Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Features Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized

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.

*****

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Features Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized

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.”

*****

 

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Features Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized

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?”

*****

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Features Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized

Every Time A Bell Rings

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

Every Time a Bell Rings

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

“Want to talk about it?”

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

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

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

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

“I’ll bet.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kind of a broad field.”

“Tell me about it.”

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

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

“Foster care?” Cy guessed.

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

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

He frowned. “How so?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not going to hurt myself.” 

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

“Okay. You really want to know?”

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

“But it’s bad.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened, son?”

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

“And how do you feel about that?”

“I don’t know.”

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

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

“You seem pretty bothered, Clarence.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Imaginary.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are doubting this trust.”

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

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

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

“Will he wake up?” Cy asked suddenly.

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

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t want to Fall.”

“What is … I don’t follow.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m so sorry for your loss, Cy.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And so…?”

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

“May it always be so.” 

*****

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Features Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized

For Two Cents

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Authors’ Note: If you’ve been with us for any amount of time, you already know Aife. If you don’t she’s another demon in The Arbitratus Universe who is better than her supernatural nature. This story takes place during the holidays at the same time as the events of Always Darkest. You can read more about Aife there. You can also read more about the Christmas party happening in the backdrop of this story in The Twelve Days of Fic-mas Vol. II

For Two Cents

Aife pinched the bridge of her nose, blinking several times. “Ben was right. I’m finally going blind on paperwork.” 

Almost two years into running this office and she was still wading through her predecessors backlog. No wonder he got himself the final death over how he ran this place. She grumbled a curse at him under her breath. Not like anything she said, or wished, or even spellcast could reach him now anyway. 

She knew contract review was an important part of the job of an Agent. In fact, being better at it than many of her peers was what scored her this assignment and got her out of the backwater she’d been managing in the Aussie countryside. She was especially gifted at identifying individuals whose continued presence on Earth might benefit Hell. And her ability to craft offers for extensions or modifications made the humans under her supervision loyal and useful, not just to her job, but occasionally to her personally.

Once she was through all these old, unreviewed contacts of … what was his name again? She supposed it didn’t matter. The contracts she had overseen were already well organized and wouldn’t require review of anything other than the tabs on their file folder for date and category. She had to admit, for a guy who flew by the seat of his pants as much as Ben did, his advice when he’d gotten her the assignment above had all been excellent.

She picked up another contract from a pile that was finally dwindling and squinted at it. “I need a break.” She laughed. “Especially because I’m now talking to myself.”

She smirked just a little as she picked up her cellphone and hit his contact with her thumb. She was not surprised that Ben’s answer was a terse, “What?”

“Just calling to wish you a happy Yule, love.”

“Sure you are.”

“Well, if you’re going to be that way, work it is.” She heard him sigh. “You’re definitely going to be in town for the party, then?”

Another sigh, this one exaggerated, probably for her benefit. Then again, maybe not, he was really unhappy about her reminder earlier this week as it was. “I already told you, if I could leave town, I would. But I have other obligations.” He was silent for a second, but didn’t want to give her a chance to add anything to her previous list of specifications for his duties as the ranking noble in the area. “And I’ll meet the one I owe you. But I’m leaving right at midnight. Just so you know.”

“You’re no fun at all these days, Ben.”

“You know I’ve never thought the Hell bullshit was fun, so don’t start again. We’re supposed to be friends.”

“I’m sorry, love.” She actually sounded it. “I really was just calling to remember the day.”

He was silent for a minute, thinking about it.

“I’m sorry I snapped then.”

“I know how you feel about this. Don’t worry, I’ve brought in an exceptional Lagavulin that should soften the edges of the night for you.”

“Damn nice of you,” he said somewhat sarcastically.

“I was also calling to complain,” she admitted.

He laughed softly. “Paperwork?” 

It was a favorite topic between the two of them.

“You know it. I’m still reviewing contracts from Gorson’s reign of incomprehensible laziness.” Gorson, that was his name.

Ben laughed more audibly. “He was always kind of a fuck up. Sorry you inherited his pile of crap.”

“It’s kind of a nightmare. I’m almost to the end of it though.”

“I’m sure your own contracts are much more organized.”

“Don’t worry, Boss. I’ve followed all your advice. How do you think I’ve managed to stay alive up here all this time.”

His silence was more solemn this time. “That’s why I gave it to you. I wanted this job to be a gift, not a curse.”

“Don’t get all serious on me now.”

“It’s serious business. And you called me to bring it up,” he reminded her.

“I did not. I called to remind you of the holiday.”

“But you did bring it up.”

“That I did. Mostly because I’m stalling on more reading.”

“So set it aside, Aife. They’ve waited this long. What’s another night?”

She laughed. “I suppose you’re right.”

“It’s Yule. Go have a drink. Find some attractive company. Celebrate.”

“What about you? Fancy a drink?” Her meaning was both clear, and clearly teasing. But he’d been so serious lately, she wondered if he’d take it that way.

His silence said he didn’t get that she was joking. She could practically hear him blushing. Their relationship hadn’t looked like that in a long time now, but something about the fact that it had bothered him now. She suspected it had to do with the human friends he’d made. She’d have to get to the bottom of it soon. Maybe tonight. 

Ben cleared his throat. “I’m busy tonight.”

“It’s Yule! What are you too busy with that keeps you from meeting your oldest friend for your favorite holiday?”

“I’m actually meeting someone about an important Yule gift for a friend.”

“Am I this friend?”

“Not bloody likely. Making me show up for the goddamned office party.”

“You have a date. That’s what you’re up to, you just don’t want to admit it.”

He laughed, but there was a tight, embarrassed sort of sound to it. “I don’t. I’m meeting a bookseller. I think I might have located something really important to someone. I’m not shelling out until I hold it.”

“So you can do a spell to make sure it’s the right one?”

“Exactly.”

“I wouldn’t want to keep you then, lovey.”

There was another moment of silence. “I’ll be at the party, Aife. I wouldn’t cause you trouble by copping out.”

“Wouldn’t be the first holiday you left me high and dry,” she laughed.

“Huh?”

“Nothing, Ben. If you really can’t face it, I’ll don the suit myself. No one would blame you if you slipped out of town at the last minute.”

“I can’t. I have plans. Or I’d have been gone a week ago.”

“I honestly don’t mind my demon form at all. I don’t know why you’re so fussy about yours.”

“You don’t get to say a word about my demon form! You don’t mind yours because a giant green-eyed Kellas cat is … Adorable.”

“And sexy,” she added.

“No!” he huffed. “Okay, in your case, maybe a little,” he admitted. “Just because the King had the hots for you!”

She laughed. “I suppose I might have taken advantage of that.” She paused. “Goodnight. Good luck with your book.”

He hesitated. “Happy Yule, Aife.”

“And to you, love.” She ended the call, set aside her papers, and followed his advice.

***

When she finally took back up her duties with the contracts, it was Christmas Eve, and the Pit was abustle with preparations. She had only been back at it for an hour or so, cursing incessantly under her breath at the incompetent ass Gorson, whether he still existed or not. She probably shouldn’t have allowed herself to get so distracted on Yule, but Ben had made a good point about celebrating. And tonight would offer an amusing opportunity to settle an old score with him as well. Might as well finish up the last of this paperwork when she’d have something to look forward to at the end of it.

She was almost down to the last of the pile when a polite knock came at the office door. Her neck was getting stiff. It was a welcome distraction. “Come in!”

Ciara poked her head into the office. “Sorry to bother you.”

“It’s no trouble.” Aife smiled fondly. Her descendent looked so much like her daughter Rowan, it made her heart ache sometimes. She was still so grateful she’d stepped into the office when she had and picked up Ciara’s contact. She’d keep that child out of Hell forever if she could manage it. 

“The caterer is finally here. Artax needs some help with that Gate activation. And I just finished with the crew doing the decorating. Just wondering if you could come take a look and maybe fix Artie’s lousy circle casting before we’re overrun with Hell hounds.”

“Of course.” Aife rose, setting aside the contract she’d been about to give her attention to go see to the party arrangements. 

Once things were underway and she had her designated victim…er…noble… in his appointed place on the central dais, she got back to her paperwork. Ciara would come and get her if anything needed her attention. Like Ben trying to flake out early, she laughed to herself. And she’d go back out before midnight.

“Alright,” she mumbled, picking up the contact she’d set aside earlier. “Who do we have here?” She shook her head as she read the initial details. “Your name is John Smith. That wasn’t bad enough, you had to sell your soul, too?” She shook her head. “Let’s see what you got yourself into, Mr. John Smith. If that is your real name,” she said with a smile, no longer really caring that she’d picked up Ben’s habit of talking to himself while doing paperwork. “Good grief, your wife’s name is Jane? How are you even a thing?”

She continued to read through the usual hellish legalese that set up all the contracts she’d ever seen. “So, Mr. Smith, why did you sell your soul?” she mused. “Looking to gain an inch or two?”

She’d almost started to smirk when she came to the real reason for it. “Bone cancer? Oh, Mr. Smith.” And it hadn’t even been his own life. His youngest child had been diagnosed with a rare form of it. Inoperable. Metastatic. “Oh, honey.”

He hadn’t sold his soul for spare cash, or fame, or even a bigger dick. He’d sold it for his kid. Rose. She’d been expecting … Well, the usual selfish shit. But not a kid with cancer. As she read the detailed contract, the story got more heartbreaking. 

He’d been married twenty years. He and his wife had children late, had already mortgaged themselves to the gills to afford fertility treatments. And they’d tried everything to save Rose before he’d come to the office, right before she’d taken over, in fact. Two years. He’d sold his soul because everything else had failed. Three mortgages. Trips to Mexico and then Europe for experimental treatments. His whole 401K on local bullshit snakeoil charlatans, claiming they’d balance the cancer right out of her chakras with crystals they’d bought at the mall. 

His little girl was well now, thanks to Hell. Just in time for him to have to leave her. 

It was goddamn heartbreaking.

And there was nothing here to give her even the flimsiest reason to extend his terms either. He was a middle school science teacher for fuck’s sake. Quotas could have been the only reason to sign him to begin with. He had nothing to offer but another check box in the “Damned” column in the tally of souls coming and going from Earth. 

It made her mad enough, sad enough, to want to cry. 

But this was her job. So she kept reading. Oh, oh, no. Come on!

His contract was up tomorrow. Due on Christmas. What kind of asshole would arrange … She realized all at once that she hoped Gorson’s end hadn’t been quick. Here was poor John Smith, ridiculous name and all, with one night left on Earth, when all he had wanted was his little girl to have another Christmas. 

She pushed back from her desk suddenly. She needed to walk away from this for a while. 

She left the contract on the blotter again, and headed back out into the bar. She checked in with Ciara, made sure Ben was fed and watered, no matter how surly he was being, and rubbed elbows with the appropriate glitterati of the attending damned. Still, Smith remained on her mind. 

She had some latitude with regard to contracts, but not that much. Smith had nothing obvious to offer up in exchange for an extension. And she couldn’t just cancel the contract. Some Agents had enough rank to pull that off, but even then, there had to be a good reason. She had neither the rank, nor the justifications necessary to let him off the hook. 

When she couldn’t find anything else productive to do, she forced herself back toward her office. She’d reread the Smith contract. Maybe there was a little something, some wiggle room to not have him claimed on Christmas day. 

She was only half paying attention as she headed back toward her office after stopping off once again to make sure her guest of honor had enough scotch to keep him where he was supposed to be. The fate of John Smith’s soul still weighed heavily on her. But one of her staff stopped her. “So what do you think?” The demon gestured around at the crowded room.

“Everything looks great, Ed. You and Ciara have earned a bonus, no doubt.”

“Artie is still having some trouble with the Gate. Do you have time to…?”

“Of course,” she nodded. 

Aife put John Smith from her mind, reasoning there was probably nothing she could do anyway.

She took care of the minor difficulty reopening the portal out back, touched up her lipstick, then dove back in to her duties as the hostess. She proved time and again that troubleshooting problems (from the mundane issues with the radio she had one of her assistants manning to keep Ben informed about the guests, to the repeated magical ones with an interdimensional gate that just wouldn’t stay locked on) with skill and finesse were why she was one Hell of an Agent. She had drinks with important guests. Danced with a few visiting dignitaries from Below, and actually managed to enjoy herself a little as the night wore on.

She felt a little sorry for Ben, and brought him another drink, then headed back to the bar to procure one of her own. She was waiting for Ciara to fill her order when someone cleared their throat at her elbow. “Uhem, Aife, isn’t it?” 

She turned to find a plain middle aged man with thinning hair and the slight paunch of someone whose work was probably sedentary, accompanied by a woman who was a bit older, but still striking. Both were pale and nervous. “That’s me,” Aife answered pleasantly.

“I … um … my name is John Smith. And this is my wife, Jane.”

Aife’s heart sank. She hadn’t expected the Smiths to be here tonight. Contracted souls were always invited, but it was only ever the ones who were still fresh off the blood drying on the paper, still enamored with what they’d gained, who ever showed up. Or sometimes important people who knew they were in the market to renegotiate showed up just to remind the Office how valuable they were.

People with one day left on Earth typically wouldn’t be caught in the same area code. Those people were usually somewhere trying to find a way to hide from Hell, as if such a thing were possible. 

She forced a polite smile. “Nice to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”

The man cleared his throat again. “Can we talk? Perhaps somewhere more private?”

It was the last thing on Earth Aife wanted to do, but she took pity on them. At least if they said their piece, there might be a sense of closure for the Mrs. “Let’s go back to my office.”

She led them through the crowd and let them in to her small, but well appointed office. She gestured toward the chairs in front of her desk and she sat down behind it, trying not to look at the contract still sitting on her blotter, mocking her. She’d just been congratulating herself on what an excellent problem solver she was, not a half hour ago. But here was a much bigger problem than a glitchy spell. 

And there was nothing she could do. 

Nothing. 

Might as well get this over with. “What can I do for you, Mr. Smith?”

“Please,” he began. “Call me Jack.” She merely nodded so he went on. “I’d like to talk to you about my contract.”

She nodded again, her face creasing slightly. She decided to be blunt. It seemed kinder than getting their hopes up. And if she was honest with herself, she really didn’t want to prolong this meeting. No wonder Ben was such a solitary demon. Dealing with the consequences of Hell’s actions on Earth was the type of unpleasant that never seemed to wear off. “I expected as much, but, Mr … Jack, I reviewed it today. The situation is quite straightforward. And I’m afraid I can’t be of much help.”

“I didn’t do this lightly,” he said, sounding defensive

She nodded. “I understand that. It’s your daughter’s life. It’s not like you gave it up for two cents like some border town yokel.”

“Pardon?”

“Classical reference. What I’m saying is, I get it. But there’s really nothing I can do.”

Jane’s chin quivered and her eyes were already filling. “Couldn’t you … I don’t know … tweak it a little … Change the terms…” Her voice broke, but she went on anyway. “Or cancel it?”

“I honestly can’t,” Aife answered plainly, spreading her hands. “Hell needs reasons for alterations to contracts, and you just don’t have any. Not that the higher-ups are going to find compelling anyway.”

John Smith was as near tears as his wife, but was valiantly trying to hold himself together. “I don’t suppose you could arrange just a short extension? Two weeks, just to get my family through the holidays?” Aife started to shake her head and reply, but he cut her off with a desperate, “Please, I just don’t want my children to associate Christmas with me dying.”

This sucks. 

“Mr … Jack, I told you, I already looked it over, just a few hours ago. There isn’t a damn thing I can do.” She swallowed. “Look, I’m sorry. I really am. But in order for me to do anything at all, Hell would need something more from you. And you just don’t have anything to offer.”

Jane sat up straighter, the signs of weeping gone from her suddenly firm voice. “What about me? I could sign a contract to give Jack more time.”

“I won’t do that, I’m sorry.”

“Why not?” the Smiths asked in unison.

“Because, as satisfying as it would be for you to walk out of here and spend another Christmas with your little ones, I could get you five years at best. And then where would your children be?”

“As if you care about our family!” Jane spat.

“I had a family once,” Aife said evenly. “So, I actually do. I won’t let you leave your children parentless just so you can kick this can down the road five years.”

Jack grew thoughtful. Something about Aife’s little literary reference had tripped a memory and he was trying to find the thread of it. “Alright. That makes sense.” He chewed his lip. “What would I need to do to get more time?”

Aife sighed. “You’d need to provide Hell with something of value. The more valuable the object or service or information, the longer the terms. But Jack, you teach science to kids. You don’t have means. You’re not political. And I have to assume you don’t have a vault full of cursed artifacts under that three bedroom ranch in Williston.” Both Smiths deflated a bit. “You have nothing Hell wants or needs. And the terms of your contract are ironclad.”

“I see,” the man sighed. “Is that my contract?” He gestured to the paper on her desk.

“It is. As I said, I’ve been reviewing it.”

“May I see it?”

She’d expected that. No doubt he wanted to pour over it from some loophole or fresh argument. She could hardly deny it to him. “Of course.” 

She slid the papers across her desk.

He picked them up and started leafing through them, eyes scanning the document desperately. 

It was hard to watch.

Finally, he set the papers back down on her desk with a heavy sigh.

“I’m sorry, Jack. I truly am. Believe me when I say it gives me no joy to send you away without a better resolution than advice to spend as much time with your little ones as you can before tomorrow. But my hands are tied.”

Husband and wife both started to cry, collapsing into each other’s arms. Uncomfortable, Aife looked away. She could hardly rush them out of here now. She picked up the contract to file it away, but instead began to reread it. It was better than watching the devastated couple in front of her.

“Wait a minute,” she said, quietly a first.

Then louder, “Wait just a damned minute. I’ve got something!”

“What is it?” Jack asked, wiping his eyes.

“Page Four, Paragraph Seven … You were supposed to initial it. But you didn’t.”

Jack just shook his head, blinking several times. He couldn’t even comprehend her words in his distressed state. Jane, however, blew her nose, sniffled, but managed, “What does that mean?”

Aife felt herself almost smiling. “Well, what it means is this contract isn’t enforceable. And if the Agent who stamped it was still in existence this would make sure he didn’t stay that way for long.”

Jack seemed to be mastering himself. “Say again?”

“It’s a small thing, but, as they say, the devil is in the details.”

“Does that mean…?”

“That depends. John Smith, do you contest the validity of the contract?”

“I…”

Aife prompted him with a gesture and an exaggerated nod.

“I do! Yes, of course I do!”

“Well, then, as the Agent in Command over this Office and its associated regions and obligations, I do hereby render this contract null and void due to a clerical error at the time of initial filing.”

Aife stood, reached for something on her shelf, and stamped the contract with a garish red-inked VOID across each of the pages.

“I … is that…?”

“Merry Christmas,” Aife grinned. 

“Thank you!” Jack got to his feet and reached for Aife’s hand which he then shook with understandable enthusiasm. “Merry Christmas!”

Jane stood as well, but her expression was more reserved. “What would have happened if you hadn’t noticed that?”

“He would have been collected,” she said simply. “But I did notice. You go have a happy holiday with those kids of yours now.”

“Thank you!” Jane exclaimed, finally realising it was truly resolved. She reached out to shake Aife’s hand as well, but stopped halfway there. “Wait. What about Rose?”

“You weren’t in breach of the contract. The error was on our end. Thank your lucky stars for disorganized demons. Since it was our fault, Rose will be just fine.”

“Oh, my God, that’s wonderful!” Jack exclaimed. 

Aife found herself suddenly being hugged by two joyfully weeping people.

“Thank you, Aife,” Jane whispered. “You’re a good person.”

Aife managed to disentangle herself from them. “Well, first of all, don’t let that get around. I’ve got a bad reputation to maintain.” She paused for the inevitable polite, slightly nervous laughter. “And second of all, you can thank my predecessors egregious lack of attention to detail. He was pretty slapdash about a lot of things.”

They were beaming now, drying their happy, relieved tears. “Now, if you two will excuse me, I best be getting back to the party. We’ll be wrapping up the formal part of the evening shortly and then the real fun will begin.”

“We’ll join you!” Jane said in a cheery voice.

Aife gestured at the grandfather clock in the corner. “You certainly are welcome to, but as I said, time’s getting on and, well, you two don’t seem like the orgy types.”

Jack blanched and Jane took a step back. He finally said, “There’s going to be an orgy?”

Aife grinned wickedly. “It would hardly be a Christmas party without one.” She laughed lightly. “You’re dealing with Hell, remember?” 

Both Smiths stammered in attempts at an adequate, if not quite worldly response.

Aife gestured toward a narrow door. “Here, let me show you out the back.”

After she’d let the two of them into the alley behind the bar, she passed back through her office on her way to oversee the conclusion to the night’s festivities. She picked up the contract and tipped it into her Outbox. 

“I’m not sure if this counts as a Christmas miracle, but I’ll take it,” she observed to the empty office.

She heard a crash from on of the back rooms and several voices getting very loud. 

“Now, if I can get through the rest of the night and stay on speaking terms with Ben, that really will be a miracle.”

She hurried back out into the bar.

*****

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Features Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized

The Things We Can’t See

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Authors’ Note – Here’s a look into a family holiday in Mal Sinclair’s past. In a way, this was what led Mal to Burlington. You can read more about Mal in Always Darkest and in Fic-mas I and II.

The Things We Can’t See

Ari glanced down at the dashboard instruments. They were going to need gas. That wasn’t a bad thing, he thought. They could both stand to stretch their legs a little. The car felt cramped compared to their RV. Mal was going to have a terrible stiff neck if she stayed in the position she’d slouched into much longer.

He’d chosen this particular route for the abundance of easy stops. Before long, they came upon a gas station with an attached convenience store and he pulled into an open pump. He reached over to shake his daughter awake. When she was asleep like this she looked much more like the little girl he used to travel with than the young woman she was becoming. He jostled her arm again.

“Mal, honey.” She groaned sleepily and he smiled. “We’re stopping for a bit. You hungry? Looks like this place has good snacks.”

Her eyes opened at the mention of food. “Huh? I mean, okay.” She stretched and yawned. “Must’ve dozed off.”

He grinned. “Quite a while ago. Right in the middle of Silent Night.”

She smiled back. “If I didn’t know I was done growing, I’d think I was about to get taller,” she said. “Lately all I want to do is eat and sleep.”

“You sure you’re done?” he teased. 

She shook her head and rolled her eyes, but it was an entirely fond expression. “Girls usually stop at around fifteen. I think I reached maximum tallness a couple years ago.” 

“Good! I was afraid you were about to tell me we were going to have to trade in for a bigger camper.” 

She laughed. “I think we’re safe from that. I’m probably all sleepy because the weather has been so nasty up here.”

“It has been sort of grey and stormy. Hopefully the weather won’t interfere with our plans.” He unbuckled his seatbelt. “Hey, I’ll pump the gas if you want to make the supply run.”

“Sure.” She unbuckled, too, stretching again. “Special requests?”

“If they have any puzzle books, I could use a new one, please. Sudoku would be great, but I’ll take anything.”

“I’ll have a look around,” she replied as they climbed out of the car. “But first I seriously need to find a bathroom.”

Mal made her way across the parking lot, purposely skating on the icy patches and grinning as the cold air woke her up. Ari stood humming a Christmas carol while he worked the pump. He was in a good mood. It had been several years since they’d slowed down and taken a Christmas vacation instead of celebrating on the road in the RV. Last Christmas Mal had commented on it, and just hadn’t seemed to enjoy their little traveling traditions as much as usual. Not that she’d complained, but Ari had noticed. 

This year, he’d announced they were going to have an honest-to-goodness Christmas. He’d taken the RV in for a full servicing, rented them a nice SUV, and handed Mal their itinerary as she’d climbed into the passenger seat, saying, “So what’s this big surprise?”

She’d squealed like a much younger version of herself at the revelation of a trip to a cabin in the mountains, right next door to a highly regarded ski resort. Mal loved to ski. Even though she usually complained about cold and didn’t much like to go outside when they were in places prone to winter weather, she always completely changed her mind around Christmas. She loved the snow, icicles, hot cocoa, all the traditional trappings of a storybook winter holiday. Ari was really looking forward to this time. And so was Mal. 

She skidded up to the car over a delightfully smooth ice patch. She fished around in the bag she was carrying and waved two books at him. “Puzzles acquired. They didn’t have sudoku so I grabbed you a crossword, and something called hashiwokakero. It’s another Japanese number puzzle.”

He widened his eyes at her. “Numbers aren’t always…”

“Don’t worry,” she interrupted. “It says on the back you don’t have to be good at math. Besides, if that’s not true, I’ll help you!”

“Thanks, Mal. Maybe we can learn it together so you’ll be prepared when I inevitably get stuck.”

She grinned and opened her door, tossing the puzzle books into the back and their bag of snacks and drinks onto her seat. “So … How much farther?”

“Oh, about an hour or so.” Ari finished up collecting his receipt and climbed into the car after her. She had already opened them each a lemon iced tea and was making a picnic of the various snacks she’s acquired. As he pulled back onto the road he reached over for some beef jerky. “I was thinking it might be nice to make an early night of it tonight. That way we can hit the slopes early tomorrow.”

Around her mouthful of Hostess cupcake she agreed, beaming. “Sounds good to me!”

They chatted on about the details for a while. Mal liked being outdoors in general and the Christmas holidays were all about snow to her. So skiing was perfect. She searched around the area near the resort for a grocery store so they could maybe pop out and get the ingredients for the delicious hot chocolate Ari always made. Other chocolate would also be acceptable.

When they tired of making plans, Mal turned up the radio and the rest of the trip was mostly one long Christmas sing along, interspersed with talk of everything they had planned and how they could fit it into two short weeks, before they went back to pick up their RV and head to a jewelry show outside of Vegas in advance of Valentine’s Day. Mal pretended enthusiasm for one of their biggest retail opportunities of the year, but Ari could see, once again, the flicker of discontent life on the road was beginning to cause. 

***

Mal woke to the smell of coffee and bacon, two of her favorite things. She looked out her window to discover Christmas morning had dawned bright and clear, with a faint dusting of fresh snow that caused everything to sparkle in the dazzling sunlight. She smiled widely at the postcard-perfect view. The day couldn’t be Christmasy-er if it tried.

She pulled on her warm fleece robe and padded down the hall in her heavy socks to find her father making breakfast. “Morning, Dad! Merry Christmas!”

He stopped what he was doing and turned to give her a hug. She giggled at how he was still wearing two oven mitts, making the hug amusingly awkward. “Merry Christmas, Mal!” 

Out here, in addition to the other wonderful aromas, she caught the sharp, fresh scent of the real tree they’d gone out and cut together when they’d arrived a few days ago. She’d been around a real tree plenty of times but this year was her first time going out and choosing it. She’d gotten impatient with the handsaw, but insisted on seeing it through herself. Ari’s face had hurt from smiling at how much she’d clearly enjoyed the experience, right down to sitting on the couch picking pitch off her hands all evening mostly so she could keep sniffing at the wonderful smell.

She poured herself a maple syrup sweetened coffee and puttered around the cabin while Ari finished cooking breakfast. She plugged in the lights on the tree, breathing deeply of the scent again and deciding that she needed a balsam candle or something for when the RV got stuffy. The cabin was already delightfully warm from the forced hot air heat it came with, but Mal got a fire going in the fireplace anyway. That seemed like the Christmasy thing to do.

Once the festive parts of the picture were complete, she hurried to set the table and help her dad bring everything over so they could eat. He’d prepared such a delicious array of choices, they ate mostly sharing a comfortable silence, punctuated only by requests to pass the butter or syrup. Once Mal declared she couldn’t eat another bite, well past when Ari had thrown in the towel on more cinnamon rolls or french toast, they cleared the table and shared the clean up duties. 

As they worked, they talked about their plans for the day, which mostly involved a little cross country skiing, watching a host of holiday movies, and a quiet dinner. When they’d dried and put away the last dish, Ari asked, “Are you ready to open presents or do you want to get dressed for going outside first?”

“Let’s open them now. I want you to have yours. It’s honestly been killing me not to just give it to you.”

She was excited to see his reaction. Presents were never a central part of their holiday. Living in an RV precluded much materialism. Their gifts were almost always small and thoughtful, or something not material at all. She’d thought long and hard over this gift, pleased to finally have some of her own money from working as his bookkeeper, instead of just hoarding her allowance. Mal grabbed the small oblong box she’d placed under the tree after church last night and passed it to her father. “You go first.”

Ari settled onto the couch next to her and accepted the brightly wrapped package. 

“Thank you, Mal! This is perfect,” he said, smiling and taking the sleek e-reader out of the package and hoping desperately the instructions were easy to follow. “I’ve been meaning to get one for ages.”

“I’m so glad you like it! I’ll set it up for you. I charged it before I wrapped it, so it’s good to go. It’ll hold literally thousands of books. And this kind has apps you can download, too. So you’ll be able to just do puzzles on it and stuff, too!”

Ari was an avid reader and often put himself to sleep doing either that or puzzle games. He could never carry too many with them since the camper didn’t offer a ton of storage space. “I don’t think I’ve ever received such a thoughtful gift. I’ll have to spend the day building my library.”

Ari rose and retrieved the small square box he’d wrapped for Mal. “Okay, your turn.” 

He handed it to her with the sudden feeling he knew exactly how a first time skydiver felt as they stepped up to the doors for their first jump. He sat back down, turning so he could see her face. 

She smiled as she tore open the paper. Her dad was a master of cool little gifts. When she saw what was inside the box, her smile faltered and her face creased into an expression of supreme bewilderment, something she was not used to feeling. Especially not as it related to her dad. She didn’t remove the gift from its package, rather poked it tentatively with one finger. 

“Um…” she started, but stopped just as quickly, this time turning the single key out into her palm.  

“You look a little confused,” Ari observed gently.

She bit her lip. There was something in his voice that told her it was a big deal, that he’d struggled with it, maybe. Her voice was quiet, almost tentative, “A little, I guess.” She held up the gift. “What’s the key to?”

Ari took a breath and then the leap he’d been so sure of before he’d actually handed her the box. “It’s to our new home … If you want it to be.”

She cleared her throat. “New home?”

He nodded slowly. “I … um … I spoke to your grandfather … There’s an empty house on the Sinclair compound.”

Her confused expression morphed into a thoughtful frown. “So? People come and go from there all the time.”

“That’s true,” he agreed. “But when he mentioned it this time…”

Ari was usually a pretty straightforward guy. It was one of Mal’s favorite things about her dad. If he thought it, he said it. It was just his way. Why was he dancing around whatever this was? She didn’t want to sound demanding, but this weird tension was winding her up a little. “Dad, just … What’s this about?”  

Ari could see his hesitance was ruining what was meant to be a wonderful gift, one from her whole family, really. “You never say it, you never complain, but I can tell life on the road is wearing on you. I can tell you’d like to put down some roots.”

“I…Okay. Wow.” What he was offering with this little key finally sunk in. She put the key back in the box and leaned forward to set it on the coffee table in front of them. “This is a lot.”

Ari took her hand so she’d look at him. “You don’t like it?” he asked, voice full of concern.

“No! It’s not that,” she hurried to reassure him. “I mean, I’ve thought about it … I’d love a home. Well, I mean, a home other than the camper. That’s home for sure,” she added, wanting him to know that she appreciated the home he’d created for them, and her desire for something else wasn’t a judgment on the one they had. “I’d love a place to … you know … do normal stuff in. Like go to school and make some real friends, and not have to check the oil all the time.” He chuckled and she relaxed a little, thinking if he could laugh she hadn’t hurt his feelings too much. “It’s just when I picture it … well, I don’t usually include the whole Sinclair clan being there, you know?”

“I thought you loved our visits there, loved the family?” 

“Well, yeah, of course I do. Especially Papa and Gran. And it’s always fun when we go visit. But … I’ve never thought of that as, like, home. You know? Like when I picture home, it’s you and me. Like home always has been. Just maybe in one spot.”

“So you …” He wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to say, so he stopped.

She nibbled her thumbnail, trying to order her thoughts. “I’m just thinking after all this time on the road … I’m not sure I can do the whole extended family thing. It’s … lovely. But it’s … not really ‘me’. Does that make any sense?” She noticed the slightly somber expression on his face. “Oh my God, I’m being terrible right now. I’m so sorry.”

He smiled and it lit his eyes in a familiar way that told her it was genuine, not just one managed to keep her from feeling bad for opening her mouth and being a total teenager. She really tried not to do the thoughtless impulsive things that came into her head sometimes and which she sometimes saw from other people her age. The smile said he didn’t think she had. “You’re not being terrible at all. You’re being honest.”

“It’s really a sweet idea, Dad, and a wonderful gift. I just don’t think I want to accept it, if that’s okay.”

“It’s not the first time I’ve offered you a life with the Sinclairs.” He wrapped her into a hug until he felt her relax. He released her and showed a sideways grin he knew would help her feel let off the hook. “I’m honestly a little relieved you feel that way.”

“Really?”

“Well, they are a boisterous lot. And I am a bit solitary myself.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” she grinned.

Ari grew thoughtful. “I wasn’t wrong thinking that you might like a home of the non-mobile variety though.”

She shrugged, not wanting him to feel obligated. “No…”

“You can be honest about how you feel about this, Mal. I’m not going to take it personally.”

“Well … It would be kind of nice. I mean, next year will be my senior year. I know academically I’m pretty far ahead anyway, but it might be nice to actually go to school, get a real high school experience before I go to college.”

He nodded. “I can see why that might appeal to you.”

“Honestly though, wherever we are, so long as we’re together, I’m home.”

“Are you sure? This isn’t just about to become the Christmas there were no presents in your memory?”

“Dad, don’t be silly. I’ve wanted to talk to you about this for a while. I just kind of felt bad. Giving me a chance to is a pretty big present. It doesn’t have to be a gift you can wrap for me. You know that, right?”

“I suppose I do.” He seemed to think about that for a long moment. “Your grandfather is going to be crushed.”

“Well, Papa will just have to get over it,” Mal said with a grin. “I’m not moving to Canada to be hip deep in cousins and snow. In fact, I’m kind of looking forward to Vegas. It’s so cold here, I’m not so sure I want to go out on the trail this morning,” she added just to make her point.

“In that case, what do you want to watch first? Polar Express?”

“Nah, White Christmas.”

Ari smiled. “Perfect. You get the movie started. I’ll go make us some popcorn.”

*****

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized

Failure at 40,000 Feet

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Authors’ Note: Welcome to another fabulous Fic-mas celebration. For the next twelve days you can expect a daily story in The Arbitratus Universe. Each story will feature a winter holiday theme. But don’t get too comfortable. We love to shake up tradition.

Have fun and let us know what you think!

Today’s story features an old friend who’s been with us since our first Fic-mas. For the hardcore paranormal pop culture nerds in the crowd (hello, fam!) there are a few easter eggs here that we hope you find. If you aren’t already familiar with our friend Eugene, check out Fic-mas 2017 and Fic-mas 2018. The drafts are available here on the blog, or you can click the link to read the polished work for free on KU.

Merry Fic-mas!

Failure at 40,000 Feet

Eugene adjusted himself in his seat, trying in vain to get even a little bit comfortable. He regretted … well, a lot of things, but right now choosing to fly Economy on a discount airline was right at the top of his list. He wasn’t an especially tall guy, but he still barely had room for his legs. At least he had an aisle seat. It wasn’t much, but he’d take what he could get. 

He couldn’t quite turn to stretch out both legs, but he managed to get his left leg straightened into the aisle, tight to the seat in front of him, where it wouldn’t be in anyone’s way. Now that he was marginally more comfortable, he cacophony around him encroached on his moment’s relief. He sighed and turned up the volume on his headphones. 

He started to relax into his audiobook, thinking he might even be able to drift off and ignore the unpleasantness on board Flight 1015. He closed his eyes and sank down into the stiff seat, ignoring how it smelled faintly of something unpleasant. Either the food or someone missing their airsick bag from the last flight if he had to guess. Given his previous place of residence in Hell (one of the nicer neighborhoods, but still) it wasn’t terribly hard to ignore. 

It wasn’t long before he’d drifted off, lazing in a pleasant dream of the day he’d quit being Krampus and walked out of Hell and into a life on Earth, when a firm tap on his shoulder dragged him back to earthly reality. He took off his headphones and looked politely at the flight attendant leaning over him. “Yes?”

The young man’s smile had a practiced, plastic quality that said he’d had more than enough of the passengers on this flight. The Thanksgiving crowds were not his favorite. At least it wasn’t as crowded or as raucous as the ones who packed in for the Christmas holidays. His tone carried understanding of the uncomfortable traveling accommodations when he spoke. “I’m sorry, sir. I have to ask you to keep your feet out of the aisle. It’s for safety, sir.”

Eugene nodded grudgingly and slowly eased his leg back into its cramped position touching the seat in front of him. “Sorry about that,” he said, almost meaning it. He didn’t envy the attendants on this flight, or any other for that matter.

“Thank you, sir,” the young man said, grateful to not have to argue. “Wouldn’t want anyone to trip, would we?”

“I suppose not.” Eugene offered a smile in return.

“Something to drink, sir?” was offered as a thanks for at least one thing on this flight not being a terrible trial.

Eugene smiled. “Yes, thank you. The stiffer the better, son.”

The young man, Robert, according to his name tag, nodded. “I’ll be back shortly, sir.” He moved off toward the drink cart at the front of the cabin, but hadn’t gotten three rows up when he nearly tripped over a woman’s leg. He didn’t get so lucky with his request to her to move her leg. 

Eugene shook his head as Robert patiently tried to explain the safety issue to the woman, thought all it accomplished was an increasingly shrill response. He didn’t think he’d be seeing the offered beverage any time soon. He checked his watch. Only 10:15. Damn. At least another couple of hours before landing. He put his headphones back on, turned up the volume, hoping to drown out the noise and resume his nap.

It was too loud for that now, he supposed, grimacing as another baby started crying, utterly ignored by its parents. He surveyed the cabin. He’d expected the flight to be crowded, but hadn’t anticipated the number of families heading back from their wherever their holiday weekend had taken them. 

The parents in question didn’t look especially bothered by the noise, or the snacks that sailed over seats, or the general obvious discomfort of the rest of the passengers. The kids appeared to revel in it. At least a few of these little darlings would have warranted a visit from his alter ego in about a week if he hadn’t said goodbye to his centuries old role as Nick’s dark counterpart. 

“Well,” he mumbled to himself. “That’s in the past, old boy.” 

In the past like his expense account. Like not living on a budget, like easy magic, like any number of perks that went with being Krampus. He hadn’t much cared for the form he’d been expected to live in. And Hell wasn’t exactly a great place for a vacation. But it wasn’t without its charms. 

He wondered how good old Ben was making out. He’d heard the demon had managed his departure brilliantly, and somehow to not cast suspicion on himself. Eugene also heard he’d gotten an assignment up top. He’d been enjoying himself, according to a mutual friend, for a number of years. Not as good as being able to quit, but an upgrade nonetheless. 

A potato chip landed on his lap from a few seats away, fueling additional thoughts of his heavy pack and silver switch. You weren’t doing any good anyway, Eugene. Let it go.

He tried. He really did. But as he sat there watching children argue with their siblings (and their parents), make raucous noise disturbing all the other passengers, including the babies who only added to the din, toss food, spill drinks, and generally behave like spoiled little monsters, it became harder and harder to do. 

He made up his mind to switch his listening to music and perhaps hide behind the paperback he’d purchased in the airport. He stood to retrieve it out of his carry-on bag in the overhead. A girl of about eleven nearly knocked him over as she raced her brother to the bathroom. He grumbled under his breath, but managed to get himself back into his seat. He got some Mozart queued up on his music player, which seemed more effective at drowning out the noise and buried himself behind his copy of the innocuous bestseller he’d grabbed off the rack. He’d almost managed to relax when the seat in front of him slammed into his knees.

“Are you kidding me?” he growled, pulling off his headphones and stuffing the paperback into his seat next to his leg.

He tried just pushing back against the seat with his legs. Big mistake. It rammed into him again, this time painfully. He clenched his jaw, but plastered on a smile that would have made his flight attendant proud. He undid his seatbelt and leaned around the edge of the seat. “Pardon me?” he called as pleasantly as he could manage. “Could you please move your seat up a little?”

He stopped short. The person in front of him, who’d rammed his knees like an angry linebacker, was a child of about eight. The kid grinned at him and stuck his tongue out. The grin got an edge that reminded Eugene more of a vindictive adult than a child, and the kid hit the lever to recline his seat.

“Ow! Kid, c’mon, cut that out.”

The boy’s mother looked their way. If looks could kill, Eugene figured he’d be dust in about ten seconds. “He’s not hurting you.” 

“Beg to differ, ma’am.” Having spent far too many centuries without having to keep his tongue or his tone in check, he added, “You are familiar with the concept of legs having bones, I presume.”

“If my Nicholas wants to have his seat reclined, then reclined his seat will be!” He opened his mouth to rebut her ridiculous statement, but she leaned across the boy and get closer to Eugene. Her threat was clear in her tone. Getting him added to the no fly list would absolutely make her day. “Don’t make me get one of the attendants.”

“Fine,” he growled with a roll of his eyes. The kid’s name had to be Nick. Like a reminder from the universe that giving up his work, his partner, allowed stuff like this to go on unchecked.

He leaned back into the palpably inadequate airline seat, thinking the advertisements for ‘spacious economy seating as compared to other airlines’ in their marketing material should be updated to ‘the Inquisition’s got nothing on us and you’ll pay extra with a smile’. He was both surprised and relieved when the seat in front of him returned to its fully upright position.

Grateful, Eugene repositioned himself and got his book out again. He’d read three or four pages and was almost comfortable (or at least as close to it as he was likely to get here) again, when the kid’s seat slammed into his knees again. 

“Oh, for f…” 

He stopped himself. That wasn’t going to get him anywhere. The little darling’s mother already made it pretty clear that if a scene was going to be made, she was more than happy to be the one to make it. He sighed and tried to make himself smaller in his already inadequate seat. 

It helped a little. For about three minutes, before the kid started moving it backward and forward again, seeming to make sure he connected with his fellow passenger’s rapidly bruising kneecaps. He checked his watch again. There was no way he could tolerate this nonsense for the rest of the flight. He rose and went in search of one of the flight attendants.

He caught up with a young man named Asa, who was hiding by the drink cart in between passenger cabins. “I’m sorry to bother you. You look like you’re enjoying this flight about as much as I am. But I could really use your help.” Eugene proceeded to explain his plight to the harried attendant.

 Asa nodded his understanding, but opened his palms so Eugene knew his answer would be disappointing before the guy even opened his mouth. “I’m sorry, sir. I can’t really be of assistance with this. People are allowed to recline their seats. And it’s not like we can set a limit on the number of times they do it.”

“But there isn’t room!” His legs ached, and they’d hit another little pocket of turbulence which set a number of babies who had quieted back to squalling again. 

“We meet federal guidelines, sir.” The seatbelt light went on with a distinctive chime. “I’m sorry, sir. You’ll need to take your seat.”

There wasn’t much arguing once the seatbelt signal was lit. If he didn’t sit, heaven knew the air marshall that was almost certainly on board would probably force a landing. And nothing would make little Nicky’s mother happier than seeing him get himself kicked off the flight. A plaintive note crept into his final plea. “Are you sure there’s nothing you can do?”

The young man gave a tired shake of his head. “Between you and me? I’d love to. I usually love this job, but between the week before Thanksgiving and New Year’s, I always think about changing careers. The kids are bad enough, but their parents are the worst. My fiance is a teacher. I don’t know how she does it. I really wish I could help, but my hands are tied.”

“Another seat maybe?”

“I’m sorry, sir. I really am. Can’t move you around with the light on. I really need you to take your seat and I need to go take care of the folks ignoring the sign.”

“Okay. I understand.” He did, too. The feeling of impotence in the face of legions of the callous and ill behaved was grating on him, wearing him down. He suspected he looked as tired as young Asa of the wrinkled airline uniform himself. “Thank you anyway.”

Eugene made his resigned way back to his seat, squeezed into the tight space, and did some deep breathing. Unable to get a rise out of him, it wasn’t long before Darling Nicky stopped his relentless seat torment. Eugene put his headphones back on and closed his eyes, hoping if he tried hard enough he could just sleep through the rest of this interminable flight.

He’d just about dozed off when a rhythmic thudding on the back of his seat jostled him back to full consciousness. “Oh, what fresh hell is this?” He gritted his teeth and mumbled, “I’m not going to say anything. I’m not going to say anything. I’m not going to … No, you know what, screw that.”

He undid his seatbelt, sign be damned, and turned around to see the source of this new misery. It turned out his new tormentor was a girl of perhaps twelve kicking his seat by alternating her feet. She smirked at his expression. He forced his face into a pleasant smile. “Excuse me, miss. Would you mind not kicking my seat, please? I’m trying to nap.”

“Yeah, I would mind.” Her smirk grew and she kicked it harder.

“Excuse me. Excuse me, sir!” Eugene waved to get the father’s attention. 

The man removed his headphones and answered curtly, “What?” 

Eugene’s politeness had reached its outer limits, but he tried to keep his tone pleasant and conversational. “Your daughter is kicking my seat. And isn’t inclined to stop when I ask. I thought perhaps you could help,” he bit out, doing his best to suppress his growing ire over the uninterested expression the man was wearing. 

The man didn’t exactly roll his eyes, but Eugene thought it was a near thing. Then he turned to his daughter and said without much interest in her either,. “Honeyhunny, would you mind not kicking this man’s seat?”

“I’m bored. And it’s fun.”

The man returned his gaze to Eugene. “Well, there you have it. I’ve done what I can do.” 

The man put his headphones back in and turned away, effectively ending the conversation.

Eugene couldn’t believe it, so he just stared for a minute. The girl smirked at him and resumed kicking his seat. He glared at her, but after seeing the glint his attention put into her eyes he just turned around. His knees were once again pressed into the reclined seat in front of him, the rhythmic pounding against his back keeping time with his racing thoughts. The flight attendant finally returned with the drink he’d been promised what felt like a decade ago. All it did was go sour in his stomach as he surveyed the scene around him: Children out of control, loudly and messily, disturbing others intentionally, and the more people tried to ignore their antics the louder and more atrocious their behavior got. 

And the parents … They just didn’t seem to care. No, that wasn’t right. They seemed almost to encourage it. At first he’d taken it as simple over-indulgence. But that wasn’t right either. They didn’t see anything wrong with it. 

Eugene mulled that over for a while. He’d become frustrated with his role as Krampus when it became clear to him the kids were too jaded to benefit from his correction. Now he wondered if the same thing was wrong with their parents. Or perhaps, the lack of his presence had allowed those people to finish growing up without the consequences they so sorely needed.

His eyes lit up with the realization. He’d abandoned them when he retired. These people weren’t correcting their children because he’d left his post. The kids weren’t the problem at all. The parents were. 

He couldn’t officially come out of retirement. That would mean going back to Hell, but … The magic was still his to command.

He could …

He could be a vigilante.

Righting the wrongs of a world without guidance. He smiled as he started to call his former form to himself.

It would start here on Flight 1015, but that’s not where it would end. 

Krampus would return to his former glory, unburdened by the constraints of Hell or the earthly calendar year.

He smiled.

He was going to need bigger sacks. 

*****

 

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Fan Fic For Fun Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

Silence

Author’s Note – Here’s another little fanfic of mine from a one word IG prompt. This scene doesn’t appear in Always Darkest, but it could.

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It was quiet other than the patter of rain and snow on the porch roof. Mal warmed her hands around her coffee cup, smiling faintly at the one tree in their yard still stubbornly holding on to its autumn leaves in the face of impending winter. 

The swing creaked and a blanket dropped over her shoulders.

She didn’t even have to look. “Morning, Dad.”

She glanced his way.

He was smiling, but it was a speculative questioning sort of smile. “You’re up early.”

She shrugged. “I guess. Bad dreams.”

“Again, huh?” He squeezed her hand.

She sighed. “Yeah. It’s been a rough week.”

“I’m sorry, honey. I wish I could help.”

She shrugged again. “At least break is starting soon. Then it doesn’t matter so much how I sleep.”

Ari put an arm around her. “Are you looking forward to a little vacation?”

“Yeah, I am. Teddy’s not gonna be around, but I’ve got plans with Petra, and Ben …” she trailed off.

“So his name’s Ben, huh?”

She blushed. “Yeah. Um … Ben Brody.” She didn’t know why she hadn’t said anything before now. It’s not like she hadn’t dated before. But Ben was different.

He smiled fondly. “The color in your cheeks is more than the cold. Maybe this is a more than friends boy?”

She turned toward him, her face splitting into a real smile, sleepy brain cobwebs be damned. “I think he really is.”

She told Ari about Ben then. She’d gone from feeling weirdly protective of her budding relationship to wanting her dad to know everything.

Ari chuckled. “He sounds like a great guy. And he must be if you’re this fascinated by him.”

“He is. I … I really like him.”

“Would you like to invite him?”

“Huh?”

“For Christmas? You said he can’t go home to his own family.”

She grew thoughtful. “It wouldn’t be weird?”

“Depends on how shy he is, I suppose. But I don’t think I’m all that intimidating,” he grinned.

“What about Uncle Davi?”

“I’m sure he’ll like your Ben just fine.”

Her Ben. She really liked the sound of that.

“I’ll ask him,” she said finally.

“Good.” Ari squeezed her shoulders and they sat looking out at the lake as the mix changed over to more serious snow.

It was a comfortable, homey silence.

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

The Twelfth Day of Fic-mas

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Joyeux Noël

Authors’ Note – Two holidays in a row we’ve shown you the pasts of some of our most important characters. You’ve even met Ben in his youth twice. But we’ve never shown you all who Mal used to be, where she came from. So, our final story this Fic-mas is a look into the past at the child who would one day become the young woman upon whom the fate of the world rests in Always Darkest. We hope you’ve enjoyed this Fic-mas. See you again next Fic-mas! (And maybe tomorrow. You never know.) Merry Christmas!

 

Ari glanced in the rearview mirror. A fond smile spread over his face. He knew the incessant questions must’ve stopped for a better reason than something interesting in the entomology book almost bigger than she was little Mal had spread across her lap during the most recent leg of their trip north. She’d fallen asleep, her face pressed against the window.

Eyes back on the road again, Ari eased the car over onto the shoulder slowly and pulled to the quietest, most gentle stop he could. “Mal,” he said softly. Then, a little louder, “Mal, honey?”

“Mmmm … are we there, Papa?” came a sleepy voice, followed by the sort of jaw-cracking yawn common to the very young, and totally unself-conscious. Mal was both. She was also someone who didn’t want to miss the border crossing, which he’d promised to wake her for. But he thought she might like this even more. Maybe even more than her bug book.

“Not yet, baby, but almost. I wanted you to see.” He directed Mal’s attention to the passenger side of their car.

Her breath drew in sharply. Out in the middle of a clearing, stood the largest animal Mal had ever seen in all her seven and almost a half years (the almost a half was very important to her). It was a moose! She’d always wanted to see a moose in person! “Papa! Papa! It’s a moose! It’s a boy mosse! A bull moose, I mean!” she squealed, unbuckling herself from her booster seat, and climbing up on her knees, pressing her face as close to the glass as she could, as if it would help her see it better. “Look at it’s antlers! … Did you know that the scientific name for moose is Alces alces, and an adult male can grow about seven feet high at the shoulder? He looks seven feet tall at least! And they like to …”

Ari let Mal rattle off the many scientific facts she had at the ready, in her already nimble and ever-expanding mind, about the noble moose … make that the noble Alces alces. Mal really liked it when he remembered little things, she told him, although she magnanimously said it was alright if he didn’t remember everything. He wasn’t a scientist. She was. That she was already so certain of where she wanted life to take her made him smile. With most kids he’d have thought it was simple whimsy, but with Mal … Mal wasn’t most kids. In any way at all.

She kept up a steady stream of chatter, nose pressed to the window and palms marking it, too. Ari’s smile grew as he listened. She got that zeal for learning, her passion for knowledge, from her mother, Ari mused. Ari wished she could have really known her mother. But, he supposed, she didn’t seem to know she was missing anything. He did his best to love her enough for both of them.

As the moose meandered back toward the tree line, he reminded Mal to get back into her seat. “Do you need help with the belt, honey?”

“You’re silly, Papa,” she said. “I’ve got it.”

Ari made sure she really did, then he pulled away just as the large animal was disappearing into the forest. The absence of the moose did nothing to temper her enthusiasm. She was still excitedly talking about not just the fascinating moose itself, but how it played a role in the food supply and ecosystem (her new word, of which she was enormously proud) and was especially important in Canada. Ari grinned. “Do you think that moose was going back to be with the other meese?”

“Daaa-aaad,” Mal groaned. She sometimes called him Daddy when she was hurt or sick, or very sleepy, but this was not one of those times. She called him Dad often when she thought it was time for her to be the grown-up. It was affectionate, but there was a no-nonsense tone to it that made him wonder a little how long he’d be able to think of her as a little girl. “There’s no such thing as meese. It’s not a real word,” she protested.

“Uh oh, then I guess someone should tell all the meese.”

His grin in the rearview mirror let her know he was only joking. She shook her head, but grinned back. “How much further?”

“To the border? Oh, probably about an hour. That’ll take a while though,” he answered, hoping his directions had been good, but feeling pretty confident that none of the Knights would have purposely gotten them lost. When her face fell just a little, he added, “Once we’re through there, an hour or two to Tante Jeanette’s at most.”

“Okay!” she said brightly. She was very excited to spend the holiday with her mother’s family, even more so because some of the far-flung relatives she’d already gotten to meet in their travels were coming home to Grand-père Sinclair’s for the holidays. “Um … do you want to listen to the radio? There might be Christmas music.”

Ari chuckled. That was a not so subtle hint that she wanted all the Christmas music, and to sing along at the top of her lungs, not caring one whit how it sounded. “It just so happens I brought the CD you like from the camper.”

“Yay!” she said enthusiastically, clapping her hands. Ari opened the case with one hand and slid it into the CD player. Mal was bellowing Holly Jolly Christmas immediately. Ari couldn’t think of a nicer way to pass the time. Once the music was on and Mal was occupied, the miles slipped by quickly.

The border crossing went smoothly. Mal got the giggles over the border guard’s accent, which the man seemed to find almost as amusing as she did. When she flawlessly pronounced Agence des services frontaliers du Canada from the patch on his jacket and said she was working hard to learn French, he asked Ari’s permission to give her a small Christmas present. “Joyeux Noël, little lady,” he called, waving to them as they pulled away.

“That’s Merry Christmas, right, Papa?”

“It is,” Ari answered. He had no doubt Mal would have half the French language mastered by the time the holidays were over. He laughed to himself as she rolled down her window and yelled back, waving, “Joyeux Noël, Mr. Border Policeman! Next I’m going to meet a Mountie!”

Ari could see the man laughing as they merged with traffic. “Mounties are really called the RCMP, you know,” she said to her father, flipping through her little guidebook again, the bugs long since forgotten. “That’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They have horses. Have I told you about that?”

Ari turned the music down a little, so she could tell him all she was learning about Canada, but found himself turning it back up after only a few minutes as she trailed off. She’d lost interest in conversation already in favor of her Christmas present from the border guard. She now had a miniature Canadian flag and she was happily spinning it between her palms, letting the fabric just brush the tip of her nose.

Mal could be almost ridiculously mature sometimes. Ari was hard pressed to determine if that was just part of her very special nature, or if it had been foisted upon her by their nomadic existence. Moments like these, where she was just a very little girl, all ringlets and giggles and childlike fascination, were both precious and acutely poignant for him.

After a while, he heard the flag stop spinning and Mal began puffing breath on the window to fog it up and draw on it. Her voice piped up from behind him again. “I didn’t think it could snow this much,” she said, distracted by the massive piles of grimy snow along Route 201. “Saint Georges,” Mal read off a road sign. “Ten Km. Papa, what’s a Km?”

“It’s a kilometer, honey. It’s a way of measuring distance, sort of like a mile, in the metric system. They use that for measuring in Canada. Actually most other countries use the metric system. All scientists use it, too,” he added, sure she’d be interested to know.

“Oh, okay.”

She thought about that for a minute or two, then began peppering Ari with questions about the metric system and why other countries used it, and wondering why if scientists used it, America had to be so dumb. Ari answered each one of her questions patiently, as best he could. When he didn’t know, he told her so, and she made a note in her little pocket notebook, so she could look it up on the computer when they got home.

Mal was always talkative, always inquisitive, but Ari started to wonder if she was a little nervous about meeting the whole family all at once. She hadn’t seen her Grand-père Sinclair since she was very small; she and Ari had gone to his wedding when he’d remarried. But she’d never been to the Sinclair’s ancestral home just outside Quebec City. It was more of a compound than a house, and several her aunts and uncles still lived in cabins on it. Most of the time Ari and Mal were all the family either of them had. Davi visited when he could, but no matter how often he did, it was never quite enough for Mal, who adored him.

Ari was looking forward to the visit. He knew the Sinclairs made a very big deal out of the holidays and had their own special ways of celebrating in addition to the traditional French-Canadian festivities. He couldn’t wait to share that with Mal. He always did his best to make every Christmas memorable for her, but there was only so special a hotel or a holiday in their camper could be. Up here, with the large French family, Mal would have a Christmas she was sure never to forget.

He knew she was looking forward to stopping for the night, too. She loved her Tante Jeanette and Oncle Michele. She adored her cousins, too. She’d seen them recently enough to be very excited. They’d all met at Disneyland for Mal’s birthday a few months ago. By the time they pulled into the driveway, Mal was tired and fidgety. It was late, and it had been a very long day in the car. He’d caught glimpses of her rubbing both eyes with her fists and fighting sleep for the last half hour.  

Mal was usually fiercely independent about getting in and out of her booster seat, but instead of leaping out of it like she usually did, the sleepy child just gaped at all the lights sparkling along the path that led up to the bright, inviting farmhouse. Ari opened her door and helped her out of her booster seat, zipping up her coat before letting her out into the frosty night.

Tante Jeanette, Oncle Michele!” she yelled, and ran up the path to meet them. She immediately leapt into Michele’s outstretched arms, giggling as his whiskers tickled her face.

“Ari,” he greeted around Mal’s arms which were wrapped tightly around his neck. “I’m glad you made it, but where is our Mal? I only see this tall young woman you’ve brought with you and not my favorite little scientist.”

Oncle, don’t be silly! It’s me! It’s Mal!” she said, laughing at him.

“Are you quite certain, cher? Our Mal is a little girl.”

“I’ve grown, Oncle. That happens as we get older …” She paused. “Well, we stop eventually, otherwise you’d be very tall.”

Everyone laughed. Mal wasn’t sure what she’d said that was funny, but she laughed, too. Michele ruffled her hair. “You must be right, Mal.”

Jeanette stretched out her hands to take Mal into her arms. Neither she nor her husband seemed to mind that she was too big to be carried like a toddler, and Mal was too tired to even protest being carried toward the house as her aunt asked her every little detail of her life on the road since they’d seen her in August.

Michele stayed to help Ari with their overnight bags. “We’re both so glad to have you, Ari. But where’s your camper? We weren’t sure it was you coming up the drive. I was surprised.”

Their aging RV was really the only home Mal had ever known and was as comfortable to them as a worn slipper, so it was somewhat surprising to Ari, too. “It needed some work,” he explained. “I left it at the dealership in Boston when we got back East. Besides, it needed some routine maintenance, too. Seemed like a good time to get a rental, since we already had places that I know Mal will feel at home to stay for a few weeks.”

A few of the older cousins had made their way down to offer their help, but Ari just smiled and waved them off, saying they wouldn’t make them bring everything in just for an overnight stay. When they all got inside, Ari discovered Mal had run off upstairs to catch up with the younger kids. It was awfully late for her, but Ari let her be.

Tomorrow was Christmas Eve, and they’d be making the last leg of their journey. Mal would need her rest, but since it would be another late night, he was hoping to get her to sleep in anyway. Maggie’s family had many traditions when it came to Christmas, all of which were going to be a whole new experience for Mal.

∞∞∞

The ride the following morning, other than being extremely cold and blindingly bright, was even nicer than the rest of their trip. Mal’s cousin Maddie, who was only a year older than Mal and who seemed to idolize her just a little, joined them in their car instead of riding north with her parents.

The sounds of the girls laughing and talking, or occasionally bursting into song in a strange and amusing combination of French and English, made Ari smile until his face hurt. Seeing Mal so happy gave him a joy so pure and full it was like being in the presence of the Divine. He laughed softly to himself when he thought that such a feeling couldn’t have been more appropriate.

Mal grew quiet as they approached her grandparents’ house down the long winding driveway. Her cousin took the cue from her and grew silent as well. The house was large, but not ostentatious. It looked like an oversized farmhouse, which it, in fact, was. The well-maintained but rather ancient piece of real estate had seen all the joys and sorrows of the Family Sinclair since they’d come over from France generations ago.

According to family tradition, it had belonged to Maggie’s mother Rose who had expressly said her dying wish was that her husband Paul could make his home there until the end of his days. When Maggie had gone off to grad school, Paul had moved back north with the smallest of her brothers and sisters and the extended family had helped him make a home for them. Mal didn’t know it, and Ari would never mention it while her grandfather lived, but one day, it would pass to her, if she wanted it.

He turned the car around the last bend and for a moment he couldn’t breathe. Maggie’s memorial was the last time he’d been to the house. He’d been grateful when the Templars handled coming up with an official story he could share with her family, her friends, but it didn’t ease the pain of her loss for him. He could only imagine how her brothers and sisters, how her father, must have felt. Ari at least had some assurance that he would see her again one day. They had their faith. But that wasn’t the same as knowing. It seemed terribly unfair.

“Papa, are you alright?” Mal asked from the backseat, sensing, just like she always seemed to, when there had been any sort of shift in his mood. “Of course, I am, honey. I’m just a little caught up in how beautiful it is.”

She turned to Maddie and nodded sagely. “He’s an artist. He gets all funny over beautiful things all the time.”

Ari smiled. That was the reminder he needed, that smiling face, and her easy acceptance of what he said made it true. The gleaming icicles on the eaves, the bright red and silver decorations that seemed to dot every single evergreen tree or bush, and on the evergreen garlands with white lights wrapping all the railings, all told him the tale of good times, a wonderful vacation to come, and future fond memories. This was going to be good for Mal, and for him too, he realized.

Ari got out of the car and smiled broadly when he saw Paul waiting on the steps. As ever, the man’s back rod straight. Even age was not stealing his military bearing. It would have looked quite severe if not for his easy grin, and the worn-out orange knit cap slightly askew over salt and pepper hair that seemed perpetually in need of a trim no matter how short and neat the man tried to keep it. He barely had the car door open for Mal when she squealed and pelted up the steps into her grandfather’s waiting arms.

He lifted her up over his head, like she weighed nothing at all, and she laughed and stretched out her arms like she was flying. Setting her down, he said, “Your grand-mère is in the kitchen making cookies with Tante Lissette and more children than I could rightly count. I’m sure they’d …” He laughed as Mal and Maddie were already halfway into the house on a tear for the kitchen. The prospect of Grand-mère and cookies and more cousins were too appealing for niceties like finishing a greeting. “She certainly takes after her mother at least insofar as an enthusiasm for cookies is concerned.”

Ari had finally caught up and he extended his hand only to find himself pulled into a one-armed hug and kissed on the cheek. He returned the greeting. “Paul, thank you so much for having us.”

“It’s been too long, Ari. Our Mal looks a little more like Maggie with every passing year. Thank you for the pictures from her birthday. I wish we could have been there,” her grandfather said with warm fondness, and what Ari could only have described as a happy sort of sorrow.

The older man wouldn’t hear of Ari bringing in all their things on his own and helped do all the lugging with the strength and agility of a much younger man. After they’d stowed the luggage away in their respective guest rooms, Ari followed his father-in-law outside to build up the wood for the bonfire that would take place after Midnight Mass. Both men found that catching up was something that could not properly be accomplished through phone calls or the occasional letter when he and Mal were someplace long enough for mail to be an option.

Mal wasn’t thrilled about getting dressed up for church because it was so cold. “Too cold for dresses,” she’d informed her father. But she softened her position a bit when Grand-mère brought out an elegant little red velvet cloak with white fur trim and a white fur muffler to match. It smelled like mothballs, probably because it had belonged to her mother when she was small. Grand-mère told her that her other grand-mère, Rose, had packed it away years ago hoping they’d one day have another little girl come along to wear it. Mal grinned hugely. She didn’t mind that it was a little stinky. It was beautiful and looked like it was made for an adventure in Narnia, from her current favorite bedtime books. It was also warm.

When the whole large group returned home after Mass, Mal pelted inside for her warmest clothes. She slowed down long enough to join everyone for the small gifts it was traditional to exchange. She got sort of sleepy while getting dressed but managed to wake herself up when she looked out the window and saw shadows moving around the stack of wood she’d noticed earlier. When she got back outside the bonfire looked like it might reach the stars and she laughed with delight every time one of the logs shifted and sent more sparks up to the heavens. Never had she even heard of a family party that went all night, but this one did, with warm drinks passed around, so much food she thought she’d never be able to eat again, and songs, some of which she knew and some she simply dedicated herself to learning.

Around sunrise, Ari realized Mal was leaning against his arm fast asleep. She wasn’t the only little one to succumb before the dawn. Parents carried children inside and put them to bed, peeled out of coats and boots, but still mostly dressed and disheveled and smelling of their Christmas fire. Then the adults wandered off their own rooms to catch some sleep until the kids woke up.

The smell of lunch cooking roused even the sleepiest members of the family, including Mal who realized that even if you thought you’d never ever be able to eat again, you could definitely sleep that feeling off. Games, sledding, and more music and laughter dominated the rest of Christmas Day. There was a week until the big family celebration and it was filled with dinners at various houses, skating parties, and Mal’s introduction to the game of ice hockey.

She’d never skated much before, but she took to it, as with most things, rather quickly, and was out on the ice looking to join in the minute her cousins started picking teams. The older boys didn’t want her to play. When she’d put her hands on her hips and demanded to know why, her cousin Jean-Claude had sneered and said, “You’re tiny. And worse, you’re a girl.” She’d protested that not only was being a girl awesome, she wasn’t all that tiny. She was even tall for her age! He’d come back with, “Yeah, well, you don’t look tough enough.”

At thirteen, Jean-Claude was both the oldest and the largest of the local cousins, and thus the de facto dictator of their little group. When he informed her that it was time for the babies to get off the ice, so the big kids could play, and he gave her a shove in the direction he wanted her to go, he found himself on the ice, his breath gone in a pained whoosh.

 When he was foolish enough to lay hands on her, Mal had deftly flipped Jean-Claude onto his back, then somehow whipped him over by his arm, so his face was almost pressed into the ice. She still held his arm up behind his back. “Take it back,” she demanded.

“Ow,” he whined angrily. “Let go of my arm!”

Mal applied pressure to his wrist.

“Ow! Cut it out! That hurts!”

“How can it?” she asked. “I’m just a weak little ole girl baby. Why don’t you just get up?”

He tried to wrench his arm away again and Mal just adjusted her grip. “Ow, ow, ow! Fine, you can play! Jeez!”

“Thanks!” she chirped sweetly. “I want to be goalie.”

“You can be whatever you want, just let me go!”

Mal released him and Jean-Claude got to his feet, red in the face, but with an expression of new-found respect for his young American cousin. “How’d you do that?”

Mal shrugged. “Krav Maga. My papa showed me.”

Jean-Claude shook his head, but as he skated out for face-off, he was grinning a little, too. She was pretty cool, for a little kid, anyway.

Later that night, as they all sat around the fireplace drinking cocoa and playing cards, Jean-Claude was asked by his Grand-père to tell them about what all the children had spent the day doing. He didn’t mention how she’d happened to find her way onto his team, but Jean-Claude did tell the grown-ups about their game of pick-up hockey out on the pond.

“You should have seen her, Oncle,” he told Ari. “I’ve never seen hands so fast!”

Mal managed to only look a little smug.

∞∞∞

The week passed in something of a blur. Mal had never played so much or slept so little. But she loved every minute of it. Her French was coming along at a startling rate, too. Ari didn’t think he’d ever seen her so happy. Before either of them knew it, New Year’s Day arrived and the whole family gathered once again to exchange the lion’s share of the gifts they’d all bought for one another and share one last meal as a big family before calling a close to this year’s holiday season.

They day was busy and exciting, and Mal was happy to be in the middle of all of it. When Ari tucked her into bed that night, Mal could hardly keep her eyes open. “Night, Papa,” she murmured.

He sat down on the edge of her bed. “Did you enjoy the holiday, honey?”

“Oh, yes, Papa. Very much.” Her eyes fluttered a little. She wanted to stay awake for a story, but she knew she just couldn’t do it.

Ari paused, not sure if he should say what he was thinking. Then again, he reasoned, she’d probably know it anyway, so he might as well. “We could stay, you know.”

Mal sat up, no longer even drowsy. “What? Why, Papa?”

Ari blinked, surprised at her reaction. “Um … you wouldn’t have to live in a camper. You could go to school with other kids your age. You could see your family all the time …”

“I … I don’t …” she trailed off, frowning.

Though the very idea unnerved him, the Templars had assured him if he wanted that life for Mal, they would help make it a secure one. He preferred staying on the move, only dealing with the Order when he couldn’t get by on his own for whatever reason cropped up from time to time. “You just seem to be fitting in so well here. Your French is so good I thought you were your cousin Marie this morning in the kitchen until I turned around. Do you want to stay?”

She shook her head. “No thanks.” She paused like she was really thinking something over. “Not unless you want to, Daddy. Don’t you like the camper anymore?”

She sounded so young, so uncertain. But he couldn’t tell if she’d called him Daddy because she was feeling especially vulnerable, or if she suddenly didn’t want to fit in quite so perfectly with the cousins who all called their fathers Papa, or some variation thereof.

He chewed his lip. “What I want is for you to be happy, Mal.”

“I am happy, Silly.” She frowned at him almost like she was confused. “I have the best dad ever, and I get to travel all the time and see and do all this cool stuff. And we can come back and visit, can’t we?”

“Well, of course we can, Mal,” he smiled, glad the dim light hid the tear that had slipped free from the corner of his eye and was now trailing down his cheek. “Are you sure, baby? Because you don’t have to … We could always try it and if you decide you don’t want …”

“Daddy, no. I told you, I like our life. I like our camper.”

“Okay, Mal, I think I understand, but this … this could be home. You must get tired of being on the road all the time, don’t you?”

“You’re being silly again. Home is wherever we are. And I’m never ever going to get tired of traveling. Not ever. I want to do it forever.”

“Okay, Mal. Sweet dreams. Sleep well, honey.”

She lay back down and snuggled under the covers. Now that he seemed to understand what she meant, she was overcome with sleepiness again. “I will. You have sweet dream, too. And thank you for giving me one of my favorite Christmases.”

He smiled softly. “Only one of?”

“Oh, it was really good, Papa.” She seemed to have forgotten her new preference for the American version of what to call him in her drowsy state. “But my favorite was the time in Ohio.”

Ari blinked, and his head tilted to one side. “You mean last year when we got stuck in that snowstorm?”

“Mmmhmmm,” she agreed fuzzily. “Was nice that we could help those people.”

Ari had invited a family in to stay with them. Their car had wound up in a ditch near where he’d had to park the camper for the night when a blizzard hit hours earlier than expected. He wasn’t even sure she was still awake, but he asked quietly, “Why is that your favorite Christmas?”

Her eyes didn’t open, but she answered him anyway. “‘Cause we helped them and got to show kindness and … Giving people who need it a place to stay when they can’t get somewhere else is the most Christmassy thing I’ve ever heard of.”

“But we hadn’t even picked up your presents,” Ari said.

“Presents aren’t what’s important for Christmas.”

“You’re right, Mal. You’re absolutely right.”

“I love you,” she whispered.

“I love you, too, honey. Joyeux Noël, Mal.”

“Mmmm. Merry …” she snorted a little snore, and rolled onto her side, hand tucked under her cheek, already drifting off almost completely.

Ari sat there for a few minutes, watching her breathing slow until he was sure she was really asleep, so he wouldn’t disturb her when he got up. He stopped again in the doorway and looked at his sleeping child again.

“Oh, Maggie,” he whispered. “You’d be so proud.”

 

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

The Eleventh Day of Fic-mas …

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For Auld Lang Syne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Suit yourself,” Ashor shrugged.

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

“Gentlemen, if you would be so kind.”

“What?” Lucifer inquired.

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

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

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

Ashor turned away as silence fell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They became stone still and silent immediately.

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

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

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

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

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

“But, surely …”

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

“We … I …” Michael began to protest.

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

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

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

“What’s with him?” Michael asked.

“Who knows? The guy’s got issues.”

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

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

“Are we still in agreement?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enoch was at it again.