CatsCast 341: Bargain
by Sarah Gailey
Malachai loved his work. He loved wandering among the trappings of enormous wealth and influence, seeing the baubles that humans excreted to express their status. He especially loved watching those wealthy, influential mortals tremble before the might of his inescapable superiority.
Malachai worked exclusively with those humans who had found themselves at the limit of how much power they could possess. They called him to bend the rules of time and space around their whims, so that they might be even more feared and loved by the other mortals. Their desires were predictable—money, knowledge, talent, authority. These were the kinds of people who hunted down ancient parchments with the Words of Invocation inscribed upon them. These were the kinds of people who did not concern their consciences with the compensation Malachai required for his services.
They appreciated a bit of theatrical flair.
So when he received the summons from dispatch, he responded with appropriate formality. Curling smoke, crackling lightning, the wailing of damned souls—a standard business-casual entrance. He waited for his cue, which was usually the sound of a man discovering terror for the first time in his comfortable life. Once that terror had peaked, Malachai would announce himself. Any sooner, and the human would get swept up in proceedings before their fear really set the tone. Thus, on this and all assignments, Malachai waited to hear the panic and the wailing and the what-have-I-wrought’s.
He waited for quite some time.
He looked around, waving his hands to clear some of the lingering smoke—which was actually just high-quality steam. They never noticed the difference, and real smoke would have aggravated his asthma. The result was visually pleasing and left his suit wrinkle-free, but occasionally served to obscure a mortal who was too frightened to plead at the proper volume. Malachai arranged himself into a posture of menace and waited for the last of the steam to dissipate.
There was nobody in the room.
Malachai frowned in puzzlement. There were rooster-shaped salt and pepper shakers on a well-used round table, and a sign hung over the door that read “If you want breakfast in bed, sleep in the kitchen!” This didn’t make sense. He didn’t do domestic calls.
A massive brown Labrador lolloped around the corner, his tail waving frantically. Malachai narrowed his eyes and bared his fangs at the dog. He projected threatening thoughts, visions of Labradors being eaten by bigger, scarier dogs; visions of thunder and flooding and tigers pouncing on unsuspecting puppies; visions of the hounds of Hell shaking off their chains and storming the little kitchen in search of a mortal morsel.
The dog smelled Malachai’s shoes—and, ignoring Malachai’s strenuous objection, also smelled Malachai’s crotch—with great interest. He wuffled to himself about the results and sat. His tail thumped on the linoleum.
Malachai stared at the dog. Looked over his shoulder. Nobody there. Just him and the dog. He crouched in front of the beast and looked into the large, vacant brown eyes. First time for everything.
“Did… uh, did you summon me?”
The dog panted happily and continued thumping his tail.
“I summoned you. He’s a dog. He can’t read Archaic Latin.” A woman walked into the kitchen. Malachai was not good at guessing mortal age, but his best estimate placed her at around…three hundred years old? She was upright and walking, but relied heavily on a dull aluminum cane. Her back was straight, and her eyes were clear, and Malachai assessed her as aware of her encroaching mortality, but not intimidated by it.
Malachai drew himself to his fullest, most menacing height, and began billowing smoke (well, steam). He drew breath to begin his Terrible Introductions. The dog stood and nudged a cold, wet nose into Malachai’s hand.
“Oh, go on and pet him, would you? He’s going to start pouting if you don’t. And enough with the special effects. We have a lot to discuss and not much time.”
Malachai turned to the woman and allowed the fires of Hell to blaze behind his eyes. He hissed in a fashion he had picked up from a colleague with a uniquely crocodilian aspect.
The dog whined softly and nudged at his hand again.
The woman lowered herself into a chair at the kitchen table and raised her eyebrows pointedly at Malachai. “Pet Baxter, and then let’s begin.”
The hellfire and hissing hadn’t worked. There was only one explanation: this was a mistake. The woman was old for a mortal—if he recalled his training, humans started to peter out around three hundred and fifty years or so—and she had probably intended to place an order for a new pelvis or lawn furniture or something. She just didn’t realize who he was. It had never happened to him before, but it wasn’t unheard of—someone means to say “Operator, please connect me to Home Shopping Network customer support,” but they have a stutter, and what comes out instead is an Archaic Latin summoning of a Pestilent Creature.
He turned off the theatrics, patted Baxter on the head, and smiled at the poor, foolish old woman. She did not smile back at him.
“Ma’am. I think you got the wrong number.” No need to scare her. Malachai liked to startle the hubris out of mortals, but causing cardiac arrest in little old ladies gave him no particular satisfaction. He would approach this gently.
“Oh?” A look of very mild concern crossed her brow. “Well, then, who are you?”
Malachai was not used to delivering this next part without a certain amount of panache, but he tried to subdue his tone so as not to shock the woman too badly. Only a small rumble of thunder trickled out; he was proud of his restraint. “I am the Great and Ominous Malachai, Devourer of Miscreants, Archduke of Nightmares, Usurper of Souls. I am He Who Is Called Despair!”
Her brow unfurrowed and she gave a satisfied nod. “It was you I wanted, all right. Please, take a seat. My name is Lydia. Would you like some tea? I have Lemon Zinger and Sleepytime.”
The Archduke of Nightmares patted Baxter’s flank as his Lemon Zinger steeped.
“Baxter is getting on in years, but he’s too dumb to realize it. Just like he’s too dumb to be afraid of you.” Lydia’s hands shook slightly as she lifted her own teacup. The teacup was misshapen and had “#1 Grandma” painted across the front in drippy glaze. “Or maybe he’s like me—too old to be afraid of you.”
Baxter laid his head on Malachai’s knee and sighed with deep contentment; the Usurper of Souls tried to shove the dog away to no avail.
Malachai felt awkward. He had always held a strong position during negotiations—he would arrive with smoke (steam), lightning, baying of hounds, et cetera, and then he would Speak his Title. The person who had summoned him would wet themselves or drop a glass or start gibbering tearfully, and then they would plead for mercy, and then they would offer the life of whatever chump they had available, and then the bargaining could begin. This woman did not seem to know the procedures. He fidgeted in his chair and scratched Baxter’s huge, blocky head.
“So, then, Frail Mortal—”
“Oh, please, no need to be so formal. Call me Lydia.”
“…So, then, ah, Lydia. Ahem. Do You Know The Covenant Which You So Foolishly Invoke At Your Peril?” He rolled the ‘r’ in ‘peril’ to make up for the loss of ‘frail mortal’.
“Oh, yes, Malachai. I know.”
“What Foolish Mortal Have You Designated To Fulfill The Bargain?”
“Myself.” Lydia folded her hands on the table with an air of finality.
“And Where Is The Foolish Mortal—wait, what?”
“I will pay.”
Malachai retracted his claws enough to gently lay a hand on her wrist. “No, no, Lydia, I’m asking you who you’re going to sacrifice. Look, I really don’t think you get how this works—”
Lydia looked at him coolly. “I understand quite well. You grant a request, and you take a soul. Well, I am making a request, and then you are going to grant it, and then you’ll take my soul as payment. This is not difficult to understand, dear.”
Malachai shook his head. He was deeply relieved to find that this was not going to work. “I can’t bill you in arrears. Payment up front. Sorry, it’s policy. Nothing I can do about it.” He stood to leave. “Thank you for the tea.”
Lydia rapped a gnarled knuckle sharply on the wooden tabletop. “Sit down, young man, we are not finished here.”
Malachai brushed dog fur off of his suit pants. “Look, lady, I can’t help you, I’m s—”
“Sit Ye Down, Pestilent Creature.” Her words were imbued with the Power of The Summoner. Malachai eased back into the chair. The Power of The Summoner had not been wielded against him in some time; he thought the practice had died out long ago. Baxter returned his head to Malachai’s lap and drooled agreeably on his knee.
“Now.” The old woman pursed her lips at the demon. “I know the bargain. I’m not stupid and it’s not complicated. I don’t need to be alive for my request to be granted.”
Malachai’s front two sets of ears perked in spite of his intent to sulk. So she did know the procedures. And the technicalities. Lydia noticed his interest and continued with greater confidence.
“I want you to save my wife. She has cancer, and she is going to die, and I want you to make it so that she lives.”
Heaviness settled over the room. Mortals and their cancer. They were always getting cancer. Tears shimmered briefly in Lydia’s eyes; Malachai looked at Baxter, giving the mortal a moment to collect herself. He rubbed the dog’s velvet ears.
“So, you want me to save her, and take you?” He did not lift his gaze from the top of Baxter’s head. Lydia sniffed delicately.
“Yes. I want you to make her young and healthy again. Not too young, mind you. She was happiest at around…thirty-five. I remember because it was our tenth anniversary, and she turned to me, and she said, ‘This is the best I’ve ever felt.’ And we laughed, because you know, we were supposed to be these ‘middle-aged’ women now, and, and—” she broke off and put a hand over her eyes. Malachai was embarrassed for her. Fear displays he could handle, but this was out of his wheelhouse. Hoping to escape her tears, he crouched on the floor to rub Baxter’s belly. The dog made a deep groan like the timbers of an old ship settling.
Lydia laughed as she patted her cheeks with a napkin. “That’s a good sound, from him.”
Before he could stop himself, Malachai laughed, too. “I know. We have some hounds at HQ that make the same noise when we feed them thieves’ souls.”
When he looked back up at Lydia, she was smiling sadly. “So. I’ve said my goodbyes. I’m ready whenever you are. Deborah is just in the other room. Would you like to see her? Do you need to be in the same room to…do it? She won’t know you’re here, I’m afraid. Palliative care.”
Malachai did not want to see the dying female. He also did not want to take Lydia’s soul. For the first time in his career, he did not want to do his job. Lydia folded her hands on the table again, a gesture of infinite patience. He stalled desperately.
“Wait. How did you know how to summon me?”
Lydia smiled. “I’m a snoop. I found it in Deborah’s diary.”
“Where did she get it?”
Lydia shrugged. “How should I know? Is this important?” She was growing impatient. “We don’t have long. The doctors said she could go at any moment. Do I need to sign anything?”
Hearing her sharp tone, Baxter whined and dropped his ears—a portrait of canine guilt. Lydia scratched under his collar. “Good boy. Don’t worry, I’m not mad at you.”
Malachai wanted to stall more but didn’t want Baxter to blame himself for Lydia’s frustration, so he came clean. “I. Geez. This is—I mean. I don’t want to take your soul, Lydia. This is a bad arrangement. Sacrifices—they’re meant to be selfish. Most people kidnap someone, or trick a spouse, or buy a baby on the black market. It’s supposed to be, you know.” He looked at her meaningfully, but her face remained blank. “Evil.”
Lydia frowned. “Well, I don’t want to kidnap anyone. And I only get one request, right? You can’t make us both young again. So why would I want to stick around? To be old and alone? No thank you.” She folded her thin arms across her chest with an air of decision.
Malachai didn’t like the feeling of conspiring with a Foolish Mortal, but he felt compelled by propriety. This woman was doing it all wrong. He lowered his voice.
“I could probably do it if you held hands with her, and if you phrased it just right. ‘I Demand That You Make Us Young And Hale Again, Pestilent Creature,’ something like that.”
“But you still need a sacrifice, and I’m sorry, but I don’t have anyone else to give you.”
Baxter rolled onto his back, hoping to elicit more belly rubs. Malachai looked down at the old dog, then back up at Lydia.
“…you can’t think of anyone?”
The office was massive. A wall of windows looked out over a sparkling city. The spotless desk was made from brushed platinum; the desk chair was upholstered in premium tiger leather. Several overstuffed armchairs were poised around a coffee table made from interlocking elephant tusks. A man in a white suit stood facing a towering fireplace, his hands clasped behind his back. In the fireplace, a sheet of ancient parchment smoldered and crackled. On the panda-skin rug, his captive writhed, struggling to free herself from her bonds before she was to be sacrificed. The man turned as he finished the invocation, prepared to face the demon. He would dominate it. Bend it to his will. He would own this city. He would own the world.
Smoke (steam) billowed through the room. A peal of thunder sounded from somewhere near the brushed platinum desk, and a bolt of lightning split the ivory table in two. The hounds of Hell snarled their rage and wuffled their interest in belly rubs, and the man in the white suit could hear the creaking of their iron chains as they strained to tear his soul from his body with monstrous, gnashing teeth.
A figure appeared in the smoke.
“I am the Great and Ominous Malachai, Devourer of Miscreants, Archduke of Nightmares, Usurper of Souls, Master of the Hound of Chaos!”
The man in the white suit cowered. A dark stain spread across the front of his slacks.
The Hound of Chaos farted softly.
“Baxter, damn it. You—sit. Baxter. Sit.”
The man in the white suit coughed. “Uh, Please, O Ye Harbinger, I Beg Your Mercy.”
The Hound of Chaos sat and thumped his tail against the platinum desk. The Devourer of Miscreants fed him a treat and clicked a little metal training tab before rounding on the man in the white suit.
“Frail Mortal! Do You Know The Covenant Which You So Foolishly Invoke At Your Own—Baxter, down. No, don’t pet him, he needs to learn not to jump up on people. Baxter, sit.”
Malachai gave up. The Hound of Chaos was well on his way to becoming a suitable companion, but he had no sense of theatre at all. The Archduke of Nightmares let out a sigh as the man in the white suit rubbed the Hound’s velvet ears and repeatedly affirmed his status as a Very Good Dog.
It had been worth it, though. It had been worth it to see Lydia and Deborah together, young again, so in love. That had been his first time seeing mortals weep with anything other than terror, and it had been worth the farting and the crotch-sniffing and the endless, constant shedding.
And besides, Malachai thought. Even if Baxter lacked a sense of theatre, he really was a Very Good Dog.
About the Author
Hugo Award Winner and Bestselling author Sarah Gailey is an internationally published writer of fiction and nonfiction. Their nonfiction has been published by Mashable and the Boston Globe. Their short fiction credits include Vice and The Atlantic. Their debut novella, River of Teeth, was a 2018 Hugo and Nebula award finalist. Their bestselling adult novel debut, Magic For Liars, was published in 2019. Their most recent novel, The Echo Wife, is available now. You can find links to their work at www.sarahgailey.com and on social media at @gaileyfrey.
About the Narrator
Originally born in Texas, Tren Sparks eventually escaped and wound his way through a mystical series of jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area where he has worked as a software QA Tester for both graphics drivers and video games, a freelance mascot performer, and several jobs on a PBS kids’ show. For most of his life, people have told him that his voice is a pleasure to listen to. But since being a werewolf phone sex operator can get boring, he decided to use his powers to entertain a broader audience.