No Space of Regret

Authors’ Note: 2020 has certainly been a year. I got a little behind on Ficmas due to a breathtaking head cold. But I’m back in business. Caleb Saint Claire first introduced himself to us a few years ago at Ficmas. He’s now a staple of The Arbitratus Universe. He has a bit of a cameo in Before the Dawn, and you’ll be seeing him in Book III, Fiat Lux, before too long. This story takes place a number of years ago. A certain blond demon has an uncredited cameo here as well. Enjoy.

“No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused.”

― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

No Space of Regret 

Caleb skidded around the corner on icy pavement, almost wiping out. That would have been consistent with how his day had been going. He’d also lost his trainee a couple of blocks ago. 

Caleb would have to bring home the point that you don’t get to call yourself a Knight of the Order of the Temple of Solomon if you crap out after chasing a single homicidal demon eight measly blocks. Damned rookie was going to be hitting the hills every morning for the next month. 

That said, Caleb was starting to lose steam. Of course, he had the excuse of bleeding freely. He pressed his hand to the wound and increased his speed, not acknowledging what was driving him forward when he knew there was a recovery team on its way and he’d tagged the demon with a locator during their fight.

Speaking of, he was pretty sure this bastard’s claws were venomous, because he felt pretty woozy, too. Enough that he’d lost sight of their target. Damn it.

He ducked down an alley and reached for his radio to check on the status of their back-up. 

His next breath caught as he slammed with supernatural force against the cold brick wall. Two of the creature’s four arms pinned him while the others went through his pockets. 

“Hey there, Ormru,” Caleb said, wanting to see the demon flinch at its name.

He wasn’t disappointed. But it’s hot breath in his face made him cringe a second later. 

“Caleb Saint Claire.” 

It knew him, too. Great. 

“Taking out a member of the Order is an eternity long dream. To make them tremble at the name of Ormru. The fact that it’s you will be quite the feather in my cap.” 

Caleb flashed a tight smile as he wrested one of his hands free. “I imagine it would be.” 

“Doing it on Friday the 13th will be the coup of the century. Ought to add to the Order’s superstitions.” 

Ormru pinned him more securely and one of the claws grabbed his injured side. His cell buzzed in his pocket and the memory of the voicemail he’d woken up to helped him bite down on the urge to groan. 

Caleb leaned away from the stench of the creature’s breath and managed to free his hand again. A fraction of a second later, he sank the ceremonial dagger under the demon’s ribs. 

“That’s a myth.” Caleb walked away, cleaning his blade on his jacket, as the body flickered with the telltale stinking blue flame.

He reached the street as Novice Helms finally caught up. “Backup’s en route, sir.”

“Good.” Maybe he wouldn’t have to run the kid ragged after all. “I wondered where the Hell you’d gotten to.”

“I was right behind you, but that location spell I tried finally pinged back. I found where Ormru and his buddies have been crashing.” 

Caleb’s eyebrows went up, impressed. He buttoned his jacket before his young partner could catch sight of his injury. “Where?” 

Helms pointed at a crumbling apartment building up the street. “If I did the spell right, there are three more of them.”

Caleb grinned. “Well, isn’t this just our lucky day?”

The kid grinned. “Maybe, sir. But you’re bleeding.” 

Caleb grimaced. The kid was quick. “It’s not bad,” he said dismissively.

“You don’t look good, sir. Should we wait for the team?”

“How far out are they?”

“Twenty?” 

“Jake, c’mon. Don’t try to bullshit your way through this one. Did you ask?”

“No, sir.”

Caleb nodded his approval at the kid’s honesty, even if he’d had to force it. He got on his own radio and received the disappointing news that backed up traffic due to a possible jumper on the Aurora bridge made their ETA uncertain. 

Caleb tucked his radio away. “Alright, kid. We’re on our own.”

He took off down the street ahead of his trainee, mostly able to manage the effects of his wound through what a voice from his past, the voice from this morning’s message, called, “A stubborn refusal to bend, worthy of Lucifer himself.”

Unfortunately, the entrance wasn’t just locked; it was enchanted, too. But they didn’t figure that out until after Caleb rammed it with his shoulder and delivered several solid kicks. Helms was the one to notice the spell, which let Caleb know the venom was working fast.

“Sir?” Helms put himself between his superior and the door. “Look.”

The young man held up the small circle that looked like nothing more than a watch glass. The sickly green glow revealed a reasonably powerful enchantment sealing the building.

“Damn it,” Caleb mumbled. “Do you think you can take care of the counterspell?”

“Of course.” Helms wasn’t normally one to question opportunities or orders. However, “Are you alright, sir?” was out of his mouth before he could stop himself.

“I’ve had better days.” Caleb reached out to steady himself against the wall. “If you can get us through the door, I can–” His knees buckled before he could finish, and he slid down to the ground. 

“Sir!” Helms helped him turn around to rest his back against the wall. 

Caleb opened his mouth to reassure his trainee, but felt like his tongue had swelled to three times its normal size. His chest squeezed like a giant hand wrapped around his ribs, and his heart stuttered, as his vision narrowed down to a pinpoint. He’d only encountered demons in their Hellforms a few times in his career, and he’d never been so careless as to let one get the drop on him physically. 

If he had any regrets … Well, he had a number, but they weren’t about this mission … it was that he might not make it back due to his determination to take out their opponent on his own. He’d told himself it was Helms fault for not keeping up, but he knew he’d outpaced the kid on purpose. Driven by his need to prove himself to be the best, again and again. He was probably going to die here on the cold wet pavement because he’d let the sin of pride rule the day.

“Sir! Sir!”

His eyes fluttered shut to the sounds of his young partner trying to get a response out of him.

“Goddamnit … Caleb! CALEB!” 

Helms looked around frantically for a moment, then, lacking anything more useful to do, he pulled out his radio to get an updated ETA and let their backup know they had a man down. He put the radio back in his jacket as the door banged open.

A tall blond man strode out of the building swearing under his breath and wiping a faintly iridescent yellow ooze off his hands onto the stone facade of the building and, when that didn’t work, onto his jeans. 

The ring on Helms right hand grew warm and he glanced at the stone. Normally clear and smooth as glass, it turned a tumultuous black, like rolling smoke. But it also had strange streaks of gold swirling through it, like it belonged to a powerful human aura. But the indication of a minion of Hell was more important than any inconsistencies in the enchanted stone.

“Hold, demon!” Helms said in as commanding a voice as he could muster, which, he had to admit, fell well short of the tone his mentor always managed.

The blond looked his way. “Oh, for fuck’s sake. Are the Knights so desperate these days they’re recruiting from the local high school?” He noticed Saint Claire bleeding on the ground at Helms feet. “It’s even worse than I thought.” He pulled a flask out of his light jacket and held the container of luminescent electric blue liquid out to Helms. The young man recoiled and the blond rolled his eyes. “Just take it. And dump some down your partner’s throat before he drops dead on you. Poison from these particular assholes works fast.”

When Helms still made no move to accept the potion, the blond huffed a sigh and put it on the ground next to Saint Claire. He wiped his hands on his pants again with another mumbled curse, then walked off down the street at a casual pace, as though a Templar wasn’t pulling a weapon full of consecrated bullets and aiming it at his back.

“I said hold!” Helms shouted at his back.

The blond half turned and in the shadow of the building looming over them, Helms caught his eyes glowing the same deep golden color that swirled among the black in his ring. He also caught a flash of white teeth. “Could do,” the demon said. “But your bosses are gonna take it real personal if you waste your time catching me instead of saving the life of their favorite son.”

Helms hesitated. “You….”

“Cleaned up the demons in that building already. And lucky for you I didn’t wind up needing that potion to keep from getting kicked out of my body. Put your gun away and save your partner.” He started walking again.

“You killed them?”

“Yeah,” the blond called, not stopping or turning around this time. “Fuckers can’t go around up here in their demon form. That’s against the rules.”

“Hell’s rules?”

“And mine.” He turned again. “Now, quit yapping at me. He’s fading fast. I ought to know because I used to collect souls, once upon a time.”

Caleb’s lips had gone blue, his breath slowed to shallow, irregular gasps. Helms holstered his weapon. He knelt and rested his fingers against his partner’s wrist and couldn’t find his pulse. From behind him, he heard, “Dude! Hurry up.”

Thinking he had nothing to lose at this point, since his backup was still at least ten minutes out, he tilted Caleb’s head back and poured the contents of the flask into his mouth. He was rewarded by a long coughing gasp for breath and a groan as Caleb’s arm wrapped around his injured side.

“There you go!” the deep voice called with approval. “You’re welcome.”

Helms spun to get eyes on the demon again and maybe perform an illuminating spell so he could give an accurate description to their sketch artist, but the demon had already disappeared.

***

Caleb drifted in and out of consciousness. Familiar faces passed through the fog he dwelt in. He had some sense of getting in and out of bed with someone on his elbow. But other than the ebb and flow of disembodied acquaintances, he had nothing by which to mark time. 

When he came around fully, he immediately recognized the infirmary at the Templar compound he’d called home for more years than he hadn’t. The room itself could have been any hospital in all of Creation, but the view of the majestic peaks in the northern part of Washington was too distinctive for him to mistake it for anywhere else. Even if his brain did feel full of cotton batting.

He took a long slow breath in an attempt to dispel the cobwebs in his brain, then felt for the remote control to raise the head of the bed. After he fumbled around for a minute or two, it raised, apparently of its own accord. Caleb blinked several times and looked around. None other than Novice Jacob Helms was adjusting his bed for him.

“Helms,” came out as a breathy rasp instead of the fully formed question he intended. He cleared his throat, but before he could speak again, the young man pressed a cup of water, complete with a straw, into his hands. He took a long, cool drink, then tried again. “How long have I been out?”

Helms looked around like he’d rather do anything other than answer the question. “Someone has been blowing up your phone, sir.” He gestured toward Caleb’s personal items on the table beside his bed.

“How long, Jacob?”

He hesitated, then puffed out a resigned sigh. “You haven’t so much been ‘out’ as delirious, sir.”

Caleb simply raised an eyebrow at him.

“Most of a week, sir.”

Caleb closed his eyes and pressed his head back into the pillow for a second. He made himself open them and engage with his young partner. “I guess I was right about Ormru’s claws being venomous.”

“Yes, sir. You almost didn’t make it, sir.”

“Good thing we called for backup when we did.”

“Oh, no, sir. If we’d waited for backup, you wouldn’t be here.”

Caleb shifted in the bed, peering at Helms with intense focus that made the young man squirm slightly. “Explain.”

“Well, sir, we were trying to breach the door on the building where the other demons were staying and….”

Caleb sat silently while Helms reported the events that led up to his awakening. Then he pinned Helms with a stern gaze. “What made you decide giving your commanding officer an unidentified potion from glowing-eyed, self-identified demon was a good idea?”

Helms didn’t even hesitate. “Your breathing was labored. Your lips were blue. I couldn’t find your pulse. Our medic was nowhere near close enough to help. At that point, neither of us had anything to lose, sir.”

Caleb looked at him for a long moment. “Dismissed.”

“Sir, can I–”

“I said ‘dismissed,’ Helms.”

“Yes, sir.” Helms got to his feet, snapped a regulation salute, and left the room without further comment.

Caleb sat thinking about what Helms reported until he was interrupted by Sister Lieutenant Caffee, an altogether overly zealous member of their medical team, bustling through the door to make a nuisance of herself. 

When Helms returned the following day, Caleb was sitting in bed, clicking away on his laptop. Caleb saw him standing in the doorway out of the corner of his eye, but didn’t look up until Helms ventured a tentative, “May I come in, sir?”

“If you like,” he said, concealing a smile. He gestured toward the room’s one chair. “Have a seat. I’m just finishing up some paperwork.”

“I already filed the mission report, sir,” Helms said, almost letting it be a question. Caleb didn’t respond right away, so Helms hurried to add, “I know it was without your signature, sir, so if I need to recall it after you’ve reviewed it, I can–”

“I’ve already reviewed it. You did a fine job.”

“Thank you, sir. I tried to remember everything you’ve said about those writeups.”

Caleb finally allowed his expression to soften into almost a smile. “You took those lessons to head and heart, most assuredly, Helms,” he said formally. “But I didn’t mean the report so much as the mission. You can credit that demon for providing the antidote if you like, but you were the one who made the tough call to use it without being able to consult with your training officer.”

“I’m just glad you’re recovering, sir.”

“As am I.”

“When will they be letting you out, sir?”

“I like how you make it sound like parole.” Caleb sighed. “Alas, I’ll be taking a disappointing Thanksgiving dinner right here. But by the weekend, I should be free of Caffee’s tyranny.” 

Helms gave an almost startled laugh. “Well, I’m sorry about your Thanksgiving, sir. But I’m glad you’re nearly well.” He frowned when Caleb started typing again. “Can I help with the paperwork, sir?”

“I’m afraid not,” he said and waited for Helms’s crestfallen expression at not being able to assist him. He grinned. “Because you can’t write your own recommendation for taking Holy Orders and becoming a full-fledged knight.”

“Sir?”

“I just sent it to the printer in the main office. If you grab it for me to sign, we’ll be able to celebrate me getting out of here as brothers in the Order on Sunday.”

“Yes, sir!” Helms all but ran from the room.

Caleb’s phone chimed for perhaps the tenth time. He picked it up, looked at the text, and turned his phone off. He was feeling better, but not well enough to deal with that particular issue.

***

Caleb had to admit, Helms was coming along nicely. Sometimes new members of the Order let their performance slide the moment they received their first rank and a room of their own outside the trainee’s barracks. But not Helms.

He was no small amount of pleased that Jacob had chosen magic as his specialty and sought to apprentice with him as his next step. He knew the request might not be granted. Caleb was widely considered the exemplar for the Order’s training officers. And it was an important job. But an apprentice would mean less time doing routine missions or paperwork, and more time engaged in his own chosen field.

Almost as though his thoughts summoned his superior, a tap came on the frame of his open door. He looked up from his computer and started to stand.

The older man held up a hand. “No need to get up.” 

Caleb stood anyway and had to resist the urge to salute, but given that he was in his bathrobe and awaiting clearance, he didn’t want to draw too much attention to the fact that he’d actually been working. Instead he inclined his head in the slight bow that passed for a salute in less formal circumstances. “Good morning, sir.”

“One of these days, I’ll surprise you into breaking protocol for a moment and call me Tom,” he said with fond exasperation. “But delirious with demon venom, you still called me ‘sir’.”

Caleb grinned just a little at the man who’d more or less raised him. “I should hope so, sir.”

“I suppose I’ll be grateful you didn’t escalate to calling me Father Abbot Brigadier General Edwards,” he chuckled as he sat on the bench next to Caleb’s desk.

“Well, I was apparently quite ill, so a slip into the familiar is embarrassing, but no surprise,” Caleb said lightly.

The Abbot laughed. “Always by the book, aren’t you?”

“I suppose so.” Caleb’s smile faded. 

“What is it, son?”

Caleb tried to put words to it, but found his mouth simply hanging open like it might have when he was a teenager. Fortunately, he knew the gentle question wasn’t a demand. It was more of an invitation, as it always had been. He closed his laptop and turned to face the Abbot more fully.

Another minute, helped him gather his confused thoughts. “I guess I’m grateful Helms hasn’t been working with me for long enough to have that drummed into him, too. If he’d gone strictly by the book, I’d have died on that street.”

The Abbot nodded thoughtfully. “Our books are there to guide us, Caleb, not to be all that we are.”

“So you’ve always said.” He sighed. “I’m afraid it’s one of your lessons that I’m still trying to learn.”

“Well, you had a great deal of … instruction … in the other direction, I suppose.”

“That’s certainly true.” Caleb shook off the introspective turn his mind wanted to take without his permission. “Not that I don’t always enjoy our visits, but … To what do I owe the pleasure of your company this morning, sir?” 

“Another masterful subject change,” the older man chuckled. “I wanted to give you the good news myself.”

“Yes?”

“Helms has been granted apprenticeship with you by the Home Office.”

Caleb’s smile returned somewhat. “Fantastic. He’s really quite adept.”

“He certainly does have raw talent. You’re the best in the Order to help him refine that. And I know you’ll appreciate the respite from bringing along entirely green recruits and the paperwork that comes with it.”

“Yes, sir,” Caleb acknowledged like it was a shameful admission. “I’ll be happy to get back into the field in general after this.” He gestured at his bathrobe and the bottle of pills on the corner of his desk.

“I imagine you will. It should please you to know you’ll probably be cleared for limited duty later today.”

Caleb felt his slightly reluctant smile shift into one that was truly pleased. “Been bullying the infirmary staff on my behalf, sir?”

The Abbot laughed again. “More like they can’t wait to be quit of your dogged insistence that you’re fine!” He paused. “But … I do have an assignment I’d like you to take care of. And it will be a good one to begin Helms’s apprenticeship as one of our mages. It should be very low risk, but highly valuable.”

Caleb’s shoulders squared at the change in expression on the Abbot’s face. “Sir?”

“Ari Sinclair has been in touch. He’s concerned that someone has been tracking them again.”

“That’s not good.”

“No, it isn’t. But he’s certain it’s their RV and not them personally. So, he’s asked us to do a security review and upgrade.”

Caleb bit his lip as he contemplated the assignment. There was nothing more important he could do for the Order than ensure the safety of the wandering Scion and her father. “Is it wise for us to involve an apprentice with the Sinclairs?”

“I like that you finally question things. It only took two decades, but still, I’m pleased.” Caleb shook his head, blushing faintly, but he didn’t interrupt. “I normally wouldn’t dream of involving an apprentice with the Scion, but you won’t have any direct contact this time out.”

“What will we be doing, sir?”

“Mr. Sinclair will be dropping off their RV for ‘scheduled maintenance’ with one of our cloisters and taking young Malin on a holiday to her mother’s family in Canada. You will simply be going over the vehicle for physical and magical security issues and installing what you think would be best in both respects.”

“Is he finally going to concede to GPS tracking so we can keep tabs on their location relative to breaches in the veil, sir?”

The Abbot nodded. “He’s authorized whatever you deem necessary.” 

He appeared to hesitate, so Caleb prompted, “You seem uncertain, sir? May I ask why?”

“Nothing to do with the mission itself, Caleb. I’m just now realizing it may be a difficult trip for you personally, and I’m not sure I should ask it of you, especially while you’re still recovering, though there is no one I trust more with the task at hand.”

“Personally, sir?”

“He’s leaving the RV in Boston.”

Caleb glanced at his phone before he could stop himself, then cleared his throat. “It should pose no difficulty for me, sir.”

“You know he’ll hear of your whereabouts. He’s quite friendly with Abbot Major General Carmichael.”

Caleb’s chin lifted. “My duty is to the Order and the Scion. I will fulfill that duty, sir.”

“Of course you will, Caleb. I would never doubt you for a moment.” 

***

Caleb had been able to distract himself from troubling thoughts during their flight, due mostly to his amusement at Helms’s reaction to the jet. 

“But, sir,” he’d said, entirely wide-eyed. “We’ve taken a vow of poverty.”

Caleb nodded. “But, you may have noticed, the Order itself has not. Money buys invisibility. No one questions the comings and goings of those wealthy enough to arrive in a private jet. The airports we access this way even have security in place that can keep governments out of our affairs.”

The novelty wore off for Helms as he focused on reading the briefing materials. Instead of using the time to do his own reading, or even thinking, praying, or meditating as he might normally have done, Caleb closed his eyes and drifted off for the last leg of the journey. He told himself it was part of the recovery process, but, at least a small part of him understood, there was a certain amount of avoidance in sleep.

He was jostled awake by their touchdown. He’d no sooner taken his phone out of airplane mode than it chimed with a text. Helms head came up from rereading the briefing materials for what Caleb guessed was at least the twentieth time. “From the Abbot, sir?” Helms asked.

“No. From Lieutenant General Xavier Saint Claire, United States Marine Corps, Retired.” He cleared his throat. “My father.”

“I … oh.”

“What is it, Jake?”

“I just … I had heard….”

“Go on.”

“Well, I know you were raised in the Order, sir. The rumor is that you … Well, that you were an orphan, sir.”

Caleb glanced at his phone as another text came through. “I lost my mother when I was very young. My father was active duty. He sent me to the Order rather than take the compassionate discharge he was offered.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, sir. About your mother and … It must have been very difficult for you, sir.”

Caleb shrugged. “At first, yes. But once I left Boston behind, things were much better.”

“Ah, so you’re from Boston, sir?”

“Yes. And now that my father is retired, he lives here full-time again in the family home in Beacon Hill.” Caleb allowed himself a sigh. “He’s invited me to spend Christmas Eve with him if our mission has concluded.”

“That’s nice, sir,” Helms said carefully.

“You’ve never met my father,” he said ruefully. He was about to text back, but his phone rang. He sighed again and answered. “Good morning, sir. I was just about to call.”

***

Caleb waited on the stone steps, trying unsuccessfully to resist the urge to shift from one foot to another like a nervous kid. It bugged him. 

He was a grown man, a decorated Knight, and he’d been facing down demons and even the occasional Fallen angel since he was still a teenager. This shouldn’t be so unsettling.

He expected to hear the steady, almost stately thump of his father’s cane, but was caught entirely by surprise by the door cracking open. He had a second to be grateful the wound in his side that had been so slow to heal due to the nature of the demon’s venom finally didn’t twinge every time he moved before he was caught around the middle by two bony sticks that squeezed him with surprising strength.

“Mister Caleb!”

He looked down at a tangle of thin silver curls. “Mmm … Mrs. O’Hara?” he stammered with disbelief bordering on awe. She’d been about a hundred years old when he was still single digits himself.

She pulled away, smoothing her old-fashioned maid’s uniform before she wiped her eyes. “Well, of course it is, my silly boy!” She took another step back. “You come inside now so I can have a look at you.”

She took his hand and he let her lead him into the foyer of the stately home. He turned and closed the heavy door behind them before she could do it. She immediately took both his hands and looked up at him, positively beaming. “You grew into quite the giant!” she chuckled. Her ancient voice was like unoiled hinges, but in a way Caleb found pleasant, familiar, like the old wrought iron gate at the end of the walkway.

“Maybe you’ve just shrunk,” he said with a laugh, thinking she almost definitely had. He’d guess her bones were hollow by now based on how light she seemed when she’d hugged him outside. 

“I have, at that,” she said, laughing, too. “You don’t get to be my age without being humbled a bit by gravity.

“How old are you, Mrs. O’Hara?” he asked, plainly curious.

She cuffed him lightly on the arm. “Manners! Didn’t anyone ever teach you never to ask a lady her age?”

He might have thought he offended her, if not for the twinkle of her translucent green eyes. “My apologies. Is it just as rude to guess?” he asked with a big grin. “Because, if I had to offer an estimate….” He squinted dramatically. “I’d say you’re not a day over twenty-nine.”

She cackled, patting him affectionately, as though she’d seen him every day of his life, rather than twenty years ago. “At least you haven’t outgrown your charm. I’m sure your mother looks down from Heaven every day absolutely delighted.”

“I hope so,” he said, almost shyly. He opened his mouth to ask after her family, but it caught in his throat with the unwelcome bellow from the dining room at the end of the hall.

“What is all that noise, Nora? Or have you forgotten what day it is?”

Caleb held up his hand to stop her from scurrying in response. “I’ll go get you off the hook.”

“Oh, Mister Caleb, don’t you go getting yourself in trouble on my account.”

He tipped her a wink. “I’ll get into it on my own account then. For old time’s sake.”

She laughed again, but silently, behind her hands this time. She gestured for his coat, but Caleb shook his head. It was cold in here, barely warmer than outside, he thought. Although, he supposed the chill could have been coming from within since he grew colder the further he got down the dim hall. 

He glanced at the walls as he walked. As a kid, they’d been covered with family portraits. Now, there was just the same floral wallpaper he remembered, unbroken by any indication that the home was inhabited. 

When he stepped into the formal dining room, he knew the cold was all in his head because a roaring fire filled the hearth, just as it always had on Christmas Eve when he was a boy. It was a tradition his mother had loved.

It appeared that was the only tradition of hers still alive in the house. There were no evergreens dotted with red berries, no tree, no lights, no flowers. There was just a man with close-cropped steel-grey hair at the head of the table, posture so ramrod straight, if he didn’t know him, Caleb might have thought he was a statue. Where a plate of food should have been, given the hour, there was only a huge Vulgate Bible open in front of him.

Caleb’s mother hadn’t thought learning Latin was especially important for a kindergartner, but he’d known that book would be brought out whenever his father was home. He’d learned to read that Bible while most children his age had just been learning to read at all. He cleared his throat to announce his presence, but the older man didn’t look up. 

“General,” Caleb said loudly enough to overcome his father’s combat-induced hearing loss.

The elder Saint Claire finished the page he was on, slipped a strip of white silk close to the binding, and closed the book, finally raising his head. Even though the reflection from the fire on his reading glasses obscured the view, Caleb imagined he could see the ice blue eyes he’d been convinced could see every transgression when he was a boy. He’d inherited those eyes, and he’d spent time searching them as he shaved every morning, reassuring himself that his own held a warmth that his father lacked.

“Sir,” he said formally, realizing he was standing at parade rest inside his own childhood home. And feeling, whether rationally or not, that it was far too casual. “Thank you for having me here this evening.”

“It’s late. I wondered if you’d changed your mind.”

“No, sir. I was pleased to be given a pass.”  

“That’s unusual, is it?”

“I wouldn’t know, sir. It’s never come up.” He wanted to say he’d never been invited home, for a holiday or any other reason. That’s not fair, he admonished himself. His father hadn’t been home much until his mandatory retirement a couple of years ago. 

“Thank you for coming, Caleb.” Caleb thought he caught a flicker at one corner of his father’s mouth. “At ease.”

Caleb forced himself to relax. But he couldn’t make himself move from the doorway.

“Come in. Sit down.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Caleb reflexively chose the seat that had been his as a child, about halfway down the long mahogany table. He thought the table was even sadder now that he was sitting at it.

“Something missing?”

“No, sir.”

“You were expecting dinner, I suppose.”

“I had a bite with the brothers and sisters before I came here.”

“I assumed members of the Order fasted properly.” 

“It was a meatless meal, sir.”

“I said properly.”

“Total fasting was eliminated by the 1983 Code of Canon Law. But of course, you know that,” Caleb said stiffly.

“I’m aware. I was surprised though when Dougie told me the Order follows the newer model for things.”

“Dougie?”

“Carmichael. We grew up together. I’m sure I’ve mentioned that.”

“He’s discussed the practices of the Order with you?” Caleb asked sharply.

“Of course he has. I needed to make sure it was the right place for you when the local Catholic school failed to manage you and I knew you’d never make it in military school.”

Caleb’s jaw tightened. “You did? When I was eight?”

“No, you were eight when we tried the Catholic school. You were ten when I made the decision about the Order. Because Dougie thought you could be useful to the organizational mission.”

Caleb’s teeth hurt from how hard he was biting down. He forced himself to speak though. If Carmichael had violated security and disclosed the existence of the Line simply due to an old friendship, Caleb would have to make a difficult phone call. “So, the mission of the Order appealed to you, sir?”

“Well, yes, of course. Providing security to the Church’s most sacred possessions and its holiest people all in secrecy to ensure its not infiltrated by the enemies of God. I can imagine few missions nobler than that one.”

Caleb breathed an internal sigh of relief. Carmichael really shouldn’t have discussed the Order at all, but at least it was a harmless cover story. “It’s worthy work.”

“Do you enjoy it?”

Caleb’s eyes widened. “I suppose so, sir.”

“Perhaps enjoy is the wrong word. You find it meaningful?”

“Yes, sir,” Caleb said carefully. He’d always felt that conversations with his father were like navigating a minefield. The slightest misstep could always blow the whole thing up. Even when his mother was still alive. 

“Have you ever considered leaving?”

Caleb gave his father a hard look. The dancing flames were all he could see when he looked at his glasses and the set of his mouth revealed nothing. “What sort of question is that?”

“No need to get offended, boy. I’m just curious.”

“Why?”

“Well, now. That is a question, isn’t it. The one you always asked. Without ceasing. Regardless of what I said about it.”

“Curiosity is seen as a virtue in the Order.”

“I would think obedience would be the greater virtue.”

“Certainly.” Caleb ground his teeth again. “I suppose it will please you to know that I’m known for my adherence to protocol. For my obedience.”

This time Caleb was certain his father’s mouth curled up at the edges. “That does please me.”

“Though it may displease you to know that the Order frowns on blind obedience without consideration. At least my unit does. Questions are an important part of our lives.”

“Mmmm,” he said noncommittally.

“So, I’d like to return to my question. Why?”

“Why am I asking about your job?”

Caleb frowned. Now that he’d given himself permission to question the man at all, he found more questions bubbling up. “That. But also why the messages, the texts, the phone calls? Why the invitation to visit you?”

“I shouldn’t call my son? Shouldn’t ask to see him?”

Caleb pushed away from the table and nearly stood, but mastered the urge with a hard swallow. “With respect, sir, I’ve heard from you at most a few times a year and you’ve never asked if I would visit. Not once. Usually you only call to remind me of the anniversary of Mom’s death and you tell me you put flowers on her grave. And that’s it.”

“It’s something we should both remember.”

“Do you honestly think there’s a day that goes by that I don’t think of her?”

“No. No, you were always the apple of your mother’s eye. I didn’t mean those phone calls as a judgement.”

Caleb shook his head sadly. “I didn’t assume you did. She’s the thing that ties us together.”

“Why did it take you so long to get back to me about today?”

“I’m not at liberty to discuss that,” he said stiffly.

His father chuckled and nodded with an approving smile. “So, you were on a mission and not just avoiding me. And you were injured if I don’t miss my guess, based on how you’re moving.”

Caleb wasn’t about to violate security and confirm or deny any of what his father said. He let silence hang between them.

“Very good. Before I give you my why, I’d like to ask again, have you ever wanted to leave the Order? Perhaps to have a family?”

Caleb didn’t answer, just took a slow breath.

“You’re still as stubborn as the Devil himself. Alright. I’m asking because my brother’s boy found out he can’t have children. I have a friend who could, if I asked, find you a very nice position, either in the military or in intelligence work, if that’s more to your liking. You’d still be doing exciting, meaningful work. And you could fulfil another sacred duty. To your family.”

“No, sir,” Caleb said firmly. “I have no interest in leaving the Order.” He didn’t plan on his next words, but they escaped anyway. “They’re my family. And they have been since I was a child.”

“I suppose that’s fair.” The elder Saint Claire leaned back in his seat, contemplating Caleb for a long moment. “I don’t suppose this house and the family fortune could tempt you to reconsider? I’m planning on moving south anyway. You wouldn’t need to see me, wouldn’t even need to work if you chose not to.”

Caleb sighed. “No, sir. That doesn’t change anything for me.”

“You were always so caught up in those storybooks your mother read to you. All that happily ever after nonsense. You can’t tell me you’ve never thought of leaving for a chance at love.”

Caleb stood. “Love is at the very center of all that I am and all that I do. You introduced me to that life. And for that I’m grateful.”

“Very well.” His father rose as well and walked around the table, leaning on his cane. “Would you like to stay and attend Mass with me tonight?”

Caleb had assumed that was how he would spend the evening when he’d taken the taxi over here, but he shook his head. “I need to be getting back. I’m flying out this evening.”

His father extended a hand. “Have a safe trip. If you change your mind, call me.”

Caleb shook his hand. “Merry Christmas, sir.”

“Christmas isn’t a time to make merry, Caleb. It’s a time to remember the birth of our Savior and the start of His journey that redeemed us all.” 

“I can think of no better time to be merry than remembering all of that.”

“And what good does making merry do you?” his father demanded.

“I can’t say. But I know it has. I think perhaps I’d forgotten how much until tonight. So I’ll say it again, and I’ll mean it for both of us. Merry Christmas.”

***

Caleb dressed for dinner slowly, delaying going to the feast for as long as he could. Helms had provided a pleasant distraction on their flight by making phone calls to family and singing Christmas carols, and insisting on watching holiday movies the whole time. And Caleb felt lighter the moment he touched down on the West Coast, and lighter still when he’d gone to Confession. 

His Confessor had been understanding and encouraging, relieving his conviction that he’d committed a mortal sin in failing to honor his father. His education as a warrior priest told him his actions hadn’t risen to that level, and his own morals and ethics assured him that upholding his dedication and oath to the Order and to God were the right thing. 

But, for some reason, his heart still felt heavy.

Helms knocked but didn’t wait for an answer, just opened his door and leaned in on his way by, dressed in, what Caleb assumed was, the ugliest Christmas sweater on the planet, covered with blinking lights. “Are you coming, sir?”

Caleb laughed. “That depends. Are you going to turn down the Wattage on that thing?”

“Are you kidding? My mom sent this to me! I’d turn it up if I could.” 

Helms tossed something at him. Caleb snatched it out of the air. It was a red Santa hat. “What am I supposed to do with this?”

“You could wear it. On your head.”

“Why on Earth would I–”

“You said you wanted to be merry this Christmas! This is a party. Ditch the tie and be merry then for Heaven’s sake!”

“I’ll think about it. And I’ll be down in a minute.”

“I’ll save you a seat,” Helms grinned and joined the crowd headed to their dining hall.

Caleb stood looking at the silly hat for a minute, smiling faintly.

“Something still on your mind, son?” The Abbot stood in his open doorway with an expression of gentle concern.

Caleb shrugged. “Glad to be home.”

“And we’re always glad to have you home. I meant more that you don’t look like a man who is at peace and I’m not used to seeing you that way after Confession.”

“That’s a very irritating habit, sir.”

“Prying?” he grinned.

“Mind reading.” Caleb adjusted his tie in the mirror to give himself a minute. He thought it might be easier to say if he didn’t have to look at the Abbot. “I think perhaps I have more to confess.”

“Yes?”

“I had a second … Not more than that … Where I wanted to say yes to my father’s offer.” The Abbot stayed silent, but Caleb was warmed by the lack of judgement in it. “Not because I don’t believe in what I am, in what I do, completely, but because, a family of my own would be a chance to create the things I lacked after my mother died. A chance to … repudiate the sort of father I had.”

“I think that’s more than understandable, Caleb.”

“It was a selfish thought. And I regret having it.” He turned then and the Abbot was smiling at him.

“Don’t regret. Regrets make up with length and the breadth of the home you came to us from. Instead, live. And remember to make room for something other than study and regulations from time to time.”

Caleb felt his lips quirk up on one side. “Is that my penance?”

“No,” the Abbot chuckled. “Your penance is to remember that in addition to being your superior, I am also your friend.”

“I know that,” Caleb said solemnly.

“I wasn’t finished … It is also to call me Tom when we are not on duty.”

Caleb shook his head with a rueful grin. He couldn’t bring himself to get rid of his tie, but he did pull the Santa hat on and gesture at the door.

As they walked toward the dining hall, the Abbot fell into step with him and put a warm hand on Caleb’s shoulder. “Merry Christmas, son.”

“Merry Christmas, Tom.”

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.”

*****

 

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. 

*****

 

Dirty

Author’s Note – Here’s another little Arbitratus Trilogy Fanfic that comes from an Instagram one word challenge. This one could fit just about anywhere mid-Book II, Before the Dawn (coming soon, I promise). The word was ‘Dirty’. I had fun with this one. ~ J

Dirty

“Hold still,” she grumped, taking his arm and turning it over for the third time.

“Mal, I’m fine.” Ben tried to pull his arm away from her again, but her hold on his wrist was too firm. “It’s just a scrape.”

She rolled her eyes. “This is not a scrape.”

He shrugged, not exactly interested in looking at it all that closely anyway. He tried a charming grin. “Well … That’s what I get for showing off by climbing ledges to impress a girl I already know is going to sleep with me.”

He tugged at his arm again.

She adjusted her grip and went back to work. “Quit being a baby and let me clean this up.”

“Mal, come on. Just do your healing power magic thingy. I rinsed it off already in the…”

“Filthy stream next to the road? Yeah, I know. I was there.” She sounded just a little pissed off.

“Ow!” He jumped a little. “Take it easy!” he groused, trying once again, unsuccessfully, to reclaim his injured arm. 

“I’m sorry.” She stopped trying to pick gravel out of the gash. “But Ben, this is really dirty. I need to clean it up before I can try healing it.”

“I don’t see why.”

“It’d be pretty gross if I magiced you into an arm full of pebbles and leaves because I was careless and closed it all up in there.”

He wrinkled his nose. “I guess that would be kind of gross. But it’s not like it can get infected or anything … I mean I did all those spells to protect …”

“You had an Archangel tell you you could basically pass for human these days. Who knows what Uncle Davi’s spell did to all those protections.”

Ben stopped squirming. “Christ. I never thought about that.” He started chewing his lip.

She looked up at him again with concern. “Am I really hurting you?”

“No … Um … I mean, a little, but it’s okay. I was just …”

“What’s the matter, Ben?”

“Suddenly feeling a little worried about my not-deal-with-human-stuff magic maybe not being foolproof, I guess.”

Tan as he was, she almost thought he looked a little pale. “Well, I mean, obviously you still have powers and everything. I wasn’t about to drag you into town for a tetanus shot or anything.”

He rolled his eyes. “Not what I was thinking about. But good. Because gross.”

Oh. She smirked. “I’m still on the Pill, if that makes you feel any better.”

He laughed, flushing just a little. “It does, actually.”

He let her just finish what she was doing and when she closed her eyes to use her healing powers, he closed his too. Watching her do that made him feel weirdly self conscious. After a minute or two, she released his arm.

“There. All better.”

He opened his eyes and grinned at her. “Thanks.”

“The rest of you is still all grubby from wiping out.”

“Yeah. I’m pretty filthy.”

“Shower?”

“When do I ever say no to that?”

*****

Fire

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

fire-2146343_640

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

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

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

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

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

“Fire,” he said quietly.

“Where?”

He listened again then pointed. “There.”

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

“You’re not going in there!”

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

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

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

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

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

~~~~~

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

“I’m good.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not…”

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

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

“Probably. But still.”

He laughed. “Not a hero.”

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

“I can live with that.”

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

*****

Image by Simon Matzinger from Pixabay

It’s a Celebration!

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

Feathers

It’s a special day for Demons Run Lit.

Always Darkest is having a birthday!

You can visit our social media to enter to win a signed copy, here:

Demons Run Lit on Facebook

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

From Before the Dawn (Coming Soon) …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time, Duck

Author’s Note – More May Writing Challenge fun. Not necessarily in cannon, but it could be.

Caleb was still half dreaming of how he’d wound up here in an alley flat on his back.

The searing pain in his chest convinced him he must be dying. He must’ve said something to that effect because he gasped at the sudden increased pressure over a painful wound somewhere between his breastbone and his left shoulder.

“What the fu …?”

“Hold still, dumbass,” a deep voice snapped.

“Eh … Wha … happen … I’m …”

“You caught a bullet,” the voice snarled. It was more irritated than angry or scared.

“I … Yeah, I guess I did.” His breath hitched. “How bad?”

He could almost hear the eyeroll in the reply. “I’m guessing pretty damn bad. You guys are all nuts.”

The pressure let up for a minute and there was the sound of rummaging in a backpack.

“What do you mean ‘you guys’?” If the newbie had blown their cover, he vowed he’d live just to beat the hell out of him. Kid was worse than Charlie. It was a hell of a thing when your current partner made you think fondly of the long ago Tinkles the WonderDog he’d been saddled with his first go round as a training officer.

A snicker in the dark as wadded fabric was pressed into the wound. “Don’t worry, I only know who you are because you guys were hunting me. Well, you were hunting my boss. But it’s kind of the same thing lately.”

The pressure happened again and Caleb swore; the sort of curse that should probably be grounds for dismissal given who he worked for. “Did your boss shoot me?”

Another snicker. “Yeah, right. You guys act like he’s the bad guy, but he’s not. He saved my life when my girl’s brother in law stabbed me just trying to get money to feed her when she was sick. Quit squirming, dude. You’re not making this any easier, you know.”

“Sorry,” he groaned. “Hurts.”

“I know it. Sorry.”

“Not a good guy,” Caleb insisted. “Are you a demon, too?” His impromptu medic’s hands were so warm either he had a fever or he was just inhabiting the body.

The young man seemed to know what he was thinking. “He’s not a bad guy. And I’m not a demon. I’ve got the healing touch. You know what that is, Templar?”

“Strong Kirlian aura.” He snickered a little himself, then bit back the cry that wanted to follow the unguarded sound. “Ah, Hell.”

“I know, man. Help is on the way though. Boss is callin’ ‘em. Sent me in to keep you from bleeding out.”

“You see who …” Caleb lost the thread in a haze of overwhelming heat and ache.

“Just caught in the crossfire, pal. Welcome to life on the streets here. Where everybody’s got more guns than brains.”

“So nothing to do with those cursed specs?”

“Not a damn thing.”

Red and blue lights started bouncing off the brick in the alleyway. Caleb could see his rescuer couldn’t even be twenty. And here he was, loyal to a demon who’d been peddling cursed objects for decades, and asserting that demon was a good guy while he kept a member of the Order from bleeding out on that demon’s order.

The boy got to his feet and slung his backpack over one shoulder. “The cavalry’s arrived. I’ll point your partner to the right hospital once the boss picks those glasses out of his pocket. You’ll be alright. I can tell. I can always tell.”

The kid started to walk away.

“Hey, um …”

“Alex,” the boy supplied. “My name’s Alex.”

“Thanks.”

Voices were approaching them from the head of the alley. The boy glanced that way, then at the fence at the back. “Boss said it’d be a shame to let someone almost as good as him eat it in an alley … I mean … You’re welcome.”

He waited a beat.

“Boss also said to tell you …”

“Tell me what?”

“Next time, duck.”

The boy turned and ran at the fence, then vaulted over it. He must’ve been just out of sight when the EMS guys started jogging toward him.

As professional help reached him, assuring him that he’d be fine, he had the fuzzy thought that while Alex and his boss might not be good guys, as the kid asserted, maybe they weren’t completely bad guys either.

Maybe.

 

Our Frightful Position

stormy sea

The world knew.

It had been told again and again.

By artists, poets, writers, and madmen. The day would come.

In his house, in its undisclosed place with its mythical name, the dead god slumbered, dreaming his dead dreams. Waiting.

We should have realized.

Nothing waits forever.

I was alone when he came for us.
On the beach, mourning the dog who wasn’t with me for the first time in over a decade. I’d walked aimlessly since well before the dawn.

I felt a vague tremor of the earth beneath my feet as light broke behind me. It was as unremarkable as the sun rising at my back as I stared out over the Pacific, noting an almost eerie calm befall the water.

Another tremor came a moment later and the glassy sea began to foam.

Then he rose.

To my dismay, he did not eat me first.

I am not one of the faithful.

He passed over me like I didn’t exist.

No, that’s not true.

His fathomless eyes met mine for just a moment. I felt my sanity waver, but he left it intact.

I think …

I think he wanted a witness.

Something Wicked

Skull

Author’s note – I’m participating in a little May Flash Fiction Challenge in a writing group I admin, so I thought it would be fun to share the fruits of that here, since otherwise I’m busy wrapping up Book II, Before the Dawn.

Today’s challenge, “Your character gets a threatening letter,” offered me the opportunity to write a little fan fiction for our own characters. How can I resist that? ~ J

 

Ben started down the steps of the RV and froze.

Mal nearly ran into his back. After a split second of thinking he did it on purpose to get another embrace, she saw his tension. His whole body looked like an over-tuned guitar string someone had plucked just to get it to snap.

She followed her original impulse and wrapped her arms around him from behind. Maybe he wasn’t playing around to steal another hug before their run, but he clearly needed the contact right now.

“Ben?” she prompted.

At the sound of her voice, something in him unlocked and he was able to breathe again.

“Sorry.” He sounded like someone had their hands around his neck. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Sorry.”

He paused, biting his lip. This was probably going to be an argument, but he felt like a live wire, like danger was suddenly all around them. He caressed her arms, wrapped tightly around his middle, and gently pried them away, squeezing her hands as he released them so she wouldn’t read the gesture as having to do with her.

He scanned the sparsely populated campground. No one appeared to be awake. The sun was barely up.

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Nothing except the parchment envelope placed neatly at the foot of their steps.

Ronoven, Count and Marquis of Hell
Open immediately

“Mal, I need you to head back inside and close the door. Get Chris up, too. I’ll be right behind you. I promise.”

Her arms went stubbornly around him again. She couldn’t see around his broad shoulders, but she knew the subtleties of his voice and body language well enough to know he sensed a threat and was about to do that thing where he tried to face it all on his own.

She was going to break that particular bad habit if it was the last thing she did.

“Ben, what’s wrong?” He drew in another breath and held it. “You know I’m not going anywhere so spit it out.”

Roughly an hour seemed to pass before he exhaled slowly. “Do you have your knife on you?”

“Of course.”

“Not your pocket knife. Your … I meant the weapon one.”

“I know what you meant. I always carry it now.”

“Okay.” Another long breath. “There’s an envelope on the ground with …”

“Ben.” Her voice lost some of its soft understanding. He clearly needed help. And he was going to get it whether he liked it or not.

“With my demon name,” he admitted.

Oh, how he hated that, hated that he had to say those words out loud, hated anything that reminded him he wasn’t just Ben Brody. Even more, he hated having to remind Mal of that fact.

“And my titles. Someone from Hell might be watching right now. Even if it’s not Hell, it’s still somebody dangerous enough that it doesn’t matter.”

Mal released him and drew the knife from the clever sheath Teddy had made her for the small of her back.

“Let’s see what it says. I’ll keep my eyes on everything.”

He sighed. “Okay.”

He drew his own dagger and carefully edged down the last few steps, eyes darting around, trying to look everywhere at once. He bent down to retrieve the envelope. As soon as his fingers closed around it, it grew almost unbearably hot in his hand.

He put it back down. It was treated with something not awesome for him. Something blessed, if he had to guess. Before Davi’s magic it might have lit his hand on fire, or at least blistered it. But now, it just stung. Still, it wasn’t a good idea to hang onto it. Just in case.

“You okay?” Mal stood next to him, but wasn’t looking his way. She was scanning the area, just like he, Chris, and Aife had taught her. In spite of the situation, he felt his lips quirk up at the corners. How did I ever get lucky enough to know her?

He found it easier to answer this time. She didn’t care about his, as she put it, demon bullshit. “It … um … I think it’s got something consecrated soaked into it.”

“Are you alright?” She moved like she’d take his hand to look it over.

“I’m fine,” he said hastily, holding it up before she could slip into her ‘team medic’ role. “But …” Why does asking her to do this feel like jumping off a damned cliff? He knew it was the right thing to do. For both of them. But his protective streak still had a hard time being reigned in. “Could you pick it up and see what it says? I’ll stand guard.”

She flashed him a little smile. He was trying so hard not to shut her out or close himself off to protect her. It warmed her all over when he did things like this. In her mind, it meant he really saw her as an equal. She didn’t like it when he treated her like she was better than him, exalted in some way. She bent and picked up the envelope, feeling it’s texture between her fingers, then sniffing it.

“Seems like it was maybe soaked in consecrated salt and holy water. It smells a little oceany. Feels gritty, too.”

Ben couldn’t help the lopsided grin that pulled at his lips. “Alright Miss CSI, but what’s it say?”

She slit the envelope with her knife, then put the blade back in its sheath. She unfolded the letter inside, careful not to rip the stiff, crinkly paper. It wasn’t parchment like the envelope, but it was something other than plain paper. It felt strange in her hand. The ink was rusty colored. And the letter stunk.

“Blood,” Ben said in a disgusted almost whisper.

Mal’s nose did an involuntary wrinkle that he usually found adorable, mostly because not much grossed her out. Right now all it did was make him swallow hard, his momentary smile fading into a frown with the fluid ease of muscles that remember it too well.

She quietly read the short message aloud.

“I know what you are. I know who you are. I need demon blood. This letter represents the dregs of my last acquisition. How convenient that you’re here in a body that belongs to you.” She paused for a breath and realized Ben was holding his again. “Surrender yourself in the clearing by the stream immediately, and I won’t curse the rest of your party to oblivion. If you don’t, they’ll die a bloody death, in terror, and it will be on your hands.”

He still hadn’t breathed. He tried; tried to speak, too. But his brain and body were having none of it.

Mal’s eyebrows drew together in concern. “Ben?”

Still nothing.

He was actually contemplating going to that clearing and giving himself up.

Nope, not happening, Brody. She made a snap decision.

Turning toward him, she reached into his front pocket as provocatively as she could and retrieved his lighter. Not that he really needed it with his ability to light things on fire psychically, but he liked to fidget with it.

Finally, he gasped. “Hey! Getting fresh while we’re being stalked by some dark witch or worse, because lots of magic-abusing pricks like demon blood, too, is probably a really bad idea.”

She forced a natural looking smirk onto her face even though she was, truth be told, shaking a little. “Since when does me getting fresh ever end badly for you?”

She sparked the lighter to life and held it to the corner of the note and envelope. It caught slowly, burning with a smoky orange-yellow flame that told her she’d been right about it being treated with salt. She walked the burning paper over to the campsite’s fire pit.

Ben followed, right on her elbow, dagger still in hand, eyes taking in the whole area. “What are you doing?”

“Making sure this can’t be used to track us.”

Ben smiled. “Good idea. I hadn’t gotten that far in my thinking, I guess.”

Because you were thinking of giving yourself up, she thought, but didn’t say. At that moment the flame reached the letters and they popped and sparked, burning red and deep blue alternatively. Ben’s brow creased and he mumbled in what sounded like realization. “Huh.”

“Someone you know?” she asked, half teasing.

“Actually, I think so,” Ben nodded slowly. “Most likely Zuhal. A friend. Such as they are in Hell.” His eyes watered with the stink of sulphur and the images it conjured in his mind. He almost sighed with relief that telling Mal something more of Hell seemed marginally easier this morning. “He’s probably fine though. He’s always trading his blood to lovelorn witches for …” He cleared his throat, suddenly blushing furiously all the way up to his ears. “Favors,” he finished awkwardly.

Mal dropped the letter into the pit before it could singe her fingers. She slid an arm around him for a brief hug. “Let’s go wake up the others so we can get out of here.”

Ben glanced around again, then sheathed his knife. “I like the idea of getting right the Hell out of here, but what are we going to do about this threatened curse?”

She opened the door to the RV, but turned to give him an encouraging nod. “Protection spell, obviously. I’ve been practicing. Besides, we’ve got our own badass witch, and Chris, and you.”

They got inside and turned on the lights, eliciting groans from their sleeping travel companions. “The vibe I got off that letter was it was written by somebody pretty powerful,” Ben said, chewing his lip.

She cocked an eyebrow. “Some dumb evil witch doesn’t scare me.”

Ben pulled her into his arms, feeling himself relax already, even though he was certain there was real danger here. “You’re not scared of anything,” he said, voice full of admiration as he buried his face in her tangled curls for a moment and kissed the top of her head.

Except losing you, she thought.

What she said was, “Damn right. Let’s get them up and get out of here.”

He squeezed her again. “Whatever you say, Mal.”

The Eleventh Day of Fic-mas …

stone-3475563_1920

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.