silver bullets clinked against each other as mariah searched her pockets for a piece of peppermint. her throat was hurting after yesterday, a long day out in the cold prepping the deer for the trip. too much happened at this time of year. there was the annual light-bringing, then she needed to make sure the deer were ready for the trip.
but first there was the first visit.
sure, the man in red had his part under control, but the other, well…he was a different matter. he didn’t seem to think there was a line. red got the good; he got the bad. but he wanted both and someone needed to remind him every year.
turns out that in addition to deer herder, mariah was deemed lead communicator at the pole. the elves were too busy, red was prepping, and the lady was too busy maintaining the massive database. thank gods they got that cook a while back; no one was eating, and red had an image to uphold.
sighing, mariah sucked on her peppermint, donned her snow gear, and headed out to talk to the other. he made her uncomfortable and was hard to get to, but he listened to her for some reason.
whistling softly, she headed out into the woods toward where she thought he lived. he moved every year, but there were signs throughout the year – mostly dead plantlife and lack of songbirds – that let her know where he shacked up for the warmer months. (not that it got that much warmer here, but the other liked it cold.)
it wasn’t long before she got to the upheaval in the earth where a small opening indicated a cave. he generally didn’t stray too far from the man in red. they worked together, despite what the other thought.
she crouched down and looked at the small crevice that led into his lair, scrunching her nose. it smelled of dirt and rot. she dropped the small pack she brought onto the ground outside the entrance, pulled a flare from one of its outer pockets, and stuck it into the ground. she’d learned early on to set one so she could easily find her way out. she grabbed another flare and got on her belly to crawl inside cave.
this one was tight for a few feet, then opened up so she could at least stand on her feet and crouch. then the descent began.
every year it was the same, and mariah began to dread the conversation she’d have to have. but the man in red counted on her, and so did thousands of the littles who were too good to be taken by the other. so she picked up her pace. the sooner she got there, the sooner she could leave. if only the other were as easy to deal with as vampire deer.
soon, too soon, the floor evened out and there was his door – a golden-handled, wooden monstrosity that had carvings of wood switches hashed over it. she had no idea how he transported these between his different dwellings.
mariah knocked twice, once, three times, then grabbed the handle. it glowed briefly, warming her hand. she dropped her flare and pulled the door open.
he sat low on the ground on a wooden stump, his cloven and human feet stretched out, a small fire in the middle of the room. he never talked, just stared at her with his tongue hanging out, glistening.
she found that if she walked with confidence and got her part over with, he generally didn’t object.
“you know why i’m here. tonight is the night, and the man in red has sent me to make sure you’re on the same page.” she wished she had another peppermint. her throat was still hoarse.
“tonight you and he will go visit the littles. he’s got the really good ones, the somewhat good ones, and the okay ones. you get the bad ones. and you know which ones they are; you should’ve gotten a list from the lady the other day.” how the lady sent this list, mariah didn’t know. she was just glad she didn’t have to haul that with her during her visit.
“the man wants to remind you, again, that you just. get. the. bad. ones. no others.” mariah dug around in her pocket searching for a peppermint. the other still stared at her. his cloven foot jiggled slightly but that was the only movement from him. “and you can use your switches, put them in your bag, and hang them from the tall tree, but you CANNOT eat them. we’ve been over this.” he used to eat the bad ones on the solstice, but the committee had put a stop to that when they realized that it was interfering with the ritual.
“then the next morning, you let them go. that should scare them. any repeat offenders, you can hold two nights.” ah! she found her peppermint. she popped it into her mouth. sweet relief.
“do we have an understanding?”
the other stared, blinked slowly, and then nodded once. mariah nodded.
“then we’ll see you tonight. sundown sharp – the man in red will be ready. and don’t forget your list.”
the other nodded again. then again and again, much too quickly for a beast like him to be able to do, and mariah stepped back in alarm. she had never seen this before. she glanced behind her for the door, then back toward the fire, and he was right in front of her. she could smell his rotted breath, see the strands of fur on his face, the saliva on his tongue. she scrunched her nose and did the only thing she could think of – she spat her peppermint out of her mouth directly onto his slimy tongue.
he screamed and jumped back. his tongue seemed to be smoking. mariah widened her eyes, then took her chance. she leaped backward to the door, got out, and slammed the door shut. her flare was still there, so she grabbed it and ran. she didn’t think he would follow.
the trip out seemed much quicker, and she breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the matching flare sparking at the narrow exit. she crawled out of the cave and stood up, brushing dirt and leaves off before putting her pack on and heading back to the pole. she took the knife from her boot and held it, just in case.
this would need to be reported to the man. and she needed to add peppermints to her list of essentials.