Welcome to what is likely your first advent calendar fantasy novel! Each day is a chapter, and should be read as such, but who am I to stop you from catching up? (This way to Day One!) What follows is the story of one Marzipan Ridner, a young trans girl aching for the fulfillment of the holiday season. When a mysterious wooden Advent calendar shows up she opens the first door, and finds herself whisked away to a world-tree of contrasting deities and binding bureaucracy. She has less than a month to find someone willing to be her spiritual patron, but the denizens of the tree don’t seem very hospitable…
(reading time: 10 minutes)
On the Seventh Day
“Have you heard? We’re about to get rid of him!” Saint Victor said, clapping his hands giddily. Tiny bolts of electricity jumped between his palms as he did so, as he was the patron saint of lightning strikes, and had taken several hits for his flock over the centuries. His eyes glowed white and his mouth was full of leaping sparking arcs, so when he opened it wide to share his excitement he could light an entire room.
“Truly? I won’t have to worry about him coming my way? What a relief that would be. I hate those damn calendars. Worst idea god ever had.” Saint Pancras, all too accustomed to hearing lies as the patron saint against bearing false witness, almost couldn’t believe it. He was easily distinguished from his peers by a shining robe of many colors, as he found wearing clothing indicative of beauty and authority often added just enough fear to a human mind to convince it to tell the truth.
“Oh yes,” Victor assured him. “Quickly, to the courtyard.” The two moved at the top speed that could still be called dignified walking, making their way through one of the tree’s several communal seminaries. The saints gathered there for all manner of discussion and camaraderie, but this one was nearly silent and the halls nearly empty, thanks to the unwelcome visitor and the accursed plank they’d drifted in on.
Many of them were literally hiding rather than face an interaction, which meant the breakfast spread in the dining hall had barely been touched. Victor pointed at one empty spot as they passed by the tables.
“You see? He couldn’t resist. He took a heaping great plate toward the courtyard. Chicken, goose, boar, eggs, trout… every meat on offer!”
“If he eats nothing but that he’ll want to ask Rasso for help. Stomach ailments are his purview, yes?”
“Yes, but one bite and even he will be free of him. Come along.” They didn’t want to interfere directly, so instead of heading for the doors that led outside they instead went to the second level’s observation deck, which overlooked the entire exterior of the courtyard. Heavy branches of the Chrismon Tree hung down from above, nearly touching the false ground like evergreens rooted in the sky and growing toward the Earth.
“So this is where everyone is,” Pancras muttered, seeing more than a hundred saints all around the deck, clearly having gathered for the same reason. He cast his eyes down, looking for the intruder who thought they could cut the line of judgment. The courtyard’s walking trail and benches were empty, but he spotted her sitting on the edge of the central fountain, a likeness of a saint whose name was lost to time, but whose stigmata ever flowed from even her stone representation as a quite potable wine.
Marzipan ignored all the attention, staring at the glistening pile of flesh on her plate. The intoxicating smell made her legs weak, so she just rested there a moment.
“He’s going to eat it,” Victor reasoned. “The more food you put on a plate the easier it is to justify taking a single bite. He’s at least two drumsticks past the point of thinking a bite is not a bite’s worth compared to the rest of it.”
“How far did he make it?” Pancras asked.
“Day seven,” Victor said, leaning forward. “Seventh day, eleventh hour, first minute…” He grabbed the metal railing, forgetting that he had been repeatedly warned not to do so. Some of the stored lightning in his bones made its way through the structure, up one of the supporting columns and to the gutter.
“Yaaa!” A body fell from where it had been perching on the roof, in a leaning angle identical to Victor’s. When the saint relinquished his grip the pagan creature was able to catch herself on the railing and pull herself over. Some of the fur on her arms smoked as her hair stood on end. Pancras grabbed her hand and helped her come to her feet, but he had pulled a sleeve over his own hand to do so.
“Frying people again?” another female pagan asked, upside down head peeking over the roof. She descended to check on her companion. “Didn’t you get exiled the last time you did that?”
“Only for two decades,” Victor said with a glowing wave of his hand. “It’s good to see you again Owlull.” The familiarity in his voice suggested the two of them had spent some of those two decades together, sharing a pagan nest that an upstanding saint would never admit to. The creature he addressed was mostly human, but her eyebrows were like those of the great horned owl, and her eyes reddish orange like blood-streaked yolk.
“I don’t believe we’ve met,” Pancras said to the other one who was nearly done smoking. She had the tusks of a musk deer, small antlers shaped like shoehorns, and about ninety percent of her tan spotted fur left. “I am Saint Pancras.”
“Leaflitter,” the creature said primly, holding out her hand for him to kiss, which he did, saying nothing of its slightly charred taste. While many of god’s children would turn their nose up at any furry or feathered intruder, Victor and Pancras had gotten into enough trouble of their own, and in the occasional banishment from the house of Prester John found comfort in the arms of Triluna.
“What are you two doing here?” Victor asked, but the answer became apparent when he looked out once more and saw many other pagan creatures and a few witches scurrying or levitating into place on the roof to observe, just as the saints did. A few even hung upside down from the giant drooping branches, long bat-like fingers curling and uncurling, steeple ears poised to hear the smacking lips of a child.
“We want to see him get the boot,” Owlull said, leaning where the railing had cooled the most.
“He interrupted my daughter’s ritual the other day,” Leaflitter snarled, taking Pancras’s arm and pulling him closer to the side. “It’s about time he gets what he deserves.” They went as quiet as the rest of the observers and waited.
Surely Marzipan knew they were there, but she never looked up at them, just at her layered mountain of ham, running yolk, and bones. She took a slab of pink pork from the top, but instead of biting it she dipped it into the fountain’s wine and set it back atop the rest. Two minutes later she stood, taking her food to a spot in the needles between three of the reverse trees.
“What is he doing?” Victor’s voice crackled. He watched Marzi kneel and set the plate down. With the dark end of a twig from her pocket she pricked her finger and let a drop of blood fall atop her meal. She took the calendar off her back. Using one of the candle flames from its chimneys she lit the wine-coated ham on fire. Her arms shot toward the sky and she cried out as a wisp of smoke danced like a worm on a hook between them.
“Mother goddess Triluna! Hear me! I sacrifice this animal flesh and this blood to you!” Saints and pagans alike burst out laughing. The bat-creatures shook the branches, raining needles down on her that popped in her pyre and forced her to scramble backward. A few pagans even laughed so hard they rolled off the roof.
“It doesn’t work that way!” Leaflitter screamed at her. “Go home and stop climbing our tree!”
“Please,” Marzi continued, blinking away tears. “Everyone here is supposed to help me! Please Triluna! Take me all the way up! I want to talk to you!” As raucous as the reaction was, it died down quickly when they realized the child before them seemed to have no shame. They threw insults and small objects, but when it became clear she wouldn’t be eating anything after all they started to disperse, either back into the stone halls or up into the branches.
“Can you believe that little bastard?” Owlull asked Victor. “Sacrificing food. It’s literally only good for eating. Even that communion stuff you make gets eaten.”
“Well… it makes some sense in principle,” Victor mumbled, drawing stares from the other three. “I’m not defending him, the little blighter. It’s just that dead flesh and bone is holy. It is the soil in which the Chrismon Tree is planted. On Earth, the relics of we saints enhance our powers here, depending on their level of veneration.”
“Life is what’s holy,” Leaflitter spat. “There’s no sacrifice in the sacrifice if something’s life isn’t taken in the ritual. Ignoring the fact that you can eat it means meat is just floppy rocks.”
“Bones are the bed, but the tree is what matters,” Owlull agreed.
“There’s no need to argue ladies,” Saint Pancras placated. “We’re not disagreeing over ideas, merely where those ideas are shelved. We both value life above all else. Triluna the life on Earth, and Prester John the everlasting afterlife.”
“What do you mean everlasting?” Owlull asked, crossing her arms in a way that displayed her black raptor talons.
“Is… is that not obvious?” Pancras asked, eyes dancing back and forth. Victor reassured him with a nod from safely behind the pagan bird.
“You say it as if life on Earth isn’t everlasting.”
“Well it isn’t. Everything down there dies. From single cells to bugs to men to whales. They all face judgment eventually.”
“Your head’s on backwards,” Leaflitter said, stepping over to her fellow creature so they could present a united front. “Those are individual lives. Life on Earth itself is forever. Mother nature is timeless because her pieces perish and are born anew, but never the whole.”
“Eventually the flaming swords will strike,” Victor claimed. “Earth will burn. Nature and its cycles will be no more.”
“She won’t let that happen.”
“She won’t have a choice.”
“Right, because men have to control women’s bodies, and the physical expression of nature is Triluna’s body.”
“I don’t hear you refuting me.”
“You know even this tree will come down too, right?” Owlull shouted, seeming to surprise Leaflitter as well. “Trees live a very long time, but it’s still just a time. “You saints think god loves you so much to put you in this special middle ground, but when it runs its course you’ll have to scramble up to the star throne and reach out, begging the kingdom of Heaven to lower you a rope.”
“Or they could lower you a penis in a pinch,” Leaflitter retorted. “They’ve got lots.”
“Even if you are brought up you’ll be the lowliest things,” Owlull continued. “The souls of regular people will be the harvest, pampered and celebrated. The angels will rule over them. You, stuck in service to god, will be like its janitors, mopping up spilled holy water and curating the museum collection of every single uttered prayer across man’s babbling ignoramus pervert history.”
“Yeah!” The stunned saints had their hands over their hearts, both of their faces suggesting they couldn’t believe those hands had considered grazing furry hips just moments before. Such disrespect, and on their own consecrated ground no less.
“You blaspheme!” Victor finally managed, throwing out his hand and accidentally smiting a branch with a crackling strike of lightning.
“You’re the ones celebrating death,” Leaflitter countered. “Death cult! Death cult! Eat this body, drink this blood! Worship before this shriveled finger mummified in gold leaf instead of bounding through a forest’s magnificence!”
“Bounding through mounds of moose feces is more like-”
“Hey!” All four turned to the courtyard, looking down on Marzipan. She had her hands cupped around her mouth to make sure they could hear. “Do any of you guys want to be my patron?”
“No!” they shouted in unison.
“And honey glazed holiday ham is not an animal sacrifice you little ghoul!” Leaflitter screamed.
“Okay thanks for nothing bye.” Marzi kicked her smoking offering over and left, as the saints and pagans went back to their bickering.