O Come Thou Key of David

by Tenshi

"What exactly is a sugarplum?" Sytry asked, sprawled crosswise in the common room chair with an open tin of biscuits on his stomach and a large picture book propped up against it. "It sounds tasty."

"It's not." William, sitting opposite, was engrossed in a much more respectable book about Darwin's explorations of the Galapagos, and the only illustrations were of various animals standing awkwardly about in order to show their bones and plumage to best advantage. "It's a great gooey wodge of raisins and nut-crumbs coated in a sugar shell hard enough to crack your teeth." He licked a thumb and turned a page, uncovering a blobby turtle perched on an improbable rock outcropping. "If I had visions of them in the night, I would seriously reconsider my before-bed dining habits."

"Don't listen to Mister Scrooge." Like Sytry, Isaac was also using the furniture in a manner contrary to its design, which in William's experience was generally backside-first in the seat. He was on his belly on the sofa, and his own textbook had been open to the same page for half an hour already. Greek vocabulary lists were not nearly so interesting as the pretty bursts of snow outside the window, or as the prettier demon in the chair nearby. "William once got a baby tooth knocked out by a sugar plum with a pit in it, and it's put him off them ever since. But my family cook makes them from almonds and dates with all kinds of spices sent over from India, done up with bits of silver leaf and marzipan coating. They're scrumptious."

"They're vile," William said, slamming his book closed for emphasis. "But you can have your fill of them when the Christmas holiday starts, and come back in January with a sugar-addled brain and all your lessons forgotten. And maybe while you lot are gone I can have some peace and quiet. I certainly can't get it with you here." With Darwin under one arm and his nose in the air, William stalked from the room with such ferocity that he almost bowled over Dantalion, who was just coming in from outside with his hair full of snow and his cheeks ruddy, the very picture of wintertime cheer.

"William! I was just--"

"Bollocks," William retorted, without giving Dantalion so much as a sideways glance. He stomped up the stairs and a moment later the sound of his door slamming echoed down the stairwell.

"I'm no expert on human emotions," Sytry said thoughtfully, as he reached for another biscuit, "but it seems to me that William's crumpets are more burnt than usual."

Isaac sighed, chin in his hand. "He wasn't always like this. He loved Christmas holidays."

"Before his parents died?" Dantalion was still looking up the stairs, but William's door remained shut.

"Oh, no." Isaac leaned over to scoot Sytry's teacup closer to his questing fingers. "Just last year, even, he was as excited about Christmas holiday as anyone. But this year, ever since the weather turned..." He trailed off with a little sigh.

Dantalion abandoned his post in the doorway, chin in hand. A quick glance around the common room told him that there were no other students about, and in a little puff of magical fire his soggy rugby clothes were replaced by a fresh suit. "I wonder why."

Sytry made a derisive noise, and scattered biscuit crumbs across his picture-book in the process. "Tuh. It's money, idiot." He gestured to the illustration in the book: a portly Saint Nicholas cramming stockings full of tin soldiers and sweets. "All this Christmas business. Chocolates. Toys. Hams. Crackers. It isn't really dispensed by some benevolent geezer in a ghastly red suit. Someone's got to pay for it."

Isaac's face crumpled. "Poor William. So that's why he's not even going home for Christmas. His Uncle's missing, the manor barely even has furniture, and with his only remaining servant here, there'd be nothing to do or eat or even sleep on, for all I know."

"I'd be happy to provide that for him," Dantalion announced grandly. "The feast, the sweetmeats, the ceremonial burning tree--"

"It's just a few candles," Isaac broke in, looking alarmed at the idea.

Dantalion waved a dismissive hand in Isaac's direction. "Yes, yes. Baphomet will know what would be suitable. There's no reason for William to have a sad Christmas."

"You'd really do that?" Isaac asked, all aglow with sudden hope.

"Of course!" Dantalion showed a bit too much fang when he was smiling like that, even in human form. "It would be my pleasure."

Sytry gave Dantalion a sideways glance, and adroitly nipped a biscuit in two. "...If?" he prompted, knowingly.

"Ah," Dantalion inspected his fingernails. "If he elects me Interim Ruler of Hell, of course."

"Of course." Sytry snorted in contempt. "He'll never agree to such a bargain, and even I know that's the entire wrong way to go about Christmas. It is about at least the pretense of generosity." He glanced down at his picture-book. "Although to be honest, the rampant bribery of children getting toys in exchange for not being shrieking little blighters the rest of the year does have a certain mercenary edge."

Isaac was looking between the two demons in growing dismay. "Sytry's right-- I mean, about the generosity, not the blighters bit. Christmas is for celebrating with those you hold dear, enjoying the time with your friends and family. It's that, and it's... it's roast goose, and games of sardines, and ghost stories, and piano playing, and pillow fights, and stereoscope cards, and Mother's flaming pudding, and the smell of snapping crackers, and paper hats, and the village crèche, and charades, and oranges, and fresh snow, and going sledding and mistletoe balls and church carols and tree-smells and hot punch and new handkerchiefs and picture books and chocolate biscuits and staying up by the fire and rum raisins and dances and--"

"Stop," Dantalion said, thinking (not without cause) that Isaac might very well go on until the holiday in question was well over and the daffodils were in bloom. Sytry had simply put his fingers in his ears, but from the look on his face, even that defense was starting to wear thin.

"Er, sorry." Isaac squirmed in his seat. "Christmas is... it's very complicated."

"It's certainly full of a multitude of things," Sytry commented. "All of them too expensive for William right now."

"I tried to get him to come home with me," Isaac said. "But he refused flat-out. And he wouldn't accept Swallow's invite either, not even when Swallow said lots of important people from London would be there. William doesn't want to be the poor friend, I guess. He's too proud for that." Isaac hugged himself. "It's an awful way to spend Christmas, alone at school."

"Well, we can't have that, can we?" Dantalion got to his feet in a rush. "Who better to rule Hell than the Demon who can provide William with the best of Christmases?"

"That seems like a really strange bit of logic--" Isaac began, but Sytry was already on his feet, jabbing Dantalion in the waistcoat with half a biscuit.

"Ha! There's no chance of you winning that, you know. You thought they set the tree on fire!"

"Well, perhaps it would be more jolly if they did!" Dantalion retorted. "Maybe William doesn't even know what a real Christmas should be like, but he shall have it! Fountains flowing with wine, whole roasted oxen, dancing girls--"

"That is so completely outdated, it would have been considered passé even when Jesus was actually born," Sytry snapped. "Haven't you bothered to keep up at all?"

Dantalion folded his arms. "Solomon would have liked it."

"That's what I mean," Sytry said, crushing his biscuit to powder in his fist. "And I'll take your stupid bet, only because it's going to be so worth it to watch you lose. You wouldn't know a figgy pudding from a partridge in a pear tree."



The common room crackled with a fork of lightning and a pillar of fire as the two demons vanished, leaving Isaac alone with the smells of ozone and cinders, and a growing suspicion that he would have been better off keeping his mouth shut.

Unaware of the impending festivities, William was somewhat surprised to see both Sytry and Dantalion turn up for church the next morning. Normally, they wouldn't be seen dead in the place. But they were both there on the last Sunday before Christmas holidays, singing along with the carols with the rest of the boys as though they weren't demons in disguise. William felt Dantalion's stare needling into the side of his head when they were singing Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel, especially the line about Oh come thou Key of David, but William made a point not to make eye contact. It was better, in his opinion, not to encourage Demons.

Which was why he was rather dubious after services, when Dantalion nonchalantly offered half a Christmas cracker for a pull.

"Where did you get that?" William asked, looking at the cracker in some suspicion. The red paper of the wrapper had passed festive in the color scheme, and was well on its way to ominous. It had a faint whiff of brimstone and seemed to be smoking slightly.

"Isaac told me about Christmas Crackers, and I thought it would be fun to try," Dantalion said, with a brightness that failed to illuminate the providence of the party-favor. "Go on, then."

William glanced around the chapel courtyard. Few of the boys had lingered, either because they were eager to get back by the fire inside, or because they were busy starting up an impromptu snowball fight along the path. Still, William had no desire to attract attention. "Why exactly are you celebrating Christmas anything?" he asked, to stall for time and to let more of the boys get out of earshot. "You're a--" he broke off at the sight of Dantalion's smirk, daring him to say it.

There's no such bloody thing as demons, William thought, and Dantalion's grin only widened at his visible consternation.

"--Agnostic," William finished.

"Nothing religious about a little snap and a present, is there? Or is there something in the twelve commandments about paper hats and bad jokes?" Dantalion shook the cracker a tiny bit, and William wished he wouldn't. It looked somewhat swollen now, and had started to whine faintly.

Only Isaac and Sytry were left in the courtyard, watching the two of them with looks of curiosity and contempt, respectively.

"It's the ten commandments," William said, reluctantly taking the end of the cracker and bracing for the tug. "Even I know tha--"


William was thrown into the air by the earsplitting concussion of the cracker, and landed on his backside in the snow, several yards from where he had been. Dantalion was still there, holding half a cracker wrapper that was still smoldering, and covered head to toe in a fine dusting of black soot. In a blackened blast spot on the pavement in front of him there was a small heap of trinkets: pencil-sharpeners and wind-up tin toys and magnifying lenses and miniature playing-cards, all fused into a single mass by the heat of the explosion and what looked to have once been a good quantity of peppermint candy. Drifting down out of the sky was a colorful snowfall of paper hats and printed mottos by the dozens. There was no earthly way it could have all fit into the tiny pasteboard tube. Dantalion blinked down at the tattered remains of cracker as it turned to ash and blew away.

"...Did I use too much sulfur?" he wondered to himself, "or too much saltpeter?"

"What you didn't use was enough brains," William fumed, dusting soot out of his best Sunday jacket and stalking past Dantalion to go back to the dormitory. Demons! he thought, though he wouldn't say it aloud. Isaac hurried to keep up with him, while Sytry paused long enough to pluck a stray paper motto from Dantalion's lapel.

"It says, a bumbling idiot like you could never be Ruler of Hell," Sytry cooed, crumpling up the scrap of paper and stuffing it back in Dantalion's waistcoat pocket. "I couldn't agree more." Sytry produced a caramel paddle from somewhere and stuck it in his mouth before sauntering off, as Dantalion glowered after him and all the blowing paper hats burst into flames, staining the snow with ashy streaks.

Isaac was relieved that at least Camio had refused to take part in Sytry and Dantalion's wager. He was spending the holiday with Maria at her convalescent's home, and had no interest in their petty challenge, especially as success would not guarantee William's endorsement. Sytry said (once Camio was out of earshot) that Camio would really be spending most of the time bent over Beelzebub's harpsichord making sweet music for his master, and not the sort that required use of the keys, either. Isaac was scandalized, but grateful Camio was out of the running. It reduced the number of variables, anyway.

Which was good, because when the residents of Jacob House awoke the next morning, they found that their dormitory had turned to gingerbread overnight. And not only gingerbread, either. There was a good quantity of sugar frosting, and gumdrops, and almond-paste as well. Everything had been swapped for a candy counterpart. William awoke under blankets that were made of slabs of fondant, and that was just the start. His nightstand was built of candy-sticks, and his wash-pitcher was full of mulled cider. He was feverishly hoping the whole thing was just a dream, but the shouts of shock and delight in the corridors convinced him otherwise.

When he burst into the common room, the first thing he noticed was that it was freezing in there, which was to be expected when the fire was built from chocolate logs and candied cherries. The furniture was made of striped satin candy pillows, the tables were cake, and even the window-glass had transformed into panes of sparkling sugar. The students housed in the confection (after months of boiled kippers and eels in aspic from the school kitchen), were busily engaged in eating everything they could lay their hands on. It was, in their eyes, the greatest school prank ever. While they wondered aloud if it was an overlay of the actual architecture or if they had been swapped into the candy version of Jacob House while they slept, they were busily prying chunks of toffee walnuts from the mantle or eating entire pastry pages from their schoolbooks. The only person who wasn't delighted was Dantalion, standing in the corner and glowering at the whole melee. His expression told William instantly that this time, the Nephilim was not to blame.

The house mother had fainted away dead at the scene, and had been taken off to have a tipple of brandy in the president's kitchen, leaving William and Swallow to somehow restore order to the candy chaos. William tried to gather up the books to keep them from being eaten, but their taffy covers only stuck together and gummed up the front of his dressing-gown. Isaac came in the door, took one look at the chocolate-bar doors and candy-floss rugs, and went an unbecoming shade of off-white. Sytry, strolling in after him, was far more relaxed about things.

"Why," he said, ripping off the cover of one of the books (it was volume C-D of the Encyclopedia Britannica and made of ginger biscuit) and taking a large bite out of one corner, "Isn't this fun?"

"It's not fun, it's a disaster." William snatched the book-cover biscuit out of Sytry's hand and tried to stick it back onto the book, but the pages of that one were made out of cream filling and he only managed to gloosh the cover right into the middle of the book proper. He shook the gooey cover at Sytry in accusation. "You're responsible for this mess, aren't you?"

"MmmMmm," Sytry looked pleased with himself. "and it's a far better kind of Christmas gift than Someone's pathetic attempt." He glanced pointedly in Dantalion's direction. "Not that I'm naming any names."

Naming names wasn't really necessary; Dantalion's eyes flashed a furious hellfire red, and there was a pungent aroma of burnt sugar as all the candy in his immediate vicinity caramelized instantly.

"An edible dormitory isn't a Christmas gift!" William tried to put the books down, but they were good and stuck to his hands now, and he could only swat them at Sytry in futile annoyance. "It's freezing and sticky and you'll have everyone off their meals. Put everything back this instant!"

Sytry pouted. "You haven't even seen the fruitcake fountain. Or the gumdrop path in the garden."

William was no demon, but he was very near to melting some sugar himself as he leaned in to glare at Sytry. "Put. It. Back."

Sytry sighed. "Very well."

"And you'd better make sure that it's put back whole, and the things people have eaten don't turn into bricks and pillows and who knows what inside of them."

"Just how much of an amateur do you think I am?" Sytry snapped his fingers and in an instant, everything in Jacob House was back to normal. The students looked at each other in stunned confusion, unsure how they had all come to be standing around the common room in their night-clothes, and some of them with the beginnings of very bad tummy-aches.

"I want everyone back to their rooms this instant, and you're not to come out again until you're properly dressed." William clapped his hands smartly to get the more sluggish students to get a move on, and Swallow joined them, his face clouded and confused.

"Twining? How did we even get here?"

"Sleepwalking," William said, without batting an eyelash. "It can be contagious in confined groups, and spreads like a kind of hysteria. There are numerous studies on the subject and I recently read a remarkable article about it by an Austrian doctor, named Freud or some such. It was in the Times. I'll get you a clipping."

Mycroft Swallow blinked at William several times, but William's expression was one of unassailable calm and reason. Isaac knew (if Swallow didn't) that it was the one he put on in the face of the most blatant displays of supernatural power.

"O-oh." Swallow looked down at his rumpled dressing gown, and at the boys staggering slowly out into the corridor. "I'll just go and... wash up, I suppose."

"I can finish up here, go right ahead." William was still wearing his perfect resolve, painted on in a thick, glossy coat like a kind of enamel. Only when Swallow had followed the last student out did that exterior calm shatter. He wheeled on Sytry in a furious blur of questions.

"You turned the entire dormitory into a gingerbread house? Have you gone mad? Is this some sort of dementia induced by an excess of toffees?"

"It was only a bit of Christmas fun," Sytry said, unruffled by William's fists in his lapels.

"Christmas fun?" William repeated, and then again, an octave higher, "Christmas fun?! Waking up to find my school being eaten is not fun for Christmas, or for Easter, or Bonfire Night, or the Queen's bloody birthday! And why in the name of Isaac Newton do two demons care about Christmas so much all of a sudden?" He whirled around to include Dantalion, who until that moment had been gleefully enjoying Sytry's scolding.

"It's--" Isaac began.

"Only a bit of fun," Dantalion broke in smoothly, before Isaac could tell. "Really, William. There's no harm done."

"Of course," Sytry agreed, his perfect agreement with Dantalion both uncomfortable and surreal for the humans in the room. "It's a chance to have a little cheer with the season, you know. It's not like we can't undo what we do." He waved a hand at the restored common room. "You should relax and enjoy it. You didn't even try one of the licorice fire-irons, and I was quite proud of them."

"Er--" William began, disarmed by Sytry's logic. "It's a needless distraction," he muttered, in a decreasing fume that tapered off like a cooling tea-kettle's whistle. "Exams... nonsense... reasonable... licorice... codswallop..."

"Come on then, Dantalion," Sytry said, escaping from William's grasp and taking Dantalion by the elbow like they were the best of friends. "You promised to tell me what you were getting William for Christmas, only if he's going to be so naughty and grumpy I don't know if he deserves it." Sytry flashed a wink at William as he dragged the other demon out the door, leaving William staring numbly after them.

"William?" Isaac crept over to him, and tugged on the sleeve of his dressing gown. "William, are you all right?"

"I think I'm going to go lie down now," William said, in a small voice, and wandered off to do just that.

After that, it was open season. Every day, every hour, some new and miraculous Christmas wonder came to life on the school grounds. The teachers and staff were bewildered, the students delighted, and Kevin, as pastor, tried to remind everyone at any opportunity of the sacred truth of the season. But that was hard to do when whole herds of reindeer came trampling through Wednesday prayers, or all the forest birds descended on the main courtyard to decorate the founder's statue with garlands of holly and berries.

Exams were delayed when every student's desk was found to be stuffed full of the very best fruitcake; the kitchens served up their usual cabbagey sludge only to have it turn into roasted goose and trifle the moment the plates touched the tables. One day in the washroom the taps produced cold ginger beer and hot cocoa, and nowhere could a sock be left unattended without it being found later crammed to bursting with nuts and toffees and toys.

The students were convinced it was the doing of the staff and they were only being coy about the matter, while the staff was convinced there was some student prankster behind it all. None of them suspected that the onslaught of Christmas cheer was a war between two demons vying for the supremacy of Hell, not even when the Scripture Study Group's modest nativity play was interrupted by three strange foreign men in rich clothing, who made long and confusing speeches in incomprehensible accents but declared, alas, that the papier-mâché babe in the manger (cunningly made by Franklin Perkins, a sophomore) was not the child they were looking for. As a parting gift they left the audience with strange lumpy granules that smelled of church censers, while their camels left something rather less fragrant.

By Friday morning, with the holiday looming, William had had enough. He shoved a fresh pile of presents off his coverlet, dressed in a dressing gown that had somehow become crimson and green striped satin overnight, and went to find Isaac.

"I'll come," he said, without preamble.

"Pardon?" Isaac looked up from a new book about the magical properties of tea; it had been wrapped in festive paper at the foot of his bed that morning.

William sat down on the sofa next to Isaac, and wearily put his head into his hands. "I'll come to your house for the holidays," he said, "if the invitation still stands. If I have to stay here with Sytry and Dantalion and their nine ladies dancing or whatnot I shall go mad before Boxing-day."

"Erm," Isaac said, squirming in discomfort. "You're welcome to come, Willim, and it would be jolly to have you, really, but--eh."

William lifted his head just enough to stare at him. "What is it?"

"I, ah. I invited Sytry and Dantalion," Isaac admitted. "The truth is that they've been having so much fun, they said they were sorry not to see how mortals have Christmas and... I... er..." He pressed the edge of his book to his face, peeping at William like a wallflower behind her fan at a ball. "Sorry. But! I made them promise not to do anything demon-y while they were there, and they swore by all kinds of frightening things that the wouldn't, but mostly they swore by Lucifer, so I think it's all right. You can come, please say you'll come, don't stay here alone I mean, ugh, it's too awful."

"All right," William relented. "But you tell those two that the first puff of brimstone and it's over, they're going right back on the train or they can stand in the garden till Twelfth-night, for all I care."

"Yay, you're coming!" Isaac flung his arms around William's neck and then just as quickly recoiled in a transport of embarrassment. "Oops. Sorry. But this is going to be the best Christmas in just ever! I'm going to go dash off a note to Mum!" He skipped from the room, whistling a carol, and William sank back into the sofa with a wan smile.

There would be no best Christmas ever for him, not parentless and poor, with his uncle missing and the man who had been his constant support now strangely distant beneath his minister's surplice. But three weeks at Isaac's spacious home, with his whole boisterous family and his father's tales of Indian tiger-hunts and every sideboard overflowing with oranges and chocolates didn't sound half bad.

And it wasn't.

William realized that rather suddenly late in the afternoon of Christmas day, leaning in the doorway of Isaac's family drawing room and watching the youngest of his classmate's siblings perform their Christmas play for the guests. They had convinced Sytry to be their snow-fairy, and he stood in the middle of them with tinsel in his hair, a glimmering lord of misrule with a face like an angel.

"Little mortal children," Sytry said, waving his makeshift scepter (a ladle wrapped in ribbons) with the grandeur of Sarah Bernhardt in mid-soliloquy, "tell me why you make merry in the bitter winter's cold, for I am older than the ages and have forgotten all such joys."

"Rather good, I have to admit," Dantalion whispered, appearing so suddenly at William's elbow that he jumped. "But don't you dare tell him I said so."

"It's obscene," William said, without the scorn he wanted, as Sytry took hands with the children and let them lead him in a song and dance for the audience's delight and applause. "He's a demon playing at being a human playing a demon."

Dantalion considered this a moment. "Maybe he's getting what he wants for Christmas," he suggested. "And perhaps, if mortals dream this day of peace on earth, maybe we dream of peace between Heaven and Hell. It's no more unlikely, no more ambitious."

William's expression softened as Sytry bent down and picked up Isaac's youngest sister, all chestnut curls and satin ruffles, and swung her up on his shoulder.

"Prettiest mortal daughter," he asked, "wilt thou be Winter's bride, and thaw the cold of my immortal heart?"

"Perhaps so," William allowed, as the little girl considered, and the assembled guests urged her to say yes, so Christmas would be saved. "Maybe. But don't think I don't know what you've been up to." William stepped back further in the corridor, away from the lights of the little pantomime, and gestured for Dantalion to follow him. "Isaac told me you were trying to win my favor as elector by causing all that mayhem at school, so don't pretend to be all noble. It won't work."

"Ah." Dantalion sighed and spread his hands in defeat, looking up at the ceiling. "Then I suppose I won't get what I want for Christmas. It's not like I've been good."

"You most certainly have not--" William began, but broke off at the sound of flapping leathery wings, and followed Dantalion's gaze. Above them, flapping in a little circle, was a pair of bright-eyed bats. Amon and Mammon had a great ball of greenery strung on a ribbon, and it bobbed in the air between them as they held it aloft.

"We brought it, Lord Dantalion!" Amon squeaked.

Dantalion nodded in approval. "Good work, you two!"

William's mouth snapped shut. "You promised! No demon business! Talking bats are certainly not-- not--" Dantalion had somehow gotten very close to William, and it was like standing near the fire after being out in the cold. William felt his face growing hot. "What are you doing? Wait. Is that mistle--"

And that was as far as he got, as Dantalion leaned in and took what he wanted for Christmas, and gave away what William didn't even know he wanted. From the drawing room there was a cheer and the clamor of the piano as the play reached its happy ending, and William reached up and twined his fingers in Dantalion's hair, eyes closed, lips parted, and his demon's kiss burning against his mouth like a Yule-fire ablaze.

(And to all a good night.)


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