Through the Cherubim’s Gate
Ever have one of those days where you get hired to track down a college kid possessed by demons on Christmas Eve, only to get mixed up with a couple of half-angels and a strangely endearing sociopath who send you to the Mystic Realm to help Santa Claus stop a bunch of giants from building a tower for a goblin king? I hadn’t either, but things change.
Thomas Belmont, freelance retrieval expert. On the night in question, I’d been bushwhacked by a series of improbable adventures and was now trotting through the halls of Santa’s fortress, trying to keep up with his mighty stride. On my left was a lady called Elladonna something or other, an elvish lady of a wry disposition and preternatural allure.
I had just learned that the giants, aka Anakim, could only be killed by the Spear of the Seraphim, which was in the possession of our mutual friend Dill, whose Boston bar formed the nucleus of all these goings-on. However, my new comrade Master Claus had been unable to establish contact with Dill—which, apparently, meant that he was probably in the astral plane (or Kairos Field, as they say in the Mystic Realms).
“We cannot wait for Dill,” Santa was saying. “Our best hope now is to strike before the Anakim reach the tower. ’Tis time to go a-sleighing, my friends!”
I raised a hand. “Uh, when you say ‘sleighing,’ do you mean sleigh as in sled or slay as in kill?”
“The former, Thomas, but now that you broach the topic—are you prepared to spill blood in this venture? For I see in your eyes that you have never taken a life.”
“You know, I was named for St. Thomas Aquinas. He’s got this whole theory about how, in very extraordinary circumstances, you can ethically kill a guy. I’d rather not, but I guess I’ll do what I have to.”
“A fat, jolly fellow he was. You honor his name.”
How and why do I get myself into these situations?
As we crossed the courtyard, we saw hundreds of dwarves shouting and scurrying about in preparation. The giants had been sleeping at the bottom of the sea for thousands of years, but it turns out that the dwarves had a battle plan specifically for defending against giant invasion. Probably had one for mermaids, too. A very meticulous people. They were raising huge pewter spikes around their perimeter and planting them into the earth: the world’s biggest punji stakes. I saw that beyond the outer wall was a huge chasm that a million Evel Knievels couldn’t have jumped; but if the Anakim were as big as I was hearing, they could just step right across.
The sleigh was waiting for us, hitched up to a team of reindeer. Six-year-old Tommy Belmont crowed with joy inside my brain, and a bit of it leaked out through the sudden goofy grin on my face.
“Quite something to see in person, hey?” Ella said, smiling.
“I mean, no big deal or nothin’.”
Into the big red sleigh. There were no seats, but a small weapons rack hung on the inner wall, and a huge burlap sack sat up front by the reins. “What’s in the bag?” I asked.
“Most of your legends have kernels of truth,” Santa said. Then he seized the reins and boomed, “To the heavens!” And the reindeer bounded into the air. The sleigh took off with the most incredibly smooth glide, and a moment later we were soaring over that seemingly bottomless chasm and up into the starlit clouds. Holy crap, this is really happening. I am riding in Santa’s sleigh.
Ella nudged me. “Perhaps you should choose a weapon or two?”
“Huh? Oh! Right.” I looked over the rack. “Not usually a weapons guy. Figure if I don’t pack one, I can’t be tempted to use it.” Here we go: a couple of short swords. I had the chance to study Filipino Escrima during my misspent youth, and I feel homicidally comfortable with a machete in either hand. These blades were perfect.
Santa nodded. “Mithril waikizashi. A fine choice, Thomas.”
Suddenly, Ella pointed. “Look!”
I squinted at the horizon. “At what?”
“You’ll see, soon enough.”
“Keen are the eyes of the Elves,” said the Claus.
I heard them before I saw them. An ongoing rumble, far off across the hills. Louder and louder, like an earthquake that just kept going. Then I saw what looked like skyscrapers, moving skyscrapers, looming up in the darkness, high above the trees. Then I realized the little things weren’t trees. They were enormous mountains. And the huge things weren’t the giants: they were just the giants’ legs, just the part we could see below the clouds. They went up and up and up, and up some more. No matter how hard I stared, my brain would not accept what my eyes were telling it. They were just too big.
“I had forgotten,” Santa murmured. “They are truly beyond all measure.”
As we flew closer, the tiniest speck of something dropped out of the cloud cover and went plummeting toward the earth. A bird, I wondered? But Ella gasped. “Santa!”
“I see him.” He clutched the reins, and we swerved in midair and went swooping down toward the falling object.
“Holy crap, that’s a dude!” I shouted.
“And by his speed, he’s been falling a long time.”
“He’s probably dead already. You’d asphyxiate, falling that far.”
“A human would,” she said. “That is an elf, and still alive.”
Santa pulled us into a maniacal dive. At first we were heading downward at a sharp angle, but the angle kept sharpening until we were literally flying straight down, faster than freefall. The plunging elf happened to roll over in the air and see us, and his face lit up like a Christmas tree.
“Vissarion!” Ella screamed over the roaring wind.
He waved cheerfully and shouted something about Yuletide miracles. These people were frigging crazy.
Closer and closer: elf guy was right under us now, and the ground was looking awfully close. Santa pulled up alongside him, slowing the reindeer just enough to match his speed. With Ella holding my shirt, I leaned out into the howling void and caught him by the forearm, and he half-scrambled, half-floated into the sleigh. The deer eased their way out of the dive, angling away from the earth that was now barreling up at us like a vast green freight train, and we finally skimmed the snowy pines and went hurtling back into the air about fifteen seconds before we would have made the merriest crater in history.
“Master Claus, what a joy!” our new passenger enthused. “I’ve been making my peace with the Mightiness all the way down, but it seems my time is not yet come.”
“Welcome aboard, son of Zelenorm.”
I missed some of the pleasantries, because my head, stomach, and legs unanimously decided that we would no longer be standing. Resting my forehead on my knees, I focused all my willpower on not shitting myself in front of the beautiful elf-maiden.
Luckily I’m pretty tough, and I’m used to taking a beating. My head cleared after a minute or two, and I hauled myself back to my feet. Santa clapped me on the shoulder, and Ella kissed me on the cheek. Ah, what a lovely night.
“A myriad thanks, new friend,” said elf guy, offering his hand. “Vissarion Tulurieth.”
We shook. “Thomas Belmont.”
“What else did the Anak say, Vissarion?” Ella asked.
“Nothing, I fear. Only that they had been summoned by their fathers.”
“Their fathers being the demons?” I asked.
He nodded. “Indeed. But that makes no sense. Our information is that the Anakim were summoned by the goblins, to help them build a tower. And the purpose of the tower is to enable the goblins to speak with the demons. But if the goblins and demons are working together already, then what is the point?”
Santa looked troubled. “There may be some other design, even more sinister, at work here.”
“We’ll soon know,” said Ella. “We near the frontier of goblin territory.”
Beneath us, the hills turned to scrub and the snow to slush. Small forts and castles began to dot the terrain, and large groups of torch-bearing persons were marching through the fields by night. We saw roads and wagons, most of them converging onto a single avenue lined with fir trees, and it wasn’t too much longer before we could see where they were heading.
Miles away, but rising high above the wooded plains below, a single tower stood ominous and tall. Like the shinbones of the Anakim, it nearly reached the clouds above. It was built like a ziggurat, one titanic base level and then a series of decreasing levels stacked on top. In the moonlight, it looked as though they’d started out with black stone and ended up stuffing in whatever they could find; the upper levels were motley collections of brown, grey, white, and quartz-looking rock, and even red patches that must have been some kind of brick. The local quarries were probably tapping out.
Santa jabbed a thumb at the burlap sack. “Thomas, Vissarion—if you would be so kind as to hoist the bag onto the railing of the sleigh?” We did like he said, and he untied the mouth of the sack. “And now, gentlemen, await my word.”
We banked steeply and came circling back around, descending toward the tower in broad sweeping spirals. Down at the base of the monolith, thousands and thousands of feet below, there were crowds of sentries to prevent unauthorized climbers; but no one had thought to post any guards at the top. Too bad.
“Empty the sack!” called the Claus.
Hundreds of tiny black rocks rained down from the bag as the elf and I shook its contents loose. And each rock, the moment it struck a hard surface, exploded into white-hot mini-conflagrations. The stone of the tower bubbled like magma, and cyclones of smoke and steam came billowing up to join the swirling clouds. The reindeer flew in widening rings, unloading our incendiary cargo over each descending level of the tower.
“What is this stuff?” I shouted.
“Dire Coals, Thomas. I’m afraid the goblins have not behaved themselves this year.”
Tiny arrows were flying up in our direction from the distant earth, but that was an exercise in futility. We completed our coal dump and the tower was ablaze, and I made the idiot mistake of thinking for a second that we might get out of there without mishap. And then—
“Griffins!” cried Ella.
“Oh dear,” Santa muttered, and gave the reins a snap. We wheeled through the air and headed north, back for the borders of elven territory; but a half dozen eagle-winged lion-monsters were heading our way, and they looked a lot faster than us. The elves grabbed javelins and started whipping them at our pursuers, but I think it was just a hard-core version of twiddling their thumbs. Everything bounced right off the hides of those snarling sky-hounds. I fished a stray Dire Coal out of the sack and gave the nearest griffin my fastball special, but it barrel-rolled out of the way.
“We can’t elude them, Master Claus,” Vissarion said tensely.
“Agreed. Our best chance now is to make for the Gate.”
More griffins were approaching from behind us, these ones bearing riders. And down below, the milling groups of torch-bearing goblins were beginning to converge, probably on whatever this Gate was. The alarm (or “alarum,” as the Mystics would say) must have gone out through all the ranks.
One of the griffins swooped across in front of us, snapping at the reindeer with its ghastly jaws. Santa tossed a white globe at it, and there was a blast of silver light. Encased in ice, the griffin went plunging down toward a rolling shadow that I guessed was a distant lake. Another one crashed into the sleigh itself, and we rocked wildly. I gave it a little double sinawali with my wakizashi, and it flapped up, squawking like a stampede. The next one sliced right through the reins.
“Hold on!” cried the Claus.
To frickin’ what? I thought, as we went careening downward. The reindeer scattered to the eight winds, and Santa wrestled desperately with the steering apparatus. The great map of the world below came into sharp relief, growing rapidly more specific, its topography resolving from a grey flatness into swiftly approaching details of hill and dale and tree. At a very rough estimate, we were now about a thousand feet up and falling. What in the hell am I doing this for?
Nine hundred feet, eight hundred, seven hundred. . .
Then two huge wings deployed from the sides of the sled. They looked to be woven of spider-silk, light and hard, gleaming in the moon. Our pilot wrenched the bars of his strange tiller, and we went from a plummet to a glide. The griffins were closing in again, and the goblin hordes below were sprinting in our direction.
“There,” said Vissarion, and Santa nodded tightly. As we came skidding across the wintry turf and bumped to a halt, I saw a lone rectangular door, maybe ten feet in height, standing in the middle of nowhere, softly glimmering. We vaulted the railings of the sleigh and scrambled toward it.
The bulk of the goblin army was still a good half-mile behind us, but the griffins were almost literally on top of us. About twenty of them landed close enough to toss them your car keys, and their riders dismounted with snarls and yells. We were only about fifty feet from the doorway, and I was gathering up energy for the last dash, when I suddenly stopped in my tracks.
“That guy!” I shouted, jabbing a finger at one of the griffin-riding goblins. “That guy is Possessed.”
“Thomas, are you sure?” asked Santa.
“It’s my job to be sure. That’s the whole reason Dill sent me.”
“King MacDrenneth, what madness does the human speak?” growled one of the riders.
Apparently the guy I had just fingered was the Goblin King. What can I say? I’m an American.
“It lies.” The voice was the same, the same as always. That perfectly ordinary voice you hear in nightmares, the one that terrifies you for no reason. The one that says a calm hello and wakes you up screaming in the night.
“No.” A new voice. I spun and froze: right behind me, still as stone, was a tall figure in a grey cloak. How had I not seen this guy before? “The man Belmont speaks truth.”
Santa bowed. “Friend Cherub, Keeper of the Fourteenth Gate. It is I, Claus of the Khazilim. I beg passage to Earth for me and my comrades.”
Behind us, just a couple of football fields away, the trampling feet of a thousand goblins drew closer.
“I grant this, friend Claus,” said the Keeper, “and I wish a merry Yule to your—”
“Grrraaaaarrrrrggh!” The Goblin King lunged forward, spread-eagled, and abruptly flopped to the ground like a string-cut puppet. I don’t know if anyone else could see it, but I saw a wave of dark qi rush out of MacDrenneth and attack the Cherub that kept the Gate. The angel stumbled back, swinging its fiery sword, and the snow around us burst into steam. The goblin army was close enough to start throwing spears.
“Through the Gate!” Ella cried.
Santa, the elves, and I plunged through the glowing portal. Right behind us, the first of the goblins came diving through in pursuit, and then everything
waves and echoes
through this once before, with Kazregoth
universe of mirrors
see myself at the end of it
Why, Tommy? Why do we fight?
J.B. Toner studied Literature at Thomas More College and holds a black belt in Ohana Kilohana Kenpo-Jujitsu. He currently works as a groundskeeper in New Hampshire, and he and his lovely wife just had their first daughter, Sonya Magdalena Rose. Toner blogs at jbtoner.blogspot.com and tweets at AntiheroCouplet@twitter.com.” And latest novel: https://www.sunburypressstore.com/Whisper-Music-9781620060803.htm