Third in the set is Sophie Ernhart, the Green Witch.
Ember had gotten up momentarily to rekindle the fire and turned the ashes over with the poker a bit before returning to the sofa where Linda and I sat. Allie and Andie were seated in a couple of the kitchen chairs toward the other side of the room and Eva, Coppelia, Brittany, and Roxy sat on pillows or cushions on the floor. Tina was seated in one of the large armchairs with Jinni nestled in the other; her big storybook spread out across her lap.
“You want a story with fighting, do you?” she asked Roxy, who nodded as if she was just barely interested in giving this whole storytime thing a second chance. “A story about warfare and the clashing of armies?”
“Yes.” Roxy seemed a bit more intrigued now and her eyes perked up.
“A tale of the eternal battle between good and evil?”
“A story about a little boy made entirely of clock parts?”
“Wait, what?” Roxy’s face twisted and her eyebrows leapt upward; baffled.
“Then perhaps this is the tale for you; The Clockwork Heir…
“Once upon a time there was a far-off land called Coggolyn and it was ruled by a mechanical monarch called the Clockwork Prince.”
“This story is about him?!” Coppelia exclaimed, rising in a huff. “I hate him!”
I stared at her blankly. “We all do, Coppelia. His robotic sea serpent almost ate Tina and Iggy and he tried to kill just about everyone here at least once!”
“Yeah,” the mechanical ballerina replied with a flick of her ribboned ponytails. “But you were never married to him.” A whole room full of eyes fell on her all at once. “It was only for a day or so and it wasn’t even my idea but what could I do? He was gonna feed my Papa to that horrible sea monster of his!”
There was silence for a while, broken by Brittany saying, “I think I want to hear that story instead.”
“No you don’t.” Coppelia turned back to Jinni and resumed her seat on the floor, saying, “Sorry. Please continue.”
“Well,” the genie began again, a bit flustered. “Where was I?”
“There was a big clockwork kingdom with a big clockwork castle ruled by a big clockwork jerk,” Coppelia stated. “Please go on.”
“Right. The Clockwork Prince…
“He was a cruel and evil prince whose body was filled, not with blood and bone but with springs and wheels. Although his father, the King, had passed the kingdom onto him, he could never become king, himself. You see, he was so wicked he had done away with the bishop and all the kingdom’s elders before he could be properly coronated. He was cold and inhuman and what his true name was even he could not remember.
“I cannot now tell you how exactly this prince came to be this way, for it is too gruesome and dreadful a tale, but he was once a mortal man like any other. His desire to become immortal, though, drove him to have the parts of his body replaced with machines so he could never succumb to sickness or old age and, thus, rule forever. Where his bones once were there was only copper and iron and springs and wheels now took the place of his organs. Where once there was the steady beat of a cold but all too mortal heart now there was only the inhuman, monotonous ticking of an ever-swinging pendulum to maintain the rhythm of his unnatural life.
“And what of his subjects? They were humans who lived in fear of their cruel Prince and his wrathful tendencies; as did his sad wife. The Princess feared and yet pitied her proud and vain husband but, more than that, she mourned the son she could never have. You see, the Prince could not and would not sire an heir. Heirs are for rulers who are destined to die and pass the crown, but the Prince knew the throne was his forever. But the poor Princess? She wanted a child she could love, for love was never a thing valued by the Prince.
“Today the Prince’s domain is a small land called Cog Island but, in those days, the land of Coggolyn was vast and filled with many plains and forests as well several surrounding kingdoms. These realms had all existed peacefully with each other until there came the days of conquest for Coggolyn and its ruler. The Prince dreamt of building a great and terrible empire, the likes of which his gentle father could scarcely have imagined. He armed the soldiers of Coggolyn with swords and pikes and sent them out to lay low all the lands surrounding. Never before had this kingdom been mighty in the art of war but the Prince’s mechanical mind allowed him to devise stratagems unparalleled in their brilliance and, one by one, the kingdoms fell before the banner of Coggolyn and into the hands of this cruel prince.
“Now all the kingdoms for miles around had become jewels in the crown of the Clockwork Prince of Coggolyn. All that remained now was one more realm; a land never before set upon by the feet of any man. It was the land of the Vangles; a terrible race of beings whose ferocious reputation kept strangers far away from their borders. No one knew for sure what they were like for few who ventured into their kingdom ever returned and those who did brought back stories of creatures with unspeakable power. Some claimed they had three heads each; some claimed they had no heads at all.
“There were even tales that came out of those lands claiming that the Vangles could assume any shape they wished, or even no shape at all. But fear is an emotion felt by human hearts and, like love and mercy, were unknown to the Prince of Coggolyn. It therefore entered his mind that the kingdom of the Vangles would be his.
“He sent his forces out to conquer these strange creatures; first the army of Dunlop. But only the herald of Dunlop returned with the dreadful account of how all the soldiers, upon entering the land of the Vangles, had been reduced to piles of dust. Next, the Prince called upon the mighty army of Targon, but none save the Targonian standard bearer returned, lamenting the fate of his fellow troops; turned to glass and shattered with a single otherworldly breath.
“Surely, thought the Prince, the great cannons of Lommond would do what mere men could not. But the siege weapons of Lommond could not withstand the strange powers of the Vangles and were, along with the soldiers manning them, cast down into smoldering bits. Next went the armies of Hardoc, Sendel and Bundergard, each of them destroyed with little effort and only a single survivor to tell the ghastly tale.
“The Prince would not accept defeat and sent out his soldiers in droves until every one of them had perished. Then, fuming with rage, he sent the civilian men of Coggolyn and Hardoc and Bundergard to fight in the army’s place. From Targon and Dunlop they marched, from Lommond and Sendel, and not one returned from the battle. But the Prince’s troubles were many now for, not only had he sent nearly every man in his vast kingdom to their doom, but he had roused the ire of the Vangles who had grown quite tiresome of his arrogant attempts to steal their land. Even the proud Prince knew it would not be long before the diabolical creatures attempted a counterattack and he had no one left to defend him. But now a wicked new idea came into his mind that would secure his victory for sure.
“Like many lands Coggolyn had been visited, in its earlier years, by Saint Nicholas each Christmas. In the time when this Prince had risen to power the Saint was less welcome. But even the evil clockwork ruler remembered well the brilliance of Santa Claus’ miraculous mechanical toys, and he knew that the toymaker had the aid of powerful enchantments which made his inventions things of great might as well as great beauty.
“He summoned the toymaker to the palace and tasked him with the construction of a grand mechanical army, strong enough to face the Vangles in battle. Though it was well within his power, Santa Claus at first declined to aid the Prince, whose greed had already destroyed so many lives. Until the monarch threatened to send the women and children into battle next. Now the old saint was left with little choice.
“But Santa Claus was a clever man and decided he would stall the Prince, telling him that he could not rush an invention of such brilliance and would not build a full-sized soldier right away. He would, instead, build the Prince a smaller version which he could look over and approve before construction began on the final units which, he promised, would number in the thousands. The Prince was ecstatic as he sent Santa Claus away, confident that he would soon have an army unlike any the world had ever seen. The Princess, however, only wept for her mad husband, her doomed people and for the child she would never know.
“Saint Nicholas returned to his castle on the Merry Isthmus, far to the northeast, and set to work immediately on fulfilling both the Prince and Princess’ wishes. But he would, as always, fulfill them in his own ways. So he set about creating, not a terrible soldier, but a boy. He had heard the sad Princess’ wishes for a child and designed a boy out of clock parts. In many ways, this boy was built much like the Prince himself. The Saint designed an elaborate array of cogs and wheels, each one set into a perfect mechanism to simulate the inner workings of the human body.
“But Santa Claus made at least one crucial addition to this automaton; a heart of ruby quartz which made the boy capable of many feelings and emotions beyond the comprehension of the cold and inhuman Prince he was working for; not the least of which was pure and simple love.
“At last, the toymaker returned to Coggolyn with the clockwork boy and presented him to the Prince and Princess. The Prince, eager to see his army, was skeptical of this diminutive robot’s potential for carnage but the Princess fell instantly in love with the boy and treated him like the son she never had. She named him Minnit the Second and he became the royal heir. She dressed him in fine satin and crowned him with a diadem of gold and silver. The Prince, who had never wanted an heir, protested at first. But seeing that the boy kept his wife in good humor and seemed to ease the cries of his restless people, deemed it a harmless thing.
“For the people of Coggolyn were restless and angry and fearful of the new dangers this mad ruler of theirs would thrust upon them. But this new heir was a ray of hope to these weary people, and they looked forward to a day when Minnit the Second might take the throne and rule with honor instead of with terror. While the Princess and the mortal citizens of Coggolyn were enamored with the sweet and loving Minnit, the Prince could only think of his army.
“And so did Santa Claus. He realized that the Prince’s need for a new army was not just a matter of pride and conquest. He knew that the Prince had made a terrible mistake in provoking the Vangles and that the day of their vengeance was not far off. But while he knew he could not build this madman an army, he had to do something to help the Princess and her people. So, while he strove to stall the Prince with designs on world domination, he also began devising a plan to help the people of Coggolyn escape the kingdom.
“The following Christmas, Santa Claus paid another visit to Coggolyn and gained an audience with the Prince and Princess and their new heir, Minnit. The Prince had long awaited this meeting, hoping the toymaker would have completed his army at last.
“Santa Claus, however, did not come bearing a score of mechanical soldiers. Instead he brought a small toy horse, large enough for Minnit to ride upon, which could propel itself through the air. He called it Rocket Horse and, though it was a gift for the young heir, Santa merely told the Prince that it was another design; this time for a miraculous mount that could carry his soldiers into battle.
“This idea thrilled the Prince so much that he momentarily forgot that he had no soldiers yet and commanded the toymaker to begin work on his new steeds at once. This bought Santa Claus another year to devise his escape plan and, like the Prince commanded, he started work immediately. Meanwhile, things improved in Coggolyn. The Princess and little Minnit’s love for each other grew day by day and the boy’s new Rocket Horse became like a living playmate for him. Even the Prince’s disposition toward the boy seemed to improve as he began to feel a certain sense of pride at having a son. That pride, coupled with his confidence in Saint Nicholas’ new inventions, led him to dispatch the royal herald to the border of Vangleland with a message; that the Vangles would soon fall before the might of Coggolyn’s clockwork army. The Vangles gave no answer and the Prince thought they must be afraid of him.
“The following Christmas, Santa Claus returned once more to Coggolyn. The Prince was expecting the Saint to arrive with a whole train of his ingenious mechanical horses. He came, instead, with another toy for Minnit; this time an automaton jack-in-the-box to keep the young heir company. He called it Springbox and though, like Rocket Horse, it was designed to be Minnit’s playmate, the clever saint told the wicked Prince that it was the prototype for a devastating new weapon that could hurl projectiles far across the battlefield.
“The Prince was so thrilled at the prospect of having so devious a siege weapon to scatter the ranks of the Vangles that he had forgotten, momentarily, about the soldiers and flying steeds. With victory in his sights, he sent the toymaker back to build his weapons immediately. But Santa’s scheme to save the people of Coggolyn was nearly complete and he knew the hour was growing near, so he shared his plans with Minnit and his mother before he left. The time of the Vangle’s revenge, he felt, would be within the year and he wanted to be sure the innocent people of this poor kingdom would be spared their wrath.
“The horrible Vangles had bided their time but now, at last, came the day they could not suffer the Prince any longer and sought to do away with him once and for all. When the Prince heard the monsters were planning an attack on Coggolyn he sent word to Saint Nicholas to send his army immediately. Then he ordered his subjects to arm themselves for war. But when he went to the balcony of his castle, he saw no people in the square below or anywhere in the city. He scoured the palace for his wife, seeking counsel from her, but the Princess was nowhere to be found. He sought out his mechanical son for consolation but young Minnit was gone as well.
“The night before, Santa Claus made one final visit to Coggolyn and told the Princess and her people that the day of the Vangle’s wrath was soon upon them and ordered her and Minnit to evacuate their citizens. While Springbox held open the great iron gates of the city what remained of the people of Coggolyn were led out to the wide lands beyond. Then, hooking Rocket Horse to a series of large sledges, Santa ordered the flying toy to draw the refugees across the Bundergard Channel to the mainland of Suncoast where they would be far away from Coggolyn by morning.
“When the morning came and the Prince found himself deserted he knew, at once, who was responsible and he also knew no army was coming to his aid now. His wife, his son, his people, and the toymaker had all betrayed him and now he could hear the trumpets of the Vangles sounding in the distance. He could see the flowing of their formless masses coming down from Vangleland in the west, trampling what remained of Hardoc and drawing nearer with each moment.
“Within an hour, the Vangles had pushed their way through the western gates of Coggolyn and had overrun the outer walls. All the Prince saw was their flashing weapons and fierce eyes as they battered the walls of his palace and threw down the doors of the great hall. They had sought to conquer his vast empire but when they saw that he no longer even had a kingdom for them to conquer they retreated, almost pitying the poor wretch.
“Then, as the strange shapeless army drew itself from his lands, the Prince stood upon the wrecked battlements of his castle and vowed vengeance. He knew no fear even in the face of the terrible Vangles and, with the wind catching his silken cloak into the air, he shouted above the dreadful sounds of their marching boots and mocked them. He promised that one day he would amass an even greater army than theirs and take their lands for himself.
“Though the Vangles had spared the Prince, these words now filled them with a mad rage and, with little more than a thought, they brought a dreadful calamity down upon the Prince’s kingdom. All the lands erupted in a storm of wind and fire and great sections of the earth were cast high into the air. The Prince hid himself behind the walls of the palace while the wrath of the Vangles fell all about him.
“When at last the tremors had ceased and the flames subsided he rose and looked about. From where he stood the Prince could see nothing but water in all directions. His entire kingdom; all of Dunlop and Sendel, all of Targon and Lommond, Hardoc and Bundergard, had been annihilated. All that remained of Coggolyn was the Prince’s own castle perched upon a single piece of earth in the midst of the sea, which now stretched from Vangleland all the way to Suncoast and for many many miles north and south.
“It’s true that the Clockwork Prince feared nothing and was immune to all poisons and sicknesses. And, though he may be damaged in battle, his mechanical body could weather blows and turn aside blades unlike any mortal man’s. But he was not entirely invincible for his inner workings were delicate and, if they were to rust, it would render his body unable to function. It is for this reason that he always avoided water and stayed inside his castle, safe from rain. While he ruled Coggolyn he had little reason to be concerned for his kingdom was many long miles from the coast in all directions. But now his vast empire had been reduced to a single tiny island and he was trapped by the devouring seas. The years went by as he brooded within the walls of his castle, and his thoughts turned often to the Princess and young Minnit. They were the first people he had even come close to feeling love for. And they would be the last, for he felt only contempt now for them and for the toymaker who had ruined him.
“As for Minnit and his mother, they founded a new kingdom in the lands just east of Dreamcoast where their people could start their lives anew and, you can be sure, Saint Nicholas aided them with that. Minnit would grow to rule the land of New Coggolyn with grace and love and he never forgot the kindness of the saint who built him and saved his people. The end.”
Hope you all had a merry Christmas this year. Mine was a disaster and, if yours wasn’t, it was probably only because my friends and I worked our frozen tails off to save the most magical night of the year from utter ruin! How is that? Well, I’ll get to that later. Christmas this year started off much the way it always does; with a sweep of panic and hysteria.
Did everybody finish their shopping?
Did somebody buy pie crust?
Who’s watching the soup?
Why won’t the lights on one side of the tree go on?
What’s that burning smell?
But once dinner was out of the way, gifts were exchanged and everybody had settled down for the evening, things became calmer and I thought some Christmas stories by the fireplace might be nice. Since Jinni is our resident storyteller, I let her take the stage. We all sat around her, either in chairs or on the sofa or even right on the floor, and she settled down on a cushion and opened her big book of fairy tales. This was a book she had written herself about all the unbelievable things she had witnessed in her long lifetime, and some that had been passed down to her from previous storytellers.
“What kind of story would you like to hear?” she asked as she skimmed the seemingly never-ending pages.
“One with a lot of action,” Roxy said, swinging her fist around.
“One that’s full of romance,” Tina added, staring longingly into space.
“One that’s about me,” Linda and Coppelia both said simultaneously, glancing at each other in surprise.
“I want to hear a story about Santa Claus!” Eva begged.
A smile appeared on Jinni’s face. It was a most appropriate topic for a story, considering the night. “There are many stories about Saint Nicholas in here.” She flipped through the myriad pages whose gilded golden edges flashed in the light of the fireplace. “Let’s start with the story of the Mouse King’s Bane…
“Long ago the good Saint Nicholas, who is also called Santa Claus, began bringing gifts to the children of the world. Every year on Christmas Eve he would travel from house to house with his team of enchanted reindeer, leaving toys and treats and candies that the children would happily discover on Christmas morning. He would bring dolls and animals built by the toymaking Brownies who lived in his castle, and storybooks from the libraries of the Palaces of Nod and Wondersand. One of his favorite things to do was to bring the children freshly baked cakes and cookies from the candy kingdom of Confiturembourg, and succulent fruit from the tropics of Dreamcoast. These he would place in dishes or little bags with the gifts beneath the Christmas tree.
“But oftentimes the children would find nothing but crumbs the next morning, and sometimes less. You see, the mice loved these treats as well and, after the saint had left for his next house, they would scurry out of the shadows and take the delicious gifts for themselves. They gnawed the cookies and hoarded the cakes and devoured the candies until there was scarcely a mouthful left and, whatever they couldn’t eat they would carry with them back to their home and present to their King as a Christmas gift. The Mouse King had not received a Christmas present for a dreadfully long time. He was, after all, a wicked king and he was just as wicked as a child. So Santa Claus had stopped bringing him gifts.
“Now the good old saint was troubled again when he discovered that his children were not receiving the sweets he had been leaving for them. The following Christmas he decided to place the cookies and cakes inside the boxes where the toys had been hidden. That way the mice would not be able to find them. Sure enough, that Christmas Eve many mice gathered beneath the trees looking for Christmas treats and found nothing. They returned to their ruler empty-handed and were scolded for it. But the Mouse King knew a great deal and was wiser than his servants. ‘You halfwits,’ he chided them. ‘Clearly, the Toymaker has hidden them within the children’s packages!’ So he sent them back to the houses and ordered them to gnaw through the boxes. The mice were skilled scavengers and their sharp teeth could chew through nearly anything; so the paper and pasteboard boxes offered little resistance for them and the children found the next morning that, not only had their treats been eaten again, but their gifts had been ruined by the greedy mice.
“Santa Claus thought long on how he might keep the sweets away from the mice but it was a difficult problem to solve. ‘Perhaps,’ he thought. ‘if I could hide them someplace out of their reach.’ The following Christmas Eve, Santa climbed down the chimney of a family with five little children. He had hoped to leave sugarplums and juicy oranges for the girls and cookies and ripe apples for the boys. But he feared they would never even get the chance to taste them. As he placed their gifts at the foot of the tree, he wracked his brain for ideas on where he might hide these special treats so the children would find them but not the mice. He hadn’t long to dwell on the problem and had just about given up hope. But as he turned toward the fireplace to climb back up through the chimney he noticed five pairs of socks hanging above the hearth. The children had been playing in the snow that day and their stockings had been left to dry above the fireplace. Then Santa Claus realized that it would be a perfect disguise to keep his goodies out of the sight and reach of those meddlesome mice.
“That night, the mice came as they always did and found nothing to eat anywhere. They bored holes through all the boxes but found only toys and clothing inside. Confounded, they returned to the King, telling him that Santa Claus had brought no treats that year. But the Mouse King was not fooled. He had seven noses and could smell something delicious wherever it had been hidden. This time he went, himself, to find the treats and stood himself beneath the tree. His seven heads scanned the room this way and that for some sign of where the sweets had been concealed. The other mice had given up the search, but the King’s noses directed him toward the stockings hanging above the mouth of the fireplace. ‘There, you fools! The Toymaker has hidden our sweets up there!’ So he sent his servants to scale the sides of fireplace and, running along them mantle, they dove into the stockings. The mice chewed holes in the ends of the socks and all the delicious gifts cascaded out. The next morning the children were more confused than ever, for they now had holes chewed in their gifts, holes chewed in their stockings and scraps of fruit rinds and crumbs of cake scattered about the floor.
“This was becoming a most perplexing problem for old Santa Claus and he had to come up with a solution or each succeeding Christmas would become worse and worse for the poor children. He had to find some way of keeping the mice away but he could not bear to harm them and would never risk leaving any kind of poison for the children to find anyway. ‘There must be something that will safely ward them off,’ he thought. On a journey for more sweets he stopped in the kingdom of Confiturembourg and sought the council of the Sugarplum Fairy who had a long history with the Mouse King. The wicked monarch had conquered six kingdoms already and, for a long time, desired the candy kingdom of Confiturembourg as well. But Sugarplum had managed to keep her home safe from the mice and their evil ruler for ages. ‘How,’ asked Santa Claus. ‘have you kept your kingdom out of his reach?’ Then Sugarplum showed him the great gates and walls of the city. They were made of sturdy slabs of rock candy, mortared with icing. ‘But if the walls are made of candy, why don’t the mice simply chew through them?’ ‘Draw closer to them and smell,’ she said. ‘These walls and gates are all coated in a layer of peppermint.’ Santa did not know at the time, but the mice were allergic to peppermint. It was one of the few things that the Mouse King feared for, in addition to despising the scent of it, one touch or taste of it was certain doom for him and his subjects. Therefore, he never dared come near enough to the walls of Confiturembourg even to attempt an attack.
“Now Santa Claus returned to his castle with a fine supply of pure peppermint from the Sugarplum Fairy and brought it to Bonbon, his master candymaker. ‘Peppermint will ward off the mice,’ Santa told Bonbon. ‘but I can’t simply place it inside the stockings with the other treats. It must be someplace where the mice will see it and be discouraged from even drawing near. ‘What if we could place it on the mantle or below on the hearth?’ she suggested. ‘No,’ he replied. ‘for they may find a way around it and reach the stockings. If only we could hang it from the stockings themselves.’ Then Bonbon got an idea. She cut the peppermint into strips and heated them above the furnace until they were soft and malleable. The Mouse King was a creature of evil and hated all things good or sacred. So, remembering the holy child who was born on Christmas morning, Bonbon shaped the white candies into Js and painted them with red stripes to mark the sacrifices that child made for many when he became a man. What resulted were the first candy canes and these, with their hooked heads, could easily be hung about the rim of each child’s stocking.
“That Christmas Eve the mice gathered around the ashy hearth, eager for a taste of some delectable treat from far-off lands. Even the Mouse King came to glut himself on the sleeping children’s gifts. With a wave of his hand a score of mice began to scale the sides of the fireplace and drew near to the hanging stockings. But they froze in horror as the scent of peppermint filled their nostrils. Then they saw the red and white canes hanging like wards from the socks and they fled in terror. ‘You wretched cowards!’ shouted the King from all seven of his fanged mouths. ‘These crooked confections are hardly enough to frighten the King of Mice!’ He drew his broad-bladed sword and, with a proud air, sliced the foot of the longest stocking. As a torrent of cookies, fruit, candies, and nuts came cascading out of the hole, the candy cane at the top slipped off and descended upon the King. All seven of his hideous heads gazed upward in dread and the vile monarch just stepped away in time for the peppermint candy to hit the floor at his feet. One look at the striped J before him and the Mouse King fled, ordering his servants to do the same.
“In after years, many mice came to the home of Santa Claus and apologized for what they had done. These had left the Mouse King’s kingdom behind and were happily received by the good saint. Each year they, too, would be given sweets and delicious gifts. But the mice who were bitter stayed by their King’s side and vowed vengeance against Santa Claus and his poisonous candy canes. They cursed and they yelled and they hissed, but they never again ate another Christmas treat. The end.”
With that, Jinni closed the book and Eva grinned with a candy cane in her mouth. “I liked that story,” she said. “because it was about candy.”
“You do love your candy, don’t you?” I said with a chuckle.
“Mice?” Roxy suddenly demanded with arms folded. “That’s not scary! Where was all the fighting? Where was the action?!”
“Oh, so you want a story with fighting, do you?” Jinni asked with a knowing smirk. “Then perhaps this next story will be more to your liking…”
TO BE CONTINUED…
It was bad enough that the Shadow Demons were trying to snuff out the light of Hanukkah forever, but now the only person who could help had invited the grand master of holiday horrors into my living room and he was leaving burning hoofprints in my carpet.
The Krampus lurched forward on his hairy goat legs and stroked his long, sooty whiskers as his fanged mouth twisted itself into an angry snarl. Tightening a clawed grip around the handle of his barbed whip he leveled a blacked fingernail at me and, with a sudden air of disappointment, raised a bristly eyebrow and said, “Your own toilet? Really, Charlotte.” He shook his hideous, horned head and pouted. “Are you really that eager to see me?” He grinned evilly and let out a couple of ha ha has until Rachel stepped forward boldly, the candles and books teetering on her head as she moved.
“It wasn’t Charlotte who did it. It was me.”
The Krampus shot her an annoyed glance and turned away. “Well, if it isn’t the Hanukkah Goblin’s little helper. What business could that pint-size bookworm possibly have with me?” He dug a claw between his yellowed fangs as he spoke, no doubt cleaning bits of year-old fruitcake out of his otherwise gleaming smile.
“We…” Rachel hesitated until the monster turned a glaring red eye in her direction. “We… need your help.”
Now the demon turned fully toward her and, hooking his whip to the side of his belt, sat himself down on my sofa with the painful squeal of overtaxed springs leaping out from under his massive body. He crossed his arms regally until the fur-trimmed sleeves of his dirty red robe drew back, revealing his hairy, monstrous forearms. “And what need could be so dire that the likes of you self-righteous immortals would dare lower yourselves to seek help from the Krampus?” His ghastly face flickered in the yellow light of the flames.
“Just look around you,” Rachel answered. “All the light’s been stolen from this town and maybe even the rest of the world. Even the Realm of the Stewards had gone dark. All except for me.” She pointed upward at her gently dancing candles. “And I can even feel them weakening.”
Now the beast rose up again and placed a claw on the handle of his whip. He growled and sent an angry cloud of ash from his gaping nostrils. “If this is some jest you shall be feasting upon rocks and coal for a dreadful age of Daemar!”
“This is no joke, Krampus. The Shadow Demons have stolen our light and we must get it back!”
In all his long existence as an evildoer whose job is to punish other evildoers, the Krampus was never so conflicted as he was now. He hated human beings, he hated children, he hated goodness, and he hated the Stewards of Mankind. But, more than that, he hated the Shadow Demons. Long ago, the Krampus led a dreadful campaign against his old nemesis, Saint Nicolas. He gathered an army and formed pacts with some of the most vicious and evil creatures he knew of. The terrible king of the Awgwas came, as did the seven-headed Mouse King and the Clockwork Prince of Cog Island. The Lord of the Giants of Tatary and the Gremlin King Zogylmog brought their forces as well. Even the Boogieman, the blind Emperor of the Brackles and children of the Nightmare King lent aid to the Krampus’ cause. The promise of sadness and the suffering of children was something that many in the dark places wished for, so they all pledged themselves to him. But the one ruler of evil even the Krampus hesitated to call upon was the Shadow King of Patalonia whose demonic subjects were known neither to obey nor respect the commands of any other being north of Daemar. However reluctantly, the Krampus finally summoned him and the Shadow King and his minions filled the sky with their blackened wings.
When the assault finally began, the valley beneath Skypeak and all the icy land west of the Merry Isthmus became filled with the sound of conflict. Many had come to protect the enchanted city and its workshop, but old St. Nick’s allies could scarcely hold back the onslaught. The little Brownies and fairies; the gnomes and dwarves and sprites. Even the tiny Timlins fought to keep beloved Santa Claus safe. But this time, unlike others, the greater immortals could not help and the unbearable hordes of the enemy couldn’t be resisted any longer. It was then, in his moment of triumph, that Krampus did something he would live long to regret. Swollen with haughty pride, he summoned the volatile fire drakes and, his little favorites, the fiery pixies to the front of the battle. Together they cut a great swath of flame through the frozen valley until the snow and ice around them melted and cascaded southward against the kindly defenders.
It was at this time that the Shadow King went amongst the other rulers of evil and roused their anger. Fire was Krampus’ love because it caused pain and spread destruction. But it also created light and warmth which all the other kings despised. The Boogieman, the Brackle Emperor and the children of the Nightmare King all loved the dark and the Awgwas and Tatars loved only the cold and were repelled by heat. The mechanical knights of the Clockwork Prince would not go forward for fear of rusting in the deluge of water and the Mouse King’s army feared drowning. The Shadow King, of course, hated both light and heat in all its forms and wished nothing more than for both to be extinguished forever. So he convinced the other kings that they outnumbered the Krampus and could win the battle without him. Before the demon realized what was happening, he was being set upon by his own allies.
The King of the Awgwas and the Lord of the Tatars cast a prison of frost around Krampus and the Boogieman and the Shadow King smothered his fires. But he still commanded the fire drakes, whose strength was nearly unrivaled in all their world. The pixies and ifrits and bolgs and orcs, as well as their fiery leaders, fought to keep the demon safe. Soon the evil creatures had become so intent on destroying each other they had nearly forgotten about their true enemy. By the time they had returned to their original purpose, the vile forces were so greatly weakened by their infighting that the defenders of Skypeak were able to drive them out of the valley and past the mountains, back into the realm of nightmares where they had issued from. Though any alliance among evil creatures is a tense one, at best, Krampus bore a grudge against the Shadow King forever after that, which brings us up to the present.
“Where are you hiding now, Feltnir?” the Krampus thundered. The flames around him grew higher and I feared my whole tomb catching fire. But the flames were swiftly snuffed out with a single huff and a peal of echoing laughter.
“You have not yet learned, Rample; Goat of Orcus, that victory for our kind can only be won by the darkness.” The voice came from all around us. “When all light has been slain, you too shall perish, and you shant be missed. All of Hades will go cold and the Pass of Fire frozen over. By the mane of great Baron Marbas, I shall be proclaimed greatest amongst the wicked powers!” The Krampus said nothing in response but, with only the gleaming light of his eyes to guide him, charged his way out of the dark confinement of the tomb and emerged from the earth of the graveyard with a burst of flame. Roxy and Eva, who were huddled together in the moonlight, leapt up with a start.
The barbed whip cracked with a spray of smoldering embers dancing through the air as Roxy could suddenly see movement in the darkness. The darkness, itself, was alive and was made up of countless winged figures, all with grasping arms. They were all different sizes, but many were fully as large as the Krampus himself. They dove and clawed at him as he struggled to beat them back with a snarl.
In the dim candlelight of the tomb below, we were all a little dumbfounded by the turn of events, but it was Iggy who finally said it. “Forgive me if I’m a little out of line, but what does any of this have to do with Hanukkah?” It was then that we noticed that Rachel was over by the table, removing one of the candles from above her head. Carefully and slowly, she began lighting the menorah and, one by one, the flames jumped to life.
The Shadow Demons fought hard to subdue their enemy, but his rage could not be extinguished so easily. In the end, they had to call upon their King to face the monster himself. All the seas of darkness rose up together and the Shadow King stretched out his black hand. The Krampus was a fierce fighter but he had no fire drakes or pixies to protect him now. All the realm of Orcus was shut to him and he was alone in this fight. Ultimately, he found he could no longer resist the cold will of the Shadow King and even the fire in his belly had withered to a mere spark.
“This is not the end, Feltnir,” we heard him howl. “Before long, your pride will cost you and the price will be steep and agonizing!” With one final puff of smoke and ash, Krampus had retreated and we could already feel the cold returning to the tomb around us. We gathered around the menorah as, looking outward, we could see thousands of eyes glaring at us. Then something large began to move toward us in the blackness.
“He’s here,” Rachel whispered, clutching the stack of books on her head as if to steady them against a strong wind. We couldn’t see him, really, but at the same time certain things about him seemed clear as day to us. He was huge. I couldn’t tell you how exactly he fit in our modest tomb, but he filled the whole space; every corner, every hole, every crack, and every gap in the head of every screw. Then, he seemed to stretch even further outward from there. I could see wings but how many, I couldn’t say. They just seemed to surround him. He had many arms, too. Thickets of them writhing and twisting. His whole body was like a cloak of night that quivered and breathed; and grew and shrank as he moved. In the center of this horrible mass a grinning skull-like face could just barely be glimpsed, with a hundred cold eyes set within a hundred sockets that seemed dark even compared to the rest of him. Black thorns ran up and down his massive frame.
He stretched a broad, grasping hand at us and extended a single, black-clawed finger. “My children and I have grown strong over the years,” he said with a throaty hiss. “Hated daughters of Maccabee, you cannot hope to protect this; the last of the lights.” He stretched his massive hand toward the menorah and Rachel grasped at his fingers. She wrapped both arms around his thumb but, as she touched him she could feel the candles on her head flicker and wane and released her grip. I caught her as she stumbled backward and watched in horror as the Shadow King drew his hand around the menorah. “Ages of hate and ignorance have made me strong, indeed. Your kind is the weakest of all for I have whispered into the ears of kings and men whose godless ambition have made them kings. I have ushered in wars that have spread like plagues; epidemics whose poison lingers long after the last shot has been fired and the last wound bandaged. It is a wound which bleeds forever; the grudge which stains forever.”
He touched a claw to one of the lights and it shuddered. “No. Even Hershel of Ostropol could not, by all his wiles, protect this light from me now.” With that, he closed his hand around the menorah and slowly squeezed, the light around us shrinking until he had closed his fist and everything had gone dark except for Rachel’s three weakening candles. “Heheheeargheheheheh.” His laughter was grainy and painful. “Now, girl, I will snuff out the last of your hopes.” But as he released his grip on the menorah, we all saw a tiny light growing in the palm of his hand. It expanded and became brighter as he opened his claws and we came to realize, as he did, that all nine lights were still burning bright. A sinister bellow issued from his cavernous body and the giant hand came down again and shut out the lights. But, as before, when he opened his hand the candles were unharmed and the flickering flames just as strong as ever. With an ear-splitting wail he sent a burst of black and chilling breath that sent shivers through every bone in my body and left a layer of frost on the table, the chairs and the opposite wall. But the burning candles were unfazed.
“I think perhaps,” Rachel said as I helped her to her feet. “you’re a little tired, Your Majesty. Maybe your scuffle with the Krampus left you just a little too weak.” A hundred soulless eyes went wide; first with dread, then with pure ire; when the Shadow King realized his machinations had been undone just as he, himself, had foiled the Krampus all those years ago. “Or maybe,” she continued. “You were always just a little too weak.” The King said nothing. He didn’t even holler or swear or curse or vow vengeance upon us at all. He just sort of melted away. And as the blackness slowly faded, the light grew. Everything from my living room lamp to the little green numbers on the microwave. Steadily the lights returned to Midvale and, as I would later learn, the world and even the Realm of the Stewards. The Shadow King and his demons slithered back to Patalonia in disgrace where they covered themselves beneath the black mountain and saved all their curses for each other.
Rachel thanked me for my help although I can honestly say I was really just a spectator this time. She was the one who did all the work. “It’s okay,” she said before returning to the Realm of the Stewards. “It’s my job. Besides, you’ll have your hands full in a week or so.”
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t really think that Krampus is going to allow you to get through Christmas without making trouble, do you?”
“Oh boy.” I just remembered that the horned hellion had only retreated and did so in an especially nasty mood.
“Merry Christmas,” Rachel said with a wry smile and a wave.
“Happy Hanukkah,” I returned, scratching my head. This was pretty bad, but how much worse could it get? I sat down at the table again as the faces of my friends smiled back at me in the warm glow of the candles. Roxy was very relieved to finally be out of the dark and Tina was glad she could finally serve the potato pancakes she had slaved over all day, even though they were cold now. Ember was struggling to show Iggy how to spin a dreidel since he had no hands to spin anything with. And me? I just tried to enjoy the quiet while it lasted because, come next week… I think the most horrifying moments of this past week will seem like a happy memory.