Genres: Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, Supernatural Fantasy, Horror
The epic origin of a beloved holiday icon unfolds, as nine-year-old Klaas Krengel flees plague-ravaged Germania on a swashbuckling adventure across Medieval Europe to the remote ends of the earth, where he finds himself pitted against a gruesome host of adversaries, all resurrected from old Austrian lore. A bit of a spoiled brat, Krengel’s only friend is an insidious counterpart called the Krampusz, a blue-furred monster who suffers from a pronounced hoarding disorder.
Vexed by his half-brother’s lifelong privilege and pampering, the Krampusz enjoys nothing more than imperiling the boy through calculated misdirection, ultimately trapping him in the bottomless depths of the enchanted “Sack of Shadows.” Therein, a fantastic realm of weird and warring races demands a showdown between Krengel and its tyrannical ruler, a horrendous witch who alone holds a key to the connection between Krengel and the Krampusz.
Every bell in Bari had a unique tone and timing. Each was synchronized to the timing of a specific, daily event. The toll of a bell would prompt a skyward glance from anyone within earshot, to make a quick check of the sun’s position. The bells were so intimately linked to the passage of time that on the rare occasions when every bell in the city tolled at once, the experience rattled a Baresi to his very soul, stilled him in his tracks, for time itself unraveled and was strewn to confetti. The joyous crash of sound reverberated through the seaport’s writhing arteries to flush pigeons in dappled flocks that flashed in the sky like schools of minnows.
At midday on May ninth, the first day of the annual Festival of the Translation of the Holy Relics, Bari came alive with clanging bells. Starlings gushed from the clerestory windows around the pealing bell tower at Basilica di San Nicola, the final resting place of Bari’s patron saint. It was an imposing fortification, a somber hulk of ancient masonry that loomed darkly over the peninsula with its back to the Adriatic Sea. With its cruciform mass shouldered between Romanesque towers, it better resembled an English castle than an ordinary place of worship. And at times, it had served as such.
Across the bustling piazza from the seaward dormitories, a hooded figure emerged from the basilica’s Lion’s Portal. The brown fabric of his Dominican robes flapped in the briny wind, throwing back his hood as he skulked beneath the engraved names of those famous sailors who rescued Saint Nicholas from Myra, five hundred years ago. He jerked the hood back over his naked head and turned to face the wall. Head bowed as though in prayer, he reached into the sleeve of his tunic, and withdrew a steely dagger.
Cast upon the spike of shimmering steel, was a leering distortion of his broad face and blazing eyes. He lowered and tilted his chin, trailing his fingertips over his newly shaved scalp. It was another of the Krampusz’s bright ideas. Krengel smiled. He looked funny bald, a bit like Friar Otto.
In five months, he’d grown in height and width. Though they might’ve starved a passive child with their severe Dominican diet of broth and rye, what were Krengel’s lifelong failings, but symptoms of his indomitable will to have while others around him had not. Greed ran strong in both sides of his family. And it was no small irony that Krengel, now a custodian of the relics of a saint canonized for profound acts of generosity, had honed his naturally greedy edge to a perfect tool for survival. Since Christmas Eve in Rome, he’d grown meaner, stronger, and more formidable. Daily acts of theft and trickery against the hardened peasants of a foreign land had honed Krengel, right beneath the noses of his Dominican handlers, into perhaps the most dogged urchin in all of Bari.
Krengel lifted his tunic, glanced around the crowded piazza, and then sheathed the dagger back into a tight fold in his braies. He hitched up his secret contraption. The rope was itchy about his waist, and the weight of the invention had begun to chaff his flesh. The dangling wood blocks clonked between his knees. Should’ve wrapped them in cloth to quiet their knocking. Too late for any of that, now. This was the big day. Around front of the basilica, cartwheels rumbled against the pavers as guests and dignitaries continued to arrive.
He’d not yet spotted Cardinal Moretti, rumored still unfit to attend this evening’s festivities, deathly ill as he’d been. Moretti posed him little threat in his weakened condition, but he was indeed the one person in all of Italy who could possibly spoil everything by summoning for him at the critical hour. Thus, the first phase of Krengel’s plan for May ninth was simply to avoid Moretti at all costs, to meld into the visiting crowds and simply lay low until sundown.
“What in Heaven do you think you’re doing, back here?”
Krengel spun to find the rector glowering out at him through the Lion’s Portal. He seized Krengel by an ear and marched him along the wall toward the main entrance of the basilica. “We’ve been looking everywhere for you! Your benefactor has arrived!” The rector lifted him by his ear and flipped back his hood. “You’ve shaved your head. What is this?”
“I had lice?”
The rector harried him to the main portal, where Cardinal Moretti was being lifted from his wagon in a sort of birthing position by a host of able-bodied Dominicans. The friars set him gently upon his unstable feet. He swayed weightlessly in the bullying wind, as though might at any moment be sucked off the earth and flung through the heavens. He lolled back his head and peered at the ecclesiastical assembly from beneath his fallen eyelids. The purplish growth in his lower jaw had swelled to the size of an onion, forcing his tongue to protrude like a newly hatched chick. He attempted to speak, but his lips produced only bubbles.
Krengel’s survival for five months in the favored hunting grounds of this predator was owed mostly to a bout of poor health that robbed Moretti of all but an infant’s strength, slackening the musculature of his face, not a day after Miso del Gallo. As a result, Krengel hadn’t suffered sight of the awful man since Christmas Eve, which was fortunate, but rumor held that Moretti’s health was steadily improving. So said the Dominicans anyway, who’d just this morning doted over Moretti’s latest accomplishment of peeling and devouring a boiled egg all by himself.
A breeze kicked up and snatched the mitre right off Moretti’s head, tumbling and spinning it down the street. But the friars supporting the feeble body of their guest could only look on in despair as they goaded him forward, one cautious step at a time. A silvery thread of slobber whipped from Moretti’s lip and bowed like a harp in the wind. Snowy wisps of hair all writhing on scabrous pedestals, Moretti looked for all the earth to be some deranged and ancient warlock, routed from his alpine rookery.
As the trio approached, Krengel bent his knees until he felt those wood blocks beneath his tunic touch the ground. He then stepped atop them and rose, oh so slowly, to his tiptoes, causing the special knot from which they were suspended to unwind. Through the fabric of his robe, he gathered the reigns of his makeshift stilts. Those milling around him were so transfixed by the precarious transfer of Cardinal Moretti that none seemed to notice that Klaas Krengel had suddenly sprouted a foot in height, looking quite enough like an adult friar, with his broad shoulders and shaved head, to pass before the myopic eyes of the monster.
Moretti made some unintelligible grunt as they led him past Krengel, swinging his disheveled head. Yellowed fingernails splayed as he reached for the boy, but groped naught but thin air. Those rattling claws sliced past his face without touching, only to rasp against the doorpost as they pulled Moretti inside.
Safe. Just as the Krampusz had promised.
So many friars were about for the Festival of the Translation of the Holy Relics, tending to all the dignitaries being housed in the monastic dormitories that a hooded man-boy on stilts could walk freely through the piazza, disturbing only a few pigeons. The first phase of his great caper was complete. Krengel grinned at the dull impact of his clopping stilts upon the pavers. By nightfall, he’d be comfortably seated aboard a ship destined for the Habsburg Netherlands, his mother’s homeland, where not even the Holy Roman Empire could touch him. But first, he needed a hostage. And not just any would do. His hostage was to be a man more celebrated in Bari than both Christ and Pope Alexander VI combined, a man with the power to lift an orphan right out of Bari.
About the Author:
M.C. Norris is an Active HWA member, whose first four novels, all published by Severed Press, are slated for release in fall of 2014: Deep Devotion (09/01/14), Krengel & the Krampusz (11/01/14), The Dread Owba Coo-Coo (11/15/14), and Nod (TBA). His nineteen short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies, magazines and e-zines, including: Withersin, Wrong World DVD, Brainharvest Magazine, Pseudopod, Malicious Deviance, and Dead Bait. M.C. Norris also won 5th in Chizine/Leisure Books 13th Annual Short Story Contest.
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