Book Cover: Earth's Elf
Part of the Earth's Magic series:
Editions:E-Book: $ 3.99
ISBN: 9781773843339
Paperback / Print: $ 11.99
ISBN: 9781773843346
Size: 5.00 x 8.00 in
Pages: 244

This oversized elf is on a mission to save Christmas.

The unthinkable has happened. Krampus has escaped his prison and is out for revenge. It’s up to Leif Blitzen, member of the Yule Squad, to locate the dangerous prisoner before anyone is harmed. His mission takes him from the North Pole to a small town with an interesting shop and an even more intriguing owner.

Bella might be almost forty but that hasn’t diminished her love of the holidays. Filled with unique gifts and antiques from all over the world, her Christmas store keeps her spirit bright all year round. However, it doesn’t make her a sucker for the man with pointed ears who claims he’s Santa’s elf.

Once Leif shows proof he truly does work for the man in red, Bella is ready and willing to do anything to help him against the coming evil, including offering herself as bait for a trap. What they don’t count on is Krampus coming early and taking her hostage.

Now, Leif will do anything to rescue Bella—risk his own life, forsake Santa—because there’s only one thing this elf wants for Christmas.
Love.
Click the evil gingerbread for more store links.

Ready for an evil Chrismntas?

Excerpt:

Prologue

The South Pole. T-minus twelve days before Christmas.

“Did you hear something?” Paisleigh asked Maurice, the other guard working the overnight shift with her.

Maurice sucked on a candy cane, his booted feet on the desk, phone propped in his lap, watching something he must have downloaded since they didn’t get any cellular signal this deep inside the glacier. The nights were long without some form of entertainment. She preferred to read.

“Probably just the bears going at it again.” Maurice waggled his brows, and she grimaced at the reminder of the pair of males outside the icy facility that kept trying to catch the attention of the lone female in the area.

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“I guess.” She chewed her lower lip and tried to sink back into her story, only to slap the book shut as the hairs on her nape lifted. A nagging unease forced her to her feet as she tried to discern the source of her discomfort.

Scritch.

Faint but unmistakable.

This time Maurice heard it, too, and frowned as he set aside his phone. “Hunh. That’s weird.”

“It almost sounds as if it came from inside the containment area.” She glanced at the heavily magicked bars over the deep shaft they guarded. An impenetrable prison for a heinous being. Not that Paisleigh had ever met or seen the prisoner. He’d been long locked away by the time she took her turn on guard rotation. Less guard and more a token presence to provide a warning system in the off chance the security holding one of the world’s most dangerous entities had a flaw.

“Maybe it’s a rat?” A less-than-certain suggestion from Maurice, who ignored the fact they’d never seen signs of any. The South Pole wasn’t known for its rodent population.

“Should we check?”
Maurice thumped his feet to the ground. “Check how?”
Rather than reply, Paisleigh stood on the edge of the ice-limned grate, peering down,

seeing nothing but darkness. Was their prisoner even still alive? She assumed those in charge knew; after all, they randomly dropped sacks with food inside. But then again, they never descended to check either.

“Not sure what you think you’ll see,” Maurice declared, joining her. “It’s not like the prisoner can climb. The pit walls are smooth ice.”

“What if he’s managed to fashion himself some ice picks?”

“How? Nothing sent down can be used as a toothpick, let alone something durable enough to dig into the hard surface.”

“But what if he did find a way?”

Her insistence caused Maurice to snort. “Let’s say he did manage to make it to the top. The grate’s not going anywhere. It’s locked. The key is being kept safe in the North Pole, not to mention there are layers of magic. See?” He knelt down and brought his hand close enough to cause the protective layer to glow.

Groan.

This time the noise didn’t come from the pit but overhead. They both craned to eye the icy ceiling. The glacier encasing the prison pit went a good hundred feet over them and was three times as wide. Only a single access tunnel allowed entry, and that only after being screened by the second set of guards outside. A set of six mages also rotated, checking on the wards, bringing supplies to the prisoner.

“You can’t tell me that noise was normal,” Paisleigh exclaimed.

“It is odd. Maybe we should check in with Helga and Bjorn.” The guards at the entrance to the tunnel.

Paisleigh almost said, “Don’t leave me,” even as she couldn’t have said why the sudden intense fear.

Maurice read her expression and did his best to reassure. “Don’t look so worried. Most likely it’s just climate change causing some cracking in the ice.”

“What if it destabilizes the prison?” she squeaked.

“It can’t. Not while the magic is intact.” Those who’d created the prison had accounted for all kinds of possibilities, including the glacier fracturing. “He ain’t getting out.”

She sure hoped not, because the whole reason why he had been locked away for all time was because of the danger he posed.

Creak.

They both eyed the ceiling, which remained whole. Still...
“Go. See what’s happening.” Paisleigh waved her hand at Maurice. “I’ll be fine.”
“You don’t look fine. Tell you what. I’ll stay here, and you go talk to our pals by the

entrance. Reassure yourself.”
“Are you sure?” She nibbled her lower lip.
“Totally sure. Ain’t nothing to be afraid of. You’ll see.”
Maurice would know. He’d been working as a guard here for years compared to her three

months. Yet, in all that time, not once had she heard any noises. Never had the hair on her nape lifted and given her a shiver. However, she’d heard the stories shared by the other guards. Rumors of those who’d gone missing. The voices some claimed they heard when no one was around.

She eyed the grate in the floor, hugged herself as a shudder hit her hard, and said, “I’ll be quick.” She’d head outside, see there was nothing to worry about, and return.

“Bring back some hot cocoa, would you? With marshmallows,” Maurice yelled as she headed into the icy tunnel bored into the glacier.

The chill of their location hit her as she left the warmth of the chamber heated with special stones that somehow didn’t melt the ice. She scurried quickly, the only sound the huff of her breath. The scuff of her boots. The jingle of a bell—

Er, what?

She halted and listened.

Nothing. She glanced back and saw only the smooth, icy walls of the tunnel. Must have imagined it. She walked more slowly and heard it again.

Jingle.
Jangle.
Definitely a bell. Impossible. Bells weren’t allowed in the pit chamber. Or anywhere else

in the South Pole for that matter. Something about upsetting the magical shields of the prison. Hesitating, she glanced back and then forward. Which way should she go?
The waft of cold air hinting of cinnamon from the direction of the pit decided her.

Terrified, she ran full out, arms pumping, aiming for the hint of daylight at the end of the corridor. At first, she thought it was her rapid gait making her unsteady, only to realize the ground underfoot shook. She braced her hand on the wall and felt it vibrating, humming against her

palm.

Oh dear.

Not good.
Not good at all.
But even more worrisome was the sudden zigzagging crack that appeared overhead.

Paisleigh bolted, struggling to keep her balance as the very floor buckled and heaved as ice groaned and cracked.

Impossible. The magic was supposed to prevent this from happening.

The rumbling intensified, and she lost her balance, hitting the floor on her knees. But that wasn’t the worse of it. The sound of the ringing bell deepened.

JINGLE.
JANGLE.
“HO.
“HO.
“HO.”
As an impossible voice resonated, the tunnel came down on top of Paisleigh.
She regained consciousness when the rescue crew dug her out of the icy rubble.

Disoriented, she nonetheless gasped as she saw what remained of the glacier. Nothing but ice chunks scattered all over.
But most terrifying of all was the realization of what had happened. “The Earth mother help us all.”

Santa had escaped.

Chapter One

Anchorage, Alaska. Passing the time reading a dropped flyer.

Drink Up, Grinches! Half-price lap dances for every pitcher you buy....

An expensive pitcher of lager, Leif would wager, tossing the flyer as he waited in a dirty alley outside a strip club. The neon lights at the front didn’t penetrate the shadows as he waited for his target to emerge. He’d already peeked inside to confirm the tip and vetoed acting in public. The dim lighting and drunken patrons added too many unpredictable elements.

The alley provided the perfect spot to watch. Those leaving the club via the front had to cross the mouth of it to grab a taxi, as there was no stopping in front. If his target chose the more discreet exit into the alley itself, then even better.

As the witching hour neared, the club emptied, disgorging staggering drunks loudly speaking and gesturing to their companions. Silent patrons emerged, shoulders hunched as if not wanting to be noticed. It wasn’t just men. A third of the audience now comprised women. Then there were the employees, waitresses and dancers alike, bodies and spirits tired after hours of smiling and being “on” for their audience. They moved quickly passed, covered neck to toe against the cold, hands in pockets. He’d wager more than a few clutched keys or sharp objects for the over-eager patron who needed a reminder the fantasy inside the bar didn’t extend outside.

The people leaving slowed to a trickle, and still Leif hadn’t seen his target. Had he been given the slip?

A high-pitched giggle, adorably sweet, raised the hair on his neck and indicated the end of his wait.

A long bare leg, finished in a stiletto heel, appeared first, the thighs barely covered by the sequined mini skirt, the fishnet stockings no protection against the cold. A short faux-fur jacket was the only semblance of warmth on the young woman passing by the alley. On her shoulder, an eight-inch cookie with a round head, two arms, two legs, iced with a bowtie and bright red buttons that matched its mouth.

A gingerbread man who’d come to life and, if left unchecked, a nuisance to society, pulling pranks, peeping, corrupting other food. It was Leif’s job to apprehend him.

The stripper stopped at the mouth of the alley. But on the orders of her passenger.

Round black spots for eyes focused on Leif suddenly, spotting him amidst the shadows. The mouth twisted, and the brows shot down in an angry slant. “If it isn’t one the North Pole’s annoying soldiers.”

Leif stepped into the middle of the alley, hands by his sides. “Don’t make this harder than it has to be, Ralph.” The target’s real name. Ralph The Five Thousandth, to be exact. Those that came before having had unfortunate accidents. Living cookies had a short shelf life, and the gingers tended to be especially spicey about it.

“Why do you have to be such a narc, Leif? What’s the harm in me having a little fun?” The gingerbread man eyed the stripper holding him and cooed, “Tell him, honey, you want to lick my

icing.”
“Depends, are the ingredients vegan?” queried the woman.
“Vegan!” huffed Ralph. “What is wrong with people these days? Trying to ruin a recipe

that’s lasted millennia.” The cookie leapt from her shoulder, springing to the ground, and landing in a flourish with arms out swept.

“I don’t put animals in my mouth.” The woman strutted off, and Ralph managed a rude gesture that took both his arms before turning his attention to Leif. “Thanks a lot for ruining my

night.”
“Not my fault you’re made with butter and eggs.” Leif pulled out some ribbon. “Shall we

get this over with?”
“What if I don’t want to go back to Santa’s Village? All everyone does is work, work, work.” Ironic coming from Ralph since he’d only ever played pranks. “You know the rules. Living

cookies aren’t allowed outside of the village.” Because the non-magically inclined tended to get weird about their food talking back to them.

“So unfair.” Ralph moped.
“You do realize they didn’t send me after you until we got reports of you causing trouble.” “People these days can’t take a joke.”

“You hid inside a coffee shop and screamed, ‘You’re murdering my cousin,’ every time someone ate a donut.”

“I stand with my cake brothers.”
“You can stand with them back at the village. Let’s go.”
A single brow arched, and the mouth rounded in mirth as Ralph giggled. “Only if you catch

me.” The cookie took off running.
Despite having expected this, Leif sighed. Why did the gingers always force them to

chase? Probably because some of them actually did manage to escape. But Ralph had forgotten something. Leif wasn’t just any soldier. Half elf from his father’s side, half reindeer shifter from his mother. And not your run-of-the-mill forest buck. As a descendent of Santa’s original sled team, Leif could fly.

He launched himself into the air and ran, his legs moving as if he were on the ground, only he moved above it, able to see Ralph and the many turns he took. Eventually, the cookie ran out of sugar and slowed.

Now was Leif’s chance. He landed with a soft thud in front of Ralph, who backpedaled too

slowly.
Leif grabbed hold of the squirmy cookie that yelled, “Let me go. I’m not going back.” “You need to stand and answer for your crimes.” Ralph didn’t just have a thing for

strippers and making non-cryptids uncomfortable. In the short time since he came alive, he’d also smuggled drugs into the North Pole. The kind that had good people wandering into the ice fields outside their town shields, where they sometimes got eaten by a hungry polar or fell into a crevasse too deep to survive.

“Come on, Leif. You know what they’ll do to me if you take me back,” Ralph whined. “I’m too young to be eaten.”

“We both know you’re long past your best before-date.”

“That’s just a general guideline. Look at me.” Ralph extended his arms. “I’ve been keeping up the icing.” Indeed, the piping appeared rather fresh, but Leif couldn’t ignore the chunks that had crumbled away. The patchwork of dough that didn’t quite match. The hint of moldy fuzz along its jaw.

“It’s time, Ralph. Let—” Before he could finish that thought, his phone went off. The strident jingle indicated an emergency at home. Startling seeing as how it had never gone off

before.
During Leif’s moment of shock, his grip loosened, and Ralph slipped away, running while

cackling, “You can’t catch me. I’m—”
The rat pounced on the cookie and ripped off its head. While the rodent tore into the

remains, Leif checked his phone, blinked, and then whistled in disbelief at the message sent by his dad.

He escaped.

There could only be one he. And this was bad. It should have also been impossible.

Leif’s magic shifted him, clothes to fur, human face and pointed ears to a reindeer with an impressive rack. While he could fly in his two-legged shape, if he wanted to move fast, he needed four.

With a galloping stride, he flung himself into the air, where it took only a moment to gather enough wind energy to give himself a burst of speed that had him back to the North Pole within a few hours. He landed on the runway just outside the perimeter of the village. Santa’s Village, to be exact. His home.

As Leif cantered to a stop, he changed back to his other form, that of a male, late thirties, with dark hair long enough to cover his pointed ears for when he went out amongst the humans. Unlike others of his ilk, he didn’t appreciate strangers thinking they could touch them, always asking, “Are they real?”

The eastern gate was open this time of day, guarded by elves armed with spears and, as an added precaution, a warlock as well. Old Merlo, his beard touching the ground, his pointed hat covered in stars, gave a nod as Leif passed. They didn’t have many elven defensive and combat magic users. Most of their talents usually resided on the creative side of things.

Leif’s long stride took him to the bright red structure that, despite no longer being used as a stable, retained its original name of Jingle Bell Barn. When the sleigh teams were phased out, it turned into a command facility for the operation of the squads that protected Santa’s Village, because as the world grew so did the danger to everyone working and living in this hidden place.

Inside the barn, the stalls had been turned into offices where elves observed flickering screens: videos, social media threads, texts. They monitored as much as they could to ensure the village remained secure. Too many naughty people in the past had made attempts to invade and even take over for them to be complacent. The greedy kept coming after the incredible Plum Pudding Toy Factory that could build any toy in existence and even create some. Then there was the more recent addition of the Eggnog Electronics Facility to accommodate those asking for smartphones, video games systems, and more.

The evil someone could do if they managed to gain control of either... It couldn’t be allowed, and it was up to Leif—a member of the Yule Squad—along with Mistletoe Crew and Poinsettia Posse, to ensure that never happened.

He waved to those who chirped hellos at him and made for the office of the Musher, the person who oversaw the squads. Also known as Lars Blitzen, his dad.

“What in the candy corn happened?” Leif exclaimed as he walked right on in.

Sitting at his desk, almost buried by its size, his father rubbed a hand over his weary face. “Leif, thank the Christmas Spirit you’re here. We have an emergency on our hands.”

“So he truly did escape?” Leif queried.
Dad nodded.
“I thought there was no way that could happen.”
The statement led to his father rolling his shoulders. “By all accounts, it shouldn’t have

been possible. Even now we’re struggling to understand. One moment, everything was fine, and then, with barely a hint of warning, the whole place came down.”

“How did he escape? That pit was over a mile deep. The walls sheer ice.”
“We don’t think he climbed, as we didn’t find any signs of it. It would appear he flew out.” “Without magic?” His understanding was Krampus had his powers taken away to ensure

he could never escape his prison.
“We think he had help,” his father admitted.
It took Leif a moment to recover from the shocking admission. “Who would do that?”

Surely, no one in Santa’s Village. The elves, reindeer, and others all knew from a young age the story of how Krampus, an evil spirit, infected Santa Claus and almost destroyed Christmas.

“I’m less worried about who and more concerned about where he has gone. We have to find him before he can do any harm.”

“Shouldn’t be too hard to find. Just look for reports of a large-sized monster with big freaking horns.” Leif had seen the images of the monster Santa became.

Dad’s lips turned down. “If he’s got help, then it might not be so simple.”
That arched Leif’s brow. “What kind of idiot would join forces with Krampus?”
“Keep in mind, the newer generation didn’t live through that time and has no idea of the

horror we went through. They still believe in who he used to be, and rumor has it they want him set him free.”

“Are they dumb?” Everyone knew Krampus was bad. A killer. The worst thing ever. “Haven’t they studied our history? Has no one explained that Krampus isn’t the original San—”

His father practically dove over the desk to slap his hand over Leif’s mouth. “Shh. Don’t say his name.”

He pulled his father’s hands from his lips and said deliberately, “Santa Claus.” “Leif!”
“You’re being ridiculous. How does saying his name draw his attention?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t want to find out.”

“Well, we don’t have a choice since Krampus or Santa Claus or whatever you want to call him is on the loose. I say, if he hears and wants to come at me, let him. It would make the task of capturing him easier. You hear that, Santa? Come and get me!” he yelled to the ceiling of the room.

“Feel better?” his father asked dryly.

“Yes, because you’re being crazy. He’s not listening. It’s only the song that claims he can hear us all the time. You yourself told me that’s not true.”

“That aspect of the legend wasn’t true of him before. I’m not sure about the thing he’s become.”

“Let’s assume for a moment he didn’t suddenly acquire extra powers. That would mean he can’t hear us unless he’s in the room or using a spell. More importantly, he has no idea about naughty or good either.”

“And? I don’t see why that’s important.”

“Because, if Krampus keeps to his usual style and goes after the naughty, then he is going to need The List.” The List being the Holy Grail for Christmas. Updated daily all year round and heavily guarded, only accessible to a few people.

“Already thought of that. Candy Cane Central went on high alert the moment we got word of his escape. As an added precaution, Mistletoe Crew is guarding Allie Snowball.” The current curator of the naughty-and-nice book.

“Now, don’t freak out, because I have to ask. I don’t suppose there a chance he’s returned to his jolly self?” Leif had never met the original Santa Claus, only heard the stories passed down by his dad, who’d served under the big man before his demise.

No one quite knew what happened. How had Santa left himself open enough to be infected? Some believed the weakening of his powers began with the baby boomers. The explosion of families. So many gifts, the North Pole couldn’t keep up. It led to the creation of their first factory, as the elves pivoted to keep up with demand for the good children who’d earned a present.

Along with the increased good came the bad. Record numbers of naughty kids entered The List. Some theorized it broke Santa’s spirit and led to him turning into the monster that became known as Krampus. Not that anyone knew at first that Santa was infected.

Previously, when Krampus infected someone, he had only his host’s abilities to draw upon. Humans gave him flesh and a limit to his strength. But when Krampus slipped inside Santa—who chose to sacrifice himself rather than see someone else become host and start the cycle again—he found power. It was said the monster learned how to mimic the big man. His laugh. His smile. He even fooled Mrs. Claus for a while.

It took years, and the death of many, before the elves finally pieced it together, that the person killing the bad children on their list was the jolly man himself. The elves and all those who worked in the village banded together to end Krampus’s reign of terror.

Since they feared killing Santa’s body would unleash Krampus to find another body, they instead chose to strip the magic from Santa and put him in a prison he couldn’t escape. Forever locked away that no more children would die.

Bereft at the loss of her husband, Mrs. Claus left not long after, never to be seen again. And the elves...
Went on without Santa.
The sled and reindeer were retired in favor of a drone system in conjunction with a portal

that allowed them to literally deposit presents under the tree. No need to fly around the world at ludicrous speed. No more risking life or limb. Some people forgot to confine their pets for the night, and more than a few elves returned with bite marks and haunted expressions. The stories they told about some cats had even the adult elves hugging each other.

Life went on without Santa and, until now, had run rather smoothly.

“I’m afraid Krampus is still as dangerous as before,” his father said, replying to his last query. “Possibly even worse given the decades he spent alone.”

“If you have The List covered, then what do you want me to do?” Because his father would never waste Leif’s talents on mundane guard duty, not when he was one of the few who could move among humans without undue notice. A taller than normal elf at almost five foot ten, Leif towered over most, even his father, a pure-blood elf who was an almost unheard of four foot eleven. Leif’s height mostly came from his mother’s side. His reindeer uncles, Sven and Mikhail, were both almost six feet.

His father appeared grim as he announced, “You need to find Krampus before he ruins Christmas.”

Chapter Two

In a little town, in a cute shop, fluffing a shirt emblazoned with a mug with a smiley face: ‘I run on coffee and Christmas cheer.’

I might just wear that shirt tomorrow. Bella finished smoothing the bright red fabric of the sweater she’d just placed on the mannequin. It would draw the attention of people as they passed by the window. Once they came inside, they often left with more than just a shirt.

Adding a clothing line with quirky holiday messages brought in a very nice revenue stream. Not to mention there was something kind of joyful about seeing return clients wearing their version of holiday cheer. The world could use more smiles and goodwill.

For herself, Bella wore a lovely pastel-hued knitted sweater with interlinking snowflakes. Some called it hideous and laughed while asking where they could buy one. They wanted it because they thought it ugly, even as it was Bella’s favorite. Her mom made it.

From a young age, Mom had bestowed in Bella a love of Christmas. Shown her how to be giving. Kept her spirit bright even when things tried to turn her smile upside down.

In the days leading up to Christmas, they’d bake and decorate, sing and watch corny movies that made her sigh happily. Mom turned Christmas into the best time of the year. A mother who would be arriving in a few days to spend the holidays.

It had been so long since she’d seen her. Three whole months! Although it helped they talked in person every day.

When Mom started travelling the world after Bella left for college, she had worried they wouldn’t remain close. She should have known better. Mom remained in touch not only by phone but by helping Bella’s business thrive by locating and shipping back unique Christmas treasures. The latest box sat in the back; however, she’d sworn to herself she wouldn’t open it until she finished the new display in her front window, which took longer than it should have given her distraction. Blame the sports car she’d seen pulling to the curb across the street. It had bright red wheel rims, the body of it a deep emerald that caught her eye given the green reminded her of a fresh pine tree waiting for decoration.

Speaking of waiting, that front window wouldn’t frost itself. She held up her can and shook, giving it her everything because she didn’t have a spare and her window would look terrible if she ran out partway.

A man stepped out of the car and stood by it, glancing around, eyeing the shops nearby. They were mostly converted brownstones, the main floor holding a store or restaurant and the upstairs reserved for living quarters. He wore a long, dark coat, the kind worn by those guys in The Matrix. Very cool looking. Add in sunglasses and dark emerald boots and he was super interesting, hence why Bella paused the shaking of her can to stare. He didn’t look like the type to be interested in choosing his own freshly baked goods, yet he headed for the bakery across from her, which had recently combined the amazing cupcake side of the business with to-die-for bread on the other.

Since she’d moved in a few months ago, she’d developed a love and hate relationship with the goodies, also known as her hips’ nemesis. Each mouthwatering indulgence meant at least an hour exercising with her Oculus, fighting off villains with her light saber as she role-played in an Empire far, far away. To those that might mock her chosen form of fitness? Her mantra clearly stated exercise should be fun, and slaying those aligned with the Dark Side sure as heck put a smile on her face.

Just before the door to Oral Orgasm—the name they should have given the place of delicious treats instead of The Hexed Goodies—the man paused and glanced over his shoulder.

Right at Bella.

Being the friendly sort, she waved and smiled. He cocked his head as she pressed the button on her can.

Pffft. It spat a few drops.
Oh dear. Please don’t let it be a dud.
She shook it hard and pressed again. This time not a thing emerged.
She wiped the nozzle against the denim fabric of her pants and pushed down hard on the

nozzle button. At first nothing, then the cap shot off and artificial snow exploded in a spatter. Luckily her glasses prevented it from getting in her eyes, but it didn’t taste good when she accidentally licked her lips. A good thing the stuff was washable. She rubbed her sleeve over her glasses to clear the lenses and failed miserably, as it smeared, so she removed the glasses and

lifted her sweater to find her clean T-shirt, a better fabric for wiping.
Once she cleared the lenses, she jammed them back on her face, pivoted to exit the

window, slipped and landed on the manger, and splayed across baby Jesus—who happened to be an adorable Grogu.

“Sorry, Baby Yoda,” she muttered. She took a deep breath and hoped nobody saw as she pushed herself upward. A glance through the window showed the man in the duster staring slack-

jawed.
She might have been embarrassed but for the fact she’d always been clumsy. Her mother

said she’d been born with two left feet, and those feet conspired against her at every chance. She almost did the splits on the way out of the window display because she managed to step in more of the slick snow and tumbled into her store. In good news, she didn’t break anything. Her teachers would be impressed. In school, her teachers quickly learned to keep Bella far from the edges of the stage for school concerts. Otherwise, she always managed to fall off.

Mom would laugh when it happened and say she was just like her dad, a dad Bella never knew because he died before she was born.

She headed for the back room to clean up and passed the box her mom had shipped. It was a wooden crate instead of the usual taped cardboard. It had fragile written on it and hummed with magic. Mom had splurged for a spelled seal against tampering, a neat new innovation that reduced incidents of missing packages. Apparently, tagging thieves with flashing words on their forehead that said “Arrest Me” had that effect.

Using magic to mark those up to no good had been gaining traction within government circles since the zombie animal incident caused by a necromancer the previous year. Many said had the necromancer been identified the moment she raised the dead she could have been stopped before she tried to zombify the world.

Bella had moved to town well after all the undead excitement, taking advantage of the surge of vacant properties at low prices. Mom hadn’t been impressed given she’d been trying to convince Bella to move down south to Mexico. Nice place. Warm and tropical, but not somewhere she wanted to live, mostly because they rarely got snow in the lower altitudes. Bella couldn’t imagine a Christmas without it! Give her fluffy flakes, iced-over ponds, and people bundled against the cold as they strolled. At times she debated moving farther north where the winter season lasted longer.

In the back room, she washed off the exploded gook from her skin, stripped off her top, and put on a new Christmas shirt, this one with a fireplace and the phrase: Hot for Christmas.

The shop bell rang as she dabbed at the white blobs in her hair. She spent the next few hours handling customers. December was a busy time for her for obvious reasons. Around seven, things died down and she closed up shop, noticing as she flipped her sign that the car remained out front. The lights in the tasty food shop had dimmed, while those on the floor above were bright. The man in the fancy car must know the owners, Mindy and her fiancé, Reiver. Bella had met them once. Handsome couple. Rumor had it he was a former Cryptid Authority agent, which she had her doubts about. Who went from fighting cryptid crime to baking bread?

Then again, who cared, given the amount of traffic it brought the street. It had been one of the reasons she’d chosen this location after her last rental two states over proved problematic. Mainly it burned to the ground and the landlord blamed the tree she kept decorated and lit year- round. While he might have been correct about the origin of the fire, the cause wasn’t her fault. According to the investigation, someone tossed a malfunctioning vape at it, but she got the blame. The building mostly suffered smoke damage, but everyone got evicted.

Rather than deal with a new landlord, Bella, with Mom’s help, went looking for a place she could own. Since she didn’t have the best budget, a town recovering from a necromancer attack provided a cost-effective solution that had already paid off due to foot traffic drawn to the bakery across the street. She’d already tripled her profits for the year, meaning her bad luck turned out to be great!

The switch just inside the door to the storage room at the back turned off the overhead lights, and she took a moment to smile at the bright bulbs framing her front window and the smaller ones glinting in her potted tree. She didn’t believe in cutting them down and killing them. Although she did wonder what she’d do once it grew too tall. Perhaps Mindy, who didn’t just bake treats but was also an Earth Witch, could help her.

Must be cool to have magic. All Bella had was an abundance of Christmas spirit.

She checked the door on the alley, even as she knew she’d not opened it that day. She didn’t have an alarm system yet. Hadn’t seen the need. She relied on an old-fashioned bell on her door. An antique door that still had the brass mail slot, which also had a string running to a bell when the flap opened.

Before heading up the stairs to the second floor where she had an apartment, another bonus to this building she’d bought, she snared the package from Mom. All day long she’d been dying to open it. After the day she’d had, she’d earned the box.

As she opened her apartment door, she beamed at her pet. “Hey, Big Fluff.” She’d tried various names on her long-haired feline, adopted a few years ago when she’d found her shivering in an alley on Christmas Eve. When no one came forth to claim her, she’d decided to keep the cat

who rejected every single appellation until, in frustration, Bella exploded with, “You need a name, Big Fluff.”

The reply? A meow and a suddenly purring kitty rubbing against her lower legs.

“Are you hungry, my precious?” For those wondering, she softened her tone when speaking to her majesty. Big Fluff expected a certain level of respect and worship.

The cat stretched and yawned before sauntering to the small kitchen area. Bella placed the package on the breakfast counter before opening the fridge for the fish she’d grabbed from the market on her lunch break. When she’d returned to run it up to her fridge, her cat hadn’t even deigned to open an eye where she basked in the sunlight on the window ledge. Now, however, kitty almost trotted as the smell of salmon permeated the air.

The cat got almost fresh fish while Bella went for a nice hot soup, crackers, and bread pudding for dessert. Not a big dinner, but if she got hungry, she had some chestnuts she could roast on the fire. Imagine her delight when she’d discovered the old building had retained the original fireplace on the second floor.

Belly full, and the cat stretched out for her evening nap, she finally could tackle the mysterious crate.

Scissors wouldn’t do the trick. Her tongue poked between teeth and lips as she pried at the wooden lid with a crowbar kept by her bed just in case the zombies came back.

The wooden lid popped off just as her phone rang. She eyed the straw then the screen, which showed a smiling Mom calling.

She hit answer and speakerphone. “Hey, Mom, what’s shaking?”
“My booty because the salsa music downstairs is slamming.”
Bella smiled as her mom did her best to sound hip and cool. “Maybe you can find yourself

a hot dance partner. I’d be okay if you gave me a daddy for Christmas.” A thing she’d often teased, and yet her mother had never dated, stating she’d only ever love one man.

“Maybe you’ll get your wish,” trilled her mom.
The surprise reply dropped her jaw. “Wait, what? Did you meet someone?”
“Not exactly and not why I’m calling. Did you get a box from me?”
“Yes. I was just about to open it.”
“Don’t.”
“What?”
“You need to wait for me. What’s inside that box requires special handling.”
“You do recall I deal in fragile things on a daily basis, right?” Bella couldn’t help the

sarcasm.
“Fine, if you must know, it’s your Christmas present.”
“Really?” She eyed the straw with even more interest.
“Yes really, so no snooping. I need to be there when you open it.”
It killed Bella to mumble, “I won’t peek, promise.”
“That’s my good girl. Now, tell me about your day.”
As Bella launched into a recitation of her clumsiness, she sat in her favorite chair, afghan

over her legs, cat in her lap, a gentle snow falling outside. By the time she hung up with Mom, she’d almost forgotten the box.

Okay, no she hadn’t. Giddy excitement filled her as she wondered what it held. Mom always managed to find the best gifts. She couldn’t wait for Christmas morning.

It was going to be epic!

Chapter Three

Wearing his Special Package boxers a week before Christmas...

And Leif had yet to catch a break.

After his father gave him the mission of seeking out Santa, he’d gone to the barn and asked that, along with reports of any Krampus sightings, he wanted any Santa Claus ones, too. He’d gotten predictable laughter.

Joy, their top information gatherer, had shaken her head, sending braids woven with ribbon flying. “Do you know how many hits we get in an hour of the big man in red? We’re going to need specifics. Where he might have gone. Who he might see.”

Problem being no one knew where Santa had fled to. As to who he might try and find... Everyone he once knew lived in Santa’s Village. Okay, maybe not everyone. Mrs. Claus, for instance, had left and never been seen again. And there were the occasional elves who also departed looking for a change. But Santa wouldn’t know how to find them. Heck, he wouldn’t know most of the people in the village anymore given how many decades had passed. Santa might live forever, but elves, while having a longer life span than humans, didn’t.

“Any suggestions on how we can find Krampus?”
“The news,” Joy suggested. “They’ll report if he starts killing.”
A good plan. After all, the last time Krampus hunted, the murders had been obvious. The plan failed quickly, given they’d not realized just how bad the world had gotten. The

things they saw disheartened the usually happy elves.
And it was for nothing. They didn’t find Krampus.
With time running out, Leif needed a clue. So he went to the library and hit the books that

centered around the history of Santa’s descent into Krampus.
The accounts of that time proved sparse, as if the historian couldn’t bear to give words to

what happened. Santa got infected and went bad. The elves imprisoned him. No mention of how. No details on where they captured him.

Given Leif’s father had lived through that time, he tried questioning him, only to come away further puzzled because no matter how he asked, his father didn’t stray from his story.

“We trapped Krampus in the pit under the glacier.”

The same story was repeated by everyone he approached who’d been alive during that time. Which made no sense. Surely someone recalled how the whole Krampus capture had gone down.

There were many paintings of a big man dressed in red, battling a monstrous creature with horns and hooved feet. A battle Santa always won until he became the infected. Or should Leif call it possessed? After all, Krampus could jump from body to body, and apparently even the strongest couldn’t fight him. How else to explain how a man who loved children could suddenly turn into a monster in the days before Christmas, killing and causing so much grief and evil?

Which made him wonder, why did Santa only appear to turn savage just before the big day? Was it important?

When he asked his dad how Santa appeared after Christmas and the killing, his father had shrugged. “Seemed like himself. Maybe a little more agitated once we hit the countdown from twelve. But we assumed he was worrying about the job.”

What was it about Christmas that agitated Krampus into violence?

And why did no one remember much of that time? The elves close to Santa in those final years appeared to have had much of their memories suppressed or erased, indicating a secret that they feared getting out. Surely someone recalled. Perhaps the person who’d wiped their knowledge?

Given the sparse details in the village, Leif hit the internet and dug through the human stories featuring Krampus, a monster who first made an appearance centuries ago, killing naughty children at Christmas. In those stories Krampus was just a monster. Nothing about infection causing a person to kill until the more modern versions of the tale, many of which the monster won.

With the internet just making Krampus into an even murkier figure, he tried talking to those who’d taken a stint guarding Krampus’s prison. They had little to relate. A few admitted they’d been discomfited. A few claimed nightmares and phantom voices. The only survivor of Krampus’s escape recalled nothing once her shift started.

The prison had been reduced to a hole in the ice. Satellite imaging showed the gash into the ground that went a mile deep supposedly. Leif couldn’t know for sure since the prison lacked any record of being built. There was also no time limit placed on the incarceration. No indication anyone ever checked on him. Nothing about how his magic was removed or where it went. Probably to ensure Krampus didn’t get his monstrous hands on it.

It appeared someone had helped him escape. Who would do such a thing? It boggled the mind. Could it be that group his father mentioned? Someone who thought Krampus should be set free. How could he find someone to talk to about it?

When research didn’t get him any answers, Leif finally resorted to the one thing he’d been avoiding. He visited the Abominable Seer, Daphne.

The seer lived in a cave of ice a fair distance from Santa’s village because she claimed their lights were too bright. She had a point.

A snow yeti, Daphne loomed almost ten feet, her stocky frame covered in fur, a female with a silvery blue hue to her hair who could speak the language of humans. Every single one it was said.

Being a seer, she could give a person hints of the future. Clues to what they sought. Best of all, she asked no price for any of her knowledge.

So why his reluctance on seeing her?
The smell hit him a mile out.
Daphne had been feeding on the seal population again. It always gave her the farts. Eye-

watering, stomach-churning. The particularly bad ones could start smoldering clothes and singeing hairs.

A bandana covered Leif’s lower face. and he wore goggles as he passed the frozen wasteland outside her cave. Pitted ice and desiccated bones. Nothing lived in a mile radius of her

home.
He reached the massive cave with its miasma of yellow green wafting forth, pungent

enough to penetrate even the magic barrier fused to his mask.

He warned her of his approach. “Hello, Daphne. It is I—”

“It’s Leif, I know.” She emerged, a massive creature wearing a sarong style sheet of fabric and lipstick on her fangs that looked a lot like dripping blood. “I’ve known you’d be visiting for weeks now.”

“Then you know why I’m here.”
“He has escaped.” She shook her arms, and bangles jangled.
“Yes, he has. Can you see where he is?”
She shook her head. “Hidden from me. Hidden from you. Hidden from everyone who

seeks him.”
“Meaning you can’t help.” His lips turned down.
“Help?” She tittered. “I see things. I see you going on a trip. Vroom!” Daphne strode past

him, arms waving, almost skipping, the impact hard enough to cause crunching and cracking of the hardened ice and snow below her feet.

“A trip to where?” Guiding Daphne to the little details could save time later.

“A place where the dead were alive and two of the extinct were born again, and you will find what you need.”

“The name of that place is...” he prompted.

“Destiny!” Daphne pirouetted and laughed, even as her actions caused a mini avalanche of ice to fall from a nearby glacier.

Since she kept avoiding answering his query, he changed tactic. “Will I find him there?”

“Everything you need. Everything you’ve ever wanted.” Daphne stopped moving and stared at him. “You will save Christmas.”

“I’d love to do that, but it would help if I knew where I had to go.”
“Yummy cupcake store.” Daphne smacked her lips.
“That doesn’t exactly narrow it down by much given how many exist in the world.” “How is your friend Reiver?”
“Wait, what?” The sudden change of subject had him blinking. What did Reiver—an old

friend he’d made from his time at the Cryptid Authority Training Academy—have to do with anything? “Will Reiver be able to help me?”

Rather than reply, her lips quirked as she said, “Love will save the day.”
“What’s love got to do with it?” he yelled as she went bounding away on the ice. “Everything,” was her booming reply, along with an explosive fart that sent him sprinting

for safety.
As he trudged back to Santa’s Village, he went over what Daphne said. Much of it didn’t

make sense yet, but one part stood out. Reiver.

A man who had recently retired because he’d met someone. Even more astonishing, Reiver went from hunter for the CA—the Cryptid Authority in charge of policing all things that freaked out humans—to baker in a small town that had, according to recent news, defeated a necromancer and supposedly uncovered a dragon’s lair.

Could this be where he’d save Christmas?
Only one way to find out.
He flew on four legs until he entered airspace that didn’t take kindly to unauthorized

flyers. He then took two commercial flights the rest of the way. Upon his arrival, knowing he

couldn’t fly by day without being noticed, he chose to splurge by renting the fastest and sleekest car he could find.

The bakery proved easy to find. It was located right across the street from a store titled Holiday Cheer with its façade painted white, the sign bright red and green, matching the door and the window frame. As he took it all in, he caught a woman in the window, doing her best to maim herself decorating it, her clumsiness like nothing he’d ever seen.

When she managed to escape, more or less unscathed, he entered his friend’s shop and began immediately drooling at the smell of the bread and so much more.

A young teen behind the counter lifted their head and smiled. “Can I help you?”
“Hi. Maybe you can. I’m looking for Reiver.”
Before the kid could reply, a voice rasped, “Well, I’ll be damned. Look who’s come visiting.

I’m surprised given how close it is to Christmas.”

Leif smiled at the other man. “I wish this was a social call. Is there somewhere we can

talk?”
“Follow me. We can talk in the kitchen. Mindy’s already back there.”
Indicating Reiver wanted her to hear whatever Leif had to say. Leif knew better than to

question. He’d long trusted this man, and besides, while he’d only briefly met Reiver’s wife at the wedding, it might be a good idea to bring her in given she was an Earth Witch. The Earth Mother tended to be particular about who she blessed.

The moment Mindy saw Leif leaning against a clean metal counter, chewing on the powdered sugar pretzel Reiver insisted he try, she smiled wide. “Leif, so nice to see you again. I’ve heard so much about you. An actual reindeer from Santa’s Village. How utterly amazing.”

He shot a glance at Reiver, who rolled his shoulders and muttered, “Don’t look at me. I didn’t spill the beans. I told her you worked for a secret CA agency.”

“Don’t blame him.” Mindy jumped in to defend Reiver. “I was just infusing some cookies with a stay-awake hex, my foot in the dirt, when Mother Earth told me your secret.”

“What exactly did she say?” he asked, not entirely surprised to hear about Earth Mother’s interest. Many elves worshipped her, even more since Santa went to prison. Leif wasn’t a strict follower, but his parents were. Mom claimed that with the loss of Santa and Mrs. Claus, the elves needed someone to believe in. Mother Earth, with her devotion to all things living, seemed the perfect fit.

“She said you’re here on an important mission and to help you as much as we can.”
“Oh. Good.”
“So what’s the problem? What can we do to aid?” Reiver asked.
Leif could have launched into a complicated explanation, but he didn’t believe in beating

around the holly bush. “I’m here because your town might be the key to saving Christmas.”
A deep silence fell the moment Leif told his friend he’d come to save Christmas.
As Reiver digested the words, Mindy clapped her hands. “Sounds like we’re going to need

more than cupcakes and pretzels for this.”
The pair spoke to their staff handling the sales before leading the way upstairs, the railing

wound with a vine that shivered as they passed. They emerged into living quarters that smelled like spring, the many plants all around thriving in the sunshine spilling through the many windows. It appeared they’d knocked through walls to create an open space for all the greenery.

Some of which he’d swear whispered. Relaxation hit Leif. He’d not realized just what a ribbon wrapped bundle of nerves he was until his muscles eased.

“Coffee? Tea?”
“I don’t suppose you have hot cocoa?” Leif asked. He avoided caffeine but needed sugar. “A hot cocoa sounds delicious.” Mindy grabbed her pregnant belly and smiled wide.

“Marshmallows?” “Oh yes.”

“How do you feel about a cinnamon sprinkle on top?”
His turn to smile wide. “It’s a good thing you’re taken,” he teased.
Reiver slid an arm around Mindy. “Yes, she is, so find your own.”
The very idea had him snorting. “Not all of us are built for domestic bliss.”
“What I thought, too, until I met the right person.”
“Ha.” Mindy snorted. “The first time we met you were killing zombies.”
“After I caught you when you fell from the second floor of your house.”
Her cheeks turned pink. “You might have been a little heroic.”
Reiver arched a brow.
She chuckled in reply before winking at Leif. “Let’s leave it at our meeting was definitely

unconventional and unexpected. So never say never. Now, give me a second, and I shall give you a hot cocoa to knock your socks off.”

“I’ll get the cocoas. Sit.” Reiver put a hand in the middle of her back to offer a gentle guide, but she remained stubbornly planted.

“I am not an invalid.”
“I know your feet are sore.”
“My feet are always sore. I stand. A lot.”
“Fine. Do it. And don’t forget some of your cookies,” Reiver grumbled before dropping

onto the couch.
As Leif settled across on the club chair, he remarked, “It’s like you want her to kill you.” An unrepentant Reiver grinned. “I knew she wouldn’t let me do it. But...”
“You had to make the attempt.” Leif chuckled and shook his head. “You both seem very

happy.”
“We are. But you’re not here to admire my perfect life. What’s this about saving

Christmas? Actually, don’t tell me yet. Let me give Mindy a hand bringing over the snack.”
A few groans of pleasure later, as Leif inhaled quite possibly one of the best hot cocoas ever and snacked on a plate of salty crackers and cheese, accompanied with sweet confections, he told them just about everything. Who Krampus was. What he’d done. How he’d been

imprisoned. The escape.
They listened with wide eyes as he took the story right up to Daphne’s cryptic message—

minus the farts.
Finished with, “...and if we don’t find him, something terrible will happen to Christmas.” Mindy stared at him and muttered, “I can’t believe Santa Claus is real.”
“Is. Was. The man who used to bring such joy became the worst kind of monster.”
“A monster that should have been handled by the CA,” Reiver interjected. “The fact

Krampus keeps returning indicates it’s a parasite. Until we eradicate the root, the problem will never end.”

“Hence why the Village imprisoned rather than kill him.” “Krampus should have been analyzed.”
“Too dangerous.”
“According to who?” Reiver queried.

“Everyone.”
“And yet, no one seems to remember much of Krampus at all, so how do you know that’s

true?”
Leif frowned. “Elves can’t lie.”
“Okay, then let me ask you, you don’t find it odd no one ever seemingly spoke to or even

checked on him?”
The reminder had Leif shifting in his seat. “I did find that strange, but at the same time, if

it’s some kind of infection, they probably worried it would jump from Santa to someone else.” “Sounds more like a demon than a virus to me,” Reiver stated.
“Either or, it was probably wise to keep their distance, as they couldn’t be sure that

anyone visiting Krampus wouldn’t leave infected.” Mindy took the side of the Village.
Reiver shook his head. “All the more reason it should have been studied. Now it’s escaped

and we have no idea how to handle it.”
“The CA doesn’t have any info on Krampus?”
“None, so we’ll be starting from scratch.”
We’ll? He caught that word. “You’ll help then?”
“Fuck yeah. This is Christmas we’re talking about. If it’s okay, I’m going to call my friend

in the history department and have him dig up anything they can find. None of this fictional stuff on the internet and television.”

Mindy appeared serious as she said, “Should we speak to priests and priestesses? If this is some kind of demon or evil spirit, maybe it needs to be ordered to leave.”

Leif’s expression brightened. “You mean perform an exorcism.” A crazy idea that lit all his happy holiday bulbs because, what if they didn’t find Krampus but managed to free Santa?

“Exorcism, or extraction.” Mindy shrugged. “There has to be way of removing it and ensuring it never harms again.”

Leif rubbed his hands. “I see why I was sent here. Where should we start?”

And that was the question to stump them all. They pondered it over a breaded and flavorful chicken served on a bed of handmade egg noodles in a carbonara coating with bacon chunks and, on the side, charred asparagus spears. It wasn’t a turkey dinner with all the fixings, but Leif still hummed.

They didn’t go to bed late, the baking duo having an early start time. Leif got the spare room with a window overlooking the street. He stood at it for a while, watching the lights across the way that reminded him of home. Upstairs, the largest window remained bright. He wondered if the clumsy woman he’d seen earlier lived over the shop like Mindy and Reiver did with theirs.

Not that it mattered. Leif was here to do a job and once done, he’d return to the North Pole. Alone.

He sighed. It would be nice to have someone to cuddle by the fire and roast chestnuts while watching a Christmas classic. As he saw a shooting star blink across the sky, he even made a wish.

Chapter Four

Wearing a comfortable sweater with the words “Oh Holy Night” and a winking star...

The movie ended with Christmas being saved, and Bella sighed happily. She’d loved those kinds of stories her entire life. Goodwill and love prevailing always filled her with warmth. Speaking of hot, she glanced down at Big Fluff currently shedding on her lap, slightly digging in her claws, warning Bella of the danger if she moved without permission.

“I have to pee,” she stated.
Big Fluff snuggled in deeper and put pressure on her bladder.
Wise to her tricks, Bella knew what to do next. “Does someone need a late-night snack?” The large kitty took a second to ponder before slinking off her lap and heading for the

kitchen, tail held high. Bella knew better than to make her highness wait. She went straight for the cat milk and poured some in a dish then heated it for twenty-three seconds. Only once Big Fluff had her face in the bowl did she bolt for the bathroom.

Upon emerging, she paused by the window overlooking the street below. A gentle snow fell, so pretty this time of night. Her lights and those across the way provided colorful illumination, enough to see movement across the road, furtive and strange, a person hunched within a cloak. They paused by the car parked in front of the bakery and spent a moment studying it before the hooded head turned in her direction. Bella pulled away from the window, not wanting to spy. Unease filled her. The hair on her nape lifted as if lightning coiled, readying to strike.

It wasn’t a bolt of electricity that hit but a cat.

Big Fluff suddenly yowled and swiped at her leg, causing Bella to squeak as she dodged out of the way.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you wanted your window bed.”

The cat offered an unimpressed sniff before climbing onto the cushion that overlooked the street.

Bella glanced out once more to see the cloaked figure gone but the window for the bakery smashed, upright shards clearly visible.

Oh no. That person had been up to no good.

Before she could react, she heard the chime of a bell. By its strident note it was the one attached to the mail slot on her shop door, wide enough to accommodate items up to three inches thick. But she wasn’t expecting a delivery, and she’d never known anyone to drop off things this late.

Could it be a rodent? She hoped not. The last time Big Fluff had decided to be a cat and catch an invading pest, she’d destroyed a few unique fragile items in the process. Bella didn’t have the heart to scold the pleased feline when she dropped the heaving mouse at her feet before shaking the glass from her fur.

She eyed the napping cat. Perhaps she should check it out on her own first.

Just in case, Bella armed herself with a broom, not that she’d have the nerve to whack with it, but she did have a weird belief she could sweep a critter back out into the street.

The door at the bottom of the stairs remained closed and unlocked. She’d never seen the need to bolt it once she closed the shop for the day. She eased it open and listened, strained her ears for nothing. Perhaps the mail slot had suffered a strong gust of wind. Despite trying to come up with reasons to go back to her apartment, she crept into the shop, aiming for the glow of her tree.

Tink-tink-tink. A few notes from the musical carousel the register played. Odd since it usually required cranking to make any sound at all. A glance at the intricate antique didn’t show anybody playing with it. Logic dictated she remained alone. The shop door was locked. The larger bell for it silent. As for the alley door, she never took the bar off it unless she was putting garbage in the dumpster, always in daylight. People might claim the goblins scavenging them were harmless, but that was only because they didn’t know the truth. Goblins were what happened to elves who went bad. She’d accidentally seen the movie and been scarred by it since.

Scuff.

The distinct noise had her butt cheeks clenching tight. Bella didn’t do scary. She closed her eyes if a movie or show even hinted at having a terrifying part.

She took a deep breath. Reminded herself it was most likely a rodent, maybe even an adorable squirrel looking for a warm place to hide. At the thought, she eyed the tree, wondering if a woodland creature had made itself at home, and if yes, would it be open to wearing clothing? Because a squirrel in a Santa suit would be adorable.

She tiptoed far enough into her shop to see all four corners, pivoting slowly, broom clutched in sweaty fingers. Body taut with tension.

Why was she so afraid?

She did her best to relax, thrusting her shoulders back, taking a deep breath. “It’s okay little whatever you are. Come on out. I won’t hurt you. If you’re hungry, I have a bag of toffee- covered peanuts behind the counter.”

The inanity of talking to a possible squirrel. As if it would understand or reply. Perhaps if she shook out some nuts, it would discern her intent.

Snick.

The faint dragging sound drew her attention. Nothing at eye level. Her gaze dropped to the tree and the skirt under it with the empty boxes wrapped as presents. She almost missed seeing the gingerbread cookie figurine, its brown body decorated in red and green icing, its eyes black dots, its mouth a flat red line, the buttons marching down its belly a green that matched the piping giving it slippers on its feet. It brandished a fork.

She blinked.

The gingerbread man with the tined utensil remained, but the weird thing? It wasn’t one of her decorations. She’d never buy something so terrifying. Had someone planted it in her store? Who cared why? It didn’t belong. She bent down to grab the figurine, only to gasp as it thrust the fork in her direction and squeaked, “Touch me and die!”

COLLAPSE