Butter Him Up

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

Butter Him Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Al.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lose to him at Scrabble, did you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know what you think I’ll–”

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

“Very funny,” he said sarcastically. 

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

“Wisconsin? In December? Are you serious?” 

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

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

“Wisconsin in December? You tell me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah?”

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

“The what?”

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

“Ah. So … Good or evil?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um….”

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“So, who are you then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How about you?”

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

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

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

“Hawaii.”

“What’s a Hawaii?”

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

“What’s so great about this Hawaii?”

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

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

“Need a little getaway yourself?”

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

“So, come with me.”

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

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

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

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

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

Krampus waved and faded into a swirl of blowing snow.

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

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

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

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. 

*****

 

The First Day of Fic-mas …

 


A Case of the Mondays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lord Ronoven,” Krampus bowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But I do, all the same.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben smirked. “Good. And point taken.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something like that.”

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

“What’s the favor?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t be so dramatic.”

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

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

“When?” Ben asked with a sigh.

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

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

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

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

“Great. Thanks.”

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

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

“A big favor.”

“How big?”

“Bigger than you could possibly imagine.”

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

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

“When are you leaving Hell?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

∞∞∞

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whose?”

“Pardon?”

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

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

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

“Shall I summon him back, Lord?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Same difference.”

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

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

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

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

“As you say, my lord.”

∞∞∞

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

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

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

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

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

Oriax just nodded. “Maybe another time.”

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

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

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

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

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

It was time to get himself some time on Earth.

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

Merry Fic-mas Eve!

ficmas

It’s that time of year again. Our favorite holiday tradition is here.

Can you call something you’ve only done once before a tradition?

Sure. Why not?

We had so much fun challenging ourselves with last year’s Twelve Days of Fic-mas, we decided to make it a thing. Which as our favorite Time Lord will tell you is like a plan, but with more greyness.

So, the Twelve Days of Fic-mas is back! Twelve original stories (we are literally writing as you read this) that celebrate the festive spirit of the holidays, hearth and home, and occasionally the darker side of the season. This year you’ll see familiar faces if you’re a fan of the Always Darkest Universe, some friends returning from last Fic-mas, and maybe a few surprises. We hope you’ll join us on this year’s fictional adventure.

If you’d like to check out last year’s Twelve Days, the rough drafts are still up here on the blog, or you can pick up a copy of our polished up collection (lovingly beta read by some of the universe’s biggest super heroes and best friends) over on Amazon at http://mybook.to/12daysoffic-mas.

New readers, welcome! Old friends, welcome back! And Merry Fic-mas!