Hi – If you missed the previous chapters, you can start with them here
I flew through darkness, and landed, if that’s the word for it, face first in a snow drift. Planes that land nose first we call wrecks, fireballs, and other terms which indicate their pilots won’t be flying anything other than a set of angel wings for the foreseeable eternity.
I fought my way to my feet just in time to get hit in the head by Ari’s shopping bag. As the temperature around me dropped by at least fifty degrees, and my fingers turned numb, Ari’s cloak of doom seemed worth the risk. I slipped it on and cinched it at the throat.
And only seven years of Agency experience could account for what I did next. Once I made certain I’d taken a solo flight, I seized Grimm’s package from the bag, peered into the blizzard, and spotted a distant light. I hadn’t made partner by failing, and Grimm had meant for us to wind up here, just probably not on these terms.
The snowstorm lessened as I trudged, allowing me to confirm that what I’d thought were distant torches were, in fact, distant torches. More than anything, I wanted to call Grimm, but that required enough light to cast a reflection. I’d make certain to add a flashlight to the list of items rumbling about in my purse.
Up close, the quaint country hut had changed, becoming a low concrete compound, with a corrugated tin roof. Barb wire surrounded the roof instead of holiday lights, and rows of sharpened stakes jutted out where pine trees stood in the snow globe. The windows, rather than holiday colored glass, reminded me of murder holes. Only the dim flare of light kept me moving. Well, that and the fact that endless blizzard and darkness didn’t offer better options.
When I reached the front porch, I brushed off several inches of snow off my shoulder and out of my hair. Snow shoes lay beside the door, along with the hides of animals who were either dead or in a foul mood. I drew my makeup compact from my purse, despite my aversion to most makeup. What I really liked was the mirror. After brushing the frost from it, I held it up near the torch. “Grimm, you there?”
“My name’s not Grimm.”
I fumbled the compact and watched it bounce off the porch into the snow. “Who’s there?”
“Me,” said the voice again. A small voice, high pitched and whiny, which chattered with each word. “Up here.”
From the ceiling of the porch, a chain metal bag hung, squirming back and forth. Through the mesh, a pair of purple eyes stared back at me. I’d seen eyes like that before, from a horde of gnomes hell-bent on watching me die.
“You a postal gnome, or working freelance?”
“Call me Bonnie,” said the gnome. “Postal route 218, of the tenth polar legion. Can you get me out?”
I stepped closer. Thankfully, the low porch roof meant even a middling height woman like me could reach up far enough to pry at the bag if I stood right underneath. It groaned and spilled open, and before I could move out the way, the gnome dropped onto my shoulder.
“Thank Kingdom, I thought I would freeze to death in that trap, or worse.” He squirmed around, running down my coat like a squirrel and came up the inside, huddling against my back.
At the word trap, the cynical and paranoid parts of me woke up. After all, I’d used minnows as bait before. I backed off of the porch and knelt in the snow, feeling until my hands brushed the compact. “Grimm.”
“Marissa!” Grimm didn’t bother shrinking his image to fit in the compact. A few times he’d shown up as just an eye, and that creeped me out. “Thank Kingdom you’re all right. Listen, simply toss the package onto the doorstep. Do not, under any circumstance, step across any of his wards.”
I followed Grimm’s instructions, pitching the skin wrapped package so it landed at the door. “Wards. What would those look like?”
“I know! I know!” shouted Bonnie. He scrambled out of the cloak to point at the floor. “Right there, and there, and there. Right under the trap.”
“I heard, my dear.”
“Too late to run?” It was never too late to run, in my book. “I’m guessing this is the North Pole? Could you send a jet?”
Grimm took far too long to answer for my tastes. “Marissa, you aren’t at the North Pole on earth. You’ve landed in a realm composed of residual myth. His bunker, the remains of a workshop, and a stable. I can’t really say how far out from those buildings the blizzard continues, or if, in fact, his world simply ends.”
Cold fear, cold snow, and the half-frozen gnome on my back sent shivers down my spine. “And you wanted me to make a delivery here?”
“With Arianna, yes. Her inner beauty soothes the most savage of beasts.”
And right there, something else clicked. “Where is Ari?”
“When last I checked, she was emulating a stun-gun and attempting to avoid your harathakin. I hadn’t counted on a Walker of the Ways seeking out that particular gateway, but on this night, it certainly makes sense.”
Walker of the Ways didn’t sound like someone too dumb to get out of my way on the sidewalk, or a device carried by senior citizens, perfect for braining a wolf who wouldn’t back off. No, the way Grimm spoke, you could hear the capital letters.
“What did you get me into this time? No, don’t answer yet. First I have to figure out a way to keep from freezing.” I backed away from the porch, considering my chances in a blizzard, which came out at less than none. And even though I’d never made this run before, every other creature from myth or legend I’d met hadn’t been friendly. I doubted this one was any better. “Saint Nick. Is he a demon?”
“Nicolae is neither saint nor demon, Marissa, regardless of the legend build up around him. Once, he was a man, but his current status requires conjecture we do not have time for. According to my predictions, his workshop is currently empty. Circle the bunker, avoid the stable, and warm yourself by the workshop fire.” Grimm’s presence receded from the mirror, leaving me alone and shivering.
So, despite my better judgment, I headed around the edge of the bunker. While I’d thought it to be a small, square affair, the back sprouted a series of shanty walls, which grew ever larger, until they joined at to a building that disappeared into the earth. For sure, Grimm wouldn’t purposefully steer me toward certain death. After all, he’d pay out my life insurance if he got me killed.
So I opened a crooked door and slipped down into the darkness. Outside, the wind howled, but as I wandered deeper into the earth, it faded away. A flurry of movement on my shoulder heralded Bonnie’s emergence. “Watch your step,” he said.
“You can see in the dark?”
“Not normally, but with these, yes.”
I glanced to my left, to find the wee man wearing a pair of night vision goggles. “Where did you get those?”
“Came equipped to deliver the package, I did. Tenth Legion always gets the job done.” From the movement, I believe he pumped his fist at the end. “Thanks for taking care of the delivery.”
I stopped, which made sense since beyond a general direction of “Away” I had no idea where I was going. “Wait. You came here to deliver the package. And got caught in a trap?”
“Way to bring up my humiliation. I’m the seventh to try this month.”
Gnomes were known for short stature and fierce dedication. Until you’d seen a horde of them scramble through the streets of Kingdom delivering letters, it was easy to focus on the former instead of the latter.
“So how did Fairy Godfather wind up with the package?”
“Oh, it had spells protecting it in case of accident during delivery. I made it further than any of the others. Poisoned the wolves protecting the approach, dodged the spikes in the front yard, avoided the sharks in the fountain, but I didn’t expect him to dig a pit trap on the roof.” Bonnie paused, sniffing the air. “Are we going to stay in this hallway forever? Because I can smell a fire in the next room.”
Twenty yards down, the hallway connected to a vast, empty workshop, and as Bonnie had guessed, a meager fire flickered in the nearest grate. I removed the rusty windscreen and stoked it up, adding a few logs. “How did this get started?”
“I can answer that.” Grimm’s voice came from a silver pitcher just within the firelight’s reach. “I may not often work magic, but letting my partner freeze to death would be poor form.”
I shed the cloak of horrors and turned my back to the fire, drinking in the warmth. “So you want to tell me where I am? This Santa’s workshop?”
“It is,” said Grimm, “but ‘where’ is a question not easily answered. Nicolae’s prison is one held apart from any realm, which is why a walker sought it to begin with.”
Just because Christmas never worked out well for me didn’t mean I wanted yet another childhood delight ruined. I’d already lost Easter, Halloween, and the Fourth of July. “I liked the idea of a jolly old man giving presents better. Tell me about these Walkers.”
“A Walker is a unbound spirit, always looking for shortcuts,” said Bonnie. “That’s from the delivery manual, section 38, page seventeen, paragraph four. Right before the part about how to be properly eaten by a leopard.”
“No,” said Grimm. “Walkers seek cracks, not shortcuts. You know of the seven realms, Marissa. And a few more isolated planes of existence, such as Nicolae’s prison. But those are not the only ones.”
I kept my mouth shut. Grimm horded knowledge and rarely doled it out. “And?”
“Other realms have fallen, lost to forces more ancient than your mind can comprehend. The oldest existed before I did.”
Grimm never spoke of older powers, elder gods, or other realms, which made me wonder exactly what kind of mess I’d fallen into. “So this Walker, she—“
“—It,” said Grimm.
“It was looking for the path to here?”
“Yes. Each Walker traverses their realm, searching for weaknesses by which it may return home, and guide others back. Gateways, such as the one to this place, represent their best hope. By their very nature, the walls of reality in such places are tenuous.”
The tips of my fingers no longer burned with cold fire, but the anger that erupted inside me made me shake just the same. “I’m supposed to be your partner, why didn’t you fill me in?”
Grimm shook his head. “You have more than enough to worry about as it is. Leave guarding of ways to those who need not sleep. With Arianna, you would have been safe. I hadn’t considered your unplanned departure, but I assure you, what you delivered is essential to keeping Nicolae safely contained.”
Bonnie finished sunning himself on the fireplace grate and rolled over. “Far as I’m concerned, that makes you an honorary member of the tenth legion. We’re dedicated to keeping the spirit of Christmas contained here.”
While I turned the cloak of horrors inside out and shook off the snow, I considered my situation. “So, now the package is delivered, how do I get out of here?”
“I’m already working on it. The guardian won’t open that gateway no matter what I threaten her with,” said Grimm. “So I’ve asked Arianna to use her charms, but she may have taken a heavier blow to the head than I thought. She’s currently arguing with the cash register, and losing the debate. We must get you home before sunrise.”
“There is no or.” Grimm’s voice sank to a whisper. “The door is unlocked but one night a year, and no man survives a year in Nicolae’s prison. It was absolutely essential we uphold our part of the bargain, but–”
A blast of winter wind swept down the chimney, and the fire died away to embers in one gasp. And from the chimney above came a man’s voice, singing in a Slavic tongue.
“He’s here,” whispered Grimm. The embers gave off just enough of a glow to give him form. “Don’t challenge him. And don’t even think about shooting him, Marissa. Hiding is your best option by far.” With that word, the embers doused out.
And at the same moment, every torch in the room snapped to life. I snagged the cloak and threw it over me, but the distance to the doorway looked farther than I dared run. Plus, leaving would only mean braving the blizzard or the bunker. Now, with light, I understood Grimm’s suggestion.
Whether or not there had once been a toy workshop here, I couldn’t say. Every inch of the room lay covered in stretched hides, woodworking tools, or mounds of nuts, enough to make every squirrel in the city envious.
I’d been trained in self defense, and learned the hard way that the best defense was a good offense, but even with the Fairy Godfather on my side, more often than not, running and hiding made more sense than a stand up fight. And over the years, I’d gained quite a bit of skill at hide and seek.
So I chose a mountain of tanned hides, crawled over them, and then burrowed under, ignoring the smell of tannin and the faint scent of dried flesh. The mound of hides shifted again, and Bonnie’s head popped up under a reindeer snout. “This is a great spot!”
I hissed in response, “Get your own. Two’s a crowd.” Harsh words, but I’d learned a long time ago, when hiding from things that could catch your scent, two in one place halved the time it took to find us. Both Bonnie and I would be safer apart.
He frowned and worried his way out of the pile. I peeked from the mound, relying on the shadows to hide my face, as a gust of ash exploded from the fireplace, and from it stepped–
At least, man-shaped. He couldn’t have been more than six feet, with a tangled gray beard and wild eyebrows. And that’s the closest Nicolae came to the Christmas stories. No jolly jiggling belly, no, this man looked like he’d taken up starving to death for a living. My best guess pinned reindeer hide as the material of choice for his clothes. Nicolae stripped off a fur vest, revealing more layers of leather underneath, then stretched, and boomed out, “Who is visiting me so late on my eve?”
I kept my mouth shut, hoping Bonnie had the good sense to do so as well, while Nicolae took out something from his vest. With the click of a cigarette lighter, he lit a cigar and puffed on it. “No? Am not here?” And then he reached down and held something up: My purse. “Does beautiful woman want to sit on my lap?”
Not hardly. I barely ever sat in my boyfriend’s lap, and I loved my boyfriend, maybe even with a capital L. I held my breath as he lurched closer. From one of the workbenches, he seized a clay pot and took a swig.
“Good evening.” Grimm’s voice almost stopped my heart.
What was he thinking?
“Da, is a good night. Got package.” Nicolae’s words slurred, meaning it wasn’t melted snow in that jug. “Am having company for dinner.”
I didn’t care for his choice of phrases.
“Yes, Nicolae,” said Grimm. “About that. As per our usual agreement, I made certain your yearly provisions arrived on schedule, along with the specific supplies you asked for. I expect you to hold up your end of the bargain, and remain here.”
“What about reindeer?”
“Replenished as usual. You’ll find fifteen in the stables, fine, meaty specimens.” The way Grimm said this told me this wasn’t a new demand. No, he’d done this for decades. Maybe centuries. “Now, it so happens we had an accident during delivery.”
Nicolae drew a hunting knife from his belt and began whittling the end of a stick to a point. “What about elves?”
“Sir,” Grimm’s voice sank a note, taking on his bad news tone. “There are still no volunteers for the tribute. If you hadn’t slaughtered several million of them and stacked them up like cordwood, it would be easier to find replacements. Now, as I was saying—“
“A woman crossed my wards. You know rules of agreement. I find her here, she belongs to me. I find her body in snow, belongs to me. You want send me elves, so I can get out, I go hunt elsewhere.”
This “she” was sick of being talked about like a package of meat, which I figured was what Nicolae meant to use me as. And as he paced closer, I gathered myself for an ambush.
“Sir,” said Grimm, “I can make you several profitable offers in return for my employee. Or if you don’t wish to negotiate, perhaps you’d like a taste of my power to improve your negotiation skills?”
The laugh which crawled its way from the depths of Nicolae’s toes came out as a wheezing “ha-ha-ha” more befitting Dracula than Santa. “Your magic means nothing here, old man. I like taste of many things.” He rummaged around in my purse and pulled out my wallet, then flipped to my driver’s license. “Wait. This is Marissa Locks? Your delivery girl?“
And that’s when I struck, surging straight out of the hide pile and into his knees. Nicolae fell backwards with a gasp and a shriek. He swung at me with the blade, but a pile of hides makes halfway decent armor, and I wasn’t done.
Not by a long shot.
No, I rose and held on to the foot in front of me, dragging Nicolae behind me. As I’d guessed he weighed no more than I did, probably less. I hauled him to the edge of the nearest workshop table, and then slammed his knee against the table leg.
Both cracked like rotten oak, right as a burning pain seared its way across my back. Nicolae smiled at me with gleeful eyes and a rotten toothed grin. Blood ran down the edge of his hunting knife. “So what, was not right about pretty girl. At least, was right about girl part!”
I delivered another kick to his knee and took off for the door. My back screamed with every step, but as long as I could draw breath and put one foot in front of the other, I had a chance.
“You want to see Saint Nicolae?” He said as he rose on his good knee. “I sent you presents for last time, Marissa. You no like stocking filled with reindeer guts?” Then his eyes narrowed. “Where you get my coat?”
The cloak of horrors would actually fit in fairly well with his décor, but I wasn’t risking a blizzard without something on. “My friend gave it to me.”
“Your friend gave you genuine elf-skin coat? Ha!” Nicolae seized a hunting spear and used it as a crutch, but groaned with each step. Which was my cue to continue with ‘Marissa’s Primary Plan.’ Which had exactly one step, one I called “Run.”
And run I did, stopping only when the skin on the tanning frame nearest the door lifted itself up, revealing Bonnie, and nearly earning him a whack upside the head.
“If you’re leaving, I’m leaving,” said Bonnie.
Nicolae’s screams echoed behind us. “No one is leaving. Ever.”
That’s it for this week! See you next week for Chapter 3.