A Very Merry Shapeshifting Christmas
Posted on December 24, 2014 (Subscribe to Blog)
Chronologically speaking, the ISLAND OF FOG series takes place over a 5-month period from mid-October to mid-March. The following festive short story occurs two weeks after the events in CHAMBER OF GHOSTS (but before that book's epilogue)...
"Do you realize it's Christmas Eve?" Hal said as he walked hand-in-hand with Abigail through the market. "You wouldn't know it. Nobody seems to care around here."
Abigail paused. "It's not that they don't care. They just don't celebrate it the way we do. We're used to fake Christmas trees and shiny tinsel and broken ornaments. It's what our parents grew up with and what they shared with us every year."
"But not anymore," Hal said glumly.
Abigail smiled and squeezed his hand. "Does my poor Hal miss his Christmas stocking?"
"I have a Christmas stocking hanging over the fireplace, but it's different now."
She frowned. "The fireplace is different, or the stocking?"
"Both. Everything we have is still back on the island, including the Christmas decorations and stuff."
They halted as three younger boys came tearing past, skidding on icy patches as they went. The market was in full swing despite the bone-chilling frost. In an effort to lift spirits, goblins had built small fire pits everywhere, circles of rock over which lay pans of slowly roasting chestnuts. They smelled great, and many villagers huddled around the fires as they passed by, chatting or just warming their hands. The mood was fairly cheerful considering how harsh the winter was.
The air was still today, the sky clear. Despite the bright afternoon sun, frost still coated fence posts, walls, and the least trodden pathways. Hal's feet felt like blocks of ice.
"Well, one thing's for sure," Abigail said. "This year we can give each other something different instead of the same old junk." She waved her hand toward the bustling market stalls. "Look at that. I don't know about you, but my mom seems to have gone crazy this year. I have a stack of presents around the holly bush."
"It's what she's using as a Christmas tree," Abigail said with a shrug. "It's in a pot in the living room. It works fine. She hung red ribbons and tiny brass bells all over it. And piled up lots of fir cones around the base."
They stood in silence awhile as men, women, and children moved about, all wrapped tightly in thick coats, long scarves, and hats. Christmas Eve, Hal thought. The fire pits are nice, but where are the sparkly stars and ornaments we usually see hanging across the fronts of our houses?
His mom had lamented about the lack of decorations for the past couple of weeks. His dad, on the other hand, had grunted and said it made a nice change not to have to bother hanging all that stuff. Popping back to the island to fetch everything wasn't out of the question, but nobody had quite gotten around to it. There wasn't much incentive. The village of Carter just didn't celebrate Christmas. The concept was unknown to them.
Miss Simone had explained that the people of New Earth, as it was now called, had celebrations of their own throughout the year that were just as foreign to Hal and his friends—for instance Dragon Feastday, Magic Monday, and Faerie Observance Day to name but a few, all meant to pay respects to the fantastical creatures of this magical world. Just about every notable creature had a special day reserved for them.
Not that many of them cared about the strange traditions of humankind.
"I don't suppose we could start a new celebration?" Hal muttered.
Abigail narrowed her eyes. "What do you mean?"
"Well, you know, try and introduce Christmas to the village. I can't believe all these people are going to wake up tomorrow morning and treat it like a normal day. How can they not have Christmas?"
"Mom says Christmas isn't for everyone, not even back in our world before the virus. She said lots of people had similar seasonal holidays, but they were at different times and called something else. Our parents just happen to be Christmassy types."
Hal tuned her out. An idea was forming. Hanging a few bits of tinsel and shiny stars around the market wouldn't make a difference to a centuries-old mindset, but maybe these poor, ignorant villagers would sit up and take notice if they received a special visit in the night.
He turned to Abigail, trembling with excitement. "What if Santa Claus came?"
She arched an eyebrow at him and smiled. "Hal, have you ever seen Santa? I mean, in all the years we've been growing up on the island, have you actually seen him?"
"So what makes you think the big man is going to show up here with his bright red coat and fluffy white beard to deliver presents to the nine of us? Are his reindeers going to fly through one of the thousand of holes you opened a couple of weeks ago?"
Hal winced, sure everybody in the village was suddenly glaring at him. She was right, though. Exactly two weeks ago, he'd set off dynamite in the famous Chamber of Ghosts at Bad Rock Gulch and collapsed the mines. All that raw magical energy—what some called 'sparkle'—had imploded and created portals across the land, a chain-reaction even Hal hadn't expected. Now, smoky-black 'holes' floated in the air wherever a patch of magic had once glowed. Holes that led to Old Earth.
Unfortunately, the geography of the twin worlds varied, and all the holes in the village appeared to hang thirty feet in the air over the sea just off the coast.
Hal frowned. "Hear me out. What if we created a Santa Claus of our own?"
Abigail's mouth fell open, and her eyes widened. "I'm listening."
* * *
They held an urgent meeting in a storage shed outside Hal's house in the woods. When all nine of them were assembled, sitting on upturned buckets and plant pots, Abigail raised her voice above the chatter.
"All right, settle down, kids. Hal is calling this meeting to order."
Voices died, and all eyes turned to Hal. He suddenly wished he'd asked Emily to run the meeting. She loved this kind of thing. Even now she was sitting there with a look of longing on her face, clearly wanting to take notes and organize things. "So anyway," he said after a while, "I had an idea."
Fenton rolled his eyes. "I wondered what that smell of burning was. Is that your first one this year? Wait, no—you had one a couple of weeks ago. Now we all have to avoid the bathroom at night in case we accidentally stumble through a hole and fall into the sea on the other side."
"My dad nailed the bathroom door shut," Dewey said quietly. "He rigged up a toilet outside the house. It's freezing."
"I think Hal's intentions were good," Lauren said carefully. She opened her mouth to say something else, but then looked hard at the floor.
Robbie, perched next to her, nodded. "It was either let people into this world and treat them like guests or leave them to find their own way through. If they'd found their own way, it wouldn't have been pretty. There would have been fighting and massacres and—"
"And what about scrags?" Fenton said, running a hand through his cropped hair. "Soldiers have already caught a bunch running around harassing unicorns. What if—"
Hal felt a rising heat in his chest. He raised his hands. "All right, all right, we've argued about this a million times. Why do you think I steer clear of everyone these days?" As a silence fell, he sighed and absently rubbed his belly, which still itched after the savage werewolf attack outside the lycan village during a full moon. "Look, it's Christmas Eve. A time to be jolly, ha-ha."
He peered around. Nobody seemed very jolly.
Abigail nudged him and nodded encouragingly.
"Right," Hal muttered. "Okay, listen up. Who thinks Santa is coming this year?"
Fenton snorted. "I don't believe in Santa Claus," he said scornfully.
Darcy batted at his arm. "But you believe in dragons and faeries and elves?"
"That's different. They're all around us. We can see them."
"But you didn't believe in all those magical creatures before, did you?"
Fenton slowly shook his head.
Darcy smiled. "My eyes are wide open these days. Santa might be real. He just doesn't like to be seen."
Another silence fell, this one full of mixed emotions. Hal knew some of his friends hadn't believed in Santa Claus for years—himself included—but things had changed. The idea of a huge, white-bearded man in a red coat visiting homes all across the foggy island and delivering gifts had seemed easy to believe until he was ten or eleven. Then he'd started to doubt. Where did the man come from? Did he live on the island? If not, was he immune to the virus that the adults claimed had wiped out humanity? Of course, he owned flying reindeer, so immunity to a virus seemed plausible enough . . .
In the last few months, everything had changed. Now Hal and his friends believed in magic, shapeshifters, dragons, faeries, and lots more besides. Why not Santa Claus, too? The man could really exist after all. Heck, he might reside in New Earth. He might be magical. His reindeer might be magical. How were they any more difficult to believe in than other flying creatures like griffins and winged horses?
The problem was not that Santa Claus existed. It was that he might not bother showing up here in the village of Carter.
Dewey voiced his concern. "Do you think Santa will come?"
Thomas, who as usual was very quiet, said, "Why wouldn't he? There aren't many people left in Old Earth to deliver presents to. Mostly scrags and soldiers. We're all he's got."
"The thing is," Hal said, "he might not know we're here. Or he might not be in the present-giving business anymore. Maybe he's retired because most of Old Earth is dead."
"So what's your big idea?" Fenton demanded. "Put out some reindeer seed? Cookies and milk on the fireplace?"
Hal smiled. "No. We need to help people in this village believe in Santa. If people see him tonight and talk about him all year, maybe the real Santa will come next year."
Everyone stared at him. Abigail nodded at him to continue.
"So," Hal went on, "tonight we need to create a pretend Santa Claus. We can all help. First, we obviously need someone to play the part."
"Someone big and fat?" Robbie asked. He grinned. "Fenton's the obvious choice."
Fenton launched himself at Robbie, and they both went down in a tangle of limbs in the confined space. They knocked Lauren off her perch, and Darcy nearly got a shoe in her face. Pandemonium ensued for a full minute while Fenton, his face deep red, pounded his fists into Robbie's stomach.
Robbie laughed uncontrollably. Unable to prevent his ogre form from manifesting, he grew in size, stretching his sweater. His shirt tore underneath, and he suddenly stopped laughing and sat up, fending off Fenton's fists with his own much larger and shaggier hands. He shrank back down, and suddenly his sweater looked baggy and limp.
"Serves you right," Fenton said, his red-glowing eyes dancing with delight and a gush of water spilling down his chin. He wiped it with the back of his hand, grinning. It seemed he'd needed to vent. Beating on Robbie served that purpose nicely. "Forget it, Hal. If you think I'm dressing up as Santa and climbing down chimneys, you can think again."
Hal shook his head. "Actually, I was thinking of Robbie."
Robbie's eyebrows shot up. "Me?"
"You're perfect for the part," Abigail broke in. "You can be big and fat anytime you like. You can be any size. And you can easily climb down chimneys by shrinking down to your usual skinny self."
Everyone laughed, and Robbie pursed his lips, not altogether convinced. "Do I get all the cookies and milk, then?"
"Yes, Robbie," Abigail said sweetly. "If anyone has left cookies and milk out for Santa, you'll be the one that gets them."
All of a sudden, it seemed everybody was paying attention. They sat listening for the next half-hour while Hal explained his festive stunt . . .
* * *
"All right, let's get busy," Hal said as the group emerged from the storage shed into the cold air.
Emily headed off first, eager to get on with her appointed task in the village market. Darcy, Thomas, and Dewey followed at a much slower pace. Though Darcy looked happy enough, the boys didn't seem very impressed with their involvement in Hal's grand plan.
Lauren dragged an uncertain Robbie away down the forest path. He glanced back with a pleading look.
That left Hal, Abigail, and Fenton. "Let's go find Blacknail," Hal said. "He's probably in his new barn. Let's fly over there."
He quickly peeled off his thick coat, sweater, shoes, and finally his pants so that he stood shivering in his thin layer of silky smart clothes.
"Stand back," he advised.
He shifted into his dragon form. Abigail picked up his discarded clothes, tucked them under her arm, and climbed up onto his back after Fenton.
"It's too cold to be flying around," the big boy muttered.
"If you ask nicely," Abigail said, "I'm sure Hal will breathe fire all over you to warm you up."
Hal launched into the sky. He spotted his friends below, scurrying in different directions, and let out a huff of approval as he veered toward the east side of the village.
Until recently, Blacknail had owned a huge barn in the woods. He'd stored a wagonload of geo-rocks in there, but when Hal had blown up the mines, those rocks had imploded simultaneously and created a monstrous hole, a giant smoky-black sphere half-buried in the ground so it looked like a dome. Like all the other portals scattered throughout the village, it led through to Old Earth—right over the sea. Upon its creation, the entire barn, along with numerous trees and tons of earth, had dropped into the water and sunk without a trace.
Blacknail's favorite vehicle, a giant six-wheeled buggy, was gone forever along with the wagon it had towed. He'd lost a lot of other things, too, but not everything; he had other tools and equipment in a nearby barn. Still, he remained glum at the loss of his most prized possession, his steam-powered monster machine. Hal couldn't help feeling anxious about facing him again, but right now he needed the goblin's help.
The new barn was smaller, just a short walk from where the old one had stood. Hal gazed in awe at the colossal black dome protruding above the treetops. It seemed to leak smoky vapors into the air, and the whole thing pulsed in and out as though it were breathing.
Hal flew past it and navigated the trees, landing as close to the smaller barn as he could. Once his friends had disembarked, he reverted to his human form and stood shivering until Abigail passed him his clothes so he could dress again. The three of them marched into the barn.
"Go away," Blacknail growled the moment he spotted them.
He was sitting on a stool staring down at a large sheet of paper on the dusty barn floor. Though he had stacks of lumber along the walls and endless wooden boxes filled with tools, hardware, and gadgets, he looked lost and forlorn in the large empty space.
"What are you looking at?" Abigail asked sweetly, walking over to him.
Hal and Fenton shuffled behind her. It was better to let her talk. She seemed to have a way of cutting through his grumpiness.
The goblin glared at her. "Plans for another buggy to replace the one you kids lost."
"Oh!" Abigail said, clapping her hands together. "I can't wait! Were you able to salvage any of the old one?"
Blacknail scowled, his piglike features even uglier than usual. "After it dropped into the sea? Not likely."
"Well, we have a new project for you," she said. "Something only you can build for us."
"Hmph," Blacknail said, shaking his head and casting his eyes downward again.
"No, really, we thought about asking other goblins because we didn't want to disturb you, but in the end we decided nobody else was capable."
The goblin said nothing. Hal grinned inwardly. In this case, the silence meant Blacknail was secretly pleased with Abigail's compliment.
"Tell him, Hal," she said, urging him forward.
Nervously, Hal edged closed. "Um, well, we need you to build us a sleigh. Or maybe convert a wagon into one. Instead of wheels, it needs skids."
Blacknail looked up, puzzled. He stared at Hal for a long time and finally said, "Why?"
"Why do we need it? Well—"
The goblin grunted and shook his head. "Why does it need skids?"
"So it can be pulled in the snow."
Abigail jumped in. "We think it'll snow later. So we need a snow-cart."
The goblin still looked puzzled, but his next question surprised Hal. "How big?"
Hal grinned and said, "Just big enough for one driver with a space in the back for a huge sack."
Blacknail scratched his chin and looked thoughtful. "When?"
"When do we need it? Um, today?"
"When today? It's already halfway through the afternoon."
"This evening sometime?" Hal said hopefully. "By midnight latest."
The goblin nodded and climbed to his feet. "Better get to it, then. Got an old pony trap buried in the bushes out back."
"You trap ponies?" Abigail exclaimed.
The goblin rolled his beady eyes. "A trap is a small, two-wheeled carriage. Anyway, if you kids bring it in, I can knock the wheels off and stick some skids on."
"Can you paint it red?" Abigail asked.
Blacknail shrugged and nodded.
As the group made to step outside, Fenton paused in the doorway. "Don't you even want to know what this is for?"
"Does it matter?" Blacknail retorted, already sifting through piles of metal junk in the corner.
Hal led the others out. "Well, that was easy."
"Yes, give him a project, and he's happy," Abigail said with a smile. "All right, where's this old trap he mentioned?"
They found it behind the barn along with various bits of old and rusted farming equipment. The trap was a two-seater, made of wood and pretty beaten up, but it seemed salvageable. One wheel was badly broken, some of its spindles snapped, which was probably why the trap had been dumped here. Thanks to Hal's grand plan, it would now be put to good use again.
"Wish Robbie were here," Fenton said, grunting as the three of them struggled to pull it loose from the tangle of leafless bushes. It wasn't budging, and Hal knew he'd have to strip down and become a dragon again. In his much larger form, he'd have the contraption loose in no time . . .
* * *
Blacknail worked hard. Hal and Fenton helped wherever they could, following the goblin's directions when he barked at them to "Hold that!" or "Gimme that wrench!" It was a bonding experience, Hal decided as the hours passed. Or re-bonding, perhaps.
Abigail disappeared for a while, returning around suppertime with hot pies and baked potatoes. Blacknail broke off from his work then, sniffing at the pies and taking a few minutes to wolf them down. Then he went straight back to work.
The sleigh was taking shape. The wheels and axle had been discarded, the skids and new supports fixed in place, and some much-needed repairs had been done to a section on the back that had rotted out. Blacknail was sanding at the moment, preparing the sleigh for paint. He said it would need a couple of coats, but he seemed confident it would dry in time for midnight.
"We'll have to go home soon," Abigail said. "We'll pretend to go to bed and then meet up here around midnight."
Fenton grimaced. "If I can be bothered to get up."
She arched an eyebrow at him. "Well, you just stay all warm and comfy in bed while the rest of us go out and have fun."
Judging by his expression, Hal knew Fenton would show up like the rest of them.
The barn door squeaked open, and Emily came hurrying in.
"Did you spread the word?" Hal asked her.
"Of course I did!" she exclaimed. "What do you think I've been doing all afternoon? You can always rely on me to organize stuff like that."
"That's why we picked you for the job."
She grinned and wandered over to the sleigh Blacknail had just started painting. "I got a group of five kids together and told them a bit about Santa Claus, just enough to get them interested. I said I'd tell them a lot more if they got a big enough group together. They looked doubtful at first, but they went off to tell their friends. Anyway, two hours later, I think just about every kid in the village showed up outside the market. I sat them down and told them all about how Santa arrives every year to deliver gifts in his bright red sleigh pulled by magical reindeer."
She sat heavily on a wooden bench, her cheeks flushed.
"You do sound a bit hoarse," Abigail said.
Emily rubbed her throat and nodded. "Even if they don't really believe, I'm pretty sure they'll all be looking out their windows tonight. Wouldn't you?"
Darcy, Thomas, and Dewey arrived soon after, pushing wheelbarrows filled with stuffed brown sacks. Sweating from the exertion, they parked the barrows inside the barn and collapsed on the dirt floor. "I've had enough," Thomas said firmly. "No more."
"This will have to do," Darcy said, looking anxious. "There are over a hundred small things in these wheelbarrows. We've run out of ideas."
Abigail began poking through the sacks, her face lighting up. "Books, packs of cards, toys, games, ornaments—and ooh, sweet-smelling candles!"
"Emily's mom made those," Darcy said. "And my mom threw in some gift-wrapped fresh-baked bread rolls."
Dewey flexed his fingers, no doubt sore from wheeling the barrow through the village. "My brain nearly exploded trying to think of different things to give away as Santa gifts that nobody has already."
"I can guarantee nobody has books like these," Abigail said, drawing one out of a sack. "They don't write fantasy novels in this world."
Hal peered at the cover. "Huh. I have the exact same title at home on my shelf."
"Not any more," Thomas muttered.
Blinking rapidly, Hal's mouth fell open. "Whoa. That's my copy? You ransacked my bedroom?"
"We didn't ransack it," Darcy protested. She thought for a moment. "We just told your mom we were collecting for charity, and you'd said it was okay to grab a few things from your room."
"So you ransacked my room!"
Darcy smiled at him. "Hey, this whole thing was your idea, buster."
Hal threw up his hands. "Whatever. It's not like I need to read those books anymore. The world we live in is much more interesting than books anyway."
As Blacknail lovingly painted the sleigh, Hal felt a swell of pride. His glimmer of an idea earlier in the day was turning into a real, spectacular event. Tonight, Santa Claus was coming to the village.
"We should head home," Abigail said. "Let's all meet back here at midnight, okay?"
"Let's hope Robbie does a good Santa impersonation," Fenton muttered.
* * *
Around midnight, Hal snuck out of his bedroom and down the hall. He made sure to pull on his thickest coat. He wouldn't need it later, but right now it was freezing outside.
He waited for Abigail to emerge from her house, and together they hurried through the village and out to the woods on the east side, discussing things as they went.
"I almost told Mom we were doing this," she said. "I figured she could probably trust us to look after ourselves. But then I decided she might not approve of us climbing down chimneys into other peoples' houses."
"Probably not," Hal agreed. "They'll find out in the morning, but it'll be too late by then."
The entire group converged on the barn. To Hal's surprise, Blacknail was there, too. He looked as grumpy as ever, but he mumbled something about making sure there were no hitches with the sleigh.
The nine of them, along with the goblin, stood in a circle around the bright-red converted pony trap. Resplendent with brand new skids and two coats of shiny paint, the sleigh was ready to go. It also had two long wooden bars sticking out the front that hadn't been there before. Blacknail waved at them and said, "They'll help you hitch up to the pony when we get outside."
"Oh, we're not using a pony," Hal said.
Hal and all his friends shook their heads in unison.
Blacknail frowned. "This trap's a bit small for a horse."
"We're not using a horse, either," Fenton said.
"Let's get this thing outside," Abigail said hurriedly. "Come on, guys—drag it through the door."
Leaving Blacknail to ponder, they crowded around the trap, angled it toward the door, and pushed it across the barn's dirt floor. It slid easily with all nine of them behind it, especially as Robbie grew a few inches in height and bulged out of his shirt, adding a fraction of his ogre strength to the task.
Hal glanced sideways at him as they maneuvered the sleigh through the doorway. "You got your Santa suit?"
Robbie nodded, looking doleful. "Can't believe I agreed to this."
"All you have to do is sit there and shout ho-ho-ho in a loud ogre voice."
"And deliver presents down hundreds of chimneys!"
"Well, everyone will help with that," Hal assured him. "That's what Santa's little helpers are for, right?"
"Is it? I thought they all worked at Santa's factory in the North Pole."
"Well, we're changing the rules a bit."
Hal realized there wasn't a whole lot of space outside for what he had in mind, but they'd just have to make do. If all went well tonight and this became a regular thing every Christmas Eve, no doubt they'd fine tune things a little, iron out any wrinkles in their plan.
"Lauren?" Abigail said when the sleigh was positioned in the darkness of the woods, illuminated only by the light spilling from the barn. Her breath plumed in the freezing air. "We're ready for the unveiling."
Lauren grinned and rushed to fetch the large bag she and Robbie had dragged along to the barn. She fussed with it while everyone fell silent and watched with interest. Robbie hung his head and sighed.
"There," Lauren said, holding the Santa suit aloft.
Everyone exclaimed loudly with "Oohs" and "Ahs" as she showed off her handiwork: a thick, bright-red coat with white fur trim down the front and around the cuffs. It was enormous, far bigger than any of the children and bigger than most adults Hal knew. The red stood out strangely bright in the darkness.
"Where did you find that?" Darcy cooed, fingering the material. "This thing is huge! Is that velvet?"
"Nobody in the village had a red coat," Lauren said. "At least not a man's coat. An old woman had a pretty red coat, but—"
"Not a chance," Robbie growled.
Lauren rolled her eyes. "Right, well, anyway, her coat wasn't big enough. We needed something huge, because we want our Santa to be really big and imposing, not some tiny, shrunken thing. Anyway, Canaan helped us out."
"Canaan?" Fenton demanded. "She's an elf! They're no bigger than we are! How could—"
"Canaan brought back some stuff from her visits with the elves on Whisper Mountain," Lauren explained. "Including velvet drapes."
Abigail burst into laughter. "The coat is made from drapes?"
Lauren nodded. "As soon as I told my mom I wanted to turn this lovely red material into a coat, I couldn't tear her away. We spent all afternoon on it."
"You made a coat?" Dewey repeated quietly.
"Where did the white fur come from?" Emily asked, running her hand over it.
Thomas seemed to explode with exasperation. "Look, does it matter? Who cares? We have a Santa coat. Let's go already!"
Somehow, he broke the spell and caused everyone to quit staring in fascination at the red coat. They got busy loading the sacks of gifts into the back of the sleigh while Lauren helped Robbie into the enormous coat. It dwarfed him, hanging so low it draped on the ground and gathered around his feet.
"You look ridiculous," Fenton said, folding his arms. "I'm embarrassed to be a part of this."
Robbie began to grow, his face widening as he slowly turned ogreish. Of all the shapeshifters, he had the most control over the different stages of his transformation, able to halt the change at any point. Instead of growing to his full young-ogre height of about fifteen feet, he stopped at around eight or nine when the coat was no longer bunched around his ankles. His shoulders filled out, and the coat took on a better shape.
"Stop there," Lauren said. "Okay, now you fit the coat. It looks like it was made for you. Put the belt on."
She produced a thick black belt with an enormous brass buckle and helped Robbie put it on. It cinched tight around his ample ogre waist and pulled the coat tight.
"Do you have a hat?" Dewey asked, his eyes wide.
Lauren shrugged. "No, sorry. Just the coat. Maybe next year when we have time, we'll make the whole costume. But for now, Robbie will pass for Santa from a distance."
Robbie climbed into the sleigh, which suddenly looked tiny in comparison. It creaked and wobbled under his weight.
Hal moved around to the front of it and stood between the two long, protruding bars that would normally be attached to a pony. He threw off his coat, and as he was removing his shoes, his friends crowded around, ready for action.
He transformed, and while he stood there swishing his tail from side to side and looking backward along his reptilian dragon body, Abigail threw off her own coat and sprouted her wings so she could fly about issuing orders. The group slung ropes and straps around Hal's torso and loudly argued about how to secure them. They managed it in the end, but not before tempers had flared.
Fine-tuning, Hal thought with a sigh.
Blacknail came out to help. Obviously puzzled, at least now he realized Hal would be pulling the sleigh. He inspected the hitching work and grunted his reluctant approval.
"It's gonna be bumpy," he said, gesturing toward the uneven terrain ahead. "It's not even snowing. You should have stuck with wheels."
"It's okay, we'll be flying," Abigail said cheerfully. "Once Hal's in the sky, it should be a pretty smooth ride."
Blacknail looked astonished. "He's gonna fly? Dragging that thing behind? It'll never work! You'll have to fly really fast for it to stay horizontal behind you. Slow down and the trap'll dangle underneath like a dead weight."
Everyone paused. Hal knew Blacknail was right. But he had an idea.
Carefully, he scooted backward, threading his club-ended tail all the way under the sleigh until it poked out at the back. Gently, he lifted his tail, testing the weight of the red-painted trap. It was heavy with a half-ogre sitting in it, especially with all those gifts piled up behind him, but he was sure he could manage to keep the thing aloft provided it didn't slip sideways and tip over . . .
Blacknail took charge, ordering the straps to be adjusted and tightened. He brought out more ropes and looped them through the skids and around Hal's tail. That helped, but the goblin kept saying it was a "big old mess" and "liable to go horribly wrong."
"He's taking all the fun out of it," Abigail whispered in Hal's ear. "I bet Santa never had this problem. He uses magic. His reindeer and sleigh just fly without a problem."
Finally, all that could be done was done. It was time for Santa Claus to take to the sky and deliver presents to the village.
Fenton, Darcy, and Emily climbed up on Hal's back. Abigail buzzed alongside, impatient to leave. Dewey slipped out of his shoes and pants and shifted into his centaur form so he could trot along and follow on foot. He headed off through the woods with Thomas the manticore slinking along behind. Lauren threw off her coat and took to the sky as a white-feathered harpy.
With a grunt, Hal looked back at Robbie and made sure he was hanging on tight. His friend, nearly twice his usual size, sat there gripping the reins and looking almost regal with his white-trimmed, bright-red coat.
Hal broke into a trot, deliberately yanking hard on the sleigh to test the straps and also the driver's grip. If Robbie were going to be dislodged, now would be the time while still on the ground. But the ogre, his shaggy eyebrows arching in surprise, hung on and bent forward.
Taking a deep breath, Hal shot upward through the trees, pumping his wings hard and mindful of the nearby branches. He heard yells of fright from his passengers and a howl from Santa, but everyone survived the launch and nobody shouted any warnings about ogres and presents tumbling free.
Hal soared above the trees, dragging the sleigh with him at an almost vertical angle. When he leveled out, he lifted his tail to support the heavy load, bringing it up behind him. Inspiration hit, and he let out a small blast of fire. Rudolph has a red nose, he thought with glee. This is pretty close.
Only then did everyone begin cheering. Abigail buzzed this way and that, her face red in the biting cold wind. Lauren came hurtling past, whooping with delight. "I'll see you soon!" she yelled. "I've never made it snow before, but I'll try!"
She swooped away and shot skyward, heading for the low-hanging clouds. When she'd suggested using her harpy powers to make the clouds dump snow on the village, everyone had been skeptical but excited. Real snow would be the icing on the cake! Normally her kind chewed on a special kind of plant to enhance their magic, but Lauren had none of what she called harpynip. "But the clouds are heavy with rain," she'd said, "and it's more than cold enough for snow."
Astride Hal's back, Darcy and Emily were laughing. Fenton grunted a few times and muttered that it was all going to end in tears. Somewhere below, Hal spotted Dewey trotting into the village with a manticore close behind.
The girls on Hal's back had brought along some suitably jangling bells, and they began ringing them in earnest as the market came into view below. Though everything was dark and the half-moon shed only feeble light, several walled-in fire pits still glowed red, and the nighttime lanterns had been lit, clearly marking the streets. All around stood the black shapes of cottages, barely a glow of light from within. Since the use of geo-rocks and powered lighting had been snatched away, everyone had gone back to using candles and lanterns, and most were snuffed out overnight.
But as Hal circled over the rooftops, bells jangling behind his head, he glimpsed one or two flares of light from darkened windows, lamps being lit here and there.
"Time to deliver!" Abigail called as she cut across in front of him during one of his wide arcs. "Land somewhere!"
Ideally, Hal wanted to touch down on a roof and let Robbie off. Wasn't that how Santa did it? There was no sense landing on the ground and making him climb. Seeing a bedroom window opening below and a small, wonderstruck face peeking out, he slowed. At that moment, Robbie remembered his role and let out a booming laugh, though it was not so much a "Ho-ho-ho" as a "Huh-huh-huh."
Some houses were thatched, some tiled. This one was tiled. Hal figured it would support his weight if he were careful. He descended and—
The skids dug in, and a deluge of tiles slid off and clattered to the street below. Hal would have rushed away again, but he was too busy scrabbling for a hold on the slippery, ice-covered roof, and the sleigh was parked at an awkward angle and tugging on him as it slid around. In the confusion, Robbie clambered off and pulled the sack of gifts with him. The weight on the sleigh dramatically lessened, and Hal launched again, deciding it might be better to make himself scarce for a moment. The homeowners would be scrambling out of their beds by now, terrified at all the noise.
Ogres were dimwitted by nature, and Robbie seemed unperturbed by the commotion his landing had caused. Hal glanced back to see his friend balancing the sack of gifts on the roof's apex and reaching in to grab something. Then he reached for the chimney.
Don't forget to shrink down, Hal thought anxiously. You'll never fit otherwise. Robbie, please, don't—!
It was too late. Robbie, in his bright red coat, was already sitting with his legs dangling into the chimney. A second later, the brickwork fell apart and the whole thing collapsed inward. Robbie disappeared, and a massive cloud of soot billowed upward.
Hal flew around in a circle, forgetting to lift his tail to keep the sleigh horizontal. When he finally remembered, he glanced back to see the trap sagging low, almost hanging, and it had slipped free of some of the straps and ropes. When he lifted his tail, things began to unravel and the sleigh tilted sideways at an angle Hal knew would be impossible to set right while in the air.
Lamps were illuminating in the streets below. The cloud of soot faded into the night sky, but the half-moon shed just enough pale light to make it clear that the chimney Robbie had fallen down was completely destroyed along with part of the roof. The sack of presents tipped sideways and slid fast, shooting past the gutter and joining the shattered tiles on the ground below. Toys and books spilled everywhere.
On Hal's back, the bells had gone quiet. Abigail seemed to have buzzed off somewhere. Below, the manticore was rolling about in the street, giggling hysterically. Dewey danced in a circle, his hoofs restless and a look of abject terror on his face.
People emerged from their homes. Men and women exclaimed loudly at the damage, and several shouted in alarm as a huge, blackened figure climbed slowly out of the shattered chimney.
"What is that?" someone screamed.
"It's a demon!" another yelled. "Run for your lives!"
Many scattered, but others were distracted by the sight of Hal as he circled once more overhead, the sleigh dangling hopelessly below. The straps suddenly broke, and the whole load dropped. After a moment of silence that seemed to stretch into minutes, the red-painted wooden trap smashed to the ground and flew apart into hundreds of small pieces.
"Abort!" Darcy hissed in his ear.
Hal hurriedly veered away, wondering just how visible he was in the night sky. Maybe nobody would associate him with this disaster. And maybe nobody would recognize Robbie since he was draped in a huge coat and smothered with soot. The ogre was already jumping down from the roof and shambling away, causing frightened villagers to rush indoors.
"Told you it would all go wrong," Fenton said, sounding smug.
"Oh, shut up," Emily said. "It was a great idea."
"Just really badly executed," Darcy said.
Still, as glum as Hal felt about all the damage and commotion, he couldn't help thinking about the wonderstruck face he'd seen peeking out the window as he'd flown over. That short moment had been perfect—Santa Claus and his booming, merry laughter, his magical sleigh loaded up with presents as he dashed through the air with his reindeer, bells a-ringing . . . Maybe that small child, along with any others who happened to be glancing out at that moment, would remember this Christmas Eve as the night Santa came to visit despite all the carnage.
He'd left gifts, too. They were spread all over the street, but they'd most likely survived the fall. The children would hurry out in the morning and exclaim in delight as they sifted through the treasure trove of books, toys, and games. That alone, Hal thought, makes the whole thing worthwhile.
He made one last circle around the village, this time at a safe distance, listening to the babble of voices echoing through the night. He eventually found Robbie, a huge black shape shuffling along, completely unrecognizable as an ogre.
Just before Hal turned to go home, Abigail came buzzing past again. "Snow!" she said, grinning.
Hal looked up.
Lauren had done it. Fat snowflakes were beginning to fall all across the village of Carter.
He let out a guffaw. If nothing else, at least it was going to be a white Christmas.
Awesome!!! So glad I got to be back on new earth for a little while.. :-) Really enjoyed this short story.. I don't wanna give any spoilers so I'm going to skip putting a review.. Great holiday story!! Merry Christmas Keith
Love the story. It was nice being with the kids again even for a short time. Merry Christmas and thank you.
love it now I want to re-read the books again excellent
Thanks for the Christmas treat, I have so enjoyed reading this series it was delicious to go back for a visit.
i love your books sooooooooooooo much! i cant wait until the next books come out! i have read all of them!
Wow, just realized how much I've been missing the shapeshifters! Love it, I hope you find the time to write some more of these amazing short stories!!!
Glad you all enjoyed the story, y'all!
Cas, Thomas Patten will feature in his very own novella in January 2015. The short book, EYE OF THE MANTICORE, will follow his adventures from the moment he first transformed up until he rejoined his friends six years later. More novellas will follow throughout the year. Stay tuned! :-)