From the author: Baron Vordenburg hunts a most unusual feline in the Dimmuborgir on Christmas Eve.
‘His whiskers, sharp as bristles,
His back, arched up high,
And the claws of his hairy paws
Were a terrible sight.’
- Jóhannes úr Kötlum
Baron Palman Vordenburg took a deep breath, letting the cold air sting his lungs. He let it out again, slowing his pulse and steadying himself before he began the arduous process of setting the next booby trap. It wouldn’t do to shiver at the wrong moment.
A coil of thin wire and a satchel of steilhandgranate – stick grenades – sat by his feet. Getting hold of them hadn’t been difficult. The war had been over for nearly eight years, but military surplus still littered the continent, most of it easy to procure, if you knew the right people – or the wrong ones, depending on how you looked at it.
He took in his surroundings as he anchored the wire into the base of one of the black, volcanic standing stones from which the Dimmuborgir drew its name. He studied the nearby rock formations, like so many black castles shrouded in white snow. They put him in mind of certain ruins he’d seen as a boy in Styria, though these were natural rather than manmade.
The thought of Styria brought with it a familiar ache. He had not visited home since the Kaiser’s abdication. For two centuries, his family had served the Habsburgs loyally and faithfully, holding back the darkness. That was all done now, thanks to the war, and his legacy confiscated by the victors. All that was left to him were the tools of his trade. Then, what more did a man truly need, save good steel and a righteous cause? Not a glorious one, perhaps. But necessary all the same.
He bent back to his task. The sun was getting low and night was coming on quickly. He’d only had a few hours of daylight to work with, but he’d made do. Even so, he still had a blind to rig. Then would come the long wait for his quarry to show itself.
He smiled grimly at the thought of the beast he’d come to Iceland to bag. It was unique in the annals of the grotesque – a devil of the long night, seen only on the eve of Christmas. Jólakötturinn – the Yule Cat.
Reportedly a cat – or a troll – of unusual size and ferocity, said to prey upon those who did not receive new clothing for Christmas. Some said the beast was a cinder of Hell, cast up by Satan’s fall. Others claimed it was one of Loki’s children, by way of the goddess Freyja’s cats. Regardless, all sources agreed that it emerged at great speed from the Dimmuborgir on Christmas Eve, and prowled the land seeking its next meal.
Such a beast was unlike any he’d matched himself against before, and he felt his blood quicken at the thought. As his father had often reminded him, he’d always been too eager for the hunt, too impulsive in his pursuit of his prey. He forced himself to concentrate on the task at hand, tedious though it was.
There were worse ways to spend Christmas. Not that he’d ever been one for the holiday spirit, even before the war. A mug of mulled wine and a bit of Weihnachtsstollen was usually as much as he allowed himself.
He was still thinking of stollen when he heard the distinctive click of a bolt-action Gewehr 98 being readied. He paused in his labours, gently setting the grenade down on the rocky ground, before raising his hands. “You have the advantage of me,” he called out, in halting Icelandic. He knew enough to get by, just.
“Stand up.” The voice was muffled, but he thought it belonged to a woman. The barrel of the rifle nudged him and he stood awkwardly, burdened by his cold-weather gear. He turned and saw a short, stout figure standing behind him, bundled in a heavy coat and scarf. She held her rifle cradled in her arms, and had something long and wrapped in animal hide strapped to her back. The stock of the rifle had been decorated with runic carvings and talismans of all sorts. Similar charms had been pinned to her coat, and they gleamed eerily in the light of the setting sun. Vordenburg recognised some of them, though not all.
He towered over her, tall and pale, but she did not seem impressed by either his height, or the myriad weapons that adorned his person. At the front of his belt was a Mauser C96; a Mauser C78 revolver sat snug in a shoulder holster over his coat; opposite the revolver hung a sabre with a basket hilt and a katana – both blades were heirlooms of a sort, and both had seen much use over the past century. Besides these more obvious implements, he had several knives of various sizes – as well as other, more idiosyncratic – killing tools stashed on him. One never knew what might come in handy.
If the newcomer thought the presence of such an arsenal was strange, she gave no indication. Instead, she looked past him, at the grenade and the wire he’d been carefully securing about its pull cord. “What are you doing?”
“Setting a trap.”
Vordenburg hesitated. Her eyes – the colour of Mývatn’s surface, he thought, idly – narrowed as if his reticence had confirmed a suspicion of hers. “You must be the German hunter, Vordenburg,” she said, in German. “The one young Gunnar sent a letter to.”
“Styrian, not German.” Vordenburg relaxed slightly. “And if I am?”
“Then you’re a fool. You should not be here.”
Vordenburg blinked. “May I continue my preparations while we speak?”
“They will not do any good.”
She sighed and stepped back. He nodded in thanks and bent back to his task, reasonably confident that she wasn’t planning to shoot him in the back. “You know Gunnar then?” he asked, as he wedged the grenade into a crack in the rock.
“I know his family.”
“Is that why you’re here?” He hooked the loose end of the wire around the pull cord, forming an effective trip wire. He’d done the same at several other points throughout the Dimmuborgir, along the routes he’d calculated that his quarry was most likely to take.
“I am here because it is my responsibility.”
“And who are you?” He turned. “You know my name. It is only polite to tell me yours.” He stood and made to retrieve his satchel, but a twitch of the rifle made him pause. “Unless you plan to shoot me. In which case it does not matter so much, I suppose.”
She stared at him for a moment, then grunted and pulled her scarf aside, revealing a round, freckled face. “Hekla. Hekla Egilsdóttir.”
Vordenburg straightened. “Is your father Egill Arnarsson by chance?”
She frowned. “You know him?”
“Of him, yes.” Egill Arnarsson was a tröllaveiðimaður of some renown. His folk had hunted trolls and jötnar since the earliest days of human habitation in Iceland. “My father spoke highly of him.”
Hekla’s frown deepened. “Then you should know better than to interfere with our duties – especially on this night of all nights. I – hsst.” She stopped and turned, head cocked to the side. A soft sound, like the cry of a distant child, echoed through the rocks. He made to speak, but Hekla gestured for him to be silent, and they waited. Minutes passed, but the sound did not come again. She sniffed the air. “Wind’s changed. Smell that?”
Vordenburg did. “It smells like sulphur.”
She nodded. “They say that such a smell on the wind means that something is coming up out of Hell.”
“Who is they?”
“People. He is abroad.” She looked pale – nervous, though not frightened. Indeed, the look in her pale eyes was one he’d seen often enough in the mirror.
“Good. Then I shall not have to wait overlong.”
“You hunt vampires,” Hekla said, as if it were an accusation.
“As often as possible.”
“The Jólakötturinn is no vampire.” She shook her head. “Why did you come?”
“As you said, I was sent a letter.”
“Do you come running every time a child writes you a letter?”
Rocks tumbled, somewhere out of sight. The echoes danced through the air, and once more they both fell silent. Finally, he said, “When I think there is something in it. That you are here implies that I am right. We should find someplace to set up an ambush…”
Hekla glared at him. “There is no we. You are leaving. This is my duty – not yours.” She slung her rifle and reached for the bundle on her back. “You would only get in my way.”
“You speak as if you have some claim on the beast.”
She peered at him for a moment and then, reluctantly, said, “My family made an oath. Every year it rises, and every year a member of my family attempts to slay it.”
“I take it none have succeeded.”
She grimaced. “No. But it must be done, even so. That is the promise we made to one who will not suffer its breaking.” Slowly she unwrapped the bundle, revealing a large, single-bladed medieval axe. “He even gave us the tools to see it done.”
She turned the weapon over in her hands reverentially. A Dane axe, Vordenburg had heard it called. Runic carvings marked both the age-blackened blade and the weathered haft. He felt a chill that had nothing to do with the weather when he considered those markings more closely. “A hard road to choose,” he said.
“We did not choose it,” she said, softly. “But it is our road even so.” She looked at him. “Go. Before it is too late.”
“Two may persevere where one can but fail,” Vordenburg said. He drew his C78 and cocked it, as he hefted his satchel. It was getting colder, but he felt only anticipation.
He looked up. The sun had well and truly set now, and the green ribbon of the Northern Lights cut across the black sky above. They cast down an eerie radiance that clung to the rocks, making them glow. He looked back at Hekla. “Besides, if all that I have read of this beast is true, you may find yourself needing a second pair of hands, magic axe or no.”
She looked away. “Only one thing can keep Jólakötturinn at bay – the power of the old gods.” She indicated the axe. “That is all it fears.”
Vordenburg motioned to his satchel with the barrel of his revolver. “I’d wager it has never encountered high explosives before.”
Almost as if to emphasize this statement, a sudden explosion ruptured the night. Bits of volcanic stone rained down, and Vordenburg instinctively shielded Hekla from the larger chunks. As the echoes of the explosion faded, a nerve-shredding yowl echoed through the Dimmuborgir.
With a curse, Hekla shoved away from him and charged towards the sound. Vordenburg stumbled back slightly, and then hurried after her. From what he knew of the beast – which wasn’t much but rumour and hearsay – he doubted that explosives would do more than give it a moment’s pause.
A second explosion nearly threw him from his feet. Smoke boiled out from between the rocks ahead of him as something screeched in a voice fit to curl metal. He heard Hekla cry out and through smoke-stung eyes he saw a large shape rise up before him. Instinctively, he took aim with the C78 and fired.
In response, a heavy blow caught him on the shoulder and he was sent rolling across the hard ground. The pistol clattered from his grip, but he managed to hold onto the satchel. He fell onto his back as his attacker lunged for him. He flung the satchel up like a shield, and canvas tore as the bag was ripped away from him. He had an impression of teeth like knives and eyes like saucers as grenades and other oddments scattered across the snow.
A low rumbling filled the air – a cat’s purr, but magnified and distorted beyond its natural limits. It was circling him now, prowling through the thinning smoke. Panting, he hauled himself to his feet. He was lucky the blow had only been a glancing one. The strength behind it had been enough to take off his head. The smoke began to dissipate and he got his first clear look at his attacker.
The Yule Cat was larger than he’d imagined. It was a thing of heavy muscle and sabre-like teeth, with claws that dug deep gouges in the ground, serpentine tail twitching. Its hair reminded him of the bristles of an echidna, stiff and sharp. If it had any resemblance to a natural animal it was to one of the great prehistoric cats that had hunted man’s earliest ancestors. Its eyes were the worst – for they were yellow and mad and wise.
With a sinking heart, Vordenburg realised that the creature looking at him was no simple predator, but something cannier and more dangerous by far. He risked a quick glance, but saw no sign of Hekla anywhere. He considered calling out to her, but decided not to waste his breath.
Instead, his free hand fell to the holstered shape of his C96 as he drew his sabre with the other. The purr became a warning growl as the cat prowled towards him. It snarled something that might have been words and he winced as the shrill thunder of it sawed through his skull. He could not understand it, but the meaning was clear enough.
He sketched a shallow bow. “Baron Palman Vordenburg at your service, beast. I would wish you the joys of the season, but I think we interpret such things differently.” As the words left his lips, he snatched his C96 from its holster and fired twice.
The cat hunkered down, and the shots pelted against as if they were no more than raindrops. It’s eyes narrowed to burning slits and he felt its annoyance beat at him like the heat of a fire. Its growl rose to tooth-rattling volume as it continued its advance.
Vordenburg backed away, firing again and again. Subsequent shots had no more effect than the first two – indeed, they seemed only to amuse the creature. It made a guttural sound that he realised was a laugh. It sidled closer, lashing its tail. It spoke again, and he felt the weight of its voice in his bones. A taunt, perhaps. Or maybe it was inviting him to surrender. Either way, his answer was the same.
He shoved his Mauser back into its holster and raised his sabre in a duellist’s salute. The cat gave a sudden twitch of its tail – the equivalent of a shrug, perhaps – and lunged. He swung his sword and the cat twisted its massive frame with shocking ease, avoiding his blow. Its claws grazed him as it passed, leaving red trails of agony across his back. He stumbled and turned – just in time to be knocked flat.
He scrambled aside as the cat pounced and his sabre caught it on the shoulder. It was like striking a girder and a painful vibration shook the sword from his hand. The cat slashed at him and he stumbled back, narrowly avoiding spilling his guts on the ground.
A rifle shot echoed through the rocks. Vordenburg flinched as the beast leapt straight up, as if stung by an insect. It leapt away, squalling thunderously, claws rattling against the stones. He spied Hekla, with her rifle braced on a fallen rock. She worked the bolt, eyes wide as the cat barrelled towards her.
Vordenburg spotted his C78 on the ground nearby and snatched it up, emptying the cylinder into the cat’s hindquarters and drawing its attention back to himself. “Hekla – run,” he bellowed, as the cat rounded on him, eyes blazing.
“I can’t – your stupid grenade pinned me under a rock,” she shouted back. “I said you would get in the way!” She fired again, and the cat yowled in anger. “We need the axe!”
“Where is it?”
“Your stupid grenade also buried it!”
Vordenburg shook his head but had no time to answer. The cat was already in motion. He drew his katana and met its charge, the silvered blade quivering in his hands as it caromed off the creature’s flank. The cat screeched and hopped clumsily aside. It paused to lick roughly at its side, pausing only to glare at him.
“You like that?” Vordenburg taunted. “This sword was forged by the great swordsmith Muramasa, himself. I’d wager it can cut even your thick hide.”
The cat flexed its claws and dug gouges into the stony earth. Then, with a flick of its tail, it vanished. Vordenburg hesitated. “Where - ?” A sharp sound – claws scraping rock – rattled down from above, answering his question. The cat had taken the high ground. “Come back down here and fight, you bastard.”
The cat gave another guttural laugh but showed no inclination to obey him. Instead, it seemed content to stay out of sight. At a loss, he cursed and hurried to Hekla’s side. “Cover me. I’ll try and free you.”
“Be quick about it,” she said, watching the rocks. He bent over her. Her leg was pinned beneath a smouldering shard of black rock. From the look of it, she’d tried to leap aside and hadn’t gotten quite far enough. But thankfully, other than a few bruises, she didn’t seem injured. He sheathed his katana and started trying to drag the rock aside.
“Hang on, have you out in a moment.”
“You’d better,” she snapped. “This is all your fault. I told you to leave!”
“If I’d left, you’d still be trapped, and probably already dead,” he said gruffly. He strained and the rock shifted. Hekla winced.
“Be careful,” she said.
“I can do this quickly or carefully,” he shot back. He crouched, trying to get a better grip on the rock. The cat had vanished from sight, but he could hear it, leaping from rock to rock, circling them with playful ease. “As soon as it shows its bloody head shoot it.”
“Bullets are of no use,” she said. She paused and then looked at him, face pale. “Leave me and find the axe. It’s the only thing that will truly hurt it.”
“My sword –”
“Is not blessed by a god,” she interjected. “The axe is. Get it.”
Vordenburg hesitated, but only for an instant. She was right. He cast about for the weapon, throwing loose rocks aside in his haste. “Why hasn’t it attacked yet?”
“You surprised it, I think.” Hekla craned her neck. “Or maybe it’s playing with us.”
“You don’t know, do you?”
“No,” she said, grudgingly.
“I’m starting to see why your family has never killed this creature.”
“I would have, if you had not interfered. I had a plan.”
Vordenburg tossed another rock aside. He heard the rumble of the cat’s growl somewhere above them. “So did I.”
“My plan was better. It didn’t involve explosives.”
“That doesn’t sound like a very good plan to me,” Vordenburg said. He grunted in triumph as he spied the axe’s haft, and reached for it. But as his fingers touched the wood, he heard rocks clatter down behind him. A hiss.
He turned, gaze rising. The cat pounced.
Hekla fired. The cat twisted in mid-air and landed on all fours nearby. Hekla glanced at him. “Get it out – hurry!”
Vordenburg dragged the axe free and felt a jolt run through his hand and arm. The haft felt warm, and the weapon seemed to twist in his grip, as if it were eager for what was coming next. He whirled, axe raised and saw that the cat was already plunging down towards him, its eyes wide with feline malice.
He barely had time to interpose the haft of the axe between its jaws before it drove him back against the ground hard enough to knock the wind out of him. Teeth like knives sank into the wood, and a gust of slaughterhouse breath washed over him.
He heard Hekla shouting as claws tore the ground to either side of him. The cat was trying to wrench the axe from his grip. He held on for dear life, knowing that to let go would mean his inevitable, messy end.
A bullet kicked up dirt near his head – Hekla. Acting on instinct, he twisted the axe, forcing the cat’s head to the side. A second shot echoed and the cat released him, shrieking, as the bullet caromed off its flat skull.
He scrambled out from beneath the beast and taking a two-handed grip on the axe, he swung it with all of his strength. The blade sank into the side of the cat’s thick neck and the creature jerked away, nearly yanking him from his feet in the process. He tore the axe free and staggered back as it clawed at him, screeching. Its eyes blazed with fury – and perhaps fear as well. The axe hummed in his grip, the runes stained red.
Teeth bared, he swung a blow for the cat’s skull. The creature jerked back, out of reach. It spat something that might have been a curse. Vordenburg prowled towards it. “Not going the way you hoped, is it, eh?” he said, voice rough. “Then, maybe this is why you’ve stuck to hunting children all these years.”
The cat hissed and clawed at him, trying to drive him back. He circled it warily. It was injured, but that would only make it more dangerous. His mind raced. Grenades hadn’t scratched it; neither had guns. But the axe – it feared the axe. One good blow might finish the beast, but that meant getting close. If it got its claws into him, or worse, its teeth – he would be finished – and Hekla with him. Even so, he had to try.
“Come beast, here I am. Come and take me, if you can.” Vordenburg planted his feet and the axe seemed to pulse in his hand. “Because otherwise, you’ll not get past me and you’ll not escape, for I’ll follow you to Hell itself, if I must.” He brandished the axe. “Come on then. Come on!”
The cat obliged. It came at him at a low angle. He met it, kicking out as it tried to close with him. His boot caught it in the snout and its jaws snapped on empty air. He sprang over its flailing paw and swung the axe down – and the cat’s tail came away in a gout of blood. The beast screamed in a voice that was almost human, and it leapt up and away with such force that he was knocked sprawling as it vanished between the stones.
Groaning, Vordenburg clambered to his feet. His skin felt scraped and raw, and he was fairly certain that he’d cracked a few ribs. But he was alive and the beast was gone, and that was enough. He considered following it, but he didn’t feel any great urge to do so. Something told him the beast had had enough for one night.
He turned back to help Hekla. “Are you all right?” she asked as he wearily laid the axe aside and crouched beside her.
“I am in one piece, which is more than I can say for the beast.”
“You didn’t kill it,” Hekla said, as he levered the rock up enough for her to wriggle free. He let the rock fall and offered her his hand, breathing heavily. He hauled her to her feet and offered her the axe. She took it gratefully.
“No, I didn’t.” Vordenburg looked down. The tail of the Yule Cat twitched and spasmed on the ground, and he stooped to pick it up. He felt a thrill of revulsion as it coiled about his forearm like a snake. He showed it to Hekla, and she stared at it in horrified fascination. He fancied he heard the yowl of a cat, receding in the distance.
“But there’s always next year.”
Jazz Age Britain is rife with the unspeakable. From the shattered cities of the western front to the high occult parties of London, a monstrously altered hound stalks. Only the Royal Occultist can stand resolute against this implacable foe.
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