• 15 December 2015
    DARREN SHAN IS PROUD TO PRESENT, THIS CHRISTMAS, FOR YOUR ENTERTAINMENT, THE ONE AND ONLY SHANTA CLAUS IN A STIRRING GHOULTIDE TALE ...

    "MERRY BLOODY CHRISTMAS!!!"

    [this seasonal, light-hearted, not-to-be-taken-too-seriously story is set during and after the events described in Tunnels Of Blood, but also includes brushes with characters from my other major series (The Demonata, Zom-B, Archibald Lox) as well as a few of my one-off books...]


    "Move your backside, you hairy slacker!" Mrs Claus snapped, giving her husband a sharp dig in the ribs. "It's Christmas Eve!"

    "Already?" Shanta groaned. "It barely seems like five minutes since I laid my head down." It was Shanta's custom, once he finished delivering toys to all the girls and boys of the world each Christmas, to hit the sack and stay in bed until the next December 24th rolled round. He had a smart TV in the right-hand corner of his gigantic bed -- on which he could monitor the behaviour of every child, as well as stream shows such as the jaw-dropping documentary series "Tiger King" -- and an in-built toilet in the left. As far as Shanta was concerned, those were all the mod cons anyone needed. If you had those premier pieces of kit installed in your bed, why bother leaving it?!?

    "Get a move on, tubby!" Mrs Claus growled, poking him again with a thick finger. "The elves have finished packing all the toys. The reindeer are fed and ready for action -- it's foggy out, so Rudolph's leading again this year. The clock's ticking, so get your huge, hairy, pimply ..."

    "OK!" Shanta barked before she finished the insult. He swung his legs out (he didn't take his boots or suit off in bed) and yawned.

    "And don't forget your face mask," Mrs Claus said.

    "Face mask?" Shanta blinked.

    "You'll be slipping backwards and forwards through time," she said. "Best to have one on you, in case you pop up in 2021."

    Shanta shivered. "That was almost as horrible a year as 2020, wasn't it?"

    "It certainly wasn't a bundle of laughs for anyone," Mrs Claus agreed. "But they did an amazing job with the vaccines, and things started to pick up after that. Anyway, don't forget that mask."

    "Bloody masks," Shanta sniffed. Then he tried his most winning smile on her. "Couldn't you do it this year?" he asked, more in vain hope than any real expectation.

    "I will if you're too tired, darling," Mrs Claus cooed sweetly, causing her bearded better half to blink with a mixture of surprise and suspicion. "Of course," she said, her voice hardening, "you'll have to handle the cooking and cleaning for the next twelve months -- those elves don't feed themselves -- and you'll also have to shovel the snow off the front porch every morning ..."

    "Bloody elves!" Shanta grumbled. "Bloody North Pole! Bloody Christmas!" He paused, sniffed the air -- there was a strong, unpleasant stench -- then had a quick look under the covers, at the corner where the toilet was situated. "Bloody cowboy plumbers!"

    * * * * *

    Shanta felt better once he was off the ground, flying high above the earth in his sleigh, the wind gusting through his thick white hair and beard (though it wasn't much fun when one of the reindeer broke wind of its own!). He moaned about Christmas a lot, but he loved it really. The joy of giving presents, the wonder of seeing innocent children's faces as they slumbered, the countless free glasses of whiskey and slices of cake -- a truly special time!

    After a few warm-up circuits of the globe, he got down to the job of delivering the presents, which bulged out of a sack at the rear of the sleigh. (It was a magical sack, far bigger on the inside than on the outside. He'd got the idea watching an episode of "Doctor Who"). A tablet was attached to the dashboard, on which his famous list was displayed. That was Mrs Claus's idea, and though Shanta had resisted to begin with, he was glad of it now. He could surf the internet as he worked, and even play video games -- his current favourite was "Minecraft," an oldie but a goldie.

    The list was arranged regionally and alphabetically. There was a smiley face icon beside the names of good boys and girls, which he clicked on to find out what toys they'd asked for, and a dark cloud icon beside the names of those who'd been bad. The bold children got no toys -- instead, when he landed on their roof, Shanta sent a reindeer down the chimney, and the animal left soft, moist droppings all over the sleeping brat.

    Time wasn't the same for Shanta as it was for humans -- for every second which passed in the real world, he experienced ten minutes. So a minute of human time equaled ten hours Shanta time, and an hour of human time was six hundred hours (the same as twenty-five days) in Shanta's realm. This was how he was able to cover the entire world in the space of one night. There was no truth to the rumour that Shanta was able to move at the speed of light -- in fact, he and the reindeer rarely went faster than thirty miles an hour.

    * * * * *

    After a couple of billion homes -- and several million glasses of whiskey -- a rather unsteady Shanta landed on the roof of a house and paused nervously, studying his computer screen. The boy who lived here was called Steve Leonard, but most people knew him as Steve Leopard. Although he was by no stretch of the imagination a nice, pleasant child, he hadn't broken any rules this year, and so was due a present. Shanta would rather have flown on without stopping, but the law was the law. So, with a heavy sigh, he took the requested present out of his sack and slid down the chimney.

    "About time," someone said as Shanta wriggled out of the fire grate.

    Shanta whirled around defensively, then relaxed when he saw Steve Leopard sitting in a chair, face as grim as ever. "You're not supposed to see me!" Shanta complained. "Why aren't you in bed asleep?"

    "I sleep during the day," Steve said. "You know that, otherwise you'd have waited another few hours until I'd dropped off."

    Shanta sighed glumly. That was one of the rules -- he had to deliver during the darkness, not by day, so if people stayed up all night, there was a good chance they'd spot him. "Do you want your present now, or will I stick it under the tree?" Shanta asked grumpily. He hated being seen. It fed the rumours that he was real. Shanta's greatest wish was that all the children of the world would stop believing in him. Then he could retire and spend ALL his time watching TV shows.

    "Give it to me now," Steve said, rising. He smiled when Shanta passed over the package, but it was a nasty smile, and Shanta shivered when he saw it. Without any hesitation, Steve ripped open the parcel and held up the items within -- a book entitled "Vampires, And How To Hunt Them -- The 30th Edition." Another book entitled "The Cardinal's Guide To Crushing Your Enemies And Taking Over The World." And last but not least, a small but heavy hammer, and a set of six steel-tipped stakes. "Exxxxxxcellent!" Steve purred, laying the book on the shelf over his chair (knocking the 28th edition out of the way), then slowly stroking the tips of the sharp stakes.

    "Careful," Shanta warned him. "You could cut yourself."

    "Not me," Steve replied in a low, creepy voice. "I've got nothing to fear from stakes -- though I know a pair who do ..."

    Shanta cleared his throat uneasily. "I suppose I'd best be off then. Um. Would you like a nice computer game next year, instead of --"

    "No!" Steve cut in. "I want the 31st edition of the hunter's guide, the latest Edward Sieveking book -- I don't read much fiction, but I've heard he's worth a look -- plus a new hammer and more stakes. Lots of stakes!"

    "Very well," Shanta shrugged. "Though it all seems rather morbid to me ..."

    He slipped back up the chimney, leaving the cold, scary boy alone in the room with his guide, hammer, stakes ... and dark, dreadful dreams of warped revenge.

    * * * * *

    From Steve Leonard's, it was a short hop and a skip to the homes of Tommy Jones and Alan Morris. They used to be close friends with Steve once, but they didn't see much of him these days. Shanta was glad of that -- he had a feeling that young master Leopard might be a bad influence on anyone foolish enough to hang out with him.

    Tommy had asked for the usual -- football gloves, a ball, a tracksuit, and the latest football game for his computer -- but Alan had put in an odd request. Normally he wanted toys, CDs, games and so on. But this year he'd asked for a science kit. Shanta had always thought the Morris boy was a bit of a simpleton, so he was surprised but pleased to see this new interest in matters scientific. Maybe there was hope for the youngster yet!

    As Shanta was fetching the kit out of his bag, he noticed something strange. There was a magazine attached to it by a bit of tape. It was a science journal, full of terms that made Shanta's head spin. Flicking through the journal, Shanta came to a page that had been turned down. Reading the first paragraph, he realised it was an article about cloning.

    "What a curious thing to ask for," he muttered. He thought about heading back to his sleigh to double-check his list -- Shanta hated it when he made a mistake -- but as he was considering that, a voice slithered through his head like a snake.

    "Just leave the magazine where it is, you bulbous, stupid clown," the voice hissed. Shanta blinked, rooted to the spot by shock.

    "I kn-know that vuh-vuh-vuh-voice," Shanta stuttered. "But from where ...?"

    "You left a watch for me once, many years ago," the voice chuckled. "It was heart-shaped."

    Shanta's eyes widened and he reached for the journal, intent on ripping it to shreds, certain that no present from this particular meddler could bring any good into young Alan's life. But as his fingers closed on the glossy paper, the voice in his head breathed softly, eliminating all memories of the conversation, along with Shanta's fears and doubts.

    Shanta stood there a moment longer, trying to remember what had seemed so important to him a few seconds ago. When nothing came to mind, he shrugged, smoothed down the pages of the science journal, then slipped back up the chimney. As he took up the reins again, he shivered involuntarily, as if someone had just walked across his grave. Someone in large, yellow wellington boots ...

    * * * * *

    Next on Shanta's route was the Shan household, where young Annie Shan was tucked up in bed, snoring like a bear. Shanta smiled sadly as he gazed down upon Annie and the doll she was sleeping with -- a dark-haired, brown-eyed doll, who looked like her "lost" brother Darren. (Annie and her parents believed Darren was dead, though Shanta knew better.)

    "I wish I could tell you the truth," Shanta sighed, resting his palm against the poor girl's warm cheek. "But I'm not allowed to interfere in matters such as this." Sighing again, he left her present -- another doll, and this one looked even more like the brother she loved and missed -- in the sock at the foot of her bed, then turned to leave.

    Out of the corner of an eye, he spotted movement near the curtains, paused, then stooped and snatched up a large, harmless spider. "You'll have to come with me, little lady," Shanta said, pocketing the spider until they got outside, where he planned to release it. "Annie's not fond of spiders -- she'd squish you flat and scream for an hour if she woke up and saw you. It's all to do with her brother ..."

    * * * * *

    Shanta had to pay a call to another gloomy household a couple of hours later -- where the Grest children lived. It used to be a happy, vibrant home, until one of the kids (bright, loquacious Sam) ran foul of a rampaging Wolf Man. The family was starting to pull itself back together, but it wasn't easy.

    The previous Christmas, the children had asked for the usual mix of toys, dolls and games -- which Shanta duly delivered -- but this year they'd clubbed together and asked for one big present between them. It was the sort of crazy request Shanta normally ignored, but because he felt sorry for the family, he decided to make an exception.

    "Come on," he said, reaching into his sack. "Out with you." He produced a small, furry, confused animal, one of the North Pole's natural inhabitants -- a polar bear cub. The Grest children had loads of pets -- dogs, cats, goldfish, a goat and more -- but they'd always wished for something extra special, something they couldn't find anywhere else.

    Shanta's elves had spent many months working undercover among polar bears, picking the right cub -- they wanted one which wouldn't grow too large, or develop a mean temper -- and finally they'd located an orphan which fit the bill perfectly. "Be good," Shanta whispered, laying the bear down by the tree in the living room. "Don't make a mess on the carpet." The bear looked up at the red-cloaked, bearded man, and whined happily.

    "Oh!" Shanta said, stopping. "I almost forgot ..." Returning to the bear, he stuck a small badge on its chest. In the center of the badge, in large red letters, were the words which Shanta hoped would bring a long-lasting smile to the Grest children's faces. "Take good care of the cub. His name is SAM."

    * * * * *

    As Shanta was flying to his next stop some hours later, a window of pale blue light suddenly appeared in the air ahead of him. He spotted the danger and tried to steer the reindeer around it, but it was too late. Rudolph hit the window of light and vanished, dragging the rest of the reindeer, the sleigh and Shanta through to a universe of demonic horrors. (After first finding themselves in An Other Place, where Santa almost winded up being elected to the position of Alchemist... but we won't talk about that here, as it might warp young, impressionable minds!)

    Shanta found himself high above a castle made of cobwebs. Outside, in a large throne woven from webs, the master of the realm waited with two of his familiars. Shanta would have gladly reversed back through the window, but he was powerless here. If he angered the master, it would bode badly for Shanta and his team.

    Shanta set down on the ground -- which was made up of lots of strands of webs -- close to the throne. The demon master rose imperiously and hovered in the air. He had pale red skin, dark red eyes, eight arms, no legs, and a hole where his heart should be. The hole was filled with dozens of tiny, writhing, hissing snakes.

    "I am Lord Loss," the demon said.

    "I know," Shanta replied.

    Lord Loss frowned. "How?"

    "I brought you small animals to torture when you were a baby," Shanta reminded him.

    "Ah. That was you. I always wondered." Lord Loss' features darkened. "They were not real animals. They were only very clever toys."

    "Of course," Shanta said. "Only a monster would let a demon kill real animals. You should be thankful I gave you anything at all. Most demons get nothing -- which is what they deserve."

    "Why did you make an exception in my case?" Lord Loss asked.

    "You're rather an exceptional demon," Shanta grinned, then reached into his sack and withdrew two presents.

    "Here," Shanta said to a green-skinned, baby-shaped demon with fire instead of eyes and two small mouths in the palms of its hands. The demon known as Artery ripped the parcel open. Inside was a nappy. Artery gurgled happily and quickly put it on, then let rip with a shockingly loud fart. Fire burst from his bottom and burnt through the nappy, but it quickly reformed around his fiery cheeks. "That's good for at least a hundred blasts," Shanta assured him.

    "And for you," Shanta said, handing the other package to a dog-shaped demon with a crocodile's head and a woman's hands. She was called Vein. She tore the gift open with her fangs to reveal a heavy-duty brush for her fur, some waxy gel to keep her snout gleaming, and fingernail polish. Vein barked happily, then sat on her haunches and stared at the presents, trying to decide which she should test first.

    "Very clever," Lord Loss said. "But you will not placate me so easily."

    "Don't be too sure of that," Shanta grinned, then produced a Blu-Ray of all the episodes in the "Queen's Gambit" TV series. "This should suit you down to a tee, " Shanta smirked.

    "I have already seen them," Lord Loss sniffed. "In fact, I was one of their technical consultants for the chess scenes. Did you know that, superb as she was, Anya Taylor-Joy was only fourth choice for the main role?"

    "That does surprise me," Shanta said. "What happened to the other actresses? Did they not want to do it?"

    "Oh, they definitely wanted to be in the show," Lord Loss said. "But to get the part, the actress had to beat me in a game of chess first. Those three lost."

    Shanta's face fell. "Did you...?"

    He couldn't complete the sentence. In reply, Lord Loss smiled and said, "All I'll say on the matter is that their agents will be crying all through Christmas."

    Shanta gulped, then riffled through his sack. "OK, then, how about... this?" He dug out a large, colourful, mutli-faced object and tossed it to Lord Loss. The demon master caught the gift and studied it dubiously.

    "What is it?" Lord Loss asked.

    "A specially designed Rubiks Cube," Shanta said proudly. "The only one ever built for a creature with eight arms. It will distract you for many hours. You might even find it more fun than a game of chess."

    "I doubt that," Lord Loss sniffed, "but I look forward to testing it."

    "Well, merry Christmas," Shanta said and mounted his sleigh again.

    "Where do you think you're going?" Lord Loss asked quietly.

    "I still have lots of toys to deliver," Shanta said. "Millions of boys and girls are waiting for me."

    "Yes," Lord Loss sneered. "How sad they would be if you failed to visit them. I love disappointment. The thought of millions of wailing children appeals to me immensely."

    "There'll be trouble if you try to keep me," Shanta said, trying not to show how scared he was.

    "Who could trouble me here?" Lord Loss smirked.

    Shanta was going to say Mrs Claus, but he realised how stupid that would sound. Instead he decided to try another approach. "If you stop me from leaving, I can never return, and that will mean no more surprise presents for you."

    "Do I look like I care about presents?" Lord Loss laughed.

    "You should," Shanta said slyly. "I have the most fabulous chess sets in the world tucked away in a corner of my home in the North Pole."

    "Chess sets?" Lord Loss barked. "I have loads already."

    "But none as exquisite as mine," Shanta insisted. "I have the most beautiful, remarkable, outstanding sets ever created. I've been keeping them back for a special occasion ... for a special child ..."

    Lord Loss scowled. "How do I know you will return?"

    "I give you my word," Shanta said. "I will come back every year and bring a new, amazing set each time. But only ..." He was going to say, "only if you're good." But that would be a pointless thing to say to a demon, so he stopped.

    Lord Loss thought about it for a minute, then pulled a face. "Very well. You may leave. But if the chess sets are not as awe-inspiring as you claim, you will be doing lots of shouting and crying this time next year!"

    Shanta gulped, smiled weakly, then shot from the ground and through the window faster than he'd ever flown in his life. There was nothing like a threat from demon master to add a little speed to your sleigh!

    * * * * *

    Shanta thought he would return straight to Earth, but he hit some sort of a glitch going through the window, and instead found himself on the world of Makhras, in the city of Wadi, in a country called Abu Aineh. The Um Aineh were a powerful, cruel people. They had conquered most of the bordering countries and mastered the seas, allowing them to wage war in far-away lands too. They kept slaves and punished any criminal act by cutting off the offender's head. If you spat at the feet of the wrong person in Abu Aineh, you would swiftly find yourself on the executioner's block.

    Shanta had no wish to spend much time in such a harsh, unforgiving place, but the window would remain open for a few more minutes, so he figured he might as well drop off some presents while he was here. Swooping down upon the city, he first visited the palace of the High Lord and left a lovely necklace for Wadi Alg's recently born daughter, Debbat Alg. Shanta could tell, just by looking at her, that she was going to be a great beauty when she grew up. Boys would swoon when they saw her, and go to great lengths to try and win her hand. He hoped that wouldn't go to her head and turn her into a spoilt, selfish brat.

    Next he slipped into the house of a family of servants. They also had a newborn girl, Bastina -- though almost all of them referred to her as Bas. She was a snivelling, weepy baby, so Shanta left her a packet of tissues -- he figured she would get good use out of them when she was older!

    Finally Shanta let himself into the house of the city's famous executioner, Rashed Rum. Executioners were like pop stars in this world, and Rashed Rum was the Adele or Ed Sheeran of Makhras, the best and most popular at what he did. Rashed's wife had recently given birth to a boy called Jebel. She had died during childbirth, which was a shame, but in this city that was seen as a sign that the infant would become a fierce warrior, so Rashed had accepted his loss with good grace.

    In truth, the baby boy didn't look as if he would grow up to be a powerful fighter. He was small, thin and scrawny. Shanta felt that the boy might struggle to live up to the high expectations for him. To try and help out Jebel, Shanta decided to break with habit and give the boy a toy which would encourage him to explore his darker, more vicious side. "Horses for courses," and all that! So, with a sigh, he felt around inside his bag and pressed a tiny axe into the baby's hands. As the youthful Jebel stared at the blade and the way light glinted off of it, Shanta bid him luck and returned to his sleigh.

    "I must swing by here again one day, when the boy is older," Shanta muttered to himself as he headed back for the window of light and a welcome return to planet Earth. "I'm curious to see what becomes of Jebel Rum. Perhaps he can be Wadi's first ever Thin Executioner..."

    * * * * *

    There was another glitch when Shanta returned through the window, and as Mrs Claus had predicted (it wouldn't surprise him if it turned out that she'd somehow set this up), he wound up in one of the most dreaded of years, 2021, when the world had been forced to endure another subdued, socially distanced Christmas. The streets were nowhere near as busy as they normally were, people mixing as little as possible, except with their nearest and dearest loved ones.

    Shanta didn't want to spend too much time here -- he could imagine the headline if anything went wrong and he passed on Covid-19 to anyone -- "Super Spreader Shanta!!" -- but since he had a little time to kill, he pulled on his mask (Shanta took a VERY dim view of anyone who refused to wear a mask when out and about) and swung by the resting place of a boy known as Archibald Lox. Archie had recently returned from another incredible adventure in a sphere known as the Merge, where he'd gotten mixed up in a couple of royal kidnappings. Shanta had visited the Merge many times in the past, and had nipped back earlier in the year (he'd slipped away without telling Mrs Claus), for his first trip in five hundred years. The locals played a sport called grop, and teams from every realm used to regularly compete in a competition called the Tourney, where the best players would pit themselves against one another, roared on by tens of thousands of fans. Shanta had been a Tourney addict back in the day, but when they'd stopped hosting them, he'd stopped nipping across. But when word reached him that it had been revived this year, he'd made a beeline for the realm of Topaz, and taken in as many games as he could -- he'd taken in as many hotcats as he could too! A Tourney was always worth crossing universes for, and this one had been one of the best -- the final had been an incredible, thrilling affair.

    Archie was snoozing when Shanta swung by, even though it wasn't especially late. Archie hadn't asked for anything -- he was a bit old for that, and it had been quite a long time since he'd last written a letter to Shanta -- but Shanta was in a giving mood. He adjusted his face mask before exiting the sleigh, to make sure it was correctly in place -- the mask was red, of course, with the words "Have you seen YOUR Mommy kissing me?!?" -- then let himself into Archie's chamber and set a large, locked box on the floor. The lock would take an hour or two to open, and when Archie lifted the lid, he'd find another locked box inside... and another... and another. In fact there were enough boxes to last him until next Christmas, unless he got bored of them first. But Shanta had yet to meet a Lox who ever tired of locks.

    In the very last box, Archie would find a book about cenotes, which were Mexican sink holes. The book would confuse him, and Shanta was confused as well, but he had a feeling that Archie might find himself checking out a very dangerous cenote in 2022, and a little knowledge of them might come in very useful. Indeed, his life might depend on it...

    As Shanta climbed into his sled, Big Ben struck the hour and he jumped -- it was so noisy! He checked the time, waved to the famous clock tower, then took to the sky and headed back to the window.

    * * * * *

    There was yet another glitch when Shanta returned through the window, and instead of winding up on Earth in his own time, he found himself a few years even further ahead of 2021, in a most monstrous future world. The planet had been over-run by zombies. Shanta found himself in an underground complex, where the living dead were running wild. They had already killed many soldiers and scientists, and when they spotted Shanta and his reindeer, they thought dessert had been served up, and they surged forward in a terrifying undead wave.

    "Bloody zombies!" Shanta growled, whipping out a crossbow that he kept under the hood of the sleigh for emergencies.

    As the first of the zombies reached out to rip into Rudolph's brain, Shanta fired an arrow through the centre of the undead beast's head, and it collapsed in a heap.

    "Come on, you animals!" Shanta roared. "Who's next?!? I'll take on the lot of you! You think you're tough? Hah! I've faced down Mrs Claus when she's in a bad mood -- and I mean a REALLY bad mood -- and she's way tougher than you brain-munching creeps!"

    Shanta kept firing as the zombies kept coming. He was quite enjoying this. While he was a peaceful man, who liked nothing better than lying in bed for 364 days of the year, it was good to flex the old muscles every now and then and re-connect with his fighting spirit. Also, the world was always better off with a few less zombies.

    As Shanta was dispatching a few more of the undead, he spotted a teenager with a closely shaven head, stumbling along a corridor with a pack of other teens. The teenagers were zombies, but not like any zombie Shanta had ever seen before. He stared at them, trying to figure out what was different about them, then decided that he would be better off not knowing. Putting his crossbow away, he clicked his tongue at the reindeer and they wheeled around swiftly and zipped back through the window before any of the teenagers could notice their bearded, red-suited visitor.

    Just before Shanta disappeared, he reached into his sack and scattered some brains around the floor, for the hungry zombies to feast on. He knew that he shouldn't really be encouraging them, but he couldn't help himself. He was such an old softy!

    * * * * *

    This time the window sent him back a year, so Shanta decided to pay a visit to B Smith's house. B was the teenager with the shaven hair who he had spotted in the future world. B was sleeping uneasily, tossing and turning. Shanta guessed that B was having a nightmare. Curious, wondering if B was perhaps having a premonition of what was going to happen in the future, he used his powers to slip inside the shaven-headed rebel's mind. What he found was a monstrous scene where B was being attacked by killer babies on a plane. Shanta broke contact immediately, shook his head and shuddered.

    "That was too scary for me," he grunted. "Babies give me the shivers! The worse one of all was that baby called Gaia, in Limerick. I'll never forget her and those jaws of death and destruction. I was lucky to get out of her house with all my fingers intact!"

    B had asked for nothing for Christmas, but Shanta felt it would be poor form not to leave a present behind, especially as B was going to suffer so much loss and heartache in the near future, so he reached for the stocking hanging crookedly across the foot of B's bed. To his surprise, he found a small note inside. Unfolding it, he read with astonishment -- "Get the hell out of my room, fat man, before I break both your knees with the hammer I keep tucked under my pillow!"

    Shanta's features darkened. He stared at B's pillow, wondering if the bit about the hammer was an idle threat. In the end he decided not to chance it. Replacing the stocking, he let himself out, leaving the stocking empty except for a slight sweaty smell, which was exactly the way B liked it.

    * * * * *

    Shanta went through the window yet again, which vanished behind him, and to his relief he wound up in his own time. He thought he was finished with glitches for the night -- it was rare for him to run into so many unusual obstacles -- but one more lay in store for the merry old toy-maker, and this one was in many ways the glitchiest glitch of them all. As he was crossing above the small village of Pallaskenry in the southwest of Ireland, the stars started to spin. He drew to a startled halt and stared -- he'd never seen anything like this before. As he watched, the stars gathered together to form a funnel -- in effect becoming a stellar tornado -- which whipped snakelike through the sky. Before Shanta could even try to dodge the celestial storm, he was caught up in it and torn free of his sleigh. He hollered and yelped as he spun round and round. He was certain that this was the end, and he wept a few tears for the boys and girls that he would be unable to get to, imagining their distraught faces when they woke in the morning to find... nothing.

    But then the spinning stopped and he found himself sitting on a chair in an office that overlooked the river Shannon.

    He wasn't alone. A man sat at a computer, typing swiftly. His hair had once been dark, but had now mostly turned to grey, and it looked like he had started in early on the mince pies this year. A bewildered Shanta watched him type for several silent minutes, before the man paused and turned to behold his red-garbed visitor.

    "I know this is strange for you," the man said, "but you have nothing to fear. I've smashed the fourth wall and brought you through, but I'll return you to your story and restore the wall when you go."

    "Fourth wall?" Shanta blinked. "Story?"

    "I'm all about stories," the man smiled. "In truth, I think there's a strong likelihood that everything's a story, and we just don't realise we're characters in someone else's tale."

    Shanta gawped. The man sighed, turned to the keyboard and typed some new lines. As he was doing that, Shanta's head cleared, as understanding of the situation was instantly introduced to his brain cells.

    "Darren Shan!" he gasped. "Not the character, but..."

    "...the author," Darren Shan said, facing his guest again. "It gets a bit confusing sometimes -- that's the problem with naming a character after yourself -- but life's more amusing when sprinkled with a little confusion, don't you agree?"

    Shanta grunted. "It was nice to see you publish three more "Archibald Lox" books this year."

    "They were pretty cool, weren't they?" Darren chuckled immodestly. "I released the omnibus edition as well -- "Archibald Lox Volume 2: The Kidnapped Prince." I hadn't meant to release that until next spring, but quite a few of my readers said they'd like to be able to buy it as a Christmas present, so I changed my mind."

    "You're too good to your fans," Shanta said.

    "My love for them is my biggest weakness," Darren sighed.

    "What about Volume 3?" Shanta asked. "Will we have a long wait for that?"

    "Nope," Darren smiled. "The Volume 3 books will come out in 2022, hopefully in the summer, and I'll probably release the omnibus in time for Christmas next year -- gotta keep those present-buying Shansters happy!"

    "That's good news," Shanta said. "Will you release the three books at the same time, the way you did with Volume 1, or with a month's gap between each book, as you did with Volume 2, or have you something completely different in mind?"

    "I'm still working that out," Darren said.

    "Oh well, at least it will be a nice way to celebrate the end of the pandemic," Shanta said.

    "Will it definitely have ended by then?" Darren asked.

    Shanta shrugged. "You tell me. After all, you're the one writing this scene..."

    The pair chuckled.

    "Do you know what you're going to write next, when you've finished editing the Volume 3 books?" Shanta asked.

    "I'm not entirely certain," Darren frowned. "I'm trying to get a picture book off the ground..."

    "A picture book?" Shanta laughed. "You're joking with me, right?!?"

    "Nope," Darren said seriously. "I have two young kids, and I've read them lots of picture books over the last several years, so I guess my thoughts started to turn naturally in that direction."

    "Will it be a horror book?" Shanta asked, eyes widening as he imagined a Demonata-themed picture book.

    "Not as such," Darren smirked, "although it will have a classical horror vibe to it. But, look, it's still very early days on that front, and I can't guarantee anything will come of it. But fingers crossed..."

    "Will there be any more of your Darren Dash books for adults?" Shanta asked.

    "Oh yes," Darren said. "I would have liked to release one in 2021, but I self-published the "Archibald Lox" books, and that process eats up far more of my time that you'd believe. But once I'm done with Archie, I should have more time to go back and polish up my next Darren Dash novel, though I don't know yet what it's going to be -- I have early drafts of several books for adults that I wrote many years ago, so I'll need to go back and look through those and decide which one to focus on."

    "What about books for older children and teenagers?" Shanta asked. "Have you another big series in the works?"

    "No," Darren said. "I'm not sure I'll ever write a long series again."

    Shanta's face fell.

    "Don't panic," Darren cooed. "I thought that after "The Demonata" as well. And then again after "Zom-B." A long series takes a huge amount out of me. Most writers, if they ever work on such a scale, only do it once. A few might do it a couple of times. I've already done it four times! If the right idea comes to me, and I get sucked into a huge storyline again, of course I'll be happy to accept the challenge. But for the time being I'm working on one-off books -- those are what my gut is nudging me towards."

    "Then you do have some coals smouldering in the creative fire?" Shanta pressed.

    "I've had a few ideas over the last year or two," Darren admitted, "including one just a week or two ago, which I think I might pursue further fairly soon. But don't rush me, OK? These things take time..."

    "Fair enough," Shanta grinned. "But tell me, is there anything happening on the TV or movie front?I know there was a team working on adapting "Zom-B" into a TV show..."

    "They're still working on that," Darren said. "They produced a script for a pilot -- I read it and really liked it, so hopefully it will find a buyer -- but I haven't heard any updates in almost a year, so as I always tell my fans, don't hold your breath!"

    "Very good," Shanta beamed. "Anything else?"

    "Well, nothing that I can officially comment on," Darren said carefully, "but things are looking positive for a reboot on the "Cirque Du Freak" front. Keep reading my monthly newsletter --"

    "The Shanville Monthly?" Shanta checked.

    "That's the one," Darren nodded. "Last Christmas I told my fans that hopefully I'd have some encouraging news to share in the first half of 2021 -- it looked like I was close to agreeing an option with a production company, and one of the guys involved has been around for quite a while, and is a real industry big-hitter, a marquee name on the writing/directing/producing scene."

    "But that fell through?" Shanta tutted sympathetically.

    "Actually, no," Darren smiled. "It's taken a year, but we finally crossed the final t and dotted the final i of the contract, so unless anything untoward happens, I should be able to make that announcement in the very near future, in the first half of the year as promised previously -- just the first half of 2022 instead of 2021!!!"

    "How exciting!" Shanta gushed. "And will this be for the big screen or small screen?"

    "Most probably the small screen," Darren said, "although don't rule anything out just yet. And remember -- we're only talking about an OPTION at the moment, which is a very different thing to having a show actually lined up to begin filming!"

    "Still, it sounds intriguing..." Shanta purred.

    Darren smiled again, then coughed. "Well, I'd better let you get back to your own zone. We both have work to be cracking on with. This has been fun for me, but I've other material that I should be focusing on."

    "Thanks for the insider insights," Shanta said, and got to his feet as the ceiling of the office turned translucent and the stars above began to spin again. "Will I remember any of this?" he asked just before he was whisked away.

    "Probably better if you don't," Darren said gently, then waved farewell, heaved a sigh when the office was his alone again, and turned his attention back to his keyboard. "Right," he said softly. "There's work to be done... one final edit of those Volume 3 books..."

    After a teasing little pause, Darren looked over his shoulder and winked at an audience that he could not see. "You'll find out soon what's waiting for Archie in that cenote," he promised. "But not today!"

    * * * * *

    Back in his own reality, Shanta continued about his rounds. Countries and houses fell behind him like dominoes, and he drank a virtual lake of alcohol. Shanta didn't get drunk -- he could drain all the whiskey in the world and still remain sober -- though he became quite merry and started singing to the reindeer (rude versions of traditional Christmas songs, such as "Hark the Herald Angels Smell" and "Away in a Pigsty"), as he did most years. Those closest to the sleigh groaned, though Rudolph -- way out in front, where he could barely hear the songs -- smiled and concentrated on steering them safely through the fog, guided by his glowing red nose.

    Late in the night, with most of the world covered, Shanta came to a halt in a forest. The reindeer were hungry and needed to be fed. Passing out feeding-bags from his magical sack, he left them munching and went for a short stroll to stretch his chubby legs and water a few bushes. As he was turning to come back, he heard moaning sounds to his right. Curious, he tiptoed across to investigate, and discovered a large, bulky, bearded man sleeping rough under a bush (luckily it was one of the 'unwatered' bushes), shivering from the cold.

    While Shanta studied the man's face, trying to put a name to it, the man squeezed himself tightly and whimpered in his sleep, "My hands! My hands!"

    Shanta recognised the voice and knew now who this was. Though he couldn't recall the man's real name, as a kid he'd been called Reggie Veggie.

    "The poor guy looks like he's had a tough time," Shanta muttered (he never bothered to keep tabs on children once they grew up and stopped believing in him). "And he used to be such a nice child. Very polite and concerned for the environment."

    "My hands! My hands!" Reggie Veggie (RV, as he preferred to be called) moaned again.

    Shanta couldn't see RV's hands -- he had his arms tucked inside his coat -- but he guessed they must be blue from the cold. "I know," he beamed. "I'll leave a little present -- something to cheer him up when he wakes."

    Hurrying back to his sleigh, Shanta returned with a thick pair of gloves, which he laid in the snow by the sleeping man's head. He smiled as he stepped away, pleased to have performed a good deed. As he left the snoozing RV, he chuckled warmly and said, "I wish I could be here in the morning to see his face when he spots the gloves ..."

    * * * * *

    Next stop, the Cirque Du Freak. Many of the performers and crew didn't celebrate Christmas -- their lives were full of wonder and magic every night of the year -- but some of the children had sent letters to Shanta. He parked his sleigh next to a large tent, grabbed several bags full of toys and books, and hurried around the vans, dropping off the presents. He ran into Mr Tall and Rhamus Twobellies outside one of the vans, and stopped to chat. Mr Tall was an old friend of his, but this was the first time he'd been introduced to Rhamus, and the large man was understandably curious and asked lots of questions about Shanta's job and powers. The pair had much in common, not least a love of mince pies and whiskey!

    Eventually, after a few drinks and some of the tastiest fish kebabs he'd ever eaten (prepared by Truska, the bearded lady), Shanta said his goodbyes and returned to his sleigh. Hopping onto his padded seat, he took hold of the reins and called out to Rudolph, "Come on then, Rudy, let's ..."

    He stopped.

    The reindeer with the red nose was nowhere to be seen. "Rudolph?" Shanta shouted. "Where are you? Stop messing around! We have to ..."

    He came to a sickening halt. In a tent behind the sleigh, he could hear loud, ripping, munching sounds. With a terrified premonition, Shanta lifted the flap of the tent and peered inside. Several small, grey-skinned, green-eyed people in blue robes and hoods stood within, gathered in a circle. In the centre of the circle were the tattered remains of a reindeer who'd been torn to blood-drenched pieces. As Shanta watched, aghast, one of the Little People -- this particular specimen walked with a pronounced limp -- picked up a huge red nose from among the scraps and popped it into his wide, sharp-toothed mouth.

    "Oh no!" Shanta groaned, letting the flap fall back into place. "Not again!"

    * * * * *

    Shanta was in a foul mood the rest of the night. What worried him even more than losing Rudolph was the reception he could expect back home when Mrs Claus found out. The Little People had eaten several of Shanta's reindeer over the years, and his wife always kicked him around the bed for a month when he came home without one of the magical flying creatures. He considered lying to her -- he could say Rudolph had been hit by a low-flying plane -- but she'd see through him and make life even more unbearable. Best to come clean, take his punishment like a man, and send the elves out to search for another red-nosed reindeer to take Rudy's place next year.

    The fat man in the sleigh worked slowly after losing Rudolph -- dragging the night out as long as he could, in no rush to face the wrathful Mrs Claus -- and dawn was only minutes away (as humans measured time) when he delivered his second-to-last load of the night, to the beautiful Debbie Hemlock, who had made a peculiar request this year. Apart from her usual gifts, she'd asked for a pirate's hat and sword.

    Shanta knew the pirate gear wasn't for Debbie, that she meant to give the hat and sword to somebody else. He also knew she wouldn't be seeing that friend in the morning -- or ever again, probably. He thought about taking the hat and sword with him, to pass on to the intended party, but in the end he decided to leave them, so that Debbie would have some small memento of the boy who meant so much to her.

    He stuck the felt hat and curved plastic sword on top of the other presents, under the tree in her bedroom (not as neatly decorated as it normally was, he noted critically), and left, in a hurry to beat the dawn and make his final visit of the long, tiring Eve.

    * * * * *

    Shanta found the trio in a hotel a few miles beyond the city where Debbie Hemlock lived. They'd booked into two separate rooms, but were gathered together in the larger room when Shanta arrived. The snake-boy was sitting on the bed, while the vampire attended to a large, nasty wound on his scaly right arm and shoulder. The half-vampire was watching.

    "I still say you shouldn't have involved them," Evra muttered, wincing as the vampire rubbed spit into the cut where some of his scales had been hacked off. "If the plan hadn't worked ..."

    "It was a risk," Darren agreed, "but there was no other way to get you back alive. If we hadn't --"

    "Quiet!" Mr Crepsley snapped, head jerking towards the window, where Shanta was eavesdropping. "I heard a noise."

    "Nobody knows we're here!" Darren gasped, jumping to his feet, fear in his eyes. "Do they?"

    "It's OK," Shanta said, slipping through a tiny crack at the side of the window, materialising in front of them. "It's only me."

    "Oh," Mr Crepsley said, relaxing. "I have not seen you in quite some time -- fifty years or more, I think. How have you been?"

    "Not too bad," Shanta smiled.

    "Is that ...?" Evra asked, his reptilian eyes widening.

    "Must be," Darren said. He looked up at the smiling man in the red suit (Shanta's clothes were the same colour as Mr Crepsley's, but there the similarity ended). "But what are you doing here?" Darren asked.

    "Delivering presents," Shanta grinned. "I know you didn't ask for anything, but after all the trouble you three have been through recently, I figured you deserved a treat. Here ..." He handed Evra a tube of green ointment. "Rub that into your wound. It will take the worst of the pain away, and help you heal quicker."

    "Great!" Evra said, taking the top off the tube and applying the ointment immediately.

    "For you, Larten," Shanta said, passing a tube of sun-tan lotion to the bemused vampire.

    "I hardly think I will have much use for this," Mr Crepsley noted drily.

    "It might come in handy if you ever get caught in the sun," Shanta disagreed. "Hold onto it. There's no telling what the future might hold. You will need it in book 9!"

    "What do you mean?" Mr Crepsley frowned.

    "Never mind," Shanta grinned. "It's an in-joke."

    Shanta turned to face Darren and his smile softened. "You've been through a hard few years, eh, master Shan?"

    "I've known easier times," Darren admitted sadly.

    "There's not much I can do for you," Shanta said, "but this might bring some joy into your life, at least for a while." He gave Darren a Blu-Ray disc in an unmarked case.

    "Thanks," Darren said, examining the disc. "But I don't have a Blu-Ray player."

    "That's easily fixed," Shanta laughed, and produced a multi-region player and HDMI lead. "Hook it up to the TV, and off you go."

    "What's on it?" Darren asked.

    "You'll find out," Shanta winked, and without any farewells, he slipped away again and headed back for the North Pole, his beloved bed, a year of rest, the final episode of the first season of "Loki"... and the cutting tongue of the indomitable Mrs Claus.

    * * * * *

    "Stick it in," Evra urged Darren once the Blu-Ray player had been hooked up to the small hotel TV.

    "Any idea what it is?" Darren asked Mr Crepsley.

    "No," Mr Crepsley said, "but knowing Kris Kringle as I do, I imagine it is something whimsical."

    It took Darren several seconds to load the disc into the machine and hit the PLAY button. When he did, a face burst into life on the TV screen and yelled, "Merry Christmas!" Darren recognised the face instantly -- it was his own.

    "What the ...?" he began, then froze as the camera spun from his own face to three others which were just as familiar -- his Dad, Mum and younger sister Annie. "Merry Christmas!" they all roared, toasting the camera with full glasses of wine.

    "What is it?" Evra asked, as the people on the TV sung songs, cracked jokes and played games with each other.

    "The last Christmas I spent at home," Darren said hollowly, eyes glued to the screen. "Uncle Derek stayed with us that year and filmed us. I never saw the footage afterwards -- he was supposed to send us a copy, but Uncle Derek was never the most reliable sort ..."

    The three of them watched the TV for a long while, as a younger, fresher, innocent Darren enjoyed a simple Christmas with his parents, sister, uncle and other family members. As the people on screen began opening their Christmas presents, the older, rougher, more worldly Darren's eyes welled up with tears.

    Mr Crepsley tapped Evra's uninjured shoulder and nodded towards the door. "I think Darren would rather watch the rest by himself," he said quietly, and the pair retired to the other bedroom as silently as they could, to sleep for the day.

    Darren didn't notice his friends leaving. He was lost in the world of the past and memories of more carefree days. He watched the disc to the very end, then immediately returned to the start. "Cheers, Shanta," he said softly, as the faces of those he loved panned into view again. He was crying, but they were warm, happy tears. "This is the best present ever." And then, settling back, keeping his finger close to the remote control, he spent the day re-living that simple, joyous, happy Christmas past.



    MERRY CHRISTMAS, SHANSTERS. STAY SAFE OVER THE YULETIDE, AND I HOPE YOU ALL HAVE A WONDERFUL NEW YEAR AND A COVID-FREE, SHANTASTIC TIME IN 2022!

    DARREN.
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