From the blog

Advent Letter: Year 6, Letter #4

Note: This is my fourth letter of Advent 2022, but part 24 of me and my brother’s Advent Letters project. For an explanation of the project and to get caught up on past letters, go to my Advent Letters page to see them all.

The pit crew gnomes attached the older dolphin to the chariot and asked Matt—again—if he was sure this was the dolphin he wanted. Meanwhile, the three-headed snake monster and the dog-headed racers were already setting off into the waves.

Matt told the pit crew he was sure. Once harnessed, the older dolphin looked forward not with the fiery frenzy of the giraffe and wyvern, but with something like calm. Matt told himself this was a good thing. He also decided to name the older dolphin “Captain.”

Tanuke pointed to a button beneath the boys’ goggles. “This activates your air bubble.“

Before Matt could ask what that meant, the pit crew urged his dolphin forward. Soon, the boys and their chariot were skipping across the surface of the Faerie sea, white foam cascading behind them.

The dog-headed racers and the snake monster were too far ahead for Brian to reach them with his hammer. And they blocked all of Jer’s long range arrows. There was nothing for for the boys to do but catch up.

And that’s what Matt tried to do. Picking the smoothest line he could, he urged Captain onward. But as he did, doubts nagged. Despite his efforts, the other two chariots widened their lead over the older, slower Captain. Also, Tanuke had told him to turn downward at the glowing ring. But he had no idea what that meant.

As he was doubting, the snake monster chariot vanished between the waves. A few blinks later, the dog-headed chariot did the same. Matt was still blinking when he noticed the ripples from the chariots in the center of a glowing ring. The pieces clicked.

“Air bubble buttons!” he shouted. “Now!”

The brothers fumbled at their goggles, hitting the buttons as Captain plunged beneath the waves. Amid an explosion of bubbles, crystal spheres encircled the boys’ heads. The sea was a brilliant turquoise, with giant corals branching in rainbow forests all around them.

Up ahead, the dog-headed racers and snake monster veered into an underwater cave. Matt guided Captain in the same direction, hoping the race wasn’t already lost.

A pair of mer-sentries stood guard at the cave’s entrance. As the brothers passed, the sentries nodded their blue heads and pointed with their tridents inward. Matt gulped as the chariot entered the dark abyss.

Inside, the only lights were the ghost green and phantom blue of bioluminescent algae. Matt fought the urge to slow down in the glowing almost-dark, knowing that every moment was precious. Captain seemed to sense Matt’s urgency, navigating the tunnels like it knew the route..

Finally, the boys’ chariot entered the cave’s main chamber. At the center, a mermaid stood sentry over three elaborately-carved obsidian dolphin. Matt stretched out for the statue, careful to keep his eyes away from the mermaid’s siren smile.

“Look out!” Jer shouted. Matt looked up to a thrashing in the water.

The snake monster was swinging its war club at Matt. Jer blocked it with his bow. Bri stepped forward with his war hammer in full swing. In the instant before the war hammer connected, Matt could almost see the regret in the snake monster’s yellow eyes. The war hammer shattered the chariot to pieces and sent the snake monster crashing into the cave wall.

Now the race was down to the Mellemas and the dog-headed racers, who had just slipped out of the main character with their statute.

“Hold on!” Matt shouted. He urged Captain to full speed, careening out the undersea tunnels.

When the brothers’ chariot shot back into the open sea, the dog-headed chariot was too far in the lead for Brian’s hammer. And Jer’s arrows were useless beneath the water. Matt had to track them down. He narrowed his eyes and whipped the reins. But even as he felt Captain swimming with all his might, the dog-headed chariot widened its lead.

Matt had picked the wrong dolphin. They were going to lose, and it was all his fault. 

But even as Matt was hanging his head, Captain did something strange. He veered to the right. Matt’s first response was to pull the dolphin back to the direct route, and grumble at it for going off course. Then he remembered why he picked Captain in the first place.

“All right,” Matt said. “Let’s do this, Captain.” 

Matt steered the dolphin to the right. And after a few tail paddles, he understood why. They had entered an underwater current. The instant they hit the rushing water their chariot shoot off at double speed. Water boiled behind them as the brothers struggled to hold on.

With the finish line ahead, the brothers’ chariot came up to the dog-headed chariot. With another sudden move, Captain leapt out of the current. Matt was on the same page, and steered along.The Mellemas’ chariot cut in front of the dog-headed chariot at an angle, forcing the other chariot to spin out of control.

The Mellemas’ chariot erupted to the surface as it crossed the finish line. Water crystals danced along Captain’s scaly back as the boys jumped and high five and shouted for joy.

The race was over, and Captain had just led the brothers to victory.

 ***

That evening, the Mellemas agreed to join the gnomes for a celebration feast. The dishes themselves were heavier on mushrooms than the boys would have preferred, but they were still tasty.

As they were eating, Tanuke walked up to them, having just come from a meeting with the snake people’s leader. He was beaming.

“It was a Fae contract, so there was nothing they could do,” Tanuke said, patting the Mellemas on the back. “I provided payment under the contract, which means the snake monsters had to withdraw all claims on us. And that means…” Tanuke rose to his feet and addressed the crowd.. “Our village is free from snake people oppression from this day forward!

The gnomes and Mellemas all cheered and clinked their goblets. But even as the brothers were eating and singing and (in Jer and Bri’s case) dancing, they all kept glancing in the same direction. Beyond the hills and across the bay, the red clouds above Krampus Island were rising.

The gnomes assured the boys that they were preparing the submersible, and they would be ready to go at first light. But even as the gnome sailor said this, the brothers noticed how his voice shook when he said “Krampus Island.”

When the gnome sailors walked away, Matt leaned toward his brothers. “You really think we can do this? I feel like we need to be more like—”

“More like men than a bunch of thin-waisted boys?”

The brothers’ eyes all widened at both the familiar voice, and the familiar insult. Out of the shadows stepped Ratatosk, the squirrel messenger of the North Pole.

Brian jumped to his feet. “What are you doing here?”

“Sent by Santa Clause himself,” Ratatosk said. “For reasons I can’t imagine, he thinks you lot are worth saving.”

Jer and Bri laughed. Matt crossed his arms.

“Are you coming with us to Krampus Island?” Jer asked.

“Can’t,” Ratatosk said. “You boys have to do this on your own. Just look at your marks—you never would have made that progress if North Polians had done everything.”

The boys looked down at their arms. Their marks were much fainter than when they’d started. Many strands and lines had disappeared altogether.

“Then why are you here?” Matt asked.

Ratatosk winked. “Santa has gifts for you.”

The boys all stepped toward the squirrel.

“Yeah,” the Ratatosk continued. “He’s wanted to send these for a while, but we weren’t sure where you were. But luckily, one of these gnomes is cousins with Kanute back at the North Pole. Some guy named Tanuke? He sent Kanute a telegram about three human children in some crazy race. Santa sent me right away.”

Ratatosk undid a knapsack, and handed each boy a small wooden chest.

Each chest was a brilliant color—Matt’s was blue, Jer’s was green, and Brian’s was red. But as the boys started to open them, Ratatosk reached out.

“Not yet—not until you need them.”

“How will we know that?” Jer asked.

“You will. Has Santa steered you wrong yet?” Ratatosk stood, adjusting his helmet and mantle. “Hey, good luck. I never thought you kids would make it even this far. Especially this one.” He shot a smirk over to Matt, and Jer and Bri both laughed. “But we’re pulling for you. All of us.”

Ratatosk leaped back into the forrest, and was soon gone.

As the gnomes kept dancing and singing, the Mellemas looked at each other, then down at their gifts. Maybe, just maybe, they’d been given what they needed.

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