This was all the hounds really were: a smear of mud, a bit of spit, a handful of ash. And my words. The demons animated them with a laying on of hands, but there was nothing to make them what they were until I called them hounds.
It’s all about intention.
It was foul work, and I didn’t like it. Demons aren’t good company — the worst, actually, no matter who you ask — and I was helping create an instrument of torment. And I had never really liked getting my hands dirty. But I’d always loved dogs. So I made the very best dogs I could.
Hound I breathed into the shapeless ear of one of the demonic forms, rolling the ear flap out long. Stretch. I patted the mud into haunches, smoothed my hands over ashen legs, pressed my thumbs to form hocks. Wag I told the tail as I pulled it long and straight.
That was the most important part. If a dog couldn’t show that it was happy, it stopped being happy. And if there was one thing I’d learned about hell hounds, it was that when they were unhappy, they killed a lot of people.
I had made many hounds by the time the demons brought me an assistant. He was older than I was — well, he looked older — and he had a square, cocky shoulders that looked used to holding up a suit. His expression said clearly that he was not sorry, that he did not know why he was here, he would not be beaten down by these godforsaken demons and when would he get to speak to the manager around here?
I didn’t know exactly why he was here, but I could guess the general principle.
“Hello,” I said as he joined me, pacing around the room, looking for escape. I don’t know why he bothered. I could never find any walls, much less doors. We were contained by darkness, and how could you argue with that? “I’m Anna.”
He didn’t answer. He patted his pockets as if searching for a cellphone and continued to pace restlessly. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to make him help me, or even if he would know how. I didn’t trust him to get the wag right, though, so I didn’t press the issue. I just kept about my work, cross-legged in the middle of the floor, scooping up a handful of slime and a toss of ash and spitting into it. I was about four dogs away from a hunt.
The businessman — he could’ve been anything I suppose, but in my head, he had to be a businessman — had ceased pacing by the time I’d made another hounds and was instead standing with his hands in his pockets, looking off into the distance with an efficient gaze. It was the posture of a man waiting for a taxi.
Insurance company CEO, I mused. Breathe, I whispered to the flat side of a partially formed hound. Weapons manufacturer. Pant, I said as I ironed out a lolling tongue. Medical director. Be gentle, I whispered as I rolled teeth to points.
“I won’t do that,” the businessman said, out of the blue.
I didn’t know how much time I had left to finish the dogs before the demons came, so I kept my eyes on my work. “And what’s that?”
“Make those hounds. I won’t be party to murder.”
Ah, but he sounded so righteously indignant now. I envied him, those moments before I figured it out. I didn’t bother answering. He would distract me, I’d make a mistake, or I’d be too slow, and the demons would come well before all thirteen hounds were done.
Wag, I told the tail. Be a hound.
I felt the businessman’s eyes on me as I started on the next hound. Two more to go. This time, I might actually make all thirteen before they came. It hadn’t happened yet, but I also had not gotten a roommate before now. So anything was possible. And it was worth trying.
“How can you do that?” he demanded. His voice was large; I imagined it filling a board room and swaying votes.
I slid a hand over hip bones. “If I don’t make them, the demons will.”
“So? I do not follow.” The way he said it, both aggressive and somehow familiar, made me imagine him saying it to his wife. In my head, she was a pudgy blonde woman with very expensive highlights.
“So I mitigate what I can,” I replied. Mercy I whispered to the jaws of the hound I had just formed. “It’s the price I pay.”
Under my hands, the mud suddenly warmed and bubbled, and my heart sank. Twelve. Better than last time. But still, one short of a perfect pack.
The other hounds began to shiver and twist into life as the demons’ power rippled the final hell hound into shape below me. I stood back; it was far less hound-like than the pack I had made, its face a mockery of the dogs I shaped. While the other hounds pressed up against me, nosing my hand, baying in their anticipation, the final hound snapped at me as it pulled itself out of the ash. Snarling at the rest of the pack, it twisted, grew, simmered, and finally leapt through the darkness that contained us, leading the other hounds with it.
Suddenly the darkness shimmered into a mirror finish. For a brief moment I saw myself, hands covered with mud, face streaked with ash, face tired, reflected beside the businessman, still shiny and powerful. And then our walls became windows, because we were watching the hunt, as always.
“We have to watch?” the businessman asked, his voice dismayed for the first time.
The hounds streamed out of a gutter in some far off town, dark and dripping mud. Twelve tails waved above them, twelve tongues lolled, twelve hounds clambered happily across the streets. One hound streaked silently before them, tail a flag out behind it. They were heading to a playground. It was always a playground. Or a children’s ICU. Or a nursery. Someplace with innocents. Someone without any firm intentions at all.
“Yes,” I said, and knelt back in the middle to begin making more dogs. “Yes, we have to watch every hunt.”
The businessman crossed his arms over his chest and bristled, “Well, that’s just patently unfair. I don’t see why –”
And then the single demon-made hound chose its mark — a pigtailed girl on a swingset — snapping at her legs, swallowing her scream. The rest of the pack milled around, tails in the air, noses on the ground. Happy at their work. Happy to be dogs. Their tails wagged, wagged, wagged. Just the one hound that I’d missed, gulping down a life.
The businessman watched in silence. My hounds were already shriveling back into dust and mud, merely grime on the mulch of the playground. The demon-made hound took only a moment longer, melting into nothing, leaving just a twisted body behind. Already a teacher was hurrying over.
The businessman had a knuckle pressed to his teeth as the walls swarmed back into darkness.
“What did you do?” I asked him.
He didn’t remove the knuckle from his lips or look away from the dark.
“School bus driver,” I said. I shaped a muzzle from the clay. “I caught my husband — actually, it doesn’t matter why it was. Only matters what I did. I came to work drunk. I had twenty-four kids in the back when I pulled out in front of the semi-truck.”
I waited for the moment of dawning, when he realized the balance to it, why we were here watching innocents die over and over again. For the realization of what his eternity was. I waited for the confession, for how many innocents he had killed while wearing his suit.
But he just walked to me and knelt beside me, pressing his hands into the mud.
In the end, it wasn’t about my curiosity. It was about this. Our hands in the mud. We would be faster, two of us.
“Let me tell you about intention,” I said.
image source: Dimmerswitch
for our hellhound common prompt this week