The comfortably warm air in the room made Tommy stir slightly. Something soft and fluffy was propped under his head something warm and cozy shrouded around him kept him from stretching as he groggily regained consciousness. He heard faint voices that got louder as he came to his sense.
He heard a male’s voice first, “Good, his body temperature is rising. You brought him in just in time. Any longer in that freezing cold, he’d become the first human popsicle in Burzee.”
“I’m glad we practiced our flyin’ on the valley’s edge, even though Konani whined the whole damn time,” A young female voice chimed in.
“You really think this boy escaped from the coal mines? In his nearly weakened condition, I’m amazed how he managed to survive through the Wicked Woods and up into Sorina Mountains.”
“I’ve heard the conditions the kids live in those mines. Even if I was blind and had one leg, I’d still find a way to get out of that hell hole. But the kid didn’t have that long of a trek. the demon we saw tryin’ to get him said he stowed away in his cart.”
“Then how’d he get over here? I don’t think the demon would’ve just kindly dropped him off here.”
“From the looks of things, I think the demon saw him and made an emergency landing in Sorina Mountains and chased him off from there, and that’s when we saw him fall in the snow and that walkin’ molded bile pile trudgin’ up to him.”
“The poor thing.” Tommy could feel a presence hovering over him, “He’s real lucky. Jack Frost would’ve had a feast. Would’ve nipped off his nose, fingers, toes and all."
“Speakin’ of eatin’, the kid’s awful scrawny. Have anythin’ we can give him so he doesn’t pass before our eyes?”
“Yes, when he wakes up. We’ll start him off with some liquids. Gertie is brewin’ some broth and tea for the little tyke.” The presence moved away from him and he relaxed a little, “Is something wrong, Iris? You look like you’re thinking pretty hard.”
“You think somethin’ happened over there?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, here’s this kid, who almost got away scot-free from those jinx-forsaken coal mines, and it’s been quiet since we got him here. I think somethin’s wrong. He’s not gonna let kids get off that easy.”
“You think he might charge on over here?”
“He probably will. Keep an eye on the kid. I’m gettin’ the others over here.”
Tommy heard the male let out a soft affirmative noise, a door close, then very soft fading footsteps. He opened one eye cautiously. After his vision adjusted, the room he was in looked similar to a patient’s hospital room. He had to squirm around to wiggled out the many layered of cotton padded blankets wrapped him.
“Need some help there?” Tommy looked around but saw no one. There was a soft humming noise as the top part of the bed reclined, helping him sit up comfortably.
He heard the voice again coming from his right, “There, is that better? Glad to see that you’ve awakened, young man. You gave us quite a scare there.”
He saw a large human-shaped shadow sitting at a desk scribbling something down from behind the curtain. He hoped it was just the light source too close to the person making him look big. He tensed and grabbed at the blankets, thinking it was an imp from the coal mines and it was preparing to rip the curtains back and reveal its horrible, demonic face.
When the scribbling stopped, the figure disappeared. Tommy flinched and clenched his eyes shut when the curtains were pulled back. Nothing happened at first except for the sound of a soft electric puttering. It got him to open his eyes and saw then a man, possibly in his mid-50s wearing a doctor’s coat, rising up to his bedside holding a clipboard. What threw Tommy off was the man very, very short and had pointy ears.
Despite his stare, the small man smiled at him. “Glad to see you all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Sure didn’t look like that when they carried you in,” He chuckled softly.
Tommy didn’t know what to say. First he escaped from a coal mine, then from a hell-ish castle and the underground kingdom it ruled, hitched a ride from a man with a melting face, now he had woken up in a hospital staring at a doctor standing about the same height as he was, though with his wrinkles hinted.
The man waved a hand in front of his face, “Don’t overload your brain, son. I’m sure you have a lot of questions, but I’d think you’ll feel better if you asked those questions to the appropriate people.”
“A-Appropriate?” Tommy grabbed his neck. An uncomfortable itch scratched at his throat after he spoke. He spoke softer, “Where am I?”
The man quickly looked away and everywhere but at Tommy. “Where are you? Uh--uh...” He stuttered a bit but came to an answer with a smile, “Why, you’re here.”
“Where’s here?” Tommy asked, a rasping sound muffling his voice.
“Where we happen to be at the time.” The doctor chuckled nervously. He quickly dodged another question listening to Tommy’s voice, “It’s better if you don’t talk until the nurse gets here. We got something on the way that will fix that right up. ”
“Here I am, doctor!” The door open but again Tommy didn’t see anything. He had to lean forward to watch a little lady, matching the height of the doctor, stroll in carrying a tray with a medicine bottle, a few packets of plastic-wrapped cough drops, and a covered plate. She disappeared from view when she got closer to the bed, “Sorry for being late, Doctor Beero. With it gettin’ closer to the deadline, everyone’s runnin’ around like reindeer being chased by a abominable snowman.”
The short doctor nodded, “I understand, Gertie. It’s alright. Just set the tray over here.”
Tommy heard soft clinking sounds. “Is there anything else you need, Doctor?” Gertie asked kindly.
“Nothing else, Gertie. Go get some rest. I think the Angels and I can handle it from here.” He said, “Although, just in case, you might need to prepare one of the padded rooms later.”
Tommy’s thought back when the doctor said ‘angels’. He did see figures with wings, two standing over him and the third confronting the ogre before passing out. The doctor looked at Tommy as the tray floated up next to the bed. He clutched the blankets hard and let out choked sobs, tears streaming down his cheeks. The doctor panicked a bit, “Are you hurting somewhere else?”
Tommy took a couple of deep breaths and wiped his eyes with his arm. “Am I----Am I dead?” He managed to force out of his swollen throat.
The doctor said nothing at first then spoke softly, “No son, you’re not dead. Far from it, really. But I will say this,” Tommy looked at the little doctor and saw him smiling gently handing him a box of tissues, “The place you’re in is unlike any place on Earth.”
Tommy felt a little better hearing that he wasn’t dead but still confused from the last part he said. After drying his eyes, the doctor set the tray on his lap. He lifted the lid and stared into a bowl of steaming hot chicken broth and a small cup of peppermint tea. The doctor gently urged him to eat and drink as much as he could. The soup and tea felt soothing going down his aching throat and he slowly felt his strength coming back to him.
“Now for the hard part.” The doctor said as he opened the medicine bottle. He poured the thick liquid contents in a small medicine cup and offered it to Tommy. The first thing that hit him was the awful smell and he flinched away.
“I know, I know son. It’s so potent it’ll make you well within a few days, but only if you can get past the stink. I do anything I can to keep from getting sick, just so I don’t have to take it myself.” He set the cup on the tray, “I’m not gonna force you to take it right now, but you’ll have to take it sometime if you want that cold to go away.”
They both turned when they heard the door open. A girl with long reddish-orange hair peeked in. Her light blue eyes brightened and her subtle freckles spread across her face when she grinned. “The dead has arisen!” She said walking in.
“Well that was fast, Iris.” The doctor said.
“It’s not so big of a place now that I’ve got this place memorized, Beero,” The girl said.
The doctor chuckled, “Now that you’ve said that, you can’t use that excuse about losing your way and ‘suddenly finding yourself in the bar’.”
“I could always go with ‘the beer smelt so good from here’.” She walked over to Tommy’s bedside, “So how’s our survivor?” She towered over him standing next to the doctor and her ears weren’t pointed.
“He’s developed a bad cold. Not surprising after you found him in the snow with practically nothing on,” The doctor replied. “After soup, medicine, and plenty of rest, he should be feeling well in no time. We got soup and rest covered, but the medicine. . .”
Iris cringed, “Oh I know it. I’ve seen how they make it. I think the Knooks lost their sense of smell because the roots and fruits to make it smell twice as bad. This should help though.” She reached into her pants pockets and pulled out a white packet.
“Sugar?” The doctor blinked.
“You know how the song goes? It actually works. Give it a try,” Iris handed the sugar packet to Tommy.
He was still unsure. The uncomfortable ache in his throat convinced him otherwise. He opened the packet and coated his tongue with sugar, then grabbed the medicine cup, took a deep breath, and chugged it down. Holding his breath, he didn’t taste it but the thick mixture felt similar to castor oil. He shuddered after feeling it go down his throat.
“And he still lives!” Iris joked when he placed the cup back on the tray, “Ya must have nine lives in ya.”
Tommy felt even better getting it over with. The sugar did its part on making horrible taste disappear.
There was a soft knock on the door. “If it’s you two, then come in and meet this kid. He took the Knooks’ elixir and is still breathin’!” Iris exclaimed.
The door opened. The first one to peek in was a small male, probably between four-foot-five or five foot tall, with short, straight hair and brown eyes. “Is he alright?” he asked, revealing his French accent.
He nearly stumbled to the floor as he was was rudely pushed into the room. “Would you go in already? The kid’s human, not an Krampling,” Behind him stood a taller male with a bronze tan, fierce hazel eyes, and his dark brown hair styled in a crew cut.
“Don’t make Renard another patient, Konani,” Iris said watching the short male scoot to the other side of Tommy’s bed.
The doctor glared at him, “Hang that temper of yours out the door, Konani. This patient doesn’t need to be exposed to any of your negativity.”
The tall male leaned against the wall by the door, “Whose angry? I’m just prepared for the inevitable is all.”
Tommy said nothing looking around at these strangers.
Iris could read his face. “Okay, lets get the introductions out of the way. My name is Iris,” She gently took Tommy’s hand and shook it, “The little guy on the other side of ya is Renard. Don’t be fooled by his size. He’s fifteen years old and he’ll let you know it.”
The boy waved shyly at Tommy. Iris pointed to the taller male, “And this big grouch is Konani. Don’t mind him. He hadn’t had his nap yet. And you’ve met Doctor Beero, and you’re so lucky to have him treat you. He’s one of the best doctors here.”
Beero held his head blushing, “Iris, don’t brag. My head is already bigger than it needs to be.”
It made the three chuckle and Tommy smiled a little. “But enough about us, what about you?” Iris asked, “What’s your name, boyo?”
“Tommy. Tommy Lightfoot,.” His voice was still raspy but clearer than before.
“Nice to know ya, Tommy. I wish we could’ve met in a situation other than this, but it was lucky we found you when we did or-” Iris stopped before going on.
“Or what?” Tommy saw everyone, but Konani who stood with his eyes closed and arms crossed, with an uncomfortable look on their faces.
“Or you would have frozen to death.” Renard said quickly.
Tommy felt like everyone in the room was holding a big secret, and he didn’t like it. “What’s going on?” He said, “Where am I? How’d I get here?”
Iris rubbed behind her neck, “We’d be glad to tell you where you are and what’s going on, Tommy. It’s just...trying to figure out how to tell you.”
“You can’t just tell me?” He asked.
“Oui, but telling you where you are, you may not believe us.” Renard said.
Tommy glared at Renard, “Why not?”
Konani chimed in bluntly, “You’re at the North Pole.”
Iris and Renard flinched.
“The Nor--The North Pole...” Tommy nearly jumped from under the pile of blankets, “Antarctica?!”
Dr. Beero corrected him, “Actually you’re thinking of the South Pole, which is at the bottom of the Earth. The North Pole is at the top, which is where we are.”
Tommy sat silent for a moment.
Konani chuckled softly, “I knew he wouldn’t believe us.”
“That’s no shock.” Iris glared at him, “We’re still trying to believe it ourselves.”
“W--Wait. If I’m at the North Pole,” Tommy stuttered, “How’d I get here in the first place?”
Iris and Renard looked away again. Konani’s pose didn’t change.
“I don’t know if you want us to tell you that, boyo,” Iris replied.
Tommy slammed his hands on the bed, “What will you tell me?!”
“Iris, let me take it from here,” Beero said.
Iris fiddled with her fingers.
The small doctor cleared his throat, “Tommy, you’re young but you look smart. Tell me this. Do you remember, other than polar bears and seals, who else resides in the North Pole?”
Tommy nodded, “Santa Claus, but-”
Beero cut him off, “Well young man, what if I told you that you’re in the hospital of Claus’ village and his castle is near here?”
Iris and Renard looked on nervously. Tommy stared at the small doctor for awhile, then he fell back in bed laughing loudly.
“Just because you think I’m a kid, you think I’m stupid, right? The North Pole, where 'Santa' lives.” He pointed at Beero, “Next thing you’re gonna tell me is that you're one of Santa’s elves, right?”
“As a matter of fact, young man, that I am. One out of eight-hundred thousand and counting. But instead of studying in the craft of toy-making, I studied to become a doctor to help heal the overworked elves or sickly children,” Beero replied calmly
Tommy thought they were still playing along, “If you’re trying to make me feel better, it worked. Only now my throat hurts even more from laughing.”
“We’re not surprised that you don’t believe us, Tommy.” Iris said.
“Of course I don’t believe you. Maybe if I was five years old again. But my sister, she’s the one who still believes-” Tommy jerked up and his jaw dropped.
Dr. Beero nearly fell off the floating platform from his sudden movement, “What’s the matter now?”
“Zoe!!!” He looked around frantically and started to hyperventilate, “Is she here?! Is she in another room?!”
“Wait wait, whose Zoe?” Iris asked.
“My twin sister!” blurted Tommy.
“Was she wit’ you?” She quickly asked. Iris was afraid they had left another kid behind in the cold.
“No no, she--it was like a nightmare.” He grabbed his head trying to remember, “I remember getting out a coal mine and I was in someone’s kitchen, and I saw her! She looked weird. Her eyes were purple and her skin was gray and cold. And she didn’t say anything when I spoke to her. She just looked at me and she wouldn’t move. I tried to pick her up but she was too heavy, like she had tons of bricks in her pockets.”
Iris and Renard looked at each other sadly. Dr. Beero stayed silent with his head bowed and eyes closed.
Tommy squirmed until he was able to get his feet out from under the layers of blankets. “I have to find her!” He flopped face-first in bed as soon as he stood on his weakened legs.
He crawled to the end board while Iris, Renard, and Dr. Beero begged him to lay back down. A shadow loomed over him. He looked up and saw Konani glaring down at him.
“I bet you think that all that you saw was a bad dream, right?” Konani said to him, “But let me ask you something and see if I’m on point. When you escaped from the coal mines and I bet you saw some freaky things. An underground kingdom with a a big-ass rock spire as a castle, people who weren’t people, purple skies, purple dirt, black grass. And this should hit the last nail in the coffin, little guys about as short as the doc there that looked like evil goats walking on their hind legs and had long tails.”
Tommy’s face grew pale. The hissing cockroaches crawling all over him, the imps that chased him all through out the castle, the zombified children, and the way his sister’s discolored skin felt when he grabbed her hands. “That wasn’t a nightmare,” whispered Tommy.
“Them’s the breaks, kid.” Konani replied.
Iris and Renard helped Tommy back in bed. The sights, smells, and touches were still fresh in his mind, something that usually goes away after he wakes up from a bad dream.
Dr. Beero shooed Iris, Renard and Konani out the room. “Let’s let him rest,” He said quietly, “Gertie and I will keep an eye on him and we’ll let you know how he’s progressing.” He followed them out the room, gently closing the door behind him.
Tommy didn’t remember falling asleep. He was back in the coal mines again. It was empty except for the massive mound of coal shaped like a tall, spiral mountain. He looked up and saw Zoe standing at the top of it with her dead eyes on him. He mouthed out something to her but no voice came out. He hurriedly climbed up the tower of coal. It stood firm and strong as he climbed and pulled himself up on ledges.
Zoe was still there when he reached the top. He ran to her with arms wide open and a big smile. As he got closer, a shadow behind her grew bigger and taller until it became a monstrous, muscle-bound being with large, curled horns sprouting from its head and glowing red eyes.
Tommy skidded to a stop, cowering at the horned shadow monster. It swooped its arms down and grabbed Zoe in its grasp tightly, bellowing out a deep, evil laugh. Without thinking, Tommy angrily charged at it. Next thing he knew he was dodging the monster’s giant hooves as it tried to stomp him. He crawled out from under only to have the monster grab him in his other hand.
It squeezed Tommy as he lifted him up to his eyes and leered at him. Tommy winced and squirmed in its grip. He peered out the corner of his eyes. Still with her deadpan expression, a single tear dropped from his sister’s eye and she reached out to him with a shaky arm. Tommy’s insides were shaken as the monster flung his arm back and then threw him out of his claws. The world around him was covered in darkness and the entire ground had turned into a bottomless pit. He let out a soundless scream as he fell, watching as the monster and Zoe got smaller the deeper he fell until they were no longer in his sights. Only the monster's laugh got louder as he plunged into pitch-black darkness.
He jolted up out of deep sleep, gasping for air. He was still in bed in the hospital room with the lights dimmed down.
“Nightmare?” Tommy turned wide-eyed and saw Iris sitting in a chair next to his bed. She said, “I came to check on ya and ya were fightin' in yer sleep.”
Tommy stared up at the ceiling. So much was going through his head. He didn’t know how to feel, other than guilt for leaving Zoe behind in it.
Iris gently broke the silence, “Tommy, was it? I know this ain’t easy to swallow, but I want you to know two things: yer not insane and you’re among friends. There’s nothing to worry about.”
Her presence gave him some comfort along with her words that flowed nice with her Irish accent. “Beero said that ya asked him if ya were dead.” She said, “Can I ask what made you think that?”
Tommy coughed a little. His throat wasn’t hurting as much as before. He responded, “I thought I saw angels saving me from that monster.”
“Angels?” Iris watched him nod, “What made ya think they were angels?”
“They had wings.” Tommy stretched out his arms and slowly waved them up and down, “Big ones. I saw them on their backs.”
She smiled, “Ya got sharp eyes on ya, Tommy. Though you’re alive, ya did see angels.” She stood up and reached into her shirt. She pulled out a necklace pendant and grabbed it. Tommy was blinded by a bright flash. He held his arm over his eyes until it died down.
“Notice anything different?” Iris stood with her arms behind her. Tommy had to squint to see large, clear fairy wings that shimmered gentle colors of orange, white, and green with each soft flap. “How’d you do that?” Tommy couldn’t look away, his mouth wide opening seeing the wings fluttering behind her back.
“I think instead of telling you, I’d better show you around first and have ya meet my friends. Then maybe, things will be a bit easier for you to understand.” She set a short stack of neatly folded clothes in his lap, “Put these on. We don’t want ya catchin’ cold.”
She pulled the curtains around his bed. Her wings instantly faded away as she turned the chair around, the back to the curtains, and sat down, “Tommy, what yer gonna see, this place and the people in it, do exist. When I take ya around the place, there’s gonna be a lot to see. Don’t try to fight in what ya don’t believe, otherwise your brain will overload and Dr. Beero can only do so much for you if that happened.”
She heard the shuffling stop. She turned hearing the rings rattling on the curtain rod. Tommy sat on the bed wearing a thick green hoodie, black snow pants, thick white winter gloves, and white and gray sneakers. “Well don’t ya look grand. Certainly better than the child labor uniform you were in earlier. How do they feel on ya? Too snug? Too roomy?”
Tommy smiled admiring his new clothes, “Just right.”
“Great! Nunile sewed and knitted those from scratch for you, and in record time too. You can thank her for them later.” She asked, “You feel up to standin’?”
“I think so.” Iris folded the rail down. Tommy slipped off the bed holding onto the edge as both feet landed on the floor. He wobbled a little as he walked forward.
Iris giggled, “Like a fawn takin’ its first steps. How cute.”
Tommy glowered at her but didn’t leave her side as they walked out the room. The hallway was adorned with red and green paper chains, blinking Christmas lights, and green leafy wreaths. They walked by more elves, who gasped and did double-takes as Tommy passed by them.
“Dr. Beero, one of your patients is checking out,” Iris said as they walked up to the reception desk.
Beero rushed out his office from behind the desk. “I didn’t clear him yet! He’s still not well,” He said.
She moved aside showing Tommy standing on his feet in his new clothes, “He’s standin’ alright, and this after taking to Knooks elixir.” Those in the nearby waiting room cringed and shuddered hearing ‘Knooks elixir’. Iris continued, “I’m jus’ takin’ him for a walk around the place.”
“If he goes out in that cold air, his illness could get worse,” argued Beero.
“And if he stays cooped up in bed, he’ll get bedsores.” Iris replied, “C’mon Beero, lighten up a li’l. He’s in good hands. All he needs is to tell me that he’s feelin’ shook and I’ll fly him back.”
Beero still didn’t think it was a good idea, but he couldn’t say ‘no’ to Iris’ honest and pleading smile. He tugged up on the front of Tommy’s hoodie so that his mouth was covered, “Bundle up as best as you can, Tommy. You need to stay as warm as possible.”
Tommy waved to him as he followed Iris out the door. He winced when an arctic breeze greeted him along with loud noises from the crowd of elves running frantically across the smooth stone tiles of the large town square, shops and buildings lining the tall curved rock walls. Iris stretched her arms wide, “Welcome to Aldenburgh Village Square.”
“This is Santa’s place?” Tommy asked.
“Nah, these are the elves villages,” Iris pointed to to the downward stone stairs to their right, then to the stone stairwell ahead that seemed to turn and twist up forever to the mountain top, “Eldon Valley is down there. And up the stairs is Aldengard. It's right under Nic's place."
Iris answered, "That's our nickname for Claus."
Tommy looked up at the mountain with round-ish, smooth-topped mountain, "So where's his castle?"
He squinted as Iris pointed up high where bright, golden lights blared on the side of the mountain. He could see the front of the castle sticking out of it being supported on gigantic columns.
She held onto Tommy’s hand as they walked through busy crowds, "It's not gonna come to us. Let's go.”
Tommy stared at the stairs heading up into the mountain nervously. They went on forever. Even if he was at 100%, he didn't think he would make it.
Iris chuckled, "Don't worry, boyo. We're not taking' the stairs, at least not yet."
"Are you gonna fly us up there?” He asked.
“Nah, we’re gonna go the easy route and take the train,” Iris said.
“Train?” Tommy watched Iris head to a rectangular cavern opening with soft blue lighting across from the hospital. Without turning around, she waved a finger motioning for him to follow.
They descended into the dim tunnel on a down escalator onto a concrete platform below. Tommy peered over the short plexiglass fencing that kept from taking a fatal step onto the electric tracks in the deep drop in front.
A female’s voice rang out from the speaker on the ceiling, “Train now arriving to Eldon Station. Train now arriving to Eldon Station. Please step away from the fence.”
Just as Tommy stood back, the hood over his head was blown back as a rapid blur zipped in front of him, kicking up chilly wind. The plexiglass fence lowered in to slots as the red and black APM slowed to a complete stop.
A lone elf sitting on a bench gave a friendly smile and wave to Iris when she stepped on, which she returned, and did a double-take seeing Tommy step with her. “We made it before late night shift,” Iris said as she took a seat at the end of the train, “Otherwise it’d be crazy crowded in here.”
“Wait! Wait for us!” Two small elf girls leaped over the rising fence and squeezed through the doors before they closed. Before Tommy could get a good look at them, he was flung back as the train took off, exiting the dark tunnel and zipping over a winding trestle.
“Sorry Tommy, meant to warn ya about the train’s take-off. Your neck still attached to ya?” Tommy nodded, then Iris turned her attention to the girls, “And shouldn’t you two be in bed by now? I bet your parents are having a fit right now.”
The first elf girl spoke excited, “Who can sleep with all this going on? Everyone’s much running around. There’s too much energy is in the air!”
“And we heard there’s a human boy in town. We’ve never seen one up close before,” The second girl beamed.
Tommy sat up as the elf girls bounced up to them. They were identical, except for how they were dressed. One had a red vest over her green dress and her blonde hair was tied up tight in a braided bun and the other hand a green vest over her red dress and her blonde hair was tied in two ponytails.
“Don’t panic, Tommy. They’re harmless. Mostly,” Iris said as the twin elf girls looked over him, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, “Meet Stella and Stello. La & Lo for short.”
He shook their hands, that were almost a half size smaller than his, and they giggled. “He’s so cute.” La said.
“And big.” Lo commented. “Adult elves are at least your size.”
“Do you know how he got here?” La asked.
Iris said, “Not yet. We’re gonna take him to Nic to see what to do with him. I’m takin’ him to meet the crew first before that.”
Tommy turned in his seat to glance out the large window as Iris talked with the elf girls. It seemed the APM floated on tracks made of only small bulbs of light that hovered over a mystic fog that blocked everything around and below the mountains. All he could see were blinking lights of red, green, blue, white and and gold breaking through the gloomy fog.
At the next train stop, Lo and La bombarded Tommy with questions.
“Where are you from?”
“What grade are you in?”
“Do you have toy-making classes in your school?”
“Does it snow where you live? Does it snow all the time?”
“Do you have brothers and sisters? How old are they?”
Iris caught Tommy’s small flinch at the last question and calmed the girls down, “Easy with the questions. We’re still tryin’ to figure everything out and he’s a little sick. When he gets to feelin’ better, I’m sure he’ll be able to take on yer encyclopedia of questions, alright?”
“Well I just have one question,” Lo said. “Tommy, how old are you?”
“Nine.” Tommy answered.
La and Lo gasped. “No way! And you’re already this big?” La exclaimed.
“I told you human kids grow bigger after five, and it’s not fair!” Lo pouted crossing her arms.
“Well how old are you?” Tommy asked them.
Simultaneously, the elf girls proudly responded, “We’re 49 years old.”
Tommy nearly fell out of his seat, “49?!”
Iris explained, “Elves age a bit differently than we do, Tommy. They’re still babies at 10 years old, learnin’ to walk and talk. Their 30s are their teen years and they ain’t considered adults until they hit 50.”
“Yup, and we’re just one year away.” Lo said happily, “Then we get our official newbie work hats and get to work at Papa Claus’ castle!”
“Our grandfather works there. He’s head engineer of electronic toys, and we’re gonna work alongside him!” La said proudly.
“And when he retires, I’m gonna follow in his footsteps and be a head engineer. And I’ll be just like him, the best one they ever had.” Lo grinned.
“What do you mean you’ll be head engineer? What makes you think that’ll happen?” La glared at her twin sister.
“Because I’m his favorite granddaughter.” Lo stuck her tongue.
“I’m his favorite granddaughter!”
“Uh-uh! Me! He told me so!”
Tommy watched them argue back and forth. Iris propped her head on her folded hand, widening her eyes to keep from falling asleep.
Tommy jumped when everything became dark around them. Iris rubbed his back, “Relax boyo, we’re just goin’ through a tunnel.”
“Arriving at Aelfweard Station. Arriving at Aelfweard Station.” The female voice announced from the train’s speakers, “Please watch your step as you exit the train.”
Tommy held onto Iris’ pant leg as the the doors opened and a flood of elves filled the train as they stepped out onto the station platform. Lights from the wide doorways guided them atop the lengthy staircase. Lo and La hurried in front of them, still arguing, and disappeared into a massive crowd of elves that filled the massive factory.
Standing in the middle doorway, Tommy’s ears were filled with sounds of clinking tools, jumbled conversations with a few shouts here and there, and gentle hums from machinery. Tommy saw hundreds, maybe thousands, of elves dressed in red and green uniforms. Some were standing by work tables or running conveyor belts examining toys from stuffed animals to radio-controlled vehicles and others were running around carrying toolboxes, crates stuffed with mechanical parts, and gift accessories.
“Why don’t we head up here there, where it’s safer?” Iris pointed to the steps on their right, leading up to the carpeted catwalk high above the madness.
One elf marched around on it looking down at the scurrying elves below, yelling orders into an ear piece, “Hey Itham come back, you dropped your socket spanner and pliers! Amica, the DOLL floor needs tons more cotton stuffing! Lykon, the gift-wrapping machine is to the right! No, your other right!”
Iris waved at him, “Hey Rizon, how’s it goin’?”
The elf pressed the tablet against his head and groaned, “It’s pandemonium, much more than usual. We had to turn off the machines earlier because the gears were smoking hot. Turns out we ran out of coolant and the insides hadn’t been oiled. We tried to make more toys without them. The crafters are fast but they could only do so much, so we’re behind schedule by about 10 hours. And we had seventeen newbies collapse from exhaustion today. Some tried to come back abut they looked too worn-out so I sent them home. And, the cherry on top, when we finally got the machines going, the claws grabbed the elves instead of the toys! Now we have a search party in the packaging room searching and unwrapping 247 elves.”
Iris sucked through her teeth, “That’s brutal. Need some help?”
“Nah, the midnight shift is coming in an hour early. We should be able to have everything ready for the big day, if we can clean this mess up in time,” Rizon replied.
“Okay, if you say so. Holler if you still need some extra helping hands. I’ll talk wit’ ya later. Gotta take this li’l man to the condo meet the others,” She waved as she pushed Tommy ahead, who couldn’t keep his eyes off the crowded workforce below.
They headed for two elevator doors. Iris walked to the one on the right and pressed the sole button next to it. Tommy heard the ringing call bell coming from the left one. He gawked seeing wave after wave of elves pouring out as soon as the doors opened. Iris gently pushed him in the doors when their elevator arrived. “I always tell them that if they every get tired of toy-making, they’d make great circus clowns,” Iris joked.
There were only two buttons on the panel inside the elevator. Iris pressed the top button, which had ‘The Pinnacle’ labeled next to it. “What’s a pinnacle?” Tommy asked. He gasped feeling the elevator ascend rapidly.
Iris replied, “It means ‘top’, as in top floor. Claus has a nice place built for the Angels when we ain’t flyin’ around. You can meet the rest of the Angels and we can explain some things to you.”
Tommy wondered if the rest of these ‘Angels’ were more elves, “But didn’t I already meet them?”
“Jus’ about.” Iris said, “You missed talkin’ to our co-leaders. They should be up here shortly. They’re on punishment since they broke the rules.”
“So they’re grounded?” He asked
Iris snickered a little. “Sumthin’ like that,” She said, “They’re helpin’ wit’ the elves’ work to make up for what they did.”
“What’d they do?” Tommy asked curiously. He was startled again when the elevator came to a sudden stop.
“It’d be better if they explained it to you. I wouldn’t wanna spoil it,” She said as the doors opened.
They stepped off the elevator and into a large high-rise apartment. Plush couches on top of wide, fluffy carpet circled around large, thin flat screened TV. Tommy saw a kitchen across from the living room walking further in with Iris and the black, metal spiral staircase behind the couches headed up to a mezzanine where he saw many doors spaced apart by windows. He noticed there were backpacks and suitcases propped beside some of the doors.
“Anyone home?” Iris’ voice echoed throughout the room.
“Out here!” Konani’s muffled voice called out from the other side of a wall.
Iris gently tugged the mesmerized Tommy in front of her through the curtained glass sliding doors. The fenced balcony was adorned with a couple of hooded lounge chairs and a picnic table with a large open umbrella stood on top of wide, square red carpet with golden lined edging. A tea set with six mugs was set on the table. Steam rose out of only three of them.
“Notice how it’s not colder than a witch’s tit?” Iris asked Tommy. He saw falling snowflakes dancing in the wind around on the edges of the balcony and didn’t feel the icy wind freezing and numbing his skin. The air around the whole deck was warm, as if he had stepped into a greenhouse during a comfortable spring day.
Iris raised her arms forming a circle over her head , “An enchanted air bubble of some kind keeps it warm out here on the balcony. It could be -112° Celsius at midnight or colder and it’ll stay this warm.”
He pulled his hood back as Iris approached Konani and Renard. They stood at the front of the balcony faced away from them, staring at the Sorina Mountain ranges in the distance with their wings extended.
Renard’s butterfly wings was made of reddish-orange, white edged fur. Konani had Natural wings with dark-bluish gray feathers that had splattered blotches and flecks and edges tipped with short, sharp-tipped blades.
Only Renard turned and smiled at Iris, “Bonjour, Iris.” Konani waved an arm at her.
“You guys see anything?” Iris asked.
“Non. Then again, it would be easier to see without that fog over the mountains,” Renard said. “Konani is already in battle mode.”
Konani responded, “Tch. We wouldn’t be like this right now if that kid hadn’t show-”
Iris elbowed him in the ribs, hard enough to make him recoil, “Shh! Konani.”
Tommy joined them peering over the barrier, “You guys looking for something?”
“Someone,” Konani said
“Your commanders?” Tommy asked.
“ ‘Commanders’.” Konani scoffed, “If they were such commanders, they wouldn’t be grounded right now. But I gotta say this would be a nicer view if we weren’t on such high alert. No purple scenery.”
“Hey guys! Sorry we’re late.” Everyone turned and saw two young ladies standing in the doorway. The girl on the left had dark toned skin with fierce brown eyes with her mane of micro-braids tied back in a long ponytail and the girl on the right had light tan skin with soft hazel eyes and long, flowing reddish-brown hair. Tommy felt a mysterious strength and awe looking at them.
Iris ran up to both of them hugging them tightly, “Where have you two been? I was looking all over for ya.”
The girl on the right smiled, “Rizon had us luggin’ logs and wires and stuff into the castle. Next thing we gotta do is give the sleigh a fresh coat of paint.”
“I’m not looking forward to that,” The girl on the left said, “I think we’ll need about 30 or 40 industrial-sized cans of red paint.”
Iris motioned Tommy over, “This is the kid we found on the edge of Sorina Mountains.”
“Well aren’t you cute?” The girl on the right knelt down and shook Tommy’s hand, “Nice to meet you, Tommy. My name is Fara,” She pointed a thumb at the girl by her, “And this is my sister, Jaiklyn.”
The latter threw him off, “Jaiklyn?”
She rolled her eyes, “If it sounds weird, ‘Jay’ or ‘Jake’ is cool.”
Tommy looked back and forth between them, not seeing any similar resemblances between them, “And you two are sisters?”
“By blood.” Fara replied, “We’ll tell you about our family life later, but first, we’d like to get to know you.”
Tommy followed Fara and Jaiklyn over to the table. Fara picked up one of the steaming mugs and took a careful sip, “Yes! The cocoa’s still hot.”
Jaiklyn picked up her mug and handed another one to Tommy, “Be careful, it’s hot.”
Tommy was excited as he put the rim of the cup to his lips, but he tasted light peppermint instead of rich chocolate. “Beero gave us the heads-up. Once that throat starts feelin’ better, then we’ll get you some cocoa,” Fara replied.
“Okay Tommy, let figure this out.” said Jaiklyn, “Tell us everything you can remember from start to finish.”
Tommy told his story with added details; he remembered ‘waking up’ and finding himself in a coal mines with a bunch of zombified children. He explained how he sneaked out the mines and into a scary castle where he found his twin sister and was chased around by imps, how he escaped into a purple world and hitched a ride in the ogre’s carriage, how he got away from him, and got lost in the mountain ranges.
Everyone stayed quiet and listened intently to his story. Tommy broke the silence, “Okay, I told you who I am and what happened. Iris said that you would tell me what’s going on here.”
“We will, Tommy. It’s just that we don’t know where to start,” Fara leaned back in her chair, “There’s a lot to tell.”
Tommy knew what he wanted to them to explain first, “Well, who are you guys? You said you’re angels, but what are you doing here at the North Pole?”
“Because, according to a certain someone, we have good hearts and intentions.” Jaiklyn answered, “You know the story behind Santa Claus. He travels all over the world on the night of Christmas Eve delivering gifts to all the good little boys and girls. He also seeks out boys and girls who are as kind and charitable as he is and appoints them as his angels to help him out whenever he needs it.”
“His angels? Santa’s angels?” Tommy arched an eyebrow, “What does he need angels for?”
“There’s a reason.” Jaiklyn pointed past him, “Look, the fog’s liftin’.”
Tommy’s mouth dropped when he saw, beyond the Sorina mountains, a purple desert wasteland.
“That place look familiar?” Jaiklyn asked.
Tommy whirled to her and Fara, “What is that place?”
Fara leaned forward on the table, “Have you ever heard of Krampus, Tommy?”
Tommy thought for a moment before shaking his head, “What’s a Krampus?”
“Not a what, a who. Like Santa is for the good kids, Krampus goes after the bad kids. He kidnaps them, sucks out their souls, and puts them in a limbo that they can never get out of,” Fara said.
“Remember you sayin’ that you ‘suddenly woke up’ in the mines?” Jaiklyn watched Tommy nod. “I dunno what happened, Tommy, but somehow you got lucky.”
“What do you mean ‘lucky’?” He asked.
Jaiklyn said, “When Krampus takes a kid, he takes their souls too. And when he does that, the kid loses their will, become almost like a zombie. Without their souls, they only listen and carry out Krampus’ order and command.”
Tommy’s remembered how the kids in the coal mines and looked down at his bandaged hands, “Are you saying he kidnapped me and my sister?”
“It’s the only honest reason of why you’re here talking with us, Tommy.” Fara said, “As long as we’ve been working for Nic, this is the first time we’ve, or anyone else here, ever seen a kid escaping from Krampus’ lair.”
“But I thought Santa had a nice AND naughty list and he gave coal to the naughty-” Another memory sparked his mind, “Wait, the coal.”
“The coal?” Jaiklyn watched as he searched through his thoughts.
“I--I remember----it was sometime before Christmas. Me and Zoe saw something in our stockings. We thought it was something from our uncle, but when we turned them over, we got a lump of coal.” Tommy held onto his head, “And we got mad at each other. We thought one of us had prank the other.”
“That was no prank, that was a warning.” Jaiklyn said, “Some that many don’t look at as so.”
“So, we did something bad?” Tommy sat back in his chair.
“Krampus keeps records, just like Nic does.” Jaiklyn replied.
“Wh-What about our parents?” Tommy’s voice choked, “They’ve gotta be lookin’ for us.”
Jaiklyn looked away. It was hard enough to tell the next part as he was about to break out into sobs. Fara took over. She tried to sound as comforting as she could, “They--To them, you and Zoe don’t exist anymore, Tommy.”
Tommy fell back in his chair so hard it nearly flipped back, “What do you mean we don’t exist to them anymore?! They’re our mom and dad! They love us! They--”
“They don’t remember you or your sister anymore.” Fara quickly got in. She felt a lump in her throat watching Tommy almost go limp.
His face was frozen with a petrified, far-off look in his eyes. He wanted to be anywhere but here. His mind started to wane and yet it molded a very twisted tale as Fara told him the fate of Krampus’ victims. Like Claus, Krampus monitored naughty children all over the world, keeping track over their misbehavior, and wrote their names on his list. A ‘holiday’ he dubbed ‘Krampusfliege’ was the night he flew around the world kidnapping the ones on his list. After his collection, he scratched their names off his list after kidnapping the targeted children and the cryptic dark magic within the parchment commenced. Anyone who knew the child behind the scratched-off name, doctors, teachers, friends, family, would no longer have any memory of them.
Tommy came out of his temporary mental escape as Fara’s finished explaining. “Anyone who knows you, especially your parents. . .they no longer remember you,” She said sadly. “As far as your family and friends are concerned, you never existed to them.”
Tommy hyperventilated. His bandaged hands trembled around his chair’s edge and his throat ached again. He felt Fara embracing him close and tight and that was all it took for him to make him cry. “I’m so sorry, Tommy,” she whispered.
Iris rubbed his back, “It’s not all bad, boyo. You got us. We’ll look after you. Ain’t that right, guys?” Jaiklyn, Fara, and Renard solemnly nodded. Konani remained silent.
“Wait.” Tommy wiped his nose with his sleeve, “You--You guys said Santa gave you wings to protect kids, right? How come you guys can’t you go over and save everyone from Krampus?”
The Angels’ hearts felt heavy. “You’d think we’d still be standing here if we were allowed to do that?” Konani said, “As much as we love beatin’ up the mutant goat every time he shows his ugly face, we can’t just fly over there and start war.”
“Why not?” Tommy asked.
Jaiklyn answered, “Because it’s one of the rules we follow. Krampus and anyone under him can’t interfere with Nic’s job, and Nic and anyone under him can’t interfere with Krampus’ job. If either of us breaks that rule, we’ll pay for it big time.”
Tommy protested, “But that’s not fair!”
“We hate the rule as much as you do, Tommy. The only exception is that we can stop him and his Kramplings if we spot him on our turf. Here, it’s a different story.” Jaiklyn said, “Though there are times when Krampus breaks the rules. We’re kinda breakin’ the rules already, really.”
“With us keeping you over here, kid, could get us in some serious trouble,” Konani walked over to the table. “Under normal circumstances, we’re supposed to take you back to Krampus.”
“Take me back?!” Tommy clung onto Fara tightly, “No please, don’t do that! I’ll do anything, just don’t take me back there!”
Fara winced and tugged his grip off of her, “Calm down, Tommy. He said under ‘normal’ circumstances.”
“What’s normal?” Tommy quickly asked.
“If you were still soulless, like the kids you saw in the mines.” Fara said, “But you’re warm to the touch and talking, walking, laughing, crying. That’s something a soulless kid can’t do. Somehow, you got your soul back.”
“And that’s what’s got us worried. Krampus doesn’t just have a change of heart and give a kid their soul back, not without a price. Something must’ve happened and he hasn’t realized it yet, and when he finds out---” Jaiklyn stared at the wasteland past the mountain ranges right at the craggy mountain, which looked like thin, crooked horizontal line from where they stood.
Tommy slowly shook his head, tears still going down his cheeks. “I don’t wanna go back. Please,” he sniffed, “I just wanna save my sister and go home.”
Fara hugged him tightly, “I wish it were that simple, hon.”
Jaiklyn walked over to Konani. “He would’ve been here by now,” he said.
“He’s probably pickin’ out his best suit to get our blood on,” replied Jaiklyn.
Konani glared, “Don’t even joke right now. I’m not saying we can’t handle him without you and Fara, but it ain’t gonna be a cakewalk either. You just had to show off, and now Nic’s got your wings for who knows how long.”
Jaiklyn smirked slyly, “Nic’s got our wings, but we ain’t completely helpless.”
“What you mean? Ya’ll got something up your sleeves?” He saw her small grin.
“You could say that,” Jaiklyn answered. Konani looked at her and saw her fiddling with a thin leather twine that hung around her neck.
Fara handed Tommy a box of tissues after he calmed down. “What am I gonna do now?” Tommy sniffed, “My sister’s still stuck in that place and even if I did get her back, our dad and mom won’t recognize us.”
Fara gently stroked his head, “You care for your sister a lot don’t you?”
“She’s my twin. If only I was a lot stronger, I could’ve carried her out,” Tommy sputtered in a tissue.
“There’s nothing you could’ve done, Tommy,” Fara said softly. “Krampus has a spell to make all his slaves kids heavy to keep humans and non-humans from carrying them off.”
Tommy looked down at the feet, a few tears dripping to the ground. “Don’t worry, we’ll find a way to rescue your sister and see if we can get you back home,” Fara said.
“But what about the rules?” Tommy asked wiping his eyes.
Fara smiled, “There are rules and laws we must follow, but there are certain rules that we can go around if we have to.”
Tommy’s thin thread of hope strengthened listening to Fara, “So, you guys will help me get Zoe back?”
Fara nodded, “We’ll do our best. We are Angels after all.”
“And we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we didn’t help you.” Jaiklyn smiled back at Tommy, “We’ll get your sister back and figure out a way to get you two back home.”
A sinister disembodied chuckle made the Angels tense up and sent shivers down Tommy’s spine, “Such inspirational words from a grounded angel.”
The Angels immediately aimed their glares at the ominous figure descending from the clouds above with a cluster of giggling imps hovering after him. Jaiklyn, Konani, and Renard stepped back as he dropped from the sky. The thick chains on his chest restraints clinked and his cloven hooves clopping loudly when he landed on the balcony.
He was covered in dark gray and black fur, the thickest wrapped down from his lower stomach down right above his hooves. His red eyes leered around at the Angels and his lion-like, arrow-finned tipped tail swayed agitatedly behind him. His large, thick horns with the pointed tips curling inward made him look more vicious.
Tommy couldn’t take his eyes off of the intimidating gargoyle of a beast as Fara hugged him closely.
Jaiklyn sneered through her teeth., “Krampus.”
(All characters and plot are © Rai Pager)