Ian the Reindeer somehow managed to look perfectly at home in a tacky Mexican restaurant, even though nothing about either Ian or the restaurant intersected thematically at any point. There was just something about the awful existential weariness of him, and the utter unapologetic cynicism of the bar. Neither one of them were putting in any effort whatsoever, and the result was a sort of sublime honesty that made Ian fit Dingo Loco like a hermit crab in its shell.
I looked at Ian, then across the bar at the Elves and their cadre of piss-up pals. “Aren’t you worried they’ll see you and realise their cover’s blown?”
“Not super-worried,” Ian said. “Part of their plan involves complete immersion. You can still see what they are, a little bit, but they can no longer see into slo-time. It was necessary, to avoid attention after they’d done the horse.”
Leaving the phrase ‘done the horse’ aside for a moment in the hopes that my subconscious mind would fill in some non-horrifying explanation so I wouldn’t have to ask Ian, I said, “Slo-time, that’s the other dimension Carl was talking about, right? Where Father Christmas lives?”
“It’s orders of magnitude more complicated than that,” Ian replied, “so let’s just say ‘yes’.”
I looked around. What I’d originally taken for a haze of bar-smoke was, I now realised, a more fundamentally odd atmospheric phenomenon. Like a sort of mist. “And that’s what we’re in now?”
“Again, let’s say ‘yes’.”
“But everyone’s still moving,” I pointed at the milling customers, the pint-pouring bar-muchacho. “I thought slo-time was, like, you could fly around the world and deliver presents to all the kiddies in a single night, sort of thing.”
“You can,” Ian said, giving Carl a pained look, “but you can also do this. And any of a thousand other things. Just like in the world you know, you can sit in a chair or walk across a room or drive in a car or get shot out of a cannon.”
That sounded like some sort of explanation, but when I analysed the words I realised it sort of wasn’t. And also, it had ‘shot out of a cannon’ in it, which automatically disqualified it as an explanation for anything except ‘how did that wall get covered in bits of clown?’.
“What do you mean, ‘done the horse’?” Creepy demanded, with his usual sensitivity to my poor delicate mind.
“The horse,” Ian said, “there are four of them. In the stables.”
I frowned. “What stables?”
“This building,” Carl replied. “That’s why they’re here. Nobbo and Wanker. This place used to be a bank, ever since the days of the early settlers,” I nodded. “But it wasn’t just a bank. It was a savings and loan type of place, and a post office, and a storage point for miners’ claims and salaries and all of that. It was basically an expansionist hub, and nobody even knew it. It had stables attached, they’re part of the cellar now.”
“Cellar,” Creepy said, glancing at me knowingly.
“But there’s no stable there now,” I said. “Not an actual stable.”
“No,” Carl said, “not an actual stable. Not here, anyway. But in slo-time, on that other layer, it’s still there. It’s where he keeps his horse. It’s where they all do.”
“Conquest. This is one of his bases,” she waited for a moment, as if expecting a reaction, then rolled her eyes slightly. “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
“There’s no Horseman called Conquest,” I objected.
“Commonly mislabelled as Pestilence,” Carl said.
“Honestly, Hatboy,” Creepy chided me.
“Oh don’t you even try,” I growled, then turned back to Ian. “Okay,” I said, “so, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, now we’re on slightly firmer end-of-the-world ground. I was starting to lose it there, with the Elves and the reindeer and all. So what did they do to the horses?”
“Carl’s calling it ‘equine flu’,” Ian said, “although it’s really more like a sort of slo-time smallpox. It’s an old illness, not fatal but it certainly takes it out of you. Only Death’s horse wasn’t vaccinated, but they only needed to put that one out of commission.”
“Death is against vaccinations,” Carl remarked. “Apparently that whole stupid movement was started by him.”
“It must have been difficult to make even complete idiots believe that inoculations cause autism,” Ian said. “Beautiful piece of work, really.”
“Why would Death want people to … oh,” I said sheepishly. “Right.”
“But the horse was just part of their bonus game,” Ian said, “a sort of final raising of the middle finger to The Claus before the curtain comes down for good. Put the Pale Horse out of commission, and Death will need a new navigator to get his posse through the mists. It’s…”
“Really, really complicated?” Creepy guessed.
“Right. Long story short, this will all go down on Christmas Eve, and that means The Claus will be out there with Rudolph the Brown-Nosed Sonofawhore. And he’s going to get roped into the big event.”
“God damn Rudolph,” Creepy enthused. “Nobody’ll ever laugh and call him names again.”
“I know, right?” Ian agreed. He and Creepy seemed like natural-born soul-mates. “But like I say, that’s just the icing on the cake for Nobbo and Wanker.
“They’re in it for the grand prize.”