A Very Thorny Christmas

From the Story Arc: Green and Red: A Christmas Story

Previous Story in the Arc: Christmas at Carpathia's by Carpathia (Friday, December 24, 2004)

Next Story in the Arc: All I want for Christmas is.... by Carpathia (Tuesday, December 28, 2004)

(posted Monday, December 27, 2004)

Fire burned his eyes, flames licked at his skin. A conflagration surrounded him, and Zach couldn’t tell up from down. Like a marionette without an puppeteer, Zach hung suspended in the air, his arms and legs refusing to obey his wishes. A mage of the Circle of Thorns moved his arms through arcane gestures, keeping Zach’s mind wracked with pain and unable to order his limbs to move. All around the green-skinned hero stood other members of the Circle, hurling their fire magic at the immobilized figure. Vulnerable to flame even when his powers were functioning normally, the explosive pain in his head kept Zach from using his powers, and the smell of burnt flesh filled the chamber.

A lot of people complain about the mad rush before the holidays, but even for the day before Christmas, Zach was having a rougher day than most.

---

It hadn’t started out bad at all. Zach had gone to the library, hoping to learn a bit about Czech Christmas traditions. His hope was that this would help him come up with a present for Carpathia Peregrim, the Commissar of CCCP that had opened her arms and heart to the furry and feral-looking hero. He was just starting to make some progress when the Circle of Thorns attacked, stealing some arcane tome from the library and making off with a number of hostages.

Zach had headed of in pursuit, radioing to Carpathia and the rest of the CCCP to meet him there. The Thorns quickly flew across the city, with Zach leaping from rooftop to rooftop in pursuit. Zach watched them eventually touch down on one of the chain of small islands north of Talos Island. The lead mage stepped up to a boulder, touched his hand to the rock, and a secret doorway opened up. The three other mages, each with a prisoner in tow, followed him into the passageway as the door closed up, once again appearing the rest of the world as an ordinary boulder.

Now Zach had a decision to make. Carpathia was on her way, but she and any others from the CCCP were not in sight yet. Bestial Boy knew what the Circle intended to do with their captives. The Circle of Thorns augmented their numbers by implanting “host” with the spirits and personalities of long-dead mages. Once the ritual was completed, the person’s original personality and soul were lost forever. Zach made his decision quickly. He wasn’t going to stand there and wait while innocent people were destroyed.

Zach activated his comm console. “Its me again Red.” Zach thought his pet name for the 8 foot tall Red-haired Czech girl was as evocative of her personality as it was of her appearance. Women that looked like supermodels and fought like infernos tended to get what they wanted.

“I found the Circle’s base. I’m sending you the coordinates now.” Zach paused an looked at his watch. Time was passing too quickly for inaction. “I am going in Car.”

An angry voice practically leapt out of the earpiece. “Nyet! You are not going in alone Zach!” Carpathia had been in CCCP so long that she yelled in Russian when angry. “You are to be waiting for us to get there!”

Zach didn’t want to argue about it, he didn’t have time. He knew the risks, but he could not live with himself if he waited, and then went in to discover the young artist he had met at the library had been transformed into a monster. “Listen Babe, they have 3 prisoners with them. We all know that the Circle takes prisoners for one reason and one reason only. I’m going in.”

Carpathia didn’t seem to agree with his reasoning. “DO NOT ‘BABE’ ME, ZACHARY! I am not asking you this, but I am to be TELLING you this as a Commissar of the….” Zach turned off his earpiece.

“Well Einstein, you may just have solved the problem of finding her a Christmas present.”, Zach mused to himself. “The way you are going you aren’t even gonna be invited anymore.” Zach shook his head touched his hand to the boulder, just as he had seen the Mages do, and headed off into the darkness.

---

Zach had made short work of the initial foes he faced, including several of the hulking behemoths that the Circle summoned from other planes of existence. Bestial Boy felt the fire from these foes acutely, as the murky darkness that shielded him from harm seemed to allow heat to pass through, painfully at times. But with his ability to hide in his own cloud of darkness, by the time his enemies got a bead on his location they were half-pummeled into unconsciousness. Zach had already found two of the prisoners, but the Circle base was huge, and he still had not found the sketch artist he had met at the library. Zach quickly made his way through the complex, running from passage to passage.

Unfortunately, the Bestial Boy rounded one bend too quickly for his own good. As he turned one corner, he found himself standing in between two mages of the Circle. Each of them had the ornate robes and headdresses marking them as Agony Mages, trained in the arts of inflicting mental torture through magic.

Zach had been working on attuning his “murk” to screen out such psychic intrusions, mainly via studying certain meditation techniques under the supervision of People’s Blade. Under her tutelage, Bestial Boy could now face down Mages such as these far better than most. But he had to be prepared for such an onslaught. Just as in the library earlier that day, this sudden mental bombardment left him helpless.

His mind exploding with pain, Zach was only vaguely aware that he was floating in the air, his body and mind completely dominated by the two mages. Had he been aware, he would have seen the evil grins on the faces of Circle underlings as the lower ranking mages of the Circle began to bombard him with flames. Suffering pain beyond imagining, Zach could feel the heat and see the light of the flames, but his pain-wracked psyche couldn’t process what he was experiencing.

Zach was being burned alive.

For what seemed like an eternity to Zach, he floated there in space, his mind exploding with torment, the flames burning his body. The flames began to increase in strength, until Zach was aware that all he could see was yellow and orange fire around him. But oddly enough, just as his awareness of the fire had increased, so the pain in his mind had receded! Zach could open his eyes fully, and though everywhere he saw fire, he felt no pain from the flames at all!

The pain in his head was gone, and he was now aware that he was not floating in the air anymore, but was instead behind supported by someone. Looking up through the flames, he could see the beautiful face of Carpathia Peregrim looking down at him. Her face was a mix of anger and worry, bringing subtle lines to her normally porcelain skin. “I have told you to being careful, Zach,” she said in a warm tone, as she lowered him to the ground, and kissed him on his forehead.

Zach could tell from the look on her face that he wasn’t looking his most debonair at that moment. She looked at him with fear in her eyes, and Zach was glad there wasn’t a mirror around at that moment. He couldn’t move his body, and the smell of his burnt skin filled his nostrils. He could only imagine what he looked like right now.

“Sorry Red,” Zach gasped between labored breaths, “if I knew you were coming I would have made myself presentable.” Zach tried to make Carpathia smile, but his attempt at humor only seemed to sadden her further. Carpathia turned back down the hallway and yelled into the darkness. “Jadwiga! Hurry!”

Running up the passageway came Jadwiga Tikonov, also known as the Soviette, senior medical official of the CCCP, and a good friend to Zach. Ever the professional, she did not even flinch at the appearance of the burnt-to-near-crisp Bestial Boy. Taking in a quick analysis of the situation, Soviette extended her hands outwards, causing green pulses of soothing energy to flow into Zach’s broken body.

Zach felt a strange sensation as cracked bones mended, sinews grew anew, and charred skin softened and returned to normal. Zach could feel his breathing return to normal. Sitting up, Zach felt his skin with his hands, happy to discover that he seemed to be healed. Leaping up into a standing position, Zach turned to Soviette. “Thanks Jadwiga, but next time you are fixing up my skin, see if you can do something about the color. Green is SO last year.”

Soviette smirked, but the look Carpathia’s face was not happy. Now that it was clear that Zach was going to live, her anger boiled over. “Do NOT think this is being the end of this Zachary!” Carpathia shook her finger at Zach, like a schoolteacher scolding her students. “You have disobeyed my direct order, you needlessly endangered your life…” Carpathia’s icy demeanor broke down then, and she took a step toward Zach, holding him tightly. “AND are almost ruining my Christmas!”

Zach was a bit embarrassed at having this display occur in front of Soviette, who leaned against the wall with a satisfied grin on her face, indulging in Zach’s embarrassment. Zach touched Carpathia under her chin, and spoke so softly only she could here. “Its not Christmas yet, so I have time to make it up to you, right?” Zach gave her a devilish look that made her grin through her tears. “C’mon, there is one more poor sod down their that needs our help.”

---

Graham Silver sat on the floor of his cell. At least, he supposed it was a cell. The small chamber seemed to be an almost living thing, growing from the rock to form an ovoid little holding cell. A sheet of translucent material covered one wall, almost like a gem, but although it allowed light through he couldn’t see through it to make out details.

From time to time, his abductors would come to check on him, magically causing the sheet of glass to open to allow their entry. They did not speak to him at all, but he overheard one of the robed figures say to another that “He will suffice.” Exactly what he was going to suffice for, Graham wasn’t sure he wanted to know. But he was pretty sure that, whatever it was, it wasn’t going to help him make his student loan payments at art school.

Graham stood up and tried to search for way out. He felt around the base of the translucent panel and the walls, looking for a seam or a crack that he could exploit. But despite all the time he spent searching, his efforts had borne no fruit. After a couple of hours, suddenly he noticed something. As he was feeling along the base of the panel once more, he felt the glass-like material become warm to his touch. Looking up, he saw that it was glowing yellow, like the tungsten in a light bulb.

Graham shield his eyes from the brightness and stepped back, afraid of what new torment was about to occur. He heard a muffled voice on the other side, but he couldn’t make out the words. Despite his fears, he stepped forward, half-afraid all he would hear was mystic chanting on the other side. Instead what he heard left him dumbfounded.

“If you don’t want a quartz sandwich, I suggest you stand back!!!”

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Three thunderous shots shook the little chamber, and the material continued to burn brightly.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Three more blasts echoed off the stone, and Graham thought he saw a small crack forming in the glowing yellow wall. On instinct, Graham covered his head and ducked down, not quite sure what was about to happen.

Suddenly, the entire room burst into light, as the wall came blasting down. Behind the rubble, Graham looked up to see a beautiful woman, dressed in some sort of black uniform, arms folded across her chest, completely surrounded by a nimbus of flame. Just as bizarre, standing in front of her was a green-skinned man, in a similar uniform, but with an aura of darkness floating around him. He was rubbing his fists, and howling in pain. “Man! Punching solid rock hurts!”

Just then, Graham realized that this was the same fellow he had met at the library, just before he was abducted! The man stepped forward over the rubble, and extended his hand to Graham to help him up. “Consider yourself rescued, buddy! What can I say, I am an art fan!” The flaming woman behind him rolled her eyes, but Graham was too happy to notice.

---

The next day, Zach was preparing to head out to Carpathia’s house for Christmas Eve. The events of the previous day had interfered with his attempts to come up with an ideal gift for Carpathia, but he was going to make do with what he could. He got her a giant stuffed teddy bear, to commemorate the Czech Bear Festival, but giant was a relative term where the 8-foot tall Carpathia Peregrim was involved. Zach had dyed it green, thinking that to be an appropriate way to personalize the gift.

He had a box of chocolates for her, and some flowers as well, but Zach was sorely upset. There was nothing even remotely “special” about his gift, nothing to capture the unique way they two of them were when they were together. Grumpy but resigned, Zach headed out of his Galaxy City apartment, bear, candy and flowers in tow.

Zach left his house early, at around 2 p.m., as he needed to stop by the CCCP headquarters on his way. His comm unit had been damaged in the fighting, and Natalya had told him to drop it off for repair. As Zach approached the front door, he saw a small package left on the doorstep. Normally, he would have suspected a bomb and gone running, but for some reason Zach’s senses weren’t tingling over this discovery.

He bent over the small brown-paper wrapped package, and pulled off the note attached to it.

“Dear Bestial Boy & Carpathia,

I can’t begin to thank you for saving me. It truly was a Christmas miracle. I don’t have any money to thank you, but I wanted to do something to show you how much your actions have meant to me.

Happy Holidays,

Graham.

P.S. Zach, if you are looking for something special for a Czech farm girl, a fellow student of mine in art school is from Prague, and he sells beautiful handmade Christmas ornaments at his parent’s shop in Talos. Stop by “A Taste of Prague” on Montague Street. I’m sure you’ll find something.”

A smile erupted on Zach’s face. It was only 2:30, maybe there was time before they closed down for Christmas Eve! Quickly, Bestial Boy opened the brown paper package, although what Graham had given him was already a wonderful gift.

What Zach saw made his jaw drop. The talented sketch artist had drawn a picture to capture the moment when Zach and Carpathia had saved him. There they stood, side by side, stepping over crumbled stone. Waves of fire surrounded Carpathia, and tendrils of inky blackness emitted from Zach. Most notably, the physical expressions and gestures spoke volumes. Carpathia’s hand rested on Zach’s shoulder as he stepped into the room, and the details of the veins on her hand showed how hard she was gripping him. Zach’s face was facing forward, but his eyes could be seen to be looking back at Carpathia with a smile on his face. Two heroes, focused on saving Graham, but worried about each other as well. Zach was stunned that the young artist could perceive so much in just a few moments. Gently folding the sketch, Zach put it in his bag and bounded off for Talos Island. His comm. unit could wait until after Christmas.

---

An hour later, a jubilant green-skinned man leapt with joyous abandon from rooftop to rooftop, heading for an apartment in Steel Canyon. Like a demented Santa Klaus, he had a bad of gifts with him. In the bag were a teddy bear, some chocolates, and flowers. But it also had an impossibly delicate Christmas Tree ornament in the shape of a gingerbread Carp. And last, but not least, a beautifully framed picture of Zach and Carpathia. The frame was made of hand-carved wood, and had an inscription on the top. The woman who owned the shop had given him a strange look when he requested it, but he was so eager and insistent that she complied with his request. The simple inscription was carved in flowing letters.

“Fire and Brimstone, Baby!”

As Zach bounded from rooftop to rooftop, a massive smile spread inexorably across his face. Before he knew it, Zach was yelling at the top of his lungs, and a feeling of joy like he hadn’t felt in years filled his heart. Before he knew what he was doing, he was screaming at the top of his lungs.

“MERRY FREAKING CHRISTMAS PARAGON CITY!!! YAHOO!!!!”