The Changes That Come with Peace
WILLIAM THE ABSOLUTE YOUNGEST galloped through the enchanted village of Santoff Claussen on the back of a large Warrior Egg, a gift from E. Aster Bunnymund. “I can’t stop or I’ll be scrambled!” he shouted over his shoulder to his friend Fog. In this new game of Warrior Egg tag, to be scrambled meant you had been caught by the opposing egg team and therefore, had lost a point.
Sascha and her brother, Petter, were in hot pursuit, riding Warrior Eggs of their own. The matchstick-thin legs of the mechanical eggs moved so fast, they were a blur.
“Comin’ in for the scramble shot!” Petter warned. His long tag pole, with the egg-shaped tip, was inches away from Sascha.
“Eat my yolk,” Sascha said with a triumphant laugh. She pushed a button, and suddenly, her Warrior Egg sprouted wings. She flew over the others, reaching the finish line first.
William the Absolute Youngest slowed to a trot. “Wings!” he grumbled. “They aren’t even in the rules!”
“I invented them yesterday,” said Sascha. “There’s nothing in the rules that says you can’t use ’em.”
Soon Sascha was helping the youngest William construct his own set of eggbot wings. She liked the youngest William. He always tried to act older, and she appreciated his determination and spirit. Petter and Fog, feeling wild and industrious, catapulted themselves to the hollow of a tall tree where they had erected a hideout devoted to solving ancient mysteries, such as: why was there such a thing as bedtime, and what could they do to eliminate it forever?
Across the clearing, in a tree house perched high in the branches of Big Root—the tree at the center of the village—their friend Katherine contently watched the children play.
The air shimmered with their happy laughter. Many months had passed since the battle at the Earth’s core during which Pitch, the Nightmare King, had been soundly defeated by Katherine and the other Guardians: Ombric, the wizard; his apprentice, Nicholas St. North; their friend Nightlight; and their newest ally, the Pookan rabbit known as E. Aster Bunnymund. Pitch, who had hungered for the dreams of innocent children and longed to replace them with nightmares, had vowed with his Fearlings to make all the children of Earth live in terror. But since the great battle, he had not been seen or heard from, and Katherine was beginning to hope that Pitch had been vanquished forever.
As for Katherine and her battle mates, their lives were forever changed. The Man in the Moon himself had given them the title of “Guardians.” They were heroes now, sworn to protect the children of not just Santoff Claussen, but the entire planet. They had defeated Pitch, and their greatest challenge at present was how to manage the peace. The “nightmare” of Pitch’s reign seemed to be over.
The other children of the village now filled their days with mischief and magic. Bunnymund, who could burrow through the Earth with astonishing speed, had created a series of tunnels for them, connecting the village with his home on Easter Island and with other amazing outposts around the world, and the children had become intrepid explorers. On any given day they might journey to the African savanna to visit the lions, cheetahs, and hippopotami—Ombric had taught them a number of animal languages, so they had numerous stories to hear and tell. Many of the creatures had already heard of their amazing adventures.
The children also regularly circled through Easter Island for the latest chocolate confection Bunnymund had invented, and could still be back in time for dinner and games with Bunnymund’s mechanical egg comrades. The eggs were once Bunnymund’s warriors; now they helped the children build all manner of interesting contraptions, from intricate egg-shaped puzzles where every piece was egg-shaped (a nearly impossible and frankly unexplainable feat) to egg-shaped submarines. But no matter where the children roamed or what they did to occupy their days, whenever they returned home to Santoff Claussen, it had never seemed so lovely to them.
As Katherine sat in her tree house, she put her arm around Kailash, her great Himalayan Snow Goose, and looked out on her beloved village. The forest that surrounded and protected Santoff Claussen had bloomed into a kind of eternal spring. The massive oaks and vines that had once formed an impenetrable wall against the outside world were thick with leaves of the deepest green. The huge, spear-size thorns that had once covered the vines grew pliant and blossomed with sweet-scented flowers.
Katherine loved the smell, and drew a deep breath of it. In the distance she could see Nicholas St. North walking with the beautiful, ephemeral Spirit of the Forest. She was more radiant now than ever before. Her gossamer robes were resplendent with blooms that shimmered like jewels. North was deep in conversation with her, so Katherine decided to investigate. She climbed on to Kailash’s back and flew down into the clearing, just in time to see William the Absolute Youngest try out the new wings with which he’d outfitted his Warrior Egg. He landed and trotted over to her.
“Want to race with us, Katherine?” he asked. He gave Kailash a scratch on her neck, and the goose honked a hello.
“I will later!” Katherine said, smiling. She waved to her friends and headed into the forest, realizing that it had been quite some time since any of the children had asked her to play, and an even longer time since she had accepted. In joining the world of the Guardians, she was in a strange new phase of her life—where she was neither child nor adult. As she watched the youngest William fly away with Sascha close behind him, she couldn’t help but feel a bit torn.
Then she heard North’s hearty laugh and, underneath that, the more musical tones of the Spirit of the Forest. Katherine hurried toward them, thinking that it was hard to believe that when North first came to Santoff Claussen with his band of outlaws, it had been with the intent to steal its treasures. The Spirit of the Forest, the village’s last line of defense, had turned North’s crew of cutthroats and bandits into stone statues—hideous, hunched elves. But she had spared North, for he alone among them was pure of heart.
When Katherine caught up with the Spirit and North, they were standing in that most strange and eerie part of the forest—the place where North’s men stood frozen in time, like stones in a forgotten burial site. With the Spirit’s help, North was bringing his bandits back to human form.
As the Spirit touched the head of each statue, North repeated the same spell, “From flesh to stone and back again. To serve with honor, your one true friend.” And one by one they emerged from their frozen poses. To North’s great amusement, they hadn’t regained their size. They were still the same height as their stone selves—about two feet tall, with bulbous noses and high, childlike voices.
“Welcome back,” North called out, slapping each of the elfin men on the back.
The men stamped their little feet and waved their little arms to get their blood flowing again, and soon the children, drawn by North’s laughter, arrived. They were shocked; they often played among these small stone men, and now that they were moving—were alive, in fact—the children were most intrigued. Tall William, the first son of Old William, towered over them. Even the youngest William was overjoyed—at last he was taller than someone else.
While the children watched, the little men kneeled before North. They took on new names as they pledged to follow their former outlaw leader in a new life of goodness. Gregor of the Mighty Stink became Gregor of the Mighty Smile. Sergei the Terrible was now Sergei the Giggler, and so on.
It was an odd but auspicious moment, especially for North. He remembered his wild, unruly life as a bandit and the many dark deeds that he and these fellows had committed. He’d become a hero, a man of great learning, good humor, and some wisdom. So much had changed since that moment when he faced the temptation of the Spirit of the Forest, when he had rejected her promises of treasure and had chosen to save the children of Santoff Claussen.
North turned and looked at young Katherine. He felt the full weight of all they had been through. They had both changed. It was a change he did not fully understand, but he knew he was glad for it. For though these dwarfish fellows in front of him had once been his comrades in crime, North, in his heart, had been alone. But that was past. This was a different day. And through the friendship he now knew, he could change bad men to good and stone back to flesh.
North gently asked his old confederates to rise. They did so gladly.
Peace had indeed come.
Katherine took North’s hand, and together they welcomed these baffled little men to the world of Santoff Claussen.