"Oh buggers…" He began to hack and cough again. "I've called everyone and I still can't find anyone who can make it!" Saint Nicholas had the flu. He gave a sigh and pulled up his covers before diving into another coughing fit.
"Did you try everything, dear?" The old man's wife came in with a tray of cookies and a glass of milk. That always cheered him up. "I'm sure Corbette would help," she said, laying the tray on a nightstand. Mrs. Clause always found Corbette amusing in his own way. Mr. Claus, however, thought differently.
"He's a busy person, Nadia," Nicholas said, drawing at straws. He certainly didn't want to call him. "Besides, he'll be celebrating Christmas in his dimension too, in his way of course. He can't make it, just like all the others. And the Easter Bunny's busy too." That was just a farce, however. Corbette would be defacing Christmas.
Santa Claus had tried everyone one of the seven known dimensions to find a replacement. He tried all of the other holiday icons and they were all out at Christmas Eve parties. He tried to icons from the other dimensions and they were doing the same. It seemed to him that the Earth would be without Christmas this year.
He still had Corbette to call. But Christmas to him was a joke and he wouldn't agree to it. The holiday he represented wasn't even close to anything Earth had. That holiday celebrated death and destruction. Only a few celebrated it and Corbette was a recluse. He wouldn't have anything to do with St. Nicholas. But Santa had to give it a try. After all, it was Christmas.
"Ack—Alright, get me Corbette." Mrs. Claus typed in a number on a phone-like device and handed it to the Big Man. "Ho ho ho—Corbette!" He tried to sound cheery, but couldn't keep from coughing again. "Corbette, this is Nicholas from Earth. I've a favor to ask."
Corbette laughed mockingly. "Good ol' St. Nick… You're sick." His raspy voice was a scornful imitation of the Clause's demeanor. He hated Nicholas and everything he stood for. Corbette's idea of a good Christmas was "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" without the happy ending. In fact, it was a little known fact that Corbette had a heart that was a few sizes to small.
"Yes, Corbette, I'm down with the flu," Nick replied sadly. "You're the only one I could call on that wasn't busy." He had opened himself up for a barrage of insults and ridicule from the other icon. Santa Claus braced himself for it.
"So, what you're saying is that you need my help?" Corbette wanted to savor this moment, when the all-famous, earthbound Santa Claus asked his lowly, destructive self for help. And he could refuse all he wanted and completely ravage Christmas on Earth. St. Nicholas would be hated for generations to come and the holiday would disintegrate. "Is that what you're saying, Ol' Nick? You need my help?"
"Yes, Corbette," Nick conceded, "I need your help." He sighed and almost launched himself into yet another hacking spasm. But Nick knew what Corbette was thinking. He knew that Corbette would try to refuse. "And don't you think about refusing. You're bound by your own oath to help other Holidays," Nick added quickly. On the other end of the line he could hear Corbette cursing himself madly.
"Unless I have plans," he said after he finished.
"Plans that include celebrating the Holiday and not defacing it," Santa chided. No matter what Corbette said, he would not be able to get out of this. "You need to be here in the next six hours if you're going to make all my deliveries on time." The Claus ho-ho-hoed again despite his illness and hung up, leaving Corbette to curse again.
"Honey," his wife said taking the phone away, "you're a credit to your holiday. And maybe this'll teach Corbette a lesson on what Christmas is instead of what he thinks it is." Nicholas hoped so. He also hoped that Corbette would keep his oath, the one that made him a Holiday icon.
"Where's my list! I'll at least check it twice for him."
Corbette was angry beyond definition. How could he have been so stupid to agree to that oath! He stalked around his lair on all fours. He could have easily done it on two, but when Corbette got angry he reverted back to animal instincts. Now he had to check that bloody list twice and then sit in a happy looking, hot chocolate-making sleigh!
But wait! That wasn't part of the oath. He could use his own chariot. That would make a dent in the Claus's plans. Corbette would use his pets as reindeer. Anyone who saw it would be terrified of St. Nicholas after that. That's if they saw it though, he thought ruefully. He had to try and stay out of sight in accordance with the rules of that Holiday.
"Curses!" he growled. His animal-like body, that of a humanoid tiger, rippled in rage. Corbette called to a servant angrily. "Ready my chariot! And make haste with it, you!" Corbette had no loopholes to get through. He would just have to suffer through the night.
"Sir," the attendant cowered. "It isn't Tricon though!"
"I said make haste! If you wish not to end up in the fire, go!" The attendant scampered off, sorely afraid of what might happen if he didn't follow his master's orders. "Someone bring me my suit!" He had to dress. And it didn't have to be in the real Claus's attire. But it had to be the same scheme of color.
"Red and black, sir?"
"You know very well that answer." His voice was flecked with annoyance and contempt. Corbette would have to wait a bit for his chariot. That would give him a chance to sharpen his claws. He never went anywhere without sharpening them. In fact he never let them get dull at all. The Tricon icon did this, and once pleased with his claws, dawned the suit that had been brought to him.
Corbette smoothed out his striped fur and sharpened his teeth. He was hoping to find someone to scare witless this evening. That would be the only thing to make this night worth while to him. And if he could pull it off with everyone, it would ruin Santa Claus… Corbette chortled evilly.
After ten minutes of planning on how to scare people, Corbette's attendants announced to him that the chariot was ready and the beasts were harnessed. "Finally," he said, slightly more at ease. He saddled up in his ride and headed out silently into the fresh evening air. "Humbug," he muttered.
"Sir! Mister Claus! Corbette just rolled in on his chariot!" An elf came rushing in to Santa's bedchamber. "He's here, sir," it said excitedly. "Dressed and ready to head out early!"
"You must be kidding me," Nicholas said. He would have to inspect Corbette to see if he had followed all of the rules that bound him. He rolled out of bed, tiredly and yawned, followed by a sneeze that put him back into the bed. On the second attempt, however, he stood. "Take me to him."
"Yes sir. He's terrorizing the reindeer, too."
That just figured. Corbette was a cruel creature. This was going to be a long night for all of them. Nicholas would be worried the entire time. And only when morning came would he be able to assess the damage. No doubt that Corbette would do something horrible.
The corridors were busy as ever, filled with elves running hither and thither trying to get the Pack filled and ready. St. Nicholas passed swiftly through though to inspect Corbette's chariot and oversee the loading of gifts. When he finally reached the loading docks, he found it empty save for a few elves, Corbette and his beasts and chariot.
"Dressed for the occasion, aren't you," Santa Claus asked, looking over the substitute suit. He nearly gagged upon realizing that Corbette had followed all of the rules to a tea. His suit was, while still evil looking, within reason and his chariot and beasts were harnessed with crimson bells.
Corbette himself wore a studded leather uniform that was red and black, with spikes projecting from the shoulders and knuckles. His "sleigh" was decorated in the same motif. Red leather harnessed his beasts, large feline animals, and the chariot was prepped and painted scarlet and a deep forest green. Still, it looked ready for war, with radial skewers attached to the wheels.
"Ready and within limits," Corbette replied sourly. "Load the bags and let me be off, Nicholas." He grimaced at the sight of the elves that had brought the bags of presents. Then he sneered again at the thought of all those happy children opening their gifts. He growled at the elves, making them cower a bit.
"A-choo!" Saint Nick took out a handkerchief and wiped his nose, generating a chorus of God-bless-you's from the elves. He thanked them kindly and then sent them away after loading Corbette's chariot. "Thank you, Corbette. You hate myself and Christmas, but thank you anyway."
"I'm going to be making a fool of myself for you," Corbette returned. His claws poked out of the leather gloves he wore. The tiger-ish stand-in inspected his means of transport, pointing out every little modification made to it and then emphasizing the time and trouble that went into making ready. "You owe me big time. Maybe I'll break my leg and force you to go on my rout."
"Be sure to eat whatever the children have laid out for you," Nick told him, wheezing. He sat down in a chair brought to him by an elf. "And please bear in mind that all this commercialism isn't the true meaning of Christmas. If I didn't bring gifts, there would still be Christ-mas."
"Whatever. Let me be off and this night over."
"I pray you learn."
It was a quarter through the night and Corbette had already puked up nineteen trays of cookies, three glasses of milk and a plate of Baklava. However, he was making good time and was still hoping to find someone to growl at and make wet himself. His beasts strained under the extra weight of the toys.
Corbette cracked his whip again on the backs of his minions. "Move faster or I'll not feed you for a month," he threatened. "If you get me home an hour early I may close the stable doors!" That reward was enough to spur the animals, all of them highly intelligent with magic enough to speak, not that they ever did.
The reindeer had spoken to them and gave them instructions on where to land and how to do it. The lead was given a map of sorts so that he knew at which house to land. Unlike their master, each of the felines was happy to be doing something different. They relished the thought of giving instead of taking. And there came their next stop! The lead descended and brought the chariot down gracefully in road in front of a small, dilapidated trailer.
Corbette dismounted and judged the premises a distasteful place to live. There were no lights, not even a porch light or a tree in the window. The doors opened easily for him and he went inside to deliver his payload. The bag dropped from his shoulder with a thump, rattling a small table with a nativity scene on it.
He produced the list given to him by Santa Claus and looked it over. Lucile Oliver and her family was a poor bunch, according to the list. They did not even have money for a tree. But she was a good girl and knew the true meaning of the Holiday. Corbette inspected the little living room; the only decoration was that nativity that had rattled on the table. Corbette stared at it a while, then grumbled and went to work.
Out of the bag he pulled a tree, miniature by comparison with some of the other's he'd seen that night, but a tree that was decorated and lit. It made a cheery addition to the room, much to Corbette's dismay. He hated cheeriness. Lucile wanted a doll for Christmas, and a new blanket. These were also pulled from the bag.
It was some time before he realized that he had been making too much noise. Surely someone had heard him and wondered. His stripped tail tensed. Someone small was behind him. It must have been Lucile, which was better to Corbette because children were much more fun to scare. He turned, grinning evilly.
And unfailingly, a little girl, about seven years old, stood behind him with wide eyes holding an old and dirty teddy bear. She spoke quietly, but not fearfully. "Who are you," she asked Corbette. "You aren't Santa…" He growled loudly, bearing his fangs and claws. That did not even phase the child. "You aren't Santa. Why are you in my house?"
Corbette stood astonished, then in a fit of anger he roared, shaking the whole building. Lucile stepped back a little, but only out of caution (she was a smart little girl). "Shhhhhh!" she whispered, looking around. "You'll wake mom and dad!"
"Little girl," Corbette rasped, offended by the girl's lack of alarm, "go back to bed. Before I take these presents back!"
"Presents don't matter," she replied, sure of herself. "Christ matters. Christ-mas, ya know?" She had learned that in Sunday school the week before and remembered it and believed it (after all, she was a smart girl). But she was still a little girl and asked if she could pet Corbette's fur.
He growled out a "no" and resumed lying the presents out, ignoring every question posed to him by Lucile. When he had finished, he passed through the locked door again and out to his chariot. As the chariot sped off, he noticed the little girl waving to him from the window. It troubled him. This child wanted to pet him! Of all the nerve! He was growling unconsciously now and whipping his beasts even more.
That girl… It bothered him immensely. Presents didn't matter, she had said. Corbette didn't know what that was supposed to mean. But he did understand the bit about it being Christ-mas. Father Christmas had said the same thing to him. He knew what it meant, but didn't care. All he cared about was finding someone else to frighten. The fact that a little girl wanted to pet his fur only made this desire even more of a priority.
He shouted loudly into the night, filled with rage. "I'm Corbette the vengeful! The Terrible Beast of Tricon! The Destroyer! And that elf expects me to spread joy! If I weren't bound by my own oath, I would rip him to shreds!" He pounded on the feline beasts of burden again, forcing them to go faster.
At his next stop, he could not help but think of that girl and her comments. Even as he spread out the gifts, he was keenly aware that a nativity scene was set facing him the entire time. Corbette did the job quickly and gobbled down the treats left by the children of the house.
It was the same thing at very many of the next stops. Only once did his mind wander from the little girl, but it wandered for a good long while. He thought about the word Christmas and how both Nicholas and the girl turned it into Christ-mas. He growled.
The Savior of mankind… Corbette was the Destroyer in his own dimension. Why should he care? That story had played itself in all of the seven known universes. It was old and decrepit to him, not worthy of being the true meaning of Christmas. These thoughts had invaded his mind while he was crossing an ocean.
The next stop was one of the few in the Middle East. The night was warm, reminding Corbette of his lair. The chariot dipped down into an empty street in the middle of Baghdad, Iraq. This was a stop? These people didn't even celebrate Christmas! But the list said they did.
He passed through the walls of the home into a living room. It was bare except for furnishings. There wasn't even a nativity, which Corbette counted as a sort of blessing or good omen. The list said he was supposed to drop one off here though. It was the only gift for this home. He set about pulling the different pieces from the pack.
He had just pulled out the Baby Jesus when his feline ears picked up the sound of water running. Corbette turned to find a twelve-year-old tanned Iraqi child standing in front of him. The list said his name was Kashi Mohammed, and he was the one who wanted the manger. His parents didn't even know he had converted from Islam.
The boy spoke perfect English. "What are you?" His accent was clear as a bell though. "If you are here to kill me, I don't care. I know I am going to be with the Savior." Kashi did not flinch for a moment as Corbette went through all of his tactics to frighten the child. Not a single yelp, squeal or peep came out of him. "Take my life if you dare," he said.
Corbette straightened himself and stood silent for a moment, trying desperately to think of something to say. Finally he found his words. "I am not here to take your life from you." It was the only thing he thought of. It sounded lame in his ears, and clearly the child didn't believe him. That was, at least, until Kashi saw the manger in Corbette's claws.
"You are bringing gifts," he asked disbelieving. "That is what I asked for! That is the gift I prayed for!" He pointed at the half-set nativity on the floor. The child grabbed it up, earning a shout from Corbette. The boy responded, saying that he would be severely punished if the gift were found and that it would be better if it was put somewhere in his bedroom.
Corbette followed him, ducking under door posts and low ceilings. "I don't understand why you would be punished for having this," he said, stooping again. "This is just a few clay figurines."
"It is a death sentence to be a follower of Jesus," Kashi told him. "I would be called a traitor by my family and put to death as one." Carefully, he pulled out a box from behind a shelf and opened it. There was nothing in there, but Kashi started meticulously placing each piece of his nativity in the box.
"I would be the one to carry out that sentence in my dimension," Corbette said reminiscing. "I am Corbette the Destroyer of Tricon," he announced proudly. "But I find myself working for Father Christmas."
"You work for Santa Clause?" Kashi had heard of him vaguely before. Once as a small child he asked his parents who he was. They had told him that Chris Kringle was a myth. He had bought it. And he hadn't thought of him since. But now here was a feline monster bringing gifts, with a chariot outside his window!
This was taking too much time to him. He still wanted to get back to his lair and burn down a Christmas tree. "I must take my leave," he said, exiting the child's room.
Kashi called out after him. "But I wanted to talk…" he said. "At least I can wish you a merry Christ-mas! Now I know for sure that my faith is placed well! Thank you, Mr. Corbette!" He had been calling out the window to Corbette, who was now anxious to get away from the child who had once again used the term "Christ-mas."
Corbette, as he took off, was beginning to get the distinct feeling that someone was trying to tell him something important. "Christ-mas," he said to himself, picking up his whip. "And once again I couldn't scare a child of all things! What in blue blazes has Christ got to do with anything?"
The animals, who were steadily trudging along without the whip, and who were also attuned to their master's attitude, were beginning to see a difference in him. Secretly, they had been whispering to one another about it. One of them, the youngest, took the liberty of speaking (fully against the advice of the others).
"Master Corbette," it said, catching Corbette's attention and startling him. "Master Corbette," it called again. "I am Chizl, one of the Marsects pulling the chariot!" He had to make that clarification because Corbette was digging through the pack for stowaways.
Corbette was stunned again that night. He had not known that his Marsects could speak. He had always assumed them to be mindless and stupid. "How dare you address me by name," Corbette shouted angrily, but with no power behind it. "What do you want?" He had not yet cracked the whip on this portion of the flight.
"We have noticed a steady change in your demeanor since that little girl's home," Chizl said. "Are you alright, ma—"
"Lucile," Corbette corrected him. "Her name was Lucile. She was seven, but smart. And she wanted a doll for Christmas and nothing else. She said it didn't matter if she got presents because it was Christ-mas."
"You do not understand what is important about the holiday, Master?" Chizl had a touch of genuine pity for his master. Corbette had been made as a Destroyer, not a gifter. Therefore he had no idea of the significance or the true meaning of Christmas. "Master, don't you wonder?"
"Do I wonder what," he snapped harshly. "I know the Savior was born this day! What does that matter?"
Chizl flicked his tail and continued the steady pace set by the marsect leader. "Do you know why, though? Do you know why Jesus came to the flesh?" The reply was no. "It was to save them. The story has been replayed in every dimension, master Corbette. He was killed brutally every time and His blood washes us clean of our iniquity."
"Killed!" The King of all the universes was killed? Let himself be killed, to make it worse! Even Corbette knew who the King was (and still is). It didn't make any sense to him. The value of life to him was low, hence why his heart really was two sizes too small. But that life? That was the most precious thing there was.
"That is the true meaning. Not those silly gifts that Nicholas wraps up and delivers. He gives them out so that the Holiday itself won't be forgotten," Chizl said. They were descending again to a smaller home, still in the Mid East. "But there are those in all dimensions who don't care about that. And they spread the message."
Corbette unloaded the sack and checked the list again: Samil Family, two boys, and one girl. "The ones here in this region know it best," he said, coming up to Chizl and his teammates. "I am beginning to think there may be more to this Christ-mas than meets my eyes." With that, he went inside to another empty living room. There was no tree, no gifts, there only a small cross that was nearly hidden entirely.
The list told him that he was to deposit three large crates of canned foods, a new refrigerator unit and fill it fresh with fruits, vegetables, and a whole turkey dinner with all the trimmings. He placed the canned goods in the main room and then commenced filling up the fridge. The cross was still visible from the kitchen area, and kept distracting him. How was he supposed to get his work done now?
He didn't know for sure. But nevertheless, he finished stocking the kitchen. But something was missing, he thought. "What am I doing?" he asked himself, finding that he was walking toward one of the two rooms. Corbette opened the door and the found three children sleeping on mats.
The Santa replacement looked at them for a moment, thinking that there was definitely something missing here. "Now what could it be," he wondered aloud. "Something. Ah! Got it!" He dug through the gift bag vigorously. And there they were! Something special for them, that they couldn't have gotten any other way. Corbette wasn't even sure what it was until he was about to leave. As soon as he was outside, though, he knew exactly what he had found. Snow.
"That should do it for here," he said, mounting the chariot again. He was rocketed into the sky again by the team of Marsects. The night was quiet again, except for the jingling of the harness's crimson bells. It was cold too. Corbette was headed north into Russia to deliver gifts there. This he did, for the most part without trouble. He even got into the spirit of Christmas a bit, leaving a chocolate orange for each of seven kids in a poor family in St. Petersburg.
It was not until the last stop that he became aware of a problem. The family of three, a single mother and a pair of twins were all asleep. They too were poor, and the kids had asked only for a pair of boots each and a warm jacket for each of them. Their mother had only wanted a new cooking pot. Corbette had stood watching them sleep for a moment before he decided what he would gift to them.
He had just settled down into the chariot when he realized exactly what the dilemma was. Corbette was taking too much time. It had started with a faint glow on the icy plane. But when he came out of the shack that held his last stop, the glow had intensified ever so slightly. The sun was coming up. Soon it would be Christmas Day and the oriental countries and Australia were going to wake up without anything to unwrap.
Corbette hurried back to his chariot. "Chizl," he said, unfastening all of the harnesses. "Concord, Jman, and the rest of you, take a small pouch and go as fast as you can. Chizl and myself will cover Australia." He had not the time to explain the situation. He also had no need to. The Marsects knew what was happening. He was trying to split them up to get the gifts delivered on time.
With only an tenth of the contents of the sack, he mounted Chizl. "I'm getting, it," Corbette told him, once they had lifted off. "Come on, we must hurry." Chizl did exactly that. He was by far the fastest of the Marsects and without that cumbersome chariot he could make better time than even he imagined.
"We'll make it, master."
"If there really is some meaning to this holiday, than I'm calling on the Savior of men to help us." He looked back, finding Sol's first rays glistening on a southern ocean. He tossed off his gloves and the breastplate to his suit. It would cut weight, he told himself, and help Chizl go faster. "Come on…" They swooped down into Sydney, taking two houses at a time and depositing their payload and guzzling milk.
Soon it was on to Canberra where the process duplicated itself. This went on again and again at each town they came to. And there were so many of them! Corbette was definitely going to have to have a long talk with Nicholas when he returned the sack and list. And then there was going to be a long catnap for him. He huffed and puffed his way across the outback and to the western coast of the continent. With him and Chizl working double time, they had the island of Tasmania over and done with just in time for the first child to wake up there.
Corbette even heard him exclaim his joy when he found the tree filled with gifts and his stocking full. It would remain in his mind as one of his favorite memories when the child shouted, "Mommy, mommy! Santa came last night! And he didn't bring me coal like you said he would!"
Him and Chizl had made it, with the help of the rest of the Marsect team. And during the process, Corbette had learned. He sent three children back to bed after his encounter with the Iraqi child. Each one of them had asked him he was Saint Nicholas. When he replied that he was Santa Claws, and showed them his claws, each of them wanted to pet his fur. And, just to see them smile, he had let them. Now that he knew the meaning of it all, he had a better respect for Christ-mas.
When he finally touched down in the loading docks at the North Pole, the real Claus was waiting for him. Corbette, now missing his the top portion of his armor and his chariot was in need of a rest. But the cheesy and cliché smile on his tiger-ish face was all that Nicholas needed to see.
"Corbette," he said, and then he sneezed. "You did it."
"Just in the St. Nick of time," he replied, laughing a bit as he dismounted from Chizl. "You could've told me what the meaning was. I think I get why Christmas is celebrated so much."
"All I can say is that it's about time. You needed to see the true spirit of the Holiday for yourself. Christmas isn't about the presents I bring. It's about the present the Savior brought to the worlds. Especially this one." Nicholas put a chubby arm around Corbette's shoulders and led him to an empty room with a soft bed. "Take a rest and when you go home tomorrow, expect a brand new chariot and armor, Corbette."
He looked up, disbelieving. "You knew this was going to happen, didn't you?" The elf nodded, smiling generously. Corbette could only smile as well. What had happened to him was a good thing and he wouldn't complain. But he did have one thing to say to Saint Nicholas. "Nick, I'm thinking it's time to retire the Tricon holiday. Or change it into something worth while."
"You can change it, Corbette," Claus replied. It would take a while, but it could be done. Several decades worth of the holiday would be needed before the change would begin to show its affects. Yet it would happen. "It will take some time, my friend, but it will happen if you start this year."
"Then I'll begin as soon as I return to my lair." He looked back at Chizl, who was chatting it up with the reindeer. "And it's going to start by giving Chizl and his team a decent place to live. Good food, good sleeping, good company for myself." He whistled back to the Marsect. "Chizl—Merry Christ-mas!"