Morgan ducked and came up with fire in her hands.  She tossed it at the specter and listened with pleasure as it howled.  Its misty form mixed with the magical flame gave it the appearance of fog on fire.  Another joined it, and Morgan rolled her eyes at the thought of spending her entire evening battling the stupid things.

Specters were odd creatures.  Some said they were the souls of the dead, but Morgan knew that wasn’t the case.  Specters were their own entities, born when the world was young from some leftover material or energy from the time of universal collapse, some five thousand or so years before.  They could drain the energy from anyone they touched, leaving the person a withered shell, and, if they didn’t kill, they poisoned.  Morgan had seen more than one person who’d been ‘specter bitten’, and it wasn’t a pretty way to die.

“Need a hand?”

“No,” Morgan replied.  She shot fire from her fingers, and another specter went down.

The questioner was Erastus Hallowell, a ranger of the Shizzuria Wasteland and patron of the Broken Icepick Tradepost, the shop where Morgan worked in the daytime hours.  He was a klormara, a Shadow Walker term that meant ‘plain mortal’.  In other words, while Morgan carried the Seed of Abraham, which gave her magical power, Erastus was simply a human, and he didn’t possess the tools necessary to fight things that wouldn’t die by normal means.

Several more specters joined the first, and Morgan chose lightning to lash out at them.  The bolt passed from specter to specter, and those it touched screamed and evaporated.  Morgan stopped for a moment and gasped for breath as the cold air of the ice sheets of the Shizzuria Wasteland froze her lungs.

“Morgan, look out!”

Morgan whirled to come face-to-face with the specter.  She brought up a force field of energy, but the specter reached through it.  Erastus brought his ax around and sliced through the mist of the specter.  It screeched and dissipated, only to reform several feet away.

“Stubborn bastard,” Morgan muttered.  To Erastus she said, “Thanks for the rescue.  Now, will you let me get this done?”

Erastus smiled, an expression that had warmed Morgan’s heart more than once.  “Looks like you could use a hand.”

Morgan shrugged.  “Then clap from over there.  An axe won’t kill these things.”

Erastus grinned and nicked the middle finger of his left hand.  A small nimbus of dark

crimson light formed in his palm.  “Will this help?”

Morgan took a step back, her mouth falling open in shock.  “Who are you?”

Erastus laughed.  “Don’t freak on me.  I come from the Blood Mages of Harrowind, though I was born around here.”

“Harrowind?  In Moirena?  You’re demon get?”

Erastus sighed and sent his magic into the specter.  The light formed a small ball in its center, then it expanded within the mist and exploded outward.  Specter guts splashed across snow, a black ichor that hissed and smoked in the cold, and Erastus jumped backwards to avoid getting splattered.   He turned to Morgan with a scowl.  “About a dozen generations back, yeah.  I’m demon get.  Is that a problem?”

Memories of her time in Moirena surged through Morgan’s mind.  The succubus Lemoreal.  The twisting of Daniel’s mind.  Justin deciding to stay; Morgan’s children still blamed her for that.  The hordes of demons.  Terror.  Despair.  Agony.  She fought these back and looked at Erastus, one of her best customers, someone she somewhat considered a friend.  “Not a problem at all.”

Morgan looked around for any sign of more specters.  When she was sure they were gone, she turned to Erastus again.  “Thanks for your help.”

Erastus gave her an exaggerated bow.  “You’re welcome, milady.  Shall I escort you home?”

Morgan smiled and shook her head at his foolishness, then she shrugged.  “If you’d like.”

Morgan’s steps were heavy as they made their way back to the mining village.  Snow lay heavily on the ground, and the lights from the mining village glowed in the darkness.  Morgan shivered as they passed the entrance to one of the mines, for, more than once, creatures had come up out of that particular entrance.  Most likely, the specters that had just interfered with her Yule had, too. 

The Steamreach Coal Company had long ago abandoned that specific mine because too many miners had been attacked while working there, and too many others had died for no apparent reason.  Unfortunately for Morgan and other Shadow Walkers, they hadn’t sealed the entrance, so whatever had caused the initial trouble was more than able to continue to plague the area around Grenvor.  Morgan had intended to venture into the mine and dispose of the threat, but she simply hadn’t gotten around to it.

“I can make it from here,” Morgan said to Erastus when they entered the village proper.  She brushed a strand of auburn hair away from her face and wiped the ice from her spectacles.  “I’m sure you have better things to do.”

Erastus shrugged, and Morgan was struck by the innocence in his expression.  At six foot three, there was nothing small about him, and the dark hair, blue eyes, and twisted vine tattoo up his arm only lent more menace to his appearance. But, at the same time, there was still something vulnerable about him that Morgan couldn’t quite put her finger on.  “Not really.  Even the Rangers don’t have to patrol on Yule unless there’s a known threat in the area.”

Morgan gave him a sad smile as they walked through the snow to her home.  “There’s always something going on over at Mistbay.”

Erastus sighed.  “I may check it out.”

Morgan walked up the stairs to her porch.  “You have fun, and Happy Yule,” she said.  “And thanks for the help.”

For a moment, Erastus looked like he wanted to say something more, then he waved and headed off into the night.

 

*****

 

Morgan stood on the porch of her small home in Grenvor.  She shivered in the perpetual cold caused by living on the edge of an ice sheet and sighed into the silence of the night.  She looked around at her neighbors’ homes and smiled, though her heart was heavy.  

Most of them worked for Steamreach Coal, many down in the mines, and their homes were usually dark at this time of evening. 

But not tonight. 

Those with generators had strung incandescent lamps, small ones, around their porches and their homes, and those who couldn’t afford the generators, or the coal to run them, had candles with colored globes sitting on porch rails and in windows.  Morgan had considered doing something similar for the Yuletide season, but her job at the Broken Icepick Tradepost didn’t allow for many luxuries, and Morgan had opted for a new coat from Littlehallow Outfitters instead.  It was something she would use.  Something practical.

The night was quiet, peaceful, and laughter from Mistbay Tavern floated on the cold breeze.  Many of the miners gathered at the tavern during the holidays to spend time together in the warmth before the cold of deep winter prevented much movement.  Morgan often considered joining them, but, for some reason, she just couldn’t seem to manage it.  Not to say she hadn’t tried, but she’d quickly realized that being alone in a room full of boisterous miners and their families was still alone, and she just couldn’t make herself repeat the experience.

With one last look at the lights, Morgan stepped back inside.  She made sure the door was locked, then she settled onto her sofa.  Her job began early in the morning, and even the holiday season didn’t prevent her having to report to work, so Morgan had forgone the decorations of Yule and elected to get some extra rest instead.  With her children grown, she had no real reason to celebrate and attempting to only made her realize just what was missing from her life.

The darkness closed in around Morgan like a shroud enclosed the dead.  She moved to light a candle, but a flicker caught her eye.  Her bronze owl, one she’d made while a Sister with the Arcana Maximus in Freywater, shifted position on the coffee table.  She shook her head and ignored it while she made herself a cup of hot cocoa and grabbed a wool blanket from her bed.  Once she’d settled, she stared the owl in the eye.

“All right, Abraham,” she said.  “It’s Yule.  What’s going on that’s gonna get me out of my warm house?  Really not in the mood to freeze my ass off again tonight.”

Light flared in the owl’s eyes, and it waddled from leg to leg, then it quieted.  Morgan finished her cocoa and shrugged.  If Abraham wasn’t going to tell her what she needed to do, then she was going to bed to get a good night’s sleep.  She’d fought the specters; that was enough for one night.

Morgan set her empty mug on the table in front of her and groaned as she rose from the sofa.  The fire was nearly out in her wood-burning stove, and she dreaded going back outside to get more.  Wind whistled around the corners of the house, and Morgan could imagine it biting through her clothing.

“Dammit,” she said to the owl.  “If you can tell me who’s getting eaten, why can’t you do something useful like go get the wood?”

The owl waddled again and flapped its tiny metal wings, then it settled back into silence.

“Asshole.”

Morgan stomped through her small kitchen to the back door and snatched it open.  The wind’s chill was razor sharp, and Morgan’s teeth chattered, as she’d neglected to put on her coat, so she raced down the steps to grab several pieces of wood.  She hurried back inside and tossed them into the stove, then she took her blanket and wrapped it around herself until she stopped trembling.

Just as she laid back down, raucous laughter caught Morgan’s attention.  She rolled her eyes and climbed to her feet.  She wrapped the blanket more firmly around her shoulders and stepped out onto the porch. 

The night had grown even chillier, and Morgan quivered in the cold.  A group of miners, large, burly humans, were stumbling their way down the street.  Several Halflings from the Halfling village to the west of Grenvor had joined them, and the group’s noise echoed in the night.  Morgan laughed as one of them tripped over his own feet and landed face first in the snow, and she shook her head at their antics.  She loved the miners of Grenvor and the Halflings that often patroned her shop.  There were even some of the trolls from the troll village south of Grenvor that weren’t half bad, but there was no one here to whom she felt particularly close.

Pain welled up in Morgan’s soul at the depth of emptiness within her home, for there was no one in her life to celebrate the Yuletide season with her.  Her children had all gotten apprenticeships several years before, even before Morgan had left Freywater, and none of them had spoken to her since.  A tear rolled down her cheek at the thought of the all the years her family had celebrated Yule with a tree and gifts for the kids.  They’d never had a lot of money, but they’d been a close family. 

Morgan smiled at the memories of previous Yuletides, those in their small flat in Shadowhell in Freywater…

 

*****

 

It was Yuletide night, and the boys were waiting for Sir Klaus, just like always.  Morgan had put them to bed and looked around the flat.  There were only a few small decorations, a single red candle surrounded by holly leaves.  Morgan had scraped together just enough coin to get each child a small gift, and she was waiting for them to fall asleep before she put them out.  Justin was out on assignment, and she had no idea when he’d be back, but this wasn’t unusual.  There were times she was out on assignment as well.

A thumping outside the flat brought Morgan to her feet, knife in hand and golden light flaring around her right hand.  Her babies were in this house, and she’d be damned if someone, or something, was going to get to them.

Morgan moved toward the door and placed her back against the wall to the right of the door.  She cracked it open, carefully, to avoid being heard, and peered into the hallway.  An incandescent lamp at each end provided tiny pools of illumination that caused more shadows than light.  Movement at the end of the hall drew her gaze, and she squinted and tried to make out what it was.

A shadow filled the hallway, and Morgan eased out the door and pulled it shut behind her.  She took a step forward.  Then another.  The thing in front of her rustled, a scratching noise that made her think of paint being pulled from the walls, then grunted.  It moved forward, and Morgan tensed, ready to fight with blade or magic, anything to protect her children.

“Dammit.”

“Justin?”

The shadow in front of her rustled again, and Justin’s head poked out from behind the braches of a fir tree.  “Yeah, it’s me.  Wanna give me a hand?”

Morgan laughed, and the tension drained from her shoulders.  Her heart, bound in the iron of fear, raced from its cage, and she leaned against the wall for a moment.  “You scared the shit out of me.”

“Sorry,” Justin replied.  His voice softened and became sheepish.  “I just wanted to surprise you.”

Morgan moved down the hall and grabbed one side of the tree.  She helped Justin drag it down the hall and into their flat.  Once it was set up and ready to decorate, she jumped into his arms and kissed her.  “Thank you,” she said.  “The kids’ll love it…”

 

*****

 

 

Maybe I should’ve just put one up anyway.

But, in truth, Morgan never really had the time.  With her job at the Broken Icepick and Abraham’s insistence that she continue her duties as a Shadow Walker, whether she wanted to or not, all of Morgan’s life was regulated by one thing or another.

With one last look at the now empty street, Morgan went back inside, stoked up the fire in her stove and settled herself down on the sofa.  Again.  She pulled her blankets up close and watched the fire flicker as the minutes of Yuletide slowly ticked by. 

Morgan was drifting off to sleep when something banged on her porch.  She jumped to her feet with a curse and stomped to the door.  All she needed was yet another critter chomping on one of the villagers.  Of course, if that had been the case, Abraham would’ve told her through the owl.  Instead, all he had done was waddle around a little and squawk.

“What the hell is going on now?”  Morgan asked the empty room.  She just wanted to sleep and forget it was a holiday. 

Morgan tripped on the edge of her rug and cursed again when she landed against the door.  She righted herself and snatched it open to come face-to-face with a giant tree.  Her mouth dropped open, and she stepped back in surprise.  “What the hell?”

A head popped around the side of the tree, and Erastus grinned at her.  “I noticed you didn’t have any decorations up and thought you might want some company.”

Morgan shook her head and stepped back to let Erastus in.  He lifted the tree in strong arms and carried it, without apparent effort, through Morgan’s front door.  He hauled the tree into the living room and set it up in the corner furthest from the wood burning stove, then he turned to Morgan with a grin.  “How’s that?”

Morgan laughed and hugged herself in the cold.  “Let me get some lights on, and I’ll tell

you.”  She lit several candles and gasped at the sheer size of the tree.  “It’s beautiful.”

“It’ll look even better once it’s decorated.”

Morgan didn’t know what to say.  The very idea that someone would go to such effort simply for her happiness was so far beyond anything she had ever experienced that she couldn’t wrap her mind around the gesture.

Erastus stepped out onto the porch and returned with a box of ornaments.  He opened it and handed Morgan a hand-blown glass ball of bright red.  She held it lovingly for a moment, for it was nicer than anything she’d had as an adult, then she hung it on the tree. 

For the next hour Morgan and Erastus hung ornaments of all kinds on the Yule tree.  Some of them were delicate hand-blown pieces, while others were intricately carved wooden figures with bright paint.  As a final touch Erastus pulled a string of lights from the box.  Morgan gasped at their beauty, then her heart sank when she realized she didn’t have a generator to power them.

“That’s okay,” Erastus said with a smile.  He returned to the porch and came back with a small, coal-run generator.  “It only takes a few pieces of coal at a time, and it isn’t very powerful, but it will run the lights for the rest of tonight and into tomorrow.”

Tears filled Morgan’s eyes as she stared at the lighted tree.  The lights twinkled, and the low hum of the generator soothed her nerves.  The glass ornaments reflected the lights and sparkled in the darkness, and, for a moment, Morgan had hope that, for once, tomorrow would be better than today had been.

“Thank you, Erastus,” she whispered.  “It’s beautiful.”

Erastus wrapped his arm around her and pulled her close.  He kissed the top of her head and turned her face up to his.  “Not as beautiful as you are,” he whispered, then he kissed her tenderly on the lips.  “Happy Yule.”

“Happy Yule,” Morgan echoed.  “Would you like some cocoa?”

Erastus nodded, and Morgan gifted him with a rare smile before she ran off to the kitchen to put the kettle on.  She returned to see Erastus coming back through her front door with several gifts in his arms.  She gasped when he placed them under the tree and turned back to her with a shrug and a shy smile.  “I thought you could use a little Yuletide cheer.”

Morgan stood in shock.  Feelings she thought she no longer had the ability to experience welled up within her and threatened to drown her, but the lights on the Yule tree brought her back to herself.  She returned his smile, then the kettle screamed to let her know the water was hot.  She quickly fixed them each a cup of cocoa.  Erastus smiled at her, and Morgan was struck by the softness in his eyes. 

Morgan opened her gifts from Erastus, and, the two of them went outside for a brief snowball fight before returning to the warmth of the house. 

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Erastus said after he’d warmed up a little.

Morgan nodded, not wanting him to go but less comfortable with him staying.  “Bright and early,” she replied with a smile.

Once Erastus had gone, Morgan settled onto the sofa again and pulled the blanket up to her chin.  The sparkling lights on the Yuletide tree reminded her that she wasn’t completely alone in the world, and that sense of someone caring eased the ache that was her constant companion.

“Thanks, Erastus,” she whispered into the darkness as she drifted off to sleep, while on her coffee table the owl that occasionally housed the spirit of Abraham blinked its eyes.

 

 

Published by Lissa Dobbs