When Gemstones Chime

Deviation Actions

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Literature Text

“All the times

A gemstone chimes

A kobold gets its wings!”

Marzanna the Devastator woke alone in her great, gold-filled lair beneath her towering mountain in the center of her barren lands, with a hunger she did not recognize. Raising her head from the arum mass of coins, she inventoried her tremendous collection as it spilled from her massive, horned skull. The accumulation of almost a thousand years, her hoard covered the cavern’s floor, filling the smaller chambers and spilling into her personal apartment where it was deepest.

It had been long since the red dragon had felt any kind of hunger at all. A grand wyrm of her power and size consumed mana from the earth itself and when she did eat, almost nothing went to waste. She needed no one and nothing - save the earth itself. Thanks to her great flames and powerful magic, nothing grew or lived for hundreds of miles around her barren mountains. No living thing had any reason to traverse those lands; all its mana fed only her, and she took what she wanted when she wanted it, as she had always done.

Grasping a large pawful of gold with her mind, she reshaped it into an effigy of herself. The form emulated her great, gilt red wings of astounding proportions, spiked head, back, and prodigious tail, each ending with needle-like piercing points. It displayed tremendously sharp talons on powerful legs, teeth, and bladed tail able to tear through rock and steel itself as easily as a hot knife could pass through warmed butter. Pulling two flawless emeralds from a pile in another corner, she fashioned them into piercing, slit orbs and placed them for her eyes over the fierce, long snout with thin nostrils near the tip, razor fins and honed horns jutting from each side. Solid, overlapping, and impenetrable scales covered her muscularly defined and barrel-chested body, able to deflect any non-magical blade or point with ease, and most magical items as well.

Reviewing her work with little satisfaction, she suspended it in the air, rotating the golden sculpture one way then another. She was a magnificent specimen in all senses of the word, known for her magical prowess and strength when she had roamed the earth in search of her treasure. Like any dragon, what she saw was hers to do with as she pleased, and in her mind, she was above all others.

But nothing pleased her anymore, and she tossed the beautiful and accurate statue into a corner already littered with other great works of art. That lack of appreciation, that ennui, that was her new hunger, and she pondered how to fill the void. Could it be filled? Perhaps this was what it all came down to. Power and riches beyond most beings’ comprehension and none of it meant anything. Was this what the powerful wyrms of old succumbed to, when no one would even attempt to slay them?

* * *

In the heavens above, three other-worldly beings came together for a hastily arranged meeting.

“Random! Is that you?” came a deep-sounding voice.

“Yes, yes, Reckon. When duty calls…” the younger sounding Random had an edge to their voice. “Glad the two of you could make it. We have a dire situation to attend to.”

“Another rescue of yours?” asked the third, a more feminine-sounding voice. “I only reviewed the recent reports. Do you really think it’s possible with this one?”

“Benefit of the doubt, Qualm, remember? We must try.” Random was committed as always. “And it is Christmas Eve.”

“Fine,” said Reckon. “If you’ve done the research, I’m in. Who do we have in the field there?”

“Uh, only one. But I hate to put it on him.” Qualm hesitated.

“Well, if we only have one, call him in!” Random had no time for debate.

A pale grey kobold appeared in a spotlight, facing the wrong way. He was dressed in a bright red outfit with white trim.

“Is that?” Reckon trailed off in a deflated manner.

The kobold turned around to face them and waved. “Hi! Remember me? It’s Cliff! I can’t tell you how much I am looking forward to this opportunity, your excellencies!” The red suit and white furred cuff caught his notice as he waved. “Why am I dressed up like an elf on a shelf?”

Reckon gave a sigh.

Random however, was not giving up. “Cliff, yes. We remember you.”

“Who could forget the noodle incident?” grumbled Reckon.

“I am really, truly sorry about that. But I did fix it as best I could, your excellencies!” Cliff held out his scaley, skinny arms in the red sleeves, a genuine petulant look on his face.

“Cliff, this is a very critical assignment, more important than you can imagine.” Random sounded even more serious than before. “There is a dragoness who may be ending their time earlier than they should, one who may seal the fate of all the other dragons in her world. We need you to go in and save her from herself.”

Cliff’s face fell. “Save… a dragon…” He looked back up to the three twinkling lights in the void above him. “Uh, can you fill me in on what she’s going through?”

“Didn’t anyone…” Random started. While not having any visible features, it could be felt that they were looking at the other two with disappointment. “Cliff, you need to understand that Marzanna the Devastator has had a long and trouble-filled life.”

“Marzanna the Devastator…” Cliff said quietly. “That kind of sounds like a red dragon’s name. But of course, she wouldn’t be a red dragon. Right?”

“She is a red dragon, Cliff. You know we don’t hold to the chromatic designations.”

“Oh. Of course.” Cliff had his doubts. “But the title is a little confusing if she’s not all bad…”

“Here,” said Random. “Just see some of what she’s gone through in her life.”

* * *

A crack appeared in the first egg of the clutch; a tip of the hatchling’s egg-tooth barely visible.

“Is it…? Is this our first? This is the one who will carry on our legacy of dominance and destruction?” growled the deep voice of a large red dragon standing over his mate.

“Of course she is!” came the rasping response in the cold cavern. “Did you think I would permit anything less?”

“Hrmmm.” The great tail of the red dragon thumped the rocky floor of the cave, receiving a fierce hiss and wing flap of his dragoness in response to his agitation. The two glared at each other as the tiny hatchling’s tooth retracted and cracked the shell again, breaking it and viewing the world for the first time. Neither witnessed the baby dragon peeking through the hole it had made in its egg. The tiny wrym struggled to force its way out of the shell on its own, then peering up at the two dragons towering above her as the one roared at the other. She flapped her pale red wings in emulation of her mother as the great dragon launched at her sire. The two rocked the cavern in their battle, twisting tails, raking claws, thrusting horns, and biting necks as the tiny dragon dashed out of the way of the scraping talons and flailing bodies. The giant, scaled figures smashed the other eggs before they had a chance to hatch. The hatchling ran to a corner of the cave as the two clashed in their argument. Equal in their abilities and strength, they wore each other out after several hours before the dispute ended. In their exhaustion, they finally remembered the eggs and saw the hungry hatchling approaching them for the first time.

“Look,” rasped her mother. “While we fought, she eliminated all her siblings. A hatchling strong enough to arrive during the cold of winter, killing in her first hours. We shall call her Marzanna, bringer of death. She will surely make herself known throughout the land as the devastator, just as she has devastated her brothers and sisters.

* * *

“That’s not much of a welcome to the world,” said Cliff sadly to the others before turning back to the changing scene in front of him.

* * *

The young red dragoness swooped ahead of the other dragon, snapping the neck of the large elk that had been his prey and carrying it up into the air.

“Hey! Give it back, Marzanna!” said the one with a snarl.

“You’re too slow, Grazheel,” she chuckled through her bloody teeth, scaley lips pulled up in a grin as she transferred the catch to her forepaws. She was healthy and robust compared to the thin Grazheel.

“You know there’s not another elk for miles,” he pleaded as he flew up alongside her. “You got the only other one last week! I’ll be beaten again if I don’t come back with food today.”

“You think it’s any different at my cave?” Marzanna replied, pumping her wings. The elk was heavy but nothing she couldn’t handle. But its weight meant Grazheel could keep up with her.

“No. I know. We just haven’t any prey in our mountains. And your parents can feed off the mana of the land. Mine aren’t old enough to do that yet.”

“Survival of the fittest, that’s all my parents ever say.” Marzanna looked at the thinner Grazheel. He would be a handsome dragon if he filled out and was far nicer than either of her parents had ever been.

“Maybe there’s something over on the southern range,” said Grazheel. “I’ll see you some other time, Marzi.” He turned to head for the southern mountains.

“Wait!” Marzanna called, turning to follow him.

Grazheel glided back. “What?”

“Here, catch!” she tossed the elk to him in the air. He barely managed to keep it from falling to the ground.

“What are you doing?” he asked, incredulous that the elk was now in his paws.

“You caught it. I’ll go find something in the southern range.”

“But I’m not sure there’s anything there to find!”

“That’s the chance I take. See you later, Graz.” She swooped under him and headed south.

* * *

“Well, that’s a good sign,” said Cliff. “So, the two of them went on to make themselves different from their parents?”

“No. Grazheel did feed himself and his parents for a change. Marzanna didn’t catch anything else that day and was severely punished by both her sire and her matriarch. Sometime later her parents killed his parents during an expansion of their territory. They then attacked Grazheel, chasing him far from his home and breaking his neck in the air as he had retreated. They dropped him into a large convention of ogres. Marzanna attempted a rescue but didn’t have the power to heal him. He begged her to kill him rather than be torn apart alive by the brutes. She fought the ogres nearly wiping them out before she had to retreat, heeding Garzheel’s plea as she left. The death of Garzheel by her talons was witnessed by another dragon and her reputation as a death-bringer was sealed.

“She earned her title of the devastator after that, killing those who attacked her, emptying the mountains of all life to satisfy her parents until she finally killed them both in self-defense. She gained their ability to harvest mana from the earth as they had, learning how to use her magic, and building up her hoard until it overflowed from her cave. She took whatever she fancied from the humans, defeated any who came for her, dragon or otherwise, becoming more powerful with each passing year. On her own, she may have sealed the evil reputation of all dragon kind. Some of it was undeserved, but most of it by her own claw.”

“So, you’ve really given me a tough case, even if she’s been misunderstood and developed into what she did not want to become,” concluded Cliff with a nod.

“Quite so,” agreed Random. “You have an extremely significant challenge ahead of you. We've issued you the standard powers, plus a ring of transformation, and an elven suit of fire protection. You may have one assist but use it wisely. If you are successful, gemstones will chime.”

“Really?” asked Cliff, eyes growing wide. “I can become a dragon myself?”

“It will not be easy, I fear,” said Random. “But we need you to try to save her and in doing so provide the other dragons in this world a chance.”

Cliff straightened up and gave a salute. “I will do my best!” he said and disappeared.

“Do you really think he’ll be able to do it?” asked Qualm.

“We can only hope he can bring out the Marzanna that she was supposed to be,” answered Random with a sigh.

* * *

A faint sound, the slightest displacement of golden coins sliding against each other came from within her private chamber, gaining Marzanna’s immediate focus. She turned instantly towards the source of the disturbance.

Standing before her intense gaze in a slight depression of the piles of gold was a pale grey kobold dressed in a bright red outfit with white-furred edges, a matching cap draped over his head that hung to a point behind his horns. Based on the outfit, he could’ve been a transformed elf, but she knew he was a kobold from his horns to his heart.

He surveyed the great gallery, taking in the tremendous wealth from centuries of hoarding, from statues and gems to swords and armor, finally resting his eyes on the lady of the chamber herself, just her horned head and a short portion of her long, scaled neck extending from the golden pile.

“Marzanna the Devastator, I presume? May I call you Marzi?” The kobold bowed quickly, one arm in front of himself and the other swept out to his side and back behind him. He smiled a happy grin as he raised his twinkling eyes up to her. “My name is Cliff and-”

“You may address me with my full and proper title, little snack,” responded Marzanna, licking her lips with her great forked tongue, the tips lingering and momentarily wrapping around her longest left fang. “What has caused you to invade my inner chamber, far from your rightful hole in the ground thousands of leagues from here? I have not collected tribute in eons but will accept your life for your intrusion on my slumber.”

“Ah, I see. This is the challenge,” said the little kobold with a grin, eyes still twinkling. “I’ve been sent to save you.” He hopped up from the golden depression to the top of a small mound of coins nearby, causing a few of them to slide down from it. “This is your lucky day, Marzi, and mine as well, for we have an adventure, you, and me. We’re going to find you a path to a meaningful life! And it is to start right now!”

A burst of fire erupted from the great wyrm’s maw, flames obliterating the impudent kobold and melting the pile of gold he stood upon. She drew from his expected mana dissipation, frowning when she felt it not flowing into her as expected. The flames extinguishing, she saw the kobold still standing where he had been, lifting his feet from the solidifying gold to stand next to it.

“Oh, dear, you’re going to be one of those,” he said with a sigh. “Do you even know what today is?”

“The day a kobold is smashed into a pulp for impudence?” came the response, a great paw lifting from its burial under the mountain of gold, talons stretched out above the red-clad kobold who crouched in fear.

At that, a bright light appeared in the cavern’s wall on the side of the kobold. A new opening in the mountain, a great chamber glowing so intensely that he shielded his eyes and she squinted against it.

“Come, and be merry!” bellowed a great voice from within the light.

“Tone it down, will you?” hollered Cliff, paws in front of his face. “You’re going to be popping fuses with that much power!”

The light faded in its brilliance to a more tolerable level, the bright, warm light revealing a chamber not previously part of Marzanna’s vast cavern network. Within it was a humongous copper dragon sitting by an appropriately sized, human-style fireplace decorated with great green garland and fresh, luscious fruits, crystalline goblets the perfect fit for his giant paws, and a coordinated decanter filled with a golden liquid. He wore a wreath of green garland upon his head and a hat matching Cliff’s. Hoisting a goblet filled with the same golden liquid beside a table set with a great feast, he said again, “Come, and be merry!” in melodious low tones fit for such a jolly creature.

“What are you doing here?” demanded Marzanna, rising from her bed, gold spilling off her in all directions.

“Why a cameo, of course,” said the copper dragon with a grin. He lifted his goblet and took a big swallow. The goblet, nearly emptied, quickly refilled itself. The dragon gave a little wave of his right wing, and a properly sized crystal goblet filled with the same golden liquid appeared in Cliff’s paw. Turning back to Marzanna he said a third time, “Come, and be merry!”

“Tell her,” said Cliff, taking a quick sip from his goblet, which also refilled itself. “Tell her about the three ghosts.”

“About that, Cliff,” said the copper dragon, turning to the little kobold in red. “The ghost of Christmas Present, now, is all you get, I’m afraid. Budget limitations and all that. You owed quite a lot to recover from that little noodle incident, young fellow.”

The kobold’s face fell. “B-b-but!”

“Sorry, my friend, this is all in your paws. Don’t worry! I have full confidence in you and in Marzanna!”

Cliff shakily took a large drink from his goblet, nearly emptying it. After a moment, it started to refill itself, although not as quickly as it had before.

“What are you two talking about?” said Marzanna, taking a step towards the warm chamber that was not supposed to exist in her cave. “Confidence in me for what? I’m not doing anything except giving you both one chance to leave now!”

“Ah! Are you not Marzanna, Bringer of Death, Purveyor of the Mountains of Devastation, Queen of Magical Control of the Earth and All Its Powers? The one whose life has held no meaning? I, as the Ghost of Christmas Present, offer you a challenge: One night in the human world as a human yourself, to be rid of me and my ilk forever with the mana that it provides, or we let you head for your sad demise, as you have for the past millennia, which is quickly coming to an end, and permit your hoard to be dispersed by the fiends that surround your mountains.”

“Disperse my hoard!? You think you are so grand a wrym that I will allow such a thing?” Marzanna roared, taking another step forward. She found herself stopped where she was.

“Do you refuse the challenge?” asked the copper dragon calmly, looking into the drink swirling in his goblet before turning back to her. “Come, and respond in a manner befitting one who considers herself so mighty! I offer you to be rid of us in either case: Refuse the challenge and remember your inability to answer it until your approaching end. Or accept and take what you will from it with the time you are given, along with this chamber, and all that is in it upon your success.”

“Clever words,” growled Marzanna, pausing. The chamber did look inviting, the copper dragon’s mana would slake her for a thousand years, and the aroma of the goblet’s liquid did tingle her sensitive sense of smell in a very pleasant and positive way. A life with no meaning? She was a dragon! What more meaning could there be? The challenge would of course be accepted, like every challenge in her life had been. And just as all the other challenges had been answered with her victory, so would this one.

Having made her decision, she attempted entry again, stepping into the chamber with no further resistance, feeling the warmth from the fire on her scales, the smell of the beverage and the feast alluring to her senses. Nothing but good emanated from the magic within. While counter to her own primary auras, she could detect not a single source of power that could cause her harm in any of it.

The copper dragon in the ridiculous red hat and green garland trim waved a paw to offer her a choice of goblets and the feast among the twinkling warm lights beside the fire. Cliff already held a filled plate and was hungerly devouring what he had loaded upon it.

Walking over to the feast she sat on her haunches and picked up a brimming goblet and gave it a sniff, inhaling its pleasant odor while filling a plate with her telekinetic powers. Taking a delicate sip, her eyes opened wide at the exquisite taste, detecting nothing injurious in it at all.

“There. Now that thou art calm, what sayest thou for the challenge?” The copper dragon lifted his own goblet and snagged a beautiful apple from the table, tossing it up and in his mouth.

“What do you get from this challenge?” asked the powerful dragoness, raising a sandwich perfect for her size from her plate in the air to her maw with the barest thought from her mind, eyes narrowing as she eyed the grand wyrm before her.

“Get? This is a gift. You clearly don’t understand. You do know your reputation and that of dragons in general amongst the human world?”

“One of fear and submission, as is proper,” replied Marzanna curtly.

“There is another faction, a population of humans who wish for dragons to be friends, not just an evil to be conquered.” The copper dragon gave a knowing look over the rim of his goblet.

“What dragon wishes to be friends with a human? Better to gather hoard and power and if dealing with them at all, to be remembered in song and story as the one who could only be vanquished through a glorious battle with thousands slain in the process.” Marzanna finished her plate and took a large drink from her goblet, watching it refill itself afterward. “An interestingly sweet following,” she concluded, concentrating on the drink.

“It has been referred to as the milk of human kindness. It may run low, but never runs out,” said the copper dragon with a smile. “I think you may find remembrance for something other than a fierce battle can top such an end and even in life itself.”

“You are a fool, but I accept your challenge if only to get you and this miserably ludicrous kobold out of my lair forever,” said Marzanna, lifting her goblet to him.

“Very good!” the copper dragon moved his drink over to hers and they clinked the glasses together, then emptied them in a single toss down their respective throats.

* * *

Marzanna looked see if her goblet again refilled, but instead it disappeared as she found herself in darkness. Her eyes quickly adjusted as she took in the smell of humanity and other, more unpleasant odors in the cold, evening air. Cliff stood next to her on the narrow, paved street between brick buildings with no windows but some very plain, human-sized doors. Rubbish and recycling bins were next to most of the doors in the dark alley.

“I recommend blending in as a human. A great dragon as yourself will attract unwanted attention. I can assure you that the humans here have powerful weapons that can pierce the toughest of dragon scales.” The kobold raised his right paw over his head and flipped it back and forth rapidly. A ring slid from his finger and quickly grew into a hoop that he held up in the one hand. His paw seemed to have partly changed: where his talons passed through the large hoop, human fingers appeared on the other side. He allowed the ring to slip slowly in his paw-hand, dropping from its vertical position so it turned horizontal as he held it over his head. Raising his other arm, it passed through the hoop. What had been a clawed paw became a human hand and red-sleeved arm as he slowly lowered the hoop straight down past his head. That also changed in appearance from a kobold to a human youth as it passed down over him. With blond hair and dark eyes, his clothing remaining as it had been before but fitting his new form just as well. He continued lowering it down and transferred the hoop from the one partial paw to the now-changed hand to complete his transition. Stepping out of the hoop, it vanished on the ground. “Hmmm,” he said, looking at the pavement where it had been.

“Hmph,” responded Marzanna, having no need of such implements. She gave a wave of her wing and began to shrink. Spines, horns, tail, and wings retracted quickly as her scales changed to skin, hair evolving where her horns and fins had framed her head as she melded from draconic to human form. Some scales became a modest dress to her much smaller human body, which emulated the proportions of a Greek statue, not on the thin side at all, but not what most would consider as fat in the modern world.

“That dress might be a little light for the weather here,” noted Cliff.

Marzanna took in a breath. The air was cold, probably more so than it was up on her own mountain ranges. But it had been so long since she took on the form of a human, she had forgotten how sensitive the creatures were to the elements. Usually, she retained her innate dragon resistance to any temperature extreme. This was not normal. She made to perform adjustments. Appearing as a human was fine, but there was no reason to assume the frailties of such a being. Frowning, she reached for her mana to make the necessary corrections… and felt none. It was then that she noticed that the smells had given way to near non-existence, the visibility and colors of the individual bricks and their respective imperfections had faded to mundane reds and browns. The cold was much more insistent on making itself known to her body as her breath puffed small clouds of condensation, dissipating her heat into the frigid air. “This body feels like it is dying around me,” she thought. “How long do humans last?”

“What is this place?” the former dragoness demanded of Cliff, taking a threatening step towards the shorter, former kobold.

He took a step back. “I think it’s Pittsburgh. It’s cold here in the winter, maybe even more than normal. But it’s Christmas Eve, you know. Ahh, that’s it. We can’t change back here. Magic here balances out differently. The magic of Christmas must’ve transitioned it when we used it to change.”

She grabbed his small shoulders, shaking him. Even as a frail human, she had the strength of the ancient Greek woman the statue she had based her form on. “Christmas Eve? So it’s an issue of time? The one day your big friend was talking about? Spill it!” She stopped shaking the kobold-turned-human. “Spill it? What kind of phrase is that?”

“You might get some ancient words out, but you are acclimatizing to the era. No one will know we weren’t always human. Nothing of our former selves remains except our memories. You get to really experience what it is to be human here. I bet you’ve never done that before, huh?” Cliff gave a small smile. He then turned his head down to one side. “Not that I was hoping for this either, but it’s part of the package.” He looked back up to her. “Shall we look for somewhere to get warm as a start?”

She shook him once more and pushed him away. “Humans can live in all sorts of climates. I will be fine.”

“They usually dress for the weather they’re in,” said Cliff. “They can die from becoming too cold or too hot.”

“Alright, smart guy. Where do humans go to get warm or get clothing for this kind of weather?” Marzanna asked, glaring at him as she crossed her arms feeling that it might help hold in her body’s heat.

He reached in his pockets, looking for something. “Hmm. No money. Maybe there’s someplace that’s open.”

“Great.” She turned from him and walked out of the empty, narrow street, towards more light of a wider one. He followed, jogging a short way trying to catch up.

Stepping beyond the alley they had been in she stopped in the street, looking up at the yellow lights bearing down to create glowing pools on the snowy wet pavement. A pickup truck rushed by, blaring its horn and splashing icy slush at her as she spun around. Raising a fist to crush it, she stopped, staring at her bare arm. In this form she could do nothing to affect the strange, smelly, offensive, noise-making creature that continued its way from them.

“Careful! You can get yourself killed if one of those hit you,” said Cliff as he caught up to her. Taking her arm, he guided her back to the sidewalk.

“Killed? I’m a dragon! Something like that can’t kill me!” She wretched free of his hands and turned to face him.

“No, you’re not. You are a human. That’s a truck. It, or a car, can mow you down and barely get a dent from you. Now let’s be more careful and not get in their way. It’s not like they’re going to chase you or attack, but we need to stay out of their way,” he said, shaking his head. “Stay on the sidewalk.”

She saw the patch they were standing on between the buildings and the street was raised up from the paved, cracked road and more of the strange creatures were sitting still next to it a short distance away. “Are those asleep?” she asked, nodding towards the line of vehicles parked there as tiny flakes of snow fell gently in the frigid air.

“Kind of. They won’t move on their own. Or shouldn’t, anyway.” Looking up and down the street, he faced the cars she had noted. “Come on, we’ll go this way.”

* * *

A short time later they came to a much busier street, sidewalks full of people despite the falling snow and subzero temperatures. Many were carrying packages and bundles. All were dressed in far warmer clothing than the two of them. A few people gave them glances, some smiled at the red outfit on Cliff, who smiled back. Marzanna was surprised that the cold wasn’t affecting Cliff that much. Kobolds were known for their poor tolerance to wintry weather.

The decorations here gained her interest, Christmas lights on the buildings, giant, illuminated snowflakes perched on the street light poles, scenes of Christmas and toys in the windows. Marzanna looked at a short string of colored lights hanging from a store sign.

“These are the brightest gemstones I have ever seen. They would look nice against the scales of my neck.” She pulled them off the sign, yanking the plug out of its socket. The lights immediate went out.

“What are you doing?” cried Cliff. He tried to take them from her, but she held them up and away.

“They lost their glow, but they are still mine.”

“No, they’re not,” he said firmly, reaching for them. “You can’t just take something that’s not yours.”

“Of course I can. I’m a dragon: Marzanna, Queen of Devastation. Whatever I see can be mine if I want it. Simple as that.” Marzanna argued, keeping them away.

“Hey!” came a male voice. The large man from the store hurried out to the two of them. “What are you doing with my lights?”

“There’s no light in them and they’re mine now,” said Marzanna with a fading grin. They still had nice colors, as least as much as she could see with the limitation of human eyes.

The man was much taller and stronger than her. He grasped her raised arm with his meaty hand, taking the string of lights easily. Marzanna was stunned how effortlessly he had retrieved them. Placing it on the sign where it had been, he plugged them back in. They lit up as before and he adjusted their position on the sign. “I swear, you have to tie everything down these days. Didn’t think anyone would steal a string of Christmas lights.” He turned back to them. “Get out of here before I call the cops.”

“Sorry,” said Cliff. “I’m trying to get her to a shelter. I think the cold is affecting her condition.”

“I wouldn’t be in this condition if I remained a dragon!” she hissed at him. “This is your fault!”

The man stared at her, a strange look upon his face. “You better get her somewhere soon,” he said to Cliff with a nod. “I don’t think cold does that to a normal person.”

“It does make her condition worse,” agreed Cliff. “Come on, Marzanna. We need to find a better place for you right now.” He guided her away from the store using both arms, the two of them quickly blending back in with the crowds.

They had gone about a block when Marzanna realized she was still letting the kobold guide her along and she yanked her arm from his two.

“I don’t need you or your help! I’ll make it through this day on my own.”

“Where do you think you’d be if I hadn’t pulled you out of the way of that truck? Or talked that guy down from wanting to have you arrested?” Cliff retorted. “This isn’t the simple world you lived in, able to be self-centered and take whatever you want for yourself.”

“That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Anyone who doesn’t like it should’ve been hatched as a dragon.” She started walking away from the crowds, pausing to admire a display of a large, glittering diamond necklace in a jewelry store’s window.

Cliff shook his head. “This is going to be even harder than I thought,” he muttered as he ran after her.

“They do have some nice decorations here,” said Marzanna to herself. Noticing Cliff was next to her again, she gave him a shove. “Would you get lost? I need to pick up something to add to my collection.”

“Oh no!” He reached to guide her away. “They will arrest you if you try to take any of those! Come on, walk away from the tempting window-”

She pushed him again, and stalked into the jewelry store.

* * *

“Welcome to Jeweled Arts! Merry Christmas,” said the clerk. “Is there anything I can help you with?”

“I saw the diamonds in the…” Marzanna stared at a colorful array of gemstones behind the counter and pointed to it. “What is that?”

The young lady walked to the gems Marzanna was pointing to. “This is a new, one-of-a-kind piece from the gemstone artist, Marseille de Vincent. It features a variety of precisely cut, flawless gemstones of different colors trimmed to allow their brilliance and resonance to come through.” She reached to pick up a bejeweled silver and gold rod the size of a thin conductor’s baton as Cliff came in beside Marzanna.

“The cut of the stones allows you to hear their resonance when gently struck,” said the salesclerk. She tapped the decorated metal baton against the suspended arc of gems, producing a lilting tone like delicate wind chimes.

“Whoa,” said Cliff. “Somebody succeeded! All the times | A gemstone chimes | A kobold gets its wings!”

“That’s cute,” said the clerk. “Kind of like you.” She batted her eyes at him. Cliff smiled and gulped.

“I never heard of such a thing,” said Marzana with a sneer. “A kobold getting wings.”

“Uh, yeah,” said Cliff, looking at the clerk with a smile. Then he turned to Marzanna. “We have to go now.” He turned back to the clerk. “I’m sorry, but she, uh, we, don’t have any money right now for this. But it’s very beautiful. You really have a wonderful collection of gemstones.” Turning back to Marzanna he said, “They just can’t be part of your collection today.” Smiling again at the clerk, he placed his arms around the stunned Marzanna and guided her out the door. No one had ever treated her this way.

And they weren’t going to now. As they reached the sidewalk, Marzanna struck Cliff, knocking him into an icy snowbank. “Listen, you little creep! I don’t want you near me! Go find some hole in the ground to crawl back into while I get through this impossible day!” She turned and huffed off into the crowd. A few paused in their hurried trek to help the red-clad youth out of the snow while others stared at the huffing lady stalking away in a dress that was clearly not sufficient for the cold weather.

* * *

Shivering, Marzanna walked away from the crowded streets to another alley, trying the doors to get out of the cold. Her hands could barely grasp the doorknobs. Her eyes had a hard time seeing what was in the dark. No wonder humans liked the light so much!

“What’s a girl like you doing back here?” came a voice from the shadows. A man dressed in heavy, dark clothing approached her from the dark recess of the alley.

“What’s it to you?” Marzanna spat, teeth chattering.

“Oooh, a cold girl with some fire! I can get you warm, babe.” The man reached to stroke her hair.

She batted his hand away. “What is it with you humans and touching? Back off, creep!”

He grabbed her hand and pulled her arm up behind her back, holding her in place with his other hand at her throat. “You will be quiet and come with me.”

“You don’t touch a drag-”

He choked her to silence, pulling her back to the shadows from where he had come.

“Hey!” came a voice from the street. “Let her go!” A heavy-set man with a white beard and red suit like Cliff’s called from the street by the alley.

“Leave, Santa!” said the man holding her. “This is none of your business!”

The man in the Santa suit entered the alley. “But it is my business. This is Christmas Eve and you are definitely on the naughty list.”

“What you gonna do about it, fat man? Not put a candy cane in my stocking?” The man holding her continued to drag her further from the lit street.

The Santa gave a piercing whistle. “Last chance, or I turn you over to my friends,” he said.

“What are they, a couple of elves? Some reindeer?” the man sneered back.

“No. They’re Roscoe and Melinda, the police.”

Two officers ran past the Santa into the alley. The man shoved Marzanna towards them as he turned and ran. The Santa knelt to the coughing Marzanna in the dirty snow as the officers pursued the fleeing man.

“You’re ok, you’re ok. We’re going to get you somewhere safe and warm.” He gently lifted her to her feet and brought her back to the brighter street. Taking his warm red coat off he placed it over her shoulders and guided her with him.

* * *

They entered the shelter, Marzanna still wearing the Santa coat and shivering but having recovered from the choke hold.

“We’ll get you a better coat after you get some hot food in you,” said the Santa as he steered her to a seat at one of the long tables. “You’re safe here. Will you be alright if I leave you for a minute or two?" Marzanna nodded as someone handed her a hot coffee in a paper cup.

She had taken a large swallow before she realized it had burned her tongue and was starting to burn her lips, spilling some of it as she set the cup down on the table too quickly. But she held onto the hot cup, coaxing her hands around it to gain some of its warmth. The man in the Santa-suit-sans-coat returned, carrying two trays with plates of food. He set them on the table and handed her a Christmas napkin as he sat down.

“They have turkey today,” he said, wiping her hands gently to remove the coffee. “And they usually make a good meal here anyway. Hope you’re not vegan, they don’t have much for that.” He bowed his head.

She shook her head, staring at the glasses on his face. “W-w-what’s wrong with this coat?”

Lifting his head from his prayer, he turned to her with a smile. “While you look good in red-”

“Of course I look good in red. It’s my natural color.”

Edmund stared at her, only for a moment. “O-oookay. I’ve spent a lot of time helping out with the folks who run the shelter here, and I think we can find you a better coat, that’s all. Not that I’m probably going to need that one again for a while. My job ended tonight.” Using the plastic utensils, he cut a piece of the turkey on his plate and took a bite.

“What does a coat have to do with a job?” She stared at him as he took another bite.

He shook his head as he chewed before swallowing, then said. “Department store Santa? I’ve been told I’m pretty good, but not good enough to be the real Santa Claus.” He held out his hand, “The name’s Edmund. Edmund Gwenn.”

She stared at the offered hand. “I don’t know what you are. Not sure what this festival is all about, or why you’re being nice to me. That jerk certainly was looking to get burned. Better not see him when I turn back.” Marzanna focused on her plate as he dropped his hand. The food did smell good. Following his example, she cut a piece of the meat and put it in her mouth. The warmth and taste of the turkey with gravy was far better than she had expected, and she hurriedly stuffed more into her face.

“Whoa there,” he said. “You can have more if you want, just take your time.”

She stopped, chewed, and swallowed. Then she took more measured mouthfuls. Between bites she said, “This tastes better than anything I’ve ever eaten.”

“Miguel is a great cook, that’s for sure,” came the response. “He’s had a rough time of it, but the man could be an executive chef in any Michelin rated restaurant, if given the chance.”

Marzanna said nothing, finishing the tasty if unrecognized food on her plate and drinking her cooling coffee that also had an unknown rich, bitter taste which went well with her feelings. As her body recovered its lost heat, she realized the room they were in was large and held many humans of various shapes, sizes, and colors. Almost all were dressed warmly, sitting at tables like theirs, eating from plates of similar food. A few snuck some of it into small containers that they placed inside their heavy clothing.

“So is this festival why all of these people are here?” she asked Edmund.

He glanced around. “They’re here for the same reason we are. Free food and a safe place to get warm for a while.” He returned his attention to his plate.

“Someone had to provide it though, right?” she asked as she looked back at her empty plate.

He nodded. “Several someones. A lot of people contribute to this kitchen, myself included, especially at this time of year. They recognize it’s needed, and this is the result: people who need help get fed. Ever do anything like that?”

Marzanna sat for a moment. “Yes,” she said in a low voice and a slow nod. “Once.”

“Only once?” Edmund inquired gently.

“I gave some food, my food, to someone who needed it worse than me. Was beaten within an inch of my life for it. Once was enough.”

“I’m sorry for that,” he said quietly. “Were the ones who did that to you counting on that food?”

She shook her head. “They didn’t need it and I wasn’t starving. I just needed to learn my lesson. Survival goes to the fittest, the ones who are strongest. I was stronger but gave away what I had.”

“Giving is not a bad thing. The lesson received was wrong. No one should get a beating for doing something like that. I’m sorry it happened.” He tentatively placed his hand on her arm.

“The lesson was right. I survived battles worse than that later because I was the strongest. The one I gave the food to, he didn’t survive. Even with me defending him… he didn’t survive.” She looked down at her empty plate and cup again.

“I'm sorry. Didn’t mean to bring up bad memories.”

“Marzanna!” Cliff called from the door, heading in their direction. “I’ve been looking all over for you!” Edmund removed his hand from her arm as the youth approached.

She gave the former kobold a stare. “What do you want?”

“I figured out what’s going on here.” He leaned close and whispered in her ear. “Why your magic and my ring disappeared.” Standing up, he continued. “We are stuck as we are until we get it back.”

Marzanna straightened up as she pulled away from him. “What are you talking about? It’s just a matter of time. One day, remember?”

Cliff shook his head. “Not that simple. Can we talk in private?”

“I was just going to find the lady a better coat,” said Edmund, turning from Cliff to Marzanna. “Promise me you’ll stick around until I get you one?”

Marzanna gave him a blank look. “Sure. Fine. I don’t want something that matches what he’s wearing.” She nodded towards Cliff.

“Good.” Edmund got up and took the empty plates and cups. “I’ll get some more turkey, too. But red really does good on you. And you too, young fellow.” He left, carrying the trash to a large container before going through another door.

Cliff watched him go, then sat down next to Marzanna. “Look. Tonight, this world has more magic than it normally does all year long. Just before my ring vanished, it gave a tug. I’ve only had that happen once before.”

“So? It was a defective magic item. My magic is inherent, I don’t need things like that.”

“But you can’t change back or use any magic right now, can you?”

Her shoulders slumped. “No. But it’s got to come back at the end of this day.”

Cliff shook his head. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Magic in this world works differently. It doesn’t accept concentrations for long or it combines with other magic. The magic we had was absorbed through other magic. Christmas magic. Something related to what we had. But on a night like tonight, what could it be?”

“Absorbed? Or expended?” Marzanna stood up.

“Maybe? Kobolds don’t have magic of their own like you dragons do.”

“Did you say dragons?” asked Edmund. He was standing right by them with a puffy red hooded coat that looked like the perfect size for Marzanna. He handed it to her. One look, and she removed his coat to replace it with the new one.

“Who is this guy?” asked Cliff.

“This is Edmund. He brought me here to get warm and some food.” Marzanna answered as she pulled the longer coat on. “This feels - and looks – much better.”

Edmund held out his hand to Cliff, who shook it and introduced himself while he studied the older human.

“You said something about dragons, didn’t you son?” Edmund asked as he put his Santa coat back on. “Not something I usually hear about this time of year unless it’s for a younger person's toy. I had someone else talk about dragons today. She was about your age, too.”

“What do you mean?” both Cliff and Marzanna asked.

“Well, it was kind of odd.” Edmund rubbed his white-haired head and looked at Cliff. “I don’t usually get people your age asking for Christmas presents at the store. Not that it’s a concern if they are respectful of the younger kids, but there was no one else with her. Anyway, all she wanted was to be a dragon. Not the most common Christmas wish, you know?”

“And why not?” demanded Marzanna.

“That… could be it,” said Cliff quietly.

“What?” asked Marzanna and Edmund.

Cliff pinched the bridge of his nose. “If she made her wish right when we were making our changes, the magic of her Christmas wish could’ve transferred the powers extended and used what was present to fulfill that wish.”

“For a kobold who doesn’t have any magic, you seem to know a lot about it,” grumbled Marzanna.

“I do know something about it and more about the power of a Christmas wish,” said Cliff. Turning back to Edmund he asked, “What exactly did she say?”

“Basically, she said she wanted to become a real, powerful, dragon, capable of flight and magic. I told her that’s a very special wish, one that might be difficult for Santa to fill. I wanted to ask her more about why she wanted it. Then her eyes changed color and she got a strange look on her face. She pulled her glove down a little and looked at her wrist. She lit up with a huge smile. She thanked me and ran off. Never seen anything like it.”

Cliff and Marzanna stared at him.

“What was on her wrist?” asked Cliff.

Edmund shook his head, saying, “I don’t know, really. I couldn’t see exactly what she was looking at. What I saw was like a patterned leather. Might’ve been a watch band or bracelet or something.”

“Did the pattern look like red scales?” asked Cliff. “Did her eyes turn green?”

“It was red, yes. I guess the pattern could’ve been like scales. And yes, her eyes changed from blue to green. A very distinct green, that’s why it struck me. How did you know?”

“I’m a red dragon,” said Marzanna.

“Marzanna!” Cliff leaned towards her, whispering loudly. “You can’t tell people that here! He’s going to call the cops on us and have us put away!”

“No, I’m not,” said Edmund. “But I would like to hear about what you have going on. What does this girl have to do with it? Why do you think you’re a dragon? What does any of this have to do with Christmas?”

“I can’t tell you the Christmas part, but I can tell you the rest,” said Marzanna, glaring at Cliff.

* * *

Edmund shook his head. “That’s quite the story. I suppose we could try contacting her. It was such an unusual visit, I remember her name: Susan Walker. I don’t know where she lives or is now, though.”

“We’re stuck,” said Cliff, sitting down. “We’re never going to find her. This city is huge.”

Edmund smiled. “That’s what the internet is for.”

* * *

“Here we go: 504 Jennie Street, up on Mount Washington. I've done this before to fill poor kids Christmas wishes. Hazard of the job. We can take the Monongahela Incline.” Edmund put his phone away.

“That’s quite a handy little artifact,” said Marzanna. “I would like one of those.”

“They don’t work where you come from,” said Cliff. “What’s a Mono-ga-heel-a?”

“One of the rivers and also one of the operating inclines. It’s cheaper than an Uber,” said Edmund. “And not that far from here. We can take the ‘T’ then it’s a short walk to the incline.”

* * *

The incline started up the mountainside, Marzanna and Cliff staring out the windows. They had the lower section of the car to themselves with Edmund.

“I’ve never seen a city with so many bright lights. The colors! And the bridges!” Marzanna was enthralled with it all. “And this moving device. Humans made all of this without magic?”

“People without magic can do some pretty good things,” agreed Cliff. “If no one’s burning it down or taking things from them.”

“This is a city that has made itself twice,” said Edmund. “First by making steel, then re-inventing itself when the steel mills went away.”

“I would love to fly over it,” said Marzanna. “It just goes on and on.”

“Pittsburgh’s not really a big city, a little over three hundred thousand people,” said Edmund. “But I like it.”

* * *

Once at the top of the incline, they headed away from the station up Wyoming street, Marzanna in her new coat with the hood pulled up and her hands in the pockets. Edmund had put his Santa coat, hat, and mittens back on, and given an extra pair to Cliff who was still wearing his elf suit.

The pavement quickly gave way to an older brick street, the homes also looking older, some well-cared for, some not. The sidewalk they were on had a wet, snowy covering that had turned to slush from other’s footprints which was now re-freezing from cold temperatures despite the salt that had been spread on its surface. They walked up the increasingly steep hill, houses built up the side of it with stairs to get to them if they weren’t right on the sidewalk itself. The few streets on their right climbed further up, while the ones on their left went steeply down towards the city and river below. The streetlights were few and far between. Several places had signs indicating they were available for rent.

Jennie Street was only a couple of blocks walk. Although it was on their left, it remained fairly level. It was a dark and short street, a few houses only on the left side, all of which were very close to the street, a concrete retaining wall on the right side of the street with overgrown trees above and beyond it. They headed towards the last house on the dead-end road.

“Santa?” came a low, female voice from the woods on their right as they approached the house.

“Hello?” answered Edmund turning towards the trees. “Susan? Is that you out here in the woods? Aren't you cold?”

“Doesn’t feel cold to me,” said the voice from the woods. “Don’t come any closer! I don’t want to scare you.”

“What’s the matter?” asked Edmund, looking at the dark woods. “Are you ok? You’re not hurt, are you?”

“No, nothing like that. I’m not sure what can hurt me now. I… I just… don’t look like I did before.”

“You look like a dragon, don’t you?” asked Cliff.

“You can see me?” asked Susan, horned head coming down from the tree branches, brushing them aside like cobwebs. “I thought I blended in so well. I can barely make out my own feet!” Her huge dragon form seemed ethereal in the dark woods, a faint outline of her was all that was visible with a slight bending of the trees appearing through her.

“Wow, she adapted quickly,” whispered Cliff.

“I guess I did,” admitted Susan. “It was a wonderful gift, Santa. One I’ve always wanted. And so much fun to fly high over the city like this.”

“But you’re not ready to live on your own, are you?” asked Marzanna.

“I’ve gotten really tired, really quickly,” said Susan. “And I can’t go home like this. I can’t even fit in our house! And I feel… hungry.”

“You’re a dragon,” said Cliff. “You’re burning through the magic just being here.”

“The magic?” asked Susan.

“Yes,” said Marzanna. “A dragon only exists through magic. It is a part of us, part of our being. We can’t fly or breath fire or do much of anything without it. Even exist. You have to renew the mana, draw it from the earth or the food you eat just to maintain yourself.”

“Wait a minute.” Susan raised her head a few feet then focused on Marzanna. “You said ‘us.’ Are you…?”

“Not here. Not now. But I am,” said Marzanna. “Whatever Christmas magic is, it took my magic when I turned human and gave you my form when you professed your wish to ‘Santa’ here.”

“But you know how to maintain this? How to regain the magic?” Susan lowered her head towards Marzanna, who took a step closer to the darkened red dragon before her, reaching up and touching the side of Susan’s snout.

“You must’ve wished to be hidden, just like you wanted to fly, didn’t you?” asked Marzanna. “And just like that, it happened. You flew. People couldn’t see you. But whatever happened, it drained the mana I have been collecting for hundreds of years. And it didn’t get replenished here. Cliff says this place is different, I guess it is. I think, to stay a dragon, you would have to go to where I came from.”

“She’s right,” said Cliff. “But if you go there, you won’t be able to come back. And Marzanna won’t be able to return to being a dragon.”

“I certainly don’t want to remain as a human,” said Marzanna. “But I have seen good and bad in them in my short visit here.”

“Is it fun where you came from?” asked Susan.

“Fun?” Marzanna scrunched up her face. “A dragon has the power to take whatever it wants when it wants it. Survival of the fittest only. I have been the largest, most powerful dragon for centuries. No one dares approach me. I live in my mountain far from any living thing. After a few hundred years, it’s not even worth flying anywhere anymore. There’s no challenge, no reason for being. If you want that, fine. Take it. Take all of it.”

“Marzanna! You can’t do that!” Cliff hissed.

“Why not? I’m a dragon. Was a dragon. I can do what I want. Once I defeated the rest, I’ve always done what I want.” Marzanna threw up her hands. “It was meaningless. I collected a larger hoard of treasure than any dragon before me. No one and nothing dares tread hundreds of miles near my mountain. No one even tries to attack. There’s no challenge, no reason to even be.”

“But Susan can’t just take your place!” Cliff clenched his fists. “If she stays here like this, she’ll go on a hunger rampage trying to recover the mana she’s spending just to exist. And we don’t know how to get back.”

“That’s horrible!” gasped Susan. “Santa, I know I said I really wanted to be a dragon, and I really, truly thank you for making it happen. I had a lot of fun tonight. But… but… is there any way to give a wish back?”

“I’ve never dealt with anything like this before,” said Edmund, shaking. “Don’t you two have any ideas?”

“I don’t know,” said Marzanna. “I was getting ready to end it all anyway. How long do humans live here? Do you think this body will last longer than fifty years? That’s short enough. Maybe I can learn this lesson you and the copperhead were telling me I needed, then I’ll be done.”

“Please don’t leave me like this!” wailed Susan, lifting and dropping her feet, unable to stay still but also unable to cry. “I don’t want to go on a rampage and hurt people! What do I do?”

“Go find a mountain with lots of animals around it. You’re going to need a lot of food,” said Marzanna. “But if you can’t draw mana from the earth, I’m not sure that meat will even give you the mana you need here.”

“No, no. There’s got to be something,” said Cliff. “You said you flew? And then you wanted to be hidden from people that darkened your appearance to this? What if you wanted to have a portal back to Marzanna’s cave? Marzanna! You said your magic is innate. Maybe that’ll work?”

Marzanna shrugged. “I learned how to control mana and my magic over the course of hundreds of years, exceeding my parents’ abilities. Unless she got that ability along with my body with that wish of hers, I don’t know how-”

In the dark of the woods, a faint light appeared. The dimly lit gold-filled cavern of Marzanna appeared on the other side of the newly formed portal.

“Did you do that, Susan?” asked Cliff.

“I just kind of… imagined it,” said Susan. “Is that all real gold? I didn’t picture it exactly like that but…” Her stomach gave a growl.

“You got it, kid. That’s my place. Or yours now.” Marzanna waved a hand at it. “I… I… give… it all to you.”

“But I don’t want it!” said Susan. “I want to go home. I want to be me. I want to stay here.”

“Wow, you want a lot.” Marzanna grimaced. “There’s your home. You are a dragon. You didn’t even have to fight me for it. But you can’t stay here and live as a dragon. Elf-boy is right. The magic you need to live as a dragon isn’t here.”

“Elf-boy?” asked Cliff.

“I don’t know,” said Marzanna. “I don’t see much of an option for either of us. Being a human here isn’t the worst thing I can think of. It won’t be for that long. You can live as long as you want as a dragon there, and you already made a portal to go there. Seems like an easy decision.”

“Cliff,” said Edmund. “Can’t you do something?”

“Me?” asked Cliff. “I don’t have any magic!”

“But you’re supposed to be the smart one,” said Marzanna. “You figured this all out. Well, not all of it. But enough. Pretty good for a kobold with no magic.”

“I…” Cliff looked at the ground. Then he looked at Marzanna. Then Edmund, then Susan, then finally at the gold-filled cavern through the portal. “Susan figured out how to fly, be hidden, and opened the portal, as a dragon. Can you make Marzanna a dragon again?” he asked as Susan’s stomach growled again.

Susan lowered her head with a grimace on her snout, forepaw placed on her noisy stomach. “I’ll try. But I’m so hungry it hurts!”

“The mana… It’s there! We need to go through the portal!” Cliff cried. “Come on! We go into Marzanna’s cave, you absorb the mana from the world there, Marzanna can change back, you can change back, and you come back here to go home!”

“That… should work. You are the clever one,” said Marzanna.

“Are you sure?” asked Susan. “I don’t want to get stuck alone there.”

“I… I’ll go with you, Susan,” said Edmund. “I don’t want to end up there either, but I won’t have you go alone.”

“We’ll go as well,” said Cliff. “Won’t we, Marzanna?”

“Go where you want,” said Marzanna.

“You said you wanted to learn your lesson. Why not take what you’ve learned and put it to use now? You can also make the changes you need in your own world,” Cliff said.

“Please?” asked Susan. “I’m sorry it’s really lonely there, but maybe you can try to make some more friends.”

“More friends?” snorted Marzanna. “I don’t have any friends.”

“What about Santa? And… elf-boy?” asked Susan.

“My name is Cliff,” said Cliff.

Marzanna looked at her puffy red coat and moved her hands in the pockets. “I… guess they are friends. Or tried to be. Edmund certainly has been one. I’m the one who hasn’t been any kind of friend. And I guess it wouldn’t be very… nice?... of me to make you take my place there when you don’t want it. Shouldn’t be surprised that no one else wants my life. I’ll go.”

* * *

Shortly after passing through the portal, Susan said, “I don’t feel as hungry anymore.” She became fully visible in her red dragon form once fully inside the cave and away from the portal.

“You must be absorbing the mana you need as a dragon,” said Cliff. “For this to work, you both have to concentrate on the wish together, Marzanna to be herself as a dragon again and Susan to be herself as a human and vice versa. Keep thinking it throughout the entire change.”

“I understand how magic works,” said Marzanna. “I’ve been doing it for centuries.”

“I haven’t, but I’m definitely ready,” said Susan, nodding her head.

The two looked at each other, closed their eyes, and concentrated on changing themselves and each other back.

Nothing happened.

Then Marzanna opened her eyes. They had become emerald-green and slit pupils.

Susan opened her eyes. They were now blue with circular pupils. Her red scales began to pale, while Marzanna’s skin began to turn red. She shed her puffy, hooded coat, revealing the thin dress becoming scales on her body, tail growing from behind. As her hands became paws, Susan was reverting, her scales smoothing out, tail retracting, talons retreating into nails as her paws shrank to become human hands. The horns and fins on her head also shrank while hair began to appear in their place. Her dragon body rapidly reduced in size.

Marzanna grew in size, hair replaced by mighty horns, ears expanded to fins, fingernails lengthening to sharp claws then becoming talons. Her body became more muscular, giant, and feral as the heavy, red plates expanded into place as she continued to grow. Wings blossomed from her back, stretching out over Edmund and Cliff as Susan’s rescinded then disappeared.

Marzanna dropped onto her forepaws as her neck lengthened on her front end and her tail continued to expand from her back. Talons and paws displaced the gold-strewn floor of the cavern as her great weight increased. Susan stood up, removing her gloved hands from the coins beneath her, coat, hat, and clothing in place which Edmund recognized from when she had visited the store.

Edmund stood there, gaping at the two. Cliff gave a sigh of relief.

Marzanna blinked, feeling the familiar power flowing back into her from the earth. She retracted her wings and settled them onto her back, looking down on the three humans below her in her private chambers.

“So,” she said to Cliff. “Are you going to change back as well?”

“No ring,” he said and shrugged.

“Do you want to change back?” Marzanna asked.

“I don’t have a problem either way. But it would be nice to be myself again, since we’re here.”

Marzanna drew in a great breath, the mana flow increasing to compensate for what had been drained by Susan in the other world. Nodding, she bestowed Cliff his original form, and the kobold stood as she had first seen him when he had entered her cave.

“Wow,” said Susan. “You truly are magnificent, Marzanna.” She bowed to the dragon. “Thank you for letting me be you for a while and turning me back.”

“Don’t thank me. We both had to want this enough for it to work,” rumbled Marzanna, lowering her head. “But that portal is a drain on both me and this world. You both should return to your own now. Edmund, thank you for your generous assistance. I will think of you fondly when I think of your Pittsburgh. It is a better place because of people like you.”

“I’m sure you will cause the changes you need to make your own world a better place,” said Edmund. “Susan, let’s go home.”

“Just a moment. Cliff, Edmund, may I have your hats?” Marzanna inquired.

The two took their pointed red caps and lifted them up. Using her mind, Marzanna grasped some of the coins on the floor and filled both hats until they were nearly tearing. “Cliff, please give yours to Susan. Edmund, take some for yourself and give some to the shelter. Goodbye.”

Edmund and Susan found themselves back at the edge of the woods by Jennie Street.

“What did Marzanna mean when she was talking about the shelter?” asked Susan.

“I’m in between jobs right now,” said Edmund. “My last job ended on Christmas Eve. But I help out at the shelter a lot.” He lifted his heavy hat with both hands. “This should go a long way to keep them running.”

Susan looked at her smaller, but still quite heavy hat. “That sounds like a good idea.”

* * *

“So, are you happy with your decision?” asked Cliff.

“I do like being a dragon better than being a human,” admitted Marzanna. “I needed to be sure that Susan wanted to be a human and knew what being a dragon would mean.”

“It doesn’t have to mean that you sit here alone, you know,” said Cliff. “You can make friends with some of the humans in this world. Maybe get some kobolds to help.”

“What human wants to be friends with a red dragon? With Marzanna the death bringer, queen of devastation?”

“Maybe they’d be friend s with plain old Marzanna the friendly. Who cares what color your scales are? If it matters so much to you, you can change them. Although you do look good in red.” Cliff smiled.

“I’ve been told that,” said Marzanna, giving a toothy smile.

“Maybe start out in human form and tone down the number of teeth shown when you smile,” said Cliff. “That’s a lot of large, sharp teeth for humans to handle all at once.”

“It’s not going to be easy, is it?” asked Marzanna.

“Nothing good ever is.” Cliff started to fade away. “Hey, we did it in less than a night!”

“Yes, we did.” She realized she was talking to herself in an empty cave. With a thought, she determined where the nearest human settlement was to her mountain. She would explore that place in the morning to see if there were any people like Edmund there.

From her pile of gems, a light chime came forth. She smiled, teeth gleaming in her lair. "All the times..." Thinking about tomorrow, after the past few hours, it would probably be a lonely start.

“What will I do if there’s no one like Edmund at the village?” she asked herself with a frown.

“Maybe you could teach a new dragon how to use his magic?” came a small voice.

Marzanna turned to the voice. “Cliff?”

“All the times

A gemstone chimes

A kobold gets its wings!”

When I received the Secret Santa for I loved their concept, but had no idea where to start. Then I woke up from a sound sleep around 3:30 the next morning with this little phrase running through my head and I had to write it down immediately before I forgot it, since it was clearly the path this was going to take.

The request was for:

Something wholesome and SFW, in the spirit of a Christmas tale. Preferably in a universe like ours, barring what is required for the story.

A mighty, arrogant - conceited even - dragoness finds out on that "Christmas magic" interferes with her shapeshifting... By getting stuck in a human body and without her magic on Christmas Eve, while a young human gets her dragon appearance and power. The dragoness now has to find the girl before she outs herself or another catastrophe arrives - and convince her to give the magic back.

Have fun while writing the story, and take whatever creative freedom you need. I’ll be happy to see what you make out of my idea :D– hecatetf

A lot happened during the rest of the month, but here it is. It ran far longer than intended, but the story really didn't want to stop. More than a few obvious bits came from Christmas movies that routinely run during the season ("It's a Wonderful Life" "A Christmas Carol" and "Miracle on 34th Street" in particular). It was a struggle at times to get through some spots, but such a fun idea. I hope it running long isn't a problem and this meets your hopes.

Fun Facts:

Edmund Gwenn is the name of the actor who played Kris Kringle in the old black and white movie "Miracle on 34th Street" while Susan Walker was the precocious character who didn't believe in Santa Claus in the same movie.

The Monongahela Incline is one of the two still operating Inclines in Pittsburgh from the 19th century (the Duquesne Incline is the other one). Jennie Street is a real street there but 504 is not a real address on it.

Marzanna is Polish and does mean "bringer of death."

Any critiques, comments, or suggestions are welcome, no matter how long this has been posted.

Some items to consider: Did the story jump around too much or did it seem to flow well? Were the changes/development of the main character smooth enough or did they not seem to come across naturally as the story progressed? What improvements could be made to make the progression easier to accept if those changes seemed too abrupt?

© 2023 - 2024 AbNom
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Wow! I love the story, and I am so happy that you liked my prompt that much. I know how much effort goes into a 6k secret santa, so I really appreciate the effort to write something twice as long.

So many references that rang a bell! I have to thank MercenaryBlade for the list, my knowledge of Christmas stories has some gaps.

The characters are endearing. Cliff’s enthousiastic cuteness. The unexpected depths of Marzanna that we discover progressively; her good nature, forced into callousness by her circumstances. Edmund is a touching character; I like the gradual discovery of Pittsburg - and human society - from cold and hostile, to heart-warming. Susan is also adorable, good-natured, and in over her head!

It was a blast to read. Thank you so much for the story!