Authors’ Note: It just wouldn’t be Fic-mas without a visit from Krampus. This year we look back into his past, along side Ben’s, back when they were still on Hell’s payroll. This one came from a reader prompt about the jul tomte and it was a ton of fun to write. Enjoy!
Butter Him Up
Remind me how this asshat wound up in charge of handing out assignments, Ben grumbled entirely to himself. He might have said it out loud, and possibly even to Alloces face, but the time of year had Reaping working overtime.
The office was crowded enough that he hadn’t been able to move in the line leading to Al’s desk without bumping into, or being stepped on, by a demon waiting in one of the other lines for the expected paperwork.
Most of the crowd here appeared in their demon form. Ben could never figure out why anyone would do that willingly. Especially given what some of them looked like. Hideous.
Ben shivered when Botis jostled his arm. If he were honest, Botis wasn’t as overtly disgusting as some of the other members of the assemblage. But there was something about his oversized teeth and twisted horns that Ben found especially disquieting. A tussle by the Spells, Potions, and Transformations desk caused a shift in the crowd that distracted him from his disgust.
“Hey!” he exclaimed, almost involuntarily when a demon from the periphery accidentally stomped on his foot to avoid a broken flask of some sort of supernatural poison, unless he missed his guess. And when it came to magic, Ben had become remarkably astute. He caught her elbow though and steadied her before she could fall over and knock him into the half lion, half hyena behind him.
The other demon turned. He recognized her. At least her top half looked human so the eye contact didn’t make him immediately uncomfortable. He chose to ignore the fact that her lower half seemed to be some sort of horse or donkey … something with hooves, anyway. Which explained how unhappy his foot was at the moment. “Look out there,” Ben said. “There’s a dybbuk around here somewhere. You definitely don’t want to bump into him.”
“Thanks,” she said pleasantly enough, considering. “Hey … I know you. You’re that guy who kicked half of Hell’s teeth in when you got here … Ronoven, right?”
He cleared his throat. Almost two thousand years and demons were still on about his arrival. “Since we were just about joined at the feet a second ago, you can call me Ben,” he said instead of acknowledging her allusion to his past.
“I’m Nef,” she said, scrutinizing his face. “It is you. I was there, you know. I do some organizing of spectator events here when I’m not working an assignment above. A lot of demons would pay good coin to see you fight again. You were impressive, to say the least.”
“Yeah, well, it was a long time ago. I’m not really especially interested in fighting these days.”
She gave him a speculative smile. “To look at you, I have no doubt you could still take down all comers. And even if not, you’re certainly not hard on the eyes. None of our fights risk Final Death. It could fill your purse quite handily.”
He shook his head. “Thanks, but I’m not interested. Like I said, all that was a long time ago. I’m content to work in Reaping. At the moment, I’m mostly busy studying spellwork under Prince Stolas.”
“Ah,” she nodded as if suddenly his reaction made more sense. “Ole Stoli is quite territorial. Wouldn’t want to cross swords with him, I suppose.”
“Indeed,” Ben said, relieved to be off the hook, although ‘busy’ was a wild exaggeration for him lately.
She turned away, now more interested in the paperwork she was carrying than in a demon she stood no chance of recruiting into Hell’s underground fight club.
Ben took another step forward in the queue, relieved he was almost at his bureaucracy-dictated destination. Not that he especially wanted to get sent up on another soul collection. But he did want an excuse to go to Earth. It had been too long.
Finally, he stepped up to the desk and Alloces brick red face split into a devilish grin. “Ronoven! Fancy seeing you here.”
“I thought you were off the duty roster at the moment. Working with Stolas aren’t you? An apprenticeship of sorts?”
“Yeah, well … He’s … ahem … busy at the moment.”
“Ah, another trist has pried his attention off what he’s supposed to be up to, I take it.”
Ben shrugged. “All I know is he rented a villa in Limbo and told me he’d see me … eventually.”
“But still,” Alloces frowned. “You aren’t required to be here. What did you do, lose a bet?”
“Not exactly.” Ben rolled his eyes. Then he cleared his throat. “I owed Forneus a favor….”
“Lose to him at Scrabble, did you?”
“Pffft, no!” Ben lied. Then he smirked to cover his annoyance. “You know, instead of collecting souls, maybe I should go on up and introduce that game to the humans. Then they’d find their way here all on their own.” He laughed, but by all the gods that ever were, he hated losing a game of words almost as much as he hated being a demon.
“Not a half bad idea, if Balphagor will let go of the patent. Perhaps in a few decades when it runs out, I’ll snap it up myself,” Alloces said with a chuckle.
“Why not?” Ben said with a pointed lack of interest in his supervisor’s business endeavors. “What was it Forneus wanted to avoid?” he asked to move things along and get out of the crowded office.
Alloces shifted some papers around. “Ah, here it is … Nothing complicated. A simple collection. Right on the verge at the moment. You’ll have to hurry.”
“Are we expecting a Shepherd?” he asked, mentally crossing his fingers that an angel would be involved so he could simply claim Heaven made a stronger case.
The other demon shrugged and passed Ben his assignment. “Maybe, maybe not.”
“Wilmer Gusstafsson.” Ben looked over the paperwork quickly. “What did the old fellow do? Commit atrocities during the Spanish-American War?”
“Not even close. Nothing especially remarkable about him as far as I know. Should be right up your street though. The old fellow’s ninety.”
“Why are we even dispatching anyone then?” he asked, trying to sound just curious as opposed to annoyed.
Alloces leaned a bit closer and gestured for Ben to do the same. “I’m not supposed to say anything, but since I’d like to continue being included in your weekly card games….”
“Of course, Al. You know you’re always welcome to come over and lose some of your ill-gotten gains to me,” he said with a grin.
“Very funny. Anyway … Our numbers are down. To the point that Lucifer noticed. The king is furious. Especially with Reaping.”
“Great,” Ben groaned with a deep roll of his eyes. He stood up straight again, really regretting betting on that game and pretty sure now that Forneus had cheated. Which explained a lot, actually. “What am I supposed to do if instead of some milquetoast like Hariel, I show up and there’s some fiery-eyed avenging type there to collect this guy? You know getting physical with the angelic and annoying isn’t really my style.”
“Do what you want up there, Ronoven. But I’d suggest coming home with a soul in chains.”
“I don’t know what you think I’ll–”
“The only thing I think is that if you’re not prepared to go toe to toe with one of the halos, maybe you should consider a vocational paradigm shift. I hear Interrogation is looking for some demons to practice on.”
“Very funny,” he said sarcastically.
“I wasn’t trying to be. Now, get your ass to Wisconsin and bring us back that old man, would you?”
“Wisconsin? In December? Are you serious?”
“Have fun, Ronoven. Dress for the weather.” Alloces made a shooing gesture and called, “Next!” effectively dismissing him.
Ben made his way to the next line, got quickly tired of waiting, and pulled rank to get to the front. He presented his paperwork to the bespectacled demon behind the desk and took the cover ID package and bundle of clothing with a grimace. “Is the weather that bad?”
“Wisconsin in December? You tell me.”
Ben just took his materials, got changed, and left the building, avoiding conversation with anyone else on his way out the door. He wouldn’t have minded a trip to the Northeast to collect someone. Aife was running a small Office in Buffalo. If he was going to be closer, he could have stretched the assignment to visit her for Yule. As it was, he probably wouldn’t see her this year. Again.
He approached the nearest Gate, and stepped across the threshold. He twitched his shoulders, hating the heavy wool and million buttons that characterized the fashion of the times. But, he had to admit, the clothing was more functional than that of his few forays into the more formal Northeastern U.S. and leaps and bounds more comfortable than anything he’d had to wear in Europe when he couldn’t avoid assignments there. He halfheartedly performed the Gate Activation and found himself standing in the middle of a dirt road in a medium sized village, if the few lights he could make out were any indication.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t make out much through the apparent blizzard he’d just teleported into. “Of course. Of course that’s what I walk into.”
Ben had never seen so much snow in all his life … or afterlife for that matter.
He looked around for a minute and headed toward the house a few doors down from where he stood. The faint glow his demon’s eyes picked up told him that was the place. He stretched out his other senses and detected an old soul on the second floor.
He was about to let himself into the dark house when he heard a familiar clanking of chains and a heavy, cloven-hooved step. Ben spun around with a grin and his assumption was confirmed by the red glow lighting up the silhouette of another denizen of Hell. “Krampus! How’ve you been?”
“Ronoven!” The approaching creature’s face split into a terrifying grin. “Can’t complain. But what are you doing Up Top? I thought you were taking a leave from Reaping to work on another magic apprenticeship with Stolas.”
Ben shrugged. “He blew me off for another of his torrid affairs.” He frowned, looking around. “What are you doing around here? Your night was a couple of weeks ago.”
“Well,” Krampus chuckled. “I’m not really here on official business. I’m doing a favor for a friend.”
“My buddy Ollie is one of the jul tomte and–”
Krampus looked thoughtful. Or at least Ben thought he did. With such a terrifying visage, it was hard to tell. “Maybe a bit like one of the Elfhame? But for Christmas in the Nordic countries.”
“Ah. So … Good or evil?”
“Your black and white thinking about these things really is charmingly naive, Ronoven.”
“Says the demon charged with whipping the ‘naughty’ and stuffing them in sacks.”
“So judgemental.” Krampus clucked his forked tongue. Then he laughed. “In any event, it’s tradition to leave out a bowl of porridge on Christmas Eve for the tomte to eat. The young lady in question, that is, the one Ollie asked me to pay a visit to, just to give her a scare mind you, hit the butter under the porridge last year. Then he couldn’t track her down this year. Apparently her family immigrated from Sweden recently, came to live with her grandfather. It was nothing for me to find out where she’d gotten to.”
“Your friend sicced you on some little girl for hiding butter?”
“It’s quite the offense to one of his kind. Asking me to correct her behavior is a much more pleasant response than the tomte have taken for such an action before. It can be quite gruesome.”
Ben shook his head, turning up his collar against the cold. “Well, then, I’m glad it’s you and not a bunch of vindictive elves slashing her whole family to bits or whatever they do.” He shivered. “I better be going. Apparently, old Wilmer Gustafsson is on death’s door.”
“Oh, you’re going to the Gustafsson’s, too?”
“Well, Sigrid will be having a bad time. A visit from me, losing her grandfather. That does not a merry Christmas make. What a shame. Makes me inclined to take it easy on her. I’ll just have to embellish a bit when I tell Ollie about it.”
“Let’s get on with it then,” Ben sighed. “At least inside won’t be a howling nightmare.”
Ben was surprised to find Wilmer’s spirit hovering over his body looking clear-eyed and apparently awaiting his arrival.
“Well, hullo there, young fellow. You’re not nearly the terror I was expecting.”
“What were you expecting?” Ben asked, plainly curious about the old man’s response.
“Oh, you know, the dark shroud, scythe, an air of impending doom.” It was said with an amused twinkle Ben didn’t know quite what to do with. “I suppose sort of a Christmas Yet to Come type fellow. An appearance and demeanor more befitting Death, as it were.”
Ben couldn’t help but smile a bit at that. The man was a reader. And while Ben didn’t necessarily enjoy Dickens’ work, he had liked A Christmas Carol. A fellow lover of words deserved better than this. “Well, I’m not exactly Death. You may have noticed, you’re already dead and I didn’t have anything to do with it.”
“So, who are you then?”
Ben flushed. He couldn’t help it. He had to speak his least favorite sentence in any language. “I’m actually a demon.”
“Ahha, so I’m going to Hell then? That is disappointing.”
Ben didn’t sense any particular fear from this soul and found it both intriguing and a little depressing. He let himself access the powers that would let him see the man’s soul. It didn’t have the acuity of an angel’s insight, but it served his purpose.
Well, there is absolutely no way I am dragging Wilmer back to Hell. No fucking way.
“I … um … No, you’re definitely not doing to Hell, Mr. Gustaffson.”
“You’re very polite for a demon,” the man chuckled.
Ben resisted the urge to ask him how many demons he’d met and instead took a minute to try to figure out what to do about this soul he had no intention of collecting. He nodded to himself, only half aware that he was doing it. “Okay. So here’s the thing … No angel showed up to make a bid for your soul, but that doesn’t mean Heaven doesn’t want you. They’re just a lot lazier than Hell, in my experience. So … what you should do is …. maybe just hang around here and haunt the place for a little while. Eventually someone will show up to lead you toward the Light, or whatever they call it.”
“That might be nice. I hate to miss Christmas by leaving right now.”
Ben smiled. “I’m fond of this time of year myself, sir.”
“I could pretend to be surprised, but I’m not at all. You look like someone who would enjoy Christmas.”
Ben didn’t correct the man by telling him he was more of a Yule sort of guy. He just offered another smile. “I better be going. I’m sorry you’re going to be dead for it, but I hope you have a merry Christmas anyway, Mr. Gustafsson.”
“Thank you, young man. I don’t know if such a thing is possible for a demon, but I hope you do, too.”
“I’ll try, sir,” Ben said, and slipped out the door.
About halfway down the stairs, he bumped into an unexpected angel. “Hey, Sariel. This one’s all yours.”
“Really, Ronoven? You aren’t even going to stay for the formalities this time?”
“Sorry, Sar. You were running late, so I went ahead and had a look. Lovely old fellow. You guys’ll love him.” He jogged past her down the steps.
“Ronoven, get back here and do your job!”
“I gotta go! I’m on the clock. Merry Christmas!”
He turned down the hallway that led to the front door and snickered when he heard her exclaim, “Oh, for Heaven’s sake!”
He let himself out and was surprised to find Krampus waiting for him outside. “How’d it go with the kid … Sigrid, or whatever her name was?”
“Fine. She’ll remember to butter the porridge properly tomorrow night no matter what else is happening, I’m quite certain. But no real harm done either way.”
“That’s good,” Ben said noncommittally, drawing his coat closer around himself.
“How about you?”
“Oh, Heaven showed up. You know how it is.”
“I believe I do,” Krampus said with a knowing lilt.
Ben shifted uncomfortably, wondering exactly what it was that Krampus was picking up on. He’d kept up a pretty good front with the glitterati of Hell. Or he was pretty sure he had anyway. “So … Um … The night’s nearly over. What’s next for you?”
“What’s a Hawaii?”
“Hawaii is a where not a what. I think I’ve earned a little vacation.” Krampus laughed. “As someone whose jurisdiction is mostly America, you’ll find out about it in a few years; more’s the pity for the people who live there, I think.”
“What’s so great about this Hawaii?”
“The food. The weather. The music. The company. You’d love it.”
Ben chuckled ruefully. “Sounds nice. I wish I could afford to fuck off out of Hell for a minute.”
“Need a little getaway yourself?”
“I wouldn’t hate one after this.” He gestured at the pelting snow, piled in drifts almost as tall as he was.
“So, come with me.”
“I’m already gonna catch no end of shit for showing back up without a soul in tow. Unauthorized leave on top of that? I like my finger and toenails right where they are, thanks.”
“Suit yourself.” Krampus headed back up the street to catch up with Nicholas. “See you around, kid,” he called over his shoulder.
“Have a nice vacation,” Ben shouted over the howling storm.
Krampus turned around. “Hey, if you ever get tired of the prince blowing you off and you want to learn some real magic, drop by my estate. I think you’d find my tutelage quite helpful.”
Ben grinned. Learn magic from Krampus? Hell, yes. “Thanks! I’ll do that!”
Krampus waved and faded into a swirl of blowing snow.
Ben stood in the middle of the dirt track that he couldn’t make himself think of as a street, icy flecks collecting unpleasantly in his collar, wind biting his face. He couldn’t decide which was worse: going back to Hell empty handed, or standing here freezing his ass off.
A gust of wind hit him hard enough to make him drop back a step. Yeah, no. At least Hell is warm, he grumbled to himself. But I definitely need a vacation.
Before he could get any colder or wetter, he uttered the appropriate incantation to return to his place Below and disappeared with a hiss of steam.