by Nicki J. Markus
The Krampus schnapps barely tickled as Nathan emptied the glass in a single gulp. He wasn’t sure how many that made. Five? Six? He’d lost count around the same time he lost all feeling in his throat. He tried to set the glass upside down on the table, but thanks to his impaired hand–eye coordination, it fell on its side instead. His friends gave him a raucous cheer and a smattering of offbeat applause. They were in no better state than he: drunk, every last one of them. Dave had promised a Stag Do to remember and he had certainly delivered. James was so far gone Nathan doubted he could even recall why they were here, let alone the fact that he was getting married back in England next week. This weekend in Salzburg had seemed expensive and ridiculous when Dave first made the announcement; now Nathan reckoned it was worth every penny. Booze, cakes, booze, Christmas markets, and booze. What more could a guy want? The others started singing a pop song, attempting a simultaneous rendition in seven different keys, and it seemed the perfect time for a comfort break.
The men’s room in the Salzburg Old Town pub was cleaner than he’d expected and currently empty. He swayed towards the urinals and held himself upright with a hand against the wall as he fumbled with his fly. He sighed in relief as his full bladder emptied; although, the sensation also increased his light-headedness. A stumble took him to the sinks and he peered, bleary-eyed, at his reflection while he washed his hands. He splashed a little water on his face and turned to go, drying his damp palms on his jeans as he went. It was then that he noticed the wallet on the floor. Bending to retrieve it was no easy feat; it took three attempts. He gripped the faux leather, flipped it open, and gasped when he stared between the folds. The wallet itself might be cheap and nasty, but the contents were a treasure trove. Aside from the usual assortment of plastic, there was a wad of cash—hundreds of Euros at least.
Nathan knew he should hand it in at the bar. With this much money at stake, someone was sure to come looking for it sooner rather than later. However, another voice whispered in his ear like an ill angel perched on his shoulder, and he glanced towards the door. He was still alone in the restroom. No one had seen him pick up the wallet. Why shouldn’t he keep it? If someone was stupid enough to carry this much cash and then lose it, surely his keeping the money would be a good lesson for them. He considered pocketing the notes and handing over the rest. That seemed foolish though. When the owner arrived he would want to know where the money went and would start asking difficult questions of the Good Samaritan. No; he needed to keep the lot and get out of here pronto. He could ditch the wallet and cards a few streets away.
The sensible part of Nathan, imprisoned within his drunken stupor, tried to protest that this was wrong, that he was no thief. However, Completely Truthful Nathan, the part of him only released when inebriated, reminded him of all the times he’d swiped a tenner from his mother’s purse as a kid, or lifted a handy twenty from a friend who’d left his wallet in Nathan’s care. This was no different, and no one would ever know; not if he left at once.
He stuffed the wallet into his back pocket. It was a tight fit, but he finally managed to cram it in far enough to tug his sweater over the top, hiding it from casual view. He shoved the door so hard he nearly landed on his face as it swung open, but a conveniently placed chair halted his descent. Through blurred vision he spotted his friends still at their table. Everyone was so drunk he doubted they would even realise he was gone until he later returned. Even so, he made a dizzying dash around the bar before any of them looked in his direction, and burst out into the night.
Or straight through the gates of Hell.
Nathan had thought it loud within the pub, with music playing and conversations shouted over it, but that was nothing compared to the noise outside. The night air rang with the sound of bells and shouts and chants and screams. The cacophony was unlike anything he’d ever heard before and he pressed his hands over his ears in an effort to block it out. The action did nothing; the roar cut through skin and muscle and bone, creating a relentless pounding in his head.
Then, from around the corner, a terrifying horde swept down the street. Wolves and eagles bared fangs; bears dripping bells from their thick, mangy fur roared; and devilish horned creatures darted between them, reaching clawed hands towards him. The awful company swarmed the street from pavement to pavement, leaving no room for escape, and Nathan found himself caught up amongst them as they pressed ever onward in their grim procession.
Unable to flee, Nathan attempted to clear his mind and reason. He was drunk, but he wasn’t that drunk. Despite the initial shock when they appeared, he knew these were only masked revellers; he had seen fliers advertising the event all over town. He simply needed to go with the flow until he could slip down a side street and escape the crush.
A few minutes later the press of bodies was the only thing holding him upright, but the farther they flowed along the road, the greater Nathan’s desire to break free. There had been no opportunity to sneak away and it was all getting to be too much: the flashing neon lights of mock-torches; the continuous clanging of bells; and the gleeful shouts and terrified screams. Constant shifting had buried him deep in the centre of the huddle, so he couldn’t even see where he was going. His stomach churned and he prayed he wouldn’t vomit. He glanced over his shoulder as best he could, catching glimpses of one painted wooden mask after another, each more twisted and ugly than the last. What kind of bloody festival was this anyway? He’d take the London Gorilla Run any day. This was fucked up—and what was with all the whips and chains? There was some scary BDSM shit going on, and he wanted out.
He determined to force a path through the crowd, but as he turned he caught sight of another figure near the edge of the pack. Unable to believe his eyes, he closed them and shook his head. Too violently! The action made bile rise in his throat and he had to swallow it back down before he spewed regurgitated beer, schnapps, and... whatever it was he’d eaten for dinner. His reflexes under control, but with an unpleasant taste in his mouth, he returned his gaze to the far side of the crowd, only to find the figure still present.
Nathan knew he had to be dreaming because the creature appeared to stand in place. Despite the movement all around, its position never altered. However, Nathan knew that was ridiculous. It had to be walking along with them, even if Nathan’s bleary eyes played tricks on him. This reveller wore no wooden mask, yet the painted face was hideous to behold: a tortured monstrosity crowned with huge curved horns. Black fur covered its arms and torso, descending, as Nathan guessed, to the toes in a full body suit. Chains criss-crossed the creature’s chest and it carried a wicked-looking switch.
At that moment the creature’s head swivelled and jerked up, and its gaze locked with Nathan’s. Piercing red eyes bore into him, and the creature’s sinister smile revealed a row of fangs—glistening and impossibly lifelike. For a second Nathan couldn’t breathe. When his lungs refilled it was with a gasp of terror. Somehow, he knew with stunning and immediate clarity that this was no reveller. The understanding filtered into his mind that this creature was real... and it wanted him.
Blind panic sent Nathan scrambling in the opposite direction. He barged and shoved his way through the crowd, eliciting exclamations of annoyance and anger as he went. He ignored the ill humour; he was far more worried about that... thing hiding amongst the partygoers. The instant he exited the mob, he fled in an off-kilter zigzag, careening down the first side street he reached, bouncing from wall to wall. On and on he ran with no sense of his location and no destination in mind. He only knew he needed to get away. Once or twice he flung a glance over his shoulder, relieved not to see the creature in pursuit; however, he did not stop until his aching limbs and pounding heart forced him to a halt.
He doubled over beside a fountain and dropped to his knees at the water’s edge. Trying to slow his breathing, he viewed his surroundings, his anxiety peaking when he didn’t immediately recognise them. Was he lost? Looking higher, he saw the fortress atop the hill. Not completely lost then—misplaced. The past two days he’d seen more bar interiors than local landmarks. If he retraced his steps and found a pub he knew, he’d find his way back to his friends. He shivered. Only now he’d stopped did he notice how cold it was. He’d left his coat hanging on the back of his seat, and his sweater was not proof enough against the biting winter wind. He’d need to move soon before he froze.
A deep, evil cackle cut through the night air. “Well, well, well, what do we have here?”
The heavily accented voice sounded close to Nathan’s ear, and he spun to find himself face to face with the nightmarish creature from the parade. It eyed him with evident satisfaction and shot out a long forked tongue to lick its lips. He shuddered at the glimpse of those deadly, pointed teeth.
“Someone has been a very naughty boy.” It shuffled closer, its chains jangling and its—God!—its cloven hooves clicking on the pavement.
Struggling to draw breath, Nathan pressed back against the fountain’s cold stone surround, which had the dual privilege of being the only thing stopping him from slumping and the barrier blocking his escape.
“So naughty.” The creature punctuated this statement with a strong swish of its wooden cane, close to Nathan’s arm.
Lie, Nathan’s mind prompted. Lie. Lie. Lie. Quickly! “Uh... I’ve....” He swallowed and tried again, forcing out the words in a single breath. “I’ve-not-been-naughty.”
“Liar!” Another swish, on the other side, and then the creature leant in and licked its slimy, porous tongue over Nathan’s cheek.
Nathan jerked his head to the side, a whimper dying in his throat and tears forming behind his scrunched-tight eyes. “Alright. Alright. I-I confess. I confess. I stole the wallet. I didn’t mean to. It wasn’t planned. Oh God, I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please don’t hurt me. I’ll return it. I will. Right away.”
The creature drew back, its expression contemplative. “I can tell you are a stranger in these lands. Do you know who I am?”
“I am Krampus. It is my duty to punish those who do ill. Still, since you are clearly repentant, I suppose I can give you a head start.”
“A h-head start?”
“Yes; before I come after you and enact your punishment.” It rose to its full height and snapped the switch across its own palm, a maniacal gleam in its eyes.
Nathan scrambled to his feet, his heart pounding and his gaze fixed on the cane. He cringed when he saw the trickle of blood that dripped between the creature’s furry fingers, down its long claws, to spatter the pavement in crimson droplets.
“That’s it,” the creature crooned. “Run, run, run.”
The world swayed. Nathan could scarce stand; he had no idea how he was supposed to run for his life. Nevertheless, he set off with an unsteady gait, sheer momentum carrying him forward after the first few steps. Behind him, the creature loosed an ear-splitting howl and gave chase, the air resounding with each strike of its hooves against the ground. In the same instant the chill wind picked up, buffeting Nathan’s face and pushing him back, as if it too judged him and sought to bring about his punishment.
A sob escaped Nathan’s lips and he tried to increase his pace despite this new onslaught. He surged aimlessly from street to street, ever hearing clangs and clops and cackles at his back, knowing it was only a matter of time before the fiend cornered him and he felt its stick’s sharp bite.
Then it was gone.
Suddenly, Nathan realised all sound of pursuit had ceased. He almost didn’t trust his senses, but at last he slowed to an uneasy half-jog and risked a glance behind. The street was clear; he was alone. The relief was so acute he couldn’t hold back tears. By the time he got them under control, his mind had cleared enough to take stock of his situation. Somehow, whether by magic or pure chance, his terrifying, blind charge had brought him back to the pub where the nightmare began. He recognised this sign for what it was—a second chance to do right—and he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, sniffed twice to clear his blocked nose, and walked to the door.
Once inside, he headed straight for the bar. When he caught the barman’s eye, he tugged the wallet from his pocket and passed it over the counter. “Um... ich habe... uh....” He gave up on his limited German. “Found it in the gents.”
The barman nodded his understanding and slipped the wallet beneath the bar, and Nathan crossed the room to rejoin his friends. His step seemed lighter, as if a huge weight had lifted from his shoulders, and he made not the slightest protest when his arrival met with calls that it was his round. No one questioned his absence, and he offered no explanation. He wasn’t sure he even had an explanation. Now he had returned to the warm, cosy pub, the events of the night began to seem like nothing more than a bad dream from which he’d at last awakened. He held on tight to that idea, because it was preferable to believing everything he’d experienced had all been real.
An hour or so later someone flung open the pub door. The sudden gust of cold air raised the hairs on the back of Nathan’s neck, attracting his attention, and he glanced up. For a moment he froze at the sight of the creature, but then it pulled off its mask, revealing a blond-haired man around Nathan’s age. The newcomer approached the bar, clearly agitated, and a brief flurry of German ensued, at the end of which the barman handed the reveller the wallet. Nathan averted his gaze when the barman pointed in his direction. Nonetheless, the costumed wallet-owner swiftly appeared at his side.
“Franz tells me you are the man who finds my wallet. Thank you. Not all people are honest.”
“Uh... no problem.” Nathan was grateful for the pile of empty glasses before him. He hoped the stranger would interpret the sudden heat in his cheeks as a sign of excessive alcohol consumption and not the marker of guilt and shame.
“Though tonight of all nights is wise; yes?” the man continued. “You do not wish to anger Krampus.” With a grin and a wink, he replaced his mask, poked out a long forked tongue, and disappeared into the night.
copyright Nicki J. Markus 2016
Nicki J. Markus (aka Asta Idonea) was born in England but now lives in Adelaide, South Australia. She has loved both reading and writing from a young age and is also a keen linguist, having studied several foreign languages.
Nicki launched her writing career in 2011 and divides her efforts not only between MM and mainstream works but also between traditional and indie publishing. Her works span the genres, from paranormal to historical and from contemporary to fantasy. It just depends what story and which characters spring into her mind!
As a day job, Nicki works as a freelance editor and proofreader, and in her spare time she enjoys music, theatre, cinema, photography, and sketching. She also loves history, folklore and mythology, pen-palling, and travel, all of which have provided plenty of inspiration for her writing.