Normally, all the lamps around the frozen grounds would be ablaze. Now, only the ones inside the workshop were lit, and their flames seemed weak and frightened. December was upon them, the night near-permanent, but that had never stopped them before. This year, this Christmas, was different. There were two claiming the sled as their own now, and the second was on his way.
Riddles the elf was hard at work along with his kin. Their tiny fingers slaved over the last of the toys, stitching manes into the hobby horses with their black marble eyes the size of quail eggs. His eyes darted back to the wardrobe in the corner of the room. That was where Santa kept his cloaks, but he only wore one of them around this time of year: the red one. He clung to it now especially with that bloated specter on the horizon.
Riddles, named after his penchant for stumping his fellows and then getting smacked across the face for it, stopped stitching and held the glittering needle still. The hobby horse’s wooden face had a snarl carved into it. These were toys, but they were not for the children. These were toys of war, the only deadly implements the elf race had ever made, for the battle of the eve.
When he arrived they would all hold out their hands from the safety of the workshop, controlling the toys they had made like marionettes with invisible strings. They would charge the horses in, march the tin soldiers, and fire the miniature catapults. Whether or not that would do much against the undead, they did not know.
“Keep working!” Santa sputtered as he stumbled into the workshop, dark bottle of glowing wine in his hand. His eyes were bleary and his cheeks had an unnatural redness, separate from the rosy sheen that delighted children so. They only saw him when he had a purpose. Riddles saw him the rest of the time, taking advantage of his people’s century old oath to maintain the joy of the world’s young.
Elves were naturally softer than most other creatures, their flesh like pastry dough, so when Riddles got his smacks they stayed. The ones from Santa had permanently deformed his face, a face he saw reflected in the dead black eye of the hobby horse. He was young, but he still remembered what it was like before the old Santa had passed.
The old Claus was stern, but he never struck them and he never partook of the glowing wine. The wine was for the reindeer, made and aged by Mrs. Claus, to fill them with a divine glow and let them fly. Mrs. Claus had left this new warden of the workshop. She had tired of his ego, and of his flirtations. They each had their duties to the oath, and Santa did not seem to understand that they overpowered any carnal duties of marriage.
Santa sputtered, his boots rising off the creaky floorboards. The wine sent him up into a corner, where he laughed, cried, and swore at them. The elves paid no attention, even as his spittle landed on their little pointed hats and ears. The fear was tearing him apart now, not that he was stable before. His predecessor had sent a warning: a note attached to a gliding wooden bird that had sailed through one of their windows and let the biting wind in.
The old Santa was coming back to reclaim his workshop. Riddles wanted nothing more than to help him. Once the old guard was back he would stitch a little doll of himself, deformity and all, and nestle down with it every night, whispering that things would be better now. The elves slept in little piles of hay and wool, a reminder of their earliest interactions with humans. They would steal warmth from chicken coops, getting shooed out whenever they dared to snack on the eggs. Eventually, people saw that their tiny hands were wonderful with crafts and the elves found their stations across the world.
Riddles had loved the North Pole when he first arrived. Now he felt trapped on an island in the middle of an icy sea, Santa rolling around above him, a drunken sun that could collapse, crushing and burning them at any moment. Riddles flicked his head up. Santa cried into the corner. The others had their eyes to the table, hands stitching in rhythm. He had a chance to sneak a peek at his creation.
The elf made a quiet excuse, something about visiting the chamberpot, and scurried over to the wardrobe. The door creaked a little as he let himself inside. There, next to Santa’s black and green cloaks, was the new suit Riddles had stitched. It was red, white, and gold, with a cloth mask connecting the hat and furry collar. The old guard would need that, to avoid scaring the children with his new face.
The bells tolled while Riddles was hidden inside the wardrobe. The attack had come much sooner than anticipated. He stuck his eye out between the doors, flattened cheek pressed against the side. The door was broken down, and small bodies flooded in. These were the old elves, buried in the permafrost and given wooden flowers on their graves. These were his family.
“How have you returned?” the new Santa burbled, still bouncing around the ceiling and flailing. “How can this be? You were killed!” The undead elves grabbed the heads of the working ones and slammed their faces into the workbench. They held them down with impossible strength, forcing deformities like Riddles’ into them with each passing second.
The partly-constructed toys of war sprang to a form of half-life, the hobby horses whinnying and trying to hammer the undead away. They were quickly subdued and snapped down the middle.
The old guard entered, boots thinned by time. His skeletal toes stuck out from the holes. His cheeks were blue and drawn, his button nose redused to a dried date. His eyes, dry and dotted like sand, looked around. The old guard grimaced.
“I am back because you do not honor the oath,” he said, voice sturdier than body. “You must spread joy. You have not been.”
“I will!” the new Santa promised. He clasped his gloved hands together and begged for mercy. The old guard took one of the hobby horse handles and, with all the strength provided by his new lich magic, hurled it upward, pinning him to the ceiling. He would not return. He was not part of the oath.
Riddles burst out of the wardrobe, new suit in tow. He dragged it across the floor, across the blood and straw, and held it up to the old guard. He took it and admired the flesh-colored fabric of his new face.
“A gift for you sir,” Riddles squeaked. “To save my people. We need not die to do our duty. With this mask you will not scare the children. You will be our Santa forever, and your cheeks, permanently rosy.”
The old guard nodded and patted Riddles on the head, soft enough to avoid bruising.
Author’s Note: This flash fiction story was written based on a prompt provided by DarkLordofSheep during a livestream. I hereby transfer all story rights to them, with the caveat that it remain posted on this blog. If you would like your own story, stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade during one of my streams and I’ll write it for you live!