It was easier in the old days, in the old countries. Perhaps not as interesting or diverse, but there was something to be said for the simplicity of the whole thing. They needed only to catch a fragment of belief to cultivate it, nurturing superstitions and worship as one. The grandest among them created holy days where entire civilizations bowed before their thrones and altars.
Those days were long gone; even the icons of old had facets and fractures. But as times change, so do the things within them. And though there are different holy days, there still remain…
… holidays .
Halloweentown’s influence these days began sometime around the end of August. It had crept backwards over the years, slowly absorbing its host month of October, then tempting more and more of September into its grasp before starting its conquest of Summer. There was some resistance; there always was, but Labor Day had its heart cut out by capitalism, and in the end what else was there really in September except Talk Like A Pirate Day? Halloween could offer the trappings and candy to go with it.
This year was no different, with early signs of spiders and pumpkins on shelves well before any self-respecting gourd would consider itself ripe. Personally, Gabriel thought it was getting pretty tacky. The King of Halloween lurked wherever his holiday’s influence was felt, and if he saw the Spooky Scary Skeletons video one more time, he might just have to become a screamer himself. By the time Halloween rolled around properly he was in a ghastly mood, fit to turn his holiday into a proper horror.
On October 31st, the night was cold and bright with moonlight. Wind rustled between trees and through alleys, making barren tree branches sway like flailing arms and cast frightful shadows. Dead leaves rustled across pavement and dry ground. One by one, glowing eyes opened in the dark. Twisted claws grasped. Sharp fangs gnashed. Slime oozed. Bones rattled. Flames guttered.
The monsters came out of the night and laid claim to the world once more.
In old hallways, ghosts whispered and wailed. In graveyards, the unhallowed dead clawed their way up from the dirt. In empty alleyways, strange figures lurched and lunged to the very edge of the streetlight’s safe, soft yellow circle. Under the beds of every child, something opened its watchful eyes and hungry mouth. And, amidst vampires, werewolves, wraiths and witches, and all the creatures that Halloween stirred…
… there was the Pumpkin King.
Tall and powerfully built, the Pumpkin King watched the holiday from every jack-o-lantern, and any one of them could become his crown. He leapt from shadow to shadow. Every chilling breeze was his breath. On Halloween, he was anywhere that fear was felt.
And he was bored out of his gourd.
Festivities lasted until dawn. Even as other creatures of the night began to pack up and head for their lairs, each passing compliments about the evening’s exploits, the Pumpkin King kept a hollow smile on his face as he was left with his “inner court”.
“Another magnificent holiday!” called the Witch as she flew by, leaving him alone with the Monster Under The Bed, the Bogeyman, and the Trick-or-Treater. Each required special handling, lest they grow too unruly in the year to come.
Unseen by all, the Ragdoll waited behind a wall and watched.
“You could have let me take more candy,” complained the Trick-or-Treater. She always sulked, no matter what limitations were or were not put on her. Not that she obeyed them, anyway. “The rich houses were giving out full-size bars!”
“Sombra,” growled the Pumpkin King, “You don’t even eat the candy.”
“So?” She flipped up her mask. “I eat the gum.”
“No, you use the gum to bribe the Shell Doll to play games with you, which she stopped doing in the first place because you always cheat.”
“ Someone’s eating the candy.”
The Pumpkin King sighed.
“Go steal it from the bullies who collected it from other children, and you can keep ten percent.”
“A third, and your full-size only counts as a single piece.”
“Done.” Sombra grinned at him, stretching the glow-in-the-dark skull painted onto her face into an even more macabre expression. The Pumpkin King gestured for her to head out, and she ran off with a cackle.
“You know,” said the Bogeyman, in his voice like rich chocolate hiding sharp toffee chips, “her skills could be put to effective use in reconnaissance.”
“Not now, Akande,” the King growled. “We barely even started November.”
Akande shrugged and brushed some imagined grave dust from his shoulder.
“And yet, the red and green decorations are already going up, while costumes discount absurdly.” He sniffed disdainfully at the idea of being anything less than one hundred present invested in presentation.
“It’s all commercial. They don’t matter right now, and the Turkey only has food, no real marketing of its own.”
“And football,” Akande reminded him. “And that absurd parade, which is just an advertisement for Christmas.”
“You can nag me about Christmas again after Chanukah,” the King told him. “Until then, go get your team under control. I hear they’re still running around in the dark alleys.”
The Bogeyman shot a quick glare to the Monster Under The Bed, who remained unfazed. Without pushback, the Bogeyman stalked off muttering about wasted opportunities.
Now it was just the Pumpkin King and his lieutenant, the strange creature that lurked in the shadows below the Safest Place in the World. In daylight, McCree preferred to take the form of something small and innocuous, easily overlooked so as not to be disturbed. Currently, he resembled a small toy cowboy doll, and his cloth body sagged as he turned black button eyes up to the King.
“Aww, c’mon boss,” he moaned. “Do you got to do this every year? Ain’t I proved myself to you yet?”
“Sorry, McCree," said the King, not sounding particularly remorseful. “I know what you can do with them.”
“I ain’t gonna,” McCree protested. “I could be real useful to you! Wasn’t I helpful last night? I told you what Akande was up to, didn’t I?” The King picked up the doll and produced a needle and red thread.
“You did,” he said. “And that’s why I’m not taking them off, I’m just sealing them.”
“Because that’s so much of a difference in scenery,” pouted McCree as the King sewed two red stitches over each of the buttons, effectively crossing them out.
“If you’d rather I take them entirely…” the King said, pulling out a seam ripper.
“No, no, this is fine,” the doll backtracked. “Last year you put them in the bottom of the wishing well. At least this time they’re still with me.” The doll rubbed at the stitches with a sigh.
“Maybe next year, McCree.” He tucked the doll into his pocket as McCree muttered sleepily.
Behind the wall, the Rag Doll sighed. Another year before he’d get to see--
A thin hand with long fingers and nails grabbed his wrist.
“Your skill with poisons leaves something to be desired,” the Doctor said coldly. The Rag Doll scowled and pulled back, straining the stitches of his limbs.
“Give me a blade, and there would be no such disappointment,” he growled.
“Come now, you’ve had your fill of excitement for the night.” Her hand flickered with violet light, sapping his strength.
“Let me go!” He clawed at the thread holding his arm to his shoulder, but Moira’s concoctions left him no finesse with which to tear them.
“You know, you might have made it farther if you hadn’t stopped to gawk.” She clucked her tongue as his knees gave out. “But I suppose that is why I left that heart in you after all. It makes you so very predictable.”
Genji groaned softly as even the night went dark.
The Pumpkin King wandered, lost in thought. He walked past the lake, through the cemetery, and into the wild, dark forest without noticing any of it. The land was so familiar to him that he could walk it in his sleep and never misstep. And perhaps that was part of the problem; there was nothing new in Halloweentown. It was a holiday for the dead and the gone. Nothing grew there. Nothing strived , not really. The closest anyone had to a real goal seemed to be to make the next Halloween even more terrifying than the last, but there was no direction to it. No shape, no vision. It had become a season of jump scares, more surprise than true horror, and that…
That disappointed him more than anything else. Surprise wasn’t fear. The catharsis was cheap, fast, and lacking in depth, much like the fast foods favored by humans. It clogged the proud arteries of his craftsman’s heart, and to top it all off, none of the others seemed to feel the same way. They were content. Complacent.
“Boss?” asked McCree.
“We’ve been wandering quite a while now.”
“Well. I say “we”, but I’m stuck in your pocket and can’t see a damn thing anyway--”
“Where are we, Boss? I can’t hear the town, and the forest sounds all wrong.”
The Pumpkin King paused and looked around. As McCree noted, the forest was different from the barren, dying trees of their home. There were more pines, some that even had birds singing in them. The air was colder, too, and smelled of strange spices. The lingering hints of smoke on the air were… comforting. Homey. Cozy hearths, not blazing bonfires.
“I…” the Pumpkin King paused. “I have absolutely no idea.” Which was a lie. Of course it was a lie. He was the leader of a holiday. He knew about the others. He was one of the few with enough power to remember, one of the ones who could remember back all the way to the Old Country. And anyway, there were always people who left their jack-o-lanterns around until they literally rotted away. “I think we’re in Christmas territory.”
“How the hell did we get there?! “
“I walked. You hitchhiked like the little mooch you are.”
“That’s hurtful, Boss.” McCree said, sounding genuinely put out. “It’s bad enough you sew my eyes closed and put me in a pocket. What’d I ever do to you, anyway?”
“You know exactly what you did and what you could still do.”
“Real hurtful,” McCree muttered, sinking lower into the pocket. “Like you don’t trust me after all these years.”
The Pumpkin King did not reply, but instead he walked on and into the snow.
The Vampire Lord knocked on the door to Dr. O’Deorain’s laboratory, looking uncharacteristically anxious. He was not in the habit of using front doors at all, except perhaps for dramatic purposes. It was an annoying compulsion that came with being a vampire, one for which he was woefully unprepared thanks to cultural misunderstandings and limited source material at the time of his assuming the role, and he still sometimes wondered if there was any reason for his ascension except for how he looked in a suit. Moments like this, when he had to balance multiple types of expectations against his own, made him wish he could still drink.
Dr. O’Deorain’s assistant, the Widow, opened the door and regarded him dispassionately. He met her with equal coolness; it was nothing personal, but she was waiting for her husband to come home, and Hanzo was very much not the right man (for this, Hanzo was grateful because rumor had it she killed any man who saw her smile).
“She’s in the back.” The Widow gestured for him to show himself on.
High above, something metal clanged loudly and fiercely.
“What is that?” Hanzo asked, frowning.
“I don’t care,” replied the Widow. With no other answer forthcoming, he had no other option but to head down to the Doctor.
“Good evening, Your Lordship,” purred the Doctor. She did not get up from her workstation, but continued sorting through blood-stained tools. “Sharp, sharp, dull, bent, sharp, dull, dull, dull… they don’t make them like they used to, do they?”
“I came to inquire about your progress with my brother,” Hanzo announced. Dr. O’Deorain put down a blunted saw and looked up with a grave expression.
“It is a delicate operation, Your Lordship,” she said. “Many difficult operations, in fact. As I told you when I accepted your request.”
Hanzo flinched but refused to back down.
“You assured me of your qualifications,” he growled. “It is not unreasonable to expect some kind of update.”
“Of course.” The strange thing about the Doctor’s tone was that the more accommodating and pleasant she sounded, the more it brought to mind the image of a large predator preparing to pounce. “Unfortunately, he has been very resistant to my assistance thus far. It’s all I can do to keep him together some days. Perhaps if you had not been so careless in your attempt to make your brother a vampire as well…”
Somehow the already bloodless Vampire Lord’s face found a way to become even more pale.
“I see,” he murmured. “Please continue your efforts. For the trouble…” He placed a bag of gold on the table and turned to leave.
The loud banging from earlier echoed all the way down to the lab. Dr. O’Deorain didn’t even bat an eyelash, hers or anyone else’s.
“A little personal project gone awry,” she assured him. “Nearly all the kinks are out. Take care, Your Lordship.”
Hanzo nodded miserably and left the lab.
In the prison upstairs, Genji cursed and banged on the door, desperately trying to get his brother’s attention…
… once more in vain.
Gabriel walked through the winter wonderland that was Christmastown and marveled at the beauty around him. While Halloweentown had its own aesthetic that was near and dear to his heart, the glitter and glow of the other holiday reminded him of the votives and offerings from the Old Country, and the sheer abundance boggled the mind. How could Akande even think about challenging the ruler of such a celebrated land? Maybe if Gabriel told him just how bright Christmastown was, that would shut him up about it for a while…
In his pocket, McCree shifted uneasily.
“I want to see too,” he whined. “C’mon, Boss, lemme see too.”
“Let you loose in a foreign holiday? Are you crazy? Do you want to start a war?”
“You don’t have to let me loose, just let me see ,” McCree pleaded. “I swear to you, I won’t cause any kind of trouble. I only ever get to see what gets stuffed under the bed the day after. I wanna see it first hand.”
Against Gabriel’s better judgement, he snuck into an alleyway and removed his pumpkin crown. He ran a hand through his tangled hair and took a deep breath that didn’t smell like gourd. The cowboy doll came out of his pocket, and he carefully snipped one of the threads across his right eye. The black button blinked, squinted in the brightness, and then widened in wonder.
“It’s beautiful,” he whispered.
“It sure is,” Gabriel muttered.
Then came a sudden sound not unlike a zipper being pulled up, only much longer and strangely energized.
“Hello,” said a bright voice, equally energetic. “What are you doing back here?” The elf, because there was little else she could be, was small and lithe and had a bright blue glow like a star at her heart. She leaned forward and peered at the doll in Gabriel’s hands.To his credit, McCree froze, as lifeless as any real toy in the hands of someone other than their proper child.
“Er,” said the oh-so-eloquent Pumpkin King, sharp of wit and silver of tongue.
“Man, someone really made a mess of this little fella, huh?” she winced. “Nobody likes cowboys these days anyway, let alone a crummy make like this. Are you taking him to the incinerator?”
“Uh,” said Gabriel, sly and smooth.
“I can do it for you, sir!” The elf saluted. “I’m the fastest in the class, yessir, leave it to me!” McCree’s one eye turned pleadingly to Gabriel, bound by the oath he made five minutes earlier.
“Wait,” said Gabriel with all the gravity of his years as Pumpkin King. The elf froze, eyes so wide that the starlight on her chest reflected on the whites.
He plucked the doll out of her hands.
“I… have to track down who’s responsible for this.”
“Oh, right.” She gave him a knowing look and tapped the side of her nose. “Can’t let the S.E.P. down.”
Gabriel had a feeling that whatever Christmastown called S.E.P. was vastly different than what Halloween called it: Scary Event Promoters.
“Ah,” he said, exemplary of more loquacious commentary.
“Don’t worry! I’ll help you find out!” She beamed again, grabbed the doll, and darted off.
Gabriel hissed a word that would have been a curse had he not slipped on ice and fallen face-first into a snowdrift. He scrambled back up, spitting snow.
What followed next was a debacle worthy of the great annals of slapstick history. The overly-cheery elf dashed down snow-covered streets with a trail of stardust. The bedraggled cowboy doll in her hands flailed helplessly, and his tiny screams were lost in the speed. Behind them, twisting and turning and wheeling to avoid the surprised pedestrians, Gabriel managed to thunder after her, over two elves carrying a large, brightly wrapped package, around a large polar bear balancing a small tray of delicate cakes, through a sea of tiny elflings without stepping on a single one…
“Tracer!” A voice like cracked gravel barked, sending the illuminated elf into a skid. She dropped the cowboy doll, which landed squarely in the palm of an elf who looked like he had modeled for super hero action figures. “What did I tell you about zipping around out here like that?”
“Er… not to?” Tracer gave him an apologetic smile. Gabriel was not yet out of breath as he jogged up behind her, but it was a near thing.
“And why did I say that?” The bigger elf growled.
“Because… I could run over someone?”
“And… I… might miss something important?”
Tracer looked guiltily at Gabriel, who held out his hand for the doll. The taller elf handed it over. There was a nearly imperceptible shudder of relief from McCree.
“What do you say to the man?”
“Sorry, sir. I was just trying to help.”
“It’s fine,” said Gabriel, not sure how anyone was buying his presence in the glittering wintery wonderland with his black and silver outfit. “No harm done.” The little elf’s crestfallen face remained a wibbly-wobbly assault on his cold, dead heart. “Good… uh, initiative.”
“Head back to your team, Tracer,” said the taller elf. “We can discuss this later.” The girl was off like a shot, leaving a trail of stardust in her wake. Gabriel attempted to slip away as well, but the old elf linked arms with him and started guiding him to a nearby building.
“C’mon,” he said with a smile that was as much an invitation as it was a threat. Gabriel tensed, but the elf’s grip was iron, and he was dragged through a door into a cheery room with a roaring fire, and all but shoved into an overstuffed armchair, into which he sank in a way that reminded him distressingly of some large creature’s gullet.
Heat raced through Gabriel’s cold, dead heart. Even more than the chase, danger excited him. He watched with wide, dark eyes as the elf loomed over him.
“Who sent you? Was it the rabbit? The turkey?” He pointed to the doll. “That’s not made of chocolate, so I doubt it’s the diaper kid.”
“Chocolate… diaper?” Gabriel blinked. The elf glared down at him. The scent of pine aftershave surprised Gabriel; he hadn’t thought elves would need to shave, but now he could see this one had a bit of a five-o-clock shadow.
“The pumpkin’s got people sniffing around. You look like you could fit his motif.”
Gabriel realized his current crow was still in a random alley, and then he realized something more pressing.
“What do you mean, the pumpkin’s got people sniffing around?” He demanded. “He most certainly does not!”
“Don’t B.S. me, I’ve seen the shadows lurking where they shouldn’t be!”
Gabriel growled. “That’s the Bogeyman. Akande.” He stood up, fist clenching in rage.
“So you are from Halloween.” The elf pushed him back into the chair and pinned him with an oversized candy cane that he pointed like a spear.
“Yeah, but there’s no plan from the Pumpkin Throne! That’s explicitly against the King’s orders!”
“How do you know?”
“Because I’m the King!” Gabriel snapped, pushing away the weapon. The elf brought it right back around.
“You expect me to believe the Pumpkin King himself just waltzed into Christmastown for a vacation? Pull the other one, it’s got bells on.”
Despite his best intentions, Gabriel glanced down.
“There are bells on your boots,” he pointed out.
“There’s no clappers,” the elf snarled.
Gabriel pushed away the cane again, this time with more care.
“Look… what’s your name?”
The candy cane swung back.
Instantly and, embarrassingly enough, entirely childishly, Gabriel’s face screwed up in something that would have been called a pout if the person who said so was not overly fond of having their tongue.
“Are you kidding me? That’s the most Halloween-y name in the world! We’ve had three mayors named Jack! How come you’re in Christmastown and I’m stuck in Halloween being called “Gabriel”? Who thinks this crap up?”
Jack did not seem at all phased by his outburst.
“Well, “Gabriel”, you’ve got three choices. One, you can try to run away, but I promise you that you won’t get far. Two, you can try to fight me, which I don’t think will go too well for you either, considering I’ve got the home field advantage and you’re unarmed.”
Gabriel raised an eyebrow.
“What’s the third option?”
Jack’s smile was something truly worthy of Halloween’s better devils.
“I bring you before the head elf myself.”
The Rag Doll guided his detached arm through the Doctor’s cabinets, selecting ingredients with the eye he’d clumsily sewn on to the limb. Wolf’s bane, batbane, hagbane, nightshade… there were so many different poisons, tinctures, and tonics that it made him vaguely ill to be near them at all, even in his limited, remote capacity.
The Doctor suddenly grabbed his arm and lifted it off the shelf. He couldn’t hear her-- he’d left his ears on his head, but he could read her lips.
“None of that,” she said, stalking back to his cell. “Poison me once, shame on you. Poison me twice, you’ll pay the price.”
Genji glared up at her as she tossed the limb to him.
“I should at least get to the poison before you judge that to be my intent,” he retorted archly.
“Unlike your fool of a brother, I’m not one to leave dangerous toys in the hands of those who use them.” Moira scoffed. “Now, if you want to be able to use that arm again in the future, I’d suggest you reattach it soon. You wouldn’t want it to start decaying, would you?”
Genji’s eyes narrowed.
“You cannot keep me here. I will be free.”
“Free to the incinerator if you don’t behave. Now sort yourself out. I have some new tests to run.”
Glancing out the window, Genji sighed. One day…
The North Pole Workshop sat not at the northernmost point of the world, but slightly to the east of it. The actual pole was a barren land of snow and sky reserved for tourists and Google satellites, allowing the Workshop to operate at full capacity without any humans getting in the way.
Currently, production was in the ramp-up to the holiday crunch. The factory floors streamed with parts, pieces, circuits and chips-- tech piracy at its most philanthropic-- as hundreds of elves assembled the season’s hottest gifts.
Santa, of course, was as much a title as that of the Pumpkin King, but unlike Gabriel’s it was largely symbolic. All of the major decisions were made by the elves and their formidable foreman who ruled the line. This meant that when Jack brought his prisoner to the “head elf”, they were met with milk and cookies, not an iron fist.
“Gabriel!” Reinhardt boomed, arms spread wide to embrace his contemporary. Gabriel smirked to Jack and let himself be hugged. “So you’ve finally taken me up on my offer of a vacation?”
“Not exactly.” He lifted his hands to show the tinsel bindings on his wrists. “Wandered too far out and missed the door. Must have gone through a weak spot in the between. My Lieutenant was along for the ride, and he wanted to see what all the fuss was about, but then we ran into Sugar Plum Soldier over here…”
“Sir? You know this guy?” Jack asked, his already raspy voice choked by disbelief.
“Of course. I was there when he took up the Pumpkin Crown from the last King. Ah, it was a different time, then. The Old Country was not so old, nor so far away.”
“It’s been many years since then,” Gabriel said generously. “Besides, the past kings tend to fade from memory.”
“Aye, the elves do the same thing.” Reinhardt sighed and rubbed at his temples. “By now, Torbjörn has more of them listening to him than they ever did to me. Perhaps I should pass the hat to him instead.”
“Now’s a bad time for that.” Gabriel shook his head. “The Bogeyman keeps getting ideas about conquest and pushing back into November. I think he’s trying to talk the Trick-or-Treater into using Dia de los Muertos as a springboard.”
Jack made an angry noise of protest and lifted his weapon, but Reinhardt gestured for him to stand down.
“We have been aware for some time,” he said. “Our Strategic Elf Patrol keeps an eye on them. Jack is one of the best… if perhaps the most stubborn.”
Gabriel couldn’t help but chuckle, earning a dirty look from Jack. “We’ve got the Scary Event Promoters. Does everyone have a S.E.P.?”
Reinhardt laughed, a warm sound that bounced off the walls.
“I should not be surprised if we do. It seems our predecessors left us more in common than we thought.”
“Yeah, including overprotective lieutenants. McCree, you can’t use an icicle as a shiv. Get out of Santa’s tree.”
“A spy?!” Jack whirled on the tree, and the little cowboy doll dropped onto a wrapped package with a plush squeak.
“He had a candy cane on you! What was I supposed to do, hang out in your pocket until he found out how many licks it takes to get to the center?” The doll sulked. Gabriel’s face went red.
“Watch your mouth, pipsqueak. We’re in another holiday’s house, and you don’t want to end up on the naughty list.”
The look McCree gave Gabriel could have stripped the paint off the walls. Then Reinhardt bent down and picked up the little doll. His massive hands made the figure look even smaller.
“Your lieutenant is a toy?” he hummed and stroked his beard. “He has remarkable craftsmanship. I have not seen toys like this in years, yet he hardly shows any wear! Ah, is this an “urban legend” of yours?” McCree replied with something completely inappropriate to the spirit of the holiday.
“That’s the Monster Under the Bed you’ve got,” Gabriel warned. “Be careful, he’ll bite until his eyes are sealed again.
“Will not,” McCree protested.
“Ah, I see. Sealed in red thread. Well, we can accommodate that--” Some might not notice the doll flinch. Jack certainly didn’t, and even Gabriel only realized it because Reinhardt put the cowboy doll back on his feet again. “Ah, I just remembered, they used it all in repairing the suit. I’m sorry, my friend, but we likely won’t have any extra until after New Year.”
Some hidden tension leeched out of McCree, and Gabriel huffed.
“Black thread will work too, or silver wire, if you have it on hand.”
Reinhardt raised his hands in surrender. “Better not,” he said apologetically. “The Lindholms get terribly testy if I dip into their materials this time of year, and I don’t wish to distract them. Besides, I’m sure your lieutenant will do you proud and be on his best behavior, right?” He looked expectantly at McCree, who nodded eagerly.
“Yessir. Very best.” He gave a smart salute, or at least as smart as possible as not having any real points of articulation would allow.
“It’s your holiday to clean up,” Gabriel shrugged. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Do you really intend to give the Pumpkin King unsupervised access to Christmastown in the middle of the holiday rush?” Jack demanded. All protocol and hierarchy disappeared in the heat of the moment.
“Of course not.” Reinhardt’s laughter shook his mighty frame, but contrary to popular belief, no sweets were brought to mind by the image. “A foreign holiday leader, alone in the city, at this time of year? Brigitte would kill me.” Jack relaxed. “You’re going to give him a tour!”
“What?!” Both Jack and Gabriel cried out.
“Can you think of anyone better?”
Gabriel and Jack exchanged looks that encompassed vast lists. Reinhardt patiently ignored them and stroked his beard.
“Look, Santa,” Jack began to protest.
“Either way you look at it, it is the best solution,” he rumbled. “As a visiting king, he should be guarded and guided through our city, and no one is better suited to the task than you. And if what you fear is true, then there is no one better to defend us.”
Jack’s jaw hung open a moment. Gabriel sighed and put a hand on his shoulder.
“C’mon,” he grunted. “Show me what you’ve got to drink for this holiday.”
Dawn in Halloweentown was a slow, sickly thing with a pallid sun lingering on the horizon as if afraid to show its face. The light it cast pooled viscously before finally reaching the window of the Mayor, who sprang into action to prepare for the next year’s celebration. He took a giant leap from the town square to the Pumpkin King’s lair and knocked on the door with more delicacy than one might expect from a giant gorilla.
“Sir? Are you ready? We have an appointment.” Winston winced as the door creaked open theatrically. “Sir?” There was no answer. While that was not entirely unexpected, the air inside had an unfamiliar silence; not the spider-egg-sack suspension waiting to pop into countless skittering terrors, but the kind that came because there was nothing inside to create noise.
Winston poked his head in and looked around. “Your Majesty? Oh dear.” Shutting the door as discreetly as he was able, he slipped away to organize a search party of trustworthy nightmares.
Across the street, Sombra sucked on a stolen lollipop and raised an eyebrow.
Now that was interesting.
The Cultist waved several tentacles at the Ragdoll as it passed by the Doctor’s tower, but the Ragdoll was too busy climbing out the window to return the greeting. No offense was taken; instead, Zenyatta sent several orbs with glowing green eyes to help aid the patchwork person’s escape. He monitored all with an expression of universal nihilistic apathy… or boredom. The two looked remarkably similar. Once the Ragdoll scurried over to him, they hurried away and into the woods where it would be harder for Doctor O’Deorain to track them.
“Good morning, master.” Genji heaved a sigh of relief once the tower was out of sight.
“Good morning, my student.” The Cultist gestured with many arms, leading them down a twisting path. Branches gnarled and tangled together in their wake to further obscure their trail.
“I am going to find my brother today,” said Genji, “and tell him of the Doctor’s perfidy.”
“You have resolved yourself?” hummed Zenyatta. “When last we spoke, you were still undecided as to whether or not you would speak with him or slay him.”
Genji huffed. “I was still mad at him then.”
“And you are not now?”
“No. Yes. I am…” Another deep breath pulled at the stitches across his chest. “I am mad that he tried to make me a vampire too, and I am angry that he sought Dr. O’Deorain’s help when he failed, but…”
Zenyatta did not prompt him, but instead continued through the labyrinthian forest at an even pace.
“You’ve seen him, right, Master?”
“All paths are one in the abyss, but some are farther ahead than others.”
“He is losing himself,” Genji muttered. “I do not think that he is feeding. Every time he comes to see the Doctor, he looks more worn out. I cannot help but worry, even though I am still angry.” He heaved another sigh. “Besides, if the Doctor gets her claws any further into him, then we will both be her experiments, and that will be even less pleasant. I can think of much better things to do.”
They came to a stop at the center of the labyrinth. Zenyatta observed the great black oak tree, gnarled and adorned with sparse orange leaves. There was a door set in the trunk, painted and shaped like the Pumpkin’s Crown.
“Other things like the Monster Under The Bed?” The Cultist reflected.
“Do not say it out loud! What if he hears you?”
“There are no beds here, my student, and even if he were a creature of powerful ears instead of eyes, the King keeps terrible seals on him.” The sound that Zenyatta made was something like a laugh, in the same way that a great tiger springing on a man was something like a kitten pouncing on a leaf. “Choose your way, my student. Here and now, only you can decide where to go next.” Multiple arms spread wide to indicate the paths that sprang up around them.
Genji looked around and around.
Though the Pumpkin King was the true ruler of Halloween, the Bogeyman kept his own “court” in a strange building on the darker edge of town. Part fortress, part club, and part casino, Akande never bothered watching all three parts at once. He stayed at the heart of the chaos: a calm, quiet off-beat in the tempo of madness, like the momentary deafness after too-close thunder. His nightmares and terrors went out into the world and brought back its fear for him, and he savored it the way a sommelier would detect the subtle notes in a rare vintage of wine.
It was during one of these tastings that the Trick-or-Treater appeared before him, chewing on a stolen candy cane.
“What have you found?” Akande asked without looking up.
Sombra’s makeup glowed in the blacklights, and she twirled the candy between her fingers, somehow without getting them sticky.
“Gabe went to Christmastown, and he took McCree with him,” she said.
“Christmastown?” Akande leaned forward. Black eyes seemed to suck in all the neon around him without reflecting any of it. “And what was he doing there? Considering how adamant he was about not pushing back on All Saint’s Day…”
“From the looks of it? Trying to out drink the Captain of the Guard.” She put the candy back in her mouth and rolled it around with her tongue. “They aren’t kidding around with that eggnog.”
Akande sat back and smiled. Only his teeth were visible. There were far, far too many, and they were much, much too sharp.
“Oh dear,” he said with artificial sweetener concern. “Our oh-so-important Pumpkin King is far from home, lost in the hands of a foreign holiday. Whatever shall we do.”
Akande was not the type of monster to indulge in laughter, but there was nonetheless a menacing chuckle as the Bogeyman disappeared into the dark.
Several rounds of eggnog transition to spiked hot chocolate, which Gabriel sipped as he followed Jack through the busy Christmastown streets. The two of them towered over most of the other inhabitants, giving Gabriel an unusual view of the city, but he found his eye drawn as much to his guide as to his surroundings.
“...so I told him where he could stick his star, and that’s why I’m not supposed to patrol in the Decorations District by myself anymore.” Jack breathed out a puff of steam from the hot drink. Gabriel bent nearly in half with laughter, and Jack stole his cup and several sips before he managed to right himself.
“I never thought one of you guys could make so much trouble.” He wiped a tear from the corner of his eye and nearly choked on another chuckle as he realized Jack had a dot of whipped cream on his nose. Vengefully, he did not mention it.
“It’s not trouble,” Jack proteste mildly, “it’s my job. That goat is a security risk, a fire hazard, and a forty-three foot tall standing invitation to trouble, but they insist on putting it back up every year. I keep telling them the dang thing is cursed, but they don’t listen to me.”
Gabriel wheezed again. Jack huffed and hurried him out of the traffic, eventually leading him up to a snowy hill where they could see the whole of the holiday. The gleaming snow testified of the day’s earlier adventures with abandoned sled tracks, slashes of blue shadow under the bright moon.
“Strange,” Gabriel murmured, looking up to the sky full of diamond-like stars that ignored the mundane physics of light pollution.
Jack grunted to prompt him to continue, and when Gabriel didn't immediately comply, he turned to face him. “What?”
“It’s the same moon, but it looks so different here.” Gabriel gestured to the celestial body in question. “It’s softer and cooler. Halloween’s moon is more orange and gold.”
“Probably because of all the pumpkins,” Jack muttered. Gabriel huffed. “No, seriously. You’ve got pumpkins and candlelight. Warm colors. Here, we just have snow.”
“And Christmas lights.”
“Which, you’ll notice, have no effect on any of this.” Jack gestured around them. “Not this far out. Winter is cold. Snow reflects white-blue.” He kicked at a drift.
“Not a fan?” Gabriel raised an eyebrow.
“Let’s just say that “White Christmas” gets really old when you hear it every day for the past 76 years.”
Gabriel winced. “I can imagine.”
“It’s not that the new songs are any better. None of them are written with any real meaning these days; they’re just a cash grab by record studios. Easy licenses they can mine and remarket year after year.” The elf kicked the snow harder, sending glittering flakes into the air. “It’s all commercialized and commodity, or worse.”
“Ugh, I know. I saw the first costume shop go up in August this year.” With a sour scowl, Gabriel likewise kicked a drift. “What good does that do anyone? No one plans their costume that far ahead, and if they do, they’re sure as hell not buying it from a chain store in an abandoned grocery lot!”
“I’ve started seeing our decorations go up before your holiday is even over,” Jack gave Gabriel an assessing look, but Gabriel just groaned and shook his head.
“I know. It drives Akande-- the Bogeyman-- up the wall. He acts like he’s been issued a personalized letter of challenge, and not answering would be a greater dishonor than ignoring it.”
“And you say this Akande is responsible for the shadows intruding on Christmas?”
“I have enough trouble finding joy in my own holiday anymore. Why the hell would I want the headache of anyone else’s?” Gabriel scoffed.
Jack shifted his weight and gestured to the glowing town below. The sea of lights danced and spun for both of them, radiant colors and joyous music spilling out like unearthed treasure.
“It’s pretty,” Gabriel admitted, “but so far you’ve done a shit job of selling me on it.”
At that, Jack’s stoicism cracked into a smirk; not the righteous kind from earlier, but something genuinely amused.
“And you’ve done such a good job of selling Halloween?”
“I could,” Gabriel set down his cocoa and crossed his arms. Jack laughed again. “What, you don’t believe me?”
“I have a healthy skepticism for lost causes.”
“And you call yourself a holiday spirit ,” Gabriel clucked his tongue. He stepped closer to Jack. “Here, close your eyes.” On Jack’s arch look, he held up a hand. “I swear on my holiday I won’t harm you.” That earned a pensive silence, but eventually Jack nodded and closed his eyes, content in the knowledge that the Pumpkin King could not forswear his crown.
Gabriel tugged the night around them until the lights of the city were no brighter than the distant stars. The cold of the snow intensified in the breath, and on the back of Jack’s neck, and finally it trailed down his spine like the caress of a lover.
“Imagine the dark, Jack,” Gabriel purred, a low rumble like the distant promise of a terrible storm. “Imagine the unknown. The world is full of countless dangers, some by accident, others by design. Even a strong body like yours can’t be ready for everything, and here, in the fear, you wouldn’t even know where to start trying. Will it be a hand on your elbow? A hole beneath your feet? Claws that grasp, fangs that tear, tentacles that… well. Let’s leave some things unsaid.
“Imagine the dark, Jack, and feel your heart pound. Feel your blood race and your senses expand, trying to reach out, trying to find something to prove that you’re here. You’re alive. You’re real . Feel alive, Jack. Feel real . And then…”
“Light. A glow. A hearth. In the distance, there’s home. Safety. Tonight, you made it through the woods. Tonight, you beat the darkness. Tonight, you are alive.
“That catharsis? That relief? That’s Halloween.”
Jack opened his eyes and exhaled slowly.
Gabriel counted to thirteen before he wiped the whipped cream off Jack’s nose and smirked.
“That was…” Jack blew out a breath. His cheeks were flushed, eyes dilated. “That was something.”
Gabriel dropped into a dramatic bow.
“The King of Halloween lives to serve,” he said. “Do you buy into it now?”
“I wouldn’t say I’d be pre-ordering,” Jack drawled, “but I definitely wouldn’t turn down another free sample.”
Both men laughed. They walked a little further and sat down on tree stumps from some freshly-cut Christmas trees.
“What are you really here for, Pumpkin King?” Jack asked. Gabriel was relieved to see that this time there was no sharpened candy cane at his throat. Heartened, he took a deep breath.
“To meet you, I suppose.”
“Every year I’ve had to put up with more and more nonsense from Akande and his cronies about the expansion and their ideas of conquest. It… distracts me from the core of the holiday. It’s too easy to get wrapped up in the mechanics of bigger, better, and more, you know? Talking to you was a good reminder of why I took the crown in the first place.” Gabriel held out his hand. “So, thanks for that.”
Jack blinked and shook the offered hand.
“You’re welcome, I guess.”
“Well, this isn't exactly in my job description. What am I supposed to say?”
Gabriel just chuckled at the rosy tinge to Jack’s cheeks.
“C’mon. Tell me more about Christmas. I gave your own private taste of Halloween.”
They walked down the hill, and the laughter and smiles they shared kept them both warm.
McCree blinked his button eye as Reinhardt showed him the vast, automated workshop where an army of blond and redheaded elves created the toys for the year.
“There’s so many,” he murmured, turning around and around on Reinhardt’s massive palm.
“But of course!” Santa laughed merrily. “We have to make enough for each and every child who believes.”
“What’s this “we”, you showboat?” groused a stocky elf who looked half automated himself.
“Ah, little friend, meet Torbjörn, the Head Elf of Production. He designed and built all the machines you see here.” Reinhardt introduced the two as if one was not a toy and the other wasn’t drinking molten chocolate from an industrial mug.
“The kids helped,” said Torbjörn, gesturing to the other elves.
McCree’s cloth jaw dropped. “Those are all your kids?”
“Mine and the Missus, yes. She’s over in Battery Assembly, or I’d introduce you. It’s a finicky job; requires concentration and a steady hand. You understand.”
McCree did not understand, but he nodded gamely. “It’s an impressive set up,” he said politely.
“This machine can assemble toys from scratch to wrapped in no time flat,” Torbjörn beamed. “Can disassemble too, if need be.” Reinhardt shook a finger at Torbjörn’s knowing look.
“Now now, McCree is the Pumpkin King’s Lieutenant and has promised to be on his very best behavior, isn’t that right, McCree?”
“Yessir.” McCree tipped his hat as much as his stitching would allow. “Very best.”
“The King of Halloween has a stuffed cowboy doll for a lieutenant?” Torbjörn peered at him critically. “Not very well put together, in my opinion. Some kind of killer doll, I suppose?”
McCree huffed and crossed his stuffing-filled arms.
“Everyone laughs, but it’s the little things that’ll get you in the end. Devil’s in the details.”
“Papa, can you come take a look at this for a moment?” One of the elves, a beautiful and statuesque woman with a work apron full of tools, called out as she leaned around a strange device. “The scanners won’t calibrate, and I need a real steady third hand.”
“Good thing I keep a few spares around for just the occasion,” Torbjörn laughed, causing his daughter to groan.
“Don’t you dare take that arm--”
“--off. I’m not helping you put that back on.”
“Where’s the respect?”
“The same place you left my favorite spanner.”
“Can’t make a decent dad joke with that, though.”
Reinhardt took the opportunity to slip away with McCree.
“They’ll keep going until they run out of complaints,” he said. “Come, there is more to see.”
Reinhardt took him on a tour of Christmastown, and McCree’s black button eye seemed to drink in every sight with as much sharp analysis as awestruck wonder.
“It’s a right nice holiday you’ve got here, sir,” he said as they entered a busy plaza and admired a tree even taller than Reinhardt. “I wish I could show it to someone else, too, on account of him enjoying such peaceful places. But… are you really satisfied to leave all the toymaking to the robots? I don’t think I saw a single elf touching the presents at all.”
Reinhardt sighed, and that was all the answer McCree needed.
Panic gripped Halloweentown, and not in it’s usual friendly embrace. Gabriel’s absence was keenly felt even before people had a name to put to their sense of hollow wrongness; the King was gone, and the candlelight of his pumpkin crown was dark and cold.
“Where could he be?” asked the Mummy to the Werewolf.
“It’s not like he can just walk away,” said the Witch with just a hint of bitterness.
“No one ever walks away,” fretted the Gorgon. “There must always be a King.”
“There must always be a King.”
“There must always be a King.”
The words rippled through the crowd, echoing in dozens-- no, hundreds of voices.
At that moment, a strange, sharpened stick clattered into their midst. It was striped red and white like a starlight candy, only long and thin instead of a round disc, and it shone with the slickness of half-eaten candy, though it was far too large for any treat found in Halloween. One end was curved like a walking stick, the other was stained with a darker shade of red far more natural than the confection.
“The King is dead,” announced Akande as he rose above the others. The Trick-or-Treater stood behind him and licked the sugar off her fingers. “He was killed by the Servants of the Santa.”
Confused and dismayed whispers spread through the Halloweentown denizens.
“How could they kill the Pumpkin King?” The Witch, whose title was born from knowing too much and looking too close, frowned as she thought on it. “Santa’s domain is constructive…” The Bogeyman ignored her.
“We must avenge him,” said Akande. “They must see that they cannot get away with this attack on our holiday.”
Uncertain mumbles absorbed carefully planted ideas and phrases the way cracked, parched earth did rain. Vengeance . Now there was a good word for Halloween folk. Warnings had not been heeded. Portents were ignored.
Halloween was a holiday of transitions and cycles. All that blossomed also withered. All that rotted bloomed again in the fullness of time.
The King had fallen.
The King rose.
And for him, Halloween would go to war.
It was only natural.
Time was strange in all holidays; how else could a journey around the world be made in a single night? Those who remembered the way it used to be did not concern themselves so much with the mundane passage of minutes and hours when there were so many more important ways to measure its passage: heartbeats, lifetimes, eons, the rise and fall of kingdoms, and the glory and desertion of faith.
Given the number of bottles of eggnog and suspiciously fortified punch they had finished, it would take a Christmas Miracle for either Jack or Gabriel to put a term to how long they wandered together. Their libations took them through the beauty of the holiday, eventually stumbling back to their quiet hilltop to sober up. They laid in the snow and stared up at the stars, close enough to feel the minute shifts in the snowflakes when either breathed.
“This is nice,” Jack said after a while. “I forgot what it was like to spend time with other people.”
“You’re surrounded by concentrated cheer and good will to others, every day and all day,” Gabriel said, though he had a feeling he knew what Jack meant. The deep blue eyes that stared back at him confirmed it; blue like endless, empty, lonely skies, crisp and cool and rimed with frost.
“It gets so busy,” Jack said, “and… it’s nothing like the old days. In the old days…”
“People feared winter,” Gabriel murmured. “Oh… you are an old one, aren’t you, Jack Frost?”
Jack huffed and rolled over. “You’re not that young either.”
“Old enough that my old name has been forgotten, but young enough that they still fear it,” Gabriel said. “Everything changes. The world turns with or without us, and it will drag us along with it whether we are willing or not.”
“I hate it,” Jack muttered. “Frost isn’t supposed to last forever. It’s impermanent.”
“Like life.” Gabriel chuckled. He held out his hand. Jack took it. Their palms fit together neatly.
They leaned closer.
Time slowed, a crystal drop suspended before falling into the flow of moments. Lips parted. Breath halted. Hearts pounded.
And then the screaming started.
What thoughts Gabriel could rally were put out by those noises-- they hadn’t even properly kissed before some voyeur decided to start a tirade. Then he realized it wasn’t a scream of outrage, but one of fear. Real, immediate, life-threatening fear.
“What the--” Jack drew back sharply.
“It came from down there--”
Jack grabbed Gabriel’s hand, and they raced down to Christmas town.
What they found was a mess: broken gingerbread, shattered candy-canes, lights torn down and crushed. Claw marks and hoofprints tore up the snow that Christmastown residents never seemed to disturb.
“What… what happened here?” Gabriel stared. Jack grabbed him by the arm and spun him around to see a message carved into a wall.
All hail The King.
Gabriel’s brow furrowed into a fierce scowl.
“Akande… that son of a--”
“Ow, my head…” Tracer sat up from a nearby snowdrift. Her normal starlight shine flickered and guttered while a bruise darkened on the side of her head.
“Tracer, what happened?” Jack knelt down and helped to steady her.
“Some kind of… monsters? Weird looking things, everywhere. Santa… they took Santa!” She started to jump up, but her light faltered, and she fell down again. Jack carried her to the workshop and kicked aside the broken door.
“Torbjörn? Brigitte?” His call was met by a wrench that nearly took off his nose as it flew past his face.
“Jack? Where have you been?” the craftsman demanded. “Those damn Halloween creeps took Reinhardt!”
“How, on a hand truck?” Gabriel growled, following close behind Jack. Brigitte nailed him in the face with a larger wrench. Gabriel recoiled with a snarling curse.
“And here’s the root of the problem,” Torbjörn stepped forward and shook a threatening hammer.
“What? No! This is the Bogeyman’s doing!” Gabriel glanced at Jack, but the soldier stared back with cold distrust in his eyes. The cold crept into Gabriel’s heart, stilling what had dared begin to beat. “I see. Fine. I’ll handle this by myself, since it seems to be my problem.”
Doubt cracked Jack’s expression.
“Gabriel--” he started, but Gabriel turned away and pulled the mantle of darkness around him. The lights flickered, and he disappeared between the flashes.
“Good riddance. Now we can get to work on getting Reinhardt out of this latest pickle he’s gotten himself into.” Footsteps clanking, he headed deeper into the workshop. Brigitte followed him while dusting off her hands.
“C’mon, Jack,” she said with iron-clad confidence. “We’re going to get Santa back.”
The warm red glow of the forge swallowed Jack, and when he looked down, countless mechanical eyes looked back up at him.
“Release me at once!” Reinhardt’s powerful voice thundered through Akande’s lair even over the bass of the club and the buzzers of the casino. Spider silk bound him tightly to a giant web, along the top of which lounged the Widow.
“I don’t think I will,” purred Akande from his throne. “In fact, I think we will do the opposite. Widow…”
The Widow leaned down and added a loop of silk around Reinhardt’s throat. Santa grunted and strained against the deceptively strong material, trying to keep his airway clear.
“Even if you kill me, you will not stop Christmas. The spirit of the holiday will live on.”
“Oh, I am well aware,” Akande inclined his head. The chilling metal of his oversized hand clinked menacingly in the shadows as each finger tapped against twisted metal. “As long as you are here with us, however, Christmas is without a leader. They will be weakened. Frightened. Their fear will make us even stronger.”
Reinhardt growled a reply that the Widow cut off with another tug of the silk.
Amidst his struggles, something shifted in Reinhardt’s heavy red jacket. Another rustle, and a small cowboy doll climbed out behind him.
McCree pulled out a pin, trying to secretly cut through the webbing. Realizing the doll’s plan, Reinhardt redoubled his efforts to keep the attention on him.
“I did not know Halloween to be a place for cowards,” he taunted “It seems your reputation is unearned. You will not face me in proper combat? Those dark nights that came before you would turn away in shame. You are a mockery of a proper monster!”
Akande was suddenly in his face with his massive hand wrapped around Reinhardt’s throat.
“Bluster all you like, old man, but my plans are bigger than a single winter solstice holiday. I will not be goaded into overlooking even the smallest detail.” He snatched up McCree and lifted the doll in a crushing grip. “Hello, McCree. We thought you were lost with Gabriel.” The doll hissed and snarled, trying to break the remaining seal and take on his true shape.
“You won’t get away with this, Akande. The Pumpkin King will--”
“Have you not realized? Gabriel is not here. I am. I am the Pumpkin King now, and all Halloween will bow to me.”
“Not all of it. I’ll never bow to you.” McCree glowered back with one button eye, which was not as intimidating a look as certain authors presented.
“No, you wouldn’t, would you. Your loyalty to that old scarecrow is admirable, but unfortunately poorly placed.”
McCree lifted his chin defiantly.
“Ain’t nothing you can do to budge me.”
“Philosophically speaking, I suppose you are correct.” Akande chuckled. “But in other ways…” he tossed the doll high into the air, and dark power coalesced around his fist.
The oversized fist slammed into the tiny doll, sending it flying through a window and far out of sight.
The place between holidays wasn’t proper space, it didn't have a “here” nor a “there”. It was more of a “then” and “now”, with elements of “soon” and “never”. It was as big or small as it needed to be, and it lasted as long as it felt like. It was always changing and never the same, and it was far, far too precious to be handled by something as implaccable as machines.
Thousands and thousands of heavy, steady steps pounded moments into minutes and whiles into hours. Each mechanical step packed time into immutable shape, frozen and unchanging, all potential lost in the becoming.
The march of the toy soldiers descended on Halloweentown, turning the hands of the clock back against the spring, and the twelve Generals of Christmas watched on with the kind of cold approval only Winter could cultivate.
The world no longer feared the dark as it once did. First fire, then gas, and then electricity changed its presence from an oppressive, hungry force to an absence. The world did not fear silence, either. Sound was so prevalent that many forgot silence once had a shape, too. As the times changed, so had Gabriel, shedding primordial fears and reinventing himself with light and sound in the form of jack-o’-lanterns and theatrical effects.
Jack had taken him back to those old days. To the simple times from the Old Country, where it was enough to just feel , when it was enough to just be . He could have been with Jack. He could have felt peace. In one awful moment, it had been stolen from him, and the emptiness left behind was as endless as it was ravenous. He crossed the world in a sweep of darkness that consumed even the brightest electric light and silence that put one thought into the minds of those who fell under it: a heart that does not beat is a dead heart.
Humans still feared death.
Master and student sat side by side beneath the gnarled black tree in the woods, so they missed the arrival of a thousand wooden soldiers stepping through raw time to invade Halloweentown Square. While six-foot-tall “toys” began a calculated assault on monsters and lairs alike, Genji tried to find the perfect clarity and peace that Zenyatta seemed certain was waiting for him.
“Master, I cannot do this,” he protested. “I do not have your wisdom.”
“Be patient, my student. The answer will come soon.” Zenyatta looked up. “Now, in fact.”
“Now--?” Genji’s answer came in the form of a small cotton cowboy crash landing in his lap. “McCree?”
“If’n I had bones, they’d all be broke,” McCree groaned. “Where am I? When am I?”
“McCree, it is me. Genji is with you.” Genji lifted him up carefully. Had Moira’s experiments left him so unrecognizable?
McCree flopped over, squinting one button eye.
“Well, hey there darling. Ain’t you a sight for sore eyes. Well, one eye, anyway.” He slumped against Genji’s fingers with a lopsided smile. “Don’t suppose you’re in any kind of shape to launch a rescue?”
“A rescue? Who is in need--”
A loud shriek-- one of pain, not fear-- shredded through the trees. All heads snapped towards it.
“That came from the town,” said Zenyatta. “I wonder what caused it?”
Jesse dragged his cloth stub down his face.
The smoke rose high above the tallest rooftops. Smashed jack-o’-lanterns smoldered with their carved grins crushed into dismay and despair. Broken candy covered the pavement in dulled shards and gritty goo. Those Halloween denizens who were able fought back against the wooden soldiers, but too many modern monsters were all shock and startlement over violence and true horror. Their long, spindly, grave-thin arms cracked in the toy soldiers’ hands. Claws only scratched the hardwood. Fangs were of no use at all. Ghosts hung mournfully in the air like forgotten laundry, unable to frighten that which felt no fear. Mummies crumbled under relentless feet. Vampires turned to dust when wooden bayonets pierced their hearts.
“This is wrong,” said Jack, gazing at the desperate fight.
“What are you going on about? They struck first,” Torbjörn grunted. “And they’re hardly helpless. Did you see the teeth on that one?”
“Didn’t do it any good, did it?” Now that he thought about it, none of these creatures looked like they could have caused the chaos in Christmastown. “Where is their King? He should be here, fighting for them.”
“Probably busy doing who knows what to Santa.”
Jack thought of Reinhardt, and his thoughts drifted towards Gabriel. Amidst the unease in his gut, he wondered what the usurped King intended to do. Had he seen the human world, he might have regretted that wish.
All across the globe, in every city, town, village, and lonely little house in the middle of nowhere, darkness blossomed from shadows and swallowed the light. Where it was day, great clouds rolled across the sky, black with rain and brewing thunder. Where they were so unfortunate that it was night, well, not a single star was left to flicker for them. Not even a spark remained.
Humanity’s oldest fear was the dark, the inescapable dark always waiting for them when their eyes closed, the dark that whispered without a sound that one day it would last forever.
That darkness was named Gabriel, and as he descended on Akande’s lair, every neon light flickered, buzzed, and died.
With McCree in hand, Genji and Zenyatta rushed back to the city. McCree explained what he and Gabriel saw in Christmastown and how Akande kidnapped Santa, but nothing prepared them for the devastation.
“I thought you said Christmastown was a place of peace and goodwill to all?” Genji murmured.
“I guess it’s real easy to say that when you got an army stashed in the closet,” McCree grumbled.
Genji caught sight of some dust from unfortunate vampires. “My brother-- we must find him--”
“I will help the survivors. Go find your brother.” Zenyatta floated to the side. Genji nodded and darted off with McCree tucked safely against his heart.
At first they found nothing, and with each empty place and ashen pile, Genji grew more and more agitated. But dead limbs never tire, and the strange concoctions that ran through Genji’s body buzzed and bubbled with energy. Soon they overtook the army of wooden soldiers invading their home.
Halloween’s stronger monsters held a line behind which the lesser frights hid, driven back into the darkness as if faced by the infallible might of a nightlight. The Scarecrow tossed out bundles of explosive junk, the Monstrous Creation lashed out with chains and hooks, the Widow shot things from her Widow’s Walk with an alarmingly large gun, and the Vampire Lord swooped down from rooftops and bludgeoned soldiers with his bow and long-empty quiver.
Genji did not distract his brother by calling out his name, but he leapt into the fray throwing tools stolen from the Doctor’s lab. The impact knocked soldiers off balance and broke the sharp tips of their weapons, and one blunted bayonet slammed ineffectually into Hanzo’s shoulder as he reeled back. McCree tumbled to the ground as Genji deftly avoided a retaliatory attack and darted closer to the Halloween line.
“You… are you…” Hanzo kept trying to get a good look at Genji. Another soldier struck at him, sending him skidding back as he blocked. Genji was suddenly in front of him, bone saw raised like a sword against the soldier’s lance.
“I am still here, brother,” Genji said, tone cool for the memory of their last meeting. Hanzo, knowing exactly what his brother meant and taking it in exactly in the worst possible way, flinched.
The soldier struck.
Genji moved to intercept.
McCree was already in the air, diving between them.
Everything inside spilled out.
Despite the stifling, suffocating darkness that closed in on Akande’s lair, Jack moved through the casino as quick and light as a snowflake, for he, too, was a creature of lightless places. Room after empty room greeted him in his search for Reinhardt.
“At his size, he should stick out like a sore--” Jack’s muttering was cut off by a grunt as something shoved him, hard.
“Trick or treat?” a voice taunted him in the dark. The shove came again, this time from the other side. Jack stumbled. His eyes narrowed. He shoved back, but hit nothing except empty air. The Trick-or-Treater shoved him from behind, this time following up with a spray of sharp candy shards.
“Who are you supposed to be, anyway?” She laughed. “You’re a little tall for an elf.” Jack growled and put his hands on the ground. The temperature in the room plummeted, and what dim light remained suddenly refracted off the ice that formed on every surface. Frost crept up his arms and masked his face, transforming him into something primal and implacable: a force of nature that heralded the season of death.
“Ah,” said Sombra, quickly re-evaluating the situation and deciding no amount of any candy was worth this. “He’s in the third room on the left. Adios !”
And in a flurry of candy wrappers, she disappeared.
Jack grimaced, but ultimately decided to accept this apparent good luck and move ahead. There wasn’t time to take control of the whole casino floor to make sure she had really gone, not when lives were on the line.
He raced to the door in question and indeed, Reinhardt was in the room, chained to a large chair with enough chains to hold an elephant.
“You still alive, old man?” Jack asked, sliding over to him and looking for a lock.
Reinhardt groaned and lifted his head. His face was bruised in the same pattern as the Bogeyman’s oversized fist.
“Who are you calling old?” Reinhardt grunted. He strained against the chains. “It will take more than this to keep me down.”
“So I can see,” rumbled Akande as he appeared from above. “And what do we have here? One of your little helpers?”
“I’m almost as tall as you,” Jack said, unimpressed by his posturing. “Why does everyone think I’m just hired help?” The temperature around him dropped sharply, but the Bogeyman was not as easily deterred by weather as the Trick-or-Treater. Akande forged through the frost and grabbed Jack by the collar. With a rough shake, he cast him aside. Jack landed on an icy slide of his own conjuring, pulling every drop of moisture out of the air to do it. Akande slammed his fist into the ground and shattered the structure with the shaking of the floor. Jack leapt into the air to avoid falling prone. He gritted his teeth and created a trio of ice shards that he sent spiraling at his enemy, but Akande smashed them and did not even blink against the spray of glacial shrapnel.
Reinhardt strained again, and the chains began to creak with the stress, but then he caught sight of the seething shadows rising by the door. He redoubled his efforts; he knew that darkness. He had even fought against it a few times back in the old days. Nothing good came from that kind of dark.
Jack kept up a fierce assault, but the Bogeyman had the home field advantage, and it was simply too dry to keep up for long. Jagged ice broke against Akande’s powerful blows without even a scratch. Jack’s heart lurched as the oversize fist homed in on his face…
...and then stopped, quite suddenly, intercepted by something smokey and solid all at once.
“How dare you abuse the spirit of a holiday like this?” snarled a voice that crawled out of the depths of caves on moonless nights. “How dare you treat it as if it’s some kind of capitalistic competition. ”
“Ah, Gabriel. How good of you to join us at last. Unfortunately, you are still missing the point.” Akande pushed harder, forcing Gabriel to manifest to match him. “You think this about something as simple as money? Currency is just a different kind of prayer. You know, for a creature of unending darkness, you never were very good at seeing the big picture.”
Gabriel snarled and twisted, lashing out with unseen claws. Akande turned and batted his arm away, nearly connecting with another punch that left a crater in the frost-tinged floor.
When two titans clashed, it was the rest of the world that felt it. They were two primal fears, old and wise in their own ways, from times when every hope was a prayer to unspoken powers.
The fear that there was something dangerous in the darkness, and the hope that it did not notice you.
The fear of something insurmountably stronger than you, and the hope that it would not abuse that strength.
One of those hopes always went unfulfilled.
Outside, beyond the Bogeyman’s lair, the pandemonium of the march of the wooden soldiers slowed and faded as a single button fell to the ground. It bounced on the cobblestones: once, twice, three times before laying flat. The sound of each impact was as loud as thunder followed by silence rippling out like a tide.
And then the eyes opened.
Hundreds of blood-red eyes blinked open like slashes in the shadows. They rolled, wild and wide, before fixing on the wooden soldiers. Each and every eye fixed on an enemy. Each and every eye
-- blinked --
Each and every wooden soldier shattered, their smartly carved heads splintering like poorly made nutcrackers.
The eyes closed.
McCree stood up, not a doll and not a man, but a figure of ragged shadows and glowing red eyes in the shape of something that had watched too many westerns.
“Are you alright?” He turned to Genji. “Did they hurt you?”
“How could they, when you caught all of them at once?” Genji glanced around just to make sure their enemies were down. “You did not save any for me.”
“There are plenty more in the next street,” called Hanzo, taking a higher vantage point. From this distance he tossed Genji a wrapped bundle: his blade, still gleaming ghoulish green flames. Genji looked up at his brother. Hanzo’s pride refused to let him say many things, a trait that prevented similarities to the brooding, angsty leads in certain kinds of literature, but to vampires actions always lingered longer than words.
Before McCree could turn his deadly eyes upwards, Genji pulled him off to the next street. They would have to deal with it later, after making sure there was a “later” to have.
Meanwhile, the fight for the heart of Halloween raged on. Power surges and blackouts rolled across the world as titans of industry and finance flexed their grip in economic strangleholds and political conspiracies.
Jack helped Reinhardt finish breaking free. The cold around them sharpened, scraps of moonlight glittering off the frost.
“I will stop them.” Reinhardt cracked his knuckles.
“Bad idea,” said Jack, who’d had enough of them to know when he was looking at them. “You don’t want them dragging out the Krampus or Belsnickel, do you?”
Reinhardt winced. “We cannot just stand here and do nothing!”
“You go get Torb to stop his army. I’ll handle these two. I’m already my own dark ego.”
“He brought an army?” Reinhardt began heading to the door. “And Brigitte says I rush into things…”
As far as primal fears went, Winter’s cold and lifeless reign had lost some of its edge, but it was still strong enough to let Jack shove his way into the fight. Frost bloomed across the world as he attuned his resonance to terror instead of wonder and drew a line between Gabriel and Akande.
‘You two are going to wreck your whole damn holiday if you don’t quit it!” he snapped.
“What does it matter to you?” Gabriel growled. “You have your own damn holiday.”
“Damnit, Gabe, I’m trying to help!”
“You didn’t listen to me before. Why should I listen to you now? You’re probably here to take us both out.”
Akande, sensing a weak point, pressed his attack on another front. “I always warned you about them,” he murmured, low and smooth. “They command most of the year’s attention. Now they move against us…”
“Shut up!” Gabriel hissed. “You started this whole mess to begin with!”
“I’m old and set in my ways,” Jack admitted, “but everything changes. Even us. Gabriel, give me a chance to change with you.”
Gabriel hesitated. His guard lowered a fraction as his attention flickered to Jack, who stepped towards him.
Akande sneered and pulled his fist back. Such an old fool…
“Gabe!” Jack suddenly darted up and shoved him, hard. He went sprawling, and the lights burned again as silence shattered like glass.
“Pathetic,” Akande said. “One would think someone as old as him would know better.”
Darkness flooded into the room and swallowed up the harsh chrome light so newly returned. The lightless void wrapped around and around Akande, dragging him into its endless depths. Every punch and thrash only pulled him in deeper.
“Akande,” Gabriel said in a hollow tone, “you’ve taken too much.”
Akande opened his mouth to retort, but Gabriel closed his eyes, and the shadows slammed shut. There was a moment of resistance-- the Bogeyman refused to go without a fight-- but Gabriel turned, and the dark coils collapsed in on themselves, taking Akande with them.
Gabriel sank to his knees beside Jack’s body. Where once there was anger and the sting of bruised pride, now there was only cold. The weight of wasted possibilities hollowed him out. At a loss for what else to do, he numbly began to pick up the shattered ice shards and put them back into place.
That was how they found him, sitting silently and sifting through slivers of frost.
Reinhardt’s brow furrowed. “I should have stayed.” The Witch at his side gave him a sharp look.
McCree, who’d taken a more human form out of courtesy, shook his head and turned his eyes to Gabriel’s patient repairs. “Lindholms never would have called off the “rescue” if you didn’t show up to set things straight,” he said with the conviction of someone who wouldn’t have backed down either. “We’d all be out there right still.”
Torbjörn’s annoyed huff proved his point.
“Oh, Jack,” Brigitte sighed, seeing the extent of the damage. “Papa, I don’t think we can fix that.”
“Jack’s an old one,” Torbjörn muttered, “but even they can only take so much. It’s not your fault, my girl.”
Gabriel’s shoulders sagged.
“We walked through the between together,” he said, voice faint as smoke from a blown-out candle. “It felt so right, like we’d always walked together.”
“One of frost’s greatest lessons is the beauty of impermanence,” Reinhardt knelt beside him and held a hand over Jack’s chest, the other extending to the Witch.
“I know,” Gabriel growled. “My whole season knows.”
“Yes, it does.”
Gabriel looked up at the odd tenor of the old man’s voice.
“And my season is about giving gifts. So to you, Pumpkin King, I give this precious and priceless gift: the gift of a second chance.”
There was a flash of light brighter than any star. When the spots faded from everyone’s eyes, Santa and his crew were gone…
… except for Jack, who sat up with a curse unbecoming of a holiday icon with his own animated children’s movie. His jacket had changed color to red and black and hung open over a tattered white shirt, and there was a distinctly autumnal glow to his eyes.
“What just happened?” he demanded, looking around. “Where is Santa? Or that damn Bogeyman?”
As Gabriel sat in shock, the soft jingle of bells overhead made everyone look up. There across the sky, lit by the moon, flew a sleigh pulled by reindeer and accompanied by the Witch, now dressed in white and gold and wearing a halo.
“Guess this means inter-holiday relationships are gonna be a lot more friendly from here on out,” McCree said.
Gabriel offered his hand to Jack, who took it while still marveling at the changes to his appearance.
“So…” said Jack without letting go, “I think I remember you promising to show me Halloween?”
Gabriel smiled. “I think you’ll fit right in.”