Lenny thought he had kept his eyes open the whole time but realized his eyes were tightly shut. When he finally opened his eyes he was amazed. The Fold was hypnotic- like the world in miniature laid out on a slightly curving upward floor of sparkling stars. They could jump from point to point in no time at all- but so many points- so many homes- Lenny thought 5 hours was a lot of time but even here he wondered how it could be enough. How would they find what they were looking for? WHAT were they looking for? There wasn't an obvious hole like he thought there would be. Jack Frost’s mist showed a faint trail only for a small time then it cleared. After that they began to look into the twinkling lights of the scenery the Fold revealed.
Lenny took his restraints off when he saw the dwarves moving around and peering over the side of sled. He got up and balanced himself and made his way up to Santa. He saw the reindeer’s legs pumping up front and Santa cracked the whip and the lightning cracked. He watched the lights twinkle around in a spiral at a great distance around. Lenny knew from listening to Santa on the wharf this was a good sign, the Fold was at its maximum size. He pulled Santa’s sleeve and yelled into the hot and cold wind.
“What do you think we should look for?”
Santa roared back at him, “Something different!”
Lenny stumbled back into the sled and over to the dwarves and looked over the side. He almost threw up and fell back into the sled. The effect of the bent air and the crazily arranged landscape made him dizzy in a way he had never been. He had to beat this though and be of use. They had no idea what they would face so he couldn’t be a failure at simply looking over the side. He tried again and found that if he moved along with the sway of the sled instead of trying to stay perfectly still it helped some. Soon he was a lot better oriented and looked over again.
This is what Santa saw every Christmas Eve. They followed the track he always followed- up and down to some darker patches or anything that he did not remember from his last Christmas Eve run. Anything new that had appeared since last Christmas Eve got looked at and circled with suspicion. Surprisingly that was the wrong thing to look for.
Lenny had never been through this before and didn’t know what was new and what wasn’t. He just knew something was odd when after some time he noticed one particular spot. Jack Frost said to look for the wobble. He pointed out some things to the dwarves who explained what they were- well he thinks they did. In the rushing of the wind he heard very little of what they said. I can’t tell you what they said because the one mouse hidden away in the bags was not listening very closely right at that moment. He did finally climb out right when something very important happened.
Lenny noticed a small green patch. A strange color for any season, more like poisoned neon green- he pointed it out to the dwarves. They yelled it’s probably a reflection from clouds or other lights, or it might be raining there which would make it blur and move. They said they had seen that spot for decades and it never changed. They explained the air is closed on some places- they are not homes but water reflections or some such thing and look odd. It was one of them. But Lenny remembered something Jack Frost said quickly among all the things he said- that Santa has seen the same things over and over and might be looking for some large grand evil sign.
Watch for the wobble, he said, the heat that a hidden independent time pocket would need. He said you have to get right on top of one to see what it is- check out anything weird. Lenny crept forward and convinced Santa to swoop in a little closer.
It was the right move. Lenny’s gut feeling from years as a detective was something even Santa didn’t have. They circled close and saw a home and three children playing in the yard. Strange it was so green in autumn but could have been another temperature zone showing through this section of fallen leaf covered homes. To a passerby nothing odd- but Lenny saw the wobble and looked around at other homes visible not so far away- it was a strange pocket of time. It had to be.
Santa swooped in closer the reindeer moving in one flowing motion without any discernable command to do so. Hide in plain sight, Lenny thought, and he got the creeps seeing the children at play on the yard. They were stiff moving, playing jacks, but looking like they were about to cry. They suddenly looked up. Santa called back to Lenny they never got presents, he never went there but he'd been going by for years assuming they followed another holiday tradition. Santa looked closer and said he'd been seeing this house for more than several decades- and those were the same children he’d always seen. They had not aged a day. Santa said if it wasn't the place they wanted now, it was something that needed to be checked out later if they were wrong. Lenny knew they were right.
They flew in close to view the small cheery but weird house and the quiet unsmiling children on the yard. It was two boys and a girl in dark gray clothing. A strange wave of sickness ran through Lenny but he realized they had passed into this pocket of time.
They sailed in closer and Ruedov kept giving signals, grunts that vibrated through even the sled, a message it was okay to land. He was never wrong, but there was something strange alright. To everyone it looked wavy and soft- not a good landing surface- but now Santa began to wonder what Ruedov was seeing and he let him lead them in. Everyone braced for impact and bumps but nothing happened. It was a smooth landing on a hard surface. It was fake, it was a flat surface painted to look like grass- it was in fact hard as any rooftop. It also rocked in a slight way with their weight suddenly on it and Lenny immediately realized what the reindeer must have- it was an island suspended in air. Smoke and mist surrounded it. Any happiness Lenny felt for picking the right place was replaced very quickly with the fear of what would happen next. Sure he has probably found the place but now what. He didn’t even have his gun. Santa told him to leave it behind because of its danger being discharged in the fiery bordered Fold.
The children looked stunned- Santa called out a cautious greeting and what they said was so sad.
"Santa? Is that you? Can you see us?" “Yes!"
“Yes!"He called back to them in a forced cheery voice.
"It’s been so many years we watched you fly every Christmas Eve and you never came. It’s too late now.” The youngest boy of the three looked at his two companions in a troubled way.
"I am sorry to hurry you children but we are looking for many other children that may have been brought here- did you see them? Are they here?" "Yes- they are inside,”
"Yes- they are inside,”the girl answered quietly, “but do you see the smoke? It is, I think, too late." Lenny with his keen detective eye noticed the children's clothing wasn’t actually dark gray, but clothing saturated in smoke and dust. He could see lace and buttons, but they were all one sooty color. The children were pale white, a hue not from nature.
Maybe it was the altered gravity, maybe the magical aspects in the air, maybe the thought of smoke and children and comment of "too late" but Lenny sprang out of the sled without waiting for anyone else. He thought briefly how he would pay for this eventually- his bones creaked his lungs wheezed but somehow his energy seemed to come back.
He could move with stealth and confidence, well more than usual and he ran to the house with Santa calling after him to stop. He burst the door in, stumbling into the darkness alone.
The time shift was worse inside- he felt like he was drunk. He reeled suddenly down what must have been a flight of stairs- colors swirled in blackness before his eyes and in his head as he rushed from empty room to empty room. He could barely see by the eerie light the shifting colors shed. He called out but his voice bounced right back into his ears. The echoes came seconds after in his own voice of course, but the words had been changed. He would call “Children” and it would come back “Get OUT!”. He had already seen such amazing things that this trick of sound to scare him did not stop him, but it was very disturbing.
Following the main hallway (that he was together enough to know was too long to have fit into the tiny house he entered) he tripped on a sudden wave movement in the floor. He fell and spun around as he dropped. He lay for a moment looking up. His vision seemed slightly clearer down there. He saw something out of the corner of his eye. When he stood back up he still saw it ahead- silhouettes. The floor waved up again, he ducked down to hold on and that time heard something too. Voices in the distance. Very young voices!
The Kids! He heard screams now. He ran forward on the floor that had started bucking like a bronco and then was stopped by a pummeling on his legs. He thought he was being beaten up but realized before he landed a punch- it was the kids- just as confused, just as reeling, clinging to him. They had been sitting, holding on in the hallway in the weird pale light that glowed from under the door at the end.
He pointed back the way out toward the stairs. He was afraid to say anything in case his voice came to them saying something awful. The moaning children started crawling and stumbling. He continued forward and found more children lying still, and thankfully were roused with shaking, and then they clung to him too. With children seemingly everywhere, he went forward and opened the door. Then quickly shut it. He told the kids to run for the stairs. The words must have come to them fine because they did just that. He did not want them to see what he saw. It was a horrible scene- a child strapped to a chair with an IV contraption in him. A dizzy dwarf suddenly appeared in the hallway and was covered in children instantly. He began to lead and carry them out.
Lenny rushed back into the horrible room. He could not stop long enough to figure out the evil machine -he just pushed a switch back that looked like a power switch and something reversed. The whole thing was attached to a massive tube that probably went through to the outside and spewed that horrible smoke because smoke was leaking back in here and there. He thought for a second how the smoke surrounded everything and knew, somehow- that’s what made this strange pocket of time possible. And now it would stop and the pocket might collapse.. they would be trapped or worse..
The child began to regain his color and started to cry. Lenny didn’t wait to try to figure anything out; he ripped the tubes out of the child and detached the straps, picked him up and rushed out with the tiny boy in his arms. It might have been his imagination but he thought he felt a shudder go through everything around him. Soon he and all the rest of the kids and the dwarf were stumbling for the stairs. Suddenly they were outside on the strange yard gasping and dizzy.
"What happened?" Santa roared- "You just went in!” "Time thing going on in there too- worse"
"Time thing going on in there too- worse"Lenny was out of breath- but the stunned children arranged around laying and standing, were looking fine as could be in the circumstances. “We have to go –NOW!”
Before anyone could look over or count the children the yard started to buck like the inside of the house. The smoke ever so slightly began to clear and then the door burst open. Evil looking henchmen poured out followed by Huk. Lenny recognized him from old most wanted posters. Supposedly a gentleman but anything but. Huk was snarling, certainly not the smooth and fine voiced con man who warped the Piper into this kidnapping, this was a vicious monster. Even his teeth were pointed and at the end of his arm, was a golden razor sharp hook.
"GO” Santa roared pointing Lenny to the sled, and the dwarves took up a battle stance to cover he and the children as they ran for it. Some of the children were trying to see Santa, even in their circumstances they called out Santa's name and smiled. The henchmen charged the dwarves and went for Lenny and the kids- and the battle in the strange pocket began.
At first the henchmen were no match for a man rumored to be descended from grizzlies and dwarves that carved castles out of mountains. Bag hooks and poles flew, Santa’s whip cracked and they backed down and some fell screaming over the side of the island.
But vile sneaky henchmen came up from behind the sled and Lenny was only one man- he didn’t have his gun, so he grabbed bag hooks and tried to fight but a few of the henchmen got some of the children and ran back for the house. The dwarves chased them down and Lenny fought off the others trying to climb into the sled. He was shocked at how well he did. The children regaining some strength kicked and fought them off too. Children out on the yard wriggled away from their captors and went running. Some were climbing on the sleigh and others were being dumped into it by dwarves- there seemed to be children everywhere.
When Lenny finally thought to look for Santa he saw he and Huk locked in a one on one battle. Both seemed equally sized and just as menacing and strange. He thought he should try to get out there to him right when Santa’s whip wrapped around Huk’s middle and seemed to lift him and smash him to the ground. The bucking of the yard was what made it look like he went high up and back down but the effect worked in Santa’s favor and Huk seemed to crumble on the ground. At that moment the yard stopped moving. Huk himself didn’t move for a moment but then began to crawl. He huddled weakly up against the wall of the house. The henchmen froze where they stood, shocked.
Santa turned to everyone and waved his hand to prepare to leave.
Lenny jumped out and ran to Santa’s side as they approached Huk. They had to think of a way to bring him back to be prosecuted. Dwarves approached with ropes.
Lenny could not hide his anger, he stepped up close to Huk, "Are you even human? How could you do something like this?" He spat at the florid man.
"I am a human." Huk spoke and smiled in what was probably a small amount of the charm he used on others.
Trapped and lying in garbage he was almost pitiable. Huk shockingly seemed to think he could explain himself too:
"Not all humans are the same. It's like dolphins and sharks... both live in the water and both looks like a fish. But the dolphin is a warm blooded creature that loves its children and the other...the Shark.." he smiled with pointed teeth gleaming, "the Shark is a killing machine.... I'm just a shark person.” he said sweetly, "It’s my nature."
The dwarves closed in and Santa stopped them with a grim look. “He has to be left here.” Santa said to Lenny, “Your human courts would free him once he turned the charm back on. He would get away. Let the collapse of this place destroy him too.”
Lenny knew it; the place WAS going to collapse. That he felt almost pity for this man was also a sign Santa was right. Huk would get away. They had to get out of there fast- the smoke was almost gone and there was a very real sound of groaning and creaking and the air felt like it was closing in. Everyone backed away as Huk held his arm up in front of his face looking pathetic.
Santa went to search the fake lawn for more children. Henchmen began to run dodging dwarves.
Huk seemed to be severely injured- he could barely move.. but that was a trick of course. The minute the dwarves took one step back to leave, Huk charged them, knocking them down with surprising weight and ferocity. He wasn't legendary for nothing. He whistled a strange sound and from out of nowhere a wooden boat appeared. It had been tethered right near Santa’s sleigh off the island. He took off for his boat, and with unexpected speed it pulled back and shot off into the Fold.
They screamed for Santa, if Huk knew how to open even a lesser Fold he would know how to close it, he might be able to close their Fold if he got out first, and then Santa and everyone else would be trapped. Santa came running in time to see Huk disappear into a cloud of vapor.
It was a run of desperation- all the dwarves alternately carrying and pushing children some twice their size.
The Reindeer watching wanted to fight but knew they would be needed, in formation, ready to go. Their snorts and grunts were so loud they echoed in the strange pocket and added a surreal urgency to already urgent circumstances. Ruedov watched with hatred as the wooden vessel left quickly with Huk on board. His eyes fired red.
Huk's abandoned henchmen now chased the children down again, the dwarves risked their lives to fight them back with poles and bag hooks. Santa made one last daring run around the house and was about to go inside it when the three pale children came around the corner.
"There is nothing in there,” the oldest boy said, “No children. Leave NOW Santa."
Santa couldn't figure out in that second if they were on the side of good or bad, there was something very wrong about the three. But they were still children- he reached his hand out-
"Come back with us." "Go Santa,"
"Go Santa,"the oldest boy said, "Take him with you!" he pushed the younger boy forward and Santa grabbed him.
"We'll slow them down, you have no time."
The boy and girl held hands and turned to the henchmen who were rounding the corner. The boy in Santa's arm began to yell and struggle to get loose.
The henchmen had swords now, the two children would never survive. Santa made a dive for them and got both as he rolled and jumped back to his feet. With one boy under one arm and the other two under the other arm he ran for the sleigh. He felt the sword slashes in the air behind him. The dwarves had already loaded children on, Lenny was pulling them up into the sled's back carrier. Santa saw in that moment how overloaded they were. Nothing they could do now- Huk was already gone. Santa looked up around him at the dark swirling sky and hoped it would not suddenly close in upon them. He loaded the sled and took his seat and Lenny crawled forward and signalled they were ready to go.
Santa heard a yell of terror and looked in time to see Ruedov circled back keeping the abandoned henchmen at bay with his antlers against the swords. The Henchmen's swords shattered. Ruedov's eyes were glowing white hot now.
In a rush of adrenaline, panic, fear and bravery everyone was ready, ducking down, holding on, shouting, crying, - the three children Santa held were deposited next to Lenny who wrapped them in blankets and signaled to put their heads down and hold tight to the straps. There was no time to react to anything.
Lenny always underestimated the power of the reindeer team, and they shot forward with such force he thought he would spill right out of the sled. He tried to hold as many children down as he could and still hold on himself. Then that strange suffocating feeling again. He knew the children might not be ready for it, he didn't know what it had felt like on Huk's boat- they may have been tied up or in bags, he didn't know but couldn't ask them now. He reached about as he could and tried to see if they were okay. He could feel moving children huddled under the blankets. At least they were still moving and none had fallen out.
When they broke back into the Fold, Lenny climbed to the back of the main sled and in spite of his better judgment- climbed across the wobbling hitch and into the back trailing sled. No- he didn't look down. He wanted to look behind them to make sure no other boats were following. The dwarves in back were shocked when Lenny appeared. One even smiled and patted him but suddenly got knocked over. A henchman was climbing up onto the back of the sleigh and was reaching in with a piece of sword in his hand. Without even thinking or pausing Lenny grabbed the packing pole from the knocked down dwarf and swung out...
For a moment a picture flashed in his head- from a long time ago. A movie he had seen of a swashbuckler fighting off some evil person.. for the first time in his life the face on the brave hero was himself. He had been having that dream, that imaginary moment, almost all his life and it was always someone else's face. Not just bravery- not just confidence- but skill. The Henchman disappeared with a scream as Lenny leapt forward and balanced on the edge and hit him off the sled with one fluid motion. All the dwarves nearby smiled and shook their fists in the air. Lenny even dared to lean over the back and swing the pole around to make sure no one else was underneath. They were as safe as they could be at the moment. He jumped back inside.
A horrific crackling sound made him look up and back. There at the end of the ever-decreasing circle of green light that was the strange pocket with the tiny house- he saw the place go up in flames and crash into itself. The whole glowing space disappeared and he felt a wave of heat pass them with the smell of smoke and burning metal. Then a mass of flames shot out and even before he could duck it reached out its fiery fingers and disappeared. It was gone.. the whole island the whole pocket... but it had also collapsed the Fold back there and the tunnel grew darker- the light even eerier, the darkness from behind gaining faster.
Lenny made his way forward to more pats from smiling dwarves and climbed back over the hitch, and this time, looked down. He wasn't afraid anymore, but the view did scare him. The swirling gray was no longer gray- it was red. Now it wasn't swirling smoke patterns anymore, it was swirling flame. None of the houses or scenery could be seen- it was just red and getting closer. He climbed over fast and went right back up to Santa and pulled on his coat hem. The roaring of the Fold was too loud for voices to carry over, and Santa looked back and acknowledged Lenny pointing downward and back, and he looked down for a brief second. When he looked back up Lenny was shocked to see something that might have been worry on Santa's face.
Santa whipped the reins up and down in fury. Lenny sat back down. There was nothing more he could do.