Before going into Midnight Mass at St. Agnes across the street, Manny held back seven children on the homeless shelter’s front walkway for a surprise he’d planned. The piny juniper fragrance from the bushes around the church steps vitalized the crisp air.
Manny shushed the children gathered around him. “Listen! Listen!”
Bells jingled down the road getting louder.
“It’s him! It’s him!”
A dim light grew, and soon a man in a red suit could be seen on a sleigh coming down the street.
A torrent of fire burst in front of the sleigh, swirling in mad ribbons of red and black, climbing up into a pillar of flame, then surrounding the sled, the indistinct silhouette of a man standing in the fire, hands up and spread wide. The attack terrified Manny for the kids’ safety. The form snapped his arm straight toward the church across the road, and a wall of fire rose from the ground cutting it off.
Manny herded the children back toward the homeless shelter, shielding them with his body, when his old friend Garbol’s beat-up Pinto came up the road from the other direction, fishtailing to a stop in front of the shelter. The wizard busted out of the car, a Breaking Benjamin T-shirt under his open parka and a pool stick in his hand. He pointed at Manny. “Keep everyone outside.” He sprinted toward the conflagration.
“Kereterick!” His voice boomed over the roar of the fire. “Let him go!” In full stride, he pulled back his pool stick like a spear and flung it toward the thrashing column. The flame parted as it went through, opening a view to the man in the Santa suit, and the stick clattered into the sleigh.
The Santa picked up the stick and held it up, again parting the flame. He hopped out, and Garbol leapt toward him, into the flame, taking the stick from him and pulling him out of the fire, his arm around the man’s shoulder, talking to him as he pushed him toward Manny and the kids.
“That man saved Santa,” said Theo, a seven year old from Philly.
“The presents are in the fire,” cried Miguel. “Christmas will be ruined.”
“Manny, I’m scared,” said Maria. “Let’s go inside.”
“The wizard is hear to protect us,” said Manny. “We have to do as he says, so we stay out here.” Manny projected a confidence far greater than he felt. “He’ll save Christmas for us.”
Garbol bellowed. “Give up the presents, you thief.” He swatted his pool stick at the warlock, enraging him so that he burst the flame higher. The wall of flame pulled back into the column as it consumed them both. Garbol spun his stick, and it made a bubble within the inferno, keeping the flame off him. “Give them up, Kereterick.”
Kereterick laughed. “The ones on top are already melted.”
“I won’t let you spoil their Christmas.”
The Santa reached Manny and the kids, gasped, and blurted, “Into the church. Hurry.”
“Come on, children,” said Manny. “Hands!” They linked together in a chain, and he pulled them along to the church door. The Santa beat him there, and opened it to let the children in.
Manny turned around to watch the wizard. He seemed to push a barrier of shimmering air that struggled against the press of the flaming column.
“C’mon,” said the Santa.
“Someone’s got to help him,” said Manny.
“He’s a wizard. He can take care of himself.”
Garbol slid his feet back a little at a time, buffeted by the firestorm’s roiling force.
“He’s flagging,” muttered Manny. He bent back a stem on a juniper bush and broke a piece off, then pushed past Santa into the vestibule, stepping just into the apse to dip the branch into the holy water. The children had moved up toward the altar, into a pew, kneeling backwards to peer over at him.
Manny took the wet branch and ducked back outside, brisk strides taking him up behind Garbol. Burning hot air rippled over his skin as he came up behind the wizard and flung the branch at the warlock. The force visibly dissipated, and Garbol thrust his pool stick forward, then yelled in triumph. The blaze exploded back toward the sleigh, sending the vessel into the air and onto its side, suddenly dying out to a few flickers in the street.
The warlock stood his ground and glared, smoke rising from his blackened garb. He threw back his head and laughed. “You couldn’t save them. The presents are gone, and Christmas is done.”
“This is why, no matter how much your kind wins, you will still lose in the end,” said Garbol. “Gifts won’t secure the children’s souls, but mass will.” He circled the cue stick like a sword. “Even though you know that, you can’t help yourself. You close in on the material, while the wise take the children to encounter God.”
The warlock let out a nervous laugh. “You were never going for the gifts.”
Manny chuckled. “You got him to let the wall down and allow us into St. Agnes.”
“Yep. And Kereterick can’t enter a church that houses the Eucharist.”
“You should be proud,” said the warlock. “But material will win many of their—”
Garbol flipped his pool stick and swung it at Kereterick, landing a blow on his temple. The warlock fell to the ground unconscious.
“Not today, you won’t.”
Manny grinned and nodded.
“Merry Christmas, Manny. Shouldn’t you be getting to mass now?”