Two days before Christmas, Ryoka stared up at a Frost Faerie and wondered how it had come to this.
“Come on, Ivolethe. Please?”
“Nae. I won’t do it!”
Ivolethe folded her arms and glared at Ryoka and Laken. The Frost Faerie hovered outside of the Runner’s Guild as Laken and Ryoka stood and argued with her. Durene and Gamel and Reynold were all standing a bit back, watching the young man and woman argue with what was, to them, a fuzzy patch of air.
“I’ll make you the Archduchess of Presents. How about that?”
“Not if ye made me a Großfürstin! I won’t act like an Ellylldan—like some common pixie! I refuse to guide Ryoka to your worthless little village!”
Ivolethe sneered at Laken and flicked snow at his face. He recoiled as Ryoka tried another tact. They’d been arguing with Ivolethe for fifteen minutes, but the Frost Faerie hadn’t budged.
“Come on, Ivolethe. We need your help. You’re the only one who could navigate through this snow.”
She gestured at the thick, falling snow around them. It was already piling up on the ground, and it made looking down the street a chore. Travelling outside would mean getting lost and freezing to death—for everyone but Ivolethe.
“Nae. Not even for friendship, Ryoka. My pride will not allow it.”
“Please, Ivolethe? Think of the children.”
The Frost Faerie paused. It was a low blow, but Ryoka saw it connect and pressed her advantage.
“They’re all by themselves in Laken’s village—probably hungry and cold. Think about that, Ivolethe. If I don’t bring food and supplies to them, they might freeze to death!”
“I’m thinking. So what?”
“You’d be doing a good thing. And you’d be a hero. I bet they’ll put up a statue to you, right, Laken?”
She nudged the blind man. He rubbed at his side and nodded.
“Oh, absolutely. I’ll put up a statue to you, Ivolethe. I swear it.”
The faerie wavered.
“Well…perhaps. But does it have to be red?”
Ryoka traded a glance with Laken. He didn’t trade one back.
“It would uh, be easier to see.”
He spread his hands and smiled up towards Ivolethe.
“Red is a very traditional color for Christmas, Ivolethe. And Rudolph’s nose was red. If you changed the color you…emit, you’d be doing the same thing as him. He was a hero, you know. Very famous.”
The Frost Faerie swooped down, intrigued. Laken nodded.
“Oh yes. Rudolph is…a, uh, legend where we come from. A folk hero, you could say. Beloved by all. Children everywhere in our world know his story.”
Ryoka held her breath. Ivolethe flew back upwards and muttered to herself. She looked down at Ryoka and sighed.
“A statue, ye say?”
“I swear it.”
Ivolethe sighed. She looked down at the two Humans and nodded slowly.
“Well then. What shade must I be? Red of blood? Red of desert sand? Red of setting suns?”
Ryoka could have cheered. She smiled at Ivolethe and held her hands up towards the faerie.
“Bright red. Crimson, in fact. Like a flare—like this. See?”
Ryoka held up her hands and concentrated. The [Flare] spell burst into life between her hands, a brilliant searing red light that made Gamel and Durene cover their faces. Laken didn’t flinch.
“I see. Let me try.”
Ivolethe frowned at the brilliant red light and closed her eyes. She gritted her tiny teeth and then the blue aura surrounding her began to shift. The color blue deepend, and then turned purple—then a deep red, and then the same shade of brilliant red as the light in Ryoka’s hand.
“By the Five Families…”
Reynold, Durene, and Gamel reacted as the nimbus of light around Ivolethe changed. The faerie, her body of blue crystal ice now lit by a red glow which turned her entire form light pink, stared at Ryoka with a sour expression on her face.
“It is done. Let us be off, Ryoka Griffin. I dislike this immensely, but I will help.”
“Thank you, Ivolethe.”
The faerie stared at Laken, and then away. The [Emperor] turned to Ryoka as she bent to make sure the laces of her shoes were tied firmly.
“I can’t thank you enough for this.”
“Thank me after I’m done. It’s a long run, but I’ll try to be back tomorrow—or failing that, the day after that. I want to get back and then have Reynold bring me to Liscor. Hopefully I can make it in time for Christmas. If I can’t, well, this is more important.”
Laken reached out and Ryoka offered him a palm to grip.
“You’re a good person, Ryoka Griffin.”
“So you say. Myself, I’m not convinced.”
He grinned and stepped back. Ryoka was doing a second check.
“You have everything you need? Stamina potions?”
“At my belt, courtesy of the Runner’s Guild. Good thing these ones don’t freeze solid. Octavia’s are sort of crap.”
“And you have the second bag of holding?”
“Here as well.”
Ryoka patted the bag hanging at her side. It felt incongruous at her waist—far too light for what she knew it contained. Food for the village, extra blankets, tools they needed—and presents! And yet the bag felt like it only held five pounds of weight.
She was ready to go. Ryoka stepped towards Ivolethe.
The faerie didn’t answer her. Ryoka frowned.
The Frost Faerie was gazing towards the sky. She uttered an oath—it sounded like it was in Celtic—and sprang up into the air. Ryoka had no idea why—until she saw the other blue shapes flying down towards her. She groaned.
“What is it?”
“Company. More Frost Faeries.”
“And that’s a bad thing?”
Ryoka didn’t answer. She heard the tiny, crystal voices ringing through the air as the faeries flew down, circling Ivolethe’s lone red glow and laughing.
“Sister, sister! What is this you do?”
“She’s changed her color! What rot! What foolishness!”
“Shut up! I do this for friendship and goodwill! Mock me not, fools!”
Ivolethe roared at her sisters, flying angrily at them as they laughed and flew about her. Ryoka saw the faeries hitting each other and felt a shock—the Frost Faeries played rough! They didn’t just pull at hair—Ivolethe bit one of her sisters in the arm and was mobbed by two of the others in return.
“Hey, stop, stop!”
Ryoka’s voice stilled the fighting above her for a second. Frost Faeries abandoned their squabble for an easier target. They flew around Ryoka, pointing and jeering.
“Look, the boring one speaks!”
“So slow, so uninteresting! But she is with the ruler! Tell us, stupid one. Why is our sister red?”
“She’s helping me deliver aid to a village. She’s going to be…a hero.”
The faeries scoffed and laughed, but Ryoka knew them. She raised her hands.
“You may not believe me, but Ivolethe is fulfilling a legend. She’s going to make children happy. You see, there’s a story about a reindeer called Rudolph—”
She got only halfway into her explanation before the faeries swirled around her, laughing with delight.
“A guide? What fun! We shall go too!”
“Yes, let us guide the silly Human!”
Laken blinked, and Ryoka hesitated. He sidled over to her and whispered as they laughed and flew up and around them.
“They’re not like Ivolethe at all.”
“Some of them aren’t. I think these ones are…younger? Ivolethe’s old, but some of the other faeries seem pretty gung-ho about anything that seems interesting.”
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
“I don’t know. But it’s better to have them on your side than against you.”
“I agree with that.”
A change in the light above caught Ryoka’s attention. All of the faeries were copying Ivolethe, changing their colors. But they weren’t all turning red. No, some of them were turning green, others blue or purple—in no time at all, a storm of colors flew about in the air.
“I can’t believe it.”
Reynold was gaping and Durene and Gamel were staring upwards like children seeing fireworks or stars for the first time. Ryoka stared too.
Faeries, dancing in the night sky in every color imaginable. She felt something stir in her heart, but quashed it. She had a job to do.
She cleared her throat, and the faeries stopped flying about. Ryoka felt some semblance of ceremony was needed here, so she stood straight and pointed west, towards where Riverfarm lay.
“Is everyone ready? We’re going to Riverfarm, Laken’s village. You know the way?”
Ivolethe flew down and the faeries lined up behind her. She scowled.
“Aye, these fools know. We go, then?”
Ryoka nodded. She took a breath, and felt just a hint of Christmas spirit in her. Maybe that was what prompted her to say what she did next.
“Alright then. On Ivolethe, on Blue Faerie, on Green Faerie, and Cinnabar Faerie! On Puce Faerie, on Indigo Faerie, on Yellow Faerie and—you know what? Let’s just go.”
The faeries laughed and flew ahead. Ryoka ran after them, cursing as her shoes slipped a bit on the snow.
Laken shouted after her. He couldn’t see Ryoka leave, but he heard her footfalls die away quickly in the snow.
“She’s gone, right, Durene?”
“Yes, Laken. Did you see—I mean, those Winter Sprites! I’ve never seen—uh—”
“You’ll have to tell me how amazing it was.”
Laken smiled as he held out a hand and Durene took it. He carefully felt around at the rucksack he was carrying.
“I hope Ryoka gets to Riverfarm all right. But I won’t worry about it. For now, let’s get inside, have something hot to drink, and rest. But before all that—Durene, this is for you.”
The half-Troll blinked as Laken pulled something out of the rucksack. He’d had to buy it when she wasn’t around with Gamel’s help, but the indrawn breath he heard from her was worth it.
“It’s a present. For you. Merry Christmas, Durene. I don’t know what I’d do or where I’d be without you.”
He held out the clumsily-wrapped box, and felt two large hands take it from him.
“I—I don’t know—this is for Christmas, right? But how did you—Laken.”
“It’s for you. Open it.”
“I’ve never gotten a present before. Ever.”
Something constricted in Laken’s chest. He reached out and touched Durene’s hand.
“Well, today you did.”
He smiled. Durene stared down at the small box. Her hands trembled. She began to cry.
In the city of Invrisil, a blind man reached out and hugged a half-Troll girl as the snow began to fall harder outside. At the same time, a young woman ran out of the gates, following a red light that flew ahead of her. A stream of bright lights of every color flew around her, the only clear light in the darkness.
“So, the presents will go here. If you’ve got them, put them here.”
Erin was busy in her inn the day before Christmas. She’d made a list, distributed it, and been happily surprised to find that most of her present-givers had already picked appropriate presents for the people she’d assigned them to.
Technically, they weren’t supposed to show her the presents, but Erin had forgotten to mention that presents were wrapped. A quick trip to Krshia solved that, and soon piles of bulky presents were occupying one corner of the inn.
It was a complex system Erin had devised, but in theory it meant that everyone who would be attending her party tomorrow would get two Christmas gifts. Assuming everyone bought presents, that was. Erin was worried she’d forgotten to include someone, but she thought she’d accounted for all who would be present.
And though they had only a day to get last-minute presents, Erin didn’t think that would be an issue. There was Christmas spirit in the air. Everyone she knew, from both Celum and Liscor had heard about the holiday tradition by now. And most were quite eager to try it.
There was just something about giving and receiving gifts that appealed to people. Of course, the receiving mattered to some more than others.
Twice, Erin had to pull Mrsha away from her gift. The Gnoll was sniffing it and wagging her tail, and Erin was sure Mrsha could tell what was inside. But Mrsha was a kid, so excitement was understandable.
On the other hand, when it came to people like Relc, it was a bit more objectionable. The Drake had come to the inn early to drink and eat, and he’d stared at the pile of presents avidly. Now he crept about the presents, turning them over and growing increasingly frustrated.
“Hey! Where’s mine?”
Relc pawed through the presents, looking for ones with his name on it. He found none, to his increasing displeasure.
“Your Secret Santa might not have brought it yet. You’ll get two, Relc, so don’t worry.”
“Yeah! Don’t worry—Santa makes sure everyone gets a gift. Good kids, and bad ones. Although, the bad ones just get coal…”
“Right, I forgot. Santa, yeah. Where’s that guy?”
Relc scratched his head. Erin hadn’t talked to him as long as the others. She feared he might have gotten the wrong idea about Santa Claus—in that Relc hadn’t figured out yet that Santa wasn’t real. Still, she had more important things to do.
Some of the Gold-rank adventurers loitering about the inn watched as Erin climbed onto a chair and hung a large sprig in one corner of the room. They weren’t inclined to risk their necks in the dungeon around Christmas, so they had plenty of time to spare.
Revi wrinkled her nose as Erin nudged the collections of leaves and berries ever so slightly to the right. Erin turned and smiled wickedly.
“Mistletoe! Haven’t you heard about that?”
Sensing something else interesting, more people drew over to look doubtfully up at the somewhat dead leaves and white berries. Erin had been surprised to see they were white. She’d always thought of them as red. But this was the mistletoe Krshia had given her.
“What’s that supposed to do? Are we supposed to jump up and eat those berries? They look poisonous to me.”
Ceria wrinkled her nose as she stared at the berries. Erin laughed and shook her head.
“No! You kiss if you’re under it! Any people who stand under mistletoe have to kiss. It’s a Christmas tradition!”
Not one she’d practiced at home or ever in her world, actually, but Erin thought it was a fun idea.
The change that came over the people standing before was immediate, though. Ceria and Yvlon hurried out of the mistletoe’s radius as if they were on fire. The others stared at each other.
“Well, that sounds like fun! Hey Typhenous!”
The [Mage] was too slow. Jelaqua Ivirith caught him and kissed him on the lips. He shuddered.
“Sorry. Dead skin and all that. But that’s the tradition. Hey, Seborn, Moore. Want to try?”
The other two Halfseekers shook their head. They’d stayed away from the mistletoe and weren’t approaching.
Halrac and Ulrien stared up at the mistletoe. They stared at each other. Ulrien coughed.
“Um, Miss Erin. Is there any hex or curse that activates if two people don’t kiss under the mistletoe?”
“No. It’s just fun.”
Halrac stomped quickly out of range. Ulrien followed suit.
“Well, I don’t see what the problem is. It’s just a kiss.”
Revi strolled over to the mistletoe, not standing quite beneath it as she looked around challengingly. She smiled mockingly at Typhenous who was taking a drink after being kissed by Jelaqua.
“A kissing game sounds fun. It reminds me of when I was younger. We’d swap mouths and kiss each other at parties.”
She tapped the stitch marks around her lips. Erin paused.
“Wow. Okay. Um, this is really just more of a tradition.”
“Why have a place to kiss if you won’t do it? Who’s good at kissing?”
Pisces stepped forwards, to everyone’s great surprise. Revi looked him up and down, but then she smirked.
Erin opened her mouth, raised her hand, and then waved it about, but she couldn’t stop what happened next. Pisces and Revi stepped beneath the mistletoe…and kissed.
It wasn’t long. There weren’t any sucking sounds or visibly tongue-in-cheek moments. But when it was done, Pisces stepped away looking slightly smug. And Revi—
Everyone in the room stared at her. Pisces sauntered back towards the other Horns of Hammerad and winked at Ksmvr. Erin heard the Antinium whispering to Pisces.
“I do not understand what happened. Comrade Pisces, please explain kissing—”
“Had your fun?”
Halrac asked Revi in an acidic tone as she stepped away from the mistletoe. Revi fanned at her face, glancing at Pisces.
“Well, that was surprising. He’s…not bad.”
Relc stared at Pisces. He laughed.
“You can’t be good or bad at kissing!”
“That shows what you know.”
Revi stared archly at him. Relc paused.
“Wait, you can be good at kissing?”
Revi, Typhenous, Ulrien, and Seborn nodded. Revi wandered back over to the mistletoe, and this time Jelaqua went with her. Other people from both genders drifted over.
Erin watched with part horror, part fascination. This wasn’t how mistletoe was supposed to be used, surely! But it seemed like there was actual skill at kissing being measured. Some were better than others. And apparently…Pisces was one of the best.
“You know, back home I was told that anyone who could tie a cherry stem into a knot with their tongue was a really good kisser.”
Erin mentioned that as she brought out some dried cherries she’d bought with that very fact in mind. Revi took a break from testing one of the [Actors] from Celum who’d come in for breakfast, and took a stem. She and quite a few people popped the cherries into their mouths and chewed thoughtfully.
Erin glanced around the room as she circulated with ‘testing cherries’. Now that she looked…she had a good distribution of races and genders today. People had come from both Liscor and through the door in Celum. There were Drakes, Gnolls, and a lot of Humans, male and female. She glanced at the mistletoe, where a few red-faced people and more with smiles on their faces were grouped. She had a bad feeling she knew what was coming next.
Ceria spat out a completely un-knotted cherry stem into the palm of her hand and scowled.
“Not for me.”
Revi had bent her stem, but not managed to tie it into a knot. Neither had most of the people in the room. Jelaqua had, but Seborn called foul because she’d done it with her Selphid parts, not her actual tongue. But then Pisces pulled out a cherry stem with a knot tied right in the center.
Everyone stared at him. Jasi came over and stood beneath the mistletoe. She waved a claw at Pisces. She shrugged at Erin as the [Innkeeper] gave her a betrayed look.
“This is so wrong.”
She muttered as she saw Pisces become a target for kisses from the opposite gender. Ceria, standing next to her, shook her head.
“You put the mistletoe up, Erin. What did you think was going to happen?”
“Not this! I mean, why’s Pisces getting all the kisses?”
The half-Elf shrugged, staring at Pisces and not looking at Erin.
“He’s…not bad at kissing. That’s why. It’s fun to kiss him. He certainly got enough practice back in Wistram.”
Erin stared at Ceria. She opened her mouth, and then turned away.
“I don’t want to know! Gah! Mistletoe failure!”
The entertainment for the day continued as Erin served food to her guests. Word spread fast, and within a few hours more people came from both Celum and Liscor—ostensibly to eat and get out of the cold, but mainly to try the kissing game, which was what the mistletoe had become.
Relc had lingered hopefully around the mistletoe for quite some time until he realized everyone was avoiding him. He stomped off, grumbling about stupid Humans, half-Elves, String People, and Drakes. He left some coins on his table and left the inn, feeling unhappy and out of sorts. No matter how long he’d waited, no one had brought a gift with his name on it. But Erin had said he’d get a gift! Two!
On the way back towards Liscor, Relc met Klbkch. The Antinium was hurrying up the hill and glancing over his shoulder. He seemed to be worried he’d be spotted.
“Yo, Klb. What’s the hurry?”
“I am attempting to avoid meeting my fellow Antinium from the Hive. If you are asked, you did not see me.”
Relc nodded in an understanding way. He didn’t understand much about Klbkch’s Hive or the relationship the Antinium had with the others—they all looked pretty much the same to Relc—but the Drake did understand not wanting to be spotted by angry people who had business with him.
“There’s no point in going to the inn. Erin’s hung a bunch of mistletoe up.”
Klbkch stared at Relc. The Drake nodded grumpily.
“Yup. That means if you stand beneath it, you have to kiss. Only, no one wants to kiss me.”
“Is Erin participating in this ritual?”
“Nope. But I’ve got bad news for you, Klb old buddy. Remember when Erin told us about the Secret Santa thing? With the presents?”
“Yes. I have obtained mine, although I have not placed them in her inn.”
“Well, you might want to hold off for a second. I checked and I didn’t find any presents for me. Not one. And I’m supposed to be getting two! And—get this—I didn’t find any for you, either.”
“That is odd. Perhaps the gifts have not been placed yet.”
Relc shrugged moodily. He stared back at the inn, and lowered his voice as he confided in his partner.
“I’m worried we might not get any. Well, I know I’ll get some because everyone loves me. But you might not. Since you’re an Ant. Y’know?”
“This is a distinct possibility. The Secret Santas may object to my identity.”
“Yeah. So…I was thinking, why don’t we do a few good deeds today? I figure, if we show how Christmas-y we are, people will probably get us gifts anyways. Plus, don’t we get more presents if we’re good? That Santa guy brings them, right?”
Klbkch hesitated. He seemed to think as he crossed his arms.
“I did recall Bird mentioning something to that effect. But he was…vague. Is that what Erin said?”
“Yeah! Look, you weren’t here, but I heard her telling that thief-girl all about it. Good deeds means you get presents. So why don’t we do some?”
“I take it you have an idea in mind?”
Relc grinned as he rubbed at his chin. His dour mood had been replaced by a fun idea.
“Okay, here’s what I was thinking…I’ll run into the city and buy some stuff. You just need to find me a bag, a red suit, and uh, a beard. Make it white.”
“Very well. Let us proceed with your idea.”
The two [Guardsmen] headed back towards Liscor. That was fortunate for Klbkch, because an irate Antinium with blue shell missed him as she strode towards the inn.
Xrn opened the door and saw Revi step away as Typhenous hopefully tried for a kiss under the mistletoe. The Antinium watched with fascination, her ire with the elusive Klbkch forgotten as she witnessed several kisses…and those who didn’t get to kiss at all.
“Ew! Typhenous, no! Your breath smells horrible!”
The old [Mage] was crestfallen. He eyed Pisces as the younger man went back for round two with Revi. When Pisces was done, Typhenous caught the younger man.
“How is your breath not objectionable, young Pisces?”
Pisces paused. He took something out of a pocket and handed it to Typhenous. The mage stared down at the bit of green in his wrinkled palm. Pisces winked and whispered.
The old man stared at the leaves and then popped them into his mouth and chewed determinedly. The people who’d heard Pisces immediately left the inn to get some fresheners for their mouths.
Erin threw her hands up in the air.
“It’s not supposed to be a competition!”
She stomped over to the door to Octavia’s shop as Wesle hurried through it. Erin was going to close it, but Octavia called out.
“Erin! Erin! Get in here—I have something to show you!”
Erin paused at the doorway. She looked back at the kissing games, once again featuring Pisces as a main attraction and decided Octavia beat her inn. She walked through the door. What she and the occupied people of the inn didn’t notice was Mrsha, bored with the proceedings, slipping into Octavia’s shop as well.
“What have you got, Octavia?”
The [Alchemist] was waving a bundle of what looked like twigs to Mrsha in front of Erin’s face. The Gnoll squinted and sniffed quietly as she hid in Octavia’s shop. She knew she wasn’t supposed to be here, but there were so many fascinating smells here! And Octavia had something strange in her hands.
They looked like small sticks, but with a bulb of…well, something strange on the ends. Erin had recognized them, though.
“Matches! No way! That’s it, exactly! Do they work?”
Octavia beamed, nodding and making her dreadlocks swing as she held one up to the light so Erin could see.
“It’s my newest creation. It’s not stable—I could do more with it, but you see, I’ve found a way to blend just a tiny bit of Corusdeer horn with sulfur and—look!”
She swiped the match down the side of the sandpaper box. Erin and Mrsha both gasped as the head of the match suddenly burst into flame. The Gnoll stared avidly at the flame on the end of the stick. How had Octavia done that? She’s simply moved the match…and there was fire! Was it magic? The Gnoll cub desperately wanted to try to do the same.
“You did it! That’s incredible! How’d you do it in one day?”
“Well, when you’re a talented [Alchemist]—I uh, might have made a few dozen prototypes. And stayed up all night. But once I realized how the general idea worked, it just came to me!”
Octavia’s eyes were more than a bit red and she was swaying slightly on her feet. She put the box of matches on her counter as she explained more about how she’d made them to Erin.
Mrsha crept towards the counter. She hesitated—Erin and Octavia were right next to her. But Erin was pointing back towards the open door to her inn and loudly complaining about Pisces kissing all the girls—and them enjoying it!
Octavia looked over, and Mrsha stood up. She snatched the box of matches and scampered away, silent as a moth in the moonlight.
“I’ll give you a box. I can make a lot more—and if I perfect the formula, I’ll be selling them for silver coins!”
“I’m not giving my product away for nothing, Erin! But…let’s just say I’ll be making a bundle if I get this business off the ground. And I have you to thank for it!”
“Cool! How much is my cut?”
The [Alchemist]’s eyes widened. She began to splutter, before she saw Erin’s teasing grin. Still, that was an important point. Octavia took a breath and then she saw the door to her shop open, and a small bundle of white fur scamper out.
Mrsha held one of the new matchsticks up in the cold morning air as she proceeded down the streets of Celum. Quite a few people were staring at her—Gnolls weren’t common at all in this city. Mrsha ignored them, and stopped by a street crossing.
How had Octavia done it? She’d just struck the match—pulled it fast against the side of the sandpaper. Like—
Mrsha slowly grated the matchstick against the sandpaper. It didn’t work. But then she moved her paw faster and the head flared and burst into flame!
Mrsha instantly dropped the matchstick in alarm. It went out as it landed in some snow. She peered at the stick, heart beating fast.
Fire! She’d made fire!
It was an instinctual thing, for Gnolls to love fire. Like Humans and Drakes, it was that which had helped them separate themselves from the part that was simply wild. It had brought order and light into the night, shown them that they didn’t have to hide in the darkness.
And Mrsha had made it. Without a flint and rocks. Without the need for dry tinder and time. She’d made fire.
And it had gone out. Mrsha rooted around in the snow, and found the matchstick again. She tried to reignite the head, but it was burnt out.
So they only worked once. But that was okay—the box Mrsha had taken had plenty of matches. She drew another, and lit it.
The small flicker of light on the cold winter day was insignificant. Small. It was something that would have passed unnoticed in Erin and Ryoka’s world—well, excluding the present. Any child doing that on a street now would probably cause a bomb scare. But in general, the match was an antiquated, ordinary thing. Who would pay attention to Mrsha and her box of matches in the cold?
Everyone, that’s who. A woman pasing on the street stared as Mrsha lit the second match and held it up in the wind. She blinked at the Gnoll. She suspected magic, but the way Mrsha blew out the flame and then lit another match informed her that it was not magic. She stopped and spoke to the Gnoll.
“How did you do that?”
Mrsha looked up in alarm. She understood the woman, but the first thing in her mind was guilt. Did she know Mrsha had taken the box without asking? Mrsha scampered away.
Mrsha ran back towards the shop. Then she saw who was striding down the street and ran back. Octavia caught sight of Mrsha and shouted.
“There you are! Wait you little minx!”
There was a certain tone adults could use that told children the consequences of not obeying would be far worse than if they did. Mrsha halted reluctantly. She hid the match box behind her as Octavia strode over.
“I saw that! You’re…Mrsha, right? Well, that box belongs to me. You can’t just go around taking things—even if Erin does take care of you! Give it back!”
She held her hand out. Mrsha eyed it and clutched the box tightly. She didn’t want to give it back! The matches were magical in a way that magic wasn’t!
“Come on. They’re mine—you can’t take them! If you want them, you can get them from Erin. Now give…them…here!”
Octavia was engaged in a tug-of-war with Mrsha when the woman who’d seen Mrsha light the match coughed politely.
“Excuse me, are you the creator of those things?”
Then Octavia let go and Mrsha tumbled backwards with the box of matches. She fled a few feet away and turned to watch as Octavia stood and smiled sheepishly at the woman.
“I am, Miss. I’m sorry you had to see that—a bit of reclamation of lost goods, I’m afraid. Don’t worry—they’re not dangerous.”
“Oh, I know. But I was wondering—do you have any more?”
“I’d love to buy some of these—flame strikers? I’m no [Mage] and these seem far quicker than flint and steel. What do you charge for a box?”
The woman was already pulling out a purse. Octavia gaped, but then she put her best smile on her face.
“I happen to have a few—they’re very experimental and new, of course. But I think I can quote you an affordable price…”
Mrsha watched, eyes narrowed, as coins changed hands. The woman went away with a box—half filled with matches—and Octavia pocketed a few silver and bronze coins. Mrsha backed away warily as Octavia turned towards her. Only this time Octavia didn’t try to take Mrsha’s matches.
“Well now, that was interesting.”
The [Alchemist] took a few steps towards Mrsha. The Gnoll tensed, ready to run rather than be scolded, but instead the [Alchemist] girl appeared thoughtful. She squatted down next to Mrsha.
“Advertising, hmm? I never wanted to pay for that, but if you consider that child labor is free—why not? It’s worth a shot! Little Miss, would you like a job selling those match sticks for me?”
Mrsha just stared blankly at her. She didn’t quite trust Octavia’s smile, for all the [Alchemist] did it often. She edged away from Octavia.
“Wait—okay, not a job!”
Octavia waved her hands frantically as Mrsha looked down the street. She sighed as the Gnoll stared at her. Then Octavia smiled again.
“I don’t mind you taking the box of matches, Mrsha. I really don’t. In fact, you can have them! Light up all of them if you want! What if I gave you these matches as well—”
Mrsha found a second box of matches pressed into her paw.
“—And you go out there and, uh, show them off? Drum up a little business? I’ll let you sell a few, and you can keep a third—half—okay, fine, you can keep what you earn. But you have to show people where you got them, alright?”
The Gnoll child stared at the second box of matches, and then up at Octavia with narrowed eyes. This wasn’t how getting in trouble was supposed to go, she knew. But Octavia appeared jolly all of a sudden.
“Just bring back people to my shop, okay? Tell them—okay, I’ll tell them. You just come back when you need more matches! I have to make more! A lot more!”
She reached out and shook Mrsha’s paw energetically. Then Octavia went back towards her shop. She turned back and mimed striking another match.
When she was gone, Mrsha scratched her head. She’d understood only a bit of that, but somehow, she now had another box of matches! She thought a bit more, and decided that this was good.
The Gnoll padded back to the intersection and sat down on the paving stones. The men and women of Celum stared at the Gnoll, white and beautiful, sitting in the middle of their city. And they stared as she moved something in her hands and it burst into flame.
Fire. Mrsha struck a match and stared into the small burning torch’s heart. She remembered fire. Fire was important in her tribe’s camp. It was something that gave heat, food, life. It was the center of their existence, in a way. It kept the dark and monsters and fear of the night at bay.
For Mrsha, it was memory. She felt the heat on her claws and flicked the nearly spent match away. Then she lit another one.
People walking down the street stared and pointed at the little Gnoll lighting matches. But Mrsha was far away. She stared into the fire and remembered home. She’d dreamed of tending the fires, of being old enough to manage her own camp site. And now she had the ability to create fires at will.
Another spent match fell into the snow and smoked for a second before extinguishing itself completely. Mrsha sighed.
So brief. So short. But while it lasted…
She lit another one, and the flame burned away a falling snowflake. It lit up part of the world, and a man walking down the street stopped and stared at the match held in Mrsha’s paw.
It was very pretty. And warm. Mrsha just had to be careful, or the stick would burn down and scorch her fur.
That was Celum, and the small miracle that stopped a street. In Liscor, a different sort of event was happening. It was localized, and went from house to house, usually terrorizing families. They would have called the Watch, but that was sort of the problem.
In the house of the Bitterscale family, the father, mother, and young boy and girl Drakes were sitting down to eat some lovely, fresh Fortress Beaver roast. It was a happy family, untroubled by thoughts of adventurers, Goblin Lords, or the new dungeon for the moment. They were about to eat when someone pounded on the door.
Frowning, Wress Bitterscale went to answer the door. He opened it and found a huge Drake, dressed in an ill-fitting red costume—that was to say, leather armor painted red, with a red hat on his head and a lumpy bag slung over one shoulder.
“Hey! Is everyone here? Good!”
Relc grinned down at Wress. He pulled the door open wider and strode into the house.
“Wress? Who’s there?”
Vessra Bitterscale cried out in alarm as Relc strode into the room. The two children stared up at Relc as he grinned down at them, showing off all his teeth. He dropped the bag he was carrying onto the ground with a thump and waved at the kids.
“Hey there! Merry Christmas! I’m Santa. Santa Claus. Where’s your chimney? Have you been bad or good? I’ve got coal!”
The children backed away from Relc. He frowned as he rummaged around in his sack.
“What? Hold on—some of these are broken. I’ve got to—hey, Klb! Get in here and help spread the cheer!”
He turned and roared towards the doorway. Wress stared in horror as someone else entered the home. The two Bitterscale children stared up with wide eyes as an Antinium, tall and lithe, walked into the room. He had two swords sheathed at his side, and he walked like a soldier. He also had a rough beard made of goat’s hair glued to his face.
Klbkch clicked his mandibles as he stared down at the children. They appeared to be rooted to the spot with terror. As this was how most children acted around him, Klbkch thought he’d made a good impression. He slapped his belly with a crack of chitin on carapace, making all the Drakes flinch.
“Ho. Ho. Ho. Have you been good children this year? If not, you will get the coal.”
The Bitterscale family stared at the two guardsmen. They stared towards the door. But there was nowhere to run. And then Relc pulled out a clumsily wrapped dagger and tried to give it to the daughter.
Point-first. In fairness though, that was an accident.
She was…eight hours into her run? Ryoka had no idea, but she was cold, wet…
And not feeling too bad. Ryoka had downed the second stamina potion thirty minutes ago, and that was keeping her going. As she ran through deep snow, following the shimmering lights overhead, she felt the burning energy inside her, giving her legs the strength to run.
The Runners of Invrisil knew how to prepare for long treks. The Guild had not only given Ryoka several stamina potions to allow her to run all night, but they’d given her a healing potion as well. It helped with the chafing, the sore feet, and the occasional falls onto the hard ground. It wasn’t fun running in the middle of a blizzard towards a village, but, Ryoka had to admit, it wasn’t bad.
The Frost Faeries made all the difference. They flew ahead of her, lighting the way. Without them, Ryoka wouldn’t have known where to go. But they led her on, giving her the surety that she was going in the right direction.
The only problem was her speed. Despite her potions, Ryoka still wasn’t moving that quickly in such horrible conditions. Of course, she wasn’t going that slow either.
The snow was ankle-deep in the best of places and getting deeper by the hour but Ryoka had gotten used to running in such conditions. She wouldn’t have called her progress fast, but when she stuck to the relatively shallower roads she made good progress. She might have to run late into the night, but she’d probably get to the village on time, especially with the stamina potions.
Unfortunately, not everyone saw it that way. The trouble had started five hours into the run. Ryoka had heard grumbling from up ahead, but it had been silenced by Ivolethe. Three hours later, though, she could hear the complaints from the faeries flying around her.
“Hurry up, slow slug! We don’t have all day!”
“Yes, run faster! Snail! Worm!”
They were getting bored. That was the problem. The other faeries that had joined Ivolethe had quickly lost the spirit of giving and regained the spirit of boredom.
Ryoka felt a snowball smack her on the back of the head. She gritted her teeth. She’d forgotten how objectionable most Frost Faeries were. Ivolethe was sweet as candy compared to her sisters.
“I’m moving as fast as I can.”
“Not fast enough!”
“Yes, we tire of this! Let’s do something interesting!”
A chorus of voices agreed with the second speaker. Ryoka shook her head.
“If you’re tired, you can leave. I’m going to keep running, though.”
The faeries grumbled, but made no reply. They flew away from Ryoka, letting their lights fade in the flurrying snow. Ryoka prayed they’d left as she continued onwards, following the edge of a pond of some kind. She stared at Ivolethe’s red light ahead, using it as a compass.
It turned left. Ryoka followed it—
And found herself tumbling down a cliff. She shouted in confusion as the ground gave way beneath her and she slip and fell downwards. She hit the ground and lay there stunned for second. Then she found her voice.
“Ivolethe! What the hell was that!?”
“It was not me!”
The faerie flew towards Ryoka as the girl got up. Ryoka took a step towards Ivolethe, but then she spotted another red light floating towards her. And another. And another—
“Hah! We got her, sisters!”
“She fell! Let us do it again!”
The other faeries, now all glowing the same color as Ivolethe, swooped around Ryoka, crowing with delight. Ryoka swore loudly.
“You have got to be kidding me! Stop that! I need to get to Riverfarm!”
“Hah! This is far more fun than bringing you!”
“Yes, yes! She wants to go to that stinking village? Let her find the way. Only, which way is the right way? Choose, mortal!”
Ivolethe, or a faerie that might have been her, swooped closer to Ryoka’s face.
“This way. Ignore those fools!”
Another faerie flew past her.
“No, you idiot! This way! I’m the real Ivolethe, not that faker!”
“No, it’s me!”
“Ignore all these clods! Run, and do not look back!”
Suddenly, all the faeries were flying around Ryoka, in every direction. She swore as the red lights spread out around her, each one shouting her name. Ryoka cupped her hands to her mouth.
“Ivolethe! Tell me about my German!”
“‘Tis rot! A moose gargling a toad sounds far better!”
One of the faeries ahead of Ryoka shouted that. Ryoka grinned and ran towards it as the other faeries made annoyed noises. Ivolethe led Ryoka onwards, but now the other faeries were flying around Ryoka, getting in her way, spraying her with snow—
And trying to lead her astray. Like the will o’ wisps that Ivolethe had resented being compared to, the faeries tried to confuse themselves with Ivolethe, flying in her path and then breaking away. Ryoka attempted to keep her eyes on Ivolethe, but the faeries constantly mimicked her voice, claiming Ryoka had been led astray.
Soon, Ryoka had no idea if she was following the right Ivolethe again. She shouted, got a response, and set off once more. But again the faeries made her progress grind to a halt.
She shouted up at the glowing red lights flying in every direction. The faeries laughed mockingly. Ryoka felt despair and fury building in her chest. She couldn’t get lost out here! But there was no way to get rid of the faeries! And she couldn’t tell them apart!
As Ryoka stumbled onwards through a forest with faeries shouting and flying in every direction, she heard and felt the earth rumble. The Runner turned and saw something huge moving to the left. The ground itself heaved upwards as faeries cried out in alarm and scattered.
“What in the name of crap is that!?”
Ryoka sprinted away as the snow erupted and something swiped at the faeries who had been shouting so loudly a second ago. They flew away as Ryoka saw the thing heave itself up even higher.
Higher. And higher. It rose, a colossus, out of the ground. No—it wasn’t out of the ground. Ryoka realized to her horror that it had been the ground itself! It had been slumbering, until her noisy passage had woken it. But now it rose, and turned towards her. She saw it.
A giant face. A wall of ice. Broken shards. Melted snow. Two massive eyes formed of rock. And then the mouth opened. The Frost Golem roared, its voice the sound of crashing snow and grinding stone.
The faeries screamed back. A flurry of red lights flew up and dove at the Frost Golem’s face, striking it with ice and wind, castigating the massive creature for interrupting their fun.
The ice was probably no harm at all to the Golem, but it disliked the attacks. It swiped at the faeries, and they flew away, jeering at it as they effortlessly dodged the large creature. But they had been distracted, and the Golem began to chase after them, roaring in a voice that shook the entire forest.
“Quickly, Ryoka! While they are distracted!”
A single red light flew down. Ryoka saw Ivolethe beckoning her onwards. Ryoka took one look at the Snow Golem and froze. It was chasing the Frost Faeries away, giving them a far larger target to harass. But that wasn’t what made her eyes go wide and her knees suddenly weak.
“What is it, Ryoka?”
Ivolethe stared at Ryoka’s pale face. The girl swallowed hard.
“I can’t believe it. I can’t. It’s not possible.”
Ivolethe peered at the Snow Golem, but couldn’t see anything odd about it. She urged Ryoka onwards as the Golem thundered away from them, making the ground shake. Ryoka ran on, turning her head to watch the Snow Golem.
It was impossible. And yet—Ryoka saw it so clearly as she broke out of the forest, following Ivolethe. The Snow Golem was a distant shape in the distance, already nearly obscured by the blizzard.
It was just a Snow Golem, a natural phenomenon in this world. It didn’t look like a classic snowman at all; it was a mountain of ice rather than three spheres stuck together. And yet—
It had a hat.
The black mass on its head was too much like a top hat for Ryoka to call it anything else. Her brain knew it was probably some trees or boulders sticking out at odd angles. That, combined with the darkness made it look like a hat. That was all.
But still, she saw it. The Snow Golem wore a hat on its head as it roared and chased the other faeries away. Ryoka stared after it, and then began to hum under her breath. She turned and called out to the hovering faerie glowing crimson.
“Ivolethe? Let’s go.”
The faerie led her onwards. Ryoka pumped her legs, put her force into her stride. She ran onwards, bringing gifts and relief for a village that needed it. But her head turned one last time as she ran. She spoke under her breath.
A distant roar was her only response. Ryoka smiled, and kept running.
A few hours after Mrsha had lit her first matchstick, she lit the one hundred and twenty third and watched the flame slowly eat away the stick. She held it close to her face and felt the heat warm her paw. Then she looked up and around Octavia’s shop. It was getting quite noisy.
“I’ll take five boxes!”
“Six, here! I’ll pay with silver!”
“A gold coin if you show me how to make them! Five!”
People were quite agitated about the matchsticks Mrsha was having so much fun lighting. Mrsha understood and didn’t understand at the same time. To her matches were fun, enjoyable, and magical. To the people who’d followed her off the streets and into Octavia’s shop, they were something more.
They were crowded around Octavia’s shop, Humans, Drakes, and Gnolls alike. Adults shouted for the [Alchemist]’s attention, demanded to know if this was her invention—if she would sell them the matches for the same price Mrsha had. Octavia was under siege at her counter. Mrsha saw her desperately waving one of her arms over her head with the other to get people’s attention, but it was no use.
There were so many bodies in the shop that the door was stuck open, letting the cold snow blow into the building. Snowflakes whirled around Mrsha. One struck her match and put it out.
Mrsha let the spent match drop to the ground and looked around. So many people. So many burnt matches. They were small things, but important. New. Bright.
Then Mrsha sneezed. It was cold, even for her. She peered at the last burnt matchstick and decided she was going home.
The Gnoll padded between the legs of the adults and opened the door back to Erin’s inn. She walked through, and carefully closed the door behind her.
“Mrsha! Where have you been?”
A voice made Mrsha spin guiltily. Lyonette strode over to her, all worry and loving concern.
“I’ve been looking for you all day! You’re freezing! Did you go outside? I told you to tell me when you do that!”
She ushered Mrsha out of the way of a Gnoll and Drake couple who were kissing at each other.
“Into the kitchen. I have something to show you—oh, rats! Wait here. I’ve got to clean up a spill.”
Mrsha obediently padded into the kitchen. There she relaxed as the snow on her fur began to melt. Something dug into her side as Mrsha stretched—she pulled out a small pouch, her pouch, filled to the brim.
Mrsha sat and emptied the bulging money pouch onto the ground. Coins clinked as they fell onto the ground. People had given Mrsha a lot of coins for her matches. And Octavia kept giving her more matches, so things had just sort of piled up.
A small mound of wet coins lay on the clean kitchen floor. Mrsha sniffed at the coins. They smelled like metal and sweat and dirt. She carefully picked them all up and stood up. Clumsily, she walked on two legs to the small pottery jar that Lyonette had put on the counter in the corner of the kitchen.
It took Mrsha two tries to jump and pull herself up onto the counter. But then she was right next to the jar. Mrsha opened the lid and carefully dropped the coins into the jar. They made a lovely tinkling sound as they fell. Then she put the lid back in place.
The Gnoll child jumped. Before she could move, two hands lifted her away from the jar. Lyonette scolded her as she lifted Mrsha up.
“You know you can’t take money from the jar! Do you want some coins? I can give you a few bronze ones—but no taking without asking, alright?”
Mrsha squirmed in Lyonette’s arms. The girl sighed.
“Oh, you! Here. Sit there for one more second, and I’ll give you a treat, alright?”
Lyonette went over to one of the ovens and pulled something out. Mrsha’s nose made her sit up and her stomach rumbled as she saw a huge pan of golden bread appear from out of the oven.
“What do you think of this?”
Lyonette gleefully turned and showed it to Mrsha. She picked up a stick of butter that had been chilled next to the window and began to rub it over the top of the fresh bread as she explained.
“Erin has some—what did she call it? Baking powder, that’s right! It makes the bread puff up like this! She made some and it smells delicious, don’t you think?”
Mrsha did think. She licked her lips and stared avidly at the freshly baked bread. The stick of cold butter that Lyonette had rubbed all over the tops had made the bread glisten. Mrsha had never seen bread so plump and full.
She greedily reached for one roll, but Lyonette smacked Mrsha’s paw. The Gnoll gave her an injured look, but Lyoentte was unmoved.
“You can have some with everyone else. Come on, let’s bring this out. You can carry a pitcher of m—actually, why don’t you take the butter? Don’t trip!”
Obediently, Mrsha took a saucer of warm, soft butter out into the kitchen. Her stomach was rumbling, and she could already almost taste the wonderful bread in her mouth. She smiled as she walked unsteadily out of the kitchen and put the butter on a table. She had already forgotten about Octavia and her latest invention.
Mrsha liked matches, but she liked being here a lot better.
“Bread’s ready! Oh—for crying out loud!”
Erin turned from the freshly-cut pieces of steaming bread coated liberally with butter and nearly ran into a couple smooching hard under the mistletoe.
Selys and a Gnoll that Erin didn’t know jumped apart from under the mistletoe. The Gnoll was blushing—he was a bit younger than Erin, and clearly embarrassed to have been caught out. Selys grinned and waved at the scowling innkeeper.
“Hi, Erin. I uh, heard about the mistletoe. I thought I’d give it a whirl.”
“You and everyone else! I’m sick of it!”
“Aw, come on. It’s fun!”
So said Revi, although her lips were a bit puffy from repeated mouth-to-mouth contact. Erin sighed. She beckoned Selys over and whispered to her.
“Kissing is fine. Just don’t kiss Pisces, no matter if he offers, alright? He’s getting a fat head because he thinks he’s such a good kisser!”
Selys’ eyebrows rose as she glanced over. Pisces was looking more smug than ever as he sat at a table with Ksmvr. Ceria and Yvlon were sitting at another table, ignoring him.
“So I’m told.”
Erin made a face as Selys eyed Pisces. She looked around and found a few cherries on a tray.
“It’s become a huge thing. People come in, kiss each other, and try to tie knots with cherries. I’m making money, but I feel bad doing it!”
“What’s so special about cherries?”
Erin explained about tying knots in the stems. Selys looked intrigued.
“That sounds like fun! Give me one.”
She chewed the cherry thoughtfully as Erin sighed and began to offer bread to her hungry hordes of customers.
“You look tired. Why haven’t you gotten a few kisses? It’s fun!”
“I don’t want to. Especially not with Pisces.”
Erin frowned at Selys. The Drake shrugged. She took the cherry stem out of her mouth and handed it to Erin. The [Innkeeper] took it automatically.
“Suit yourself. But—and I’m sorry about this, Erin—I’ve got to see what the best kisser’s like. Hey, Pisces! Come over here, you!”
The [Necromancer] looked up as Selys waved to him under the mistletoe. He smirked and came over. Erin shook her head.
She turned away, and then remembered Selys had given her the cherry stem. She glanced down at it. The girl blinked as she saw the cherry stem, tied into a double-knot.
She looked up as she heard the laughter and a cheer. Selys sauntered away from Pisces to a round of applause from the room. Erin had apparently missed the kiss of the day, and it must have been some kiss, because Pisces was bright red.
He turned away from Selys as she laughed and pulled at another Drake, giving him a quick kiss. Erin stared at Pisces, at Selys, and then laughed.
“Hah! Take that!”
Then someone kissed her. Erin felt the brush of whiskers and a wet smooch on her cheek. She yelped, and looked around. A white, furry face stared at her. Mrsha, perched on the table, held a bit of mistletoe with one claw. The girl stared at her. Mrsha licked her cheek. Erin laughed, and then reached out and kissed the Gnoll on her furry cheek.
Five minutes later. Halrac was sitting by himself, sipping from his drink and not-quite-scowling around the room. For him, it was as good as a smile. He must have been drunk, or just off-guard, because he only reacted when he felt the wet kiss on his cheek. And then, simultaneously, another one on the other side.
Halrac turned, a hand on the dagger at his belt. He saw two large, brown eyes. Mrsha licked Harlac’s stubbly cheek. The [Scout] stared at her, and then turned his head towards the other mysterious kisser.
“Merry Christmas, you grumpy old man!”
Revi grinned at Halrac as she held a sprig of mistletoe over his head. Halrac stared at her, and then at Mrsha, who was sniffing at his drink. He rubbed his cheek and grunted. Revi laughed and spun away. Mrsha leapt from the table and went to get more bread.
Now that the kissing was mobile, everyone was fair game. The mistletoe changed hands quite a few times and left the inn in the pockets of some of the guests. Eventually Erin called for a ban on kissing—if only so that she could serve everyone hot bread.
Halrac sat at the table in the corner by himself, chewing the hot bread and remembering eating something similar back when he was young—although he’d had warm milk back then. He stared around the busy room, at friends and people he hardly knew, having fun and celebrating. The [Scout]’s face didn’t change as Ulrien called him to come over and throw a hand of dice. He waved in denial and sat by himself. Alone.
When he was quite sure no one was looking, the [Scout] smiled. Just for a moment.
Relc and Klbkch sat in an alleyway, staring blankly at the brick wall ahead of them. Neither Drake nor Antinium said much.
Relc was holding the bag of banged-up presents in his claws. It was still full. Klbkch’s beard was slipping off his face again. The glue had ripped free from his chitin.
“What are we doing wrong here, Klb?”
“I do not know, Relc.”
“We’re trying to be like Santa, right? I mean, I’m dressing up like him and everything! Why are people kicking us out? They don’t want our presents!”
“It is a quandary. I believe our efforts, while well-intentioned, have the opposite effect.”
“Yeah. Wanna give up?”
“That may be best. Let us retire to Erin’s inn.”
Klbkch and Relc got up slowly and walked out of the alleyway. They walked down the street, ignoring the curious and horrified looks with their heads down. They only looked up when they heard the crying.
Someone was upset. Someone was weeping. And there was the sound of breaking pottery—from one of the houses ahead of them. Relc nudged Klbkch.
“They sound upset, don’t they, Klb?”
The Antinium stared at the house’s door. It seemed…unhinged, as if it had been knocked off its frame.
“Indeed they do. Should we investigate?”
“One last time. Then we’re done.”
The two [Guardsmen] approached the door cautiously. Relc nodded to Klbkch as the Antinium took a position on the other side of the door. The Drake counted to three, and then kicked the door in. The crash made everyone inside go silent for a moment.
“Does anyone want a pres—hey!”
Relc’s eyes narrowed as he caught sight of the two Drakes wearing masks over their faces. One was standing guard over two frightened Gnoll children as the other ransacked the house.
The burglars froze at the sight of Relc and Klbkch. Oddly dressed though they might be, the Senior Guardsmen were a known duo in Liscor.
“Well, well, well. It looks like Santa’s found someone who’s been naughty.”
Relc grinned and cracked his knuckles as the two thieves backed up. One whipped a knife from his belt out and stabbed at Relc. The Drake caught the blade barehanded and threw it away.
“Not sharp enough! Hi, nice to meet you! I’m Relc—I mean, Santa Claus! Here’s my fist!”
He clocked the first thief in the face and then kicked him between the legs. The Drake folded up and Relc dodged back as the other one swung at him. He turned, twisted—his tail smacked the second thief in the face with a crack.
“You’ve been extra naughty! You’re on my list! You got that, you punks?”
The fight carried out into the street as Relc threw one of the [Thieves] out of the window. The Drake landed with pieces of the broken shutters raining around him. He gasped for air and tried to get up—just in time to meet a black rock that smashed into the side of his face.
“Have some coal!”
Relc smacked the painted black rock into the offending [Thief]’s head. Klbkch tripped up the other as the Drake [Thief] tried to race out of the building. The Antinium calmly strode over to the fallen burglar and kicked him in the stomach.
“Ho. Ho. Ho. Merry Christmas.”
The commotion attracted a crowd. Drakes, Gnolls, and some Humans watched as Relc and Klbkch beat the two burglars down, Klbkch with a brick, Relc with his sack of presents.
When they were done, the two [Guardsmen] straightened up, and heard the cheering. They saw the crowd applauding them, and realized everyone had a huge smile on their face. Relc turned to Klbkch. The Antinium was blinking down at one of the Gnoll children, who’d given him a hug.
“It’s the holidays, Klbkch.”
“Indeed it is.”
“I think I feel the Chirstmas spirit! Look at all these smiling faces!”
Relc grinned as the father of the Gnolls came over to thank him personally. He reached into his sack and rummaged around. After a moment, Relc handed a battered present with a bit of blood splattered on the side to one of the Gnoll children. The young Gnoll sniffed curiously at the package, and then tore apart the wrapping. He stared at the wooden buckler and sword and grinned in delight.
Klbkch slapped Relc on the back. Relc staggered, and glared at him.
“I am expressing my enthusiasm as you often do.”
“Don’t. That’s my thing.”
Relc sighed. He cracked his knuckles and stared around at the other children, who were already fighting over the presents Klbkch was handing out.
“That was fun. Alright. I’m done. Let’s get a drink, shall we?”
They left the bag of presents and fake beard and Santa costumes to be claimed by the excited children and pedestrians. Kblkch and Relc marched the battered [Thieves] to the city jail, talking along the way.
“Do you think that was enough good deeds?”
“I believe so. As we both regularly perform acts in service to the city, we should have accumulated an excess of good deeds this year.”
“Awesome. I wonder what I’ll get from the real Santa-guy. He’ll deliver the presents to Erin’s inn, right?”
“I would like a Dwarf-crafted sword.”
“Ooh, do you think I could get an enchanted spear? I left my old one back with the army.”
“We should ask Erin if Santa has any [Blacksmith] levels.”
“He’s gotta. I mean…presents, right? You can’t just make do with [Craftsman] levels.”
Klbkch was silent. He paused as he thought more concretely about Santa, and the odds of receiving a specialty-made item manufactured across the continent. For the first time, Klbkch questioned Bird’s scattered account of a Human man who rode a sleigh pulled by reindeer that flew.
“…It occurs to me Relc, that this Santa Claus that Erin has spoken of does not exist. The presents may in fact come from other people and are simply attributed to his presence.”
Relc paused. His tail drooped as he suddenly put some obvious pieces together.
“No. You think so?”
“If Santa existed, why has he not given us presents before?”
“Aw…no! I thought maybe it was a Human thing and we were included on his list since Erin knows us!”
Klbkch brightened up.
“That may be true. I did not consider that. Let us ask Erin whether that is the case.”
Unfortunately, both Drake and Antinium found to their disappointment that Santa was a myth. Erin laughed herself off of her chair when she heard what they’d done. But she gave them a hug and hot food, and so the [Guardsmen] felt a bit better by the time the inn closed.
“I guess we’ll get our presents tomorrow. I mean, if anyone’s left any. Doesn’t look like it.”
Relc sighed as he double-checked all of the presents. There were none for him. He sagged, and then turned, pulling something out of the rucksack on his back.
“Hey Klb, I’m ready to go! Klb?”
The Antinium turned. He had something in his hands. A carefully wrapped present, tied with a string of twine. Relc stared at it, and then remembered Klbkch hadn’t brought his presents yet. He stared at the nametag, and saw his name on the tag.
Klbkch looked at Relc. The Drake had a clumsily-wrapped present in his claws, the wrapping already torn a bit. But Klbkch’s name was clearly scrawled on the nametag.
The two [Guardsmen] stared at each other. Then Relc laughed, and Klbkch opened his mandibles in a smile. They put their gifts together and walked out the door, side by side.
“Merry Christmas, Relc.”
“Yeah, Merry Christmas, Klb.”
The two sauntered down the hill towards Liscor, talking and chuckling over the events of the day. After a while, Relc frowned and stared back towards the inn.
“You didn’t get me anything creepy or wriggly, did you, Klb?”
“No. Did you get me coal, Relc?”
“No! You’ll like it. I think. Yeah. Probably.”
“Well then. I shall see you tomorrow.”
“Yeah. I’ll open your crappy gift during the party. At least I know I’ll have one, even if it is icky.”
“Indeed. One is better than none. I shall contain my disappointment.”
“You do that. Later.”
The two parted ways without a second word. They didn’t look back, but both walked with heads held high.
They were smiling.
Late at night, the night before Christmas, hundreds of miles away, the villagers of Riverfarm were about to go to sleep on another miserable, ordinary day that was their life now. But the people who’d been posted sentry raised the alarm, shouting, as they saw something approaching their village in the dark flurrying snow.
“Who—who are you? I warn you, we’ve nothing to take! We’re under the protection of [Emperor] Laken! Begone if you mean trouble!”
Farmer Prost shouted as the dark shape ran towards him. He held a sword at the ready with two shaking hands. He’d never had to actually use it to fight; it was a memento from his father. He was about to swing when he saw the red light illuminating the distinct Runner’s Seal held in a gloved hand over Ryoka’s head.
She slowed as she approached the ruined village, taking in the destroyed buildings, the men and women holding weapons, and the frightened children. The villagers of Riverfarm stared as the strange figure pulled away a scarf and hood to reveal a young woman’s face. They hadn’t seen a Runner come all the way to their village in years. Most messages made the final journey via cart or wagon when they went to town.
“I’m a Runner. I’ve got a delivery from Laken.”
Ryoka had to speak several times to make her voice work. She had to say it again for Prost, who was staring at her uncomprehendingly.
“From—you mean from [Emperor] Laken?”
Ryoka groaned as she took the bag of holding from her belt. She felt like she was dead. Even with the stamina potions and healing potion, her feet ached, her body felt like it was falling apart, and she was numb. But she was here.
The villagers ushered her into their main living space, the renovated barn, and Ryoka sighed as she saw a fire had been carefully built in the center. She trudged over to it, and tried to set herself on fire to warm up.
“We haven’t had word since he left. We were sure he’d be kept by the storm—but he sent you to tell us he’s alright? Has he bought provisions?”
Prost hovered anxiously by Ryoka. She shook her head.
“No. He sent me to bring you them. Here.”
She handed the bag of holding to Prost. His face fell as he saw it, but then it changed the instant he reached inside. Ryoka, staring at the fire, heard the exclamations but didn’t bother to turn around. She wanted to eat the coals and let them warm her from the inside.
“Food! Dead Gods, there’s so much of it!”
“We’re saved! Praise [Emperor] Laken!”
Ryoka heard the commotion and the weeping. It was a while before she could tear herself away from the fire. But when she did, she saw…people. That was all.
She saw people. Just people, ragged, afraid. There was nothing special about them; they were just a frightened mass, suddenly relieved because good fortune had come their way. That was what Ryoka told herself.
They believed in an [Emperor], a false leader. Laken wasn’t—they’d put their faith in him blindly, and he’d delivered. But even so—
The man who’d talked to her, Prost, was in tears. He was hugging his wife and what looked like his daughter, tears streaming down his cheeks. Ryoka couldn’t face the raw emotion, the pure relief in his eyes. She looked away and clutched at her heart.
It wasn’t growing three sizes. It just hurt. She’d run hard, that was all. That was all.
They came to her after that, full of gratitude and heartfelt thanks. Ryoka backed away from it all. She didn’t want praise. She’d just—was just a Runner—
There was something in the air. That was it. Ryoka certainly wasn’t moved by a hug from a tearful mother, or a man taking her hand and bowing to her over and over, praising her for braving the storm. It was just a temporary bit of insanity that made her take the bag of holding she owned, the one with the presents Laken had bought, and walk over to the children.
“Hello there. Have you all been good boys and girls?”
They stared up at her, wide-eyed. Ryoka crouched down as she tried to explain why she was here.
“I’ve got presents, you see. As well as food. Laken—your [Emperor] wanted to make sure you had something nice for the holidays.”
“What holidays, Miss?”
“Christmas. You see, it’s a special day where Laken comes from. On that day, everyone who’s been good gets presents. Who’s been good? I have a present for all of you! For you and you and you…they’re from Santa Claus!”
One of the children asked the question, staring warily at the wrapped gift Ryoka handed him. She smiled.
“Haven’t you heard of the story of Saint Nicholas? Father Christmas? Kris Kringle? Really? Well, he has many names, but I always knew of him as Santa Claus. You see, where I come from, each year Santa Claus gets on his magical sled pulled by flying reindeer and flies around. He flies to every village, every home, every family in every city. And he gives presents to the good kids and coal to the bad ones. He hired me to deliver these presents this year.”
She winked at the adults. They caught on quickly, and smiled and shed some more tears. The children gathered around Ryoka, asking questions.
“Why didn’t he come last year?”
“How come he came this year?”
“Well…he normally doesn’t come out this far. But Laken knows him. He’s a friend of your [Emperor], so Laken got him to give him some presents for you all. Don’t ask more questions. Merry Christmas.”
She had a present for every child, but not all of them came forwards at once. One girl stood back. Ryoka turned to her, trying to give the girl her most sincere, not-scary smile.
“What about you, kid?”
The girl shook her head. She stared at the present in Ryoka’s hands, but then stepped back from it. She looked up at Ryoka with hollow eyes. And when she spoke, she broke Ryoka’s heart.
“I don’t think I’ve been good, Miss. My brother’s dead. He died in the snow and I couldn’t find him.”
Ryoka paused. The smiles on the faces of the children around her died like dead lightbulbs. The adults fell still.
“It was the avalanche, Miss Runner. I woke up on top of the snow, but my brother—he was right with me when it hit. I dug down and around, but I couldn’t find him. He was right next to me. Right there. Just a few feet to the left. But I didn’t find him until the Emperor dug him up.”
The girl stared up at Ryoka, her eyes staring back through time. There were no tears in her eyes. They’d all fallen long ago.
Ryoka couldn’t get her throat to work at first. She hesitated, and then knelt next to the girl. When she spoke, it was very slowly, very carefully, looking the grief-stricken girl right in the eyes.
“I’m so sorry. It wasn’t your fault. I know you tried—you couldn’t have known. I’m so sorry. But you know what? I—don’t think that means you’re naughty.”
“I’m sure. Hey listen—what’s your name?”
“Well, Anabelle, I think Laken agrees with me. You know why?”
“Because he told me to make sure Anabelle got a present. He told me to make sure you and every kid here got a present, understand? So he doesn’t think you’re naughty. In fact…he told me you might like this one especially.”
Ryoka pulled a present out of the bag and handed it to Anabelle. She took it, and stared down at the neat bow on it, looking lost.
“Why don’t you open it?”
“Are you sure? Did Emperor Laken really say that?”
Anabelle stared up at Ryoka, wanting to believe. And Ryoka lied. She lied straight to the girl’s face, and smiled because it was no lie but the truth.
“I’m sure. Here. Why don’t you open it? Just pull there.”
The girl pulled, and the wrapping fell away and she stared at the little doll, dressed up like an adventurer. Perhaps it was just coincidence that it was male, and it had blonde hair like hers. Or maybe it was magic. Faerie magic? Or just the magic of Christmas.
She began to cry. Ryoka reached out and gingerly hugged her. She whispered to the girl.
“You didn’t do anything wrong. That’s why Santa sent me. That’s why your [Emperor] brought all these presents. Now—why don’t we give you something good to eat?”
Anabelle sobbed into her coat and nodded. Ryoka looked back at the other children. They were teary-eyed as well, but that was fine. There was something important in those tears.
“Who wants to see what else I’ve brought with me?”
Hands rose hesitantly. Ryoka turned, and saw the adults standing, watching her. There was something in their eyes because they kept brushing at them. Hers too. Ryoka let Anabelle cling to her as she handed presents out. And then she had another thought.
“While we’re at it—why don’t I tell you a story? Would you like to hear a story? About Santa Claus?”
Ryoka sat on the straw floor of the barn and saw faeries land on the roof of the barn. She stared at them, but they made the interior of the building shimmer and glow. In every color. The villagers and children gasped, and Ryoka smiled.
“What are you staring at? Didn’t I say Santa was magic? Well, maybe he’s watching you. Now that I think of it…I’ll tell you stories about Santa, too! Did you know one of his reindeer has a red nose? Let me tell you about that. Once upon a time, on a night even snowier than this…”
Later then. So late that it was minutes away from becoming Christmas day, or the day Erin had decided was Christmas. She sat in her inn, her guests long gone, a pile of presents in one corner, and slowly cleared the last table.
“We’re done. Thank you so much for helping, Lyonette.”
Lyonette managed to get the words out between jaw-cracking yawns. She and Mrsha were dozing in a chair by the fire.
A single candle lit the room along with the fireplace. Mrsha stared at the flickering flame as it slowly wore down the wax candle. It was hypnotic, soothing. Before she knew it, Lyonette’s eyes were closing.
“You look tired. You should head upstairs.”
“I think Mrsha’s done. But she’s sort of restless. She had too much honey.”
Mrsha was indeed still awake, despite the late hour. She squirmed just a tiny bit, too hyped to sleep, but too tired to move. Erin smiled.
“Well, how shall we put her to bed? Hot milk? That always worked for me, or so my mom said.”
“I think she’s full to bursting. How about a song? I’d sing, but…I’m no [Singer]. Do you have the class?”
“I do, but you don’t have to have a class to sing, Lyonette. Why don’t I teach you some Christmas songs?”
“Oh. Can you? I’ve always liked music. They only sing the same songs in court back home…”
Lyonette sat up slightly, eyes shining. Mrsha perked her ears up too. Erin laughed and settled down in a chair across from them next to the fire.
“Why not. I’ll sing you…a classic song about Christmas. Okay?”
Silence was her only answer. Erin took a deep breath, and thought of the songs she’d heard growing up, when she had to go to the Christmas service at church, and sung by carolers and played on speakers and online as the world changed.
“Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright…”
Her voice was the last thing anyone heard. The snow fell deeper, as across the world the night ended and a new day began. Nothing changed, but it was Christmas. And Erin sang.
“Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace…”
Her voice trailed off. Erin looked around and saw Lyonette and Mrsha had already fallen asleep. Erin sighed, glancing upstairs where their beds were waiting.
And she smiled. Just a bit. Erin stood up and found a blanket for the slumbering Mrsha and Lyonette. She took down the mistletoe and burned it in the fire. She took out the presents she’d wrapped for Klbkch and Relc and put them with the others. Then she stared out the window.
“Merry Christmas, everyone. To all good sleep. And too all…um. Wait. Oh well. Good night.”
Then she blew out the candle and went to sleep.