On a world as far away as the edge of a dream and as close as the end of a slide there is a broad, fertile valley snuggled down between two high mountain ranges, running down into a wide natural harbor. In the valley at the salt water’s edge, on either side (though more to the south than to the north if you want to be exact) of the river (which runs, jumps, plays and falls from the high mountain lake where the two ranges meet in the west all across the valley) lives one of the two strangest and most wonderful towns ever found anywhere.
If you are ever so lucky as to sail there, the first you see of Moose Harbor is the tall, graceful lighthouse. Its lamp never lets sailors go astray in those waters. The light pierces any obstacle, never hurts the eyes and always shines the color to sooth one best in any storm.
Once in the harbor itself, on a calm day, you can look down through the deep water at the stone ruins and all the fish and the young alligator who live there. Of the town, you would see to the north of the river the Port where boats and planes and hot air balloons and zeppelins and bicycles and land ships and space planes and all sorts of other modes of transportation may easily come to discharge their passengers or cargo, take on new passengers or cargo, refuel, recharge, re-provision or just relax without causing anyone any bother. Near to the Port floats the Inn. The broad, multi-story, comfortable, wooden building with the bluish slate roof drifts about over the water with a nice bit of lawn and a broad patio out back where one may sit and enjoy the sea air. If you do not happen to fly for yourself, just give a tug to one of the ropes which tether it in place and it will float down to the ground for you in short order.
Many of the other buildings have similar qualities, though most are content to stay on the ground if not always in the same place. There is the Moosiversity which makes up most of the town to the south of the river. It has classrooms in other lands and times that you reach just by going through the correct door at the correct time just like you would to reach your math lecture in a more ordinary school.Read more
The winter holidays bring many supernatural beings and agencies out into the moral during these magical times.
On this particular night of December, the fifth, one group of sinister supernatural creatures that were about were the Krampus demons. These monsters use ancient pacts to justify their actions of abusing many children on the fifth of December, even kidnapping a few. This was the dreaded Krampusnacht, a time dreaded in parts of central Europe. On this night, the yule devils came out seeking naughty children. Now punishing children is sometimes necessary, but what Krampus did was medieval and archaic. Krampus’s idea of naughty was harsh and mean. The mooses felt that such drastic codes of conduct were unfair and unjust, especially when applied to children.
This night two mooses were on assignment to keep Krampus from his goal of beating and kidnapping those children he felt were naughty. This night he would find Moosletoe and Mōseki in opposition to his diabolical plans.
Mōseki lead Moosletoe over the forest landscape. The sun was going down and the temperature was slowly dropping on this December dusk.
It was a good partnership. Moosletoe was an expert upon winter travel and Mōseki was an expert on stealth. Together they were truly prepared for the mission. And it was a very important mission. They had set out for the Mountains of Austria on a splashy world to counter Krampus’s plans.
On the afternoon before the Krampus nacht the two mooses where standing upon the peak line of a village. The majestic, snow-covered Alps rose all around the village. The mooses were small enough that they did not fear being seen.
Mōseki said, “These roofs are very steep so the winter snows do not pile up. Be careful and not slip, Moosletoe. I am sure the fall won’t hurt you, but just be cautious.”
Moosletoe laughed with good cheer, but respect over the concerned caution of her companion.
She stood on one poof. “Never fear, my spying companion. I shall practice due caution and not endanger our mission. We have too many children depending upon us tonight.”
Mōseki nodding in agreement with her words. She was known to be a very solemn moose, who took her missions very seriously. Knowing that Moosletoe might be playful, but still be concentrating upon this serious objective, reassured her. “Then we should get into position before sunset.”
She motioned with a poof toward the south end of the village. “Our intelligence indicates that the target will approach from that direction, coming down from the high mountain pass.”
Moosletoe looked at the direction in which Mōseki pointed. “You are the expert on stealth and espionage, but I know winter conditions and travel the same. This hoofed foe has mountain goat hooves. He will be good at climbing, but will be slow crossing deep snow drifts.”
“Snowshoes,” replied Mōseki.
“Cunning devil,” responded Moosletoe.
“Very smart. That is why we have had so much stopping him over the years,” said Mōseki.
“Then, shall we try our pooves at thwarting his malicious intent?” queried Moosletoe.
“Yes. Let us make our attempt.” Mōseki pulled a long line and a climbing hook out of her knapsack. She placed the hook over the peak of the roof and threw the rope down off the side of the house upon which the two small moosen stood.
“I meant to ask before,” Moosletoe said quietly, looking down the rope and sneaking glances over at Mōseki’s back. “Why the knapsack? Why not just keep things in your moose pocket?”
“It is much easier to collect a knapsack on go, and hand it off to someone else, than it is to pull the individual things out of my moose pocket to hand over, and we do not know who might need to carry the things at what point.” Mōseki said, as if the answer should have been obvious.
“But what if the knapsack gets caught on something, or lost, or stolen?” Moosletoe asked, biting her lower lip. Ever since she got involved keeping the Community Center organised, she had gotten more conscious and conscientious about keeping track of her gear.
“I have spares of everything in my pocket, of course,” Mōseki said and the corners of her eyes crinkled in the faint expression she mostly used for a smile. “And the straps have quick release tabs if needed.”
Moosletoe’s concern lingered for a moment, but then she let it go and turned away from potential problems and back to the task at hand, or poof.
The two moosen belayed down the side of the house. When you are only half a meter tall, a simple two story house is a very tall edifice, indeed. The two moosey agents rappelled down the house into the cobblestoned old street. The villagers had cleaned all of the snow away from the village, so the mooses could make good progress while still being stealthy.
Mōseki led the way, dodging from wall to lamppost, and then onward to other features of the street. Soon the two mooses were at the north end of the village.
The sun had moved well across the sky by the time the mooses arrived at their destination. Mōseki had picked this spot the first time he had scouted out the village.
Their destination was in an old horse corral. There had been no horses kept there for decades, but the stables had been preserved as a historical feature of the village. The place was used as a gardening display space in the spring and summer. For winter, there was very little activity in the stable barn and yard.
Mōseki pulled out a set of binoculars from the knapsack. “I thought this would be the best place to hide and still observe the target’s approach to the village tonight.”
Moosletoe morphed just a bit. She stretched up and out to a little over twice her former height, and climbed up onto the stableyard fence. Looking around to get the lay of the land she asked, “As the stealth and tactical expert in this situation, how do you think he will approach the village after night fall?”
“I think he will use darkness of night to sneak up on the village well into the evening, after everyone is slumbering,” replied Mōseki.
“Then we wait, but I suspect that there will be some bedeviling magic involved as well as in hiding his mischief,” said Moosletoe.
Mōseki continued to study the terrain south of the village, leading toward the southern high mountain pass. “You are the holiday magic expert. I am just here to help you with reconnaissance and surveillance.”
“Then we have a few hours to appreciate this lovely winter alpine scene. Soon the stars will be out and it is going to be a beautiful night,” stated Moosletoe.
All right. Minion has had enough of a break after her lonesome nighting. Now she has to try to catch up with her NaNoWriMo.org ing, and get back into posting. She has had time enough to be shocked and surprised she made it through last month. *starts some appropriately inspiring music for the Minion and gives her a hard stare* https://youtu.be/YdXQJS3Yv0Y
The stairs down to the basement were dark and narrow, even with Father holding one of the electric lanterns high over his head. Previous owners had run power, telephone, tv cable and even wires for a house wide intranet throughout the old house, but one could still tell that the original building had been designed and constructed without electricity in mind. It had none of the ceiling lights ignited by the flip of a switch by the door which Maddy was used to. The switches were there, but the switches controlled power sockets into which they currently had not lamps to plug.
Some of the plugs were in weird places, like by these little shelves along the walls of the stairway, two on the left, one on the right, that would light the way, when they found lamps small enough.
The first room, at the bottom of the stairs, came as quite a surprise. Not only was it far smaller than Maddy expected, considering the attic dimensions, but the room seemed entirely modern if one excused the flagstones instead of cement under foot. Almost new drywall surfaced the walls, and panels of a similar material hung in a light metal framework overhead, to bring the ceiling down to a more usual height. It even had light panels inside that lit without a flicker when Father tried the switch.
The staircase occupied one corner of the room. Across the space along the short wall, sat the laundry area. A long sturdy table built into the wall led to the hook ups for washer and dryer and then a big, deep sink, big enough for Maddy to bathe in, if she did not mind sitting up the whole time.
The long middle section of the room held a small collection of thoroughly modern appliances mingled with a hold out to the old. In spite of the age of the house, it had been adapted to benefit from an electric water heater, furnace, and air conditioning system, but it still retained an arrangement to heat water and air by burning wood or coal, and had a system in place to switch relatively easily from one means of climate control to the other, leading one to have doubts as to the reliability of the power supply to the house.
“I am going to have to ask around about electrical outages in this area, I think,” Father said after studying the strange set up a bit closer. “If they happen often and last long, we’ll have to put in a generator and come up with alternatives for days when the internet goes out and we still have work to do.” He always referred to Maddy’s classes and school work as her ‘job’, and just as important as the work he and Mum did.
After days and days of rain, overcast, and fog, from a hurricane to the south, the sun finally found its way through the day before. After a whole day to dry out, the day dawned relatively warm, and far less squashy under foot.
Mrs. Hillary, in her earlier guise as a suburban soccer-mom, had registered to help arrange part of the village Trick or Treating alternatives for a properly pandemic conscious and socially distanced celebration. She got permission to use the empty church as a staging post for her minions’ efforts, so there was no problem when it came to setting up the altar and indoor fire arrangements in and around the other activities.
As agreed, the ladies brought by their contributions to the wood store with D/OG and Maximus along as guards. It was startling to watch how quickly a crowd of ordinary-looking, pleasantly chatting people can go from carefully opening sealed containers of individually wrapped candies and sorting them for goodie bags for the children, to a mob of mask-wearing, gloved cultists, glaring almost hungrily at their enemies. The setup made for an almost perfect ambush. The ladies were outnumbered four to one, and no one could easily observe or interrupt.
When the nearest two cultists started to set aside their tasks in hand, Maximus and D/OG pointed out that it would not be twelve against three. It would be twelve against five. I do not know if it was Maximus’s almost subsonic growl; D/OG’s quiet yet perfectly audible and understandable murmur of ‘Good morning’; or the way each lady hefted a rather club-like stick of firewood in their dominant hand; but the cultists, as a collective, thought better of the ambush (especially those nearer two) and went back to their more charitable activities.
D/OG stayed behind to watch for sneakiness, and scan the candies stickers, and other things for tampering of the sort a cult of the Old Gods might get up to. He did not find anything, but the work crew did flinch and move away when the scanner emerged through the fur on D/Og’s forehead and whirled faintly.
The ladies departed with no further exchanges of unpleasantness. On the walk home D/OG commented mildly. “For a bunch of humans who react that badly to me, one wonders how they expect to cope with a return of the Old Gods.”
To pass the time until midnight, the ladies carved pumpkins for Jack O’Lanterns, carefully saving the seeds for salty, toasted snacks, and the removed pith for making soups and pies. Most notable among their efforts were the owl of light flying across the face of a dark full moon above a familiar church steeple. A black dog stood guard against a fiery background. A bunny raced across the face of the moon after half-formed creatures, and three, pointy-hatted women stood around a huge cauldron.
These would serve to help light and guard the main event. The thing from the trunk provided the fires inside, and the thing from the wardrobe came downstairs to enhance their effectiveness as wards against the agents of darkness. The thing or things from the circle had nothing to contribute. In fact, at some time in the last day or so, the wide metal circle had disappeared from the basement floor, though no one commented on it.
Eventually, after a light dinner and the washing of the dishes, Maximus and Magnar went to stand by the front door. “I guess it is time,”Jan said, looking one last time around the kitchen for anything they might have forgotten. Then, they simply walked out. They left the front door unlocked, just in case. Rather than flying along with the rest, Marius quickly rose up and disappeared from sight. Noone commented on that either, but every eye in the group watched him go.
For effect, they decided to enter the sanctuary directly, through the side door, rather than pass through any…surprises that might have been left in the foyer. Janet unlocked the door with a skeleton key of her own design, made for the occasion.
The ladies, Magnar, Maximus, and D/OG arrived before midnight, of course, but they cut it close enough to give Mrs. Hillary and Mr. Yates hope for a no show. They certainly looked disappointed enough when the open door made the fire flicker in its barrel, announcing the new arrivals.
Mrs. Hillary wore her high priestess robe, with the cowl pushed back. Mr Yates wore his sigil decorated, demon-summoning robes. By contrast, the ladies looked distinctly pedestrian in loose jeans, running shoes, and warm sweaters in their signature colors.
The smell of the fire gave ample evidence that Mr. Yates and Mrs. Hillary had already started feeding it what ingredients they managed to acquire that month, a heavily smell, with a sharp edge of herbs.
The ladies quickly stepped forward to add bundles of their own. Janets’ smelled of molten iron and oregano. JAne’s smelt of burning silk and peppermint. Jan’s filled the air with the smell of cinnamon and wet clay, which is an odd smell to get from a fire. Maximus and Magnar’s additions did not give off a light or smell as such, but Magnar’s hummed a clear, sweet note, and after Maximus made his offering, a wave of peace and ease washed through the room. D/OG’s contribution sent up a fountain of blue-white sparks that burned out before touching anything.
“What happened to the owl?” Mrs. Hillary asked, hatred naked in her face. Marius had stolen away two of her sacrifices, after all.
“Thank you for reminding me,” Jane said, quickly bringing a last little bundle out from her pocket, and tossing it into the flames. “Don’t worry about him. He is around, somewhere, making certain things go as they ought.”
The bells in the steeple overhead started ringing out the midnight hour, though no one pulled their ropes.
Jan looked down at Magnar and asked, “How goes the night?”
“All right so far, why do you ask?” Magnr replied.
“Just checking to see if our phantom bell ringer kept good time,” she responded. The Closers variously laughed, snorted, and smiled, but the Openers were unimpressed.
Venomtongue coiled around his mistress’s person and busily whispered in her ear. Highwire crouched miserably in a very small circle, inscribed around with runes and diagrams. A long, silver knife lay nearby, and she seemed unaware of anything else in the room.
Mr. Yates strode over to stand in his own circle, but even before he reached it, Mrs. Hillary made an opening gesture in a grand sweep of her wide sleeve. Nothing happened. She made another. It produced the same complete lack of reaction.
“You must have made a mistake when trying to adapt for the missing ingredients,” Mr. Yates sneered, and they could all hear the deeper, horribly evil echo that now rang behind his voice. In spite of the limitations, Mr. Yates had not come to the conflict alone.
He picked up his knife and smiled an awful smile. “Now, let me show you what a real opening looks like.” The dirty little sorcerer knelt down and kissed the blade.
Before he could do anything else, Janet said, “Well, that is enough of this.” Without any thought of Mrs. Hillary’s continuing Opening gestures, Mr. Yates’s careful designs, or even the demon lurking behind the man’s eyes, Janet strode across the room.
With one sneakered foot, Janet broke the circle around Highwire. Immediately, the monkey started to panic, but muscles made weak by privation and abuse could not move fast. Strong blacksmith’s hands snatched Highwire into such a warm, comforting, and protective embrace that Highwire calmed instantly, partially in shock.
“What in all the hells do you think you are doing?” Mr. Yates screamed, jerking to his feet and trying to grab his abused companion without breaking his circle.
Janet ignored the noise, heading for the door through which they entered. “Good luck,” she said to Maximus and the others as she passed. Jane and Jan followed closely upon their elder’s heels.
“Bring her back!” Mr. Yates demanded.
Mrs. Hillary snickered. Maximus yawned. Magnar seemed to have fallen asleep which seemed frankly implausible under the circumstances.
“Oh do shut up,” Mrs. Hillary said at last, cutting into what was rapidly growing into a full blown rant. “You should be used to losing sacrifices by now.
“At least, with those three chickening out at the last minute, we have the Opening way clear of any opposition. I think that is more than worth your little, animal sacrifice.” Clearly, Mrs. Hillary did not count the ‘mree’ animal companions as opposition.
It was a pleasure to watch her get disabused of that notion. “Actually, you have that completely the wrong way around,” Maximus called out, a deep layer of amusement supporting his words.
“He is right. At this moment, the Closer’s are shutting the way back down without a single one of you Openers to interfere.” Magnar smirked.
“That’s impossible!” Mrs. Hillary yelled. “The last Closers just left.” She stabbed one finger towards the side door.
Magnar could not help it, though it was not nice. Final proof that they had pulled off the deception made the urge irresistible. He collapsed into a puddle of laughter.
Maximus had a better control of himself. His voice was steady as he explained. “The ladies were not Closers, though they definitely supported that cause. The ladies were never players at all. They just went through the motions, so that none of you would look too hard for the real players and their homes, Marius, Magnar, and I.”
“How can you be the players?” Mrs. Hillary sneered.
At the same time, My. Yates demanded, “If you are the players, where are your companions?”
“Our companions are us, too.” Magnar smiled. “It is rather like you and your demonic companion, only completely voluntary on both parts, and far less hazardous for both parties.”
“But then,” Mr. Yates started, but Mrs. Hillary clawed at the air with both hands, cutting him off.
“Shut up, you fool. It doesn’t matter what, why, how, or who! The problem is where! If these are the players with unknown homes and those… witches are not,” (She clearly meant to use a much ruder term, probably with some nasty adjectives, but her tongue could not shape the sounds, and there were more important things to worry about.) “then the real problem is where! This isn’t the real center.”
“Of course not,” D/OG said in his emotionless voice. “If this really was holy ground, the demon riding Mr. Yates would never have been able to cross onto the property.”
“It told me the possession would circumvent that restriction,” Mr. Yates said in a hollow voice.
“I am sure that is the impression it gave, but in fact, it never said that this ground had been sanctified and it would be unable to enter any other way,” D/OG responded flatly. The sick look that washed over Mr. Yates’s face made it clear D/OG had it right.
Mrs. Hillary stalked forward, a long knife of her own in one hand and murder in her eyes. Mr. Yates quickly broke his circle and followed her example.
Without batting an eye, Maximus pointed out, “Right now, the Curse Keeper and Marius are Closing the way. You can stay here and try to kill us, letting all your hard work go to waste, or, if you hurry, you might be able to do something to stop them.”
The two Openers hesitated, but did not stop, so Magnar pushed them again. “We will even give you a fighting chance. The real center is in the old Wood Henge by the East Wood Haven Bed and Breakfast.”
For an eternal instant or two, ambition and revenge warred within the Openers, but ambition won out. Mrs. Hillary ran for her suburban, with Mr. Yates close on her heels.
“Why did you give them the center?” D/OG asked.
“I did not want to get into a fight in a church,” Magnar responded. “Even one that is not really a church yet. It would be disrespectful.”
“Besides, things will work out better if we are all together for the denouncement,” Maximus added. “They have already burned all their ingredients, so they can do little harm.”
“Still, you two should go. I will stay and make certain the fire goes out without doing any harm,” D/OG volunteered.
“Thank you,” Maximus said, and Magnar echoed. The path to the center of it all was much shorter the way Magnar and Maximus took than Mrs. Hillary could manage by roads. Even still, suburban versus four feet nearly dead heated the finish.
Even through the intervening trees and underbrush, anyone could see that they had found the right place. The sky glowed overhead with a clear, green radiance that transmitted the activity in the center to all the players long before they achieved anything like line of sight.
The Curse Keeper stood by a small, bronze brazier filled with crystalline green flames with the Closing Wand in his hand. Under the light of a full, blue moon that would touch the entire globe with its light before waning, the way had opened from the other side.
Mouche stood in the ruins of the Jack O’Lanterns fighting off a swarm of shadowy little creatures trying to get at the Curse Keeper. Even as the others ran, the green light showed them the dark mottled tentacle weaving its way out of the wide, circular hole in the ground that led from that world to somewhere far stranger.
It, too, stretched out for the Curse Keeper and his wand. Mouche had no attention or energy to spare for this new threat but he need not have worried.
Marius dove down from his perch, striking the tentacle talons first. In spite of the owl’s small size, the tentacle flinched back, violently. Guided by who knows what terrible intelligence, the tendril from another reality tried to strike from a different direction. The owl intersected that thrust as well.
When the third thrust proved that the tentacle meant to persist, something changed. The owl deflected the attack as before, but when he flew up again, something, or rather someone followed the initial downward trajectory, all the way to the ground. The owl settled back onto his branch, ceeding the defence to his other self.
A rather short, stocky, anthropomorphic moose stood en garde between the portal and the man. In spite of the kneehigh boots, tabard, and plumed hat he wore Marius, for this moose was the real Marius, wielded a two- handed, straight sword with a long tassel pendant from the hilt to fence with the invader. As one might expect, the sword worked even better than scratch owl talons.
Instead of simply driving the tentacle back, the jian lopped large pieces from the tentacle with every stroke. The lost pieces quickly liquified and then evaporated before hitting the ground. It is unclear whether Marius drove the tentacle back through its gate, or if he pruned the limb back until there was none left on this side, but just as Mrs. Hillary stepped into the small clearing the Curse Keeper had hacked into the middle of the wood, the way closed with an organic sucking sound.
Mrs. Hillary did not stop her charge, aiming for the back of Marius’s tabard with her drawn knife in an ice pick grip. She did not exactly run quietly. Even if Marius did not hear Mrs. Hillary’s approach, he could not miss Mr. Yates groaning pants as he stumbled into the clearing behind her. The Jian deflected the plunging knife easily. Mrs. Hillary turned, searching for another target. The Curse Keeper stood smiling faintly with his knife in his hand, and Mouche, no longer beset by shadows, sitting ready at his feet. Mrs. Hillary turned on the smaller pair, with Mr. Yates still lumbering up behind her.
The dog and bunny watched the stumbling charge calmly enough. At a little more than arm’s distance, they stepped apart, leaving their other selves behind. Maximus, or Maximoose to give his proper name, did not stand much taller than Marius, but he had an impressive increase in muscle mass. Now, Magnar was an entirely different story. He stood nearly twice as tall as Mrs. Hillary, and he was every bit as stocky as Marius, if not as well developed as Maximoose.
Even as her momentum dragged her forward, Mrs. Hillary started trying to back away from that towering figure. Rather than press his advantage, Magnar scooped up his bunny companion. He stroked the furry back, only until Mrs. Hillary managed to halt her forward progress. Then he gave the bunny a momentum boost as it jumped from a height to hit Mrs. Hillary with all four feet right below her collar bones.
The bunny bounced from there and landed neatly on the ground at Magnar’s feet, but Mrs. Hillary fell back. She tried to catch herself, stumbling a step, but Mr. Yates was in the way. They both fell in a tangle of limbs.
They did not, however, hit the ground. Marius had slipped the metal circle onto the ground behind the falling pair. This time the swirling portal needed no elaborate activation or stabilization. Mrs. Hillary and Mr. Yates fell out of that place into somewhere else.
That, however, was not the end of the portal’s usefulness for the night. The swirling water slowed, and began to spin in the other direction, even faster. First, it spit out a grumpy old fae, still dusty from the imminent collapse of his house. Then the missing children started sliding out, laughing with delight, each one landing in a clear space as a moose greeted them and led them away from the arrival area.
Suddenly, the clearing filled with humans. They wore no uniforms or insignia, but I am certain most if not all of them owned such things. The Curse Keeper and the Dark Fae slipped away in the ensuing chaos. The newcomers let the two Closers go. They had enough to be getting on with as they greeted the children by name, and started funneling them towards the Bed and Breakfast. When the missing adults from the city across the river started showing up, things got really exciting.
Somehow, after the first few of Special Agent Whitfield’s friends stepped forward to accept the arrivals, everyone stopped noticing the moosey people in the clearing. By the time the last person returned to his or her own time, if not quite the right place, the mooses had faded out of sight entirely, though someone had to retrieve the metal ring once the portal closed.
Only Special Agent Whitfield saw and remembered the whole thing. He never forgot anything, after all, but explanations of the inexplicable could be so difficult. The officer of the law let the saviors of the world go with little more than a wave. It was enough to have the Happy Ending, without a trip to the sanitarium…again.
All the plans were made; All allies enlisted, all preparations made. All the mysteries had been explicated, at least the ones we wanted explicated. All that remained for us to do was to wait patiently, and not give away those last little surprises until it was too late for the other side to recover and disarrange things.
The ladies met with Mrs. Hillary and Mr. Yates met, in public and properly social distanced in a local park so that they would not be over heard while they arranged how they might build the necessary fire inside the unused church without drawing unnecessary attention, succumbing to smoke inhalation, or burning the building down around their ears.
The meeting would have been far more comical if they did not all have to wear masks over nose and mouth just in case one or other might have the big ick running around the world at that time. Mrs. Hillary had trouble controlling her face while they made their plans, especially when anyone mentioned the possibility of starting a building fire, but the mask hid most of it. Mrs. Hillary kept her hands steady only by knotting the fingers together in a white knuckled grasp. An air hovered around the woman that at any moment she might go off like a bomb and start screaming and throwing things. The mild, cheerful home schooling, suburban soccer mom from the beginning of the month had vanished without a trace. Everyone (who did not know better) blamed the change on her husband’s sudden departure and the loss of her child, and gave her sympathy and a wide birth. Dennis Yates needled his soi dissent ally and enjoyed her helpless fury as her real nature paraded out in public for all to see.
Dennis Yates made a determined and surprisingly subtle effort to find out who had what game tools, without revealing he had none. At a signal from Marius, Jane let slip that the Curse Keeper had the Closing Wand, and let the others guess what they liked about what happened to it after the collapse. Janet (who can do subtle with the best of them, though she seldom bothers) managed to convince the others that the Icon might be buried in the collapsed remains of the Dark Fae’s home, and the Ring disappeared with John Feste, though she never actually said either. The lady blacksmith also left Mrs. Hillary and Mr. Yates suspecting the other had the Bowl and the Closing Wand even as they tried to come up with a way to dig out the Icon by the next evening, without drawing official sanctions.
My friends left them to it, glad to have given both something to occupy their minds and distract them from their frustrations.
It turned out that not all the mysteries had been explicated to everyone’s satisfaction. Technically, this occured mostly on the thirty-first, but all involved were still up rather than getting up, so I put it here.
Just before midnight, when the household was settling down in the living room for one, last confabulation before the conclusion, a gentle, polite knock came at the front door.
“I wonder who is coming to call at this hour,” Maximus said, rising to his feet.
Janet rose also, but she only said, “It seems like our clocks are running a little slow,” to indicate she understood.
At a nod from Maximus, Janet opened the portal part way, and if she had a heavy war hammer decorated with glowing sigils in the hand behind the door, one could hardly blame her. (Janet had it on loan from another of my friends for the duration. The ladies had several relics of the sort stashed about the place. It is all very well to invite your friends to help in such a dangerous escapade and ring them around with defenses and leap in to any breach you find. It is better to make certain that your friends can defend themselves, too, in case you are not around, or too vastly outnumbered.)
“Sorry to come calling at such an hour,” Special Agent Whitfield said from behind his purple mask, “but my information indicates that this is the only hour I might question some of you and expect an intelligible response.”
The man in the purple mask looked past Janet, down at Maximus and asked, “Could I have a few words with you and your two friends?”
Janet opened her mouth to make the sort of noises one might expect an ordinary human to make if an officer of the law stopped by and asked to interrogate her dog, but Maximus saw something that she did not. A small, furry, round eared head popped out of one of the Special Agent’s pockets for a quick wave, before disappearing again.
Maximus had been inclined to approve of the Special Agent to begin with, the Pocket Bear’s testimonial just bumped approval up to trust, so he said. “Let him in to the living room, plase, Janet.” Maximus turned to trot back to his spot by D/OG without waiting for a response.
Janet frowned and disappeared the hammer back into its hiding place, but she stepped back to allow the Special Agent to pass, anyway.
Jane and Jan both stood up to receive their visitor, faces blank yet thoughtful. Magnar settled more firmly into his bunny-loaf position, all paws tucked and ears alert, while Marius might be a particularly life-like statue on his perch, and D/OG sat as a canid sphynx, cool and untouched by the situation.
Special Agent Whitfield stood at one side of the door arch, looking at the two sisters…three after Janet slipped past him to stand with the younger two. “I do not want to be rude, but would you ladies mind leaving us alone for this little conversation? If I ask you these questions, or ask them in your presence, which some might interpret as the same thing under the circumstances, I shall have to take official note of this interview, and record the results in my case notes.
“If I am just having a conversation with a bunch of animals, those same people would begin questioning my sanity a bit more strenuously than usual if I were to take official notice of the results. “If you would not mind stepping across to the kitchen? You will be close enough to hear and intervene if I am up to anything, but far enough to qualify as not officially present.” He sounded a little embarrassed, to tell the truth, but still firm.
When the ladies hesitated, he explained a bit further. “I am an agent of the law, even though my particular position sometimes leads me into the gray areas that the legislative branch has not yet considered. What I am officially aware of, I have to act upon, even if I personally feel that the act is unjust in that particular circumstance because of factors that most sane judges and juries would never consider, please.” He bowed with one hand over his heart, and with the other, he waved towards the kitchen.
“Go on, ladies,” Maximus half laughed. “If you keep him standing there too long, our hour will run out, and we may never know what this was all about.”
Jan put her tongue at the dog and growled, “We get let out of all the good bits,” but they left, as required.
Rather than settling in any of the really rather comfy furniture, the Special Agent settled easily into a cross legged position by the door. “Just to verify my information, since we have not been formally introduced, on the mantelpiece is Marius, in the corner is Magnar, and in front of the fire sits Maximus, and the new resident is called D/OG, former associate of the individual known as the Good Doctor.
“I am particularly glad to see you here, as you may be able to settle some questions I have there with first hand information, which is always helpful.” SA Whitfield pronounced Maximus’s name properly, rather than the slightly adulterated version he had been using all month, which gained him some thoughtful looks, and Marius shifted around a bit, officially joining the conversation.
“Your information is very good,” Marius offered. “Please ask your questions. Things get more complicated if your time runs out.”
Wasting only a second to consider that statement, but not the additional minute or more that an explanation might take, the human did what he was told. “I need to know about the recent disappearances in the neighborhood, and I do not just mean the children. Several of the suspects in the initial kidnappings have departed to points unknown in the last few days, and I need to know that they are not absconding villains who need chasing. I may as well tell you now that contrary to the evidence most of my more ordinary colleagues have accepted, I am aware that there were no real human remains in either the collapsed mine, or the house in the sinkhole.”
Magnar looked at the others and shrugged. Marius stepped in to answer. “Mr. Feste left to set up a sanctuary for the simulacrum Mrs. Hillary made of her husband and his daughter who she intended to sacrifice tomorrow night. Mr. Talbot facilitated the escape of those two, and is staying out of the way so that she can not use him to track down her victims. Neither the man in the mine, nor the owner of the house in the sinkhole had anything to do with the vanishing children, and there should be no more of them, either.”
Special Agent Whitfield did not even blink at the word simulacrum, or sacrifice. He simply nodded. Even the news about the Curse Keeper and the Dark Fae’s innocence came as more of a confirmation of things he already suspected rather than new information.
“You would not have been able to prosecute the beings responsible for the missing children,” D/OG informed them. “Once the beings responsible were dealt with, my Master and his companions moved on to another task which required their urgent intervention while I stayed a little longer to make certain this world would not be destroyed tomorrow night. He shall come back for me when they finish what they were doing.”
With the orderly sort of mind that takes one thing at a time rather than latching on to the bigger thing and losing track of the smaller, the man asked, “Beings?’
“You might call them Crying Seraphim, though in this case, they were acting as tools for Discordia, or perhaps her tools were acting as Crying Seraphim. It can be difficult to tell with her,” Magnar offered.
The involvement of an ancient Roman goddess took a little swallowing, but the questioning went on, “Did you say that the world might be destroyed tomorrow night?”
“Well, not destroyed exactly,” Maximus clarified. “Changed beyond all recognition and plunged into chaos and madness is more accurate.”
“It is not very likely, now,” Marius soothed.
“We have it well in poof,” Magnar added.
The human’s eyes widened on the word ‘poof’, as if he knew just what it might imply about the beings he was talking to. It took Special Agent Whitfield almost half a minute, a very long time for him, to reassess and reinterpret everything that had been going on in the light of that new information.
“So the Great Game really is being played out in this area this year. I noticed the oddities and the unusual congregation of unusual individuals in this location, but I could find none of the strange killings and grave robbings that go along with it, though there were what appeared to be very clumsy attempts. With you involved, however…” His voice trailed off in another bit of heavy cogitation.
At last, he simply asked, “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Well,” Maximus said, exchanging speaking glances with Magnar and Marius. “If you and perhaps a few friends could be available tomorrow night, around one AM to help deal with the aftermath, we would appreciate it.”
“What kind of friends?” the Special Agent asked.
“Preferably ones who are good with children,” Marius said, and his tone smiled, even if his face could not.
Everyone in the house made it past breakfast before the outside world intruded that morning. Not the police or a player, this time. Jimmy’s dad called the house to invite the ladies out for lunch. He had heard from Jimmy and had news to share.
Though the man invited Maximus, Marius, Magnar, and even D/OG to come along, the latter four opted to stay behind rather than trying to find room for all seven together in the one van. Marius was easy, but the other three were all persons of significant heft.
On the other paw none of the furred or feathered people wanted to send the ladies across the river unguarded, so far from their defenses, at that time of month. The lunch might have been put off until Sunday, after everything was settled, but there might be something Lynne, or one of the gentlemen needed, or needed done. No one said that they might not be around to assist on Sunday, though they all knew the possibility existed.
In the end, everyone agreed that D/OG would go along with the ladies. He was, to some extent, an unknown factor, but the mirror incident spoke in his favor, and Marius and the others had done their homework, investigating his background and bona fides. He was a very good D/OG. Not to mention, his digital and mechanical components gave him some very surprising defensive abilities, and as a non-player, he did not labor under the same sort of restrictions, if the need arose.
After the luncheon party departed, those left behind made a quick circuit of the remaining things in their various abodes, and then went on a grand tour of all the month’s significant scenes.
Dennis Yates amade a determined snatch at them not far from the mine collapse. He used a net, perhaps hoping to repeat Magnar’s abduction. Unfortunately for the man’s plans, his woodcraft was execrable, so his quarry knew just where he was, and had a good guess what he was about and how long he had been following along. Also, net throwing is a skill that takes some practice. One does not just fling it out, any-old0how, and really expect to catch much. Magnar and Maximus took off in widely divergent directions, while Marius went up and back over the man’s head. They left him where he and his net had gotten tangled up in two thorn bushes and some tree limbs.
A lot of activity centered around the ruins of the Neighborhood Watch building. A sizable group of both cultists and concerned neighbors had turned out to search through the remains for anything salvageable as part of clearing the site for rebuilding. Mrs. Hillary scowled and tightened her hands on her shovel, but there was nothing she could do in front of so many witnesses.
My three friends variously perched, fidgetted, and stood, talking quietly in the center of the sunken cercle near East Wood Haven when an unexpected fourth approached on silent feet. “Do you fellows mind if I join you?” Mouche asked politely.
“Be our guest,” Maximus invited, settling into a seated position.
“How have you been?” Marius asked politely.
“And your master?” Magnar asked with a trace of a smirk in his voice, if not on his face.
Mouche huffed a brief laugh. “However did you figure that one out? I thought we had everyone fooled.”
“In spite of the spectacular nature of the collapse, none of the officers or special agents suffered more than scrapes, bruises, and a very few broken bones, mostly acquired in the investigation and rescue attempts,” Magnar pointed out.
“If the collapse was natural, it would have taken more than their investigatory robot to set it off,” Maximus pointed out.
“If it were a triggered defense, it would not have collapsed the living space as well,” Marius added.
“We are also aware that your Master would never have made the mess that drew all the official attention if it was not for the collection of curses he keeps.” Maximus sounded almost apologetic.
“We have some friends who can and would help with those, by the way,” Magnar offered.
Mouche sat and stared for a minute or so as his brain ran faster than he could give tongue to. “And here I approached you to offer an alliance, and reassurance that you were not the only Closer’s left, with hopes of finding out just what you were planning, to make certain we did not unintentionally spike your wheel with our sudden reappearance at the last moment.
“I expected to be calm, withdrawn, and mildly superior from my position of superior experience, but I think, while I seem to know more than any of the others, there is still more for me to learn,” Mouche settled into a comfortable position.
“I have already calculated that you three are the players, and all, or at least I thought it was all of what, that implies,” he prompted.
The others exchanged speaking glances, and then, for once, Marius started to talk. The whole plan was initially his idea, after all. Overhead, the moon grew rounder, and the power rose.
They knew where the new center was, of course. Marius worked it out as soon as he had the Curse Keeper’s three significant points, on the same day he worked out the spot in the pond, but he had to be seen figuring it, or someone nasty might figure out more than we wanted them to know. He considered flying the whole pattern, just to make sure, but decided not to put such a temptation in the way of the unpleasant.
Marius was fairly certain that he could avoid, evade, or escape any attempt to capture him, but there was not much he could do against a rifle with a scope. Neither Mrs. Hillary nor Dennis Yates would get any power from such an act, but it might go a long way toward relieving their feelings. The bother and inconvenience of getting shot was definitely more than an additional bit of theatre was worth.
On his way out, Marius passed not far above Special Agent Whitfield, where he stood outside the remains of Mr. Sallus’s house. More of it had collapsed since the initial damage, and there was talk that the remains would be demolished as unsafe. Though Marius passed almost directly behind the man, the FBI man turned his head in an almost owl-like manner and called out, “Marius, I would like to speak to you.” It felt rude, but Marius kept going without hesitation. They could probably trust that the Special Agent served on the side of right and justice, but still… ‘Probably’ just was not good enough with the stakes as high as they were. Maybe they could engineer another opportunity when Magnar, Maximus, and Marius could all see what the man wanted together.
Marius settled into his sheltered thinking spot under the empty church roof. He made a great show of staring off in the directions of each of the relevant homes in series. Then he flew twice around the steeple, and headed out again.
The new center lay in the empty church, of course. It is true that the building had never housed a congregation, but the thing that makes the difference between a church and any other building is the consecration, not the decor, and everyone called it a church. It should suit well enough in the minds of people like Mrs. Hillary and Dennis Yates.
Marius flew home by way of the East Wood Haven. There was no sign of the mid-sized sedan with government plates, or any other unusual activity in the area. They only had three more days until the plan would either succeed, or the whole world would fail. It is amazing how very long the month grew in those final days when they had no attacks or upsets to fill the passing time.
Marius arrived at the house to find something of a party attitude reigning in the place. The ladies reacted to the growing tension by turning on some music, and really pushing the boat out in the kitchen. With D/OG around to serve as interpreter for Magnar and Maximus they were all telling stories and jokes and dancing around the house. Marius was not the type to plunge into the middle of things, but he knew a great many stories to share, and sometimes had a delightfully dry wit that snuck in from the shadows and tickled the mind when one least expected.
When life weighs most heavily, there is nothing like friends and family to ease the gravity of the situation for a while.
For a class of people who typically do most of their work by dark of night, this game involved some really early mornings. The sky was still a damp blue grey, that would probably grow into an even damper blank white, when the door received another good knocking.
Jane and Marius were on duty, though Jane still wore her sleep suit. The cowl completely hid her face, so that she might be a druid wannabe, or a more brightly colored member of Mrs. Hillary’s cult if one ignored the way the figured torso flowed into a pair of footed trousers instead of loose skirts.
Speak of the devil, and all that; Jane’s shuffling progress slowed even more when the knocking shifted to kicking. Mrs. Hillary’s screeching penetrated the door easily enough, but if any sense started out within the noise, it stayed outside.
Jane leaned one shoulder against the wall and crossed her arms while Marius perched on the other. It was impolite to leave a caller beating the door unanswered like that, but Jane had no interest in fighting with the woman. Plus, someone would need a bull horn or maybe a microphone and some high powered amplifiers to be heard over all the noise.
Eventually, the screaming harridan stopped for breath, and Jane got in a few words. “Who in their right minds would open their door and invite that type of temper tantrum into their home? Especially so early.”
As one might expect, Mrs. Hillary’s response was unprintable where it was not incoherent. “If only the Village Council could see her now,” Jane laughed to Marius.
During the next lull, Jane dearly wanted to say, “I hope you realize we will expect you to pay for any damage you do that door,” but she had better things to do than to stand in the hall all day.
Instead she asked, with what tolerant patience she could find before breakfast, “Did you want anything in particular, or is this a new exercise regime you decided to try out on our front porch?” “Give them back!” Mrs. Hillary demanded, at last.
Jane considered pretending not to know what, or rather who, ‘them’ referred to, just to further irritate the woman, but Jane still had better things to do.
“I don’t have any ‘them’ to give. Your husband and his daughter are not here.” Jane shifted so her back rested against the wall, careful of Marius.
“Don’t give me that!” Mrs. Hillary half shrieked.
“I know they came here after that interfering mongrel drugged me and snuck them out of the house!”
“So they did,” Jane agreed easily, momentarily disarming the would-be intruder. “They did not stay long, however.”
“They have not set foot on the ground outside your house since entering it,” Mrs. Hillary insisted, “and none of my divinations can find any trace of them after entering here.”
“You will just have to take my word that they are not here,” Jane said, and she smiled as she imagined how Mrs. Hillary would react to that.
“Let me in or send them out right now, or I will summon the police!” Mrs. Hillary screamed.
“But you can’t do that, can you? As far as they know, your husband had every right to leave you without notice if he chose. You can’t exactly tell the police that he was only the animated corpse of your husband that served as a cross between your slave and your puppet, can you?
“You can’t even accuse him of kidnapping Lynne. You are only her step-mother, and you never adopted her.
“Now run along home before I report you for disturbing the peace. You have some recalculating to do, unless you want to just chuck in the sponge and take up knitting. Then I could give you some very good patterns.”
Mrs. Hillary took up yelling and kicking again, and Jane left her to it. Before too very long, Mrs. Hillary went away.
As twilight dripped its way into night, a polite, faintly digital voice echoed through Magnar’s private tunnel once again. “I say, is there anyone home within there?”
Maximus trotted through the kitchen to the empty sun room, “Please come through, D/OG. It is rather soggy out there, and there is a good fire going in the living room.”
When both dog forms lay before the blaze, D/OG spoke again. “I thank you for the courtesy. I did not expect to stay, but the warmth is welcome.”
“You are welcome to stay as long as you like,” Maximus assured his guest. “One of the ladies should be down to start dinner soon, and we would be pleased to have you stay,” his soft voice preceded Marius into the room. Magnar hopped in not far behind.
“I only meant to inform you that this planet will have no further troubles from the Crying Seraphim, at least not from those particular Crying Seraphim. My master and his companions have uprooted the last of them and departed,” D/OG said.
“Departed?” Maximus asked. “You mean he has taken his box and moved on?”
“That is correct,” D/OG responded.
“But what about you?” Magnar asked.
“As I informed you upon the occasion of our first encounter, my Master has tasked me with assisting the closers, such as yourselves, in your tasks. I shall be retrieved after month’s end.”
“So, with the Good Doctor vanished from the scene, do you think the remaining players will figure out he was never a player soon?” Magnar asked. He lay with his eyes closed, but one ear turned from person to person, like an elongated radar dish seeking out a signal.
“I certainly hope so,” Marius said with unwonted feeling. “I am thoroughly tired of trying to calculate what silly ideas they have had for the center.”
“Just the one more,” Maximus soothed. “We are almost done.”
Magnar let his ear relax, pinning D/OG with one eye, instead. “You better stay with us, at least until the first. Neither Mr. Yates, nor Mrs. Hillary are going to be safe to be around. They have both suffered too many setbacks of late.”
D/OG started to demur, but the three hard stares aimed his way led him to say, instead, “If your ladies repeat the invitation, I will stay.”
Dinner was very good, as usual. Before the meal was half over, the spot before the fire was ceded to the new resident. Things were coming together.
A very domesticated day. John Feste came by and enlisted the ladies’ aid in cleaning up his house. He had a new restfulness about him, a sense of purpose with far more potential for hope than the darkness driving him before.
While the humans cleaned and talked inside, Merrylegs, Marius, Maximus, and Magnar lounged around the backyard fountain.
“Did you share our suggestion about Lynne and her father with Mr. Feste?” Maximus asked, watching the back of the house.
“Of course,” Merrylegs said. “And Jimmy came by last night for a long talk, too?”
“How did Jimmy know…” Magnar started, and let the thought trail off.
“A friend of his mother’s, or something like that.” One corner of Merrylegs’ long mouth twitched.
“So are they cleaning to prepare the house for guests?” Magnar asked.
“I don’t think that would work out very well, do you?” Merrylegs asked.
“Mrs. Hillary is not the type to let anyone get out from under her thumb without a fight, and things have not been going over well for her lately,” Merrylegs said, with deliberate stress on the understatement.
“It would not be horrible if the woman broke cover and did something that landed her in jail for a good, long time, but it would be awful if that something hurt anyone else,” Maximus said.
“So they are cleaning the house for the real estate agent,” Marius said, speaking for the first time. “And this is going to be goodbye.”
“Not quite yet,” Merrylegs sounded wistful. “The master is going to make dinner for us all, but, yes, he is dropping out of the game.
“Somewhere along the way, associating with your ladies and the Hillary situation reminded him that though he (would have gladly)? given his life for his family’s, they would want him to make the best of that life in their memory.
“He has also seen past his own pains, and can not stomach all the other lives and families the opening would shatter.”
“He will continue to have bad days,” Marius warned.
“I think everyone involved knows that, but he will no longer have to face them alone,” Merrylegs responded.
“Good,” Magnar said.
“But we will miss having you around for the final confrontation,” Maximus said.
“Yes. I hoped that we would be able to have you on our side for the end,” Marius added.
“I think you will have things well in hand when the time comes,” Merrylegs said, and this time both corners of his mouth twisted up. “Or should I say well in poof?”
“Whatever do you mean?” Marius asked while the others stared at the frog.
“Jimmy’s mother’s friends may have chatted a bit with the master too.” Merrylegs’ twists grew into a full-blown grin. “I never would have figured it out from your names, all things considered, but A Gran’s Tale was one of my young mistress’s favorite stories. I recognised Myra right off. From there I have made some guesses, but they explain so many of the oddities of this game that I am absolutely certain I am right.”
“In that case, we can only wish you good luck,” Marius said in a very dry tone.
“We will get in touch next month and let you know how it all turns out,” Maximus offered.
“That way, you will have a story to tell Lynne,” Magnar added.
“How will that work,” Merrylegs asked, unspecific if he meant the getting in touch, or managing to tell stories to Lynne who should be asleep from midnight to one.
“I am as certain as you are about that ‘poof’ business that the Bureau of Child Protection will be taking a close interest in Lynne after all she has been through. The agent they assign will take care of things.” It was Marius’s turn to sound smug.
“The Bureau of Child Protection?” Merrylegs asked. “Are they like Child Services?”
“Not much, no. Myra can explain.” Magnar laughed.
“Oh,” was all Merrylegs could say. He would find out before long.
What with one thing and another, my friends and their friends decided that having one person of each sort alert in the house at all times might be a good idea for the rest of the month. Consequently, Jan and Magnar sat chatting quietly in the living room not long after midnight when a quiet tapping came at the back door.
They both knew that a pair of officers still lurked at the Sallus end of the street, so the back door was not a bad idea for game business, but it had been a particularly…exciting few days. Only when a particularly canine voice called softly through Magnar’s private entrance did they rise and go to investigate. “Maximus, Marius, Magnar?” Then he (at least, it sounded like a he and familiar in cadence if not tone) muttered, “They said someone would be awake.”
Under the circumstances, Jan did not turn on her studio lights, and with the things from the mirror still regathering their strength, they no longer kept the outdoor lights on. Still, they could detect three figures through the glass. Neither Jane nor Magnar recognised either the man or the dog at first, but the sight of Lynne shivering barefoot in her pajamas set Jane hurrying forward to unbar their way.
With the visitors safely in the kitchen with the house secured again, Magnar was surprised to recognise the big man standing there. At first, he saw only a powerfully built, confident, alert male human with lines of ancient greek letters and diagrams inscribed on all the visible flesh. He had a lot of that, too, since the man wore nothing but a short skirt of leather strips pendant from a wide belt of the same material. Only when Magnar looked closely at the structure of the face behind the decoration, and took it in context with how closely Lynne clung to his side, did the bunny recognise the hunch shouldered, quiet simulacrum of Mr. Hillary in that legendary figure.
With that revelation, it did not take any thought at all to recognise the great wolf, too big to even use Magnar’s entrance, as Jimmy’s other form. Magnar realized Jimmy had been speaking while the bunny stared, and paid attention. “I do not know how long it will take for her to wake up and discover their escape, but my advisors assured me that a way to break trail so that the evil old…” Jimmy remembered his audience and changed his next word to, “witch would not be able to divine where her prisoners had gone.”
Something Jimmy found in that house had obviously turned Jimmy’s disdain and contempt hot, or perhaps it was a side effect of the shape change, but it did not seem to be the time to ask about it. Jimmy had not stopped talking. “They assured me that the best way forward could be found here.”
With ordinary human prejudices, Mr. Hillary, Lynne, and even Jimmy in his condition looked at Jan. Jan, who knew better, looked down at Magnar. Only when he had the attention of them all did Magnar nod his head. “Take them down to the circle. I will be along in a moment. This will take all of us.” Without waiting for questions, or to see if he would be obeyed, Magnar hopped for his private exit to get Maximus from the forge.
Regathered in the basement, Jimmy and his two charges stood to one side studying the two antlered things standing in the circle. One small, stocky, and all in fur while the other stood tall and slim in a flowing, greek gown that could have been cut in the same period as Mr. Hillary’s skirt.
Janet, in a heavy, velvet robe the same purple as the streaks in her short hair, leaned against the wall nearest the circle, watching with a faint smile in her eyes. Jane shuffled sleepily around the mats in the background where her emerald sleep suit with the feet, over long sleeves, deep cowl, and silver accents would not be a distraction.
Marius and the slim, antlered thing held a brief, quiet consultation in a language the humans felt they could almost understand, yet did not recognise. Then Marius turned to Jimmy. “When you think the moment is right, step into the circle. Make certain that you three are all touching one another, and do not touch either the circle or one of us. Understood?”
“How will we know when the moment is right?” Jimmy asked.
Marius looked at the gowned thing, who just smiled and shrugged. “We are not certain how it shall translate, but you will know.”
“What will happen if we touch one of you or the circle, or if we lose contact with one another?” Mr. Hillary said in a surprisingly musical, energetic, and engaging voice for a dead man.
“You will make things more difficult for us,” the taller thing responded in a low, strangely accented tone. There was something about the thing that discouraged any further questions.
The three animals and two things took up equidistant points around the circle, the animals on the outside and the things on the inside, the short one between Magnar and Marius, and the other between Marius and Maximus. As one, all five bent down to touch the circle.
At first, nothing seemed to happen. So slowly that one never noticed it start and only realized later that the change had been going for some time, the surface within the circle began to swirl and gain depth. Once they noticed, what began as a shifting of shadows grew quickly to a spinning, gurling tunnel that seemed to be formed entirely of water and sunlight.
Without prelude, or fanfare, the aqueous flow washed the two things away to an unimaginable distance, though their posture and demeanor never flickered, even as they disappeared into the distance.
“Well, that was clear enough,” Jimmy said with a cough. He started to say something to Maximus and the others, but their concentration was so absolute, Jimmy knew he would not be heard.
Instead, he looked to Janet, across the circle. “Well, it has been interesting meeting you ladies, and your friends.
“We’ll have to get together sometime next month and exchange stories.”
“It’s a date,” Janet responded with a grin.
Before they could get wrapped up in pithy badinage, Lynne took a firm grip on Jimmy’s tail. Recalled to duty, the wolf stepped carefully between Maximus and Marius. The grey-furred body stretched immediately into the distance, but without tugging at Lynne, so that she could step across the line at her own pace and by her own choice. Mr. Hillary followed easily with a grin for Janet and a wink for Jan. (Jane got nothing, as she still prowled around behind him)
With them gone, the circle and its things settled back into its default state and the animals stepped away.
Jane finally joined the remaining figures on the circle end of the room and stretched. “I am going back to bed.”
Apparently, the action did not stop when the thing from the wardrobe took Jason Sallus home. The household was still at the stumbling around and showering pre-breakfast phase when a heavy knock on the door followed close upon the peal of the doorbell.
Janet, as the only human dressed and ready to greet visitors, took point. She had, in no way, forgotten what happened with the last caller, but the thing in the steamer trunk rested peacefully under his cover, and the thing in the wardrobe had only two legs and stood in its confines, inanimate once again. Consequently, when the caller declared himself to be, “Police!” she opened the door, and if she had a hammer in one hand, out of his view, that was only prudent.
Their little cul-de-sac was awash in vehicles that morning, many with strobing lights, and Janet could immediately see why. The majority of the front wall of the corner house seemed to be cluttering up the front lawn that morning. Several of the upper rooms had become far better ventilated than they had been the evening before.
“Whatever happened down there?” Janet asked with perfectly genuine surprise. The thing from the wardrobe left the evening before, and in the light of morning it was hard to tell that the house had ever had a front porch.
Unfortunately, Janet asked the very question the officer hoped the ladies might answer. Jimmy, Sallus’s nearest neighbor spent the night with his father in St. Louis, again, and had not yet returned.
The officer did not want to believe none of the ladies could help him, but they sat with him on the front porch with Maximus on his feet and Magnar against his knee, and plyed him with hot buttered wild berry muffins and cocoa with cinnamon and real whipped cream (he did not like coffee) until he went away relatively content. Marius went out to explore the damage and avoid any animal conservation questions.
There was surprisingly little furniture in the house. Jason Sallus had not so much moved in as camped out in the house for the duration.
A movement in one of the trees in the neighboring yard caught Marius’s attention, so he drifted away from the swarming humans to perch in the upper branches. “Good morning, Highwire,” Marius said with a little bow. He was getting quite good at his owl bow. His legs were far longer than one might suppose to look at his feathers, so the tilt came high enough that less knowledgeable people might mistake it for a nod, but Marius imagined that the sentiment came through clearly either way. “How goes it with you?”
“Nevermind that,” Highwire insisted, climbing up as close to Marius as she could. Her coat had new patches where skin and fur had been removed, and she could neither sit completely still, nor keep from glancing around as they spoke. “You have to go stop him, quickly.”
“Stop who from doing what?” Marius asked, trying to radiate calm, at least enough so that the monkey might make sense.
“Look, I am not a volunteer in this game. I do not support Yates out of any loyalty or choice, and I am neither as dumb nor unobservant as I encourage him to belive. I know about the watchers. I know about the teams who have been preventing any of the players from finding sacrifices or violating graves. And I saw the red bunny nod to you after the collapse of the Dark Fae’s house.
“But the one thing your teams have not been able to stop is willing sacrifices, or nasty things that were done before the game started, and if you are not quick, Nipper is going to do just enough volunteering to cost him his life if you do not get to him before he gets into our house. I know you can’t do anything after that without messing up the game.” Highwire twitched and jerked as if her body could not decide whether to try to grab Marius and drag him bodily to her house, scramble down the tree and run to get Maximus and Magnar as well, or just run away entirely and try to save herself.
On second thought, there was another cause to her strange movements. Something actively hurt Highwire with every move and every word she made that ran contrary to her master’s best wishes. Marius could see it, and recognised Highwire’s bravery for the heroism it really was.
“If we are going to have to do any physical intervening, we will need Maximus and Magnar. Come along. You can explain on the way after I fetch them.” Marius pushed off his branch and disappeared in the direction of his house.
I could see Highwire worry about the extra time this might take as she looked after the owl, and then back towards her own house, but she need not have worried. By the time Highwire dodged the inquisitive humans, Maximus, Magnar, and Marius had already gathered on the front porch.
With her appearance, Magnar hopped off to lead the way down their shortest path to Dennis Yates’s place. “We could try to intercept Nipper along his way, but we assume he has a head start, and we have no way of knowing what path he might take, so we will try to interfere at the end of the line, instead of along its length,” Maximus explained.
“Now, what exactly is going on? Does this have anything to do with what happened to Sallus’s house?” Marius asked.
“No,” Highwire started. Then she contradicted herself, “Yes, well, at the beginning anyway.
“I was watching your place last night when the man in the golden armor decided to come calling. I did not see what happened inside the house, but I did observe your golem returning the chastised man to his home.” Highwire paused in her explanation to scramble over a fence Maximus scraped his way under. She was already panting a little as they ran. Dennis Yates did not keep her well fed, but when Maximus started to slow a little to accommodate her, she would not let him, and kept up with her story as well.
“I did not get the whole conversation, as the discussion got rather…heated along the way, but apparently, some of Yates’s family had been looking for him, and something about his altercation with you pinpointed his location.
“I don’t know if they had some way of coming all the way from England to get him, or if they were already in the area, but two more gold armored individuals showed up to drag him home. They managed some sort of shield to keep the noise and conflict contained within the property, but Yates did not go quietly. They used some sort of big old sheers to peel Yates out of his armor, and even the collar went, too. After that, it was pretty much over and they carried Yates off.”
Highwire had to stop talking for a block or so in order to catch her breath, but then she got to the point. “Unfortunately, they left Nipper behind. I don’t know if the other armored people did not know about the fellow, or if they just didn’t care.
“He and I talked a little after they departed. He did not want to give up on the game, even if his master has scratched. He knew better than to turn to Mrs. Hillary as a new supporter. We all know about the animals her cult mutilated, and they had a few wacks at him, too.
“Unfortunately, he does not realize that my master has been more and more desperate for a new sacrifice to placate and direct his demonic support with. There is only so much he can do with our blood and flesh, and he can not afford to sacrifice me before the final confrontation.”
Real pain, far more than the mere physical infirmity that Yates’s power inflicted as punishment for going against his wants. “In spite of what I am managing now, I can not go against direct orders, and I am on standing orders to acquire a sacrifice for him when and if I can manage it, so I could do nothing but encourage Nipper to join us.
“Of course, with that contrary soul, it meant forbidding and denying the possibility in as strong a term as I could manage. I even told him the truth about what would happen to the poor, stupid fox if he voluntarily joined my Master’s menage.” Nipper sighed, at least I think it was a sigh, not just more panting. “Surly cuss did not believe me.”
The rescue team was only just out of sight of the house when Highwire came to a sudden stop. Magnar and Marius came back for a moment but she waved them on.
“What is it?” Maximus asked.
“I will not be able to do anything to help you, and if Yates sees me involved in this… His self control has never been good. He may no longer be able to wait until the thirty first.” Highwire did not, could not, come out and directly say that her master intended to kill her on the final night, but it came through clearly enough.
Maximus did not waste any more time on speech. He gave Highwire an approving nod and set off at a dead run. A flicker of silver fur flashed by ahead. Sometimes, one must manage one rescue at a time.
Nipper was not at all grateful, at least out loud, but before Maximus caught him by the back of the neck and dragged the smaller fox away, Nipper got a good look at the demon in the corner. He saw the cruel intelligence in those eyes, and the hungry anticipation as it stared. Nipper got a good enough idea of what would have happened next, that he decided he did not want to keep playing the game after all. He could have tried John Feste, but having to team up with Merrylegs did not appeal.
Dennis Yates was hopping, foaming at the mouth mad, of course, but Highwire had sense enough to stay out of his way until he calmed down. One more rescue down. Three to go, and then the world.
Everyone slept rather later than usual that morning. Janet dismantled the fountain and restored the cover onto the trunk in her workshop. Jane brought home an over-sized compact with a lock so that Magnar could start hunting down the things in its mirror, if he found the time. However, the thing in the wardrobe came out to help Jane, again, so something else was sure to happen. It is said that bad news always comes in threes.
Magnar and the others stopped by Jimmy’s house to bring him up to date. He had heard about the fire, but the news of Magnar, Maximus, and Marius’s involvement distressed him until they reassured their friend that no lives were lost, and there would not even be any scarring if the nasty cultists refrained from breaking their blisters.
“Fire is just such a horrible weapon,” Jimmy said, suppressing a shudder.
“That is only when it is let out of control,” Maximus explained. “When one uses it to cook food, heat a room, purify and soften metal or glass for shaping, to push the pistons in your car engine, or many other things, fire is an indispensable tool. I assure you that from first spark to the final collapse of ember into ash, we had that conflagration under complete control.” “We made certain to cleanse that place of every tome, every item of power, and all tools of nastiness, and there really was no better way to get that done,” Marius said seriously. “There will be no more unnatural sinkholes swallowing anymore houses in this game.”
“Item of power,” Jimmy echoed. “Did they have any of the game tools?”
“No,” Maximus barked, turning away from Jimmy in an attempt to cut short that line of questioning, but Magnar could not quite contain a snicker.
“Come on, you know you can trust me,” Jimmy coaxed, kneeling down in front of Magnar so the bunny would not have to answer as loud if he chose to explain.
“Well,” Magnar started, but Maximus cut him off.
“We have them,” Marius interjected quietly before the conflict could really get going. “The rules say they are part of the game, so they are here, but kept safe, where they can not be used to hurt anyone.”
“I thought we were not going to tell anyone,” Maximus humphed.
“Jimmy is right. We can trust him, and it is only fair that we give him the relevant information before we ask him for help,” Marius said firmly, distracting Magnar from what he meant to say next.
“We are asking him for help?” Magnar asked, but Marius kept his focus on Jimmy.
“We have been thinking about Lynne,” Marius said.
“True,” Magnar admitted.
“And Mr. Hillary,” Marius went on.
“About Mr. Hillary,” Jimmy repeated in surprise. “But he’s dead. Dead and embalmed. I know I mentioned it.”
“Dead yes…technically,” Marius responded. “But I have a couple friends who think they can help with his condition, if we can get him away from his wife.”
“Lynne has been and is going through more than enough for this game to end up saved but lose her father, too.” Marius stopped to let Jimmy think about that for a while.
“I am pretty certain that we have someone for them to stay with, who will help out while Mr. Hillary recovers as much as he can,” Marius said.
“We do?” Maximus started to ask, but then he remembered and huffed a little apology for interrupting.
“The trouble is, if we, as members of the game, go sneaking away a player’s intended sacrifice and her slave, we could open the way for metaphysical retribution by the powers involved in the game itself.” Marius would have scowled at that thought if his face allowed.
Maximus took the pause as a legitimate turn to speak. “The outcome of the game involves the whole planet full of little girls and their fathers, so it has to come first.”
“But that does not mean we can stand around and do nothing,” Magnar insisted.
“Right,” Marius agreed. “So, we wondered if your mother still has a way to contact those friends you think we might have in common.”
Jimmy rolled back to sit on his heels and blink at this apparent non sequitur. “Yeees,” he said at length.
“You should call your mother.” Marius said with more intensity than the advice usually merits. “I am certain she would enjoy hearing from you.” “While you talk, you should ask her to convey your greetings and well wishes to Myra and Mecate,” Maximus added, with the same strange mix of the off-hand and the intense.
“Myra and Mecate,” Jimmy repeated.
“Yes. They are very wise and knowledgeable people and can give advice and help with some truly improbable situations.” Marius stared hard at Jimmy.
Light dawned in Jimmy’s face as he put together the start of the conversation, the limitations Marius and his friends labored under, and the advice. “You are right. My mother would like to know what has been going on with me, with us… It is a good thing I am not actually a player.”
“Just a friend of the game and rescuer of the innocent, like your great-grandfather before you,” Marius agreed.
The four sat grinning at each other for awhile, then something occurred to Jimmy and he asked, “I wonder about the timing of things.”
“The Neighborhood Watch is going to have to scramble to keep up with any of their self-appointed duties now that their headquarters has burned down,” Magnar said, after exchanging looks with Maximus and Marius.
“It would be a shame if something else happened to make their reorganization even harder for their leader,” Maximus opined, valiantly restraining an urge to snigger.
“Indeed,” Marius agreed.
Jimmy stood up and started brushing grass from his trousers. “Confusion to our enemies!” he offered by way of a mingled goodbye and proof understanding.
“Indeed,” Marius said, again, and they watched Jimmy stride into his house before continuing to check on the remaining players.
With that exchange in mind, Magnar put some extra bounce in his hop when they went past the Hilalry house. Mr. Hillary was in the front yard, again, raking this time. It was very strange to see Mrs. Hillary glaring at the cheerful bunny from out of her husband’s face. Then they went home to take a nap.
It began to rain just as night started to get a good hold on the sky. One hopes that the river might not rise too high with all the extra rain that drama insisted the landscape absorb during the moments of crisis in that game. Flooded fields would go extra hard on the farmers so close to the time for harvest.
Marius watched Jane pack up her work in progress. It was her turn to make supper and about time that should get started, but when she tried to shoo the thing back into its wardrobe, it went stiff, head tilted to listen.
Jane stopped, one hand up, resting against the broad, stone chest. She looked at Marius for guidance. The thing suddenly shook itself, knocking Jane back a step, mostly in surprise, but she kept backing. The obsidian… thing, which had been humanoid in aspect had sprouted heavy, raptor wings. It stretched up for a moment and seemed to fall forward though the head did not fall below the original height. Instead, the spine had lengthened and bent. It now stood on four feline feet instead of the original human-like two.
Before the second pair of legs touched wood, Marius was in the air. He flew, full tilt, into the big red button on the wall by the door way. No alarm sounded, but the power cut on Jane’s sewing machines, and the overhead light turned red and started blinking. Similar changes for safety and alert happened throughout the house. Unfortunately, before Marius left his perch, they already heard the doorbell ring.
Marius bounded off the button in a practiced move, and flew down towards the front door.
The warning went out in time to stop Jan from opening the front door, but she had unlocked it, and that was enough.
The door slammed open with entirely unnecessary force. Jan was already backing away, so it did her no harm. And the problem with slamming open a door is that, unless you manage to embed the handle in the wall, the door tends to bounce back, especially after Janet and Jan get done with it.
The door to the face gave Jan the time to escape the front hall altogether, leaving Magnar to face the intruder, for that one moment of surprise from the failed ambush was all they got.
When the door opened the second time, a golden, featureless humanoid stalked into the house. Menace screamed loudly in each slow, silent step. Magnar sat in the hall and scratched one ear with a hind foot, blatantly unimpressed, even though the suit of golden armour blazed with other worldly energy to anyone with the eyes to see it properly.
The invader, when completely enshrouded in his armor, was used to strolling through walls and having bullets bounce off without so much as a ‘ping’’ to acknowledge their impact. He had no intention of being stopped by a mere rabbit, even one of unusual size. He made for the stairs after Jan, planning a little punt-the-pet along the way, probably with fatal results, and oh wouldn’t that be a shame.
Therefore, it came as a total shock when Magnar jumped from the floor, torqued in mid air, hit the suit of armor with all four feet to the chest, and the armor not only rang, but fell backwards. Before the golden figure could even think of catching his balance, something he never before lost when ensuite, but his claves caught against something close behind, and the suit of armor landed on its back, legs over Maximus’s stocky body, and head out on the porch.
The dog scrambled free and moved to watch from the arch to the living room while Magnar sat on the stairs. Marius drifted down to perch on the newel post while the invader fought to regain his breath, his feet, and his dignity, though I think that last may been beyond recall.
Then a calm, deep voice rumbled into the hall as if the earth came loose from its moorings beneath our feet and dropped down from the guest room (or perhaps the attic) to have a word. “Jason Sallus, you have not been invited into this residence. You may depart in peace, or you shall be evicted, but either way, you will not be allowed to harm anyone here.”
The thing from the wardrobe, which was now much too large for that confine, strolled down the stairs as easily and smartly as I might cross a flat stretch of floor. That was especially impressive considering his four paws were each too big for the steps, and he had to stoop slightly not to scrape his head along the ceiling.
“Just who is going to stop me?” Mr. Sallus’s voice echoed almost unrecognizably from within the blank mask. “I have faced down far worse than a golem and a bunch of animals in my time.”
“I am sure you have,” the thing responded, stepping, carefully, past Magnar down the last few stairs. “But there is worse. There is more powerful. And then, there is more effective.”
The armor and the thing stood face to face, filling most of the wide entryway. Without telegraphing, or a hint of warning, Jason Sallus threw a punch at the things head. A blow like that would go right through a cinderblock wall, much less a human head. The thing did not even bother to block.
Its hand shot out in a blur. Obsidian fingers sunk into the columnar golden throat as easily as a bowl of water. The black, stone hand tightened into a fist. The golden armor split and flowed up from the feet and fingers. The retreat moved only slowly, in fits and starts as the armor fought for every inch, until Jason Sallus hung from the things grip on the heavy golden circle around the ordinary (ish) human’s neck.
Mr. Sallus stank of alcohol, unwashed human, and misery. His breath came in ragged pants, and when the thing lowered the human feet to floor level, the legs collapsed.
“I will carry you home, Mr. Sallus,” the thing offered. “You have had a very tiring evening, and I would hate to see you come to harm on your way in the dark.”
In a few steps, the thing and its burden disappeared into the darkness. Marius and the others went upstairs to tell Jane it was ok to start dinner.
I know that Janet, Jane, and Jan could only understand what Maximus, Marius, and Magnar said between midnight and one, but if ALS sufferers can type and use computers with only the movement of their eyes, there is no reason why the animals could not do it, too. Technology can be wonderful, but, like fire, it needs to be kept under control.