I find Jay sitting in a small park, his back against a tree. There is a faint dusting of snow on him and he’s staring off into space. Not crying, though I have no idea if that’s good or bad. Sirens cut off in the distance as though it was possibly to unsummon a disaster. But this is the wandering magician we’re talking about, so he probably is.
I sit down beside him, reach an arm around him and hug Jay tightly against me.
He shudders, and snow melts as he shoves hard against me and lets out soft whimpers.
“It’s okay, kiddo. It’s being fixed.”
“But Honcho shouldn’t have had to fix it,” he says. Not many people can make a whisper also a wail, but Jay does have talents.
“All I know is that you tried to take down Krampus and a lot of people got hurt?”
“He was really mean,” Jay says, in the way only kids can believe that. Jay looks to be a kid of about eleven, but he’s from far, far Outside the universe. “And hurting Santa with evil stories and doing horrible things to kids so I did a binding.”
Jay twists his head to stare up at me, his face so pale it hurts to see. His eyes are wide wounds as he says: “He got away,” as if he doesn’t believe that yet himself.
I blink. Jay is very good at making bindings; he can see them and shape them at levels even magicians can’t grasp at all. Until today, I wouldn’t have thought it was at all possible for anything native to earth to break a binding Jay made if he was serious about it. “How?”
“I don’t know. It went all – he twisted the binding into places I’ve never been and got away and I didn’t stop him and that wasn’t jaysome at all!”
“So you came to the park?”
“I can’t help Honcho fix people cuz I don’t know humans like he does and I cried earlier and now I’m just – I was kind of feeling sorry for myself, I think? Like a jaysulk, only with more sulk.”
The words are almost close to Jay as he normally is, but there is no grin to go along with them. “You set a trap for Krampus then?”
Jay stirs a little at that. He loves sharing, after all. “I was a reindeer,” he says proudly.
I decide not to ask if he’s being literal, if only because Jay would probably be convinced his plan had failed because he wasn’t a reindeer and then try and transform into one. I’ve seen Jay become something Other before; I have no desire to ever do so again. “And you caught him?”
“He was whispering really bad words to kid that broke bindings deep inside them, all the ones that say Santa is real and I caught him outside and did the binding and he got free and – and – and things got weird because he hurt people inside them in response and that’s when I called you to get hold of Honcho and .... and ...” Jay trails off, then presses hard against me. “I’m scared, Charlie.”
“Of?” I ask.
“Me. Losing is weird, and I might get mad and I don’t want to.”
“Then don’t,” I say, because Jay can do things like that with his emotions.
“It’s a bit hard right now,” he says, “but you’re helping a lot,” and nothing else at all.
I just hug him gently for a good ten minutes before the wandering magician wanders his way into the park. Jay stiffens, but doesn’t try and break free of my hug.
“I’m sorry, Honcho. I didn’t mean to do that and I kinda broke thingth,” he says, and it says a lot about how shaken Jay is that he’s lisping when he hasn’t had a hint of a lisp in months. And even more than he hasn’t noticed and boasted about it. Because Jay.
The magician just crouches down. “Krampus is an old monster, Jay, and one native to this world. Which means magicians can’t banish him Outside, or really bind him properly. Many have tried, alone or with allies.” He pauses. “You knew he was a terrible kind of monster, yes?”
“Then why do you think I – or Charlie – or someone else, wouldn’t have dealt with him?”
Jay blinks at that. “I didn’t even – I should have thought that cuz you’re jaysome too and I didn’t!”
“Which means Krampus was testing you,” the magician says as he stands. “You might have a chance, with allies. But not tonight. Tonight there is a department store Santa needing an elf, and you promised to be one.”
Jay grins. The grin is huge, delighted and pure Jay as he hugs the magician and is gone from the park in an inhuman blur.
I stand and wait until I’m sure Jay is occupied and just look at the magician. “A test?”
“If it helps him to believe that, yes. It didn’t occur to Jay to wonder why we didn’t deal with the Krampus simply because he didn’t even think of that option. A human would, but Jay isn’t human – his priorities aren’t the same as ours at all, and sometimes he forgets that. I had no wish to wound him with that fact.”
“You didn’t like to him.”
“Of course not; it is not always the same as telling the truth,” he says, sounding as tired as he looks for a moment.
“Now, I think, we need to find a way to contain Krampus if we can.”
“We’ve still won even if we can’t,” I say.
The magician pauses. “Pardon?”
“He was scared of losing his temper even if he didn’t want to; he says I helped him not lose it. Maybe I did, but it’s an important lesson in control.”
The magician chuckles at that, low and soft. “Do you want to go to the shopping centre and see how long this control has lasted?”
“No,” I say, quite wisely, and we head back toward the hotel we’re renting a room from. I don’t ask if the magician has ever tried to kill a monster that’s at least half a myth before; some conversations you don’t want to have until you have no other way to avoid them.