CONTINUING THE SERIALIZATION OF THIS HOLIDAY NOVELLA BY TOMMY HANCOCK, PRO SE PROUDLY PRESENTS THE FANTASTIC IMAGE THAT WILL ACT AS THE COVER FOR THIS SERIALIZATION AS WELL AS THE BOOK WHEN IT GOES TO PRINT IN EARLY 2013! IMAGE CREATED BY DAVID L. RUSSELL!
|Logo by Perry Constantine|
“Now, Hieronymus,” chided the mountain of a man, his frame of six feet four inches and nearly three hundred hardened pounds casting a shadow over his oldest friend, “It’s unlike you to be vague.”
“Only as unlikely, Nicholas Saint,” grated Hieronymus Virginia, his neck craned nearly in a U shape to see the face above him, “as it is for one of your miracle medical treatments to render some unique mutation, some strange variation on what should be!” Realizing his voice had gone from natural gravel to frustrated screech, Hieronymus ran his right hand through what little hair he had. “I’m sorry, Nicholas,” he nearly whispered, his voice returning to its usual scratch, “truly I am. It’s just very nearly Christmas and other than my rounds here, Oedipus Sidney’s broken his arm again trying to improve the cargo loader for the sled. And…”
“Relax, Hi,” he gently lay a ham of a hand on Virginia’s shoulder, a rather delicate looking shoulder that in actuality was as strong as an iron bar. “Regardless of the season, you are the hardest working body in the Village. And even you have to flail and fluster at times. So,” changing subjects with a chuckle as he raised his hand to his face, his fingers teasing the closely trimmed white beard nuzzling his chin, “our boy’s developed something new, has he? I’ll wager,” he bet as he crossed the barn toward the stall Hieronymus had exited, “that it has to do with the new salve I gave you to use.”
Hieronymus nodded. “Yes, quite. I’m not certain if its due to any one factor, but the mixture of genetic material from anglerfish and fireflies-
“Yes,” Nicholas Saint interrupted, his hand grasping the stall door, “I was afraid something might be off. But the effect on damaged cells blended with that bioluminescent material on ruptured organs could not be ignored.”
“Oh,” Hieronymus Virginia laughed, “it was effective, true enough, set the tear in his liver right to healing almost immediately. But,” he chortled, “it also made sure this brute of a fellow won’t ever be ignored again, either.”
Nicholas Saint stood in the gateway of the spacious stall and looked at the infarmary’s sole occupant. Two of Hieronymus’ tribesmen had found the creature horribly wounded and dying on a jagged boulder of ice a mile beyond the Village eight days prior. No one could explain how the bleeding beast ended up in the midst of the Arctic Ocean, but one thing had been clear. It had fought whatever attacked it with every ounce of strength and bravery an animal, or human for that matter, could muster. His antlers, once as wide and beautiful a rack as any, were scratched and scarred, three points broken off, not as if they’d been stuck in something and broken, but as if they’d been ripped away. Saint and Hieronymus both spent three solid days tending the creature, treating open wounds, performing three surgeries, and applying Saint’s vast knowledge of medicine and genetics, two of the fourteen fields he was the world’s leading expert in, even though that fact was unknown to almost every single person on the planet.
Now, thanks to that as well as the genetically engineered restorative feed and fluid the patient had been consuming, the magnificent reindeer stood just a few feet away from Saint, five feet tall at its shoulder. Even though bare spots dotted its hide, hints of a healthy sheen could be seen in its lustrous, thick coat. Strips of leather soaked in liniment that would prompt bone growth bound both antlers. The animal before Nicholas Saint, just barely alive days before, turned to look at the man to whom it owed its life.
And its face glowed. Its long muzzle, nose, eyes all glowed. Bright red light poured off the deer’s head, like crimson flickers of flame.
A whistle escaped from Nicholas Saint’s lips, a whistle that Hieronymus heard as a lilting word. It was one of the many eccentricities associated with the man named Saint, one that he actually had no control of. Whenever his mind was engaged in a challenge, one that immediately defied explanation or held no answer, Nicholas would often whistle. Somehow, unexplainable even by himself, those whistles, tune and all, would be clearly understood by those in the room around him. And this oddity was one many were glad to hear because when Saint whistled at a challenge or especially when in trouble, that meant that he’d already happened on how to work, think, or fight his way out of it.
The whistle this time said one word, one of Saint’s favorite expressions. “Intriguing.”
Hieronymus harrumphed. “Such a master of understatement you are, Mister Saint.”
Ignoring the jibe, Saint approached the deer, his right hand out, palm flat facing the animal. “Easy, lad,” Saint murmured soothingly. “Nick’s not going to hurt a single shining hair on your head.”
“You’ll find,” Hieronymus said, “that the light emanating from the creature gives off absolutely no radiant heat. It is illumination, pure and simple.” Bemused, Virginia raised an average white eyebrow as Saint’s hand brushed the deer’s muzzle, the animal only retreating by a step, then nuzzling against the offered appendage. Saint had that effect on nearly every animal Hieronymus had ever seen him encounter, even beasts many believed to not be of this planet or plane. Nicholas Saint usually never knew an enemy when it came to animals and children.
Saint patted the deer as it if were an antlered Saint Bernard and the animal responded in kind, first rubbing its head against Saint’s open hand, then gently pushing beyond that and attempting to burrow against his chest. Saint chuckled, his unusual laugh rumbling up from his diaphragm and out into the open in a cheery burst. “My, friendly lad, aren’t you? Yes, you’ll make a nice addition to the paddock. A nice addition indeed.”
“Need I remind you,” Hieronymus warned in the fatherly tone he sometimes took with his benefactor and best friend, “that you already have a full stable and more than enough for the nearly useless runs you make with the eight you have now.”
“Yes, yes,” Saint countered, “this I know. But no matter. We won’t introduce him to the paddock until you’re sure he’s ready. He’ll need all his strength to deal with the games reindeer play.”
“Besides, “Virginia continued on as if Saint had never spoken, “there’s still tests to be ran on this...unique feature. It seems restricted to the head when he is awake but he literally glows from nip to noggin when he sleeps.” Fatherly gave way to learned man of science, even though the only schooling Hieronymus had ever received had been on the ice floe he currently called home. “That indicates that when he is aware, he has some sort of control over it. With time, he could possibly be taught to isolate it even more or even eliminate-“
“No,” Saint said sternly as he looked at Hieronymus, his hand still petting the deer, “there will be no eliminating it. So much gets taken away that is special in the world today, Hieronymus. This lad here, he’s special, he has something no other of his species has. We won’t be taking that away unless it proves harmful to him. So run the standard battery of examinations. “ He looked back at the magnificent specimen before him, its red light around its face already lessened, centered more around its muzzle now. “But we’ll not be seeking a cure for this phenomenon, not just yet.”
Hieronymus Virginia raised a wizened hand and opened thin lips to retort, but a blast of static noise emanating from something resembling a brass French horn attached to the pinnacle of the barn roof above them gave him stay. Both men turned their attention to the speaker, the deer raising its head in curiosity as well. They waited as the static died away, a buzzing silence of three or so seconds, then an audible click.
“Nick,” the lilting alto voice called from the speaker, “Nick, are you in there?”
Saint smiled even though the voice he thrilled to every day seemed tense, urgent. Hearing her speak, just hearing her breathe always made the man known to many as ‘Earth’s Best Hope’ warm inside like a schoolboy enamored with the girl next door. “Yes Bette,” Saint replied, shouting out of habit even though he knew the receivers hidden in the barn walls would pick his voice up clearly, “Just checking up on-“
“Nick,” the single word cracked like a terse whip, capturing his full attention, “We just received a Jingle. From one of the Helpers. Top priority.”
Saint nodded, even though she couldn’t see him, and as he was wont to do, placed his right index finger to the tip of his nose. This indicated to all around him that he was processing, that he had instantly gone into a sort of deep thought, a ‘Miracle Moment’ his wife called it.
“A helper?” Hieronymus said tentatively. That was a designation he’d not heard in-he hesitated, his broad forehead furrowed in calculation- nine years, 11 months and 21 days. Not that the people in all walks of life around the world that Saint had once commissioned to assist him in his protection of the world, many of them for their entire lifetimes and some even passing it onto their children, had been told to stand down or were no longer needed. But the threats to the world and the injustices meted out in the last decade seemed tamer, less intense than they had…before She died. Saint and his close associates, Hieronymus included, had been able to deal with the occasional mad scientist, power hungry ruler, or alleged otherworldly presence that popped up.
The slight man’s entire frame trembled with something akin to fear, respect, and disgust at the thought of Her and those who gathered at her feet, clung to her cloak tails. That had been the reason the Helpers had been commissioned originally, well back into the last century, to deal with the insidious, clever way that She and her minions worked their wicked ways. It was child’s play-no pun intended- to spread Helpers around the globe, having them work in the guise of imitators, men and women costuming themselves in Saint’s publicized image, standing on street corners, working in department stores and schools, and doing good. In more ways than anyone ever knew.
“Understood,” Saint said. His voice was different, the resonant timbre the same, but a certain chill had crept into it. An edge, hard and razor sharp. Ready for anything. “I’m on my way back to the Workshop now.”
“Nick,” Bette said, her voice still insistent, but tinged with a hint of sadness. “The Jingle. It came from Ohio. Caruthersville.”
The ruddy, healthy red of Nicholas Saint’s cheeks paled for only a moment at the words from the speaker. Memory ambushed him in broad daylight as it often did in his deepest dreams at the mention of the small picturesque town in Ohio. Mothers shouting. Fathers cursing. A strangled mix of melody and notes in the air. And not a child in sight.
Saint spoke as he charged out of the stall and across the infarmary. “Who’s near Ohio, Bette?”
“Peter’s somewhere in the Midwest,” came the reply, “and then there’s Jack. He’s in New York, helping orphans and…”she hesitated…“ministering to widows.”
Hieronymus harrumphed, trying to drive away his own feelings of unease. “Whatever he does with defenseless widows can in no way be considered ‘ministering’.”
Again, Saint ignored his friend. He was already gone at least in mind and spirit, beyond the infarmary, outside of the ice floe, boot deep in whatever horror he was on his way to face, whatever adventure was about to consume his life. Hesitating at the barn door, he said, “Contact them both. Get them to Caruthersville. I’ll take the Pogo and meet them there.” He took a breath. “And, Bette. Tell them to be careful. It’s not like everywhere else. We’re not welcome in Caruthersville. Especially so close to Christmas.”
“All right,” answered Bette, her voice softening. “Be safe, Nicholas.”
Hearing the click of the radio transmitter going dead, Nicholas Saint glanced back over his shoulder, his eyes absent the twinkle that he was known for far and wide. “Convene a Round Table, Hi. Everyone in the Village attends.”
The diminutive man nodded, then said, “Even Krampus?”
Nicholas Saint nodded. “Yes, everyone. You and Bette make sure we’re ready.”
As somber as an undertaker, a position he’d often held in the past for his own people and fallen comrades, Hieronymus Virginia asked, “And even if we are, what then?”
“Pray,” Nicholas Saint said simply. “Pray we don’t have to be.”