“Why aren’t we going out, baba?” asked Qiang. She’s been curious about being shut in so much, and finding excuses to keep her away from TV.
“Daddy’s a little tired right now,” I said. “Hey, why not play that Korean MMO some more?”
“I don’t want to. I’m not going up anymore,” she said, looking all pouty.
I’m trying to keep her away from Christmas. And I’m in the United States. Good fucking luck. Maybe if this was the 1600s or whenever they banned Christmas here as too un-Christian, but religion doesn’t factor into it a whole lot nowadays. This is the United States in 2017. God has no place here.
Our friend Catallus, he has a place here. That old Roman asshole and his poems. Odi et amo. I found myself tempering feelings about my daughter, and that came to mind. I’ve found myself unusually attached to her. Just like Moai. And Carl. Mix N’Max and that fucker Good Doctor, too. Good Doctor didn’t exactly help my mood, though an idea briefly crossed my mind. Those bastards, the Companions of Kringle, are using her to get to me. They can’t have me on their own, but they can steal her away if she believes in Christmas. She’s five years old, with Christmas shit everywhere.
They put a big tree in the lobby, for instance. Lots of fake presents underneath it. Mistletoe and decorations all around. I burned the tree down. Burned down the presents, too. And the lobby staff. They wished me happy holidays. Unlike those snowflakes who get triggered when people say anything other than “Merry Christmas,” I don’t need people around who can lead my daughter into holiday temptation.
Fuck, I can’t even give her presents, can I?
Listen, I’ll take a job to hurt a hero. Write up the contract, stick a quill up my ass, and make a deal. Though I’d prefer to inhume the guy. He owes me that much after that whole business when I held gladiatorial games to decide if I’d have to give up my rule of the Earth to an alien conqueror. He fought against me in the hopes I’d lose and then he and other heroes could defeat the alien, Cercopagis Lysis, easily enough. They’d done so before with team-ups, and I’d gone and gathered so many of them for the fight.
So I have no reason to refuse anything hurting Eschaton. Not even his powerset so much. Sure, the guy’s powerful, but everyone’s touchable. That they can be touched is a lesson that should be drilled into people since childho- you know, that sentence didn’t turn out like I intended. Anyway, it was the way they gave me the job that makes me want to block these CoKs. Kidnapping me, possibly saving me from being nuked, then threatening my kid if I don’t help them. It also shows poor business management skill on their end. Too much stick, not enough carrot.
That’s what she said. And by she, I mean me.
Back there in the room, with Qiang wanting to go outside, I sighed. Some choices are the hardest to make, and way too many of those involve loved ones. Life or death is easy. If you die, that’s it. Nothing to worry about since you can’t worry anymore. If you live, at least you know you have some degree of justification for doing whatever thing you did. But a loved one is involved? Or someone you care about, I mean. Can’t expect someone like me to love anyone. Better to say “care” than love. So if that kind of person is threatened, you can be made to do even worse stuff since it’s someone else’s life on the line. How could you live with yourself, you monster? There’s also a chance you’ll lose them anyway if they ever learn what you did, but that’s not the issue so much, especially when the task itself is difficult.
That’s why it’s probably a good idea to kill anyone you might end up friends with. Yep, just long glances at Qiang as she played around with her knife, chopping up some of the plastic plants left around the suite. She looked up and smiled at me. “What?” she asked.
“Just thinking about stuff I need to do.”
“What kind of stuff?” she asked.
I slid down to the floor and scooted over to her so I could put my arm around her. “I do a lot of things that other people don’t like me to do, you know?”
She nodded and turned to hug me. “You’re my daddy and I love you and you love me just like you loved mommy.”
Ugh. She is NOT making this easy on me. I hugged her tight against me too. “I think I need to do something I really don’t want to do. Now, don’t worry. It’ll all be ok, I promise…”
An hour later, the door opened to Master Academy. I’d been waiting out there this time instead of barging in or sneaking in. Venus pulled the door out enough and stood there in the middle, looking at me in my armor and the girl in my arms. “Gecko, what’s going on?”
“Daddy needs your help!” Qiang shouted at her. I winced inside my armor at that one. Yep, definitely something I didn’t want to do. That’s why I let her say it.
“Really? My help?” Venus pondered that, then moved aside to let us enter if we so wished. I let Qiang down. She ran on inside.
“No need to say it again. Ever,” I said.
She laughed at that. “You’re serious?”
“Honeybun, why don’t you go on in there and do stuff until we need you,” I said to Qiang. She smiled and ran past Venus to disappear down a hallway. I’m 99% sure the crashing noise I heard soon after that wasn’t her.
“I’m ok!” she yelled from inside the building. Well, I’m 99% sure she’s fine.
I stepped close to Venus. “Please.”
I saw her frown through her mask. “Come in and tell me about it.”
“Wow, look at that tree!” exclaimed Qiang from deeper in the house.
“Noooo!” I yelled and ran after her. I slid on tile and crashed into a janitor picking up a broken vase, knocking him and the pieces back down. I picked myself up off him and ran, waving back to him briefly, “I’m ok!” I found Qiang in the dining hall, looking at a giant Christmas tree standing in the middle. A number of presents were already piled up underneath it.
I dive tackled the tree. Slowly, with a scraping noise from the anchor at the bottom, it toppled. It crashed to a halt before hitting the floor as it caught on the awning for the kitchen area. I slid around to the underside of it and fell off, then quickly dodged to the side. It didn’t fall down on top of me, but it wanted to. Oh yes, it wanted to.
“What the hell are you doing?!” said Venus, storming into the room.
I held my hands out. “It’s fine, nothing to see here. The pine of unusual size has been dealt with. The invasion of the cafeteria is solved. Qiang, how about you go somewhere less colorful and decorated to hang out?”
She had the tip of one shoe on the ground and rolled her leg back and forth. “I want to stay here.”
“I know you want to, but I’d really prefer it if you went elsewhere.”
“No! I want to stay here with the tree!” She set her foot down with a little stomp.
I looked at her, then to Venus and all the students who happened to be eating in there at the time. Then I grabbed Qiang and picked her up in my arms. “Sweetie… I think it’s time for a very important lesson.”
That’s how I ended up sitting in an office with Qiang’s arms and ankles cuffed together, a blindfold and earplugs keeping her from seeing or hearing anything. She wiggled back and forth in the corner of Victor Mender’s office. It had been awhile since I had an audience with the head of the Master Academy, a disabled man stuck in a wheelchair without the use of anything below his head. I had Venus and several of her closest and strongest friends surrounding me. “I swear, it’s important to keep her in the dark.”
“I think we need to know what is going on before we have to inform someone of how you’re raising your child,” Mender’s computer said.
“Ok, so this is going to sound a little bit strange,” I started.
“We maintain a high tolerance for the unusual,” Mender’s voicebox said again. Behind me, a minotaur snorted his agreement.
“Ok, so it all started when I woke up to a snowman’s head in my bed and a card. I didn’t read the card. So I went to go spy on people from inside a bush, as you do, and that’s when cards started popping out of me like I fucked a Hallmark. I opened one, then I started to run off to go kick in the EAGLE’s nest. Next thing I know, I’m in Narnia. Only, instead of a satyr waiting to fuck my wee kiddy brain out, I find a couple of old guys and a masochistic hobo. Oh, and satyr with a pair of chains, so it wasn’t entirely inaccurate. They are the other spirits of the season, the foils to Santa Claus. The bad guys of Christmas.”
“The Grinch?” suggested someone behind me with a snicker.
“Don’t be ridiculous, the Grinch is fictional. So anyway, Belsnickel, Krampus, and Knecht Ruprecht tell me they can’t punish me directly because of that time I saved Santa Claus.”
I heard a flat “What?” from behind me but chose to keep going.
“So instead, they’re going to take my daughter. They didn’t say when, but I’m pretty when it’ll happen anyway.”
“When?” someone asked.
“Pearl Harbor Day,” I said.
“Really?” The voice asked.
“No, dumbass, Christmas Eve.” I raised a thumb up pointing back behind my high-backed chair. “Someone’s a few eggs short of some nog.”
“Excuse me,” said Mender’s voice box again. “You saved Santa Claus and your daughter is going to be kidnapped by the Krampus on Christmas Eve.”
“Essentially,” I said. It has perhaps been suggested from time to time and by multiple people in multiple places that I may, or perhaps may not, have what could be said by some to be a problem of one sort or another with brevity.
“What can we do to help?” asked Venus.
I smiled beneath my helmet. “Well, I have a few ideas, including, of course, starting with making sure she doesn’t believe in Christmas as Plan A and ending with overwhelming firepower in Plan M. I might need you to call in a favor for me.”
“If you want a favor,” Mender piped up again. “you will give them in return.”
I leaned forward. “Now we’re talking. Who do you need wiped out? Eliminated, even? Murderated?”
And that’s how I ended up tied up and hefted by a pulley to carry the start back up to the top of the newly-righted tree. “Don’t y’all have people who can fly for this?”
Venus called up to me with no small amount of satisfaction, Qiang watching beside her. “Quiet! If you complain this much putting a star on the tree, imagine how much you’ll whine shoveling snow!”