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Lawrence Watt-Evans

The God in Red

Darrend the apprentice theurgist paused in his invocation long enough to take a deep breath, then moved his fingers in the odd, jerky rhythm his mistress, Alir of Priest Street, had taught him. He continued, “Awir thigo lan takloz...

He hesitated. That didn’t sound right. Alir wasn’t stopping him, though, and he could still feel the peculiar pressure of gathering magic. The spell to summon the goddess Piskor the Generous was almost complete. “Takloz wesfir yu! Your generosity is needed!” he finished.

And then he sensed a presence in the room, and he closed his eyes quickly lest he be dazzled by Piskor’s radiance, but there was no burst of light, no increase in pressure, none of the feeling of being somehow both in the World and out of it simultaneously that ordinarily accompanied the presence of a deity.

He opened his eyes, unsure whether he would see the empty room, or the majestic beauty of the goddess Piskor.

Then he blinked once, and stared. He glanced up at his mistress, but she, too, was staring.

Someone had appeared, but he was definitely not Piskor. He didn’t look like a god at all, and Darrend remembered that sometimes when an invocation went wrong it would summon a demon instead, but this didn’t look like a demon, either. It looked like a fat old man in a bright red coat trimmed with white fur, his beard and hair long and equally white, his mouth turned up in a broad smile, his eyes twinkling. He had scuffed black boots on his feet, and a large brown sack slung over one shoulder.

And he looked at least as surprised to be there as Darrend was at seeing him.

“The word is takkoz,” Alir said, without taking her eyes off this apparition. “Not takloz, just takkoz.”

“Oh,” Darrend said. “So I didn’t summon Piskor?”

“No.”

“Who did I summon instead, then?”

“I have no idea,” Alir said. Then she addressed the stranger. “Do you speak Ethsharitic?”

“I speak everything,” he said, in a deep, rich, cheerful voice. “It’s part of the job.”

Alir and Darrend exchanged glances.

“Who are you?” Alir asked.

“You don’t recognize me?” His merry eyes widened still further in surprise.

“Should we?”

The red-clad figure set down his bag and laughed heartily at that. “Pardon me,” he said. “I’m accustomed to being recognized everywhere I go, and it’s a good lesson to me to be reminded there are places I don’t go.” He chuckled, and set his sack on the floor. “If you’ll forgive me for asking, where am I?”

“You’re in my workroom on Priest Street, in the Wizards’ Quarter of Ethshar of the Spices.”

The stranger nodded thoughtfully. “And where is Ethshar of the Spices? Asia, perhaps?”

Again, Darrend and Alir looked at one another before Alir replied, “It’s the largest city in the Hegemony of the Three Ethshars.”

“And that is... where?”

Baffled, Alir said, “Between the ocean and the mountains, from Tintallion to the Small Kingdoms.”

“My dear, you have yet to say a name I recognize, and I had thought I knew everywhere.”

“And you have yet to tell us who you are,” Alir pointed out.

“So I haven’t! Well, I have many names, but the most popular is Santa Claus.”

Takloz!” Darrend exclaimed.

“That would explain how we got you instead of Piskor,” Alir acknowledged. “Are you a god?”

“My heavens, no!” the stranger said, with another laugh.

“A demon?” Darrend asked.

“Certainly not!”

“Then what are you?” Alir demanded.

“Oh, now, you’d think that would be easy to answer, wouldn’t you? But I’m afraid it’s not. I’m a myth, a saint, an elf, a spirit, a jolly old man — it all depends on who you ask.”

“A spirit, you said. Spirit of what?”

“Oh, of giving, of kindness and generosity, of...” He paused, looking surprised. “How curious; your language doesn’t seem to have a word for ’Christmas,’ or even one that comes close.”

Christmas?”

“A holiday in winter. There’s quite a story that goes with it, if you’re interested — many stories, really.”

“I don’t think we’re interested. Not just now.”

“What a pity!”

“A spirit of generosity named Santakloz.” Alir frowned. “Well, I can see how we got you, though I never heard of you before. Thank you. You can go now.”

The stranger looked around the room, at the shelves of books and scrolls, the platform with its inset silver circle, the table strewn with mirrors, notes, candles, and bells, and asked, “How?”

Alir blinked at him; she had never before encountered a supernatural being that didn’t know how to leave. She turned to her apprentice.

“Darrend, you summoned him; I suppose you need to dismiss him.”

Darrend cast her a worried look, then nodded. He gestured, and recited, “Dagyu forrek woprei shenyu mei ganau! Empro em!

Nothing happened. The red-clad spirit watched the theurgists expectantly.

Alir frowned. “Tur menadem i di ali!” she called.

Santa Claus still stood there.

With growing urgency, the two theurgists ran through every dismissal spell they knew; then Alir started on exorcisms and wardings, which Darrend hadn’t yet studied. None of them worked.

Finally, practically weeping with frustration, Alir asked, “How do you usually leave a place?”

“Well, usually, I’ve arrived by sleigh,” Santa explained. “I just get back in the sleigh and give the reindeer their head.”

Darrend wondered what reindeer were — apparently the word existed in Ethsharitic, since the red-clad spirit had known it immediately, and it sounded like an Ethsharitic word, but he had never heard it before.

Alir didn’t worry about that. “Do you think this sleigh of yours might be nearby? Maybe we summoned that, too.”

“We could look.”

They did. There was no sign of a sleigh in Priest Street, or in the courtyard behind the shop — hardly surprising, since there was no snow.

“I’ll check the roof,” their guest suggested, stepping back inside.

“The roof? I don’t...”

Alir didn’t finish the sentence; instead she stared in silent amazement at the fireplace in her parlor.

The strange spirit had put a finger alongside his nose, and somehow slipped up the chimney.

Alir had never really given that chimney a close inspection, but she was quite sure the flue was far too small for so fat a man to have fit through it. Nonetheless, he had zipped up it quickly and easily.

Obviously, he did have some magic, even if he wasn’t a god or a demon.

And then suddenly he came back down the chimney, somehow miraculously

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