Krampus is the cloven-hoofed, curly-horned, and long-tongued dark companion of St. Nick. Sometimes a hero, sometimes a villain, within these pages, he’s always more than just a sidekick. You’ll meet manifestations of Santa’s dark servant as he goes toe-to-toe with a bratty Cinderella, a guitar-slinging girl hero, a coffee shop-owning hipster, and sometimes even St. Nick himself. Whether you’re looking for a dash of horror or a hint of joy and redemption, these 12 new tales of Krampus will help you gear up for the most “wonderful” time of the year.
Featuring original stories by Steven Grimm, Lissa Marie Redmond, Beth Mann, Anya J. Davis, E.J. Hagadorn, S.E. Foley, Brad P. Christy, Ross Baxter, Nancy Brewka-Clark, Tamsin Showbrook, E.M. Eastick, and Jude Tulli.
Saint Nicholas and the Krampus Incantation
It was not that Saint Nicholas Day. It was this Saint Nicholas Day. There have always been two Saint Nicholas Days, and while we fête the saint on the sixth of December, Nicholas alone observes it two days prior, catching us in last-minute sins when we think he’s sleeping.
Nicholas awoke in the crypt of the Vienna cathedral.
He was one of many saints, after the original Twelve at the Last Supper, who hadn’t gone upward to their reward but downward to their punishment. It was now 1792 or 1803 or 1814. He’d lost count, for he’d been returning on this fourth of December for centuries. Nicholas’s spirit, back from Hell, into a corpse, borrowed for a day.
One of the body’s eyelids snapped open. The other eyelid, unoiled by moisture for many years, creaked open in shudders. The eyes behind these lids were not dried to dust, but more like Turkish delight, pink and glutinous. Nicholas had done his best from Hell, using infernal magic, to stave back death’s corruption from the corpse. He liked this body.
He’d been using it longer than he could remember.
For the first time, however, he awoke to blindness in one of the eyes. There was nothing he could do to mend the corpse. None of his Hell magic worked here. Once he was back in the land of the living, Nicholas could do only the one extraordinary piece of magic he’d learned when he was a young man, walking the Mediterranean, fifteen centuries ago. It was the miraculous power given to him by the Holy Spirit—when he was a purely virtuous man.
Nicholas could do nothing about the corpse’s blind eye.
No matter, he thought, as long as…? Oh, yes, a leg still worked… And did the other…? Oh, yes, that one too! And with two legs he could walk again this year. The body had withered to the point that Nicholas had been making due without its arms or hands for many fourths of December. The hands were like leather on bone. The arms, thin as a bundle of kindling.
Still, one eye and two legs were all he required.
As long as he still had the mouth.
He worked the jaw open. The lips unglued with a smack. He tried the tongue. It flopped to the side, laid against the teeth, and so he asserted himself again and again, until the slumbering tongue awoke. Still, teeth and tongue were nothing without lungs.
Nicholas applied his will to the corpse’s withered sacs of air, which he had kept circling a final breath for centuries—ever since he’d seized upon the dying priest’s body—but with that cycling gasp, he kept the body on the cusp of life all year long until his next visit.
As Nicholas inhaled, the lungs crackled like crêpe paper, so he slowed his inward breath, giving time for the dank cold of the crypt to collect like dew on browned leaves. Wetting the lungs always took time. It couldn’t be rushed.
He pivoted the head—his head, until the day was done—and looked sidelong, out of the open hollow in the stone wall where he was laid, into the crypt that housed dozens more bodies, bishops and priests, stacked three high in the walls.
All of them were gone to crumbles, a museum of memento mori, skeletons in vestments, except for this body that Nicholas kept from the worms. Its lack of corruption was seen as a miracle by the living bishops who’d presided over the Vienna cathedral. That it was the holiness of the priest, whose name had been forgotten, that had warded off the decay. And so the men of the cathedral had for centuries left candles burning in this corner of the crypt at all hours.
Nicholas was dressed in that priest’s original tunic and hood. The tunic had long ago lost its goldthread and pearls, so he looked as if dressed in sackcloth, which he liked, detesting how much the Church had gilded its clergy since he had died. It wasn’t meant to be like this.
Elsewhere at that hour, the living men of the cathedral were observing the fourth of December as the usual day when they would avoid the crypt.
There was a belief spread among its men that the body was holy every other day of the year, and was on this day unholy, arising from the crypt, walking Vienna, doing Lord knew what, and then returning to the crypt by midnight.
Each bishop of the cathedral had always known how to deal with this day, protecting the reputation of the church and the integrity of the miracle below. So, as always, while the bishop stood at the fore of the cathedral, guarding the relics housed there, ready to turn his back on any odd stirrings in the pews, he’d sent all of his priests and acolytes above, cleaning the bells, swabbing the belfries of droppings. Bats and doves made a mess all year around; the bishop insisted that this day, leading into Advent, was about housecleaning.
Still, the men above whispered of this day as being the blackest of the year, blacker even than Good Friday, when the candle flame of Christ’s life was snuffed, for that Friday was followed by Easter, a day of holy resurrection. But this day marked an unholy return.
The day roamed the week according to the year. So while the men above had previously called this day Schwärtzestedienstag or Schwärtzestedonnerstag in their native German, it just so happened that this year, it was Schwärtzestefreitag.
The blackest of Fridays.
Nicholas began shouldering through one of the doors that exited the front of the cathedral into the public square. It was Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, on Saint Stephen’s Square, which Nicholas thought was a lot of fuss for a saint who’d done nothing much.
Like the lid of his blind eye, the door opened in shudders. He had only the two legs, the one eye, the one mouth remaining to him. He wondered if this would be his last year that he could walk Vienna in the priest’s body. As he pushed through, the door resisted.
Nicholas feared that he would stick there, as if Saint Stephen himself was pushing from the other side, but he knew that the door resisted only because the body was weak.
Besides, he knew that Stephen would never deign to descend from Heaven, not even to stop a saint who’d ascended from Hell. Why would he? Stephen had gotten a cathedral named after him. And for what? Standing by the Lord until he got stoned to death by disbelievers? Nicholas had often taken up his own shepherd’s crook in life, though more often in Hell, and beaten the fear of God into heathens. Oh, how he missed his crook!
Onward Nicholas went by inches, glad for the tunic he wore. It took the rasp of the door’s edge, ripping the fabric, sparing his skin the worst of the grating. His hood saved his ears from tearing. With his good eye, Nicholas gazed upon what he hated with fiery passion.
The December market.
The public square before the cathedral was cramped with stalls that sold toys, candies, and pastries—treats for the other Saint Nicholas Day. Ahead of him was a vast crowd. A hundred-some vendors! A thousand people, roaming lanes between stalls! Wives, grabbing gifts! Husbands, dispensing coins! The vendors, sweaty with effort, pocketing profits! It was the hour when dusk was turning to night, when torches were being lit around the market, and candles throughout the stalls were winking into twinkles like stars in the night.
How the cheerful scene made Nicholas burn.
It was one thing to render unto Caesar the things that were Caesar’s, and unto God the things that were God’s, as the Holy Son had once drawn the line, but what Nicholas saw now, laid out here before Saint Stephen’s Cathedral was like—? Was like—?
Nicholas spat toward the crowd from his place in the door, though out came only a gummy spittle. It was a fornication of commerce that surpassed Caligula’s worst. The parties of that loathsome Roman corrupted the flesh, but this orgy of gifts polluted the soul. He struggled to be free of the door, to walk into that crowd and work his magic—to help those who could be helped, to scourge the worst until they lay choking for mercy!
Just then, out from the crowd, came a goat.
It was the sort of goat no one would pay attention to, not that goats were seen inside Vienna all that often since its oblong wall went up some centuries earlier. The fortifications had been built to keep out the Turks, but as a side benefit, barred animals from entering who wandered off the farms.
The goat was starved to the bone, so it wouldn’t make good eating. It was mangy, as bare of hair as Nicholas’s tunic was of thread. So it wasn’t a cuddlesome goat either. Not even an especially desperate father, lacking money for the December market, would bother luring such a goat home to club it dead over the head and whittle its horns for toys. Its horns were too worn. They’d make shabby dice at best, and what sort of father teaches his son to gamble?
Nicholas turned his one eye on that goat.
The goat trotted up and stopped.
“You…” said Nicholas. The word came out in a wheeze. He struggled more to be free of the door. The goat stared upward, blinking one black eye, and then the other. Nicholas stared back. “Creature…I suppose you find it funny that I am stuck.”
The goat let out a small bleat.
“You have no intention of helping,” said Nicholas. “Do you?”
The goat cantered in place, chomped an itch on its side, and ignored the question.
“Damned Krampus!” said Nicholas.
The goat turned tail, bleated rudely, and dropped scat on the saint’s feet. Nicholas couldn’t believe the disrespect. He owned the creature—one day a year at least, tomorrow! He wouldn’t even suffer such an excremental insult from anyone. Not from an angel of the highest order, not from the Holy Spirit itself!
He would thrash the goat, flay its hide until red and penitent ribbons dangled from its flanks. Nicholas reached for his shepherd’s crook, and then remembered he had neither arms nor hands that obeyed his will these days, and that last he spied it from Hell, his old staff had been repurposed as a curtain rod somewhere in the Papal States—with curtains of purple!
He thrashed in place as mightily as the last leaf of autumn, raging against the tree.
Nicholas fell through the door.
Out he came, lurching free, staggering to find his balance, fearing that he’d fall onto his face right here at the foot of the cathedral, and give Saint Stephen reason to laugh.
The crowd in the market had failed to take notice of a pauper in sackcloth who’d been trapped in the door—was it all that uncommon?—but now a few people caught sight of a pauper dancing a lively dance—an Irish jig, perhaps?—and began gathering around. They flung copper kreutzers to his feet. There was nothing people found more heartwarming here at the start of Advent season, leading up to Christmas Eve, than the sight of the poor being cheerful.
“Off with you!” shouted Nicholas. “Damn you! Damn you all!”
These people caught peeks of the waxen face within the hood and they dissipated, for there was nothing less heartwarming than the poor being unappreciative. One man snatched back his kreutzer from the cobbles.
He was left alone, glad to regain his balance.
Where had Krampus gone?
Nicholas had to transform him from a goat into half a man, into the Krampus known not in Scripture, but in the December legend that fathers and mothers told their children. These were the sorts of parents who spared the rod and spoiled the child—a fatal mistake—and repeated this legend every December to wheedle their children into acquiescence. In it, the horned demon went door to door with Saint Nicholas on the eve before the saint’s day, inquiring if any good children were home, which Nicholas himself would reward, leaving the bad children to Krampus. Bah! As if moral opposites could ever be bosom companions.
The truth was far darker.
Nicholas walked Vienna alone tonight to summon Krampus, who did Nicholas’s bidding tomorrow—on Saint Nicholas’s Eve, on Krampusnacht. The great sinners of the city knew the true Krampus, who wreaked havoc on the streets, leaving their blood in the gutters.
But the goat could wait.
Nicholas lurched toward the crowd, beginning his search of the stalls for what he needed to transform the goat into the half-man. He eyed, with his one eye, a breach in the people. Armless, Nicholas leaned as if into a brisk wind, and entered the eddying crowd, which thickened, but still he sailed inward with confidence.
And people did part for him.
He thought it likely that people, even as they rushed between stalls, snatching toys and treats for the little ones, sensed a saint among them, and parted for him like the Red Sea for Moses. He was willing to admit, however, as a woman brushed against him, and he shoved back against her, that he’d gotten more assertive in crowds, given that Hell was crowded.
Nicholas roamed the stalls.
Lurching down a row, he saw all of the usual market favorites, which outraged him. There was a stall that sold bundles of bread, iced a pure white, which symbolized the infant Jesus swaddled in his crib. Nicholas seethed at the sight of wives snatching them up, their husbands handing over the coins. Did people not realize how ghastly it was? Vendors, laying out piles of sweet babes. Wives, taking the infant loaves home. Husbands, slicing in with relish, apportioning to each at the supper table a share of the Christ child?
Then Nicholas saw that which incurred his worst umbrage.
Cookies in his own image—Saint Nicholas, in gingerbread! Vendors in all directions had them, each in a style they thought would give their cookies a leg up. Those there, Nicholas standing tall, bearded as he was in his later days, cloaked in pomegranate icing. He had never worn that color—ever. And those there, Nicholas bowed under the weight of a bishop’s headdress, ornamented with currants. A third kind over there, Nicholas standing stoically, which he didn’t mind, but holding a shepherd’s crook striped like a barber’s pole. He didn’t know which was the worst offense—his crook made into a candied cane, or the tawdry connection to the barber’s profession, their razors shaving chins one moment, bloodletting the next.
These spiced cookies would be the death of him!
Adding insult to injury, he felt a sultry heat against his cheek. He glared at the stall opposite. The vendor there, a rosy-nosed man who’d been guzzling his own wares, was handing out cups of steaming red wine faster than he could manage, spilling dregs of the stuff.
Nicholas’s nose could no longer smell, but he knew the hot wine was spiced with cinnamon, cloves, and anise. And why? Here, in the cold, in the open, these people, guzzling wine, too hot for the tongue, spiced past decency?
To edge this market closer to Bedlam!
Nicholas pivoted his head to glare at the cathedral. He could not stomach how its clergy permitted this corruption of the holy ritual of communion. Only the Church was allowed to dispense of anything resembling the body and the blood of their Lord.
Nicholas lurched onward, shouldering through the madness.
Krampus couldn’t come soon enough.
He caught sight of what he was looking for. There at another wine stall was a man, standing behind his wife, her nose deep in her cup. Nicholas could see that while the man had his hand on her shoulder, the man’s eyes had latched onto something else.
Nicholas knew that sort of stare. Hungry. Covetous. He followed the line of the man’s gaze. There was a second woman, this one in furs, and observing oranges, leaning down to regard rinds as if to select the best of the fruits as a gift—and a rich gift indeed, coming to Vienna through the Italian lands and sunnier climes beyond its sea.
Nicholas observed that she, as she leaned down, was looking up her eyelids as surreptitiously as a pickpocket—staring back at the man, adjusting her ample fruits, which she contained on her very person. It’s too lurid to state any more plainly.
He saw the husband cock an interested brow.
But Nicholas didn’t care of a whit for that. He watched further. The man’s wife gave her wine to her husband, and as he sipped the brew, he peered over the steaming rim, waggling his cocked brow at the woman near the oranges. She stood, held up a hand, and rubbed thumb to forefinger. Money, she signified.
That was the sign Nicholas had hoped to see.
She was a fallen woman—he would not call the woman a whore. It was an uncharitable word. Nor would he say prostitute. That had Latin roots, which made it sound classic, even Biblical. He phrased it in his own way, his words guided by experience. She was a woman pushed into the street by her father, then cast lower still by the villains of that street.
But fallen woman was close enough for conversation.
There were no cultures he’d ever encountered, no language he’d ever learned, that had a single word for how he saw such women. Few men of Hell understood his perspective. Occasionally, to bide time in the fires, one asked how he had come upon his unique view of fallen women. If they weren’t just patronizing the old saint, then Nicholas would answer.
From his early days in his human youth, in a town on the shore of the Mediterranean, Nicholas had taken a Christian interest in girls who were discarded like garbage on the streets. These were unfortunate creatures whose own fathers could not afford a dowry—the money to give potential husbands, and thus whose futures were completely cut off from them.
So, as a young man, Nicholas would find the money somewhere and place it on the sills of the houses where these girls lived, before they fell into the street, where they would inevitably by trampled upon by men lower even than their negligent fathers.
He did so anonymously.
Yet somehow, word got around it was him, and had been going around ever since, across time and tide, throughout the Mediterranean, the terrestrial world, and thence to Heaven and Hell. In time, the Church made him a saint. Later still, he became a December legend. But while the Church commemorated his life with observances, parents had come to do so with their own rituals. Odd and pagan practices.
They gave their children gifts on Saint Nicholas Day, stuffing treats and toys in their children’s shoes, which the little ones put on the windowsill. The practice was offensive. If parents had coin to spare, it ought to go to their daughters’ dowries!
The world was worse now, thought Nicholas. Few fathers endowed dowries properly. Many more daughters were now fallen women. Meanwhile, as if to rub salt in his wound, people had turned Nicholas’s day away from charity and toward cookies.
But soon, Nicholas would have justice and revenge.
The husband would only get in the way.
So Nicholas staggered toward the man, who was pursing his lips to signify that he was ready to open his wallet. Nicholas muttered strange things toward the man’s wife—nothing mystical, only gibberish—which had the desired effect. Her eyes shot wide, seeing a pauper approach, babbling and waxen-faced. She clutched her wine and cried in alarm.
Her husband leapt to her defense, loving once more, remembering the woman to whom he was attached. Which left the fallen woman to Nicholas. Unfortunately, the old saint, headlong and crookless, staggered forward into the man’s chest, hard as two sea lions going snout to snout, and rebounded off into the crowd.
He was carried along in the current of people. Though he strained to keep his eyes on the fallen woman, Nicholas lost track of her completely, and the more he struggled to go back the way he came, the more the crowd seemed to push him out.
Until at last he was deposited where he started. In front of Saint Stephen’s.
He shook his fist skyward.
The priest’s corpse would not obey, of course, but still Nicholas vented his spleen as if he did. His anger shot higher than the spires. Would no one ever help him? Why was he always in this alone? This day each year, he came from Hell to prove his use to Heaven, and did any of them ever lift a finger? Did Saint Peter ever make a jot in the correct column, putting his moral balance in the black? No. Aside from things Nicholas had to do in Hell to survive—it was a difficult place—he hadn’t a clue what he had done to vex them so much.
Nicholas steeled himself to do what he must. There weren’t many hours left before he had to abandon the body until next December. He had to find the woman again. And through her, to raise Krampus to smite Vienna.
He studied the market, the crowd, the teeming people in the dark, the torches around the market like a ring of fire, and a thousand candles in the stalls, each like a painter’s brush, flicking licks of light and shadow onto the scene—a chiaroscuro apocalypse. It wasn’t much different than Hell on a nice night when the inferno died down. The crowd sounded like that too, their sounds blurring into a slurry of lowing, like cattle spared slaughter, waiting for another.
He was tempted to hurry back into the silence of the cathedral. But then he’d be no better than them—the cowardly acolytes, the sheepish bishop, and especially Saint Stephen himself, who taken the stones instead of thrown them!
Nicholas drew back to an edge of the square, wedging himself into a nook between a dress shop and a downspout, and gathered his resolve. He usually reserved his miracle for only the worst vermin. But this fourth of December, blacker than any previous, would require that he do his worst in the name of good.
He shoved himself off of the wall and plunged toward the crowd.
As he slipped back into their midst, Nicholas was buffeted by bodies, yet he staggered inward, feeling like he was going down the ribbed throat of a leviathan from a sea of fire, into its belly, into a soup of devil-krill and fire-brine, to be liquefied in bile, and thereafter, shat out. That was one of the worst experiences in Hell, he told himself, so he could certainly brook this drunk crowd.
He kept his head and did what he must.
Nicholas raised a hum from his throat, breathing from his belly, squeezing out a particular vibration of intonation from the whole of his digestive tract, making his voice into an instrument not of God, but of a serpentine, intestinal nature. Not unlike a French horn.
He began the miraculous chant.
Take this, all of you. A vendor near Nicholas, shouting to be heard, selling toy soldiers, stopped speaking. And eat of it. A woman jostling Nicholas, trying to get to those toys, fell onto them instead. For this is my body. Her husband, who in alarm went to her, instead fell on top of the woman, clutching his throat, as she was now hers. Which will be given up for—and there Nicholas stopped, seeing the three coughing up the miracle.
In life, Nicholas had often said the Words of Institution—that part of the Eucharistic rite in which bread and wine was transubstantiated into the body and blood of the Lord—but it was in death, in Hell, where Nicholas had learned to chant it in this way, reversing the miracle. Spake in this intestinal timbre, the liturgy could be turned to practical purposes. There was little food or drink in Hell, the more to starve, the worse to parch. It came in very useful, there as well as here.
Now Nicholas, seeing the crowd before him thinned, cut short the bread-making half of the spell. One word more, he’d seal their fate, dead of bread, but already he saw that the spell was unraveling. The husband, last to turn, was first to revert, and he began pounding his wife on the back, as if trying to dislodge a cookie from her windpipe. The vendor was worse off, coughing up bread wet with saliva, spitting what seemed spätzle into his hand.
It was harmless enough.
He hated to abuse the reverse miracle, but he had find that fallen woman, and there was not enough time to search a haystack for a needle. So Nicholas chanted it again and again, afflicting people ahead of him, sending them into paroxysms of crumbs, and never ending on that last word. He was able to stagger onward, up this lane, down another. With so many fits of coughing, more people began to abandon the market, suspecting that pox was on the wind.
Nicholas had not yet found the fallen woman, however. He began to feel conspicuous, seen as a pauper in a coughing crowd. That worried him. Someone might eject a pauper suspected of plague; people always heaped the cause of such things on the poor, while it was usually the wealthy who carried the fleas that bore the pox. Alas, wasn’t it always rich husbands who were like Trojan horses—stealing away to brothels, catching infection, bringing it back home to their wives and then from there, into the kitchen?
And still a pauper gets blamed.
He stumbled faster, past stalls with marzipan, sugar-glazed nuts, toy horns, tiny dolls with extravagant gowns, all the sundry things for parents to slip into their children’s shoes. And then he saw her. The fallen woman, now at a stall that sold more of those damnable Nicholas cookies! There too, the scoundrel, that husband, still with his wife!
As before, he eyed the scene from afar. The husband was smirking his interest, as his wife, hunched over the cookies, was trying her best to select the most perfectly scrumptious of them for her little ones, unaware that right behind her, the evil man she’d married was sinning against not one but two women!
Upon their first encounter, Nicholas had scared the husband off from the fallen women, for through her Nicholas hunted a fallen man. He refused to call that man a pimp, as was the modern parlance. The word made such men feel debonair; it let husbands admire them with a sideways eye. But under the veneer, Nicholas knew that a pimp was just a captor, keeper, and profiteer. Still, unlike the term fallen woman, close enough for conversation, fallen man wasn’t. Not a man in Hell knew what it meant when he said that, and they looked at him like he was speaking Polynesian. Captor, keeper, profiteer, fallen man—none of it stuck!
So, pimp it was.
Every fourth of December, Nicholas hunted a pimp, and then killed him, for he needed to feed the corpse to Krampus, to get half a bad man into the goat. He always looked forward to killing this pimp. For the man was like an anti-husband, much as there was an Antichrist.
But now Nicholas resolved to murder this extra-wicked husband.
He waited at a distance, sidling past a stall selling more of those white-iced loaves in the form of the Holy Infant. The woman behind the counter stared at him, as if she was the midwife at the manger! And he, some vulture flapping at the trough, ready to ravage!
Just as the man’s wife asked for her stack of cookies to be wrapped up, her husband made a great show of pulling out his pocketwatch, popping open its lid, and observing the time in alarm. He whispered urgently in his wife’s ear.
She in turn looked at him with sadness.
The oldest trick in the book, thought Nicholas. A husband remembers some business elsewhere; a wife expresses regret about it happening yet again, that business is getting in the way of their family life. The husband chastises her, reminding her that he is the breadwinner; the wife gets more sheepish. The husband, full of indignation. The wife, defeated. Thus the husband slips the leash, while the woman browbeats herself for being shrewish yet again—she mustn’t distrust him, of all people!
How many of the men in Hell still boasted of their cleverness, even while their good wives were in Heaven and their own chestnuts roasted in the flames?
Fortunately, it worked like a charm, given that Nicholas wanted to feed the man to Krampus. The wife went off, dabbing her tears with her shoulder, because her hands were too busy carrying all of the packages herself. All of the children’s gifts. All of the holiday treats. The poor wife, thought Nicholas—she’d never see her husband again.
The husband went another direction. The fallen woman followed him at a distance, lured by the promise of payment, even if she had to give it all to her pimp and get a tenth back at best.
And Nicholas followed her.
They broke free from the crowd, leaving the market. Then they left Saint Stephen’s Square, going alongside the stone flank of the cathedral, down the torchlit main road, which was lined with stores closed for the evening. The husband lingered at the window of one store after the next, regarding pewter ewers, porcelain swans, snuff boxes in silver and gold, and a collection of cuckoo clocks.
Each time, the man looked back the way he’d come to assure himself that the fallen woman was still following. She was, one store behind. Nicholas drifted to a far diagonal, for the pedestrians were thinning, and he was growing more obvious.
The husband passed a married couple headed market-ward, and as soon as they passed, darted immediately down a side lane. The fallen woman stopped, took strong interest in the cuckoo clocks, pressing her hands to the glass, cupping her hands around her face, and trying to better look into the store. Nicholas heard the married couple laugh in a snorting way—and as they passed him, he heard them mutter awful things about the woman under their breath, that they were not fooled by her, yet they didn’t mention the husband at all.
Oh, how Nicholas wished he could upbraid them, or make them cough up spätzle as penitence! But his strength was waning, and he could not let the trail grow cold.
The woman slipped into the side lane.
So too did Nicholas.
Now, the city of Vienna had grown up chockablock over a thousand years, buildings heaped on buildings, growth bound inside the city walls, unable to spill outward, growing upward in tumbledown fashion. While a few roads crossed Vienna in sensible directions, most roads added up to an accidental labyrinth.
As Nicholas turned into the lane, he plunged into this dark maze. Two or three floors up were finer residences where good people were having dinner by candlelight, which cast a few rays down into the shadows. The Lord Above provided a little moonlight too.
That was just enough for Nicholas to follow the fallen woman, and so they went, like a dog upon a cat upon a rat, leaving the lane for an alley, and then following that alley until it angled downward, and then later angled further at either a sinkhole or stairs. That dropped into an underchannel meant to drain rainwater, butcher’s blood, and chamberpot effluvia.
Nicholas managed to navigate it all, even the breakneck descent.
He’d been here before. After following a fallen woman to wherever it was where she could sell herself in private, Nicholas then waited there until she left, finally following her home to her pimp. That was often in the underchannels. He wondered with a fierce glee if he might kill two birds with one miracle tonight. Perhaps they were going to a sewer brothel. There, Nicholas could murder both pimp and husband. Or more, husbands galore! He could see it now. Though his body was the worst it had ever been, he was in prime condition for vengeance.
Returning from his murderous reverie, Nicholas realized that he had lost sight of the fallen woman. But that was no worry. He knew the underchannels like the back of his moribund hand, and this channel went on for a long time yet. He hurried, wanting to close the distance before they hit any upcoming splits or turns in the dark.
A moment later, he tripped.
Nicholas gasped as he collapsed. The arms, gone to rot, flailed. The hands, shriveled to bone, scraped the rough stone of a wall. Fingers snapped like twigs. He curled to brace himself and took the brunt of it on the side of his skull, which cracked like crockery.
Its contents—good eye, dead eye, tongue, brain—shifted.
As he lay on the ground, Nicholas felt jarred inside the skull, looking out the one eyeball, which had moved down in its socket, like a small child at a window, standing on tippy-toe, trying to see over a sill. He panicked about the tongue. Had it had torn loose and gone down the throat? No tongue, no chant. And no chant, no miracle, no murder.
Through his partial view, Nicholas saw what he had tripped over. The husband and the fallen woman had simply laid down here. The woman had spread out her winter overcoat, upon which the two had dropped to consort in the dark.
The husband, on his knees, was scrambling toward Nicholas, accusing him of being a thief, accusing the woman of being in league with him!
Nicholas could go nowhere. The man gripped his neck and banged Nicholas’s skull against the ground, again and again. Nicholas glared back in terror, trying to speak the chant, his only power in this life, but his tongue seemed to be pinched by the jawbone.
What could he do?
Nicholas felt his skull split further, his one good eye deeper in the socket, his sight cut shorter. Halved! Quartered! Fractioned again! And again! Then finally—!
His tongue, caught in the jaw, which as his skull was banged was chawed, sprang free. Nicholas found that the thing still worked!
He said the words, which even in his daze, he remembered to whisper so the woman would remain unscathed. Take this, all of you. The man blinked in one eye, as if there was a mote of sawdust in it. And eat of it. The man clutched his other, as if someone had started to feed a wooden beam through the eyehole. For this is my body. The man clawed his eyes, realizing that the problem was inside him, like a beam going out, not coming in, and he scratched loose what seemed a frenzy of flecks from a sawmill. Which will be given up for—where Nicholas earlier had stopped he now finished—you.
The man seized up. The tendons of his neck, taut with fury, now softened. His skin had the appearance of a crêpe hot from the grill, pale and buttery, spongy with pores. The eyes were unchanged, and bulging in shock, fell out of the man’s face. The man’s lips, ears, and nose went bready. The teeth, being enamel, stayed put like porcelain dentures in a tough loaf after a bad gnash. Now made of bread, the man collapsed onto Nicholas.
Yet still he moved.
The blood inside him was still blood. What had coursed through veins, pumped through the heart, was now spurting unfettered, bleeding through the crêpe of his face and skin. He had to act fast. The man was dead, but Nicholas needed every drop of his blood. He rushed through the other half of the chant.
Take this, all of you, and drink from it. For this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant. Which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this—Nicholas sped to the end—in memory of me.
Little seemed to change at that, but the purpling of his skin slowed, for the hot blood became wine, and it mingled and congealed in the bread. Still, Nicholas struggled now to roll out from underneath the body. He got himself free and clear, laying pressed to the wall, leaving the villain’s body in the channel. Wearing the man’s clothing, capped by a head of hair, speckled with teeth, it looked like some monstrous golem of vermillion mush.
But a golem was not the monster Nicholas was after.
“You…” said the fallen woman. “The revenant… You’re him, the December revenant.” Nicholas heard the horror in her voice. He pivoted his head to see her, but his skull seemed to be impaled upon his spine, and the upper vertebrae were in his throat. Nicholas knew he’d split his skull open if he turned one more tock. He strained his eye to better see her, but from its dropped place in the socket, he couldn’t manage much.
She said, “You’re the one who stalks us this night each year!”
Nicholas was startled. She had it wrong—centuries of his work, misunderstood. “No, my dear.” He spoke softly, worried to move the jaw. “I pursue,” he corrected, “the men,” he further amended, “who keep you.”
“This man? He wasn’t going to keep me. Just pay me my worth!”
“Your worth, child,” said Nicholas, trying to put beneficence back into his voice, despite the crumbling of his skull, the vertebrae in his throat. He sought to speak in the very opposite of a serpentine tone, a softness of speech from his Mediterranean youth when he first began ministering, those dulcet tones that could ease a parakeet off a branch, into his hand.
“Your worth is more than all the gold in Vienna.”
“He owed me fifty kreutzers!”
Nicholas sighed. It was always like this every year when he killed the pimp. The fallen women could be such frightened things. He always tried to explain their fallen status, to chart their descent, but few ever could conceive of the larger scheme. Only one thing ever rid the women of their hysteria.
“Take all his money,” said Nicholas. “I return to you what your own father denied. What your pimp cheated you of. Take back your birthright, your dowry, your dign—”
She pounced for the man’s pockets, but then saw for the first time in the dark that the man wasn’t dead by any of the ways she’d imagined a revenant could kill a man. Not clawed or bitten, nor even slashed or stabbed. Rather that he’d been turned into a puce mush that was oozing out the collar and cuffs. She cringed, then pounced anyway, sorting through outer pockets, inner pockets, and all the places a man might hide his larger bills. In moments, she’d found it all, plus what seemed to be traveling papers. Nicholas had never seen a fallen woman so quickly ravage a man of his particulars.
She began to escape the scene without a look back.
“Your dignity!” he called out, making sure he knew his true gift to her. He hadn’t had time to get the word out fully. She had to understand that he was no murderer or common revenant. “I give you, woman, your life back!”
Nicholas heard her footsteps cut off as she stopped, then her stream of curses as she returned. She crouched over Nicholas as if she meant to pick his pockets too.
“What do you mean, my life back?”
“Theresa, then.” Nicholas found himself on uncertain ground, but in the past, women of a hysterical nature had to be talked to longer in his sweet, parakeet speech. “I have given you that money so you can win back your dignity, buy a home, find yourself a husband.”
“Home, husband? Think this is some fairy tale, do you? Here you are, the Revenant of Vienna, lurking in alleys, throwing a bit of silver around—” She flapped the bills. “—and I’m saved from sadness and sent to the ball, am I?”
Nicholas was piqued. That worried him. He knew that behind his pique was an explosion of righteousness. He’d discovered such about himself in Hell.
“Not a ball, and never a ball.” He continued more methodically. “Use that money to clean yourself up. Buy new clothing. Move to a new home. Find a husband. And then, provide him as many children as you can, filling your home with little ones. That money is your ticket back up.”
It soothed him to say it—the steps to redemption—but saw that his words had purpled her face in frustration. He knew why. Fallen women took a sort of pride on the streets, that against terrible odds, they’d learned to survive. “You’re a strong woman, Theresa. That strength, once you’re a mother, will do your daughters proud.”
“Now I’m a mother suddenly? With daughters? With a wave of a wand, a sprinkle of fairy dust?”
“There is nothing easy about being a mother. Nor bringing daughters into this world. Not as the place stands—Vienna, Europe, the world. All of it, more corrupt than my corpse.”
“Revenant of Vienna…” She looked at him miserably. “I didn’t believe you were real. Thought you were just a thing we women said out here, to keep us looking over our shoulders, watching for monsters on the streets. Men, I mean. The worst kind, that don’t pay what they should, and take everything. But you, Revenant, you come back for this?” She looked at the bills in her hand. “All to give us working women a chance?”
She looked upward in anguish, appealing to powers on high for answers. Nicholas could see a hint of the beatific in her.
“Yes,” said Nicholas, giving her only half of the truth, the part she needed. “Now, use that money. Find your home, a husband, and motherhood. All I ask, because I have intervened on your behalf—?” Nicholas saw her gaze harden. She expected him to take something, as her pimp did. What he had to say would soften her again.
“I ask you to likewise intercede for your daughters. Use your strength each day to provide for their futures, their goodness, their place in Heaven.”
“Daughters…” said Theresa, shaking her head. “Oh, Revenant, no… I just can’t, not even with this…” She held the wad of bills loosely. “This life is all that I… Even if I somehow… What sort of mother, after all I’ve…?”
From her lapses, Nicholas could hear that her dreams had long gone to tatters. He resolved to stitch them back together. “The best sort,” said Nicholas. “You will stand with your daughters, no matter what may come.”
“A mother, maybe… I am now, in a way, to orphans on the streets… But a wife, Revenant? You don’t know me. Where I have… Or who I have…” Her brows knit, a sign that Nicholas took as her trying to rip his stitches. But he’d seen this before, such women feeling too damaged to be saved. He had to be forceful.
“You think you’re unworthy,” he said.
“I didn’t say that,” Theresa glared at him, crumpling the bills in her fist.
Nicholas darkened. She’d been so close. How frustrating these creatures were! Women of all sorts, fallen or unfallen, could flag like laundry in the wind if left unpinned. He would have to risk talk better done between women.
“You think you will not be fruitful.”
Nicholas changed tack, hearing the offense. “You think you will not be able to please a husband.” He tried not to end in doubt, but he felt as if he was grasping at straws.
“Stop telling me,” said Theresa, “what I think.”
There it was, he realized. That note of no further in her voice—behind that door was his solution. He had to barge through it now, to save Theresa from herself. “You will be the best wife a man could ever want. You, more than most. For you see…” He had to confess his own unworthiness to pry loose her willingness to change. “In Hell, where I live, I have learned that husbands are often tempted to stray. It is filled to the brim with wayward men.”
Theresa blanched at his talk of Hell.
“Alas,” he continued sadly, “temptation to stray has been a stain on man’s character since Adam fled Eden. And though many blame Eve, I accuse the Serpent. Indeed, Eve did stray from her husband’s side, but only out of a curiosity to explore the garden God gave Man.”
Theresa seemed to be listening, but Nicholas wasn’t sure.
“As it passed,” he continued, ensure whether she’d ever been taught of the origins of the world, “the Serpent struck, Eve fell for its lies, she ate the forbidden fruit—the rest is history. Adam and Eve fled the Garden of Eden in shame. Adam’s fall is Man’s stain.”
“Is that how it happened?”
“Why, yes, it’s Biblical.” Nicholas sensed a sarcasm. “But it’s my opinion that Eve should be relieved of all responsibility. The fault was the Serpent’s first, Adam’s second, maybe God’s third, for He made Eve too curious and—if I dare say—the Garden, too tempting.”
“Pray tell,” said the woman, now clearly being sarcastic, “does this have to do with straying husbands, and why I will be the best wife for them?”
Nicholas bristled. His words were having the opposite effect on her. How rare the saint was who handed a woman the secrets of happiness as learned in Hell. “I am telling you that ever since the fall of Adam, husbands have not been content to remain inside their home.”
Nicholas brushed off the insult and gave her the secret anyway. “A wife therefore can retain absolute control over her home by knowing that Man strays by nature. Which brings me back to why you, of most women, will make the best wife a man could ever want.”
“You’re saying…” Theresa laughed until she grew red-faced, then fanned herself with the handful of bills. “You’re telling me…” But then she broke into haw-haws, a bawdy laugh he thought appropriate only for mocking fools in the stockade. Had Nicholas hands, he would have slapped her. Had Nicholas his crook, smote her.
“My point,” he urged, “is that if anyone will know when a husband is about to stray, it is you! And if anyone knows how to keep him from straying, it is you! So, on behalf of your daughters—”
“A happy house full of daughters!”
“On behalf of your daughters, please your husband in advance so he doesn’t stray! Take my instruction. You could be the best wife in the world! That is all I’m saying!”
“And this,” said Theresa, “is all I’m saying!” She threw her fistful of bills in his face, hawked up a gob, and spat on his face.
She got up, kicked him, and began to march away.
He’d never said the chant so fast.
Theresa fell down on the spot. Dead of bread. Soaked with wine. Right there next to the man. Nicholas found her disgusting, the way she now lay there, splayed out, a whore to the end. He had to take his eyes off the woman, for one of her hands had fallen into a trickling stream of water in the channel, and her fingers were dissolving into a gruel not fit for roaches.
The goat, just then, trotted up.
“I should have known,” said Nicholas, sneering. “You refuse to help me, unless it’s tomorrow. You could have put in a good word. Or bleated, if only to interrupt that which should not have gone on so long! She was beside herself. The hag, laughing at me!”
The goat approached, and lowered its head to Nicholas’s as tenderly as any of the animals around the Infant’s crib that day in the manger some eighteen-hundred years previous. Nicholas felt the soft huff from the goat’s nostrils on his face, and he wondered if finally, after all of their Decembers together, had the low creature finally learned compassion?
The goat belched.
“How I despise you,” said Nicholas, “ever since that day, by hook and by crook, I stole you from the garden of that woman.” Baring his teeth, he smiled.
The goat’s eyelids thinned to slits, and Nicholas knew the creature was stewing upon memories of greener pastures, in a place adjacent to Hell, sideways from Heaven, and, simultaneously, high in the Alps. Krampus had once belonged to a woman there whose name was all but forgotten—except to a handful of people in remote villages of the German and Austrian realms, where Christendom had yet to be cemented, and in the Black Forest as a whole.
Nicholas had stolen the goat from that woman.
The goat turned tail on him. And farted.
“Oh, crass thing! You think you defy me? I’m well-aware you trot back to that garden for visits. But she knows that tomorrow I own you, the goat that once battered its fool head against the Tree, to knock loose the Apples, that she may make the Pies, which feed the Dreams! And tomorrow, Krampus, you will be my Horned Beast, to scare good behavior into—!”
The goat licked his face with a slothful tongue.
“I hate you,” said Nicholas, when the tonguing was done. “Now, you know what will happen tomorrow if you don’t kill the ninety-nine worst villains in Vienna? That is right, Krampus. You will serve me every day of the year, not just tomorrow. And so…?” He stared with his sunken eye at the bodies nearby. “…I suggest you get to eating.”
The goat looked warily at the man’s body, then hung his head at the sight of the woman’s, and then shook his mangy head. Nicholas delighted in the goat’s torment. “Unless you wish to hunt and kill the ninety-nine as a goat? You’re as good as mine then!”
The goat went to the bodies, sniffed one, then the other.
“You need eat only one, as always,” said Nicholas. “Either Man or Woman. Eating both would be gluttonous. Besides, I cannot vouch for what the effects would be. One-third Man, one-third Woman, one-third you? Knowing the gifts each brings to the world, I would choose the Man if I were you. Woman is incapable of the violence that you do tomorrow.”
The goat swung his head toward Nicholas, and then from out the animal’s mouth came a woeful bleat he’d never heard from the goat. Not ridicule. Not cantankerousness. “Outraged?” said Nicholas. “Spare me, creature. You have killed more people up here than I have. Get to eating, or you will be on my chain for eternity.”
The goat knew when he was beat, chose his meal, and plunged his muzzle into the man. Nicholas couldn’t help gloating while the goat was bloating.
They had been doing this very thing for centuries. Nicholas killed one villain. Krampus, tomorrow, killed ninety-nine more. Thus, Nicholas put the fear of God into the world, smiting it into the highest echelons of evil, here in Vienna, the imperial center of Christendom, the shock spread downward, into all the lower hierarchies of wickedness.
Even children, least evil of all, would quiver.
The goat finished eating soon enough and looked miserable, its stomach bloated and its muzzle covered in the mush of bread and wine.
“Are you ready?” said Nicholas, who didn’t wait for consent and instead went right on into the chant, spake the correct way, with Christian intonation, and plenty loud enough for Krampus to hear. He took his time. The goat was going nowhere.
Take this, all of you, and eat of it.
For this is my body which will be given up for you.
Take this, all of you, and drink from it.
For this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant. Which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Do this in memory of me.
The goat mewled in pain, began to thrash as if beaten, and then stood its ground as if trying to take the pain of the Eucharist nobly, four hooves planted firmly, head lowered. The goat looked at Nicholas as if eager to butt, as it once had the Tree that made the Apples. But then, agony laced the goat’s body through and through, and it bleated in pain—and keeled over.
Nicholas knew it wasn’t dead. The goat was being transformed from the inside out, the bread becoming flesh, the wine turning to blood. Man and goat, commingling. Here then, the Words of Institution said properly, but put to crafty purpose.
Krampus would awaken soon enough. Nicholas had a moment’s peace.
He thought how the Words of Institution had once stirred his soul in his Mediterranean youth, when he was first finding his feet as a young man; over his life, the words had become a chant, a thing he could say automatically while his mind was elsewhere, almost as if the words spoke him; and as his mortal death approached, and Nicholas was given his last communion, the words touched him anew. Generosity incarnate. He had cried. Then soon after, died.
Then Hell—where Nicholas had discovered his true depths, what he was willing to do to ascend. The same words, turned to polluted purpose; foul words, purified here. How flexible such words could be, or a creed for that matter. In the hands of a good man, they were uplifting to others. In a bad man, punishing. Nicholas found use in both hands.
The goat mewled, began to rise on weak legs, as if reborn on a barn floor, fresh and faltering from its mother. And then, the goat stood. On its hind legs. With its forelegs, it reached for the wall to steady itself. There were hands were the hooves had been, forming from the cloven stuff, two-fingered. A third one was growing in-between.
Krampus was just a goat-boy at the moment—and now more a he, as Man was called, and not an it, as Animal was labeled.
The old saint couldn’t bear to look upon the goat-boy’s face. The muzzle was eroding, like a stone gargoyle’s face in rain. Already he looked more like a growing boy of five, or six, though his pelt was coarsening, which made his bare arms and legs seem that of a burly man. The thing was a hybrid horror now, but Nicholas knew soon Krampus would be mature into what he was. A shaggy demon.
“Pa—?” bleated the goat-boy. “—pa?” Krampus looked around, seeking a mother or father, and saw Nicholas looking at him. Krampus tottered to him like an infant. The legs were gaining muscle. “Papa?” said Krampus.
“No, creature. I am your master.” Nicholas gave him no warmth. The goat-boy didn’t yet remember what was inside of him—hatred, violence, murder—but Nicholas knew, and couldn’t give the demon any leash. Not one link, or else he might slip the chain. Besides, the boy didn’t know it wasn’t until tomorrow that he had to obey; until then, Nicholas had to use a ruse.
“I want to hear you say it—master.”
Krampus repeated the word in his halting way.
“I suppose that’s adequate.” Nicholas had never had patience for baby-talk. “Now, sit and behave. Gather your strength. Upon the midnight toll of Saint Stephen’s bells, you must begin your spree if you stand a chance to kill ninety-nine sinners before the midnight next. One every quarter-hour. Don’t fret. You rarely take it piecemeal. Why, you’ve sometimes spent the day searching Vienna for its worst tavern, then gore every man inside. Just like that, four-score slain. But now, sit and behave, as your master said. In a few more minutes, you must move us to a safer, darker place. I’m in no condition to walk. I’ve sacrificed much for you today.”
The creature knelt and settled. He whimpered.
“Quiet,” said Nicholas.
The goat-boy covered his face with his hands.
“I can still hear you,” said Nicholas. “Quiet, your master commands it!”
The child Krampus peeked out through his cloven fingers, and looked at Nicholas as if through the slats of a window shutter, his expression changing from wonder and fear to something else. Knowing. Questioning. How quickly the goat-boy grew. He’d be a goat-man within the hour, then demonically monstrous by midnight.
Krampus stopped whimpering, wiped his eyes with the back of his hands, which would be claws soon enough, and looked at Nicholas with suspicion. “Don’t you bother running, creature,” said Nicholas. “That one did, and look what it got her.”
The goat-boy searched around to find his meaning, and then saw the woman who’d been turned to bread and wine. She had remained where she’d fallen. Krampus scrambled to her side.
“Mother?” said the creature, whose mouth was adapting quickly.
“Don’t be ridiculous. That one was no one’s mother.”
“Someone’s mother,” said Krampus. “Or someone’s daughter.”
“Oh? How novel, a charitable Krampus! Never before have you cared for them, these people you’ll be leaving bloody in the streets. Don’t get any newfangled notions about yourself, creature. You hate mankind.”
“Mankind…” said Krampus, baffled by the word.
“These kind. Her there. Not your kind. You will kill ninety-nine of them.”
“I won’t. Not these kind.” Krampus tugged at the woman’s sleeve, the one which still contained a bready arm. Nicholas fumed. The demon was foggy and couldn’t recall that this is how they started every year.
“What ideals!” said Nicholas. “But when you’re racing against the clock, you’ll do what you always do. Murder every member of mankind. Women among them. It’s either them or you.”
The creature shook his head, which was much like a man’s, though the demonic features were creeping in. The brow, craggier. Teeth into tusks. The shoulders, broadening. His hips, barreling wide.
“I would never…” Krampus became sullen.
“You are in a fog, aren’t you? Let me wake the demon faster then. I will name all of the men you have sent down to Hell for me over the centuries. Many thousands, and we have a few hours. Or perhaps…? Yes, I’ll start with the women.” Nicholas really did recall every one, and he began to recite them, wanting to rub the creature’s nose in every one of their names. The goat shouldn’t have dropped scat on his feet at Saint Stephen’s. It was a bad way to start.
Twenty names in, Krampus pounded his fist on the ground. “Enough!”
Nicholas continued. He had all night, and nowhere but Hell to go.
Krampus rushed over, grabbed him by the tunic, gave him a shake, and then threw him back to the ground. “I may serve you tomorrow,” he growled, “but that is enough for tonight!”
Nicholas took the impact like no other. His skeleton broke apart in every place and his skull, already cracked, lost its shape. Only the waxen skin held the head together. He would not be getting up again, nor returning next year in this body. The modern day had finally taken its toll. No matter. There were other corpse-gates out of Hell, though the next body might be far from Vienna. He had heard that the New World needed punishment.
Krampus was brooding at the woman’s side. Nicholas was stunned by his compassion. The creature was honestly mourning the woman. Disingenuous, given how the beast had always killed without mercy!
Fortunately, the tongue still worked. And the jaw. And breath…? Yes, though a lung now wheezed toward collapse, the other was willing. So Nicholas thrashed the demon with more names just to twist the knife.
Krampus glowered at him, growing furious. Nicholas continued saying the names. What more could the demon do to him? So, name after name, ad infinitum, for the other lung was strong as the Lord’s bellows! Was Saint Peter listening? Or Saint Stephen? Did anyone in Heaven care that he’d always kept a detailed account of every villain and villainess he’d sent down to Hell using the demon?
“I’m warning you,” said Krampus.
Nicholas didn’t stop, even when he felt the demon grab his feet, pull him over to the woman’s side, and lay him next to her. Did he think that would make Nicholas penitent?
“Then eat,” said Krampus, “what you have sowed.”
Nicholas could barely see out his socket, but saw the demon scoop a hand, not quite yet a claw, into the vermillion mush of the woman’s body. With his other hand, Krampus pulled down Nicholas’s jaw—then in went the handful of mush. “Chew,” said the demon.
Nicholas struggled to twist his head, but it was firmly in the demon’s clutch.
“I remember everything,” said Krampus. “You and I have long been a match made in Hell. But you lured me away from my mother, from her garden.” Krampus worked the jaw gently as rocking a crib, grabbing more handfuls, and feeding them in.
“I was fool enough to nibble at your carrot. But I was a goat. On my mother’s land, only fed by her hand. I knew nothing of carrots or the men who hold them. I knew the Tree. I knew Apples. I knew to batter the Tree for her, so she could bake the Pies, which fed the Dreams. That was my whole world. That is, until that day when when your hand stuck through the fence between her farm and the border of Hell, waggling your carrot—though where you found a carrot in Hell, only God knows. Oh? What’s this? Nicholas, you’re not chewing.”
Krampus saw that he’d mashed so much mush into Nicholas’s mouth, it was bubbling back up in blaps of breath.
“You…” said Nicholas. “…only…”
“Only a goat, I know. You’ve said it many times. That I was nothing until you met me, made me, magicked me into a demon. I have heard your jabber for over a thousand years. I blame you for luring me away from my mother, but I blame myself for following you. I have let myself be your stick.”
“A crook is just a stick, Nicholas. Beat a child with either, and you still beat the child. Now, I know if I don’t kill ninety-nine sinners tomorrow, I’m yours forever. You and I are braided together by your Hellish enchantments. But until today, I have always thought myself the parasite—the mistletoe that creeps up the tree. A bad goat who strayed from his mother. Who grew up to be the bad devil. Who served a man I thought was the most virtuous in Hell.
Who I grew up believing, despite your being in Hell, somewhere in him had a good heart.”
“…?” Nicholas had no more words, only bubbles of outrage.
“But you are the mistletoe,” said Krampus, “and I am the tree. You’ve been climbing up me for years, desperate for Heaven, sapping my goodness. Oh, I have no virtue left and no longer want it. But I do have enough goat left in me to see you clearly. Heaven rejects you with good reason, Nicholas. You are a villain to the core.”
Krampus had been listening to Nicholas’s preaching for so many centuries now that he knew, even in those blurps of bread and wine, what he meant. “Because she was an innocent in our evil endeavors.”
“I don’t mean my mother.”
“Her,” said Krampus, sinking his hand, which was now hardening to a claw, into the mush to where the woman’s heart had been. He pulled it out, a handful of the stuff. It was more syrupy there, where the heart had been, mostly wine. The four chambers of the heart provided just enough bread to thicken it. The soupy, seeping stuff drooled from his claw.
Krampus shoved it in Nicholas’s mouth, rejoicing in the terror in the saint’s good eye, sunk so low in its pocket.
“Take this,” said Krampus, “you damned man, and eat of it. For this is the body that was denied you. Take this, you damned man, and drink of it. For this is the chalice of her love, the blood of the covenant that you broke.” Krampus paused, sickened not the saint’s wildly pleading eye, but by a sense of the centuries of evil he and Nicholas had done.
“The covenant that I broke with you,” he confessed, and then continued gravely. “Let her blood be poured out in remembrance, and may you and I both choke on our sins. There will be no forgiveness for us.” He stopped, seeing that Nicholas somehow was trying until his dying breath to belch the woman’s bread and wine out of him.
Krampus looked skyward, meeting eyes with Saint Peter, who he knew had observed this day with great interest, continuing to mark down Nicholas’s sins, and yet never calling the original Twelve to arms—to come down this fourth of December and stop him.
He said to Saint Peter, “Tell your people to send a better one next time.”
Then Krampus looked down at the vicious creature he’d long served, and still would on the fifth of December for many years, bound by his evil magic, and saw the mash inching out of his lips. Nicholas was resisting to the end.
Krampus took a deep breath, filling his chest, and then applied his mouth to Nicholas’s, whose eye bulged in the deepest horror of all as the demon’s lips clamped down on his in some ambiguous amalgamation. A kiss, a bite, a feast? Krampus bellowed his breath into Nicholas, which shoved the mash in the saint’s mouth down his throat and then, meeting the mash already bulging up from his stomach, took a left turn into his remaining lung.
The good eye popped right out. Krampus snatched it out of the air, studied Nicholas’s eye, and saw that for once it was not judging him.
The old man was dead, at least in this body, until this same day next year, when he’d find some way to rise from Hell again in some other fresh corpse. As for tomorrow, Krampus would serve Nicholas and leave Vienna streaked with the blood of its worst sinners. He didn’t mind. Krampus only wished that dead Nick counted against the tally.
As for tonight, until Saint Stephen’s Cathedral tolled twelve, Krampus would have a fourth of December the likes of which he had never known on this earth.
A silent night without the saint.
Meet Steven Grimm!
Steven Grimm writes fiction based on classic fairy tales, including “Faithful Henry” from the Frozen Fairy Tales anthology. He also writes Cauldron Comics’ Silver and Gold, a webcomic about a transgender Cinderella who fights to save LGBTIQ+ lives in a world where Fairyland is a daily nightmare.
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