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A Gift For Santa

Down But Not Out

Ameh continued to storm from a chair across the room. "She's either killed Capri, or maybe she's made a double of her. Like what Tonya did with the double of NT she had magicked up, and there again, Miranda was in up to her lousy freaking neck!"

"Miranda's not a mage or a fairy, though, and I'm not sure vampires can make doubles. If they could, they wouldn't have to hunt and feed off real people now would they?" said Pippi.

"Miranda's not bright enough for that anyway." NT snarled.

"But she's always managed to latch on to people who were, or at least, capable of doing immense damage." said Pippi.

"this just isn't making sense!" Ameh pounded the arm rest.

"It does, if Capri plans to fake Miranda out." Pippi said slyly. "I've seen her do it before, not to quite this extreme, but, she has let an enemy think they had the upper hand, only to show them otherwise when the timing was right. That could explain her plea for forgiveness and about the cruelty we are enduring. At least - " she sighed, finally letting some emotion show, "That's what I'm hoping..."

"I hope you're right and she didn't just sicken and die because of me." Elsa said miserably.

Pippi went over and picked Elsa up, walking over to a chair and sitting down with her. "I'm positive whatever happened tonight has nothing to do with you, Elsa. If it is really her, the collapse could've been due to over-work, trying to get rid of bad magic, or whatever's out there that hurt Dingy and Criter, did the same to her - but until we know what's actually happened, you must never blame yourself and give that Miranda any sort of satisfaction...!" The sudden severe edge in Pippi's tone caused Elsa to shudder, and try hard to regain her composure. But Pippi held, rocked and comforted Elsa, who faired much better once her feelings of being somehow responsible for a death, finally abated.

Bez had taken the news with surprising calm, though once the initial shock wore off, she seemed restless. She wandered the house, trying to find a place where the sounds of others' mourning couldn't be heard.

She eventually wandered to the sun room, and was surprised to find Thande there.

"I'm one of the few people who can tell you're frowning." She said, walking to his side. "Do I even need to ask"

Thande shook his head. "There is something wrong."

"Well..."

"No. There is something wrong with the death. The moment one dies, the scent becomes one of death. Capri's scent is alive."

Bez frowned, baffled. "What?"

"She is not dead."

"Care to explain the body?"

"I cannot. But she is not dead."

Bez shook her head, wanting to believe Thande. "All right then, I won't put stock in it-not until I've got all the facts, at any rate."

Thande nodded. "Good."

Though Thande was sure Capri was alive, others were still coping with her death.

Outside, Miranda continued celebrating until she was suddenly startled by something charging toward her and growling.

It was a lone wolf. Its hair stood on end, large, sharp teeth bared, and it headbutted her, knocking her to the ground.

Miranda had always been terrified of most animals, and apparently hadn't overcome this fear even when she had become a vampire.

The wolf pinned her under it, threatening to go for her throat.

In a desperate effort, Miranda shoved it aside, scrambled to her feet, and took to her heels, faster than she had ever run in her life. The wolf gave chase, snarling at her the whole time, until Miranda got into some thick trees where it couldn't follow. By then, Miranda had been chased clear off Santa's property.

Panting with fright, she waited among the trees until the wolf finally wandered out of sight.

Then, she resigned herself to going back to her special secret lair, away from here, where she could snack on another of her followers who had outlived his usefulness to her.

The wolf wandered around the perimeter of Santa's complex and meandered through it, sniffing around as if hunting for something.

The result was a man hiding in a makeshift shelter he'd put together from clothes and branches.

The wolf broke into it and chased him clear off the property.

It continued skulking around until it scared away two more of the enemy that had been hiding out. It had caught one man and was shot at by another. The shot missed, but forced it to give up its prey, though didn't prevent it from continuing to pursue first one and then the other. The men had to dodge falling icicles, climb over and through trees, watch out for slippery places, and when possible, run like heck until they made it to a better shelter, somewhere off Santa's property.

The wolf, outmaneuvered by the desperately frightened humans and shot at by one of them, gave up, and wandered away.

About a minute later, a fluffy black kitten came out from its hiding place among some low branches.

It scampered skittishly around, getting closer and closer to Santa's house.

Finally, it sat just outside the door and meowed loudly and incessantly to be let in.

Jessica heard it and put the pot of potatoeson the cupboard. Dinner was almost ready, but she knew no one was in a hurry to eat.

She walked out to the entrance, saying something about it probably being one of the elves' pets.

She opened the door and looked down. "What are you doing out there all alone, hm?"

The kitten bounded in with one of these purrow sounds cats sometimes make.

"Want something to eat?" Jessica grinned at it, and made her way back to the kitchen.

The kitten did not follow her, but ducked into the closet.

A moment later, Jessica heard footsteps coming down the hall and into the kitchen and turned to see who it was. She was expecting perhaps Bez or Pippi.

She couldn't have been more astonished.

Capri!?"

"I'm so sorry about this, but I had to make Miranda think I died." Capri breathed in a rush, looking right at Jessica, but with the most sheepish expression on her face. "It'll probably get me on the Naughty List, and I wouldn't blame you guys for that.""

"Santa!" Jessica called. "Get in here!"

Capri trembled, looking down. She didn't see the reassuring smile Jessica sent her.

Santa was coming back anyway, from making one of his rounds. Now he came into the kitchen, and stared in surprise for a moment.

Capri looked timidly up at him, then lowered her gaze. "I'm really sorry about this and don't expect to stay on the Nice list after this - "

Santa approached Capri, and put a hand on her trembling shoulder. "Shhh, I'm sure there's a good explanation, and it is a relief to see that you are okay. But what happened to you?"

Capri swallowed and took a deep breath. "It's a long story."

"Come in, we're just getting dinner ready, and then you can tell us all what happened. Don't worry, Capri," Santa assured, "I know you weren't trying to play a mean trick on us." He patted her shoulder and headed for the front room, motioning Capri and Jessica to follow.

Capri sighed with relief and followed them in.

Exclamations and squeals of excited relief and surprise from various friends greeted her, and NT flung her arms around her in a tight hug. Santa ushered Capri to a chair.

"How about Criter and Dingy?" asked Capri, noticing they were absent. "Something happened to them earlier, will they be okay?"

"They are resting now, Matrix has done what he can, but I don't think we'll know much more for a while." Santa replied.

Elsa waited until there was an opportunity, then she walked up to Capri. "It's so good to have you back. I thought you'd sickened from complications from that drug and - you saved me back there." Elsa's chin quivered.

Capri leaned forward from her chair and picked Elsa up to embrace her. "No, no, you're not responsible for anything Miranda did. I'm sorry this was so hard on you."

But a day with very little to eat, hours of fighting off a bad drug, undoing hexes and everything else had taken its toll on Capri. Now seeing how much her friends cared, and Elsa's need for reassurance, Capri couldn't keep dry-eyed. Finally, she said, "I wouldn't even be here right now if it wasn't for you. You ran for help, and it came in time."

There were a few more minutes of reuniting, some crying, and recovering, and then Jessica and Santa set the dinner table, and all present gathered around to eat, and listen to Capri's story.

As soon as I was good for anything today, I went looking around this complex for hexes to undo. And I was sure were were more in the outbuildings. So much more than I'd been able to get around to yet, thanks to that blasted vamp and her wonder-drug." Capri said sarcastically.

There were some grins and chuckles at this, and Capri continued.

"I was almost finished de-hexing what could be found in this main building when I looked out a window and saw Thande coming up with Criter and Dingy, and that could've meant one thing, they must've been hurt out there. That decided me on something. If Miranda wants us injured and killed, I might as well feed her delusion that she has at least succeeded with me. If she thinks I'm dead, she'll get cocky and careless. Especially now with two others out of commission. I need to stay hidden from her until we are all in good condition and can take her down. She's got at least three drones working for her, I chased the lot of them off this property just before getting back here, so they won't have spied and seen our reunion."

"Great." said NT.

"How did you do that if they think you're dead?" Gretel asked.

"turned myself into a wolf and ran 'em off. Nearly made a meal of Miranda, too. I almost could have at that point, if there'd been any time." Capri scowled menacingly. "But I don't know if she's set anything under a timed hex that would go off as soon as she gets it in the neck. And I couldn't bear dragging this out for any of you, longer than necessary."

"So you were the little kitten I let in then," Jessica said with a smile.

Capri nodded.

"Cute little thing too."

Capri chuckled and grinned.

"And what about the body we all thought was you?" asked Santa.

"Ah, it was a broken toy I found lying on a table among some tools. Since I was going about here invisible anyway, it was no problem turning it into my likeness, having it walk outside, collapse in a drift where Miranda was sure to discover it,.""

"That had to be incredibly weird, though." said Gretel.

"Not as bad as being helpless with that fanged brat about to - " Capri shuddered.

NT scowled.

"G-day, mates!" an unfamiliar voice startled some of the guests sitting at the table. Apparently the speaker had come up very quietly or everyone was too deep within their own thoughts or conversation to hear any footsteps.

Santa looked around. "Oh, come on in!"

"Thank you."

A tall woman of medium build, with black hair and brown eyes stood in the entrance to the room. She was wearing a very pretty pink and white dress that made her look as if she should be part of a royal court.

"We're just having something to eat, please join us." Santa invited.

"Thanks." she replied, smiling, and making her way silently and gracefully to an empty seat next to Gretel.

"So, they let you come after all." Santa smiled.

"It wasn't easy convincing them, and then I was starting to wonder if it would happen at all." she replied, looking at Santa.

"Oh, I should introduce you." he said. "Everyone, this is - well, you'd know her best as the Sugar Plum Fairy," he explained.

"Wha-?" Bez exclaimed, nearly choking on the long swig of hot chocolate she had just taken. "Sugar Plum Fairy?" She gasped between coughs. "Santa I was expecting, but not the Sugar Plum Fairy!" At length, she cleared her throat. "Whew, sorry about that." She smiled somewhat sheepishly.

The Sugar Plum Fairy chuckled and smiled. "Just call me Diane."

"Did they get anyone to take your place at Nutcracker's court?"

"Carma Davis." the Sugar Plum Fairy replied.

"Ah," Santa smiled. "Good. That fairy will keep things jumping over there." Now, there are my new friends, and they've helped us out a lot since coming here." Santa introduced everyone, and explained to Diane the Sugar Plum Fairy what the situation was currently.

"Since this Miranda's such a drongo at anything but scheming up this evil,"

Diane's sentence was cut off by laughter, especially from NT and Bez.

The Sugar Plum Fairy grinned and continued, "It should be relatively easy for me to get her to think Dingy and Criter have died as well, and do some poking around out there. If you could just show me any pictures you have of them, it'll save my disturbing their rest."

"we appreciate this, Diane." Santa said.

The meal continued with a mix of hope and anxiety, and despite appearing so formal, the Sugar Plum Fairy proved very approachable and chatty. She discussed plans, chit-chatted and laughed with the others and eventually someone asked her how she found out about Santa's situation and why the Nutcracker sent her instead of coming himself.

"Hmm, bit of a long story," the Sugar Plum Fairy began, "and I wouldn't be surprised if Nutcracker shows up yet. It's pretty much just a matter of when it's possible."

"We're listening," Ameh said curiously.

"Well, back in November, Santa contacted the prince, who told the whole court about these bizarre incidents. Nutcracker actually sent a platoon of toys to the North Pole to try and fight this menace, but they never returned. He probably only let them go because at least with toys there was a chance they could all get fixed. With someone like me, it's a whole different thing, and Nutcracker is very protective of anyone he cares about. I repeatedly said I'd like to go, and it took me threatening to leave his court altogether, never to come back, before he finally agreed. Even then, he had conditions. I could come here, only if and when someone in this complex played or listened to - well - my song, basically."

"The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy?" Elsa asked.

"Right." Diane replied. "In the mean time, I had to try finding someone else to take my place at the court. Luckily Carma is a good friend, has nothing planned for the holidays, and she's got a mega sweet tooth - so she'll be much better suited than me. But she's as outspoken as I am about the flaws in the system over there. And she's got a pretty wicked temper when it gets lost." She grinned. "Yeah, I think they need her there to shake things up a bit. So this magic music linkage is why I couldn't text or call you beforehand. I didn't know when it would happen, but am glad it finally did. Nutcracker has been making preparations to come himself, but there are some royals over there who, let's just say, aren't making it easy to just leave. With Carma there now, any trouble will be nipped smartly in the bud."

"How can a kingdom made of candy and full of dolls and toys be flawed?" NT asked. "I'll bet it's wonderful over there, with hard candy steps, koolaid pools, marshmallow couches with cookie backs - "

The Sugar Plum Fairy laughed. "You wouldn't happen to be related to Carma, would you?"

NT grinned back with a soft laugh.

"It's not as great as you might think. Not when you have to spend so much time there. And - it is a kingdom, not a democracy. Not a well-run one, either. Nutcracker and Clara Marie are nice people, but Princess Pirlipat isn't and neither is her father, the real clout behind the Candy Kingdom as well as his own. Candy's an outgrowth of that one. But I'm rambling - my bad."

Nt giggled.

"So, you're probably sick of sweets?" Ameh asked.

"Just a bit."

Some people got the distinct feeling the Sugar Plum Fairy was understating the case.

"Well, I'd rather have too many sweets than blood, even one time."

Nt's juxtaposition of sweets against blood accomplished two things. First, it brought about a collective recoiling reaction from others, then brought the subject of Miranda back to the table.

"Ugh. Good point." Diane said in a quiet, low, mysterious tone. "by the way, do any of you know what sort of vampire she is?"

"A bratty, sadistic one." Ameh said.

"Yes, but I mean, do you know if she's like Dracula, or the sort from Vampire Masquerade, or a Twi-pire?"

"I don't think she's a Twilight type vampire." said Jessica. "We haven't seen her come out during daylight hours. She always came by the workshops to visit the elves after dark."

"If she got vamped by Jacquan, her speciality is probably the ability to heal herself from injury, and bend the will of her prey to do everything she wants." said Capri. Noticing concerned looks being exchanged by NT and Ameh, she said, "But Jacquan was a young mage before he'd become a vampire. Miranda wasn't. Any magic she might do herself probably comes from books, incantations, charms etc. and learning from Jacquan."

"Probably all really self-serving stuff too." said NT.

"No doubt." Capri sneered.

"well, the main thing is that if she isn't a Twi-pire, it means we're safe from her during the day. But what to do about her - " The Sugar Plum fairy said thoughtfully.

"I wouldn't have any problem ending her if I knew which method to use." Capri said bluntly, "but first I'd like to be sure all her hexes are nixed. She's shallow and airheaded when it comes to a lot of things, but she's got her father's head for thinking up evil. She's a bottomless pit of gimme gimme, and vengeance when she doesn't get. She's obviously been working on this for a long time." I wouldn't put it past her to take some poor innocent person and bind their life to her so that if she was ended, they would be as well. And hex things around here to go off and hurt or kill us too."

"She's done it." NT said.

"What?" Capri stared at NT.

"I went back home, and checked out Rebekah's and found Miranda had hexes set to kill her."

"Her own mother?" Pippi gaped. NT hadn't filled them in on this yet.

"Yes." said NT grimly. "I took care of it though."

even for a vampire, she is incredibly evil." Diane said darkly.

So, they continued talking and eating, and then it was time to retire.

Diane was given a room across from Bez and Sigma's, and next to Pippi's and NT's.

After helping with the dishes, Diane went and changed from court clothes and into a warm pair of pants, a sweatshirt. She intended to be up for quite some time.

And she would be. It was going to be an eventful night.

She had scarcely gotten settled when there was a knock at her door. She went to open it, and was surprised to see Thande standing there.

"Well, what can I do for you?" She grinned.

"I must ask you something." He said.

"Shoot." Diane said.

"You are planning on investigating the village, correct?"

Diane nodded. "Yup. Once I get Dingy and Criter's 'deaths' rigged, and once it's light out."

"I would like to come with you. I can defeat any vampires we may encounter." He was quiet for a moment before adding, "It is unlikely any of my emotions would compromise our plan." He said it with the faintest ghost of a smile.

Diane grinned. "Well, that sounds-"

She was cut off by a terrified yelp. The pair left to investigate, and were joined by Bez, Matrix, and several others in the hall.

"Hey, now, anyone get a fix on where that came from?" Bez asked.

Thande began to answer, but was cut off by another shriek. This time, the group knew where to look, and headed for the makeshift infirmary where Criter and Dingy slept.

As they entered the large room, another shout cut through the air.

"Criter!" Sigma exclaimed.

"Oh, this doesn't look good." Diane observed.

Criter was thrashing in his bed, as though he were struggling against something. With a final scream, his eyes snapped open. There was a feverish light in them, and he looked ready to attack the next thing that moved.

Sigma took a few tentative steps forward, and when Criter remained still, sat beside his bed.

"Hey, how're you doing?" She asked, knowing full well something was wrong.

Criter was silent for a few moments. At length, he spoke. "I shouldn't be awake now." He commented, somewhat bluntly.

Sigma laughed in relief. "Yeah, you shouldn't be."

At this, Matrix broke in. "Well, technically no, but it's not unheard of for Drunis to force themselves out of regenerative comas." He frowned. "It's not bad, but it's not exactly good either." He muttered.

Criter looked over at him, and then looked around the room. When his eyes fell on Diane, he frowned in puzzlement.

She shrugged. Circumstances could hardly get any more odd for another introduction.

Seeing his confusion, Bez explained. "Sugar Plum Fairy."

The name meant nothing to Criter.

Bez sighed, and explained further. "She's more help against Miranda. I'll give you details later."

Criter nodded. "All right, good enough for me." He smiled at Diane. "Nice to meet you." He laughed quietly. "Though I would have liked to meet any new allies in a better condition..."

"Well, you're in decent shape." Matrix commented. "You woke yourself up too early, though." He shook his head. "You're still healing, you know."

Criter winced. "Yeah." He poked at his ribs, testing to see if they still hurt. He grimaced, and shook his head. "All in all, I'd say I'm okay."

"Take it easy, mate," said Diane.

He looked around the room again, this time his eyes resting on the unconscious Dingy. The feverish spark in his eyes grew more intense, and a distinctly ominous fury began to grow in them. "I'm okay." He said quietly. "I'm okay." He repeated. "But HE'S not!" He stumbled from his bed and shuffled for the door.

Bez stood in his way. "Hey, and where do you think YOU'RE going?" She asked, half joking, half serious.

"I can stop her...!" Criter muttered. "I know where to look, I can do it-!"

He tried to get past Bez, but was shoved back. "Look, you're in no shape to go wandering out there! It's still night, and you're still on the mend." She admonished.

"I don't care!" Criter snapped.

"Well I do." Matrix said, an unusually stern look on his face. He took a hold of Criter's shoulders and forced him to look at him. "Look, Criter, I thought I lost one patient today. Don't make me lose one for real."

Criter shuddered, and the fury in his eyes died down. He looked down, and Sigma led him back to his bed. At length, he spoke.

"What do you mean, 'thought you lost a patient'?" He asked.

Bez smiled dryly. "Capri pulled one on the badies. She 'died'. Oh, and so did you and Dingy."

Criter's eyebrows rose. "Well. I go into one regenerative coma, and I miss all the fun, don't I?" But his moment of lightheartedness was soon tarnished. He sighed and shook his head. Indicating Dingy, he continued. "He came back for me, you know. He wouldn't leave." There was a distinctly pained edge to his voice, and he had to pause occasionally when he spoke.

"We went to get the letters...it took us awhile just to get them. Must've been an hour or something, but once we had them, Dingy saw something. When we went to go look, it was a warehouse-a warehouse full of malfunctioning toys. There was something inside, and we checked it out, and-"

Criter proceeded to give a detailed account of his and Dingy's battle with the hexed toys, pausing once he reached the end. "It was going to kill me." He said quietly. "It was going to, and he stopped it. And now look at him." Criter began to shiver. "And you know what?" He added bitterly. "I didn't even bring the letters back. Forgot about them entirely. Not that they'd be any good now...torn up and blood-soaked...could hardly read a thing."

He sighed and rubbed his eyes. "Maybe the only good thing to come out of this...after I killed the snake, the orb thing, the green orb that was powering it, or controlling it...when I touched it, I got-something, I don't know what. I heard Miranda, and someone else talking, planning the snake. And I saw a place-I think...I think it was where their base is."

This brought about some looks of particular interest from Diane, and NT, who stood in just behind her.

He shook his head and yawned. "But I don't know anything about magic. At any rate, I'm too tired to think much about it."

He yawned again, and his eyelids began to droop.

"Come on, let's give 'im some sleeping time." Matrix said, herding the others out.

Once they were in the living room, Thande spoke. "He knows the location of the base."

Matrix nodded. "Maybe. Regardless, it won't do us any good until morning. No one is going out tonight, and only Diane is heading out tomorrow."

"Well, not just me." Diane pointed out. "Thande's coming with."

Thande nodded in aprobation, and Bez chuckled. "Takin' Scaly with ya, eh? Good choice. If you cross paths with any vamps, he'll tear 'em apart."

"Exactly." Diane grinned.

"He might just scare them to death on sight." Capri grinned. "what I wouldn't give to see that."

"Miranda's a real scaredy-cat around anything that doesn't look human and moves." Nt snickered.

"She must've been absolutely desperate to attack our reindeer." said Santa.

"We have yet to find out if she is the only vampire or if she's working with another's power." Diane said.

So, plans were discussed and settled upon for the next day, and everyone retired for the night.

--

Awakening A Mutiny

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