New (Year) World Order

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

New (Year) World Order

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your expression says you do know.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I … I don’t … You really think…?”

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

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

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

“Certainly. Why?”

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

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

Ben got out his phone and summoned an Uber.

***

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

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

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

“What’s the matter?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Salty?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Or sitting on benches and brooding?”

He laughed a little. “Or that.”

“Okay … Georgia Aquarium?”

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

“Was it any good?”

“I mean, yeah, if you like fish.”

“Do you?”

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

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

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

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

“What does?”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben rolled his eyes. “Five hundred million.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve been here before.”

“Yeah.”

“For Hell?”

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

“I beg your pardon?”

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

“And?”

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

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

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

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

“Only a little,” Ben laughed. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Very funny. Anything else?”

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

When Hell Freezes Over

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No answer but his voice disappearing into her silent house.

Huh.

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

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

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

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

“That wouldn’t be proper, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yes, sir!” Anabell grinned. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“May I?” Ben reached out a hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you certain?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

But no such luck. 

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

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

He’d never see her again. 

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

Sick certainty gripped him. Aife was gone. 

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

Damn it. 

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

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

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

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

He leaned closer to the water.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A stiff, chilled hand closed on his ankle.

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

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

“Ben! Ben! It’s me!”

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

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

The response was too purely her to be an illusion. 

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

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

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

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

“Ah, for fuck’s sake, Aife!” 

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

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

“Why are you? Around me, I mean.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She tilted her head in the expected question. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Www…What?” she stammered.

“I won an Office position.”

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

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

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

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

She sat perfectly still for another long, silent minute.

“Say something, would you?”

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

“So, you accept?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe. But just for this next minute.” 

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

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

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

He raised an eyebrow. “Do I?”

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

He grinned broadly and tipped her a wink.

“Never.”

Christmas Presence

christmas-1786558_1920

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

Christmas Presence

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

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

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

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

“Be right back, Baby Girl.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You, too. Thank you!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s it say?”  

Ari cleared his throat and swallowed. 

Dear Sinclair Family,

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

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

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

Warmest regards,

Cain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Knowing Cain? Almost definitely not.” 

“Okay. Let me know what they say.”

“I will.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks.”

He hung up, dreading relaying the conversation to Maggie. 

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

*****