The man in the red suit tightened his black belt another notch. He was going to have to punch some new holes in it soon. He was no longer fat enough for the uniform. It had been a gift from a close friend, a long time ago. He hadn’t been jolly for longer than he could remember.
The man in the red suit looked up into the silver eyes of the sidhe. Its long pointed ears were rotated towards him, waiting for an answer.
The elf cleared his throat. “We are approaching completion of the charms. We’ll need you ready to fly at nightfall.”
“Already?” He’d never gotten used to how tall the sidhe were. All of the books about his workshop had underestimated the stature of the sidhe by at least six feet.
The elf glanced down at his feet. “Yes.”
“It’s all right, my friend. We knew this was coming.” The man in the red suit placed a hand on the elf’s shoulder.
The elf, whose name was Danan, shrugged his hand away. “We know every year. This year is different. The enemy is stirring.”
“You say that every year. And we really need a better name for them.” The man in the red suit straightened the jacket under the belt. He remembered the day the suit had changed colour from dusky grey to red. They’d all celebrated, sure that now they would be safe. He didn’t remember the night well, but he was sure he’d seen more of one of the sidhe noblewomen than he normally did. He smiled at the memory.
Danan led him down to the factory. Even though no one in the industrialised world would have recognized it as such, it was definitely a factory. The sidhe chanted around great fires, infusing each of the gifts with warmth and light. Every gift was slightly different, but they all shone. He thought it was a shame none of the children ever got to see the invisible gifts, but some rules even he didn’t get to break.
In the centre of the factory, jutting out of snow covered ground, was a single fir tree. It had no business growing there, but it had been there as long as the man in the red suit could remember.
It had been such a long time since he’d come to the pole, unsure if he’d been punished or rewarded. He’d packed the memory of that arrival in a back corner of his mind where it couldn’t hurt him, but he remembered the tree. He would have had a hard time forgetting it; it had broken his fall. For years afterward, he’d thought himself alone, but the sidhe had been watching him. Waiting to see what the newcomer would do.
He’d never been sure why he made the first charm. His hands had just seemed to know what to do, weaving the tiny angel out of nothingness, and then placing it at the top of the tree. He’d stepped back to admire his handiwork and trodden on the foot of the first of the sidhe that had come to talk to him. He’d just about swallowed his tongue.
The man in the red suit looked back at a muscled sidhe who was just about buried in the shining gifts.
“I found another one.” Shan tossed something that looked very much like one of the gifts to the man in the red suit.
It was roughly square, like the gifts. It shone with warmth and light, like the gifts. But it wasn’t a gift. The man in the red suit could feel what it really was, squirming like a maggot under the veneer. “They never stop trying, do they?” He considered it for a moment longer. “Burn it.”
“Will do.” Shan caught the parcel as it winged its way back to him. He was wearing heavy gloves and held the false gift like a dirty diaper.
The man in the red suit checked the entire factory, inspecting each of the holy fires and trying to talk to the sidhe that kept them burning. They were always polite, always answered his questions, and he never walked away from them knowing more than he did when he started. Just the way he liked it.
He lingered a little at Lamara’s fire. She was almost as old as the man in the red suit. She wore her age like expensive make up, and she shone even amongst others of her kind. He liked Lamara. She didn’t seem to feel the need to talk to him, and he never had to stop her from bringing up the past.
The man in the red suit left the sleigh until last. It was a strange quirk of the deals he’d made that sometimes things worked backwards, and the beliefs he needed to sustain him also shaped him. He wanted to find the person who’d demanded reindeer and sleigh bells and punch them in the eye. Reindeer look cute on postcards, but up close, they were dangerous.
He found Helios the smith hammering one of the reindeer’s shoes in the forge. The shoe glowed blue in the heat from the sidhe’s fire. Sparks flew off it with every strike of the hammer. The hammer was supposed to be made from enchanted silver alloy from a forgotten elven mine, but the man in the red suit knew it was made from steel, because he’d stolen it from a hardware store in Alaska. He watched as the shoe sucked the sparks back into itself. Much as he hated the reindeer, he loved the shoes.
Helios broke his rhythm of hammer strikes. “Sleigh’s ready,” he said, without looking up.
“Anything new this year?” Two years before, a man in a bowtie and a fez had appeared in the factory six days before the sleigh was needed. The man in the red suit wasn’t quite sure what the stranger had been bolting to the sleigh, but strange people showed up to help keep the sleigh flying all the time. The first one to arrive, a frizzy-haired Englishman, had very nearly gotten himself killed when he was found tinkering with the sleigh. He’d given the man in the red suit a lecture on quantum physics that made perfect sense at the time and disappeared from under sidhe guard without a trace. It had happened four years in a row, before the man in the red suit gave up trying to keep one of the strangers long enough to get any information out of them. The sleigh kept flying, and no one had died.
Helios shook his head. “Not this year. I’ll keep an ear out, though.” The sidhe pulled his mask back down and went back to work on the reindeer shoe.
A memory spiked him behind his eyes. It was rarer as he got older, but they still crept up on him sometimes. The man in the red suit closed his eyes. He could remember a feeling like being spun around in a clothes dryer and a deep, sick sense of anger. He knew he could remember the rest if he wanted to; he could dig up the memories that sat in the blank spot in his mind, but he didn’t want to. Instead he pushed the feeling away into the part of his mind where he kept everything he didn’t need anymore. All he needed were the elves and the sleigh and the gifts; that was all that mattered.
He left himself enough memory to get by. Always just enough.
He was still thinking about it when he sat in the sleigh, watching the clocks. A large part of what he had to do was time critical. The clocks didn’t count seconds so much as they counted people. One of the odd men who serviced the sleigh had tried to explain it to him, and afterwards, the man in the red suit had needed a stiff drink and a lie down.
The sidhe had strapped down the enormous red sack of gifts. The man in the red suit, if he strained his ears, could hear the very faintest hum of the sidhes’ magic inside them.
Danan stepped into the passenger’s seat, rearranging his weapons so he could sit down comfortably. He nodded at the other sidhe. It was traditional that one of them accompanied the man in the red suit as a helper, although the word bodyguard might have been more appropriate.
The reindeer had been firmly tied to the sleigh by a byzantine network of reins, bridles, and silver wire. One of them looked back at the passenger compartment and snorted at him. He stared it down, until it turned away again.
One of the clocks made a noise, and there was a sudden feeling of immense pressure. The man in the red suit gripped the edges of the sleigh, as they were catapulted out of the workshop and into the world. He always closed his eyes on the trip between, but even then, he could feel the workshop in his mind, getting smaller and less real as he got closer to the earth.
The sleigh stopped dead at their first destination, a tiny hut at the bottom of the world. It was so snowed in that they only found the place by its chimney, a short pipe sticking out of the snow. Some further investigation revealed a well-dug path down to the front door.
The man in the red suit reached out for the door handle. He didn’t worry about locks. The suit came with few perks, but no lock would ever stand against him.
The hut was warm and almost totally empty. There was a skeleton crew of eight staffed at the research base, and every one of them got a charm—even the man who was still, in technical terms, awake.
He was sitting at a fold-out kitchen table, resting his head on his arm. His other hand had just knocked a bottle of Jack Daniels off the table. The bottle hung an inch off the ground, trailing a solid amber stream behind it.
The man in the red suit left the gift just in front of the man’s head, and he waited while it melted away into its surroundings.
“One down,” said Danan from the doorway, as the man in the red suit drew another of the tiny parcels from the sack.
“Don’t start with me.” Counting never helped. The job would be done when it was done, in two hundred years or one one-hundredth of a millisecond, depending on how you looked at it.
They moved on, shifting from house to house, visiting everyone. Young and old, the faithful and the faithless. The gift was for everyone, whether they wanted it or not.
The time between the seconds was utterly still. Even the air seemed heavy, like water to walk through. Time itself hadn’t stopped completely, but it was so close that even the quality of the light was different, casting everything in a blue hue and freeze-framing everything in sight. So the man in the red suit was surprised to find a tall man in a pinstriped suit smoking a cigarette in the bedroom of an elderly woman in Canada.
The man breathed out a ring of smoke and called the man in the red suit by his real name.
“I don’t go by that anymore.” He ignored the stir of memory the name brought up and focused on the situation at hand.
He held up a hand to stop Danan from stepping between them.
“Ah, yes. Santa. Someone’s idea of a joke?” The man took another drag of his cigarette. He smiled, letting the smoke roll out of his nostrils. ”We need to talk.”
“Do we?” The man in the red suit very slowly placed the gift at the foot of the woman’s bed. This one vanished with a flash, perhaps reacting to the cigarette man’s presence. He could feel the gift settling into the woodwork, taking over just as the gift from the year before faded into nothingness.
“We hoped that there could be an arrangement.” The cigarette man’s voice was many voices coalesced into one.
“Your punishment need not be forever. Help us just a little, and we can free you from your bondage.”
“No. No deals. Not with you.” The man in the red suit moved on to the next bedroom, stopping to drain a glass of sherry that had been left out for him. He was going to need to make a deal with someone to encourage the world to leave out fine scotch instead of cheap sherry.
“Ironic, all things considered.” The cigarette man stepped out of shadow by the bed. He’d never admit it, but it galled the man in the red suit that the cigarette man didn’t need a sleigh. He just stepped wherever he wanted to go.
The cigarette man leaned over the occupant of the bed, a tiny girl with a teddy bear under one arm and a smear of illicit chocolate across one cheek. “They hate you, you know.”
“Doesn’t matter.” The man in the red suit let the charm sink into the teddy bear. The gift sparked and shone as it woke.
One of the sparks flickered out towards the cigarette man. He sidestepped it, allowing it to sink into the floor.
They moved on throughout the world. In every room, the cigarette man challenged the man in the red suit. And the man in the red suit refused to bite. He lost track of how many times he’d said no throughout the endless trip.
And, suddenly, it was time for the last house, which was an igloo. He always stood outside the last house for a moment, wishing he could go on delivering just a few more of the precious gifts to his friends, but the sidhe weren’t people, and they didn’t get gifts.
The cigarette-smoking man stepped out of the shadow cast by the igloo. He straightened out his jacket and smiled. “Last chance. Your actions have upset some very powerful…people.” He held out an unlit cigarette to the man in the red suit. “Take this. Please. Even I don’t want to destroy you.”
The man in the red suit considered the cigarette. It seemed to carry weight, bending the universe around it. If he lit it, breathed it in, he would be the one doing the bending.
The cigarette seemed more real than anything in the room. And he wanted it; despite all it represented, he wanted to reach out and take it.
The man in the red suit tore his eyes away and focused all his will on the cigarette man. “No,” he croaked. “No now, and no forever.” He touched Danan’s shoulder. It was the briefest of signals, but it was enough.
The sidhe loved weapons. They still fought each other with swords and knives and bows, but the twentieth century had added a few more toys for them to play with. Danan had a pistol in his hand so quickly, it seemed as if it had always been there. There was a retort that echoed through the time-stilled air.
The cigarette man looked at the hole that had appeared in his chest. The igloo was visible through the other side, coated in black ichor. Something writhed in the hole, and it closed up.
“Cute,” said the cigarette man. Then he killed Danan with a single blow, so hard the sidhe was almost ripped in half. Danan’s body twitched twice then faded into the snow.
The man in the red suit was already running for the sleigh, tears streaking his face. He heard the cigarette man walking after him, if walking was the right word.
The reindeer stomped and snorted as he approached, leaping the last few feet just as something closed around his wrist. He could see the cigarette man’s hand gripping him, but he could feel a monstrous tentacle digging its tiny saw teeth into his skin.
He tried to yank his arm away, but the cigarette man clamped down harder.
“Did you think this was going to end well?” The cigarette man opened his mouth, and his tongue lashed out like a knife, ripping a gash into the man in the red suit’s cheek.
A memory forced its way through to the man in the red suit, of a time before the sleigh. A memory of strength. The blow that came from his other hand would not have impressed a boxer; there was no style to it, no finesse, but it hit so hard that the cigarette man’s skull crunched under his palm. The man in the red suit heard something massive scream with the cigarette man’s mouth, and his wrist was suddenly free.
The sleigh had no button, and the reindeer recognised no spoken command. They just knew the man in the red suit needed to be somewhere else.
He felt a wave of pressure wash over him, and he slipped between worlds with his eyes open. He saw the massive seething vortex as it washed through him. He saw the world and the workshop and a billion other universes joined by the vortex, all at once.
But there was something else.
A hole in the vortex. Something was breaking in from outside, and he could feel as much as see an awful chittering darkness flowing down towards his workshop.
He was ahead of the invasion but only just. He had to warn the sidhe of what was coming. He urged the sleigh on faster, as he fell as much as flew towards the pocket universe in which the workshop existed.
The sidhe knew he was coming back. They always knew. A small group of them met him the moment the sleigh landed.
“Something’s wrong. The charms…” The first sidhe was new, barely a century old and just coming into her power.
“They aren’t working.” Lamara was there, pale and stooped with exhaustion. “We’ve tried everything.”
“I know,” said the man in the red suit. He could still feel the vortex behind his eyes and with it the sick, cold blackness skittering ever closer.
He felt them coming to his workshop, to the tree.
Lamara spoke before he could. “If they take the tree, then everything else is for nothing. They can reach out from here to anywhere else.”
The man in the red suit looked around at the gathered sidhe. There didn’t seem to be as many around as he remembered, but the ones that were there bristled with weapons or crackled with energy.
He felt sick to his stomach as the darkness reached out towards them. A voice in the back of his head whined at him that he was only Santa Claus; it wasn’t his job to fight. Another voice, an older voice from the pit of a sleepless night, spoke, too. That’s not all you are.
The young sidhe who’d spoken when he’d arrived approached him, her eyes cast at her feet. “Danan?” Her voice was even, controlled.
“I’m sorry.” It didn’t seem like enough, but it was all he had.
She nodded and looked up at him. Her eyes had gone black, but bright blue sparks burned in their centers. “They’re here.”
It wasn’t a battle; it was a mugging of cosmic proportions. A rip appeared in the air at the far end of the workshop, and things poured through. Writhing, pulsing bundles of razor sharp tentacles and gibbering mouths. Sick green magic flashed out in great columns of fire that smashed sidhe warriors off their feet and turned the snow black.
They want the workshop as a beachhead, the man in the red suit thought to himself as he groped for a weapon, any weapon. Lamara was right. If the enemy wins here, they can win everywhere. He saw the sidhe in question rip a lightning bolt through one of the monsters and, screaming, throw its remains back at the hordes boiling out of the tear in space.
The man in the red suit didn’t see the cigarette man appear beside him, but he knew he was there. He tried to move, but his arms were frozen to his side. The voices in his head screamed at him as he tried to prize the lid off the memories he’d kept hidden away, but he’d kept them from himself for too long, and they wouldn’t come when he called them.
“You should have thrown in with us,” said the cigarette man. He smiled and glanced at Lamara. The air compressed around her, and she dropped sideways into the snow, blood running from her eyes and ears. “I told you, it wouldn’t end well.” He hit the man in the red suit, hard enough to break his ribs, then tossed him next to the dead sidhe like a sack of garbage.
The man in the red suit reached over to touch Lamara’s face. He wanted to tell her he was sorry, but it wouldn’t come. Instead, the man in the red suit rolled onto his stomach, trying to stifle the scream in his throat and crawled towards the tree. He could see the cigarette man draw balls of shadow around his fists and lay about him, scattering the remaining sidhe.
“Are you watching this, Santa? You’re going to love this.” The cigarette man lifted the blacksmith off the ground by his throat. The sidhe’s legs kicked at the air as the cigarette man swelled in size. He began chanting, low and urgent. The air burned around his words, and the blacksmith twitched in his grip.
There was a sound of tearing metal, and the rip in the air opened wider. Something pressed at the other side. “I want you to meet a friend of mine,” said the cigarette man. “He’s been waiting a long time to meet you.”
The lurker on the other side of the rip smashed itself against the barrier, shaking the entire workshop.
The man in the red suit kept crawling, but the tree seemed so far away. He saw bright red drops of blood sizzling in the snow in front of him, and he knew he would never make it as far as the trunk, let alone dig in the hard packed ice for his weapon. The tree was still beautiful, shining with its own charms, topped with an angel looking down at the hell on the ground.
“Hey, Santa. I told you to watch.” The cigarette man’s voice had become something else again, something with too many mouths.
But the man in the red suit wasn’t looking at the cigarette man. He was looking at the top of the tree, at the angel shining like a beacon. He saw the angel’s wings, and suddenly, he couldn’t keep the memories from flowing back.
He remembered falling, and he remembered burning with pride and shame as he fell. He remembered the sword. He remembered himself.
The Lightbringer stood and called the sword to him. It appeared in his hand as though it had always been there. As he looked at it, fire sprang along its edges.
He remembered this life, too. He remembered his friends among the humans and sidhe. He remembered old women and little girls. Little boys who believed in Father Christmas. The red suit burned against his skin, and he felt the great wings that had always been there tear their way out into the cold air.
He turned and faced the nightmare that had been the cigarette man, and for the first time in far too long, he smiled.
The thing cringed back away from him, one of its many mouths opening. “You cannot hope to win the day here. You cannot fight a god, Lightbringer.” It dropped the sidhe smith’s broken body and backed towards the rip in the air. Around them, the fighting had stopped. Every being on the snow was watching them. “You are Santa Claus,” the thing shrieked at him. “You are nothing but a fantasy the humans thought up on a dark night. You are nothing to us!”
“Pleased to meet you,” said the man in the red suit. He held the sword before him like a talisman and drove the things back towards the rip. The things fought him, but his will was stronger. He stepped past the body of the fallen smith. The memories he’d suppressed mingled with the ones he’d left himself. He remembered that the smith had been the first to give him food when he’d arrived at the workshop. He let the anger that bubbled up in his gut flow through him, let it burn the last of the red suit away from his skin.
The Lightbringer stepped forwards towards the darkness. He saw the lattice of charms around the world, how they linked into the vortex. He saw them dim as the monsters closed in on the planet. He saw the remaining sidhe huddled together. He had taken up the sword to fight, but that was not what the sword was for.
The creatures were huddled together round the tear in the air, some of them mewling for the lurker to save them. He charged them all down, using his wings to lift him off the ground as he bore down on the invaders.
The thing that had been the cigarette man tried to fight him, to wrap its thousand arms around him, but the Lightbringer didn’t want a duel. He hit the threshold between his world and the vortex and, reversing his grip on the sword, turned and looked back through the hole in the universe at his old workshop. Then he plunged the sword through his own chest.
Light burst forth from the wound and flowed out into the network of charms he had placed around the world. The shield burned with it, and he felt the creatures that pressed in on the world burn away into nothing, felt himself flow out of the angel’s body and become one with the billions of gifts around the world.
He wasn’t worried about the red suit. The world would provide another, better Santa Claus soon enough. He’d just been keeping it warm for them.
With his last gift given, the Lightbringer was gone.