Norm brings in the New Year with an original Drabblecast story by author Tim Pratt! This story is a sequel to last year’s Holiday Special story, “Comfort and Joy,” check that one out here!
She was a blonde — the kind of blonde to make a bishop bite through his altar cloth. I used to be a bishop, but that was about seventeen-hundred years ago, so I swiveled away on my stool, took a handful of peanuts from the bowl on the bar, and went back to checking my list…
Midnight Clear, or, How Santa Claus Killed the Sun
She was a blonde — the kind of blonde to make a bishop bite through his altar cloth. I used to be a bishop, but that was about seventeen-hundred years ago, so I swiveled away on my stool, took a handful of peanuts from the bowl on the bar, and went back to checking my list.
She sat down next to me, and I couldn’t help but glance over. Her red dress was tight in all the right places. I’d always liked red, though not for the same reasons she did. “Got a light?” she asked. “No, never mind. Ice was your thing, not fire.”
“Yes, Tisiphone. I recognize you, too.” I reached behind the bar, grabbed a book of matches, and tossed them in her direction. “You could always light your own fires before.”
“Oh, I still can, but it’s nice to have help.” She sort of undulated on her stool and pouted her lips at me while she lit her cigarette. She drew in smoke, but it never came back out again. “Aren’t you going to ask what a nice girl like me is doing in a place like this?”
“Nice girls don’t come to this place.” We were in a grubby little bar in Florida. I finally bought the place last year because I got tired of the bartender making jokes about me drinking eggnog year round. People are more polite when you’re the boss.
Tisiphone put her hand on top of mine. “I need your help. Your skill at finding people, and getting close to them, no matter how many locks they have on their doors.”
I snorted. “Do I look like some kind of private eye to you?”
“A private Nick.” She giggled. “Or Saint Dick? That good Saint Dick.”
“Please stop it with the dirty flirty stuff, Tizzy. I can see you.” Her disguise was good, but my eyes are better. She was delicious seen straight on, but if I looked at her sidelong, her form shimmered, revealing the truth: the endless black of her eyes, the blood dripping from her hands, the live serpent she wore for a belt. That dress wasn’t dyed red, either. It was stained.
She took her hand away, and her voice went cold. “Not a private eye, no. A private knife, maybe. I heard you gave up giving gifts in favor of cutting throats.”
“Yeah, well. Lumps of coal ceased to be an effective deterrent, so I recalibrated my naughty list. I don’t punish kids who throw rocks at windows anymore. I punish grown-ups who hurt people and like it. I bring justice. Sort of like you and your sisters did, before you all semi-retired.”
“Those were the days,” she said. “Remember when we used to run around Greece together, Nick?”
“Our paths crossed once or twice. But your glory days were over way before my time.” Just because I’m immortal (so far) doesn’t mean I’ve been around forever.
I’m not even two thousand years old yet. Tizzy and her sisters, though… they’ve been around since prehistory, maybe. They were born from the blood of a Titan, and from the moment they drew first breath, they devoted themselves to punishing oathbreakers and evildoers. Tisiphone’s personal specialty was avenging murder.
“Your glory days are just beginning,” she said. “I have some unfinished business from way back when. A very naughty person I’d like you to visit for me.”
“I know you, Tizzy. Retired or not, you keep your hand in. I can see the blood on it. Why not pay the visit yourself?”
“The target and I are related,” she said. “My sisters and I have a rule against killing family members. It’s something we frown upon in general.”
“That’s what got Orestes in trouble, as I recall.” Then it clicked. “Wait. A relative? You want me to kill a god?”
Her eyes went fully black, even when I looked at her straight on. “Yes. I thought he was beyond my reach forever, but with your new… proclivities… justice might yet be served.”
I groaned. “Just as a point of interest, and not because I intend to do anything with the information—which god?”
“The same god who told Orestes to kill his mother, and brought our vengeance down as a result. One of many crimes to lay at his feet.”
My Classical education was a long time ago, but I remembered enough. “You’re talking about Apollo. The Apollo. God of healing and medicine, protector of sailors and refugees—which, by the way, were my areas of interest, too, when I was more saintly. And, oh, right — he’s also the god of the sun. You want me to kill the sun?”
“Aren’t you a Christian figure? Killing pagan gods is part of the deal. Mithras is long gone. ‘The Great God Pan is dead,’ and all that.’”
“He wasn’t, though,” I said. “He was just passed out drunk. As for being Christian, well, let’s just say I’ve gone through a lot of changes over the years when it comes to moral orientation. As long as I don’t see my own name on my naughty list, I figure I’m doing okay. I am still strongly associated with the winter solstice, though. The return of the light in the depths of winter, pushing back the dark, all that stuff. I draw power from that moment, and those concepts. Killing the sun…. that’s almost like attacking myself.”
She stubbed out her cigarette on the bar. “Apollo is nothing like you. He’s a monster.”
“Come on. Apollo is one of the bright lights in your dysfunctional extended family. He invented the lyre. He basically invented medicine.”
“He also invented archery,” Tisiphone said. “How many people did that kill? And oh, yes, he understood disease and illness. How to cure and cause it. He used to fire magical arrows that spread plague.”
Gross. “I didn’t know that.”
“He murdered a blood relation and slithered out of judgment by undergoing a purification ritual. He should have been ours then, but he was our relative, too. He later gained the power to cleanse himself if he committed a crime, setting himself outside judgment.”
“Apollo can self-pardon?” I said. “I thought only Presidents could do that.”
Tizzy ignored me. “He killed children. Fomented wars. Stalked women until they dove into the sea or turned into trees to get away, cursed Cassandra because she spurned him—his crimes are countless.”
“No offense, Tizzy, but… your whole pantheon is a bag of assholes. I’ll grant you, Apollo sounds awful, but so do all the rest. Why does he get special treatment?”
“Because you thought he was great,” Tisiphone said. “Everyone does. The shining paragon. The healer. The musician. Protector of children. He’s awful, and his awfulness doesn’t matter to anyone. All they see is the light.”
“Even so, Tisiphone. He’s the sun. I just don’t know if I can kill the sun.”
The black in her eyes receded. She stared at the dirty mirror behind the bar, and she looked suddenly old and tired. “Shouldn’t we demand more of the sun?” she said softly. “Shouldn’t we demand better from our brightest lights?”
That cracked some of the ice inside me. I swirled my cup and sighed. “If I say no, you’re just going to keep pestering me, aren’t you?”
She grinned. “Me and my sisters are good at hounding people until we get what we want.”
I tossed back the last of the eggnog like a shot. “How do I do it? I don’t think my woodcarving knives, enchanted or not, are up to the job of killing Apollo.”
“Don’t worry,” Tizzy said. “This time, you’re the one getting a present, instead of giving them.”
Apollo wasn’t on my naughty list. Only mortals end up there. But I can find anyone, and go anywhere, and once I looked for him, I knew. He was on a cattle ranch in Argentina, so I went behind the bar, to my sleigh, and whistled for Rudy. She stayed with me when I left the North Pole, the only one of the reindeer in sympathy with my new mission. She doesn’t like bullies, and she has a streak of anger that needs to be worked out. We shared a handful of peppermints and then I got her harnessed up.
My sleigh is painted black, now, and there are no bells, and nothing jingles.
I waited until full dark. Tisiphone said that was the best time to go after a sun god. When we landed, in field full of lowing cattle behind a rambling country estate, it was nearly midnight. There was no moon. Tizzy said that was important, too. Artemis could see anything the moon saw, and she was Apollo’s sister, and might not approve of my mission.
I told Rudy to forget about me if I wasn’t back before dawn, and crept up to the house. You learn to move quietly when you spend most of your career infiltrating the homes of children suffering from anticipation-induced insomnia. I’d traded my red suit for black and grays, powdered my white beard with coal dust, and tried to think shadowy thoughts. I looked at the house, with its four chimneys, and picked one. I put my finger to the side of my nose and the world flickered.
I reappeared in front of a roaring fire in some kind of den or study, all dark wood and mounted animal heads. An old man in a white robe sat slumped in an armchair, an art book devoted to photos of trees in his lap. He looked up at me.
“Oh,” he said. “Isn’t it a little early for you? I thought it was November. The children are…. No. I don’t have any children right now. Sometimes I adopt….” He trailed off, blinking, sleepy. Sun gods aren’t their best at night.
But me? I thrive in the small hours.
I usually dispatch the people on my naughty list with twin woodcarving knives named Comfort and Joy. When Comfort slides in you feel at peace, and the blade of Joy takes you back to your happiest moment. I’m not cruel. Let them bleed out to visions of sugarplums or whatever.
Tisiphone was a little cruel, though, and she’d supplied the weapon for this job. She gave me a shard of something jagged like glass, as long as my forearm and as black as the coldest, darkest night, fastened to a hilt of ice. After some thought, I named the knife Midnight Clear, and whispered a little incantation of my own into it. This blade wouldn’t bring peace or pleasure. It would bring clarity. In his final moments, Apollo would see what he’d done, and why this was the ending he deserved.
Listen: I cheat. I can slow down time (how else do you visit all those houses in one night?), I can go from here to there in a flash, I am silent, I am swift. I do not have trouble dispatching the naughty.
I’d never tried to kill a god before, though, and when I slowed down time, he just sped up to match me. Instead of dying quick, he turned into fire. His chair burst into flames under him as he stood up, and his brightness was so tremendous I squeezed my eyes shut against it.
I summoned all the cold at the center of me, all those years in the arctic, all the blizzards and hail and ice—and none of it mattered, because you can throw snowballs at the sun all you want, but the sun doesn’t notice.
I would have turned to steam right there if I hadn’t struck with Midnight Clear. Tizzy wouldn’t tell me what the blade was made, but I suspected it was an artifact of Erebos or Nyx—some real primordial darkness shit. I plunged the blade into Apollo’s heart. His fires went out instantly, and I was just staring at an old man with a knife in his chest. His eyes were filled with horror at the last. Not at me, I don’t think. At himself.
He turned to ashes, and the blade fell. When Midnight Clear struck the floor, it shattered, and sublimated to shadow. Nothing remained but the hilt. I sat down and watched that melt, too. It took a long time, but I had enough worry to keep me occupied.
There were other sun gods, of course—it takes a pantheistic pantheon to make the world go round. I knew the sun kept shining after Mithras died, long ago. I didn’t expect eternal night to fall…. but I couldn’t be sure. I had to wait until dawn. If the night persisted… well, there are ways to call back the sun. Old ways. Ones that involve sacrifice. I’d burn myself as fuel for the salvation of the world, if it came to that.
But light came in the east-facing windows right on schedule, and the ashes on the floor swirled, and suddenly, there was a woman there, in a dress the rosy color of dawn, with long hair to match. She stood up, and her hair shifted, color flowing through it like light, and I knew—somehow I just knew—her hair would grow brighter all day and then fade into the reds and oranges of sunset in the evening and turn black at night. She was beautiful, because the sun is always beautiful, even when it’s cruel.
“What happened?” she said.
“You used to be someone else.” I was still sitting on the floor. “He died, and you were born in his place. It’s that Sol Invictus thing—the unconquerable sun. Phoenix from the ashes. Your kind are usually reborn—sometimes you just look a little different on the other side.”
Her eyes shone. Of course they did. “I… wasn’t very nice, was I? I remember. So clearly, but it feels so far away.”
“You were complicated,” I said. “But you had a lot of centuries for the bad stuff to build up.”
I waited to see if she’d strike me down. She could. She could melt me in an instant, and I had no weapon to stop her.
Instead, she reached down, and offered me her hand. “Maybe I can be better this time. You can call me… Dawn, for now.”
“People call me Bishop.” I let her help me up. Her touch was warm. Her smile was warmer. Earlier, I said the ice inside me cracked. This time, I’d go so far as to say that something kindled.
Being alone is kind of my thing. I left my home in the distant north, the wife I didn’t even remember marrying, the elves who served me, my many companions (except for Rudy, who doesn’t talk). I focused on blood and justice and the inside of my own head. The work was important, and I’d gotten used to my solitary life… but that didn’t mean I liked it.
I cleared my throat. “So. Dawn.” She looked at me, clear-eyed, interested. I said,
“How would you like to see the Northern Lights?”