KRIS KRINGLE

©2000 By Daniel Cobb

Table of Contents:

Mission Briefing: Trouble in Christmas Town

I: Winter Wonderland

II: Crystal Caverns

III: Polaris Paradox

IV: Fireball's Failure

V: Snowflake's Song

VI: Frozen Fortress

VII: Noel's Nightmare

VIII: Eternal Evergreen

IX: Jack Frost

X: Christmas Angel

XI: Arctic Armageddon

XII: Santa's Scepter

THIS CHRISTMAS EVE, BELIEVE!

IT'S TRADITION VS TECHNOLOGY!

Category: Science Fiction

Description: Holiday / Seasonal – Young Adult / Contemporary

When a merry band of friends learns Christmas Town is in trouble, they make a wish on a shooting star. Transported there, they find Santa's top elf took over instead. His former helper stole the first snowflake that ever fell (the source of magic), but he pretends to be the good guy and steals the spotlight. Since the North Pole stopped spinning, factory workshops can't deliver any presents on time. Children have quit praying about all their problems and no longer believe that miracles can happen, losing sight of the greatest gift of all. These talented young teens have trained to be secret agents for years. Everyone embarks on a quest to save this heartwarming holiday. They're running out of time to stop Kris from melting their memories before they forget forever, but first they must deal with personal problems. Introducing a colorful cast of characters like Snowflake the elf and Candy the orphan, this book is sure to keep love's flame alive in a cold, cruel world.

MAP OF CHRISTMAS TOWN:

POLAR PORT

IGLOO ISLAND

GREAT TREE / NORTH POLE

FROSTY CAFÉ / POLAR BAR PUB

TOY FACTORY / MAGIC TRICK SHOP

TAILOR / CANDLE MAKERS

MANGER / REINDEER STALLS

HUNTING / SKI LODGE

BREAD BAKERY

CANDY & COOKIE STORE

BANK / POST OFFICE

DENTIST / HOSPITAL

CONTROL CENTER

CRYSTAL CITADEL

FROZEN FORTRESS

ARCH AUDITORIUM

Mission Briefing: Trouble in Christmas Town

Christmas was coming soon, but something wasn't right. Winter was a cold, lonely time of year when no flowers bloomed. Sunlight hours grew shorter. The joy was gone. It had become a sad holiday for too many poor lost souls. As the world's children forgot to have faith, it got even colder until everything froze forever. Growing up too fast, they no longer cared and shared. They lost what little hope they had left. The world waited for a miracle that was somehow missing – until today.

The hero destined to save Christmas in a few days was completely ignorant of its present plight. Not only was David the leader of a special organization called the Generation Guardians, but also an ingenious inventor with a keen technological touch. However, his friends had a lot to learn about teamwork. Their names were Angel, Peter, Melody, and Nick. They were freedom fighters. As our brave protagonist dreamed peacefully, a sound wave rocked the fortress, abruptly rousing him from sweet, but brief slumber.

Who would call so early in the morning?

"Hello? Who is it?" David yawned, holding the receiver to his ear as his alarm clock went off. He fumbled around in the dark trying to stop it, but the button was jammed tight. (One has to question why he even bothered, but we're getting beyond the point. The chronometer does not involve the plot whatsoever.) With one eye shut, he pulled out a rocket launcher from under his bed and fired at the menacing machine. Smoke filled the room. Unscathed, the cruel clock relentlessly mocked his efforts. Its marvelous, polished metal alloy was practically invincible. "Ok, that does it!" He threw it out the window instead of destroying it.

Whew! That was some wake-up call courtesy…

Jumping out of bed, he put on a uniform then began a daily exercise. Before he could finish, someone approached the door.

"What was that about?" Melody arched an eyebrow.

"Did you notice the ground shake a little while ago?"

"You mean that earthquake? I don't wanna know."

"Hey, since you're up, I just want to remind you we're way past due for planning a party. Tell everyone to meet me in the briefing room soon."

"Well, I'll let you get back to work."

David glanced at the guest list for the holiday event. It looked longer than last year's – and more expensive too. The girls were going to invite Crystal, Charity, Carol, Gloria, and Holly. The guys put greeting cards off until the last minute, in favor of nachos.

David pressed a button and stepped on a floor accelerator. A computer was in charge of handling every security procedure. Stepping into a spacious auditorium, he turned on the spotlights. The door slid shut.

As he slowly walked past a towering evergreen covered in colorful lights, music came from a nearby speaker. Long, sharp pine-needle shadows cast beautiful rainbow patterns on walls. Gold and silver tinsel spiraled to the ceiling in circles. Imitation icicles glowed, hanging from the branches above. Snowflake ornaments, bronze bells, and an angel with a halo decorated the festive tree. It looked nice, but what did it signify? Last year, they had multiple holidays all going on at once to save time. It included a tree with four-leaf clover lights that had a turkey wearing hats on top, with carved out pumpkins for presents containing Valentine's Day boxes with chocolate bunnies inside.

Jumping onstage, David pulled out a distortion guitar from a black case to practice. He played cautiously, wondering if anyone was listening. Then he threw his heart into the music and concentrated on each note as if it were more important than the last. He closed his eyes to savor the symphony, but saw a shadow. Someone silently crept up behind him, hiding behind the tree. Startled, David rolled off the stage, letting his instrument drop. He stood up again then peered around cautiously.

I could've sworn someone was here just a moment ago.

"Watch out, you jerk!"

Melody tackled him, grabbed his waist, and hurled him to the ground. They landed hard on the floor and rolled. After grunting, David began laughing hysterically. Melody rose to her feet and dizzily complained.

"What's so funny?" She sat up and looked at him.

"Nothing, just you're so cute when you're angry."

"Don't start with me!" Melody crossed her arms. "Oh well, I'll let you off the hook this time. You'd better watch out. I swear, the next time you do that…" She brushed herself off. "Wanted to catch you when you thought nobody was watching… I have to admit. You've got sharp reflexes. Maybe you can give me a music lesson."

"I've got another appointment. Catch you later, girl!"

Lying on a mattress in the girl's dorm, Angel yawned and wrapped blankets around her body, slipping back into some well-earned sleep. She had to rise early as the rest because there was always more work to do. Hearing her alarm blare, she pulled the plug. She buried her face in a pillow and squeezed her eyes shut, trying to block out thoughts of her schedule.

Sure enough, there she is still in bed.

David watched her for a while. He smiled and shook her shoulder. "Wake up," he whispered. Her eyes opened slowly and she rolled over, definitely disoriented. He pulled her up.

"I'm late again, huh?" She sighed.

"You have an incredible grasp of the obvious."

"How do I look?" Angel spun around for his inspection.

"As usual…" David didn't know why she was always so worried about her appearance, because she looked beautiful.

Practicing for coming competitions, they entered a private skating rink – crusing cyberspace taking a virtual vacation in a computer simulation that could even give them both holographic hairstyles. Angel skated around while he watched her flip and spin. After finishing a routine, she stopped in front of him. Her skates slanted and showered him with ice, showing off her style. David was not amused. Leaping and then landing with a brief bound, he shot over to the other end of the rink. He came back, grabbing her hands as he flew past. As they spun in circles around each other, he let go and she fell. Then he stopped instantly, digging into the ice. He crossed his arms and laughed at her.

"You're in a great mood for someone who got served!"

"Good thing this isn't real. I'd kill you." She bent down, panting. Then her expression changed. She shuffled her feet and looked up nervously. She wished he would take her then and kiss her, but that never happened. Sometimes she wondered if he ever felt the same way about her. There was only one way to find out. "Are we going to spend some time together this year?"

"I can't start a new relationship right now. I don't want my heart broken ever again."

"You're a good friend, but I guess that's all you'll ever be."

"After losing everyone I ever loved, I chose not to let myself get close to anyone. Then I started thinking maybe this time it was different. I realized if I let my guard down even for a moment, the same thing could happen again."

"What happened?" Angel asked.

"It doesn't matter anyway. It's in the past."

"Where's your season spirit?" Angel sat down alone and shook her head, trying to hold back the tears. Were her lips trembling from the cold or because she was sad? "Look, all I want for Christmas is you."

"May I join you?" David sat beside her, placing a hand on her shoulder. "I'm not sure how to say this, but I'll try." The silence seemed awkward. "Listen, I love you. You know I do. I want to be with you, but I just can't. The world needs me. If anyone found out about us, you would make an easy target." He looked down at the ground, feeling frustrated. He meant to spend more time with her, but he was busy. He'd come to respect her courage and strength. He longed to have someone by his side, yet he was afraid of what might happen. He couldn't anybody know how he felt. It would be easier that way. "It's just so hard. I wish that…"

"Go on. I'm listening." She moved a little bit closer to him.

"We've been through a lot together. I've enjoyed every day spending time with you. You don't even realize the power you have over me. When you look at me like that, it breaks my heart. Every time I hear you laugh or see you smile, it kills me inside. The pain comes back each time you touch my hand. I'd almost rather run away and never look back again." He paused, waiting for her to say something. "I hope you understand."

"Just because you lost someone once a long time ago, that doesn't mean you should never open your heart again. If you want to walk away from me right now, go ahead."

I broke a promise. I swore to myself I'd never love again.

A brilliant flash of light illuminated the clouds in the artificial atmosphere. He grabbed her hand, staring as a sphere with a green glow fell from the sky. The colorful orb bounced on the ice before coming to a stop.

"What do you think that is?" Angel asked.

"I have no idea, but we'd better show it to the others." David opened his hand to look at the strange stone. "Let's hold a meeting about this. We'll have to postpone that party for now. Looks like our date will have to wait!"

A girl named Crystal asked permission to join the meeting. After granting her request, David explained the situation.

"Ok guys… Any clue what this thing is? I examined it in the lab and I think it could be some sort of container."

"Well, it doesn't appear to be a threat. Maybe it will do something automatically if we just sit back and watch it."

"Not likely…" Peter cast Nick a cynical glance.

"Anyone else?" David glanced across the glass table.

Melody raised her hand. "Maybe if we amplify our brainwaves, the object will react to the magnetic field."

"Ok then, let's watch and see what happens."

They focused their thoughts on the round object. Suddenly, the orb shattered. Sparks bounced, then vanished. A letter and gift box appeared.

HELLO HUMAN,

My name is Frosty the Snowman from the North Pole. You have to save Christmas Town right away. Santa said you're the only ones who can assist us. I don't know where he's hiding, but I'll help you find him.

Kris Kringle used to be Santa's top elf. He shut down the toy factory and made his very own army, locking up anyone who dared to defy him. None of us has the courage to stand up and face him. I tried to warn them, but they didn't believe me.

I would've written sooner, but Kris kept us from leaving. That tyrant took over Christmas Town for the last century. At first, we all gave up hope over the years. He was too powerful for us to fight, until recently. The magic has gradually grown weak over time, preventing me from disclosing more in this message. Unless you act soon, the snowflake shard might melt and children all around the world will forget about Christmas forever. After this, we'll cease to exist in your world; however, Kris doesn't believe that will happen.

It's invisible to humans. The only way to see it is to wish your way here with Santa's magic Scepter. Use the North Star to guide you here if you get lost. Don't stay in our dimension for too long or you will disappear with it. Good luck… Be careful!

WARM WISHES

"Know what this means? Christmas Town is in serious trouble and we've got to save it!"

"What about our vacation?" Angel asked.

"This could be the biggest mission we've ever been on."

"Is this for real? What if he's trying to sell us something? Maybe it's a trick." Nick shrugged.

"Just blindly jumping into this mess is a bad idea. We don't even know the first thing about this place. You'd have to assume all of the above. We need a plan, right guys?" Melody suggested.

"Why waste a wish on someone else's problem?" Peter said.

"Do you have a better idea?" David asked.

"If you just wait a while, I could come up with one."

"I'm sorry guys, but we don't have time for this. I want us to meet back here in an hour in uniform with all equipment packed. Get in gear as quick as you can," David said. "Any questions? Meeting's over…"

"We'll help, of course. Just give us some time to get ready."

Everyone nodded and left, setting out to save the world from an eternal winter. This December was colder than anyone could remember. Spring was coming soon. After David was done, Angel sat beside him, pulling her laser lipstick out of a pocket.

"I'm not ready to do this right now. I think we deserve a break for once. When was the last time we had a day off? I can't even remember."

"Should we just bake fruitcakes, torturing the neighbors? I've got a job to do!" David paused. "Due to the unusual nature of this mission, I'll let you skip this one. I could sure use your support. Now are you coming or not?"

"I'm afraid something bad will happen to us."

"So, stay here then." David shrugged.

"Unfortunately for us both, I like dangerous missions."

"Relax! I'm sure everything's going to be fine."

Angel nodded and then quietly walked out of the room. She had been frequently disappointing him these days.

"Hey, I know I'm not an official team member, but can I go too please? I just have to see Rudolph!" Crystal batted her eyelashes. "I wanna hear all about it!"

"You're far too young to come with us. I've got to help you get home now."

"I understand. Guess I won't have anyone to play with… I'll see you later." She gave him an injured puppy dog look.

"Ok fine, but just stay out of trouble."

"I've never been on a real adventure before!"

"Hey, wait! You forgot to get a uniform."

"Do they come in different colors?" Crystal asked.

Let's take our training to the next level.

David decided to work in some last-minute training before the big mission. It was his way of blowing off steam.

"Commence!" he yelled, starting a session.

This particular program would never present the same simulation twice. Computers quickly searched a vast number of environments, equipment, and enemies for a suitable new trial. A ninja dressed in a black hood knocked him down. He didn't even have time to get to his feet before the background disappeared.

"Again!" he shouted, closing his eyes. He had to put all his anger aside and relax. Adrenaline made him anxious. It could trick him into doing something stupid. An evil version of his friends tried to beat him with their bare hands. After another brutal brawl, he stopped a moment to catch his breath, not fully believing what he'd accomplished. Level Z… He owned a huge collection of video games, including a 3-D version of Tetris. His practice appeared to be paying off finally.

"Very impressive…" A familiar voice echoed as the illusion vanished. A light flickered on. The room was void of evidence from the recent rumble.

"You're not supposed to be here. How'd you get in?" David asked.

"Let's just say I can hack any network. Perhaps I'll have to provide a better sparring partner for you later. Remember that time we stood back to back within the same force-field bubble of protection, both aiming our blasters at the nearest target before it burst and ran out of energy? Those were the days."

I: Winter Wonderland

People may think engines are the heart of any aircraft, but perhaps it's just a picture of a loved one.

Seated in a shuttle-craft, the team left the docking bay while wearing a tough synthetic skin called B.A.S.E. (Battle Armor Suit Enhancement) S.U.I.T. (Sophisticated User Interaction Technology). The missile-shaped transport vessel had sleek, shiny surfaces. When everyone was mobilized, David used the orb's magic essence to teleport them to Christmas Town. It instantly transported them halfway around the world, traveling at the speed of light. They found themselves surrounded by a mountain range covered in heavy snow near the highest peak. Snowflakes pelted the windshield.

"It looks cold out. Good thing we brought the hover-ship."

"Take us down now," David said from the copilot chair.

"Is this smooth enough?" Angel asked, looking back.

A head popped up behind the pilot seat. Nick tapped his shoulder. "Hey, why does it sound like the engine just stopped?"

"That's because the engine just stopped!" David blinked.

"Stupid hunk of junk! Eyes on the sky!"

"Why are you getting mad at a machine?"

"We're losing air pressure due to the altitude!" Angel's audio headset and extended microphone bounced up and down as she flipped a small switch.

"Pull up! We're going to crash!" Peter pointed.

"I'm trying, but for some reason I can't!" Angel arched an eyebrow. "Restart the radioactive core with an E.M.P. shockwave. It will temporarily drain our backup energy reserves, but I don't see what choice we have."

"Do it!" David ordered. "Careful with that core!"

"I've got zero visibility. We could hit anything."

"Power is back online!" Peter checked the power-meter.

"Hold on tight guys! Looks like we're in for a rough ride!"

David managed to level-off from the deadly nosedive. Everyone got jerked around as they hit the ground hard. The ship slid up the slope, approaching a cliff edge. He held his breath. It stopped at the very peak. A loud creaking noise perked his ears up.

"Whoa, that was close!" Peter wiped sweat off his brow.

"The door is jammed!" Nick grunted.

"I'll open the airlock!" Peter punched a button on the side of the hull.

"Grab your gear now! No telling what supplies we need…"

Due to shifting weight, the hover-ship tipped over and fell. They just barely made it out in time. A bright flash blew sparks in the air like embers from a blazing bonfire. An explosion rocked the mountain ridge and sent flaming boulders in all different directions.

"There goes our ticket outta here." Nick complained.

"To think I was worried about wrecking it," Angel frowned.

"Well great, now what?" Peter crossed his arms.

"Where do we start?" Melody sighed, looking down.

"All indications are that the portal has disappeared."

"It just dropped us off in the middle of nowhere."

David displayed a 3-D projection of the peak. He gazed out across the barely visible horizon; the wind was stronger up here. "I can't see anything on radar. We're out of range. With all those options, our search area is too large. We might make it down into the valley by nightfall, depending on the weather in this colder climate."

Angel felt ice crunch under her feet. Snow fell through the air onto her hair. It was so still she could even hear herself breathe. A chilly blast of breeze blew against her jacket, so she bundled up. It signaled a renewal of winter's icy spell.

"I feel a little bit lightheaded. The air is so thin here."

"This is no ordinary weather event." David shrugged. "There aren't supposed to be any pine trees near the North Pole."

"Our weapons don't work." Peter pulled the trigger.

The Blaster looked like a futuristic ray gun and fired photon projectiles. Normally, a thin beam shot out of it in a steady stream for any laser lover.

"Neither do our force-fields…" Nick mentioned.

"I wonder what happened." David checked the equipment. "It could take hours to recharge these batteries."

"At least my communicator is functional." Peter played with his headset until it screeched and then the static went silent. His adjustments were to no avail. "Scratch that."

"Mine doesn't work either. They won't be of much use."

"There's some kind of electromagnetic energy field here. The Earth's poles must be interfering with the radio signal."

"This is too weird. No doubt about it…" Nick said.

"It's cold, no thanks to the wind-chill factor. Looks like a blizzard is coming toward us. We should get going soon before we freeze to death. We'd better find a safe place to rest and set up camp. Once we reach the bottom of the valley, we can search for Christmas Town." A roar came from off in the distance; David gazed downhill for a moment as the others watched in silence. "Any idea what that noise was? Whoever it was, he probably isn't selling insurance."

"I should ride with you guys." Crystal slipped a warm sweater over her head.

"If you have a working hover-board and know how to use it, go ahead. Nick, stay with Crystal."

"Whoa!" Nick tripped over a rock hidden under the snow. He brushed it off. "This snow gathers easily."

"Maybe you could just roll down the slope." They stopped and stared like David was crazy. "Normally I wouldn't suggest doing this. Put everything you've got in your backpack so you don't lose it. Before you go, wait until we get a head start. Be careful."

"We will!" Nick waved.

Racing downhill, David and Angel glanced over at each other. He noticed several creatures hiding behind pine-trees. They stared at him with beady little eyes. David shrugged, figuring it was just his imagination, but lost his concentration and crashed into a fallen log. He hit the snow face down, managing to stop himself before he began to roll downhill. By the time he found his hover-board buried below, everyone else was already long gone.

"Later man!" Peter passed him by.

"Don't be rude, dude!" David frowned. Show off…

A short snow-monster jumped out from behind a nearby tree. It lacked any feet. It had a cute carrot nose, licorice lips, glowing eyes, olive buttons, and a black hat. It lifted wooden arms and shook its head. It growled and opened its mouth; steam rose out from it in circular wisps. Because of the deep snow, David couldn't find his footing and lost his balance. The snow-monster hung on his back as he tried to break free. He rolled to shake it off, but that only made it worse. As a last resort, he walked over to a big rock under a tree, crushing the monster as he flopped on it. As he ran back uphill to his board, another one pursued him. Picking up his board, David swung it at his neck, chopping off its head, which began rolling downhill.

David noticed his hover-board wasn't working. He weaved his way back and forth down the slope, keeping in mind how easily the snow built into clumps. He had flown above it before, but now his board started to dip down. Shifting weight to the back of the board, the tracks he followed took a sharp turn into a nearby forest. Up until this point, he'd been concentrating on just keeping his balance, not watching where he was going, but it was too late to turn back. His eyes stayed focused on the path ahead rather than the rocky cliffs below. About to hurtle through the air, he shoved his board in the snow and rolled into a ball. Moments later, he flew off the cliff edge. Then he crashed into trees at the bottom.

Digging his way out, David shook off snow and gasped for air. Looking uphill, he saw he had fallen a hundred feet. Snow blanketed this dense part of the forest. The ground was flat and hard here because the tree branches had stopped most of it from falling. Leafless trees cast stick-figure shadows in the snow. Lunging bodies and arms took shape as they drew near.

"Did you see that?" Peter kept walking ahead.

"Something's moving down there! Let's take a look." Angel bent down on one knee. "It's ok little guy. I won't hurt you." "Awe, isn't he cute?"

"Um, are you sure that's safe?" Peter paused.

The fat snow-monster cautiously hobbled over and fixed its eyes on her. Its head tilted slightly sideways as it stood there blinking. Then it lunged forward, hissed hysterically, and bit her leg. Angel screamed, attracting attention.

"They're coming this way!"

"We're surrounded!" Peter panicked.

David ran over while warning them to retreat. He looked up and saw the snow drift down from a branch. As he fought one, another jumped up and knocked him down flat. One pummeled his stomach while another plugged his nose with gnarled fingers, pinning him in place. The others landed on Angel and overwhelmed her. She screamed as one tugged at her waist with its wooden arms, jerking its head back.

Can I get there in time to help?

David's mind raced until he had an idea. His blaster worked now, but could only melt them slowly at best. He tested the ground. It seemed solid enough. The nasty creatures ignorantly hissed at him as they continued to attack, anxious to destroy their targets so they could turn on him next. He picked up an old branch and ran downhill fast. He held it sideways, cutting two of them in half. Peter was almost unconscious from lack of air, but recovered and caught his breath.

"Did you drop something?" David decapitated another automaton.

David tried to escape the last two snow-monsters, which bounded after him. Stopping suddenly, he turned around and bashed off one of their heads. The other knocked him face first into snow, but luckily, he landed next to a hover-board. The snow-monster grabbed his backpack as he operated the controls; he flew past a tree, crushing the creature against it. He jumped off just before hitting another tree. It got stuck in the trunk, wobbling up and down - shaking snow-burdened branches. After tending to Angel, Peter retrieved his hover-board and broke it free from the tree.

"Thanks, pal… One of those things bit me!"

"What was that thing?" Angel panted. "They're alive! How is it possible?"

"Magic maybe… There might be more of them. We've got to get out of here now, but there are too many trees to fly. Can you give me a lift?"

Carrying David between them, Angel and Peter took off just before another horde leaped, falling from the trees.

"Did you guys know they were up there?" David asked.

"They almost got us!" Angel stammered.

"Were you trying to get killed? You gave me a heart attack! Why didn't you guys fly over the trees? It's too dangerous to waste time like that."

"We thought a walk through the forest would be nice."

"We're not on vacation!" David said. "The others will be here soon. Get warm while you still can."

"Wonder how they're doing…"

Reaching the forest edge, they took a rest. Below them was another steep slope. It felt like they hadn't made any progress.

"Well, I guess that blizzard is farther down. We won't have time to go around it."

"I hear faint music from here, which means that we must be getting closer. The signal's getting stronger."

"Uh oh, break's over guys!" David called out.

"Relax, I'll handle it." Angel took off again.

Angel flew past one, cutting it in half with a tree branch, but the other grabbed it and climbed closer as she dodged trees. She dropped the branch behind her, but then smacked into a tree. No room for error - the slightest miscalculation would send her spiraling downward, diving headfirst into danger. She almost felt sharp twigs thrust into her, leaving her dangling as a morbid decoration in a lonely pine forest. The branches flung her up higher, and when she came back down, they snapped, sending her plummeting to the ground. She hit the snow, which cushioned her fall, but lost her hover-board.

David picked her up and carried her bridal-style. Then when enemies attacked, he heaved her into the air, fought them all off, and caught her again.

"I like your style. Nice move…" David laughed.

"I'm a fast learner," Angel admitted.

"Hey Peter, come here! Can you recover that? I can't climb up there with all this snow around. Too slippery…"

"No promises…" Peter hovered up higher, unable to reach it. He grabbed a branch and shook it hard, but it didn't work. Then he threw a snowball and hit it.

"Yeah, way to go!" David patted Peter on the back. "Take that. You might need it more than I do. I won't risk flying in this storm so I'll go on foot."

"Whatever, it's your funeral. You're going to kill yourself if you keep this up. If you run into any trouble, just yell."

"He's so stubborn sometimes. If he can't learn to control his attitude, he's going to get us all in trouble." Angel shook her head.

David took a steep path on the slope as they went through the blizzard. The others followed close behind him, trying to stay together, but the wind kept them apart. He called out, but there was no answer. He leaped over a boulder and landed with a skid. Digging below the snow, avoiding a violent vortex, David stayed there until he could think straight. He tunneled toward somebody, using his hover-board as a shield. He watched the trees sway back and forth. One snapped and the wind lifted it away.

"Angel! Are you ok?" He shook her arm.

"Oh yeah, I'm fine. Ya got any Advil?"

"Seriously, I'm just joking." David rolled his eyes. He held her hand as he hung onto a tree. "Can you get up?"

"Let's lighten my mood…" She shuddered. "I'm so hungry, tired, and cold. I'll never eat ice-cream again."

"How can you crack jokes at a time like this?" David teased.

Angel pushed herself up to a sitting position, then tried to stand. The result proved painful. Before losing her balance, she threw her arms around him and wept pitifully on his shoulder. He gently supported her as she leaned against his chest. He cradled her head with his left hand and then slid his right behind her back.

"Just lie down on the board and strap yourself in."

"You can't be serious!" Angel coughed.

"Anything's better than being stuck here and freezing to death. Hold this and keep the snow off us. That should do it. I'm still not sure if this will work."

"Remind me to sue Jack Frost!" she said.

Angel got back on her board. David planned a course, plotting a descent trajectory. A snowball crashed down right next to him, making him jump away. A voice came from somewhere inside just before a Blaster melted it into slush.

"Boy, are we glad to see you guys! Sorry to startle you…" Nick crawled out of the crater. "We got lost in the blizzard, but before landing, our hover-board malfunctioned. We rolled right into the center of it. After we reached the eye of the storm, the wind carried us all the way here. Let's keep going, Crystal."

A faint rumble echoed and gradually grew louder. David looked back to see a huge snowball heading right toward him like a freight train. He swerved off to the side then stopped. The snowball plowed into a snow-monster, knocking it over like a bowling ball pin, then smashed between two tall trees. Peter soared out of the sphere, scattering snow all over the ground like raindrops. David smiled as he caught the carrot nose and then tossed it behind him.

"I'll keep rolling downhill. Here, take my hover-board."

"I don't want to get separated this time." David disapproved.

David leaped in the air and hit a snow-monster at an angle while managing to maintain his balance. Peter flew right toward another snow-monster, jumping as his board sliced through it, and then landed back on it.

Casually continuing, David saw a big, glittering wall of ice up ahead, but couldn't turn in time to avoid it. Instead, he went through a narrow crevasse until it came to a dead end, curved near the ground. Above the sloped wall was a ceiling of sharp icicles. He slid up it, but his board slipped out from underneath him. A tree root hung out over the edge; he pulled it as he fell. His board went flying onto the flat ground on top of the wall just above him.

Gotta grab something or I'm history! David gulped.

Angel had decided to follow him. She went right up the wall and slipped. Barely hanging onto the edge with her fingers, she held on for dear life. David managed to catch her hover-board in midair, but it looked like a block of ice by now. He put his feet above it, released the root, and then bent his knees to absorb the shock. The ice started to melt away, but he managed to grab a few glistening icicles along the way and threw them at several more snow-monsters. He went down one side and up via the other. After he slid across the curved ceiling upside-down, hitting icicles, he cart-wheeled and landed on the ground above Angel's head, then helped her up as dirt crumbled away into the wide chasm. A snowball rolled up, crashing into the ceiling.

David stopped to avoid bashing into a boulder. Monsters ambushed them again. Before he warned Angel, they knocked her off of the hover-board. Her force-field protected her; she recovered and ran to safety. "Drop me off on top of this boulder." From there, He watched snow-monsters jump and hiss at him. "I'll knock off their heads with these rocks." The snow-monster spit the stone back out at him; David barely managed to dodge it. They left him alone.

"I don't think I can stand this for much longer." Angel whispered with a worried expression as they listened carefully to violent rumbles in the distance.

"Hey guys, let's not wait around to find out what that was!" David stared at the mountain slope, pointing uphill. The others slowly turned their heads, seeing the oncoming avalanche. A sea of snow was still coming toward them like a flood. "I'll bet that cliff is a sharp drop. I'll use a parachute."

He hit a ramp at an intense velocity. He went flying off the edge and into the air. Gracefully he soared through the sky and looked down below. A giant snow-monster slowly walked toward them. Realizing his original course would hurl him right into the monster's mouth, he loosened his feet - bailing off his board. He landed on its head; the wind blew even harder. He dug deep down and skidded to a halt just in time, grabbing the hat's rim. Angel flew over closer to pick him up.

"Watch out!" David pointed.

It leaped and attempted to swallow Angel alive, but she flew away. She tried to wrap her parachute cord around its legs to trip it, but the yeti yanked and ripped it. It opened its mouth and spit out the board so it landed back in David's hands, so he grabbed it. Dispersing the emergency parachute, he began to drift down in a tailspin.

"Next time maybe you won't be so lucky." Angel frowned.

"I'll take my chances. The avalanche should trip that thing."

The snow-monster planned to take them by surprise. Without warning, a gigantic wooden hand clawed viciously at her, swatting her around like a fly. She was momentarily paralyzed to the point where she couldn't work the computer controls; fortunately, the hover-board automatically programmed to come underneath her. She came within inches away from its face and stared at it. Before it threw her into its mouth, the avalanche knocked it over the edge. She pulled open her parachute as the monster tumbled down the cliff to its doom where it shattered into pieces, smashing into the ground.

"Well, that takes care of him." David grabbed her arm as she fell and drifted down beside her. "I see a trail. Let's make camp on the other side of that lake."

The cord tether snapped and David's parachute broke. Angel yelled and reached out toward him again. He sank deep into a pile of snow, but it caved into the hole above him. He took a breath and began to tunnel upward diagonally while melting away a hole with his Blaster. Peter heard muffled shouts as he helped out. Finally reaching the surface, David flopped over on his back, lying down on a soft bed of snow. He stared up at the steep jagged cliff, watching snow peacefully plummet. Another snowball fell and crashed next to him as he dived sideways for safety.

"Hey, is Angel ok?" David breathed heavily, taking no thought for himself.

"She must be at the lake." Peter lifted him to his feet.

The ground around them caved in. Something shuffled toward them; somehow, the giant snow-monster had survived.

"Oh, great! Just what we need!" David pointed.

They focused their Blaster laser beams on Frostbite, melting the snow as it tried to recover. Ironically, it was laughing. The others rode on their boards, firing from the air, but it ignored them and leaped toward David as he tested the thin ice. He ran across the lake while the monster waved its arms around, leading away from land. Angel zoomed low over the water, ready to pick him up when he gave the word, watching to see if the ice would crack under its heavy weight. Another snowball flew off the cliff, bouncing twice then sliding before it broke apart. Angel picked David up while Peter tried to get the snow-monster to jump and grab him, but he came too close. It landed on the broken ice with a thud, sinking deeper into the cold water.

"I've got you now!" Angel shouted as she turned around. She took a rope out as Peter prepared to jump to safety, but the snow-monster knocked him out of the sky.

Peter plummeted toward the exposed icy water below. He tried to hold onto something, but couldn't. Thinking fast, he pushed off of it with his feet, barely clearing the moat. He slowly stood up, finding himself riding a floating iceberg. As he jumped, it flipped over. He grabbed Angel's rope as she flew past. Everyone backed away from the monster and fired at the ice with their Blasters. As a team, they managed to immerse the monster underwater and air bubbles slowly rose to the surface.

David wanted to find a location sheltered from the elements. It also had to be safe from trespassers. The nasty weather had an effect on everyone. They moved out as a group to take shelter from the storm.

"From the unfriendly welcome, I'd say that we're on the right track. We should arrive right on schedule. Everyone ok? Are we missing anyone?"

"I suppose we all should have rolled down."

"I don't agree. I got dizzy. The ground keeps spinning." Crystal rubbed her head. "Dinner tasted better coming back up than it did going down, guys."

"Major migraine… I think I'm gonna be sick," Angel announced.

"Thanks for sharing that with us." Peter groaned.

David checked, but none of them were hurt. Angel fell on her back into the snow and sighed with relief. In her dazed state, she wasn't sure how long they had traveled. The snow fell steadily. They could hardly see anything as it was, let alone face the fury of wicked weather. The wind kept lifting snow off the ground and hurling it in their faces. However tired they got, it was too cold to stop until they found shelter. It was just a short journey from here. Their progress was slow, marching on in silence.

David led them through a large underground tunnel inside a rock wall. He could tell it was built on purpose. Climbing uphill, he spotted a distant, dark cave. They rested behind a big boulder while he issued orders.

"Which way?" Nick asked. "Pick up the pace."

"We're going to set up base camp in the cave that goes behind the frozen falls. I doubt we'll run into any more of those monsters. I don't see any sign of Christmas Town, but I'd say it's close judging by that faint music. Nevertheless, stay on guard. I don't trust these forbidding forests even for a moment."

"In other words, we're not out of the woods yet."

II: Crystal Caverns

I hope our little hike doesn't take long.

Staggering up the slope toward the ice cave, David told his team what happened. Looking back, he checked to see if anyone had been following them. Little did they know, someone was watching them. With wind blowing snowflakes into a miniature tornado, they trudged to a mound of rocks pressed into the mountain slope.

"If our technology falls into the wrong hands, terrible things could happen," David said.

"What good is it if you can't even use it?" Melody yawned.

"I can take care of myself. Besides, you needed backup."

"Can we get moving? This snow is kind of annoying, especially since I have all of the equipment," Peter said, too lazy to procrastinate.

"Could you guys keep it down?" David asked.

"You're paranoid, aren't you?" Nick pointed. "I knew it! You're out to get me. You're one of them."

"Someone might hear us." Melody held a finger to her lips.

I'm going to get some firewood. Nick quietly slipped away.

"It's freezing out here." Angel shivered.

"Is it hot here, or is it just you?" David asked.

"Perhaps I'll know once we've rested and recharged."

"Would you like me to carry you or just let you complain?"

"I wouldn't mind that." Although she had to march quickly to keep up with his long strides, she enjoyed the secure, steady embrace of his arm. He smiled and hauled her over his shoulder. "Hey, put me down!"

Angel laughed, kicked, and pounded on his back. David set her down and then shook the snow off as she stepped inside. Voices echoed through the hollow cavern as they whispered quietly, resonating in the deep tunnel recesses. The floor wasn't natural; it seemed harder than solid ice, but wasn't very slippery. Glistening crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling and gave a dim glow.

"It's not as cold in here." Melody smiled.

"We'll stop until dawn unless there's any trouble. We have a long trip ahead of us, so I suggest we all get a good night's rest."

Inside, it was dark. The cave had the damp smell of a place abandoned for ages. Snow slipped through cracks in walls; starlight shimmered down from holes above. Each room echoed with howling wind from outside. Sharp icicles hung from high above; stalagmites came up from the floor and met the ceiling, forming pillars where the water dripped. Drifting snowflakes cast shadows that crept along corridors, whirling in the wind. At the back of the cave, the walls came together. Steamy vapors rose from a pool of water.

"Hey guys, over here! Hot water…" Peter pointed.

"It must be from the glacier-covered granite. Sounds like there's a waterfall under the ice…"

David pulled out a small flashlight from his utility belt and flicked it on. The beam shot into the darkness. Swirls of mist passed through it in currents of newly awakened air. As he advanced deeper into the expansive cavity, a hint of danger prompted him to creep more slowly - one step after another. He couldn't tell what might be lurking in the shadows. Disfigured reflections appeared in the ice as they walked by. One room had a miniature cyclone that swept up snow and sent it swirling in circles as warm air mixed with cold air outside. Finding a safe room, they set up camp - still unaware they were being followed.

"Where's Nick?" David asked.

"Call of nature perhaps?" Peter shrugged.

A group of snow-monsters huddled by the entrance, converging on the cavern. Nick ducked and hid under a small arch as he watched them pick up some rocks and spit them at the ceiling. Icicles dropped like bullets. Sharp crystals fell to the floor and shattered. The ice arch cracked and collapsed. He rolled to safety, but they warned each other and chased him. He fired, but missed. One knocked him down; his gun slid away. He struggled to stand back up; the others were already on top of him. They dragged him downhill, dropping him in the middle of the group. Thinking fast, he picked up an old branch and flicked a lighter. Holding the torch out, he waved it wildly.

"Looks like you're afraid of fire." Nick laughed out loud. Then wind blew it out and they surrounded him on all sides. As they closed in on him, he backed up against the wall. "Uh, guys? A little help here!"

They pelted Nick with ice-balls until he fell unconscious. Luckily, they lost interest in him, deciding to go after the others. Five guarded him and carried him away toward Christmas Town, leaving a trail of blood behind. He had one chance to escape. Shuffling through the snow, they would go to Kris and tell him where they were hiding. He couldn't let that happen at any cost.

"Yee-haw, I'm an outlaw!" Nick shouted.

Nick reached out and nabbed his gun from a guard. He ran over to a tree and fired from above. One shrieked at the sight of them melting, while another gripped the tree and tried to shake him from it. He slipped, accidentally dropping his Blaster. He leaped down and quickly grabbed the gun, blasting them to pieces before they got away. By this time, the rest heard the commotion.

"Ok, let's move on top of that wall. We need a reliable escape route for emergencies." David went to investigate. He pointed to the mouth of the cave. "Everyone find a partner. I saw something outside. Put the stuff away. Get that fire out."

"Do you feel that?" Melody held out a hand and looked up.

"How could snow get in here?" Peter asked.

"There must be a hole that leads outside."

"Hold on. I'll be right back," David said.

From a safe distance, Nick plugged his ears and fired up at the ceiling. Icicles fell like rain, destroying half of the remaining enemies. David dashed and jumped off of a rock, holding his gun with both hands while firing down at the beasts. Then he hit the ground and rolled, absorbing the impact. One snow-monster snuck up behind Nick and grabbed his neck; then it choked him, smiling insanely. He grabbed its wooden arms and then hurled it over his back. It hit a wall and shook its head. Another charged at him, but he pulled out his Blaster and fired. He blew away the smoke from the nozzle.

"I've got your back!" David grinned. "By the way Nick, tell me where you're going before you leave next time."

"I don't see what the big deal is." Nick was having the time of his life. "I'm tired of waiting around to get ambushed. Let's give our little guests a welcome they won't forget."

"We've got company, guys!" Peter pointed, seeing more.

David charged ahead, leading the way. Suddenly, the ground shook. To make matters worse, trickling water echoed nearby. A shallow stream began pooling at their feet. It flowed to the front entrance and stopped, unable to drain outside.

"Another tremor could bring this whole place down on top of us," David said.

"What's happening?" Angel's eyes darted around. A chunk of ice fell from the ceiling. David shot it just before it hit her.

"A boulder fell before we left the cave. The entrance is blocked."

"There's no way out! Can that laser beam cut through the rocks?"

"Even a little hole might keep the water from rising."

"It's worth a shot." David aimed his Blaster.

Drilling into the ceiling, he bored holes through solid stone. Steam formed at the contact point, masking his effort to melt it.

"Is it working?" Nick looked up.

"I can't tell." David ceased fire, only to see a wall of solid ice - clean and shiny - as if polished by a brush. "Not even a dent!"

"The ground is hard as concrete, so we can't dig under it."

"I'm out of ideas. Got any good ones?"

"Go to the source. Sounds like it came from above… Maybe we can block it somehow. See if you can find a loose rock."

The guys lifted a huge boulder and then flew to the breech. The stream slowed for a second, then spat the rock back out.

"It's way too fast!" Peter panted.

"Now here's something interesting. Looks like a lab…" Noticing a door in the ice, David could see a hidden room on the other side. He pushed and pulled with all his might, but it wouldn't budge. "I'm going to blast it open. Stand back!"

"Go for it!" Peter stuck a thumb up.

A flash of light exploded into a shower of sparks. The glowing laser beam bounced off the door, but the ice walls absorbed it and melted away from the heat.

"Darn, it didn't work!" David shook his head.

"Rocks weigh less underwater."

"Now would be good!" Nick crossed his arms.

"Give me a break. I'm working on it."

With water inching up the walls, the cave would be full in no time. David took a deep breath and then plunged into the icy pool. Keeping his eyes open, he swam frantically toward the entrance, following the dim light that seeped in through a crack. With his frigid hands, he pulled on it. His lungs burned, begging for breath. Spitting out a mouthful of water and coughing, he gasped for air, trying to keep his head above the surface. This time, he programmed a hover-board to help him out. Finally, the barricade broke. With a quick lunge, David hoisted himself up. He sloshed over to the edge and rested.

"Happy now?" David panted.

"Let's get back to the lab," Nick said.

David kicked the door down, forcing it open. A low-pitched hum bathed his ears in exciting digital sounds. A faintly glowing diode cast ghostly lights onto the ceiling. Tall glass cylinders stood like life-sized china-doll display cases; below this was a nest of wires, relay switches, and trigger mechanisms.

"I'll hit the lights." Peter flipped a switch.

Lights flickered, as if from momentary power failure. Panels illuminated an enormous underground chamber. A thousand tangled cables snaked like thick spaghetti. Vibrations traveled through the floor to their bodies with a buzzing sensation. A huge machine of some sort stood waiting. Gawking at this assembly of gadgets and scattered metal scraps wouldn't get them anywhere. The long lost lab was like a maze - a computer geek's dream come true – enough buttons to dizzy the most technically savvy.

"You don't get to see an underground laboratory like this every day. This is amazing! Um… What is it?" Nick asked.

David sat down and started to tap keys. He attempted to explain, but the technical terms flew right past everyone.

"I think I speak for all of us when I say - huh?" Nick asked.

"Basically, whatever was built here is gone now."

The group went back to the lower chamber. They huddled around a pile of soaked debris - broken branches and pinecones.

"I'll start a fire." Peter poked a stick to stir the ashes.

Nick pressed a gooey marshmallow and chocolate between two graham crackers and then licked his lips. Before he bit it, Crystal took it away. Nick snapped his fingers. Angel pushed her hair out of her eyes. Her face glowed softly in the flickering firelight. She hugged her sweater and became toasty warm. She got a bottle from her backpack and took a long drink. Her body and mind ached for a nap, but she gave up the idea of curling up into a ball and snoozing.

"I'll go ahead and say what everyone's thinking. We're stuck for now. We'll wait here and rest for a while. Angel, break out the food rations. Stay with the supplies. Every hour, one of us will take turns and guard the entrance."

"I wanna go home! Hey, don't rub it in, ok? This isn't fun anymore. It doesn't seem safe. I should've waited until you guys took care of business before I came here." Her feet and hands were beginning to thaw. Melted snow trickled off Crystal's clothes. Her legs were aching so bad she couldn't go on standing a moment longer.

"I'll find a place where you'll be safe until this is over."

Crystal sat back and dug her hands in her pockets. The last thing on her mind was leaving in the middle of a storm. The warm fire felt comforting; she stopped shivering. Smoke stung her throat. Her eyelids grew heavy and soon touched together.

David checked to make sure the campsite was secure for the night. His friends sat in a circle beside him, chatting and roasting marshmallows. With his companions safe, he finally felt able to rest his body. His mind was another matter though.

While the storm raged in all its fury, they warmed themselves by the fire and waited until it was over. Everyone was dry, but still cold. They sat together, comparing recent experiences. Peter gave more details about the forest ambush. The girls giggled, seeming more happy and carefree than ever. Angel winked at David.

Who will watch over you while I sleep?

If only the floor were a little smoother. The ground was hard and uncomfortable, but everyone soon went to sleep. The last rays of warmth from the fire gave a gentle glow in the frozen walls of ice. At last, the storm died down; later they would have to continue their journey. Magical moonlight shimmered on the surface and made it sparkle. Northern lights danced with the wind. Crystal clouds sprinkled snow. Stars burned bright in the sky like a thousand candles.

I can't catch her unless she falls for me first.

David had a bad dream again. He looked down at Angel, who was trapped under a layer of ice in freezing cold water. She pressed against it and held her breath. Pounding with his fist, he finally broke through and grabbed her hand, but she slipped away. She passed out and released rising air bubbles. Then he woke up, breathing heavily, when his watch alarm went off at 11:00 PM.

"I need a break. Whose turn is it?"

"Let me take over." David stood up, stretching. He relieved Peter of his patrol duty shift. "I know we lost a lot of equipment. Since our gear is finally starting to work, I could really use an update right now. I'd like a full status report by the time I get back."

Peter circled the room; he wasn't ready to relax yet. Light from flickering flames cast dancing shadows on the walls.

I'm bored. We've been waiting here for hours.

David paced back and forth under the entrance. He leaned against the wall and tapped a gun on his waist, keeping one eye open. He kept to himself and didn't say much - not the easiest person to get along with. He met his share of sorrow, yet his answer to her question was still the same. When she asked him how he felt, he avoided her.

I've always been alone. I never needed anyone else before, except God.

He never minded being alone to think before. Every abstract, scattered mess represented life, so he found out how the little pieces fit together. No matter how pointless each individual part seemed, anything that happened had a reason. Something about the satisfaction that lay in knowing everything belonged comforted him. However, it was hard, especially in a puzzle as large as life. Perhaps, as time passed, he would discover why, but for now, he had to be patient.

Love is delicate - complex. Relationships require countless calculations. They say it's an equal partnership, but it's never a fifty-fifty deal. There's always someone who loves more or less - keeps the other there. It's like chasing after a cloud. Even if you catch it, the shape will keep changing until it's not the same anymore.

It wasn't obvious, but his close friends noticed subtle differences in his behavior. He would sort of space out, then snap back and pretend nothing had happened. Mixed feelings made his head hurt; emotion was an indication of weakness – especially a negative one. He rubbed his eyes, trying to stay awake. Finally, Angel decided to confront him about it. He wouldn't open his heart to just anyone. It had to be someone he could trust - someone who would understand. He couldn't even trust his own feelings sometimes. Without a word, she stood up and quietly approached him.

"Hey, are you ok? You look kinda upset. You've been more quiet than usual. What's on your mind?"

"Say what?" David didn't like to get caught off guard, especially in front of his team.

"I was just worried about you. That's all."

"Well you don't have to worry about me." His voice sounded troubled and distant, wrestling within his mind.

"Something is bothering you and don't try to deny it. I know it's true. You might as well just tell me what it is. And I won't leave you alone until I find out."

"It's not that easy to explain, but I know what I'm doing." He couldn't help just staring at her sometimes. "Look, this isn't exactly the time or place for this."

"I've noticed the way you've been looking at me lately."

"Have you? You mean like this?" He leaned in a little closer. "Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could freeze time forever?"

"Kiss me." Angel pleaded, smiling at him innocently. "Well? Come on now… Don't keep me waiting."

"Hey guys, what's up? Hope I'm not interrupting anything important!" Nick slapped their backs, startling both of them.

"Darn…" Angel rested her chin on her fist and frowned.

III: Polaris Paradox

I hate to wake them up, but we'd better get moving soon.

At dawn, after what seemed like mere minutes, they sat up with their eyes wide open, listening to a beeping sound they knew all too well by now. David requested an update on the equipment status.

"Hover-boards are fully functional at an optimal level of operation. However, one is missing a parachute. Guns and force-fields are recharging. The hover-ship is waiting for us, cloaked nearby."

"Bring it back down from space and have it pick us up. I want to make sure we can get out of here just in case or at least get another ready for repairs."

Anti-gravity engines enabled the starship to fly into a deep optimal orbit where there was no friction or air resistance, then re-enter the atmosphere. It could go under water, on land, and into space.

"According to my analysis, radar indicates there's nothing but an ocean here. If we are in another dimension, it has to exist somewhere in a continuum. In theoretical physics, time and space are relative. I don't know what to make of it."

"Ok, who forgot to pay the satellite bill?"

"I can't believe this." Nick shook his head.

"So much for our backup plan…" David sighed. "As you all know, we were transported farther away from our objective than expected. When we get there, I want force-fields and invisibility on, with Blasters ready at your side. It's time to go."

As they neared the cave exit, clouds parted to let the moon shine through. David stopped at the arch and looked around; they stood there and shared a solemn moment. Then they started hiking down the mountain pass. The others followed close behind in single file. Towering pine-trees swayed in the wind as they traveled together, stepping on the freshly fallen snow. He scooped up a handful and ate it. Snowflakes swirled all around. One star burned brighter than all the others in the night sky. It hovered in midair in the Earth's atmosphere.

"I thought daylight hours were different at the North Pole," Melody mentioned.

"I wouldn't be surprised. Nothing is normal here."

Crystal shivered, saying nothing as her teeth chattered. The breath coming out of her mouth looked like steam. Panting a short distance behind them, she tried to catch up again. She gazed at the magnificent moon and majestic mountains. She was so tired she almost passed out, yet she trudged on through a winter wonderland. Fighting her way forward, her hands went numb. She kept slipping and sliding on ice patches, tripping on fallen trees until she was wet and cold. Every time this happened, she complained it was their fault for bringing her along. As she ducked under branches, snow showers fell onto her head. Spearheaded spruces shook off white robes from their prickly pinecones. Crystal began to cry.

"I wonder if there's any point going on. I wish we'd never come here."

"The signal is weak, but I think we're getting closer." David watched his step while glancing at a handheld computer.

A howl shattered the silent night. The party stopped in their tracks. Crystal screamed and grabbed David's arm as two eyes mirrored the moonlight, staring straight at her. Snow flew up as its claws dug into the ground.

"It's just a bunch of wolves." David calmly looked down at her from the corner of his eyes as she shook nervously.

"Yeah, your scream scared me more than them. Someone's been standing too close to the microwave," Melody mumbled.

"Have you been drinking too much coffee lately?" Nick gave Crystal a friendly punch. He held her hand, hoping to comfort her. His touch brought a strange warmth, so she felt no shyness at his caress. "Your hands are freezing! Where are your gloves?"

The wolves were close, but it was still hard to see them. Farther along the path, they all jumped back. The alpha wolf, white and muscular, stared into David's eyes, recognizing he was the group's leader. He barked and warned the rest to wait. David walked over, but realized something was wrong. A metal trap caught its leg. The wolf growled as he examined the wound. Then it stopped, seeing it had been released.

The wolf turned to address the pack and then trotted off into a patch of pine-trees. Everyone watched and waited. It dug up something buried in the snow where nobody would ever find it. After scooping a metal object into its mouth, the wolf bounded back to David. Crystal didn't move a muscle as she held his arm; her mind told her to run like mad. The wolf approached and pushed its nose into his hand. It dropped the metal object at his feet - a small silver whistle shaped like a wolf. The wolf bowed submissively, bending back its ears, turned to its pack, then left with them.

"Look what I found. It could come in handy later."

"It came right up to us!" Crystal stuttered.

"Just relax." David groaned.

A Crested Owl took flight from a branch; a shower of snow fell from the tree. A group of wild reindeer bounded right across the trail. Then more snow-monsters attacked them again. David whipped out his whistle and blew hard. Within moments, the pack of wolves came running to fight them off. They rushed off as quickly as they came.

"See? They're all on our side. Now let go of my leg before I pull out a crowbar."

"It's not nice to growl at pretty girls!" Melody shouted.

They quickly turned invisible. Just seeing the great, glowing city stirred an eager expectation. As they approached it, they heard someone talking. They dressed in fur to fight the wind. Guards had the gate under surveillance both day and night, patrolling the outer perimeter. Military outposts on alert prepared to welcome their new guests.

"Blast that merry music! Why is everyone around here so contagiously cheerful? Dreamers will always compare the present with an idyllic past. Whoever indirectly interfered with my plan nearly ruined everything."

"If I find anything, I'll let you know right away. I'll use any means necessary to keep the violence out of town and inform civilians to remain indoors."

"I want you to see what's left of my minions. The trap I triggered must have destroyed some of them, but getting rid of humans is worth it. How many troops under your command have returned from the mountain range?"

"Only half… They should be easy to spot, considering we know which direction they will be coming from, since there's a huge cliff on the other side of town. I'd say their chance of survival is slim. My men are watching every street, but it's going to start snowing again soon, so it will be difficult to detect intruders."

"Never mind the weather, but I do want security alert. Go get your men under control. Any elf enlisted in the army who skips his shift will be thrown in prison with their family. If anyone's caught closing his eyes, force him to exercise until he throws up. I don't care if they've stayed awake for the last two days. I wish that fat, stupid snowman kept his mouth shut. Find those humans and make them cower before my feet!" Kris thundered. "Now is that understood?"

"Yes, sir!" The short elf saluted and stood at attention. "You can be sure I'll deal with them personally if it comes to that."

"Take your swiftest scouts, go out to the frozen forest, and kill whatever you find there. Don't come back to me empty-handed unless they're already gone. If that's the case, return to the citadel at once. Don't let yourselves be seen by anyone though."

"Ok, let's take that clown down in a surgical strike. Wait for my signal. Only get one shot at this…" David said as a guard left his post.

"Just say the word," Angel whispered.

Everyone aimed at Kris, letting their firepower loose. Colorful rays of light shot across the ground. Two beams skidded into the snow, causing it to spurt up like a wave in a straight line. The other shots hit the target, but changed direction, as if bouncing off an invisible bubble.

"He must have some kind of shield too." David couldn't get a clean shot at him, hesitantly holstering his gun. "Our gig has obviously been blown. Our position is compromised."

Kris Kringle was confused, yet unharmed. He simply stood there and squinted, finding himself still alive. First, he grew furious, but then he appeared to change his mind, taking a different tone of voice. "Is that you, humans? Come out from hiding. I'm sure we can talk it all over and work something out."

"Either he thinks we have a negative I.Q. or he actually does," Nick whispered.

Kris looked around and pretended to be nice. "Give it up. I'm too powerful for you. Come with me and I'll provide safe transportation for you to get back home. I really don't want to fight, unless you insist on carrying out our differences. Fine, I don't care! I'll have your heads either way! Do you hear me? You'll all be dead by morning!" The words echoed into the cold, silent night. Additional guards finally arrived. "What took you idiots so long? The humans are here! Now go find them!"

"Saved by the bell…" Melody heard a faint ringing sound.

"I'll bet he knows how to turn Christmas Town invisible like a giant snow-globe. I can't see any structures past that wall." David turned invisible and blended into the background. "Stay here. I'll check it out."

Seeing they were safe, David stood up again and gestured for them to follow. He quickly and quietly led them all over a rock wall surrounding the valley. Together, they climbed up on top of it. The moment they walked through the invisible dome floating in midair, the hidden horizon appeared. It glowed from inside, but they could still see the stars shimmering far above. They stood and gazed down at the dish in awe. Colorful light offered more vibrant views there than anywhere else.

As they came closer, music filled their hearts. They stared in silence, with mouths wide open. The beauty was breathtaking. Big bells, precious jewels, and tinsel decorated every street. Christmas-lights were strung up everywhere on hundreds of trees. Colorful candy canes and stuffed animals hung from the branches. One tree stood out, towering high above them; redwoods looked like toothpicks in comparison. The evergreen needles would never wither. Giant lights and other large ornaments decorated it like so many stars shining in the dark of night. The bright star they had seen earlier stood near the tree-top like a dazzling diamond.

The North Pole rose into the sky like a lighthouse in fog. Red and white stripes spiraled in circles as it slowly spun around. A room with windows on top reflected lights around it. Snowflake-shaped streets met in the town square, branching out from there; streetlamps resembled candy canes. Icicles hung from roofs. Frost formed on windows. Smoke slowly rose in curls from the chimneys. Colorful candles flickered furiously. The warm light made the snow glow bright with glory, shimmering like the stars. A red glow came from the reindeer stalls.

"This is so cool!" Crystal whispered.

"Everything feels wrong here, like we're being watched."

Despite this, one thing was ugly about it. A dark citadel stood in the very center, towering above everything else. It looked like a sharp needle, with spikes sticking out from the warped walls that formed curved blades. Long shadows cast on the snow looked strange, normally pure white and quite clean. The building was black, due to pollution from burning coal. Toxic vapors burped continuously from factories engaged in manufacturing machines. Smoke slowly dissipated into the atmosphere - not to mention the charred ashes and soot. Snow on the side of the surrounding structures was harder than stone.

David zoomed in with his binoculars. The citadel had several elaborate entrances. Two giant, robot snow-monsters stood guard near the main gate, receiving orders. Their heads turned watchfully every now and then with glowing red eyes. Elf guards patrolled streets in an orderly fashion. Other buildings consisted of a durable kind of diamond that looked crystal clear, tinted with different colored jewels like stained-glass windows in cathedrals. Holographic billboards announced the latest crackdowns on dissenters. Various voice recordings boomed from overhead speaker systems.

A robot stood motionless, but his sensors were still active, sweeping the area for hostile habitants, actively aggressive. Its operator had instructed it to destroy them, issuing commands over radio. A sudden movement drew its attention, but it lasted only an instant and the location couldn't be determined. It'd wait until then before taking any action. Great gears whirled wildly, spinning around in circles, as metallic lubricated joints slid past each other in a periodic pattern.

"Do you guys see the robots all over the place? They must be equipped with sophisticated scanning devices, but I suggest we take refuge and hide until we know what we're dealing with here. Hold on," David whispered as a couple of guards came and turned the corner.

"That's funny. I thought I heard someone talking." A short elf scratched his chin. "Hey, those footprints don't lead anywhere."

"I have no time for your overactive imagination." The other guard bopped him on the head. "The snow hasn't covered up all the tracks yet because a building is in the way. Let's pick up our wolves before we're spotted without them then come back later."

"I've heard rumors these humans can turn invisible."

"That has to be the dumbest thing I've ever heard."

"I can't imagine how they disappeared so quickly."

"We'll have to draw them out of hiding."

Angel approached a sturdy looking cabin in the countryside with stacked, hewn logs called the Crystal Café. A jingle bell knocker hung on the door. David quietly brought his team down the stairway on the other side, which led to a back door. Peter took out a small knife and pried it open.

"There's a candle in the window. Someone must be inside."

Several beer bottles spread across the shelves left little space for drinks that couldn't kill a customer in the first minute after consumption. A ticking grandfather clock was the only sound source in the room. The dining area lights were turned down low. Clean tables with wooden chairs filled the floor, which smelled like sawdust. Hot dog roasters, soda pop vendors, popcorn machines, weight scales, and microwaves sat on a counter. Cans of beans and soup occupied the cabinets. A mop and bucket leaned against a corner.

The floor had a cute checker-board design. A small Christmas tree with an angel on top stood by a window-sill. The walls were made of wooden logs painted with a waterproof sealant. A television sat above the fireplace by the front door near a neon sign. Melody managed to open a closet door between the restrooms that had cleaning supplies, vacuums, brooms, and dustpans. The bathrooms had mirrors, sinks, toilets, soap dispensers, hand dryers, and trashcans.

David saw a faint glow coming from a crack in the door opposite a cash register. Snowflake sticky notes and candy cane shaped pens lay on the counter. "Be quiet. I'm going to open that door." As David slowly approached, an elf inside the room washed dishes with wet towels. Ovens, stoves, freezers, sinks, and other kitchen appliances lined up the walls. The short elf smirked.

"Hello, humans… I've been expecting you."

IV: Fireball's Failure

"My name is Fireball. I'm one of the leaders in charge of the army. I know what you're thinking, but you're wrong. I'm on your side. It's in my best interest to assist you. It may seem hard to believe I'm a double agent after Kris tried to trick you, but I'm in a perfect position. I have valuable info that could soon be of use to you. I know you're there. Look, you came to help, right? The real question is, do you trust me?"

David thought over the offer for a moment and then decided to reveal himself. It still didn't explain how he found them. "How do you know so much about us?" "Santa told me all after he heard all about your adventures. You're one dangerous dude. That's why we brought you here. He said that if anything happened to him, I should find you." "How do I know you're telling the truth?" "It wasn't hard to follow you, yet I didn't turn you in. You can come out now," the elf said.

"You heard the man." David disabled his cloak.

"I'm glad you had some sense. It would be suicide to attack Kris unprepared. However, we're not safe out in the open." Fireball beckoned. "We can't talk here. Our conversation could easily be overheard. Please, follow me downstairs." He quickly searched the room for tiny microphones. "You can never be too careful these days."

"Wait! We don't know anything about this guy. How can we tell which side he's on? He could be leading us into a trap."

"I'm aware of that."

"Did you hit your head? You're not making any sense!"

"It's kind of you to help, but we can't stay for long." David followed Fireball like they had known each other all their lives.

"It's starting to snow." Fireball closed a curtain. "That's all the better. We won't have any unexpected visitors. Someone might be spying on us. If anyone was trying to track you down, they won't find footprints or pick up a scent now."

Fireball removed a key, walked past them, and then opened a hidden closet compartment. They followed him down to a room with combination locks attached to the door. Dripping clothes formed a puddle at their feet. He had a fireplace, stool, desk, table, dresser, and a couple couches that folded out to become beds. Above the sink were cabinets full of dishes. The clock had hands shaped like a snowflake or the North Star. Hour number images portrayed 12 days of Christmas.

"Ladies first…" Fireball gestured.

"He's flirting with you," David whispered.

"He's just being friendly," Angel replied.

"You're a pretty girl. Who can blame him?"

Fireball stooped down and took a piece of wood from the fireplace with a pair of brass tongs. It felt good just to sit down and rest for a while by a warm fire.

"I'm such a fool to let you stand here in wet clothes. I usually keep this fire going for guests. Please come in and get comfortable. Make yourself at home. Take off your gear, mix some hot coco, and have a seat."

"I prefer to stand, thank you," Peter said.

"I think your lives might be in danger," Fireball said.

David scanned for any weapons or contaminated food. Then he gave the go ahead for them to take off their equipment and set it down on the floor right near the door. He sat on a sofa next to Angel. Crystal and Melody sat cross-legged on a carpet.

"I call the couch!" Nick poured a drink.

"Would each of you tell me your names?"

"I'll do the introductions." David extended his hand.

David represented his team. The clock made an annoying meowing noise, announcing it was 3:00 AM.

"By the way, thanks for helping us out."

"Santa says I'm the one who should be thanking you for what you're about to do." Fireball stretched and yawned. "Now, let's get down to business. What would you like me to discuss first?"

"You might as well just tell me everything a little bit at a time. We're all in this together now. Save the story for a moment. Maybe I can figure out what's going on." David recorded the conversation. "I need to know what it was like before Kris took over."

"I try not to think about it much. It's a long tale, but I'm sure it'll help you save Santa." Fireball looked down, collecting his thoughts. "Hold your questions and be patient."

"Almost 120 years ago, Kris Kringle looked better back then, until his face turned ugly as his heart. Then he cheated to get what he wanted instead of delivering toys. Some spoke of making him leave, but nothing ever came of it. He was powerful, so we tolerated his tyranny. He started slacking off and slept in a giant stocking. He sat back and relaxed while others worked. Eventually, elves fired him. He took a job at a post office, collecting mail and sorting through letters, yet soon became bored and studied in his spare time. He stole several books from a public library and hid them in his bag during a delivery run. He absorbed ideas from brilliant minds of the 21st century."

"After completing a blueprint, he took some tools from a government lab. He built robots to help him and ordered them to carve out a cavern up in the mountains for a secret laboratory with a barricaded barrier. He rode reindeer to the lab each night, using keys to unlock the door. There he designed, built, and tested ice guns, which could freeze or unfreeze any living organism. Electromagnetic force-fields protected him so no one would use his own weapons against him. All life on Earth consists of oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon. If water can be frozen, so can people."

"Kris gathered naughty elves to plot a coup. At the time, I was drunk. I had a bad day and was exhausted. After gambling away all my wages at the Candy Casino, I got in a fight with a tough bartender who hurled insults, refusing to back down. Kris had seen the whole thing. He met with us, asking if we wanted to stop building toys and move on to greater opportunities. He revealed his plan to take over town and promised we would receive power in exchange for offering our services. I agreed to help, but thought he was just joking. And not a day goes by I wonder if I did the right thing."

"He came to visit me the next morning and asked me to follow him. I had forgotten everything that happened last night, so I decided to say nothing. Showing me all his secret plans, he told me about incomplete inventions and every research experiments. The others would've turned on me unless I played along. When I got back, I gathered a counterstrike force because Santa was still busy. I told them every detail of his plans, but they still didn't believe me. After that traitor discovered what I had done, he ordered his goons to capture us all. Just before they reached my apartment, I spotted a bug hidden under a table. I warned the others, telling them I was going to a cavern and coming back with whatever I could find."

"When I arrived, I saw Kris fiddling with strange gadgets. He sat at a computer watching a display screen that ran streams of changing numbers above wavy lines. The room seemed safe, but the moment I approached him, the door slammed shut behind me and apparently locked itself. A turret rotated right at me. Kris cuffed me to a wall, telling me he would freeze those who dared to defy him after he stole Santa's Scepter. Kris equipped his hired henchmen with force-fields and ice guns, but left some behind. My friends came to the cave before anyone found them. Then they used a mirror like a shield. The turret freed itself by melting the ice, but they deactivated the device before it did any harm by cutting off its power source. Some tools still lay there in the lab. After learning how to exploit them, they set me free. The reindeer gave us a ride, but we were too late to stop him."

"Then one gloomy Christmas Eve, Kris and his naughty elves converged at the citadel and walked toward Santa, dressed in nutcracker uniforms. Nobody was prepared for what happened next, but Kris knew he couldn't take on all of the guards at once. They assumed his gun was just a model. Suddenly, armed toy soldiers broke through the gates. Kris focused their beams on Santa Clause himself. He was warm with joy, hope, and love, but his magic was no match for the ice guns. Kris ran up to the throne and stole the Scepter. Wielding a new weapon, he then blocked off every exit and ordered his helpers to freeze whoever escaped. They shoved, kicked, and trampled each other in their rush. Several citizens standing in the crowd tried resisting. Kris decided this game had gone on long enough, so he froze them all. Their hands stretched out to plead for mercy, as if suddenly turned into statues. He built a prison and locked them up. He interrogated them and forced them to join his side. Later he threw them into an alternate dimension without time."

"Along Arctic Avenue and on Rocking Horse Road, the streets were clear of rubble and debris. Neighborhoods were eerily deserted, but nowhere in town was there any sign of struggle. It felt strange to see a place that was usually so busy empty at that hour. Kris instructed his henchmen to inflict as little damage possible on property while still ensuring success."

"We had to force our way back in. Kris was too powerful. Instead of confronting him, we helped everyone escape and created a diversion so they could warn the others. We split up and escorted them to safety. We freed Santa and the reindeer carried them away from the area. We gathered our forces for one last fight. Kris beat us easily, and when we turned to escape, he took no prisoners. When I found out he caught my friends, I barely managed to help Santa get to the mountains. I knew that I couldn't stop Kris alone. I would wait until another day. Rudolph and I hid on the mountain range in a barren wilderness for years, only going down for some food and supplies. Eventually, I made a new life for myself."

"Kris created an army to keep the citizens under control - with constant monitoring and strict supervision. I enlisted - working my way up to the top chain of command. I managed to become one of the captains after long hours of hard training, exercise, and sleepless nights. As you may know, elves live even longer than humans. We age slowly because the cells in our bodies don't divide nearly as quickly. This genetic advantage makes up for our lack of height. I had to change my appearance. I was careful to make sure Kris couldn't recognize me. Fortunately, he was so busy ruling Christmas Town, I didn't have to. He introduced science and technology to our society. I've been trying to come up with a plan to stop Kris ever since he took over town, but that hasn't really changed anything."

"Without you, we wouldn't be here." David interrupted.

"Are you sure you can take him on?" Fireball frowned.

"Well, for one thing, we have advanced technology. We've been on many other adventures besides this. We can't outfight him, but if we keep under cover and go by a way he won't expect, maybe we'll make it."

"That's ok - forget it." Fireball shook his head. "You know what I like most about you? You're a servant-leader." He nodded with approval. "Anyway, I guess you want all the secrets I know. I've drawn maps of Christmas Town. Here's a list of items to buy and sell at the shops. Every room I've ever seen is described here to a delicate detail. I explored almost everything. Here's the cavern's location. The army constructed a secret passage somewhere under the city to get around quickly. These hidden tunnels can be used against you if you aren't careful."

"Part of the lab caved in. Now it's unsafe to go through."

"We don't get out much lately, but I never found out why. I wonder what he's hiding in there though."

"My scanner could never detect all of this." David examined the maps. "Can you tell us anything about the military? I also want to hear about the Citadel."

"Watch out, because that's the one place I don't know much about. There could be anything up in the tower. Kris built hundreds of robots in his factory. All units are coordinated from the control room. Kris can override anything from cameras to microphones. Monitors rigged to alarm systems warn operators when unauthorized individuals enter the underground tunnels, but watch out for well-placed proximity trip-mines. Most of the controls require certain access codes, listed in my files."

"Military personnel are trained to use three weapons – icicle bows and arrows, rapid-fire shard cannons, and grenades. Each elf enlisted in the army stays in great shape or they're kicked out when they fail tests. I train leaders who instruct guards to fight in the Polar Patrol. The other three officers are in charge of technology, security, and discipline. As for the facilities, we have a gym, target-practice arena, storage room for weapons and armor, and even a jail. There's a radio station near the auditorium next to the Great Tree. Beware of laser-panels, security cameras, and force-field defense systems in the base. You'd better rescue Frosty, because Kris won't wait. Here, I have something for you. This key allows you to access the armory."

"Thanks for the tip!" David put it in his pocket.

"Kris has been working us hard ever since you arrived. I'm just too tired to talk right now. I need some sleep. It's going to be a long night if I don't. I've got to get up again at 5:00 A.M. with a busy schedule tomorrow. My friend will answer your questions and fill you in on the other details. Go and see her. If she isn't at the auditorium, I'll be around later. You can spend the night here if you want to, but don't bring back any trouble. Feel free to help yourselves to anything you like upstairs."

V: Snowflake's Song

Attempting to reach the auditorium undetected, David led his team through a long, dark underground tunnel. In a janitor's closet, he opened a trapdoor hidden under an old wooden desk.

"It's risky, but this is the fastest way."

The storage room had brooms, dustpans, chemicals, empty crates, petrified planks, metal chairs, microphones, music-stands, records, tapes, cassettes, a power box with switches, tools, and broken mirrors. The light-bulbs didn't work. Most of the dusty objects were on shelves, either broken or disorganized. Nick accidentally knocked over a bottle, but grabbed it before it hit the ground.

"Nice catch!" Melody whispered.

"Try not to touch anything while we're here," David said.

The area appeared to be closed for the night, but then lights flickered on. The grimy window was too thick to see through and the dust on the floor tracked footprints wherever they went. David rubbed it reluctantly. The Great Tree towered over a dome that curved up over the sparkling stage of the open auditorium, but the other half was made of glass. Velvet cloth padded the empty seats, smooth to the touch. A red carpet covered each aisle. The white, marble floor looked just like ice. Speakers and TV screens hung overhead. Evergreens stood at both sides of the stage. A beautiful bow tied two candy canes together above it, making a huge heart. A big glass ornament glowed softly with light, changing colors according to the music.

An attractive young elf stepped on the stage, holding a microphone in her hands. Angel noticed an unframed picture of a girl hung on the wall. When she touched it, it spiraled around and fell to the floor. The name Snowflake was written in a fancy form of calligraphy on the back. At first, it looked like a human girl, but when she saw the pointy ears, she could tell it was an elf. Angel held the photograph for everyone to see.

"Hey, look at her! I guess she's about to perform. Let's see if she's any good." Peter stretched out his arms behind his head.

"Sit back and watch the show," Nick whistled.

Snowflake wore her holiday outfit, dressed in a red and white skirt with a large winter cap on her head. She had blue eye-shadow and ruby-red lipstick on with glistening glitter in her hair. Her earrings looked like sparkling snowflakes - shimmering in the starlight.

After a minute, Snowflake came up with a new song. Her nervousness seemed to disappear suddenly as she took a deep breath. She started to sing under the diamond dome. She spun around inside of a beautiful bubble, dancing like an angel. Though her voice rang crystal clear, she seemed sad somehow. The look on her face told them something was wrong. Standing in the snow, she looked up at the stars, hit her knees, closed her eyes, and cried. Tears streamed down her cheek and fell on the floor where she knelt sobbing. She wept, smearing makeup over her pretty dress. Somehow, the lights seemed dim and the auditorium gradually appeared less glorious. The damage was done. Her unheard cry echoed out into a cold, dark night. How many wishes and dreams had died there? Like snowflakes, everyone she ever loved melted away into nothing more than a memory. Her prayers had never been answered until now.

Hmm… That's kinda kinky.

David could tell from the look in her eyes that something terrible had happened. He wished he could just storm the citadel and wanted to end it all right there and then. However, he knew it was better to wait until later and held back instead. His heart wasn't set on revenge; he just wanted to make things right again. He would overcome evil with good, but refused to remain passive though.

"Let's lift her heart. What do you say?" Angel shrugged. "When a teammate is in trouble, gotta get there on the double!"

David smiled and nodded. They followed as he walked down the aisle. Then he became visible. He touched her shoulder. At first, she thought she was in trouble. Without speaking, he assured her she wasn't in any danger. She had been waiting for this moment her whole life. She forgot all the pain of her past and began to sing and dance with them, like they had rehearsed the song a hundred times before. Though she was many lives older than him, this doll-face looked young as dawn.

Jack Frost played his electric guitar from backstage. He'd sat in the radio station looking out an open window, watching Snowflake cry. Then he saw how close they were coming. Coveting overwhelmed common sense. Nothing was as painful as rejection - feeling unwanted. Jack turned his head and tried to hide his jealousy. He swallowed his pride, leaving his expression blank. He was too desperate to let some human ruin it for him.

If only I could get her to notice me somehow. Maybe Kris was right - I was stupid to think she would ever love me.

Music filled their hearts with joy. It told of the adventure that lay ahead for them. The heavenly harmony echoed through fantasy and reality. Mechanical instruments could never reproduce a written recording. Synchronized with the rhythm, they stepped sideways with the beat and clapped. They stopped at the same moment. David ended up holding Snowflake's hand, without a care in the world. Angel looked at their joined hands with jealousy. She turned her back, unable to watch anymore.

He doesn't even know I exist. Angel frowned.

Snowflake slowly leaned toward David ever so slightly. Then she came closer. The moisture from her breath evaporated. She didn't know why she wanted to be near him, but she felt safe. Her warmth chased away all the winter chill. He thought about it, but then he looked over and saw Angel standing alone. David gazed down into her eyes. Snowflake hugged him, but he pushed her away. She didn't think about what she did next, not expecting his reaction.

"What's wrong?" Snowflake pouted.

"Hold on a second, what are you doing?"

"Trying to thank you…" Snowflake shrugged. "You missed a perfect chance to kiss me." She bit her lip.

"We barely even met. I apologize if you got the wrong idea. I can't afford any distractions from our mission. Besides, you're an elf and I'm a human. It just won't work."

"Oh really? Well fine!" Her face turned as red as her dress. Snowflake stared at him with an ice-cold glare.

"I saw her hug you and you just let her?" Angel crossed her arms.

"Now wait a moment. This isn't what it looks like. I think you're overreacting!" David objected. "Why are you mad at me? She's not my type."

"Oh, and I'm supposed to take your word for it?"

"Do you honestly think I would do it on purpose? I thought you trusted me enough to know I would never lie to you."

"Is it just me, or is it getting really hot in here?" Nick tugged his collar to let out steam.

"Ok, break it up! Sorry for getting in the way," Snowflake said.

"Not yet, but you will be!" Angel threw a snowball at her, knocking off her hat.

"You asked for it!" Snowflake blinked in shock.

"Cool, a chick fight!" Nick rubbed his hands.

Making a big scene in front of everyone, they flipped each other over and wrestled on the ground. Moments later, both panted. Then they laughed at how silly the whole thing seemed. Pulling on her hand, Angel helped Snowflake up.

"Now say something nice." David crossed his arms.

"Something nice…" Angel apologized.

"I took it easy on you back there." Snowflake scowled.

"That's ironic, because so did I," Angel added.

"I see you two are getting along well."

"I'm sorry for giving you a hard time." Angel brushed herself off.

"This place isn't even listed on most maps." Then Snowflake brushed back her hair; the white cotton-ball tip of her hat tilted. She narrowed her eyes and decided to keep her distance from Angel. "Hey, how did you manage to sneak up on me like that?"

"Sorry… Didn't mean to startle you…" David apologized.

"We can turn invisible." Peter demonstrated.

"Imagine that…" She rolled her eyes.

"We're here to stop Kris Kringle," Peter said.

"Yet you're only human! Are you kidding me! How could you possibly expect to defeat him? Do you know what he'll do if he catches you?"

"Just trust me, ok. It's not so bad. We've been through worse." Melody smiled.

"Well, I'm sure he knows you're in town by now. The guards didn't expect you to get in here because it's locked, but I have the keys to the auditorium."

"Who are you anyway?" David wondered.

"I'm an elf princess." Snowflake winked at him.

"My name is Melody. Pleased to meet you," she sang.

"What about you, Jack?" David turned his head.

Looking at the floor, Jack felt they'd given him the cold shoulder. He didn't want Kris to treat them on the same level as himself, but managed to pretend he wouldn't let Kris do anything to hurt them.

"Think of all the children counting on us to bring joy to the world."

"So what's in it for me?" Jack asked.

"You won't help because it's the right thing to do?"

"Sorry, kid… Somebody's got to look out for number one."

"Snowflake, it's getting late. We need to rescue Frosty or he'll be executed soon."

David's computer detected a low-level frequency transmission from the radio station; jamming it, he proceeded to stop the traitor. Somebody was monitoring their movements via view screens, tapping at a keypad and transmitting tracking codes.

"I spy a spy with my little eye," David said.

"You mean there's someone here you don't trust?" Her ears tingled at the accusation. "That's impossible! I've known Jack Frost for years."

"He's gone! We have to find him first." Crystal yelled, but the snow muffled her voice. "Where could he be?"

"Don't shout - unless you want the guards to hear us. I already know where he went. It's important to remember just when he left. The danger depends on how much he heard."

Jack quickly hid everything and met David halfway. Their suspicions about him had already been aroused.

"Did you need something?" Jack waved and smiled.

"I think you and I should have a little chat." David shoved him down hard into a seat. I'll give you one last chance to join us, Jack. We need all the help we can get."

"Which side are you really on?" Snowflake frowned.

"Allow me to explain." Jack calmly held up a hand.

"Ok, let's hear it. This should be good."

"I already told you. I'm afraid of Kris."

"I can't believe you would join those jerks!" Snowflake shrugged.

"Sorry, you answered incorrectly. Let's move on to the physical challenge round."

"Wrong choice… You were just talking to him and we can't just let you go now. What am I going to do with you? Tie him up tight!"

"Don't we want to get going before anybody else arrives?" Nick was getting nervous.

"Kris will be wondering what happened to him. We can use all these maps Fireball gave us to get around the base. Snowflake, your name is on the most wanted list now. You'd better stay out of sight. We'll be back soon."

"Oh, he's here too? Wow, what a coincidence! No wait, it's fate! We've got work to do, girls!"

Snowflake stood outside, holding a candy cane under an umbrella; she put it in a snowman's hand to serve as a stationary decoy, plus some black sunglasses, then hid and left the area. One sentry watched suspiciously from a nearby rooftop, scanning with a night-scope and dressed in white deflective camouflage. Guards were unaware the whole team had come and gone. Broken ice spears served as barricades to block off roads. A patrol partridge perched on a tree branch; its eyes zoomed in and out like a camera shutter; finally it took flight, returning to its master.

VI: Frozen Fortress

"I'll infiltrate the facility. So from now on, nobody talks."

"How are we going to get past all the guards?" Nick asked.

"Someone will create a diversion while I sneak around them and open the gate. Those pine trees near the perimeter shouldn't be a problem."

"Our equipment is operational." Peter checked their gear.

"Great! Now we just need bait." David tapped his chin.

"Why is everyone staring at me?" Melody blushed.

Melody stayed behind. The others infiltrated the base, being careful not to set off any remote alarms. The frozen fortress had an impressive security system. All the walls were made of solid ice. A series of cameras, rampaging robots, and sturdy doors requiring access codes created a challenging obstacle course.

"Ok, I'm going in." David looked around before gesturing for the others to follow.

"I'm right behind you," Angel whispered, spraying perfume to look for lasers. "Hey, not so fast!" She caught her breath as they ran down a hall.

"Do you want me to hurry up or slow down?"

"Hurry yes, but carefullyyy!" Then they all fell through a floor panel into a room with sharp icicle spikes on the walls and lasers above it. "We're trapped!" she shouted.

"Darn, Kris must have known we were coming."

"The walls are closing in on us all! The controls have to be nearby. I'll just squeeze through and shut it down. Give me a boost."

While the others pushed hard against slippery walls, David helped Angel up to slip through the laser field on top, getting through the grid. She tried to hack into a computer panel, but then decided to shoot it with a laser gun instead so it broke, freeing them. She heard noting from the others a moment. Then finally they all climbed over the edge.

After they entered the next room, the heavy door slammed and locked itself shut as a defense mechanism. Laser turrets fired periodically. Beams bounced every direction, deflected by mounted mirrors. It was hard to tell what was happening. David waited and watched before he began running, making no wrong turns. His timing had to be perfect. The lasers couldn't reach him in certain locations. From each point, he planned his next move. At the center, he deactivated all the generators.

Before they reached the jail cells, they saw a room full of torched snowmen. They had been tortured, hanged, set on fire, split apart by sleds, or used as decorations - along with Frosty's wife. Peter blasted through solid bars made of licorice. When they found Frosty, they wondered why he hadn't melted. He wore a device on his black top-hat and a scarf around his neck that kept him cold even in a warm room. His arms weren't made of wood, but he had legs.

"Frosty the Snowman, at your service… I'm in your debt. I was magically brought to life one day, along with my wife who recently passed away. None of the other snowmen are good though because Kris made them all himself."

Angel had accidentally tripped an alarm; sirens screeched a warning. The sudden electric shock gave her split ends like sharp needles prickling her skin.

"My heart's beating strangely. Must've been that jolt…"

David's hand hovered over the force-field. He kicked at it and sent out sparks. Light rippled from the center circle like rings from a splash in a pond. The force field shimmered like a disturbed pool then turned crystal clear. He fired his Blaster at it, but the beam ricocheted back at an angle.

"These things are such a pain," David said.

"Well, at least it's not soundproof or airtight."

"I'll hack into the computer network." Peter uncloaked.

Nick ran into the field, testing its strength. An explosion of energy sent him flying back.

"Or we could just do that…" Peter shrugged.

David guided Frosty through the base until they finally reached the exit, while the others covered their retreat. Except for this incident, everything was executed quickly and quietly. When they went downstairs, Fireball was sound asleep in the other room. Snowflake tapped on the floor with her umbrella. David compared Fireball's maps with his computer display. He'd been waiting for a chance to talk about what had happened.

VII: Noel's Nightmare

"I'm sure you have some very helpful information and we'd like to hear what you know. Frosty, would you mind going first? Take your time. There's no rush," David responded.

"Santa, by the way, means 'saint' when translated. He once worked in a cathedral as a humble servant of God and thought he had a special call from heaven to take care of poor widows and orphans. One cold winter night, it began to snow for the first time. St. Nicholas caught the first snowflake that ever fell from the sky. He was confused, but left it in a glass jar. Others melted into water, but when he returned, he saw that his had not."

"The reason nobody visits is because nobody can find us. About a century ago, everything existed fully in your dimension, but back then, humans hadn't discovered it yet. Pioneers visited occasionally over the years when Santa brought back abandoned children with him after delivering toys around the world, but now they don't even believe he exists. Christmas Town is lost in time, floating around in its own plane, which is still attached to yours since the shards aren't melted yet. We're trapped between two different dimensions, which will soon separate. Whoever controls the crystals can rule Christmas Town. My guess is that we could still survive, but never get back to Earth under any natural circumstances. It's warmer now than it was back then because heat can get in easier than out. The convection cycles go from equator to poles, causing a strong wind. It was like living on a glass island with quicksand snow and transparent buildings. Things slowly crumbled apart, but Kris used the magic Scepter to make the ground stable again so we didn't fall down into the ocean."

"Why did you wait so long to tell us all of this?"

"I barely managed to send you the message. When the Scepter's energy is empty, it temporarily short-circuits. Kris never suspected that I would do it. That's why Santa chose me to deliver it."

"What about the factories?" David asked.

"The Toy Factory was shut down a long time ago and we abandoned it when Kris took over. Thieves threw rocks at the windows and looted the place. He forced us to use coined-currency, putting us all out of business with a new robot production plant. The Polar Express brings charcoal and firewood from the mountains; the tracks go right through town. The tailors used to stitch everything by hand. They went on strike, wanting better working conditions and fewer hours after losing jobs to more efficient machines. It was too cold at the North Pole. The bar is full of naughty elves loyal to Kris who think they're tough. The magic shop sells hats, capes, wands, handcuffs, keys, cards, smoke bombs, and more."

"Ok, thanks…" David nodded to Frosty and then turned around. "Snowflake, you can go whenever you're ready now."

Snowflake had been crying. Nothing anyone said could have made any difference. She hoped David didn't have any hard feelings. She'd tried to kiss him because she wanted him to protect her. She took off her cap and brushed back her hair, running her fingers through it nervously. Then she folded her hands in her lap.

"What I'm about to say breaks my heart. There's something you need to know – what happened. It's all my fault. I hope you're not too mad at me. One night, I was going to give my best friend a present. Noel used to work in the cookie bakery. I walked over to her house on Candy Cane Lane. I knocked on the door, but nobody answered. When I looked through the window, I saw signs of a struggle. I took out a spare key to unlock the handle, then turned the latch and quietly walked around. The living room was a mess. To my horror, I found broken dishes everywhere. Shattered glass lay scattered all over the floor. Someone had knocked over the tables and chairs. The more I thought about it, I realized she was in trouble."

"When I turned around to leave the room, I heard a voice come from somewhere upstairs. Kris found me eavesdropping in on his conversation. I tried to escape, but they caught me before I learned what he wanted. The guards brought me to him then threw me on my knees. I fought and struggled, but his henchmen held me back. He threatened to take my life and make me wish I'd never been born. Then he blackmailed me by saying he'd hurt my friend unless I swore not to tell a soul what he was doing. I hesitantly shook hands with him and lowered my head. He ordered his men to watch me carefully."

"I kept telling myself it would all be over soon, but it never ended. I figured that out a little too late." Snowflake sniffed, weeping while she tried to talk. "I just wish I could turn back time. You don't know how it feels to be so alone. It drove me crazy! I didn't know I was the only one who could warn them. You're the only ones I've ever told too."

"What happened to Noel?" Angel asked.

"I don't even know. I never saw her again after that night, but I kept thinking about her. Why did Kris have to mess up everything? I bet he was just using Jack to keep an eye on me after we made that deal."

"Don't worry about it. We'll find your friend. I'm sure she's ok." Feeling sorry for Snowflake, Angel patted her back.

"It's been so hard - living with a secret for all this time."

"You can't stay in one area too long if you're being hunted. The only problem is, where should we go?"

"I know a great place we can hide. Nobody ever goes up there since it's hard to reach." Snowflake suggested.

Crystal tapped David's shoulder. "It might be too hard for me to tag along."

"Oops, I almost forgot. I guess you can stay in the guest room tonight. Don't go outside or get Fireball in trouble. Give me a call if anything goes wrong."

"She'll be safe here." Angel added.

VIII: Eternal Evergreen

A terrible surprise was waiting for them upstairs. Guards pounded on the front door to the Crystal Café.

"I don't want to buy any elf-scout cookies!"

Running right into them, David slammed the door shut then motioned for everyone else to follow. Wolves broke it apart with their bare teeth. David dashed across the room and out the back door, which was left unguarded. He went first in case they were lying in wait, determined to deflect any enemy fire.

"Uh… Maybe we should try knocking?" A small elf shrugged.

"Or we could just bash it down with brute force."

The confused guards could only guess what was going on. Another door blasted off its hinges, dust filled the foyer, and several soldiers stormed in with weapons drawn. Ice arrows whizzed past their ears and shattered a window. Before they could leave, a ninja elf emerged, coming out from camouflage. He leaped off the roof and did a back-flip, landing on his feet. David tackled Snowflake around the waist, taking cover. Moments later, sharp snowflakes sliced through the air, sticking out straight in the wall - only narrowly missing them. They barely managed to dodge the deadly blades.

"Keep your head down!" David shouted to them.

Temporarily stunning the soldiers with an electric shock, David headed toward a secret entrance to an underground tunnel, only to find more guards below. They had come to investigate the unauthorized use of property. An evil elf pulled an ornament out of his pocket. He tossed it twice in his hand, raising an eyebrow. He bit off the top and threw it at them. The beautiful ball bounced.

"Oh no… Not again!" David kicked it away.

Naughty elves looked down then dived for cover behind a wall of ice blocks. An explosion blew the snow into the air. Charred ashes and thick smoke covered the ground. An igloo began rapidly firing snowballs at them.

"Freeze or I'll fire!" someone shouted.

Ice arrows pelted down like rain. Their protective force-fields worked properly, but sparks of static and glowing air particles made it easy for the elves to follow. More guards took up positions along the path. David flew away with the others as the angry mob pursued them. Wolves growled, snapped their teeth, and leaped in the air. He flew over the auditorium and went to the tree's base. He landed lightly on the ground, watching the snowflakes spiral endlessly down.

"I wonder what gave us away." Nick snapped.

"Don't worry. He's a tough guy. I'm sure Fireball will be fine. Frosty and Crystal will be ok for now, provided Kris doesn't search the basement."

Flying up the Great Tree, they had to avoid huge branches and sharp pine needles. Each ornament was elephant sized, including candy canes, glowing icicle-shaped candles, tinsel, and precious jewels. There were mice, dogs, kittens, elves, toy-soldiers, nutcrackers, and ballerina dolls. The statues looked horrified, like the feelings were petrified on their faces. Life-sized carousels, with reindeer pulling sleds, spun around in circles, making Angel feel dizzy. The huge Christmas lights came in a variety of shapes - a kaleidoscope of colors. They gave off an intense heat, melting the surrounding snow while illuminating each branch.

"I know of a secret hiding place in the tree. I used to come here when I was a kid. I'm tired of flying, so let's walk for a while."

Snowflake showed them around. The walkway was a spiraling piece of wood that stuck out of the trunk. As the ramp rose, it grew farther out. A hundred steps later, they rested under a roofed patio. The floor was flat; it had tables, chairs, and railings. Long metal nails held together polished wood panels.

"We've all had a rough day. Hey, you ok Angel?" David asked. "You've been quiet lately."

"Guess I just need to get some rest…" She sounded depressed and indicated she didn't want to keep on talking. She was too consumed by her own thoughts to hear. Her mind was elsewhere.

"Time to visit an old friend of mine…" David commented.

Snowflake walked back down the stairway, stopped and reached over the balcony, picked up a rope, slid down, then jumped over onto another branch. She walked toward the end of the branch as they hurried along single-file. Angel began to daydream, thinking of a way to get his attention without watching where she was going. The others looked back a moment too late.

"Help me! I'm slipping!"

"I gotcha!" David grabbed her hand and pulled her up.

Angel caught her breath and blushed in embarrassment. Nick couldn't keep himself from laughing any longer.

"Angel, that wasn't funny. You could have died."

"Sorry…" Angel rubbed her arms, embarrassed. "I didn't do it on purpose."

"Oops… Did I forget to mention it's slippery? I'll lead the way. It's not far now," Snowflake said.

A giant nutcracker stood guard near the middle. Snowflake went behind it and hit a switch; its mouth opened wide. The hallway was large enough to crawl through. Silently, they followed her. They stood watching until she stopped and turned.

"Well? Are you coming? Since we're so high, this hollow spot doesn't affect the tree much. We don't want to risk having the entire branch collapse under its own weight. It's a bit cold up here, but we have everything we need thanks to Noel's grandfather. Even Kris doesn't know about this place yet." Then she knocked twice.

An old man with a wooden cane spoke. "It's so good to see you. It's been such a long time."

"Too long…" Snowflake sighed.

"I see your guests are human - no offense." Ruxby suggested everyone should sit down. "What brings you here?"

"We're on a mission to save Christmas Town."

"Oh, you are now? That'll be the day!" Ruxby laughed. "Are you all mad?"

"We've been in worse situations before." Melody smiled.

"When I was your age, I thought nothing was impossible, but I've grown up. Go back where you came from."

"Do you really think giving up is a better solution?"

"Kris is not patient. Going against him simply isn't sane."

"If we don't do something soon…" Snowflake stuttered.

"You're wasting your time. You'll never find Santa."

"He must be here. We can't go back – not now."

"Fine, you go ahead. I'm staying right here where it's still warm and safe."

David showed him their advanced technology. The elderly elf stood from his rocking-chair and shook his cane, but then Snowflake grabbed his arm.

"Ruxby, please don't leave. We need your help."

"If you need me, then you must be beyond hope."

"I offer you a chance to save your loved ones, but you just get up and walk away like you haven't even heard us. I know you want to open your heart, but perhaps it has grown hard over time. How long will you lie in bed wishing you listened? Do it for Noel."

The old elf froze. For a while, total silence filled the room. No one said anything. He couldn't just ignore those haunting last words.

"I suppose you have a point, young man. I can't deny I have lost my hope and joy, but Kris took it all away. I stopped trying to fight it. I kept Noel's room the same ever since she disappeared. I don't go in there anymore because it only makes me sad."

"I'm sorry," David whispered.

"No, it's quite alright. My heart has carried this pain for so long that it aches. For years, I've denied the truth, but now I remember we must embrace happiness and sorrow in life. I recall being young and falling in love. How wonderful it was back then. So on second thought, I'd like to help you however I can. Ask anything. I know our history, going further back than anyone else. I've heard rumors Santa's been hiding for all these years. Some say he's being held in the tower. Others think he abandoned us altogether or took cover underground. He is the one who sought your aid. I believe he can tell you more about Christmas Town. If you find him, he might hold the answers you're looking for."

"The North Star above the Great Tree is called Polaris. It's a guiding beacon of hope for poor lost souls who wish on it. When you're lost, let its light lead you until it shows you the way. Sailors used it to chart courses before scientists invented satellites. It's remained a single, steady point - an unmoving light that never changes its course."

"On top of the North Pole is the Eternal Ice. If you should put your hand in there, it would be stuck in a timeless dimension. Once each year, it stops spinning and channels the flow of gravity, causing the Earth to stop rotating in time-space. Every molecule in range reaches absolute zero temperature, suspending animation. Somehow, with the Scepter and the warmth of his heart, Santa can keep everything near him in motion. When he finishes his job, he returns and starts it spinning again in its restless revolution with its polar power."

"Sometimes children wake up during his delivery run, but only when he is near. Santa usually tells them stories and waits until they fall asleep again. He takes snacks little children leave and reads the letters they send. However, he can't read their minds and he doesn't know who's good or bad. Those are just rumors. Also, he can't fit down the chimney anymore. Santa's out of shape. He hasn't had the chance to do this for about a century, so you can imagine how he must feel by now - even worse than me."

"Could you tell us how we first found Christmas Town?"

"Children try to catch Santa Clause each Christmas. When they see him, sometimes they tell people about it. At first, parents figured it was just their wild imagination, but when hundreds kept insisting the same thing, some of them began to believe it too. Today parents tell their kids that he exists, but don't really think it's true. Once, an old explorer visited us sick, cold, and hungry. The time traveler came across a hunting party, which hid him well and gave him provisions. Kris discovered it and decided to execute him. He reached the cliffs, but the guards shoved him over the edge. He survived, but starved to death trying to find a way home after the entire encounter."

"Is there a way to control the robots?" David asked.

"Unfortunately, I have no clue how they work. A whistle only wolves can hear will turn them against anything evil. We're ready to fight. We just need a good leader. Don't let me down. I would be disappointed if she died all over again. I couldn't bear it."

"Thanks, Ruxby… I think you just made our job easier."

"I'm going to bed. I suggest you do the same. Help yourself to the kitchen's food and get some rest while you still can. You're welcome to stay for as long as you like. Good night…" With a heavy heart, Ruxby walked back to his bedroom. A thatched mat lay on a wooden floor. A ladder led to a balcony with doors. He recalled how Noel used to sleep with her teddy bear and pretend it was alive. He sang to himself, gazing up at the starry sky. The sight of snow falling on a moonlit night brought back memories.

"It's still snowing outside," Angel said.

"At least it's nice and cozy in here." Melody sighed.

"We'll be staying with you, if that's ok."

"Now let's get you out of those clothes. I should find you something warm to wear. Put on this hat so nobody will notice that you don't have pointy ears." Snowflake came back with a box of accessories.

"Are these for me?" Angel asked, putting on diamond earrings.

"Hot, huh? Snowflake suggested.

"I like these ones!" Melody tapped her silver and gold bell earrings.

Melody changed into something more comfortable. She selected from an assortment of stylish shoes - feminine but not fancy. The modestly cut jeans weren't a perfect fit around her slender waist, but she smoothed out the wrinkles. Then she helped Angel pack a parachute out of an old tablecloth shaped like a snowflake.

"Maybe we should get to know each other more now." Snowflake smiled.

"I need your advice. You know a lot about men, don't you?"

"I guess so. Why?" Snowflake shrugged.

"Do you think I'm too much of a distraction for David sometimes? If I'm with him, he might be thinking about me instead of the mission."

"He thinks you're pretty. He'd be blind not to notice. The best thing you can do is let him decide. Whatever you do, give him room to be a leader. You're still young though. Try to hold the door open for him while he keeps staring at you."

After eating, sitting around a table, and discussing the day, everyone grabbed a sleeping bag from the closet. The girls slept in Noel's room, which was full of stuffed animals, tea tables, wooden beds with quilts, mirrors, dressers, desks, papers, crayons, rings, and necklaces hanging on the wall.

"Goodnight, Angel…" David whispered. "Like the new look…"

Angel nodded absentmindedly and then directed her gaze back toward the window. She stood in front of it and stared at snowflakes that fell gently to the ground. She didn't seem to notice the outside world, lost deep in thought. Somehow, she stayed up most of the night, wishing, dreaming, and wondering how everything would turn out in the end. Eventually, she closed her eyes and fell asleep.

Angel woke up the next morning to warm sunlight rays. Bright crystals around her became a dazzling display. Giant pine needles shimmered with liquid dew beads. She opened the door and climbed down a wooden ladder. Everyone but David slept; she took a pillow and lifted it over his head. Seeing she was armed and dangerous, he rolled on the carpet like a log and tripped her as she swung and missed, hitting the floor instead. She put her hands out to stop her fall while he stood and laughed. She rolled her eyes in reply, still smiling.

"Hey Nick, get up and smell the coffee." Peter nudged him with a foot. "The best part of waking up is falling back asleep."

"Morning guys…" Nick blinked, yawned, and stretched out his arms. "It's kind of early."

Snowflake started cooking breakfast. David insisted on scanning the food before anyone could take a bite.

"I thought you might like a bite to eat before you go."

"Nothing personal - just a precautionary measure…"

Everyone finished eating and got ready to leave. Peter suggested flying to Fireball's home to check on Crystal and Frosty.

"Hold it!" David interrupted, listening carefully. "Don't make a sound. Follow me." He walked over to the fireplace. Charred sticks and ashes swirled in the wind. They climbed the chimney, sneezing along the way. When they reached the top, they dashed out the door. They jumped on their hover-boards and flew away, on the move again.

The others were busy desperately dodging hundreds of hailing ice-arrows – running out of options. After Central Command learned they could turn invisible, guards were given special scanners to follow wherever they went. Robots chased after them and fired lasers from every direction. One beam accidentally set a factory on fire, but the snow quickly extinguished it. David turned sharply toward the citadel, leaving the mob far below him where the arrows could no longer reach them. Force-fields sent forth a protective wave the moment before a dangerous projectile came close, engineered with an efficient energy-saving mode that kept them in standby state when no serious threat was present. It took time to recharge the battery though, so he turned off the heater in his uniform instead to conserve more power and fix it faster.

"Split up!" David shouted.

Moments later, robots launched a missile at them, which split apart, released a huge net, and nearly caught them all. Hover-boards stopped working, deploying parachutes. David fired at the guards as he fell, not knowing what happened. They touched the bottom and formed a circle. David tried to push his way past them, but was thrown back. Another net rose from the ground and swept them up. Peter tried to blast it open before they got too high, but his gun didn't have any effect either now. Everyone became visible and turned off their environment suits' heaters. The fresh snow left traces of a struggle.

"Everybody hang on tight! Remind me to reprogram that ridiculous robot later."

A crane lifted the net on top of the citadel to drop it off. David cut it with a knife, but an electric shock flowed through the cords and drained their force-fields. All the way up, the ride was jerky. Gloomy, gray clouds hovered in a lonely sky.

"If you want them dead, why not do it now?"

"I already told you what I intend to do with them, Jack. Let's have a little fun with them first. After all, it was my idea to use magic to stop them. I want to see them suffer. Shall I freeze them forever in ice blocks or watch them try to escape the tower? Tough decision…" Kris tapped his index finger on his chin. He pressed a button. "First, we'll find out how their toys work. I'll let the little one go. I don't need her. I'll show them I mean business before I interrogate them."

"Are you planning to kill them?" Gangrene grinned.

"What I decide should be of no concern to you."

Mesh parts broke away. Crystal screamed and fell. Memories flashed before her eyes as she stared through holes, clinging to cords with her arms spread out. Nick instinctively jumped after her and curled himself into a ball to reduce any air resistance. Once he caught up, he grabbed the net then deployed a parachute. They slowed down just in time to avoid hitting the ground like a rock. Guards captured the couple. Kris Kringle would keep them alive if they were the only ones he had. He'd use them as bait to bribe the others with. Dealing with his new prized prisoners, he stripped away all their equipment.

"Don't you see that now I have both of you? For your act of rebellion, I'll lock you up until you freeze to death."

"You'll never get away with this!" Fireball tried to break free from ice handcuffs.

"Shut up! That's what you said last time. I took the liberty of scheduling a little bit of electronic entertainment for us. So why not sit still, since you have no choice? I don't want you to miss watching the others try to survive on the TV screen I've so graciously provided. Normally, I would torture and interrogate you first, but you'll never talk. I'm feeling merciful today. I'll leave you here until your minds change."

"They don't call us nutcracker guards for nuthin!"

Kris addressed his assistant. "Don't disturb me until the hot chocolate is ready. You are dismissed, my loyal servant."

Guards kicked Crystal and Nick into a freezer, tied up tight together - tangled up in tinsel. Fireball was there too. Crystal was wrapped up in a beautiful bow. Nick slipped out of the rainbow-colored ribbons. He jumped to his feet and ran over to the metal door, banging it hard with his fist. Then he tugged on it hopelessly, but it didn't budge. He turned around, flattened his back against it, and then slowly shook his head.

"It's no use, guys. I don't know how much time we have."

"How are we gonna get out of here?" Crystal asked.

"Just relax. We'll think of something," Nick said.

"My hands are so numb I can hardly feel them."

"Let's huddle up together to keep ourselves warm and hope the others make it," Fireball suggested.

"F-Fireball, I'm getting k-kind of cold." Crystal shivered.

"That gives me an idea!" Nick got a mischievous look. "Time for some fun…"

"Are you crazy, Nick? The wind-chill factor will only get us killed faster!"

"Haven't you heard of stationary exercise? Flex your muscles and stay seated. It'll burn off some body heat and keep us warm for a little while," Nick explained.

"Thanks for saving me," Crystal whispered, trying not to let out much warm air.

"Any time…" Nick smiled.

Then she kissed him. His eyes opened wide. They tried to separate, but their lips were stuck together. He pulled his head back, jerking her forward. Having caught a cold, he sneezed. Crystal closed her eyes in disgust and wiped her face. Nick rambled an apology.

"Who knew the human mating process could be so painful?" Fireball couldn't help laughing.

Everyone got to their feet and looked over the edge. With all the snow whirling around, they couldn't see anything. A door on the lower balcony was locked. They blasted it open. A turret fired rapidly like a machine gun. Sharp icicle darts hit the floor until they backed off. The weapon clicked empty. Its limited ammo supply was gone. Then the metal panel slid back into its previous position.

A neon glow came from somewhere in the next room. Twenty snow-monsters stood lifeless with waxwork stillness. David shot at one, closely watching their faces, but they never moved. Nick took a chunk of candy off one of them, but Angel grabbed his wrist to stop him. Now that David was right in the middle, their heads turned around, laughing mechanically. Before anyone could draw their guns, it jumped and smashed into David with its body weight. The others fired at it as they retreated.

"This is too easy." Angel looked around nervously.

"Wait, it could be a trap." David held her back.

Some dust sprinkled down. David recovered, but then saw the ceiling collapse. He drew his Blaster as it fell apart above him. He fired and managed to break off part of it before it hit him. The block slammed into the ground, crushing a stupid snow-monster. Angel knew the force-fields weren't designed to take that kind of abuse. She cried with her hands at her side, dropping to her knees. Moments later, David blasted his way out of the ice and coughed. Then she wiped the tear away, knowing he saw it. Without warning, she wrapped her arms around him.

"You're alive," she whispered.

"Of course I am." He brushed himself off.

Leading his team downstairs, David attempted to open another door by force. Examining the keyhole closely, he used a long tool to unlock it. Inside, fake pine-trees had poison-tipped needles. Land mines were hidden under the snowy surface. After taking necessary precautions, David fired at the floor covered with white powder and then ran. He dived for cover as an explosion rocked the room. The tower started tilting. A gas cloud hovered in midair, so they all held their breaths. When it was clear, they advanced.

"Now what?" Nick sat with his legs dangling.

"I'll go first, ok? There's a control panel."

The next room's floor was far below the platform where they stood. David climbed down a ladder then held onto the edge. It was a long way to the bottom. Several stairways came out, attached to the wall, but the wide gaps between them didn't look very safe. He slid down a candy cane pole to reach another metal platform. Taking a deep breath, he dashed and ran along the side of a wall, then leaped from it. He pushed off it hard with his feet. Then he hit a switch, extending a stairway.

Peter led everyone down the long spiral stairway, but about halfway through, somebody decided to override the controls. Without warning, the stairway slid into a wall. The others began falling. David hadn't counted on this happening.

Preparing for the impact, everyone managed to roll safely sideways - except Angel. She landed the wrong way, injuring her wrist. She fell on the floor with a thud, hitting her head hard. The last thing she could remember was calling for help as she passed out. Angel lay deathly still. Nobody could tell how badly she'd been hurt.

"Angel!" David cried out. "I'm on my way!"

A missile turret popped out of the wall and prepared to fire. A shiny metal shell slid into the nozzle and waited for the launch sequence to initiate.

I've gotta save her! This had better work!

David ran over and slid on his knees, activating his shield at the last possible moment before the explosion knocked them back. His electro-static shell burst like a bubble.

"The force-field is holding, but it won't last!" David had saved her, but not without other certain consequences. "Get over here, guys! I need cover now!"

Peter hacked into a computer panel on the perimeter and deactivated the missile turret. By the time the others got to her, Angel was already unconscious. It took a moment to realize she was out cold, but their combined force-fields protected her. Checking her power meter, David raised it from 3% to 25%, sacrificing some of his own energy to give her a boost. He scooped her up and carried her in his arms; her head rested against his chest. The hover-boards remaining in their possession started working again. They made it out of there just as the tower crashed in front of the citadel's main entrance, damaging one of the robots standing guard outside. They came down from the ceiling on the other side.

Gold seats covered with velvet fabric furnished a majestic throne-room. The throne itself looked crystal clear, with carved jewels and precious gemstones. Sculptures sat in the chamber's corners - one of a deer, an elf, and a glass tree. Sitting on the throne, Kris Kringle ordered his nutcracker guards, named Jingle and Jangle, to investigate. David drifted to a frozen floor, setting Angel on a crimson carpet. He carefully lowered her gently to the ground. Any recourse to guns had to be a last resort. He calculated his chances against all the odds. Not the greatest situation, but he'd faced worse.

"Who do you think you are – treating people like toys?"

"You brought them here just to stop me? I'm flattered."

"Seeing you get angry makes me feel all warm inside," David replied.

"You know, you're making this hard for me. So, tell you what, if you leave now, I'll let you live. Not interested? Fire at them now!" Kris pointed. "Just attack them already!"

Disgusted at their interruption, henchmen lifted ice-bows toward the intruders. Aiming with deadly accuracy, David drew his gun and blasted the arrows into shards that shattered against the wall and cracked several giant mirrors. He backed toward her, shielding her from more incoming icicles. His team stood at attention as he crossed his arms and addressed the dark elf himself.

"It's over. You have fought well, but you're obviously outnumbered."

"If you ask me, you've got too much power for one person."

Kris Kringle seemed unconcerned that so many secrets were coming out into the open. He motioned with a wave of his hand. A guard took out an ornament, hurling it at them. David swung a candy cane like a bat, sending it back at the guard, who rolled out of the way. Moments later, it detonated. Tinsel fragments flew everywhere just like colorful confetti.

"Call out the Sentinels!" Kris sighed, wiping a hand across his face.

Two giant robots flung open the heavy doors. One gave off spurts of electricity and smoke; damaged circuits crackled at irregular intervals. Its skull caved in with its eyes mangled. These manufactured muscle machines were designed to kill.

"It's functional, but will need to return for repairs later." Gangrene reported.

"Launch a missile!" Kris stood up, thrusting his arm out.

Panels flipped open on the machines. The others took cover, but David stayed with Angel, since she couldn't defend herself in her critical condition. Thinking fast, he programmed his hover-board to alter the missile's trajectory. It ricocheted and smashed into the wall above the throne. Bits and pieces of debris fell on Kris. He banged his fist.

That was too close. I need to be more careful.

The damaged robot lost power as sparks kept spraying and spattering from exposed electronics, leaking liquid. Loose cords sent energy flying everywhere like water droplets on a hot frying pan. Bolts and oil spilled out of its stomach. It lay face down. Whirling sounds grew louder. The robot rocked backward. Kris tried to abort the launch, but an internal explosion blew its hull off. Its exposed metal frame caught on fire, melting. It shut itself down as overheated pistons halted. Ice sculptures shattered at the intense impact of the blast, scattering shards all over. In the aftermath, it lay twitching, its outer shell scorched.

"Rust in pieces!" David stepped back.

"Just bring down their blasted shields!" Kris yelled.

Kris held his scepter high in the air. The crystal orb at the top flashed bright with light, illuminating the whole room with a colorful glow. Moments later, the floor was frozen. Ice crystals spread out every direction. Snowflake jumped back, but she was too slow - along with most of the others. They tried to move, but just couldn't because their feet got stuck in place. Kris kept on firing, but David dodged each of them by hopping from side to side. He was the last one left.

"Ungh! I can't feel my legs! It's like they're made of ice!" Peter panicked.

"Enough games! Guards, kill them all!" Kris shouted in a thundering tone of voice. Their demands seemed pretty silly now.

"That's not gonna happen!" David narrowed his eyes.

"Wait, Kris! Maybe we can make a different kind of deal then?" Peter pleaded.

"There's nothing you have that I can't get after I kill you." For a moment, Kris froze, noticing Angel's prone, unconscious body lying on the floor. He pointed with a long and bony finger. "Wait, maybe there is something you can do for me."

"No way, forget it!" Snowflake shouted and swiped a hand. "We wouldn't let her do it even if she wanted to! Right?"

"What are your terms?" Peter elbowed her, stalling.

"Let's have a contest. If I win, she'll have to stay here and serve me as my slave for the rest of her life. I won't attack anyone. I'll order my men to do the same. Fair enough? What's the matter human? Afraid of a little friendly competition?"

"I'll agree to this if you don't cheat. How do I know you'll hold up your end of the deal?"

"Why would I cheat? This challenge is going to be a breeze for me! You don't pose a threat to me now. Besides, after Christmas Eve, all of you will belong to me anyway."

"That's fine with me, but it's her choice. I'm not the one you need to convince."

Having received the challenge, David withdrew to consider the offer, consulting his team members. Huddled together, they debated whether to agree to these terms. Although Angel hadn't regained consciousness yet, she moaned and talked to herself. Instead of doing something, they were stuck here, having no choice but to wait for her to wake up again.

"Did we make it? Are we safe now?" Her eyes slowly opened. She lay on her back and groaned softly.

"Are you ok, kid? You gave us quite a scare back there!" Melody smiled.

"How bad is it?" Angel winced. Her voice crackled whenever she had been hurt - like a lightning rod for attention.

"Pretty bad…" Melody frowned. "Is your wrist ok?"

"It hurts all over, but I don't think it's broken."

"Take it easy, tiger. You're going to be sore for a while."

"Uh huh…" Angel nodded.

David filled her in on all the details. Nevertheless, her confidence in the face of uncertainty was unnerving.

"Angel, you know I can win. It's me versus him. How could I lose? If there's anything suspicious, I'll cancel the competition."

"Well, I don't know." She wasn't sure it was a good idea. "Do you really think I should do this? It sounds so risky!"

"I can't force you to do this, but I'm willing to do whatever it takes to protect you. I'm asking you to trust me."

"I understand." Angel nodded, but she couldn't keep her voice from shaking.

"Hold on!" Snowflake said. "I've made deals with Kris before. He's up to no good. I can tell. Don't listen to him."

"See if he's willing to return the prisoners in exchange."

"Release our friends alive, along with their equipment." David negotiated.

"You ask too much of me. Maybe I should just slay all of you."

"I'll let you keep the equipment as a sign of good faith."

"We seem to be at an unfortunate impasse. You do drive a hard bargain." Kris tapped his fingers. "Do you have her permission now or shall I sit here for another hour?"

"I guess I'd better make up my mind." She sighed. "Ok, I'll do it," Angel hesitantly told him.

"Smart girl…" Kris smirked.

"Don't say I never warned you. I advise you to avoid him." Snowflake turned her back on them. She shook her head, disapproving of their deal. "If he gets the chance, he'll kill you. He'll betray you as soon as it benefits him to do so."

Kris ordered his guards to lower their weapons and let David shake his hand. "Then consider it done. We'll discuss the details of the events tomorrow. You have my word. None of you will be harmed. Now release the prisoners." He left the throne.

"I'll be watching you. If you try to hurt any of us, the deal is off and we'll be after you in no time."

Nick shook his fist. "Yeah! What he said…"

David carried Angel in his arms. She lay down on a bed and rubbed her head. He examined the injury then pulled out a medical kit. After a long silence, he cleared his throat.

"Well, it looks like your wrist is fine."

"If you say so…" Angel stood up again. She blew on the glass window and then wiped it clean with her sleeve. No longer listening, her gaze kept drifting outside, idly focusing on nothing in particular.

"Hey, you don't look so good. What's wrong?"

"I might never see you again after tomorrow. Sometimes, when you leave, I wonder if you'll ever come back."

"Listen, that won't happen. I'm sure we'll get home soon."

"I haven't had much sleep lately." Angel blinked.

"We need to talk." David grabbed her arm.

"About what? You already know everything!" She pulled away angrily.

"Because I've never seen you like this before…"

"Kris has gained a lot of experience and sharpened his skills over the years. He's had all the time in the world to practice and perfect his abilities."

"Yeah, but he's on the wrong side though. I'm certain I could find a way to rescue you without breaking the deal we made."

"I know that we have to do this - for all of the people on this planet. I just wish I could find a reason not to."

"Hang in there. You're doing fine. Get some rest. That's an order."

Just as he left, she passed out again. She couldn't stand up, much less even walk. Running over, he checked her heartbeat - slowing with every second. She was barely breathing. Her face turned pale. He picked her up and placed her head on a soft pillow. He looked around to see if the others had arrived. When they heard him call out for help, they came running and asked what was wrong. He hung his head, almost afraid to leave her side. Kneeling next to her, he took her hand. He had the urge to shake her and make her wake up.

Could things possibly get any worse? Nobody said this mission was impossible!

Wearily, he walked out and sat down by a bunch of sword-sized pine needles. He couldn't afford to make any more mistakes. He spent the next hour planning tomorrow's events. By the time he came back, she was still unconscious. Their moods had improved, though her failing health weighed heavily on all their minds. They moved out of the way, giving him some space. Slowly they surrounded him, watching him like it was a solemn ceremony. Everyone looked at him, unsure what to say.

"Stupid girl," he whispered. "I took you for granted, but I need you back. I should have kept you safe."

Brushing the brown hair out of her eyes, he sadly placed a hand on her cheek and then softly stroked her palm. Then he bent down and hugged her gently. One of his tears fell on her face. Her chest heaved as she gulped in air and coughed. Her eyes opened wide. The others jumped up and rushed over again.

"David, is that you?" Angel barely managed a weak smile.

"Yes, I'm right here." David looked down again.

"I'm so glad you're ok! I was so worried about you, Angel!"

Trying to get up, Angel flopped down again, laying back against the soft pillow, her eyes half open. David put his arm around her, helping her sit up.

"What happened?" she asked.

"Let me explain everything. Don't try to talk." He smiled, hushing her. "I'll watch over her until she gets better. I want you to find out anything you can about this place. Make sure nobody follows you around and don't give away our position." David left Peter in charge until further notice. "I'm sorry for getting you into this mess."

"Don't be sorry." She put a finger to his lips.

"I had a dream. I think something's about to happen that will change everything."

"This is the first time I've seen you break down."

"I don't know what I'd do without you." He trembled at the thought of losing her. "Whatever happens, we'll be there for each other. I'm not saying it's going to be easy, but somehow we'll get through this." He ran his fingers through her soft hair and gently laid his hand on her shoulder. He was happy to see her after the long nap.

"As long as we're together, nothing else matters. We'll figure something out."

"It's okay. Don't cry." He held her close.

IX: Jack Frost

David continued to support the person he cared about most. In the meantime, Peter bumped into a group of guards.

"It's them! Hey Jack, they think they can beat Kris!" A tough elf stared at them. "I'd take you down right here and now, but the boss ordered us to be nice for now."

"You don't have to let his lies blind you anymore. Just open your eyes. Look inside your heart. See what you've become."

"Who cares?" Jack crossed his arms. "I'm paid not to ask questions."

"Apparently, you never have…" Melody frowned.

"Yeah, right! If I just make a wish, everything will go back to normal." Jack grinned. "I guess you guys aren't from around here."

"Do yourself a favor. Quit working for Kris."

"Are you crazy? Once anybody joins the army, if they ever try to leave, the punishment is an instant death," Jack said.

"Don't be afraid of what he can do. Stand up for yourself."

"Like I did the last time? Sorry, but I don't think so!"

"Come on, let's go. I guess this was a waste of time."

Kris broadcasted a message. "Jack, I've been meaning to speak to you. You look nervous. I can see it in your eyes."

"On my way, Sir…" Jack nodded, breathing heavily.

"Good because I'll be monitoring your every move. Don't fail me again, or you'll regret it."

They looked around all the shops and stores for something of use. Despite the recent events, many elves avoided conversation. People walked past them, not seeming to notice. They kept getting glances, but no one spoke. Merchants locked their doors and hung up signs. Others watched from windows. A funny-looking elf leaned up against a wall. Evidently, he was drunk, attempting to juggle ornaments to attract new business, but he wasn't doing a very good job as they kept hitting his head.

"Hoe hoe hoe and a bottle of eggnog! Hiccup! Burp!"

"See, I told you they're real!" A midget elf elbowed.

Peter made these excursions whenever possible, asking about local rumors and narrowing down possibilities while searching for a clue to Santa's whereabouts. With a new set of clothes, they could travel without attracting attention. It would smooth over any suspicions. He visited the glassblowers, bakers, and candlestick makers.

"May I help you?" an elf lady asked.

"We're from out of town and people are looking at us kind of funny. We thought we should do something about it."

"I should say so. Here, try this on. There's a dressing room in the back. When you finish, come out and I'll see how it fits."

"I'd feel better if I had my old clothes on." Melody looked herself over.

"Probably more practical - that's for sure." Peter pondered.

"Well, you do look rather ridiculous," Snowflake said.

"Isn't there anything else to eat besides candy around here?"

"I know of a contraband dealer in town. Check the candle maker. You can't miss it. You should leave now. Kris has warned us against strangers for years. I'd better not say any more."

"If we see it, we'll stop and check it out. Thanks again."

"Nice talking with you…" Fireball waved.

Peter bought some worthless items from whoever let him in their stores, but nobody seemed to know what he was talking about - providing nothing particularly useful. The Magic Shop caught his eye. It stood alone near the gate. He walked inside and brushed the snow off his shoulders. "I'll do the talking." He approached the owner, who was polishing a black countertop with a white cloth. The owner greeted them from behind the desk. With a big smile, he extended his hand.

"What can I do for you fine gentlemen?"

"I'm trying to get in touch with friends. Is there any way you can help us stop Kris?"

"Not unless you see something you need here." The elderly elf winked.

"You're welcome to join us if you want."

The elf leaned toward the edge, looking around to see if anyone was listening. "I'm too old to be a fighter, friend. Maybe years ago, it would have been different. Besides, Kris will freeze me just to set an example if I give him a good excuse to do it."

"Is there anything helpful you can tell us?" Peter asked.

Growing impatient, Fireball walked to the counter and slammed his fist down. "Hey, pal… Want to trade advanced technology for some black-market specialties? What do you say? Let's make a deal."

"Follow me." He walked into the back room and removed a loose floor panel. "I've been working on this invention a while. I never let a day pass without investing some effort into it."

"How did you do that?" Peter seemed puzzled.

"Let's just say being in my position carries some weight around here." Fireball grinned.

"Do these interest you? I'll give them to you free, if you beat Kris."

Peter put on an elf costume, then complained. "This thing is way too small for me." He looked over the new inventory. "What are these things?"

"Diamond dust will keep anyone from being affected by Santa's magic Scepter. This is a confiscated bag of reindeer food I secretly smuggled from an officer's quarters late one night. The bag itself used to belong to Santa. They say it can hold an unlimited amount of stuff. Plus, it never gets too heavy to carry. It's light as tinfoil."

"We'll take as many of those as you've got, and a pouch of that stuff too." Peter pointed.

"Here you go now. Good luck." The shopkeeper elf waved as they put the items in their backpacks and then walked outside.

On the way back, Peter detected another device. A robot partridge pinpointed their last known location the moment they left.

"A spy is closing in on us fast. I'll fry its sensors."

"That's a great idea. Wish I'd thought of it sooner…"

"Throw them off track." Peter initiated a self-destruct sequence to prevent reverse engineering on the equipment they had lost earlier. "Kris never had access to this kind of technology before. This should stop him."

Peter sent a powerful jamming frequency out to Jack's remote control unit. The electric surge caused it to short-circuit. The screen turned white and then went offline. Jack watched as his computer sank down into the snow and melted. The robot had no backup control, so it shut down. Its metal wings stopped moving and it fell. He paced back and forth, hoping Kris wouldn't be angry. A beeping noise alerted him of an incoming transmission; he reached to answer it. He pulled out a candy cane and held it to his ear and mouth. When he pressed a button on the side, the top opened and an antenna slid out.

At first, Kris seemed to take it well. "You idiot! What happened to my pet partridge? Your only duty was to keep them under constant surveillance. We received readings without a glitch until now, so I don't want to hear any excuses. I'm ordering you to return and report back here on the double. Make sure you don't mess up anything else. You will be reassigned while a professional squad picks up where you left off. I've monitored your progress and discoveries until this recent loss of communications. Our agents will examine the data recovered from the robot. Failure to comply will result in immediate termination. Have a horrible day!" Kris terminated the transmission. Jack tapped his cane so it slid shut, more upset than before.

Peter led everyone safely to the Great Tree, but Kris' swat team quickly reached his last known position. Mechanical birds flew around, pecking for hollow spots, scanning with radar devices, and transmitting various bits of information. Kris had never managed to tunnel through the tree root, since it was hard as steel.

"They aren't here. We checked everywhere," they reported. "The tracks lead toward the citadel, but then they vanish. For all we know, they could be anywhere."

"Strange… Could they be hiding in that old tree?" Kris suspected.

"It won't do them any good. Nothing is up there. I already looked around. You've even explored it yourself before, I believe."

"I suppose you're right. In the meantime, debrief." Kris sat on his throne and made plans for tomorrow. He ordered his personal bodyguard to leave him alone for a moment.

"Hey David, I thought you were supposed to be resting."

"I was about to." He turned to leave.

"Wait, don't you want to hear our report? You can play it back while you relax."

"I'll listen to it when I wake up." David yawned. "I hope you had better luck than I. Did anyone see you?"

"Unfortunately, yes…" Peter nodded. "I don't think Kris suspects anything yet, but we'll be watching just in case."

"We can't go back to stay with Fireball. Kris knows where it is now, so there's no use returning and risking an unnecessary confrontation."

Pressing her hands together, Angel knelt down on the floor. Every night, she prayed, but God never appeared to answer. No one seemed to be listening. Was he really there? Did he even care? If there was hope, she couldn't see it. A peaceful feeling descended on her like a dove flitting down to alight, but this time she poured out her heart like never before.

Angel had a nightmare. The Christmas lights and music woke her up. She sat on the edge of her bed, staring at all Noel's teddy bears. Then she draped a blanket on her back. Instead of using the front door, she took a candle and went out the window, letting the wind blow cold air through the curtains. Flickering light cast dancing shadows on the wall. Her tears fell to the ground far below - past spiraling snowflakes that glittered like falling stars. Sitting on a swing made of licorice rope tied to a peppermint, she watched a carousel go around in circles. Children's voices laughed hauntingly. As she stared into the mirrors, she imagined Kris was standing right behind her, peering through the glass. Somehow, she knew what was going to happen, but couldn't explain it. Angel walked back inside, softly shut the door behind her, and then buried her face in the pillow.

Did I make the right decision? She felt abandoned - alone.

Angel cried to sleep, worrying about what the next day would bring. Every night, darkness covered her with a blanket of sorrow, but the rising sun always brought new hope. Light was sort of like truth, showing her that things weren't as bad as they seemed. Maybe in the morning everything would make sense.

X: Christmas Angel

When David woke up, Angel was staring back at him. She kept her gaze fixed on the fireplace. Then she glanced up with tears glistening in her eyes. Obviously, she looked upset, but she got up to cook breakfast anyway. She volunteered to help Snowflake in the kitchen, though she couldn't have slept much the night before - not with the greatest adventure of her life ahead. Hadn't he proven that he was strong on his own? Maybe it was time for her to step aside and stay out of it.

"I'm worried about him. He thinks he can save us all alone. It's not too late to back down yet. I sure hope he knows what he's doing."

"I suppose he's got to concentrate on beating Kris now." Snowflake poured pancake batter then began stirring it. "He needs your support. So try to forget about what happened yesterday."

"Have you had breakfast yet, Crystal?" Melody asked.

"Sounds good to me!" She rubbed her stomach. "Can we eat soon? I'm getting really hungry."

"What is all this?" Nick scratched his head.

"I think it's food, but I won't know for sure until I taste it."

"I've worked up quite an appetite." Nick licked his lips.

"When you're hungry, anything looks good." She smiled.

"Well, we don't want to starve, but let's make it quick, ok?" David cleared his throat to wake them up. "After everyone has had a chance to eat, I'd like to go over the game plan. It's almost time to leave now."

Ruxby sat down in a wooden rocking chair. Coming to the table, preparing to enjoy themselves, they longed for the sausages to finish cooking. They put on some buttermilk and maple syrup. Then they shoved back their stools.

"I'm only allowed to take one person with me today."

"Who will it be?" Angel asked.

"Who else? I can't do this without you."

"Me?" Angel pointed at herself, surprised.

"You can act as a judge in case he cheats."

"We do make a good team," Angel had to admit.

"Do you remember what I said to you? I was trying to encourage you, but you're the one who made me strong."

"Well, I'm your girl. Just tell me what to do."

"Trust me. It sounds worse than it is."

"I still don't think you should do this."

"Don't worry, Angel. I'll beat him." David promised.

"Wait!" Angel said with a pleading look in her eyes.

"I assume you won't change your mind about coming too?"

"After what we've been through together? No way…"

Putting on their gear, they waved goodbye to the others. There wasn't enough equipment left for everyone else to go. They arrived at the citadel entrance. David scanned the throne room for traps and then walked toward Kris, who was waiting impatiently.

"Hail, humans. You're in no danger. Now the immediate threat is neutralized. I have nothing to worry about. Here are the rules for a fair competition. Neither of us are allowed to practice before the event starts or watch and learn from others' mistakes. The same tools must be used under similar meteorological conditions. I will send my guards away when the hour arrives. A shot from your Blaster will announce the start of the contest. Any interference is automatically considered cheating. If either party breaks the policies, he will be disqualified. Do you agree to these terms so far?"

"Ok fine, go ahead." David nodded. "I can always back out of this if I find anything unfair." He remarked with resentment.

"Let the games begin!" Kris smirked with satisfaction.

"I'll meet you in the auditorium after you're done, Kris."

Kris Kringle built the courses accurately according to his design. David reviewed the rules and practiced fighting with his friends. He was almost ready for the big race. He walked over to see the narrow strip of ice.

Does Kris still have the scepter? How can it help from so far away?

When they were lined up equally, for one suspenseful moment, they waited for Angel to pull the trigger.

"Ready… Get set… Go!"

David was doing fine at first, but then Kris took the lead. Jumping off a platform, he flew straight down the slope. The first obstacle was a loop. Kris went directly up one side and down the other, but David skipped it. He went through the next loop with difficulty. A bump at the peak of the loop was ahead. Since he was upside-down, he had to push off the arch to avoid it, but the ceiling broke. He curled up into a ball as gravity took effect, rolling to the side. In a moment, he was back up on his feet. The air pressure and falling snow made it difficult to go straight; he could barely keep his balance. Kris was in his way again, but David went over his head. Going up the next large ramp and soaring through the air gracefully, David landed in a huge pile of snow below him. He dug himself out and shook it off, checking his recorded time.

"Beginner's luck…" Kris shrugged.

"I won fair and square. Got a problem with that?"

"Way to go!" a female voice joined in. Angel jumped and clapped. "I'm counting on you!"

"Well, it wasn't much. It's not over yet."

"Good job! I'm with you all the way!" Melody cheered over a handheld chatterbox. "Do that again and he'll blow sky high. Maybe you should just let him win one."

"I'm sure he'll try to cheat this time. In fact, I'd count on it." David seemed rather sure of himself as his warm breath rose in pale puffs.

"What do you think of him?" Angel asked.

"He's one tough customer. I'm the guy who got us into this whole mess and I'll get you out of it too."

"I can't believe you let him get away with that," Jack said.

"I merely underestimated him. Let's just stick to the plan."

"I don't get it! What's wrong with you?"

"Do you actually think I'll lose, you fool?" Kris said. "I've still got some tricks up my sleeve."

The next event was like a western showdown they held between Santa Clause Street and Lollipop Lane. Kris and David stood on opposite street ends, staring face to face. Angel nervously fired a starting shot. David dived and took a handful of snow. Kris hurled a snowball at him, but they smashed into each other. After regaining his balance, David turned around to see Kris smiling, tossing one up and down. This one hit him square on the nose. David spun around and threw one, hitting Kris in the chest as he recovered.

Kris ran up to the line and punted snow into his face, blinding him. David caught the next one by moving his hand toward his body, gradually guiding its inertia. Kris threw another one, but David flipped and kicked it back again, barely missing. While David ducked down, Kris threw a second projectile and hit him as he looked up. David scooped up some snow and jumped in the air with one knee bent. Kris hurled another scoop at David, whose legs split apart as the snowball went under him. Kris threw four more snowballs directly at David, but he dodged them by bending back and leaning forward, turning to his side. Only a short time was left before the game ended.

"You can't even hit the broad side of an iceberg!" David mocked him maliciously. "Here, catch!" He hollered as he tossed a snowball to Kris with his left hand while throwing a second with his right, hoping to distract him.

Kris let the first one go then pivoted before the other one hit him. Kris threw one more and hit David in the face.

"Time's up!" Angel stopped her watch. "David, remember when you kicked that snowball back at Kris? He scored a point because you didn't catch it with your hands." Angel patted him on the shoulder. "It's ok. You'll win next time."

"Let's hope so…" David nodded hesitantly.

"You won't get rid of me that easily. I'll even let you roll the die to decide the next match."

"I don't understand it. I have excellent aim, yet he beat me."

"Kris made an amazing comeback, don't you think?"

"Yeah, I guess you were right. The score is tied."

"Hey, before you go…" Angel leaned over and hugged him just for good luck.

Taking a deep breath, David stepped back and tossed the frozen ice dice in the air. He watched it fall and bounce on the glass floor. It reminded him of gambling, but this time, her life was in his hands. Finally, it lay still. The next competition's difficulty depended on the number. The tiebreaker was archery. Scoring two perfect shots, Kris' ice-arrows shattered the big, colorful ornaments.

"This is my sport." Kris cracked his knuckles.

David confidently stepped forward. His first arrow flew straight into the center. Everyone was silent when he fired the second. It cut through the air, landed in the distant target, and hit the area between the bull's-eye and the next zone. After measuring the distance, Kris' arrows were closer, but both of them struck the same zone for an equal score. Kris got another bulls-eye. David tagged the line. Unable to tell which side it was on, he walked up to the target. He missed the mark by a mere inch, barely losing the match. He snapped the bow on his knee and then threw it on the ground, kicking a nearby pile of snow.

Sudden death…

David looked up at Angel and sadly shook his head. His eyes told her everything that needed to be said. He opened his mouth, but wasn't sure what to say. It seemed selfish, but he barely restrained himself. He stared into her eyes and saw himself - like two mirrors were set facing each other, infinitely reflecting opposite images.

Time to say goodbye…

Tears streamed down her rosy cheeks. She shivered, but it wasn't from the cold. Why did it have to end this way? They'd grown too close. It was so unfair. There had to be something he could do. She could have died right then and there rather than never see him again, but she believed he could save her somehow.

"You're mine now! Take her away!" Kris gloated.

Angel ran to David, reaching out her hand, but Kris made sure that they never touched. Kris snapped his fingers. His evil heart rejoiced in a hollow victory, learning to lash out. With a cruel smile, he watched them from a distance, hoping for a fight.

"I can't just leave you here with him!"

"That was the deal. Now go," she said.

"I'll come back for you," David told her.

"Don't make a girl a promise that you can't keep."

Together, they made a tempting target. Kris was toying with a force more powerful than fear. He thought he could control it, but he was wrong. His heart was hard and cold like ice, but it burned with hidden hatred.

David turned his head to the side without a word and then dashed into the citadel. Kris Kringle entered the crystal chamber and sat down on the throne. David tried to stop him from taking her, but the guards held him back. He pushed them aside.

"Don't forget about me!" Angel cried out as they dragged her away. "I love you," she whispered sadly. Realizing what would happen, she was willing to give herself up rather than see him get hurt again. Then she closed her eyes and cried one last time.

"Let her go!" David pointed a gloved finger.

"I kept my part of the bargain. It's your turn." Kris stared him down. "What's the matter? Go ahead and save her!"

"You'd better not lay a finger on her! I'll make you wish you'd never been born!" David broke his way free from the guards.

"Nobody harm these humans or you shall answer to me. Just like I promised…"

"That's not good enough." David crossed his arms.

"I see. You wish to add another condition? Wanna request a rematch?"

"It's not an option. You can't have her."

"She gave herself to me. Now she's mine."

"Not if I can help it…" David frowned.

"Do something for me. Then I'll let her go, unharmed."

"I want to see her first. Show me where you're keeping her."

"As would I, if our places were switched. Unfortunately, I am unable to grant your request. I will tell you only what you need to perform the task. That is all I shall say for now. Go and find Santa. Once the objective is complete, contact me immediately. There's a time limit. Now leave…"

A tear slid down David's face as he watched the drones drag Angel away. He had to save her before she was trapped here. Just outside the citadel, more guards mocked him. He ignored their insults.

"I almost feel sorry for you. Let's see if you can ever show your face again around here. We've gone to great lengths to make sure you don't come back. Go on and run for the rest of your life."

"I bet you feel really proud to wear that uniform. After what he did, you know it's wrong. If you let him control you, you give him power that he can use for evil. That makes you just as bad. Be brave."

The guards simply stood there as he jerked his arm away and stormed off. Teammates whispered to each other with worried expressions. They ran after him, but he left them all behind and they couldn't find him anywhere. Having lost one of their own, hugs and tears brought some comfort, but they had to keep going no matter what happened.

No time to rest… There are too many puzzles left to solve.

David flew on top of the North Pole and reviewed what had happened in his mind, feeling guilty. He should've been more careful to protect her. If only he had another chance. No one knew what he was going through. Inside, he was torn in two. He could only pray she was all right.

Somehow, someway… We'll be together again.

That night, he flew around taking in sights and sounds, looking for more clues. The city lights glowed like stars. Far below, Jack Frost sat alone. Elves began playing baseball, using a candy cane to hit ice balls out of a field then sliding back to home plate. Finding nothing, he returned to the Great Tree and took off all his gear.

"We thought something happened to you! What are you going to do about Angel?" Crystal asked.

"I'm not sure yet. I'll get her back. I might need a miracle though. This mission took a dangerous turn for the worse, but I still intend to complete it."

"Well you'd better hurry before we get stuck here forever." Peter cast him a dirty glance without leaving any room to explain.

"I'm not in the mood to talk to anyone now."

"What's up with you? You're always off on your own! I thought we were in this together as a team."

Great, now what did I do? David frowned. "Forget it! I'm out of here! None of you understand. You obviously don't want me around, so I'll just leave."

"Hey, take a chill pill, dude!" Nick interfered. "You're getting awfully upset for someone who only thinks of her as a friend."

"You're in charge until I return. Got it?"

"Where are you going?" Peter crossed his arms.

"I won't be long." David didn't look back.

Snowflake jumped in to prevent a fight amongst friends, keeping them apart. She cringed as David slammed the door shut.

"You need to learn when to shut up!" Snowflake shouted.

David leaned up against the wall, dozing off. The emotions he had suppressed earlier came back. He'd been thinking a lot lately about how he needed a real attitude adjustment. He woke up late at midnight, staring at the stars.

What's wrong with me? Why am I so angry all the time? I don't get along with anyone. I just don't understand.

"Hey, are you ok?" Snowflake approached him with a worried look on her face.

"I don't know what to do." David sighed.

"Hey, we all make mistakes sometimes. I tried to warn you, but you just didn't listen. I know how you feel. I can help you, because I've been through this before." Snowflake bit her lip, trying not to cry. "Too bad nobody was there to stop me…"

"I have to get her back, but I can't break my promise. I don't have a plan and there's little time left. I can't just sit here and feel sorry for myself. I hate not being able to do anything about it."

"You must miss her. It doesn't take a genius to see that. I never did solve my problem, but I know you'll succeed where I failed. I believe in you." Snowflake whispered, walking toward the door. "Goodnight, see you later…"

The glowing lights below made David feel withdrawn. All he could do was stare and sigh. His own feelings were not important right now. All that mattered was getting her back somehow. Angel was always there for him. Even when the others had given up, she never did. He had acted rude and they probably didn't want him around anymore.

I have to hurry. I sure wish Santa was here. He'd know exactly what to do. That's it!

Starting over, David lowered his head and made the most of his peripheral vision.He still had to move fast, but without attracting too much attention.He searched for Santa in the underground tunnels. He even looked in the library and found some info on the Lost Labs. An hour later, he gave up and took a walk. The weather felt funny, almost like acid rain - just enough impurities in the water to produce a slight chemical reaction. It did no harm on contact with skin.

He peered through a broken window.Signs of mass-production filled the Toy Factory - conveyor belts, automated arms, laser-solders, microchip racks, and an army of steel skeletons. The workshop stored various weapon prototypes. Physics and chemistry were wedded to practical applications - ingenious instruments of death and destruction.

I don't remember this place on the map.

While he walked around, David stopped and knelt at a nativity scene outside a small church. He began to realize just how lonely Christ must have felt as a stranger passing through the town of Bethlehem where he was born. Statues depicted a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and then laid in a manger because the inn had no room. A stable full of hay, sheep and donkeys, wise men with gifts, and shepherds stood beside a cross. Above that, a star with angels watched over them all. Whether or not this event actually occurred on December 25th was debatable; in fact, it's the date of winter solstice.

Now that is truly what it's all about.

Just then, two guards turned around a corner. David quietly crouched behind a wall; it was hard to sneak stealthily wearing boots. He leaned to listen, cupping a hand over one ear. A wolf sniffed the trail ahead; then a low growl rumbled from its throat.

"Keep moving!" A guard pulled on a leash. The wolf whined, jumped, and barked.

"I can't believe he didn't catch Kris cheat."

"Why did Kris want us to capture that old fool in the Polar Bar? Since when did it become bad for business?"

"Maybe the old man was harboring the enemy. You know, we shouldn't be talking about this right now."

"It must be important. He had us tear the whole place apart and then ordered us not to tell anyone."

David didn't have enough evidence to convict Kris Kringle of cheating yet. The owner of the Polar Bar was gone. Whoever ransacked the place was no longer inside. Someone must have been desperate to find something.

What's this? A piece of paper? "The key to the future lies trapped in the past." There's more going on here than it seems.

David flew up the mountain slope. Taking a path to the lake, David tried to remember where to turn as he approached familiar rocks and trees that they had marked on their previous visit. Starlight shimmered down through walls made of ice. He slowly opened the lab door and carefully looked inside, shining his flashlight around before entering. He walked in and flipped on a light. Two tables lay side-by-side, littered with greasy gadgets, bolted to the floor in the center of the room. On the ceiling, above the abandoned prison cell, was a detailed map that revealed another hidden underground chamber. Only Santa's most trusted advisers knew its location.

Maybe that's where Santa is hiding. I've gotta keep going, before I become a popsicle-stick.

As David flew back, he began to make sense of the mysterious message that had been left behind. He entered the empty toy factory, looking for a switch or a secret entrance. He found a little lever in the fireplace where elves used to burn coal and let wind carry it out the chimney. A panel below him on the ground suddenly slid open and he started falling. At first, he was surprised at how far a drop it was down the electromagnetic elevator. When he finally reached the floor, he stood in front of a metal door, which opened by itself to a long hallway. A voice came over a set of speakers.

"Well, look what we have here. My apologies… It's difficult to broadcast signals through solid walls. You won't get good radio reception in here. I see you've found our secret little hideout. What took you so long anyway?"

Dolls and stuffed animals, wooden trains, plastic trees, holly wreaths, candy canes, peppermint pinwheels, an old snowman costume, firewood piles, a small red tricycle, a rocking-horse, and other toys made him feel like a little kid again. David walked over to a door and knocked on it. A short elf welcomed him inside.

"You look silly in that thing!" he laughed.

"It wasn't my idea. And who are you?" David was dressed up in a not-so clever disguise.

"I'm Jasper, head of security measures around here."

"But you're so small…"

"It's part of the job description. Santa's waiting for you in the next room. You don't have to stand in line to see him."

"Hold on a second. I just got here!" David objected.

"Hey, I have work to do. It's not my job. I'm just an elf." Jasper turned to leave, waving farewell. "Goodbye and good luck!"

Walking down another hallway, he came to the last door. As he entered it, a young elf watched in amazement. It stood there staring, as if never having seen a human before. Santa Clause sat in a tall, wooden stool with his back to a fire. He was wearing glasses and heavy black boots, holding a cup of hot coco. Though he'd never met this jolly man before, it was easy to recognize him. His presence brought hope. David felt so nervous his mouth dropped open.

"Hello there…" Santa smiled with a twinkle in his eye. "We've got a lot to talk about, David. Time is against us."

"Yeah, tell me about it." David sat down.

"Don't you want to dry off? You could catch cold!"

"I'm fine." David huffed.

"Candy, would you mind getting our young guest a drink?"

"Right away…" replied the gorgeous young vixen who stood next to him. She wore a dress that had red and white stripes all over it - and candy-shaped earrings. A beautiful bow tied her fiery red hair. Her emerald green eyes looked fairy-like. She was so sweet her lips must have had sugar on them and she smelled like peppermint perfume.

"Candy? Who is she?" David asked. "She doesn't look like an elf."

"She's my adopted daughter. Her mother abandoned her one year. I brought her back with me after finding her freezing, left out in the cold weather to die. I planned to reunite the family as a special surprise. I failed to fulfill her wish, like so many others. Only God can answer all of their prayers. She has stayed with Mrs. Clause and I for all these years. Living in Christmas Town has kept her young. I'm sure she's very happy to see you, as we all are. We never get visitors."

"Here's your hot chocolate!" Candy came back with a warm cup of pure sugar.

"It's delicious!" The liquid feel wonderfully warm in his throat as he swallowed it. "Hey, this tastes great! I could kiss you!"

"Oh, that's the sweetest thing anyone's ever said to me."

"What's your last name? Let me guess - Cane?" David teased.

The young girl blushed with her hands on her hips. Her smile grew cruel with a twisted thought. "Very funny… As a matter of fact, yes…" Candy crossed her arms, giving him a glare. Suddenly, her ice-cold stare turned into fiery flames. Then she tapped his cup and splashed steaming liquid in his face. "Be careful. It's hot." She span and left the room with a sweet smile.

"Don't take it personally!" David wiped his neck.

"This drink is on the house," Candy said.

"Wow, this is a cool place you've got." David nodded.

"Yes, but actually I've been meaning to address something important for a while now. Fact is, I'm just an old man who can only do so much to help folks. Some people think I'm more and go way too far. I try to remind them at times though."

"Kris Kringle is evil. If I can't beat him before tomorrow night, then we'll be trapped here forever."

"What did you have in mind?" Santa asked.

"I don't think you realize what's going on. You have to do something about this now before it's too late."

"What if there's still some good in him?"

"He's a taker in the land of giving!"

"The struggle between good and evil goes on in all of us."

"Look what he's done!" David gestured, holding out a hand.

"Yes, he is responsible for stealing dreams and keeping toys for himself."

"Why would anyone do such an awful thing?"

"Greed, probably… Without hope, people lose the will to live. I'm partly to blame. I lost my magic, but they've managed without me over the years. I guess they don't need me after all. It's been my honor to share God's miracles with them."

"This is no time for an identity crisis. I can't believe you're saying this. Don't even joke about a thing like that. Without you, there would be millions of disappointed children around the world. You have a good heart. Don't let anyone change that. Just because Kris messed things up, it doesn't mean you can't do anything about it. We still have hope and nobody has the power to stop it."

"I tell him that all of the time." Mrs. Clause cut in.

"I know, but I lost sight of that. Children have forgotten the true meaning of Christmas – the greatest gift of them all, you see. The boys and girls woke up one morning, but found nothing under the tree. I hate to imagine how they felt when their parents told them I don't really exist. Toys aren't that important, but sometimes they make brothers and sisters jealous if they can't just learn to be content with what they've got. Life made them grow up far too fast. A child's smile can inspire such great happiness, but tears bring pain. I feel like I've been trapped here for an eternity. Every day I wish I could share my joy with the world. The only thing keeping me going is remembering all the good times." Santa seemed lost in his thoughts.

"The question is, how do I stop Kris? Do you have anything that I can use?"

"No, I'm sorry. He stole everything I had. Take back the scepter or he'll use it against you, but he has to play fair or the magic will not work. See if you can break the evil curse he cast upon it."

"I thought about that." David nodded.

"Well, Rudolph and the reindeer will certainly help - unless you want to use him for a coat hanger. Kris made a special silver whistle. Whenever you put it to your lips and blow, wherever you may be, aid of some sort will come to you. Keep it with you, but do not use it except in your greatest need."

"What about the secret entrance to his lab?"

"We searched for years, but never found it. All I know is that it's on the highest peak of the tallest mountain."

"Would it be possible to spin the North Pole in the opposite direction and travel back in time? Maybe we could warn everyone and stop Kris before this ever happens."

"Unfortunately, no one has ever been able to without the aid of my scepter and all the twelve Snowflake Shards, which are too weak to use in their suspended state."

"In that case, how do I rescue Angel? I'm sure you heard what happened to her."

"Kris will never trade for her. The only way to get her back now is if he breaks his promise," Santa said.

"Why did you choose us to save Christmas Town anyway?"

"Because I am old and you are young…"

"What do you mean?" David arched an eyebrow.

"The quest to defeat evil belongs to each new generation. I'll give good advice, but in the end I can't do it for you."

"Thanks for all your help. Merry Christmas, everyone!" David waved as he left with a new sense of hope in his heart.

I wish to try out my new toy. The world wants peace, but I will give it pieces.

Lights were down low and background music played, echoing eerily through the glass hall of the Crystal Citadel. It was a quiet, lonely place, despite the dwellers there. Kris entered the bedroom to play with his new pet. She didn't seem very happy about it though; blue flecks had formed around the edges of her eyes.

"We can do this the easy way or hard way. What do you say?"

"Where are my things?" Angel didn't want to give away any hint of fear.

"Right there…" Kris pointed. "I have no intention of harming you, dear. It's just a precaution in case you overreact at finding yourself here. I hope that soon you'll choose to stay as my personal guest."

Struggling to break free, Angel pulled against the chains that held her. "I'll never give in or betray my friends! Do you hear me? I can't give you the pleasure of letting you think you've won."

"Will you join me or make it hard on yourself by being my slave? It's up to you!"

"I'd rather die first."

"That works for me. You say that like I care. It pains me to the point of exhaustion."

"I won't turn on my teammates," Angel answered.

"Save your breath, sweetheart. Don't cry now, doll-face. I'll tell you what. If you drink this, you'll feel much better."

"What will it do to me?" Angel asked. She would play smart - keep her mouth shut and learn as much as possible.

"It will make you my slave, just like everyone else." Kris Kringle held out his hand, grasping a diamond bottle. Part of the agreement was for her to do what he said and be his servant. At first, she sipped the liquid, but then spat it back in his face.

"I'm through making deals with you!" Angel shouted.

"You don't get it, do you? I'm not asking anymore!"

Using the magic scepter, he made her drink deeply from a crystal cup against her will. Moments later, she began to change. Her new body looked different with long hair, pointy ears, and a sharp nose. She would live longer, but it would be in silence and sorrow. It was hard for her to go on.

"What's happening to me?" Angel wasn't feeling well.

"Why, what's the matter? Turning into an elf? I already told you. You'll be my princess and stay by my side forever."

"I'll never do that." She turned her face to the side, refusing to look at him. "He'll come for me. I know he will."

"When I catch him, I'll kill him right in front of you. I bet you'll change your mind when I've got a gun to his head."

"You're wrong," she said. Her heart beat faster.

"I've lost my patience with you!" Kris raised his hand as if about to strike her, but then threw them up in the air.

"Go ahead… See if I care…" She narrowed her eyes.

"If you continue to resist me, I'll be forced to do something rather naughty. Noel will slowly suffocate." Kris grinned. "I'll give you until tomorrow morning to think it over. I guess I won't be feeding you tonight." Kris left the room.

A tear slipped down Angel's cheek and froze in place, turning cold as ice. She never fell asleep that night; she spent it wishing things would work out. The constellations in heaven were her only witness. How could she ever tell Snowflake what happened to Noel? She wasn't a little girl anymore, but even she couldn't take on Kris Kringle. Who would come to rescue her out of this mess? Her teammates had no idea where she was.

He's never let me down before. I guess a girl's gotta do what a girl's got to do.

David gazed up at the stars in silence. Angel was gone now, which meant that it was up to him to finish the job. What was so different about her - was it the sense of peace she had even through the problems she faced? He had to see her again.

I won't let him get away with this. I'll get you back. I swear I will. I'm not going to give up. I hope you're ok. Sweet dreams, my sweet…

XI: Arctic Armageddon

Time was running out. They had to take their stand now or disappear from the face of the Earth forever. Flying away was not an option; they had no way to get back home without the magic scepter. Every little decision counted now more than ever. The fate of Christmas hung in the balance. Had their struggle been in vain - a fruitless attempt to do good in a world full of evil? Why try to save people who didn't want to be? Could this really be the end – game over? Was it worth it?

Angel did her part. Now I've got to do mine.

For the next hour, David carefully planned a perfect attack. He wrote a speech, which he would use in the Main Auditorium once everyone had gathered. Peter struggled to get over differences as they discussed strategies. Fire blazed through the lonely night.

"So let me get this straight. You actually found Santa?"

"I'm on a mission and I intend to complete it, despite all the delays. I can't let anyone stand in my way. I'm going to take a look around tonight. Maybe you should come with me."

"What exactly are we looking for?" Peter asked.

"I just thought we'd do a bit of detective work. I'd like to get whatever new weapons are available at the factory, but we probably shouldn't chance a raid on the place until later. We can't afford to draw too much attention to ourselves."

"All clear…" Peter said.

"Our first stop will be the reindeer stalls." David led him there and looked for Rudolph.

"Shouldn't his nose give him away?" Peter paused.

"Fireball covered it up to trick Kris, remember? Just start singing you-know-what."

Alarmed by the annoying theme song, reindeer leaped over the gate and gathered around. Branching horns blazed like they were on fire when the rising sun hit them. Tinsel completely covered their leather harnesses. Rudolph walked up and identified himself, nudging with his nose. He snorted and stamped, pawing at the ground.

"No, we're not tourists. We're here to fight." The rest of them took a step back. Rudolph shook his head and opened his mouth. "Are you trying to tell us something?" Rudolph nodded and lifted his hoof by a bag of reindeer food.

"Whoops! I almost forgot about that." David fed him some so he could speak.

"I can talk again! I'm glad to see that you found Santa."

"Listen, we need your help to stop Kris. If we work together, we stand a much better chance."

"I'll have to speak with them. They're still afraid though. That's plenty of food. It should last us an hour or so."

Displaying a topographical map, David explained that their job was to stay clear of wolves and provide transport for passengers. He split the magic food evenly among them. He promised to send somebody to tell them when to launch the air support.

"Next we'll break into Central Command, but this time you will be the decoy." David pointed at a projection of the complex.

"Where should I start?" Peter asked.

"You're going to set off these alarms in the lower section of the base. I'll go upstairs and destroy any equipment we can't use. Fireball gave us the access codes we need – the ones that haven't already changed, that is. Kris expects us to make our move soon. I'll discuss our plans over an encrypted emission. Be ready for anything."

Peter contacted the others, pushing his face into the frame of an animated holograph projection that shot in the air. "Hey, this is important, so pay close attention. We're holding a meeting at the Town Square. Everyone's expected to participate."

David pivoted in place to survey the group. Above his head there was a crystal compass shaped like a snowflake.

"Snowflake will blow the silver wolf-whistle. Peter, penetrate Central Command, using the robots to our advantage. I want you to be at the Auditorium to reinforce my presentation. Then I'll tell them to raid the base for weapons and shields. Meanwhile, Fireball and Peter will free the frozen prisoners and explain the whole situation. Fireball, you're an elf. Plus, you're more familiar with that facility and can lead them."

"Melody and Crystal will fly over to the reindeer stalls and feed them some magic food. They should meet back up with us as soon as they can. Don't start fighting until they are in position. We want to take the enemy by surprise, confusing them. If you're busy fighting your way through guards, please make it quick and don't be late. I'll be there to help you complete objectives and remind you of what to do next. After this, I will attempt to break into Kris' room, recover Santa's magic Scepter, and rescue Angel somehow. I'm about to meet with you to exchange equipment and discuss any further details. If everything goes according to plan, this should be over very soon. Get your gear ready and prepare for trouble. Make some noise, boys! We're on the way."

The others listened and watched the video recording. When David was done, the image crackled and the intercom signal went dead.

"There's no time like the present." Peter pointed.

"You'll do fine. Everyone will listen to you." Angel smiled.

"Is this enough, Melody?" Nick saw the elves gathered at the gate. "I told everyone I know and even some I didn't."

"We have to make the most of it." Melody pressed a button.

Peter pulled on a long cord to open the curtains. A mass of bodies pressed against each other. David walked to the front of the stage and waved his arms to get everyone's attention. Then he spoke into a small wireless microphone.

"Citizens of Christmas Town, don't leave until you have heard me out. We must join together to stand against Kris and right this wrong. Your future freedom depends on it. What good is it to be his slaves, toiling in meaningless labor? I can't do it by myself. There isn't much time."

"Our plan will only work if we cooperate. We found Santa and he agreed to join our fight. Wolves and reindeer will aid in our assault while we reprogram the robots in Central Command, secretly infiltrating the base. Christmas Town will be lost forever unless we act now. We must prevent this tragedy at all costs. Last time you didn't even stand a chance. If we don't hurry, innocent people might die. Your friends and families are counting on you. Are you going to help us or let Kris get away with this again? It's time to take our stand!"

Somebody broke the silence. Then the crowd cheered.

"Since many of you are already enlisted in the army, you should know your way around the base. I'll face Kris myself."

"That was some speech." Angel slipped her hand into his, squeezing it as they left together.

"The coast looks clear. No sign of trouble…" David walked in front of his friends to protect them. From this point, they went in opposite directions. "This is my fight, but stay close just in case."

"Just like we planned…" Peter nodded.

Peter came to operate the controls to sabotage the robots and take out the communications center. He sat down at the desk and punched a code into a computer panel, consulting a view screen as real-time images appeared on it. From here, he could monitor all enemy activity. Melody and Crystal popped out of Santa's magic sack and then fed the reindeer. Snowflake blew a whistle. Wolves joined the battle, running rampant and attacking anyone with evil intentions. Reindeer swooped down from the sky like dive-bombers, ramming with sharp antlers. Elf gangs armed with ice-balls dashed through the streets. A little child ran away from some snow-monsters; Fireball jumped out with a flamethrower and melted them all.

"Sorry, but this sucks. Do we have a plan B?"

"We have to move from this open square. Let's find a better place to bring the fight, Fireball."

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Fireball grinned.

"Let's rescue the others. We'll need their help."

Fireball infiltrated the fortress. He quickly slipped inside. No one appeared to be guarding the place. Every elf followed him as he proceeded to free the trapped prisoners. They went to the weapon storage room and armed themselves with bows and arrows, putting on thick fur coats for protection. Then they carried away all the equipment they could handle.

"After I find Angel, we can get out of here. I think I know how to stop Kris. I can't let him keep her. Do you know where she is?"

"I can give you her last known location. Finding her is easy. Saving her is the hard part. We're going together, right?"

"No, go… This is something I have to do alone."

"They might need you out there." Fireball frowned.

"I'd rather go myself. Don't try to talk me out of it," David said.

"He's just using her to get to you. Yet emotion might get the best of you, even with your training. It could be another one of his traps. Why should we just waltz right into it?"

"Don't worry. I've done stuff like this before."

"Fine, more for me… Don't have to tell me twice… Your past performance offers no cause to doubt. You've got one minute before I come in."

"It's time to put a stop to this once and for all."

Everything was running smoothly. David decided that it was time to face Kris Kringle. Maybe by some twist of fate, he'd figure out a way to save Angel. Even if he died, it beat just letting that maniac do whatever he wanted to her. He could see her staring up at him with her trusting eyes. Those last moments they spent together still haunted his memories. His anger grew to overwhelm all other feelings and he had to let it out somehow. He didn't want to think about it anymore. He needed to focus.

Well, let's get it over with. No use putting off the inevitable…

XII: Santa's Scepter I will crush the holiday spirit until the world's children forget all about Christmas. Then I can put something else in place.

Kris Kringle sat on his throne, monitoring the battle's progress with displeasure. Enemy forces were quickly approaching the Crystal Citadel. He ordered a servant to bring Angel to his chamber. He was just about to relax, getting comfortable in his private quarters, but David burst through the door then locked it shut behind him.

"Turn and face me." David demanded.

"How did you get in here?" Kris shouted.

"Remember this?" David showed him the key Fireball gave him and tossed it up and down.

"I'll show you the entrance to the exit. You came here just to lose your life. Have you come back to rescue your stupid little girlfriend? Break your promise, liar!"

"You have something that I want." David pointed.

"A slow, painful death?" Kris grinned.

"Wait, why are you dressed up like that?" David asked.

"David? What are you doing here?" Angel asked.

"A simple hello would have sufficed." David nodded to her. "I'm sorry, but he's an idiot. I'm just trying to protect you."

"I don't want to see you get hurt." Angel shed a tear.

"No! I won't leave without you. I have to face him now. I can't keep on running away."

"Guards, get rid of this human intruder immediately!"

"I see you're ignorant as well as arrogant." David crossed his arms. "Haven't you been paying attention? There aren't any. I'll take you on! I won't back down!"

"Have it your way."

"Sure, I usually do."

Kris marched right up to David and punched him in the jaw, but David just stood there stubbornly. "Do you have some kind of death wish?"

"You broke your promise not to hurt any of us. Angel is free now." David waved a finger. Angel smiled at him.

Kris realized his mistake, but even the scepter had no effect on his enemy, who wore a thin coat of diamond dust. He backed up and fired his ice gun, but the blast barely missed him. Then David knocked Kris into the far corner with a flying sidekick.

"You might not want to watch. This could get ugly." David formed a fist. "It's better to give than receive!"

"You are old past your prime, yet I never age. Now you are nothing."

Kris quickly recovered from the blow. He charged and elbowed David in the face, depleting the last of the force-field's energy reserves and deactivating the device. If he felt sore, he didn't show it. Just then, Fireball angrily stormed into the room.

"Ok, that does it! I'm taking you off of my friends list."

"Let me fight him!" Fireball came to help.

Still in great shape, Fireball knew how to fight well. As an elf, he was stronger and faster than David. Fireball used his icicle sword to hit Kris, but not nearly hard enough because Kris broke it in half with his bare hand. Kris grabbed his arm and flung him into the wall, then pressed a button and sent a blast of electricity through him that shocked him senseless. Falling to the floor, Fireball was out cold. He wouldn't be waking up for a while.

"Ah, that felt good. Who's laughing now, loser?" Kris pointed.

At this point, David felt a bit disoriented. Every muscle in his body ached. Somewhere deep inside he found the strength to stand again. It seemed like there was no way to defeat Kris, but he wouldn't give up without a fight. David projected a hologram of himself, but then grabbed the scepter while Kris was busy being distracted and used it against him. Kris stopped dead in his tracks after that.

"Damn hologram!" Kris cursed.

"By the way Kris, thanks for the scepter!" The magic scepter's power was too much for even him to endure.

"What happened?" Fireball opened his eyes.

"You stay here and watch him. Don't let him out of your sight for a moment."

Fireball elbowed Kris, making him gasp for breath. At first it looked like he was hurt, but he was only faking it. Kris grabbed Angel with razor-sharp, long fingernails. He held a claw to her outstretched neck and gripped her arm with his other hand. She let out a muffled shriek, but she didn't struggle. David could see the silent fear in her eyes as she stared at him and cried for help.

"Take one more step and I'll blow her brains out! Think you can save her? Just try me!" Kris yelled.

"If you hurt her, it will be your last mistake."

Angel held her breath and expected the worst. David slowly stepped back. Somehow, he used the scepter to stop time so he could aim his Blaster and fired with a direct hit. Kris winced at the wound, but then only pretended to be defeated. He used a confiscated hover-board to kidnap Angel.

David chased after him, running all the way up the spiraling stairs to the top of another tower. As a last act of revenge, Kris took Angel up to the North Pole, where she would be frozen forever. There he threw her into the Eternal Ice, trapping her in time to keep Angel alive. Her body hovered, suspended in midair. She stared with a blank expression, held under some sort of trance. Her heart stopped beating, still as a stone. At least she couldn't feel anything.

"What have you done to her?" David pointed.

"Nothing compared to what I'm about to do to you!"

Kris stood up and took the scepter from David's hands. He used the last of its magic to turn invisible, then dropped it and ran away to escape. Having dealt with him, David turned to one of Angel's many reflections. She looked so beautiful - so innocent and peaceful. Her hands pressed against the side of a glass wall with tears still in her eyes. She saw him standing beside her, but couldn't reach him. David pounded his fist, but it wouldn't break. Nothing could scratch it. Even the power of Santa's Scepter couldn't lift the curse. Science couldn't save her, nor any mere machine; he would never trust technology again. He could not comprehend the consequences of trying to control too much. He tried so hard, doing everything he could think of. He had lost her. It was too late.

Why did we wait so long to say how we really feel? If I could take your place, I would. He shook his head. All he could sense was emptiness and loneliness - darkness deep inside himself. The others grew silent. They all stood back and watched him cry. I want to see her smile, tell her how I truly feel, and hold her in my arms. After all they had been through, he couldn't let go. It hurt too much.

"He really loved her, didn't he?" Crystal whispered.

Nick nodded. "There must be a way to bring her back again."

"You followed a bright light that led you to her. You can still break the spell's magical enchantment, but you have to pick the right reflection this time or she may die," Snowflake said.

Then he looked up, seeing the North Star. He remembered what Santa had said about it. Its light could guide him through the darkness. Right there, he closed his eyes and made a wish from a pure heart with his deepest desire. The only thing that could save her now was the power of true love that would never die. In the moment of truth, hope was all that mattered. The magic of Christmas was hidden inside them all along. The world was dark and cold, but love's frozen flame kept them warm inside. The star began to glow bright with light and float high above their heads. They stood and watched it burn, nearly blinded as warm rays melted the ice. Then she fell on the floor. They ran into each other's arms.

I wonder if stars have souls. Or are they angels?

He had saved her with a simple wish. Love was the most powerful magic of all.

"You came back for me!" Blood rushed to her cheeks.

"I almost lost you this time. I'll never let you go again." David held her tight. Then he cupped her chin in his hand and wiped away a tear with his thumb.

Angel brushed back her hair to reveal two pointy ears. "Have you noticed anything different about me?" she asked in a serious tone of voice with a worried look.

"Actually, yes… You're even more beautiful than before."

"What happened to you?" Melody wondered.

"Kris tried to turn me into an elf. I hope we find a way to reverse the curse."

"Hey, I can't find Candy or Snowflake anywhere!" Fireball interrupted.

"I think I just saw Kris Kringle flying to the Candy Castle. Let's take the Polar Express train to the Jolly Junction Jelly-bean Station and cut him off."

"Next time, I'll trap Kris in that ice." David determined.

The team rode a taffy train rolling along licorice tracks away from Sugar Station. It ran off of hot chocolate and marshmallows shoveled into a warm chestnut fire.

Candy Castle looked like a pile of sweets stuck together with sugar. The entrance was made of a giant gingerbread gate with two candy canes serving as the pillars and a lane of licorice carpet. When they came inside, someone accidentally stepped on a touch-plate. Catapults fired sweets at them from all directions. Giant gumdrops fell from the ceiling and nearly crushed them, but they swiftly rolled to safety. Ponies ridden by knights, holding sharpened candy cane lances and peppermint shields, rammed into each other. Food went flying everywhere.

"Everybody get down now!" David dived for cover.

"Uh oh!" Angel stood up and fell backward through a trap-door.

"Hold on! I'm coming!" Fireball missed her hand.

Fortunately, Angel landed on a marshmallow cushion. Beautiful images of toys told Christmas Town's story. At first, it seemed that she was trapped, but when she went up and licked one of the stained-glass windows, it tasted like candy.

Everything here is edible. Maybe I can just eat my way out.

"Did you find anything?" David asked.

Fireball nodded. "At least she's alive."

In the meantime, Snowflake and Candy struggled to free themselves. They were wrapped together in a big bow on a platform hung from a candy-cane. Snowflake's hands were tied tight with ribbons and she was down on her knees. After a while, they began fighting - getting into silly arguments - acting like naughty brats.

"How did I ever let you talk me into this?" Candy complained. "It was your idea to go after Kris all alone! It's your fault we got into this mess!"

"I would never have been caught if you didn't fall when we jumped across the floating peppermints in the stream." Snowflake sighed.

Then they stopped speaking; looking up, they saw they were about to drown in a sea of sugar. They cried out for help, but nobody answered. The doors flew open and the others came to their rescue just in time. Snowflake and Candy were in the middle of the room. A licorice rope led to the lollipop platform. Thinking fast, David picked up a candy cane and hooked it to the cord; he held it and slid down. He hit the ground and rolled safely to the side. Carrying Candy, he lifted her legs up onto his shoulder with one arm around her waist while Fireball saved Snowflake. Another moment and they would have been covered in chocolate.

"I think you owe me an apology, girl." David smiled as he untied her. Candy slapped him silly. "What was that for?"

"For not coming to my rescue fast enough…" she said.

They quickly dashed into the throne room together; hundreds of nice elves stood at attention to salute them. The crowded area was completely silent. When the Great Tree lit up even brighter than before, they cheered. Angel came and stood by David's side, blushing. They addressed everyone who had joined the fight. The scepter lay on the floor like a useless stick somebody had carelessly dropped.

"I rule!" Nick shouted and held it high.

"Nick, hand it over." David tapped his foot.

"I was just testing it out for you." Nick apologized.

"Here Santa, I believe this belongs to you." David tossed the scepter.

"My most precious possession… You brought it back. Miracles were never meant for us to keep. We must freely give."

"Glad we could help…" David nodded.

"Would you mind turning me back into a human again?" Angel added.

"I think it's cute." David laughed.

Santa took the Scepter and thrust it skyward to make it snow, lifting it victoriously into the air. Angel was normal again.

"So what are we waiting for? Let's party!"

"Yeah, cool!" Nick laughed.

"You can't have Christmas without snow, you know?"

Snowflake sauntered awkwardly down the aisle. "What about Noel? Is she going to be ok now?"

Angel glanced at David. "I'm sorry. There was nothing I could do." She shook her head, looking at the floor.

Snowflake dashed out before anyone could stop her. Everyone in the room grew silent at this.

"What was that about?" David asked.

"It's a long story. I'll tell you later. Think you can manage without me?" Angel left.

Snowflake sat alone in the corner of the stage, crying. Nobody could cheer her up now.

"I'm really sorry about what happened." Angel pulled her knees close to her chest and rested her chin on top.

"No, please don't apologize. It's not your fault."

"I just want you to know I'm here for you." Angel smiled.

Snowflake took her hand. This show of affection startled Angel a bit, but it felt kind of like having a little sister.

"We used to be best friends. We did everything together." Tears filled her eyes. "Every person is special - just like a snowflake. That's what my mother used to tell me."

"I know it hurts to lose a friend. It's happened to me more times than I can remember. I'm used to it. I still miss them, but that doesn't stop me from making the best of the rest of it. Kris is gone now. You don't have to worry about him anymore."

"I guess you're right. What about your boyfriend? He is kinda cute. You're a lucky lady."

"Well, technically, we're not exactly on speaking terms."

"You'll work it out." Snowflake smiled and then hugged her. "How can you stand this job, never stopping to rest? I feel so useless compared to you guys."

"The only thing keeping me going is people like you. I'm fighting for them because they can't anymore."

David opened the door. "I've got good news and bad. Noel's alive after all, but I'm afraid Kris is still out there."

"What? Are you sure?" Snowflake was terribly surprised.

"That thing with you getting kidnapped was a clever diversion. Apparently, Jack changed his mind about joining us. He saw Kris getting away and tried to stop him, but was badly injured. You'd better go talk to him while you still can." From the look in his eyes, it was apparent Jack didn't have much time. "When you're ready to help us, the hospital needs every hand it can get. Keep an eye out. I'll be looking for Kris too, but you never know. He might come back for revenge!"

"Kris told me Noel was dead. He must have lied."

Snowflake ran over to the hospital to find Jack lying in bed. She gave him a big hug.

"I'm sorry. I don't even deserve to live." Jack coughed. "Can you forgive me?"

"Of course… You sacrificed your life for us."

"I apologize. I've always wanted a friend who really cares about me." Jack closed his eyes, never opening them again.

Snowflake shook his hand, but this time he didn't reply. "Is he dead?" The nurse slowly nodded. "I swear I'll make Kris pay for this!"

"Hold on! There are people here who need help too!"

"Too bad – they'll have to wait! Kris has gone way too far this time." Snowflake stormed off angrily.

"Hey, wait for me!" Angel waved and reached out as Snowflake left flying on her hover-board, but she wouldn't listen. "Don't forget your jacket! Good luck…"

Snowflake flew over to the mountain cavern, hoping to spot Kris along the way. Instead, she found Fireball riding Rudolph.

There he is, and he's alone!

Then she spotted Kris trudging uphill on a narrow trail. "Look out!" Snowflake pointed. "Kris is hiding behind the trees!"

"What are you talking about?" Fireball saw Kris and aimed his bow at him, but then pointed his arrow at Snowflake instead. She dived from her hover-board, knocking him to the ground as she fell. He snapped the string then grabbed her arm and dragged her down with him. Crimson-colored liquid flowed from a wound. It stained the snow bright red with blood; she had been hit. She tried to get back up, but couldn't and lay down again. While she rested there, Fireball quickly rushed to her side.

"Are you all right?" He checked for casualties.

"Get away from me!" Snowflake wasn't sure who was who. The more she thought about it, she realized one of them was Kris Kringle in disguise. "What's going on here?"

"I honestly don't know!"

"Not this time, Kris!" Fireball aimed at him.

Fireball and Snowflake couldn't identify each other now. Their voices sounded warped. Snowflake got an idea. She asked them a personal question. When Fireball answered correctly, Kris turned invisible and then fled. Somehow, he still had control over the scepter. Fireball scratched his head.

"Get back here, wherever you are!" Snowflake let down her guard after finding no trace of him anywhere. "Darn, I can't see Kris anymore. We almost had him."

"I'm confused! What just happened here? He was aiming that arrow right at me! Did you really save my life?"

"I'll explain it later," Snowflake said. "Hey David, this is the last place we saw Kris. He tried to kill us, but ran away after we figured out what was going on."

"He's probably long gone by now. Let's get back to Christmas Town and finish up our work there." Suddenly, David seized Snowflake by the neck and began to choke her, pointing an ice-gun at her head. "Fools! Thought you could outsmart me?"

Kris used the Scepter to create a clever, deceptive disguise. Reaching behind her waist, she pressed a button somewhere on his belt, causing his force-field to invert itself - bursting like a bubble. Kris screamed in pain as he let go of her, trying to take off his belt. She jumped on the hover-board and flew away, not wishing to put her life in danger. When the real David found out what happened, he told them to stay together in the same place so Kris couldn't pretend to be one of them anymore.

Santa took his rightful position on the throne. All the naughty elves were put in prison, except for Kris Kringle. He was still around, as evil as ever. Snowflake and Noel became friends again, enjoying each other's company.

Snowflake was busy decorating a tree. "Here, catch!" She rolled an ornament down her arm without letting it fall and break.

A celebration was held in honor of the brave heroes who saved Christmas Town. Decorators spent the day preparing for evening festivities. Fireball awarded medals to everyone who helped out. David even gave him a hover-board as a gift. Colorful confetti showered Snowflake and Candy as they leaned back-to-back, blowing kisses. Everyone enjoyed themselves and had a great time playing games, listening to music, eating, drinking, and dancing. Christmas lights changed colors and chased each other in circles.

"Try one of these!" A servant girl carried a platter of treats.

Afterward, a unique show was given. They had the best seat in the house with an unobstructed view of the whole stage. Singers popped out of ornately packaged gift boxes. The highlight of the celebration was a concert in the Main Auditorium. David asked Snowflake to sing them something special. She had never performed for such a big audience before. Music had been outlawed. If she didn't like him so much, she would have killed him, but for now, she was too busy making a fool of herself.

"Hey David, why did you put her up on stage like that?"

"I heard her sing. There's nothing like it. Don't steal her spotlight."

Oh, I'm so nervous! Take a deep breath and relax. Just act like you know what you're doing. "Hi everyone…" Snowflake smiled. "Umm… This is actually my first time up here on stage in front of so many people." Great, now tell them what you're gonna sing. Wait, which song was it? Ahh! I haven't said anything since I last spoke!

Fireball sat in the front row, confidently smiling at Snowflake. It gave her courage to believe in herself. She sang sweet like an angel - so beautiful it brought tears to their eyes. She started to smile, waving at the audience. When she was done, the crowd clapped hard and cheered for her.

"Thank you! I love you all!" Snowflake waved.

"Wow! I didn't realize you had such talent!" Candy laughed.

"I knew you could do it!" Fireball grinned.

"And it's all because of you!" She ran up to hug him.

Nick hid in a giant gift-box, waiting for Crystal to sit down on it. At the right time, he jumped out and grabbed her.

Candy stood in the back of the crowd with her arms crossed, chewing bubblegum. Someone put a wreath around her waist and pulled her with a candy cane so she fell into his arms. Peter kissed her passionately, popping a pink bubble. She blinked and blushed.

David and Angel sat by a warm fire, enjoying a rare moment of relaxation. She crossed her legs in a seductive manner.

"Hey, wanna go for a walk with me? It's a good night for some fresh air."

"Or maybe you have something else in mind?"

"I was hoping for more company." He winked.

Why would anyone want to be alone on Christmas Eve?

Angel finished her drink and then set the glass down on a wooden table. "I suppose this is your way of making up for what you just put me through?" She turned away, crossing her arms and lifting her chin. "I'm trying to forgive you, but it's hard."

"I didn't mean to hurt you. I would understand if you never speak to me again."

"It was my choice. No one forced me to come with you."

He led her to the top of the Great Tree. Angel innocently glanced over at him, hoping to catch him off guard. He did the same, so they both turned away again. Snowflakes sprinkled her long, soft hair. She looked so pretty, standing there all alone. She crossed her arms, trying to stay warm. It was cold out, but she didn't care.

"So why'd you bring me here?" Angel asked.

"Just to talk… We wouldn't have any privacy with the others around."

"It's so beautiful. Do you come here by yourself often?"

"Of course silly, I live here! Nope, just this time…" David cleared his throat. "So, want your present now or would you rather wait until morning?"

"I guess that depends on what it is. Can I get a little hint?"

"Wait, you have to close your eyes first." Leading her to a quiet and peaceful place where they could be alone together, he took something out. "Ok, look…"

When she opened her eyes, they met a magical sight. Many small candles hung around in the air, bathing them in a warm glow.

If this isn't a perfect time, then I don't know what is.

His heart began to beat faster - if that were possible. He got down on one knee in front of her and opened the box, revealing a beautiful ring. Her eyes grew wide in surprise as he gave it to her. It was a golden engagement ring made of the very finest materials.

"I have a confession. I've loved you for a long time, but every time I tried to tell you, I found a lame excuse not to."

"You really mean it? Are you sure this is what you want?" Excitement filled her eyes. David had never been so direct with his affections before.

He nodded, pointing at a mistletoe hanging above her head. "I've never been this close to someone before. You make me feel so alive. I could take on the whole world all by myself to be with you. Well, um, say something."

Angel didn't answer, but ran over to him. He squeezed her tight, wrapping his arms around her waist. He kissed her once, requesting her permission to go further - and she welcomed it. He could tell by the way she nuzzled near him. She leaned in as he pulled her close, gently pressed her soft lips against his, then rested her chin on his shoulder. He took her up high into the sky, then down into the depths of the sea at the same time.

"Does that answer your question?" Her eyebrow lifted.

"I'll always be there for you," he whispered.

"Would you do something really romantic for me?"

"Anything at all, Angel…" It was the easiest question she had ever asked him.

"Say that again… One more time…"

Magic filled the air. Music swept their hearts. A melody carried them away to a place where only they existed. When they thought of each other, their troubles went away. They felt a weight lifted off their shoulders. Gravity no longer had any effect on them as they began to float in the air. They opened their eyes and drifted back down to the ground again. Falling and rolling in the snow, they laughed and played like children. Angel lay there for a while and closed her eyes, spreading out her arms and legs several times. David held out a hand to help her get back up again.

"Is this a dream?" She could see her own breath each time she exhaled.

"I hope it isn't." He shook his head. "If it is, then I never want it to end."

"Look, a shooting star! Quick, make a wish." Angel pointed up at the sky.

"I don't need to. I already have what I want right here."

David took her hand and savored the sensation. Her body warmth radiated into his. As she let him hold her, he couldn't help inhaling her hair's sweet scent. Though she didn't put on perfume, it smelled like flowers. He never noticed before.

"I could get used to this." Not paying attention to where she was going, she fell.

"Hey Angel, watch out! You're getting close to the edge of the branch again!" David reached out for her wrist, pulling her back up. "It's way too dangerous."

"Nonsense, silly! I should do it more often, as long as you're there to catch me."

"I just want to hold you and never let go." He grinned.

"This is the best Christmas ever." She smiled.

He kept kissing her. Eventually, the need for air drove them apart. They panted like they had narrowly escaped drowning. She would never forget that night. She still had questions. She didn't know if this relationship would work or if others could accept it. At that moment though, she really didn't care. As it turned out, they both got what they wanted that Christmas - each other. It was getting late. They had to meet back with the rest of the group and say goodbye. As they locked lips once more, they disappeared, leaving a glittering cloud of sparkles that slowly drifted down.

"Ready for another adventure?" David asked.

"I thought you would never ask." Angel smiled.

"Congratulations on completing the mission, guys!" Snowflake shouted.

"Well, I'm all done here if you are." Melody shrugged.

"Wait! Aren't you gonna say goodbye?" Fireball grabbed his arm.

"Leaving so soon already? This party is just getting started!" Snowflake crossed her arms and put her right foot on a stripe on a candy-cane street-lamp as she leaned against it. "Don't tell me you've got to protect the whole planet again already!"

"We already invited guests to another social gathering. We can't keep them waiting forever. We've got a lot of work to do, but we'll be back again someday. Goodbye, we'll miss you!"

"Thanks for everything, guys! Come visit us soon!" Snowflake waved as they rode in Santa's sleigh. They left her standing there in the snow.

"Hey, Fireball!" David shouted. "You can keep my hover-board as a present. I hope your Christmas is full of magic."

Fireball stood by Snowflake and watched them soar over a distant mountain. "So would you like to go out later?"

"Fireball, are you trying to ask me on a date?" Snowflake stopped for a moment and gazed intently into his nervous eyes.

"Sort of… I'm sure a great girl like you wouldn't be interested in me." Fireball looked away, sighing. He'd fallen in love with her, but was still too shy to admit it.

"Why not?" She twirled her hair around her little finger. "You know, some guy already said that to me today. He was wrong too."

"Well, see… You saved my life. If I'm a hero, I shouldn't need to be rescued. It's supposed to be the other way around."

"Not in Christmas Town…" Then she got a sly look. Snowflake grabbed Fireball and kissed him. When she finally let go, he fell back, sinking into the snow, which melted into water with a sizzling sound. She smiled, then dared him to do something about it. "I like bad boys. Well, are you coming or not?" She winked at him and then walked off.

As he recovered from the shock, a grin spread across Fireball's face. Finally, he realized what she had just said.

"Hey, wait for me!" He got back up.

"You've got such an adorable accent." Snowflake giggled.

Kris Kringle stood and stared at the sky, alone in his anger – except that he rested upon the shoulder of the snow-monster named Frostbite with icicles for teeth. It blew a wreath of fire into the arctic air.

"This isn't over yet. I'll let you go for now, but I won't rest until I obtain revenge! Until we meet again…"

The old elf himself sat at a desk holding a blank piece of parchment, with only the ticking clock and crackling fire for company. A light coming from a candle shone bright. The lamp with an oil wick burned low. He put his pen down for the night and closed his Bible. He paused a moment to remember the child who came and died to save a world from sin then was raised to life again. Santa had to make up for lost time. Gazing out a window, his mind wandered back to a past period when he was on the outside looking in. He smiled with a new sense of hope, knowing peace would never perish from the Earth. The joy was real. Hope was back again. They could feel it. It never left them. It was always there. They just couldn't see it for a while.

God bless you all…