Demon in a Box

 

Patrick Welch

 
Ahlbhenzer hid behind the outcropping of rock and watched as the knight warily approached. The man looked so proud and uncomfortable in his metal suit, the sun reflecting brightly off its surface and eliminating any possible element of surprise. Ahlbhenzer wondered briefly if the man was suffering as much from the heat and sun as he was, then decided it must be worse for his prey. Ahlbhenzer, after all, wasn't walking around in an oven.

His claws drummed nervously on the boulder, his tail stirred up dust behind him. The magician's orders were clear: stop all from approaching my castle. It shouldn't be this way, he thought sadly; a demon under the thrall of a human. Without warning or explanation his lord Fhennezel had plucked him like an apple off a tree and unceremoniously handed him over to the magician Cylydar, then vanished without another word. Since then he had been the human's to command and no matter how mundane or distasteful the task Ahlbhenzer had little choice but to obey.

The knight was getting closer now, closer to the trap Ahlbhenzer had set. He must be getting tired by now, and discouraged, Ahlbhenzer thought smugly. Struggling up a rock-strewn path, laden with heavy armor. Did he have any charms? An enhanced blade, anything that might actually prove dangerous? The young demon forced the thought aside.

Ahlbhenzer pushed against his shielding rock one more time. Yes, it would roll quite nicely. Down the mountainside and into the narrow path leading to the castle. How fast can the knight run in his armor? he thought. Time to find out.

Ahlbhenzer let out an ear-piercing, soul-freezing scream, one that echoed and reechoed off the walls of the canyon until it sounded like a virtual army of demons was preparing to attack. Then he dug the claws of his feet into the dirt and shoved with all the strength of his three-foot demon frame. The boulder resisted only briefly, then began its journey down the mountainside. Ahlbhenzer followed, his wings flapping, his screams of rage still resounding off the rock walls.

The knight stopped and withdrew his sword, then reconsidered when he saw the boulder coming his way. He quickly began a clanking retreat, one Ahlbhenzer encouraged by spitting an occasional ball of fire at him. The boulder finally wedged itself firmly in the narrow opening, effectively blocking that entrance, but Ahlbhenzer continued his increasingly slower pursuit until he reached the end of the magical tether the magician Cylydar had placed upon him, the tether that bound him hopelessly and helplessly. By now the knight was beyond the magician's territory and showing no signs of slowing his loud retreat. Ahlbhenzer released one more blast of fire before proudly flying back to see what havoc he had created.

The boulder protected the path from any more incursions. Only magic or an army of men would be able to remove it. Or a demon. He rested atop the boulder and shrugged his wings. He would put it back later. Now he was tired from the hot sun - it was the harsh light, not heat, that troubled him - and his adventure. Time to go back.

The magician Cylydar was waiting for him. "I take it you have disposed of the nuisance?"

"Yes, he will not be bothering you again."

"Where is the body?"

"The body?" Ahlbhenzer frowned, although because of his horned and knobby brow it was difficult to tell. "The man fled. There is no body."

The magician nearly dropped the scrying glass. "You let him live?" The mage's rage was terrible to behold and Ahlbhenzer shivered. "Since when do you let trespassers live?"

Ahlbhenzer's tail fell in dejection. "I saw no reason. He was no longer a threat."

"Don't question me or my orders, Ahlbhenzer. I told you to dispose of him."

"I did." But he knew his protestations would have no effect on Cylydar.

"I like this not. I see I will have to reeducate you on your proper station. Into the box with you. Now!"

Ahlbhenzer gave out a keen of rage and panic, but even as he tried to flee he could feel the magic tether tighten around his throat, could feel himself contracting until within seconds he was ten times smaller... and completely helpless.

Cylydar reached down and plucked him off the floor as if he was no better than a mouse, then opened the lid to a large ebony box on his desk and dropped the demon inside. "Reflect upon your past indiscretions and how you have failed me," he said as he shut it. "You do not question your master."

Ahlbhenzer huddled on the mirrored floor of the box and mewed in terror. The walls and lid were mirrored as well, the light provided by Cylydar's power. Everywhere he turned his visage looked back at him in endless and devolving repetition, stretching onward to seeming infinity. "Fhennezel, why have you abandoned me?" he whined as he fought to maintain his sanity, fought to remember what was down, up, left and right. He would have closed his eyes but, being a demon, was not graced with eyelids. Instead he could only stare back at the accusing Ahlbhenzers around him while continually vowing he would never disobey Cylydar again.

When Cylydar finally deigned to release him it was evening. Ahlbhenzer wasn't sure if hours had passed or days, but the time had not served to soften the magician's anger.

"Make yourself presentable, we have visitors," he said as he reversed the spell. Ahlbhenzer groaned in pain as he slowly reverted to his original size; between his time in the box and the agony of regrowth he was in no condition to meet anyone. Protesting, however, was out of the question. "Shall I dress as a valet?" he asked between gritted teeth.

The magician tugged at his goatee. "Unnecessary. This is not a social occasion. How you appear now will do."

Ahlbhenzer gasped as he was yanked by the invisible leash out of the study and down the hall. Who would visit Cylydar? he wondered as he stumbled behind the magician. The mage lived alone, by necessity and preference. Except for Ahlbhenzer no others shared his castle. And guests had only visited several times in the past three years, emissaries of the king and several magicians. There was also the odd hostage or two but Ahlbhenzer didn't believe those counted. But he did recognize the being who greeted them in the magician's dining hall. "Fhennezel," he blurted and collapsed to his knees.

The demon lord looked at him, sniffed, turned to Cylydar. "Is this why you summoned me?" He flicked his tail in disgust.

"You have not fulfilled our agreement," Cylydar said as he took his seat. Then he glared at Ahlbhenzer. "Stand up, idiot!"

Ahlbhenzer rose slowly, his skin turning from green to sickly yellow as he wilted under the stares of both the demon and the magician. His tail, normally erect, rested limply on the floor.

"I'm sorry," Fhennezel said as he cradled a glass of wine in one taloned hand. "Why are you upset?"

"This demon," and Cylydar nearly jerked Ahlbhenzer off his feet, "continues to disobey my orders! He is more than worthless."

"Is this true?" Fhennezel said to Ahlbhenzer in their own tongue. Demon speech is in ultrasonic frequencies; Cylydar could only assume they were merely looking at each other.

"He told me to stop an intruder. I did so. He was upset I didn't kill the human."

Fhennezel addressed the magician. "You demanded a demon, I gave you one. There were no other conditions."

"This one is as dense as the village idiot! Even when I give him precise instructions he defies me! This is not acceptable," and he slammed his fist on the table.

"You've had him three years; he should be housebroken by now."

"Please, Fhennezel, take me with you! I cannot bear any more of this!"

"Shut up and stand up straight, you craven fool. What Cylydar does to you is none of my concern." Fhennezel finished his wine and crushed the golden goblet, then tossed the remains to Cylydar. "I see no justification for your complaint. He is your responsibility now."

"Fhennezel, you have cheated me for the last time."

Fhennezel smiled. "On the contrary. I'll cheat you at every opportunity. Just as you will cheat me. If you'll excuse me, I have more important matters to attend to." He glared one more time at Ahlbhenzer. "And you," he hissed, "start acting like a demon." Then he was gone in a blast of acrid smoke.

Cylydar swore, then sneezed. "Clean this up," he said and stalked from the room.

Head and tail down, Ahlbhenzer obeyed. He retrieved the ruined goblet and cradled it lovingly. His high lord and master had been here, had actually touched this goblet! Ahlbhenzer shivered with delight at the thought he possessed something that had once been used by Fhennezel.

Then his thoughts shifted. "Start acting like a demon." What did Fhennezel mean by that? It certainly wasn't a philosophical question; after all, he was a demon and could only act as one. How had he failed them, both his lord and his new master? His thoughts returned longingly to the granite caverns of his youth, the lava flows where he and others cavorted, the delightful smell of brimstone that permeated everything. He hadn't even minded the constant tormenting from his instructors as they tried to show him The Way. And then Fhennezel had given him to Cylydar.

But he could not hold his master accountable. It must be Cylydar, he concluded. The mage was still angry he had not killed that knight. But that was not The Way. Only the humans killed for enjoyment or cruelty. Surely Fhennezel knew and understood, surely he could not want Ahlbhenzer to violate such a basic principle. Now back in his own chambers, Ahlbhenzer settled himself on the block of granite that served as his bed and tried to sleep. But with so many questions to ponder he knew he would get none this evening.

 

"Don't leave any dust on that mirror. Place that book back where you found it. Leave the candlesticks alone. Be sure to refill the lamp."

Ahlbhenzer sighed and gave a withering glare to the stuffed owl perched on the mantle in the library. It continued its string of instructions unaware and undeterred. Ahlbhenzer hated housecleaning as he was too short to reach mantles and such without a stool and his claws were ill-equipped to handle a broom or feather duster. But, being the only help, he was the only option.

"Don't open that book," it hooted as he wiped dust off a large tome.

Ahlbhenzer glanced at it with growing interest. This was the first time he had been allowed in Cylydar's library. Usually Cylydar maintained this room himself, but today the magician claimed more pressing matters and ordered him to perform the pedestrian duties.

The thick book was covered with runes and appeared to be made of something other than leather. A book of spells perhaps?, he wondered. Or just the family diary? Knowing what was certain to happen, Ahlbhenzer nonetheless flipped over the cover...and was rewarded with a jolt of pain as the magical tether tightened around his neck.

Gasping, he let the book close and stepped back. The pressure relaxed immediately. The tether. He cursed the magician for imprisoning him with it.

The invisible leash was with him always, ensuring he would remain in the servitude of Cylydar. If somehow he could remove it...

But not today. The owl began its string of instructions once again so Ahlbhenzer quickly returned to his labors. But not before lingering several times over the forbidden book.

 

"Quit standing there and make yourself useful. Bring me that trunk."

It was evening of the following day. The magician had been working on a formula in his laboratory while Ahlbhenzer cowered in a corner. The magical bright light that flowed from the glowing globe high in the ceiling was blinding him, and without eyelids he could only use his arms to shield himself. He hated being around Cylydar while the mage was experimenting; too often he was the subject.

"I said now," and Ahlbhenzer felt an insistent tug on his leash. Chastened, he walked to the trunk the magician pointed at. It was large and wide and he had a struggle getting his arms around it even at the side. Even with his great strength it was going to be difficult to move. Ahlbhenzer sank his claws into it and managed to lift it off the floor. Using his tail and wings for balance, he started slowly towards his master.

His clawed feet, so helpful when outdoors, were nearly useless on the smooth granite floor. Something shifted within the heavy trunk, jeopardizing his balance. Ahlbhenzer tried to compensate but lost his footing. As he fell backward, he found himself looking straight at the glowing globe. He screamed then and dropped the trunk as he tried to shield his eyes from the searing light. The trunk crashed majestically on the floor, scatting paraphernalia everywhere.

"What kind of moronic incompetent idiot are you?" Cylydar raged as he turned to see Ahlbhenzer rolled up and shaking on the floor, the tell-tale wreckage about him. "You have ruined my experiment!" Muttering curses, Cylydar approached the cowering demon. "You will pay dearly for this, Ahlbhenzer. To the box with you!"

Ahlbhenzer felt himself jerked to his feet, then the terrible pain of compression, then the magician's cold fingers squeezing his now-minuscule body. "Fhennezel and I will have another talk," the magician vowed. Minutes later he was back in the box, looking at a myriad of Ahlbhenzers stretching endlessly in all directions.

He huddled on the floor and stared at the images staring back at him. You are an idiot, he imagined them saying. You are a worthless incompetent disgrace. Be a demon, came the voice of Fhennezel, unbidden. Be a demon. Ahlbhenzer rose slowly, awkwardly. A demon wouldn't allow himself to suffer such indignities at the hands of a mere human. He flexed his wings. He had never tried this before, never tried to fly while in the confines of the box. But his prison was large enough. He leapt and flew toward what he hoped was the top of his mirrored cage.

He rammed solidly into it, fell back, tried again. Within seconds he was completely disoriented. With reflections on all sides, Ahlbhenzer wasn't sure if he was flying into the sides, the top or the bottom. Think, you idiot, he chastened himself as he caromed once again off a wall. You can always find the bottom.

He stopped flying, let himself fall into an ocean of onrushing Ahlbhenzers. He picked himself off, shook himself, then looked up. If this was the base, the lid could only be directly above. Steeling himself, he flew up with all his strength into what had to be the lid. He bounced off, allowed himself to fall, then tried again. The second time he felt something give, just slightly. Encouraged, he tried again. Yes, he did feel the lid move. He tried again; this time he saw a slight separation on one side, a small glimpse of darkness in the all-encompassing light. Ahlbhenzer dropped to the bottom, then walked in that direction until he ran into the wall. Then he flew straight up and was able to raise the lid just a sliver.

But it was enough. He was ready this time; he managed to wedge his claws into the small opening so when the lid quickly closed they were wedged firmly beneath it. Ahlbhenzer would not be denied now; he scratched at the mirrored wall with his clawed feet until he was able to obtain a perilous purchase. He arched his wings and lifted the lid nearly an inch, allowing him to get one hand under the lid. Now he had enough leverage to use most of his strength. Another five minutes of painful effort and he was out of the box and flying free in Cylydar's study.

Ahlbhenzer was exhausted and aching everywhere from his countless collisions and wanted only to rest. But being free of the box did not make him free of Cylydar, not with the tether which still bound him. He was not used to viewing Cylydar's residence from aloft, having never flown indoors before. It took him several moments to recognize his surroundings, then find the door and leave. He stayed near the ceiling as he flew into the hall. It was doubtful Cylydar would still be up, but then he had no idea how long he had been in the box.

Not sure how much time he might have, he flew quickly to the library. Would the watch owl see him? he wondered. Did Cylydar have magical alarms in place? He suspected not. All of the magician's defenses he was aware of were designed to prevent trespassers from entering. He was already inside. His eyes adapted rapidly to the lack of light. He saw the large tome resting so invitingly on the table and landed next to it. But even as he began to open it he felt the magical leash tighten around his neck. Ahlbhenzer stepped back and felt the pressure ease. Not that way.

He did a rapid reconnaissance and found a small wand, one which even in his minuscule condition he could wield. Hovering above the book, just beyond the point where he felt the leash tighten, he wedged the wand under the cover then forced the book to open. He quivered as the cover hit the table; could Cylydar have heard that?

Ahlbhenzer couldn't worry about that now. He read the first page and realized with delight that this was indeed a book of spells. Using the wand again, he turned to the next page, then the next. Until after what seemed like hours he found the spell that had bound him for these past few years. And the words that, once spoken, removed the tether forever from his neck. One more thing to do; now that the tether no longer interfered, he quickly closed the book and returned the wand to where he had found it. Then back down the hall and to the box. To wait for Cylydar.

 

"Wake up, worthless. You and I are going to see Fhennezel," Ahlbhenzer heard Cylydar say as the lid flew open. Ahlbhenzer tried to scuttle away but the magician grabbed him quickly, then threw him to the floor. "I shall tolerate no more of your incompetence."

Is he going to keep me like this? Ahlbhenzer wondered as he followed behind the magician. He was tempted to fly but thought better of it. Instead he used his wings to help him scuttle across the floor as rapidly as his even shorter legs would carry him. He wondered if the magician knew he had thrown off his magical chains, but by all actions Cylydar seemed unaware.

"Now sit and be still," Cylydar said as he set Ahlbhenzer roughly on the great stone table in the laboratory. Ahlbhenzer folded his wings around himself in total servility as Cylydar began to intone an ancient ritual, then made arcane gestures. There was a puff of crimson smoke and Fhennezel suddenly appeared.

And was none too pleased. "You dare summon me again, Cylydar?" He glared at the mage, then at Ahlbhenzer.

"I can tolerate this one's insolence and incompetence no longer," Cylydar replied, unmoved. "This game has gone on long enough. I demand you live up to our agreement."

Fhennezel picked at his fangs with one giant claw. "We had this discussion before."

"This incompetent has totally ruined my most delicate experiments, destroyed my most valuable equipment." Cylydar pointed to the overturned trunk and damaged contents that still remained where Ahlbhenzer had dropped them. "I demand retribution."

Fhennezel glared at Ahlbhenzer. "What have you to say for yourself?" This time he spoke in human tongue.

"I couldn't help it," Ahlbhenzer said. "I lost my balance. I did not intend to drop it."

His lord waved him silent. "I fail to see how an imp could be expected to carry anything that large, Cylydar."

"He was in his regular size. His current condition is merely for punishment." He made another gesture and Ahlbhenzer suddenly found himself growing. He managed to jump off the table before it collapsed under his regained weight.

"It took you long enough," Fhennezel said to Ahlbhenzer in demon speech. Then he looked at the magician. "Thank you for returning Ahlbhenzer to what he was; I doubt I could have done as much. Now I am pleased to say our agreement is concluded. We'll be leaving now." With that both Fhennezel and Ahlbhenzer disappeared in a cloud of smoke, leaving the magician coughing and swearing.

 

"What did you mean, took me long enough?" Ahlbhenzer asked. They were back in the granite caverns of his own world, and while he wanted only to luxuriate in the burning heat and delightful smells of brimstone and lava, his curiosity had to be satisfied.

"To graduate, fool. To escape from the magician."

Ahlbhenzer stared at his lord. "To graduate?"

"Absolutely. It is necessary you learn how to deal with humans, learn about their true nature, their power and weaknesses. All my underlings go through such an apprenticeship."

An apprenticeship. Ahlbhenzer quivered with delight that he had pleased his lord. "But what if I hadn't...passed?"

"You'd stay with Cylydar until the end of time. I have no use for demons who cannot free themselves from a magician as weak as he."

"Did Cylydar know this?"

"No, and there's no reason for him to. He has his uses, as do most humans. When the time is right I'll send him another student. Hopefully," he glared at Ahlbhenzer, "they won't cause me so many headaches. Now begone with you. I have matters of much greater importance to address."

Ahlbhenzer was smiling as he left his lord's quarters. Graduation. He was now a demon of full standing! He stretched his wings and let out a roar of delight. Fhennezel would surely be summoning him soon for some assignment or another. Until then, a refreshing dip in the lava pools would be nice.

 
 
 
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Author Bio

While matriculating at Bowling Green State University, Patrick sold fiction to Riverside Quarterly and Analog. After over a twenty year break, he returned to fiction about three years ago and has sold stories to Eternity, Jackhammer, Orphic Chronicle, Bloodfetish and other magazines.

His first novel, The Thirteenth Magician, was released by Dark Star Publications in September 1999. An anthology of his short fiction, The Body Shop, will be available in May from the same publisher. Reviews and excerpts for The Thirteenth Magician can be found on his web site.

 


 

 
 
 

Copyright © 1999 Patrick Welch. All rights reserved. Published by permission of the author.
 
This page last updated 1-11-00.

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