Reaping and Sowing

I am returning to the world of my first novel, Chosen, which you can read on this site. If you haven’t, I heartily encourage you to do so. I’ll wait. Finished? Excellent! This is a story of our hero, Sir Garfan, set before the events of Chosen. That’s it, start reading.

When the wicked speak, their words will be harvested to be naught but naught”

-From the Prophecy of the unending scroll

Giant’s Skull Keep was made from a giant’s skull. ‘Little on the nose,’ thought Sir Garfan as he strode to the entrance.

The front door, an enormous tooth, carved with a skeletal theme stood ajar. That tracked. No guards. That did not track. He looked up to see if there was a cauldron of boiling hot oil about to be poured over him or a squad of archers. Nope, no upper defenses, at least none he could detect.

Approaching the tooth door, it was about twice as tall as he was, Sir Garfan knocked. Four raps, a pause, then twice more. If he did it any other way, his geas would cause him all sorts of problems and he didn’t need more.

No footsteps of troops could be heard nor flickers of eldritch seen. It felt like a trap. If it looked too easy it had to be a trap. Right? Better to get things started he thought as he drew his enchanted blade, Alacritas, and continued into the necromancer’s fortress.

Frankly, the place was a mess. Most necromancers were very keen on crypt-chic. Skull motifs, artfully placed cobwebs, eerie lighting, and so on. Giant’s Skull Keep looked as if the household staff was on strike. There were piles of bones everywhere. It was more sad than scary.

After an exhaustive search, Sir Garfan found himself on the roof of the keep. There was the necromancer he was here to dispatch. He recognized her by her distinctive face tattoo of a demon skull over her face.

Grumilida Grave-Mistress, hey there. I’m here to avenge the good folk of Near Dale,” said Sir Garfan in his best let’s get down to business tone.

Grumilida, who was kneeling in dirt looked up with an expression of resigned annoyance and asked, “Oh, so they got you, did they?”

Yeah, they…” he trailed off. The top of Giant’s Skull Keep looked as though someone had dumped a large pile of dirt on top and then haphazardly spread it around.

What’s going on?” he asked.

With a sigh, Grumilida brushed her hands and answered, “If you must know, I’m trying my hand at gardening.”

Excuse me?”

GARD-EN-ING!” she said slowly and much more loudly.

I heard you!”

Okay then.”

They both looked at each other as an awkward moment lingered.

Are you gardening the dead?” he asked.

No! That’s not how gardening works!” she snapped back.

But the dead go in the ground.”

That’s called burying! No one ever said, ‘My uncle Tibum just died, we’re gardening him this Sunday afternoon, can you make it?’”

I thought it might be a necromancer thing.”

Well, it isn’t.”

Pointing with the tip of Alacritas, he gestured to the uneven plot of soil.

Then what are you trying to do?”

I’m gardening!” she yelled.

Grumilida Grave-Mistress, queen of zombies, ravager of the Crypt of Aaah-Vantak, leader of the Legion of Mortus, and seducer of the Nameless Lich has become a gardener?”

I was till you barged in.”

This feels like a trap.”

Yes! You found me out! I lured you up here in your magic armor with your legendary sword to confront you in my dirtiest gardening togs and no undead to defend me. Diabolical!”

Sir Garfan looked more carefully. Grumilida was not garbed in her signature white and silver gown, nor wearing her crown made from the antlers of a demon stag, or wielding the infamous staff of blood steel that had made her the terror of the living. Rather she was dressed in a hodgepodge of tan, brown and grey clothing, all stained. The only thing she wielded was a rusty hand trowel.

You abandoned your desire to be the Empress of Death to be a simple gardener?”

She stared at him with a ‘finally he gets it’ expression on her smudged face.

Can I ask why?”

Will you leave if I say no?”

Probably not.”

Fine, I’ll tell you. Have a seat,” Grumilida relented and pointed to a large wooden bucket. Sir Garfan turned it up upside down and sat.

I was being served some excellent wine by the skeleton of my great-great grandfather when it hit me. Someday, I’ll be serving wine to some descendants of mine. It just seemed so pointless.”

Are you married? I didn’t know.”

She gestured pointed at herself and said, “I have options! Believe you me! Lots of people want a piece of this!”

Fine, fine!”

Whatever! As I was saying, it all felt so pointless. So I raised an army at the site of the Battle of Dusk-Axe.”

Where the Dwarves and Elves fought.”

Exactly. I raised the dead on both sides and made them fight. But it didn’t cheer me up.”

Because it was pointless?”

NO! But yes, it didn’t help.”

Garfan thought the whole meddling with the finality of the grave was at best an affront to the natural order of the cosmos and at worst, rude. Knowing that a necromancer likely didn’t share that outlook, he just nodded.

So I went to speak with the Oracle at Pan-Fan-Land.”

Pan-Fan-Lan,” Sir Garfan corrected.

I always heard Pan-Fan-Land.”

“Actually, it’s an interesting tale, in the distant past-”

Does it really matter? You know what I’m talking about, right?”

He tugged his left ear twice and breathed through his nose. It would be okay.

I guess so.”

As I was saying, I went to consult the Oracle. She told me this, ‘Try something new.’”

The knight looked at this erstwhile gardener and eventually said, “That’s it?”

Yes. Simple in its profundity.”

You traveled across the face of the Land, fighting monsters and enemies and the ravages of the seasons for ‘Try something new’?”

It was the way she said it,” sniffed Grumilida, “You had to be there.”

So you took that super vague advice to mean you should be a gardener?”

Yes! It’s the opposite of raising the dead! Raising food for people to eat!”

I think it might be healing people instead of just reanimating corpses of their dead relatives,” offered Sir Garfan.

Well it isn’t, it’s gardening!”

Did you try healing?”

It’s so easy to criticize.”

I’m going to guess that people don’t want to be healed by a necromancer?”

It doesn’t matter because I am a gardener now and completely redeemed.”

What about all the terrible stuff you did before this?”

I’ll give my crops away to the poor and stupid. Well, not free. Seeds cost money, and my time is worth something. Maybe a nominal fee. Market value.”

You don’t sound redeemed.”

Oh I’m redeemed alright. Look at all this dirt!”

How long ago did to see the Oracle?” he inquired.

I guess about a year ago.”

Here’s the thing, you sent the undead to attack Near Dale two weeks ago,” Sir Garfan pointed out.

That could’ve been any necromancer.”

Except for that full-face tattoo you got there. Kinda a giveaway.”

I was having a bad day. You think it’s easy to get turnips to grow? It is not!”

Do you want to make this easy or hard?” he asked as he pointed Alacritas at her.

Let’s make it hard,” stated Grumilida, her eyes glowing an unnatural shade of green.

She spoke some ancient words and the floor began to shudder.

That’s right,” she crowed, this keep is a dead giant’s skull so prepare for some painful mastication!”

As the giant’s jaws opened wide. Well, since it was sitting on hard rock, actually the skull tipped backward. Sir Garfan rammed the point of his sword into the skull and hung on as the garden and Grumilida slid off it. Her angry and profanity-filled cries rang out, followed by a thump. Then silence.

Climbing through the off-kilter keep was a challenge but not impossible. When then exited and saw a large pile of soil with the head of Grumilida sticking out of it. With a flick of his wrist, he took her head, then stabbed her two more times. No one was truly defeated until stuck thrice. Plus she was a powerful necromancer so better safe than sorry.

He kicked something with his armored boot. A shriveled lump with purplish, green splotches, and a raggedy bit on the top. Leaning in he saw that it was the saddest looking turnip he had ever seen.

That is not the root vegetable of the redeemed.”

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Edge of the Waves

She ran along the wooded path, past towering ancient trees that loomed over her, towards the sea. Ravens squawked as she passed, disturbed by her footsteps, but quieted after she thundered by, though their black eyes followed her till out of sight. It was a cold morning, no snow or frost but as her Gran would say, ‘there’s a bite in the air.’

Despite the chill her face was beaded with sweat when she finally arrived at the sea. Waves threw themselves at the shore like an invading army, grim and unrelenting, at least until the tide changed.

Leaving footprints, she now walked to the large outcropping of rocks that stood at the edge of the ocean. Carefully, because she had fallen into the icy waters before, she climbed to what she called her throne, a niche of rock that she could sit in comfortably, or as comfortably one could on wet cold stone.

Squawks of ravens a distant memory, she watched the gulls circle above the water. Sometimes they sounded sad, other times as if they were inviting her to join them and soar across the sea. Whatever their mood, it always filled her longing.

Are you going to do something today,” the Voice asked.

She didn’t know who the Voice was. A spirit? Maybe even the ocean itself. She could be mad. Hearing voices was not something you shared, it often ended badly for those who admitted it. And yet, her Gran had told her to listen to that little voice inside her head when she was unsure what to do.

The Voice was not little. It was deep and wise sounding and only spoke to her on her throne.

I’m not sure,” she replied.

You are never sure.”

Don’t be cruel.”

With a rumbling sigh, the Voice replied, “I have no wish to be cruel, but you come here often and just stare out.”

That’s doing something.”

I suppose so.”

A wave slammed against the base of the rocks and fine spray erupted, leaving a taste of salt on her lips.

Is there nothing better to do?” inquired the voice.

All my chores are done.”

Good.”

I just like looking out.”

Are you hoping to find something?”

Maybe.”

And what is it you are looking for?”

I’ll know it when I see it.”

Ahhh,” the Voice responded.

Suddenly, the gulls dived to the surface and a feeding frenzy began. As quickly as it started, it ended and they rode the wind again.

There is much out there,” observed the Voice.

Where?”

Across the sea.”

Like what?”

People and places.”

We have those here,” she sniffed.

You want to see what else there is,” stated the Voice. It was not a question.

She sat silent for a while before replying, “I do.”

I thought as much.”

What are they like? All those other people.”

Some are kind, others wicked.”

How can you tell one from the other?”

It’s not always easy.”

It should be.”

Many things should be.”

Frowning she looked back to the woods. They offered no wisdom. The trees never spoke to her.

What else is out there?”

Wonders and disaster.”

If you don’t really know, just say so.”

Were I were to catalog it all, you would die of old age before I would finish.”

Ha! That sounds like a lie!”

It is not.”

There can’t be that much out there.”

But there is.”

Tell me one thing.”

Very well. Far from where you sit is a grand city called Nanthotept. In it, thousands of people live. It is surrounded by a mighty wall, taller than the trees behind us. There is a university where the wise come from all corners of the world to study.”

People travel to study?” she asked suspiciously.

Indeed.”

What else do they have?”

A zoo with animals from distant lands, where people can come and marvel.”

Do the animals enjoy it?”

As with all living things, there is no one answer.”

It seems cruel, to lock up someone just so they can be gawped at.”

Not untrue.”

What else do they have?”

It is a center of trade, it is been said if you cannot find in the markets of Nanthotept, it does not exist. There are lush gardens, filled with flowers and plants of every color.”

They are very boastful.”

Perhaps, though many have sung their praises.”

If you say so.”

At the gates, there are two, enormous statues. One is a man with the head of a bull, the other, a woman with the head of a lion. It is said, if the city is in peril, they will come to life and defend it.”

How many times has that happened?” she asked excitedly.

Never.”

So it’s just a story.”

Maybe. But no one has been foolish enough to try.”

She pondered this as the tide began to retreat, the waves crashing further and further away.

I think that I’d like to visit that city,” she finally said.

Very well.”

But not today.”

It is a great distance from here.”

There are things I need to do.”

Naturally.”

Standing, she looked towards the woods.

I should go back now. Gran will need me to help with supper.”

Of course.”

I’ll be back tomorrow.”

Until then,” the Voice replied, ever patient.

Climbing down she followed her footprints back to the treeline. Just before entering the forest she paused and looked out over the water. The Voice was silent. She never heard it here. ‘I’ll start tomorrow,’ she promised herself as she ran home.

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What Do You Want?

So, you’re the Devil?” Jordan asked, “I thought that the Devil was… male.”

First, I am a devil,” corrected Marchosias, “Secondly, the Devil, the undisputed ruler of Hell, is known as Lucifer Morningstar.”

Jordan took a sip of coffee and pondered this new information.

So there’s more than one Devil?”

Lower case devils, yes. Uppercase, only the one.”

Does that mean the bible is right? There’s a God and Heaven? The Earth was created in seven days?”

Marchosias pushed her golden hair behind her ears and smiled. Most mortals found it disarming. She had honed this combination to perfection over centuries.

Some of it is right on the money, but consider the source.”

What do you mean?” 

Well, imagine you had a fight with your girlfriend or boyfriend,” began the devil.

Girlfriend.”

You’ll find Hell is surprisingly tolerant, so no worries about that. Back to this hypothetical. After the fight, you go to your friends and talk about what happened. She is doing the same thing. However, you are both telling different stories.”

So the bible is a lie,” stated Jordan.

What I’m saying is everyone is the hero of their own story,” suggested Marchosias.

Even fallen angels?”

Especially fallen angels.”

Marchosias reheated her coffee with a gesture and took a sip. Delicious. A quarter’s worth of coffee for four dollars was one of Hell’s best ideas. 

I have so many questions,” Jordan blurted out.

Clearly!” the devil replied with a laugh, “But let’s get back to why we’re here. What can we do, to get your soul?”

So souls are real?”

She smiled as if she meant it. Why did everyone want to talk so much these days? 

Jordan, if souls weren’t real, this would all be a waste of time.”

Makes sense.”

Excellent! Now, what do you want? Anything and everything is on the table!”

Fame?”

Very popular!”

Jordan tapped his fingers on the table.

And you’ve done this before?”

Many, many times.”

Anyone I might’ve heard of?”

If I told you, you would be shocked!”

Can you give me one name?”

With a wicked grin, she leaned in and whispered into his ear. Jordan’s eyes went wide.

NO!”

Absolutely.”

It doesn’t make sense!”

With a shrug, Marchosias smiled.

But they’re so talented! Why would they do this?”

The universe is full of undiscovered talent. Getting your break, that’s something else entirely.”

Wow! I mean…,” he grasped for what to say but ended up just saying wow again.

Also anyone who gained fame on the internet, that’s us.”

Ewww! People sold their immortal souls to be internet famous?”

As I said, we don’t judge in Hell.”

Huh.”

Not everyone likes the spotlight. But there must be something you want? Riches? An endless supply of gorgeous lovers? Power?”

Superpowers?”

Why not? You could be the world’s first Super-Hero! Or Super-Villain!” the devil offered.

So, you can offer me anything? Anything I can think of?” 

She held her arms wide open and uttered, “Literally anything you can dream of!”

Jordan looked her straight in eyes and said, “I want you to release all the souls you tricked into signing contracts with and to stop the business of tempting people, whoever or wherever they are. Universe wide.”

Silence of a sort followed this. The sounds of people ordering coffee, eating scones, enjoying free wifi, working on novels and screenplays filled the cafe. Then, an explosion of laughter. Marchosias had not laughed that hard in centuries. When she finally stopped she said, “Thank you! That was hilarious, really. Now, what do you actually want?”

I just told you.”

No, you didn’t.”

Yes, I did.”

She smirked but then looked at him. Not joking.

You would sacrifice your soul for strangers? Greedy, stupid strangers?”

No-”

Aha!”

-because of the terms of my wish, everyone who signed a contract will Hell would be released.”

That’s not how it works.”

If you fulfill my wish, then that’s exactly how it works.”

 Marchosias was about to counter but stopped and thought. A moment later, she replied, “We can’t do that.”

I thought you said anything?”

Hell is not a charity!”

If you don’t have the power…”

Her eye twitched and her fangs began to protrude, ever so slightly. It was not going the way it usually did.

Power? Would you like a demonstration of the infernal power of the underworld?”

Okay…”

Crack! Marchosias transformed into an enormous, fire-breathing wolf with griffin’s wings and the tail of a snake. Panic ensued in the cafe. 

BEHOLD ME IN MY TRUE FORM! LET TERROR BE YOUR ONLY COMPANION! FEAST ON FEAR AS YOUR BLOOD BOILS IN YOUR FETID BODIES! THIS IS BUT A TASTE OF WHAT IS TO COME!”

Fire erupted and oily smoke roiled from jagged rents in the floor and walls. Marchosias reared back and breathed a gout of hellfire that engulfed everything.

And then it was over. All traces of Hell vanished. People shook their heads and slowly returned to what they had been doing, the brief, waking nightmare fading.

Powerful enough for you?” asked Marchosias who returned to her human form.

Jordan was pale and sweaty. He picked up his cup with both hands and drank.

Impressive,” he finally said.

Just so we’re clear on things.”

Very.”

So, what do you want?” she asked.

He took a deep breath and said, “I told you what I want.”

Are you shitting me?” sputtered the devil.

I am not.”

That’s not going to happen. Pick. Something. Else.”

He took a moment.

I’m going to pass.”

You can’t do that!”

Why not?”

We’ve had a meeting. You’re committed.”

I didn’t sign anything, we don’t have an agreement.”

That’s not how it works!” she hissed.

Isn’t it? From all I’ve read, Hell is big on rules.”

She frowned and her eye smoldered a dark crimson.

Why in the name of all that is unholy are you doing this?”

Honestly, curiosity.”

That is new,” the devil growled.

I always wondered why someone would sell their soul. It seemed like an obviously bad deal, like subprime mortgages.”

We’re very proud of that one,” she said with a wistful smile.

That tracks. But I wanted to see if it was real. Hell, Heaven, all that stuff. And now I know, so thanks for that.”

You are not at all welcome. By the way, I left out a lot of details so you actually don’t know the real deal with the universe.”

I know more than I did before.”

Marchosias stared at him, then asked, “Did you think Hell would grant your wish, did you?”

It seemed like a long shot, but you miss all the shots you don’t take.”

Fine, if you’re not going to play ball, get out of here before I drag you back to perdition,” she snapped.

If you could do that, you’d be scooping people up with, I don’t know, monster trucks? Rules are rules. Even for devils.”

Have a terrible life, knowing that your wildest dreams will go unrealized,” the devil churlishly spat at him.

We’ll see.”

With that, he left. Marchosias thought to herself, ‘We have to stop recruiting through LinkedIn.’

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A Light in the Dark

There is a tradition of saying goodbye to the old year like a guest who has long overstayed their welcome. Hit the bricks Old Year, we’re sick of your nonsense! Come on in New Year, you HAVE TO BE BETTER! WooHoo! While that is absurd, one tick of the clock doesn’t erase the sins of the past, it feels as though all those previous ‘to hell with this past year’ this has been a dress rehearsal for where we are now. In the interest of being candid with you and myself, things might be even worse this go around. Let’s hope not. Happy New Year!

Rather than dwell on the horror show that 2021 was, I’m going to tell you about a highlight. My friend Angela invited me to see Neal Brennan’s new show, Unacceptable. While that was an excellent show with equally delightful company, the highlight I refer to came as we walked to the show.

About one hundred feet from the front of the Cherry Lane Theater, we passed two gentlemen talking. One of them looked familiar to me. I turned back and asked one of them, “Excuse me, are you, Adam Savage?”

“Why yes I am,” he replied.

For those who are unfamiliar with Adam Savage, he is a special effect designer, one of the hosts of MythBusters, currently the host of Tested, and an unofficial ambassador of the maker community. Additionally and perhaps more importantly, he is as kind, funny, and gracious as you would hope he would be.

For ten or fifteen minutes, he spoke to Angela and me about making and other subjects. She showed him pictures of the table she made to his delight and they discussed techniques of building. As I said, just as you hoped he’d be.

While I had seen him speak at New York Comic-Con many times, and would do so again the next day as it had arrived, I had never been able to ask him a question as the line for that filled up rapidly, though there was one I very much want to ask. Here was my chance, no lines required.

“Is writing making?” I asked.

“Yes!,” he replied, “Anything you put out into the world, any act of creativity is making!”

It was of course, what I wanted to hear. While I knew, in my heart of hearts that was true before I asked it, hearing it aloud, it became an affirmation. Words were my materials and my laptop was a workroom. I am a maker.

We all went into the theater, Adam sat a few rows in front of us and saw a superb hour of comedy and self-reflection by Neal Brennan. All in all, an outstanding evening.

I would also to thank my constant readers whose existence gives me that extra push to continue. You are all gorgeous, amazing geniuses with exquisite taste. I wish that everyone could be like you. Really, I need more readers.

Let’s go into this year with optimism, despite everything that has happened. Perhaps cautious optimism. Also, remember that if you appreciate something that has been done or made, let people that are responsible know. External validation shouldn’t matter but it does. A lot.

Happy Guarded New Year to all!

For those who think the above tale fictional, here is photographic proof. I should’ve smiled but I still was stunned by this chance encounter.

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One Small Thing

It doesn’t look good,” he said.

No,” she replied, “it does not.”

They walked around the piles of debris that towered around them. At the peak of one, a jagged piece fell, bisecting a smaller mound of rubble at its base.

It’s hard to believe that this could happen.”

And yet, here we are,” she countered.

He kicked a small, empty plastic bottle. It bounced and clattered away. In the distance, other collapses could be heard. With a sigh, he sat on a container.

It just keeps getting worse and worse.”

So it seems.”

It feels as though there isn’t anything that can be done.”

Does it?”

Why are you arguing with me?” he sputtered.

I’m not, but it feels like you’re arguing with me.”

Fine!”

We’re on the same side,” she reminded him.

A pause followed. Not quite an awkward one but neither a companionable one either.

I know…” he admitted.

She sat next to him and said, “It’s nice to hear it out loud. Every now and again.”

Sorry.”

It’s okay.”

I just don’t know where to start. We try to make things better but that just seems to make someone else angry.”

You’re not wrong. People can be difficult.”

Do you mean me?” he asked with a sad smile.

Only occasionally.”

Good to know.”

You’re much better than most.”

Please, I’ll blush!”

I’d love to see that.”

She leaned into him and they sat for a while.

Do feel better?” she inquired.

Calmer. Not necessarily better.”

That’s fair.”

So… What are we going to do?”

Well, we’re not going to give up.”

We aren’t?” he asked.

Of course not!” she stated with certainty.

Because that feels like a solid plan.”

Is that a joke?”

Not my best work,” he admitted.

No. But I do get it. It would be easy to just surrender to all this.”

I like easy.”

Everybody likes easy. Because it’s…”

Easy.”

Exactly. But things don’t get better with easy.”

I don’t suppose they do.”

So we do the hard thing. Which in this case is continuing.”

It feels like throwing rocks in the ocean.”

Yeah, I know.”

So what’s the point?”

The point is we aren’t alone.”

He looked around, all he could see were massive piles of garbage.

No one here but us chickens.”

Not right here, but I know that we’re not the only ones who care.”

How? How can you know that?”

She looked him straight in the eye and said, “Because I know that people don’t want to live like this, and if they don’t, they will do something about it. Consider it a leap into the void.”

That sounds terrifying,” he replied.

Maybe, but it can’t get much worse than what’s going on now.”

As she said that, a nearby tower of refuse burst into flame. They looked at each other and exploded with laughter. After a few minutes of uncontrolled and inappropriate mirth, they finally stopped.

If I didn’t laugh…”

Exactly,” she agreed.

So what do we do now?”

We start. Something small.”

Because?”

Because it’s where you start. Do one small thing. Then another and so on.”

I suppose so.”

I’m glad we’re on the same page.”

Me too. Though I’m still scared and angry.”

She took his hand and asked, “How about now.”

Not as much now.”

That’s all it takes. One small thing. Ready?”

Yes, I am now.”

And with that, they leapt.

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In Our Nature

Wind groaned as it rushed through the gaps in the enormous stone tree, in a manner that sounded to Ghent that it was not yet ready to awaken.

This is a very dispiriting local,” observed T7-U.

I’d call it more melancholy,” replied Ghent.

You’re far too romantic for a Xeno-archeologist slash sociologist.”

Ghent smiled, then said, “I’d say I’m about the right amount of romantic. You’re quite mopey for a Mobile Artificial Intelligence.”

The floating MAI, currently shaped as a sphere, glowed an ocherous hue that suggested that if it did have eyes, they would be rolling.

Let’s take a closer look,” said Ghent as she trotted towards the edifice.

You know I’ve already scanned it and have a thorough holo of both its exterior and interior. If we went back to the ship, you could examine it at your leisure.”

We didn’t come all this way to look at a holo.”

Maybe you didn’t,” muttered T7-U.

It’ll be fun.”

You say that but it never is.”

Ghent discovered that there were a series of platforms on the outside of the tree, which would allow her to climb around and up it. She ran her hands over the stone at the base. It was rough and mimicked tree bark. Taking out her portable analyzer she scanned the rock.

This appears to be petrified wood, very ancient!” she exclaimed.

I already knew that,” interjected T7-U, “I can even tell exactly how old it is.”

Go on then.”

One hundred, seventy-three million, five hundred and thirty-eight thousand, two hundred and sixty years, eight months, four days, seventeen hours and eleven seconds old. And counting.”

Remarkable!”

Not really, atomic dating is actually very easy. For me.”

I meant that this is still here.”

All it had to do was exist. Not challenging for an inanimate object.”

Maybe, but no natural disaster toppled it, it wasn’t eroded by sand and wind, it stands here, just as it did so all those centuries ago.”

It used to be alive, so maybe not exactly.”

You seem especially glum today T7-U. Is something troubling you?”

Other than you frittering away your time, no,” remarked the MAI.

Ghent gave her companion a meaningful stare but it didn’t blink. Of course, technically, it couldn’t do that, but it seemed unperturbed by her gaze.

Very well then, let’s get exploring!” said Ghent with enthusiasm.

The steps were designed for a longer stride than a standard human had, indicating perhaps a taller species, so Ghent adjusted her localized gravity field so she could leap from one platform to the next. T7-U floated alongside her. After circumnavigating one and a half times they arrived at an opening, three meters wide and five meters tall.

Before entering, Ghent looked out over the plain that the structure sat on. To the north-east, on the horizon, were mountains, little more than tiny bumps at this distance.

The two suns, one a G-type star and the other a blue O-type, had passed each other and were slowly heading to set on opposite sides of the planet. Ghent recorded images, not for science but because she found it beautiful.

Let’s see what’s what.”

They entered the tree tower. Sunlight streamed through both sides of the multitude of gaps in the stone. With the dust that blew in, it created a lattice of light.

This reminds me of the Living Cathedral on Banvoc Prime,” said Ghent, “Utilizing nature for art.”

My scans indicate that the species that made this place, genetically altered the plant life to grow in this precise layout,” added T7-U, “So unlike the Living Cathedral, this was engineered, not utilized.”

It might be argued that both are utilized in the broadest sense of the word,” Ghent pointed out.

Galactic Standard is a very sloppy and imprecise language,” snarked the MAI.

Ghent shrugged and replied, “You are technically right-”

The very best way to BE right,” interrupted N7-U.

But,” continued Ghent, “like great art, it can be subject to interpretation.”

N7-U said nothing in a very pointed way.

Look at the tile work on the floor,” exclaimed Ghent in an attempt to distract the MAI, “The glyphs are similar to the kind found on many Harbinger sites, especially because of the circular pattern.”

You are correct, it seems likely the natives had contact with them.”

Looking about the vaulted chamber, she saw carvings. Then again, not carvings precisely, engineered artwork? The native species seems to have tri-legged mobility, with long muscular legs and a humanoid torso and a horizontal head. It was representational, as best as she could tell without seeing a live being or a mummified corpse.

Let’s see if we can translate this. Link up to my scanner, if you don’t mind,” Ghent asked.

Linked now.”

With a dance of light and an almost imperceptible hum, the two transcribed the glyphs and the matched them to other examples of the Harbinger’s language.

I’ve detected an energy surge,” warned N7-U, “Please retreat at least thirty meters and find shelter.”

Ghent moved rapidly, some of the places she explored had a habit of being dangerous and she trusted the MAI. Safely tucked away behind a pillar, she waited. Seconds passed then she heard it. A beautiful song, though she couldn’t understand the words.

You should come out now,” she heard N7-U say.

From the center of the glyph tile-work came a projection of one of the natives. They did have three legs and an elongated head. The eyes were large and had a double, brass-colored iris. They moved in what seemed to be a graceful dance, and their skin seemed to be covered with a very fine fur. Both Xeno-archeologist slash sociologist and MAI stood and watched this performance until it faded.

The light from the suns powered a projector set into the middle of the pattern,” stated N7-U, “It must start when enough energy has been harvested.”

What a gift, to see a species that may not exist anymore,” she said with a smile.

There is no evidence of current sentient life on this world,” added N7-U.

It is possible that they left, and found a new home.”

Would you like to hear the probability of that happening? It is low. Very, very low.”

But not zero,” Ghent countered.

No. Not zero.”

There you go!”

As they explored the rest of the petrified tree tower, Ghent delighted in all they discovered. The images on the walls, containers made of some variety of ceramic steel, tools, and more advanced machines, long drained of power. Each one cataloged and samples collected.

After several hours, the suns began to set, the yellow one first then the blue. N7-U glowed so Ghent could see.

Would you like me to summon the ship?” asked the MAI.

Not just yet,” she replied, moving to a small balcony, “The moons are rising and I want to see that.”

N7-U followed her and radiated heat to keep her warm.

Thank you.”

You are welcome.”

The two of them stood watched the three moons rise into the night sky, each of them a different shade, red, green, and blue.

I would like to ask you a question,” stated N7-U.

You would?”

Yes. If you don’t mind.”

Please, ask away.”

Why do you care about the past of others so much?”

There’s not just one reason. Part of it is curiosity, other worlds are filled with new and fascinating things. Art, and if we’re lucky, music, and stories. We can learn so much from what has come before. We still only know very little about the Harbingers. What did they want? Why visit so many worlds? Where are they now? So many unanswered questions.”

N7-U floated silently for a moment then said, “And yet, it’s all the same.”

How can you say that? The inhabitants of this planet are very different from humans or the Juntu, or the Bantakians, just to name three.”

Whoever these people were, they are now gone, and until today, forgotten.”

Exactly, they live again.”

Do they? After many years of research, you might have a slight idea of who they were, but hardly the full picture.”

True, but no one can know everything. Some knowledge is surely better than none?”

As one of your people once said, ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.’”

Ha! Laying some ancient human wisdom on me! Well played sir,” Ghent conceded.

The odds of truly knowing this species is five trillion, nine hundred and seventy-nine million, three hundred and-”

You’ve made your point! I know we’ll only get a sliver of insight into this species. However, we might gain more knowledge of Harbingers.”

How do you know that the Harbingers are even still alive? Or if they have your best interests in mind?” asked N7-U.

One, we don’t. They could all be dead or ascended to the next plane of existence or something more incomprehensible. Two, every place we’ve seen evidence of their presence has been positive. And if they are even half as advanced as we think they are, it would be easy for them to conquer the Concordance of Worlds. Why would they make us work this hard to find them, and why leave clues if they wanted to attack?”

Your reasoning is… sound.”

Thank you. Did you translate the song or the glyphs yet?”

I have.”

She stared at the MAI.

It seems to be a prayer of thanks. To the Harbingers. Though they use a different word but it is clear from the context.”

How dangerous! We must flee at once!”

Please do not mock me!”

Sorry, I apologize. I wasn’t making fun of you. Just what you said.”

I do not see the distinction,” observed N7-U.

I was doing it with affection.”

Understood. I do accept your apology then.”

They stood for a while, Ghent watching the moonrise, N7-U possessing thoughts.

I wish you would allow us to explore for you. MAIs are extraordinarily resistant to damage, we can go places biological beings cannot, our memories are flawless,-”

You are an outstanding being, but humans have the need to do things for themselves. Obviously not everyone, we’d be tripping over each other if that were true. But enough of us want to see what’s over the next hill, so to speak.”

It would be safer for you if you did not.”

In our nature,” Ghent said with a shrug.

This seems to be the truth,” N7-U replied with resignation.

There is something to be said for boots on the ground, if we hadn’t explored first hand, we never would never have heard that alien song.”

Very true. But it might have been dangerous, even fatal.”

No reward without risk.” Ghent countered.

While that might factual, however I must insist on protecting you.”

Even when I don’t want you to?” she asked.

That is when you will need it the most,” N7-U pointed out.

Agreed!” Ghent accepted, “We complement each other well, don’t you think.”

According to many philosophical theories, the balance of opposing viewpoints has merits.”

I’ll take that as a yes. If you don’t mind, it is getting very chilly, could you please summon our ship?”

It’s on its way now.”

Thank you. You know, I think it’s very sweet the way you look after me,” she said.

As it is your nature to put yourself in possible peril, it is in my nature to protect you,” answered N7-U.

I love you too.”

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Detective Arpin and the Chapeau De Mystère

Forward:

Again, I find myself wandering the rues of the Arrondissement. While I love all the characters in this world, I am especially fond of Detective Arpin. Sorry, Gendarme Detective Class Première Arpin, and wanted to check in again with him. Inspired by the season, I baked up this short, holiday pâtisserie.

Bon Appétit!

Despite it being the Yule season, or perhaps because of it, the crime was on the rise. The gendarmerie was stretched to their limits, including but not limited to multiple counterfeit sugarplums rings, underground reindeer gaming, the daring ice-skate bandits, to say nothing of the infestation of ennui lutins, who delighted in dampening holiday spirits.

Detective Arpin lit a cigarette as he finished his paperwork on the concluded case of Advent Burglar, whose pattern, he had to admit, was quite obvious. His whiskers twitched, being busy was not the same thing as being fulfilled. 

Bonne soirée, Gendarme Detective Class Première Arpin.”

Looking up he saw, standing on his desk, between the in-basket and a small replica of the Wandering Woman, a marmoset, which was unusual. Adding to the oddity was its deep red waistcoat, bright brass buttons, and forest green bowler hat.

And bonne soirée to you sir, I believe you have the advantage of me, as this the first time we have met,” replied Arpin. 

Please forgive my rudeness, it was out of expedience and not to indicate any disrespect. Allow me to introduce myself, I am Claude Des Champs,” proclaimed the creature as it doffed his hat and bowed.

A pleasure,” responded Arpin who’s natural curiosity was indeed piqued, “And what is it I can assist you with?”

Claude took two small steps forward and whispered, “I am here to ask your aid in the recovery of a stolen item.”

What was taken from you?” inquired Arpin who instinctively opened his notebook.

Ahh, it was not taken from me, rather from my employer.”

Why isn’t your employer here?”

Looking around the gendarmerie, Claude softly asked, “May I count on your discretion Gendarme Detective Class Première?“

I can assure you that the gendarmerie of the Arrondissement tells no tales out school.”

Do I have your word on that?” insisted the marmoset.

I swear on my insignia,” Arpin answered.

Taking a deep breath, Claude spoke, “I am employed by the Yule Bear.”

For Arpin, the sounds of the gendarmerie faded as he pondered this development. All he could say was “Pardon?”

Surely you know of the Yule Bear?” 

The children’s tale?”

Monsieur,” said Claude in shocked, almost affronted tone, “given all the wonders that the Arrondissement has to offer, I’m shocked that you would question this. Especially given the season!”

As a child, Arpin was curious and discovered, much to his dismay that the presents left for him by the Yule Bear were in fact supplied by his parents.

Is this some sort of joke?”

Narrowing his small bright eyes, Claude regarded Arpin and said, “Gendarme Detective Class Première, what does your nose tell you?”

Taking a deep sniff, he detected the sharp tang of cornichons (worry) with underlying notes of mélasse (impatience) but no deception. 

You are not lying. Please continue.”

Claude took a deep breath and said, “You of course are familiar with the Yule Bear’s hat?”

Dark green with a pom at the top.”

Dark green, that hardly gives it its due! A hue more akin to the evergreen of the forest primeval, it’s trim as white as the first snowfall!”

Monsieur! Your passion is to be admired, but perhaps we can concentrate on the matter at hand?”

You are of course, correct. Please excuse my zeal.”

The hat, it’s missing?” surmised Arpin.

Most distressingly yes!”

Is it possible that it was misplaced?”

Impossible! The Yule Bear has an infallible memory! She cannot misplace anything! Therefore it must have been theft!”

I see. While I don’t wish to dismiss this crime, isn’t possible to get another hat?”

Rubbing his paws together, Claude asked this, “Do you know how the Yule Bear can visit so many children in a single night?”

If I recall, she flies an enchanted sled pulled by giant penguins.”

While that is of course true, it is not the reason she can accomplish so much in such a short time. The hat was woven with a unique, arcane velvet that is no longer made. I cannot say how, it is beyond my ken. But I assure you it is real and it works. If it is not recovered, Yule will be…,” the marmoset looked near to tears, “ruined.”

Well, we cannot have that, can we.”

So you will aid me?”

How could I say no?”

Claude, sitting on the detective’s shoulder, directed them to the Jardin des Gens and once there, into an area of the park the Arpin was not familiar with. They walked along a snow-covered, labyrinthine path that ended at a clearing in which was a two-story, wooden long hall. Entering, there was a large room filled with waistcoated marmosets, franticly making toys.

There will not be enough time to interview everyone,” said Arpin.

Fortunately, that will not be necessary, I can vouchsafe for all of the workers.”

You spoke to them all?”

No, there is no need. The marmoset’s oath will not allow us to do mischief.”

I can think of any number of people who should make that oath.”

It is only binding on marmosets.”

Of course. What are we here to see?” asked Arpin as he took out a cigarette.

Please, if you do not mind, there is no smoking in the workroom,” interjected Claude.

The Yule Bear doesn’t approve smoking?”

She will enjoy a pipe, but not here. There is far too much sawdust in the air.”

Understood,” the detective said, as he put it away.

I thought you might wish to visit the scene of the crime,” said Claude, getting back to business.

A good place to start.”

Arpin was led up a set of wooden stairs, there was a smaller set to the side to accommodate a marmoset’s stride. They reached a large set of double doors, carved with Yule runes, which opened at a touch. Inside there was a room that contained a bench and behind it, two wooden pegs. One was empty and on the other hung a long velvet coat, trimmed with white fur with a broad black belt and silver buckle.

This is where the Yule Bear gets ready for her annual flight,” intoned Claude with reverence.

Moving around the room, Arpin sniffed, there were many animal scents, prominently the pungent aroma of the giant penguins, drifting in from the stables beyond. The coat held an ursine odor mixed with a sweet touch of peppermint and undertones of honey. So that’s what the Yule Bear smelled like. He also caught a musky smell, very male.

Does anyone else visit this room, other than the Yule Bear?” asked the detective.

Only Günter, the Yule Bear’s husband.”

I’d like to speak with him.”

Would you now?” boomed a deep baritone voice.

Standing in the doorway, wearing a sheepskin vest, baggy red trousers, and yellow boots, was a man. He was tall, ginger-haired, and broad-shouldered man, clearly possessed of great strength but with a noticeable belly. Arpin took him as a man who perhaps not as active as he was in youth but whose diet had not altered.

Günter sir, this is the detective we were expecting. Gendarme Detective Class Première Arpin,” interjected Claude.

Quite a mouthful,” said Günter with a fierce grin.

Please just call me Detective Arpin.”

I will, Detective Arpin. You wished to ask me some questions?”

Thank you. Do you know of anyone who would desire the hat of the Yule Bear?”

Stroking his mustaches, Günter replied, “The Démoniste d’hiver, Avare de Chaleur and his brother Avare de Neige.”

Has there been any contact with those individuals recently?” inquired Arpin as he wrote the names in his notebook.

Certainly not!” exclaimed Claude, “The Yule Bear dealt with those scoundrels several decades ago!”

This is true,” confirmed Günter.

Is it possible that the hat was misplaced?”

No! It sits on that peg till La veille de Yule, when it’s needed,” insisted the Yule Bear’s husband.

Has anyone searched for it?” asked Arpin.

No, because-” began Günter.

Yes detective,” interrupted Claude, “we searched thoroughly.”

That would lower the number of toys made,” said Günter with disapproval.

Claude’s tiny nostrils flared as countered, “A gift undelivered is no gift at all. As Head Marmoset, I sent a handful of us to search. I regret to inform you that we did not recover the hat.”

You should’ve asked me before you wasted time,” growled Günter.

The Yule Bear herself approved my actions, sir,” stated Claude.

With a sigh, Günter muttered, “Of course she did. I’m sorry Claude, I find myself troubled.”

Of course you do sir. We all are.”

Have you had any visitors? Deliveries?” queried Arpin.

Deliveries are left outside, and we’ve had no recent visitors,” stated Claude.

Except for you,” said Günter as he looked at Arpin.

I have already eliminated myself as a suspect,” he dryly retorted.

This drew blank stares.

A little gendarme humor,” the detective explained, “Perhaps too little.”

Ahh!” exclaimed Claude, “I get your meaning.”

So, no unexpected visitors, no odd deliveries, and nothing out of the ordinary, except for the missing item, is that correct?”

It is,” agreed Claude.

Günter nodded. Arpin looked through the doorway that Günter entered and asked, “What else is on this floor?”

The penguin stables and of course the sled,” answered Günter.

I would like to see them both.”

Everything has already been searched,” the Yule Bear’s husband reminded him.

Even so, there might be some clue missed,” added Arpin.

That seems unlikely,” replied Günter.

And I must confess, I would very much like to see the famous sled and the giant penguins. If you don’t mind?”

Follow me then,” responded the Yule Bear’s husband.

The stables and sled runway took up the majority of the upper floor. Aprin admired the mighty wings of the black and white birds, each standing two and a half meters high. Günter explained that they ate twice their body weight in fish each day in the days leading up to Yule. If Arpin’s presence disturbed them, they kept it a secret but regarded him with large, golden-brown eyes.

Remarkable!” exclaimed Arpin as he inspected the sled. “You maintain this all yourself?”

Not only that, but I built it as well,” added Günter as he lean over Aprin to wipe a minute smudge off the finish.

Monsieur, I am doubly impressed! I won’t try to guess how long ago that was, but this looks as if it was just made. I must thank you for this opportunity.”

Did you know that we used to deliver gifts to adults as well?” asked Günter.

I did not.”

Günter looked down the runway, out into the snowy night, and said, “For many years, the existence of Yule Bear was taken as fact. As time crept on, year after year, my beloved became a children’s tale. How old were you when you stopped believing?”

I was eight, but to be fair, I was a somewhat skeptical child.”

Each child that stops believing diminishes her. She does not speak of it, but I know it’s true.”

Then I must ask you monsieur, why did you take the hat?”

Bitter orange wafted from Günter, he was afraid.

Why do you think I would do that?”

The Yule Bear has a distinctive scent. I picked it up off her coat. A sweet touch of peppermint with undertones of honey. Also from you, as you stood close to me.”

Because,” he spoke slowly, “too many have forgotten. Joy and wonder are dissolving, like a snowman under the sun.”

I doubt having less Yule Bear will increase her number of believers,” Arpin pointed out.

They must learn, even if through pain.”

Would the Yule Bear agree?” asked Arpin

THEY DO NOT DESERVE HER!” shouted Günter.

I think perhaps, that is not your decision. Please monsieur, return the hat.”

Günter shook his head and said, “It is the only way-” 

He did not finish his declaration. The detective looked over his shoulder and saw her, the Yule Bear. Her bright white fur was set off by the bright red tunic she wore over loose-fitting green pants. Simple garments, but her presence was… Majestic. She strode to her husband, embraced him and spoke too softly for Arpin to hear.

I believe this is when we take our leave,” whispered Claude.

Arpin nodded and they left. Once outside, the marmoset spoke.

We cannot thank you enough for all your aid in this matter. You have saved Yule for a great many!”

This has been an unforgettable evening, I should thank you.”

As for the matter of your reward,” started Claude.

Please, no reward is necessary. I am a servant of the Arrondissement.”

I know the Yule Bear wants to recognize your deed!”

Most kind, but unnecessary,” insisted the detective.

She was most emphatic on this point.”

If she can arrange for crime to diminish so I might enjoy some excellent food and drink with wonderful people this Yule, I would consider myself rewarded,” Arpin replied with the air of someone asking for the impossible.

As you wish, Gendarme Detective Class Première Arpin,” said Claude with a gesture to the treeline, “If you follow that path, you will find your way out.”

Merci and au revoir,” said the detective.

Walking home, Arpin passed through a holiday market. He spotted a pantomime Yule Bear entertaining a group of children and while it was nothing like the real thing, he found it made him smile.

Over the following week many cases were closed The counterfeit sugarplums were confiscated, the underground reindeer games were shut down, and the rise in Yule time joy caused the ennui lutins to leave for sadder climes. Having just rounded up the last of the ice-skate bandits, Arpin found that it was La veille de Yule, and crime had apparently taken the holiday off. 

As he stood to leave, a paper penguin arrived for him with the following message.

Roland, 

I hope the season finds you well or at least less, shall we say pressured, than earlier, or was it later? I’ve said too much. Zsófia has insisted(gently) that I get to the point. We would be delighted if you would join us for a Le Réveillon de Yule. Apologies for the short notice, but if you can it would be good to see you. 

It will be a small group, some you have met, others you have not. Zsófia has suggested that I mention that Maxi may be there. She is very charming!!! Please my love, we all know that. Why did I write that? 

If all this has not put you off, please join us.

Édouard L’Horloge & Zsófia

Arpin jotted that we would be delighted to join and quickly folded a dove and sent it fluttering on its way. He went home to change, took a very good bottle of black currant liqueur that he’d been saving for a special occasion, and set off to Le Réveillon de Yule with his friends.

As he walked down the rue, it began to snow and he heard people singing Chants de Yule somewhere nearby. It was a perfect holiday moment. A gust of wind blew past him and he sniffed. The faintest hint of peppermint with notes of honey.

I am rewarded,” he said looking skyward, “Merci.”

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Worn Paths

He wandered through the stacks, looking for something. His fingertips brushed over the spines of books. It all seemed familiar, but the comfort that usually accompanied the sensation was absent. All subjects had been explored, extensively, and any related topics felt… dull. No, not dull, he still loved them but they felt like there was nothing new to be found. There was a sameness to it all and it increased his doleful mood.

May I help you?”

Looking up he saw the librarian.

No,” he replied, “Well, yes. Maybe?”

She smiled and asked, “Perhaps if told me what you were looking for?”

I thought I knew.”

Did you forget?”

No!”

Apologies, sometimes people forget titles and authors, there’s no shame in that.”

That’s not it at all. It’s just that everything seems as though it’s been done.”

And you feel like you’re just treading the same path?” she inquired.

Yes! That’s it exactly!” he exclaimed, “No matter what I look for, it feels tired and dull.”

So you are seeking something new?”

Maybe.”

The librarian moved to a shelf, pulled a volume out, and presented it to him.

I know that one.”

Yes, I thought you might be familiar with that, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.”

For the next hour, she made suggestions. Many he knew, others didn’t inspire. Piles of books grew on the table he sat at and his frustration rose with them.

What is wrong? Why is there nothing new?” he cried, “It’s like in a dream, when you are searching for something that’s always just ahead but somehow out of reach. No matter how hard you try, you can’t ever get it.”

Tapping a fingertip on her chin, the Liberian regarded him.

I’m going to do something for you. It may be the solution you are looking for,” she mused.

Is it a new subject?”

No.”

An obscure philosophy?”

Not that.”

Some sort of insight that will illuminate the truth?”

In a manner of speaking.”

Please! Don’t tease me! I must know!”

I’m kicking you out.”

He stared at the librarian for a moment, waiting for her to say something else. Anything else. She did not.

What!” he sputtered.

You need to leave. Now.”

Why? What have I done? Are you saying I cannot come back?”

She adjusted her glasses, more for effect than necessity, and replied, “I’m going to answer your last question first. Of course, you can return. In due time. Secondly, you have done nothing wrong, so don’t fret about that.”

Then why?”

She gestured to the stacks, “On these shelves is the sum total of human knowledge, or as close as it gets. I’ve made multiple suggestions, all of which you have dismissed or rejected. Clearly, what you are looking for is not here.”

Are you suggesting another library?”

Staring at him, the Librarian contemplated many responses. A substantial percentage of them were less than charitable. She chose kindness instead.

No. You currently do not require this or any other library. I would encourage you to live your life.”

I’m not sure what you mean?”

Take a walk. Eat food you’ve never tried. Dance. Or maybe travel.”

How will that help?”

I haven’t the slightest idea.”

Then why-” he began.

Because,” she interrupted, “what you are looking for is not here.”

It must be!”

Do you live alone.” she declared.

Yes,” he cautiously said.

Have you ever opened up your refrigerator multiple times, hoping to find something new and tasty to eat?”

Maybe…”

Has anything magically appeared when you’ve done that?”

Uhhhhh, no.”

That is what you are doing here. Go forth and do something else.”

With a resigned sigh, he slowly collected his things and began to leave. A moment before exiting, he turned and asked, “Any ideas where to start?”

The Librarian pointed a finger and answered, “Just outside the door.”

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Gift of Giving

I am an excellent gift giver. Is this a brag or even a humblebrag? No, it’s a fact and one other thing, which I will reveal later. “Why bring this up at all?” you might be asking yourself, “I’m busy enough without your non-brag bragging.” 

Because it is the season of gift-giving. I’m going to pause here for those who questioned this topic to go “Ahhhh!”

Pause…

Now back to the gift-giving. It is for many people, a source of great stress. We can put a lot of pressure on ourselves on getting that PERFECT GIFT. A gift that will make this holiday (Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice, Festivus, Orthodox Life-Day, Saturnalia, etc) complete. That’s a lot to ask of a thing, so let’s accept that while a gift can be excellent, it’s not magic.

If it’s not magic, then what’s the secret? How can we match your self-declared skill in this specific wheelhouse? Simmer down there, I’m going to lay a little wisdom on you all. Ready? Good.

ONE-LISTEN

People tell you what they want or need all the time. Sometimes literally. “I really need a new scarf.” Or “I quite liked the Dune movie, I should read the book.” Maybe, “I’d like to start cooking more.”

All of these are just sitting there, ready to be picked up. Scarf, copy of Dune, cookbook, cooking classes, or a new pot and/or pan. All you had to do was pay attention. It also involves not being self-involved.

Simple and so hard. Even before supply chain problems and the world being on fire, it’s not always easy to not worry about oneself. I’m not advising a Saint’s level of selflessness, just be aware of what’s being said. Here’s an example of this from my own life.

When shopping at a Costco with an old girlfriend, (ah the romance), I looked for those giant cartons of Pepperidge Farms goldfish crackers but they didn’t have them. A mild disappointment at best but I mentioned it to her, then promptly forgot about it.

The next time I was at her place, one of those giant cartons of Pepperidge Farms goldfish crackers awaited me. It was one of the best presents I’ve gotten. It meant that what I said, even in passing, perhaps especially in passing, mattered.

Are we still together? Let’s just say that love and goldfish crackers aren’t a universal solution. Nonetheless, this is the sort of thing to listen for. Whomever you do this for will be touched by your attentiveness. If not, those little crackers will fill the hole left by loneliness. Just kidding. Nothing will fill that hole.

TWO-ASK

Don’t ask the recipient, unless you both don’t care about the surprise. Do ask their friends or family. Often times they can give you excellent insights. Also swear them to secrecy, if you can trust them to do so. Use your best judgment. 

THREE-DON’T WAIT

It’s July, you see a sea glass necklace your sister would just love, but her birthday was two months ago and it’s five months till Christmas. You could make a note to come back later and pick it up close to the holidays. It will still be there, right?

WRONG! Oftentimes, unique gifts will not wait for you to make up your mind. If you know that’s an excellent gift for someone. Get it. If you fumfer, you will likely lose out. Or more accurately, the person who would love that thing loses out. (A side note: Don’t tell them that you saw something that they would adore and but waited too long. In this case, the thought DOES NOT COUNT!)

So as you go through life and you see something that you know will bring someone else joy, just get it, and put it away. When the holidays roll around and everyone else is franticly searching for presents, Jingle All The Way style, you’ll be sitting comfortably in front of a roaring fire, drinking eggnog like a boss, listening to the Vince Guaraldi Trio, and smiling because you’ve done your shopping. Well done!

FOUR-THE PERFECT GIFT

As stated previously, perfection doesn’t exist. However, it’s possible to come close, but it is a real challenge. What is this rare and wonderful item? The thing that you didn’t know you wanted till you saw it.

This is tough to pull off, maybe even impossible. But when you can do it, wow, it’s amazing! Naturally, there is no one thing that can fill that order for everyone. Especially a car with a bow on the roof. If you do that you’re a dead-eyed, soulless monster. Am I planting my flag on this hill? You bet your holly jolly jingle bells I am.

Okay, back to why this is so hard. Say your sweetie collects Peanuts memorabilia. Charlie Brown and Snoopy stuff all over the place. You want to give them something special but it looks like they have everything already. Given their breadth of what they have, it’s a concern. They likely have done daily deep Google dives looking for additions to the collection. What do you do?

Let’s go back to part one. Listen. Did they mention a piece they are looking for? A character they resonate with? Start with that. 

Additionally, you can find a lot of artists who will make something for you to order. A wholly unique gift. It will also show that you’ve been paying attention.

As I said before, it’s tricky at best. Even if it’s not an epiphany in wrapping paper, the fact you made a real effort will be appreciated. In this case, the thought DOES count.

FIVE-WRAPPING UP

So, I’ve given you two solid techniques, one possibly useful trick, and a final aspirational idea. The fact is that being good at gifts isn’t that difficult if you pay attention. Here’s another tip, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to do this. The best gifts don’t have to cost a lot of cash. If you have a big budget for gift-giving, good for you. It must be nice. Or so I would imagine.

In the beginning, I said that my being an excellent gift-giver was a fact and one other thing. The other thing is you don’t always get excellent gifts. 

One Christmas, I was given by a close friend, a memo cube. You might ask, “What is a memo cube?” A memo cube is a plastic cube filled with square pieces of paper, for writing down messages. This was not something I ever desired nor was it was something I never knew I wanted. Truthfully, had I given memo cubes even one second of thought, I wouldn’t have ever desired one. Why did he give it to me? I still don’t know.

Just so you don’t think I’m just grousing, I have received many thoughtful gifts over the years. For example, I’m a big fan of robots. A good friend of mine gives me a robot or robot-themed gift for my birthday every year. Clearly, I’m not the only excellent gift giver. A reassuring thought.

So when you go off to shop for the holidays, keep my advice in mind. Those you give to will appreciate it. And if by some twist of fate you come across a memo cube, keep walking.

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Victorious!

Lord Adeptus stood triumphant. It had been a titanic battle, statures were used as weapons, buildings had been toppled, and the Capitalopous City zoo’s animals now roamed unhindered. Not part of the plan, but the added soupçon of chaos pleased the super-villain. He considered it a happy accident.

His arch-rivals, Courage Incorporated, lay defeated before him. The Mighty Singularity-collapsed, Joan of Arc-Lightning-shorted out, The Incredible Egg-cracked, Dog-Man-playing dead, and The Marathoner (world’s fastest woman)-immobile. 

Well, nearly all. One hero remained, Ms. Bubble-Elastic. Considered the weakest of Courage Incorporated, while her stretching was amazing, she merely had human strength, which made her a far less effective combatant than her teammates. The living Rubber Band, as she was sometimes called by the media, was tied up neatly with a bow. Literally.

It was everything he ever dreamed of. And now for the victory speech. While he wished all his foes could hear him, Lord Adeptus had micro drones recording this pivotal moment in history so everyone would see it. Additionally, it was streaming live, then be available on all platforms due to his excellent coding acumen. He cleared his throat and began.

“People of the world, behold your so-called heroes, brought low. It was I, Lord Adeptus, your new master who has done this. Too long have the nations of Earth squabbled over their petty differences. At last, you all will know peace under my benevolent and unbreakable rule. 

“No one,” he gestured to the prone heroes before him, “is left to oppose me.”

“That’s not really true,” observed Ms. Bubble-Elastic.

Lord Adeptus smirked, he was especially good at smirking. He practiced it quite a bit.

“Perhaps you missed the part of the story where I soundly defeated you and your ‘so-called’ heroes!”

“First, we aren’t ‘so-called.’ We’re are actual heroes. Only guys like you dispute that. Second, there are a lot of heroes around the world. A LOT!”

“Bah!” decried Lord Adeptus (he was a big BAH guy), “They matter not!”

“Do you want me to list them?” asked the pliable hero.

“No!” replied Lord Adeptus, who was not happy about his monolog becoming a dialogue. 

 “There’s the Feminist Five, The Superior Society, The Olympus Club, The Adjusters, Les Protecteurs de Paris, The Z-People, The Sidekickers, Aliens for Earth, Warriors of Wushu, The Homegrown Heroes-”

“And they all shall fall!” declared the super-villain.

“Of course there are all the solo heroes, Mistress Might, After-Dark Detective, Astounding Arachnid, Bellowing Bulko, Mister Sprightly, Shinky Dink, Forestina, Major Attitude, Hot Mess, Sound Check-”

“They will be dealt with!” asserted Lord Adeptus, who was less than pleased with how his victory speech was going. In fact, it was at this point that he cut the live feed. It could be fixed in post.

“Let’s say that you have a plan for everyone, including Prankasuarus, the world’s trickiest dinosaur,” began Ms. Bubble-Elastic.

“I don’t need to say it because I do,” interjected Lord Adeptus.

“Do you have a plan for all the other super-villains?” she finished.

“They will all have a place in my new regime.”

“Because villains never backstab each other in the last minute in a power grab.”

“Well, it won’t happen this time.”

“Because?” inquired Ms. Bubble-Elastic.

“The entire world has seen my indisputable superiority! None dare challenge me!”

“That is a LOT of confidence.”

“Founded in my innate primacy!”

Ms. Bubble-Elastic chuckled and said, “Okay then.”

“I have prepared for every eventuality.”

“Oh, I’m sure you have.”

“Absolutely,” stated Lord Adeptus

“Care to share with the class?”

“It’s very complicated, I doubt you would grasp it,” he said offhandedly.

“Can I ask you something?” 

“You just did,” Lord Adeptus smugly replied.

“C’mon, you’re better than that.”

Lord Adeptus paused, blushing beneath his titanium tech-mask. He had immediately regretted saying that.

“Very well, present your query,” he said in what he hoped was a magnanimous timber.

“Why do you want to rule the world?”

No one had ever asked him this.

“Because,” he said, “it is my destiny!”

Laughter exploded from Ms. Bubble-Elastic. It echoed off the ragged remains of buildings and sent a flock of pigeons that were scavenging crumbs from a nearby bagel place whose windows had been shattered in the fight.

“That was NOT a jest!” shouted Lord Adeptus.

“I mean, it’s just silly,” she pointed out.

“Lord Adeptus is many things, but he is never silly!”

“Listen, if it was your destiny, why didn’t it happen before?”

“That’s not how it works…”

“Oh, okay,” she agreed with her own smirk.

Striking a pose on a broken statue, Lord Adeptus began to speechify again, “Kneel before me Earth, and embrace your new role as my grateful subjects!”

“It just seems like a lot of work,” observed Ms. Bubble-Elastic.

“What?” shouted Lord Adeptus, whose patience was being really put to the test.

“Ruling the world.”

“Ha! I am more than capable of such a task!”

“So you have a plan?”

“Naturally!”

“What’s your outline for infrastructure, healthcare, social services, education, family leave, the logjam in the legal system, the fact that most corporations aren’t paying any taxes whatsoever when working families are struggling just to keep a roof over their heads or feed their children. Just to name a few of the things that will be on your plate.”

Energy crackled over the armored supervillain. This was one of his signature intimidation moves. It had cowed many a foe. Ms. Bubble-Elastic just stared at him like she was waiting for a toddler to finish his tantrum.

“Your courage is to be admired, my rubbery foe, many have quaked in fear of my might!” he said, trying to get control of this conversation.

“Well, I admire your courage, to take on so many issues that have divided people for many, many years. It’s going to be a lot of work. Clear that schedule!”

“I, Lord Adeptus, alone can make this world a paradise!”

“You’re not getting help?”

“I will employ the finest minds to aid me in repairing the world.”

“So, it won’t be you ALONE then.”

“No, I mean yes! I will spearhead these initiatives!”

“And discussions.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, to get stuff done, you’ll be in discussions and reading policy papers all the time. And let’s face it, there will be a lot of debate about how to do what you want.”

“Did you forget about the finest minds I will summon?” he pointed out.

“Because smart people never argue about how to get things done. The truth of it will be that you won’t know till you try out what they give you. Oh, I’m sure they won’t try to undermine their rivals to get their idea done.”

“But… Finest minds” offered Lord Adeptus.

“I can’t even get this group,” she nodded towards her fallen teammates, “To agree on what to order for dinner. This one wants Thai but that one had Thai for lunch. Then someone else wants pizza and God help us when we bring up toppings. It’s a whole thing. But I’m sure your finest minds will all work together in perfect harmony.”

Lord Adeptus sat on the rubble and pondered this. It had all seemed so easy when he planned it. Rule the world. Make sweeping changes. Be adored. All the other times he made a strategic retreat (never a defeat), it had only strengthened his resolve. 

Now that it was in his grasp, something occurred to him that he had not yet considered. Did he really want to be the undisputed Emperor of Earth? Did Emperors get to do what wanted to all the time? Probably. Maybe? Would that make him bad at being an Emperor? 

She was right about the other super-villains. They were, on a whole, an untrustworthy lot. There would be coups, assassination attempts, probably somebody switching nonsense. He could kill them all but it’s not like more wouldn’t just appear. It was exhausting just thinking about it.

He knew his path was set. He knew he was mighty enough to stride down it. Few could, perhaps only him. Indeed, only he could do what was necessary. 

The first Emperor of Earth reactivated his live feed, stood, and proclaimed, “I Lord Adeptus have this to proclaim. There are many ills that plague our world, but it is the duty of humanity, to cure these. You should not, nay cannot look to Lord Adeptus to save you. When people are wise enough to lift themselves out of the mire that they themselves have created, on that day, and not before, will I return to rule! Your pleas and tears will not sway me! I am resolute! So says Lord Adeptus!”

And with that, he ignited his hyper-jetpack and flew off into the sky.

Ms. Bubble-Elastic untied herself, as she could’ve done all along being the Living Rubber-band, and called for the meta-human EMTs.

After aiding with clean-up and rescue, she was interviewed by the media. They asked her what happened in that when no one could hear them? How did she do the seemingly impossible? What did she say to make someone like Lord Adeptus give up his dreams of world conquest, even as they were there within his grasp?

With a wry smile, she said, “Well, at the end of the day, no one wants to go to meetings.”

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