Sneak Peek Sunday–Safe Where It Belongs (part 2, follow the lizard)

Author’s note: this is the continuation of the story from last week’s post. Please scroll to the beginning to read in the correct order. 



“Hei Tiki says the First Fire is here,” Private Hana Parata said, gesturing toward the building where people were going in and out with file cabinets. 

“What did they want with it?” murmured Jarrah Barambah, “They know how to set fire to things.” Jarrah’s hair was white. He thought he was sixty-seven years old, but he may have lost track at  some point. The Australian recruiters had laughed when he had tried to enlist, so he just concentrated on the white men for a while and then followed their songline in his sleep, waking up in a strange green land, like the northern coast, but cool. That was when he had met a man named for a fox, a creature like a dingo, but playful and small. That man had given him a chance to help take back things that had been stolen from his people. 

“The closest thing they have to the First Fire is white phosphorus,” Hana reminded him. “They probably want to find a way to make weapons like the First Fire. Do you know how it works?”

“It came from the sky people. They know how it was made. They brought it so we could learn to make our own fires. But not like it.”

“Yes, our fires burn out in time, unattended.”

“Which is a good thing, most of the time. Still. Properly guarded, it is safe and useful. And if the sky people ever come back, I want us to show them we have kept it properly.”

“Of course. You ever think about modern uses for that? Like fueling a power plant?”

“If we did that, the local whites would steal it from us.” A touch of anger broke through the stoic expression he usually wore. “It was a local man who stole it this time and sold it to the Germans. My tribe found him, and learned from him who bought it. I think the whites would say we saved the government the price of a rope.”

“Do you ever wonder how Australia and New Zealand can be so close and yet still be so far apart? I mean, our peoples never found each other, and then when the colonists come, we end up with different results.”

The Aborigine shrugged. In that one motion was a wealth of unspoken commentary about the cultural differences between them, and as well between the groups of whites who started new societies on their shores. Quirks of geography and history had made their experiences too dissimilar for fair comparison. And yet, here they were, so far away from home and they could find in each other something familiar. 

The tattoos the Maori wore were imbued with magic. Hei Tiki was a figure representing wisdom, insight, and it communicated information to Hana Parata. That sort of thing was helpful, but, as much as white New Zealanders had accepted much of Maori culture into their own, wanting to haka before a battle, for instance– the idea that the tattoos could serve as a sort of spell or resource didn’t make sense to them at all. He’d learned not to talk about it until there was an urgent message he couldn’t ignore, and a name to tell it to; Sir Lynn Fox. That had gotten him a chance to help guard his old unit against an upcoming attack and a reassignment to W.I.T.C.H. Hunters. 

“I can scout ahead,” Private Parata suggested. He was still in uniform and ANZAC enlistees were as likely as any other Allies to have a few men placed to help in joint enterprises. If nothing else, they’d talk to him, as he was wearing the right uniform and quite obviously not German. But few people resisted a pair of willing hands when there was plenty of work to be done. 

“No. They will be done soon enough, and I can wait better with company. When they are gone, we go in like the swan gliding by at night, unheard and unseen.”

“Here the swans are white,” Parata reminded him. “But since we are not, you are correct.”

While they waited, they sat in the shade of a building and talked quietly. Parata asked about what Barambah’s people had done with the fire and learned they’d used it it cultivate the land, clearing spaces amid the trees to grow their favorite plants, creating other, grassy spaces to give the kangaroo places to eat that weren’t their gardens, and then replacing their cropland with new trees and starting again elsewhere. 

“And the thing about using the First Fire to start it,” Barambah said, “is the damn hawks can’t take that heat. It’s just enough that they don’t go start burns of their own.”

“Your hawks start fires?”

“It helps them hunt.”

“Our parrots can kill sheep,” Parata countered with. Then he added, “We lost our land ownership, so they aren’t our sheep. Frankly, some of us have taken lambs and left feathers.” They laughed together. 

Then they heard engines starting, and watched the occupation trucks pull away. But there was one Jeep left. Parata shifted. “We could probably get past anyone left.”

Barambah looked up at him and shook his head. “You’re young. All young men cannot wait. Which is silly, because you have so much more time coming than I do. Wait a little longer. We will see what happens.”

The last four men came to the door. An American major came out, along with a lieutenant with several small boxes under one arm. They were escorted by two enlisted MPs. The MPs took up stations at the door and the officers got into the Jeep and drove off. 

Parata thought he could take the remaining guards, but before he rose to his feet again, he saw a lizard scurry by his feet. That didn’t seem odd, even in this climate. Every bombed city seemed to have small animals that sought the shelter easily provided by rubble. But both men watched it run around the remnants of a wall and followed. For Parata, there were legends of spirits using lizards to communicate to people. Barambah was reminded of Alinga the Lizard Man trying to get at a great boomerang under Uluru and wondered idly if this lizard also wanted to get at something hidden. Accordingly, both men followed the lizard out of curiosity and saw it disappear into a hole in a trap door.

“We should follow it,”  both men said together. 

The trap door, when raised, revealed a set of stairs. Hana Parata pulled an electric torch from his kit and shined the light ahead of them. “I think this might go to a bunker under the compound.” For people who started so many wars, the German military seemed fearful of the consequences.

What they found as they went forward, however,  didn’t seem to be any kind of air raid shelter. The stone-lined passage they walked down eventually opened onto alcoves. In the first one, a stone head was displayed. In place of hair, it had snakes carved into it. But it was not displayed facing out toward the passage. Instead, it faced a cloudy mirror behind it and her startled face could only be seen in the reflection. 

This time it was Parata who stopped his older companion from getting into trouble. As Jarrah reached forward, Hana stayed his hand and said, “No good will come of playing with it. It was set that way for safety.”

The next alcove had a sword of Japanese design, sitting on a stand with the blade facing upward. Moving on, they saw another sword, carefully encased in a leather sheath. 

“This is more like a museum than an air raid shelter,” Jarrah said. “I like museums, when I can get in. They tell you what people think are important. Of course, weapons are important in a time of war, but why these? They must have stories.”

“I am sure they do,” said Hana. “We will tell Fox about this. He will know more about how to handle these things than we do. Let’s stick to our business. Your First Fire. It might even be down here.”

“No. There are stones in the walls to keep the dirt from crumbling, but the bracers are wood. You cannot have the First Fire here. What is that by your foot?”

The private looked down. There was a strip of something, cloth he thought at first, but rather, more like very thin leather. It led deeper into the passage and he turned the light to follow it. As far as he could see, it didn’t end, but at one point, turned around a bend or into another alcove. Impulsively, he followed it, not studying the other alcoves. 

His urgency may have come from a hint of sound he thought he heard from the same place, a murmur that may have been nothing. The Australian followed but stopped shortly. “There are numbers on one section.”

“It leads here,” Hana said, as he stopped at another alcove. “Oh, no,” he moaned, staring at what was there.


To Be Continued…

Sneak Peek Sunday– Safe Where It Belongs

 This is one of the stories from W.I.T.C.H. Hunters Forever. I will be posting it in sections. I hope you like it. It takes place between Victory in Europe and the Nuremberg Trials.

Safe Where it Belongs 

“Lock, label, and ship out those file cabinets. We’ll go through them and condense the information later,” Major Rafael Jones instructed his team. There were a lot of file cabinets. Each file was a prisoner that had been taken here. A total of fourteen had been rescued when the place fell to the western Allies.

It was called a research facility. It was a war crime. They’d sent Allied prisoners here. They had also sent civilians, and that was something that had been given a name: crimes against humanity.

A young man, just a couple of years out of law school, was with Jones, as the second in rank. He was Lieutenant Paul Smith. He nodded, “We want the commanding officer’s records, most of all. We need direct orders from people higher up. We want to track everything back up the chain of command as high as we can.”

They moved further along the main corridor of the building as they talked. Jones said in a friendly way, “Just like a mob round up. I may not have finished college, but I have some experience with the needs of the prosecution. Let’s see. I think the commanding officer’s office is going to be around here. Look at the upper edge of the wall. There’s wires there. Antennae for wireless reception, and some other lines, too. Trace those to the communications room, that will be right next to the commanding officer’s.”

The young man took that in. “How long have you been a policeman?”

“Since 1930. They were hiring, and I figured I wouldn’t get bored doing it. I was pretty much right about that, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get frustrated, wanting to accomplish more. The best days, you get there before the worst happens.”

“And then, there’s today.” Smith said it with a trace of sadness of his own, as well as understanding. “I understand the survivors have already given statements.”

“For what the statements are worth. I’m not sure the levitating bell that kills people with sound is going to be something to lead with. Especially since they didn’t see it first hand. Still, they’ve given specific actions by their guards that will put those men behind bars.”

He opened a couple of doors. The first was, as he predicted, a communications room, small, with several devices, including one of those Enigma machines, and multiple radios with headsets. There were two stations for workers to take down and send out messages. It was of no particular interest to their investigation, but the next door down was what they were looking for. The commanding officer wouldn’t be going to trial. He was another one who hadn’t wanted to face the consequences of his actions. According to the troops who had secured the facility, they’d had the local coroner or whatever the equivalent was take possession of the body and handle the job of identifying the cause of death– although the bullet entry wound on his temple was noted. That was appropriate. A verdict of suicide would sound better coming from a local source, and the Allies had enough to keep them busy.

“I’ll bag and tag anything I find with writing, even a shopping list, just in case it’s the key to a code,” remarked Rafael. “If you see film or any kind of recordings, give me a holler. Documentation can come in many forms. Some of these places filmed their atrocities and I imagine that’s all the more likely when they are calling it research.”

Paul looked in some cabinets. Opening the first door, he said, “I have definitely found some pear brandy, and I don’t even know what that tastes like, do you?”

“No, but… if you want to confiscate some of that evidence, we could probably investigate it further after the day’s work is done.” It wouldn’t be the first time a few drinks had helped wash away thoughts about what had happened, not on the battlefield, but in the cold planned destruction of everyone the Nazis deemed unworthy of a place in their Reich.

“Sounds good. And I’ve got some film reels, you were probably right, unless this is a girly movie for troop morale.”

“Either way, we’ll have to have a look. Let’s hope it’s dancing girls.” Rafael finished packing up the paperwork from the officer’s desk. “Hey, what’s that?”

He approached a portrait of Hitler that hung on the wall, just a trifle askew.

“Something for the target range?” suggested Paul.

“I mean, when a picture isn’t straight, sometimes,” Rafael took it off the wall, “There’s a safe behind it.”

“You don’t say,” Paul came over, eyeing it with interest.

“I’ll send a runner to get some tools so we can drill it.”

“No need,” Paul told him. He was rubbing his fingertips together as he said it. “Look, the Smith isn’t just a name. My dad was a locksmith. I used to help out around the shop, and I think I can get this open with what we have on hand.”

“It’s not someone’s hope chest, this is real high security stuff. You can really do it?”

Paul had already removed a screwdriver from his pocket and was unscrewing a metal plate with the name of the safe manufacturer on it. “There’s usually a bypass here that allows us to avoid the combination entirely. Are there any keys in the desk?”

“Ah,” Rafael went back and started looking. “I didn’t notice anything first time around, but there could be something under paperclips or in the box of staples. Good places to hide small things, always handy but never obvious.” “Nothing on one. I have a click on two… two is in a false set. Three is binding, four is binding, nothing on five or six. Let me go back…” The words Paul was saying to guide himself were almost like a song or a meditation, thought Rafael. He was distracted from the search for the key and doubted he needed to find it.

“Six is binding. Six is set. I’ve got something, I’ve lost five. Four is set. Three is moving; it was in a false set. I have it in place now. Two is binding. Two is set. One is set. Back to five and…” Paul turned a bent clip he’d used as a tensioning tool. There was a click and the door sprung open.

Inside the safe was nothing but a fire. Paul gasped and stepped back. “That’s scorching!”

Rafael stared at it. “They must have started the fire, then closed the safe. Without air, it’s been smoldering all this time. That’s why it can still burn. I guess we’ve lost some documents, or maybe some valuables they didn’t want us to get. Either way, we can just let it burn itself out. We don’t want the fire to spread, though.” He had leather gloves and strode forward quickly, closing it.

“That is hot. But at least this should exclude sparks. Anything else you think we should check for here? No sense trying the safe again until the fire is really dead or we have an extinguisher.” Major Jones was the senior officer, but the attorney would be organizing the information for the prosecution and any ideas he had were worth using to focus the collection. Besides, the young prosecutor clearly had some unusual interests of his own, suited for uncovering secrets. They cleared out much of the building, and took photographs of some sites and equipment that couldn’t be taken to the courtroom.

They had no idea there were others nearby with interest in the contents of the complex.

TO BE CONTINUED…

What’s coming up

 Seems like I haven’t posted here in Forever. 

Seriously, sorry for the long absence. I’d rather work on my fiction than the blog in general, when time is limited, and I think we all found last year pretty stressful, and stress isn’t great for the creative juices. Allan and I both have multiple conditions that make changes for the worse dangerous. I hope you’ve all weathered the pandemic all right yourselves. My sympathies for any losses you’ve had– health, loved ones, finances. No one’s pain is lessened by someone else having it worse, so it’s okay to share your burdens. 

But enough about what’s been going on. You want to know what is happening with the books. Forever Festive will definitely by out in November, and I’m only waiting that long because I think that Christmas books are most enjoyable at Christmas time. You’ll get to meet Rafael’s family, find out a bit about the magic community in Buffalo, New York, and best of all, spend more time with Clara. At least, Rafael thinks that’s the best part. There’s also a guardian angel with a missing ward, who brings the mystery to Rafael Jones. (photo by Ralph Skirr, courtesy of Unsplash)

As for the anthology, Forever W.I.T.C.H Hunting, that will be out after Forever Festive, probably around this time next year. The good news is, I have four stories already finished and will release at least one more here for you to enjoy in advance. More good news: Rafael, Clara, Sir Lynn, Flannery, Eugene, and Medium Brown will all be represented if I get all the stories finished. Clara is slated for three stories, and Sir Lynn is pretty much involved throughout in some way, since he manages the group. The first story starts before Britain is officially at war, and the last one comes just after Forever Festive. There will also be new faces, one of which will be an important part of Forever Chosen… the next novel coming after Forever Festive. Oh, and the new people include– a cryptologist, a telekinetic, a demonologist, a witch, a healer, and a few who can’t be summed up that easily. 🙂  

Forever Chosen will bring back the vampires you love to hate. 

Any questions? 

Krampus Lesson

A little note: This story does not include Rafael Jones. It is, however, a look into the life of Sir Lynn Fox, his colleague. 

KRAMPUS LESSON 

 Peter Fox pulled off his mittens as he walked to school alongside his father, Sir Lynn. Sir Lynn had straight, silver hair, and glittering blue eyes, whereas Peter got his brown curls and dark eyes from his mother, Susan. “I don’t know why mother has to fuss so. It’s the last day before the Christmas holidays, and nothing bad ever happens to children around Christmas.”

“Maybe not to good children,” Sir Lynn said, though he could think of all too many exceptions, “but there is danger for naughty children. So put your mittens back on and don’t worry your mother by getting frostbite. You’ll want your fingertips when you’re older, even if you aren’t thinking of them now.”
          Peter had already stuck his hands in his pockets, because they’d felt the cold the moment he’d taken the mittens off. He tried to look as if he was only being condescending as he put the mittens back on and asked, “I don’t exactly call Father Christmas leaving coal or switches dangerous. Disappointing, to be sure, but not dangerous.” He was ten years old, after all, the eldest of four children, and had to show he was too sophisticated for such threats. 

“I wasn’t thinking of Father Christmas, Peter. There are other things to be concerned with, Krampus being the one most likely to harm you. The Yule Cat tends to stay in Iceland.”

“Krampus sounds like a pain we would learn about in Latin class.”

Angustiam dolorificam,” said Sir Lynn, absentmindedly. 

“What’s that?”

“The proper Latin for cramps. Sorry, you were asking about who Krampus is. I haven’t met him, but he’s said to be half-goat, half-demon– which I have my doubts about the likelihood of. Half-satyr, half-demon would be possible. Anyhow, whatever he is, he’s known for finding naughty children the night before St. Nicklaus’s day, and beats them with sticks, then throws them in his sack and carries them away.”

“Where does he take them?”

“I think that’s a matter of pure speculation. Some people say he eats them, or takes them to hell, or to his home, but none of that but the eating is specific about what happens to them, and while goats will eat anything, demons generally have no more need for food than any other angel.”

“I thought you knew about all sorts of magical creatures.”

“Well, I do, and I know about all kinds of people. But if you looked up a random name in a telephone directory and asked me to tell you about him, I wouldn’t be likely to know them specifically. I suppose the best way to find out about him is… no, no.”        

“I know what you were going to say.”

“Do you?”

“Yes. You always say one of the best ways to find out about someone is to meet them and judge for yourself.”

“That’s right. But the obvious flaw in that plan is that I am not a naughty child, and those are the only people who he comes to.”

“I could pretend to be a naughty child,” Peter suggested. 

Sir Lynn smiled. “Pretend… yes…”

Peter wasn’t sure he liked his father’s tone on that. “I can make it believable. Plus, I’ll use a summoning circle so it wouldn’t just be random bait.”

          Sir Lynn nodded slowly. He hadn’t meant to make this into an investigation, but supernatural creatures kidnapping children did fall broadly into his jurisdiction, as the official Knight Protector against occult threats. (A little-known title, to be sure, but one he had well earned.)
          And Peter was diligent when it came to summoning circles. It had been about the only way to get him to care about his maths studies. Lydia, the second eldest, certainly wouldn’t be permitted, as she had a bad habit of dragging her foot through the circle as she worked. What she lacked in spatial awareness, though, she was making up for in a knack for languages. Susan found her a great help in translating. The other two, Percy and Lucy, were so young that their only magical training at this point was learning to redirect emotional reactions so as not to do something they would regret, and to not touch things they did not understand. 

          Perhaps the reason this was the first year he’d thought about what Krampus actually did was because this was the first year one of his children was old enough to volunteer to be bait. That thought troubled him, and he decided he would talk to Susan about it once he had seen Peter safely to school. He was good at thinking of the big picture, of strategy and resources and so on. He wasn’t always grounded and able to think in terms of appropriateness… a failing he almost certainly got from his own father. Although he was much older than Susan, he hadn’t had experience parenting until Peter had come along. 

          He made a few suggestions and encouraging remarks as Peter rattled off ideas for getting Krampus to come when they were ready, and what the design for the summoning circle should be. The idea of drawing wards on the walls with messy crayon to strengthen the containment and irritate it on the basis that grownups hate scribbles on the walls was inspired, in his opinion, and Peter admitted it was inspired because of how the housekeeper, Mrs. Cook, and the maid, Miss Butler, had fussed about Lucy’s “floral art pieces” a few weeks ago. 

          Once the boy was safely at the school yard (to think, Eton was only a year away), Sir Lynn took a short cut back through a reflection in a window and stepped out through the full-length mirror in the vestibule. Susan was on the telephone, taking notes. “Certainly,” she said with a soft urgency. “We can make room for them. Our own children range from 2 to 10 years of age. Three children? We can take twice that many before we need to add staff.”

          She made a few more notes, reading back a date, time, and train station information, and then responded, “Happy holidays to you as well, Neville, and good bye.”

          She then looked to Lynn. “Refugee children. Kindertransport. The Germans don’t want Jewish children, and I knew you’d agree we need to show them a warm welcome.”

          Fox nodded. “If there’s one good thing to come out of this appeasement strategy, it is that we can at least offer that now. There’s war brewing, though. It’s nothing but wishful thinking to believe the Germans only want to recover lost territories and wealth.”

          “Is that just an opinion, or are you remembering the future?”

          “Pieces. Not as much as I should like to know, and yet more than I want to. Don’t worry about how many children they send us now; there will be more later, from cities. We shall need to set up a large schoolroom in one of the halls. Best to work on it now, I think. It will be hard to find craftsmen later. How is your sister doing?”

          Susan bit her lower lip the tiniest amount. When Sir Lynn seemed to suddenly change topic, he was probably following a connecting thread no one else knew about yet. “Which one?”

          “Laura,” Sir Lynn said. “As far as I know, your youngest sister doesn’t stay in touch.”

          “Laura is… I’m not really sure how she is,” Susan said suddenly, “She called yesterday, and I asked, as one does, and she simply said not to worry. I thought it was odd at the time, but now that you ask, I’m bothered. Should we go see her?”

          “No, but call her back, and make sure to be clear that she can come visit any time, for as long as she likes.”

          “Of course, she and–”

          “Oh, no need to mention him. If she wants to bring her husband, she can.”

          “Must you be so mysterious?!” Susan was annoyed now. There seemed to be vague hints of trouble and as Laura was her sister, she ought to be informed.

          “I see a very likely future of her wanting to go somewhere on her own,” he said. He gave a small smile. “And it will work out very well for all of us if she comes and stays with us for a while, when she’s ready. But now to the big plan of the day.” He sat down, patted the chair next to him, and once Susan was seated, he took both her hands in his. “Peter has suggested summoning Krampus.”

          “Who?” Susan looked confused for a moment, but then asked, “Not that Christmas demon some Europeans believe in?”

          “There are more things in heaven and Earth…” he reminded her. 

          “I know that very well,” she told him. “Still, is Krampus really Britain’s problem?”

          “Europe rather is our problem,” he told her. “Krampus included. There’s more than enough evil in the world right now without a demon increasing it.”

          “So Peter is going to summon Krampus and you’re going to talk to him?”

          “I’m going to do more than that. I’m going to find out where he takes those naughty children he makes off with, and if possible, rescue them.”

          She sighed. “I can’t possibly say no to that. But make sure you put wards on our other children so he doesn’t hone in on their naughtiness instead. Percy was chewing on the head of his little toy lamb, and Cook complained of a headache, so he’s been accidentally making magical poppets of his stuffed toys again.”

          When Peter arrived home from school, he wanted to go directly to the west wing, which had rooms for magic practice, easily isolated from the rest of the house when needed. Susan insisted he wash his hands, have a snack, and put his school bag on its hook first. 

          “You don’t do this with father,” he protested. 

          “I pretty much have, except for the school bag, and a briefcase from the ministry is much the same thing. You have to concentrate in order to do magic safely, and you can’t concentrate with a growling stomach and other pressing business on hand.” 

          He argued no further and he did appreciate the cheese, cress, and crackers, and milky tea much more than he cared to say.

          “This is going to be a family project,” she added.  

          “What?”

          “This is the first time anyone is calling an unfamiliar demon into the house and, with the amount of trouble you lot get into, I don’t want any of you to not be under our eyes when Krampus comes. It won’t do any good to have your father watching over you if Krampus is busy snatching away another child. You two can get started and I’ll round up the others and be there at 15:45.” 

          Fifteen minutes. He sighed noticeably and headed to the west wing. At the first door along the corridor, he gave a short knock and went on without waiting. That was his father’s private library, full of books and scrolls and things not meant for people to browse without oversight, and he knew his father was probably there this time of day, especially when there was occult action to prepare for. Further on in that part of the manor, there was a room with slate tiles on the floor and stone-and-mortar walls. It had one window and the roofing was lightweight, giving a couple of directions to direct energy one did not want bouncing off the stone. 

Peter took a metal rod out of a cupboard and placed it into a little hole in the center of one of the large slate tiles. In the same cabinet, he found some cotton string and a piece of chalk, tying the items together to work as a compass allowing him to roughly draw the circle. A carved wooden box held several glass jars and from these he picked one containing sea salt, another with a gooey mix of honey and sap, and, after consideration, a third with powdered mica. Yes, mica was the thing. Aligned with Mercury, it was good for communications and should aid in getting Krampus’s attention. It also acted to repel negativity, helping to reinforce other protective elements in the circle. 

First, he traced the sticky honey and sap mixture onto the chalk circle with his finger, making sure to dip his finger again every few inches so the drawing didn’t end up dry and thin anywhere. Then he sprinkled a bit of the mica on it, all the way around. He stepped back for a moment, not so much to admire the sparkling circle, but to make sure there weren’t any cracks through it or scuffing. Then, he carefully drew another circle a foot beyond the first. For this one, he laid down the salt, not lightly, but a quarter inch deep. When his jar ran out, he went back to the box for more. 

Sir Lynn came in, then. “Sorry I took so long. I was doing a bit of research. How’s it coming along?”

Peter gestured to the circle and Sir Lynn pivoted to look. “Oh, very nice. Mica is an excellent choice.” He stretched out a hand. “Incense, please. I’ll set up an area for the little ones to give them a little more cover if things get tricky. “

“He’s only half demon,” Peter said, unperturbed, as he found a second jar of salt to finish the outer circle. 

“Possibly so, but what if he’s the son of Pan? That would make his other half a god and we would have a much less predictable situation. Never prepare only for the most likely scenario, Peter. Prepare for anything from the most likely to the worst possible and you’re pretty well covered.”

“Did you tell Arthur that?”

“I could tell him what I liked. But he was a man of faith and such men tend to assume things will turn out well for them.” He paused. “I still prepared for the worst, and that helped.”

“Sorry, father. I didn’t mean to bring back a bad memory. It’s just… learning where things go wrong is how I try to prepare for the worst. I haven’t got much of my own experience to draw on, so I have to ask about yours.”

“And it’s quite right that you do so. One day I’ll go through it in detail, how I lost my best friend in war. But today, we have sigils to draw.” 

“You’ve got your best walking stick with you, haven’t you?” asked the boy.

“With the Seal of Solomon carved under the cover. Of course. Should it be necessary, I should be able to bind him outside the circle. That’s a fallback measure. What signs are you thinking of?”

“The signs of the archangels at the points of the compass, as my serious ones, and I also thought this would be how I’d get his attention…” Peter pulled a piece of notepaper from his pocket. Sir Lynn grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. 

Just then, Susan entered with the other children. Lydia was wearing some of Peter’s hand-me-downs. She had her own school uniform and a wardrobe full of pretty things, but she liked her brother’s clothes better. Lucy, on the other hand, was so sweet looking in her little green dress and white pinafore, one could almost forget she had a tendency to mentally throw fireballs when she was particularly upset. Lydia was being helpful, and carried a blanket so that Susan could try to settle Percy down for a nap, and on her arm was a basket with some toys, snacks, and other pass-time things. This left Susan free to guide the two youngest. 

Peter gave them a brief wave, but kept his focus on the signs of the archangels, and Sir Lynn grabbed a piece of chalk and set down two of the signs himself, then stepped back to make sure things were aligned. He stepped in to fix some tiny details, then gave Peter a nod. 

Peter suddenly rushed over to his siblings, gave Lydia a mild but rudely sudden shove, pulled a box of crayons out of the basket and used them to make a drawing on the wall. It was approximately the symbol called the Seal of Solomon, or King Solomon’s Seal. At least it had the basic Star of David inscribed within a circle, but instead of the inner details being filled in, it was depicted as being balanced on the nose of a performing sea lion. That seal had a clown nose and top hat on. 

Susan, having made sure Lydia wasn’t hurt, just offended, began to sternly remind Peter that a need for something to write with was no reason to forget his manners. But as she scolded him, a cloud of black smoke appeared within the summoning circle on the floor. 

A deep, menacing voice boomed forth. “There is mischief afoot! Deeds of selfishness or malice must be corrected.” The smoke began to spread, slowly revealing the form it had obscured. Krumpus stood at least seven feet tall, not counting his goat-like horns, and his animalistic legs were likely not fully extended. Long dark hair covered much of his skin, with his chest and face bare. 

“At least you’re wearing enough to be decent,” said Susan. “Is that lederhosen?” She continued without waiting for an answer. “And I am dealing with Peter’s mischief, thank you very much.”

Krampus looked awkwardly away from Peter and her, catching Sir Lynn’s gaze in the process. “This isn’t how it normally goes.”

“We’re not the most normal household. Anyway, you were really invited here for other reasons. I need to know more about what you get up to… normally.” 

“Invited?” Krampus was even more uncertain, shifting from one bent leg to the other. “Is this boy so out of control you want to be rid of him, then?”

“Nonsense. We concocted this plan together and working with him is always a delight. Oh, he may sometimes eat too many biscuits before dinner or write rude poems, but nothing that isn’t simply part of growing up. He only shoved his sister just now to bait you. Quite clever.” Sir Lynn didn’t mention that Peter had kept that part of his plan to himself to ensure natural surprise and anger from the rest of them. He generally made it a principle to support initiative from those working on one of his projects, and he wasn’t about to make Peter at any greater risk by expressing disapproval.

“What am I here for, then?” Krampus stamped a hoof down in frustration. The impact shook the room, but, although some of the powder was knocked out in thin rays, the circle remained intact. That was why the sticky layer was so important. 

“Mind your manners,” Sir Lynn snapped at him. “You are in my house, and you are frightening the children.”

“I am supposed to frighten children,” Krampus snarled. 

“You’re a little alarming,” Peter said, “but not that scary. We’ve seen much worse. That man from Inland Revenue, for instance.”

          “You stink!” Lucy complained. He didn’t just look like a goat, he exuded the scent of a billy goat to go with it; furthermore, brimstone and other rarer chemical smells still hung in the air from his crossing between worlds. 

          Susan, still holding her hand, reminded her. “We do not say things like that to people. If it is necessary, we…” Susan was at a loss for a moment. Offering a mint wouldn’t exactly do much for a smell that came mostly from a hairy, goatish hide. “Well, we be discreet. Mr. Krampus will not be staying long, I think, so offering him a chance to wash up would not be in order.”

          “Is that why you suggested it to Lady Hortense last summer?” asked Lydia. 

“She had spent the entire afternoon in the heat on a sweaty horse. Whether she smelled or not, she most certainly wanted to wash up.”

Krampus stamped a hoof down. “Excuse me. This still doesn’t make any sense. This is not my usual entrance and certainly not my usual reception. What exactly is going on?”

“Sorry about that,” Sir Lynn said. “Things get a little chaotic sometimes. You were brought here because of the nature of your other visits to humanity. I understand that when you come to naughty children, you not only scare them and hit them with switches, which by the way is in itself inappropriate, but you are known to stick some of them in your bag and take them away.”

“That is correct. Except I mostly just scare them and leave the switches behind to be used if needed.”

“I see. You aren’t exactly volunteering information. In that case, I further compel you to tell me where you take them.”

“I take them to school.”

“They generally are never seen again. What do you mean by school?”

“It’s a boarding school. For troubled children. It’s… it’s not easy to explain.”

“So far it doesn’t seem hard at all. Where is it? Who runs it?”

“Well… the location. It’s in between places really. And I suppose you could say I run it. I leave the instruction to humans, though. Some are graduates, others volunteer for the job for other reasons. It’s… it would be easier if you saw it.”

Sir Lynn took a deep breath. The demonic being was offering to take him to where the children were taken. Sure, Krampus said it was a school, but compelling a creature of chaos to tell you something wasn’t always effective, and without compulsion, he could well be lying. If he was lying, Lynn Fox could be stepping into a trap.

He stepped into the circle. “Peter?” he said softly.

Peter Fox swallowed, trying to quelch a sense of trepidation. If anything happened to his father, he’d never forget this moment. But it had to be done, if they were to ensure the safety of the missing children. “To the outer realms, I release thee. Go back to whence you came.” It was the proper way to send away a summoned entity, so as not to accidentally release them into the world. 

For a brief while, they travelled through a kind of fog, although Sir Lynn knew it was probably the same kind of smoke that had come through with Krampus on his arrival. Such things were common in the liminal space between demons and the human world, but since he was himself effectively now part of that space, it did not have the intrusive scent and feel it did in his home. 

It felt like it took minutes to travel, but his heart beat only once before he found himself on a well kept lawn surrounded by the fog. The clear area was lit as if by sunlight, but, looking up, Sir Lynn could see no source. 

Krampus noticed. “We have a lot of filters going on. There are energies that wouldn’t be so good for humans, and this is supposed to be a haven.” He gestured to a large brick building beyond a playground. “There’s enough light coming through for us to grow a lot of our own food in a garden in back.”

Sir Lynn took in everything in view from where he was. Aside from the surrounding haze and the sunlight without a sun, it would be impossible to tell they weren’t on Earth, in the plane of existence living people called home. There were about a dozen kids outside right now, with a pair of women in nun’s habits keeping an eye on them as they played. It was his turn to be confused. “I really didn’t expect anything like this. What do you do it for? I thought you came to punish naughty kids?”

“Oh, most children just need a good scare. But some of them act up because they don’t have any consistent rules and attention. Maybe their parents are busy, maybe they don’t know what they are doing, maybe they think they shouldn’t have to provide structure for their child, but expect the rules of the world to bend to the pleasure of the family. That last group, and the ones who create and enforce rules, but do so with inconsistent anger and leave the children confused and resentful, those are the ones whose children are the naughtiest.”

“When a child has been misbehaving over the course of years, has a pattern of worsening behavior, well, that’s when I take them away. Because for them, it’s not really the child being naughty but the parent. If I can get to them in time, we can give them the structure they need. A schedule, adults who take the time to know their names and give them individual attention, responsibilities, but rights, too, that give them reason to believe they can trust in us.”

“This is unexpected. You are part demon, right?”

“Sure. My mother was a guardian angel before the war. Like a lot of the ones on the losing side, she got transformed, made into a sort of goat-bat woman, but she could still look like a human with enough focus. Well, when she was on Earth one time, she met a teenage orphan, depressed, leaving his family herd virtually unattended, and she took him under her wing, because that’s what guardian angels do, even if the wing has gone leathery.”

“And you decided to do the same?”

“Hey. I’m telling the story. You want to see the gardens? Let’s go around to the back while I explain the rest of my backstory.” They turned down a neat, gravel path. “So when he’s gone and rounded up the animals who strayed and fixed the fences and generally gotten things back under control, she goes on her way, and she doesn’t see him again until years later. By then, well, he cleans up nice and she realizes he’s no longer a boy, but a man, and she rather takes a fancy to him. About a year later, there’s me, but she can’t take me back to hell with her when she needs to leave, and dad has to raise me on his own. But I’m way too weird for him to take into town. His parents are gone so he can’t ask them how to raise a kid. He’s worried the neighbors will think I’m some kind of monster. So I don’t get a chance to develop normal social skills. I help out around the farm some, but if I wander off, my dad doesn’t know what to do about it, so I go into the forest a lot. I guess some of the old stories come because I was always messing around in there. Jump out at someone who is on their own to scare them, see them scream and run. When I got older, flirting around with the nymphs and such.”

“So you weren’t the son of Pan or a satyr– you were what got humanity telling tales about them.”

He shrugged. “I guess so. Of course, at the time, I was just trying to have some fun and see people without causing trouble for my dad. But that’s the thing. I was kind of rotten because I didn’t know better. So I’m trying to give other kids who aren’t coping well with the parenting they are getting a chance to try something a little more structured.”

“It’s not exactly a chance to try, though. You’re kidnapping them, not asking for consent.”

“They already have more freedom than they know what to do with and no way of knowing how much better off they will be without it. Of course I’m not going to ask for their opinion on the spot.”

 “It’s not right.”

“You think not? How many messed up families have you seen? When I got to your house, I expected a drunk father, mother with mental health issues, and a group of younger siblings bullied by the oldest, who was on the edge of puberty and about to break into potentially criminal behavior if it wasn’t nipped in the bud. I didn’t know what to do because I found family unity and loving support. I’ve barely seen what happy families look like… but I knew it when I saw it.”

“Ah. Well. We do our best. But what about the families of the children here?”

“Sometimes they are ones I visited a year before. Other times, I can see that they been ignoring other warning signs. Guardian angels err too much on the side of free will and parental rights, but they do often try to do some interference and correction, and I can see where that’s been falling on deaf ears. Look, my mom wouldn’t have been a demon if she didn’t think she knew better what was right than the Almighty. Maybe I’m not doing what I do by the book, but I’m getting damaged kids to a place where they heal.” 

They turned the corner. Sunflowers grew higher than their heads, blossoms pointing straight above. Climbing peas were trellised against the building, reaching the second story. Fruit trees had larger than average fruit weighing down the branches, and the herbs were kept in neat containers to prevent wild overgrowth. “The plants, at least, are thriving,” said Sir Lynn, reaching out a hand to a touch the flowers of a mustard plant that had a bee exploring another part. “Where did that come from?” he asked. 

“We have five hives. The original bees came from Earth, of course, generations ago. Sometimes I bring back a drone or a spare queen, to keep the lineage fresh. Most things I brought down myself. The lawn, for instance, is sod I tore up and took here piece by piece. The building is magical.”

“I wondered why it was so like a modern English boarding school.”

“The first one was based on Plato’s symposium. I update it as domestic engineering gets innovated in the human world. Seems to make things safer and more comfortable for the mortals, and it makes it easier for them to graduate back if they are used to modern things.”

“Very few children went to school until the last century. What made you think of it?”

“They needed lessons. Of some kind. They needed looking after. Schools are a place where children learn from someone they can trust and respect. And even if most cultures had them just for the elite, that isn’t always the case. What they learn has changed over time, too, but they always leave competent in something that they should be able to put to use.”

“Such as?”

“Well, Marcos wants to be a beekeeper. He works with Sister Brigit on the hives. Kathleen wants to paint and is building a portfolio. Eyes-of-Elk is quite a good typist and working on her shorthand. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to come up with a way to simulate switchboard operation for her, but she can probably get an office job without it.”

“May I talk with some of the staff?”

“Certainly. Anyone in particular?”

“I’m more interested in their perspectives than their specialties. One of the former students, I think, and one of the Sisters, and perhaps someone who isn’t your usual source of workers?”

“Let’s start with Alice. She’s in charge of the kitchen. I don’t just want to call her the cook, because she makes sure the children are fed properly, but she also teaches them, so they will be able to take care of themselves when they grow up. She learned the same way from Pierre.”

“Who did he learn from?” Sir Lynn asked casually.

“Hannah. Although he also remembered techniques he’d learned before coming here. His father worked in a kitchen, and sometimes left Pierre to handle the food while he got marinated.”

“You have an excellent memory.” That spoke well of Krampus. If you supervised that many people over that much time and remembered them in detail, you had to care. Of course, it was always essential to verify what one could. He added. “I always thought of demons as being chaotic, but you’re giving the children stability.”

“I had too much chaos as a kid.”

Just then, one of the children ran past them. Well, tried to run past, he collided glancingly with Krampus, who put hands on his shoulders and stopped him, “Piotr, what is the rush? You could get hurt or hurt someone when you run without paying attention.”

“Sorry. Just excited. We’re going to meet new students today, aren’t we?”

“Possibly later, but not just now. Would you believe I got distracted by a magician with a happy home?”

“Why would that distract you?”

“Maybe because both those things seem rare.” Then he knelt next to the boy and explained to him, “He’s got power and influence, Piotr. When you get asked a question by someone like that, if you are doing right, giving them a full answer can get someone on your side worth having. Why don’t you say hello to him?”

Piotr looked inquisitively at Sir Lynn. “Hello, sir. Who are you?”

“Well, you can call me Mr. Fox. Have you been here long?
        “Just a year. This will be my first time welcoming new students. I made scarves for them with the school motto.”

Lynn Fox scrutinized the one held up for him to see. “Caprae non ovium’… that means ‘Goats, not sheep’.”

“Because we misbehaved, which makes us goats, but also because we don’t follow mindlessly, and also because Mr. Krampus is a bit goatish.”

“I see. Very nice craftsmanship, too.”

“Thank you. I used a tool to cut the motto out from felt that I could sew on and make them all standardized. It’s also faster than embroidery.”

“Did you learn to do that here?”

“Yes. Mr. Johanson teaches us to work with machines.”

“Is Mr. Johanson a former student?” Sir Lynn asked of Krampus. 

“No. He’s a former counterfeiter. I’ll let you get his story straight from his mouth for the most part, but just so you understand how it works. A little boy was going to paint something rude with whitewash on the same bridge Mr. Johanson was going to jump from. He’d gotten out of prison to find out he couldn’t get a job and no one in his family wanted to speak to him. Well, that was a bigger priority than a bit of vandalism, so I pulled him back from the edge. I guess the boy saw me and ran off, but I offered Mr. Johanson a place here.”

“Thank you. You mentioned having me on your side.” They were moving up a few low steps to the kitchen door. “Do you have something working against you?”

“Just the usual. Maintenance costs, retirement funds, food bills. Then there’s getting the graduating kids back into the real world. That’s where someone with your influence might be able to give us a hand.”

“I’ll be frank. I believe we are on the verge of a war. That wouldn’t make it hard to find work for them. But you have children from many different countries. They might not feel comfortable sewing uniforms for an army not their own. Or being asked to put on a uniform themselves– I wouldn’t ask it of them, but while I could give them an identity for their new life, that identity wouldn’t protect them from being treated like other young men and asked to do their bit.”

“You’re using a lot of euphemisms.”

“War is terrible. It’s easier, sometimes, to avoid talking about what really happens. That the bit we ask young men to do includes fighting and dying; losing their innocence, if nothing else. I remember too much sometimes, past and future. This war– this one is important. It’s worth fighting. It’s also worth trying everything we can to make it less horrible. Krampus, do you only visit the children who celebrate Christmas?”

“No. Like I told you, I grew up in pagan times. It’s just a matter of which people keep stories of me.”

“I’d like to fund an expansion of your school. Can you… can you go to Germany, and Poland, especially the ghettos? Just this year, focus on those children. They won’t be there next year, one way or another.” Darkness moved behind his blue eyes.

“Are you a seer?” Krampus asked. He looked more closely. “You’re only half-human yourself. What are you?”

“Someone not quite bound by time.” He paused. “I remember. I remember the war that is to come, and other things. I remember setting up documents for the students you collect this year, later on, when the war is ending. I remember Eyes-of-Elk getting a medal from the War Office, as she worked with code talkers in the field, translating and relaying information. I have a friend who is an American senator. I’ll ask him about finding a job for an Indian girl educated in an English boarding school, a scholarship student.” His manner was increasingly positive as he continued. “This will work. And since I have, in one timeline, already interviewed your staff and students… I remember them. Let’s just go to your office and figure out what I can do to help with the expansion, and then I can let you get back to your work.”

Stepping between worlds was easier for Sir Lynn than it was for most. Some beings were all spirit, while others were all earthly. Spirits often needed help to interact with the earthly world, and it took either a rare gift or special training for a human to see into the spirit world under normal circumstances. But Sir Lynn was of both worlds, and could choose when to travel unaided. Still, in some places the veil was thinner than others. On the one hand, Krampus’s school was built for earthly beings, and so was more real than the rest of the astral plane. The timbers were natural wood, the lawn the children played on was real sod, and they were, in fact, going to go back into the world one day. So it was as close to earthliness as a hidden realm could be. 

Meanwhile, in his own home, the summoning circle was still there, creating a kind of tunnel to the spirit world. Easy as mince pie to walk through. “Home, sweet home,” he said, as he saw his family eyeing him. 

Susan’s face fell in dismay. “Where are the children? Couldn’t you rescue anyone at all?” 

“I didn’t need to, darling.” He stepped out of the circle and came over to kiss her on the forehead, then all of his children likewise. “They were already rescued.” 

He picked up the two youngest children and nodded to his wife. “I’ll explain everything. Over a bit of cocoa.”