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Tuesday 7 December 2021

Winter Relict

Estimated read time: 24 minutes

     The hooded woman grumbled to herself and rubbed her thin arms furiously against the cold. No cloak was thick enough at this time of the year, no matter where she was. Even the mildest winters were bitter. But this...the mountains, the drifts, the trees hidden somewhere under that thick white sheet...ugh. This was just ridiculous. And she was fairly certain her lungs had frozen solid.
     'Needs must, needs must, needs must,' she reminded herself again, gritting her teeth behind chapped lips. As wretched as it was, it was a good sign. She certainly wasn't going to find the old man - man? - in a tropical setting. So, rather than follow a hunch, which had not been working out for her, she'd decided to actually do some recon. She'd moved from one town to another, listening rather than asking, and among the pleasant atmospheres, Yule pyres, mulled cider and pine needle tea, she'd finally found exactly what she'd needed regarding the giant goat that had been carrying people off in the night.
     Aaalllll of which had led her out here, tracking through frozen mud in the dark, shivvering, small teeth chattering as she searched for prints and traces under the half-lit moon. She could still hear the town's horns, drums and bagpipes blaring in the distance. Casting a wistful look backwards, she was sure she could see the light of the bonfires from there.
     She sighed witheringly and trudged on.
     'Needs must.'

     It didn't take long - though it certainly felt it - to find the prints, and they were exactly as people had described: a goat. A bipedal goat, with a...
     She took as natural a step as she could while being so aware of it.
     ...With a longer than average human stride. And given the depth of the prints in frozen mud, it was big. Or, more likely, heavy.
     "Looks like I'm on the right tracks," she murmured to herself. So, glad no one had been around to hear her pun, she wrapped herself tighter in the never-thick-enough cloak, took a deep breath, and followed the prints onwards into the snow-laden forest. The chill rapidly seeped through her boots, and a second set of tracks - a simultaneously pleasing and worrying set - appeared just as fast: the unbroken marks of something dragging through the ground on either side of cloven hooves.
     She paused and looked closer. The edge of the snow wasn't crisp; it had collapsed back in over them.
     So they were made by something heavy. Like a thick iron chain...
     A smile stretched her pale, grey lips. "Bingo."
     But she couldn't celebrate too soon. It was an old beast, a relic; unique. Powerful. Intelligent. Capable of reasoning, if only in black and white. And that reasoning, it seemed, was failing. After all, it was only December 2nd, yet the Krampus was up and about.
     Evidently, somewhere in recent months - or even days - he'd become corrupted, and, since he wouldn't have been easy to handle at the best of times, untouchable as he was by her inter-realm magic, all that was left open to her - or all she could think of while the cold built icicles inside her skull - was good old-fashioned assault.
     Extending her gloved hand, a silver blade appeared within it. Conjured, yes, but now her fingers wrapped around the hilt, it was real enough. And just as heavy.
     Her lips twisted doubtfully as she wielded and hefted its weight. But she'd just have to manage.
     A cold wind tugged her gaze back out along the tracks.
     Pulling her cloak tight again, she stiffened and moved on, stepping quietly, covering the distance faster than any human, and listening even closer. The air was cold; sound would travel further, and the first thing she'd hear would be--
     The tinkle of the bells and clang of the chains.
     A grunt rumbled in her throat. 'Found you, fella.'
     Silently, she stopped at the edge of the pines and stared on ahead from the shadows, half-blinded by the open white snow beyond. It took half a heartbeat for her eyes to adjust. Then, there he was, a dark shape moving across the field, ninety metres away.
     Clink. Clink. Clink.
     The chill the beast gave off reached her even from that distance, seeping deep and paralytically into her organs. So she set the briefest flame in her core in answer.
     The shock of the heat pushed a gasp from her throat and her legs back into action, and she left the shelter of the trees, flakes of falling snow melting as her red-hot breath cut through. Fast and silent she moved, until both he and the sack on his back were defined in the dark. She'd seen enough bags of bodies to know what was in it. They may not be dead yet, just entranced - but if he was out already, breaking the laws of his...what was it? A 'deityship'? Well, if he could do that, what else was he doing?
     But victims were second to the Krampus. He had to be stopped first. And she wasn't exactly under any obligations anyway. If there was time to save them, there was time. If not...well, she was never there.
     She wondered for a moment just how literal that truly was.
     The closer she drew, the colder it became, and the air darkened just as unnaturally. It was as if she'd stepped into some kind of bleak, corrupt atmosphere, and a grey, sour smell soon began to thrash inside her nose. She closed herself off to it, losing some sense of balance in the process, but it was better than the lethargic submission that would come from the aura's exposure.
     When she was finally just ten paces away and her heart was hammering in her chest, she stopped, straightened, thrust the blade into the snow beside her, loosened out her arms, and took a deep, steadying breath. She'd faced off against the Devil Herself, and successfully - she assumed - fled from Hekate. She could handle the Krampus.
     "Sorry old boy," she said aloud, since there was absolutely no way to get the sneak on a creature like this anyway, "I need a moment of your time."
     The figure slowed to a jangling stop. She waited. Then, slowly, cumbersomely, he turned and cast her a look over his shoulder.
     Her hammering heart leapt up into her throat.
     He looked almost as she'd always imagined he would: a goat-man, upright; dark, hairy, tall, with a long, sharp tongue lolling out from a mouth twisted in misery. But she hadn't expected his build to be quite so broad, nor for his teeth to be quite so long nor so yellow, nor for his goat-like horns to be so thick and twisted. He looked...ancient.
     And his eyes betrayed just how ancient. Primordial, almost.
     She stalled at the sight of them, then fought motion back into her body. Withdrawing the sword from the frozen earth, she steadied her grip just enough for control while keeping her arm loose enough to relieve at least some of the image of threat. "I realise you're busy," she continued coolly, "you've got your work to see to, but I was sent by theeee errrmm deeeiiity council...the Deity Council, and I'm afraid I have to take a look at your list--" She ducked sharply beneath the lashing chain. "Either that's a 'no'," she muttered, "or I'm on it."
     He struck at her again, booming an old, ragged howl over the bells, but she shifted where she stood, barely missing the strike as she collected her strength and burst ten feet backwards in a single movement. "I guess you're right on that count, though I'd rather it wasn't you who gave me the spanking."
     The sack he'd carried as if it weighed nothing crashed like lead to the ground as he swung at her for a third time, chains and bells clamouring, following unwittingly as she lured him away for the trees. He wouldn't be able to swing so easily in there, and if he tried, he'd save her the trouble by tangling himself up. Then she could get what she needed and be off, back to somewhere warmer, brighter, with pleasant company and absolutely no bells.
     But she had to get him in there, first.
     Again she evaded, ducking low beneath two more swings before spotting the pattern and stealing a precise attack of her own.
     Black blood hit the snow with a single satisfying nick, and a colossal roar ripped the night immediately after it.
     Her head rang as the howl knocked her balance and twisted deep in her gut, rattling her eyes inside her skull. She barely collected herself in time to avoid the retaliation, and looked back in confusion, searching urgently through his fur.
     The edge of her silver blade had liquified on that single cut, and she could see it now, sizzling, mixing with his blood and oozing with an acrid stench. So she had hit him. Clearly, it wasn't enough. And now, he was moving faster.
     She sprang backwards again despite the dizziness, closing herself off further from the smell, and desperately avoided the chains, reading his pattern again to work in another strike. It took more concentration than she had. If she got it wrong, if she moved too soon, she'd get her blade tangled in those ringing chains and wouldn't get the chance to summon another. All she could do was move and wait until she could guarantee a clear strike. However long it took.
     The chain clanged back in, a bigger movement than the others and a noise that was beginning to make her feel sick, but it was wide enough to be able to dart away from. Until a second chain swung in behind it, longer and heavier than the first.
     The pain it fired through her shoulder tore a yelp from her lips, and she was sent skidding sideways on her feet through the snow as the bells rang mournfully between them. But there was no time to find solid footing nor prod at the swelling; the Krampus was already on her, howling while his chains flashed by yet again.
     She bit back the useless squeak, tightened her grip on the sword and struggled through the snow, summoning more attention and lowering her defence against the smell of his burning blood. Her nose was cold and numb enough to withstand it, and if she fell again, she might not be quick enough to get back up. She was fairly sure that single hit had broken something in her shoulder. She couldn't afford to waste her energy.
     So when he closed in, she tensed, ready to spring away, and watched both of his chains for the cue.
     But it didn't come. He bellowed directly into her face instead, an impossibly loud sound that rattled her eyes all over again and reverberated into her bones. For a long moment, her mind escaped her, and she found her sword swiping recklessly, ignoring the chains. Somehow, it hit.
     More liquified silver seeped into his bloodflow, another wave of the acrid stench pulsed into the air, and another wretched howl of pain ripped from his old throat.
     She stole the moment to jump back to her feet, drawing on magic to aid her speed before he launched into an enraged fury. But it didn't come. Instead, something wrapped tightly around her left leg, then her right, and as she looked down in alarm at the two small, grey, flickering figures, more chittered and leapt gleefully onto her arms. Then the pain burned through the weaves, and the toxic smell of sulphur irritated her eyes.
     But a simple ice shard spell seemed to take care of them. Goblins apparently couldn't take very much.
     Though that, she soon realised, wasn't their point.
     While more swarmed in, she growled and cast again, and the snow reached up to root the goblins in place. Then er attention fell sharply back to the Krampus, already galloping, bellowing and swinging his chains.
     She dropped sharply when his weapons were within range, and struck out with her leg in a move she really didn't have the practise for. But, by more luck than skill, she still managed to catch and stagger him. If not for his fetlocked legs, she'd have missed completely.
     While his chains fell limp, she stole distance, dancing backwards through the writhing snow and clawing goblins still stuck in its reach.
     Then a sharpened birch stick flew towards her face.
     Instinct dragged her to one side even as she cursed. She should've grabbed for it.
     Then, once again, with the speed a creature that size shouldn't have possessed, he was suddenly in front of her. He was getting faster, she was sure of it. And his eyes were wilder, too.
     When something suddenly struck her backwards again, she was sure nothing had hit her but his voice, and though her ears rang with the sound and her eyes weeped under the smell of his breath, she still made out the sound of horns and bagpipes drifting in from the distance.
     The town. It was too close.
     But so, she realised with a leap of her heart, were the trees.
     She gritted her teeth, scrambled back up, struck clumsily, and made to run the final stretch. But heat pierced her shoulder before she could even turn.
     The lethargy already creeping through her arm told her what had happened.
     She ripped out the birch stick and clutched it tightly even as the heaviness spread to her chest. Just how potent were these ruten?
     She had little time to wonder. Despite the jingle of his bells and the clatter of his chains, the Krampus was on her too soon, knocking her to the ground before she even thought to try to move.
     'No,' she thought as his heavy chain withdrew, 'I underestimated him...'
     Then the goblins were back on her, burning her through her clothes. Her spell had collapsed.
     Maybe this was too much after all. At this rate, she was going to get dragged back to his realm, and--
     Her eyes widened. 'Ohhh...'
     Quietly, she spat out a curse and sighed, pushing herself slowly to her feet while the goblins giggled and the hooves stamped up behind her. Her vision doubled, but she cast the spell anyway, regardless of whether it would work fast enough or not.
     The hooves stopped, and the chains moved again.
     The goblins retreated.
     She slipped the blade into the sheath that appeared at her hip, just as the clatter and ring of steel swung its way around her.
     The deafening bells and chains' tight squeeze were the last things she knew.

Part 2

     The sour sting in her sinuses finally permeated the fog behind her eyes, and dragged her from the depths of what had been an almost pleasant sleep. It was acrid, both natural and ancient.
     Burned...hessian? And...ffff...sssss...ssssomething... No. No, she couldn't place it.
     Slowly, the thought finally came to open her eyes, but the effort was far more than it should've been, and when she thought she'd managed, the ongoing darkness made her wonder.
     She adjusted after the third delibrate blink, and found herself staring at a hand and a knee, neither of which were hers.
     "Well. I'm inside the sack after all." And it was shockingly spacious - but she supposed it had to be to accommodate everyone else in there with her.
     Her gaze drifted upwards, though there wasn't really enough room to move her head, but she couldn't feel anyone pressing down above her.
     So no one else had been added since. Then her spell had worked fast enough; the birch rut's enchantment hadn't fully taken hold. She'd probably only been unconscious for a few minutes.
     Of course, that was probably little comfort for the others, who remained petrified solid, faces twisted and frozen in fear. Some were probably close to death already, whether they were back in the Krampus's realm or not.
     But, again, they weren't her problem.
     She turned her attention out through the sack, rocking with the beast's slow, ponderous steps, and listened, trying to map the route as rapidly as possible - the smells, the sounds, the creature's speed, the ditches in the ground, uphill or downhill...
     But the Krampus's own aura was throwing it all off.
     She strained over it as best she could, deciding not to risk raising her defence any higher or the dizziness would make orientation impossible, and soon noted the sound of horns and bagpipes, joyful music that played now like a beacon.
     And then a dreadful warning. However far he'd carried them in the few minutes she'd been out, they were already nearing another settlement, and if he put any more people in the sack, her chances of escape would plummet. And it would be bad for them too, of course...
     'The corruption seems to have made him almost wild, though... Maybe I can distract him...'
    Her eyes drifted back over the frozen, horrified faces and her voice rose through the sack. "So, how's business?"
     No reply. Had she expected one?
     Maybe she wasn't reaching him. Well, if her voice wouldn't, the snow would. Her fingers shifted where they were trapped and directed the spell, thickening the drift around his hooves and slowing him as he walked.
     "Must come pretty easy, given how people are," she continued anyway. "They rarely learn their lessons, do they?"
     No response.
     "But I have to wonder: this isn't a curse, so what do you get out of it? Reputation only goes so far, and it seems a pretty dull form of entertainment. So...what is it?"
     "Mm. No, then again, you don't seem the type for any of that - necessity, that's all. So it must be food then - enough to stock the coming year, I suppose. Can't say I wouldn't do the same when you only have to work one night of the year...though I hear you've been busy for the past four..."
     Her eyebrows rose as she felt him come to a stop and turn, then heard him grumble something beneath his breath.
     A frown slipped in as she listened, but he soon fell silent again and walked on. "Any particular reason for that? Is your list too long this year for one night?"
     But, again, no answer.
     "Mm... Well, what constitutes 'naughty' these days, anyway? Because I notice Queen Amelia is still knocking about.... And witch hunters. And witches, for that matter, so I think it's safe to assume that whatever forces you obey seem to have their own criteria. know, I'd almost go as far as to say there aren't any rules. Pick and choose; make examples out of restless sleepers. Should keep people on their toes, right? Of course, if that was the case, you wouldn't be out here right now..."
     Again, he stopped, turned and mumbled.
     She muttered a curse of her own. Mapping still wasn't working. She was fairly sure they were moving away from the village, but she couldn't be sure. With a purse of her lips, she redoubled the density of the snow and tried another tactic.
     "You know, you came to my town once. Took two kids, only brought one of them back. I was terrified I'd be gone the next year. Funny how things stick with you." She stifled her struggle as she attempted to free her trapped arm. "The wrong things, clearly. You know, I can't actually remember any Yule from my childhood other than that one. Realm-walker's lot; we live too long. Assuming we don't get done in by our own shenanigans." She grunted. "I'm sure that's how I'll go. It'll be my own fault. People always said so.
     "But, you know, I never really made a lot out of Yule. But I suppose you don't have to. Doesn't make a difference; memories happen when they happen, and whyever they happen. I've been around long enough to learn that. For example, my best Yule was in Navalehya. It was quiet, aurora was flowing, almost got frostbite and Nisska made a chicken eskellian that almost killed us." A grin snapped across her face even as she continued to subtly wrestle herself free. "At least I think it was Yule...
     "My worst, though, was definitely Yule. Xarinill - they do things differently there, that's why I know it was Yule - and I was hunted by a tribe of dracoria. My fault, I misunderstood, removed a curse I shouldn't have. Or, rather, one they didn't want remov--"
     She hissed, barely missing biting her tongue as the sack was dropped down. Then came the unmistakable smell of sulphur.
     Hell lay ahead.
     Good. At last. Stronger there, he might be, but the problem areas would be solved. He'd be more corporeal, easier to strike, and, more importantly, slower. And she could use the energy in that place just as well as he could.
     And, if she carried on irritating him, he'd get there even sooner if just to get rid of her.
     Finally, she freed her arm as the sack was lifted again. "So," she sighed in relief, though the limb was empty of blood, "what's it like for you? Are you as singular as I am? I suppose you would be. It's how you were made. Nowhere to go but your home, bound to one purpose, no deviation allowed, and feared by humans just for doing your job." She squeezed her fist to revive circulation. Not for the first time, she wondered if it was already rotting inside from starvation. "You know, even if you hadn't broken the rules, it would only be a matter of time before they started hunting you. There are a few already after me, and I didn't abduct or lose any of their children. Then again, I suppose some would argue I'd done worse, but regardless, hunted is hunted, and there are too many of them and far too few of us. It's only a matter of time before they come up with something to end it once and for all. Then neither of us will matter. All the children you've taken, all the lessons you've taught, all the things I've taken and lessons I've taught... Pointless. We're wasting our time really - but that's an awfully dangerous rabbit hole to go down, don't you think?"
     She puffed a quiet sigh. "You know, I can't help but notice you've not answered me yet. Must be that tongue of yours, hard to control, lolling out like that all the time. Good thing I'm perfectly capable of holding a conversation on my own, eh? Master of the monologue. Don't get much practice with people, but it's either this or lose the ability to speak altogether, and I don't much fancy that."
     The monotonous pace stopped, he turned again, and the smell of sulphur in her sensitive nose noticably thinned.
     Curses rasped behind her teeth, and she moved to finally reach out of the bag until the pattern of his mumbling registered. Then, she stalled.  'A Yuletide song?'
    The sack dropped again, and as the cold seeped deeper through the hessian, she frowned and listened to him walking off, his bells and chains clanging. They stopped several long paces away and swayed, presumably, as he looked around.
     The frown deepened as she waited. Then, she moved. Out poked her head, then her shoulders, then her elbows, and she watched him for a while. There was something else in his eyes when he finally looked back.
     A question?
     Slowly, her hand rose from the sack and pointed back towards the sulphur. His eyes followed, and his head bobbed a cumbersome  nod. Then back he clanged, pushed her back inside, lifted the sack and shifted it over his shoulder once again.
     As a stranger's hand pressed into her cheek, her eyebrows rose. 'He's just...senile...'
    And a better idea formed.
     She wracked her memory as the sack resumed its slow to and fro swing, and began to sing along. The rough, mumbling voice outside soon rose in tandem, and when the Krampus finished that jolly song in something half-resembling the usual tune, he moved immediately into another. The bells and chains began to rattle with the rhythm, and his hoofsteps stamped like a metronome.
     Slowly, with that measured pace and deciphered sound, the rest of the world presented itself around her, and the smell of sulphur grew strong again. And when the bag next dropped to the snow in the midst of the toxic stench, out she climbed, the pair of them still singing, sun on its way up, hellish gateway open beside them, and she summoned a flute to play along. For only a few minutes they stayed this way, until the Krampus suddenly turned and descended that fiery path as if he'd been called by something. She, the sack and its contents had been forgotten. Yet even as he disappeared into the fire, his singing drifted back out with the sulphurous gas.
     She wasted no time. Letting go of the flute, which continued to play itself, she stooped and drew a circle in the snow around the gaping, sputtering hole, whispering an incantation in alternating tones. Only when the final word and gesture had been made did she stop circling and straighten, and watched as the ground pulled itself back together and the toxic haze diminished.
     The Krampus wouldn't be visiting next year. If he even remembered to try.
     While the cold, white sun rose low on the horizon, a gusty sigh steamed from her curving lips, and her shoulders rounded. "Problem solved." At least until something else stepped in to fill his role. Something more suited to modern values. Necessity was necessity, after all.
     Then her gaze dropped to the birch branch she'd saved, its end covered in white blood, and smiled with satisfaction. The wound in her shoulder steamed itself shut in a heartbeat. "Jolly good." Then she moved on to leave. She had too much still to do.
     But she'd barely gotten more than five paces before her attention drifted to the sack. "...Ugh. I suppose I should get these people home first..."

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2021 Kim Wedlock


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