“Do you think Santa will bring me new boots this year?” Katie asked as she peeled her pinafore from her thin frame.
The pitiful fire sputtering in the small hearth did little to warm the small, sparsely furnished room she shared with her brother. Katie shivered, her threadbare shift doing little to ward off the deep winter chill.
Peter helped Katie wiggle into a woolen nightgown, frowning at the way the fabric stretched over her shoulders and exposed her wrists. She would need new clothes all too soon.
“You're too old to believe in Santa, Kat,” Peter said, tucking her under a patchwork quilt on one of two narrow cots which practically filled the room.
Katie pouted, eyes wide and glistening with the threat of tears. Peter sighed in defeat and reached out to wrap her in a warm, apologetic hug.
“I have a little money saved from my job. If Santa doesn't bring you new boots, I'll buy them for you,” he promised.
Katie sniffed, pulling back with a shake of her head. “You can't spend your money on me, Peter. That's Santa's job. He promised he'd bring me boots when I told him what I wanted at the church dinner last week.”
“You know that was only Mr. Sneed dressed in a red suit, don't you, Kat?”
“No, it was Santa,” Katie insisted, edging out from under her brother's arm. “I know he's real, and if you'd only have a little faith, I know he'd bring you something really nice. If you don't believe, Krampus comes and sticks you in his sack and beats you.”
Peter laughed, remembering how he had once believed the childish tales himself. He didn't want to see his trusting sister disappointed Christmas morning when she opened her present and found just another of Mother's hand-knitted scarves instead of the new shoes she desperately needed but were too expensive for his parents to afford.
“Kat, you're eight years old. Surely, you realize by now-”
A loud thunk shook the rafters, raining paint chips and dust over their heads. They both looked up as something large and heavy skidded across the roof in a series of thumps and scrapes, eyes following the sound of movement along the length of the ceiling. Silence fell over the room for a tense moment, followed by the unmistakable crunch of shoes in the thick snow.
Katie's face lit up in delight. “Santa’s come early!”
Tossing the quilt aside, she hopped off the bed and scurried over to the hearth to wait in anticipation.
A clump of snow fell down the chimney, hitting the burning logs with a soft sizzle, and Peter surged to his feet. Nothing which slunk around chimneys late at night could mean well. Unease raced up his spine as he took a cautious step towards the hearth. A whooshing sound roared in his ears as a powerful gust of air burst down the chimney. The flames winked out, leaving only the glint of moonlight off snow-covered roofs to illuminate the room.
The ominous scraping of something sliding down the brick interior echoed through the shadowed room. Peter’s skin prickled as his hair stood on end, practically strumming with the sudden energy that emanated from the chimney - the feel of magic.
“That’s not Santa,” Peter said, pulling Katie back from the hearth.
Grabbing the poker off the wall, he maneuvered in front of Katie protectively. Katie pulled on his shoulder, pleading for a glimpse of Santa, but he kept her back with one outstretched arm. One fist tightly brandishing the thin rod before him, Peter trained his eyes on the open hearth and waited.
Big black boots appeared above the smoldering pile of wood, followed by twig-thin legs encased in red hose. A large red overcoat, so long it swirled around the booted heels, stretched across a bulging belly. As the body ducked under the low curve of the hearth to emerge into the room, Peter could almost believe Santa had indeed made a miraculous appearance. But the face that accompanied that jolly form was not friendly or jovial.
Stringy hair, white and dry as kindling, flanked a grey-skinned face scored by deep wrinkles and punctured by two black holes were eyes should be. The nose was long, protruding a full five inches from the prominent cheeks and ending in a sharp point above thin lips barely concealing a row of jagged, rotting teeth. Long-fingered hands bent by gnarled knuckles gripped a big black sack over one shoulder and dangled a long, odd-shaped club at the figure's side. Peter had never seen so hideous a creature.
Katie shrunk behind Peter, excitement withering into terror. “Krampus,” she whispered shakily. “He's come for you. I told you he would.”
Peter nudged her further back, planting himself firmly between his sister and the fearsome looking intruder. He didn’t believe in childish fairy tales – enough horror filled everyday life without imagining new ones – but the frightening character before him obviously did not hail from their world. He’d heard of the host of magical creatures that had invaded London in the last few years, had even seen a pixie or two, but he never suspected he’d have to go against one himself.
Mustering his courage, he raised the fire poker higher, muttering a prayer the beast was susceptible to iron like so many of its ilk.
“Thief! Filthy Shade! Get out of my house,” he demanded. “There's nothing for you here.”
The intruder laughed, warbling and high-pitched. Peter made a threatening jab, hoping to scare his opponent away. The club swung up quickly, meeting the side of Peter's head with a muted thwack. Katie screamed, falling hard on her rump and scrambling back. His body had barely touched the floor before the figure swung the black sack from its shoulder and brusquely rolled Peter inside. Katie ran from the room, still screaming, as the intruder hefted the sack and disappeared up the chimney.
By mid-morning on Christmas Eve, shoppers filled the streets with the last-minute bustle of holiday errands. At the office of Kane and Hodges, Investigators of Oddities, Cleopatra Kane peered over the edge of her morning newspaper to see the young girl still pacing in front of the window. Pedestrians laden with packages swerved around her as she shuffled first one direction, then the other, peeking longingly at the tinted glass with each turn. Obviously, something deeply troubled the girl and Kane wondered when the child would muster the gall to open the door. The suspense chafed on her patience and she crossed her booted heels on the edge of the desk with a huff, tossing a long blonde braid over her shoulder.
Across the room, Perseus Hodge cleared his throat loudly, staring at her through gold-rimmed spectacles. “If you cannot show a modicum of decorum, at least show some respect for the furniture. You're getting mud on the ledger.”
Kane rolled her eyes, setting her feet back on the floor with something less than grace. “It's near blank, anyway,” Kane groused, rising from her chair and adjusting her vest with impatient little flicks.
The holiday season had been woefully bereft of cases (there hadn’t been a good one since the Werewolf of Harwich), and Kane did not deal well with boredom. She strode to the window casing, absentmindedly twirling an etched pocket watch in her hands as she watched the nervous little girl fidget in the street.
Hodge knew that look. A warning glow of impish delight illuminated her features just before she did something which invariably cost them a lot of money and embarrassment. Not that they were lacking in the latter department. Professional hunters of the supernatural proved a difficult niche to succeed in, and Kane’s proclivity for masculine attire did nothing to enhance their reputation.
Hodge grunted, turning back to his cataloging of malicious goblinkin by geological demographic. “You need a hobby to keep you busy, instead of staring at loitering children indubitably up to no good.”
“Such a cynic, Hodges. Poor little thing surely is in need of assistance.”
Hodge sputtered a protest as Kane swung the door wide and coaxed the young girl inside. A closer perusal of the child did not change his opinion. Clad in split and frayed boots, dress stained and mended one too many times over a frame quickly growing beyond the seams, she twisted dirty, calloused hands nervously against her chest. Hodge frowned and gave a shake of his ashen curls. At the very least, the girl had come to beg something of them.
“Good day, sir, um, ma'am. Detective?” she stuttered, taking in Kane’s appearance in flustered gawking. A woman as tall and broad as most men, dressed in trousers and waistcoat, was an uncommon sight even in such a cosmopolitan city.
Kane smiled and leaned over, reaching out a friendly hand. “You can call me Detective Kane,” she said, shaking the girl's small hand. “And this is Mr. Hodges.”
Kane smiled, green eyes sparkling, and whispered, “It's a point of contention.”
Hodge dropped his pen on the desk in frustration and stood. “My name is Mr. Hodge, no S. What can we do for you?”
The girl took a step back and dipped into an awkward imitation of a curtsy. “How do you do? I'm Katie Pagett. Something took my brother last night, and I need you to rescue him.”
“How atrocious,” Kane breathed, interest piqued. “Do you know who took him?”
“Have you informed the police?” Hodge cut in. “Kidnappings really are a police concern.”
Katie sniffed, glistening moisture welling in her eyes and spilling down her cheeks. “I tried to, but Mother won't let me. She doesn't believe me. But I saw Krampus take him.”
Hodge blinked. “I'm sorry, what was that?”
Katie turned her earnest, tear-streaked face to him. “Last night, I saw Krampus come down the chimney and take Peter away.”
Hodge scoffed, shuffling a couple of steps to lean against the edge of his desk, arms folded across his chest. He pinned the girl with a stern glare.
“Krampus? Red eyes, horns, the legs of a goat, covered in black fur? Are you sure it wasn't a burglar or someone wearing funny clothes?”
The little girl’s face reddened, her fidgeting hands curling into fists of frustration.
“It was him! I know it was,” she insisted, stamping one worn sole on the floor. “I thought it was Santa, but it was just evil. It had a scary face and a big club and there wasn't any presents.”
Kane knelt and wrapped her arms around the girl, muttering soft words to calm her. She braced her chin on top of the girl’s head, glaring at Hodge.
“Hodge, what is wrong with you? Can't you see how upset she is? She needs our help.”
“Oh, now, really,” Hodge began, rolling his eyes towards the ceiling and lifting his shoulders in an exaggerated shrug. “Do you expect me to believe a demon popped down her chimney last night and absconded with her brother? The story of Krampus is just to scare children into behaving. He's not real. Whatever happened to her brother has a logical explanation. Magical, maybe, but not Santa’s evil twin. Likely, he just ran away. How old is your brother?”
“Fifteen,” Katie choked.
“See? He probably decided to strike out on his own and didn't want your parents to know about it.”
“Peter wouldn't do that,” Katie retorted, thrusting her chin towards the dismissive scholar. “He loves me. He takes care of me. He works hard so we can have food. And now he's gone, and we owe so much rent. Without Peter home to help, we'll be kicked out in the snow.”
“We’ll look into it,” Kane promised, guiding Katie to a chair and pouring her a cup of hot tea from the corner stove. To Hodge, she continued, “It’s obvious something has happened to her brother.”
Hodge screwed up his nose but relented. “Alright. We can take the case for a quid, as retainer.”
Katie choked on her tea at the demand, lower lip trembling as tears threatened to fall once more. Kane patted her head comfortingly and smiled warmly. “We'll let the retainer slide this time and take the case.” Tossing an exasperated look at her partner, she continued, “Where is your holiday spirit?”
“The same place as our incoming accounts: absent.”
He met her expectant gaze with stony resistance, willing the direness of their financial situation to override her generosity. Kane allowed the silent battle to wage a moment longer before her eyebrows arched in warning and he sighed.
Hodge pushed away from the desk, returning to his seat and his ledger. “Fine. You'll do as you please, regardless of my advice.”
“Never any doubt,” Kane returned. Perching on the edge of her desk, leaning heavily on an elbow propped on her knee, she gave Katie her undivided attention. “Now, tell me exactly what happened.”
Mrs. Pagett frowned to find the two investigators on her front step an hour later. She didn't like trouble, and the tall woman in trousers and her dour partner looked like trouble, especially as the gentleman carried an expensive-looking leather case in one hand. Behind the woman, her daughter Katie peered up at her with a sheepish smile. Mrs. Pagett glowered back.
“Hello, Mrs. Pagett,” Kane greeted, sweeping her bowler hat from her head. “I'm Detective Kane, and this is Hodges. We're investigating the disappearance of your son, Peter. May we come inside?”
“Hodge, Mrs. Pagett. No S. How do you do?” Hodge greeted, extending a friendly hand.
Mrs. Pagett ignored the hand, her own tightening on the handle of the door as she considered whether to slam it in their faces. She released a huff and stood aside, gesturing for the unwelcome interlopers to enter.
Kane stepped into the parlor, scanning a keen eye about the quarters. The small home felt cramped, the fire too low and the windows too drafty, though clean and well-appointed. Old but carefully maintained furniture squatted about the room, a smattering of seasonal decorations here and there. A pair of faded Christmas stockings embroidered with the Pagett children's names hung from the mantel, just barely filled with meager offerings of rock candy and trinkets.
“Peter isn't missing,” Mrs. Pagett said once Hodge had closed the door against the winter chill. “He's run off, and that's about the right of it. Katie had no business involving you.”
Katie blushed brightly at her mother’s words, bowing her head in a gesture of apology.
Kane cocked her head to the side, watching Mrs. Pagett carefully. “I understand that would be uncharacteristic of Peter. Are you sure he left of his own free will?”
The older woman shrugged, focusing on rubbing imagined dirt from her palms with the dingy apron that covered her gown. Her voice quavered, tears lurking just behind the hard exterior.
“He's of age to strike out on his own. Not likely much holding him here. He works at the livery on Dean Street, but he'd make a better go of it in the Navy or up north.”
Hodge gave Kane his best I-told-you-so grin, tapping his empty hand against his thigh to signal he felt the investigation over and they should leave. Kane ignored him.
“Had Peter mentioned wishing to leave?”
“No,” Mrs. Pagett admitted, her lips twisting up in a half-hearted smile. “But sons don't always confide in mothers.”
Spreading her arms in an encompassing gesture, Kane pressed, “But to leave at Yuletide? A bit unusual, do you not agree? Nothing peculiar occurred last night? Katie reported a fellow of some sort in her room. Came down the chimney. No odd sounds in the night? And you didn’t see Peter leave?”
The woman hesitated a moment, guilt playing across her eyes. She puffed her chest out, tone defensive. “There were noises. Might have been the roof. Might as not. I mind my own business, especially after dark. Where my son comes and goes is his own concern. He’s near grown enough.”
Kane bit down on her lips to keep from snapping at the woman. Mrs. Pagett’s lack of cooperation and concern for her child grew increasingly frustrating, threatening to stoke the detective’s ire.
“Mind if we take a look around?”
Mrs. Pagett nodded, and Katie led the way up the narrow stairs to the small room she shared with her brother, Hodge close behind. The room was just large enough for two narrow beds flanking a hearth, a crooked wardrobe leaning against one wall holding all of the sibling’s combined possessions. A draft swirled around the room, making it feel more chill than it should, the fire long since extinguished. Sooty footprints circled the hearth.
“Did you show your mother these?” Kane asked, squatting for a closer look.
Katie nodded. “She said I made them to scare her.”
Letting her eyes follow the line of the prints to the hearth, Kane spotted a wisp of long white hair wafting in the draft on the edge of the bricks. Plucking the stray strand from the wall, she ran it through her hands, feeling its coarseness. She brought it to her nose for a quick sniff, nostrils burning with the telltale aroma of magic.
Hodge appeared at her side, leaning under the corner of the mantel to peer up into the darkness.
“Well, whatever made those footprints had to be a rather small fellow. Can't imagine they'd been able to pull a young man up this chimney, though.”
“Oh, no,” Katie corrected. “It wasn't very tall, but it had a great big belly and strong arms. Knocked Peter right out and carried him away.”
“Preposterous,” Hodge replied, measuring the width of the flue with his palm. “You'd barely fit up there, let alone an abductor with a near-grown boy on his back.”
Kane frowned, brushing the hair from her hand, and strode towards the small window. Kneeling across one of the narrow cots, she pushed the pane up and she stuck her head out to gauge the route to the roof.
Deeming it an easy enough distance, Kane turned and picked up the leather case Hodge had set down just inside the door. Dropping it on the cot, she flicked it open and rummaged through the contents. Pulling a pair of goggles sprouting with knobs and switches from the case, she turned to Hodge, who had abandoned his inspection of the hearth and now stood behind her.
“Shall we?” She smiled, gesturing to the window with a jerk of her head.
“Shall we what? On the roof?” Hodge asked incredulously. He shook his head, holding his hands up to wave away the suggestion. “No, no. I'm better suited to the ground, thank you.”
“Suit yourself.” Kane shrugged, sliding the awkward-looking goggles over her head.
“What are those for?” Katie asked, pointing to the grey-tinted and multi-lensed eyewear.
“They help me see things that aren't really there.”
At her puzzled look, Hodge clarified, “Things not of this natural earth - fairies, ghouls, werewolves, witches, things from the Shade world – leave behind a trail. A magic residue, so to speak. Those goggles make them visible to the wearer.”
Katie crossed her arms over her thin chest, one foot outward, and pinned Hodge with a derisive stare. “You believe in fairies and werewolves but not Krampus?”
Hodge mirrored her stance, his lip curling up in a mocking manner. “I've never seen a Krampus.”
Kane shoved the case in Hodges hands, interrupting the childish display. She knelt across the cot once more, shoving the curtains out of the way.
“I found a white hair stuck to the fireplace, rotten with magic. Krampus is said to be black as pitch, so it couldn’t be that demon. However, it's not a common thief, either,” she announced, sticking one leg out the window.
Hodge leaned over the cot as she slipped out the window, cautiously peering out to judge the distance to the ground below. “If you fall, you can hobble yourself to hospital.”
Kane smiled, not in the least concerned. “I scaled the Clock Tower hunting down a harpy that escaped from the circus without so much as a grappling hook. I'll be fine.”
Balancing precariously on the ledge, Kane bent slightly and launched herself towards the rounded gutter that ran just under the eaves. In a feat of upper body strength and acrobatics Hodge had not known her capable of, Kane was navigating the snow-slicked surface of the roof in moments.
The deep imprints along the middle of the roof were immediately apparent. Not the marks of a sleigh and reindeer sliding across the surface, but rather something large and round skipping like a boulder. The circular depressions were almost a meter wide, split by a thin trail of ice where the snow had been flash melted and refrozen. Where the deep impressions ended, boot prints began, leading to the chimney and crossing over again on the journey back. The second set of prints were deeper, likely from the added burden of Peter.
Kane reached up and flicked a switch just to the side of the right lens, the goggles powering on with a soft hum and a flash of light across the magic-tempered glass. Adjusting a knob to account for the brightness of day, Kane scanned her vision over the roof. A pulsating streak of purple infused with green glowed superimposed over the bright snow. At the end of the trail, the green branched off on its own to snake down the chimney.
Kane strode over to the lip of the chimney and peered down. It was indeed narrow, too narrow for a young man like Peter to fit through with ease, much less two people. But the flood of green light that filled the space from brick to brick explained how such a thing could be accomplished.
Of all the aura colors left behind by the inhabitants of the Shade, Kane liked green the least. There were many creatures which used magic to perform mischief, but none were as difficult to deal with as Hags. They could change their shape at will, possessed a strength far greater than a normal human, and commanded an arsenal of magics.
Soulless, twisted immortals with a taste for human flesh, Kane would much preferred to have dealt with an actual demon than a Hag. Demons, at least, were bound by rules and limitations. Hags had no such constraints, and their only goal in life seemed to be to terrorize a given populace.
Kane glanced around the rooftops, looking for more signs of the Hag's presence. The purple trail, evidence of a magical device in use, continued from the Pagett roof along an intermittent path weaving from one roof to the next. The device didn’t seem to take actual flight if the clear trail was any indication, which would make it easier to track.
Kane agilely climbed back inside the room, flicking off the goggles and tossing them to Hodge.
“Well?” Hodge asked expectantly as he carefully folded the goggled back into their place.
Kane ignored him, not quite prepared to tell him what they were up against. He would take the news much better down on the street, where his reaction would be tempered by his desire to avoid a public scene.
She turned to Katie and placed a reassuring hand on the young girl's shoulder. “We'll get your brother back.”
Politely saying their farewells to Mrs. Pagett and her daughter, Kane and Hodges stepped out into the slush-filled lane. Hodge climbed into Kane’s custom-built motorwagen and cranked the engine to life, his partner hopping into the seat beside him.
“You might as well come out with it,” Hodge began, clicking the long stick shift into gear and letting the contraption slowly roll away from the curb, people scurrying quickly out of the way at the sight of the motorized carriage. “I'm going to find out what we're dealing with sooner or later. Best to be prepared ahead of time.”
Kane grimaced, already imagining Hodge's disapproval. “What do you recall of Hags?”
“Oh, no,” Hodge groaned, letting his forehead rest on the steering wheel briefly in defeat. “We in no way possess the expertise to tangle with Hags. I wouldn't even know how to track the bloody thing.”
“That shouldn't be too hard,” Kane replied. “It left a trail all over town.”
“That doesn't solve the problem of what we do with it once we find it.”
Kane shrugged, not overly concerned with the planning aspect of their job. “Hit it with whatever we've got until it surrenders, I suppose.”
Hodge glanced at her, lips pressed tight and eyebrows quirked in a dubious expression. “That doesn't sound like a very effective plan, Kane. We really need to look into these creatures before we barge right in.”
“Hags have a habit of eating their victims, Hodge. Peter doesn't have time for us to fiddle around with research.”
“Right, so, take everything we've got and hope for the best. As usual.” He grumbled a curse under his breath. “I hate my job.”
Kane smiled, not at all put off by Hodge's defeatist attitude. She nudged him with her shoulder and teased, “You love it and you know it. Chasing off vampires, banishing poltergeists, capturing creatures of pure nightmare. It's titillating.”
“The fear, the adrenaline, the apoplexy,” he groused. “What I wouldn't give for something a little more boring.”
“Now, what would be the fun in that?”
Hodge sighed. What Kane found exciting he considered unnecessary risks. And tonight promised to be yet another venture they’d be lucky to get out of alive.
Back at the office, the pair wasted no time preparing as much as they could for their rescue mission. Unsure exactly what might harm a Hag, Kane armed herself with a wide-ranging arsenal of weapons. She slid a runic-inscribed hunting knife into the top of her boot, tucked a rifle loaded with silver bullets under her arm, and slung a net cannon across her back. Just for good measure, she belted a satchel of vials and potions to cover a host of situations around her waist. Hodge, not as well versed in combat as Kane, carried only a collection of homemade alchemy grenades, a revolving pistol, and a wooden-framed pack filled with various paranormal defense concoctions and relics over his shoulder.
“Did you find anything useful?” Kane asked as Hodge rejoined her at the motorwagen, his encyclopedia of vile creatures clutched in one hand.
He shook his head, tossing his gear in the back and climbing into the driver’s seat. “Nothing on Hags that isn't simply fairy tale nonsense.”
“That just makes it more exciting.”
Hodge steered the carriage back to the Pagett house, to the start of the trail. Sliding her aura-detecting goggles back on, Kane directed Hodge along the meandering path of the purple trail. Aura trails did not last forever, and this one was already beginning to fade. They had to backtrack several times to pick up the path in the winding streets.
The rows of quaint shops and narrow houses were slowly replaced by leaning warehouses and crumbling factories. The thinning trail ended at the entrance of an abandoned fish processing plant. Kane leapt down from the seat, adjusted the weight of the net cannon on her back, and started towards the heavy wooden doors. Hodge scrambled to her side, placing a restraining hand on her shoulder.
“Wards,” he warned, pointing to the ground.
Kane looked down to see a swath of snow swept away in a line encircling the building. Etched in the exposed dirt were strange symbols of unnatural origin. The moment they crossed the line, the Hag would know they were there.
“How do you want to handle this?” Hodge asked.
“The same way I handle everything,” Kane answered, shaking off his hand and striding straight for the front door. Hodge cursed and rushed to grab his kit from the vehicle, trotting awkwardly to catch up to his impulsive partner.
Kane tried the handle of the door, not surprised to find it unlocked. Magical protections and wards made average locks completely unnecessary. Sunlight filtering through gaps in the wall and ceiling dimly lit the interior of the plant. Pieces of machinery lay scattered about the factory floor, the vague scent of rot and rat droppings filling the musty air. The center of the room had been cleared of debris, and in that space sat a two-story house, a barrel-shaped cart left just outside the front door and a long, club-shaped object leaning against the jamb. Of quaint cottage construction with a thatched roof, the whitewashed walls and faded red trim would have been perfect in the wooded countryside. Here, in the shadows of an abandoned fish factory, its presence took on a more ominous feel.
Shadows of movement crossed the flickering light shining from the front windows. Kane ducked behind a pile of broken wood just as the cottage door opened, Hodge falling to his knees beside her. Three figures emerged, each one a fearsome, wizened Hag. The first one to emerge wore all red, and Kane surmised it must be the creature Katie saw take Peter. Behind it came a squatter, rounder version in patchwork clothing, followed by a lanky, thin creature in blue robes. All three had their pointy noses to the air sniffing furiously, and all three glowed bright green in the lens of Kane's goggles.
“Oh, Lord, there's three of them,” Hodge groaned, rolling back on his haunches to lean against the wood. He closed his eyes and murmured a quick prayer of protection before carefully sliding his pack off his back to quietly rummage through the contents in search of a useful weapon.
“I smell intruders. Yagi! Go find out who that is,” the red-clad Hag yelled, gesturing in the general direction of Kane and Hodge’s hiding place.
“Not my turn,” the lanky one whined. “Send Yagoi.”
“Yaga should go,” the third replied. “She has a nose for such things.”
Yaga moved with a speed such an old and round body should not have been capable of. Raising a gnarled hand, she struck first one and then the other of her companions, leaving behind thin red marks where her nails sliced their skin.
“Younger sisters do as they're told. I will tend the soup,” Yaga announced, stomping back into the cottage.
The round Yagoi sniffed derisively at her thinner sister and turned to follow Yaga back inside. The tall Yagi, grumbling something under her breath, marched towards the door, scanning the shadowed crevices of the debris as she went.
“What have you got, Hodges?” Kane asked, snapping her fingers impatiently as she kept an eye on Yagi's progress.
Hodge’s voice rose an octave in his panic. “I don't know what to try.” He dug through his small chest of artifacts with desperate fingers. “I've got Wolfsbane, garlic, mandrake root, a finger bone from Saint Peter, stakes. What do I do for Hag?”
“I don't know, but you have about fifteen seconds to figure it out.”
Hodge fumbled with his bottles. “If we survive this, I'm going to need a raise.”
The Hag had almost come abreast of them, now. Another couple of steps and they’d both be caught.
“I'll take that under consideration. Meanwhile, find something to rescue me before I get eaten,” Kane replied, pushing up to her feet. Hodge turned to protest, but she had already stepped away from the pile of wood, rifle leveled at the approaching Hag.
“No closer, if you please. I'm rather a good shot,” Kane warned.
The Hag halted, studying Kane with its head tilted to one side, black marble eyes burning from behind a curtain of lank, grey hair. It didn't seem to fear her, an emotion Kane had been banking on and whose lack greatly curtailed her plans. If she couldn't intimidate it, she wasn't sure she could stall it long enough for Hodge to do something useful.
“You have wandered into the wrong place,” Yagi said, its voice as rough as a stone against sandpaper. “Nothing for you to do here but die.”
Kane raised her eyebrows. She’s heard that same line from a dozen monsters. “I'm inquiring about the disappearance of a young man named Peter Pagett. Sound familiar to you?”
Yagi rolled her head, in a nod or contemplation, Kane couldn't tell. “Many children here. I do not bother to learn their names. Dinner is all I call them.”
“There's going to be a slight alteration to the menu tonight,” Kane said, pulling the hammer back on her rifle.
“Well, if you're offering,” Yagi began, reaching for the wide belt at her waist.
Kane wasn’t about to let it reach whatever it had hidden in the folds of its robe. She fired, the bullet ripping through the upper chest of the Hag in the soft spot between heart and shoulder.
Yagi took a half step back, staring at the hole in surprise. Black fluid stained the blue of the robe, but it otherwise appeared unharmed. Narrowing its dark eyes at Kane, it screamed, the keening, high pitched sound reverberating through the building. The sound pierced her brain, and Kane lowered the rifle to press a hand to her ear, groaning against the agony that swelled in her head.
Her victim suitably distracted, Yagi pulled a whip from behind her long back and flicked its length around Kane's torso. The thick coils wrapped around the woman’s middle tighter and tighter, slithering like a snake. The rifle dropped to the ground as her arms were pinned close to her ribs, the sharp edges of the net cannon digging into her back painfully. Yagi snapped her mouth shut, ending the paralyzing effects of the keening.
“That was unexpected and not entirely fair,” Kane protested as Yagi tugged hard on the whip.
Yagi gave a short bark of laughter and pulled on the tether, forcing Kane to follow it towards the cottage. Twisting her head to look back at Hodge still watching the scene from behind the wood pile, she gave him a poignant look, hoping he had something to use against the Hags. He merely shook his head and lifted his arms in a shrug. Rolling her eyes, she mumbled something about scholars being useless and turned back around.
“What?” Yagi turned on its heel, peering intently at the piles of debris around the door. Kane scooted into its line of sight, blocking it from catching a glimpse, or sniff, of Hodge.
“Where are we going?” Kane asked innocently, keeping the Hag’s attention on herself. If Hodge was spotted now, neither of them would escape.
Yagi slowly rotated back around, giving the tether a tug to get Kane moving again. “To my sisters. Yaga will decide how best to be rid of you.”
The myriad of ways that could be employed to end her life didn’t bear thinking about. She needed a delaying tactic, something, anything to give Hodge more time to form some kind of plan. Flexing her arms experimentally, the enchanted whip tightened around her further, threatening to restrict her breathing. Wiggling free didn’t seem to be an option.
Reaching the cottage door, Yagi yanked her captive inside. The single room appeared smaller than Kane would have suspected, each corner taken up by a large metal coil, the function of which she couldn’t begin to guess at. Rough-hewn furniture divided the space into a kitchen, dining room, and sitting room. A couch cushioned with scraps of rugs lay near the door, flanked by an end table topped with a scattering of leather-bound books. Towards the back of the house sat a poorly constructed dining table and three chairs, knots of wood scarring the uneven surface. To Kane’s left, a large black pot bubbling over an open fire pit dominated the kitchen area. The other two Hags stood bent over this pot, stirring in dried herbs and all manner of unsavory looking chunks.
Along the wall between the living area and the dining table stretched a large iron cage, bolted in place and filled with crying children. Boys and girls of various ages and from all classes sat or stood huddled against the bars, dread paling their cheeks as they watched the Hags prepare the boiling stew. One stood taller than the rest, his face sullen and calm, arm wrapped protectively around a small, dark-haired girl no more than six.
“Oh, what did you find? What did you catch?” Yaga cooed, circling Kane as they stepped past the threshold. The Hag sniffed at her hair, her neck, her clothes, and Kane recoiled as far as the whip would allow her.
“A first born, an only born. So sweet,” it announced, rubbing its hands in glee and staring at Kane with hungry eyes.
“It's too old,” the large Yagoi complained, jutting her pointed chin out with a derisive sniff. “The meat will be tough.”
“It will be sweet,” Yaga corrected. “First borns always are. All their parents' hopes and dreams are imbued in their flesh. So sweet. We'll put it in the pot.”
Kane did not feel at all enthused at the suggestion she go in the pot. Hoping to keep them talking and distracted from completing their task, she gestured towards the children with her shoulder.
“Why do you have so many children here? There must be more than a dozen. Peter? Peter Pagett, is that you?” Kane asked of the tall boy, picking him out as the eldest among the captives rather than any resemblance to his sister.
In answer, Peter let go of the slight girl and pressed his face against the bars. A flicker of hope sparked in his eyes before being snuffed out again by the sight of their guards attentively watching their every move.
Yagi dropped the whip, and Kane felt the leather loosen. She began to wiggle her shoulders, inching the coils down ever so slightly, mindful of the three Hags keeping an eye on her.
Walking over to the cage, Yagi scraped its long nails against the iron, the children pressing themselves against the far wall. Peter remained defiantly pressed to the bars.
“It is our Yule feast. We celebrate the happiest time of the year by eating what parents hold most dear.” The Hag reached out, flicking the tip of a nail sharply over Peter's exposed forearm, the boy wincing as a thin red line appeared. Yagi raised the blood tipped nail to her mouth and slowly licked the blood from the point with a sharp purple tongue.
“I’m afraid I can't let you do that,” Kane said, shaking the whip completely from her arms.
Swinging the net cannon around from behind her back, she aimed and fired directly at Yagi. The net ejected from the cannon and wrapped securely around the creature, dragging the screeching Hag to the floor.
The angry protestations of the sisters were interrupted in a shower of wooden shrapnel as something large and round crashed through the door of the cottage. Kane leapt out of the way, landing heavily on one hip. The contraption careened straight into the round Yagoi, pinning the Hag against the rough dining set and smashing both of them into the back wall in an explosion of wooden fragments and dark, sticky fluid.
Pushing herself from the floor as the dust settled, Kane surveyed the damage. A line of indents cut a path into the floorboards in the same pattern as those from the Pagett roof. Hodge emerged from inside the barrel-shaped cart, one hand clutching what had initially looked to be a club but had proven to be a portable propulsion rocket.
“I found something that works!” Hodge stated triumphantly, brandishing the magical club overhead.
Yaga turned purple with rage at seeing her sister-Hag squished against the wall like a fly. Pulling a rock from a waist pouch, she began chanting ominously. Across the room, Yagi tore at the net with blade-sharp nails, shredding the rope as easily as if it were paper.
“Angry Hags! Do something again, Hodge!”
Determining the chanting Yaga to be the more imminent threat, Hodge aimed the propulsion rocket at the Hag and fired. The force blew Hodge back against the ooze covered wall, his head snapping backwards with stunning force. The blast end shot out a stream of super-powered air, hitting the side of the pot with enough force to tip it over on top of Yaga. The Hag screamed, convulsing intensely, as boiling hot broth and heavy iron rolled over her body, thin arms flailing uselessly at the heated metal. In seconds, the Hag had shriveled into a silent, foul-smelling mass. A wash of broth, tinted black from the blood of the melted Yaga, flowed over the floor and swirled around boots and shoes.
Across the room, Yagi had torn free of the net, and Kane turned her focus to the snarling Hag. Her one shot fired, she held the cannon in front of her as a shield against the slashing of Yagi's clawed fingers. Ramming the barrel of the cannon into Yagi's midsection, the Hag doubled over from the force of the blow and Kane took a moment to regroup before it surged at her again.
“I can't hold it back for long, Hodge,” Kane called, barely keeping the nails from reaching her face.
Hodge shook the disorientation from his head and struggled into a standing position. Sticky, viscous fluid covered his clothes, and he gagged at the feel of Hag goo on his skin. Taking a step towards the tussling pair, he reached in his pocket and lobbed the first thing he grabbed. A small glass container holding a yellowed, rod-shaped object flew at the creature, only to be swatted away with the wave of a claw to shatter across the floor, ineffective.
“Ah, my reliquary,” Hodge protested, watching helplessly as Saint Peter's supposed finger skittered across the floor. He had paid good money for that sacred item, and it hadn't even given the Hag pause.
Plucking a smoke grenade from his belt, Hodge pulled the tab and hurled it at the Hag, hoping it would at least distract the creature long enough for Kane to get the upper hand. It bounced, rolling to a stop between their shuffling feet. A thick plume of acidic smoke poured from the top of the grenade, stinging the eyes of the Hag. It stepped back, coughing and covering its eyes. Her own eyes still protected by her goggles, Kane pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and pressed it against her nose to prevent the burning gas from reaching her throat.
Hodge took up the propulsion staff again and charged the fumbling figure of the Hag, bringing the heavy, flared end down on its head. Stunned, the Hag slumped against the wall. Taking advantage of its weakened state, Kane pulled her hunting knife from her belt and drove it into the creature's heart, twisting and sawing until Yagi ceased to struggle and fell limp.
Exhaustion filled her limbs as the adrenaline subsided and Kane collapsed onto the couch. Hodge stumbled over and let his body fall next to her, sighing heavily from injury and fatigue.
“That was a piece of cake,” Kane said between breaths.
“You know, it actually was. A nasty, man-eating, ugly as sin, cake.”
They looked at each other and smiled. Hodge reached up to brush a curl from his brow, his fingers coming away smeared with black ooze. He wiped the offending ichor on a clean spot of pant leg with a grimace.
Feeling the weight of 16 frightened and tired children staring at her, Kane pushed up from the couch, reaching out a hand to pull Hodge to his feet.
“So, how do we get all these young 'uns home?” she asked, grabbing the ring of keys from the hook near the cage and opening the door. The newly freed children filed out, cautiously stepping around the remnants of Hag that littered the floor.
“The house walks,” one of the children answered.
“The house walks. Under the cupboard, they've got a gearbox, and it makes the house walk. That's how it got in here in the first place,” the child explained.
He pointed to what looked like a cabinet set beneath the large kitchen window. Kane strode over, pushing away Yagi's corpse with her boot, to search inside. The door folded open, revealing several dials, cranks, buttons, and three levers marked in a language Kane recognized but possessed no skill in.
“How's your Russian, Hodges?”
Hodge leaned over, peering at the faded red writing above each knob and dial. He pushed up on the rim of his spectacles with one finger, squinting in concentration. “It’s an older dialect, not so easy to translate. If I’m reading it correctly, this one, basically, means 'Push to start'. The first lever-”
“That's all I need to know,” Kane stated, punching down the 'start' button. The buttons began to glow with a bluish light and the electric sizzle of magic hummed through the house. The sound of an engine whirling to life filled the small cottage, the crockery on the shelves rattling.
“But there's a dozen other buttons and levers,” Hodge protested, gesturing to the cluttered and complicated-looking control panel.
“I'll figure it out along the way.” She glanced at the selection of knobs and dials, wondering which to try next. “Which of these thingamabobs means ‘go’?”
Hodge rolled his eyes and sighed. If he didn’t help her, she’d start hitting buttons until one of them did something, and he hadn’t survived three Hags just to be killed in a machine explosion.
“This lever controls direction. And this button says ‘lift’, which would be my bet on what’s next.”
Kane jammed the button down, and the whirling turned to a grinding as the coils, aided by mechanics and enchantment, unrolled four spidery legs through the floor, lifting the house several feet in the air. The children huddled in a protective circle in the middle of the room, crying out as the house moved beneath them. Tilting first to the left, then swaying abruptly to the right, the house righted itself with a jerk.
After a few terrifying false starts, Hodge even going so far as to cross himself, Kane navigated the walking cottage through a rear loading door and into the street, minus only some thatching.
The house clunk-clanked through London, the panicked screams of residents and carriage horses guiding their path. One by one, Kane and Hodge returned the children to their homes in time for dinner. And, though they were delivered by an awkward mobile cottage instead of a red sleigh, there could be no better present than the safe return of their children in time for the morning Yule celebrations. For Kane, it was seeing the smile and happy tears on Katie's face when her brother swept her up in his arms.
“What do you plan to do with this contraption?” Hodge asked once all the children had been returned.
“I rather like the idea of having a house I can take with me everywhere,” Kane replied, now manipulating the gears with ease. “I think I'll keep it.”
Kane smiled, imagining his reaction when he realized where she meant to park it. “You let me worry about that, Hodges.”
“Hodge!” he gritted through anxiety-clenched teeth, white knuckles gripping the counter as he watched pedestrians scramble below in terror. “And, you're insufferable!”