Christmas Serial in 25 parts
for good boys and girls everywhere
Story by Steve Englehart Art by Joe Staton
December 9: The Pit
In his dank and fetid cavern, the Coalman held the silver bell that belonged to Saint Nicholas, and gazed at his distorted reflection. He was finally ready to perform the act to which he had devoted all his life.
"All my life," he murmured to himself. "All my life " He had no earlier memory than the one which drove him to his evil. It was the memory of a small boy who, even then, had fought against the goodness in the world. It was the memory of his father, a tall, stern man, telling him on Christmas Eve that children who were good received presents from the wondrous Santa Claus, but children who were bad received nothing but a lump of coal. That had been the tradition for the little boy's father, and his grandfather, and his great-grandfather, stretching back into times the little boy couldn't even comprehend. Which was the trouble, of course. No little boy understands the passage of time, or the power of tradition. That's what makes little boys think that what they do matters only to them. And so, this little boy paid no attention to his father's warning. He yelled at his father and his mother, made faces at his sisters, and spun the cat around by her tail before he was sent to bed on that long-ago night.
When he awoke in the morning, his sisters had dolls beneath the Christmas tree, and candies in their stockings. The cat had a new rag ball.
He had a lump of coal. And nothing more.
His father wasn't surprised. "I told you," he said solemnly. "Santa Claus knows who's been good and who's been bad." For most children, that would have been all that they needed to learn a better way of life, but this little boy had a very different reaction.
He swore to destroy Santa Claus.
As he grew older, his behavior grew worse and worse. It doesn't really matter what he did, or how he learned the things he'd need to carry out his evil plans, but he certainly would have been a lot happier if he hadn't tried to hurt everyone he met. Instead, though, he hoarded his misery until he became the Coalman, hiding in a cave, alone.
But in fact, he was not alone.
Unbeknownst to him, he was being observed right that minute -- by Yørgøn. The little gnome hadn't left the cave as he'd been ordered; instead, he had used a gnome's power over the earth to tunnel back through the solid cavestone until he opened a very small crack looking into the Coalman's cavern. Crouched there, barely breathing, he spied on his former master as the man made ready to face his dark destiny.
"The bell is the key," muttered the magician, regarding it intently. "With the ringing of the bell I can travel in time, just as Nicholas does on Christmas Eve. But I can travel into the past, to the year 282, when there was but a poor bishop named Nikola, running a poor church in Turkey -- or as he called it, Lycia. The village of Myra in the province of Lycia, with its dear Bishop Nikola. I can stop him from becoming 'Saint Nicholas' -- stop him from becoming 'Santa Claus!'"
The sorcerer took hold of his table and shoved it roughly to one side. A heavy, soot-stained cord, attached to the wall, was revealed for the first time. The Coalman pulled at the cord, and slowly, slowly, the wall opened wide, revealing another cavern. (Yørgøn crowded forward in his niche to see better, and almost broke through, which would have meant the end for him.)
The Coalman crossed into the newly-opened cavern. There was barely room for him there; beyond a thin ledge the cave floor fell away into a vast abyss, cutting downward into the rock much farther than the eye could see. "The bell is the key," said the sorcerer again. "I can use it to take me into the past -- but if I take it with me, there is a real chance that Nikola will somehow get his hands on it, and reverse everything I'll have accomplished. He must not have the bell again -- not in the past, not in the present or future. But my plan solves that problem."
The Coalman began to speak the spells that he alone knew, slowly at first, and in a low voice, but faster and louder as the spells began to take effect. The smoke from the bonfire in the first cavern faltered in its ascent to the ceiling, and began to roll sideways, into the second cavern. It swirled around the Coalman's feet and bubbled over the edge of the pit, spilling like a waterfall. But as the chanting continued, it stopped its fall. It began to rise again, and spread across the top of the pit like a thick and dirty blanket, a blanket so dirty it had become stiff. The smoke still swirled and bubbled -- but the sorcerer stepped out on top of it!
Carefully, with great precision, he walked forward, and he did not fall. When he reached the very center, he stopped his chant.
"Bishop Nikola must have no chance of reversing me. Therefore, the bell must stay here, never to be seen again. And as for me -- when I complete my plan, I must cease to exist."
So saying, he lifted the bell to a spot just in front of his pale yellow eyes and rang it one time.
A sparkling cloud of silver light appeared, which faded to red, which spiraled 'round the sorcerer and clung to his dirty dark form. The light pulsed, and grew, and suddenly exploded in a burst bright enough to blind anyone there. But there was no one there -- not any more. The Coalman had vanished.
The bell fell to the blanket of smoke, but that was already dissipating. A few seconds later, the bell broke through and dropped down into darkness. Faster and faster it fell --
-- until with a loud tunk! it was stopped.
By landing in a long brown pointed cap.
Held by Yørgøn.
The gnome swayed at the edge of the new tunnel he'd dug down into the pit, below the spot where the Coalman had stood, but he kept his balance. Quickly, he pulled his hat back to him, and fished the bell out of it.
"I stole it once," he grinned, "and there's no reason I shouldn't steal it twice." And, whistling eerily in the echoing tunnel, he strolled back up toward his departed master's cave.