The early December snowstorm lifted and the two hunters, lost and disorientated, were surprised to discover a log cabin slap bang in the middle of the wilderness. A signboard, set between the building’s eaves and flanked by a smoking chimney stack, said simply, ‘Bar’.
“This place ain’t on our map,” said Dixon, pushing open the swing doors. He scanned the interior and took a sharp intake of breath.
The other hunter, Grimshaw, stomped the snow off his boots, stepped up beside his friend and regarded the bar’s patrons with an equal degree of incredulity. “I thought we were poaching on Eskimo land,” he whispered. “Seems more like we’re in Hillbilly country. This place is a freak show.”
The hostelry’s clientele were indeed a misshapen, odd-looking assortment of creatures. Most of the customers’ heads were large, asymmetrical and repulsively bulgy beneath their hooded cloaks.
Breaking the sudden, uncomfortable silence, a dwarf, dressed in a Lincoln green tunic and wearing a beaver hat, jumped down from a barstool. “What yer huntin’, fellas?” he said, inclining his head towards the rifle slung over Grimshaw’s shoulder.
“Polar bear,” replied Dixon, while his companion strolled up to the counter to order two beers. “My buddy over there has an empty space on his wall, right next to the head of a grizzly, that’s just waitin’ to be filled.”
A hostile grumbling resonated around the bar as the strange array of deformed patrons made known their displeasure at the newcomers’ intentions.
“These men are our guests!” said the dwarf, staring down the dissenters. “Someone’s got to keep the polar bear population in check – even if they are hunting out of season. So shut yer mouths and keep your opinions to yourselves.” He held out his hand. “I’m Sven. Do you fellas need a guide? I know a place a little north of here that’s teeming with polar bears. It ain’t far.”
Dixon took Sven’s proffered hand and introduced himself. Then, to his fellow hunter across the room, he shouted, “Grimshaw! Get this little guy a drink. We got ourselves a guide.”
Three beers and three tequilas later, happily infused with alcohol, the hunting party left the bar and headed into the wilds. After a two-hour trudge through knee-high snow the men arrived at a steaming pit.
Grimshaw was perplexed by the strange geographical feature. “Just like the bar, this ain’t marked on our map,” he said. “In fact there’s no indication of geothermal or seismic features anywhere in the vicinity. What is this place?”
“Folk hereabouts call it the Pit of Hell,” said Sven. “It’s not exactly a well-known tourist spot. As for your map, I guess it’s just not detailed enough, or else it’s outta date or something. I bet it doesn’t even show Santa’s Grotto.”
“If it did,” snorted Dixon, “I suppose you’d be one of his elves.”
Sven gnashed his teeth and balled his fists at the hunter’s insulting sarcasm. However, the tension quickly dissipated as a female polar bear, followed by two cubs, loped into view from a distant stand of trees.
The hunters unslung their rifles, adjusted the sights and drew a bead on the adult female.
“We’ll take the cubs out later,” said Grimshaw, moments before firing short.
Dixon roared with laughter. “My turn,” he said, and fired wide.
Sven smirked. “Seems you guys had one too many bevies back at the bar.”
“Shut yer face, you mouthy midget,” growled Dixon. “If my pal doesn’t get his trophy, you don’t get paid.”
Seconds later, as the hunters once again peered down the muzzles of their guns, a dark shape, bent almost double under a heavy load, darted in front of their gunsights.
“What the heck…?” said Grimshaw.
The shape flitted rapidly across the men’s line of sight again and again, zigzagging ever closer to them. Meanwhile, with the polar bears now completely forgotten, the hunters fired off ineffective shot after ineffective shot at the enigmatic object.
“Whatever that is,” said Dixon, wondering where the fleet-footed target had disappeared to, “it has horns, and hooves, and claws. And whatever the creature was carrying, it dropped it down by the pit.”
Scouring the near and middle distance for any sign of the elusive beast, the hunters made their way over to a large black sack teetering on the edge of the Pit of Hell.
“It’s moving,” said Grimshaw, stepping back, unable to summon up the courage to open the sack and look inside.
“I don’t like this one bit,” said Dixon. “Let’s get outta here.”
Moments later, before the hunters could even make a move to flee, the clawed, upper limbs of some monster penetrated their backs and burst through their chests. Behind them, Krampus lifted the screaming men off the ground, shook them until they stopped twitching and cast their corpses aside.
Meantime, in a nearby rock face, a doorway opened in the frost-rimed granite. A man dressed in a white-trimmed red robe emerged.
“What’s with all the bloody noise, Sven?” Santa demanded, as Krampus emptied his sack of misbehaving children into the Pit of Hell. “We’re working to a tight schedule, and you two are making one hell of a racket.” He pointed an accusing finger at the dwarf. “You’re supposed to be safeguarding the grotto’s location while Krampus disposes of his quota of naughty children.”
Sven shrugged. Krampus hung his head in shame.
“And how are we expected to concentrate in the workshop on making toys?” Santa continued, before spotting the two dead hunters sprawled in the red-stained snow. “Who on earth are these guys?” he demanded. “What happened to them?”
Using the sole of his boot, Sven pushed Dixon and Grimshaw’s bodies into the pit. “They were snooping round the bar where Krampus’s helpers are holed up,” he said in his defence. “And they were trying to kill your polar bears. Not to worry, though. I’m sure you’ll find their names on one of your old naughty lists.”
Paul A. Freeman does not have any cats.