Here’s a short novella (or long short story) that I wrote a while pack as a Christmas prequel to my upcoming urban fantasy series. Yes, the Father Chessman tales are still coming, but as I’m now able to write more than before, it’s time to let this series out the door. So, without further delay, here is my Christmas tale from the very heart of Hell.
Yes, Virginia, There Is a Satan Claws
More than anything, I wanted to spend Christmas in Hell, far away from my mother. That’s not as far-fetched as you might think because in Pittsburgh, we have four easy-access gates into Hell. Mother, on the other hand, was tucked away behind one of the gates into the elfin city of Evanelle. Me, I lived appropriately enough halfway in between here in Pittsburgh.
I work at the Herald, and people call me Al. Well, folks at work do. To most everyone else, I’m Alice Koufax. Of course, Mother still calls me Alyssa, a nod to my elfin heritage on her side, but after the divorce, I took Dad’s side and went to live with him near the steel mills in the demon city of Karthai. I left the name “Alyssa” behind, along with my elfin formal robe and Mother’s tattered copy of Magic and You.
So normally, Mother’s invitation would be easy to dodge. The two of us hadn’t exchanged a civil word in a few years, so the invitations hadn’t even been coming for quite a while. This time was different, though. This year, Christmas Eve had lined up with Evanelle’s Winter Festival of the New Moon, and with the vagaries of human and elfin calendars, this wouldn’t happen again for another two hundred and thirty-nine years, well within her lifespan but not mine. Still, the real issue was my brother, Paul.
Paul took Mother’s side in the divorce, though less out of any love for her than because of the feud he started with Dad over some suitably trivial teenage act of rebellion. But he wasn’t just acting as Mother’s proxy here. No. He was engaged now and had to make everything perfect for his girl.
“Come on, Alice,” he pleaded on the phone. “It’ll be our first real Christmas together, and I want to make it special for Margie. You know, see the magical lights of a big Winter Festival, let Mom teach her how to make Grandma’s mist cups, all the family stuff that makes it important.”
“Family stuff, eh?” I glanced around my little office cubicle, but no one seemed to be prairie-dogging to listen in. “So I suppose I can bring Dad as my plus one?”
The phone was quiet for a moment. “I’m being serious, Alice. I want this to work. Drop Dad in, and all we’re going to get is a shouting match. That is not the family tradition I want to introduce Margie to.”
“Well, I won’t be one of the ones shouting, so that’s not my problem.”
He must have pulled the handset away on his end, but I could still hear him grumble out a few curses. “Look, at least think about it. You don’t have to stay long, and I’ll do what I can to keep Mom at bay.”
I snorted. “No, not on her turf. You know what I’m talking about.” He did. The last time I had visited Mother’s was for Paul’s college graduation party, and Mother had lined up six—yes, six!—potential suitors for me to meet, all from what she called “good families with a solid elfin bloodline.”
“I’ll ask Grandma Vanessa to come run interference for you.”
I knew that Vanessa would get a kick out of foiling any of Mother’s schemes, but it still wasn’t enough for me. “Nice try, but if you put the two of them together, you’ll get more shouting than if I bring Dad.” I paused long enough to let him think of a reply but not long enough to say it. “Look, it’s nice of you to ask, and I’m sure the Festival lights will be even more magical than ever, but I think you and Margie are going to have to do this one without me.”
“So that’s it? You’re going to go spend Christmas with Dad again?”
“Maybe. I have invitations from friends as well.”
“But you’ll be in Hell?”
“Yes. Besides, I’ve got a story to track down there.”
He snorted. “Oooh, a big story?”
“Big enough to stay away from Mother.” I hung up.
It wasn’t a lie. I did have a big story. Well, big for me. It might even make the front page … of the Lifestyle section. Yes, Al Koufax, intrepid reporter of such tales as the Tri-County Garden Expo and the Second Annual Amateur Ice Sculpture Competition. This story, though, was actually pretty crappy.
I was supposed to talk to some guy calling himself Satan Claws.
I met up with Nigel Davis downstairs. He’s the paper’s assistant photographer. Our chief photographer spends most of his time at a desk handling color balancing or something like that for the rest of us who were catching snapshots on our phones. Nigel is the only one we ever sent out specifically to get a photograph, and he was the lucky bastard who was being sent to Hell with me on Christmas Eve.
“Where are we meeting this guy?” he asked, patting down the pockets in his vest, presumably confirming the exact contents of each one with a simple touch.
“In Karthai,” I answered, heading toward the door. Karthai was the demon city connected to Pittsburgh. It was Hell, but high-rent Hell.
Nigel caught up with me and got his hand on the door before I did. “Where, exactly, in Karthai?”
“That’s where things get fuzzy.” I shifted to the next door over and pushed it open. “I’ll explain on the train.”
The Steel Plaza station was only four blocks from the Herald’s offices, but the words “Pittsburgh,” “mild,” and “winter” should never be used in the same sentence. I was hoping to grab a cab, but even at noon they were already getting scarce for the holiday. The wet drizzle told me it was still above freezing, but I pulled my jacket close and hurried along. Nigel had no trouble keeping up, and he seemed warm enough with just his vest. My elfin heritage did me no favors here, and having spent my teen years in Upper Karthai with Dad had only spoiled me for cold weather.
At least the lower-level station was warm, and an Orange Line train was waiting for us when we got there. I settled into a seat while Nigel took one across the aisle. A mix of other humans and demons were on the train, the latter either standing or sitting along the wing-friendly center bench.
“So, fuzzy?” he asked.
“Yeah, Big Jim got a tip about some guy in or near Karthai who was doing the full Santa thing.”
Nigel nodded. “What’s so special about that? I’ve seen dozens of them.”
That was true enough. Demons had strangely latched onto Christmas as the one human holiday to import. They were not all that big on Christianity. Why let all that forgiveness crap get in the way of a good blood feud, after all? But they loved the idea of big meals and an excuse for mass consumerism. Thus, Karthai had almost as many demons dolled up in red velvet and white fur trim as Pittsburgh had humans doing the same in shopping malls and department stores. They have to cut the jackets more like vests to accommodate the wings, but it’s eerie how natural it looks on them. “Yeah, but this one’s unique,” I said. “Apparently he’s doing the whole sleigh and flying reindeer thing, too.”
“Reindeer? In Hell?”
“Probably not reindeer, but maybe petheks.”
Nigel looked at me like I’d lost my mind. “Petheks? You mean dragons?”
I laughed. Yes, petheks had claws and wings, and breathed fire, but they were not dragons. Reykjavík was the only city with a gate to the dragon realm. “No scales and not that smart. More like a scary Pegasus,” I told him.
He shook his head. “I’ve seen the pictures of them breathing fire. I’m not sure I want to get that close.”
I shrugged. I’d seen one once being trained as a war mount, but I’d never interacted with any. “So anyway, this guy is a little off the beaten path.”
“So, no address?”
“No, but Jim set me up with a couple of the more traditional Santas. They might know more, but they might not. If nothing else, we’ll settle for some pictures of them and call it a day.”
“Not that I want the extra work, but is that you trying to get home early, or is that Big Jim letting you off the hook?”
His tone was too casual for me to worry, and we both knew Big Jim would never let anyone off the hook, holiday or not. “He told me it might just be a rumor blown out of proportion, so if we don’t find him, we’re in the clear.”
That satisfied Nigel. This was an express train, so we only made one more stop before crossing through the Perdition Gate into Hell. On the train, the gate interface looks like a wall of fire sweeping through the cars. Whoever establishes a gate has some control over its appearance, and clearly that particular demon had liked fire. I hear that when the Denver trains pass into the frozen city of Auroralein, it looks like an oncoming avalanche. I’ve seen people flinch at the sight of the flames, but no one did on this train.
We got off at the Downtown Station, with Karthai’s stone buildings rising to three or four stories around us. Karthai Castle was even taller, but we were headed to the Paktoo Market downhill from there. It’s about as close to a shopping mall as you’ll find in Karthai. Since it doesn’t rain in Hell, there’s no need for a roof, and despite the heat, there is no air-conditioning. Demons have imported many technologies from Earth, but air-conditioning isn’t one of them.
Nigel spotted the local Santa before I did, but he had the height advantage. Santa and his helpers were set up on the far side next to a statue that was little more than a dozen steel tridents warped and welded into a distinctly hellish tree of barbed points. I think most of the year it commemorates some ancient war, but today it was decorated with balls and tinsel.
This particular Santa was an overweight kagnari, normally the kind of demon that is one giant wall of winged muscles, but this one seemed to have come by his belly honestly. His helpers were a pair of decidedly nonelfin pale succubi dressed in flirty green skirts and vests, revealing more than they concealed. Given the general lack of modesty in Hell, I was surprised they wore even that much, but I supposed this close to the train station, they were showing a modicum of respect for the visiting humans and their pious holiday.
Nigel started measuring the light and took a few test shots of his reference color card. The light in Karthai came from giant bowls of hellfire hanging from the cavern roof far above, and the yellowish hue didn’t make his job any easier. One of the succubi was taking a photo of a young tokkel on Santa’s lap: a lad so young his horns didn’t yet show even a hint of their eventual corkscrew shape. The other swiped the mother’s credit card through the reader, and within moments, the photo had shown up on her cell phone’s email.
Yes, credit cards and email, but no air-conditioning. I didn’t mind. I’d spent my teen years here, so I was used to it. My jacket was tied around my waist by the sleeves, but Nigel was starting to melt under his heavy vest and sweater.
The photographer succubus exchanged a few words with him, and he added an extra filter on his camera lens. By the time the line had dwindled, the introductions had already been made. Nigel got a couple of pictures of Santa on his own, one or two with him flanked by his helpers, and at least one that was far too risqué to grace the pages of the Herald.
“How about one with you, miss?” the Santa called to me.
I figured it was the easiest way to get in a few questions, so I hopped up on his lap. I adjusted my hair to show my Kalxi Axemen tattoo, but not the tips of my ever-so-slightly elfin ears. I’ve spent enough years down here to belong, but the ears never make a good first impression.
He ran a finger over the tattoo and gave a hearty laugh. “So this is not your first time on a demon’s lap?”
“Hardly,” I replied.
“Well, then, have you been naughty or nice this year?”
“Both!” Anyone growing up in Hell knows that’s the only proper answer.
He laughed again, and we both posed for Nigel. He circled around and got us from a couple of different angles. I trust him to compose a good shot, so I tried to look my best. I doubted the photo would be in the paper, but it would probably end up on the bulletin board in the break room at work.
“So, what do you want for Christmas this year?”
“Can I ask for anything?”
Reporter mode on! “Well, I was hoping to meet another Santa, one with a sleigh and eight petheks. Have you heard of him?”
His laugh faltered, and he shifted a bit beneath me. “I think somebody has been putting a bit too much tarro moss in your eggnog.”
I shrugged. I had known it was a long shot, but it was worth asking. “You’re sure? I’ve heard rumors.”
He gave a snort. “More like exaggerations. I did hear about someone from the other side of Lower Karthai who flew in on a pethek last year. Not a respectable suit, no helpers, and definitely no sleigh.”
Still, it was something. “Thank you,” I said. “Have a very Merry Christmas.”
He nodded. “You, as well, young lass.” And with that, he boosted me off his lap, giving my ass a good squeeze in the process. After years in Hell, I’m used to that, but I have to say that this one was going on my bragging list. I’d been groped by Santa.
Nigel walked over, slipping his gear back into his pockets. “So, did you get what you needed for the story?”
I shook my head. “Not even close, but he told me enough to know that there is at least some truth to the rumor.”
He checked his watch. “What next?”
I sympathized with him. It was already past two in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, and for that matter, we had an early print deadline today. Normally Lifestyle closed at seven with final layout locked down by eight. Today my article was due by four with the final layout being sent to the printer by five. Plus, Nigel had to get back into Pittsburgh, and the trains were due to switch to a holiday schedule at four in the afternoon.
“There’s another Santa I want to check out in Lower Karthai.”
“Another one on Big Jim’s list?”
“No,” I replied. This was one I had heard about during my high school days, and even if Big Jim had known about him, I was pretty sure that as hard-ass as he is, he was never going to send sweet little Alice to see Sexy Santa. “But it sounds like the Santa I’m looking for is well off the shopping mall circuit, and this next Santa is pretty far off it as well.”
He nodded, and we started walking. Travel for humans in Hell can be a little slow. Most of the locals can fly, so while there are a few vehicles on the streets, they are intended for heavy deliveries, not passenger traffic. The train could take us to the other side of the downtown district, but we needed to go in the opposite direction. It was eight blocks to the drop-off, and then, at least, the chairlifts would take us most of the remaining distance.
That’s when my phone rang. I had most of my family programmed in with custom ringtones, but when Mother called, it was always from Evanelle using a magical calling stone. By the time that got routed through Faeburgh where magic could be squeezed into a digital signal, there was no caller ID, but when my Faeburgh ringtone sounded, I knew it had to be her. Yes, Paul worked in Faeburgh, but he had already called me earlier from home, so this was Mother.
“Hello, Mother,” I answered. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Don’t play nice unless you mean it,” she replied. “Paul tells me you’re still as obstinate as ever.”
“Something I get from you, Mother.”
Yeah, our relationship is just peachy.
She mumbled something I couldn’t quite catch, but then I could hear her taking a deep breath. It’s weird what sometimes comes through these connections and what gets lost. “Your brother wants to welcome Margaret into the family properly, and that includes you. Will you please join us for the Winter Moon Festival tonight? I understand that the Elders have prepared quite an American theme in recognition of your Christmas Eve.”
Dammit. I hated it when she went all courteous on me. It was harder to blame her when she did that, and I knew very well that was precisely the reason she did it. “I’ll try, but I might not be able to.”
“I’m working on a story.”
“On Christmas Eve? Come now, Alyssa, you usually put more effort into your excuses.”
“Yes, Mother, on Christmas Eve. It’s a story for the morning edition if I can get it in.”
“Well, where is it? Maybe Paul could come pick you up.”
“I’m in Karthai, about to head down into Lower Karthai.”
The line was quiet for a moment. “Karthai.”
“Yes, Mother. Karthai.”
“When I am doing everything I can to assemble the family in Evanelle to welcome its newest member, you choose that moment to go down into Karthai? That’s incredibly selfish, Alyssa, even for you.”
Ha! So much for her playing nice. “You’re assembling the family? I thought this was supposed to be Paul’s show.”
“That’s immaterial. I’m helping, and you, evidently, are not.”
We had reached the line for the chairlifts, and while there was a fifty-fifty chance I’d lose signal on the ride down, I wanted to end this call on my terms. “Well, you haranguing me on the phone isn’t helping me finish my article, either.”
“Oh, so now it’s my fault?”
I scowled. It’s always been her fault, but no, I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction of pushing that particular button. “Make of it what you will, Mother, but I have to go do my job now. If I miss you later, Joyous Festival and Merry Christmas.”
She started to reply, but I hung up before she got far.
Nigel looked at me. “You know, family is—”
“A private matter,” I replied, cutting him short. I saw that expression on his face, the same one Dad gives me when he’s honestly trying to help. “Sorry, Nigel. Mother and I … our Christmases will truly be merry only if we experience them separately.”
He nodded. “Well, that’s your choice.”
I was considering an equally passive-aggressive retort, but we reached the front of the line just then, and I decided that launching into an argument when confined to a chairlift was not a winning strategy.
The chairlifts are another import from Earth, but instead of carrying holiday skiers up the snowy slopes of a mountainside resort, they were carrying us poor wingless humans up and down the rocky slope that divided Upper and Lower Karthai. Demons, of course, simply flew it. It was a nice glide down, and a demon who couldn’t manage the upward rise shouldn’t trust himself to fly. There was another section further to our left where the slope was shallow enough to allow a few blocks of switchback streets so that it could be traversed by foot, but the chairlifts were much faster. This one, in fact, was much more direct than walking would have been, taking us to within a few blocks of our destination.
Nigel sat beside me in silence on the way down, taking a few pictures of Lower Karthai as we descended. “Personal panoramas?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I’m a tad acrophobic, but it doesn’t look so bad through a telephoto lens.”
Fair enough. If I’d ever had any fear of heights, flying through Hell in the arms of a demon friend cured me of it. Minutes later, the slope settled out, and the chair slowed at the terminal to let us off. From there, I led Nigel another two blocks downslope and one over.
The Santa I was looking for next wasn’t going to be found in a market. Back on Earth, he would have been in the back of some disreputable biker bar, but in Hell, all bars are disreputable—at least by Earth standards. No, here I was looking for something between a hook-up bar and a sex club. The flashing-neon barbed phallus over the door was exactly the sign I was looking for.
It’s not that demons have no subtlety. They just don’t waste it on sex.
The inside smelled of demon musk, and as someone who spent puberty surrounded by that smell, I was immediately drawn in. It didn’t hurt that the clientele were mouth-wateringly gorgeous and dressed—or more often undressed—to show it. There were demons of almost all types and genders here, from a MILFish kagnari with a pair of handcuffs dangling from her left horn to an incubus whose physique drew my eyes from his subtle horns down to his stylishly capped hooves and halfway back. Yes, Sexy Santa was there in the corner wearing the traditional cap and the not-at-all-traditional red velvet loincloth. Apart from some jewelry, that was all, but it was still more than his three helpers, a trio of coal-black succubi tricked out in green caps and nothing else.
Like I said, this wasn’t the kind of place Big Jim was going to send sweet little Alice. If only he knew. I glanced back to see Nigel frozen with his mouth hanging open. “Deep breaths, Nigel, and remember to blink.”
He nodded, glanced away for a moment, and then the professional mask returned. He’s a photographer, after all, so I figure this couldn’t be the first time he’d seen nudity like this. Well, maybe not quite like this. The MILF with the handcuffs was twirling them around her horn while one of Santa’s helpers was stroking Santa’s tail suggestively.
There was no photo setup for Sexy Santa, but a number of demons—both male and female— were taking turns sitting on his lap or having his helpers sit on theirs. And the sitting was verging on grinding at times. I made my way forward like I was ready to dive into the deep end, and as I entered the fray, Sexy Santa shooed a mottled-gray incubus off his lap.
I didn’t waste my time being coy. This was Sexy Santa after all, so I straddled his lap and wrapped my legs around the back of the chair. It wasn’t quite as sexy as it sounds since I was in jeans and his loincloth was closer to my tailbone than anything truly intimate, but more to the point, it put me face to face with him where I could have all his attention.
“Are you ready to be naughty and nice?” he asked.
“Maybe later,” I said. I mean seriously, he was smoking hot, and I was not at all opposed to coming back later for some Christmas festivities of my own.
He pulled me in close and rubbed his cheek against my breast. “Then what would you like?”
I breathed him in and stopped caring very much about Big Jim’s wild Santa chase, but then I remembered that Nigel was there. I pulled back and looked down to lose myself in his eyes for a long moment. Focus, focus, focus. “I … would like … to find the Santa that rode in on a pethek last year.”
He laughed, not with Santa’s ho-ho-ho, but with the uncontrolled guffaw of a braying ass. “Fires above! I heard about him!”
I blinked a few times to find my brain. “You did?”
“Yeah, a buddy of mine at work says he dropped a great big sack of candy on the roof of Karthai Castle, and the guards almost shot him down.”
I grinned like an idiot. This was actually starting to sound real. “Do you know where he is?”
“The guy? No. But Choktan—that’s my bud—said he ran into him over the summer.”
“No idea, but Choktan could tell you.”
I looked around. “Is he here?”
“Nah, still at work waiting tables.” He reached up to his cap, and pulled a pen out of the seam by the fur. I started to reach for my little pad in my back pocket, but he took my hand in his and simply scrawled it out on my palm.
“Tarket Gich, 2274 Atep,” I read out loud. Tarket Gich translated loosely to “Savory Flesh,” but referring to food, not the savory flesh of the incubus beneath me. It had to be a restaurant, and Atep Street ran along the far edge of Lower Karthai, about twenty minutes’ walk from here. “Do you have his phone number?”
“Yeah, in my phone.”
“And your phone?”
He licked his lips and gave his hips a little thrust. “In my other pants.”
I thanked him and ran my hands down his chest and across his lap as I stood. Hey, if Santa can grope me, why can’t I grope Santa?
I found Nigel in the corner with one of Santa’s helpers draped across him in a way that I didn’t think his wife would approve of. It’s not that I know she’s a prude or anything, but when Nigel saw me grinning at him, he blushed redder than Santa’s cap and awkwardly extricated himself.
Outside, he straightened his collar and shook out his legs.
“So, what was it you were saying about family?” I asked.
“Family … um …”
“Isn’t here, so don’t sweat it.”
He nodded, sighed, and Nigel the professional was back. “What next?”
“This guy confirmed what the last Santa said. There really was a guy who rode in on a pethek last year and dropped candies on the castle.”
“And Santa’s friend might know where he is.” I held up my hand with the address.
He furrowed his brow. “Atep …”
I jerked my head back the way we had come. “Twenty minutes. Less if we hoof it.”
And off we went. I was in decent shoes for it, since I had known I’d be coming to Hell and its cobblestone streets today. I had chosen a pair of black Westwood knockoffs with rubber soles and enough of a heel to bring my diminutive height above the cubicle walls back at the office. Nigel was in even better shoes than I was, but he was also carrying an extra forty pounds, and only a fraction of that was camera equipment. Within three blocks, we had slowed to a brisk walk, with Nigel panting hard, but just as he was recovering enough to talk, my phone rang again.
This time it was Dad, a welcome voice for once. “Hey, Pops. What’s up?”
“Just checking in. Are you still planning to come down to Karthai tonight?”
“I’m already here, but I’m tracking down a story.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll have it wrapped up in time for dinner.”
“Then you are still planning on coming over?”
“Of course,” I replied. I still might sneak out after for a little revelry, but knowing Dad, he might, too.
“Ah,” he replied. That’s when I heard it in his voice. Something was up.
“What’s going on, Dad? Is there some reason I shouldn’t come over?” I knew Dad was dating around, but I didn’t think any one of them was serious enough for him to invite over for a holiday dinner.
“No, it’s … To be honest, your mother called.”
I pulled the phone away from my mouth and let out a stream of curses the likes of which even Dad would flinch at. Nigel stared at me and took three steps back. Finished with my tirade, I brought the phone back to my face, and in the calmest voice I could muster I asked, “And what, pray tell, did dearest Mother have to say?”
“Look, Ally, it’s not that I don’t want you to come over for Christmas. I’ve got a slab of kaltep roast in the crock pot, simmering away.” The mention of it alone made my mouth water. Kaltep roast makes lamb seem tough by comparison. “But it sounds like this is important to Paul, and—”
“Fuck Paul,” I said.
He went quiet, and for a moment I thought I’d lost the connection. “Ally, Paul and I haven’t been close since … well, we were never that close, and most of the blame is mine. We barely talk anymore, and if it’s important for him to have his sister there for his fiancée’s first family Christmas, then I don’t want to be the one to stand the way of that.”
“But Dad, I—”
“I know. I was looking forward to it, too, but how about we push it back to New Year’s. Not Eve, mind you, just the day. I’ll cook up some more kaltep, and we can watch the Rose Bowl.”
I sighed. “Yeah, sure. Whatever, Dad.”
“Now, Ally-cat, don’t sulk.”
I ground my teeth to hold back my reply before settling on “Look, Dad, I’m working on a story, so I’ve got to go. I’ll talk to you later.” I hung up before he could reply.
Nigel glanced at me, but I glared back hard enough that he simply raised his hands in surrender. I gave him a nod and turned down the street again.
No matter what Dad said, this was not about him and Paul. This was Mother at her manipulative best. Guilt-ball off the Dad side and into the corner pocket for the win. Well, to the depths with her. I’d make sure Paul knew it wasn’t Dad’s fault, say that he had bowed out but that I’d gotten stuck on the story. I would still miss Dad’s cooking, but I had friends in Karthai that I could hook up with on short notice. Shit, I imagined I could even go hang with Sexy Santa and his friends if it came down to it.
But by the fires above, I was not going to give in to Mother.
We smelled the restaurant before we saw it. As there were no elements to keep out, like the market before, the restaurant was relatively open to the air, but there was a tasteful iron lattice surrounding it and beams forming something of a roof. It didn’t control the elements, but it did control the patrons, keeping the paying ones in until they’d paid and keeping some of the nonpaying scavengers out. Don’t get me wrong. Most demons are forthright and proper. It’s not them that the roof was keeping out. Rather, in this part of Karthai, we were near the Dathir Quarry, a nesting place for the impish marek . They are notorious scavengers and—let’s be honest—outright thieves. Without that roof, the place would’ve been an easy target for them to swarm en masse. With it, it never got a first glance, let alone a second.
It was too early for dinner, so we had no trouble getting a table. There was a broad menu, but clearly the special was spit-roasted kaltep. Unlike Dad’s in the crockpot, this one was turning slowly over an open flame in a section of the kitchen we could all see. If you’ve only eaten kaltep and never seen one, it has six legs, no wings, and is a little bigger than a hippo, so spit-roasting one is a spectacle. Pieces near the edges were cut off as the hours wore on, with the inner portions cooking slow at first and then faster as they were exposed directly to the heat. It’s about as anti-vegetarian as you can get, and the aroma extends for blocks.
All the walking had given me a little appetite, so I ordered a kaltep kebab with hot sauce. The hot sauce in Hell is neither Tex-Mex nor Cajun. It’s more like a curry sauce with a hint of Texas BBQ. I know that sounds impossible, but come try it sometime. Only four waiters were on duty for the afternoon crowd, so it was not a big deal to ask to see Choktan.
He was an incubus like his Sexy Santa friend but not quite as sexy, at least not in his uniform that looked as generic as those in any chain restaurant back Earth-side. “I see you’re already enjoying your kebabs. Can I refill your drink?”
Nigel nodded and pushed his glass forward, but I patted the seat next to me. “Actually, a friend of yours sent us to talk to you.” I held out my hand with the smudged ink still legible.
He pulled the chair out, sat on it backward, and flared out his wings behind him, granting us a hint of privacy from the scattered staff and diners. “Let me guess, it was Bhant.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Does he like to dress up as a sexy Santa Claus?”
He laughed. “No, that would be Taruk. Fun guy, but not the most reliable. I’m covering his shift because he bailed.”
“I see. Well, the truth of the matter is I’m looking for another Santa.”
I shook my head. “He said you knew about one who flew in on a pethek last year.”
He nodded slowly. “Yeah, I kind of do. I mean, I saw him doing it. More of a red-vested bomber than a Santa, though.”
“Do you know where he lives?”
“Somewhere out in Bhatari,” he said. Bhatari was a more agricultural cavern on the other side of the Dathir Quarry. The kaltep roasting beside us had probably been raised there. “But if you’re looking for a Santa, you’ve got the wrong demon.”
“Yeah, I ran into him at a concert feast a few months ago. Warrick Bint is his name, and he’s just a rancher. I’m pretty sure his candy bombing run on Karthai Castle was a one-time thing.”
“I don’t suppose you got his number?” I asked.
I thanked him, and Nigel tapped his empty glass again. After Choktan had refilled it and left, Nigel took a long draught. “More of a dead end than a lead,” he said.
A quick directory search for Warrick Bint yielded nothing, so I had to admit that he was right. “So yeah, no story.”
Nigel nodded slowly. “Or you could throw together a few column inches to go with the pictures we got back at the market. It’s not much, but it won’t leave Big Jim with a hole to fill in tomorrow’s Lifestyle section.”
He was right about that, but after everything with Mother, I wasn’t about to abandon my position in Hell to go back to the office to write it. I didn’t have my laptop with me, but I was able to bang out a few paragraphs on my phone while Nigel finished off his own kebabs and a bit of mine that I’d abandoned.
“There,” I said after hitting send, “you’ll have some text to go with your photos. If Big Jim asks, that’s all we were able to get.”
He drained his glass. “And you? If we hurry, we can still get the 4 p.m. train back into Pittsburgh.”
I shook my head. “No, I’ve made my decision, and Christmas alone in Hell is better than spending it with my mother. Believe me.”
He shrugged. “OK, it’s your decision.” Translation: you’re making a mistake, but I’m not going to rub your face in it. Maybe he was right. Deep down, I understood that, but a girl has to have her principles; if I gave in to Mother this time, she was going to be walking all over me for a year to come.
I waved goodbye to Nigel at the restaurant’s front gate and considered my options. I was sure if I simply showed up at Dad’s front door, he wasn’t going to send me away. In fact, he wouldn’t even mention the conflict. He would respect my decision. Of course, even with Choktan’s warning, going back to his friend Taruk and his Sexy Santa posse sounded a lot more fun than going stag to Dad’s. Or, I could hook up with one of my old high school demon friends and make a real night of it, Sexy Santa or not.
Or I could go to Bhatari and track down Warrick Bint. In retrospect, I can’t honestly say if my decision was more about tracking down the story or more about justifying my excuse for standing up to Mother. Either way, my course was set. I was on my way to track down Warrick Bint.
There were three ways across the Dathir Quarry and into Bhatari. First, I could simply fly across. Well, I could if I were a demon and had wings. Second, there was a freight line that ran through the tunnels between Karthai and Chapik with several stops along the way. It’s not exactly Amtrak, but I’ve hitched a ride in the engine-car more than once. Still, it wasn’t very predictable as a passenger transport. That left another set of chairlifts. I’d only ever ridden these particular ones once, and they’re not for the faint of heart. But the wingless can’t be picky, so that’s how I was going.
The actual lift terminal was about eight blocks away, but since I figured I’d already satisfied Big Jim’s request, I wasn’t worried about the deadline anymore. I took my time. I passed by a few shops and even checked out the window display for one selling kitchenware. They had a fancy nut juicer for some of the harder nuts that grow in Hell. Earth-side we think of nuts as dry, but down here, if you can crack them open, there’s a pulpy center to many of them with flavorful oils inside. This juicer was something of a cross between a pepper grinder and a miniature jackhammer. Dad would get a lot of mileage out of it, but at eighty-nine dollars it was too rich for my meager salary. Still, he had a birthday coming up in April. I might be able to find one used by then.
I wasn’t sure why I was dawdling so, but I suspect part of me was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Would Mother go so far as to try to pull her mother into the argument as well? Would Paul use some embarrassing secret to blackmail me into going? He worked with fae, so he’d be able dredge up something. I was certain Dad would not try to push at me again, but still, as I walked the last block to the lift station, I kept waiting for my phone to ring. It never did.
Instead, Margaret was waiting for me at the lift station.
I tried to repress my frown, but I didn’t try very hard. “Funny running into you here,” I said.
She gave a weak smile. “That’s it? After everything Paul said, I was expecting more of a ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ kind of thing.”
I shook my head. “We don’t say ‘what the hell’ down here. But as long as you brought it up, Margaret, what in all the depths do you think you’re doing?”
She shrugged. “I wanted to spend some time with my future sister-in-law.”
“You’re not going to change my mind. I’m not going back to Evanelle for Festival.”
I checked my watch. It was just after four, and the trains were slipping to the once-an-hour holiday schedule until six when they would stop for the night. That was less an issue for demons, because they could always fly through the Abaddon Gate on the other side of Karthai and come out on the southeast side of town to fly to whatever part of Pittsburgh they wanted to. Not so much for us. “Look, Margaret, I appreciate the gesture, but if you want to get back to see Paul, you’d better start back for the Orange Line now.”
“Thanks, but I thought I’d stick with you and see about this story you’re after.”
I had no idea if Margaret was bluffing, but I had only the slightest bit of guilt in calling her on it. “All right. It’s over in Bhatari which means”—I nodded to the lift station behind her—“we need to go on that.”
She glanced behind her, nodded, and said, “Then let’s get going.”
Checked and raised. “All right.”
There was no line. This lift never gets much traffic anyway. A bench swung through, we got on, and with a jerk, it pulled us out over the quarry. I watched Margaret as the ground dropped away beneath us, but she looked down for only a few seconds before turning her eyes back up to the chair arm going up to the cable.
This lift was not nearly as nice or safe as the one Nigel and I had crossed on earlier. For starters, there was no safety bar to swing down in front of us. Second, there were no arm rests on the side, only the central bar to hang on to. And third, the bench was really just a pair of twelve-inch planks, one to sit on and one to lean back against. To top it off, it wasn’t a detachable chair, so that meant it was moving as slow as it was when it scooped us up.
Given how rare human traffic was out to Bhatari, this was considered a luxury upgrade from the original lift, which had been little more than a zip-line from the lip of the quarry down to the floor at the far side. Still, thanks to the constant digging along the floor of the quarry, the towers for the cables did not rise from below. Instead, they hung from the cavern roof, with the space below us dropping down into darkness. But Margaret appeared unfazed.
“So, how did you find me, anyway?” I asked her.
“I asked one of Paul’s friends at work.”
“Fae?” I asked.
She nodded. “Verity Wallace.”
“And he told you I’d be at the lifts?”
“Something like that. It’s never a straight answer with him, but he said that at four o’clock you would cross from Karthai to Bhatari in search of True Christmas.”
I snorted. “True Christmas? I hope you didn’t tag along based on that.”
“No,” she said. “But what is this story?”
“I suppose there’s no point in asking you not to tell Paul.”
“Not necessarily,” she replied. “Just because we’re getting married doesn’t mean I have to give up my aura of mystery.”
Part of me still suspected that she had been sent on Paul’s instructions, but I had to admit that her answer surprised me. “All right. It’s not True Christmas or anything like that. I’m tracking down a rumor that there’s some demon who is doing the Santa thing whole hog, complete with a sled and … well, not flying reindeer, but flying petheks.”
Her eyebrows shot up. “Petheks? Wow, now that would be a sight to see.”
I shook my head. “Yeah, but it’s probably a fool’s errand.”
“You don’t think he exists?”
“I think the demon exists, but from what I’ve heard, it was one pethek, no sled, and no repeat performance.”
“Oh,” she said. “Still, it sounds like fun.”
I cocked an eyebrow at her. Fun? Yes, I’ve wanted to be a journalist since I was a kid, but it was always a career to me, never fun. “You’re really interested in this?”
She shrugged. “A little. Mostly I wanted to spend the time with you.”
“All right,” I replied. “It’s your dime.”
We passed a little while in silence before she asked the same question Nigel would have asked. “You have his address?”
I waited for her to ask me how I expected to find him, but she didn’t. The truth of it was I hadn’t put a lot of thought into it. I had simply been mad enough with everyone to push myself past the point of no return. I had a name, Warrick Bint; an occupation of rancher; and a cavern. Well, ranchers did business with … meat processors? Even if I could find the right slaughterhouse, that’s not how I wanted to spend my Christmas Eve. Equipment vendors? No, most of those would have been back in Karthai, or in Pittsburgh for that matter. Feed stores? That was worth looking at.
“I figure I can ask after him at the local feed store,” I said.
“Sounds like a plan,” she replied.
The fact that she accepted it so readily sucked my confidence right out of the plan. What kind of feed store was going to be open on Christmas Eve, let alone at four-thirty in the afternoon? But that’s what I’d said, so that’s what I was going to do.
The floor of the quarry rose up to meet us, and we stepped off the chairlift. I peeked in on the operator, and he was already celebrating, shall we say. There was an empty bottle next to him on the control board, but his glassy eyes spoke more of tarro moss than liquor alone. I had intended to ask him how late the lift would be running, but the sign on the door answered my question. “Lift stops at 6 p.m.” It was already 4:47.
“So, where is this feed store?” Margaret asked.
I was about to pull out my phone and Google it, but I saw my answer down the road. There were five or six buildings in sight, but only one was lit up, and it had drawn something of a crowd. “Down there,” I said. I didn’t know if it would actually be a feed store, but it was a crowd of locals that I was after, and that certainly looked like such a crowd.
It was about four blocks, which were no shorter for being mostly empty, but we walked it with purpose. “What kind of demon is this Mr. Bint?”
“A tokkel,” I replied, and made a spiraling motion on either side of my head. “With the ram horns.”
“Cool,” she replied.
“You know many demons?”
She shrugged. “A dozen or so, mostly tokkels.”
“Really?” I was surprised. They rarely get out into the public eye.
“Sure. I spend half my time underwriting loans, and the tokkels are some of the sharpest financial minds I’ve run into.”
“Even compared to the fae?” Some fae had legitimate precognition, so I always figured they ruled the financial world.
She shot me a grin. “There’s more to business than knowing the future.”
I was going to ask what, but I was genuinely confused. What was Margaret really doing here? She had to know the time, and she would have seen the same sign I did at the lift. Did she have some backup plan for getting back in time? And if so, what?
A roar of laughter stirred me from my thoughts. We were getting close to the source, and I could see that it was not a feed store. It was, instead, the demon equivalent of a drive-in theater. They had no cars, of course, but there were tables scattered around in front of a wall of those big flat screens, arrayed together edge-to-edge. I couldn’t make out the sound, but I’d been to one of these before. You pay to borrow a pair of headphones, and you watch from your table. Some of the nicer ones had waiters, but this one looked like it was more self-serve, with a cook working a fry-grill behind a short counter.
The movie itself looked like last year’s remake of A Christmas Story. If you didn’t see it, they made little Ralphie a nine-year-old kagnari whose great Christmas desire was for a Kalxi Axemen double-bladed blood-steel poleaxe with a gyroscope in the handle and a strap that lets you carry it over your back! Instead of risking an eye, the feared outcome was suitably demonic: “You’ll cut your wing off!”
I took a seat by the counter, while Margaret wandered over toward the tables. They were approaching the critical scene when little Ralphie was finally going to ask Santa himself for the poleaxe. The cook nodded to me, but he was flipping a series of sausages over the grill. I glanced at the menu, but I wasn’t all that hungry. Still, it would be polite to order at least an appetizer.
I waited a few minutes before he turned around, dipped a wing in my direction, and asked, “You hungry?”
“Sure,” I replied. “I’ll take a fried dog.” Now, before you jump to conclusions about demon cuisine, it’s just their version of a corn dog. It’s made with a thicker and spicier sausage, and the breading is much more like the crunchy skin of fried chicken than the bland cornmeal of a traditional corn dog. It was more than I had room for in my stomach, but I thought Margaret might want a bite as well.
He had one already under the warming light, so he handed it over. I took a bite and was surprised at how good it was. No wonder he had such a crowd on Christmas Eve.
“So, you’re not one of my regulars. What brings you all the way out here?”
“I’m looking for a rancher by the name of Warrick Bint.”
“Are you one of those collections agents?”
I shook my head. “No, I’m from the Herald.” I fished out one of my precious business cards and slid it across the counter. “I heard he’s quite the Santa fan.”
The cook snorted. “You mean that stunt last year?”
I nodded. “Any chance of a repeat performance?”
He shrugged. “With Warrick, anything is possible.”
Another roar of laugher interrupted my thoughts, and I glanced back at the wall of screens. Little Ralphie was spiraling down away from Santa’s lofty perch, sped along by a hoof to his rump. Margaret saw me looking and wandered back.
“Any chance he’s in there?” I asked.
“Nah,” the cook replied. “I haven’t seen him in two or three days.”
“Does he live around here?”
“Sort of, but it’s a ways, down at the end of Petiko Road.”
I thanked him, took another bite of my fried dog and put a few bucks down on the table.
“Did you find him?” Margaret asked.
“I got an address.”
I took one last bite of the fried dog and handed it to her. I licked the juices off my fingers and pulled out my phone. Yes, Google Maps even works in Hell, but you have to turn off safe-search to get the street-level view sometimes. Petiko Road branched off the main street a few blocks from here, but then it was almost two miles to the far end. “A couple of miles,” I said.
She checked her watch. Aha! Now I knew for sure she was worried about the time. “Then let’s get moving,” she said.
I started us in the right direction, but she was setting the pace. “What’s your hurry?” I asked.
“Are you kidding? If he really is doing the full Santa thing, I want to see him before he takes off.”
So down Petiko Road we went. Margaret asked a few questions about the sights along the way. There was a herd of kaltep grazing on the purple ferns to our left. “Why do they have six legs when most things have only four?”
“No wings,” I said. “If you count them, pretty much everything has six appendages in Hell. These guys evolved from some serious diggers about half their size, but they started bulking up a few thousand generations back.”
“Did their ancestors dig out these caverns?”
I shook my head. “Not these, but some of the smaller ones, yes.”
“And the ferns? Are they good to eat?”
“Good for them, but not for us.”
We walked another few minutes in silence, but then I had to ask. “So, what are you normally doing on Christmas Eve?”
She shrugged. “Dad took off a long time back, so usually it’s been me, Mom, and my older sister. But she’s married now, and Mom went to spend Christmas with them in Denver. So I’m kind of on my own this year.”
“Except you have Paul,” I reminded her.
“Yeah, and your mom.” She gave a little snort. “And your grandmother Vanessa is a hoot.”
I had to smile. Yes, as much as I could not stand to be with Mother, her mother, Vanessa, was enough to keep me from completely writing off that side of the family. “She is at that. So, why aren’t you with them?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know, really.”
I cocked an eyebrow. “You don’t?”
“I mean, I love Paul, and I’m looking forward to a lot of Christmases to come, but this is my last one, you know, to make my own.”
“But you’re here with me.”
She nodded. “I’ll admit, it’s less of an exciting adventure than I thought it might be, but I have some faith in Verity Wallace.”
“Your fae friend with the whole True Christmas thing.” The sarcasm showed in my voice more than I meant it to.
“Yes,” she said firmly. “Don’t you believe in it?”
“What? Christmas or Christ?”
“Whichever,” she replied. “Something good. Hope, joy, you know, good will towards men?”
I shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t think about that kind of stuff.”
“Well, not when I’m on a deadline at any rate.”
She frowned at that, but she did not say anything in response.
I let the silence stretch a little longer, but it was getting awkward. “So,” I ventured, “have you and Paul set a date yet?”
I got a grin for that. “Yes, next summer, August seventeenth. I wanted June, of course.”
“Of course,” I agreed.
“But Paul said he couldn’t get the vacation in either the first or third month of a financial quarter.”
I nodded. That sounded exactly like Paul. “And the church?”
She brightened even more at that, and we dove deep into talk about the wedding. I didn’t care all that much, to be honest, but it filled the time as we walked. Still, I figured I’d be asked to be a bridesmaid or something, and I wanted to get in an early vote against anything yellow. I’m pale enough that it ends up making me look like a zombie. Well, at least like a movie zombie. Thank the fires above that those aren’t real.
Anyway, the bridal topic carried us awhile, but we had settled back into silence by the time we came to a gate blocking the road. The script on the sign was demonic, but it read the equivalent of “Bint Family Ranch.”
“This is it,” I said. It had only a simple latch, so we went through and closed it behind us. The road continued, though it was more of a dirt driveway now. There was a house and a barn another quarter mile or so along, so we headed that way.
“Should we be worried about trespassing?” Margaret asked.
I shook my head. “When your neighbors fly overhead all the time, you don’t think that way.”
We came around to the front of the house, but I didn’t see anyone. The barn looked to be closed as well. Maybe this was a waste of time after all.
“Look,” Margaret whispered, pointing to the back of the barn.
I saw a wing jutting out from the far side. It pulled back once or twice. Whoever it belonged to was working on something. “Hark!” I called out. No, it’s not a Christmas thing; it’s actually a common greeting in the demon tongue. I might work for the Herald, but I’m no angel.
The wing fluttered a bit, and then a demon stepped out, a bulky tokkel in black leather pants but shirtless and with no merry red cap astride his heavily curled horns. He tilted one of those horns toward us before calling out, “What brings you?”
I headed his way. “I’m looking for Warrick Bint.”
“You don’t look like bankers. Who are you?”
“I’m Alice Koufax. I work for the Herald.”
“And your friend?”
I glanced back at Margaret. She had come all this way, after all. “This is Margaret, my sister, sort of.”
He rubbed his hands together. “So, Alice Koufax of the Herald and Margaret the sort-of sister, what do you want?”
“I heard a story that you pulled quite the Santa stunt last year.”
He shook his head. “No, I pulled no stunt.”
“No?” Had this really all been for nothing?
“No,” he said and turned back toward the barn. He walked another ten paces before he paused and looked back at us. “It was no stunt,” he said with a tooth-bared smile, and then boomed out in triumph, “It was a trial run!” He waved with one arm. “Come and see.”
My feet were tired from the long walk, but you can bet your Sexy Santa I ran the whole way to catch up with him as he rounded the corner of the barn, and what I saw took my breath away. Big Jim had been right after all.
No, it wasn’t a red sled being pulled by eight flying reindeer, but it was close enough. The sled was more of a dune buggy frame with big rubber wheels and no engine, and it was perhaps a bit more orange than red, but it was indeed hitched up to eight flying petheks. They were all on the ground at the moment, but from what I could tell of the rigging, one beast was harnessed at each corner, and then four more were harnessed together two by two further forward. They even had little silver sleigh bells hanging from the tack.
“What do you think?” His voice rumbled.
I struggled for the words, but Margaret beat me to it. “It’s fantastic,” she squealed. “It’s like something right out of a fairy tale, but it’s real!”
“Indeed it is!” Warrick replied. “I’ve taken it up for a few test flights out here, but now she’s ready for the city, don’t you think?”
Margaret giggled with glee and ran up to the sled, as it were, running her hands along the edge.
“And what do you think, Alice Koufax of the Herald?”
I realized I was still standing there with my mouth hanging open. It was real. A red coat hung from the side of the sled, cut like a narrow vest in back for a demon’s wings. There was even a red and white fur cap dangling on the frame. “I can’t believe it,” I said at last. “You really are Santa Claus.”
He snorted and let out a long belly laugh. “No, not Santa,” he said and raised one hand to the tip of his right horn. “More of a Satan, don’t you think? Satan Claws, perhaps?”
I nodded with a smile. Name or no name, he was really doing it. There was even a big bag in the back seat of the sled. “So, you’ve actually got presents back in there?”
He shrugged. “Or maybe a good supply of coal. Why do you ask? Have you come all this way to ask Satan Claws for a present?”
“I, um …”
“Have you been naughty or nice?”
I looked over at Margaret edging cautiously toward one of the petheks, smartly doing it on the harness side where she would be safe. She was loving every minute of it, but the truth of the matter was that she was only here because of me. She had meant it when she said she wanted to spend Christmas with me, and because of me, she was going to miss it with Paul.
I had not been nice. I had not even been naughty, not in the fun way all the Santas down here meant it. No, I had been selfish and, though I hated to admit it, spiteful. I hadn’t cared about anything but pushing back against Mother, and now it was too late to do anything about it.
It was past eight. The chairlift was no longer running, and for that matter, the trains would have stopped for the night on their holiday schedule. There was no way I could get Margaret back to Evanelle in time, and though I could barely believe it, that was exactly what I wanted to do.
Warrick took another step toward me but followed my gaze back to Margaret. “You did come to ask for a present, but not for yourself. Is that right?”
I turned back to him and nodded. “Yes, I … I think I did.”
He tilted his head back and forth, waving his horns first at Margaret and then me. “You …” A broad, tooth-bared smile crept over his face. “You want a ride, don’t you?”
I nodded. “It’s my fault, but she needs to get back to Evanelle, and I don’t think she’ll go without me.”
He chuckled a moment, frowned a bit, and then let out a giant roar of a laugh. Margaret pulled back from the pethek to look at us. “What is it?”
Warrick Bint looked back and forth between us. “I think you two just promoted yourselves to be Satan Claws’s little helpers. Climb aboard!”
“You mean it?” Margaret asked.
“Of course,” he replied. “I believe you two have a date of some kind in that cursed city of the elves.”
He hopped up with the help of a quick flap of his wings, and then reached out a hand to me. He pulled me up, and helped Margaret climb up after me. The seats were not terribly comfortable, but what would you expect in Satan’s sled?
He pointed out some leather-strap handholds and gathered up the reins. “This isn’t quite what I had planned,” he said. “But in some ways, it’s even better.”
He gave three short whistles, pulled the reins tight, and before I knew it, we were flying. The four corner petheks seemed to be bearing the weight of the sled as they flew slightly above us. Their reins ran through the frame of the sled and through some hitches and levers so that Warrick could direct them individually and in combinations. The four in front were giving us most of our velocity, and damn but we were picking up speed. We flew over the little movie cantina after another minute, and then we dove down into the quarry.
“I can’t fly us into Evanelle,” Warrick shouted back at us. I understood. After two cross-realm invasions, the elves of Evanelle had formidable defenses on their sides of the gates. “But I can fly us through Pittsburgh,” he continued. “I don’t know what we’ll look like on radar, but I think we’re going to get pretty close to one of the airports.”
I glanced at Margaret and caught her grinning ear to ear like a kid on Christmas morning. She was holding onto a strap with one hand and digging through the big bag with the other. “What about these?” she asked.
Warrick pulled the reins a little and pushed at the levers with his hooves. “I had planned to dump it all around Karthai Castle, just to show the guards that I was undeterred from last year, but you two should start tossing them out once we get over the city.” He laughed again. “Cities, by the fires above, cities! Satan Claws may not cover the whole world, but I’ll damned well cover the realms!”
We flashed up past the edge of the quarry and over Lower Karthai. Margaret grabbed one of the packages and threw it over the side. I saw it as the wind caught it, a tiny wrapped box hanging from a red and green paper parachute. I pulled one out myself and tossed it overboard. It fell away, but before I lost sight of it, it was settling into a gentle drop toward the buildings below.
I grabbed another and threw it over. Fires above, I really was being one of Satan’s little helpers. We pulled up again over the rocky slope that divides Upper and Lower Karthai, and Margaret and I picked up the pace, flinging gifts as far out as we could to spread them out across the city. I spotted Karthai Castle off to our left, but Warrick did not head for it. Instead, he took us farther up in the direction of the steel foundry and the Abaddon Gate on the far side of it.
“This,” he shouted over the wind, “should be interesting.”
He steered us down toward the gate and pulled the corner petheks in with the cranking of a gear. The Abaddon Gate did not have rail traffic because it came out on a hill in the middle of suburbia on the southeast side of Pittsburgh, so this was one of the few gates that demons could fly through. That did not, however, mean it was going to be simple.
I turned my head to look back at the right rear pethek as its wings flapped almost against my back, and before I knew it we were through. Hell’s heat and dull yellow light were immediately replaced by a Pittsburgh winter night, clear and cold.
I yanked my jacket up from my waist as fast as I could, but by the time I had my arms into my sleeves, my teeth were chattering. Margaret had been a little faster, and she was back to throwing presents over the edge, watching and laughing as they parachuted down into suburban Pittsburgh. I grabbed a few and tossed them as well. I paused when the houses disappeared beneath us, and I looked forward just as we flew past the control tower for Allegheny County Airport.
Yes, boys and girls, Satan Claws buzzed the tower.
With that as a waypoint, I knew where we were headed: downtown Pittsburgh. More houses appeared below us, and Margaret and I resumed throwing presents. First onto Brentwood, then Brookline and Beechview. I wasn’t quite calling out the names of Santa’s reindeer, but it felt like it.
Then one last turn to the north over Mount Washington, and we plunged down across the river to River Point Park, at the western tip of downtown Pittsburgh where the Ohio River is formed. Twice we circled as Warrick reined in his petheks and bled off speed. We landed with a bit of a bounce on the snow-covered remains of Fort Duquesne, right in front of the River Point Gate into Evanelle. It was just past nine, a little before eight bells by Evanelle’s time reckoning. We had made it in time.
Margaret squeezed between Warrick’s wings and hugged him from behind. “That was the best ride ever!”
After she had released him, he turned to me. “Is that what you wanted for Christmas, Alice Koufax of the Herald?”
I leaned forward and took hold of his hand. “It’s more,” I told him. I threw a glance at Margaret. “More than I ever would have thought to ask.”
He tilted one of his spiraling horns toward me and winked. “Then off with you,” he called out. “Off with you to Evanelle!”
We both climbed down and headed to the gate. Margaret was right at the threshold when Warrick called out, “You forgot something!”
I turned to see him standing with the depleted bag in one hand and a single present in the other. I took a step toward him, but he threw it to me instead. I thought it was going to go over my head, but the parachute deployed, dropping it into my hands. I knew it wasn’t officially Christmas yet, but I had to know. I tore at the wrapping paper and the tissue paper within to reveal something small and dark.
In the shimmering light of the gate behind me, I held it up and saw it for what it was: a lump of coal. But it was not just any lump of coal. It had been carved into the shape of a cradle with a baby inside. Yes, as more of the presents were recovered over the next several days, it became clear. He had been carving nativity scenes out of coal.
I placed it carefully back into the wrapping paper and tucked it into my pocket. I turned to thank him, but he had already taken off. That’s when I realized I had never taken any pictures, so I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket. I knew it would take a miracle to get any kind of picture in this light, but I aimed it as best I could and clicked off several frames. And then I actually got that miraculous shot. While it was new moon over in Evanelle, it was a full moon in Pittsburgh, and I caught him just as he passed in front of it, with his sled and petheks silhouetted against the luminous disk.
Margaret was still waiting for me with one foot already through the shimmering surface of the gate. “So, I guess my fae friend was right. True Christmas after all.”
I nodded. “Indeed he was.”
“Shall we, sister?”
I reached out, took her hand, and crossed through into Evanelle. It took some running and crowd dodging, but we managed to meet up with Paul, Mother, and the rest of my scattered elfin cousins right as the eighth bell rang and the first magicworks lit up the sky. Mother knew enough to not say anything to me, merely giving me a hug instead. As for me, I wasn’t ready to forgive her or anything so radical as that, but I could keep the peace for a day if she could.
Of course, my phone had fried the minute I walked into Evanelle without putting it into a good shielding pouch, so I lost the pictures. The four FAA controllers in the Allegheny control tower knew better than to report seeing a flying Santa Claus of any variety, and the video feeds covering the Abaddon and River Point Gates were never captured to permanent storage because the Federal Gate Department had been upgrading the system over the holiday break. I tried to find Warrick Bint later on, but all those cryptic comments about collection agents and bankers proved prophetic. The First Steel Bank of Karthai foreclosed on his ranch in January. None of his neighbors knew what had become of him. According to the official records, Warrick Bint’s Christmas Eve flight never took place.
But I know, and so does my new sister-in-law. We were there, so don’t let the naysayers drag you down. Satan Claws is real, and I still have my Little Baby Jesus lump of coal to prove it.