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-third Day
Though they didn’t care whether or not they ruined Saint Bernardino, both Marzipan and Langcorn were fully committed to the last two legs of their journey. They wanted Christmas eve to be an emergency day in case anything went wrong, so they decided to take a risk and hopefully save nearly a day of travel on door number twenty-three. They each, during that morning in their respective eras, took up a nail and attacked the tiny door frame on their calendar.
Their hope was that the technique did not require the magic claw of Virdihorn to work. As far as they knew the door he had scratched into the tree, near the top, was still there, and perhaps making the twenty-third door identical would serve to connect the two once more.
Marzipan went over the rectangular frame three times with a rusty nail she sometimes used to draw blood for her sacrifices, whenever she couldn’t find the stick. When the lighter color of the wood underneath was fully exposed she held her breath, pinched the tiny knob.
When she stepped out, onto the high branch they hoped for, Langcorn was already there. He had been busy, retrieving the remaining potion bottles from their hiding place. After the mushroom debacle Marzi had nearly forgotten about them. He held them up and showed her each one they had left: lilac, bubblegum, and gold.
“I thought we might need them as a last resort,” he explained. The man was smiling at her, but then he noticed something over her head, ran toward her, and urged her to come away from the trunk. She obeyed, and when she felt she was a safe distance she turned to see a wall of bark peeling back. It broke and fell. The wood underneath, a stretch as big as an office building, had turned purple, and was encumbered by dark rings leaking sickly globules.
“I was almost too late,” she noted as the diseased patch overtook Virdihorn’s door, peeled it off the tree.
“We won’t be using that tomorrow then,” Langcorn sighed, but the tree’s illness was a greater concern. Vast snowbanks hid the effects somewhat, but the Chrismon Tree was losing its needles. As they walked there was a light drizzle of them, some so large and plummeting so straight that they stuck in the white like daggers.
“Is it dying?”
“I don’t know. I have no sympathy for most of the creatures living here, but the tree itself certainly doesn’t deserve this. It’s like us.” He scratched at the ringworm on his back, reminding Marzi that under the numbing cold she was probably very itchy herself, so she scratched where the sensation should have been.
The path was even more treacherous now that the needle clumps holding them could give way, and they did so three separate times as they circled around the trunk in search of the second spiral stair.
It was time-consuming to find, but not difficult. Its carving style was much more industrial, akin to something found in many a mansion. They began their upward journey, and ten minutes later it ended.
Calling it a gap was like calling a volcano a teacup. Even with their heads craned all the way back they couldn’t see if the stairs reappeared. It was clear they had been there at one point, as the last step was still a ragged edge showing the marks of a large saw.
“They cut us off,” Marzi growled, squeezing the plastic beads at the hem of her dress, just under her coat. “They’re scared of us. They’ll wreck their own stuff just so we can’t use it.”
“Look, there’s something over there,” Langcorn said, pointing down. There was a platform beneath the cut edge, something like a pier. It extended far out from the trunk, as a flat artificial branch, and they could just make out a row of cylindrical metal objects, past a colorful banner. “We might as well see what it is.”
He helped her down and then dropped as well, relieved the boards didn’t give out under them immediately. On approach they saw the message written across the banner: Welcome Langcorn and Mars!
“It’s definitely a trap,” Marzi sighed.
“Even when they want it to look enticing they refuse to use your real name,” Langcorn noted. “Shameful as well as foolish. I’ll never understand why the people who should be most humiliated by their actions never feel that particular emotion.” A figure near the objects waved to them, hollered.
“Let’s go see what stupid thing they’re stupid doing stupid now,” Marzi grumbled. She moved with her most dainty and feminine skip to show she wasn’t intimidated. Langcorn didn’t know if he should imitate her, but he didn’t have enough hope left to muster a skip anyway, especially after they got close enough to tell what the objects were.
Cannons. Cannons with barrels of white gold, adorned with ribbons and roses. They were aimed out at the incredible sky beyond the tree, at cloud banks that probably obscured the Earth and a few other worlds they weren’t supposed to know about. Each weapon was big enough around for a man to fit comfortably in its barrel, which was exactly what the attending saint was about to suggest.
He called himself Saint Florian, and something about his red sash and the iconography about his neck suggested community service, particularly as a firefighter, leading the visitors to wonder how many frustrated calendar-holders like themselves had tried to set fire to the tree.
Florian had a smug smile that at least paired sensibly with his truly awful hairstyle, featuring bouncing curls on either side of a slicked down part. He had a staff in his hands, topped with a thick wick and flame.
“Prester John wishes to congratulate you on your success,” the man said, drawing too close for comfort. “You have made it, twice, to the top of the Chrismon Tree. Your perseverance is truly Christian. We invite you to be canonized, so your ordeal can finally come to a close.”
“You want us to get inside these cannons… and let you shoot us? How dumb do you think we are?” Marzi asked venomously.
“No harm will come to you, you have my word,” Florian assured. “These are holy machines, not weapons of war. They merely transport to, from, and about the Chrismon Tree. When a saint is canonized figuratively on Earth, their spirit is canonized literally, flying to their new home here.”
“So you’re just going to shoot us off the tree then,” Langcorn accused, pointing out into the bright and shining beyond.
“No, I’m going to shoot you the rest of the way to the top, so you can meet with Prester John. That’s what you want isn’t it? We thought it would be polite, given that the stairs are currently under repair.”
“And we’re meant to simply… trust you?”
“I am a saint after all.”
“All you guys are saints of stuff, like fire or diseases or something,” Marzi said.
“We are invoked against those things,” Florian clarified. “I am invoked against,” he coughed slightly, “drowning”.
“Drowning!?” Langcorn exploded. “You protect people from drowning then? Where was my protection when I was thrown into a river! I would’ve died if not for the tree deciding it wasn’t yet fair for me to die.”
“Yes, well, I didn’t see you there,” Florian excused. “Hyacinth and I are always arguing over who should handle which drowning since we’re both invoked against it. I can’t watch everyone everywhere.”
“And it certainly wasn’t because of the man I was with, correct?”
“You are the saint Langcorn. The saint of Being With,” a new voice said from a few cannons down. Langcorn recognized it and rushed over, blowing past Saint Florian. He found the voice’s owner stuffed in a barrel, bruising visible on his shoulders through torn clothing.
“Wulfram! What have they done to you?” The nervous-eyed man smiled at him, clearly would’ve reached out and caressed Langcorn’s cheek if his arms weren’t stuck against the metal sides of the cannon.
“I did most of it to myself,” Wulfram said, blinking slowly to show the full extent of his blackened eye sockets. “Penance, in the hopes they wouldn’t bring me here, but it wasn’t enough.”
“What is the meaning of this?” Langcorn demanded as Florian and Marzipan reached them.
“It is as he says,” Florian said with a scowl. “His penance is insufficient. He is to be canonized back to Earth, where he will once again live a mortal life. Only this time he cannot earn sainthood, and will be judged as all the others are.”
“He won’t last one day in 2020,” Marzipan said.
“The tree is outside time,” Florian reminded. “He’s just as likely to land in the dark ages as he is to land in Swaziland or Sydney.”
“And what did he do to deserve this?” Langcorn shouted.
“He went to bed with a man, namely you. This encounter made him unclean, and when he was baptized in the tree’s blood he spread some sexual ailment you gave him to the tree itself.” Marzi and Langcorn thought of the purple spots, peeling bark, and shedding needles. “It could wither and die because of his sin.”
“Or perhaps because you keep its wounds open,” Langcorn spat. He grabbed Wulfram by the shoulders and tried to pull the man free, but he wouldn’t budge. Marzi wanted to help, but her calendar wouldn’t let her touch him, so her hands shook angrily at her sides.
“Thank you for your love Langcorn,” Wulfram said, tears barely able to escape swollen bruise. “Even after an eternity in god’s house, it was all the love I ever knew.”
“Then you should have lived with me,” Langcorn babbled. “My house is the one filled with eternal love. All of my wounds close in moments. Blood is but tears. I love you Wulf-”
“Stand clear!” Florian yelled, and only at the last possible moment. He’d lit the fuse several seconds ago. Langcorn didn’t budge, but Florian didn’t want to be coated in the resulting viscera of the two men smashing together more intensely than they wanted, so he kicked the cannon’s base, causing its barrel to swivel to a clearer path.
Kthoom! Wulfram was gone in a flash, nothing more than a trail of pluming white smoke. He punctured a distant cloud peak and was gone. Langcorn lost control of his breath as it thrashed inside him, tearing its chains from the fixtures.
“Now it’s your turn,” Florian declared. Langcorn had never violently struck another person before, but he would be denied the perfect opportunity by Marzipan’s reminder. Such a strike couldn’t help them, only waste their time. She didn’t have to say any of that, choosing instead to tap one of the potion bottles against the cannon. The tink of its glass said far more than the boom of the gun.
She uncorked the golden bottle, somehow sure it was the correct choice of the remaining three. Perhaps it was the lingering influence of Triluna’s moonlight in her body, but she was drawn to that one in the same way she was drawn to her calendar when she first saw it. It was open magic, magic that could still help, as opposed to what the saints and pagans kept snuffing out and locking away in cabinets.
Before the remaining saint could even ask what it was, she downed half of it and carefully handed the rest to Langcorn, who poured it over his head and slapped it onto his neck and shoulders, making sure to create flying droplets Florian would have to dodge.
It was lucky Marzipan’s dress was made of such cheap elastic materials, or it would have burst when her arms transformed into two gray-gold feathered wings. Her eyes grew wide and orange. Tail feathers sprouted out the back; she might’ve lost balance if her feet hadn’t grown talons that dug into the wood. Lastly her nose grew out and hardened into a purplish beak.
“Pigeon power!” she trilled.
“I think you’re a turtledove,” Langcorn said as his eyebrows converted into matching feathers. His change was limited to the doused areas, so he sprouted wings from the back of his neck.
“You’re abominations!” Florian shouted at them, aghast.
“On the twenty-third day of Christmas my true love gave to me,” Marzipan sang, voice enriched by the bird’s coo, “two turtledoves!” She flapped and took off, swooping over the cannons, too far from any world to suffer their cares. She would’ve been ascending already, but it took Langcorn a few moments to figure out which muscles he had to flex to control his own set of wings. It turned out to be the ones he usually only used to fruitlessly try and scratch an itch on his back without his hands. The man flew sideways, legs bouncing over cannons, but he had upward momentum just as he dropped off the edge of the platform.
“Get back down here!” Saint Florian ordered.
“Right after we speak with Prester John!” Langcorn shouted down to the man. “Up Marzipan! All the way to the top!” She trilled in agreement, and they both lost themselves in the ecstasy of flight. The temptation to abandon the tree entirely, to make for that endless sky, was almost overpowering, but the Chrismon Tree was the only landmark in any direction. If their potions wore off they would fall or drift with no recourse, part of an infinity unconcerned with life, mortal or otherwise.
Florian made it all the more tempting, as he loaded the guns with more standard ammunition and began firing up at them. Brass cannonballs shot past one at a time. The danger from their ascent was minimal, aiming from that distance nigh impossible, but each one eventually struck a branch, dislodging snow, chunks of wood, and diseased needles.
“You’re the one that lives here you idiot!” Marzi screamed at him, though it was more of a squawk. His response was another cannonball.
“Quickly Marzi!” Langcorn urged. “The higher we go the less debris there will be!” Most of his body hung uselessly while his neck did the work, so he had to take extra care in maneuvering, as his trunk and limbs swung awkwardly.
Kthoom! Kthoom! Kthoom! The assault continued, but Marzi and Langcorn hugged the trunk, mimicking the spiral they assumed the stairs had taken. Once they were sufficiently around the bend Florian no longer had a clear shot, and they were free to rise as directly as possible.
When they landed, once again on the sun-shaped platform at the tree’s summit, everything but its shape had changed. Daylight rays shone down as fierce yellow curtains, snow somehow falling as sparkles that refused to melt in their warmth.
Triluna had been suspended over a garden, but in her place stood a wooden building, like a courthouse that could only hold one courtroom, perhaps an office or two, and, at the barest edge of possibility, a broom closet. The roof was topped by a bright yet humble star, of circling light rather than glass or gem.
“He’s in there, let’s go!” Marzi squawked, immediately falling on her feathered face when she tried to take a step. “Crap! How do birds walk?”
“Try moving your neck forward and back as you do it,” Langcorn suggested, recalling the passenger pigeons strutting about in his hometown. She followed his instructions, flapping flop quickly turning into a walk, though the few stairs at the foot of the courthouse were another challenge. There wasn’t a single moment where she wasn’t giving it her all though, and so was out of breath when they reached a reception window next to a locked door. A cherub, crescent spectacles sliding down its nose like it was the oldest of men, looked up from its dusty bookkeeping.
“Can I help you?” it asked.
“Yes,” Langcorn said, speaking for the panting Marzi-bird, his own wings tucked primly behind his neck. “We each have a calendar, and we are here to see Prester John and ask after patronage.”
“Prester John is not in today,” the cherub said, licking a finger and turning a page to one that looked identical to the last.
“Excuse me? What do you mean by that? This is the top of the Chrismon Tree. Is this not where he is supposed to be?”
“His only obligation is to be in on Christmas eve for administrative duties. Otherwise he moves about the tree on private business.”
“So he will be in tomorrow?”
“Will we be able to meet with him?” Marzi tugged on his coat sleeve with her beak, drawing his attention below the window.
“Threaten him,” she whispered, but he waved her off.
“If you make an appointment,” the cherub answered. Its glasses continued to slide off, and since it had a tiny button nose they were now just levitating in front of its face. When it turned another page they were scared back up into position.
“We would like one appointment please.”
“Very well,” it sighed, grabbing a fountain pen and scribbling in the book. “You have one for noon tomorrow.”
“There is the matter of transportation,” Langcorn mentioned. “We had to do an awful lot to get up here today. If we start from the hall of Saint Perpetuus tomorrow we’ll never make it on time.”
“You can use this door.” The cherub pointed at the locked door next to the window. Marzi tugged again.
“We can’t trust him,” she hissed. “Grab him and shake him.”
“I’m sorry, but how can we trust you?” Langcorn opted to ask instead. “This tree is brimming with liars and scoundrels.”
“You don’t have much choice, because John isn’t here,” it reminded. “You can wait here all day and get the same result. I’ve made an appointment, and the appointments are always kept. Besides, he very much wants to meet with you.”
“We’ll be back tomorrow!” Marzi yipped at him, barely able to hold herself on the window’s lip with her wings. “But we won’t be two turtledoves like the song anymore, okay? Even if we don’t look the same our calendars mean we get to come through!”
The cherub nodded. Langcorn put his hands on his hips.