Sarah Gailey's demon-dog duo from "Bargain" in Mothership Zeta's first issue return for another adventure in Mothership Zeta 5 (October 2016). Malachai, Devourer of Miscreants and Usurper of Souls, has a lot to learn about dog parks, tiny pinstriped pajama tops, and the need to carry plastic bags everywhere. Mothership Zeta is an Escape Artists ezine publishing fun science fiction, fantasy, and horror four times a year.
Rescue by Sarah Gailey
The dog park was Baxter's favorite place in the entire universe.
Malachai hated it.
When they went to the dog park, Malachai had to wear sweatpants to blend in with the humans that congregated there. Going to the dog park required him to use very un-demonic magic: a careful layering of glamours to make him look like a small, balding human male, rather than the top-tier demon that he was. A de-slobbering charm had to be applied to the ragged tennis balls that Baxter found in the farthest, muddiest corners of the park. And, thanks to the omnipresence of nosy humans, Malachai couldn't make Baxter's poop vanish in a puff of smoke like he usually did. He had to carry plastic bags.
Sometimes Malachai had nightmares about getting stuck as a human. Those nightmares were usually set in an eternal dog park.
Today, he was smoking. He didn't care for cigarettes — they exacerbated his asthma — but if he smoked, most of the humans at the dog park gave him a wide berth. He liked dealing with humans on his own terms, and those terms did not include friendly conversation about dog breeds, dog food, or dog behavior. Those terms did include the humans urinating on themselves in an elegant display of their inborn prey response. If a human was cowering in the corner of a plush office at the top of a skyscraper, Malachai was perfectly comfortable being near them. But when humans were just around, in their natural environment…he found that he made bad choices with them.
One of Malachai's worst errors in judgment was currently racing in circles in the grass of the dog park, trying to keep up with the pace of an Australian shepherd. That mistake took the form of an aging Chocolate Labrador Retriever: Baxter. Baxter let out an occasional joyful bark, and his ears flapped in the wind, a perfect caricature of canine abandon. He ran alongside the Australian shepherd, running as dogs have run since the beginning of time: together. In his murky dog-imagination, Baxter was somewhere near the middle of a vast and courageous pack of wild dog-beasts. Baxter had no concept of bloodlust, so he did not picture himself and his compatriots hunting; instead, they ran, for the sheer joy of feeling the wind in their fur.
The Australian shepherd turned in a tight circle, and Baxter turned with him. Or, he tried to turn, but he had too much momentum and not enough agility, and he fell.
He fell hard.
He tried to stand back up, but his back right leg wouldn't take the weight. Malachai swore under his breath and stubbed out his cigarette before running to the still-jubilant Labrador.
"What did you do, Bax? You know you're too old to keep up with shepherds." Baxter limped towards Malachai, tail waving bravely.
"Is he okay? I'm so sorry, oh my goodness." A musclebound male human in a threadbare tweed jacket was quickly approaching, towing the Australian shepherd by the collar. "Did Hermione knock him down?"
Malachai stared at the male, whose shoulders strained at the seams of his patched jacket. Something about him was familiar, but the features of his face wouldn't resolve themselves into something Malachai could connect to a memory. He smelled like…was that rowan? Rowan and salt? Malachai told himself he was being ridiculous, but he took a step backwards all the same, resting his hand between Baxter's ears.
"He's fine, I'm sure. He's just old. Can't keep up like he used to. He'll probably be back up and running tomorrow."
"Oh, you should let me take him to my vet. Older dogs, you know. Their hips get injured so easily." The human leaned in close to Malachai and reached out a massive hand as if to lay it on his arm. Baxter whined, and when Malachai glanced down, he saw that the old dog was staring at the human with his tail tucked between his hind legs. Malachai looked back to the man, confused.
His hand made contact with Malachai's shoulder; it produced a sizzling sound not unlike that of a damned soul's flesh over a low, eternal flame.
Baxter yelped as Malachai dropped his glamour. They would never be able to come back to this dog park again — but that didn't matter. This man was scorching Malachai's suit, but more importantly, he was scaring Baxter. Baxter's instincts — while deeply, fundamentally flawed — never skewed towards fear. This human must be bad news. Malachai needed to scare him away.
As the glamour dissipated, Malachai let loose with a crack of lightning and a cloud of steam. He made his voice boom with terrible authority.
"Release me, Frail Mortal, or suffer the consequences of thy hubris!"
The man smiled. "Oh, good. We're dropping pretenses."
The Australian shepherd vanished. Malachai looked down at Baxter, appalled. "You were chasing a glamour?"
Baxter looked suitably embarrassed.
Malachai looked back at the man, whose face had stopped wavering. He knew he'd seen the man somewhere before, but where? "What do you want?"
His smile grew. "I want you, O Devourer of Souls. Or, to be more precise, I want your Terrible Familiar."
Before Malachai could respond that Baxter was certainly not his familiar, the man tossed a handful of powder into his face. He sneezed once, then twice, and then everything went black.
Living with an elderly, flatulent Labrador Retriever had changed a lot of things about Malachai's life, and not for the better. Malachai rued the day that he'd agreed to take Baxter in place of a human soul so that an old human could spend a second lifetime with her mate. Since Baxter came along, Malachai'd had to start carrying lint rollers with him everywhere to keep Baxter's fur off his Italian silk suits. He'd had to keep his coffee table empty of objets d'art and glasses of fine wine — Baxter's tail could sweep the table clear in one wag, and Malachai's carpet had the stains to prove it. He'd had to get new trash cans, with lids, because Baxter wanted nothing more in life than to eat Malachai's garbage.
But the biggest change by far had been in his sleeping arrangements. He'd gotten Baxter a dog bed, and every night, he made the old dog lie down in it. But each morning, without fail, Malachai would wake up to find Baxter stretched out next to him in the bed, snoring louder than any Hellhound in Beelzebub's kennels.
Like most things to do with Baxter, Malachai thought the dog's habit of cuddling up in his bed was an absolute nuisance. And yet, when he woke up the morning after the dog park and Baxter was not in the bed, Malachai's stomach dropped.
"Baxter?" Malachai reached for the bottle of asphodel on his nightstand. His head felt like it was splitting in half. "Baxter, come here! Baxter?"
He reached up to feel the flat spot between his horns.
His head actually was splitting open.
There was something wedged deep in a crack between his scales. He walked into the bathroom, tripping over two stuffed cherubim on the way: Baxter's chew toys. He reflexively swore under his breath at the clutter; then, realizing that the toys were not at all slobbery, he returned to his worry about the dog. A hazy recollection of a human male with a glamoured shepherd nipped at his memory — but what had happened after that? He could not remember anything beyond darkness.
When Malachai looked in the mirror, everything was in order, with the sole exception of the throbbing, open wound in his scalp. He strained his eyes a little trying to see the top of his head. Probing the wound with his fingers produced a blinding flash of white-hot pain.
But he probed anyway, because there was only ever one reason to split open the space between a demon's horns. Mages loved clinging to outdated traditions, and this one dated back to before handing someone a note like a civilized person had been invented. Malachai supposed that the mage who had split his seam and left a message tucked up against his skull was probably unregistered. That meant they wouldn't have access to the transdimensional email system that had been such a bear to get set up — but even registered magi occasionally preferred to get their messages through the firewall via grisly means. When asked to cut it out, they'd usually respond with long-winded white papers about the importance of keeping the traditions of magedom alive and flourishing and on and on until Malachai wanted to gouge his eyes out.
The point being: it was rude.
"Holy Hellfire, that hurts — ah, there you are." He hissed as the tips of his claws found the note that had been lodged between scales and skull. He pulled it out and set it on the counter before rinsing the wound. With the parchment obstruction gone, his scalp began to knit itself back together. The pain mostly vanished, but a lingering ache throbbed at the base of his skull. He suspected that whoever had left the note — the human male? Had it been a male? — had not been gentle in keeping him unconscious.
Malachai washed his own blood from his hands, then grabbed the note to look it over. This had better be good.
Malachai paced his living room, fuming over the note. Literally fuming: his apartment filled with the acrid smell of the smoke rising off his ears. The smoke made him wheeze, but he couldn't stop it from appearing — he was too furious. Several times, he walked to his front door, opened it, and stared out of it for a few seconds before slamming it shut.
As he paced, he grumbled to himself.
"Stupid mutt. Not worth it. No way. Not in a million years."
But then, he would stop and stare at the hook on the wall that held Baxter's leash. He would remember Baxter yanking his arm practically out of the socket at the sight of a gremlin vanishing into its burrow. And he would go to the door, and yank it open, and then slam it shut again.
The note was brief enough. To wit: I have the dog, and I won't give him back to you unless you do what I want.
This should have been a simple problem to solve — Malachai could just ignore it. Because, really, what was the worst thing that could happen? The Mage — no longer just a mage to Malachai's mind, oh no, this was personal now — would kill Baxter, and then Malachai would never again need to clean drool off of his duvet.
"Who cares about the damned dog?" he asked himself aloud. "Who cares? I didn't even want a dog in the first place!" He nodded his head decisively — his decision was made. He wasn't going to waste time and magic and energy rescuing a dumb old flatulent Lab with boundary issues. He was Malachai. He was Very Powerful. He had Work to Do. He didn't have time to spend chasing after a dog. He sat down on the couch, satisfied with his decision.
Two minutes and thirteen seconds later, he stood up, put on his suit jacket, grabbed the leash off the hook by the door, and went to rescue Baxter.
The Mage's lair had been simple enough to find — the note was effective as a summons if Malachai crossed his eyes a little and didn't look at it under too bright a bulb. He'd amped up the theatrics as much as possible for this appearance, and the result had been pleasing — the Mage had yelped and fallen out of his chair, dropping a fat skein of yarn and sending a stack of books sliding across the floor. It was an island of perfect chaos rising out of a sea of irritation.
Malachai's satisfaction did not last. As the shadow-cloaked Mage respooled his yarn and squeezed himself back into his creaking armchair, a low whine sounded from between two aisles of towering bookshelves.
The Mage turned on a lamp, and revealed himself, and Malachai felt one of his mouths drop open.
"You. You dognapped Baxter? You, O Frailest of Mortals, O Gatekeeper of Wisdom, you Librarian?"
The human stared up at Malachai, his gaze intense. "I'm surprised that you remember me, O Foul Demon."
Malachai stared back at the human, who looked roughly the same as he had at the dog park: musclebound, tweedy, fraying at his edges. Oh, yes, he remembered this particular human now, the same way he remembered certain rashes he'd gotten from synthetic fabrics.
"Six years," the Mage said.
"I remember," Malachai growled, but the Mage continued regardless.
"Six years ago I summoned you to bring my father back, and you failed. You laughed at me, and your lightning cracked my roof open, and you left me alone. I won't let you do that again."
"I didn't fail, Mage. You asked me to do something impossible." Malachai studied the human's face, looking for a sign of fear. "You asked me to turn the underworld inside-out to retrieve a soul that had already crossed into the Abyss of Death. I told you it couldn't be done, and you…oh, yes" — the memory made Malachai smile broadly — "I remember. You tried to challenge me. You tried to fight me." The human didn't look away. "You raised those little pink fists to me and you wiped at your snot and tears and you challenged Malachai, Master of Fallen Souls, to a fight. Oh, I remember, Mage. And I left you alone as a mercy. A mercy that you apparently didn't appreciate, I take it? You're lucky I don't just kill you and get it over with." He loomed menacingly over the human. Malachai had an advanced degree in looming, and it showed.
And yet, the Mage smiled. His voice never rose above a murmur. "Oh, Malachai. You wouldn't kill me. Not before knowing whether your precious Familiar is all in one piece."
As if on cue, another faint whine eased its way between them. It was a higher pitch than Malachai had ever heard from Baxter before. What could this Mage have done to the old Labrador, to coax such a pitiful sound from him?
"No games, Mage." Malachai struggled to keep his voice fearsome and rumbling. "What Have You Summoned Me For, O Ye Foolish — "
"No games, Malachai." The Mage settled himself back into his chair and took up his knitting needles again. "Let's talk about immortality."
Malachai's shoulders relaxed. This would be easy enough, then. "No dice, Mage. I can't do immortality, especially not for the kind of steroid-ridden imbecile who is foolish enough to summon me a second time. Too bad, so sad. You lose again. Where's Baxter?"
"If you want the answer to that, you'll find a way to 'do immortality,' won't you? It's not for me, anyway."
Malachai took a calming breath; he imagined his anger evaporating into a fine mist, just like his self-help tapes said to.
"It doesn't matter who it's for, O Ye Frailest of Mortals — "
"It's for Pickle."
"Yes," the Mage said, his knitting needles clicking busily. "Pickle. Oh, and I don't use steroids. Not that it's any of your business."
Pickle, as it happened, was a stout dachshund of which the Mage had many photos. Real, physical photos, in envelopes from a drugstore. Here was Pickle wearing a beret; here he was wrapped up in a feather boa. There were several photos in which his tongue was sticking out of the side of his mouth. One of him cuddled up next to the Mage, wearing a tiny pinstriped pajama top.
One of him in the passenger seat of the car with a new-looking collar on.
One of him on a younger Mage's lap, mid-wag.
One of him in a small wire-frame cage at the shelter.
The Mage hesitated over that one for a long time. "That was the day we met," he said. "I knew right away that he was mine."
Malachai didn't say anything. Not that he cared.
"He hasn't been eating for the past few days," the Mage explained, showing Malachai yet another blurry picture of what looked for all the world like a brown pool noodle with a greying nose stuck to the end of it. "And he's not playing with Mr. Bumble at all."
"Mr. Bumble," Malachai repeated, struggling to infuse the words with menace.
The Mage reached under his desk and pulled out a ragged plush bumblebee wearing a knitted argyle sweatervest. "His favorite toy. He…he rips the stuffing out, and then he barks the whole time I'm mending Mr. Bumble." He stroked the mangled bee with thick, tender fingers. "T-takes him everywhere."
Malachai couldn't deal with this anymore. He stood, knocking over his chair.
"Enough, human. I don't give a deep-chilled damn about Pickles."
"His name is Pickle," the Mage whispered, still clutching the stuffed bee. "Singular."
Pungent smoke rose from Malachai's balled fists. The fine mist of his anger condensed into a thick head of steam, and he let it billow as he bellowed at the fleshful human who had dared to defy him for this long. "Where. Is. Baxter."
Before the Mage could answer, a series of deep, resonant barks sounded from within the stacks. Malachai spun on his heel and strode into the shelves, the protesting Mage trailing behind him, too late to stop him.
"Bax! Where are you, buddy?" Malachai called. Baxter kept barking.
"No, wait, I have to explain — "
The Mage grabbed Malachai by the arm. Malachai spun, billowing steam. "Get your meat off of me, mortal!"
Somewhere nearby, a whimper. Malachai hurried towards the noise, not stopping to see if the Mage was following him.
And then there he was. Baxter, surrounded by towers of embroidered pillows, hemmed in by a circle of low bookshelves. Malachai threw one over his shoulder, hoping it would hit the librarian, and ran to Baxter. The old dog wagged his tail, but did not stand to meet his friend.
"What did you do to him?"
"I didn't do anything," came the Mage's distant, breathless reply. "He didn't even really hurt himself at the park when he fell, he's fine — "
Malachai crouched down, running his hands over Baxter's haunches and paws, feeling for the injury that had kept Baxter in place, but he couldn't find it. "You okay, Bax?"
Baxter panted happily, but still, he did not stand.
Another whimper sounded, but it had not come from Baxter. Malachai looked around, confused.
As the Mage sidled into the ring of bookshelves, Malachai saw Pickle at last.
The dachshund was much older than he had been in the many photos Malachai had endured — or perhaps it was just that he wasn't as blurry and overexposed as the pictures had been. He lay on his side, dwarfed by a pile of cushions, his grey muzzle resting on a threadbare velvet throw pillow embroidered with the phrase "Don't Call Me A Weenie". His stout belly strained at a knitted argyle sweatervest, the miniature twin of which Malachai had seen on Mr. Bumble, the worn-out bee. The Mage rested Mr. Bumble near Pickle's snout, but the old dog didn't seem to notice.
Baxter would not move from where he was seated next to Pickle; when Malachai tugged at his collar, the Labrador looked up at him with peaceful black eyes, and would not budge.
"I adopted him from the shelter after Dad died. I just…I didn't want to be alone anymore." The Mage was leaning against a bookshelf, staring at the panting little dog, his rippling arms wrapped around his knitting project. "They told me he was already pretty old when I adopted him, but he's hung in there for so long. He's…he's my best friend."
Malachai stopped yanking on Baxter's collar and turned to face the Mage.
"There's nothing I can do."
"I don't believe you," the Mage responded simply.
"I remember when I saw you six years ago, you had Baxter with you then. He hasn't aged a day." The Mage pointed an accusing finger at Baxter's wizened muzzle; Baxter licked his hand.
"He's not immortal," Malachai said, uncomfortable. "His situation isn't exactly…orthodox. He's not alive, per se."
"Well whatever he is, make Pickle the same! I don't care about the details — "
"I'm telling you, I can't. Baxter is bound to demonic laws of spiritual preservation. If I did it to Pickle, he'd…he wouldn't be the same. I can't just make him immortal, do you realize what you're asking me to — "
"I know you can't just make him immortal, you would have to make me immortal too so I could take care of him, and — "
"Don't be obtuse, Mage, you're just — "
As they argued, Baxter laid his big, blocky head next to Pickle's tiny grey snout. Pickle blinked at him with huge, wet eyes.
"Even if I could grant immortality to a nonhuman, I wouldn't! Can't you see how cruel it is to grant immortality to a dying thing?"
"You could…you could make him younger again, couldn't you? A puppy again? Forever?" Desperation had crept into the Mage's voice; he surely knew he was losing ground. "Please, I don't know what I'll do without him. Please."
Pickle whined softly — not a piteous, pained whine so much as an exhausted one. Baxter pushed his wet nose under Pickle's drooping ear and wuffed quietly to him; whatever he said made Pickle's tail lift and drop in a quiet, grateful wag, as his besweatered belly puffed out in a final contented sigh.
The little brown tail thumped once more, and then was still.
Baxter lay still beside him, his nose still blanketed by the old dachshund's velvet ear.
"Mage," Malachai said quietly, looking at the two dogs.
"Don't tell me you can't, I don't want to hear that you can't, you can do anything, I know you can," the Mage shouted, his voice wet and thick.
Malachai reached out a claw and rested it on the Mage's massive shoulder. "Mage," he said again, his voice hardly above a whisper. "I can do most things, but I can't bring back the dead."
Baxter lifted his head and nudged Mr. Bumbles closer to Pickle's still form. The Mage sank to the floor and let out a long, trembling moan.
Malachai handed the human a pocket square monogrammed with demonic runes, and then he looked away for a time. He did not care to watch this part. His eyes fell on the little dachshund — his sweatervest, patched in places. His collar, with a little glossy pickle for a tag. Mr. Bumble, thick black stitches marking the places where his stuffing had been ripped out and replaced again and again over six years of loving destruction by the Mage's best friend.
The Mage had grown silent. Malachai looked over and saw the human staring at his hands. He wrung the pocket square mercilessly, crushing the tearstained silk beyond repair.
Baxter nudged Malachai's hand and whined reproachfully.
"I can't do that, buddy." Malachai tousled Baxter's ears. "Nobody does things like that anymore."
Baxter whined again.
The Mage sniffed shakily. "He can talk to you?"
"Not as such," Malachai replied, still looking down at Baxter. "But I understand what he means, most of the time."
"I know — I know exactly what — what you mean," the Mage responded, hiccuping.
Baxter walked across the little book-lined room and rested his head on the Mage's lap, drooling on his faded jeans. The Mage rested a shaking hand on top of the old Labrador's head. He was looking down at those velvety ears the same way Malachai had stared at them in a kitchen not so long ago, when he was faced with what felt like an impossible task. Malachai felt his heart give a little twist.
"Okay. There's one thing I can do. But…it's not a good idea, and you should say no."
The Mage looked up at him, and Baxter's tail began to wag.
One hour later, the Mage had made his arrangements. Malachai and Baxter had waited with a cup of tea and a peanut-butter-filled chewy bone, respectively. As they sat in silence, the Mage had written a letter of resignation, taped it to the front door of the library, and packed up his provisions: a Tupperware filled with whey powder, knitting needles, yarn, and Mr. Bumble.
Malachai set down his empty teacup, stood, shot his cuffs. "I'll leave the portal open for one hour. I won't be going that way — it comes out pretty far from where we live — but you'll be able to pass through just fine. Go through after Bax and I have gone home, and just…follow the path. Pickle can't be too far into the underworld. Dogs tend to get distracted on the way down by all the corpse smells. I'm sure you'll find him quickly enough."
Malachai opened the portal to Hell. He stood squarely between it and the Mage.
"This isn't a good idea, Mage. You won't be able to come back, you know. You'll be trapped in purgatory forever, you and Pickle. The last person who made a deal like this wound up steering a ferry just for the conversation."
The Mage looked back at Malachai and lifted a small red bundle. "I brought Pickle's life vest, just in case." He smiled. "He loves the water, but he can't swim too well. Little legs."
"Whatever. Don't say I didn't warn you." Malachai turned to grab Baxter by the collar. It was time to go. He made the appropriate motions to return them home.
"Wait, O Foul Demon," the Mage said. "I'm…I'm sorry I took Baxter. It was the only way."
Malachai rolled his eyes and bit back a no it wasn't. He didn't want to look back, but he felt a touch on his shoulder, and he turned before he could stop himself.
"I made him this, while we waited for you."
The human handed him a large hand-knitted vest, perfectly sized for the barrel-chested chocolate Lab. It was thick and soft, and featured a pattern of dancing hellfire and cheerful skeletons.
Malachai didn't know what to say. Baxter nosed the sweatervest, and looked at the Mage with his soulful, wet eyes.
In the next instant, they were gone — back in Malachai's apartment in the underworld, together. They were a team again, and as Baxter rubbed his peanut-buttery nose all over Malachai's hand-stitched Italian suit, Malachai felt a familiar twinge of irritation. He scratched Baxter behind the ears.
Sarah Gailey's work has been published by Mothership Zeta, Fireside Fiction, Tor.com, and Mashable. Look for her debut novella, River of Teeth, from Tor.com in summer of 2017. Learn more at www.sarahgailey.com.