The Christmas Abomination from Beyond the Back of the Stars
By Heather Shaw and Tim Pratt
“Mele Kalikimaka!” Uncle Ray shouted as Trish rushed down the steps from the little plane, sucking in great gasps of island air. The plane smelled like the trapped farts of three boys (maybe four; she wasn’t sure if the pilot had farted or not). The air here was humid and smelled of salt, which was better, but weird. Trish squinted around: palm trees, blue skies, the distant engulfing ocean. It was the opposite of a winter wonderland.
“That’s how you say ‘Merry Christmas’ in Hawaiian,” Ray added helpfully.
“I know that,” Trish said. “I’m ten.” She was two years older than her impossibly annoying younger brother Nate, and four thousand years younger than her adopted brother Sean (short for Seankhibtawy), who used to be a mummy, but in terms of being-alive-and-not-entombed-years he was still only about twelve, so that was okay. She missed being the oldest, but she was still the smartest, so she could live with it. “This isn’t Hawaii though. It’s not even Polynesia. It’s Micronesia.”
“Yes, but the language spoken by the ancient inhuman inhabitants of this island doesn’t include a word for ‘Christmas,’” Ray said. “The closest word would translate to something like ‘Annual Celestial Festival of Flesh-Rending,’ so I did my best.”
Mom and Dad got off the plane next. Mom immediately started taking pictures of everything with her phone — she put all the photos she took online now, and Trish had taken to covering her face with her hair at all times in self-defense — and Dad shook Ray’s hand and said, “They’ve got the good coffee here, right? Kona?”
Ray said, “Ah, no, that’s from Hawaii, which is about three thousand miles east.”
Dad stared. “You’ve got something though. Some kind of coffee. French Roast. Full City. Espresso.” Uncle Ray looked more glum with every word. “The kind civet cats poop out? Instant?”
“I think we’re out of coffee until the next supply boat comes at New Year’s,” Ray said. “But I recently translated an ancient recipe for a tea using a native root that is supposed to be quite invigorating, I’ll see about making some, okay?”
Dad just stared at him, hollow-eyed and haunted, and then went to help the pilot get their bags off the plane.
Nate and Sean tumbled out of the plane, wrestling and laughing, and ran to Uncle Ray, racing in circles around him and whooping. “They were like this the whole way,” Trish said. “Can we throw them into a volcano?”
“This is going to be the greatest Christmas ever,” Mom said, deftly stepping around Sean, who had Nate in a headlock. She kissed Ray on the cheek. “Thanks so much for flying us out.”
Ray hugged his sister. “I couldn’t stand the thought of missing the holidays with you all — you know I always make it back, but there’s a celestial conjunction happening on Christmas day, and the opening of the dark aperture in the inverted temple only happens once every seven-thousand-seven-hundred-and-seventy-seven-years, so—”
“Nobody’s complaining about a tropical vacation on the Moriarty Foundation’s dime, Ray. It’s frigid back home, and Sean hates the snow.”
“We made a snowman last year,” Trish said, “and Sean put a mummy’s curse on it, but you couldn’t really tell any difference. He said it melted faster than it would have otherwise but I think—”
The island rumbled beneath them, a jolting earthquake that made Dad yelp and Sean scowl and Mom take more pictures and Nate jump around and Trish look at her uncle and note his worried grin. “What was that?” Trish asked.
“Probably just volcanic activity.” Ray shrugged. “The ancient pre-human race of hyper-intelligent cephalopods who once lived here thought such disturbances heralded the imminent arrival of the Peshtiri Mobdybelig, a god from ‘the places in between’ who could only be propitiated by blood sacrifice, but if I’ve learned anything as an archaeologist of the impossible, it’s that people believe all sorts of ridiculous things. Anyway, the aperture doesn’t open until tomorrow, so I think we’re fine.”
“What is ‘propitiate,’” Sean asked.
“Sean. You’re under a spell that allows you to speak and understand all human languages,” Mom said.
“Yes, but I forget that one.”
“It means to bribe someone with something to make them shut up,” Trish said. “Like if you give Nate a candy cane and he talks less while it’s actually in his mouth.”
“Want,” Nate said, but they ignored him.
A man seemed to materialize beside Dad’s left elbow, making him yelp again. “I think the Peshtiri Mobdybelig is very real,” the newcomer said.
“Mr. Moriarty! I had no idea we’d see you here.” Mom pulled Nate close against her side. He began looking through her purse, doubtless on the hunt for candy canes.
The old man sniffed. “That’s Doctor Moriarty. And I wouldn’t miss the conjunction. This celestial event is one of the reasons I founded the Rasputin Institute.”
“We’re using the Moriarty Foundation shell company,” Ray said.
“Oh. I thought that one was devoted to exploring the interior of the moon?”
“No, that’s the Bathory Corporation.”
“We’ve found a fair bit of treasure already,” Ray said. “And since the indigenous inhabitants are extinct non-humans, and all humans have shunned this island for unknown reasons for untold millennia, there are no legal problems with looting everything! I hope you’re all excited for one-of-a-kind Christmas presents. Who likes eldritch idols?”
“I do,” Trish admitted.
“Are there any cats on this island?” Sean said.
Nate didn’t say anything. He’d found some cough drops and apparently thought they were candy, and he was running up and down the short runway, transported with sugar joy.
Moriarty sniffed. “Treasure is irrelevant. I am far more interested in the great power of the inter-cosmic gods, their terrible destructive whims, their ability to coerce entire civilizations to live on the edge of starvation as they sacrificed the lion’s share of their resources to their masters. . . .” He glanced around, and coughed. “It’s fascinating, strictly from an academic standpoint.”
“I think you mean ‘sea lion’s share,’” Dad said, and then laughed at his own joke, since no one else would.
“Merry Christmas to you, too, Doctor Moriarty,” said Trish. “Where are we staying, Uncle Ray?” She was envisioning an elaborate tree house draped in palm fronds. Anything less would be a bitter disappointment.
“Of course! This way.” He grabbed a couple of bags, leaving Dad and Mom and Sean to lug the rest. Doctor Moriarty walked with them, lost in thought, muttering about sacrifices and bargains, like he usually did.
Ray led them down a narrow path into the jungle, to a small clearing surrounded on three sides by crumbling buildings made of huge black slabs, each of the stone lean-tos occupied by a futuristic-looking hexagonal tent.
“Cool!” Nate spun around in wonder.
“Hmmm,” Trish hmmed.
“Very shoddy construction.” Sean thumped the wall of one basalt structure. “The angles are all wrong. The pyramid builders back home would never have done such poor work.”
“It’s a property of space-time on the island,” Ray said. “It’s impossible to form a true right angle here, which is very frustrating when you’re trying to sit in a chair or keep a table level. But it’s fine, we’ve all got our own personal shelters. And the location can’t be beat: we’re right in the heart of the ruined city of Kalamar Sikwidi.”
“It’s necessary to have a beating heart at each point of the hexagon formed by this ritual courtyard,” Doctor Moriarty said. “Otherwise, the aperture won’t open.”
“I claim this one!” Nate stood in the doorway of the largest black building.
Moriarty scowled. “You’ve each been assigned a tent, based on precise calculations dictated by your mass. As the smallest, Nate, you’ll be over there.”
“No air conditioning?” Dad dropped the bags. The underarms of his polo shirt were dark with sweat all the way to the waistband of his cargo shorts. He was getting that look he got when he hadn’t had coffee in too long and was going to say no to everything forever.
“No, we had tents like these last time I went to Burning Man,” Mom said. “They can have power, air conditioning, they’re very advanced.”
“We shouldn’t run the cooling systems until after the ritual, though,” Uncle Ray said. “We’re not sure what the electrical energy might do to the careful balance of forces—”
“Wait, ritual?” Dad said. “What ritual?”
“He told us about it when he invited us,” Mom said. “You remember, the sing-along?”
Doctor Moriarty turned slowly and stared at Ray for a long moment. “You told them the ritual was a sing-along?”
“There is going to be a lot of chanting,” Ray said. “Anyway, you can run the air conditioning after the ritual tomorrow morning. It’s a funny coincidence that the conjunction is on Christmas, since it’s a holiday that’s partly about resurrection and the return of the light and everything—”
“We get to spend Christmas Eve sweltering and boiling?” Dad said.
“You can always go for a swim,” Ray said.
“Sleep nude, and smear your body with cool mud,” Doctor Moriarty said. “That’s what I do.”
They all took a moment to let that image sink in, then another moment to let it sink mercifully out of sight. Sean said “Eww,” but he said it in ancient Egyptian because saying it in English would have been rude.
“Next year we go to Maui,” Dad said. “We stay in a resort. The reason your mom goes to Burning Man without me is because I like to vacation in places that are more comfortable than my house, not less.”
“Ray, did you say something about a local coffee analogue?” Mom said brightly.
“Yes! Why don’t I make some?” Ray said.
Dad reached into his backpack, took out a tiny airplane-sized bottle of Irish whiskey, and tossed it to Ray. “Yes, why don’t you?”
“I’m not sure how the cream and alcohol will interact with—” At Dad’s glare, Ray winced and said, “I’m sure it will be fine.” He bustled over to a camp stove. Mom took pictures of basalt. Nate and Sean attempted to climb one of the stone structures.
Trish drifted over to Doctor Moriarty. “Does it bother you that nobody ever listens?”
“Not really,” he said. “Most of my greatest triumphs have been partly attributable to people not paying attention.” He glanced at her. “Did you bring your magical amulet?”
“No. Uncle Ray said smuggling it through customs was hard enough the first time.”
“Good. Interactions between incompatible magics can be disastrous. How’s the mummy working out?”
“He’s not a mummy anymore. He’s a real boy.”
“He was always a real boy. He was a just a dead, mummified one. But I take your point. Is he a good brother?”
“He’s still halfway believes he’s in the afterlife, with disobedient servants who treat him like a member of the family instead of a holy figure of awesome power, but he’s okay. He went to space camp over the summer.”
“I don’t actually care. Being polite is tedious. Would you like to see the grim aperture from which infinite transdimensional horrors will emanate unless the Peshtiri Mobdybelig is suitably appeased?”
Trish looked around. Everyone was still occupied: Mom was taking pictures of tree bark, the boys were on top of the stone slabs striking superhero poses, and Dad was sipping deeply from a wooden cup while Uncle Ray stirred a pot on the camp stove. She shrugged. “Sure.”
The doctor led her out of camp, past a wire pen where two goats — one white, and one red — gnawed at the plants around them. Trish squealed. “Goats! I love goats! I love their funny eyes and their weird smell and the way they chew on everything! Are they presents? Do we get to take them home?”
“They are the ritual sacrifice,” Moriarty said. “Apparently the ancients used red fish and white fish, of immense size, but the area is overfished, so we imported these goats instead. As the ritual instructions demand, we’ve fed the sacrifices on a special diet of local vegetation.”
“What kind of plants do they eat?” Trish said.
“Oh, nothing you’ve ever heard of — things that only grow on this island. Something about the ancient mystic corruption of the ichor-soaked soil. Anyway, the plants are basically inferior versions of sugarcane and mint respectively, so no one’s ever bothered to cultivate them anywhere else. Come along.”
He took her down a winding path, to a black sand beach, and into a cave. Glowing blue crystals dotted the walls, casting light, and soon the rough stone walls became more smooth. This corridor hadn’t just happened — it had been made, though not necessarily by human hands. Humans didn’t usually make circular hallways; this place seemed like it had been created by giant worms. Moriarty led her down a confusing series of branching hallways until they entered a vast domed area. Trish looked at the high ceiling, scowling — she hadn’t noticed a dome when they were walking around on the surface, and a space this big should have towered into the sky like a mountain in the middle of the island. Had they descended far underground without her noticing?
The room was filled with black stone pillars, with glowing green crystals dotted among the blue ones. The air seemed shimmery and wavy, almost like they were under the sea. The center of the chamber was a circular sunken area, at least ten feet deep and forty feet across. “It looks like a drained swimming pool,” she said.
Moriarty gazed into the depths with her. “That is the aperture. Once every seven-thousand-seven-hundred-and-seventy-seven-years, it opens, and joins this world to the Sea Beyond the Sea, a vast black ocean in a place described as ‘between the space between the stars’ or sometimes ‘beyond the back of the stars.’ When the conjunction occurs, the Peshtiri Mobdybelig will emerge, and demand sacrifice. If propitiated properly, the abomination will grant us good fortune, wealth, and our most secret wishes. If displeased. . . .” He shrugged. “It will usher in a time of doom and drowning and a kind of slow dying that never leads to the release of true death, or so the codices say. I’d dearly love to capture the Peshtiri Mobdybelig for display at my aquarium in Cleveland, but we’ll see how the ritual goes.”
Once Trish had her fill of looking at an empty hole in the ground, they went back to camp. Nate had found Mom’s hidden stash of candy canes, and was hanging them on the branches of palm trees. Sean had fashioned a cat out of coconuts and sticks, and was petting it and cooing. Mom was taking pictures of the empty blue sky. Dad was—
Uncle Ray sat by the fire, frowning. “I think this drink is more potent than I realized, or else it isn’t compatible with human metabolisms. Your father began ranting about the interstitial gods, and horrible visions of the time before time, and tearing aside the thin curtain of consensual reality to reveal the terrible truths that lurks beneath. Then he took his shirt off and ran into the jungle.”
“It’s just like the time he had a triple espresso right after he had a double espresso,” Mom said, photographing Nate as he climbed another palm tree. “I wouldn’t worry.”
Trish faked a big yawn. “I’m tired from the trip. Think I’ll take a nap.” Her assigned tent was farthest from the center of camp, and at the last minute she made sure no one was looking her way and darted into the trees instead.
Trish hated it when people didn’t pay attention, but she was glad Doctor Moriarty assumed she didn’t pay attention, either. But she did. She’d heard the words “blood sacrifice” soon after they arrived. She’d heard Moriarty say the adorable goats, which she’d already mentally dubbed Goatsworth and Goaty Anne, were supposed to be those sacrifices. No way was she letting anybody kill her goat friends just to make some squid god happy. She was going to set the goats free, and then, if possible, smuggle them home in her luggage.
Trish made her way through the jungle to the clearing with the goat pen. Goaty Anne was berating Goatsworth with a series of piercing bleats, while he stood silent, except for an occasional doleful foghorn of defense. Trish cleared her throat to get their attention. They looked at her like she might have, or be, something to eat.
“Goats. I’m Trish. You’re in great danger, but I’m going to save you.” The goats watched in silence as Trish undid the latch and opened the gate. She started to walk in, saying, “My tent is—”
Goaty Anne and Goatsworth charged the open gate, which Trish was blocking with her body, which meant they also charged Trish, who spun around between them and stumbled as they broke free, bleating their heads off.
“—back this way,” Trish said as they bounded away with goatish abandon, vanishing into the jungle.
She wasn’t one to back down from a challenge, but chasing two goats in two different directions into an unknown wilderness at least required preparation, like getting a water bottle and some granola bars. She strolled nonchalantly back into camp, while Dr. Moriarty strode into camp in whatever the opposite of a nonchalant way was. His great buzzard-bald head swiveled as he stared balefully at everyone. “The goats have escaped!” He was so enraged, he was shaking.
Uncle Ray leapt to his feet, and he was also shaking.
Trish realized that actually everything was shaking. Nate fell out of a tree, but he bounced, so it was fine. Sean sidled toward her. “Mother and Father are absent. I fear we are the closest thing to grown-ups here now.”
Moriarty’s gaze fell upon Trish, and he pointed a long, gnarled finger at her. “It was you, wasn’t it? Squealing over the goats! You set them free, didn’t you? You’ve doomed us all!” He darted toward her, reaching out with angry hands, but Uncle Ray was faster, jumping in front of him. “Keep your hands off my niece!”
“Tell your niece to keep her hands off my go — ahhhhhh!”
At first Trish thought the doctor had stumbled over a root, but then the root grabbed him, twining up and around his ankle. Uncle Ray did a cool diving roll and popped up in some kind of fancy defensive stance in front of the children. The “root” burst out of the ground, revealing itself as a thick purplish-black tentacle, lifting Moriarty high into the air by one ankle.
He writhed in outrage. “Put me down! This is preposterous! It’s not even Christmas yet!”
Mom returned into the still-shaky clearing, dragging Dad by the ear. “Guess who I caught peeing into an ancient stone urn in the jungle?”
“The sacred vessel must be defiled!” His eyes were wild and his mustache was mussed and he was drooling a little, just like the time he ate a whole bag of chocolate-covered coffee beans in five minutes.
“I was just about to get the best picture of the urn, all glowing in the sunlight, it would have been perfect, no filter—”
“The spirits of the Boneless One spoke to me, bellowed at me, I had no choice but to desecrate the chalice—”
“You urinated into the ancient urn of Peshtiri Mobdybelig?” Moriarty screamed. The tentacle shook him harder. “Everyone knows that weakens the barriers and bindings and hastens the conjunction!”
Mom cocked her head. “Ray? That sounds bad?”
Ray sighed. “The tea I made was a sacred beverage, used by priests to commune with the dark gods. I thought it just made them hyper and they hallucinated everything else! But apparently the Peshtiri Mobdybelig used the connection to manipulate your husband into hastening his return, before we have the chants and other rituals of protection ready.”
Mom sighed. “Ray, you’re my brother, and I love you, but. . . .”
He raised up his hands. “The one good thing is that the aperture isn’t fully open yet, so the abomination can’t fit its whole body through, just its, um, limbs—”
More tentacles burst up through the clearing. One wrapped around Dad’s throat, seeming to pulse and massage it. They all started toward him, until he began to speak in a bubbling, inhuman voice. “This . . . mouth . . . is . . . beakless, this . . . language . . . is . . . dry . . . it crackles. . . . There. I have the mastery. You stand in the presence of the Peshtiri Mobdybelig. Tremble, primates, before your god.”
“The ground is shaking,” Trish said. “It’s not like the trembling is optional.”
“I think I peed myself,” Nate said. “That didn’t, um, hasten anything, did it? You have to pee in a special bucket for this to be your fault, right?”
“I prefer the gods of my kingdom,” Sean said. “They are less . . . squishy.”
“You’re no god of mine!” Uncle Ray declared. He roundhouse-kicked the tentacle that held Dr. Moriarty, which didn’t do much. Another tentacle grabbed him and lifted him off the ground. His hat fell off as he dangled upside down, and Trish noted the bald spot on the top of his head with interest.
The abomination speaking through Dad became meditative. “The old priests were careful. You couldn’t surprise them. I once tricked a village squidling into peeing into a sacred vessel a whole week before the conjunction, hoping to slip through a loophole, but no, and they had the ritual sacrifice ready, according to the old bargains, and I was bound to obey once they propitiated me.” The tentacle swiveled Dad back and forth to make it look like he was looking around. “I don’t suppose you were ready for a surprise visit, though. That means I get to eat you.” Pause. “Then I get to eat everything, and all my relatives get to eat whatever’s left.”
Mom stopped taking pictures of the abomination long enough to say, “Hurry up and propitiate this thing, Ray! It’s going to ruin Christmas!”
“There can be no propitiation!” Moriarty screamed. “Your daughter set my goats free!”
“Goats?” the abomination said. “I’ve never had goats. As long as they were suffused with the sacred herbs and organics, though, they would be fine.”
“You were going to proficiate goats?” Nate wailed. “But goats are cute!”
“I was denied the petting of the goats?” Sean said. “This is intolerable. There will be consequences.”
“They’re gone anyway!” Moriarty yelled. He wriggled around, trying to kick Ray. “Do you know how hard it was to find a pure red and a pure white goat?”
“I said we should just dye and bleach regular goats!” Ray wriggled around trying to avoid the kicks.
“And then I had to feed them on crypto-mint and faux-sugarcane, and nothing else, for months! Do you know how hard it is to keep a goat from eating things? They eat everything!”
“You’re a bad man!” Nate yelled up at Moriarty. “It’s mean to kill goats!”
“Goats are delicious! And anyway, I wasn’t going to kill them. I was going to let that abomination kill them!”
“Abomination?” the abomination said. It paused. “Hurtful.”
No one was paying attention, as usual. They were all about to be eaten. Trish wasn’t sorry she’d set the goats free, but she was sorry her Dad had been possessed and summoned the beast early, and anyway, someone had to solve this problem. “Excuse me, um, your evil god-ness?”
The beast swung her father in her direction. “Yes? Trish, is it? I’ve been reading your father’s mind, and it sounds like you’re doing very well in school. Well done. The children are the future.”
She blinked. “Oh. Thank you. Does that mean . . . you aren’t going to eat me and the other children?”
“Oh, dear, no, sorry, I can see why you’d think that, but I meant, in a general way, the children are the future, and even then, really just the future of my food supply.”
“If not, I’m forced to destroy this world in order to survive. You understand. It’s my sacrificial treats, or the devastation of the world. That’s the old bargain.”
“Can’t you just . . . eat some of the crypto-mint and faux-sugarcane growing on the island?”
Her dad made a face like she’d suggested he drink truck-stop decaf. “Let’s say you’ve been craving, oh, a delicious chocolate chip cookie for the past eight thousand years or so, and someone offers you a handful of raw cocoa beans and flour and eggs. Would you be satisfied? No, they need to be prepared, processed, made delicious, and they have to be in my sacred colors, red and white. Otherwise, well, it’s just insulting, honestly.” The abomination sighed. “I suppose I’ll eat the old one who screams all the time first.”
Mom lifted her camera.
“It’s so picky,” Nate said, sucking on his candy cane. “All it takes to profisherate me is candy.”
“You are a simple child,” Sean said. “We love you, but you will never rule a kingdom.”
“Wait. . . .” Trish plucked a candy cane off the ground from under a palm tree. The shaking had knocked them all off the branches, so she scooped up three more. “Peshtiri Mobdybelig! I have your sacrifice!” She approached the monster god, making every adult holler at her at once.
“Trish, it’s not safe!” Mom said.
“Trish, don’t, it’ll eat you first!” Ray shouted.
“Foolish g-ahhh!” Moriarty flailed.
“She reminds me of my aunt, who once punched a crocodile,” Sean observed.
“Those are my candy canes!” Nate howled.
“What do you bring me?” the Peshtiri Mobdybelig asked.
“A sacrifice.” She held up the candy canes to her Dad’s face.
“Hmm. The red, and the white. The scent is . . . good. Actually, better than good. Better than usual. Why is it better?”
“Because it’s not pseudo-mint and quasi-sugarcane,” she said. “It’s the real-real.” Trish hoped they were made with sugar, anyway, and not high fructose corn syrup, but Mom usually bought the fancy stuff, so she was probably safe.
“Hmm. I am skeptical. Shove them into the gob of my mouthpiece.”
Trish unwrapped a candy cane and stuck it in her Dad’s mouth.
He slurped on it. Then he crunched it. Then he chewed, and swallowed.
Everyone held their breath as the monster considered. “Yes. Fine. This is right. Actually, it’s better than right. But, ah ha, there’s not enough of it—”
“There are more all over the clearing,” Trish said.
“Worst Christmas ever,” Nate shouted as the tentacles dropped Ray and Dr. Moriarty on the ground and swept up every single candy cane, dragging them underground. The only tentacle that remained held their father. “Come to the aperture,” it said. “We will complete our bargain. Your greatest wish will be fulfilled.”
“All our greatest wishes?” Moriarty said.
The abomination guffawed. “Of course not. Only the loud small one who made the sacrifice.”
“They were my sacrifices!” Nate complained.
“Fine, the louder small one may have a wish as well.”
“I am the only child who does not receive a gift?” Sean said. “Am I not a true son of heaven? Are my torments to be never-ending?”
“All right, fine, the less loud less small one may have a wish as well.”
Dad clawed at the tentacles, loosening them a little. “I peed in your urn,” he said in something like his normal voice. “You wouldn’t even be here already if not for me. That was important pee. Probably the second or third most important pee of my life.”
The tentacles tightened and the abomination sighed. “Fair point.”
“Oh great Peshtiri Mobdybelig!” Moriarty cried. “I set up this expedition, I uncovered your temple, I’m the only reason anyone was here to propitiate you at all!”
“Mmm, right, hadn’t considered that, of course, you should get a wish too.”
“Well, now, that’s not what I’d call the holiday spirit,” Mom said. “To just leave out me and Ray? That’s a recipe for family dysfunction, right there.” She paused. “And anyway, I’m the one who bought the candy canes, and Ray made the tea that my husband peed out on your urn.”
“Yes, fine, you’ll get wishes.”
“I wish for dominion over the entire—” Moriarty began, and the abomination shushed him.
“There are lots of you,” it said. “I’m only one elder god, and the aperture isn’t even all the way open. Let’s keep your wishes modest, all right? The Boneless Priests only ever asked for fruitful fish catches and the occasional shiny rock! I realize your desires will be more modern, and my magics are vast enough to satisfy, but be reasonable. Come down to the aperture, one by one, and make your wishes known.”
Nate insisted on going first, so the abomination wouldn’t “run out of magic,” and he returned with a giant basket of candy.
“If it can make its own candy, why doesn’t it conjure its own sacrifices?” Dad said, rubbing his throat.
Sean tut-tutted. “It’s like my afterlife father doesn’t even understand basic economics,” Sean said to Doctor Moriarty, who looked at Sean thoughtfully.
“Boy,” the old man said, “How would you like an internship with the Czernobog Trust next summer?”
Mom went down, and returned with a magic gas can so she’d never run out of fuel, even in the depths of the playa. “The custom RV is being delivered next week,” she said. “Who likes road trips?”
Nate stared at his half-empty basked of candy. “I could have asked for this to be never ending?”
Sean visited the aperture and returned with the ability to summon cats, though he only intended to summon them for scritches. “I asked for the power to command cats to do my bidding,” he complained, “and the squid-thing said even its power could not accomplish that.”
Ray went down and came back and refused to say what he’d wished for but when he took off his hat, Trish noticed that his bald spot was gone, and he had a full lush head of hair instead.
Dad descended and returned with a heavy mug made of basalt, sipping from it happily. “Took a page from your mom’s book and got a never-ending coffee mug. Kona!”
Nate kicked his candy basked and sulked.
Doctor Moriarty visited the aperture, and returned a long time later, smiling to himself. He waved off everyone who asked him what he’d wished for, until Trish nudged him in the side and said, “Spill it, old man.”
“I asked for a list of other unexploited, undiscovered, ancient archaeological sites,” the doctor said. “It’s going to be a good year for the Nero Syndicate.”
Trish descended last. She thought hard about what she really wanted, and about what Peshtiri could grant. She looked into the pool, which held about a foot of sparkling, shimmering water. Tentacles writhed there, but prettily. “What would you like, oh giver of candy canes?”
“I want to be the oldest,” Trish said.
“You want me to . . . age you?”
“No, it doesn’t have to be right away,” Trish said thoughtfully. “Just . . . someday, I’d like to be the oldest. The oldest one of all.”
“Are you asking me . . . for immortality?”
“I can grow up first,” she said. “I’d like to be able to drive, and own a house, and things. But I don’t need to grow up as much as Doctor Moriarty, or even uncle Ray. Maybe as much as Mom.”
“So eternal life, and eternal . . . not youth, but say early-middle-age?”
“Yes,” Trish decided. “I want to be around long enough that things that are ordinary to me now are amazing archaeological mysteries someday.”
“I’ll tell you what,” the god said. “Forever is a long time, even for me, but I’ll give you seven-thousand-seven-hundred-and-seventy years. Meet me back here then and we’ll talk about an extension.”
“Fair enough,” Trish said. “Are you going back to your world now?”
“I am, with sweet and cool in my mouth, and a vague but definite sense of looking forward to our next meeting.”
Trish had one last candy cane in her pocket, and she tossed it into the pool, where a tentacle snagged it and gave a little wave before vanishing into the waters of the aperture, which then went still.
When Trish was back on the surface, Mom said, “What did you wish for?”
“Oh, just for everyone to have the best Christmas ever,” she said innocently.
“That’s a lovely wish, dear.”
“It’s not!” Nate said. “It didn’t even come true! Look, my candy basket is empty already!” He turned it over to demonstrate his outrage, and more candy showered down, magically, piling up around his feet. Peshtiri had given him a never-ending basket after all.
Everyone gazed at his bounty. Mom took a picture. Dad toasted with his basalt mug. Doctor Moriarty muttered about cavities. Uncle Ray kept running his hands through his hair. Sean petted the seven cats he’d summoned. The goats, who’d reappeared as quietly as ninjas, ate some of the candy off the ground.
“See, Nate?” Trish said. “It’s a Christmas miracle after all.”
Nate held the basket up over his head, so he’d be showered by endless candy. He grinned around at his family. “Elder gods bless us, every one,” he said.
The goats bleated their agreement.
About the Authors
Heather Shaw is a writer, editor, bookkeeper, sewist, and lindy hopper living in Berkeley, CA with her husband and 13-year-old son, River. She’s had short fiction published in Strange Horizons, The Year’s Best Fantasy, Escape Pod, PodCastle, and other nice places. She has been the fiction editor at the erotica zine Fishnet, the speculative fiction zine Flytrap, and the pro-SF zine, Persistent Visions. She is currently working on a one-act modern feminist adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, which will have a staged reading in San Francisco in November of 2021. She can be found online at https://www.facebook.com/hlshaw.
Tim Pratt is the author of more than 20 novels, most recently the Axiom space opera trilogy. His multiverse adventure novel Doors of Sleep, beginning a new series, is out in January 2021. He’s a Hugo Award winner for short fiction, and has been a finalist for Nebula, World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Mythopoeic, Stoker, and other awards. He tweets incessantly (@timpratt) and publishes a new story every month for patrons at www.patreon.com/timpratt.