Anya looked anxiously down at her crystal ball, but instead of the tiny fragments and swirling mists she usually saw there were very clear glimpses, tricky to interpret but well-defined. She’d been beginning to think she couldn’t make it as a fortune teller after all, but maybe she was getting the hang of it.
“You will meet someone soon–very soon!” she said breathlessly. “A pale man with a pale mark … you will be very excited when you meet him, but–oh, there is danger. Great danger! You must beware–”
She looked up into her client’s face–a pale face, with a fat white scar down one cheek like the trail of an acid tear. She glanced down at the crystal ball again, and realized–stupid, stupid!–she had it oriented backwards, wrong side to the west. She hadn’t been reading her client’s fortune at all. She’d been reading–
“Talented,” muttered the pale man. He stood up, but not to leave.
I stood amongst the cedar trees, my snowshoes caked with snow, listening and waiting. I checked my weapons again, the icicle in my left, the sharpened peppermint stick in my right, making certain I had not cracked them without noticing. This would be the final battle. There was not enough belief in the world for all of us.
I had tracked Grandfather Frost for miles before catching him by the shores of the Baltic. Hours we fought, before I finally knocked him down, then held his head under the surf until he finally grew still. When I let go, he melted away, leaving only a faint scent of snow and gingerbread.
I made camp in the forest, but that night a sound woke me. I awoke to find a small present wrapped in silver and gold by my head. I unwrapped it to find a lump of coal and a note: I SEE YOU.
I burned the coal and the note in my campfire. “Ho ho ho,” I whispered in the flickering light. In the morning I traveled north. I knew where to find him. It had come down to the two of us, as I had known it would all along.
Behind me I heard the sound of jingle bells. I turned and there he was, blue eyes blazing above red robes. “Kris,” he said with a wink.
I nodded back. “Nicholas. I’ve got a present for you.”
As we charged, our laughter echoed in the forest.
Four centuries after Colnel Braithwaite discovered Shangri-La, the bottom fell out of the Yeti market. Their furs were so prevalent and the creatures themselves so rare that anything new was too expensive to afford, and anything old was worthless.
This disaster was the final breaking point for the community that had grown up in the beautiful valley hidden among the Himalayan peaks. At first, of course, all had been well. There had been the celebrations at the valley’s discovery, then the joys of immortality brought about by the fountain at it’s heart, then the marriages, and children, and endless bounty.
But then had come the Sherpa uprising, and the quarrel between Braithwaite and Elkin, his old corporal, and Elkin’s settlement to the north, and then there had been the fracturing loyalties of Braithwaite’s sons, until he found he could barely walk more than a stone’s throw from his tent door before coming to someone else’s territory.
And so then had come the treatises and the chopping down of trees to form jagged barriers, and the carefully negotiated neutral grounds, for trade and hunting. And then the damn Yetis had gone and died out on him. Couldn’t even trust the wildlife of this thrice-damned valley to copulate properly.
War was the only option.
With the fountain’s waters there were few deaths. At least one inhabitant did, however, consider it–Braithwaite’s great grandson, Charles. He looked out over the valley and saw none of the green he had been told of, none of the trees. Only the criss-crossing of stockade and trench.
It seemed too much like cowardice to simply die though–a soldier’s mentality still persisted in the Colonel’s descendants. Instead Charles tactically retreated into the steep mountain slopes that defined the periphery of his world.
After three months of gnawing the bones of mountain goats, he stumbled over a cave that became a tunnel, that led deep through the rock until he gazed upon a new landscape. Charles saw snow–white and glistening; saw clouds below, stretching out, and saw through them a land he could never have dreamed of. He saw a land of silver and green, bright and beautiful. A land lush with life, and yet, when he strained his ears, all he heard at this height was a few birds, the crunch of snow beneath his feet. And it looked for all the world, like paradise.
Pancake Land was better than Bacon Land. Bacon Land! Oh my god, the lakes of boiling fat, the stench. Wilson used to like bacon. Bacon sandwiches were listed as his favorite meal on his Facebook page, for god’s sake. Now, he hoped he would never have to eat or even smell it again. They had finally reached the portal in Bacon Land and passed through to find themselves still on Breakfast World.
In Pancake Land it was the sinkholes. The ones that had already popped meant a long, weary trek around a hemispherical hole. Some were miles in diameter. If you fell into one, it might be possible to climb out. The rough surfaces provided plenty of handholds. Might be possible, were the sinkholes not tenanted.
One of the clones had stood too close, peering into one of the first they found, and the edge had given way. The clone had made it about halfway back up the wall (the sinkhole was a small one) when something caught hold of his leg. The clone had struggled for a moment, then abruptly stopped moving and, a few moments later, simply melted into the surface. Soon there was no sign the clone had ever been there.
Nascent holes were much more dangerous. They were concealed under subtle domes in the irregular pancake surface. The bigger the cavity underneath, the gentler the slope above. Newly popped sinkholes were already occupied, but their deadly tenants (whatever they were) were slow to react. One member of the party made it out alive from the second breakthrough, though she left part of her foot behind. It took two more breakthroughs and more loss of life before the survivors realized that the caps were springier than other parts of the pancake surface.
As they toiled on toward the next portal they encountered fresh horrors: steaming rivers of molten butter; a viscous red fluid that pursued them relentlessly until they managed to trick it into a tremendous sinkhole; and fantastical white mountains that were so unstable a heavy footfall could unleash a deadly cream flow.
Finally, the portal was in sight. Its eldritch glow was by now so familiar the pulsing arch seemed like home. Wilson broke into a run, but stopped abruptly when Jordan screamed. She screamed and screamed, pointing at the sky. Wilson looked up. His voice joined hers as gigantic metal pillars plunged toward them.
“The Diner! By all that’s holy, the Diner cometh!”