Hear those Slay-Bells ring-a-ling
rating: +7+x

"-And then the Krampus sneaks into the house at night and forces the bad children into a basket, where he takes them away and beats them with reeds and stuff!" Tommy Ripke declared, flexing his fingers like claws as he loomed over his younger sister. Well, he loomed as best as he could with only about a foot or so over the younger and smaller girl. It was enough, though, to get her to shout.

"Moooom!" She cried, clutching her stuffed piglet tightly in her arms, brown eyes wide in surprise and shock. The very idea that something could violate Christmas seemed horrifying for the girl. The sigh her mother gave while scooping the girl up was reassuring in that way.

With mother now present on the scene, Tommy was already trying to compose a reason why he shouldn't be in any real trouble for scaring his sister. One came to him readily enough. "If I don't scare her like this now, how is she going to become desensitized later in life?" He insisted.

"I'd rather you weren't trying to desensitize your sister to things like kidnapping and beating children." Mrs. Ripke huffed softly, keeping the small girl in her arms a moment longer. "Honestly, Tommy, you're supposed to be looking out for Stephanie, not… this."

"It's harmless." Tommy insisted, but for now, said no more.

From his own spot near the table, David Ripke finally decided to speak, setting down his drink and stretching his arms over his head. "Maybe it is, but come on, isn't scaring a little kid a bit like shooting fish in a barrel? Why not go build igloos outside with your friends instead, or something?"

"What year do you think this is?" Came Tommy's half-amused half-incredulous reply. "Why be out in the cold when I can play video games?" He inquired instead, darting away from the remainder of his family to retreat to his own room where said video games awaited him. It wasn't long before they could hear the soft thumps of his feet on the steps and his bedroom door closing in the morning quiet.

Meanwhile, though, Stephanie began to wriggle in her mother's embrace at the mention of 'building igloos' and finally took that opportunity to voice her excitement. "I wanna build a snowman!" She declared enthusiastically before managing to escape her mother's arms, giggling as she landed. "Where's my coat?" The girl inquired, her earlier outburst already well forgotten.

"It's by the door-" David stated, smiling at his daughter. "don't forget to put on your snow boots, too." He reminded her. "And stay near the porch where mom and I can see you." The family patriarch concluded, telling himself that the living room windows were big enough that they could observe Stephanie from there and have the hot cocoa ready once she'd made her snowman. Maybe in a few minutes he'd go out and help her hunt up some sticks and rocks to make up the face and arms of her creation?

Wordlessly, the girl was already running off to get changed for an exciting morning out in the snow.

"We shouldn't let her just run off like that." Mrs. Ripke pointed out, lowering her voice slightly. "What if something happened out there?"

David finally focused his attention on his wife with a gentle tap of his fingers on the table. "Jill, we're miles from anything except the neighbors and even they're a bit of a walk. Unless you think the Yeti is going to come and snatch up our children-" He had started to suggest somewhat jocularly, but the words caught when his wife interrupted.

"A yeti I wouldn't worry about." She remarked, folding her arms across her chest. "I'm just not sure we should keep buying from those catalogs we keep getting-"

"Come on, Wondertainment has given us some very good Christmasses." David protested. "It's not like we're criminals ordering from them."

"Aren't we?" Jill pressed, however. "It seems like a lot of people on their forums stopped responding lately. And all the hoops we had to jump through, even with that address." She continued, making a noise like a teakettle in her frustration. "We should at least be more concerned about where all of these things are coming from."

It wasn't the first time they'd had this debate ever since that first toy catalog had appeared in their mailbox. Not that it seemed to stop them from buying the amazing products within, it seemed.

"You're just being paranoid, honey. People stop posting on forums all the time. It doesn't mean anything is wrong."

—-

Outside, Stephanie hummed to herself, entirely oblivious to her parents' debate inside of the house was high stepping her way through what, for her, was calf height snow. The stuffed pig remained in her arms as she chatted with the loyal toy from time to time. "I bet we can make the biggest snowman ever with all of this!" She declared, nodding her head as she pretended to hear the stuffed piglet respond to her. "That's right! As big as the house!" The little girl was ambitious if she was nothing else.

With her hands dipped into the snow, the girl came up with her first snowball and began patting it down before placing it on the snow and beginning to roll it, letting the little ball become bigger as it continued collecting more powder. By the time her baseball sized project had become roughly basketball sized she became aware of something else in her field of vision.

At what she'd been told time and again was the edge of the family's property someone was standing there. Not quite close enough for her to get a good look at the figure with the glare of light off of snow. But he, for now Stephanie was certain it was a 'he', was tall, she could tell that much.

More curious than frightened, the girl picked her stuffed toy back up, cradling it in her arms. "What do you think Piggy?" She whispered to it. "Is that Santa?" Without waiting for a reply, or maybe she had waited, she took a step forward, raising her voice to call out to the man. "Are you Santa Claus?"

The large figure remained silent, however. Apparently deciding to take this as confirmation, Stephanie picked up her foot again and trudged forward in the snow, squealing in excitement. "I've been really, really reaaaaaallly good this year!" She promised, drawing another step closer to the ever silent Santa. "You're skinnier than I thought you'd be." Stephanie added with a giggle. "Do you need cookies and milk? We have lots in the house!"

"Stephanie!" Jill Ripke's voice echoed from nearby trees and carried well across the otherwise fallow fields. "What are you doing?" The older woman insisted from where she stood on the porch. "Who are you talking to?"

"Santa!" The little girl declared gleefully, turning away from her mother to point towards the man she'd seen. But when she turned her gaze back towards where he'd been, to point him out to her mother, the figure was already gone! She frowned then. "He was right there…" Stephanie insisted with a pout.

Jill Ripke smiled indulgently and shook her head. "Well, Santa Claus is magic. Maybe he was checking on you before going back to the North Pole?" She suggested. Or, she considered, Tommy might have been trying to play another trick on her. They didn't need any more 'Krampus' scares, she concluded. "Why don't you come back inside, I'll make you some hot cocoa with the big marshmallows that you like."

After entering the house, it seemed the encounter with Santa had been forgotten amidst the hot chocolate and Christmas specials by both mother and daughter. Likely it would have stayed forgotten if not for the conversation at breakfast only a few days later, when Stephanie declared to all at the table: "I saw Santa looking in my window last night." She spoke these words without a care while she attempted to drag another pancake onto her plate. As if the jolly old elf peering into her window in the dead of night was an entirely normal, even expected, occurrence. "He was making weird noises and it woke me up."

Tommy had speared his sister's pancake with his own fork, grinning as he prepared to remind the girl of his tales of the Krampus, and see if he could frighten her again; the idea died away immediately when Stephanie continued her tale unperturbed, however.

"How come Santa doesn't wear clothes? Isn't he cold?" She inquired, full of curiosity as much for the answer of her question as to why she was now the center of attention of the entire table.

"What-" David began, before clearing his throat and setting down his coffee. "what did you say?" He managed to complete, sharing a look of concern with his wife. Part of him hoped she'd simply had a very strange dream, although what could prompt such a dream was also possibly a matter of concern.

Between large mouthfuls of pancake, which the child had managed to secure from her now silent older brother, she managed to speak. "Santa!" Stephanie chirped. "he was lookin' in my window an' he didn't have clothes on." She elaborated.

"That's what I thought you said." David Ripke managed slowly, his voice rather soft now. He and Jill shared another look and seemed to both make the same conclusion in much the same moment. Years of marriage, or simple common sense being the deciding fact could be anyone's guess. "I'm going to check outside," he started, his jaw feeling tight as he flicked his gaze between both of his children. "and see if there's any shoveling or ice that needs to be dealt with." He insisted.

"Oh, good idea." Jill declared, forcing her tone into a pleasant sing-song. "When you get back, I think I'll go into town and pick up a few things." She insisted. Arranging to have the locks checked or better ones installed ASAP also at the forefront of her mind.

Better safe than sorry, Mrs. Ripke reasoned. No doubt her husband felt the same way, she noted, as he slipped on his coat and immediately disappeared through the door.

—-

The elder Ripke rounded the house as quickly as his legs would carry him, his eyes scanning the snowfall for shoe prints or, worse, footprints. His hands clenched into fight fists at the idea that some… pervert might have been staring into his daughter's room last night. This evening, he decided, Stephanie would sleep in his and Jill's room. He doubted his wife would object. He was just beginning to tackle the question of what to do with Tommy when he came to a stop. His walk over, and the results even worse than he might have feared.

Mr. Ripke' heart sank into his stomach to realize that, yes, there were foot prints in the snow at his daughter's window. He cursed softly then, barely taking note of the size of the prints which were… big. No other word for it. But something else caught his eye, something etched onto the siding of the house, just below Stephanie's window. A circle, inside of it were a gable of lines and curves. It might have been a word or a symbol straight out of some bad fantasy movie, but whatever it was David couldn't for the life of him place it.

Not that he needed to.

All David Ripke needed to know was that someone had come very near his house, and the fists he'd drawn tightened even more as he stared, wide eyed, at the scene for several moments longer. When it finally occurred to him to take some kind of action, he pulled out his phone and snapped a few pictures of it all.

That much done, at least, he dialled 9-1-1 next. Finally, he called Jill and suggested she take the kids into town for… something. Anything, really. He'd wait for the police and see what they had to say.

—-

Night had fallen, with Stephanie safely cocooned in blankets on her parents' bed, and Tommy having likewise, taken up temporary sleeping arrangements in a guest room near the master bedroom. While they had done their best to keep their daughter from realizing the magnitude of what was happening (albeit, after a long refresher on "Stranger Danger" and instructions to tell them right away if she saw "Santa" again, Tommy was old enough to have an inkling that something was wrong.

And he crept as silently as he could through the house now, placing one foot softly on the carpet, half listening to his parents as he held in his hands a smallish box, the cover of which was emblazoned with a cartoonish police detective, somewhere in appearance between Dick Tracy and Sherlock Holmes. The box's label proudly declared Doctor Wondertainment Li'l Detective Kit, always get your man! "If they aren't going to tell me what's going on, I'll figure it out myself." He whispered.

—-

"I think we should give the kids this one early." Jill asserted to her husband. Most of the evening had been spent in long conversation about the man peering in through Stephanie's window, the strange… symbol scratched into their house and the prints. But now, she hadn't quite changed the subject, but had altered some of the discussion. She was setting out a pair of baggies, each containing an off-white oval shaped object.

David raised an eyebrow in contemplative thought as he read the labels. "The Wondertainment pets?" He asked slowly, comprehension dawning, albeit not without speed. A couple of glasses of eggnog had slowed his wits it appeared.

With a nod, Jill pressed on. "That's right. I don't like the idea of leaving the kids alone until we know what the hell is going on. We don't have any sort of big dogs to scare away a man like that if, god forbid, he gets insi-" she choked on her words a moment. Until she'd said the words, the idea that…whoever was watching Stephanie might get inside of the house and do God only knew what hadn't even occurred to her! It was as if their home were some sacred barrier.

"I get it." David assured her, then. He took a moment to think it all over. It made sense. "…Yeah, we'll let the kids hatch their pets. They should be something helpful if the absolute worst happens. Or at least, get their minds on other things. Tomorrow at breakfast. We'll tell them it's an early present for being on good behavior."

That appeared to mollify Jill, at least for the moment, and husband and wife attempted to turn their thoughts to happier subjects with limited success.

—-

Tommy, however, had managed to sneak out of the house and back inside by the expediency of a window facing towards the copse of trees near where his sister's snowman had been. Some arduous time had been spent looking for something… anything, that might give him some kind of information about what was actually going on. A thorough search with the tools in the box had found some broken bark near the trees and, with the magnifying glass inside he'd even managed to find a tuft of white hair which he'd sealed in an 'evidence bag' that had come with the kit. It wasn't a lot, but it was… something. And, he thought with all the confidence of a 'kid detective', was probably more than the police had located so far.

By the morning he'd have this whole thing blown wide open.

As he set the hair into the detective kit's 'portable crime lab', Tommy Ripke settled into a fitful sleep, with images of a gnarled and malevolent Santa Claus filled his mind's eye, taking all manner of bizarre offense to the family. Proclaiming them naughty or nice at a whim, depending on where in the dreams he was. When the analysis of the hair had finally finished, he was given no more reassuring news. Instead, the slip of paper printed (although he'd never found out where the paper was to be loaded from) had informed him there were 'no matches' in the system.

That set the youth frowning as he settled onto his bed again. There he sat, looking to his own window in spite of the pulled curtains, and for the first time in a while thought he felt the kind of nervous fear his sister had at his stories about Krampus. He remained in those thoughts until called down for breakfast.

The table, of course, was already set. His sister had taken up the place she'd been seated at ever since catching "Santa" staring in her window that night. Whatever was going on, Stephanie was excited enough to practically be stuffing her French Toast into her mouth and making grabby hands at something in her father's grip.

"-anna hatch mine now-!" She pleaded through a mouthful of toast.

"Hatch what?" Tommy inquired, giving his best show of nonchalance.

It was Jill that answered, though, as David kept playfully dangling the baggie over his daughter's head and just slightly out of her reach. "Your father and I decided to give you two a present early this year." She explained. "This is the special present, mind you, so don't expect anything too wild under the tree."

The youngster considered that for a few seconds before taking his seat at the table. "So, what are they?"

"Pets!" Stephanie squealed to her brother. "They got us real live pets! Or… they will be live soon!"

At Tommy's quizzical look, Jill continued her explanation. "Its your Wondertainment present this year. "Custom Pets" they're called. Just… put them where you want them to grow and see what you hatch."

Whether it was timed that way or just coincidence, the hyperactive young girl finally managed to snatch her baggie away from her father and began to run off giggling. Tommy accepted his… egg, he supposed he'd call it, more gingerly. He couldn't guess at what sort of cutsey animal his sister was going to get but after last night, he was thinking something more… aggressive.

"I'll have to think about where to hatch mine." He finally mumbled.

—-

For a few days, at least, it seemed as if that had been the end of the matter. Once Stephanie had hatched her own pet in her room, receiving a small creature resembling a bipedal piglet that spent most of its time snuffling around looking for treats beneath the furniture or in the shaggier carpets all talk of "Santa" looking through the windows had ceased entirely. The tracks in the snow weren't there to be found any longer either. All thought of what had happened was cast entirely from the girl's mind as she happily played with "Buster" as she dubbed her new pet. Even the fact that David and Jill were keeping her largely indoors now hadn't truly registered… after all, she had someone new to explore the house with!

For Tommy, it had been more difficult to decide just what to do with his egg. In the end, he'd found a crack in one of the walls of the garage and slipped the small egg in between the stone crevice. What had emerged from that was markedly different from Buster. A wiry body and bulbous head lacking eyes but with large bat-like ears, it's forelegs were tipped with what could be generously called 'talons' as he scratched and scrabbled its way out of the hole and dropped to the floor.

The younger Ripke watched the… thing as he sniffed the air, turned its head this way and that to pick up sounds before assuming a posture like a gorilla and gingerly making its way towards the boy.

"Welcome to our home, Spike." Tommy Whispered.

Those days, though, came to an end all too quickly. It had started innocuously enough with new smells permeating the entire house, something pungent and foul all at once and while David Ripke sought out the source of this foul odor, Jill responded with air fresheners, potpourri and anything else she could manage. Even, in some desperate cases, opening windows to air out rooms the family wasn't using. All of this availed them nothing, however, could be found as a source even after multiple checks of the septic system and going through the entire refrigerator looking for anything that might have spoiled.

"It wasn't Buster!" Stephanie would volunteer every time the smell was brought up, clutching the cuddly faux-piglet in her arms protectively and giggling as it would press its snout to her cheek in response to the affection.

On some occasions, though, the family would catch Spike leading around Buster (in those moments when Stephanie deigned to let her beloved pet out of her sight) as the two seemed to be attempting to sniff out the source of the foul odors as well. Even their animal senses came up short, though, as they would often come up to dead ends, spending several minutes sniffing and poking (or scratching, in Spike's case) at the walls.

Even this, however, was only a minor incident compared to what came next. Nights where the family would be suddenly awakened by a not so gentle 'thump' repeating from the attic.

As soon as he was aware of the noise, David had been up like a flash, grasping a baseball bat he had begun keeping near the bedroom door since the his daughter had revealed a man peering into her window at night. Weapon in one hand and flashlight in the other, he drew down the steps into the attic and ascended quickly, taking little care for stealth; whoever was up there, he had no more patience for their sort!

Fury evaporated when he ascended the steps, replaced by confusion as he shone the light around, eventually pulling the cord for an overhead light. His eyes were wide now and he took a step back, almost falling back down the steps before righting himself. The attic was empty, save the usual boxes of stored junk… and now, a symbol very much like the one that had been scratched into the side of the house. The only difference was this one was painted on the floor. The paint, he noticed, was still wet.

—-

"We should just call he cops and leave." Jill insisted, pacing back and forth. "This is insane, something got inside of our house and did that! God, imagine if they'd gone into one of the kids' rooms!" Her voice was rising in pitch now, her speed building as she tried to burn off the nervous energy she was feeling.

David opened his mouth, then closed it again. On the whole he seemed inclined to agree with his wife. The police had, of course, been called again. The children had been taken into town to avoid too many questions. In the end, though, he shook his head. "If something is happening we don't-" he paused, swallowed, then continued speaking. "we don't want to just brush it off to someone else. We've got the police keeping an eye on the house now, running regularly to check on us. I think we should stay another few days and let the police actually catch this guy."

"That's insane!" Jill retorted, throwing her arms to the air. "You're using us, our kids, to play bait?"

Once again, the Ripke patriarch opened and closed his mouth before standing up and drawing closer to his spouse. "Look at everything up to now." He insisted quietly. "I don't know what is happening, but it seems… I don't know, fixated on us. Or-or on Stephanie. If we run, we might just be making ourselves more vulnerable to it."

It. Not 'he' or 'them'. For the first time, the idea was crossing David's mind that whatever was going on wasn't just a run of the mill pervert watching his daughter. He realized as well he wasn't sure which idea frightened him more.

—-

The new year had come, although neither parents nor children seemed much inclined to a party. Of course, David had attempted to cheer Tommy and Stephanie and keep the mood up by telling them that it was simply because they hadn't fixed 'the plumbing' yet to get rid of the smell. An excuse that worked well enough, he thought. And in the other place, the pair seemed happy enough to play with their pets.

It was beginning to seem as if the harassment was at an end, too. Maybe the police presence had frightened off whoever was doing it? Whatever the case, when the family turned in for the night things seemed… almost normal.

Tommy was only barely aware of anything happening as Spike rose up onto his hind legs for a few seconds, sniffing at the air before hopping off of the boy's bed, however and scratching at the closed bedroom door. Groggy and yawning, he sat up and moved to open it for his Custom Pet. "What, are you hung-" The question died away as he heard the 'thump' from the attic again along with another sound. Something that sent a shudder of fear through the boy.

Sobbing. He could hear muffled wails that reminded him so much of his sister that he hurriedly threw open his door with a 'bang!' that rang through the house, apparently jostling the other members of the family awake.

David and Jill spilled into the hallway a few seconds ahead of Stephanie who rubbed at her eyes with one hand and clutching Buster to her chest with the other. If any of the family had noticed the pig-like pet was trembling, they said nothing. At their feet though, Spike was yowling, the first noise any of them could remember hearing from it as it ran tight circles around them.

Before any real words could be spoken the ladder crashed down from the attic and a figure emerged, taking each step slowly. One bare foot was revealed, then another. As more of the man emerged from the shadows he revealed himself as a tall, gaunt, emaciated figure. Slung over one of his shoulders was a sack that seemed impossibly large for a man of his physique to carry, made only worse by the writhing of the fabric and muffled sobs and words coming from within, only a handful any of the family recognized.

For a moment the man seemed… surprised to find the Ripke family in the hall staring at him in dumb shock. His head swiveled slowly before he smiled at them, the thin lips parting to show a grin that was predatory and far too large for his face and yet still seemed to have more teeth than it should. When he spoke, he said only one unintelligible word, although the malice it carried was unmistakable.

"Run-" David whispered before finding his voice and firming it. "Get out of here!" He repeated more forcefully, ordering his family as he steeled himself, raising the baseball bat as he moved forward, taking a wild swing at the naked stranger in his home. The man, though, just as he was apparently stronger than his appearance gave the impression of was faster as well. And with one free hand had lashed out viciously, dragging nails down the side of the Ripke man's face until he'd gripped his neck and tossed him away like a ragdoll to the screams of the other three, already attempting to get away from… whatever this was.

With a mother's instincts, Jill had seized both of her children by the wrists and was practically dragging them behind her, casting a look over her shoulder to her husband. Silent prayers that he would save their children if not the family were the best she could offer. Tommy was looking back over his shoulder as well, stumbling through the hall in the dark, but for a different reason. "Spike! Sic-!" He shouted at the top of his lungs.

The Custom Pet arched its back and gave a shriek as it pounced at the legs of the naked intruder. Tiny talons attempting to rend flesh from the bones of his shins and knees. To Spike's credit he succeeded in drawing some small splatters of blood before the figure kicked the creature away with a snarl of anger. The animal squealed painfully as it disappeared down the other end of the hallway, and for David Ripke the darkness seemed to grow dimmer still now that the pair were alone.

Dazed and wheezing, he attempted to get to his feet like a prize-fighter who'd already taken three too many shots to the head. Even still, adrenaline was enough to bring him standing as the malnourished seeming man approached again and David hoisted the bat over his shoulders, managing to put his hips into a new swing that crashed into the other man's hip… the Ripke family patriarch fancied he heard a grunt before he felt something alarming. Fingers digging sharply into his shoulder; forceful enough to push through the flesh there. A grip strong enough that it seemed able to crush the bone on their own… and he could feel a grinding, almost hear a creaking as his body seemed to be giving way. The bat fell from lip fingers as another hand grasped his wrist with the same crushing strength. The strange… creature, for at this point David could hardly think of him as a man, raised that hand up slowly and with another too-wide smile brought his hand to its mouth and promptly bit off three of his fingers, letting the blood trickle down his lips as he chewed on the fleshy morsels while David's yell of pain filled the house.

—-

"Mommy, I'm scared-" Stephanie cried out, clutching Buster tighter to her chest as the porcine pet nuzzled at her cheek again. Whether the animal was trying to calm its owner or itself was near impossible to say. The lights were still out through the house (Jill was not going to give that… THING a trail!)

"It's going to be alright, honey." Jill attempted to give her daughter a reassurance she didn't, herself, feel. Instead she desperately weighed her options. She could attempt to hide with them in the pantry. It was a tight fit and likely one of the first places that would be searched. They could try to run, but the nearest neighbor wasn't quite a mile but across a flat field wouldn't that just make them easier targets? She swallowed hard, trying to force down her panic and make herself THINK! "I'm not going to let anything bad happen to you." That promise, at least, was true. She and David would have to be dead before they let whatever terrors that-that monster had in store for their children come to fruition.

Unfortunately, she was growing increasingly worried that it would be just the case.

Tommy winced, hearing the pandemonium from upstairs. "Get'tim, Spike." He whispered, hoping it was the other man's ragged voice as the suddenly wholly inadequate looking Custom Pet fell upon him with the wrath of an angry guard dog.

"Tommy," Jill half-whispered and half-hissed to her son, the woman's decision finally made. "take Stephanie." She insisted. "Take her and get to the Waggoner's house. Do not argue-!" She declared harshly, cutting off any protests her son might have. "When you get there, call the police. Tell them- just get them here." She added. There should have been police still observing the house, though. Wouldn't they have seen the man entering? She didn't want to think about what that meant.

While she placed Stephanie's hand in Tommy's, she groped around the kitchen until she found the drawer she wanted and removed the largest knife she could find from it.

"Go!" She ordered him again, shoving her children to the back door with her free hand.

—-

Closing the door as softly as she dared behind the fleeing children, Mrs. Ripke curled her fingers tightly around the handle of the knife, attempting to keep to the walls and corners as she crept through the house, struggling to maintain her breathing at a soft, controlled pattern. As the stairs began to creak she bit hard on her lip and stopped breathing altogether. It wasn't just the tap of feet she was hearing but also a sound of something heavy being dragged and the gentle thump of it hitting each step just a bit behind the intruder's footsteps.

Forcing herself to wait, to keep quiet, Jill stared at the foot of the stairs until she saw the hateful thing that had invaded her home and endangered her family. With a scream as much of terror as it was of anger, she raised the knife high and lunged at the thing, hoping to drive it straight into the tall, thin man's neck and struggling not to look at the prone form of her husband or the rapidly spreading patch of dampness next to him.

The whole event seemed to be moving at half speed and even at that she was too slow as the the terrible thing caught her hand with an ease that seemed almost practiced. Slowly it began to squeeze and she heard the gentle popping of the joints in her hand under the pressure, felt the burning, broken glass pain of bones breaking and the sting of tears welling in her eyes from pain and impotence to even hurt this… she had no words for it anymore. With savage strength, it dragged her closer and Jill tried, oh she tried, to lash out with her feet in kicks to his ankles and knees to elicit any signs that she would at least hinder whatever his mission was! She could feel his breath, smell something like raw meat drifting on it, she was so close now. With a choking, gasping breath she tried to pray for her children.

—-

"Come on-!" Tommy ordered his sister, dragging her through the snow behind himself. Mentally, though, Tommy was sweating at himself repeatedly. Berating himself as an idiot and a moron. In his panic, in his rush, the boy had gotten turned around; gone the wrong way! And now he needed… needed what?

At her brother's frenzied shout, a sob broke loose from Stephanie's mouth. "Is-is that Krampus?" She asked.

On the face of it, the question was nonsensical, ridiculous. But still, he answered. "No." He asserted. "No, I don't even think the Krampus likes whoever that is." He scanned the property in the moonlight and saw a new possibility looming slightly in the distance. The garage!

With his grip tightening around her wrist, Tommy hesitated for only a moment before turning around and scooping the girl up in his arms, deciding he could make better time this way and bolted through the snow until he reached the door and quickly put himself and his sister inside and locked it.

"Get in the car-" He told Stephanie at once. "and lock the doors. Don't open them no matter what!" He added, waiting until his orders were followed before prowling around the garage, opening boxes, pulling down anything he could find that might function as a weapon. And anything else was quickly stacked in front of the door. After a brief search he settled on one of the mallets from a croquet set, holding it in one hand and the wicket gripped in the other. It had points, maybe not the sharpest possible ones but he hoped a good punch would pierce skin… and maybe some other things.

For her part, Stephanie crouched on the floor of the back seat, fighting back tears as she squeezed Buster tightly in her arms. The pig-like pet made soft cooing noises and continued nuzzling against her neck as moments turned to minutes.

Neither could be certain how long they had been there, tense as they were who knew how fast time was truly passing. What mattered, though, was that they couldn't hear anything else… until they did. The handle of the locked door jiggled for several seconds before something pounded at the outside, nearly splintering the wood in a single impact. And then a hand came through the widening crack, a forearm and elbow-

Tommy managed to get over his fear and gripped the mallet tighter in his hand before running to the door and swinging. He struck the hand, not as true as he would have liked, but he hit it! The offending limb drew back and the door finally splintered, knocking aside the hasty barricade with the violence of the attack. The "Not Krampus" stepped in, glaring balefully at the boy. Tommy swallowed, backing up a few steps as he tried to collect himself. His eyes darted momentarily to the sack the old man still dragged along behind him. He heard the whimpering, the crying, the pleading coming from it and realization seemed to strike him.

"Stay the fuck away from my sister-!" Tommy did his best to roar the ultimatum, to sound and look imposing as he found new vigor, heard his mother admonishing him in his head. You're supposed to look out for your sister.

He swung with all of his might, felt the wooden mallet splinter and crack as he went off balance at the sudden lack of resistance. As he tried to recover and punch with the wicket.

Tommy didn't see what the man did so much as feel it when his body bounced off of the hood of the car and crumpled to the garage floor. His vision swimming and body aching he could do nothing more than yell obscenities and threats as he heard his sister screaming, glass breaking and… and then he lost consciousness.

In her terror, Stephanie dropped Buster as glass shattered around her. She huddled down further, trying to make herself smaller, to go unnoticed in vain. The Custom Pet had imitated its owner, cowering beneath the front seat as a massive hand reached down and gripped the girl by the back of the neck and plucked her out through the window and dropped her into the enveloping blackness of the sack. Her screams joined the other children inside.

—-

Tommy's eyes opened to the flickering of a fire lit in the living room. Dazed, groggy, possibly concussed it took him a moment to realize why that was a problem: they didn't have a fireplace. Instead, their fire pit had been dragged into the center of the room. He could smell melted plastic, among other things and realized quickly what was burning. The gifts that had been placed under the Christmas tree. His sack tied and wriggling in place of the destroyed presents.

"What are you doing-!" Jill shrieked, bound with the very sheets from the bed. Her hands turning an unpleasant shade of purple as she tried to move her fingers enough to untie the knots.

The man said nothing, though, and reached down to the pale and prone form of David, using one wrist to drag him over to the fire pit and, with a malicious glee pressed the stumps where his fingers had been towards the hot metal. A low, pained moan bubbled from the half-conscious man's lips as the unknown intruder held his flesh to the heat longer than necessary to cauterize the wound. Long enough that a scent like cooking meat began to fill the living room. Once he was satisfied, or perhaps disappointed by the lack of response, he threw David's hand down and slowly approached Tommy, producing something new.

Spike. The poor pet's head had been crushed into a pulpy mess, blood on its talons, though, evidencing that the thing had gone down struggling.

Tommy gulped as his mother shouted, screamed, pleaded with the man to leave him and Stephanie alone whatever else he might do.

Still silent and wholly indifferent to the woman's words, the demented figure plucked one of the talons from Spike with a sickening ease and knelt down next to Tommy, using his new tool to cut through his shirt and begin cutting into his chest. The boy's hisses of pain seemed to please him as his face stretched out into that too wide smile while he carved his indecipherable symbol into his flesh. Satisfied with his work he dipped his fingers into the blood welling from the cuts and moved back to Jill.

With a careless touch he began to apply the blood to her face, around her eyes and over her lips like obscene make up. When his fingers strayed close to her mouth, the Ripke matriarch did her best to snap at him, to bite down hard. To show she was still defiant to this creature. All she achieved was to be slapped hard enough she was certain a tooth had come loose.

—-

Forgotten in the garage while the monstrous intruder had set about his grotesque work, Buster slowly stopped quivering and gradually made its way out of the damaged vehicle, sniffling and searching about. Its thoughts turned towards the humans who had cared for it and especially the girl who had hardly let it out of her sight now seized by some great and terrible predator. Its mind was awhirl with emotions and thoughts. With instincts that ordinarily would have been as alien to it as… well, as the scenario it had found itself in.

As Buster moved about the garage, it saw the broken and pointed remnants of the mallet's handle, remembered the boy who had tried to protect it and the girl using it. An appendage very much like a hand reached out and groped at it until the handle, more a stake now, was in its grasp.

Its grunting and snuffling slowly took on a new character, one that could almost be called 'resolute' as it trudged out into the cold.

—-

At the house, minutes had passed in terror. Stephanie's voice still mingled with the other children, crying out for daddy, for mommy, for Tommy… for anybody who might come to her rescue. The one silver lining was she happened to be spared from witnessing the slow tortures being inflicted on her family.

Using Spike's own talons he had been drawing blood from the family to make his murals on the walls around them, treating each of the Ripkes like human sized inkwells. If one found the temerity to resist he jabbed them ever more harshly with the 'quill' he had taken to using. The other talons had been plucked off as each became too dull to use for his work, and the Pet carelessly added to the fire.

It was this terrible art show that Buster had found, slipping in through the still open doorway. Its nose overwhelmed by the scents of blood and the acrid stink of all of the burning - everything. But the timid animal plucked up its nerve and, holding the remains of the handle like a spear surged into the room. Splintered wood collided with the towering menace's achilles tendon, drawing some blood to boot! Feeling, for the first time ever, like a predator, Buster attempted to bite at the offending limb before being roughly kicked away.

The whole scene would have been absurd were it not so terrifying, as the not-quite piglet pushed back to its feet while the tall… thing, spoke in his angry, guttural and unintelligible language again, leaning down to attempt to swipe at the animal.

Surprisingly for a man who looked so close to death's door after having so much blood seep from him, it was David who was able to react first. To say he 'lashed out' at the fire pit would be to give the movement too much credit, but he knocked it over none the less, spilling burning debris towards the bare flesh of the family's assailant before he crawled, agonizingly slowly, towards the sack.

Although they weren't timing it, even as father focused on freeing daughter, son made his way to mother, his vision still blurry and head swimming as he fumbled with the knots holding her together.

Similarly handicapped by having only one usable hand, David struggled with the ties keeping the monster's bag sealed.

The fire had surprised the emaciated man, and his scowl stretched his face even more terribly than his smile. But it would have done little if not for the surprisingly quick thinking of Buster who had found a piece of something glowing hot - metal! It seemed to recognize the potential and, ignoring the searing pain as it grabbed the remnant of one toy or another, stabbed it into the man-thing's foot with as furious a cry as something that looked like a cute piglet could manage.

For the first time, the intruder seemed to actually be pained as blood seeped from his foot, almost glowing in the combination of the flames and gentle glow of the horizon beyond the window.

David had managed to succeed first; the sack fell open and out tumbled Stephanie, tears streaking her face as she threw her arms around her father's neck. But she wasn't the only one, other children fell, stumbled and crawled from the bag. More, it seemed, than should have possibly fit in there, some looking near to his daughter's five years and others so young they seemed barely able to walk.

The beastly… thing bellowed with rage when his collection was seemingly freed and he lashed out with another kick that sent the Custom Pet squealing and bouncing off of a wall. He, it, stomped towards David, towards the fleeing children, reaching out with malicious intent now -

as the first rays of the rising sun passed through the window, the horizon nearly matching the inside of the home. His fury seemed only to grow then but as he swiped his hand at one of the children, it passed through, his form fading in the growing light like a flashlight's luminescence disappearing in front of a light bulb.

Sobbing, crying children scattered in nearly every direction as Stephanie clung tightly to her father while Tommy finished freeing his mother.

The fire continued to consume the home, too much, really, for them to do much against in their various conditions. Injuries and exposure, in fact, may have yet claimed them if a new figure hadn't emerged. This one a man, dressed, thankfully, quite extravagantly and smiling broadly, if in ordinary proportions to his face.

"Oh, dear-" He murmured, drumming fingers on the lapel of his jacket as he looked around at the gaggle of children and the Ripke family themselves. "I was hoping to talk with you but this wont due at all. If you'll allow me to get you to a hospital, I think we can wait until you're feeling better."

Too broken up physically and exhausted emotionally to resist, the family as a whole acquiesced to this suggestion.

—-

It was hard to say what was stranger, the trip to the 'hospital' itself, if only by dint of the fact that they had all been ushered into a limousine, or the actual hospital which was staffed by… well, they all looked like life sized dolls all dressed as doctors and nurses, working rather silently aside from occasional generic statements such as 'Take two of these and call me in the morning.' when administering painkillers to the family.

Days passed, possibly a few weeks as they recovered. To some extent, physical therapy was begun and finally, they saw the man again, dressed in a fashion not too different from a stage magician. The Ripkes watched him take off his hat and bow theatrically.

"Hello!" He declared jovially. "I'm afraid I hadn't properly introduced myself at first. Call me 'Jack'. I represent the 'Wonderainment' Company in certain matters." Jack explained, handing out playing cards to each member of the family. The Jack, naturally. "Specifically, in this case, my employer wanted me to congratulate you on your excellent work to prove the superiority of Wondertainment products over that of one of our many competitors-"

"Competitor?" David asked, feeling the spot on his hand where his fingers had once been. "What- what do you mean?"

Jack considered for a moment before explaining. "That Holiday Menace, of course! He seems to have stolen St. Nicholas' schtick, you see, deciding who's 'naughty' or 'nice'. Unfortunately, he doesn't leave coal for the people he decides are naughty and for 'nice'… well, I could tell you stories about his toys that would curl your hair! Ah- but I wont." He added quickly as he took note of their expressions.

"But!" He asserted grandly instead. "the quick thinking of your Wondertainment Brand Custom Pets saved the day! Although, unfortunately, one had been lost. But, the other-" Pausing in his speech, Jack took his top hat off and reached inside, all the way down to his shoulder, before withdrawing Buster and handing him back to Stephanie.

Piglet and girl quickly embraced as Buster cooed and snuggled against his owner again.

"And those other children?" Jill whispered, aware and curious that she'd only seen her own two children since arriving here.

For the first time since he'd entered the room "Jack"s smile left his face and he cleared his throat. "Unfortunately, we are not equipped to handle relocation of the abducted children. However, we have made contact with a certain semi-charitable Foundation in the hopes of having them placed in caring homes." Before anyone could ask about their original homes, Jack pushed on.

"As for you, Dr. Wondertainment has, in recognition of your excellent, if accidental, brand comparison authorized a blank check to oversee your recovery, rehabilitation and, if necessary, prosthesis. I have also been instructed to offer Mr. and Mrs. Ripke jobs within our wonderful family. Quality assurance seems like an excellent place!" He continued.

"What-?" David and Jill queried in stereo. "And how did you even know-?"

"Tut tut, those sorts of questions can wait until you've all finished recovering. I would also recommend we have you placed with a workshop somewhere warmer. It is my understanding that your… friend does not care to be away from snow, and I wager he would hold a grudge. Fortunately, he's very committed to the Santa routine, so we have a whole year to deal with that problem!"

Silence fell over the family again, like a sheet. Seeming to realize he'd spoiled the mood yet again, Jack tried to smile for them.

"Ahh, perhaps I should simply leave you to Dr. Cure's care for a while. We can talk job opportunities and benefits packages once you're all feeling better. Until then, please enjoy the full range of Dr. Wondertainment's hospitality!"

That said, Jack beat a hasty retreat from the room, leaving the still perturbed family to contemplate everything that had been dropped on them.

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