‘Tis the night before Christmas, and the air is ripe for the robbing. A crooked shadow vanishes through a window, stealthy as a huntsman. From her vantage point across the street, Azalea traces the path Arakni cleared. Steep rooflines, yawning alleyways, a traverse more treacherous than she would dare.
“Agile,” she observes. “And sneaky too.”
“None sneakier,” agrees Lena Belle as she offers the ranger a brew.
“I call this one Festive Flare. No harmful toxins!”
Azalea glowers at the grubby bottle. “Honest? I spent two days bent over a barrel after your last concoction.”
Lena Belle shrugs. “Bacteria, booze—the boundary is fuzzy. Besides, you needed time off.”
“Give it here then.” Azalea takes a swig of the caramel liquid and smacks her lips like a toff. “Not bad,” she admits as she passes the bottle back. “From what is it brewed?”
“Centennial loaf-mold and skatrat. Fortified with Blood Rot, thrice stewed.”
Azalea winces as the gorge rises in her throat. Lena Belle offers a reassuring smile, and an overly firm pat on her hooded cloak.
“The distillation kills all the pathogens. Nice, meaty backend though, right?”
Azalea’s retort is stopped short by the opening of the Tekla Toy Factory from the inside. Arakni’s masked face peers out, turning this way and that as they scan the pavement. They give a jaunty wave as they open a sewer grate and drop into a maze of effluent.
“Arakni’s doing this for the kids?” asks Azalea with a grimace.
“Squeakers support squeakers,” answers Lena Belle. “Besides, it’s Christmas.”
She gives the ranger a merry wink. “I still remember those socks you gave me when I was barely ten.”
Azalea recalls it clearly. A rare moment of pity. Lena Belle has never let her forget!
“And you’ve given me socks every year since,” complains Azalea. “Purple with gold stars last time.”
“Don’t worry.” Another of those too hard pats on the back. “No gold stars this year. That would be a crime.”
“Glad to hear it. Now where the bloody rot is Dash?”
On cue, the object of Azalea’s impatience rolls up, her steam-wagon spouting aphotic gas. The mechanologist dismounts her contraption and greets them with a rowdy, “Helloooo!”
Azalea winces for the second time that night before cautioning Dash with an urgent, “Shoosh, you!”
“Sorry,” whispers Dash when they’re close enough to hear. “Can’t wait to see the kids’ faces when they unbox the presents this year.”
“Let’s just load up before we end up in boxes ourselves. The Enforcer kind, with bars.”
“Trust me,” assures Dash. “I have just the apparatus.”
She produces a clunky brass controller, draws out the antenna and taps some buttons. With a bleep and a blop, an automaton crawls out of the wagon. Before Azalea can say, “Dregs-dammit! Enforcers,” the wagon is runners-full of toys. Stolen for the squeakers, courtesy of the Expanse’s most ungrateful girls and boys.
“All aboard!” yells Dash over the approaching sirens.
“Off with our hoard!” adds Lena Belle, to Azalea’s chagrin.
The steam wagon lurches forward, almost bucking Lena Belle off the back. Azalea’s quick reflexes save her from a tumble and a term in the Coppertown tank. They hold on for dear life as Dash adds more pedal to the metal. Skidding around corners. Whistling past Enforcers. Speed at nitro level.
And it almost works.
To the screeching of brakes, the wagon comes to a shuddering stop.
“The jig is up!” Squawks a pursuing Metrix cop. “Throw out your weapons and keep your hands in the air!”
Azalea shoots Lena Belle a baleful glare. “This is why I should never listen to your ideas.”
“Except for this one,” answers the alchemist with another merry wink. With a flourish, she produces her bottle of Festive Flare drink. With deft hands, she yanks an arrow from Azalea’s quiver. Lashes the bottle to the shaft with a stained festive streamer. She unstoppers the bottle, shoves some cloth in its neck. Then she lights a match with a nefarious flick.
“Count to three,” she tells Azalea. “And watch for the flash.”
“Finally.” Azalea straightens her bracers. “Time to take out the trash.”
The arrow arcs across the sky, a flaming comet of doom. The blockade explodes with a resounding boom. Dash cranks the steam wagon back into gear. “Urgent delivery, coming through!”
And they streak through the wreckage down a dark tunnel destined for HQ.
“It’s perfect!” hollers Dash as she waggles the plasma globe up and down. “First, a cup of Festive Flare, and now I have a gift?! Thank you, Lena Belle!”
The alchemist blushes, “You’re welcome”, then looks at Arakni perched nearby. It seems the assassin is admiring their new, more festive disguise.
“It’s an animal from Aria, apparently. A snowfawn. Do you like it?”
Arakni nods, either in approval or bemusement—it's impossible to define it. Azalea hasn’t seen Lena Belle this happy since she poisoned the Blackjack guards. The party was a success, squeakers scampering in from all corners, arm in arm. Dash laid on a magnificent feast, clocked to her expense account at Centennial Foods. And Arakni put on a pantomime, though its frightful finale dampened the festive mood. The entire event almost brought a drunken tear to the self-serving ranger’s eye. A moment of weakness wiped hastily away. Mercenaries don’t cry, they survive. She does, however, give in to childish excitement when a present is passed her way. Azalea tears the parcel open. Yellow with purple, blue and red hearts.
Happy Holidays from LSS Creatives!
Stories written by Edwin McRae and Rachel Rees.
Directed by Robbie Wen. Illus. by Sam Yang.