Welcome to day 24 of the Christmas Advent Calendar, and today we have a special ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ theme for you as we take a peek at a ghoulish winter scene from Horror legend Kim Newman’s latest title The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School.
Being an Unusual didn’t bestow special advantage in winter. Amy tried floating over the muddy frozen slush the snows turned into after a few days, but the cold numbed her Abilities as well as her toes… so she had to trudge with all the rest. Light Fingers kept her hands in constant motion, rubbing her arms and legs. She reported that it made little difference. Gould of the Fourth, who was supposed to have wolf blood, shivered and went blue-limbed on the hockey field like everyone else. Joxer’s seaweed – Drearcliff’s prime meteorological resource – was frozen stiff, suggesting spring was a good long way off. At this rate, not everyone would make it through winter.
On the third Saturday afternoon of term, Marigold de Vere – least hated of the whips – pitched up at Hypatia Hall. Amy had taken the extreme measure of asking Miss Borrodale for extra prep involving Bunsen burners in the hope of warming her perpetually chilly hands. De Vere put out a call for volunteers.
This was unheard-of. Whips, as a rule, press-ganged, enslaved and commandeered. ‘It’s been decided that the snowmen must go,’ announced de
Slightly warmed hands – including Amy’s – shot up. De Vere smiled broadly. She was a humorous Desdemona Sixth, with dimples, wavy blonde hair and a brother who drove racing cars. If Gryce ever fell from power, it was thought de Vere would replace her as Head Girl. Some invested hopes in a de Vere ascendancy the way pre-unification Italians believed in Garibaldi, but the hour of liberation was certainly not at hand. Gryce might have lost a few lieutenants – the Crowninshield Sisters skulked about together, avoiding the vengeance of those emboldened now the older witch was no longer a whip – but Head Girl was secure in her position. De Vere was too mild, easy-going and straightforward to undermine a rival, though many of her supporters weren’t above chicanery. Amy remembered what Keele, a chum of de Vere’s, had said. Her Boney – the phantoms that troubled her dreams the way those hatching eggs disturbed Amy – were creatures called the Cold Knights. How did Amy know it was spelled that way? She just did – it was an unsettling insight. That came with being Unusual.
The murder party consisted of Amy, Light Fingers, FitzPatrick and a random Ariel Second called Mrozková. De Vere marched them to Joxer’s shed, wrenched open the door and issued weapons – a rake, a hoe, a cricket bat and a long-handled axe. The whip herself took a paraffin blowlamp and lit it with a long match. She puffed an experimental burst of flame in the air. FitzPatrick jumped out of the way to avoid losing her eyebrows.
‘Leave no snow blighter standing,’ de Vere ordered.
Captain Freezing, first and foremost of the snowmen, commanded the front lawns, in sight of all School. The eight foot creature wore a plumed shako from a bygone Austro-Hungarian pageant. Leftover Christmas holly and ivy garlanded his broad shoulders. The very model of a Cold Knight. Icehearted to the core, the Captain had to go. De Vere strode across the snows, lamp thrust forward and upwards, and squirted fire into Captain Freezing’s face. His rope moustaches caught light. His head hollowed out. Hot meltwater gushed over his chest, eating like acid. De Vere stood back and signalled a general attack. Amy swung the axe, which sliced through Captain Freezing’s snow torso without doing much damage. FitzPatrick’s cricket bat was much more effective in smashing the snowman’s insides out. With savage glee, the party brought down the Captain and kicked his remains across the lawn. Mrozková raked over the spot where the Cold Knight had stood until only the flattened shako remained.
Amy expected cheers of triumph an encouragement – but everyone else was indoors, huddling around whatever warmth they could find. De Vere lead them on to the next snowman, and the next, and all the others. The Widow Winter, Chill Charlie, Glacé Cherry, the North Pole Cat, Frigid Freda, Sandokan the Snow Bear. With each victory the murder party grew more determined, more relentless. At first they whooped and yelled and insulted the enemy, jeering as faces melted and bodies exploded into fragments. Then, it became quiet, desperate work. The Cold Knights put up a fight, staying standing long after they should have gone down. It took all afternoon. When they were done, no one wanted to talk about it.
Amy had sores from gripping the axe handle with wet mittens. As a reward for the volunteers, de Vere arranged hot chocolate at teatime. Amy and the others dutifully accepted their treats. She sensed warmth, even burned her tongue, but couldn’t taste anything. Her hands and feet were dead – soaked through with sweat and snow-seepage, then frozen solid. Her face was icy rubber and her nose was blue. The snowmen were gone, but the snow was still here. The next morning, when the girls rose early for Chapel, Captain Freezing was back – hat, moustache and all. The Cold Knight had advanced, as if on a chess-board. He was stationed ten feet nearer the dorms, and seemed to angle his head upwards,
glaring at the slit windows of the Desdemona staircase. Amy and Light Fingers exchanged a grim look. There were no footprints around the Captain. It had snowed in the night so it was possible the marks of guilt were naturally obliterated. Amy’s first thought was that it must have been Gryce, putting her rival in her place… but she couldn’t imagine the Murdering Heathens braving Arctic dark to fashion a new Captain Freezing.
As Amy walked by the snowman, shivering from more than the cold, she caught sight of a girl she didn’t recognise. The stranger was skipping alone, deftly stepping over the rope, nodding as if hearing a rhyme in her head. Amy recalled the chanting, steeple-hooded monks in her Purple dream. Was this Mauve Mary? No, it was the wrong spot and the wrong time… and there was no violet glow. But the girl had the aspect of an apparition. Looking at her was deeply disturbing. She made Amy’s teeth feel funny. The skipping girl wore a sort of Drearcliff uniform. It took Amy moments to register the differences as if it were a ‘can you see what’s wrong with this picture?’ puzzle in the Girls’ Paper Annual Uncle Roger – her actual uncle, not one of Mother’s bogus beaux – gave her every Christmas. Instead of grey skirt with black side-stripe, she wore a black skirt with grey side-stripe. Everything else matched: black blazer with grey piping, black blouse with grey buttons, black socks with grey clocks, black straw boater with grey band, and jetblack tie with red-headed pin. The defier of uniform conventions was short and slight. Amy took her for a Second, though it turned out she was a Third. At first look, she appeared scrawny, undersized, weak… but she was skipping out of doors in a temperature well below freezing so she must be more resistant to the cold than Roberta Hale. She picked up pace without missing a step, face set in concentration, furrows between her eyebrows. She exhaled regular frosty plumes, like a piston-driven engine.
Given that Drearcliff welcomed gill-girls, brain-maggots and junior moth-women, Amy wondered whether the skipping fool was some sort of self-starting automaton – a life-sized wind-up toy with a clockwork brain and a boiler for a heart. Her straight black hair, cut off at her jawline like a helmet, seemed starched. Her boater didn’t fly loose as she jumped up and down, crissed and crossed, hopped on one foot then the other, silently counting off. If she was a tin toy, she showed no signs of running down.
This was Antoinette Rowley Rayne. The new new bug.
Join us tomorrow for the last window in our 2015 Titan Books Christmas Calendar and don’t forget you find past windows in our calendar on twitter and instagram using the #TitanXmas hashtag.