With a clatter of rusty bells and a shower of sparks, the Krampus erupted from the fireplace, howling like a lonely wind coiling through the Bavarian peaks. It was a black shape, outlined by the flickering dregs of the fire at its back. It was so large that there was no conceivable way that it could have squeezed down the chimney. Chains draped it, and cowbells dangled between its oddly-jointed legs and off of its bony shoulders. Curving horns swept up nearly three feet off of its vulpine skull, and its hair was matted and filthy.
The carpet sizzled beneath its cloven hooves as it stepped forward, jaws working soundlessly. Eyes like red sparks rolled madly in its sockets as it swung its head back and forth.
Rawdon made something that might have been a hastily strangled whimper. The Krampus’ jaw opened, revealing a forest of curved teeth that sprang like iron nails from the black gums. A long, impossibly red tongue slithered out of from the depths of the beast’s gullet and tasted the air.
The Krampus snorted, and it stamped a hoof. Wood splintered beneath the carpet as it trotted forward.
“Stop right there,” St. Cyprian said, stepping in front of the beast, arms spread. The Krampus reared back, head cocked. It gave an interrogative snarl. The sound might have contained words, but sounded for all the world like a distant avalanche.
“No. No, I think not.” St. Cyprian gestured with the sword. “In fact, I think you’ll return back the way you came, friend.” He said it with a bravado he didn’t entirely feel. St. Cyprian had seen worse things than the spectre before him, but none so close, and none so foul.
The Krampus was simply wrong. If Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, however you referred to him, was everything joyous about the season, then the Krampus was everything that was terrible and tragic and ill-fitting. The bells in his chains were funerary voices, and his breath was a fog on the air, showing ghostly images of fallen friends and starving children. Of the unfortunate and the lost, those for whom the season was anything but happy. A dozen ghosts were caught in the thick links of the Krampus’ chain, bound to the beast for all eternity. Sinners all.
That was the Krampus’ remit, after all. Where Father Christmas rewarded the good, the Krampus was responsible for punishing the wicked. And at that moment, it’s eyes were solely for Oswald Rawdon.
Ignoring St. Cyprian, the beast raised a hairy paw and pointed one filth-encrusted talon at Rawdon, who shrank back. Then, it howled like a locomotive and leapt!
Straight over St. Cyprian’s head it bounded, its hooves digging divots in the carpet as it landed and flung itself at Rawdon. There was a fat pop and crackle and then the hiss of sizzling meat and the Krampus hit the ground in a rattle of chains, rolling to its feet like a kicked dog. Carnacki’s electrical pentacle had held.
“I told you that it would work,” St. Cyprian said, raising his sword. “Now be a dear and shoot the bugger!”
“Gloating doesn’t become you,” Gallowglass said. The Webley bucked in her hands and the Krampus shrieked as a bullet rubbed in bear fat and mistletoe creased its hip. It staggered, tongue flailing like a serpent’s head. Gallowglass fired again, stepping back to stay out of the beast’s reach.
The Krampus lunged for her, but St. Cyprian moved forward, stabbing his sword down through a link in its chains and on into the floor. The beast yowled as it tried to pull itself free, and swung a thunderous backhand at the occultist. St. Cyprian hopped awkwardly back, losing his grip on the sword.
Gallowglass fired a third time, and the Krampus shrieked again as a blossom of blood burst into existence on its breast. It reached out with an impossibly long arm, swatting the pistol from her hands, and sending her skidding sideways. Then it spun, eyes blazing like twin torches. It grabbed the sword and began to jerk it from the floor.
St. Cyprian darted towards it, sweeping up one of the birch boards that Gallowglass had deposited on the floor. He brought it down on the Krampus’ arm, eliciting a yelp. Claws tore at his waistcoat, severing buttons. He swung the birch board again, shattering it against the Krampus’ skull. The beast shoved him back and he slid across the floor, only stopping when he struck the wall.
Shaking its head, the brute yanked the sword free and hurled it aside with a victorious growl. Then it turned back to the crackling pentacle and Rawdon, who cowered within.
“No! No! Not me! I didn’t do anything!” Rawdon said, twitching like a rabbit in a trap. “I don’t deserve this!”
The Krampus hissed and slowly trotted around the pentacle, eyes narrowed. Brass claws trailed across the invisible barrier, leaving a trail of sparks in the air. Rawdon turned with it, his eyes pits of terror.
“Charles! Help me!” he shouted, pounding his useless fists against his thighs.
St. Cyprian pushed himself to his feet, head ringing. “Ebe?” he called out.
“I’m fine,” Gallowglass said, scooping up her pistol. “Just knocked the wind out of me. Bugger’s not so tough.”
“He’s not after us. And our precautions don’t seem to have been that effective,” St. Cyprian said, stooping to pick up the sword from where the Krampus had hurled it.
The Krampus stopped its pacing and eyed them warily, its red gaze flickering like dying embers. St. Cyprian stopped moving, and motioned for Gallowglass to do the same.
The Krampus could have killed them both, had it wished. But its prey had to have been judged and found wanting by whatever celestial court empowered the creature. The chains it wore were not symbolic, but real shackles, binding what had once been an old, wild nightmare of Pre-Christian times to the new ethos of this age.
The chains rattled across the floor as the beast crouched, digging its claws into the floor. Its hulking shoulders hunched and the wood began to give with a series of rending cracks.
And, as the floor gave way, the nearest of the vacuum tubes tilted, and, finally, toppled, shattering. The Krampus surged to its feet and lunged for the opening in the mystical barrier, its form twisting and billowing like a thread of smoke.
“Get Rawdon out of there!” St. Cyprian said, throwing himself towards the closest bookshelf. A number of containers sat amongst the books. Some held dust, or a variety of foul-smelling pastes. All had proven useful, once or twice.
As St. Cyprian shoved books out of the way and scrabbled for a solution to their problem, Gallowglass fired the Webley at the curling twist of Krampus-smoke, perforating it even as she tackled Rawdon out of the pentacle.
The Krampus began to reform, a look of brute hatred on its face as it moved to pursue them.
“Ha!” St. Cyprian barked, hanging off of the bookshelf. He hefted something that resembled a canopic jar and tossed it towards the pentacle. “Shoot it!”
Gallowglass shoved Rawdon off of her and fired her last shot. The bullet shattered the urn and a dark substance spattered across the floor, mostly in the spot where the Krampus had broken the power of the pentacle.
The Krampus turned back towards the opening, and then retreated abruptly with a howl. It turned in place, spinning so fast that its chains struck the barrier and cast off foul-smelling sparks.
“What was in that?” Gallowglass said, getting to her feet.
“A little concoction from the Tyrol region-rosemary, juniper and fat from a priest’s grave. It’ll only hold until it dries, but that should be long enough-ah.” St. Cyprian dropped down from the bookcase and held up a hand.
Somewhere, church bells sounded the midnight hour. Christmas Eve had given way to Christmas Day.
The Krampus gave a long, low mournful howl as it writhed in its makeshift cell. Smoke and ash drifted from its hairy shape and soon it was completely obscured, save for the hot glow of its eyes. And then, even that was gone, as if it had never been.
Waving a hand to disperse the smoke, St. Cyprian moved to turn off the electric pentacle. Gallowglass stepped over Rawdon’s still-prone form, and grabbed a bottle of sherry off of the book case. Pouring herself a snifter, she said, “Well. A merry Christmas to one and all, I suppose.”
“What-what-what-” Rawdon said, staring at the space where the Krampus had been.
“It’s Christmas Day, Ozzy. The Krampus has returned to wherever it goes for another year. Which means that you’re safe, relatively speaking.” St. Cyprian stood, and helped Rawdon to his feet. He pulled the other man close. “You have a year, Ozzy. Don’t waste it.”
Rawdon yanked his arm free. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, I might not be around next year to save your wretched hide.” St. Cyprian’s eyes narrowed. “And even if I am, I may decide not to.”
“What?” Rawdon blinked.
“You never really answered my question, you know,” St. Cyprian said. “About young Pettigrew.”
“It’s none of your business,” Rawdon said. “And I’ll thank you to stay out of it.” He straightened his coat.
“Would that I could, Ozzy,” St. Cyprian said.
Rawdon turned, his face a picture of confusion. There was an electric buzz as someone rang the front bell. Rawdon whipped back around. “What was that?”
“The police, I imagine.” St. Cyprian motioned to Gallowglass. “Ms. Gallowglass, please show them in.”
“The police? What is the meaning of this Charles?” Rawdon said. “What are you playing at?”
“I had Ms. Gallowglass ring the police while she was upstairs seeing to our defences,” St. Cyprian said, pouring himself a glass of sherry. He held it up, and then took a sip. He didn’t look at Rawdon. “Was it really self-defense, Ozzy? Or did you murder him because he called you on your black ways? Either way, the truth will out.”
Rawdon didn’t reply. A moment later, the police bustled in after Gallowglass, and Rawdon seemed to slump in their custody. He didn’t resist as he was led out and away. St. Cyprian didn’t turn around the entire time.
When Gallowglass had seen them out and returned, he sighed and set his glass down. She cleared her throat, and he turned.
“Are they off?”
She nodded. “Think he’ll hang?”
“No. He has friends yet, and likely it was self-defense. Or it’ll be seen that way.” He looked up at the ceiling, noting the ash mark right over the pentacle. A reminder of the Krampus’ visit.
“Think our visitor will be back for him next year, then?”
St. Cyprian was silent for a moment. Then, softly, he said, “Well, Christmas is a time for miracles, they say.”
And somewhere distant, just at the edges of his hearing, it seemed that he could hear the clatter of funerary bells, and the tromp of black hooves.