Authors’ Note: Readers of this blog should remember Caleb Saint-Claire from tales of Fic-mas past. If you’re new to The Arbitratus Universe, Caleb is a member of the Order of the Temple of Solomon, or Knights Templar. In this world, the Templars are kind of like supernatural secret agents. And Caleb is their James Bond. Only, cooler. You can read more about Caleb in The Twelve Days of Fic-mas Volume I and Volume II. This story finds him a little older and wiser than past Ficmas’s. He’ll need all of this experience when he meets his cousin Mal.
Caleb put the car in park and pulled at what currently felt like a noose around his neck. He despised the Roman collar, and was grateful, for perhaps the hundredth time since he got dressed for this assignment, it was not part of the Order’s normal attire. But, like it (he didn’t) or hate it (he did), he had to look the part.
“You ready, Jim?” he asked the man fidgeting in the passenger seat.
The younger man ran his hands over his pant legs, trying in vain, once again, to dry his palms. “Ready as I’m gonna be,” he answered, nervousness now not just apparent in his gestures, but in his tight, higher than normal voice as well.
“Relax, you’ll be fine,” Caleb said in an attempt to reassure his inexperienced partner. Only barely out of basic training, Jim had been a wreck the entire flight in. “You’re mostly here to learn, kid. I’ll take care of the real work today.”
“I know. And everybody says you’re the guy … Well, you’re kind of the guy to learn everything from, but especially this.” Jim’s hands ran along his dark pants again. “Just … this is my first possession. I didn’t even really believe in that stuff until I got recruited.”
Caleb grinned. “Good Catholic kid like you didn’t believe in possession? I don’t buy it.”
Jim laughed nervously. “I mean, I didn’t not believe in it, I guess. Just never thought I’d see one, say nothing about being expected to do anything about it.”
“Like I said, Jim, you’re gonna be fine. I’m going to do the heavy lifting.”
Caleb shut off the car. The bright southern California sun overcame the remnants of the air conditioning before they’d even gotten their doors open. “Hard to believe it’s Christmas Eve,” Jim observed as they climbed out into the oppressive heat.
An early season warm front had pushed temperatures back into the upper 80s. It was unusual for the time of year, but not unheard of. Given his most recent assignment north of Moscow, Caleb might have actually enjoyed, it if not for the black wool his cover identity imposed on him. Still, even sweating already, Caleb turned his face to the sun and drank in the warmth and light for a minute.
“Yeah. No chance of a white Christmas here.”
“I’d say that was too bad, but I’m kind of looking forward to a morning run that doesn’t burn my lungs,” Jim admitted. “Assuming we’re finished here and can catch that afternoon flight back tomorrow.”
“We will be,” Caleb assured him, opening the trunk to gather his supplies. “Maybe you’ll even bump into a celebrity before we fly out.” Jim grinned, shaking his head. “Briefing has this as probably a pretty minor demon.” Caleb wasn’t worried.
Okay, so the kid clearly was.
“I’m not worried,” he said out loud for Jim’s benefit.
It did seem to relax his apprentice. On their few other assignments together, Jim had struck Caleb as the sort of operator whose mouth butter wouldn’t melt it. But then again, their other work so far and been of a much less metaphysical nature. More to give him something to do than because he needed the assistance, he handed a case to Jim and picked up the other one for himself. He nodded toward the house.
“C’mon kid. We’ve got this.”
“Yes, sir,” Jim agreed, his game face sliding firmly into place, despite his lingering nerves.
They made their way over the crushed stone walk of a cute pink stucco house with a red Spanish tile roof. It was a nice home, but not ostentatious. The door had an ornate knocker in the middle, but it opened before either man could use it.
“Thank God you’re here, Father!” the large man who swung open the door exclaimed in greeting.
Caleb stepped forward and the man gestured for them to come in. “Mr. Meyer?” The man nodded, closing the door behind them. “I’m Father Saint-Claire and this is Father O’Malley. Father Edmunds called us. How can we help?”
“Well, as I’m sure Father Edmunds told you, it’s our daughter…”
A harried looking woman entered the foyer. Without waiting for any introductions, she gripped Caleb’s arm in desperation. “Our poor Molly. She’s possessed, she must be. Father, you have to help us. She’s only a little girl and … It’s Christmas!” Emotion choked her voice and Caleb patted her shoulder with calm reassurance.
“I see. Yes, Father Edmunds does seem certain she is suffering from possession,” he said evenly. The child was around the usual age as well, not quite adolescent, but no longer quite a child either, though Caleb had seen people of all ages suffer at the hands of denizens of the Pit. The season was irrelevant. “Unfortunately, these beasts care nothing for the time of year.” The woman dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. Caleb found sharing mundane details was usually calming for civilians. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Meyer, I’ve talked to practically every official in the Diocese and I don’t recall your first name from my conversation with your parish priest.”
“I’m Amanda,” she replied. “Everyone calls me Mandy.”
“Well, Mandy, I wish we were meeting under better circumstances.” Caleb nearly smiled. One of his first encounters with a demon during the holidays had involved a Mandy. Considering how that turned out, he had a good feeling about this night. He wasn’t superstitious, but as a man of faith, he did believe in signs. “And you, sir?” he asked her husband.
“Karl. I’m Karl.”
Before he could add anything to that, his wife spoke again. “You can help us, can’t you?” Mandy pleaded, tears beginning to flow again.
“That’s what we’re here for, ma’am,” Jim offered this time. Caleb noticed Jim’s voice sounded totally steady now that he was faced with the victims of this infestation.
“You’ve got to!” Karl said, tears now coming into his eyes. “Molly is just upstairs, if you’ll follow me.”
“We will help your Molly very soon,” Caleb said. “I’ve read the local church authorities’ report and spoken to Father Edmunds at some length, but I would like to ask you a few questions before we begin.”
Jim pulled out a small notebook to record their answers as Caleb took the parents by the elbows and led them further into the house, out of view of the stairs. Mandy resisted walking away from the hallway.
“Why? Shouldn’t you just … Do an exorcism? That’s what Father Edmunds…”
“We will,” Caleb interrupted. “We absolutely will. But this is a dangerous undertaking, for all of us, and most especially for Molly. Something you know may be helpful.”
“Alright. That makes sense,” Karl nodded. “Come into the living room. We can sit and talk. Of course we want to help in any way we can.”
The room was decorated for the holiday, right down to fragrant garlands on the mantle and a fresh tree, brightly lit, dominating the room with its presence. Gifts that would likely remain unopened tomorrow unless he was able to do what he came here for were stacked up underneath it.
Caleb and Jim exchanged a look.
They were never interested in letting the forces from Below win in any situation. It went against both their faith and their training. But something about the time of year and the poignance of those brightly wrapped packages strengthened their resolve. Jim found it was just what he needed to shake off the last of his pre-mission jitters.
Jim sat down with his notebook ready, and Caleb joined him on the sofa, facing the distraught parents. Caleb offered a subdued, kind smile of reassurance. “I’m not going to rehash my conversations with the Diocese, or with Father Frank. Their reports were most helpful and complete. But I do have a few questions.”
“Of course, Father,” Karl replied, having mostly mastered his emotions for the moment. “Whatever you need.”
“Have you spoken to this entity since Father Frank was last here?”
Mandy shook her head. “We’ve tried, but it doesn’t really…”
“Has the entity identified itself to you at any time?”
Karl answered this time. “No, it just keeps growling and mumbling the most horrible things.”
“Anything like a name in any of these mumblings?”
“I’m afraid not, Father. It … It just keeps asking to be set free, saying terrible things about where it’s trapped.” Karl’s voice shook again, but there was a spark of anger this time.
“Has it threatened Molly with trapping her there as well?” That was pretty much SOP with these assholes, and Caleb was curious how far the demon had tried to push the parents to get them to interact with it. Possessing demons loved a little begging and pleading.
Karl faltered. “I … No. No it hasn’t. But of course the threat is there. Isn’t it?”
“You’re a man of faith, Karl. You know Molly bears no responsibility for what’s happening right now. You know it. And God knows it,” Jim said gently.
Caleb nodded. Misleading those surrounding the victim was pretty standard for these types of demons, too. Caleb hated possession. It was such an insidious thing to do. He’d take some honest cursed objects over this any day. But he was good at this. He was this little girl’s best chance.
“Has your daughter had any moments of lucidity? Any moments where it appeared she was in control?”
Mandy shook her head, fresh tears spilling. “No, not since it started.”
Karl frowned. “There was a day last week, just for a few moments, mind you, where I thought … at least it seemed like … I believe she was trying to come through.”
“When was this?” Mandy snapped, upset this was the first she was hearing of it.
He sighed heavily, but Caleb offered him an encouraging nod. “I’d gone up to try to get her to eat something and she looked up at me and said, ‘Daddy?’ It was just that, but it … It sounded like her. And her eyes were clear.” His head dropped into his hands.
“That’s good!” Jim interjected, wanting to do something to ease the parents’ misery. “It means she’s still fighting. It means she will be able to help us help her.”
“Yes,” Caleb agreed. “That is indeed good news. And she is young, strong by all accounts I’ve heard. Do not lose hope. We will help her and she will recover, have no doubt of that.”
A deep guttural howl bellowed down the stairs. The lights on the Christmas tree flickered and went out. The sconces with their little flameless candles rattled on the wall.
For the first time since they’d come inside, Jim looked nervous again. Caleb could see a fine sheen of sweat on his partner’s forehead. “Let’s…” Caleb began.
“Bring the priests to me!” boomed down the stairs in a voice that should never have been able to come out of an eleven year old child’s mouth.
Caleb stood. “Well, it has sensed our presence. Best not to keep it waiting.”
Jim rose as well, tucking the notebook into his pocket. He picked up both of the cases and nodded his readiness. He didn’t speak. He knew at the moment his voice might quaver and he didn’t want to undermine Karl or Mandy’s faith in them.
“I’ll take you to her,” Karl said, gesturing for them to follow him as he headed back toward the foyer and the board staircase off from it.
Mandy got up to follow, and Jim found his voice. “You wait here, ma’am. It’s better if it can’t speak to those who know her.”
Caleb gave him an approving nod, and the three men proceeded up the stairs. Karl stopped and put his hand on the handle of the door at the top of the stairs. Caleb stopped him. “Thank you, Karl. It’s better if you wait downstairs with your wife. As Father O’Malley said, it’s better if it can’t manipulate you. No matter what speaks the words, what you will see is your daughter.”
“I … Alright.” He turned to go.
Caleb’s voice stopped him again. “I have to warn you, you may hear some terrible things, but it’s vital that you and your wife do not enter once we begin the rite.”
Karl opened his mouth to speak, but a banging came from the bedroom and he paled. He closed his mouth and nodded, turning to make his way down the stairs.
Once he was out of earshot, and out of view, Caleb loosened the accursed collar biting into his neck. “Okay, Jim, your job is to just read the Rite of Exorcism. Reading is your only job. You are not to engage this demon or demons. Just read. Are we clear?”
“Yes, sir,” Jim answered, the slight quiver back in his voice. He cleared his throat. “Absolutely, sir.”
Caleb clapped him on the shoulder. “Just do what I say, and remember your training. You’re gonna be fine.”
“Follow orders, fall back on training. Got it.”
With one last encouraging nod at his young partner, Caleb opened the door. The room was dark; the blinds were drawn and the lights lay broken on the floor. Caleb tried the wall switch with no result.
From deep in the dim room, a low voice purred, “Welcome, Priest.”
Caleb turned to Jim. “Go ahead.”
Jim closed the door behind them. He started reading the Rite of Exorcism from the book he held in hands steadier than he’d expected them to be.
Caleb uttered a simple spell for light and the bulb overhead finally came to life, albeit dim and flickering.
On the bed sat a girl, just as she’d been described in the report. Young, even younger in appearance than she actually was, and pale, the pallor highlighted by her dark hair. But she didn’t look like a child who’d been suffering possession for weeks. She was small and slight, but not gaunt or malnourished as he was used to seeing such victims. She was clean, and someone had brushed her hair. Her skin was clear, too; no sores, or cuts; no gouges, nor burns, nor blisters.
That was unusual. The flesh of the possessed were almost always desecrated by their invaders. Her eyes gave away the presence of one of the damned though. Lit with demonic energy, they followed him as he set his case down on the white and pink dresser nearest the door.
Caleb watched her watching him as he removed what he needed from the case.
He closed his eyes and took a moment to center himself, uttering a brief prayer for protection and Heavenly aid.
He opened his eyes and turned to face the child, brandishing a gilded cross, and raising a bottle of holy water. He took a breath, ready to engage the creature. A small voice stopped him.
“No, wait,” it pled quietly. It wasn’t the gravelly voice from Below that spoke before. It was light and musical, a child’s voice. Molly’s voice.
Caleb clenched his jaw. That was the worst ploy, all too often used for him to be unfamiliar with it. Reminding the exorcist that a child was at stake, that it had the power to harm that child, had led to the fall of too many priests and warrior-priests alike. Ignoring the tiny plea, Caleb splashed the bed with the holy water.
“In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.”
He made the sign of the Cross.
Molly’s head tipped in the charming way children sometimes use to get what they want. “Aw, come on.”
He didn’t care for how it didn’t recoil from the symbols of the Church. He tried again to get a reaction. “Behold the Cross of the Lord, flee bands of enemies.”
Molly’s head shook. An almost friendly smirk curled her lips. “No, come on, man, I’m just here to talk.”
Caleb ran down the list of standard phrases, hoping to trick the being into revealing who it was, and making it a simple matter to send it back to where it belonged. After several frustrating minutes, during which Caleb could feel sweat pooling in the small of his back from his intense efforts and the black wool he was wearing in the overly warm room, he finally became impatient.
“The Most High God commands you, He with whom, in your great insolence, you still claim to be equal, give me your name!”
“Dude, seriously though.”
Jim’s chanting prayer became slightly more audible. He was clearly a little rattled at the demon’s lack of reaction. Caleb wondered if his curiosity about the being’s atypical behavior was making him less effective. He was fascinated. He clamped down on his natural urge as an investigator and brought his full focus to eradicating the beast as expediently as possible. He splashed it with holy water again. His powerful voice reverberated in the cozy room.
“Fiend from the Pit, I will have your name!”
The form on the bed flinched, just a little. Jim continued reading behind Caleb, some confidence returning to his voice. Caleb spoke again, quieter this time, but more firm, determined. “I said. Give. Me. Your. Name.”
“Fine. But in exchange, I will have yours.” Caleb glared in return. “Speak, Priest,” it ordered, once again using Molly’s own voice, but this time it held none of the little girl in it, only an irritated command.
He stepped toward the bed, holding the cross out in front of him. “I am Father-Captain Caleb Saint-Claire of the Order of the Temple of Solomon.”
“Whoa, no way! Seriously? I rated Caleb Saint-Claire. No shit.”
“Your name, foul creature,” he demanded.
“You know, I imagined you as taller.”
This time he splashed the holy water directly on the girl. “Give me your name, now!”
There was a hiss of steam and angry eyes met Caleb’s. “Fine. Jeez. I’m Brakken.”
“Who?”Jim said from behind Caleb, earning himself a look of rebuke. “Well, I’ve never heard of this one.”
“Sorry, sir.” Jim lifted the book to begin reading again, but was interrupted.
“I’d be surprised if you had heard of me,” the demon said. “This is my first trip top side. And it ain’t exactly authorized.”
Against his better judgement, Caleb’s curiosity overcame his training for a moment. “Come again?”
“I said this is my first trip. Possession has never been my thing. I was afraid I’d get some piss-pants kid like your buddy there and I’d never get a word in edgewise. I’m honestly glad it’s you.”
Caleb shook his head. “A sentiment you’ll soon regret.”
Some minor demon on their first forway to Earth wouldn’t give him much trouble. He doubted it would give Jim much trouble even if he were alone.
Molly’s hands opened in a placating gesture. “Look, Caleb … Can I call you Caleb?” Caleb’s mouth snapped shut in mild surprise. “I’m sorry to meet you like this and I gotta tell you, it’s not great for me either. Wearing a body like this is kind of gross. But you gotta be able to tell I’m not here on assignment. As you can see, I haven’t hurt the girl.”
Caleb raised his tools again, no longer even curious, and reminded once again that a child was caught up in this. “You’ve hurt her, demon. Plenty. And that ends today.”
“Come on, don’t you care why I’m here if it’s not for the Boss?”
“Not especially, no.”
Her hands came up again. “But you should. This could be a big deal for you and the Order.” Brakken could see that he had the priests’ attention. “I want to defect.”
Jim stepped forward. “The who with the what now?”
“Defect,” Brakken repeated.
Caleb put out a hand to keep Jim back, but was eyeing the creature with interest again. “That’s a new one,” he observed, gesturing for more information.
“Look, dude, Hell sucks. And I want out. I’m gonna need somebody with some juice to help.”
Caleb nodded. “I see. And you thought possessing a child was the way to go about getting that.”
Jim could see which way the winds of this conversation were blowing, and he was probably going to be filling out incident reports in triplicate for speaking to the creature at all, so he took up his recitation again, looking at the pages rather than the child and the creature inhabiting her. Molly’s face made a disappointed frown, but returned its attention to Caleb.
“Look, the Church is obviously not going to listen. I knew the holiday would get you guys out here faster than any other time of year. The hero complex you all have is legend. The Order is the only place I can get help.”
Caleb shook his head. “Help to which I’m not inclined. Helping demons is not my business. Getting rid of them is.” He stepped closer to the bed, cross held aloft.
“Oh, don’t be so high and mighty. Like you know which direction you’re headed when you finally bite it doing their bidding.”
“I have dedicated my life to the service of the Lord. I have faith. And that is enough.”
“Yeah, well, I had faith, too. Fat lot of good it did me … Does he seriously need to be doing that?” Brakken nodded toward Jim.
“Yes, he does. I’ve heard enough. It’s time for you to go.”
“No, wait, I can give you guys…”
Caleb didn’t wait. The demon would try all the usual tricks. He’d trafficked with it enough already. More than he should have. He joined Jim’s chanting of the Rite of Exorcism, a ritual he knew by heart.
“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.”
Brakken was thrown back on the bed, losing control of the girl as the words ripped into him with the strength of Caleb’s faith and determination behind them now. He began to growl, the body around him to writhe. One last attempt was all he had.
“No! You can’t! It’s Christmas…”
A short time later, Caleb and Jim were back at their cheap motel, having called in their successful mission. Caleb was sitting on his bed filling out some requisition forms to restock his kit. Jim was sitting on his filling out an incident report for breaking protocol and speaking with the demon without the sanction of his superior.
After a while, Caleb thought Jim had been punished enough. At least until after the holiday. “Wanna go grab a beer, kid?”
“I … Are we allowed to do that?”
“Why wouldn’t we be?”
“It’s Christmas Eve and…”
Caleb shook his head. “You wouldn’t believe the number of bars I’ve wound up in on Christmas Eve, Jim.”
Jim set aside his paperwork. “I think I’ve heard about at least one of those times, sir.”
Caleb chuckled. “I imagine you have.” Jim had the clearance. And it was a good story. “Let’s go get some food.”
“Yes, sir!” Jim was on his feet almost immediately.
Caleb slipped into his light jacket even though it was too warm. It was meant to conceal what he carried not provide any comfort. They headed out the door to go find some place that was open. Caleb knew only too well they’d have to be careful about their choices.
“I’d just wrapped up a portal activation, and I was waiting out a storm. I was still a kid on one of my first solo assignments. It was Christmas Eve, and I found a bar that looked like exactly what I was looking for.”
“Well, that depends on your point of view I guess.”