A Cold and Desperate Plan
​ 

Nyx didn’t move.

Any movement and she would bolt.

She was magnificent, 15 hands high, easily. Her coat was a pristine white so pure it could have been pulled from a cloud. Her lustrous mane shimmered in the soft morning light, and at just this angle, it refracted the rays of the sun into a pale rainbow that gently splashed the corners of the quiet glen.

More impressive than that was the magnificent horn at the peak of her forehead. It was a perfect cone, spiraling and looping gracefully to a point whose sharpness he could feel even here from his hiding spot in the ferns.

So beautiful.

So deadly.

Her head dipped to the pool of crystal clear water for an early morning drink.

Larks and jays flitted merrily through the lush treetops, as small creatures
tumbled through the underbrush, playfully wrestling over an acorn, or a bit of
dandyweed. A satyr peeked his head from around the trunk of a thick
oak tree and watched in quiet glee as the idyllic scene unfolded.

Idyllic.

It was. It was perfect.

Too perfect.

He wanted to stay there forever.  

A new ray of sunlight cut through the trees and engulfed
​the unicorn’s head highlighting her beauty and purity.

She was iconic – the perfect representation of her species.

He gasped, in spite of himself.

She heard it. Her head jerked up.

Nyx froze. She might bolt as unicorns often did, fleeing at the slightest sound. He didn’t want her to go, didn’t want her to leave because of his intrusion. He wanted to go, and leave her to her peaceful glen, but if he moved, she would run. He was concealed pretty well. If he just stayed still…

She found him anyway. Her eyes cut through the branches and leaves and found his.
Her eyes, Nyx thought. Why do they look so familiar?

They held him, paralyzed him, those eyes. He trembled under their gaze, while he waited for her to flee, or charge. Something.

But what she did was something truly unexpected.

She spoke.

“Save me, daddy.”

His mind faltered. “…wh…What?”

The explosion at the unicorn’s neck sent a geyser of blood and bone spraying in all directions. Her front legs buckled, her head to one side, and she tumbled forward into the pool of water. A split second later he heard the sickening and yet all-too-familiar retort of the gunnar’s weapon, and smelled the pungent, corruptive odor of the null-magic projectile.

In a row, a dozen gunnars crashed through the underbrush and entered the glen, their metal boots trampling flora and fauna alike. The metal protective gear extended over their whole bodies in thick, interlocking sheets, covering even their faces. Only the black slash of eyeholes gave any indication of the human being that lurked underneath.

The gunnars in the middle held their ry-fells in front of them, triggering the weapons wildly, and spraying the glen with small fragments of instant death. The gunnars on either end of the row threw actual fire into the forest from hand-held nozzels attached to steel cylinders they hefted on their backs. Blackened birds fell from the sky, and trees exploded into pyres.

The satyr was next: one second his head was whole, the next the top half was gone. He stood long enough for a shocked expression to creep over his face, then dropped lifeless into the blackening grass.

Nyx realized he was running towards the unicorn, screaming. He should have stayed hidden, but he was running towards her. He was running, but he was too slow. His reactions seemed muddled, his feet dipped in tar.  But he had enough presence of mind to fight back.
The beam of sunlight. He pulled its energies to him, gathered it in a tight ball between his fists, then sent it spearing back out at the rushing gunnars. The pure solar energies cut through their armor with absolute ease. They were dead before the unicorn completed her fall.

Behind them, though. There was another row of gunnars marching in to replace the ones he just slew. And another row behind them. And another behind them.

Nyx didn’t care anymore. He slid to a halt at the unicorn’s body. He cradled her neck, and gently pulled her head up from the water, looking for any sign of life.

Miraculously, she still breathed. Her eyes opened, found his, and she spoke once again.

“Save me, daddy.”

With that, her eyes closed for good.

Nyx heard the footsteps of the gunnars as they closed around him, and the grating clack of a ry-fell being cocked behind his head.

He didn’t care anymore. He was too tired. He buried his face into the unicorn’s muzzle, waiting for the inevitable explosion that would bring his death.

It came.

…..


NOOOO!

Nyx lurched forward, nearly tumbling from his rickety, ragged cot, as the edges of his nightmare quickly dissolved from the corners of his mind.

He sat still, his hands grabbing the wooden bedframe tightly as he tried to catch his breath; tried to control his hammering heart.

The nightmares came almost every night. They were all variations of the same thing, and while the details faded from his memory, there was one thing that always stayed with him: the same desperate plea, the same three words.

Save me, daddy.

He rubbed the sleep and grit and tears from his own eyes and face and reached absently for his sleeping companion – but she was gone. His calming heart redoubled its pounding, and he leapt from his bunk, yanking back the tattered blanket with an absolute certain terror that she would be finally be missing for good.

No, there she was! She had merely fallen to the floor in the night.

His trembling hands picked up the small stuffed toy unicorn and brushed a bit of dirt from her head. Her colors had long since faded away, and her horn drooped sadly to one side. Ragged stitching marked her belly, and Nyx had replaced one bead eye with a black button long ago.

To him, though, she looked as beautiful as ever.

His heart finally calmed as he held the toy to his face. Even now, even after all these years, he still caught the barest fleeting whiff of his daughter’s scent embedded into the soft, plush material. Gods allow, that the scent would stay there forever.

He pulled her back from his face, and looked into the button eye.

Save me, daddy.

“I’m sorry baby,” Nyx whispered, as he did every morning. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you.”

He heard footsteps running towards his tent. That would be Loomus, the helpful and energetic spokesperson for the gnomes who for some reason had taken it upon himself to be Nyx’s personal errand boy. He was helpful, and energetic – maybe a bit too energetic.
“Wizard Nyx! Wizard Nyx!”

Oh, yes, that was Loomus alright, and on cue, he didn’t so much enter the wizard’s tent as he tripped and slid through the flap. He spit out the kudzu and a little bit of tundra and scrambled to his feet.

“Wizard Nyx!”

“Good morning, Loomus,” Nyx replied, looking at the unicorn one last time before tucking the toy into an interior pocket of his robe. “Are they here?”

“Yes, yes indeed, Wizard Nyx! Both of them! And they are causing quite a stir!” Loomus’ head bobbled and his beard waggled with his every utterance.

Nyx took a deep breath and tried to banish the dark remnants of the nightmare from his mind. This was a cause for celebration – after all, how often did one have dragons to breakfast?

“Let’s go.”

…..


The cold air enveloped him as he made his way through the makeshift camp. The weather wasn’t too bad, considering where they where, here at the edge of the frozen expanse, although the thick clouds held back most of the sunlight and made the morning feel worse than it was.

If all went well, though, it would get even worse as their eventual destination was due north of here, deep into country consumed by pure ice and snow. It was all that was left to them, Nyx believed. The only place left not controlled by their enemy.

First, though, they needed permission to enter.

Permission, and favors.

So they had camped here at the northern edge of the Old Woods where it faded away into the great white wastes. For the past six nights they had camped, waiting for an answer to their request.

He hated not being on the move, but it’s what was required. Besides, it wasn’t a complete waste of time. They needed the rest and a chance at some basic first aid. They needed to repair weapons, and craft new ones. The fishing was outstanding here as well. A salmon run was in walking distance, and a good-natured contest had been taking place in regards to who could catch the most fish, eels and turtles.

Nyx was all in on a fat Halfling named Jote, who seemed to be able to talk fish into jumping into his front pocket.

That wasn’t all though, although it would have been enough. Their exodus from the southern lands, their hope to find a home here in the north, had inspired others to join them.

They came, so many others, in varying states of preparedness, they came.

As he walked through the camp he took inventory of his forces. Elves and gnomes, dwarves and halflings. These races had formed the heart of their army for these past six years, and their weary smiles and tired eyes greeted him over cups of thin fish stew heated by smoldering campfires.

He took the time to stop and place a hand on a shoulder, and speak a small word of confidence or support, or offer a small joke or a shared memory in the pale morning light.
What was left of the orc race had joined them on day three. Nyx had warned the orcs in the precursor to open war, begged them to join their cause. So proud, so convinced of their own power, and certainly not going to take the advice of a human, they had stayed to fight the Enlightenment.

Less than 200 were here now. Less than 200 orcs left alive. For all he knew, these were the last 200 alive in the world. Miserable and broken, they had mostly been keeping to themselves. Halflings and elves had shared food and blankets upon their arrival, no judgment offered.

The orcs had at least brought with them a number of remnants of other races, the “wild” humanoids as they were often referred to: trolls, ogres, ettins, goblins, a small band of moon giants. They had nowhere left to go, so they had followed the orcs, zombie-like.

Nyx welcomed them. He would put them to work, find them a place. Maybe even give them hope.

More tricky was the random packs and bands of creatures that had been joining their cause, and showing up at the camp. All with varying levels of reason and restraint, but all seemingly sensing, by instinct alone, that this is where they needed to be.

Griffons and hippogryphs perched uneasily in naked tree branches as they eyed a flight of harpies circling overhead.  A pride of manticores lounged together trying to gather what heat they could from the occasional sunbeams, while nearby a pack of phase-wolves gnawed at discarded refuge and fish bones. A pair of lizard-men was sharing calm conversation and a skewer of charred rats with three man-spiders. More of these strange scenes were playing out everywhere in the camp: dozens of races, often-former mortal enemies, now sharing the common bond of desperation.

So many beings, so many different humanoids and creatures, yet it underscored the simple truth of just how alone Nyx felt. Oh, sure, a leader can feel removed from his army; doubly more so for a wizard, already viewed by so many with suspicion and awe.

But for Nyx, his sense of isolation was beyond even that, because he was the only human here.

At one point there had been more, many more human allies. Righteous men and women of the Wizard’s Guild who had first tried to explain, then persuade, then argue, then fight this insane cause.

The cause?

The complete and total elimination of magic from the world.

The guild had argued the case from so many angles, about the need for balance in the world, the benefits that came from the mastery of these skills, that came from years of dedicated study and practice. But the ironically-named Enlightenment movement had gained speed too quickly, feeding on the emotion and discontent of the common folk. The message was couched in such flowery terms of self-sufficiency and personal choice and the ‘rights of man.’ And magic was an ‘affront’ to that, unnatural in its ability to supersede those rights, and provide power to those willing to wield it.

For all its bluster, the Enlightenment was all about one thing: hatred. It hated others, and choices made by others. It hated making allowances to points of view not its own. It hated deliberation instead of action, discussion instead of determination.

And when the null-magic formula was finally perfected, the Enlightenment cause gave “the enlightened” the perfect excuse to begin the purge.

Now, here he was, a traitor to his own race, a near god to all others.

Ok, well ‘god’ maybe was a bit much. Especially considering his new visitors: two massive and ancient blue dragons that were waiting patiently in a patch of fresh snow, surrounded at a respectful (or fearful) distance by those assembled.

To Nyx’s shock, he recognized one of the dragons.

“Iskatallion?”

He realized his mistake the minute he spoke. One does not simply reveal a dragon’s true name in company like this, but these were extraordinary circumstances, and his shock was that total.

The blue’s lips parted to reveal pure white, razor sharp teeth the length of a man’s forearm. If it was possible for a dragon to sneer, the blue accomplished it.

“Nyx,” was all it said by way of acknowledgement, apparently choosing to ignore the wizard’s breach of etiquette.

The wizard could feel the faces of the crowd turn toward him in silent wonder, as mute and unmoving as newly-crafted golems. He sighed inwardly. If he wasn’t separate from them before, being on a first-name basis with an ancient blue dragon was going to do it. But it wasn’t a relationship based on friendship. More than a decade ago, Nyx had been called in to drive Iskatallion away from a mining operation, and their two-day fight had left them both wounded and exhausted. A stalemate. Finally the dragon had retreated bearing the work of the wizard in the form of a ragged, puckered scar along its muzzle.

Years later, to his horror, Nyx discovered that a particular rock vein from that specific mine, when mixed with iron, coal and tin, was crucial to the null-magic formula. If he had known then what he knew now, he would have let the dragon bury the cursed hole.

 “Regretting it now, I’m guessing,” Iskatallion grumbled, following the wizard’s current of thought, damn him.

Of course he regretted defending the mine, but no one - not even dragons, for all their mighty power - could foretell the future.

He decided to ignore the opening, but instead turned his attention to the bigger of the two dragons, the female. She was more much more massive, more muscled than her mate, with claws the size of broadswords. Where Iskatallion’s markings were a deep blue that reached towards violet, hers went the opposite way in the spectrum: a light blue that was almost complete pale. Her wings could have provided shade to a sizeable portion of their camp, and were dinged up in various spots, with scars and tears. Her horns stretched and curled from her head like an elk’s, and gave testament to a lifeline that spanned generations of man. Her keen eyes had been watching Nyx, and he bowed to her.

“You are welcome in my camp, most revered daughter of ice and snow. I would welcome your eminence more directly, but I do not know your name.”

The corner of her mouth twitched, as if she might smile.

“Nor will you ever know my name, wizard.”

Nyx bowed even deeper. “As you will, mighty wyrm, though please know I have nothing but respect for your and your companion.”

“So you say, spell caster, so you say,” she replied, crossing her forearms and leaning forward. Her neck coiled like a serpent, and her skull was the size of his body.

Such perilous ground, he tread. He wanted to call upon a variety of defensive spells, but the dragons would know, they would feel the pull of magic. He wanted them at ease, and he had presented himself naked of any protective magic. It was a risk, but every step left to him was filled with risk. They had to trust him, or there was no hope for partnership.

He continued to kneel, proffering the back of his neck to the dragon, and waiting for her decision to converse, or to kill him. She could remove his head from his shoulders in a heartbeat. Obviously Nyx didn’t want that, but, in all honesty, if this were to be his end, then he would go willingly into the embrace of eternity, knowing he had given his last full spark of life for this world.

This was it. All other plans and stratagems had failed. There was nothing else left beyond this, beyond this last despairing and desperate plan.

She didn’t bite, though.

She didn’t rip him apart.

She also didn’t send him away.

Finally, she sighed.

The blast of frigid air she exhaled down the back of his robe nearly froze the top layer of his skin from his body. He gritted his teeth and tightened his muscles to stop from trembling.

“Why don’t you clear this rabble, have that fat dumpling of a Halfling bring us some bundles of fish, and let us speak as equals,” she finally said in a voice as crisp as cracking glaciers. “We have much to discuss.”

Nyx blew out the breath he was holding.

There was still a chance.

…..


Loomis and Jote had arranged a bucket brigade, bringing over about two thirds of all the fresh seafood they had caught in the past week. The blues had munched merrily, devouring mouthfuls of salmon, crabs and turtles in contended silence.

Nyx rolled over a small split log for an impromptu chair, and took a seat nearby. Close, but not too close. It was never wise to get within spitting distance of feasting dragons. He eyed them cautiously, sipping hot, minted kaffa from an earthenware mug, waiting for their brunch to end.

At Nyx’s request, the rest of the army had retreated to their respective tents, although all were watching. This meeting – wizard and wyrms – to determine their final fate…this is the type of gathering that would appear in history books.

Actually, Nyx thought to himself, if his plan succeeded, none of this would be appearing in any history books – ever.

No - he was getting ahead of himself.

One move at a time, Nyx. One move at a time.

Iskatallion had finished his meal, and now both males waited respectfully for the female blue to complete. With a final crunch of a huge, still-squirming sea turtle, she settled into the snow with a contented sigh.

“So,” she began. “We have discussed your requests at length. You ask a great deal, wizard.”

“I agree your excellency, but…”

She raised a single, massive claw in protest. “Wizard, please, enough of the flattery. While I enjoy the compliments – and, of course, deserve them – I’d rather we conducted our business with expediency.”

“As you wish, your…as you wish,” Nyx stammered. He took a deep breath and froze his nerves. “It is not for myself that I ask, it is for the lives of all here who-"

“What care I for any who are here trespassing in my lands,” the blue dragon boomed. Her eyes flashed and her scales rippled as she scanned the camps and pitched tents surrounding them. “At a glance I tally at least a dozen races who consider the dragon a foe. A beast. A terror. A horror to be driven away, or pursued and destroyed. Wouldn’t you agree –“ and with this she turned to stare directly at Nyx, “human?”

Despite the brisk morning, Nyx felt a sweat break out on the back of his neck. He didn’t mind the chastisement – humans deserved it, as did many others. But there was too much at stake here. They were all on the blade’s edge of extinction. If he failed here, he failed them all.

And, come to think of it, the blue was being a bit disingenuous. That she could think of herself as a victim? He suddenly grew very angry.

“You don’t think any of that reputation is earned?” Nyx demanded. “The Generations War? The Fall of Heartsfield? The 12 Nights of Death? What about…”

“You dare!” Iskatallion roared, jumping to all four feet. “I will shatter your bones for your impertinence!” His tail flicked madly, and his coiled neck made him look like a snake about to strike.

This time Nyx took no chances. He sprung into motion as well, and pulled a protective shield around himself, while simultaneously enacting a spell to enhance his body’s natural frost resistance.

He could feel the blue surging with energy. This was bad. He was about to draw a spell of…

“Enough!” The female blue’s wing shot out between her companion and the wizard. It was massive, as if a ship’s sail had suddenly dropped between the two of them. She gave them time to calm down, then withdraw her wing, muttering something about tolerating the “idiocy of males.”

Nyx and Iskatallion eyed each other warily. Nyx was not quite sure what to do next. But one thing he had learned over his many decades was, when you had screwed up in the presence of royalty, always apologize.

“My lady, I humbly ask – “

“Stop. I am equally to blame,” the frost dragon said with surprising warmth. She scraped clean the inside of another turtle shell with a long, razor sharp talon. Nyx, himself, had a fondness for sunflower seeds, and he couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the two snacks. Although sunflower seeds didn’t squirm in terror when you cracked them open. “You have come under a banner of peace, observed all required traditions to start negotiations, and I begin with a litany of grievances. That was unseemly, and it is I who apologize to you.”

Iskatallion’s eyes goggled and he looked ready to burst in protest, but he must have learned many of the same lessons Nyx had, and was smart enough to hold his tongue.

Just when he thought his life had run out of new experiences, along came an apology from a dragon. It had momentarily caused Nyx’s mind to stop functioning, but now it was running again. “You honor me more than I can express. I am not worthy of it.”

“Nonsense,” she said, flicking the empty turtle shell into the growing discard pile. “Your reputation was well known among our kind. Head of the Wizard’s Guild, advisor to the Council of Seven, Consort to the Three Queens, and greatly respected as a worthy adversary.”

Iskatallion chuffed. “Respected, maybe,” he grumbled, his words coming like chipped ice. “Greatly respected? Bah.”

The female ignored him. “Greatly, even if you were to only be measured by this last, your most worthy of deeds: you saw early the truth of this Enlightenment. You sounded the alarm, though few heeded the call in time. You rejected them, fought them, and, when others may have foundered, you rallied to save countless lives. Even if this was your only measure, you may have saved the world.”

Nyx was confused. Yes, he was trying to save these creatures and humanoids and himself, and, yes, all of his experiments screamed to the absolute need of magic continuing to exist in the world to maintain balance. But how could he have already saved the world? His confusion must have been etched on his face.

The blue laughed.“I will explain, but first let us talk about what you are requesting, which, in essence, is refuge. A home.”

Nyx nodded, still slightly off-balance trying to keep up with the conversation. “Yes, we need a place to hide, recover and possibly live for an extended period of time. Its been my suspicion that there is a sizeable network of underground caverns that dragons have been utilizing and expanding upon. We seek…we ask to be allowed to stay in these caverns, and to make a new home there.”

The blue was listening silently, scratching idly in the snow and dirt with a claw. Iskatallion gnawed absently on turtle shell and looked none too happy about the request, but made no comment.

Finally the blue nodded. “This can be arranged, but what is to stop the Enlightenment from eventually finding our home?”

“This takes me to the second part of my request: the Tantium Stone.”

The blues looked at each other for the space of a heartbeat, then turned back to Nyx.

“What about it?”

“You have it, yes?”

They looked at each other again, and it was Iskatallion who nodded. “Your information is excellent, wizard. Yes we have it.”

Nyx looked at Iskatallion in shock. “Do…do you have it here?”

“Yes. Not on us, but in our cave nearby.”

Saints and sinners, they have it, Nyx thought. They have it and this can work!

It finally hit him, the pressure, the running, the death, the loss, the fleeing into the unknown on a wing and a prayer. He had hoped they had the stone, and had planned all this on an educated guess based on rumors from people he trusted – all of them long dead. But it was true - they had it!

He sat back down, and picked up his cup of kaffa he had dropped. Most of it had spilled into the snow, unfortunately, but he drained the last sip, and stared into the empty cup, suddenly so tired.

“What does it do?”

Nyx wasn’t surprised that they wouldn’t know. Dragons wielded so much natural power that very few ever took the time to study humanoid schools of magic. Even if they did, it was never in the school of…

“Illusions,” Nyx said. “The Tantium Stone is an amplifier that increases the potency, range and duration of spells from the school of Illusions.”

Iskatallion scoffed. “You want to permanently make yourself look like a pixie, do you Nyx?”

“Quiet, ‘Talli, I have a feeling he has something greater in mind,” the female blue said. “If he’s the wizard we know him to be, he wouldn’t have committed to this so completely unless he truly believed it would work.”

“Talli?” Nyx asked with a grin. He just couldn’t resist that opening. The blue grimaced, looking extremely uncomfortable – for a dragon. This made Nyx smile even wider, which in turn increased Iskatallion’s discomfort.

“Wizard Nyx…” the female grumbled in warning.

“I’m sorry. Yes you are correct. I think I can make this work. Let me explain.” Nyx stood and began pacing as he lectured. Snow crunched under foot as he moved back in forth, deep in thought. “You view Illusions as many other powerful creatures do: as an unnecessary and indirect form of passive attack. Why camouflage yourself when you can simply overwhelm your opponent with sheer force? What few realize is that illusions are often some of the most powerful magics available.”

“You’re joking,” Iskatallion said. “A spell of…of what, invisibility is more powerful than Glacial Storm, or lightning bolt?”

“In its own way, yes,” replied Nyx. “What you and others who haven’t studied illusions don’t realize is that these spells, such as confusion, camouflage or displacement, don’t affect the caster, but affect the target.”

“Wait, say that again.”

“Iskatallion, you mentioned invisibility, and that’s a great example,” said Nyx, getting into it despite himself. It had been too long since he had last sat around aimlessly and discussed a topic such as the nature of magic. He missed it. “Now, when I cast a spell of invisibility, what I’m doing is changing the perceptions of those around me, not altering my own physical structure. The spell changes my opponent’s ability to see me.”

The female blue spoke. “But for that to be true, you would have to be changing –

“Your mind, yes,” Nyx nodded. “Illusion spells temporarily but literally change the actual functioning of your brain. They interrupt the pathways and signals and alter them so that I am invisible. Not that I can no longer be seen – but my spell changes your brain so that you can no longer see me.”

“Fascinating,” the big blue murmured. She scratched at her chin. “I have encountered those that have tried illusions against me, but time and again they seemed to accomplish nothing. I always thought them pitiful cantrips.”

“Well, there are two possibilities there,” Nyx said. “One is that the effect is so subtle you missed what happened. The other, which is more likely but more problematic, is the truth that powerful minds are more resistant to illusions. It wouldn’t surprise me that they would have little to no affect on you.”

She nodded in acknowledgment of the off-handed compliment. “So you believe you can cast a powerful enough spell to make us all invisible? What about those minds strong enough to resist?”

“Close,” said Nyx. He stopped pacing. “But not an invisibility spell. Resistance to that would create problems, if those with strong minds could still find us. Someone could still reach out and grab me even if others couldn’t perceive my presence. No, not invisibility, not camouflage, not misdirection or false phantasm.”

“Then, what?”

Nyx stopped pacing, looked them both in the eye. “A Greater Forgetting.”

The blues looked at each other sharply, then turned back to him.

“A forgetting…” the female blue murmured out loud, thinking to herself.

“You can do this?” Iskatallion asked. “But what about those who wouldn’t be affected?

They would still remember. They would share the information, and we’d be back to where we are now.”

Nyx was about to disagree, but it was the female blue did it for him.

“No, we wouldn’t,” she said, thinking it through. “These individuals would be viewed as lunatics. They would be talking about dragons and elves and wizards to their friends and comrades who no longer knew anything about them. It would be as if I sat here trying to convince you that right now, in the sky, there is a second sun.”

“That’s right,” Nyx said, his excitement coming out now that he could share his plan. “For most everyone, they would simply forget that magical beings existed – ever. Yes, there would still be some who might talk, maybe even scientists, or artists, or some few in power. Maybe even an ancestral hint that still existed deep in the back of their brains. But anyone who insisted that dragons actually existed – and still exist! - would eventually be ostracized as madmen, as lunatics. And since we’ll all go into hiding, within a couple generations, it will all be relegated to the stuff of children’s fantasy. That will give us the time to regain our strength, discover new magic, and hopefully the Enlightenment will abandon production of null-magic, since there’s no one left to use it on.”

“I ask again, you can do this?” Iskatallion demanded. Despite the dragon’s resistance, Nyx could hear a change in the wyrm’s voice. His plan had sparked something in the dragon that had gone dormant. Hope, maybe? “You can cast a spell that can affect all the Seven Kingdoms? That can spread throughout the entire world?”

Nyx took a deep breath before answering. “With the Tantium Stone? I believe I can.”

The dragons said nothing, until finally the female whispered with joy in her eyes and awe in her heart: “You’ve done it, wizard Nyx. By the scales of the eternal serpent, you truly have saved us all.”

…..


That was twice now that Nyx had heard her say something along those lines, and he didn’t want to let it go. “You said earlier that I might have saved the world. How do you mean?”

“Yes, it is our turn to explain,” the blue said, her tail flicking softly in the snow. It reminded Nyx of a cat he once had: a cat that was the absolute master of all the other cats in his tower.

“Let me begin with a bit of our history,” she continued. “When the Great Serpent first began work on creating the universe, she was overjoyed by the early success of her efforts on one specific creature: the dragon. Filled with power, intelligence, cunning, strength and mastery over the elements and magic alike, she knew that no matter how much she tried, she would never create anything else like the dragon. So masterful was her craftsmanship on this creature that she nearly ceased her work on other races and beings.”

Nyx congratulated himself mentally for resisting the overwhelming urge to roll his eyes.

“But,” the blue continued, “what she eventually realized about the dragon was that it had one powerful weakness, a internal, structural flaw that she would not be able to change without starting over. That was the dragon’s inherent propensity towards laziness.”

Nyx almost laughed out loud, but wisely turned it into a cough/choke/gasp for air.

“What?” Iskatallion asked.

“Nothing,” Nyx rasped.

The female blue continued on, ignoring the exchange. “What the Great Serpent saw were powerful beings who, if left alone, would sleep the world away. In fact, a number of the first dragons died in their sleep, too lazy to even feed themselves. She was so frustrated by this, that she almost gave up on the universe, and started over. But so unique were the dragons that she resisted that urge. She did, however, go back to work creating other creatures: humans and elves, giants and dwarves, unicorns and minotaurs, spiders and birds and jellies and spirits and thousands of other living things that she populated the universe with. And, to her wonder and amazement, these other creatures pushed wyrms into motion! Whether it was defending their lands, or stealing shiny objects, learning from other races, or making partnerships, and yes – even friendships – the dragons benefitted from the tension that was created in those interactions. And the Great Serpent realized that this tension must be present for life to continue to grow and thrive. But like anything that needs balance in this world – good and evil, light and dark, hot and cold, dragon and wizard – if one overwhelms and dominates the other, it will mean collapse for the entire system. My prediction? Within five generations a world without magic will be so consumed by science and what the Enlightened call ‘tek’ that it will be a world without passion, love, energy, and imagination and will instead be one where hatred, selfishness, and a cold dedication to self will be the norm. Wars, corruption, and death will be the order of the day, and eventually the world will implode in a spectacular orgy of self-immolation.”

A cold wind howled through the otherwise quiet camp as the three of them stared at each other in silence.

“Is she always like this?” Nyx finally asked Iskatallion.

“And this is a good day,” the dragon responded.

“Boys…” she grumbled.

“Look, I don’t disagree with you at all. My experiments showed me the truth of it, but if we’re already destined for self-destruction, then what’s the point of all this?”

“You didn’t completely listen, wizard,” she replied. “I didn’t say that we are destined for this, I said ‘a world without magic’ is. We are heading on that path, but you, Wizard Nyx, in your efforts to save the races, have gathered together the remnants of what magic still exists in this world and brought it here. For this reason, yes, of course we will help you and hide you. Because the truth is, we need you.”

“Need me?”

“Well, all of you. We need every last being here. To hang on, to stay alive, and, by your very existence, to keep magic alive.”

Nyx thought this through, trying to think of all the implications. “So we stay alive, and magic stays alive. But we’re mortal. We will die at some point, some of us sooner, some later.”

“Yes, we thought of that as well,” said the dragon. “In this way our home will be a tremendous boon to you. Built here at the top of the world, time moves at a slightly different pace.”

“You…you jest.”

“No,” said Iskatallion. “Living here, time slows down. A year will be like a month.”

“But it will not make you immortal,” the female blue continued. “Old age, disease, trauma, starvation –all of these will still bring death. Just sitting here, yes many will die, and with them tiny bits of magic will be snuffed out forever. Little by little, like sands through an hour glass, we only postpone the inevitable. So, this brings us to your other task: you need to find another way to keep magic alive in the world, without the rest of the world knowing.”

“Whaaat?” Nyx was on his feet again. “How am I supposed to accomplish that?”

“We do not know, but it must be done. And this brings us to our final ‘favor’ we need from you.”

“Fine, fine,” he mumbled. Nyx was sitting back down again, barely hearing her. Keep magic alive in a world that was bent on destroying magic? If he could have done that, doesn’t she think he would have done it already?

“We, the two of us, will be leaving.”

“No!” yelled Iskatallion. “We can’t! We can’t leave their protection up to him!”

“Wait – what’s going on?” the wizard asked.

“We believe there are still some enclaves of dragons in hiding. If we can reach them, it will benefit us all.”

Nyx nodded. “I understand although of course we’d rather you were here. But why now? And whose protection?”

 “We had been journeying for a number of months, but, as you well know, the Enlightenment has increased in power and strength. We did not want to risk leaving our home unguarded, for fear of leaving behind –"

“You can’t,” Iskatallion interrupted again.

“We must,” she replied, resignation in her eyes. She turned back to Nyx. “Wizard, in our home, in the bottom-most level, behind a magically sealed door lies the future of the Great Serpent’s greatest creation: eggs. Dragon eggs, of all colors and kinds. Entrusted to us from dragons throughout the world. You must promise to keep magic alive, keep the eggs alive, and in doing so, work with us to keep the world from destroying itself.”

“Eggs,” Nyx replied in wonder. “How many?”

“Thousands.”

Thousands!

Thoughts raced through his mind, the responsibility, the magic power that existed in that many eggs, and the thought if they made it through to the other side of thousands of dragon eggs hatching? What would that mean for the world?

“I don’t know,” was all Nyx could say.

“Typical,” Iskatallion quipped.

“Talli, please.”

“No! He comes to us, begging for entry, a home, protection, and to rummage through our treasure horde, bringing nothing but more mouths to feed, and when we ask a simple thing in return, he balks!”

“What!” Nyx lurched to his feet. “What I’m bringing is the protection we all need to survive the horror that is consuming the world – a horror, I remind you, which I warned everyone about nearly eight years ago, warned everyone about the cancer that was growing in the world, and no one listened!”

Nyx was enraged. He was furious. Part of him realized it wasn’t such a good idea to march forward to a dragon and scream at it with a finger pointed inches from its chest, but the other part of him didn’t care.

Did. Not. Care.

“And a simple thing?” Nyx went on. “Thousands of dragon eggs? A simple thing? Let’s not even discuss taking care of them or protecting them but I’m not sure I like the visual of one day thousands of dragon eggs hatching at the same time, and launching themselves skyward over an unsuspecting world!”

Iskatallion chuckled. “I like that visual a great deal.”

“Damn you!” Nyx forced himself to turn away from the smirking dragon before he did something he would regret. He stomped in the snow, crunching it loudly.

“Wizard, please,” the female blue said. “Nyx. Please.”

Nyx stomped away a couple more feet – just to show these dragons he could – then came back to where the wyrms stared at him silently.

“That can be a discussion for another day,” she continued. “We can have that discussion 100 years from now, maybe 200. But we have to get to that day. We have to be alive to get to that day to have that discussion.”

“You’re right.”

“So you will? You’ll protect them while we’re gone?”

He suddenly had a flashback to when he was young novice, learning at the feet of Milex the Wise, and one of the things the old mage had said often: “Never make a deal with a dragon.”

The classic devil’s bargain. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. He wondered how often Milex had made these types of decisions.

What else could he do?

He looked at the dragons looking at him, waiting for his answer. The clouds peeled back for a moment, and a fresh beam of sunlight poured down on their spot, enveloping the female blue’s head.

She looked radiant, just then. Majestic. Idyllic and at peace.

But.

But why did this feel…?

Wrong.

He couldn’t shake it. This feeling like, like this had already happened?

But it hadn’t.

What was happening?

The sunbeam highlighted and reflected off the blue’s horns.

Horns that were so beautiful, yet so dead…

So…

Deadly.

He burst into motion, but the explosion that erupted in the female blue’s neck was massive, spraying bone and scales in all directions. He ran to her, screaming, but he felt slow, too slow.

Iskatallion roared in horror, a sheer, crackling shriek of pain so pure it broke Nyx’s heart to hear.

Nyx reached the blue and saw the deadly javelin, impaled straight through her neck. By the looks of it, the Enlightenment wasn’t even using iron and tin, anymore. The shaft was made of pure black coal, but shot through it were veins of their foul green null-magic material.

The wizard looked on helplessly, as the spear drained the dragon’s life away. Nyx could do nothing. To grasp it would mean his own death.

Both wizard and dragon turned to see the gunnars erupt from the edge of the forest, thousands of them, ry-fells at the ready. Pushing their way through the trees were dozens of their massive vehicles; huge monstrous things made completely of null-iron, with projectile-launchers mounted on top, and great, tearing tek-treads that propelled them forward in the snow.

An alarm went out from their camp.

Just a little late, guys, Nyx thought to himself, as he watched the dying blue.

Iskatallion wouldn’t watch. With a roar that promised agony and death, the enraged dragon launched himself into the air with two mighty thrusts of his wings, heading for the incoming army.

He’s going to be slaughtered as well, Nyx thought. He’s going to take so many with him, but they will kill him in the end.

“You must…flee,” the female blue choked out. Blood poured from her nose and mouth, as well as around the massive object protruding from her neck. “You cannot win here. Flee. Cast…the spell. Live to fight…another day.”

“I will,” said Nyx, tears coming to his eyes. As much as he feared and loathed dragons, he loved them for their beauty and majesty and power. The death of one like this was a crime against the world.

She lifted her head, slowly, so she could look at him. “And promise me, you will…protect the eggs.”

“I will, I swear on my life.”

She smiled then, lowering her head back down. “Thank you Wizard Nyx. Noelachrysymia. Say it.”

Nyx was confused. “Noelachrysymia.”

“That is my name. Remember it,” she said. The light of the ancient blue dragon left her body and she slumped into the snow.

Nyx staggered to his feet. The front of his white robe was covered in crimson gore.

“Noelachrysymia. I will remember.”

…...


In a daze he watched as his army mobilized for war. They were quick to throw on armor and gather weapons and protective spells. They were eager to show the Enlightenment what they were made of.

But the blue was right. Noelachrysymia. They needed to live to fight another day.

Iskatallion was bleeding the front row of the army out, but there were too many and he was just one. The dragon swooped along the front of the line, blasting them with his ice breath, and tossing lightning bolts into the troops. Gunnars, whole and in pieces, went flying. He picked up two of their mechanical machines in his claws – it must have been excruciating for him, like picking up bricks of molten lava – but he held on, carried them into the sky and threw them far into the distance.

Six more machines rumbled forward out of their forest. Nyx could hear the grinding and screeching of gears and metal on metal from here.

This was unwinnable. There were just too many.

Loomus was at his side then, and he commanded the gnome to find the generals. Within minutes representatives from the elves, dwarves, gnomes and halflings were there, screaming about what to do next.

He was surprised to see a representative from the orcs step forward. A FieldChief by his markings, he looked as tired as Nyx felt. A nasty looking scar ran in a straight line across the entire length of his forehead.

Nyx lifted his arms to silence the argument. “We run. Now. We’ll make for the dragon’s cavern, where the Tantium Stone awaits. That is where I will cast the spell. Everyone needs to use whatever magic they have – spells, items, potions – to help each other get to that entryway. Once the doors close, that will be it.”

No one responded at first, but finally nods all around. They saw it as well as he did.

“Iskatallion will buy us time, but we need more. We need this to be a delaying retreat, if the bulk of us are to escape.”

This time, he saw no nods. He couldn’t blame them – to come this far, only to die at the doorway to salvation? He sighed then. He was going to have to order one of them to…

“We will do it.”

It was the orc. They all stared at him before Nyx spoke: “My apologies, I don’t know your name.”

“FieldChief Grommach.”

“FieldChief Grommach, welcome. I appreciate your sacrifice, more than you know. But will it be enough? There are so few of you left.”

The orc grimaced at that, and Nyx found himself feeling terrible the instant the words left his lips. “I’m sorry,” Nyx said, “I didn’t mean to…”

“No, it’s fine. Yer not wrong,” the orc said, looking at the wizard. “And you weren’t wrong either when you came to us a bunch a years back with a warning, were ya?”

“You were there?”

“Aye,” Grommach confirmed, scratching at his scar. “For what it’s worth, there was a lot a’ arguin’ after you left. But we eventually followed what the King declared.”

“I’m sorry.”

“So am I. A bad leader can lead ya down some bad roads. Look, it won’t be just us. We’ve been talking to the trolls, the giants, the ettins, and more. We’ve decided we just can’t – we just can’t live in the hole, and have it buried over us, counting the days, waiting to be unburied. We just can’t. We’d rather – we’d rather go out on our own terms.”

“I can respect that,” said Nyx. “Are you sure? There should be room enough for us all.”

“Nah, it just not in our blood. We’re fighters, we’re killers, and a century or two buried in a hole with a bunch of elves? They’rd be some issues, no?” The orc chuckled at this. Nyx had to smile, and he noticed the elf representative – her name was Simonna – was smiling as well.

“So, yah, we want to do this. We’ll give you the time you need.”

There was silence in the assembled group, and it was Simmona who finally stepped forward. The bad blood between orcs and elves was legendary, a fact of life like the sun and moon, but she looked on Grommach with such kind eyes and a whisper of a smile. She reached out and laid a small hand on the orc’s broad shoulder. “Your sacrifice will never be forgotten.”

A tear came to the eye of both orc and elf. “Thank ya.” They stood together, the five of them, so different from their own worlds, all silently praying to their own gods.

“Well, if the orcs are going to go down swinging,” yelled the dwarf, Fundonmere, “let’s make sure they hit as hard as a dwarf fighting for first cups on Ale Tasting Day!”

…...


Nyx had sent the army onward, racing ahead on flying carpets, and flying brooms and flight potions, mass blink and phantom sled spells, portal spells, boots of speed and leaping and running, on the backs of hippogyphs and wyverns and gryphons, summoned air elementals carrying dozens.

Nyx wanted to leave, and he would.

But not just yet.

Someone needed to be witness to the death of an entire race.

The last 200 orcs, along with a volunteer band of suicide soldiers – the ogres, trolls and ettins, six moon giants, the pack of phase wolves, a cyclops, the harpies and a small but formidable band of goblins and goblinoids - had rushed to Iskatallion’s aid. They had been loaded down with a small hoard of magical wealth.

The elves had dug deep into their stores of magical scrolls that could be activated with a trigger: fireballs, lightning bolts, tornados, acid rain, phantom blades, ice blast, night terrors.

The halflings had provided a majority of their stock of potions and unguents: regeneration, cheetah speed, giant size, strength of ten, skin of steel, eye of the hunter.

The dwarves has loaded them up with some of the best pieces of armor in their inventory, and weapons crafted by the first generation of dwarven artisans that carried enchantments that had never been replicated. They were priceless.

The orcs were glorious in their attack, screaming proudly an ancient song of strength and honor, loaded down with enchantments, throwing immeasurably powerful magic at their foes.

They took the fight straight to the Enlightenment and rammed it down their throats.

For a brief moment, Nyx thought the tiny band had a chance.

Under the sheer ferocity of the magically enhanced attack, the Enlightenment line broke. Massive fireballs erupted in the trees, followed by impact potions that exploded when thrown, followed by dwarven hammers which called down lightning strikes when swung. Iskatallion roared his approval and redoubled his efforts with even more breath attacks of coldest frost, and spells of dragon magic that Nyx could not name.

The power of the combined attacks made the sky look as if it was on fire.

But then, Iskatallion, wounded and bleeding from a hundred minor wounds, finally couldn’t dodge one of their more powerful Enlightenment projectiles. It took him in the chest, near his front left arm.

He was dead before he hit the ground.

You were a brave and honorable opponent, Iskatallion, Nyx thought, shaking his head. How much knowledge had just been forever lost to the world with the death of these dragons?

Minutes later, Nyx saw a similar projectile hit Grommach in the stomach. He had been magically imbued with giant size, iron skin, and speed of the sparrow, and still the null-magic missile sliced through the magic protections like they simply weren’t there.

That was it. That was the end.

Without Iskatallion’s ice-blast, the Enlightenment flame-tossers came forward and turned their nozzles on the rest. Giants went up in flames like kindling, harpies were crisped mid-air and fell to the ground like shooting stars. Nyx saw the last of the phase-wolves escape through the forest, blinking in and out of sight, until they were gone. Nyx prayed for them – maybe they’d be able to hide in the world.

The orc army had done what they needed to do: their sacrifice had bought time for the rest of them. The Enlightened line stalled in total disarray, so baffled and surprised by the orc’s fearsome attack. Hundreds of their men lay dead, many of their machines were destroyed. They were waiting on the drop of the other shoe, the next wave, the assault that would follow - but there would be none.

That was all there was.

A day from now they would regroup and move forward, only to find an empty battlefield.

Nyx studied the valley, taking in every last detail of this last battle, memorizing everything, branding it into his memory forever.

A portal opened next to him. Simmona. Behind her he could see the last of their army was just making their way through the doorway down into the dragon’s den.

“We’re ready, Nyx.”

“So am I,” Nyx said. He turned his back to the battlefield, and the world’s last wizard walked through the portal. It closed behind him with a small ‘pop.’

......


“Did it work?” Fundonmere asked.

Nyx and 12 of the best elven mages, including Simmona, sat utterly exhausted in a small circle. Sweat poured from their brows, and their breathing was heavy and slow. The Tantium Stone sat in the center of the circle, shattered into multiple fragments, its magic completely used up.

“Did it work?” the dwarf asked again.

“It did,” Nyx finally choked out. Loomus was there passing out clear, crisp water to the magic users. They thanked him, as he eagerly rounded the circle, bowing and refilling cups. “The forgetting has begun in the outside world. The enlightened army will be the first to feel its effect and since they are so nearby, and they will feel its effect full-on. It will travel out from here, eventually enveloping the world. Within a generation, many will have forgotten us. Within two, maybe everyone.”

Nyx tried to stand, and his knees buckled a bit. Loomus was there in a flash, holding him by the hand, propping him up. “Are you sure you should stand, Wizard Nyx?”

“Ugh, maybe not,” Nyx said, wiping the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his robe. The white robe still stained red with dragon’s blood.

Nyx probably could have taken the time to change, maybe even prepare a meal before they began casting the Great Forgetting. He just couldn’t though, not with the army still out there. He had needed to start the forgetting and take no chances that the Enlightenment could follow them.

But now. Now he could eat.

“I have prepared a table, Wizard Nyx,” Loomus said. “Please, everyone, come.”

They moved into the next room. The caverns were roomy enough for dragons, and surprisingly well crafted, but sparse in the way of furniture suitable for humanoids. Instead, they sat around a round flat stone, with barrels and boxes being used as chairs. Loomus had placed a large blanket across the rock as a tablecloth, and on it was spread of fish and crab, bread and cheeses, and hearty jugs of ale and wine. Along with Simmona and the elves, Fundonmere joined them, as well as the Halfling Barrowhead Philbus.

For a time there was nothing but the sound of chewing, slurping and burping, as the exhausted group had their fill.

Finally, it was Fundonmere who ruined the mood. “So have ya thought of a way to keep magic alive in the world?”

Eating came to a halt and Nyx stared at the dwarf, along with twelve exhausted elven mages, all of whom had the power to obliterate Fundonmere with a number of lethal spells, and all of whom who were exerting every ounce of willpower to not do that very thing.

The dwarf drained another mug of ale, and began working on another crab leg, oblivious to the glares of death.

“I’m just saying,” the dwarf said, crab leg flying from his lips. “Now that we’re down in this hole, you spellers better get crackin’ on how to save us.”

That was finally it for Simonna, who threw at roll at the dwarf. It him square in the forehead, bounced, and landed on his plate. “How dare you! We’ve been down here for a half a day, and most of that has been spent casting the spell of forgetting. A spell, I remind you, that even gives us this opportunity to survive in the first place!”

Fundonemere popped the roll that had bounced off his head into his mouth and talked around it: “Yah that’s great! Now what?”

Now the other elves had had it. Three of them got up to leave, but the rest joined in on screaming at the dwarf, who leaned back with his thick arms crossed over his bread and crab-speckled beard.

Nyx was too tired to get involved. He just looked back down at the tablecloth, sipped his wine, and chewed another piece of imea cheese. Some of this was just the release of tension, built up over so long, coming out now in the new reality that they were actually going to live.

On the other hand, Fundonmere was also acting like a…like a…

“A child,” said Philbus to the dwarf. “You’re acting like a child.”

The calm, quiet voice of the Halfling hung in the air in front of Nyx, like it was written in the sky. The din of the arguing faded to a dull roar in his mind.

“Say that again, Philbus.”

The table went quiet.

“Say that again.”

The Halfling looked confused. “Say what?”

“What you just said to Fundonmere.”

“I…I said he was acting like a –“

“Like a child.”

“Yes, a child. So?”

Nyx reached into his robe, into the interior hidden pocket. There he found it: the toy unicorn with the button eye. He pulled it out, and stared at it, amazed by the simplicity and beauty of the plan as it unfolded in his mind.

Save me, daddy.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t save you baby,” Nyx whispered. “But you may have just saved us.”

“Wizard Nyx, are you well?”

“Well? Oh yes, I’m perfect. And I just figured out how to keep magic alive in the world.”

The elves who were leaving instantly sat back down. The room went still, waiting for the wizard, who was still staring at the toy unicorn.

“We have time, generations to work this plan. This will be a slow play, but one day, we will be powerful enough to stake our claim in the world, a world that has cast us out. Maybe it will be just us storming out from our prison, maybe we will do it with an army of dragons at out back, but if we are to do it at all, we must keep magic alive. I have the beginnings of a plan, and it will take all of us, and you may think I’ve gone insane, but I think this will work.”

After she could wait no longer, Simmona finally blurted, “How?”

The wizard held up the toy unicorn and showed everyone at the table.

“The children.”


… Many years later…


Amy couldn’t sleep. She wanted to, and her classmates said that he wouldn’t come if you were still awake, but she couldn’t sleep. She was too excited.

Just the thought of new toys! Her parents could never afford any, not now after her daddy lost his job. Her mommy and daddy didn’t want her to know or worry, but she knew as all children know, or at least have a sense of the troubles of their parents. She knew, for instance, that her daddy had been standing in line to get them their bread, so they could eat. She knew that was bad.

It could be worse. Tommy Snyder had whispered that Jonas Michaelson’s father had jumped from the bank building where he worked. She didn’t believe it at first, but then Jonas hadn’t been at school for the past week. Now she didn’t know what to believe.

She wanted to believe in this though. Although she still thought her friends were playing her, with stories of being good, and a magic sled with toys, and believing and all that junk. It sounded like a bunch of bunkaroo.

But yesterday Dorothy had showed her a beautiful silver hair brush, with a pretty white unicorn on the back. Amy knew Dorothy’s dad stood in the same bread line as her dad, and there was no way they could afford that brush, and they were good people, they wouldn’t have pinched it. And Dorothy’s brother Kenneth said something weird, too, mumbling something about getting a block of coal under his pillow. She didn’t know what that meant, but she didn’t care because Kenneth had always been a bit of chucklehead, always pushing other kids around, always pretending he was a soldier.

She pulled the thin bedsheet over her head to try to force herself to sleep, but it was no good. She sat up in bed and looked out her window down to the alley below. The fresh snow made even the garbage cans looks pretty, like snow monsters having a party, or doing the jitterbug.

Her mother didn’t like it when Amy talked about things like that, making up stories about snow monsters, or giving voices to the cats on the fence in their alley, or sketching space monsters on the wall of their apartment building. Her mom said she was going to end up in the laughing academy, but Amy knew she was just pulling her leg.

Maybe she would end in the laughing academy for believing in this…

What was that?

Was someone in their front room?

Amy’s heart raced. Could it be?

She had to find out. She crawled down from her bed, and pulled her bed sheet around her shoulders. Before she left her room, she checked on her kid brother Mikey. He wasn’t yet two. She was a little worried because he had started coughing two days ago. She didn’t like the look that came into her mother’s eyes when Mikey started coughing, so every night Amy made sure Mikey got her blanket as well as his. He was nice and snuggled, so that was good.

She padded quietly down the apartment hall to look in on her mom and dad. They were zonked out. Her dad seemed so tired all the time, he didn’t have time to play like he used to. She missed it, but she didn’t say anything – she didn’t want to make him feel bad.

She closed their door almost all the way, then headed down the hall to their front room.

She came to the edge of the doorway.

She almost didn’t want to look. It was like the – the waiting for it, like the almost happening felt so good she didn’t want it to end. And what if she looked and nothing was there? How bad that would feel! She could stay here in this almost-yes world forever.

Ka-plonk!

No, there was something there! She peered slowly around the corner.

And there he stood. Massive in a white and red robe, with a giant red cloth knapsack. He was pulling presents – presents! - wrapped in beautiful green and red ribbons from his bag, and stacking them on their floor.

“You’ve been a very good girl Amy.”

She jerked her head back - he hadn’t even been looking at her! She took a deep breath, screwed up her courage and stepped into the room.

“Are you him?”

“Ha ha ha! I do believe I am,” he said in a voice so full of wisdom and magic. He sounded like he was a million years old.

“I wanted to believe…”

He finally turned to her. “And you do, so here I am. You are a wonderful little girl Amy, so full of magic and mischief. And an imagination that may one day change the world.”

He turned back to his bag, reached in, and pulled out a beautiful box of rich wood with gold hinges, and a red ribbon tied around it. An amazing creature was carved on the lid – a creature she had never seen before, but it looked so deadly with claws and fangs and wings, but also so beautiful and powerful and intelligent. The word ‘Noel’ was carved on the lid over the creature.

“This is a special gift. It was made just for you by the elves in my workshop.”

Amy couldn’t manage words, but took the box gently, as if it held the whole world. She slowly undid the ribbon, and lifted open the lid. Inside was an array of paint brushes, paints, pencils and inks, and paper.

Amy had never seen the like. She loved to draw and write, but she could only do so at school, although she sometimes had to share her pencil with Jack Munson who sat next to her, and sometimes tried to chew on it. At home, their family didn’t have enough money to spend on pencils or paper. She sometimes would draw on the walls outside their apartment building with pieces of chalk, or charcoal, or scratch in the dirt with a stick. But this… it was too much.

It broke her heart, but she couldn’t accept it. “I’m sorry, but…”

“Oh Amy, you are such a sweet and wonderful girl. And that is why you deserve this. It’s yours, now and forever. I have some other items as well.”

Back into the knapsack he went, this time pulling out three fresh, thick, new blankets. “For you, for your brother, for your parents.”

They were beautifully hand-made, warm, and from a cloth she had never felt before. So soft, so clean. She nearly began crying, and then actually did when he pulled out a massive basket of fresh breads and cheeses. It would feed them for a week. Maybe two.

“Why?” she finally stammered, tears streaming down her cheeks.

He smiled then, and for the slightest of split seconds, Amy was startled to see something in that smile she didn’t like. Something hard and cold and scary. But then it was gone and the smile was kind and warm and wonderful and she must have imagined what she saw before, since it was kind of dark in here.

“Because you deserve it Amy,” he replied. “And you deserve every amazing thing that comes to you, and to your family, now and in the future. You promise me Amy – promise me to be good, and to keep that magic alive in your heart.”

“I will! I will….I don’t know your name! Can I know your name?”

“Of course. My name is Nyx.” He turned back to his knapsack, pulled the string tight.

She looked again at the drawing set, the blankets and food, the other presents on their front room floor, waiting to be unwrapped. It would give them hope, maybe save their family, at least for right now.

And if he came back year after year?

“Thank you for everything, Mr. Nyx! You are…you are a Saint!”

He paused then, and slowly turned back to her, a mischievous grin on his face and a twinkle in his eye. “Saint Nyx. I like that!”

Amy was thrilled – she had given him something in return for his gifts.

“You be good Amy. And tell your friends to be good too, and tell them to believe in the magic. Keep the magic alive in your heart and in your mind, and if you do, I’ll be back again.”

“I will, I promise Saint Nyx!”

With a soft ‘pop!’ Saint Nyx disappeared.

But the drawing set was still in her arms, and the gifts were still in the room, and Amy ran to wake her parents up as dawn broke on the crisp winter morning.
    
By Bruce Battle