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-fourth Day
Without scavenging for dead things in her backyard each day, Marzipan’s stockpile of sacrifices had run dry. She ended up picking some friend chicken bones out of the trash, the remains of Mom’s dinner the previous night.
She didn’t know why, but she went out to her chilly altar instead of immediately using her Advent calendar’s final door. Upon it she set the chicken bones, dousing them in lighter fluid and throwing a match.
The versions of the pagan gods that had always lived in her head weren’t real, so her prayers before the flame went to nobody, but she said them anyway, words dripping with sorrow. She begged nobody for help, and drew some comfort from knowing they would do their absolute best to lift her up.
She took off her clothes and put on her dress. This was it. The last door. Once it was closed there would be no more magic in her life, and of that she was sure, given how begrudgingly the calendars were distributed. The gods cared, but didn’t understand. Their servants understood, but didn’t care. Falling through the cracks in the wood was her lifestyle, and she would do it forever, even if it was only figurative after the twenty-fourth day.
So she prayed to nobody, and was thankful to get the answer she expected.
The cherub had kept its word. When she stepped through she was in the courthouse’s narrow hallway. Langcorn was sitting against the wall, long legs tented to fit. He smiled at the sight of her and rose.
“Are you ready Marzipan?” She nodded, freeing him to address the cherub. Its little spectacles had slipped so far they were now hanging out the window itself, but they shot back onto its nose when the man spoke. “So, where do we meet John?” It pointed a chubby pink finger at the door Marzi had just emerged from. “That one again?”
“You can do a little spin before you go through, if that makes it feel more profound,” the cherub suggested.
“We have been making our own magic most of this time anyway,” he said snidely, standing as straight as possible to signal Marzi to his side. When she was there they both spun around a few times, giggling each time they rotated to find a new silly expression on the other’s face. Once they were dizzy Marzi stumbled, laughing, to the door and threw it open.
They spilled into a courtroom that would have been magnificent just a day prior. The back wall was a great map of Europe and Asia, but the lands shifted, grew and shrunk pocket oceans, and shed islands. It depicted the world as seen by centuries of ancient Christians, and the location of Prester John’s fabled kingdom, moving but always in heathen territories. He lived in Ethiopia. He lived in the three Indias. He lived in the land of the Mongols. He ruled them all.
The gallery was filled with saints, half in their best robes, half in nightgowns and caps, with a few impossible to place in either category. They would’ve been a sight if they weren’t up in arms, shouting at the man behind the judge’s bench.
He wasn’t listening, busy trying to undo the damage that had removed his chamber’s magnificence. An upper corner of the map was falling, so Prester John jumped up and down, trying to force it to adhere once more. The problem was the wet streak of purple eating the back wall, making the whole place smell like musty rotten resin. When it was clear he was only making the droop worse he turned around.
The man was imposing: a patriarch of culture, of church, and of a family that had to have more children in it than one wife was capable of producing. His skin was pale, but they could tell it had formerly been deepest bronze, softened and spoiled by the shade of the tree. His attire was strikingly modern, like a preacher selling self-help books on television, the only thing missing being a microphone over his ear.
In one hand he held a gavel, one flat face of silver, the other of gold. It was big enough to crush a skull, perhaps that of an elephant with Prester John wielding it. He looked down the aisle, past the saints as if they weren’t there, and saw his visitors. Frustration deepened to rage on his face, his brow like the tensed lower back of a charging gorilla.
“You!” he boomed, pointing the gavel at them. A forceful wind struck their calendars, pushing them against their will to the foot of the patriarch’s bench. “Mars Ridner and Langcorn, disowned and without a family name.”
“My name is Marzipan,” the girl insisted, standing despite the wind pressing down on her. It blew a few beads from the hem of her dress, scattering them across the floor. Saints recoiled as if they were rolling grenades.
“No,” John growled deeply, leaning over her. “You are Mars, the name given by your Christian mother. You are her disobedient son.” Marzi swallowed. His shadow was nearly as great as him. The man was a kingdom, and so every word was edict, every whim a more. He pronounced, and resistance crumbled. He conquered with certainty.
“I’m her daughter!” she shouted defiantly. Even if she crumbled she would do so in the most irritating direction, getting herself all over his shoes, forcing her way in until she was a pebble on his heel with every step.
“God does not make mistakes!”
“Then he can say that to my face!” she spat back. “Until then, I know you can make mistakes.” They took their calendars off their backs and held them.
“We ask, one final time, for patronage,” Langcorn said. “We’ve been neglected. Gods Christian and pagan alike have said so with these twenty-four doors, and we demand representation!”
“My court is only for judgments; there are no representatives,” Prester John said with finality. He swung his gavel. Wuh-klak! When he struck his bench both their calendars broke into splinters. Some of them stuck in their flesh, but the shock kept them from feeling it. Marzi stared at her trembling hands.
“The judgment is guilty!” Prester John roared, the saints now cheering.
“Of what!?” Langcorn shot back.
“Fornication with another man,” the godly king pronounced, “among so many other sins. Most egregious is what you’ve done to my tree.” He swung the gavel back, pointing it at the purple patch. He could’ve pointed it anywhere, because the purple crept in on all sides now. The smell was growing worse.
“We didn’t do whatever that is!”
“We traced this corruption to Wulfram, to you, and to him.” The gavel rested in Marzi’s direction once more. The wind whipped about her, making her scratch. John saw, twisting the gavel. The wind lifted up her dress, revealed the ringworm all up her sides and back.
“It’s just ringworm!” she screamed, trying to force the garment back down. “The tree will get better! Maybe you just have to let it heal!”
“I will cure it myself!” Prester John bellowed. “By removing the foreign bodies!” He raised his weapon of judgment once more, fear striking through the both of them like lightning. It wasn’t just the products of the tree that were subject to him. Everyone there not under the pagan umbrella was his, to do with as he saw fit. If his hammer of finality struck the invaders would burst into tiny pieces just like their calendars.
The floor sagged, staying Prester John’s hand as he sought to keep his balance. Marzi and Langcorn watched the purple color seep beneath them, across their feet, to the center of the chamber. A crash behind them, a row of seats sinking like a lifeboat, sent saints scrambling. One of the walls peeled away from the foundation; they started squeezing through it like rats.
John tried to strike again, but his bench was now infected with the fungus. It must have taken the decisive wuh-klak of gavel on healthy Chrismon Tree wood to pass his judgment, because when it hit this time it broke straight through, and nothing happened to Marzi or Langcorn.
“We have to leave!” Langcorn stressed, picking her up by the waist and rushing back down the aisle.
“You’re not going anywhere!” John shouted, ripping through the split remains of his bench, clambering down. He twisted the gavel in his wrist and motioned, once again summoning the wind. It snatched both of them as if in eagle claws, carried them backward.
“We have to get to the door!” Marzi guessed, most of the breath squeezed out of her. The wind dropped them at John’s feet. He swung again, at a corner of seating, but the wood was already rotted through. Again and again he struck, but the result was the same. Only when the floor opened up did he find what he searched for.
They were above a split in the tree’s flesh, infection spreading everywhere, but there were still clear veins running all the way through. John saw his opportunity. One resounding strike against any of them and his problems would become nothing but moist red globs.
None of them could move with precision though, as the floor gave way entirely, raining seats into the narrowing chasm. The door fell as well, all as one piece, lodging in a seam well above the outcropping where the three landed.
They were in a sore pile, but only for a moment, John already stepping on them to get to his feet. Langcorn blinked away pain and splinters, seeing a clear patch of wood right beside them. The godly king was mid-swing. The wuh-klak was replaced with a scream as the gavel struck Langcorn’s palm full force.
Putting himself between the wood and hammer had bought them a moment, but just one. Marzi searched the area frantically. Chunks of wood fell, bouncing off inner outcroppings. Purple rings spread and darkened. The door was stuck firm, much too high. Prester John put his foot, and his full weight, on Langcorn’s neck, holding him down so he could wind up again. Her only friend’s face turned purple as well, eyes rolling into the back of his head as he choked.
The calendars were broken, but they still existed, even in a thousand splinters. If they didn’t she couldn’t be there. The rules still applied, she hoped with the last of her coherent thoughts. Marzipan reached out and grabbed Langcorn, hugging as tightly as she could, taking his uninjured hand and rubbing it on her face, skin to willing skin. The sacrifice was broken, the last door and day cut short.
Something grew out of the wood under them, forcing Prester John to stumble back. A golden barrel enclosed Marzi as well as the man she held. Its sides became tight, the interior smelling of blessed polishing oil and olive branches. Without warning the spontaneously generated cannon fired, and the visitors to the tree flew once more.
The door swung open. Prester John swung back. Marzi clung like a spider to its last strand of silk. Salvation grew in front of her; she saw snow, trees that were each their own, and concrete pipes. There was nothing she could do but hold on. Hold on. Hold on.
Wuh-klak! They heard it, thinking the sound the one and only replacement for the beating of their hearts, but then it echoed. It echoed away into the sky, the ordinary dead trees passing it back and forth, unsure what to do with such an order. It was probably meant to be obeyed by a different tree. It was none of their business really. Better to let it go.
They had passed through the door just before the sound wave reached them, and there was no magic in the smelly air of Marzi’s 2020 backyard. There was no door either, and no calendars, but there was a Langcorn that broke her fall as they landed in snowy mud, sliding to a halt just beneath a pipe that had no qualms about dripping on them despite what they’d just endured.
“Langcorn?” she asked with a wisp of a voice she was shocked to still possess. Without the magic she feared he was dead, blood crystallized, bone fossilized, flesh mummified by existing hundreds of years after he was supposed to.
“Not now Marzi,” he rasped with closed eyes, letting his head fall into a filthy puddle as if imaging a beautiful man standing behind him and shampooing his hair. “It’s still Christmas eve. I know you’re excited, but you need your sleep.”
She smiled and collapsed, resting her cheek on his chest. Fatigue overtook them; for a time they slept soundly in the frigid filth.
A few hours later they were still in her reality. They were still alive. There was no sign of anything else from the Chrismon Tree beside the circular bruise on Langcorn’s hand. It was over. The calendars had earned them nothing but perspective, injuries, and each other. Numbly they walked toward Marzi’s home, with no idea how to proceed.
“It’s interesting to know for certain exactly why the gods aren’t interested in helping us out,” Langcorn mused, feet crunching then squelching in the powdery slop. “All of our problems look too small to them, so they defer to us, and we proceed to attack each other, as if we don’t think there’s enough room in the nest for all of us to mature.”
“Don’t make excuses for them,” Marzi said. “They can do better, just like everybody else… I don’t know how I’m going to explain you to Mom.” She stopped, thinking. “We might have to run away.”
“You are the expert in this time,” Langcorn conceded. “I will trust any decision you make. You were right… there was nothing for me in my time. They wanted me dead there, so even if they want me dead here I know you’ll be by my side.”
“If all I can do is die with you, I’ll do it,” the girl promised, taking him by the hand and leading him. They passed through the last of the trees, into the clearing where her home rested. There was an unexpected car parked behind Mom’s. She’d never seen such an expensive vehicle up close before. With sleek black siding and silver wheels it looked to her like a car some automotive CEO might choose to be buried in in place of a coffin. There was a young woman leaning against it, an irritated look on her face, a leather folder with multiple pockets held against her chest.
When she saw them emerge she came toward them, high heeled shoes sinking into the ground. She was easily twice as irritated when the three were finally face to face. Marzipan examined her green pantsuit, unable to tell much.
Hopefully she wasn’t with the government. Her young mind was already running wild with possibilities of there being a magic branch in addition to the judicial, executive, and legislative. It wouldn’t surprise her if there was a giant magic detector somewhere in her county, put up just to make sure people weren’t getting too happy.
“Hello,” the woman greeted coldly, in more ways than one. “Please tell me you are Langcorn and Marzipan.”
“We are,” the man answered. “Who are you?”
“Yeah, there’s no way I’m telling you my name,” she said with a spiteful little laugh. “This is the last I’m going to have to do with any of this.” She started pulling a few select papers out of her folder. “I honestly don’t know what’s going on with you people, but if this is what it takes for me to keep getting paid… I need like a desk or something.” She clicked a pen.
“I can turn into one,” Marzi said. “I’ve been turning into lots of things lately.” she turned around and bent over, presenting her back as a writing surface. Ms. Pantsuit was quick to put the papers down on her and hand Langcorn the pen, which he barely recognized as such.
“Mr. Langcorn, if you would sign here, here, and here we can get out of each other’s hair.”
“Don’t sign it yet,” Marzi warned, raising her voice without raising her back. “You have to know what signing something means in 2020. Hey lady, what do those papers say?”
“They say that you get a free house and a million dollars a year for the rest of your lives.”
“A million what!?” the girl blurted, nearly dropping the papers in the snow. She waddled in a circle to face the woman. “Why would we get that? Did Mom win the lotto finally?”
“I don’t know anything about your mom. All I know, and please don’t enlighten me, is that my family owns the Allsaints yacht company. We make boats for rich people and bigger boats for even richer people. We’ve been in business for over a hundred years and, somehow, what we’re doing right now was laid out in a company charter by my great-grandfather.”
“What was his name?” Langcorn asked.
“Wulfram.” He gasped, accidentally sticking the pen in his mouth when he went to cover it with his hand. Even the foreign tastes of plastic and ink couldn’t quell his disbelief. They had said the Chrismon Tree was outside of time, and that Wulfram could lead his second mortal life anywhere, anywhen.
Apparently there was also nothing stopping him from making very shrewd investments based on a history he already knew. He’d built a business, built a plan to thank them for freeing him, and passed it down to his descendants.
“Langcorn!” Marzi squealed. “We’ll be… this is… I’m going to get a doctor!” She knew the precious papers were still balanced on her back, so all she could do was stick her arms out and flap her hands.
“Not what I’d buy with a million dollars, but whatever floats your yacht,” Ms. Pantsuit muttered. “And you’re not getting anything unless you sign these.” Marzi told him it was okay, the pen finally coming out of his mouth. Three signatures later she took the papers back, finally letting Marzipan rise and show her beaming face, smile full of hyperactive hope that nearly choked her. She hugged Langcorn. One more item came out of the folder: a smartphone. She handed it to Marzi, sensing her to be the more capable of the two even though she’d needed the legal adult’s signatures.
“The address to your new home is in there, plus a number for a car service. You can pay the guy with the phone too. They’ll take you. Once you’re there the key to the front door is under the saint statue. You’ll find more papers on the kitchen counter making your adoption of Marzipan official. She now has the last name Lang. There are some documents for her school enrollment as well. I definitely don’t suspect any of them are forged,” she said clearly, just in case there were any recording devices around.
“Can’t we just ride in your car?” Marzi asked.
“No, I’m done here. Your checks will be in the mailbox on Christmas eve. Please don’t try to contact me.” She turned and hobbled away on her high heels, muttering. “The things I’d do for my inheritance…” She opened her car door, paused. “I like your dress,” she shouted back at Marzipan.
“Thank you!” the girl sang. “I got it from an otter!”
“Yeah, I’m gone,” Ms. Pantsuit hissed, and twenty seconds later she was. Marzipan grabbed Langcorn’s wrist and pulled him out toward the main road, swaying her hips as much as she could.
“Come on; we can get a better signal away from the trees.”
“That thing was called a car?” he babbled. “Is it like a wagon? Good god, where did they stuff the horse?” He had a million more questions about his updated world, but the one about his new daughter was most important. “Are you sure you’re ready to leave?”
Marzipan stopped, glanced back at her house. She searched her memories for happy moments, for even a crumb of magic. Nothing. The cupboards were bare. It was as if somebody else lived there, someone who was never hungry, and it couldn’t have been her, for her stomach was rumbling at that very moment.
“Let’s go home.” She pulled him along. The quiet settled in again as the snow fell heavier, burying the car parts and broken plant pots that had been her playthings. Mom woke from a nap, thought she heard something.
“Mars, is that you?” she shouted. “Mars!? Mars you answer me when I call your name!”