Posted Dec 30 2011 - 09:00 PM
I rub my hands together for warmth as I walk down the dark alleyway, breath crystallising in front of my eyes, every exhalation a pale patch of white in the darkness. Eventually I emerge at a docks, the Maersk Sealand freighters standing like metal mountains, crude copies of the ones I call home. I really really don't want to be here, but the big guy sent me out looking for…him.I don't know why he chooses to spend his days off in places like this. I think its somewhere in Germany, but there's no-one around for me to ask. Probably a good thing, actually, my outfit might raise a few questions. The tights are a bit uncomfortable at times but they're the current style, so what can an elf do? At least I didn't have to wear the hat. The little bell on the end would be too much.Someone wolf-whistled at me, a lone figure standing by a burning brazier. Oh great...looks like he found me. The Krampus known as Black Pete, the Father of Whipping. The rest of us elves didn't really like him much. Partly because he was a something of a dark avenger, who brought punishment to naughty children, partly because he didn't have to spend most of the year toiling in a workshop making toys. Lucky git…Like me and my green and frilly ensemble he wasn't making an effort to hide. His fur was long and matted, stained darker than it would naturally have been through neglected and sheer time, his teeth would have made any dentist put down their toothbrush so they could curl up in a corner, and his blackened horns curled and twisted around his head to perfectly frame his glowing red eyes. If you had asked me to define him in one word I would have said "Malicious"."Hello little ljosalfr," he said, talking surprisingly well for someone with a tongue as long as his face, "What would you be doing in the earthly realms? Run out of paint for the wooden ducks?""C'mon Pete, you know the seasons as well as any of us. Jól is rolling around again. Big Man wants you back.""Alas it seems I am due to be pulled away from my work."I raised an eyebrow sceptically at this. Pete grinned-well, grinned more than usual with that nest of sharkish fangs he called a mouth- and reached into the brazier. His taloned fingers grabbed hold of something and pulled it out, the lank fur of his arms smoking slightly at the tips thanks to the flames. A lump of could was clutched in his paw like the finest diamond."I've always wondered why I'm supposed to hand these out. Aren't they useful as fuel?""Not for a long time now. Besides, children don't worry much about fuel. They want something they can play with.""Ah, and thats where you come in. Nice costume by the way."I gritted my teeth. I knew he'd bring that up. I can help that what we're supposed to wear is bright green and red and bedecked with so many bells and buttons you could probably sew them into a new, very noisy, outfit. Thats what we get portrayed as wearing, so thats what we have to wear. The one isaz of relief was that mortals couldn't see me. One of the perks of being magic. Black Pete grabbed the brazier, and with one puff of stale air from his lungs blew the fire out. He wrapped a cold chain around it and slung it over his back. I knew well enough to keep a big distance between me and that brazier. You see, despite being magic beings like me and the Krampus are still subject to certain laws. Like the one about every force needing an opposite. In this case the force was the Big Man's sack, a limitless repository of good will and charity from which could be brought forth gifts and treats. And Black Pete's barrel was its opposite, a devouring force that craved greed and selfishness. It sucked in malice like a Vacuum Cleaner of Evil. To someone on the lighter end of things like me simply looking at the thing without its shroud of fire-light was like looking into a void. As though you were to look up into space and see no stars or moon looking back. Gave me shudders.We started walking, the Krampus and I, back to where I'd left the reindeer. I'm a Christmas elf, what else did you expect me to travel on? We left the docks and reached the city proper. Naturally the whole place was festooned with gaudy Christmas decor and probably had been for a month. I caught Pete glancing at them with what probably passed for affection in his predatory eyes. "I suppose this is milk and honey to you?" I asked, glaring at the creature. Much to my surprise he seemed genuinely taken aback. His tongue ceased its disconcerting writhings and dropped down to his chest while his eyes faded from red to gold. "All the commercialisation, ruining the real meaning of Christmas, all that? I thought you'd love it.""What? No. Oh no no no no no!" Pete replied, eyes flaring back into crimson delight as his tongue resumed its flagellation of the air, "I do love it, but only because I've always believed Christmas is about teamwork. People pulling together to make it through the winter. While the shops putting decorations up in November might dilute the traditional family image that these people like to preserve in aspic, but its really my ideals on a grand scale. Teamwork on a grand scale as more and more people work towards a single goal. Its Christmas but bigger. XL-mas, if you will."I thought about that for a moment. It made sense, on a certain level. Black Pete was a svartalr, the last in the world, and they'd always had a love of intricate mechanisms. It was why the standard human viewpoint of Sinterklaas' elves always had us building simple toys. Deep down you all know that we're useless at the technical stuff without a few svartalfar around.A change in the quality of air alerted me to the presence of the reindeer. These weren't your story-book stick-thin reindeer either. They were the sort of reindeer that might have survived in the Ice Age, all thick slabs of muscle and bones like tree-trunks. Steam was congealing around their flanks and gushing from their mouths. Hooves like boulders pawed at the snow, churning it as well as any snow plough. Their antlers were especially odd, consisting of a single curved spike rather than the usual branching trails. Horns that would have shamed any buffalo.Naturally these kings amongst cervids, these awe-inspiring ungulates greeted Black Pete like newborn puppies, nuzzling at him with their foam-flecked muzzles as he patted them down. They were of a similar age, back when elves made arrows not toys, and the sleigh would be carrying spoils of the hunt rather than toys. Pete would have known Donner and Blitzen back when they were Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjostr.We saddled up on our supernatural steeds and took to the skies, the Krampus cheering wildly as he rode through the sky. Chains unravelled from their hidden places beneath his fur, lashing in the slipstream we left behind us. Me? I was trying not to get motion sickness. I didn't think Donner would ever forgive me if I threw up on him during our flight. Blitzen certainly hadn't after I'd done precisely that on the way here, he'd snapped at me when I went near him. Pete's carousing suddenly cut short. His grim eyes darkened with purpose as he directed Blitzen downwards. I nearly missed his swerve and had to urge on Donner to try and keep up. I managed to catch up with the Father of Whipping as he leapt off his mount and darted forwards into an alley at speeds I'd never have guessed from someone his size. I though he'd have broken his hoofed ankles. The gorge rose in my throat as I heard a scream suddenly cut short and a peal of ringing, rolling laughter. Black Pete's laughter.A thousand curses sprinted through my head in poetic ogham. He wasn't supposed to start terrorising yet! Should I have been harder on him? How had the big guy expected me to control someone like the Krampus?Pete loomed up ahead of me, a small girl cowering in the shadows-in his shadow! I'd need a weapon if I was going to try and force Pete into doing anything, so scrabbled at my belt to unsheathe the first thing that came to hand. "All right, thats enough!" I demanded in what I hoped was a tough guy voice. My mind's ears smoothed out the cracks that surely must have been there. "Get back on the reindeer now and we'll say no more about this!"Pete turned to look at me, his lurid features showing signs of…composure. If you could say that of a goat-like face with a chameleon's tongue and Great White's teeth. In any case he was not afraid of the slender weapon I was pointing at him. Probably I had withdrawn a candy cane by accident. He shifted aside so I could see his barrel-which still felt like a toothache in my head-and the leg that was slowly descending into it. A leg that ended in a size ten shoe…I could only imagine what Pete had heard to lure him down here. And, frankly, I didn't want to."As I believe I mentioned, Christmas is all about teamwork," he said with sinister glee, "Don't add to the team…" He rapped the size of his barrel, and the clunks were far too deep and bass for a vessel that size. "…suffer the consequences."The child, in danger of collapsing in on herself she was curled up so tight, squeaked in terror. Children always had an affinity for beings like us that existed in the realm of imagination. and Pete's actions had probably dragged us both onto the mortal plane. That made us visible…"We need to get out of here before someone brings a higher authority down on us," I insisted as I lowered my red-and-white-striped weapon, words hissing out like steam from a kettle. Pete just pointed at the girl, "I bring punishment. Help is your department." I rolled my eyes. Then threw my impromptu sword in front of her. She tentatively reached out for the treat, then ran as soon as it was in her clutches. "Now can we go?"Pete strolled off, wicked merriment decorating his mismatched features. I walked behind, looking at the krampus in a new light. Whatever had been about to happen in that alley, he had stopped it. He'd acted completely within his jurisdiction too. I couldn't help but wonder…why?I thought about how he wandered the Earth rather than remain at the Pole. How memories and recognition of him were confined to the alpine regions, and what might happen if it faded even there. How he had been confined to a life of dealing with the wicked, the selfish, the cruel. How Sinterklaas was loved and cherished around the globe, but Pete got only fear or ridicule. Black Pete the krampus, last of the svartalfr.Ask me to define him in one word, and I would have said "Lonely"."Hey Pete!" I called as we mounted the reindeer. He looked around, flames of japery seething in his eyes once more. "Merry Christmas."The fires in his eyes became the warm glow of honest happiness.