Note: This is my first letter of Advent 2022, but part 21 of me and my brother’s Advent Letters project. For an explanation of the project and to get caught up on past letters, go to my Advent Letters page to see them all.
Dearest Sam, Noah, Susannah, Piper, Shepherd, Henry, Holly, Jane, and Sunny,
I’ve spent the past several Advents chronicling your dad and uncles’ misadventures through Faerie in an attempt to rescue the Heart of the North and rid themselves of the Marks they had acquired through their own grievous faults.
Now, I’ll remind you that others were affected by their poor decisions. Specifically, those of us at the North Pole.
The Heart of the North, you see, was not one enchanted object among many. For the North Pole, it was the enchanted object. Among other things, it created a liveable environment at the top of the world, protected us from goblin raids, and hid us from the rest of the world. With it gone, all of these protections were fading.
On our way to the chapel, Kanute and I were cornered by a group of surly “North Polians.
“Have you see the dome around the city? It’s starting to crack!” declared an elderly gnome. “What’s taking those human brothers so long?”
“Yes,” I began, “but—”
“And I heard goblin calls near the outer caves—they should be within fifty miles of the North Pole,” grumbled a talking pelican. “What will happen if the Mellemas fail and the goblins can waltz right into town?”
“Well you see—”
“And an airplane flying over us the other day slowed down. I think it could see us,” wailed a talking walrus. “If the Mellema brothers aren’t back tomorrow, I’m going in there after them.”
“Let me assure you we are—”
“All right, quiet down,” bellowed Kanute.
The crowd, by now a couple dozen strong, grumpily complied.
“We are going to see Santa now,” Kanute announced. “We will share all your concerns with him.”
“And we will follow up with you all presently,” I said.
Presently is one of my favorite words, because it can mean anything from “right away” to “after a considerable amount of time.” And before the crowd could figure that out, Kanute and I slipped away into Santa’s chapel.
The instant we did, the silence was jarring. The ceiling arched toward the heavens. The only lights were the orange flame of candles against the gold mosaics. Incense hung heavy in the air. And, at the far end of the chapel, kneeling serenely at his usual spot, was Saint Nicholas himself. He was so lost in deep prayer that I had to clear my throat a couple times to get his attention.
Santa eyes opened slowly, and a smile that was almost mischievous grew on his lips.
“Santa, the North Polians are asking about the Heart of the North,” I said.
“They’re especially worried about the Mellema brothers. They fear the brothers may have lost their way, or been ensnared by some Fae enchantment, or else…”
Santa met my eyes, and I lost my train of thought.
“The Mellema brothers are safe. And they are making progress.”
I had no idea how Santa could have known this. But over the centuries, I’d learned that these sorts of pronouncements were most always correct.
“However,” Santa continued, “The brothers are approaching grave danger. They are leaving free Faerie, and are on the cusp of the realm of Krampus.”
Kanute stepped forward. “Then it’s not too late for us to help. A company of gnomish axe-whirlers. A band of polar bears. Even some elvish bowmen could be of use.”
Santa shook his great head. “If we send North Pole troops, then they will be the ones to rescue the jewel, and not the Mellema brothers. In order for the Mellemas to be healed of their marks, they must rescue the jewel themselves. Character cannot be formed by the actions of others.”
“Is there any help we can send?” I asked.
“We will send all help to the Mellemas,” Santa replied. “In one sense, the Mellemas are powerless to do anything without our help. In anothe, the Mellemas must do this task themselves.”
Kanute and I looked at each other and shrugged. Santa often spoke in riddles.
Santa chuckled. “As a matter of fact, I’ve prepared further aid for the Mellema brothers. They will need it to get through the final stage of their journey.”
“Great,” I said. “We’ll get Ratatosk and send him with the—”
Santa’s chuckle turned into an outright belly laugh. “We can’t send the aid yet?”
“Why not?” Kanute asked.
“Because I don’t know where the Mellemas are.”
My hands flew to my forehead, and I could already feel the sweat. “This is a disaster! How can we”
Santa held up a hand. “I don’t know where they are yet. But I do know we must give the Mellemas aid, which means we will learn their location. Eventually.”
“If you’d like to do something useful in the meantime,” Santa continued. “Pray.”
Kanute looked at me, and I looked at Kanute. Shrugging once again, we kneeled down beside Santa.
While Kanute and I were joining our own feeble prayers with those of Santa, the Mellema brothers were deep in the heart of Faerie.
They stood beneath a slate sky, on the dark shores of a vast sea. Waves beat ferociously in white-capped frowns. Rising in the distance were the jagged rock spires of an island. Swirling clouds, crimson in the dying light, concealed the tops of the spires. Howls and cries carried over the water to the cold ears of the Mellema brothers.
No one needed to tell the brothers that this island was the realm of Krampus. The place where their enchanted map had been leading them.
“What are we supposed to do now?” Matt asked.
The brothers furrowed their brows. One look at the mountainous waves made it clear that swimming was impossible. And in both directions, the beach was an empty expanse of sand and rocks.
The boys stared at the island until, all at once, they felt the island was staring back.
“I say we start walking,” Jer said at last. “Maybe we’ll find something. Anything.”
The boys started trudging along the beach. As he walked, Matt thought this place might almost be beautiful. There was the ocean and this unspoiled beach. The Faerie wood they had just passed through was wooded. But with a shudder, Matt realized the Krampus Isle made all the rest bleak on its own.
The brothers climbed a sand dune and stopped.
A fishing village. Round, thatched roof huts clustered along a dirt road. Small boats steered toward rickety docks. Smoke curled from the huts’ chimneys, and the pleasant scent of cooking fish was almost enough to cover the scent of seaweed and freshly-caught fish.
Walking back and forth between the buildings and the boats were the fishermen. From their distance, they were little more than silhouettes against the gray sky.
“They look friendly enough,” Brian said. Matt and Jer tried nodding. They were coming up one final dune before they could get a good look at them.
When they made it to the top, the brothers’ jaws practically fell into the sand.
Dog-faced. Every single villager was dog-faced.
And when I say dog-faced, I mean it literally: every villager had the head and neck of a dog. Some villagers had pricked ears, and some floppy. Some had long snouts, and some had short. Some had long dark hair, others had short light hair, and still others were covered in spots. But they were all dog heads. On top of otherwise normal fishermen bodies.
Most of us would be shocked by dog-faced fishermen. But the boys had spent enough time in Faerie to (mostly) take this in stride. Your grandparents had also taught them that it’s rude to stare. So the brothers walked into the village as normally as possible.
For their part, the dog-faced fishermen barely noticed the brothers. They went about their business mending nets, baking bread, and sniffing each other.
After a quick exchange of glances, Jer stepped toward one of the fishermen and said hello.
The fisherman—who had shaggy brown fur and a net over his shoulder—looked up. To Jer’s relief, his tail was wagging. So Jer pressed forward. “My brothers and I need a boat. Could you take us to the island across the sea?”
Jer pointed at Krampus Island, and everything changed. The dog-faced fisherman’s ears folded up, and he tucked his tail between his legs. It backed away, howling and whimpering.
“I’m sorry,” Jer said quickly. “We…” A crowd of dog-faced fishermen was gathering. Jer put his hands in the air for a general announcement. “My brothers and I are on a quest. We’d like to hire someone to take us to Krampus Island.”
The crowd of dog-faced fishermen all arched their backs. A few bared their teeth.
“We’ll pay you for the ride,” Matt said. “We’ve come from the North Pole, and Santa gave us plenty of coins—”
A fisherman with a gray muzzle and glossy eyes hobbled to Matt. With a crooked finger, he pointed to Krampus Island and shook his head.
“But we’re on a quest to—”
The old fisherman grabbed Matt’s tunic and growled. Then he threw back his head and gave a wild howl. The other fishermen joined. Matt wriggled free and started running. Jer and Brian were right behind. Even as they crested sand dune after sand dune, the howls followed their heels.
“What do we do now?” Matt whined.
The brothers sighed in unison. They all knew there was nothing to do except keep trudging down the beech. Though the brothers wouldn’t admit it, they all kept thinking about the terror the fishermen felt at Krampus Island.
Just as Matt was about to share these thoughts, the world turned upside down. For a wild moment, the brothers lost their breath as they tumbled up through the air in a jumble of sand and limbs. When they finally found their bearings, they realized they were in a huge net.
“Matt, cut us out with your sword,” Jer said. “And get your knee out of my back.”
Matt was reaching for his sword scabbard—a tough feat with Brian’s elbow lodged in his stomach. Before he could, a whooping cheer rose up from the bushes.
A dozen gnomes leapt into the open. They wore brass-colored armor and carried spears with electrified whirring tips. Their leader was a white-bearded gnome wearing a conical helmet. He gave an order, and the other gnomes all pointed their spears at the dangling Mellemas.
“We don’t mean any harm!” Jer shouted. “We’re just passing through.”
“We’re on a quest!” Brian added. “For Santa.”
The gnome leader laughed. “We overheard you boys back at the fishing village. That’s what we’d like to talk about.”
“Could we talk on the ground?” Matt asked.
“Nice try,” the gnome leader said. “We know you boys want to go to Krampus Island. I can’t imagine why, but I’m not one to judge. We happened to have a submersible watercraft that can take you there.”
“Really?” Matt exclaimed, “That’s great! Thank you so—”
The gnome leader raised a hand. “But first, you boys have to do something to help us.”