I awoke with my cheek pressed against a hard glass surface, my back bent, and my limbs splayed behind me. Turning over, I found myself in a barrel shaped space. Before I could figure how I got there, a light glared through the walls. My lodgings shook. The ceiling gasped open and everything went upside down. My smokey tendrils reached for the carpet, clutched at the bristles, and pulled me toward the shadows, but the shadows weren’t where they were supposed to be.
I knew every inch of Dragov Manor. The bed chambers, with their curtains so cluttered you could stage plays in them. The servant’s stairs, with its walls so narrow you could climb them. The attic, with its trusses so thick they looked like the remains of a great wooly mammoth. I knew every Goddess bracing the railings, every hand carved cherub, every ornate lion’s head. I knew the manor down to its tapestry threads, but these furnishings were unfamiliar to me.
Here there were wheels on a chair, a chair with bone thin arms and cushions as bright as plums. Before it stood a table on two legs. It appeared to be a vanity, but the mirrors were black. In place of the makeup sat a typewriter with no type bars, just a flat board of letters. Stranger still were the honey comb panels that lined the wall. They pulsed with an eerie jellyfish glow. I followed them to a series of shelves protruding from the wall itself. Each were lined with idols I did not know. A dark figure with a cape and cowl and ears like horns. A blue Olympian with a bright S emblem. And a woman wearing a crown, gauntlets, and little else.
These figures led me to a windowsill lined with pillows. Had my fingers had form, I’d have picked one up to ascertain its function.
“You’re like a cat in a new house.”
I turned to find a raven-haired woman leering at me from the edge of the bed. She had high cheekbones, dimpled lips, and a sharp nose. Her eyes were so icy they barely passed for blue and her complexion was as pale as my own. She wore a red undershirt, matching bloomers, and fingerless gloves. She set a helmet on her head and toiled with the strap.
“How can you see me?”
Generations of tenants had passed through Dragov Manor, but none had the gift of clairvoyance.
“I used to be made of the same spiritual energy, before I lucked into this body.” The strange woman bit her lip as the buckle pinched her chin.
“How did you do that?”
She felt along the mattress until she found an arm pad. “Well, I used to live in Hell. I was a pretty big deal, before things got political.”
My mind raced with Gustave Dore’s illustrations of the inferno. Charon rounding the sinners into his boat. Bertrand de Born holding his own severed head. Lucifer, the king of hell, frozen up to his chest.
“I thought Hell was a monarchy?”
The woman positioned the arm pad above her elbow. “More like a bureaucracy, unelected officials, making decisions for billions of souls. The inner circle spent most of its days deliberating pain, while I went off exploring.” She retrieved a second arm pad and slid it on. “My expeditions took me to limbo, to the rimstone basins beyond the Sea of Hands. That’s where I discovered a network of keyhole passages.”
She kicked her long slender leg out and I couldn’t help but admire the musculature, like a marble figure animated by some impossible force. She slid a knee pad up her calf.
“Most were dead ends, fissures clogged with the same cosmic rubble as everywhere else, but I happened upon a live one.” She slid a second kneepad up. “It was spewing magma into the cavern. I didn’t know what that was, so I dipped my toe in. It was warm, warmer than anything I’d felt before. I liked the feeling, so I waded in, until eventually I was up to my chin. That’s when I got sucked into a temporal whirlpool.”
She opened her hand, revealing an armored ring that ran the length of her index finger. “The cycle was so violent it changed my molecular composition. My spiritual essence bonded with elemental carbon. It rendered me corporeal on this plane.” She gestured an explosion. “It spat me out of a volcano.”
“Somewhere along the Italian countryside. You can still see my footprints if you go looking for them.”
I might not have believed her, had it not been for the strange bioluminescent glow pulsing through the room.
“Who are you?”
“I have many names.” She rolled her eyes as if the phrase already bored her. “Your people called me Mahthildis, which meant ‘strong in battle,’ but I’ve been going by Matilda for a while now. You can call me Mattie if you like.”
“How did I get out of Dragov Manor?”
“That would be my doing. I found you in the attic.” Mattie tongued her lip, choosing her words carefully. “You were earning your slipknot merit badge, before you dove off the rafters. I happened to catch you in a butterfly net.”
“How did you get me over the threshold?” I tried to escape so many times I’d forgotten. I’d leapt through the foyer, over the balcony, out the skylight, but every time I went into the light I awoke in the attic with the noose around my neck.
Mattie plucked a jar from the comforter. I barely recognized my lodgings, but when she shook it, I felt the glass against my shoulders.
“It’s blown from ashen stone. It cost a small fortune, not as much as this Airbnb, but don’t worry, you’re about to pay me back.”
She had said Air B-N-B, but I heard…
“Air whisp-er-y? Why is the air so thin?”
“Because the Bavarian Alps are nine thousand feet above sea level.”
“We’re in Bavaria?”
“Listen to you. You’re like a child asking questions about the sun.” She retrieved a padded chest piece off the bed and slid it over her shoulders. “We’re in Bavaria to draw down the Wild Hunt.”
Just then, the roof rumbled, fault lines spreads across the ceiling, and dust particles spiraled like snow.
“What was that?”
Mattie glanced up and went right back to fastening her chest piece.
Footsteps reverberated throughout the room, the slow heavy clip-clop of a stallion walking on its hind legs. The clops grew to a gallop followed by an impact. A sound like bowling pins scattered across the ceiling. My eyes went to the window, where a series of bricks came crashing down.
“Was that the chimney?”
Mattie shrugged. “Every midwinter, the Norse god Odin leads a hunting party. They fly over this mountain range, looking for wayward souls. The Valkyries tend to wronged women. The Aesir see to lost children, and the Yule goat gathers the unrepentant.”
The roof groaned as shingles plunged past the window. Hairline cracks spread through the glass.
“The Dragovs practiced Christianity.” I muttered, defensively. “We celebrated Christmas. The birth of Jesus of Nazereth.”
“Then you already know all this.” The strange woman retrieved a box from behind the pillow and set it in her lap. “After all, it was your ancestors who turned the all-father into Father Christmas.”
“Odin is St. Nicholas?”
“And the Green Knight, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Gandalf, probably.”
“I don’t know any of those names.”
Mattie rolled her armored ring. “Names change, but the hunt goes on. Now the Valkyries ride reindeer, the Aesir travel by slay, and the Yule goat goes by a new title.”
The room quaked, cracks rippled down the drywall, and many of the honeycomb panels popped right off, revealing strips of light. Something crashed in the cellar. The foundations moaned. When the commotion finally settled, my ears became attune to the panting of an angry beast.
Oblivious, Mattie opened the box. She drew a pair of boats, but these were no ordinary boots. They had a pair of wheels on the heels and wheel on the toes. She caught me puzzling over her apparel and asked, “They didn’t have these when you died? No, they hadn’t gotten here yet.”
There came another crash and a sound like a thousand pebbles scattering over cobblestones. Then came the deafening howl. I wedged my fingers into my eardrums but the tips went straight through.
“That would be the Micro Machines.” She slid the first boot on and went to work on the laces. “The Yule goat, also known as Krampus, is the son of Hela, grandson to Loki, and heir to the throne of Helheim. In all the folklore, he’s the only constant. Whether he’s Odin’s bloodhound, or the Ying to Santa’s Yang, Krampus has a fetish for those on the naughty list.”
Another sheet of glass shattered, followed by another and another. The arrhythmic crashing sounded like a toddler with a cymbal.
Mattie winced. “The owner of this house had all these Hummel figures.” She sighed. “Collateral damage.”
“What does Krampus do with the ones on his naughty list?”
“It involves a bundle of birch sticks.” Her eyes darted back and forth. “I’ll just say, he’s into impact play.”
“I don’t know, I’m not in the lifestyle.” She went to work on the second set of laces.
Pots and pans clanged across a distant kitchenette.
“That’s one of the tripwires. Hopefully he landed on the ornaments.” Mattie winked.
Krampus roared as he took his anger out on the support beams.
I buried my head in my hands, but saw everything through my palms. My fingers billowed over my face as I realized what was to become of me. I wept. “I don’t want to go to the Hell. I didn’t mean to…”
The Mattie put her hand on my shoulder and I could actually feel her.
“You’ve been hanging yourself every night for over a century. If you ask me, Helheim seems like a welcome change of scenery.”
“Then why don’t you go there?” I sniveled, a child questioning his mother’s authority.
“That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m just here to hitch a ride on you.”
The room boomed, the lampshades shook, and the lights flickered. Krampus made his way up the stairs.
Mattie pressed her helmet to my forehead.
“My people locked me out of Hell. I tried to get back through Hades, but Tartarus was a total bust. Helheim might be my only chance.”
If I weren’t dead, I could’ve sworn I felt my pulse racing. Vapor spiraled from my lips as I hyperventilated. Stupefied by my situation I asked one final question. “Why are you dressed like that?”
“When it happens, you’ll know.” Then she let me go.
The strange idols fell from their shelves. The black mirrors fell forward and I fell to my knees. Krampus tore the door off its hinge.
When the splinters settled, his shape came into focus. He had ridged horns that pointed upward, like a tuning fork. His ears protruded outward, like those of a bat. His hatchet face shown all the malice of a witchfinder and his bloodstained beard shown the barbarism of a Viking. His tongue dangled past his chin, like an ascot, and the slobber streaked all the way to the carpet.
Krampus wore the robes of Father Christmas, but there were shackles around his wrists. He shook his chains in my direction and I turned to my captor for a sign.
Mattie reached for a cord, which ran through an elaborate pully system that I hadn’t noticed on the way in. A paint can swung through the air clipping Krampus across the brow. More dazed than injured he took a step forward. His hoof crossed a trip wire, which unzipped a travel bag mounted to the ceiling. Out came another pair of paint cans, which skewered themselves upon his horns. Their secretions seeped through his vision and colored his mane red and green.
Krampus fumbled for the wicker sack upon his back. He drew his birch sticks and swung them blindly over my head. I hugged the floor, pawed at the carpet, and crawled between his legs.
Mattie yelled, “Run!” then to Krampus, “Come on, you filthy animal!”
I took her direction in stride. Down a hall of warped floorboards and fallen picture frames. My spectral extremities carried me down the master stair case, through exposed nails, tinsel tripwire, and wet tar.
I vaulted through the drawing room, over mashed boughs of holly, scattered mistletoe, and flattened wreaths. I skirted past the remains of the fireplace, and the sharpened candy canes Mattie had lined it with. When I arrived in the foyer, I found the Christmas tree torn asunder. I puzzled over the considerable assortment of tiny metal carriages blanketing the floor.
“The door.” Mattie shouted, “The door, you moron!”
Krampus barreled toward me, unencumbered by the holiday trimmings. Mattie held onto the sack on his back. She rolled across the debris as he lumbered back and forth. Krampus tried to shake her, but she’d dug her armored ring in. They were conjoined. She’d be heading wherever he went.
I turned back to the entrance to find it wide open. The sun’s rays illuminated the way. Krampus tried to seize me, but his claws darted over my head. I ran with all the spectral energy I could muster, over the spilt milk, the shattered cookies, the tattered stockings, right over the WILLKOMMEN mat. I dove into the light and as my body passed the threshold, I found myself back in the room where I came in.
This would be my first of many attempts to leave these grounds, but I never saw Krampus or Mattie again.