Ahlz, formerly an undersecretary to the Heavenly Host, formerly accountant and general batman to Vassago, Demon of Treasures Lost, was just thinking for the millionth time that he would like to exsanguinate the cherubim responsible for his punishment, when at long last, he was released.
“Final-freaking-ly.” This was his first word upon regaining the ability to breathe and vocalize. The little demon’s body began to solidify, wispy curls of smoke coming together to form arms and legs. He moaned as sensation returned with a litany of painful pinpricks. “Ethereal my ass, I’m sure I pulled something in there.”
A moment later, Ahlz appraised himself. He was, more or less, as he remembered: short and stocky, covered in chestnut-brown hair; bandy-legged, with feet that splayed into three pointed toes, like a chicken’s. He felt for the circlet of tiny goat’s horns jutting out of the baldpate on the top of his head. They all seemed to be intact.
“Right.” Finding himself present and generally correct, Ahlz turned at last to his rescuer.
He blinked his iris-less eyes. Ahlz had little firsthand experience with mortals, but he expected to find them significantly taller. He was only just five feet, and yet this mortal met him at eye-level. Its nutty skin was sallow and sunken, and thick spectacles all but obscured its eyes.
The mortal moved its lips soundlessly for a moment, as though steeling itself. Then, in a remarkably strong voice for so frail a creature, boomed, “The hell did you come from?”
Ahlz thought quickly, trying to recall the spiel they’d given him for this moment way back when. “Fret not, ye mortal,” he said hesitantly. “For I am the Spirit imprisoned in thine Vessel. Thou hast freed me in mercy, and I, in gratitude—”
“What? Slow down, I can’t hear ya!” The mortal tapped something nestled in its right ear; Ahlz heard a high, whining buzz. “Say again.”
Somewhat put out, the demon began again. “I was locked in the bottle for millennia. You have freed me, and I—”
“The hell do you mean? That bottle?” The mortal waved a gnarly hand to the floor, to a pile of gossamer shards glimmering dully as the life faded from them. “Don’t be stupid. That thing’s been empty since before I got it.”
“You broke it!” gasped Ahlz. “That bottle was a priceless piece of high art!” Though he had been imprisoned in the thing for more years than could be counted on any hand that ever was, Ahlz had limitless appreciation for craftsmanship, which had served him well in service to the Lord of Lost Treasures.
“It was a tarnished piece of crap,” the mortal said flatly. “Collectors didn’t want it. People at the flea market wouldn’t buy it. I had the damn thing near on sixty years, and I still couldn’t give it away.”
“You had that bottle sixty years?” Ahlz squeaked. “And you never thought to rub it?”
“Of course not. Why’d I want to? Could hardly stand to look at the thing. Anyway,” the mortal shook his finger. “Don’t try and weasel your way round me, young man. I wanna know where you come from!”
But Ahlz had noticed his surroundings, and was exulting in his pseudo-soul at what he saw. The walls were crowded with a more impressive collection of gimcrackery and antiques than he’d ever seen. Only some of it he recognized—the stuffed moose’s head, the curving pattern on the thickly woven rug—but the rest was as alien to him as the most ancient of treasure troves.
Oh, to have the time to catalog it all! To examine every exquisite piece, learn its value, both intrinsic and instrumental. To have the freedom to luxuriate in mankind’s endless desire for innovation and novelty…
The demon regained control of himself and solemnly returned to the matter at hand. “Look,” he said to the mortal, as patiently as he could. “This is how it works. I was in the bottle. You freed me. Now you get three of whatever you want. Right? Anything at all.” He clapped his hands, and waited. “Get on with it, old one.
“That’s about it,” rasped the mortal. “My name is Don Benton, kid, and I ain’t putting up with playing around, ya hear?” He turned away, taking up an ebony black cane that clacked on the cement floor. “You just tell your Aladin routine when the police get here.”
“Where are you going? Get back here!” demanded Ahlz. Shadows rose from the corners. Winds whipped from nowhere, scattering jacket sleeves and rustling papers. The smell of rot perfumed the walls. “Stop right where you are, you stupid monkey.”
To his surprise, the old mortal came to a halt. The cane fell from his hand, which seemed ignorant of the fact as it clutched spasmodically at the air.
With a wheezy gust of breath, the mortal fell flat on his face, and lay still.
Ahlz strangled a shriek. “What are you doing?!” He rushed to the prone figure, turned him onto his back. “You can’t die! If you die they’ll take me back and stick me in something else for another few thousand years! Get up!”
Again Benton moved his lips, struggling to form words. Spittle bubbled at the corners of his mouth. He could not draw breath.
Ahlz felt his chest, trying to recall where the heart might be. Eventually he gave up and appealed to the mortal once more. “You don’t want to die, do you? I know you don’t! I can help you but you have to say it.”
The mortal’s gray tongue lolled weakly. Eyes fluttered towards the back of his head.
“Say it!” screamed Ahlz. “Say ‘I don’t want to die!’”
With a masterful effort of will, the old man gasped a breath. His voice was less than a whisper.
“…don’t want to die…”
It was enough for Ahlz. “Shit.” Not allowing himself to hesitate, the demon reached into Benton’s chest…
When Don Benton came to, he was lying on the floor of his garage, his heart beating strong and sure. He breathed easily, not feeling even a trace of the pain that had gripped his chest for so long.
Ahlz was lying against the old mahogany dresser, holding himself and shaking. A remarkable change had come over the demon; his handsome face was lined, and there were traces of gray in his pelt.
Benton stared long and hard at the creature, blinking slowly, his eyes roaming up and down its satyr-ish body. “You okay?”
Ahlz shook his head wearily. “Took more than I thought. You were almost too far gone. Had to use so much. To bring you back.”
“You saved me.” Benton said it blandly, without gratitude. What was the life of an eighty year old widower worth, anyway?
“You told me to,” replied Ahlz. “That’s the deal. I coached you a bit, but it still stands.” Ahlz pulled himself up, swayed, and stood. He held out a hand.
Benton gripped it, and Ahlz pulled. The old man’s knees popped and protested as he rose back to his feet. “So I get two more?”
Ahlz nodded distractedly, running his fingers through his graying hair. “Locked away in the bottle until someone comes along. Grant them any three wishes they want. Those’re the terms of my punishment.”
“But it’s hurting you. Do you get to go free afterwards?”
“Maybe. Depends on what you wish for.” Ahlz patted his chest. “I’m not flesh and blood like you are. I am the divine breath and celestial light that set in motion the process of creation. I am godstuff, Benton. Secondhand and only slightly foxed. And the terms of my confinement mean that I must sacrifice my substance to your whims.”
Benton fiddled again with the whining device in his ear. “Nope, seems to be working. So you’re saying that by giving me three of whatever I want, you kill yourself?”
The demon grinned without mirth. “In theory, I get to retain whatever bit of life I have left over once I’ve granted your wishes. In all likelihood, I’ll boil away to nothingness.”
“Damn.” Benton gave Ahlz anothr appraising look. “What the hell did you do to deserve this, fella?”
Ahlz took a breath, and his feet failed him. Benton caught him as he fell, marveling that the demon weighed practically nothing.
“I fell, Benton,” Ahlz whispered. “I fell.”
It was slow-going for Benton to drag Ahlz out of his garage and up to his house, but the old man managed. He was feeling stronger than he had in years, no longer wheezing with his chest on fire. His joints still ached, and it was still a struggle to open the door, but at last they came to the living room.
Ahlz woke on Benton’s couch. The old mortal sat across from him in a ratty recliner, drumming his fingers on the head of his cane.
Ahlz felt nothing but the bitter detachment of the hopelessly condemned. “You’d better make your wish now. While I’m feeling fresh.”
Benton clucked his dentures thoughtfully. “Alright. I wish you free.”
Ahlz tried to laugh. His throat was dry, and it sounded more like a death rattle. “I appreciate the thought. But God learned from the apple. He thought of that one. Doesn’t take any more risks. You gotta wish for something else.”
“Nothing I want.”
“Not true,” the demon said with certainty. He pointed to a dresser. Photographs stood arrayed in various frames. Most of them featured two young people: a man with dark hair, and a smiling woman with brown curls. “The portraits are good. Better than any I saw in my day. And she is beautiful.”
“If you are wise, young man,” Benton said simply. “You won’t go there.”
Ahlz considered this. “To be young again, then. I’m sure you’d want that. There’s lots a young man can do an old man can’t.”
Benton said nothing. Ahlz looked around the room with approval, taking in the glass globes with preserved flowers, the watercolor landscapes and the grandfather clock, the glass fronted cabinet full of little statues and figurines. “Are you a treasure hunter?”
“That’s all Beryl’s stuff. She couldn’t resist a bargain. Went to a lot of garage sales. A lot of flea markets.” Benton held out his cane. “She bought me this.”
Ahlz admired the flattened snake’s head that topped the cane, and ran his fingers along the swirls of scales curving round its body. “Before I was imprisoned, I was a cataloger of Lost Treasures. I examined every possible trinket that might lead a man astray, noted its workmanship and worth. I know where the Arc of the Covenant is, and the Philosopher’s Stone. I hid the Seal of Solomon, and rode the Vimana to its final resting place. I hid them all. And I adored them.”
“Sounds like you should be running a museum.”
The demon said nothing, and handed back the cane. Benton took it, and set it aside. “I’d let you have it, if you thought you’d be around to use it.”
“I’d like to,” said Ahlz. “It’s a lovely piece.”
Benton shifted uncomfortably in his seat, looking away from the demon as if uneasy. “The more I think of it, the more I like the sound of being young. I fooled around a lot as a young man. Had a lot of fun. Seems to me I can put my mind to a lot now, if I had the energy.”
“How young would you like to be?”
“Oh, say. Twenty-five.”
Ahlz nodded. “So you are.”
Don Benton stood up from his chair, raised his hands to his face. They were firm and smooth, his fingers firm. He went to the bathroom, and started at his reflection in the mirror. A face six decades’ dead gawped stupidly back at him.
He felt his face, tugged at his midnight dark hair. He smiled, and his reflection matched him for a straight, white grin.
“God damn.” Benton unbuttoned his shirt, felt his stomach. Pancake-flat. “God damn.”
Returning to his living room, Benton saw the mummified creature lying on his couch.
Ahlz’s hair was brittle and dry. His sunken face clung to his skull like a bad mask. He grinned at the youthful figure standing above him, revealing a mouth of blackened, rotted fangs. “Just enough of me left,” he croaked. “Better make it a good one.”
Don Benton looked down at his clothes; the moth-eaten flannel shirt, the old jeans stained with meals of years’ past. “This ain’t right,” he said. “Me being young and free again, with you rotting away. Don’t matter what you did, nobody deserves to go out like this.”
“That’s the way of it. Believe me, it’s preferable to being stuffed in a bottle for so long.” He held out a hand, veiny and skeletal. Benton held it, gently.
“I die redeemed,” whispered Ahlz. “In a house of lost treasures. I think that’s the best I can hope for. Now please. Your last wish.”
“I don’t want anything else. This’ll do me fine. What can I do for you? What do you want?”
“I want nothing.”
Benton felt the decades pressing on him, all through the house. So many doors he hadn’t opened in years, packed wall to wall with things he couldn’t bear to sell off. His wife, and his regrets, and his forgotten hopes.
He looked down at the demon, and whispered. “Not true.”
Don Benton damn near danced down the street, in a slick yellow suit that hadn’t fit in years. He’d found it buried behind racks of garment bags. It still reeked of mothballs, but the air would do it good.
The bank would still be open. Beryl and Don Benton had no children, and there was a tidy amount of money stashed away. With the right car and a bit of luck, he could go a long way.
Alone in the house, Ahlz, formerly a djinni, formerly a demon, formerly an angel, sat by the open cabinet. In his hands he held a statuette of a raging bull, its flank pierced by tiny bandoliers. He marveled at the painted blood, the gore-flecked horns.
There were doors yet to open. He had time.
Daniel Hale is an amateur storyteller living in Massillon, Ohio. An ardent bibliophile an aspiring anglophile, when not writing he spends his time acquiring books faster than he can read them and perfecting his British accent. He has been published in Beorh Quarterly, Revolt Daily, “All Hallow’s Evil” by Mystery and Horror, LLC, “What Has Two Heads, Ten Eyes, and Terrifying Table Manners,” by Mega Thump Publishing, and the upcoming “The Last Diner” by Knightwatch Press. Find him atdanielhale42.wordpress.com.