by S.H. Roddey
Thursday, November 30th
Santa Claus and Krampus walked into a bar. In the far corner, the Tooth Fairy ran the billiards table against the Easter Bunny, whose ears fell in defeated frustration. A jazzy and highly inappropriate instrumental version of O Come, All Ye Faithful filtered down through tinny speakers. A sign made of glass plates and neon tubes hung on the wall behind the polished bar.
Welcome to Imagination’s End!
The last word of the sign blinked in a spastic dance that made Santa’s right eye twitch. Apropos, really. Aside from Darkness at the opposite end of the bar sucking the light out of the room and the one-sided game of pool at the back of the room, the place was deserted.
Very few of their folklore and mythological compatriots remained these days, their existences reduced to memory by overzealous religion and modern technology. After all, in an age with energy drinks and caffeine pills, who needed the Sandman? There wasn’t time to sleep anymore. The ranks of the fair folk were gone, their once-necessary trickery lost in digital memes and that awful event known as “Rickrolling.”
The only reason Toothy, Carl, and I still exist, Santa mused, is because we’re useful in procuring material goods for today’s spoiled youth.
Carl delivered eggs and other sweet delights every Easter, and Toothy never failed to leave money for children whose teeth had fallen out, even if she did complain quite a bit about inflation and the price of teeth going sky high. And Santa… he knew he was the only one not in immediate danger of vanishing from memory thanks to American consumerism and the dawning of the “Black Friday” holiday.
“Want a pint, Nick?” Krampus asked as he lifted his spaded tail and took a seat on one of the rickety stools. Santa nodded. The bartender, an eight-foot nightmare clown with pointed teeth and warped makeup, appeared in front of them, throwing down cardboard coasters. “Zwei, bitte, Benedict,” the demon continued, falling into his native tongue.
Benedict nodded, loped down the length of the bar with a maniacal giggle, his oversized shoes flapping on the hard floor in a sickly comic fashion, and filled two glasses from a tap there. It was brewed in-house, and the small wooden sign above it read “Imagination Ale”. The clown scraped off the multicolored head, then lifted and blew on the glasses, leaving a thin sheet of ice crystals on each one. Santa shuddered, trying not to think of the pathogens on his glass from the psycho’s breath. Then Benedict slid the frosted glasses down the bar, where they stopped smartly in front of Santa and Krampus.
“Sad turnout tonight,” Krampus said as he lifted the glass to his lips.
Santa grunted. “They’re all gone,” he said. “Imagined away by spoiled brats who think things are only good if something is gained.”
“Kids have been selfish for ages,” Krampus argued. “Why do you think I eat them?”
“It’s getting worse,” Santa replied. “The Fair Dreams are gone save the three of us in this room. The rest are just nightmares.”
“Being of the Dark Dreams is not necessarily bad, Nick.”
“Yes it is.” Santa sighed. “I used to be a person, you know.”
Krampus rolled his beady red eyes and scratched at the scruff at the base of his neck. “So you’ve said. Repeatedly. For two dozen generations.”
Santa said nothing as he toyed with the rim of his glass. The frost had yet to melt and the rainbow-colored liquid swirled around in a lazy, hypnotic rhythm. He wondered for a moment what it was made of, then thought better of the question. If it came from Benedict, he really didn’t want to know. Chances were, it wasn’t good for him at all.
In the span of silence following that thought, half a dozen nightmares came into the bar, ordered drinks, and took up posts around the dingy room. The song overhead changed to something middle-eastern. Santa didn’t know the song offhand, even though it sounded vaguely familiar.
“They don’t believe anymore,” Santa said after he steeled his nerves and took a sip of the strange liquid. It was fruity, and much less revolting than he’d anticipated. Krampus had already drained his glass and signaled for a second. “People are picking us off one by one. Soon even nightmares won’t be enough to scare them.”
“Oh, they believe,” Benedict said as he brought Krampus’ fresh drink over. “They don’t forget as easily as you think, Nick.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Krampus raised one wild eyebrow as he downed his second pint and slammed the glass down on the counter. Santa stared back, unfazed. “Might I point out the irony in your statement, Herr Clause?”
“You might, were I in any mood to listen.”
Krampus sighed. “Come on, Killjoy… I shall prove he’s right.” He rose from his stool and looked around. Then he turned and climbed onto the bar. Benedict went back to wiping glasses as if nothing unusual were going on. Santa supposed it wasn’t, considering the clientele. The shock of seeing an eight foot tall demon on the bar only lasted a moment, then Santa went back to his own drink, more concerned with the dwindling nice list in his pocket.
“Friends, nightmares, creatures of imagination, lend me your ears!” The nearby nightmares paused and turned toward Krampus. He raised his arms over his head, his tail rising in time with his hands. “The time has come to bring justice to our fallen brethren. Today’s children are spoiled, entitled.” Murmurs of agreement rose from the gathering crowd. ”Desensitized to terror. It must stop!” the nightmares cheered. Even Benedict laid down his towel to listen. “It is our sworn duty as dunklen to foster terror. To teach lessons to these snot-nosed brats!”
A cacophony of excited cheers filled the bar as Krampus continued his diatribe. Santa shook his head in exasperation but said nothing. It would do no good. He looked down at the two rolled lists on the counter and sighed. The nice list was pretty slim this year. It would do these whippersnappers some good to have the bad scared out of them. While he disagreed on a fundamental level with a night time bedroom blitz and the eating of bad children, he had no intention of stopping the near-frenzied mob. He needed something to change, or he’d soon go the way of the manticore and the unicorn.
He continued to sit at the bar long after the crowd followed the demon out into imagination. Benedict placed one final glass on the counter, which Santa drained while Carl returned to the billiard table to cue up his next shot.
Saturday, December 5th
The numbers of the nightmare army had grown to almost a thousand strong in the two days since Krampus’ announcement. It seemed every available monster was eager to take a shot at the world’s youth. When he first started this venture, Krampus hadn’t expected much. Now, there was no turning back. His followers prepared for war. It had become obvious that this thing was bigger than even the Jolly One realized. He adjusted his clothing and shouldered his pack. Rather than wiggling and whimpering, it jangled with the weight of his arsenal.
“A Ramones t-shirt?” A familiar, chortling laugh filled the air. “Seriously, what demon wears that sort of thing?” Santa asked as Krampus turned to look at him.
“It helps me blend in.”
“Because in that shirt nobody will notice the cloven hooves or the tail, right?” Santa asked with a derisive snort. Krampus turned his attention back to the waiting throng of creatures, choosing not to dignify the catty comment. Nightmares of every shape and size haunted their little patch of darkness at the edge of Imagination, and it was up to him to organize them into something useful. His intent, he realized, was not to help Nick. But it seemed his game, scare-the-kids, had turned into a noble cause. At least someone would get something out of it. Krampus raised his arms, his taloned hands opened to the masses.
“Brothers,” he said, his thick Germanic accent echoing in the silence, “the time has come… the time for retribution!” Cheers rose in the darkness. “The youth of today has been corrupted by society, desensitized to the fear of our brethren! We did not start this war!” Murmurs of assent rose in the darkness. “Tonight,” Krampus shouted, his voice heavy with its native tongue, “we fight back! Tonight we make them pay!” He shifted his pack across his back, his free hand waving a birch switch in salute. “To the children of this world, you shall bring fear and humility. To the parents of this world, relief that they might live a healthy life without the struggle of badness in their children. And to the Jolly One, you shall bring a rekindled sense of purpose! Save our fair folk tonight with your misdeeds! Go forth, my brethren, and wreak havoc!”
The teeming mass of nightmare creatures turned and disappeared into the darkness. Krampus waited until the last of the slithering monsters had transitioned back to Reality before turning and looking at his partner.
“Well, Nick, you are welcome to join this abenteuer,” he snorted, “but I believe your goodness will win out.” He tucked the switch into the matted fur under his right arm. “Go home and keep an eye on that list of yours.” He winked at his companion, then turned and pushed into the empty space between Imagination and reality.
The transition never failed to disorient him, but Krampus had spent several lifetimes perfecting the art of interplanar movement. He barely stumbled as he moved into reality, and turned toward the darkened Southeastern town. The faint echo of screams lingered in the air. It appeared his counterparts had already come here and done their job.
Good, he thought. Tender morsels ready for plucking.
He loped down the hill toward the town, his stomach growling in anticipation. “Welcome to Monarch’s Crossing, the Jewel of the Lowcountry,” the faded wooden sign read as he passed into the town’s limits. The smell of terror magnified as he drew closer to the mill village below. It had been a long time since he tasted real fear, and from the number of lights on in windows that should otherwise be dark, he felt confident that dinner would soon be his for the taking. The main street was dark and snow-filled, an odd sight for the Southeastern United States, even in December. The powdery white fluff lay against door jambs and collected on windowsills. A quaint image for certain, but not to last if he had his way. Plus, the air temperature was already rising, and the snow would soon turn to ice.
The first house he came to was still and silent. From the smell around the door frame, only an elderly couple lived here, the scent of children long-since removed from the cracks and crevices of the place. He moved on to the second house and slipped in between the cracks of reality. The child here was only an infant, too small for true fear. With a sigh, Krampus slipped out again, back into the chilly street. His heavy hooves left no prints in the snow, no sign at all that he ever existed.
By the fifth house, he found enough fear to pique his interest. Every light in the house was on and the two children, a young boy and an older girl, sat on the sofa in the living room, crying into their mother’s chest. The distraction of the children made his sneaking into the closet of the bedroom they shared easy enough, and when the harried mother finally returned the sniveling children to bed, Krampus was ready. He watched as she tucked each one in, kissed their foreheads, and turned out the light. Then he waited.
Krampus waited just long enough for the children to doze before pushing the closet open. The slow creak roused the boy, who called out in the darkness.
“Tina…” he whispered a little too loudly to be inconspicuous. “Tina…” he tried again.
“What, Robby?” she asked, her sleepy voice like gravel. “Mama said there’s nothing there.”
“But I heard it!” he hissed, no longer keeping to the whisper.
“Go to sleep!”
The acrid tang of fright flavored the air, whetting Krampus’ appetite. Robby laid back down, giving him the opportunity to push the closet door again. The second squeak caused both children to sit straight up in their beds.
“Do you believe me now?” Robby whined.
“Don’t let Mama hear… she’ll yell.”
Krampus didn’t wait for them to lie back down. He shoved the closet door wide, which sent both petrified children screaming down the hall toward their mother’s room again. He inhaled deeply and licked at the air, then slipped out of the room. The sweet flavor of fear tingled on his tongue as he moved to the next house to put on a similar show for another child.
Nearly two hours of fright-games passed before his hunger reached its peak. A rumble of staunch defiance, having long-since manifested in a house at the end of the street, shook the ground under his feet. The occupants of that house refused to be frightened, which only made him want to go in more.
He slipped in through the back door, his nose wrinkling in disgust at the sound of bass-laden music and muffled voices slurring their way through the words of what he supposed was meant to be a song. The air stank of pot and alcohol, and carried the salty tang of arousal, however faint. Though the nightmares had already come through to seeds of doubt, the occupants of this abode might actually be a challenge.
The party raged in the front of the house, and the partiers remained oblivious to his presence long enough to allow Krampus to fade into the shadows of the kitchen. It was easy enough, considering the cabinets were dark and the old incandescent light bulbs in the dingy fixtures overhead not particularly bright. Nor did it take long for his trickery to start.
The youngest of the teenage boys, a scrawny, pot-stinking punk of about sixteen, stumbled into the kitchen and jerked open the refrigerator. The sudden movement rattled the jars and pitchers atop the appliance, which covered up the sound of Krampus’ hooves clicking on the tile floor.
The first swipe of the birch switch landed against the boy’s calves. The boy yelped in surprise, spinning around to find nothing but an empty kitchen. Krampus snickered and lined up his next shot. When the boy reached up into an overhead cabinet, he swung harder, the hit landing against the backs of the boy’s knees. The glass in his hand fell to the counter, where it shattered. The third blow hit his shins and sent him screaming back into the front room, sniveling about a ghost. Krampus licked at the air, enjoying the tang of terror, then left his hiding place to follow the kid.
He found the boy pacing back in forth in front of the sofa, ranting about the ghost and lifting his pants legs to allow his friends to see the welts rising on his calves. Whether it was the pot or the alcohol talking, Krampus couldn’t be sure, but it didn’t matter. The more the other kids laughed, the more his victim’s fear intensified.
“Screw you guys, I’m leaving,” the kid said after a moment, and reached for his keys. The girl on the end of the sofa snatched them up, her reflexes surprisingly sharp.
“No, Jimmy,” she said. “you’re drunk.”
“You guys don’t get it… something attacked me.” He huffed, the last edge of the sound turning to a whine. “I have the marks to prove it.”
“You probably backed into the counter,” another boy said, “I do it all the time.”
“No, Steve,” Jimmy demanded, “I didn’t just walk into something. The counter wouldn’t hit me three times!”
Steve sighed. “Fine…let’s go look.” He climbed off the couch and started down the hall. Krampus swung, and the switch caught Steve across the shoulderblades. The stoner shrieked and spun around, ready to take a pot shot at one of his friends, but the closest one was still several feet away. He spluttered, unable to form a coherent sentence. Krampus struck again, catching the boy across his calves hard enough to knock him to his knees.
Steve screamed, panic settling in, and tried to scramble away. Apprehension quickly infected the rest of the kids, cutting through their euphoric haze of marijuana smoke and filling the room with a well-seasoned fright. Though the true show began when Krampus crept to the center of the room and showed himself to the ungrateful brats. Stretching to his true height, from cloven hooves to twisted horns, he was such a sight to behold that the kids could not even manage screams. Looks of true, life-altering dread entered their glassy eyes. One of the girls began to cry. The kids, lined up nicely along the sofa, were the perfect smorgasbord of emotions. Krampus paced back and forth along the far edge of the coffee table, sampling the flavors of each. It had been a long time since he’d tasted such strong emotions. The nightmares had already accomplished much this night. And he was very hungry.
He reached toward them, eliciting a fresh round of screams. The sound made him smile. But the thing that made Krampus giggle with maniac glee was the expulsion of urine when he laid hands on the pretty redheaded girl. Steve ruined his jeans and his mother’s sofa without ever knowing it, because Krampus grabbed him by the hair and stuffed him face-first into the musty old sack. He would make a fine meal later.
Krampus left those children screaming in confused distress as he slipped back into the space between imagination and reality.
Sunday, December 6th
Santa paced, his nerves shredded as he waited for the report from Krampus’ camp. Screams echoed through Imagination, one after another, working their way around the globe. This close to Christmas, he doubted it would do much good, but if he were to lose hope, how would the world retain any hope at all?
The in-between rustled, drawing Santa’s attention. At first he thought nothing of it, then he heard the frightened whimpers and realized Krampus had arrived. Santa didn’t immediately turn around, afraid of what he might find. He was never sure what he would find when Krampus was involved.
“Check your list, Nick,” the demon said. “It should be considerably longer.”
“Für mich, ja.” Santa heard a thump and a small, wheezing groan. “The monsters, they will continue until every child has been properly frightened.”
“Why are you giving in so quickly? I thought fear was your forte.”
“It is, but I am hungry.”
“You’re not going to…”
“Yes, Nick, I am going to eat the boy.” Santa made a strange, gurgling sound and the world canted slightly to the right. “Not all at once, mind you. He’s a bit older than I typically like, so he will make many fine meals. Plenty of fear to go around.”
“But…do you physically eat him?”
Krampus snorted. “Only after I’ve drained every ounce of fear from his mind and devoured his soul.” Santa groaned. “I may spare the meat on this one. He’s quite large, you see, and by the time I drain him he’ll be little more than a dried-out husk.” Krampus went silent for a moment, making quiet, musing sounds. “On second thought, I may only eat his soul. That is the best part, you know.” He paused again, “Though that would keep the kid from having another chance. Perhaps I shall let the soul go free and eat the rest of him after all.”
“Yes…and I am a monster, Nick.” Krampus chuckled. “Or had you mistakenly anthropomorphized me?”
Santa shrugged to cover the shudder of disgust. “Fair enough.” He heard the shifting of the sack, and that was the point when he turned. The look of pure glee in Krampus’ eyes told him everything he needed to know. The night had gone well… for one of them at least. Just as every coin had two sides which could not manipulate one another, Santa’s goodness would never repair Krampus’ evil.
Live and let live, he thought with a dry, slightly queasy chuckle.
“Thank you for helping save Christmas,” Krampus nodded in response, and was gone.
Santa drew in a deep breath through his nose and looked down at the scroll in his hand. On the outside, he knew it hadn’t changed. It was still parchment and ink, still the same as it had been before this adventure started. Yet he couldn’t help but believe it had changed, had somehow expanded to include the names of children who had once deserved reward for good behavior. He exhaled, and carefully unrolled the list.
Santa smiled, radiant pink filling his jolly cheeks as he found his hope restored in the human race. With a nod of approval, he rolled up the scroll, tucked it into his furry red coat, and turned away, headed back toward his workshop. It appeared he had a lot of work to do to be ready for Christmas this year.
As he passed out of Imagination, Santa absently whistled the first few notes of an old carol.
O come, all ye faithful…
About S.H. Roddey
Find out more about S.H. Roddey at www.shroddey.com.