Doubt Truth to Be a Liar


Authors Note: Here we have another look at a solstice from Ben’s past, this one as a demon. In traditional Norse mythology Loki is the blood-brother of Odin. In most modern literature, not just the MCU (although, who doesn’t love Marvel?) Loki is Odin’s adopted son. That’s so much more fun. Odin is also pretty much ancient Norse Santa. He had to make an appearance. 

Doubt Truth to Be a Liar

Barely fed and rested from the Wild Hunt, Allfather made his way to the great stable. He smiled despite his weariness, listening to the Yule songs carried on the winter winds from his people in the mortal realm all the way to his ears here in Asgard.

He hadn’t yet laid eyes on his steed, but he could hear Sleipnir pawing at the ground impatiently. He chuckled to himself, his warm breath frosting in the frigid air on this, the longest night of the year.

“Patience, Sleipnir! We’ll ride soon enough and you’ll feast on the gifts of the children!”

The horse neighed softly in reply. Allfather laughed to himself. There were few things his eight-legged companion liked more than riding out with him on this night, the eve of the Solstice, as they did each year, and had since time out of mind. He looked forward to distributing gifts to his faithful, especially the children.

Sleipnir preferred receiving rather than giving. The offerings of straw the children left in their boots to be replaced by the bounty that would signify a prosperous year to all were probably an explanation for his friend’s impatience.

It was a night the two of them looked forward to, perhaps in some ways more than the Wild Hunt itself.

He paused to look up at the sky, his anticipation marred by something that had concerned him for some time. For weeks a star burned in the sky, bright and cool and unfamiliar. A portent of some sort, of that he was certain, but of what he had been unable to even conjecture. He supposed it didn’t matter. The Heavens could fall around him and he would still fulfill his promises to those he watched.

He pushed through the last of the knee deep snow to open the stable door. “I’m coming, old friend,” he called out, gathering what he needed. He patted Sleipnir’s neck before he harnessed him up to his flying chariot that would carry gifts to every home that kept his name and ways close.

He threw the doors wide and led Sleipnir outside. He looked up at the strange star again. Sleipnir snorted and pawed at the snow. “Nothing for it, noble one. Tonight we ride.”

Sleipnir snorted his agreement and his master moved to climb aboard his chariot.

From behind him, he heard a throat clear nervously. “Um, Odin, isn’t it?”

Odin stopped what he was doing and turned to see his questioner, a tall young man, with an unruly mop of blond hair, strongly built, and wearing only a simple tunic and dark kilt against the icy Nordic air. Odin took his measure.

No, not a man. Well, not a man anymore, he amended.

“You show either great stupidity, or great bravery, to face me like this, Demon.”

He raised Gungnir. The runes on his magical spear glowed blue, red, and a burning black, as soon as he held it aloft.

The demon dropped back a step, holding up his hands. “I don’t want any trouble.” He appeared unafraid, but was cautious. “And I’ve been told I’m stupidly brave once or twice,” he added with a slight smirk. “So, let’s call it a little of both.”

Odin advanced on the demon a few steps. “Your tongue is glib.”

“I’ve been told that, too.” His hands opened just a little more, raised just a little higher so he could be sure Odin could see he was not making an aggressive move. “Look, I’m not here to fight.”

Odin brandished Gungnir again. “Boy, you don’t have a choice!”

The blond danced back out of his way. “I’m here to help! Give me a chance to explain!”

Odin stopped advancing. This man, this demon, truly wasn’t afraid of him. He wasn’t backing off out of fear, but rather because he was intent on talking. However, Odin could not excuse a demon boldly roaming the streets of Asgard, even walking up to his own stable. He took a belligerent stance.

“I am not interested in talk. Your actions beg for a fight.”

The demon’s hands came up again. “I’m unarmed.” Gungnir dipped fractionally, and he took a step toward Odin. “I really am here to help. If you let me speak, you’ll have cause to thank me and my glib tongue. I promise.”

“What good is the promise of a demon?” Oden laughed with exaggerated derision.

“Not much usually.” The blond shrugged. “But mine is.”

“Why is your promise a good one when others are not?” Odin asked with skepticism.

“You see all, or so I’m told. You at least see the hearts of those who walk and who have walked the Earth.”

“That is so.”

“Alright, then. You know my word is good.”

Odin’s eyes narrowed. “I also know that with demons, appearances can be deceiving, might even be capable of deceiving me.”

The demon ran a hand through his hair, a disarmingly human gesture. He met Odin’s cold blue eyes with warm amber ones. He felt Odin reading his very soul. “I swear on my family, I’m here in good faith.”

There was a sincerity in his words, a huskiness that came into his voice, that Odin found intriguing. “Alright.” The god lowered his spear. “First, I will have your name.”

A smile flashed, there and gone almost before Odin could mark the humanness of that, too. “You can call me Ben.”

“Ben is sort of an odd name for one of your kind.”

The smile was back. “Well, I’m an odd sort of demon.”

Odin finally gave a grudging nod. “Speak your piece then, demon. Ben. If your words displease me, you will be rewarded with the final death.”

“Oh, they’ll displease you alright.” Ben puffed out a breath, shaking his head. This wasn’t going as well as he’d hoped. “But it’s not me you’ll be displeased with. You know, unless you’re a kill the messenger kind of god.”

Ben hesitated to go on and Odin snapped, “Enough! I grow impatient and I have much to do this night. Speak.”

“Okay … It’s um … It’s about your horse.”

Odin gestured to Sleipnir. “What about my horse?”

“Um … That’s not him.”

“Of course it’s my horse!” The horse snorted his agreement and pawed at the ground again. He almost seemed to be nodding his head. “I know Sleipnir better than I know my wife, my children!”

“Um … about that…”

“Spit it out, boy!”

“Well, he looks like your horse, but…”


Ben sighed. “Just … Look into his eyes, just like you looked into mine a few moments ago…”

Sleipnir clomped forward and pawed at the ground, nearly stomping on Ben’s boot clad foot. He tossed his mane, neighing his displeasure.

“Look,” Ben repeated. “You’ll see.”

Odin growled, “I’ll see you’re a deceitful beast straight from the Pit of the Damned. And then I’ll kill you.”

“Please,” Ben said calmly, or at least appearing calm. “Just look.”

Sleipnir puffed and stomped and tossed his head, glaring at the demon and attempting to step on his feet again. “Calm yourself, Sleipnir,” Odin coaxed.

When the horse continued to toss its head, Odin reached into his pocket and held something up near the horse’s nose. “I said, calm yourself. Come on now.”

Like he was powerless to do anything else, the horse sniffed at whatever was in Odin’s hand and took it in his mouth, chewing happily. Odin took advantage of Sleipnir’s distraction and grabbed hold of the horse’s bridle, stilling his head. The horse went completely motionless as Odin gazed into his large brown eyes.

“Bah!” Odin released the horse’s head in frustration. “I should have known. Change back at once!”

The air shimmered and Odin’s son stood where Sleipnir had been a moment before. “Father, I can explain,” he began with a charming smile.

“You’d better!”

Ben concealed a smile as Loki’s own faltered a bit. “Yeah, Loki, go ahead. Explain what happened.” Odin shot him a look and Ben bit his lips to keep from laughing. “Sorry.”

“Go on,” Odin said with tightly concealed fury. “Explain yourself.”

Loki’s hands opened and his smile fixed back into place. “Well, you see, I was only trying to … I know how important this day is to you … And…”

“Loki,” Odin warned.

“I, well, I rather misplaced your horse and…”

“Misplaced?” Odin asked, his irritation only barely held in check.

“Lost,” Ben interjected. “The word you’re looking for is lost, Loki.”

“We’ve heard quite enough from you, Ronoven,” Loki spat.

“As in, at cards,” Ben managed, before Odin cut him off with a wave.

“Do you know this demon?” Odin demanded.

Loki swallowed hard. “Uh … we’ve met.”

“Met?” Ben laughed. “You were just at my estate. For the weekly card game.”

Odin seemed to ignore him. “So you’re consorting with demons now. Weekly. I shouldn’t be surprised. Well, then…”

Ben cleared his throat. “Look, I’m glad I could help you guys start to sort this out, but I’ve got to be going.” He started to turn away.

“You stay right where you are, Demon!” Odin ordered. “Where is Sleipnir?”

Loki stammered, then regained his composure. “Well, you see, Father. That’s actually a rather funny story…”

“Oh for the love of…” Ben threw up his hands, interrupting Loki before he could implicate Ben in his family squabble any more than he already had. “Your horse is back in your stables, Odin. I led him there before I came to speak with you … He’s a biter, by the way.”

Ben’s exaggerated wince and rubbing of his forearm surprised Odin into a chuckle. “And how,” he glared significantly at Loki before looking back at Ben, “did he come to be in your possession? If you don’t mind my asking.”

“Some light cheating of me at cards. And getting caught at it. In my home.” Loki shot him a murderous look, but Ben continued. “It was a rather considerable bet. And there’s obviously a penalty involved.”

“For cheating?” Odin asked, ashamed that anyone who could be called Odin’s son would cheat, not to mention be sloppy enough to get caught at it in Hell of all places, but entirely unsurprised that Loki was guilty of it.

“Nah, people try to cheat all the time. It’s Hell.” Ben grinned. “Just, getting caught got him into a kind of double or nothing situation. Then, when he couldn’t pull it out with all eyes on him, he offered Sleipnir as payment.”

Odin shot Loki a withering glare. “A bet, was it?”

“Father, I only thought…”

Odin waved him into silence and returned his gaze to Ben. “And why are you here?”

Ben might have blushed, Odin couldn’t be sure. “I’d never take another man’s … er … god’s … You know what I mean. I’d never take someone else’s horse. I knew Sleipnir wasn’t Loki’s to lose.”

“You speak as a man who understands the bond between a horse and his master.”

“I do.” Ben swallowed. “Look, you obviously have some family issues to work out. I took the horse as payment to begin with so Loki could save face in front of the crew. I’ll lose some myself if I don’t get back before my absence is noticed.”

“Very well,” Odin said with a solemn nod, and extended his hand. Ben hesitated, but took it. “I thank you, Ben. Should you ever need to call on me or my house, I hope you will not hesitate.”

Ben nodded, it was almost a bow. “Thank you, Odin. I will if the need arises.” He tipped a wink at Loki. “Good luck.”

He walked away, puffing in the cold, to get to a place where he could open a portal and travel back to his estate, leaving the Allfather to deal with his mischievous son.



Fantasy WIP December

Authors’ Note: Readers of this blog should remember Caleb Saint-Claire from tales of Fic-mas past. If you’re new to The Arbitratus Universe, Caleb is a member of the Order of the Temple of Solomon, or Knights Templar. In this world, the Templars are kind of like supernatural secret agents. And Caleb is their James Bond. Only, cooler. You can read more about Caleb in The Twelve Days of Fic-mas Volume I and Volume II. This story finds him a little older and wiser than past Ficmas’s. He’ll need all of this experience when he meets his cousin Mal.


Caleb put the car in park and pulled at what currently felt like a noose around his neck. He despised the Roman collar, and was grateful, for perhaps the hundredth time since he got dressed for this assignment, it was not part of the Order’s normal attire. But, like it (he didn’t) or hate it (he did), he had to look the part.

“You ready, Jim?” he asked the man fidgeting in the passenger seat.

The younger man ran his hands over his pant legs, trying in vain, once again, to dry his palms. “Ready as I’m gonna be,” he answered, nervousness now not just apparent in his gestures, but in his tight, higher than normal voice as well.

“Relax, you’ll be fine,” Caleb said in an attempt to reassure his inexperienced partner. Only barely out of basic training, Jim had been a wreck the entire flight in. “You’re mostly here to learn, kid. I’ll take care of the real work today.”

“I know. And everybody says you’re the guy … Well, you’re kind of the guy to learn everything from, but especially this.” Jim’s hands ran along his dark pants again. “Just … this is my first possession. I didn’t even really believe in that stuff until I got recruited.”

Caleb grinned. “Good Catholic kid like you didn’t believe in possession? I don’t buy it.”

Jim laughed nervously. “I mean, I didn’t not believe in it, I guess. Just never thought I’d see one, say nothing about being expected to do anything about it.”

“Like I said, Jim, you’re gonna be fine. I’m going to do the heavy lifting.”

Caleb shut off the car. The bright southern California sun overcame the remnants of the air conditioning before they’d even gotten their doors open. “Hard to believe it’s Christmas Eve,” Jim observed as they climbed out into the oppressive heat.

An early season warm front had pushed temperatures back into the upper 80s. It was unusual for the time of year, but not unheard of. Given his most recent assignment north of Moscow, Caleb might have actually enjoyed, it if not for the black wool his cover identity imposed on him. Still, even sweating already, Caleb turned his face to the sun and drank in the warmth and light for a minute.

“Yeah. No chance of a white Christmas here.”

“I’d say that was too bad, but I’m kind of looking forward to a morning run that doesn’t burn my lungs,” Jim admitted. “Assuming we’re finished here and can catch that afternoon flight back tomorrow.”

“We will be,” Caleb assured him, opening the trunk to gather his supplies. “Maybe you’ll even bump into a celebrity before we fly out.” Jim grinned, shaking his head. “Briefing has this as probably a pretty minor demon.” Caleb wasn’t worried.


Okay, so the kid clearly was.

“I’m not worried,” he said out loud for Jim’s benefit.

It did seem to relax his apprentice. On their few other assignments together, Jim had struck Caleb as the sort of operator whose mouth butter wouldn’t melt it. But then again, their other work so far and been of a much less metaphysical nature. More to give him something to do than because he needed the assistance, he handed a case to Jim and picked up the other one for himself. He nodded toward the house.

“C’mon kid. We’ve got this.”

“Yes, sir,” Jim agreed, his game face sliding firmly into place, despite his lingering nerves.

They made their way over the crushed stone walk of a cute pink stucco house with a red Spanish tile roof. It was a nice home, but not ostentatious. The door had an ornate knocker in the middle, but it opened before either man could use it.

“Thank God you’re here, Father!” the large man who swung open the door exclaimed in greeting.

Caleb stepped forward and the man gestured for them to come in. “Mr. Meyer?” The man nodded, closing the door behind them. “I’m Father Saint-Claire and this is Father O’Malley. Father Edmunds called us. How can we help?”

“Well, as I’m sure Father Edmunds told you, it’s our daughter…”

A harried looking woman entered the foyer. Without waiting for any introductions, she gripped Caleb’s arm in desperation. “Our poor Molly. She’s possessed, she must be. Father, you have to help us. She’s only a little girl and … It’s Christmas!” Emotion choked her voice and Caleb patted her shoulder with calm reassurance.

“I see. Yes, Father Edmunds does seem certain she is suffering from possession,” he said evenly. The child was around the usual age as well, not quite adolescent, but no longer quite a child either, though Caleb had seen people of all ages suffer at the hands of denizens of the Pit. The season was irrelevant. “Unfortunately, these beasts care nothing for the time of year.” The woman dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. Caleb found sharing mundane details was usually calming for civilians. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Meyer, I’ve talked to practically every official in the Diocese and I don’t recall your first name from my conversation with your parish priest.”

“I’m Amanda,” she replied. “Everyone calls me Mandy.”

“Well, Mandy, I wish we were meeting under better circumstances.” Caleb nearly smiled. One of his first encounters with a demon during the holidays had involved a Mandy. Considering how that turned out, he had a good feeling about this night. He wasn’t superstitious, but as a man of faith, he did believe in signs. “And you, sir?” he asked her husband.

“Karl. I’m Karl.”

Before he could add anything to that, his wife spoke again. “You can help us, can’t you?” Mandy pleaded, tears beginning to flow again.

“That’s what we’re here for, ma’am,” Jim offered this time. Caleb noticed Jim’s voice sounded totally steady now that he was faced with the victims of this infestation.

“You’ve got to!” Karl said, tears now coming into his eyes. “Molly is just upstairs, if you’ll follow me.”

“We will help your Molly very soon,” Caleb said. “I’ve read the local church authorities’ report and spoken to Father Edmunds at some length, but I would like to ask you a few questions before we begin.”

Jim pulled out a small notebook to record their answers as Caleb took the parents by the elbows and led them further into the house, out of view of the stairs. Mandy resisted walking away from the hallway.

“Why? Shouldn’t you just … Do an exorcism? That’s what Father Edmunds…”

“We will,” Caleb interrupted. “We absolutely will. But this is a dangerous undertaking, for all of us, and most especially for Molly. Something you know may be helpful.”

“Alright. That makes sense,” Karl nodded. “Come into the living room. We can sit and talk. Of course we want to help in any way we can.”

The room was decorated for the holiday, right down to fragrant garlands on the mantle and a fresh tree, brightly lit, dominating the room with its presence. Gifts that would likely remain unopened tomorrow unless he was able to do what he came here for were stacked up underneath it.

Caleb and Jim exchanged a look.

They were never interested in letting the forces from Below win in any situation. It went against both their faith and their training. But something about the time of year and the poignance of those brightly wrapped packages strengthened their resolve. Jim found it was just what he needed to shake off the last of his pre-mission jitters.

Jim sat down with his notebook ready, and Caleb joined him on the sofa, facing the distraught parents. Caleb offered a subdued, kind smile of reassurance. “I’m not going to rehash my conversations with the Diocese, or with Father Frank. Their reports were most helpful and complete. But I do have a few questions.”

“Of course, Father,” Karl replied, having mostly mastered his emotions for the moment. “Whatever you need.”

“Have you spoken to this entity since Father Frank was last here?”

Mandy shook her head. “We’ve tried, but it doesn’t really…”

“Has the entity identified itself to you at any time?”

Karl answered this time. “No, it just keeps growling and mumbling the most horrible things.”

“Anything like a name in any of these mumblings?”

“I’m afraid not, Father. It … It just keeps asking to be set free, saying terrible things about where it’s trapped.” Karl’s voice shook again, but there was a spark of anger this time.

“Has it threatened Molly with trapping her there as well?” That was pretty much SOP with these assholes, and Caleb was curious how far the demon had tried to push the parents to get them to interact with it. Possessing demons loved a little begging and pleading.

Karl faltered. “I … No. No it hasn’t. But of course the threat is there. Isn’t it?”

“You’re a man of faith, Karl. You know Molly bears no responsibility for what’s happening right now. You know it. And God knows it,” Jim said gently.

Caleb nodded. Misleading those surrounding the victim was pretty standard for these types of demons, too. Caleb hated possession. It was such an insidious thing to do. He’d take some honest cursed objects over this any day. But he was good at this. He was this little girl’s best chance.

“Has your daughter had any moments of lucidity? Any moments where it appeared she was in control?”

Mandy shook her head, fresh tears spilling. “No, not since it started.”

Karl frowned. “There was a day last week, just for a few moments, mind you, where I thought … at least it seemed like … I believe she was trying to come through.”

“When was this?” Mandy snapped, upset this was the first she was hearing of it.

He sighed heavily, but Caleb offered him an encouraging nod. “I’d gone up to try to get her to eat something and she looked up at me and said, ‘Daddy?’ It was just that, but it … It sounded like her. And her eyes were clear.” His head dropped into his hands.

“That’s good!” Jim interjected, wanting to do something to ease the parents’ misery. “It means she’s still fighting. It means she will be able to help us help her.”

“Yes,” Caleb agreed. “That is indeed good news. And she is young, strong by all accounts I’ve heard. Do not lose hope. We will help her and she will recover, have no doubt of that.”

A deep guttural howl bellowed down the stairs. The lights on the Christmas tree flickered and went out. The sconces with their little flameless candles rattled on the wall.

For the first time since they’d come inside, Jim looked nervous again. Caleb could see a fine sheen of sweat on his partner’s forehead. “Let’s…” Caleb began.

“Bring the priests to me!” boomed down the stairs in a voice that should never have been able to come out of an eleven year old child’s mouth.

Caleb stood. “Well, it has sensed our presence. Best not to keep it waiting.”

Jim rose as well, tucking the notebook into his pocket. He picked up both of the cases and nodded his readiness. He didn’t speak. He knew at the moment his voice might quaver and he didn’t want to undermine Karl or Mandy’s faith in them.

“I’ll take you to her,” Karl said, gesturing for them to follow him as he headed back toward the foyer and the board staircase off from it.

Mandy got up to follow, and Jim found his voice. “You wait here, ma’am. It’s better if it can’t speak to those who know her.”

Caleb gave him an approving nod, and the three men proceeded up the stairs. Karl stopped and put his hand on the handle of the door at the top of the stairs. Caleb stopped him. “Thank you, Karl. It’s better if you wait downstairs with your wife. As Father O’Malley said, it’s better if it can’t manipulate you. No matter what speaks the words, what you will see is your daughter.”

“I … Alright.” He turned to go.

Caleb’s voice stopped him again. “I have to warn you, you may hear some terrible things, but it’s vital that you and your wife do not enter once we begin the rite.”

Karl opened his mouth to speak, but a banging came from the bedroom and he paled. He closed his mouth and nodded, turning to make his way down the stairs.

Once he was out of earshot, and out of view, Caleb loosened the accursed collar biting into his neck. “Okay, Jim, your job is to just read the Rite of Exorcism. Reading is your only job. You are not to engage this demon or demons. Just read. Are we clear?”

“Yes, sir,” Jim answered, the slight quiver back in his voice. He cleared his throat. “Absolutely, sir.”

Caleb clapped him on the shoulder. “Just do what I say, and remember your training. You’re gonna be fine.”

“Follow orders, fall back on training. Got it.”

With one last encouraging nod at his young partner, Caleb opened the door. The room was dark; the blinds were drawn and the lights lay broken on the floor. Caleb tried the wall switch with no result.

From deep in the dim room, a low voice purred, “Welcome, Priest.”

Caleb turned to Jim. “Go ahead.”

Jim closed the door behind them. He started reading the Rite of Exorcism from the book he held in hands steadier than he’d expected them to be.

Caleb uttered a simple spell for light and the bulb overhead finally came to life, albeit dim and flickering.

On the bed sat a girl, just as she’d been described in the report. Young, even younger in appearance than she actually was, and pale, the pallor highlighted by her dark hair. But she didn’t look like a child who’d been suffering possession for weeks. She was small and slight, but not gaunt or malnourished as he was used to seeing such victims. She was clean, and someone had brushed her hair. Her skin was clear, too; no sores, or cuts; no gouges, nor burns, nor blisters.

That was unusual. The flesh of the possessed were almost always desecrated by their invaders. Her eyes gave away the presence of one of the damned though. Lit with demonic energy, they followed him as he set his case down on the white and pink dresser nearest the door.

Caleb watched her watching him as he removed what he needed from the case.

He closed his eyes and took a moment to center himself, uttering a brief prayer for protection and Heavenly aid.

He opened his eyes and turned to face the child, brandishing a gilded cross, and raising a bottle of holy water. He took a breath, ready to engage the creature. A small voice stopped him.

“No, wait,” it pled quietly. It wasn’t the gravelly voice from Below that spoke before. It was light and musical, a child’s voice. Molly’s voice.

Caleb clenched his jaw. That was the worst ploy, all too often used for him to be unfamiliar with it. Reminding the exorcist that a child was at stake, that it had the power to harm that child, had led to the fall of too many priests and warrior-priests alike. Ignoring the tiny plea, Caleb splashed the bed with the holy water.

In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.”

He made the sign of the Cross.

Molly’s head tipped in the charming way children sometimes use to get what they want. “Aw, come on.”

He didn’t care for how it didn’t recoil from the symbols of the Church. He tried again to get a reaction. “Behold the Cross of the Lord, flee bands of enemies.”

Molly’s head shook. An almost friendly smirk curled her lips. “No, come on, man, I’m just here to talk.”

Caleb ran down the list of standard phrases, hoping to trick the being into revealing who it was, and making it a simple matter to send it back to where it belonged. After several frustrating minutes, during which Caleb could feel sweat pooling in the small of his back from his intense efforts and the black wool he was wearing in the overly warm room, he finally became impatient.

“The Most High God commands you, He with whom, in your great insolence, you still claim to be equal, give me your name!”

“Dude, seriously though.”

Jim’s chanting prayer became slightly more audible. He was clearly a little rattled at the demon’s lack of reaction. Caleb wondered if his curiosity about the being’s atypical behavior was making him less effective. He was fascinated. He clamped down on his natural urge as an investigator and brought his full focus to eradicating the beast as expediently as possible. He splashed it with holy water again. His powerful voice reverberated in the cozy room.

“Fiend from the Pit, I will have your name!”

The form on the bed flinched, just a little. Jim continued reading behind Caleb, some confidence returning to his voice. Caleb spoke again, quieter this time, but more firm, determined. “I said. Give. Me. Your. Name.”

“Fine. But in exchange, I will have yours.” Caleb glared in return. “Speak, Priest,” it ordered, once again using Molly’s own voice, but this time it held none of the little girl in it, only an irritated command.

He stepped toward the bed, holding the cross out in front of him. “I am Father-Captain Caleb Saint-Claire of the Order of the Temple of Solomon.”

“Whoa, no way! Seriously? I rated Caleb Saint-Claire. No shit.”

“Your name, foul creature,” he demanded.

“You know, I imagined you as taller.”

This time he splashed the holy water directly on the girl. “Give me your name, now!”

There was a hiss of steam and angry eyes met Caleb’s. “Fine. Jeez. I’m Brakken.”

“Who?”Jim said from behind Caleb, earning himself a look of rebuke. “Well, I’ve never heard of this one.”

“Seriously, O’Malley?”

“Sorry, sir.” Jim lifted the book to begin reading again, but was interrupted.

“I’d be surprised if you had heard of me,” the demon said. “This is my first trip top side. And it ain’t exactly authorized.”

Against his better judgement, Caleb’s curiosity overcame his training for a moment. “Come again?”

“I said this is my first trip. Possession has never been my thing. I was afraid I’d get some piss-pants kid like your buddy there and I’d never get a word in edgewise. I’m honestly glad it’s you.”

Caleb shook his head. “A sentiment you’ll soon regret.”

Some minor demon on their first forway to Earth wouldn’t give him much trouble. He doubted it would give Jim much trouble even if he were alone.

Molly’s hands opened in a placating gesture. “Look, Caleb … Can I call you Caleb?” Caleb’s mouth snapped shut in mild surprise. “I’m sorry to meet you like this and I gotta tell you, it’s not great for me either. Wearing a body like this is kind of gross. But you gotta be able to tell I’m not here on assignment. As you can see, I haven’t hurt the girl.”

Caleb raised his tools again, no longer even curious, and reminded once again that a child was caught up in this. “You’ve hurt her, demon. Plenty. And that ends today.”

“Come on, don’t you care why I’m here if it’s not for the Boss?”

“Not especially, no.”

Her hands came up again. “But you should. This could be a big deal for you and the Order.” Brakken could see that he had the priests’ attention. “I want to defect.”

Jim stepped forward. “The who with the what now?”

“Defect,” Brakken repeated.

Caleb put out a hand to keep Jim back, but was eyeing the creature with interest again. “That’s a new one,” he observed, gesturing for more information.

“Look, dude, Hell sucks. And I want out. I’m gonna need somebody with some juice to help.”

Caleb nodded. “I see. And you thought possessing a child was the way to go about getting that.”

Jim could see which way the winds of this conversation were blowing, and he was probably going to be filling out incident reports in triplicate for speaking to the creature at all, so he took up his recitation again, looking at the pages rather than the child and the creature inhabiting her. Molly’s face made a disappointed frown, but returned its attention to Caleb.

“Look, the Church is obviously not going to listen. I knew the holiday would get you guys out here faster than any other time of year. The hero complex you all have is legend. The Order is the only place I can get help.”

Caleb shook his head. “Help to which I’m not inclined. Helping demons is not my business. Getting rid of them is.” He stepped closer to the bed, cross held aloft.

“Oh, don’t be so high and mighty. Like you know which direction you’re headed when you finally bite it doing their bidding.”

“I have dedicated my life to the service of the Lord. I have faith. And that is enough.”

“Yeah, well, I had faith, too. Fat lot of good it did me … Does he seriously need to be doing that?” Brakken nodded toward Jim.

“Yes, he does. I’ve heard enough. It’s time for you to go.”

“No, wait, I can give you guys…”

Caleb didn’t wait. The demon would try all the usual tricks. He’d trafficked with it enough already. More than he should have. He joined Jim’s chanting of the Rite of Exorcism, a ritual he knew by heart.

In nómine Pátris, et Fílii, et Spirítus Sancti. Amen. Exsúrgat Deus et dissipéntur inimíci ejus: et fúgiant qui odérunt eum a fácie ejus. Sicut déficit fumus defíciant; sicut fluit cera a fácie ígnis, sic péreant peccatóres a fácie Dei.

Brakken was thrown back on the bed, losing control of the girl as the words ripped into him with the strength of Caleb’s faith and determination behind them now. He began to growl, the body around him to writhe. One last attempt was all he had.

“No! You can’t! It’s Christmas…”


A short time later, Caleb and Jim were back at their cheap motel, having called in their successful mission. Caleb was sitting on his bed filling out some requisition forms to restock his kit. Jim was sitting on his filling out an incident report for breaking protocol and speaking with the demon without the sanction of his superior.

After a while, Caleb thought Jim had been punished enough. At least until after the holiday. “Wanna go grab a beer, kid?”

“I … Are we allowed to do that?”

“Why wouldn’t we be?”

“It’s Christmas Eve and…”

Caleb shook his head. “You wouldn’t believe the number of bars I’ve wound up in on Christmas Eve, Jim.”

Jim set aside his paperwork. “I think I’ve heard about at least one of those times, sir.”

Caleb chuckled. “I imagine you have.” Jim had the clearance. And it was a good story. “Let’s go get some food.”

“Yes, sir!” Jim was on his feet almost immediately.

Caleb slipped into his light jacket even though it was too warm. It was meant to conceal what he carried not provide any comfort. They headed out the door to go find some place that was open. Caleb knew only too well they’d have to be careful about their choices.

“I’d just wrapped up a portal activation, and I was waiting out a storm. I was still a kid on one of my first solo assignments. It was Christmas Eve, and I found a bar that looked like exactly what I was looking for.”

“Was it?”

“Well, that depends on your point of view I guess.”



Musical Moment

Author’s Note – Just another little moment that could appear in Book II. Because I was feeling shippy. ~ J


She shifted carefully, trying to make her head light since it was resting in the middle of his belly. 

He reached out and smoothed her hair. “Do you need to move?”

“No, I like you being a pillow.” She turned on her side to face him and he squirmed almost imperceptibly. “Am I tickling?” she asked, purposely talking close to his skin.

He adjusted himself under her again and smirked. “Only when you’re trying.”

“Hey, turn that up.”

Ben grinned. “You like Social Distortion?”

“Is that who this is? I … I like the words.”

They listened quietly for a few moments.

How many times have you asked yourself?

Is this the hand of fate now that I’ve been dealt?

You’re so disillusioned this can’t be real

And you can’t stand now the way you feel

I don’t care about what they say

I won’t live or die that way

Tired of figuring out things on my own

Angel’s wings won’t you carry me home?

She sighed. “I feel like this guy must know you.”

Ben smiled down at her. She was achingly lovely with her curly hair spilled over his bare stomach. It was so nice to be alone for a few hours. “I guess maybe he does. After a fashion. That dude. His name’s Mike Ness. We’ve both been through some shit. I like him. I visited him sometimes, back when I could just be a spirit.”

“Does he know that?”

Ben blushed. “Of course not. I don’t … Not unless somebody summons me. His music though … You’re right. I feel like he knows me.”

I triumphed in the face of adversity

And I became the man I never thought I’d be

And now my biggest challenge, a thing called love

I guess I’m not as tough as I thought I was

I don’t care about what they say

I wanna marry you someday

When I wake up, it’s a brand new day

Angel’s wings gonna carry us away

“Even that stuff?” she smiled. He was blushing furiously.

He swallowed hard. That was a direct question and it wasn’t one he could deflect. It cut him too deeply. “Especially that stuff.”

“You’d marry me if you could?” 

“In a heartbeat,” His face was so hot it hurt. “I really would.”

She clasped his hand, the ring he’d made for her birthday, his promise for their page in that long boring book they’d first claimed on prom night, highly visible.

“Me, too.”


All lyrics belong to the unbelievably talented band Social Distortion and if you don’t already listen to them, go do it, now. Ben says so.

Image by JayMantri from Pixabay


Author’s Note: Here’s another little Arbitratus Trilogy Fanfic that resulted from a one word prompt challenge over on IG. It’s something that doesn’t happen in Book II, Before the Dawn. But like so many of these little fictions, it could. 


Their after dinner walk had gone on for longer than was probably smart. The temperature was dropping rapidly as the sun sank behind the mountains. The breeze rustled the frost stiffened trees. It was nice to be away from populations centers. There was less to worry about in terms of getting noticed, getting recognized, getting caught. But maybe they should head south again. It was too damned cold around here.

Mal untwined her fingers from Ben’s. “Sorry. I need my gloves.”

Ben was already pulling on the lopsided mittens she’d knitted him. “Same. We should head back anyway. It’s getting dark.”

They decided to cut across a couple of back yards to get back to the campground faster. “What is that?” Mal asked cocking her head.

Ben paused and listened, spending the energy on magically enhancing his hearing.

“Fire,” he said quietly.


He listened again then pointed. “There.”

They took off running and skidded to a stop in the yard of a large farmhouse already well on its way to burning down. Shouts and pleas for help came from inside. “Stay here,” he said firmly. “Call 911.”

“You’re not going in there!”

“Official help is pretty far out. And … there’s kids in there. I can hear them.”

She sighed and wrapped her fingers around the fabric of his sleeve. “Why do you have to be such a big damned hero all the time?!?”

“Well, you’ve got the damned part right.” He smirked and squeezed her hand, gently encouraging her to release his jacket. “I’m a demon, not a hero.”

She grabbed him by the back of his neck and kissed him quickly, then gave him a light shove toward the building. As he ran toward the calls for help she sighed again. “Pretty sure you can be both.”

She got out her phone and made the call to emergency services.


In bed, later that night, whispering so as not to disturb the others in the camper who were already asleep, Mal brushed his slightly singed bangs off his forehead. “How are you feeling now?”

“I’m good.”

“You really don’t hurt anymore?” He huffed a little sigh that told her he thought she was fussing unnecessarily but he didn’t want to call her out for it. “I know the burns look okay now, but I’m never sure about this magic stuff. Like what do I know about healing nerves and stuff?”

“All better. I promise.” Then he reached up, more to prove he really wasn’t in pain than anything else, and plucked at his uneven hair. “Just wish your healing powers included cosmetic repairs.”

She snorted laughter. “It doesn’t look bad. Your hands did though. I’m glad I could fix them.”

“Me, too. Burns really hurt,” he admitted. “Thanks.”

“And I’m glad you were a big hero for those kids.”

“I’m not…”

“Don’t argue. Or I’ll take back the healing stuff.”

“Pretty sure that’s not how those powers work.” Then he frowned. “Right?”

“Probably. But still.”

He laughed. “Not a hero.”

“If you can’t admit to being one in general, will you accept being my hero then?” She put her head against his chest.

“I can live with that.”

He was still smiling when he dozed off a while later.


Image by Simon Matzinger from Pixabay

The First Day of Fic-mas …


A Case of the Mondays

The light respectful tapping at his door sounded of potentially broken monotony. With a deep relieved breath, Ronoven called out, “Enter!”

Gareth, his most trusted servant, bowed as he entered the office, careful not to knock over any of the man-sized stacks of forms, advertising the office’s location in Hell, currently surrounding the disgruntled blond behind the desk. “Pardon me, my Lord. I hate to disturb your fun,” he offered with wry amusement that elicited a rueful head shake. “But you have an unexpected visitor.”

It was only years of schooling his features in front of other nobles that kept Gareth from chuckling at the relief on his master’s face. A second later Ronoven’s own training kicked in and he traded the openly amiable expression for looking politely interested. He couldn’t help grinning just a little at the prospect of an excuse to set aside the mountain of reports, charts, directives, and incidents currently cluttering up his office though. “Excellent. Show them in!”  

Gareth silently excused himself for a moment and Ronoven rearranged some papers, so he could see over his desk. Prophecy and King Castor’s wishes be damned, he was ready for any excuse to be somewhere else. And not just because this was one Hell of a lot of paperwork. He was so fed up with life Below, he’d almost consider trying the whole soul collection thing again.

Any break was welcome right now, even if the visitor was Lucifer. Hell, even if it was Bhaal. Well, maybe that was pushing things too far, but right now, he’d have to experience the visit inorder to determine if the paperwork was an attractive alternative to a visit with Hell’s Inquisitor General.

The work was tedious, pointless, andmaddeningly repetitious. He supposed that was the point of a lot of it. Hell was still, well … It was Hell. Even for the nobility, and especially for fairly low-ranking nobility like him. He barely had a spot at the Council table. That was based more on his personal charisma than it was on rank or accomplishments, if he was being honest with himself.  

Gareth returned a moment later. “May I present Krampus.” He bowed slightly and stepped aside as their guest entered.

Not the demonic hulking beast he was expecting, a slight bookish man, with short dark hair greying at the temples,entered on light feet clad in shiny leather shoes that matched his beige tweed suit. Ronoven blinked in surprise. Covering his bewilderment with practiced ease, almost before his visitor noticed it, he rose and walked around his desk.

“Krampus … you’re looking … well,” he managed, still extending a warm greeting despite being a little wrongfooted. “Thank you, Gareth,” he nodded, dismissing his servant with a friendly wave.

“Lord Ronoven,” Krampus bowed.

Uh oh, that felt awfully formal. Krampus was one of the few demons he considered a … friend wasn’t exactly the right word. But he liked Krampus, traded resources and shirked responsibility with him from time to time, and in Hell that was good enough. In fact, in Hell, that was about as good as it ever got.

His discomfort must have shown. As the door clicked shut behind Gareth, Krampus gave a low chuckle. “Just keeping up appearances, old boy,” he said with a wink.

A perceptible drop of tension preceded Ronoven’s reply. “I’m surprised to see you. On Earth, it’s … yeah, almost the Feast of Saint Nicholas. Shouldn’t you be … you know … reporting for duty, or whatever?”

Krampus shrugged and dumped a pile of papers out of one of the guest chairs, sending them scattering to the four winds. “Sorry about that,” he said belatedly, making a half-assed attempt to gather up the nearest of the mess and plopping it onto the smallest paper tower on the desk.

Seeing that his guest was reluctant to come to a point, Ronoven contemplated Krampus. “What’s with the new look?” seemed like a good place to start, since the only form for Krampus anyone in these parts had ever seen was his demonic one.

“Well, actually, that’s why I’m here.” Krampus finally sat down in the spacious leather chair he’d just denuded of its paper stacks, his smile obscured by a cloud of worry. No, that wasn’t simple worry. It was more grim certainty.

He liked Krampus, but only trusted him as far as you could trust any demon, which was to say, not far at all. He abandoned his casual posture and stood straight in front of his visitor. “I see. So, this is a professional conversation?” he asked, already imagining the addition of another mountain of paperwork on top of his already considerable pile that would come with any kind of formal arrangement with Krampus, especially at this time of year. He didn’t heave a sigh, but only just.

Krampus waved an unconcerned hand. “No, please, this is just between the two of us.”

Attempting to recapture his more relaxed demeanor, he leaned against his desk again, swearing quietly when at least a thousand forms fell off the back of his desk and into his chair and onto the floor around it. “Alright then. What can this humble demon do for the one and only Krampus?”

The smile flashed again, shy and almost embarrassed. “Well, first of all, you can call me Eugene.”

He felt his eyebrows climb entirely against his considerable will. “Hooookaaaay … What can I do for you, Eugene?”

The smile grew more confident. “Well, Ben … I can call you Ben, right?”

He felt himself nodding, but he was glad the light in here was poor because he’d probably just paled three shades. No one in Hell called him Ben. A few knew he preferred it to the name Hell gave him, but no one openly acknowledged it or, Satan forbid, used it out loud. “Sure, why not, Eugene?” found its way out of his mouth. To his own hopeful ears, it sounded appropriately cocky.

“I need a favor, Ben. And you’re the only one I can trust to accomplish it.”

“Trust?” Ben’s eyes widened. “Trust is kind of a strong word in this place.”

“But I do, all the same.”

After a long thoughtful pause, Ben narrowed his eyes and softly demanded, “Why?”

Eugene shrugged his narrow shoulders. “Well, you’re not actually evil, and around here, I think that’s reason enough.”

“Excuse me?” Ben sputtered, sounding offended, and almost feeling it. He put on a damned good show and he thought that Krampus, of all the beings in Hell, would have swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.

Krampus’s lips quirked into a small smile at Ben’s evident shock. “Don’t worry, Ben. You’ve been doing a fine job with the whole … demon thing. A better job than I have, actually.” Ben’s tension visibly decreased. “My power, my curse as I’ve come to think of it, is to see into the soul.”

“Anyone sent to Earth is given that power, Kr … Eugene,” Ben hedged, somewhat confused.

“To be sure. And some of you use it contrary to Hell’s intended purpose, too.” Ben’s head ducked for a split second, his neck warming and color spreading up to his ears. Krampus continued like he didn’t notice. “But none of you see like I do. So profound is this vision, even the gods do not go there for fear of what details they might glean in some tiny human soul. Heights so dizzying Heaven would be jealous. Depravity the depth of which would give even Bhaal the bends. And in your case, I see you. The being behind your careful mask.”

Ben nodded, his judicious practiced nod from centuries of council meetings, performance reviews, and general bureaucratic bullshit. “I believe I understand,” he said, his brow furrowing outside his notice. He didn’t particularly want to discuss what it was about him Krampus might see and have noted.

Krampus sensed his reticence and bulldozed past it. “In you, Ben, down in your soul, carefully kept, and all too often hidden through sheer necessity, is a true and beautiful humanity almost entirely absent here in Hell.” Ben shifted from foot to foot in his discomfort,observed his own fidgeting, and stubbornly crossed his arms over his chest to help himself keep still. “Sitting here, accessing none of my usual powers that go with the more accustomed guise, I sense your unease, the conflict within you.”

Ben forced a more casual posture, once again leaning on the desk like he hadn’t a care in the world. “C’mon, Eugene,you can’t be serious,” he scoffed.

“Ben, this will be quicker and easier for both of us if we skip over the pretense that you’re satisfied with your life as a demon and that any of it makes sense. But if you want to waste time pretending you’re a gung-ho member of Team Evil, and have someone mark our meeting, by all means.” He opened his hands in a broad, ‘Your move’ gesture.

Ben sighed, but managed not to fidget. “Okay, you trust me because I’m good. Fine. I’ll humor you.” It took every speck of his control to keep his face neutral as he spoke.  

Eugene laughed. “I never said you were good. Just not evil.”

Ben smirked. “Good. And point taken.”

A slender eyebrow climbed fractionally. “Or perhaps I should say that at the very least you play the game quite well. Your goodness has, through sheer talent and persistence on your part, gone unnoticed by all but a few.”

Ben wanted to ask who that few might include, but he already had a fair idea. Instead of acknowledging the thought making his skin crawl like he’d woken up covered with ticks, he asked, his voice very cool, “How long have you known?”

“Since I first met you. I told you; I see the truth of a soul. That’s my job. I’ve seen the real you, therefore I trust you. Let’s accept that and move on, shall we?”

Ben couldn’t let it go. “In all this time … you never thought to say anything?”

“I’ve never needed anything from you before.”

Ben’s eyes darkened, his whole face becoming a frown. “More than any supposed goodness you’ve seen, you trust my sense of self-preservation.”

“Something like that.”

The momentary silence was broken by a terse sort of sigh. Ben didn’t like being blackmailed. But, he reasoned, it’s not exactly like he was in a position to protest. The fact that he’d managed to get reassigned from Reaping after the Hollywood debacle a few decades ago spoke more to his ability to play the game than to any real luck or clout. Bhaal was still itching for a reason to target him, if only to take him down a peg. Ben couldn’t afford to give him any ammunition.

“What’s the favor?”

“Well, Ben, I’ve decided that it’s time for a change.”

“A change? Couldn’t we all use that?” Ben forced a smile, a creeping unease settling into the pit of his stomach.

“I’m sure we could. You’ve successfully changed jobs once, if I remember right.” The statement had a bit of an edge, a little reminder of a very public failure in a long line of less than stellar soul collecting. When Ben didn’t rise to the bait by getting defensive or anything else, Eugene continued. “In any event, whether there is precedent or not, I’m going to retire, Ben.”

Ben was nearly startled into a laugh. “Retire? Did I miss something at Orientation? Because from everything I’ve heard, the retirement plan in this place pretty much sucks. Like no condo in Miami. Just death; the final death. When they finally decide to let you have it. Which from what I hear isn’t exactly likely to be until a long while after you start begging for it.” Krampus shrugged. “You can’t retire, Eugene. And no amount of you holding an accusation of humanity over my head is going to change the fact that I’m not remotely high level enough to make so much as a vacation happen for you or anyone else.”

“Orientation,” he chuckled. “You are funny, Ben.” Ben shifted uncomfortably but met Eugene’s eyes. No one spoke lightly of what he was proposing, but he seemed so committed, so self-assured,Ben’s curiosity was almost stronger than his sense that he was up to his eyeballs in a bad situation. “But as amusing as you can be, the situation just isn’t. I’m done with all this, Ben. My work doesn’t matter. Kids are just … jaded. They see so much horror, are expected to live with so much unaddressed pain, that even the worst of them cannot be corrected by a single visitation. Too much has been broken for too long for me to make a difference anymore. Not only has the job become depressing, what this place adds to it, well, it’s just too much.”

Ben’s forehead creased even more deeply. “Wait … what are you even talking about? You torment children for a living. Like you used to be pretty dedicated to it. The torment, I mean.” Honestly, it was one of the things that had made Krampus difficult for Ben to like at first, but the guy had unexpectedly grown on him.

“I was only ever meant to torment those who deserved it, Ben. There was a time when I saw it change hearts, turn lives around. I was meant to correct those who strayed from the path of goodness and act as a deterrent to those who considered it. I’m no longer able to do that job. The world gets worse, and so, too, do the children, because they have nothing to lose in that place. Not anymore.” His shoulders slumped in obvious sadness and frustration.

Ben’s eyes glittered with real wonder.“You don’t want children to need correction and if they do … you really want it to work … You want kids to be good.”

“Of course I do. Despite my usual appearance, I’m not a monster.”

Ben finally found his cocky grin again. “No, but you are a demon.”

Eugene returned the smirk. “No, actually I’m not.”

“Well, what in Hell are you then? Because you’re not Fallen and you’re not one of the old gods. I’d be able to see it,” Ben protested.

“Quite right. But still, not a demon.”

Ben refused to take a step back, but something in him sort of wanted to. He didn’t like encountering beings for whom he had no explanation. He’d learned long ago, even in his human life, if something didn’t belong on a particular plane of existence, things were bound to get complicated. Fast. “What are you then?”

“That’s not really important at the moment.”

“Disagree,” Ben answered flatly, starting to be more annoyed at the double talk than he was worried about any suspicion Krampus might throw his way.

“Alright, Ben, what I am is in control of my exit strategy and long-term survival. As I’ve mentioned, you are integral to that plan. If it all goes smoothly, I may have occasion to explain myself more fully at a later date.”

The hard stare coming from those dark eyes caused Ben to just swallow and nod slowly. “Fine. But why now? I assume you could have left before this. And … if you’re not an old god, not Fallen, not one of us … Why are you in Hell at all?”

“You’re not wrong. I could have left before. As to why? Like the reasons I’m in Hell, it’s complicated and not relevant.”

Ben shook his head, briefly wishing he had pockets to jam his hands into. The urge to fidget was strong and this was not the time or place to give that side of himself free reign.  Instead, he opened his hands. “You’re not giving me much, man.”

“I suppose not.” A slow, almost menacing smile spread over his narrow face. “But it’s not exactly like you’re in a position to demand information, is it?”

“Yeah, well, story of my life,” he grumbled, running a hand through his hair. “But why? I’ve got to know. And don’t give me that tired crap about the state of the world and the kids and whatever.”

Ben couldn’t argue that the circumstances of even the most privileged nobles in Hell were depressing, but that couldn’t be the all of it. There would be real consequences to this play of Eugene’s, and Ben needed to wrap his head around why someone with such a cushy situation would willingly take such a risk.

Eugene supposed someone like Ben could not be persuaded to act, even out of a finely tuned self-preservative instinct,if there was too much he didn’t know. Ben was known far and wide as a voracious consumer of information. It made him useful, and dangerous.

“Ben, I think you’ll understand … When I thought I was doing good, making a difference, protecting souls from what we suffer here in Hell … I could tolerate a great deal. But now, the world, the children, what that looks like … No one is afraid anymore. No one is deterred.They live in a place so close to Hell sometimes, I’m more than half certain they no longer see any difference between mortal life and what might wait Below. Or to put it in a way Hell’s own Master of Expression might find more palatable, Earth has become ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.”

Ben shook his head but couldn’t help the small smile that lifted one corner of his mouth. Picturing Eugene as he’d seen him in the past quoting Shakespeare was something he was going to keep with him for a while. “And?”

“And I just can’t talk myself into another Krampusnacht.”

“Alright, I get it. You hate your job and find Hell pointless. Welcome to the club.”

He paused, waiting for Eugene to offer something further. When he didn’t, Ben sighed. This was not a situation he wanted to touch with a ten-meter cattle prod. He finally had a pretty decent assignment. He wasn’t wildly interested in screwing that up for something difficult and dangerous.

“Since you’ve already told me you can walk any time you want, I’ve gotta ask, what do you need me for?”

“I need you to turn in my letter of resignation.”

Ben went momentarily cold. “The who with the what now?”

“I crafted an appropriate missive to inform Lucifer of my impending departure. I need you to deliver it. Because obviously I can’t do it.”

Ben started to pace in front of his desk, picking up a random form to fold, spindle, and mutilate. “You don’t need to do it at all. You already said you can just leave.” The form took the shape of a paper airplane and Ben tossed it across the office in confused frustration.

Eugene smirked. “Well, yeah, sure. Could do. But why would I pass up the opportunity to twist the Devil’s tit?”

Ben shoved some papers off the corner of his desk, heedless of the cloud of them as they scattered, just so he could sit. Ben was liking his guest less and less by the second, and already picturing what being caught in Krampus’s exit could mean for him. “So I take it the letter is … colorful?”

“That’s one possible adjective. I prefer to look at it as an apropos and timely scathing indictment of the company mission statement and, of course, of the upper management.”

Oh. Oh, good. Delivering that sounded like a good way to find out what beheading felt like. “Have I offended you in some way?”

“Not at all, Ben,” Eugene replied, looking almost sympathetic. “It’s just, nobody is going to take on this errand willingly. You happen to be in the unfortunate position of being the easiest noble with access to compromise.”

Ben swallowed hard, but his voice held none of his trepidation, only thinly checked anger. “Yeah. Thanks for that.”

Eugene laughed. “It’s not personal, Ben!”

“It will be when the Big Guy rips my spine out.”

“Don’t be so dramatic.”

Ben’s nimble mind searched with a bit of desperation for an out. “Couldn’t you send a messenger instead?”

“I am sending a messenger,” he replied. “Just one that I’m certain can deliver the message into Lucifer’s own hand.”

“When?” Ben asked with a sigh.

Eugene pulled a heavy envelope from his jacket pocket. It was addressed and dated in ostentatious silver ink, the same shade as the enchanted stick he’d used to whip children for centuries. Ben made himself take it. “Krampusnacht? Seriously?”

“It’s the only night of the year my absence will really mean anything to him. And I want him to feel it.”

“He’s going to skin me.” There wasn’t any anger left. Ben sounded more of tired acceptance.

“I have every confidence in your singularly persuasive ability to stay alive.”

“Great. Thanks.”

“Look, Ben … You’ll be fine. And … tell you what … I’ll owe you a favor.”

“I’m sure that’s a treasure beyond compare,” he grumbled.

“A big favor.”

“How big?”

“Bigger than you could possibly imagine.”

“You seriously underestimate my capacity for whimsy, Eugene,” Ben replied with some of his signature dry wit.

Eugene smiled at that and got to his feet. “Well, then. That’s settled. You’ll be my messenger and someday you’ll be glad you did it. Time for me to get going.”

“When are you leaving Hell?”

A quick flick of one eye that Ben had just enough time to process as an almost roguish wink accompanied the answer. “Right about now.”

Before he could even blink, Ben found himself alone, holding an envelope that grew heavier with every thought about his unwelcome task.

He contemplated it for a long moment.Then he put it in one of his desk drawers. He looked around at the office full of scattered documents and stacks of paperwork he was almost certain he’d never live to complete.

He passed through the main living area with a purposeful stride. “Gareth!” His servant came over immediately as he pulled on his cloak. “If anyone comes calling, I’ll be at the tavern on the other side of the River of Lost Souls.”

“Doing what, my Lord?” Gareth asked, looking at his protector with real concern.

“Seeing if it’s possible to get black out drunk if the liquor is enchanted. Don’t wait up.”


Ben clutched that cursed envelope and approached the dais, noting an almost smirking black clad angel … yeah, definitely smirking … who announced, “Morning Star, Lord Ronoven reporting with your permission.”

The anger lining the chief fallen angel’s face like heavy ink, not to mention the silent presence of the bigman’s second in command, made it difficult to keep up his cool facade, but Ben thought he sounded passably confident when he bowed and opened with the expected reverent reserve, “Thank you for seeing me, Lord Lucifer.”

He didn’t even nod an acknowledgment, just bit out, “I understand you have information.”

Ben dipped his head in an approximation of another deferential bow. “I do, sir.” Ben handed the envelope to the footman who brought it directly to Lucifer. “When I heard the news that Krampus was missing, I took it upon myself to search his tower.”

Lucifer turned the envelope lazily over in his hand. “Did you now?”

He nodded. “Krampus and I had occasion to practice magic together from time to time. I’m familiar with the layout, and I was concerned given the date, Lord Lucifer.”

Lucifer broke the seal on the envelope. “Where did you find this?” he asked softly.

“In his library, Lord. He did most of his work there.” Ben kept talking, his face impassive, as his words went unheard. He didn’t seem able to stop. Hellfire and flame, he needed a break from this place. At least he still sounded on top of things. “It was on his desk. Right on the blotter. The seal was cold.”

Lucifer’s eyes scanned the contents of the letter, growing a deeper more glowing red as his lips moved and he mumbled, “Unhinged … discount prince … Daddy issues … Quitting … Lovely.” He scanned it from top to bottom again. “Huh.”

He snapped his fingers, the paper between them. It was gone in a flashing puff of smoke. He raised his eyes to let them bear down on Ben, dissecting him. Ben returned the eye contact, respectful, ready to answer questions, perhaps slightly bored in appearance. His posture was straight, relaxed. He blinked.

In the space of that involuntary movement, Lucifer was in front of him, his nose almost touching Ben’s, deep purple-red eyes doing his angel’s best to see into the depths of Ben’s soul. Ben just held the gaze as was expected of him. He remained visibly calm. In his own head he’d been almost expecting to panic, but he found lying openly to these beings easier every time he’d done it. He thought perhaps this was the day he crossed the threshold into a place where it was as automatic as breathing here.

He was unexpectedly comfortable with Lucifer rifling through his thoughts today. The memory of searching Krampus’s tower he’d constructed was about as perfect as he could have made it without tapping in another spellcaster to plant it in his mind.

Satisfied, Lucifer stepped back. “Leave me, Ronoven. Say nothing to anyone of the letter. It never happened.”

“Yes, my lord.” Ben bowed and made his retreat.

Lucifer watched him go and was joined by his second in command. “Who was it that informed us of Krampus’s absence again?”

“One of our Agents, my lord.” Bhaal appeared smug.



Lucifer’s expression hardened further. “Who sponsored the Agent?”

A broad smile divided Bhaal’s face.“Why, by some random happenstance, my lord, I do believe it was our own Lord Ronoven. What an interesting coincidence,” he observed, widening his eyes for dramatic effect.

Lucifer considered the information carefully. “I detest coincidences,” he said as he mounted the stairs to his throne.

“Shall I summon him back, Lord?”

“I … no. After looking into his thoughts, I believe he said everything he has to say on the subject.”

Almost smirking, Bhaal offered, “I could bring him in for interrogation. That might inspire him to be more forthcoming.”

Lucifer shook his head. “Nonsense. That would draw unwelcome attention to the Krampus situation.”

“What are we planning to do about that, Lord?”

“Oh,” Lucifer gave a casual wave. “Send Lilith, she likes eating the little monsters.”

“I thought improving their behavior was the aim of this observance, Lucifer.”

“Same difference.”

Bhaal chuckled. “I suppose. Are you certain you don’t want to ‘speak’ with the Lord Ronoven further?”

“Let it lie this time. I saw nothing concerning in his head. Besides … There’s a reason King Castor has assigned him to those new apartments with the largest library in the realm. The demons are up to something.”

“The demons are always up to something.” He contemplated Lucifer’s expression. “Are you worried they dug up that scrap of parchment from your brother’s last visit?”

Lucifer gave a dismissive wave of his fingers. “No idea. But rumor suggests Ronoven has been assigned a promising research position with access to some of their most treasured documents. He seems motivated to have us kindly disposed. It could prove interesting.”

“As you say, my lord.”


Down the corridor, Ben was almost giddy with relief. Head still attached, spine and skin intact, all his insides still inside, and he’d been walking away for long enough that if they were going to send the hounds after him or summon him back, they already would have. Things could have gone a lot worse.

He exited Lucifer’s stronghold and headed down one of Hell’s busiest streets. He hadn’t taken a hundred steps when Oriax, one of King Castor’s secret police, gaped at him. “Ronoven! You’re still alive!”

Well, now, that is interesting. Either Castor had heard something was up and had him followed,or Oriax was one of the demons Lucifer deigned to keep on his quasi-secret payroll. The compensation for going full cloak and dagger for either side was always good, or so Ben had heard, but if you got caught, you certainly wouldn’t be walking out of a private audience grinning from ear to ear like he was now.Ben kind of preferred nobody knowing what side he was on. Mostly because he was on his own side.

Almost selling that he was just headed toward the high-end tavern mostly frequented by the Fallen, Oriax called out, “I heard you got called to an audience with the boss’s boss. But here you still are! It’s been forever since we had one of our talks. Buy you a drink?”

Ben didn’t break stride. “I wish I could. I’ve got to get back to work. Problem with having more than one supervisor. King Castor has given me a deadline for the Council coming up.”

Oriax just nodded. “Maybe another time.”

Ben waved pleasantly. He kept his easy pace for a little while, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Oriax was still dogging his steps. He was headed home anyway, but just for fun, he melted into one of the market crowds, did a quick bit of obfuscation magic, and left Oriax wondering just where his mark had disappeared to. The idea of him having to report, to either the king or to Lucifer, that he’d lost Ben and gotten no information about what had taken place in the throne room was almost too funny.

Ronoven made it about halfway home before he started laughing. And not just about still being alive, or even giving Oriax the slip to amuse himself. It was quiet laughter. No one he passed marked it, but it was a genuine, happy sound.

Krampus pulled it off. He flaked off right out of Hell. Ben didn’t have high hopes that he could ever figure out how to pull off the same thing, but it did make his idea that maybe it was time to get himself a longer vacation than the old soul collection gig ever afforded feel more doable.

Besides he’d been forever without a break from this place.

He sat back down in his office buried in reports and conjectures about the prophecy the king was in such a lather about with something that felt almost like anticipation. There had to be something here that would give him a good reason to take a break. Before too long he found something. Everyone here could call him a bookworm all they wanted. He’d just tumbled to the words that were going to be his ticket out of here for months, maybe even years if he played his cards right.

It was time to get himself some time on Earth.

Yeah, a vacation; just a little trip where he couldn’t possibly get himself into trouble.