Monday, December 31, 2007

Episode 52: Solstice (redux)

The gifts were presented to each of the travelers as they boarded the rebuilt and repaired Polar Express, shaking hands with wide eyed wonder with the man they had stopped believing in so many years prior. For each of them, he withdrew an object from the legendary sack of toys, and whispered something before they stepped onto the train, overcome with awe.

To Courtney he gave a gleaming katana and a scabbard. It was worked with odd symbols she couldn't recognize, but knew weren't Japanese. "For the warrior," Father Christmas said. "It will never lose its edge. It will cut through the scales of an Ice Drake, or cleave rock in twain."

To Blackout he said, "For the Master of the Dungeon, the storyteller," and handed him a black rectangular velvet bag. Blackout could feel something inside. He opened the neck of the bag and peeked inside.

"Tarot cards?" Blackout said.

"Not just any Tarot cards. Take them out."

Blackout pulled out one of the cards; The Fool, a young man capering in blissful ignorance at the edge of a cliff. But it wasn't just artwork. This Fool was actually dancing, in motion.

"Incredible," Blackout said.

"You think that's great," said the Fool from the card. "Wait until you see some of my breakdancing moves."

Blackout was speechless as he entered the train.

"For the Pathfinder," Father Christmas said as he hung a necklace with a compass on it around Silke's neck. "It will always lead you where you need to go...although that will not always mean where you want to."

"For the youngest Fate and the Guardian of the Tree," he said, turning to the only two who hadn't boarded yet. "You both have power within you, so I have no baubles or trinkets. For you, I have a much greater gift."

He pulled a long wooden plank from the bag.

"This gift will be both a blessing and curse," he told them. "It will identify the shop as a haven, a sanctuary for beings of magic traveling the Tree, and crossing from their world into yours, and from yours into others. It has been carved from the very wood of the Tree itself."

He held it so that Lara and Andrew could read it. Lara giggled and gave Andrew a hug.

"It's perfect," she said.

Andrew nodded, grinning from ear to ear. He was about to board the train when he suddenly stopped, turned, and looked back at the man with the white beard.

"You," he said in disbelief.

"Me?" Father Christmas replied.

"You were the gave me the beans."

The man's eyes twinkled indeed as he smiled and nodded.

"Why? And what were you doing in Edmonton dressed as a bum?"

"Every year I make my way south for a vacation. I leave the world of magic and then spend some time in one of the worlds I visit, enjoying living as a mortal again, if only for a brief period. I was in your neck of the woods on the errand of choosing a new guardian for the Tree's avatar in your world."

"But why me? Out of all the people in the world...?"

"I watch you all as you grow up and keep a list of all you do, and all you do not do. The sum of your life is my business. It's why I was appointed with the task in the worlds I visit. And I chose you, because I knew you would do well. Which you have."

"But I didn't do well...I nearly got the Tree destroyed..."

"And yet here you are. You're asking too many questions, and some of you still have work left to do. You have a coffee shop to run. Best you get back to it."

* * * * * * *

The first elf who entered the coffee shop found himself facing a rather fierce and unshaven looking math professor wielding a long wooden walking stick like it was a sword, and a teenage boy who was attempting two fisted fury with a coffee pot in each hand.

"Kill it!" the teenage boy shouted. "It's a Leprechaun!"

"It's an elf," a familiar voice said, stepping out of the shadowy foliage of the Tree. Blackout smiled down at the two vigilant watchmen. "Leprechauns have rounder faces."

The ladder was put in place, and a group of weary travelers, both elf and human alike climbed down into the shop. Geo and Mikey shook hands, embraced friends they'd given up on seeing ever again, and laughed through tears at seeing how many changes were written on the faces of Andrew, Sunny, Courtney and Ripper.

"We have gifts," Andrew announced, taking the book of Magic spells based on mathematical formulae Father Christmas had intended for Geo and the boots of Stealth he'd had made for Mikey.

"These really work?" Mikey asked.

"You'll make no sound while you're in them. You can sneak out the front door of your house now," Ripper said.

Geo looked up from the book's parchment like pages, inscribed with mathematical formula and esoteric symbols, tears in his eyes. "I always knew the universe worked this way. I just knew it."

"But what about Blackout?" Mikey asked. "And the new girl, Lara...what happened to them...they're all right, aren't they?"

Andrew and Ripper exchanged knowing looks and grinned. Courtney playfully punched Ripper's arm, and said, "They're both all right."

"I'd say they're better than just all right," Ripper snorted and he and Andrew broke into peals of laughter.

"So where are they?" Mikey persisted.

* * * * * * *

"You and Lara need to take our place at the Grotto to bring Spring.” Eostre had told him.

“You mean have sex?” Blackout had asked, his mouth having gone completely dry. "Why us?"

"You're the only two with a strong enough bond amongst your friends. None of the others could work this magic."

"Sunny and Ripper?"

"Sunny is still too badly wounded...and Ripper's heart is not fit to the task--yet."

"None of the elves either?"

"Not the menninkäinen, no. There are elves who can, but we have no time to seek them out and make arrangements, nor is Dieter fit to travel to work the passing ritual. The solstice is coming soon. You are here, and we need your help. Is there a problem?"

“I don't think so," Blackout said. "It's just...I wanted to get to know her know?”

Eostre paused, her whiskers twitching. “I think I can help you,” she said at last. A furry paw reached into a leather satchel and produced a rock, which was handed over to Randy. “An amulet,” the hare told him.

“Is it magic?” he asked.

Eostre said nothing, her brow furrowed. Then she nodded. “Oh yes. It will help you make her understand the depth of your feeling for her. But,” she added, “there are a series of rituals which must be performed right prior to making love. They have to be performed so Lara can see them done or the amulet won’t work.”

As Blackout cooked a meal to Eostre's specifications, he and Lara talked. About everything. What had happened, what they'd do when they got home, and in uncomfortable jokes, about what lay before them. Finally, the meal was ready and they ate in silence, looking at each other occasionally, speaking with their gazes.

“That was wonderful,” Lara said when they were finished. “What’s for desert?”

“The second ritual,” Eostre had told Blackout, “is to rub this ointment all over her body. This is to clothe you in the essence of Spring...the force which lives within Dieter and I.”

The ointment was a golden, translucent liquid with the consistency of honey. Blackout produced the bottle and smiled at Lara. She raised here eyebrows and asked, “What’s this?”

Instead of answering, Blackout began laying out their sleeping bags on the Grotto floor. He didn’t exactly know how much of his body needed to be touching the earth when he and Lara finally...did what they were there to do, but he wasn’t interested in trying to make love on wet grass or moss. This accomplished, he went back to Lara and helped her to her feet. Then, slowly, deliberately, gently he undressed her.

The smell of the oil was wonderful, filling the air with it’s thick, sweet scent. Blackout’s hands worked up and down the entire length of Lara’s body. At times, she made little noises of pleasure, making it all the more difficult to complete the ritual. Finally, her entire body covered by a light layer of the oil, Lara was ready for the third ritual.

“Can you sing?” Dieter had asked him.

“Can't carry a tune in a bucket,” Blackout replied.

“That complicates matters," Eostre said. "It would help if you could sing. Or recite a poem.”

“Which one?”

“Something about love.”

“A poem about love,” Blackout said. "I don't suppose you could 'vague that up for me'?"

Lara’s eyes were still closed when Blackout recited the first words...

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" Blackout intoned, "Thou art more lovely, and more temperate..." Slowly, her lids raised and she turned her head to look at Blackout. He was shaking. He missed a line. He stammered. He was beautiful.

Blackout was absorbed with trying to remember all the words he screamed and jumped and cried out when Lara kissed him. Deeply. Passionately. He opened his eyes to see her, one of the sleeping bags draped around her shoulders for warmth.

“I’m cold,” she said in a husky voice. “Come warm me up.”

“I love you,” he whispered in the darkness. "For quite some time now, I think."

"I suspected as much."

They slept in the embrace of the earth that evening. In the morning, they woke to a Spring sunrise.

* * * * * *

The elves hung the sign Father Christmas had made in place of the old one, which had simply read "Coffee Shop". With the same exquisite craftsmanship that had transformed the interior of the shop from a typical modern cafe into a sacred space filled with decor that evoked enchantment, they mounted the sign, casting spells on it to illuminate it; passersby would marvel at how the sign seemed to be lit from within, and how the letters glowed a faint eldritch green on nights of the New Moon.

The letters could be seen by more than just human eyes. They called out to the fairy folk who walked through the campus, those who were coming for a cup of good strong coffee before commencing their journeys to other worlds, and other branches of the Tree.

Magik Beans, the sign read.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Episode 51: Loose Threads

Eostre had bounded from the train moments before the engine had shot off the tracks and into the water, utilizing the chaos of the steam, the oncoming rush of the Redcoats, and the ensuing battle to mask her flight across the ice, winter white fur blending with the frozen landscape. She'd known the source of the bright flash the moment it had lit up the eternal night of the Pole, casting long shadows through the passenger car. And she'd made her mind up to throw all caution to the wind in the hope that Dieter still lived.

At the base of the wall, she'd found Finn and Coll near the place where they'd fallen. Coll, being undead, had survived the fall, but the arrow in his neck had caught on something and twisted, snapping the spinal column; unlike George Romero's zombies, he hadn't died, or undied, or whatever it is undead do when they cease to be animated corpses. He hadn't deaniminated. Become still. You get the idea. He was, however, fully occupied in trying to keep his head from rolling at useless angles so that he was either staring entirely at the sky, the ground, or his chest. Eostre gave the best assistance she knew to given that Coll was one of the Leprechauns directly responsible for her imprisonment and Dieter's kidnapping and possible murder.

She tore his head off and kicked it like a football out into the frozen lake, where it eventually sank to the bottom. Coll became effectively deanimated.

Finn had fared better than his undead first officer in the fall, but was clearly aware that he was going to fare worse if Eostre reached him.

The fall had only broken his leg, and so he had dragged himself towards his gun, which was still connected to the box. There was a small amount of the golden liquid pulsing inside of it which had leaked from inside the box through the tube and into the gun. He reached it just as Eostre reached him. Her hind leg kicked out at him and shattered his forearm before he could close his fingers around the grip.

Finn screamed in pain and uttered a string of curses that was cut short by another kick from the giant hare's back leg which connected with Finn's mouth, causing him to lose a serious number of teeth.

"You sick little bastard," Eostre said, looking down at the gun and the device it was connected to. "You stole the life right out of him...and for what?"

Finn tried to mumble something through broken teeth, a lacerated tongue and the blood that kept filling his mouth, but Eostre had picked up the syringe end of the device, whirled and jammed it squarely in the middle of Finn's head. He dropped into the snow, as deanimated as Coll.

Eostre looked up to the top of the battlement, looking for the place where the Redcoats had fallen from. She spied it at the top; one foreleg, hanging over the edge.

* * * * * * *

The force-shield Granny had woven about the front of the train engine moments before impact with the lake emerged from the water,icy cold liquid sluicing of its surface. The Conductor, Blackout, Courtney and Lara gazed out at the massacre of the Redcoats. A great circle of carnage radiated out from a centrifugal point, and in the center of it all, a tiny figure sat, huddled in the snow.

"My God," Blackout whispered. "What the hell happened?"

"Andrew," Lara said. "That's Andrew out there."

The force bubble floated at Granny's command towards Andrew. It looked to them all as though the Redcoats had been hit by a steam roller, a brick wall, and then dropped off the Empire State Building for good measure. Granny set the bubble down a few feet from where Andrew sat, staring wide eyed out at nothing. Lara felt the wind blow on her face as the force shield dissolved, and ran to Andrew's side, dropping to a crouch beside him in the snow.

She took his face in her hands and asked him what had happened.

"I surrendered," Andrew said. "I gave myself over to the Tree, and...I became a part of it somehow. I can't explain it. Up until that moment, the Leprechauns seemed a terrible threat. And then in a moment...they were like gnats that were causing an I swatted them." He looked around at the devastation. "But now that I'm just me doesn't seem so insignificant. I hadn't intended for...this. But when I merged with the Tree...I felt so angry all of a sudden."

"You sensed the Tree's perception of what was happening here and gave vent to it through your human emotions," Granny said. "We aren't meant to channel eternity through these forms."

Andrew nodded. "I'm so very tired."

"I'll fly us up to the city," Granny said, "And hopefully we'll all be able to get some much needed...oh my."

Granny was staring at Eostre, who was carrying Dieter across her back. There was a rude puncture wound in the male hare's neck, and his breathing was coming in short, shallow bursts.

"He's dying," Eostre said through tears.

* * * * * * *

Lara stepped forward without hesitation and placed her hands on Dieter's soft white fur, stained with his own blood. She could sense the life of Spring in his body, only a tiny flicker, like a guttering candle trying to hold its flame in the face of a strong wind. She closed her eyes, breathed deeply, and again, as with Eostre at Granny's house, she could see the roots, the branches, the great trunk of the Tree. The sap rose, flowed through her, and into Dieter's body, giving strength to the flame. It spluttered, then flared to life again, and began to grow. Where Andrew had felt the Tree's rage at the attempt to destroy Life, Lara sensed Its desire to return that Life to its former vitality. Beneath her touch, the flame within Dieter quickened.

* * * * * * *

Hours later, an old man with a long white beard who Andrew would have recognized as Lump stepped from the red and gold sleigh, to stand beside Ilmari-Pekka as he supervised the extraction of the train from the lake, and the removal of the fallen Redcoats.

"It took them long enough to find you," Ilmari-Pekka said, a note of chagrin in his voice.

"I'm not supposed to be found while I'm on my vacation," Father Christmas replied, his face tanned from weeks in the Dominican Republic. "I'm not sure they would have found me if I wasn't already on my way back." He surveyed the tableau before him. "Quite a mess these Redcoats made."

"The boy proved worthy of the gift," the elf said. "In the end."

"If I'd known how quickly the forces of Chaos would rise to beset him, I might have made another choice. It's worse than ever before. They've gained footholds on so many branches."

"The choice was a good one. He rose to the occasion."

Father Christmas smiled.

"Take a group of the menninkäinen when they return to their world," Father Christmas said. "I have gifts for them all. They've certainly earned them. And I think that shop could use a little elven craftsmanship."

Ilmari Pekka nodded.

"And Eostre and Dieter?" Father Christmas asked.

"Dieter is still very weak, but the girl brought him back from the brink. He's not strong enough to go the grotto and bring Spring...but we've made provision for it."

Father Christmas raised an inquisitive eyebrow.


Thursday, December 27, 2007

Episode 50: One thousandth of a second

One of the questions most common to children at Christmas is to ask how Santa can possibly fly around the world in one night; rational literalists have determined that the delivery of gifts to each household needs to be accomplished in a thousandth of a second. They've also determined that for Santa to make a dead stop at the speed he'd be traveling would result in him being jettisoned at a speed that would first pulverize the reindeer he'd shoot through, and then turn him into Christmas pudding.

As if speed had anything to do with it.

The truth of the matter is that the infamous reindeer are one of several modes for traveling the Tree. They do not exist within any of the worlds the Tree touches, but have footholds in all of them at once. They are able to travel through and within worlds, but being part of the Tree, perceive Time very differently from humans. Unlike the Tree itself, which, immovable and insofar as humans can comprehend, perceives the goings on in the worlds much like you perceive the microorganisms running around in your hair. The reindeer, as a mode of transportation for the Tree, and therefore able to move at speeds which give the impression of omnipresence to humans, see things as hardly ever moving. They move so fast that even standing still, they seem translucent; a blur to the naked eye. Impossible for detection devices to...well, detect.

When Saint Nicholas made his journey to the Pole, he was granted the reindeer as his means of transportation for his journey on Christmas night, which is celebrated in many worlds, and by many cultures within those worlds. The Sleigh was fashioned by the menninkäinen from the wood of the Tree itself, to retain the bond with it. When Santa, or any other being sits within that sleigh, their perception of time slows to match the Reindeers'. The world seems to come to an immediate stop. Objects in mid-air hang, seemingly immobile.

It makes being faster than a speeding bullet seem like standing still.

So when Ilmari-Pekka took the reindeer from their stable, bridled them to the sleigh, and let them loose with the commands to retrieve the survivors in the besieged train, the Leprechaun redcoats had the impression of something flashing across their vision.

What Ripper and everyone else in the train saw was something quite different. Being outside of the worlds allowed the reindeer to pass through solid objects at will, sliding between molecules or some such rot, and so one moment they were not there, and the next, they simply were. Silke was the first to see their blurred forms standing in the aisle of the train, backing the sleigh into the water beside Sunny's limp form. Ripper accidentally leaned against the sleigh to steady himself, aware only of a disorienting blurred motion beside him, and that was when he noticed the bullet hanging, spinning ever so slowly about two inches from his pupil.

"Don't let go of the sleigh," a voice said to him. "That bullet will blow your brains out before you even knew it had happened."

Ripper turned his head, keeping his body pressed against the sleigh and saw one of the reindeer with his head turned, facing Ripper.

"Blitzen," the Reindeer said simply. "Keep at least one part of your body touching the sleigh and help the ladies inside."

Ripper turned and put his hand into the water, which gave as little resistance as ever, but moved like it had the consistency of wet concrete. He grabbed onto Sunny's hand and pulled her to him.

Items outside the field of the reindeers' influence move normally, and according to the physics of the world they inhabit. Ripper was reaching from within that abnormal bubble of frantic motion to pull Sunny inside its' influence. Until she reached it, she seemed to move at an infinitesimally ponderous speed. He looked at her, lying unconscious, her blonde hair falling down against her cheek...

And it was in that journey between the water and the sleigh that Ripper realized a great many things.

* * * * * * *

Silke saw Ripper bump up against something and then he too was blurred, like the object behind him. Almost as suddenly as he struck the blurry looked like an old fashioned sleigh...he reached out his hand (one moment his arm was next to him and the next it had taken hold of Sunny and was pulling her closer). Then she felt a momentary spike of pain in her shoulder before being pulled into that blurred field herself. She gasped as Andrew's face came clear in front of her, his eyes panicked.

"Are you all right?" he nearly shouted.

"I think so," she said, but she could feel a burning sensation on the back of her right shoulder.

"Keep your hands touching this," Andrew said, inclining his head toward a magnificent sleigh, painted red with gilded gold knotwork. He kept one hand on the sleigh himself and looked over her shoulder. "I could see the bullet come through the glass," he said. "And it was coming towards you. I was up where the reindeer are..." Silke looked in fascination at the eight beasts tethered to the sleigh. The lead one was speaking with John and Charles. "And by the time I got down here it was entering your shoulder. But it didn't get too far. Turn around."

She turned and Andrew pointed to a round ball of lead hanging in the air, its' surface discolored with the red of Silke's blood. She gasped and nearly held a hand to her mouth, then remembered to keep it held to the side of the sleigh.

"They're going to take us out of here," Andrew said. "You, I mean."

"What do you mean?" Silke asked. "Aren't you coming as well?"

Andrew shook his head. "John and Charles and I are remaining behind. There's apparently something we have to do."

* * * * * * *

To be linked to the Tree is to be linked to the Magic that holds the universes together. Time, Space, and many of the constants that the worlds seem to run by are forces for manipulation. Throughout all the worlds, and all the times within those worlds, there are those who seek to access the power to manipulate this Magic. Some have succeeded in gaining the power to manipulate one or another, but never all. That is reserved for those who are linked to the Tree. These are the people to whom Miracles are attributed. Bodies of water displaced and held in suspension while a nation walked to freedom. Blind eyes seeing for the first time. Walking on water. Resurrections.

To be linked to the Tree in surrender is a powerful thing, Andrew realized. John had told him what he would have to do in order to fully surrender himself to the Tree. Odin had hung on the world ash for nine days and nights. Jesus hung on the Cross for hours. He only had minutes, but they were spent in the presence of the reindeer, and so time stretched out...

And in that time, Andrew too, realized a great many things.

* * * * * * *

And when that thousandth of a second was over, the Redcoat Leprechauns were left only with the impression of a disturbance in the air before the train car exploded outward in a thousand tiny fragments, and something wild and primordial rose up from a crouched position, unfolding its limbs like a tree unfolding its branches, a dark shape against the white snow and ice, dark as the depths of the forest.

The Leprechauns stopped firing their weapons then, uncertain of what had happened. The front ranks of their numbers lay wounded or dead from the debris and shrapnel of the passenger car's explosion. They also stopped firing, because somewhere in their own being, magic as it was, they sensed that firing their weapons would do them no good.

Some simply dropped to their knees and hung their heads, remembering a time long passed when they'd run through meadows and danced beneath rainbows, when they too had been a part of the Tree. Others ran in terror, knowing how far they'd come from those days, and fearing that the butcher's bill they had accumulated would be too great for grace to intervene.

The dark shape strode into their midst, and there was death upon the snow.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Episode 49: Ghosts and Reindeer

There was a terrible inevitability as the moment of triumph gave way to the realization of what Finn’s terrible device had engineered; water lapping against the edges of the seemingly indestructible ice, a great rift between the train and the Jouloutorni. Those standing on the pilot truck simply grabbed the hand rails and braced themselves. Those in the passenger car were blissfully unaware until metal and water collided.

Like some great dark serpent, the train slammed into the water with great force, the heat of the engine and coal car sending great gouts of steam shooting up with a violence that seemed to satisfy the cold hungry waters. The momentum of the train was slowed enough that the passenger car struck with less force, the saving grace of its passengers. The weight of the engine tore the coal car loose from the passenger car, which hung half in the water and half out, partially submerged, but held to the solidity of the ice by the empty series of cars and caboose trailing it.

The engine sank like a stone; the steam abated. And a great cry roared up from the battlements as the Redcoat Leprechauns descended onto the ice to finish off whoever had survived the crash.

* * * * * * *

Andrew came to with a loud cry, forcing himself up out of the frigid water. He shook uncontrollably, soaked to the bone, and looked around frantically. Ripper was holding onto an unconscious Sunny, supporting her with his arms wrapped around her chest. The car was tilted at an angle...the doorway out was an uphill climb. There was a flash of red beneath a dark cloak, and Silke dropped down beside him in the water.

“Are you hurt?” she asked.

“I don’t think so!” he shouted. He’d hadn’t wanted to shout, but his air was all coming out in quick, short bursts.

“We have to get out of the water!” she told him, her voice getting louder now too. She grabbed his arm.

He shook his head and pointed. “Help Ripper with Sunny. I’ll manage.”

Silke waded through the water to give Ripper a hand in getting Sunny up out of the water. Charles had descended from his chair, seemingly without a scratch.

“You know I can’t help you,” he said to Silke.

“Save your strength,” Silke said, nodding.

What’s he mean? Andrew wondered, climbing up out of the water, pulling himself up the angled floor of the car, hand over hand on seat after seat until he reached John, who had braced himself…or had he?...against the last row of seats and was peering out the window intently.

Andrew looked at him and saw that he too, like Charles, was without injury. His clothes were unruffled.

“How…how…?” Andrew began.

“We’re only appointed to die once,” John replied. “I look like I did when I was a young man…can even do things I did then. Smoking, eating, drinking…but this isn’t the same sort of body as yours. Yours fits earth. This one fits heaven.”

“You’re a ghost?” Andrew gaped.

“Nothing of the sort,” John said. “I am as I will always be, now and evermore. A marvelous form, to be sure. Not bound by the same rules as yours. But sadly, lacking those rules, unable to affect the world ruled by them…save by my presence. I can perceive, and give guidance, but cannot affect.”

“So you’re completely useless?” Andrew said. “We came here for a fight!” He felt frustration welling up in him. He had no idea where Lara and Blackout were…if they were alive or not…and Sunny…

We cannot directly affect,” he said firmly. “Don’t jump to conclusions Andrew. We would never have made the journey simply for the scenery.”

“So what exactly is it you’re going to do?” Andrew asked, still angry. Behind John, through the car window, he could see a mass of red coats surging towards the wreckage, running over the ice, the sound of weapon fire drawing ever closer.

* * * * * * *

The Leprechauns did not slow as they reached the train, but rather only halted to load a new clip or grenade into weapon before encircling the wreckage. The passenger car was still in the water, with no sign of survivors from the engine. James had seen a face at the window of the passenger car, and was readying to riddle it with bullets.

Where’s Finn? he wondered. Finn should already have turned the device on the Citadel. James looked about, desperately.

“You want us to finish them off?” a young (meaning somewhere in the vicinity of 200 years old), eager looking (meaning he actually had drool trailing off his lip in anticipation of the kill) Redcoat asked James, cradling his weapon (which is to say he was holding it like it was making up for some possible physiologically lack).

James ground his teeth and his mouth became a thin line as he pressed his lips together. “Do it,” he growled.

The young and eager Redcoat let out a whooping battle cry before opening fire on the train, in his haste forgetting to raise the barrel of his gun and consequently shooting himself in the foot.

* * * * * * *

From the battlements of the Jouloutorni, Ilmari Pekka and Karhu had watched in horror as the gates to the frozen lake had exploded, followed by the rushing train surging through the opening only to ram into the lake waters. They had watched as the Redcoats had massed across the remaining ice surface, and then recoiled as they’d opened fire on the train car.

“We must do something!” Karhu roared.

Ilmari Pekka felt the need to act as well, but knew that all their actions were futile. The Redcoats carried guns, while the mennikäinen had always eschewed the use of such mechanized weapons. No one was supposed to be able to reach the Pole by means other than the Polar Express, the Tree, and Lord Christmas’ sleigh. This was not a contingency Ilmari Pekka had ever imagined. Goblin attacks were one thing; they were denizens of the Pohlja and had no access to the type of weapons the Redcoat Leprechauns had brought. They would defend the Jouloutorni to their dying breath, but to run out the front gates would be to lead them all to slaughter.

“Do what?” Ilmari Pekka replied. “Even if we were to go down, we’re cut off from them by the water! You can swim the gulf Karhu, but you’d be shot down before you ever reached the train!”

“The reindeer,” Karhu said. “We must send the reindeer.”

Ilmari Pekka nodded. “We can do that much.”

Monday, December 17, 2007

Episode 48: Playing with Pyro

Blackout was out of his seat barely seconds after realizing that Lara was going with Courtney. He barely made it to the door and squeezed through to a surprised look from the Conductor.

"Where are you going?" the man asked him.

Blackout held up one of the flight cases he'd lugged with him. When he'd first entered the Tree with Eostre, the cases had seemed to weigh a ton, and by the end of the day's walking, 20 tons. He thought his arms were going to fall off for certain. And while the second day was nearly as agonizing, the third had been better. Following the stop over at Granny’s house, he found that the cases seem to weigh next to nothing. At first, he’d thought it had to do with the food, that it was magical, but when they’d entered the train and he’d taken off his jacket, Lara had pinched his arms and waggled her eyebrows suggestively, adding a “check out the pipes,” before walking away. He’d been forced to sit down immediately.

Now, he could hold the case without any apparent effort. The Conductor noted the blaster’s warning sticker on the exterior of the case, nodded in assessment of the possibilities such a case could warrant, and waved Blackout on.

He’d always wondered what it would be like to climb along the edge of a speeding train, and he realized it was nowhere near as easy as it seemed to be in movies. The wind tore at his face, and the barrier wall of ice which loomed increasingly large in front of them provided both a sense of urgency and danger. The gates at the end of the tracks were still closed.

Blackout followed Granny, Courtney and Lara to the front of the train, clinging to the hand rail with one hand and holding the flight case in the other. They reached the foot board over top of the pilot truck, and the intensity of the wind against Blackout’s face doubled. He gasped for breath, and found it hard to keep his eyes open without tearing, which resulted in frozen droplets forming on his eyelids.

Granny performed a movement that reminded Blackout of Tai Chi, while intoning a sing song chant which made him think of Enya’s music for some reason. The blast of the wind stopped immediately. Blackout gaped at the shield Granny had conjured between the elements and them, a bubble of protection.

“That’ll keep the wind and snow out,” she said. “But it will also prevent your arrows from flying true – it’ll be like shooting through water, so I’ll have to release it when you’re ready to fire.”

Courtney was nodding, already down on one knee, getting her bow ready to fire. Lara started, a little embarrassed it seemed, and began prepping her bow as well.

“Granny,” Lara said, “I’m really not that good a shot – I could barely hit things in the coffee shop when I was standing still. What is it we’re supposed to hit?”

“The top of the wall,” the Conductor said, stepping onto the pilot truck. “Up there, at the top of the battlement.”

They all looked up.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Courtney said. “That’s nearly 500 yards!”

“And closing!” the Conductor replied. “And I think with your friend’s little box of tricks, one of you might be able to get us access to the lake beyond the wall…otherwise, we’re going to come to a very abrupt stop!”

“What are you talking about?” Lara asked, incredulous. “This is ridiculous!”

“I think I know what he means,” Granny said, looking at the sticker on the outside of Blackout’s flight case. “Best get whatever it is you need out of there quick boy.”

Blackout dropped the case to the foot board and popped the latches. “I think this will do for whoever’s firing to the top of the battlement,” he said, holding out a small cardboard tube and a roll of electrician’s tape.

The Conductor grabbed both and gestured to Courtney, who handed him an arrow. Blackout lifted the first level of pyro and pulled out another cardboard tube; this one was considerably larger than the first. He grabbed one of Lara’s arrows and began strapping the tube to it.

“That’s too big,” Lara said. “I won’t be able to shoot that straight!”

“Aim high,” Courtney said.

“You’ll be able to do it,” Granny said.

“Gate’s not getting any farther away!” the Conductor announced.

Courtney took her arrow back from him and nocked it. She drew her arm back and aimed at the top of the battlement.

“Wait!” Blackout shouted. “It needs to be lit! The fuse!”

Granny made a quick gesture, fingers splayed, palm out, at the arrow and the fuse was lit.

“Can I shoot?” Courtney asked, looking nervously at the fuse.

“Not yet,” Granny replied, as Lara stood and drew her arrow back as well. Granny lit the second fuse.

“Would really like to not be close to this thing when it goes off,” Courtney said.

“You’ll be fine!” Blackout said. “It fires away from you!”

“Not comforting,” Courtney replied.

Granny was chanting in a low voice, one hand on each of the girl’s shoulders. A glow moved from her hands to surround both girls.

“I’m going to release the shield,” she said. “On the count of three…and then you fire. One…”

A blast of light erupted from the top of the battlement, slicing into the ice just ahead of them, cutting towards the tracks.

“THREE!” Granny shouted, and the shield was suddenly gone and wind, snow and now water erupting from the cut in the ice assaulted them.

“Shoot!” the Conductor yelled.

Courtney loosed her arrow, and a moment behind her, Lara released hers.

Blackout had done pyro at a concert once where his assistant had pointed the gerbs in the wrong direction. A gerb is supposed to shoot a fountain of white-hot sparks a variety of heights into the air. These ones were 20 foot gerbs, and when they’d gone off, they’d burned a trough into the concrete stage beneath the pyro stands, before arcing out over the audience. Just before the 30 foot gerb he’d placed on Courtney’s arrow reached the battlement, the gerb went off.

The white hot spray of sparks burned a hole in the ice of the battlement, the arrow shot through, and then blew a clean, cauterized hole through Coll’s undead chest before the arrow struck him just to the left of that steaming hole, sending him flying over the edge of the battlement, pulling the syringe from Dieter’s neck. Finn looked down in annoyance, the golden light from the gun having gone out before being seeing the box of gears and pipes yanked over the side as the tube linking it to the syringe went tight. He realized all too late that the box was also tied to the gun in his hands. He followed Coll, box, syringe and gun down over the edge of the battlement with a scream.

Blackout and the others on the train saw none of this. Their attention was focused on Lara’s arrow, which had struck one of the great doors barring their entrance to the frozen lake. The explosive had not gone off yet. The train continued speeding towards the closed gates.

“Is it just going to shoot sparks?” Lara asked in a panicked voice.

“No,” Blackout shouted in reply, “It’s not a gerb…it’s a…”

There was a terrifically loud ‘thump!’ followed by the door exploding into shrapnel.

“…concussion…we call them concussions. Saw one knock part of a ceiling out of a club once. Figured it would do the trick.”

“It certainly did,” the Conductor said. “Hold onto the hand rail!” he shouted as the train struck the remaining bits of wood and roared into the inner ring.

“Welcome to the Frozen Lake!” the Conductor shouted.

“Doesn’t look frozen to me,” Courtney said.

They all looked up in time to see the tracks ahead of them end, dropping off into a very unfrozen body of water.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Episode 47: The Battle at the Pole, round 2

Finn's eyes went wide with shock as the power lanced out from the barrel of the wicked looking gun he held, slicing into the seemingly impenetrable ice lake that stretched between the outer wall he and Coll stood upon and the Christmas citadel. He had known that the essence of Spring within Dieter held great power, but he'd had no idea it would have this effect on the ice of the Utter North.

"This is going to be all too easy," he laughed. He turned to Coll, who was holding the massive syringe in Dieter's neck. The great Hare's eyes were filled with tears, and Finn could hear the muffled protests from beneath the black leather muzzle strapped over Dieter's mouth. His hands were bound, and they'd been forced to actually break his legs to keep him from kicking when Coll had first inserted the needle. Without his legs, he was much more pliable, and they'd been able to get the needle inside his neck.

Coll had pulled back the plunger, and the syringe had filled with a golden substance that reminded Finn of honey...or perhaps maple syrup. He'd enjoyed maple syrup; one of the few good things he'd experienced while in exile. Those bloody fools in Canada certainly didn't know how to prepare a good stout ale. Always cold, never warm.

He'd have a good hot ale soon enough. Just as soon as they brought on a powerful thaw. To melt the towers of Jouloutorni. With the syringe full, Finn had turned on the gun connected to the syringe by a tube that ran into the box of gears and copper wire. The device had drawn the golden fluid through the tube. As it passed into the box, the gears came to life, clicking and whirring. Smoke had issued from some of the pipes, and then something passed up through the coiled tube leading to Finn's weapon.

Now the fluid shone, radiated light and heat. Finn could feel the warmth immediately on his face, like he'd stepped next to a furnace. He'd turned his gaze on the lake, pointed the gun, and fired.

The heat of the sun seemed to come out of the barrel, a stream of light that carved down into the ice. And the ice had not simply melted. It had exploded.

"The Train is still coming," Coll said. "And it's gaining speed."

Finn had laughed again, and turned the gun away from Jouloutorni, turning it towards the approaching black steam engine and the cars it pulled.

* * * * * * *

The Conductor was standing in the engine of the Polar Express, his eyes scanning the outer wall. The gates to the frozen lake were still closed, and while they should have been signaled by now, none of the signal fires were lit. And he could swear he'd heard the signal horns from Jouloutorni only moments earlier.

"You look worried old boy," Jack said, standing beside him with a lit cigarette between his fingers.

"There!" the conductor shouted, pointing to one of the battlements on the outer wall.

A great light had shone in the perpetual night of the Utter North, as though the sun was coming up over the horizon. A deafening roar followed the light, and they could see geysers of water shooting up over the top of the wall, sending chunks of ice hurtling skyward.

"We're in a bit of jelly, and make no mistake," the Conductor said, with more annoyance than the awe that Jack felt seeing the wanton destruction Finn's device was wreaking on the frozen lake. "Seems your redcoats are preparing a welcome for us."

"So it would seem," Jack said, but the Conductor had already climbed out onto the side of the coal car and was clambering quickly toward the passenger car behind it.

The engineers were watching the devastation as well, looking nervously at the still closed gates.

"Ever had to ram those?" Jack asked conversationally.

They shook their heads, fear in their eyes.

"Any chance of us slowing enough that we won't be pulverized when we hit?" Jack asked.

They shook their heads again.

"Bugger," Jack said.

* * * * * * *

"I don't want to alarm anyone," the Conductor said breathlessly as he tumbled into the passenger car where the rest of the group was assembled. "But I was wondering if any of you might be able to hit a stationary target from a moving train?"

Lara looked over at Courtney, who was already picking up her bow and quiver. "How far?" Courtney asked.

"Over a hundred meters," the Conductor replied.

Courtney gaped. "I can't shoot that far, moving train or not."

"Yes you can," Granny said. "Both you and Lara can. You'll need some help, but you can hit it. Come." This last command was directed at Lara.

"I can help," Silke said.

"I need you here," Granny replied. "In case something should happen to us, your bow will be needed here."

"What should the rest of us do?" Ripper asked as the women climbed out the door to cross to the coal car.

"Brace yourselves. We're in for a rough ride."

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Episode 46: The Battle at the Pole, round 1

His name was Ilmari-Pekka, and he had been in the service of Father Christmas since the fourth magi had left his companions on the road from Bethlehem to travel into the northern wastes. His northward journey had brought him to what was now know as Finland, and there he had encountered the menninkäinen, the little people. They had been the ones who brought his journey from the snow wastes of to the branches of the Tree, and then to the Pohlja, the "North Lands", a dark and frozen world completely trapped in ice. It was here that the Aarnivalkea, the eternal flame of the Utter North burned. That flame reached to the heavens, pointing to the Pohjantähti, the North Star. Between those two points, the menninkäinen said the World Pillar stretched. And it was here that the mennikäinen, and their Lord Christmas, who they called Ukko after their own god of sky and thunder helped to maintain the balance of Order and Chaos. The Pohlja was a magic land; it could not be reached save by magic.

Here, the ice never melted. The snows always fell. And thought it was always cold, it was not a cold that chilled the bone. It was the cold of a winter's day with the sun shining; the sun of the Aarnivalkea, signaling to all that here was the realm of Christmas. It radiated a warmth of its own, that lifted the spirits and gave courage to all who looked upon it. And beneath it stretched Jouloutorni, the city of Christmas, not at all the candy cane realm of Western imagination, but rather a grand citadel built of ice and snow. Some of the ice was so old and so dark that it was a deep indigo, while others were bright blue or devoid of all color, like glass. All as immovable, as strong and as everlasting as stone.

Which is why Ilmari-Pekka’s heart had not quailed when the sentries on the uppermost towers had sounded the signal horns. They were never to be blown save in the case of an attack. And it had been nearly 80 years since the last goblin attack on the city. He had raced to the closest guard post, buckling on a sword which had hung on the wall for 80 years. As he ran, Karhu, the son of the Polar Bear who had fought alongside Ilmari-Pekka in the last goblin war, fell into stride beside him.

“Jump on my back,” Karhu had growled, and Ilmari-Pekka had clambered on. The bear put on speed, dodging around other elves who were racing through the corridors with weapons in hand.

Ilmari-Pekka jumped from Karhu’s back as they burst out into the open air on one of the city’s towers, facing to the East. His sharp eyes scanned the horizon, looking for the source of the attack.

“I see nothing,” he said to Karhu.

“I can smell them,” Karhu replied. “They are out on the Eastern wall…there is the smell of blood as well.”

Ilmari-Pekka was unsurprised by the bear’s sense of smell. Karhu’s kin were known to be able to scent blood for 100 miles. If he said there was blood out on the Eastern wall, then it was so.

“And I smell something else too,” Karhu said. “Black powder…small traces closer in…and further out…the Train is coming.”

“The Express?” Ilmari-Pekka wrinkled his forehead. The Train only came once a year…unless need dictated otherwise. Was that why the sentries had sounded the horns? No…it was the blood. They had seen something.

And then his heart did quail.

A great, cracking rending noise filled the sky. As elf and bear watched, an explosion of ice rent the glass surface of the frozen lake between the citadel and the wall. Huge white boulders flew into the air, and the water, trapped so far beneath, surged up in spraying geysers. The crack grew, slowly, inevitably tearing a chasm toward the city…

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Episode 45: Finn at the Pole

"All towers secure," Coll croaked to Finn. The way Coll's voice had sounded bothered Finn a great deal since they'd performed the necromantic ritual on the dead Leprechaun. But he supposed the way Coll sounded had more to do with the way his vocal chords were vibrating against the arrow shaft still lodged in his throat than it did with the fact that he was...dead. Technically, undead, but Finn had always felt that was a minor technicality. An issue of semantics really. If you weren't dead, you were alive, and Coll was not alive.

He was as cranky as he'd been alive, but now the whole issue was exacerbated by Coll's ability to see other dead people in the form of shades and ghosts. A depressing lot, who matched Coll's temperament a little too well. Coll had taken to mumbling to them, which made him seem like he was talking to himself.

They were standing on the outer wall of the North Pole, a great ring of glacial ice surrounding the city of lights at the top of the worlds. Finn smiled. Elves had no stomach for combat, not like Leprechauns. "The fighting Irish," he said to himself. His small team had been joined at the gateway to the worlds by the rest of their forces; they'd entered the clearing through the tree with a shamrock on it and then entered into the world of Christmas. Then, arriving at the North Pole, they had overwhelmed each of the towers, one by one, leaving behind a fireteam of Leprechauns to guard each one.

"It's true," Coll was saying. "A whole day in heels is murder."

The plan was going well, aside from a few minor setbacks. When he'd first felt the presence of the Tree's avatar in the world they'd be exiled to, Finn had visited the site, to find that the new guardian was allied to Order. It meant that those allied to Chaos, like Finn and his men, were barred from entrance to the Tree. They'd enlisted the aid of a succubus to gain them access, but she'd obviously bolloxed things. A pretty mess that had been, thinking they'd be walking into the Tree nice and easy, only to find the shop in ruins, the succubus and the doppelganger dead. Finn had needed to think quickly then; it had slowed them down by a day, having to put on the pretense of helping the boy.

Andrew. And then he'd mistaken them for his guides or guardians or some damn fool thing. Sent by three men. Their redcoats had been the key to that misunderstanding, and it had worked fine until the boy had become too curious for his own good, needed to look inside the box.

Thankfully he hadn't opened the box. If he'd gotten the hare out of the box...everything would have been undone. Or rather, it would have remained done. Finn's goal was for things to become undone. But they weren't here to frame the elves for the death, whatever Eostre might have thought. They were here because this was where they would drain the power from Dieter to destroy the North Pole once and for all. The essence of Spring thaw inside the hare, unleashed on this place would melt the ice and destroy the old man's works, his helpers, and bring an end to one more great symbol of Order in the world.

And that was all Chaos really needed to start things unraveling in the worlds where Father Christmas still held sway. The destruction of a symbol is the destruction of the thing, really. Finn knew that much. The fact that no one remembered red coat leprechauns anymore was proof. Order had sanctioned the exile of his order, effectively destroying he was going to destroy one of theirs.

"Is the device ready?" he asked James, who was kneeling beside the box. Other leprechauns were bolting down a large machine gun to the tower and training the barrels on the distant twinkling lights. The guns were unnecessary; once the thaw began, they'd be entirely pointless, but the men enjoyed them. And it kept them focused on destruction without asking the question of what was going to happen to them all when the ice thawed.

"Very nearly," James replied, holding up a wicked looking needle attached to a narrow hose, which itself ran into a series of brass piping, gears and cylindrical tubes.

Finn grinned. Victory was at hand, and the only creatures in all of the worlds who knew what Finn was up to were worlds away. Nothing could stop him now.

"Train coming," Coll growled.

"A great spectral train filled with a mess of dead buggers?" Finn asked, tired of Coll's conversations with the dead.

"No. Real train. Coming from the south and steaming hard. A black train."

A black steamer? Finn spun about and saw it even as the sound of the steam engine reached his ears. There was only one train that could be making its way here. Now.

"No," he whispered. Well, let them come, whoever they were. And Finn suspected it was the boy. "Come along then Andrew," he said. "We've got a warm welcome for ye."