Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Sanguine Christmas Tale

Chris Kosarich
Copyright 2016



Santa Claus knew something was amiss the moment he coasted the gifts-laden sleigh down to the snowy ground next to the quiet subdivision. Well, of course, it was quiet, being so late on Christmas Eve night and everyone—young and older—tucked safely in their beds. But his keen senses, not to mention his trusty crew of reindeer, had immediately detected the strangeness in the air. At first, it hadn’t been a smell, just a sense, like that feeling of charged electricity in the air right before a violent thunderstorm.

As the sleigh skidded to a stop, the reindeer fidgeted, jostling their harnesses and making agitated sounds. The red suit-clad Saint Nicholas stood up and surveyed his surroundings. His round nose twitched above his full white beard, and a frown creased his forehead beneath the trademark cap.

       While not a supernatural being, he did employ magic (and technology, too, he wasn’t stupid) to make his annual gift-delivering task to all those good boys and girls possible.  But Santa had experience with supernatural creatures, some good and some bad. A few years ago, he’d encountered a man cursed with being a werewolf, and because Santa had been able to tap into that man’s basic goodness, he was able to enlist his help after one of his reindeer, Rudy, had fallen ill.

Ironically, that had been not far from where he was now.

Santa strode with careful black-booted steps through the snow to the front of the line of reindeer, running his gloved right hand over brown-furred flanks, comforting them, murmuring soft words to ease their sudden discomfort.  His eyes scanned the snow-flecked line of trees bordering the perimeter of the subdivision.

He didn’t see it, yet, but his nostrils widened as the pungent scent invaded his sense of smell.  Barely there, just a waft of it on the icy air, but it was ripe with rot and death.

To Santa, it meant only one thing, one word for what the source of that horrid odor was: vampire.

“Oh, dear God,” he muttered.

As someone who was accustomed to various forms of magic and, to a degree, the supernatural, Santa knew what this meant. And none of it was good. In fact, it was nothing short of horribly disastrous.

He walked back to the massive red sleigh and reached one hand into the pocket of his white-fur-trimmed red coat. He pulled out his smartphone, and after tugging off the glove with his teeth, swiped the touchscreen to unlock it. Deftly, Santa tapped the address book and scrolled through until he found the name of the one person who could help.

After he dialed the number, pressing the phone next to his ear, it rang several times until a gruff voice answered. The man sounded either half-asleep or drunk…or both.

“Lupo, this is Nicholas,” he said. “I need your help once more. And it’s far more serious than last time.”

“That’s not my real name,” he replied sarcastically. “I’m sure whatever the emergency is you can handle it, Nick.”

The man coughed, clearing his throat, before he spoke. “Listen, I’d love to help. But I’m not the same man you once knew. My wife divorced me, took the kids and left. Said she couldn’t deal with my, um, problem, any longer. Not sure I can anymore either, to be honest.”

Santa hesitated before responding. What the man told him made him feel very sad, but there wasn’t time for this. If he didn’t get Lupo over here and fast, a bunch of innocent people—families…children!—would be killed at the hands of these ruthless, blood-thirsty monsters. Maybe after it was all over, if his old friend agreed to help him, Santa would see what he could do to improve his situation. However, getting the man’s wife to change her mind about her husband was one Christmas miracle he might not be able to make happen. But he would try, and he told him as much.

The man chuckled mirthlessly. “That’s not going to change a thing,” he said coldly. “My wife just thinks I’m crazy. She believes that I’m a werewolf as much as she believes…you’re real.”

As Santa held the phone to his ear, he walked up to the proud reindeer at the head of the line of special, magical creatures, and worked at Rudy’s buckle with his free hand. Rudy’s signature nose flared red off and on like a bright, slow-strobing beacon on the frigid Christmas Eve night.

“I’m sending Rudy to you,” he told him. “Get yourself sobered up and ready to ride him back here. By my estimation, thankfully, you’re not too far. Maybe an hour away, at most, and I need you here as soon as possible. Or plenty of innocent folks will die this very night.”

“What are you going on about, Nick? Who is threatening to kill people?”

“Not who, but what,” Santa said with deadly seriousness. “Vampires, and while I haven’t seen them yet, I can smell them. And there’s more than one. When Rudy reaches you, just get here post-haste! I’ll do my best to stall them!”

Once Rudy was freed of the harness, Santa patted him on the head, murmuring a few hurried, stern commands, and the famous red-nosed reindeer kicked his strong back legs, his forelegs grabbing the night sky, and he leapt upwards.

Minutes later, Rudy was gone.

*    *    *

The man who Santa dubbed Lupo many years ago on that late Christmas Eve night (or like now, early Christmas morning) was named Curtis Lockwood. It had been nearly a decade since another late night when, after a drunken get-together with coworkers from the office to celebrate closing a big deal, he’d decided to walk home from the bar. Instead, he’d been attacked by a large black dog, his right arm badly gashed before a passersby stopped with a shriek of brakes and blaring horn to frighten it away.

After a brief stay in the hospital, life went along as normal until Curtis began to change. He began to have weird dreams and urges, most of them primal and terrifying. He’d resisted as long as he could, until one evening he told his wife he was going out for a walk to clear his head…and didn’t return until early the next morning. His clothes—baggy sweat-suit and sneakers—had been ripped and dirty, his feet bare and equally dirty. His face had been bloodied but had no apparent wounds.

Needless to say, his wife had been deeply concerned.

Years went by and he managed to control his condition through research (mostly online but some old books) and kept his nocturnal activities to just hunting animals in the nearby forest. He swore if he ever killed a human being, he’d just take his own life.

Since helping out St. Nick on that late December night many years ago—by pulling the massive sleigh with the aid of some magic spell Santa used after his team of reindeer fell ill—he’d been given a special herbal potion made by Nick’s wife, brewed in hot water and consumed like tea. It had tasted awful but the stuff helped him control the wolf inside. Sadly, though, it hadn’t kept his wife from wanting to take their daughter and divorce him. He’d lost his job the year after he’d saved Christmas, and fell into the trap of booze. While he hadn’t been abusive to his family, his mood had darkened, not to mention the occasional nightly jaunts in the woods.

Since then, his best friend had been the whiskey bottle. He did managed to acquire a new job, but not nearly as satisfying as his old one. Nor had he made the same kind of money, but he scraped by. At least his current employer didn’t care if he grew a bushy, unkempt beard.

Curtis stood out in front of his house, the ground white with a few inches of fresh powder—and more reportedly coming overnight—and flipped up the hooded top of his charcoal-gray sweat-shirt. He wore sweatpants that matched and cheap sneakers. The transformation was hell on good clothes but loose-fitting sweats could expand and not be torn to tatters. The shoes would be no great loss and replaceable.

What the hell am I doing? Curtis thought for the umpteenth time. This is crazy, but vampires…seriously?

Nick had sounded deadly serious and while he still felt slightly buzzed and would regret the hangover on Christmas Day, he shrugged and peered up into the snow-flecked night sky. He didn’t see anything and considered reaching into his pocket for his smartphone to call or text back the Jolly Fat Man in Red.

When he glanced up again, though, he spotted a dark shape gliding down from the darkness, a familiar slowly blinking red light lighting its way. Rudolph—or Rudy as he preferred to be called by his friends—landed with grace and hardly disturbing the snow-covered front yard, his head swiveling around to peer at Curtis with his black eyes. His majestic rack of antlers gleamed under the ashen moonlight.

“Oh, what the hell,” he muttered and climbed onto Rudy’s upper back and leaned forward, grabbing the antlers (but not tugging on them) like he was riding a bike. He certainly didn’t want to risk falling off when Rudy leapt up to fly.

And he gasped when the reindeer did just that.

*    *    *

Santa spotted them converging in the large two-story house at the end of the cul-de-sac. He’d been standing in front of his line of reindeer, scanning the snowy sky with his keen, sharp vision, but didn’t see Rudy yet. But it was way too soon yet. Then that awful, rotten smell assailed his nostrils. His earlier sense of black foreboding strengthened.

“Oh, no,” he said under his breath.

As Blixen and a few others stirred restlessly in their harnesses, obviously sensing the imminent danger as well, Santa stepped away from them and peered at the cluster of houses along the dead-end street. Three shapes suddenly appeared moving quickly and fluidly from the forested wooded area to the first house closest to them. They were pale in the moonlight, cadaverously thin but rippling with lean muscles. Even at this distance, Santa saw the red glint of their bestial eyes.

As they moved to the two-story home like a pack, Nick realized he didn’t have time. He would need to distract them until Rudy and Lupo arrived. As he walked further out into the snow, he plucked his phone from his pocket and hurriedly tapped out a message to Lupo (if he even had his own phone on him): They’re here, hurry!

*    *    *

While being this high up and holding on for dear life, not to mention freezing cold, it wasn’t as windy as he’d expected. But his eyes watered and tears froze on his ruddy cheeks.

Then Curtis felt the vibration of his smartphone, and he carefully pulled it out with one hand, keeping a tight death-grip on the antlers with his other hand. He read the brief text from Santa.

As he stuffed the phone back, he leaned forward and said, “We got to fly faster, Rudy!”

*    *    *

Santa didn’t have any weapons, except toy ones, and those wouldn’t do. The best he might be able to do was use some spells he knew, but none of that magic would stop the trio of vile bloodsuckers. And employing magic of any kind would drain him of much-needed energy for the long night ahead.

So he cupped his gloved hands around his mouth and yelled, “Hey, you three! I’ve got something tasty for you!”

The vampires halted in their tracks, several feet from the darkened, white-coated house. Three sets of hungry, baleful, blood-red eyes fixed on him, narrowing.

Then almost as one, they moved off the yard and headed in his direction.

Oh shit, guys, Nick thought, referring to Rudy and Lupo. Come on, get here fast!

*     *     *

Suddenly, Rudy dropped into a fairly steep dive and Curtis gritted his teeth as his stomach rolled. He always hated rollercoasters, dammit!

Below, he saw the wide open field covered in snow and thick forest surrounding a large cul-de-sac and several homes. Some had been decorated with your typical exterior holiday d├ęcor, including the icicle lights and multi-colored blinking ones. Then he noticed off to one side in the field stood the familiar red-and-green-and-gold trimmed sleigh with the harnessed line of reindeer, minus one, of course.

As Rudy pulled out of the dive and slowed a bit, Curtis looked over past the sleigh and immediately saw the equally familiar stocky, white-bearded, red-suited figure standing alone in the middle of the field. And the three pale stalking forms gliding soundlessly over the ground were getting very close to Nick, maybe a dozen or so yards away.

“Drop me between Santa and those bastards, Rudy!” he yelled and sat back, looking up and staring at the fat swollen disc high above. He let the moonlight wash over his numb face, tried to relax his mind enough to allow the change to come. His growing anger and frustration at how his life had ended up, coupled with the fact that these vampires sought to feed and kill unwitting families on this day of all days (or any day, for that matter!) made the transformation burst out of him all that more rapidly.

The snowy ground rushed up at them and Curtis pushed himself off the reindeer and fell the several remaining feet as his body rippled and burst with coarse dark hair and corded muscle. It physically hurt to do this, as it always had, but he ignored it. As his mouth elongated and bristled with razor-sharp canines, hooked claws sprouting from his fingertips and toes (shredding the front of his cheap sneakers), he sank deftly onto the fresh powder, cushioning his fall.

The trio stopped, peering at this latest addition to their Christmas Night blood-feast.

Hunched over and flexing his deadly claws, Lupo growled with menace.

Santa released his held breath, muttered thanks to Rudy, and said, “Now go kill those evil creatures, my fine, lupine friend!”

Snarling low and deep, Lupo nodded his massive furry head and sprang forward.

The vampires charged forward. The first one had leapt into the air with talons spread wide and horrid fanged mouth agape. Lupo ducked under his scythe-like claws, and thrust muzzle forward and up, jaws clamping around the skinny, pasty neck. Vicious teeth crunched together as viscous hot fluids sprayed his face, soaking the fur of his neck and chest. The thing beat and swiped at him but to no avail. Near-decapitated head lolling on a few tendons and ragged strips of skin, Lupo tossed the dead vampire aside.

The second blood-sucker attacked from the other side, coming in low and fast, but with razor-sharp fingernails sweeping up and thrusting out as if to rip across his face, to blind him. Lupo swiftly dodged the attempt to mutilate his face, but the downward arc slashed across his fur-padded ribcage, making him growl-hiss in sudden agony. However, his fury and hunger to kill these vile killers surpassed the white-hot pulsating pain along his left side.

As the vampire followed through on the swipe, it stumbled in the snow, and Lupo reached out and grabbed the thing’s skinny shoulders, pulling it to him. Savagely, he opened his slavering jaws wide and tore into the vampire’s face, ripping off great near-bloodless chunks of putrid flesh. Blackish goo splattered him, but he ignored it and dug his claws feverishly into its midsection, tearing out meaty loops of greasy entrails. He let the limp undead corpse slump to the gore-streaked ground.

Seeing how effectively his crimson-thirsty comrades had been dispatched, the third member of the vampire hunting parting turned and fled, heading with remarkable swiftness for the heavy tree-line.

The sight of it running for the woods, naked and gleaming in the silvery moonlight nearly made Lupo sing with primal joy. In fact, he raised his wet snout to the night and barked a short howl. Then he gave chase, moving with great speed and agility in the foot-deep snowfall.

Lupo caught up to the vampire just as it started to vanish into the snow-laden pines.

It didn’t give him much of a fight at all.

Santa watched it all unfold with his mouth hanging open. From within the woods, he heard Lupo howling his victory.

*    *    *

While delayed for maybe an hour or two, Christmas was once again saved. Before he took off again, to complete his long task ahead, they dragged the vampire corpses to a clearing deep in the woods and—using fuel from a flask of brandy Santa tucked away inside his red coat—burned the bodies, then covered the remains with snow.

Rudy agreed to fly Curtis back home, after he cleaned himself up with melted snow and an old but clean handkerchief Santa produced from one pocket of his red trousers. After a hearty thank you from Nick (and admonishment to stop his excessive alcohol consumption), Rudy and Curtis departed. Santa climbed onto his sleigh, grabbing ahold of the reins. But before he urged the reindeer skyward, he made a promise to his old friend. He’d saved his life and Christmas once again (because without Lupo’s help, Santa wouldn’t have just stood by and let it happen, and he could’ve been killed), not to mention saving the lives of those who slept unawares of how closely they’d come to being food for vampires.

After tonight, when he was safely back home at the North Pole, the man also known as Kris Kringle, vowed he would write a heartfelt letter to Curtis Lockwood’s estranged ex-wife. While he couldn’t do anything to make her give her ex-husband a second chance, perhaps and maybe, he could help her see that he deserved one.

After all, Christmastime was about miracles, wasn’t it?

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