What was once Namur, Belgium, sometime after the Third Great War:
Something within the pile of rags began to stir. A grease-stained hand emerged, and cracked, filthy nails scratched against the concrete floor. Like a phantom rising from the grave, the rags shifted and rose until they revealed themselves to be the attire of a man desperately clinging to warmth. He began to rub his arms in an attempt to generate a little heat as he slowly shifted from one foot to the other, hoping to do the same for his legs.
While attempting to find warmth, he began to look around his surroundings for something useful in building a fire. By the feeble light slipping in through the gaps in the boards covering the cracked windows, he found himself in what, at one time, appeared to have been a bookstore. While there were very few books left scattered among the shelves, he saw enough to know a nice warm fire wasn’t out of his grasp.
Moving about the place, he began to gather what books he could carry, reading the titles as he added a new one to his collection. “War and Peace,” he muttered as he held the book aloft. “You, alone, should keep my fire burning for quite a while.”
Every few minutes, he would return to the spot in which he had made his bed and unload his arms. To the best of his memory — from the stories his grandfather had told him of the world before the devastation — this would have been the place where one paid for their purchases. Why any books at all remained for him to use as fuel was a mystery he neither thought of nor would have cared to ponder had he done so.
In one section of the store, secreted away, he thought (though more likely accidentally knocked between two shelves), he discovered a paperback book filled with maps from before the war. “Hmm. This might actually come in handy,” he said, tucking it under his arm.
The adjoining section bore part of a sign indicating it held books on self-help. It was here he discovered a second book he thought might come in handy. “Distilling at Home for Fun and Profit,” he read. “I might want to keep this one, as well.”
A noise outside interrupted his collecting, and he quietly made his way to the front of the store. Peeking through a gap in the boards, he saw four small figures shambling through the ash-colored snow. Behind them, wearing a long overcoat, worn toboggan, and goggles, trudged a very large man. In his gloved hand he gripped a rope that looped around the waists of each child.
Poor little creatures, he thought as the group neared the end of the block. Must be recruiting time at the Factory. Cogs and gears don’t make themselves.
Once he was certain they were gone, he returned to the business of collecting material for a fire. The only other book he found was in the children’s section; the cover was smudged and missing a large piece. “A Visit From S…Nich…” he said. “Sounds interesting.” As he flipped through the book, he was dismayed to find it was the English version, a language in which he lacked fluency. “Oh, well,” he said. “At least I can look at the pictures as I toss them into the fire.”
A rumble in his stomach reminded him there were other things to worry about than just a fire. His body was in need of food.
Making his way to the back of the building, he slid an old filing cabinet from in front of the door he had used to enter the previous evening. With the practiced ease of one who knew the importance of moving unseen, he slipped out and made his way to the man known only as the Seller of Meats.
The Seller of Meats was a squat, filthy man who wore a grime-covered rag tied around his head that covered his right eye. Some said he had lost the eye while working at the Factory in his youth, while others argued that the makeshift bandage was nothing more than an excuse to play on what little sympathies of his customers remained. Regardless of the reason, he was the only one in this section of town permitted by the Factory to sell or trade meats. Few people ever found the courage to ask exactly what kind of meat he was selling.
“What can you give me?” the Seller of Meats asked.
Not willing to give up, or even mention, the books he had found, the man dug through his pockets. Within moments, he had produced a small, partial can of grease — something the Factory could always use — and couple chunks of coal.
The Seller of Meats eyed the man’s offerings. “And where might these have been acquired?” he asked suspiciously.
“I can only guess the coal fell from a wagon,” the man said.
“And the grease?”
“That I took from the body of an airman whose luck gave out shortly after his harness,” the man replied.
The explanations satisfied the Seller of Meats, and he withdrew a key from his jacket pocket. Slipping it into the keyhole of a locked box, he gave it a twist and was soon handing his customer a wrapped package.
Tucking it into an inner pocket, the man nodded his appreciation and returned to the remains of the bookstore. He was relieved to find everything as he had left it. As he removed the package of meat, he realized he had another issue that needed addressing; the moment he lit the fire and began cooking his meal, he would end up attracting unwanted attention.
He searched through the store for anything he might use to further block out what little light was still able to slip through the gaps and in through the windows. In what might have been a small storeroom, he found a rough gray cloth partially glued to the floor. After a bit of a struggle, he removed enough to cover the windows. When he was finally satisfied his little fortress was secure, he began selecting a spot to start his fire.
Within the hour, his small fire was enticing grease from the meat to join it below the makeshift spit; a steady sizzle declared the union. Only once during its preparation did he hear movement outside his door.
Once his meal was complete, he picked up A Visit From S…Nich. As he began to flip through the book, his mind wandered back to the children being herded to the Factory. The look of hopelessness on their faces touched something deep in his heart. “If there was only some way to bring a small bit of hope to their miserable lives, working at the Factory might not be so bad,” he thought aloud. “If only this Snich person was still around.”
The idea came upon him so quick, he almost felt like it was something he was called to do. “I shall become Snich,” he declared. Looking through the book a second time, he began to make mental notes on what he might need to spread hope. To do this right, he would need a red suit, eight deer, a sleigh, and a bag of presents… and he had to sneak about in the dead of night. Taking stock of what he had, he immediately ruled out the red suit — what he was wearing now would help him blend in better, anyway.
As for the sleigh and the deer, he definitely knew they wouldn’t be found in a bookstore. He did have an idea, but that meant he would have to leave his new home. The urge to be at it was so great, he immediately put out his fire, collected his books — filling as many pockets as he could — and made his way to the back door. He never bothered looking back.
It took Snich two days to reach his destination, a place well away from the prying eyes of the Factory. The Brouwerji Aakster had been a mainstay of Namur for a couple of centuries, but after the Third Great War, it had been abandoned and neglected. While much of what had remained after the abandonment had been scavenged, he was sure he would still be able to find part of what he was looking for.
Taking a moment to peek in through a broken window, he made certain no one had taken up residence in the old brewery. He debated on whether to take the time to scrape away the snow that blocked one of the doors, or just finish knocking out the window and crawling through. He decided on the latter, since it would be less likely to draw unwanted attention.
Once inside, he began to explore. Almost everything metal had been stripped from the premises, probably taken to the Factory, but that wasn’t what he was looking for. It was several minutes before he found the object of his search: large oak barrels once used to age wine. The wine was long gone, but a couple of the barrels fit his needs almost perfectly. Continuing his search, he stumbled — quite literally — across a roll of tin. The gears in his mind began to turn, and he quickly grabbed the roll and dragged it back to the barrels. During the remainder of his search, he lucked onto a saw and a hammer.
After making certain the barrels were completely empty, Snich worked throughout the day and well into the night on cutting a huge barrel in half. With the task complete, he curled up inside and took a nice, long nap. When he woke several hours later, he began the task of locating and removing nails from among the scrap wood he had seen during his initial search. Afterward, he began nailing the tin to the bottom of the barrel, hoping it would make the barrel slide more smoothly on the ever-present snow.
As he worked, he got the distinct impression of being watched. A snort drew his attention off to the left.
Like something dropped into a badly written story merely for the purpose of supplying a character what he needed, five mutated red deer wandered into the brewery and began watching the curious human.
Snich grinned when he saw them. Standing nearly six feet at the shoulder, the deer were covered with soft-velvety fur everywhere except for the top of their heads. A large, bony plate — pushed out and up by the mutated brain underneath — covered everything from the base of their skulls to their brows.
“Interesting,” the lead deer said, telepathically, to the others. “These creatures do the strangest things.”
“Preposterous is what they are,” a second deer replied.
“Do you think it is intelligent enough to communicate with?” another one asked.
“We can try,” the lead deer responded. “You, human. What is this nonsense?”
Snich’s eyes grew wide. “You can speak… sort of?”
The comment elicited numerous snorts and a couple of eye-rolls from the deer.
The lead deer ignored his herd and asked, “Human, what are you doing?”
The energetic Snich quickly told of his plans to secretly bring joy and hope to the children being forced to work for the Factory. He explained the sleigh, then paused, looking at the five deer.
“I don’t even need telepathy to know what the human is thinking,” one said to the others. “Perhaps we should just eat him and be done with it.”
The lead deer, however, was having other ideas. “Think about the opportunity we are being given here,” he projected to the others. “If we help this foolish human, we can travel farther into their city than ever before. The knowledge we gain will be invaluable when we of the forests rise up and take over.”
The others saw the wisdom of their leader and began to nod.
“And you would like us to pull this… contraption?” the leader said to Snich.
“That would be wonderful,” Snich replied.
“Um,” one of the red deer interrupted, “may I ask a question?”
Snich nodded. “Please do.”
“What kind of gifts do you intend to give the little humans?”
Snich ran his hand into one of his pockets, pulled out a book, and held it aloft.
“What is that?” the lead deer asked.
“It is a book on making whiskey,” Snich said, smiling from ear to ear. “If it can bring cheer to me, a full grown adult, imagine the joy it will bring to children.”
Approximately 4,400 kilometers to the north, several shadowy figures were assembled together in an icy chamber deep beneath the earth. Uncertain glances were exchanged as they looked at what appeared to be a large metal sarcophagus. Unlike a sarcophagus, however, this apparatus had numerous copper tubes leading into and out of it.
“Are we agreed on this?” a high-pitched voice asked.
“Not to be the voice of dissent,” someone else asked, “but are we sure this is wise? We don’t know the effects of bringing him out early will have on him.”
“You saw the same reports the rest of us did,” the first voice argued. “If that idiot is allowed to carry out his plans,” the speaker indicated the sarcophagus, “he won’t have a reason to be revived at all.”
The dissenting voice nodded. “You’re right, of course.”
“Then we are in agreement.”
There was a resounding, “Aye!” from all present.
“Then let’s be at it.”
Everyone began to scramble to their assigned positions. Valves were turned, pressure gauge needles began to bounce, and steam began to fill the upper reaches of the chamber. A whistle somewhere in the distance screamed.
A second group heard the noise and knew their time had come. Tiny hands that had once crafted the finest of toys now plied their skill at readying the automatons. Tubes were connected to each of the nine automatons, and steam was pumped into buoyancy bladders. It passed from each of the nine, and once they were all filled, a small indicator globe on the lead automaton began to glow a bright red.
Back in the chamber, the strange sarcophagus was being drained of the nutrient solution that had sustained its occupant since the Third Great War. A lone hand-cranked generator introduced small doses of electricity into decreasing fluid with the purpose of jump-starting the heart and nervous system. Once the last of the solution was gone, the generator was put aside. Eagerly, the group waited and hoped the process had been successful.
Several anxious minutes passed before a very large hand was thrust upward and grasped the side of the now-open sarcophagus. A roar of pain, rage, and confusion filled the chamber as a giant of a man pulled himself upright and climbed to his feet. Long, white, unkempt hair fell across his shoulders, and an equally unkempt beard lay matted against his chest. There was no sign of recognition in his eyes as he scanned his surroundings; everyone began to back away.
After several tense moments, one of the tiny figures took a bold step forward and spoke. “You’d better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why…”
The words triggered something in the big man’s brain (as they were meant to do) and his eyes began to soften. His lips parted, and he spoke. “Because I’m coming to town!”
There was a cheer, and two of the figures approached him bearing a great red robe trimmed in white fur. “Here, Santa,” one of them said. “You should put this on.”
Santa Claus looked down at his unclothed body and grinned. “I thought I felt a chill.”
As he donned the robe, he looked around. “My faithful elves,” he said. “How long has it been?”
“Nearly a century,” one of the elves replied, sobering the festive mood.
“Prepare something to eat while I get cleaned up,” Santa said, “then you can bring me up to speed on what I’ve missed.”
The now-refreshed Santa ate in silence as Jingle, his lead elf, handled his briefing.
“And that is why we had to risk waking you early,” Jingle said in conclusion. “We were afraid we would lose Christmas forever.”
Santa swallowed the last of his eggnog and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Leaning back in his chair, he closed his eyes in thought.
No one spoke.
When he opened his eyes, Jingle and the others could tell something wasn’t right. Santa’s brows were furrowed, and his gaze was distant. There was a collective gasp when he finally spoke.
“Summon the Krampus Squad.”
These were words no elf wanted to hear. Santa usually traveled with a single member of the dreaded Krampus Squad, never the whole squad. The chosen member of the squad would always precede Santa into a house and eliminate any threats of discovery. While it was rare for anything harsher than a mind-wipe be used, there were cases where the offending child had to be brought to the North Pole and subjugated to a year-long reconditioning. If he were summoning the entire squad, there would be no silent night.