(advent) December 4

Thursday, December 4

“Molly! Schrodinger! You’re a sight for sore eyes!”

Heidi beamed at them from behind the reception desk at the Gate station, and her large grey cat Porter got up to waddle over and touch noses with Schrodinger. Molly smiled at the receptionist.

“It’s good to see you too, Heidi! Is everyone in the Gate room?”

“Mostly, yes,” Heidi said, looking at her computer screen. “Drew and Mal are in the main conference room, probably going over tech schedules for next week, since we have those two new trainees. Luke’s actually manning the Gate right now.” She looked back up at Molly, eying the large basket she held. “Are you traveling through, or is that for here?”

“Some of it is for here,” Molly said. “But yes, traveling through today.”

We’re going to see Old Man Winter! Schrodinger said excitedly. And Ember!

“Oh, lucky you!” Heidi transferred her smile to him. She adored the CrossCat. “Tell him to bring back the snow, but see if he can leave the cold behind, okay?” She winked at Molly. “I like the look of snow, but my bones don’t like the cold!”

Molly smiled, but inside, her stomach flipped. If what the Librarian’s book had said was true, there was cold and winter coming, but it wasn’t going to be like anything the Cove had seen before. No need to borrow trouble yet, though. That’s why they were going to Old Man Winter’s, after all. So all she said to Heidi was, “We’ll ask. I promise nothing, however.”

Heidi sniffed, a twinkle in her hazel eyes behind her glasses. “Just wave some of your orange scones in front of his nose, and he’ll do whatever you ask.” She looked hopefully at the basket. “Is there orange scones in there?”

“You know, I think there are, but I was going to leave them here,” Molly said, opening the picnic basket and peering inside. She knew perfectly well what she held in there, of course. “Would you like one so you get it before the hungry hordes in the Gate room descend?”

She offered the tin to Heidi, who took one scone and (at Molly’s urging) the small baggie of treats for Porter, who saw the bag and started meowing urgently, putting a paw on the receptionist’s leg. Leaving Heidi to deal with her cat, Molly and Schrodinger headed into the large mansion that housed Carter Cove’s land Gate.

The mansion had been built by Captain Carter’s daughter and son-in-law, after the original Gate structure had been destroyed in the fighting after the Cove was started. Now, after having read the Librarian’s history, Molly wondered how much of the construction was done by the Snow Queen and Jack. And why.

As always, she felt a sense of awe when she and Schrodinger passed into the main Gate room. The ceiling above them was a massive skylight, with sunshine pouring in to warm the room. Rather than flooring, grass carpeted the room, and gave it a fresh, clean, earthy smell. There was a large arch in the middle of it: the Gate. And standing in front of one of the computer terminals nearby was Luke.

Luke! Schrodinger called, running over to him. Hi!

“Hey, Schrodinger! Hey, Molly! How’s the new house?” Luke turned around to greet them, a friendly smile on his handsome face. He’d been one of the friends who had helped them move the weekend before Thanksgiving, something Molly had been incredibly thankful for.

“It’s good!” she said, hugging him. “You should come out and see it – we’ve decorated for Christmas.”

Lights! And evergreens! And a sleigh! Schrodinger told him.

“A sleigh? Really?” Luke said. “Like the one we got for Zoey last year?”

Schrodinger nodded. We found it in the barn! And Drew painted it up to match the house!

“Too bad we don’t have any snow, we could take it out for a spin,” Luke said.

Molly couldn’t help herself; she winced, and hoped that Luke hadn’t seen it. No such luck.

“Hey, it’s not your fault there’s no snow this year, Molly,” he said hastily. “You can’t fix everything.”

Schrodinger looked up at her, but she gave a small shake of her head at him. “You’re right, Luke, but I still can feel guilty,” she said out loud. “Besides, we’re off to see if we can convince Old Man Winter to come back and give us some snow.”

“If anyone can convince him of anything, it’d be you,” Luke agreed. He gave her a sharp look. “Do you think that’s the issue? He hasn’t been around?”

“I don’t know,” Molly said honestly. “But he’s the authority on winter, so since we had the day off, Schrodinger and I thought we’d go see him.” She looked down at her basket. “And bring him lunch.”

“Do you have your toll fee?” Luke teased. “You know there’s a toll!”

She laughed. “Right here!” Pulling out the tin again, Molly said, “Orange scones, ham and cheese scones, and lemon shortbread cookies. Is that enough to pay our toll?”

“Absolutely,” Luke said, taking the tin. “One Road to Old Man Winter’s, coming up.”

Molly and Schrodinger went to stand in front of the Gate while Luke went to the terminal and began to type in their destination. The Gate hummed to life, and they stepped through onto the Road.

It wasn’t normally a long walk to the Gate near Old Man Winter’s cottage. Molly and Schrodinger were beginning to realize that “normal” wasn’t really in force around the Cove anymore, though.

It started innocently enough: a cool wind, stronger than the breezes that floated through the Roads. The closer they got to Old Man Winter’s cottage Gate, the harder the wind blew. Molly noticed that it now had an acrid, hot taste to it as it forced its way into her lungs, scratching her nose and mouth with dry, dusty fingernails. What’s going on? she thought to Schodinger, afraid to ask him out loud. Where did this come from?

I don’t know, he sent back. I’ve never encountered a wind like this before!

It felt like a gigantic slavering beast was stalking them, breathing hotly over them as they struggled along the Road. Molly could barely see anything more than the tip of Schrodinger’s tail in front of her; she focused on that, trusting his superior senses to lead them to their destination.

She nearly fell when the wind stopped blowing, stumbling through the wooden arch that separated Old Man Winter’s realm from the Road. As she turned and looked back, Molly faintly heard a howl, as if there really had been something in the hot wind. A shiver crept down her spine, and it had nothing to do with the sweat cooling on her back.

What was that? Schrodinger’s mental voice was soft, scared, and Molly turned back to see him trembling in the snow by the Gate. At least there was snow here, one small part of her mind noted. The world hadn’t gone completely insane.

“I don’t know,” she said, her voice raw and cracked. There must have been more dust than she’d realized, although there was nothing on her clothes or Schrodinger’s fur. “But I’m not looking forward to the journey back.”

Old Man Winter’s cottage was set about a quarter mile back from the Gate. Once they had caught their breaths, Molly and Schrodinger set off down the lane towards it, hoping he would be there.

He was, sitting in a large wooden Adirondack chair in front of his stoop, his companion Ember the dragon curled in the snow near him. Although he smiled when he saw who was coming up his drive, Molly noticed shadows in his normally bright blue eyes. Something was worrying Old Man Winter. Something big.

“I told you, Ember,” he said, as they came into earshot. “I didn’t need to take out anything for lunch. I had a feeling that we’d be getting a delivery.” Then he looked closer at them, and his amusement fell away. “What happened?”

“I don’t know,” Molly said, already tired of saying the phrase. “We were on the Road, and it was like…like nothing I’ve ever experienced.” She sat down next to him in the chair he’d motioned into existence for her. “Something hot and dusty chased us here.”

Ember had raised her head, her brilliant emerald eyes concerned. Hot and dusty? She glanced at Old Man Winter. It’s starting, then.

“And sooner than we thought.” His voice was bitter, something Molly hadn’t heard since she’d first met him. “He’s taking no chances, is he?”

He who? Schrodinger asked, putting a paw on Old Man Winter’s knee. Who chased us? And why?

“Because he knows you,” and Old Man Winter pointed a gnarled finger at Molly, “are the only one who could foil his plans.”

“Me?” Molly said, at the same time as Schrodinger said impatiently, But who IS HE?

His name is Caliban, and he is the other suitor to the Snow Queen, Ember said somberly. And if you cannot help Jack win her heart, and Caliban wins, she will be the Snow Queen no longer.

“What?” Molly said. “What are you talking about?”

Ember looked at Old Man Winter again. This is your story, she said. She’s your daughter, after all.

Molly had heard that rumor, but she’d never really expected confirmation. “Your daughter?”

He nodded. “Who else would have birthed her?” A soft expression crossed his weathered face. “She looks more like her mother every day, too. But that’s not the point now.”

Shares her mother’s stubbornness too, Ember observed.

“What do you expect of the daughter of the North Wind and me?” Old Man Winter said.

Nothing more, Ember agreed. Unfortunately, that stubbornness–

“Don’t say it,” Old Man Winter cut her off sharply, then he turned to Molly and Schrodinger, who had been following the conversation closely. He pointed his finger at Molly again. “You just have to help Jack convince her that he’s changed.”

Things suddenly clicked together in her head. “You sent Jack to me.”

“I did.” Old Man Winter nodded. “Because if anyone can get his head on straight, it’s you.”

“I think you give me more credit than I deserve,” Molly said, a hot blush creeping over her cheeks. “I’m just a kitchen witch, after all.”

“No, you’re not,” Old Man Winter said. “You’re the most real human being I’ve ever known, and that’s saying something. You live as you are, Molly. There’s nothing devious about you. You’re an honest person, and Jack needs to know how to live like that, or he’ll never repair the damage he did before.”

“Pretty words – I’m not sure what to say.” In truth, Molly was astonished. She’d never thought the old spirit would have said that to her, but she could hear the conviction in his tone. Old Man Winter meant what he said. Shaking off her shock, she said, “But before I can do anything, I need to know what happened. Jack was…” She broke off, not sure how to diplomatically say what leaped to mind.

“A jackass? Color me surprised.” Old Man Winter snorted. “Which is why I sent him to you. You straightened me out – you can straighten him out.” He eyed her basket. “Why don’t you unpack that while we talk?”

“Why don’t we go in and do that?” Molly suggested. “It’s a bit chilly out here.” Now that she’d been sitting a bit, the cold air had sunk into her, driving out the alien hot warmth that had chased them. “And I have a feeling it might be a long story.”

“Not as long as you might think,” Old Man Winter said, but he got up and opened the front door. Molly and Schrodinger followed him in, and then the dragon stood up. To Molly’s surprise, she shimmered and then shrank down to the size of a large Great Dane and sauntered in to the cottage as well, smirking a bit when she passed them.

What, did you think I wasn’t going to come and have some treats? she said. I’m not passing up some of your goodies!

“I just didn’t realize you could do that,” Molly said, following her into the kitchen.

There are many things I can do, Ember said, but there was no condescension in her mental tone, just indulgent amusement. When you have lived as long as I, learning new tricks is a necessity. It alleviates the boredom. She cocked her head at Old Man Winter. Doesn’t it, old man?

He snorted. “Something like that.” As the others settled around the table, Old Man Winter gathered mugs from one cupboard and plates from another, setting them out on the table. Then he set a kettle in the sink, filled it with water, and muttered a word. When he turned back around and started filling the mugs with steaming water, Molly looked around the kitchen, and realized that there wasn’t even a stove. “How do you cook?” she asked, before she clapped a hand over her mouth. “I mean…”

“Why bother with a stove?” Old Man Winter said, winking at her. “I can just wish for things, after all.”

Is that what you call it now? Ember said, as cabinets opened on their own and several boxes of tea came drifting out. Wishing for the Snow Queen’s cook to send you food?

“Hush, you’ll give away all my secrets.” Old Man Winter offered a tin to Molly, who opened it and sniffed. Luscious scents of strawberry and raspberry, underlain with rich vanilla, tickled her nose. “You’ll like that one, I promise.”

After the tea balls were filled and steeping, and Molly had brought out the scones and cookies she’d brought, she looked over at Old Man Winter. “All right. Tell me everything.”

“That might take a while,” he warned her.

“I’ve got all day.”

Old Man Winter sighed, and cradled his tea mug in his hand. The steam coming from it was slightly tinted with silver, and Molly smelled peppermint and vanilla coming from it. “Everything. Well, it started back when Captain Carter sailed into Carter’s Cove and discovered the twin Gates.”

The Librarian gave us a history, Schrodinger said. We know some of it. But it didn’t mention Caliban, and I’ve never heard of him.

“Oh, good, then I can skip some things.” Old Man Winter took his tea ball out and laid it on a spare plate. “Do you know about the battle?”

“The one for the Gates? When the raiders came from both directions at once?” Molly said.

“That was the first one. The big battle happened afterwards. That was when Caliban comes in,” Old Man Winter said.

“Caliban.” Molly shook her head. “I’ve never heard of him.”

“No reason you should,” Old Man Winter said. “He and Jack were both banished from the Cove at the same time.”

“Why?”

“Because they both thought that she was spending too much time with the mortals in the Cove,” the old winter spirit said. “Neither of them had, or indeed have, much use for mortals. They don’t understand how necessary you are.” When he saw Molly’s blank look, he said, “You believe in us. Without you, we wouldn’t be much more than shadows.”

The Snow Queen has always understood that, Ember said. More than that, though. She thinks that the belief of her chosen people will keep her alive, and keep her realm safe.

But it won’t, will it? Schrodinger said. She needs something more.

“She needs a consort,” Old Man Winter said. “She needs to have the magic within her renewed by magic, but she’s not willing to rescind her banishment of Jack.”

“Which is why you said her stubbornness will kill her.” Molly was getting an idea of what was going on. “So where does Caliban fit in?”

“Jack at least is trying to get her to submit willingly,” Old Man Winter said. “Caliban is not as gentle.”

It’s not in his nature to be gentle, Ember said. Any gentleness he had within him died when she spurned him the first time. He retreated to his lair and the resentment within him grew like the coals within a fire.

“Damn salamander,” Old Man Winter muttered. “He’s determined to own her, and turn her into a spirit of steam and heat, like he is.”

Schrodinger’s eyes were wide. Can he do that?

“It’s a distinct possibility,” Old Man Winter said. “Normally, when two spirits of different elements join together, they keep themselves separate from one another. That’s not what Caliban wants anymore. He wants to own her, heart and soul. He thinks it’s love. It’s not. It’s obsession.”

“Which is why you sent Jack to me,” Molly said, looking down into her tea cup.

A soft touch on her hand made her look up, to where Old Man Winter had reached over to her. “You can rehabilitate him, Molly. You can. And save both her realm and the Cove.”

Ice ran through her. “The warm spell over the Cove. That’s this Caliban?”

He nodded. “When they protected the Cove, they all set a piece of themselves in the town. That’s how she could banish them. She’s using the pieces of their souls that they left against them. But that will end if she dies.”

What? Dies?  Pavel and Jack weren’t kidding? Schrodinger’s voice was anguished.

Yes. Ember’s voice was quiet. If she doesn’t accept a consort by Christmas, the Snow Queen will die.

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