6. Carol of the Bells – by Elite Shade
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Hair cascaded into the boy's eyes.  He noticed he had a hair tie on his wrist.  He’s always wanted to do this, as his parents never let him grow his hair out.  He scrunched up his hair and tied it back..  It wasn’t neat, but he could practice later.  There’s two more tracks to listen to.

Carol of the Bells - by Elite Shade

"You have got to be kidding... that's just ridiculous!" Mateo said, crossing his arms. He was wearing an olive green coat with a red scarf that fluttered in the soft yet chilling winter breeze. Tiny white flakes danced along the wind swirling around him and his gathering of  friends. Lucas, who was wearing a light grey hoodie beneath his usual black leather jacket, looked out from the shadow of the hood. His eyes sparkled and shifted from their usual deep brown, to crimson.

    "It's the truth, Mat," he said, "we couldn't tell you until now."

    "Look, I know that we deal with strange stuff from time to time, but c'mon, fairies?" Mateo asked, disbelief lacing his voice.

    "This is different, Mateo," Kimmy, Lucas' big sister, said, sighing and pinching the bridge of her nose in frustration. Her hair had been braided into a ponytail that reached all the way down to the small of her back. She was wearing her second favorite sweater dress, eggshell white, with black leggings, and her hard-worn black laced boots. "We don't have a whole lot of time to get you used to the idea."

    "Agreed," Alex said. Mateo took note of how each winter, Alex went from his usual surfer tan to an almost sickly white. His shoulder-length platinum blonde hair  sparkled in the dusky twilight. His icy blue eyes began to glow, until he took a moment to compose himself. Not caring one bit about the cold, he was wearing just a brown tank top and camo cargo shorts."I know that this is a lot to take in, Matty," he said, looking to the sun that was now touching the distant horizon. He turned to look at the encroaching darkness coming their way over Omega City's bay. "But seriously, we have to go in before sunset."

    "Guys, I'm not sure if this is some kind of joke or not, but you cannot expect me to believe in fairies now," Mateo said obstinately.

    "Oh yeah," Isaac piped up in his deep, rumbling voice. Standing at nearly seven feet tall, and dressed in his own leather jacket and jeans. His curly ginger beard and matching shaggy hair, hands with fingers the size of bananas, thick muscles, and barrel chest, he looked like the average intimidating biker. He was smirking a little with an eyebrow raised. "The magical healing wizard med student makes a great point while in the presence of a warlock, a werewolf, an ice devil, and a demigod," Isaac motioned to Lucas, Kimmy, Alex, then hooked a thumb towards himself. "Together we’re all part of one big crime-fighting family that have faced off against aliens, evil twins from an alternate reality, and fuckin' zombies for The Organization.. Clearly, the idea of fairies choosing us to be champions of the mortal realm to compete in their ritualistic game every Christmas Eve is out of the realm of possibility for us!"

    "I know he's being sarcastic, but he does make a pretty good point," Lucas said with a nod. He was looking around the vacant lot, double-checking that they were indeed alone and no one would hear them.

    "Okay, fine," Mateo said, holding up both hands, "but if that's true, then why didn't you guys, especially Sam, tell me about this little ‘tradition’ before? I mean, every Christmas Eve I've pestered him and you guys to join in."

    "It's the rules that the dipsh-- uh, I mean, that the... entertaining fairy hosts for the event came up with," Isaac said, wincing as he caught himself. Mateo was paying closer attention now. Isaac never censored himself, at least not lightly. Hence why The Organization had to repeatedly take down videos of codename: Gearhead cussing that had almost gone viral.

    "We wanted to tell you, we really did," Kimmy said, walking up to him. Mateo and Samuel had known Kimmy and Lucas since they were kids. Way back before Kimmy realized she was Kimmy, and had been known as Paul. They had been there for her when she realized the truth and started to be her real self, and Mateo suspected that his older brother even carried a torch for her. Kimmy smiled and pulled Mateo into a hug, that he returned. When he tried to let go, he found her tightening her arms around him even more as she simply picked him up.

    "Alex, could you get the door, please?" Kimmy asked, while Mateo struggled to break free, to no avail.

    "Sure thing," Alex said while Isaac chuckled. Their unofficial leader could be quite persuasive when she wanted to be.

    "See, we need you for this. ritual, Mat. Sorry," Lucas said, shaking his head at his sister's antics. "Since Sam's... well..." Lucas started rubbing his arm, looking uncomfortable. "Well... until he gets back from... wherever in space he was abducted to, we kinda really need you to fill in for him."

    "Oh, well, that's not at all insulting," Mateo said. He watched as Alex walked over to a white screen door that was leaning against the side of an apartment complex that was next to the lot. Getting a better look at it, Matteo saw that it was ornately carved from wood, the sides spiraling from the bottom to the top, Along the bottom were intricately carved snowflakes, and candy canes across the bar going over the middle section. The top was adorned with sprigs of mistletoe. But the doorknob, which Mateo had thought was strange on a screen door, was what really drew the eye. It was a wickedly grinning skeletal face made of silver, looking like something that belonged on a Halloween-themed carved screen door. Mateo spotted a symbol carved into the skull’s forehead. It looked like the male and female symbols combined together at their circles, at the center of which was an eye. Mateo saw that the symbol was glowing with a faint pink light. And then, the eye in the center blinked twice. Mateo was still taking in the creepy intricacies of the rest of the skull when the eyes of the doorknob blinked, a red light briefly shining out from them.

“Well now,” it said in a high, dry voice. “Looks like you’ve found yourselves another player. Well done, although you were cutting it close,” It began to cackle wickedly in its dry voice.

“Ignore him,” Kimmy whispered in Mateo’s ear. “He’ll try to talk you into releasing him from his prison as that knob.”

“Hey! Don’t ignore me! I am a powerful entity deserving of respect!” the doorknob called out in an indignant voice.

Alex set the screen door, talking knob and all, right up against the side of a nearby building. Once released, Alex grabbed the handle - which started grumbling despite being muffled by Alex’s hand about how they would all pay for this indignity - and pulled it open, revealing a red, green, and white hallway that made Mateo's eyes go wide. Without a word, Kimmy carried him right on through, followed by Lucas, then Isaac, and finally Alex, who let the... solid white oak door(?) slam shut behind him. Mateo could see the knob face now on this side of the doorway, which was grinning again, its empty eye sockets glowing a faint red.

    Well… that’s ominous… Mateo thought, feeling a sense of dread.

    Mateo shook his head in wonder. Looking to the rest of the group, he nodded, and they walked down the hall. He sighed, this not being the first time he’d been abducted by his friends to go on a mission. Reluctantly, he’d gotten used to it, and was grateful he hadn’t been asleep, or in the shower, with Gearhead crashing through his bathroom wall screaming about ‘no time to explain,’ tossing him over his shoulder before running off. To be fair, they were working on a time limit before ancient tentacle monsters were going to come through a portal and potentially end all life on earth. As they walked, their steps echoing on the polished black and white tiles, they all heard “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies” twinkling in the background. They came to a large circular room. On either side were racks of different weapons, all colorful with winter holiday themes. At the opposite side of the room were a large set of polished black oak doors. Mateo's friends went to the racks and appeared to be looking through them.

    "Uh... why are you guys grabbing weapons? You've all got pretty impressive offensive powers."

    "Because this is how the game is played," Isaac plainly said, grabbing a shotgun designed to look like it was wrapped in green wrapping paper with a silver ribbon tied to the butt, and a chainsaw that was snow white. Mateo rolled his eyes, finding it natural for Isaac to grab a chainsaw, recalling on two occasions how the big burly biker hero had used one to open two bottles of soda when he couldn't find his bottle opener.

    Kimmy grabbed a pair of half-moon sickles that were made to look like a whole wreath when put together. She twirled them in her hands, and clipped them to strange sheathes set like holsters on her hips that had absolutely not been there beforehand. Lucas, pragmatic as always, grabbed a large pine staff, topped by a softly glowing snow globe. Alex was grinning as he picked up a classic sword and shield. The sword looked like an icicle, and the shield looked like it had partially frosted over. They all turned and looked at Mateo expectantly.

    "Well?" Isaac asked, holstering and sheathing his own weapons across his back.

    "What?"

    "You gotta pick a weapon for yourself," Lucas said, his eyes glowing red, the staff glowing brighter in tandem.

    "Uh... guys, you know I prefer not to hurt people..."

    Alex rolled his eyes at this. "The things we'll be fighting are not people, they are basically just magical constructs, no different than a mindless golem, or that wizard robot that Professor Von Hellbringer built. I mean, it was pretty cool getting to see Luftalia behind its closed borders, but I digress. They'll be back and in fighting condition in time for next year."

    "... Fine, so I pick a weapon and then what?" Mateo asked, looking annoyed.

    "Then, we go through that door," Kimmy said, her eyes a bright yellow as she motioned to the black door. "We enter... well, according to Lucas, it's a pocket dimension or pocket universe, created just for this little... game."

    "You still haven't told me why we have to play this game, and what we have to do!"

    "Well, it's pretty straight forward," Isaac said as he stepped forward, a golden glow enveloping his entire body, his voice ringing out and echoing in the hall and room. When the light disappeared, there he stood, wearing his orange leather suit, with a giant silver gear emblazoned on the chest with a golden Star of David tracing it. His exposed arms, showing off his thick corded muscles, spread open wide. "We go in, fight our way through hordes of different kinds of enemies in each of the seven randomly chosen areas, and then we gotta kill the bosses of those areas, collecting keys."

    "Once we have all seven keys," Lucas joined in, a black shadow slithering up his body, elongating his arms which turned a dark mottled grey, and turning his leather jacket and hoodie into a long hooded cloak, from within the only thing visible were his glowing red eyes, his voice becoming more of an echoing whisper, "we can then unlock the eighth and final area, which is always the same."

    "The North Pole," Alex snapped his fingers and, in less than a second, the temperature had dropped ten degrees and everyone's breath became a mist. 

Where Alex had stood, now hunched a massive four-legged beast. Its emaciated skeletal body was only vaguely humanoid, with snow-white skin stretched taut, revealing every line of its blue veins. The hands and feet were unrecognizable as belonging to a human, ending in wicked midnight blue claws.  The spiked spinal column extended out past its body, curving into a scorpion-like tail that loomed menacingly over the creature's immense, gossamer dragonfly wings.  Its head was massive, featuring wickedly pointed ram horns curving from the brow, and a jaw full of razor sharp teeth. Only a cavity remained where a nose should be, set between empty sockets burning with balefire. It was a nightmare, an abomination that shouldn't exist in the waking realm, but here it was nevertheless. "Specifically, we gotta fight our way through Santa's Village and kill Evil Santa. That's the end goal." He said in his very deep voice. The fact that he was able to talk with his mouth as it was now always amazed Mateo. None of the group seemed at all disturbed by Alex’s transformation, as they had long since known he and his family had emigrated to this dimension from Hellworld and made peace with it after they had found out.

    "We have to play this game, and win," Kimmy said, quickly shifting into her wolf-form. In seconds, she had grown beautiful soft grey fur that covered her whole body, sprouted a bushy tail, her ears migrated to her head, and her mouth and nose became a muzzle. Her voice took on a more sultry quality to it. "Or else..."

    "Or else what?" Mateo asked, pressing a secret, hidden button on his watch. A white light shone out and he felt his clothes shift. Soon, he was standing there in his white leather super suit, with the red caduceus symbol on the chest, a matching mask covering his whole head.

    "Or else the current generation of the Mortal Realm's children, between the ages of five and thirteen shall pay the price the world over, and be spirited away to the fae realms forever!" Giggled a child-like voice from above them. They all looked up to see a smiling fairy, with pale white skin, raven-black hair, wearing a white dress that glittered like freshly fallen snow. She fluttered down lower, and Mateo was stunned to see that she was no bigger than his thumb... but he could sense raw power just emanating from her.

    "Welcome, Champions: Gearhead, Wraith, Devil, and Alpha! So wonderful for you to join us for our game once again! Welcome to the new player, Salus Light! So sorry to hear about your brother, Mr. Miraculous, and his probable demise! I am Hoary Twinkle!"

    Isaac snorted, holding back a laugh. The fairy appeared to be ignoring him.

    "Why are you doing this?" Mateo blurted out, amazed at the sight of an actual fairy.

    "We Unseelie fae of the Winter Court have motivations that are beyond your mortal comprehension. This is simply the way that it must be," she said this with a smile and another giggle, before fluttering up. "Now, if Champion: Salus Light, would kindly select at least one weapon, we can begin!"

    With a sigh, and after receiving a nod from Kim– Alpha, Mateo went to the rack on the left. He browsed for a minute, trying to pick a weapon.There was a staff, adorned with green and red garland spiralling from one end to the other. Having trained with his brother in different forms of combat, Salus Light felt confident with a staff. Grabbing it, he rejoined his friends, and they looked up at Hoary Twinkle.

    "Wonderful! Now, the rules are the same as last year, which I know is a bit boring. Three years with the same game in a row, but that is simply how it is for the time being. Personally, that go-cart racing one with the random weapon and item boxes you could pick up as you drove was my favorite! Anywho, you all saved me the time to explain what this game is to the noob so instead, without any further ado, we can start!" She clicked her silvery heels and disappeared in a twinkle of light. The great black doors creaked open loudly, opening out onto a grassy field. Not hesitating, Alpha/Kimmy and Devil/Alex loped through. Wraith/Lucas glided forward without a sound. Gearhead/Isaac smiled and gave Salus Light/Mateo a wink. Gulping audibly, he followed behind.

    The things a side-kick does for the greater good, Mateo thought, stepping out into the cool night air. The large full moon shone down, illuminating the surrounding area. Near the clearing was what appeared to be some kind of candy cane trees. Suddenly, there was a red flash, and Mateo felt a strange itchiness spread all over his body. Shaking himself, he looked back at the door, only to find empty air.

    "Oh goodie, Candy Cane Forest," Isaac said drily. Upon hearing the voice of his friend which was much higher and more… feminine, Salus turned to regard Gearhead. The former man-mountain was now a wo-man-mountain, missing the pot belly and instead sporting a visible six-pack as well as a pair of c-cups on their chest. Gearhead’s ginger beard had disappeared, leaving behind a slender and soft jaw complete with a set of pink pouty lips. Head spinning, Salus barely registered the strong scent of peppermint on the breeze.

    "Alright, stay frosty people," Alex, a literal ice devil, said with a chuckle. Mateo looked to him and saw that Alex was now twice as big, his horns and claws thicker and longer. The end of his scorpion tail was now sporting a lavender flame. And spiraled, serrated spikes had sprouted all along his back and arms.

    "That never gets old, Devil," Alpha said sarcastically, sniffing and letting out a low growl. The general rule for their group was, if someone was in uniform... or in Alex and Kimmy's cases, in their shifted forms, you call them by their superhero name only. Remaining hidden from the public eye was of course their top priority. However, in the event they are seen, maintaining their secret identities was their second highest priority.

"They're coming," she growled out, unsheathing her sickles, "I think it's a scouting party."  Salus noticed that Kimmy’s werewolf form was the same as it ever was, which was very obviously still biologically female.

    "I'll get our defenses ready," Wraith whispered. It was hard for Salus to determine if Wraith had undergone the same transformation as Gearhead and Devil, but he did notice that the figure beneath the cloak seemed a little shorter, and a little curvier, and the whisper did sound more like a girl’s.

Speaking in a language that made Salus Light feel just a little nauseous, Wraith's shadow on the ground spread into a full circle that soon all of them were standing in. Feeling some new sensations on his body as he walked, Salus gave himself a quick once-over and confirmed that he too had become female. The breasts she felt were small and seemed to match his much smaller frame. It was then that Salus concluded that, aside from Kimmy in her werewolf form, all of their sexes had been swapped to female.

Devil unsheathed his/her sword and shield, both of which appeared to have grown to match their current size, and took a defensive posture, twisting his/her long body and tail around their group protectively, the tail poised. It then struck Salus Light that this new more terrifying form of Devil’s must be what the females of his species look like. He/she shook their head to clear that thought away and instead focused on readying themselves for a fight.

    "Oh yeah," Gearhead said with a dark chuckle, before clearing her throat. Salus winced, very familiar with that kind of a chuckle, regardless of Gearhead’s gender. It was a sign that he/she wasn't going to be holding back. "Time to show these fuckers what the bloodline of Hephaestus can do... again!"

She held up the chainsaw and the shotgun, glowing with a golden aura. Slapping the two together with a clang, the chainsaw and shotgun smooshed together like they were made from wet clay. Her much more slender fingers working and shaping this malleable mass of colorful metal, she finished and the glow faded. In her hands, Gearhead now held what appeared to be a cross between the chainsaw and the shotgun. Pulling the chord on the side, the monstrosity chugged to life, the chain beginning to spin, flames spitting out from the sides.

    Salus gripped her staff and looked in the direction Alpha was staring hard at. At first, she saw nothing, but then a set of shapes running towards them could be made out in the distance in between the trees. Squinting, they appeared to be humanoid... but with pointed ears. Their skin, the parts not covered with their red and green kilts and coats, was pale. Many of their faces were painted half red. "Are those... elves in kilts?"

    "Those are the Highlander Elves," Devil growled out. Alpha let out a howl, her hackles raised, and Devil joined in with a defiant roar that shook the very ground. The group of fifteen elves roared back as they ran, forming a tight clustered wedge-shape. The ones in front were carrying red and white striped battle-axes and claymores. Salus could even make out, remembering from high school when he had done a report of the Scottish Highland warriors, matching flintlock pistols, or Dags as they were known.

    "COME GET SOME!!!" Gearhead laughed maniacally as she aimed and fired. In lieu of a scatter of pellets or a single large slug, what shot out was a miniature flaming chainsaw. It impaled itself in the chest of the elf in the lead, buzzing to life and cutting through, digging in deeper and burning the surrounding flesh. Salus had learned not to question how Gearhead’s weapons and machines worked, they just did, even when denying the laws of physics, nature, and thermodynamics. The elf cried out and stumbled forward, tripping those right behind him.

With their wedge compromised, Devil waited for the rest to get a little closer, and then whipped out with their tail, smashing three of them back. Her tail shot out again and speared one in the stomach, quickly pumping the fast-acting venom. The elf then began to wither, a lavender fire starting to consume the body. After that, it was a melee.

    Gearhead fired round after round, cocking each time. When one of the elves shot her with their dag, she laughed and instead ran him through with the chainsaw section of her weapon. Those that entered Wraith's shadow circle, had to dodge inky black tentacles that shot out, ensaring some and breaking their limbs, even a few necks. Alpha was a blur of her blades and teeth. She easily dodged and parried strike after strike, her blocked blows sending her surprised enemies sprawling. She ripped out the throat of one elf who swung his claymore at her, easily side-stepping the two-handed blade.

    Despite their defensive efforts some managed to break through. Devil uncurled and in a flash of her stinger and claws, began tearing through the attackers, matching Alpha strike for strike. Gearhead howled with laughter as she parried a claymore strike with the chainsaw, ignoring two more shots into her side from the elven dags. Salus spun her staff and parried an attempted strike on Wraith, who was focusing on maintaining the shadow tentacles to notice. The elf grunted and focused on her with his battleaxe. Salus stepped into the swing and slammed the end of the staff down on the elf's kneecap, hearing a sickening crunch. The warrior howled in pain and went down, Salus felling him with a quick strike to the temple. And, as soon as it had happened, the last of the elven highlanders fell.

    "The Peppermint Forest is always one of the easier areas," Gearhead remarked with a wince, looking down at her side. It was then that the transformed hero noticed the extra mass on their chest. “Woah… I’ve got a nice set of knockers!” she said with a chuckle, giving them a feel. Salus Light, not wasting any time while rolling her eyes, stepped over to her friend and placed a hand on the wound. She focused and channeled the energy within herself. Gearhead grunted again as all three of the bullets were forced out of her body, the bleeding stopping. Muscle and sinew knitted back together as fresh skin flowed over the holes, sealing it all up. After a few seconds, Gearhead was breathing easier, and Salus smiled. She looked around at the gore and death they were standing in, and blanched, also taking note of how the others seemed to have noticed the changes to themselves, except for Alpa who still appeared unchanged.

    “Well… was this a delightful prank by our ever lovely fairy hosts… or is there someone out there who I’m gunna chain to my chopper and road-haul them?” Gearhead said in her same gruff manner.

    “The fae, Seelie and Unseelie, both enjoy their pranks,” Wraith whispered slowly waving their hands in the air around them, tracing intricate symbols in the air that only they could see. “But this is not fae magic. This is more akin to… chaos magic, but still hard to place.”

    “Oh great,” Devil rumbled as her head twisted back and forth. “Now I can’t go back to Hellword to visit my cousins without males and some females trying to propose an engagement duel.”

    “Why wasn’t I changed?” Alpha asked, looking to her… sister, who simply shrugged. Feeling a tickling sensation inside the back of her super suit, Salus came to the conclusion that she now had much longer hair than before.

    “Bah! It’s probably to mess with us or something,” Gearhead said before placing a slender, yet still massive hand, on Salus’ shoulder. "But look, Salus, it's like I said earlier: These aren't actual people. They're constructs, see?" Salus looked to where he was pointing and watched as the nearby charred and crushed corpse began to dissolve into a mass that started to look like clay. Looking at the other fallen warriors, they too were dissolving. The only things that remained were their weapons, which Gearhead was quick to start collecting.

    "Huh," Salus said, looking to the dissolving body of the one she had beaten with her staff. While her guilt at possibly having taken a life had abated, she still felt a queasiness in her stomach. This game was sick, plain and simple. Shaking her head, she started to move to the rest of her friends, checking on them, while also still examining themselves as best they could while being discreet. With some of the things they’ve seen and done, Salus and the others didn’t seem to be freaking out too much about this sudden genderswap. Wraith hadn't been touched, so she was instead meditating, and subsequently levitating three feet off the ground in doing so, to help replenish her magical energy. Devil's hard bony-like exoskeleton had managed to sustain some damage, but as usual, she was already rapidly healing. The giant beast's wings buzzed and, with a leap up into the sky, Salus' monstrous friend took flight.

    "He… she’s going to scout ahead and see what we'll have to deal with deeper in the forest," Alpha said, loping over to Salus. “We've been to this area before, but they like to try different tactics."

    "I see..." Salus said wryly. She saw several cuts and dark red stains on her fur. Summoning their power again, she proceeded to heal her too. The wolf woman gave her a sidelong glance.

    "We don't have much of a choice here," Alpha said, a softness entering her voice.

    "I... I know.... it's just that this is just so..."

    "So wrong?" she finished with a smirk on her muzzle.

    "Yeah," Salus said, finishing up healing her and stepping back. She wasn't too worried. They'd all suffered much worse injuries in past battles.

    "Well, we're all in agreement there," Wraith chimed in, just as Gearhead let loose a triumphant laugh as she had separated the chainsaw and shotgun and started to combine things to the different weapons she had collected, seeing what combination she preferred. "Okay... almost all of us are in agreement here... but I know Gearhead isn't thrilled about us being held to the whims of the fairies and the ‘looming threat to all the kids of the world’ aspect of this little... holiday tradition of ours. And now this genderswap thing too… it’s always something, basically."

    "How did this even start?" Salus asked.

    "From what we've been able to learn about it, it's actually an ancient ritual, dating back to an ancient Gaelic pact with the fairies of the Unseelie Court."

    "Unseelie?"

    Noticing Salus Light's confusion, Wraith smiled... or so Salus assumed, as all she could see from Wraith's hood was her glowing red eyes. But she knew when her friend was excited.

    "Yeah. In the lore I've been researching, there's two main... well, groups of fairies. The Seelie and the Unseelie, or the fairies of the Summer Court and the Winter Court, respectively. Often, those of the Summer Court are portrayed as more helpful and caring... although there are still plenty of accounts that depict summer court fairies as being capable of trickery and cruelty. But the Winter Court fairies... the stories involving them depict them as being far more... sinister... or even outright sadistic. And I could tell that you could sense the sheer power from Hoary Twinkle earlier."

    Salus nodded. In the background, Gearhead was chuckling darkly, which preceded an explosion that none of the other heroes bothered to acknowledge. "I'm ok!" They heard her call out.

    "Yeah, well, they only get much more powerful than that. We're talking reality warping, powerful. The exact extent I have yet to determine."

    This made the healing hero shiver.

    "It was the Honor Syndicate who introduced us to it," Alpha butted in, "and before them it was The Silver Legion. Centuries of groups of 'Champions', all of them people with powers and abilities, playing this game around the time of the Winter Solstice and Christmas. So yeah, for now we keep playing the game, at least until we can find a way to put a stop to it altogether."

    "If we can," Gearhead said, stepping up to them, patting out smouldering embers on her shoulder. In one hand, she now carried a two-handed chainsaw sword engulfed in flames, and in the other, what appeared to be a shotgun battleaxe, at least that being the best Salus could describe the monstrosity. Before Gearhead could explain her new contraptions, there was a loud buzzing, signalling the arrival of Devil. Looking up, they saw her flying low over the candy cane trees, massive shield and sword in hand, carrying something in her hind claws that she dropped next to Gearhead. She landed hard, leaving deep gouges in the dirt.

    "Alright, looks pretty straightforward. My guess is that this area is acting like a tutorial because we've got us a new player," she motioned towards Salus and continued. "The main body of the forces are deeper in the forest holed up in a fort. There's a couple more scouting parties, none near us, and what looks like some ambushes set up. They've got cannons by the way, so I decided to snag one."

    Salus looked over to Gearhead so was smiling wide as she walked over to the cannon. It had a red and white candy cane coloring to it, with multi-colored blinking Christmas lights spiraling up it. Sitting next to the cannon was a large brown sack that had fallen over, revealing cannon balls that looked like Christmas tree ornaments. She looked at her shotgun battleaxe, a twinkle in her eyes.

    "Any sign of the boss?" Alpha asked, while Gearhead began to work her demigod magic in the background.

    "Not yet. Probably won't make an appearance until after we've engaged and fought through most of the remaining elven forces," Devil said.

    "What's the boss?" Salus asked.

    "The Peppermint Dragon," Devil said with a shrug.

    "... You're serious?"

    "Yeah. In case you hadn't noticed, there's a bit of a theme," Gearhead said with a grunt, having pulled the shotgun and the battleaxe back apart. She tossed the battleaxe away and was instead melding the cannon and the shotgun together.

    "Alright, did the forces look any bigger than last year?" Alpha asked.

    "Nah, they look about the same, at least as far as I can remember."

    Alpha nodded at that, and turned to smile at Salus. "'Cause we got us a noob, we'll probably tear through this area and the boss quicker than before."

    Salus Light grimaced. "Let's stay on our toes, though."

    "Agreed," Wraith whispered, gliding forward.

Half an Hour Later...

    "HAPPY FUCKIN' HANUKKAH!!!" Gearhead screamed with a wicked laugh as she cocked and fired her modified monstrosity. The cannon, colored lights blinking, fired a blue glass-looking ball towards the fort's portcullis. Upon impact, the gate warping and breaking a little, the ball shattered, spraying the elves behind the gate with white hot shrapnel, eliciting a chorus of pained howls. Laughing maniacally, Gearhead cocked her weapon and fired again, blasting the portcullis out from the brick wall entirely, spraying more shrapnel.

    Roaring, Alpha ran at the walls and clawed her way up the left side, tossing two elves over the crenelated sides. They screamed before they landed in crumpled heaps on the ground. Running with her sickles out, she set to work attacking the elves firing crossbows and trying to man their own cannons. With a single leap, Devil hopped up on the right side and started to do the same with her tail and claws. Then, stopping and taking aim, she opened her massive maw, and let loose a blast of deep blue flames that solidified into a line of giant ice spikes, freezing numerous elves and the cannons solid, which she quickly smashed through, shattering them and large chunks of the wall.

    Utilizing the power of shadows to bend the light around them, Wraith and Salus followed close behind Gearhead, who was literally having a blast... after blast, after blast. The multicolored cannonballs exploded on impact, scattering the larger groups and throwing the defending elven forces into confusion. The smaller groups and individuals who charged at her, she was more than happy to meet with his flaming chainsaw claymore, wielding it with just one hand. Decapitating three elves in a row, Gearhead roared in delight as their bodies caught fire and blazed brightly. Wraith dropped her invisibility spell and joined the fray. She began to lash out left and right with inky black tentacles that ended in blades, taking off a few heads herself. Salus was a blur with her staff, targeting joints and necks, doing her best to parry blows left and right.

    All in all, there had to be less than fifty elven highland warriors occupying the fort altogether. And they had dispatched another two scouting parties, each with around fifteen to twenty apiece, as well as about thirty in the ambush. With Alpha leaping down with a roar, obliterating the final three elves clustered together in an explosion of gore, the fort was cleared. Between the warped portcullis, the partially fractured walls, the corpses everywhere, the scene was truly a massacre.

Not wasting any time. Devil started grabbing the few still functioning cannons, five in total, and ripped them out of where they had been bolted into the wall. She tossed them and more sacks of cannon balls down in a pile that Gearhead was already making her way towards, after Salus Light healed her from some more gunshot and stab wounds. 

    Salus moved on to start healing Alpha and Wraith’s wounds, saving Devil, who climbed down from the walls, for last as really she'd just be speeding up the Ice Devil's own fast healing rate. The bodies were dissolving into clay when the thick stone walls shook from the force of a deep and powerful roar. Gearhead swore as she was still in the middle of melding the cannons and her weapon together.

    "The bastard's on his way now!" she shouted.

    "I'm working on it!" Wraith hissed in frustration. She was muttering and chanting, the harsh and sharp words making Salus nauseous again. Shadows radiated from where the cloaked hero stood, slowly taking on three dimensional shapes. Salus was looking as the shadows formed a dome-shaped spider web pattern encompassing the entire fort. Coupled with the carnage, it made the scene look even more like something out of a horror movie.

Alpha scrambled back up the walls, leaving thick claw marks in the solid stone in her haste. Looking through the spiked web bars, she looked around, scanning the sky through the candy cane trees. There was another roar, followed by the sound of steady, powerful flapping wings. A shadow flitted overhead, and the heros looked up to see a red and white striped dragon diving down at the shadow dome, letting out a gout of red and white striped flames... which Salus chalked up to it being magic.

    "DONE!" Gearhead cheered, waving Devil over. She took Devil's giant shield and instead passed her what appeared to Salus Light to be a... cannon revolver? Gearhead ran over with the shield, using her own power to harden it.

    "You, me, and Wraith are on defense! Devil's gonna be our heavy in this fight, and Alpha's gonna run interference, striking where and when she can," She explained, holding up the shield to cover her, Salus, and Wraith as the dragon, still clawing at the cage, sprayed them with its red and white fire, the smell of peppermint getting so strong that it began to burn all their noses. Thankfully, the shield deflected the flames. Scaling the hard black bars, Alpha scrabbled up and sliced with her sickles at the left hindleg of the dragon. Red and white blood sprayed out in a fountain, peppermint and cinnamon intermingling cloyingly, making Salus a little nauseous.

It howled in fury and, despite Wraith trying to strengthen her conjured cage, it smashed through with a headbut. Diving in, its wings being shredded by the pointed bars that were not dissolving as Wraith elected to release the spell, the beast roared in fury. Landing with a ground-shaking thud, Salus was able to take in the size of the creature. It stood on its four legs, at least two stories tall, almost ninety feet long, including the tail. It's glowing green eyes twinkled, and it reared its head back, flames licking the corners of its mouth.

    "You're up, Devil!" Alpha roared, ducking down amidst the crenelation along the fort walls. With a nod, the skeletal beast raised her modified weapon, and fired. Salus was amazed to see that after one cannon fired, the center spun to the next chamber like a revolver. The first ball smashed right into the dragon's throat just as it had started to open its mouth. There was a gurgling choking sound just before the next cannon ball struck the beast in its shoulder, spinning it around. The third smashed it right between the base of its wings, right in the spine. All three shots blasted off chunks of scale, revealing wet and shiny red and white striped meat underneath. The creature was bleeding steadily, the scent of peppermint mixed with cinnamon becoming stronger and stronger.

    "Wraith, now!" Alpha called out, leaping down from the wall.

A giant three-dimensional arm and clawed hand burst out of the ground, reaching over and slamming down on the roaring dragon, pinning it in place, the hand digging its claws into the ground. The werewolf ran up to the dragon's face and slashed out again and again with her sickles, bounding away to avoid the flames and snapping teeth, its eyes now a bloody mess. It roared and blasted flames.

Alpha let out a yelp as her left arm was caught in one blast. She leapt over to where Salus and the others were standing behind Gearhead's shield. Salus wasted no time in putting out the flames and starting to heal her. Devil started to fire into the dragon's belly as the giant hand shifted and lifted it up, exposing its underside. The dragon bucked and thrashed, its movements becoming more and more sluggish as its underside became bloodier and bloodier.

A final blast from Devil was fired, infused with some of her power, frosting the red cannonball. It struck the dragon right on the side of its head and, instead of exploding on impact, it froze the beast's head in a solid block of ice. The body jerked and twitched a few times, before it went limp. Then, the whole creature began to melt in the giant shadow hand. With a snap of his fingers, Wraith made the summoned hand wink out of existence, letting the body of the area boss fall with a wet plop. Gearhead walked from around the shield up to the mass of clay, and stuck her hands inside, digging around.

    "What are you doing?" Salus Light asked, finishing up healing Alpha. The fire she had been burnt with must've had some kind of poison-like effect, as she had to use more energy than usual for a burn to undo the damage, and even fight back against some kind of necrosis that had been very persistent in trying to take root.

    "Trying to find the key. There's one on each boss," she said, now both arms deep and digging around. With a laugh, she pulled her arms out, the clay making a sucking sound as she did so, and triumphantly held up a shining red and white striped key. It was the size of Salus' fist, and the base of it had dragon-like wings on either side.

    "One down, six more to go, and then on to Evil Santa," Devil said, setting down her cannon revolver and stretching.

    "Guys, I don't know how we're going to fight each and every boss before morning. This went kinda quicker than I was expecting, but according to you all, this was one of the easy areas!" Salus said, worry lacing her voice.

    "Chill, man… uh, girl," Devil said with a smirk, that looked absolutely sinister on her skull-face. "Time moves WAAAAAAAAAAY faster here in this pocket dimension thing than in the outside world. We've actually got, like, eight days here to get this all done. All the while, back in the real world, only an hour will have passed."

    "I... oh... okay. So then... what's next?"

    "Well, I found this map on one of the elves before they dissolved," Alpha said. Her brother/sister was once again meditating to restore the energy she had expended during the fight. The werewolf unrolled a parchment and showed it to the group. On it were eight sections of a strange continent, to the very south was the Candycane Forest, their current location. The way north was blocked off by mountains. To the west was an ocean that was named the Icicle Sea. To the east was what appeared to be some kind of town or city depicted on the map. Salus found it odd that the buildings seemed to be drawn in the style of traditional Japanese houses and structures, at least based on what she remembered seeing in movies and anime.

    "Huh, so we'll finally get to tangle with the Wreath Kraken?" Gearhead said with a chuckle as she looked at the sea to the west on the map.

    "Yeah, but I think if we're going to face an unknown like that, we should stock up more first, so I say for now we stick with what we've fought before and gather supplies and weapons," Alpha explained, rolling up the map.

    "Then I take it that we'll be facing the Nutcracker Samurai and the Nutcracker Shogun next?" Devil rumbled out in her deep voice.

    "Yeah," she said, looking to Salus with a knowing smirk, "besides, we still gotta get Salus here used to the game." The healing hero gulped and looked to the starry night sky.

    Samuel, what in the hell did you wind up getting me roped into?

At That Moment…

    Outside of the pocket universe, snow continued to gently drift down in the chilly evening air. In the vacant lot, some old newspaper pages twirled from a sudden gust. Above, the first stars were twinkling into existence. Windows all around were beginning to brighten from lights within being turned on to beat back the coming gloom. The silver skull door knob on the screen door was chuckling, satisfied to itself.

    “I may not have much access to my power while imprisoned here, but I could still do that much. Teach those heroes to go and disrespect me!” It cackled in its dry and raspy voice, its eyes shining a bright red. A large lumbering brown dog wandered into the vacant lot. Walking right up to the door, it sniffed the knob, his tail wagging.

    “Get away, ya mutt!” the doorknob shouted, making the dog jump. After a few moments of the dog staring at the doorknob, his tail began to wag even faster. He reached up, his floppy brown ears perked up, and licked the silver skeletal face.

“I said leave!” the skull growled, its eyes once more glowing red. The dog, oblivious, instead turned and hiked his leg, ready to mark his territory!

    “That’s it! I won’t tolerate anymore disrespect!” with a red flash, the dog jumped back a bit letting out a frightened whine. He then sat down, shaking his head and making his ears rapidly flop back and forth, before he started to scratch himself. With his hind leg scratching his ear, the dog looked down between his hind legs and whined, proceeding to sniff himself… or rather, herself, now. The silver skull cackled wildly.

    “Well, look at you now. That’s what you get for disrespecting me!” its dry and raspy voice continued to cackle in the growing gloom.

 


Elite Shade is the author of many other stories that can be found on TGStoryTime (as Shadow Dragon), ScribbleHub (as EliteShade), SoFurry (as Shadow Lion), Fictionpress.com and FanFiction.net (both as Elite Shade.)

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