The fat man stepped quietly into the room nearly gagging on the overpowering stench of sulfur that hung in the air. A iron-posted bed with yellowing sheets and a sagging mattress sat against the far wall, and under the sheets lay a contorted figure, still as a stone, the rasping of breath the only testament to the fact that it was alive. The fat man sank into a wooden chair that sat near the bed with a sigh, and dropped the bag he carried with a thump. Strange that it seemed so heavy now when it was nearly empty, now when there was only one delivery left to make.
For a long time the fat man sat in silence. It was only after several minutes had passed and the fat man was considering getting up to go that the thing in the bed finally spoke.
“You don’t have to keep coming here,” it said in a low growl of a voice that sounded like nothing so much as the voice of some demoniac hound.
“It seems only right,” the far man replied. ”We rode together all those years. Some might say that you’re a part of what I am.”
“Was,” growled the thing in the bed. ”I was a part of you. And you me. All that’s past now.”
“Times have changed.”
“Yes, yes they have. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that people think they’ve changed.”
“Perhaps they have.”
“NO!” The word was a snarl. ”They’re the same. Underneath they’re the same as they’ve always been. They still need me just as much as they need you.” The thing under the sheets ended the sentence with a long fit of hacking wheezing coughs that tapered off into a gasp for air.
“I didn’t come here to argue.”
“No, of course now. Not you. Not Mr. Nice. You wouldn’t let the stench of conflict foul your eternal air of joviality.”
“It doesn’t matter what I think anyway. It’s not my doing. It was not I who brought you to this place.”
The thing in the bed did not speak for a long time, and when it did it’s voice was gentler, the growl offset by a tone of tenderness. ”I do not blame you old friend. We are their servants. We do what we were created to do. And when they have no more need of us… But therein lies the tragedy. Because they do have a need of us. Of both of us.”
“I do the best I can.”
“I’m sure. With your lumps of coal? And how has that worked out?”
The fat man coughed and did not answer.
“I see. So you’ve abandoned even the pretext of punishment.”
“It isn’t me. I didn’t ask for any of this.”
“It’s killing them. Or it’s going to.”
“That remains to be seen.”
“Yes. And you will remain to see it. Because it will come back to haunt them. They’re trying to enjoy light without darkness, pleasure without pain, joy without fear. But they’re living a fantasy. Because life doesn’t work that way. Sooner or later, life has teeth.”
The thing in the bed turned then, drawing back the covers with one gnarled hand to reveal a hideous face, pocked and pitted with sores, some oozing yellow-green puss. One horn sprouted crookedly from it’s grey skinned head, while a festering bleeding stump marked the place where it’s twin has once stood. In place of a nose there was a rotting hole in the center of the creature’s face, and beneath it withered lips parted to reveal two rows of of teeth, blackened and rotting with age, but still razor-sharp and deadly. But worst of all were the eyes, not because they were monstrous, but because they were human, filled with bitterness and loss.
The fat man winced, but forced himself not to look away. ”Some of them still remember you,” he said. ”They keep your name alive.”
The thing in the bed waved its hand dismissively. ”Hipsters. They don’t mean it. There is no fear in their hearts. And even they do not speak of me as I was: ripping claws, piercing teeth, a howl that could curdle the blood of an ox. I’m nothing more than an amusement to them. They do not believe. They do not fear. Only children have the capacity for that kind of pure faith.”
“Is the fear so necessary? Is the form not enough?”
“The fear is everything. The fear of punishment has power that the promise of reward can never hope to match. You have been there. You know their hearts. You see what they do. Tell me I am wrong. Tell me the hearts of children no longer give place to the seed of wickedness as they once did. Tell me that has changed, and…and I can pass on happily from this world.”
The fat man slowly shook his head. ”They are as they always were. Some are still good. But others… The worst of it is that their wickedness is excused, explained away by a people unwilling to see the truth. They have blinded themselves. They are like lepers who have put out their own eyes and convinced themselves that they have been healed because they can no longer see their sores. And it seems the more they convince themselves of their own goodness the worse they become. If they were punished as they once were, you my friend would feast for a year of Christmases.”
The thing in the bed ran a forked tongue over its shriveled lips. ”Oh to be out there again. To hunt as we once did. Do you remember the lad from Bavaria? Round about 1593 if memory serves.”
“He had dropped his baby sister into a well,” the fat man said. ”He laughed about it. And no one knew.”
“No one but us.”
“He screamed for such a long time.”
“Not nearly long enough. But when it was over I feasted on his heart and sucked the sweet marrow from the hollows of his bones. Tell me you regret that. Tell me you would take if back if you could.”
The fat man opened his mouth as if to reply, but before he could speak the bag on the floor shifted slightly and a moan escaped from within.
The thing’s in the bed leaned slowly forward, a grin spreading across its face, pointed ears pricking up at the sound. ”Oh, Claus, you really shouldn’t have.”
The fat man stood slowly and tipped the bag forward, spilling the his final gift out onto the floor. The child stared up at him with wild uncomprehending eyes, but when his gaze lighted on the Krampus he screamed into the gag wedged into his mouth and began to fight against his bonds.
The Krampus leaped down from the bed and looked into the child’s eyes with terrible fascination. ”I know what you did,” he said. ”I can smell it. And because you showed no mercy, none will be shown to you. Tonight you’re going to learn what really happens to naughty children.”
The fat man stooped to gather his finally empty bag and trudged wearily from the room. He shut the door against the screams, and took the elevator to the roof.