Every Time A Bell Rings

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Authors’ Note – All I can do to introduce this one is to quote Doctor Who. “There is, surprisingly, always hope.”

Every Time a Bell Rings

The angel sat on the first park bench he came to with a heavy sigh. 

“Want to talk about it?”

He looked up with a start. He’d been so wrapped up in his thoughts, he hadn’t noticed he wasn’t alone. “I … You…” he stammered.

“Didn’t mean to scare you,” said an old man with a friendly smile. 

The angel found himself smiling back, despite his dark mood. “No, it’s fine. You didn’t really. I’m sorry if I disturbed you though.”

“Not at all,” the man chuckled. “Don’t usually get company out here this time of year.” His breath sent up a frosty plume in the late December cold.

“I’ll bet.”

“I certainly don’t mind,” he said, smiling again. Then he held out his hand. “I’m Cyrus. My friends call me Cy.”

“Nice to meet you, Cy,” he said, and reached out and took the offered hand. “I’m Chamuel.”

“Pardon, there, young fella? I didn’t quite catch that.”

With the barest smile and a little head shake at his carelessness, he amended, “You can call me Clarence.”

“I had a brother named Clarence,” Cy replied. 

The old man had a firm grip, despite his age and slight appearance. Chamuel looked into his eyes, beyond the surface, with his angelic gaze. Cyrus had lived a good life, but he could see a deep and profound sadness there. He released Cy’s hand and relaxed against the park bench.

“You must be freezing without a coat,” Cy prodded with gentle concern.

“Oh, I’m fine,” he replied with a wave of his hand. “I … um … I run hot.” For all his time on Earth, his many visitations among the humans, Chamuel always seemed to forget the little details that helped his kind blend in. Like wearing a coat in winter.

“If you say so.” Cy’s voice and expression were somewhat skeptical, but not challenging. 

Despite being unaffected by the cold, Chamuel gripped his elbows. Then he sighed. 

“What’s got you so down, young Clarence? That is, if you don’t mind my asking.”

“Oh, it’s nothing. Really,” the angel said unconvincingly. 

Cy made a show of looking out over the park, rather than at his companion. He casually offered, “Sometimes talking helps.”

The angel sighed again. “It’s my job, I suppose.” He glanced over at Cy and into his kind eyes. He decided to actually admit what was bothering him. “And the time of year on top of it.”

Cy nodded. “I get that. Christmas can be hard.” Clarence didn’t seem inclined to go further, so he offered up a little something of himself to make it easier. “Before I retired, I worked helping people sort through those sorts of problems. I’m a psychiatrist … well, I was, once upon a time.”

“Busy this time of year, were you?” Chamuel asked, actually curious. The idea behind this time was to uplift the humans. But thus far, he hadn’t observed it serving its purpose especially well. Not in a very long time, anyway.

“Oh, I was always busy,” Cy said softly. “But it was often this time of year when I saw many of my patients struggle to most.”

Chamuel chewed his lip. “I suppose the season causes us to pause and reflect. Perhaps that’s it.” He looked down at his feet, distracted for a moment by how strange he found shoes to be. Well, that, and contemplating their strangeness was easier than meeting Cy’s gaze at the moment.

“Burdens often feel lighter when they’re shared,” Cy said.

The angel took a deep breath. “I don’t know that what I do matters,” he said bluntly. “I often think that if I didn’t exist, it wouldn’t make a difference.”

“I see,” Cy said soberly. “Tell me more about that.” When the young man didn’t go on, he prompted, “What is it you do, Clarence?”

A long breath was puffed out through overly inflated cheeks. “That’s … kind of complicated.”

“Complicated was my bread and butter for over thirty years, son. Try me.”

Cy wasn’t going to drop it. “I guess you could say I work in human services, too.”

“Kind of a broad field.”

“Tell me about it.”

That elicited a warm chuckle from Cy. “So in what capacity do you work?”

Chamuel paused. “I work with children.” The short admission had a bleak sound.

“Foster care?” Cy guessed.

“Not exactly.” He shook his head. “It’s hard to put into words.” He stopped, trying to decide if he should say more, or more accurately, what he should do. The easy answer, the one he knew his superiors would prefer to more dangerously honest interaction with a human, was to excuse himself, and go find a more private place to sulk.

“I don’t mean to pry, Clarence,” Cy said carefully. “But what you said concerns me.”

He frowned. “How so?”

“I’m worried you may be thinking of hurting yourself.”

“Oh, no, nothing like that!” He shook his head for emphasis. “Just feeling sorry for myself is all.”

“You don’t have to minimize what you’re feeling for me, Clarence. I want to help, if I can.”

Chamuel offered a wan smile and shook his head. “I’ve taken up enough of your time.”

He started to rise, but Cy put a hand on his arm. “Please. Stay. At least until I know you’re really okay.”

“I’m not going to hurt myself.” 

Cy raised a single eyebrow. He didn’t need to say that he didn’t believe the statement. It was pretty clear from his expression. Chamuel sat back down. He was inwardly a little grateful Cy had protested. He really did want to … what was it the human’s said? … Get this off his chest. That’s it. 

“Okay. You really want to know?”

Cy nodded. “I really do. If you feel talking will help you.”

“But it’s bad.”

“That’s alright, Clarence. Listening, no matter what it’s about, is probably my most valuable skill.”

Chamuel nodded. “Okay … There was this kid.” He stopped. Saying this out loud was more difficult than he’d anticipated. Cy didn’t say anything, just continued to look interested and concerned. “Sweet kid.” He cleared his throat. “About ten. And better than … better than he had any right to be, considering.”

Cy thought he knew where this was going, especially given the sadness Clarence could no longer keep out of his voice. “Abusive home?”

“And then some. Bullied at school, too. But … you’re right. Home was the problem. Dad was a real peach …” He trailed off again.

This time Cy thought he needed a little help to get going again. “Tell me more about that.”

“He was always using the kid as a punching bag when he was upset anyway, and couldn’t seem to buy clothes or food before he bought cigarettes or booze. No matter how badly the kid needed them.” He grew quiet again, staring off over the park.

“What happened, son?”

“Um … Dad got real drunk. Pissed off about the size of his Christmas bonus, I guess. Beat the boy so bad … He’s in a coma.” He felt close to weeping. He was ready to get up and leave. But now that he’d started telling it, he also wanted to finish. “He was mad he wasn’t going to be able to … whatever … so he took it out on his son. I saw it coming. But I couldn’t do anything to stop it.” His voice cracked. He couldn’t tell if he really was going to cry, or if he was just that upset and frustrated.

“And how do you feel about that?”

“I don’t know.”

“I think you do. And I think it will help you immensely to say it.”

This time, Chamuel got up and stalked away a few steps. He turned back to Cy and threw up his hands. “Fine! Pissed off! And maybe a little vengeful!” He flopped back down on the bench with a heavy sigh. “But also … like it should bother me more.”

“You seem pretty bothered, Clarence.”

He shook his head. “Not enough to act. I … I feel so jaded. The Hell of it is, this isn’t the first time … or even the worst I’ve seen. Just another in a long line of senseless violence, of atrocities, I’ve been forced to witness. And witness is all I’ve done. It’s so…” He sighed, leaning forward to put his head into his hands, resting his elbows on his knees. “I feel impotent.” 

Cy patted Clarence’s back. “I’m sure you’ve done more good than you realize.”

He didn’t look up, just shook his head, still resting it in his hands. “Not enough.” He sighed heavily. It was almost a sob, but he bit it back. “There is so much evil in the world. And I could stop it. If my hands weren’t tied by …” He almost stopped himself. The human phrase felt so mundane. But in a way, that’s what made it perfect. “If they weren’t tied by bureaucratic bullshit.”

“So, you tried to have the child removed from his home?”

“No.” Chamuel shook his head. “Even that would have broken the rules. And it’s … It’s so much worse.” He shouldn’t be doing this, shouldn’t be saying these things. But Chamuel felt if he didn’t, they would tear him apart. “I could have stopped the beating. I was there. I saw every punch, every kick, heard every terrible thing the man said to that little boy. But I wasn’t allowed to intervene. Couldn’t so much as lift a finger to dial the phone. That would be against His rules. All part of the Divine plan. No matter how my superiors dress it up, it’s bureaucratic bullshit, just like I said.”

Cy’s eyes had grown wide, his expression confused, but also deeply worried. “You’re saying you were there, Clarence?”

“I was. For that beating, and every other before it. And now I don’t know what’s going to happen to Daniel. But there didn’t seem to be much point sitting by  his bed holding his hand. At least the other times he could sense that there was someone who loved him nearby. But now…”

“I … I’m…” Cy cleared his throat. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

Chamuel shook his head. “You understand just fine. You think I’m crazy is all.” The angel gnawed on his lip. Fuck it. In for a penny, in for a pound. “Cy, I’m not crazy. Well, maybe a little after the last few days. But not in the way you think. I’m an Angel of the Lord, what you’d call a Guardian. But that’s a misnomer. I don’t guard I watch. But we can’t call it that anymore. The Guardians were disbanded after the nonsense they got up to with Noah’s kids.”

“Clarance … You … You think you’re an angel? Am I hearing you right?”

Chamuel smiled a little and shook his head. Can’t leave this nice old man hanging, right? He rose and assumed his angelic form, in all its glory.

For a moment, Cy’s face froze. Then a look of wonder spread over it. He stammered unintelligibly for a minute or two. Chamuel resumed his human form and sat next to Cy, patting him lightly on the shoulder. “By all that’s holy. I just … I never … I mean … I thought…”

Chamuel shrugged. “Yeah, I probably shouldn’t have done that. But, I feel like after all your listening, you learned the truth.”

Cy shook his head, and Chamuel got the impression that the old fellow didn’t know he was doing so. “I’ve always believed in God, I suppose. But angels … Angels always seemed…”

“Imaginary.” 

Cy couldn’t deny the evidence of his own eyes. The existence of God and angels was overwhelming, but he reminded himself he’d always been a man of faith. This should be good news. “I suppose so. The idea of someone watching over me all the time is a bit fairytail for someone like me, I guess.”

“If it makes you feel any better, we don’t spend all our time watching. We’re sent when we’re needed … But even then we’re not usually permitted to interact, or act at all. Divine plan bullshit. Like I said,” Chamuel said bitterly. Then he sighed. “I guess that’s not fair to Him. We can act sometimes.”

This time Cy was the one who patted his companion. “Can you give me an example? Please?”

Another sigh. “Have you ever needed to get out of the house and you reach for your keys and they’re just not where you left them at all?”

“More often than I’d like to think of, to be honest. This morning I was starting to worry that perhaps some things were going soft upstairs, if you know what I mean.”

That seemed to give his companion pause for a moment. Then he managed a half smile. “But when you went back to the same place five minutes later, were they there?”

“They often are. Although this morning I finally gave up and left the place unlocked. Not much there worth stealing, I suppose. Then I had the Devil’s own time with the elevator.”

Chamuel paused again, thoughtful. Finally, he went on. “More often than not, that’s one of us. Like maybe you needed to leave five minutes later to avoid something bad that was set up by a chain of events that weren’t meant to interact with your thread in the grand tapestry at all. Or perhaps you needed to meet someone to put you where God meant for you to be, or avoid someone that would keep you from it. We do that sort of thing all the time.”

“Seems a bit mundane,” Cy said, sounding a bit disappointed. “And also a little mean,” he added with a wry smile. “I really thought I’d lost my marbles earlier.”

“It’s one of the ways we can accomplish our mission to guide and protect, but without doing what I just did and breaking the Rules of Revelation. We can keep our charges safe or at least on the path. In small ways.” He sighed again, no longer distracted with his explanation. “Sometimes.”

Cy thought he understood. At least a little. “In the case of that child, Daniel … Nothing you were allowed to do …”

Chamuel nodded. “In his case, yeah, I couldn’t lift a finger. Still can’t. Even if I went and healed him … What good would it do? His father will just … It wouldn’t matter.” He couldn’t make himself say ‘his father will just beat him again,’ because he really couldn’t face the idea of it again. Mostly because he knew the boy would likely wake up in a day or two, and the odds were that even if he was removed from the home, it would be temporary. He shook his head. “It’s not even close to the worst I’ve seen.”

Cy’s hand rested on his shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “I’m so sorry, Clarence. I can’t even imagine how hard that must be. Having the power to change something, but being utterly powerless to intervene.”

Chamuel glanced at him. “I think you can. As a psychiatrist, I’m sure you heard things that made it hard to let people leave your office.”

“Well, that’s certainly true. But at least I could offer them options, or I could contact the authorities if they were being hurt or hurting themselves.”

Chamuel nodded. “It wears on me … And I swear to you, if I hear one more of my brethren say, ‘Trust His plan’ I’m going to … Well, I don’t know. But it won’t be good.”

Cy wanted to help, but this was a bit outside his professional experience, to say the least. “Is there any way … That is … Can’t you know what the Divine plan is? Maybe knowing the reasons would help you cope.”

“No.” His voice was bleak and tinged with anger. “We are not all knowing. Any more than you are. We are creations, just like you. And like humans, we are meant to trust in God.”

“You are doubting this trust.”

“That’s one way to put it.” He dug in the dingy snow with his shoe, not looking up.

“Trusting in something you can’t see certainly isn’t easy,” Cy said with genuine empathy. “But surely it hasn’t been all bad?”

“No … You’re right. I’ve had my moments. But … This kid … I was there for all of it. I watched him take all the bad shit life could throw at him. He always kept his head up. Always had some little act of kindness for others. Now he’ll get to spend Christmas on a ventilator and I …”

“Will he wake up?” Cy asked suddenly.

Chamuel nodded. “That’s why I’m still here. So I can go back and watch more.” His fists clenched and unclenched on the park bench. He’d never been closer to no longer caring about the consequences of disobedience. Even last night. “I could have stopped it,” he whispered. “I was so close.” He hung his head. “But I’m a coward.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t want to Fall.”

“What is … I don’t follow.”

“An angel that goes against His will will fall from Grace. The Fallen live in Hell, separated from God’s love. And that separation causes them to do all manner of evil things. I … I don’t want to live in Hell.” A tear fell this time and no amount of lip biting or stubbornness could keep more from joining it.

“You feel guilty for putting your own interests ahead of the child.”

“Yes,” he said in a barely audible whisper. Then he sat up straight, no longer caring if the whole damned world saw his tears, his anger, his despair. “Yes! And it’s eating me up.” He realized something. “I don’t know if I can do this work any more. Whether it’s what he wants of me or not.”

Cy was thoughtful. “Would you tell me the child’s full name?”

Chamuel wiped at his face with his sleeve. “Why?”

“I know it’s only the one child. But I have a friend who’s a judge, you see … Children aren’t always sent back if there are good reasons to keep them away, Clarence.”

Chamuel swallowed hard. He didn’t know if this constituted disobeying an order. How was this any different than moving a set of keys? “I don’t …”

“I don’t suppose you can quit your job?” Cy asked, sensing Chamuel’s hesitation.

“No. I could be reassigned. I’ve petitioned a number of times. But those sorts of transfers have to be approved by Him. And He hasn’t been hearing those sorts of cases in some time.” He thought for a minute. “And … it’s not just Daniel…” He took a breath. Then he squared his shoulders anyway and told his companion the boy’s name and what hospital he was in. A heavy weight that had settled on his heart seemed to lift then. Since no one appeared in front of him to cast him down and the only change he felt was a good one, he guessed perhaps it would be okay. 

Cy got out a small pad of paper from his pocket and made a note. “I’ll call as soon as I get home, holiday or no. Does knowing that help at all?”

Slowly, the angel nodded. “I can watch him be okay … I think I can keep on. For a bit anyway. Daniel is such a good kid.”

“Speaking of Daniel … I don’t suppose Clarence is your real name?”

Finally, the angel smiled. “No … But my angelic name is kind of a mouthful. They all are … And, it’s Christmas. I was sort of trying to be funny.”

Cy smiled back as the context for the name dawned on him. “Classic defense mechanism.”

“I’d tell you not to analyze me, but that’s really what you’ve been doing since I sat down. And since I can face another day now, I can hardly be upset with you. I needed a win. And you’ve given me one.”

“I’m glad to have been able to help.” He looked out across the mostly empty park. “I want you to know you’ve been a help to me, too.”

“How so? All I’ve done is sit here and complain.”

“Well … It’s been hard for me since Margaret died. Most of my friends have passed, too. We never had children. And the holidays … I’d begun to doubt my faith.”

“I’m so sorry for your loss, Cy.”

“I don’t see it as a loss so much. Not now that I’ve met you. More like a break. If I’ll see them all again one day …”

Chamuel hesitated, then figured he didn’t really have much to lose. If he hadn’t gotten fired over Daniel, no one could possibly be paying attention. “You will.”

“Well then, you’ve restored not just an old man’s faith. But his hope as well.”

Chamuel smiled, this one truly touching his eyes. “I’m glad. You’ve eased my burdens greatly. I wish I could do more.”

“I … I don’t suppose you’d …” He trailed off.

“What is it?”

“I usually spend Christmas with my brother. Or I had since Margaret … He passed over Thanksgiving and …”

Chamuel interrupted. “I’d be honored to spend Christmas with you.”

Cy cleared the lump in his throat. “I’d like that very much.” 

Chamuel clapped him on the shoulder. “Let’s get you home. The temperature is dropping like a stone.”

They rose and started down the path to the bus station. Chamuel stopped when he saw one of his brothers across the frozen park. He felt like the Earth might fall out from under him. But Anael just offered a small smile, nodded, and waved a small set of keys at him. Then the other angel disappeared.

Chamuel put a hand on Cy’s arm and started off again. They sat on another bench to wait for the bus. Concerned that Clarence might be getting into his own head again, Cyrus spoke, “Well, you’ve certainly cheered this old man today.” He smiled. “Does that mean you get your wings?”

Chamuel laughed and shook his head, then he grew thoughtful. “We angels are created with all our attributes. I once thought that meant we were as unchanging as the Almighty. But, just like you … humans, I mean … We can grow, better or worse, with every soul we meet, every decision we make.”

“And so…?”

“I believe I have grown better, Cy. Today at least.”

“May it always be so.” 

*****

Please

Author’s Note – Here’s another little scene that doesn’t physically appear in The Arbitratus Trilogy, but it could. It fits into Always Darkest, or Before the Dawn. Mal spends a lot of time worrying about Ben, about their future. This is just a moment of real vulnerability that she tries to keep to herself. 

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Mal came back to bed quietly. She didn’t want to wake him, but she didn’t think she could go back to sleep. At least they both preferred sleeping with the light on lately. So, that wouldn’t disturb him.

She chewed her lip for a few minutes, staring off into space. Nope, definitely not sleepy anymore. And no wonder, after the dream she’d had. 

She wouldn’t let herself focus on or recall any of the details too vividly. 

All she knew was that they’d been in danger and Ben put himself in the way of devils and angels in a place of almost total darkness and that some great Being who she thought must have been God showed up and instead of helping, instead of saving Ben, He’d turned away indifferently. 

Ben had looked at her with eyes like hot coals. He was burning from the inside. 

He couldn’t even cry out. 

He wasn’t being consumed by fire, he was becoming it. 

She fell to her knees and he just started disappearing, flaking away like paper in a hot stove. 

She screamed.

She’d woken up so sweaty and shaky, she’d needed to change her clothes and go get a cup of tea. The idea of losing him to Hell, or any other power, plagued her more and more these days. Now, she felt tremors still coursing up and down her arms. 

Maybe a distraction would help. 

Now was as good a time as any to use her journal, she supposed. She reached for it, balanced on the edge of her nightstand.Pen in hand, she stared at a blank page for a long time. 

A tear struck the empty space and made a bright purple blotch on the pale lavender paper. 

She blinked and it was joined by more. She set it aside and hugged her knees, burying her face and trying to keep her sobs quiet. 

“Please,” she whispered. 

She hadn’t prayed in a long time. And it didn’t get any more articulate than that. But she thought. Hoped. Believed. That if anyone was listening, He’d know what her desperate plea meant.

“Just please.”

*****

Image by Ulrike Mai from Pixabay

It’s a Celebration!

“It was strange being surrounded by the glory of Heaven, knowing you had nothing, but trying to hang onto it anyway.” ~ From Always Darkest

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It’s a special day for Demons Run Lit.

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If you want to celebrate with us here, we thought an excerpt from the sequel would be a fun way to do that.

From Before the Dawn (Coming Soon) …

Teddy made his shuffling slippered way down the hall, rubbing his eyes. It wasn’t so much sleep stickiness now; they were beginning to burn. Awful smells started to overpower his mom’s good cooking. One smelled mechanical like when Mal’s catalytic converter went on the fritz a while ago, one smelled kind of like the stink of the grill on the patio the morning after a cookout, and the other was a sickly metallic smell that made Teddy feel as though he’d eaten ten pennies.

He was stopped cold by the tableau he witnessed as he entered the dining room, and fell to his knees retching and weeping, remembering all at once that this couldn’t be real, remembering what had happened, and realizing that it didn’t matter if it wasn’t real, he was really here.

Spread out over the dining room table was his father’s dismembered and smoking corpse. It was arranged carefully on various platters, as though this was some kind of nightmare holiday. In serving bowls tucked neatly in between the plates were dishes with big spoons and ladles containing what could only be blood, brains, and ugh, Teddy didn’t even know, but probably other inside parts. Teddy saw that Kelly’s highchair was empty but there was a split down the middle of its back and a long, curved blade rested in the wood of it, blood pooled in the seat, turning black and sticky as he looked on.

In front of the empty chair was a large platter covered with a silver dome, a gleaming carving knife resting on its edge. Teddy prayed under his breath that no one would open it. Then he thought about what would be there if they did and he immediately threw up all over his mom’s favorite cream-colored carpet. This was all terrible enough, he didn’t want any of that all over him. He struggled to his feet, using the door frame for leverage to compensate for his shaking legs and he leaned against it heavily, pretty sure he was going to pass out any second.

He glanced to the side and out on the terrace, the smoking wreckage of the waterfront as its backdrop, Teddy saw his friends, dangling by their ankles from the balcony of the apartment above like some sort of perverse wind chime. It looked like they were dead, but in the silence of the dining room he could hear whimpering and weeping. One of the voices he could hear was distinctly Mal’s. His knees nearly buckled again.

As he started sliding back down the door frame into the stinking mess he’d made, he saw an even greater horror at the head of the table. His legs froze, and he straightened almost against his will. At the head of the table sat the monster from Petra’s, the monster from his dreams.

The Handsome Man, for that was how Teddy thought of him in the long hours he spent thinking of him every day, was sitting in Teddy’s father’s chair comfortably, his beautiful monstrous face split into a wicked grin, a newspaper he was clearly not reading held up in front of him as a prop for the scene he had created.

Behind the Handsome Man stood Teddy’s mom, his no-nonsense heart surgeon mom, dressed like someone out of a 1950’s TV show and looking down at The Handsome Man with blank affection while calmly rubbing his shoulders. Teddy tried not to let it happen, but he bent over at the waist, throwing up again, more violently this time. His stomach muscles were starting to feel a little sprung already. Maybe they’d just let him stand here and throw up until he was so dehydrated that he’d die. That sounded pretty good.

The Handsome Man folded the paper and put it down on the table next to Teddy’s father’s head and looked at him reproachfully. “Come now, Theodore, is that anyway to greet your new daddy?” …

The Eleventh Day of Fic-mas …

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For Auld Lang Syne

“Looks like I win by default.” The tall figure dressed in a simple, yet elegant, black tunic with subtle dark red piping, smiled. The sunrise flooding the glade with color seemed to reflect and dance in his eyes. To say he was handsome, or even pretty would be a gross understatement. He was quite possibly the loveliest being in all God’s creation. And he knew it.

“That’s not how this works. In fact, as I’ve said far too many times to count, Morning Star, I don’t need you or your brother here in order to do my job. I’d quite prefer to be left alone with my task.”

“Come now, Ashor,” he said, sounding entirely reasonable. “It’s only proper for you to allow us to witness the weighing, and to make our respective cases should any question arise.”

“Proper? That implies there’s something improper in my ignoring you, which no law or even custom would give you. Polite, perhaps. I’ll give you polite. Necessary? Not even a little. You both know it, too. I honestly think you do it just to annoy me.”

“We don’t try to annoy anyone. There are things that Michael and I are destined to …”

“Oh, look,” Ashor interrupted. “Speak of the …” He grinned and raised his eyebrows with amusement. “Devil’s brother.”

“Charming,” Lucifer observed with a raise of a single eyebrow. Amusement was not behind the expression.

Ashor smoothly ignored him. “Michael,” he called out. “Lovely to see you, as ever. I trust your Father is well,” Ashor said with a distinct twinkle.

Michael exchanged a look with his brother. “Um … well … Yes, of course, He’s well. Why would He be otherwise?” His feathers ruffled, indicating that offense was taken whether it was intended or not.

Ashor ignored the gesture. “Good, good. I was somewhat concerned. Heaven … and of course by that I mean God,” he said with a nod and a wink. “Seems to have taken an unusually keen interest in my work just lately.”

Michael cleared his throat. “We … that is … He felt it best, seeing as how Lucifer never misses one.”

“Suit yourself,” Ashor shrugged.

He turned his back on them and began the steep ascent up a mountain path. He didn’t have to, could have very easily just blinked into existence at the top, but he always enjoyed the walk. The snow crunched under foot, breaking the silence of the crisp early morning. Or rather it would have been breaking the silence if the two angels following him weren’t already bickering like children.

“Gentlemen, if you would be so kind.”

“What?” Lucifer inquired.

“Shhhh,” Ashor said, putting a finger to his lips.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Michael said quickly. “Is it time? Do you need silence for this?”

“No. You’re just very annoying.” Lucifer snickered. “Both of you.”

Ashor turned away as silence fell.

Smiling to himself, he continued on his way up the increasingly steep path, full of switchbacks and small rockslides, piles of snow and spots of bare ground where the tree branches overhead were too thick to allow much to collect beneath them.

The early pre-dawn light was faintly pink on the sparkling sparkling white that dominated most of the view. Ashor enjoyed observing how the plant life changed as he climbed higher and higher.

They were nearing the top where where most of what was left were ferns and evergreens. He paused for a moment in a field of cairns. Anyone who didn’t know the place would have thought he was among many graves, but quite the opposite.

This was a place the living came, either by the trail he had or as they passed through on a longer trek, to build the small rock monuments to mark an important event, celebrate a new beginning, even just say they’d been through, and yes, sometimes to mark a loss. But it was, above all, a place of life. And it was a crossroads, too. The sign right before it declared it as such.

Behind him, the brothers whispered, and he gave no indication that he heard every word as he stacked up a small pile of stones himself. Michael asked, “Is this the place?”

Lucifer replied, “No, it’s further up. He just does this. Every damned year.”

Ashor seated the final small stone, shaped like a little pyramid by the elements alone, on top of his pile, rose, and continued on his way. The path became less distinct, more difficult to follow, but he was enjoying the chill in the air, the way the crystals in the now and ice were starting to spark in the growing light, he was even getting to enjoy relative peace and quiet as the brothers hissed back and forth at each other out of even supernatural earshot. But Ashor was more than supernatural, or so he supposed he seemed to them. It was nice anyway. Michael was actually a welcome addition to this morning’s excursion. He kept Lucifer distracted, which saved Ashor from having to talk to him.

He was glad to be spared the effort. He loved this part of the day. There were huge glacial rocks up here, little scrubby mosses, even some lichens. And the trees suddenly gave way to a stunning view. Ashor stepped toward a rocky ledge. In front of him, the stars in the western sky were slowly fading, and the valley spilled on for miles to the north and south. If he’d turned around, he would have seen the sky to the east growing rosy with new dawn.

From behind him, off to the side, he heard Michael whisper, “I thought we’d be in the cave, where the veil is thin.”

“I thought so too when I first started coming, but no, every year, it’s up here at the dawn of the day. Such a strange out of the way place for it. I’d choose Stonehenge or the Great Pyramid or something grand. But that’s Ashor. Odd as you please, since time out of mind.”

Ashor cleared his throat dramatically. “Gentlemen, now I will have quiet, if you please.”

They became stone still and silent immediately.

Ashor stood, his eyes closed, as the morning sun cast the first rays of the new year in his chosen place over the valley below. Ashor opened himself, the entirety of his being, to the world, letting the collected thoughts and deeds of humanity wash over him. He took it in like water, like breath. After not more than a minute or two at most, he smiled, nodded, opened his eyes and turned to walk back down the mountain. “Lovely. Balance holds.”

“Wait, that’s it?” Michael asked his brother incredulously.

“I know. Kind of disappointing if you ask me,” Lucifer agreed.

They gave each other a very serious look and started after Ashor, catching up in a moment. “So, Ashor …” they began in unison.

“Don’t start again. The Balance is upheld, so there’s nothing for you to say. No case for you to make.”

“But, surely …”

“I know you both believe the child of prophecy has been born. And I know you’re both already scrambling after any scrap of information like it’s the Keys to The Kingdom.”

“We … I …” Michael began to protest.

“Has she?” Lucifer asked pointedly. “Been born, I mean, Keeper.”

Ashor raised a single eyebrow. “If I knew, I wouldn’t tell you.” Both their faces fell. “What I will tell you is … And this one’s on me, no charge at all … You’ll have your answer soon enough, boys. Happy New Year.”

He snapped his fingers and a sound like thunder knocked both angels onto their backs in the snow, but didn’t so much as rustle a tree branch or disturb the cardinal parked on the nearest one over their heads. Both brothers concluded, rightly, that it had been undignified magic just for them. They helped each other to their feet.

“What’s with him?” Michael asked.

“Who knows? The guy’s got issues.”

“I suppose. But, if he knows we’re aware of the prophecy, knows we’re looking, he probably sees that as us trying to stack the deck for our own sides.”

“We are,” Lucifer said. “That’s exactly what we’re doing.” He frowned, thinking.

“Are we still in agreement?”

“Come again?” Lucifer mumbled absently, clearly lost in his own head.

“Our agreement regarding the Scion and the implications of the situation.”

“Oh, that. Of course, brother. I will follow our agreement absolutely to the letter,” Lucifer replied with a sly grin as he popped back to Hell.

Michael stood there for a moment. “I’m going to have to take another look,” he murmured to himself. “I hate it when he smiles like that.” It could mean anything from he’d thought of something funny to he was about to start a war, he thought sourly as he walked back toward the ledge, thinking to enjoy the view of the sunrise over the pretty little valley.

He frowned at the dirty haze of woodsmoke hovering low over everything. The grating sounds of traffic had begun to rise to grate on his ears as well. He shook his head. “Happy New Year, mortals,” he spat. “Another year stretches before you to destroy this gift you’ve been given. Most favored, indeed,” he huffed dismissively.

Michael turned and walked back down the mountain, though he didn’t have to any more than Ashor or Lucifer did. Though he’d never admit it, long walks on Earth were a balm to his troubled spirit. It was such a beautiful place, so full of promise. It was a gift none who made their home here seemed to appreciate. Well, perhaps some did, but … free will and whatever. Michael’s musings were interrupted.

Raphael was trying to contact him. He was needed in Heaven immediately.

Enoch was at it again.

The Ninth Day of Fic-mas …

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No Room at the Inn

Authors’ Note – Those of you familiar with Always Darkest have already met one of the important characters in the following story. He also appears in our short novella Fare Thee Well. And we have a feeling you haven’t seen the last of him. 

 

CLANG. CLANG. CLANG. The bell echoed through the courtyard.

“Was a time people respected a closed gate,” grumbled the innkeeper, as he made himself presentable.

The bell clanged several more times, sounding like whoever was ringing it was starting to get testy. “Well, at least they know how I feel,” he grumbled under his breath.

“Alright! I’m coming!” he called, letting his voice be its most cantankerous.

The Census had been good for his purse, but not his patience, which was, on its best day, usually worn thin by hard work and lack of sleep.

He stomped across the courtyard, beginning with the intention of letting them have a piece of his mind for ignoring the late hour, but memories of lean times tempered his irritation somewhat. He still had several rooms left empty when he’d closed up shop for the night. The prospect of more coin brightened his mood considerably by the time he got to the gate.

Opening the small eye-level door in the gate, the innkeeper peered through. Standing outside, looking right back at him from the back of a well-bred and stunningly outfitted horse was an imposing man. It wasn’t his size that made him imposing, even on horseback. His eyes twinkled with what first looked like amusement, but after a second’s contemplation looked almost … dangerous.

This man was a Roman … No, not necessarily, the innkeeper thought. He didn’t look like the other Romans he’d met. His eyes were a striking blue and his hair was a sandy yellow. But he was certainly dressed like a Roman. A successful one, too. The innkeeper was immediately adding a hefty “tax” to the rate. Served the goyim right, marching into their lands and acting like they owned the place. And their money was as good as any of his own people, the innkeeper reasoned.

He opened the gate to negotiate. “Good evening,” he greeted. “I am David, the keeper of this humble inn. How may I assist you this late evening?” Might as well let the Roman know he’d come later than he normally did business. Then the price tag wouldn’t come as such a shock.

The man flashed a charming smile as he dismounted his impressive steed. “Good evening, sir. I represent Titus Flavius and his party. They are on their way here and I’ve ridden ahead to procure rooms for them.”

“Titus Flavius? Was it not your party who bought up all of Chaim’s rooms this morning?”

“Coulda been.  Titus Flavius doesn’t travel light. I’ve been riding all over town buying up rooms all day. So, do you have any rooms or what, there, David?”

“How many rooms does your party require?”

“How many have you got?”

“I … well, I have three rooms available.”

“I’ll take ‘em,” the man replied without even pausing to think. “Any extra rooms you maybe haven’t mentioned, that you’re maybe saving for somebody important? Because I assure you, Titus Flavius is the most important person who’s going to be asking.”

“There’s room in my laborers’ housing for any servants if that’s …”

“I’ll take those, too.”

“How much space would you like to reserve?”

“Well, son, all of it that you’ve got. The Census has made rooms scarce ‘round here. You may have noticed.”

David forced a smile. “Yes, sir. Of course, sir. Will the party be requiring refreshment?”

It wasn’t a usual offer, but he’d heard the name Titus Flavius, and understood him to be a generous man to those who pleased him. Roman or not, David planned on doing just that and reaping the reward.

“If you would be so kind,” the Roman said with a wolfish grin. “This group tends to eat a great deal.” he paused. “If you ensure there’s plenty for them, I am sure you will be well compensated, good sir.”

David was struggling not to rub his hands together with anticipation at fattening his purse. Their inn often struggled to keep his family fed, given its location, and the idea of collecting enough to keep them afloat for longer than a week or two was extremely attractive.

“Shall we discuss our rate?” he asked, as though it was a matter of little consequence, not realizing his newly blooming avarice was shining in his eyes. “So as to avoid confusion later when I am busy meeting the needs of your party.”

Another grin from the fair-haired Roman. “I’m sure you’ll come up with a fair price.”

“Wonderful.” He listed an exorbitant rate for the rooms, and an astronomical one for the food. The Roman didn’t even blink, just nodded agreeably. “We can settle up on the morrow if that’s convenient to you, sir.”

“Oh, I’ll pay now. I don’t want someone coming along and making you a better offer and finding my Lord Titus without a place to lay his head.” He paused. “I’d like to reserve room in your main stable for six horses as well, if you’d be so kind.”

David calculated the total in his head and gave it to the Roman. Reaching into a heavy looking satchel, the Roman handed him two denarii and three sesterces, as if they were nothing. David was suddenly even more inclined to keep the party happy. “Um … what time can I expect the party? I’d hate to leave your lord waiting at the gate.”

“Oh, by midnight or so I’d say. He’s in a hurry and we’ve been pressing past the point of reason. Our mounts could use a day of rest.” He patted his own horse and remounted it.

“Perhaps he’ll stop over for a few days,” David said greedily. “Our accommodations are most comfortable, sir.”

“Perhaps so,” the Roman agreed. “I’ll return before long. I thank you,” he said as he started to trot away like he was in a bit of a hurry.”

“No, sir, thank you!” he called at the rider’s back. “If you could stay a moment to talk specifics about your party, I could make the most comfortable arrangements possible!” The Roman just waved. “I didn’t even get your name!” David tried in a last-ditch effort to glean any information that might ingratiate him to the wealthy group.

The man glanced over his shoulder with a strange knowing smile. “I’m not able, sorry.” He urged the horse along with his knees, making the familiar clicking sound of a slightly impatient rider, and rode off, leaving a confused innkeeper in his wake.

∞∞∞

When the bell rang later that evening, David hurried outside, nearly tripping over his own feet to get there as quickly as possible.

He’d already woken his wife, his children, and his mother to prepare the rooms for their important guests. Their kitchen smelled of baking bread and roasting meat. The other guests had begun to stir, and all were happy to pay for an unexpected meal, so David had his family working to feed them all. The coin had already more than made up for the loss of the fat goat that had stopped giving milk some time ago.

He swung the gate wide in a grand welcoming gesture, expecting a party of smart but tired Romans. What he was faced with instead was a dusty exhausted looking man holding the rope of a donkey, upon which was a woman, large with child, clutching her belly and grimacing with discomfort.

The man was wringing his hands in worry. “I’m sorry to trouble you this late, good sir. But … my wife … her time has come ‘round, you see, and … we desperately need shelter for the night.” When the innkeeper frowned elaborately at the road-dirtied, weary pair, the man took out a money pouch. “I can pay … Whatever you ask.”

David sniffed disdainfully. He was quite busy enough without some nobody who’d planned their trip poorly wasting it. That money pouch looked heavy enough, but it was tiny compared with that of the nameless Roman who’d visited him a few hours ago. “No room,” he said curtly. “Try the next town over.” He moved to swing the gate closed.

The woman stifled a small whimper of discomfort and her husband put himself in the way of the gate. “There are no other rooms. Not anywhere. Some Roman has bought up every vacant room between here and Jerusalem, I think.”

“Sorry to hear that,” the innkeeper said, not meaning it, and not sounding like he did.

“Please,” the man pleaded. “We’ll take anything. Servants quarters would be fine. I’ll pay the full room rate. She just needs somewhere to … to …” She whimpered again, and the man’s eyes bored into David’s. “Please,” he said, and it was no longer a plea. It had an edge that told the innkeeper he was desperate enough to not be rational. The man had the deeply muscled arms of a laborer, but the sharp intelligent eyes of a scholar. A dangerous combination if pushed past his limits.

“There’s no room in the servant’s quarters either. You can stay in the small barn out back. The straw is clean and there’s plenty of it.”

“Fine,” the man agreed, casting a concerned glance at his wife whose eyes were closed and whose breath was coming in little panting gasps. “How much?”

“Two shekels.”

The woman’s eyes snapped open. “Two shekels to stay in a barn? Are you mad? Joseph, we can’t …”

“Mary, love, it’s alright. We need to get you inside somewhere.”

As if to prove him right, her whole body seemed to tighten in pain, she wrapped both arms around her middle, her eyes squeezed shut again, and she nodded emphatically. The man handed the innkeeper the coins hurriedly and moved himself out of the way of the gate to the main inn. “Thank you,” he said, grateful just to get his wife off the street.

Having already lost interest in the pair already, David moved to close the gate. “I think there’s a horse blanket out there for bedding.” He closed the gate and headed inside to prepare for his important guest.

Joseph started leading the donkey up a well-worn track on the property toward the smallest, furthest barn. Mary puffed out a long breath as her discomfort passed for the moment. “I suppose a barn is the best we can do.”

Joseph kept his current thoughts on that subject to himself. When they got to the barn, Joseph arranged some straw into what might make for a soft place for his wife to rest, and spread his traveling cloak over it. There was a horse blanket, but it looked like it could get up and walk away on his own. He helped Mary lower herself onto the makeshift bed. She smiled up at him, as if some secret knowledge had once again found its way into her heart.

“We must trust that He has a plan,” she said with subdued confidence, then gasped with a sharp pain.

“We’ve trusted so much already, my love, I feel that’s a muscle I’ve nearly worn out.”

Even through the pain, she smiled more brightly. “It’s almost time. You’ll see.”

Kneeling down next to her, as a deep serenity came over her expression, he supposed he would.

∞∞∞

Outside, an angel settled in to watch, silent and invisible. She found herself almost questioning the command not to smite every one of the horrible greedy men who turned away two of their own people in desperate need for something as base and common as simple money. She was intent on making sure no other indignities befell her charges.

From the main building, a figure bustled across the courtyard, arms piled high with a cumbersome bundle. It was a woman, framed in the glow of the now well-lit inn, mumbling and cursing under her breath. Armisael turned her attention to this woman as it became clear she was heading to the little barn.

The angel let her pass. The bundle held clean blankets and linens, food, a wineskin and a bladder of water warmed on their hearth, cloths for the birth and to swaddle an infant, some salt to rub down the child and prevent infection. Anything the couple might need. She was livid with her husband and murmured to any power listening that he ought to be struck with some very personal boils. Armisael smiled. She thought she could arrange that. At least one of the bastards could suffer for letting her charges come to such a state at such a critical time. Although, she did understand the need to conform to prophecy for the purposes of this endeavor. No one had told her she had to like it.

“Kinda says a lot about your Boss, doesn’t it? That this is how He leaves His kid … or is it Himself … to come into this world. I’m kind of fuzzy on this whole three-way thing.”

Armisael jumped in surprise and hated herself for it. It was shameful for her, an Angel of the Lord, to be startled by a human, especially since she should be invisible. But this human had spent thousands of years working magic, causing trouble, so it wasn’t any wonder the rules didn’t apply to him. She smoothed her robes as she regained her composure, very much on her dignity.

The smirking man, dressed like a Roman but not Roman in the slightest, just laughed. “You’re a might jumpy for an angel,” he observed.

Armisael cursed herself when she observed the simple magic that had let him approach without detection. They should have known he’d pull something like this and prepared for it. “Cain,” she greeted tersely. “To what do I owe this annoyance?”

“Oh, I ain’t here for you, sweetheart.” He grinned at how her jaw clenched. “I’m just here for the show. To witness the casus belli.”

“Pardon me? This is no such thing.” Her eyes flashed with indignance and a spark of anger.

“Sure it is, sweetheart. This is why y’all had your little family squabble, ain’t it?”

“It’s not that simple, Human.”

Cain’s eyebrows went up, not in agreement, but in something that might have been amusement, or an understanding he wasn’t willing to share. “With Him, it never is. But all I was sayin’ was you’d think He’d provide for His Son or Self … or whatever the Hell. Like I said, the whole three-way thing has me confused … Since it’s just Him and all.”

“Trinity,” she bit out.

“Yeah, I know Trinity, what about her?”

“No, you arrogant ass. The Trinity. The three-parted nature of the Lord Most High. It’s called The Trinity. The Holy Trinity, in point of fact. One God in Three Divine Personages. You could show some respect and refer to it properly.”

“Now you’re just being pedantic. I like calling it The Holy Three-way.”

“Cain! My patience with your revolting nonsense is at its end. Just because my work is not usually of a bellicose nature does not mean I am unarmed. Leave. NOW!”

“Or what?” The smirk was teasing, baiting. She hated it.

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me. You could hear me if I just thought it. You can’t touch me. Daddy said so. When He had one of you toadies curse me. So, I say, leave or what?”

Her feathers ruffled, then smoothed. “Fine. Stay if you want.”

“Oh, I plan to.”

They were silent for a few minutes, watching the bustling activity now happening inside the little building in front of them. Finally, Armisael glanced at him. “How is it you’re so well dressed? I thought people were to run you out wherever you go.”

He shrugged. “Well, yeah, they used to. But I found a workaround.”

“Really? A workaround for an angelic curse sanctioned by God?”

“Well, now, it’s a funny thing, but one on one, small groups … I manage to get by just nicely.”

Her utterly smooth face creased. “How?” she demanded.

“Now that’s my little secret, sweetheart. And I ain’t tellin’.”

“Whatever,” she said with a dismissive roll of her eyes. She couldn’t believe this little twerp had bought up every room her charges might have found comfort, just to gratify some strange egotistical urge. Most likely just to prove he could do it. To let Heaven know, once again, that he didn’t give a damn what they thought or what their plans were. “Must be nice to live without a conscience.”

He put a theatrical hand to his heart. “You wound me, Armisael. I am right now, as we stand here, in the throes of deepest regret.”

“I somehow doubt that.”

He looked at her earnestly, eyes wide enough to make her believe he could suddenly be near tears. “No really, I am.”

He waited a beat, then his expression morphed into his familiar smirk. “Right now, I regret that I didn’t rent out that damned manger, too.” Her eyes went wide with fury, but he just waved, and turned away. “You have yourself a good night there, fancy bird.”

Cain whistled to himself as he walked away.