Every year, we I 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 Revelations, below (although you will benefit from reading the older stories first).
A Tale by Michael and Rhianna DeAngelo
In more ways than they cared to admit, the sands in the hourglass seemed to flow in the same direction. Perhaps the only way they changed was that they flowed a little faster.
It was too difficult to ignore. The world still hadn’t quite returned to normal, although there were signs of healing. Gone were the worries of Zelda and Maisie not knowing how to socialize with other people, for there were far more instances of visitors to the house that year, especially as the months went on. And so, too, was Rhianna’s interactions, as careful as they were. The opportunities to see loved ones in safer ways had afforded some relief as well.
Though there was always, on the periphery, some worry that things were not as safe as they could be, a nagging feeling that enough wasn’t being done to feel completely comfortable.
They were baby steps, Michael tried to convince himself.
Yet, with all the baby steps there were, it felt like the previous two years were rolled into one, almost impossible to tell the two apart, with the sensation that far less time had passed than truly had.
When the day came that the DeAngelo family looked forward to each year, it seemed as though it came too quickly. Perhaps for that reason, at first, they didn’t realize everything was not as expected.
The year before, Christmas seemed to come early, and almost entirely too powerfully. It wasn’t until they were whisked away to Tellest that they learned of someone highjacking the holiday portal that typically brought them to Santa for whatever annual adventure or celebration they had in store. Trapped in a strange facsimile of a house, nothing felt quite as rewarding that year as they were hoping after several long and fretful months—until they managed to ride a dragon to freedom and spent their holidays on a comfortable tropical island.
Still, they hadn’t managed to find the one that had thwarted Santa’s plans that year. While it wasn’t typical for the DeAngelo family to hear from their jolly host outside of the holiday season, as the days ticked down to the next Christmas, they wondered about their plans. If Santa’s brother hadn’t been stopped, who was to say that some other sort of deception wouldn’t be set in place a year later?
The difference, Rhianna explained time and time again, was that Santa was prepared that year. They wouldn’t have to worry about being wrapped up in any tricks or ruses, and it was likely to be a perfectly fine time at the North Pole.
That faith was tested as the day before Christmas Eve arrived.
The evening hours, leading to midnight, were not awash in a fresh snowfall, as they often were. Instead, the sky was bleak and grey, just enough light bouncing off the clouds to be able to see outside. It was cold out; the wind rattled the windows of the house just enough that Zelda had to fight against her neurosis. She didn’t shiver like she normally did—bolstered by the Christmas spirit, Michael and Rhianna supposed—but she did pant a bit.
Maisie and Peanut fared a little better, each snuggling the same warm blanket, though neither realized one was atop the other, separated by the layer of fabric. Or, at least, that was what it appeared they wanted others to believe.
Michael sat on the couch beside them, the dog and the cat comforted by his presence, even though he’d spent the day at home rather than at work. Though he’d taken some of the time off to write, at that moment, he’d settled a nice depression into the couch as he played a game.
“I can’t get up,” he insisted to his wife. “Maisie and Peanut would be too sad.”
Rhianna, meanwhile, was filling the house with a lovely aroma, mixing something up in the kitchen. “At least play a game with fun music so that I can listen. Or change it to a show that I’m only half-interested in so that I can listen to the dialog without getting too invested.”
That time was long past, and they were drawing closer to the time they knew that magic would come to their little house. They tried to settle their anxieties, but Michael and Rhianna had to admit, they were concerned with when the magic would arrive, and who it would belong to that year.
Rhianna set down a plate on the coffee table, with piping hot bread and an orangey glace atop it. With the aroma that much closer to her husband, he could no longer ignore it.
“What’s this?” he asked. “Bread and mango butter? Not exactly cookies and eggnog, but I approve.”
“I figured it goes better with where we ended up last year. A nice, warm island filled with yummy food… Santa deserves something special as thanks.”
“Yeah, okay,” Michael said. “But he better be open to sharing.”
For some reason, everyone felt as though they were waiting longer that year. Perhaps it was because everyone had been present throughout, and nothing had given that feeling of speeding up the day. Husband and wife alternated checking their phones, identifying the time.
“Still an hour away,” Rhianna said. “I can just sense the puppies want to talk.”
“And I’m trying to find out what way Peanut is going to berate me when she finds the means to speak.” The dogs barked in unison after the slightest of delays then. “You even had your tuna this year,” Michael said. “That’s right, I didn’t forget.”
“Fifty-nine minutes,” Rhianna grumbled. “Why is this day so long? I can’t wait to hear their little voices again!”
“Hey, let’s not jinx it,” her husband insisted. “The last time we got the portal early, we ended up imprisoned by—”
“That’s not going to happen this year,” Rhianna declared. “I won’t have it. I won’t! This year, we’re going to have a perfectly splendid Christmas free of traps or locked houses, and especially eating things we’re not supposed to.” Maisie ducked her head at that statement, though the woman patted her affectionately, for she had in fact been on her best behavior lately.
“No chasing after rambunctious pups and racing against giants and elves and dwarves?” Michael asked.
“No fending off huge, carnivorous penguins?”
“Not a one.”
“Not even being turned into toys and battling it out against magical rats?”
Rhianna arched her eyebrow and smiled. “That was a bit fun.”
“There’s always something,” Michael said. “Even when it doesn’t look like there’s going to be.”
Time continued to pass, and while they could have sworn it was the next day already, it was still minutes from midnight.
“Hey, look on the bright side,” Michael said. “We’re not being tricked into an escape room by Santa’s brother.”
Rhianna looked around, narrowing her eyes. “Unless that’s what he wants us to think. Curious that you said that, and that you stayed home today this year, isn’t it?”
“You really need to get out more,” Michael said, leaning over and kissing her on the forehead.
Rhianna feigned an angry glare at her husband, but the next moment, she cuddled up next to him a little closer on the couch, and grabbed his arm, nuzzling his shoulder with her head. “You know, I wasn’t a fan of being deceived last year, but it was nice that the animals could talk a little bit earlier.” Peanut hopped onto the couch then, searching for scratches. Rhianna couldn’t stave off a laugh then, acquiescing to that request at once. “Even the most persnickety of voices,” she added.
Maisie and Zelda joined them there some time later, the entire family snuggled together on the couch.
“A full boat,” Michael said with a smile on his face.
Of course, Peanut could only accept being flanked by the pups for a few moments before she hopped off Rhianna’s lap, forcing an involuntary grunt from the woman.
Rhianna sat forward then and reached for her phone. “Do you want me to plug yours in so that it’s charged when we…”
As her words trailed off, Michael stopped scratching behind Maisie’s ears and tilted his head. “What is it?” he wondered.
“Look,” his wife said, turning her phone to face him. The locked screen showed the time then, the large numbers reading 12:02. “It’s after midnight, and the portal still isn’t open.”
“Really?” Michael asked, nudging the pup off his lap. “Maybe your phone’s time is off?” When he clicked the button on his own phone however, he saw that his phone had flipped to 12:03 then as well. “What’s going on?” he muttered.
“What are we going to do?” Rhianna asked.
“Well, I mean, it isn’t like Santa has any sort of technical support line, as far as I know. But what about the book? He communicated with us by book last year a few times. Maybe he’s sending us messages this year as well.”
Rhianna leapt from the couch, eager to test that theory. She ran to the writing desk they kept in the room, and grabbed for the tome that spoke of Santa’s lineage, and of the things he did to bring Christmas to life. With a sigh setting her shoulders into a slump, she shook her head.
“Nothing here as far as I can tell.”
Even the animals seemed to know something was strange then, and Zelda ran to the back door of the house, scratching at the door.
“What is it, girl?” Michael asked. He rose from his seat on the couch and hurried there as well, wondering if something was beginning to take shape there. “Do you see anything out there?” he asked the pup.
Zelda looked at him for some time, almost as if she expected to be able to say something, but no words came out from betwixt her whiskered lips, and she scratched at the door again. That late, several minutes after midnight, he was a bit worried about her waking up the neighbors, but nobody seemed to notice anything in the years that passed. Then again, in those other years, there was certainly magic that took shape in the backyard of the DeAngelo household.
Reeling him from his thoughts, Zelda scratched even more incessantly. Michael finally relented, and set the door open, a cool breeze whipping through the house enough that he thought of shutting the door at once. Zelda skittered outside, and the rear light flickered on, but still, nothing could be seen.
“Last year things were way too early. Maybe this year the pendulum is swinging the other way,” Rhianna said. “But I don’t remember Santa saying anything about it. I don’t think he would have just decided not to bring us this year without telling us.”
“You haven’t done anything that put us on the naughty list, have you?” Michael asked. He chuckled to himself and shook his head, before looking at the other pooch on the couch. “Maisie, do you want to go outside too?”
The littlest pup of the household was always the most excited to venture out into the world, whether it was because of a biological need or a psychological one, to check the perimeter, or even just to take a single step out and give everything an ocular pat-down. That night, it was hard for her to even drag herself off the couch, and when she skittered to the other room, she stopped at Michael’s side, refusing to go outside. She looked up at him, and when he looked down, she leaned over, nuzzling her head against his leg.
“I know, baby girl. I want you to be able to talk too.”
By the time Rhianna stood beside the table and looked outside, Zelda seemed inconsolable. “I can’t believe how sad they are. I guess we really take for granted how much they look forward to this time of year.”
“They’re usually adventures like no other,” Michael said, a wistful tone causing a crack in his voice. He looked back to the oven, the green light displaying the time. “It’s ten minutes after midnight,” he said then. “I’m guessing we’re not going anywhere this year. I’ll go out with them and make sure they do their business and then we can get ready for bed, I suppose.”
When Michael stepped outside, Maisie went with him, looking up at him with every step they took, as though she was hoping he could bring the Christmas magic to life. After a few seconds, she realized he was as unable to do anything as she was, and she set off sniffing at the ground.
She couldn’t find a spot she was satisfied with when a loud gust of wind blew through the area. A large puff of snow seemed to arrive then as well, but Michael looked about the area in curiosity. He glanced back at the door to the house, and saw his wife’s widened eyes, and she pointed to the ground there.
Sure enough, the snow had come up from the ground.
Michael recognized the outline of the portal at once. “Zelda, get out of there right now!”
But it was too late. As gusts of snow burst out of the ground, finishing their circle, the portal came into being, and Zelda fell through the magical vortex.
Rhianna banged on the door before opening it, and the force of the wind was almost enough to rip it off its hinges. “It was early last year, and it’s late this year,” she called out. “What if it’s a trap like last year?”
“Even if it is, it’s too late to hold off now,” the man insisted.
“Oh, we’re going,” she replied. “But just be prepared for whatever is on the other side.”
Michael nodded, and before he had even taken his first step, Maisie charged forth as well. Together, both leapt into the portal, crashing through the wall of rising snow.
Inside the house, Rhianna turned back toward the living room. “Come on Peanut,” she said. “I know you always resist, but…”
Even as she spoke, the cat scurried forward, though slow enough as to say, “I know you’ll bother me until I follow, but I’ll do it at my own pace.”
When they were both outside, Rhianna shut the door to the house, ensuring none of the snow would get in while they ventured to Tellest. She scooped the feline up then, and then reached the perimeter of the portal. She narrowed her eyes, and covered Peanut’s face so that the cat wouldn’t be bothered by the rush of snow, and then, taking a breath, she jumped as far into the center of the portal as she could, disappearing beneath the ground.
The roar of the snow and the wind continued for a few more moments, and then it stopped, the ground closing up again, the snow that churned into the air finally able to come back down again. Before long, any evidence of the portal being there at all was covered in white flakes, and a few moments later, the backdoor light of the DeAngelo household went dim.
* * *
Michael shouted as he fell, hoping there was a pile of snow on the other side of the vortex to crash into. By the time the portal magic wore off, and he saw where he would be landing in Tellest, it was too late. He landed with a thud, a cloud of powdery snow taking to the air.
The man groaned, unable to produce a noise loud enough for even him to hear, and he rolled to his back—just in time for Maisie to land on his stomach, forcing a large breath from his lungs. She didn’t seem to care too much that she had knocked the wind out of him, and she licked his face a few times before scampering off to investigate the area.
Off to the side, Michael saw Zelda peering off into the distance, the horizon seeming much farther off than he expected. He climbed to his knees then, his arms outstretched, and he crawled a little bit away, hoping not to be squashed any further.
Before he could rise to his feet, Rhianna emerged through the portal, landing on a bent knee and an outstretched hand. She looked to Michael at her side, who wore an impressed visage.
“Did you just stick a superhero landing?” he asked, his voice still quiet and ragged.
Before Rhianna could answer, Peanut hopped from her other arm, and bounced on the ground after realizing how cold it was. She, too, moved beyond the landing ground, toward where Maisie and Zelda stood.
“I’ll bet it looked cool, but my body is going to hate me for that in the morning,” Rhianna said.
“It already is the morning, technically,” Michael replied.
“I stand by what I said.” She took her husband’s hand, and they both labored to stand a little straighter then. Together, they looked to their trio of pets, watching them gaze off into the distance. “What are they all looking at?”
It didn’t take long for them to find that enlightenment. A few rocky outcroppings stood in the area, but there was a clearing not far from them which the animals looked on from. As Michael and Rhianna neared them, they realized they stood atop a clifftop overlook, with a seascape stretching out below them.
As majestic as the view was, it was perhaps the wooden longboats that sailed toward the nearest shore that caught their attention the most. There were a variety of sailors in the ships, though from that distance, nobody on the clifftop could see anyone clearly enough to know if they were friend or foe. They did notice that the longship figureheads were fashioned to look like reindeer, though.
“That has to be Santa’s fleet, right?” Rhianna asked.
“I’m not sure,” Michael said. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Santa having a navy before.” He hummed to himself then. “An air force? Now that makes sense to me.”
“Whatever sort of military forces Santa has on his side, this is unlike anything we’ve ever faced this close to Christmas,” his wife said. “Things must be far bleaker than we imagined. Just listen to how quiet it is. I’ve played enough Viking video games to know what a battle is supposed to feel like, and it’s unlike longboats to be so quiet.”
“There must be a plan brewing,” Michael said.
As the pair discussed everything from war arrangements that they imagined their friend made, to the kind of enemies they expected to face on the field of battle, to just where that battlefield would be, the youngest member of the DeAngelo family couldn’t help but be distracted by something else. A bug with a golden-glowing thorax buzzed about the area, and Maisie couldn’t help but follow it with her gaze. If Zelda or Peanut seemed concerned with it, they didn’t show it.
Maisie turned about, trying to boop the bug with her nose. It was no use though, for every time she drew close enough to touch it, the lumibug, an insect native to Tellest—though that one was certainly a bit exotic looking, even for the strange bugs—buzzed just far enough away for her to miss interacting with it.
That wouldn’t be a problem, she soon realized. A handful of other lumibugs joined the first one, those other ones blinking with light of their own, in shades of green, blue, and red to join the golden yellow luminescence of the first one that caught Maisie’s attention. She hopped into the air to play with the bugs as best she could, but they flew about in a crazy manner, until they ended up landing on a bush a bit further away from the cliffside. At once, it looked like the shrubbery was decorated for the festive season, the bugs looking almost ornamental in their appearance as they rested there.
While Maisie stared at them, the small branches of the bush seemed to rattle and sway. The little dog didn’t know what to think at first, but when she noticed the pair of eyes staring back at her, she knew what she had to do. She took in a deep breath of crisp air that filled her lungs.
“Merry Christmas!” she cried out.
The person hiding in the bush let their eyes go wide for a moment before they disappeared behind the greenery once more. Behind Maisie, the rest of her family turned to regard her.
Maisie’s voice echoed across the cliff side, and they were sure that those in the longboats heard her as well.
“Let’s just hope they’re on our side,” Michael said.
“We’ve got more important things to pay attention to,” Rhianna said. “Our babies can talk again!”
The lumibugs took to the air again, along with a bigger swarm of them that had been hiding within the bush, and Maisie twirled about and jumped in the air to play with them. Her patches of white fur made an excellent canvas for the light to spill upon.
“Who were you yelling Merry Christmas to?” Rhianna wondered. “There’s no one here.”
“There was though!” Maisie said, excited enough not to stop playing with her new insect friends, although every time she spun about, her eyes landed in the shrubbery not too far from them. “Whoever it is, they’re hiding in there.”
Michael stood on the tips of his toes to try and peer into the bushes, but he didn’t see anything besides more lumibugs that flashed their abdomens about. “Maisie, I think you might have just saw a couple of bugs close enough together that they looked like eyes.”
The little pup quit hopping around then, grumbling at the two humans. “I know what I saw,” she insisted.
“Yeah,” Peanut interjected with a roll of her eyes. “It’s just like all those times you hop in the window and bark at nothing.”
“There are squirrels that need to be told their place,” Maisie said.
“You know that much is true,” Zelda added. “She’s pretty good at keeping her eyes out for rodents.”
“You’re a rodent,” Peanut teased.
“Psst!” they all heard then.
They looked about, trying to make sense of what just happened, but no body could understand where the noise came from. Then Rhianna’s eyes flashed, and she pointed at the bush. “Look!”
Sure enough, there were a pair of large eyes staring at them, and as the person inside the shrubbery pushed forward, the family could see their pointy ears poking out as well.
“You must be one of Santa’s friends!” Maisie exuberantly declared.
“Hopefully those folks in the boats are on our side as well,” Rhianna said.
The hidden elf brought her hand up and out of the bush, before swinging it back around and hovering it over its camouflaged lips.
“Never a good sign after your echoes are heard around all of the surrounding area,” Michael said.
The elf stepped out of the shrubbery and looked about anxiously. The DeAngelo family could see that it was a female elf, like many under Santa’s employ, although that one wore battle paint and looked ready for war.
“There’s trouble in Tellest,” she warned with a whisper. “There’s not much I can tell you here, but once we meet up with Santa, he’ll know what to do.”
“So, Santa is alright,” Rhianna said, blowing out a sigh. “We had thought, with the portal opening so late…”
The elven maiden raised her hand to quiet the woman. “Best not to speak out loud. There could be hidden listeners.”
“By the time we find out what’s going on, those people in the boats will climb this cliff, and we’ll have very active listeners,” Michael joked, earning a scowl from the elf.
“We’re hoping they’re our reinforcements,” she said. “But you know Santa’s brother. He’s a master of deception, and it could all be a devious ploy. We don’t want your presence here known, so if I am to take you to our mutual friend, you’ll need to be silent.”
“I can do that,” Maisie excitedly offered. “I’m very good at being quiet,” she blurted.
“Only when you’re sleeping,” Zelda insisted.
“And barely then,” Peanut added.
The youngest animal grumbled a bit then. “Why are you two always picking on me.”
“Because you’re the baby,” Zelda explained. “It’s your job.”
“It’s okay,” Rhianna said, kneeling to pet the pup, as well as her two furry siblings who couldn’t stave off their jealously, and needed pets of their own. “It’s a very important job to have.”
“Come on,” the elven maiden said, beckoning the family on. “At the very least, we can get you beneath cover where prying eyes might not see you.”
The elf’s noticeable anxiety as she led them down rocky corridors through the mountain added to the DeAngelo family’s sense of unrest. Even in trying times, during Christmas, Tellest had always held a sense of magic and wonder for the family of five. But this year seemed bleaker, and more foreboding. Rhianna sent a worried glance in Michael’s direction, her eyes echoing the same look of weariness he’d seen the last two years back home. Without a word he reached out and squeezed her hand, which she knew meant everything would be ok.
The animals walked ahead, closely following the elf. Maisie kept nudging slightly ahead of the elf before looking back, as if willing her to walk faster. Every so often, she whispered “is this quiet enough? I can be even quieter.” Then, in the same exact pitch, she went on. “Isn’t this even more quieter?”
Zelda let out a grumble. “It’s been a while since I put my mouth over your face. I think you need a reminder of who’s boss.” Peanut whipped her head around incredulously at Zelda. “I meant…I meant just of her. Sometimes. When you’re upstairs.”
“Even when you can’t see me, I’m still the boss.”
Michael and Rhianna’s smiles at their exchange faded as they heard the unearthly sounds on the other side of a large stone wall covered in a dusting of white snow. It appeared as if the stones were haphazardly placed, perhaps from a rockslide or explosion on the side of the mountain. The sounds from the other side seemed muffled, as if by magic.
The two humans tried to detect what was there beyond the barrier. A commotion of some sort was there, but they couldn’t yet pinpoint a sound. Whatever cacophony was there was beyond their detection
The elf gently placed her hands on the stones and uttered words of power in a language they did not understand. She stepped backward a few feet toward the family. Nothing happened for a moment, but then the rocks began swirling together weightlessly in the air, forming a human-like shape, although it was three times as tall and four times as wide as Michael, the tallest of the present group. Just a short while later, a large golem of ice and snow stood there, fully formed and looming above them. The being peered down at the elf, and she fearlessly instructed it to allow passage. As soon as the order was given, the golem stepped aside, and the ground rattled with the force of its steps. A faint swirling shimmer could be seen through the gentle snow flurries that blew from the mountain. There was motion on the other side, but nothing could be seen clearly through it.
“That must be a magic barrier,” Rhianna said.
The elf sent her a nod of acknowledgement. “Quickly, we must hurry and close the entrance. I’ll take you to Santa when we’re through.”
Peanut fearlessly followed the elf through, with Maisie close on her heels. Rhianna and Michael looked around for Zelda and panicked when they did not immediately find her. Michael then felt something shiver behind his boots.
“What’s wrong?” Michael asked.
“The rock monster stomps were loud!” she whimpered.
Michael chuckled, picked her up and kissed her on the head. There’s probably going to be a lot of noise and a lot of people in there. Will you be brave?” he asked.
“I’ll be… I’m tough,” she insisted. “It was just unexpected.”
Michael then looked to his wife, who looked worriedly at the portal. “There’s probably going to be a lot of people in there. Are you going to be all right?” he asked, half in jest.
Rhianna sighed. “I’m fine. It’s Christmas in Tellest. It’s different from back home. At least everyone here is jolly.”
As they passed through the magic barrier, they were flooded with very un-jolly sights and sounds.
They emerged through the magic barrier as though they had walked through a silk certain, into a clearing surrounded by mountains. Crude hide tents were set up as far as the eye could see. The festively dressed elves that they were used to in years passed were bustling about in leather and steel armor, with red and green warpaint adorning their faces. The deafening clang of metal against anvils could be heard echoing through the clearing, as strong-armed dwarves mercilessly gave shape to weapons that they forged. Where toys had been made in years past, all their attention was on instruments of war.
Even the gnomes who tinkered on some of Santa’s greatest projects, bustled about, hoping to be able to pivot away from playful gadgets to implements of the conflict yet to come. Perhaps they could turn the tide and secure a victory for their otherwise jolly champion.
Orders were barked on all sides as the three races prepared for battle against whatever enemy they may be facing. The DeAngelo family stood frozen at the unsettling scene. Maisie’s attention drifted to some nearby elves rolling a large snowball.
“Well, at least they seem to be having fun…” Maisie said with a nervous lick and a gulp.
The elves placed one sizable snowball on top of another, and another. Encircling the figure, they began to chant a spell. Hollow eyes and a cavernous mouth formed on the upper snowball, fashioning an almost skull-like appearance. Frozen arms sprouted from the sides of its spherical torso. Then, all at once, the snowman came to life, and it reached for a nearby offered weapon, taking it between frigid fingers.
“Okay,” said Zelda, wide eyed and perturbed.
The elf maiden beckoned them away from the army of the weapon-wielding snowmen taking shape. “Come, Santa has been awaiting your arrival.”
She brought the family through the rudimentary walkways between the encampments, and into the heart of the chaotic battle preparations. A large tent, standing taller than the rest and covered in fur pelts and an array of fabrics to keep out the frigid air stood before them. The elf maiden announced loudly that the DeAngelo family had arrived, but there was no reply from within. She cleared her throat and announced formally again. “I have brought the DeAngelo family, by your command.” Again, no reply came from within. Before she could try again, Zelda bolted through the flap in the tent, yelling “Santa” with glee. She immediately screamed and ran back out, batting her face with her paws as if something were wrong with her eyes.
“What happened?” the two humans of the group said in concerned unison.
“He’s … he’s….”
Before she could finish her sentence, Michael and Rhianna opened the flap of the tent, preparing for terrible news.
“He’s naked!” she finally exclaimed.
The two humans immediately dropped the tent fabric as if it burned their hands. Before it fully closed, they could not hope to stave off the state of shock that gripped them. Santa was clothed by then, in boots and pants, padded with leather and plated in steel. His torso, however, was partially exposed as he fastened his tunic, and under the long white beard were the broad, defined muscles of a seasoned warrior. Santa was covered in battle scars, and looked more like a Viking conqueror than the jolly Father Christmas they came to know through the years. The husband and wife looked at each other with raised eyebrows, fighting the urge to laugh at the unexpected sight.
“Sorry Santa,” said Rhianna sheepishly.
“Was he really naked?” asked Maisie.
“No, he wasn’t,” Rhianna said with a chuckle. “But I didn’t expect him to be ripped.” Her face glowed pink with embarrassment as she heard rustling within the tent, clearly within earshot.
Michael looked gleeful, excited to make fun of her for the blunder for a long, long time. Still embarrassment could come later. “He must have a marvelous diet plan,” he said, tapping her in the side with his elbow. “Although come to think of it, lugging all those presents around is probably a decent enough workout.”
Santa emerged from the tent then, and the merriment died at the sight of him, wearing a fretful scowl, with worried eyes that seemed far more distant than in all the years since they’d first met him.
He was fully clad in armor, with the underlying fabric dyed blood red. He wore a large white and grey fur mantle draped across his shoulders, and a thick black leather belt with matching leather boots. Two giant war axes, elaborately carved with runes, and seemingly too large for one man to carry, were strapped to his back.
“Ripped huh?” Peanut said, looking him up and down with a discerning eye. “Hmm. Must be all the milk and cookies,” she said sarcastically.
Santa’s serious visage broke, and he let out a familiar chuckle.
“That’s indeed correct,” he playfully remarked to the small cat.
Michael chuckled with a smirk and patted his own belly. “Uh, I assure you, it isn’t.”
Rhianna nudged his shoulder and mumbled “Calories don’t count on Christmas.”
“Or on birthdays,” he replied.
“Or when we’re sad.”
“What’s a calories?” Maisie wondered, tilting her head in confusion.
“Fuel for fetching!” Zelda explained.
Santa’s lips parted as he prepared another few remarks for his honored guests, but before he could say anything, he peered over their heads, and called out to his bustling holiday legion.
“Remember, either bolster the snowmen with something sturdy inside, or with magic,” his deep voice resonated. “We need them to survive whatever force comes their way.”
None of the DeAngelo family remembered him speaking with such a low timbre in all the years that they had visited him. They were certain that the stress of whatever turmoil had come to the North Pole had affected him tremendously.
Santa sighed, and for the briefest of moments, his voice rose back to a familiar tone. “I’m sorry, but we have urgent matters to discuss. There is a power at work that threatens Tellest, your world, and countless others.” The solemnity of his words rang in all their ears. He turned his attention to the elf maiden, who stood up straighter to receive his order. “Ellaria, please be a dear and go to the dwarf forge master and fetch my helm.” Zelda perked up at the word fetch, but Michael nudged her slightly with his leg and shook his head. She understood the message that it was not the time for play, but her ears lowered a bit, nonetheless.
There was no hope in reining in all the animals’ whimsy though, as Maisie stepped forward and puffed out her chest. “You know, I’m something of a foragemaster myself,” she announced. “I find all kinds of things in the grass that I’m not supposed to eat.”
Rhianna groaned and slapped her forehead, while Michael shook his head and tried not to chuckle.
Michael was able to push past the quirky comments, noting the gravity of the situation. “This isn’t a normal turn of events,” he said to Santa then. “Is this about your brother?”
Their oft-jolly host let a somber nod answer for him for a moment, and then he stood in silence for a few seconds longer. “I had thought that Loki would have had enough fun last year tormenting you, but it seems he’s back in full force this year. We first noticed his arrival when he and his pillagers ransacked and took over my workshop. Shortly after, he drove out the dwarves from the mines, and forced them back across the frozen wastes. He amassed a squadron of frost giants and snow satyrs—far more than live in Tellest, I’d wager, at least this close together. He’s fashioning his own army and preparing for an invasion.”
“Why?” Rhianna asked. “Is he trying to stop Christmas?”
“Worse,” Santa insisted. “He’ll try to use what I’ve made of the North Pole and use it to take over this world. And when he’s done here, he’ll try to take over yours, and any other world that celebrates any version of Yule.”
“I don’t understand,” Michael said. “Why would he do that?”
“It’s his own cruel way of mocking our history.” The embodiment of Christmas stood taller then and folded his burly arms over his chest. “I trust you’ve read the tome I gave you so many years ago?”
Rhianna nodded and offered the fellow a wide smile. “We’ve been waiting forever to talk about this,” she said, almost too excited to bear.
“Right,” Santa said. “Well then, you know the truth of it. You know who I was before I came to Tellest.”
“Baldr,” Michael said, invoking the fellow’s original name.
Santa bowed his head, as though hearing his old moniker was a heavy burden to bear. “You two might know the story, but your little ones may not.”
He shuffled back a step and sat upon the edge of the table beside his tent, leaning on his knee. “Once in a land far away, I was noted for celebrating far different things. I was the leader of hunts, and a prince upon my people, beloved by all, but soon cursed with the gift of foresight: that one day I would be struck down by one I called friend. My mother also saw the signs of my demise, and she worked tirelessly to find a way to save me.
“But it was not to be,” Santa explained. “Despite all her searches, and all her delving into magics, and seeking out the aid of others, my fate could not be changed. Even though I seemed impervious to any other sort of injuries, there was one thing that could pierce the shroud that protected me. It was the same ingredient that my mother had used to make a concoction that would otherwise keep me safe: mistletoe.”
Santa stared off into the snow on the ground beyond the DeAngelo family while they listened, enraptured by his tale.
“For a brief while, everything seemed to be going better. I felt more confident, took greater risks, and even acted recklessly. The others among the Aesir would fall upon me to surprise me and start a scuffle, seeing if they could do anything to harm me, but I would always find a way to come out unharmed. Swords and hammers bounced off me. Arrows could not pierce my skin. It seemed I had imagined the opposite of what could happen to me.
“With my confidence regained, I led a pack of mighty hunters on an escapade across the sky. Back then, I had horses that could fly instead of reindeer, but we almost came back with a good haul. It was a cause for celebration again and again.
“One night, my hunters and I were playing around,” Santa said. “I swore, to the ends of the mountains and back, that no matter what they did, they wouldn’t be able to hurt me. Despite our better judgment, they tried with just about everything: axes, slings, shields. But it was then that a surprising event took place. My brother, Hudr, blinded by darkness since he was young, stepped forward, brandishing an exquisite spear. Now, we didn’t know at the time, but it was crafted out of mistletoe. Had I been aware of it, I would have avoided the damned thing like my life depended on it—because it did.”
Santa rubbed his abdomen just above his right hip. “It didn’t take long. The mistletoe reacted in my body at once, sending me spiraling to the ground. I must have been unconscious before I fell, for I remember dreaming before I could feel the sensation of my head hitting anything. The dream again left me believing I was going to die.
“But I didn’t,” he declared. “In my visions, I always saw myself fall, but it was never a violent sight or anything along those lines. Even caught in the mistletoe’s poison, I was aware that the interpretation I had years before was wrong. I still lived, caught somewhere between awareness and a stupor that robbed me of myself. I was weak, weary, and at danger of something terrible happening to me, but I would yet live.
“Outside of the oblivion I was trapped inside, the others of the Aesir believed that Hudr had killed me. While he was put in shackles and locked away, the person who gave him the spear was still slinking around in the shadows.
“Now, admittedly, my mother had grown a bit paranoid over the prior year or so, always looking for a way to keep me safe. She knew that there was some foul deed at play that had set me to oblivion. While I lay on the cusp of eternal darkness, she conspired with my wife and one of our good friends, the dwarf Litr, to send me off somewhere safe from whoever had tried to have me killed.”
Michael and Rhianna looked to each other, familiar indeed with what had happened after Santa, his wife, and the dwarf came to Tellest.
“So, you think that Loki was the one to give Hudr the spear,” Rhianna surmised.
“And that now, after all these years, he’s finally found the other world you made your home, and he’s trying to finish the job,” Michael added.
Santa nodded. “Even with thousands of years to try and find out what little details he could, I’ve managed to keep my identity and my secrets safe. But I knew it was only a matter of time before he would find me again. Still, I’ve no idea why he harbors a grudge after everything that’s transpired. All I know is that he threatens all we’ve built here, and if we don’t do anything to stop him, we may be in greater trouble than in any recent time I can recall.”
“We’ve faced down lots of things for the sake of Christmas,” Zelda said, puffing out her fluffy chest a little bit. “We’ll help to make sure Loki doesn’t stop it.”
Peanut sighed and sat down beside her, for a moment springing back up as she felt the cold snow on her backside. “As much as I am loathe to agree with the dog, she’s right. We didn’t spend the last five years helping you just to let some guttersnipe swoop in.” She looked to her two humans and narrowed her eyes. “We do not like uninvited guests.”
Santa chuckled then; his hearty belly laughs almost returned before his weariness took over. “Alas, I don’t believe he’s using my resources to stop Christmas. “He’s planning on taking over this world, as well as yours, and any other that celebrates Wintertide, or any sort of version of Yuletide. In fact, I suspect yours might be the next on his list after what happened last year. He was going to use the portal I open for you at midnight each year, but I thought better of it this year, and suspected something was amiss. Sure enough, when I opened my portal, you could see his mischievous magic taking shape. The color changed on this side, but who is to say what it looked like on the other end. All I do know is that I arranged something with Rurnar. A few giants from an opposing clan may have had a portal open up in their den, instead of it opening up in the DeAngelo household.” When a few eyes grew wider at that revelation, he waved his hand and shook his head. “They’ll be fine. If there are puzzles to sort through like last year, I’m sure they’ll take a heavier-handed approach, but the important thing is that you’re all here. And might I add, I apologize for the delay.”
“That’s okay Santa-man,” Maisie cheerfully said. “We’re here now, and as I understand it, there are cookies for Christmas?”
“Cookies are for celebrating,” Santa said, regret tinging his voice. “I’m sorry, little one, but a proper feast is only something we can come home to if we achieve victory this day.”
Maisie bowed her head, sniffling at her poor fortune. “I always get food when I come to the North Pole.”
“It’s alright, Maisie,” Michael said, stepping forward and bending low to scratch behind her neck. “We’ll help Santa beat Loki, and you’ll have a full belly in no time.”
“Santa, couldn’t we enlist some help from some of the other Aesir?” Rhianna wondered. “Couldn’t Odin, or Thor, or Hela offer some sort of assistance?”
The Father of Christmas shook his head. “At this point, I’d think they’d be like to join with Loki. Imagine not seeing your family for such a long while that…” His words drifted off then, for both Michael and Rhianna arched their eyebrows and folded their arms across their chests. “Yes, yes, I suppose that was a poor excuse. Perhaps I could send a missive, but by the time they receive it, Tellest could be overrun, with all the other worlds soon to follow.”
“I don’t know,” Michael said in a sardonic voice. “It sounds to me like someone is ashamed they kept their whereabouts and survival a secret. You know, it’s been over a year since I’ve seen my brother, and I miss him like crazy. Your family would be overjoyed to hear from you again, even if things have changed after all this time.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” Santa said. “And it’s an error I shall consider if we manage to push Loki back. But for now, we must prepare for battle. Did you see the longboats in the bay?”
“Yep!” Zelda replied. “They looked like Svetlana boats,” she said, her tail wagging as she recalled her Wintertide friend.
“Then battle is nearly upon us,” Santa insisted. “On the other side of the bay, the battle will commence. I’ve sent another fleet of ships on the other side to distract him. But we’ll attack him from the rear and give him a taste of his own medicine.”
“So, no daring espionage missions into the heart of danger?” Rhianna wondered.
“No sending us hurtling back through time to stop Loki before he gets here?” Michael asked.
“No fiskeblugen?” Peanut asked. When all eyes landed on her, she furrowed her feline brow, and stood a little straighter. “What? Every plan is better with fiskeblugen.”
Santa looked beyond the DeAngelo family then and offered up a whistle to some of his other allies. “Alas, we don’t have the means to set…most of those plans in motion. My adopted brother has taken over many of the places we would use to enact any meaningful strategies. I’m at my wits’ end, and I believe we’ve exhausted all other options. Therefore, I believe we’ve no better plans than this.” He gestured with his chin beyond the family.
They turned about to see a group of dwarves hurrying their way with weapons and armor in hand, including armor that would have been far too small for humans to wear.
“Those outfits are much different than the ones we usually get from you,” Michael said.
“Unusual times call for unusual measures,” Santa said. “War isn’t something that I would typically encourage, but we’ll need every soldier we can get on the front lines. My only hope is that our magic can be made to serve us well—I don’t want anyone being injured if I can help it.”
“It is Christmas,” Rhianna said. “No one should be hurt on Christmas.”
Before anyone could offer up even the suggestion of a protest, the dwarves moved into position, helping the recent arrivals into their armor. The animals, despite being a bit skittish, were wrapped in mythril plate then as well. The armor was light, but sturdy. After Michael and Rhianna donned their protective gear, the dwarves handed over an axe to the man, and a shield and spear to the woman.
“Hey, why don’t I get a weapon?” Zelda asked.
“You’ll just have to use your teeth,” a voice they had just grown used to called out. Ellaria hurried back to the tent, wringing her hands as she drew near.
“My teeth are exclusively designed to chew rawhide,” the little dog grumbled.
Maisie shuffled a little closer to her, struggling just a bit against the buckle of the armor she wore. “You’re supposed to chew it?” she asked her big sister.
As they discussed their methods of ingesting their treats—and how Maisie believed Zelda was mocking her with how long she took to eat her rawhide—the third animal of the DeAngelo pack was fitted to her own armor. Peanut, the lightest of the three, had a thin mythril plate situated on her body, and once the dwarves had it covering her, she looked ready for battle. But as they stepped away from her, everyone in attendance could see that she had gone rigid. Whereas she normally looked about with fluid movements, she only glanced this way and that with her eyes then. A moment later, she tipped to the side, her tail sweeping as an indication that she was no longer happy with the plan.
“Peanut, this is no time to go catatonic,” Rhianna teased.
“I don’t need this foolish outfit,” the cat grumbled.
“It’s for your own protection,” Michael said. “And the dwarves looked like they worked really hard on it, so you be gracious about it.”
“Put it on some other prissy kitten then,” she said. “Put me on the front lines, Santa. I’m in the mood for murder.”
All the other members of the DeAngelo family stood a little straighter after that comment, but in taking turns looking at each other, they began to nod in understanding.
“We’re just going to leave her behind this time, aren’t we?” Michael asked.
“We’ll lash her to the mast,” Rhianna said with a chuckle. “Otherwise there goes your plans for keeping injuries down to a minimum,” she said to the Christmas figurehead.
Santa sighed, and nodded to the dwarves, who removed the armor from the cat. “We mustn’t waste more time. I’ll work with Nanna to make sure there’s magic in place that will protect the little ones, even if they don’t wear armor. And to, uh…make sure that she doesn’t sink her claws too deep into Loki’s troops.”
A horn sounded in the distance, in the direction of the cliff that the DeAngelo family arrived on.
“Best get ready,” one of the dwarves said.
The camp bustled with activity as Santa’s soldiers moved on from their preparations. The elves and dwarves hurried out of the camp, while the gnomes and the enchanted snowmen took a bit more time to move on their way.
Santa waved his guests on, and together, they made their way outside of the camp proper, and with a wave of Santa’s hand, the hulking golem that stood as its guardian returned to its rocky form.
“We can’t have anyone seeing our battle plans,” Santa said. “As long as this fellow remains undefeated, the rest of the camp will look like mere rocks as well, even from the sky.”
“That’s a shame,” Michael stated. “It would have made a good combatant on the battlefield.”
“Sometimes you must fight battles with your wits more than your strength,” their host said. “Hopefully this surprise attack puts us in a better position to recover our losses.”
“We’ll find ourselves a victory this day,” Rhianna said. “Christmas and Santa go hand in hand, and because of that, we’ll win through.”
The group made their way through the rocky paths that Ellaria had wound them through earlier. In some of the especially hilly areas, they could see beyond the outcroppings, to the large stretch of empty space beyond the cliffs, and the sea that stretched out beyond the horizon. Rather than heading up the path that they had come from upon their arrival, Santa led them on a sharper descent, and before long, they could see the shore, and the longships that would take them across the bay to where the battle would commence.
Still there was quite a way to walk, and not all of them were happy with the travels.
They heard her grunts before they turned to appreciate the great efforts Zelda was making. She leapt off the ground, and even with the mythril armor upon her back, she managed to jump as high as the humans’ hips.
“Pick me up!” she cried. “I don’t want to walk anymore!”
Rhianna looked down at the pup, and held her arms out wide, showing off her gear. “I’m sorry baby girl, but I’ve kind of got my hands full here.”
Michael bent down to a knee and draped his war axe over his shoulder. With his free hand, he scooped Zelda up, letting her rest against his other shoulder. “Just be careful,” he said. “I don’t want you to get a close shave with the axe.”
While they continued, Maisie drew closer to Peanut then, and dared to whisper to her. “You might be the queen, but she’s definitely a princess.”
The cat couldn’t help but chuckle at that comment.
Finally, the group reached the shore, and followed Santa as he approached one of the nearer longships. Just like all the boats in his fleet, the figurehead was fashioned to look like a reindeer. All the ships had different, unique sails that marked them upon the sea, but the one that Santa moved toward looked the most like him. The sail was fashioned to look red like his suit, with white snowflakes stylizing the look.
“It’s just waiting for us now,” Santa said. “If you two would help us sail, we’ll reach the other side that much quicker.”
Michael nodded. “Sorry Zelda, I’m going to have to put you down.” He placed her on the ship, and she scrambled to a spot she felt more fitting for her.
Rhianna helped as well after she had placed her spear in the boat and set her shield against its side. One after the other, she assisted the other two animals, though Peanut sprang off her when she felt safe to make the leap.
Michael grabbed his wife’s wrist and rubbed her hand. “Are you going to be alright? I know how you do with motion sickness.”
She furrowed her brow and widened her eyes. “Don’t embarrass me in front of our favorite Christmas wizard,” she bade.
“Ah, but that might soon change,” Santa said, clearly hearing what the woman said. When his guests turned to regard him, he gestured toward the cliffsides on their side of the bay.
At first, the DeAngelo family thought perhaps they were to look at the cliff where they had entered Tellest that year. However, it was a bit farther away: a rocky precipice that extended up and out, the sheer drop below frightening indeed.
The person atop it did not seem bothered in the slightest. The moon shining bright in the sky behind her, they could see a figure wearing the same shade of red as Santa, with an aura of magic surrounding her.
“Is that…?” Rhianna asked, her words trailing off, for she believed she knew the truth of her question before she asked it in full.
“That she is,” Santa confirmed. “I told her that I’d prefer it if she stayed out of the thick of it tonight. She has some history with Loki as well, and he may not know that she is from our old world.”
As he spoke, his better half gesticulated, working her magic until the aura that seemed to surround her pitched off toward the bay. The arcane light coalesced, looking like the northern lights. As it flowed forth, the sails atop the longships billowed, carrying the vessels forth. The creaking of wood was the only sound that announced the fleet of Santa’s ships as they traveled toward battle. The magical ribbons of light moved about until the woman seemed to disappear into the night, as though a swath of clouds had blocked out the moon and the stars only where she once stood.
The ship rocked up and down as the conjured winds propelled them forward. Santa busied himself by sending quiet orders to the crew. Michael and Rhianna stood side by side upon one of the benches, in their battle gear, with weapons at the ready. Their three animals occupied themselves nearby, as they were too small to see above the antlered wooden figurehead on either side, and the ships rocked back and forth a bit too much for them to venture a glance over the side.
The man stood while propping up his wife as waves of nausea overtook her. “This isn’t a very intimidating look on me, is it?” she groaned.
“What do you mean?” he teased. “I certainly wouldn’t want to face you in battle. Not in lose-your-lunch range, at least.”
She let out a pathetic whine.
“My dear girl, this won’t do at all,” said an elegant voice behind them.
When they turned about, they were surprised by the sight before them.
Santa’s wife had joined them on the ship. They could now clearly see her features. She was a handsome woman, with a strong jaw but soft, full cheeks, only slightly touched by the lines of time. Her long white hair was set in intricate braids near the crown of her head, and the rest flowed lightly in the wind. Her blood red dress billowed around her, save for the black leather corset and chainmail at her torso.
“I thought you were heading back to the camp to away our return,” Santa remarked.
She raised her eyebrow and folded her arms over her chest. “Once again, it seems that whenever you grow tense, you forget yourself—and me. I told you, this confrontation involves me just as much as it does you. When someone threatens the one that I love, they must deal with me directly.” Despite her firm stance, she looked at the recent arrivals to Tellest with a smile drawing back her lips. “Besides, we have friends here that need our help as well.”
She gestured, waving her hands about, and a small white glowing orb appeared. It floated from between her palms and toward Rhianna’s forehead, the spell bursting into tiny snowflake-like particles under her skin. In an instant, she stood straighter, and color returned to her face.
Her eyes went wide as the motion sickness she fought with since the ship launched dissipated. “I love you,” Rhianna said, only a hint of sarcasm about her tone.
Santa’s wife arched an eyebrow and smirked.
“Hey!” Michael exclaimed with mock indignity.
“But seriously, thank you,” his wife remarked. “You’re invited to every family vacation we ever take. Forever.”
The woman laughed with the same expression they saw on Santa: serious yet kind.
“I shall keep that in mind when the war is won. It’s been many years since I’ve seen you all, though I suppose not too long since you’ve seen me.” Michael and Rhianna exchanged looks, recalling their time traveling adventure to the first Christmas.
“Nice to meet you again!” said Zelda brightly. “But…why haven’t we seen you every Christmas?” the small dog inquired, tilting her head.
Nanna smiled down at the pup. “Christmas is Santa’s business. I still celebrate the old ways and have my own traditions to keep during the Yule season.
“You mean you don’t spend Christmas together?” Maisie asked, ears lowered.
“Sometimes, but he’s busing working and it bores me. Yule is a time of feasting and drinking. We see each other all the other days the rest of the year, but I am by his side when he needs me. Like this year. Loki threatens all our traditions with his greed. We shall not allow it to go unpunished.”
Peanut walked forward and hopped onto the seat directly in front of Nanna. Their eyes locked in an intense stare.
“You,” the cat said. “I like you.”
The woman nodded. “You have good taste, my feline friend.”
Suddenly, the ship jolted forward, rendering them all unbalanced, and the ship came to an abrupt halt. Rhianna was thankful once again for the magic that washed away her motion sickness.
Nanna hurriedly made her way back to the front of the ship to assess the danger, passing her husband as she did so.
Santa joined the DeAngelo family on the other side of the mast, leaning over the edge to peer at the waters below. However, he only saw his reflection looking back at him, depicted within crystalize ice that had formed below.
“Loki,” Santa muttered, the words pouring out like smoke from his lungs, as his hot breath met with the bitter cold.
Santa’s estranged brother used his gifts of cunning to turn the sea to ice that set upon the fleet, stopping them before they could cross the bay.
“I’m c-c-c-old,” Zelda said, her teeth chattering as she shivered.
“I w-w-ish I was under my b-blanket,” added Maisie.
“Santa, what do we do?” Asked Michael.
Rather than reply, Santa looked to the other end of the ship, to his wife, who surveyed the landscape.
Nanna recalled the winds she had conjured, as more of their ships would collide with the large sheets of ice if they pressed onward. When the wind died down, she evoked silence into the air, and the crew on all the nearby ships were compelled to obey. Nanna closed her eyes and listened.
She could hear the beating of hooves echoing on the frozen ground in the distance.
“What’s that?” Zelda asked, her head darting from side to side, the poor pup apparently less concerned with the cold then.
“He must have expected such a thing,” Santa said. “We need to get the ships back to the shore. “Nanna?”
His wife nodded, and began a new dance with her hands, the coalescent glow drawing forth from the atmosphere until once more it looked like the northern lights hovered around her. The guests noticed as the sails pushed back the other way, the creaking of the masts reporting across the bay as the ships protested under the pressure.
“Hold it,” Peanut said. “Wait!”
While Santa looked to the distant shore, and Nanna worked her magic, they were too distracted to see the concerns of the little cat. Michael and Rhianna turned to regard her instead and peered over the ship to see what she saw. The ice already circled around their ship, and when they looked to the other vessels of Santa’s fleet, they saw that they too were trapped.
“We can’t hope to batter our way through the ice,” Michael bade.
“That’s right,” Rhianna said. “It’ll tear through the ships and will end up sinking!”
Santa began to speak, but he saw the trees beyond the bay rustling, and within moments, he saw his adopted brother’s fearsome army.
Mighty frost giants knocked over hulking evergreens on the other side of the bay, while furry white creatures—snow satyrs, the group soon realized—emerged en masse. While the frost giants waited on the shore, the satyrs ventured to step onto the ice-crusted water, their hoofbeats resonated across the bay.
“Looks like they didn’t want to wait until we reached them,” Michael said.
“Are we going to be okay?” Maisie asked.
“Of course, we will be,” Rhianna said. “We just need a plan.”
“We can start by getting off the boats,” Michael said. “It doesn’t do us any good to sit here waiting for them to arrive.”
“You’re right,” Santa said. “And perhaps we could still make use of them in some fashion.” As the group scrambled off the ship, Santa bellowed to the rest of his army. “Everyone, disembark the ships. We’ll keep the ice strong.”
No one dared to question their leader, and before long, elves and dwarves stood atop the frozen bay, only the distant sea lapping against the ice shelf that was created. Several of the ships closest to the shore were the ones that the gnomes and snowmen had boarded, and they struggled but eventually scrambled back to land.
Once everyone was out of the ships, Santa worked his own magic. Before his army’s eyes, the ships rose out of the water, the brackish sea dripping off the hulls. Imbued with Santa’s magic—the same he had used on Christmas night to give flight to his reindeer for millennia—the ships floated weightlessly in the sky. The strain, however, to hold a fleet of warships aloft required significantly more power than he had planned to use. He looked to Nanna, his brow sweating despite the bitter cold. She nodded and worked her own magic to conjure winds back toward the shore. The sails billowed in the forceful breeze as the ships glided above the frozen waters, the fleet appearing to move as if by the force of cresting wave that would never quite crash.
The DeAngelo family watched in awe, but concern, as the fleet sailed away and the army they amassed sat stranded in the middle of the frozen bay, with a stampede of snow satyrs heading their way.
“Santa! You can’t expect us to walk to shore, do you?” Peanut cried with indignity.
Santa grunted his response, the weight of the spell still shaking his usually steady demeanor.
“No,” but I do expect you to hold on.”
“Hold on to what?” Zelda piped up.
At once, it seemed the ice below released a cloud of flurries, as if some invisible breath had blown upon a dandelion and the petals danced in the air. The flurries spun in tightly wound circles until strands of silver rope appeared. It was then they noticed the elves among the crews, moving their hands as if weaving an intricate tapestry in the air. The family recognized it as the same magic used to bring the snowmen at camp to life. The silver ropes reached out to each member of their Christmas army, as if beckoning them to take hold.
As soon as they connected with the conjured ropes, they were pulled in the direction of the floating ships.
“Hang on tight everyone,” Santa bade. “We’ll retreat and regroup and—”
“I don’t have enough hands,” Michael said, grabbing hold of Maisie and Peanut while trying to convince Zelda to climb onto his arm.
“Ew, I don’t want to be that close to the dogs,” Peanut said then. She clawed her way to the man’s shoulder, but before she could even arrive there, Santa worked his magic on them as well. She floated into the air before she could catch a good grasp on Michael’s furry cloak.
Rhianna grabbed hold of Zelda before she could float away then, though she seemed almost pleased with the weightlessness. “Yay!” the dog exclaimed.
“Let’s get them back into the lead ship,” Santa said. “They’re high up enough now that we shouldn’t have to worry about any extra weight pulling them back into the water—or the ice.” Even as he spoke, the perspiration that marred his brow had his skin shining, and everyone who knew the jolly fellow wondered if he would be able to last long enough to make it back to the clandestine camp.
Michael kissed Maisie on the forehead, and lifted her into the air, letting Santa’s airy magic take her too. Peanut had already grabbed hold of the rearmost reindeer figurehead on the flagship, and it was as though she matched with vessel’s altered gravity then. As Maisie floated on by, the cat sighed, and reached out, grabbing hold of the pup—even making sure not to use her claws too liberally.
Rhianna, seeing the success with which her other two fuzzy babies made it to the longship pushed back her anxiety and relinquished her hold on Zelda. Within a second though, she grabbed hold of her again, squeezing extra tight.
“Mom,” the dog protested. “Come on, I love flying!”
That time, Rhianna did let the pup go, and she lifted into the air. Peanut didn’t offer her help that time, hopping down onto one of the benches. Maisie was ready, however, and she reached out and chomped hold of her sister’s auburn fluff, pulling her into the ship.
“Remember everyone, hang on!” Santa said. As he spoke, the snow-silken ropes the elves fashioned looped around the figureheads of the ships, binding the troops to the vessels.
But not everything would go according to their new plan, it seemed. As the snow satyrs drew close, they did not gather up their weapons—axes and spears stored on their backs, Michael noticed. Instead, they reached for a tool that nearly all of them had on their hips, but from that distance, none of Santa’s army or his guests could quite make them out.
When they set them spinning and then launched them in the air, it didn’t take long for them to realize what they were then.
A score of grappling hooks flew out over the bay, reporting as they landed on the ships with thuds and scrapes.
“They’re trying to steal the ships!” one of the nearby dwarves cried out.
Despite the ambush, the struggles, and the fear, a new power was heard on the impromptu battlefield then.
“Not with my babies inside,” Rhianna growled. She grabbed hold of one of the silken strings that connected her to the longship and wrapped it around her spear. She pulled at once, and only a moment later, Michael was beside her, helping her to tug the ship back.
Inspired by the recent arrivals to the North Pole, all of Santa’s troops rushed to move as well, some throwing axes across the battlefield, their weapons meeting the satyrs, but failing to cause any real damage, for a fluttering red shield seemed to push back against the attack. Still, it was enough to have some of them stumbling back, grunting in their goatlike language. The other dwarves and some of the elves tugged on the silken lines, trying their best to ensure their vessels were not lost.
For a time, neither of the two sides seemed to gain any ground. Then Michael’s eyes went wide, and he grabbed hold of the spear a bit tighter.
“I have an idea everyone!” he called out. “If we all lean back, we’ll be able to shift our gravity, and gain the upper hand. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen something like this before. It’ll definitely work!”
He performed as he said he would, leaning back until his upper body was almost parallel to the icy surface.
Surprisingly, his suggestion seemed to work, and he gained a little more momentum when he tugged on the boat that held their fluffy babies inside.
“Woo!” Maisie cried in excitement.
“Go, Daddy!” Zelda cheered him on.
Everyone was surprised when a jagged grappling hook sailed across the sky, aiming right for Michael. With the man leaned back as he was, he couldn’t spot the thing coming.
Rhianna gasped, and reached up, but it came forth too fast. She knew that she would be too slow to stop it.
It did halt, however, smacking against a blue shield that fluttered just the way the satyr’s had earlier. Michael spilled to the ground though, the magic not doing enough to stop the full force of the missile, though it was enough to prevent any sort of true danger.
He shook his head, and spotted Santa, not so far away from him then.
“I will not lose anyone this day,” their host insisted.
Michael’s eyes were still opened wide by the sudden attack, the man wondering what would have happened if Santa’s magic was not there to protect him. The look of surprise quickly turned to one of intense determination, and he stood up again, grabbing hold of the spear once more. He glanced at his wife, and gave a nod, pulling with all his strength yet again. That time, his emotions fueled him even more, and he could feel himself gaining ground, even with the slippery ice beneath them.
The snow satyrs—looking more goatlike than a typical satyr would—grunted and groaned, and even though they had cloven hooves that offered them traction on the iced over lake, they knew that there was little hope to press on against Santa’s army. As they were drawn closer toward the gaps in the ice where the boats had once been trapped, they abandoned their hold on the grappling hooks, and began their own retreat toward the opposite shore.
“That’s right,” a voice called out over the region, otherworldly and powerful. “You’ve broken their spirits, but it is time to regroup.”
Both armies retreated from the ice then, a bit winded, but otherwise unscathed. The satyrs skittered across the bay, withdrawing into the forest as the frost giants loomed. Once all their allies had made their way to safety, they too departed, their bluish skin disappearing beyond a cover of green and white.
On the other side, dwarves, elves, and gnomes finally caught their breath, trying their best not to show any weakness. Michael and Rhianna still pulled their longboat, even with Santa assuring them they were all safe.
“We don’t mean to offend you,” Rhianna said. “But we sort of make it a point not to leave anything to chance if we know better.”
Santa shrugged and nodded. “You’re right of course. We’ll be winded anyway, but we might as well be safe. Loki’s frost giants are powerful enough to launch an attack even from this distance.”
Nanna reached her husband’s side then and grabbed his wrist. “Let’s head back to the camp, and we’ll see if there’s something else that we can do to take back our home from your brother.”
* * *
With the adrenaline subsiding, sore muscles and aches and pains could be felt a bit clearer then. Michael rolled his shoulders and rubbed his chest where the grappling hook had smacked against the shield.
Everyone had gathered under the massive tent their leader had back at the camp. While Santa and his wife were present, there were only a few delegates of each of his other factions who waited inside. And then, there were his guests.
Rhianna squeezed each of their little ones extra tight, the thought of anything bad happening to them leaving her with a pit in her stomach.
“I thought I had everything figured out,” Santa said, pressing his fingers against his temples. “I guess it goes to show, you can’t deceive someone such as him. He’s the god of mischief, after all, and deception goes along with that in some ways.” He sighed and sank into an old oaken throne near a war table that showed the region. Nanna was there behind him at once, gripping his shoulder. “I’m afraid this might be the first year in quite some time that there won’t be any Yuletide celebrations,” the oft-jolly man admitted. “No Wintertide or Christmas either.”
“We can’t give up yet,” Michael said, springing forward as though no pain or fatigue wracked his body. “There’s still plenty of time between now and Christmas. We just have to come up with a plan that Loki wouldn’t be able to get in front of.”
“That’s right,” Rhianna agreed. “He knows how you think, even after all these years. What you need is someone who would be able to make plans that you wouldn’t. Let us be your advisors this year.”
Santa looked to his wife, who shrugged and nodded. “What better plans do we have, my love?” she asked. “What did you have in mind,” she wondered.
“Well,” Michael said, “I think we need—”
“Reinforcements!” Zelda offered up.
Maisie was there beside her though, shaking her head. “No, no… We need superpowers!”
Before anyone could indicate whether either of those were good ideas, another voice piped up.
“You’re all fools,” Peanut said, looking at each of her claws as she flexed them. “What we truly need…is chaos.”
Everyone sent confused glances her way, and she rolled her eyes and shook her head before hopping up to the war table. “Think about it. Loki is always going to be one step ahead of us, even if he doesn’t know us that well just yet. He’s always got some kind of contingency. But what he doesn’t have a plan for is absolute lunacy. He wouldn’t expect a plan that wasn’t well-founded, so let’s find a plan that stinks!”
“First, we need the dwarves and elves to stop making weapons and armor and start making fiskeblugen!”
“Peanut, how can you be hungry at a time like this?” Rhianna wondered.
“It’s all part of the plan,” the cat insisted. “No one will expect it. We take the smelly stuff,” she said, moving her paw to the side to better enunciate her proposal, “and then we cover me in it.” When no one seemed to be impressed with her idea, she sighed and rolled her eyes. “I’m a misunderstood artist, born well before my time. But it’s perfect. The smell could attract all sorts of attention.”
Michael and Rhianna looked at one another, considering the disorderly wisdom of that notion. Neither said a word, but they could see in their spouse’s eyes that they saw not only the possibility of the plan working, but also the fun that could be had in pursuing it.
“This could work,” Santa said, rising to his feet. “And moreover, we could still consider the other little ones and their plans as well.” He looked to Zelda and nodded. “I think it’s about time we say hello to some old friends.” He cast his gaze to Maisie next. “And as I recall, you have some experience with magical artifacts, don’t you?”
Maisie sat up a little taller, as close to a canine smile on her face as was possible.
“Let’s not dawdle then,” the red-attired man bade. His jolly demeanor had returned, and he approached the war table with an eager grin upon his face.
* * *
Though she was not alone, Zelda felt a bit of anxiety at the lingering thoughts of her family being so far away. They all had their roles to play though, she knew, and soon she would end up being the hero of the day.
By her side, two elves—including the one named Ellaria that she had met after coming through the portal into Tellest—traveled along with her, leveling their bows in case anyone was considering a devious attack on the little pup. The forest was dense, and trouble could lurk behind any shadowy thicket.
Far beyond where they were, they could hear a strange sort of grunting groan, and the elves drew back their bowstrings, prepared to fight off any monsters that would have been hiding in the woods. As warm as it was under the coniferous trees, hardly any snow was able to coat the forest floor. Whatever creatures there were would be camouflaged without the white canvas behind them.
“It’s just a little further, right?” the little, red-furred dog asked. “If Santa was right about the clearing, we’ll be able to see better in a few more minutes.”
“The northern wilds are not to be taken lightly,” Ellaria told the pup. “A few more minutes might be all the time we have before something unspeakable happens.”
Zelda gasped. “You won’t run out of bones, right?”
The elf arched an eyebrow at the dog, confused by such speak. “What foul curse do you speak of? Do your bones dissipate back on your world?”
“What?” Zelda asked. “What’s a dissipate?”
Ellaria waved her hand in frustration. “Never mind. The only thing I’m concerned about regarding my bones is making sure they’re not crushed by whatever monsters are out there.”
Zelda snorted, the intentional gesture almost looking like a sneeze. “Whatever dangers are out there my friend can take care of it. When I talked to Santa, he said they’re the only one brave enough to live here in the clearing.”
“Then she’s brave indeed,” Ellaria declared.
When the pair of elves and the little dog emerged from the woods, it took some time to make sense of the clearing before them. A light fog spread over the area, seeming to rise from the lake in the center of the otherwise snowy expanse. The moon shone down over the mist, illuminating it in an eerie glow. The moon reflected in the still water of the lake as well, though the fog played odd tricks on its likeness.
The group heard another strange grunt, but that time, it was followed by an immense roar, prompting Zelda to send a wide-eyed gaze toward Ellaria. “Are there dinosaurs here?”
Returning the dog’s gaze with a quizzical one of her own, Ellaria shrugged. “You and I have very dissimilar breadths of knowledge little one. I don’t even know the word you just used.”
“To be honest, I don’t really know it much either,” the dog said. “But I know it sounds just like that!”
“That wasn’t…whatever you said it was,” Ellaria insisted. “It was a—”
Before she could say another word, the fog cleared just enough for them to see the white-furred creature bound across the area. The elf behind Ellaria gasped and sprinted back toward the tree line, even though the monster didn’t seem to aim toward them.
“Coward,” the maiden said as she reached for an arrow in her quiver. That arrow seemed to be a bit different than the other ones she had, for the tip was colored crimson. She nocked it to her bow and drew back the string. “Are you ready to see what foul beast haunts this clearing?” Ellaria asked. She released the bowstring and watched it fly into the air. The red phosphorous activated from the speed of the arrow careening across the sky, and when it did, it illuminated the clearing further, even scattering the fog somewhat—a little bit of Christmas magic, Zelda was certain.
As visibility improved, the pair who stood their ground in the field watched as the white-furred creature kept up its charge, charging at first on its hind legs like a human before teetering forward and bounding on all fours. Zelda, even from her lower vantage point, was the first to see the reason they had come to the clearing.
The moonlight caught on the reindeer’s head and antlers as the light of the red phosphorus dispersed. She stood for a moment, finishing whatever grass she grazed on that she had found in patches amidst the fine layer of snow. When she was done, she reared up and swung her head, answering the monster’s mighty charge. She never hesitated, beginning to rush forward as soon as her front hooves landed on the ground again.
“Svetlana,” Zelda said, just reining in her emotions before she would have called out a greeting to her friend. She knew that there were dangers ahead for the reindeer, and that any distraction could be trouble.
Ellaria pulled another arrow from her quiver, but Zelda hopped up on her hind legs.
“No,” the little dog insisted. “You might hit Svetlana.”
The maiden grumbled a bit, but knew the dog was right. She looked back to the tree line, where she spotted her frightened companion, and shook her head, gesturing not to attack. He didn’t seem willing to even draw his bow anyway, the fellow cowering behind one of the evergreens.
The braver pair watched with bated breath as the two creatures continued their rush toward one another. They dropped their heads, prepared to butt skull against skull. A loud crack echoed in the clearing, sending a few of the birds who were bathing in the warm lake fluttering into the sky.
Zelda hopped up again, eager to see what happened. Standing on her hind legs, she was able to see the white-furred creature topple backward, dazed before it even struck the ground. Svetlana shook her head, for certainly the blow did not come without some minor discomfort.
With her mouth hanging agape, Ellaria blinked away her surprise. “She knocked that yeti down with a single strike.”
“That’s because Svetlana is amazing,” Zelda said, hurrying forward as soon as her feet hit the ground.
Ellaria’s focus was on the withdrawing yeti, then. The creature knew better than to challenge the spectacular reindeer, and it cleared out from the area, rubbing its head with its leathery blue hand.
When Ellaria was certain an attack wasn’t coming, she looked down to her where she had last seen her companion, confused by her absence. She adjusted her vision then, spotting the mutt charging across the field as well. And the elven maiden wasn’t the only one who had noticed her.
Svetlana began a charge of her own as well.
With her eyes going wide, Ellaria stuttered before offering a warning to one of Santa’s esteemed guests. But it was too late. Zelda cared not for any cautioning.
The reindeer dropped her head again, her antlers close to gouging the ground. Zelda, too, bowed down, as though she was waiting for the inevitable strike.
But the pair skidded to a stop when they drew close, nuzzling their heads against one another instead of striking a violent blow.
“I’ve missed you!” Zelda cried.
Svetlana grunted in turn, and snorted when she rose back to her tall, proud position.
“Well, I know that,” the dog responded, seeming to understand the reindeer. “But I’m only allowed to come to the North Pole once a year. You could just come to our house, couldn’t you? Don’t you fly?”
The majestic creature made a sound that seemed akin to a bark, and Zelda could sense her frustration.
“Okay, sorry. You don’t have to be all upset about it. I can’t fly either—except for that one time.” She blew air out through her nose, which prompted her to sneeze then. “We’ll work out the logistics of more playdates later. That’s not why I came here today. Santa needs your help.”
Svetlana tilted her head to the side, a bit intrigued by the statement.
“There’s trouble down south, and we could really use your talents to help our friend out.”
The reindeer stared past the dog then, noticing the elven maiden a bit further back in the clearing.
“Oh, her?” Zelda asked. “That’s just Ellaria. She’s one of Santa’s friends as well. She didn’t think you were real, but I showed her.” The pup spun about in a circle, excited that she was able to prove her traveling companion wrong. “So, what do you say? Are you going to be able to help us?”
Svetlana seemed to grumble and began drawing away from Zelda. That time, the pup didn’t seem to understand her old friend, for it was her turn to tilt her head in confusion.
“What did I say?” Zelda wondered. “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings!”
The reindeer headed toward the tree line on the opposite side of the clearing, and Zelda was fast on her hooves, trying to make sense of what was causing the legendary reindeer to turn her back on their mutual friend.
“We’re going to be in big trouble,” Zelda said. “We need all the help we can get, and I was just telling everyone how cool you were!”
Svetlana turned around, facing the lake, and blew out a deep breath, the air turning to steam in front of her snout. Then, she sent out a series of loud, sustained grunts, stomping her feet on the frosty grass with a cadence that sounded deliberate. Once more, Zelda tried to understand her but to no avail. Even without understand the specific nuances of Svetlana’s noise choices, Zelda and Ellaria understood just a few moments later what the delay had been for.
A score of other reindeer emerged from the forest, the animals joining their leader there without fear of the visitors.
“You’re all going to help?” Zelda wondered.
Svetlana responded with a series of quick nods, before she dipped her head and turned to the side, offering up her antlers.
“Hurray!” Zelda replied. She grabbed hold of one of the antlers then, and Svetlana lifted her head and pivoted around, delivering the mutt to her back. “To Santa!” Zelda cried. “Let’s save Christmas, and beyond!”
* * *
The burly, squat fellow rested his arms on his knees, and it took everything in him not to spill to the ground while he accidentally leaned forward.
“I don’t know how you do it,” the dwarf mused. “It’s like you never get tired.”
Maisie offered up a canine shrug, the muscles in her back flexing for a moment. “I think it’s from when I swallowed the gem two years ago. I get worn down a little bit, but it’s only when I stop doing something that I realize running is a lot of work!”
“Well, could you tone it down just a bit,” her traveling companion asked. “You’re making me look bad.”
“Maybe we can borrow a sleigh and I can pull you up the mountain,” Maisie teased.
During their journey toward their destination, the dog learned that the dwarf, Kjotvi, was a distant descendant of Litr, Santa’s friend who had joined he and Nanna on their pilgrimage to Tellest. While Maisie had never seen the celebrated dwarf, she could tell by Kjotvi’s enthusiasm that Litr had earned great renown among their people, and indeed most of the communities of Tellest’s North Pole. Whenever Kjotvi felt run down or worried, he invoked the name of his relative, and pushed on.
And so it was as they pushed past the latest snowy hillock.
“You know, the last time I was here, it felt a bit darker,” Maisie explained. “With the big ol’ moon in the sky, it’s like I’m looking at something brand new. I’m going to need you to start to lead the way soon.”
“Aye, I’ll handle it,” Kjotvi insisted. “Just need some of that little DeAngelo dog energy.”
Maisie forced a sneeze then. “Trust me, it’s not both of us,” the little dog said with an air of superiority. “Zelda gets all sleepy after a five-minute walk. She begs to be picked up!”
“Maybe I should have traveled with the other one,” the dwarf muttered.
“What was that?” the pup asked.
Kjotvi just stared for a moment, but realized he’d been found out. “What, did that little rock give you super hearing as well?”
“Nope, that’s all me,” Maisie said, resuming her trek. “It helps to know when someone’s crunching on food and trying to be sneaky.” She stopped suddenly, her head darting from side to side.
“Did you hear someone eating a cookie or something just now?” Kjotvi wondered.
Maisie shook her head. “I think we’re here. This was the cave I found when everyone was yelling at me. Phew, that journey felt longer for some reason this time.”
“And you think we’ll find who we’re looking for in there?” the dwarf asked.
“If Santa says it, it’s got to be true.” She led the dwarf inside, taking her time to move about, as the moonlight was only strong enough to illuminate the first few feet of the cavernous tunnel.
As she went through the darkened passageway, Maisie couldn’t help but smile. Some marks remained in the cavern: the scratches and bites that she had nervously left upon the walls and beams so long ago. She had come a long way since then—still reacting to stress in her own way, but she knew that had made great progress, and nothing was going to cause her any undue grief again.
With Kjotvi close behind her, the pup’s ears perked up then, and the dwarf knew it was more than just a passing thing at that point.
“Is everything alright?” he wondered.
Maisie nodded, though she hunched a little lower, just in case. “I hear voices. But they’re…” As her words trailed off, she sprang up, and her tail wagged excessively. “They’re familiar!” She sprinted ahead, leaving the dwarf to stumble after her.
Before long, the pair of them found lantern light spilling into the tunnel, and they heard the mirthful voices of those who inhabited the cavern at that time.
“Well, my ears aren’t all that good,” Kjotvi said. “But I’ve got a big ol’ nose that works better than most, and that’s a delightful holiday feast if I’ve ever smelled it.”
“Just like last time,” the dog said, her tail wagging so fast it looked like it could lift her off the ground.
The pair entered the large chamber of the cavern, which had been decorated to be far more festive than the last time the pup had been there. Garland was strewn from the ceiling, and the walls had been painted in striking colors. A small table had been set out, brimming with food—and then a larger one not far from it with enough food to feed a giant. Coincidentally, a giant reached for a mammoth rib before he spotted the surprise visitors.
“Maisie?” his deep voice resonated.
“Rurnar!” the dog excitedly exclaimed.
“My friends,” the giant said, gathering up the attention of the elf and the dwarf who mingled in the cavern. “Look who has just joined us!”
Maisie’s eyes went a little wider at the sight of two more of her old friends. “Halgrum! Beroras! I hadn’t expected to see you here.”
The elf dropped to a knee and spread his arms out wide, ready to accept a hug from the little dog. “My, it’s good to see you,” he said. “We began a yearly tradition after our little feast years ago. We come together before Christmas to celebrate our friendship. We even read about your family’s exploits throughout the year. Santa sends us a missive every once and a while.”
Maisie gasped. “You didn’t hear about those other holidays we celebrate, did you?” She hopped down from the fellow’s leg and gave him a very solemn look from the top of her eyes. “Zelda cheats during the egg hunt, I’m sure of it!”
“We hear a little bit of everything, little one,” Beroras said. “But mostly we hear how much the five of you love each other, and how you’ve been keeping each other sane and happy during this tumultuous time in your world. I have to say, I thought it was difficult in the harsh, cold north here. You endure much. But now is not the time for somber thoughts. We should rejoice, for you’ve come to visit!”
“I dun know about that,” the dwarf said, shuffling forward while holding his arm across his belly. Halgrum arched an eyebrow, the other bushy bit of fur on above his other eye lowering enough to have the dog wondering if he’d blinded himself. “As I recall it, this one might just eat everything we’ve got on our plates, and then some.” He patted his stomach then, demonstrating that it was quite distended then. “Then again, mayhaps I’ve already had me fill.” He let a little chuckle separate his lips then, and he tousled the fur on the back of Maisie’s head and neck. “It’s good to have ye here, Maisie. Although I suspect ye’re not here on your own—without the rest of yer family, that is,” he said, offering a little bow to the unfamiliar dwarf. “There must be trouble brewing, eh?”
“More than you know,” Maisie said. “We came here because we need your help. This is one of the greatest challenges that Santa’s ever faced, and he—well, we—thought we could call in a few favors.”
Beroras folded his arms over his chest then. “You came here specifically for Rurnar, didn’t you?” He smirked, only slightly offended by his suspicion.
“Well, the bad guys have giants of their own,” Maisie explained. “Big, mean blue ones!”
“Frost giants,” Kjotvi clarified then. “Every now and then they venture to our realm, and we chase them off, but we’ve never seen them in such grand numbers before.”
“I’ve never seen the likes of ye before,” Halgrum said. “How are we ta know ye haven’t led this poor little pup astray?”
“Hey!” Maisie grumbled. “I’m bigger and smarter than I was before. Kjotvi was there with us in Santa’s tent. I trust him, which means you can too!”
“Easy there, Tiny,” a more powerful voice bellowed from further back in the opening of the cavern. Rurnar bent forward, letting his powerful gaze fall upon the little dog. “You don’t have the magic powers that the amulet once bestowed upon you.” He turned his shoulder, the trio of revelers looking up at the decorations then. Sure enough, the amulet from the feast two years earlier hung from the apex of the cavern, the reflecting torchlight sending sparkles scattering upon the stone walls. “You’ll see we’re a little cooler and more collected this time. Over the last couple of years, we’ve learned to take a breath, and plan things out.
“So…” the giant went on, his solitary syllable sounding artificially dragged out. “Are you taking care of that blanket I gave you? You didn’t end up eating that, too, did you?”
“I don’t do that anymore,” Maisie grumbled.
“Would you like to?” Rurnar asked. He reached up and grabbed the amulet, bringing it closer to the dog.
The scrappy black and white pup was mesmerized by the jewel once more, the sparkles reflecting in her eyes. She licked her lips and sniffed at the amulet.
“Is…uh… Is everything okay?” Kjotvi asked.
Without consciously considering his words, Maisie began to nod. “I know what to do,” she whispered.
* * *
A strange drumbeat resonated through the icy canyon; the few dwarves stationed at the maw blew out nervous breaths that turned to steam the second they left their lips. They watched in anxious anticipation as the gnomes’ contraptions were put to the test. The cat that oversaw the operation, on the other hand, paced between the dwarves, and paused every few moments to stare down the icy corridors that she remembered from so long before.
“How goes your progress?” Peanut asked then. “We can’t wait too much longer. As much as I am loathe to admit it, I would be slightly perturbed if anything happened to any of my family.” Her eyes darted from one dwarf to the other then. “I mean, uh… Who would feed me if anything were to happen to them? And as for the dogs, well… They somehow elicit more sympathy from the humans, and that benefits me as well.” She clicked her tongue then and turned back to regard the dwarves. “I asked you a question!” she grumbled.
A gnome upon a dais overlooking the central contraption froze, looking through oversized spectacles to the vexed puss. “Miss,” he said, feeling foolish for uttering the pleasantry, “as silly as it may seem, this plan requires pinpoint precision. We must be utterly cautious, otherwise the whole thing could be folly. And moreover, there would be somewhat greater consequences,” he said, wrinkling his nose as the thought.
Everyone looked to the other two gnomes that traveled with the group. The pair wore far less festive attire, each wearing what looked like an oversized diving bell atop their heads, with a thick pane of glass separating them from the outside world. They worked a set of levers on large vats beside the central contraption, mixing some foul concoction with tremendous labor.
It was backbreaking work, especially for the diminutive people. Strange, foreign sounds seemed to emit from the gnomes’ suits. They grunted and groaned and forced out fretful breaths as they worked fervently, knowing that their patron saint of winter—as well as their excessive commander, for the moment—would be satisfied if the plan was a success.
“Come on then,” Peanut meowed. She sat upon her rump in the snow, hopping up for a second more before she could acclimate to the sudden discomfort. Then she looked at the lead gnome with an angry scowl upon her face. “Overseer Ulgifda, is it? What’s taking so long? I thought the stuff was ready to dispense.”
“Ready to transport,” the gnome known as Ulgifda clarified. “But the rest of the gadget won’t work if we hurry things before they’re ready. You know we cobbled this together as quick as we could, but we don’t want to take unnecessary risks.”
Peanut growled, sounding more like a feral savannah cat than a lazy housecat. She looked to the dwarves then, who stood a little taller after catching her gaze.
“You two, who cares about the drums. Help these two to mix what’s in there so we can get things moving a little quicker, eh?”
The drummers ceased their drumming, looking to each other with concern upon their faces. The one had his head turned just far enough that Peanut could see the prominence in his throat sink, no longer disguised by his beard.
“If something happens to my family because you were lollygagging…” she said, the cat’s concern somehow quite apparent. All at once, all the false confidence, the abrasiveness, the smugness, it melted away, leaving the old cat looking weary and worried instead.
Seeing the guise shift, even abrupt as it was, the dwarves were filled with new determination. They set their drums down, and hurried to the side of the gnomes, helping their associates to turn the cranks that mixed the concoctions inside the vats.
“That’s it,” Ulgifda declared. “We’re almost there. Just a little bit more.” He wrapped his fingers around a handle upon the dashboard of the contraption before making eye contact with the frustrated cat. “Miss Peanut. It’s ready.”
“Throw the switch,” the cat insisted. “We’re ready.”
With a nod, the gnome foreman did what was expected of him, pulling back the lever that activated the central device. At once, the vats began churning, sending their questionable contents through tubes into the main contraption. With atypical fuel finally flowing, the device unlocked, and a huge mechanical arm swung up from the opposite side of the control panel. A circular disc expanded from that arm, some sort of magical technology growing out from the metal chassis. Blades extended from the disc then as well, and in only a few short moments, they began spinning, the gnome technology operating without any issues.
Peanut sat in front of the fan, a mischievous grin upon her face. But as the blades spun faster and faster, a strange scent washed over the area. The cat’s grin turned from one of impish intentions to an almost euphoric smile then as the fiskeblugen wafted forward.
While the two gnomes with the diving bell helmets were able to push past the potent odor, the two dwarves and the gnomish overseer could not escape it. Ulgifda retched, nearly spilling the contents of his stomach into the snow.
“Trying to make room in your bellies for this delicious stuff?” Peanut teased. “Well, I’m afraid this batch isn’t meant for you few.”
Almost as soon as she finished speaking, a drawer in the central contraption opened with a mechanical hiss, steam shooting off into the cold early morning air. The cat stepped forward, looking at the central vat of pickling compound. She took a deep breath then, enraptured by the scent, even while the dwarves, grabbed up their beards and smushed them against their noses in a futile attempt to escape the pungent smell.
Peanut and her companions were not the only ones to detect the overpowering smell then, she knew. Behind her, the canyon walls shook, shards of ice collapsing and shattering down below, a strange cacophonic symphony playing along the towering frigid corridor.
The cat turned to her allies then. “That’s the sign that our plan is working. Go on, run,” she said. “I’ll be right behind you.”
Thankful to give their stomachs a break, the dwarves and the gnomes withdrew as planned. Peanut, left alone, sat down again, taking in the sounds, the vibrations, and indeed the hardy smell of the fiskeblugen—along, she knew, with something else.
“Thank you for your help, Revan,” the cat whispered, remembering the assistance she received from one of Santa’s elven helpers. The maiden was a wonderful alchemist, and when Peanut’s insane plan was revealed to her, she was more than happy to lend a hand. “Well then,” the cat said, her quiet voice carrying into the canyon, “let’s give them something to chase, shall we?”
And with that, Peanut hopped into the smelly vat of liquid.
* * *
Michael and Rhianna peered over the rocky outcropping, sneaking a peek at Santa’s alchemical lab—as well as the pair of Loki’s satyr sentries who watched over the door of the building.
“You’re sure he’s in there?” the woman asked her husband.
Furrowing his brow, Michael turned to regard Rhianna. “I’m not certain of anything. But if Santa says that Raskagar is in there, that’s where we’re going to go. He’s integral to the plan, and—”
“Peanut’s plan,” Rhianna interrupted.
“Yes, Peanut’s plan,” Michael repeated, understand the inanity of the statement. “But there’s some logic to the illogical…ness, of it. Let’s just hope Santa’s intel was correct, and we didn’t waste our time getting here.”
“Let’s hope we don’t get captured or killed,” Rhianna added.
“Ye of little faith,” Michael said then, a confident grin appearing on his face. “You think we’ve got anything to worry about with this big guy on our side?” He absentmindedly slapped the rocky outcropping then, activating the magic that was present there.
All at once, the stones barreled forward, rumbling the ground around the alchemy lab. The satyr sentries discovered too late that the boulders tumbled their way and let out a pair of sad little bleats before they were sent flying, cast away from the doors they guarded. The boulders—all bunched together, and connected by magic—rolled on uninhibited, until they struck the two oak doors, slamming them open. The collection of stone finally rolled back, and as it did, it reformed into the huge golem it was—the same one that had once protected Santa’s camp.
“Okay, that’s never happened before,” Michael said, a little embarrassed from activating their magical guardian prematurely.
The golem looked on at the two humans it was sent to protect, the apertures in its crafted head glowing green as it gazed upon Michael and Rhianna. It lifted its right arm then, the limb altered before they had left the clandestine camp on their various missions. Instead of an articulate hand, the equivalent of a stone cannon was fashioned there.
Michael’s eyes went wide as the golem’s eyes turned a pale red, and it leveled its weapon at them.
With a mighty foom, the cannon fired, and a projectile came soaring toward the pair of humans. Rhianna tugged her husband to the side, though it seemed as if the white missile was bound to pass right by them anyway.
The hardened snowball whizzed by them, and struck an encroaching satyr in its chest, sending it tumbling backward.
“Well, that was terrifying,” Rhianna said. “But it’s got our backs, it seems. There’s no better time than now to get into that building.”
“Let’s go,” Michael said, pulling his wife over the small hillock and toward the alchemy lab.
They could hear other members of Loki’s army drawing near, and sure enough the golem fired forth more projectiles. Just as before, a loud report rang out before a grunt or a groan or a bleat followed suit.
The couple moved along, sprinting across the area, and slipping around the massive stone creature’s side. As they passed by, they could see the magic that afforded it its chilly ammunition. The snow that coated the area outside of the alchemy lab rose from the ground in ghostly wisps, almost as though the golem breathed it in through grooves along its back.
“It’s a good thing the ground here is mostly snow, huh?” Michael mused, ushering his wife past their guardian before they slipped into the building.
“Keep up the good work!” Rhianna cried.
As Michael and Rhianna disappeared inside, the golem kept up its work, firing off snowy missiles at the satyrs and even a frost giant that had appeared. Its eyes turned green then, however, as the first few blades of grass appeared beneath the many layers of frost.
The satyrs noticed the slowing speed of the golem’s firing and hurried to overrun it.
But they realized at once, that when those eyes turned green again, it was only temporary.
As the creature inhaled enough snow to launch another array of snowballs, its eyes turned red. Some of the satyrs knew better than to move when it had locked onto a target, but others who drew close believed they could pass by it.
They thought wrong.
One after the other, the satyrs were seen by the golem, and its eyes turned red. Only those who were clever enough to stop were spared from a solid snowball in the chest or between the eyes.
The guardian had earned Santa’s champions some time.
Inside the alchemy lab, it was far quieter—for a time. The entrance was devoid of any signs of Loki’s army, or those denizens of the North Pole who performed their work ahead of the upcoming holiday. But as Michael and Rhianna delved deeper into the building—a strange amalgamation of rudimentary architecture blended with gnomish craftsmanship—mechanical hissing rang out and was soon joined by a deeper bubbling sound.
“What do you think that is?” Rhianna wondered.
Michael shrugged. “You know there’s all kinds of magic that makes Christmas possible. There’s potions and salves and even fuel for some of Santa’s gadgets. I’m surprised this place is still running if the folks here have been taken prisoner though.”
“It just goes to show you how dedicated they all are to making sure people have a wonderful holiday,” Rhianna mused. “And I suppose it means they believe Santa will win through in the end.”
Michael took that hope and that faith and internalized it. He grabbed hold of his axe in one hand and interlaced the fingers of his other hand with those of his wife, and they continued along, as silent as they could be.
It only took another few moments before they saw a warm light spill into the central corridor of the building. The quiet was gone though, with a harsh voice carrying through an open door.
“Tell me what I want to know, and I’ll let you walk out this stinking building of your own accord,” someone growled. “But defy me again, and the only way you’ll leave this place is if someone carries you. No? Very well then.”
Rhianna gulped but tightened her grip on her spear and shield. She looked to her husband and nodded. “We came here to help Santa’s friends and the people that bring joy to others every year, right? Let’s help whoever is in trouble.”
Michael breathed out an anxious sigh of his own, but did as his wife suggested, stepping forward, into the light.
His next breath was caught in his throat when he spotted a gnome that looked as though he was about to be squashed between two panes of glass. That was not his fate, however. A grizzled, old satyr stood atop a platform, his hand on a lever. He pulled it down, and a burst of what looked like steam erupted from the mechanisms above where the gnome was trapped.
Joining her husband there at the entrance to the room, Rhianna watched on in horror as the gnome cried out, for whatever flowed through the pipes in the room began pouring out into his glass cage. Wisps of smoke came out of the nozzle from which the dark brown liquid churned. But it wasn’t the scalding hot stuff it appeared to be. The gnome pressed his face against the glass, his big nose and bulging eyes leaving him with a ridiculous visage for the moment before he realized that there were other visitors in the alchemy lab, and quite unlike those in Loki’s army.
The gnome couldn’t consider it very long before his glass case filled up over his head. A moment later, the glass panes sank into the floor, along with the cross pieces at their edges. The gnome remained fixed in place, trapped within a giant chocolate bar.
“It didn’t have to be this way,” the satyr said then. “All you had to do was tell me where Santa’s camp is.”
“I know where Santa’s camp is,” a high-pitched voice rang out into the room then. Rhianna stepped forward and stood taller, willing herself to be brave in the face of danger.
“And I know what they’re having for dinner,” Michael said then, slamming the handle of his axe into his hand. “Lamb chops.” He looked at his wife then, all seriousness leaving his face. “I know they’re not the same thing, but it just sounded cool in my head.”
“What is this?” the satyr grumbled, his voice coming out sounding as though he was trying everything that he could to keep it from sounding like a guttural mess. “If you prisoners found your freedom, you should have gone the extra step and actually escaped.”
“All part of the plan,” Michael countered. “Besides, we’ve already got the front door of the place covered.”
That revelation seemed to shock the satyr a bit, and he stood up straighter upon hearing it.
All the while the two sides were trading verbal barbs, the gnome, encased in chocolate, looked on, his eyes clear of the sweet stuff. Michael and the satyr went back and forth most office, but Rhianna, during bouts of quiet, looked to the encapsulated gnome, who watched his eyes dart to the side. She looked over her shoulder, seeing nothing too out of sorts. She realized, then, that the gnome couldn’t turn his head, and he was trying to bring her attention to something that was out of his peripheral vision. She followed his gaze off to the side, imagining he was pointing with his finger. Sure enough, she saw something worthy of her attention there. A sword lay propped up against the wall of the room, just behind a control panel that was full of buttons and levers.
And the satyr was quietly, almost imperceptibly moving toward it. As he lunged forward, Rhianna moved quicker, throwing her spear without a second thought. The satyr thought better of his grab then, pulling his hand back as the javelin pierced through the side of the mechanical panel.
Michael froze for a moment, surprised to see his wife fling her weapon forward. But just as soon as the satyr moved again, so did the man.
Reaching out with a furry hand, the satyr tried to pluck its weapon off the ground. But Rhianna’s spear kept it firmly in place, locking it at the cross guard, and a tug at the pommel did nothing to relinquish the sword from the spear. Even twisting it aside, the creature couldn’t hoist his weapon out beyond the halfway point of the blade.
The satyr had to step forward with his sword, twisting it into place to bring it to bear. But Michael was there in an instant, swinging his axe with all his might, catching the sword before it could be wielded in combat. The man’s weapon embedded in the floor though, and try as he did, Michael couldn’t retrieve it.
Knowing better than to keep trying for his sword, the satyr swept to the side with his rounded horns, catching Michael in the chin and knocking him back. Michael fell from the platform, rolling forward to prevent a nasty twist in neck or any other sort of calamity.
Rhianna ran up the stairs next, still wielding an item she believed could help against their foe. When the satyr moved to ram her, he met a shield instead, and both combatants were a bit stunned by the immensity of that blow. Rhianna fell to her rump, while the satyr groaned, shaking the stars from his vision.
Down below, Michael collected his own bearings, climbing to his feet while rubbing his shoulder. When he looked up and saw the satyr ready to begin a furious charge toward his wife, he looked to his side, hopeful for anything that might be able to turn the tide. To his side, there were a wide array of confections, all kinds of different jarred candies that one might receive as a small holiday treat, from candy-coated chocolates to flavored popcorn, and brightly colored jawbreakers. Michael’s eyes grew wide, and he thrust his hand into the jar of perfectly round candies and grabbed as many as he could in his fist. Then, with a quick turn, he threw them at the platform above, in between his wife and the sinister satyr.
With cloven hooves, the satyr didn’t have to worry about slipping on the hard round balls, but he was still unprepared for his foot to land on one. The little things were resilient indeed, and the satyr shifted his weight to the side, pulling a muscle in his leg. An undulating growl escaped his lips, and he reached down to grab hold of his injured calf.
While he wrestled with his pain, Rhianna hoisted herself up with the help of a conveyer belt at her side. Packages of fine white powder, which almost looked like snow, moved along on the conveyer belt, and the woman grabbed one of them. It wasn’t cold when she had it in her hands, and as she considered all the other items within the lab, she realized what it was instead. She turned then, bringing the bag of sugar over her head, and just as the satyr righted himself, she smashed him on his crown, right between the horns. The bag tore apart at once, covering him in a smattering of white powder, and sending a small cloud of it into the air.
The satyr growled, raking at his eyes, but it was too late. He was already blinded by the stuff. Whipping his head back and forth, he tried to strike Rhianna, but she had backed away, safer than she was before.
“Aw,” Michael said, climbing up the steps of the platform. “I was worried about him before, but he’s not so bad, is he? I mean, look at that sweet face.”
“This is no time for quips!” Rhianna said, though even she had to stave off a giggle.
“Ah, don’t worry about him,” Michael said as he reached the satyr. He gave him a little shove in his chest, and even though he was a sturdy opponent, without being able to see, he didn’t put up much fight. He stumbled backward, catching more jawbreakers under his hooves, and grunting in pain.
As Michael worked him toward the back of the lab, Rhianna heard a noise behind her. Worried that reinforcements might have arrived, she spun about, bringing her shield to bear. It was only the gnome encased in chocolate, however, and he muttered something incoherent until the woman swung around to see him.
Further back in the lab, Michael saw another use for all the sugar in the room. A large silver bin looked to be covered in cobwebs, but the man knew that they were a sweet concoction. Though he couldn’t read the text above the dials on the round bowl—the instructions written in either gnomish or dwarvish, he surmised—he had seen such things before. When he turned up one of the dials, he could hear the device whirr to life. Cotton candy wisps began to fill up the basin.
The satyr, hearing the mechanical noises but unable to see what caused them, took a wild swing at Michael. The man ducked aside, and opened the front door of the basin, then.
“Let’s see what this does.”
Michael cranked the dial up all the way, until the machine sounded like a jet engine about to explode. Sure enough, the machine went into overdrive, a blast of cotton candy bursting from the basin and engulfing the satyr.
The goatman, thoroughly covered, and looking like a pink cloud, no longer had the same vicious look to him that he did when the visitors to the lab saw him using his scare tactics on the poor, trapped gnome.
“What did you say?” Rhianna asked the little fellow encased in chocolate.
“I shed, chie hih uh wish uh wickorish wish.”
Rhianna shook her head then. “I’m sorry, I don’t think we’re speaking the same language.”
“Iye sheaking uh shaye yanguage yer sheaking, Iye jush shuck!” the gnome angrily replied. “Geh uh wickorish wish.” He said, speaking deliberately slowly to help convey his thoughts.
“What is a wickorish wish?” the woman queried.
“Uh wickorish wish!” the gnome, exasperated, cried.
“Oh, the licorice twist!” Rhianna realized, her eyes going wide with the excitement of having figured out the gnomes wishes.
“Ash uht I shed!” he declared.
As Michael spun the satyr about, coating him with more and more of the pink cotton candy, Rhianna ran to another machine, which stretched and pulled at a candy rope. She dislodged it from the machine then and ran it over to Michael.
“We can tie him up with this,” Rhianna said. “Between that and the fluff, we should be able to ensure he can’t do anything to warn any of his friends, and then we’ll have free reign of the lab.”
The satyr grumbled then. But, just like the gnome, his voice was muffled by the confection he was trapped within.
Michael didn’t plan on listening to anything their foe had to say then. After trying to find out where Santa’s camp was, the last thing they needed was to be tricked into revealing some sort of detail that the satyr could bring to Loki.
Instead, Michael took the licorice rope that his wife handed him, and, finding it more durable than it looked at first glance, he wrapped it around their foe.
“You know, satyrs are supposed to be more goatlike, but with all this cotton candy surrounding him, he’s looking kind of sheepish,” Rhianna suggested.
“I thought we weren’t doing any quips,” Michael said.
“This is different,” she replied. “We’ve already won!”
That assessment had the satyr growling in protest. Michael simply cinched the knot of the licorice rope tighter, eliciting a grunt from their foe instead of more incoherent words.
“Oh, he didn’t like that one, did he?” Michael asked. “He’s going to like it a lot less when we free his little torture victim and break everyone else out of here.”
The satyr struggled with his bindings for a moment, but failing to make any progress, he sighed, and bowed his head. Dejected, he didn’t even watch as Michael and Rhianna approached the giant chocolate bar.
“Alright, then,” Michael said. “Let’s get you out of there, shall we?”
“I’m surprised you’re willing to let all that chocolate go to waste,” Rhianna said to her husband. “This place is very bad for your sweet tooth.”
Michael nodded. “The only thing giving me pause is that this outfit that Santa gave me is already feeling a little tight,” he said, patting his stomach. “I don’t need to be busting out of my furs right in the middle of a huge battle.”
“That’s fair,” Rhianna said. “But maybe we could come back here after the battle,” she teased.
The gnome grumbled and tried to speak, but he was so exasperated, the husband-and-wife duo couldn’t hope to understand anything he offered up.
“Just hold on a minute,” Rhianna said. “This stuff is pretty sturdy.”
Together, she and her husband began snapping off pieces of the chocolate bar until the gnome’s limbs were free. He began lending a hand as well, mostly scrapping away the stuff by his face.
“Ah, it’s good to breathe out of more than just a thin line near my lips,” the gnome said then. “You two mentioned you were sent by Santa?”
“In a manner of sorts,” Michael confirmed. “Can you walk on your own?”
The gnome took a few steps forward, though the chocolate still stuck to his limbs left him unable to bend his knees, and he ended up looking quite strange in his movements. “I can move well enough to escape from this darned place!”
Michael clicked his tongue and scratched the back of his neck. “Actually, that wasn’t quite what we had in mind.”
Rhianna clasped her hands together and took in a deep breath. “We could use your help.”
* * *
With a crack of a whip, the laborers were coerced into working faster, even though the weapon hadn’t drawn close to any of them. One of the elves still bore a welt on their arm from that strike that stung just from moving quickly, as if the breeze given off from their movement sent an icy touch upon his skin.
The human beside the cauldron grumbled as he worked, not pleased in the slightest to be using his staff to stir the slimy, sticky substance—not at all what was supposed to be in the cauldron, he knew.
“Blast it all,” the fellow said, stopping what he was doing, and stepping to the side, his prized staff in hand. He shook it off, not bothering to care about the consequences.
“Put that back in there,” one of their captors said, pointing to the staff. The satyr was white furred, almost looking as though the snow had fully covered him, and he was unable to remove it. Still, that pure look did nothing to stave off the fearsome look of the creature. Just like his curved horns, his spear looked dangerous. As it came prodding toward the laborer who dared to step out of line, the wielder slammed the weapon to the side, the metal banging off the cauldron with a resonating blow. “Go on,” the satyr said. “Or else we’ll grind your bones to paste and throw you in there as well.”
On the opposite side of the room, the other satyr, a female with tawny fur and silver hooves and horns cracked the whip, more for the fun of it than to scare any of their prisoners. She paced the room, bored with their task. The satyrs had, after all, taken the alchemy lab with very little resistance. She knew that it was an integral part of Loki’s plan, and that it would behoove them to keep the rabble working.
“I won’t use my staff anymore,” the man said. His sudden boldness has the other prisoners halting their work as well, though it was more in horror at their companions’ brazen behavior. “If you want me to stir up whatever it is we have here, go and fetch me something I can use that hasn’t been in my possession for nearly half my life.”
The white satyr spit on the ground, drawing uncomfortable looks from the captives. “You can make a choice here: either you care about your staff, which you’ve had for almost fiftey years, or you can take more care of yourself, considering you’ve known yourself all your life.”
“Duly noted,” the man said. “But I think I’ll still not be mixing with this.”
“Raskagar!” one of the other captives pleaded. “Don’t make them madder than they are.”
It wasn’t the satyrs that scared him into compliance. The wizard couldn’t help but consider his friend’s fears, and he bowed his head then, grumbling as he moved back into place.
Before he could set his staff back into the cauldron, he was surprised to see another captive standing in the doorway of the chamber.
The little gnome looked to be stained by dirt, his hair tousled where it wasn’t matted, yet he had a look of conviction on his face.
The white furred satyr caught the sudden widening of the wizard’s eyes and spun about. The gnome tried to skitter out of view, but he wasn’t fast enough, it seemed.
“An intruder!” the goatman hollered, catching his companion’s attention. He charged toward the exit of the room, his hooves resonating against the floorboards and echoing out into the corridor.
When he emerged from the vat room, he didn’t see the pair of humans skulking in the shadows, his only focus on the gnome who ran as fast as his legs would carry him, toward the exit of the building.
Michael and Rhianna heard another pair of approaching hooves, and the woman swung out with her spear, just as the tawny furred satyr emerged into the hallway. As the spear struck her across the chest, momentum took her backward, spilling her to the ground. Rhianna moved at once, smacking her atop the head, ensuring she wouldn’t be conscious of their plans for liberation.
Beside her, Michael stepped around until he could glance at her, and he raised his eyebrows in surprise. “How is it that you, with know situational awareness, managed to pull that off?”
“I don’t know,” Rhianna said with a shrug. “Christmas magic?”
“Rhianna?” they heard from inside the chamber then. “Michael?” Raskagar ceased what he was doing and hurried around the vats until he reached the entrance to the room. “What are you two doing here? Where’s the rest of your family?”
“They’re okay,” Michael said. “We’ve even got a new pup to introduce you to. But we’re here on a mission for Santa, and they’re off performing very important tasks of their own.”
“So, you came here to rescue everyone from the clutches of those furry beasts?” the wizard wondered.
“We came here specifically for you,” Rhianna explained. “Lest you not forget, you were a furry beast at one point as well.”
“Though, perhaps a touch smaller,” Michael teased.
“Yes, yes,” the Raskagar conceded. “I must admit some days I wake up and still feel as though I have whiskers upon my face.” He stroked his white beard and mustache then. “Well, much longer whiskers, that is.” He turned and waved on the other captives, a collection of elves and dwarves and gnomes that were relieved to find their prison turned to a sanctuary. “If you’re here for me, you must already have a plan. Care to let me in on the details?”
“Of course,” Rhianna said. “But we should whisper it so that nobody else can hear, just in case.”
* * *
The gnome burst from the doors of the laboratory, surprised to see the massive golem before him, even though his rescuers had revealed that he was present. Satyrs, and even the mighty frost giant were lying down in the snow, nursing aching chests and heads. The apertures where the golem’s eyes would be glowed green again, and even when it saw Santa’s foes writhing on the ground, it didn’t invite any other further violence upon them.
“Hey, you!” the gnome cried out to the large, stone creature. “Michael and Rhianna said that if I needed help, you would help. Well… Help!”
The golem shuffled about, sentient, and intelligent enough to look to where the gnome pointed.
When the white furred satyr came barreling out of the laboratory, his focus was so intense on the gnome, that he didn’t notice the tall pillars that framed the gnome. The diminutive fellow couldn’t help but smile then, as he pointed up toward his large, unexpected ally.
The satyr looked up, just in time to see the green eyes turn a pale red.
With a mighty swat, the golem sent the goat man flying, a cry that sounded more like a bleat ringing out into the night.
“Alright, now these next people coming out of the lab ought to be our friends,” the gnome said. “No smacking anyone else, okay?”
Before long, some of the other people that the gnome worked with did in face exit the laboratory and gasped at the sight of the large golem. He didn’t look to be ready to cause any trouble then, even taking a few giant steps back to allow some room for those people who had just been liberated. At the end of the procession, the golem saw the two humans he traveled with, and he fell to one knee, eager to witness them return safely.
Raskagar was with them as well, stuffing his hands into his pockets to ensure they had everything they needed—both to get them back to Santa’s camp, and to help in the long battle to come.
“Now, you’re sure this is going to work?” Michael asked.
The wizard twitched his snow-white mustache then. “Now when have I ever steered you wrong? Of course, this will work. That is, assuming our friend here can handle throwing more than just snowballs.”
“Well, it’s certainly not what he was designed for, but he’s beginning to learn things awfully quick,” Rhianna said. “So, what do you say?” she asked the golem. “Do you want to try and design something a little different?”
The golem’s eyes changed color then, and for the split second that the green faded away, Rhianna felt close to panicking, wondering if his magic had been altered in some way. But his eyes didn’t transform into that familiar, frightening red, but a cool blue that was accentuated by the reflection of the snow beneath his large stone feet.
“Looks like he’s open to the suggestion at least,” Raskagar said. “Why don’t you make sure you have everything you need and prepare everyone else for our exit, and I’ll try to make our preparations with the golem?”
Michael and Rhianna agreed with that suggestion, and Michael headed over to the folk that they had liberated. “While all of Loki’s people are nursing their injuries, you’ve got some choices to make. You could either rope them up the way they did you, or…”
While he went on, explaining the options to the former captives, Rhianna approached the little gnome who was once captured in an oversized chocolate bar.
“I wanted to thank you for being so brave, even after everything that happened to you,” she said. “Things could have gone very differently in there if you weren’t there to help.”
The gnome chuckled. “I have to admit, for a few moments, I was definitely planning on just running out the door. But when you told me who you were, knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to help.”
“Well, you’re one of Santa’s champions now, too,” Rhianna said. “But you know, with how chaotic everything was in there, we never learned your name.”
“Me?” he said, excited that the people he had learned about over the last half-decade wanted to know more about him. “I’m Quarrick. This day will go down in history as one of my favorites!”
“Ours too,” Rhianna said, patting him on the shoulder. “Especially when we win!”
Michael came up alongside his wife then and gave her a little squeeze. “A few of them are going to stay behind and try to wrangle up the satyrs while they have the golem here. The rest are going to head to safety.” The man turned his attention to the gnome then. “Quarrick, was it?” He extended his hand to the little fellow. “Thank you for your help in there.”
Quarrick, eager to shake hands with his new friend, couldn’t stop his smile from growing larger. “Glad to be of assistance. But I must say, I’m going to be heading out with those who are looking for safety. I think I had a good run of luck today, and I don’t need to press it!”
“Probably a good decision indeed,” Rhianna said.
The three of them heard Raskagar clear his throat then, and when they turned, they spotted him standing beside the golem, who had dropped to one knee, and balanced on the limb that had some resemblance to a hand.
“I think we’ve come to an understanding,” the wizard said. “Are you two ready to head back to the camp?”
Michael breathed out a sigh but nodded. “I’m not enthusiastic about going up against his army again—last time I did almost get turned into a pincushion—but I’m eager to put all this behind us.”
“And to see the babies again,” Rhianna said. “I hope they’re all okay.”
“Well, we’ll be seeing them shortly, I assure you,” Raskagar said. The wizard turned to everybody else then, clasping his hands together. “My friends, there’s a bit of magic that is going to be taking place here in a moment, and not all of it is under my control. I’d ask that you take a few steps back while our friend here uses his power to make something a little bigger than a snowball.”
As the freed captives did as they were told, snow from far beyond where the golem stood began to lift into the air, swirling about and affecting visibility. Ochre grass could be seen for the first time in months as the flakes of snow funneled into the lines on the stone creature’s back. Once a large area around the laboratory was clear, the golem began the creation process. Instead of the foom sound that preceded the launch of a snowball, there was almost an electric buzz in the air. A cylindrical tube emerged from where the golem’s cannon arm opened up, and from there, a new shape began to form.
While the golem worked, it began to teeter just a bit, the magic it created sapping it of its energy enough that the wizard and the other two humans could not help but notice. Raskagar was beside the golem, helping to shape the snow and convert it into hardier ice.
Soon after, the husband-and-wife duo were surprised to see the snow take the form of a bench.
“I expected something a bit less refined,” Michael said, impressed with the workmanship.
“You’ve done well,” Rhianna said, tapping the golem on his leg.
“Well, I may have had something to do with it,” Raskagar said. “But yes, a lot of it comes down to our friend here, and of course I couldn’t do the next part on my own.”
“And you’re sure it’s going to work?” Michael wondered.
Raskagar scoffed. “Well of course I haven’t tested it, but I’ve never second-guessed my magic before. And even though our golem friend here is new to me, he’s certainly used his powers to some effect. My spells bolstered his design, and here we are.” The wizard’s eyes went wide for a moment. He took his hand and rooted it around in a pocket in his robe. “I almost forgot.” He slammed down his palm across the back of the bench then. When he moved it, Michael and Rhianna saw the carefully folded candy wrapper there.
“What was going to happen if we didn’t have that?” Rhianna wondered, folding her arms over her chest.
“That’s neither here nor there,” Raskagar declared. “All is right now, except none of us have planted our rears on this bench.”
Michael was the first to sit down, although he instantly popped back up, blowing air out through his lips. “Whoa that’s cold.”
“It’s frozen solid, as I had told you,” the wizard insisted.
“Yeah, but you didn’t say we would be too.”
“I’m sure it’s not that bad,” Rhianna said. She sat down as well, then, only she didn’t climb back out of the seat. Her eyes did grow wider though.
“I’ve got to say,” Michael remarked, “I’m surprised you’re still sitting. You’re certainly stronger than I give you credit for.”
“It’s not that,” Rhianna said. “I’ve frozen to the seat!”
Her husband hurried to sit down next to her, and started rubbing her hands and shoulders, trying to warm her up. “I think we’ve committed to this course,” he said. “But it’ll only be a short while, right Raskagar?”
The wizard nodded, and turned about, bunching up his robe to sit upon. Even so, his eyes nearly popped out of his head when he felt the cold against his garments.
“Colder than you expected?” Michael asked from the middle seat.
“What I wouldn’t give to have a bit of fur on my body again,” Raskagar said. “And I apologize, but things are going to have to get just a bit more uncomfortable.” As he finished speaking, he teetered his staff to the side, and Michael and Rhianna squeezed back a bit as a frigid bar of ice extended across the front of the bench, locking them in place.
“Does the North Pole have it’s first roller coaster?” Rhianna wondered through chattering teeth.
“Yeah, only it doesn’t have a track,” Michael suggested.
“A track?” the wizard asked. “Where we’re going, we don’t need a track. Alright, Rahm,” Raskagar used the creature’s namesake as he passed a glance to the golem. “Send us to Santa’s camp.”
Just as before, when the golem was creating the bench, a series of hums began to reverberate, until every one of them sounded like the noise he made when he blasted snowballs at the satyrs earlier. Rhianna watched as little bits of snow puffed off the bench, and she could feel vibrations all around her.
“Is it too late to get off this ride?” she mused.
“Something makes me think it—” Before Michael could fathom the rest of his response, a larger foom than they had heard before was joined by what sounded like glass shattering behind them. His breath was stolen away as they took to the sky, and he couldn’t push anymore words out then.
Beside him, Rhianna cheered in excitement. With an exuberant smile upon her face, she turned about, and looked back at the laboratory, and all the people they had helped. They all waved, and she spotted Quarrick first, the little gnome jumping up and down and waving both hands. And just beside him, Rahm, the giant golem, waved his one articulate hand as well.
Michael looked to his side, watching the old wizard’s stringy white hair press back in the wind. Raskagar held a tight grip on his staff, though he slowly brought it back, weaving it between he and Michael.
With a single tap of his magical implement, the trio felt a huge backward force on the bench—enough that it felt as though they were being pushed back toward the laboratory. A moment later though, they understood what had happened. The candy wrapper which Raskagar had fixed to the bench had expanded, taking the form of a giant glider that would make their journey far less dangerous.
A relieved sigh escaped Raskagar’s lips then. “Now this is definitely the way to travel,” the wizard said. “Could you imagine if everyone could get about this way?”
Michael and Rhianna giggled at the wizard’s revelation.
“That would be something,” Rhianna said.
“Only a short while until we reach Santa’s camp,” Michael remarked a few moments later. “Once we all finish our tasks, we’ll be ready to go, and we can take down Loki once and for all.”
Raskagar offered up a solemn nod. He knew there was much he had to do upon their arrival. The wizard reached up then, and grabbed the underside of the makeshift glider, steering it toward the ground a little quicker. With only a short time before Christmas, he knew his services were of the utmost importance.
* * *
Sunlight shone down upon the snow and the sea, and all the ice that had once frozen the bay solid had melted once again. Santa and Nanna stood atop the cliff that their guests had once arrived upon, and they looked over the region, knowing that their earlier skirmish would be nothing compared to what was to come.
A missive arrived on the path leading from their camp. “Everyone has arrived,” the young elf declared. “Well, except for one, but their allies returned a short while ago. Should I send out a—?”
A battle horn echoed in the distance, and Santa knew that the time for peace was quickly diminishing. Loki wouldn’t be sending his troops across the bay again, but around the loop of the land, and there was nothing that anyone could to stop them.
Or at least, that would be the case if the DeAngelo family had not been successful in their quest to find allies.
For almost as soon as Santa saw satyrs charging through the woods, their fur appearing atop the green canvas of the rows of evergreen trees, the first of Santa’s reinforcements arrived.
A pack of reindeer galloped through across the shore, some splashing into the icy waters as though they did not have a care in the world. Leading the pack was a reindeer who had a small, auburn-furred dog holding tight to the reins, gripping them in her mouth. While Zelda offered up incoherent cheers and motivation, it was the other members of the pack that would help to win the day, surely.
Nanna pointed to the number of reindeer that followed Svetlana into battle, noting that elven archers rode atop their backs, already drawing their bowstrings taut. A few arrows were loosed, screeching through the woods. Some hit the evergreens, while others met their marks, striking the satyrs. Just as it has been before on the frozen water of the bay though, a deep red outline marked them before they fell—or in the rare occasion, simply stumbled backward.
Santa’s swelling confidence took a blow the next moment when he realized that Loki had been scrounging up his own allies during the brief respite they had found in battle. Blue-faced yetis bounded through the trees, growling and roaring as they broke toward Santa’s troops and the rapidly progressing reindeer.
“They haven’t come this far south from their sanctuary in years,” Nanna said.
“Decades, perhaps,” Santa agreed. “We are lucky to have had the little one fetch Svetlana and her friends. They may turn the tide.”
As Svetlana met the lead yeti, she lowered her head, cracking her skull against its face.
“Don’t worry,” Zelda cried below, still holding tight to the reins with her teeth. “I’ll give you a nice head massage later!”
While the action unfolded in the forest, the elf who had come to deliver news of the battle to Santa pointed toward the shore on the northeastern side of the bay. Sure enough, there Santa and his wife saw more of Loki’s troops encroaching. With the satyrs and yetis entrenched in the forest, it came down to Loki’s frost giants to press toward Santa’s camp then.
But Santa had his own troops ready to make the journey around the bay. A detachment of gnomes and dwarves charged forth, even in sight of those large opponents. From afar, the frost giants hurled log and boulders, trying to flatten the members of Santa’s army.
Just as before, with the grappling hook that struck Michael, a wintry blue shield appeared atop one his armor as a tremendous log struck him. He was knocked to the ground, but he was able to breathe out a sigh of relief when he found himself able to climb to his feet again. Just as he hoisted himself off the ground and dusted off his clothes and his armor, another projectile soared over head.
That time, it was from behind the front lines, and when the dwarves and gnomes found about it, they nearly cheered in unison.
They looked behind them, expecting to see another feat of Santa’s mechanical marvels. But they didn’t see any catapults or trebuchets. Instead, what they saw were giants of the northern reaches, come to help against a common enemy. Rurnar and his brethren slung stones and barrels, various liquids splashing up against the frost giants, or even passing through to the woods and smashing atop a fierce yeti before it could take a mighty swing at a rushing reindeer.
Along with Rurnar, it seemed Halgrum and Beroras had taken to the battlefield, the delegates bringing with them their own attachment of their kinsmen. Though Santa certainly couldn’t see his adopted brother, he imagined the other member of the Aesir looking a bit panicked by the sight of all the troops that Santa had begun to amass.
Before he could turn to his wife and express any building confidence, he was surprised to see a black and white blur take to the shore below. He was familiar with that sight and knew that Maisie had once again taken a hold of the magical pendant that she had swallowed years before. Even from that far vantage point, when she took a moment to reconcile where she was on the battlefield, Santa could see that she had it tied around her neck like a collar, and that they wouldn’t have to go, and grab hold of it after she was done with it as her family had once before.
The little dog panted, looking into the forest. While she had enhanced speed and strength, her stamina was only marginally improved, and as much as she liked to rib Zelda for running out of energy too soon after a walk, she had to admit that it was a lot of work bringing their allies back down from the north. Still, she wasn’t about to let a little fatigue prevent her from helping her family and her friends.
Maisie bolted into the forest, knocking down a yeti before it could throw a wild swing at a nearby reindeer. When Maisie was sure the creature was knocked down, she turned to regard the reindeer and her companion. It didn’t take long for her to realize that it was Zelda who rode upon the legendary reindeer’s back.
“That one was mine,” Maisie teased.
Zelda grumbled, but never let the reins fall from her clenched jaws. She tugged the red strap to the side, urging her friend deeper into the woods. “Come on, Svetlana,” she said. “Let’s find another one to beat up.”
Nanna gripped her husband’s hand, happy to see the tide had changed in their favor. Before she could offer up any words of encouragement though, she watched as a pale blue zephyr passed through the area. Just as earlier that day, they watched as the water in the bay began to freeze over. Without any of Santa’s ships crossing the distance to the other side though, she wondered what the reason for the spell might be.
But then, she spotted something that she could not have expected in all her time living in the North Pole with her husband. There before them, on the distant shore of the bay, was an army who wore armor that she had not seen in some time. More pristine than anything the inhabitants of the North Pole wore, they seemed to almost gleam in the morning light.
Nanna grabbed her husband’s arm and steered his attention in that direction.
“The Aesir,” Santa said, his mouth dropping open when he saw his people in the land that he had made his home so many centuries before. “How did Loki manage to convince them to come here?”
“The trickster knows how to work his magic,” Nanna said. “But even so, this is our land. If anyone knows it and how to protect it, it’s us.”
A horn blew three times, and at once, all of Loki’s troops ceased their attacks. The yetis, satyrs, and frost giants almost seemed to freeze, as though the aurora that the god cast over the bay had worked on them too. Their shields held fast though, perhaps even strengthening, because bold red glowing illuminated the forest when a reindeer struck a yeti, or an elven arrow met its mark and reached a satyr. Those empowered shields kept the intruder god’s troops standing, and Santa and Nanna realized that they had underestimated their foe yet again.
“Brother!” a voice called out then. It was the same one they had heard earlier that day when the first attempt to breach the distant shores failed, and their longships were nearly stolen.
“We don’t have to do this. If you simply have your friends lay down their arms, this will be a quick transfer of power, and no one would risk being hurt.” Unlike before, where the voice was disembodied, Santa and Nanna watched as a distant figure strode forward, to stand in front of the other Aesir. He had red hair that looked like his head had been lit aflame for a time. Even after all that time—and from that distance—neither could forget Loki’s fiery mane.
“Come and parlay with me,” the god who they once fled called out, his voice carrying loudly across the bay as though he was right there beside him. “It has been so long. I only wish to speak with you.”
Nanna turned to her husband then and nodded. “It’s time.” She squeezed his hand, and he turned to regard her. “If we are going to try to do this, it has to be now.”
“There will be no transfer of power,” Santa said then, more to himself and his wife than to those who stood beside him. But then he stepped forward, nearly to the edge of the cliff face. “There will be no transfer of power!” he repeated, loud enough that he was certain those who fought on Loki’s behalf heard. “There shall never be a Christmas that I allow to pass that isn’t filled with joy. You may have found your way to my home, my land, and my workshop, but you will not keep it. You want to meet again after all these years? Then let us meet on the battlefield!”
Santa jumped down from the cliff, landing on the ground below upon bent legs as though the fall was meaningless. Those dwarves and gnomes, elves and giants that surrounded him gave a mighty cheer when they saw that he had joined them. And then, unsheathing his mighty sword, Santa strode forward. The rest of his troops gave charge then as well, except for one.
Nanna whipped her hand about, a series of sparkles whipping around her upturned limb. A small swarm of multicolored lumibugs fluttered about, glowing like a moving string of Christmas lights. Nanna narrowed her eyes, focusing on one golden insect, which flew at the end of the procession.
“Go now,” she whispered. “Loki will be too focused on the battle to notice you until it is too late. Your passage should be clear.”
Together, the swarm followed behind the charging army, blinking every so often, high above the skirmish below. The one with the golden glow, flagging just a bit behind, flew a bit lower as well. Behind it, a shrunken sleigh trailed it, attached with miniaturized reins. A trio of humans rode upon the small vehicle, clutching tightly to the frame.
“You’ve outdone yourself, Raskagar,” Michael said. “We’ll likely pass right by everyone with no one thinking better for it.”
The wizard held a hand over his stomach while he leaned forward from the backseat. The flight was a little less steady than he had hoped, even though the insect was able to carry the extra weight that the sleigh and its passengers represented. In front of him, Rhianna reacted the same, for a time, before her eyes shot open and she reached into the pockets of her outfit.
“Here,” she said, handing a candy over to Raskagar. “I took them from the laboratory earlier. I figured they’re ginger, I’m ginger, it just makes sense.”
“And this will set my stomach straight?” the wizard asked.
“As will a look toward the horizon,” Michael confirmed.
Raskagar groaned. “When we get a little closer, I’ll help the wee bug out. Remember, we don’t want to go completely unnoticed.”
“Right,” Rhianna said, feeling better the moment she chewed on the candy. “Because we need to convince Loki to chase us.”
“Well, at the rate our little friend here is moving, the battle is going to be over before we reach the other side of the bay,” Michael mused. “Are you sure you found us a fast enough lumibug?”
“Careful,” Raskagar teased. “That bug might be hungry enough to eat you as a snack. We don’t have to reach Loki first. We just have to reach him around the time the other lumibugs pass.”
“But they’re all so much farther ahead of us,” Michael explained, gesturing toward the open air before them.
“They won’t be for long,” Raskagar said, suddenly feeling energized after chewing on the ginger candy. “But let’s not let that distract us. In fact, we may have some distracting we can do ourselves.”
Below, a satyr charged with his spear at the ready. He swept low, catching an elf off their guard, and pulling them from their feet. With his hooves tapping against the icy ground, the satyr hopped up and over a dwarf, and jabbed him with the blunt end of his weapon, briefly activating the blue shield that protected him. The satyr turned about again, that time looking upon a gnome who looked in over his head. The diminutive fellow quivered at the sight of the approaching goatman, but neither saw the strange light that seemed to fall from one of the passing lumibugs above. A light blues streak of color followed behind the white light, and a little hum accompanied it.
The satyr didn’t hear it, nor did he see it as it fell toward him. As he raised his spear, it seemed he might have been the first one to pierce one of the magical shields throughout the encounter.
But as the light landed upon his head, it was as though a bolt of lightning had struck him from the heavens. The blue streak quickly followed suit, racing toward where the light hand landed. At once, a flash stole away the satyr’s vision, and he howled from the quick shock he received.
The gnome, seeing his opportunity, leapt forward, stabbing with a little dagger that was caught by the satyr’s crimson shield. The goatman would survive those quick jabs, but they, too, stung, and he danced backward as the gnome kept rushing forward.
All along the lumibug’s path, more of those little streaks of light shone out, and more of Loki’s troops were quick to feel the sudden pains that the light preceded.
Not everything was going well for Santa and his troops, however. While Loki lingered at the other side of the bay, the warrior Aesir he traveled to the North Pole with ventured onto the ice. Santa planned on meeting them there, and he was joined by an attachment of dwarves and elves.
The Aesir demonstrated early that they were no mere mortals. Their prowess in battle seemed unmatched as they struck down one enemy, and then the next, avoiding strike after strike during the first several minutes they were on the ice.
In the woods, Santa’s forces had diminished, with some retreating to lick their wounds, while others had spun about to join their leader in his fight against his old kinsmen.
Maisie watched as Svetlana charged into a yeti, lowering her head to drive her antlers forward. The reindeer bristled once the yeti tumbled back, and she snorted, sending a cloud of steam into the air. As another yeti barreled in, Maisie set to work, skittering forward quick as she could with the help of her magical amulet. As the yeti set its sights on Svetlana and the little auburn-furred dog atop her, it pounded its chest like a gorilla. Svetlana turned to regard it just as it resumed its rush.
But it would never reach it. Maisie leapt into the air, lowering her head. She knocked into its chest, sending it flying back a dozen feet between two sturdy pine trees, needles falling from their branches as the yeti crashed through the cover.
Maisie landed on her feet, but the headbutt disoriented her. She shook her head and panted a bit as she came to terms with the tremendous efforts she had offered up. A new shadow loomed over the small black-and-white dog, and she only just noticed the darkness that surrounded her.
“Look out Maisie!” Zelda cried. She finally let go of the reins, and hopped off Svetlana’s back, landing upon the nearby satyr’s face before it could bring down its long halberd. Though Zelda flexed her fingers, and her claws were curled up, she found a red shield instead of the satyr’s skin or its fur. She couldn’t keep her composure and she tottered off the creature, spilling to the cold ground below.
Though the satyr stumbled back a step, he was not deterred. Instead, he found a new target, lifting his crude polearm to punish the little mutt for her interference.
For a moment, Zelda wondered if she had a shield like everyone else. Would hers activate in time? Would it be enough even if it did?
As the halberd came down, Zelda felt a little pinch around her neck. Then, her vision began to spin.
“I got you,” Maisie said, though Zelda’s scruff was still between her teeth.
Together, the pair of them looked on, for when the satyr’s halberd met with only the frozen earth below, he left himself open for a fierce kick from Svetlana. The shield fluttered and broke, and they heard the deep grunt that left the goatman’s lips as he flew across the area, smacking against the trunk of a nearby tree.
Though the reindeer had found vengeance for her friend, she was quickly surrounded by his allies. Svetlana spun about, bucking like a wild horse as a quartet of satyrs and yetis inched toward her. She grunted and whined, kicking when they came close, but they kept their distance, wary of her power.
“Svetlana!” Zelda whimpered.
“It’s alright,” Maisie said. “I’ll help her.” The other little pup took a few steps forward, and collapsed into the snow, too exhausted to take another step.
“Maisie!” Zelda cried then, running to her sister’s side. “What do we do?” she asked, even though she saw Maisie’s eyes fluttering, and she knew the other dog was struggling to stay awake. “I don’t know what to do.”
All around her, other reindeer spilled to the ground, and elves were knocked off their mounts as Loki’s troops overwhelmed them. Zelda turned to the north to see if Santa and his troops fared any better. While Santa easily fended off the horde of satyrs and Aesir, his troops showed their fatigue, and their foes showed their prowess. More than one dwarf was knocked into the air only to fall back down upon the icy, shattering it before sinking into the shallow, frigid waters beneath.
Zelda nuzzled up against Maisie, nudging her with her nose, worried that all was lost.
Another horn sounded in the distance, and the two dogs wondered if it was Loki, calling for his victory, knowing that the residents of the North Pole had been bested. Even his troops stopped then, however, for none on the battlefield could determine who the signal belonged to.
A moment later, a frightening screech echoed throughout the bay. It was like a banshee had come to exact her rage on both sides of the skirmish.
But it didn’t take long for the troops to realize who would benefit from the new arrivals.
Peanut skidded on the ice, her traction failing as she adjusted the way she leaned. Behind her, towering dire penguins chased after her, chomping their beaks as though they were trying to swallow the feline whole.
“We had a deal!” Peanut growled as she slipped the other way. “A year’s supply of the stuff, if only you’d fight for us.”
One of the penguins slid on its stomach, its pace improved substantially. It nearly thumped into the cat, but she leapt high into the air, bouncing off the feral bird’s rump.
“Alright, fine then!” she yowled. “Then onto the backup plan.” She turned about, almost spinning a pirouette like an ice dancer. When she found a familiar gnome upon the cliffside, she jumped up again, waving her arms with great enthusiasm. “Send the barrels!” she ordered. “Send them before I become a snack!”
The gnome and his allies up above launched their war machines, slinging barrels across the battlefield. Santa’s troops had taken advantage of the distractions, but Loki’s Aesir watched as projectiles flew across the bay toward them. Most knew well enough where they were going to land, and dodged out of the way, but one unfortunate warrior raised his axe to fend off a foe instead of looking skyward.
When the barrels crashed against the ice—or the poor, shortsighted combatant—they fell apart, releasing the liquid inside. The brine that the fiskeblugen once sat within covered patches of the icy bay, leaving those warriors close to them to gag and cough at the overpowering odor. The Aesir who was covered in the stuff fell to his hands and knees, heaving to try and empty his stomach.
The foremost penguin, who had passed the cat, set its gaze at the smelly liquid not so far away then, and slid on its belly toward that point of the battlefield. But the penguins who had not ventured to travel in that manner still had their focus on the cat.
“You’re not supposed to come after me,” she hissed. “I was only drenched in the fiskeblugen to get you to follow me here. Now you’re supposed to…” Her words trailed off, and her gaze fell upon a part of the ice that had cracked open, leaving just enough room for her to leap in. “I always swore I’d never take a bath again after the vat of fiskeblugen,” she wistfully said. “This is a sad day indeed.”
Wasting no time, Peanut didn’t hesitate to hop into the water. And though it was cold, she knew better than to leap right back out. She paused just long enough for the dire penguins, standing taller than Santa, to swing their focus toward something else instead. As more briny barrels soared across the sky, they moved toward Loki’s side of the battlefield, eager to feast.
The cat finally crawled out of the frigid waters, shivering the whole way, and looking more like a bilge rat than a feline with elegant fur. Just as she was about to curl into a bawl and shiver herself into oblivion, she noticed an aurora of orange and yellow above her head. At once, she felt warmth surrounding her, and when she looked in the nearby waters, she could see that her fur fluffed up enough to make her look just as silly.
“It’s fine,” she grumbled. “At least I’m warm.”
Not so far away, she heard some troubled barking, and turned to regard it. Zelda stood next to a tree, barking into the darkness a few feet away. Peanut, curious, pranced in that direction, noticing the notes of fear in her sister’s yipping. As the cat drew closer, she saw what looked like a pile of snow on the ground beside Zelda. Then, she saw the black spots intermingled with the white coat and knew that it was Maisie.
With all the chaos unfolding around them, Peanut didn’t see the younger dog’s shallow, tired breaths, only her limp body on the ground.
A feral yowl escaped from Peanut’s mouth, and her eyes narrowed, for she saw the vague outline of some of Loki’s troops in the woods beyond where Zelda was, the scared dog still barking into the shadows betwixt the trees.
Peanut, even as old as she was, flexed her muscles, and felt her claws unsheathe. She didn’t hesitate as she bolted forward, passing Zelda.
While Loki’s troops wailed on Svetlana, watching the blue shield that surrounded her fade from the bold cobalt it had been to a dusky cornflower color, none knew that the little cat had set her sights on them.
Peanut leapt into the air, no care for her achy muscles, or the size difference between her and the yetis and satyrs. She landed upon the face of a yeti first, scratching enough that a shade of red diminished every other second. Though the creature was mostly feral, it knew that its shield would not last long, and its eyes went wide in shock. Just as it heard a shattering sound, and the shield dissipated entirely, it brought its hands to its face, pushing the cat off.
Peanut landed on the ground upon her feet, and she bounced off the cold snow, already finding another target. A satyr stood not far from her, slamming the butt of his halberd into the fallen reindeer’s side, eager to see her shield fail as well. But he had his back to the incensed cat and didn’t notice as she charged at his leg.
With just as much rage guiding her, Peanut raked at his leg over and over. With his gaze drawn to the reindeer, he didn’t understand why his shield was failing. But he surely felt why a moment later. As his shield broke, the cat at his heel yowled—his only warning before she sank her teeth into his leg just above his hoof.
The satyr screamed at the top of his lungs, and skittered forward, bounding between the trees to find some sort of salvation. His three remaining allies—a shieldless yeti, and an unharmed satyr and yeti that didn’t know any better—followed suit a moment later when they saw the hissing cat where the goatman once stood.
Svetlana, finally free of her aggressors, still lay on the ground, for her fright compelled her there, and she carried more fatigue than she showed.
Zelda, barked from her spot a few feet away, and Svetlana looked in the little pup’s direction. Though Zelda desperately wanted to run up to her friend and nuzzle her, she found she couldn’t leave her sister’s side.
Peanut looked to the fallen dog and began to trot up beside her and the other one. It wasn’t until she drew close that she realized that Maisie’s eyes were open. The cat hurried her steps then, and when she finally reached the pup, she nuzzled her head against Maisie’s chin.
“I’m okay,” the tired dog said. “Just a little worn out. I don’t know how Zelda plays fetch all day when she can’t walk a few blocks without begging to be picked up.”
While Peanut found a comfy spot to sit beside Maisie, Zelda watched as Svetlana labored to stand. The reindeer shook her head, and when she finally felt sturdy ground beneath her, she grunted. The other reindeer who traveled with her to help Santa grunted out as well then, the forest full of their sounds.
Zelda panted in excitement then and turned to regard her older sister. “Thank you Peanut! You saved the day!”
The cat wore a scowl still, but when Zelda looked away, that angry gaze softened, just a bit.
Not so far away, Santa swung his sword, knocking a satyr back onto the ice with enough power that the goatman lost his footing, and fell to his back, sliding back a few feet. The once-jolly fellow felt another presence beside him then, and brought his hefty blade to bear once more, but he stayed his hand, for he knew he would hear no end of it if he swung against his wife.
“We’re beginning to falter,” he said.
“Nonsense,” Nanna replied. “We’re evenly matched, now, and might even be winning. And our final card has yet to be played.”
“Can you see them?” Santa asked. “Are they still on their way?”
Nanna looked across the battlefield, and her eyes glowed golden. While everything else in her vision seemed to turn to grey and draw out of focus, the flickers of light that shone in different colors seemed more vibrant than ever, and it was as if she stood right beside them a few moments later. She watched as the lumibugs fluttered over Loki’s troops, and toward the Aesir who commanded them all.
Loki looked in Nanna’s direction then, as though he could see her through all the rabble—as though he could see her there right beside him, looking at the swarm of bugs.
Nanna gasped then, withdrawing back into her own vision before shaking her head to regain her composure.
“What is it?” Santa asked, deflecting an axe swing from a sturdy-looking satyr.
“He’ll take the bait,” Nanna said.
On the other side of the battlefield, the three humans in the miniaturized sled couldn’t ignore the fracas below. Elves and dwarves weaved out of combat with satyrs and yetis, all while dodging projectiles thrown by Loki’s frost giants. A duo of dire penguins slid across the ice, hungry to feed an insatiable appetite.
One of the trebuchet-fired barrels struck a frost giant in the chest, shattering against his sturdy frame, and leaving him covered in briny liquid that stank beyond what he could bear. He hollered in fear as the pair of penguins leaped off the ground, closing their toothy beaks over one of his arms, and one of his legs.
As much danger as the penguins posed, the invading army’s leader focused on something else instead. He narrowed his eyes, peering at each of the passing lumibugs, watching as they shone their light in different colors. Then, one at a time, he swatted them out of the air, knocking them in every direction, until there was only a small collection left.
“That’s it,” Raskagar said. “I was hoping we could get past him without any violence unleashed upon our little insect friends, but they’ll be fine, I’m sure. As for this bug, and the sleigh…”
As Loki brought up his hand to smack the lot of the last few bugs, the wizard worked his magic, and set a spell upon the sleigh. A trail of fire shot out of the back, and the sleigh and the little vehicle and the insect attached to it zipped across the battlefield.
“What?” the humans in the sleigh heard. “No!”
But it was too late. They had already passed over Loki’s rear guards, and their commander almost seemed to retreat from the large skirmish, for he had seen the peculiar way the final lumibug traveled.
Michael and Rhianna once again felt the rush of the air on their face, and the sudden jolt forward had them pushed back in their seats.
“Still have any of those ginger candies?” Michael asked.
Before his wife could even return an answer, Raskagar leaned forward, pointing with his wand toward front of the sleigh.
“Now remember, you two: this is going to be a tight squeeze, but my magic will guide you through, so you don’t have to worry.” The wizard flicked his wrist, and a swirl of sparkling light fluttered forward. As it landed upon the lumibug’s back, the harness that kept it connected to the sleigh snapped, releasing it from its bindings. “Whoa, we’re alright,” Raskagar said as their floating vehicle dropped a few inches—inches which felt like more than a few feet. The sleigh steadied itself though, just in time for the trio riding there to see their target.
“Santa’s workshop,” Rhianna mused. “One more important place to pry from Loki’s grasp.”
“And the site of our victory if all goes well,” Raskagar replied. He clapped Michael on his shoulder then. “Now, you remember the plan, right?”
“Not in the slightest,” Michael said. “Do you know how many plans we had today? I’m all planned out.”
“Well, it’s an easy one. Just stay out of trouble until help arrives.”
“We’ll see how that goes,” Rhianna said with a wink. “We’ll see you soon!”
“That you will,” Raskagar said. With another flick of his wrist, he pointed the wand toward himself, and at once, he hopped up from the sleigh.
Michael and Rhianna looked over their shoulders, watching as the wizard returned to his normal size, and landed in the icy path leading toward the workshop. Standing between the two streetlamps there, they could see as Raskagar began preparing more enchantments, for in the distance, it was apparent that some of Loki’s army had doubled back, intending on protecting the workshop at all costs.
When the husband and wife wrenched their gazes away from the shadows that drew closer to the building, they realized they were much closer to the workshop than they had anticipated. The door was mere inches away, and the miniaturized sleigh was near to it indeed. They grabbed hold of each other and hollered at the top of their lungs.
Then, a moment later, their sleigh passed through the keyhole of the door, like a line of thread through the eye of a needle.
They could sense that things had changed, and that time for the better. Peanut, Zelda and Maisie labored through the forest, taking things nice and easy, for the satyrs and yetis had all fled, and the rest of Santa’s troops were on the offensive again.
“What happened?” Peanut wondered as an elf sprinted by.
“Loki broke ranks, and ran away,” the elf explained then. “After that, his army scattered like flies.”
Zelda looked to the cat while Maisie stopped walking and let loose a tremendous yawn. “Did we win?” she wondered.
Peanut shook her head. “We didn’t win until we’re all back together.” She swatted the black and white dog on the rump then. “What do you think, Maisie? Are you okay to run just a little bit again? You only have to keep up with the two of us.”
“Of course,” Maisie insisted, though as she spoke, she ended up leaning against the nearest tree, and yawned again. “I’m not tired at all.”
Peanut grumbled, knowing that, though her sister had likely helped a lot in fetching some of their more impressive allies, that her terrible fatigue was keeping them from making sure that the rest of their family was safe.
Before she could commit her thoughts to words, she heard a grunt behind her, and as she meowed in surprise, all three animals were scooped off the ground.
“Svetlana!” Zelda squeaked. “After everything that happened today, I thought for sure you were going to be taking an even deeper rest than Maisie.”
The reindeer grunted again, and began to canter forward, knowing that each of the DeAngelo pets were worried. As tired as she was, the reindeer would get them to the workshop before long.
The sleigh had delivered them just where the wizard promised them it would. Michael and Rhianna walked on from there, for once they had arrived within the workshop, the magic guiding it had ceased. For a brief few moments, the pair were happy to have passed through the keyhole. But when they realized the sleigh was quickly descending toward the hardwood floor, their cries resumed. They only abated at the last moment when a bit of leftover magic caught hold of them, ensuring they didn’t smash into the ground. Still, they had no control over the vehicle without a lumibug or any reindeer, and eventually it did land on the ground, and slid about.
After they recovered from the furious beating in their hearts, Michael and Rhianna climbed out of the bold red sleigh and stepped onto the dusky brown floor of the workshop foyer, which seemed to stretch on for a mile toward the main room of the building. After several minutes of walking, they looked back to the sleigh, musing about how much the place looked like a desert in their miniaturized forms.
“You know, I barely like walking when I’m regular sized,” Rhianna said. “But at least I can look at the trees and the animals—you know, nature.”
Michael blew out a tired sigh then as well, but when he turned to his wife, he wore an animated smile. “What are you talking about?” he asked, jumping ahead, and pointing with both hands toward various places in the foyer. “Look: way over here, we have desk mountain. And over there, on the horizon, we see the shelves of led’jer,” he announced, putting a fantasy spin on the accounting books that Santa’s workers kept hold of. Then he looked up and feigned a bit of a fright before he pointed to a little toy airplane that hung from the ceiling. “A dragon!”
Rhianna rolled her eyes and shook her head, but she couldn’t ignore the smile stretching her lips.
Their few moments of respite from all the chaos unfolding at the north pole was soon cut short, for they heard the violence then even from within the workshop. Spells fired off and reported as explosions, and war shouts and hollering rang out as well. Someone slammed against the door of the building, and the husband and wife looked at each other, new worries bubbling over.
“We’ve got another big problem,” Michael said then, all hints of optimism chipping away then. “How are we going to get that door open?” he said, pointing to the room where all the magic happened.
“We’ll find a way,” Rhianna said, taking over the duties of thinking positively. “Let’s just hope that everyone outside is going to be alright as well.
Raskagar felt a layer of sweat marring his brow just beneath his hat, and he blew out a cold breath as he watched the next line of Loki’s troops dare to charge forth. Often, it was a well-protected Aesir, dressed in more refined and angular armor, who seemed set on protecting the workshop. Despite their more elaborate gear, they were no match for the old wizard’s quick thinking and quicker enchantments.
Magical traps clasped the legs of those who ventured a bit too far from the path, rooting soldiers in place. A sudden heat upon a part of other soldiers’ bodies were the only warning they had before a burst of flame sent them flying skyward, or straight at the workshop, only to thud into the wall. And when Raskagar felt truly winded, he summoned his own guardians to help: a pair of snowmen seemed to burst from the ground, their innocuous look soon proved false by their surprising expert swordsmanship.
The wizard, surrounded by those he had bested, who nursed aching heads or weary bodies, knew that he was flagging as well. And as he saw the flaming red hair of the opposing commander stomping his way, he knew that it was only a matter of time before he would fall under the wave of Loki’s might.
For a fleeting moment, he thought it might be better to be overrun by the Aesir or the satyrs, or even a frost giant who stomped his way. But he reminded himself that everyone had a role to play, and his was not done yet.
As he assured himself, other members of Santa’s army emerged from the nearby woods, elves and dwarves ready to meet yetis and goatmen. The sound of steel ringing against steel set a symphony amidst the still night, with more instruments joining in every few moments. Raskagar helped as best he could, flinging distracting, swirling missiles at Loki’s troops. But it was the elves and dwarves who made the difference then, knocking their foes back or sweeping them to the ground.
Before long, the area just outside the workshop was strewn over with those unconscious combatants who had toiled for just a bit too long.
Loki looked over his shoulder then, seeing Santa and Nanna hurrying as quick as they could, but he knew it would not matter. The Nordic god of mischief continued his short trek toward the workshop, soon stopping just before he reached the wizard there, and the new guardians he had amassed.
“Step aside,” he demanded. “If I have to, I’ll dice you up with my dagger, the mighty Laevateinn.” As he spoke, he flipped it over in his hand, and Raskagar could see the spark that sizzled on the tip of it.
“I’ll not let you pass,” the wizard insisted. Dispatch me if you must, but I make my stand here.”
“Then you mark your fall there as well,” Loki said.
He sent his dagger flying forward, and while Raskgar expected it to come toward him, it instead tore through the snowman to his left, the dagger seeming to dance on the opposite side of the impaled sentry as though it was moved about on a string. With a tug on the invisible tether, the dagger went right back through the snowman’s hollowed-out head, carving a bigger hole there. Loki caught his little blade with ease, shooting a confident smirk Raskagar’s way.
“You’ll have to do more than melt a snowman to impress me,” the wizard said. “So, you’ve got a magic dagger. So what? Allow me to show you some real magic.”
At once, little stones seemed to show up in the air around Raskagar, and his frightening foe couldn’t quite make sense of where they came from. Had the wizard plucked them up from beneath the snow, or pulled them from the aether?
It made no difference, for the Aesir god had no intention of letting the caster use them. He tossed his knife again, that time ignoring the other snowman and aiming straight for the wizard. Raskagar’s stones moved into place, deflecting the magic dagger, and knocking it to the side. Loki scoffed and pulled his hand to the side, willing the blade back around, but the stones were once again in place to protect the man he wished to dispatch.
“You bore me,” Loki said then, and rather than attack from afar, he began a hasty approach.
Raskagar’s stones spun about him, and with each pass, they pulled in more magic from beyond the veil. An electrical charge surrounded one, while another was awash in flame. Yet another took on a pale blue hue and looked to freeze over with ice.
Just as it had been, Loki didn’t seem to exercise any caution, never faltering in his approach. He burst forth, bringing his dagger back to his hand just in time to take a bold swing at Raskagar.
But the wizard’s stones all conflated into one area, just before him, and a trio of magical effects burned, shocked, and froze the god, bringing him to his knees before he teetered over backward.
“I told you before,” Raskagar said, “you will not reach the workshop.”
As the wizard looked at the fallen Aesir god, he heard Loki’s voice. “He may not reach it. But I will.”
It took a moment for Raskagar to realize the voice didn’t come from the figure he saw fallen on the snow before him. All at once, the illusion that Loki had concocted burned away, and Raskagar saw that he had bested a satyr, and not the god. Loki appeared as if from thin air, an invisibility spell ceasing by his doing.
The wizard never had a chance to swing his magical stones back the other way. Loki flipped his dagger over in his hand and drove it into his foe’s back.
The shield broke, reporting its failure with a sound that resonated like breaking glass. While the dagger didn’t cause any lasting damage to the wizard, it certainly felt like he was thumped with a hefty club, and he fell to the ground, barely able to catch himself on his hands. If Loki had intended to deliver a more permanent consequence, Raskagar wasn’t sure. But the wizard knew that he had been spent one way or the other.
Laboring to lift his head and watch the battle continue to unfold, Raskagar felt his arms shaking. But when he saw a familiar pair not so far away, and with a new sibling with them, the wizard felt the strength to exhibit some last-minute arrogance. He turned about, just in time to see Loki grasp the door, and thrust it open.
“Even in my falling, there has been glory,” Raskagar said.
“Oh, yes?” Loki wondered. “And why is that?” He turned back to the fellow he had bested, and he failed to see the golden light that swirled about from the door handle, beginning at his feet, and wrapping around him like a gilded vine that was cognizant of his shield.
So caught up in waiting for Raskagar to give him an answer, he hadn’t noticed the quartet of animals barreling his way.
At the last moment, a satyr ambled into the reindeer’s path, although he was unaware until the last second that he had done so. He turned, and on reflex, ducked his head, antlers and horns meeting in a fierce blow that had the reindeer and the satyr spilling to the ground. Zelda and Peanut leaped off to the sides, but Maisie hopped right over top of the falling goatman.
“Don’t worry, Svetlana,” the little black and white dog said. “I’ll take it from here.”
Loki spotted the commotion then but thought nothing of it. He was not aware of the magic that Maisie possessed—nor the magic that was taking hold over him. It wasn’t until he saw that the dog was charging toward him that he noticed the two magics in tandem. Maisie’s amulet glistened in the light of morning, while the golden helix that passed over him left his body tingling.
“What have you done?” the Aesir god asked.
Raskagar smiled. “Oh, not much. Just cut you down to size.”
Loki looked down at himself, not quite noticing anything just yet. But when he looked up, he realized it was too late to do anything beyond brace for impact.
Maisie, using the full power of the amulet once more, charged forth, bowing her head. With a little hop, she rose into the air, driving her head into Loki’s chest, and sending him flying backward.
Loki flew through the foyer, slamming against the door into the workshop proper, and forcing it open. As he fell to the ground, the magic that Raskagar had invoked on the workshop’s front door took hold in full and shrunk Loki down.
When he landed upon his rump on the ground, he noticed that everything looked bigger. Everything, that was, except for the husband-and-wife duo who had just about reached that door.
Michael and Rhianna shouted, so surprised to see such a large object smash into the area that they were headed. Similarly, the smack of Loki’s back against the door before he landed on the ground sounded like thunder in the surrounding building.
“I thought we’d have more time to get into the workshop,” Michael whispered to his wife.
“That’s alright,” Rhianna said, tapping the handle of her spear against her shield. “Loki’s been knocked around a bit. We’re fresh for the fight!” She looked over her shoulder to see who had aided them and saw their little black and white dog—much bigger to them then, of course—shaking her head from the charging headbutt. “Good job, Maisie!” Rhianna called out, though she knew that the pup wouldn’t hear her.
Loki finally rose to his feet, shaking his head as well. It was then that he focused on the pair in front of him, and understood that he recognized them, to some extent.
“Well, if it isn’t a pair of my brother’s champions,” he said. “What a delight to finally meet in the flesh.”
“Oh look,” Michael said, crossing his arms over his chest. “If it isn’t the guy who hijacked our trip to the North Pole last year. You know, there was a jug of eggnog with my name on it that I completely missed last year, and it was your fault.”
“Not to mention all the good food,” Rhianna grumbled. “Maisie was so mad!”
“That’s right,” Michael said. “But it looks like she already got her vengeance on you.”
“Ah, Maisie, that’s right,” Loki said, rubbing his rump. “I suppose she was the one that just launched me halfway across the workshop.” He stood a little taller then, and tossed his dagger into the air again, the blade spinning over several times. “She did me a favor then, since now I’m able to stop you—which was part of my intentions in the first place. And after you two are out of my way, I’ll be sure to put that mutt in a kennel where she belongs.”
Rhianna stomped forward a few steps, furrowing her brow at once. “Maisie hates kennels, and I hate whatever makes Maisie sad.”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” Loki said. “But I have a feeling you’re going to have to get used to that a lot soon.”
“You should be the one being locked up,” Rhianna grumbled then. “After what you did last year, it’s only fair.”
“Oh please,” the Aesir god said. “I did the two of you a favor and gave you something to look forward to after a wretched year of being trapped in the same routine day after day. You should just count your stars that its benefits coincided with finding my brother after all these centuries.”
Michael stood up a little straighter then, believing for a moment that he detected a strange change of tone in Loki’s voice.
“No matter,” the god said. “There will be no benefits to you lot this year.” As he finished speaking, he drew his dagger, the empowered Laevateinn, once more.
By reflex alone, Michael stepped forward and to the side, guarding his wife.
And it was just in time, it seemed, for Loki tossed the blade into the air…
…but it hovered just before where the husband and wife stood. By the time they realized it was a distraction, Loki was already sprinting into the room behind him.
“Hurry up!” Rhianna said, pushing Michael to the side. “He’s getting away.”
“Yes, but why?” Michael said, breaking into a sprint of his own a moment later, and easily catching up with his wife.
She grumbled as she pushed on, keeping pace with him as best she could. “I don’t know, but look,” she said, pointing for just a moment before she realized the gesture was making her flag behind. “He’s aiming for the portal. Maybe he’s going for reinforcements. Or maybe the power emanating from it will negate the shrinking magic.”
“Whatever it is, we can’t let him get there,” Michael said. “But it won’t matter if we can’t catch him, and he is really fast!”
As Michael finished his thought, he and Rhianna nearly shouted in unison, for a reddish-brown blur zipped by them then.
It only took a moment for them to realize that it was there other dog, and Zelda saw the fleeing Aesir as well.
Michael cheered instead, cutting himself off at once to ensure that he didn’t ruin the element of surprise. Rhianna sent a gloating laugh in Loki’s direction, just as she saw Zelda bound off the ground, leaping over their foe.
Loki turned about, trying to see what had earned the woman’s arrogance. He only barely noticed the shadow overhead and turned back the way he was heading in time to see the auburn-furred dog looking his way, her eyes narrowed. He attempted to speak, but Zelda crinkled her nose and began growling, the noise pushing him back a few steps.
Willing bravery back into his body, Loki held up his hand, and the blade that he had tossed toward the husband-and-wife duo earlier spun back across the area, and into his hand once more. He held it up as though it was a javelin ready to throw, and he stomped toward Zelda.
“You fool,” he cried. “I reared the mighty Fenrir. You think I am frightened by some oversized mutt?”
Zelda stopped growling for a moment and tilted her head to the side. “I’m not oversized. You’re undersized.”
“And her pedigree papers say she’s one hundred percent chihuahua,” Rhianna said, gasping for air as they reached their opponent once more.
“Yeah, but we’re pretty sure they’re lying, aren’t we?” Michael asked his wife.
She threw her shield hand up in the air. “He doesn’t need to know that.”
Loki didn’t bother to turn about, knowing that the only thing stopping him from reaching the portal was right in front of him. He reared back and tossed his dagger.
But he didn’t expect a spear to come soaring in faster, striking the spinning blade before it could travel too far. Rhianna’s weapon struck the floorboard in front of Loki, and became embedded there, while the dagger flew off and tumbled to the side.
“You imbeciles,” Loki said then. “Don’t you know anything about Laevateinn? It’s enchanted, and comes back to me when I—”
As he turned about to fight off his other two opponents, Michael slid on the ground, and swung out with his axe, catching the Aesir in his belly. Loki was still under the power of his shield, however, which flashed red for just a moment as Michael kept moving, pulling the axe back away.
Loki turned to keep up with the man, watching as he pressed down on the spear, freeing it from where it had landed. At once, Michael tossed the spear, and brought his axe to bear again. The god rolled his shoulder back and growled.
“You’ll have to do better than that,” Loki growled. “If you’re trying to beat me, you can’t miss.” Even as he spoke the words, he realized that the spear had gone right where it was supposed to, and when he looked over his shoulder for a flash of a second, he saw that Rhianna once again had the spear in her hand.
He thrust out his hand, catching Laevateinn just in time to deflect a stab from the spear. The next instant, he spun a pirouette, swiping a slash of Michael’s axe away.
And so it went, for several moments, Loki desperately moving about, spinning halfway around to parry one attack or dodge the next. Eventually, he was able to move to his side enough to fight the two humans without being caught in a pincer maneuver. Of course, he couldn’t quite escape his situation, for Zelda hopped up and down in the air, almost herding him in place.
The pup only hesitated for a moment when she saw a dwarf—most likely a warrior fighting on Santa’s side of the battle outside—enter the workshop from the rear door of the building. He heard the series of tink, tink, tinks that rang out from the area before narrowing his eyes and looking at the small combatants on the floor. He looked down further then, to the flask he held in his hand.
“Well, that’s enough of that then,” he said. He took one final swig of whatever was in the flask, and then squeezed the rest of it onto the fire that crackled in the hearth beside the back door.
None of the combatants were very concerned when that guest turned about and walked away, but they did notice the roar of the fire as it consumed the alcohol that he poured in the hearth. The dwarf hadn’t noticed—or hadn’t cared about—the portal on the opposite side of the workshop, which Loki knew he just couldn’t reach, surrounded by the DeAngelo family as he was.
“I grow tired of this,” he growled.
Sensing a lull in the scuffle, Michael panted, leaning back, and rubbing his back with his free hand. “I grow tired in general,” he said. “Oh, this stupid pandemic hasn’t been great when it comes to keeping it shape.”
“Round’s a shape,” Rhianna ventured, though she bowed down, resting her arms on her bent knees. “It’s just not the right shape.”
When the two stopped poking fun at themselves for their overly sedentary lifestyle since being relegated to their homes, they noticed that Loki had found an unexpected ally: himself.
“Let us be done with this so that I can be on my way,” the Aesir said, and as he spoke, the pair of Loki’s duplicated again, and then once more, so that there were eight Loki figures that all seemed to act independent of one another.
“Well, this just won’t do,” Michael said.
One of the Loki images lunged toward Michael, slashing out with its dagger. Michael stepped to his side and swung with his axe, cleaving it through his foe, and he watched as a wisp of colored smoke trailed off from there, while the image reconstituted on the other side.
Rhianna, too, prepared to do battle with her foes, for two more versions of Loki seemed to be ready to attack her. But both times she attempted to parry a blow her spear went right through the images.
Even Zelda couldn’t hold herself back, and jumped onto the closest Loki she saw, like a fox hunting for its prey under a heavy snow. When she didn’t feel anything between her paws, she hopped back, and was surprised to see the trickster god reform.
Several dozen feet away, Loki’s invisibility spell wore off, and he turned to look at his latest magic confusing the DeAngelo family enough to keep them preoccupied. “Pathetic,” he said, before he resumed his quick escape toward the portal.
He hurried in front of the work desks that Santa’s craftspeople worked on, but he didn’t notice one more inhabitant of the building, who had hidden herself in the shadows.
“Only a fool wouldn’t know you didn’t have one more trick up your sleeves,” he heard. Loki looked over his shoulder, expecting one of those left fighting his doppelgangers to have fled from the fight.
He sensed that he was looking in the wrong direction then, however, and when he looked to his side, it was just in time to see a large paw swinging down.
Loki crashed to the floor with Peanut’s weight upon him, and he heard his shield shattering.
“Get your hand off me, you mangy feline!” he grunted. He gasped and yowled when the cat’s claws dug in a little further.
“That’s enough of that,” Loki heard then, and at once, Peanut retracted her claws and backed away. When the stars stopped circling the Aesir god’s vision, he saw a different hand reaching down toward him, that one wrapped in a leather glove. A moment later, he was dropped into a frosted orb, and someone closed off the top of his new prison, trapping him, and ensuring his quest for the portal was in vain.
He fought to keep his balance, but it was all in vain, for a moment later, his glass cage was turned upside down, and he was forced to catch his bearings. Loki shook his head, trying to make sense of the strange visions he was seeing. He was certain that he was still inside, for he could see all of the desks and toys within Santa’s workshop, but he was also stricken by the sight of snow, fluttering down toward the ground, though he didn’t see any of it sticking to the wooden floorboards.
It didn’t take long after that for him to realize his horrible turn of fate.
He was trapped in a snow globe.
The fellow who had caught hold of him stepped back, and he could see the person’s fluffy white beard, and he realized that he had been apprehended by the enemy commander, his very brother.
“Hello, Loki,” Santa said, a certain jolliness returned to his voice in the coming of his victory. “I hope you don’t mind, but we’ll be taking back that portal now.”
The trapped Aesir wore a disappointed frown, but spread out his arms, and waved his hands to the side, conceding victory to his brother.
Santa stepped back, holding up a finger to Loki, bidding him to wait while some other necessary tasks transpired. Some of the Christmas figure’s elite warriors entered the buildings and began guarding the doors, while a tired old wizard shuffled into the workshop, waving about his staff to undo some of the magic that he had cast on his friends.
A moment later, Michael and Rhianna reverted to full size, and they some sighs of relief escape their lips. Zelda hopped up toward them, excited to see them returned to their appropriate height, and upon one of those jumps, Rhianna caught her upon her arm, turning over her shield to give her more of a surface to sit upon. Peanut sprang onto the table beside them then, and then they heard the excited snuffles of their other dog as Maisie pushed her way into the workshop.
“Whoa!” Michael said, turning about and bracing for impact as he sank to his knees.
Maisie jumped into his arms then, nuzzling her head against his chest. “It’s okay, Rurnar and Halgrum and Beroras took the amulet back after we won.”
Michael chuckled, knowing that, had they not, he would have likely been napping on the floor of the workshop then.
With the family reunited, and Santa’s better half moving into the building then as well, a new feeling of reprieve washed over everyone who was in attendance.
Everyone, that was, except for one person.
Santa turned back to the snow globe upon the fireplace mantle.
“Now let’s see what we’ll be doing about you,” he said.
* * *
The area around the portal was decorated with enchanted snow, and glowing wreaths, framing the once sought-after military target as one meant to be celebrated then. For indeed, it had become a point of much deliberation throughout the night before a call had been made by Santa to use it for just the thing that Loki had intended to use it for: bringing forth the people of Asgard. Santa, however, had a different sort of invitation that he had sent out through the portal to his old home, much to Loki’s chagrin.
And yet, the trickster god didn’t seem all that perturbed by his loss, or by his failure to secure the portal.
The blue-robed wizard moved up beside the shackled prince of the Aesir, holding up a plate of Christmas treats, which Loki waved away.
“Is it true that the real reason that you invaded the North Pole this year was to make sure that Santa couldn’t use the portal for Christmas?” Raskagar wondered.
“For Christmas?” Loki repeated with a scoff. “I didn’t want him to be able to use it at all. He left home centuries ago and I was not about to see him bugger off again under the dark of night. Christmas was just a bonus. Do you know how many missed yuletides we’d suffered through when we thought him passed on all those years ago? Well, I certainly think he could stand to miss at least one.”
He turned to his side then, looking at the center of the workshop, where Santa and Nanna danced together, encircled by two little dogs who jumped about, enjoying the music and the frivolity, while their humans clapped along to the music and took swigs of festive drinks. Peanut, the DeAngelo cat, sat a bit behind them, taking refuge beneath the same work desk that she had ambushed Loki from earlier.
“Now that’s someone who I can agree with when it comes to festivities,” Loki grumbled.
“Oh, come now,” Raskagar said. “It can’t be all that bad, can it? Look.” He pointed toward the foyer of the building, and then to the frosted-over windows, both which showed that even Loki’s beaten troops had begun to enjoy themselves, with satyrs and even frost giants taking part in the revelry. “If they can be merry, why can’t you?” Raskagar asked. “Here.” He tapped his staff against the god’s shackles then, and the clasp snapped apart, the manacles falling to the floor.
They disappeared before they ever reached the wooden boards, and by reflex alone, Loki grasped at his wrists and rubbed his skin. “Aren’t you worried about me commandeering the portal again?”
“What do you think the shackles were for, hmm?” Raskagar mused. “After all our back and forth this day, and you doubt the extent of my magic? The whole while you were wearing them, I was attuning the portal to you, ensuring it won’t ever react to your whims again. As such, there’s no need to have you moping about over here, wondering when to make your move—at least, in that direction. But perhaps it’s over there that you could make a move,” he said, pointing with his staff. “You clearly have some issues that need resolving, wouldn’t you say? No better time than the present to do so.”
As the wizard finished his speech, a young lad with a mop of blond hair emerged from the portal, and exclaimed with joy, “Raskagar!”
The magic-toting fellow spun on his heel and flashed his eyebrows, nearly throwing his staff to the side. “Barnabus, my boy! It’s good to see you!”
Loki grumbled and turned to head to the center of the workshop, his brother in his sights. Before he could interrupt Santa’s dance with Nanna, however, another reveler interrupted his plans, yet again.
Michael had imbibed a few too many spiced eggnogs.
“Hey, Loki,” he said, enunciating the few syllables perhaps a bit too much. “I just want to say I get it. I mean, I miss my brother too. Maybe the next time he comes home, I’ll try out the Loki method and flatten his tires or something so he can’t leave.” Michael meant no ill will with his comment however and tapped his former foe on the shoulder as he moved along.
Loki still grumbled again, a little less than happy that his business had been circulated among all the people in the North Pole, it seemed—those of his opponent’s forces, and of his own.
Even with that truth before him, Loki didn’t relent, forcing himself to continue along his path, his brother in his sight. If he couldn’t find victory on the battlefield, he would still succeed to speak his mind to his brother.
“Ah, Loki,” Santa said, upon seeing his adopted brother. “It is good to see you out of your shackles.”
“You’ve turned my troops into a bunch of jovial rabblerousers,” the trickster god said. “I might as well still be in shackles.”
“Ah, but there’s no need for any of that sullenness, is there?” Nanna asked. “As it turned out, we practically wanted the same thing anyway: for that portal to work—only I suppose we wanted to work for different reasons.”
“Look, I suppose in the interest of transparency—something I’m still trying to get a knack for—I might as well come clean and let you know that the thought of using the portal for world domination did come to mind once or twice.”
Santa couldn’t stifle a fit of jolly laughter then. “As I recall, you’ve been battling those aspirations since before I came here. Perhaps a vague thought crossed your mind, but I’m glad you came here for a more personal reason.”
Loki stood a little taller then and arched an eyebrow. “You know I’m the god of deception, don’t you? Are you certain that it’s a good idea to keep me around like this?”
Santa draped his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “I was never worried for myself. Truth be told, in all the time that we’ve lived here, we had time to correct that one little mistake from Freyja’s enchantment.” He pointed at the mistletoe that hung from a few of the crossbeams above their heads. “What, you think I’d have all those sprigs of it here if all it took was someone tossing them at me? No, my real worry was Christmas. There are billions of people out there who deserve this one bright spot of the year more than any, and I can’t imagine a world where darkness wins out. I’m sorry that for a time, I thought you were part of that darkness.”
“I may yet have some of it in my heart,” Loki muttered. “Did you know how long I suffered, believing an errant prank had been the end of you? I gave a wobbly spear to a blind god. How was I to know that it would hit you? Between everyone hating me for that, and what felt like years of sadness that came after that, learning that you may have still been alive broke me. I spent centuries searching for you, brother. I just never expected to find you on this world so far from the nine realms.”
“You know, technically…” Santa began to say. However, he grew silent when he saw another set of visitors arrived through the portal.
Loki followed his brother’s gaze across the room and was aghast to see a pair of Aesir looking about the room, only three eyes between them, although the Allfather, had Huginn and Muninn to help him identify the things worth his attention.
“You invited Mother and Father?” Loki asked in a panic.
Santa shrugged. “I figured it was time for a proper family reunion. Come then, let’s say hello while the day is still young.”
Loki lingered there for a time, hesitant to take his brother up on that offer. “If you’ve invited them, I wonder who else you’ve sent word to.”
* * *
The celebrations wound down considerably. Though there was cause for celebration, there was still much work to do ahead of Christmas as well. While Santa’s workshop had been used in full throughout the year, and many of the toys and gifts had been fashioned and packaged, they had lost valuable time due to the skirmish and the festivities that followed.
Of course, even knowing all that, it was difficult for Santa to send his relatives away, having just come clean about his whereabouts after what felt like eons.
And there were a great many relatives to welcome to his new home. Santa, once Baldr, embraced his parents with such love that the big jolly fellow had nearly barreled them over. He met with Freyja some time later, demonstrating that the one item she had left out from her ritual had been resolved.
Thor departed the party the way that he arrived, a large thunderclap heralding his travels.
That time, Zelda responded with a grumbly “Stop doing that!” The rest of the guests believed that it was much more fitting of a hero than her previous pronouncement of “we’re doomed! The world has ended! We’re all going to die!”
Indeed, all those who had come from Asgard had moved along except for one, for Loki remained behind, finding it within himself to revel a bit, and enjoying the yuletide spirit in full after so many years.
Santa also had some of his more trusted champions by his side, though he could see that the battles and the planning had left some fatigue upon his friends’ faces.
“You know, you outdid yourself this year,” he said to the DeAngelo family. “I know this certainly wasn’t the kind of thing that you were expecting, and it didn’t begin or end the way I believed it would,” he mentioned, clapping his brother on his back for good measure. “But you had a hand in bringing these two insufferable fools back together, and you helped to ensure there will be more joyous times ahead of us all.
“So, I must ask you this one thing: what do you want for Christmas?”
With the three animals tuckered out beneath the table, it fell to the husband and wife to come up with a worthy enough present. Rhianna reached out and grabbed Michael’s hand, giving it a gentle little squeeze. “I think we have everything we need this year,” she said. “We’re just grateful to have our family together.”
“As wonderful a gift as anyone can have,” Santa said, while Loki rolled his eyes—though, it seemed even that indignant look had faded somewhat. Santa stood then and helped his tired guests out of their seats. “Perhaps we could have you back later this year for a proper celebration preceded by as few battles as possible. I hear July is a wonderful time for festivities.”
Michael and Rhianna scooped up their tired animals and walked alongside Santa as he brought them closer to the portal.
“Merry Christmas,” Michael said to Santa then, his voice as close to a whisper as he could get, for he did not wish to wake Maisie and Zelda, both draped over one of his shoulders. “I’m glad that you were able to get something you weren’t expecting this year.”
“As am I,” the jolly fellow replied. “Now you get home and get some rest. It will be a new day before you know it.”
Rhianna leaned forward and stood on the tips of her toes, giving Santa a quick embrace, but minding the snoring cat she had pressed against her chest while she did so. “See you next year,” she bade.
Santa waved them on as they departed, disappearing through the portal. He lingered there for a time before he turned, a weary smile upon his face. He saw Loki at the table still, though he had risen, and leaned backward against it, his arms crossed over his chest.
“You know,” Loki said, “I hate to admit it, but I see why you like them so. They’re a pleasant enough lot, and from all I’ve learned of their exploits, they’ve earned your praise. But you know, having heard the stories, I think… I think I know just the present for them this year.”
“You do?” Santa wondered.
* * *
With gifts and wrapping paper strewn across the floor, Rhianna remarked that their living room looked just as bad as the battle at the North Pole. While the animals played with their new toys and treats, the husband and wife took sips of coffee and hot cocoa.
Michael stifled a yawn, but leaned back toward the tree, reaching toward a box that was tucked a bit behind where the other presents had been.
“I think this is the last one,” he said. As he brought it forward though, he noticed his wife’s narrowed eyes and furrowed brow. “What? What is it?”
“I didn’t use that wrapping paper,” she insisted. “And I even wrapped the presents you got for me,” she teased. “That’s not a secret present you got us, is it?”
“No,” Michael said.
All the animals were more intrigued then as well, joining their humans on the floor to look at the box.
Suddenly, it moved about, and they heard a little snuffle from within. Zelda and Maisie looked at one another, a bit perplexed by that sound—and by the new smell they detected in the house.
But it was Peanut, who had been through it time and time again, who knew just what they were in for.
“Not again!” she cried.
A huge thank you to Leo Borazio and Wern Szuen Lee for helping us with our bookmarks this year. It was a rush job for both of them, but they did an awesome job with everything!
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