A Dreadful Evening
Short story with Christmas action-adventure
A Dreadful Evening was an entry for the LegendFiction 2022 Christmas contest, and it ended up winning first place! It’s also a prequel of sorts to A Dreadful Holiday, the next book in the Torchmouth Saga.
Christmas is a time for happiness, but it can also be a time for melancholy. Every year around the holidays, anger and ill will breed and multiply, as though they were some kind of organism unto themselves. But, one Yuletide light stands out against the darkness: Santa Claus, bringer of gifts and good will, and above all, joy.
Length: 3100 words, about 15 minutes reading time
It was counterintuitive. The busier and larger a public gathering, the easier it was to blend in and go unnoticed. Especially in a crowded mall at Christmastime. A lanky, yet graceful fellow walked slowly past the rows of shops and boutiques, in the opposite direction as the shoppers rushing home with their treasures. His long red coat was trimmed with white fur, kept closed with only a black leather belt crowned with a shining gold buckle. Tall black boots were visible with each step as the hem of the mantle moved around his feet. Nothing covered his head, no red cap with a white bob to complete his Santa Claus costume. But his outfit was no costume.
He stroked his black curled mustache, the same shade as his cropped hair, listening with only his ears for any clues. A young blond boy came out of the bustling toy store, conversing with his bespectacled friend, both nearly swallowed by their baggy winter coats. "My parents are gonna buy me a whole box of Card Knights packs, from the new Lemuria set. I'll get that shining St. George variant for sure!"
"Oh man, can I have your leftover duplicates?"
"No way, they're worth too much, especially at Christmas."
No, not there. He strolled past the bookstore, the hearts there mostly still, absorbed in their reading. The red-clad fellow whispered aloud, though he could have shouted for all the attention anyone paid him. "Anything new?"
The smell of buttered rum drifted into his mind, along with a stern female voice. Nothing in the parking garage.
Scents of fresh pine trees accompanied a boisterous exclamation. The rooftops are clear, sir!
"Thank the Lord for that," he replied. "How about the food court area?"
He caught the scent of spicy peppermint. A moving picture just let out, Master Albert, came the calm, feminine voice. I'll remain and search as needed.
"Good," Albert said, "or as good as can be, I suppose." He passed a store that sold plush animals, a young girl with thin brown hair examined a stuffed griffon with bright green eyes next to a white horse with wings.
"Um, excuse me." Her voice was as delicate as she looked. "I wanted to buy this for my little sister, but there's no tag, how much is it?" Her face fell as the kindly cashier gave her the sum.
Albert stopped where the wide walkway ended at an intersection of three paths. From this vantage point, he could overlook the central plaza where the arms of the cross-shaped shopping center met. The railings were decked with lighted garlands, from the ceiling hung enormous plastic ornaments and stars. Below was Santa's workshop, a busy nexus where children had their photographs taken with a very convincing jolly individual. Unlike many that Albert had observed, this mall Santa actually seemed to soothe and calm the youngsters on his lap. Perhaps he could have a chat with the old fellow about technique, provided they could wrap this up soon.
But that didn't seem likely. He could still feel it, somewhere. A burning grief, a festering sorrow. The air was mostly clear, but he could see a slight purple tint, a wrongness that wouldn't go away.
His attention was diverted by a minor altercation; apparently there was some dispute as to whose precious tyke would be first in line to sit with Kris Kringle. Two eager fathers seemed ready to come to blows, despite the efforts of the gaudily dressed crew of elves. The anger felt like a rising wave, distracting Albert from the rest of the area.
"Sir?" came the quiet voice beside him. He had been so preoccupied he hadn't noticed the aroma of roasting chestnuts. The young woman appearing at his side seemed to have a round face and reddish-brown skin, her long black hair kept back by her golden circlet. She wore what looked like an orange hooded jacket and soft brown pants, complete with her favorite deerskin gloves. "I think we're getting closer. Prancer has almost finished filtering out the bulk of the surface emotions."
Albert leaned heavily against the railing. "Thank you," he said, barely audible over the crowd.
"You're welcome, sir." She nodded, but her eyes narrowed at the harried look on his face. "Have you been sleeping well? Making sure to eat enough?"
Albert did his best to smile. "Why the sudden concern?" He continued to whisper. "Is Blitzen's worry finally wearing off on you?"
The woman grinned, a soft warm smile. "Not more than usual. Since that fall you took last month, we've just been trying to look out for you."
"Now, Comet," Albert said carefully. "You should know how resilient we humans are by now."
"I do have some evidence…" She gazed out over the railing toward the crowds. "We've just been discussing what might happen in the event you aren't able to find someone to—"
The tang of wood smoke announced an excited voice: I have it!
Comet stepped away from the railing and clenched her gloved fists. "Excellent, Prancer! Where is it?"
The fourth floor, almost directly above you.
Both Comet and Albert looked up at once, to the top of the glass-domed atrium, just as the pulses of grief intensified. "Lord, help us," Albert said aloud.
Be careful, there are many active Dreadlings up there…
"I'll do what I can," Comet said, and Albert raced to the elevator.
The firefighter key in his pocket made the ascent that much quicker, avoiding any other passengers headed upward, but it could still be too long. He spent the uncomfortable moments in prayer, that he could be the instrument of God's will, no matter what the result might entail.
The fourth floor of the shopping mall had seen better days; most of the storefronts were shuttered, those remaining seeing precious little traffic. He hurried past the shoe repair shop and the novelty gift boutique, grateful their owners could not see what was likely about to happen.
Around the corner, Albert found the walkway already coated with a dull purple slime. A thick haze hung in the air, masking the bulbous shapes which drew themselves together and slid toward him. He had a candy cane out in a moment, but no sooner had he aimed it than the pungent smell of cinnamon and cloves accompanied a crashing wave of force, blowing the simple Dreadlings apart into nothing but worries.
A young man ran up behind him, wearing what looked like a green dress shirt and slacks. His skin appeared light brown, his hair dyed dark blue, a contrast to the bright metal of his circlet.
"Wonderful timing, Dasher," Albert said.
"No problem, sir. The Dread is awfully thick up here."
"Really? I hadn't noticed."
"Oh, good one!" Dasher laughed, a tolling bell of happiness pushing away the surrounding haze.
A few more yards down the murky hallway, the walls seemed to writhe and contract on their own. 'Thick' was something of an understatement. A dark shape coalesced before them, a large mass elongating into a central trunk, two arms extending to the sides tipped in despairing claws, crowned with a diadem of woe.
Dasher thrust his arms forward with a grunt, slamming another glowing drive into it, but it snapped back into position like a rubber toy. Albert leveled his candy cane, holding the crook in his hand, imagining sunlight streaming through the windows of a church, the majestic wheeze of the old organ.
A bolt of golden light sprung from the tip of the confection, hitting the creature squarely on the brow, the foul gem in its coronet shattering into a cloud of concerns. Robbed of its protection, Dasher was able to flatten it with a wave of pale green energy. They raced forward to the central atrium, the other Dreadlings cowed for the moment. Through the haze, Albert could see Comet was already there, standing by a huddled form.
Dasher broke off to the right to address a rising mass of Dread, leaving Albert to approach the source. "Merry Christmas," he began, still slightly out of breath from the run. "We're here to help you."
"How can you say that?" The speaker was a young woman, slumped against the railing beside Comet's boots. Her face was wet with tears, her brown hair unkempt and untied. Perhaps she had not seen a calendar lately, her black leather jacket and striped stockings under her skull-print skirt seemed better suited for Halloween than Christmas. A miniature backpack graced her shoulders, hardly big enough to hold her keys.
"Well, I say that because it's true. We may look odd, but we want to help you with whatever you're struggling with."
"I meant, how can you say it's a merry Christmas?" She sniffed back tears. Her voice was unsteady, but she maintained her defiant tone.
"Because every Christmas is worthy of celebration," Albert said firmly.
"Not this one," she murmured, looking up at Albert from the floor. Comet stood by, one glove on the railing. Dasher was farther down the hallway, whooping at triumphantly vanquishing another foe. All the while, Albert had been taking slow, careful steps toward the girl, moving sideways when needed to avoid the largest pockets of concentrated despair.
"Please, tell me," he murmured.
"Why should I? Who are you, anyway? You don't look like a cop, or a social worker."
Albert smiled, smoothing back his black hair. "I'm something of both of those, I suppose. The simplest way to explain would be to say that I am Santa Claus."
She said nothing, simply staring at him. His coat was likely giving off a gleam like new-fallen snow, and he wanted to let it work. He looked at Comet, who nodded. The mist was lessening, the largest of the Dreadlings were slinking back into the corners.
"My name is Albert," he continued. "What's yours?"
"I'm… Claudia," she said, definitely more relaxed. Albert was close enough to shake her hand, but refrained for now. "So does that make you Albert Claus?" she scoffed.
He chuckled. "Not exactly. I'm just the latest in line to bear the mantle." He tugged at the collar of his bright red coat. "Now, why don't you tell me why this won't be a merry Christmas for you?"
Perhaps that was too forward. Too much at the heart of the matter. Comet frowned as the darkness returned, the vertical bars of the railing sprouting spiked protrusions.
"My parents…" Claudia's voice lowered again. "They were in a car accident, the doctors don't know if they'll recover… and my brother, he can't help because… he's in jail again, so it's just me, and I…" Tears filled her eyes again. She curled up further, the waves of sorrow were palpable. The floor looked to be awash in a deep, dark sludge.
"I'm so sorry to hear that," Albert said, the sincerity in his voice just as firm. "I said I was here to help you. I want to take you someplace where you can get what you need. A warm drink by the fire, someone to talk to."
Claudia's brow narrowed as she wiped her eyes. A new tone came to her voice, one of hostility. "Sorry, but I don't go off with strange guys, even ones dressed like Santa."
Albert tucked his thumbs into his belt, showcasing his attire. "I'm not dressed like Santa Claus, I am Santa Claus."
Her confusion manifested as swirling eddies of flickering lights around her. "Okay, fine. If you're really him, then… prove it. Tell me what I wanted for Christmas when I was nine."
"Of course." Albert nodded. "I'll do one better, and give it to you." He clasped his hands together, whispering the words he'd said so many times before. "Dearest Lord, the love you have for your daughter knows no limits. Grant me a sliver of that love, and reflect it into a gift."
A golden light appeared above Albert's outstretched hands, at first a sphere, but quickly forming into a definite shape. A small effigy of a girl child, blue pleated dress and brown curls, large inviting eyes. He plucked it from the air, the weight settling into his hands before passing it into Claudia's.
"This… it's the doll…" The rest of her words failed her, her tear-streaked eyes wide.
"It is the love your parents had for you then, and still do now. The love that God wants to give you as well."
Claudia didn't seem to hear him, fixated as she was on the toy. "I just…" She hugged the doll, likely imagining such familial peace. Such was her want of that connection, however, that her embrace was too strong for the object to bear, and it dissolved back into its ethereal components with a pop.
Albert raised his hand to apologize, but was pushed back a step by the sudden force. Claudia's eyes grew wide. "It wasn't real?"
"No, it was just a construct, they don't last more than a few minutes. But it was a symbol, meant to signify a higher grace—"
"It wasn't real!" Her voice rose with the rest of her body, standing up with many emotions flashing through her eyes. Comet skipped to Albert's side, already drawing together points of light, as Dasher came up on the other. "None of this is real!" she howled.
The sludge on the floor quivered, then rushed together, covering her feet, then her legs. Pale thorned growths covered the hardening Dread, and within moments the girl's soul was overwhelmed with pain, her body similarly engulfed in crackling agony. A massive Dreadon stood where she had been, one arm a wicked scythe, the other a spiked ball. The diadem on its head burned with eldritch purple flame, fueled by the sobs which were still audible through its jagged, glowing mouth.
Albert sighed, pulling a yellow striped candy cane from his pocket with a handful of peppermints. "The hard way, then."
Comet unleashed a barrage of pinpoint beams against the arms, while Dasher burst forth with a pronged drive at the lower trunk. Albert threw two peppermints at its head, the memory of a warm log in the hearth exploding against its armored pate. The Dreadon retaliated with a swing of the scythe-arm, but each hunter ducked or dodged in time. As it reared back with the pounding hammer, three yellow, white-fletched arrows silently embedded themselves in the surface. A blast of mint-scented cheer rent the air, and naught but a stump remained on that arm.
"Apologies for my lateness," said the dark-skinned woman who formed up behind them, dressed in a red and white robe, wielding what looked like a long bow fashioned from antlers. Her coronet framed long rows of finely braided black hair.
"Forgiven," Albert said, aiming his cane. "Vixen, target the other arm. Dasher, keep it off us." His allies gave their assent.
The Dreadon reared back and let out a ghastly wail, tearing at Albert's bones with hopelessness, even causing the others to flinch. Not needing breath, it sustained the assault for long, paralyzing moments. Albert grasped his coat to deflect the attack when a wall of glittering orange force bisected the floor.
"No apologies from me," the newcomer said, bringing the smell of mulled cider along with his attitude. His appearance was similar to Comet; though his jacket had no hood, his hair was just as long and his skin the same tone.
"Thank you Cupid," Albert said, breathing heavily. "Be sure to keep a wall behind it, the girl is still in there."
"Not my idea of a fun time," Cupid said as he spread his arms to rearrange the shield.
With half his available force at his side, Albert knew the tide had turned, but the battle was not won yet. Piercing arrows weakened its hide, needle-like barrages peppered its gleaming crown. Battering force bent and snapped its blade, and a protective wall kept the worst of the retaliation at bay. Sooner than later, the being was left with little but its primal hatred. Albert aimed at the fell creature's core, mustering up images of his own childhood; peace, love, contentment, and most of all, joy. A spiraling beam of light shot from the candy cane, ripping through the creature's remaining form. The shell began to split, golden cracks appearing and filling with light, and in a howl of anguish it burst from sight and from mind.
Claudia had fallen to her knees on a clear patch of floor, the haze and sludge retreating like a rapid tide. Albert rushed to her while the others covered them against any lingering threats.
"What happened?" she asked, her voice feeble. "I was so sad, then so angry, and then I… I don't know. Everything went black."
Albert offered her his hand. "You gave in to despair, and we helped you to overcome it."
She looked at his bare hands, no gloves or mittens or anything Santa-like, but at the same time more than that. "I also heard a voice… It said 'do not be afraid'."
He nodded. "They are rather fond of saying that."
Claudia accepted his offer and stood, but unsteadily. "Who are 'they'?… is there someone else here too?"
"Yes. For every spirit of sorrow, there are eight more of joy."
"Joy…" she mumbled. Far below, in the plaza, spontaneous caroling had broken out, rising up to their ears. The mall as a whole was wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, and Albert couldn't help but join in humming along. Comet was waiting by the elevator, Vixen said she and Cupid would remain to monitor the situation.
On the ride down, Claudia had only one question. "Are we going to take the sleigh?" She adjusted the straps of her tiny pack.
"I'm afraid not. These days, it's easier to use a car. Besides, the reindeer aren't keen to do that anymore." He winked at Comet, who was grinning profusely beside them. Claudia looked at the empty corner quizzically.
As they strolled through the first floor to the parking garage, the carolers had moved on to another branch, but the change in the air was noticeable.
"…No, I insist, you go first. She looks like she can't wait another second to see Santa…"
"…I decided you can have some of my extra cards. In fact, why don't we open the box together?"
"…Dude, that sounds awesome!"
"…I think my sister would love this one, but… I must've forgotten my other dollar at home…"
"…Don't worry, young lady. You can still buy it. It's a special Christmas sale…"
As the sliding exterior doors opened, Claudia took a step, then stopped. Albert looked over his shoulder at her. "Merry Christmas," she said.
He smiled. "Merry Christmas, indeed."
Enjoyed the story? This is a prequel of sorts to a larger story in the Christmas spiritual warfare genre (is that actually a genre? It is now). To find out when you can unwrap that gift, subscribe today.