Happy Christmas Eve!
I’ve got my mulled wine going, all the heaters running after this unexpected snowstorm, and am waiting for the horned one to come cloven-hooved down the chimney.
To celebrate, please enjoy this long excerpt from Son of Krampus where the Krampus and Santa Claus come together to deliver gifts around the world.
To say quarters were cramped was an understatement. Emeric was nearly splayed against the back of a tiny elevator. It wouldn’t be quite such a challenge was his father not in full Krampus mode.
Despite the centuries of learning that come December fifth through the sixth his father would sprout a meter, grow cloven hooves, and dark brown hair erupt from his chest to his legs it was still awkward to share a space with. Particularly, as the man in goat form wore headphones to listen to the music on his phone.
A smile twisted up the hellish visage, the foot-long tongue struggling to voice the words of an average man saying, “Ja, this one’s great. Can you put it on my iPad when we get home?”
“You don’t have an iPad,” Emeric recited without thought, trying to not sweat through the heavy suit he donned for this professional trip to the North Pole. He’d expected to gather in Nicholas’ office, not to be ushered directly into a tiny elevator from a Hitchcock film at the whims of a strange, glittering woman.
“I do too,” Mirek insisted. “This big.” He tried to hold his hands to approximate the size, but his claws made it almost impossible. “Full of pictures you’re always telling me to clear out.”
And apps he had no concept on how to close. Emeric folded his arms tighter to his chest, praying for a cool breeze as he mumbled, “You do not have an iPad. You have an Android tablet.”
“Same difference.” His father waved off the tech pedantry as the elevator came to a rickety halt. When the double irised eyes of the goat caught his son’s, Emeric realized he’d been praying under his breath for the elevator shaft to not kill them.
“Sounds as if we’re here,” Mirek said, reaching for the latch on the gate because this system had to have been built when most people wrote in Latin.
“Ah.” The unnerving, glistening woman drifted closer to him. Drifted literally because despite having feet she seemed against using them. Her face was difficult to look at. Not that it was unpleasing to the eye, only that to do so for too long would cause Emeric’s sight to water. And he couldn’t cease smelling off her the combination of peppermint, a winter’s breeze, pine sap, and blood. She hadn’t introduced herself, simply floated into the elevator and pushed a few buttons.
“Here.” From within her body, she pulled out what looked like a mic pack, the wires striped red and white instead of black. “You’re supposed to wear this, um…” She glanced around his father’s nearly naked state. Emeric knew there were pants under there, because he’d reminded his father five times, but the glimmer of the fur covered over them.
“What for?” Mirek asked, picking at the wire in disgust as if he hadn’t just had earbuds in a moment earlier.
“It’s…tradition? The Captain told me to put it on you, so…” The poor woman gulped. She got the micro headset on the Krampus’ elongated face by extending the wraparound plastic to its limits. His father’s ear twitched at the mike clamped to it. It was the battery pack she struggled with.
Sucking in a sigh, Emeric excised it from her fingers and found his father’s belt hidden below the illusion of hair. Mirek chuckled at the challenge. “Nick doesn’t have enough names? He has to call himself Captain now.”
“Not him,” the woman chirped before pressing a hand to the panel and cheerfully calling, “The Krampus is online.”
“Excellent,” Nadire spoke from thin air. It was foolish, but a smile twisted up Emeric’s lips. He’d worried his tagging along might all be for naught and he wouldn’t even see her.
Before he could wipe the silly sentiment from his face, he felt his father’s eyes peering through him. “So it’s that one doing the calls. Interesting.”
Yanking apart the elevator gate, the helper woman revealed what looked like a landing pad for a helicopter. The glass dome was still in place, but Emeric spotted where it’d retract to the snow outside. He was sad to not see the sleigh there, only a few cargo crates, ancient computers running on black and green monitors, and an array of snacks.
“If you would please join with the embarkation team…” The woman smiled so brightly Emeric flinched.
His father snorted, smoke twirling out of the horse-like nostrils. Cloven hooves banging into the ground, he stomped out of the elevator. “Elves, always odd no matter which way you stare.”
“I thought the right was my best side.” The apparently elf turned to show it off. To Emeric’s burning chagrin, his father took his time examining that display up and down.
“Don’t you need to get going? It’ll be nightfall soon,” he shouted, attempting to break off the leer before he had to worry about a new stepmom that made his eyes burn.
The Krampus chuckled, the goat beard rattling. He took another two stomps forward on the rickety hooves and the elf closed the doors. “Be careful up there, son.”
“Careful?” Emeric called, trying to cling to the golden gate as the elevator rose. It took a few minutes for the mechanism to heat up, their lift barely moving.
His father laughed once more, clearly having the time of his life. “I have faith you’ll do me proud.” The old goat winked just as the elevator sprang into action. Where before it’d struggled to twist them down to the lowest levels of the North Pole, now it shot up like a bolt.
Lashing a hand out to grab onto the banister at the back, Emeric’s body tried to merge with the floor. When he felt eyes dicing through his skin he turned to spot the elf staring with a burning intensity. He was about to ask what, when she supplied her thoughts.
“You look much of him.”
“I get that a lot,” he said, trying to focus on the task at hand. While he knew of magic, of the power of belief, of the glimmer of the holiday, he was unnerved by the raw strength imbued into Santa Claus’ domain. This place should be impossible, but here they were, flying up into the tip of a tower at the top of the earth.
“I keep wondering,” the elf continued, her flat face twisting far to the left as if he was a magic eye puzzle she tried to bring into view. “Are you as good a tumble as him too?”
“What?” Emeric bristled instantly, not in the mood to hear of his father’s legendary exploits in anyone’s bed.
The elf chuckled just as the elevator began to slow. There was no bong or ding, but the elf floated forward and yanked on the door. She didn’t move to the side, requiring him to step near her to escape.
Just as he got within ear range, she damn near bellowed, “Though, judging by the Lady’s constant flush, you’re probably better.”
Emeric whipped his head over, uncertain what he wanted to shout at her to get the insinuations to stop, but it was all for naught. The elf simply vanished into nothing, only a sparkle of glitter tumbling through the air where her form had been. It was going to be a long night, he could already tell.
Ignoring the elf, the elevator ride to nowhere, and whatever state his father was in, Emeric focused ahead. A wooden hallway with wainscoting depicting the nativity led to a short staircase. At the top, were a pair of doors just as menacing as the ones to Saint Nicholas’ office.
What awaited him beyond?
Tugging down the cuffs of his suit and trying to slick back his wild hair, though nothing could tame it this time of year, Emeric walked across the reminder he was in Santa’s domain. Even the damn floorboards were decorated with music notes. He wasn’t much of a musician, but reading over the G-A-G-E he realized it was Stille Nacht leading him towards the central hub.
Funny, he’d have expected Jingle Bells. Perhaps Here Comes Santa Claus. Finding a touch of his homeland here brought comfort to Emeric as he crossed up the steps to walk into God knew what. He paused before the door, pulling in a breath.
He was about to take another when the mighty mahogany doors blew open all by themselves and he was pushed into a world he never could have anticipated. State of the art computer monitors, some nearly the size of TVs, displayed rolling reams of data. Numbers, spreadsheets, even what looked like CCTV footage all flickered against screens being watched by a contingent of what had to be elves. They weren’t dressed in the typical IT outfit, nor what one expected to find upon hearing “Santa’s Elves.” Instead of the jolly green hose, the pointed shoes with bells, and the stupid hats, they were all in a black so dark light couldn’t glance off it. He’d guess armor, judging by the dragon elves of before, but the outfits seemed to all cut at a V edge across their stomachs revealing a sliver of flesh regardless of gender. Not that he was an expert on guessing when it came to elves.
A flash of light caught Emeric’s eyes and he gazed up from the computer bank to find a red display beaming against the window. At least he prayed it was a window. Once again he was in a glass dome, but instead of the triangle cuts to assure him it was sealed off from the deathly cold, this one was as clear as a snow globe. The fading light of the North Pole sun beckoned him to reach his fingers out, to dance through the slipping reds and oranges while the first hint of stars tried to land in his hair.
“All right, now the green channel,” Nadire spoke from around him. Emeric spun on his heels, trying to find the source but all he could spot were elves who had no interest in acknowledging him. He was about to call out when a door at the side opened and she emerged.
There was no power business suit from their days in court, no polite but distant burgundy skirt suit of the convention days, not even those ivory sweaters that spun through his dreams. No, she was dressed as if she was doing laundry. A t-shirt strained over her bust, warping a faded screen-printed logo for a band he didn’t recognize. Jeans so worn the hems were tatters and a rub spot over the knee caressed her backside, and she traded in those ensorcelling heels for trainers.
He wasn’t certain if he should feel let down or not. While, God save him, seeing her in her business attire drove him to want to rip every shred of it off her body, finding her dressed down felt new and exciting. Almost as if she was content with letting him spend more than a few hours with her.
Whatever check she was working through must have stopped as her eyes raised from the blue projection lines to Emeric. A smile warmed her cheeks and the lips he’d been thrashing in his dreams to kiss again. “Welcome,” she called, then touched a button on her headset while declaring, “to the SOB.”
“S-O-B?” Emeric repeated.
“Santa Operating Base. Yes, I know. And yes, he finds it hilarious.” She was a bright light beaming more radiant than any star. And here he’d pictured her with harsh makeup, her hands bundled behind her back as she paced back and forth inspecting the troops. Dare he think it, but she almost looked like a girl come Christmas morning and the thought was causing him to smile as well.
Her dazzling eyes finally tore from his and her gleaming face puckered. “Is…that what you’re wearing?”
Emeric glanced down at his full suit complete with a pinching tie and shirt collar. Not to mention the shoes with nearly no cushioning and slick soles. “I thought it important to look…important.”
“Not saying it doesn’t suit you, but…” Her laughing concern at his attire melted as she let her gaze linger over his body. A body she seemed to prefer in its all-natural state judging by the look. Shaking her head, Nadire extended a hand toward the first of the screens. “The Base, I should get you used to it. Let’s see, here’s weather monitoring, that’s surveillance. We usually have a heads-up display projected on the dome for any surprises. Which also keeps a monitor of health, energy levels, body heat signatures. That sort.”
Emeric tried to keep his jaw from dropping. The computers down at the landing dock looked like they were pulled out of a dumpster in 1996. These were beyond state of the art. Some air forces probably wished they had such hard and software. “Are you planning an invasion?”
“Jolliest one in the world.” Nadire snickered, tugging up a headset. She adjusted it around her cheek, placing an audio piece in her ear and lowering a mic. “Checking one. Nick, can you hear me?”
“Loud and clear, Naddie,” Nicholas’s voice boomed over the speakers. Nearly all trace of his usual accent was gone, replaced by a Swedish one. No doubt the glimmer at work.
“Good. Checking channel two. Krampus?”
“Ja, ja, I’m plugged into this…thing!” his father complained, sounding like he was in the mood to rip someone’s head off his body. He’d never technically done that before, but there were days Emeric feared it could happen—especially when the fire wouldn’t catch or the Wi-Fi was down.
“Excellent.” Nadire pushed a button on the pack at her side and turned to him. “Here.” She handed him a second headset, Emeric fumbling to hold both the thin plastic and the heavier battery pack. “When you want to talk to them, flip the switch. One is Nick, two is Krampus, and the farthest is both channels.”
Emeric nodded, struggling with the knotted wires. He was surprised there wasn’t dust clinging to a headset that looked as if it was pulled out of the attic. But, it was kind of her to get him one. As he was struggling to unwind the battery pack, the whole thing slipped from his fingers and careened to the floor. Luckily, the tether stopped it from smashing open but he felt a right tit.
With barely a pause, the Captain—who no doubt had a dozen other checks to make before sunset—picked up his headset and slotted it on his body in a few seconds. He tried to not linger upon the thrum of her fingers against his back, or how her palm brushed his cheek while tugging down the mic for him. But it was impossible to turn from her brilliant eyes a mere kiss away. Nadire seemed to sense it too, her breath catching as she licked those lips he ached to swaddle in his own.
“Get on the damn horse!” blared through not only the speakers but both their ears. The sound of her father sent the pair reeling apart, both parents good at delivering the proverbial dousing their children required.
“I will not,” his father complained to Nicholas.
“What, are you going to run to Sweden?” The Saint laughed at him.
“Way I remember it, you’d just wave your fingers and we’d be there. Forget how in your old age?”
Emeric couldn’t hide the groan at his father already picking fights, but Nicholas seemed prepared for such an event. Or he wouldn’t back down easily. “Well, now I take the horse. Right, Holly?” The horse didn’t whinny in response, though Emeric expected it. Jesus, it wouldn’t surprise him if the thing could talk after the wonders he saw.
“Your lazy ass is why you can’t even…” Mirek continued when the bickering snapped off.
Nadire looked up from a button she’d pushed. “Let them work it out. We have some time before we must start. If the worst comes to it, I’ll send Dracul to separate them.”
While Nicholas was probably used to his honor guard, Emeric had no idea how his father would handle the dragon elves. Then again, Mirek was probably around when they were recruited.
“Here,” Nadire interrupted, “let me finish showing you around. On the left are the bathrooms.” She pointed to the room she didn’t come out of, then turned to the one she did. “And this…” Walking towards it, she guided Emeric to follow. “…is the craft service table.”
It was a damn feast. Roast meats of all animal options from turkey to a suckling pig rested upon a grand buffet. Instead of the usual salamanders warmed by a tea light coals blazed below the platters. The fire didn’t seem to reach the meat to char it, nor burn through the wood supporting it. More magic.
As he inched closer, he spotted bowls of salads, puddings, an array of finger foods, and a mass of oranges and nuts at the end. But what nearly sent Emeric’s jaw plummeting to the floor was a great cauldron bubbling in the middle of the room. It too was placed on the same warm but not burning coals. A woman who had to be an elf stirred the concoction.
With skin the same texture and color as the bark upon an elm tree, she’d clothed herself with mud, branches, and leaves of the forest. Two branches stuck off the top of her mossy hair, thin leaves shaking as she kept rotating her arms in a circle.
“Is that…” Emeric pointed at her. “…is that a potion to make reindeer fly?”
Nadire snorted. “No, that’s simply Addy’s Feast Day Stew.”
The elf snorted, revealing her teeth to be as wooden as the rest of her body. After banging the spoon on the cast-iron edge a few times, she cackled. “Simply? This is best in all the land, no matter what any scunners got to say about it.”
Circling a hand around her lips, the edge pressing into his cheek, Nadire whispered in his ear, “Rather tasty too, if you pick out the bones.”
“Bones?” Emeric gasped.
“Ain’t not proper stew without bones in it, child,” the elf chided. Having finished with her preparations, the woman left, still clicking her bark tongue at the foolish man forced upon them. Only Nadire was smiling, wafting her hand over the cauldron boiling on floorboards and taking a deep smell.
Memories his father told of the elves before, of the cruel pranks they’d play, their tendency to steal away babies, flitted through Emeric’s mind. “She means animal bones, right? For stock?”
Nadire’s mile-long eyes focused on him and she shrugged. “Sure, if you prefer to think so.”
Giving a wide berth to the elf’s cauldron, Emeric sidled to the last piece of equipment Nadire pointed out. A giant stainless steel drink dispenser sat upon the counter, Nadire slapping her hand above the first of the four nozzles. “Coffee,” she declared, then moved to the one beside it, “tea… It’s a special peppermint and black tea blend I hope you don’t mind. It was all that I could find this time of year.”
She remembered he only drank tea and went out of her way to add it. For him. Special. A very old sensation prickled in Emeric’s gut, warming him from his toes to his fingertips. “Yes, that…that’d be wonderful.” In truth, he wasn’t a fan of the flavor, but he’d happily suck it down to make her happy. It was the thought that amazed him.
However, she was a Myra. Gifting people their desires was their life’s work. Even though she couldn’t hear his wants. Which was probably a good thing as he flipped from aching to kiss her to…something far more dangerous than the primal fantasies of before.
“What,” Emeric tried to distance himself from his avalanche of thoughts, “what are the other two?”
“Oh.” She turned to the drink dispenser as if never seeing it. “Milk and whiskey. For the elves.”
“That’s all they drink?” He laughed, eyeing up the mass of them in all black. One turned out of his chair and hauled up a coffee mug which proclaimed him to be a ‘Wine Goddess.’ Paying no heed to the interloper in their mix, he stuck his mug under first the whiskey dispenser, then added a few drops of milk to his brew.
Eyes the hue and timber of a wolf howling against the freezing winds turned on Emeric. Slowly, the elf brought his whiskey-milk concoction to his lips and took a slurping sip. After making his point, the elf tipped his head to Nadire, said, “Ma’am” and returned to work.
“As you can see, it’s all they ever want. Don’t even need food.”
“Then all of this?” Emeric gestured to the feast he couldn’t hope to eat in two days’ time.
“Oh, they’ll eat some of it, but it is mostly for us. There’s also a couch, and you can pull out a cot from inside the closet here…”
He laughed at the idea. “I believe I can last a night without needing a nap.”
“Night?” Nadire paused in trying to wrestle out the unnecessary cot to prove it existed. A deadness dropped in Emeric’s stomach from how she stared at him in utter confusion. “Do you not know how this works?”
“Um…” His father would explain some, but like most people who’d lived for damn near forever and considered the magical mundane he often skipped out on vital details.
“This single night can take anywhere from twenty-four to thirty hours, depending upon how often my father stops to interact with people.” The mention of interacting got a grumble from the elves manning the stations. Emeric turned, trying to take in the idea, but his mind tripped on a night somehow lasting thirty hours. Sure, this far north there could be no sunrise, but he doubted that was what Nadire meant.
“You…you stop time,” he caught on.
“Not exactly. If we did that, we’d have no way to start it again, because all of time would be frozen including ourselves. But we slow it down so far that to everyone else it looks as if we stopped time.”
Two of the elves working what looked like radar and tracking flights spoke up, “To one one-thousandth of a second…”
Emeric tried to do the math, but his mind struggled with the enormous conversion. Wide-eyed, he turned to the woman who ran this show all on her own every year. She shrugged as if it was no problem. “At least Feast Day’s only done by a handful of smaller countries. Christmas can take up to four days some years. Though we’ve come up with some streamlining measures which had better be working Brock!”
“Yeah yeah.” The elf named Brock waved from the furthest edge of the operation base.
“So.” She let her eyes shift up and down the suit he’d trapped himself in for over a day. “I really hope that’s comfortable or…” Her fingers trailed up his tie like a spider climbing a drainpipe. They circled around the knot as if she intended to undo it herself to relax him, or perhaps yank him to her famished lips.
Before either could happen, a blaring sound of bells erupted around the place. Nadire snapped away, the woman who’d walked the halls of the convention certain in all she did rising to fill her soul. “All right people, one minute until time dilation.” Striding forward, she turned off whatever put their fathers on mute.
There was still a hint of bickering, but it sounded as if it died down thanks to their own warning. “Nick, Krampus. You ready to head out?”
“Sure thing, Naddie.”
“Assuming someone can move his wide arse higher up the saddle,” Mirek whined causing the two children left to babysit them to glance at each other. They’d either solve the problem or take to throwing blows, which would solve the problem in one way.
“May I ask a question?” Emeric placed a hand over his mic before forgetting he hadn’t even turned it on. At Nadire’s nod, he said, “Why the horse?”
“Expecting the sleigh?” She summed up his shattered expectations rather quickly. With another laugh, her glistening hair shaking as she turned to face the fall of the December sun, she said, “Some countries expect Santa to be astride a great white horse. Who are we to ruin their traditions?”
“Counting down,” one of the elves spoke up. “Five, four, three, two…”
He didn’t speak one, he couldn’t as all the air shattered from the room. Emeric’s vision erupted into sparks, each blink scraping tinsel over his unprotected eyes. He tried to well up tears but all the liquid in his body was slowing, stilling along with his heartbeat which beat to a sluggish, fading standstill.
“And synch,” Nadire’s heavenly voice yanked him back to life, his wide eyes whipping up to find her striding to the window. “We’re ready whenever you are,” she commanded to their fathers, her eyes darting back to the man who was fairly certain he died on his feet.
“Breathe,” Nadire ordered, “keep breathing.” She wafted her hand to try and get him to cycle the oxygen in and out. “Come and look at this.” Her hand flattened to the crystal clear window, looking as if she was reaching for the stars.
As Emeric walked up the handful of stairs, computers and elves spitting out data flanking him, he looked up to watch a snowflake frozen in place. It hung in thin air, as if caught in an invisible spider thread, partially tipped to the side. “That’s…” He gulped at the realization that all of the rest of the world was held in limbo while time passed normally for them. “Amazing.”
“What?” She turned to catch his eyes, then followed his line of sight to the snowflake. “Not that, this.” Nodding her head to the elves at their left and right flank, Nadire said, “Let’s spread some Christmas cheer.”
A burst of red and white stars erupted from below the SOB. The comet seemed to rise up from the ground itself to embed into space. It streaked in a circle higher and higher, the sparks falling in its wake and sticking to the same time molasses as the rest of the world. Emeric stared at the burst of magic frozen just like the snowflake, while Nadire graced her hand against his shoulders.
“Now the real work begins. Count in, I want to hear all departments sound off on my mark…”
The woman who’d directed such a miracle countless times over was unimpressed while Emeric stood gazing up at the stars left in Santa Claus’ steps to the heavens. No wonder his father wished to be a part of such a fantastic feat once again.