Hero: Sparx

Villain: Lord Fear/Kilobyte/Santa Clawz (Zombish Santa Clause with claws!)

Item: Mistletoe

A/N: Written as Christmasfic for Wile E. Coyote.

Disclaimer: Own nothing.

Beep, beep, beep. Pow, pow.

"Who's da man? That's right—go Chucky!"

Mark walked up behind his friend, and eyed the computer screen, sceptical of the statement.

"What's this, Chuck?" he asked.

"Hold on, Mark, the Chuckinator needs to smash a few zombies first."

On the screen, Mark saw the blond cartoon figure so unlike the Ace he had come to know dash around, shooting lightning bolts at a group of three zombies headed towards him; the figure managed to barbecue two of them, but the third still headed towards him as a small green blob in the top of the screen grew larger as they drew closer to it.

"C'mon, c'mon…" Chuck muttered.

The two figures were almost directly under the green blob when a chime sounded, and Mark jumped.

"Oh no…." Chuck complained.

Ace and the zombie were leaning towards each other, no longer engaged in trying to destroy but to…

"…to kiss?" Mark's mouth hung open as the camera's viewpoint zoomed conveniently away from the two onscreen sprites.

Chuck sighed. "Yeah, dude. Mistletoe."

The camera angle suddenly zoomed back towards Ace, now separated from the zombie and drawing a hand across his mouth, and Chuck quickly fired a few blasts to finally destroy the minion.

"Christmas special edition," Chuck added, guiding the figure through a row of candy canes. "Every time you end up under the mistletoe with something you have to kiss it, though unless it's Sparx you don't have to actually see it." He sighed wistfully. "I played that bit ten times."

"Don't tell Sparx that," Mark said. He picked up the game case lying next to his friend's machine. "'Ace Lightning: Santa Clawz Bonus'," he read aloud from the luridly decorated cover. "'It's a happy Christmas for the Lightning Knights in the Thunder Tower…until the evil Santa Clawz steals all the presents! Can Ace Lightning save the holiday in time?'" He put the case back down on the pile of clutter on the desk. "Sounds…really corny, Chuck."

"Jessica says the boss bit is cool, and it's harder than it looks." Onscreen, the animated figure ran onto a snowdrift, skittering around as Chuck attempted to regain control. "Aww, no!" Chuck cried as the sprite fell off a cliff and "Game Over" flashed on the screen in red and green.

"C'mon, Chuck," Mark said. "You could use some fresh air. I've got to take Ashley to the shopping centre this afternoon. Coming?"

"Nope, sorry dude," Chuck said. "I've gotta crack this game by tonight before Jessica comes online."

"Okay, I'll just face taking an eight-year-old shopping on my own, then." He sighed. "Still coming to Christmas dinner?"

"You bet, dude! Your mom's cooking rules," Chuck said absently, starting up a new game. "Hey, what about Ace and Sparx?"

"What about them?" Mark asked.

"Duh! Christmas," Chuck said. "They can't miss out on the year's biggest holiday. We could like have our own party in the Thunder Tower. I'll bring the snacks."

"Yeah," Mark said slowly. "Yeah, that could work. I'll bring crackers and decorations." He looked at his watch. "Anyway. I should go now."

His friend was still busily occupied with the game; Mark watched him for a minute longer, and then quietly shut his friend's study door behind him.

"At last!"

The mortal ripped off the box's cover and rummaged inside, paying no attention to the packaging he was scattering all over the grass.

"Santa suit—" he laid a package with some red material spilling out of it to the side. "Tinsel—" long strings of bright material were taken out. "Christmas cookies…"

"Pigface eat!" The minion who had assisted him in taking in the large box sprang. "Mmm. Cookies."

"No! They're for the customers!" Duff Kent reached for the closest thing to hand, which happened to be a long strand of tinsel. "Back off or I use this!"

"What's that?" Pigface stared at the glittering substance between Kent's hands.

"It's…something I'll use if you eat the Christmas cookies! A guy's gotta make a living somehow."

"Pretty string." Pigface continued to advance towards the foodstuffs.

"No! Stop!" Duff flailed at the minion, but the pig brushed it off with little interest.

"Pigface need eats." He ripped open the box, rooting and grunting in pursuit of food as Duff Kent watched in agony.

And as the cardboard and supplies fell to the ground, something golden flashed in the thin air.

"Wait!" Duff picked up the thing that he hadn't ordered. "Isn't this one of your little doo-hickey thingamajigs?" He waved it at Pigface in hope of distracting him from the merchandise.

To his surprise, it actually worked.

"Pigface found another amulet piece!" The thing grabbed the little golden shard from his hand. "We use this."

"Another piece of the Amulet of Zoar is ours." A tentacle swooped from midair to snatch the piece from Pigface's hand, and then a giant wasp landed on the ground. "Well done." Kilobyte slid off the wasp, taking the piece in his hand and turning it over meditatively.

"What evil will emerge from the Sixth Dimension this time, Kilobyte?" Lord Fear stalked out from the Haunted House, adding one more to the gathering of villains.

Kilobyte smiled thinly. "Put it together and see." A tentacle snapped out and threw the piece into Lord Fear's waiting fingers.

"Then let us cast into the Sixth Dimension and discover what rogue will reassemble from parts unknown." Lord Fear forced the newest piece of the amulet together with two already fused pieces, and the usual glow appeared between them.

Duff Kent blinked as a space in reality opened in front of his eyes; the portal was a black thing that didn't belong in his carnival, and inside it a shape of something else that did not belong formed and stepped out.

It was at least six feet high, and the bright red costume that Duff really wished he didn't recognise made its bloated mass apparent. Its face was a brown skull with gobbets of flesh hanging from it and malevolent yellow eyes glowing within the sockets, and it raised both hands in front of itself, revealing long, decaying claws.

"Meet the Santa Clawz." It laughed, and the almost jovial-sounding ho-ho-ho was more disturbing than any of the normal evil laughs when coming from that. "Christmas isn't going to be merry this year."

"Not if I have anything to say about that!"

Duff ducked for cover behind his box as the sixth entity joined the conversation.

"It's about time you evils crawled out from under your rocks."

He saw red fire scorch the ground in front of him, and cringed behind the cardboard he knew for sure was extremely flimsy.

"Pigface give Knight early Christmas present!" Duff guessed it was the snot attack, and pulled one of the flaps to the side so that it almost covered him.

"Suck it up, piggy!"

"Allow me."

"Same to you, bone man!"

"You Lightning Knights are pathetic."

"Yeah? So eat this for mortal Krist-whatever, squid boy."

"Yes! It's a happy holiday." The zombie laughed again. "Not for the Knights, though, because I am the Santa Clawz!"

"Is that with a 'z' or 's'? Because 'z's are so much cooler, man."

"It's with a 'z'—which is also the shape of a cut of my claws!"

"Aw, man!"

More blasting; he could hear the Knight yelling and the evils laughing. Hopefully the battle was going the worse for the Knight; the sooner this was over the better.

A beeping noise.

"Ace! Rumble at the carnival. Oh, pick up, come on—hey!"

Something smashed into the ground.

"That was Knight property! Now I'm gonna get really mad."

More blasting.

"The Santa Clawz is not defeated!"

"Yeah, yeah. Kick one supervillain's butt, you've kicked them all—ow!"

"Prepare to face your doom, Knight."

"No way! Have a happy holiday while you can, 'cause I'll be back!"

A whistle, then a quick rumble fading into the distance. Duff poked his head out to make sure the Knight had disappeared, and then crawled out from his hiding place, dusting off his knees.

"She won't live much longer," Kilobyte said.

"And I have just the plan utilising our newfound friend to make sure of it. Do you want a rundown of it, Kilobyte?"

"Very well. Let me hear it."

"It starts like this…"

"…Hold on, Ashley, I want to go get something from here." Mark looked through the window of the town's only electronics store.

Ashley's lip trembled. "But I want to see Santa! He's just over there." She pointed to where a man in a red suit was in the centre of a large group of children, holding a small blonde boy on his lap. "All the other children are already there. I don't wanna miss it."

Mark looked down at her. "Okay, Ashley. You can go and wait in line, as long as you stay right there, all right? I won't be long, I promise."

"Yay!" Ashley beamed. "Thanks, Marky. I'll be right back."

She rushed off to the line with glee, and Mark managed a smile at her back. It was kind of nice that she was so excited; he hadn't felt that full of beans for years.

He walked into the store, glancing around to see if he could find anything good, and making his way to check the price tag on the battery pack in the window. Not too expensive, and Sparx would like the bright design on the packaging if nothing else—but would she be able to use human batteries for the Flash? At least she'd get energy from it. And there was a deluxe model racing car, but since the Knights tended to blast those things around a lot, there wouldn't be a point in getting them something expensive. And a fantastically designed torch with different colour options—now there was something that had a use and looked good enough to be a gift. Or perhaps there'd be something in the bargain bin; there was what looked like an old Nintendo on top of it, which Ace might enjoy playing with, a build-your-own mini recharger, a light-up bouncy ball…

It took him longer than he thought, but Mark eventually managed to decide on a lava lamp for Ace and the extra-large battery pack for Sparx. At the checkout he added a chocolate for Ashley; she'd been waiting patiently as he carefully selected his presents…

…or had she? As the clerk handed him his purchases and he stuffed them into his backpack, Mark realised that he couldn't see her anywhere in the crowd of children.

He snatched the proffered receipt rudely, not hearing the clerk's exclamation, and raced out to find her. He hadn't spent that long in the store, had he?

He tried to calm himself down—it didn't mean anything strange had had to have happened just because he hadn't been able to see Ashley from inside the electronics shop, did it?—but as he got closer to the store Santa he still couldn't find her anywhere.


He shoved his way past the crowd of children, who stared at him in shock at his rudeness.

"Have you seen a girl with dark hair and a fairy backpack?" he asked breathlessly. "She's about this high, and her name's Ashley and she wanted to see Santa…"

"She went that way, I think," the Santa Claus said, pointing. "And don't barge in like that, please."

"Sorry," Mark called, dashing off again. Hopefully she wouldn't have gone too far, hopefully she was safe… "Thanks!"

"Heh, heh."

The voice was a cause for immediate concern, and he turned sharply to the right to see the Rat's familiar face.

"Lost something, Lightning Junior?"

"You leave my cousin alone!" Mark drew his wrist cannon out of his backpack. He had hoped he wouldn't need it, but with Ashley with him he had made a last-minute decision to keep it just in case of this happening.

"It's not you we're going to destroy, it's your Lightning Knight friends. Soon." The Rat ducked out of the way of Mark's blast. "Going to call them for help?"

"Where. Is. Ashley?"

The Rat flew towards the double doors at the end of the old corridor.

"Right here, Lightning brat. She'll be Christmas dinner if you don't hurry up!"

The doors flew open as the Rat collided with them, and above the carpark Mark could see what looked like a sleigh painted blood red and black, drawn by six nasty-looking reindeerlike creatures…

…with Ashley screaming in the back, and a zombie-looking villain piloting it.

The Santa Clawz in that game.

"Ashley!" He fired at the sleigh, but the blasts didn't quite reach up there.

"Later, kid! Before your precious little cousin becomes Christmas dinner!" The Rat departed too, flying too quickly for Mark's blasts to do anything more than singe his tail.

People were starting to come out to the carpark to see what the noise was, and Mark ducked for cover behind a row of shopping trolleys.

"Hey, kid!"

He turned on instinct, aiming his wrist cannon at the voice behind him.

"Easy, it's me. I was on my way back to the Thunder Tower when I saw that freak over here. What happened?"

"He took my cousin. Sparx, we've got to get to the Carnival before something happens to her."

"Fine by me." She moved the Lightning Flash towards him. "Hop in and let's fly. That evil's not getting away with kidnapping a mortal on my watch."

Mark gulped as the ground flew away from him at an amazing rate, and concentrated very resolutely on the thought of rescuing Ashley.

"…And when caught under the mistletoe this year, don't forget to kiss your sweetheart," the woman on the screen said with a roguish wink. "We here at Conestoga Hills Television Broadcasting Services hope you enjoy a wonderful holiday, and have fun with some of the interesting Christmas traditions we've talked about today. Signing out, this has been Connie Woodwad, Conestoga Hills Christmas special reporting. Happy Holidays to you all."

The screen changed to an advertisement for carpets, which Ace watched with some bemusement, then information about a toy sale in the shopping centre, a new swimming pool opening in town, and a special Christmas deal on carpets.

"You'd better watch out, you'd better not cry, you'd better not pout, I'm telling you why, Santa Claus is coming to town…"

A large, red-suited figure appeared on screen, pulled on a sleigh drawn by strange-looking quadrupeds; it was clearly this mysterious Santa Claus figure. Ace watched in fascination as the song explained that it was his responsibility to give presents to good people.

And this Santa Claus, it was apparent, was a creature not like a mortal, but rather more like himself, and apparently not just a fictional character than the usual run of silly would-be superheroes but instead a creature who would be coming into the mortal world in not too long a time; the woman had said something similar.

But was this Santa Claus an ally or a foe to the Lightning Knights? Mark would know, no doubt, and Ace decided he would fly to the Hollander house and attempt to find out. There was no sense in wasting more time watching television, not when there were fellow-creatures possibly about to star in a mortal festival.

"C'mon, kid, it's not that bad!" Duff Kent rummaged through his pocket and finally brought out a grubby-looking lollipop. "Here. Have some candy. Just don't tell anyone I gave you a freebie, all right?"

She continued to yell, a sound more like a harpy or siren out of myth than any real human creature, and Duff shivered. She'd scare off all the customers at this rate.

"Be quiet be quiet please be quiet…"

The yell continued, then finally stopped as she stared up at him.

"Are you going to let me out of here?" she demanded.

"I can't. They'd kill me," he said helplessly. "They'll let you go when your friends turn up, okay? You can name your candy if you stop screaming, I..."

She started screaming again, and Duff clamped his hands firmly over his ears. "Please, no!"

The car wasn't in their driveway, and Ace couldn't see any signs of life in the Hollander household, though he approached cautiously anyway. Mark tended to get so upset about the possibility of his parents seeing something they shouldn't.

There was nobody in the back garden; he dropped soundlessly down from his flight, and gently pushed at the back door, which turned out to be locked.

It would clearly be wrong to break any more of Mark's furniture, he decided, aided in the choice by Mark's open window, and flew up to enter in.

Mark's room seemed deserted; just in case his friend was in another part of the house, Ace floated down the stairs. It looked like Mark had been doing some serious interior decoration here, covering most surfaces with either sparkly tinsel or bright red-and-green decorations; there was even plantlike material draped over the television.

The house seemed to be empty—Sparx had been talking about humans needing to go out and celebrate this time of year, and the television program he had just viewed seemed to echo this—though a tree set up in a corner of the dining room attracted Ace's attention, and instead of flying away immediately he went to take a closer look. Surely that much tinsel draped over anything which appeared to once have been living had to be at least an interesting phenomenon.

It was decked with small, shiny baubles, too; Ace poked one with his finger and looked at how it distorted the finger's reflection. The bright baubles were placed among the equally shiny tinsel, until the very top of the tree, where a small golden angel was seated.

Ace reached out a hand to gently touch the gilt coating on the pretty ornament. It was surprisingly warm through its glove, and then he was forced to take a step back in alarm as it rapidly grew in size.

After a short transformation, Lady Illusion stood in front of him, and after a long moment Ace realised he still had his hand on her breast; he pulled his hand away as though he had just rested it on a white-hot stove.

"I'm no angel, Lightning," she said.

"I'll make sure to never mistake you for one." Ace smiled at her. "What are you doing here?"

"In theory, keeping an eye on things. What about you? Keeping a hand on…things?"

He blushed. "That was an accident…" Glancing upwards he noticed a plastic decoration resembling something in one of his recent memory banks, and he scrolled through to find the reference. "Mistletoe," he said, pointing up to it.

"What of it?"

"It's mortal tradition that two people trapped beneath it are, ah, obliged to kiss."

"Kiss what?" she asked coolly.

"Um. Each other, I guess."

"It's a mortal tradition. Is that truly relevant to such as us?" She took a step closer to him.

"We're in the mortal world."

"Yet not of it, as another human tradition would have it."

The quote sounded vaguely familiar to him, and he quickly ransacked his memory banks for further information. "That's more about morality, I think…"

"Which we have already decided I possess none of."

"Well. You saved me…and," he added quickly, "there is nothing in the tradition stating that only the moral may honour it."

"Ah, but is it only the mortal?" Her hand closed around his arm, and she drew him a step away from the human symbol.

"It would be a pity to disappoint such long-held traditions."

"We do not need such things, of course, but I begin to see your point." Her face was barely an inch away from his now, and with her hand around his arm she slowly pulled him closer.

We do not need them, but it is possible to want them, he was about to say, but the retort was flung very far to the back of his throat by the dawning realisation that her face was very close to his now.

And she kissed him, and if that had been what was needed to wake him from being frozen in stone no wonder, and no wonder humans went on about this sort of thing, and he'd dreamed of this he was sure, but the reality was much better…

She pulled away eventually, and smiled expectantly at him.

"This is a human holiday," he said, as composedly as he could. "But it doesn't stop people like us taking a break, does it?"

She reached for his hand. "That's one of the most sensible things I've ever heard you say, Ace Lightning."

The scream was inhuman, weird and horrifying and hopelessly attention-attracting.

Duff jumped and vibrated in front of the fence, not sure what to do, taking one step towards a direction he thought might house equipment to deal with this crisis before realising it probably wouldn't work, and start walking in a different direction before the same thing happened, and grimly thinking that if he looked funny it might stop the kid from making that awful noise.

And then the giant wasp landed.

"Silence!" Kilobyte commanded, and the power of his overlord's voice almost sent Duff to his knees.

Ashley continued to scream.

"I said silence!" he yelled again, but the words were almost lost in the power of Ashley's voice.

"No!" Duff called as the tentacle appeared from Kilobyte's back. "She's a kid, you'll hurt her!"

Ashley stopped suddenly, staring at Kilobyte's extra appendage. "You're the Octopus Man!" she said in delight. "You're thinner here, but I watch your show every Saturday morning."

There was a character like that, Duff recalled, a kid's cartoon involving a man who grew octopus tentacles at every inconvenient opportunity as well as a few other human/marine comic hybrids.

"I am not the Octopus Man. I am Kilobyte, the Cyber Stalker, the Terror of…"

"Can you tie it in a knot?" Ashley asked him.

Kilobyte purpled. "No! I don't…"

Ashley opened her mouth to start screaming again.

"We've got to stop that noise, Kilobyte," Duff said cheerily. "And at this stage in the Master Plan we can't afford to lose the hostage, can we, sir?"

Kilobyte stared at him. "We can do whatever we like to mortals!"

"When they make that sort of sound?" Duff crossed his arms across his chest.

"But…" Kilobyte's face remained an odd sort of purple colour as he stared at the determined-looking child.

"I want to see you tie it in a knot." Ashley folded her arms stolidly.

"Lord Fear's not around here," Duff pointed out helpfully. "Nor any of the others."

Indeed, the area was empty for now, though sooner or later the screams would have attracted somebody.

"Go and be on the lookout for our expected guests," Kilobyte said to Duff, who took the hint and disappeared.

"That's better," Ashley said, after a while. "Can you do tricks with the other three as well?"

"Okay." Sparx tumbled off the Flash, and Mark stepped down more cautiously. "We made it here. Know where they're keeping your cousin, kid?"

"Nope," Mark said, once the ground had stopped moving around him. "We'll look. But be careful, okay, Sparx? We can't let them find us too. We have to be stealthy."

"Hey, who says I can't do stealth?" Sparx said. She walked over to lean against the Haunted House's back wall. "Just let me get my breath back and I'll be as stealthy as you want."

Mark stared at her in slowly-growing awareness that her form had started to flicker around the edges. "Sparx? Are you…okay?"

"Yeah, just had a bit of a rumble this morning and didn't get the chance to power up," she said irritably. "Told you, I'll be…"

A stone under her foot gave way and she tumbled to her knees.

"…Fine," she said, picking herself up slowly.

"We can call Ace. I didn't bring my phone with me, but you have yours…don't you?"

"Nah. I lost it during the rumble then those evils smashed it." Sparx slammed her fist into her hand. "We'll get them. As soon as you show me to the Carnival's power source."

"Sounds like a plan to me, Sparx. Let's go."

"Hello, Chuck. Are Mark and Ashley with you?"

"Nope, he's at the shopping mall, Mrs H." Chuck held the phone with his chin as he continued playing his computer game.

"He ran out of there around an hour ago, without Ashley, we heard, and we don't know where they are. Do you have any idea where he would have gone?"

"Nope." The Carnival. "Sorry." He was; lying was wrong, he knew, but he couldn't tell Mark's mother that he was a superhero's friend.

"Oh. Well, please call me, Chuck; Ashley's only eight and it's not like Mark to leave her like this."

"I'll tell you if I know anything for sure," Chuck said, which wasn't quite a lie. There was an idea that you couldn't possibly know anything at all for sure, wasn't there?

"All right. I'm going to call the Ramirez boy next, Chuck; do you know any other names?"

"Sorry, I got nothing, unless you want Heather. Or Kat."

"I've called Kat already." Mark's mother sounded very worried, and Chuck knew he had to get off the phone before he told her everything.

"He'll turn up, Mrs H. I'll call you, okay? But I gotta hang up now."

Chuck glanced at the screen and his game manual one last time, and then quickly shut off his computer. He had a real game to play, if he wasn't mistaken, and he'd have to be at the Carnival, stat.

"Here, Sparx. Just hold onto this." Mark handed her the long electrical cable.

"Thanks, kid." She reached down to take it in her gloves, and threw her head back as she felt the current start to rush into her. "That's better!"

"That is the only Christmas present you will receive from us—unless this counts!"

Sparx had barely turned around when the green bolt struck her in the back.

Mark dashed for cover, rummaging through his backpack for his wrist cannon. Thank Zoar he'd remembered to bring it today, even if he'd left his phone behind at Ashley's insistence that he not get called away from her important mission of seeing Santa.

"Where's his cousin?" Sparx yelled as she drew her sword. "Tell us and we won't destroy you, skullface."

"You may grace your final moments with braggadocio, Knight. But you don't need to be worrying about that raucous relative. Worry about our new secret weapon…whom, I think, you have already met."

It was the Santa Clawz, Mark knew, and Sparx spun around to check where he was. He wasn't creeping up behind her, surprisingly enough, and Mark looked around waiting for the thing to emerge.

"Mark!" he heard Sparx scream, and looked up just in time to see the thing leaping from above him, claws aimed straight for his head.

He fell to the ground and rolled aside; even so, he felt the claws rip through the bottom of his jeans as Sparx ran to his side with her sword drawn.

"Duff says Christmas is a time for food," he heard Pigface say somewhere to his right, and he struggled to his feet to face the minion while Sparx duelled the Santa Clawz.

"And you are the next course."

Mark fired his wrist cannon, and missed as it hurtled towards him. He tried to duck, but as the minion rushed past him he felt pain in his shoulder.

"No Ace Lightning to save you this time," Pigface gloated. "Stand still."

"They will have to, my porcine minion." Before Mark could jerk himself away, green light hit his wrist and threw him on the grass. He desperately tried to lever himself up again; his cannon had taken most of the blow's force, but his arm felt like it was badly bruised at least.

"Now where is Kilobyte to complete the party?" Lord Fear asked. "If only he could see what we have done to his foes…"

"We aren't done yet," Sparx snapped. The Santa's claws against her sword were forcing her back, and each time they collided small spikes of electricity jolted from them and seemed to shock her for a moment, but she was still standing and fighting.

"No matter. You will be." Lord Fear shot at Sparx; it hit her dead on, flinging her into away from the Santa Clawz and into a stall. "Clawz, destroy the mortal first."

The thing advanced towards him; its breath stank like something had died a long time ago and neve managed to completely decay. Mark tried to fire his wrist cannon, but it would not obey his command, clinging uselessly to his aching arm.

There was only one thing he could do: turn and run, and hope that he could find Ashley before it was too late.

Mark made a dash for it, turning away from Santa Clawz' attack and running up the midway.

The rotting breath remained close behind him—the thing was fast, too fast. He could outrun it, though, he was sure, just keep going and don't look back until you get to Ashley…

And then something hit across his back, hard, and there was the sound of something that probably wasn't him striking the ground, and then he couldn't sense the Clawz around him any more.

As he ran, he risked a glance back, and saw the Clawz slowly picking itself up from the ground—had that been Sparx?—while Sparx held off Lord Fear and Pigface as best she could.

He had to save Ashley, Mark knew, and kept running.

"Thanks for the ride, Lightning."

"My pleasure." He carefully lowered her to the ground behind the ring-toss stall. "It was…fun, to get out for a while. I don't suppose you want to do that again…"

She put a finger on his lips to silence him. "Did I miss something?" she whispered, jerking her head to indicate a spot behind him.

Ace turned around to notice Kilobyte, obviously terrifying a small mortal into silence. The break had been wonderful, but it was evidently past time to get back into the blast of things, and by the time he'd aimed his wrist cannons Lady Illusion had sprung away from him and prepared a crystal ball of her own.

"Who asked you to our Carnival?" she said loudly, tossing a smoke bomb at him.

"I don't know. I came to do right and fight evil, of course." he returned. Ace launched a sudden blast at Kilobyte, shocking him away from where the mortal—Mark's cousin, he realised, Asha or Anna or something—was imprisoned.

Lady Illusion's bombs impacted the air around him, blocking his vision but doing little actual damage, and he fired at Kilobyte as best he could through the haze, focusing on keeping him away from the mortal at all costs.

The carnival seemed mostly emptied of customers; no wonder considering the big Christmas sales. Chuck edged carefully between the stalls, looking for whatever disturbance might be going on, and where the heck Mark was.

Something was exploding to his left; tripping over a cord he managed to catch a glimpse of the fight going on, and knew he had to help.

Ashley was just there, held in a deserted booth behind a fence, and there was Mark, running like a nightmare was chasing him. It was time for the Chuckinator to step in and save the day.

He ran towards Ashley, staying low and trying to avoid the superpowered battle going around him, by sheer willpower stopping himself from collapsing into a coughing fit from the smoke.

"Ashley, we'll get you out in no time," he said as he finally reached her, Mark just next to him.

"Marky, you came for me! The big guy with tentacles had to babysit me, and he wasn't very happy about it."

Babysit? Kilobyte Mark and Chuck exchanged near-identical stares of disbelief.

"Come on, Ashley." Mark reached down and not without effort lifted her out. "Now let's go." He glanced behind himself as though expecting the monster to pop out at any second—which, in the Carnival of Doom, it probably would.

"Chuck, there's this new thing in the carnival," Mark said hurriedly to his friend. "It's the Santa Clawz, like from your game. Sparx is fighting it. You have any bright ideas?"

"The Santa Clawz. Well, it's kinda really cheesy…" Chuck began through his panting.

"I don't care."

"Well, it's kinda meant to be defeated by the spirit of Christmas. Which should really be yule logs and human sacrifices, you'd think, but in the game it's just the presents you collect at the end of each level. They're meant to symbolise your love for your friends. Only it's a bit more complicated than that, because there's a cheat code I haven't solved yet and other bonus items can help, so I don't know if that's helping us…"

"No, you're brilliant. That's how I escaped before. Thanks, Chuck."

"No problem. I guess."

"Sparx!" Mark called. She was back fighting the Santa Clawz, parrying his blows with her sword, bright metal flashing in the winter light.

"Kid!" she panted. She'd somehow managed to hold off all three minions around her, but she was flickering badly now, barely an inch away from the datastream.

"Chuck, help me get my backpack off," Mark said. "Hurry." He couldn't pull it over his arm himself, but his left arm would be able to do the job.

Contents: one lava lamp, one battery pack, old math homework…enough to stop a supervillain?

"Merry Christmas!" Mark yelled as he slammed his backpack into the Clawz' back.

"What's in that thing?" Sparx asked. It had thrown the Clawz to the ground, though the zombie was getting back up again for the fight, and the liquid now dripping from Mark's bag made him doubt that another round would be possible.

"It's…okay, Sparx, what's Christmas about?"

She looked confused.

"Just say it! It might help."

"Okay, it's a mortal celebration. On this boring television program, I heard you say Merry Christmas to people, and you get a tree if you want one, which I don't." Sparx paused. "How's that?"

The Clawz howled.

"It's about…friends and family!" Chuck said quickly. "Even though it didn't start that way, it's about being nice to other people. And…presents. Presents are good. For other people, of course."

The Clawz gave another cry during Chuck's recitation; it was working, Mark realised, just the way Chuck had said.

"It's…Christmas," Mark said simply.

"Which is going to be merry…for us!"

It was too late for Mark to dodge Lord Fear's fire, though it seemed to move unbearably slowly towards him.

Some Christmas present for my parents…

And then Ace was there, interspersing himself between it and Mark, knocked back but still charged, falling on the grass next to the Santa Clawz.

"The battle season doesn't end until I say so!"

The Clawz was up, and charging towards Ace, who was only just getting up from the ground.

"Ace!" Mark thought he cried himself, but it might have been Sparx or Chuck or Ashley or all three of them.

The left set of claws were poised to impale, aimed at Ace's chest and close, too close…

And then the Clawz drove them into Ace's body.

Or rather, tried.

It must have been like when the Clawz tried to slash his backpack, Mark realised, this kind of effect, flinging the zombie backwards while Ace looked mildly confused.

"Let's finish him, Ace!" Sparx called, and fired, and in a second Ace joined her too.

The weakened Clawz screamed as the blasts both hit at the same time, twitching and turning and caught in light from two different directions, though it did not make him disappear.

"Now your bag, Mark!" Chuck yelled.

"Mark's presents are broken," Ashley said. She reached into her pocket and brought out a small chocolate bar. "But I got this for him, and you said presents helped."

Mark reached out a hand to grab her shoulder, but she ran too quickly for him, closer to the Santa Clawz, and then threw the small piece of candy into where Ace and Sparx kept him suspended.

The portal this time was like black, sticky tar, foul and disturbing, and it appeared around the Santa Clawz, growing and shifting from the spot on the air where the chocolate had been.

Mark ran towards Ashley, with Sparx' help pulling her back, escaping from the portal's dark pull as the Clawz howled his frustrations.

And then it was over, and they were alone on the midway with the regular villains, Kilobyte and Lady Illusion and Lord Fear and Pigface and…

"And it's time to bail," Sparx said. "Lightning Flash, to me!"

"I'll cover the exit while you go back to the Thunder Tower," Ace said, firing off a few lightning bolts. "Good work."

"Do we have…" Ashley began.

"Ashley!" Mark cut her off. "We are going. Now."

"Any time, Ace Lightning," they heard Lady Illusion gloat as they ran for safety, and then they were on the road back to the Thunder Tower, while above them Ace joined the Lightning Flash in the air.

"That was fun," Ashley said contentedly. "Much more fun than Christmas shopping."

"You'd say that," Mark grumbled, holding his bag away from himself and looking at it woefully as it dripped whatever substance had been inside the lava lamp.

She giggled. "We can clean that off later, Mark, and maybe get new presents."

"It's the thought that counts." Ace landed beside them. "What do I say? Happy Kristos?"

"Merry Christmas," Mark said.

"We'll tell you more about it when we throw the party at the Thunder Tower," Chuck said. "The day after Christmas. I'm bringing snacks."

"Sounds good to me." Sparx grinned. "Let's party."

"After you're recharged," Ace reminded her.

"Yeah, that." She shrugged. "It was great. Didja see me kick the Santa Clawz' butt?"

"Ace, how did you fight the Santa Clawz?" Chuck asked suddenly. "He's only vulnerable to Christmas spirit stuff, but he just bounced off you like you were rubber."

"Oh." Ace's cheeks coloured slightly, and he reached inside his armour to withdraw a small green sprig. "I had this. Clarissa Wordsworth on the television mentioned it."

"Oh, mistletoe," Mark said. "Yeah, that's Christmassy. Where did you get it?"

"I, erm, brought it from your house. I didn't think you'd mind if I took it as a memento…" He turned a deeper shade of red.

"No problem," Mark said. "Memento of what?"

"Er…" Ace began.

"It's six o'clock," Ashley interrupted. "Is Aunt Fiona worried about us now, Marky?"

"Yes," Chuck said. "Dude, it totally slipped my mind! But your mom called me. Trust me, she's worried."

"Then we'll go down there," Mark said, arranging his sleeve to make sure it covered most of his wrist cannon. "We've had enough excitement for one day, Ashley. Call me later, Chuck."

"Merry Christmas!" Ace waved to them as they went.

"You should wait until New Year," Chuck muttered. "There's this special mod with Janus Guardian of Time…"

The End.