Packing Santa’s sleigh was definitely the most annoying part of the present packing. Reading the present list was fun. Making the toys was fun. Loading an entire planet’s worth of presents into a sleigh was anything but. Even so, the elves made short work of it, especially when the chief sleigh-packer elf Apple was slave-driving everyone to work as fast as they could. The reindeer stood ready in front of the sleight, awaiting the command to leave.
When the final present had been placed on the sleigh, the elves gave a collective sigh of relief.
“Alright!” Apple said, sounding much more invigorated given he didn’t lift a single present and simply bossed everyone else around. “That’s the last present, Santa. You’re good to go.”
From the seat in his sled, Santa gave a thumbs-up. “I knew I could count on you. We managed to load it up in record time, this year.”
“I know,” Apple said, folding his arms with a smug smile on his face. “And it was all due to my hard work and determination. You’re welcome, by the way.”
Every other elf simply glared.
“Yes, well. Thank you, everyone–”
“And you, Apple, for another successful Christmas delivery. And now, I ought to do my part. Tally ho, and Merry Christmas to you all!”
Santa flicked the reins of the sleigh to start the journey.
All of the reindeer fell over into the snow at once.
“What?” Santa said, looking over the sleigh at the prone reindeer. “What’s wrong with them?”
“Doesn’t look like anything’s wrong with them, per se,” Apple said, crouching down beside Prancer. Billows of steam came from Prancer’s nose as she panted and breathed, as if she had just run a marathon. “I think they’re just…getting old.”
“Old? Nonsense. Why, it feels like I met with these magical reindeer yesterday. How old are they now? Five? Ten?”
“Let’s see. If ‘Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer’ was composed when he was three, and that was recorded back in…” Apple stuck his hand into the pile of sleigh presents, unwrapped a smartphone, and entered a search term on it. “1939?! But that would make the reindeer at least seventy-seven years old!”
Santa shrugged. “I’m older than that, and I still feel in my prime.”
“The average life expectancy of a reindeer is fifteen!”
Santa looked over at his worn-out reindeer with mild concern. “Well, I mean,” he began. “They are magical and all, so it should be–”
“There’s no way you’re taking those poor things out for another flight.”
“I’m sure they’re as good as new–”
“Rudolphs nose used to glow like a miniature star! Now he’ll be lucky if it passes off as a night light!”
“But–” Santa began. All it took was another glance over at the reindeer for him to come to his senses. “No, you’re right. They’ve been dragging my sleight for over three-quarters of a century. I think it’s about time we let the reindeer take the rest they’ve earned.”
“So now what?” Apple said, as Santa got to untying the reindeer. “What are you going to do?”
“I fail to see what you mean.”
“What I mean is, this is the first year you’ve been without reindeer on delivery night. You can’t seriously expect to let Christmas go without presents, can you?”
“So you have replacements for the reindeer, then, I take it.”
Santa rubbed his forehead. “…no, not exactly, actually.”
“So you’re telling me you’ve been Santa for all this time, and yet you didn’t think of a single solution for if the reindeer go out of commission.”
“I suppose it never crossed my mind.”
“Well that’s just outrageous. Utterly unthinkable. I can’t believe the man behind Christmas itself is going to miss out on it because he didn’t prepare properly. Now all the kids around the world are going to be miserable, and it’s all your fault.”
Santa looked over his shoulder in mild surprise. “What’s gotten into you?”
“Oh, I don’t know, the fact that I’m working for a guy who clearly doesn’t know how to keep tabs of his own animals. If I weren’t here, you’d probably have worked them to death! Right now, you’re here with zero reindeers to drag your sleigh and only hours away until Christmas, and you have no plans whatsoever.”
“…no,” Santa said, with a smirk. “I just had one pop up just now. I just need a sprinkle of magic fairy dust to make someone fly.”
“Oh?” Apple said, reprimanding. “And who, pray-tell, are you going to sucker into pulling your sled for you?”
The air was silent around the sleepy town as Christmas Eve moved to Christmas day. Nobody was awake to listen out, but if someone were, they’d hear the sound of distant sleigh bells and a constant stream of muttering.
With a thud, the sleigh landed upon a snowy rooftop, causing snow to cascade off the edge. The sleigh came to a sliding halt before Santa stepped out, picking out a present from the sleigh.
“You know,” Santa said, “I could get used to this.”
“I couldn’t,” Apple said in between exhausted breaths, the reins tied around his waist and a red nose haphazardly strapped over his own. “You know, you could have conscripted more elves than just me to pull the sleigh.”
“You were the only one giving me sass.”
“You did deserve it.”
“And comments like that will only extend your shift,” Santa said, smirking as he passed Apple and began his climb down the chimney. “Now be a nice reindeer and sit still.”
“You know, I don’t think this would catch on as much as the reindeers did.”
“I don’t know, I think ‘Apple the Smart-Arsed Jerk Elf’ has a nice ring to it. Be back soon!”
Then Santa vanished down the chimney with a puff of soot.
Apple snarled to himself, folding his arms and waiting. Maybe they should just buy a jet fighter and forget the sleigh ever happened.
Agatha’s Home for Lonely Children wasn’t really a home, per-se. It was originally made to be a home for children of all different worlds and dimensions to stay, should they find themselves with nobody to turn to.
Agatha soon discovered, however, that no matter how magical their new world is, children eventually long to go back. Therefore, it became more of a shelter which lonely children can use whenever they like until they got their feet in life. They would take the time to gain friends and seek magical adventures before heading back to their own worlds, where they’d find that no time has passed since they’d left.
Every child had their own room that they could use as they see fit. Agatha had seen her fair share of lost souls and shy recluses, all of which eventually found their strength. One of the new girls, however, had Agatha completely stumped.
Agatha rapped on the door to Tracy’s room.
“Come in,” came the young voice from within.
Agatha pushed the door open with one hand, the other one holding a small food tray. Tracy was still hunched over her desk, the candle on her desk acting as the only light in the room, peering through her microscope at a magic wand. She was wearing a lab coat that was slightly too big for her.
“Here’s your dinner,” Agatha said, placing the tray on the table beside the microscope. “You know, the other children are asking about you, Tracy. They really miss you.”
“I see,” Tracy said, as if told an interesting piece of trivia. She reached for a pencil, her hand knocking against the side of the food tray. She gently pushed her dinner away, grabbed the pencil, then began to scribble notes on a piece of paper. “I’ll come to dinner one day, I promise.”
Agatha watched awkwardly as Tracy resumed peering through her microscope. “So, uhm,” Agatha said. “Are you feeling less lonely?”
Tracy nodded. “Lots of very good friends here.”
“Do you want to talk about what made you lonely to begin with?”
“I used to have a friend,” Tracy said. “I wasn’t always lonely.”
“Did something bad happen to your friend?”
“Not to her, really. Her cat passed away and she was really sad, because neither she nor her family really knew why.”
“That is sad, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it is. That’s why I performed an autopsy and discovered it had a tumour on the cerebellum, which would explain why it looked dizzy sometimes.” Tracy sighed. “I thought my friend would appreciate the effort, but she didn’t want to be my friend after that.”
Agatha swallowed. “Well, let’s change the subject, shall we? Your dinner’s getting cold. Aren’t you hungry?”
Tracy looked up from the microscope, peering into the distance as if asked a tricky question. She nodded. “Yes, I don’t think I’ve eaten for a while. Thank you.”
Then Tracy looked through the microscope again, leaving the dinner be.
“What are you doing to the wand?” Agatha asked.
“I’m studying it to see how it was made and how it works. If I can figure out the mechanisms that drive this wand, I could make millions back home. This wand, the fact time stops back home while I’m here, the portal that takes me there and back…if I crack those, I can bring them back home. As a woman of science, I am blessed with this scenario, and I must make the best of it.”
“But Tracy, it’s all magic.”
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” Tracy noted. “It has to have some sort of logic and method to it. When I crack it, I should therefore be able to reproduce it.”
“You know, the Elf Lord gave you that wand so you could–” Agatha began. She was interrupted by Tracy picking up a small hammer and striking the wand. Agatha flinched. “So you could learn how to utilise magic.”
“I did. It only produced flowers.”
“Yes, that’s the point. It’s supposed to be something nice and easy to lead you into the world of magic.”
“I don’t like it when things are easy,” Tracy said, adjusting the zoom. “I want the advanced stuff.”
“Well…perhaps the Elf Lord will allow you to use better wands when you next meet him.”
“No need. I’ve identified that this wand draws energy from its environment and passes it through a magically-enchanted band set to a specific variable, which defines the element of the spell. Technically, if you change this band, it will change the result that comes out of the end of the wand. All it needs is a tweak, and you’ll be able to set it to produce whatever you’d like. So that’s what I’m trying.”
“I’m sure the Elf Lord will give you all the answers to your questions when you next meet him. For now, how about putting the wand away and eating your dinner? It would be awful if you ended up breaking your wand and–”
In a fluid motion, Tracy stood from her chair, took the wand from under the microscope, and flicked it in the direction of a teddy bear sitting on her bed. The air filled with sparks as a bolt of lightning shot out of the wand and struck the bear in the head. The bear fell backward, a scorch mark left on its forehead which quickly smoldered into a fire.
A grin creeped up on Tracy’s face.
“I did it!” she boasted. “I managed to change the variable in the wand!”
“That was…very intelligent of you,” Agatha said, beating out the small flame with a pillow. “Can you please not do that again?”
“Sure!” Tracy beamed. “It’ll take me a little longer to figure out how to summon demons with it, anyway.”
“That’s…good to hear,” Agatha noted. Perhaps it wasn’t best to introduce the fairies to Tracy tomorrow. That, or make sure to confiscate Tracy’s scalpel first.
The knock on the wooden door was quick and sharp. It caused Sarah to startle from the sound alone. Whoever wanted in, wanted in now.
Cautiously, she opened the front door to the cottage.
“Good afternoon,” said the tall, pointed-face man standing on the other side. He adjusted his spectacles to peer at Sarah better. Sarah instantly recognised him as the landlord. “Sorry to intrude on this rather relaxing day, but it has come to my attention that I haven’t performed a proper house inspection since the three of you moved in.
“Given how good you said you’d be with the property, I take it a surprise inspection would be no trouble for you whatsoever. I don’t want to see any mess, any rot, and especially no witches. Can’t be having them smuggled away during these witch hunts, now, can we?”
“Yes,” Sarah nodded. “Yes, yes. No witches, I agree. Awful, awful people. Really…really quite awful. Can you excuse me?”
Sarah half-closed the door and reached over to the picture frame on the wall that read ‘WELCOME TO: THE WITCHES ABODE. TOUCH NOT WHAT YOU DO NOT KNOW, FOR MANY THINGS CAN CAUSE YOU WOE’. She flipped it over, the other side showing an innocent countryside painting.
“Nothing,” Sarah beamed, opening the door again. “Come in, come in. I’ll let everyone know that you’re–”
“If your house is as clean as you claimed you’d keep it,” the landlord said, stepping in, “you won’t need to warn anyone, now, would you?”
“Right,” Sarah begrudgingly agreed. “That’s fair.”
The landlord found nothing wrong with the bottom floor rooms. Of course there wouldn’t be; those had ground floor windows, and couldn’t afford to look suspicious. It was the upstairs that Sarah dreaded most.
“Alright then,” the landlord said, a smile on his stone-cold face. “I’ll admit you’ve done a tremendous job. I wasn’t warned you’d be keeping so many black cats around, but everything seems to be in order. Now, time for the bedrooms upstairs, shall we?”
Bertha’s room was the first bedroom at the top of the stairs. Sarah had hoped he would knock on the door and allow Bertha to get ready. Instead, he rapped three times on the door and stormed in, at which point Sarah could only hope Bertha was engaged in some innocent knitting, or novel reading, or putting bows in a cat’s fur.
Bertha hadn’t heard the knock, for she was still standing around her huge bubbling cauldron, swaying as she stirred a huge spoon from side to side, her large frame silhouetted in the green glow against the otherwise pitch black room.
“Double double, toil and trouble,” Bertha cackled, adding ingredients to the pot with a hiss. “Fire burn and cauldron bubble! Fillet of a fenny snake, in the cauldron boil and bake! Eye of newt and toe of…of…”
Bertha met eyes with the landlord, her stirring slowing to a standstill. The landlord folded his arms, his eyebrows raised.
“Toe of…” Bertha continued. “…of…sage, pinch of salt and ale of age. Spot of pepper, bit of lime, add some oil to pass the time. Touch of beef and flank of ewe, and now we’ve made a lovely stew. Yes, a stew, that’s what this is.”
“Bertha, why are you making stew in your room?”
“Because…if I make it downstairs, the cats get into it. This is all going to the, uh, poor and needy, and we can’t have cats hairs in it, now, can we?”
“Quite. Mind if I try it?”
“Oh, but you–” Bertha began, but the landlord had already snatched the ladle away and taken a sip. Bertha winced.
“Mmm,” the landlord said, smacking his lips. “Definitely an interesting taste. Maybe add some garlic next time. And…” the landlord spat out something into this hand. “Is this a lizard’s leg?”
“Very regional tastes!” Bertha quickly stated. “It’s all the rage.”
“I’m sure it is. Let’s see how your room is doing, shall we, Sarah?”
The problem wasn’t that Sarah’s room was messy; it never was. It was the books she kept on the bookshelves lining the room. Sarah had to defend that ‘Making Potent Potions’ was an ale brewing guide, ‘Love Charms And How To Cast Them’ was a guide on flirting, and ‘How To Summon Beings from the Netherrealms’ was a very good novel, but the hero dies three quarters of the way in, so she wouldn’t personally recommend it.
Once Sarah had been deemed adequate, it was time for Mary’s room. Unfortunately, as the landlord opened the door, Mary was nowhere in the room. She was, however, hovering several feet in the air on a broom, visible through an open window.
“By the gods!” the landlord spluttered. “Is she flying? Using magic?”
“Er, uhm,” Sarah began, but this was proving hard to explain. Without thinking, she ran to the window and yelled, “Mary, are you okay? Did the wind carry your broom away again?”
Mary turned with a look of confusion on her face. The moment she saw the landlord, her eyes went wide and she ‘fell’ off the broom, holding on by one hand. “Yes, that’s right!” she called out. “But it’s okay! I have this under control!”
“Honestly!” the landlord called out. “You have to be more careful! For a moment there, I thought you were a witch!”
“Don’t worry! The, uh, wind is gradually lowering me to the floor! No need to panic!”
After Mary had both her feet back on the ground, the landlord breathed a sigh of relief. “Well, that concludes the inspection, then,” he said. “Keep reading books, but do tell your friends to get better at cooking and to be more careful. And if you see any witches, let the authorities know, okay?”
Sarah just nodded as the landlord left the room. Maybe a run-down shack next to a swamp in the middle of the woods wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
Margaret leant on the guard rail overlooking her underground lair, the floor of which teemed with scientists, soldiers, and the half-build chassis of a death ray. Yes, now she was living. This is what it felt like to live.
It couldn’t have come sooner. With Margaret pushing past her 80s and the 90s rapidly approaching, it was about time she found something that gave her life before it left her. Plus, it made for a solid pension plan.
“Alright, everyone!” she barked in an aged yet powerful voice. “I want to be the owner of at least one country before I kick the bucket. Let’s get this laser up and running, folks. I have a few leaders who are quaking in their boots, and I need something to show them I really mean business. Alright, hop to it!”
The crowd began to bustle a little more enthusiastically.
“Uhm, excuse me,” came a weak male voice from behind Margaret. “I hope I am not interrupting anything.”
“You’re not,” Margaret said, turning to face Peter. Peter was very bright, and definitely one of Margaret’s finest scientists, but he also had the problem of being particularly difficult to talk to. He wasn’t offensive; he was just shy. “If you did that five seconds before, you would have.”
“Yes, well…” Peter fiddled with his glasses. “It’s just that, well, we’re coming far beyond the simple pipe dream you had of taking over the world–”
“It was never a ‘pipe dream’.”
“Yes. Well, what I meant was that it’s becoming closer and closer to a reality. Soon, you may very well be the leader of the entire world. While that’s great and all, I’m concerned that you’re, uhm…that you’re…see, I don’t mean any offence, but you are…you know…”
“Yes! I mean, no! I mean, you’re…still a strapping young woman!”
“Yes. Well, I mean, what I’m trying to get at is this. I don’t doubt at all that you’re too old to be world leader. It’s just there’s the consideration that you’re going to…you know, that–”
“I’ll pass away.”
“Right. And you…well, you haven’t really set an heir to your rule should that happen.”
“I don’t have children,” Margaret said. “Never married.”
“So what do you have in mind?”
“Not sure,” Margaret admitted. “Depending on how many leaders we have under our control by then, we could probably let one of them have their time to shine. But until then, there’s no use worrying about–”
A red light began to blink between the two. The sign above it read ‘FRONT DOOR’.
“Ah, someone’s paying a visit,” Margaret said. “Thank goodness I have a batch in the oven. Be a dear and make sure nothing explodes, won’t you?”
“Yes Margaret,” Peter said, giving a slight bow as Margaret walked past.
Two men in identical black suits, wearing sunglasses and earpieces, stood outside the front door. One of them pushed the doorbell again.
“I think that’s enough,” the other said, with the tone of a plank of wood.
“Sorry,” said the other. “Just making sure they heard.”
The door creaked open. The frail, hunched-over figure of Margaret gently opened the door with a shaking hand, squinting as she adjusted the round glasses on her face. It was a far different side than how she appeared in the underground base; those who saw her negotiating with leaders knew which side of her was the real one.
“Oh, hello, young men,” she said, with a convincingly shaky and frail voice. “What can I do for you?”
They both pulled silver shining badges from their pockets. “Secret service. We have reason to believe that there’s an evil mastermind who lives in this vicinity who goes only by the name of ‘Mrs. X’. Do you know any information that will help us?”
“Ooh, yes, I do believe I do. Just hang on a moment, I’ll go get it.”
Margaret vanished back into her home. When she returned, she was holding a tray of freshly-baked cookies.
“Care to try one?” she said, holding them out. “I still use the recipe my mother taught me. They’re very nice. Chocolate chip.”
“Apologies,” one suit said, “but we’re specifically looking for information on Mrs. X.”
“Can confirm her intel is good,” the other said, taking another bite of the cookie he held. “Definitely contains chocolate chip.”
“Well, alright then,” the first suit said, taking one of his own. “Please realise the secret service will not accept these ‘cookies’ as a form of bribery. Now, please share anything you know.”
“Ooh,” Margaret rumbled. “You know, I’m not sure about any Mrs. X. Even if I did hear anything, facts go in through one ear and out the other these days. I’ll tell you what, though, it does remind me of a Mrs. Exon that I once knew. Back when I worked the theatre, she and I would put on the best shows in town. I have a few black and whites in the photo album; you should come in and take a look. I’ll even show you photos of my first ever cat, Morris. My, that takes me back. I got him when I was at the wee age of five, right about the time when–“
“Thank you,” one of the suits said, holding up a hand to stop Margaret. “Thank you for your cooperation and, uh, intel. If you learn anything, please let me know.”
“Sure you don’t want another cookie?”
“We’ll be seeing you.”
Margarets cheery disposition vanished the moment she closed the door. “Honestly,” she said, looking down at her tray of cookies. “Only one? Young men these days, so uncouth. Alright,” she said into an intercom beside the door. “All green up here. Let everyone know there are cookies up for grabs. I’m coming back down.”
She opened the door to the understairs cupboard, stepping into the hidden elevator within. Definitely going to do something about those brutish men when she owns this country.
For ten months a year, Ella loved her family and friends more than anything else in the world. For two months starting the moment the Halloween decorations came down and November came around, she’d find her mind wandering to cutting off ties simply so she could save on Christmas presents.
Not that it was a total chore. When swamped with knitted clothes and vouchers for stores they’ve never shopped in (and never dreamt of, ever), everyone looked to Ella for the perfect gift that matched their needs. And she always did match them. She would make a bulldog smile with the thoughtfulness of her gifts.
The only problem with being thoughtful was the actual thinking, with each gift selected being the survivor of a bloodbath between other gift ideas, all perfect for the person it was planned for, multiplied by the amount of people Ella got along with. And Ella got along with everyone.
Still, she thought to herself as she looked down at her half-completed shopping list, walking blindly toward the next shop. She had made a nice dent on it, and still in November too. The idea was to leave all the gifts that could still be panic-bought on Christmas Eve to last. She was doing a good job.
Still looking down at the list and not where she was going, she pushed the shop’s door open and entered. Now she was in the bookstore, she could nail the new book that came out, written by her friend John’s favourite author. Yes, he was going to love this book, she knew. There was one problem, however.
Why did the bookstore smell like incense?
“Aah!” came a raspy male voice, causing Ella to jump a mile. She suddenly realised she was not in a bookstore whatsoever. The walls were lined with shelves, which were the only normal thing in the room. On the shelves were trinkets and items, none of them familiar, all of them magical in some way.
At the far back of the store, in front of even more shelves of items, was a desk. Behind that was a man in a black robe, his face hidden in darkness bar a pair of red eyes. They were currently looking toward Ella with a pleasant look in them. “Welcome,” he said in his raspy voice. “I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure of meeting. I am Eldoyer, and you have found yourself — so luckily — in my shop of magical interests and treasures. Now then! What would you like, good madam?”
Ella blinked, looked around the room once more to validate it was still there, then looked back to Eldoyer. “Sorry, this…doesn’t look like Waterstones.”
Eldoyer’s eyes faded into mild concern. “No,” he said. He pointed to the wall to his right. “That’s next door.”
The pair stood in awkward silence.
“So,” Eldoyer continued. “I take it you’ll be leaving–”
“Oh, no no, no,” Ella quickly added, looking around the shop again. “No, this is, uh, exactly the sort of thing I’ve always dreamt of being in.”
Eldoyer’s temperament immediately improved. “Good, good! I am pleased. So, what would you like?”
“I don’t know. How on Earth did I get here?”
“The front door, mostly.”
“No, but…I’m sure I was headed for the bookstore and then ended up here.”
“Then you must have missed the bookstore and walked through the door beside it, which leads here, a shop which only those of special magical inclination know the existence of. I believe you’re the first non-magical person ever to visit here. Congratulations!”
“But you’re literally just a shop on the high street. How come you’ve had literally no non-magic people enter all this time?”
“Go outside,” Eldoyer said with amusement. “Check what store you just walked into.”
Ella left to check. Sure enough, the bookstore was to the left of Eldoyer’s. The shop she had just walked into had no windows, and was simply called BOB’S SECOND HAND PARLOR. The front boasted WE SELL IT ALL! • DENTURES • UNDERWEAR • FLOSS. ALL UNCLEANED AND IN ORIGINAL CONDITION TO PRESERVE AUTHENTICITY.
“I see,” Ella said, re-entering. “I feel somewhat ashamed now.”
“Ah, but don’t be! For you have stumbled upon something marvellous, my friend, and that is something few of us get to say at the end of the day. What were you originally shopping for?”
“Christmas presents, like books, and a box of chocolates, and–”
“No no no no,” Eldoyer said, interrupting her list with a carefree wave of his hand. “None of that. Throw those thoughts away. Why buy your loved ones those when you can buy…”
On this comment, Eldoyer ducked behind the counter. Before Ella could fully approach and look over to see what he was doing, he was already back up, placing what looked like a bird made entirely of iron wires. He opened its beak and placed a small rock inside. Upon closing the beak, the bird’s stomach began to glow a bright orange, submerging the rock in light. The glow dimmed, and Eldoyer pushed the bird’s head downward, causing it to lift its tail in the air and deposit a chocolate egg.
Eldoyer picked it up and took a bite under his hood. “Certainly beats a box of chocolates,” he said, jovially. “The best bit is, with all this technological mumbo-jumbo around these days, you can probably pin the magic on that instead. I’ll sell such a novelty trinket for you for twenty; that is,” he said, tapping what Ella presumed would be where his nose is in the dark shroud. “If you can promise to keep this whole thing secret.”
Ella nodded. “Absolutely.”
“Excellent. Well, then, do you want anything else, or is this it?”
“Depends,” Ella said, looking around the store like a child at a sweets shop. “Do you take Mastercard by any chance?”
It was a cold Winter’s day when the Intergalactic Phone finally rang.
In the search for alien races, people have tried everything. From scanning the night sky to sending nude outlines of themselves on the Pioneer spacecraft, humans have always been keen to find life that isn’t them.
Unfortunately, either they were being too forward or the aliens just didn’t get it. So, instead of chucking weird cryptic things into space, they spread out a single message using several small crafts all with the same instructions on them. They detailed, in picture form, the concept of radio waves, a specific radio band, and coordinates to Earth.
Should anyone pick it up, they’d be able to send radio waves to Earth and communicate through the Intergalactic Phone, which, despite being set up to accept radio waves, still looked like an old-fashioned red phone with a turn dial (which did nothing, but everyone agreed the novelty was worth it). For months, the people stationed by the phone had nothing to do. That is, until today.
The people within the room exchanged silent looks with one another as the large red phone on the desk continued to ring.
Everyone wanted the phone to be picked up. Nobody wanted to be the one who picked the phone up. What if they were violent? What if they didn’t speak English? What if somebody sneezed and it translated out as a terrible alien swear word? Not a single member of the room wanted this one in a million chance to slip by; they just hoped somebody else would pick it up for them.
A middle aged man with a bushy brown moustache and round spectacles stepped forward. His hand shaking, he placed it on the receiver of the ringing phone, then slowly lifted it off, silencing it. He got the receiver halfway toward his ear before he froze, looking around the room as if for support.
Everyone else simply nodded.
The man slowly raised the receiver to his ear. What was he going to hear? Garbled nonsense? An eloquent, advanced language beyond human comprehension? He didn’t know. All he knew is that he had to say something, else he’d potentially lose this chance forever.
With a weak voice, he said “hello?”
“Ah!” a cheery female voice came from down the line. “Sorry for ringing for so long. Did I interrupt you? Catch you in the bath, perhaps?”
“No, no, but…sorry, but is this a human speaking? You speak perfect English.”
“That’s because a universal translation device is on the line. Takes languages spoken and morphs them into something the receiver’s mind can comprehend.”
“So, sir, can I have your name?”
“Martin,” he said quickly, remembering his manners. “Sorry, I should have–”
“No, no, it’s fine. I’m Qelsh, and it’s a pleasure to speak with you.”
“Right,” Martin said, dabbing his brow. “Right. So…did you find the details of the Intergalactic Phone and called us to deliver us humans a message?”
“That’s right! If you give me some of your time, there’s a matter of vast potential and benefit that we think would benefit you immensely.”
“Well then,” Martin said. “Shoot.”
Silence from the other end. Martin worried that he might had said something bad and put Qelsh off. As he listened, however, he realised there was some background noise. It sounded like…typing?
“We’re just going to need to ask you some questions, Martin, and then we’ll be ready to go. So, first of all; have you or someone in your family suffered an injury in the workplace?”
Martin blinked. “Yes, I–”
“Excellent! Did you know that by using our services, you too can legally claim compensation from your workplace? You could earn large amounts of the currency your native specie uses, with no deposit needed. If you don’t win, you don’t have to pay!”
“…I’m…really not interested in workplace compensation. I would, however, like to know where your kind live, and where we can find your home pla–”
“That’s a shame! Are you sure you don’t want to claim? You could earn a lot!”
“Listen, please, just give us a species name, a galaxy name, anything–”
“Well, it was a pleasure, Martin. See you!”
Then the line went dead.
Martin slowly placed the receiver back onto the base. Just as he opened his mouth to address the concerned and confused look on everyone’s faces, the phone rang again.
Martin picked it up instantly.
“Hello!” came a male voice down the line. “You’ve been randomly selected to partake in a quiz that can net you one million space credits in prize money. In order to win your cash prize, just answer these three questions: what is your credit card number, CVV, and mother’s maiden name?”
Martin hung up. The phone rang the moment he did.
“Hello, and welcome to World-U-Safe Industry’s fine line of products,” the next voice said in a scripted tone. “We sell a fine range of products, from defensive space stations to interplanetary cannons. If you’d like to place an order, please press 1.”
After the third time of hanging up, the rest of the people in the room were now very confused as to why Martin was looking more and more dejected the more the calls went on.
“Say,” Martin said, finally breaking the silence. “Does anyone know how to put our phone on an intergalactic Do Not Call registry?”
Hugo gently closed the aged door behind him, creeping into the dark room. “Alright,” he said, in a soft yet gleeful voice. “It’s time!”
The person — or, rather, ex-person — he was talking to sat in the middle of the room. Her ghostly form meant that her 16th-Century dress was as puffy as the day it was made. Her emotional state, however, was less than perfect.
She looked up with annoyed eyes.
Hugo’s face fell. “What?” he said, with worry. “What’s wrong?”
The woman gave a heavy sigh. “You know, the novelty dies after the third year in a row.”
“What? No! It’s still fun, right? You said you enjoyed scaring the living half to death.”
“Yes, when they don’t expect it. And then you came along, came back for more, and then made an attraction out of it. Bringing people here every Halloween to see me wail and moan. And they all ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ and take photographs like they’re in a zoo. Honestly, Hugo, I’m so sick of it.”
“But you–you can’t stop now! The next tour is fully booked and they’re going to be here in thirty minutes!”
“You know, the only one that gets any value of it anymore is you. I don’t find it fun, but you roll in the money.”
“Just give me one more chance, okay?”
The woman gave a deep sigh. “Fine.”
“Excellent! Then I’ll see you in thirty.”
Hugo was so pleased with the result, he practically bounced out of the room. He didn’t think to turn and look back at the woman, who wore the face of someone who didn’t think it was ‘fine’ whatsoever.
“And now!” Hugo said, with a flourish. The sudden raise in his voice caused the tour group to jump. “The crowning moment of the Bloody Mansion tour. Legend has it that on this night, on Halloween, the screaming visage of Lady Eleanor runs down this very hallway, carrying her severed head in one arm, chased by the executioner who would soon drag her back to face her execution.
“But enough legends! Enough of history! Hush! Be silent! For if you listen closely, you can hear her screams…right now.“
Hugo dramatically held an ear out with a finger, prompting everyone to listen out. This would be the time that Lady Eleanor would start her ghastly screaming, except the only sound in the mansion at that time was the wind against the windows.
Entirely silently, Lady Eleanor walked through the very same door the legends claimed she ran though. She began a slothful, undignified walk down the corridor toward the crowd.
“Help, help,” she said, like a bored child reading from a script. “Help, the executioner. He’s coming to get me. Help. Somebody help. Can anybod–what, what is it?”
“Your head!” Hugo quietly hissed in her direction. “It’s still on!”
Lady Eleanor pulled on her own head, like uncorking a bottle. After a silent struggle, it finally popped off, and Lady Eleanor continued her walk. “Right, where was I?” she said. “Oh, right. Help help, anyone, somebody, he’s going to catch me. Help. Hey, you. Yes, you, the man in the red shirt. My eyes are down here, you know.”
A man in the group suddenly flustered. “Sorry,” he muttered.
At this point, a ghostly man wielding a large axe wearing an executioner’s mask rushed through the same door Lady Eleanor entered through. He looked as if he was ready for a chase, but as soon as he saw Lady Eleanor putting no effort into her acting, he stopped and stared in confusion.
“Aaah, no,” Lady Eleanor whined, continuing her bored tone. “He’s here, he’s here. Someone save me. Please help me. Oh, no, he’s going to catch me. Please help. He’s going to catch me any moment now. Help, help. He’s going to–bloody come over here and catch me already! Christ on a bike!“
Stirring from his confused stare, the executioner walked forward. Without any fight, he took hold of her upper arm and pulled her back toward the door. Lady Eleanor went along with it, being dragged back as if she were a stuffed toy.
“Aah, aah, he’s going to kill me,” she complained. “Again. Just like last year when we did all this already. Don’t forget to buy something at the giiift shoooop.”
Then she was dragged out of sight.
Hugo turned to the crowd. His face was white and sweaty, but not from fear of any ghost. “I-I’m so terribly sorry about this. Usually it’s all very scary, and people get all frightened and take pictures and–listen, I can give refunds if you want. I can refund the ticket entry and everything, and you won’t have to worry. Just–sorry.”
The group looked at once another. Slowly, but surely, they began to break out into smiles.
Hugo thought his refund offer had gone down very well, until someone from the crowd said “blimey, was that a sassy ghost? That was amazing. I love it.”
“I know, right?” someone else said. “I was expecting a big scare, and that happened. I haven’t seen anything like it in my life.”
“All the ghosts I’ve ever seen all cried, or wailed, or yelled about returning something to them. This is the first ghost I’ve witnessed that actually had personality!“
“So, uh,” Hugo said. “Does this mean everyone’s…not mad at me?”
“Mad?” one of them said. “When do tickets go on sale again?”
And so, this began the gradual change into Hugo’s Peeved Ghost Tours, where guests were taken around the legendary Bloody Manor on search for Lady Eleanor’s ghost. Sometimes she’d rattle chandeliers half-heartedly, sometimes she’d loudly complain about tour groups, and sometimes she’d pop out of a door with an unenthusiastic ‘boo’ and sneer at anyone who actually jumped.
And such, Bloody Manor became a hotspot for ghosthunters around the world, even if she did make rude hand gestures in every photo she was caught in.
Olsav wasn’t sure how long he had slept in the crypt, but it had to have been at least hundreds of years.
Despite sleeping for centuries, he was still as prim and proper as the day he went under. Being a vampire had its perks; if you made several mortal enemies, you simply settled down in a quiet spot and fell asleep until they and their children were long dead and forgotten. By the looks of the world around him, there were no more vampire hunters keen to bloody their stakes. They must have forgotten about vampires.
He had been prowling this neighbourhood, searching for a household with someone still awake at this hour. He never liked to bite the asleep or unaware. You always have to look your prey in the eye.
One large house had nearly every light on. From inside, the sound of heavy music and laughter came. The entire house was dotted with symbols of bats, pumpkins with faces, and skeletons.
Yes, this will do nicely.
Craig staggered out of the main room, making his way down the corridor by rebounding off each wall in turn, a red plastic cup in hand. He originally arrived as a mummy, with every inch of his body covered in bandage. This far into the party, most of it had fallen off, giving the appearance of someone who had a nasty accident in a toilet roll factory.
Pounding music gave him headaches, as did alcohol. The pair always meant he felt like he was going through brain surgery without anaesthetic.
Still, he wasn’t having a bad time. In fact, as he pinballed his way towards a quieter place, all he could think about was how this was the best Halloween party he ever had, even though his head hated everything, and his kidneys grumbled about the surprise overtime shift.
He found a closed door furthest away from the party. Stairs were currently a swimming, blurry obstacle that would have probably ended in something broken, either his bones or the household furniture. This will do.
He opened the door and was welcomed to darkness, a cool chill, and, most of all, quiet. He staggered into the room and flailed a hand at the light switch until it turned on.
It was a study, with books lining the walls. They were countless, due to the sheer number and the fact they were all slightly spinning in Craig’s vision. There was only one desk and one chair. The chair was occupied by a man in a dark black cloak.
“Ah,” The man said, smiling. “A pleasure to meet you. I thought someone would come here, eventually. I am Olsav, and for hundreds of years I have rested. Now, you shall be the first of many who will fall to the reign of the night I will bring down upon this unsuspecting world.”
Olsav expected fear, desperation, perhaps even anger. What he instead got from Craig was a goofy smile. “You look incredible,” Craig said, his voice revealing he was greatly impressed. “Where’d you get the fangs?”
“‘Get’? I got these from when I was bitten, back in the sixteenth century. A mortal I was, of great ambition and dream, until one day, my humanity was cruelly stripped away from me by a creature of the-ungh!”
As hard as Craig pulled on the fang he managed to get a grip on, the teeth weren’t budging. “Blimey,” he said, even more impressed than before. “They’re real.”
“Yes, if you had let me finish my story, you would have learnt that. But it doesn’t matter. For soon you shall experience first-hand how authentic they are.” Olsav rose from his feet. “You see, I am ever so thirsty.”
“Oh? Feeling parched, are you?”
“Yes, yes,” Olsav said, slowly approaching Craig. “I haven’t had a drink in…ages.”
Craig pointed with a thumb to the door. “We could easily fix that.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Olsav said, now very close to Craig, who was still beaming his goofy smile. “I’ll just fix this little problem…right here.“
It should have been a clean bite. Instead, as Olsav bared his fangs and dove in to take his prey, he found himself blocked off from his target by the red cup Craig held up toward Olsav.
“Fancy a drink, then?” Craig said.
Olsav froze mid-bare, looking at the cup in confusion. “A drink?”
“Yeah. They’re pouring this stuff like it were water. I thought I had it in me for a sixth, but as soon as I got the cup to my lips, I knew I’d paint the walls green if I had it. So you can have it instead.”
Craig peered into his cup, double checking. “Nope,” he said. “Not since I last checked.”
“Then it is of no use to me. Except…well, it has been so long since I’ve had a good stiff drink.”
“Really? They’ll love you back in the party room, then. Lightweights always go down a treat.”
“Do you mind if I…?”
Olsav took the red cup with a hesitant grab. “As soon as I’m finished with this, though,” he said. “You’re next.”
Then he drank the lot in one go.
He smacked his lips, blinked to himself, then nodded with approval. “Giving it out like it were water, did you say?” he said.
Nobody knew who the man in the awesome vampire costume was. Nobody really minded, either. Everyone was so smashed, they accepted him like a brother they never had. He seemed great, too. Drunkenly telling stories and chugging entire barrels in one go.
Nobody remembered his name, or if he had any relation to the break-in at the blood bank, where several tubes went missing and a drunkenly-scrawled note reading ‘Heard there were more drinks here. It’s happy hour, somewhere. ~Olsav’ was left on a desk. Despite that, to those who could still recall it the next morning, it was a party they’d never forget.
Arnok stomped his way down the stone passageway, walking past a stream of zombies going the other way.
The passage certainly looked as if it would stink of damp and with a cold biting wind blowing through. Arnok wouldn’t know for sure, however, because he was a walking skeleton, and such things didn’t really leave room for senses. When your sight alone was forged by intense magical powers, necromancers didn’t care so much about adding a magical tongue so their minions can enjoy foie gras.
Beyond the passageway, Arnok stepped into the abandoned war room, just as rotten and soggy as the rest of the derelict castle. Zombies bustled (as much as shambling corpses can) around the room. A single man was at the war room table, pouring over the mouldy map of the land, dressed in grand purple robes and gold pauldrons, both of which were visibly too big for him. The man adjusted the glasses on his nose as he shuffled small wooden figures around the map.
Arnok stood beside the man and waited. He would have cleared his throat, if he had one.
When the man finally stopped peering at the map, he turned and gave a small start. “Ah!” he said, his slight surprise turning into a warm smile. “Yes! Just the man I was looking for. I have a fantastic opportunity for you, friend. Was just thinking about where to put a particularly famous minion such as yourself, and then — I had it! I had the best idea.”
The man pointed to a town.
“See this? The town of Oakbridge? Not very affluent, I know, but it is a main hub where news and rumours are traded. Given it’s near a crossroads to the largest cities of the land, the tales of our impending army of doom are sure to spread.”
“And you want that,” Arnok said, “why, exactly?”
“Because — and here’s the good bit — if we cause enough terror, hopefully those in lesser-defensible towns and villages will flee to the cities for protection. That opens us up to their cemeteries and crypts, and that makes us stronger. If we skulk in the shadows and try to raise a few corpses without anyone seeing, we’re bound to be seen as nothing more than a shady cult.
“No, we need to hit hard and fast, look bigger than we actually are. Then when they realise we were more bark than bite, we’ll have all their corpses and we really will be as big as we claimed. And that’s why we need you! You, Arnok the old hero, to declare your return with a vengeance to kill the people of this land. Strike fear that you’ve returned! Let the people know that evil rules supreme! Do that thing where you cackle madly and throw torches at straw roofs and prod at helpless citizens until they cry! Sound good to you? Yes? Yes? Excellent. There you have it, then.”
Then the man turned back to the map.
When he realised Arnok was still standing there, he said, “oh, you actually wanted something?”
“Yes,” Arnok said, folding his arms. “You said after you raised us from the dead that if we had any questions, problems, or general feedback, to not be afraid to approach you right away.”
“Oh! Well, what is it, what is it?”
“I was just wondering how…literally every other member of the undead horde is a zombie, yet I’m a skeleton. Everyone has skin, clothes…hell, some even have hair. And here I am walking around in my birthday suit’s birthday suit.”
“Ah! Yes. Right. Well, then. That’s an easy one. When I got to your corpse in your crypt, your skin had long since decayed. Nothing to work with. Nada. All the other graves around your crypt were much more recent, and thus had some skin tissue that I could work with my necrotic magic to regenerate as much as I can.
“But don’t feel bad! I only raided that graveyard for you, after all. You being a hero of legend, and all. That’s why you can talk, and think, and not constantly walk into walls, and such. Because they were boring. You were the hero. You had power.”
“Do you know what else I had?” Arnok said. He flexed his arm, which, given he was only bones, looked pathetic. “Muscles. You know, the things needed by all heroic warriors.”
“Oh, yes, well. I’m sure all your heroic…I don’t know, abilities, talents, wits, whatever you had. They’ll lead you to victory. If you’re feeling bad, you can try some of this bubbling ichor I made!” The necromancer took a mug and a large bottle from the side of the map, pouring a thick green liquid into the mug. “The zombies love it. Raises their spirits. Not sure if they have one. But they do get raised regardless.”
Somehow giving the necromancer a look of disdain, Arnok proved his point by taking the mug and pouring the ichor through an eye socket, maintaining ‘eye contact’ with the necromancer as it dribbled through his ribs and down his spine.
“Thanks,” Arnok said, placing the empty mug back. “I feel so refreshed.”
“Right. Yes. The ‘no organs’ thing. Well, I’m sure you being the legendary, strong warrior–”
“–with no muscles–”
“–you’ll find your niche soon enough. And then you’ll be spreading undeath and causing chaos like the best of them. And that’s what being undead is all about, isn’t it?”
“Sure,” Arnok said, with a sneer. His question answered, he slowly turned and walked out the war-room just as the zombies locked onto the spilt ichor and began to shuffle towards it, lapping it up from the floor.
“Well then,” the necromancer said, beaming as he got back to his map. “Always good to have a heart-warming one-to-one with the workers. Can I get him on a skeletal horse? Oh that would be good…”
It was a cold night, so Natasha felt the need to cuddle up to the back of Ben in bed. “I want to try for a third one,” she whispered.
“You’ve already had two whiskies,” Ben said. “A third one and you’ll wake up in a random mall in the morning.”
A chuckle. “No, I mean…a third light in our life.”
Ben took a little time to work out what she meant by this. Then, he said, “what, right now?”
“No! Obviously not. Just…plan for one.”
“Why, what’s wrong with the two that we already have?”
“Nothing! Nothing’s wrong with them. I would…just like a third. That’s all.”
“The two children we have already came out with very good superpowers, you know. That in itself is a gamble.”
“Yes, we couldn’t be more blessed. Jake is doing fantastic with controlling his flying, and Alice has already used her mind reading to stop a bank robbery. They’ll both be fully-fledged heroes before we were in our prime.”
“Yes, but all it takes is for one of them to come out that…I don’t know, spits fire when they belch. Or cries really loudly. Mind control, energy beams from their hands, I don’t know! All I know is that it takes one to be a bad egg, and the whole house burns down overnight.”
“Yes, I know!”
“But you still want to pull the handle on the genetic fruits machine and see what pops out.”
Natasha cuddled into Ben’s back more. “Because I know whatever happens, we’ll take care of them. I know we can. We have a large enough place, we’re heroes, we have the money to expand if we need to. Just…think about it, okay?”
Ben rubbed the arm Natasha had wrapped around him. “When your blood isn’t 40% alcohol content, we’ll talk again. And if you’re serious about it…sure. We’ll see what we can do.”
Natasha smiled. “Thanks.”
It had been a rough few hours. However, it was one of those rough hours you were grateful you went through. All the hard work was done; all Natasha had to do was lie in bed and wait for the doctors to report the health of the new baby. Ben stood beside her, holding her hand, smiles on both faces.
A doctor came through the double doors on the other side of the wall, holding something curiously baby-sized bundled in cloth in his arms. Both of them perked up.
“Well then!” the doctor said, cheerfully. “You’ll be pleased to know that he’s not a teleporter. We had people ready to get him off of the roof, but you got lucky this time. He doesn’t seem to spew any element from any orifice, hasn’t emitted any psionic waves, and hasn’t, as of yet, turned his entire body into stone. Congratulations, you two; I think you got lucky with his superpower.”
Natasha wiped her brow. “And so the streak continues,” she told herself. “Three in a row.”
“Now that we’re all calm and relaxed,” the doctor said, placing the bundle in Natasha’s arms. “Say hello to little Charles.”
The doctor parted the cloth to reveal Charles’ face. Inside the bundle of cloth was a stapler.
“What–” the doctor began, his face turning pale. “Why is there–? How did he–? Help! Somebody help! There’s a child loose in the hospital!” he cried, running to the double doors and barreling through them so hard he almost fell over.
Natasha sat up in bed, horror across her face. “Where’s Charles? Where did he go? Why did they give me a stapler? Where is he?!”
“Stay calm,” Ben said, lightly pushing her back. “These people are professionals. They had a kid that shot laser beams from his eyes and still kept it together enough to put goggles on him. I’m sure they’ll find Charles.”
“But what if they don’t? Why on Earth did he come in and give me a bundle of cloth with a stapler in–“
Natasha gestured to the stapler in question. She was now holding a hand of bananas in the cloth bundle.
“Wait,” Ben said. “Why are you holding the bananas from the fruit bowl?”
“I’m not,” Natasha said, looking at the identical-looking fruit in the bowl beside her. “So why is it…?”
The pair looked in confusion and silence as the sound of shouts came from outside the ward. Then, Ben gave a laugh.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “I think I know what Charles is up to.”
With the tip of a finger, Ben gently tickled the body of one of the bananas. It gave a giggle like a baby, before its entire form morphed into the shape of a baby boy.
“Shapeshifter,” Ben said to himself. “And very good control over it at that age.”
“Oh god,” Natasha breathed. “He’s going to be a hellion growing up, isn’t he?”
“Growing up? Can you imagine what he’s going to be like as a teenager?“
The pair exchanged a terrified look.
“Well then,” Ben said. “I’ll go inform the doctors as to what happened. Good luck with him, alright? Let me know how he turns out. I’ll just be in our old home, enjoying myself, with the children who aren’t total nightmares.”
Even though Natasha knew Ben was joking, she still snapped with a “Oh no you’re not. You’re going to help, too.”
“You’re right,” Ben said. “I’ll do my part and research tracking devices and dog collars for when our child turns into a vase. Be right back!”
Ben left the ward.
Natasha looked down at her new bundle of joy. She wanted to kiss his forehead, but given that ‘he’ was currently taking the form of her bedside lamp, it could wait. All she knew were that the coming years were going to be interesting, especially after Charles would learn the value of deception.
Maybe a collar wasn’t such a bad idea, after all.