| "You don’t see the irony, Cassie?"
I looked back at the walking bundle of presents that was following me. "What irony?"
"Shopping for Christmas gifts in hell."
I frowned. "Well, they have the best prices."
And I had a ton of people to buy for. Just so many. It almost made me wish for the days when—
I stopped myself. No, it didn’t. Other people had happy memories of lying under the Christmas tree as a child, staring up at all the pretty lights, while the smell of peppermint eggnog floated through the house and a playful kitten batted at a low hanging decoration. Or so I assumed. I wouldn’t know, since I’d been raised by a homicidal vampire who had been approximately the circumference of Santa, but resembled him in exactly no other way.
Fat Tony had not been a jolly old elf or any other kind of elf, unlike the guy in the next store.
Who was not on script, I noticed.
Shadowland, the closest hell region to earth, was basically a huge marketplace, with a vested interest in keeping its visitors happy. To help with that, it projected an image that fit the buyer's expectations, taking clues from their minds to form a version of itself that would make them comfortable no matter what world they came from. Or possibly to keep them from running down the street screaming at what it actually looked like. In any case, right now, to me, it looked like a Victorian Christmas, complete with snowy stoops, cobblestones and old fashioned multi-paned shop windows through which bright yellow lamplight was streaming into the street.
I’d even changed myself, when I shifted in here a couple hours ago, because they seemed to be doing a special, supped-up illusion for the holidays, maybe to encourage people to stay longer. Anyway, I’d found my t-shirt and jeans transformed into a bottle green Victorian skirted suit, complete with cute little jacket, frothy lace blouse, and a bustle. My companion, likewise, appeared to be wearing a suit coat with long tails, a pair of riding boots, and a ridiculously tall top hat which he'd repeatedly tried to take off, but which wasn't budging, probably because it wasn't actually there.
I'd stuck a sprig of holly in it anyway.
It looked quite festive.
Unlike the fey.
He should have matched the scene, with whatever he actually looked like overwritten by some version of a Victorian merchant, maybe with mutton chop whiskers and a snowy white apron, like the guy in the last place. Instead, long, pointy ears were sticking up around a bright red Santa hat, and his shining, silver hair was almost touching the old floorboards. He noticed my interest and smiled, showing off a mouthful of long, cracked and stained teeth.
Well, at least he got the Victorian mouth right, I thought, and went back to my list.
"What's a fey doing in hell?" the gift pile asked.
"No idea. Okay, the new nunchucks are for Pritkin—"
"You coulda bought those on earth, and then I wouldn’t have to lug them all over hell. My feet are killing me!"
"You’re a vampire. Stop whinging." I'd brought Fred, my tiniest bodyguard, along as present-toter, because he was the least likely to freak out and start wailing on somebody. And while the Shadowland was generally friendly toward outsiders, at least until it relieved them of all their money, freaking out was not advised. Whinging, on the other hand—
"I'm not whinging—"
"You've been whinging for blocks."
"—and you’re American. Stop using that weird British slang you picked up from lover boy."
I ignored the last comment, since it was none of Fred's business, and checked the list again. "The nunchunks are spelled. They'll fight with you or for you. Good for training as well as defense."
Pritkin would like them, I was pretty sure.
Anything lethal tended to go over well.
"And Jonas gets the doggy treats," I continued. He had a possessed bloodhound, so something from hell's bakery had seemed appropriate. "And Tami the new bakeware—"
"What does that do?" Fred asked suspiciously.
I looked up. "It's bakeware. It . . . bakes stuff."
"Any kind of pies. The little cookie cutters take on any shape you want, and the Bundt pan—"
"Would madam like a free sample?" someone asked.
I glanced up. Oh, the fey. He had a glass of cider or mulled wine or something on his palm, which he was proffering to me with another hideous grin. Seriously, faerie needed to invest in some dentists. Like now.
I passed it over to Fred, who was a garbage disposal when it came to food. So far, our shopping trip had seen him consume five little peppermint sleighs, complete with Santa and reindeer, at the candy shop, despite the fact that they could fly and he'd had to chase one of them down the street. And a couple hot dogs from a stand, loaded with sauerkraut and mustard and pickle relish and cole slaw and jalapenos and bacon, before he ran out of room—on the dogs; Fred didn’t run out of room, or at least, I'd yet to see it. And an even dozen cookies which had been so freaking cute with their little animal faces that I hadn’t been able to resist—until Fred snitched one and it started screaming.
Fred had ended up with the lot after that, because hell's return policy sucks.
"Bah!" he wiped his lips, and then beat the center of his chest with his one free fist. "That was spicy!"
"Well if you wouldn’t chug it—"
"You keep saying you're in a hurry!"
"I'm not in a hurry; we just have a lot to—"
I cut off, because Fred had just belched—a plume of fire that set the fey's hair alight. I stared, Fred looked around in confusion, and the poor guy screamed and went running off to stick his head in a snowbank. I hesitated, but he looked like he had it handled, and the fey were pretty hardy, and we were starting to draw a crowd—
I grabbed Fred's hand and pulled him down the street. "Sorry!" I yelled behind us, before ducking into a cross road and whirling on him. "I told you—no assaulting people!"
"Well, it was his brew!" Fred looked indignant. "And it gave me heartburn!"
"Yeah, that couldn’t possibly be the massive amount of crap you've eaten since we got here."
"Hey, I offered you a cookie!"
"A screaming Bambi pleading for his life!"
"It was a gingersnap." Fred grinned, showing a little fang. "Tasty."
"Oh, stop it!" I said, and pulled him into a toy shop.
I'd mainly been trying to get out of the street, before a seriously pissed off shopkeeper came after us. But then I looked up. And stopped, my mouth hanging open in wonder, because—
"Oh, hey," Fred said. "This is more like it!"
And it was, it really, really was. I caught sight of my own reflection in a bright silver Christmas ball, one of thousands festooned everywhere, and realized that I looked like that wide-eyed kid I’d never been: blue eyes bright, short blonde hair dusted with snow, cheeks pink from the cold, and face suffused with wonder. Because it was magical.
It was magical.
There were old wooden floors and flickering lantern light and berry covered garlands that smelled deliciously of pine. There were huge wreaths with big red Christmas bows, and a tree that stretched up to the exposed rafters, and a whole wall of exquisitely embroidered stockings that quickly rewrote themselves with my name. There were wooden bird ornaments on festoons of ribbon stretching from the tree to the shelves on either side that really sang, tiny drummers peeking out from the branches who really drummed, icicles that looked like the real thing and were cold when you touched them, and a miniature train, running on a track near the ceiling, complete with passengers drinking coffee, reading newspapers and walking clumsily along the jolting carriages.
And that was just the decor.
I moved on to the aisles of toys, passing down one entirely filled with marionettes in exquisitely made suits of armor, or military uniforms festooned with braid, or delicate ball gowns softly shimmering, or an amazing Balinese dancer's costume glittering with gold. There were snow globes showing all kinds of different scenes, including one as big as my head in which a perfect, miniature town was blanketed in white, complete with minute skaters on a frozen pond that actually skated—and leapt and twirled and danced—while the people in the stands above huddled together, drinking hot chocolate under snuggly blankets and watching their breath frost the air. I marveled at broomsticks that actually flew, at kites big enough and magical enough to carry you, at a costume box that could immediately put a child into any of a thousand different outfits, and on and on and on.
Here's the rest of my Christmas list sorted, I thought, thinking of how excited a bunch of little girls I knew were going to be on Christmas morning.
"You’re gonna need to grow a couple extra arms," I told Fred, who laughed.
"Not in the skill set. I'll get a basket."
I nodded absently, already intrigued by a curious line of carved wooden boxes on a shelf, all beautifully decorated. Except that they didn’t seem to do anything. Maybe they were just for looks?
"Can I be of service?"
I glanced up to see a roly-poly demon headed my way, with the cutest little baby horns sticking out of his head. He looked more the part, I thought approvingly, in Victorian appropriate gear over which a bright green apron had been stretched. It had "Merry, Merry!" written on it in flowing, cursive letters, and the expression matched the get-up.
Guy knew a sucker when he saw one, but right then, I didn’t mind.
"What are these?"
"Oh, good choice," he approved. "They’re some of the finest memory spheres we've had in many a year."
He took a box down and opened it to reveal a softly glowing globe the size of a large Christmas ball. But inside was a scene more reminiscent of the snow globe, showing the interior of a cozy little house. A small family was gathered around a fireplace: mom, dad, a couple of kids and a pet dog, with the kids trying to open gifts while the dog wagged its tail and got in the way, and the parents laughed and sipped wine.
"It's nice," I said. And shook it. But nothing happened except that the mother spilled some wine and the dog stared around and started barking. I frowned. "Where's the snow?"
"There's no snow," the jolly little proprietor told me. "Haven’t you ever used one of these before?"
I looked up. "One of what?"
"A memory ball. People come in and sell us their recollections of the most wonderful and enchanted times in their lives, when they were at their happiest. We preserve them so that others can experience them, too. Either to cheer up after a hardship, or," his head tilted, and he regarded me shrewdly. "To experience something they never had?"
I blinked. "You mean, it feels like . . . you’re one of them?"
He nodded. "Say the password and you'll be transported into that exact scene—well, mentally, at any rate. Lasts for over an hour. And while you’re there, you'll completely believe it. There will be no doubt in your mind whatsoever that it's all real."
"But it isn't," I said, looking back down at the happy family.
The little girl had left off opening her gifts to comfort the dog, who was now flopped over her lap, tongue out and tail wagging slowly in perfect contentment. The mother reached down and smoothed her hair lovingly, while the father batted the son's lightweight airplane away from the flames. After a moment, the two of them went outside to fly it, and the girl and dog climbed into the mother's squashy armchair, and promptly fell asleep.
"Well, it was for the seller," the shopkeeper said, looking confused, like he didn’t see why that mattered. Or understand how terrible it would be to wake up from that cozy dream, and realize that it had all been a lie. "We have a two-for-one special going on right now, in honor of the holidays," he added.
"I'll think about it," I said roughly, and pulled out my list. "I need these things."
The shopkeeper and Fred, who had just returned with three massive baskets, moved off on a mission. I put the happy family back in their box, and back onto the shelf. Only to have my hand trapped by someone else's before I could finish the motion.
It was the fey, standing behind me with his hair all singed along one side, and his eyes more than a little wild.
"Look," I told him, "I'm really sorry about—"
"Do you know," he panted, pulling the box back off the shelf. "These are really quite dangerous items."
"Yes, yes. You can get trapped—trapped forever in memory—forgetting to eat or sleep or do anything at all, until you die with a smile on your face!"
"I . . . thought it only lasted an hour—"
"It all depends on how much magic is put into it," the creature told me, fishing out the globe once more. And holding it tightly between his hands, until spears of golden light began to sift through his fingers. "Yes, yes, quite dangerous!"
He was starting to look a little deranged.
"Yeah, well, maybe you should show the shopkeeper—"
He looked up, and the eyes were glowing, too. "I'll show you in a minute!"
"Hey, look what I found!" Fred said, from somewhere behind me.
And the next thing I knew, something terrible and fluffy was bounding down the aisle, barreling into me and sending me staggering into the fey.
Who dropped the little ball.
It shattered into a thousand pieces on the hardwood floor, and a brilliant flash of golden light surged around the room, gilding everything in the small shop for a moment before abruptly fading out. Only not entirely. Because, suddenly, all the toys were really, really . . . animated.
A bunch of tin soldiers jumped out of a box and scattered everywhere, one attacking Fred's shoe with a bayonet. "Hey!"
He stumbled back into a shelf full of a dolls, who a moment before had been sitting quietly, kicking their Mary Janes or occasionally brushing their hair. But I guess they didn’t like being disturbed. Because they jumped onto Fred en masse, their faces suddenly a lot less angelic as they started to—
"Shit!" I yelled, when blood spirted.
But nobody heard me, because there was already a lot of yelling going on. The fluffy whatever had turned on the fey, and was currently trying to lick him to death on the floor. The tin soldiers were attacking everybody, except for me because I'd climbed onto a table like a sensible person. Although that didn't help with the toy birds that were currently zipping around, dive-bombing us.
And then the lights turned on in a nearby dollhouse, big as a dining room table stood on end, and painted to look like a perfect representation of a Victorian farmhouse. Complete with irate farmer, I realized a second later, when tiny bullets started spewing out of a miniature shotgun. Really painful bullets!
I grabbed a pretty tray to use as a shield, only to have it immediately indented with a bunch of little projectiles, because apparently this shotgun did not need to reload. But something stung my ankle anyway, and I looked down. To see the farmer's son, at a guess, who'd jumped to the table with a slingshot, and was targeting my big toe.
"Ouch!" I said, and kicked out reflexively, causing him to hit the floor and then just stay there, moaning softly. I immediately felt bad; he was so cute in his little torn jeans and straw hat, and looked to be seriously distressed. I was about to scoop him up when the farmer blew a whistle—
And a whole line of dollhouses lit up, everything from a brownstone to a castle to a Victorian fire station suddenly coming to life.
Uh oh, I thought, and started looking for an exit, only I didn’t find one. Because while I’d been busy getting turned into Swiss cheese, things had deteriorated. Big time.
Fred was staggering around under the weight of what looked like every doll in the shop, with bloody bite and scratch marks everywhere that wasn't covered by frilly dresses and shiny shoes. The fey was still on the floor, and still being savaged by the fluffy thing—and beaten over the head by a clown with a club, and bayoneted by the soldiers, and nipped by a goose on wheels . . . thing . . . with a savage eye and a bloody beak. I opened my mouth to scream "run" at Fred, when I was almost washed off my perch by a blast from three fire hoses at once.
Then the shopkeeper barked a word I didn’t know and everything paused—except for fluffykins, who didn’t seem particularly well-trained. The shopkeeper pointed at the fey, who had his hands over his head and didn’t see it. But I guess he heard when the demon yelled: "No! That one!"
The fey looked up wildly, just in time to see half the toys in the shop turn and look at him, including all the dolls on Fred's shrieking corpus.
Who promptly jumped to his.
"Auggghhhh!" The fey scrambled up and ran screaming out the door, carrying a boatload of merchandise along with him. Including most of the dolls, who had latched on with their little baby teeth right before he fled. Except for one, who'd hit the ground but was nonetheless snarling and snapping and toddling for the door.
Until the shopkeeper scooped her up, and put her over his shoulder, patting her back comfortingly and glaring—
Half an hour and some very poor bargaining later, Fred staggered out of the shop laden with three massive bags along with all our previous purchases. None of which I could help him with because I had doggo on a leash. A very flimsy-looking leash, considering the fact that doggo wasn't actually a doggo.
He was a hellhound.
A tiny, newborn hellhound, probably all of a few days old. Which is why he was only the size of a large Saint Bernard. Although he had the strength of a couple bull elephants as he went bounding down the street, towing me along behind him.
"Dig in your heels!" Fred said, puffing beside me.
"I am digging in my heels!"
"Well, it isn’t working."
"I know it isn’t working!"
"I'm just saying—"
"What?" I turned to glare at Fred, which I was able to do because doggo had just loop-de-looped around a streetlight, and been held up for five seconds.
Until he bit it in two and bounded off again, that is.
"Damn it!" Fred said, as the crashing light pole barely missed him. "We need to get outta here!"
"We can’t get out of here! We have to take him back!"
"What?" Fred caught up with me. "To where? I got the impression demon dude was glad to get rid of him!"
"He shouldn’t have had him in the first place!" I said, as we plowed through a couple more demons, who wisely jumped out of the way. "They’re not pets!"
"I'll say. So what’s the plan?"
Fred's eyes got huge, but I barely noticed because I’d just seen—
"Did you say 'find mama'?" Fred demanded, as I threw some gold at a guy renting scooters, to help people zip around the massive marketplace a little easier. This one had a sidecar, which Fred threw the packages in while I revved up the engine. Which is easier said than done with an overly enthusiastic hellhound threatening to rip your arm off!
But we got going, Fred jumping on behind me, still laden with what wouldn’t fit in the sidecar, which was a lot. We'd had to buy out half the shop to keep the proprietor from reporting us, and we hadn’t even done anything wrong! Crazy ass fey, I thought darkly, and hit the gas.
On the one hand, my shoulder thanked me, with the hound now loping just ahead of us, and more or less matching our speed; on the other—
He seemed kind of distractible.
"Auggghhh!" Fred said, when the hound saw something off to the left and went bounding after it, causing us to bound, too. And fly and jounce and floor it, because it was either that or get dragged through the handlebars.
As it was, we just got dragged through a fruit stand, sending oranges flying everywhere, and over a pile of rugs outside a carpet seller, who came out of his shop to screech at us and wave half a dozen fists, and down an alley where clothes were suspended on low hanging lines stretched between windows—
Or they had been.
"Damn it! I can’t see!" Fred yelled, from underneath somebody's nightie as we trailed a couple laundry lines behind us.
"Just as well," I said.
"What does that mean?"
"It means I think that fey might be trying to kill us," I said, staring at the crazy bastard just up ahead, who was blocking the alley and aiming what looked like a rocket launcher.
Straight at us.
Fred's head poked out the leg hole of somebody's panties.
"I don’t know why!" I stomped on the brakes, which didn’t help, and the hellhound took a swift turn into an alley, which did.
"Holy shit!" Fred screeched, as part of a building exploded behind us.
He tried to cover me from the flying bricks and dust and debris suddenly raining around everywhere, which would have worked better if additional shots weren't being fired at the same time. We zigzagged through a succession of interconnected alleyways, at a really ridiculous speed that was somehow still not enough to keep stoops from turning to rubble and the road from erupting in potholes the size of Pintos. A manhole cover went flipping through the air, barely missing our heads, and Fred cursed.
"Does the bastard have rockets on his feet?"
I slung around the latest hole on about a half inch of road, and stared up at a rectangle of stars—and a dark form leaping from one building to the next. "No. He's on the roofs."
I floored it, because outrunning him was about the only option here. And thanked god that I hadn’t had money for a car when I was hiding from Fat Tony back in Atlanta. I’d had to make do with a used moped I picked up for sixty bucks off a crackhead, and which didn’t have an actual second gear, so I’d learned to drive fast.
Super, duper fast.
"Ahhhh!" Fred said, as we took a corner on two wheels, slammed back down, lost the sidecar and shot ahead, juddering up an outdoor staircase beside a cafe, before crashing through a railing and flying off the side of the building—
To land clean in the street beyond.
"Yeah!" Fred screamed, as we bounced up and down. "Yeah! Did you see that? Did you fucking see that?"
"I saw it," I said, sounding a little wobbly, but I didn’t care. That had been pretty damned sweet.
Or it would have been.
If the street hadn’t been a dead end.
Fred was still yelling as I slung the scooter back around, but it was too late. The fey jumped down from a nearby three story building like it was nothing, weapon in hand. And there were no convenient crossroads or alleys here, or rather, there were—behind him.
And I somehow didn’t think we were going to make it that far.
"Oh, shit," Fred said, catching up.
The hellhound, which had been enthusiastically bounding along, easily matching our pace, had also turned around, and started whining.
Tell me about it, I thought, as the fey shouldered his weapon.
"A little holiday gift from my lord," he said, showing all those broken teeth.
"Aeslinn," I guessed. The head of one of the leading fey kingdoms wasn't a fan.
The fey inclined his head. "You've led him a merry chase, pythia, but your power doesn’t work here!"
That wasn't entirely true, but it was true that it came and went. The Pythian power that let me shift around space and time and go shopping in hell was tied to earth, and when I wasn't there, it was wonky. And, right now, I wasn't feeling it.
"But my money does! Whatever he's paying you, I can double it," I promised, while trying to pull my power up. It was sluggish, but something else wasn't. Something massive that suddenly blocked a whole street of starlight behind the fey.
"Don’t bother trying to bribe me," he sneered. "I've worked for my master for more than a thousand years, and killed more of his enemies than I can count. But this—this will be my crowning achievement!"
"Okay," I held out my hands. "I get it. It would be a waste of time to try to bribe a loyal servant like you. And Fred and I knew the risks when we took this job. We're prepared to die—"
"Speak for yourself!" Fred said. He'd slipped an arm around my waist, obviously preparing to jump for the nearest roof.
He probably wouldn’t make it, but damned if he wasn't going to try.
"—but, please. Let the puppy live."
The fey looked confused. "Puppy? What puppy?"
I gestured at the hellhound. "He hasn’t done anything wrong—"
"He almost eviscerated me, the mangy cur!" The fey kicked a rock, and he had good aim. The jagged piece of stone whipped through the air and caught the hellhound in the thigh, causing him to jump and then yelp with pain.
"He was just confused! He's a baby—"
"He's an abomination that should never have existed, like everything here! Like you, and those vampires you lead! Like this whole misbegotten realm, filled with disgusting, filthy, vile, sinful—"
The cloud suddenly descended, swift as a lighting strike, and the fey's voice cut out.
Probably because he'd just been bitten off at the waist.
He collapsed to the ground, or what was left of him, while the massive hellhound behind him, big as a house and boiling with rancid black steam, swallowed. And then bent a huge head down to snuffle and lick her baby boy. Who was suddenly dancing around with joy, his little scrape forgotten.
Home for Christmas, I thought, and grinned.
* * *
"Are you all right?" I asked Fred, later that afternoon.
"No," he staggered against a wall. "How can you ask me that, oh my god."
"You’re going to be fine," I told him, leading him to a café table, outside a tea shop.
The demon attendant bustled over with menus. "Just tea," I told him.
"Wait," Fred said weakly, and reached out a hand.
I slapped it. "No."
"I just wanna look—"
"No! He'll have tea," I said firmly. Fred groaned and stared at his stomach, which had pooched out over his sans-a-belt trousers so the belly button could wink at me. "You'll make a good Santa soon," I told him, checking my list one last time.
"I don’t know why I'm so sick," Fred complained.
"You ate the marketplace. Literally."
"I did no such thing!"
"I don’t think we missed a stall."
"How often does a guy get to try so many new things?" he asked, eyeing a vendor across the street. Who was selling some kind of marshmallow concoction.
"You don't need it," I warned without looking up.
"The holidays aren’t just about what you need. Every other time of the year it's the same thing: eat your vegetables, exercise, you don’t need that entire package of double stuffed Oreos—"
"I hate double stuffed."
Fred looked at me like I’d blasphemed. "What?"
"They’re too sweet. It throws the balance off."
"You know, some days I can’t even talk to you." He peered at the list over my shoulder. "What did you get Mircea?"
"Demon ruby cufflinks. They light up whenever somebody lies."
Fred raised an eyebrow, but didn’t say anything. And then our tea arrived, and damned if the waiter hadn’t piled on a bunch of sandwiches and some Christmas cookies, too. I sighed. I wasn't gonna fit into any of my jeans after this, I just knew it.
"Back there, did you really think you could make that jump?" I asked him, after a while.
"When the fey had that gun on us. I was pretty sure you were about to try to jump us to the roof."
Fred looked up from picking the lettuce off a finger sandwich. "You really think I'd make a three story jump while holding someone else?"
"Well, no. That's why I wondered . . . ."
"I had my eye on his finger. Soon as it twitched, I was gonna throw you at the roof, and hope the explosion hid it. He'd think he killed you and head out, and you could go catch a portal or something."
I looked at him. "And what about you?"
"What about me?"
"Fred! You’d be dead!"
He shrugged. "Better than both of us."
He went back to eating sandwiches, now denuded of nasty green stuff. I finished my tea. And then snuck off when he went to the john and got him the biggest marshmallow thing they had, to surprise him with later when he'd actually enjoy it.
And just made it back to the table before he waddled back over.
"You know, this was weirdly fun," he announced.
He slid into his chair, his top hat drooping down over one eye. "Yeah. I don’t know what people are always going on about. Black Friday is the bomb."
"Maybe we'll do it again next year," I said, looking around at the glittery lights and the tacky decorations and the drunk group of demons lurching down the street and singing off key.
Maybe it was time I started making some holiday memories of my own. Not borrowed from somebody else's head, or with some stranger's family. But with my own, the one I’d somehow made without ever intending to.
The only one I’d ever been able to depend on.
"It’s a date," he told me. And then looked alarmed when my hand covered his. "You know, the platonic kind. I don’t need a pissed off war mage on my ass."
I rolled my eyes. "Fred?"
"Happy Holidays," I told him, and shifted.