Mikey opened his eyes, and he realized his body was cramped. He tried to move, but found that he was inside some sort of a rough canvas bag that scratched at his face and hands and feet. Sure that it was a bad dream, Mikey pinched his cheeks hard, but just yelped in pain.
He wasn’t dreaming.
The last thing Mikey remembered was falling asleep in his bed. It had been Christmas Eve, and he was anxiously awaiting finally getting his first car. Even though he was a few years away from being able to legally drive, his sister had also gotten her first Porsche at 13, so he was sure he’d get one this year as well.
Thoughts of his new car vanished as he brought himself into the present. He had no idea how he had gotten into this rough sack, but he knew that he had been kidnapped. Mikey thought about his classmate Ronald who had gotten kidnapped when he was vacationing in South America. He had thought it would be cool to be kidnapped, as you were only kidnapped if your parents were super wealthy or famous, but this was not cool at all.
Mikey tried to call for help, but there was no response. He struggled a bit, and as he pushed against the burlap sack, he could suddenly feel fresh air on his shoulder. Mikey curled up his body and tried to reposition himself so he could press against the small hole with his fist.
After managing to get his hand free, Mikey felt around and grasped a long piece of cord. He tugged at it, and after some time, the knot fell away and the bag opened up. The walls of the bag fell around Mikey’s body, and he suddenly felt scared, as he was no longer obscured in his sack.
Even though Mikey was dressed in his Gucci tracksuit he wore as pajamas, he felt alone and naked, as he realized he was definitely not in a good place. The floor was made of cobblestones, and the only light came from a series of torches mounted on the wall. The stone walls were covered in black filth, and there were chains and shackles hanging from them. Mounds of dirty children’s pajamas and slippers littered the area, and across from where Mikey stood, it looked like a butcher shop out of a horror film.
Chunks of meat hung from hooks, and a collection of large knives hung on the wall above a sink. Mikey didn’t realized that the handles of the knives were all repurposed bones, but he didn’t need to in order to realize he needed to get out of there.
He slunk past a giant bubbling cauldron so large he would have to tiptoe to even have a chance of seeing into it, but he looked back at all of the kid-sized slippers littering the place, and didn’t want to know what was being cooked. Mikey tried to step quietly as he moved through the cavernous space, sticking close to the walls. There were not many hiding places, but the shadows cast by the pillars along the walls were deep enough that he might hope to be overlooked by anyone coming his way.
As he came upon a doorway, Mikey froze. There was a narrow spiral staircase of stone steps leading upwards. Realizing there would be no place to hide, and having no idea how long the staircase went, Mikey weighed his options. If he stayed, a bloody death at the hands of some unknown monster was certain. If he fled, he might get caught again, but at least there was a chance he might be able to escape before he was found.
Mikey took a deep breath to calm himself, and then began to ascend the stairs. The stone steps quickly became cool as he climbed, the heat of the kitchen fading quickly as he rounded the first bend. Mikey looked up, and all he could see were more stairs and darkness. There were no torches on the walls here. Mikey’s heart felt like it was going to burst through his chest, but he knew he had to continue on.
Step by step, Mikey climbed the stone staircase, and his eyes began to adjust to the darkness the best they could. The stairs were so devoid of light, he could barely make out the next step, so he clung to the wall and moved carefully. He looked down, then up, and there was no telling how long the staircase went on, or how far he had come. Mikey sighed, but continued on.
Mikey had no idea how long he had been climbing the staircase. He hadn’t counted each step, and with no way of knowing if he was close to the top or how far he had come, time had slipped away. His legs began to hurt, and his feet were almost numb, as the steps had grown icy cold quite a long time ago. Mikey had been sweating when he left the dungeon-like kitchen, but that sweat had cooled and dried, and now he found himself shivering.
Suddenly, he could see a faint glow coming from above, and a radiant warmth became apparent. Mikey’s steps were painful, but he forced himself up quicker now, as the allure of the heat overrode his caution.
The higher he climbed, Mikey could feel the chill fade away, and he wasn’t sure if he was hallucinating, but he could swear he smelled hot cocoa. Where was he?
Mikey followed the warmth and light and had to squint his eyes as the light became stronger. The young boy paused where he was, letting his eyes adjust to the light again after being so long in the dark. The stone steps were warm again, and he dropped down to crawl those last few steps. The staircase felt warm, and Mikey had half a mind to fall asleep there, cradled by its warmth after his long, frigid trek.
Mikey slowly pulled his weary body up, step by step, and he peeked out from the mouth of the staircase. He saw a great hall filled with Christmas lights strung up along the high beams leading to the most massive Christmas tree Mikey had ever seen. It was covered in glistening blown glass ornaments and shimmering tinsel. The tree towered above all of the small, unattended child-sized workbenches and stools that sat in neat little rows. Along the walls were a plethora of giant fireplaces, all spaced apart so that the heat could be felt even from where Mikey stood.
Mikey looked around hesitantly, this new environment so different from the cold, brutal underground he had emerged from. The great hall was empty, and so he tentatively stepped out towards the nearest fireplace and took a seat.
The heat warmed his frigid body, and he slowly began to stop shaking. The feeling returned to his fingers and toes. The warmth felt so good, Mikey could barely keep his eyes open. Cradled by the heat, he wrapped his arms around his knees and felt his eyes begin to close.
“Hey there, friend.”
Mikey’s eyes shot open and he yelped as he spun around. Mikey saw a tall man with a kind face smiling at him.
“Sorry to scare you, I forgot something in the workshop so I came back to get it, but then I found you and I just thought you looked lost and could use some help.” The man was thin but muscular, and was wearing a forest-green vest and red pants. He looked young, but somehow seemed much, much older. “Are you okay?”
“Uh, where am I? Who are you?”
“Well, you’re at the North Pole at Santa’s Workshop! My name is Illithrax, but you can just call me Illy.” Illy extended his hand and Mikey tentatively shook it. Illy’s hand was smooth as silk.
“Hi Illy, I’m Mikey. Mikey Penson.” Illy smiled.
“Hello Mikey Penson. You seem quite a far way from home. I know not of any human families living nearby.” A confused look came over Mikey’s face. “Ah, I am an elf, Mikey. As are almost all of the resident craftspeople here at Santa’s Workshop.”
“But, you look human. And elves and Santa don’t exist.”
“Ah, Mikey, you see, I most certainly am an elf, and I’m here in flesh and blood right before you.” Illy brushed back his long silver hair to allow a giant, pointed ear to extend from its hiding place. “Also, Santa is most definitely also real. I know it seems like he isn’t, but it serves our purposes much more easily if most people don’t believe it’s so.”
Mikey wasn’t sure what to believe anymore. Was he really at the North Pole?
“Mikey, I’m sure all of this is a lot to take in, but let me show you something.”
Illy walked over to the stone wall next to the fireplace, and pressed his hands against the stone. The stone gave way as if it was made of liquid, and Illy muttered something as he pulled his hands outward. The wall seemed to stretch as as newly formed window, complete with ornate grilles joining the multiple panes of glass, seemed to appear out of nowhere.
Mikey gasped as he slowly walked over. He slowly reached out and touched the icy glass. He tried make out some sort of buildings or signs of life, but all he could see was a world of swirling white snow and far off mountains of ice.
“Whoa, how did you do that?” Mikey stared at the window, then at Illy, then back to the window. Mikey pressed at the sill, the polished rock smooth under his hand.
“It’s magic, Mikey. Craftsman magic, to be precise. It allows a skilled user to create new things out of old, like a new window where none was before. Or it allows us to make toys for the good little children around the world.” Illy smiled, beaming with pride.
“Wow.” Mikey stepped back. “What else can you make? Can you make me a drone? Or a laptop?”
Illy chuckled. “Slow down, my little friend. Before we get carried away here, we really should be getting you back home. Your parents are going to miss you.”
“Can your magic do that, Illy? Can you make me a door that’ll transport me back home to Illinois? Or can you make a teleporter gun that’ll make a portal that’ll get me back home?”
“I’m a craftsperson, Mikey, not some wizard.” Mikey frowned. “My magic isn’t nearly strong enough. I’m only 800 years old. In order to even attempt transcontinental teleportation, I’d need to be a few centuries old. But there is someone who can easily fold space and time, and that’s Santa himself.”
Mikey smiled. “So there’s a way to get back home?”
“Definitely! I’m not even sure how you got here, but whatever happened, I’m sure Santa will be able to take you back to where you belong!” Illy beamed a huge smile. “Why don’t we head over to Santa’s room and meet him now?”
The horrors of being woken up in the sack and the piles of children’s clothes suddenly came back to Mikey.
“Wait, I was kidnapped! I woke up in some sack downstairs!” Mikey stepped backwards, suddenly suspicious of his new friend.
“Ah, Mikey, I understand. The caverns below this workshop belong to Krampus – think of him as Santa’s counterpart who deals with naughty children. He kidnaps children and brings them here to scare them, then leaves Santa to take them back to their homes.”
“But, I saw a bunch of kids’ pajamas and slippers in a pile down there! I’ve read the stories – he’s eating them!”
Illy laughed. “Oh, Mikey, don’t be silly. Those are the discarded clothes that the children have left behind after they’ve gotten their new holiday outfits from Santa. And yes, Krampus is also our chef who catches and butchers seals and fish and sometimes the occasional killer whale. As I remember, dinner should be served soon, and I think seal stew is on the menu. He doesn’t ever eat children – his scary visage and mythology is just to frighten them into behaving better.”
Illy smiled his warm smile again, and Mikey couldn’t see any hint of lying. It did make a lot more sense. After all, if Krampus was really going to eat him, would he have really just left Mikey to escape?
Mikey smiled, and Illy took Mikey’s small hand in his own. “Let’s go meet Santa, shall we?” Illy led the way through the joyous halls to a large red door, decorated with a beautifully lush wreath.
Illy knocked at the door. “Santa, may I request an audience? I have found a lost child, one of Krampus’s abductees, I presume.” The door creaked open.
Illy walked in, but Mikey hesitated. Illy looked back at the cowering boy. “Don’t worry, Mikey, Santa will make things right! He’ll take you home, come on!”
Mikey slowly released his grip on the door and walked into the room. The room was sparse, surprisingly so given the level of decoration in the grant hall. There were giant fur rugs on the ground, and a single fireplace that housed some glowing embers. Large candelabras floated in the air, suspended by some magical force, and in the far corner was a giant chair that looked almost like a throne. Mikey’s eyes grew wide as he saw a giant, jolly-faced man dressed in a red robe with white furry trim seated there.
Illy gently ushered Mikey forward. The boy looked up at the massive man in front of him. “Santa?”
“Ho, ho, ho, why hello, Mikey Penson. Welcome to the North Pole!” Santa let out a belly laugh, and smiled, his white teeth shining in the candlelight. “I see our old boy Krampus has been up to no good.”
Santa stood, and walked over to the pair. Illy was tall, at least six feet tall by Mikey’s guess, but Santa towered over even Illy. Santa was a giant, and Mikey understood why the door was so large.
“I found him in the workshop, sir, and thought you’d be able to bring him back to his home in Illinois, back in the United States.”
“Ahh, thank you, Illy, you did a great job. Also, good work on those stone fountains you created yesterday. Top notch masonry, and the electronics were well-done as well!”
“Thank you, sir, your praises are too kind.” Illy beamed and bowed his head.
“Oh, Illy, while I prepare little Mikey here for his trip back home, would you be a dear and gather up the rest of the elves? I believe it will be dinner time soon.”
“My pleasure, Santa.” Illy bowed deeply and turned to leave. “Nice to meet you, Mikey. Have a safe trip back home!”
“Thank you, Illy! Thank you for everything!” Mikey waved as Illy smiled, waved back, then turned and left.
Santa smiled, then waved his hand and the giant door slowly closed. “Well, then, Mikey, let’s get you back to where you belong, shall we?” Santa smiled, and waved his hand again, and a glowing blue portal appeared. “Just head through that portal and you’ll be back where you belong.”
“Oh, uh, Illy said something about new clothes as well?”
Santa looked at Mikey for a second, then smiled again. “Ah yes, the new outfit. How could I have forgotten?” Santa snapped his fingers, and a giant wrapped gift box appeared in front of Mikey. “Why don’t you try them on when you’re on the other side?” And with that, Santa pushed Mikey through the portal.
Mikey landed on a pile of warm laundry. But as he looked up at the ceiling, instead of his familiar blue ceiling, he saw moss-covered stone. He looked to his side, and realized he wasn’t lying on a pile of laundry, but a pile of discarded pajamas.
Mikey sat up, and sure enough, he was back in Krampus’ kitchen. He realized that he was naked, his tracksuit crumpled next to him. The ceiling began to warp and twist, and Santa dropped down through the void. He walked next to the cauldron, picked up the giant ladle, and began stirring the pot.
Santa stopped stirring the cauldron and walked over to where Mikey was cowering. Mikey noticed Santa had stopped smiling.
“That’s my name when I’m up there.” Santa’s voice dropped a few registers as he spoke, his jovial tone turning into a beastial growl. “But now, we’re down here, right where you belong.”
Santa’s jolly face began to drip off, and Mikey screamed. Mikey watched as as Santa’s hair turned dark black and his eyes coal-red. Horns began to sprout, pushing back his red hood, as his lips seemed to fall off. Santa’s teeth grew extended and sharp as a sickly, tongue fell from his mouth, lolling around like a worm.
Krampus stretched out his hand as one of the knives flew from its place above the sink into his hand. Mikey screamed again and didn’t stop for a painfully long time.
Santa looked up from his table to see Illy staring up at him. “Yes, what is it, Illy?”
“I was wondering – if you dislike Krampus’ methods of scaring children so much – why do you let him continue to do that? Any one of us elves could easily take over the cooking duties given proper training.”
Santa smiled his jolly grin. “Illy, as distasteful as it is, Krampus’ methods do wonders to make sure children are behaving. After all, he only kidnaps children who are so twisted and evil that they’re beyond redemption.”
“Beyond redemption? But Santa, don’t you take all of those children back to their parents after their fear of Krampus has inspired a new way of living?”
“Of course, good Illy, of course. What I meant to say was that if Krampus never got involved, these children would never be able to stay on the true, righteous path we try to inspire with our gifts. For the hundreds of children who might be encouraged to be kind and generous through positive encouragement, there are always a few who must be encouraged to curb their wicked ways through fear. It is not the way I wish the world to be, but how it is. Just think as Krampus as, well, someone who shares the same beliefs that I do, but just acts upon them in a different way.”
“I see. But, what about Mikey? Was he really that bad?”
“To be honest, Mikey was not a good child. He bullied others and tormented many of his classmates. He had zero empathy for anyone but himself, and he was a manipulative, cruel little boy.”
“But, he seemed so nice.” Illy’s face contorted as he tried to reconcile the new information.
“Illy, you haven’t been out there to see the human world, but when they get in trouble, bullies are just like any other child. They cry, plead for help, rely on the kindness of strangers – but once they get an ounce of power, they start taking and taking and their greed and need for power consumes them.”
Santa walked over to Illy and put his hand on the elf’s shoulder. “I know your mind is troubled, Illy, but go have another bowl of the stew, and think not of Krampus and his unsavory methods or the evils of the world. Go eat up, son, and let the meat give you the strength to continue on the righteous path. Just focus on all of the good children you’re helping through your work.”
“Thank you, sir. I appreciate your time and guidance” With that, Illy turned and walked back and filled his bowl with another serving of stew.