As To Why You Should Drink the Coffee We Sell Here, as Opposed to the Coffee Sold in World and Sound

1. Coffee

Some coffee’s processed in the guts of monkeys. Some, of ferrets.

Our coffee’s not like that.

Some coffee’s brewed by starving orphans and their puppies in the basements of the pyramids wherein Starbucks may be made.

Our coffee’s not like that, either.

Our coffee’s the good stuff. It’s the right stuff. It’s the stuff of joy and virtue, and of love.

2. The Merry Christmas Man

The Merry Christmas Man goes to Holidaytown.

And he walks its streets, and he slums inside its stores, and on his way out of one store there’s a Sid at the door who tells him, “Happy holidays.”

And it’s like the words are a knife on the Merry Christmas Man’s skin.

They cut him right open. They grate down his arm. Blood wells up, red and angry, and there’s the faintest tinge of green.

And Sid’s gone pale with horror, he’s stammering an apology, but the Merry Christmas Man just growls at him and says, “You say that again.”

But Sid doesn’t.

He won’t say it, not even in Holidaytown, not now that he recognizes the Merry Christmas Man. For he knows the words will cut a Merry Christmas Man, but he doesn’t know the reason why.

Say it,” says the Merry Christmas Man.

But the silence, it just stretches until the Merry Christmas Man goes away.

3. Guilt

The Merry Christmas Man’s not here to buy presents. He could get those at Christmas, or, leastaways, somewhere in Twelve Days. And he’s not here to start something. He’s not that sort of Man.

“I killed me a reindeer,” he says.

He doesn’t have much of an audience. He’s sitting on the corner, next to a giant candy cane, surrounded by forest animals and a pale-faced little girl.

She’s looking at him in confusion.

She’d been walking by in her wolf-eared fur coat, but then she’d seen him, and she couldn’t quite get it, so she’d stopped and she’d stared and she’d been staring ever since.

“. . . Santa?” she asks, like she isn’t sure.

It’s not her fault.

You have to understand, it’s not her fault, growing up in Holidaytown, that she doesn’t really get it about the Merry Christmas Man.

But scorn still plops from his voice like thick batter from a spoon, and he says, “I’m not Santa, little girl. I’m not anything like Santa. I’m a Merry Christmas Man.”

“Oh,” she says. Then, to be sure it’s all quite straight in her head, she says, “And you killed a reindeer?”

“It’s deep magic,” he says. “You take on the spirit of Christmas with the skin of the reindeer, and you gulp down its meat. And you hang tinsel from your hat and put a candycane in your shoe, and you hop, skip, and jump and you’re a Merry Christmas Man.”

There’s more to it than that.

There’s a step or two he’s skipped, right where he says he’s skipping ’em, and another that we’re leaving out, because we don’t want our readers going all skinwalker or curse-maker when they read these words. There’s more to it than just skinning and eating a reindeer and doing some junk with sympathetic magic (not that it’s really all that sympathetic); but those things, they’re the gist.

“And then you can fly,” says the Merry Christmas Man, “and make snow fall where you please, and pull presents from the emptiness if the recipient is good.”

He makes a present-summoning flourish with his hand, and then looks sourly at the result.

“Or,” he says, “pull forth coal chunks for the naughty, if the recipient is so disposed.”

“Thank you, sir,” she says, and takes the coal. “It’s because I am always skinning animals to make my coats.”

“Good lass,” he laughs, forgiving her at once. “Good lass.”

Such forest animals as had remained through his declaration of reindeer-skinning skulk off to frolic elsewhere now: a pointed objection, perhaps; a shunning of the animal-skinning kind; a subtle contextual reminder that even in the winter wonderland of Holidaytown happy forest animals would rather like to keep their skins. Now in Christmastown, to hear some tell it, they love nothing better than to roll stickily in blood diamonds before they jump into the furring machines themselves, but —

“Happy Holidays,” says the girl, and she nods her head, and she walks on.

The snow is turning crimson with the Merry Christmas Man’s bright blood.

4. Jelly, in the Cold

It’s cold in Holidaytown, just like it is over in Christmas, and he’s wishing, just a little, that he’d gone to Valentine’s instead.

It wouldn’t have served his purpose, no, but the hearts would have kept him warm.

Instead, he’s cold.

He’s really, really cold.

His beard is white with snow now and his belly, it’s too cold to jiggle—it’s just like a bowl of jelly that you’ve left out jiggling in the cold while its jiggling grows feebler and feebler until it can’t jiggle any longer, not a bit, and it grows a last despairing rind of ice.

And he’d like to laugh it off, ho, ho, ho, but his laugh had turned to silvery bells when he’d become a Christmas Man.

Didn’t eat enough reindeer, some would say, while others would suggest he’d ate too much.

There’s a lot that we don’t know about the magic that makes a Merry Christmas Man.

They have magical powers. We know that. And they probably eat children. They can lay fell curses, and they really like Christmas, and when you tell them “Happy Holidays,” they bleed.

And one more thing, which we’ll get to! we’ll get to! But not till later on.

5. The Jinglers

The Merry Christmas Man is fading.

In the cold, he’s fading, he’s losing his sense of self and liveliness, and he’s wondering if he’s going to get to do what he came to do before he loses fingers to the cold.

Then ring the bells. Then sound the footsteps on the walk. Then voices that had seemed quite far away unexpectedly draw near.

He thinks with sudden fierce and giddy joy:

I am in luck.

There’s a whole party of jinglers coming his way, just off their work, and they won’t be able to help stopping to look at the Merry Christmas Man.

And he’s sure they’ll wish him Happy Holidays, and the words will make him bleed; and the first of them is kneeling down beside him now—but—

Damn it, thinks the Merry Christmas Man.

“Hey,” says Sid. “Hey, you OK?”

Sid looks up at the others.

“It’s a Merry Christmas Man,” he warns. “So ixnay on the olidays-hay. And a Merry Christmas to you,” he adds, turning back to the Merry Christmas Man, “good sir!”

“Uckfay your ixnay,” says the Merry Christmas Man, preserving this legend’s suitability for children by inventing a jolly new curse word for the holidays instead of saying something potentially obscene. “And the horse it rode in on. I’m in Holidaytown, for the Holiday, I don’t want to hear any ittyshay uckingfay Scrooge-uggeringbay ‘merry Christmas’es.”

At this point the narrator must assume that the Merry Christmas Man has gone around the bend and begun to speak in tongues, likely from exhaustion and cold fatigue but potentially from possession by the Holy Spirit.

Sid seems even more confused than we.

“Sir,” he says, “you’re overwrought.”

The Merry Christmas Man snorts.

Sid says, “If we all actually wished you a Happy Holidays—“

The Merry Christmas Man bites his tongue to hold in the scream.

“Well,” says Sid, his face ashen, “you see, I mean, it’s like—“

But the Merry Christmas Man is on his feet now. He’s holding out five fingers crooked like candy canes, and the stripes of them are red, red, red, and his fury has made him so warm that his stomach may shake like a bowl full of jelly once again.

“We, ‘sir,’” he spits out between his teeth, “are in Holidaytown.

Sid doesn’t cringe.

It’s a near thing, but Sid doesn’t cringe, not even with those fingers pointing most of the way in his direction before they cunningly curve and point backwards towards the hand. Not even with the sweetness of the sugar-snow that has fallen on the shoulders of the Merry Christmas Man. Not even knowing that the Merry Christmas Man is a skinwalker, and that skinwalkers can kill.

“Merry Christmas,” he says, and turns away;

And the Merry Christmas Man is vast like a giant, and billowing with his power and his rage, and bellowing, “What does it take to get a bloody ‘Happy Holidays’ in this town?”

The answer to which, apparently, is that shout; for as if by autonomic motion, for streets around, and in answer to that cry, the people of Holidaytown turn in the Merry Christmas Man’s direction and wish his holidays be bright.

6. Transcendence

The Merry Christmas Man is cut, at first, and bleeds.

Then it is beyond mere flaying. Then the words are tearing into him, catching him like great hooks, ripping him apart, this way, this way, and that. He is pulled apart, and yet improbably alive; and the veins transport the blood of him, and the nerves convey the feel of him, and he is dissipating like some gateway god into the form of ten thousand spheres; but the cutting does not stop.

The world where he was rips open.

The space inside him is made to emptiness, and one vast ring surrounds it, and inside that ring is no location known to man; and with a terrible cry and one last great inversion, the Merry Christmas Man vomits into the world through the vehicle of that emptiness the shining contents of his soul.

They splay there, burning with a holy light against the whiteness of the snow, and with great hope:

The coffee beans the reindeer’d ate, before the Merry Christmas Man began.

For that’s the secret of it all, isn’t it? The source of that grace and that ineffable mystery that brings a Merry Christmas to the world? Isn’t that where all our joy and virtue, and our love, begins?

It’s thus.

O, merrily, it’s thus!

The secret of life isn’t coffee beans processed in the gut of some monkey, we can tell you that. And certainly not a ferret.

You can’t get the good stuff by having orphans hammer and brew it out in the dark reaches beneath the world.

I mean, it’s pretty good.

We are not knocking a good Frappucino.

But it’s not the thing.

To get the kind of coffee that can bring a real Merry Christmas to the world, that can fill the body with great warmth and make a person into a font of joy and virtue, and of love, you have to process the beans through the gullet of a sacrificial reindeer and a sacrificial man. You have to feed them to the flying arboreal ungulates that live in the canopy where the beans are grown, and let them process them down into the spirit of Christmas; and then somebody has to have the courage to step up and be a Merry Christmas Man, to cut the reindeer open and put on its skin and eat its meat and swallow down the coffee beans entangled in its soul.

And if they’re cruel then the world shall know a time of sorrow; for it tempts you to dark magics, oh yes it does, being a Merry Christmas Man.

But if the candidate is good enough, if they’re strong enough, if they’re cussed enough to cling to their first intention in the face of the power that a Merry Christmas Man can wield, why, then they’ll go down to Holidaytown and they’ll flay themselves on the innocent unknowing words of the Happy Holidaysers there. And their death will give back to us the beans we use in the coffee we sell here;

For just 99 cents a cup.

Rainbow Noir: the Mountains and the Sky

It has been a certain interval, dear reader, since I first had the opportunity to speak to you of the magical land of rainbows above the world and the shadowed city that succeeded it. Of how it came to pass that a certain girl, born in shadows and dwelling in shadows, became the rainbow; how she challenged the notorious Nihilism Bear; and, in the end, defeated him. Later, and after the receipt of certain despatches and messages, I was able to speak to you further: of how she sought out Mr. Dismal, whom she falsely suspected of responsibility for her various plights, and, in The Case of Mr. Dismal, made an end to him. But we still did not know the why of it all—whose will it had been that had set itself against the rainbow; that had brought Mr. Dismal to that land; that had dulled the kingdom of every brightness into Shadow City’s noir.

Lately, some of my friends have been struggling. They’re trying to do something good, something amazing, something cool, but they’re working for and with people who’d really much rather it came out a product. There is a corrupt religion of money over worth that has seeded itself in the modern business world; and people I care about, dear reader, are being ground down by the faithful of that religion; by the Mythos cultists of this modern era who would never have believed, who couldn’t have believed, that a place like Shadow City ever had color in it at all.

And I thought, maybe, for them, as a Christmas present; and for you, as a Christmas present—

Even though it wouldn’t help them any, and even though it wouldn’t mean that my dear readers would hear regular tales from me again—

that I would look into the matter a bit. That I would find out a bit more about the thing that turns rainbows into shadows, and ask what kind of answer rainbows make.

Without further ado, and with the hopes that all who read this will trust their hearts and live in brightness, the conclusion and the beginning of a story that started long ago.

Rainbow Noir: The Mountains and the Sky

The girl rides the horse through the sky. It’s the most wonderful and marvelous thing. It’s the most wonderful and marvelous thing, and underneath them there are endless miles of cold air.

Beneath that are the mountains, which we shall name Gray Death.

Her name—the girl’s name, that is—is Wisp. She’s saved the universe once or twice. She’s the kind who you just have to point and shoot, basically, and the universe gets saved. That’s what she is, and why she is, and why there have to be girls like her.

As for the horse—

As for the horse’s name—

There’s an ice crystal bigger than the world. There’s an endless distance, and space. There’s a great and brooding thought that presides over it all,

Like God had forgotten color, hope, and light—

And we could call that “I Am,” or “the All,” or “The Lord that Dwells in Starlight.”

But the horse itself, it doesn’t really have a name.

It’s the most marvelous horse there ever was. A horse like that doesn’t really need its own name. Who could you confuse it with?

It’s just, you know, the horse.

People laugh, talking about magical sky horses and rainbows, sure, they laugh, but if you saw it there, its feet pounding against the nothingness, endless miles of cold air below and below that, Death—

You wouldn’t laugh.

You’d just think, in that moment, that it was the most marvelous and warm and most incredible thing you ever saw.

One day, one day, once upon a time, the girl fell off that horse. She screamed. She’s very brave, but even a brave person can scream when you’re falling and the sky is rushing up around you and there’s only Death below. She screamed, and the world around her burned with its blues and its purples and its brightness, and her life flashed before her eyes in a series of twenty-minute shorts that in the end didn’t add up to very much—

And that time, he saved her.

That time, as she spun and fell and rainbows curled and twisted through the vastness of the void around her, the horse came down and lunged and caught her with his teeth and snapped her away from the touch of great Gray Death, and pulled her up and she twisted and she flung her hands around his neck and she sank her face into his mane and laughed.

She did.

She really did! Even with the awkward angles of it all.

She could, and did, climb up onto his neck and back, because there really isn’t very much gravity when you’re falling, and at that particular moment in time they weren’t really quite done with the falling part of their precipitous descent and back to the flying that the two of them were about to do.

The second time, though, the second time, he didn’t save her when she fell.

She asked—

With her eyes, she asked!

But the second time, when she found herself falling, and the sky was everywhere around her in its blues and purples fading into the shadows of darkness, and grayness was reaching up from the ground as if to seize her up and drown her and shatter her like a teardrop on the stone, the horse, it just stood back.

The ice is bigger than the world, and twice as far as anything.

Her name was Wisp, back then as now, but nobody called her that. Everyone called her things like “the rainbow,” “the rainbow girl,” or “hope.”

She was the one charged with the preservation of love and hope and beauty and power and magic. She was the one responsible for providing all the things that people need to have within their lives, in a world that is sometimes very dark. And the mechanism of this charge was color.

She would find places that were dark and colorless, in the world, in people’s lives, in people’s hearts.

She would walk among the gray shadows and get the feel of them.

Then she would bring the rainbow.

There are a billion places in the worlds that are that needed her special touch. A billion, or even more; so it’s not too surprising that grayness still endures. It took her time to find each spot of darkness. It took her time to find it, and know it, and see its antidote, and make an end to it. It took her time, and there were so many different shadows that needed her to give to them that time.

It probably makes a billion look small, really, the number of those shadows, if you actually could count each of them, and give each one its name. It’s probably laughable to imagine that it’s just a billion, like saying, “well, millipedes have at least one leg”—

But a billion, at least.

So that’s why it took her a while to see what had happened down on Earth.

That’s why she missed the whole of World War I. She was in a flower garden, where the insects had corroded beauty. She was in the Crab Nebula, where monsters were threatening a noble Prince. She was in Kansas, helping a lost child, and in the oceans, healing a dolphin’s heart.

She was polishing one of the stars in the endless sky when the trenches cut the world.

She was in the kingdom of the cats.

She was fixing a broken mountain.

She was painting a butterfly when the Nazis came to power. She was painting a butterfly with vibrant colors, because the butterfly had gone gray.

And she might have missed it;

She might have missed it all;

Save that butterflies can only wear so much paint before their wings will cease to fly. There are only so many stars that lose their glitter. There are only so many monsters, though they spawn eccentrically and at random intervals throughout the cosmos and its worlds; so many broken mountains; so many cats that have never ever been fed.

Before the end of the war—before it had even really gotten started—she saw it. She saw what we were doing. She saw what we had done.

She saw it, and said:

“Here is a darkness. Here are gray shadows. I will walk among them and I will find their antidote, and I will bring the rainbow.”

And tears were falling from her face, great rivers of tears, and breaking on the ground.

“And not just here,” she said.

The war to end all wars, well, hadn’t. But she decided, there and then.

“I will heal this thing,” she said. “I will bring an end to wars.”

Underneath the girl and the horse are endless miles of ice-cold air.

Right now, as you’re reading this story, the horse and the girl are falling. They are a comet. They are a meteor. They are a dying, broken, tumbling leaf, a teardrop, a rainbow chunk of ice and fire, and they are falling towards Gray Death below.

“It’s impossible,” said the horse. “Even for someone like you. Even for someone like me. It’s impossible, rainbow girl, that we could bring an end to war.”

“It’s my quest,” she said.

“It’s wrong,” said Terrence. He was her sprite. “It’s wrong. It’ll destroy us. They’ll find us, if we try to end their wars. They’ll hunt us down. They’ll take Rainbow Land away, make it theirs, make it a part of their earthly kingdom, where only shadows rule.”

“But it’s my quest,” the girl said. “I have to heal this thing. I have to guard the beauty that the people of the Earth deny. I have to make them stop killing each other,

and so cruelly!”

But, oh! The sky was fading.

It was twilight in the rainbow kingdom, the sun was falling to the west, and the horse looked up.

“It will have to wait for morning,” the marvelous horse said. “Dear. You can’t do it today. You can’t do it now. You can’t stop people from fighting wars, forever, if you haven’t gotten any sleep.”

“That’s so,” conceded the girl.

So she went to bed.

She went to bed, to let Earth wait just one last troubled night.

And slept.

And while she slept there were doings in the darkness, and gatherings, and quiet acts of diplomacy and treason; and when she woke, her people did not sing to her, as they had always done, when Rainbow Land was bright.

Rather than sing, instead, they gathered around her, and their voices, they were low.

“We shall show you,” said Terrence.

She looked at him.

“We shall show you,” said Terrence, “why it is that you cannot save the world.”

And they took her down into the depths of the palace, and through the hidden passages to the caves where her servants labored, cutting forth light and hope from the lifeless stone, and to the Great Machine that had made her.

And she said, “It’s made of ice.”

She touched it with her hand.

She said, as if in a trance, “There is a place, so very far from here! And a flake of ice, and oh, it is so very bigger than the world! And God—”

But the horse was brusque.

It bumped her in the back with its nose and made her turn away, and said, “This is where we made you, to save us, to be a girl from nothing and make brightness in our land. We cut you out of ice and dolor and we brought you here, from nothing, to nothing, and filled your heart with fanciful lies. Like, ‘you are charged to save us, wielding light.’ Like, ‘you were made to fill our land with beauty.’”

And she remembered—oh, she remembered, and of a sudden!—how she’d come into existence and out of nothingness as if formed off some great crystal made of ice, and curled about herself in some strange womb, and dreamt of foreign colors as shaved fragments sprinkled by.

She remembered how she’d dreamed, oh! such dreams! of something brighter than the endless hungry void. How she’d conceived a sudden brilliant conception, in that womb of ice, of what the murky and dismal land some call “the world” could be.

And how it had seemed to her that a lady made of light had spoken, had said, “Wisp, will you go forth from this place to my land, my dismal land, that dwells under the hand of shadows, and make it bright?”

The sprites looked down.

In the shadow of the Great Machine, the echo of the work of ice that lives beyond the world, they could not speak; save for Terrence, who cleared his throat, and said:

“You were our doll, lady Wisp. You were our toy. And we are grateful to you, for that you were bright and brilliant and rainbows. But you must not think you are a person. You must not think you are a living girl with breath and heart and hope and rainbows, who can stand against our purpose and our decision, and bring chaos to the land.”

The breath left her.

It was as if he had punched her in the stomach, and all she could breathe in was chunks of ice.

“We had to make you,” he said. “But not the rainbow girl. The rainbow girl was fantasy. You are just a flake of snow.”

She was falling.

She was falling.

The sky was rushing up around her, and she could not breathe, and there was gray and black and white jittering before her eyes, and she could not find the ground.

She clenched around the emptiness in her heart, fell gasping, Gray Death opening below, and cast a glance, a single glance, up at the horse.

He was marvelous, that horse.

He was a wonder.

He caught her, once, when she was falling from the sky, when she was plummeting and she thought that she would die. He caught her, and lifted her up, and brought her back to warmth and hope.

Once, but not again.

As she falls into herself, as she goes black and white, not even gray, within her heart and body, the horse, he does not save her. The horse, he looks away.

And it all spirals away from her, leaving her empty of the rainbow, leaving her cold—

Except that’s wrong.

That isn’t now.

She isn’t falling into herself, now. She isn’t on the floor of a cave under the rainbow kingdom, desperate with pain, broken by impossibilities.

That isn’t now.

That was a very long time ago.

Now, right now, she is in a very real sky, and hope and truth have found her once again, and she is falling.

She is falling because her horse has broken its leg.

Her marvelous flying horse has broken its leg against a stream of ice, and so of course it cannot fly.

As has been told before, the girl who fell became the rainbow once again. She’d been needed. It wasn’t OK, any more, to leave her in her cold sense of soullessness.

A soulless girl couldn’t have saved the world from the death that had been coming.

As has been told before, once she’d been made whole again, she’d refused to transform back.

She’d understood—

Somehow—

That just because people told her she wasn’t a person, just because they’d shown her the womb of ice from which she’d come, and said, “Look, this is how we made you, this is why we made you, can’t you see that’s not how a person’s born?”—

That such a thing can’t end the meanings that lived inside her heart.

She’d spent years and years amongst the grayness there, and had found an end to shadows.

And now she is falling.

She’d gone to the man she’d thought had been behind it all—

A murky, dismal man; a man who had always sought to purge the colors from the world—

And she’d thought that she could save him. That the goddess she’d become, that the endless seven-colored power she had birthed in herself, that the girl named Wisp and sometimes Rainbow would be able to save him from his misery and show him the wonder that was color, light, and hope.

She’d tried, anyway.

And maybe she’d succeeded, in a way.

But it hadn’t done him any good, or her, as has been told; because, in the end, he wasn’t the villain of the piece.

He wasn’t the villain.

He was a villain, but not the villain, just another murky, dismal little man gone lost in shadows. In the end, all the light could buy for him was a single moment of forgiveness.

The villain, if there was a villain, was a thing of ice and distance.

It was something cold and far and cruel.

It whispered this of others: that

“They are not real.”

It was God, perhaps, or a horse, perhaps, or a snowflake larger than the world; and it hung beyond all world and sound, and brooded, saying:

“What there is, there is of me: there is the light I cast, there is the world of my imagining, there are the dreams I dream and the shadows I have made; and nothing else is real.”

And if it thinks that it is the only reality, the only beauty, the only justice, the only right, then it has, perhaps, an excuse of sorts, for it is not merely cold, and it is not merely ice, this king of shadows and winter that dwells beyond the world.

It is beautiful.

It is beautiful, and it is endless, and it is marvelous, and it sheds forth every beauty; and the rainbow is refracted through that ice; and the world is made from the waters when it melts, and the dirt that it sheds, and the light and shadows it casts forth.

It is self-contained.

It is self-complete.

And yet, in some contingency of motion, it has sent forth its avatar, its child, its element to us within the world, and with a spirit of great mercy. It has sent a piece of itself, an image of itself, a mirror of its icy vastness, to be the most marvelous thing, to live in the dreary world of its creation, to redeem it through the presence of the horse.

It has sacrificed for us, the most terrible and deadly sacrifice; it has chosen to become involved.

It is the pinnacle, is it not, the horse?

Is it not the most marvelous thing in all the world?

And did it not already risk itself—risk its perfection-in-itself, daring unimaginably—to descend beneath the darkness of the world and find a part of itself that dreamt of rainbows, and make a girl of it, and shelter her, and raise her against the darkness like a spear, and teach her the power of the rainbow?

So if it thinks it is the only truth; if it thinks it is the only right; if it thinks there is no justice, that is not the justice of the horse; if it thinks there is no beauty, that is not the beauty of the ice; if it thinks that in the end there are nothing but its shadows and its dreams, then it has an excuse of sorts, for in a very real way it is the author of us all, or at the very least its agent and its representative, the mirror-horse of God—

Most marvelous thing in all the worlds that are, and the brightest, and the best.

And so she came, at the end of her journey, the rainbow girl, to the field of grass and flowers at the center of the city, to the last remaining place of color and brightness (before the rainbow had returned), where the horse still lived, and danced, and woke up in the morning to laugh and play and sing; and to turn its eyes on her as she walked up, it seemed, and say, “Oh, Wisp, you have become my rainbow once again.”

And she knew.

His voice was guileless, as it had always been, as if he knew nothing in the world save love for others and self-praise.

His voice was guileless, but still she knew.

In the center of the crumbled world, in that little piece of paradise, he frolicked, and he looked at her with eyes that made her melt, possessed her with a girlhood that overcame the goddess in her, loved her still, with brightness still they shone, and still she knew.

She touched his mouth.

She swung herself up on his back.

She said, “Oh, my love, you have not forgotten me.”

But she knew what he had done.

They rose into the sky, didn’t they? They flew; or ran, at least, on the rainbow once again. They galloped out over blue skies and high above Gray Death.

She knew he meant to throw her.

“It was your lie,” she told him. “Wasn’t it?”

Right into his ear; which flicked, of course, as if to cast a fly away.

And on they rode in silence, far above the world.

It made her breathless with joy and pain.

“It was your idea,” she said, “to show me the Machine that gave me birth; and to tell me, ‘you are just a doll we made from snow, oh Wisp. You are just a toy. Just a toy, and not a person after all.’”

“It was,” said the horse.

The horse’s shoulders rolled. It said: “You are.”

Its voice was distant ice and starlight and it was pale against the sky.

“What else could you be,” mused the horse, “than a reflection of Myself? What else is there to be, than light against the ice? So I realized, when you brought trouble to my heart. That you are the rainbow, or a girl, or a thing I made, or a thing I loved, but in the end, still, you are just a toy, and of my crafting, like all the shining world.”

She wept for him.

“And so,” said the horse, “I tore you down; and buried you in darkness; and then, for reasons elusive even to myself, I must have set you free.”

She wept for him.

She clung to him and wept for him, knowing that he meant to throw her, because he was the most marvelous horse in the world, and yet—

“You do not know,” she said.

And her voice was seven-toned, like the rainbow; and the tears that flowed from her were as a stream of ice; and he meant to throw her, he really did, but it went wrong, he went wrongfooted, and if you were to find a thing to blame for it, you might say, he slipped or struck his leg upon her tears.

And his perfection was distorted.

And his gait was broken.

And suddenly, because a horse can’t exactly fly if it has a broken leg, he fell.

It struck him as ironic that he would not have to throw her; that he was freed, in the end, of the need to cast her from his back to fall screaming to Gray Death. He would fall, and that would be an end to things. He would die, and the world would end, and nevermore a rainbow to trouble him or make turmoil of his heart.

Right now, dear reader.

Right now, they fall—

He falls—

It falls—

Right now, as you’re reading this story, the horse and the girl are falling, spiraling down through endless sky, with Gray Death looming up below.

And because he is a horse of courage, after all, even maimed and broken, he opens one pure and perfect eye.

She is not falling.

It is terribly unfair.

She is not falling.

She is, instead, laying down with a hand outstretched—oh, moving downwards fast enough, and technically perhaps that counts as ‘she is falling,’ but she is descending as a skydiver descends, or a stooping bird, not as a mortal plummeting to her death—

Laying on the rainbow, outstretched beside him in the sky.

Unfairly, she is reaching for him, supported by the rainbow, calling out over and over again for him to live—

He squinches closed both eyes.

The world moves far away, then farther, then farther again, until even Wisp seems to him twice as distant as the sky.

Ice closes about him, and rainbows.

“I’ve broken my leg, you foolish girl,” he says, and casts aside her power, and lets the wind and shadows carry him downwards to his grave.

Flutter,
flutter,
Flutter,

Down to the world below.

And there is a moment where the ice shatters, as he strikes against Gray Death.

There is a moment where the shadows seem to boil and drain away, plunging down through the jagged edges of the mountains to drown some other land.

There is a pure and crystal darkness, and finally, a light.

The rainbow hits the mountains, dances about them for a moment amidst a rain of ice, strives as rainbows strive to lift the broken and the dead.

And then, it flies away.

unknown authorship; part of the “Rainbow Collection” of documents assembled during Congress’ 1954 investigation into various Un-American Activities on the part of Un-American Activities Bear.

The Battle of Christmas

Elaine runs.

The pounding wings of Take Life As It Comes sound like great drums across the wintry plain. The roc’s terrible beak drips with dirt and ice. Its cruel talons tuck up by its sides.

It is dark.

She can barely see.

She weaves around the mound where is buried the Christmas of 1872. She shudders at the blank-orbed wooden gaze of the eidolons of the mound. She throws herself flat, tongue swelling in her mouth with fear, as the bird sweeps past.

Her breath comes in great gasps.

Her clothes are ragged.

She is not far from the forest. It is not far now.

She makes herself stand. She wobbles. She runs. A great wind rises behind her. She is almost there.

The impact of the bird’s foot on her back flows through her and out her chest. She gags as the talons close around.

It is picking her up.

It is dragging her to the sky.

She hammers at its toes with her fists. The bird croaks, a dismal croak like an angry wind. She works one hand down to the sheath at her belt. She draws the knife Laughing-at-Sorrows.

A high wailing shriek comes from her lips.

The blade cuts in. Black blood splashes her. The bird drops her. She falls amidst the trees and lands hard on pine needles and cold dirt.

She cannot breathe.

She is aware only of a whistling urgency rising in her, a chest-accordion sensation as her lungs struggle to remember their nature as her lungs.

She gasps.

The breeze brings a flicker of warmth. Panic pounds loudly in her ears. There is only one warmth in the Forest Next to Christmas, which is the Last Light and the First Light of the Sun; and that which it touches is devoured and is not seen again.

She kicks something. It resolves into her leg.

She staggers up.

Limping, she runs.

Something moves!

The trees before her brush aside. They’re swept from her path like grass bowing in the wind. She catches a glimpse of bone before the head of a great creature rises.

It is the reindeer Looking Forward and Looking Back. Its forward head is as tall as she is. She cannot grasp the immensity of the rest. She remembers its legend: one head’s gaze always fixed forward and welcoming of what comes, one head always looking backwards in acceptance of what has been.

Its head is elegant like a soap sculpture and its eyes are deep.

“A human girl,” says Looking Forward.

“I’d like to meet her,” laughs Looking Back.

It’s a raucous and terrible joke.

Then the reindeer dances upwards and its hooves are coming down on the earth, thump, tump, tamp.

She dives under its feet. She reasons that it cannot see what is beneath it. But it does not need to: its dance is lethal, and once, twice, thrice she is nearly crushed.

For a moment, it is past her.

“There!” roars Looking Back.

And the creature pivots until it faces her and she is crying, stagging, crawling away.

Its foot comes down.

She twists in desperation. She catches hold as it strikes her. She digs her knife into the foot where it joins the hoof and Looking Forward makes a shrill noise with its nose, which spurts with red.

The world wobbles crazily, up and down, up and down.

To the left she catches sight of a thicker stand of trees. Her body is everywhere warm. She lets go and she flies or drifts—to her it is as if she is floating, like a leaf—

And impact and a staggering, dazed scramble into the trees.

“Too slow!” cries Looking Forward, and it plunges its head after her, and its great teeth grasp her shoe; and she drags herself back to sit against a tree and pant as it struggles to push in.

“Too big, reindeer head,” she says, between her gasps.

The creature begins to wriggle backwards. But then it stops.

“Why have you stopped?” asks Looking Forward.

And taut with fear comes the voice of Looking Back: “Behind us is the Last Light of the Sun.”

So Elaine drags herself to her feet and she slips further in to the Forest Next to Christmas, and she does not listen to the piteous screams that rise behind her.

She staggers into Christmas, then.

Great white-beard kettle-belly Father Christmas roars at the head of the Christmas table. He waves his mug with one hand and his axe with the other. When his bleary eyes see her, he says, “What’s this, a human girl?”

And Mr. Make-Do squints down at her with his great big eyes and flutters his damp and pale hands. The Snowman whirls and chills and flurries. Hanging from a tree above the chair of Father Christmas is a mesh sack containing the coals of the Christmas fire.

Elaine bows to Father Christmas and she tries to keep from him the knocking of her knees.

“Don’t you know,” roars Father Christmas, “that this is not for such as you?”

She licks her lips.

She says, “The table of Christmas is not so small as that. Can’t I come in from the storm?”

“Ho, ho, ho,” booms Father Christmas, and his stomach shakes, and winds blow wildly around the world.

“Well, you’ll do that,” he says.

But he thumbs over his shoulder to the Christmas pole. It’s hung with the heads of the human children who’ve died on Christmas Day, with their staring eyes and their warm red hats, and it’s carved with ancient symbols the meaning of which even Father Christmas does not know.

“But tomorrow,” he says, “if your head’s up there, then you can’t blame me!”

So she leaps three times until she catches hold of the crossbeam of a Christmas chair, and she climbs the leg to catch its seat, and she sits there and she drinks the plum brandy until her head is heavy with it; and now and again she dances on the table, flirting with the chestnuts and the crumbs.

She listens to the boasting of great deeds.

Father Christmas says, “I slew the Demon of Despairing Nights, his eyes like raisins and his skin like pudding; through all the night we fought, until the dawn took the skin from him.”

“I made a person from odds and ends,” says Mr. Make-Do. “Nothing but odds and ends.”

“That Prester John!” laughs Father Christmas, remembering. “Ho, ho, ho.”

“I drowned the Moon in bitter cold,” says the Snowman. “Its people could not stand to me!”

And Elaine clears her throat and speaks as loudly as she can, “I wasn’t good all year. Not even once.”

“Not even once?” says Father Christmas. “Ho, ho, ho! Then you’ll get a whipping and a coal!”

His voice chokes off.

He goes paler than Snowman. Even his beard looks grey against the paleness of his skin.

“I’ve had the first,” says Elaine. “So I’ll take the second.”

The Snowman shifts uneasily, and Mr. Make-Do scowls.

Elaine walks, wobbling, down the table. She climbs up to the Christmas fire. She takes a coal. It smokes most terribly in her hands.

Then she drops down to the ground, her leg buckling horribly, and she begins to limp away.

“I’ll let you leave,” says Father Christmas in the stillness.

And Mr. Make-Do nods.

“But you won’t get far,” he says, “and Jack Frost will find you, and I’ll have your head, little human, for my pole.”

“Come take it,” says Elaine.

Now, sooner or later he must’ve, since it’s hanging from his pole; so some people say that that’s his victory. But others say that he never caught her, and Mr. Make-Do must’ve made a head just like hers from odds and ends, scrips and scraps, and hung it from that pole.

It doesn’t seem to anyone like it’s very likely that she just up and died on Christmas.

But she did.

She lived for many years, and then she died. And every day and every night she lived was Christmas, for she’d brought the fire of Christmas to the world.

The Gingerbread Man

Emilia lives deep under the sea.

She lives in a metal dome.

It is round but not too round. It has a carpeted floor. It is warm. Inside and outside it has lights.

Every day Emilia looks out the porthole, through the clear strong superglass, at the heavy depths of water all around.

Sometimes she sees a shark.

Sometimes she sees a giant octopus. It will squeeze her house but it can’t do much compared to the pressure of the sea.

It is angry because Emilia is still alive.

“Bii,” Emilia says to the octopus. “I wanted to live alone.”

The octopus swishes its tentacles and flies away through the sea.

Emilia has a chimney. It is totally stopped up but Santa Claus still finds his way there every Christmas. He doesn’t bring her toys any more. He hasn’t since she was a little girl of seven. These past few years he’s brought her supplies instead.

Food.

Water.

Tools for repairing things when they break.

Books with instructions on the use of tools.

Every day Emilia looks out the porthole, through the clear strong superglass, at the heavy depths of water all around.

Sometimes Emilia makes gingerbread. Usually she just makes a loaf. But sometimes she makes gingerbread men.

She’ll give them raisin eyes and cherry noses.

She’ll trim them down to their fingers and their toes.

Today she checks in the oven on the gingerbread men. She’s supposed to just press the button that says “Light.” But instead she opens the oven up and lets the heat out. That’s her mistake!

It’s also the gingerbread men’s opportunity.

There’s only one gingerbread man who’s smart enough to act when his moment comes. He’s a wily old rogue of a gingerbread boy. His name’s Raisin Jack.

Raisin Jack, he shakes himself out.

Raisin Jack, he’s up and he runs.

The gingerbread man!

He’s out of the pan!

With a grin on his face like the devil’s only son’s!

Once he’s put some distance between himself and Emilia, Raisin Jack thinks about where to go next. He’s standing there thinking when the Roomba 2500 trundles in.

It bumps into Raisin Jack. Its suction engine vrums.

“Oh, no,” says Raisin Jack.

He runs, runs, runs, like the devil’s at his back.

“Run run run, as fast as you can! You can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man!”

Somewhat to his disappointment, the Roomba isn’t trying to catch him. It’s actually been kind of intimidated by the bumping and it’s now circling off to harrass the bookshelves.

So Raisin Jack stops and he thinks. He’s standing there thinking when Emilia comes along.

“Please,” she says.

Her face is as white as a sheet.

“Please, no.”

The gingerbread man, he’s out of the pan!

Raisin Jack runs, like the devil’s at his back!

“Run run run, as fast as you can! You can’t catch me! I’m the gingerbread man!”

And he runs runs runs and he’s at the door.

And Emilia’s not behind him any more.

She’s running for the bedroom.

She’s rooting through her trunk

She’s looking for a picture

Of the world before it sunk.

She’s looking for a picture

And she finds it just before

The gingerbread man

Raisin Jack

He

Opens up that door.

(Hitherby Christmas Special: 2005)

And lo, unto the people of Seattle there came an angel;

As they tended to their coffee and their bug reports and their unsanctioned fraternity riots;

With great light and heat it came, so that the unworthy were driven before it and even the worthy fell down onto the ground;

But it said, “Fear not.”

It stood as tall as a billboard, almond-colored, clad in white, with flowing hair and in its hand a trumpet. It stood amidst I-5, and the cars were stilled before it; and not even the ambulances moved, until some distant blasphemous reflex jolted the drivers back into action and they swerved around its feet and drove on.

The radiance of the angel was that hard radiation that brings no cancer;

That searing power that kills only the unneeded cells, and leaves one thinner, calmer, and more fit;

Though sometimes with less hair and with chills that come and go for the next six or seven days.

And the angel said, “This day comes unto you a giant lizard from the Sound. Now go and give homage to it, and stand not by the Space Needle.”

For it is a certain thing, when giant monsters parade through Seattle, that something will topple the space needle; it is as certain as the death of Tokyo Tower, the crumbling of the Sphinx, or the cracking of the Taj Mahal.

And the spirit of the angel moved in the stomachs of those who looked on;

And queasy, they raced towards the water from which the sacred lizard would be born;

And they brought to it their offerings: their vanilla frappucino, their Microsoft PowerPoint, and Steve and Beth’s nascent plans for a cool UW riot/kegger party/Christmas celebration, and they sang:

Frappucino to offer have I,
Caffeine and sugar my sacrifice,
Go go Godzilla, this drink’s got vanilla,
It’s certain to open your eyes.

PowerPoint I bring as my gift
I’ll surrender my slides so that others may live
Don’t just roar in frustration, do great presentations
And bring on a paradigm shift.

Born a King with fiery breath
He stomps on Steve and he stomps on Beth
Fuck O’Reilly but praise God highly
Godzilla brings fire and death.

And they lay their offerings before the great lizard, and said, “On this day is born one who will be King of the kaiju.”

And Godzilla moved on the water. There spread across Seattle a great tide of peace as the city lay down its burdens and submitted itself unto the King.

And what of Christmas?

Well, some say that the Christmas spirit is not directly tied to who wins a reader poll or whether Seattle is decorated in candy canes or footprints. Some say that it’s not about words or presents but about charity, hope, love, and the courage to honor even the meanest among us as equal to ourselves.

These people are being silly.

If they want that courage, they’re going to have to find it on their own. Godzilla totally pwned Christmas. It wasn’t even a contest.

Dispatches from the Age of Iron

GODZILLA
Destroy All Christmas
MELEE

Round 1!

Godzilla stomps on Seattle. CRUNCH!

Christmas stomps on Seattle. CRUNCH!

Interlude: Exposition!

Christmas manifests itself here as a large Christmas tree. It has two floating gloves for hands. There’s a blazing star on top. It has blinky lights for eyes.

This is only one body of Christmas: the kaiju body. But if Godzilla can destroy the kaiju, then Christmas cannot manifest again until the stars are right—December 25, 2005!

Round 2!

Christmas charges Godzilla. Christmas steps on a power up. SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS!

Christmas breathes the SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS on Godzilla!

Godzilla blocks!

Christmas breathes the SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS on Godzilla!

Godzilla falls over.

Christmas picks Godzilla up. Christmas spins Godzilla around. Christmas jumps into the air. A giant spiky metal ball, wrapped in wrapping paper and with a steel-fanged mouth, bursts up from the ground. It roars, “BROTHERLY LOVE CHRISTMAS SPIKY BALL PRESENT!” Christmas smashes Godzilla down onto the spiky metal ball.

Interlude: Exposition!

Godzilla is a large radioactive lizard. He breathes radioactive fire and hits things. He is an aspect of Shiva who fell to Earth in prehistoric times and now mostly sleeps in the ocean.

This is only one aspect of Shiva. But if Christmas can defeat Godzilla, then Shiva cannot destroy Seattle until the stars are right—December 25, 2005!

Round 3!

Godzilal roars!

Godzilla hits Christmas with his tail! Christmas staggers!

UFOs blast Christmas from above!

Christmas falls!

But is Christmas defeated? Or will it rise to crush Godzilla?

Exposition!

You can help save Christmas! Hold on to Christmas in your heart. Declare: “I know you can win, Christmas-sama!”

Or you can help save Godzilla! Hold on to Godzilla in your heart. Declare: “The power of a giant lizard knows no bounds!”

It’s going to take every one of you to decide this legendary battle! GO!

An Unclean Legacy: “How Elisabet Saved Christmas”

Once upon a time, Montechristien traveled to where his brother worked.

Montechristien leaned upon a heavy staff as he walked. Rain dripped through his thinning hair.

He pounded once, twice, thrice on the door of Baltasar’s tower.

And Baltasar answered.

“Brother,” said Montechristien. “I have come to beg.”

Baltasar sneered. “As you have always done.”

“I know what sorcery you plan to work,” said Montechristien. “I cannot let you do this thing. Please stop.”

Baltasar rose to his full height in anger. His teeth clenched. Lightning flashed.

“Gar-ga-mel?” he asked.

And Montechristien found himself fighting not to cringe, for all that years with Yseult have given him some strength.

“You plan to summon and bind the tripartite God,” Montechristien said. “It is madness.”

Baltasar turned aside, as if he did not object to Montechristien’s defiance. He gestured his brother inside.

“I told your woman,” said Baltasar, “that the two of us share a soul.”

Montechristien brushed the mud from his feet. He walked inside.

“I told her that it would do her no harm to sleep with me,” said Baltasar. “For when two men share a single soul, they share a single seed—and, in fact, that that seed is mine. So why refuse me? I asked. When you have borne me six children already?”

Montechristien held his face tight against anger.

“They are your children as well,” Montechristien agreed. “You should visit them.”

“She did not believe me,” said Baltasar. “She shouted, ‘I can’t have had your children! You’re weird old Baltasar!'”

Montechristien started to grin. But Baltasar’s eyes flashed and thunder boomed and the smile vanished from Montechristien’s face.

“Then she shouted, ‘Ack! Yagg! Igg! Ptui!’ and began to spit.”

“To . . . spit?”

“. . . I don’t understand why she thought it would help,” Baltasar confessed.

Montechristien nodded.

“So she hurt your pride.”

“She inspired me,” snapped Baltasar. “She showed me how low I have fallen—I, whom you once called your master! So I will redress this. You will have your pathetic golden eidolons. I will infuse myself with God!

“I could stop you,” said Montechristien.

“You won’t!” said Baltasar. Then he spun on Montechristien. He thrust out his palm. Montechristien, on ancient reflex, flung himself back into the corner and cowered.

From Baltasar’s outthrust hand a mandala of energy grew. Then seven more formed around it. Each touched the others; each orbited the others; each served as the center of the pattern. Among them were faces, wings, fires, jade, and gold.

“In truth,” laughed Baltasar, “I have waited only for your arrival. I have learned to manifest it, brother! The one pattern that can bind even God Himself—the Wheel of Enoch!

Montechristien feared his brother of old. But for Yseult’s sake, he marshaled his own powers.

He was too late.

Baltasar flung back his head. His eyes went white. There was a great wind before the throne in Heaven and the seraphim cried out. The sun and the stars and the planets froze in their procession. The whole world shook.

But Baltasar did not summon God.

From above him, below him, around him, from the center of the wheels, hands stretched for Baltasar, red and black and burning hands.

They seized him.

They clawed at him.

They carried him screaming away.

And three days later Montechristien returned to Castle Gargamel and said disconsolately to his wife, “Now I am damned.”

“Pookie—”

Yseult touched Montechristien’s hands, his arms, his face, but it took warmer measures to console him.

Thus did Montechristien and Yseult conceive the ninja, Elisabet.

We do not know how Montechristien Gargamel came into his power. His origins are a mystery. How such an ungainly, strange, and immoral man could rise so swiftly to prominence puzzles even the greatest scholars of our time. Of his life once established in Castle Gargamel, however, certain facts are known.

He took to wife the Lady Yseult Gargamel, one of the great beauties of his day; and though many a rival pressed for evidence that he’d bewitched or stolen her, none was ever found. They had and loved six children of their flesh, until the seventh, Elisabet, killed Yseult with the complications of her birth. Each of these children was a prodigy, possessed of astonishing talents. When at last Montechristien stumbled towards the grave, the talents of his children turned against their siblings, every hand against the other, until at last they could dispose of the matter of their legacy.

This is the seventeenth installment of the story of that time.

A magical reindeer flies down from the sky and lands before an fifteen-year-old Elisabet.

Its nose shines red.

It says, “Elisabet Gargamel?”

Elisabet has been practicing with her shuriken. She ceases, now. She turns, and fades into human shape. She smiles at the reindeer, charmed.

“Yes,” she says.

“You are needed at the North Pole. Christmas is in danger!”

“I am a ninja,” says Elisabet.

“Yes?”

“Please forgive me,” Elisabet says, with an unusual formality. “But I must explain that I cannot box presents or make toys or cure a sick Santa or see through fog. The duty of a ninja is to kill those who must be killed.”

The reindeer tilts its head to one side. “That is not exactly the Oriental tradition….”

Elisabet shrugs.

“Well,” says Santa’s reindeer, “in any case, there’s killing to be done.”

“Yay!” says Elisabet. “I can save Christmas!”

She looks around.

“And you don’t want Manfred? Or Tomas? Or anything?”

“I was sent for you.”

So Elisabet gets a wide smile and says, smugly, “Cool.”

“Come on,” says the reindeer.

So Elisabet gets on its back and rides the reindeer up into the sky.

An Unclean Legacy


How Elisabet Saved Christmas

“Why do you want me?” Elisabet asks, as she rides.

“You’re nice,” summarizes the reindeer.

“Wow,” says Elisabet. She blushes a little.

“There aren’t many supernaturally-effective killing machines on Santa’s nice list,” the reindeer explains.

“It’s because of the life,” Elisabet says.

“The life?”

“Daddy says that Yseult gave me all her leftover life when she died. That I’m more like her than anyone else. And she was really cool, although she wasn’t a supernatural killing machine.”

“She was on the nice list too,” the reindeer agrees.

Elisabet giggles.

“But she always tried to shake down Santa for coal instead of presents,” the reindeer reminisces. “She’d set traps for him, you know. He was too nimble! She couldn’t catch him.”

“Hee hee,” laughs Elisabet.

The reindeer is arcing down now into a land of snow and tinsel. The air is cold and Elisabet’s breath puffs out black. The great candy-cane marker for Santa’s workshop is ahead. But the reindeer does not land there. Instead, it lands on a field of ice nearly a mile and a half from the north pole.

Elisabet gets down.

“I don’t get to see Santa?”

“There’s no time,” the reindeer says. “The centipede is almost here.”

Elisabet looks to the west. She sees it there: a great hundred-legged monster, shrouded in shadows and in fire, eight feet wide and two hundred feet long.

“That?” she says.

“It is the child of a centipede and the Devil,” says the reindeer. “So naturally it wants to destroy Christmas. Each day, it comes for Santa, and we lose more lives holding it back.”

Elisabet steps away from the reindeer. She stands there on the ice, desolate and alone.

Her bangs blow in the wind.

“Is this the destiny of Christmas?” Elisabet asks.

Snow falls gently around her.

“Does even the innocence of the holidays draw to itself the sorrow and the pain of all this troubled world? Will there ever be love and peace that is not transient? Tinsel that is not stained with blood?”

Elisabet bows her head. She squeezes her eyes shut.

“I don’t know what to say,” the reindeer admits.

Elisabet sets her jaw. She opens her eyes. She puts her hands on her swords. She dissolves her human shape and becomes a thing of shadowy protoplasm.

“I am ready,” Elisabet says.

Then the air is hot and smoky. The centipede’s great head comes down towards her. But Elisabet has already leapt into the sky. A dozen blades wing from her hands and burrow into its flesh.

“Rowr!” shrieks the centipede, and it flails for her. It catches her with one great limb but Elisabet dissolves around its touch and leaves behind only a poisoned needle that numbs it.

The ice grows hot with their battle and turns to water. The tinsel-coated trees fall down. There is thunder and heat all across the northern wastes.

Hours pass.

The centipede strikes at Elisabet in the air. Elisabet twists with the unnatural dexterity of her shadowy form and catches the end of its limb. She drags it after her using a force-redirection technique. The centipede falls onto its back. It lands amidst the melt of their battle, and she stands on its chest and stares at it with creepy ninja eyes.

It stops moving. It is chilled by what it sees in her eyes.

Slowly its head sinks back beneath the water.

Let me go, it pleads.

It cannot move. It is drowning.

I will spare Christmas. I will live in peace. I will serve you.

Elisabet does not relent.

The centipede thrashes once, twice, three times, and then it dies.

And that’s how Elisabet saved Christmas!

Wasn’t that a heartwarming holiday tale?

Check back on Monday for the conclusion of Elisabet’s story: “Way of the Ninja!”

The Staff

Not related to Standing in the Storm, which continues tomorrow.

Sid and Max face off.

Sid sketches a pentagram with his foot. It’s just a scuff, but he’s got special Nike Pentagram Boots. They’re the best shoes in the world for drawing pentagrams. It only takes a scuff and the whole pentagram is right there.

“Nice,” says Max.

Sid’s pentagram is glowing now. It’s shining with white lines springing up from the earth. There are all kinds of cool little details, including a little Sid logo. It’s the only logo that markets 100% Sid!

“Isn’t it?” says Sid.

Max looks a little smug. He spreads his hands wide. Pillars of silver fire burst from the ground and surround him. There’s that annoying little angelic chorus that tends to sing when Max does his stuff.

The world shivers all around Max and pulsates with light.

The angels’ song reaches its crescendo, then falls to silence.

Sid sulks.

Sid snides, “Not as loud as usual.”

“Can’t bribe as many angels these days,” Max says.

Then Max laughs.

He sweeps his arms out from his trenchcoat.

Max invokes Snowstorm. “Snowstorm!”

Clouds gather over his head. The snow fairy manifests. Snowflakes begin to fall all around Max. Max pushes at the air and the snowstorm flows over and dumps snow on Sid.

Sid shakes snow out of his hair.

Max intones, in the voice of a magician at work, “Snow—harder!”

But Sid is ready. He has stepped back. He has drawn his sword. It’s a 21st-century sword, and it’s not very good, but it’s sharp enough for this. He pokes it right into the cloud.

“Ow!” says the snow fairy.

The clouds swirl around. They’re just a little bit red.

Sid says, “Don’t snow on me.”

The snow fairy is now uncertain which magician to listen to. It attempts to hedge its bets.

“Perhaps you’re not familiar with the benefits of snow,” it says. “There are many! It’s cold and white and Christmasy! You might like snow.”

But Sid scuffs the floor in that special way he has and there’s a dual pentagram. He invokes Double Thing. “Double Thing!”

It’s like a thing, but twice as much!

Half the thing scrunges upwards from the earth. Half the thing scrunges upwards from another part of the earth. The thing rumbles and shakes its hands around.

“That’s an earth thing,” judges Max, after staring at its bumpy surface for a bit.

“It’s twice the thing!” says Sid, proudly.

“I don’t want to fight,” says the double thing.

“You’re my ancillary in a magical duel,” Sid points out. “Now, stop the fairy from snowing on me harder, or we’ll both get chilly!”

The thing doesn’t want to get chilly, so it oscillates until the fairy is confused.

“Is it one thing? Is it two things?” the fairy asks, getting progressively dizzier as it tries to evaluate the situation. “No! One! Five! Seventeen! Eight!”

The fairy faints.

“That is not snowing harder,” says Max. After a moment, he adds, “That’s not even snowing smarter.

“It’s snowing lower,” the double thing points out.

“Now, double thing!” says Sid.

“Hm?”

“Attack!”

It looks at Sid. It hesitates. Then it looks speculatively at Max.

“I could stay out of this,” it says, to Max.

“I don’t want a double thing’s pity,” says Max. He’s drawing back. He’s readying himself to invoke Scrubbing Bubble. It’s the battle magic that never helps!

“It’s not pity,” says the double thing, in frustration. “It’s not having a stake in the conflict—”

But Max ignores the double thing. He even interrupts its sentence! He invokes Scrubbing Bubble. “Scrubbing Bubble!” The wind screams down from the sky. The world flares up with red and purple light. Scrubbing bubbles bubble up from the earth, scrubbing ominous contrails through the air. Max shoves the magic with his hands. The bubbles scrub closer to Sid and the double thing.

It doesn’t help.

In fact, the double thing thinks, as it attacks, it’s probably the opposite of helping.

The Ballad of Bushido Santa

One day, or so the story goes, Bushido Santa meets the God-Defying Lightbringing Yama King on the bridge up from Hell.

“Out of my way, kiddo,” says the Defier.

He’s kind of jovial, but his smile’s got teeth.

“Excuse me,” says Bushido Santa. “But I cannot allow you to pass. If you travel this route you will trouble the Earth and bring all measure of sorrows.”

“That’s true,” says the Yama King. “It’s my nature.”

“Please, sir,” says Bushido Santa. “You must stay below for now.”

The bridge is golden and there is a surf like white flowers. There are shining fish in the water and there are cherry blossom trees.

And Bushido Santa meets the Defier’s eyes and each of them, very slowly, puts his hand down to his sword.

(Except, of course, that Bushido Santa does not have a sword. He has a candy cane. But it is very large and, for a candy cane, surprisingly sharp.)

The Defier licks his lips.

Something passes between them, in their eyes.

“If you do this,” says the Defier, “you will die, and then the children of the world won’t have any Christmas presents.”

“That is as it must be,” says Bushido Santa.

So they move. They rush past one another, the sword and the candy cane moving too fast for the eye to see. Each of them stops at the end of their motion. Each of them waits, in stance.

Slowly, Bushido Santa falls.

“Heh,” snorts the God-Defying Lightbringing Yama King.

Bushido Santa hits the bridge with a thump. His mouth is slack, and from it trickles blood.

The God-Defying Lightbringing Yama King salutes.

Then he pauses.

He frowns.

He rubs at his chest, where his kimono is marked by a smear of candy-cane sugar. He sniffs at his fingers.

“I’m full of Christmas spirit,” says the Defier, in a tone of sick horror.

So that’s why, every year, presents still find their way to the children of the world, even though Bushido Santa is dead.

At least, that’s what most people say.

Some say it wasn’t the God-Defying Yama King on that bridge at all, but God.

Some say it was the monster.

And some say that that isn’t what really happened at all; but rather something far more strange and wonderful.

Naughty

It is always Christmas in the Neonorth Santarchy.

Reindeer dance in the sky. Snow falls gentle as a dream. There are lights and there is candy and Sam walks down the public street.

Santarchy: Government by the nice. Typified by the belief that everyone should be good every year. Most Santarchies devolve into benevolent dictatorships, with a neoSanta or Santarch operating as head of state “in Santa’s name.”

“Hey, kid,” says a beggar in the door. “Spare a chestnut?”

Sam searches his pockets. Then he shakes his head. “No chestnuts, no sugar plums, not even any cotton candy. But you can have some of my ration, mister.”

“That’s kind of you,” says the beggar. He holds up his Christmas bell. It scans Sam once, and a small red light turns green. “That’s very kind.”

“Merry Christmas,” says Sam.

“Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas to everybody!” says the beggar.

The beggar takes a swig of his Christmas rum. He leans back in the door and he watches the snow fall.

Santa’s Eye gleams.

Santa’s Eyes: the tripod structures used by the Santarchy of the Neonorth to monitor residents. Each structure supports a mechanical eyeball. The eyeball sees when people are sleeping. It observes when they are awake. It recognizes actions as bad or good and informs the central bureaucracy accordingly.

Sam is almost home when his Christmas bell beeps.

“Please turn left,” grates the speaker in the bell.

Sam turns left. He realizes which way he’s going and his heart grows kind of cold. “It’s not my turn already,” he says, “is it?”

“Please continue forward,” grates the speaker.

“What am I going to have to do?”

“Termination necessary for the good of the state,” says Sam’s Christmas bell. “Merry Christmas!”

Sam gulps. But he walks forward. Soon he’s standing by the Old Christmas Gallows.

“Mr. Sanders,” Sam says, wretchedly.

“It’s okay, boy,” says Mr. Sanders. He’s an old man with a thatch of gray hair and a fire in his eyes. “I know what I done and I got no regrets.”

Mr. Sanders is standing on the gallows with the rope around his neck.

“But . . .”

There’s one of Santa’s Eyes behind the Old Christmas Gallows. Its voice is white static and sleighbells.

“Please read the charges,” says Santa’s Eye.

Jill is standing by the Gallows. She’s a young girl in a gingham dress. She’s holding the list of charges, and she looks frightened, just like Sam.

“Cosive—coris—corrosive infulence,” she says. “Seventeen counts. Leckery, two counts.”

“Only two?” says Mr. Sanders. He laughs. “Santa’s not watching me real good.”

Jill hesitates.

“Continue,” whispers the voice of Santa’s Eye.

“Murder—” Jill stops. “Murder?

Jill stares at Mr. Sanders in horror.

Mr. Sanders looks down.

Jill gulps. She looks back at the charges.

“Murder of a reppesenative of the state,” Jill reads. “One count. The defendant’s been judged and sentenced and his sentence will now be carried out.”

“Sam,” says Santa’s Eye. “It is necessary for you to pull the lever and execute Mr. Sanders.”

Sam walks forward. He reaches several times for the lever. He hesitates.

Mr. Sanders’ cheer fades away as he watches. There is despair growing in his face. “Don’t,” Mr. Sanders says. “Don’t, Sam.”

“Sam,” says Santa’s Eye. “It is necessary for you to pull the lever and execute Mr. Sanders. It is not suitable for the conduct of a society that dissidents and murderers should go free. It is not suitable that society should pay the cost of maintaining their lives. It is not suitable that Mr. Sanders, having been found guilty, should survive.”

“But it is nice,” protests Sam.

“If you do not pull the lever,” says Santa’s Eye, “then you will do harm.”

Sam closes his eyes.

“Sam, no!” says Mr. Sanders.

Sam pulls the lever.

Santa’s Eye burns a dim and flickery red.

“Naughtiness recorded,” it says.

Santa’s Duty: the burden of cruelty necessary to a functional society. The Neonorth Santarchy calls a boy or girl to perform “Santa’s Duty” when they have been so good that year that they can do so while remaining on the Nice List. Those insufficient in virtue or excessive in vice are disqualified from civic service.

Sam stumbles as he walks away.

“I killed him,” Sam says. “I killed him. I killed Mr. Sanders. He kicked his feet like a chicken.”

Peter watches.

“‘Oy, kid,” says Peter.

“Hm?”

Peter’s a rough-cut kind of man in a black leather coat. He’s got a sack on his shoulder and pockets full of coal.

Sam turns. He looks up. He looks in Peter’s eyes.

“Wow, mister,” Sam says. “Your eyes are like portals to the void.”

Peter’s mouth twitches, revealing a bit of his sharp pointed teeth.

“You shouldn’t be hanging people,” Peter says. “Good little boys don’t hang people.”

Sam shuffles his feet a little. “Technically, I’m still a good little boy,” he says. “I mean, Santa’s probably going to bring me a super-transformer and stuff this year. And a puppy. And maybe a sandwich-making set for my clockwork toaster. Because I’ve been nice the rest of the time. I even did my homework!”

“I see,” says Peter. “That’s very good, isn’t it?”

The things in Peter’s sack seethe.

“It’s very very good,” says Sam. “I got a B plus! And I gave some of my ration to the beggar. That’s why—that’s why—”

Suddenly Sam’s eyes are very hurt and he’s sitting down.

“Like a chicken,” he says.

“Suffer and twist, little boy,” says Peter. “Suffer and twist. But all your guilt won’t save you from me.”

Peter takes a lump of coal out of his pocket. He weighs it in his hand, then tosses it at Sam’s feet.

“Do you know what day it is, Sam?” Peter asks.

“Dunno,” says Sam. “Tuesday?”

“It’s Christmas, Sam,” Peter says. “And if you keep going on this path, then when next Christmas comes along, I’m going to come along, and I’m going to put you in this sack, with the rats. And if you’re lucky, you’ll wind up like me, with pointy ears and pointy teeth and pockets full of coal. And if you’re not—why, then, the rats will eat your fingers and they’ll eat your eyes and then they’ll scurry up your nose and eat your brain, just like they did to the last kid I took.”

“It’s always Christmas in the Neonorth Santarchy,” says Sam.

Peter hesitates.

“It’s December 25th, Sam,” Peter says.

“Oh!”

Sam processes this data for a moment. Then he picks up the lump of coal. “I never got a present from someone who wasn’t Santa before,” he says. He turns the lump over in his hands. “If I squeeze it really hard, it turns into a diamond, right?”

Peter doesn’t answer. He just snorts, and turns his back on Sam, and quietly he walks away.

After a while Sam begins to cry. He sits there, rocking, with the coal held to his chest, until hours later he is too much alone to stay.

Ration: the money of the Neonorth Santarchy is backed by naughtiness. The Santarchy treats people with a lot of ration as very naughty, and does not call on them for Santa’s Duty. As the civics teachers explain, to share your naughtiness ration is Nice; to hoard your naughtiness ration is Naughty; and in this respect, like a scant few others, the opinions of the Santarchy coincide with Santa’s own.

It is Christmas every day in Neonorth City, in the Neonorth Santarchy, under the great guiding candy cane of truth.

Sam does his homework and he does his chores. He helps out when people need help. He tries to keep enough ration that he won’t be called on for Santa’s Duty again.

And one day he looks in his four-paned window at the gentle snow, and he says, “I don’t like this any more. I want to be naughty today.”

He cries, because he is a good-hearted boy, and does not know how.

And then a marvelous, wicked thought occurs.

Sam blows on his window. He blows on it until it mists. With his finger, he writes, “Black Peter, Black Peter,” backwards in the pane.

Then he puts on his pajamas with booties, and takes his teddy bear down off the shelf, and he turns off all the lights, and he goes to bed.

There’s a rattling in the chimney that night, and a fierce wind shakes Sam’s house, and he wakes up to see a shape looming over his bed.

“What do you want, boy?” Peter asks.

Sam sits up. He looks defiant.

“I want to be naughty,” Sam says. “Tell me how to be naughty.”

“But Sam,” says Peter, mockingly. “You were doing so well. You ate all your lima beans tonight. You kissed your little sister’s scraped knee and made it better. You even got an A on your pop quiz!”

“Tell me how.”

Peter snorts.

“Come with me, then,” Peter says.

So Peter walks out into the yard. Sam runs after him in his pajamas with booties, carrying his teddy bear and looking as wicked as he can.

Peter walks through the snow. He looks at a neighbor’s snowman.

“Push off its head,” Peter says.

So Sam turns to the snowman and with a great shove pushes off its head.

Peter walks on.

“Throw a rock in that window,” Peter says.

“A rock?”

Peter sighs. He takes a lump of coal out of his pocket. He hands it to Sam. Sam hurls it through the window. Crash! Spun-sugar tinkles to the floor inside.

Peter walks along.

Peter reaches one of Santa’s Eyes.

“Tear it down,” Peter says.

So Sam leaps on it, like a wild thing, and the teddy bear is left behind him, and he claws at the stone surface, and he smashes at the orb that is its eye.

Santa’s Eye gleams. Its voice is snow and homefires, and it says, “What are you doing, Sam?”

“I want you to die!” Sam shrieks. “I want you to die like Mr. Sanders!”

And it feels to Sam like there is a sack around him, as he struggles with the Eye; and there are rats writhing all around him on the warm winter night; and the reindeer overhead are lost in darkness; and Sam’s eyes grow sharper, and his ears grow points, and his teeth are feral sharp things; and he is lean and strange and terrible when he at last rises from the ruins of the Eye with its blood on his hands; and he turns to Peter, then, and he says, “I am yours.”