New (Year) World Order

Authors’ Note: Today’s story is another ‘missing scene’ from Always Darkest. It takes place over holiday break. Ben has been acting as Chris’s research assistant for a while now. It’s mostly a front for the two of them working on the prophecy while they’re at school. But occasionally they have to do those jobs for real. The Georgia Guidestones are a real sculpture/monument/whatever about two hours from Atlanta. There are multiple conspiracy theories behind these creepy stones. But I like Ben’s explanation.

New (Year) World Order

Ben scrambled to pick up Chris’s notes, lest he lose the Professor on the way to his next speaking engagement. But by the time he got them all in the briefcase, he’d lost Chris in a sea of neutral tweed. “Is there any other kind?” he mumbled to himself around the pen between his teeth.

He walked purposefully up the aisle, turning up the volume on his powers a little to see if he could pick his specific professor out of this crowd of them. He didn’t slow down on his way to the nearest set of double doors to exit the lecture hall, mostly because he was pretty sure Professor Highly Distractible had already walked right out without him. 

It was probably owing to the devastating redhead who headed up the archaeology department for one of the host universities. Not that Chris had noticed the woman was gorgeous and definitely hitting on him. All he’d probably heard was her dangling access to their online archive in front of him. 

Ben made it into the broad hallway, looked around, and realized he had no idea which direction to even start off in. He scanned the crowd for red hair, since looking for one dark haired dude in a stereotypical jacket was an exercise in futility. 

He saw her a second later as she brushed past him, all but stomping on his feet in her sensible low heels, looking extremely disgruntled. He snickered under his breath. When Dr. Whateverhernamewas started talking to Chris before the presentation, Ben had thought to himself that he could never let Chris get in the same room with Aife based on his initial reaction to her. Then it became clear his interest lay only in the name of the university on her identifying lanyard.

Chris wasn’t exactly clueless when it came to women, but when he was focused on his academic interests, as he was today, Ben was pretty sure the woman in question could do a strip tease while dressed in the only surviving document from the Library at Alexandria, and all the man would pay any attention to was trying to read while she was unwrapping.

At least he had a general sense of where to look now. He headed that way at a brisk clip, hoping that maybe all of these people were headed to the same lecture, so it wouldn’t matter if he caught up. Unfortunately, they started peeling off the crowd for various doors. Damn it … Oh, well. He’s the one who left his research assistant in the dust, so if he doesn’t have his notes for the next round, that’s his own damned fault. 

Then Ben thought he caught sight of Chris rounding the corner up ahead. He called out, “Dr. Guerriero!” Not so much as a flicker. “Dr. G!” he called again, a bit louder. He thought maybe using the name his students all used for him would get him somewhere, but no such luck. He rounded the corner and in a fit of total exasperation all but shouted, “Chris! Hold up!”

Finally, the wayward academic came to a halt and turned around. “Ben! I’m so sorry. I was in a rush to get to the next room ahead of the crowd.”

Ben handed off the briefcase full of notes and papers. “Yeah, I gather you didn’t even slow down long enough to get that very attractive department head’s number.”

Chris grinned sheepishly. “I actually did. What are your plans for the evening?”

Ben tilted his head, a bit confused as to why that would matter. “Honestly? I was planning on hanging in the room….”

“We’re in Atlanta, on New Year’s Eve, no less, and you’re going to spend another night in our hotel?”

Ben shrugged. “I mean, yeah. Mal and I made plans to Skype later.”

“You’ve only known each other for a month. Is it really that serious?”

Ben pulled an elaborate frown. “We’ve known each other since the middle of November. And … yeah … no … I don’t know.”

“Your expression says you do know.”

Ben felt the temperature under his collar start to climb, and his face followed a second later. “Well, yeah, maybe I do. And whether I know anything else or not, I know I’ll be in our room when she calls later. And even though I’m way the Hell down here in Georgia, we’re still going to ring in the New Year together. I’d just travel the convenient demon way so I could see her, but I couldn’t exactly explain it.” Then he remembered what started the inquiry into his plans to begin with. “Why? What difference does it make?”

“Dr. Williams invited me out for drinks. She also invited her graduate assistant along so I thought perhaps….”

Ben snorted a laugh. “I don’t think she meant you should invite me, Professor Ruggedly Handsome.”

“What do you … Oh! Oh … Well, that does explain why she looked annoyed when I said I’d ask you.”

“So, call her and tell her you’d be happy to have drinks with the two of them. Just don’t bring them both back to our hotel. I plan on getting some sleep tonight!”

“I … I don’t … You really think…?”

“You’ll have to figure it out later, Professor. They’re about to introduce you.”

Chris turned to enter the lecture hall, then looked over his shoulder. “Aren’t you coming?”

“To hear you give the same lecture you’ve been giving all day again? Pass. Can you live without me to wrap up?”

“Certainly. Why?”

“It’s late enough in the afternoon that Mal’s probably done at the gallery. I thought  I’d head back to the room and give her a call and firm up our plans for later.”

Chris looked like he’d comment further, but a wave of applause swelled inside the lecture hall. He hurried away to give another rendition of his popular lecture series.

Ben got out his phone and summoned an Uber.

***

When Chris got back to their room, Ben was sprawled across his bed, TV tuned to an MMA pay-per-view fight. Several styrofoam containers were strewn all over the bed, and one rested on his stomach. “Hey,” he greeted absently.

Chris put down his briefcase and car keys. “You somehow don’t look like a young man anticipating a nice long skype session with anyone, least of all with someone important enough to send the Master of Expression stammering on a regular basis,” he observed in a lightly teasing tone.

“Mmm.” Ben took a bite of the hot wings that were the current version of eating his feelings. The cheeseburger and chocolate cake had proven inadequate.

“What’s the matter?”

Ben huffed a sigh, then wiped his hands on the napkin next to him. “Well … for starters, I’m starting to get the feeling that Mal’s bestie is not a fan of me.”

“How so?” Chris asked, sitting down on the edge of his bed.

“She threw a hissy when Mal told her she wasn’t coming to her New Year’s Eve party.”

“Mal doesn’t strike me as a young woman who lets her friends make her decisions for her.”

Ben smiled at that. “She definitely isn’t. But she felt bad about it. Even Teddy is going and he’s not a big partier. But it’s New Year’s Eve. I told her she should go. We don’t have to skype half the night. We can just talk for a few minutes at midnight. Then she’s not on the outs with her friends, but we still get to say Happy New Year to each other first.”

Chris looked at him for a long moment. “I’m somewhat surprised I didn’t find you here drowning your sorrows along with consuming the rest of the room service menu.”

“Yeah, well, I tried to, but I forgot my ID says I’m only twenty, so in addition to not having any beer, I also got a lecture from the lady who delivered the food.”

“For what?”

Ben managed a reasonably sincere grin. “For trying to underage drink on my dad’s hotel bill.”

“Would you like a fatherly lecture to cap off your afternoon?”

“Listen to you give another lecture? Haven’t I suffered enough the last two days?” 

“I suppose so,” Chris chuckled. “Do you want to go get a bite to eat out on the town? Distract yourself from your disappointment?”

Ben shrugged. “I’ve eaten my weight in most of the menu this afternoon, so I’m not really hungry. Besides, what happened to your fellow professor and her friend?”

Chris shook his head. “We met briefly, but you were right about her intentions.”

“So what are you doing here? I know you do the Catholic school teacher thing really well, and I know you take your faith seriously, man, but … In your heart of hearts, tell me you’re not still a Roman.”

“Ben, you know as well as I, that was a very long time ago, and–”

“And nothing. You still haven’t dropped your ‘Gifts of the Roman Empire’ assignment from your Freshman lesson plan, so don’t try to tell me–”

“Even if that were the case, and it’s not,” Chris said, looking so offended Ben almost laughed out loud. “Her ‘friend’ is perhaps twenty-three. She looks like one of my students.”

“Alright, dude. You do you.” He snorted another laugh. “In fact, I guess that’s what you chose for your evening plans anyway.”

This time Chris laughed. “Alright. Whenever you get … what is it you always say….”

“Salty?”

“Exactly. Whenever you get this salty, I know it’s time to do something to get you out of your own head.”

Ben sat up, putting aside his room service container. “I wouldn’t hate some distraction, but going out anywhere tonight is gonna suck. It’ll just be crowded and obnoxious.”

Chris opened the drawer of his nightstand and pulled out the plethora of tourist brochures the hotel provided. He started rifling through them. “What about Stone Mountain Park?”

Ben shook his head. “Nah. It’s only like 35 degrees this afternoon. I have no desire to freeze my ass off to look at a big rock.”

“I thought you, and I quote, ‘run hot’.”

Ben snickered. “Okay, you got me. It sounds super boring. Parks are for going running.”

“Or sitting on benches and brooding?”

He laughed a little. “Or that.”

“Okay … Georgia Aquarium?”

“They’re gonna be closing like any minute. Besides, I went yesterday when you were at that speaker cocktail thingy.”

“Was it any good?”

“I mean, yeah, if you like fish.”

“Do you?”

“Not especially,” Ben laughed. “I mean, unless they’re battered, fully cooked, and on a plate. With fries.”

“The Fox Theater apparently has a performance this evening….”

“It’s the ballet. I already checked.” Ben glanced at the TV. “Besides, the card for the fight is pretty good. And you’re old enough to get us some beer, aren’t you … Dad?”

“I suppose we could just watch the … Oh, this looks interesting.”

“What does?”

“The Georgia Guidestones … It’s a bit of a drive, but … they have special hours this evening.”

“I thought we already covered that it’s cold and rocks are boring.”

“This doesn’t look boring at all. It looks … quite mysterious. There’s apparently a list of commandments written in twelve different languages. And no one knows why it was built or who commissioned it.”

Ben got up and went into the bathroom to wash his hands. He grabbed his sweatshirt off the back of the door and then went and got the keys to the rental car off the table by the door. “Alright, dude. Let’s go see these fascinating rocks.”

***

Ben hadn’t been wrong about the general business of the city. The closer it got toward evening, the busier the streets were. Ben wasn’t an enthusiastic driver on his best day, and he hadn’t especially wanted to drive while they were here at all. But in his effort to find something to distract Ben, Chris had managed to totally distract himself. Ben figured he was better off doing the driving and letting Chris dive down the rabbit hole of the Guidestones on his tablet.

Ben had to laugh to himself at how caught up in the hype his normally staid roommate got as they made their way up Route 77, deep into rural northeastern Georgia. He’d given up on listening to music after the first forty minutes of the two hour drive, because Chris was determined to educate Ben on the history and significance of the monument, despite how shrouded in mystery all aspects of it were. Ben didn’t bother to mention that he was well aware of the stones and where they’d come from. It was honestly more fun to see Chris gone full tourist.

“Back in 1979 to 1980, the Elberton Granite Finishing Company performed the construction and inscription, apparently for someone named R.C. Christian. He said he represented ‘a small group of loyal Americans’.”

“Oh good,” Ben observed wryly. “Things always end well when people start using language like that. Did they want to ‘make America great, too?”

“Mmm,” Chris mumbled as he continued reading. A while later, he spoke again. “The languages are an odd mix … English, Spanish, Swahili, Hindi, Hebrew, Arabic, Traditional Chinese, and Russian. Do you speak all of those?”

“And then some,” Ben said, pulling into a gas station. “Want anything?”

“No, no, I’m fine,” Chris replied without looking up from his tablet.

He didn’t look up when Ben climbed back in with Dr. Pepper and Twinkies either.

“There’s apparently quite a number of astrological and astronomical features built into it as well, not unlike Stonehenge. It is aligned to the 18.6 year lunar declination cycle … it marks noon each day with a hole drilled for the sun, which shows the date of that day … it has places to view the solstices and equinoxes … it has a place to view the North Star….”

“It’s a regular star gazer’s dream then.”

After a few more minutes, Chris spoke again. “The inscriptions are … upsetting.” When Ben didn’t ask what they were, Chris went on anyway. “Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature. Guide reproduction wisely — improving fitness and diversity. Unite humanity with a living new language.

Rule passion — faith — tradition — and all things with tempered reason. Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts. Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court. Avoid petty laws and useless officials. Balance personal rights with social duties. Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite. Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature.”

“Well, Mal would be totally on board with all the reason stuff. And … Reduce, reuse, recycle and teach everyone Esperanto don’t seem too bad.” Ben said, knowing he was baiting Chris a little.

“Maintain humanity below five hundred million! Guide reproduction! Ben–”

“You didn’t let me finish.” Ben laughed. “The genocide and eugenics are a little problematic.”

“You’re being funny, but this is absolutely harrowing.”

“Yeah, well, there’s weird stuff all over the place.”

“But not all the weird stuff was built within the last fifty years by someone with a terrifying agenda.”

“True story,” Ben agreed. “And hey, you’re about to be able to judge them for yourself.” He pointed to the sign just ahead of them where another car was pulling in.

They parked and walked toward the strange monument made up of four tall flat pieces of granite and capped with another along the top. Ben had to admit, the size was impressive. But it wasn’t nearly as entertaining as the small crowd milling around it. Or Chris’s reaction to them.

One woman squinted at the pamphlet she’d picked up at the entrance to the grounds and said to the man who was with her, “Some elegant gray-haired man paid a ridiculous amount of money for this place to be built. And the builders had to agree never to reveal his identity to the world.”

A kid from another group who looked to be around Ben’s apparent age chimed in, “I heard that it was the Illuminati.”

Ben was going to stay quiet, but decided egging on the crowd would be more fun. “Now, see, I read that it was the Rosicrucians. That’s why the dude who commissioned the place went by R.C. Christian.”

“Oh wow!” the kid said like Ben had offered the most profound piece of information he’d ever heard. Then his face went blank for a second. “Wait. What’s a Rosicrucian?”

Ben was spared answering by the teenager with the first couple who’d spoke about the monument as they approached. “It wasn’t any of those. Ted Turner did it. Fuckin’ globalist,” she spat.

“I’m guessing you watch a lot of Alex Jones, huh?” Ben asked. His opinion of Infowars and its host were pretty obvious from his tone and he wasn’t even sorry. 

“That’s where the real news is at,” said the girl’s father. “You need to open up your eyes to the truth, boy.”

The woman took a slightly aggressive step their way. “You won’t think it’s funny when the New World Order decides you’re not on the list to be in that five million people, son.”

Ben rolled his eyes. “Five hundred million.” 

She puffed an annoyed sigh, heaved dramatically for their benefit and walked away. 

Ben spoke quietly aside to Chris, “Oh, for fuck’s sake, they honestly think CNN is trying to take over the world.”

Chris led him away to look at something. When they got out of earshot, Chris chastised him slightly. “You really think challenging people like that is a wise idea?”

“Yeah,” he nodded seriously. “I actually do. That kind of crap leaves people ripe for a deal. Or for going in a bad direction until there’s no turning around. The road to Hell isn’t just paved with good intentions, Chris.”

“Alright. I see your point. But maybe let’s just do what we came for instead of trying to save the local Fox affiliate’s viewership from eternal damnation.” His eyes twinkled. “Since it’s already a foregone conclusion.”

“I thought you were serious!” Ben cracked up. “Are you sure you shouldn’t be teaching in the Theater Department?”

Chris bowed with a flourish worthy of The Globe Theater. “Are you ready to let that family go wherever it is they’re headed?”

“Sure. They seem kind of beyond my help anyway.” He made a halo of his hands and held it over his head until Chris laughed at him

They walked around the monument a little more. Chris looked over the various inscriptions, listened to the conversations others were having, and peered through the astronomical openings on the monument. “You know,” he said, eye up to the North Star locator. “This is really remarkably engineered.”

“It would be remarkable if it hadn’t been built in the late 20th century. Instead it’s just big and faux-creepy.”

Chris stood and looked at him in the fading light. “You seem to be taking this awfully lightly. And you’re the only one here doing so, you may have noticed.”

“Because I know it’s bullshit, Chris.”

“You’ve been here before.”

“Yeah.”

“For Hell?”

Ben snickered. “For weed. And, you know, company.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I was in Atlanta for a music festival a while back. I hitched a ride with a group of college kids. Wound up crashing with them for a couple days.”

“And?”

“And the girl was pretty, the weed was decent, and the guys were kind of a hoot. Couple of real conspiracy buffs. They wanted to come out here, so I said, ‘fuck it’, and tagged along.”

“You weren’t impressed the first time either, I take it.”

“Their baked-off-their-asses theorizing about an insidious global cabal were almost as funny as yours on the way here,” he smirked.

“You thought it was funny listening to me express concern over a plot to exterminate all but a fraction of the world’s population was funny?”

“Only a little,” Ben laughed. 

Chris took in Ben’s easy smile and relaxed posture. “So they aren’t from Hell?”

“They’re from some dipshit who thinks he’s gonna do the world a favor by … I’m not entirely sure.”

“Is he from Hell?” Chris asked, wincing in anticipation of an affirmative.

Ben laughed heartily. “No. But I guarantee that’s where he’s headed when the deal that got him the money to build this crap comes due.”

Chris blinked as though the answer startled him. “But what about whatever plan was behind it? You don’t think he–”

“Not a chance. Hell likes souls to keep filtering its way, regular like. A big global disaster without a heavy hand from them? They’d never let it play out.” 

He grinned and squared his shoulders. Then he paced a few steps back and forth in front of his audience, grin morphing into a smirk when Chris folded his arms in amused mock-irritation at the near perfect impression Ben was currently giving of the professor’s teaching style. 

“You see, Class, what most people on Earth fail to recognize is that very little of what they see everyday is as it seems. The wildly mysterious is often hopelessly mundane, such as this overpriced monument to one billionaire’s ego. While the apparently average college research assistant might actually be a nobleman from much further south than his enrollment paperwork would have led you to believe.”

“Are you sure you shouldn’t change your major to Theater?” Chris asked.

“Save your questions for the end, young man!”

Chris chuckled. “How long are you planning on keeping this up? Because if you don’t wrap it up pretty soon, we’re not going to make it back to the room for you to take Mal’s call.”

Ben gestured, his expansive hand movements a spot-on imitation of Chris’s lecture conclusions. “The lesson I want you to take away from this trip, Professor, is….”

 “Yes?” Chris asked with an amused raise of one eyebrow.

Ben smoked. “Sometimes a pile of rocks is just a pile of rocks.”

“Very funny. Anything else?”

“Yeah, money is seriously wasted on the rich.”

Butter Him Up

Authors’ Note: It just wouldn’t be Fic-mas without a visit from Krampus. This year we look back into his past, along side Ben’s, back when they were still on Hell’s payroll. This one came from a reader prompt about the jul tomte and it was a ton of fun to write. Enjoy!

Butter Him Up

Remind me how this asshat wound up in charge of handing out assignments, Ben grumbled entirely to himself. He might have said it out loud, and possibly even to Alloces face, but the time of year had Reaping working overtime. 

The office was crowded enough that he hadn’t been able to move in the line leading to Al’s desk without bumping into, or being stepped on, by a demon waiting in one of the other lines for the expected paperwork.

Most of the crowd here appeared in their demon form. Ben could never figure out why anyone would do that willingly. Especially given what some of them looked like. Hideous

Ben shivered when Botis jostled his arm. If he were honest, Botis wasn’t as overtly disgusting as some of the other members of the assemblage. But there was something about his oversized teeth and twisted horns that Ben found especially disquieting. A tussle by the Spells, Potions, and Transformations desk caused a shift in the crowd that distracted him from his disgust. 

“Hey!” he exclaimed, almost involuntarily when a demon from the periphery accidentally stomped on his foot to avoid a broken flask of some sort of supernatural poison, unless he missed his guess. And when it came to magic, Ben had become remarkably astute. He caught her elbow though and steadied her before she could fall over and knock him into the half lion, half hyena behind him.

The other demon turned. He recognized her. At least her top half looked human so the eye contact didn’t make him immediately uncomfortable. He chose to ignore the fact that her lower half seemed to be some sort of horse or donkey … something with hooves, anyway. Which explained how unhappy his foot was at the moment. “Look out there,” Ben said. “There’s a dybbuk around here somewhere. You definitely don’t want to bump into him.”

“Thanks,” she said pleasantly enough, considering. “Hey … I know you. You’re that guy who kicked half of Hell’s teeth in when you got here … Ronoven, right?”

He cleared his throat. Almost two thousand years and demons were still on about his arrival. “Since we were just about joined at the feet a second ago, you can call me Ben,” he said instead of acknowledging her allusion to his past.

“I’m Nef,” she said, scrutinizing his face. “It is you. I was there, you know. I do some organizing of spectator events here when I’m not working an assignment above. A lot of demons would pay good coin to see you fight again. You were impressive, to say the least.”

“Yeah, well, it was a long time ago. I’m not really especially interested in fighting these days.”

She gave him a speculative smile. “To look at you, I have no doubt you could still take down all comers. And even if not, you’re certainly not hard on the eyes. None of our fights risk Final Death. It could fill your purse quite handily.”

He shook his head. “Thanks, but I’m not interested. Like I said, all that was a long time ago. I’m content to work in Reaping. At the moment, I’m mostly busy studying spellwork under Prince Stolas.”

“Ah,” she nodded as if suddenly his reaction made more sense. “Ole Stoli is quite territorial. Wouldn’t want to cross swords with him, I suppose.”

“Indeed,” Ben said, relieved to be off the hook, although ‘busy’ was a wild exaggeration for him lately. 

She turned away, now more interested in the paperwork she was carrying than in a demon she stood no chance of recruiting into Hell’s underground fight club.

Ben took another step forward in the queue, relieved he was almost at his bureaucracy-dictated destination. Not that he especially wanted to get sent up on another soul collection. But he did want an excuse to go to Earth. It had been too long.

Finally, he stepped up to the desk and Alloces brick red face split into a devilish grin. “Ronoven! Fancy seeing you here.”

“Hey, Al.” 

“I thought you were off the duty roster at the moment. Working with Stolas aren’t you? An apprenticeship of sorts?”

“Yeah, well … He’s … ahem … busy at the moment.”

“Ah, another trist has pried his attention off what he’s supposed to be up to, I take it.”

Ben shrugged. “All I know is he rented a villa in Limbo and told me he’d see me … eventually.”

“But still,” Alloces frowned. “You aren’t required to be here. What did you do, lose a bet?”

“Not exactly.” Ben rolled his eyes. Then he cleared his throat. “I owed Forneus a favor….”

“Lose to him at Scrabble, did you?”

“Pffft, no!” Ben lied. Then he smirked to cover his annoyance. “You know, instead of collecting souls, maybe I should go on up and introduce that game to the humans. Then they’d find their way here all on their own.” He laughed, but by all the gods that ever were, he hated losing a game of words almost as much as he hated being a demon.

“Not a half bad idea, if Balphagor will let go of the patent. Perhaps in a few decades when it runs out, I’ll snap it up myself,” Alloces said with a chuckle.

“Why not?” Ben said with a pointed lack of interest in his supervisor’s business endeavors. “What was it Forneus wanted to avoid?” he asked to move things along and get out of the crowded office.

Alloces shifted some papers around. “Ah, here it is … Nothing complicated. A simple collection. Right on the verge at the moment. You’ll have to hurry.”

“Are we expecting a Shepherd?” he asked, mentally crossing his fingers that an angel would be involved so he could simply claim Heaven made a stronger case.

The other demon shrugged and passed Ben his assignment. “Maybe, maybe not.”

“Wilmer Gusstafsson.” Ben looked over the paperwork quickly. “What did the old fellow do? Commit atrocities during the Spanish-American War?”

“Not even close. Nothing especially remarkable about him as far as I know. Should be right up your street though. The old fellow’s ninety.”

“Why are we even dispatching anyone then?” he asked, trying to sound just curious as opposed to annoyed.

Alloces leaned a bit closer and gestured for Ben to do the same. “I’m not supposed to say anything, but since I’d like to continue being included in your weekly card games….”

“Of course, Al. You know you’re always welcome to come over and lose some of your ill-gotten gains to me,” he said with a grin.

“Very funny. Anyway … Our numbers are down. To the point that Lucifer noticed. The king is furious. Especially with Reaping.”

“Great,” Ben groaned with a deep roll of his eyes. He stood up straight again, really regretting betting on that game and pretty sure now that Forneus had cheated. Which explained a lot, actually. “What am I supposed to do if instead of some milquetoast like Hariel, I show up and there’s some fiery-eyed avenging type there to collect this guy? You know getting physical with the angelic and annoying isn’t really my style.”

“Do what you want up there, Ronoven. But I’d suggest coming home with a soul in chains.”

“I don’t know what you think I’ll–”

“The only thing I think is that if you’re not prepared to go toe to toe with one of the halos, maybe you should consider a vocational paradigm shift. I hear Interrogation is looking for some demons to practice on.”

“Very funny,” he said sarcastically. 

“I wasn’t trying to be. Now, get your ass to Wisconsin and bring us back that old man, would you?”

“Wisconsin? In December? Are you serious?” 

“Have fun, Ronoven. Dress for the weather.” Alloces made a shooing gesture and called, “Next!” effectively dismissing him.

Ben made his way to the next line, got quickly tired of waiting, and pulled rank to get to the front. He presented his paperwork to the bespectacled demon behind the desk and took the cover ID package and bundle of clothing with a grimace. “Is the weather that bad?”

“Wisconsin in December? You tell me.”

Ben just took his materials, got changed, and left the building, avoiding conversation with anyone else on his way out the door. He wouldn’t have minded a trip to the Northeast to collect someone. Aife was running a small Office in Buffalo. If he was going to be closer, he could have stretched the assignment to visit her for Yule. As it was, he probably wouldn’t see her this year. Again.

He approached the nearest Gate, and stepped across the threshold. He twitched his shoulders, hating the heavy wool and million buttons that characterized the fashion of the times. But, he had to admit, the clothing was more functional than that of his few forays into the more formal Northeastern U.S. and leaps and bounds more comfortable than anything he’d had to wear in Europe when he couldn’t avoid assignments there. He halfheartedly performed the Gate Activation and found himself standing in the middle of a dirt road in a medium sized village, if the few lights he could make out were any indication.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t make out much through the apparent blizzard he’d just teleported into. “Of course. Of course that’s what I walk into.”

Ben had never seen so much snow in all his life … or afterlife for that matter.

He looked around for a minute and headed toward the house a few doors down from where he stood. The faint glow his demon’s eyes picked up told him that was the place. He stretched out his other senses and detected an old soul on the second floor.

He was about to let himself into the dark house when he heard a familiar clanking of chains and a heavy, cloven-hooved step. Ben spun around with a grin and his assumption was confirmed by the red glow lighting up the silhouette of another denizen of Hell. “Krampus! How’ve you been?”

“Ronoven!” The approaching creature’s face split into a terrifying grin. “Can’t complain. But what are you doing Up Top? I thought you were taking a leave from Reaping to work on another magic apprenticeship with Stolas.”

Ben shrugged. “He blew me off for another of his torrid affairs.” He frowned, looking around. “What are you doing around here? Your night was a couple of weeks ago.”

“Well,” Krampus chuckled. “I’m not really here on official business. I’m doing a favor for a friend.”

“Yeah?”

“My buddy Ollie is one of the jul tomte and–”

“The what?”

Krampus looked thoughtful. Or at least Ben thought he did. With such a terrifying visage, it was hard to tell. “Maybe a bit like one of the Elfhame? But for Christmas in the Nordic countries.”

“Ah. So … Good or evil?”

“Your black and white thinking about these things really is charmingly naive, Ronoven.”

“Says the demon charged with whipping the ‘naughty’ and stuffing them in sacks.”

“So judgemental.” Krampus clucked his forked tongue. Then he laughed. “In any event, it’s tradition to leave out a bowl of porridge on Christmas Eve for the tomte to eat. The young lady in question, that is, the one Ollie asked me to pay a visit to, just to give her a scare mind you, hit the butter under the porridge last year. Then he couldn’t track her down this year. Apparently her family immigrated from Sweden recently, came to live with her grandfather. It was nothing for me to find out where she’d gotten to.”

“Your friend sicced you on some little girl for hiding butter?”

“It’s quite the offense to one of his kind. Asking me to correct her behavior is a much more pleasant response than the tomte have taken for such an action before. It can be quite gruesome.”

Ben shook his head, turning up his collar against the cold. “Well, then, I’m glad it’s you and not a bunch of vindictive elves slashing her whole family to bits or whatever they do.” He shivered. “I better be going. Apparently, old Wilmer Gustafsson is on death’s door.”

“Oh, you’re going to the Gustafsson’s, too?”

“Um….”

“Well, Sigrid will be having a bad time. A visit from me, losing her grandfather. That does not a merry Christmas make. What a shame. Makes me inclined to take it easy on her. I’ll just have to embellish a bit when I tell Ollie about it.”

“Let’s get on with it then,” Ben sighed. “At least inside won’t be a howling nightmare.”

***

Ben was surprised to find Wilmer’s spirit hovering over his body looking clear-eyed and apparently awaiting his arrival. 

“Well, hullo there, young fellow. You’re not nearly the terror I was expecting.”

“What were you expecting?” Ben asked, plainly curious about the old man’s response.

“Oh, you know, the dark shroud, scythe, an air of impending doom.” It was said with an amused twinkle Ben didn’t know quite what to do with. “I suppose sort of a Christmas Yet to Come type fellow. An appearance and demeanor more befitting Death, as it were.”

Ben couldn’t help but smile a bit at that. The man was a reader. And while Ben didn’t necessarily enjoy Dickens’ work, he had liked A Christmas Carol. A fellow lover of words deserved better than this. “Well, I’m not exactly Death. You may have noticed, you’re already dead and I didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“So, who are you then?”

Ben flushed. He couldn’t help it. He had to speak his least favorite sentence in any language. “I’m actually a demon.”

“Ahha, so I’m going to Hell then? That is disappointing.”

Ben didn’t sense any particular fear from this soul and found it both intriguing and a little depressing. He let himself access the powers that would let him see the man’s soul. It didn’t have the acuity of an angel’s insight, but it served his purpose.

Well, there is absolutely no way I am dragging Wilmer back to Hell. No fucking way.

“I … um … No, you’re definitely not doing to Hell, Mr. Gustaffson.”

“You’re very polite for a demon,” the man chuckled.

Ben resisted the urge to ask him how many demons he’d met and instead took a minute to try to figure out what to do about this soul he had no intention of collecting. He nodded to himself, only half aware that he was doing it. “Okay. So here’s the thing … No angel showed up to make a bid for your soul, but that doesn’t mean Heaven doesn’t want you. They’re just a lot lazier than Hell, in my experience. So … what you should do is …. maybe just hang around here and haunt the place for a little while. Eventually someone will show up to lead you toward the Light, or whatever they call it.”

“That might be nice. I hate to miss Christmas by leaving right now.”

Ben smiled. “I’m fond of this time of year myself, sir.”

“I could pretend to be surprised, but I’m not at all. You look like someone who would enjoy Christmas.”

Ben didn’t correct the man by telling him he was more of a Yule sort of guy. He just offered another smile. “I better be going. I’m sorry you’re going to be dead for it, but I hope you have a merry Christmas anyway, Mr. Gustafsson.”

“Thank you, young man. I don’t know if such a thing is possible for a demon, but I hope you do, too.”

“I’ll try, sir,” Ben said, and slipped out the door.

About halfway down the stairs, he bumped into an unexpected angel. “Hey, Sariel. This one’s all yours.”

“Really, Ronoven? You aren’t even going to stay for the formalities this time?”

“Sorry, Sar. You were running late, so I went ahead and had a look. Lovely old fellow. You guys’ll love him.” He jogged past her down the steps.

“Ronoven, get back here and do your job!”

“I gotta go! I’m on the clock. Merry Christmas!”

He turned down the hallway that led to the front door and snickered when he heard her exclaim, “Oh, for Heaven’s sake!”

He let himself out and was surprised to find Krampus waiting for him outside. “How’d it go with the kid … Sigrid, or whatever her name was?”

“Fine. She’ll remember to butter the porridge properly tomorrow night no matter what else is happening, I’m quite certain. But no real harm done either way.”

“That’s good,” Ben said noncommittally, drawing his coat closer around himself.

“How about you?”

“Oh, Heaven showed up. You know how it is.”

“I believe I do,” Krampus said with a knowing lilt.

Ben shifted uncomfortably, wondering exactly what it was that Krampus was picking up on. He’d kept up a pretty good front  with the glitterati of Hell. Or he was pretty sure he had anyway. “So … Um … The night’s nearly over. What’s next for you?”

“Hawaii.”

“What’s a Hawaii?”

“Hawaii is a where not a what. I think I’ve earned a little vacation.” Krampus laughed. “As someone whose jurisdiction is mostly America, you’ll find out about it in a few years; more’s the pity for the people who live there, I think.”

“What’s so great about this Hawaii?”

“The food. The weather. The music. The company. You’d love it.”

Ben chuckled ruefully. “Sounds nice. I wish I could afford to fuck off out of Hell for a minute.”

“Need a little getaway yourself?”

“I wouldn’t hate one after this.” He gestured at the pelting snow, piled in drifts almost as tall as he was.

“So, come with me.”

“I’m already gonna catch no end of shit for showing back up without a soul in tow. Unauthorized leave on top of that? I like my finger and toenails right where they are, thanks.”

“Suit yourself.” Krampus headed back up the street to catch up with Nicholas. “See you around, kid,” he called over his shoulder.

“Have a nice vacation,” Ben shouted over the howling storm.

Krampus turned around. “Hey, if you ever get tired of the prince blowing you off and you want to learn some real magic, drop by my estate. I think you’d find my tutelage quite helpful.”

Ben grinned. Learn magic from Krampus? Hell, yes. “Thanks! I’ll do that!”

Krampus waved and faded into a swirl of blowing snow.

Ben stood in the middle of the dirt track that he couldn’t make himself think of as a street, icy flecks collecting unpleasantly in his collar, wind biting his face. He couldn’t decide which was worse: going back to Hell empty handed, or standing here freezing his ass off.

A gust of wind hit him hard enough to make him drop back a step. Yeah, no. At least Hell is warm, he grumbled to himself. But I definitely need a vacation.

Before he could get any colder or wetter, he uttered the appropriate incantation to return to his place Below and disappeared with a hiss of steam.

Wherever You Find Love

Authors’ Note: Today’s story happens “off camera” in Before the Dawn, Book II of The Arbitratus Trilogy. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t get a little weepy writing this one. But, I’d also be lying if I told you it wasn’t worth it. I set out to write a story that would lend itself well to engaging in our annual tradition of sharing a recipe we love. I knew it would get Ben and Teddy in the kitchen together, but I was unprepared for how emotional they (and subsequently I) got on their way there. Despite experiencing a sense of loss and grief together, they also experienced some genuine relief at sharing it. Holidays can be hard. But wherever you find love, it feels like Christmas. ~ J

Wherever You Find Love

Ben sighed contentedly. His stomach was full, the RV was quiet, and Mal was next to him. She didn’t seem to mind that he was half napping either. He had been up most of the night doing the spell for Mal’s surprise Christmas tree. He’d been able to ignore being tired through the morning. He’d focused on making sure the food didn’t suffer from the somewhat inadequate kitchen in the RV. 

Once he’d fed everyone lunch and the rest of them cleared out for some snowshoeing, he and Mal settled in on their couch for one of Mal’s favorite holiday traditions. Christmas movies. 

Mal turned up the volume and scooted over to rest her head on his shoulder. He had never seen this one. It had muppets in it and was pleasantly unchallenging. Mal loved it. She kept humming along with the songs. 

He reached for her hand. “You could sing along if you want. I’m not sleeping.”

“Pfft, no. You’re the vocalist in this relationship.”

“Even though we’re home alone?”

“It’s too cold for them to have gone far. I bet they’ll be back any minute. And Petra says I’m totally tone deaf.”

“I think your voice is kind of sexy. Husky. Like a lounge singer.”

“You’re sweet. But I feel like maybe Petra might be more honest about my abilities than you are.”

He peeled his eyes open and put a hand to his chest. “You wound me.” Teasing wasn’t going to be enough. Petra had obviously hurt her feelings and he wanted to fix it. He also meant what he said. “I had to lie to you about being a demon for a long time. I’m never going to be anything but honest with you ever again.” 

“Honesty is one thing. But you can’t tell me you wouldn’t try to spare my feelings. Because, as previously mentioned, you’re sweet. The sweetest even. Plus nobody is going to just piss off the person who assists with their orgasms.”

His neck and face immediately heated, but he managed not to sputter with embarrassment like he once might have at Mal’s frankness about sex. “I appreciate you, but I’m perfectly capable of … what is it you say … being in charge of my own orgasms … if I had to to keep from lying to you again.”

She reached up and put her hands on either side of his face. “My God you are adorable when you blush.”

He snickered. “I guess that’s good. Because I don’t seem to be able to stop. And hopefully it reinforced my point. I honestly like your voice.”

She climbed across his legs and put her arms around him. “Thank you. Maybe I’m feeling a little insecure because she said it when we were caroling our way around the campground.”

Ben frowned. He hoped that wasn’t why Mal called an end to their musical excursion last night. “Don’t listen to her. Petra is just grumpy because Teddy is having a hard time.”

“He seemed okay when we did presents this morning.”

Ben nodded slowly. “Yeah. He was trying really hard. I think he still feels bad for breaking down during Thanksgiving. He doesn’t want to ruin the holiday for anyone.”

“Yeah,” she sighed.

The last thing he wanted was for Mal’s mood to sour because he’d brought up Teddy’s struggles. “But you’re right. He did really well. He might even really be okay. He loved the Top Gear boxed set we all got him.” 

She smiled. “He really did! That was such a good idea. In addition to having a fantastic voice, and being literally the cutest human I have ever known, you are crazy good at knowing what people will like as far as gifts and stuff go. Was it always like that with you, or is it some kind of power thingy?”

Ben thought about not answering, but he’d just promised to be honest with her. It wouldn’t do to go back on that ninety seconds after the fact. He hugged her tightly. “It’s … uh … not a power thing. But it is … um … kind of a Hell thing.”

She sat back so she could see his face. “What do you mean?”

“I … In Hell … if you don’t … I don’t know … anticipate what everyone around you wants or needs … It tends to end….” He took a sudden shuddering breath and shivered as though the temperature had dropped twenty degrees. 

“Hey. I get what you’re saying. You don’t need to explain.” She put her hands on his face again and rested her forehead against his. “I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have anything to be sorry for, babe.”

“I just meant that I’m sorry you’ve been through so much.”

He didn’t want to have a whole big conversation about the many breathtaking ways his past had tied his psyche in knots. So he kissed her soundly, nibbling her lower lip in the way that she not only loved, but that was usually good for changing or closing a subject. “So … Distract me from my past misery.”   

She laughed and slid off his legs. “I thought we already covered the whole ‘they’ll be back any minute’ thing.”

Almost like they’d timed it, the door to the camper opened to let in their red-cheeked roommates, along with a gust of wind that carried some of the falling snow in with them. It was the perfect opportunity to dispel any seriousness that Mal might be hanging onto. “Is that one of your powers?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Maybe!” Then she pulled the blanket Aife had knitted them as a holiday present off the back of the couch and spread it over the two of them. “Close the door, guys! Jeez.”

Ben folded his legs up under the blanket. It was unbelievably soft and warm. “Yeah, seriously. It’s like Hoth out there.”

Mal quickly agreed. “Like I’m ready to go get a Tauntaun.” 

Teddy was the last through the door and closed it behind them. He grinned. “Hey, do you know the temperature of a tauntaun?”

Ben hadn’t heard the joke before, but his gift for words made it easy to guess. “Luke warm?”

Teddy hung up his coat. “You’re good,” he said with another easy smile. 

“He and Mal are just massive geeks. So he probably already knew that one,” Petra said, not quite testily, but not exactly pleasantly either.

Chris chimed in helpfully. “I doubt Ben voluntarily knows any joke as punny as that one. He’s dead-armed me for bad puns more than once.”

“I’ll do it again, too!” Ben laughed.

Teddy came over and mouthed, “She’s a mood today,” then joined them on the couch. “Whatchoo guys watching?” His face fell for a split second. “Oh, Muppets.”

Ben frowned. “You okay, Ted?”

“I … yeah. You bet.”

Teddy sat back to watch the show with them while the others moved around to start some hot cocoa and pick at left overs. Petra sat at the table and buried herself in the newspaper, clearly, as Teddy had indicated, ‘a mood’.

After a few minutes, Teddy sniffled. He’d complained of coming down with another cold a few days ago so at first the sound barely registered. But another minute passed and he reached for a tissue and wiped his whole face with it. Mal responded by pulling him into a hug before she could have had time to fully process that he was crying. “Oh, honey, what is it?”

He grabbed another tissue. “It’s … last year was the first time Kel was old enough to watch this one. Before that Mom thought the Marleys’ ghosts were too scary.” His breath hitched, but he went on with deliberate calm. “Once he saw it, it was his favorite.”

“Oh, Teddy, I’m so sorry. We can shut it off.”

He shook his head. “No … I … It’s nice. It makes him feel close, I guess. It’s just….”

“Hard,” Ben said. He cleared his throat. “I get it. I was gone so long when I went out shopping because I…” He had to stop for a minute, but then made himself continue. “I saw this display of mistletoe and I remembered … out of nowhere … How my brother’s wife used to keep me out of trouble by sending me off to find the stuff for Yule. And I usually wound up in even more trouble than if I’d just stayed home.” He smiled, but he had to work for it. “I could hear her voice in my ear, I swear.” Teddy passed him a tissue. “Thanks, man.”

As though Teddy sensed his discomfort over having not only been suddenly caught up in his emotions, but having shared them openly in front of everyone, Teddy came up with a smile of his own. “And here I thought you came home with the stuff so you two would have more reason to make out. As though you need any encouragement.”

Mal squeezed Ben’s hand. He took it as not just reassurance, but also encouragement to share, so maybe Teddy would do the same. Still, he tipped half a smile. “I mean, that crossed my mind.” Mal twined her fingers with his, but he didn’t look at her. If he did, he was going to get more emotional sharing his real reasons, and he seriously didn’t want to break down right now. “I also just … Once I’d thought of her, I wanted to bring it home, so … God damn it.” He stopped to swipe at his eyes again. Not looking at Mal hadn’t helped. “I wanted her, I wanted all of them, to be part of the holiday.”

Mal slid her arm behind him. “That’s the same reason I wanted to go caroling last night. Me and Dad used to do that whenever Christmas had to be in a campground. I wanted him here, too.”

Ben turned to face Teddy again. “Is there anything we could do that would help you? Like … I don’t know….”

“Could we cook something?” Teddy asked suddenly. “My family always did loads of cooking around the holidays. All of us together.”

Ben chewed his lip thoughtfully. “I remember you telling me about that last year.”

“Yeah,” Teddy nodded. “You gave me the recipe for the snickerdoodles.” He smiled then, and it was a little sad, but it was warm, too. “Kel said snickerdoodles so many times I thought it was going to drive me nuts.”

“Hey, it’s a good word.” He hopped up. “I know what we’ll do. Mostly because I know I have the ingredients and our oven won’t screw it up. Let’s make something Scottish.”

“No haggis!” Mal laughed.

“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” he smirked. “But where do you think I’m hiding yards of sheep intestines, woman?”

“Ew. Is that what haggis is?”

He laughed. “Among other things. But, that wasn’t even on my radar until you brought it up.”

“No,” she reaffirmed with a serious shake of her head.

“Alright, but….”

“Ben Brody, I swear.”

“Okay, okay,” he laughed, holding up his hands. He felt pretty sly, too, because Teddy now looked less emotional and more amused by the two of them than anything. “I was talking about making shortbread.”

Aife finally entered the conversation. “If I pop up to the camp store, would you dip some in chocolate?”

“More American by the day,” Ben said with mock disapproval. “But yes, I definitely would, if they’re open.”

Aife threw her coat back on and pulled Petra up by the elbow. “C’mon, love. You’re coming with me.”

“What? Why?” she groused.

“Because we’re going to freeze you out of your snit. Or just freeze you. It’s entirely up to you.”

Finally, for the first time in several days, Petra smiled in a genuine way. “Okay. That’s probably fair. But I can make no promises.”

Chris donned his coat as well. “I’ll go with you and give these guys room to work.” 

Once they cleared out of the kitchenette, Teddy got up and went to their cupboards. “What do we need?” 

“Flour, butter, and sugar.”

“That’s it?”

“Yep. These are super easy. Way easier than the stuff Cinne and my mother used to make, I bet. Life with modern conveniences like flour and sugar has a lot to recommend it.” He glanced at Mal, who had burrowed further under the blanket. “You want to help?”

“Pass. I’m not at baking yet.”

“It’s just chemistry,” he coaxed.

“Says the guy who needed me to tutor him in it. I’m not buying it. Besides, Chris is right. There’s not enough room. I’ll stay here and watch Gonzo be Charles Dickens.”

He bent to kiss her, then joined Teddy at the counter. 

As they worked on the very simple recipe, one he didn’t even need to look up, Teddy seemed to relax into the ritual of mixing the ingredients. He chatted in a way that was almost cheerful, sharing little holiday memories that seemed to help him. Ben did the same in return, although he had to work to recall details of holidays past.

After a while, Mal called out, “Hush! This is my favorite song in the whole movie.”

“So sing it for us!” Ben demanded lightly.

She didn’t even hesitate. “Wherever you find love, it feels like Christmas!”

After a second or two, Teddy joined in.

Ben smiled, and started humming along. He didn’t need to know the words to agree with the sentiment completely.

***

A simple Scottish Shortbread

12 oz AP flour

4 oz Sugar

8 oz butter (room temperature)

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit 

Grease a 8×8 square pan (with butter)

Mix the flour and sugar together in a bowl, then cut in the butter until the mixture resembles sand.

You can then knead the mixture with your hands (the warmth from your hands helps the dough come together). Once it feels more like dough (think playdough or pie crust), press it into the pan. You can score it into logs or squares and use a fork to press patterns in it (if you want to, but why wouldn’t you?). You can also sprinkle sugar on before you bake them. Bake about 20-30 minutes until they are a pale golden color. Don’t let them brown. Let them cool completely. And if you want to, dip them in melted chocolate. It’s delicious.

It’s Tradition

Authors’ Note: It’s only fair that we travel back into Mal’s past at Fic-mas, too. This story finds Mal and her father on the road, not too long before they eventually make their way to Vermont in the events of Always Darkest. It’s a holiday steeped in tradition for the Sinclair family, and Mal decides to add a new one to the mix. Well, new for them.

It’s Tradition!

Mal hummed along to the Christmas music her dad had put on repeat while he worked to set up their camper for their current stay. She’d offered to help, but he waved her off, saying she’d done all the heavy lifting to get them booked at the last minute. He seemed to be enjoying himself anyway. He was singing along at the top of his lungs as he went in and out their door. She wished she could sing like he could, and she usually sang along unselfconsciously even though she was pretty sure she was tone deaf. She was more immersed in her reading than the music though.

She’d sort of hoped they could maybe take a break from the RV and have a real Christmas this year, but the silver show in Scottsdale offered an incredible opportunity to spend a couple of weeks in one spot and move a large amount of her dad’s merchandise without working too hard for it.

They’d talked about spending the holiday at the campground in Oregon. There had been snow on the ground, a holiday play about to start its annual run at the local theater, and a big tree lighting planned at the RV park. 

Sure, it had gotten kind of crowded and she’d noticed a few people she thought were a little sketchy, but it had sounded like a really nice holiday. Maybe not as nice as renting a house for a couple of weeks, or visiting Grand-mère and Grand-père Sinclair, but pleasant. 

She didn’t say anything about it when he asked if she minded making the trek to Arizona though. She’d been surprised by her dad’s request for her to call and book them a spot at the exposition. But, she supposed it gave her something to do. She’d finished her homeschooling work for the semester over Thanksgiving. 

She didn’t think the desert Southwest was especially Christmassy, but the parts of town they’d passed through on the way to the RV park were decorated. And there was a neat little church she’d found online for them to go to Midnight Mass at later. She’d probably insist on helping if Dad wasn’t finished pretty soon. But, for now, she was engaged in the Christmas tradition she’d only learned about a few weeks ago.

Ari came back inside to pull on a sweatshirt. Mal remembered that for a place that could get crazy cook-an-egg-on-your-dashboard hot at times, once the sun started to dip, it got chilly fast. She glanced up from what she was doing. “Hey, Dad. You sure I can’t help?”

He grinned and shook his head. “I’m all set, honey. What’re you up to?”

She held up her iPad (the wildly extravagant gift he’d given her for her sixteenth birthday over the summer). “A little reading.”

“I thought you were all finished with school until after the New Year.”

She laughed. “I am! This is for fun.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a teenager in  all of human history who spends as much time with her nose in a book as my daughter,” he said with an affectionate headshake. “Let me guess … Medical textbook?”

“Nope! I’m engaged in a full-on holiday tradition.”

“You’re reading Christmas stories?”

“Sort of. I’m reading Stephen King. Lisey’s Story.”

He frowned. “Stephen King writes Christmas stories?”

“Well, this is a love story, about Lisey and her husband Scott. It’s really sweet.”

“You don’t usually read love stories anymore.”

“I like them sometimes,” she shrugged.

“Is it a Christmas romance? Because that doesn’t sound like any Stephen King you’ve ever described to me.”

“Well, no. But it works. Scott’s dead.”

“That’s Christmassy?” he asked incredulously.

“Well, it’s sort of a ghost story. That’s totally Christmassy.”

One of Ari’s bushy black eyebrows climbed. “Since when?”

“Since before Christmas was actually Christmas. Like since forever. People have been telling ghost stories for this time of year since ancient times. But it got really popular again for a while in Victorian England. It was sort of a middle finger to Crommwell’s policies and a spit in the eye of the Industrial Revolution. I love that.”

“I have an even better question now. Since when did my daughter become such a diligent history student?”

“Oh, history still bores the bejesuses out of me. Almost worse than Latin. But it was in the Literature curriculum I just finished up. As far as holiday traditions go, I thought it was pretty cool.”

“It still doesn’t sound very festive. Maybe you could find a ghost story about Christmas?”

“I’ve got the whole internet at my fingertips and you won’t let me help you, so … Sure. I’ll give it a shot.”

***

When Ari returned from a supply run, Mal was engrossed in the story she’d found.

“Find a Christmas story?” 

“Mmmm.”

“You don’t usually go monosyllabic even when you’re reading. It must be a good one.”

She looked up from her tablet. “Yeah, really good. Super spooky.”

Ari chuckled. “So you did find a Christmas ghost story.”

“Not exactly.”

“Who’s the author?”

“It’s another Stephen King one.”

“Does this one at least happen over the holidays?” 

She nodded enthusiastically. “It’s actually about a club that meets and tells scary stories and saves their very best ones for Christmas. The narrator in this one tells a Christmas story for Christmas. I’m just about finished and it’s really good.”

Ari sat next to her on their couch (that also pulled out to be Mal’s bed). “What’s the narrator’s story about.”

“Well, he’s a doctor and he tells a story about delivering a baby on Christmas night.”

“No wonder you like it. It’s about Christmas with someone in your chosen future profession.”

“Ugh. Except the delivering babies stuff. I have literally no interest in babies. Delivering them or otherwise.”

“You don’t think you’ll ever change your mind about that?” 

She wrinkled her nose. “Not likely.” She tapped on her tablet. “Anyway … there’s this terrible accident when the woman is going to the hospital and she gets decapitated.”

“Oh my goodness!”

“But she’s like this amazing, smart, single minded person who won’t let anyone or anything get in the way of her goals….”

“Now I’m really starting to understand why you like it.”

Mal snorted a laugh. “So anyhow, even without a head, she still gives birth to her baby. Right outside.”

Ari pushed himself off the sofa. “Try again. That’s not Christmassy at all.”

***

Mal looked up when her dad came back through the door. “I found a really good one this time.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah. It’s called The Christmas Spirits by somebody named Hendrix.”

“What’s this one about?”

“Um … it’s hard to explain … There’s Nazis–”

“Not Christmassy.”

Mal laughed. “Okay. That’s probably fair.”

***

“Tell me you found something other than Nazis.”

“I just started Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum.”

“Okay, I know that one. Definitely not a Christmas story.”

“Well, it was first published in The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present for 1843.”

“It’s about the Inquisition, Mal.”

“So, technically it’s about Christians then.” She laughed at the expression her father pulled at that. “Okay. Not a stellar period for the Church to bring up. I get it. I’ll try something a little less torturey.”

***

Mal and Ari went back and forth throughout the afternoon, with Mal trying to convince him that horror and paranormal stories had a strong place in holiday transition, and him trying to convince her to take a break from her favorite fiction genre and try something a little more uplifting. Both of them enjoyed the banter and it passed the time pleasantly.

When Ari came back inside from his most recent rejection of her reading material, it was fully dark. 

She put down her iPad. “I finally found one I think you’re going to really like.”

“I can’t wait to hear about it. But how about you come outside and give me a hand for a minute first.”

Mal hopped up and pulled on a sweatshirt, certain she’d need it now that the sun was fully down. “Of course!”

As soon as he opened the door for her, she knew he hadn’t needed help at all. “Dad! Oh, my gosh!”

Ari grinned as Mal slowly circled around their festively lit and decorated RV. “Merry Christmas, Mal.”

She threw her arms around her dad. “This is amazing! But … this is so much work! You didn’t have to….”

“I know you were looking forward to the holiday up in Oregon. And this might not be quite as nice as all that, but at least we’re going to be parked for a little while. I thought, Mal wanted a tree lighting, so maybe I can get close.”

“This is so much more than a tree!”

“I tried to get us a tree, too. But, nobody who was open had any left.”

“Well, it’s Christmas Eve. I think this is even better than a tree.” She would really have loved a tree, but she didn’t want to say so. He’d worked so hard to make this holiday special, even if they were on the road. At least it wasn’t like some years where they barely parked for the holiday. “I’ve never seen so many lights!”

“I’m glad you like it.” He paused. “We could take a walk around town and look at all the Christmas lights. Or if you think that’ll be too chilly, we could make some rideshare driver’s night and get someone to drive us around while we’re waiting for it to be late enough to head to church.”

Mal shook her head and hugged him again. “Would you get a fire going in the pit?”

“Sure, but….”

“I’ll be right back.”

Mal ducked inside, gathered a few things, including her silly elf hat that her aunt Bethany had sent her before they’d had to leave Oregon, and microwaved some hot beverages. When she got outside her dad already had a cheerful fire going.

“Perfect.” She passed him a travel mug full full of hot cocoa. “Have a seat.”

Ari took a sip and smiled. “And here you say you can’t cook.”

“Even I can’t possibly screw up Swiss Miss, Dad.”

When they were settled in their lawn chairs, Mal lit a candle in the brass holder they usually saved for their holiday dinners. 

“What’s all this then?”

“Mood lighting.”

“For what?”

“You put up lights for me, I’m going to read to you. A Christmas ghost story.”

“I know you love those stories, honey, but–”

“It’s tradition, Dad. And I know you’re going to love this one.”

Ari shook his head, chuckling fondly. “Alright, but if I have to sleep with every light in the RV on when we get home tonight, you’re not allowed to complain.”

“We’re lighting up most of southern Arizona with these amazing Christmas lights anyway. What’s a few more?” 

He laughed and took another drink of hot cocoa. “Alright. I’m game.”

Mal picked up her iPad and cleared her throat. “Marley was dead to begin with.” She lifted her eyes to check his reaction.

He grinned. “This is a tradition I can get behind.”

“Awesome. Now, shhh. And listen to the story.” 

He gestured for her to go on.

“Marley was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

Where There Are Sheep

Authors’ note: It wouldn’t be Fic-mas without a story from Ben’s human past. As a boy in ancient Scotland, Ben often found himself in trouble. Fortunately, he also always found his way out. The title of this story comes from a quote by Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus. However, the idea that sparked the story happened because I (Jess) was listening to Alt Nation on Sirius XM and Missio’s song Wolves came on. I’m a huge fan of Missio, and Wolves might be my favorite song of theirs. It gave me this picture of a dark wolf with glowing amber eyes that remind little Ben of his own. It was a short trip from there to Google where I learned some pretty interesting Scottish folklore that inspired what you are about to read. If I were you, I’d listen to Missio while I read this, but as we say in the Flaherty household, you do you!

Where There Are Sheep

“Where’re ye off ta, Beanie?”

He rolled his eyes at the nickname but didn’t say anything about it. He had eight summers behind him now. His father promised that after Yule he could start hunting with the men. He might even be able to go fight with them, if he could carry his father’s shield by the time he was needed. The childish nicknames would stop then, he was sure. 

“Nowhere,” he said, unconvincingly as he inched toward the door.

His mother’s eyebrows disappeared into her hair. “An’ I suppose tha’s na half our feast stuffed in yer pockets?”

He let his eyes go wide and innocent. “I dunno wha’ yer….” 

Of course that was the moment an apple fell out and rolled across the floor to her feet.

“Bean.” 

He tried to think of a convincing falsehood but nothing came to mind. “It’s for the fair folk,” he confessed.

“Beathan, ye cannae go wastin’ food.”

His face flushed with a flash of temper. “I’m not wastin’ it! If ye don’ share they–”

“Aren’ goin’ to have our harvest feast,” his mother interrupted.

“It’s the second one a the season!” he protested hotly. “Ye dinnae wanta share the firs’ harvest either! Daira says–”

“If Daira wants ta feed them, ye can go help her do it,” his mother said, clearly annoyed. “Get on wi’ ya, lad. I’m busy.”

He huffed a sigh and awkwardly emptied his pockets on the table. He held up a single apple. “What if I–”

“Put it back,” his mother snapped. “Go feed the goat!”

He groaned. “Ach, I cannae do it wi’ only one hand.” He waved his splinted, bandaged arm at her.

His mother gave him a very pointed look. “Ye shoulda thought a tha’ before ye climbed tha’ tree.”

“I was after eggs for ye!” 

Her stern expression slipped into a fond smile. “Tha’ ye were.” Then she frowned again. “Did Daira say ye dinnae need the sling?”

He shifted from one foot to the other. “Uhhuh.” 

“Yer blushin’, lad. Ye know tha’s a dead giveaway, don’ ye?”

“I….”

“Go get it,” she ordered. “Then go feed the goat.”

He stomped over to the hearth, snatched up the twist of fabric Daira had fashioned to keep his broken arm out of his way, and wrestled himself back into it, swearing softly when his arm reminded him it still hurt if he moved certain ways. 

Once he had it situated, more or less, he side-eyed his mother. It seemed she was busy with stirring the big pot over the fire, so he sidled up to the table again, and slowly put the apple back in his pocket.

“Beathan,” his mother warned without turning around.

He scowled at her back, and slunk out the door. Without the apple.

Daira had made a real point of teaching him about the fair ones after his strange encounter a couple of winters ago. She’d said if you didn’t want them bothering folk, you had to leave gifts, especially food.

“You mean make friends?”

“Ach, no!” she replied with a serious expression. “You buy some peace is all. But no safety. Never think yer safe with the fair folk. Na fer a moment, Ben.” 

He grinned. He loved how she always called him Ben. It was how he thought of himself after his strange encounter with the woman he and Daira were certain was the Cailleach Bheur. She usually called him that now. Unless he was in trouble.

“Are they all dangerous?” he asked, eyes wide. 

Daira shrugged. “No … but ye musn’ take chances, Ben. Some … and ye know from the egg on yer head … some’ll take yer life without blinkin’. An’ if they’re hungry….” 

He nodded solemnly. He’d nearly been a meal for one of them. Fortunately, Caraid made a meal of the faerie before that could happen.

He’d been leaving little dishes of food outside since then. At least he had until his mother caught him at it recently. So far, this had been a lean year for crops and the weather hadn’t been favorable for foraging either. Even though the leaves hadn’t fully colored yet, there was a chill in the air. The men didn’t seem especially bothered because hunting had still been alright, but his mother worried about getting the clan through the winter. He’d caught the back of her spoon more than once for trying to sneak off with food over the summer. 

He’d learned his lesson for the most part. And Cinnie let him have scraps often enough. But he thought feast days might be different. Something told him that if he put out nothing but scraps on a feast day, the fair folk might take it personally. Besides, as far as he was concerned, if there was a feast, everyone should get some. So he’d left a good portion of his own meal out when his mother refused him any extra.

He heaved a sigh. He was in no hurry to go wrestle with the goat’s food one-handed. Instead, he wandered around looking for Caraid. He hadn’t seen her today. She always turned up, but he worried when she wasn’t on his bed in the morning, keeping watch. 

He looked longingly up at their roof. That’s probably where she was. But he couldn’t climb with one hand. Or can I? 

He glanced around to be sure no one was looking, then he slipped free of the sling again, stuffing it into his pocket. He got a running start and hopped up on their covered rain barrel with his usual weightlessness. He squinted up at the thatch bundles. Then he flexed his hands, wincing at the sharp twinge it caused in his splinted arm. He figured this wasn’t one of his best ideas. But, then again, it probably wasn’t one of his worst ones either. 

He prepared to make the jump to catch the edge of the roof, which really wasn’t all that high, no matter what his mother said, but a sharp, “Bean! Get down from there!” startled him into nearly falling.

“Ach, Cinnie, I’m na hurtin’ anythin’!” he complained, but jumped down anyway.

 His brother Drustan’s wife smiled at him with a combination of affection and exasperation. “Exceptin’ yerself, most likely, Bean.”

He dug a bare toe in the cool dirt. “I was jus’ lookin’ fer Caraid.”

“Don’ go climbin’ up there lookin’ fer yer mad cat with that arm. Ye’ll wind up more hurt and fevered again,” she admonished. He didn’t bother to conceal the deep roll of his eyes, but it was cut short when she added, “I saw yer girl out back by Nanny on my way over.”

He huffed another irritated breath. “Course she’s by the damned goat.”

“Who yer supposed to be feedin’ from the sour look ye’ve got.”

He shrugged. “Ma said ta, but….”

“But yer feud wi’ Nanny is the stuff o’ legends.” Cinnie smiled again. “Here, Bean. I’ll an’ help. Then ye can come inside to help. The feast is only a day away. The more hands the better, lad.”

He fidgeted.  

“Did she chase ye off again?”

He nodded, blushing. “She dinnae wan’ me te take anythin’ fer the fair folk.”

“Ach, well. She’s been worried we won’ have enough. C’mon. Le’s go find yer Caraid.”

She took his good hand and led him around back. She didn’t so much help him feed the old goat as she talked to him while she did it herself. By the time they finished, Caraid appeared, just as Cinnie predicted she would, and contented herself with trying to trip her human by affectionately rubbing against his legs as he paced around telling Cinnie about his latest adventures, lamenting his mother’s stinginess with the food, and complaining about the sling Cinnie made him put back on.

When they finished tending the goat, who, predictably, tried to knock Ben down every time he got anywhere near her, Cinnie coaxed him back to the front of the house with the promise to help with his mother, too.

“She’s not gonna let me ha’ anythin’ though,” he protested.

“Ye le’me worry about tha’, Bean,” she replied as she headed inside.

After a while he peeked around the edge of the open door. Cinnie was talking to his mother as they dumped some things in the big pot. Cinnie caught him looking and tipped him a wink right before she pointed out something on the far shelf. Once his mother was engaged in conversation with her beneath it, Cinnie waved at him.

He grinned and dipped back inside to quickly stuff his pockets. 

Then he and Caraid headed for the wood. 

***

By the time the Winter’s Sleep was drawing to its end, things had improved a bit, to Ben’s way of thinking. And he didn’t necessarily credit the meals he left out for the faeries who might live nearby. But he didn’t discount it either.

The weather had turned fair after the lean meal that marked the clan’s second harvest celebration, and in addition to a fine end to the harvest season, the local game practically walked right in the front doors of the hunters, fish nearly lept into their boats, and foul might as well have dropped out of the sky right onto the dinner tables of his people. It had also been a warmer winter than any of them could remember.

His arm was still in a splint, but it was no longer bandaged up. He’d left the sling behind as well. And while he thought that between Daira, his mother, and Cinnie, he’d never been so fussed at in his whole life as he had since he’d broken it, he could finally use it without much pain. He’d climbed up on their roof that very morning, to talk to Caraid. Not that he’d admitted to it when asked where he’d been. 

“Oh, ye know … aroun’.”

“Alrigh’, Bean,” his mother said to his vague answer. “I need one of ye lads te go to Moibeal’s. Balgair got more birds than they can use. She offered some already plucked for the soup for the feast.”

He grinned. “I’ll go!” he replied quickly.

“Are ye sure ye can carry things, Bean?” she asked. “It’s bound ta be heavy.”

“Ach, I’m fine! I keep tellin’ ye.”

She gave him a piercing look. “Maybe ye should find Osheen….”

He pretended like he hadn’t heard her. “Be back soon!” he called and dashed out the door. 

After the way she’d been about his broken arm, he didn’t even want to think about what she’d be like once he went off on a real hunt, and he most especially shuddered to think what she’d be like once his father started taking him along to fight. She was going to have to get used to the idea that he was going to get hurt sometimes. Besides, he wasn’t about to let Osh take on the job of going to Balgair’s. 

Aila might be home.

His face felt suddenly hot, though he couldn’t have said why. 

When he approached their doorway, he saw Balgair’s youngest daughter, who was a bit older than him, brushing dirt out their door with a straw broom. Her dark hair fell in tight ringlets over her shoulders and her bright blue eyes sparkled when she glanced up. “Beathan!”

His neck and ears heated.

“Aila,” he said with all the dignity he could muster. He drew himself up to his full height, too. He’d been smallish for his age only last year, but since the spring he’d, as his mother liked to say, shot up like a sprout, and now he’s was as tall as Osh, and he was rapidly catching up to Angus. 

Aila beamed a sunny smile at him and his face split into a grin of his own. “How’ve ye been?” he asked, suppressing the urge to fidget with the edge of his tunic.

“Good.” For some reason entirely mysterious to Beathan, she giggled. “Tired of cleanin’ up for the feast.”

“Mmm,” he said with a sage nod, because he couldn’t come up with anything else. 

“What’re ye doin’ here today? I haven’ seen ye in ages.”

He mentally cursed the boots his mother had made him wear because he really wanted to dig a toe in the dirt. “I … um … Mam sent me ta see abou’ some birds, I guess.”

“She’s gone off to Enaid’s. She’ll be back in a bit though.”

“Oh. I … I’ll come back then.”

She smiled shyly at him. “Do ye still need to go get the mistletoe for yer hearth like ye always do?” 

“They wouldn’ let me.” He shook his head. “Alastair thought he saw one o’ the big cats in the wood an’ she still thinks I cannae use both hands.”

She pointed to his splint. “Does it hurt much?” 

“Ach, no.” He waved dismissively with his splinted arm to make his point. “All of ‘em put up a stink or I’d a gone anyway.”

She smiled again and stepped closer. “Yer so brave.”

He didn’t think his face had ever been so warm. But he grinned anyway. “I try ta be.”

“I wish we had some mistletoe.”

He squared his shoulders. “I could go get some.”

“Won’ yer mam get after ye?”

He waved his hand again. “Ach, she won’ know.”

Aila giggled again. “Only if yer sure….”

Ben was already headed in the direction of the forest. “I’ll be back before yer màthair! With the mistletoe!”

***

The best place to enter the wood happened to be near Daira’s cottage and he’d nearly gotten caught by the wisewoman before he could disappear into the underbrush. But one of the things Ben had learned in the last few months, as he’d done his best not to be slowed down by his injured arm (or his mother and the rest who kept after him about it), was stealth. 

She’d heard something though, because she peered at the forest’s edge for a few moments. Daira took a step in his direction, but stopped abruptly. “Caraid!” she exclaimed. “Come to chase some squirrels, have ye?” She stooped to pet the cat. “Ye stay outta the wood. I heard the howl of the cù-sìth las’ night.”

Caraid simply meowed and got up on her hind legs, offering her head for more petting.

Ben grinned. He could always count on Caraid to know when he needed her. He was also pretty sure, tales of a faerie death dog or not, Caraid approved of this excursion, because if she didn’t, he knew full well that, instead of helping, she’d be chasing after him and tripping him up. He crawled along on the ground until he was far enough away that his blond hair wouldn’t be seen through the branches. 

Once he was sure he’d avoided detection, he got to his feet and used his good hand to brush himself off. It was strange that it was warm enough that there was no snow clinging to the ground, even here in the shade of the wood, but it was nice, too. 

He squinted up through the treetops to get an idea of how much time he had to get what he came for and get back to Aila with her mistletoe. His face pulled immediately into a frown. It had taken him longer to sneak over here and get into the woods than he’d thought.

There was nothing for it now. He’d promised mistletoe and he aimed to deliver it. He peered around at the trees, frown deepening. He loved that it wasn’t as cold as it usually was this time of year, but the trees hadn’t even shed all their leaves. It was going to make finding the sacred plant even harder than usual. 

He combed through his most recent memories of excursions to find various plants for Daira and recalled seeing some mistletoe in the grove near his favorite fishing pond. Pleased he had a place to start, he got his bearings and headed confidently into the deeper part of the forest.

As Ben meandered through the familiar trees, he found himself glancing over his shoulder more than usual. It was almost like he wasn’t alone. But he didn’t see so much as a finch or squirrel.

He slowly noticed that his feet crunched over the leaves too loudly. The trickle of the stream that emptied into his pond reached his ears as well, even though he was still a good bit away. 

He tried to tell himself it was the time of year. Winter was always quieter. But.… 

Something felt … off.

He stopped abruptly. He caught the barest sound of velveted paws off to his left and his head whipped in that direction in time to see a sliver of movement … something like sun dappling that disappeared behind a deadfall. 

Ben held his breath, listening.

When his chest strained with the need, a sharp chilling bark split the air. He gasped and took off in the opposite direction of the sound. 

He leapt over downed trees, dodged huge rocks, brushed off the whipping he took from sapling branches, and went sprawling in an icy patch the shade allowed to hide in wait for him.

Using both hands to gain purchase, Ben scrambled to his feet, momentarily grateful that his arm was mostly healed and had the strength to aid his escape from the beast whose bark had frozen his blood.

He pelted through the forest, his thundering heart the only sound until another thunderous bark shattered the silence of the forest. Daira’s voice came to him suddenly: I heard the howl of the cù-sìth las’ night.

The hammering in his chest stopped for a split second as his heart squeezed with real fear. Every tale Daira had ever told him of the dangers the faerie realm posed played through his head. He should have run toward the village. You had two warnings from those creatures to get to safety. If it barked again it would take him. 

He glanced around the copse of birch trees he found himself in, frantically searching for any sign of the dark wolf with glowing eyes Daira had warned him about.

A branch snapped behind him. He pulled his hunting knife from where he kept it strapped by his hip and spun to face it, just in time to be caught in the back of the legs by a log he’d failed to see in his mad dash away from that harbinger of certain death. 

This time when he went sprawling, it knocked the breath from his lungs and the knife from his hand. It also set a cascade of stars in front of his eyes. 

A shadow fell over him.

He blinked rapidly, trying to clear his field of vision. If death had come for him, he planned to meet it glaring.

Instead of the wolf of legend, a wildcat perched on the log above him. When he met its eyes, it opened its mouth in a blood-curdling hiss. 

Ben forced himself to stay still, though what he wanted to do was run away as fast as his long legs would carry him. He took a slow careful breath and eased his hand away from his body to try to recover his knife.

The wildcat tensed like it would pounce, but didn’t. It opened its mouth again.

He expected another menacing hiss, but what came out of the creature was a scream, so high, so loud, and so unlike anything he had ever heard, he thought it must not be a regular woodland cat. It had to be another creature from the fair realms, even more deadly than the cù-sìth. He took a slow breath. Angus had told him about the scream of a wildcat. This wasn’t some monster from beyond the veil. If he stayed calm, he could make his family a gift of it’s pelt. He might catch trouble from his mother for having gone into the wood, but if he came home with this creature’s fur, she could hardly pretend he was still too hurt to do so much as carry some birds. And maybe she’d stop trying to talk his father out of letting him go with the men. He didn’t think his father took her fussing too seriously anyway, but a victory here would surely put an end to it. Besides, he had no interest in having being a meal for anything in this wood, from the faerie realm or otherwise.

His fingers brushed the handle of his knife and he had a momentary surge of hope that he could defend himself. The hope was short lived though. The cat wiggled its hindquarters, just like Caraid when she was about to pounce on some hapless squirrel, and screamed again.

So quick, he didn’t even see it move, the creature was on top of him, huge paws on either side of his slender shoulders, before he could get his fingers to close on his knife. Its breath was hot and fetid, like the smell of the end of the world. But no part of him was going to be its meal without a fight. 

He got his hands around its neck, the only thing he could think to do. But he’d hurt his arm again in his fall, so he didn’t think he could choke it. It confirmed his fears by pushing closer to his face. It screamed again, jaws snapping so close its teeth caught his hair. 

He pushed against it with all his might, but was sickly certain he wasn’t going to keep it from taking him for long. His bad arm started to give out and he screamed back in its face because it was all he had left. 

Hot saliva dripped on his face and another snap pulled his hair so hard his head jerked, and he cried out. Blood pounded in his ears, fueled by struggle and stark terror, but another rumbling bark pierced it. He knew he was as good as dead then, even if the cat didn’t finish him. 

Suddenly, a dark green blur barreled into the cat, knocking it off him with a heavy thump.

Ben didn’t pause for the space of a heartbeat to be relieved. He scooped up his knife and skinned up the nearest tree as fast and as high as he could. 

When he could go no further without bending the top of the slender silver tree over, he wedged himself against the trunk and tucked his knife back into its leather sheath so he could hold his throbbing arm against his chest. He squeezed his eyes shut until the worst of it passed. Then he looked down at the ground far below.

The blur that saved him from death-by-wildcat was most certainly a wolf, but bigger than any wolf Ben had ever seen or heard of, at least as big as the pony Drustan had picked up from traders last summer. The wolf was also the same color as the evergreen boughs that adorned their mantle and sills at home. It could only be the cù-sìth

But it had barked three times.

Ben’s stomach dropped at the momentary flash of horror that he must be dead, that the wet smacking sounds he could hear below weren’t from the beast eating a wildcat, but must be from it devouring his flesh, while his spirit simply hovered above the forest floor. 

Then his arm throbbed in time with the steady, if too quick, beat within his chest. He thought he might have rebroken it a little. He patted his good hand all over to assure himself he was still, in fact, solid. He patted the tree trunk for good measure. Once he’d assured himself that he hadn’t dropped dead from the faerie wolf’s bark, he angled himself forward to get a better look at it.

The gruesome stain on the forest floor, combined with the sounds of the wolf feasting on the remains of the wildcat, caused Ben’s stomach to do a slow roll. He leaned back against the tree trunk and closed his eyes. It seemed like forever before the slurping, crunching meal came to a close.

“Hullo, up there!” called a pleasant, gravelly voice.

Ben pried his eyes open and looked down. 

At the base of the tree, stood a man. Well, that was the best word Ben could come up with to describe the fellow with wild dark hair, and an even wilder beard, dressed from head to toe in leaves and moss. He couldn’t have been any taller than Ben, but he stood resting a small hand on the back of the horse-sized wolf now resting on its haunches beside him. 

“You’re the ghillie dhu,” Ben blurted.

The small man grinned up at him. “You can call me Barclay, laddie.”

“Hullo, Barclay,” he called down politely. “I’m Beathan.”

“Are ye, now?” The man seemed amused, though he wasn’t laughing. “I thought yer name was Ben. Or is that some other reckless young man I’ve heard about from other dwellers o’ the wood?”

Ben liked that Barclay called him a young man and not a child. He also wondered who might have told anyone his name, or how Barclay recognized him. Of course, he supposed he was the only person in the whole clan with blond hair. Other than Cinnie. And she was from Away. “No, tha’s me.”

“It’s gettin’ on toward dark, lad. Why’n’t ye come down so ye can get yerself home?”

Ben hesitated. “Um … because….”

“Don’t ye worry abou’ Maddy. She hasn’t got any mind to hurt ye.”

“Daira says … Daira’s our wisewoman and….”

“I know Daira, Ben. And she’s most wise. But ye needn’t worry about ole Maddy.”

“So, she doesn’t bark death for people?” he asked, starting to climb down. If the gillie dhu said he was safe, he was. He protected children in the wood, or so Daira had told him. And while he liked being called a man, he knew he wasn’t one. Not yet. If he’d had his first whisker, he’d have been off with the men today instead of sent on a kitchen errand by his mother.

Barclay chuckled. “She does. But na fer you, Ben. Your road ends far from here.”

Ben frowned, but didn’t ask what Barclay meant. He was too busy trying to get back down without losing his one-handed grip on the branches. He dropped back onto the ground right in front of Barclay and his giant pet, who now looked at Ben with glowing amber eyes that reminded him of his own.

He wanted to ask Barclay why her eyes glowed like that, but he was distracted by her surging forward and covering him with sloppy dog kisses that almost knocked him over. “Quit it!” he laughed, throwing up his hands. “Maddy stop! That tickles!”

“Let him breathe, Mads,” Barclay laughed.

The wolf obediently sat down next to her master, but looked very much like she’d like to slobber all over Ben some more. 

“Thank you,” Ben said, relieved the wolf was as obedient as she was enormous. He looked up at the darkening sky. “I should get home, I think.”

Barclay nodded his agreement. “We’ll walk you out, young Ben. That lynx isn’t the only one nearby.”

“Lynx?” he asked, falling into step between Barclay and Maddy.

“Tha’s its name. Ye won’ hear it spoken aroun’ these parts, but I know the names of all the creatures in the wood.”

As they walked along, Barclay talked of the many names of creatures, showed Ben all manner of herbs and mushrooms that were good for medicine or to eat, and smiled slyly whenever Maddy would lap Ben’s splinted arm.

When they arrived at the edge of the wood near Daira’s cottage, Barclay took a small cloth-wrapped bundle from a pouch amongst the moss and leaves that made up his tunic. “This is fer Daira. Tell her Barclay says hullo, will ye?”

Ben accepted the bundle. “I will.” He turned to go, but Barclay stopped him.

“Hold on, young Ben. I’ve gifts fer ye as well.” Barclay took a beautiful cutting of mistletoe from the same pouch and handed it to Ben. “This is fer you. You’ll also be happy te know tha’ Maddy healed up yer arm.”

Ben accepted the mistletoe with his good hand and flexed the other a few times, grinning when he realized it didn’t hurt one bit. He knew dogs licked wounds to heal them. But apparently a giant magic dog could take it to another level. “But why…?”

Barclay smiled. “Any lad who’d share his own feast wi’ my people, an’ daily risk his màthair’s wrath, is a friend to me an’ all the good fair ones who live in this wood.”

“Thank you, Barclay.” Ben started to reach his hand out, then pulled it back.

“Go on, lad. Maddy won’ mind.”

Ben grinned and scratched the cù-sìth behind her ears, though he had to stretch to do so. 

By the time he stopped, Barclay had disappeared back into the trees. Maddy gave Ben one more sloppy kiss up one side of his face, then turned and galloped back into the wood herself.

Ben secured the mistletoe in the pouch he kept tied to his belt for collecting herbs, pleased he could keep his promise to Aila, even if it was a bit later than he’d planned. Then he caught sight of Caraid and Daira standing in her well-lit doorway. He took off across the last stretch of grass, calling to both of them, excited to share his latest adventure, and to begin preparations for the holiday in earnest.

He was going to leave a proper feast outside for Barclay and his friends tomorrow.

No matter what anyone said about it.

When Hell Freezes Over

Welcome to another Twelve Days of Fic-mas. If this is your first time with us, you’re in for a paranormal holiday treat. The next twelve days will bring you tales of holidays past and present, featuring characters from The Arbitratus Universe, including those you may know from Always Darkest and Before the Dawn, as well as those from Fic-mas past. We hope you enjoy this year’s stories and that we can usher 2020 out in style.

The crowded streets made Ben wish he didn’t need to be in this part of Hell. 

But it was the winter solstice. He had to see Aife today. And they agreed to meet at her house this year. 

She could have come to his place, but his neighbor, Abatu, (a miserable demon, bent on seeing Ben picked up by Hell’s not-so-secret police as revenge for Ben’s lack of tolerance for regular invasions of his grounds by the other demon’s strange pets) had marked their Yule observance last year. It caused some trouble with the higher-ups, but Ben managed to keep Aife out of the inquiry. 

He wouldn’t let his distaste for the neighborhood she had been assigned keep him from upholding their centuries old tradition. If not for his influence, it would have been in one of the even lower levels. Besides, he had good news for a change. 

She’d be thrilled to hear that he’d won an appointment to an Office. Agents were rarely called back to Hell. Not that the job didn’t come with its share of problems. Working for Hell was working for Hell. But it was a damned sight better than his current job. 

His only other option to get out of his Reaping gig was to accept the offer to join Interrogation and Initiation. Stolas, who’d taken an interest in his career since his sorcery apprenticeship, was convinced Ben’s rhetorical gifts would be invaluable to the department. He’d been pressuring Ben to take the position for a while now. But even if Ben was okay with all the torturing and misery inflicted there (he wasn’t), Ba’al was in charge of them now. 

Even if it meant he got granted leave to go to Earth every damned weekend, he wasn’t going to put himself under that god’s command if he could help it. Besides, if Ben worked under him, it would only be a matter of time before the god put two and two together and realized every time one of his rare books went missing, the theft coincided with Ben’s days off.

Of course, he’d nearly gotten caught this last time. He would have if not for some fast thinking and the infestation of screets outside Ba’al’s library window. He hated those squealing little blighters so much he’d have felt bad about coaxing them inside anyone else’s house. But Ba’al wasn’t someone who got any of Ben’s sympathy on his best day. 

Ben snorted a laugh as he recalled Ba’al’s rageful howl upon discovering the noisy little pests hopping their coal-hot froggy bodies all over his favorite rug and burning sooty, oily holes through it. 

Ben let himself into Aife’s modest home and set the flagon of better wine he’d procured for the occasion, along with a sack full of dinner ingredients, on the table next to the door. “Hey, Aife! Sorry I’m late! One of Cerberus’s heads got tetchy and it was a nightmare to get across the bridge today!”

No answer but his voice disappearing into her silent house.

Huh.

“Aife?” he called again, starting to be worried.

“She’s out just now, Lord Ronoven,” came a timid voice from right by his elbow.

The slight, pale girl he’d saved from the Pit not all that long ago who acted as Aife’s serving girl, had appeared as if by magic. He hated that she’d needed a rescue. She was practically a child. 

“Hey, Anabell.” Ben offered a friendly smile. “I’ve told you, unless we’re out around other demons, it’s just Ben, okay?”

“That wouldn’t be proper, sir.”

“I don’t know if Aife’s told you all that much about me, but I’m not too worried about what’s proper. And I’m definitely not into all that ‘my lord’ and ‘sir’ nonsense.”

Her lips flickered in what might have been a smile, but it was gone before he could be sure. “I’ll try to remember that … B–” Her hand flew to her mouth. “I’m sorry, sir. I just can’t.”

He chuckled, more to let her off the hook than anything. He hated that her life had conditioned her to expect bad things to happen if she didn’t behave a particular way, and hated even more that when it ended she’d found herself in Hell and had all her worst fears confirmed. “That’s alright. Maybe someday.” He looked around the dim house. “So, Aife went out? She must’ve forgotten what day it is on Earth.”

Anabell shook her head. “Oh, no, sir. She was most upset. Mostly because of the day, I believe.”

“I know it’s hard for her sometimes.” Ben frowned thoughtfully. “That’s one of the reasons we always get together.” He looked around again, searching for an answer to his friend’s unexpected absence. “I wonder what happened.”

Anabell shifted from one foot to the other, her eyes downcast as they so often were, no matter what Aife or Ben said. They might see her role as servant as a cover that kept another tender soul out of the Pit, but she obviously saw it as a continuation of her life Above. She hummed a small sound of distress, but didn’t speak openly.

Ben ducked his head to meet her eyes. “Anabell, do you know where Aife went?”

She danced a few steps back on her toes, but finally looked at him. “To walk in the cold, sir.”

Ben swore under his breath as his whole body tensed. “She went to Niflhel? After that last card game, Loki would love to see her go astray down there!” he exclaimed, more to himself than to Anabell. “Doesn’t she know demons are lost in the mist all the time?”

The girl stepped back further at the taut edge in his voice, but didn’t look away from his face as she usually did. “Oh, no, sir! My lady would never be so foolish. She was upset, not daft, sir!”

Ben smiled slightly. The eye contact and correcting him represented real progress toward this kid seeing herself as more than someone else’s property. He forced his voice to carry its usual reassuring tone so he could tease out where Aife had gotten to. “Well, that’s a relief. It would be a huge help if you could tell me where to find her. Do you know for certain where I might look?”

“Oh, yes, sir!” Anabell grinned. 

How pleased she looked at the prospect of helping someone she saw as a ‘master’ tugged at his heart, and made him vaguely furious all at the same time. Still, this wasn’t the moment to work on that. Instead, he said gently, “Wonderful. I knew you’d be able to sort me out. Where did she get to, if she isn’t trying to grey my hair by taking off for the Northmen’s perdition?”

“Cocytus, sir,” she replied, clearly expecting him to be pleased.

He kept himself from swearing again, but it took a considerable amount of will, combined with a desire not to frighten the girl. He needed answers before he took off to find Aife in one of his least favorite places in all the Netherrealms. Not that he’d been there before. He hated the very idea of it. “Why in the name of all that’s unholy would she go there?”

“My lady said it was the one place her own wailing would go unnoticed, sir.”

Ben chewed his lip. Aife wasn’t especially prone to big emotional displays. If she’d said that much to Anabell, something truly terrible must have happened. He’d know better where to look if he had some specifics. “Do you know why she was so upset?”

Anabell shook her head, but brightened after a moment. “Wait here!”

She’d forgotten to call him ‘sir’. That was real progress. His satisfaction at marking their influence on her evaporated when she ran back up the hall with a familiar green scroll. A rejection slip. 

Aife applied for a job? Without telling me? What is going on with that woman?

“I don’t know what it says. I never had my letters. But she came home with this, mumbling about the holiday, all manner of sad.”

“May I?” Ben reached out a hand.

She bowed slightly when she handed it over, so Ben might have had to amend his estimation of her progress, but this time when he swore it was none too quiet and she didn’t back away. Instead, she asked with open curiosity and concern, “What is it?”

“Apparently the lady of the house applied for a position in Reaping, and didn’t get it. Why the Hell…?”

“I can help with that!” the girl beamed. “She spoke about it over dinner the other night!”

“I’m glad to hear you’re joining her for dinner now instead of insisting on waiting on her,” Ben said. He almost wished he hadn’t when she bit her lip, but she slipped him a genuine grin that said she was glad about it, too. “What possessed her to apply with Reaping? She knows it’s a nightmare. Or she should. I’ve told her often enough.”

Anabell bobbed her head in agreement, as her concern for her mistress reasserted itself. “She said as much, sir. But she also said she wanted a way to spend some time Up Top. She hasn’t been able to see about her family since … well, since you took her.”

Of course. It’s been hundreds of years since I could do anything about that. Aife is still so attached to her kin … I should have seen this coming.

Ben handed Anabell back the scroll. “Thank you. That explains a lot.”

“Cocytus is no place for my lady to be wandering around.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll fetch her home for you.”

“You’re going there, too?” she asked with a shrill climb at the end. 

Ben could read her fear about something happening to both of them. If neither of them came back, she’d surely find herself back in the Pit by day’s end. He offered a reassuring smile that he mostly had to fake. “Don’t worry. I’ve come back from tougher places than Cocytus without so much as a scratch. We’ll all be sharing mulled wine together before the Earth finishes turning its day Above.”

“Are you certain?”

“I am.” And he was. But Anabell looked as uncertain as it was possible for a girl to be. “Look, why don’t you work on dinner? That way, there’ll be something to warm us when we get back.”

Anabell picked up the sack full of food. “Of course! I’ll start right away!” She dipped into a curtsey before he could tell her not to and ran up the hall toward the kitchen.

Ben let himself out. He was halfway down the walk when Anabell burst out of the door. “Sir! You’re not dressed for the cold! Do you want to borrow a cloak?”

Ben turned. “I’ll stop home for one of my own. I have another stop to make before I go get Aife for you.”

Her eyes widened a bit in obvious surprise that he wasn’t rushing to her lady’s side. “Where?”

Ben took a deep breath, steeling himself for what might not be a pleasant side-trip. “The Royal Palace.”

He registered her shock at his response, but turned to leave. He had almost reached the street when she called, “Sir?” 

He didn’t think he had any more reassurances left in him, so he pretended he hadn’t heard her and kept walking. He stopped when Anabell’s voice rose in an actual indecorous shout, “Ben!”

He spun, unable to help a grin. “Yeah?”

“Be careful!” she exclaimed, parroting the thing she’d probably already heard Aife say to him at least a hundred times.

He smirked and offered his usual response. “Never.”

***

“You’re sure this is what you want?” the King asked in his rumbling baritone.

“If it pleases Your Majesty,” Ben said with a deferential bow.

“It doesn’t especially please me,” the King said levelly. “But fortunately for you, it doesn’t displease me either. It’s yours, and therefore you may see it taken care of in any manner you wish.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.” He bowed again.

“I suppose you’d like this announced at the next gathering of nobles? Increase your social capital, as it were?”

Ben cleared his throat. “Um … Actually, I’d rather this stayed between us, Sire.”

The King stared at him until Ben thought he’d catch fire from the heat of it. After an interminable period, during which it took every ounce of poise Ben ever cultivated not to fidget like some damned kid, the King simply waved his dismissal. “As you wish, Lord Ronoven.”

Ben bowed deeply and backed out of the Dread Soverign’s office. He collected his things from the spacious foyer and headed up the street to see about a horse. The Ninth Circle was further than he wanted to go on foot. 

Besides, he wanted to collect Aife and get her home before the last hour of Yule passed. He supposed it didn’t matter, since they were on Hell’s calendar anyway. But it was important to him. Especially now. 

***

The ride was long to begin with, but as he had to make it listening to the wailing spirits flowing down the River Archeron, it might as well have been eternity. Just another reminder of the abject cruelty found around every corner in Hell. 

Ragged, shrouded figures, moaning and weeping, wandered among the rocks, some stretching out their hands to him as he rode past. He knew he’d be faced with Hell’s discarded and forgotten along the banks of the Infernal Rivers that emptied into the lake, but he hadn’t been prepared for the sight of them. It chilled him more surely than the frozen air.

Even though he knew how easy it would be to become lost, almost as easy as it would have been if he’d had to go hunting for Aife in Niflhel, he passed out what food, drink, and coin he’d brought to the souls brave enough to approach him. 

Perhaps he’d regret it, at least according to the small voice in his head, but he had plenty of experience ignoring it. And no amount of whispers from long-departed family members could convince him he’d regret it more than not doing it. Part of him expected to see Aife’s face upturned with the others, just to screw with him. 

But no such luck. 

He rode up to the cliff’s edge where the Fall of Tears emptied into the frozen lake itself. The closer he got to the end of the road, the colder he felt. But it had nothing to do with the temperature. If Aife had wandered away from the road, he had almost no chance of finding her. 

What if she hadn’t just left home to have a good cry? What if she’d given up hope and gone into the water? 

He’d never see her again. 

He glanced at the river. Colorless, half-formed souls flowed over sharp rocks and around bobbing chunks of jagged ice. Their collective lament rose to a crescendo in his ears, until it was all he could hear.

Sick certainty gripped him. Aife was gone. 

A lump tightened his throat and he couldn’t swallow past it. Stinging, watering eyes quickly followed. 

Damn it. 

He hated to cry. He’d rather bleed. His breath hitched against his finer impulses and his eyes overflowed, entirely against his will.

His rented horse seemed to sense his sudden loss of composure and wrenched its head to the side, almost yanking the reins from his hands. He pulled the mount to a halt and climbed off to give himself a minute. But instead of mastering his errant emotions, he got closer to breaking down. He tried all the usual measures to box up his feelings, but nothing helped.

He found himself drawn to the water’s edge. Despite everything he’d read, or been told, about this region of Hell, despite all the warnings, he let his feet carry him there.

This close to the water, he could make out distinct faces, though they all bore a resemblance to each other in their suffering. As he watched them flow past, a deep melancholy settled in his chest. He blinked when a face caused a flicker of recognition. 

He leaned closer to the water.

He imagined he recognized not just one face, but many. Though he’d checked every register he could access and never found any of his family’s names recorded there, he became convinced he saw his brothers, his parents, even Cinnie. Her face finally pulled the sob from him he’d been trying so hard to keep back.

Once the dam of his emotions broke, he could no longer restrain himself. He reached out until his fingers brushed the icy water. Perhaps he couldn’t save them all, but Cinnie floated in the shallows, stretching an ephemeral hand toward him. 

He’d almost broken the surface when the face he’d been so certain belonged to his sister-in-law morphed into a monster’s horrifying rictus of malicious intent. He stumbled back, but frozen hands broke the surface of the water and caught his cloak, pulling him forward on the slick ground.

“No!” he shouted, digging in and backpedaling for all he was worth. “Let go!”

His riding boots got drenched and the cold lanced through his whole body. The sadness he’d felt while still on horseback paled in comparison to what overwhelmed him now. A dreadful sorrow engulfed him, and with it, an all-encompassing torpor. Fighting the hands seemed too hard. 

What’s the point, anyway?” the souls moaned from the water.

“No!” he said again, but he could hear it had lost some of its conviction. 

A stiff, chilled hand closed on his ankle.

He suddenly remembered something he’d read about the Infernal Rivers and the Great Lake of Wailing itself. According to legend, sadness seeped into travelers until they threw themselves in the water to join those from whence the urge came. He wasn’t feeling this hopelessness because it was his, it was the magic of this special Hellscape invading his very mind. It wanted to claim him, as surely as the fires in the levels above.

In a wild effort to free himself from immediate danger, he flung himself backward. He fell, tangled in his heavy cloak. Cold hands caught his wrists. He bellowed an incoherent protest, struggling for all he was worth.

“Ben! Ben! It’s me!”

After his vision of his family in the river, he didn’t dare believe his ears, but he gasped, “Aife?”

“No, it’s one of the blasted kelpies this wretched place is full of rescuing you from itself,” came the half amused, half irritated reply.

The response was too purely her to be an illusion. 

He stopped struggling and extricated himself from his damp outerwear. When he got clear of his hood and met her eyes he thought he might cry with relief. Instead, he climbed to his feet and dusted himself off. He forced his expression into a deep frown and glared at her, more in an effort to regain his dignity than because he was upset with her. “Rescue me? I rode all the way down to the Ninth Circle to rescue you! After what Anabell said, I thought you’d taken a dive over not getting a job you shouldn’t have wanted to begin with!”

“Oh, Ben, honey, no.” She reached out to brush away the tears he’d already forgotten about. “I’d never do that.”

He ducked his head and used his sleeve to dry his face. “Then what the Hell are you doing down here? Other than trying to scare the afterlife out of me?”

Aife shrugged. “I was upset about getting turned down by Reaping, as you clearly discovered for yourself. And I just wanted a bit of contrast for my own emotions. You know, to put things in perspective.”

“Ah, for fuck’s sake, Aife!” 

She smiled at him. “Your Scottish is showing, lovey.”

The laugh that brought out of him startled them both. Smiling in the face of the magic of this place was one thing. Laughing was unheard of. He glanced around, just to be sure the sound hadn’t called any nearby creatures out of the shadows. Once he was certain it was still only the two of them, he smirked. “Usually. Especially when I’m around you.”

“Why are you? Around me, I mean.”

Ben snapped his fingers and the horse trotted obediently over to them. Ben held its bridle so Aife could climb up first. “Don’t you know what day it is?”

“Day?” she asked with a grunt of effort at climbing onto the tall horse’s back. “Since when do days matter here?”

Ben easily swung into the saddle behind her and guided the horse to turn around and nudged it to trot back the way they came. Now that he had found Aife, the wailing from the river receded into the background. “Well, they hardly ever do. But it’s Yule.”

“Oh!” She glanced apologetically over her shoulder at him. “I’m so sorry, Ben. I forgot.”

“Fortunately for us, I remembered. I left Anabell working on our dinner to give her something to do other than worry about her lady and the guy she still seems to think is royalty despite my many protests to the contrary.”

Apparently as oblivious of the souls in the river and the bone-chilling cold as he was now, Aife snorted a brief laugh. “How many times did she curtsey today?”

He encouraged the horse to pick up its pace. He wanted to get them home more quickly, lest the turning of the Earth deny them the actual holiday. “Only the once,” he grinned. “So we’ve made some inroads.”

***

Anabell had outdone herself with their meal. She had also not protested their invitation to join them and even remembered to call their guest Ben instead of Lord Ronoven, possibly owing to the bone-crushing hug she’d wrapped him in when he walked in the front door with Aife. She’d even slipped off to her chambers early without asking permission.

In front of the comforting illusion of a homey fire, both full of a rather large quantity of exceptional mulled wine, Aife produced a thick book, tied with a ribbon. “I forgot what day it was, but not that the solstice was coming up.”

Ben couldn’t tell her she’d gotten him a spell book he’d already liberated from a certain Hell-god’s library. If she found out he’d taken up that particular hobby, he’d never hear the end of it. So, instead, he grinned and pulled her into a hug. “Thank you! This is a rare one! How did you get your hands on it?”

She poured them each another glass of wine and gave him one of her signature cat-like smiles. “I’ve been known to strike a deal worth writing home about from time to time.”

“So, you’re not going to tell me,” he chuckled. 

“I am not,” she replied archly. “Well, then?”

He furrowed his brow in pretended misunderstanding. “Well what?”

She widened her eyes, obviously sure he was having a go at her, but not sure why. “You know very well what. We have a tradition to uphold, my Lord.”

He patted his pockets, then got up and looked under the cushions. “Where did the damned thing get to?” He stood and clapped his forehead with an open palm and looked appropriately stricken. “Ah, damn it. It must’ve fallen out of my pocket when we were at the Falls!”

“Oh, Ben! It’s okay. I was only teasing. You know the gifts have never been an expectation between us! And I’m so grateful you came after me today. It would have taken me forever to get home on foot. I would have hated to miss our feast!”

Ben’s calculated facade collapsed and he laughed. “Gotcha!”

She tilted her head in the expected question. 

“Your gift isn’t one that fits in any pockets. Nor is it one I could wrap.”

“Alright, oh Master of Expression, you’re just winding me up now. I can tell.”

He sat next to her again and took her hand. “Anabell told me about why you applied to Reaping.”

“It’s silly. I’m sorry. I should have said something to you instead of–”

“It’s not silly. You love your family in a way I could never hope to be loved.” She opened her mouth like she’d try to say something to counter his words, but he didn’t let her even begin. “And love like that deserves a chance to see the light of day. A chance to walk the Earth. So your gift, if you want it, if you’ll accept it, is that chance.”

She shook her head like she needed to clear it. “What are you saying, Ben?”

He swallowed hard. He wanted nothing more than to leave Hell behind, to walk on Earth again. To feel the sun on his face without also feeling like every second was borrowed time. But wanting something for selfish reasons was petty and small in the face of Aife’s love for her descendents, for people she had never met, and had no shared memories to bind them together. She loved them because they were hers. Ben thought, perhaps, if he’d had a wife, if he’d had children of his own, he might share the same fierce light that kindled in his friend’s eyes when she spoke of her line. But he didn’t. So, he would do what the love he did have told him he should.

“I won the right to appoint someone as an Agent for Hell, Inc.”

“Www…What?” she stammered.

“I won an Office position.”

Her head tilted again, this time in confusion. “My Yule gift is you saying goodbye?”

“Of course not. Well, sort of.” He cleared his throat to dispel the hoarseness in his voice. “I’m saying goodbye to you. Because I’m sponsoring you to the position.”

Her mouth worked a few times without producing any sound, but after a minute she managed, “But Ben, you want to go back to Earth more than anything. It’s the only reason you took the job in Reaping to begin with.”

“I can’t go,” he lied smoothly. “The privilege is to sponsor someone, not go myself. Ain’t that a bitch?” he asked lightly.

She sat perfectly still for another long, silent minute.

“Say something, would you?”

But she didn’t. She simply tackled him in a hug that knocked over the settee they were sitting on. Lying on the floor, he hugged her back, covering the wave of emotion that accompanied having done the right thing with a fond chuckle he was positive she wouldn’t guess was forced for her benefit. 

“So, you accept?”

“Of course I do! I … I’ve never … I didn’t think … You’re a wonderful man, Ben. Just wonderful.”

“Ah, I’m alright,” he said, blushing furiously. After a minute, he disentangled himself from her enthusiastic embrace and righted their seat. “You’ll have to leave for training on Earth before long.”

She let him help her up from the floor. “I can hardly wait … But … what about Anabell?”

He’d already thought about that. “She can come to my estate when you go. Between Gareth and I, we’ll find her something to do that keeps her out of trouble and as safe as I can make her.”

Aife bit her lip. “What if something….” She trailed off. 

He patted her shoulder. “You don’t think I’ve worked out how to have things keep running if something happens to me? I’ve been at this for centuries, Aife.”

“I didn’t mean … You better not let anything happen to you!”

He laughed more genuinely this time. “I’ll certainly do my best. Otherwise, how will I have an excuse to come Up Top and hassle you at work the way you have been with me here all these years?”

She punched him lightly on the arm. “Are you ever going to be serious? Even for a minute?”

“Maybe. But just for this next minute.” 

He refilled their glasses and handed hers back. He raised his own. “A blessed Yule.”

She touched the lip of her glass against his. “And many more.”

They drank in silence for a while. Eventually, Aife turned toward him again. “You have to promise me something, Ben.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Do I?”

“You do. When I’m not here all the time to get after you … You have to promise me you’ll be careful.”

He grinned broadly and tipped her a wink.

“Never.”

Christmas Presence

christmas-1786558_1920

Authors’ Note: “It’s Christmas Eve Day. Both an eve and a day. It’s a Christmas miracle.” (Couldn’t help myself. It’s a thing I do every Christmas Eve. Pop culture references are my weakness.) Here we are at Day 12 of the Twelve Days of Fic-mas 2019. This is a pre-series story from The Arbitratus Universe. Wee baby Mal and her loving parents getting ready for Mal’s first Christmas. And an off camera sort of cameo from one of our favorite side characters. You can read Ari and Maggie’s origin story in Crimson Endings

Christmas Presence

“Ari! Can you get the door?” Maggie called. “My hands are covered in cookie dough!”

“I’m on it!” Ari hollered back, from his spot on the family room floor. 

Mal’s eyes followed his every move and she tried once again to push up to her knees from her spot on the blanket. At not quite five months, Ari didn’t think there was much danger in her figuring out how to crawl in the space of time it took him to get to the door and back. But since she was already sitting independently and seemed very determined to get mobile, he wasn’t taking any chances. 

He lifted her up and placed her in the nearby pack-n-play. She righted herself into a fairly confident sitting position against the nursing pillow they’d stashed in one corner earlier. She picked up one of the brightly colored teething rings recently added to her repertoire of playthings and started gumming it enthusiastically. 

“Be right back, Baby Girl.”

She gave him a huge, drooly baby smile in return, already confident he’d be there if she needed him. Other parents in their play group said their babies howled the second they were out of sight. Not Mal. She just seemed to trust life would be good. He hoped her infant optimism would survive teething.

Ari could see a delivery truck in their driveway. He checked the peephole. Standing on their steps was a man in the ubiquitous brown uniform, clipboard in one hand, and rather large package under the opposite arm.

“Hi there,” Ari greeted as he opened the door.

“Afternoon, sir. I have a package for you. Just need a signature.” 

The man seemed impatient, but Ari imagined he had a lot to do during the holiday season, and probably got very little in the way of gratitude for it. Ari took the clipboard and signed. “There you go.”

“Thank you, sir.” He handed Ari the box. “You have a Happy Holiday.” 

“You, too. Thank you!”

Ari closed the door. He hefted the package, heavy for its size. He looked it over carefully as he headed into the kitchen with it. No return address. Weird. 

“Who was it?” Maggie asked, not turning away from what she was doing. 

He put the package down on the kitchen table. “Delivery guy. Were you expecting something from your family?” 

“Not that I know of. But you know Daddy.” Maggie went to the sink to wash her hands. “He’s so excited to have a new grandbaby to spoil. I keep telling him if he keeps it up, we’re going to need a bigger house.”

Ari grinned. “And what’s he say to that?”

She shook her head, chuckling affectionately. “That there’s plenty of room at the main house now that Bethany has gone off to Loyola.”  

“That sounds like Paul alright,’ Ari laughed. He fished a utility knife out of their junk drawer. “Well, let’s see what we’ve got.”

Maggie joined him at the table and helped him move the packing materials out of the way.

Inside was a festively wrapped present, festooned with ribbons, a card tucked in on one side. Maggie frowned. “This can’t be from Dad. Everything he wraps looks like a kid did it.

Ari picked the card off the package. Scrawled across the envelope in a flowing, archaic hand was simply, “Merry Christmas.” 

Ari sat down. He didn’t know why a holiday card should give him such a sinking feeling in his stomach, but it did. Perhaps because the handwriting looked all too familiar. And with the familiarity came some unpleasant memories. He desperately hoped he was wrong.

“Are you going to open it?” Maggie sat down across from him, her brow furrowing. Clearly his emotions were apparent to her.

“Um…Yeah.” Ari slit the envelope and drew out a traditional Nativity printed card. He opened it and the writing inside matched the envelope. As his eyes scanned the text, his jaw tightened.

“What’s it say?”  

Ari cleared his throat and swallowed. 

Dear Sinclair Family,

Congratulations on the birth of little Lady Christ. I’m a little late with my felicitations. I’m sure you’ll forgive me. Or not. It really makes no never mind to me. 

Anyway, I hope this here Christmas present makes up for my oversight. Well, not really an oversight. I tried my best, of course, just the moment I heard. But, it’s almost like you folks don’t want to be found. 

Despite the challenges, I think I found the perfect gift. It was no easy task either, mind you. I mean, what does one get for the heir apparent of our good buddy Yeshua Ben Yosef? Yes, sir; it definitely was a challenge. Well, don’t want to keep you all from opening this up and sharing it with the little Miss. You all have yourselves a Merry Christmas and all that.

Warmest regards,

Cain

P.S. Tell Lady Christ Senior I love the new hair. It really works for her.

Ari set aside the letter. He was breathing too fast and his face felt hot. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly through pursed lips.

“I take it he’s not a friend of yours.” Maggie’s tone was the sort of worried saved for middle of the night fevers. 

“He’s no one’s friend.” Ari eyed the package warily, looking like he was expecting it to start ticking.

Maggie picked up the card. “Funny name, Cain. That’s an unusual Bible name to go for.” 

“No, Maggie, it’s not like a name from the Bible. This is like actual Cain from the Bible.” 

Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open in a perfect surprised ‘O’. “Wait. Cain is a real person?” 

Ari nodded slowly. “He is.” Mal started to fuss softly in the other room. It sounded like maybe she’d tipped over and was frustrated with her efforts to right herself. “And he has no love or even respect for anyone from the Line. Probably especially you and Mal.”

Mal fussed again, louder. That meant she was sleepy. Ari rose and started down the hall to the family room to pick her up. He suddenly wanted to hold her anyway. Maggie followed, still holding the card and glancing at it with something like horror peppered with disbelief.

“Do the Knights know about him?” she asked, now genuinely distressed.

Ari scooped Mal up out of her playpen and her tears stopped instantly. He held her protectively to his chest. 

“They do. The Church actually shelters him now from what I understand.” He sighed. “Afraid he’ll cause trouble if he’s unsupervised, I expect. Although seems to me like they need to keep a better eye on him.”

“I guess maybe they should!” Mal whimpered at her mother’s anxious tone. “Here give her to me. She’s ready for a nap.” Maggie stretched out her hands to take their daughter. “Who’s Mama’s hungry girl?” 

Ari retrieved the nursing pillow from the playpen and helped the pair settle in the rocking chair by the Christmas tree. “All set? Want some tea?” Ari asked, hoping to ease some of Maggie’s anxiety by doing something comforting from their usual routine.

She shook her head, chewing her lip. “Ari, how did he find us?”

He sighed. “Who knows? But it’s not good. I’m going to go call the Templars.” 

“Do you think we’ll need to move?” Maggie’s worried look deepened. 

“I don’t know. Let’s see what the Knights think. You know they’d love to move us anyway.”

“I know, that’s why I hate involving them. But I guess we have to.” Mal was starting to doze already, but wasn’t quite out enough to move. Ari offered a reassuring smile, and started back toward the kitchen to make the necessary phone calls. Maggie stopped him. “Should we open the box?” 

“Knowing Cain? Almost definitely not.” 

“Okay. Let me know what they say.”

“I will.” 

Ari went to the kitchen, finally allowing some of the anger and fear he’d been trying to keep a lid on show on his face now that it wouldn’t worry Maggie more or upset Mal.

He started to pick up the phone, but set it back down almost immediately.

He picked up the box instead and walked it out to the container at the curb, dumping it in, and shuddering a little at the noise it made when it hit the bottom of the barrel. 

By the time he got back inside, the cool air had helped settle his mind, and he dialed the number to make arrangements to keep his family safe.

His anger and frustration grew as he listened to the ringing. He knew she wouldn’t remember it, but Ari hated that simple family associations might ruin his little girl’s first Christmas. 

Things went from bad to worse once the call was picked up. 

“We’re aware of the delivery, Mr. Sinclair. A security team has already been dispatched to your location to evaluate the situation.”

“Thanks.”

He hung up, dreading relaying the conversation to Maggie. 

“Merry Christmas, Cain,” he growled as he headed back down the hall, trying to regain his composure. 

*****

Doubt Truth to Be a Liar

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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…”

“Nonsense!”

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.

*****

Self-Possessed

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.

Self-Possessed

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.

“Yeah?”

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.”

*****

 

A Work of Art Dies Not

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Authors’ Note: The Chris who you’ll see in this is the same Chris from the pages of Always Darkest. Once known as Cartaphilus, cursed with immortality for striking Jesus, Chris has roamed the earth for a long time. You can read about how he came to be on that path in Volume I of The Twelve Days of Fic-mas. The story that follows has been in our personal canon for Chris for a long time. What follows is less a Christmas story, and more a story that takes place at Christmas. Still, we think it has a place at Fic-mas. And we hope you enjoy. 

A Work of Art Dies Not

Chris woke up feeling refreshed despite the various indulgences last night offered. The wine flowed freely, and the food, the food was superb. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten so decadently. Though not a scrap of meat could be found on the table, or in the house, Chris thought he’d never had a lovelier meal. Nor could he place the last time he’d drank his fill of such exceptionally fine wine absent concern or constraint. Neither could he remember the last time he’d been in a place where the fulfillment of any desire had been so freely available. 

He had to stretch his memory back to Saturnalia celebrations during his youth in Rome, hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of years ago, to find a comparison for the holiday he’d been a guest at last night. Well, for the last several days. His host didn’t believe in limiting celebrations to one day if there was good food, and wine, and company.  

Chris rolled over and the aftereffects of the drink made themselves known. He’d need a hearty breakfast and probably a long steam in the baths before he really felt like himself. Nearly every muscle was sore, too. After dinner, the celebration turned more … athletic. The bath sounded better and better. 

He was lucky to be in a home with such luxurious accommodations. Few places he’d been bothered with bathing at all, say nothing about a room for heat, and one for cold, and another for a vigorous massage before. His mind strayed again to his boyhood. If he hadn’t been so reminded of the Roman he once was, perhaps he would not have dived so fully into the festivities. But dive he had. With reckless abandon.

As sleep was swept more surely from his mind, Chris began to feel the twinges of guilt. The time of year wasn’t about feasting, or anything else he’d spent the night doing. It was about celebrating the birth of the Savior. 

His guilt quickly faded in a heady haze of memories of last night. Regardless of what the current establishment was imposing on the faithful, Chris was there for the beginnings of the faith and knew it to be one of rejoicing rather than mourning, of embracing the gifts the world had to offer rather than thinking only of Paradise to come. 

It was strange, but meetings in catacombs with other believers from all walks of life from nobles to prostitutes, full of singing and breaking bread together, was somehow more in keeping with what Chris saw as what the Lord intended than the rather joyless obligatory gatherings he’d witnessed more recently. 

Of course, Chris had to admit, since his last run in with the Church a couple decades ago, over a book of all things, he hadn’t set foot in a church. His heart ached for the fellowship, but he didn’t feel he could trust the wealthy nepotistic organization that claimed to be acting for Christ these days. The last few weeks here harkened back to the early days of song, and celebration, and love. 

Rising slowly so as not to disturb his host, Chris made his way to the baths to take care of his morning ablutions and perhaps heat some of the stiffness from his bones.  

As soon as he stepped out of the bedroom he was startled by a servant. “Good morning, sir. Do you require any assistance this morning?” 

Chris stopped, his face flushed. He stammered a quick no thank you and made his way down the hall. Damnit. He’d forgotten about the servants. A momentary fear gripped his heart. The servants here seemed very loyal. He certainly hoped they were discrete. He assumed they must be. 

His host had assured him that many “good friends” had come and gone from this place, but no word of it was ever heard outside these walls. There’s been a bit of unpleasantness with the law over a model back during the apprenticeship days, but none since. That experience had made his host much more circumspect about private dealings. 

Still, as Chris made his way to the baths, he worried. No one could find out about how he had spent his time here in Florence, especially not last night. It would be scandalous. Potentially fatal, even. Well, not so much fatal for him, but still no good could come of it. Frankly, he wasn’t sure he could trust the Church here in Italy to be of any help. And the Templars had to be very careful these days.

Chris felt his anger grow, railing against the small minded nature of the times. Of course when something of great power and influence like the Church falls into the hands of small minded people out to employ their families and line their pockets, no good could come of that either. He should be able to keep company with whomever he so chose, and not have to worry about the opinions of others. 

Europe at the moment was too much like being back in his father’s house for comfort. Chris continued to fume through his bath, but found his mood lifting as the hot water soothed his muscles. He knew where he stood with his faith, and with the Lord, and no amount of legalism or interference from the powerful would change that.

On his way back to the bedroom, he stopped to admire the various paintings and sketches that adorned the walls. He breathed deep. He rather loved the smells of the paintings, and especially of the oils to both cover the canvas and clean up the brushes. He was appreciating those when another deep breath drew him along the hall. A haunting aroma filled the hallway. He decided his host could wait. He needed to find the source of that smell. 

Chris followed his nose to the kitchen, where a small staff was hard at work. 

“Good morning sir, can we help you?” 

“Yes, what is it I’m smelling?” 

“Well, we have bread in the oven.”

“No, not that something … I’ve never smelled anything like it.”

The young man smiled. “We are making coffee.” 

“Coffee?” Chris had heard of it, when he’d been doing missionary work in Istanbul, but never had the opportunity to try it. He hadn’t thought it would have made its way here. “I didn’t know one could get it here.”

“The master of the house has many friends, sir. One of them is a merchant. He travels to the East often. He’s very quiet about this discovery just now. Things from that land are seen as suspect by the Church you see.”

“I have felt the suspicion of the Church myself. Simply for reading. So I understand.” The open questioning of conventional wisdom relaxed Chris even more than his long bath had managed. 

“You won’t find it anywhere else in these parts, sir.”

“Well, regardless of what anyone thinks of its origins, it smells divine.”

“Yes, sir, it certainly does. Would you like a cup?” 

“Yes please.” Chris was never one to pass up a new experience. 

“How would you like it, sir?” 

“Um, well how does one normally have it?” 

“I usually prepare it with honey, sir.” 

“If you had anything to do with the meal last night, I feel I could trust you with my very life, and will most certainly trust you with me first coffee.” 

A bright smile flashed. “Very good, sir.” 

That was something else about these place. The servants behaved like family. They were attentive, good at their work, but there was no obsequiousness, and certainly no fear. 

Chris found the beverage to be to his liking, both sweet and bitter at the same time. Chris stood near the hearth and enjoyed the warmth, slowly sipping the hot liquid. 

“Oh, there you are, Christoforo,” came the pleasantly husky voice of his host from behind him. He liked the sound of the name he’d chosen as his traveling identify this time. He found of all the names he’d wandered by, it was the one he liked best to return to. He especially liked it as it was spoken here.

“Good morning, Leo. I trust you slept well,” Chris said, turning. 

“I should think so. I am not as young as I once was, certainly not as young as you are, my good friend. You are a man of singular skill and energy.” 

Chris blushed and shot a look towards the kitchen servants. 

Leonardo laughed, a deep rich laugh. “Don’t think twice about them, Chris.”

“I…”

The older man patted him affectionately on the shoulder. “I’ve told you, these are my people. They are nothing if not discrete.” 

He was unaccustomed to such openness and the fearful fluttering in his chest from earlier returned. “I hope your trust is not misplaced.” 

“Come now, Christoforo you are not the first man, or woman for that matter, to share my bed. And you won’t be the last.” 

“I will trust in your good judgement then.” 

“And well you should.” Leonardo chuckled. A servant handed Leonardo a steaming cup. “Thank you, Giuseppe.” 

Chris took another sip of the wonderous beverage and Leonardo smiled. “I’m afraid that will be hard to come by unless you go wandering as guard for missionaries for the Church again.”

Chris shook his head. “It is unlikely that I will find myself in the Church’s employ any time soon. So I will be sure to savor it while I’m here.”

A lovely servant girl came to take Chris’s empty cup and he found it impossible not to smile at her. 

“Think you’re likely to have trouble finding work with them, a man of your varied tastes, do you?” Leonardo’s eyebrows raised in amusement. 

He cleared his throat. “Not for that reason, no. As you are, my friend, I am a man of discretion. I find I’m capable of carrying many secrets.”

“I sense that is true. They do show on your face from time to time.”

“I imagine they do. Sometimes secrets do become heavy.”

Leonardo frowned at the thoughtful expression on his young friend’s face. “Now, Christoforo, before you become too serious, there is something I’d like to show you.”

“Really?” Chris beamed. 

He was envisioning a sneak peak at some new invention. He and Leonardo had known each other for several years, and in all that time he’d never gotten a look behind the curtain. Perhaps now that they were “good friends” as Leo liked to put it, he would finally be taken to the brilliant man’s workshop. 

“One of the traveling machines we’ve talked about? I confess I keep hoping you’ll take those more seriously. A man tires of going everywhere by horse.”

“I’m afraid not,” Leonardo chuckled. “But nevertheless, this, I think you will like.” 

Chris followed Leonardo down a long hallway that ended with a heavy door. Leonardo produced a key and opened the door. 

“This is my workshop. I must ask you not to talk about what you see.” 

“You have my word.” 

The room was filled with all kinds of apparatus and easels. Windows set high in the wall cast a dim light from the wan December sun. The fireplace sat cold, leaving the room with a sharp chill. 

“Can I trouble you light some candles while I kindle a fire?” 

“Of course.” 

Chris set to work moving from sconce to sconce, while Leonardo built a fire. When the room was brighter and starting to warm, Leonardo motioned Chris to a medium sized easel covered by a cloth in the corner. 

“Now Christoforo, you remember the sketches you helped me with?” 

“Yes. For a medical text if memory serves.” 

“Those are the ones.” He grinned, and despite his greying hair, the mischievous smile and twinkling eyes made the man look young. “I confess, you are such a handsome fellow, I used them as a subject for a painting.” 

“You painted my portrait?” Chris asked, flattered by the idea, but strangely apprehensive, too. Portraits had a way of following a man, especially one painted by an artist as illustrious as Leonardo. In a hundred years or so, a resemblance to a painting might prove annoying.  

“Well, yes and no.” Leonardo recalled Christoforo’s apprehension at posing for the sketches at all. It’s what had given him the idea for his little experiment to begin with. “I remembered that you didn’t want a picture of yourself, so much. So I only used the sketches for inspiration. You gave me an idea to challenge myself.”

“Was making me presentable a terrible challenge?” Chris asked with a chuckle, wondering what Leo could have done to those sketches that represented a challenge.

“You know full well that there is nothing challenging about your appearance,” he laughed. “But enough talking.” 

Leonardo removed the cover from the easel revealing a complex portrait on wood underneath. 

“Um…”

“You look confused.” Leonardo chuckled. 

“Well, it’s just, That’s a woman. I know you have broad tastes, Leo, but I should probably tell you that no matter how you imagine her, my sister passed away years ago. And we looked nothing alike.” 

“Not your sister, not even any other woman. I wondered how you would look if you were a woman, Christoforo. I wondered what your reaction to it would be, too, I must confess.” 

Chris took a moment, taking in the picture. “Well, I am flattered. Though I don’t think I make a very pretty woman.” 

“It’s not anyone’s job to be pretty, man or woman. We are who we are. That is part of why I paint. One need not be pretty to be beautiful. You see?”

Chris nodded, still staring at the picture. “It’s really quite good.” 

“I’m glad you like it. I may play with it a bit more. Now that you mention a sister, I wonder if I could make your features more distinctly feminine. I’m in no rush to call it done.” 

“Well, my sister had brown eyes and hair to match,” Chris said encouraging an alternative interpretation of those basic sketches now that they’d made their way onto canvas. Chris decided he’d feel more comfortable with this picture looking a little less like him, as a woman or not. 

“I’m not going to change everything, Christoforo. I rather like your expression. It speaks of those secrets we’ve discussed.”

“Alright, but Leonardo…?” 

“Yes?” 

“Of all the expressions I … that is she … That is me … What’s with the smirk?”

*****