The troupe had no sooner than readied their weapons when a heavy impact hit the roof above the second floor. They listened in tense silence as loud footfalls made their way–one, two, and then three steps–across the rooftop.
“Those are hooves,” Samsara hissed in a whisper. “Cloven hooves. Like a deer. But only in a single pair. What manner of creature–?”
The lady had no time to finish his thought. The fire, which had been glowing a gentle orange hue until this moment, suddenly turned a bright blue…and exploded into shards of ice.
Dann pushed the grandfather Iorghu out of the way of the explosion, feeling shards of ice slice across his skin as he did so. Five small, grinning impish figures darted out of the fire’s remains and scurried in different directions.
“Get to the children!” Zenonas cried, but Senna and Barcimir were already on their way. The imps below were obviously a distraction, and the real danger came from the thundering sounds on their rooftop. But though they leaped for the stairs, the desperate battle below would soon demand their attention.
The frost imps, intent on causing the most mischief and mayhem, each beelined for a separate opponent. Samsara and Zenonas were both slashed by the icy claws of the fiends. Instead of bleeding from their wounds, however, the skin turned blue and stiff; and the two felt their blood turn cold. The fiends’ attacks carried with them the sting of frostbite, and they felt their movements slow in response.
Unfortunately, this sluggishness proved to be fatal. Slowed as they were, they were unable to shield Iorghu. An imp clawed at his throat; and he fell to the floor, gasping and gurgling.
Unwilling to trust his rusty distance skills in the heat of the moment, Zenonas instead gripped one of his throwing knives and jammed it into the eye of an imp near Samsara. The tactic worked, and the imp screamed in pain and fury, its form bubbling or boiling from within.
Noting Zenonas’s success, Samsara and Dann did likewise, though they were forced to substitute other means in place of the throwing knives. Samsara used her “holy water” like a dagger, and Dann simply used his bare hands to smash an adjacent imp’s head to bits. In both cases, their attacks worked; and the imps burst apart, pelting the room around them with shards of spinning ice.
These frosty death-explosions were especially perilous. The three humans felt the moisture on their skin freeze instantly. Samsara in particular had her body temperature lowered dangerously, and she struggled along at half her normal speed.
There were still two frost imps remaining. Concerned for the fate of her friends, Senna aborted her sprint to the second level and leaped over the banister. “Remember me Tapio, as I remember you,” she murmured in a quick prayer, before stepping next to both Samsara and Zenonas. Drawing her ceramic cup from her pocket, she held it aloft and shouted, “Shielding bosom of earth, protect us!”
A warm splash of liquid spontaneously burst from her cup, pelting her, Zenonas, and Samsara with something smelling like earthy tea. While their limbs still ached from the frost, a sudden re-invigoration boosted their spirits, along with their ability to guard themselves.
Ironically, the boost in defense did nothing to shield against the next frost blast, which hit all three adventurers at once. They were subjected a third time to shredding shards, frozen eyes, and blasted skin; and they began shaking uncontrollably
Following Senna’s lead, Barcimir too vaulted the banister to finish the last ice imp, landing on it squarely with both boots. His maneuver deposited him next to the slumped form of Iorghu, the grandfather. “Don’t give up just yet,” he encouraged the man, seeking the quickest way to mend his wounds. “Just hold on, and we’ll get you patched up.”
“No time,” the man gurgled in reply. “He’s not here…for me.”
That was when the screaming started upstairs.
“Sergiu! Alina!” Ştefan cried in terror, frozen in momentary indecision between protecting his wife downstairs and his children upstairs.
“Upstairs!” Senna shouted, and Barcimir followed in close pursuit. The entire battle on the first floor had been a diversion–a bloody, costly diversion–and it might just have worked. The two heroes raced against time to get to the children’s beds before…whatever it was…did first.
Zenonas, Dann, and Samsara too headed for the stairs, but they were still suffering from their bouts with the frost creatures. Samsara in particular was literally stumbling at this point, a fierce drowsiness enveloping her mind. Yet, perhaps by chance, perhaps through destiny, she was close enough to hear Iorghu’s last, labored words.
“Go to…the monastery…”
A bubble of blood formed between the old man’s lips and halted. The light had gone out of his eyes forever.
The scene on the second level was one of terror and mayhem. The children’s bed, placed near the fireplace, had been broken in two by some incredible power. The sheets lay strewn and torn across the floor.
The window on the other side of the room held the real horror. A hulking dark figure filled the entire open frame, pushing a struggling and kicking boy into a giant bag. It wore a red coat and pants, and a festive red hat sat on its head–but it was by no means human. Cloven goat feet clawed at the wood, and tall, twisted horns rose above its head. An evil red gleam shone forth from its malevolent eyes, and its teeth gnashed like a dozen eager blades.
Apparently tiring of the young boy’s screams, the monster reached into a pocket, drew out a tangerine, and crammed it into the youngster’s mouth. Then, finally drawing the strings of the bag, the monster triumphantly tossed the knapsack over its shoulder.
Then a grin much too wide for his face spread across its features. “Happy Krampus to all…!” it began to roar.
With only a single glance between them, Senna and Barcimir rushed the monster filling the window frame, cutting him off mid-sentence. Sensing the beast was far too big to battle conventionally, Barcimir grabbed a sheet from the broken bed as he passed, then using the creature’s own knee as a springboard to throw the bedding over its head. Simultaneously, Senna bull-rushed the creature’s arm, intent on forcing it to drop its bag.
Surprising all three involved, the strategy actually worked. Caught off-guard by the brashness of the plucky duo, Krampus stepped back in surprise, fumbling with the shroud over his face, and letting go of his prize as he did so. By the time he had torn the sheet off with his long talons, the two humans were already retreating to the stairs, red bag in tow.
Krampus snarled in sudden rage, a long red tongue rolling from his mouth. An evil blue flame began creeping along his silhouette, and claws reached towards bell-laden chains on its belt…chains that already seemed to be writhing with a spirit of their own.
Then came the sound of others climbing the staircase. Reaching some sort of quick decision, Krampus relaxed, let go of his chains, and stepped back towards the open air outside. He raised both palms upwards, like a showman declaring the end of a spectacle.
“And to all a good night!” he declared. More quietly and threateningly, he hissed, “We will meet again.” A single great jump upwards, and he was gone.
Barcimir raced to the window, but the beast had already departed, escaped on whatever manner of flying contraption it employed. The snow still sizzled where the sleigh had left its mark.
As Barcimir scanned the air, Senna set about opening the blood-red knapsack. When she had undone the knot, Senna was greeted by the welcome wailing of Alina, who stumbled from the canvas in shock. But even in the dim light, Senna could see the dark red liquid that dripped from her night clothes and puddled on the floor. And she could see, too, the tiny, motionless fingers of a boy still in the sack.
Slowly and uneasily, Barcimir approached the second-floor fireplace. Something still nagged at the back of his mind. Krampus was not yet done with them this night; he felt sure there was one more horror hidden for them, like a snake under a log.
Near him, Barcimir could hear Alina’s sudden sobbing and Senna’s horrified intake of breath. Yet he continued, drawn almost like a moth to the light of the fire. There was something hypnotic about the steady drip-drip-drip of the stocking at the mantle. The stocking that very clearly had something stuffed at the bottom.
He grasped the sticky stocking by the end and turned it over, letting whatever was inside roll out. He would have leaped back in horror, had he not already guessed the contents.
From inside the stocking rolled the dripping head of the boy they’d just seen in the devil’s sack. His eyes stared glassily. A tangerine was still pressed firmly into his mouth.
Outside, a cacophony of explosions and screams began rising into the night.