Hi – if you missed earlier chapters, you can read them in order here:
The sleigh pitched into a spin, corkscrewing like a fighter jet gone mad, while Nicolae held on with a grip like death. Bonnie dashed down onto Nicolas and came back up holding a knife. He clawed his way up my cloak until he reached the neck, then sawed at the clasp until it snapped.
Nicolae didn’t fall as much as the clouds seized him. He disappeared into the mist with my cape still wrapped around his fist, and Bonnie went with it.
On the next flip of the sleigh, I swung up into the driver’s seat and seized the reins. I yanked them back, trying to remember where the brakes were. The fast corkscrew became a lazy roll, but the sleigh still pitched from side to side. The closest I’d come to driving a sleigh before was when I rode horse-drawn cart in Thailand, and the horse picked that day to drop dead.
Up ahead, I spotted the problem. My reindeer had shriveled back to their somewhat normal selves. And while I watched, the rosewood knotted and browned. Splinters erupted from the edge of the sleigh, while rust consumed the runners.
I made the connection at the last moment, right as a sliver of sun peeked over the edge of the horizon. Dawn ended Nicolae’s magic, at least in this world. I forced the sleigh down into a nose dive, racing the sunrise.
The ground came rushing up, snow covered hills and houses rising from the clouds, but I didn’t let up. If the sun caught me up in the air, I’d fall like a rock. A squishy rock with dangerous terminal velocity. Twenty feet off the ground, a golden beam of sun flashed in my eyes. I yanked up on the reins at the same moment, and the sleigh cartwheeled. I clung to it until the world exploded into snow.
A few minutes later, I crawled from the snow bank, looking like I ought to have a carrot nose and a magic hat. I shivered only where I wasn’t already numb, and limped my way down a quaint main street. From the furniture shops to the hardware store, Christmas decorations lined the town. At long last, I spotted a 24-hour diner, and dragged myself through the door.
A story about snow, and my car, and the river ended the worst questions. Once I’d slurped enough coffee to stop my teeth chattering, I excused myself to the bathroom, and put my hand on my bracelet, which had returned from my forehead. “Grimm.”
He snapped into view, his face creased with worry. “Marissa! Thank Kingdom. Where are you?”
I leaned against the wall and shook my head. “You tell me.”
“Very well. Warm up. I’ll make arrangements.” He began to fade out, then snapped back into focus. “Mr. Stone has been up all night at the Agency, demanding updates. I was forced to spike his wasail with sleeping powder so I could devote my attention to your aid. A conversation with you might put him at ease.”
Tears filled my eyes as I thought about Liam waiting for me. “I’ll call, but I need you to look into three things for me. First off, Nicolae escaped. That’s my fault.” I waited for Grimm’s reaction, but I might as well have been confessing to a statue. “Secondly, Bonnie—the gnome that was with me–I want to know what happened to him. Lastly, there’s four reindeer that got me out of there. You make certain they’re taken care of whatever way reindeer like.”
“While I detest playing zookeeper, I suppose I could make an exception. When I have answers, you’ll have answers.” Grimm faded away, leaving me listening to the tune ‘White Christmas’ straining through overhead speakers.
Grimm had me home fourteen hours later. Liam met me at the airport and drove me to the hospital to pick up Ari, who had a minor concussion, and then took us home. That’s where my last holiday surprise waited. When I flung open the door, a fire crackled in the fireplace. Forget about the danger to the building. The problem was, when I left, my apartment didn’t have a fireplace.
From the tacky mantle, hung a leather stocking. Just like the year I signed a package, except that it always showed up on my front door before.
Liam walked over and grabbed the stocking. “I used to hunt with my brothers. Are these deer guts?”
Liam opened my window and seized the stocking. As he swung it back to toss it out the window, it convulsed. And then exploded. Putrid reindeer guts sprayed out across my living room, but what I focused on was the squirming bundle at the bottom. Either a blocked bowel…or a gnome. I tore back the entrails to reveal a pale gnome.
“Bonnie?” I glanced to Ari. “He’s frozen. Turn on the oven and find me a priority mail box.” I’d done emergency triage the year the yetis went on a rampage, and still remembered how to treat low body temperatures in gnomes.
Liam looked around the room and sighed. “I’m going to start cleaning up.”
While I baked Bonnie at 275 degrees, Ari and I prepared the priority mail box with towels and a can of tuna. “Grimm, are you sure he’ll be ok? Mail won’t run till tomorrow.”
Grimm nodded from the mirror. “Tape up the box, and place him outside your door. I assure you, it’s as close to a vacation as he’ll ever come.”
“That reminds me,” I said. “What happened to the reindeer?”
Grimm’s strained expression told me more than he’d let on. I’d cost him serious magic with my demands. “I made sure each received exactly what they desired. Masher and Lazy awoke to find themselves alone in an expanse of wilderness so vast not even the goblins will find them. They’re well on their way to founding a new herd.”
I could count, and something didn’t add up. “What about the other two?”
“Mangy encountered a hunter standing conveniently near a waterfall, and performed a passable impression of an African rhino, with unfortunately, but completely foreseeable consequences for both.”
“Hit by a semi on the interstate a few moments ago.” Grimm held up his hands. “It’s what he wanted most, to go into the light, and an end to his suffering. Granted, it’s not your typical Christmas miracle, but I assure you he seemed satisfied.”
Liam finished scrubbing the last of the stains out of the carpet, though the apartment still smelled like a hagus factory. When I pulled the chicken roaster from the oven, Bonnie’s skin had returned to a deep shade of ochre many healthy gnomes displayed. “You going to survive?”
He gave me two miniature thumbs up. “I’ll be back to first class status in no time. But Marissa, I think you should know, I didn’t escape.” Bonnie stopped as time stood still in my apartment, with Ari, Grimm and Liam all listening in. “I was left here with a message. He’ll be watching. He’ll be back.”
I didn’t answer as I tucked Bonnie into his box and closed the lid, but Ari took my hand and gave it a squeeze. “We’ll deal with it.”
Liam nodded in agreement. “At least we can get some sleep.” He opened the bedroom door, and an avalanche of black poured out. “What the–”
“Coal.” Grimm’s voice came from Ari’s full length dressing mirror. “It appears that our friend in red retains some of his power and all of his obsession. I’ll make arrangements before next winter for your safety, and have a truck come by to remove the coal and sell it.”
“No.” Liam picked up a chunk. “Pick it up, and deliver it to my workshop. I mostly use gas, but a good coal fire in the forge can’t be beat.” He walked over and wrapped his arms around me. “I know you don’t do presents, but this may be the best–”
“Don’t say it.” I put one hand over his mouth.
He shrugged in resignation, and kissed me instead.
“Who’s up for Chinese food?” asked Ari. “There’s a place five blocks over.”
“I’ll pass,” said Grimm. “But feel free to put half the meal, minus tip and tax, on the agency card.” He faded out before I could comment on his cantankerous, stingy nature. Half was better than nothing.
Ari opened the door and waved us out. Dinner with my best friend and boyfriend, paid for in part by my boss, and with no carols or bows. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted more than to be there, right then, with them. Maybe I had found a present I could get along with after all, the present tense. It might not be happily ever after, but it was worth a shot.
That’s it. Have a merry Christmas, and thanks for reading
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