who you met when you performed your last diplomatic mission for Santa?”

Rhianna nodded.  “Halgrum,” she said.  “He seemed all gruff until he met our puppies.”

“And he and the other delegates we met that year helped us in our fight against Loki,” Michael recalled.

“Well, now that the dwarves and the elves and giants are on good terms, he has had plenty of time to establish mining operations in the great north.  And in one of his journeys, he was able to find a very special ore that has taken him quite a while to collect and refine.”  Leoden slid the pickaxe toward Michael.  “He calls it glissium, and with the help of Narala, the two of them were able to use some of it for this.  Go on, pick it up.”

Michael lifted the item from the table.  Despite the sound it made earlier when it landed there, Michael nearly fell backward when he realized how light it was.

“Glissium is incredibly light, and one of the most durable alloys we’ve ever discovered,” Leoden said.  “It ought not to weigh you down too much on your journeys.  But there’s some other magic to it as well.  While the sack affects space within its container, the pickaxe affects space around it.  Halgrum uses it to protect himself if any rocks begin to fall in around him in the mines, and you can do the same.”

“This is incredible,” Michael said, twisting the pickaxe over in his hand.  “Next time I see Halgrum, I’ll have to thank him for letting us borrow this.”

“Just make sure to use it well, and I’m sure he’ll be as grateful as you are,” Leoden said.

Revan clapped her hands together then, and looked to the family again, the other two dogs on the ground waiting patiently.  “Now the last bit of the puzzle.  None of this will matter if you don’t find the tracker.  They’ll be the one who can help you find your way to where the outsiders live.”

“Got it,” Rhianna said.  “Find the tracker, find the misfits.”  She tilted her head then, and all three dogs mimicked her movement.  “One thing: how are we going to find the tracker?”

Leoden leaned on the table and looked at Revan.  “That’s easy.  We have a tracker for the tracker.”

The elven maiden leaned forward and gave a playful poke to Zelda’s red nose then.  The dog sneezed in reply.

“What was that for?” the eldest pup asked.

Revan stood tall and smiled.  “Just wait for it,” she said.

After a few moments, the illusory nose on top of her own glowed a brighter red.  Zelda once again crossed her eyes as she took a glance at the magic at work.

“Every few moments, that nose will light up,” Revan said.  “But as you get closer to the tracker, it’ll flash quicker.  Once you finally meet up with it, we’ll deactivate the tracker tracker.”

Zelda shook her head.  “I’m so confused.”  But as soon as she spoke, her nose brightened again, and her eyes grew wide in surprise.

“That should be it, friends,” Leoden said.  “We can’t thank you enough for taking on this task.  It’s one of those things that Santa was going to get to after Christmas, but if there was an emergency, and the island sank faster than was expected, it could have really caused some issues.”

“The DeAngelo family, coming to save the day again,” Revan said, wearing a bright smile.  “Now, let’s head this way.”

Toward the back of the workshop, there was a large, empty space, except for a piece of wood that seemed strewn haphazardly across the floor.  It seemed peculiar in that it had a handle affixed at its center, almost like it was the front of a drawer that had fallen down, broken.

“Now, we can’t teleport you onto the outsiders’ island,” Revan said.  “It’s too big, and the snowstorm surrounding it would make it impossible to know we were sending you to the right place.”  She bent down, and grabbed the handle, and when she stood up, a pale blue portal was waiting beneath it, rising up until its peak was a few inches taller than Michael.  “This portal will take you to your transportation.  They ought to know where to go, so all you have to do is let them know you’re ready, and they’ll start you on your way.”

“We won’t let you down!” Zelda said.

“Good luck!” Leoden called out.

Before Michael and Rhianna could lead the way, their trio of pups charged forward, into the swirling vortex.

“Guess they’re all pretty used to this kind of stuff by now,” Rhianna said to her husband.

Unwilling to let the littlest of their clan venture off into the unknown alone, Michael and Rhianna strode forth, ready to play their part in another Christmas quest.

 

*          *          *

 

None of the five expected the blizzardous conditions to be quite that bad.  As the human pair exited the portal, they had to bring their arms up to block the snow from blinding them.  The dogs on the ground fared a bit better, but as Zelda, Maisie and Luna turned to regard the other two, Michael and Rhianna could see that they narrowed their eyes to help them see.

“How are we going to make it through all this mess?” Rhianna asked, her voice seeming lost to the wind that accompanied the snow.

Just as soon as she spoke though, another flash of Zelda’s nose brightened the area.  And more helpfully, it sent the snow scattering away as though a pulse of energy had surged from the pup’s muzzle.  As the snow drifted away, the family could see the horizon beyond the blizzard, and knew they had found the great sea.

“That’s the way we ought to go,” Michael said, pointing with the pickaxe.

Together, the five hurried in that direction.  The dogs didn’t seem bothered at all by the cold, but Michael and Rhianna’s ears were a bit redder in the cold chill of the area.  Michael grabbed his wife’s hand, rubbing it with his thumb to warm her up.  The two shared a smile as they ran forth, eager to reach the shore.

Though they were all sure that there was still quite a distance between where they were, and where they needed to go, the group was certain that Zelda’s nose-lights were coming on a bit quicker.

As they neared the water’s edge, they were surprised by a sudden splash.  A silver-grey figure leapt out of the sea, and it performed a flip in the air before piercing the water once more.

“Are those the dolphins?” Rhianna asked.

“Looks like them,” Michael replied.  “But I don’t think we’ll be able to go swimming with these ones.  The water here is much colder than it is in Florida!”

“I’m just happy our babies get to meet some, even if they are made of clockwork,” Rhianna said.

The family drew closer, and with the ruby light pulses that Zelda sent out scattering the snow farther, they could see that there were a pair of straps attached to the dolphins.  Those leads kept the clockwork creatures from traveling too far from the shore, it seemed.

“I hope they weren’t too bored waiting for us,” Rhianna mused.

As though they heard her voice, the creatures turned, and splashed out of the water, coming to a partial rest on the icy surface that the DeAngelo family found themselves on.  They made cute mechanical clicks that sounded enough like dolphin chatter to have them presenting as commendable facsimiles.

“If Leoden and Revan hadn’t told us these were clockwork, I would have never thought they were,” Michael said.  He leaned down, and rubbed the nearest dolphin’s head, and the creature nuzzled against that touch.  But as Rhianna drew closer, it opted to roll to its side and wave with one of its fins.  Rhianna grabbed that fin and gave it a courteous shake in greeting.

The other dolphin stretched a little farther, bumping its nose against Luna’s.  The biggest of the dogs crouched down into a play position, and when her dolphin friend whistled, Luna laughed and spun in a quick circle.

“As much as we want to play, I think we need your help,” Michael said.  “We have to get to the Island of the Outsiders and find the tracker.”  Zelda’s nose flashed, and Michael pointed to her.  “You have to help us find what that connects to.”

The dolphins seemed to react to that request, turning around to face the vastness of the great sea.  Michael and Rhianna looked at each other in curiosity, but they didn’t have to think for long about what was transpiring.  The dolphins rushed forward, and a cacophonous crack ripped through the air.  All five of the family members lost their balance, and wobbled a bit, but everyone stayed upright.  Michael grabbed hold of his wife, steadying her.

“It’s not a rollercoaster, it’s not a rollercoaster,” she affirmed.

“They should have given us some ginger candies for our rickety ginger,” her husband teased.

Together, they realized that the dolphins had ripped a slab of ice away from the rest of the shore.  They tugged together, pulling the family farther across the great sea.  The snow only seemed to get stronger, the blizzard encroaching upon them even with the strength of Zelda’s powers sending them scattering.

As they moved along, Maisie inched toward the edge of their slab of ice, sniffing at the water.  One of the dolphins breached and let a spout of water take to the sky.

“Yipe!” Maisie cried as she skittered backward.

Michael fell to a knee beside his worried pup, petting behind her ears to help calm her down.  But as he looked at his wife, he couldn’t hide a smile.

“I don’t think they needed to do that.  They don’t breathe after all.”

Rhianna nodded.  “Just as mischievous as the real thing, it seems.”

Michael leaned down, and smooched their dog on the head, and she sat down beside him.  She sighed then once she found a bit of calm.

The husband and wife did not miss that sound, and they sat down on opposite sides of her then.

“Is everything okay?” Michael asked.

Maisie ignored the question for a moment and sniffed at the air again.

“What is it?” Rhianna asked.

Their black and white dog alternated glances between the two of them.  She merely stared for a moment, as though something had stolen her voice away.  But even the wind seemed to die down around them then, and in the stillness and the quiet, she allowed herself to be heard.

“It smells like something she would have liked.”

It took no sleuthing to understand who she was talking about.  For the first time since they began journeying to the North Pole, one less arrived, rather than one more.

Michael and Rhianna squished in a little closer, making sure that Maisie felt warmth beyond what her Christmas spots afforded her.

“We thought maybe you had forgotten, and didn’t want to be reminded,” Michael said.

The dog bowed her head a little bit.  “I haven’t forgotten.  Every now and then I still think I feel a little weight on top of the blanket when I’m sleeping under it.”

Luna, always aware whenever anyone was a bit sad, came over and nuzzled against Maisie, pushing a little more than she needed to.  If Maisie hadn’t been stabilized between Michael and Rhianna, she would have stumbled backward for sure.  Luna lay down in front of Maisie then, allowing her older sister to rest her head on the bigger dog’s back.

“I go upstairs every now and then thinking I’ll see her,” Luna said.  “I think I know that I won’t, but every now and then I ask myself, ‘what if?’”

By that point, Michael and Rhianna had tears in their eyes, but couldn’t bring themselves to speak, the emotion raw in their throats.

Zelda came up around Luna then and stood on her hind legs to stand against Rhianna.  The DeAngelo matriarch leaned forward and kissed Zelda on the head, before scooping her up to allow her to find a comfy spot in her lap.

“I miss our adventures,” Zelda said, the excitement dimmed in her voice, though just as much love was always there in what she said.

“We miss her too,” Rhianna said, doing her best to rein in her emotions before her voice cracked too much.

Michael sniffed, unable to compose himself enough to say any words for a time.  Tears ran down his cheeks, frozen in place by the cold before they could fall.

“Do you remember when she would hide behind the plant in the living room, and think she was invisible?” he finally asked.

Rhianna snickered a little at the memory.  “Or when she would come downstairs whenever you doggies were howling to join in, even if it was in her own way?”

“I remember when she would sit on the stairs,” Zelda said.  “She would judge these two dummies yapping in the window.”

Michael laughed.  “I think she was judging all three of you,” he said.

“Not uh!” Zelda argued.

“But she loved you all in her own ways,” Rhianna said.  “Whether it was cuddling up on you and pretending she didn’t know you were under a blanket, or giving you space when you needed it—”

“Tolerating you when you were being way too forward and annoying,” Michael teased as he tousled the fur on Luna’s head.  He sighed then, remembering some of the other things he missed.  “I think that she left a little bit of herself here with us,” he remarked.  “She was always my little writing buddy, and for a while, Maisie, I think you knew that I needed one.  Maybe she found a way to tell you that.”

“And Zelda,” Rhianna said, “you have been much more snuggly yourself.  She always used to snuggle on my chest when I would look at my phone, and now you’re the one who does that.”

“What do I do?” Luna asked.  “What is it that she told me to start doing?”

Rhianna laughed again.  “I think she wanted you to stay absolutely as you are.  You kept her young, and on her toes, just the way you do for us.”

“Speak for yourself,” Michael said.  “I don’t know if we’re going to be able to stand up from this position when we arrive.  Between the cold and my old knees…”  His words trailed off then, for he realized that Zelda’s nose seemed to flash much quicker than it had before they stepped onto the ice floe.  As he gazed into the distance, he realized that he could see a great frozen expanse before him.  “It can’t be.”  His knees did, in fact, crack as he rose to his feet.  “We’ve already arrived.”

He held his hand out to his wife, and he helped her climb to her feet as well.

The dolphins seemed to slow once the family realized they had reached the land of the outsiders.  The momentum carried them across the water until they reached the icy shore.  With a resounding thud, their improvised vehicle collided there, sending the two humans off their balance, though even the dogs wobbled a bit.

The smaller members of the DeAngelo family hurried off the ice floe, but Michael was slower to move, assisting his wife as she contended with the rocking water beneath them.

“Thank you for your help,” Rhianna said.

“Of course,” Michael replied.

“I was talking to the dolphins,” she said with a laugh.  She waved farewell to them when she finally made it to solid ground.

Another pair of mechanical chirps and whistles rang out.  With their task completed, the clockwork dolphins seemed to take their time playing with one another.

The trio of pups had already advanced farther onto the island, with only Zelda’s red beacon helping the two humans spot them in the whipping snow.

“Slow down, you three,” Rhianna called out.  “Remember, we’ve only got the two legs.”

The pair hurried after the rest of their family, and they realized the terrain quickly changed from flat fields of ice to tremendous mountains that rose up.  A labyrinth of snow and stone was before them, the pale maze no doubt leading toward wherever the outsiders holed up.  But first, they knew that they had to find the tracker.

Zelda’s nose continued to glow, and it pulsed brighter and quicker as they made their way through the area.  When it seemed to flash so fast that it appeared as one perpetual glow, Michael urged them to stop.

“We’ve got to be close.  The tracker has to be here.”  He looked about the area, noting that they were in a small clearing in the area, with rocky outcroppings all around them.  “There might have been a lot of snowfall here,” he considered.

“It buried the tracker,” Rhianna realized.  “All right, everyone keep your eyes peeled.  It has to be around here somewhere.”

The five of them scoured the area, some kicking away snowdrifts, while others sniffed at the ground.  Finally, Zelda’s nose glowed brighter than ever before, and she looked down through the layers of ice, and spotted something there.

“Hey!” she cried out.

Luna, not one to miss out on something interesting, was there a moment later.  She used her big paws to dig at the crunchy ice there, managing to push some of it away.

“Careful,” Michael said as he arrived there.  “We don’t want this ice to split your nails or scratch your toepads.”  He stood over the area and could see—with help from Zelda’s nose—that something was indeed under the ice there.  “I’ve already got a use for Halgrum and Narala’s gift, it seems,” he said, plucking the pickaxe from his belt.

The glissium head of the tool shimmered amidst all the ice and snow, and it radiated the light from Zelda’s nose as well.

“This really is a weightless thing,” Michael mused.  “I hope I don’t break it.”

As soon as the dogs stepped back, he slammed the pickaxe into the ground, surprised by how easily it cleaved the ice there.  Pulling the chunks of ice away was a bit more difficult, but as he cleared the way, Luna pushed the remnants out of the way.  Rhianna was there a moment later, moving things farther with her foot.

Before long, Michael was able to cleave a square around the tracker and start to pull out the excess ice and even stone that had trapped it there.  It did not take long for him to spot the metallic clockwork, and at once, it reminded him of the dolphins.  The tracker looked crumpled though, compressed by the weight of the ice.  Perhaps it had been caught off guard by an avalanche of sorts, he mused.

“Just a little bit more, I think,” he said.

Once he noticed how close they were to liberating the tracker, he pushed himself that much harder, hammering into the ice with the pickaxe and ripping the deep gouges into the area.

“Careful now,” Rhianna cautioned.  “You remember what happened the last time you were to enthusiastic about moving snow about.”

Michael nodded and checked his posture.  “You’re right.  This pickaxe is lighter than our shovels back home though.  Besides, this poor thing has been stuck in the ice for far too long.  I just need to—” He winced as he cut his words short, and handed the pickaxe to his wife, bracing himself against the closest icy slope behind him.

“I told you so,” Rhianna said.

She took up the cause then, and in just a few minutes longer, she was able to dig large trenches around the tracker.  As they chipped away at the ice, she was able to see much better when it came into view.  Zelda peeked into the hole, and with one more pulse of light, the glow on her nose faded.  They had found their objective and didn’t need to know where it was any longer.

“Does your back feel okay enough yet to help me pull this out of here?” Rhianna asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Michael replied.

Rhianna couldn’t tell if he had really recovered well enough to resume working, or if he was just carrying on as if he had.  She shifted to her side, allowing him to step down into the hole they had carved.

He took the pickaxe once more, and he drove it into place alongside one of the trenches, turning it to its side to dislodge the large chunk of ice.  Then, with one mighty heave, he was able to lift it up.  The magic of the pickaxe must have helped, because they were left with what looked like a huge cube of ice roughly as broad as Michael’s shoulders.

Michael was careful to keep the pickaxe beneath the cube, even as he shifted it onto flatter ground.

“Watch out, pups,” he warned.

As he slid the pickaxe away, the cube thumped down, sliding a bit on the ice beneath it.  Michael helped his wife climb out of the shallow pit, and then used the pickaxe to steady a hold for himself as he climbed out after her.

“All right,” Rhianna said.  “Are we ready to finally get this tracker out of here and get on our way?”

The dogs wagged their tails, sniffing at the cube and trying to get a good idea of what was inside it.  But the ice was too uneven, and they could not get a glimpse at the true manner of what existed there.

Michael took hold of the pickaxe once more, and grabbed hold of the ice, turning it over once, to rest on another side.

That was all they needed to see clearly what was trapped inside.  A little silver amalgamation of plates and gears—shaped like a feline—stared back at them with unblinking eyes, looking eager to be freed.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Michael said.

 

*          *          *

 

Even with the layers of ice chipped away from the tracker, it didn’t seem to be any more aware or alert.  But the DeAngelo family had long before noticed the winding key affixed to the clockwork cat’s head and knew that would likely have its gears spinning to life.

“Just a bit more,” Michael said, carefully carving away at the ice with his pickaxe.

When he had finally broken apart all of the icy shell encasing the clockwork cat, it stood still in the snow, looking more like a statuette than an artificial living creature.

But Rhianna’s eyes remained drawn to the winding key.

“I think if we turn that, our tracker will come to life,” she remarked.  “Does anyone have any misgivings about me twisting that?”

When no one said anything, she stepped forward, and dropped to a knee beside the tracker.  The winding key revolved with a discordant clicking, and Rhianna wondered if it was because of the way the weather had taken hold of the creature, or whether it was just the way it had been crafted.

Once the winding key protested any further turns, Rhianna stood up and stepped back, waiting to see if life would begin anew.

For a time, it seemed as though nothing would happen.  But then the family noticed tiny motions where the cat’s head met its body.  It looked as though it was about to shake its head, but then the eyes lit up gold, and the head turned.

And it kept turning.

“Ah!” Rhianna said, stumbling back another step.

Reacting to her fear, the dogs all ran to hide behind her then.

As the cat’s head completed its turn, it looked to the family, alternating glances between the shivering quartet, and the man with the pickaxe.

“Did you rescue me?” the critter asked, a voice resonating from within the chassis of the clockwork creature.  “The last thing I remember is being swallowed up by the ice.  Without being able to turn my key, I was left to feel the final turns of my gears, with each tick coming slower and slower.”

“Well, that’s glum,” Michael said.  “Yes, we’re the ones who pulled you out of all the ice.  We’re some of Santa’s ambassadors and were sent here to find you.”

“Oh,” the cat’s tinny voice came back.  “So Leoden didn’t forget about me.  I had worried so, especially when I could not free myself from my cold, dark tomb.”

“Okay, that’s enough of that talk,” Michael protested.  “You’re safe and sound now, and we’re not going to let anything hurt you.  But we need you to help us reach where the outsiders live.”

“Ah, yes,” the cat responded.  “The island will submerge beneath the water in…” Its words trailed off, and once again the head began to spin far beyond what a normal creature’s neck would allow.  “…Unknown timeframe,” it finished.  “It is best that we hurry to meet the king of the island’s inhabitants.”  The cat took a single step before alternating looks at the various members of the family.  Once it had taken account of the people who surrounded it, it sat on its rump.  “Designations?”

“What?” Rhianna asked.

“Designations?” it spoke again.

“Designations?” Michael repeated back at it.  “You mean our names?”

“Precisely.”

“We’re the DeAngelo family,” Rhianna responded.  “I’m Rhianna, he’s Michael, and these are our dogs, Zelda, Maisie and Luna,” she said, pointing to each person in turn.

Maisie was the brave one of the bunch then, the dog peeking out from behind Rhianna’s legs.  “Hi,” she ventured.

“Greetings!” the cat said, standing up and taking another step toward the group.  “My designation is Taub—Tracking and Utility Bot.  It is a pleasure to meet you.”

Michael picked up his pickaxe, and slid it into his belt, resting it on his hip.  “Okay, Taub.  What way do we need to go to find the outsiders?”

The clockwork cat turned to him with erratic movements, his metal joints still not firmly in place after his time in the ice block.  “Before I was trapped, and ran out of energy, I was heading this way,” he said, the cat lifting one of his metal paws to point between two sharp, rocky inclines.  “If we proceed along that way, we should reach the crystal palace before long.”

“Crystal palace?” Rhianna echoed.  “Maybe we’re the outsiders.”

“Come on then,” Taub said, apparently unable—or unwilling—to make small talk or entertain that sentiment.  “We must hurry to meet Dawnspike.”

Michael turned to his wife and the pups.  “Well, that doesn’t sound like the most welcoming of names.”

“Who is Dawnspike?” Zelda asked.

Taub had already begun skittering forward, forcing the rest of the family to hurry after him.  Though his movements were slowed somewhat by the damage to his parts, he was still quicker than they first expected.  “Person with designation Dawnspike is king of the outsiders.”

“Another dragon?” Rhianna wondered aloud.

“Ooh, we make friends with dragons,” Luna shouted as she ran.

Together, the group hurried through the icy passes, the clockwork cat seeming to know every direction to go.  No one had any time to stop and ponder whether it truly did have an idea of Dawnspike’s palace, but as they made one more turn, they could see the snow part, the blizzard subsiding in that area.

In the distance, they could see massive spires of dark, shimmering ice.  Some of them had been carved into parapets, the towers clearly displaying where the outsiders were bound to be.

“That’s not just a palace,” Rhianna said.  “That’s a whole castle.”

“How is it that you knew it was here, Taub?” Michael wondered.

The clockwork cat turned around, giving the group a bit of a respite from their constant running to keep up with the tracker.  The trio of dogs panted, and Zelda even plopped down in the snow to catch her breath.

“One of Santa’s reindeer, the most fam…ous…” the cat began.  But the family watched as the lights dimmed, and they wondered if perhaps the winding key had already stopped spinning the gears in the critter’s head and body.

Suddenly though, another voice seemed to rattle through the tracker’s body.

“DeAngelo family, can you hear me?”

“That’s Leoden,” Zelda said, popping up from her spot.

“Ah, there you are,” the elf’s voice came through again.  “We received a response after you reactivated the tracker.  You’re obviously with it now, otherwise we wouldn’t be talking.”

“We are, Leoden,” Rhianna said.  “And we’ve found our way to the palace.  It sounds like this monstrous castle is where the king of the outsiders, Dawnspike lives.”

“What can you tell us about him, Leoden?”

“Well, I only know what I’ve heard from some of the toymakers.  He’s a fearsome creature, and he works very hard to protect the outsiders.  I imagine you’ll be dealing with him directly.”

“Leoden?” Maisie piped up then, after catching her breath.

“Yes?” the disembodied voice replied.  “Is that Maisie?”

She nodded, the nuance of trying to get that across to him with just sound lost to her.  But she did continue on.  “Is Taub going to be okay?”

“Oh, yes,” the elf said.  “I can’t have my voice come through while Taub is fully active, so I sort of steal the signal to check in with you.”

“Well, we’re hoping to have good news for you very soon,” Rhianna said.  “The next time we talk to you, it will be with all the outsiders coming back to the North Pole.”

“We look forward to it,” Leoden said.  “Oh, and before I go, Revan wanted me to remind you about the potions.  They ought to come in handy if you run into any trouble.  Speak with you soon!”

Just as soon as he finished talking, the lights behind the tracker’s eyes lit up again.  “…reindeer of all,” Taub continued speaking.  But he hesitated a bit, realizing that he had missed parts of a conversation.  He let his previous thought dissipate and tilted his head a quarter turn—not quite as frightening as it had been before, but just enough to demonstrate curiosity.  “Did Master Leoden take hold of me?”

“He did,” Michael said.  “We thought you powered down for a moment there.”

The little clockwork cat’s eyes widened just a bit then, as memories of being trapped in the ice seemed to overtake him.  “That reminds me,” he said.  He sat on his hind legs and brought his front paws over his head.  Providing new energy for himself, Taub winded the turning key, a series of satisfying clicks resonating into the cold air upon the island.  “There we go,” the cat said.

At that, he hurried along, aimed once again toward the towering castle in the distance.

While the two smaller dogs and the pair of humans lagged behind as they had before, Luna more than kept pace with the little cat.

“I always need to be in front!” the big dog explained.

“Do you know where we are going?” Taub asked.

Luna slowed, a look of curiosity finding its way to her face.  She kept pace with the rest of her family then instead, shouting, “I only sometimes need to be in front!”

As they kept up their progress, the distant castle seemed to grow into the foreground.  Drawing near, the family realized it towered even higher up than it looked upon the horizon.

“Are we even going to make it home before Christmas?” Rhianna wondered.

A loud sound reported just in front of them, like a window shattering.  The family watched as Taub skittered backward, and shards of ice slid across the surface upon which they walked.

Michael and Rhianna looked around, realizing that they had entered a narrow valley, with sheer cliffs of ice along their sides.  Noting the sudden tension in the air, Luna let a low growl rumble.  Though the bigger dog allowed her apprehension to be known, it was the little black and white dog—with temporary pink spots, of course—who alerted the family to the stranger who appeared in the distance.

“Look!” she cried.  “Look!  Up there!  I’m doing my job and letting you all know there’s something important up there!”

A towering figure appeared above the cliffs, wearing a suit of dazzling silver mail.  They leapt over the side, cleaving their sword into the ice to slow their descent.  When they landed, a nicker seemed to resonate from the area.  The family and Taub noticed another figure upon the opposite cliff then, that one wearing resplendent colors, and seeming to sit upon a mount that remained yet hidden behind the icy ramparts.

The first figure that had landed upon the path before them strode forward, their features hidden behind their immense helmet.  The dogs and the humans seemed frozen where they stood, for as the stranger drew closer, they could see that they were at least two heads taller than Michael.

“That shot was no miss,” a voice behind the helmet said.  “That was a warning.  If you are here to cause trouble, you should turn back to where you came.”

Michael looked to Rhianna, who had also determined that the voice seemed to belong to a woman.

Taub spoke for the visitors then, taking a step forward with a complete lack of fear.

“I am here with the ambassadors of Santa Claus,” the clockwork cat spoke.  “We are here to see Dawnspike, leader of the outsiders.”

The knight stood taller, and broadened her stance as well, as if to block further passage toward the castle.  “Your Santa has never had words for us before.  Why does he wish to confer with us now?”

Rhianna took a step forward then, blowing out an anxious breath.  “We were told that there was a risk of this island falling into the sea.  Some of Santa’s helpers wanted to ensure that you had proper warning, so that nothing bad happened to any of you.”

“Santa’s helpers are the ones that discarded us,” the knight said.  “Why should we trust anything that they have to say now?”

Michael nodded, realizing that there was some truth in what the outsider said, and that there was a reason to be disappointed.  “Whoever it was who decided that you weren’t worthy, they don’t speak for all of the people that Santa knows.  No one people are monolithic, and the people who wanted us to help you wouldn’t have sent us here for nefarious purposes.  We’re friends with them, and we know they’re good people.”

Rhianna looked to her husband, impressed with his hold on diplomacy.  She gave an enthusiastic nod, too.  “Whoever it was who let you down, they’ll no doubt have to reckon with their foolishness, and whatever punishment is placed upon them.  But we’ll do everything in our power to make sure that you are given a chance to make a fresh start elsewhere.”

The knight stood sentinel for a time, as if considering the spoken words.  Then, they slowly reached up to their visor, and flipped it up.

From their previous vantage point, the DeAngelo family did not realize that the knight’s helmet was misshapen and elongated.  None were expecting a bipedal equine behind the suit of armor.

Zelda gasped, and her eyes grew wide with excitement.  “Horse!” she cried.

The knight, seeming momentarily offended, pointed her sword.  “Dog!” she retorted.

The oldest DeAngelo pup gasped again, and she turned to look at Michael and Rhianna.  “She knows me!”

Realizing soon after that the canine meant no offense, the knight relaxed a bit.  “I believe that there is truth in your words.  Or at least, you believe the truth to be what you say.  I will take you to the castle, and you will have your audience with Dawnspike.  But I cannot promise that you that anyone will see reason as I have, or that you will be trusted.”

She turned then to the figure on the other icy rampart.  “Jouster!” she cried.  “Head back to the castle and let them know that we have guests!”

Those guests watched as the other guard raced off toward the west, seeming a bit unsteady in the saddle of whatever creature they rode atop.

The knight spun about and waved the group on.

That time, Taub fell a bit behind, and as the DeAngelo family moved along, he sat on his back legs again, bringing up his paws to turn the winding key once more.  Rhianna was there a moment later, helping him to twist things.  A happy little sigh emanated from inside his metal chassis, followed by the subtle hum of his version of a purr.

Together, the pair of them hurried up, cutting the distance between them and the rest of their group.

It did not seem to take terribly long to arrive beneath the towering castle.  There was no door, just a massive, yawning maw, as though the mountain had once been some terrible creature that had given way to snow and ice.  There were some other knights and soldiers standing watch there, though none seemed so tall as the horse that brought them in.

Rhianna gave Michael a little tap on his shoulder with the back of her hand and pointed off to the side when they arrived.  The figure that charged across the icy rampart was there and seemed every part the misfit.  A jester with vibrant attire, he sat upon an ostrich with fluffy plumage.  He didn’t look as though he could sit comfortably in the saddle though, as every few moments he seemed to slide to the side before he righted himself.

“I get it,” Michael said.  “Jouster.”

Rhianna flashed a smile, but it grew all the brighter when she realized who led them toward the mighty and mysterious Dawnspike.  She pointed again, that time to the person who led them forth.  “Knightmare,” she whispered.

The bipedal horse spun about, arching an eyebrow.  “How did you know my name?”

Rhianna did her best to hold back a gasp, but she couldn’t offer up any sort of explanation.  She merely held out her hands and shrugged.

“Hmm,” the knight mused.  “Perhaps my reputation precedes me.”  She continued leading the group through the corridors beneath the castle.

Michael noticed that they never seemed to be heading up any higher in the so-called palace.  “Is she bringing us right to the dungeon?” he muttered.  But he soon realized that the crude stone path gave way to impeccably hewn floors that looked almost as if they were made from the same material as his magical pickaxe.

Before long, the corridor opened into a great hall, with tall stone pillars stretching toward a high ceiling.  All around, there were festive sights, with decorated Christmas trees surrounded by piles of wrapped gifts.

“It must remind them of happier times,” Rhianna considered.

They soon realized that they were not alone in the hall.  Other outsiders appeared to gather, and at once, the family could see why they might have been ostracized by the crafters at the workshop.  A large box sat off to the side, and a towering naga leaned out of it, its lower body seeming to have a springlike armature inside.  On the opposite side of the area, a rocking horse had a sharp unicorn’s horn jutting out between tufts of pink hair.  And just beside it, a burly green orc sat with its back tilted forward, just enough for them to realize he was a large doll, before they noticed the intricate stitching he had.

As Knightmare led them forward, they spotted the series of steps that led to an immense granite throne.  A mighty creature sat upon it and stared down at the new arrivals with some measure of concern.  With the body of a lion—including its back paws—but the head and front talons of a great eagle, it was clear that Dawnspike was a griffin.  There was something that made the leader of the outsiders appeal to them, however.  As Michael and Rhianna looked upon him in all his glory, they noticed that he had wings that were much too small to lift him into the air.  He would never be able to fly in his current state.  Still, he wore a golden crown upon his head, and no one seemed poised to challenge him.  Among his people, he seemed loved and revered.

“Who have we here, Knightmare?”

The horse took a deep bow before speaking.  “They are representatives from the North Pole, my liege.  These are diplomats who say they’ve come to offer us warning that the island is at risk of sinking.”

Dawnspike lowered his head, meeting the visitors with a fierce gaze.  “And under whose authority do you come here?  And who has the knowledge and the foresight to predict such an ominous fate for our home?”

Michael took a step forward then, offering a bow of his own.  “Greetings, Your Eminence,” he said.  “Though we have learned that there is some strife between your people and those who call Santa a friend, I am compelled to be honest, and let you know that it was a duo of his helpers who have tasked us with this quest.  They want nothing more than for you and the rest of your kingdom’s inhabitants to be safe, and to be ready should anything happen, which might have otherwise been unexpected.”

Dawnspike sneered and leaned upon one arm of the throne a little more forcefully.  “Flowery words mean nothing in this hall, especially by ones who have yet to send words our way, kind or otherwise.  I do not know you, and despite his influence on the things we hold dear, we have not had words shared with Santa either.”

A deep sigh shook the mighty griffin then.  “But I do note that warning as this would seem unlikely if there were ulterior motives.  And I see that you travel with those who, like us, are…peculiar.”

Maisie looked up, alternating glances between Michael and Rhianna.  “Why did he say it like that?” she wondered.

“Check your spots,” Rhianna whispered.

The king of the misfits cleared his throat then.  “Very well, it is decided.  Knightmare, I appreciate your discretion in bringing these so-called ambassadors here.  Please return to the pass and ensure that this was not all some distraction.

“As for the rest of you, I have chosen to entertain the warning you have given us here, but I am still suspicious of it.  If you would champion this cause, perhaps you would rise up and hear the call of a series of challenges while you are here.”

“Challenges?” Rhianna asked.  “What sort of challenges?”

“They shall be a judgment of your character,” Dawnspike said.  “Tests of valor and of cleverness will be presented to you, and if you are successful in completing them, I will hold your claims in much higher regard.”

Taub stepped forward, and proudly spoke.  “We accept your terms, Lord Dawnspike.”

Michael and Rhianna exchanged worried glances but did not work to retract the statement.  Before they could confer with one another, other members of Dawnspike’s court shouted out.

“Throw them in the pit, and see if they can climb out,” the orc doll cried.

“Fill ‘em full uh rocks and lessee if they can still swim,” the naga in a box demanded.

“I don’t have any ideas, but I still want to seem like I’m contributing!” the rocking unicorn yelled.

The mighty griffin slammed down one of his taloned claws, gripping the throne between them.  “Dul, William, and Papier,” he said, addressing each of the toys in the order with which they spoke.  “I appreciate your desire to see the trials through, but it is my job as the ruler of this land to set the tasks.”  He hummed to himself then, considering what he saw before him.  “If I am to trust you at your word, than I have to see if you have empowered, rather than diminished the outsiders you travel with.  To you other three toys, do you feel ready to prove that this pair you travel with has served you well?”

“Are we the toys?” Luna wondered, whispering to her big sister.

“Yes,” Zelda replied.

“Then it shall be done,” Dawnspike said, having heard the little pup answer in the affirmative.

“What?” Zelda asked.  “I didn’t mean—”

“What are our challenges?” Maisie asked, stepping forth.  “Is it an eating challenge?  I’m good at those.”

Luna’s eyes grew wide.  “I’m even better at them,” she insisted.  “Sometimes I’m so hungry, I could eat Maisie!”

The griffin king of the outcasts stepped down from his throne, and onto the broad steps leading from it.  “I will present a series of three challenges, and one of you will volunteer to be the champion of the task.  None of you may attempt more than one challenge.”

Michael and Rhianna exchanged nervous glances, but even then, Rhianna felt a sudden rush of optimism.  She lifted her enchanted Santa sack, remembering that they had the tools to upend any challenge that came their way.

Putting on a brave face, she took a step forward.  “What is the first challenge?”

Dawnspike wore a mischievous smile then.  “Follow me,” he said.

 

*          *          *

 

The DeAngelo family arrived at what seemed to be the center of the mountain.  A wide-open cavity stretched out high above them, for what seemed like a mile.

Dawnspike took a quick glance above, but with a mischievous smirk, he turned back to those in attendance.

“This is the location of your first trial,” the griffin king said.  “It is called Silver Moon Rising.”  He waved on at those in attendance, with one of his subjects approaching with a small round discus in hand.

Dul, the stitched-together orc puppet, shambled forth for a moment until he stood at the ready before his king.  He spun the discus atop his finger with talent belying his appearance as a living doll.

“Your task is simple,” Dawnspike continued.  “Once my…advisor here throws the silver moon, it is up to your champion to catch it before it hits the ground.”

Michael and Rhianna knew at once who they would recommend for such a task, but they never had the chance to ask her.  Zelda was already unable to rein in her excitement, and she stepped forward and stood on her hind legs, eager for the chance to play.

“I love frisbee!” the oldest pup cried.

Dul seemed offended then, the orc gnashing his teeth together until his prominent fangs protruded a bit more.  “This is not a frisbee, this is a mighty discus.  It’s not a…” His words trailed off as he considered that it was indeed a toy.  “This is the Silver Moon!” he cried.

“You can call it whatever you want, just throw the frisbee!” Zelda excitedly said, her tail wagging back and forth so much that the rest of her family behind her could feel a breeze being created.

“This is your champion?” Dawnspike asked.

Rhianna nodded and clasped her hands together.  “There’s no one else here who would be as eager to take on this task as Zelda.”

“Then may your red nose guide you,” the griffin king declared.  “Throw the Silver Moon, Dul.”

The orc puppet did as tasked, and he spun about in a few awkward circles, until he tossed the silver frisbee into the air.

Zelda ran forth, trying to gauge where the disc would go once it began to fall.  But a strange thing happened.  The Silver Moon hung there in the air, its trajectory not taking it back down.

“Hey!” Zelda cried.  “Come down here.”

Michael looked at his wife with his eyebrow arched.  “Even that toy is a misfit.  It’s a frisbee that won’t come back.”

An impish chuckle erupted from the great griffin king, for he knew that the task would not be quite so simple.  “What’s the matter?” he asked.  “Can’t quite reach it?”

Zelda had become impatient at that point, and she jumped as high as she could, but hovering in the air as it did, the discus remained far out of reach.

“It seems your friends behind you have not empowered you as much as I had hoped,” Dawnspike bellowed.

Zelda stopped attempting to pursue the frisbee for a moment, fixated on that comment.  “They’re not friends,” she said, passing a glance back to Michael, Rhianna, Maisie, and Luna.  “They’re family!”

Dawnspike’s eyes flashed for just a fraction of a second, but in doing so, the mischievous look he wore also faded somewhat.  He stood a little taller then, however, and lifted his head.  “You have been given your task, and we will be here until you either succeed, or you give up.  Perhaps a little outward thinking might help you reach the Silver Moon.”

“Well, perhaps an understanding of the rules might help,” Rhianna dared to ask then.  Though the griffin sent a fierce gaze her way, she seemed unfazed.  “You said that Zelda needs to reach the fris—the Silver Moon…but you didn’t say how.”

“My lady,” Dawnspike said in a sort of mocking way.  “She can do whatever she likes.  Unless she sprouts wings, I don’t see you finding any success here.”

“Funny you should say that,” Rhianna said.  She reached into her sack of holding, and a moment later produced the vial that Raskagar prepared for them which had silver contents inside.  “Zelda,” she called out, waving over the old pup.  As she drew close, Rhianna displayed the vial, shaking it just a bit.  “Do you remember your first wish?  The one that you made the first time we came to Tellest and the North Pole?”

Zelda’s eyes grew wide with excitement.  “I wanted to fly!”

“That’s right,” Rhianna said.  “And now, you get your chance to do it again.”  She poured out the contents of the vial on the ground, and Zelda eagerly lapped it up.

When the pup was done, and she turned around, she could see that Dawnspike was looking over in that direction, his curiosity piqued.  Zelda bent low, getting herself into a play position.  And then, with one more giant leap, she took to the air.

Dawnspike’s beak parted, and he could hear the other subjects who had joined him in the heart of the mountain gasp and applaud at the sight of the airborne dog.  Still, he knew that the task would continue to carry some complexities.  His eyes narrowed as Zelda drew nearer to the disc.

She opened her mouth to grab hold of the Silver Moon, but just as she drew near, it darted away.  With no friction in the air, she paddled her legs as though she was trying to swim, slowly coming to a stop.  She turned around, noticing that the discus was on the other side of the wide expanse.

“What?” she said.  “Come here, you!”

Zelda attempted again to make her way toward the frisbee, but as before, it slid out of the way as she drew near.  On and on it went, and though she continued to miss it time after time, Zelda seemed just as eager, and happy with the chase.

The toy, on the other hand, seemed to be slowing every time it needed to dart out of the way.

“She’s tuckering it out,” Rhianna whispered to her husband.

She was not the only one who appeared to notice that.  Dawnspike slammed his taloned hand down on the ground, grunting as he did so.

“I grow tired of this,” he said.

Michael reached over and squeezed his wife’s shoulder.  “There was one other rule,” he reminded her.

Rhianna couldn’t remember that rule, but Michael was already in motion, running forward.  The Silver Moon finally began its descent, and that had Rhianna’s mind racing toward the memory.

“It can’t touch the ground,” she whispered.

Though Zelda had exhausted the discus toy, it still outpaced her, and she would never reach it in time before it struck the floor.

But Michael was there, glissium pickaxe in hand.  He raised it high, and the antigravity powers that Leoden had told the family about took hold.  As the discus dropped, it bounced off of what seemed like an invisible rope, flinging it back into the air.

Zelda gasped with a happy little noise, and she lunged forward, clasping the frisbee between her teeth.

Dawnspike’s jaw dropped again, and that time he did nothing to disguise his look of shock.  Many of his subjects were stunned into silence as well, but it sounded as though half of the rest were excited by the showing, and they burst into cheer and applause.

Zelda slowly floated back to the ground, where she was joined by her two sisters, the other dogs happily wagging their tails, proud of what their older sibling was able to accomplish.

“I would not celebrate just yet,” the mighty griffin bellowed.  “There are still two more tasks to conquer.  That outcast is old—surely, she would have learned something in all her years.”

“Hey!” Zelda argued.  “I’m dumb when I want to be!”

Dawnspike narrowed his eyes then.  “We’ll see if your younger two toys have learned quite as much as we continue the trials.”

 

*          *          *

 

Given the towering cavity within the mountain that they had just left, the visitors found themselves in a spot that was much cozier.  Dawnspike led them along, and it almost seemed as though he wouldn’t fit within the narrow passageways in the icy castle.  Strangely, ice gave way to snow, an impossibility that far inside the palace.

The DeAngelo family realized that all the white had been artificially created, because they had found their way to a place in the castle that served as an entire city.  Rows and rows of gingerbread houses were present, and the inhabitants seemed to live and move, preparing for Christmas in various ways.

“These aren’t toys,” Michael mused.

“No, but they toys must have some Christmas magic in them,” Rhianna said.  “We saw what the throne room looked like—all those lit-up Christmas trees and presents strewn everywhere.  Maybe it makes them feel like home, in a way.”

Michael nodded.  “And if they have Christmas magic, maybe they brought these gingerbread people to life.”

“Could be,” Rhianna replied.

Dawnspike led them to the center of the room, and cleared his throat, gaining the attention of the gingerbread villagers.  The DeAngelo family, Taub, and the rest of the toy procession behind them stopped as well.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the griffin king spoke.  “Though news often travels quickly in our sanctuary, some information may not have reached you yet.  We have guests from the North Pole here with us today—self-professed ambassadors of Santa Claus.  They come with a warning about the state of our island, and though I have taken it with all seriousness, I also believe them with caution.

“However,” Dawnspike continued, “it cannot be ignored that they have chosen to take on a series of tests to judge their character, and the care that they have for people like us.  They have already succeeded in retrieving the Silver Moon.  But I ask you, the people of the gingerbread village: help us with the next task.  Let us see if they can find…the Golden Gumdrop!”

Behind the DeAngelo family, the toys there let slip sounds of intrigue and amazement.  But on the tables upon which the gingerbread villagers lived, a frenzy seemed to unleash.  The tiny people ran into buildings, only emerging a few moments later with siege weapons that were also made of the delicious confection.  Right behind them, piles of gumdrops were brought out, and Michael and Rhianna realized they were the ammunition that the trebuchets and catapults were meant to fire.

“Your task is simple,” Dawnspike insisted.  “All you have to do is find the Golden Gumdrop, and you will have proved your worth.  Now, is there a champion who would like to volunteer?”

None of the dogs truly understood what was happening, but Michael and Rhianna worriedly conferred with one another.

“Gumdrops are not safe for dogs to eat,” Michael said.  “If they’re going to be launching candies at our pups, we might be in serious trouble if they catch them.”

Maisie’s eyes grew wider then.  “Did you say catch?  Is that food?”

Rhianna tilted her head.  “It is little baby girl.  But it isn’t safe for you to eat.  Those kinds of candies can have a sweetener in them that can really hurt you.  Besides, you’re supposed to be on a diet.”

Maisie grumbled and bowed her head.  She lifted it with a bit of hope in her eyes the next moment though.  “Well, I don’t need to eat them.  Catching is my favorite part!”

“Are you sure you have the willpower to do that?” Michael wondered.  “I don’t know that I would.”

“I can do it,” she said.  “Let me try!”

Michael and Rhianna leaned forward, tousling the little black-and-white—and temporarily spotted—dog on the head.

Maisie turned around and proudly took a step forward then.  “I volunteer!”

Dawnspike gave an affirmative bow, and fluttered his miniscule wings as he moved out of the pup’s way.  “Very well then,” he said.  “Approach the village, and let the challenge commence!”

Almost as soon as the king gave his command for the task to begin, the first trebuchet fired, a gumdrop flying through the air.  Maisie’s eyes went wide, and she hopped to her side, putting herself in the line of fire.  She opened her mouth and let the candy’s trajectory guide it right onto her tongue.

Behind her, Michael and Rhianna watched on with a bit of anxiety, wondering if their pup had the discipline not to eat the gumdrops.

A little pop sound preceded the sight of the gumdrop hitting the floor.  “Grey,” Maisie said, announcing the color to ensure she only looked for the Golden Gumdrop.

But Michael and Rhianna looked at one another with confusion, for the one that was fired and spit out was red.

Rhianna smacked herself on the forehead then.  “Colorblindness!”

“Oh yeah,” Michael said, a bit of worry in his voice for a second.  “But it’s okay,” a bit of exuberance returned to him a moment later.  “Dogs can’t see green or red, but they can see blue…and yellow!”

Sure enough, Maisie announced when she found blue gumdrop buttons, or grey ones—which were either reds or greens that she could not quite distinguish.  But throughout the barrage of candy ammunition, not a single yellow one seemed to be fired.  Maisie ran back and forth, hopping up on her hind legs when she needed to in order to catch any of the volleys, but minutes later, she hadn’t announced finding the Golden Gumdrop.

She panted a little, having found much more exercise than she had expected.  “My tummy hurts just thinking about eating all of that!”

Rhianna arched an eyebrow, looking to the king of the outsiders.  “But where’s the golden one?”

Dawnspike wore a mischievous avian grin then.  “I never said that the villagers would fire the Golden Gumdrop with their devices.”

Michael stepped forward.  “That’s bad form.  They’ve just used the trebuchets as distractions while they’ve hidden the gumdrop.”

“What if they have?” Dawnspike asked.  “You wouldn’t risk damaging the gingerbread people’s homes to search for it, would you?  It seems this is a challenge you won’t be able to win.”

The toys in the area leading to the gingerbread village muttered to one another, whispering about the failure.

But Rhianna took a step forward and pointed her finger at the griffin king.  “Not so fast!”

Dawnspike looked as though he had to defend himself from a blow, the mighty creature bringing an arm up to defend himself.

“Maisie can still search for the gumdrop, and she can be respectful of the villagers as well.  If they’ll allow her to look in the buildings, that is.”

The king of the outsiders scoffed.  “There’s no way to safely do that.  She’s much bigger than those houses.”

“Hey!” Maisie shouted.  “I’m losing weight!”

“That’s right,” Rhianna said.  She slung the Santa sack forward, and began rooting through its contents, until she found what she was looking for.  “And with our help, she’ll lose a little bit more, too.”

Michael folded his arms across his chest.  “I take it this won’t be against the rules, will it, Your Majesty?”

Dawnspike grumbled then.  “No, I suppose it wouldn’t.”

Rhianna bent down, showing Maisie the potion vial.  “This is going to shrink you down for a little bit.  But don’t worry, it only lasts for a little while.  Zelda’s already grumbling about not being able to fly again.”

“It’s not fair!” the eldest dog whined behind them.

“Just make sure not to step on me,” Maisie pleaded.  She gave a sad look to Michael and Rhianna, but an intense look to Luna.

“We promise,” Michael said.  “We know what that big Great Dane did to you before we got you.”

“And we know what a klutz Luna is,” Rhianna noted.

“Huh?” the big mutt wondered.

“She is very much your daughter,” Michael insisted.

Maisie made a little whimper, but she blew out a little canine sigh then as she alternated glances at the people who loved her.  “All right.  I’ll do it.”

“You’re becoming so brave,” Rhianna said.  She leaned down and gave her a kiss on the top of her head.

Just as she had with Zelda, Rhianna poured the contents of the blue potion out on the floor.  Maisie sniffed at it a bit but thought better of trying to determine if she would like it.  Remembering what was at stake, she lapped up what she could.

“It tastes weird with the flavor of the candies still in my mouth,” she said.  The middle-sized pup sat there for a moment, blinking in the silence of the place.  “Is something supposed to—”

Before she could finish her thought, she began to rapidly shrink.  A bit of panic overtook her, but she was frozen by the morphing process.  “I’m going to disappear!” she cried in a quieter and quieter voice as she became more and more miniaturized.  She ended up looking a bit smaller than the gingerbread cookie people, though she was far less used to it.

Michael put his hand down on the ground beside her, and she was careful to step up onto what looked like an oversized mitt to her.  Already shivering with worry, Maisie’s body locked up as she was lifted into the air.

Taking gentle, careful steps toward the gingerbread village upon the tables, Michael worked slow to alleviate any fears the dog might have had.  When he arrived there, he flattened his hand out again, bringing it in line with the edge of the table, to give Maisie as level a ledge as she could get.  She hopped off, and shook her body, ridding herself of any nervous energy she had.

Within the gingerbread village, she felt much more at ease.  She watched the little people walking around, moving the big siege engines back into the various buildings.  Maisie realized that, though she had shrunk down to the size of a little figurine, the gingerbread people were still much smaller in proportion to actual people.  And as Maisie walked about, sniffing the air for a scent of the Golden Gumdrop, she caught more than a few whiffs of the village and its villagers.

“Gingerbread is okay for dogs in small doses,” she muttered to herself.

One of the gingerbread people walked by the small dog, and she sniffed a little bit more, salivating at the delicious aroma.

She shook her body again and huffed a little.  “Don’t do it,” she told herself.  “Eating people is not okay, and only Luna is allowed to do that.”

Maisie wiggled her nose, almost as though she was trying to switch up what she was smelling.  It must have worked, for she was able to detect a sweeter, less savory aroma in the air.  She looked around, trying to detect which direction the scent seemed to emanate from.

In doing so, she turned all the way around, to look off the table, and she saw Michael and Rhianna looking down at her.  She gasped in fright for a second before remembering that she had been shrunk down by the potion.  Maisie turned that nervous energy into a playful bow, stretching out her body.  When she rose up once more, she burst into motion, eager to find the Golden Gumdrop.

Emboldened by the knowledge that her family was nearby, Maisie weaved a path between gingerbread villagers.  She drew closer to the confectionary buildings and sniffed at the doors before moving onto the next one.

Before long, the scent of the Golden Gumdrop was overpowering.  She reached a house where it seemed a good deal of gingerbread people lingered, crowding the area around the front doors.  As she approached the entrance to the building, the folks there squashed together, trying to make it more difficult for the dog to proceed.

In a much louder voice behind her, Maisie could hear Michael speak.

“Now, you’re not trying to scare our little one into not finding the gumdrop, are you Dawnspike?”

“Bad form,” Rhianna echoed her husband’s sentiment from the first task.

Dawnspike sighed and sat on his backside.  The mighty king lifted his hands and made a separating motion with them.

Maisie watched as the gingerbread villagers stepped out of her way.  One even opened a pair of double doors for her, revealing the spectacular Golden Gumdrop on a pedestal inside.  The little dog—made littler by the magical potion—excitedly spun about in circles, wagging her tail as the gingerbread people gave up any notion of hiding their treasure, and instead approached her to give her pets and affection.

“You have succeeded in your second challenge,” Dawnspike said.  He hummed to himself then.  “I am beginning to believe that you truly do have our best interest at heart.  But we set out to create three tasks for you, and three we shall have.  Let us see if you have what it takes to finish the third and final task of the series.”

 

*          *          *

 

Even fewer outsiders were with them then as they weaved through additional paths of the mountain palace.  As they moved along, Taub stopped to spin the winding key atop his head.  Rhianna once more helped him out, and that time, as she did so, the little clockwork cat kicked with his back leg as though he was being scratched behind the ears.

“Curious,” he said once he was fully tuned once more.  “We have been traveling west, but our means of leaving this island is far to the east.”

“Well, what are the chances of today of all days being the one that sees the island beginning to sink?” Rhianna mused.

“Each day the odds increase,” Taub stated matter-of-factly.

While they had their conversation, Michael and the pups hurried on ahead, following Dawnspike as he made his way toward a wide-open vestibule which overlooked the western sea.

Luna knew that it was her turn to be brave and complete a task next, but the other pups who had succeeded had a little less to worry about.  They yammered back and forth.

“I definitely feel a bit lighter,” Zelda said.

“Do I still look a little smaller than usual?” Maisie wondered.

Neither of them seemed to notice the squad of person-sized toy soldiers who stood at the end of the overlook.  Dressed to appear somewhat like nutcrackers, they wore plastic hats atop their heads, which had Luna feeling extra suspicious of their behavior.

Michael hummed, noticing that they stood in a wedge formation, and that there were precisely ten of them.  It did not take long for him to spot the kettlebell in the vestibule as well, and he immediately knew what the challenge would be.  Before he could share any of the details with the largest DeAngelo family pup, however, Dawnspike cleared his throat to speak.

“It is time for you to complete your quest,” the mighty griffin said, sounding much more encouraging than he had before the previous challenges.  “With one last trial, we are down to the last of the outsiders.  Will you, with the ruffles, brave this quest, as the others did before you?”

Luna opened her mouth and breathed out a hefty sigh.  “I don’t know what I’ve got to do, but I’ll do it!”

“This one is a simple exercise,” the outsider king declared.  “We have ten soldiers over there who will stand bravely in the sight of danger.  Your job is to knock them over in one go—all of them.”

“She can definitely do this,” Michael said, bearing a confident grin.  He bent down, falling to a knee, and ignoring the popping sound as he dropped.  “This one is going to be super easy for you, Luna,” he said, scratching her neck.  “You remember your jumbler at home, right?  It’s just like this big kettlebell.  All you have to do is run it over to the soldiers and knock them over with it.  That big one in the front will knock over all the others if you hit him first.”

“But that one is a lot bigger than my toy at home,” Luna said as she looked at the hefty kettlebell.

Rhianna arrived beside her then as well, dropping the Santa sack on the ground before her.  “You’re going to be a lot bigger than when we’re at home, too!”  She took out the final potion, a green concoction swirling within the flask.  “You watched as your sisters did their tasks.  You should be able to lift that thing no problem!”

Luna was already sniffing at the vial’s cork, detecting the faint aroma within.  As Rhianna poured the contents on the floor, the biggest DeAngelo dog lapped up what was there.  She knew that it tasted bitter, her nose scrunching up as she contended with the flavor, but she also understood how important it was to complete the task.

And she also really wanted to lift the kettlebell.

She seemed to grow much faster than Maisie had shrunk, almost pushing Michael and Rhianna away when she reached full size.  Her two sisters also skittered a bit farther from her, knowing what a clumsy pup she was when she was regular size.

Luna looked around, realizing that she towered over nearly everyone in attendance.  The only one that still stood a little taller than her was the immense griffin king who oversaw the tasks.  And he seemed a bit worried about seeing another in attendance who was close to him in size.

Dawnspike deflected from that unease by sweeping out his taloned hand, gesturing toward the overhang upon the western sea.  “At your leisure, you may begin the final challenge.”

Luna could not contain her excitement, and she hurried over to the kettlebell.  Luckily, there was some rubber padding around the ball and the handle, so when the pup clamped it between her teeth, she didn’t have to worry about chipping any of them.  When she lifted the thing, she realized how heavy it was, even in her current state.  There was no way she would have been able to pluck it from the ground if she was smaller.

Her family noticed another peculiarity then.  The ruffle that appeared as part of her disguise flattened down against her chest and her legs because of the heft of the item.  She didn’t seem to notice at first, mostly because she wasn’t contemplating the challenge, but having fun moving the kettlebell around.

“Luna,” Michael said.  “Don’t forget you have to knock down the soldiers.”

“Oh yeah!” the dog said, excited about the prospect of playful carnage.

As she approached the overhang, the toy soldiers there tried their best to appear unwavering.  But Luna towered over them, and wielding that kettlebell, she looked like an unrivaled force of destruction.

“Remember, little baby,” Rhianna said, despite the immense size of their pup, “you have to knock them all down in one go!”

Luna’s eyes grew a little wider then, having heard the reiterated rules.  She remembered what Michael said, that she needed to hit the one in the front, and that he would topple all the rest.

With a burst of energy, she charged forward.

For a few moments, everything seemed fine.  But the heft, size, and shape of the kettlebell was not conducive to sprinting forth.  As she moved, she became a bit tangled up, and the kettlebell slipped from her mouth, rolling off to the side.

It would not hit a single soldier.

Those in attendance gasped, realizing that the challenge was likely to end in failure.

But her family had not given up.  Michael stepped forward, cupping his hands over his mouth.

“Luna!” he cried.  “Flippu-dippu!”

The large dog heard the phrase that rang out whenever she played with her family and was meant to do a somersault.  Though she was still stumbling forward, she lowered her head, tucking it between her front arms.

And then, she slowed her approach, allowing her rump to lift into the air.

Everyone else watched as the leading toy soldier opened his eyes as wide as they would allow.

There was no hope of the soldiers remaining upright.  The first one flung back into the rest, and one by one, the rows felt the force of Luna’s hefty butt.  Only a few seconds later, all the toy soldiers lay on the ground, either groaning by the force of their fall, or laughing at the inanity of it.

Luna rolled over to her stomach and shook her head.  She looked at her family, who cheered and clapped, and she began to pant in excitement, happy to have finished her trial.

“Well done,” Dawnspike said, a hint of pride to his voice, though it at first seemed lost to the applause in the palace.  “Well done!” he cried out, gathering everyone’s attention.  “You have done what you set out to do, and you’ve finished your trials.  You certainly do have the people of this island in mind, and I appreciate you partaking in the challenges.

“While I would have given your warning consideration before, I must give it real thought now,” the mighty griffin continued.  “Perhaps we will reach out to advisors from—”

King Dawnspike was interrupted then by a strange alarm sound.  The DeAngelo family looked about, trying to determine where the sound was coming from, but they realized that the outsiders were just as confused and concerned.  Everyone in attendance seemed to realize at the same time that it was Taub, the little clockwork cat, who emitted the sound.  His eyes had turned red, and he seemed frozen, like when Leoden took over.

“Warning,” a deeply robotic voice sounded from within Taub’s chassis.  “Warning.  Seismic activity detected.  Prepare for possible catastrophic event.”

The prominence atop Dawnspike’s eyes fell, and he wore a look of genuine concern.  “What is the meaning of this?  Certainly, the island cannot be at risk so soon.”

But almost as soon as he finished speaking, those in the area felt a massive tremor beneath their feet.

Michael reached out and tried to steady his wife.  “Look to the horizon,” he instructed.

“Oh, my vertigo is not going to like this,” Rhianna said.

Zelda was also not happy with the occurring events.  The fluffy little dog shivered and shook, looking around nervously while she licked her lips.  Maisie and Luna were there beside her in an instant—though of course Luna forgot how big she was, and almost stomped on both of her sisters.

As the first bout of shaking stopped, Taub looked up to the ambassadors he traveled with.  “I will go back to the place you arrived on the island.  Perhaps I can summon the mechanical dolphins you traveled here with.”

“Absolutely not,” Rhianna said.  “You’re one of us now, and we stick together.”

Michael, meanwhile, tried to appeal to the leader of the outsiders, calling for action.  “Your Majesty, we need to get your people to safety!” he yelled.

Dawnspike’s gaze landed upon his panicking citizens.  It took a moment to shake himself from his worry and look at the visitor.  “We don’t have any ships.  How are we to save everyone?”

Despite the uneasy feeling Rhianna had, and the lack of balance she contended with, she turned to the griffin king, and then lifted her enchanted Santa sack.  We don’t have to get everyone onto something.  We can just get them into this.”

“This palace is huge,” Michael said.  “We’re not going to be able to get to everyone in time.”

“We can all meet somewhere,” Zelda said through chattering teeth.

“The gingerbread people have the littlest legs,” Maisie said.  “We should all meet there so they don’t have to go so far.”

Michael bent down and patted the little black-and-white-and-spotted dog.  “That was very compassionate of you, Maisie.”  He rose then and looked to the king.  “Any objections to that?”

“No,” Dawnspike said.  “It is a good plan.  I’ll go to round up everyone and bring them back there.  As they arrive, please take care to move them to safety.”

“Understood,” Michael said.

“I can go to the entrance of the castle, and get Knightmare and Jouster,” Luna said.  “I’ve got longer legs now.”

Michael found it hard to argue against that notion, but he did feel very worried about allowing the embiggened pup to venture off on her own.  “Just… Be careful, and make sure you make it back to us safely.”

Luna gave a quick bow, and sprinted off into the corridor behind everyone, not worrying about the people who had to push out of her way.

Seeing the speed at which she took off, everyone else dispersed as well, hoping to find their loved ones and make it to safety.

 

*          *          *

 

A little bigger than she was before, Maisie was just able to stand up with her paws on the tops of the tables that the gingerbread village sat upon.  The confectionary people climbed down her legs and held on tight to her short coat.  Zelda was there beside her a moment later, fighting past her fear and stretching her legs so that she could reach the table as well.

Together, the two dogs took the gingerbread people in small groups, letting them off on the ground before the outstretched Santa sack.  Michael and Rhianna held it out wide, urging the citizens of the island into the container.  With each person who passed into the bag, it was like an inky black puddle was ready to spill from it.  But more than once, someone who went in emerged again, just to ensure they would be able to escape once they were to a safer place.

At Michael’s insistence, those who could carried the houses from the gingerbread village into the sack.

Whenever someone seemed to push to hurry things up, Dawnspike echoed out his disappointment, encouraging his people to exercise calmer demeanors.

Another violent tremor shook the castle then, eliciting screams and shouts from the outsiders.  Rhianna dropped the sack and braced herself on the nearest table.  Michael also released his hold then, and he watched as great fissures appeared in the earthen ceiling above them.  He followed the cracks until he saw it begin to form atop the littlest members of their family.

Before he could move, Rhianna grabbed hold of the pickaxe, tugging it from her husband’s belt.  She arrived between Maisie and Zelda in an instant, and with the pickaxe above her head, the stray stones that fell from the ceiling stopped in midair, as though they had fallen atop an invisible shroud.  From there, they fell harmlessly to the floor, and the dogs—and Rhianna—breathed a sigh of relief.

“I think we found the cure for your vertigo,” Michael said.  “Threat of harm to our puppies.”

“I did not know my legs could move that fast,” Rhianna said, between bouts of panting.  “I am going to nap all the way through Christmas.”

“Can you imagine?” Michael asked.

The king of the misfits cleared his throat then, catching the attention of his guests once more.  “If you would,” he said, gesturing with his head toward the Santa sack.

Michael and Rhianna hurried to grab hold of the enchanted container again, and the procession resumed heading into the unknown.  Before long, the line of people began to dwindle, and the folks from the gingerbread village were all inside the sack.

Peering up and over the group, Michael noted that the last member of their family still had not returned.

“She had better be all right,” Michael muttered to his wife.

“One of us should have gone with her,” Rhianna agreed.

“If she doesn’t show up soon, I want you to take the other doggies and Taub, and hurry to the edge of the island,” Michael said.

“I’m not leaving you,” his wife replied.

“You’ve got to start the iceberg and get it warmed up,” Michael said, trying to inject some jest into the frantic events unfolding.

Within only a few more moments, the rest of the toys were able to make their way into the sack.  A bit of panic swept over Michael then, and he handed his portion of the sack to Rhianna and prepared to head toward the corridor leading toward the entrance of the castle.

But before he could take two steps, they heard a noise emanating from outside there.

“Wee!” Luna’s voice rang out.  A few moments later, they saw the jester atop his ostrich mount, but he carried Luna under his arm, the dog keeping her legs outstretched as though she were flying.  “Look everyone!  I’m little again!”

“Littler than you were, anyway,” Zelda said.

Though she was not atop a quick-running bird, Knightmare was close behind the others, snorting as she ran.  All of them stopped to catch their breath when they arrived before the visitors and their king, though Luna’s panting may have been due to her excitement.

As Jouster and Knightmare skidded to a stop in the room, they carefully set Luna down on the ground, looking to their king for guidance.

“Where is everyone else, my liege?” Knightmare asked.

Dawnspike extended his arm and pointed a single talon toward the red sack.  “They’re right where you’ll be in a few moments.  The visitors have the means to get everyone to safety.  That bag is key.  When you climb inside, you’ll find yourself with much more space than you’d be led to believe.  And when you’re on solid ground again, the ambassadors will release you from within.”

Knightmare looked as though she was about to protest, but another fierce tremor shook the castle then.  She and Jouster sped forth, withdrawing into the extradimensional container.

“Your turn, Your Highness,” Michael said, looking to the mighty griffin.

But Dawnspike was already shaking his head.  “No, I’m afraid not.  It was my choice to settle in here on this island.  I was the one who brought all of the outsiders here.  If it wasn’t for you, I would have never been able to evacuate everyone.  This place was my decision, and so I shall be the one to see it fall apart and wash away.”

“Don’t be so dramatic,” Rhianna said.  “Your people needed you before, and they’ll need you after, once they get to safety.”

But the king of the misfits seemed ill-equipped to listen to reason.  He withdrew within himself, lost in regret and shame.

The three pups came up to him, swatting at him with their little paws.

We need you!” Zelda said.  “None of us really remember how to get out of this place, so snap out of it and help lead the way!”

The dog’s words did seem to reach Dawnspike, and he shook himself from his stupor.  He alternated glances between each of the DeAngelo family members, as well as the little clockwork cat, and once he was certain of himself, he gave an affirmative nod.  He whipped around, turning out of the room, and began to sprint forward.

“Follow me!” he cried out.  “I know a shortcut.”

 

*          *          *

 

While the island shook and rumbled, the weather outside had cleared.  The family could see the ice floe that they had arrived in, though it was far from the island then.  The dolphins seemed interested in giving the place a wide berth, especially as sheer mountains of ice cracked and crumbled not far from the shore.

Dawnspike led them to a path through the mountains that would never have been visible from the ground.  “If you keep to this road, it will take you right to the edge of the island,” he bade.

“Why does that sound again like you’re not coming with us,” Rhianna asked.

The king sighed and looked back at his castle.  “I can’t stand the idea of watching all that we made together fall apart with no one here to be there for it.  And what if there are others inside that are in danger?”

“That’s the magic of what you created, King Dawnspike,” Michael said.  “You made a place where no outsiders remained outsiders.  Everyone was together.  Everyone was loved.”

“That’s right,” Rhianna said.  “And your castle isn’t what you built here on the island.  It’s what you made between your people.”

He still seemed hesitant to leave, alternating glances between the home he had known, and the extradimensional container that Rhianna held onto.

Michael reached out to squeeze his wife’s hand.  “Come on.  Let’s hope that he makes the right choice.  But we have an obligation to the people in that bag.”

As Michael and Rhianna began heading forward, the dogs raced ahead.  Taub couldn’t quite keep the pace, and Michael scooped him up as they made their way forward.

Luna, Maisie, and Zelda hurried on ahead.  Though Luna was all the way in the front, she constantly looked back over her shoulder to make sure that the others were following after her.  Zelda was quick in her old age, and she was persistent and stubborn, and refused to allow fatigue to bother her.  Maisie had a bit of a problem keeping up with her sisters—she didn’t have their conditioning, and she contended with a bit of a bum leg—but she still knew that she needed to push on as fast as she could, and she gave it her all.

Michael and Rhianna hurried on, too, racing as quickly as they were able.

They would soon learn they were not fast enough.

An echoing crack resonated across the island, and they didn’t realize what had happened at first.  But only a few moments later, Michael, Rhianna and Taub rose up into the air, the island shorn into pieces by the latest tremor.

Despite the section of the island rising into the air, Michael and Rhianna kept on running, even as the path before them seemed to descend toward the sea.  Their pups were far ahead of them by then, and they watched as they skittered and spun about to try and run back the other way.

“Michael, what do we do?” Rhianna asked.

So distracted by the sight of the scared dogs, Michael didn’t hear her concerns at first.  And despite the foolishness of the act, he kept running forth faster and faster.

“Hold on tight, Taub,” he called out.

“I would caution you against rushing toward the water,” the clockwork cat said.  “The risk of hypothermia is—”

The tracker could not finish his thought, because Michael dove headfirst then, sliding on his belly down the icy path that led toward the end of the island.  The way forward grew steeper and steeper as the island continued to flip upward.

Michael heard Rhianna cry out behind him, but he had his plan in motion already.  He lowered his head, removing any air resistance he could.  He could feel Taub tuck in behind him, too, as though the little tracker could sense what he was doing.  Michael kept his eyes open, despite the white and pale blue color of the island racing by.  He needed to know the precise moment to—

He watched as a different set of colors slid by him.  Black-and-white, and pink spots struggled to stay in place on the island.  Then a darker auburn color, and a bright red spot that set the ice aglow.  And finally, Michael could see Luna’s ruffles pass him by.

Or rather, he passed them.  He lifted his head, and realized how close the icy water was beneath them.  Only a few dozen feet away, he knew that a plunge beneath those frigid waves could have him paying the ultimate price.

“Now, Taub,” he called out, and as he rolled over, the clockwork cat squirmed from around his back to his chest.  Michael reached down and grabbed hold of the glissium pickaxe.  He plucked it from its spot, and with a quick swing, the blade struck the ice and held firm.  Michael’s arm nearly tugged from its socket as his momentum stopped.

All three dogs cried out as they continued to slide, but Michael swung his body around, kicking a single boot into the ground so that he could lay sideways across the steep decline.

Luna struck him first, and he thought that he would lose grip of the pickaxe.

But Taub was there, wrapping his arms around Michael’s hand, and the tool, ensuring the human could hold on.

Zelda bumped up against Luna next, and Michael reached out to grab hold of them both, squishing them against the ice and snow, and ensuring they could rest on his stomach.

Maisie skittered as best as she could, but she slid down next, hitting Michael on his leg.  He could feel the tension in his body, knowing that he didn’t have a good grip with his hand—despite the clockwork cat’s assistance—or his foot.  Anything could upset the balance.

They all heard Rhianna’s cry then, the woman sliding faster than the others had, for the island kept tipping farther and farther upward.

Michael reached out with his free hand then, grabbing hold of his wife’s arm as she passed.  With someone on the other side of him then, momentum carried him that way, and he swung wildly to the side.  The dogs swung in the opposite direction then, chaos unfolding on that vertical block of ice.  Luna grabbed hold of Michael’s side, Zelda hugged her around her hips, and Maisie clutched onto Zelda for dear life as they slid, and it was only by everyone’s momentum that Maisie’s feet landed on Rhianna’s boot, the entire family precariously balanced.

“Is this it?” Zelda asked.  “Is this our last big North Pole adventure?”

“Don’t think that way,” Rhianna said.  “We’ll figure something out.”

“You may not need to,” Taub said in his matter-of-fact tone.

Michael dared to look the other way, stretching his neck as far as it would allow.  He spotted another huge chunk of ice floating in the water there.  But it was who was on it that soon had his attention.

They mighty king of the outsiders, the griffin Dawnspike, charged across the ice floe, and with a tremendous leap, he took to the air.  His undersized wings flapped, and though they likely did not aid in his momentum, he still leapt far and high.  With an immense crash, he slammed into the iceberg, and another cacophonous crack echoed out into the region.  That sound was eclipsed a moment later as part of the island plunged into the water far below.

But none of the DeAngelo family could truly appreciate what that meant.  For as the island had tilted forward before, it began to pivot back the other way a moment later.

“Let me off this ride!” Rhianna cried as they swung back around.

Another huge noise resounded as the fragment of the island that they clung to slammed into the sea.

Michael could no longer hold on, and they all lifted into the air.

A few moments later, they struck the ground again, crying out in fear or confusion.

But they were steady.  And they were safe.

Dawnspike’s maneuver had tilted their island back the other way.

Michael sat up, wincing from the aches in his body.  He grabbed hold of Rhianna then, helping his wife to her feet as well.

“Did Dawnspike…?” Rhianna tried to ask.

Michael shook his head.  “The last thing I saw, he was on that piece of the island that broke off.”

Before anyone could even begin to worry or mourn, they watched as a clawed hand reached up over the ledge of the island.  Another reached up a moment later, and then the griffin king began to pull himself up to solid ground.

“You saved us, Your Majesty!” Rhianna said.

“And he saved his people,” Michael added.  “I don’t know what would have happened if we plunged into the water.”

While Dawnspike had a moment to take pride in his heroics, he soon found himself saddened once more.  The sight of his home crumbling to pieces filled his gaze as he looked west.  The great castle, fashioned out of the icy mountain, fell to ruin, and there was nothing that could be done to save it.

“Some day you’ll make a new castle,” Maisie said, the first to break the silence.  “And it will be even bigger and better.”

Dawnspike turned to regard the little pup, offering her a weary nod.

Behind them, they listened to strange robotic noises emitting from the clockwork cat’s body.  They thought at first that Leoden’s voice would echo out of Taub’s frame again, but the family realized soon after that he was making noises for another reason.  A few seconds later, the dolphins leapt out of the water, bringing the other ice floe that they had traveled on close.

“Well, this looks like it’s our ride,” Michael noted.  “Once we get back to the workshop, I think we’ll be able to help you and your people figure out a plan.”

“You are coming with us, right?” Rhianna asked.

The king of the misfits breathed out an unsteady sigh then but nodded in the affirmative.  “I have to see the first steps of our people finding new homes.  What may follow after that, I don’t know, but…”

“We’ll take it one step at a time,” Rhianna said.  “That’s all we can do.”

“Speaking of which,” Michael said.  He reached across the gap, digging his pickaxe into the ice floe to pull it close.  Once it was steady, the three pups and the clockwork cat hurried across.  “Let’s not linger too long,” Michael said to his wife and the griffin king.  “We don’t know what kind of waves might be coming our way as the sea beneath the island churns.”

Rhianna and Dawnspike saw reason in that comment, and they made their way onto the smaller chunk of ice, and Michael was quick to follow them.

“All right, you dolphins,” Rhianna said.  “Let’s head back to the rest of our friends.”

With some chittering and squeaking in response from the clockwork creatures, they began on their way.

 

*          *          *

 

Leoden and Revan clinked a pair of mugs together, and then took sips of hot cocoa.  Behind them then, a hum sounded, and they turned to see the portal yawn to life.

The readings that Leoden received from Taub let them know that the mission had been a success.  They fully anticipated their return, and when the first of them came through, it soon became clear that the two elves were not alone.

Taub walked through first, but the three pups were close behind them, and soon after, Michael and Rhianna stepped through the portal as well.  Cheers broke out, and the DeAngelo family realized that many of the friends they have made over the year had joined them there in the workshop.

Though they took a moment to bask in the glow of their success, Michael and Rhianna stepped aside, and gestured toward the portal then.  Dawnspike stepped through the gateway, squeezing through, for it was just a little too small for him.

“May we present King Dawnspike,” Rhianna called out.

The dozens of attendees in the workshop cheered for the great king as well, already hearing of his deeds, and learning about how he had rescued his people, and Santa’s advisors and ambassadors.

“So, what did you think?” Leoden asked.  “Was that an adventure worthy of the DeAngelo family?”

Michael nodded.  “I think it might have been a little too adventurous there for a time.  But we were glad for the distraction.”

“And we’re glad that it might have served you so,” Revan said.

Rhianna drew near to the table there as well, and she hoisted Taub onto it, gently placing the little clockwork cat on the map-emblazoned surface.

“So, what do we end up doing with this little guy now?” she asked.  “He doesn’t exactly have an island of misfit toys to go and rescue anymore.  Speaking of which…” Rhianna arched an eyebrow and pulled the enchanted Santa sack closer, too.  “I think we’re going to have to find new homes for just about everyone.”

Leoden’s eyes flashed, and he lifted his hands up.  “Whoa there.  Let’s wait just a second.  I want to make sure that the refugees have room before we open up that bag.”  He turned to the tracking cat though, leaning forward to pat the clockwork critter on the head.  “In your case, Taub, I think I’ve found just the thing for you.  We’ve been doing some research, and according to some literature we read, it’s come to our attention that most wizards need a familiar, and that some of the best ones are cats.”

“We’re ready for you,” Revan called out.

The crowd seemed to part to allow one of the esteemed guests through.  He hadn’t been at the party in Santa’s house, so it appeared that he had arrived fashionably late.

“Raskagar!” Zelda cried out.

The old wizard waved to the DeAngelo family, but he approached the table with some concern and curiosity.  When he arrived there, he gasped for a second at the sight of the clockwork kitty, and Taub’s ears went back as he bowed down.

“Oh, you’ll have to forgive me, my friend,” Raskagar said.  “Once, not so long ago, I was a tiny little mouse.  I think I still have some fears embedded in me from that time.”  The wizard leaned on the table, then, smiling at the metallic creature.  “Oh, but you’re not so frightening, are you?  In fact, you look like a dapper fellow.”

Taub looked at Leoden then, seeming a little bit confused.

“You know what this is, right?” the elf asked.  “You’re about to go into retirement, my friend.  No more getting lost in the cold.  Instead, you’ll have a nice warm wizard’s tower to lounge around in.”

“And I’m sure you’ll love my apprentice, as well,” Raskagar said.  “Oh, Barnabus is going to be just smitten with you.”  He waved him on then, and as the wizard walked away, Taub hopped off the table to follow him.  “Now one of the things we’ll have to do is cast just a little bit of magic on you.  You won’t need that winding key much longer, as we’ll make sure your gears are always turning.”

Michael and Rhianna smiled as Raskagar walked away to interact with the newest member of his own family then.  But they were distracted when Leoden and Revan reached down and began pushing the table aside.

“Well, come on then,” Revan said.  “More hands make for lighter burdens!”

The two humans of the DeAngelo family lent their assistance to the task, and before long, a much bigger space was left on the floor of the workshop.

As Michael and Rhianna grabbed hold of the red velvet Santa sack, the DeAngelo pups ran excitedly about in circles, eager to see the new friends they had made.  One by one, the misfits they had rescued emerged from the sack, hugging one another once they realized had indeed found a way to safety, and offering warm greetings to their rescuers.  They spotted Dawnspike lingering in the shadows at the back of the workshop, and gave him their praise and adulation, especially upon learning that he had saved them from the brink of doom.

And then, the esteemed guests who had ventured to the North Pole for Santa’s party took a step forward, welcoming the misfit toys to the workshop.

For quite some time, revelry and laughter filled the air.  Happiness seemed like a foregone conclusion.

But Dawnspike approached Michael and Rhianna after some time and cleared his throat.  The two humans looked at the griffin king, and looked at him with curiosity, for he seemed a bit suspicious about something.  When he gestured ahead, they noticed that at some point during the celebration, the illusory magic making the dogs look like toys had worn off.  Gone were Maisie’s spots, Zelda’s red nose, and Luna’s ruffle, the pups instead just seeming like the happy little mutts they were.

Michael and Rhianna looked back at Dawnspike, a little nervous about what he would think of such a thing.

The griffin king simply laughed, shaking his head.

“While I don’t appreciate the secrets you had to keep, I understand why you did what you did.”  He harrumphed to himself.  “No, what I really am disappointed with is that we thought we had to exile ourselves to such a dangerous place to begin with.  I demand to see the person who created us.  Who saw it in themselves to make us and subsequently consider us monstrosities?”

Leoden had heard the raised voice, and he could see the worried looks of panic on the faces of his guests, and he hurried over to placate the honored king.

“Your Majesty,” the elf said.  “I actually have someone important for you to meet here.”

With a whistle, another guest was summoned, though that one seemed far less imposing than the great wizard who had come to gather up the little clockwork cat earlier.  A short fellow, with thick patches of fuzz on the sides of his head, but none up top, came scurrying over to the mighty griffin.  The gnome looked on with narrowed eyes, not quite being able to see the people he stood with.  But he reached up, grabbing a pair of goggles.  When he slid them down on his face, his eyes became enlarged, and they lit up at the sight of the king of the misfits.

“King Dawnspike,” Leoden said.  “This is one of the oldest workshop attendants we have here at the North Pole.  I’d like to introduce you to Yeston.”

The powerful leader of the misfits stood tall, casting a judgmental gaze upon the diminutive gnome.  “Well then.  What do you have to say for yourself?”

“For myself?” the little crafter asked.  “Nothing.  But I do have something to say about you.”  He peered all about the griffin, noting every stitch, every tuft of fur and feather about the powerful creature.  For a moment, Dawnspike was reminded that he, too, was a toy.  “You’re just as beautiful here in person as you were when I dreamed you up,” Yeston said.

Dawnspike seemed as though he was the only one in the building who was buffeted by an immense gale.  His legs shook beneath him, and for a second, emotion overwhelmed him.  “What do you mean by those words?” he demanded.  “If I am to be so appreciated, why was I discarded?”

“The answer to that, I cannot give you,” Yeston said.  “All I know is that you are exactly as I thought you should have been, and you were created as such to the letter.  Every thread is in place exactly as it should be.”  As he spoke, the gnome reached behind his back, and swung forth a tome that was chained to his belt.  When he swept open a latch on the front, and opened it up, a pen nearly rolled from the pages, but he was quick to reach out and grab hold of it.  A few moments later, he had turned to a page that he was excited to display.  “Look!”

There, facing the king, was a perfect image of him recorded on the old yellow pages of the book.  He looked just as majestic on the paper as he was in real life.  And there in the picture, as in reality, his wings were smaller than one would expect.

“I don’t make mistakes,” the gnome said, suddenly sounding much surer of himself.  “You were my masterpiece, but look, I have all of the people who these fine folk rescued here today.”

As he turned the pages, Dawnspike saw sketches of the toys that he had come to live with in the massive castle, and he even saw other toys that had not yet made their way to him yet.

“Now that you’re here, maybe you can help me with ideas for other toys that would make people happy,” the gnome said.

As the two conversed, Leoden waved Michael and Rhianna over, allowing the reunited creator and creation to speak.

“I don’t know if you heard that, but it is true,” the elf said.  “The outsiders that you were sent to rescue should have been anything but that.  They were created exactly to Yeston’s specifications.  They even had homes that they were meant to go to.”

“So why didn’t they reach them?” Rhianna asked.  “Why did they end up abandoned?”

Leoden shrugged and shook his head.  “We’re looking into it, but… There’s no reason that one of Santa’s workers would do that.  It’s very atypical for one of the people here to do that, and even Santa could not explain it.”

“Santa knows about it now?” Michael asked.

“Well, yes,” Leoden said.  “When Taub’s alert reached us, we called Santa right away.  We’re happy that you were able to find your way back safely, but we were ready to have our mutual friend rush to pull you out of the sea if he needed to.”

Rhianna flashed a nervous grin.  “I’m glad it didn’t come to that.  He told us to take it easy this year, and we almost turned into ice cubes.”

“We were almost pupsicles!” Zelda cried from a bit further into the room.

Michael glanced in that direction.  “That dog and her satellite ears,” he said.

“In any case, we’re all working our magic, trying to see if we can’t get some more details about how it came to this,” Leoden said.  “Christmas will have to come first, of course, but when we have news for you—”

The elf could not finish his thought, for the front door of the building slammed open, and a great figure stood in the doorway.  Michael and Rhianna could see Santa from where he stood, and his eyes were wide with shock to see all the people—and toys—that were in attendance.

“Well, this is a great surprise indeed,” Santa said.  “But it is also a very welcome one.”

In time, those in attendance explained the clandestine mission that the DeAngelo family had undertaken.  Santa met with many of the toys, including their fearless leader.  He reached down to pet the clockwork cat, eliciting a mechanical purr from the little critter.  And he raised a glass of eggnog in cheer to Leoden and Revan, two of his longest-serving assistants, for being brave enough to offer their friends a distraction that they knew was desperately needed.

As the revelry began to quiet, and Santa’s attendants helped the toys move out of the workshop, Santa spent a little more time with the other special guests he had invited to the North Pole.  He could see that they were a little tired from all the activity they experienced that day.  Rhianna sat on a large plush chair with Luna curled up and laying her head on her lap.  Michael was just in front of her, sitting on the floor atop a fluffy blanket.  Zelda and Maisie had him trapped on either side, the dogs there snoozing as well.

“So, you just couldn’t put your feet up for one Christmas, eh?” Santa asked Michael and Rhianna, reining in his often-boisterous voice so that he wouldn’t disturb the pups.  He waved off the notion.  “Leoden and Revan did a wonderful job.  There are all sorts of ways to try and separate ourselves from grief, and I do believe they found the one that was best suited to you.

“You know,” he continued, “we never truly had the chance to sit and talk earlier.  You made me this lovely wand, and I didn’t even get to remark on all the magic it has inside.”  He drew out the beautiful magical implement she had crafted and held it aloft for her to see.

Rhianna tilted her head and arched an eyebrow in curiosity.

Santa smiled and winked, and then with a flick of his wrist, he let magic fly forth from the wand.  Before them, the image of a fireplace took form, a quiet crackling emitting from within.  Rhianna and Michael shared a glance at one another, impressed that Santa had brought magic forth from her wand so soon.

“Ah, but that’s the wrong channel, isn’t it?” Santa asked.

He pointed the wand again, and the image of the fireplace changed.  Instead, it showed a glimpse of the future, on Christmas day, when children around many worlds would be opening their presents.

At first, nothing seemed quite out of the ordinary. It looked as though just anyone could be enjoying a pleasant morning with their family.  But then, Michael and Rhianna noticed a small, green-skinned child who opened a box to find a little bearded doll inside.  They recognized Dul in an instant, even though he was much smaller than when they had met him at Dawnspike’s castle.  After a few more children opened traditional gifts on Earth, they watched as a naga child jumped in surprise and joy at the sight of William springing from his box.  And moments later, Michael and Rhianna shared a laugh at the sight of a little rhinotaur child playing with Papier, his new rocking unicorn.  The images continued, and they even saw young Barnabus excitedly playing with his master’s new familiar, the little clockwork cat Taub—who no longer had the winding key affixed to his head.

“You may not have set out to do it, but you saved Christmas again, my friends,” Santa said.  “And not just for the children who had a few more sparks of joy, but for the little creations that might not have found their way home otherwise.”

Michael reached up and grabbed his wife’s hand, giving it a squeeze.

Rhianna blew out a little sigh though, then.

“Santa, with that wand, can you always see the future?”

The burly man in the red suit hummed to himself.  “Well, you know, the wand was made for me, and I was made for Christmas.  And while I can’t see quite as far in the future as I think you want me to be able to gaze, I think I can say that you and your family will be okay.”

He flicked the wand again, but that time, the images moved backward, until earlier that night.

“How am I supposed to tell this story?” the version of Michael in the image asked.  Though he wore a weary smile, there was a sadness there in his eyes as well.

The image cycled forward just a bit.

“Here, distract yourself with this,” the past version of Rhianna said, and there was a bit of melancholy there as well.  “Think about all the things you want to say,” she said a moment later.

“You all seem a bit quieter this year,” the image of Michael said.  And indeed, even the dogs seemed a bit lost in spite of the holiday spirit.

Michael—the one who was watching those images of themselves from the floor of Santa’s workshop—reached up and rubbed his wife’s leg.  Rhianna’s eyes were red, and she worked as hard as she could to keep any tears from falling down her cheek.

But when she watched Michael earlier that evening holding the door open for just a moment longer, as if he was waiting for Peanut to come scampering out of the house to join them on another adventure, she couldn’t hold it in anymore, and several tears streamed down from each eye.

She moved her hand to shield her eyes, but when she looked down and noticed her husband crying to, she instead reached out to him.

As soon as they squeezed each other’s hand, the image moved forward again, that time to many hours after they arrived at the North Pole.  Sitting on the moving ice floe, the DeAngelo family reminisced about their lost little loved one, talking about all the cute quirks they remembered her for.

“There is something special about those we choose to spend our time with during our lifetimes,” Santa said.  As he spoke, Michael and Rhianna realized that even he had a tinge of red in his eyes.  “It’s a spark that never truly fades, even when it seems like it would.  And in time, you’ll find that you protect those embers, and you bolster them with happy memories, instead of the saddest ones.”

Santa reached down and pat his friends on the shoulders, and then he slowly walked away so that they could take those moments to be with one another.

As he took his leave, the images changed one more time, to even further back.

Just as he said, Michael and Rhianna were bolstered by happier memories, and they watched as the little cat, gone but still an indelible part of their lives, moved about and played with the dogs, scratched herself against her toys, and lounged in the bed in front of the window, basking in the warm glow of the sunlight.

 

*          *          *

 

It was Christmas morning, and Michael and Rhianna quickly traded bleary eyes for glances of excitement as the dogs pawed eagerly at the presents beneath the tree.  They could tell that Santa had brought them a few more presents as well, as the ones they left under the tree for the dogs seemed to multiply.

“Are you all ready to open your presents?” Rhianna said as she and her husband sat down beside the tree and the electric fireplace.

The doggies spun about or barked, unable to contain themselves.  Rhianna passed the presents to Michael, and he handed them to the dogs.  Each of them began to unwrap their presents in their own way: Zelda swatted at the gifts with her paws in a frenzy, Maisie carefully pulled on the ribbon upon hers, and Luna tossed her head about to peel the wrapping paper off hers.  Before long, each of them had the present that Santa and his friends at the North Pole had prepared for them.

Zelda’s eyes grew wide when she first spotted her frisbee.  It was colored the same way that the Silver Moon had been, though it was made out of softer material.  She kept bringing it to Michael, who gingerly tossed it onto the couch before she would bring it back.

Maisie wagged her tail and presented her present to Rhianna.  It was a little costume that was colored the same way she was, but it had little pink spots on it.  She was happy to be dressed up then, and contentedly hurried to lie in her bed, under the mammoth blanket she had received years earlier.

Luna, on the other hand, was too excited to do anything but give her toy a shake.  The little orange tumbler reminded her of her bowling task at the North Pole, and she kept on moving it around the living room.  As she brought it close to Michael, he grabbed her under her belly, and playfully guided her into a flipping motion, the big pup landing in his lap.  She kicked and grumbled, but then she reached up to give him a smooch on his nose.  He let her roll from his legs, to continue playing with her toy.

“There’s a couple more for us,” Rhianna said.  She reached over and gave Michael a small gift addressed to him, too.

When he opened it, he found a small cartographer’s compass, and upon closer inspection, he noticed the fineness of its points.  As he narrowed his eyes, he realized that the compass had been tipped with glissium, the magical ore that had been found at the North Pole.

Rhianna unwrapped hers as well, and her eyes lit up once she saw the small crystal that had been sent her way.  She held it aloft, looking at it through the light of the window, and she realized that it was not some mere stone, but a chunk of Dawnspike’s castle.  The mighty griffin king must have gone back to where the island had been and found something for her to remember him by.

Michael and Rhianna squished closer together then, watching as their dogs played with their toys, or rested in their comfortable new attire.  Michael grabbed his wife’s hand and gave it a little squeeze.

When they looked at one another, they wore smiles that were mostly ones of joy, but they could both sense a bit of sadness still there.  Still, they knew that each day, that grief would diminish more and more, and they would fill it with more happy thoughts.

Above the little electric fireplace, a picture of Peanut rested on the wall.  It was illuminated by the light of Christmas morning, and the everlasting love of her family, who still kept her in their hearts.

 

 

A huge thank you to Leo Borazio and Steven Bellshaw for helping us with our bookmarks this year.  It is always a blessing to work with people who are so talented, especially when they are adding to something so personal.

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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.