three minutes to midnight, yells and demon howls erupted right outside my
house. Feet stomped on the porch—lots of them—and then there was a thunderous
knocking on the door.
It couldn’t be Kai—he would have slipped off alone to meet me. There was no way
he’d bring a bunch of half-drunk boys to my birthday celebration. But that
didn’t mean he hadn’t been followed.
howled again, pounding. Someone whose voice I didn’t recognize yelled, “The
Demons of the Winter night are here! Let us in, sinner, that we may feed on
your wicked soul!”
crap. That wasn’t in the script—at least, I’d never heard it before. I suddenly
realized they could see the lights on, but there was no food or drink on the
porch. Was this what they said when there were no offerings? Or when they found
someone home alone—someone who didn’t have the protection of people around
them? I suddenly felt scared.
just boys, I told myself. Boys
I know. It’s only an old tradition. Nothing to be afraid of.
I was glad the curtains were closed and they couldn’t see me. They didn’t know
for sure I was here. If I didn’t answer, they’d get bored and go away.
was more howling, and then I heard them scrabbling at the windows. I suddenly
felt exposed—as if they could sense my presence, somehow. As if they could
pounded again, and common sense took over. This was stupid. I wasn’t afraid of
a bunch of teenage boys. I walked to the door, put my hands on it the way Mr.
Kehrer had, and shouted, “We have no outcasts here. The doors of this town are
closed to you. You’ve taken our offerings to feed your hunger. Now begone!”
they could get untraditional, so could I.
finished the speech and listened. I heard hoarse, guttural laughter, and
something scraped across the door, right under my hands. I almost screamed, but
choked it back. Heavy footsteps shook the porch, and then there was a crash, as
if someone had tripped over one of the planters. I jumped, but for some reason
I didn’t want to take my hands off the door. I listened for sounds that they
were moving off, but heard nothing.
stood there, palms against the door, not knowing what to do. There was no way I
was opening the door to look out, and going back across the room to the couch
would make me feel too exposed. I felt like I was in a horror movie, in the
moment of silence when it looked like the zombies were going away—right before
they crashed in all the doors and windows at once. I held my breath.
more stomping came from inside. Instead, there was another knock on the door,
right between my hands. And a voice called out.
He sounded hoarse, but it was definitely his voice, with the ripple of laughter
it always had when he was pretending to be serious, and trying to keep a
the Demons of the Winter Ni-ight!” he called in a weird singsong. “Open the
door, so we can celebrate with feasting!”
shot through me. My knees suddenly felt weak, the way they do when you’ve been
really scared and then suddenly you’re not. I grabbed for the doorknob,
fumbling a little, still shaky from adrenalin.
then I did something I never should have done.
opened the door.
stood on the snowy walkway, staring in the window. There was a dining table on
one side of the room, and on the other Perchta was sitting in a velvet-covered
chair, her long blond hair spilling over the back. Kai was standing behind her,
brushing her hair, running his hand over the smooth golden fall after each
had a folder in her lap—one of the ones Kai used to hold his drawings. She was
examining a drawing critically, holding it at various distances and gazing at
it. She finally tossed it to the floor.
she said, sounding bored. “Is that the best you can do?” I could hear her
clearly through the open window.
working on another one,” Kai said eagerly. “You’ll like it. I just haven’t
gotten it quite right yet.”
caught his hand as it stroked her hair, and ran her fingers down his palm. She
still had the glove over her right hand, but the left was bare, and I could see
that she had the same long, icicle fingernails she’d had at my house. Not
passing as human at the moment, apparently. And Kai didn’t seem weirded out by
this at all, which freaked me out even more.
slowly pressed her icicle nail through the center of Kai’s palm. I had to shove
my fist in my mouth to muffle the sound I made. She pulled the nail free and
blood welled out. Kai hadn’t flinched or made a sound. Perchta smiled like a
cat, and licked the blood. Kai looked dreamy, ecstatic.
God. Was she some kind of vampire?
didn’t see any fangs, and she wasn’t sucking his blood. Did evil goddesses
eat body part soup made from screaming bloody hearts?
cue, Grandfather Winter came in carrying the tray. “Here we are,” he said, with
a heavy German accent that made the ‘w’ into a ‘v.’ “Something delicious for
bit down on my mitten. Don’t eat it! I
wanted to scream. At the same time, the smell drifted out the window, and I
wanted to dive through it and eat the soup myself.
ran over and unloaded the tray, which Grandfather Winter took back to the
kitchen. Then Kai started setting up places at the table like a good little
boy. Perchta just lounged in her chair, watching him. The napkins were cloth,
and he folded Perchta’s into the shape of a rose, then his own into the shape
of an elephant. He’d learned to do that years ago, once he found out that cabin
stewards on cruise ships could fold towels into animal shapes. But he’d never
given me a rose. A napkin one, or any other kind.
everything was perfect, Perchta finally deigned to get her princess butt out of
her velvet throne and come to the table. Kai held her chair out for her like a
waiter in a fancy restaurant, and then sat down himself. He took a handful of
goldfish crackers and sprinkled them in his soup. Perchta watched him
the fairy tales I’d ever heard came rushing back into my mind, about what
happens when you eat fairy food. You’re stuck in the fairy realm, and can never
escape. But I couldn’t make myself call out. I kept seeing the old man’s big,
powerful hands, squeezing blood from heart-things and wringing a bird’s neck.
If he’d yank his own eye out, what would he do to me?
voice came from behind me, on the walk. Gravelly, with a heavy German accent.
Vat is it we haff here?”
I swung around, terrified,
to see Grandfather Winter standing on the pathway.
Niko and I dashed to the
back of the church sanctuary and slipped through the door into the stairwell.
At the far end of the hall was an exit door. A way out. Or a way in. If we
didn’t come out soon, Perchta’s demons would come in after us.
Niko dragged me to a
stop. “What’s the plan?”
“I know a way out to
the roof,” I told him. “There’s a maintenance crawlspace under the steeple. I don’t
think anyone’s been there in years, except me and Kai. It’s out of the storm,
and you might be able to light the candles and finish the banishing ritual
before they find you.”
“And what will you be
“Climbing across the
roof to the bell tower.” In the mother of all blizzards, surrounded by snow
demons, with a three-story drop on every side. But the church bell was the
culmination of the ritual. Without it, the banishment wouldn’t work.
Just for a second, I
saw a “you must be frickin’ nuts” expression flash across Niko’s face. Then he
gave me his famous troublemaker’s grin, and said, “Let’s do it.”
“This way,” I said,
starting for the stairs to the choir room.
He went to a storage
cabinet against the wall. He didn’t bother with keys this time, just kicked the
door in and grabbed the tech headsets that were used during church plays and
pageants. He tossed one to me and I hooked it over my ear, jamming my ski had
down over it to keep it from coming loose. Niko did the same.
Outside, there was no
sound except the moaning of the wind. The silence was almost scarier than the
“Come on,” I said.
Niko was already
moving. We headed up the stairs at a run, emerging into the choir rehearsal
room. I dashed around the battered piano and raised the sash on the old wooden
window. It screeched along its runners.
Snow billowed into the
room, borne on frigid wind. “Fire escape,” I said to Niko. “Come on, quick.
They’re going to surround the building any minute, thinking we’re trying to get
out the back.”
The fire escape was a
black metal staircase that spiraled to the ground, with a landing on each
floor. We climbed out and shut the window behind us, not wanting to leave
evidence of our escape if Perchta’s minions searched the building.
Below, at ground level,
I could see a set of glowing eyes—one of the demons, searching for us. I just
prayed it wouldn’t occur to them to look up.
There was a metal
ladder bolted to the brick wall of the church, leading to the edge of the
steep, pitched roof.
I’d done this climb a
bunch of times with Kai, including every Bellsnichol since we were ten. So this
wasn’t the first time I’d done it in the winter. But I’d never tried it in a
I went first, to show
Niko how it was done. The worst part was getting from the ladder onto the roof.
I was exposed to the full force of the wind, and it almost knocked me off the
ladder. This wasn’t just any storm—it had a malevolent spirit in it. This
blizzard wanted me dead.
There was nothing on
the roof to grab onto, no traction—just waves of snow blowing over a slick
sheet of old crusted snow. As I tried to pull myself up, my hands broke through
the crust and I fell forward with a jerk, chest on the roof, legs scrabbling
for a foothold. My hands were trapped, shards of ice cutting into my wrists
above my gloves. I could feel a warm trickle of blood.
Wiggling and heaving, I
tried to get my knee over the gutter and inch myself up. For a second I thought
I wasn’t going to make it, and then I felt Niko behind me, boosting me. I
yanked my hands out of their icy handcuffs and scrambled flat on the roof.
It was like being in
the Sahara during a sandstorm. Icy grains of snow scoured every millimeter of
exposed skin, making my face feel like it was being sandpapered. “Gotta go,”
said Niko’s voice in my headset. “They’re spreading out around the building.”
I maneuvered myself
around like a crab until I was facing downwards, and kicked the toes of my
boots hard into the ice crust. It captured them the way it had my hands,
keeping me from sliding headfirst back down the roof.
Niko’s head came over
the gutter, and I reached out to him. He leaned forward and we clasped wrists.
With me pulling, he managed to scramble out onto the roof. “I hope nobody saw
that,” I said into my microphone. There was no way he could have heard me
otherwise, over the scream of the wind.
“Me too,” Niko said, his
voice quiet in my ear. “But once I start the ritual, they’ll feel the power and
realize where we are. I just hope we bought ourselves enough time.”