Short Fiction

On the sixth day of Fic-mas, we meet a man alone, traveling to fight the darkness far from home …

That the Lord May Love Thee

No one seemed particularly inclined to worry about the conditions out here. He hadn’t seen a single plow or salt truck on his long drive back. Maybe they were over budget, he thought. The snow had fallen all afternoon in that soft gently lulling way that could make you forget the hazards of commuting in an area prone to inclement weather. Until a dog ran out in front of you and you tapped your breaks anyway.

The fishtailing of the old sedan made the driver realize that he was, perhaps, still a little too focused on how he had spent his day rather than attending to the basic tasks of survival. Speaking of survival, he was really pretty hungry. And damned if he couldn’t use a drink.

Caleb eased into a semi-snow free space close to his motel room door. At least it looked like someone did snow removal for the fleabag he was staying in. So, he could probably get out in the morning.

He glanced at the interview notes on the passenger seat. Reviewing and writing up the report promised to take up most of his evening. His first solo mission had him excited enough that he didn’t even mind that it was Christmas Eve, or that what he was being asked to do was pretty low stakes. It was almost make-work in the grand scheme of the things the Order typically concerned themselves with, but it was his.

He knew that everyone assigned to the Direct Action Corps of the Templars started out like this. It was a proving ground, he supposed. But given the level of training Knights like him received, before they were even allowed to take the Holy Orders of the Warrior Priest, it was a relatively safe one. Investigate suspicious activity. Observe and report. It was, for all intents and purposes, a low-level demon stakeout.

Caleb, at twenty-two, was the youngest ever to take the Oath, and was known to be bright, inventive, and ambitious. He had a tendency to throw himself completely into the task at hand, frequently disregarding his own best interests. Father-Captain Michaels had gone out of his way to remind him that, in the heat of battle that was a good thing, but going about your day to day living, or even completing a less obviously dangerous assignment, it was a tendency he might want to work on curtailing a bit.

He was reminded of that light bit of lecturing as he set down his notes on the small cluttered desk in his room. His stomach grumbled obstinately, drawing attention to the fact that he’d been so passionately pursuing his mission, he hadn’t eaten since … lunch yesterday, was it? Damn.

Caleb reasoned that his formal reports could wait for a bit while he went and grabbed a bite. Loren Michaels, the de facto father figure to most of the young men and women in his unit, had been very clear. He had said in so many words, “Yes, I want you to accomplish your basic assignment, but I also want you to remember that disregarding your own safety can make a poor soldier of you. You have to be not just alive, but alert, and in good health, to keep up the work of the Order.”

Caleb organized his notes, then grabbed a shower. He felt like maybe he was done leaving the room for the night and just slipped into his bathrobe. He hunted around for the take-out menus he’d picked up over the course of the week, but found none. Housekeeping must have been a little too thorough. He supposed he’d have to go out. He changed back into his work clothes, since he hadn’t even emptied the pockets yet, and prepared to find some place that was open this evening.

Fishing his phone out of his pocket, he dialed, and tucked it between his ear and his shoulder, so he could speak while he locked up his room. Caleb was never late with his check-in.

As he headed back out into the increasingly bitter cold, he fished for his car keys. “Good evening,” he said with polite formality. “This is Caleb. Five-two-seven.”

“Five-two-seven, acknowledged. Hold please.”

Caleb fumbled around for the key to the sedan.

“Five-two-seven, this is Control. Status report.”

“Interviews completed at fifteen hundred hours. All the effected cattle had their left eyes, tongues, and hearts removed with surgical precision. The night following the organ harvest incident, the ranchers all reported strange lights, specifically like lighting in a clear sky.”

“Preliminary findings, Five-two-seven?”

“Preliminaries confirm demon activity. Probable summoning gate activation. Full report with recommendations will be submitted in the a.m. Oh-six-hundred at the latest.”

“Take your time, Five-two-seven,” Control’s Operator of the Watch said, her voice lightly amused. The young ones were always so gung-ho. “No one will be here to read mission reports tomorrow. It’s Christmas Day.”

“Oh, yes, I suppose it is,” he agreed distractedly, trying to remember what places he’d seen on his way back that might offer a meal this late on a holiday.

“However, I can tell you that based on your preliminary report, Control will record the confirmation and mobilize a ground team to sanitize the area.”

Not bad. Not bad at all, first time out. A mobilization based on his intel. That might grease the wheels for something more engaging in his near future. His broad grin was in his voice when he replied, “Very good, Control. Have a good night.”

“You, too, Five-two-seven. And Merry Christmas to you.”

“Merry Christmas.”

He slipped his phone back into his pocket with a satisfied nod to himself. With a ground team activated, his work here was done. He’d still file his report tomorrow and brief the team, but he could count on orders to move to another town coming down the pike in the next forty-eight hours. And, he was hopeful, it would be something more interesting.

“Shit,” Caleb grumbled as his cold hands let his keys drop into a pile of snow. For the first time since closing the door of his motel room, he really took in the state of the parking lot.

It was snowing again, and getting pretty serious about it. He’d been in his room less than an hour and better than an inch had already collected. It was the icy mealy sort of precipitation that made driving particularly treacherous.

He stooped and fished his keys out of the snow, grumbling to himself. His best friend in the Order, and bunkmate from their training days, was looking at a series of animal mutilations, too. In Hawaii.

Caleb sighed. Of course he’d scored the assignment in the northern sector of God’s Half-Acre. He detested the cold. But he supposed the point of early assignments being a bit of a slog was to help a Knight develop some grit.

As he stood, he nearly slipped and went over backwards in the icy parking lot. Well, that made the decision of where to go for dinner and easy one. The seedy looking bar across the street served food. It was bound to be mostly fried crap, but he could tell from the lights and sounds traveling across the deserted road that it was open for business.

As depressing as he expected spending Christmas Eve in a dive bar in the middle of nowhere to be, it felt like a better, smarter option than driving the twenty miles to the closest Denny’s, which was about the only other place his brain had been able to come up with as an option.

The appearance of the bar lent itself to one of those colorful honkytonk stomping ground-worthy names like The Bull Run (a place he’d actually been to in western Texas not two weeks before, and there’d been actual sawdust on the floor and a mechanical bull off to one side).

All that advertised any identity for this establishment was a flickering neon sign that said simply ‘Bar’ and cast a sickly red light over the snow. Under it, a pink sign rhythmically blinked ‘Eats’.

Caleb shrugged. “Simple. Tells the story,” he whispered to himself as he headed up the slippery walkway and pulled open the grimy door.

The place was surprisingly full, considering the weather and the lack of cars in the poorly maintained parking lot. No one paid him any mind as the door banged closed behind him. The only one who seemed to notice him at all was the no-necked chuck of muscle standing by the door.

Must be the bouncer, Caleb thought. The guy looked more than up to the task of tossing out a drunk, or, you know, fifty. Caleb looked back impassively as the guy eyed him up and down. After a few seconds, the big dude tipped his chin in the direction of the woman standing behind the bar.

He looked around for a moment. The other guests filled the noisy establishment in the booths that lined the walls or by monopolizing the two pool tables and several dart boards. The bartender smiled and motioned him over to the mostly empty highly polished counter. “Come on over, Slick. Take a load off.”

Caleb walked over to the bar, sliding onto one of its high stools and resting his heels on the crossbar near the floor. “Nice place,” he said pleasantly, giving the bartender a worldly smile that he would never admit to having practiced in front of the mirror. Sometimes his age made this job a little more challenging than it was for someone with a few years on him.

The woman behind the bar tilted her head and raised an eyebrow in speculation. “Evening, young fella. I’m Mandi.” He just nodded in response. “And as the proprietor of this establishment, I have to ask … Why you packing? You a cop?”

Caleb blinked in surprise. His clothes were well-tailored to hide the fact that he carried. “Oh … um … the gun,” Caleb stalled to think, but quickly found his footing. He hardened his eyes a little and let his lips be almost a smirk. “Look, lady, it’s my right to carry. I have a permit.”

She nodded slowly, looking directly into his eyes. “Alright, kid. I can respect that. But, I’m gonna go ahead and ask again. Cop?”

He frowned and shook his head. The he spoke with a purposeful slightly cocky challenge, “Something going on in your fine place of business you wouldn’t want a cop around to see?”

“Why, of course not. I just like all the cards on the table when I come across a new face is all. So, again, and I’m getting a little tired of asking, are you a cop?”

This time he smiled and chuckled a little. “Not a cop, no.”

“Well, then what is it you do that necessitates the use of that very fine looking M9?”

He tensed at the specificity of her question and looked at her long and hard, then he realized his jacket had bunched open when he sat down, and relaxed.

“Well, Slick?” she prompted.

“Caleb,” he answered first. “My name is Caleb.”

“That’s nice, Slick, you got a name. I’m sure your folks gave that all kinds a thought. What is it you do?” Her question took on a harder edge.

Before he could answer, another patron at the foosball table off to the left called out, “He’s an insurance man or somethin’, Mandi.”

“What makes you say that?” she asked, looking just about right through the young man sitting in front of her giving evasive answers.

“He’s been out talkin’ to all those farmers who had those cows die.”

She raised an eyebrow at Caleb. He looked much too fit, much too alive around the eyes for anything so mundane. “Insurance man, huh?”

“Not exactly. But I have been looking into the cattle mutilations.”

Shit. He should have left that out.

“So, you’re not a cop. Not an insurance man. But you’re investigating cattle mutilations in the middle of nowhere? You work for the government?” Mandi raised an eyebrow.

Caleb shook his head. “Nothing like that.” She didn’t look like she believed him. “Look, I work for a private risk management firm and we’re doing a risk assessment for a client.”

“What client?” she asked.

“That’s confidential, ma’am. But I’d love to order, if I could.” This time he plastered on his most ingratiating smile and gave a little nod of encouragement.

“Sure thing. You got ID on you?”

“I haven’t even ordered!” he said with just a little indignation.

“True. But you are sitting at my bar wearing that baby face. And I asked you for your identification. You want to keep sitting here, you’ll hand it over,” she replied, drumming her fingers on the bar.

He shook his head and reached into his coat. He took his license out of its plastic sleeve with fingers that were still so cold they fumbled for a moment, and handed it across the bar.

She studied the little rectangle for almost a full minute before handing it back. As it disappeared back into his coat, which he had now smoothed to better conceal his weapon, she said, “Okay, Caleb from Iowa, what can I get you?”

“I’ll have a Bud and … is the kitchen still open?” he asked hopefully, tilting his head to indicate the chalkboard menu behind the bar.

She nodded. “Sure is. But it’s just sandwiches and chips tonight, I’m afraid. Gave the cook the night off for the holiday.” She opened a bottle with a quick deft movement and placed the beer in front of him.

“That’s great,” he said sincerely, taking a drink. “Turkey club on wheat?”

“No problem, Caleb from Iowa. It’ll be up in a few.”

Mandi took his order through a set of double doors and then busied herself waiting on other patrons, checking in at tables, seemingly placated that Caleb wasn’t some crazy with a semi-automatic, or apparently worse, law enforcement of the local or governmental variety.

Despite the bartender’s waning attention, Caleb didn’t lack for company. A few of the older, drunker, guys killing Christmas Eve in the local dive crowded around him to try to get the gory details of the biggest story that had come up in this part of the countryside in a long while.

Cattle mutilations are apparently a fascinating topic to these fellows, Caleb thought.

“I bet it was a cult,” an old man with one eye and even less teeth proclaimed. “Satanic death cult, most likely,” he added mushily.

A heavyset, well-dressed man with florid cheeks agreed enthusiastically.

The flannel-clad fellow of late middle age began, “Nope, you’re both wrong …”

But he was interrupted by a chorus from the others, “It was aliens!” followed by raucous laughter.

“You assholes just wait; you mark my words …”

“The mothership is coming,” the group finished for him, dissolving into laughter again, sending Flannel Man stomping back off to his booth.

“So, Slick. What do you think?” Mandi asked, appearing in front of him like a ghost and sliding his plate across the bar toward him with a heavy scraping sound.

Something about her voice … the way she formed and used her words … something about her movements and posture, just made Caleb’s hair prickle on the back of his neck.

Sensing some sort of danger, he smoothly lied, “Looks like natural causes to me.”

“Bullshit,” someone behind him asserted. “They was mutilated! And no fancy insurance man is dumb enough to think other!”

Mandi leveled a piercing stare at Caleb. “Those were your words, Slick. Mutilated.”

He took a drink. “Yeah, well … I oversimplified.”

“Oversimplified?” she asked, letting him hear incredulity in her tone, and a bit of a warning, too.

“I mean, mutilated is a convenient word for what they looked like …” She still stared so he went on. “Looks like they were already dead when it happened. Birds had gotten at the tongues and eyes. I figure wolves got after the viscera. They were torn up pretty good, but … nothing strange, not really.”

He gave an unconcerned shrug.

“How’d that many cattle just die a natural causes? It ain’t some disease is it?” his old toothless companion asked, but went on without giving Caleb a chance to respond. “Warn’t it like five hundred head?”

Caleb shook his head. “More like a about a hundred, spread across a few different locations. I figure it’s a gas seep of some kind.”

“How ya figure that?” one of the other men asked.

Caleb shrugged, feeling the hair on his neck stir again. “All the cattle were in similar areas, low, wet ground. I’ve seen it before.”

There was a sort of collective disappointed noise from the gathering, and the men began to break off into their previous groups to continue their idle speculation.

“Boring story, Slick. That didn’t make you any new friends,” Mandi chided. “Wanna make it more interesting between you and me by telling me what you really thought of things out there?”

Caleb just shrugged and rolled his eyes a little. “Nothin’ to tell, ma’am.” Then he ignored her presence and ate with abandon, chasing a pretty decent sandwich with the passable, inoffensive beer.

A loud crash of breaking glass off by the pool tables barely made Caleb flinch, but he did look in that direction to see the beginnings of a typical bar fight breaking out. He did flinch a little as Mandi, about a foot away from him, pulled a sawed-off shotgun from behind the bar and aimed it in the direction of the noise.

“Enough!”

With one word, not even a shout, Mandi had gained their silence and attention.

“Do we have a dispute?” Mandi called out, the barrel of her shotgun steady.

“Yeah, Mandi, I’ve got a dispute.” A large angry skinhead, sleeved with tattoos that advertised it wasn’t just a hairstyle choice, stepped forward. “That little piece of shit made he bet he can’t cover!” The man Caleb had already dubbed American History X pointed toward a sullen looking middle-aged man in khakis.

Mandi turned her attention to him. “Okay, Dadbod, you’ve been accused of welshing on a bet. How do you plead?”

“Plead?” the man asked indignantly. “This isn’t a court; it’s a shitty bar! Besides, I can explain …”

“You are absolutely right. This is no court. But we do uphold certain codes here, serve justice best we can. You know about justice, don’t ya? So, did you or did you not make a bet with Bunny?”

Caleb sighed internally. Of course the big skinhead’s name is Bunny. Why wouldn’t it be?

“Look, like I told him, I can pay him after tomorrow.”

“Told him? Before or after you lost?” she asked coolly.

“After, but …”

Mandi shook her head. “No ‘buts’, Dadbod. You bet, you can’t pay, and you’ve admitted it. I find you guilty. He’s all yours Bunny. Just do me a favor, and take this one out back.”

The big guy smirked, “You got it, Mandi.” He grabbed the welsher by the elbow and started to drag him toward a door at the rear of the bar.

“No, wait … Let go!”

“Hey!” Caleb said sharply, starting to rise. “Let that guy go. You can’t just …”

“Sit down, Slick. This doesn’t concern you,” Mandi ordered.

Excuse me?” He shook his head in disbelief. Then Caleb directed his speech to the big skinhead. “Let him go.”

Bunny laughed like it really amused him. “Why? And make your reason good, now. Or you’re next.”

Caleb put up his hands in a placating gesture. The last thing he wanted was to have to bust up this bar on Christmas Eve. He was quite sure he could do it, but bags of frozen peas for sore faces and knuckles were in short supply when you were spending your holiday in a crappy motor lodge.

“Look, guys, we can work this out. It’s Christmas and …”

Caleb’s words were drowned out by gales of laughter, louder and somehow meaner than the ones that had sent Drunk Fox Mulder back to his seat before. Damn. He thought his ‘good will toward men’ bit had a chance of winning them over, too.

“Fine,” he said with irritated resignation. “How much?”

Bunny smirked. The expression said he was hoping Caleb would give him a reason to mark him as a target next. “How much what?”

Caleb was starting to get a little pissed off. He hoped desperately that his next assignment was somewhere near civilization. People were weird out here. “What does he owe you?” he asked, emphasizing every syllable.

“You saying you’ll cover the little puke?”

Caleb’s expression was hard, making him look much older than a guy who needed to be asked for his ID just to sit at the bar. “I’m saying it’s freaking Christmas and I might, if I can. How much?”

Bunny gave a little shrug. Well, maybe not little. The man was enormous. But he moved his huge shoulders almost imperceptibly. “Five hundred.”

“Five hundred I can do,” he nodded, getting up from his barstool and drawing his money clip out of his jacket. He peeled off the five bills as he stepped over toward the pool tables. He handed it to Bunny with a questioning look. “We square now?”

Bunny examined the crisp bills. “Yeah, we’re good.”

Caleb could already hear Accounting screaming about not having a receipt for the expense, but no way was he asking American Bunny X for paperwork, signed or otherwise.

He turned to go back to his seat, but Khaki Guy was right on his elbow. “Thank you, man, seriously, thank you. I’m gonna pay you back I swear. Hey, I’m Steve.”

The guy grabbed Caleb’s hand and started working his arm like a water pump. Caleb extracted his hand and gave Steve a nod. “I’m Caleb. No need to thank me, or pay me back, buddy. It’s Christmas,” he finished as he resumed his seat.

“Oh, please,” Mandi chimed in with a dramatic roll of her eyes. “Spare me.” Mandi leaned on the bar almost right in front of Caleb. “You, Dadbod, out. And don’t come back.”

“But …”

“But nothing. Out.”

Steve swore at her, but remembering the bouncer, as the large man took a step in his direction, he grabbed his coat off the rack and walked out into the snowy night.

Caleb looked almost reproving as he said, “It’s Christmas Eve. You didn’t need to throw him out. I made good for him.”

“He’s no use to me now, so good riddance.”

“No use?” One of his eyebrows climbed.

“Never you mind, Slick,” she answered, starting to move away.

“Wait …” Not just his brow, but his whole face furrowed. “You’re mad that I helped that guy.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“You are. You’re actually pretty pissed off. Why?”

Mandi sized Caleb up. “Alright. You asked.” She almost smirked as she began. “This here bar is good to me. Pulls in a nice regular clientele, and some travelers, like yourself. But that’s a means to an end. What I really do? I deal in favors.”

“Favors?”

“Yeah, like for your buddy Dadbod.”

“His name is Steve.”

“They’re all Steve,” she said dismissively. “You wanna let me finish, kid?”

Caleb pursed his lips, but nodded for her to continue, that prickle on the back of his neck becoming just a little harder to ignore.

“So, just for a specific example. Tonight, you got Dadbod … Fine. Steve. You got Steve about to lose his thumbs. I step in at the last minute, save the day, and then Steve-bod owes me.”

“But he can just pay you back. What’s that have to do with favors?”

“I don’t pay the debt, dummy. I buy him time so Bunny don’t just disfigure him on the spot. Then he comes in and pays Bunny-boy an extra couple hundred for his trouble, and abracadabra-hocus-pocus, he owes me.”

“To what end?” he asked out of genuine curiosity. “I mean, how do you even know a favor from him would be worth anything?”

“Dadbod’s going through a divorce and he works at the state’s attorney’s office. He has problems and access.”

“Creepy,” Caleb observed.

“Anyway, Slick, I had need of that access and you cost it for me.”

“Sorry?” he said, not sounding it at all. “How do you know so much about him? You do high level surveillance on all your patrons?” he asked, suspicions coming to the fore as the hair on, not just his neck, but the backs of his arms said this situation wasn’t what it seemed.

Mandi waved a dismissive hand. “He’s a regular. Been living close by since his wife threw him out. He’s chatty, and he fancies himself a real pool shark.”

Caleb sat up a little straighter. “You set him up.”

It wasn’t a question.

She gave him a wide even smile. “Of course I did. I invited Bunny in myself, the minute I heard he was in town. He’s a hell of a pool hustler. Best damned grifter I’ve ever seen.” Mandi’s sparkling eyes belied an otherwise pleasant demeanor.

Caleb recognized the glamour for what it was. A witch maybe? he wondered. He spoke a quick but effective counter spell. The room seemed to spin for a moment and the sudden drop in temperature said some lower beings had just used the moment it took to break the glamour to make themselves scarce.

Then his eyes traveled around the immediately quiet interior of the bar. It was just him, the bouncer, and Mandi now.

He slid off his barstool, and backed up, making sure he had both of them in his sights.

“Neat trick, kid. You’ve got some juice.”

“Thanks. So do you.” He paused, looking from her, to the bouncer, to the door. “Now what?”

“Now, you die, Slick.” Mandi’s eyes flashed deep red.

Okay, so … demon. Caleb glanced at his left hand. Damn it. His ring was gone. Must’ve fallen off somewhere. Otherwise this situation wouldn’t be a surprise.

As he looked around the bar and the problem he was facing, he could hear the Father-General speaking the benediction over him when he’d taken the Oath of the Order. “Be without fear in the face of thine enemies. Stand brave and upright that the Lord may love thee. Speak the truth always, even if it means thy death. Protect the helpless. And do no wrong.”

And he remembered his ceremonial response. “I will. That the Lord may love me.”

This was what he’d been trained for.

He dropped back a bit more, making sure he had plenty of room to move.

Mandi’s hands curled into claws and she made a sharp hooking motion toward him with both. Under Caleb’s shirt, against his chest, the amulet he’d been given after taking Holy Orders grew hot. She was trying to bind him.

With a fluid motion, Caleb drew his pistol and squeezed of a single shot that hit the bouncer square in the chest. As soon as the consecrated round penetrated, his human façade fell away, and Caleb caught a glimpse of the thing’s demonic form, twisted and horrible. It smoked and writhed in the agony of the final death.

Mandi staggered back as Caleb leveled his weapon at her.

“Wait … Don’t shoot! I … We could make a deal … Who are you?”

“I’m Brother-Corporal Sir Caleb Saint Claire of the Order of the Temple of Solomon. And I’ve gotta tell you, you just made my Christmas, lady.”

“A Templar,” Mandi hissed.

“One of Christ’s own Poor Knights.”

She hissed again at the name of Christ. He almost smiled. That was an affectation he’d heard about with demons. Seemed like maybe they watched too much TV. A simple name wasn’t what gave the Order its power. It was the belief of its members, their commitment to their mission.

“Don’t be so dramatic, Mandi.” He said her name with supreme indifference. “I’m not gonna kill you.”

Mandi’s eyes brightened, though her hands still worked like she wanted to try binding him again.

“No. There’s no … what was it you said before that you serve? Justice? There’s no justice in your death. You should answer to your masters.”

She paled, but asserted, “You can’t send me back! I’m in this body fair and square. It’s mine by birth and I’ve reclaimed it through strong magic. Exorcism is impossible … You can’t …”

He just smiled at her protest. “That’s where you’re wrong.”

He made the sign of the cross with his weapon and began.

In nómine Pátris, et Fílii, et Spirítus Sancti. Amen. Exsúrgat Deus et dissipéntur inimíci ejus: et fúgiant qui odérunt eum a fácie ejus. Sicut déficit fumus defíciant; sicut fluit cera a fácie ígnis, sic péreant peccatóres a fácie Dei …”

***

Caleb sank down into the closest chair, exhausted. She’d put up one Hell of a fight; pun very definitely intended, he thought to himself ruefully.

Fortunately, she’d been wrong. You can exorcise demons who’ve taken on their own flesh. But only just. It was powerful magic that let them do it at all, and only the most disciplined, the most talented, ever managed it.

He allowed himself to sit until his breathing returned to normal, until his heart didn’t feel like it was going to gallop out of his chest. Then he figured he’d better get out of here, put in a call to Control, and, shitty roads or not, move on in case there were any more of this crew in the area, or the ones who’d ghosted when he broke the glamour decided to double back. He was too worn out to take on any more demons tonight. Not on his own anyway.

He groaned as he stood and walked toward the door. He opened and went to step out into the darkness, but thought better of it and turned back toward the bar. He sighed heavily and went back behind it, careful to skirt the smoking remains of the demons he’d dispatched.

He uncapped every bottle of hard liquor he found and poured it over the wood of the bar and the shelving behind it. On his way out, he mustered what energy and focus he had left and cast an incendiary charm on the well-oiled wood of the bar.

The building was old, in poor repair, and it would burn fast. It would take care of the last of the remains inside and stand as a warning to any other demons in the area. The stink of magic and exorcism would be on it.

It might buy him some time at least.

He started back across the street to collect his things.

The snow had stopped. And in a shoe print just off the side of the narrow walkway, he spied a glint of gold. Sonofabitch.

His ring was right there, not fifty feet from where a demon had nearly gotten the drop on him because of its absence. He stooped to pick it up, realizing as he slipped it back on that his fingers must have shrunk a bit in the cold earlier and allowed it to slide off.

Caleb was new to this world, in the grand scheme of things. But, he thought, he’d already shown a real aptitude for magic. If this strange Christmas Eve had given him nothing else (although he thought the field test of his skills was a nice gift in and of itself) it gave him the resolve to begin a new project.

Caleb decided then and there to develop a charm to keep rings from falling off.

He couldn’t be the only one that would find such a thing useful in the future.

The Bar– End –

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