It was colder than it had been in years, which for Erin was almost a relief. Florida had suffered under one hell of a heat wave for the last few years, and being able to put on a sweater, kick back and savor the chill thus close to Christmas? It was nice.
It had been some time since Pine Creek and the world had changed. The world was still reeling from the new revelations and every time she turned on the TV, there seemed a new story. There had been reporting on the explanation for what had happened in Ithaqua's attempt to reduce the world to frozen hell. There had been damage to the world, even casualties from the cold. The newly revealed supernatural organizations had acted quickly, setting up foundations and charitable organizations to provide for the victims and to promote outreach. There were discussions all across governments, demonstrations, even riots. Change was not happening easy. People wondered now about those who met their gazes in the street. Who was what now? Many in the supernatural world remained in hiding, unwilling to expose themselves yet. Violence was still a reality, and many creatures still preyed on hapless humans. There had been other initiatives to identify such things and guard against them.
Had they done the right thing? Erin still didn't know, but she did not know the choice they'd had. Siegfried Gunmarsohn had been identified as the culprit behind Pine Creek, the one who had used dark sorcery to nearly freeze the world. There had been evidence presented by the newly declared wolf nation that he had been summarily executed, which had led to a whole new host of debates over what laws would be adhered to when the killing had taken place, insofar as anyone knew, in Montana.
But even if things were changing, Erin relished the chance for quiet moments. She knew Hardestadt's view on Christmas was not exactly a sentimental one. He had once made mention the holiday had barely been a thing until Charles Dickens. But any time for them to spend special time together worked for Erin greatly. They were on the couch, pies and cookies in the oven, mugs of hot cocoa on the table. She was wearing her favorite sweater, he was massaging her feet and the world was a wonderful place.
Erin gave a happy sigh as her fiancée-her fiancée, she reflected with a broad smile, continued, his fingers performing absolute magic across her skin. She sighed and nestled back on the couch, her eyes half closed. She had promised to give her mother and father a call later. They and her brothers and sisters were handling all this well, which had been followed up with the announcement that she and Hardestadt were getting married. She hadn't quite informed them of some important aspects to her fiancee's life yet admittedly, nor introduced them to her future in-laws. All in time.
Hardestadt had devoted vast fortunes to the new efforts, investing solidly to help people. From victims of supernatural violence, to refugees, to more. People needed help in the world and Erin wanted to make sure they received it. Yeah, she reflected. Things were changing and would change even more. It made these moments between them so much more meaningful.
"That's wonderful, honey," she said with a smile.
"I aim to please," he gave her his best cocky grin and she laughed, sitting up and shifting over to kiss his cheek, before following with his lips. They held the kiss a few long moments before they separated. "Hey, you," Erin said.
"Hey," Hardestadt ran his hand over her arm gently. "you look amazing…."
"I'm in an oversized Christmas sweater and my hair's a mess," she teased. "Come on."
"I mean it," Hardestadt kissed her cheek. Erin pressed herself closer to him, arm around his shoulders.
"So, what say we head out tomorrow night with the friends?" Erin asked. "Spend the rest of the evening in?"
"Sounds divine," Hardestadt said, running a hand through her hair. They'd been rather swamped with work of late, with multiple cases to solve. Hardestadt had outsourced a number to contacts then. "After all-" He heard an alert on his phone. Erin grabbed it and picked it up.
"Anything important?" He asked.
"It says 'I've just put in an extra ten billion. Happy holidays, sweetheart! Love, Auntie Mammon." Erin gave Hardestadt a grin as he facepalmed.
"I keep telling her…just…just put most of it to charity…the rest to something useful…"
"I will never, ever let you live this down."
"I'll have you know I did a lot of business ventures on my own without-"
"Never. Ever. Ever." Erin giggled and kissed him, seeing him smile in turn. "Least it wasn't anything out of the-"
The phone went off and Erin groaned. "Fuck," she said, seeing a number she didn't recognize. She picked it up. "Delac and Hasegawa," she said. She listened. "Oh, yeah, we're always open. Yeah, even this close to Christmas. Yeah, no worry at all. Hold on one second."
She grabbed her laptop off the table and opened it, seeing Hardestadt watching her. She got it open and pulled a document up. "Alright…" Erin mused. It was a man's voice on the other end.
"You're saying your friend's son went missing?" Erin began to type. "When was he last seen? Did you inform the police? Checked the- okay…" she pursed her lips, jotting down every detail. It took nearly twenty minutes of her asking questions, taking down details, Hardestadt waiting patiently beside her. Erin finally gave a smile.
"I know this is hard, but…try to relax. This is what we do," she said, forcing the hard steel to her voice. "Hardestadt Delac will be by to investigate soon. Yes, it's no worry. No, don't worry about payment, we'll discuss that later. It's a nonissue next to that." She hung up at last and saw her fiancée looking at her.
"You need any extra details?" she offered him the computer. Hardestadt took a look. "Sorry to spoil the atmosphere, babe…"
"No, I'd rather we handle something like this," Hardestadt said. "A child went missing?" he frowned.
"Yeah," Erin's mouth turned down in a similar expression. "Just yesterday. He was in his room and then…poof."
"It's Krampus," Hardestadt said grimly.
"Don't you start," Erin folded her arms. "Every year-"
"It's. Fucking. Krampus," Hardestadt said. "I'm telling you, Erin, he's been waiting for something like this for a long time-"
"I swear to fucking god, we go and see that movie a few years ago and every single year you never shut up about Krampus, and every single year nothing happens!"
"You'll see I'm right, Erin. Krampus is not to be trifled with," Hardestadt said. "A missing child this close to Christmas?"
"One formerly obscure Christmas boogeyman from parts of Austria and alpine Bavaria is not going to be responsible for everything! You said Krampus the first year there was a missing kid and it turned out to be a Kinderfusser. The same season, you said Krampus again and it turned out to be a Striga. The following year-"
"So he was biding his time!" Hardestadt said.
"Have you ever even seen Krampus? Do you even know he's real?"
"I've seen enough."
"Oh, so that's a no then?"
"I'm…pretty sure I got close enough in the-"
"Just…for the sake of my sanity, drop it, okay? Missing kid, here's the details, spooky happenings, do your thing, okay?" Erin groaned. "Fucking every year with this! If it's fucking Krampus, you can tie me up and cuff me for a week!"
"I'm holding you to that," Hardestadt said. "When it is Krampus."
"Remember the sex we were going to have ever again?" Erin pushed the laptop at him. "I'll radio Emma up, too."
"The more, the merrier," Hardestadt said. "Something targeting kids…" he got serious instantly. "Time's of the essence, Erin." He didn't apologize for their evening be ruined, there was no need to. Someone needed them, so he was on the case.
There was a knock at the door and they paused. Hardestadt frowned as he got up, not bothering with his cane as he limped over. Erin tensed, hand on the phone, hovering over Emma's entry on speed dial. Hardestadt was suddenly all business.
"Does a demon need an invitation to see his brother, Daemon? It's me, open up!" Erin knew that voice.
Hardestadt swung the door open and paused. Azmodan Vallikan, demonic lord of the Malebolge stood there, wearing a black shirt, a coat and long pants, his black hair immaculately combed back, making the copper red forelock stand out even more. His inhumanly beautiful face was frozen in a wide grin.
"So, there's my brother who blew up the world recently! I couldn't believe when I heard the Wind-Walker tried to-" he paused, seeing Erin. "And Lady Hasegawa! The wonderful news. Welcome to the family officially!" Azmodan said. "I came as soon as I was able, things have been quite taxing down below. Let me see-"
"Az, I'm so sorry," Hardestadt started. "This isn't really the best time. We just got a case-"
"Hey, Az!" Erin said. "How's Karai?"
"Exemplary. We are doing splendidly together, albeit busy with Hell. She intends to come by shortly. With all the-…ah, I'm inopportune with the time!" Azmodan looked at his brother. "Are you well? I had heard about everything…and you and Grete! All is well there?"
"She's great, Az." Hardestadt grinned "She needs to see her uncle again soon. I'd love to invite you in for drinks and I have snacks in the oven-"
"Which I can get when they're done, no problem," Erin said.
"But we just heard a kid is missing and-"
Azmodan's eyes seemed to light up as he cut his brother off. "One of your cases? Oh, brother, how long has it been since we handled one together? I insist I offer my assistance! This could be exciting!"
"I'm not sure exciting is the word 'd-" Hardestatd started. Azmodan grinned broadly.
"And so close to the human holidays, how opportune indeed! With your current limitations, I insist! Is it Krampus?"
"Probably," Hardestadt said grimly. Erin buried her face in her hands.
"I hate both of you," she muttered. "Okay…I'm going to dial Emma. Hardestadt, she'll meet you at the location, I'm sending you everything you need, okay?"
"Love you!" Hardestadt threw her a grin. Azmodan chuckled.
"We shall catch up soon, Erin Hasegawa," he said. "Karai is looking forward to seeing you again as well-"
"Wait, a sec…" Erin said aloud. Something had seemed to catch her attention. She had her eyes on her computer. "This is weird…usually Google has some kind of Christmas themed background going now…"
"So someone forgot the-"
"That's what I thought…" Erin said. "But…" she began to scroll. "No…Christmas sales. Nothing Christmas themed…" she blinked. "It's like it's not even close to the holiday. At all."
"Well, we can't worry about that now," Hardestadt said. "Erin, keep me posted, alright?"
"You know it, babe…" Erin said, though something was troubling her. "You be safe, too. Az, you keep my guy safe, alright?"
"But of course," Azmodan said. "Brother? Let us away."
Hardestadt was laughing in spite of himself, Azmodan in the passenger seat of the car. "You're kidding!"
"Yes, they really thought they beat mother with such an obvious move!" Azmodan put a hand behind his head. "Of course she already anticipated it, and had won the loyalty of most of their household before they even put their plan into action."
"Nobody waltzes the Grand Dance like Lady Nephera," Hardestadt grinned, thinking of his foster mother. "Actually, that reminds me, I should invite her, too…I'm sure she'd love the cherry pie I'm making. She and father…?"
"If you were unaware, your mother has been spending time at the Vallikan household quite a bit recently," Azmodan said. "Aleviel and mother seem to be enjoying one another's company quite a bit."
"Good," Hardestadt said. "Mom deserves it…she's taken a while to get to know Grete and Erin, too. How is father doing?"
"He and mother have been making up for lost time no doubt," Azmodan said casually. "Abaddon informed me that his lady mother, the former King Vinea has been likewise overjoyed at his return. Father has been…devoted to Hell as ever now. We're all glad to have him and Aleviel back."
"Yeah…" Hardestadt smiled. "Making up for lost time, huh?"
"Indeed," Azmodan said. "It's good of you to have periodically returned as well, Daemon. When we had heard of everything that had happened….well, I've reduced most of my powers to near nothing. It's a courtesy most deities and angels are performing as well with things so volatile. When is your wedding anyways?"
"We'll need to give it time...a lot of logistics to put together," Hardestadt grinned. "Erin's thrilled, though. So am I, so was Grete. As for the world…" he sighed. "Well, just another change right now. Best of a lot of bad situations…"
"Well, you have a knack for doing well out of those these days, brother. Hardestadt," Azmodan said. "My, my, I am excited indeed. I wonder what we'll find and what trail leads to the dark spirit of the holiday…"
"Heh," Hardestadt couldn't help but smile. "You're enjoying this too much."
"Guilty," Azmodan admitted. Hardestadt thought of a missing child and he frowned. All jokes aside…trying to settle my nerves. I hope we're in time…
The location he had been given was a small town outside of the county, several hours south. Erin had texted him full information and that Emma was planning to meet them there. "You do still wear the trappings of earth well, Az."
"I did live here for a while. Centuries, in fact. I'm a bit more, shall we say, modern than many of my demon kin," Azmodan said proudly.
"Can't argue with that," Hardestadt said. "Above and Below are both taking notice?"
"I'll say. Some of the divine have not noticed such an influx in worship since…well, quite some time," Azmodan said. "Meanwhile…I am so looking forward to watching you work. What's step one?"
"Interview, examine and then check the area," Hardestadt said. "It'll leave some signs, and Erin can examine any local news, just as a start. If there's a pattern? We'll find it. Time's of the essence." He had already asked if Azmodan could simply teleport them there, but without any real idea of where they were going, that was far too risky for the demon to attempt to be an effective strategy at the moment.
Hardestadt took his phone out, opening it. What had Erin said before? He frowned. She's right. Absolutely nothing to even show it's the-
"I'm pretty sure it's dangerous to take your eye off the road," Azmodan said.
"I'm pretty sure you can shut up," Hardestadt said. "Anyways, how much do you know about Christmas, Az? It's a pretty big deal to humans, but I haven't even seen lights now…"
"You did turn the world on its head, brother," Azmodan reminded him. "Not very long ago."
"Yeah, but even then?" Hardestadt flicked through the browser on his phone. "Usually there are automated messages, but this time…"
"Are you really spending your time worrying about human holidays?" Azmodan folded his hands behind his head.
"You lived on earth for hundreds of years," Hardestadt reminded him.
"I had important things to worry about. I think sometimes you forget what you are, Hardestadt." Azmodan grinned. "Not that we don't owe you all our lives."
"Well, makes us even," Hardestadt set the phone down. "Besides, Erin likes Christmas…you and Karai should give the seasonal spirit a shot," Hardestadt smiled. "Curling up under a blanket before a fire-"
"You? You get cold in this? I've seen you in arctic tundra."
"No, I don't, that's besides the point!" Hardestadt groaned. "Just…I know it's no different from any other time of year, but it's nice to just spend closer time together with some of their traditions…and it's nice to shop for her and our friends, to cook some special meals…" Hardestadt grinned. "As soon as we wrap this up anyways, regular holiday cheer shall be resumed. And it's the first Christmas we get to spend with Grete, too."
"Oh, I am ever so proud of her," Azmodan said. "What did she say before she dropped that werewolf?"
"You chose your god, embrace his hell."
"No way. That one's better than most of yours."
"You have any idea how proud I was?" Hardestadt said. Azmodan laughed.
"Oh, I am eager for this! Let's find whatever abducted this child and finish the job then!" The demon looked up. "And you're in luck. Even s reduced, I am still more than a match for Krampus."
"All jokes aside," Hardestadt said. He could tell they were getting close. "I'll get on the ball now. Human figure of speech." They were arriving in the small town, the moon overhead as Hardestadt checked the location, pulling down one street. He saw a car already parked and grinned, as they stepped out, pausing to grab his cane first.
"Emma," he said. She was leaning upon her car, her dark hair tied behind her. She grinned as she saw them both.
"Stadt and…Az. Huh. Wasn't expecting that."
"I'm here on observation. It's time for Daemon's quarterly review," Azmodan said. Emma walked over and gave the demon a hug. Azmodan chuckled and embraced her in turn.
"It is good to see you, Emma West," he admitted. "How is Danielle?"
"Psyched about the wedding as I am," Emma said. She walked to Hardestadt and kissed his cheek. "Seriously, I wasn't enough backup for ya?"
"He invited himself along out of the blue."
"Kinda sounds like him, actually," Emma said. She took Hardestadt's hand and squeezed. "How's the leg?"
"Better than it was a few years ago. What Siegfried did to me didn't really help at large, though."
"You should be under a blanket, kicking back by a fireplace with hot cocoa now," Emma said. "You sure you don't wanna turn back? I can handle this on my own." Her tone left no doubt that she already knew his answer. Hardestadt's response was conveyed in a soft smile and Emma shook her head. "Yeah, what was I thinking?" she asked, her smile showing the tips of her fangs. "Well, guess it's my job to make sure you get back to Erin in one piece."
"Oh, don't worry. Demon sorcery can mostly put him back together," Azmodan offered cheerfully. Hardestadt gave his elder brother a look.
"You know, Lydia and I are separate by only a few minutes…" Emma said. "how much older is Az than you anyways, Stadt?"
"We lost count. A few eons at least. When you get over a few dozen billion years, the distinction stops mattering," Hardestadt said.
"Come again?" Emma looked between them.
"Now, brother, don't humans have a taboo about discussing one's age aloud?" Azmodan asked. "Come, come, we have work to do for the sake of happy endings and Christmas, don't we? I'll be watching from the background, enjoying the drama. I cannot believe the present you got me this years."
Hardestadt looked at Emma. "Demons," he said simply.
"I got that. Screw it, I ain't pressing it," Emma said dryly. She pointed to the house. "I've already been inside and did a search of the room. You should check it out, too."
"I intend to," Hardestadt said. He stepped over, using the cane as little as possible. Azmodan merrily followed behind and Hardestadt sighed. "Try to look professional, too."
"I intend to," Azmodan said, doing a passable impression of his brother's voice. Hardestadt gave him a look, to which Azmodan responded with perfect innocence. Emma had to hide a chuckle.
Hardestadt had scarcely knocked when the door opened. A man stood there with dark hair shot through with grey, though his face was largely unlined. "Mr. Delac?" He asked. Hardestadt nodded.
"Harry Sanders," the man said. "I'm the one who called the agency…there's a lot of…I mean, we've heard things…Ben and Kim are inside. Miss West already came in. We've called the police, nobody seems to know what to do-"
"I understand," Hardestadt kept his hand gentle. "Hardestadt Delac," he said politely. "Please show me in. And this is…Andrew Vance," he gestured at Azmodan, picking the name on the spot. "He's a partner in this as well."
"We're here to help," Azmodan said with a nod. Hardestadt felt his brother's telepathy. Smooth alias, brother. We drive that long and that's all you can think up? Anyways, I'm memorizing this place in case we need to teleport later…I can feel something here. It's definitely supernatural, some remnant. Something powerful.
Is it Krampus?
No, brother, nothing like that…I can't put my finger on it, but it's setting my teeth on edge.
Maybe Erin had been right and he was being paranoid. Still…Hardestadt walked in, Harry leading him in. He passed a mantle, seeing a set of pictures of a young boy in a football outfit, with several trophies. "He's in football?" he asked. Harry glanced up.
"Nick? Yeah, that kid's a linebacker born," he said. "My son, Jeremy, played…" he caught himself, "plays with him…been in it for years now, almost since they could walk." Emma stepped up beside Hardestadt, Azmodan tagging along from the back. They found the parents in the living room. The man Harry identified as Ben Weaver stood up.
"Mr. Delac," he said. "Miss West was telling us about…I'm sorry, we didn't know where else to turn now. The police have been by, they couldn't find any trace of Nick…" his face broke a bit and his wife, a pretty woman with blond hair tried to repress a sob. "You…you helped someone here not long ago. He told us we could find you if we needed…we looked you up and the reviews…there were nothing but stories of how you've helped people…with stories…stories I couldn't believe, but now…with everything going on lately…"
….I have reviews? Hardestadt offered a kind smile. "This is what I do. I understand that after everything, this must be scary…and I can't lie that this might be a dire situation…but if there is any chance, no matter how small, I will see your son home in time for Christmas."
He saw their slight confusion when he mentioned the holiday and he hid a frown. ….now I'm getting worried.
"We don't know about any…Christmas, but thank you…" Ben Weaver said. His wife stood.
"Is there…anything you need to know, Mr. Delac?"
"He vanished from here?"
"He went to bed at the normal hour. His window is on the second floor, and Ben was down here watching the games most of the night. He couldn't have snuck out…" she said. "Here, his room is-" she paused at the stairs, glancing at Hardestadt and his cane.
"I'm not fragile," Hardestadt said. He walked to the stairs, making his way up after her. "The man who told you about me in town?"
"He said you helped him with…a man in a red hat some years ago…"
The redcap out of Lauderhill. I had to chase the damn thing all the way to a Trump rally in Palm Beach-….talk about needles and haystacks.
He was led to a room at the end of the hall, covered in sports memorabilia. He asked several cursory questions, before he began to search. The room was perfectly preserved. He looked in the closest, under the bed, in the drawers, finding nothing.
"Emma, you looked. Anything?"
"Nothing there, boss," Emma said. "No scent I could pick up-speaking figuratively!" she added quickly. Regardless of the supernatural being known, she was not ready to advertise herself as Emma the friendly Nosferatu quite yet. Azmodan glanced about.
Something was in this room.
Something? What was it, Az?
Impossible to tell, there's only trace remnants, but I can feel it. It's old, brother. It's not a single Kinderfussen, not a witch, nor a redcap.
One of the Fay? A changel-…no, it would just replace him, not vanish utterly. A werewolf? No, it would have no way to pull this off…
"Mrs. Weaver?" Hardestadt looked to her. "Did Nick exhibit any unusual behaviors?"
"Well…" she seemed to think. "The coach had called, and said there had been some roughhousing on field, but nothing out of the ordinary. Ben and I didn't think much of it. "
"Roughhousing?" Emma asked.
"Nick maybe…got a little overzealous when some of the other kids had the ball," Kim Weaver said. "But it was never anything-"
"It's fine," Hardestadt said. He thought for a bit. "Anything else you can tell me?"
"Well, there was a game recently…nothing big, given their age, but some of the other players from the higher grades show up…" she looked at Hardestadt. "Is my son…is he…is he going to be okay?"
"I'm going to do my best," Hardestadt said.
"We were already…to think some of those…things could be real," she said. "Is it true some of them eat children? This is a good neighborhood, we don't need-"
"Madam," Azmodan stepped forward. 'I can assure you, of many species in this world, there is absolutely nothing to fear. As surely as humans can turn to the bad, so too it is with any other race. I can assure you that this was the action of a criminal and it is a matter we shall rectify as swift as possible. This is, as Mr. Delac said, what we do, and we do it well. Please step downstairs and we shall be down as soon as possible." He offered a dazzling smile and the woman nodded once. Emma raised an eyebrow as she flushed a bit.
"Y-yes, of course…" she said. She left quick and Hardestadt switched to the ancient tongue of demons.
"I wanted her out so we could work in peace," Azmodan said.
"Guys? English. I Don't speak demon or much besides Spanish now," Emma said. "Alright, anything in the room we can use?"
Hardestadt took a cursory look around. "It doesn't seem anything was disturbed. Like he was here one moment and vanished the next-" he paused and walked to the window. "It's shut…"
"So we've noticed," Azmodan said. "Come, brother…" he grinned.
"What do you know that I don't, Az?"
"No, no, you do know. You're a player of the Grand Dance, brother. Trained by my mother, the finest player there is. What is the first lesson, even if you have been away from Hell for some time?"
"What you see is only half the story," Hardestadt murmured, recalling his old lessons. "Look at whats before you and realize what's underneath…so from the look of things…Anything that came in...would have to come from downstairs or through the window."
"And the human was downstairs," Azmodan finished.
"So, the window!" Emma said. She snapped her fingers. "But it's shut, so…something else shut it after?"
Hardestadt looked at the window and looked down. It was too high for a human child to jump without severe injury. He reached and opened the window. It wasn't locked. He pulled himself outside, upon the roof and looked at the window from the other side.
Only undisturbed tile greeted him on the roof for a moment. He glanced over at the window, seeing something catch his eye upon a tile. He reached and picked it up. A scrap of…cloth? And, he saw as he glanced over the tiles. Some were nicked, cut in places. Hardestadt's eyes narrowed in recognition. Well, well…
Something had been on the roof, he realized. Underneath the windowsill, scarcely visible at first, he reached and he took something. It was a piece of cloth with stitching on it. Steadily, carefully with his bad leg, he pulled himself back into the room. Emma looked at him. "Yeah? Anything?"
"Something was definitely on the roof," Hardestadt said. "And," he showed them the cloth. Emma took it and sniffed curiously. She made a face.
"Whatever touched that smells horrible," she said.
"So it wasn't human then," Azmodan said, a sense of satisfaction to his voice. "Thank me later for the flash of inspiration."
"Shut up, Az," Hardestadt said. "Anything you recognize, Emma?"
She sniffed again. "It's familiar. Not a werewolf, not vampire…definitely not human. Are we thinking it opened the door and closed it behind this kid?"
"And pulled him out with much of a fuss so there was no struggle anyone overhead. So not a Kinderfusser or a troll. Probably not a Grindylow, and one wouldn't be too far from water anyways."
"Maybe a Redcap?" Emma offered. "I think we can rule changeling out. And something about this cloth looks familiar," she lifted it up, seeing the green stitching on the side, as if something had been embroidered there. "Can't place it…"
"Well, if we know this much," Azmodan said. He glanced at Hardestadt. "Well, Hardestadt, what else can we discern?"
"Anything you can sense, Az?"
"Not much I'm afraid," the demon admitted. Emma had her eyes close, her senses working. She walked to a dresser, frowning to herself.
"Something, guys…something, but it's different." She reached, feeling over the dresser. She stopped and reached. Hardestadt looked over as Emma pulled her hands up, holding several small hairs. "They must have missed these. Guys?"
Hardestadt stepped over and looked. Azmodan cocked his head. "Interesting," the demon said. "Even with my powers diminished on the plane, the second they touched your hands…I can read some sort of magic from them, Emma."
"They're green," Emma said. "And soft. I mean, I'm still kind of in training on this, Stadt, but what do you know that could do this?"
Hardestadt thought for a moment. "Green fur or hair? A demon could-"
"That is not demonic," Azmodan said. "As you are well aware."
"Or a fay," Hardestadt said. "Namely? A Cu Sith would be capable of it?"
"Big green fairy dog?" Emma blinked.
"The same," Hardestadt said. "But a Cu Sith in a suburban area? That's unheard of, and they're usually spotters for changelings, so the MO doesn't remotely match up." Hardestadt folded his arms. "Az can you get a read on anything besides?"
"From what I can sense?" The demon grinned. "Mmm, it's faint, but there's just a bit in the near vicinity…what do you think?"
Hardestadt was already putting it together. "It's likely Cu Sith alright. But this is so out of character for a Cu Sith…they usually take kids off for just a little while, and never out of their beds. They're usually returned, or replaced by changelings after a few hours. But…" He gave Emma smile and cued her to continue, seeing her understood.
"Could someone have enslaved a Cu Sith? Using it to kidnap a kid? I've never seen one in action, but?" Emma grinned, showing her fangs. "Using it to kidnap a child for them, against its will. These hairs are hidden enough so that it was probably intentionally left. This thing is kidnapping kids using Cu Sith!" She pulled her phone out. "Dani went to keep Erin company. I'm sending them a group text to look over the area. Any more missing kids will tell us a lot."
"Good thinking," Hardestadt smiled. "Az, can you track this in?"
"Who do you think you're talking to, brother? The energy is leading me mostly across town…" Azmodan pursed his lips and rubbed his chin. As he focused, Hardestadt glanced over, looking at several drawings on the dresser. He saw several photos of a football team, recognizing the boy Nick from the pictures downstairs. There were other trophies, a framed report card…he saw a phone and lifted it up.
"Think there's anything on this that can tell us something? Moral implications aside?" Hardestadt asked. He tossed the phone to Emma who caught it easily without looking up.
"Give me a minute, I'll break in…." she looked at her phone, typing on both rapidly.
"The magic of technology, as formidable as demon sorcery, I see," Azmodan said.
"Couldn't you be doing more right now?" Emma returned.
"I am simply watching the masters at work, you have no idea how much I am enjoying this," Azmodan said. Emma hid a smile. Hardestadt had to confess he was impressed how far the vampire had come. She kept a cool head in most circumstances and was one of the most professional partners he'd ever had. Plus, her skill with technology exceeded even Erin's own.
Emma finished a moment later. "And I'm in," she lifted the phone, seeing a background. "Let's see. Stadt, if he's targeted, what could enslave a Cu Sith?"
"Witch. Warlock," Hardestadt said. "I'm hoping it's not one of them. Striga, too. Krampus-"
"It's not fucking Krampus. Knock it off or I'll tell Erin," Emma said dryly.
"Admittedly it's not his usual MO," Hardestadt confessed.
"Can you get your head in the game before a kid gets himself eaten please?" Emma gave him an exasperated look.
"Okay, fine. It's not a troll, they'd never be able to. It could be a rogue fay….my cane might be silver-tipped, but it has an iron core I can bring out if need be. Besides that, I'm running a blank. Always the chance it could be something relatively unheard of, but this doesn't seem creative enough for that…."
"Well," Emma said. "Let's have a look at what Nick might have been into…" she raised the phone. "Top message…Mrs. Isla at math is a hard to understand c-word…hm, charming. Talking about shoving Bobby from math into the locker and-…huh, kid of the year right here."
Hardestadt looked at the piece of cloth he had been holding, remembering something. "Downstairs," he said suddenly. "Emma, you said it smelled horrible?"
"With my senses? Christ, imagine how bad Grete might take it. Her nose is like ten times better than mine," Emma said. "Why?"
"Well," Hardestadt looked. "The pattern looks…" he looked to a photo. "Like one of the football uniforms. It's white, and this stitching is like a piece there. And the color scheme is the same. If he's on the football team-"
"Something might've been there, too!" Emma finished. "Okay, we're going on a few hunches here, but…what do we have? Admittedly, I don't want to judge this kid too quick, but he seems a nasty little fucker from what I'm reading here."
"Oh, an unpleasant sports player. Unheard of in human culture," Azmodan said with a grin. "Well, if it is the season…?"
"Shedding more light," Hardestadt said.
"Look, setting aside from you-know-who," Emma said. "Hardestadt, you know anything that could time itself around Christmas to hunt 'bad' kids?"
"Well, a Fay would make sense, but I killed Black Annis and the Rawhead and Bloody Bones nearly a hundred years ago," Hardestadt said. "I can't rule that out…a smart ogre would also make sense, if one could take a Cu Sith…at any rate? It's best we not spend time worrying. Az, can you trace it?"
"Already done, brother. Shall I lead the way?"
"Please do," Hardestadt said. "First, let's touch base downstairs."
It was approximately twenty minutes later. Hardestadt had spent a short time talking to the missing boy's family with the others, learning of the new assistant coach on the football team. Assuring them they would do all they could, they had left the house.
"Well," Emma said. "We do work fast."
"That's what I call teamwork," Hardestadt said. "Substitute teacher, wearing football outfits…Azmodan, it looks like the school is in this direction?"
"Apparently. The trail is faint, but there. If it is an ogre, brother, how much time do we have?"
"Judging by the time of the kidnapping and time of year? We have a few days max, a few hours. If it is an ogre or a hungry Fay like the Rawhead…they'll want to let their meat simmer a bit…probably boil up a stew…" Hardestadt looked up. "On the other hand, the total lack of Christmas stuff is kinda weird…"
"You think this is related?"
"No idea how it could be," Hardestadt muttered. "But I've been surprised before. They've got patrols and volunteers searching all the woods, but…with the schools closed? They said they already checke. On the other hand, if it's wearing this uniform, it's likely made its lair there, and given where Az is leading us?"
They saw the school nearby, coming up on a football field. Azmodan rubbed his chin. "It's coming from that way," he said. He pointed over and Hardestadt could see a building that appeared to be a large gym by the main school building.
They paused, seeing a door open. Azmodan wove a spell swiftly, blocking them from view. A large man, wearing a black shirt walked out, a large bag slung over his shoulder. He walked around to the side of the building, swinging the bag down. He reached into it from where they were standing when he reached a dumpster.
Emma tensed as he brought out a pair of shoes, throwing them into the dumpster. "Is that guy the new coach?"
"They said the coach had black hair," Hardestadt whispered. "He's blond…" Hardestadt frowned. "But it could be a glamor. Az, what do you sense?"
"Likely inhuman. Emma, any scent?"
"Ugh," she wrinkled her nose. "Even from this far away. Humans couldn't notice it, but the son of a bitch has a stench. It's even worse than with that strip…but it's a bit different. Should we take him?"
"No, not too quickly," Hardestadt said. "I'm faster now, but we don't know how the kid is, or if that thing is alone…if we strike too quickly, that kid could end up dead. We can't play this too-"
"Brother? I have a strategy," Azmodan said. "Let's get closer. I can maintain this spell of silence and concealment for a bit, but at the current level I've chosen to exercise on earth, it won't be enough. Speaking of which, has Erin…?"
Emma and Hardestadt checked their phones and Emma frowned. "Yes?" Azmodan asked.
"It's…there's a bunch of them, actually," Emma said. "She did a search in a few databases. They weren't reported widely, but twelve kids. It's the same exact MO all in a 48 hour timespan, she's saying."
"Well," Hardestadt said. "My belief in coincidence isn't high as is, but this? Yeah, something's going on."
"What he said," Emma's voice was grim. The vampire looked ahead. "But what's more, she says it's…all over the US. What could act that quickly? Wouldn't we feel more energy if something was teleporting in and out so fast?"
"Possibly," Hardestadt said. "There are ways to mask that, though." He had an intent look upon his face. "We'll have to take it alive, interrogate it. From the looks of it…it's likely an ogre from what I can see. Tell Erin we've located Target A, Emma."
"Roger, roger, Stadt," Emma said. "We'll have to go in slowly, though." She saw the door to the gym. "Maybe my nose isn't what it used to be, but that's the only one I'm sensing-"
"In that case?" Azmodan chuckled. "Allow me." Before Hardestadt could speak, the demon sauntered forward, keeping the spell upon them as they followed him.
"What is he doing?!" Emma looked at Hardestadt.
"Your guess is as good as mine. Az, you damn well better know what you're doing here!" Hardestadt hissed. Azmodan raised a hand and waved it dismissively, whistling as he put his hands in his pockets. The huge man was finishing at the dumpster, turning to walk back inside the gym. Azmodan signaled them to follow him, slipping silently, stealthily through the door. The corridors, Hardestadt noted, were dimly lit and the man was walking with a harsh gait. He flexed his shoulders, grunting a bit.
"Do dis, do dat," he grumbled in a voice that reminded Hardestadt of two rocks slamming together. "Ain't nuthin' special. Stupid, stupid Windy..."
"Salutations!" Azmodan called out suddenly. Hardestadt and Emma froze abruptly.
'WHAT IS HE DOING?!' Emma's look asked. Hardestadt gestured and shook his head.
'I have no idea!'
The man froze and slowly turned about. Abruptly, his form changed. His body rippled, the clothes upon him tearing from the suddenly increased mass. His arms, thick before, were now corded tree trunks as he rose to stand at nearly eight feet tall. His nose was small and piggish, and his teeth turned sharp, two jutting up like mighty tusks. Tiny yellow eyes stared balefully ahead. "Who da hell are-"
"The hell am I, you ask?!" Azmodan gave a sweeping bow. "That is the proper turn of phrase, my good fellow!"
"What you want?!" The beast growled. There was no doubt about it: this was an ogre alright. Its coarse, brutish face was twisted in confusion and anger. "You ain't…" it leaned in and sniffed the air. "You ain't humie…"
"Of course I am not, my friend," Azmodan said.
"Friend? We ain't no friends!"
"We are strangers, are not? Strangers are simply friends you haven't met," Azmodan said with firm conviction. "Come, come, my most cumbersome acquaintance. Let us introduce ourselves, I was ever so rude not to do so at the start. Now, salutations in friendship, my good sir!"
….Az has spent so long in the Grand Dance and he must be enjoying being able to pull this off on something like an ogre, Hardestadt thought. It would be unfair to characterize all ogres as lacking in intelligence, but the one before them seemed a rather particularly stupid specimen. Demons prided themselves on intricate, byzantine and labyrinthine plotting and Hardestadt's stepmother Nephera was one of the best players. The chance to have a conversation with a creature like this with such ease to it?
Well…it was probably Christmas come early for a demon.
"I have the honor of being Lord Azmodan Vallikan, ruler of the Eighth Circle of Hell, son of Lucifer and the Lady Nephera Vallikan, at your service," Azmodan bowed politely.
"Meat Hook!" The ogre grunted.
Azmodan was silent for a moment before he smiled wider. "Charmed," he said at last. "See now, Mr. Hook?"
"Wha' Mistah? I ain't Mister Hook! Meat Hook, it's Meat Hook!"
"Meat Hook, of course," Azmodan added swiftly. "A thousand pardons, my good friend Meat Hook! Meat Hook, I need your help. In fact, this is very, very important, for a poor demon like me!"
"Need mah help?" The Ogre cocked his head. "Why ya need mah help?"
"This Christmas season upon earth, I had my heart absolute set upon my all-time favorite dish, Meat Hook," Azmodan said. "And I am told by a very reliable source that ogres do it best!"
"We know sumthin' 'bout sumthin'…" Meat Hook was grinning slightly.
'How is this working?' Emma mouthed at Hardestadt. He wished he had an answer.
"My favorite dish ever…Is a tie between roast naughty child, and naughty child stew," Azmodan said. "But I'm afraid when I arrived in town…the one I had my heart simply set upon is missing. He was about ye high…" Azmodan began describing the missing boy, and his house.
"Dat was yers?" Meat Hook asked. "Oh. Oh, we didn't know!"
"We?" Azmodan asked.
"Me an' my bros!" Meat Hook said proudly. "Was Window Sniffer got dah boy wid the little green rat thing! Dey just send me back to throw things away b'fore I go help 'em at Ma's. Window Sniffer and Door Slammer wouldn't lemme go back till things died down. Dey said t'wait a few days 'round here so nobody noticed me leavin' when dey did! I get dah meat after it's hung but do dey ever say tank yu!?"
"Awful, simply awful," Azmodan said. He shook his head. "Meat Hook, my friend, if it were up to me…I bet you must be your mother's favorite, aren't you? You must be the most handsome, intelligent and dedicated of your brothers."
"Yeah! I bets I am!" Meat Hook said. "Nevah met a demon b'fore, tho! But…if yer lookin' fer the kids-"
"Kids?" Azmodan looked excited. "Kids? Meat Hook, my friend, there's more than one."
"Dere plenty to do 'round! We ain't had a feast fer a long, long time now! Ma said the time's right now!" Meat Hook said. "but…Ma said I wasn't supposed t'show nobody…"
"Well, I am a somebody," Azmodan said. "So can't be nobody, now can I? In fact, Meat Hook, by not telling me, you would be disobeying your mother! And surely you would never do that?"
"Never!" Meat Hook said. "Ma's da prettiest, smartest, bestest Ma in da whole world! You got a ma?"
"I do," Azmodan said. "And she is indeed pretty, smart and wonderful, but I'm sure your mother is better!"
"I'm sure yer Ma's just fine! Everyone says yu deemies are stuck up rotters, but yer alright, Azzy!" Meat Hook poked a finger into Azmodan's chest and Hardestadt could see his brother restraining himself from grabbing the ogre's wrist and beating him with his own severed arm. "If ya want the kids…Ma found 'em all fer us, told us to pick 'em up and we'd have us a Yule meal! Dey're real naughty! Ain't nobody missing dem!"
"Naughty children make the best food. This child here?"
"He beat other kiddies up, ya know," Meat Hook nodded solemnly. "Ma say so!"
"Now, Meat Hook, are they all from this town?"
"Nah, from all over! We gots ways, see!" Meat Hook grinned. "Ma took care'a dat! Right dis way, Azzy, yu gonna love Ma's cookin'!"
'….We're never going to hear the end of this, are we?' Emma mouthed.
'Not until the end of time,' Hardestadt mouthed back. They followed steadily as Azmodan trailed the Ogre.
"So, Meat Hook, where is this green….rat thing?"
"Ma says he's a Cushy! Not sure what dat is, but he gets da job done! Door Sniffer brought him wit' Stubby, ya see. Ma says we can keep him for next year!" they came around the corner to a closet. "IT's magic here, Azzy! Just step through an' yer halfway dere!"
Azmodan looked at the closet. "My thanks, my friend. Now, have you cooked any of our naughty little friends?"
Meat Hook guffawed. "Nah! Sausage Swiper ain't back yet! He ain't gonna be back fer a bit…Bowl Licker an' Spoon Licker, though, they're waitin'…dey always try t'take first snacks, too! Dey the twins. Ain't right."
This seems oddly familiar. Bowl Licker, Spoon Licker, Meat Hook, ogres…I know this. Think, Hardestadt, think.
"Now, my friend…" Azmodan waved a hand. "Sleep."
Meat Hook toppled to the ground, snoring loudly as Azmodan undid his spell upon Emma and Hardestadt.
"Don't say it."
"Told you to leave it to me. If it were up to you, brother, you'd charge in with your sword and say something like 'your Yuletide cheer ends here!'"
"Oh, my god, he got your voice just right."
"Shut up, Emma," Hardestadt groaned. He looked at Azmodan. "And we've had a talk about you using the best lines."
"You talked, I listened. Anyways, our good friend Meat Hook provided us with information. What do you make of it, brother?"
"It sounds like they're in violation of the old treaty," Hardestadt said. He blinked. "Wait…"
"Yes?" Azmodan asked.
"In 1746," Hardestadt said. "The creatures of Europe signed a pact with the other supernatural authorities declaring the old ways were finished."
"Old ways?" Emma asked.
"Preying on bad children," Hardestadt said dryly. "Look, I took them out when I could, and everyone agreed it was for the best to act a bit more civilized than they had been at that point."
Emma opened her mouth and closed it again. "That…that….they…what?"
"Christmas traditions tended to be rolled into Christian tradition later on," Hardestadt said. "A lot of regions had their own myths, often based in facts. Scandinavia had them, parts of Austria and Alipine Bavara had Krampus…the whole jolly fat elf man is a pretty recent invention to begin with," he continued. "You have gift giving the whole way back, but there's equal tales of creatures that would come in to swipe bad kids. It was a good way to get them to behave, except the legends…tended to have truth to them, like I said. When the world was changing, people fought back more, most of these creatures were hunted to near extinction. To prevent large amounts of bloodshed, they agreed to swear off the old practices."
"But it clearly isn't taking," Azmodan said. "Well, do you know who might be responsible for this?"
"Yeah," Hardestadt tapped Meat Hook with his foot. "Az, can you work that magic doorway?"
"Please. I may be diminished on earth, but ogre magic?" The demon grinned. "Oh, this is happening! We're going through to save some children and to defeat some ogres!"
"Azmodan?" Emma asked after a moment. "That thing about…your favorite food being child stew…That was you joking, right? I mean, no need to even say it, it's that obvious-"
"We don't eat children, Emma" Hardestadt said. "We're demons and devils, not barbarians."
"Yes, Emma," Azmodan said. "I've probably eaten fewer humans than Hardestadt anyways"
"Az, that is a low blow!"
"Okay, let's drop the line of conversation over who eats who," Emma said. "Please? Like, we're gonna go save these kids now? What are we dealing with?"
"We should bring our friend Meat Hook with us as leverage," Azmodan said. Hardestadt glanced at the snoring ogre.
"Meat Hook…in Icelandic, it'd be-" he stopped. "I know this one. I've got it! He's one of the Yule Lads!"
"Yule Lads?" Emma asked.
"Icelandic ogres," Hardestadt said. "They're the sons of another ogre. It must be the 'ma' he mentioned. And his brothers, there are 13 of them in all…the lack of cheer in the season…when the treaty was signed," his memory worked. "Their mother. I see it now. She's trying to undo the spirit of Christmas somehow to revoke the treaty. It'll put the bad kids back on the menu. And they're already acting-"
"But why do we still feel it then?" Emma blinked. "Setting aside how weird it is that this isn't the strangest thing I've ever heard in my life at this point? Hardestadt, elaborate."
"You guys are my house all the time," Hardestadt said. "There's no more heavily warded area on earth. A spell of this magnitude would disseminate all over the world….but it wouldn't penetrate the wards."
"What would a spell like that need? To make people forget about the holiday?" Emma put a hand to her head. "Time out. An ogre decides it wants to eat kids again, so it tries to revoke a centuries old treaty that depends on the holiday being celebrated?"
"I know Christmas is over-commercialized as hell and until a short time ago, relatively speaking, it wasn't even an important holiday," Hardestadt said. "I barely even enjoyed it myself until Grete was born, and even then we barely noticed it much. The first one I think I even celebrated properly with someone was in 1900 with-" he stopped talking abruptly.
"Uh huh?" Emma raised an eyebrow with a grin. "Old friend?"
"Look, her name's Eliza and it's…in the past now-"
"Emma, not the time! Point is…she's called the Gryla. She's old, strong and nasty, and if she's behind this? This is trouble. We won't have long to save those kids. The only thing I can't figure out…the one who organized the treaty. He would never just sit back and let this…"
"Who organized that one?" Azmodan asked. "A god of some kind?"
"Close enough," Hardestadt said. "Look, we should just get moving. I'll explain later. Az, pick up the ogre and get us through that portal. If it's taking us where I think it is? Be ready."