Infelftration

Bonnie Tyler is not the only one who needs a hero. Sometimes even those who seem equipped to handle everything on their own need one just as much. Maybe they don't need him to be strong, fast or fresh from the fight, but they probably don't want him to be a zero.

Fortunately, it is easy to turn a zero into a hero. First you brace the bottom left of the Z, then tie a rope to the top bar and pull until it rotates to form an N. Now reinforce both upright bars, before disconnecting the middle connector. Take the connector and cut it to fit between the two bars. Lastly, fasten the newly sized bar midway up the two vertical bars to form an H. There you go, you now have a H ero.

Infelftration

Note: I submitted the first 6 chapters a few years back. In doing so, I broke one of my rules, assuming I would finish when not finished. Midway through the final chapter, I hit a wall where I did not feel like writing. Earlier, this year I asked Erin to purge those publishings, which seemed to provide some incentive to finally finish.

Chapter 1

Impossible to stop himself, every time the end of shift bells jingled, he looked out the window. Sometimes he would keep watching as the workers excitedly poured forth from the innumerable factories making up The Big S’s Workshop. Watching and wanting to become one of them.

Yet the longer Snorri stared, the greater grew the chance someone would look towards the N&N Building and see his big, fat head. This could result in anything from a pitying grimace to a shouted, "What you looking at, freak?” The only guarantee, he would like himself less as a result. Something that, at some point, should become impossible, but he'd not yet reached bottom.

How could he live in one of the happiest place in all lands, when he felt so miserably unhappy?

Ducking, as much as he could, before anybody spotted him, Snorri indulged himself in a moment with his favourite fantasy. Where the manager of one of the factories presented him with a master's red velvet suit, trimmed in glossy white fur, as the Yule cycle’s top producer. Then nobody would consider him a freak, they would respect and want to be like him.

A silly dream. Rather than the best, he recognized himself amongst the worst. He did not even wear the green of a journeyelf, just the grey of an apprentice. The most incompetent apprentice at The North Pole.

His big head matched his big everything, particularly big hands. Too big to make widgets. He’d tried; taken all the requisite courses, studied all the guidelines, knew all the secrets, but every attempt ran afoul of his sausage like fingers. Backwards Snorri, about as nice a taunt he ever received, yet so appropriate. Everyone knew an elf grew larger with each skill he perfected, providing room for more knowledge. Yet Snorri stood taller than those who turned gadgets into thing-a-ma-jigs, never mind someone who couldn’t make gadgets or even the widgets that became gadgets. Only the masters and grandmasters stood larger, though none of them knew as much as Santa.

It placed Snorri outside the rigid norm, even led to whispers calling him a human changeling. And no evidence, not even the fact he’d lived over ten times as long as the oldest human, changed the minds of the prejudiced. They did not even believe Lore Master Harald’s statement that, as good a story as it made, no examples existed where humans exchanged their baby for an elf baby. Never mind the fact nobody could remember the last elf baby.

So they stuck Snorri, all by himself, to toil from before the others woke until after they fell asleep, prepping silver bell cartridges for the Naughty or Nicerator. Slotting the 10k cartridges, containing judgment bells, into the machine. Only during Yule cycle crunch, with many decisions every second did he share the space, but early in the cycle he remained all alone except when...

“Hey, what a surprise, Snorri is working late again.” Tyr said.

Turning, Snorri looked up and then even further up, to see the newcomer who balanced a tray of food on his single hand. “Hello, Master Tyr, what’s for supper?”

“The usual. Any spectacular naughties today?”

Many reasons existed why the one-handed Grandmaster occupied the top of Snorri's good guy list, beyond the meal deliveries. The elf’s size, almost as big as the Big Guy himself, meant Tyr did not notice his weird size. Plus his place in the hierarchy allowed him some freedom on how to use his time, which often meant bringing some joy to the Pole’s outcasts. With Snorri, this involved reviewing what tarnished a bell.

“I doubt you’ll find anything, Master Tyr. It’s too early in the cycle for the machine to finalize most decisions, particularly with the recent repeal of the extended licentious amendment.”

“About time. The only reason Michael’s staff implemented the rule was because they worried about running out of soul space in seven hundred thousand millennia. They never thought about the amount of business they would lose to their competitor. But don’t get me started on Heaven’s bureaucrats. I’m here to be entertained by the amazing creativity of humanity and with the old school naughty criteria, it takes real planning to tarnish out this early in the year. Go ahead and eat, while I see what the birds found.”

“I didn’t notice anything, Master Tyr. ”

“That’s because you never look, Snorri.”

Warmed by the companionship, Snorri dug into his meal of turkey, dressing, potatoes, peas, gravy, a roll for sopping up the remainder and a steamy cup of cider to wash it down. Good food providing a counter to the distraction of Tyr’s chortled explanation, only stopping the master once to ask, “I didn’t think humans used vacuums for that?”

“Which is why it’s naughty. Though, personally, I give young Leroy points for creativity. But enough with the mortal souls, how’s your immortal one?”

“Same old.”

“Sorry to hear that.” Tyr said, the recent glee siphoned from his voice. “Do you want me to try and find you a new assignment?”

“I don’t know. As boring as it sometimes is, this is the best job I’ve had.”

Standing, Tyr grasped Snorri's shoulder with a supportive grip before he reached for the tray of dirty dishes. He said, “I’ll check and let you know. In the meantime, chin up. I feel, like Rudolf, there will come a time when you’ll step forward as the hero.”

“Master Tyr, if it happens, don’t let me forget my freakish friends like he did.”

“I’ll try ” Tyr said, with a smile. Then with a wave of his handless arm, he left the apprentice to his self imposed overtime.

Thinking about other assignments, he prepped two more cartridges, his self-maligned hands moving in a blur of magnificent efficiency, before Tyr’s prophecy took wing. Working on another cartridge, he heard the machine ding, a warning that it would momentarily spit out a bell. An early judgment, but as Tyr said, humans often proved creative, sometimes creatively evil. Yet, when he spun to catch the bell as it popped out, Snorri felt unprepared to find it a dull, flat black. A symbol reserved for only the most naughty.

Trembling, Snorri ran over to the never-before-used intercom and pushed the button to speak. Not sparing time for pleasantries, he said, “Tell Santa that I just got a black bell.”

‘A black bell?” The operator asked, shock in his voice.

“Yes. Someone wants to ruin Christmas!”

~o~O~o~

An aura of savagery should seem out of place in an office permanently decked out for the holidays, but it's existence made the Grandmasters feel more alive than they’d felt in years. It brought forth Santa’s true self, made him feel like he sat upon Hliðskjálf, rather than a red, cushioned, armchair like throne. But like those days, he sat and listened as one of his sons urged him to go on the attack. Unlike then, his son’s short pants and striped knee high socks stole much of his appearance of ferocity.

“Before we can attack, we'll need permission.” Santa said.

“We do?” Thor asked. “But the pact gives us control over Yule.”

“Just the celebration, not the observation.”

Tyr said, “Which may prove difficult. There are rumours some in the Host grow nervous with the success of our celebration, thinking it comes at the expense of their observation. This is particularly true amongst those who originally disagreed with the pact. ”

“It’s their own fault. For all their blather about their Lord creating humanity, they really don’t understand humans. Short lived, short memory, and shorter attention spans. Some are useful, most are useless. Who cares what the latter celebrate? Why would you want all of them to worship you?" his brother asked.

“There is something to be said for overwhelming numbers.”

“Please, Father. Everybody knows you did not propose the pact out of fear of their numbers, but because you expected their intransigence to trigger Ragnarok .”

“And just imagine my chagrin to learn they’d already co-opted Loki.” Santa said, his expression of beaming benevolence temporarily cracking at mention of the slayer of one of his sons. An enemy with whom the pact harnessed him.

“Where is the two-faced bastard?” Tyr asked. “I expected him to be at this meeting.”

“He’s gone to plead our case before the Host.”

Tyr gawked in disbelief, but Thor turned as red as his cap, which his father expected to squirt off his head when the steam blasted out. Before that happened, his most impetuous son shouted, “What?”

“Trust me, Thor. And trust in Loki’s hate.”

“You expect me to believe he hates them more than us?”

“Of course not, he at best feels ambivalent towards them. It’s us he hates, but...let me explain in a way you can understand. Hatred is like Heiðrún’s mead, while ambivalence is akin to that beer crap in the human world. Like sex with your Járnsaxa versus your hand. Battle to checkers. Living versus existing. For Loki, hatred is breath. Ambivalence is nothing.”

A slight misjudgment. Within the Council of the Host’s antechamber, Loki’s ambivalence slowly turned into annoyance. His visits often lead to curses, even physical attacks, but never before did anyone force him to cool his heels. By the time the golden doors swung open, annoyance transformed into pique. And when he realized that seven deputies, rather than the archangels to whom they reported, sat at the front of the chamber, pique turned to cold anger. A mistake on their part, for this state always brought out his best.

He should have guessed. Sitting in the center chair, he saw the Angel Yesenia, Uriel’s enforcer. Uriel, the last holdout against the assimilation of the Norse pantheon into the Heavenly Host, who’d only agreed when Michael promised to spread them throughout the Host and to marginalize the leaders as a child’s fable. Uriel, whose power waxed as Michael’s waned, as for the first time under the latter’s stewardship the faith lost ground.

“Next item. A petition from the North Pole, speaking for them is one Loki the Trickster.” Yesenia said, pleased at how smoothly she reminded her colleagues to consider his words for any treachery, while not offering him any grounds for complaint. He'd signed the Pact with that very name. “What matter do you bring before us?”

They knew, of course. But that did not diminish the need for a show.

“A bell.” Loki said, holding up the object, drawing their gaze to it by flicking it across his fingers, as a gambler would with a poker chip. “Tarnished beyond all redemption for the laughable sin of thinking about ruining Christmas.”

“You are not disturbed by the thought?

“I rarely value anything Odin, I mean Santa Claus, holds dear.”

Yesenia asked, “May I see it?”

Fighting an urge to toss it to her, in the hope she would fumble the catch, Loki gestured towards a page, to take it forward. Studying it, she settled upon the one distinguishing mark. Aloud, she questioned, “Agatha Lipton?”

One of the others, an angel Loki did not recognize, said, “Agatha Lipton, I recognize her name. She is a believer of one of the Protestant religions, quite devout. She even built a church. I struggle to believe your sign as true. How did you come upon any evidence?”

“Santa’s two ravens gather information for him,” he answered, without answering.

“Muninn?”

“If it came from him, it would be too late to petition. No, this information probably came from Huginn.”

“And you believe it?”

“No more than anybody in this room. After all, I am sure none of you believe thought is as powerful as action?”

“You seem a poor Ambassador?” Yesenia said, not raising to his bait.

“Odin, I mean Santa, who has played victim to it many times, believes I can use my honeyed tongue to convince you to let him send forth an agent who will determine if thought may become deed. Though he’s probably just looking for a chance to remind some of his Einherjar of who they were, before they became his ever so adorable elves.”

“I agree. Any more questions? Then let us vote. I say no to the North Pole’s petition”

Only Kellian, Michael’s assistant, voted yes, everyone else voted no. Bowing in acceptance, Loki said, “Then I guess I will use my honeyed tongue on my old foe. Should I explain to him how nobody will spare a thought for Santa, if Devout Agatha does something worthy of a tarnished bell? That it is not him, but your boss who people will doubt. Do you think that will prove enough to spare me his wrath?“

That thought got their attention.

Naive children, Loki thought, later in the day as he walked from hall. So gripped by the desire to protect their Lord, while faithfully believing he watched over them. Yet when confronted by a known trickster, they proved themselves no different than any of his defeated enemies, rushing to a decision in an attempt to show themselves unaffected by his words.

What they failed to recognize, is how either result made him happy. Admittedly, he did prefer obtaining tempered approval for the one-eyed bastard's plan, since for a time, it would make life at the North Pole less frosty.

~o~O~o~

Neither Tyr nor Thor could restrain a groan as they entered their father’s office and found him staring dubiously at a remote control, while Loki looked on with his normal sneer. With approval to act contingent upon proof, they tasked the Trickster, along with Huginn and Muninn, to gather additional information on Agatha Lipton. Unfortunately the threesome liked to create PowerPoint presentations and, what with two of them being ravens and the third an asshole, they tended to use a Christmas themed template consisting of a border of flashing, Christmas lights while the font evoked candy canes.

Hearing their groans, their father looked up and said, “Good, you’re here. Can one of you get this infernal device to work?”

Taking the remote, Tyr changed the input and a slide with a link labeled 'Infelftration' appeared on their television.

By this time they knew quite a bit about Agatha; from her childhood, with sixteen straight years on the children's nice list, right through today as the president of the family’s road construction business. A role that made her the most important person in Penniesburg County.

Yet in between these periods of small town living, they found fertile ground for conspiracy and years when she did not even end up as a neutral (the default level for an adult on the naughty or nice list). Agatha’s years at university opened her up to a larger world, in particular she found herself, as many did during the 80s, drawn to the nuclear disarmament movement. A cause worth believing in, a cause she did wholeheartedly believe in, and a cause that frustrated her more as the years passed and her government did not respond in the way she wanted. In this frustration, she found a kindred soul in Darren Wynchynski.

Unlike Agatha he grew up on the naughty list. Rebellious from day one, he visited juvi for the first time at age 13 after beating up a classmate who would not hand over his lunch money. In and out of detention centers for the rest of his teen years, he took a hard look at his life when he realized his next time in a jail would result in adult prison. This led to a decision to give up petty crime for rabid anti-establishment.

Easy to believe Agatha fell under his Svengali like sway, as went the story upon her return to Penniesburg, a toddler in arms, her violent, soon-to-be ex-husband locked away for a failed plot to bomb a bar catering to air force pilots. Most everyone believed her, look how great she'd turned out as a boss and how much she did for the community? For a time, only the most cynical of old farts continued to question; however, old farts are a renewable resource and the newest breed now included those who once worked for her.

However, old fart elfs never die off, nor does the joy they bring stop them from growing more cynical. Through millennia they saw too much of the heavens and its reflection amongst humanity for that.

Unmoved by her good deeds, they conducted further investigation and learned she kept in contact with Darren throughout his imprisonment. Never a visit nor a letter, nothing direct. But through friends in the movement, some of whom now lived in Penniesburg County and worked for her.

Even when Darren's sentence ended it appeared they stayed physically apart. In fact, he seemed to drop off the face of the earth. Then a few days ago, Muninn discovered Darren living under an assumed name in Penniesburg county, working for the company who provided security for Agatha’s businesses. None of the elfs believed this coincidental, expecting the two planned whatever triggered the Naughty or Nicerator."

The problem, Santa's team could not discover that plan.

Despite the myths spread by his P.R. team, neither Huginn nor Muninn could read minds. Equipped with Godlike hearing and minds like computers, they could listen in on any spoken conversation. For example, it was something overheard in a parking lot that triggered their investigation; however, in a time of so much written communication, they lacked the ability to open letters or hack emails and texts.

The North Pole team needed to put eyes and ears on the ground.

From his seat behind the laptop, Loki said, "We've been searching for a way to get one of your elfs into either Agatha's or Darren's circles. However, both they and their followers are amongst the most closed off, paranoid people I've ever encountered. Always wary of the authorities sending undercover agents into their midst."

"Is that admiration I hear, Loki?" Thor asked.

"For their lackeys? Most definitely. I can't tell you how often I wished for such a loyal and quiet group; however, I've too often found myself followed by people like their leaders. It's such a nuisance when those who supply the manpower and the human passion think that is enough to make them my equal. It is always great fun to prove them wrong."

"And how will we do that?"

Tapping the right arrow key, bringing up the next slide, which showed a good looking, young man, Loki said, "Here we see Agatha Lipton's son, Justin. Somewhat spoiled, impulsive, and in his second year of university. One reason why I am sure he does not play any role in his parent's plot is because I doubt he could manage a secret like his elders. Yet his mother dotes upon him. This, combined with his general weakness of character, is something that might provide the key to get past their guard."

Triggering the next slide, which showed the cover of Journey into Mystery #85, he waited for the expected interruption. Thor obliged and said, “Hey, that’s one of my picture books. Did you know I’m also in movies? I’m a superhero. I guess you know, since you’re the villain. Is he a fan? Are you wanting me to convince him to help us out?"

"Umm...no! Actually, though Justin does enjoy comic books, he is more interested in ones like this."

"What in the name of Asgard is that?"

"To be honest, I don't fully understand it myself. It's the cover from something called Inu x Boku SS. A type of comic book from the Far East called a magma, though it doesn't seem to have anything to do with volcanos."

"Why does that girl have pink hair?" Santa asked.

"And a leash around her neck?" Tyr asked.

"She looks cute in that black dress, particularly with the apron." Thor said. "Is it wrong that I'm kind of turned on by her? How old is she?"

"I can't answer most of those questions. Though, based on the many picture of drawn girls, all wearing similar outfits, we found on Justin's cloud, it appears you are not alone, Thor."

Tyr said, "Are you sure you are not jumping to conclusions."

"We also found a number of videos like this." Loki said.

Mouth dropping open at another reminder of humanity's 'ingenuity', Tyr said, "Okay, you’re not jumping to conclusions."

"How come my drawing never gets to make thunder with big breasted, blue haired girls?"

Knowing how easily such a topic could sidetrack them, Santa said, "As stimulating as these appears, I don't see what good it does us?"

"There are actual girls who dress like these drawings, who go to conferences and let horny guys, like Justin, take pictures of them. I'm thinking we hook him with one of his fantasy girls. And since he visits home regularly, if he takes her with him, she can snoop."

"We are not what I would term flush with fantasy girls. Even my Valkyrie ended up working with Frejya as part of the Pact.”

Tyr said, “About that, I always wondered. Were you drunk when negotiated the Pact?”

“Well I do admit I kind of pushed Yeshua at first about his powers. And maybe when he transformed some water into wine, I may have asked him if he could transform wine into mead. When he did, I kind of had to drink it, for politeness sake. But only about a hogshead, so I might have been a bit tipsy, but definitely not drunk.”

“Really, father?”

“This is not the time, Tyr. Let’s hear Loki’s plan.”

“Have any of you ever looked at your Einherjar since they got elfed up?”

“Of course.” Thor said.

“Notice anything about them?”

“They don’t have beards.”

Loki said, “No they don’t. Anything else?”

“They’re smaller.”

“That they are. And...”

“I don’t know, they’re just elfs.”

“Anybody else? No? Have you all been in the mead today? Forgive me. Okay, watch this.”

The next slide started out with a picture of an elf on the left side and a picture of Ririchiyo from Inu x Boku SS on the right. Through animation, those two pictures grew closer and closer together, Loki expecting a eureka moment from his audience at any moment.

“You idiots, your elfs are half a breath away from looking like the Asian girls these drawings are based upon. Thick black hair, petite features and bodies. After changing the mouth breathing behemoths into their current form, how hard would it be to change one of them into an Asian babe?”

“But they’re men.”

“They were men, Thor. But now, neutered as they are, they may as well be dolls.”

“I guess I kind of see it,” Santa said, running a hand through his beard while he thought. “How big of elf?”

“Up to about 3.5 ell, which is around 65 inches in our target's parlance.”

“Tyr?”

“Gadget maker size, at least. Probably more like an elf who makes thing-a-ma-jigs.”

"Of course it would be someone that size. We hardly have enough of them to keep up with orders. Why does it take most of these idiots so long to learn anything? It took over a thousands years, as humans measure it, for us to grow enough skill to start my gifting efforts and, since then, only two handfuls have taken any steps beyond gadgeteering."

"Father, it's not like you asked your Valkyrie to gather craftsmen. Most of them were lunkheads."

"Blame it on clever sons and clever enemies who made me wish for the company of simpler sorts in my hall. So clever sons and clever enemy, how are we going to manage this and meet all of our manufacturing deadlines?"

"Snorri!" Tyr said, struck by inspiration. "He's looking for something new to do."

"Who?"

"The elf who discovered the bell. You quarantined him and the other elf he talked to, so they don’t tell everyone and spread panic."

"Oh, you mean Snorri the Berserker. Really, Tyr, do you think he is a good choice?"

“He’s the right size and he doesn’t play a role in production.”

"Was he the one who died at the Battle of Hafrsfjord with thirty two arrows in him, just after biting out the throat of his final opponent?" Thor asked.

"Only twenty seven arrows." Tyr said.

Loki asked, "Isn’t he the one so full of rage and venom that Brokkr needed to pull him out before he broke the Elfing machine? You know we're looking for bubbly and sweet not venom and bile.”

“Life as an elf has drained all of his rage and venom. He’s rather sad, I’m sure he would happily take on a new job. Besides, he is going to need to learn a bunch of new stuff and despite his size, he’s not full of manufacturing knowledge.”

“Okay,” Santa said. “He will work, I’ll give you the job of convincing him to volunteer. Thor, run a production contest amongst the widget makers. A contest should provide the needed buffer so you can take the winning team off the production line and train it as our strike force, in case we get the needed information. I’ll talk to Brokkr to get him and his brothers working on a transformation machine. Loki, start establishing an identity for our agent. Plus, based on that video you showed, make sure to obtain him, well I guess, her a Class 4 Sin license.”

“I’ll make it a Class 5.”

“Is that really needed?”

“I spared you when picking the video. There was this other movie, with a strange plant and...no, I don’t want to talk about it.”

Chapter 2

Though somewhat ashamed to admit it, even to himself, Snorri felt a moment of excitement when he learned Santa's plan to quarantine him. The thought of something new, no matter how bad, just felt interesting. He did not get many opportunities with interesting.

Unfortunately the building housing the Naughty or Nicerator served as the best quarantine spot at the North Pole. Life did not change for the better, but for the worse. He now needed to share his space with the elf who manned the other end of the intercom on the night of the black bell. Everything came easily to Dagmar, making him Snorri's opposite, his skills at crafting almost making him a master, which resulted in the cushy job, early each Yule cycle before enough thing-a-ma-jigs were created, of elfing Santa's intercom.

Dagmar did not take to quarantine with aplomb. He ranted and raved, wept and cursed, but, throughout it all, he blamed Snorri the Outcast.

Always before, Snorri could escape the many taunts and jeers tossed in his direction, but not these. They slowly chipped away at the civility in which he always tried to protect himself. With his civility shield blasted away, he found temporary solace in the better-than-hims. Unlike Dagmar, he did not wallow in self pity and selfishness while their very existence faced the greatest threat it ever faced.

But righteous indignation proved difficult to maintain. Instead, when his annoying companion finally grew quiet he found himself thinking, really thinking for the first time about the human world and humans themselves. A world imperfect.

He found the idea of imperfection rather attractive. However, Dagmar would not allow him the distraction, regaining the wind needed to return to his whining.

"Is this all you do? Just place bells in cartridges and cartridges in the machine? You would think we could make a machine to do it, but then what would they do with you?"

If outside, amongst the rest of the elves, this is when everybody would laugh and call Snorri names, which would always cause him to slink away in embarrassment. The N&N building did not allow for escape, slinking or otherwise. Without that option, something new came over him. Actually, not new, it felt too natural, too comfortable. Even though he could not remember feeling this way before. He suspected he owned the power to stop the taunts, he just needed...what did he need?

Fortunately for his tormentor, before Snorri discovered the answer, the door of the N&N building opened and in walked Tyr. Rushing to the one-handed Master's side, Dagmar, almost groveling, said, "Master Tyr, oh, Master Tyr, please, you must know I won't say anything. Just let me go back to my work. Please?"

"Don't worry, Dagmar. You will soon be free, your services in the crafting house is needed."

"Oh, that is so good to hear, Master Tyr." Dagmar said. "I am glad to know Santa recognizes that I can do so much more than this manual job. Best to leave it to the freak."

In that moment Snorri discovered what he needed. Not through thoughtful evaluation, he would never be a thinker. But following behind Dagmar, he found himself stopped just short of an arm length away from the other elf. Something he learned when the sudden straightening of an arm, hand clenched, ran into elf face resistance before fully straightening.

He knew he should feel ashamed as Dagmar crumpled to the ground. In fact, he instantly felt it, but not at the level normally felt after an encounter with someone calling him a name. Probably because he also felt release of pride, adrenaline and anger, all of which felt rather great. Yet as the sub seconds passed, as Snorri watched Dagmar flop upon the floor, then looked up at the wide-eyed Tyr, he suspected those might not number amongst the correct feelings in this instance.

"Sparkling tinsel," Tyr swore. "Where did that jab come from? Actually don't answer, I'm guessing Dagmar proved his arrogant best, which I suspect is my father's true reason for quarantining him. Besides, you're you and we knew the treatment did not fully take."

"I don't understand, Master Tyr?" Snorri asked.

"Umm...ignore that. Won't you, Snorri? There are more important things we need to talk about, but maybe I should run Dagmar to the medics first. I'll be back."

Not giving Snorri a chance to respond, he scooped up Dagmar, with his good hand and hurried from the building. After he did so, Snorri's head exploded with questions.

Why did the punch make him feel so good? Why didn't Tyr immediately punish him? What treatment did they make him undergo, which even a master could not mention? Why did Tyr speak in a strange accent when he said he would be back? Would he punish him? Why did the master appear in the first place, he did not bring the normal tray of food? And why did all of these questions make Snorri feel so excited, so much so he did not want to hide it?

He could no longer deny it, he needed something new. And he hoped his deeply satisfying punch did not ruin his chances to experience it. Satisfying enough that he found himself first reliving it in his mind, then acting it out with appropriate sound effects. Unfortunately he found himself in such a reenactment when the master returned, who did not buy Snorri’s roundabout nose scratch attempt.

"Am I in trouble, Master Tyr?"

"Wrong first question, Snorri?"

"Umm...ahhhh?"

"Is Dagmar okay, Master Tyr?"

"Oh? Oh yeah. Is Dagmar okay, Master Tyr?"

"Just a headache. Plus he is filled with a desire for revenge. Why are you smiling?"

Snorri said, "Because that will give me another chance to punch him. It was fun."

"Fun shouldn't come at the expense of others."

"Someone shoulda told him and his cronies about that."

"True, but...I don't know. Just try not to punch anyone again, even if you think they deserve it."

"Like Dagmar?" Snorri asked, immediately realizing his mistake. The look on the usually mild mannered master’s face caused him to add. “Got it, no more punching.”

About to let out what showed on his face, Tyr took a deep breath and focused on his assignment. He said, “It’s about the black bell, we’re looking for someone to...”

“I volunteer!”

“Please let me finish, Snorri. This might prove very dangerous.”

“Then make me do it as punishment for punching Dagmar. And enjoying it so much.”

“We’re not going to punish you. I just think you need to be fully informed of the dangers and weirdness you might encounter if you volunteer.”

“Master Tyr, you’re real smart. Way smarter than me. I don’t want you to tell me anything because you might convince my head it is the wrong thing to do. But my stomach knows it’s right, so just let me volunteer.”

“It will be dangerous. We will turn you into a human and send you to their world.”

“I don’t care, it can’t be worse than being an elf.”

~o~O~o~

When Tyr, Thor, and Loki took their seats, Santa said, “Thanks for coming everybody. I just wanted to get a quick update on Operation Silver Bell."

"What?" Thor asked. "When did we name it that?"

"We didn't. I did. It's a great name."

"It sucks."

"No, no, hear me out. This all started with tarnished bell, which we want to turn silver. Plus there is the Christmas carol tie in. See it works in multiple ways."

"Really, Father. Can't you ever let Odin out from behind the beard? This is about who we were, not who we are. Can't the one-eyed bastard, we sometimes liked, come out to play? Let's name it something like Operation Vengeance."

"How about Nutcracker?"

"Better, but still too Christmasy."

Loki said, "But you need a good acronym, so you need to use more than one word. It does not even need to make sense, as long as the acronym works. For example, Bangers and Mash gets you BAM!"

"If we flip around the words in Father's option we get a good acronym," Tyr said.

Thor's face momentarily crunched up in thought, before a smile took over and he said, "I like it, so how about Operation Bastard Sword?"

"Boom Shakalaka," Santa said.

Tyr said, "Boom Stick."

"How about Bacon Sandwich?" Loki asked.

"Bacon sandwich," Thor said. "I love any type of sandwich with bacon. Let's go with Bacon Sandwich."

"Very well. Next, let's hear everybody's update on their part of Operation Bacon Sandwich. For my part, I convinced Brokkr to modify the Elfing machine to create our agent. Tyr, did you convince our agent to volunteer?"

"Yep, days ago, though Snorri needed no convincing. He's been going through the material Loki provided ever since."

Loki said, "Additionally, I subcontracted a minor Japanese deity to train our agent and am putting the final touches on a secret identity."

"Okay, let's perform the transformation today, we don’t want to run out of time." Santa said.

Tyr said, "I'll get Snorri."

"And I'll inform Kami Sensual Scroll to prepare for her student." Loki said.

"Let's meet at Brokkr's workshop in an hour."

After the others left, Thor asked the empty room. "Doesn't anybody want to hear about the contest? No? This is such bacon sandwich."

~o~O~o~

Even the incompetents kept busy at the North Pole. Outside of a short break around the big night, the elfs worked full time at crafting, polishing, stacking and stuffing. They liked to keep active, it felt normal and made for the wondrous sleep of the well earned tired. Sure they liked to visit with friends at meal time and for the short period between supper and bed, but staying up late did not exist in their DNA.

Four full work/sleep cycles after volunteering, operating only on intermittent naps, with no all night sleep, left Snorri feeling strange. Tired? For sure, but not ambitious enough to get up from his chair and go to bed. Hungry? Not at all, but still craving sugary treats.

He felt blah.

Yet never more mentally stimulated. Over stimulated if anything. After his discussion with Tyr, the master took him from the N&N building and deposited him in a room inside Santa’s headquarters. Sometime later a most amazing pair of companions joined him, an electric pair who went by the names of television and PS4. Along with these came a number of rectangles, some shaped as plastic cases and others that consisted of flimsy books.

Research material to help him go undercover as a human.

Looking through each, staring at the glossy and fantastical covers, Snorri found himself drawn to one of the less colourful. A plastic case with a number of faces and the words, Sleeping Dogs. Inside he found a circle of strange metal, one side covered in a picture like the box. After some trial and error, followed by a perusal of some books telling him to do the same thing in multiple languages, he fed the metal circle to the PS4. This caused the television to show pictures he could manipulate with a weird plastic wand.

Since this discovery, with only short breaks for food and naps, he allowed himself to become Wei Shen. An undercover cop trying to bring down the Triad in a place called Hong Kong.

Wondrous. And he controlled almost everything. The clothes he wore, so much more diverse and colourful than his normal grey apprentice elf number. Plus the cars and motorbikes, Snorri could only imagine how much better they could make the North Pole. Nor could he ignore the fighting. It spoke to him; he felt that it, not crafting for Santa, defined his purpose in life.

The only problem with Sleeping Dogs, Snorri knew he should read and watch the other rectangles. And he constantly told himself he would do so. He just needed to finish the current mission. But each end led him to the next start, to find out where the story would take him.

Even the diversions distracted him. For example, he currently found himself in Club Bam Bam playing the karaoke sub-game, trying to score over ninety percent at Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.

A good start, as he found himself singing under his breath as he played along. He even handled the first ‘when the working day is done’ line with no problems. Palms sweating, worrying about his fingers twitching when they should not, Snorri tried to bring it home. Of course that is when the door opened.

"Okay, Snorri, it's time," Master Tyr said.

A war raged in his mind, politeness versus being so close. However, the war proved a large enough distraction he flubbed the next few marks. Giving it up, he paused the game.

"I guess I'm as ready as ever to become Wei Shen."

"Who?"

"The guy on the screen, he's real tough and he's undercover, just like I will be."

Tyr looked at the screen, then searched through the other boxes and flimsy books. Selecting one he, held it towards Snorri and said, "Not like him, more like her."

"Why is her hair pink?"

"I don't know,"

Setting the plastic wand down, he took the flimsy book, giving him time to think. The concept of boys and girls always existed in his mind; from the different toys he once helped pack, to the different types of trouble each could get themselves in with the N&N machine. But not until he started playing Sleeping Dogs did the difference become real.

While playing the game, it seemed right and natural to control Wei Shen. To go on dates with Amanda or Tiffany. Besides, all the elfs at the pole referenced each other as he.

"Umm...wouldn't it be better if I go like him, instead of her? He's good at dealing with the bad guys. I don't think she could."

Tyr said, "It won't be your job to deal with the bad guys, just to find out their plans."

"Wei Shen can do that too, Master Tyr. He runs errands and missions for them to gain their trust. I can do the same."

"I don't think there is time for that, Snorri. Besides, the only opening we can find requires someone like her. It's not a big deal, the big change is going from elf to human."

It felt all types of wrong, but he could neither understand or verbalize why. For a moment he even regretted volunteering. He asked, "Would you do it if it’s not a big deal, Master Tyr?"

"Umm...yeah...ah...of course. But I can't. It needs to be one of you."

Probably the least convincing Snorri ever saw Master Tyr. But he did volunteer and he could not imagine going back to the way things were before, because he doubted he could stay here playing games forever. Trying to gather his nerves, he flipped through the book. Then he saw it. The girl from the cover, now not coloured, punching a big dude who went flying through the air. He felt relieved girls could beat up people too.

"Can I finish this song first? I need it for a trophy," Snorri asked.

"Sure."

Setting down the flimsy and picking up his wand, Snorri unpaused the game to sing and play along. “Some boys take a beautiful girl, And hide her away from the rest of the world. I wanna be the one to walk in the sun...”

~o~O~o~

No matter where you went in the greater metro North Pole, everybody considered a fat guy with a bushy, white beard the boss. But at Research and Development that did not mean Santa, it meant Brokkr the Dwarf Master, though for him, his appearance did not change much from the days in Asgard and the only time someone called him jolly, it involved enough sarcasm to kill a fairy penguin.

With him, at R&D, you could always find his two brothers, their appearance differing only by girth. In the middle, an even better smith than Brokkr, though without his brother's minimal social skills, stood Eitri. While the skinniest, least skilled, and socially dead Sindri rounded out their numbers.

Ever since the order, from Santa, to build an elf maidening device, the brothers focused on nothing else; Brokkr spouting ideas and orders, Eitri tinkering and tailoring, and Sindri sitting and staring. They did not finalize their prototype until Brokkr lost or won numerous arguments with himself, Eitri attempted and discarded many attempts, and Sindri spun his chair nine hundred seventy two thousand and eighty eight revolutions.

"I don't know if the blasted thing is going to work. Eitri don't know if the blasted thing is going to work. But Sindri is confident and you are in a rush, so we can to try it out if you want," Brokkr said to Santa, Thor, and Loki.

Santa said, "Let's try it."

"You're the boss. Besides, if things go horribly wrong, it's not like you don't have more elfs.”

“I would prefer not to lose any elfs. So cut the bullshit, you're our expert. Is this going to work or not?"

“In theory it should, since it's just a variation of the Elfing machine and we all know how well that worked. Though unlike it, which removed rage and aggression, we want the Girlifinator to add sweet and sexy, hence those."

Those looked like two stainless steel kettles, the larger over blue flame and the other over flickering charcoal coals. If anything, they looked like they belonged in a distillery, glass piping coming out of the top and feeding into the person sized glass tube at the centre of a contraption similar to the Elfing machine, though the glass piping contained pink, rather than the previously used blue neon liquid. An impressive contraption right out of any number of low budget sci fi movies, though these dwarf's special effects came with real consequences.

But they still needed their egos stroked; therefore, Santa asked, "What's with the kettles?"

"The catalysts for the transformation. In the kettle on the right is liquefied wasanbon, which is a fine powdered sugar from Japan. While the left one holds a combination of orange peel, toasted sesame seeds (both black and white), ginger, cayenne, Szechuan pepper, and nori. It was Sindri's idea to toast the spice, to bring out it's full potency."

With his normal disdain barely kept in check by his interest in the current operation, Loki asked, "Are we really going to rely on children's rhymes."

"I'm surprised you continue to doubt our skills, Loki. Would you consider another wager?"

"No wagers. Besides, Loki, as the masters of the North Pole, we shouldn't sneer at the power of children's rhymes or dreams," Santa said.

“Touche,” Loki said. "But I did learn Brokkr is more confident in this contraption than he led us to believe."

“Well, I don't know about...Hey, what's he doing here?” Brokkr asked.

"Who, Tyr? You knew he was coming."

"Not Tyr, that barbarian with him, Snorri the machine wrecker."

"Oh, you remember him?" Santa asked.

"Course I remember him and how he almost broke our beautiful Elfing machine. Wait, don't tell me. He's the elf we're supposed to transform. You should have taken my wager, Loki, it'll likely fail. Brilliant choice guys, two thumbs up."

"There's no need for sarcasm."

"Is that what you think, Thor? Then why did you idiots pick Snorri, of all elfs?"

“It was Tyr’s idea.”

“What was my idea, brother mine?”

Sparing a thought for how he wished his almost all powerful sons, enemy, and dwarfs would act like grown ups, Santa interrupted another probable argument to say, “And here’s the hero of the hour."

Snorri did not feel like a hero, he felt sick, like the time he ate a twenty four pack of candy canes during one shift with the N&N machine. Nor did the presence of all the grand masters help his mood. Sure he knew an attempt to ruin Christmas seemed like a big deal, but he hoped not this big. It both expanded his worry and his curiosity. He wanted to become a human, but to become a human female?

He still could not figure out why that felt wrong. Gender never used to mean anything, at least before he played Sleeping Dogs and awoke fleeting memory fragments.

At least one of Santa's eyes recognized the look on Snorri's face. It held fear, apprehension, but also a doggedness. That look is what he sought in the good old days when he chose a human to help him in the many conflicts that once guided his life. Important to act quickly, to not allow the fear and apprehension to overpower the confused determination.

“I guess there is no reason to wait, is there, Brokkr?”

“Not really.”

“Snorri?”

“Ummmm...”

“Excellent, so let’s get started.”

Almost before Snorri realized it, he found himself undressed and strapped into a glass tube at the centre of a weird contraption. Unable to take his eyes off two nozzles overhead, he never noticed the gas that appeared from the grates at his feet.

“What happened?” Tyr asked, starting towards the machine when Snorri’s body went limp.

"Don't worry, Tyr. Just a protective measure we built in so our subject does not consciously fight the transformation, which, seeing how you bunch picked Snorri the Neck Chewer, shows brilliant precognition on our parts. Now why don't you all join me at the control console?"

When the five red velvet, with white fur trim, clad masters took a seat behind console, the shortest and fattest, who sat in the centre, clicked the mouse to exit the power saving mode and entered his password, the other four politely looking away, to turn off the screen saver on his dual monitors. On the left they saw Snorri, while the left held a 3D image of a beautiful Asian girl, naked and slowly spinning in a circle.

Allowing his visitors a moment of appreciation, Brokkr said, "Based on your requirements and source material you provided, along with additional details we found on the Internet, which by the way is full of crazy shit, we created this composite form. What do you think?"

"What type of crazy shit?"

Santa said, "That doesn't matter, Thor. What do you think, Loki, how does the composite mesh with this Justin's desires."

"Based upon my limited understanding of the genre, I assume so. However, if you wish to see her through a teenager's eyes, you'd better ask Thor."

“You know, Loki, I’m not even insulted by your insinuation. In fact I take great pleasure in studying the magnificence of the fairer sex. So, gentlemen, step aside and let the connoisseur consume. Let’s see...hmm...well that’s nice...how do I spin her around? How about zoom in? Okay, I’m ready to pronounce my judgment.”

“Do tell, oh mighty judger of the female form,” Tyr said.

“Father, can I add that to my title, right after the God of Thunder and Lightning?”

“We’re waiting,” Santa answered.

“Rather spectacular; however, and forgive me for coming off all as expected, maybe she could do with a bit more up top."

"But this is the result of diligent evaluation, they are my best guess at the average size for the character set Loki provided." Brokkr said, in semi-protest.

"I believe you," Thor answered, still looking at the rotating image. "Yet nothing else about her is average."

"He's right," Loki said.

Nodding his head, Santa asked, "Is it possible to make a change, Brokkr? Not up to the size Thor normally prefers, but a bit more?"

"Sure, just need to boost the proportion of spice versus wasanbon in the transformation. Here let me model it, tell me when to stop."

"There," Tyr said, a few seconds later. "Perfect!"

"I agree," Loki said.

"Well, I'm thinking just a bit..."

"No, Thor, they're right. Let's do it, Brokkr."

"Wait!"

Barely stopping himself from growling, Santa asked, "What now, Tyr?"

"How does it work?"

"No, no, no," Thor said, holding out a hand towards the dwarf turned fat elf. "It's probably a bunch of technical mumbo jumbo that either won't make sense or I won't understand. You can talk about it after I leave, after the transformation is complete."

Loki said, "I can't believe I've agreed with two of Thor's last three ideas."

"Do it, Brokkr."

Chapter 3

The shrieking of a demon blasted Snorri from his slumber. Trying to stand, to prepare himself to fight the beast, he flopped about in the darkness, unable to gain his knees, never mind his feet, on the overly cushioned surface upon which he lay. Finally, with flailing arms and a heave-ho flip he spotted the three, red eyes of the beast. With a mighty lackadaisical swing, he brought his hand down upon the 5:22.

Before he could work up the energy to groan, additional assaults rained down upon his senses. First, the burning energy of a thousand suns, as the fluorescent lights of the room came on. At the same moment someone started shouting.

"Reveal! Reveal! Reveal yourself! Drop the clock and grab your frock. That means, get out of bed, you slug-a-bed."

Shrugging aside the flowery comforter, Snorri swung his legs over the side. At that moment he remembered everything.

"That is not out of bed, recruit! Stand up, then come stand in front of me. Hurry, hurry, hurry!"

Though the voice pitched itself far below a bellow, it did command him to stand at attention. Even better, it offered a reason not to think. Ignoring everything that felt different, he scrambled to his feet before trotting to the foot of the bed. There he stood in front of a gorgeous Asian woman dressed in a British military officer’s, red tunic dress, if treated to the Prince and the Revolution filter.

From under a fanciful tricorne, which kept long, thick black hair from her face, she stared at him until he found himself fighting the urge to fidget. Before that happened, she asked, "Where are you from, recruit?"

"Umm, the North Pole."

"Do I look like an Umm to you, recruit?"

"Umm, I mean, no, ma'am."

"Do I look like I work for a living? Of course not. Which is why i am neither an Umm nor a ma'am. I am Kami Sensual Scroll, your Divine Instructor, but you can call me Sensational." The woman said, placing her hands on her hips, turning her head to stare upwards and off into the distance. Holding the dramatic pose for a moment, she looked back towards Snorri and asked, "Do you understand, recruit?"

"Yes, Sensational," Snorri said, standing straighter.

"Then once again, where are you from, recruit?"

"The North Pole, Sensational."

"I thought the only presents and pheasants came from the North Pole, and you don’t have any feathers. Are you a present, recruit?”

“No, Sensational.”

Before he could react, she exuberantly wrapped him into an embrace, trapping both of his arms as his side. Rocking him side to side, she said, "Of course you are a present. A pretty girl who your target will want to unwrap and play with, but first you will undergo my basic training program to turn you into a vivacious and curvaceous seducing machine. You do want to become a vivacious and curvaceous seducing machine, don't you recruit?"

"I don't know what that is, Sensational."

"It's you at the end of your training. Can I get an oolah, recruit?"

"Oolah?"

"Once more, recruit. This time with a feeling and a shimmy. You do know how to shimmy, don't you?"

“Yes, Sensational.”

“Show me.”

“Oolah!" Snorri said, shaking his body.

“That is not a shimmy, it is a seizure. Like this!”

“Oolah!” Snorri said, confused but doing his best to copy the slinky shiver.

“That is better. One more time.”

“Oolah!"

"It's a start."What is your name, recruit?"

"Snorri, Sensational," he answered, his head starting to hurt from confusion.

“What type of name is Snorri?”

“Elfish, Sensational.”

"Shouldn't it consist of a bunch of Ls and vowels?"

"Not that I know, it's a semi-common name at the North Pole, Sensational."

"Okay, okay, we're going to need to work on both our names. The new you does not look nor will you soon act anything like a Snorri and, surprisingly, I am not sure I want you to continue calling me Sensational. It loses much of its complementary power when used in a routine. Plus it seems quite a mouthful to keep repeating."

"It is, Sensational," Snorri said, with a nod.

With her hand on her chin, a finger tapping her full lips, Sensual Scroll pondered the importance of names. "Let's see. You need a Japanese name; however, since you are not too smart, no insult intended, we should try for something that sounds similar to your current name. I got it, Shiori. It means bookmark, which is one of my favourite things. And since you are from the North Pole, we'll go with Yukimura for your last name. What do you think, do you feel like a Shiori Yukimura?"

"Not really, Sensational."

"You will. And why don't you shorten my title to Sensa?"

"Yes, Sensa," the once Snorri, but now apparently Shiori said, ensuring to duplicate the long eh sound in the second syllable.

"Okay, recruit Shiori, time to get started. But first you need to make your bed."

Snorri, excuse me, I mean Shiori welcomed this return to familiar ground, even if the way he walked felt so very different. Drawing upon the bed making skills Santa militantly demanded from his elfin minions, the new recruit squared everything off, even going so far as to do the whole cover tuck around the sleeping pillows thingee.

"Done, Sensa," he said, returning to attention.

"I don't think so, recruit. What about those?"

Looking where she pointed, he saw a pile of pillows and cushions, of multiple sizes, many with frilly covers.

"The corner is not their proper place, recruit."

"Sorry, Sensa. Where can I store them?"

"Well place them on the bed where they belong."

"But I don't need them for sleeping, Sensa, they'll only be in the way."

Speaking slowly, almost as if she found herself doubting his intelligence, Sensual Scroll said, "Of course they are not for sleeping."

"But..."

"No buts, recruit. Accepting their place on your bed is the first step on your path to enlightenment. Only when you no longer question their presence will you near the end of time under my tutelage.

~o~O~o~

It took some time, after his arrival at girl school before he quit startling back when he saw the person in the mirror. On first sighting, after the initial bed making, when entering the next room an entire wall covered in mirrors, he initially wanted to believe Sensa Sensual Scroll split in two, but knew the reflection of the figure wearing the pink nightshirt decorated by a cartoonish cat with a red bow over its left ear marked his new appearance. Besides he could see the Divine Instructor, standing behind him in her weird soldier outfit.

Definitely different, maybe Sensa's younger sister. But absolutely more of a Shiori than a Snorri, which left his head spinning as he grasped at a sense of self.

That sense of self did not quite shatter in the days, possibly weeks, which followed. Instead it stretched and grew, bulging out to accept the many new lessons he learned. Foremost among these, hair and makeup exercises that offered him all the time he needed to get used to seeing the new him, while offering him plenty to distract from what that meant.

Surprising, at least to him, he found himself a quick learner. Hands not dexterous enough for widget making, yet nimble enough to efficiently load bells into cartridges, also proved skilled in the art of the makeover. Show him how to do something, at most three times, and he could forever replicate it. The only problem, while he possessed the physical skills of an artist, Snorri did not own either the eye or the soul.

For a time, Sensual Scroll pressed him to colour outside the lines, to add his personality to either hair or makeup styles. However, after a number of efforts that would only get a passing grade if at a Clown College or for a Celtic warrior shaping his hair with clay, they decided to treat him as a forger. Each hairstyle received a letter and each makeup combination a number, though rarely did he need anything other than styles A to F combined with number 3. The choice usually made for him as a result of the uniform he wore each day, many of which matched the school uniforms worn by the girls in some of his favourite manga. For example, today he dressed as a school girl from Highschool of the Dead, which allowed him to choose hairstyle A, while trying to emulate Saeko Busujima.

Slowly he spun in front of a full length mirror, looking over each shoulder to get a good view, to make sure his appearance met Sensa’s high standards. If she spotted anything amiss, she would pick something new out of his closet, expect him to pick another letter number combination, and change his look before she allowed him to eat breakfast. And since he woke up particularly hungry, he did not consider that an option.

Satisfied with his appearance, he spoke aloud the mantra of Sensual Scrolls teachings. “How I look is meaningless if my attitude does not match.“

Before he brought himself before his teacher and submitted himself to her morning evaluation, he needed to achieve the right attitude. Quirky cuteness needed to become second nature. To do this, Sensa began teaching him Kata, multiple movements strung together almost like a dance. No longer a beginner, he now knew seven of those movements and she told him if he continued to improve, she would soon teach him the next.

In front of the mirror, he stood tall though he allowed his body relax, arms hanging at his side. Eyes closed, Snorri took a deep breath and reminded himself that speed did not matter, instead he should strive for perfection of form, grace between movements.

Opening his eyes, he allowed a smile to grow on his face, let it take ownership of what anyone would see when looking at him. Only when it felt right would he start.

The first movement began when it felt right. Instead of his mind telling him to start, his left arm flowed upwards, bending at the elbow. His hand, the thumb and all the fingers except the index, curling inwards, though not tightly, just enough to allow pride of place for the straightened index. Pointed vertically upwards, he centered it just before his slightly pursed lips, the pink of his fingernails lighter than on his lips. At the same time, he allowed his left eye to close in a wink and breathed a gentle ‘shhh’.

Holding the pose for a moment, he then brought up his right hand, his left moving as well, both hands forming an L shape with thumb and forefinger, the rest of the fingers still clenched tight. When both hands came to a stop, the left showed its knuckles, perpendicularly downwards, while the right showed pink tipped clenched fingers, the index finger pointing upwards, which left the thumbs of both hands parallel. Looking through the frame formed, into the mirror, he allowed the gentle smile to return.

From there, he slightly twisted his left shoulder forward, allowing his elbow to drop to the same height as the right. Hands forming into claws, fingers spread gently apart, he bracketed his face, palms facing outwards, and allowed a look of mischievous ferocity to appear on his face. This often did not look right, but today it felt perfect. His pleasure at the success almost broke his form, but the next movement naturally overrode the reaction. Elbows dropping closer together, fingers spreading out as he placed both hands on his cheeks. Forming his mouth in a comfortable circle, showing some of his perfect teeth below the top lip, he opened his eyes as wide as possible.

Over halfway there. Holding the surprise pose for a moment, he regained calm almost lost.

Next his hands dropped away from his cheeks. Eyes back to a normal width, though still exaggerated by his makeup, he smiled, putting even more teeth on display. Dropping his left hand to his waist, he slightly tilted his head slightly in that direction and, once more creating a pointer with his left hand, he pointed at the mirror.

Without pause, Snorri opened both hands and brought them together just below his chin. Shifting somewhat saucily to the left, he blew himself a kiss in the mirror.

So perfect, so natural to sway back to the right, now looking over that shoulder as the matching arm dropped to his side. Then forming a V with the first two fingers of his left hand, Snorri raised it and brought the index finger almost to his cheek in victory.

Three times he flowed through the Kata, leaving him feeling wonderful. It pushed Snorri into the background, allowed him to leave his bedroom, in search of his divine instructor and breakfast, as Shiori

~o~O~o~

"Section 227?" Santa asked, wondering if he heard Tyr correctly.

"Yep, Section 227."

"But there are only 227 sections."

Tyr nodded his agreement. "At this time, that is correct."

“How in the name of our family did the most recent group of lunkheads, as you rightly called them, to become widget makers win a production contest? We’re usually happy if they make it through a couple of seasons without getting impaled on the equipment. Did Thor rig it somehow?”

“Probably.”

Santa asked, “How? Actually, don’t answer that. If that’s who he wants to have on his team, he can have them. Besides, losing them will impact production the least.”

“Very well, I will let him know he can begin training. Thor also mentioned he will need a sled and a team.”

“We recently mothballed the 70s models, he can dig one out of storage. As for a team, get him to round up the bullies who are always calling the smaller reindeers names, he can use them.”

After checking his notes, Tyr asked, “Any word on Snorri’s training.”

“Loki’s last report said that his subcontractor is pleased with her trainee’s progress.”

~o~O~o~

Up to eleven movements in his Kata, Snorri found himself spending more of his time thinking of himself as Shiori. But nothing brought his old self back like emotional reading exercises. Hours spent in front of a television, watching characters interact with each and trying to interpret their feelings left him feeling dumb.

Not since the attempts at free styling his hair and makeup did he struggle this much. In truth, he always found it easier to physically do something, but thinking never left him feeling great.

Therefore, when he heard Sensual Scroll enter the study room, he hoped she would distract him from the video. Though he stayed working until she gave him permission to stop.

“Recruit, give me your attention.”

Given the hoped for permission, Snorri jumped out his chair and hurried to stand before her. “Yes, Sensa?”

Sensual Scroll’s right hand stretched towards him, her palm facing upwards, a pair of shoes appearing to sit just above it. Somewhat like the shoes he wore; rounded toe, strap with buckle, and made of black leather. But unlike his shoes, the heel reached almost as high as Sensa’s shoe, though not quite as spikily.

When she saw his attention upon the shoe, Sensual Scroll said, “This is a high heeled shoe, the preferred weapon of our enemies. It makes a distinctive sound when you walk, which all the boys remember.”

“Who are our enemies?” Snorri asked.

“The Lord of Sore Calves and his mistress, the Lady of Aching Feet.”

“And they make you wear shoes like that? How mean.”

“Well, not exactly,” his Divine Instructor answered. “Nobody makes me wear them.”

“Oh, you mean those aren’t real people. But why wear high heeled shoes if they make your feet sore?”

“See, it is like this.”

The Mary Jane disappeared, in its place appeared a purple pump, then a brown suede pump, and then...Snorri found himself caught in a kaleidoscope of rapidly appearing and disappearing footwear. Every type of shoe, every type of boot, in every colour, both solids and multi-coloured, and so many different materials. The display hypnotized him, reclaimed all Shiori ground lost during the emotional reading exercise.

The kaleidoscope stopped, the high heeled Mary Jane once more resting above Sensa’s palm. With the mindlessness of a zombie stretching through a barred window in an attempt to grasp a victim, he reached towards the shoe. In a dazed voice, he asked, “Can I try?”

“Be careful.

~o~O~o~

Sometimes, you just don't have it. Unfortunately, his D.I. did not believe in that excuse, which meant every time he made an mistake, she stopped the music and made him start again. But, after a certain point, he found himself failing earlier each attempt. Red faced from embarrassment and effort, he watched, over his shoulder in the mirror, as Sensa's face grow stormy. More than focusing on performing the dance right, he began preparing for her anger.

"Stop, stop what you are doing right now," Sensual Scroll said, gesturing for him to turn and face her. "What is wrong with you, recruit? It is like you have forgotten everything you learned."

Unable to provide her an answer he broke out the fourteenth movement of his Kata. Twisting his left side away from her, while keeping his eyes on hers, he allowed those eyes to grow wider. With this questioning expression on his face, Snorri gave a slight bob as he brought both hands shoulder high in questioning confusion.

At this, his Sensa happily clapped and said, "Perfect, recruit. Spectacular timing, combined with excellent form; however, it does not answer my question."

"I don't know, Sensa. Maybe it's the repetitive music making my head throb or the pitch of her voice, which makes me wonder if my ears will start to bleed."

"Now don't exaggerate, if that could happen we would both be sick abed. What is the real problem, recruit?"

"For some reason I'm just not feeling it, Sensa. There is something missing."

"You are a 15th Kata student, this is not beyond you. I will ask you one more time, what is the real problem?"

Snorri knew she spoke the truth. Every step played in his mind, every twist, bounce, and shimmy performed many times before. It just seemed so silly. And realizing this, the answer blossomed within his mind.

"Sensa, can you give me twenty minutes?”

“What? Why?”

“Please, Sensa, I think I know what’s wrong. I just need some time to better prepare. Please?” Snorri asked, accentuating his plea by bringing both fists together, underneath his chin, and allowing a look of puppy dog hope to appear on his face.

“Oh, very well. But you only have fifteen minutes, recruit.”

Smiling his thanks and showing her a heart shaped from his fingers and thumbs, Snorri ran from the dance studio, through the classroom, and into his bedroom. With less time than he probably needed, he rushed into the attached bathroom, while stripping from his workout gear of sports bra, short shorts, and runners. A quick sponge bath, before he used the mirror to create look B-7, which meant long hair hanging loose and slightly more dramatic make-up than normal.

Untold repetition meant the activity only used half his remaining time, but he still needed to hurry getting dressed. First a matching set of white, lacy bra and panties, with lace trimmed black, knee high socks, and a shortish, multi layer petticoat. Snorri needed to wear it to make the skirt of his cleaning uniform hang properly. Actually more of a tidying uniform, being too fancy and skimpy for actual work. Worried about dancing in the shoes he normally wore with the costume, he put on a similar pair but with low, blocky heels.

Still tying the apron around his waist, Snorri ran back to the studio. Placing the lace headdress on his head as he arrived, about thirty seconds past his allotted time, and took his mark. Looking down, arms stretched out to his sides, right leg bent so the knee crossed in the front of the left and only the toes of his shoe touched the ground. In this pose, he did not notice the smile on his instructors face as she started the music.

The music didn’t change, still annoyingly repetitive, but he now felt like the type of person who would dance to the song. For the next four minutes he did not miss a beat, bounce, shimmy or shuffle. Nor did his face lose the happy smile or his pace slow.

Sensual Scroll's happy clap, from before, seemed like nothing in comparison to the enthusiastic way she rushed forward to hug him upon his completion. When they separated, continuing to hold each other's hands and sharing identical, bright smiles, his Divine Instructor said, "Well done, more than well done, brilliantly done. To think, sadly I stood here preparing to explain your failure to your North Pole masters. Just before you return with this gigantic break through. It belongs on YouTube. How did it happen?"

"Well, Sensa, see, earlier I found myself caught up in how silly this seemed. I imagined how everybody would laugh at me, like so many times before, if they saw. But then I remembered how I watched you perform the routine so many times while showing me what to do and nobody would ever laugh at you. You are so much more sensational than any of them could imagine being. It makes no sense to worry about their opinion of where I am being led since it is you who is leading me there. I decided to stop fighting the joy and, instead, just embrace it. And then, oh, Sensa, I never imagined I could experience such spectacular fun!"

"And so you define the truism upon which my newly created Martial Art of Cute-o is based. No longer will I call you recruit, you are my first disciple."

"Oh, thank you, Sensa. I hope I never disappoint you."

~o~O~o~

Underwhelming. Pathetic even. And he could only blame himself.

More proof as to why he made his name as a God of Action, not of Thought. But spending so much of his time with conniving bastards like his father, brother and Loki lead Thor into forgetting himself. A perfect example, his thinking that Section 227 took so long to become widget makers because they retained more of their warlike nature. Now, looking over the twelve elfs, he saw them through Loki’s eyes; twelve crotch high, delicate dolls. In no way more threatening than any of their brethren, just dumber.

Even worse, in re-establishing his god type, he left himself stuck. A Thinking God could convince himself to admit he rigged the contest, but an Acting God would rather charge into disaster than admit making a mistake. Slowly beginning his charge, Thor spoke his first words, consisting of both truth and lies, to his team.

"Welcome everyone, you are probably wondering what prize you won as a result of placing first in a contest?"

"What contest?" The elf called Banki asked.

"The production contest the foreelfs spoke about before every shift, for the last two months."

"We won the contest?" Banki's neighbour Halvdan asked. "But we suck."

While Banki nodded agreement, an elf in the second row, Ragi said, "We probably cheated. Are we in trouble for cheating, Master Thor?"

Infinitely dumber, Thor now realized, though he tried to hide that thought when he answered, "Of course you didn't cheat, your section won fair and square. And as a result you will be trained as an elite fighting force, under my command."

"Murder and mayhem!" Banki shouted, though he did not know why.

"No murder, no mayhem. We will train only to disarm and capture, as stated in the rules under which we will operate."

Erik the Brunette, sitting beside Ragi, asked, "What about the other side?

"If they know what's good for them," Thor lied, without explicitly lying. “Besides you will be trained to use one of the most effective weapons ever invented. This!”

Thor expected his audience to feel let down, by what he displayed. It is just that he did not know how to handle their looks of betrayal.

Halvdan let their outrage out when he said, “You’re kidding right? A candy cane?”

"The good guys are so going to laugh at us if we attack them with candy canes," Banki said.

"We are the good guys."

"Really? Us? For some reason that seems wrong."

Rather than follow instinct, which screamed for him to throw the candy cane at his followers, Thor forced himself to take a deep breath before he said, "Yes really, us. Someone plans to ruin Christmas and it is our job to stop her. And, after significant research, I chose the weapon best able to do that. Let me ask you, what weapon did the one opponent who fought Myamoto Musashi, the greatest swordsman who ever lived, to a draw? Don't be shy, shout out your answers."

"A battle axe?"

"No."

"A battle hammer?"

"No."

"A spear?"

"No."

"A boulder?"

"No...wait, did someone just say a boulder?" Thor asked.

Waving from the end of row one, an elf named Odd said, "Yep, it's how I would fight anybody good with a sword. What you do, is balance a boulder on an overhang, using a smaller rock as the stopper. The little rock is the key to the whole thing. Tie a rope around it, since the big rock is harder to shift. Do something to get the swordsman to chase you or a friend under the overhang and time it so you pull the rope at the right moment, which will cause the little rock to shift and the boulder to fall on your opponent. Bam! Then, while he either staggers about dazed or drops to the ground unconscious, you run up, steal his sword and stab him in the stomach."

Odd's hand clap, which accompanied his bam, worked like a charm. The other eleven looked at Odd like they would follow his genius into the depths of Hell. Even Thor found himself wanting to try out a boulder on his next enemy; however, he knew it would result in breaking all the rules. He needed to distract.

"No, Musashi's opponent, used a staff. And a staff is little different from a shepherd's crook, which is basically a candy cane. Once you all become experts with a staff, we won't be able to lose.

Chapter 4

In early days, soon after Valhalla’s transformation into the North Pole, Santa watched his Einherjar elfs grow restless and bored. No longer allowed to spend their days practicing the art of war or wile away the evening eating the meat of Sæhrímnir or drinking mead from Heiðrún, they grew listless. To combat this he introduced schooling. Most lessons revolved around crafts, but he also required them to learn math and languages.

So before he arrived at Sensual Scroll's academy, Snorri numbered both English and Japanese amongst the many languages he knew. However, there is a significant difference between knowing a language in a theoretical way and using it in real life. He still thought in the bastardized version of Old Norse they spoke at the North Pole and he always needed to translate things in his head. Something Sensa started him working on as soon as he arrived at her school. She accepted the need for him to translate words in his mind, but her high standards for his disguise demanded the translation occur from Japanese to English.

By the time he became a twenty-second level student of their school’s Kata, Snorri attained this level of skill. Not that it slowed his time in the language lab, speaking dialog from books and movies into a microphone, listening back to what he said and his instructors evaluations. In time they crafted a nice voice, breathy but not too squeaky, and a dead sexy accent (Sensa’s judgment) when speaking English.

Today he found himself in a groove, not once hearing a correction or censure from his instructor. And when he finally heard her speak, she said, “Change of routine, Student Shiori. Go get dressed for the club, I will give you ninety minutes.”

Not unusual for her to spring such a test upon him. Some days, when doing stuff he enjoyed, the tests felt like a burden, but today he gladly removed the earphones from his head.

In his bedroom, he found a dress and lingerie already laid out on the bed. This, plus the length of time, told him he needed to go all out, with top marks depending upon face, hair, and how he accessorized. With time to shower, if he did not get his hair wet, Snorri turned on the taps while he quickly cleaned away face #3 and tucked his hair away beneath a shower cap.

Out of the shower, sweet smelling lotion spreading a glow across his body, he put on the lingerie and held the dress against his body while looking into a full length mirror. Definitely hairstyle M, face #14, and probably a change of nail polish. The briefest temptation to not do that flickered through his mind, but it did not stop him from reaching for a polish remover pad and doing things right.

Hair, makeup and nails ate significantly into his allotted time and Snorri found himself waving his fingers, hoping they would dry, while he looked into his jewelry box. Thinking of the asymmetrical cut of the collar on the form fitting little black dress, he chose a silver chain and white onyx pendant, with matching earrings and bangle for his left wrist.

Shoes sometimes got him into trouble. High and spiky, of course; matching his dress. The base requirement, but he owned at least five pair that fit those specs. Trying each pair on, he eliminated two; the 6” platform pumps (they worked better for a different type of dancing) and the booties (just didn’t like the overall look). But amongst the last three, he just couldn’t choose. Once more he tried on the remaining pairs, posing in front of the mirror and getting nowhere. He liked how all of them looked, which paralyzed his ability to decide.

“Definitely the ones with the straps.”

Surprised that he already used all of his allotted time, Snorri gracefully spun around on those strappy sandals in preparation for judgment. When he saw what his Sensa wore, a different anxiety formed a knot in his stomach.

"What do you think?" Sensual Scroll asked, slowly spinning in place.

Throughout their time together, his instructor always appeared in some variation of her Prince and the Revolution uniform. Now she wore a red dress which hugged her figure and showed just as much leg as did his, though her plunging neckline did show a lot more cleavage.

“Oh, Sensa, you are gorgeous,” he answered, dual feelings of admiration arising from the deep reaches where Snorri went to hide and the shallow waters in which Shiori still swam.

“You are not too bad yourself, hot stuff. Give us a spin. Ooh, I adore your choice on jewelry. Here, I forgot to leave this, it holds everything you will need.”

Rather nervously he took the black, leather clutch from her; however, its realness served as a lodestone, as he remembered lessons and checked inside. But only momentarily.

“Sensa, I don’t understand? What’s going on?”

“I told you to get dressed for a club, so we could go to a club.”

“Like, for real?”

“For real. It is time for you to take the next step, to meet some people. Specially some men, to see if you truly learned your lessons.”

In life, there are moments when you get the chance to face your fears. Some are willing, ready to leap head first into the abyss. In the olden days, before Odin’s Pact, Snorri the Berserker numbered amongst those, but neither Snorri the Elf nor Shiori the Student felt that brave, or foolhardy. And while, to some, it might look like he froze, Sensual Scroll realized he just needed a moment to process the idea of facing the world as someone new and, in her opinion, much improved.

Faced with stepping outside of this nice bubble of safety, Snorri found himself thinking of Elf Snorri, the outcast. Not good memories, it left him afraid how people would react. Could he allow himself to believe this training would change how people saw him? Did he believe in his Sensa?

In asking those two questions, Snorri took a leap of faith. How could he answer no to either after the months spent training with her. The only other possibility reason not to believe in her was an elaborate practical joke. But his cynicism did not sink deep enough to consider it and his intellect could not imagine these powerful beings picking him as their target, if they wanted to pull off such a joke. Besides, he trusted his Sensa, knew she would make this test run safe for him.

By the time his hands mechanically opened the clutch, to truly ensure it held everything he would need, the life began returning to his eyes. He kind of felt ready.

"Are you okay, Shiori?" His instructor asked, the look of concern out of place on her normally serene or energetic face.

“I'm absolutely terricited, Sensa!”

Sensual Scroll needed no translation to realize her student felt both terrified and excited. Focused upon the second, she wrapped both arms around his left, in companionship and led him to her hand picked wolf.

~o~O~o~

Although he did not tell anyone, Thor readily admitted to himself how much he enjoyed training his attack force. True, they did nothing to make him change his mind about their intelligence, but they made up for it with enthusiasm and aggression. Exactly what this mission needed.

The one problem, combine those two things when sparring against each other with candy cane staffs and you get bruises or broken bones. Brokkr dug out the healing machines from the good old days; however, Santa demanded a change. He worried their pain and anguish would cause the North Pole to lose its ranking in the Happiest Places in All Worlds list if the auditors from Johnson, Olsen, and Petrovic showed up for a surprise visit.

After Santa's pronouncement, Thor worked with Eitri to produce some high tech armour. Meanwhile his team prepped the old sled, painting some bitching flames on the side and replacing the white velvet seats with red velvet seats, during which they skipped full contact practice. This led to boredom. That worried their leader who knew not trust his followers to handle the tedium well.

A good thing Brokkr's talented younger brother quickly developed something he called a force inhibiting armoured girdle, which looked like a regular Brown belt with a rodeo worthy buckle decorated with curlicues and a reindeer's head. While the dwarf believed it needed some more work before handing them out to the chosen dozen, Thor felt leery about giving him extra time. The training facility still smelt of sour egg nog, a result of Alf’s idea to create a grenade by filling a Christmas tree ornament with drink left over from the cafeteria and letting it sour before he used it. Every moment spent away from them, which did not result in a problem, Thor counted as a win.

“Honestly, Eitri, I trust you completely. When have you ever built me something that didn’t work?”

“Of course it will work, but I can make it work so much better. The interface is clunky and needs work before your band of merry mayhem makers can work with it."

"I'm afraid of them living up to that name, if we don’t get it to them soon," Thor said. "Surely it can't be that complicated."

“They will be easy to use, once you get them calibrated, all you need to do is run your fingers along the curlicues on the left side. Doing the same on the right side will turn it off. But the calibration, now that's another story. Each user needs to be synced to his girdle by performing ninety three different tests. I need to program a method, into the controlinator, to calculate and determine the necessary answers. Everything from the elf's drag coefficient while running through butter to the centrifugal force of his nostril hairs when whirling in a circle."

"Now you're just making stuff up."

"No, Thor, I would never do that," Eitri said, a serious look on his face. "Engineering is no laughing matter."

"Is there a workaround?"

"I suppose we could just conduct the tests and manually enter the results, but that's rather inelegant."

"Inelegant? Really, that's a problem? My team is full of elfs who thinking farting in each other's faces is the height of comedy. They don't need elegant. Meanwhile, I tend to solve my problems with that kick ass hammer you built me. I don't need elegant either. Make eleven more of these belts and get your team to start running the tests on my boys and entering the results."

Memories of Thor's gleeful use of Mjölnir in the past provided a powerful force behind agreement. And, not until he until he found himself alone did Eitri curse all interfering management types.

~o~O~o~

Life can feel so much easier when you can ignore consequences. The time, measuring over a week in the Central Deity Time zone, from the moment Sensual Scroll took Snorri’s arm until now, proved one such period in life.

Now, all alone, again wearing the tight black dress and strappy sandals, those consequences regained all their weight. The heaviest of these, the desire to mourn a death.

Although that probably crossed into the Land of the Overly Dramatic. Death implied a permanent loss, but Snorri still existed, he just no longer resisted the Shiori vortex, aided by Sensa, into which the Masters tossed him. But when she thought about it, they did specialize in giving people what they wanted and, before he volunteered for this mission, she desperately wanted to become someone else. Not an outsider, but a desired part of the group. The lesson, which started at the nightclub, showed Shiori belonged.

This triggered something, not quite a memory, but an inkling that at some point in a forgotten past Snorri belonged, was popular, and liked. Experiencing those feelings again removed any remaining inclination to keep her essence bottled. Shiori's release provided the catalyst to let loose. Now she faced the ramifications of doing so.

Those waited at the end of her ride along the Interdimensional Transit Line and a return to Sensa's school. She feared her instructor's reaction. Would she offer wrath or, worse, scorn? Neither felt fair. Sensual Scroll led Snorri to Xanadu, cheered when the music and energy of the place transformed him into Shiori, and then introduced her to Comus. Handsome and funny, supremely confident Comus, who served as the nucleus around which the party revolved.

Did Sensa really expect her student to resist the charms of the son of Bacchus? Or, at a minimum, break away sooner?

Shiori doubted the first, but worried about the second. Every morning she’d thought about doing so, first thing upon waking, but something always held her in the world containing Xanadu. The ocean air, the soothing sun as she lay upon the beach, and Comus. So much to explore, so easy to relax. It seemed the perfect vacation and she knew, if not for her host needing to attend to some business, she would still remain in his company.

Still, not unreasonable to expect her to break away sooner than never.

By the time ITL dropped her off, back at the school, she’d decided to stoically accept whatever punishment Sensual Scroll deemed appropriate. She only hoped it did not result in her expulsion. Failure, now, struck her as horrific, to come so far and not succeed.

With this in mind, she decided to make herself look as innocent as possible before meeting her instructor. This involved the B1 look, twin braids tied with ribbons and lip gloss only, combined with a school girl's jumper dress, over a white blouse, which almost reached the bright, white knee socks that covered feet slipped into plain saddle shoes. True, Shiori learned this look from Sensa, so while it probably would not work on the instructor, it did not hurt to try.

Satisfied with what she saw in the full length mirror, hung on the bedroom's door, Shiori walked out and found no one waiting in any of the classrooms or the kitchen. Even more worried, she never-the-less took the opportunity to eat breakfast, quelling thoughts about how Comus always served fresher melons.

Finished eating, and with everything put away, she made another sweep through the classrooms. Still no Sensual Scroll. Normally, in this situation, Snorri would begin working on any outstanding assignment, but, though she tried, Shiori could not continue to ignore the tension. Not even performing the Kata allowed her to find her center. She decided to talk to her Sensa now and went to knock on the forbidding door of her instructor's office.

But no one answered.

This did nothing to quell Shiori's fears. The rest of the day that followed would count as the least productive, even worse than the first, at the school. In the end, she flopped on her bed, hugged her oversize Totoro plush toy doll to her chest, and stared into space.

"Meet me in my office in a few minutes."

Still in semi-daze, she scrambled off the bed, as the bedroom door closed behind her instructor. But no matter how ready she felt to face the music, the qualifier of a few minutes combined with lessons now ingrained into her consciousness called for a stop in front of a mirror first. There she fixed any problems with her face and hair, while checking for wrinkles in her clothing. Satisfied, she headed out, only then realizing Sensa did not wear her uniform. Unsure how to take that, fearing the worst, she knocked again on her instructor's door.

"Come in and take a seat, Shiori. I'll be right there."

Nervous, her first time invited into this seemingly forbidden space, Shiori entered. It proved nothing like what she expected, just a simple windowless room containing a desk and chairs on either side. With the correct degree of prim and proper for her outfit, back straight, knees together, and hands folded in her lap, she sat in one of the chairs and waited.

The Sensual Scroll who appeared did not resemble anything like the vixen she'd last seen nor the instructor who turned Snorri into Shiori. Still gorgeous, but barefoot, hair hanging long and loose, she wore a silk robe of sky blue, clouds embroidered upon it. Ignoring the chairs, she leaned against the desk, languidly waved a finger at her student and asked, "What's with the good girl look."

Though confused, this is not what she expected, Shiori went with the words, she'd practiced so many times throughout the day, and said, "I am sorry, Sensa."

"For what?"

"I..I only made it back today. I've been with Comus all this time."

"Well I should hope so, you're not quite ready to be wandering around on your own. Soon, mind you, but not yet," Sensual Scroll said, boosting herself onto the desk, the robe parting to show a tantalizing length of leg.

"But I thought...actually I don't know what I thought. I'm not in trouble?"

"Of course not."

"But...but, umm, Sensa, I'm confused."

"Think about your assignment, how you need to get close to your target. Now based on a study of this Justin Lipton's interest, we developed a profile of his fantasy girl and developed the training regiment you've undergone. You proved a wonderful student, but we focused less on turning you into a girl than into his fantasy. If we get a chance to share more time together, I will try to rectify that. However, we first need to finish turning you into our target’s dream girl, which required instruction I could not provide," Sensa said, watching understanding flicker in her student's eyes.

"Comus?"

"Yes, my old friend Comus. No way would I let you learn such an important lesson in the hands of some grubby pawed teenage boy."

Shiori said, "Oh, Sensa, I am so glad you chose him. He gave me all the time I needed, though I sensed something would happen soon after you introduced us. Not exactly what. Just that a path to pleasure opened before me, similar to one upon which I believe I walked before, though I can't remember when. No, more like it mirrored what I walked before. And for a moment I felt surprised, as if everything was transposed. Which seemed silly, once I realized how perfectly our widgets are engineered to fit together."

"But did you like it? I hope you liked it."

"I spent a week with Comus, we did not talk much."

"Good point. Wait a moment, I want to show you something," Sensual Scroll said. With this, she hopped from the desk and walked into the room behind the office. When she returned, reverently holding a silk covered box in her arms, she asked, "Do you know where I got my name, Shiori?"

"No, Sensa."

"From this. Go ahead and look. Do not worry, it is not as delicate as it appears."

When his instructor set the box on the desk and lifted the top, Shiori saw a Japanese emaki, a hand scroll resting on the silk wrapped base of the box. Curious, she rolled her chair forward, moved the scroll to the right side and unrolled the first portion with her left hand. In that two foot section she saw multiple pictures, most showing a man and woman together. Somewhat crudely though colourfully drawn, descriptions, written in Japanese characters, beside each picture. While Shiori slowly uncurled with her left hand, re-rolling just viewed sections with her right, Sensual Scroll started speaking.

"There are times when humanity find it easier to look beyond their own world for understanding. When this happens, unborn in our world can decide to personify those explanations. Of course, much depends upon the nature of that unborn. Is it ready? What is its level of ambition? Has it wrapped itself in the need of grandeur? Which attempt, by humanity, at understanding will trigger its need to explain? Does it want to provide all answers or just one? Like the vast majority of my kind, my ambition level is low. I did not feel the need to provide the answer to a people oppressed nor to attach myself to one ascendant. That path, an attempt to become one of Humanity's major gods, never appealed to me. It requires too much work, forces you to focus on everything. This is why many of us become spirits, it allows us to concentrate on what interests us, instead of meddling in that where we might not belong. For me, I found myself pulled into existence by the thoughts of a captive.

"Though not one for whom you need to feel pity. An ancient prince in the Imperial Family of Japan, far from the throne, a petty symbol trapped forever in luxury and pleasure. This scroll, created with my so-called divine intervention, details his escape from captivity, despite never being free from the walls that surrounded him for his entire life. It also helps explain why Loki chose me to train you."

While she talked, Shiori continued to view more sections of the scroll, until her eyes grew wide at what she saw. She said, "I don't know, Sensa, I don’t know about this."

"Let me see. Oh that. I'm with you, in fact I'd recommend against scrolling any further. They are the works of my second worshiper and highlight the problem with such eager types, who tend to take the beautiful and twist them in ways you would never guess."

"That's a relief, Sensa."

"The first few sections show enough to keep you and most partners exquisitely entertained. But even that much is somewhat verboten to your bosses.”

"Santa?"

"No, further up your organization chart, Shiori, at Heaven's headquarters. But don’t worry, you’ve been granted a license and Comus belongs to a different faction.”

“Even this?” Shiori asked, scrolling back to the pictures that did not make her feel icky and pointing at one that portrayed a fondly remembered position.

“My understanding, that is a level 3 sin.” Sensual Scroll said, watching Shiori return to the very beginning and point at the second picture, the one with a woman alone. “Nope, that’s level 2.”

“Really, Sensa? Even, just by myself. Why I discovered that on my second night here. It's relaxing after a tough day and helps me sleep. Plus it feels good.”

“That’s the problem as I understand it.”

“You mean, it is not supposed to feel good. Am I broken?”

“No, Shiori, given the right opportunity or right partner, most people will feel good."

A look of thought on her face, Shiori scrolled forward and asked, "How about this, Sensa? Comus really enjoyed when I did that, thought it did not feel as good for me. At least not physically, though it was really fun to make Comus’s eyes roll back into his head."

"Nope, level 4."

"But Santa says, isn't it good to give."

"Don't expect me to explain," Sensual Scroll said, holding her hands up to abdicate any responsibility for the rule’s` creation. "My understanding is you are only supposed to do the level 3 stuff if you want children or something."

"What if you don't want to have children? Wait, wait, never mind, I know they're not your rules. But if I understand correctly, it's supposed to feel good, but you are not supposed to do it because it feels good."

"Supposedly, denying yourself somehow makes you a better person."

"That is mean, Sensa. And doesn't make any sense."

"I know."

"But I can do it, since I've got a license?" Shiori asked.

"Yep."

"What a relief."

Sensual Scroll said, "I should warn you, it's not always mana and honey. Your partner will usually not be as well versed or practiced as Comus. My guess, your target is probably clueless."

"Oh, that is disappointing. Still, you know what, I didn't really know anything on the first night with Comus, but I kind of took charge this morning before we separated. Yeah, now when I think about it, if I could continue to visit Comus regularly during the rest of my training, you know to practice, then I can act as the teacher with this Justin guy. You showed me the importance of a good teacher, Sensa."

"You think so, Shiori."

A look that combined innocence and seriousness appearing on her face, Shiori nodded and said, "I will do whatever it takes to make this mission a success, Sensa."

Chapter 5

Hard to tell who felt more nervous. Sindri, who never handled the presence of beautiful women with great aplomb, or Shiori, who looked at the needle in Sindri's hand like it would turn into an asp. It fell upon Sensual Scroll, reading the set of instructions explaining what the least of Santa’s smiths brought with him, to calm both of their fears.

“See, Shiori, it says here that the Snoop-o-Master Kit, v1.0, includes everything you will need for gathering information during your mission. Should we worry about it being the first version, Sindri?"

Rather than trust speech, the smith shook his head no.

"Okay, so this will serve as her communication hub to the I-triple-HO network." Sensual Scroll said, not even waiting for Sindri's nod before continuing. "It might be somewhat out of character, but it ensures the hub is always with her. Besides, you'll look great with a pierced belly button, Shiori."

"Look at his hand, Sensa, it's shaking like a...like a lot."

Hand outstretched, Sensual Scroll said, "I should probably do it. Pass me the needle, Sindri. Can she use any of these? Yes? That's good, which one do you want to start with, Shiori? The crystal covered panda face, it's super cute. Don't worry, I'm just going to watch a couple YouTube videos to make sure I know what I am doing. Are you okay, dear? You don't look so good."

With a cold compress against her forehead, Shiori woke laying on her back. Immediately she found herself focused on the disappearing pain at her midriff.

"Good idea, Shiori. Your passing out before we started helped things go so much smoother. Though I recommend you say something the next time you are about to do so, since Sindri may not be lurking, with his wasp like reflexes, to catch you before you bang your head on the ground. In fact our smith is twice the hero, also providing this miracle salve that will see everything healed in a few more seconds. Yep, it looks great, what do you think, Sindri?"

"Umm...glirk," Sindri said, his face as red as his normal wear.

"I agree. Let's see what's next. Here, Shiori, put in these contact lenses, they are actually cameras and more. Super high tech, all you need to do is think about taking a picture and they will do so."

"They changed my eye colour, Sensa," Shiori said, looking at the mirror.

"Good thing. I always worried about your baby blues messing up the mission. This hazel colour works better. Hey, this is clever, all earring backs in this bag act as receivers, which will allow your handler to communicate with you, so no one else can hear, and you can wear all the earrings you already own. Now how will she communicate back? Oh, that's a relief, I worried how much further we would need to go with this piercing gimmick."

~o~O~o~

A highly functioning operation like the North Pole requires everyone to stay on top of their jobs and schedules. To assist in this, each section began their shift with a quick Santa Claus Round Up Meeting, where any problems could be identified. Section leaders held a similar SCRUM session, and so on, right up to the Grandmaster SCRUM held with Santa.

Every Yule cycle, with about a quarter of a human year remaining before the big show, the problems always seemed impossible to overcome and SCRUMs lasted longer than desired. This delayed Santa's arrival, along with Tyr, back at his office for an update on Operation Bacon Sandwich with Loki and Thor. Surprisingly, he did not find the two at each other's throat. After an entire meeting discussing production hiccups, he hoped this signalled smooth sailing.

Not waiting for the arrivals to take their seats, Loki said, "Our infiltration attempt starts today."

"Already?" Santa asked.

"University starts in a week and our agent will need a few days to settle in. So she boards a flight from Tokyo today."

"How went the training? Will she be able to blend in?"

"Our contractor is quite pleased with our choice. Besides, remember she is not supposed to blend in. She needs to hook our fish and it sounds like Snorri, who became Shiori, is excellent bait"

"Sindri met her and is in absolute lust," Tyr said.

Thor laughed and said, "Remember, Sindri's lust kicks off easier than most."

"But you know how his scale works, Thor. From those he can't stop talking about to those who cause him to blush and stutter. Well that's what he does whenever Brokkr or Eitri mention her name, which they do whenever they want him to stop telling them what to do."

“Okay, we've done all we can do in preparing our agent. You going to act as her handler?" Santa asked Loki.

"Tyr might work best in that role."

"Me?"

"Yes, you. You're the only one who has a pre-existing relationship and, despite their time in the Elfing machine, none of the elfs trust me. Don't worry, though. I'll act as information officer, Huginn and Muninn are not as picky."

"How about the Stinky Dozen, Thor, are they ready?"

"They're idiots, Father, but I trust them to whack whoever's knees and shins I want them to whack."

"Remember, no fatalities."

"Actually, besides their nickname, another positive outcome of the eggnog incident is that it perked Eitri's interest in creating a range weapon we can actually use. He came up with a throwing snowflake made from a solidified mixture of forget-me-not-not and knockout dust."

Santa thought about that for a moment, then said, "Good idea. See if Eitri can also rig their candy cane staffs to shoot the same mixture. We want you and your group to steal in and out like ghosts. Anything else? No? Okay, let's start the next phase of Operation Bacon Sandwich."

~o~O~o~

A hollow pit of impending loneliness served as the only thing to stop the sensory stimulations of Narita International Airport from overwhelming Shiori. Surrounded by more people than she once imagined could exist, she found herself focused on only one.

"I'm going to miss you so much, Sensa." Shiori said, finally releasing her teacher from a hug. "You are like the big sister I never knew I needed."

Reaching out to wipe tears away from her now graduated student's eyes, Sensual Scroll said, “And I never realized how boring my life felt until you appeared on my doorstep. Working with you reminded me of the world I once found fascinating. I'll definitely miss you too, but I'll also be watching. And when this is over, then we can go even further. But for now, check your passport and ticket once more."

"They're here," Shiori said, pulling her purple passport wallet from the front pocket of her carry-on bag.

"Then I guess it is time, you better head through security."

One more quick hug, before Shiori entered the security line. Though she turned numerous nervous glances back towards Sensual Scroll, as she shuffled through the line. Then with a final wave, the two lost sight of each other.

~o~O~o~

Beyond the borderline terrifying flight from Narita International Airport, fortunately experienced in first class, Shiori's first week in the real world did not offer enough pause to worry about her mission. The entire time of which found her dealing with people, people, and more people. Access to a single room in the university residences, a lack of a roommate allowing for some needed alone time. Admissions, where she signed up for a simple course load. And boys, enough attention from boys to provide all types of confidence in her training. Particularly with the frequent pep talks from Tyr via her h-earring devices.

Today, the second day of classes she planned to make first contact, in the University's central square, where the campus clubs set up displays in the hope of recruiting new members. Shiori just needed to wait for Justin to arrive at the booth they expected him to man between 1:00 and 4:00 PM.

"Okay, Shiori, Muninn says our contact has arrived at the booth," Master Tyr said. "Let me know if you don't recognize him."

"Of course I'll recognize him. You sent me an entire batch of pictures to me last night, which is at least the millionth bunch I've seen," Shiori said, sub-vocalizing the words so that only the fake crown on a back molar picked up the sound.

"Right. Good luck."

A number of table attendants looked her way hopefully or lustily, but Shiori ignored both with the same distracted smile she habitually adopted. She scouted the cosplay club's table earlier in the morning and learned its members believed in the idea of cosplay, most appearing in costumes of varying degrees of success. Used to marginalization, they never-the-less enjoyed themselves despite their table's terrible location, at the far corner on a dead chunk of grass formed by two maintenance access roads.

A different story in the afternoon, where the pair manning the booth believed more in their ideal cosplayer, which involved hot chicks in sexy costumes. An attitude that left them mostly alone, though not bothered by this fact, happily soaking in the sun and watching the coeds dressed in their first week of school finery from behind dark sunglasses.

On the left sat Tony Esposito, who the briefings described as Justin's best friend slash follower. Someone straight out central casting, who lived up to all the tropes for the goofy best friend in a family sitcom. Which made Justin the lead character and, if he didn't quite portray his specific role as well as did his friend, he at least looked the part. Tall, with curly, blond hair, his good looks and casual displays of wealth provided an in with many young ladies. But his immaturity and casual indifference always brought any relationship to an end in quick order.

With him single at the moment, Shiori would not need to poach him from some other girl. This made her even more happy than the fact she found him physically attractive. As for his immaturity, well she did not plan on a long relationship, while her appearance and training should provide ready antidotes to his indifference.

Unable to resist the urge, Shiori popped into the library, which bracketed one side of the square, and found a bathroom. Mostly she wanted to use its mirror, where she checked her appearance once more. Temporarily satisfied, she returned outside to initiate contact, only to stop in frustration when she saw two attractive brunettes at the booth. Cursing vanity's delay, she impatiently waited until the girls walked away, laughing at Tony's entreaties to stay.

Time to strike.

Now, not all Gods, be they major or minor, feel confident in their ability to predict what some random goofball on earth will do at any given moment. Dangerous, when making a mistake can begin the fall of a major into a minor or a minor into a forgotten deity. This caused the wise members of the heavenly strata to rely upon an open source human simulation service available from Godall. Sensual Scroll and Shiori, using parameters provided by Loki, Huginn, and Muninn, ran thousands of simulations with their Justin simulacrum. In particular, they war gamed the snot out of the first encounter.

Highly important to either catch Justin alone or only with Tony, preferably the second option since it added a positive impress the buddy factor. They also analyzed the opportune boredom level, which is why now, two hours into their three hour stint at the booth, she moved forward. These tactics they determined within the first eight runs, the untold number that followed focused on dialog planning and evaluation, as well as costuming.

The results of the last she continued to question. For someone who in another, unforgotten life begrudged standing taller than his peers, Shiori now found herself wishing for the height offered by high heels. But they did not go with her current costume.

"Dude," Tony said, nudging his friend and pointing in her direction.

His eyes widening satisfactorily, Justin asked, "Wow, is that a Ririchiyo Shirakiin school uniform?"

Time to remove the distraction from her smile, amp up its wattage and introduce some sparkle in her eyes as she allowed her pleasure at his correct guess to shine forth. With the accent they worked so hard to perfect, she said, “You are right though my hair is still black, not purple. But my wigs, and the rest of my stuff is yet to arrive.“

“You look amazing, even without purple hair. Umm...guessing by your accent, home isn't around here?"

"No, no, I am from Fukuoka, in Japan. I just arrived five days ago, to go to school."

"You decided to come here to school?" Tony asked. "It must seem so boring. It is boring."

"It is not so bad."

"You only just got here."

"Tony," Justin said. "Don't scare her away. I'm guessing you are interested in our club?"

Head nodding agreement, Shiori reached into her Candy Sugar black bag, complete with pink straps, for her tablet. While she did that, she said, "Yes, actually that's the reason I decided to come to school here. My aunt and uncle want me stop cosplaying, so they thought I should come to some small school in the US. Happily they did not learn about your club, but I searched harder than them and when I found these pictures I knew I needed to come here. The places are perfect, I so want to take pictures at some of them."

"Hey, those are mine."

She knew that, Loki knew it as well, which played a large role in his recommended disguise for the North Polish agent. During the prior year, Justin regularly photographed the club members, before posting them in the club's album. Usually at their own events, but he also did location shoots for the more attractive members of the club. Most interesting to the Trickster, a set featuring a blonde girl dressed as Daenerys from Game of Thrones, with a white horse, taken on the Lipton family farm in Penniesburg County.

"They are? You are really good!"

~o~O~o~

The Grand Cherokee motored along the highway, in dawn’s emerging light, with little guidance from its driver. Like every time Justin made the trip home, he found himself thinking about life. In particular, what he planned to make of his. Well actually he knew, he wanted to go into the family business of road construction. He liked the equipment, the tangible proof of progress, he even liked the smell of asphalt. So he went to school to get his business degree, while working on the road crews during summer.

Sure, he liked to enjoy himself, but he worked steadily towards his goal. If only his mother believed his goals measured up to his potential. Instead she thought more highly of his intelligence than he knew she should, while at the same time thinking less of the family business than he did. In her mind, Justin should become a doctor, a lawyer, or an architect and he should want to work in New York, Chicago, or London.

Dreams he knew really belonged to her own past, what she wanted for herself. What she vicariously wanted to lead through him, because his arrival forestalled her living them on her own.

Not always. Most of the time they got along and he knew she spoiled him. Yet, during the drive home, he always prepared himself for that moment of disappointment in her eyes when she asked him about school, that feeling of smallness.

Better when they saw each other regularly, without offering time for her to build the full on judgment look. Unfortunately this separation probably counted as their longest time apart. From the end of summer holidays until Thanksgiving. They talked at least once a week on the phone, but she remained preoccupied by some project, which stopped her from visiting. While he, well his distraction sat in the passenger seat beside him.

Justin wondered how worried Shiori felt about meeting his mother. She seemed awfully quiet.

Thorough though Sensa's training seemed, both at the time and as proven during her mission, Shiori found herself unprepared for the boredom of a five hour car ride. Probably not as bad as the plane trip from Japan, but her fears and nerves kept her from recognizing its monotony at the time. Now, grown into her skin and role, nothing prepared her for this boredom.

What is the protocol for a passenger, she wondered? Could she let herself nod off, let the hypnotic passage of dotted yellow lines lull her to sleep? That seemed unfair to Justin, requiring him to stay awake by himself while doing all the driving. The same problem as digging out her phone to play Candy Crush.

Too bad she could not bother Master Tyr, he always kept her entertained with his conversation. But their hours did not completely synch and she knew the road trip overlapped with the early hours of his night. Short hours too, during the busiest part of the Yule cycle. Selfish for her to bother him with a problem as benign as boredom, when she knew he needed his sleep.

For that matter, she should not be awake either, but Justin liked to get on the road early. Robbing her, once they left the city lights, even of the ability to watch the passing scenery.

Shiori considered trying to speak with Justin. But about what? Based on their last few conversations, he would want to talk about his mother and that always turned him serious. She struggled with serious Justin, particularly since they did not build their relationship on talking.

If with any of his prior girlfriends, Justin knew he would ask her if she felt alright. He would feel dread the question in his heart, knowing she was probably mad at him about something, even if she said different, but he would ask. With Shiori, it did not seem worth the effort. She would answer, I'm fine, and mean it. There never seemed a lot of depth to her, but he found the shallow surface spectacular for the now and near future.

A week after meeting Shiori, he found himself joking with Tony that if Amazon offered a girlfriend service, he doubted they could do a better job choosing her for him. Then, when she came over a few days later to do some cleaning, he almost believed someone dug around in the most hormone impaired sections of his brain and crafted her specifically for him. Not because past girlfriends never cleaned his place, his tendency towards untidiness triggered self-defence mechanism amongst most of them. Nor because she did a good job, Shiori's acceptable level of cleanliness did not really differ much from his own in those instances when he decided he preferred housework over homework. Instead, she set his heart a-pitter-and-a-patter, well maybe not his heart, by showing up to do so while wearing a maid's costume right out of some ecchi manga.

Justin already knew, lessons began after their third date, that sex with Shiori ranked amongst the best things ever. On that night he learned if they added in a costume, it jumped all the way to mind blowing. And when her shipment of cosplay stuff arrived from Japan, she eagerly showed him her many costumes. No wonder he paid so little attention to his mother this term.

Good thing she did not need to rely on talking to stay entertained, Shiori thought. If anything, she often found herself disinterested in conversation, particularly the animated discussions between Justin and his rather large group of friends. When they talked about sports, movies, or games, she did not need to feign interest. But when it revolved around school or the world, more likely their complaints about either subject, she utilized the whole English as a second language excuse to zone out.

Yet even when not a participating member, Shiori remained part of the group, which she preferred to Snorri’s past. It also offered a safe environment from which to people watch. Humans fascinated her, kept her entertained even in the near heterogeneous world where she found herself. This activity could go on for an hour, two, or more, until Justin remembered that, as a teenage male, horniness ruled with more power than the one ring over them all.

Close behind this primal imperative would follow the awareness that the quiet, but hot, Asian cutie sitting nearby all but lived with him and always proved willing to help him deal with his affliction. At which point one needed to take care to avoid the trampling.

For Shiori, what would follow when they returned home proved the fifth best thing about almost living with him, especially after she taught him some of the things she liked. Ranking just below Justin enjoying it even more than her, which kept her positioned to complete the mission. In third spot, how much she preferred sleeping in his comfortable bed, rather than her own bargain basement model at the dorm. While reigning supreme at the top, switching importance constantly as her mood fluctuated, her boyfriend’s Netflix subscription and PS4 game collection. She wished she could watch a movie or play a game right now, maybe she would not feel so bored.

Guilt at not feeling guiltier about how little attention he recently paid his mother played a significant role in turning this trip more introspective than normal. Justin could not deny his distraction, but he did not feel bad about it. Something, an inkling that his relationship with Shiori did not stretch far beyond the physical, convinced him his preoccupation would not last for long. True, he did not want it to end right now, but it would surprise him if they remained together after the school year.

Still, at this point in his life, if at any, he could afford distraction.

"Chicken and waffles!"

"Huh? What?" Justin asked, distracted from his thoughts.

“Chicken and waffles,” Shiori said, pointing into the distance.

There he saw it, a symbol of decades past flickering in morning’s almost light, a sign announcing, Gas Bar and Diner. If anything shattered Justin’s belief in her perfection, Shiori's fascination with The Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives would probably take top spot. The way she waffled between enthralled or appalled by the food served on the show, well that he could understand. But her unabashed willingness to buy into the host’s shtick, how she laughed at all his attempts at humour, that caused him to question. Everybody knew that if you looked up douche in the dictionary, it would show a picture of Guy Fieri. Though apparently not in the Japanese to English version

That said, he always stopped here for breakfast and he did tell her about the place in some weird moment of competitiveness with an on screen personality. Plus the smile Shiori offered him when they turned off the interstate made Justin's lower brain think he just made the best decision ever.

~o~O~o~

Of course Shiori barely made a dent in her order when it arrived, though she thoroughly enjoyed what she did eat. It left her sipping the almost too strong coffee while switching between watching Justin work his way through the Working Man's Breakfast and curiously looking out the restaurant's window.

When her boyfriend sat back in his seat, she finally asked, "What's that man doing?"

Looking over his shoulder, out the window, Justin saw the man who left the diner soon after they arrived standing beside the road. He said, "Probably hitchhiking."

"What's that?"

"Sometimes people can't afford their own car, so they try and get rides with other people in order to get where they want to go."

"Oh, we should give him a ride," Shiori said.

“Umm...it’s not always safe to pick up hitchhikers.”

“He wouldn’t try anything with you around.”

“He will likely get a ride with someone else,” Justin said, while wondering why the women in his life felt so overly confident in him. When the guy walked by, on his way out the door, Justin found himself thinking ex-NFL linebacker, both for his size and the way he moved,. He knew he would stand no chance in a physical altercation. No matter how much he dragged out breakfast, even ate some of Shiori's leftovers, he could tell by how she continued to look out the window that nobody picked him up. Not even a bored and lonely trucker. Justin dragged out paying, visited the bathroom, and even filled up with gas. But still no one stopped for the man.

It placed his pride in a terrible place, on the side of his hormones against his good sense. Justin did not want Shiori to consider him a chicken, but...shit!

Still moving at parking lot speed, he pulled onto the shoulder, just in front of the man, who walked up to the car. Rolling down the side window, Justin asked, "Where you off too, Mister?"

"Reacher, Jack Reacher. Off to a little town called Doulumberg."

"I know where that is, played baseball there a couple times as a kid. We won't be able to take you all the way there, but can get you as far as Junction 232?"

"Happy to get a lift for those thirty miles."

"You should sit in the front, Mr. Reacher," Shiori said, opening the car door to hop out. "You are super tall."

Unsure whether to grab her arm, speed off, or sigh at the actions of his innocent, dare-devil of a girlfriend, Justin waited for her to get in the back and the man to climb into the front. With both of them buckled up, he waited for a passing car before pulling onto the road, speeding up to just over the limit.

Not understanding how proper etiquette required the next half hour to pass in uncomfortable silence, where neither side offered any information, Shiori asked, "Are you going to Douberg for Thanksgiving, Mr. Reacher? Justin's taking me to his home town of Penniesburg for Thanksgiving. This will be my first one. I'm so excited."

"It's Doulumberg, Miss. No I am just visiting. I heard that Dapper Kevin Nickle came from there and I wanted to learn if there are any old stories about him."

"Who?"

"A jazz trombonist from the '50s. My mother owned one of his albums while I grew up."

The following half hour passed in one of Shiori's patented curiosity quenchers, as she asked question after question. During which, not only did their passenger not kill them, he patiently answered her questions, telling them about his strange life on the road. Yet Justin could tell Reacher felt a sense of relief when he finally escaped the bombardment of queries.

Waving her arm out the window, Shiori shouted, "Happy Thanksgiving, Mr. Reacher. Have fun in Douberg."

In response, the man waved once, though Justin saw, in his rear view mirror, the gesture end with a temple rub. He asked, "I wonder if he ever runs into any adventure?"

"He seems too nice for that."

"Still, I bet he could handle it."

"The waffles and chicken tasted yummy, but they are making me sleepy."

"Feel free to sleep. Everybody else who has made this trip with me are usually conked out by the time we leaved the city."

"Conked out, that is funny," Shiori said, snuggling against the door.

Chapter 6

What did it mean to describe a town as no where near Walmartable? Soon after they exited the interstate, the turn waking Shiori from her sleep, she learned what Justin meant when using that description for his home town. Named Penniesburg, like the county, it might reach five thousand people during the yearly, agricultural fair when people from the surrounding farms brought in their cattle and horses for showing.

Yet she instantly fell in love with the place. Maybe not picturesque nor quaint, but it held so many less people than cities. They saw maybe ten people walking along Main Street and a total of seven, moving cars or trucks while driving through town, Justin waving at all of them.

Less peaceful on the far side of town, where they needed to wait for four gravel trucks before they could turn into the compound with signage reading, Lipton's Road Services. The sound of a gravel crusher to the right and the smell of an asphalt plant invading the cabin of the Jeep as they pulled into a small parking lot fronting a two story building. The offices where Shiori would meet Agatha Lipton for the first time.

For the first time in month's, Shiori felt her Snorri memories come to the forefront, in particular the moment when the tarnished bell popped out of the N&N machine into his hand. It made his remnants nervous, which in turn made her nervous.

More nervous. She also suddenly experienced the anxiety of so many girls and women about to meet their boyfriend's mother for the first time.

Always the touchy feely type, when she grasped Justin’s hand after they left the Jeep she did so more for comfort than companionship. Sensing some of what she felt, he offered her hand a squeeze before they entered the building.

"Hello, Susan. Is my mother free?"

"Happy Thanksgiving, Justin," the receptionist just inside the main door said. "Yes she is. Just don’t let her keep you too long, she has a phone call she needs to make in twenty five minutes.”

“Will do. This way, Shiori,” he said, leading her down the hall, past three offices with people working inside, to the corner office. A bit larger than the rest and with more windows, but the woman behind the desk rising to greet them is what mainly differentiated it from the others.

“Justin,” she said, approaching to give him a hug.

“Hi, Mom. Umm, this is Shiori, Shiori, my mom”

Like all her targets, Shiori knew what Agatha Lipton looked like, but pictures and videos do not always portray presence. Even in a simple blouse and blue jeans, Justin's mother exuded a somewhat intimidating level of confidence and control. Enough for Shiori's training to trigger her to dip into an abbreviated curtsey, when she said, "Hello, Ms. Lipton, thank you for inviting me to visit during Thanksgiving.”

“Welcome, Shiori. I did not want such a good friend of Justin’s to stay alone at school during a time meant for family.”

Another meeting which she and Sensual Scroll war gamed numerous times, which her Sensa continued to simulate right up until yesterday. Agatha's response, only slightly snarkified, offered the perfect opportunity to slide in optimal response number two.

"I am really looking forward to it, Ms. Lipton. It will likely be my only chance to experience a true American Thanksgiving."

Neither Lipton ranked amongst the oblivious, they both caught the message in that statement. In Justin's case it resulted in no response, as he again considered the time limit built into their relationship. But with Agatha, an immediate thaw occurred, at least as much as her borderline Ice Queen persona allowed. Not quite ready to pass off her son for the long term, she found herself reevaluating Shiori's abilities as an ally in that delay.

"Why don't you two sit down and we will have a quick visit. Yes, yes, Justin, I'm sure Susan warned you about my meeting, but we do have a few moments before it starts.

~o~O~o~

When choosing her outfit for any day, Shiori used two basic criteria; what she looked good in and whatever amused her. However, in some instances the mission overrode, or at least impacted, her preference. For this first meeting with Agatha Lipton, she wore brown, leather cowboy boots as a mandate. The white shift dress and jean jacket, those she chose because they looked cute and made her look countrified for her trip into the country. But, if not for the boots, she would probably wear something different.

Dagmar the Still-Experiencing-Concussion-Like-Symptoms cared about nothing other than those boots, more specifically their heels. Inside of each, waiting for the moment he could free them from their confines, rested four cameraleons. His task, to pilot each of them into locations where they could surveil Agatha and the offices.

The key to this operation, like most examples of espionage, the need to perform it unseen. Making it more difficult, they could never find the blinds on the windows of Agatha’s office open, which meant his first sight of the layout occurred through Shiori's eyes. He would give her some credit, at least she remembered to start filming with her contact lenses, but she barely looked where he wanted her to look.

“Idiot,” he said, making no attempt to mutter under his breath.

“Problem?” Tyr asked Loki, from the other side of two way mirror where they watched both the screens showing what Shiori saw and Dagmar inside the control room.

Loki answered, “No, just Dagmar’s normal sparkling personality. He breaks everyone into one of three categories. Those he needs to suck up too, like us, and most everybody else, the idiots he considers himself better than."

"That's only two."

"There are also those he hates, at the top of which is our agent's alter-ego. So don't let him find out Shiori is Snorri or the poisonous little snake might foul things up on purpose."

"I doubt that, he's always been willing to obey orders."

"Yep, the perfect little brown nose. Right until he spears you in the back and forces you to listen to his insane ramblings while you're dying. How did he end up in your father's hall? He seems more my type of follower, though admittedly the type that makes me feel icky and rethink my career choices."

"We're not sure. Our best guess is that in the chaos of battle, the Valkyrie who scooped him up took a war hammer upside her helmet and chose the wrong target."

Considering all the factors, Dagmar knew extracting each of the four cameraleons and moving them to temporary safety, in the limited time available, would require wondrous dexterity, super clear thinking, and the nerves of master assassin. It suddenly made sense why the Masters chose him, with his superelfen skills. Who else, amongst the great swaths of imbeciles filling Santa’s factories, could even imagine attempting this feat.

“Just I, Dagmar! Soon the masters will be forced to welcome me into their ranks.”

Tyr asked, “Do you think he knows others can hear him?”

“Nope. Snorri’s punch didn’t just knock him out, I think it also short-circuited something in his conniving lobe.”

“No, you idiot, sit against the wall. Bah, amateurs. Fortunately I am here to make everything right. Prepare for release of Cameraleon #1, in 5, 4, 3, 2, Go!”

~o~O~o~

In the surveillance universe, no other device approached the splendor of a cameraleon. Mobile, with the ability to record an unlimited amount of sound and video (by uploading to Godall’s Nebula service), it also possessed a tail that could transform into all configurations, which allowed it to connect to any computer device and download the data stored within. Human’s who belonged to the world's intelligence agencies, even those who just checked for extra marital activity, would, as the wise men of Boogertown might say, cream their jeans at possessing such a marvel. If only they did not require two gewgaws as components.

Not a big deal, right? Simply submalgrify three widgets, eight gadgets, and a thing-a-ma-jig. Boom you now possess a handy dandy gewgaw.

Of course, as already mentioned, elfin DNA did not start with much in the way of smarts. If you asked most Einherjar to use their head to get out a tricky situation, they would put on their helmets and look for the nearest thing needing a head-butt. So while twenty of them could polyfixilarate a thing-a-ma-jig, only one could submalgrify a gewgaw.

Fortunately toyifying with a gewgaw took no more skill than zapifying a widget. Quite a few elfs could incorporate the necessary number of gewgaws into a smart phone or tablet, which every child seemed to want.

Allowing for spoilage, wish reprioritization, and the bodily functions of Gewgawgifier Knut, Santa could only supply his espionage team with twenty four gewgaws. Enough for twelve cameraleons. The first, the prototype, nobody trusted for field work, a second crushed under Santa's boot, a third eaten by Muninn, and the next four deployed at the offices left her only five for use. These they recommended Shiori deploy only when no other option presented itself, since the huge Lipton house required much greater coverage than those five could supply.

Time for old technology. Cameras, mics and bugs fashioned from no more than thing-a-ma-jigs, which required good old-fashioned sneakery to install. A time consuming task that Shiori needed to finish before she and Justin returned to university on Sunday morning.

Busy nights ahead, made a bit simpler by sleeping in her own room, she guessed because of those strange religious reasons Sensual Scroll tried to explain. But in this instance she saw the advantage behind abstinence. No way to wake Justin when she left or returned, nor would he rouse from his sleep and notice her missing.

The disadvantage? How to know if he slept before she began her task. Or if he woke up and wandered out of his room to find her planting bugs.

A worry Shiori dealt with that afternoon. After Justin provided a the tour of the house, ending in his basement bedroom, she used her distraction superpowers learned while working with Comus to leave him temporarily discombobulated. During his follow-up nap she installed two motion detectors, a high powered mic and a triangulated set of cameras in his bedroom. These would allow Tyr to monitor his sleep while she snuck about, informing her of any movement. But no opportunity existed to wire Agatha’s bedroom in a similar fashion. They did not even enter it during the tour.

To compensate for this gap, she deployed two more of her precious cameraleons, leaving Pole control to navigate each into place within Agatha’s bedroom. While she waited for Tyr to assure her both Liptons slept, she finalized wiring her guest room, the attached bathroom, and the second guest room on the other side.

"Mission is a go," Tyr suddenly said, his voice now natural in her head. "Both bogies are in deep REM and expected to remain so for approximately forty five minutes to an hour."

Somewhere, probably on the internet, she read how black did not work as well for night time camouflage as expected; therefore, she wore her dark blue, silk pajamas. Combine this with the matching robe, which might help mask her form, and she considered herself almost ready for night time skulking. To complete her outfit, Shiori slipped her feet into her pair of Mariboo Ghost Slippers. Built so the blue feathers attached to the strap across the top of her foot would provide lift, allowing her to sneak about without the sound of footsteps, while the stabilizer in each 2" heel would ensure she did not teeter forward onto her perfect nose.

Faced with the dark of night, though some moonlight did filter in through the windows, she turned on the night vision function of her lenses. The simplest part of her job; just blink her left eye twice, the right four times and then both together. After filling her pockets with the needed paraphernalia, Shiori stole from her room.

Pole control’s analysis of the video she shot during the afternoon tour identified Agatha's office slash library as the number one location of interest. However, it sat above and connected to the master bedroom via stairs, which meant her and Justin used the single passenger elevator to reach it earlier in the day. Noisy as the elevator proved, Shiori did not plan on using it during the night, instead she hoped they would leave her alone in the house at some point. Tonight she planned to blitz as much as possible, starting with better coverage on the second floor.

A reading area, railings opening to the living room and foyer below, two stairways, three more bedrooms, and another bathroom made up the non-master suite portion of the huge house's second floor. The railings, hallway and stairwell received attention first.

Definitely a few pic-me-ups, but mostly b-lens-dos. Direct ancestors of the cameraleons, film thin stickers that blended against whatever they adhered to, indistinguishable by look and feel. Unfortunately the video range sucked, so she needed to use lots of them. Worse, they stuck to her fingers and she ruined as many as she put in place, waiting after each installation for Pole control to initiate and sequence it into place.

Nor did it help to do this while using night vision. During training, she found it strange but exciting. Now the constant green glow struck her as rather creepy, particularly in a barely familiar house where all sorts of strange things jumped into the edge of her vision. It took much longer to finish the second floor than expected.

“Time?” Shiori asked.

Tyr answered, “You’ve been at it for forty two minutes.”

“So long?”

“Yep, but it was a good night’s work.”

“Are they still asleep?”

“Justin rolled over a few moments ago, but Agatha still seems to be in deep sleep. Are you thinking about the main floor?”

“Yeah. There are quite a few people coming over for Thanksgiving Dinner, it would be nice to get some pic-me-ups installed. That way we can capture any conversations. Though I won’t use any b-lens-dos, since doing both take forever to install,” Shiori said, floating down the stairwell near the master bedroom.

Much easier to place the mics, since they did not deal with the same range limitations. She blitzed through the main floor and began to consider the basement.

"Warning, Bogey One has awoken."

"Which one is that, again?" Shiori asked, moving towards the stairs that would take her up to her room.

"Agatha. Don't use the stairs, we just want to see...shit, she is leaving her room."

"What do I do? What do I do?"

"Be ready to use the stairs on my mark. Ignore that, she is looking towards your room."

"What do I do? What do I do?"

"Is it cloudy out?" Tyr asked.

"What? Oh, you're thinking the City Girl Gambit? Clear enough for that."

"Yep, engage City Girl. Hurry, she is at your door and taking a peek."

Floating back into the living room, Shiori headed for a big old leather armchair. She’d noticed it during her earlier tour, since unlike the other furniture it looked well used. The blanket folded over the back, which she grabbed when she arrived, showed why. Her slippers kicked off, settling to the ground, she folded herself into the chair, wrapping the blanket around herself. Allowing the chair to welcome her into its embrace.

“She’s headed downstairs. Losing visual.”

That did not matter, as she engaged one of the key elfin superpowers. The one that allowed them to work sweatshop like hours in Santa's Workshops without burning out. She turned off her thinker and instantly fell asleep.

"Shiori. Wake up, Shiori."

The hand shaking her shoulder, more than the voice, woke her from the seconds long sleep. A sleep not nearly long enough, even Santa could not get away with keying his elfs to get by on so little rest. It meant she found herself swimming through a morass, filled with shadows and darkness, on her way to semi-awareness. When Shiori reached that state, she pried open her eyes to see someone standing over her, someone who slowly turned into Agatha Lipton. Unable yet to verbalize the question, her look still expressed the confusion at waking from such a deep sleep.

"You shouldn't be sleeping in a chair, Shiori. You will hurt your neck," Agatha said, somewhat guilty at waking her from such deep sleep. "Is there something wrong with your room?"

“Oh no, Ms. Lipton. The room is perfectly fine, it is just so quiet out here in the country. I couldn’t sleep and I found myself looking at the stars through my window. You can’t see them in the city, then I remembered the big window down here in the living room. I must have fallen asleep at some point. The chair is super comfy.”

“Your bed is probably more comfortable, why don’t you go and see if you can’t get back to sleep. It is going to be a long day, my family is a handful.”

"Okay, Ms. Lipton, good night. Umm, are you alright?"

"Yeah, its just that my parents insist on buying a huge turkey from friends and I want to check to see if it is almost unfrozen. Why can't we just get a store bought one you can cook from frozen, like everybody else?"

"Does it taste better?" Shiori asked.

"If I get it cooked right and on time, maybe a bit."

~o~O~o~

"Sometimes I think we are making this more complicated than needed," Tyr said, sitting back in his chair, nerves tensed by the night's espionage relaxing as Shiori returned to bed.

Distracted, focused on killing aliens with the dildo bat in Saints Row IV, Thor asked, “What’s that?”

“This whole affair. Everything from Loki’s involvement to transforming Snorri and sending him, or I mean her, undercover. Why didn’t one of us just put on his Christmas delivery distracto suit, port into the Lipton house and office, then bug both places.”

“Yeah, that probably would have worked.”

“Of course it would and a lot more efficiently than Loki’s plan,” Tyr said, hoping the second mention of their longtime enemy would jar his brother from his present state of indifference.

“Tyr, circumstances may have temporarily turned you into a middle manager, but there is no reason to start acting like one. Efficiency? Don’t you get enough of that drek? You don’t get style points for plans and schedules, budgets and deadlines.”

“Style points?”

“Exactly. Look, think it through. Our enemy is clever and secretive, but still human. Any of us could take an active role, but it would not be particularly fair. It's a bit like this game. I could use the 'Merica gun, but it's ridiculously overpowered. Whereas, using the dildo bat takes a lot more skill.”

“While appealing to your inner fourteen year old.”

“And my inner fourteen hundred and fourteen thousand year old. But do you see how well it works when wielded by a master. Really no different than our plan. So when we succeed, the degree of difficulty should impress the lovelies at Club Xanadu. It's overly elaborate, danger and failure always one step away, plus a follower going to extravagant lengths to prove his, now her, loyalty. It's loaded with style points.”

"And if the plan fails?" Tyr asked.

"Combing my hair, wearing a nice shirt and paying for drinks usually works."

~o~O~o~

What a great day!

Friends, family, food (so good to eat turkey again), fun and football combined to make Thanksgiving special at the Lipton's. It also required a fair amount of work from Agatha, but that offered another opportunity for Shiori to get in her good books. Never afraid of work, genetically disposed to following orders and possessing good knife skills kept her at work in the kitchen when others found themselves chased away by their hostess.

This also offered refuge from the curiosity everyone felt towards Justin's new and exotic girlfriend. Though the times she could not escape always resulted in his, rather than her, embarrassment as they bombarded her with numerous stories that placed him in less than favorable light.

Hard to believe this house hid the desire to ruin Christmas.

Yet the Friday after Thanksgiving found her refocused on trying to prove it. A task made easier by the absence of the two Liptons. Just after a lunch of leftovers, they left to see Justin's great-grandmother who lived at a care home in a bigger city an hour away while experiencing a mother slash son together time trip. One they did not ask Shiori to join and one she would refuse if they did, prepared to say how she got to see Justin so often.

After they drove a few miles away, in Justin's already bugged and GPSed Jeep, she jumped into the elevator and rode up to the library. A huge house, with only one full time resident contains a lot of unused space, but none seemed less used than the space above the master bedroom. The shelving covering the walls did not lack for books, colourful popular fiction rather than leather bound classics, but the Kindle in the TV room implied they existed for posterity and to fill the shelves. She even tried moving a bunch, in case they opened a secret room. No luck. Nor with the older PC sitting on a computer desk, which consisted of three unlocked drawers holding nothing more than stationary. The room felt so unused she expected a cover of dust, but the once a week housekeeper made sure that did not happen.

Not that the lack of use stopped Shiori from bugging the snot out of the space. It just made her eager to move onto the rest of the house.

While finishing the main floor, a task planned for the prior night, before finding herself too tired for such spy games, she asked, "Master Tyr, are you there?"

"Here, Shiori. Problems?" Tyr asked, a few seconds later.

"I don't think the library is important. In fact I am starting to wonder if the Naughty or Nicerator made a mistake. Did we pick up anything from the guests yesterday? Particularly Cousin Mark, there was something about him."

"The fact that he stared at your breasts constantly?"

"That might be it. I did not know you were watching."

"Not always," Tyr said. "Only when you talked to someone different for the first time. Trying to see if I could pick up something. And no, we did not get any answers. But we didn't expect to learn anything too quick, particularly not while you are still there. Have you finished the basement?"

"Just heading down, now."

The basement contained a lot more of the unused space in the house, at least by Agatha. But Justin treated it as his area. So combine the impact of his few days at home with it serving as the escape hole for the younger members of the family the prior day and it now looked used. Too bad she could not wire the huge recreation room before yesterday, though she doubted anybody who spent much time downstairs instilled enough trust to keep a secret worthy of a black bell.

Specially Cousin Mark.

All alone, she bugged the second basement bedroom. The one Shiori admitted to herself she would not sleep in if Agatha assigned her its use, too easy to sneak next door to Justin’s room. In the small wine room, most of the shelves bare, she only placed a single pic-me-up, while the equipment room received a thorough exploration and bugging. Just like the exercise room, which based on the number of boxes stacked on the equipment never got used.

However, when she stepped in the almost empty storage room, she found herself wondering why those boxes sat in the other room. Could it be to provide access to a secret door? The thought made her excited as she started knocking on the back wall and stomping her foot.

Thonk!

In the back corner of the room she heard it and when she looked closer, she spotted the faintest outline of a trap door. If only she could find a sconce, elaborate scrollwork with a hidden button, or even a book she could tilt. Spotting a hidden door is one thing, opening it another. Shiori could not even Inigo Montoya her way through it.

She needed to call in the experts.

Reports placed Justin and Agatha still at his great grandmother's care home when she opened the door and let Huginn and Muninn fly in. Taking them downstairs, she stood watching to see if the door opened while the two of them hopped about pecking at random shit they found interesting.

"Woah, woah, woah, that's it," she shouted, when the edge of the door popped upwards, allowing her to grab hold and swing it open. "How did you open it?"

"Spare light switch in wine room," Muninn croaked, when she came out to see.

"I was going to check there next," Huginn muttered. "Hey, Muninn, is that a bottle of Blue Nun I see in there."

"Sure is, Huginn. A '72, is that a good year?"

"Blue Nun doesn’t have bad years. So, Hot Stuff, what say you, Muninn and I open this beauty and have a glass of the grape?"

“I don’t think we should, Ms. Lipton might notice it missing.”

“Will the three of you forget about the wine and tell me about the secret passage?”

Apparently the two ravens could hear Master Tyr just as well as Shiori, as the two of them beat her to the storage room. Looking down the hole, Muninn said, “It’s dark.”

“And deep,” Huginn agreed.

Blinking her left eye twice, the right four times and then both together before she looked down the hole, she said, "Yep, it's dark, but not really deep. I can see the bottom about ten ell down and the entrance to what looks like a tunnel. There is a ladder."

"Climb down and see what's there," Tyr said.

"Me?" Shiori asked.

"Well I'm not going down," Huginn said.

"Me neither, it's spooky," Muninn said.

"But I'm a girl and I'm not dressed for spelunking."

The ravens just stared at her with their gimlet gazes. She fought back with all the skills taught by Sensual Scroll. A pout, a sad face and a pleading expression, but raven dudes proved more difficult to manipulate than regular dudes.

"Some harbingers of doom you two are. Okay I will go change, but know this, there is no way I'm sharing a bottle of wine with you guys."

Muninn said, "We prefer to harbinge with the open sky above us. Where the power of flight offers us the escape advantage. Not down in a scary hole."

"Yep, that's what has kept us in the game for so long," Huginn crowed. "You might want to take a weapon with you. In case something horrible is lurking below."

"I saw a hammer when I was hopping around in the furnace room. Take that."

Deciding nothing good could come from listening to the two bird brains, Shiori left to go upstairs and change into something other than her nice dress. But she did not move fast enough, particularly since the primitive voice boxes of the ravens did not allow whispering, to miss the rest of their conversation.

"No way a hammer is going to be good enough to deal with anything that lurks below, Muninn. Specially with her spindly arms."

"I know, Huginn. But I thought I would try being a harbinger of hope."

"Good idea."

"Thanks, how do you think I did?"

"If she comes back? Great! If not, you still have the whole doom thing to fall back upon."

Chapter 7

What should you wear when about to descend into a dark, probably dank, hole? A hole surely filled with monsters, real or figurative, who waited to do horrible things to you.

“Umm, Master Tyr, we probably don’t have time for this. Justin and Ms. Lipton will likely be back soon.”

“Justin’s Jeep is still parked at the care home. And didn’t you tell them you would be okay on your own if they went out for supper, before they returned home? You have lots of time.”

“I also have three cameraleons left, maybe it would be better to drop one of those down the hole to explore," Shiori said, not quite allowing herself to plead.

"Control does not believe we will be able to interface with a cameraleon that far underground."

"What? Aren't you like a God or something? You should be able to get it to work."

"I wish, but licensing and architecture of the underground network is controlled by the underworld deities and they’re famous for not being part of the group. They are all about proprietary shit, not open source. Plus they have reserved most frequencies for piping the worst music humanity ever created into whatever hellhole they call home. And don’t forget, one of their most common new customers are the internet providers, guys who they immediately put to work. We applied for an account, but we won't get a service guy here to hook us up until somewhere between the beginning and end of next forever. That's too late for us, we need to take this chance. It's the best lead we've got."

"But what if the bad guys are down there?"

"I'm sure they are taking a break while you and Justin are visiting. But you should follow Huginn's advice and take the hammer, I have a feeling its use will come naturally to you."

"That's not nice, Master Tyr. You know I could never build anything, why would I be good with a hammer?"

"You mean it's not a war hammer?"

"Of course not, why would Ms. Lipton have a war hammer? And why would I be good with a war hammer? Actually, I like the sound of using a war hammer. I bet it would be fun. Can you get me a war hammer, Master Tyr? Please?"

"Umm, umm," Tyr sputtered, as he realized how close he treaded to breaking the ancient pact. "By the way, that's a really cute outfit for sneaking around underground."

“Do you think so? It’s just some yoga pants and my school’s sweater, what Justin calls college girl chic. But the pants are new, I picked them up at the Adidas store earlier this week. I love saying Adidas, it makes me feel I'm so lah dee dah. Hey, are you trying to distract me from the evil men who are going to do horrible things to me down in the hole.”

"Only partially. Besides I don't think there will be any evil men and you really do look cute."

Words, never her strong point, not when she existed as Snorri and not after all she learned during booty camp, did not offer a comeback. What she did learn, the art of expression, she readily exercised. Even if it did not work on ravens, she let a sad and fearful look come over her face as she looked into a mirror while braiding her hair.

Apparently, at least this god was more regular guy than his father’s ravens.

"I'll still be able to communicate with you. Our I-triple-HO interface is on another frequency, which the underworlders do not control."

"Well I've read enough stories and watched enough movies to know voices in your head rarely get you out of trouble."

"Gah, you learned your lesson too well. I'll get you some help."

"Yay, Master Tyr," Shiori said, showing her happy appreciation with an adorable bouncing clap.

"Though first you should let Huginn and Muninn out of the house. Who knows what the pair of them will do if left alone for too long. Besides, if they're not going to help you, they may as well get back to work. We can have them watch for anybody heading towards the house.”

A simple enough task, though it required her to ignore their apology about not being chickens and an almost embarrassing number of pleas to give them the bottle of Blue Nun. Task complete she returned to the basement and looked down the hole, shrieking as she jumped back from what she saw.

"What's wrong now?" Tyr asked, sounding rather fed up.

"Oh my you, Master Tyr. There's something down there. Two of them and they’re huge."

"That's your backup, Geri and Freki, father's pet wolves. They'll keep you safe. Though I hope they don't have to, since we'll likely get in trouble for overstepping our mission rules."

"Don't worry, Master Tyr. Likely nobody is down there."

With hammer in hand and oblivious to Tyr’s put upon sigh, Shiori climbed down into the small space at the bottom of the ladder and saw her protectors for the first time. Well actually, since their dark fur blended perfectly into the gloom of the tunnel, in which they waited, she saw four yellowish eyes and about nine hundred and forty glistening fangs, nearly at her eye height. Careful consideration of this visual stimuli allowed her to decide that standing, well quivering, in place seemed the most appropriate response. Furthermore, closing her eyes did not seem out of place.

Hot steamy breath, rank enough to kill a cow, washed over her face as the two massive beasts padded over to check out their new companion slash toy slash potential victim slash maybe the person to lead them into some fun bad shit. Evaluation complete, Freki gave one of Flower Smell's braids a gentle tug and Geri wuffed a quiet question.

"Feel safer?" Tyr asked.

"From the bad guys? I guess," Shiori said, opening her eyes to see the wolves watching her with more intelligence and hunger than she appreciated. "Umm, why don't you two go scout out the tunnel?"

They did. Noses down, the two wolves turned and moved out of sight into the darkness of the tunnel. This allowed her to move forward into the opening.

"When was the house built, Master Tyr?"

"We'll find out. Why?"

"This tunnel is concrete. It must have been poured when the house was built, which may mean this plot is older than we think. You should also check who built it, they might be involved."

Night vision does not do much when there is no light to gather, something that grew worse the further she moved from the ladder, with a curve and slope built into the tunnel. When her range shrank to little more than a step, she rapidly blinked her left eye until it emitted a low frequency light her right lens could utilize. With hopes that her North Pole technology worked better than anything the bad guys possessed, Shiori continued along the cement hall. In all, she counted five hundred and thirty eight, admittedly small and shuffling, steps before finding the two wolves standing at the end of the cement tunnel.

But a cross tunnel beckoned. Older, broader and higher, cut through the stone and reinforced with old wooden timbers, though recently added metal poles and plates showed someone wanted to make it extra safe. The two wolves looked towards her for instructions.

Gesturing for them to hold still, she said, "I think I found a mine."

"That's how the Liptons made their original wealth, though they closed it in the 1940s."

"What is the chance you can find a map for me?"

"Extremely low and definitely not quickly. There may be plans in a set of dusty records somewhere, but we can't find them on any network." Tyr answered. "You will have to continue to explore. Use their noses."

Unlike conversation with Master Tyr, Shiori would need to speak aloud with the Geri and Freki. But since sound carries underground, she needed to whisper, which would put her closer to wolf teeth than she wished. Life as a secret agent sometimes sucked. Waving the wolves towards her she bent over.

“Do either of you smell humans? No, not me, in the tunnel.”

Life as a wolf sometimes sucked, instead of sniffing Flower Smells, sometimes you’re expected to go stick your nose close to the dusty ground. Then you needed to fight the urge to sneeze, since that could give you and the pack away, which will piss them off because you wasted all their effort and nobody could eat tasty meat. Yet belonging to the pack meant you sometimes needed to take the risk of embarrassment to prove useful, so they started checking out the older tunnel. Both showing much more interest with the right side.

That did not surprise her. For, from that strange source of pseudo memories, another one emerged. When did she hunt? What did she track? Another hint at the secret behind Master Tyr's nervous obfuscation. But the secret played less importance in the moment than the remembered skill. With it she could read the recent passage of people on the ground.

Beyond a few scuffs, old and almost faded from view - how many years would that take - no sign showed of passage to the left. But on the right she saw signs of recent movement. Multiple shoes and boots, but possibly only two pairs of feet. One larger and one smaller.

Too bad. After yesterday's celebration, she wanted to prove Ms. Lipton innocent.

Crap, what if they could also read tracks? They would see her and the wolves' exploration. Well at least hers, despite their meandering search for smells, neither Freki nor Geri left a discernible print. A life lived in myth apparently held advantage.

"Wait here, I will be right back."

The trip to the ladder went much quicker than the trip out, it barely seemed scary. She actually took just as long to climb up to her bedroom. There Shiori faced a conundrum.

Her Mariboo Ghost Slippers held the technology needed to traverse the tunnels without leaving a trace, but they did not fit in with the college girl chic look. She could change, but nothing they matched, never mind the slippers themselves, seemed appropriate for wandering around underground. Maybe she could transfer the feathers to her runners, but that would mean destroying the slippers. Something that struck her as wrong, they were so pretty.

"Just wear the slippers," Tyr said, interrupting the decision paralysis he read on her face.

The tunnels grew more oppressive the further the three traveled. In time the fear of the wolves disappeared, their companionship serving as a counter to the worms wiggling about in terror inside her mind. By the time they passed the fourth spur or fork, journeying briefly down the path untaken by their quarry in case they missed something, she found herself walking with a hand loosely gripping the fur of one companion while the other ranged ahead. Then, three offshoots later, they reached a point with two choices.

A new tunnel, running perpendicular to the one they just finished traveling. Signs and smells showing more than two shoes walking in both directions.

Brief explorations proved neither choice better than the other.

"Okay, Freki, you come with me, while Geri stays here and watches for anyone. Come running if someone approaches."

Unsure if the right wolf came with her or if the other wolf understood and would follow her directions, Shiori floated down the left tunnel. Why left? Well she always followed the law of left when playing RPGs on Justin's PlayStation.

More signs of the mine along this tunnel, rooms carved off to the sides filled with metal garbage, even a set of tracks still remained. Shiny enough to make her think they saw recent use.

Then she found it. Another room, but not filled with waste from past mining. Instead she found rations and medical supplies, boxes of clothing and blankets piled neatly into the room. The next room held guns and ammo of all sorts. While the third scared her the most, filled with boxes labeled as explosives.

Somebody prepared for a war.

Taking numerous pictures, she also planted b-lens-dos and pic-me-ups in each room, with hopes the North Pole could get the underworld service provider to hook them up. Shiori then continued down the tunnel wondering what she would find.

The end surprised her. It came in another larger room, holding a table, chairs and whiteboard, along with a generator and light stands. They did not shine, but here she did not need to continue emitting light to assist her sight. Daylight, filtering down through the shaft, provided all she needed. Maybe seventy feet above, she could see the bottom of an elevator, still working if she read the markings on the wall correctly, but well out of her reach.

Time to turn around and check in the other direction.

Geri, if it was Geri, had maintained his position, though the puppy dog like relief and affection he showed her when she returned proved even such a fierce creature did not like waiting around, alone, in the dark caverns. It made her feel bad about leaving Freki, this time, at the intersection as she traveled to the right.

A straighter tunnel, with no offshoots, she found a newly built mining cart on the rails after walking for about three minutes. It sat at the end of the tracks, but another concrete tunnel now extended towards the left.

No surprise to find another ladder like the one underneath the Lipton basement. But without the ravens, Shiori could not find the way to open the door. Nor did she try. Somebody might wait on the other side.

"Master Tyr, can you tell what house I am under," Shiori asked, bugging the space.

"Best we can guess, it's not a house. It's that big old building you passed on the way from town."

"Justin said it used to be the home for his family's road construction business. They moved to their new location when he was a kid, because they needed a better gravel pit."

Finished with her exploration, Shiori returned to the house. After she hugged the wolves, now her best friends, goodbye before they disappeared, she climbed out of the tunnel, closed the trap door, replaced the hammer and ensured everything looked the same as she found it. Happily above ground, she showered and changed back into her cute jumper dress, then made herself a meal of Thanksgiving leftovers.

"You know, Master Tyr, outside of the guns and explosives, that was kind of anticlimactic."

"Productive though. At least we found a path. The right one? Well, that is still to be seen. We won’t need you to plant the gear at the mine entrance, since it's basically wilderness. But you need to get into that building."

"I've got a plan."

~o~O~o~

For centuries, life at the North Pole proved dull. Not truly bad dull, since the battles and politics that preceded left them all emotionally exhausted, ready for rest and relaxation to act as the balm to wash away that tiredness. And by the time everyone felt rested and relaxed, they started the Yule Cycle gifting program, which kept them busy ironing out kinks in the operation. But less kinks happened each year, as they grew into a smooth working operation.

Boredom made itself known, which is why Thor appreciated Agatha Lipton. Sure, she set herself up as his enemy, but sometimes you need an enemy. It offered him a chance to exercise some parts of his being that lay dormant.

Yet it takes more than exercise to turn the dormant dominant. So when he heard the racket coming from the building in which the Stinky Dozen practiced, he automatically found himself in worried manager slash babysitter mode, wondering what trouble he would find his band of idiots causing. Hurrying forward he opened the door, just as the group let loose an encouraging yell. Doubtless meant to encourage Ragi, who ran full speed past the door, his head down like bull.

Two steps and Thor snatched the running elf by the back of his jacket, Ragi's legs continuing to momentarily churn before he looked questioningly towards the grand master. Who asked, "What in the name of figgy pudding are you dolts up to now?"

"Playing tag?" Eric the Brunette sheepishly asked, when nobody else spoke.

In answer, Thor swung Ragi around to face him. Scrunched up in his jacket, the elf managed an awkward shrug, but the grand master just stared until he started squirming.

"It's Odd, Master Thor. We all know he's smarter than the rest of us, that the only reason he's in our section is because he is the laziest elf at the North Pole. But that doesn't mean he's way lots smarter than the rest of us, I was just proving it."

"How?"

"Well he said if I ran as fast as I could, I would bust through that wall with my head," Ragi said. "But that's stupid and I said there's no way I can bust through that wall with my noggin. He wouldn't believe me, so I was proving him a idiot."

Thor looked into the earnest face of Ragi, then at the terrible attempt of innocence on Odd's own face before walking over to the group and setting his captive down. He said, "I'm sorry I interrupted. Prove away, Ragi."

"Gotcha. Out of my way, you donkeys. I need room to build momentum."

Later that day, when arriving for dinner, Thor winced as he sat. Of course his father noticed and asked, "What's wrong?"

"I guess I needed to stretch my amuse-myself-at-another's-expense muscle before using it. Think I pulled it earlier today."

"Do I want to know what that means? Is there a mess we're going to need to clean up?"

"I don't think so."

"Very well. Though remember to sound more confident when lying to me in the future."

"Gotcha."

~o~O~o~

Shiori initiated her plan that evening, during the first time she spent alone with her boyfriend since the afternoon they arrived. With Justin’s mom doing some work, they went to the basement to try and find something on Netflix. While he manned the controller, she snuggled close, staring at him with adoring eyes.

“Justin, we haven’t taken any pictures.”

"What's that?"

"You know, we brought some of my costumes and your camera gear; however, we have been busy with other things. Which is good, that's why we came, but everything is so different here, I would like to add some more pictures to my portfolio and you take such good ones."

"We can take some tomorrow. I spent all day with today with mom. Went good right up to the end, when old conversations came up. Better to have some space tomorrow, though we need to be back before 4:00, we are going to my grandparents for supper."

"Is that when we are leaving or will I have time to change?"

"I guess we better be back by 3:00. What are you thinking of doing."

"How about your family's old building. I saw those pictures of the blonde girl."

"Amy," Justin asked, immediately nervous at the mention of a past girlfriend.

"Whatever. I liked the lighting and how apocalyptic it looks. Seems like it would be a perfect place for my black rock shooter costume. Plus, I really want to dig out the rock cannon I made. I'm so glad I found that instructional YouTube."

"Black rock shooter? Nice. But we need to wait until midday for the sun to reach a point for decent lighting."

"That's good, I like sleeping in. Better if it is with you, but I guess this way I get more sleep."

Justin just nodded sadly.

Yet she could not truly sleep in, the excitement about wearing her cool costume woke her early so she could get ready. Shiori often wondered what made it so fun to play dress up? The training she underwent played a role, particularly since pulling off a costume always earned praise from Sensa. Looking good also triggered a desire to continue, she liked the attention. But mostly she loved costumes that required weapons, even if fake, which allowed her to dress like a badass.

Nothing made her feel more like a badass than dressing as the Black Rock Shooter, since she got to use two weapons, her fake cannon and a wall display katana she bought from a booth at the mall. Plus the two scars marking BRS's torso showed she was ready to use them.

Good thing she woke earlier than implied the night before, those scars took some time to draw. Awkward and following multiple steps, she struggled without a good mirror to get them looking perfect. Too bad she could not trust Justin to help her, but another YouTube tutorial showed her how to do it. The makeup and the extensions for her left ponytail went much faster. While the costume, a tight pair of black short shorts with a grey belt, a black bikini top, gloves, some knee high boots with white trimmed cuffs and a long black duster decorated with the proper stripes and star, took no time to don.

"Wow, that's a different look, Shiori," Ms. Lipton said, her eyes wide, when she spotted her guest entering the kitchen.

"You look amazing, Shiori. She's dressed as the Black Rock Shooter, we're going to head over to the old headquarters to take some shots. Mom, can I get the key?" Justin asked.

"It is not safe, Justin."

"Mom, you know its okay. Grandpa gutted the place before it shut down, so it's just a big concrete shell. And it probably only quit curing around the time it closed. Last time I was there, last year, it was as solid as ever. Come on, Mom, it's the perfect place to recreate the Post-Apocalyptic feel to match Shiori's costume. Please?"

"I don't have a key at home, only in the office. Kids kept breaking in so we added extra security. I will need to get the security team to open it for you, but it might take some time before their schedule gives them time to do so."

"Thanks, Mom. We won't be able to take any pictures inside until the sun moves into position, which won't be for an hour or two. If you could you get it open by 1:00, it would be great. Until then, we can go get some wilderness shots."

"Okay, let me go make a call."

~o~O~o~

"Master Loki? Master Tyr? Master Thor? Anybody available?" Dagmar's voice asked over the intercom.

Hoping someone else would answer, not wanting to deal with the elf, Tyr continued working through his inventory report. However, neither answered, despite Dagmar calling out again. If only he could shirk his duty as well as his brother and Loki. But he could not, sometimes it sucked being the responsible one.

"Yes, Dagmar, what is it?"

"Someone needs to listen to this call I just recorded. It's that Agatha talking to her paramour."

"Paramour?" Tyr asked.

"An illicit lover."

"I know what it means, Dagmar. You talking about Darren."

"Yes, Master Tyr."

"How do you...bah, never mind, let me hear what they said."

"Hiya, Aggy," a man's voice said. "I didn't expect to hear from you this weekend."

"Hello, Dar. I'll be free tomorrow night, but I needed to check with you about something today. How's the old headquarters, is it clean. Anything there?"

"It should be clean. Who is wanting inside?"

"Justin and his latest distraction, they want to take some pictures. She's wearing a costume from one of those Japanese comics he reads."

Darren ordered, "Tell him it's not safe."

"He knows that's not true. Nobody's been inside more often than him since it closed. If I try to lie to him, he will get curious. You know I don't want that, until it is time."

"Damnit, Aggy, you spoil him."

"Of course I do, he was all I had for years," Agatha said, her tone holding judgment and showing her as something more than a subservient partner. "I need your guys, the ones working security at the plant, to go make sure everything is in order and unlock the door for them. They have a hour."

"I'll look after it myself."

When they hung up, Dagmar came back online to ask, "What are we going to do, Master Tyr?"

"Release the hounds."

"Huh?"

"Never mind, Dagmar. Umm, good work by the way."

"Thank you, Master Tyr," the elf said, not immediately cutting off his side of his conversation. "If you keep this up, Dagmar, you'll make yourself indispensable. Then you can..."

Wondering if they should monitor Dagmar and who they could use to do so, Tyr made another call. "Hello, father, can we borrow your wolves for protection duty again?"

"For our agent?"

"Yep, just precautionary. She may come in contact with Darren. I would just like some backup for her."

"Sure, you can borrow them, they think she's the bee's knees. Let's hope they don't need to do anything. I hate explaining shit to the Council, they take everything so seriously."

~o~O~o~

While taking some shots in the woods behind the house, Shiori learned from Tyr about her potential meeting with Darren Wynchynski. And, as nerve racking as she found her first meeting with Agatha, it felt like nothing when compared to the anxiety at the thought of this meeting. Even noticing Freki and Geri watching her, hidden in the woods, behind Justin did not do much to make her feel better. Hopefully they could keep up when they drove over to the old building.

Hard to get into the picture taking mood.

When they pulled into a weed covered parking lot of the old Lipton headquarters, they found a white F-150 waiting. The doors showing security decals when they swung open to allow its occupants to exit. From the driver's side, she saw Matt Walker step out, long time follower of Darren's, who stayed free when his leader went to jail, soon started working for the Agatha when she returned home, and acted as the main conduit between the two during the prison years.

Beyond a quick glance for recognition, Shiori ignored him, looking towards the passenger. The infamous Darren Wynchynski, in blue jeans and a work shirt, which covered Aryan Brotherhood prison tattoos, turning him into a regular middle aged man. A handsome one at that, Justin's good genes did not only come from his mother. Particularly those leading to height.

Justin muttered under his breath, before he made a big looping u-turn, pulling to a stop so his door faced Matt's. Getting out, he said, "Sorry to drag you out here on your day off, Mr. Walker. If you want, just leave me the key and I will leave it at the plant after locking up."

"It's no problem, Justin. I drew the short straw to work today, though I don't mind the double time straw. And I can wait around until you're done. Geordie is at the plant and can call if anything is happening, which would be the first such instance in three months. Though don't tell your mom, this is a great job."

"I won't. Umm..."

"Taking some pictures?"

"Yeah."

"Your mom showed us some of those pictures you took of that girl where she was dressed like that dragon chick from Game of Thrones. I can't believe how much I like that show. And the pictures were amazing.”

“Thanks, is the door open?”

“Yep, go ahead. But you’ll have to stay out of the North end. We’re storing stuff there and is considered a safety gear area. Hard hats. Steel toes. You know the drill. We wouldn't want your pretty friend to get hurt."

Not quite a threat. But in that moment Shiori found herself wishing her sword did not come from a booth in a mall or that her cannon was made out of gun metal rather than Styrofoam. She even felt herself wishing the wolves would attack. Not for selfless reasons nor for them to go after Darren, rather she wanted them going after Matt. He creeped her out and continued to do so throughout their shoot.

While Darren waited outside, his lackey never left Justin's side. And while he kept a leer off his face, Shiori felt that and worse lurked in his eyes. With no way to explore while he watched, she dumped the her last cameraleon into the shadows, for Pole central to use it to scout, and then tried to enter model mode. But, like earlier, she did not find mood and her boyfriend did nothing to draw her out.

Justin seemed just as out of sorts as she felt. She readily agreed when he said, "I think that's enough."

It did not take long for them to get back to the Jeep and get underway. Halfway back to his house, Justin broke the silence to say, "I hate him."

"Mr. Walker?"

"No. The guy with him."

"Who is he?"

"People don't want me to know, but he's my dad. He's also a criminal, racist and all around thug."

Shiori did not know what to say in answer. She could not even give him a hug until they got out of the vehicle.

~o~O~o~

Loki smiled. They did not make him wait to visit the council this time nor did deputies sit in place of their arch-angels. The briefs they already provided hinted at the shit hitting the fan and even the most powerful know not to leave the ass covering in the hands of a henchangel.

Like them, he examined his own priorities before arriving to present the North Pole’s findings. The desire to manipulate things, to make everything seemed less dangerous appealed to his capricious nature. So much more fallout, which he may use for his own benefit, when things went horribly wrong. Plus it would surely prove hilarious.

Also uncomfortable. Bad though this plot appeared, it did not measure large enough to end the Pact. Lying would just remind everybody not to trust him. Better to act like a good boy, help out some more, then stab everyone in the back at a better point. The right timing made a joke even better.

However, life without amusement is life without living. So in honour of the respect he felt towards the Council of the Host, Loki wore the worst combination of Christmas elfish gear he could find in his closet as ambassadorial garb. Red shoes, with toes curving into bells. Stockings of alternating green and red rings. Pants and jacket of velvet and white fur, the pants in green and the jacket in red. Topped off by a green, pointed hat, also adorned with a bell.

Within the pristine chamber, surrounded by the Council, in their simple white robes showcasing their ethereal beauty, he stood out as special. Loki liked that.

"Esteemed council-members, thank you for offering the North Pole some of your valued time. We hope you will be pleased with our progress and are able to provide us with a kernel of your infinite wisdom as to how we should proceed," Loki said, bowing in an elaborate fashion, which set his bells jingling.

"Spare us your sarcastic attempts at flattery, Loki," Michael said, from the chair-angel’s throne. "What have you learned? What do you want to do about it?"

"As outlined in the briefing provided. We have an inkling of the plot between Agatha Lipton and Darren Wynchynski, which they plan to trigger on Christmas Eve. And while it won't ruin the day for everybody in the world it will do so for a good sized group. What I would like to do? Well actually nothing. It’s doesn’t bother me if it happens. However, those in charge of the North Pole would like to stop it."

Gabriel asked, "Shouldn't they both have had a black bell?"

"From what I understand, Agatha is not a lost cause, her guilt and ability to recognize the impact her crime is why her bell could be so tarnished. While Darren is a hopeless cause. His bell was ejected on the first day of new Yule as institutionally naughty. Besides he probably only sees, what torments Agatha, as a great distraction."

"Does he truly believe this distraction will be large enough so he can steal a nuclear weapon?"

Chapter 8

Best breakup ever.

And, for a change, not his fault.

Not long after they returned to school from their Thanksgiving visit, Shiori told him she planned to return to Japan at the end of the semester. She missed home.

Semi-prepared for the end. Partially wanting the end. Justin nevertheless felt bad about it. He suspected there would never be anyone like Shiori in his life again, which induced some unwanted thoughts about growing up.

Happily Shiori did not cut ties immediately, in fact they spent as much time together as before her announcement. Almost more than before, both of them wanting to cram as much into their remaining time together as possible. Down right dangerous for his grades, what with semester end approaching. Good thing Shiori found something else to distract her part of the time.

Best job ever!

After the completion of the Thanksgiving Caper, as absolutely nobody called it, Shiori's raison d'être came to an end. With the surveillance equipment planted, Dagmar took over the Pole position. Collecting enough juicy tidbits to keep the Host worried and Thor's strike team in training.

The question, what to do with Shiori? Tyr favoured bringing her back into the fold, for her safety. While Loki thought that dangerous for the mission, stating that anything unusual, like the disappearance of their son's girlfriend would probably cause the conspirators to pull in the hole overtop themselves. With Thor busy and not available for an opinion, Santa needed to break the tie. He agreed with Loki, knowing this may be their only chance, worried the Host would take it from their control once Christmas lost its attachment to potential villainy.

So she stayed with Justin, after breaking the news of her future departure, and at school. The first she enjoyed, but the thought of doing any schoolwork made her groan. Why put herself through the hassle of finishing assignments or studying for exams? Unlike Sensa's tutelage, Shiori did not find much of what she learned at university particularly useful.

Yet she realized she should not rely on Justin for full time amusement. He did need to finish his assignments and study for exams. They could impact his future.

This is why she found herself wandering through a mall, allowing her to stumble upon an indoor "winter wonderland". It drew her until she grasped its plastic nature. Artificial Christmas joy, yet it felt welcoming and homey to one of the North Pole’s own. It spoke to her, despite momentary outrage at the obviously fake Santa sitting on his red vinyl covered throne and the commercial co-opting of what she and hers stood for.

She felt herself wanting to become one of its elfs. Not one like her past fellows, instead one of her current sisters.

If only it did not involve children. Crying, sniffling, demanding, walking germ factories who always made her nervous. When around them Shiori found herself remembering where Sensa said they came from. That knowledge left her a wreck for more than a few days. Even now she struggled to believe it possible. Did not really want to believe it possible. And Shiori suspected, if she took on a job as a mall elf, she would likely go catatonic while holding a baby and drop it.

Besides they wore the tackiest outfits. Her old self dreamed about wearing green instead of grey, but not that green. Or such frumpy shorts over bright yellow hose without a single stripe. And who thought floppy shoes made sense? How unsafe? They just begged to get sucked into a lathe or conveyor belt.

Nope, not for her.

Instead she discovered, in an unleased store space, down a barely used hall, a charity organization's gift wrapping service. She immediately realized she belonged amongst that sparkly paper, luscious ribbon and fantastical bows.

Always desperate for helping hands, they eagerly accepted hers when she aced the test wrap. Her work may rank amongst the lowest at the North Pole, but Christmas coursed through her blood and in that small storefront amongst a group of mostly geriatric humans, she became a gift wrapping legend. No box too large, no parcel too awkward, no ribbon left uncurled. They appreciated her skill and accepted her eccentricities, recognizing her marketability amongst those least likely to wrap their own gifts. Men.

How wonderful to feel accepted in a group. To serve as a functioning and desired member of a team. Oh, poor Snorri, to live so long, yet never feel the reward of belonging. Shiori hoped part of him felt what she felt during those days at Cedar Point Mall. Hoped he felt her joy or spun with her every time she twirled away from her wrapping table to present a satisfied customer with his prize.

Definitely the best job ever!

One that, as needs must, came to an end on the day Justin wrote his last exam. Invited to spend her final American days celebrating Christmas in Penniesburg with the Lipton's, she woke next morning, dressed in her best college girl chic, staggered out to the Jeep and then fell back to sleep while Justin drove them to the final showdown.

~o~O~o~

If one walked along the streets of the North Pole, three days before Christmas, you could be forgiven for believing it a ghost town. The sounds of machinery no longer filled the air, announcements did not propel elfs to perform miracles, carols did not keep morale at a level achieved only by those in the midst of an energy drink binge. Unlike many, North Pole Inc. finished their gift making, wrapping and packing for delivery with time to spare. But the feat came with high cost, so now everyelf slept and would sleep until they awoke on Christmas Eve to begin their own celebrations.

The Grandmasters did not number amongst the unconscious. Leaders for most of the year, they now prepared to play their vital role. This year with an added nuisance.

"No, everything we hear makes us think they are still going through with their plan," Loki answered.

"Plus Shiori reports Agatha appears distracted," Tyr added.

"Ho Ho Shit," Santa acknowledged. "I just realized how much I've been hoping they would smarten up and not go through with this madness."

"But, Father, think of all our work."

"You mean the millions of hours we put into getting ready for Christmas, Thor? Preparing for our biggest night of the Yule cycle?"

"I understand, Father. Honestly I do, but you get nervous every Yule. And every cycle we fine tune the process even further. Besides, you don't need my idiots to help. In years past, we would lock them in their rooms so they didn't mess anything up."

"Who’s going to drive your sled, you know we need them all operating in order to make all deliveries."

"My sled too," Loki said.

"What?”

"Well the Host will be running the mission control centre. Probably best for me to join them during the mission to act as the liaison or run interference if Thor let’s the Norse out."

Thor agreed, "Smart idea. You might be an asshole, but at least you won’t trust fate to make sure everything goes right. Although it goes against everything I hold dear to trust you."

"You silver tongued devil, I'm blushing."

"Brokkr and his brothers are going to operate our sleds," Tyr said, trying to head off another Thor slash Loki verbal spar-a-thon.

“You too?” Santa asked “Why you, Tyr?”

“Tyr’s got a girlfriend.”

“Are you eight?” Tyr asked his brother in response to the sing song taunt.

“Umm, I might be spending a bit too much time with the Stinky Dozen.”

“What are you two idiots talking about?”

“He’s talking about our agent, father, but Shiori is looked after as well as I can without breaking the Pact. The real reason I need to be on the ground is to act as spotter. Any extra time for me to translate what Shiori sees may cause an issue. Nor do we think she has the right eye for it, Snorri never acted as the stand off and observe type of fighter. Better to have a stable eye spotting.”

“You mean boring.”

“Shut up, Thor.”

“That was Loki.”

“Yeah, it was me.”

“Though he is right. You are boring.”

“But, but, what about our deliveries?” Santa asked.

“Father, really, it is simple enough that Thor’s numbskulls could do it. The reindeer all know their assigned routes. And this is the ninth cycle using the Bag O'Presents Dispensing system, so all the problems are worked out. All we need to do is eat the cookies and drink the milk, the smiths can definitely handle that.”

“And, I for one, will be happy to go a cycle without drinking who knows how many gallons of warm milk,” Loki said. "Though I'll miss the cookies. At least some of them, specially the ginger snaps."

~o~O~o~

Hours after they arrived at the Lipton house, Shiori felt the anticipation begin playing upon her mind. Helping to prepare for the Penniesburg's Christmas Eve Festival, which Lipton Road Services sponsored, offered some distraction, but those few days of waiting almost broke her brain. When the time came to get ready for the evening, she nearly skipped up the stairs with happiness.

"You know things might get dangerous tonight. If you want, you don't need to go. Pretend you're not feeling well," Grandmaster Tyr said.

"No, I need to be there. To see it to the end."

"That's what I expected you to say. But again, there is no pressure. You've done more than enough, Shiori."

"I'm good. Really I am."

"Okay, umm, but just to help keep you safe, I got you something. On the bed."

"A present?" Shiori asked, excitedly turning to see a box appear, wrapped in shiny red paper and topped with an extravagant bow. Kneeling on the bed, she unwrapped the gift and lifted the top from the box. "Oooh, pretty. But it's red? I can't wear red."

Coming from the North Pole caused her to think of Christmas as a celebration of childhood, but, like most things, humanity took the opportunity to sexualize it. In particular, the uncountable combinations of sexy elf, snowman, candy cane, reindeer and even Mrs. Santa outfits, which left her both embarrassed and excited. The excited part won out, her training left Shiori without a chance, which led to her buying or making some cute costumes to wear gift wrapping and for tonight. However, she could not overcome sacrilegious thoughts and allow herself to wear a Mrs. Santa outfit.

"I think you've earned the right to wear red. We don't have anyone at the Pole with your level of mastery at being female."

"Yeah, you're right, Master Tyr."

"Of course I am, Master Shiori. Besides, ever since that almost unfortunate instance over a shooting range during the Yule delivery forty cycles ago, all our red velvet is interwoven with bulletproof material."

"What about the reindeer?"

"You know what reindeer are like," Tyr said. "We made some prototype suits for them to wear, but the rest laughed at those who tried them on. Calling them all sorts of names."

"Reindeer are assholes."

"Yep, but they have great navigational skills and the ability to fly at ultra mega sonic speed."

~o~O~o~

Unusual for it to make an appearance, but a part of Snorri’s essence leaked out that evening. How else to explain a beauty like Shiori, dressed in her eye catching best, fading into the background. Even when someone did notice her, it would only last a moment. A hint of surprise followed by one of three looks; questioning, lustful or judgmental, depending upon who spotted her. Even those secondary glances rarely lasted long enough for her to see it.

Almost magical.

She welcomed this lack of attention. When they initially arrived at the festival, Shiori entered girlfriend mode, wanting to squeeze the most out her last moments with Justin. But when longtime friends drew his attention, she settled into her foreign observation mode. Soon she felt the disconnect from those around her grow wider. Leaving Justin's side she wandered, observing the humans. Enjoying their excitement, basking in the community spirit, but not truly part of it.

Yes, she definitely felt ready for this adventure to end. But what next?

Could she do what he wanted?

Did she know what she wanted? Shiori thought so, but how to let the masters know.

Two hours after Santa's knee first became available that evening, she saw the line in front of the hired Santa no longer contained children, now early teens and even some girls her age stood waiting. Maybe if she told this fake Santa her desire, it would get back to the real one. Sure fake Santa would feel confused, but the practice should help. With this thought, Shiori joined the end of the still slowly moving line, which offered time to compose what she would say. Only when a single group remained in front of her did she notice the man in the chair.

“Master Tyr, what are you doing here?” she asked the part of her mind reserved for conversations with her handler.

“Playing spotter for my brother.”

“You have a second hand?”

“Yep, Brokkr built me an artificial replacement. I don’t like wearing it, but need it for this gig.”

Suddenly Shiori felt a lot more nervous about her intended interaction with fake Santa. While he dealt with three girls in front of her, she tried to convince herself to still go through with her plan.

“And, you little girl, what do you want for Christmas? Why don’t you come sit on Santa's lap and tell him."

Throwing caution to the wind, she ducked down so it did not smack her in the face, if it blew back towards her, and moved forward to sit on Master Tyr's lap. Head still down, Shiori mumbled more than said, "I don't want to go back to being Snorri."

"That's don't want. What is it you want?"

"I want to stay the me I am now. No, that's not quite right. I want to find out if who I am now is who I should be. And I think I will need Sensa's help to discover the truth."

"Are you sure? What about the North Pole? You once told me to ensure you did not forget your freakish friends, like Rudolph did, when you became the hero."

"I did? Umm, I'm not a hero."

"You did. And if anybody deserves the title for this adventure, it's you," Master Tyr answered.

"Okay everybody, time to head inside for the service," Pastor Jim said over the loudspeaker.

Imaginary Editor’s Note: This would be an appropriate time to go listen to the first minute and twenty seconds (continue watching if you don’t mind hair band cooties) of Europe’s - The Final Countdown - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9jK-NcRmVcw

~o~O~o~

Some learn the hard way about battle, while the rest of us read about it in books or see it in movies. From that reading or watching you will likely learn how various soldiers prepare for battle in different ways. Some check and recheck their gear, others write letters or read a bible. The Stinky Dozen preferred a game of full contact Duck, Duck, Goose.

That is why, when he arrived at their training facility on Christmas Eve, Thor first needed to break up a scuffle between Banki and Ragi, resulting from the last round of their game, before he said, "It's time for us to get in the air. We need to be in position to attack when given a go."

"Time to kill us some good guys."

"Damn it, Banki, what do I keep telling you?"

"No killing, Master Thor," Banki said.

"And we're the good guys?" Halvdan added, not quite able to keep the question out of his voice.

A sigh seemed more productive than another explanation, so after offering one up to whoever cared, Thor said, "Just do whatever I tell you, now line up for inspection. Umm, Alf, do you mind facing the same way as everybody else?"

"I'm making sure the good gu...I mean, the bad guys don't sneak up on us, Master Thor."

"I'll watch for that, Alf. Now turn around."

"Yes, sir, Master Thor."

"Everybody, make sure your Belt-a-Shield is turned on and keep it turned on," Thor ordered, walking down their line to check each carried a candy cane staff slash gun and equipped a full assortment of throwing snowflakes. "Okay, finish hooking up the sled and we can launch."

Like a well oiled machine, one built to do something simple, maybe a two hole punch, make that a one hole punch, the Stinky Dozen pushed the sleigh out of its shed and wrangled eight ornery reindeer into place. Then with eight of the elfs mounted on a reindeer and four in the sleigh, ready to elf the giant poppers mounted underneath, Thor took his seat on the bench. Taking reins in hand, he snapped them once and sang those magical words.

"Now, Daschiel! Now, Panzer! Now, Pronger, and Vincent! On, Cornet! On, Lucid! On, Donald and Blitzen!"

As the reindeer leapt into the air, pulling the sleigh painted with cool ass, bitching flames along the sides, Thor reached into the glove box. From there, he pulled out a tape and pushed it into the 8-track player. Soon their war song rang forth, stirring the battle fervor in each elf's tiny Nordic heart, causing him to join his voice to the chorus.

"Waterloo - I was defeated, you won the war
Waterloo - Promise you'll love me forever more"

~o~O~o~

Despite, at least hierarchically, working for the same parent organization, Shiori found herself unsure about church. With her primary exposure including rules against enjoyable things, she found herself predisposed to actually disliking it. But the service seemed okay, particularly when everybody sang a hymn. It felt good to join her terrible singing voice to so many other terrible singing voices. On the other hand, she found the words spoken by Pastor Jim and the kid, who stared as much at her legs as his bible during a stuttered reading, rather boring.

Fortunately, umm...or not, she discovered waiting for the arrival of Darren and his thugs offered plenty of distraction.

Thugs who arrived just after the kid sat down. Twelve in total, with most rushing in through the main door while others appeared at the back door. A foul mouthed mass of leather vests, oily hair, dirty blue jeans, shitty masks and a ridiculous amounts of firepower.

"Everybody get your fuckin' hands up. Arthur if you reach into your coat, so help me, I will blow your brains out."

"What the meaning of this? What are you doing?" Pastor Jim asked, bravely trying to stand up for his flock.

"It's a hostage taking, ya fuckhead."

This led to the hostage takers engaging in a lively game of - who can use the word fuck in the loudest and most creative fashion. No official score keeping took place, but the heaviest of the bunch, a foul mouthed poet, his hair hanging in a gloriously balding mullet, probably won with his imaginative ability to rhyme fucker and cocksucker. A true word smith.

This shouting, and gun waving, left the congregation cowed, angry and completely confused. It allowed Darren Wynchynski, masked as Bill Clinton, to nonchalantly walk to the front and do nothing to clear up that confusion.

"Ok, everybody, listen up. Time to take a collection, my boys are going to pass the plates and all of you are going to fill them up. But don't worry, we're not here to rob you, we just want your guns and cell phones. We wouldn't want any of you communicating with the outside, before we are ready. Now slow and careful like."

"What do you want?" Agatha asked, sounding worried but in control, hardly practiced at all.

"Peace on Earth, goodwill to men plus a few little surprises that don't involve any of you. Let's hurry up. You can all go for a night without posting a selfie. Everybody good? Remember, you're in church, bad place to lie. Very well, now just sit there like a good bunch of ends to the mean. Did you find anybody downstairs?"

"It's clear," said one of the three goons, arriving back on the main floor.

"Very well. You will come with me, you can be my safety blanket."

With this, Darren grabbed Agatha's wrist and yanked her to her feet. Rough treatment that initiated a small Rube Goldberg effect. Justin surged to his own feet in protective anger. Guns swung towards Justin. Agatha yelled to leave him alone. And Shiori jumped up to grab Justin's arm, before he swung it, with years of built up rage, at his father.

"Calm the fuck down, everybody," Darren shouted. "Calm the fuck down. Okay? Okay? We good? You can come too, Justin."

"How about the girlie, let's take her too," Matt Walker said, from behind his Reagan mask.

"No."

"I want to be with you, Justin. I'd feel safer with you," Shiori said.

"Shiori..."

"No. Master Tyr," Shiori mind whispered back. "You need me with them. To watch while you watch here."

Darren said, "Very well, three hostages are better than one."

~o~O~o~

“No, for the fifth time, they are not going to steal a nuclear bomb. They know it is impossible," Loki said, trying to make Ernieon and Bertielle, the two angels tasked with deciding when to release the strike force, understand. Bureaucrats of the first order, he half suspected they intentionally played stupid.

"Then what are we worried about?" Ernieon asked.

"The worry about them stealing a bomb was just an added threat, we started out wanting to protect the church. That is still our main objective. We've long known that the hostage taking would serve as a distraction, despite still not knowing for what. That means our mission has not changed, except for it being even more important than we thought."

"How so?"

"Well we learned this band of heretics rigged the church with explosives. Furthermore, while some of them sneak out to do whatever nefarious thing they plan to do, the most fanatical will stay behind under the command of Mad Dog Kipper Wilson. He's so crazy that you would only expect such a character to end up in charge of something with this much potential to go wrong during an action movie."

Bertielle asked, "What's a movie?"

"Excuse me, did he just ask, what's a movie?"

"Bertielle belongs to the anti-graven image faction."

"It only leads to the sin of vanity. Our Lord knows all are equal," Bertielle said.

"Which is why he made everyone look exactly the same," Loki said, all innocent like.

"To him we all look the same."

"Tell us more about this Mad Dog, Loki," Ernieon asked, frantically trying to stop the brewing argument. He liked Bertielle, but if he started in on one of his rants there would be no way they would finish early enough to make J’s yearly birthday bash.

"He's easily insulted, has the patience of a skunk, is meaner than a tuna fish and can barely control himself. The only reason Wynchynski would put him in charge is because he wanted things to go wrong. The church is a time bomb and this Mad Dog is the unstable trigger that will definitely go off."

"We need to stop that from happening," Ernieon said, while Bertielle nodded agreement.

Sparing a moment to thank his lucky God, himself, that so many thought shouting commands placed them control of a situation, Loki sent a message to Thor.

"Go!"

~o~O~o~

"Okay, boys, latest report from Tyr. There are seven bogeys in the church, three on each side and their leader up front. Odd and Eric the Brunette, since you are mounted on the front reindeer, you two focus on the leader. The other six reindeer elfs focus on the side guys. You know, do them in the same order as you're mounted."

"What do you mean, Master Thor?" Alf asked.

"Well you and Ragi are sitting behind Odd and Eric, so each fire at the two closest to the front.

“How about me, Master Thor?” the elf behind Ragi asked.

“You and Ivar, will shoot the second pair. And before you ask, Leif and Knute, take out the third pair. Everybody good?”

From behind him, Thor heard a hesitant, “Ummm?”

“What have you four been practicing?”

"Ummm, poppers?"

"Yes, the poppers. You all got that? I can't hear you. Ready? Very well then, just blast the snot out of everyone and everything."

"Yayyyyy!"

"In 3, 2, 1," Thor counted down. "Go!"

~o~O~o~

Like Elvis, love had left the building. Specifically the house at the far end of another, super convenient tunnel, which started in the church's basement. In its place now reigned betrayal, ably henched by anger and anguish.

The first combination raged upstairs, between Agatha and Darren, out of sight though not out of earshot. It combusted when she learned how much his intentions differed from hers. Instead of creating a distraction to steal a nuclear device, he planned to use the distraction to knock off the local state trooper’s evidence room, which held a substantial amount of drugs gathered as a result of investigation into a cartel slash biker drug running organization. An ugly argument, which involved progressively more despicable insults from a pair grown used to using the other.

Only Kipper Wilson ended up redeemed by the shouting. When, while trying to calm Agatha, Darren convinced her nothing would happen at the church. Despite world class swearing skills and Loki's insinuation, Kipper was placed in charge of the church operation because of his calm demeanor and willingness to return to the comforting routine of jail, though not as a mass murderer.

Meanwhile, the anguished Justin hunched over on a couch in the living room, trying to process the betrayal he felt upon learning his mother's insanity equaled his father's. And the only comfort he received came from Shiori, which consisted of hesitant shoulder pats and unconfident reassurances that everything would work out.

She wished she could do more. She hated how much he hurt. And she wanted that asshole, Matt Walker, to quit staring at her with those eyes

In general, Shiori decided everything pissed her off.

~o~O~o~

Most people think that Santa’s sleds appears on the roof and he enters through the chimney. As expected, most people are wrong. The sled actually enters the house, which you might think results from magic allowing the sled, reindeer team and attendant passengers to pass through the walls, never mind fit within said house. When in actuality, there is a very sound scientific theory behind what actually happens. A theory that would involve a thesis length paper involving many formulas, graphs, charades and shadow puppets to explain. Therefore, ...

The reindeer pulling the sleigh carrying Thor's strike force ditched most of their speed as soon as they reindeerfied through the front wall of the church. Though even with this speed dump, the pair of elfs, riding directly behind Thor, needed to jump from of the sleigh immediately. Ropes in hand, their weight bursting open the first of the giant poppers mounted underneath the sled, spilling out a plastic toy whistle, a massive tissue paper crown and 32.6 kilograms of knockout powder upon the pews below. And the second pair needed to jump out barely a sub second behind their compatriots, in order to fully snow all the innocents.

Putting everyone to sleep seemed the best approach, since the Host determined the raid did not check enough criteria in the handbook for a miracle. Easier for the Angelic clean up crew, slated to follow Thor's hit team into the church, to mess with everybody’s mind when unconscious.

The passive approach also needed to work on the bad guys, despite their positioning, which is why, in the two seconds after they arrived the eight reindeer riders fired seven thousand, two hundred and thirty eight knockout pellets at the hostage takers. Admittedly, only two thousand, four hundred and twelve actually hit their targets, but that averaged out to a shit load per guy. The only sound to offset the psscht, psscht of the candy cane shooters were the thumps of leather vested bodies falling to the ground.

"Why the heck did we spend months training?" Odd asked, as the sled came to a hovering stop. "I've had more trouble digging out a booger."

"Ummm, well..."

Before Thor needed to admit, both to them and himself, that he always suspected this would be easy, but their existence helped him escape the drudgery of production schedules, Tyr jumped into the sled. Unaffected by the knockout dust due to his godliness, he shouted, "Hurry, we need to rescue Shiori."

"Don't we need permission from the Host?"

"Screw them, she's one of ours."

"You know, Tyr? It's moments like this when I remember why you're my brother. Help me pull the popper elfs back into the sleigh and then tell me where to go."

~o~O~o~

Legend and lore tell of Eikþyrnir, the stag whose antlers exude the liquid that fills the Hvergelmir, which in turn feeds all the rivers of the world. Plus the already mentioned Heiðrún the goat who produces the mead and Sæhrímnir the boar from whose carcass comes the meat that cover the tables of Valhalla (a wholly owned subsidiary of North Pole Inc.). And you've already met Huginn, Muninn, Geri and Freki. Much less is known of Clancy the polar bear, whose pelt provides the white fur that trims all of the uniforms worn by the denizens of the North Pole.

Gruesome when you truly think about how the trim is obtained, so don't think about it. Focus instead on how the soft and snowy white fur felt as it tickled Shiori's legs at the top of her boots. The way it caressed her soft and perfect thighs at the bottom of a short skirt. That it, despite what societal norms might deem appropriate, drew the eye to her cleavage and did not let it leave. Or the way it highlighted thin, seemingly fragile, wrists atop small hands clenched in fists.

Rage and bearskin.

Bearskin and rage.

A potent combination for a berserker. With only rage, Snorri the Elf summoned a punch that broke Dagmar's nose. With both, Snorri the Human berserker once tossed aside all concerns about his own safety, replacing it with a desire to rip his enemies apart. The same well of darkness in which Shiori the Hottie discovered a full heaping of, ‘Fuck it, these assholes need to pay!'

Unfortunately for those involved, Shiori the Hottie did not share Snorri the Berserker's compulsion to tear off all her clothes before putting plan Fuck It into motion. The only sign of the approaching storm came when she muttered, “argle margle bargle.”

No one reacted. Possibly no one heard. Upstairs, Agatha and Darren still argued, though a bit more quietly, three of the hostage takers gossiped around the dining room and Matt leaned against a wall nearby in a state of distraction. But when she said it once more, a bit louder, Walker peeled his eyes away from her breasts, pushed himself away from the wall and asked, “What type of Jap shit was that? Speak English, sugartits.”

In answer, Shiori smiled an overly toothy smile. One that sent a confusing message to Matt’s little man down below. However, before Mattie Logic could convince Little Mattie Lust that something was seriously wrong with the sexy doll on the couch, the sexy doll on the couch launched herself towards him, loudly saying, “Argle Margle Bargle!”

While our heroine flies through the air like a character out of the video game Dead or Alive, one of those who would end up playing volleyball while wearing a bikini, let us reflect on the serious affliction of not wanting to look like a wuss. If you are not some rutting stag or bull, instinct probably plays less of a role than peer pressure. It leads to thoughts like, I wonder if we should tie up our prisoner? Maybe I should say something or tie her up myself. Oh I can’t do that, everybody will think I’m scared of a little girl, that I am a wuss. Thoughts that can leave you distracted, banging heads with the other males on the savanna as a pack of lionesses comes flying at you from nowhere.

Not that Shiori needed her hands to deal with Matt Walker. No, a flying head butt delivered straight to Little Mattie Lust’s headquarters proved breathtaking for spectator and target both, just in different ways. However, such an attack must always end upon the floor and here her hands helped, cushioning the fall. Plus free, they also allowed her to catch Walker’s gun as it slipped from his powerless fingers and fell towards the floor.

A chrome plated, ego enhancing Desert Eagle Mark XIX .50AE, the grip of the hand cannon could barely fit in her hand. Though she never considered using the gun for its intended purpose, a concept much too impersonal for a berserk

Instead, she held the barrel of the gun, scrambled to her knees and hammered the grip against Walker’s nearest ankle. An indignity too many, causing the kidnapper to collapse to the ground.

This initial engagement took less than four seconds. Time for the other three men to realize something was wrong, but not yet react. Overweight, middle age putzes who only imagined they belonged to some group of badasses, instead of only being semi-skilled at drunken brawls and bullying. Therefore, they still clamoured to their feet, while Shiori regained the vertical and shouted, “ARGLE MARGLE BARGLE!!!!!”

That yell even pulled Justin from his misery. Head free of the hands in which he previously buried it, he watched his red clad ex-girlfriend slash ongoing playmate, charge towards the sofa. One step on the seat cushions, another on the top of the couch, her stiletto heeled boots miraculously not snagging at either step, she launched herself towards the group around the table. Berserk with rage, but still in the possession of her tactical instincts, she threw the heavy gun, just as she left the top of the couch, right at the biker standing at the side of the dining room table.

With the luck of the Norse Gods, in one of the rare moments they offered the good type, on her side, the weapon flew true. Nearly four and a half pounds of metal, when flung with all types of momentum for a short distance, will do some damage. The barrel banged against his temple, beginning his journey into la la land. This did not stop the gun spinning, so the hilt smashed against his nose. Ensuring he would wake a bit less pretty.

Now if four point five pounds can do that much damage, think about one hundred and four pounds of screaming fury. If your mind instantly imagines some oversized wrestler catching his opponent in a rib crushing bear hug, you’ve never met Doug Sanderson. Five feet nine inches tall, fifty two years old, owner of a giant beer gut and the proud recipient of sixteen years worth of worker’s compensation after screwing up his back working at the gravel pit. Needless to say, his Andre the Giant moment went horribly wrong.

“Fuck! My back!”

But like the best heel, propelling the crowd’s favourite to victory, he did offer Shiori a springboard onto the solid wooden table. Along which she crawled, like some demented baby, before she scratched at the last thug as he lifted his gun towards her.

Long fingernails paid off. They really did not do much damage, scraping across a coarse haired arm, but did cause a premature shot into the ground. A bit too close to its shooter’s own foot for hit comfort. It startled him, which allowed Shiori to slither off the table, up his torso and spin around to his back. There she wrapped legs around his waist and arms around his neck. Panicked by the rapid deterioration of the situation, he forgot the value of his pistol and reached for her arms.

Unlike Doug, this was a big guy in almost okay shape so it should have been easy to dislodge her, but did you ever wonder why they call it berserker strength? Or what Evander Holyfield felt when he fought Mike Tyson? Well foe #4 learned both lessons.

“What the fuck’s going on here?” Darren yelled, as he and Agatha ran down the stairs.

“Shoot the bitch,” Sanderson yelled, from the floor. “She’s some type of ninja. Ahh, fuck, she buggered up my back.”

You can say a lot of bad things about Wynchynski, but you could not accuse him of over thinking when the shit hits the fan. Nor pretend he couldn't shoot worth a damn.

A terrible combination for Shiori, still focussed on choking out her fourth target. The age old problem of the berserk, forgetting completely about defence in the overwhelming desire to obliterate her current target.

She definitely would not be helped by Justin shouting, “No...”

It would take an act of deus ex machina to rescue her. And what do you know, two gods and their minions, in a reindeer powered machine, appeared at that very moment. Those minions, for a change, acted properly and without guidance, targeting everyone in the room. If only they did not use all their candy cane ammo in the church, forcing them to use their flying snowflakes. Particularly since none of them threw any harder than a regular six year old.

Time slowed as Tyr watched three snowflakes, made from knockout dust, head towards Darren. Recognizing two would miss and the other one would not connect before the villain fired his weapon, the sensible and stable God acted, completely forgetting the earlier bulletproof gift for his favourite elf.

His right jab showed perfect form, any trainer would cheer. Of course, since Tyr appeared on the wrong side of the room, his punch fell at least eighteen feet short. Well his arm did, the fake hand, still clenched in a fist, blasted forth from its fastenings. Overtaking the slowly moving snowflakes, it thundered forward to deck Darren right between the eyes. And while it did not cartoonishly fling him backwards, he did crumple to the ground.

And the game ends with a shutout for the North Pole Elfs, downing the Penniesburg One Percenters by a score of two to nothing. Yay, home team!

If only the home team did not include a temporarily insane teammate.

Combining bulletproof material with the last remnants of overwhelming rage left Shiori unaffected by the throwing flakes that missed her choke out victim, but hit her. Unaffected except for the functioning part of her mind that identified a new group of targets, The Stinky Dozen.

From their prior life, they recognized the look she turned in their direction as her horsie passed out. Without waiting for commands they unleashed all remaining ammo in her direction. To the same effect.

However, before a real life test could be performed on the Belt-a-Shield, Tyr stepped forward to save the day. Failing to penetrate her mind with a calming message, he held his arms wide apart in a non-threatening manner and said, “It’s ok, Shiori. Everything is good, we won.”

Seriously unfair that she took advantage of his openness to knee him right in the nads.

Tyr could not help but take this assault as quietly as the now unconscious Matt Walker. Since even a god needs air to make sound. Instead his brother and his brother’s minions provided it for him.

“Ooooooh...”

~o~O~o~

After the devastating knee, Thor ensured no elf made a threatening move beyond pulling his brother to safety. This started sapping the anger from Shiori's mind. The soothing influence of the angelic clean up crew, when they arrived, calmed her completely.

Until she realized the damage she caused.

Not to the four thugs, she definitely gave herself two thumbs up for that mayhem. But poor Master Tyr. Sheepishly glancing in his direction, she saw him sitting on the floor against the wall, eyes closed, just breathing, holding an ice pack in a strategic location and not moving. Shiori knew she should apologize, but searched for any distraction.

Justin, along with all the bad people, remained zonked out from the snowflakes and she knew she would disappear before the clean up crew awoke any of them. She wished she could say goodbye, almost as much as she wished the Angels would not make him and everyone else forget she ever existed. But Chuckielle, despite a good bedside manner when checking her for injury after providing Master Tyr the ice pack, stayed firm on how things would play out.

Nor could she bother Master Thor, who argued with the head angel about his unapproved attack on the residence. Besides he made her nervous.

This left the elfs, all of whom she recognized as recent graduates from the shrinking brigade of the grey uniformed. Because of shared incompetence, most used to treat Snorri as well as any elf treated him, but the way they all stared at her made her uncomfortable. A mixture of interest, wrapped in confusion, sprinkled with a sense of loss. She understood what they did not and desperately did not want to return to their neutered state.

For that, she needed a champion. And she had just nut shotted her best option for the role.

Moving to kneel beside Tyr, she reached out with a tentative hand to caress his arm and say, “I’m really, really, really sorry, Master Tyr. I don’t know what came over me, it’s just like bang I was gone and I didn't know it was you. Honestly, you’re my favourite person ever, I can’t believe I hurt you.”

“Eeewrhh,” Tyr answered.

“Would it help if I kissed it better?

“Glirk?”

“I totally would, cause you wouldn’t believe how big a crush I have on you. Plus I am good at it, better than Snorri was at anything. Heck, I am better at lots of things than Snorri ever was at anything, which is probably a big reason I don’t want to go back to being him. Besides I love being a girl. Even the bad things feel right. And though I expect to discover more of those bad things, I don’t care. Because the good things, oh those good things are so very, very good. The colours, Master Tyr, they are so bright and vibrant and I can wear so many of them. Dress in wonderful clothes and costumes. Be so many versions of myself and people don’t care. And men, how did I exist before I got to play bedroom games with them. I totally want to show you how much I enjoy playing those games.”

Overwhelmed as much by the quiet intensity of this verbal onslaught as by the prior physical one, Tyr started feeling better as he looked into Shiori's fevered gaze with eyes almost as big as hers. Just about to reply, she reached a hand out to press her finger to his lips and spoke into his mind.

“No, Master Tyr, you don’t get to try and protect me from myself. You helped turn me into this amazing version of me. It would be horribly mean to turn me back into incompetent Snorri before I got a chance to find out how amazing. And for that I am going to need Sensa’s friendship and mentoring.”

“Umm, well we would need to ask her,” Tyr answered, struggling with instinct to maintain control of his mind.

“She said she would and I know she meant it,” Shiori said. Sensing his weakening, she went in for the kill. “But the North Pole is my home and I want to live there. I can’t wait to discover the Joyeux that everybody talks about. It sounds spectacular. Besides I realized how I can live up to the promise I made you make, about not forgetting my few friends. Since you already look after them and try to make their life more bearable, you can make me your assistant and I can help out.”

“It’s not that hard and...”

“Do you have an office, Master Tyr?”

“Yeah...”

“And a desk?”

“Of course, it wouldn’t be an office without a desk.”

“I don’t think you understand, Master Tyr. I’m talking about a late night, adult movie assistant. You know the type? Short skirts, high heels, racy lingerie and lots of non-story advancing sex during work hours. That type of assistant. So what’s it going to be, Master Tyr? What's it going to be?”

“Hey, Thor, you got this?”

“Huh?” Tyr’s brother answered, not even turning his head away from never ending conversation with the head angel.

“Um, Shiori, I should probably show you my office first.”

“And I should show you some of my lingerie,” Shiori said, victoriously.

“Yeah, definitely. Let’s go!”

~o~O~o~

Santa sat back in his velvet armchair, a mug of ale in hand, with a contented sigh. Completing a Yule delivery always left him tired and relieved, but the successful handling of this year’s problems offered additional reason to relax and enjoy a drink. Feeling good, he nodded a greeting when Loki entered, with his own drink, and took a seat.

"Good job, Loki. I didn't think the Host would actually give permission to launch Thor's strike force. Feels strange to have your forked tongue work in our favour."

"Easy enough, once I told them about the explosives placed all around the church."

Santa asked, "Won't they get upset when they find out you lied about those explosives?"

"Why wouldn't they find explosives?"

"Did you plant explosives? No, don't answer that."

For a time, the ancient enemies sat in companionable silence. Calm, interrupted by the agitated arrival of Thor. They could ignore how he slammed the office door, plus the way he stomped about the room, but when he stood still, letting his accusatory stare swing between the two of them, it grew uncomfortable.

“What’s the problem now?” Santa asked.

“Do you know what your son is doing?”

“Who, Tyr? He’s supposed to be coming for a drink and a bacon sandwich.”

His smile displaying only part of the nasty mockery of which it was capable, Loki said, “I believe he found companionship rather more engaging than ours.

“Huh?”

“Your spy, father.”

“Oh? Oooh. Do you have a problem with that?”

“Of course I do.”

“When did you grow so provincial in your views, Thor?”

“Really, Father? Don’t you know me better than that? Plus, you should have seen her down there, she turned into a total smokeshow. It’s that it should have been me, not Tyr, with her. As a god of action, I should be the one getting the action.”

“You know, Thor. You really are self-centred,” Loki said.

“Tell me something I don't know.”

“To grow in wisdom, one first must know himself.”

“Loki, you really are an asshole.”

“Tell me something I don't know."

“I better have Brokkr break down the Girlifinator,” Santa mused.

~o~O~o~

Fading to black, we pause momentarily in the control room. There we see a lone elf performing the chicken dance.

"Da da da da da da!

Da da da da da da!

Da da da Dagmar saves the day!

Da da da da da da!

Da da da da da da!

Da da da Master Dagmar saves the day!"

The End!

Appendix A

The language of the berserk is one like no other. Defined not by borders or cultures, it finds it roots deep in what makes humans, human. As such, all berserks have spoken the same language across time. One made up entirely of guttural sounds that might make some think of pirate speech. However, pirate speech is a Hollywood construct, while berserkerese is real.

Consisting of eighteen words, context defines all. With combinations of those words changing meaning depending upon how loudly the words are spoken, the health of the berserk and how long he or she has been berserkering.

Tense is also very important. The more tension a berserker feels, the angrier are their words. And they tend to feel the most tension before fully entering the berserk state, at which point they grow happier the longer they rage. Similarly, like many languages, gender plays a role. In general, when a male speaks, they tend to want to rip the upper head off their victims, while females are more focused on the lower head.

Which brings us to the most common phrase, Argle Margle Bargle. Which is used to say as many different things as there are combinations of the factors previously mentioned. For example:

  • When a female berserk, who is about to let loose the demon quietly says the phrase to herself, her words are best interpreted as, “I hate everybody. In particular I hate that guy. I should punch him in the dick.”
  • Meanwhile, once she begins berserkering and if she speaks the phrase, her words can now be interpreted as, “Woohoo, it’s dick punch o’clock.”
  • And then when fully engaged, “Yes! Yes! Yes! I love getting to punch dudes in the dick. Even more than I love ponies. And almost as much as I love kitties, which are so soft and adorable. Kittiessss.”

The most interesting thing about these interpretations is how in the first case, she is dealing with negative thoughts, as shown by the repeated use of the word hate. While, in the last, the multiple use of the word love shows how she is now driven by positivity. It is in this tense when the language of the berserk truly blossoms into the beautiful. And for this philologist, what makes it the real language of romance.

Dr. Madeline Uplies, Doctor of Philology, the University of Vikinshit
November, 2015



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