As thick sheets of snow blanketed Winter Village, the town glistened in the night. The town was absolutely aglow with the bright and colorful lights that decorated every home, shop, and restaurant. The town square echoed with the laughter of citizens playing in the snow, building snowmen, and throwing snowballs around in a festive conflict.
She could hear music playing over the town’s hidden speakers, some cleverly disguised rocks somewhere that belted out jingling bells and trumpet solos while strong voices sang lyrics of holiday bliss.
Winter Village had become happiness incarnate, and right now, citizens all over the World Ship were flooding to this exciting venue to get their piece of the pie. The surge of visitors brought a kind of fresh and excited pace that could have only been imagined a few months before.
For Grace Philips, the town’s assigned Protector, it was perfection.
She walked through the cold, listening to the laughter, the singing, the jubilation, and she was reminded of how proud she was to call this place her home. It was a land of frigid delight, peace and goodwill, and a hot cup of chocolate always within reach.
William Everett’s beacon of joy, the Village was nestled atop the mountain.
She enjoyed the company, making her rounds, soaking in the energy, and then doubled back toward the Firehouse where she could finish reviewing the daily logs from the train station.
When she reached the Firehouse, she had to take a moment to appreciate this place. It had served as the birthplace for a new life, and she felt more connected to it than she had ever felt about anything on this World Ship. She stood there in the cold, for how long she wasn’t sure, but she soon felt a strong breeze at her back, urging her forward, so she followed the guiding wind and headed inside.
When she walked inside, however, she was surprised to see all of the lights were on, and the smell of something delicious hit her nose, a scent of roasted meat that was coming from the kitchen.
Grace had lived here since first arriving in town, though she sometimes had visits from Flynn Brickshelm. Uncertain of how to process this intrusion, she carefully walked upstairs to the kitchen area, but when she reached the top of the stairs she let out a massive sigh of relief. William Everett was there, leaning over the large oven, with a big oven mitt on each hand.
“Hello?” she asked.
“OH!” he shouted, nearly jumping in the air. “Good gracious!”
“I’m sorry,” Grace said, stepping forward with a raised hand. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
“It’s quite alright,” he said, taking a deep breath to calm himself. “I was, after all, intruding on your office. What are you doing here this late, Grace?”
“What exactly are you doing here?” she redirected.
“I need another oven,” William explained, opening the door to show a golden bird roasting inside the hot container. “I’ve got pies in the one back home, and a winter feast isn’t complete without a turkey.”
“We have communicators now,” Grace said, waving her wireless device at William. “You could have called and asked first.”
William looked at her, shocked. “I’m sorry? I didn’t mean to intrude! Grace… are you still living in the Firehouse?”
She averted her eyes. “Well, I… yes.”
“Why haven’t you picked a home yet? I thought my assistant helped you with that ages ago? I told you we could have you something built in no time flat, especially now that they have things working again at the Pantry.”
“Yes. I know. Your assistant did try… as best he could. The truth is I didn’t really cooperate with him. To be frank, William, I’ve come to think of this place as my home, and I don’t really want to leave it.”
William nodded. “Sure. That’s fine. I don’t see why not, I suppose. You really ought to get some kind of bed or something. You can’t just sleep on a pullout sofa forever. Can we at least arrange an extension or something?”
“Maybe,” she said. “You’re okay with it? I can live here?”
“Yes, of course you can,” he said, laughing. “I’ll have to be more selective about using your oven now.”
“You’re always welcome,” she replied.
There was a long moment of silence, as William checked the temperature in the oven, then went to rummage through the fridge. He soon abandoned his search, closed the door, and wiped his hands, turning to face Grace with a thoughtful look.
“Is everything okay?” she asked.
“Well, since you’re here… I was going to talk to you about it tomorrow…”
“Right. I’m here. What’s up?”
William seemed to chew on his words. “We had a small incident over at the Elf Clubhouse,” he finally said, struggling to find the right phrasing. “I suppose it’s really the first time it’s happened aboard the World Ship, at least, to this degree of value…”
“What happened, William?”
“Well, you know that we’ve taken in a lot of refugees from a different World Ship. They brought a lot of neat stuff with them.” William pulled a blue crystal off the kitchen table, holding it up for her. It shimmered in the dim lighting, and she was awestruck. “So, I bought a rather valuable relic to use as decoration in the clubhouse. It’s called an azure power crystal. It wasn’t cheap, Grace, but it looks stunning, as you can see. Of course, this one is just a copy, not the real one at all.”
“Did someone get hurt?”
“What? No,” he said with another chuckle. “Could you imagine? No, someone stole it.”
Grace was initially relieved to hear that, but then she realized that there was still a theft to deal with. A theft in Winter Village. That kind of news could have a very negative impact.
“Anyway,” William continued. “I wouldn’t mind getting that beautiful blue centerpiece back if possible. I thought, since you’re the sheriff around here…”
“We’re called the Protectors,” she corrected. “I can look into it, William, but I don’t have any suspects, or clues… or anything really. Where do I even begin?”
“I thought of that already,” William replied. “The thing is, we keep logs of all the folks that come and go from the village. One of our current visitors just happens to be public enemy number one when it comes to stealing power crystals…”
Grace wasn’t sure who William was talking about, until he pulled a folded file from his sweater pocket and handed it over to her. She flipped it open to a photo of the man named Thresher sitting on a bench in their town square. His glowing hook arm was unmistakable.
“Is this photo recent?” she asked.
“Just this afternoon,” William said. “Look, I don’t know that he’s our culprit. I know the folks in town said he’s free and clear, but if the shoe fits… you know?”
Grace winced. “I wore the wrong pair of shoes once, William.”
“Your metaphor is not lost on me,” he said. “Can you give him a visit? Just to be sure that his visit and the crystal theft aren’t related?”
She nodded slightly. “Yeah, I can visit. Maybe he will have a direction for us, even if he’s not the thief.”
“That’s the spirit,” William said cheerily. “He’s at the Gingerbread House Resort. I think he’s booked for nearly a month straight, so no need to go tonight.”
“Wonderful. Now, ah, in light of your sleeping arrangements… I’ll just head home and let the bird cook overnight. I’m doing a new method of lower temperature over a longer time period… man, I can taste that turkey goodness already! I’ll have my assistant come pick it up in the morning.”
“Sounds fine to me,” she replied.
“Excellent. Thanks Grace, I owe you one!”
“William, I will forever be in your debt.”
“Nonsense. Glad to help!”
The sound of the morning train whistle woke Grace with a start.
She rolled off the couch and looked at her clock to see the train was right on time, as always. It would be filled with another load of fresh visitors looking to have a taste of the happiness that they provided. She was usually there to welcome them, though it wasn’t a requirement.
She’d spent most of last night thinking about her upcoming visit with Thresher, and how she planned to address the man when she finally stood in front of him.
After all, until very recently, Thresher had been the biggest villain aboard the World Ship. His terrible flying machine, his confrontation in town, followed by manipulating the Explorers to help him get into the Garage, stealing a Traveler, leaving all of the citizens in danger… the list of crimes seemed too large to ignore. Until he returned with hundreds of men, women, and children… refugees that he’d saved from a dying World Ship.
His evil plot had suddenly changed to one of hope and inspiration.
Of course, even when the good outweighs the bad, the bad remains.
Many of the World Ship citizens weren’t in a forgiving mood, not after the flooding and food shortages that he had helped cause with his theft of the Traveler.
Even Winter Village had been impacted, with the snow melting away and forcing most of the villagers to retreat where they could find safety in numbers.
Now, she had ended up on a collision course with this man in particular… it wasn’t great. Still, she fumbled into the kitchen, made a cup of coffee, and got dressed for the day.
The sooner she got this over with, the better.
The Elf Clubhouse would be the latest addition in William Everett’s attempt to build a kind of thematic experience in the mountains. The clubhouse, like the Gingerbread House Resort, would have an immersive experience, with a building that resembled something right out of a kid’s book, allowing guests to partake in the fantasy.
When Grace had first settled here at Winter Village, the Gingerbread Resort was just getting started. Now, it served as the centerpiece to the whole environment that Everett had established. Folks came in droves to stay in this building, and the experience was well worth the wait, assuming you could afford it.
Grace made her way through the lobby and came face to face with one of the resort staff. It was a younger woman with long blonde hair. Grace was certain she recognized her, but couldn’t quite place it, so she was surprised when the staff member smiled at her and greeted her by name.
“What brings the honorable Grace Philips to our little resort?” the woman asked.
“I’m… oh, I’m just here to see a guest,” Grace said, ignoring the admiration.
“Certainly,” the woman said, typing away on a small computer that was decorated to look like a big gum drop. “Which guest, exactly?”
Grace looked to the woman, then frowned. “Thresher.”
The woman at the counter stopped smiling. “I’m sorry?”
“Thresher,” Grace repeated, trying not to shout the name for all to hear.
The woman at the counter looked confused. “Thresher?”
“He’s your only guest with a glowing hook for a hand,” Grace said.
“Oh! You mean Mr. Ham? Of course!”
“Mr. Ham?” Grace recoiled.
The woman nodded. “Our guests have a right to their privacy. There’s no Thresher here, of course, but Mr. Ham has a similar description.”
Grace rolled her eyes. “Sure. I’m looking to visit with Mr. Ham.”
“Wonderful,” the receptionist said, turning and grabbing a key. “I can lead you to his suite. If you’d come with me, please.”
The Gingerbread Resort only hosted a handful of guests at a time. Each guest got a small bungalow that looked like their own gingerbread house.
William’s current project, the Elf Clubhouse, would service at least twice as many occupants in the same footprint, for better or for worse. Regardless, the ambiance here was spot on. The carefully decorated hallways gave instant winter vibes, as though you might have truly found yourself inside a holiday snack.
In truth, Grace found it a little bit overwhelming, but the guests loved it.
“Here we are,” the receptionist announced, arriving at a door numbered 201. “Mr. Ham is just inside. I let him know you’re here, so just give a knock.”
“Thanks,” Grace said, rapping her knuckles on the door.
There was a click of the door lock, then it swung open to reveal Mr. Ham, who was definitely Thresher. Grace had seen his photos, so she knew it immediately. Still, his relaxed winter outfit and rested face gave the appearance of someone who she would not consider to be a threat.
“Hello,” he said. “The receptionist said you wanted to speak with me?”
“I do. My name is Grace Phillips. I’m a Protector for Winter Village. Do you mind if I come inside and talk with you privately for a few minutes?”
Thresher didn’t answer right away, but he soon nodded and moved to let her in.
As Grace stepped inside, she saw the receptionist standing at the door, the shockingly pleasant smile still on her face. After a long moment of hesitation, she finally stepped out of the bungalow and closed the door.
Inside Thresher’s room, Grace was shocked by the sheer size. He had his own kitchen, stairs to what appeared to be another living space, and all kinds of amazing furniture that fit the theme of the resort.
“Care for a cup of hot chocolate?” Thresher asked, stepping into his kitchen.
“I’ve seen you around town,” he said, making his own mug. “I didn’t realize you had a name for your group. The Protectors, eh?”
She nodded, her eyes lingering on him longer than she knew they should.
He mixed his drink, stepping back into the room where she was standing, and he looked around for a moment, pursing his lips and wafting the hot chocolate in his hands.
“So, do I call you… Thresher?” she finally asked.
“That’s fine, yes,” he replied.
“I… I just wanted to stop in with you and make sure—”
“Look,” he grumbled, looking only slightly annoyed. “I know I’m not a very popular person, but I’m not here to cause a mess. I’m just laying low for a while…”
Grace felt a sudden wave of guilt. “I’m not here to make you leave,” she assured him. “I’m looking into a recent case… and your name naturally came up…”
He looked up from his drink and searched her face. “My name came up? Naturally? What case, exactly?”
Grace felt her anxiety increasing. “Well, our town’s mayor had a valuable item stolen. He was looking for insight on who might have done such a thing, and—”
“I suppose that makes sense,” Thresher said, frowning. “Something gets stolen and you all figure it must have been me.”
“If the shoe fits,” Grace said, trying to lift the mood. “I am kidding, of course. I’m only here to see if you know—”
“I saved hundreds of lives,” Thresher said, interrupting her. “I did what I had to do.”
“I know. I am sorry,” Grace said, feeling the guilt in her gut growing. “I don’t mean to be accusatory. In this village, the list of people who have committed… crimes… well it’s pretty short. You did also show up just before the crystal went missing. I’m not saying you did it, Thresher, but you can’t ignore your past deeds when something like this comes up.”
Thresher tilted his head, suddenly showing an interest. “Did you say it was a crystal that was stolen?”
Grace nodded. “It was an azure power crystal,” she explained, hoping to give a little context to why she was showing up at his suite. She pulled the fake crystal that William had given her so that he could have a better visual. “William Everett said that it may have come from your World Ship. It looked like this.”
Thresher looked shocked. “You have an azure power crystal here? Why in the World Ship would you have something as powerful and dangerous as that here?!”
“I’m just the messenger. I didn’t know it was here until it was reported stolen.”
Thresher frowned. “Well, whoever stole that crystal just basically stole a weapon, so you’re going to need to find it sooner than later.”
“I assume no one on this World Ship really understands the potential,” Thresher added. “I’m going to go ahead and assume it was one of the refugees that took the crystal, likely because they believed they could sell it off for big money.”
“I see,” Grace said. “Well, obviously it wasn’t you, so I will be on my way…”
“You said your name is Grace, right?” Thresher asked.
“Well Grace, you tell your boss man William Everett or whoever, that these power crystals aren’t play toys. I don’t care how shiny it looks, he needs to stop meddling in things he doesn’t fully understand. You got that?”
She nodded, honestly. She would have a real conversation with William about these crystals, especially once they had their current situation resolved.
“Thank you again, Thresher,” she said. “I’ll leave you to it.”
“You take care,” he said, staying put as she retreated into the hallway.
With the door closed, Thresher pulled out his communicator and quickly typed in a few contact numbers. He found the one he wanted and quickly dialed it, waiting for the familiar beep of a good connection.
“Kuna residence,” the cheery female voice answered. “What a pleasure to hear from our savior. What can I do for you today, Thresher?”
“Cut the nonsense, Seda, did you take the power crystal?”
A moment of silence. “Me?” she asked. “I don’t know what you mean?”
“I know you’re living on Mount Machina these days.”
“Have you visited the manor?” she asked. “It’s glorious. Lots of hallways.”
“I’m only going to ask once, Seda.”
“No fun,” she grumbled. “Fine. I didn’t steal the crystal, Thresher. In fact, who do you think sold it to Everett in the first place?”
Thresher frowned. “You?”
She laughed. “We all gotta pay the bills, and manors aren’t cheap.”
“You never disclosed to anyone that you had a power crystal. These people took us in, Seda, you can’t run around breaking their rules.”
“Oh no, did I forget to tell the fine citizens? Silly me. Sorry about that.”
Thresher sighed. “So you’re telling me you sold it to William Everett?”
“I did. He was quite interested in the potential power output and he was willing to go to rather impressive extremes to get it. Did I mention he built me a manor? I had very specific requirements and he checked them all. He’s an interesting fellow. More to him than meets the eye, if you ask me.”
“Did he lose his new toy? Already? Or, hmm… a setup? Am I being framed?”
Thresher didn’t answer. “You take care, Seda.”
“Listen, Thresher. My mom and dad always liked you. I was never a fan. You never had it in you to play the antagonist role you so desperately craved. So here’s some advice. We are all starting fresh here, and you’ve got a chance to be a mediocre hero. Live your life, enjoy the Gingerbread House, and relax a bit.”
“Forget about power crystals and thieves,” she pressed. “It’s not your business.”
With that, she cut their call.
Thresher groaned. She was definitely involved in this, somehow, but he would need to figure out how. Right now, his best bet was to catch Grace before she left the resort. He rushed out his suite door and caught her just as she was walking across the snow.
“Mr. Ham?” Grace asked, using his fake name.
“I might be able to help you,” he said. “You might be able to help me.”
“What are you suggesting?” she asked.
“A joint effort,” he said. “You keep logs, right? That’s how you knew where I was and when I showed up?”
“Alright, we’ll start there,” he said. “Lead the way.”
Grace hesitated for a long moment, then smiled. “Very good. This way, Mr. Ham.”