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 Twentieth Day
The next day the snow fell even heavier, but only in patches. It wasn’t fresh, merely banks from the day before being disturbed and tumbling to branches below. Marzipan and Langcorn dodged the clumps as they fell, running through battened down saint streets winding through the boughs.
“What’s going on?” the girl asked. When she looked up she noticed something new. The foliage was too dense to identify the source of the light, but the tree’s pallor had changed. Everything glowed, but not with warmth.
“Moonlight,” Langcorn whispered before speaking up. “The winter solstice is just a day away! Triluna is beaming! Now and tomorrow we can meet her I think… but we have to get to her.”
“How? The pagans don’t want us to.”
“Not all of them…” He couldn’t sweep her off her feet and carry her on his shoulders the way he wanted, that would risk her touching him too much, so he got behind her and pushed her forward by the calendar. “Come on now. We have to run, run, run! That’s how they do it!”
“The men!” He pointed at the falling curtains of snow, falling in paths. Marzi understood, but she didn’t say so. They needed all their breath for the journey. It was obvious Langcorn could go much faster, but he kept her in the lead so she wouldn’t fall behind. She blinked back tears. This was his chance as much as hers, but he was staying.
She pushed her body to the limit to honor his commitment. When their path was blocked they turned to climbing, leaping from one woody divot to the next, until they left all the signs of saint civilization behind. All at once they pushed through a wall of needles and found themselves in the middle of heavy shoulder-to-shoulder traffic.
Pagan male creatures, visible in droves as far as they could see, were running in rivers, climbing like insects. They all ascended the tree. The moon was the star atop it now: their goddess. Marzi could smell their fur and sweat as they jostled her, some as big as grizzly bears. Most had horns, and some curled five or six times, scraping along their own skulls, threatening to invade their brain cases or eye sockets. Some were tangled up with each other, but they just ran together like it was a three-legged race.
“Are we going to see Triluna?” she asked the one next to her after checking over her shoulder to make sure Langcorn was still there.
“Only one!” the stag-man panted back. His horns were simple forward curves, like fishhooks, like they hoped to snag the goddess’s flesh and hang on as she ascended back into the sky. The look in his eye suggested being a mere itch on her flank would be an honor. “Whoever gets there first, if we can get there at all! It is a grueling journey and we haven’t much time left!”
“Can we come too?”
“All can attempt! You are welcome! Isn’t she brothers!?” the stag bellowed. They roared and howled in response, and it spread across them in waves, frontrunners to underdogs. “She will take only one mate; only one may sire!”
“Well we were going to have her be our patron.”
“Whatever makes your heart swell! She is all powerful!” Marzi thought they weren’t giving themselves enough credit; they certainly felt powerful all around her, with their thundering hooves and scraping claws. It didn’t take long for her to develop a patchy coat of unintentional bruises.
Their human bodies weren’t going to keep up, not all the way to the top, that much was clear. Again the men demonstrated the spirit of the event though, taking them up on their backs and shoulders, letting them ride. Marzipan pulled both of her arms into her shirt and hugged herself, to keep from touching them.
The climb continued for hours, and aside from the occasional wave of cheering when they broke through to a new layer, there wasn’t much conversation. The moonlight grew stronger, the tree’s green and the snow’s white overtaken by the rich blue of a starless night sky.
Something drew the humans’ attention, breaking through the layer below like a breaching whale. Gigantic furry arms, somewhere between gorilla and raccoon, hoisted the mightiest beast of the tree into full view. The pagan men had a most mixed reaction, some cheering the new one on, others sighing in disappointment.
The creature was caught up in moments, its massive chest casting a shadow over Marzipan and Langcorn. Its lithe body was somewhat man-like, though covered in fur with a voluminous collar of it on the neck, shoulders, and chest. A long tail, tipped with the paintbrush of a lion’s, undulated like it was swimming upstream. Tall horns that ended in curly fry spirals crowned its long-snout head.
“Who is that majestic specimen?” Langcorn asked the bison-man carrying him.
“It is Virdihorn! The male of the pagan gods! We don’t stand much of a chance now that he’s here!”
“He seeks Triluna as well?”
“Yes. You should go with him! It’s your best chance to speak with her. He won’t mind, as long as you don’t try to mount her before him.”
“We won’t be trying that at all!” With that most unusual promise made, the men collaborated to get Virdihorn’s attention. They called to him, but even with great fur-lined ears between a donkey’s and a bat’s he didn’t take note. Without bothering to communicate the new plan to their cargo, they started handing the humans along until they were close to Virdihorn’s right knee as he clambered up the Chrismon Tree’s trunk.
When they were tossed, again without warning, they had no choice but to cling to his fur and start climbing. Perhaps they would be stable enough to walk when they reached his back. Marzipan’s hands trembled; he wasn’t like the many trees she’d climbed before. Instinctively she contracted, trying to glue herself to him.
“Marzi! Don’t touch his skin!” Langcorn shouted up to her. She could barely comprehend, but he was right. The fur seemed to count as clothing, but if her skin touched his she might be jettisoned from the tree, or perhaps she would open her eyes and find nothing but drainage ditches around her.
That didn’t seem so bad in the moment, for she twisted her neck to look at Langcorn and instead saw the gaping holes in the tree’s foliage the men had tunneled through. Her heart panicked, and then the rest of her.
She could die if she fell. Her body never listened to her, so she knew screaming at it as she tumbled through the evergreen air would not make it move out of the way of the branches below. Her fear made her see it transformed, in ways she would never pray for. Twisted into a knot. Jagged broken bones ripping through skin. Black bruises.
In that moment, flattened against Virdihorn’s oblivious musk, she realized how different that death would be from the one she’d always expected. Someone was going to kill her. The scenario had never had clarity like this, but all the pieces lined up like black pearls around her neck. She would go somewhere new, college, a job, a vacation, and someone would see Mars instead of Marzipan, someone who hadn’t carefully whittled their own eyes the way Langcorn had, someone who just took their sight for granted.
A fury she couldn’t stop would be born in them, like watching a forest fire spread. She’d extinguished Mom’s, but only by taking her true self out to the woods, not to be shot, but to dance about her altars, offer her blood and flesh sacrifices, and plead with the gods that might have been.
She would be away from Mom, and there would be no energy left to hide from anyone else. Like fate, like stars dimming and dying and collapsing, she would say that, for the time being, that time being the rest of her life, she was Marzipan and she was she.
The furious person would do to her what gravity insisted upon in the tree, but they would do it in anger. They would destroy her because her nature didn’t fit with their idea of nature itself. People were hypocrites all, even herself, she thought, for it was only the gods’ place to destroy. Forcing her to cut to the front of the line of mortality was against god’s rules.
Perhaps that was nothing more than rude to god, but not to Marzi. She knew how small she was. Langcorn seeing her shattered her with happiness, broke her with wholeness. So even something rude could kill her, even if it just made her body betray her one more time, her opportunistic hands finding broken glass in her backyard and putting it to her wrist before she could get her mind off a day that hadn’t come yet, that wasn’t helpfully marked with a door as the last of twenty-four.
She touched Virdihorn once she was safely on his back, but only with her tears. Langcorn pulled himself up beside her and waited. He would wait until it was too late. He would wait until they both starved if she didn’t look up and move, so she had to.
Together they made their way along the knobs of his spine to his shoulders. His wide-set eyes, with the bar pupils of a goat and irises like violet bonfires, finally acknowledged the hangers-on.
“Hello little folk!” the god greeted them with the voice of the universe’s strongest and thickest-skulled bighorn sheep.
“Hello Virdihorn!” Marzi shouted back, aiming her mouth toward the fuzzy cavern of the nearest ear. “My name is Marzipan and this is my best friend Langcorn!” The man waved, but his hand quickly rejoined his crouching legs, doing everything they could to keep from being thrown off while still presenting a friendly demeanor.
“Clever of you to ride me like a tick, but I can’t let you have her. Triluna is mine!”
“Her love is all yours,” Langcorn assured him, “we’re only after a favor. Completely separate affairs. You have our word.”
“Alright then; that makes me the man for the job!” The pagan god roar-bleated toward the tree’s top, the other men echoing in his footsteps. “It won’t be long now; we’re nearly there.” Even off balance Langcorn managed an exhilarated smile, until he looked over the shoulder and saw one of the climbers suddenly break away from his vertical ascent, falling stiffly like a flake of chocolate chipped from the bar.
The man he had pledged his life too had fallen just as suddenly, mid-bounding. These creatures lived but a single year, and if they all mated around the solstice, that year was passing. Another fell. Another. Those who didn’t paid no mind, their eyes locked to the source of the moonlight enriching them.
“They’re dying,” he muttered. Virdihorn heard.
“Ha! Slowpokes!” the god taunted them. Marzipan grabbed the fur on his shoulder and leaned over herself, watching as the death moved from a light dusting to a powerful wave. Hundreds fell, antlers and hooves clacking together on the way down. There were no mournful cries, no barks of rage, even as some of the bodies knocked the living off and forced them to join in the descent.
Those remaining after a few minutes could be counted with human digits, but even they vanished when Virdihorn took a mighty leap, to a branch barely big enough to hold him. The air felt thin, jagged. Cold set in, the humans only then realizing how much of a shielding heat the god had exuded. He was panting. His elbow touched wood. His stomach.
A clawed hand loomed over the shoulder, scooping the visitors off and setting them against the Chrismon trunk. The blazing violet in his eyes diminished. One of his horns snapped off without warning, spinning down into the boughs. His head listed to one side, forcing him to rest his cheek on the snow-covered bark.
“Why are you stopping!?” Marzi asked, rushing up to him even with his breath pushing her back. Langcorn was right behind. “You’re almost there! She’s waiting for you!”
“Quivering with anticipation no doubt,” Virdihorn added, too weak to laugh. “A touch short I’m afraid. I am spent. The poor woman; she’ll have to wait another year.”
“But… but you’re dying! You can’t go to her next year!”
“It won’t be me, but it will be an iteration. Virdihorn shoots up. Virdihorn withers. Different numbers of leaves and petals, but always potent. I am the lucky men, the only ones who get to die in the Chrismon Tree.”
“But dying is bad!”
“Not if you live a full life, and when you are full of life you always do. You two can make it the rest of the way yourselves.”
“I’m afraid not,” Langcorn interrupted. “The day is almost done. We have less than an hour. Once we’re forced to leave we have to enter from the hall of Saint Perpetuus again. Without your help we’ll never make it this far in a day’s time. I’m sorry.”
“Ha!” Virdihorn coughed with all his remaining vigor. “You’ll make it if I have anything to say about it, which I always do. Quickly, your calendars. Present them.” Marzipan and Langcorn removed the planks from their backs and held them up side by side. Virdihorn lifted one finger, one claw, and with stunning precision given his size and weakness, he scratched the wood of both doors twenty-one.
Then his arm moved over them, all the way to the trunk of the Chrismon Tree. He gouged out of it the shape of a rounded doorway, stabbing a knob as a final detail. Marzi looked at her calendar, saw the new ragged frame around the door. She asked what he’d done.
“Now the solstice door will take you straight here!” the god trumpeted. They thanked him copiously. “Oh stop! I already know everything you’re saying. What I need from you is not gratitude. I want you to tell Triluna some things for me.”
“Anything,” Marzi assured him, devotion crystallizing in her eyes.
“Tell her… I would’ve cracked her very foundation with the earthquake power of my thrusting.” Langcorn rolled his eyes. A child shouldn’t hear such things, of that he was sure, but she was too locked in the moment for him to suddenly cover her ears. “Tell her even the memory of our union would’ve brought her to the precipice of unending pleasure, that her heart, mind, soul, and nether regions would all have swapped stories for years, each insisting they were the one most devastated by euphoria. She needs to know that every touch from every being that isn’t me would’ve afterward felt like the unpleasant squeak of rotten fruit skin against her flesh compared to my caress. It is vital she understand that with the throbbing sun heat of my manhood I would’ve-”
Virdihorn’s mouth froze open. His other horn snapped and fell. The god creature collapsed against the branch completely, and no more breath whipped about his flatter teeth or his prominent canines.
“What!?” Marzi blubbered. “What about your manhood!?”
“It’s alright,” Langcorn said, touching her calendar to stabilize her. “It would’ve been more of the same I think.”
“I’ll tell her all about your manhood!” the girl swore as her companion pulled her away, toward the freshly carved door.