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 Twenty-second Day
Marzipan’s decision to wear her blue otter dress to the tree on every remaining day immediately backfired. It made her stick out so much that they caught the attention of one Saint Bernardino, who had been hunting them for a few days now.
The man didn’t even hail them as he came up from behind, stealthily throwing rags soaked in something over their mouths. That something made them faint immediately, and when they awoke they were sitting in an iron cage, presumably within Bernardino’s home. The saint was celebrating their capture, and had invited several of his friends to join.
Marzi was roused by the smell of grapes and strong cheese. Her stomach protested, forcing her to stand and stick her face as far through the bars as she could. She saw several men standing around a table, stuffing their faces, wiping their hands on their robes. One of them made a joke, and while they all laughed the teller laughed loudest.
“Hey! I want some!” she called out to them. Heads turned. Out of the pack came Bernardino, the only one in a silly tall hat of the church, though it looked like he had punched its pointed tip down into a more compact and slightly less ridiculous form. He looked nearly sixty, but like he was fighting tooth and nail to avoid being labeled as such. There was tension in his mouth, like he was missing the bit he was supposed to champ at.
“So you’re awake,” he gloated, grabbing a cluster of swollen purple grapes and walking over. “Help yourself.” He dangled it just in front of her. She extended her tongue, the tip struggling to grab the lowest hanging fruit. When she had it she ripped it off, chewed, and swallowed. The saints’ party guests threw their hands up and cheered. Bernardino was snickering himself, shuffling to the door of the cage and unlocking it with a heavy pitted key. They all waited for something to happen, and looked confused when several seconds of nothing went by.
Their cheer faded. Bernardino opened the cage door, thinking perhaps the barrier was preventing the desired effect. Marzipan stepped out. The saints took a few steps back, which cleared her way to the table and the rest of its food. As instructed, she helped herself.
“Wasn’t she the one who couldn’t eat anything?” one of the younger looking ones asked their host, scratching his head.
“She is,” Bernardino assured, approaching the table, watching as she gnawed on a sausage like a beaver at a felled tree. “I’ve seen violations of the calendar sacrifice before; they always go the same way. As soon as the forbidden behavior occurs a cannon is supposed to form around her and canonize her right out of the tree, back to whatever miserable hovel she was spawned from.”
He waited for her to answer to this, but since it wasn’t addressed to her she didn’t bother. He waited so long that Langcorn roused, wandering out of the cage with bleary eyes and a hand on his forehead.
“Oh look, more captors,” he grumbled as he found the only chair near the table and helped himself to a seat. “Such a surprise, right Marzipan?”
“Ha, Yaff,” she agreed through a full mouth.
“You,” Bernardino said to Langcorn, “what have you done? Can you also break your sacrificial oath without consequence?” As answer Langcorn leaned over the table and poked Bernardino on the arm repeatedly, jabbing with his finger, staring coldly.
“How is this possible?”
“We switched calendars,” the girl explained before grabbing a jug of ice water and downing it.
“You can’t… do that,” Bernardino said, thoughts wandering to something else as he realized there was nothing stopping them.
“We should make him eat something then,” another guest suggested.
“That would be pointless,” Bernardino muttered. He kept talking as he rushed over to a locked cabinet and plied it with the same heavy key from the cage. “It’s only a violation if they willfully choose to violate it. Accidents and force do not count.” The doors creaked as they swung wide.
Everything within was covered in dust, but much of it still shone under the layers: gold, silver, and jewels. The saint showed some caution, his arm entering slowly, picking its target with great care. He lowered his hand like a crane, avoiding several pairs of solid gold dice with diamond pips.
The item he picked up was a palm-sized wooden sphere divided into thirty odd square sections, each numbered. Its color was light, its grain smooth, both in contrast with Marzi’s and Langcorn’s dark and ornately carved calendars. Bernardino licked his lips and scurried back to the others, leaving the cabinet flung open.
“Do any of you carry yours on your person?” he asked his guests, waving the ball. Feet shuffled as they refused to look him in the eye. “Come now you cowards; I know at least one of you does.”
“What is that?” Langcorn asked, propping his feet up on the table like he owned the place.
“It’s an eternal calendar,” the saint explained. “It’s like yours but the month repeats endlessly. It makes us timeless, allows us to live in the Chrismon Tree rather than just visit. We all have one, and I’m certain there’s at least one more in this room! Cough it up!” Several of them turned their pockets inside out, but one of them unfortunately had something in his hands after he did.
Saint Bernardino pushed his way close and snatched it, holding it up to compare. The spheres were identical as far as Marzi and Langcorn could tell. After yesterday, all sorts of dark thoughts and wicked temptations passed through the girl’s mind. Perhaps they should steal an eternal calendar, be a permanent thorn in the tree’s side. Or maybe they could destroy them, let the saints remember the dry-mouth taste of dwindling time.
The host tossed his calendar to the other man and asked what his sacrifice was, indicating they too dealt with the restriction.
“I’m not allowed to officiate weddings,” he mumbled.
“Really?” Bernardino asked with a scoffing laugh. “What did you do to have that levied against you? Never mind. Your business is your business. You can’t wager or gamble while you have mine… and now I can.”
“Don’t do this,” the young one warned. “You’ve held off for so long! I remember when Prester John congratulated you.”
“Do you know what success in such matters looks like on the most recent Earth?” Bernardino asked in response. “They give you a little chip that reminds you how much time has gone by since you last partook in the vice. Six months, ten years, presumably until death. I don’t even get such a trivial token. The amount of time I am expected to abstain cannot fit on anything. If the number was carved into the Chrismon Tree it would have no bark left.”
“Mom’s like you,” Marzipan shared. “She’s always buying lottery tickets. She says if she wins she’s going to start her own lottery, but just for Christian ladies so the winner will always deserve it.”
“You two are my lottery ticket!” Saint Bernardino declared, practically salivating. “You have two days left right? And you intend to meet with Prester John?”
“We don’t know the way,” Langcorn said.
“You will in moments! I’ll tell you. Of course, that won’t make it any easier to get there. It’ll take perseverance, and more than a little cleverness, but you’re up to the challenge aren’t you?” He rushed back to his cabinet, filling his arms with treasures, only to bring them back to the table and let them spill all over it, mingling with the food.
“This is a jest, yes?” one of his guests asked nervously. “You’re not seriously going to help them!? You kidnapped them not an hour ago!”
“That was before I learned this wonderful swapping trick!” He turned to his prisoners, giddy. “You know what I’m the patron saint of? Can you guess? Go on, guess.”
“Being lame,” Marzi guessed.
“Rudeness,” offered Langcorn.
“Those… with gambling problems!” he exploded, laughing uproariously even as his guests shared uncomfortable glances. They thought they were going to see a cathartic canonizing, not a man euphorically disassembling his virtue. “It makes a certain amount of sense, I admit. The tree restricts me from my vice, so as long as I’m here I can’t wager with those seeking help for the same issue.
That’s how I became aware of you two. I sensed you were wagering the other day.” Marzi and Langcorn had no idea what he was talking about, but figured it out with a few moments of thought.
“He means the board game,” Langcorn told her. “Technically we were wagering that refuse, weren’t we?”
“That’s how it starts!” the saint assured. “Soon it won’t be good enough. You’ll want to wager your wealth, your home, your church! I’d wager my flock if I could. I’m back now, and I’m going big. I’m betting on you two.” He turned to his guests, pushing the treasure pile toward them. “Who’s in? Odds are fifty to one against them I’d say.”
“I’m in,” one of them grumbled, stepping forward and pulling out a bag of ancient coins. “I’ll do ten silver against.” A few more joined, and they started arguing amongst themselves about odds and amounts.
“What exactly are you doing to help them?” one asked before showing what he might wager.
“They can have a map, but the rest is up to the tree,” Bernardino said. This reminded him that the map had to physically be given, so he hurried over to another cabinet and pulled out a scroll, tossing it to Langcorn. It bounced off his startled chest and rolled across the floor. Marzi dropped out of her seat and crawled after it.
As she did she noticed her palms and knees became damp. The hardwood floor, a single piece sanded from the surface of a Chrismon branch, crunched and creaked under her. Making sure to snatch the small scroll first, she looked underneath her. The wood had taken on a pale purple color, and floppy rings like calamari had formed. Near it there was an odor, musty and rotten, like leaves turning white at the bottom of a pond.
“Hey, something’s wrong with your floor,” she told them as she returned to her seat and shared the scroll with her companion.
“What?” Bernardino looked down. The issue was spreading quickly, visibly, and within minutes the floor crunched under all their feet. “What is this?” A few bent down and grabbed at loose splinters, able to peel away pieces.
“We’re going now,” Marzipan told them once the two had realized they could read the map well enough on their own. They headed for the door, skirting around the growing spotty patches.
“Yes, and godspeed!” Bernardino cheered them on. “We’re in this together! Quickly everybody, move your bets. Get them away from whatever this is.”
When the pair was a safe distance away they opened their map and looked again. According to the illuminated ink Prester John was also living atop the Chrismon Tree, at the end of a spiral staircase. The trick was that there were two tips occupying the same space. When approached from one side you found Triluna’s night, but from the other you would get John’s day.
“Are you ready to finish this?” Langcorn asked her.
“I was ready at the first stupid door… It was obvious they wouldn’t help. We don’t need this many doors when we already know where we’re going.”