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…
On the Fourteenth Day
It had been eighteen hours since Saint Defendens of Thebes sent them out into the barely tamed wilderness that was his backyard. They should have been back by now. He paced back and forth behind his cabin, on the swept stone floor that protected the area around his forge and anvil from the driving snow.
A warrior in life, the man never took off his armor since beginning service in the Chrismon Tree. Instead he wore clothing over it, giving him the appearance and body language of a tin soldier brought awkwardly to life.
Another hour passed, and nothing emerged from the giant white sprigs of the tree that looked remarkably like a real forest. Perhaps they had been killed. He had instructed the beasts not to harm them, to that degree anyway, but he couldn’t speak for their character. When someone offended a wolf enough they would lose their life regardless of how seriously the animal took any instruction.
If they weren’t dead another lesson might be in order, one even harsher. He went to the lamp ensconced at one of the cabin’s outer corners. In it burned a red flame, its licks unaffected by the wind inside or outside its glass vessel, as it didn’t eat the air like regular fire. It burned as long as there was sin, and nothing could put it out. Dropping an ocean on it would create a perpetual column of hot bubbles. Using a continent instead would eventually form a canker sore of a volcano.
He took the lamp down and over to his forge, where he smacked the bottom until an ember of the flame jumped into the coals and ignited them. The intensely red light covered the entirety of the cabin and some of the snow beyond like a sunburn against pale flesh. Defendens stared into it, echoing screams in the back of his head. He remembered them from battle: the terrified shouts of his enemies as their souls descended. It was a shame he wasn’t permitted to do that sort of thing in the tree. He was lucky he even managed to smuggle in a single flame of it.
A wolf howled, signaling their return. The warrior saint posed in front of his radiant forge, stance wide, hands on his hips. Out of the sprigs came his tamed pack, some black and some gray, eyes sharp enough to see between the whipping snowflakes. Defendens was invoked by the faithful of Earth against both fire and wolves, but sometimes, when protecting his flock, he couldn’t help but take samples of the threats with him, to see if he could make them his own.
The project was wildly successful. He’d grown to love the animals even as he kept them from their most deserving prey. Even if they went extinct down in the mortal world he would forever keep their legacy by his side, something he would never do for the two people who came bumbling out of the brush in the middle of them.
Marzipan and Langcorn looked very cold, bundled up in their own arms, but it didn’t affect their mood. Both were chuckling as they made their way back to the cabin on numb ankles and wet socks. They wanted to get onto the stone, under the roof, and warm up, but Saint Defendens blocked them.
“Well?” he demanded.
“Well they’re all very nice,” Langcorn told him. “You should be very proud.” He tried to scurry by and was blocked again by an armored arm.
“What do you mean nice? I sent you out there with them so you could learn what it’s like to be raised by wolves, so you could see how important society is, how necessary its various strictures.”
“They gave us food,” Marzi said. There were red streaks on her teeth. Defendens grimaced at her. “What? It was a very fresh bunny. Langcorn was rude; he didn’t even take a bite.”
“You know I can’t,” the man muttered, looking away. Defendens searched the mouths of his pets, but none of them carried a carcass. The whole thing must have been devoured, and he feared the child in front of him more responsible than any of the pack.
“They obviously didn’t follow my instructions,” the saint growled. “I told them to show you the true cruelty of nature. It does not warm, foster, or teach. Only the loving embrace of the lord can do those things.”
“They taught us a bunch of stuff,” Marzi argued. “Like how to find really pretty deer. Oh and what the softest snow looks like.”
“And I learned that I am not alone in the animal kingdom,” Langcorn added. Defendens demanded that he explain. “Up until now I thought we were the only creatures where the menfolk could fall in love with each other. Now I know that isn’t the case.” He pointed at two of the wolves, one black and one gray, standing next to each other. A gray head rested on black shoulders.
“Split!” the saint barked; the two dogs followed the order begrudgingly. He turned back to Langcorn. “How dare you even suggest that those noble beasts are homosexuals.”
“During what age do they call me that?” Langcorn asked, taken aback. “What a long and ugly word.”
“It’s not 2020. We just say you’re gay,” Marzi assured.
“Yes, that’s much nicer,” he agreed. “Those two wolves are most assuredly gay. Tell me, what are their names? I’d like to congratulate them on finding each other, in a blizzard no less!”
“They don’t have names! They’re just animals.”
“Animals have names,” Marzi scoffed. “Calling them the wrong thing doesn’t take away their name; it just makes you a jerk.”
“This is irrelevant,” the saint said, exasperated. “I can at least tell that you got cold out there. Look.” He pointed over his shoulder with his thumb, at the forge. He felt its heat radiating against his back. “You want to warm up, yes? All you have to do is renounce your uncivilized ways, then you can reap the benefits of civilization.”
“Is this about the rabbit?” Langcorn asked. “I’ve already passed that test.”
“No you fool! Renounce your homosexuality. Man didn’t find his way out of the mud and straw by buggering his fellows. Such depravity has only ever held us back.” The wolves must have already proven themselves in some way, as he allowed them to stroll past and lounge on the stone floor. The snow they shook off quickly melted and vanished.
“I renounce my homosensuality,” Marzi declared. She tried to scurry by, but Defendens dove to get in the way. His whole body clanked as he awkwardly dropped to a knee, but he managed to force her back.
“That’s for him, not you!” the man seethed. “You must give up your sinful lifestyle to become my ward. God made you a young man, so it’s time you started acting like one. I shudder to think how Prester John would react if he saw you… standing like that.” Marzi looked at her own waist, but couldn’t see anything wrong with her stance. She was hunched and shivering, but the saint getting out of the way would solve that swiftly.
“I’m a g-girl,” she said through chattering teeth.
“And I am gay,” Langcorn added in solidarity. “I don’t think we’re looking for a patron like you. If you’ll just point us in the right direction to get out of this snow we’ll leave you to your quiet lonely life here.”
“You two are more stubborn than I thought,” Defendens said, finally prying his body out of the kneel. “Very well. Come in and warm up. There is one more way I can help you.” He turned and walked toward the forge, but was forced to take a small detour when he saw the two dogs, slandered as homosexuals, curled up together, a bubble of a paw sticking out of the other’s fur here and there like mingling oil and vinegar. He kicked at them until they split up, again, grumbling and whining.
With a squeaky wave of his gauntlet the saint urged the other two humans to come to the edge of the forge, to look down into its depths. Flames crawled across the uneven bottom like stumbling salamanders. Every lick was uniformly crimson, no orange to lighten the mood, no yellow to give hope. Unfathomably cruel ideas stirred within it like eldritch beasts cruising just under the surface of a viscous sea.
Marzi put her hands up to warm them, pulling them back after a few seconds as if she had sensed a crocodile about to leap from the coals and bite off all her digits. It was more than warm: hot like a sauna that crept up on you and sweated you to death in your sleep. It could heat her body, but not her spirit, which she felt back away inside of her, frightened.
“What is this substance?” Langcorn asked, feeling the same fears.
“This… is hellfire,” Saint Defendens said, relishing both their expressions as their eyes whipped toward him. “This is what awaits those who disobey god.”
“Hell is real?” Langcorn asked.
“As real as the Chrismon Tree. Realer even, as it has been around much longer than this sprouted grievance office.” His armor, regularly anointed with holy water, could not be affected, so he dipped a gauntlet hand into the forge, scooped a mound of crimson, and brought it up. Wisps of it flowed out and down like the vapors from dry ice.
“What’s it for?” Marzi asked with a gulp.
“Torment of course. When you are doomed to Hell this becomes the sheets on your bed, your toothpaste, the water in your shower, the insoles of your shoes, and your contact lenses. Both of you have earned this with your sin. I would like to give you a taste, so you can really know the consequences of your actions.”
“I’ll taste anything,” Marzi said. She knew fire was dangerous, but it was just another hornet to her. Sometimes it got on her food and she had to sacrifice a little skin to get it back, which was all in the course of nature because the energy from the food would help heal the burn. Happily she had snatched marshmallows out of campfire embers, chewed scalding black specks of carbon along with them. A burned tongue was just confirmation that the food was safe to eat, as germs couldn’t handle the heat as well as she could.
Saint Defendens instructed her to hold out her bare arm. She did bravely, letting him position the handful of hellfire directly over her delicate flesh. Slowly he tilted his palm until a single drop of flame like candle wax fell and splashed on her.
“Eeeeehh!” she screamed. Her feet taught themselves to dance on hot coals. Tears practically burst out of their ducts as if from a dam. Her injured arm shook, but the dollop of crimson didn’t budge. It didn’t burrow deeper either, simply adhering to her surface and burning the same layer of skin over and over, even though it should have disintegrated by then.
It felt like she was drowning in six inches of boiling water, like all she had to do was lift her head so it would stop invading her lungs and stomach, but she just couldn’t find the strength to lift it all the way. Only enough for it to splash back down violently and pelt her with searing droplets.
It also felt like a nest of needles cozy under the comforter of her dermis, all twitching and rearranging sleeplessly. These two pains were entirely separate and entirely simultaneous, layered without her being able to tell the bottom from the top. The pain was so awful, so beyond even her abused experience, that she couldn’t think.
It was her. The panicked scream her new language. The desperate dance her new method of locomotion. The agony mask of contorted lips and squeezed eyes her face. The saint just watched. Hell was for eternity, so even if she experienced it for a hundred years it was still just a free sample, a nibble.
When Langcorn realized she was no longer in control of her actions he grabbed her around the waist and threw her into the snow. He dove in alongside and shoveled snow onto the hellfire. Marzi kept shrieking and wailing, writhing, kicking him in the stomach repeatedly. Steam rose as her tormentor dispatched the snow.
“Stop this! Help her!” he shouted at the saint, but Defendens remained by the forge, adjusting the fit of his breastplate. Langcorn thought about the way the evil fire moved, more like liquid, so he tried a new tactic, quickly compacting some of the snow in his hands, wringing it into the shape of a small rolling pin.
He put his weight on Marzi’s elbow to hold her down, apologizing profusely as he pushed the snow tool against her skin and rolled, squeezing the flame out and off. It hissed as it sank, steam billowing up in thick clouds. Now the saint acted, hurrying to it and scooping it back up before it could reach the wet fir.
“Wait!” Langcorn called out hoarsely. Marzipan had ceased her screaming, so he checked to be sure she was still breathing before storming over to the saint. “We’re in this together. I will not let one of her experiences go by without sharing it, without understanding it to the fullest of my ability.” He stuck out his arm, rolled up his sleeve, and smacked the skin twice. “Burn me.”
Defendens was happy to oblige. He dipped his armored fingers in the flame and flicked them, multiple tiny droplets rolling across Langcorn’s flesh and scoring it at the same time. He collapsed into the powder a moment later, convulsing and sputtering. The flame innately knew to hone in on the individuality of each person’s neurons, the nuance of each soul’s aegis against pain. In attacking these things the pain became customized to them.
Langcorn’s agony was like a giant sea urchin rolling over him, skewering him on its spines, refreshing the sensation each time he hit the ground and its weight moved across him. It was his blood, tears, stomach acid, bile, and urine being pulled out of him in stretching puncturing streams, swirling together into a much more caustic ball, and then exploding back onto him. These two pains were entirely separate and entirely simultaneous, layered without him being able to tell the bottom from the top.
When he sank under its crimson surface Marzi was still recovering. Her eyes had been empty, all thought refusing to do anything more than peek until there was no chance of the forest fire of agony returning. So there was no way to tell how long it took her to regain her senses, see what he suffered, and invent his solution all over again.
Five seconds or five minutes or five hours. Langcorn believed his torment was all of them. Nothing could hurt that much and last five hours, yet even five seconds was intolerable cruelty. That was what the hellfire truly consumed instead of air to keep alive: time. Hell must have been the only endless place, the cave of no respite. Heaven could not be permanent. The threat of being ejected from it must have given the residents a sense of time, of doom, and thus enabled the joy that lived there.
Arguably the Chrismon Tree was even better than the heavens above. Its visitors had just twenty-four days: a beginning and an end they could understand and feel. It was the only place of the three actually made for them instead of fueled or polluted by them. Marzipan and Langcorn knew what each day was, and that they were separate, and that was what gave them a chance. One day of hellfire in twenty-four meant that most of them were not. They thanked somebody for that, somebody they could not name.
The cold helped drive away the lingering trauma. Together they left without giving Saint Defendens another word. He watched them go smugly. Some people just couldn’t take it. Even though they were free to think their own way they stubbornly insisted on living it too, denying god his dancers. When the fire came for them again they would never even get a moment to understand that.
“I could go for some rabbit myself, lord knows I’ll stew it first,” the saint snorted as the lost souls vanished between the sprigs. He looked around at his lounging wolves. “That was an order.” He clapped and sent them running off into the woods. He counted them as they ran; two were missing. “So uncivilized.”