Welcome to another Twelve Days of Fic-mas. If this is your first time with us, you’re in for a paranormal holiday treat. The next twelve days will bring you tales of holidays past and present, featuring characters from The Arbitratus Universe, including those you may know from Always Darkest and Before the Dawn, as well as those from Fic-mas past. We hope you enjoy this year’s stories and that we can usher 2020 out in style.
The crowded streets made Ben wish he didn’t need to be in this part of Hell.
But it was the winter solstice. He had to see Aife today. And they agreed to meet at her house this year.
She could have come to his place, but his neighbor, Abatu, (a miserable demon, bent on seeing Ben picked up by Hell’s not-so-secret police as revenge for Ben’s lack of tolerance for regular invasions of his grounds by the other demon’s strange pets) had marked their Yule observance last year. It caused some trouble with the higher-ups, but Ben managed to keep Aife out of the inquiry.
He wouldn’t let his distaste for the neighborhood she had been assigned keep him from upholding their centuries old tradition. If not for his influence, it would have been in one of the even lower levels. Besides, he had good news for a change.
She’d be thrilled to hear that he’d won an appointment to an Office. Agents were rarely called back to Hell. Not that the job didn’t come with its share of problems. Working for Hell was working for Hell. But it was a damned sight better than his current job.
His only other option to get out of his Reaping gig was to accept the offer to join Interrogation and Initiation. Stolas, who’d taken an interest in his career since his sorcery apprenticeship, was convinced Ben’s rhetorical gifts would be invaluable to the department. He’d been pressuring Ben to take the position for a while now. But even if Ben was okay with all the torturing and misery inflicted there (he wasn’t), Ba’al was in charge of them now.
Even if it meant he got granted leave to go to Earth every damned weekend, he wasn’t going to put himself under that god’s command if he could help it. Besides, if Ben worked under him, it would only be a matter of time before the god put two and two together and realized every time one of his rare books went missing, the theft coincided with Ben’s days off.
Of course, he’d nearly gotten caught this last time. He would have if not for some fast thinking and the infestation of screets outside Ba’al’s library window. He hated those squealing little blighters so much he’d have felt bad about coaxing them inside anyone else’s house. But Ba’al wasn’t someone who got any of Ben’s sympathy on his best day.
Ben snorted a laugh as he recalled Ba’al’s rageful howl upon discovering the noisy little pests hopping their coal-hot froggy bodies all over his favorite rug and burning sooty, oily holes through it.
Ben let himself into Aife’s modest home and set the flagon of better wine he’d procured for the occasion, along with a sack full of dinner ingredients, on the table next to the door. “Hey, Aife! Sorry I’m late! One of Cerberus’s heads got tetchy and it was a nightmare to get across the bridge today!”
No answer but his voice disappearing into her silent house.
“Aife?” he called again, starting to be worried.
“She’s out just now, Lord Ronoven,” came a timid voice from right by his elbow.
The slight, pale girl he’d saved from the Pit not all that long ago who acted as Aife’s serving girl, had appeared as if by magic. He hated that she’d needed a rescue. She was practically a child.
“Hey, Anabell.” Ben offered a friendly smile. “I’ve told you, unless we’re out around other demons, it’s just Ben, okay?”
“That wouldn’t be proper, sir.”
“I don’t know if Aife’s told you all that much about me, but I’m not too worried about what’s proper. And I’m definitely not into all that ‘my lord’ and ‘sir’ nonsense.”
Her lips flickered in what might have been a smile, but it was gone before he could be sure. “I’ll try to remember that … B–” Her hand flew to her mouth. “I’m sorry, sir. I just can’t.”
He chuckled, more to let her off the hook than anything. He hated that her life had conditioned her to expect bad things to happen if she didn’t behave a particular way, and hated even more that when it ended she’d found herself in Hell and had all her worst fears confirmed. “That’s alright. Maybe someday.” He looked around the dim house. “So, Aife went out? She must’ve forgotten what day it is on Earth.”
Anabell shook her head. “Oh, no, sir. She was most upset. Mostly because of the day, I believe.”
“I know it’s hard for her sometimes.” Ben frowned thoughtfully. “That’s one of the reasons we always get together.” He looked around again, searching for an answer to his friend’s unexpected absence. “I wonder what happened.”
Anabell shifted from one foot to the other, her eyes downcast as they so often were, no matter what Aife or Ben said. They might see her role as servant as a cover that kept another tender soul out of the Pit, but she obviously saw it as a continuation of her life Above. She hummed a small sound of distress, but didn’t speak openly.
Ben ducked his head to meet her eyes. “Anabell, do you know where Aife went?”
She danced a few steps back on her toes, but finally looked at him. “To walk in the cold, sir.”
Ben swore under his breath as his whole body tensed. “She went to Niflhel? After that last card game, Loki would love to see her go astray down there!” he exclaimed, more to himself than to Anabell. “Doesn’t she know demons are lost in the mist all the time?”
The girl stepped back further at the taut edge in his voice, but didn’t look away from his face as she usually did. “Oh, no, sir! My lady would never be so foolish. She was upset, not daft, sir!”
Ben smiled slightly. The eye contact and correcting him represented real progress toward this kid seeing herself as more than someone else’s property. He forced his voice to carry its usual reassuring tone so he could tease out where Aife had gotten to. “Well, that’s a relief. It would be a huge help if you could tell me where to find her. Do you know for certain where I might look?”
“Oh, yes, sir!” Anabell grinned.
How pleased she looked at the prospect of helping someone she saw as a ‘master’ tugged at his heart, and made him vaguely furious all at the same time. Still, this wasn’t the moment to work on that. Instead, he said gently, “Wonderful. I knew you’d be able to sort me out. Where did she get to, if she isn’t trying to grey my hair by taking off for the Northmen’s perdition?”
“Cocytus, sir,” she replied, clearly expecting him to be pleased.
He kept himself from swearing again, but it took a considerable amount of will, combined with a desire not to frighten the girl. He needed answers before he took off to find Aife in one of his least favorite places in all the Netherrealms. Not that he’d been there before. He hated the very idea of it. “Why in the name of all that’s unholy would she go there?”
“My lady said it was the one place her own wailing would go unnoticed, sir.”
Ben chewed his lip. Aife wasn’t especially prone to big emotional displays. If she’d said that much to Anabell, something truly terrible must have happened. He’d know better where to look if he had some specifics. “Do you know why she was so upset?”
Anabell shook her head, but brightened after a moment. “Wait here!”
She’d forgotten to call him ‘sir’. That was real progress. His satisfaction at marking their influence on her evaporated when she ran back up the hall with a familiar green scroll. A rejection slip.
Aife applied for a job? Without telling me? What is going on with that woman?
“I don’t know what it says. I never had my letters. But she came home with this, mumbling about the holiday, all manner of sad.”
“May I?” Ben reached out a hand.
She bowed slightly when she handed it over, so Ben might have had to amend his estimation of her progress, but this time when he swore it was none too quiet and she didn’t back away. Instead, she asked with open curiosity and concern, “What is it?”
“Apparently the lady of the house applied for a position in Reaping, and didn’t get it. Why the Hell…?”
“I can help with that!” the girl beamed. “She spoke about it over dinner the other night!”
“I’m glad to hear you’re joining her for dinner now instead of insisting on waiting on her,” Ben said. He almost wished he hadn’t when she bit her lip, but she slipped him a genuine grin that said she was glad about it, too. “What possessed her to apply with Reaping? She knows it’s a nightmare. Or she should. I’ve told her often enough.”
Anabell bobbed her head in agreement, as her concern for her mistress reasserted itself. “She said as much, sir. But she also said she wanted a way to spend some time Up Top. She hasn’t been able to see about her family since … well, since you took her.”
Of course. It’s been hundreds of years since I could do anything about that. Aife is still so attached to her kin … I should have seen this coming.
Ben handed Anabell back the scroll. “Thank you. That explains a lot.”
“Cocytus is no place for my lady to be wandering around.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll fetch her home for you.”
“You’re going there, too?” she asked with a shrill climb at the end.
Ben could read her fear about something happening to both of them. If neither of them came back, she’d surely find herself back in the Pit by day’s end. He offered a reassuring smile that he mostly had to fake. “Don’t worry. I’ve come back from tougher places than Cocytus without so much as a scratch. We’ll all be sharing mulled wine together before the Earth finishes turning its day Above.”
“Are you certain?”
“I am.” And he was. But Anabell looked as uncertain as it was possible for a girl to be. “Look, why don’t you work on dinner? That way, there’ll be something to warm us when we get back.”
Anabell picked up the sack full of food. “Of course! I’ll start right away!” She dipped into a curtsey before he could tell her not to and ran up the hall toward the kitchen.
Ben let himself out. He was halfway down the walk when Anabell burst out of the door. “Sir! You’re not dressed for the cold! Do you want to borrow a cloak?”
Ben turned. “I’ll stop home for one of my own. I have another stop to make before I go get Aife for you.”
Her eyes widened a bit in obvious surprise that he wasn’t rushing to her lady’s side. “Where?”
Ben took a deep breath, steeling himself for what might not be a pleasant side-trip. “The Royal Palace.”
He registered her shock at his response, but turned to leave. He had almost reached the street when she called, “Sir?”
He didn’t think he had any more reassurances left in him, so he pretended he hadn’t heard her and kept walking. He stopped when Anabell’s voice rose in an actual indecorous shout, “Ben!”
He spun, unable to help a grin. “Yeah?”
“Be careful!” she exclaimed, parroting the thing she’d probably already heard Aife say to him at least a hundred times.
He smirked and offered his usual response. “Never.”
“You’re sure this is what you want?” the King asked in his rumbling baritone.
“If it pleases Your Majesty,” Ben said with a deferential bow.
“It doesn’t especially please me,” the King said levelly. “But fortunately for you, it doesn’t displease me either. It’s yours, and therefore you may see it taken care of in any manner you wish.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.” He bowed again.
“I suppose you’d like this announced at the next gathering of nobles? Increase your social capital, as it were?”
Ben cleared his throat. “Um … Actually, I’d rather this stayed between us, Sire.”
The King stared at him until Ben thought he’d catch fire from the heat of it. After an interminable period, during which it took every ounce of poise Ben ever cultivated not to fidget like some damned kid, the King simply waved his dismissal. “As you wish, Lord Ronoven.”
Ben bowed deeply and backed out of the Dread Soverign’s office. He collected his things from the spacious foyer and headed up the street to see about a horse. The Ninth Circle was further than he wanted to go on foot.
Besides, he wanted to collect Aife and get her home before the last hour of Yule passed. He supposed it didn’t matter, since they were on Hell’s calendar anyway. But it was important to him. Especially now.
The ride was long to begin with, but as he had to make it listening to the wailing spirits flowing down the River Archeron, it might as well have been eternity. Just another reminder of the abject cruelty found around every corner in Hell.
Ragged, shrouded figures, moaning and weeping, wandered among the rocks, some stretching out their hands to him as he rode past. He knew he’d be faced with Hell’s discarded and forgotten along the banks of the Infernal Rivers that emptied into the lake, but he hadn’t been prepared for the sight of them. It chilled him more surely than the frozen air.
Even though he knew how easy it would be to become lost, almost as easy as it would have been if he’d had to go hunting for Aife in Niflhel, he passed out what food, drink, and coin he’d brought to the souls brave enough to approach him.
Perhaps he’d regret it, at least according to the small voice in his head, but he had plenty of experience ignoring it. And no amount of whispers from long-departed family members could convince him he’d regret it more than not doing it. Part of him expected to see Aife’s face upturned with the others, just to screw with him.
But no such luck.
He rode up to the cliff’s edge where the Fall of Tears emptied into the frozen lake itself. The closer he got to the end of the road, the colder he felt. But it had nothing to do with the temperature. If Aife had wandered away from the road, he had almost no chance of finding her.
What if she hadn’t just left home to have a good cry? What if she’d given up hope and gone into the water?
He’d never see her again.
He glanced at the river. Colorless, half-formed souls flowed over sharp rocks and around bobbing chunks of jagged ice. Their collective lament rose to a crescendo in his ears, until it was all he could hear.
Sick certainty gripped him. Aife was gone.
A lump tightened his throat and he couldn’t swallow past it. Stinging, watering eyes quickly followed.
He hated to cry. He’d rather bleed. His breath hitched against his finer impulses and his eyes overflowed, entirely against his will.
His rented horse seemed to sense his sudden loss of composure and wrenched its head to the side, almost yanking the reins from his hands. He pulled the mount to a halt and climbed off to give himself a minute. But instead of mastering his errant emotions, he got closer to breaking down. He tried all the usual measures to box up his feelings, but nothing helped.
He found himself drawn to the water’s edge. Despite everything he’d read, or been told, about this region of Hell, despite all the warnings, he let his feet carry him there.
This close to the water, he could make out distinct faces, though they all bore a resemblance to each other in their suffering. As he watched them flow past, a deep melancholy settled in his chest. He blinked when a face caused a flicker of recognition.
He leaned closer to the water.
He imagined he recognized not just one face, but many. Though he’d checked every register he could access and never found any of his family’s names recorded there, he became convinced he saw his brothers, his parents, even Cinnie. Her face finally pulled the sob from him he’d been trying so hard to keep back.
Once the dam of his emotions broke, he could no longer restrain himself. He reached out until his fingers brushed the icy water. Perhaps he couldn’t save them all, but Cinnie floated in the shallows, stretching an ephemeral hand toward him.
He’d almost broken the surface when the face he’d been so certain belonged to his sister-in-law morphed into a monster’s horrifying rictus of malicious intent. He stumbled back, but frozen hands broke the surface of the water and caught his cloak, pulling him forward on the slick ground.
“No!” he shouted, digging in and backpedaling for all he was worth. “Let go!”
His riding boots got drenched and the cold lanced through his whole body. The sadness he’d felt while still on horseback paled in comparison to what overwhelmed him now. A dreadful sorrow engulfed him, and with it, an all-encompassing torpor. Fighting the hands seemed too hard.
“What’s the point, anyway?” the souls moaned from the water.
“No!” he said again, but he could hear it had lost some of its conviction.
A stiff, chilled hand closed on his ankle.
He suddenly remembered something he’d read about the Infernal Rivers and the Great Lake of Wailing itself. According to legend, sadness seeped into travelers until they threw themselves in the water to join those from whence the urge came. He wasn’t feeling this hopelessness because it was his, it was the magic of this special Hellscape invading his very mind. It wanted to claim him, as surely as the fires in the levels above.
In a wild effort to free himself from immediate danger, he flung himself backward. He fell, tangled in his heavy cloak. Cold hands caught his wrists. He bellowed an incoherent protest, struggling for all he was worth.
“Ben! Ben! It’s me!”
After his vision of his family in the river, he didn’t dare believe his ears, but he gasped, “Aife?”
“No, it’s one of the blasted kelpies this wretched place is full of rescuing you from itself,” came the half amused, half irritated reply.
The response was too purely her to be an illusion.
He stopped struggling and extricated himself from his damp outerwear. When he got clear of his hood and met her eyes he thought he might cry with relief. Instead, he climbed to his feet and dusted himself off. He forced his expression into a deep frown and glared at her, more in an effort to regain his dignity than because he was upset with her. “Rescue me? I rode all the way down to the Ninth Circle to rescue you! After what Anabell said, I thought you’d taken a dive over not getting a job you shouldn’t have wanted to begin with!”
“Oh, Ben, honey, no.” She reached out to brush away the tears he’d already forgotten about. “I’d never do that.”
He ducked his head and used his sleeve to dry his face. “Then what the Hell are you doing down here? Other than trying to scare the afterlife out of me?”
Aife shrugged. “I was upset about getting turned down by Reaping, as you clearly discovered for yourself. And I just wanted a bit of contrast for my own emotions. You know, to put things in perspective.”
“Ah, for fuck’s sake, Aife!”
She smiled at him. “Your Scottish is showing, lovey.”
The laugh that brought out of him startled them both. Smiling in the face of the magic of this place was one thing. Laughing was unheard of. He glanced around, just to be sure the sound hadn’t called any nearby creatures out of the shadows. Once he was certain it was still only the two of them, he smirked. “Usually. Especially when I’m around you.”
“Why are you? Around me, I mean.”
Ben snapped his fingers and the horse trotted obediently over to them. Ben held its bridle so Aife could climb up first. “Don’t you know what day it is?”
“Day?” she asked with a grunt of effort at climbing onto the tall horse’s back. “Since when do days matter here?”
Ben easily swung into the saddle behind her and guided the horse to turn around and nudged it to trot back the way they came. Now that he had found Aife, the wailing from the river receded into the background. “Well, they hardly ever do. But it’s Yule.”
“Oh!” She glanced apologetically over her shoulder at him. “I’m so sorry, Ben. I forgot.”
“Fortunately for us, I remembered. I left Anabell working on our dinner to give her something to do other than worry about her lady and the guy she still seems to think is royalty despite my many protests to the contrary.”
Apparently as oblivious of the souls in the river and the bone-chilling cold as he was now, Aife snorted a brief laugh. “How many times did she curtsey today?”
He encouraged the horse to pick up its pace. He wanted to get them home more quickly, lest the turning of the Earth deny them the actual holiday. “Only the once,” he grinned. “So we’ve made some inroads.”
Anabell had outdone herself with their meal. She had also not protested their invitation to join them and even remembered to call their guest Ben instead of Lord Ronoven, possibly owing to the bone-crushing hug she’d wrapped him in when he walked in the front door with Aife. She’d even slipped off to her chambers early without asking permission.
In front of the comforting illusion of a homey fire, both full of a rather large quantity of exceptional mulled wine, Aife produced a thick book, tied with a ribbon. “I forgot what day it was, but not that the solstice was coming up.”
Ben couldn’t tell her she’d gotten him a spell book he’d already liberated from a certain Hell-god’s library. If she found out he’d taken up that particular hobby, he’d never hear the end of it. So, instead, he grinned and pulled her into a hug. “Thank you! This is a rare one! How did you get your hands on it?”
She poured them each another glass of wine and gave him one of her signature cat-like smiles. “I’ve been known to strike a deal worth writing home about from time to time.”
“So, you’re not going to tell me,” he chuckled.
“I am not,” she replied archly. “Well, then?”
He furrowed his brow in pretended misunderstanding. “Well what?”
She widened her eyes, obviously sure he was having a go at her, but not sure why. “You know very well what. We have a tradition to uphold, my Lord.”
He patted his pockets, then got up and looked under the cushions. “Where did the damned thing get to?” He stood and clapped his forehead with an open palm and looked appropriately stricken. “Ah, damn it. It must’ve fallen out of my pocket when we were at the Falls!”
“Oh, Ben! It’s okay. I was only teasing. You know the gifts have never been an expectation between us! And I’m so grateful you came after me today. It would have taken me forever to get home on foot. I would have hated to miss our feast!”
Ben’s calculated facade collapsed and he laughed. “Gotcha!”
She tilted her head in the expected question.
“Your gift isn’t one that fits in any pockets. Nor is it one I could wrap.”
“Alright, oh Master of Expression, you’re just winding me up now. I can tell.”
He sat next to her again and took her hand. “Anabell told me about why you applied to Reaping.”
“It’s silly. I’m sorry. I should have said something to you instead of–”
“It’s not silly. You love your family in a way I could never hope to be loved.” She opened her mouth like she’d try to say something to counter his words, but he didn’t let her even begin. “And love like that deserves a chance to see the light of day. A chance to walk the Earth. So your gift, if you want it, if you’ll accept it, is that chance.”
She shook her head like she needed to clear it. “What are you saying, Ben?”
He swallowed hard. He wanted nothing more than to leave Hell behind, to walk on Earth again. To feel the sun on his face without also feeling like every second was borrowed time. But wanting something for selfish reasons was petty and small in the face of Aife’s love for her descendents, for people she had never met, and had no shared memories to bind them together. She loved them because they were hers. Ben thought, perhaps, if he’d had a wife, if he’d had children of his own, he might share the same fierce light that kindled in his friend’s eyes when she spoke of her line. But he didn’t. So, he would do what the love he did have told him he should.
“I won the right to appoint someone as an Agent for Hell, Inc.”
“Www…What?” she stammered.
“I won an Office position.”
Her head tilted again, this time in confusion. “My Yule gift is you saying goodbye?”
“Of course not. Well, sort of.” He cleared his throat to dispel the hoarseness in his voice. “I’m saying goodbye to you. Because I’m sponsoring you to the position.”
Her mouth worked a few times without producing any sound, but after a minute she managed, “But Ben, you want to go back to Earth more than anything. It’s the only reason you took the job in Reaping to begin with.”
“I can’t go,” he lied smoothly. “The privilege is to sponsor someone, not go myself. Ain’t that a bitch?” he asked lightly.
She sat perfectly still for another long, silent minute.
“Say something, would you?”
But she didn’t. She simply tackled him in a hug that knocked over the settee they were sitting on. Lying on the floor, he hugged her back, covering the wave of emotion that accompanied having done the right thing with a fond chuckle he was positive she wouldn’t guess was forced for her benefit.
“So, you accept?”
“Of course I do! I … I’ve never … I didn’t think … You’re a wonderful man, Ben. Just wonderful.”
“Ah, I’m alright,” he said, blushing furiously. After a minute, he disentangled himself from her enthusiastic embrace and righted their seat. “You’ll have to leave for training on Earth before long.”
She let him help her up from the floor. “I can hardly wait … But … what about Anabell?”
He’d already thought about that. “She can come to my estate when you go. Between Gareth and I, we’ll find her something to do that keeps her out of trouble and as safe as I can make her.”
Aife bit her lip. “What if something….” She trailed off.
He patted her shoulder. “You don’t think I’ve worked out how to have things keep running if something happens to me? I’ve been at this for centuries, Aife.”
“I didn’t mean … You better not let anything happen to you!”
He laughed more genuinely this time. “I’ll certainly do my best. Otherwise, how will I have an excuse to come Up Top and hassle you at work the way you have been with me here all these years?”
She punched him lightly on the arm. “Are you ever going to be serious? Even for a minute?”
“Maybe. But just for this next minute.”
He refilled their glasses and handed hers back. He raised his own. “A blessed Yule.”
She touched the lip of her glass against his. “And many more.”
They drank in silence for a while. Eventually, Aife turned toward him again. “You have to promise me something, Ben.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Do I?”
“You do. When I’m not here all the time to get after you … You have to promise me you’ll be careful.”
He grinned broadly and tipped her a wink.