I received my first rejection that really stung today, regarding my story, Prodigy, that I submitted for World Weaver Press’s Krampus anthology. I really enjoyed this story, and I was very hopeful it would be accepted. As always, my loss is your gain, as now you get to enjoy it for free.
Note: If you aren’t familiar with Krampus, you would do well to gain a quick understanding first to enjoy this story to its fullest. Here is the Wikipedia article explaining what Krampus is all about.
Krampus trudged through the door to his office, dropping his large burlap sack roughly next to his desk. He was bone weary from an unnaturally long day of work, but the blistering heat of Hell was comforting after so long spent out in the cold European winter. Each year, things got worse, as more and more children degenerated into misbehaved wretches deserving of his attention on Krampusnacht. He no longer even got the enjoyment of personally torturing all of the rotten punks. Times had changed a lot since the good old days of the middle ages, and Krampus felt a pang of nostalgia thinking of all the sadistic ways he used to punish the children of that era.
A particularly annoying squeal from his bag brought Krampus back to the present. The sack was filled to capacity with the screaming and writhing psyches of the children his exhaustive database had marked as needing a visit this year. At least the leg work of collecting them all was done. That was always the worst part. The remainder of his duties could be accomplished in the comfort of his plush desk chair. He slumped into it, careful not to sit on his tail as he slid it through a small hole in the back. A few years back, he had been so tired upon his return from reaping that he had not been so cautious. That mishap had seen him in a tail cast for weeks. The lesser demons never let him forget that one.
Krampus reached into his bag and pulled out the psyche of a particularly nasty boy from Austria. It squirmed in his grasp, the boy’s belligerence completely consuming his essence. Krampus was certain no matter what punishment he could inflict on this one he would be seeing the boy again next year. Given the boy’s age, that would be his last chance to work on him. He dropped the psyche into a small slot in his desk and a computer display lit up with a variety of options. His true work was handled automatically these days, and the torments took place solely in the children’s dreams.
Understanding the deplorable creatures many children were, Krampus had fought the upgrades to the system tooth and talon. He was sure they would rebel against the nightmares brought to bear against them just as vehemently as they did their parents. It took an expert touch, such as his own, to really ensure a child saw the error of his ways. Unfortunately, management had not agreed with him. The pool of children needing serviced had grown too high for Krampus to attend to them all personally, and there wasn’t enough trained personnel to bring on to help. As such, this new system had been forced upon him against his will.
His talon’s flashed across the screen, choosing the harshest treatment he had at his disposal for his first victim. He carefully crafted a recurring nightmare. Great beasts and monsters shaped in the image of Krampus and his demon kindred would pursue the boy through a desolate wasteland, taunting him for his disobedience. Eventually he would be caught and subjected to his worst fear – complete and utter loss of control. The boy would serve as the monsters’ slave for all eternity as punishment for his behavior, or at least until he woke up. Dreams had a funny way of playing with time though.
Krampus put a two month behavior trigger on the nightmare. He had little doubt the boy could fake obedience for quite some time if he thought he could elude the grasp of the dream. Glancing over his configuration, Krampus tapped the oversized green button that would catapult the child’s psyche back into his mind, dream implant included. Why the technicians couldn’t come up with something similar to bring them here in the first place, Krampus would never understand. He took solace in the fact that without such a device he at least still had a job.
As he was about to reach into his sack to grab his next victim, a message alert popped up on his screen. That was odd. Normally everyone left him alone to do his work on this special day of the year. He tapped the icon and saw it was a memo from management.
Senior Behavioral Correction Officer Krampus,
At the prompting of our North American conglomerate, the international board of directors has approved expansion of Krampusnacht activities into the United States of America on a pilot basis, starting next year. At your earliest convenience, you will need to liaise with the American behavioral analysts. Their shop is a fledgling operation, so they will no doubt need your expert guidance over the coming year to refine their selection criteria.
The board understands the strain these extra burdens will put on you and your family. This message has been delivered to you with all possible haste, so you can take any appropriate actions in expediting this year’s processing. Also, the board has agreed to the extraordinary measure of kidnapping one rotten child from corporeal world to induct as your apprentice. Please choose carefully from this year’s reaping. You may conduct an off-day operation at your leisure to collect the child.
Krampus sprung out of his chair and kicked his sack savagely. A chorus of shrieks shot out, but they did nothing to dim his anger. They couldn’t do this to him! It had been rumored for quite some time that North America would be included in Krampusnacht, but Krampus had never put much stock in those claims. Everyone knew America was a cesspool of poor behavior that was beyond redemption. The task was too large in scope to even contemplate. And a human apprentice? Did they really expect him to take on such a dramatic increase of work with such a pitiful nod toward getting him more help? Satan, he would probably spend most of the year trying to teach the human to stay out of his way, let alone assist him in any meaningful manner.
Krampus briefly considered walking off the job right there. Let those bastards in management process this year’s reaping if they thought they understood the operation so well. Only the thought of his wife’s disapproving scowl when she heard the news kept him from doing so. She always hailed his work as the pinnacle of demon achievement. She would be so disappointed if he just walked away from it. Krampus landed another solid kick into his sack and sat back in his chair, re-reading the ridiculous message to make sure he wasn’t just delusional from fatigue.
With an exasperated sigh, he resolved to finish his work and figure out how he would handle this new challenge tomorrow. A thought nagged at his mind as he pulled out the next psyche and dropped it in the slot. He quickly pulled up his logs from the last child he processed and made note of his name and location. Nico. He should make as good an apprentice as any of the rest of these brats, Krampus thought.
* * *
Stepping out of the darkness, Krampus found himself in Nico’s small bedroom. The boy tossed and turned in his bed, muttering to himself. Sweat beaded thickly on his brow. Clearly he was enjoying the nightmare devised for him. A malicious grin split Krampus’s features, revealing the needle sharp teeth lining his mouth. He almost never got to witness the fruits of his labor firsthand these days.
Suddenly, Nico’s eyes shot open, staring straight at Krampus standing over him. He let out a groan, and rolled onto his side. ‘Ughh, I just want to wake up!’ the boy grumbled.
Krampus chuckled heartily, as he realized the boy must have thought he was just another part of the dream. That brought Nico’s attention back toward Krampus. A look of fearful uncertainty filled his young blue eyes.
‘Yes, that’s right. Be very afraid, Nico. I am real, and you’re coming with me,’ Krampus growled, relishing the rush he got from directly bringing terror to this child. Krampus took one great step and was beside the boy’s bed. Before Nico could even react, Krampus had his hands clamped around the boy’s arms. He easily lifted him out of bed, although Nico squirmed and fought with commendable zeal. Krampus’s powers kept Nico from shouting out for help as he was stuffed head-first into the burlap sack.
* * *
‘So, let me get this straight,’ Nico said. ‘That nightmare I’ve been having was all your doing?’
Krampus wasn’t sure what he thought of this boy. Once they had returned to his office and he released the boy, things had been going quite differently from what Krampus expected. ‘Yes,’ Krampus answered. ‘The dreams were punishment for your terrible behavior. That’s my job, to punish the wicked children of the world, as I’m sure you know.’
Nico laughed loudly. It was a deep belly laugh that went on for some time before the boy managed to compose himself. Krampus watched awkwardly, quite confused at what could have been so funny regarding his torment of the boy. Nico suffered one last bout of giggles, before saying, ‘Oh, that’s just great. I was so worried the dreams were some kind of message from my conscience. I don’t really think I have one, you see? Knowing it was you causing them makes me feel so much better.’
Well, that made sense at least. It must have been quite troubling for this punk to feel like he was doing something wrong with his life of his own accord. A flicker of realization passed over the boy’s features and he became suddenly serious. ‘Wait, does that mean you’ve brought me here to torture me? Because I didn’t pay attention to the dreams?’ he asked cautiously.
Krampus sighed. ‘I wish that were the case,’ he said. ‘Unfortunately, I don’t get to enjoy tormenting you, at least not in the usual sense. I brought you here to serve as my apprentice. This year I will be taking on Krampusnacht activities in America, and management allowed me to choose and capture a human apprentice to…help.’ Krampus struggled with the last word, because he still expected this boy to be nothing but a nuisance to him.
Mulling over this information for a moment, Nico eventually said, ‘Sounds great.’ A hint of fearless relish underscored his words. ‘How does it work?’
Struggling to come to grips with Nico’s easy acceptance of his fate, Krampus spent the next few hours explaining the machinations behind Krampusnacht to the boy. He seemed to be a quick study, and had many questions to ask surrounding the creation of nightmares. Krampus had to admit, Nico had a truly twisted bent to him that he grudgingly appreciated.
* * *
Nico slapped the lesser demon hard enough to turn its head. ‘No, you fool! This girl shouldn’t be on the list. She’s just showing off to impress her boyfriend. Once he realizes she’s faking it for him, he’ll dump her and she’ll go back to being a perfect little angel. We don’t need to waste time with her.’
The analyst glared at Nico with hate in its eyes. Only an even more menacing look from Krampus kept the demon in his seat and from devouring Nico’s soul. The boy was right, if not particularly wise. The girl shouldn’t have been on the list. Nico had a real knack for reading into bad behavior that had served them well during their visits to the North American Behavioral Analysis Center. Management had not been wrong when they said these pathetic creatures would need help sorting out their business.
Many months had passed since the last Krampusnacht, and Krampus allowed himself to feel cautiously optimistic that everything was going to be alright this year. Nico had turned out to be a stellar choice for his apprentice. The boy had a natural talent for tormenting others that Krampus was certain would translate into effective nightmares. He had decided that if things continued to go well, he would give control of the European list for Nico to handle, and he would personally oversee the first year of American operations.
As Nico continued to berate the lesser demon, Krampus felt a stirring of pride. The boy had small nubs growing from his forehead that would soon be real horns. His appearance had shifted subtly in other ways as well that told Krampus he was right to be hopeful. Nico would soon be a full-fledged demon worthy of his role alongside Krampus.
* * *
‘Look, Krampus,’ Nico said. ‘There are surprisingly fewer children on the American list than for Europe. All I’m saying is, you have time to enjoy yourself for a while when you’re reaping. Give those American children something to really fear, not just nightmares they can write off as a silly dream. I know you want to.’
The boy was right of course. Krampus scolded himself for thinking of Nico in such terms still. He was far from a boy now. Exposure to Hell and the nature of their work had ensured a complete transformation. Nico stood nearly as tall as Krampus now, with a shaggy pelt of black fur covering most of his body. His legs had deformed, eventually mutating into the reverse jointed, cloven-hooved limbs that Krampus and most greater demons sported. His face tapered to a sleek muzzle filled with fangs.
Breaking from his reverie, Krampus brought himself back to the matter at hand. He really did want to bring real fear to these new children, and he would have the time to do so. They had never known his wrath, so a personal lesson would serve his purpose quite well. Still, it would be a breach of protocol. Would management care? Would they even notice? He doubted they would. Until Nico’s involvement, Krampus had been almost completely autonomous in his work. No one cared about him as long as the work got done.
‘I don’t know,’ he said, conflicted. ‘It is against the rules.’
Nico scoffed, his forked tongue spearing briefly through his thin lips. ‘Come on Krampus. No one is going to care if you do the work up close and personal for a while. Besides, if anyone asks, I’ll make sure to cover for you.’
Still uncertain, Krampus thought of his wife. What would she want him to do? He remembered all the times she used to snicker collusively with him as he regaled her with stories of one particularly crafty form of torture or another. She really did appreciate his work, and things between them had not been the same since the new system came online. Her enthusiasm had waned. They had grown distant.
His mind made up, Krampus said, ‘Ok, sure. I’ll take some time and really enjoy myself. Just tell them I’m having some trouble getting used to the warped nature of American psyches if anyone asks.’
Krampus and Nico made sure everything was ready for the next day, Krampusnacht. It was sure to be interesting. For the first time, America would know the terror of Krampus, and Europe would suffer under the dark attention of a new tormentor.
* * *
Krampus pulled his arm back and gave the boy another hard swat with his switch. He was an old one this one, nearly aged out of Krampus’s realm of operation. He squealed all the same though, under the demon’s attention. They all did. Krampus savored every trilling note of the boy’s misery. This was what he lived for. He felt truly alive for the first time in years.
He would have to make sure to thank Nico for convincing him to take this little diversion. It was just the breath of fresh air he needed, and he was sure the terror he dealt to the children he brought back to his private torture chamber would resonate for years. Another swat earned another anguished cry.
A small chime sounded from the tiny computer desk that was the only reminder this sacred place was tied to his new high-technology operations. Whips, pliers, hammers, and all other manner of evil implements were scattered about the room, which occupied its own little corner of Hell, far from his new office.
Frustrated at being interrupted, Krampus stepped away from the sniveling wretch he was working on and saw a message icon on the display. He felt a twinge of uncertainty as he tapped the icon. Two messages on two Krampusnachts. This could not be a good omen. Had Nico failed terribly?
It was indeed a message from management.
Behavioral Correction Officer Krampus,
It has come to our attention that you have been found derelict of your duties, in breach of established protocol for Krampusnacht operations. This infraction, coupled with your past outbursts and unwillingness to move forward into a new era of our business, has led to the decision to demote you, effective immediately.
Senior Behavioral Correction Officer Nico will complete your assigned tasks for this Krampusnacht. You will desist in your current actions and report to him immediately. He will decide what role you will continue to play within the Behavioral Correction business unit moving forward.
Given this change of personnel, all occurrences of December 6th moving forward shall henceforth be referred to as Niconacht. We regret that your actions necessitated these drastic measures, and hope that under the inspirational guidance of Senior Behavioral Correction Officer Nico you can regain your good standing.
Krampus smashed the computer in a fit of rage, his talons tearing out wires and electronic components with ease and scattering them across the room. That duplicitous snake! Krampus spun around, intent to take his fury out on the boy strapped to his workbench. He was shocked to see Nico standing over the child, admiring the switch Krampus had been using with real appreciation.
‘A fine tool,’ Nico said casually, as though nothing had happened between them. ‘I suspect I would truly enjoy using it.’
‘How dare you show your face here, you viper!’ Krampus hissed, menace dripping from his words. He stalked toward his erstwhile protege, flexing his talons uncontrollably.
‘Oh, stop it with the righteous condemnation, Krampus. We’re demons for Satan’s sake! Are you really so surprised I would betray you?’
Krampus was right next to Nico now, outrage burning in his eyes. Being that close together, Krampus was forced to recognize Nico had changed in only the short time it had been since Krampus had seen him last. He stood a head taller than Krampus now, and had substantially more bulk to his unnatural musculature. Clearly his sudden promotion had come with other benefits.
Krampus let out a ragged sigh, and stepped back in surrender. He really had been a fool to trust Nico, and had let the boy play on his desires in such a pathetically obvious way. That only made him more angry.
‘I’m glad to see you’re coming around,’ Nico said, with a necessarily devilish grin. He approached Krampus and slung a conspiratorial arm over Krampus’s shoulder as he whispered, ‘Listen, I didn’t do all this just to be an ass. I wouldn’t be where I am today without you, and I owe you for that. Sure, I might have gotten you demoted, but now I get to define your role in our little venture here.’
Krampus wasn’t sure where Nico was going with this, so he remained silent. Surely Nico was just trying to rub salt in the wound from stabbing Krampus in the back.
‘Given that I’m in charge of you now, there’s nothing stopping you from doing what you love. What you exist for. You were made to torture children, and I have no plans to take that away from you,’ Nico said.
Krampus wanted to feel relieved, but he had just learned from harsh experience that Nico was not to be trusted.
‘Granted,’ Nico continued smugly, ‘that’s really all you’re good for. You’re terribly inefficient at everything else. It may take me another year to work out the kinks from your failures.’
Nico stepped away and faced Krampus. ‘So, I think it’s best for everyone if you stay right here, where you are best suited. You’re welcome to continue working on the children you’ve already collected. I’ll be back later to take them up to the corporeal world where they can spread the news of the great and terrible Krampus.’
Nico made to step into the shadows and away from the torture chamber before stopping. ‘I’ll make sure your wife is well looked after as well,’ he said with a wink, and then he was gone.
Krampus rushed to follow Nico, but found the path warded against him. He was trapped there, a victim in his own dungeon. After a long period of stunned contemplation, Krampus gave a slight shrug and picked up his switch. He had work to do.