Everywhere Inc.: The Pyhäraapia
by Craig Allen Reade
The doors opened, and a quick blast of cold air and snow swept into the elevator. He grabbed the hoodie he had crammed into his backpack and pulled it on. For a moment, he thought he should turn back and choose a different level, but his curiosity got the better of him.
Slipping on his backpack, Jack took his first steps out into the virgin snow. He turned a moment to see the doors of the elevator close. A brilliant beam of light enveloped the lift and shot into the air, and the strange box dissolved into the light. A pulse shot up the infinite beam, and the whole thing faded into darkness. It didn’t matter how many times he had seen it – the site was always stunning. But this time it seemed even more brilliant thanks to the frigid air.
It had been some time since he discovered what that strange device the dying man had given him actually did, and it he still couldn’t quite believe it. As the man lie dying, he just thrust the small electronic pad and blue plastic card in his hands and told him to run. Jack wanted to get some help, the police or something, but the man told him they wouldn’t be able to help. As his assassins came around the corner, Jack heeded the man’s advice and fled. Eventually he discovered that the card and “Clicker” were keys to a seemingly magic elevator that lead to countless realities. Inside the lift were thousands of numbered buttons, each one leading to a different reality. Unfortunately, he didn’t think to take note of where he started, and he was hopelessly lost and unable to get home. So he roamed, exploring the different worlds and hoping to eventually find his own. This reality, 1225 was its number, was definitely not where he was from. But the cold beauty of this place was worth a few minutes of his time.
The air was still, and the sky was totally clear. A smooth blanket of snow covered the rocky landscape, and the light of millions of brilliant stars pierced through the darkness. Jack was taken by the beauty of it all, and stared in wonderment.
Off in the distance, Jack saw a tiny cottage. Feeling the cold, he thought about summoning the elevator, but decided instead to check out the solitary structure. At the very least he could warm himself there, and possibly find out a little about where he was from whoever lived there.
Jack trudged through the hard snow, the crunch of his boots with every step was the only thing to break the cold silence. As he got closer to the cottage, he noticed that it was completely dark – no light leaked from the windows. Even stranger was the chimney – Jack expected to see a plume of smoke wafting from it, especially in this cold. Jack supposed that there could be some sort of central heating, but being so far out in the wilderness, he thought it unlikely. Besides – if that were the case, he would almost certainly hear the rumble of a generator by now.
When Jack finally reached the cabin, it was clear that it had been abandoned. The snow had covered the simple stone walkway that lead to the door and piled up several inches against it. Had anyone actually lived there, Jack was sure that this would have been cleared. Still – he knocked anyway, loudly announcing his presence before he tried the door. It was unlocked.
Hearing no reply, Jack crept into the tiny cabin and looked around. It was quite cozy, a large fireplace dominated the room, and a thick plush carpet covered the floor. A large couch sat right in front of the fireplace, and was draped by a thick throw blanket. The furniture was soft and inviting, if a little small, but from the musty smell and the dust that covered the room it was clear that no one had been there in some time. Jack scanned the room for a light switch but all he found were some half melted candles and some matches.
Once he got the candle lit – he scanned around the room. Moving shadows obscured a lot of the details, but this was clearly not a modern era. Jack didn’t see anything powered by electricity at all – no radio or television, no appliances of any kind, no lights – only candles places strategically around the room.
Jack made his way over to the enormous fireplace. There was a stack of wood to the side, along with a kindling box. Jack lit the candles near the fireplace, and set to work lighting a fire. He figured if the house was abandoned, no one would mind if he warmed up and got a little rest here before moving on. It may be cold outside, but it was relatively peaceful. It had been some time since he got a good night’s sleep. Since he had no idea where he would end up next, he decided to make the most of this opportunity. A nice meal would have made things better, but he doubted he would find anything to eat here. And even if he did, there was no telling how old the food would be. It wasn’t worth taking the risk.
After struggling to open the flue, Jack managed to get the fire started. The wood was dry and ignited quickly. After beating the dust off of the couch and throw, Jack curled up and drifted off to sleep, dreaming of a nice big bowl of soup….
A thump on the roof woke Jack up with a start. He sat straight up and listened intently.An eerie rap of slow steps filled the room, one heavy step after another, each one accompanied by a grating scrape, as if something was clawing into the roof. Jack quietly made his way to the window, pulled open the shutter and peered out the open window. Everything outside was pristine – the snow was untouched, save for his footprints leading to the door. With each step, though, a little bit of snow fell from the shaking roof. Jack pulled shutters tight and latched them. Uncertain of what was up there, Jack couldn’t decide if he should creep outside and take a look, make a run for it, or just wait and hope whatever it was would go away. Indecision made the choice for him.
The footsteps finally stopped, but he could hear whatever was on the roof struggling with something. Then with a loud thump, something slid down the chimney and crashed into the fireplace. A thick cloud of ash billowed out of the fireplace into the room, spreading burning embers all over the place. Terrified, Jack knew he should run, but he was paralyzed with fear.The cloud settled, and Jack heard a low, staccato growl. He took a step back towards the door as a pair of glowing eyes twinkled at him through the soot. The creature emerged from the fireplace and rose up on its hind legs, snarling gleefully. It was enormous – Jack had no idea how it could have fit in the fireplace, let alone made it down the chimney. But since the creature just landed on burning coals without even flinching, there was clearly something more dangerous about this beast than its size and ferocity.
It stood nearly eight feet tall, and was covered in long, shaggy fur. The fur was white, but so much of it was stained with blood that you could almost call it red. The white-red fur was caked with ash and soot from the chimney and much of the hair was singed and burning from its trip through the coals. As the creature breathed, the frozen air shot out of his nostrils like smoke that swirled and circled around its head.
The creature bounded forward and Jack stumbled away. It rose up again on its hind legs and growled once more – an evil, stuttered growl that sounded like a laugh. Its large abdomen jiggled at the sound. Desperate, Jack grabbed at a chair and flung it at the terrible beast. It lashed out angrily, swiping at the chair and shattered it into a thousand splinters. The great beast summoned its full height and let out an ear-splitting roar.
Jack’s eyes darted about the room, looking for an escape. The creature blocked his path to the exit, so he scrambled back to the kitchen area. There was no door there, but there was another large window covered by a shutter. He fumbled with the latch, but he couldn’t budge it. A menacing snort behind him told him that his time was up.
A meat cleaver sat unmolested on the counter. Knowing it was ultimately futile, he snatched up the blade and waved it at the creature. His back was to a wall, literally and figuratively, and Jack knew that if he had any chance at all, he was going to have to get around the monster. As the creature slowly stalked him (Jack could swear it was smiling), he mustered up his last ounce of courage and sprang forward, swinging the cleaver wildly. Unimpressed by the display, the creature swatted Jack away as he came into range, sending him flying across the room. Jack collided into a wall and crumbled on a countertop.
The overpowering smell of cinnamon greeted Jack as he woke. The warmth and the strong aroma made him feel at peace, at least until he felt his head throb. He slowly opened his eyes and groaned.He was lying on the same couch as before, with the fire roaring in front of him. Were it not for the pain, he would have thought that the whole thing was a dream. The sight of a short, dirty figure clad in green snapped him out of his haze. He slowly sat up, fighting through the agonizing soreness.
He looked around and saw several of the small men rush towards him, to push him back down. He could sense no malice from them, so he willingly complied. The pain was more than he had expected, so he would have ended up on his back again anyway.
“Elves,” he chuckled quietly. “I wonder where Santa is.”
“Santa?” Jack opened his eyes again and saw one of the elves sitting on the arm of the couch at his feet. The elf was almost exactly how you might imagine Santa’s helpers to be – short and pale, with pointed ears, wearing a green suit with matching hat and shoes. In almost every way, the elves looked like children of ten or twelve years, but their eyes showed a wisdom of someone much older. This one like all the others looked emaciated, and his cloths were worn and tattered. It was obvious that life was not easy for this elf. He still had a twinkle in his eye though, and had a quizzical look on his gaunt face.
“What is a Santa?”
I chuckled again, and tried to sit up a little. The pain was unbearable, so I settled for leaning on my shoulder, looking up at the diminutive man. “You mean who? Well, Santa… well, once a year, Santa bring toys to all the good children of the… world…”
The elf had a strange look on his face that stopped Jack mid sentence. He realized that Santa was a little difficult to describe to someone who had no idea who he was. Who had never heard of Santa Claus after all? The youngest child knew who the jolly elf was. Jack realized that there were differences between realities, but in a frozen wasteland that could well be the North Pole populated by literal elves – how was it possible that they didn’t know of Santa?
“He brings toys to children? Why?”
It took some time, but I told the elf everything I knew about Santa, all the stories I could remember. About how he lived at the North Pole and had a workshop filled with elves who built toys, and how once a year he loaded his sleigh and delivered those toys to the children of the world in a single night. He listened intently to everything I had to say. After I finished, he sat and thought for a few moments.
“So this Santa, he was the leader of the elves?”
“Yeah,” Jack replied. “Some people think he is an elf himself, others look at him as just a man. But either way, you could say he was the elves leader. But he really is more of a symbol. But then, it is only a story.”
Despite my efforts, the elf seemed less interested in the whole meaning of Christmas angle than just the importance of Santa himself, and the powers that he had. Pukk, as the elf was called, peppered Jack with questions for what seemed like hours. Jack himself was surprised at the depth of lore about Santa Claus. No wonder it was so difficult to explain: there were so many conflicting Santa Claus stories that it was nearly impossible to describe the man in a line or two. Pukk listened intently, and his fascination wasn’t surprising – the story of Santa told of a society of elves exactly like them, but one that had peace, security, and comfort. Perhaps Santa had something to do with this?
Their discussion was finally interrupted by another elf – slightly shorter with nearly black skin and bright-red lips. The second elf had the same young features, but his face was marked by several scars that Jack later learned were inflicted by the Pyhäraapia – the beast that had attacked him long ago. So Jack wasn’t the only one to survive an attack by that creature.
“The house is secure Pukk,” Piet reported.
“We are two days out from Laughing Valley, assuming the weather holds. Krampus is leading a hunting party to shore up our food stores just in case, but we should have more than enough. Again, assuming the weather holds.”
The elf perched on the arm of the couch nodded, and Piet left. While they were talking, another elf – a much smaller girl, handed Jack a warm mug filled with a thick, fragrant liquid that reminded him a little of egg nog. After a couple sips, Jack immediately felt better. The pain in his back dulled, and he felt strong enough to sit up.
“What happened?” Jack finally asked. “What attacked me?”
“That was the Pyhäraapia,” Pukk explained. “You were a fool to fall asleep with a fire going like that! It was like asking to be attacked!’
“I am sorry,” Jack explained. “I’m a stranger here. I didn’t know about it.” Jack looked around nervously. “What if it comes back? Why didn’t he kill me before?”
“It was the cinnamon,” Pukk explained. “The Pyhäraapia is allergic to it. We found you on the kitchen counter covered in the stuff.”
As it turned out, the Pyhäraapia fed on the elves almost exclusively. For years it has hunted the elves and destroyed their entire way of life. The elves used to live in small family groups, scattered all across the area, but mostly concentrated in the Laughing Valley. Cottages like this one dotted the landscape, the families that lived in them only meeting on rare occasions. This group was like dozens of others across the land journeying to the far north, an annual Festival where the different tribes of elves gathered for trade and socialization.
The Pyhäraapia seemed impervious to fire, though the smell of cinnamon was almost a foolproof ward. It usually attacked indoors, when the entire family was sleeping. Sometimes the smell of cinnamon wasn’t enough to keep the creature away, so the elves became nomads – traveling in groups for protection. They always posted a watch, and rarely slept in the same place twice. The smoke from a fire seemed to attract the creature, so they only lit one in safe, well defended places, and only when there was plenty of cinnamon available to ward the creature off, and enough elves to stand guard against attack. This house was the home of one of the first victims of the Pyhäraapia, and it served as one of the way stations for bands of roving elves.
The door of the cottage burst open and a few elves stumbled in, carrying a wounded elf on their shoulders. Two of the elves gently lowered their comrade to the floor, and Pukk leapt off the couch and rushed to his side. The other elves in the room scurried around, and soon his wounds were being washed and bandaged.
“What happened Krampus?” Pukk demanded.
A black-clad elf with dark reddish skin slumped against the wall with exhaustion. He slowly unstrapped the enormous shield from his back, and set his weapon on the ground next to him. Instead of the spear that most of the elves carried, he wielded a staff that was just a bit taller than he was, topped by a bunch of thick sticks that were tightly bound at the head of the staff. Jack wasn’t sure if they were decorative or not, but they were long enough to cause real damage if the staff was whipped properly. Jack learned later that this weapon was called a virgács, and Krampus was one of a very few elves who could wield it effectively.
“It was the damned beast,” Krampus spat. “It was still in the area, and pretty ticked off. I don’t think he liked his meal interrupted.” Krampus glared at Jack out of the corner of his eye.
“Anyway, it got Rumpel – damn thing swallowed him whole. Ruprecht here got a couple cleans shot with his bow that drove the beast off, but he paid the price. He’ll probably be ok, but he’ll need some time to mend.”
“The weather will just have to hold,” Pukk said after a moment’s thought. “We can’t afford to send another party out. We will have to let Muori know that we need to ration starting now. One bad storm and we’ll starve.”
“We are so close,” Krampus groaned.
“No reason to get lax,” Pukk replied, forcing a smile. Now that Ruprecht was patched up, a few of the elves eased him to his feet and lead him towards the back of the cottage. Pukk stood and watched them go and soon became lost in thought, staring through the door.
“I am sorry,” Jack said, approaching the distracted elf cautiously.
“What?” Pukk stammered, snapping out of his revere. “Sorry? What have you to be sorry for?”
“I can’t help thinking that this is my fault. I didn’t have to come here, light that fire and sleep in this cabin. I brought the creature here, and your –“Jack paused for a moment, trying to find the right word – “elves paid for it.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Pukk shot back. “We were coming here anyway, and the Pyhäraapia in the area. If anything, by finding you we were warned it was in the area. This could have been a lot worse. No, the Pyhäraapia is just a fact of life here. He takes who he wants. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you end up as food.. Krampus is taking it hard, which is to be expected – he doesn’t like losing elves. I wouldn’t let him bother you. He understands the reality of our lives, and will come around soon enough.”
The caravan was a modest one – two sleds loaded with food and supplies were hitched to a pair of reindeer each. Jack helped the elves load their supplies – they were far more knowledgeable about survival in the harsh environment, but Jack’s physical size had its perks. With his help and Piet’s direction, the caravan was ready to depart in record time.The procession moved slowly in a long single file. The sleds were at the front of the procession, and various armed elves moved up and down the line. Krampus remained rooted in the rear, holding his virgács casually as his eyes shifted back and forth in every direction.
Pukk walked close to me when he was able, but frequently he was approached by one elf or another, with a question or a report. It seemed clear that he was the leader of the band and from what Jack could tell, he seemed to be a pretty good one. Rarely did he get angry or emotional, he never dismissed anyone who approached him, no matter how silly their concern might be, and his responses were always measured and well-reasoned. He was the palest of the elves – the cold air made his nearly white skin almost glow red, the tiny white tuft of hair on his chin offering almost no protection.
Krampus was almost the opposite of Pukk – and very different from most of the elves. He was passionate – looking into his eyes you could see a wild spark. He wanted to run and to fight. It must have taken unbelievable self discipline to rein that fire in. Unlike the other elves in the party, he would argue with Pukk, often quite passionately, Though Pukk never once raised his voice he stood firm, and Krampus always backed down. It seemed that as passionate as Krampus was, he ultimately respected the more reasonable Pukk.
The weather held, and Pukk was pleased about the pace the caravan was keeping. Piet soon approached Pukk and unfolded a tattered map, and pointed to a rocky ridge in the distance. Pukk listened to the soft-spoken elf intently.
“That ridge puts us only a couple hours from Festival, and should provide some shelter if we get hit by snow. We should arrive there before nightfall if we keep this pace.”
“Very well, Piet,” Pukk said. “Take Čertanděl and scout ahead – find a safe spot to make camp in the ridge.”
Piet nodded, and he and the second elf took some supplies from one of the sleds, strapped them to their backs, and started to jog towards the ridge ahead.
“What happens at Festival?” Jack asked Pukk, who was watching the pair scramble off.
“Hrm?” Pukk replied, distracted, turning back to face me.
“Festival. Why do you go there? What happens?”
“It’s a gathering of elves – once each year in Laughing Valley,” Pukk explained. “A long time ago, most of the elves lived there in relative peace and security, until the Pyhäraapia appeared. It laid waste to entire villages, forcing those who survived to flee.
“We all travel in small bands now – hunting for our food and staying on the move as often as possible. Scattered as we are, the creature can only attack a few of us at once.”
“Couldn’t you just fortify your villages? Post guards?”
“We tried that,” Pukk replied. “It became impossible to maintain ourselves that way. Large communities had specialists like farmers who grew our food in large greenhouses. But the Pyhäraapia would attack the farmer, crashing through the glass and destroying a crop. People starved. The creature only needed to kill a certain number of important elves and a whole community would fall to pieces. The only ones who had a chance at survival were the hunters, who moved in small bands and could drive the creature off if he attacked. The elves that survived were the ones that kept moving, and could fend for themselves.
“We still go back to Laughing Valley once a year, to connect with other bands, share information, and trade. We share stories about our encounters with the great beast, track its movements, and find out new ways to stay alive.”
“How can you be so sure there is only one of those things out there?”
Pukk sighed, and looked thoughtful for a moment.
“The Pyhäraapia is a magical creature. No one has ever seen more than one, and no one has ever killed it. Oh, some people claim to have, but they never have any kind of proof. It’s been wounded – that much is certain, and the scars from these wounds are one of the reasons we know there to be only one.
“Each band carefully records every encounter with the creature, and shares their experiences at Festival. One band would somehow manage to wound the beast, and on the same night, another would report they were attacked on the very same night by the Pyhäraapia – who bore the very wound that was inflicted before. Sometimes these bands would be miles away from each other at the time. Not only does the beast seem impossible to kill, but it moves incredibly fast when it travels. Dozens of bands spread across the region frequently report encounters on the same evening. There are some who believe that there is no limit to how many bands it could attack in a single day, if it so desired.”
The story seemed incredible, and Jack couldn’t believe that any creature could do so much alone, but Pukk was adamant. They knew there was but one, and this was something that Jack had to accept.
“What did your Santa do about the Pyhäraapia?” Pukk finally asked, while Jack digested what he had learned about the creature.
“I have no idea,” Jack replied, sad he had nothing useful to offer. “I’ve never even heard of a Pyhäraapia. It’s possible it doesn’t exist at all where I come from, even in legend.”
A faint, staccato snarl interrupted the conversation, and the entire caravan suddenly froze. Heads popped up and looked around frantically.
“Move!” Pukk ordered, forcing the caravan to start again. He ran to the rear and stopped next to Krampus, who’s eyes were fixed on a hilltop behind them. The Pyhäraapia stood on top of it on its hind legs, snarling loudly. The sounds of its ominous growls were so loud that it seemed like it was already on top of them.
“How long to the ridge?” Krampus asked, his eyes locked on the beast.
“At least an hour at our pace,” Pukk replied.
Krampus nodded. “Go.”
The Pyhäraapia suddenly darted forward and rushed down the hill toward the caravan. Jack couldn’t believe how fast the creature moved – but to hear Pukk tell it, it was moving down the hill at almost a crawl. As Pukk turned and urged his people forward, Krampus took the enormous shield off his back and laid it down on the snow. Using it as a sled, he jumped inside of it, and raced down the hill towards the approaching beast.
“No!” Jack cried, starting after the sledding elf.
“Let him go!” Pukk exclaimed, rushing back to Jack’s side, pulling him away. “Move!”
The caravan surged forward towards the ridge, separating as people scrambled as fast as they could. The reindeer and the sled drivers galloped forward, outpacing the elves that scrambled through the snow. Jack looked back and saw Krampus nearly collide with the rushing beast at the bottom of the hill. He leapt off the shield and twirled his virgács around, parrying the angry beast’s claws. That was the last Jack saw of Krampus as he was forced to chase after the caravan which was heading down the hill on the other side.
The band of elves sprinted towards the ride with their sleds, and though it took much less than an hour to get there, each moment seemed like an eternity. The growls of the creature engaging Krampus gave a feeling of security – even though most felt that Krampus was lost, every moment the Pyhäraapia fought the elf brought the group closer to safety. The silence soon came, however, and as the ridge grew ever closer, the caravan feared it would not make it. Thankfully, they arrived at the rocky sanctuary and rushed into a large cavern at the entrance to which a fire was already burning. The smell of cinnamon was overpowering – Piet had tossed some cinnamon branches in the fire and the smell filled the cavern and the surrounding area.
The band huddled in the cave – the sleds were unloaded, and furs were rolled out for sleeping. Several elves stood ready, spears and bows in hand. For a long time, Pukk and Jack stood near the fire at the entrance to the cave, looking out for any sign that the beast had followed them, or Krampus had somehow escaped. As time passed, the weather got worse, and soon a blizzard started in earnest. Pukk sighed sadly.
“Why did he do that?” Jack asked. “Cinnamon drives that creature off, wasn’t there another way?”
“The smell has to be overpowering,” Pukk replied somberly. “The Pyhäraapia is allergic, but it takes a lot to force it off. In a cave or a house, the scent lingers and gains potency. Out in the open, it would have taken more than we had on hand to drive it away, and it would have taken too long to build a fire that large. Krampus knew we had to stall it long enough to get the caravan to the ridge. He did the only thing that could be done.”
“But the cabin!” Jack exclaimed. “I was just covered in a little bit of powder, and that was enough!”
“You were unconscious, and it wasn’t about to eat you covered in the stuff,” Pukk explained with incredible patience. “That didn’t stop it from entering the cabin and wrecking the place and you along with it. We don’t have enough powder to protect everyone, and that would only stop it from eating us, not killing us.”
Jack looked down, and shook his head. He put his hand on Pukk’s shoulder, trying to comfort him, but got no response. Pukk just started out of the cave into the frozen waste, watching for something that would tell him what happened to Krampus. Jack turned back into the cave, and tried to get his mind off his guilt by helping the elves unload their sleds. The work done, he leaned up against a large boulder near the fire and pulled the Clicker out of his pocket.
The familiar compass arrow pointed back in the direction of the Shaft that brought him to this reality, right below the number 14,786. He never did figure out what unit of measurement the Clicker used to determine distance, but he knew that 14.786 was a long way. If he had been in his right mind at the time he would have gone back to the Shaft and used the Clicker to summon the elevator instead of going with Pukk’s band, but there was little he could do to change that now, especially with the Pyhäraapia on their tail.
A small elf sat next to him, and set a large empty sack on the ground beside him. The elf was hairy, but almost certainly a child. His skin was brown and dirty, and he wore a tattered brown cloak. He looked inquisitively at Jack’s glowing pad.
“What’s your name?” Jack asked. The elf boy looked up at him.
“Schmutzli. What’s that?”
“It’s a Clicker. It tells me how to get home.”
“Hrm,” replied Schmutzli, transfixed by the glow. “How does it do that?”
“Well,” Jack explained, “this arrow points in the direction I need to go, and that number tells me how far I need to travel.”
“Ah. But how does it do that?”
“Do what?” Jack asked, confused.
Jack realized that these people had never seen any kind of electronics before.
“Well, you see, there is a battery inside that stores energy, and that energy powers the screen here. A sensor detects the hole in reality that the Shaft passes through…” Jack stopped when he saw the look of confusion on Schmutzli’s face.
“Magic, it works by magic.”
“I knew it!” Schmutzli declared, his face beaming. “Drapp didn’t believe me, but I was right!” Schmutzli got back to his feet, snatched up his empty sack, and ran over to a group of elves that were intently watching the exchange.
Jack tucked his Clicker in his backpack, and leaned his head against the wall. Very soon, his eyes got heavy, and he drifted off to sleep.
A clatter of metal shocked Jack out of his slumber. Everyone was alert, and looking towards the fire at the cave opening. Pukk was on his feet already, running out the entrance with Piet on his tail. Jack pulled himself up and followed them out. He was greeted by a sight he thought was impossible.
Outside, Krampus had fallen to his knees, and his shield had clattered against a large rock behind him. His virgács, splintered and cracked, was laying in the snow beside him and the side of his face was caked with blood. The trio lifted Krampus to his feet and carried him into the cave. Piet rushed back out to retrieve the broken virgács and shield.Krampus was set down on a pile of furs, and several elves crowded around him. Pukk patiently had everyone clear out, explaining that Krampus needed space. Pukk called for an elf named Budelfrau to clean Krampus’ wounds, and a diminutive woman rushed to his side with rags and a bag of water.
“What happened?” Pukk asked Krampus gently. Krampus groaned as he tried to sit up, but Budelfrau placed her hands on his shoulder and eased him back down.
“The beast knocked me silly,” Krampus said, his voice labored. “I held it off for a little while, but I slipped on a patch of ice, and it knocked my virgács out of my hands. I picked up my shield but before long, it had swatted that away as well.
“Lying on my back, the damned thing rising up above me, I thought I’d had it. But at the last moment I reached over and grabbed my virgács, which I found beside me, and jabbed it up at it. He was coming down with his jaws – the tip went right in its mouth – stabbed it real good in the throat. It howled – and ran away. I blacked out for a little bit after that – by the time I came to, it was gone.”
Pukk tried to look serious, but he couldn’t conceal the relief on his face. He told Krampus to rest, let everyone else know that they were to give him some space, and left the wounded warrior in Budelfrau’s care.
“One lucky hit and it fled, unthinkable!” Piet said to Pukk after they left Krampus’ side.
“Why is that so strange?” Jack asked. Piet shot an irritated look at Jack.
“We’ve tried to kill the beast before,” Pukk explained patiently. “It’s been battered, cut, and wounded, but it just keeps coming. Eventually it decides to flee if wounded and facing numbers, but it heals so quickly. A couple hours later you wouldn’t know he had been hurt. Krampus got a good hit in, but he was wounded and down. It should have killed him.”
“The mouth is sensitive,” Piet suggested. “Maybe it was just a once-in-a-lifetime shot to the back of the throat, and that was enough to put the beast off him for a bit?”
Jack eyed Krampus’ virgács, and saw that the sticks bound at the top were caked with blood. An idea occurred to him.
“What are those made of?” Jack asked, pointing at the virgács. Pukk and Piet looked confused for a moment.
“Cinnamon branches,” coughed Krampus, who had been listening to them. Pukk and Piet looked at each other in surprise.
“You said the thing was allergic to cinnamon,” Jack asked hurriedly. “Maybe it’s flat out poisonous. What would happen if you made some kind of paste? Coated your spear tips with it?”
Pukk looked thoughtful at that suggestion.
“Could that work?” Jack asked. “Would that kill it?” Piet and Pukk just looked at each other, puzzled.
“It will work,” Krampus said, staggering to his feet. Budelfrau tried to get him to stay on his back, but he pushed her away. “I should be dead. One hit shouldn’t have stopped him, I don’t care if I jammed a spear all the way down his throat, that wouldn’t have been enough to stop him – we have hit it with worse before. The big ape is on to something here.”
“What do you want us to do?” Piet asked incredulously. “Attack the Pyhäraapia? That’s suicide!”
“We’ve got to do something!” Krampus raged. “With that storm out there, we aren’t going anywhere. The beast is ticked off, and it knows where we are. It is going to come back. You know as well as I do that the fire doesn’t always stop it when it is angry.”
Pukk stood silently, mulling over what Krampus was suggesting. Piet had a look of horror on his face, shocked that Pukk appeared to be considering such a drastic move, but too meek to say as much.
“Make the paste,” Pukk said, his eyes fixed on Krampus. “Dip the spears. Krampus is right – there is no telling how long this storm is going to last, and it’s worth a shot.”
Piet stood stunned for a moment, but quickly turned to find Muori, and gathered some elves to help grind the bark off the cinnamon branches. Krampus remained standing, and though unsteady, he still looked strong.
“I’ll take Ruprecht and Čertanděl. We’ll find a place to set up an ambush. We’ll light a fire and –“
“No,” Pukk interrupted. Anger flashed briefly in Krampus’ eyes.
“I thought –“
“We can’t lose you,” Pukk explained. “You are wounded and need rest. If this doesn’t work, the caravan is going to need you to get them to Festival safely. You saved us once, and I am not going to throw this band’s best asset away for a plan that might not work.”
“But you need me for this!” Krampus exclaimed. “I’m the best fighter we have here!”
“Are you? Really? In the state you are in?” Pukk countered angrily. It was the first time Jack had ever heard him raise his voice. Krampus bristled at the criticism, but remained silent. “You can barely stand right now, let alone face the beast.
“We’ll go out there, and try Jack’s idea. If we fail – at least one of us will fall, and that will probably satisfy the beast enough that he will leave the caravan alone and move on. That will allow you to get the rest of the band to Festival unharmed. Even if the plan is farfetched, the sacrifice is a smart one. It’s better to risk losing a couple of us out there than to have it attack us here in the cave, where we can lose so many more.”
Pukk’s voice softened, and he put his hand on Krampus’ shoulder. “We all know you are brave, and I know you would die to protect this band. You have proven yourself. But use your head – you know this is the way it has to be. We need you here now, we need you to rest and regain your strength so that you can get the rest of us to Festival in one piece. I will go and take Ruprecht and Čertanděl with me. And Jack,” Pukk added. “It was his idea, he should see it through.” Before Jack could even think to object, Pukk looked him in the eyes. “He feels guilty enough for what happened to Rumpel, I am sure he wants to take advantage of this opportunity to lift some of that weight from his shoulders.
Jack stood in quiet disbelief, but he found himself nodding. He couldn’t help it – Pukk had an air of authority about him. Not only did people want to do what he said, but he had a strange way of making people believe in him. This case was no different. Jack was terrified of the beast, and was sick of being frozen. He wanted nothing more than to pack it up and head back to the Shaft, and get away from this wasteland. But Pukk had a point – Rumpel had died in part because of him. And Pukk and his band could have left him to die there, bleeding in that cottage, but they didn’t. They took the time to patch him up, welcomed him in their caravan. Krampus saved his life once again by rushing to fight the Pyhäraapia before it could reach the fleeing band. He owed them, and found his heart agreeing with the decision his head already made by nodding.
Krampus stared at Jack with cold calculation, sizing up the metal of the newcomer. Nodding his assent, he carefully knelt down and laid on the furs Budelfrau had laid out for him. He crossed his arms and closed his eyes, and lay stoically while Budelfrau went back to tending to his wounds.
It took little time to create the paste from the cinnamon bark. A little water and an already raging fire made the job easy. They coated several spear and arrow-tips with the paste, and dried them over the fire. Gathering everything they needed, the quartet said their goodbyes and pushed out into the snow.Climbing along the ridge for about an hour, they found the spot to make their stand. A high rock stood as a barrier against a nearly impassable ravine to the rear. The rock was partly hollowed out, almost deep enough to make a cave. It was perfect – Pukk was certain that the Pyhäraapia would not be able to attack them from behind, and the ground in front of the rock was clear and flat.
The four set to work building a fire, using some dry branches they brought with them to get it started. The blizzard had calmed somewhat, but a light snow still flurried down on top of them. Ruprecht foraged for some more branches – not only to make the fire bigger, but in the hopes that he would find some branches dry enough to burn, but wet enough to make the fire nice and smoky. They were satisfied that the fire would attract the creature.
Once all was ready, Ruprecht and Čertanděl grabbed their bows and climbed on top of the tall rock wall. Pukk handed Jack a spear, took one for himself, and scattered the rest around, propping them up against the rock wall or against small boulders. He explained that they may have to hit him several times, and the additional spears needed to be within easy reach.
They didn’t have to wait long. The familiar laughing growl was heard in the distance, and the four steeled themselves. Soon, the blood-stained creature emerged into the fire’s light and bared its teeth. Jack could see immediately the effect of Krampus’ blow – the left side of the beast’s snout was swollen completely shut. Pukk noticed it too.
“Look at its mouth,” Pukk said. “That should have healed by now.” To emphasize the point, the Pyhäraapia carefully advanced, and it was obvious that it wasn’t as steady on its feet as before. Pukk readied his spear, and motioned for Jack to do the same. Above, Ruprecht and Čertanděl drew their arrows back and waited.
Carefully, as they planned, Jack and Pukk circled the fire in opposite directions, drawing the beast in. They expected it to lash out at any moment, but something gave the creature pause – it was as if it sensed the trap. Eventually instinct took over, and the beast clumsily surged forward towards Pukk, baring its teeth.
Ruprecht and Čertanděl let their arrows fly, both striking true, burying their tips in the Pyhäraapia’s hide. It howled in pain, and its back legs collapsed almost immediately. It quickly recovered, and turned to retreat. Pukk wasted no time, and charged the beast with his spear. Jack looked up and saw the archers’ mouths open in stunned amazement. Finally Ruprecht recovered, nudged his partner, and they strung another arrow, and waited for a window.
Pukk grimaced as he plunged his spear in the beast’s side. The beast howled again, and Pukk’s spear cracked and broke as the beast tried to twist away. Blood squirted from the wound, and Jack could swear that it was steaming. Jack struck with his spear clumsily – he hit the beast, but the spear bounced off the hide with barely a scratch. The Pyhäraapia swatted Jack away, and nearly ran right over him in his attempt to get away. Two more arrows appeared in the beast’s hide, and it tripped over Jack, falling face first into the snow.
The cinnamon was clearly working. The Pyhäraapia’s menacing growl was replaced with a pitiful whine. The aromatic poison coursed through its veins, but it fought on, and tried futilely to pull itself up. Two more arrows knocked it back down. Pukk, with another spear in his hand, crossed to the front of the beast. He looked and saw unrestrained hate in the creature’s glossy eyes. With a grimace, Pull plunged the spear into the beast’s shoulder.
The Pyhäraapia groaned meekly, and its head dropped. Several more arrows plunged into its hide, but it stopped moving all together. The poison had worked. Pukk stood silently, gazing sternly at its body. Finally he turned and helped Jack to his feet.
“I’m sorry,” Jack stuttered, embarrassed at his atrocious showing. “I just… I didn’t…”
“You have nothing to be sorry for. You were here,” Pukk explained. “You weren’t born with a spear in your hand, but you were brave enough to stand with us and face the beast. And you came up with the idea that let us kill it. I should be the one to apologize – I can’t believe no one ever thought to do this sooner. We never thought it possible to actually kill it.”
The four made their way back to the cave, and were greeted warmly by the band of elves. There was some celebration, but it took a long time for it to really sink in that the beast was dead. The snow abated before dawn, and the caravan packed to leave. Krampus suggested that they should find the carcass and bring it with them to Festival. The other bands would need to hear of this, and the body of the Pyhäraapia was the best possible proof. Pukk agreed, and one of the two sleds was emptied to carry it.
Several hours later, the caravan made its way down the hill into Laughing Valley. The mood was jubilant by the time the band reached Festival – the elves were celebrating openly, and some were dancing as they reached their destination. Word spread like lightning throughout the assembled bands, and it seemed like the entire Festival was crowded around that one sled. Krampus was right – they needed to see with their own eyes.
In the end, Jack was happy he stayed, and happy he decided to go with Pukk’s band. He watched in amazement at a real turning point for this reality’s people. At that Festival, they decided to end their nomadic ways, and remain in the Laughing Valley. When the sun rose, Jack was awestruck by the beauty of the Valley – to the north, a triple-peak rose over a think tree line. He learned these were known as Korvatunturi, and the lore of these elves told how their people came from these peaks many generations ago.
It was against this backdrop that Pukk was made the leader of all the elves. Taking from the stories he head from Jack, Pukk was proclaimed Joulupukki, the First Santa of the elven people. He explained to the gathered elves how this Santa lead those of Jack’s world with wisdom, generosity, and peace, and how he would try to live up to that noble ideal. He was draped in a cloak made from the skin of the Pyhäraapia, still stained red with blood and trimmed in white, complete with a fur hat to match. Jack was struck by the similarity – if Pukk were a bit older and a bit heavier, and that beard a bit fuller… it was a very real possibility, but Jack didn’t voice it to anyone. He enjoyed the celebration that followed, the dancing and music that followed. Many of the elves wore the tiny bells on their cloths that jingled when they dances and ran. Jack decided these elves weren’t all that different from Santa’s Helpers in all the stories he heard as a child.
After several days, a small troupe lead Jack back to the cottage where he was found. Saying goodbye to his new friends, he finally embraced Pukk, and extended his hand to Krampus. The animosity gone, the healed warrior (now Pukk’s closest official aide and companion) grabbed the hand and shook it vigorously, and patted Jack on the back.
“I don’t understand,” Pukk said at last. “This land is complete wilderness for miles around. Where will you go?”
“You’ll see,” Jack replied with a smile. “Schmutzli!” The small elf bounded forward, still clutching his empty sack. “Would you like to see some more magic?”
The boy smiled, and Jack turned and pulled out his Clicker. Pressing the button, the familiar brilliant beam of light descended from the heavens. The elves gaped in silence.
Waving goodbye, Jack turned and entered the open doors, eager to get into the warm elevator and on his way.
“What level, sir?” The Operator asked. Jack scanned the walls of the lift car, and stared at a sea of multicolored buttons.