Barriers

The night was cold, achingly so; wind howled across the sea, blasting across the empty beach, and slamming into the parade of decayed shops and arcades. Only a few hardy drinkers were still out, insulated by the alcohol in their systems. The pubs had all now closed, chucking the drinkers out on the streets and forcing them to weave their way back to the train station, the bus stop, or to a quiet street corner where they could have a wee and maybe, just maybe, work out where the nearest kebab shop was.

“Look at them, Nicholas. You think people like that deserve to live? How could they possibly be worth saving?”

Nicholas raised an eyebrow. He could hear the sneer in his companion’s voice, without even needing to see his face – not that he could see it anyway, with the hood over his head.

“Not all of them are bad,” he retorted. “You’re over-exaggerating somewhat.”

“I never over-exaggerate,” Krampus said. Nicholas saw a shrug beneath the rich, black cloak that hid his entire body. “Humanity is full of corrupt, venal beings that live only for themselves.”

Nicholas shook his head, but didn’t reply. What was the point? Krampus wouldn’t be convinced; he only heard his own arguments, and anyone who disagreed with him was utterly wrong. His mind was like a single-track train track.

He watched the revellers for a while; some were singing, others laughing … a few were crying or shouting at each other, although there was no telling about what at this distance. He glanced to his right, and caught a glimmer of a facial expression from within the depths of the cowl. What was that look? Curiosity? Hunger? Nicholas couldn’t tell, but remembered then that Krampus needed to be kept closely in check in case he started believing his own arguments.

“What are you thinking?” Nicholas asked. “You’re planning something, aren’t you?”

“Of course. I’m always planning something. But today, I’m going to do something about it.”

Nicholas grabbed his companion’s arm, ignoring the strange feeling of muscle, sinew, and hair beneath the cloak.

“What?” he demanded. “Tell me what you’re going to do. I can help you stop it. We’re -”

“Don’t say ‘brothers’,” Krampus said with a deep, reproachful sigh. “Now, I must leave. I have things to do.”

Nicholas tensed. “Where are you going?”

“Since when did you become my personal secretary? It’s none of your business.”

“You know why I’m asking. It’s the 5th of December.”

“And it’s my day. My powers are at their strongest for a whole twenty-four hours, and for a brief window, I’m strong than you. I intend to make the most of that.”

“Over my dead body.”

Krampus cocked his head onto one side.

“That can be arranged,” he snarled.

Then, without another word, he disappeared. Nicholas swallowed; he would need to do something about this. He glanced up at the clock tower; it was a little after midnight. It was going to be a very long day.

Eight hours later, a watery sun was starting a slow climb over the horizon. Thin, grey clouds covered the sky, blocking out much of the light; just a few shards broke through, leaving the ground with a cover of frost. Nicholas shivered; despite being at home in the cold, his fur-lined red jacket was a welcome addition.

He could have returned home to the north whilst mentally searching for Krampus, but an instinct had told him instead to travel to London instead. He didn’t usually leave his ice-filled home so early, but there hadn’t been any choice; with Krampus having left his own home at the opposite pole, Nicholas needed to be in the thick of it.

Currently, he was looking out over the Thames from the South Bank. He’d wanted to watch the sun come up, or as much of it as he could see through the clouds. He suddenly felt a presence at his shoulder; it was his chief aide, Openslae, standing tall and erect.

“We’re still looking, sir,” he said. “No sightings as yet.”

“You won’t find him,” Nicholas said with absolute certainty. “Not unless he wants to be found.”

Openslae cleared his throat. “Sir, we should play Krampus at his own game. Children -”

“No!”

“Children have power!” Openslae insisted. “Use them to amplify the goodness in your powers -”

“Enough!”

The sky darkened for an instant, and Openslae looked down submissively.

“Children are pure,” Nicholas said. “They must be protected from Krampus, not manipulated by the likes of me when I need them. I won’t do it, Openslae. I won’t.”

“Then we need to think of something to do,” Openslae urged. “Krampus’ urges seem stronger this year, do they not? He will try and find a way to make use of today, before your own powers reach parity again tomorrow.”

Krampus stalked the streets, savouring the feel of dank, stale air that followed him. Dark clouds were massed overhead; the sun wasn’t visible any more, having vanished entirely into the black gloom. It felt like the middle of the night, rather than 10 in the morning, and it was beautiful.

His mouth didn’t twist easily into a smile, but it was trying now. The world was darker, and he had played a part in this over the centuries. People were pathetic and weak, after all, and so easily manipulated – especially if, like Krampus, you took the long view.

But I need to start young, he thought. Influence them from a young age. It ripens their minds.

A storm was brewing. It was everywhere; the air around him thudded with music, the cry of savagery, hatred, and burning jealously. He had brought so many souls over the years that he could revel in their misery for generations, but something was missing; a child’s life force was so pure, so innocent, but it wasn’t enough. The battery life in their souls diminished after a while. They became second-rate and listless, and Krampus had to go out – on his hoofed feet and wrapped up well to hide from the masses – for more. And that was timeconsuming. It hurt him to keep scrabbling around for scraps like some pathetic old man; he was Krampus, for hell’s sake, and he wouldn’t be beaten into a corner by some worthless old man like Nicholas. He needed a group of people around him; a true, immortal team who had his lust for power and control.

He stopped; one such mind was nearby, inside the nearby St Paul’s Cathedral. He looked up; it was a beautiful place, backlit against the massing black clouds of the impending storm.

Krampus actually quite like buildings like this; they were full of whimsical human mysticism and, whilst people focused on that, they ignored the beings that did truly exist – demonic forces like himself – and therefore left them to corrupt humanity without being interrupted.

He touched his cowl, but knew already that it was securely in place; he winced as the fabric scraped against his forehead. He had to endure the rough texture of it as always; he couldn’t risk being seen. Humans had a tendency to panic wildly when they saw his true form, and whilst he savoured panic in the right circumstance, he needed to focus on the hunt.

And I need to find … aha.

Further down the nave was a boy of no more than ten. He was sandy-haired, with bright green eyes and an air of such genuine innocence and thoughtfulness that it was quite surprising to see; not many children when they reached that sort of age had the ability to remain so innocent.

Krampus stalked the child for a while, as he walked around the cathedral with his parents and a younger child – perhaps five or six – who looked enough like the older boy to be a brother. After a while, the boy sat down on a bench near to one of the altars, and stared off into the middle distance. His father and brother were examining the plaque next to a statue, and his mother was entirely focused on the call that had come through on her mobile phone. Krampus neither knew nor cared what she was talking about.

The boy was watching the world go by; he seemed genuinely fascinated by the people, their conversations, and where they were looking. Krampus could feel the boy’s eyes burn into him as he knelt to the floor and allowed the cloak to brush back for the quickest of moments; it showed the cloven hoof at the end of his hairy left leg. It was just enough to allow the boy’s curiosity to be piqued; it emanated from him in waves.

“Are you a goat?”

“No,” Krampus replied. “I’m not a goat.”

“You’ve got goat legs.” The boy frowned. “But if you’re not a goat, then what are you?”

“Are you sure you want to know?”

“If I didn’t want to know, then I wouldn’t have asked?”

“I’m a demon,” he said.

“My teacher said that the devil couldn’t come into churches. He’d burn alive.”

“I’m not the devil,” Krampus replied, and his forked tongue rasped its way across his cracked lips.. “But I am on first name terms with him.”

“What do you do instead of going to church?”

“Whatever I want. I like to understand people. They’re so … interesting, aren’t they?”

They are weird. I don’t understand them a lot of the time; they confuse me. They’re horrible to each other.”

“Yes, they are. And when that happens, they should be punished.”

“But they’re not!” the boy protested. “That’s not fair.”

“You should do something about that.”

The boy frowned. “What?” he asked. “What could I do?”

“You could come with me,” Krampus said. A gnarled hand appeared from under his cloak and rested on the boy’s shoulder. “I could teach you so much, Simon.”

“How do you know my name?”

Krampus smiled. “I could teach you that as well.”

“Let me see you,” he said. “Take off your hood.”

Krampus had been expecting this. The noise in the cathedral fell silent, and everything darkened, as he moved them both into a new realm between two individual seconds. Simon shivered, but recovered quickly. His eyes darted left and right, and he seemed fascinated – not shocked – about what had happened. He didn’t even ask any questions; he was taking everything in.

Drawing Simon’s attention back to him, Krampus stood up in a single, swift movement and took off his hood; his face was fairly human, although tufts of hair fell down the sides of his face where trimmed sideburns would be on a human being. His mouth was full of razor-sharp teeth, and his eyes were like a cat’s. As for his body; it was human-liked down to the waist, although with a lot more hair, and then his legs were like goat’s hind legs, pushing him up into the air and ready to spring forward whenever he needed to move quickly. He bristled with muscles and power, and he knew that Simon could sense it in him.

“I am a god of the darkness,” he said. “I am the true meaning of Christmas; not the fat old man you see on Christmas Eve. I can give you truth. I can show you what it truly means to be human, and how you can welcome the darkness of winter in your heart. It will welcome you as an old friend if you open yourself up to the possibilities.”

Simon’s jaw tightened into a grin – a wide-mouthed, genuine smile – and he took a step forward.

“I want to learn everything. Everything.”

The glass crashed to the floor. Nicholas gasped in pain, and he clutched his chest as he leaned back in the chair. It was a psychic pain, but was just as agonising; it stabbed through his chest like he had been cut with a knife. Openslae was by him in an instant, knelt beside him.

They were in a discreet café just off Kensington High Street, savouring an ice cream. Even with the overcast sky, it was muggy, and far too warm for their liking. The glass of iced water sat almost empty on the table in front of him.

“It’s him, isn’t it?” Openslae said.

“Yes,” Nicholas said. “He’s corrupted a child.”

“No …” Openslae whispered. “If Krampus can get another two today, then we’ve lost.”

Nicholas drew in a long, deep breath, and released it slowly. Despite this being Krampus’ day, and his own day not beginning for another fourteen hours, he did have to do something. There simply wasn’t any other choice, and courtesy and tradition be damned.

Krampus laughed; it was a cruel, painful laugh to most people, but not to Simon. He didn’t flinch; instead, he joined in.

“You’re sure, Simon?” Krampus asked him. “You get to say whether these people live or die.”

They were at Coram’s Field, in the middle of London’s Bloomsbury district, and the rain had stopped about an hour ago. A few adventurous parents had decided to risk bringing their children out to this secured park; it was kept locked for families only, meaning that children were meant to be able to feel more safe here than in most London parks.

Krampus looked down at Simon, who was staring out thoughtfully over the large green space; there was a play area, with climbing frames, swings, slides … all the things that Krampus imagined would be fairly normal at a children’s play area. Then there were the farm out-houses, where chickens, goats, lambs, and the like were all sitting together, huddled in their stalls to shield themselves from the cold.

The two or three dozen children weren’t huddled away, however; they were wrapped up well, granted, with coats and gloves and scarves and hats, but they were running around without a care in the world. None of them had even noticed Krampus and Simon standing at the edge of the grounds … except one young girl, who had paused briefly when the two had walked in, then continued playing. That was about about five minutes ago, and now she was staring at them again. She’d frozen just outside one of the outhouses, where half a dozen sheep were softly baaing and bleating in response to the attention they were clearly enjoying. The girl’s mother was half-visible inside the outhouse, talking to another child; she hadn’t noticed her daughter’s distraction.

Krampus motioned for her to come and join them. She shook her head and stepped backwards, but didn’t take her eyes off them; her eyes were wide in fascination and her breath, coming out in short pants, was visible in the air. She was nervous, perhaps, but curious as well. Krampus smiled under his hood; he knew she was like Simon.

“It’s time to decide,” he rasped.

“These children …” Simon whispered in a low, almost angry tone. “They aren’t like me.”

“No.”

“Except her.”

“You can save her, if you want.”

“But should I?” he asked. “Wouldn’t it be better for me to be the only one? Your only student?”

“It’s alright to have some healthy competition,” Krampus said. “There’s nothing wrong with a second apprentice. She will complement you, not take them away. Now, what about the others?”

Simon considered the girl again, and she stared back at him; there was a moment of tension, but then something seemed to be subtly agreed between them, and Simon looked away. He stared at the other children and nodded.

“They should die,” he said. “It’s the only way to stop them being cruel. I can see the cruelty in them now; all that potential. I don’t like that; it’s horrible. It shouldn’t be allowed.”

“Then kill them. Kill them all. I’ve unleashed the power inside you. All you need to do is find it.”

“Stop this, Krampus. That child is innocent. He doesn’t deserve your temptation.”

Krampus knew immediately who it was. Of course, he recognised the voice, as well as the ineffable smugness.

“You detected the temptation, I assume?” he asked without turning round.

“I should sy so.”

“Young Simon here joined me of his own free will. Isn’t that right, Simon?”

Simon nodded. “I know you,” he said to Nicholas. “We’ve met before.”

Nicholas stared at him for a moment, studying the young face intently.

“Simon Radley,” he said. “Hornchurch, Essex. What are you doing here with Krampus?”

“I chose to go with him,” Simon replied, and right then, he seemed older than his ten years. “I wanted to see how far I could stretch myself.”

Screams – loud, violent, terrified screams – filled the late morning air with pain and suffering, and they didn’t stop for far too long. Nicholas squeezed his eyes tightly shut; today, there was absolutely nothing he could do about it.

The screams abruptly stopped; it was heart-wrenchingly silent. The silence was somehow worse than the noise, and it reached into Nicholas’ chest and squeezed his heart. He had to wrench his eyes open again; there were Krampus and Simon, surveying the scene of their carnage. Twisted bodies lay everywhere, blood staining the muddy green of the park in all directions, and dead, empty eyes stared back at him accusingly.

Why didn’t you save us? they seemed to ask. Why didn’t you do something?

Nicholas caught the satisfaction in Krampus’ eyes, boring right into him. Simon, by his side, was staring at the destruction he had caused; there was a wide-eyes fascination on his face.

Krampus turned towards the out-houses. “You can come out now,” he called.

Nicholas saw a movement over towards the animal shed. Was that one of the goats, trying to get out? No, it couldn’t be; they were dead too. A breath caught in his throat; it was a young girl, about Simon’s age, crawling out from beneath the body of an adult female – her mother, perhaps, but there wasn’t any way of knowing now. She looked dazed as she pushed the corpse to one side and stood awkwardly. Disturbingly, she didn’t look upset by what she was seeing, merely curious.

“Come to me,” Nicholas called to her. “I’ll help you, I promise.”

The girl stared at him through lidded eyes; in that instant, he knew that he had lost her. She was already shaped by the corruption that was festering in this new graveyard.

“I want to stay,” the girl said. “I want to learn how I can do this.”

“You can do it,” Simon replied. “Krampus can teach you.”

“Krampus, stop this!” Nicholas exclaimed. “This is wrong!

“What else do they deserve?” Krampus snapped. He spun round on his hind legs. “Do they deserve to live? To continue being the dominant species on this rather rotten little world?” He pointed to the two children. “They’re the future. Humanity have always ignored the potential of children like these two. Now get out of my way, Nicholas, because you’re the past.”

Krampus and the children then vanished. Nicholas blinked; he was now on the back foot – or hoof, in Krampus’ case. They’d had an uneasy détente before now, tacitly absorbing the children who were naughty or nice into their respective spheres of influence but without dramatically encouraging their powers to develop. Instead, they received rewards for being one or the other, usually in the form of presents, and left to develop on their own.

But now he’s building an army … and I’m just not ready.

What was he going to do now?

The Shard was a joyous British landmark, at least as far as Krampus was concerned. He and his two young protégés had travelled up to the viewing platform, and were now surveying all of London. He could show the children what a den of iniquity the capital truly was. They were staring out of one of the large windows in wide-eyed fascination.

Simon reached out to touch the glass, and sagged slightly at the concept of something blocking him from the wider world. In a heartbeat, the glass vanished, and a harsh wind blew in. Cries of alarm from the other visitors made Sarah look round and made the visitors disappear.

“Where did you send them?” Krampus asked.

Sarah shrugged. “I didn’t know I had to send them somewhere,” she said. “Is that important?”

Krampus nodded in satisfaction. They would see their powers grow exponentially. Under his guidance, they would rule the world; he could feel it in his bones.

“What shall we do next?” Simon asked. “I want to try my powers out again.”

“We need one more member of our merry band first,” Krampus said. “We must be four.”

“You want to recruit someone else?” Sarah asked him.

“Of course,” Krampus replied. “I need three followers. You must accept that.”

“What if we don’t?” Simon asked. He finally looked away from the view and stared directly into Krampus’ cat-like eyes; neither blinked or looked away, and Krampus had to admire the child’s gall for not backing down. “We are fine as we are. We can destroy the world.”

We can do so much more with three. We must seek someone else. It is not up for discussion.”

“Having a little domestic trouble?”

Krampus scowled; Nicholas had found them again, and just wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“Nothing I can’t handle,” he snarled. “Did you actually use the lift to come up here? Have your powers actually failed already?”

Nicholas smiled; he was walking very casually towards them, his hands in his pockets, and Simon and Sarah glared back at him with open contempt. Krampus had told them everything they needed to know about Nicholas’ history and mythology, and they weren’t in favour of his brand of goodness and light. In Simon’s words, the very thought of it made him “feel sick”. Krampus approved of the sentiment.

“My powers are working fine,” Nicholas said. “In twelve hours or so, I’ll be at my peak.”

“In twelve hours, none of that will matter. By then, I will have a full complement of apprentices, and we’ll be laying waste to this world you seem to adore so much. Now, what are you doing here?”

“You took innocent lives today,” he said. “I need to stop you.”

“I’m more powerful than you today,, and I’ll be far ahead of you by the time your powers reach their highest point. Your powers can’t beat mine today.”

“That’s true,” Nicholas conceded. “I am weaker than you just at the moment, metaphysically speak, so there’s no point in trying to do anything with my powers.”

“So what’s the point being here?” Krampus growled. “Let me change this world, Nicholas. It’s time your kind was ground into the dust. You need to accept that you’re history.”

He tried to push his mind into Nicholas’, but was caught off-guard by the strength of his mental shields. Blinking, he tried to push forward even more, but again Nicholas’ defences were incredibly strong. He could have continued for a while and broken them down, but knew that Nicholas would fight tooth and nail before Krampus won, and he hadn’t got the time.

“You won’t get in there easily,” Nicholas whispered. “I won’t let you destroy my mind.”

“You are weak, old man. You can’t win. Just stand aside.”

Nicholas then smiled and looked at Simon and Sarah. “Do you agree with your master?” he asked. “Am I weak?”

Sarah cocked her head onto one side. “You’re weaker than Krampus,” she said. “He could defeat you today.”

“But does that make me weaker?”

“No,” Simon said. “You’re physically strong, and your powers are nearly at their peak.”

“I give these children freedom and power,” Krampus said. “What can you offer them, aside from the opportunity to be good?”

“You’ll destroy humanity just to watch them burn,” Nicholas barked. “I’ll encourage them to think for themselves and make the world better.”

Krampus snorted. “I’m sick of this,” he snapped. “Enough waiting. I can cause enough destruction with two disciples. It’s time to begin.”

A fork of lightning split the sky in two, turning it electric white for a moment.

“NO!” Nicholas bellowed. “Enough, Krampus! This ends now!”

Krampus frowned; what was the stupid old man talking about? Abruptly, Nicholas was now running towards Krampus, who realised that Nicholas wasn’t going to stop or slow down, and would soon run into him. He expelled a sharp breath as Nicholas piled into him, and went flying backwards over the edge. His gut lurched as they flew into the air and, for a moment, it felt like they were flying. However, they soon began to move straight downwards under the force of gravity.

“No!” he bellowed, but he couldn’t change their direction. He had no power to stop this. He – they – would soon reach the bottom, too fast to cushion their fall.

On the viewing platform, there was a moment’s pure silence as Simon and Sarah watched this happen in high speed. Neither had been able to react. A bing sounded from behind them, and they turned together; it was the lift, coming back up. Neither child had even noticed that it had gone. The doors opened, and a tall, angular man with blonde hair emerged; he had tears in his eyes, but he managed to smile nonetheless.

“Hello,” he said with barely a waver to his voice. “I’m Openslae. I used to work for Nicholas.”

“He killed our master,” Sarah said without any enthusiasm. She was beginning to feel some odd emotions in the pit of her belly; regret, maybe, and pain, for the damage she had caused. Simon was feeling something different, however; his mouth was set into a firm, angry line, and his eyes were shining with an inner fury.

“Yes,” the aide replied, “he did. It was the only way. Nick could only use his physical strength against your master; anything else was pointless. He was willing to give up his life for humanity, something Krampus would never consider, and that made Nicholas more powerful than your teacher ever could be.”

“But he killed himself as well,” Simon said in irritation. “It doesn’t make any sense! Now both sides have lost!”

Openslae shook his head. “The war will continue. Their life forces will continue; they will pass on their powers to a new generation, and they will continue on the traditions.”

“Are you …” Sarah hesitated, cleared her throat, and continued; “Are you talking about us?”

“Don’t be stupid!” Simon exclaimed. “How could he be talking about you and me? We follow Krampus! We’re his apprentices.”

Openslae was watching Sarah carefully, and she flushed red as she caught his eye; he seemed to be reading her mind. Things were going to change, she realised; could she ever come back from the brink? Could she ever be forgiven for what she had done? Would she spend a lifetime atoning for her mistakes? Could she ever be good? Perhaps she could, but by convincing others to be good. Could there be a female Nicholas – a female saint?

She looked at Simon for the last time, and blinked; tiny nubs of … something were appearing on his forehead already. Were they bone? She couldn’t tell, but maybe the mythology was taking care of itself. Maybe she had the opportunity to try something new right now, and the thought excited her. She turned back to Openslae.

“Take me home,” she ordered. “It’ll be Christmas before we know it.”

Simon watched them go without comment, confused by what was happening. He rubbed his forehead; something was beginning to grow there, and he had begun to wonder if they were horns. Was he turning into the new Krampus? Was that even possible?

“I hope so …” he whispered, and turned back to the edge. The clouds were retreating, and the apocalypse was delayed. It wouldn’t happen today. But one day it would … and Simon would learn from his predecessor’s mistakes.

He licked his tongue roughly across his lips and smiled. Humanity would be his for the taking one day, and this time, he would win. He would be a better Krampus than ever before, and knew precisely what to do; he would fully embrace the darkness. Humanity would quake beneath him.

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