OH DEAR, Death said, as he tried to untangle himself while the Hogfather's sleigh started to plummet from the sky over the rooftops of Ankh-Morpork.
"More than bloody 'Oh Dear', Master!" Albert shouted as he hauled on the reins to try and stop Tusker from leading them into a direct impact with the ground this time. "More like bony reindeer!"
IT IS MOST INCONSIDERATE OF THEM, Death disapproved. HOW WILL WE ENSURE THE HOGFATHER CONTINUES TO EXIST IF WE ARE SUBJECT TO COLLISION?
Walking through walls made collisions an alien concept to Death. If he'd had any truck with human emotions, no doubt he would have been affronted but as it was he faced the situation with mild irritation. The source of their surprising interruption was groaning and sitting up, trying to pull himself out of the Hogfather's sack, a candy cane hooked rakishly out of one eye socket as he unfolded.
"What's this? What's this?" Jack exclaimed. "You simply must not stop me. I must give the Sandy Claws a rest and deliver all these presents in one night!"
Around his gleaming bone head circled a flapping wisp of a ghost dog with a glowing nose that barked frantically as they spiralled out of control, bone reindeer flailing helplessly in castanet panic, and enormous boars snorting and snuffling and making deep 'Hnnngh!' noises of distress.
Death snapped his fingers and time stopped, or at least they stopped plummeting to the ground while duration continued.
IT WOULD APPEAR THEAT WE HAVE HAD AN UNFORTUNATE CONFLUENCE OF EVENTS.
"What, again?" Albert snuck a nip of sherry now they had righted themselves. "Didn't we just have one of those, Master?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Jack replied still gripping on tightly to his red and white fur trimmed hat. "Does this usually happen? I admit it is my first time organising Christmas, but I'm absolutely sure we have done a marvellous job. I didn't factor in any crashes though, so we really must get on. "
I BELIEVE THAT MIGHT BE A PROBLEM, Death considered, looking off to the left. AS WE APPEAR TO HAVE TORN A HOLE IN REALITY.
"We have? But how?" Jack Skellington looked around in amazement, and spotted the rather unpleasant looking tear that somehow seemed to have grown a shimmering curved wall encapsulating them all in a bubble like sphere. "Oh dear. I don't remember that being a part of any of the reading I did on Christmas. Although it looks a little like a bauble."
"Begging your pardon, sir," Albert began, waving his hip flask around. "What is this 'Christmas'?"
Immediately, the other skeleton became animated, his long limbs gesticulating in excited flowing arcs of explanation. "Oh it is something wonderful! There are colours and lights, there are these things called presents that people give. There are trees and.... Oh, they hang stockings up! I know, I know isn't it incredible? There's excitement and anticipation and people enjoy seeing you. Can you believe it? They leave out drinks..."
Albert glanced at the sherry he was tippling.
"...And some sort of pie."
Death looked at the remains of the pork pie that had become unfortunately squashed in the collision. It had probably improved it.
"You're talking about Hogswatch then, sir." Albert belched a little and was wisely polite to another seven-foot skeleton.
"No, no it's Christmas!" Jack exclaimed. "With Sandy Claws dressed in red and white suit..."
Death looked down at himself, dressed in his borrowed red and white suit. AH. I BELIEVE I SEE THE PROBLEM.
"The problem is that he's calling himself Sandy Claws instead of the Hogfather, Master," Albert said pragmatically.
I THINK, ALBERT, THAT HE IS AS MUCH SANDY CLAWS AS I AM THE HOGFATHER, Death pointed out, shifting the cushion up his robe awkwardly.
"Begging your pardon, Master, but what are the odds that two seven-foot high anthropomorphic skeletons would take it in their skulls to impersonate a seasonal demi-god at the same time?" Albert asked rhetorically.
"Ohhh, about a million to one," Jack offered helpfully as Zero flitted around, trying to help the bone reindeer sort themselves out.
OH, DEAR, Death said again as Albert groaned.
"What is it?" Jack asked, looking between them both.
"Every student wizard knows million to one shots come up nine times out of ten," Albert explained. "Looks like a bit of resonance in the old Trousers of Time. It happens doesn't it Master?"
ALL TOO FREQUENTLY, Death had to agree. His alternate universe counterpart was looking visibly confused, and it was interesting to see a version of himself that had such emotional depth.
"Now wait. I admit I am Jack Skellington, and they call me the Pumpkin King, you know," he stated. "But I don't remember anything about Trousers, and why would anything to do with Time bring me somewhere different?"
"THIS IS THE SPECIAL TIME BEHIND NORMAL TIME WHERE THE HOGFATHER EXISTS. WHERE HE CAN DELIVER PRESENTS TO EVERYONE IN ONE NIGHT, Death answered. TO COME HERE IS TO BE THE HOGFATHER OR YOUR SANDY CLAWS.
"Oh." Jack stopped still, completely still, the gleaming white of his skill glittering with frost under the drooping hat. "I did it. Could it be I got my wish? I really did it. For a moment, I... felt it all come together. The Universe recognised ME as Sandy Claws? Oh. That was all I wanted, not to feel so lonely and empty inside. To be good at something more than who I always have been, to have people want to see me, rather than recoil in fear and horror. "
He clutched at the sack and Death saw Albert shoot him a sideways glance and clear his throat in a meaningful fashion.
I BELIEVE I UNDERSTAND, he murmured in a softer tone, and he knew from Albert's insistent gaze that perhaps he was meant to say something else. Something about Duty and not being able to change whom you were. There were times when it was unfortunate he was not astute in the ways of reading human intent.
"Master..." Albert began warningly.
ALL THINGS STRIVE, ALBERT, Death said, meeting the gaze of Jack Skellington and then nodded at each other. It was very infrequently that he could say that there was a sense of kinship or understanding, but something in the marrow of his bones resonated. And here was someone who might just have enough humanity to make it work.
"I need to get back. There are children waiting for Christmas to come!" Jack exclaimed. His sledge was now untangled and the bony reindeer were looking ready to continue. He stood up ready to step across the gap with his spindly legs.
THAT MIGHT PRESENT A PROBLEM.
"Surely not." Jack's answer was blithe. "Zero will just lead us back through that tear over there and as sure as werewolves howl at the moon we'll be back delivering presents as soon as you can say Jack the Pumpkin King!"
"See, that's a rip to the outside of reality," Albert explained, gesturing randomly towards the tear in the sky that made the eyes ache to look at it. "Bit of a bugger really. If I didn't know better, I'd say we've been wrapped up in a little pocket of time and space, like a pearl."
WE ARE NOT NOTICEABLY SPHERICAL, ALBERT. NOT EVEN WITH THE CUSHION.
"Nah, nah, Master, we've irritated the area and it's built like a shell around us." Albert lit up a dog-eared cigarette. "We're stuck."
IT IS INDEED A CONUNDRUM.
"Oh no! Christmas will be ruined!" Jack exclaimed, a little melodramatically in Death's opinion. "No presents, no shining baubles, no happy smiles, no...."
This was indeed serious. It was typical of the fact that whenever he was trying to sort something out, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Perhaps this Jack Skellington did not know the stakes as he did. If the Hogfather were not saved, if Hogswatch passed without belief in the Hogfather, then the sun would not rise. Perhaps he would understand if it were explained to him. All they needed was for someone to come across this pocket universe and pop it and all would right itself again, erasing this aberration in events but until then, there was nothing else they could do except talk.
TELL ME JACK SKELLINGTON, WHAT DO YOU KNOW OF HOW YOUR SANDY CLAWS BEGAN?
"Bugger." Lu-Tze rolled some tobacco absently as he leaned on his broom.
"As you so aptly put it," the newly reincarnated Abbot of the History Monks said while waving the brightly colour play drum around. "...wanna Bittit! Wanna wanna... It is a most unfortunate development, Sweeper."
"Bad enough the Time we have nowadays is so shoddy. It's never been the same since the Glass Clock," Lu-Tze muttered.
"That was not your fault, Sweeper," the Abbot replied while pausing to chew on the rim of the drum. "I had the others sent away because someone has to arrange to release Death and patch up this problem. WANNA PONY!"
"Not sure why you asked me, your reverence." Lu-Tze held up the roll. "Everyone knows you can't slice time into alternate realities."
The Abbott blew a wet burbly raspberry which aptly (if wetly) communicated his disagreement. "I know there is a core of truth to Rule One. I know the secret of Deja fu."
That did surprise the Sweeper. "Is it not written, Ooo you're so sharp, one day you'll cut yourself?"
"Deja-fu will allow you to slice time into a different reality, as you slice into a reality where you have already struck and leak the effects of the blows back BEFORE you have thrown them." The Abbot smiled smugly and banged the drum aimlessly with his reincarnated baby hands. "Therefore, Sweeper, you will go into the time where they are and you will find the one with the means to pierce the walls of that self contained universe. Wee-wee, wee-wee!"
"I'll just fetch my broom." Lu-Tze picked it up. "Shame I won't remember being a hero. Might have been worth a few extra momos in my morning thungpas. "
And making it look easy, he turned and sliced his way into the time behind time.
"Oh." NOW WHAT? Susan was exasperated and more than a little surprised to find the leaden tones of Death overlaying her own even if she was moving through the time behind time. "I have to concentrate not to talk..." THE TALK.
Knowing her luck, she would be looking more skeletal than usual as well. It was a diet that would be the envy of her friends, if she didn't find most people too stupidly irritating to spend time with. "He's slipping again," she declared and the Death of Rats shrugged.
EEK. SQUEAK EEK, he piped, which Susan thought was just stating the obvious.
"The Rat says dressing up as the Hogfather gave that away already," the Raven commented
"Yes, well, obviously," Susan frowned, not needing a translation. I DIDN'T EVEN WANT... "Want to get involved and now this is happening to me? Just one normal week, is that so much to ask?"
SQUEAK! The Grim Squeaker gesticulated
"The Rat says we seem to be having some sort of Quantum," the Raven pecked enthusiastically at a ball in the gutter. "You know, rips in the Pants of the Trousers of Time sorta thing. The Universe's arse hanging out, that sorta thing."
"And how did he come to that conclusion?" Susan asked.
The skeletal Rat gestured with his miniature scythe.
"Generally the influx of creatures into our Time here where they don't belong is giving it away."
Working as a Governess had accustomed Susan to many horrible sights, and as such the group of people... creatures appearing out of nowhere into the time behind time were pretty low on her own personal scale which started with having a seven-foot anthropomorphic skeletal representation of Death as a family member. Lurching undead were practically commonplace in Ankh Morpork nowadays, and usually less good looking than the zombie girl. A night at Biers would see pretty much the clientele she was seeing wandering around blinking through the frozen moment.
"You think they have spare eyeballs?" the Raven asked hopefully.
"It's not polite to ask stranger for eyeballs at a first meeting," Susan replied automatically and amended it with, "See if they offer first and say thank you if they do."
SQUEAK, Death of Rats declared, shaking his cowled head.
"Excuse me!" The zombie girl was very neatly retying her arm with what seemed to be practised ease as she walked towards her. "Have you seen a very tall skeleton? He might be wearing a red and white suit?"
"You're looking for Death?" Susan was surprised.
"No, I'm looking for Jack!" the patchwork girl proclaimed. "We all are."
"Jack's not Death," elucidated one of the witches, sounding offended at the thought. "He is the Pumpkin King!"
"A least until he started wanting to be the Sandy Claws," the bogeyman with all of the snakeheads offered in a deep rumbling voice. "He hasn't wanted to strike terror into people for a while, not since he wanted to deliver these... presents, Sally."
Sally, well. That sounded like an oddly sensible name. Susan found herself approving, as there was no reason to go around with overly dramatic names when it wasn't necessary. On the other hand, this did not sound promising.
"So let me get this straight, you have arrived here from..."
"Halloween Town!" chorused the assembled frights, ghouls, undeads and creatures of the night.
"Looking for a seven-foot animated skeleton called Jack the Pumpkin King, who was taken to dressing up as the Hogfather... uh, Sandy Claws? And wanting to give out presents?" Susan slowly and deliberately spoke in the tone of voice she used on Gawain and Twyla when they were trying to explain some insane childhood fantasy.
"But of cooourse." The bloodsucker leaning forward seemed a little overdone, but what bloodsucker didn't? He didn't look like he was a Black Ribboner either, though he talked with a strangely Uberwald accent. Susan considered that a ridiculous affectation, almost as bad as Twyla's ingratiatingly cute lisp. It wasn't as if the shape of the teeth was responsible.
"Ordinarily, I would say you were crazy if I wasn't also looking for a seven-foot skeleton dressed in a red and white outfit on a flying sleigh," Susan murmured. "Only, the one I'm looking for is Death."
"Death's a myth." The bogyman seemed insistent, crossing wildly sized limbs somewhere over his chest. Thereabouts.
"So you've seen him, then?" Sally took another step forward, looking hopeful. Bogeymen. Always thinking they could push their luck. Susan raised an eyebrow wondering if the towel trick would work as well on Bogeymen from Halloween Town as it did here. If not the poker was reliable enough. There were few monsters that the poker couldn't see off, one way or another.
"Death? Yes. Your Pumpkin King? No," Susan said.
SQUEAK, opined Death of Rats sagely.
"The Rat says, 'What are the odds?'," translated the Raven, watching a potentially loose eyeball with all his attention.
"A million to one." The bloodsucker shrugged, flaring his batwing cape with completely unnecessary melodrama in Susan's opinion.
"Oh fantastic," Susan muttered under her breath.
It was a curiously eternal moment trapped inside the sealed off bubble universe, rather like being endlessly trapped on the inside of a giant shiny Christmas bauble, with it shimmering in all sorts of colours all around the floating now untangled sleighs and their drivers. Zero floated aimlessly near the hole that apparently led outside reality until the strange human who seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of alcohol in hip flask said, "You ought to keep that dog of yours on a lead. He's going to get sucked in if you're not careful."
"Sucked in where?" Jack absently patted his hip, and Zero floated idly down to his side, barking once. He was a good and faithful ghost dog. Without his glowing nose, Jack's dreams would have fallen at the first hurdle and he would never have taken to the skies as Sandy Claws.
OUTSIDE. THE DUNGEON DIMENSIONS. Death adjusted the cushion up his robe. I THINK, ALBERT, WE MIGHT HAVE TO TIE THIS ON TO MY RIBS.
"What's in there?" It didn't sound very bad at all. Dungeons were familiar places, almost a grim comfort in Halloween Town.
"Things," Albert answered shortly, giving Jack a penetrating look, obviously hearing his relaxed attitude in his expression somehow. "Looking for a bit of reality. Places like where you come from, sir, and here, are pretty much on the edge of reality, you know? Don't take much to put a hole through at the best of times let alone now." He sniffed, and stifled a belch. "They'd suck you dry. The Master might make it, but the rest of us..." He shrugged a little.
"I am the Pumpkin King, you know." Jack felt he needed to point that out. He felt a little hypocritical, as he normally shied away from recognition, but now that he had nothing he found that he felt more affronted than anything.
"Beggin' your pardon, sir," Albert replied. "But around here pumpkins are not known for being particularly terrifying."
That was terrible! How could they not have a Pumpkin King? How did Halloween even happen? How did the scares get done when they should? Jack was about to protest when he realised they didn't even seem to know what Halloween was.
"Oh." He was quiet for a moment, eyeing the top of the bubble, and then below towards their feet. "This is the other side of the dangerousness that is up, then."
IF YOU CHOOSE TO FALL, Death responded. THERE IS ALWAYS A CHOICE, LIKE THE ONE YOU MADE TO TAKE THE PLACE OF YOUR SANDY CLAWS.
"It was something in the air of the place. I wanted to feel like that." He did feel like that, though the suspense of waiting was making him antsy now; there were so many children who were waiting on him!
There was a long pause and Albert cleared his throat. "This is where you say, but Duty is important, Master," he prompted.
Death looked at the Hogfather's sack, brimming over with presents, the gleam of infinity blue bright in the dark sockets.
DUTY, OF COURSE, IS EVERYHING, he spoke finally. IT IS BRED INTO YOUR BONES, JACK SKELLINGTON. SOMETIMES THE PRICE FOR BEING THE BEST AT SOMETHING IS HAVING TO BE THE BEST.
"It's so very tiring." He tilted his head a little, fingers dropped to caress the red of Zero's nose. "Every year, bigger and bigger scares."
He felt gloomy, and not in the good way, and now his counterpart looked silent and downcast as well. He obviously understood what it was like to have so much pressure and yet to find it more hollow than a scraped out pumpkin. Was it so much to ask? A little difference, a let up from the pressure? He sighed heavily again.
"'Ere now." Albert leaned back against the sack. "Fact is, I don't know much about this Halloween but I do know about old gods doing new jobs. The Hogfather -- your Sandy Claws -- started out in blood. Most of the old stories do. Blood on the snow, sun comes up and that's a bloody good gift to everyone right there. Point is, it changed. Presents ain't just the new day any more, sacrifices are pork pies and sherry. You see what I'm getting at?"
"I don't remember pork pies." His mouth twitched and twisted a little, and then he rocked back on his heels. "Could we burst out of this bubble and back to where we were?"
NO, Death answered. WE WOULD END UP OUTSIDE. THERE IS A TWIST IN THE TROUSERS OF TIME, AND THERE IS A STRONG POSSIBILITY WE WOULD BE LOST.
"You never want to get lost in any type of trousers," Albert affirmed sagely. "'Fraid we're stuck here. Not to worry, the Master here specifically told his granddaughter not to interfere."
"I'm sorry, how will that help us?" Jack was eyeing the floor again, and the fact that there was nothing down there.
"Reverse Headology that is." Albert nodded. "Tell someone not to do something and it's the first thingy they want to do."
"Oh, then we should be rescued soon." He folded his hands behind his back. "I hope."
IF YOU KNEW MY GRANDAUGHER, YOU WOULD NOT EVEN BOTHER TO GET COMFORTABLE.
This place was very unfamiliar and strange compared to Halloween Town, though there was a noxious smell drifting from the semi-solid putrid river that was almost homey. Sally still felt a little out of her depth but she wasn't going to let that stop her from finding Jack. He was in trouble; the omens had practically written her an ironclad promise on that front. Fortunately she didn't have to do much sneaking around because this woman Susan seemed to automatically assume authority. She was happy with that. Sally much preferred staying out of the limelight and lurking secretly.
"Right, " the woman stated severely. "So we've established that your Jack and my Grandfather were doing very similar crazy things involving dressing up in red and white clothes, and giving presents, correct?"
"Yes." And Sally was certainly willing to agree that it was crazy, because Jack was the Pumpkin King and that was what he was best at. He was the scariest, most thoughtful of all the Nightmares and it seemed strange that he felt so empty when he was just so talented and wonderful.
"And that you have all ended up here rather than in this Halloween Town," Susan continued, her white streaked hair, curling itself into a very severe bun. Sally wished her hair would do that. It had a tendency to whip around wildly.
"It's all that quantum," Quoth the raven alleged. "I told you, there's probably been a rip because the two of them were messing around with big focuses of belief and you know they make reality a pretty thin sorta thing. Put amateurs in charge and well... just asking for it.
SQUEAK, spoke the Death of Rats in agreement.
"How do we find them?" Sally looked over her shoulder as if hoping to suddenly see him there, and then back to Susan and her self-styling hair.
"Well, that's a problem," Susan admitted. "We're in a special form of time here, and the normal rules don't apply."
Not that Sally was sure she understood what the normal rules were because everything was so different here. "I'm not sure how time and finding them interact?"
"Basically anything that is moving or shifting in colour might be a clue. We need to look around. He was last around here so there might be some sign of them. Now everyone spread out and start looking for anything unusual." She gestured and the denizens of Halloween Town started slithering, stalking and sidling their way down streets as a macabre search party.
Moving or shifting in colour. Something, anything, moving and shifting colours. Sally started to look, peering hard at the air around them, the world around them. How was she to look for what was normal when she had never been there before?
And then she saw the small brightly coloured bubble float past. "Uh, bubbles?"
No one seemed hear her, which was about par for the course, so she followed it around the corner as everyone else started enthusiastically searching as well. The bubble bobbed around but it couldn't possibly have Jack in it. It was far too small. She followed, tottering gracefully further down an alleyway and around a corner. She hesitated a little and caught sight of a brief flash of saffron coloured... well almost pumpkin coloured cloth!
"Wait! Who is that?" she called out. "Hello?"
A short elderly looking monk with a wisp of white hair on his head stepped out into view. "Well, this is embarrassing. I thought you'd do a bit more lurching. I didn't think you'd catch up that quickly."
"I'm looking for Jack Skellington. Susan, the..." Sally pointed back the way she'd come, "Told us to look for things that might lead to them. Jack and her grandfather."
"Wellll.... I was trying to lead you to the whole big bubble, but I've ruined my cover." Lu-Tze leaned on his broom looking unconcerned. "I'll probably get another reprimand, but... eh." He shrugged. "There's a lot of you in a time where you don't belong. The Universe gets a bit tetchy about that sometimes." He shrugged a little watching her carefully.
"All I want to do is find Jack and get him home," Sally explained. "There was a terrible omen for this. I knew it was a bad idea him replacing Santa…. uh, the same as your Hogfather?"
Lu-Tze sucked air through his teeth, "Tch, you know that sort of thing? Usually goes very wrong. Destiny's a bit of a bugger, truth be told. Cosmic harmony doesn't come into it. Let me show you the way. Not The Way of Mrs. Cosmopolite, just the way to the bubble of time. You'll need something capable of piercing time, though."
Sally thought a moment. "Like love?" she asked.
The History Monk paused for a moment and then offered carefully, "Well, I was thinking that really sharp sword that this Susan is carrying around, or that scythe the rat skeleton has might do it, but broadly speaking you are right," Lu-Tze considered. "And congratulations on being the zombie girl most likely to star in a romance novel. In love, eh?"
"Oh, no. No. Jack doesn't even know that I like him," Sally answered, picking at a loose stitch fretfully.
"Is it not written, there's none so blind as those who will not see?" Lu-Tze thought for a moment. "See, skeleton or not, sounds like he has feelings, and if he has feelings then sooner or later they are going to pop up. You've just got to find a way to make that happen."
Sally nodded and her arm fell off, which was a little embarrassing, but she managed to pull the knots tight this time. "I will, oh I will, if he just looks my way."
"If in doubt, leave bits of you lying about to get his attention," Lu-Tze declared pragmatically. "Right, if you follow over here the big bubble is floating just over Sator Square."
"I'm afraid I don't know where that is," Sally confessed.
"It's... well, it's over there." Lu-Tze waved a hand. "Now, don't go telling anyone you've seen me or anything."
"Not even Susan?" Sally asked.
"Especially not her," Lu-Tze answered. "Off you go, and just tell them to pop the damn thing rather than messing around with it."
"Thank you," Sally expressed gratefully. "Thank you for that. Is there anything I can do to help you?"
"Well," Lu-Tze mused. "On the off chance when this all resets you might remember something, try and remember Rule one."
"Rule one? " Sally found herself asking. "What's that?"
"Do not act incautiously when confronting little bald wrinkly smiling men. It's a good rule. One of the best." Lu-Tze replied. "And if it can go multi-dimensional, well that's a damn good fillip for it right there."
Sally didn't really see what it was about but she nodded. "I will try."
"Good. Your bubble awaits." Lu-Tze gestured to a shimmering sphere hanging in the sky over the square ahead of them "It's all yours. And you never saw me."
"Oka..." He had vanished somehow, and Sally was left looking up at the rainbow pearlescence hanging in the sky. "Hello? Everyone? Over here?" She spotted two familiar faces -- on one body. "Hello? Mr. Mayor, do you have your megaphone?"
"Why, yes, of course!" He was all smiles right now. "Here we go!"
"Thank you." She cleared her throat and lifted the object to her lips. "EVERYONE, I'VE FOUND THEM!"
Surely from this point it would be easy.
They stared at the enormous bubble that looked uncannily like one of Twyla's paintings of fairy wings where everyone knew they were vicious little devils. Well, Susan knew, and anyone with common sense should work out that anything that small wasn't going to be all gossamer fragility. Just every now and then she'd like to see one of these anomalies happen quietly and invisible. It seemed altogether too obvious.
SQUEAK, stated the Death of Rats.
"The Rat says it looks like a giant pearl," Quoth the Raven interpreted. "I think it looks like the biggest eyeball in the world!" He sounded in awe.
"Things that are spherical are not automatically eyeballs, and I wouldn't suggest pecking at it somehow," Susan frowned.
"We should open it up." The zombie girl, Sally, seemed very certain. "Jack and your grandfather are in there, and while they are Christmas and Halloween are both in trouble and Hog... Hogswatch?"
"Yes, well, the world is full of people who met my grandfather rather rapidly because they saw something they didn't understand and did the equivalent of poking it with a stick." It was pretty much a reflection on human nature. Notices with 'Do not Touch!', things that needed poking with a stick, and random meddling were pretty much unavoidable. "I'm not sure how you go about getting into the thing and what might happen."
"Welllll..." Quoth considered. "If you're talking about quantum, it's like that thing with the cats. Where a cat locked in a box could be alive or dead or...."
"...bloody furious," Susan added dryly. "Guess where I am on that spectrum?"
SQUEAK. The Rat gestured towards it.
"The rat says as we are in the Hogfather's time, when they come out, everyone will revert back to where they started. This will not have happened," the Raven explained. "We probably won't remember it either. Maybe a lingering feeling or something."
"That's a small mercy," Susan decided. "Now how do we get into it?"
"Surely we just need to pop the bubble," Sally offered a little timidly. "Can't we do that?"
"What with exactly? You have a super sharp blade capable of piercing a bubble of space and time?" Susan asked rhetorically.
The pale-faced woman looked at her. "No, but you do, don't you?" she asked, gesturing with her hand to the Rat and his Scythe.
It was a good point, quite astute. It would be easy enough to get the Rat up there -- one good over-arm throw and problem solved. Her gym mistress at the Quirm academy would have been proud.
"Good point. Come here."
SQUEAK! EEK SQUEAK!
She had to lunge as Death of Rats tried to scuttle past, and she caught him by a bony tail. "Ready to save Hogswatch and Christmas?" she asked, peering at him. The Rat wriggled gesturing with his scythe rudely as Susan grasped him and lined up on the bubble of Time. "Remember, just pierce it with your scythe."
Quoth croaked, a little embarrassed. "You know, I could just... fly him up there?"
"Oh, no." Susan gave a faint smile as she prepared to throw. "This is much more fun."
It would teach him to have the most annoying snigger in the world. She wound up and let go.
"So tell me again about how your Hogfather went from blood and sacrifice to being beloved by children," Jack Skellington asked again as Zero drifted around and tried to ghost-gnaw his leg.
IT IS WHAT GODS DO. Death stared at the shimmering pearlescence of their prison.
"Those that don't want to become small gods and end up in the desert giving temptations to complete nutters," Albert explained. "See it's this thing. Changes. Humans adapt, stories have a life of their own. It's the narrativium. The strongest ones survive. Gods need to tap in belief. Given a choice between believing in something that would scare the pants off of you and possibly kill you or someone coming and giving presents... you don't have to be supernatural to figure that out."
"So, this is not just about Christmas?" Jack persisted.
NO. DEMI-GODS NEED TO FIND HOW TO GET BELIEF. SO THEY CHANGE WTH BELIEF, WITH TIME.
"So I could conceivably change Halloween?" Jack Skellington asked hopefully. "Just a little? Perhaps... perhaps there could be presents as well as scares? People could enjoy being scared a little?"
IT IS POSSIBLE, Death answered, thinking of some of the gifts the children had been asking for Christmas. CHANGING SOMETHING IS NOT FORBIDDEN.
"Oh, the things I could do!" Jack leapt up enthusiastically from the sleigh. "I could have ghoulish decorations, costumes galore. There could be things made, and treats that made the tricks worthwhile."
"Take less to scare them when they think they are safe like that, too." Albert nodded sagely.
"I must get back immediately. Oh, Christmas is wonderful," Jack alleged. "But, Halloween is mine! And if I can give it that heart, well... I would be very happy indeed."
INDEED, Death commented, knowing he at least had his Duty to return to. Albert was right, he was reluctant but he would not be found lacking.
"Will I remember this?" Jack asked with an expression of horror. "What if I do not?"
"Nah, we probably will. No one else will." Albert tilted his head. "'Ere, do you hear something? Something high pitched?"
"Now you come to mention it..." Jack had to raise his voice as it became louder.
AH. IT HAS BEEN NICE TO MEET YOU JACK SKELLINGTON. REMEMBER, SOMETIME YOU HAVE TO BE THE BEST AS THE PRICE FOR BEING THE BEST.
Death spoke over the noise and nodded to him just as the noise hit its crescendo and then....
Afterwards, when the actinic brightness had faded away, and the sensation of the Universe belching its inside out had finished lingering as they soared through the sky back on course, Albert spoke up. "You know, Master, that was pretty quick even by Miss Susan's standards."
I KNOW. He glanced down at the heavy looking life timer that appeared in his hand with the engraved name of Lu-Tze and there was a flare of vivid blue in his eye-sockets. I BELIEVE THEY HAD A LITTLE HELP.
"You think that other one, Jack, will remember?" his servant asked as they headed towards the next snow covered roof.
WE REMEMBER IN OUR BONES. Death paused a moment. BESIDES HE WAS BETTER AT THE HO, HO, HO. THAT IS A TALENT THAT NEEDS TO FIND A WAY. BACK TO BUSINESS, ALBERT.
"Right you are, Master. You've got the list?"
I HAVE CHECKED IT TWICE. ONCE SURELY WOULD HAVE BEEN SUFFICIENT, AS I SAID BEFORE.
"Tradition, Master," Albert declared. "Like the traditional drinking of brandy and eating of the pies. Gotta be done."
SO YOU HAVE SAID. COME, ALBERT, LET'S SAVE HOGSWATCH. Death looked out at the sparkling frosted snow covered houses, the stars frozen in that moment like diamond dust on black velvet and picked up the Hogfather's sack.
HO, HO, HO!