Story by Author Igor Ljubncic
Illustration by Cesar Valtierra
The investigator frowned, his expression one of well-practiced skepticism. “That’s a Dutch name.”
“That it is,” Nicholas said, pulling a deep smoke.
“You don’t look Dutch, you don’t sound Dutch.”
Nicholas blew the smoke at the policeman. “I’m from Aruba, officer.”
“Aruba, is it?”
“Yes. A small island. If you struggle with geography, I can help you find it on a map.”
The officer rubbed his lower lip irritably. “I’m Blake. I’m here to help you.”
Nicholas tapped the ashes onto the table. He didn’t bother with the plastic cup-cum-tray. “Then let me go.”
“First, you will tell me what you were doing in that house.”
Nicholas pinched his nose with sooty fingers, smudged from his nighttime work. He was tired. He was in pain. And every second that passed, the danger to him only grew bigger. “I told your colleagues. I was bringing gifts.”
Blake snorted, a wet fleck exploding from his nose. “Oh, were you? What irony. And here we are arresting you for burglary.”
Nicholas tried to keep his tone patient. “You do not understand.”
Blake smiled. “Enlighten me.”
“You will not believe my story, regardless of what I tell you, Officer Blake.”
“Look…Nicholas.” A practiced glance down at the notes, as if he had already forgotten the name; as if the suspect was already becoming an insignificant detail in a boring report. Nicholas would have been impressed if he did not have five centuries of hard life behind him. “This is your one chance to help yourself. Once I walk out of this door—”
“—you will not be able to help me. I know. You cannot help me. The only way to help me is to let me go my way.”
Blake inhaled deeply, squeaking; one of his nostrils clogged. “Why did you break into that house?”
Nicholas extinguished the cigarette into the cup this time. The smell of burned plastic filled the small cell. “I had to.”
“It was the only way to get in. There was no chimney.”
“Yes, to deliver the presents.”
Nicholas tried to remember. His head hurt. “The boy had asked for a bicycle.”
Blake chuckled. “Oh, I see now. You’re telling me you’re not just a common thief. In fact, you’re Santa Claus!”
Nicholas lit a fresh cigarette. “That is it, Officer Blake. I had hoped you would have discerned it from my name.”
To his credit, the policeman was silent for a while. “You are…African American.”
“That’s one way of putting it. I’m mostly Arawak. But I can excuse your ignorance on account of bad lighting. And the soot on my skin.”
“You are wearing flip-flops.”
“What do you expect me to wear? I come from Aruba.”
The officer buried his face in his hands. He might have muttered the word insane. Very unprofessional, Nicholas thought, but then, he had four and a half centuries of life experience on the lad, and he couldn’t quite blame him for losing it that quickly.
“I told you. You will not believe my story.”
Nicholas knew what kind of image he projected – a dark-skinned, squat man with frizzled white hair and a long, disheveled beard, wearing a red Santa’s hat, a red jacket, red shorts, and distinctly red flip-flops. He was covered in grime and his clothes were torn from the fight earlier. In the best case, he looked like a crazy homeless guy who had crashed through the balcony window into a respected family’s home in the middle of the night.
The odds were not in his favor, and the police were the least of his worries.
And just as he feared, Blake’s expression turned playful. It meant the officer thought he truly was insane, so he was at least going to try to enjoy the interrogation.
“Isn’t it early for you to be delivering gifts, Nicholas? It’s only late October.”
“It is. But this year, it’s different.”
Blake shuffled the papers randomly, no longer caring. “Oh. Of course. Why so?”
Nicholas decided to answer because he had nothing better to do. He might as well share his fears. “It’s the only way to make him come out of his hiding.”
“Of course. Where is your sled, Nicholas? What happened to your reindeer?”
Nicholas blew the smoke toward the ceiling. “I don’t have a sled, Officer Blake. Or deer.”
“And why not?”
“Have you seen any deer in the Caribbean?”
Blake leaned forward. “Who is Count Hackelberg?”
Nicholas blew smoke in the officer’s face, making him blind temporarily. “A hunter.”
“Whom is he hunting?”
“Me. My kind.”
“To break the spell.”
“Until he completes the hunt, he cannot rest.”
The policeman was silent for a moment, then he chuckled. “You know, for a moment there, I almost believed you. I have to admit, it’s a pretty convincing story. You play the insane card, we ship you to a hospital, and in three months, you’re out.”
Nicholas did not share the joke. “If you don’t let me out now, there won’t be any three months. There won’t be a tomorrow.”
“Oh, it’s that serious.”
“It is very serious.”
“Tomorrow is Halloween, go figure!”
Nicholas squashed the cigarette against the tabletop. “Mockery doesn’t suit you, officer. Tomorrow, the boundary between the worlds thins. The count will try to free the ice giants. If he succeeds, the world will plunge into cold and darkness. I am the only one who can stop him.”
“Santa, is that so?”
Nicholas decided to stop talking. It was useless. He just stared at the officer until the man looked away, uncomfortable.
“I think we are done here,” Blake said, his voice reedy. “I’m sorry you chose this charade. I will recommend a psychological eva—”
The lights went out.
Nicholas could hear the officer gasp. A second later, the emergency lighting bloomed, bringing back a weak green color to the interrogation room. Blake was sitting at the edge of his chair, looking distressed, probably hoping he had his pistol with him. The little evidence camera had stopped recording.
“He is here.”
Blake twitched. His expression was no longer jovial, confident. He looked afraid. “Keep quiet, please,” he whispered. “Eddie is everything all right out there?” he tried raising his voice, but it came out pinched and nasal.
There was no answer from outside the interrogation cell.
“Let me go, Officer Blake.”
“Put your hands on the table and do not move.”
Nicholas complied, slowly. Every moment that passed just made things worse. These fools had no idea what was happening.
“For tens of thousands of years, the Valdemars have been hunting. On the night of Yule, they come, and anyone who stands in their path becomes trapped in the hunt, unable to die. We, who fought and defeated the ice giants, ride out, countering their magic with our magic, trying to save the souls. The gifts are shields, to protect children who would invite the night into their homes. We cannot save them all, but every soul counts.”
“Keep quiet, I warn you.”
“Count Hackelberg was trapped the same day the elves found me. We never thought he would become such a ferocious, cunning opponent. He was like no other before him. He was…evil. He shattered the balance between our sides. He started hunting us.”
“You’re mad. Eddie!”
“Let us hope your colleague has left the building in time. I would suggest you do the same. Right now.”
Something must have finally swayed the policeman. He nodded weakly and walked to the door. It had a small panel on the side, so the officer could punch in the emergency code and leave if they needed.
“It won’t work,” Nicholas said with more patience than he should. “Use the key in your pocket.”
Complying dumbly, Officer Blake unlocked the door. He peered out into the corridor. There was no sound from the other side.
“What now?” the policeman whispered.
“Just leave. Don’t stop, don’t look back. And do not even think of going for your pistol. Flee.” Nicholas rose and approached the door. He put his smudged fingers on the handle, so it wouldn’t close and trap him. “Go.”
The terrified investigator slipped into the murky corridor.
Nicholas steadied his breath. There was no reason why he should fear or hesitate. He had been waging this battle for four centuries. He had watched thousands of his kind perish, killed by the count.
He was the only one left.
If Nicholas died tonight, Count Hackelberg would free the giants. He would break the spell of his own undeath and become the overlord of the Valdemars. And this time, the ice age would last forever.
Hesitation would achieve nothing.
He stepped out.
He looked down at his feet. If I need to run, flip-flops aren’t really the ideal choice.
Nicholas wondered where he should go. Out, into the street? Or stay here? He felt nervous yet resolute waiting for the count. On one hand, he had tried to avoid this encounter for a good few hundreds of years. On the other, he had baited the nobleman, forced him to show himself.
Except…they were not meant to meet until tomorrow.
If one were to defeat the other, the Night of Dead Saints was the time for a reckoning.
Nicholas decided to stay in the building.
It was getting cold and frosty. Nicholas hated the cold.
The building was empty, the police force, all gone. Nicholas could only guess what the count had done to them. Officer Blake was probably the only one to have survived, by sheer luck of being locked in that cigarette-stenched interrogation room.
It didn’t matter. If Nicholas lost, the deaths of a few dozen men and women would mean little in the upcoming ice age. And if he defeated the count, none would be the wiser.
“Show yourself,” Nicholas spoke into the eerie emergency-lit corridor.
The uneven stride of someone with a bad foot; someone mangled by a tusk through the groin. Someone who had worn old riding boots with rusted metal plating for hundreds of years.
Nicholas shivered. The walls were slick with condensation, like the insides of a fridge. The oily white paint was bubbling with cold drops. Soon, the floor was all wet and slippery, and ice was biting at his toes.
“Santa,” the German said, his voice thick, throaty.
Count Hackelberg was standing on the far side of a hallway, his ancient coat almost falling apart. Old crusted blood, half-torn patches, frayed seams, holes in the coarse fabric made by rodents and mold. Hardly the look of a wealthy nobleman. But he was found dying on a trail in a forest, covered in gore and leaves and regrets, drunk and insane with pain, howling madly, desperately.
Still, you could see threads of gold, and the big shiny gorget that had taken a dent from a boar, kept him alive for long enough for the Hunt to find him. His hair was curly, growing from the back of his head. A face from ancient portraits, chiseled, scarred, hard.
“You have broken the rules,” the count added and started walking again, coming closer. His hand rested on the hilt of the big sword at his hip.
“Just following your lead, Count,” Nicholas said.
“You wanted to trick me.” The undead noble almost sounded indignant.
“Merely trying to even out the odds.” Nicholas stepped back.
“You wanted to summon them!” Hackleberg accused, furious.
“Only befitting given what your plan is.” Nicholas rounded a corner.
The count limped forward. He was leering, a mouth full of crooked teeth. “Let it end, Santa. You cannot win. I promise you a swift death.”
“I will not let you free the giants,” Nicholas bumped into a coat hanger.
“You don’t know the pain,” the count said, his voice turning sour. “The limp. The agony in my hip. Do you know what it’s like to be gored by a wild animal, to have your own guts fester in the cold mud as you await the moment of your death, welcoming the reprieve from the pain? To be eaten by maggots, to be pecked by crows, then to be found and promised an eternity of madness. Four hundred years of pain, Santa. Tomorrow it ends.”
Nicholas shrugged. “We defeated you once. We will do it again.”
The count laughed. “We? There’s no one left. Just you. Your kind is all dead.”
Which is why we should have met tomorrow and played out this ancient battle, Nicholas thought. But he had been arrested. Kept locked for long enough to let the count find him. Before he could have fully prepared for the duel. Before he could spring all his traps.
The police might be pleased they had stopped a little burglary.
They would never really know they might have doomed the world.
He wasn’t angry with them.
“It is time, Santa,” Count Hackelberg said, drawing his sword. It was the one piece of him that gleamed and shone, spotless, sharp, without a notch or a scratch down its perfect gray length.
Nicholas reached into his red jacket. Children asked for all sorts of gifts—few asked for weapons. Colored pencils were hardly a substitute for a decent blade, but a tight bundle could possibly be lethal. Nicholas slid the pencils behind his back and waited.
Cursing in Old Saxon, the count charged. It wasn’t a graceful attack. The noble had the posture and finesse of someone mortally injured, but the blow was imbued with the magic of the Hunt, honed with madness, fury and four centuries of determination.
Before his un-death, the count had been an expert swordsman. The blade cut through the wall with ease. Nicholas was rolling away, fast and nimble and barefoot, leaving his beachwear behind. He had four hundred years of cold survival in his limbs.
“Coward!” the count shrieked, wielding again. The sword tore through the plaster. “Face me!”
Nicholas was standing again, a safe distance from the count. He pushed his hat down harder so it wouldn’t tumble. He was wet with icy water, dripping, distracted. “You are slow,” he riled his opponent.
Growling, the German attacked a third time. Nicholas evaded the quick stroke followed by an even faster, more furious back cut. Nicholas ducked and rolled, unharmed. He could probably evade the count indefinitely. Or at least until he lost his footing or made a mistake. So far, he had not gotten a chance to get inside the count’s sword reach and try to stab him with the pencils.
“You were always a coward,” the count fumed, breathing heavily, one lung rasping from a puncture.
“Put the sword down, and you will see.”
“I will cut your head and mount it on my pommel!”
Nicholas moved the pencils from one palm to another, wiped the sweat on his jacket—or at least tried to. The oily soot and the cold water made his grip slippery.
Count Hackelberg lunged forward, clumsy, livid, sword flashing. Nicholas dived under the count’s arm and stabbed, colorful cores shattering against a back plate. It was an old piece, but still good enough to stop pencils from doing any damage.
The Valdemar spun wildly, and the elbow connected. Nicholas stumbled; dizzy. His cheekbone was on fire. But he had no time to blink his tears out. He dodged on instinct, the blade whizzing a hair’s breadth above him.
Nicholas realized he might never win this fight, magicking fresh pencils from inside his pocket. He was loath to waste his spells like this, but he had no choice. The count was much more powerful than him. Over the years, he had stolen the lives of countless elves. The police station, the missing staff, the fierce chill, it was all his doing. And he didn’t seem any worse for that.
“Santa, you will die today.”
Coming from behind the counter was Officer Blake, armed with an electric shocker. He seemed to be shivering, from fear and cold, but he was moving silently, and the undead nobleman had not noticed him.
The officer touched the weapon to the count’s rusty gorget.
It did nothing, of course.
Count Hackelberg turned, surprised to see a human attack him. Outraged, he lashed, and the officer went flying like a doll, hitting the wall with a loud crack of plaster—and hopefully not bones.
The Valdemar grunted with satisfaction.
Then he grunted with another surprise.
Then with pain.
Nicholas edged away, leaving the bundle of colored pencils buried in the nobleman’s chest. He couldn’t die from a sword or a bullet guided by a human hand, but he was vulnerable to the magic of his kind, and that of his mortal enemies.
Nicholas had never intended to kill. It wasn’t in his nature.
But he couldn’t let the count win. Couldn’t let the world end.
Gasping for breath, the German fell hard on his bottom, a clumsy, indignant gesture. He sat there on the wet floor, legs extended, slumped forward; staring with morbid shock at the rainbow swath buried in his chest. He muttered something unintelligible.
Then, he toppled sideways, and his four-century-old curse was over.
— ♦♦♦ —
Nicholas walked past the dead nobleman without a backward glance and knelt by the motionless officer.
Luckily, he was alive.
Nicholas laid a gentle hand on the man’s back.
“What…” the officer whispered as he came about.
“Thank you,” Nicholas said.
“My arm. I cannot feel my arm,” Officer Blake moaned, trying to get up. His shocker-wielding arm was blue to the elbow. The icy touch of magic was going to hurt for a long time.
Nicholas helped the policeman sit upright. He still looked stunned, and cold, but there was a deep injury. “That was very foolish of you. Very brave. You have me in your debt, officer.”
The investigator was silent for a while. “Was that really—”
“And you really are—”
“That does not make sense,” Officer Blake protested feebly.
“It does not have to. Just accept it.”
“Santa Claus is a myth. A fable. A distraction created to delight little children.”
Nicholas closed his eyes. “To keep their hearts pure.” Because the alternative was grim.
Blake rubbed his neck. “Where…are all my colleagues? Are they…dead?”
Nicholas glanced at the dead noble. Within an hour, the magic would fully dissipate, and no one would ever know what happened in the station. They would blame the flooding on a burst pipe, the cold on a broken heating system, the wall damage on careless handymen. Anything that made sense in the world of people who did not think faeries and elves existed.
“If they were trapped by the count, they will probably find themselves in strange places, with no memory of how they had left this building.” Probably cold and hungry and disoriented, and with strange dreams of beautiful yet cruel places that existed between the worlds. The Valdemars could not have claimed their souls. It was not the time for the Hunt yet.
Officer Blake frowned. “So, you are the only one left?”
Nicholas patted the man’s shoulder. “Yes. But there will be others. Maybe this year, a curious soul will call me—and join me.”
The count was fading away, becoming a shadow. “What happens tomorrow, Santa?”
“Nothing. Count Hackelberg is dead. The world need not fear him anymore.”
“But…what if someone else tries to…free the ice giants?”
“Then I will have to stop them again.”
The policeman did not look convinced. Or relieved. “All on your own?”
Nicholas shrugged. “If needs be.”
“I don’t understand. Why wait for them to try it again? Why not preempt their moves?”
“Because, Office Blake, you cannot fathom the minds of the immortals. Why risk everything now, when there is always the next year, the century, the next millennium. There will always be time to fight the old battle. We had an understanding, and it was Count Hackelberg who destroyed the balance. He changed everything. But they never tried to stop him, when he broke the rules—and they never tried to stop me when I did the same. You cannot comprehend it.”
“I think I do,” the policeman said without conviction, looking worried.
“You should not think about it. Let it be.”
The officer looked up. “Come Christmas, what do I tell my son?”
Nicholas smiled. “Nothing. You let him have his magic.”
Blake managed to crack a smile. “And let you deliver your presents, Santa?”
“Yes.” Nicholas rolled his eyes. “Do you live in a modern house?”
“Indeed. No chimneys, I’m afraid.”
“Then on the Yule night, leave one of your doors or windows open.”
Blake turned serious. “I will. I promise.”
Nicholas gave the policeman a last pat on the shoulder; the human didn’t even know Nicholas had used magic to heal his fractured ribs. “I must leave now. I must go back to my…place.”
Officer Blake carefully stood up, looking stiff, his motions slow, ginger, fragile, gently trying to smooth creases in his wet clothes. The warmth was slowly creeping back into the police station.
Nicholas was already walking away.
The policeman was trying to flex his numb arm. “My son would—”
Nicholas chortled. “A puppy.”
Officer Blake nodded. “Yes. Thank you. Take care, Santa.”
Nicholas waved, bent down, picked up his red flip-flops, and was gone.
— ♦♦♦ —
Through the ages a war had raged on, unseen by mortal men. Celestial beings fought each other and fought for the souls of mortals. Follow one such battle. Not all battles are fought with swords.