A Review of Eric Metaxas’ Martin Luther


Introduction

There is no shortage of Martin Luther biographies and this plethora of options can make it difficult for a new work to distinguish itself in the field. However, the volume that comes from the pen of Eric Metaxas manages to do so by combining the author/radio host’s trademark wit and flair with a historical character ripe for such a theatrical presentation. The mention of Metaxas’ current vocation as a radio host is not a slight, but rather an attempt to illustrate the colorful and playful spirit that fills the biography. The author is quite distinguished as an author, lecturer, and social commentator and this book reflects Metaxas’ personality and priorities quite nearly as much as it does that of its subject. While the results are entertaining and enlightening, this injection of personality is not always helpful. Metaxas’ work presents Martin Luther as a man who saved God from His own people, and in doing so, kickstarted the world’s journey out of the Dark Ages and into an era of enlightenment.

“The Man Who Rediscovered God”

Metaxas is not shy about his intentions with this biography, it is clearly stated in the book’s subtitle. The title page informs the reader that the book’s subject “rediscovered God and changed the world (Metaxas, 2017). Its helpful to keep this phrase firmly in mind because it serves as Metaxas’ general thesis throughout. His presentation of Luther is not so much of a mortal human but as a monumental hero. To be sure, Metaxas utilizes his book’s opening chapter to dismiss and disprove several Luther-centric myths that have sprung-up in the half-millennium since he sparked the Reformation of the Christian church, but this careful deconstruction is undone somewhat by Metaxas’ near messianic treatment of Luther throughout the book.

For instance, when contrasting Luther with the humanist Desiderius Erasmus, he casts the former as slippery and somewhat shallow writer, whereas the venerable Luther is “an exegete savant” (Metaxas, 2017, p. 87) who was capable of deeper thought and more decisive actions. The word brilliant or its synonyms are so frequently used to describe Luther that by the book’s end the word is nearly meaningless. There is certainly no need for Metaxas to downplay the revolutionary nature of Luther’s work and writings, but the overwhelming praise and adoration for them, coupled with the steady reminder that Luther thought himself to be on a mission from God himself (Metaxas, 2017, pp. 205-206) creates the idea that Luther was more messiah than monk; more savior than saint.

Perhaps the most obvious, and from a Christian point-of-view most egregious, example of Metaxas’ presentation of Luther as divinely-established figure of import comes in the book’s tenth chapter. Here Metaxas happily comapres Luther’s arrival in Worms with that of Jesus Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In the biblical account, Jesus is hailed as a messiah and potential king as he entered the ancient city, only to be crucified a few days later. Metaxas openly invites his readers to see Luther’s entry in a similar vein as he quotes the thoughts of an eyewitness and then adds that “Luther could not help wondering whether that meant that he was days away from his own Good Friday” (Metaxas, 2017, p. 207). This obvious parallel of Luther with Jesus is keeping with Metaxas’ thesis that Luther rescued the church and the gospel from a papist prison and then delivered them back to the masses.

The Metaxas Method

Metaxas’ giftedness as storyteller is obvious throught. His rendering of long-dead historical figures brings them back to life in the reader’s imagination and grants them colorful and well-rounded personalities. Pope Leo, Luther’s primary antagonist and constant foil, is fleshed-out through a short back-story and the telling of a somewhat ancillary story concerning his pet elephant and an elaborate gag (Metaxas, 2017, p. 89). Luther’s story is one with a sizable cast of side and supporting characters, and it is to Metaxas’ credit that these key figures are given their due and sufficiently differentiated from each other throughout the book. The biography stretches over 450-pages in length, and yet the story never drags and the characters are never uninteresting.

Its also worth noting that Metaxas relies heavily on both secondary sources and Luther’s own writings. His endnotes almost universally reference either a collected edition of Luther’s work or other biographical tomes. As one reviewer put it, Metaxas “takes mostly secondary sources, including recent biographies, and gleans their good quotations and retells their stories with Metaxas’s own inimitable grace” (Kolb, 2018). All this to say that Metaxas’ goal and method is not to break new ground or conduct new research, but instead to take what is largely already known about the man and reframe it a package that reflects Metaxas’ philosophical outlook and is also more palatable to popular taste. His book veers much more towards the popular than the academic.

There is certainly much to admire about presenting such an important historical figure in a way that makes their story more accessible to the masses. After all, it does reflect much of what Luther himself aimed to do with the Bible and God. Luther labored long and arduously to translate the Bible into the common German vernacular so that it might be made available to even the common man (Metaxas, 2017, p. 290). Tellingly, he fleshed-out his completed work with his own commentary and with illustrations that reflected his opinions of the pope and the Catholic church (Metaxas, 2017, pp. 290-292). It seems fitting then that the most notable aspect of Metaxas’ homage to the man is the author’s trademark wit and the somewhat obtuse commentary that is incorporated in the narrative.

“The teaching is not mine”

In his review of the biography, Dr. Robert Kolb, a professor emeritus of theology and himself an author of several works pertaining to Luther, comments that “Every biography tells us something of its author as well as its subject, and that is the case here too (Kolb, 2018). Metaxas fairly breezes through 450 pages worth of biography, but the riveting narrative of Luther’s revolution is regularly slowed and confused by injections of Metaxas’ own social commentary, theological opinions, or unabashed fawning over the man in question. It has already been noted that Metaxas presents Luther in a glowing, almost saintly aura, and to this end he often engages in unnecessary hyperbole.

For instance, when he recounts Luther’s first instance of celebrating Mass as a tonsured priest, Metaxas hypes it as the first time Luther had ever found himself “talking directly to the ineffable Almighty” (Metaxas, 2017, p. 38). However, Luther was a monk and was well-accustomed to praying. Metaxas even makes mention of the fact that Luther was used to praying the Pater Noster (Our Father, or the Lord’s Prayer), which is a prayer directly addressed to God the Father. (Metaxas, 2017, p. 35). To be sure, there is a great weight and responsibility on the priest’s shoulders when he officiates Mass, but this can be conveyed without such misrepresentation.

Metaxas also has a curious predilection to referring to American Exceptionalism while speaking of a man who lived approximately 250 years prior to the country’s founding. On more than one occasion Metaxas hints that the American experiment is the natural culmination of Luther’s life and work, at one point even calling America’s dedication to religious liberty as “another of the high-water marks of Luther’s legacy”(Metaxas, 2017, p. 444). This despite the fact that, during the peasant uprising that shook Germany during his life, Luther adamantly opposed any sort of armed rebellion against established authority, going so far as to petition the German nobility to use their superior military might to fatally and finally crush the rebellion festering within their realm (Metaxas, 2017, p. 332). Odd, then, to claim as a Lutheran high-water mark a revolutionary movement that Luther himself would have loudly and boldly denounced.

Because he relies so heavily on secondary sources and Luther’s own work, it can be difficult to parse how accurately Metaxas conveys Luther’s foes and his surrounding world. Was Luther’s angst and despair in the confessional really the result of bad Catholic theology, or was it something more personal? Because Metaxas only give Luther’s side, the answer can’t be known or even guessed. Metaxas is complimentary of at least a couple Catholic figures, such as Luther’s mentor Staupitz, but presents them as exceptions to the rule. In Metaxas’ world the Catholic church was hopelessly corrupt and irreparably fallen, but he primarily leans on Luther’s opinions to establish this fact.Metaxas once again seems to be following his subject’s example. Luther was prone to defending his theology with claims that it was simply extracted from the Bible whole sale and thus “the teaching is not mine” (Metaxas, 2017). Metaxas would likely make a similar claim concerning his willingness to repeat Luther’s accounts of the world he faced. 

Conclusion

When Metaxas goes about the business of telling Luther’s story, his book fairly sings. Although most definitely tilted in favor of the Reformer, the book still does an admirable job in demonstrating the stickier aspects of Luther’s Reformation and its ensuing fallout. He is far kinder to Luther than he is to his opponents, but this is to be expected in a biography written by a 21st-century evangelical commentator writing for a similar audience. What really harms the book is Metaxas’ insistence on dragging the future Luther ostensibly created backwards into the narrative of Luther’s life. That he does so with a fanboy’s enthusiasm and Lutheran-levels of self-assurance only makes it worse. These instances, of which there are several, unfortunately obscure and deform the portrait that Metaxas so wittily and colorfully paints of his subject. He offers wonderful descriptions of Luther and his great cast of cohorts and presents scenes with the life and verve of a novelist. But at key moments he injects just enough of himself into the narrative that it becomes confusing; is Metaxas describing Luther’s world or his own fairy tale?

 

Works Cited

Kolb, R. (2018, February 26). The Martin Luther of Eric Metaxas. Retrieved from The Gospel Coalition: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/martin-luther-rediscovered-god/

Metaxas, E. (2017). Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World. New York: Viking.

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Operation Finale: Review

Finale

OPERATION FINALE, the 2018 film from director Chris Weitz, is not the first depiction of the capture of Adolf Eichmann to grace the silver screens, and it’s probably not even the best. But it is a solid film that keeps its story grounded in people and their pain and is aided in this by great performances from its two leads. Ben Kinglsey portrays Eichmann as both a man in denial of his crimes, but also an egotistical genius who can’t deny the pride he took in his work of directing the Final Solution to its grisly results. Oscar Isaac plays Peter Malkin, the Mossad agent who captured Eichmann on a dirt road in Argentina and then later convinced the Nazi to essentially sign his own death warrant: a document authorizing extradition to Israel for trial. Both actors portray their characters with a sense of vulnerability and humanity that keeps the movie firmly tied to reality when it could have easily slipped into melodrama or mythmaking.
This is not a particularly flashy film. The camera mostly acts as an observer to the action and there is very little about the film that would draw attention to the direction, cinematography, or editing. For the most part the film is driven by the resonance of its story and the performance of its players. The movie’s best scenes are those where either Eichmann or Malkin or both take center stage, but even this is somewhat hampered by the screenplay’s inability to carry certain themes forward. For instance, the movie opens with a scene in which Malkin and his team attempt to arrest a suspected Nazi war criminal in Austria, only to discover too late that it was a case of mistaken identity. The scenes that follow toy with the idea that this failure both hinders and haunts Malkin in his career, but this thread is dropped once he is established as a member of the team to extract Eichmann from Argentina. Similarly the team’s doctor (Melanie Laurent), charged with sedating Eichmann at key moments in the operation, is given a fictional backstory in which she is Malkin’s former flame and also botched a previous extraction attempt that ended with a man’s death. This fabricated relationship is used as an opportunity to examine Malkin’s psyche throughout the nearly two-weeks the team spent holed-up in a safe house waiting for extraction, but if the doctor is worried about accidently causing another death, it is never shown.
The film only leans into the visual element of storytelling three times. During the opening credits we see a montage of Eichmann’s paper-work intercut with the creation of a painting later seen hanging in Malkin’s home. The former shows us the banal nature of Eichmann’s evil as it focuses on account ledgers, pushpins, and seemingly boring, everyday paperwork. The latter is a moody depiction of a forest, rendered in blues and blacks that demonstrates the immense sorrow brought about by Eichmann’s boring job. Malkin’s sister, whose absence haunts him throughout, was murdered during the Holocaust, most likely in a forest with her children, so he translates his emotions into the dark, brooding painting that hangs in his house.
Later in the film we see Eichmann’s teenage son watching IMITATION OF LIFE, a 1959 film, in a theater where he meets a young woman who would eventually play an instrumental role in his father’s capture. In the scene, young Eichmann bursts into laughter when he sees an on-screen depiction of anti-black prejudice played for dramatic effect. Weitz later uses the same visual technique to flip-the-script on the young man when his love interest admits to being Jewish. It’s a clever mirroring technique by Weitz (literally, the scene involves large windows as mirrors), and neatly links anti-Semitism with anti-black prejudices: both of which were prominent within the Nazi regime.
The third visual storytelling device occurs near the end, after Malkin and his team have finally transported Eichmann to Israel and the story’s hero is trying to process the ramifications of the ongoing trial. Throughout the movie Malkin is shown to be truly haunted by his sister’s death at the hands of the Nazis, and this is replayed several times as he imagines what her final moments may have been like. He sees her hanged to death by a group of laughing soldiers, gassed in a portable chamber, and finally shot-to-death in a massive trench dug to bury the hundreds of Jews lined-up within it. Malkin doesn’t really know how she died, so he’s constantly imaging how it might have happened. But now, with Eichmann finally facing justice, Malkin must decide if he is willing or able to move on from that loss. Weitz lets us see Malkin’s decision play-out in a scene in which he is mentally and emotionally transported back to the forest where his sister died. He sees her walk past him, through the trees of yesterday’s forest and then seemingly into the present-day crowd gathered to witness Eighmann’s trial where she vanishes into the mass of free, living, empowered Jewish people who are finally able to see justice done.
From most accounts Weitz’s film stays fairly true to the details of Eichmann’s capture. And his deviations from historical fact are clearly meant to help evoke and picture the emotional reality of the moment. As one character says in the film, this was the Jewish people’s chance to finally judge their executioner. This is the dynamic that Weitz leans into with his film, the idea of justice as a cathartic exercise in the wake of a horrible evil. OPERATION FINALE is not a film about vengeance or retribution, but about how victims survive, recover, and eventually find empowerment. The capture, trial, and eventual execution of Adolf Eichmann is portrayed as an exhibition of Jewish power. They not only survived Adolf’s “Final Solution” but now have the freedom and autonomy to prevent such atrocities from being inflicted on them in the future.

 

The Yuletide Adventures of Humperdinck Birmingham, Part 12: Christmas Spirit

He did not rise again, St. Nicholas. Once the candle went out, and he fell to the ground, he was gone. Vanished. And the statue returned to its place.

The legend goes that every year St. Nicholas returned to Earth on Christmas Eve so that by his generosity he could remind those in need of the true gift of Christmas. How it was that this year he came throughout the season of Advent, I do not know. Nor do I think I ever will.

When the smoke cleared from the chapel Ekenimi and I were the only two left standing. Tim and Percy lay on the floor, alive but unconscious. The bodies of those who followed the great monstrosity had disappeared. I do not now if they had been carried off by their comrades, or if the smoke had simply cleansed that holy place of all its impurities. We did not speak, but she and I both went about the task of straightening up the room before we helped poor Tim to his feet and carried poor Percy to a nearby building. I repaired the door as best I could, but I am not a carpenter.

Perhaps He will come and fix it.

Ekenimi assured me that after she rested she would be able to get us home, or at least close enough to it that we could get help. It was too dark to find Irving’s body, we left that for the morning light. There was no place to bury him here; he would have to come with us. So we built a fire and spent the rest of Christmas Eve at the North Pole, marveling at it all.

She asked me if I had known all along, but I assured her I did not. Not until Percy told me his suspicions, and then it seemed obvious. I also told her I did not know precisely what the Krampus meant when he said that he and the saint had fought in a former life, but I had my suspicions.

And, no, I told her when she asked, I did not believe the monster was dead. But he had been strongly made to remember his defeated state. We would not see him again in our lifetime, I was sure. But, I reminded her, the church has had many enemies down through the centuries, and so when one falls, there is always another to take its place.

After that we spoke of many things, and in doing so we followed the practice in which we discussed what had happened without actually speaking about it. She told me about her people, her ancestors and their origins and history. And ultimately their demise. I regaled her with stories from the church’s long history. And by “regaled,” I of course mean that I bored her so severely that she at last fell asleep.

I stayed awake. Not because I felt there were any threats, but simply because I could not sleep. I had witnessed a miracle. I had been part of one. My heart was full of mystery.

The reindeer eventually wandered in and nestled down next to Ekenimi to sleep. At some point Tim awoke and, feeling greatly refreshed, took the two hammers and destroyed the beastly machines that the Children had left parked nearby.

I idly wondered what next Christmas would be like. And then I happily marveled at the fact that, after such a long winter, Christmas would be coming again.

And I was glad.

And the world was glad with me.

The Yuletide Adventures of Humperdinck Birmingham, Part 11: The Return of St. Nicholas

The Krampus towered above us and his Children gathered around him at the shattered doorway.

“Stay,” he rasped to his followers. “The wicked are mine.” He took a step towards us.

The priest had found his feet and stood to my right, Ekenimi to my left. Tim had been revived enough to take a swaying posture alongside the priest, but he was down to one hammer.

Irving was dead. Percy…probably the same.

“So this is where we finish this,” the Krampus said, looking around the room. “In your shrine to holiness. A holiness you failed to keep.”

I had no idea what he was talking about, or really who he was addressing. Maybe all of us. Maybe me. Maybe he knew me from before. Maybe we’d danced liked this in a former life.

“It will make a nice fire,” he said after a moment. “But not one you’ll live to see.” He lowered his bag from atop his shoulder, and gestured towards its gaping mouth.

No one moved. I heard Ekenimi’s grip shift and tighten in her weapons. Tim’s hammer changed hands.

“You can go in willingly,” the Krampus offered. “Or I can chastise you into obedience.”

His gaze passed over each one of us. No one flinched. Ekenimi spit on the floor. “The last creature who spoke to me in that manner had its tongue removed. And it’s head.”

I thought I saw a slight smile cross the Krampus’ face as a murmur rippled through his gathered Children. “So be it.” He said, reaching to his belt where a long length of chain hung in loops.

One of the children in the back of the crowd pushed his way to the front, then took a flying leap onto the Krampus’s back, driving two long blades into the creature. The Krampus cried out in pain and fell to his knees. The hood fell back from the assailant’s face, revealing Percy’s bruised and battered visage.

“Priest! Now!” He shouted.

Ekenimi was already in motion, staff in one hand, spear in another, both twirling faster than humanly possible. She drove the spear into the Krampus’s throat, right above his collar bone, and then used her staff to pummel the wound that she’d left in their earlier encounter. Tim was moving forward, albeit at a much slower pace. I turned towards the priest.

He reached towards me, thumb to ring finger, the sign of blessing. He touched my forehead.

“Peace.”

Instantly the world around us grew still. Or, nearly still. Everyone was still moving, but at speeds that were nearly imperceptible to the naked eye. There was no sound. Curiously I found I could still turn my head and move my facial features at normal speed, but the rest of me was in the same sort of temporal-quagmire as the rest of my surroundings.

The priest smiled and patted my shoulder. He was apparently unchanged and unfettered by this sudden development.

“Peace, my son,” he said. “All is well.”

“How have you done this?” I asked, although I realized that there were more pressing issues. “What is this magic?”

“A little bit of that, yes,” he replied. Then he smiled. “I may be a little unusual…for a priest.”

Around us everyone inched ever slowly forwards in time.

“This is simply a moment of peace; no more than a breath. So you need to listen closely. Do you understand?”

I did not. But I nodded anyway.

The priest pointed to the melee around us. “Our friends are going to lose, and lose badly. The dimmer light of the Demons Star has weakened Krampus, diminished his strength even to the point where he can be gravely injured, but he will not be killed. Not yet. And not by these weapons.”

One of Percy’s knives came free of the Krampus’ back.

The priest pointed to an icon on the far wall, one that depicted St. George slaying the dragon. I followed his finger to another such icon, one that depicted St. Vartan in battle against the Sassians. As he continued to gesture about the room I noticed that the chapel was adorned with many icons in which ancient battles were depicted. And each icon was fronted by a statue of the saint shown in battle. Finally he drew my attention to an icon depicting St. Nicholas standing against Arian, the great heretic who threatened the church with his false teaching and deception. His hand lingered there until, after a moment, I realized what was missing.

There was no statue.

Tim’s hammer made contact with the the Krampus’ kneecap.

“Percy figured it out,” the priest said. “He put the pieces together before we left the church to come here. I think he noticed how you somehow managed to convince their ragtag group that hope was possible again. You appeared from nowhere and suddenly the people you meet start to hope again. Reluctantly and under protest, to be sure.”

I stared at him dumbly. Looked at the spot where the statue should be. And back to the priest’s smiling face.

Ekenimi’s staff rotated a half-turn.

“I don’t…I don’t understand.”

“Admittedly, that makes it all the more confusing,” the priest said. “Why didn’t you know who you were? Or why you were here? Or how you got to the city? As we are very fond of saying in my line of work…”

Percy began driving his knife back towards his target.

“…it’s a mystery,” I said aloud.

“It is indeed,” the priest agreed.

“I still…I still don’t remember.” I admitted.

“But do you believe?”

I didn’t know.

“Our moment is nearly done,” the priest said. He reached towards me again. “This is the least painful way to exit this state. When we re-enter this fray, fight as would St. Nicholas.”

“But I don’t know what that is!” I argued.

“You do,” he said. “You just forgot. But your heart remembers.”

He touched my head again.

The Krampus cried out in pain as Tim’s hammer caved-in his kneecap and Percy’s knife found his back again. His children were moving now, swarming Tim’s massive frame, knives flashing, blood flying.

Ekenimi was forced to abandon her assault on the wounded creature as she turned to fend off an onslaught of crazed fanatics.

Fight as would St. Nicholas? I didn’t know what that meant. And I didn’t have time to stand around and figure it out.

I lashed my whip around one of the hornS on the Krampus’ head just as he got a giant, hairy hand on Percy’s arm and slung him through the air. He flew through the air and crashed into a statue, toppling it into dust and fragments.

He did not stand up.

I pulled down hard, and the Krampus’ head met the floor. I put a booted foot on his head and leapt atop the crowd that had gathered around Tim’s fallen form. My hand found his hammer as I landed and I used to clear space around me. Ekenimi landed beside me, her staff broken in two; she wielded a section in each hand, like nunchucks.

A wave came at us.

We were ready.

“ENOUGH!”

The Krampus stood in the center of the room, with the priest dangling from his outstretched hand. He had the clergyman by the throat, and the priest was kicking and struggling, trying in vain to strike the giant brute with his still smoldering censer.

“Stand down, saint, or I crush him.”

I let the hammer fall from my hand.

“You, too, witch.”

Ekenimi bristled. “I will have your tongue and more for that,” she replied. But she lowered her weapons to her side.

Bleeding from multiple wounds and panting from exhaustion, the Krampus examined the flailing priest like one might stare at a curious rash or a birthmark that he never before noticed.

“Such a pathetic excuse for a holy man,” he said at last, and let him drop to floor. The priest gasped for breath and crawled a few feet away.

“You and your friends have fought well,” the Krampus said. “But this is my time. My age. My world.”

“Never.” Ekenimi replied. “It will never belong to you. You are neither a god nor a man.”

“I once was,” he replied, reaching to his belt and taking the chain in his hand. “Nicholas and I have fought before. Long ago, when we both had different forms.” At the end of the chain was large and wicked hook. It dropped to floor with a loud clank.

I was confused, bewildered. We had met before? When? How? I vainly tried to recall a specific memory from a catalog of blank cards and empty spaces. I still was not sure what was real and what wasn’t. The truth was not simply a set of facts, but the activation and application of them. Even if the priest was right, I had no idea how to seize upon what he had said.

“I have come to punish the wicked,” the Krampus said. “To harvest those who are ripe with iniquity.” He pointed to Ekenimi, who responded by raising her weapons yet again.

My mind would now stop spinning. It was like a wheel adrift in a mud hole, it could find no traction; there was no solid ground to be grabbed and to give momentum. How does a saint fight? How would St. Nicholas fight?

“I have been given dominion over the time and place,” the Krampus continued. “And you have resisted me. You have rebelled. You shall give an account.”

The chain rattled, the hook flew through the air, and I stepped in front of it.

The hook dug deep into my chest, I could feel it’s tip settle between my ribs as it broke back out through my chest. Ekenimi cried out. The Krampus stood still.

“No.” I said. “You’re defeated. You’ve lost. From before the foundation of the world, you’re doom has been sealed.”

I could feel the blood running down, soaking through weighing me down. Somehow it felt heavier bleeding out out.

“You fool,” the Krampus said. “You think you are immortal on this plane? Once you are dead, you can never return here. My victory will be final.”

Would it? I didn’t know. I reached up and touched my chest. My hand came away red and wet. How does a saint fight? I still wasn’t sure. But with sacrifice, right? That had to be a part of it. If you weren’t willing to put your body where your spirit was…

Spirit.

Body.

Sacrifice.

Christmas Spirit.

Christmas body.

Christmas sacrifice.

The Krampus yanked on the chain and the hook pulled me to my knees as it tore through my chest, ripping flesh and snapping bone.

Spirit is not enough. There must be a body. The spirit must have form and flesh and presence.

I held out my hand. “Priest…”

He somehow knew what I needed. He tossed the censer towards me. It landed a close in front of me and rolled and skittered to my hand.

Ekenimi took a flying leap towards the Krampus, who was frozen for a moment, staring.

I picked up the censer and lifted it by the chain. It smoked and smoldered. Heat rose from the sphere.

The Krampus swatted Ekenimi aside like a bug, but she kept her feet and landed like a cat, coiled and ready to spring again.

“Wait,” I asked.

She paused.

The Krampus raised his hook to strike.”

“Wait,” I repeated.

“You think I’m scared of that? Of you, broken and bleeding on the floor in front of me.”

“I think you’re scared of Christmas,” I said. “And if what it means and brings.”

“The great St. Nicholas comes early and plots and schemes,” the Krampus replied, disgust in his voice. “And yet he can’t conjure up enough Christmas Spirit to drive me away. You are…pathetic.”

“True,” I agreed. “I am pathetic. And weak. And my flesh is frail. But it’s strong enough.”

“Strong enough for what?” He mocked.

“To bleed.” I brought my hand down on the censer; the one wet and sticky with my own blood. My flesh sizzled and the smell changed to that of incense mixed with smoldering blood and skin.

“Like all spirits and ideas,” I said, “Christmas Spirit has to become a real presence in order to become real.”

The smoke spread and thickens as it filled the room. It touched the hem of the Krampus’ robe and it began to smolder. It wafted over the mob of Children at the door and they fell back as they cried in pain. Ekenimi saw an opportunity and began to offer them some very stout encouragement to retreat faster.

“I don’t bring Christmas Spirit,” I declared rising to my feet. I pressed the censer against my chest. “I bring Christmas, in the flesh.”

The smoke billowed up around the Krampus and he screamed in pain. Wherever it touched he began to glow like the embers of a fire. It seemed to be a painful experience. In vain he backed away, but he was retreating deeper into the chapel, and the smoke only continued to fill its small confines.

I still didn’t remember everything, but where there he only been once a blank slate, my mind’s eye saw a hazy window, or mirror, in which a picture was beginning to form.

“The saints have overcome you,” I said, confidence growing even as my strength faded. “They will always overcome you.”

The Krampus appeared to shrink, even as he continued to scream and rage against his fate.

“Christmas has made it so.”

The smoke filled the last crevice of the chapel.

The Children were running for their lives.

The Krampus shriveled to nothing.

The candle flickered out.

And I pitched forward into blackness.

The Yuletide Adventures of Humperdinck Birmingham, Part 10: The Battle for the North Pole

We had a problem. More accurately we had two. One was the arrival of the Krampus and his children, and the other was the fact that Percy was traitor.

The first problem was evidenced by the horrendous racket that was beating down about our ears. I wasn’t sure how eager they would be to breach the compound’s borders, but if they did hesitate it wouldn’t be for long.

Our current refuge was the Pole’s central hub, the nerve center. It resembled a small sanctuary, with a domed ceiling adorned with an ornate depiction of Christ ascending into heaven…or descending, depending on how you looked at it. The room was ringed with icons and statues of saints and figures I couldn’t readily identify. In the dim light they looked like a collection of witnesses assembled to see the annual miracle that took place in this room. A candlestick stood in the center of the room with a smoldering, sparking candle sitting atop it. It was nearly burnt-out, it’s wax melted and dripping down the whole of the candlestick and collecting on the floor.

Irving approached it, reached for it but didn’t touch it. “He’s here.” He said, his voice hushed and barely above a whisper. “Every year the candle would light when he appeared, and he stayed only as long as it remained lit.”

“A magic candle?” Percy asked.

“No,” the priest replied. “A holy one.”

We didn’t have time to contemplate or question. An army was at our door and St. Nicholas was close, but not close enough.

“He’ll come back to this room before his time is up,” Tim chimed-in from the door. He was staring out, taking stock of our situation. “As long as we hold this building, we have a chance.”

“But not much of one,” Ekenimi added. My coat was tossed across the arm of a nearby statue, her staff and spear back in either hand. Ready for war.

“Someone needs to find St. Nichols,” I said, loosing my whip from my belt. “And everyone needs to arm-up. Tim, Irving, are there weapons here?”

Tim shook his head, but Irving pointed to the east. “The smith shop is across the square. There aren’t weapons, per se, but there are hammers and other tools.”

“Go,” I answered. “You and Tim get what you can for yourselves and the priest.”

The priest pulled a hardened yew bowstaff from the stony embrace of a nearby statue. “This will suffice for me,” he said. “But Percy may need something.”

I put a hand on Percy’s shoulder and tugged him towards me as I headed for a side door. “Percy’s coming with me. We’re going to scout some outbuildings to see if St. Nicholas is there. I’m sure we can find something for him to swing.”

There was no way I was leaving Percy unattended, or giving him a weapon at this point. His loyalty was not with us, I was sure. Ever since we arrived at the church last night his behavior had been odd. He had been whispering with the others, perhaps sowing doubt or gathering info. He seemed aloof, as if he was holding something back.

He was going to tell me what it was.

“Ekenimi, hold the fort here, watch for their advance. If I’m not back before they start an attack, raise an alarm. We can’t let them pin us down in here.”

The sound of the Children’s pan-flutes was growing louder, but the Krampus himself was strangely quiet. I drug Percy behind me and we slipped out and headed to a nearby building. It turned out to be something like a large clerical office. There were several desks scattered around the rooms, all covered with papers, inkwells, and thick dust. Percy ran a finger over one and picked up an inkwell, weighing it in his hand, “I suppose I could get several of these and just throw them.”

“Put it down, Percy.” I had put a little distance between the two of us and had my whip at the ready. “We need to talk.”

He eyed my whip. “You don’t look to be in the mood for talking.”

“Why’d you turn on us? Or were you also still in the bag for Krampus?”

He looked genuinely surprised, even hurt. “What on earth are you talking about? I’m not a traitor.”

“I don’t believe you.” I didn’t. But his reaction was unexpected. I had expected him to attack. To pull out the long knives from his robe and come at me. Instead he just shook his horned head and smiled sadly.

“I wouldn’t betray you…” his voice tailed off.

“Then what are you hiding? Why have you been whispering with the others?”

“Why don’t you ask them?” He had placed the inkwell back on the desk, but otherwise remained still.

“I didn’t want to turn my back on you.” I was becoming less and less sure that he was a traitor, but more and more convinced he was hiding something.

“I have kept something from you,” he admitted. “But only because I wasn’t sure I was right. I’m still not completely sure. But you’ll know soon. I promise. When it’s time.”

Before I could respond I heard Ekenimi’s battlecry echo from across the way, just as a beastly machine crashed through the wall between Percy and I.

The impact threw us both backwards, away from each other. A mob of Children poured in through the hole, brandishing knives and looking very, very cross. Percy caught the lead one in the head with an inkwell, then quickly did the same with the next two.

“Go!” He yelled, frantically searching for more ammunition. “You have to get to the chapel! I’ll hold them off as long as I can.”

There was a coat rack in the corner of the office until my whip wrapped around its middle and flung it into the middle of the oncoming mob. I vaulted a desk, swiping up an inkwell as I did. I spiked it off the head of the nearest assailant and then grabbed him by his horns, driving him backwards as I powered through his partners and eventually used him as a bartering ram to punch a hole through the now weakened wall. We spilled out into the snow and ice, and the butt of my whip made sure I got up and he didn’t.

The machines were systematically bulldozing the outbuildings and the Children were completely encircling the compound, closing in like goat-horned, crazed-eye noise around our collective neck. Ekenimi was out in front of the chapel, twirling and spinning and leaving a trail of fallen foes in her wake. Her spear floated above her head, darting and stabbing and carving through anyone who got too close. She wielded her staff in her left hand and it spun in a blur as she cut-down the encroaching mob.

Tim and Irving were on her right flank, Irving armed with what looked like a short length of pipe, and Tim ferociously swinging two massive hammers. Irving looked very frightened and Tim was having much too much fun. He was singing, it sounded like. Singing some song that only he could understand; the pops and thuds of his hammer striking skull and horn and collar bones kept the beat as he sang.

I was halfway to them when I realized the priest was down to their left. Clutching his bowstaff with one hand as support, he was down on one knee, his other hand on his chest, censer still hanging from his fist. There was a small circle of Children around him, and a goat-head was standing over him, knife held high, ready to fall.

My whip cut across his knuckles and the knife fell harmlessly to the tundra. On the recoil I caught his horn and with a solid yank I had him sprawled in the ground. I swung him like an earth-bound wrecking ball and he slid helplessly along the ice on his back, kicking and twisting like an upside-down turtle. His fellow attackers went down like bowling pins. Before they could find their feet I was on them, kicking and punching and making them very very sorry that any of them had goat-horns attaches to their empty, stupid skulls. I was putting the last one down for the count when I heard a great roar and was almost immediately knocked over by something catapulting through the air.

It was Irving. He was beaten and bloody and his arms and legs were bent all wrong. He was mostly dead but he mouthed “I’m sorry,” before his eyes closed. I looked up and saw the Krampus glaring from 50 yards away, Tim’s body stretched out at his feet.

I shoved the priest to his feet, “Get to the chapel!” My hand found my whip and I moved towards the monster. The priest said something, pleaded for something, but I couldn’t hear. My focus was on the beast, the monster, the great abomination that slouched towards us. Tim moved slightly, his hand reached for his hammer which lay just beyond his reach. The Krampus noticed, and lifted a giant hoofed-foot to bring down on the snowman’s hatless head.

I was too far away to stop him.

But Ekenimi was not.

She flashed across his face, pulverizing it with her staff. Her spear plunged deep into the Krampus’ side and then she used her whirling staff to deliver an uppercut to his jaw, toppling him backwards, away from Tim. She then scooped up the giant Yeti as if he was a small child and fairly flew towards the chapel. By this time the priest had me by the sleeve and was dragging me back there as well

“Wait,” I protested in vain, “we haven’t found St. Nicholas yet!”

“Get inside!” He said in response, “We have to get back there!”

He slammed the door shut behind us, but it only stayed sealed a few seconds before being blasted open and the priest was sent rolling across the floor towards the center.

The Krampus was too big to fit through the doorway, so he broke it open as he stepped in. His horns nearly scratched the ceiling as he stood, gloating. His deep black eyes were crinkled in a smile. And he let out a deep, hateful laugh.

He was in the sanctuary.

The candle was nearly burnt out.

And St. Nicholas was nowhere to be found.

The Yuletide Adventures of Humperdinck Birmingham, Part 9: The Advent

My earliest memory is from about six weeks ago, when I woke-up in a burnt-out shell of a building with no memory of who I was or how I got there. I was dressed in drab, plain clothes and had only one pressing thought.

Christmas.

As soon as I got up and around I realized I knew more than I realized. I recognized most of what I saw and heard. I knew where I was once I saw some landmarks, I recognized the Children of Krampus when I saw them, I understood what was going on around me.

I even knew what day it was.

But my name? Where I came from? How I got there? Not a clue.

I spent a couple days acclimating, staying in the shadows, trying to get the lay of the land. But the idea of bringing Christmas back was burrowing in my brain like a parasite. I couldn’t shake it. I felt like I had been formed out of the ashes of that church and given life for that purpose. So I embraced. I’m a nothing, a nobody, but something or someone wanted me right here, right now, and the only reason I could find was Christmas.

When I got down to it, I realized I knew a lot about Christmas Spirit, about St. Nicholas, and about the North Pole. More than that, I found myself completely incapable of thinking about anything else. I even lost interest in finding out who I was, or where I came from. So I picked a name, just something outlandish and memorable, and made Christmas my life; since I didn’t really have a life, it wasn’t that hard.

I found Irving selling contraband on the streets and realized he was of elf-blood. I found about the council and learned that Ekenimi, Tim, and Percy were all members. Heard the rumors about the reindeer. Met the priest at his church. So far as I know, I’m not religious, but the church felt familiar and comfortable, like an old coat you leave in the closet so long you forget you own it. But everything Christmas-related had that feel to me.

Slowly but surely all the pieces fell into place. The reindeer. The bells. The council. The Demon Star that wouldn’t shine this Christmas. All of it mattered. This was the one year that everything might work. After that it was just a matter of getting all of you together and on-board.

As weird as it sounds, I felt like I was being guided down this path. Guided to all of you, to all of this. I don’t know what will happen after tonight. Something tells me I’m not going to make it out if this, and I’m fine with that. So long as we win.

So long as we find Christmas again.

***

A long silence followed my story.

A long silence violently broken by a horrendous crashing that shook the building to its foundation and knocked us all of our feet

As the dust settles and the echo died away, we could hear the steady roar of the nearly machines, the eerie whistling of the pan-flutes, and the uproarious laughter that rose above it all.

“Out of time,” Percy said. “We’re in it now.”

The Yuletide Adventures of Humperdinck Birmingham, Part 8: The Ancient Magic

He was here.

The sound of the flutes was like a shrill, unearthly scream heralding his arrival. Like all the earth was rebelling against his presence, his unholy dominion.

I threw open the door and stared into the fog and ice and faint gray of the morning. The children were moving, shuffling around, as if a slow-building current was flowing through the crowd. And in the back of it I could see the monstrous shaped pressing forwards, toward the church.

“Everyone get out here!” I shouted. “We’ve got to do this and we’ve got to do this now! Priest!” I realized I didn’t know his name, “I need you, too!”

They burst through the door behind me, Tim nearly breaking the doorframe open as he barged through, with Ekenimi and Percy on his heels, the priest shoving the reindeer through with Irving on its back.

The Krampus came closer. He was massive, standing over ten-feet tall, with his horns protruding another 2-3 feet taller. He was hunched slightly forwards, lurching towards us. He was covered from head to foot in thick, matted hair and wore brown robe with a hood draped over his shoulders. He carried a staff as thick as my leg, and he huffed and snorted with each lumbering step.

We stood in a circle, backs-in, faces-out. “Let’s get this going,” I said. “Ekenimi, you’re up.”

The warrior had discarded her robe in the church, and was attired in her ceremonial armor. All leather and beads and feathers and furs, it left her arms and legs exposed to the cold, but if she noticed she didn’t show it. Her face and shoulders were painted, her arms ringed with tattoos.

She began speaking an ancient tongue I didn’t know but that I somehow recognized; the same way a sailor knows the sound of the sea, or a farmer knows the whine of the wind that brings the summer storms. As she spoke her tattoos began to smoke and glow as if on fire, until she was concealed in the cloud as it sparked and shifted and flew around us in a tight circle, moving at a pace that seemed inhumanly quick.

The Krampus was near the front, now. The beastly machines were inching forwards. The whistling was growing louder and the tune was spinning faster and faster. I could see his eyes, now, and it was like looking into two deep black pits. There was no light, no spark; just endless deposits of evil and hate.

He seemed familiar.

From the smoke of Ekemini’s magic the butt of her staff suddenly darted out and tapped Percy in the chest, knocking him back a step. Once, twice, three time it touched him until, on the third strike, his eyes widened and his cloak began to billow around him. He reached out and grabbed my shoulder. Nodded.

“This is it, people!” I shouted above the shriek of the whistles and the roar of the machines. “Put a hand on the reindeer. Irving!”

From atop the reindeers shoulder Irving began to shake the strand of silver bells. He set a quick rhythm, and then began to chant in elf-tongue. Again, I couldn’t understand his words, but I felt it strike a chord deep within, as if I knew it from somewhere. It was not unlike Ekenimi’s tongue, but also not like it.

The Krampus broke through the ranks of his Children and opened his mouth in a monstrous grin. And then he laughed.

“We need to be out of here, Irving!”

The Krampus fixed his gaze on me, and for a moment I was convinced of two things:

1. He knew me, and I him.

2. For the briefest of moments, he was very afraid.

And then Irving spoke one last verse, and everything around us swirled into blackness, then a sharp, blinding light knocked us all to the ground.

***

I did not move at first. I wasn’t completely sure what had happened. And then I heard Tim’s calm, measured voice announce, “Welcome to the North Pole. But I warn you, it’s in a state of disrepair.”

I pushed myself to my feet and knocked the snow off myself. “Let’s move,” I said. “We don’t have much time. He’ll be here soon.”

“Who,” Percy asked. “Santa?”

“No. Well, yes, but that’s not who I meant. The Krampus and his Children won’t be far behind.”

The North Pole was sprawled across the landscape in front of us; a handful of buildings dropped into the snow and ice. The out buildings were scattered in a semi-circle around the main structure, a small, plain building that was only remarkable because of its domed shape and modest steeple.

Tim led the way towards the compound, bulling through the snow and clearing s path for us to follow. The reindeer frolicked ahead, snorting and tossing its head in joyful recognition.

“Why are you so sure that the Krampus can find this place?” Percy asked as we fell in line behind Tim. “We barely made it. He doesn’t have a reindeer or a strand of bells.”

I shrugged out of my overcoat and handed it to Ekenimi, who wordlessly accepted it and wrapped it around her slight frame.

“We don’t know that, Percy. Who knows what he’s hidden away, what magical creatures or devices he’s acquired.” The priest offered me a hand as we clawed our way up the incline towards the structures. “Besides, he may not even he need it. He may know the way and have the means without any help.”

“How,” said Tim as he unceremoniously kicked-in the gate at the mouth of the compound, “could that possibly be the case? How could he possibly know the path here?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted as we climbed the steps to the front door. “But I know he’s been here before. He knows this place.”

Ekenimi stepped in front of the door, blocking the way. “Enough.” She said, crossing her arms. “How do you know that? How do you know any of this?”

I could feel five pairs of eyeballs staring me down.

“Please open the door, Ekenimi. Let’s get inside, and I’ll tell you everything.”

The Yuletide Adventures of Humperdinck Birmingham, Part 7: The Legend of Santa Clause

Tim, Percy, Ekenimi, and Irving were all standing post at various doors and windows, peering out into the fog to keep an eye on the growing assemblage of Children that were surrounding the church. The priest was walking through the building, praying and swinging his censer with desperate fervor. The reindeer was still in the basement.

I was staring at the two icons that were at the sanctuary entrance; The Nativity on the one side, St. Nicholas on the other. I had the faint urge to pray, but I didn’t remember how, and the more I tried to remember, the further away the memory slipped.

“You were religious before,” Ekenimi stood behind me in the doorway, I had no long idea how long she’d been there.

“Before what?” I asked.

“Before you forgot,” she replied, coming to stand beside me. “Before you became Humperdinck.”

“Maybe. But if I forgot…then I can’t say for sure, can I?”

“The mind forgets, but true religion is not a thing of the mind alone. It is of the heart. The soul. It remembers even when the mind forgets.”

Her hand caressed the icons as she spoke, pausing above the image of Mary embracing the Christ child.

“Are you….” I wasn’t sure what word was best. I gestured at the icons, “religious?”

She smiled, “My people have known this story since the beginning,” she replied. “But many forgot. Not in their minds, but in their hearts. They chose to remember, to love other things.”

Her hand was suddenly on my shoulder, “But your heart remembers! It is so strange! You have forgotten everything, but not that. Your heart remembers that. it is why you do what you do.”

None of this made sense to me, not a word she spoke. But I was pretty sure she was right.

“Let’s find the priest,” I said. “I have a question.”

***

“St. Nicholas is Santa Clause, right?”

The priest was distracted and didn’t answer right away. He was staring out the window at the throng of Children that were ringed around the edge of the property.

“They won’t come,” he said, to himself as much as anyone. “They won’t come in holy ground.”

“No, they won’t,” I agreed. “We’re safe For now. But I need to speak to you, Father.”

He reluctantly gave me his attention, “Yes, my son. What is it?”

“How can St. Nicholas be in heaven in presence of God, but also be on Earth every Dec. 24th?”

The priest smiled, “Now, my son, that is a mystery, isn’t it?”

I took his arm and led him to a table. Ekenimi took his place at the window. “Care to make it a little less mysterious?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, setting the censer atop the table, where it smoldered and smoked, “as I’m sure you’ll probably guess, the church has no definitive teaching on the subject-”

“The church seems to do that a lot,” I said in observation.

“And with good reason,” the priest replied. “When the church hands down a teaching, a tradition, for her people to follow, it is a very grave and serious matter. St. James warns about the heaviness of teaching and cautions against seeking to teach when it is not necessary or warranted.”

That made sense.

“So, in this regard the church has no teaching. It has no need of one. But there are stories…legends…tales which might be encouraging or beneficial, but are not binding or dogmatic.”

“So tell me what it says about St. Nicholas.”

“The legend goes something like this: Because of Nicholas’ holiness and piety, and because God sought to keep on the earth a constant reminder of the Nativity, of Christmas, He gave to the good saint a gift…a responsibility. That every year, on the eve of Christ’s birth, Nicholas would revisit the realm of earth and give good gifts to those in need or those without assistance, so that they might see and have a reminder of the gift of grace offered through Christ’s incarnation.”

I waited.

He smiled and shrugged.

“That’s it?” I asked.

“That’s the gist. Is there something specific you were after?”

“Well….how does Christmas Spirit impact that?”

“No one knows. God does not need any such thing in order to do His work, but it is thought that Nicholas’ work was only possible if Christmas Spirit was still present. And that the amount of work he could do on that night was contingent on how much Spirit was still in the air.”

“So he still comes, regardless?”

The priest stood and took his censer back in his hand, “So it is thought. But who knows for sure?”

“And the North Pole is significant because?”

“No idea. Ask a Catholic.”

***

“Who are you really, Humperdinck Birmingham?”

It was Irving who asked me this time. He was staring at a scrap of paper, trying to decipher the script left on it by Tim’s scrawling chicken-scratch.

I was peering out the doorway, trying to decide the best exit. We’d have to be outside to make the magic work, and we were pretty thoroughly ringed by the horde of Children. Multiple beastly machines could be seen idling through the fog.

“I’m not sure how that’s a relevant question at the moment,” I said. “If you can’t say the word, we’re doomed. And my actual name won’t matter when we’re dead.”

“Call it a professional curiosity. A last request. Humor me.”

The night was nearly over. When dawn broke Yuletide magic would be in full-strength, and we could reach the Pole.

But that also meant the Krampus would appear, and even weakened he was still far more dangerous than the entire collection of mechanical beasts and human fabrics clustered around us.

I shut the door and turned to room. Everyone was gathered. Ekenimi stood in the center, staff and spear in hand. The reindeer was standing idly by, sniffing at the bells that floated above its nose. Irving was stuffing the scrap of paper in his pocket. Percy and the priest were discussing something in quiet voices. Tim was wearing his hat and coat and looked ready for action.

“This is it,” I said. “Either this works and we win, or it doesn’t and we find out what happens to those people that the Krampus drags off in his bag every year.”

“Where are you going to get Christmas Spirit?” Percy this time.

“From Father Christmas,” I said. “From St. Nicholas Himself. He reappears at the North Pole every year, but never stays because there’s not enough Christmas Spirit to power his mission. He comes and he goes every Christmas Eve. But this year will be different. This year we’ll be waiting.”

“And then what will we do? How is that going to help?” Irving this time.

“St. Nicholas is the guardian of the Christmas Spirit,” the priest answered from across the room. “Where he goes, the Spirit follows, it condenses around him. In times as dark as these it inspires hope in all those who encounter his presence.”

Percy was now speaking softly with Tim as the the priest moved to the center of the room, “Those who encounter the Christmas Spirit of St. Nichols carry it with them. It multiplies and blooms and, more importantly, spreads.”

“So,” Tim asked, “we receive the Christmas Spirit from St. Nicholas when he appears, and then we spread it. We travel…we carry it with us.”

I nodded.

The priest nodded.

Irving nodded.

Ekenimi and Percy huddled for a moment before parting, seemingly in agreement.

“This is an absurd plan,” Ekenimi warned. “But it is the only plan we have.”

We stood in a circle now, ringing around the reindeer who had grown tired of conversation and was munching on the leg of a chair.

For a moment, just a a brief second, we all felt it. The warmth of hope glowing in our hearts.

And then we heard the flutes.

Percy blanched.

“He’s here. It’s dawn.”

The Yuletide Adventures of Humperdinck Birmingham, Part 6: Yuletide

The silver bells floated a foot in front of the reindeer’s nose and he never took his eyes off them. Tim led the way through the factory’s labyrinthian mid-section, white- hairy hands waving us forwards, sideways, or to temporary stop at every corner and doorway. Ekenimi was close behind him, spear in hand and staff out-of-sight.

That meant Percy and I brought up the rear. I had my coat open and one hand on my hip. Percy walked with his hands folded into the wide sleeves of his ash-gray robe, mumbling prayers under his breath.

“Boy,” Ekenimi whispered fiercely as we bunched around the exit, watching for Tim’s “all-clear” signal as he scouted the the way ahead. “You owe us an explanation. Begin.”

“I know how to bring back Christmas Spirit,” I said. “But I’m going to need all of you and two more people to make it happen.”

Tim appeared as if from nowhere and beckoned is to follow him. “That’s impossible,” he said as we slipped alongside the outside of the building, mindful of the distant shouts of searching Children. “Christmas Spirit can never be brought back.”

“It can,” I said. “But it’s going to take all of us. And a priest. And a half-elf.”

We stopped at a corner. Through the fog we could see blurry shapes shift about down the street. And the muffled roaring of the beastly machine echoed off every wall. Percy steppes into the lead, “Let me to first,” he said, placing a hand on Tim’s arm. “That way, if we meet any trouble, I can buy us at least a few seconds.”

Tim nodded and Percy glided ahead, feet hidden beneath the length of his hem. We all followed, Tim with one hand on the the reindeer’s shoulder and Ekenimi and I following a few steps behind.

“How?” She hissed at me, eyes darting all around, watching every corner. “How do you think you will bring it back?”

“It’s complicated,” I said, which did not make her happy. “But it starts with us getting to the North Pole by tomorrow night.”

The spear was at my throat before I even finished my sentence. Her eyes burned like two glowing embers. “To the Pole?! By tomorrow night?! I will slit your throat here and now and save everyone else the trouble of listening to your insanity!”

“Just…” I was about to say ‘calm down,’ but thought better of it. “Just wait.”

“Wait?! For what? There is no man alive who knows how to find the pole, and no way to get there by tomorrow night!”

“You’re right,” I said, suddenly conscious of the fact that Tim, Percy, and the reindeer had vanished into the fog. And even more conscious of the shapes emerging from behind us. “No man can find it, and no man can get us there. But I’ve got something…someone who can do both.”

She drew the spear back and for a moment I though I was about to go to whatever awaited me beyond the veil. But instead she whispered a word and the spear flew from her hand, singing past my ear and plunging into the chest of one of the emerging figures. Ekenimi follows after it, leaping and spinning through the air without a sound, her staff appearing in her hands as she attacked the second Child. I heard the thud of her staff meeting skull, and then the sound of a body hitting pavement.

She was not someone with which to trifle.

“Come,” she said, gripping my collar and pulling me forwards. “Let’s find the others so they, too, can hear your brilliant plan.”

***

The priest would not consent to letting a reindeer into the narthex, so we gathered in the basement/multi-purpose room.

Irving was there, drinking coffee and looking miserable, quite possibly because the priest had taken his cigarettes. “Someone tipped the Children off about my business, he muttered, while also glaring at me. “I was on the run almost as soon as I finished talking to you.”

I shrugged.

He cursed. Then looked around anxiously as if he expected a bolt of lightning to strike him down.

“How do you intend to find the North Pole? Let alone get us there.”

Tim was stirring his tea as he spoke, bright blue eyes fixed on me.

“The reindeer. The sleigh bells. The elf.”

Irving say up. “Me?”

“Yes. You can speak the elf-tongue, the only language to which those beasts will respond. He answered the bells when they rang, which means he is of the right bloodline. He can take us to the Pole.”

“I don’t know the words.”

I pointed at Tim. “He does.”

Tim smiled.

“But he can’t speak them in the elf-tongue. Only you can do that, Irving.”

“The beast has no magic,” Ekenimi said from her post at the door. “Even with the bells and the words and the tongue, he has no magic to get us there.”

“True,” I said. Then I turned to Percy. “But Percy does. Or at least he will. Come dawn.”

“Explain, please,” interjected Irving.

“The Krampus and his Children feed on Yuletide magic. From the old pagan gods and myths that rules over Europe in the old days.”

“The Wild Hunt,” Tim offered.

“Right,” I said, nodding. “They’re hunters, blood-thirsty and hungry. Their magic comes down on Christmas Eve. That’s when the Krampus appears and takes his prey, every year. Or at least he did until Christmas Spirit overpowered him and vanished him to the South. Now he’s back. And so is Yuletide Spirit. And Percy-”

Percy shook his head. “You’re wrong, Humperdinck. I cut myself off from the Yuletide magic when I recanted.”

“I know,” I said. “But if you get a little jump-start, you can conduct the magic. And that’s all we need.”

“And who,” asked Tim, “will provide the spark?”

I stared a hole in Ekenimi’s back until she turned and met my gaze.

“You are out of your mind.”

“You’re the only living magician that I know, Ekenimi. You wield the old magic, the ancient way. You and your staff can reawaken Percy, and he can tap into the Yule spirit and transport us to the Pole.”

“Wait,” said Irving, “why can’t she just use her magic to get us to the Pole?”

“Her magic is old and powerful,” I explained, “but only two Yule magic and Christmas magic are attuned to the Poles of the Earth.”

“This is all so confusing,” said the priest, who had been listening from the corner. “How does The Snowman know the words? Why can’t her magic get you there? And why are you all here?”

Ekenimi shut the door and stepped back. “They are here.”

I stood up and drug a table in front of the door. “They won’t attack,” I said. “They can’t. This is holy ground and they won’t step on it. Not without…him.”

I stacked two chairs atop the table. Just in case I was wrong. “Tim knows the word because his kind worked as clerks and historians at the Pole.”

“Among other things,” he said coyly.

“Ekenimi’s magic won’t work because the reindeer is our transport to the Pole, the bells are the power, and the elf-tongue is the key in the ignition. But the magic is the map. And Ekenimi’s magic leads somewhere else.”

“Somewhere better,” she said.

“But we need to get to the Pole,” I said. “Because that’s where we can find the Christmas Spirit.”

The Yuletide Adventures of Humperdinck Birmingham, Part 5: The Council of Firsts and Lasts

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I picked a street, a very bad street, it turned out. Less than a hundred yards down its length I met a mob of Children led by three Crowned goat-heads. Their knives were out and gleaming, their smiles wide and hungry, and their blasted, blasted flutes all playing The Wicked’s Lullaby:

Oh wicked lad and wicked lass,
bow your haughty head at last.

The Krampus comes to claim your soul,
to make of you a lump of coal.

The verses only got worse after that.

They stopped when they saw me coming, but I did not. My only hope was surprise, unpredictability, and bushel-load of pure, dumb luck. Their knives were still by their sides when I introduced the first one to my right boot and his neighbor to the flat of my paddle. The horde drew back for a split-second, which was all I needed. My whip came to life in my hand,  biting and snapping and stinging in every direction until the tip was wet with blood and the crown had instinctively drawn-back to form a circle around me.

The beastly machine roared in the distance.

The Children smiled and raised their knives.

I dropped the wooden paddle and reached into my pocket. By the time I got the strand of silver bells out and over my head, letting them jingle as they glinted in the dim light, the machine was turning the corner down my street.

This was going to have to be quick.

“You all know what this is, right? And you know where it came from…yeah?”

They were silent, staring.

The machine was 70 yards away.

“And, finally, do you know what it means? No? I’ll tell you. It means Christmas Spirit is coming back, and when it does, you’re all going to watch as the Krampus turns to dust.”

They hissed and took a step back. Perfect.

50 yards.

I jingled the bells again. As loud as I possibly could.

25 yards.

The Children began to edge closer, I lashed one across the knuckles to discourage the idea.

Come on, now! Come on! I know you can hear them.

The machine was practically on top of me now, the Children had parted to let it approach. Then a fat, ugly, graying, but wonderfully, perfectly on time reindeer careened in from the left, darting out of the dark alley between the butcher shop and frozen market. He brayed as he ran, eyes wide, antlers down. It was a four-legged hairy bowling ball blasting its way through a mass of human-pins, flattening some and tossing the others aside. He didn’t stop when he reached me, and I didn’t expect him to. I flipped my whip around his antlers as I side-stepped, trying to match his pace as I did so.

Five steps and six more casualties later I flung myself at him, desperately clawing at his thick, matted hide to find a handhold and pull myself up. Behind us the machine was still roaring and Children were screaming in pain and in rage. But we’d broken the circle.

They wouldn’t catch us now.

I didn’t know the name of this particular reindeer, but the rumor was that he was a descendant of Comet and Cupid. For months stories had been circulating about a reindeer that had taken up residence in the grimy streets north of the Christmas Church. My hunch had been that if was indeed a Clausian reindeer, he’d respond to the bells.

The rest of it was just luck.

I jingled the bells next to the reindeer’s face and he snorted.

“Let’s get where we need to go, boy, and I’ll let you have them.”

***

Either because the entirety of the council lacked originality, or because the best hiding place is the one too obvious to be considered, the meeting was being held in an abandoned toy factory on the edge of downtown. I was already late, and now I was bringing a reindeer with men and had a horde of Children on my trail.

No one was going to be glad to see me.

After getting my ride tucked away in the parking garage with the strand of sleigh bells nuzzled under his nose the way a dog would hold a favorite toy, I navigated my way through the halls to the meeting. Whip back under my coat, coat buttoned back, I didn’t bother knocking, I just entered.

The snowman was the first to see me, and he responded smashing a great hair fist down on the table. “You!” he bellowed, “You are trouble we do not need! Now, get out.”

He was a sharp dresser, the snowman or Yeti or whatever his actual species was. No one knew for sure and when asked he would simply tip his bowler hat, tug at the collar of his waistcoat, and excuse himself from the conversation. His woolen overcoat was draped on the chair behind him, and everyone else at the table shuddered at his raised voice. In general, snowmen never spoke above a calm, measured tone, but I tend to bring out the worst in them.

Or at least in this one.

Seated to his right was a goat-head, or I should say, a former goat-head. The only known defector from the Children of Krampus, Percy Kline still wore the goat-horns that marked his former life, but his face was clean and he wore a tightly-cropped beard. He instinctively reached out to calm his friend.

“Now, now, Tim, lets see what he wants.”

“What he wants is to make trouble and spin fantasies,” said the council’s third member, Ekemini was a tall, willowy woman with coal-black skin and a royal bearing. She wore a long robe that was far-away the most colorful thing I had seen all day her hair was in dreadlocks woven through with scarves and beads. I knew from experience she carried a staff and spear with her at all times, but they didn’t seem to be on her person since she had threatened me with neither of them.

Since there was a horde of Children scouting the are for me and my reindeer friend, I hoped she had them somewhere close.

“We don’t have much time,” I said, walking to the far window so peer through its grimy film. “I had a run-in with a horde. They’re still out there. And they have a beast with them.”

Ekenimi’s staff rapped the back of my head. Apparently she did have it somewhere close. “You have a horde after you and you led them here? You are a fool. I’ve half a mind to give them what they want and leave you to your fate.”

“Here, here!” thundered Timothy Oliphant Dexweiler.

“Look, I know I’m not your favorite person, and I know I raise more questions and alarm than anything else with you and the rest of the council, but-”

“There is no ‘rest of the council,'” Percy said quietly, looking down at his hands. “We’re all that’s left.”

I was disturbed but not surprised.

“Then we’ll have to be enough to get it done.”

“To get what done?” demanded, Ekenimi, staff still dangerously close to my face. It floated there, just to the side of my line-of-sight, where she held it by the strength of her mind. As far as anyone knew she was the last of her kind, the last one who could wield the power of telekinesis. The council had been a collection of lasts and firsts. Tim, the last of the snowmen; Percy, the first to defect; Clarence, the last guardian angel; others.

But now it was just these three. These three, me, an old reindeer, and a half-elf and a priest who didn’t even know they were involved.

“Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and the Krampus will come. But if I’m right, he’ll be the weakest he’s ever been. And I’ve found something; something we all thought was gone from this earth. Something that can help us bring back Christmas Spirit.”

“There’s nothing that can do that,” Tim said, reaching for his hat and coat. “And if we leave now we might can escape.”

Percy nodded ruefully, “He’s right, Humperdinck. Christmas Spirit is never coming back.”

Ekenimi alone seemed intrigued. “How would you do that, boy? How could you bring it back?”

I shook my head. “Tim is right, we need to leave. But I’ll tell you on the way. Come with me to get my reindeer, and then on the way to the church, I’ll tell you everything. I’ll tell you what I’ve found, how it can help, and how I know what I know.”

They were all three at the door when Percy stopped and turned back to me. “Did you say you have a reindeer?”