A Case of the Mondays
The light respectful tapping at his door sounded of potentially broken monotony. With a deep relieved breath, Ronoven called out, “Enter!”
Gareth, his most trusted servant, bowed as he entered the office, careful not to knock over any of the man-sized stacks of forms, advertising the office’s location in Hell, currently surrounding the disgruntled blond behind the desk. “Pardon me, my Lord. I hate to disturb your fun,” he offered with wry amusement that elicited a rueful head shake. “But you have an unexpected visitor.”
It was only years of schooling his features in front of other nobles that kept Gareth from chuckling at the relief on his master’s face. A second later Ronoven’s own training kicked in and he traded the openly amiable expression for looking politely interested. He couldn’t help grinning just a little at the prospect of an excuse to set aside the mountain of reports, charts, directives, and incidents currently cluttering up his office though. “Excellent. Show them in!”
Gareth silently excused himself for a moment and Ronoven rearranged some papers, so he could see over his desk. Prophecy and King Castor’s wishes be damned, he was ready for any excuse to be somewhere else. And not just because this was one Hell of a lot of paperwork. He was so fed up with life Below, he’d almost consider trying the whole soul collection thing again.
Any break was welcome right now, even if the visitor was Lucifer. Hell, even if it was Bhaal. Well, maybe that was pushing things too far, but right now, he’d have to experience the visit inorder to determine if the paperwork was an attractive alternative to a visit with Hell’s Inquisitor General.
The work was tedious, pointless, andmaddeningly repetitious. He supposed that was the point of a lot of it. Hell was still, well … It was Hell. Even for the nobility, and especially for fairly low-ranking nobility like him. He barely had a spot at the Council table. That was based more on his personal charisma than it was on rank or accomplishments, if he was being honest with himself.
Gareth returned a moment later. “May I present Krampus.” He bowed slightly and stepped aside as their guest entered.
Not the demonic hulking beast he was expecting, a slight bookish man, with short dark hair greying at the temples,entered on light feet clad in shiny leather shoes that matched his beige tweed suit. Ronoven blinked in surprise. Covering his bewilderment with practiced ease, almost before his visitor noticed it, he rose and walked around his desk.
“Krampus … you’re looking … well,” he managed, still extending a warm greeting despite being a little wrongfooted. “Thank you, Gareth,” he nodded, dismissing his servant with a friendly wave.
“Lord Ronoven,” Krampus bowed.
Uh oh, that felt awfully formal. Krampus was one of the few demons he considered a … friend wasn’t exactly the right word. But he liked Krampus, traded resources and shirked responsibility with him from time to time, and in Hell that was good enough. In fact, in Hell, that was about as good as it ever got.
His discomfort must have shown. As the door clicked shut behind Gareth, Krampus gave a low chuckle. “Just keeping up appearances, old boy,” he said with a wink.
A perceptible drop of tension preceded Ronoven’s reply. “I’m surprised to see you. On Earth, it’s … yeah, almost the Feast of Saint Nicholas. Shouldn’t you be … you know … reporting for duty, or whatever?”
Krampus shrugged and dumped a pile of papers out of one of the guest chairs, sending them scattering to the four winds. “Sorry about that,” he said belatedly, making a half-assed attempt to gather up the nearest of the mess and plopping it onto the smallest paper tower on the desk.
Seeing that his guest was reluctant to come to a point, Ronoven contemplated Krampus. “What’s with the new look?” seemed like a good place to start, since the only form for Krampus anyone in these parts had ever seen was his demonic one.
“Well, actually, that’s why I’m here.” Krampus finally sat down in the spacious leather chair he’d just denuded of its paper stacks, his smile obscured by a cloud of worry. No, that wasn’t simple worry. It was more grim certainty.
He liked Krampus, but only trusted him as far as you could trust any demon, which was to say, not far at all. He abandoned his casual posture and stood straight in front of his visitor. “I see. So, this is a professional conversation?” he asked, already imagining the addition of another mountain of paperwork on top of his already considerable pile that would come with any kind of formal arrangement with Krampus, especially at this time of year. He didn’t heave a sigh, but only just.
Krampus waved an unconcerned hand. “No, please, this is just between the two of us.”
Attempting to recapture his more relaxed demeanor, he leaned against his desk again, swearing quietly when at least a thousand forms fell off the back of his desk and into his chair and onto the floor around it. “Alright then. What can this humble demon do for the one and only Krampus?”
The smile flashed again, shy and almost embarrassed. “Well, first of all, you can call me Eugene.”
He felt his eyebrows climb entirely against his considerable will. “Hooookaaaay … What can I do for you, Eugene?”
The smile grew more confident. “Well, Ben … I can call you Ben, right?”
He felt himself nodding, but he was glad the light in here was poor because he’d probably just paled three shades. No one in Hell called him Ben. A few knew he preferred it to the name Hell gave him, but no one openly acknowledged it or, Satan forbid, used it out loud. “Sure, why not, Eugene?” found its way out of his mouth. To his own hopeful ears, it sounded appropriately cocky.
“I need a favor, Ben. And you’re the only one I can trust to accomplish it.”
“Trust?” Ben’s eyes widened. “Trust is kind of a strong word in this place.”
“But I do, all the same.”
After a long thoughtful pause, Ben narrowed his eyes and softly demanded, “Why?”
Eugene shrugged his narrow shoulders. “Well, you’re not actually evil, and around here, I think that’s reason enough.”
“Excuse me?” Ben sputtered, sounding offended, and almost feeling it. He put on a damned good show and he thought that Krampus, of all the beings in Hell, would have swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.
Krampus’s lips quirked into a small smile at Ben’s evident shock. “Don’t worry, Ben. You’ve been doing a fine job with the whole … demon thing. A better job than I have, actually.” Ben’s tension visibly decreased. “My power, my curse as I’ve come to think of it, is to see into the soul.”
“Anyone sent to Earth is given that power, Kr … Eugene,” Ben hedged, somewhat confused.
“To be sure. And some of you use it contrary to Hell’s intended purpose, too.” Ben’s head ducked for a split second, his neck warming and color spreading up to his ears. Krampus continued like he didn’t notice. “But none of you see like I do. So profound is this vision, even the gods do not go there for fear of what details they might glean in some tiny human soul. Heights so dizzying Heaven would be jealous. Depravity the depth of which would give even Bhaal the bends. And in your case, I see you. The being behind your careful mask.”
Ben nodded, his judicious practiced nod from centuries of council meetings, performance reviews, and general bureaucratic bullshit. “I believe I understand,” he said, his brow furrowing outside his notice. He didn’t particularly want to discuss what it was about him Krampus might see and have noted.
Krampus sensed his reticence and bulldozed past it. “In you, Ben, down in your soul, carefully kept, and all too often hidden through sheer necessity, is a true and beautiful humanity almost entirely absent here in Hell.” Ben shifted from foot to foot in his discomfort,observed his own fidgeting, and stubbornly crossed his arms over his chest to help himself keep still. “Sitting here, accessing none of my usual powers that go with the more accustomed guise, I sense your unease, the conflict within you.”
Ben forced a more casual posture, once again leaning on the desk like he hadn’t a care in the world. “C’mon, Eugene,you can’t be serious,” he scoffed.
“Ben, this will be quicker and easier for both of us if we skip over the pretense that you’re satisfied with your life as a demon and that any of it makes sense. But if you want to waste time pretending you’re a gung-ho member of Team Evil, and have someone mark our meeting, by all means.” He opened his hands in a broad, ‘Your move’ gesture.
Ben sighed, but managed not to fidget. “Okay, you trust me because I’m good. Fine. I’ll humor you.” It took every speck of his control to keep his face neutral as he spoke.
Eugene laughed. “I never said you were good. Just not evil.”
Ben smirked. “Good. And point taken.”
A slender eyebrow climbed fractionally. “Or perhaps I should say that at the very least you play the game quite well. Your goodness has, through sheer talent and persistence on your part, gone unnoticed by all but a few.”
Ben wanted to ask who that few might include, but he already had a fair idea. Instead of acknowledging the thought making his skin crawl like he’d woken up covered with ticks, he asked, his voice very cool, “How long have you known?”
“Since I first met you. I told you; I see the truth of a soul. That’s my job. I’ve seen the real you, therefore I trust you. Let’s accept that and move on, shall we?”
Ben couldn’t let it go. “In all this time … you never thought to say anything?”
“I’ve never needed anything from you before.”
Ben’s eyes darkened, his whole face becoming a frown. “More than any supposed goodness you’ve seen, you trust my sense of self-preservation.”
“Something like that.”
The momentary silence was broken by a terse sort of sigh. Ben didn’t like being blackmailed. But, he reasoned, it’s not exactly like he was in a position to protest. The fact that he’d managed to get reassigned from Reaping after the Hollywood debacle a few decades ago spoke more to his ability to play the game than to any real luck or clout. Bhaal was still itching for a reason to target him, if only to take him down a peg. Ben couldn’t afford to give him any ammunition.
“What’s the favor?”
“Well, Ben, I’ve decided that it’s time for a change.”
“A change? Couldn’t we all use that?” Ben forced a smile, a creeping unease settling into the pit of his stomach.
“I’m sure we could. You’ve successfully changed jobs once, if I remember right.” The statement had a bit of an edge, a little reminder of a very public failure in a long line of less than stellar soul collecting. When Ben didn’t rise to the bait by getting defensive or anything else, Eugene continued. “In any event, whether there is precedent or not, I’m going to retire, Ben.”
Ben was nearly startled into a laugh. “Retire? Did I miss something at Orientation? Because from everything I’ve heard, the retirement plan in this place pretty much sucks. Like no condo in Miami. Just death; the final death. When they finally decide to let you have it. Which from what I hear isn’t exactly likely to be until a long while after you start begging for it.” Krampus shrugged. “You can’t retire, Eugene. And no amount of you holding an accusation of humanity over my head is going to change the fact that I’m not remotely high level enough to make so much as a vacation happen for you or anyone else.”
“Orientation,” he chuckled. “You are funny, Ben.” Ben shifted uncomfortably but met Eugene’s eyes. No one spoke lightly of what he was proposing, but he seemed so committed, so self-assured,Ben’s curiosity was almost stronger than his sense that he was up to his eyeballs in a bad situation. “But as amusing as you can be, the situation just isn’t. I’m done with all this, Ben. My work doesn’t matter. Kids are just … jaded. They see so much horror, are expected to live with so much unaddressed pain, that even the worst of them cannot be corrected by a single visitation. Too much has been broken for too long for me to make a difference anymore. Not only has the job become depressing, what this place adds to it, well, it’s just too much.”
Ben’s forehead creased even more deeply. “Wait … what are you even talking about? You torment children for a living. Like you used to be pretty dedicated to it. The torment, I mean.” Honestly, it was one of the things that had made Krampus difficult for Ben to like at first, but the guy had unexpectedly grown on him.
“I was only ever meant to torment those who deserved it, Ben. There was a time when I saw it change hearts, turn lives around. I was meant to correct those who strayed from the path of goodness and act as a deterrent to those who considered it. I’m no longer able to do that job. The world gets worse, and so, too, do the children, because they have nothing to lose in that place. Not anymore.” His shoulders slumped in obvious sadness and frustration.
Ben’s eyes glittered with real wonder.“You don’t want children to need correction and if they do … you really want it to work … You want kids to be good.”
“Of course I do. Despite my usual appearance, I’m not a monster.”
Ben finally found his cocky grin again. “No, but you are a demon.”
Eugene returned the smirk. “No, actually I’m not.”
“Well, what in Hell are you then? Because you’re not Fallen and you’re not one of the old gods. I’d be able to see it,” Ben protested.
“Quite right. But still, not a demon.”
Ben refused to take a step back, but something in him sort of wanted to. He didn’t like encountering beings for whom he had no explanation. He’d learned long ago, even in his human life, if something didn’t belong on a particular plane of existence, things were bound to get complicated. Fast. “What are you then?”
“That’s not really important at the moment.”
“Disagree,” Ben answered flatly, starting to be more annoyed at the double talk than he was worried about any suspicion Krampus might throw his way.
“Alright, Ben, what I am is in control of my exit strategy and long-term survival. As I’ve mentioned, you are integral to that plan. If it all goes smoothly, I may have occasion to explain myself more fully at a later date.”
The hard stare coming from those dark eyes caused Ben to just swallow and nod slowly. “Fine. But why now? I assume you could have left before this. And … if you’re not an old god, not Fallen, not one of us … Why are you in Hell at all?”
“You’re not wrong. I could have left before. As to why? Like the reasons I’m in Hell, it’s complicated and not relevant.”
Ben shook his head, briefly wishing he had pockets to jam his hands into. The urge to fidget was strong and this was not the time or place to give that side of himself free reign. Instead, he opened his hands. “You’re not giving me much, man.”
“I suppose not.” A slow, almost menacing smile spread over his narrow face. “But it’s not exactly like you’re in a position to demand information, is it?”
“Yeah, well, story of my life,” he grumbled, running a hand through his hair. “But why? I’ve got to know. And don’t give me that tired crap about the state of the world and the kids and whatever.”
Ben couldn’t argue that the circumstances of even the most privileged nobles in Hell were depressing, but that couldn’t be the all of it. There would be real consequences to this play of Eugene’s, and Ben needed to wrap his head around why someone with such a cushy situation would willingly take such a risk.
Eugene supposed someone like Ben could not be persuaded to act, even out of a finely tuned self-preservative instinct,if there was too much he didn’t know. Ben was known far and wide as a voracious consumer of information. It made him useful, and dangerous.
“Ben, I think you’ll understand … When I thought I was doing good, making a difference, protecting souls from what we suffer here in Hell … I could tolerate a great deal. But now, the world, the children, what that looks like … No one is afraid anymore. No one is deterred.They live in a place so close to Hell sometimes, I’m more than half certain they no longer see any difference between mortal life and what might wait Below. Or to put it in a way Hell’s own Master of Expression might find more palatable, Earth has become ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.”
Ben shook his head but couldn’t help the small smile that lifted one corner of his mouth. Picturing Eugene as he’d seen him in the past quoting Shakespeare was something he was going to keep with him for a while. “And?”
“And I just can’t talk myself into another Krampusnacht.”
“Alright, I get it. You hate your job and find Hell pointless. Welcome to the club.”
He paused, waiting for Eugene to offer something further. When he didn’t, Ben sighed. This was not a situation he wanted to touch with a ten-meter cattle prod. He finally had a pretty decent assignment. He wasn’t wildly interested in screwing that up for something difficult and dangerous.
“Since you’ve already told me you can walk any time you want, I’ve gotta ask, what do you need me for?”
“I need you to turn in my letter of resignation.”
Ben went momentarily cold. “The who with the what now?”
“I crafted an appropriate missive to inform Lucifer of my impending departure. I need you to deliver it. Because obviously I can’t do it.”
Ben started to pace in front of his desk, picking up a random form to fold, spindle, and mutilate. “You don’t need to do it at all. You already said you can just leave.” The form took the shape of a paper airplane and Ben tossed it across the office in confused frustration.
Eugene smirked. “Well, yeah, sure. Could do. But why would I pass up the opportunity to twist the Devil’s tit?”
Ben shoved some papers off the corner of his desk, heedless of the cloud of them as they scattered, just so he could sit. Ben was liking his guest less and less by the second, and already picturing what being caught in Krampus’s exit could mean for him. “So I take it the letter is … colorful?”
“That’s one possible adjective. I prefer to look at it as an apropos and timely scathing indictment of the company mission statement and, of course, of the upper management.”
Oh. Oh, good. Delivering that sounded like a good way to find out what beheading felt like. “Have I offended you in some way?”
“Not at all, Ben,” Eugene replied, looking almost sympathetic. “It’s just, nobody is going to take on this errand willingly. You happen to be in the unfortunate position of being the easiest noble with access to compromise.”
Ben swallowed hard, but his voice held none of his trepidation, only thinly checked anger. “Yeah. Thanks for that.”
Eugene laughed. “It’s not personal, Ben!”
“It will be when the Big Guy rips my spine out.”
“Don’t be so dramatic.”
Ben’s nimble mind searched with a bit of desperation for an out. “Couldn’t you send a messenger instead?”
“I am sending a messenger,” he replied. “Just one that I’m certain can deliver the message into Lucifer’s own hand.”
“When?” Ben asked with a sigh.
Eugene pulled a heavy envelope from his jacket pocket. It was addressed and dated in ostentatious silver ink, the same shade as the enchanted stick he’d used to whip children for centuries. Ben made himself take it. “Krampusnacht? Seriously?”
“It’s the only night of the year my absence will really mean anything to him. And I want him to feel it.”
“He’s going to skin me.” There wasn’t any anger left. Ben sounded more of tired acceptance.
“I have every confidence in your singularly persuasive ability to stay alive.”
“Look, Ben … You’ll be fine. And … tell you what … I’ll owe you a favor.”
“I’m sure that’s a treasure beyond compare,” he grumbled.
“A big favor.”
“Bigger than you could possibly imagine.”
“You seriously underestimate my capacity for whimsy, Eugene,” Ben replied with some of his signature dry wit.
Eugene smiled at that and got to his feet. “Well, then. That’s settled. You’ll be my messenger and someday you’ll be glad you did it. Time for me to get going.”
“When are you leaving Hell?”
A quick flick of one eye that Ben had just enough time to process as an almost roguish wink accompanied the answer. “Right about now.”
Before he could even blink, Ben found himself alone, holding an envelope that grew heavier with every thought about his unwelcome task.
He contemplated it for a long moment.Then he put it in one of his desk drawers. He looked around at the office full of scattered documents and stacks of paperwork he was almost certain he’d never live to complete.
He passed through the main living area with a purposeful stride. “Gareth!” His servant came over immediately as he pulled on his cloak. “If anyone comes calling, I’ll be at the tavern on the other side of the River of Lost Souls.”
“Doing what, my Lord?” Gareth asked, looking at his protector with real concern.
“Seeing if it’s possible to get black out drunk if the liquor is enchanted. Don’t wait up.”
Ben clutched that cursed envelope and approached the dais, noting an almost smirking black clad angel … yeah, definitely smirking … who announced, “Morning Star, Lord Ronoven reporting with your permission.”
The anger lining the chief fallen angel’s face like heavy ink, not to mention the silent presence of the bigman’s second in command, made it difficult to keep up his cool facade, but Ben thought he sounded passably confident when he bowed and opened with the expected reverent reserve, “Thank you for seeing me, Lord Lucifer.”
He didn’t even nod an acknowledgment, just bit out, “I understand you have information.”
Ben dipped his head in an approximation of another deferential bow. “I do, sir.” Ben handed the envelope to the footman who brought it directly to Lucifer. “When I heard the news that Krampus was missing, I took it upon myself to search his tower.”
Lucifer turned the envelope lazily over in his hand. “Did you now?”
He nodded. “Krampus and I had occasion to practice magic together from time to time. I’m familiar with the layout, and I was concerned given the date, Lord Lucifer.”
Lucifer broke the seal on the envelope. “Where did you find this?” he asked softly.
“In his library, Lord. He did most of his work there.” Ben kept talking, his face impassive, as his words went unheard. He didn’t seem able to stop. Hellfire and flame, he needed a break from this place. At least he still sounded on top of things. “It was on his desk. Right on the blotter. The seal was cold.”
Lucifer’s eyes scanned the contents of the letter, growing a deeper more glowing red as his lips moved and he mumbled, “Unhinged … discount prince … Daddy issues … Quitting … Lovely.” He scanned it from top to bottom again. “Huh.”
He snapped his fingers, the paper between them. It was gone in a flashing puff of smoke. He raised his eyes to let them bear down on Ben, dissecting him. Ben returned the eye contact, respectful, ready to answer questions, perhaps slightly bored in appearance. His posture was straight, relaxed. He blinked.
In the space of that involuntary movement, Lucifer was in front of him, his nose almost touching Ben’s, deep purple-red eyes doing his angel’s best to see into the depths of Ben’s soul. Ben just held the gaze as was expected of him. He remained visibly calm. In his own head he’d been almost expecting to panic, but he found lying openly to these beings easier every time he’d done it. He thought perhaps this was the day he crossed the threshold into a place where it was as automatic as breathing here.
He was unexpectedly comfortable with Lucifer rifling through his thoughts today. The memory of searching Krampus’s tower he’d constructed was about as perfect as he could have made it without tapping in another spellcaster to plant it in his mind.
Satisfied, Lucifer stepped back. “Leave me, Ronoven. Say nothing to anyone of the letter. It never happened.”
“Yes, my lord.” Ben bowed and made his retreat.
Lucifer watched him go and was joined by his second in command. “Who was it that informed us of Krampus’s absence again?”
“One of our Agents, my lord.” Bhaal appeared smug.
Lucifer’s expression hardened further. “Who sponsored the Agent?”
A broad smile divided Bhaal’s face.“Why, by some random happenstance, my lord, I do believe it was our own Lord Ronoven. What an interesting coincidence,” he observed, widening his eyes for dramatic effect.
Lucifer considered the information carefully. “I detest coincidences,” he said as he mounted the stairs to his throne.
“Shall I summon him back, Lord?”
“I … no. After looking into his thoughts, I believe he said everything he has to say on the subject.”
Almost smirking, Bhaal offered, “I could bring him in for interrogation. That might inspire him to be more forthcoming.”
Lucifer shook his head. “Nonsense. That would draw unwelcome attention to the Krampus situation.”
“What are we planning to do about that, Lord?”
“Oh,” Lucifer gave a casual wave. “Send Lilith, she likes eating the little monsters.”
“I thought improving their behavior was the aim of this observance, Lucifer.”
Bhaal chuckled. “I suppose. Are you certain you don’t want to ‘speak’ with the Lord Ronoven further?”
“Let it lie this time. I saw nothing concerning in his head. Besides … There’s a reason King Castor has assigned him to those new apartments with the largest library in the realm. The demons are up to something.”
“The demons are always up to something.” He contemplated Lucifer’s expression. “Are you worried they dug up that scrap of parchment from your brother’s last visit?”
Lucifer gave a dismissive wave of his fingers. “No idea. But rumor suggests Ronoven has been assigned a promising research position with access to some of their most treasured documents. He seems motivated to have us kindly disposed. It could prove interesting.”
“As you say, my lord.”
Down the corridor, Ben was almost giddy with relief. Head still attached, spine and skin intact, all his insides still inside, and he’d been walking away for long enough that if they were going to send the hounds after him or summon him back, they already would have. Things could have gone a lot worse.
He exited Lucifer’s stronghold and headed down one of Hell’s busiest streets. He hadn’t taken a hundred steps when Oriax, one of King Castor’s secret police, gaped at him. “Ronoven! You’re still alive!”
Well, now, that is interesting. Either Castor had heard something was up and had him followed,or Oriax was one of the demons Lucifer deigned to keep on his quasi-secret payroll. The compensation for going full cloak and dagger for either side was always good, or so Ben had heard, but if you got caught, you certainly wouldn’t be walking out of a private audience grinning from ear to ear like he was now.Ben kind of preferred nobody knowing what side he was on. Mostly because he was on his own side.
Almost selling that he was just headed toward the high-end tavern mostly frequented by the Fallen, Oriax called out, “I heard you got called to an audience with the boss’s boss. But here you still are! It’s been forever since we had one of our talks. Buy you a drink?”
Ben didn’t break stride. “I wish I could. I’ve got to get back to work. Problem with having more than one supervisor. King Castor has given me a deadline for the Council coming up.”
Oriax just nodded. “Maybe another time.”
Ben waved pleasantly. He kept his easy pace for a little while, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Oriax was still dogging his steps. He was headed home anyway, but just for fun, he melted into one of the market crowds, did a quick bit of obfuscation magic, and left Oriax wondering just where his mark had disappeared to. The idea of him having to report, to either the king or to Lucifer, that he’d lost Ben and gotten no information about what had taken place in the throne room was almost too funny.
Ronoven made it about halfway home before he started laughing. And not just about still being alive, or even giving Oriax the slip to amuse himself. It was quiet laughter. No one he passed marked it, but it was a genuine, happy sound.
Krampus pulled it off. He flaked off right out of Hell. Ben didn’t have high hopes that he could ever figure out how to pull off the same thing, but it did make his idea that maybe it was time to get himself a longer vacation than the old soul collection gig ever afforded feel more doable.
Besides he’d been forever without a break from this place.
He sat back down in his office buried in reports and conjectures about the prophecy the king was in such a lather about with something that felt almost like anticipation. There had to be something here that would give him a good reason to take a break. Before too long he found something. Everyone here could call him a bookworm all they wanted. He’d just tumbled to the words that were going to be his ticket out of here for months, maybe even years if he played his cards right.
It was time to get himself some time on Earth.
Yeah, a vacation; just a little trip where he couldn’t possibly get himself into trouble.