An almost-too late Valentine's story set in the Hell's Librarian universe. Wherein we find out how Hell celebrates Valentine's Day, what gifts demons give, and the adhesive powers of Hellhound saliva. Set prior to the events of Turn Books to Graves (not yet published). Enjoy!
Of all the holidays Claire expected to hate in Hell, Valentine's was the surprise.
You wouldn't think that demons would be fond of a holiday named after a Christian saint, but when you're an immortal creature, you have a way of taking an interest in anything that promises a change, a way to differentiate one sunless, timeless day from the other in the afterlife.
Of course, that didn't mean Hell would be celebrating it traditionally.
A screech of talons on metal shuddered through the Library's thick double doors, sending a fine mist of dust spiraling through the lamplight. The teacup rattled in it's saucer and Claire reached out a hand to still it without taking her eyes off her book. She turned the page, muttering as she kept count.
The battle raging outside didn't concern her; the Library's wards were made to weather the worst of Hell's moods and stormfronts. Nothing--especially not a demon skirmish--would trouble it. Every year on February 14th, Hell settled in to sort out it's valentine deliveries, and the Library weathered it out.
It was one of the few days a year the Library was closed. Valentine's in Hell was about a kind of love, but being demons and other infernal creatures, everything came down to power. Love was possession. It was the day a year when the more powerful demons and players in Hell set about snapping up unaffiliated assets in the realm--lesser demons, wandering spirits, and dead necromancers. And since it was Hell, these little valentine deliveries resulted in war-like responses. Love confessions were a bloody business when accepting meant eternal servitude.
Which explained the towering mess of horns and scales that was slowly but surely turning new and exciting shades of white on her couch. Claire wasn't in the habit of sheltering strays on Valentine's Day, but she'd made an exception this year.
"I--is Miss Brevity coming back soon?" Poliver chewed on his thick bottom lip with his fangs.
He wasn't the largest demon Claire had ever met, but close enough. A wall of solid scale and a face like curddled concrete. He also clutched a rather tattered workbook delicately in his hands. He would have made a fine prize for any demon on Valentine's Day, which is why Brevity begged he be allowed inside the Library's wards for a Valentine's Day lesson instead. The Library occasionally tutored demons, and Poliver was Brevity's latest project.
"Soon. She's just went to see to the ladies in the damsel suite. Valentine's Day isn't a day that holds a lot of fond memories for the damsels so they get exceptionally rowdy this time of year," Claire said. "Perhaps I should arm them and throw them outside the wards. This whole bother would clear up in an hour."
Poliver started to answer then jumped again as something large and quite possibly electric boomed against the wards. His shoulders were doing their level best to turtle into his ribcage and make himself smaller. An impressive feat for a demon that weighed half a ton.
"You're studying Shakespeare with Brevity?" Claire asked, distracting him. Even Claire was known, on occasion, to have a heart. A fact she preferred to keep to wild rumor.
"Oh, y-yes, ma'am. We're reading The Tempest right now."
"Good choice. One of my favorites. Is it for an assignment?" Demons often were sent to the Library for research on humans before being sent to the mortal world. "Or personal interest?"
"No...not an assignment, Miss Brev--" Poliver turned an entertaining shade of cherry. He creaked a bit as he rubbed his chin. "Miss Brevity, she recommended so..."
And there was the personal interest. Claire bit back a smile. "Librarians do know best."
Demons could feel affection, love even, but it usually came out slightly askew due to their natures. Love became violence, jealousy, control, possession. None of those words were usually associated with Poliver or Brevity. It would bear watching, but if any demon could navigate to his better nature, Claire suspected it was ones like Poliver.
"If you don't m-mind me asking, ma'am, what're those?" Poliver intruded on her thoughts with a cautious nod to the space near her desk.
And Claire sighed.
"A damn nuisance," she said as she kicked back a tarantula that was tapping her foot.
The Library of humanity's unwritten tales, of course, was it's own kind of unaffiliated asset. Even Lucifer couldn't quite claim possession of the Library and the sleeping books within. But most demons were wise enough to not attempt to approach the Library with violence on Valentine's. Claire saw to that. That didn't mean they gave up, though, and many tried to appeal to the Library's innate human sensibilities.
Gifts were presented and compliments plied. There was really only two ways to deal with it, in Claire's experience. She rejected every approach with a firm word, sending bitter and muttering demons stalking out the door.
Brevity, alas, took the opposite approach. Being a muse spirit, it wasn't in her nature to reject hope and ambition, so she accepted everything. Everything. Every strange treat and tchotchke that a deranged demon mind could deem pleasing, Brevity accepted with enthusiasm and promised to give due consideration. Because she treated every demon the same, none could precisely claim they won and the Library remained a neutral party.
But lord, for the clutter.
It wasn't chocolates and flowers. These were demons, after all. Through out the day, the pile had slowly grown: dark artifacts (which would need to go to Valefar's collection), burnt offerings (which would need to be further incinerated), poisonous asps and one hairy tarantula the size of a house cat. Claire had drawn an ink ward to contain the worst of it. It kept the asps from nesting in the stacks but did nothing for the eyesore factor. Claire hated eyesores.
"Gifts from Brevity's gentleman callers," Claire explained. Poliver's face had taken on the look of a confused hachet.
"Oh!" Confusion gave way to concern. "No one told me Miss Brevity liked g-gi...that kind of thing. I didn't--I should...uh, oh." He twisted anxiously towards the door until Claire stopped him.
"It's okay, Poliver. Something tells me the gift of your company is enough. No need to cross the battlefield."
"..o-okay." The demon deflated and eased back onto the couch. "Is that a spider?"
"Yes," Claire approached the pile and neared the edge of the ward. "I'm not certain on the species but wher--"
Species speculation was interrupted when her ink ward exploded.
A blur composed of shadows and terror burst from the depths of the pile and arrowed directly at Claire's head. She barely had time to drop her book to the desk--Librarian instincts winning out over self-preservation--before something large and spikey viced around her chest and the ground disappeared beneath her.
"Are you...alright, ma'am?"
It took a moment for Claire to open eyes she hadn't realized she'd squeezed shut. Puckered scales and worried eyes were in front of her. Claire dangled from Poliver's grasp. His scaled claws curved very carefully under her armpits and, judging from the sickly pink staining his rubble-cheeks, he was not accustomed to human flesh.
All that was rather secondary to the clammy feeling of something's saliva drooling off her heel. Claire looked down.
A feral clot of shadow clamped around one ankle. Light did not so much fall on it as get sucked in, though the outline of the nothingness resembled a bobble-headed terrier. The thing evidently had a mouth, which it again ferociously worked over her ankle with churrling smacking sounds. All Claire could feel was clammy, surprisingly hot gums. It was, thankfully, toothless.
Claire gave her leg an experimental shake but the ink creature stayed put. "I will be, if you can perhaps put me down and extricate that instead."
"Sorry, sorry!" Poliver clumsily tried to set her down--made more difficult by the creature hobbling one foot. He gingerly pinched the creature at the scruff. The trilling growl increased to a pitiful squeak and Poliver cringed. "I don't want to hurt him, ma'am."
"You really are a horrible excuse for a demon," Claire said. She hurried on before Poliver could crumple any further. Such a sensitive soul. "I understand your hesitance but he did emerge from a pile of poisonous beasts and this really is my best pair of sneakers so..."
This did not seem entirely convincing to Poliver, but he did keep hold long enough for Claire to roll and yank her ankle free. Her foot came loose with a wet sound and she frowned at the way her sneaker was already beginning to discolor under the infernal drool.
"It don't look dangerous, does it?" Poliver said. "You get lost, lil fella?"
When she looked up, the creature gave a hungry mewl from where it was cradled in Poliver's lumpy arms. It was all bobulous head and morphing tail. It's eyes were over-large and half buried beneath swirling void-fur, but when Claire saw the pupils entirely made of scarlet whirls, she jumped back.
"That." Claire retreated behind her desk and frankly had to resist the urge to barricade herself in her office. "...Is. A Hellhound."
"A hellhound?" Poliver frowned. "What would a critter like that be doing in the Library, ma'am?"
"....BREVITY," Claire yelled.
"It was a gift, boss. I couldn't just reject it!"
"You most certainly could! On account that it's bad form to adopt things that eat your coworkers."
"Technically he's only kinda tasting you so far," Brevity insisted as she shoved the exploded pile of oddities back into the reconstructed ink wards. Claire had abdicated the clean up to her assistant, in favor of perching at the edge of a chair strategically near her office door. Farthest away from the Hellhound pup.
A pup which was held by a very, very distraught Poliver. The demon cradled the infant beast more like a shield, peering over the fur to flick uncomfortable glances between the two librarians as they hollered at each other.
The hellhound, for his part, seemed not at all bothered by it. It was comfortable enough in the crook of Poliver's massive arms. Claire did not care for how it seemed to drool as it stared hungrily at her, however.
"A hellhound is not an appropriate Valentine gift," she said again as she rubbed away her goosebumps.
Brevity huffed seafoam curls out of her face as she straightened. "He's a baby, though. Don't even got his soul-teeth in yet. And everyone knows Hellhounds can only really eat human souls if they try to leave Hell. You ain't, right boss?"
"As if I look like that big an idiot," Claire huffed. "Fine. It was a gift. Who the hell thought a Hound was a good idea?"
"Uhm," Brevity fidgeted. "Crowley, I think it was."
"Crowley," Claire pronounced the name with the same inflection one would reserve for maggot. "Nevermind. This wasn't a gift. It was an assassination attempt. Or a joke. Probably both, now that I think of it."
There were few humans who earned a permenent title in Hell. Most humans simply served their time, purging their souls of what punishment they felt they needed, before moving on without making much of an impression on the rest of Hell.
But some humans stuck around. Claire was one, through no virtue of her own, as Hell's Librarian. Aliester Crowley was another. For some reason, Lucifer had taken a liking to the drunken bastard when he'd arrived. Not, Claire suspected, for any service he really contributed to Hell during life or death, but more for his ridiculously offensive imagination. Lucifer's favor was irritatingly whimsical like that.
And Crowley was nothing if not whimsical.
"That settles it," Claire said. "Poliver, go ahead and strangle the mutt."
"Boss!" Brevity protested as Poliver shrank into the bookcases. "You don't mean that. Look at the widdle thing."
"I had a great view when it tried to digest my foot," Claire relented. "Fine, we can't keep him, though. Hellhounds grow fast, and I'm positive Crowley did not just pick one up from the pound. Stolen, probably. Malphas is probably looking for him right now so wh--...Poliver. What did you do with the mutt?"
The giant's arms were suspiciously empty and he had the grace to hunker down. "It was a gift for Miss Brevity, ma'am. You said to--I couldn't hurt it--"
Claire spiked a sigh through her lips. "I was joking. Why can no one tell when I'm joking?"
"It's the scary face, boss," Brevity offered.
"So where is it?" Claire ignored her to wheel on Poliver.
"Uh." The demon rubbed the back of his neck. He looked significantly down the Library's stacks that stretched back into the shadows.
"Oh bloody perfect," Claire said.
Hell's Library was as infinitely deep and convoluted as human dreams. By the time they'd made a search of the front most stacks, even the war outside had died down to an occasional dull thump. Though they occasionally heard a far off squeaking growl, the Hellhound pup eluded them.
Where ever it was, Claire just hoped it was housebroke.
"This is my fault," Poliver looked ready to sink into the floor.
"Nah, it's my gift. I'm awful sorry, boss," Brevity said.
"Apology accepted. You are, of course, on inventory duty for the next month, no, decade." Claire stopped and leaned against the shelves. They were in the depths of the interactive fiction section, and the hyper-active unwritten tomes vibrated and jostled at her tired back. "I suppose there's no helping it then."
Brevity perked up. "You got a plan?"
"I've got a calculated indignity," Claire corrected as she wrinkled her nose. She really had hoped to avoid this. "What we're about to do doesn't leave the Library, got it?"
She waited until her withering look extracted a meek nod from Poliver. Claire straightened and strode down the aisle.
She formed the idea in her mind. A careful thought she didn't normally allow her self to indulge in but had an entire afterlife to perfect. She envisioned Hell's wards and pathways. Envisioned the steps she'd take, preparations needed, and--
Something fluffy and rabid collided with the back of her neck.
Claire flew into the shelves with a shriek. The Hellhound pup tangled in her long braided hair and began to snarl and flail, caught half between slavering growls and pitiful squeals.
It stomped unhelpfully on Claire's spine for another few moments until she felt Brevity wrangle it off. "Easy, buddy!" Her assistant was a bit too cheerful about her near-mauling.
Poliver reached down to help her up. Her hair was a solid mass, glued together with foul-smelling saliva and void-fur.
"But how'd you do it?" Poliver asked curiously.
"I presented it with the right bait." Claire rubbed her neck with a wince. "Young or not, no Hellhound can resist a soul escaping Hell."
Brevity's fuse-gold eyes widened slightly. For a Hound to respond, it couldn't be a passing thought or fancy. A soul would have to present an earnest desire and intention to subvert their sentence and abandon Hell. If Brevity thought it alarming that her human boss could summon that scandalous mindset at will, she didn't say so.
Instead, she stroked the Hellhound pup soothingly. "So, what can we do with him?"
Brevity really was kinder than a soul like Claire deserved.
Claire finished grousing at her hair. The Hellhound coiled around one of Brevity's arms, gumming curiously at her tattoos as if trying to taste the residual human dreams contained within.
"We can't exactly return him to Malphas with the Valentine war outside." Claire said. Brevity positively glowed with hope. "If you're going to fuss with him, we have to keep him confined. He can stay in the damsel suite tonight. They'll love it."
"Really?" Brevity didn't quite cheer. Quite.
"Tomorrow he goes back. To Malphas. And Crowley is banned from the Library for a year, got it?" But Brevity was already dragging a reluctant Poliver down the stacks, trailing the sound of happy chatter and hungry Hell beast.
"I really do hate Valentine's Day," Claire said to no one.