KUZIBAH
Written by V. C. Hale and Bob Beideman,
from an original story by V. C. Hale.

  Illustrated by V. C. Hale

 

He stood inside his study inside the large house, looking out the window at the yard stretched out beneath him, and thought of days long ago.

There were sounds of bustling through the rooms around him: voices raised in raucous laughter and celebration, loud music, bumpings and skitterings across the hardwood floors. He listened in an amused and detached way. Although the house was never what would be considered completely calm – there were many that walked the carpeted halls with him, and quite a few could easily be considered natural forces for chaos – he was able to enjoy isolated moments of peace and solitude, which he treasured. They would be difficult to find in the coming hours.

He wasn't avoiding the festivities. There were things to attend to, and he was planning to join his housemates shortly. But for now, some waves of past memories washed over him, and he found himself drifting for a time in nostalgia. To those who knew him well, this would be surprising, for they rarely found him dwelling on the bygone. But this was a special time, and he breathed deeply of antiquity.

Beside him, on the small couch before the bookcases, was an open box with colored paper laid neatly beside it. Red ribbon lay tangled beside that, and in front of the incipient package was a well-worn deck of playing cards.

He looked at the package for a moment, and permitted himself a small smile. Then he turned back towards the window, and the past…

 

CARPATHIAN

 

Carpathian stood on the Widow's Walk of the House. His bleach-boned face shone in the moonlight, and a spring breeze stirred in the gossamer fabric of his robes. He sighed deeply, contentedly; satisfied to be the Lord of his manor.

In the time since the sorceress Elizabeth had left the mansion to his care, its condition had improved dramatically. The broken boards had been replaced, damage had been repaired, and much of the antique furniture stored in the attic of draped with sheets had been pressed back into active service. Carpathian was gratified to note that the mansion still retained a decaying beauty, an air of long-ago elegance that he felt suited him.

His friends at LAST CALL had sent displaced and homeless ghosts and spirits to him until they could find permanent dwelling. These helped with the House, and in turn kept him company. He had resisted taking them in, at first, remembering his first house, the tragedy, and the sacrifice. But in the end he welcomed them, knowing he was their only refuge.

Haggatha, an earth spirit, and Cobweb, her daughter by an ancient spider god, had been his first guests, and they resided with him still. Haggatha had become a kind of den mother, assisting him with the younger, more impetuous spirits. Cobweb too, had been valuable decorating and arranging the cavernous rooms to make them more comfortable.

Elmo had come next, with his ghastly band of cellar-dwellers from Carpathian's first home. Festooned in chains and torn denim, Elmo's ghoulish demeanor was softened by his wide smile and loud laughter, rock-n'-roll attitude and constant practical jokes. He was one of the most popular ghosts in the House, and his antics even brought Carpathian a smile, abeit occasionally an exasperated one. With his balloons, New Year's Eve noisemakers and electric guitar, Elmo was a welcome if somewhat less than calming addition.

They continued to come; witches, warlocks, werewolves, vampires, zombies, ghosts, ghouls, spectres and spirits, each with their own styles and tastes and concerns and conflicts. Some stayed for only a day, some longer, few took up permanent residence, but each required Carpathian's personal attention. At times he felt like a traffic director, herding the summer's visitors out the back door while the autumn creatures slithered through the front. It was difficult at times, frustrating at others, yet not long after the House had been opened, Carpathian realized that it was his pleasure, and his joy. Despite his hesitations, his destiny had come clear. Along with his storytelling, he was his spirit's keeper and master of the Haunted House, as simply as that.

The door behind him opened, and he turned to see Haggatha, her face a bright spring green, like the leaves she mimicked. Her shawl was drawn around up around her against the damp. “Have you seen the lilies?” she said. “The Black Dragons? They've started to come up. If we don't have another hard frost, the should be absolutely spectacular by June.”

Carpathian studied the sky critically. “I do not think you need worry about that. I believe the last frost is behind us.”

“Oh, I do hope so,” Haggatha agreed. She turned and surveyed the lawn below. A ground spirit, displaced by a high-rise that had gone up on his dwelling, rested beside a bed of foxglove and monks-hood, looking for all the world like another large clod of earth. His hand, like a gnarled vine, reached out and carefully dislodged some moss, which he transferred lovingly to his back. Beyond him, along a back hedgerow, ghost children, brother and sister, half-walked and half-floated over the grass.

“Summer seems nearly upon us,” Carpathian said, “and the evenings will be warm. Perhaps we should try to find some benches, to enjoy the night air beneath the trees.” He prodded a few of the cedar shingles below him with his walking staff. “When the weather warms up, we should consider tightening up this roof. Too many of our guests enjoy perching on it.” There was a long pause, and he turned back to Haggatha. “My Dear…?”

Haggatha was gazing down at the lawn. “Now what are those two up to?”

Carpathian looked down. The two children were staring down into a ditch surrounded by brush. Tentatively the boy poked into the ditch with a branch. It was jerked suddenly out of his hands and both children jumped back, startled.

He and Haggatha headed for the stairs and the reached the garden in less than a minute. The two children were still staring wide-eyed into the ditch.

“Here now, sweethearts,” Haggatha soothed, putting her arms around them. “What scared you so?”

The children did not reply, but the older, the girl, pointed down into the ditch. Carpathian crouched down and peered into the darkness. “I do not see anything,” he said. “But let's throw some light on the subject…” He made a magical gesture, and a small glow appeared in his hand. In the blackness beyond, two orange eyes shone back.

Carpathian reached out, beckoning, and was answered with a low, rumbling growl. He gestured again to increase the light. A human-like face, but with glowing orange eyes, sharp white teeth, and what looked like horns withdrew back into the shadows.

Carpathian studied the figure a moment, then dimmed the light and retreated to where Haggatha stood with the children. “Take them inside, my dear,” he instructed, “and ask Elmo to join me.”

“A visitor?”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not a welcome one.”

Haggatha herded the children ahead of her into the house, and Carpathian sank down to a crouch, leaning on his stick and carefully watching the ditch. There was no movement within. A few minutes later, Elmo stepped over to him. “Hunting rabbits?”

“Something like that.”

“What is it?”

“I do not know,” Carpathian said quietly. “But I suspect it may be dangerous. Should I not be able to subdue it, I'll need you to make certain it doesn't threaten the House.”

Elmo gave a small laugh. “No problem,” he said. “I always wanted to be a Slayer, like Buffy.”

“You'd make a lovely couple,” Carpathian said dryly. “Let's hope it won't come to that.” Carpathian rose and approached the brush, gesturing again as light began to illuminate the ditch.

The brush suddenly exploded in a profusion of furry limbs and reaching claws. Carpathian was knocked backwards to the ground, his staff flying from his fingers. In a rush he saw something part animal, with coarse hair covering at least two extremities, and long horns that butted forward over him.

Carpathian shook his head, trying to clear his vision. He rolled quickly to his feet and stopped, staring in astonishment.

Elmo held the creature calmly in his arms, his grip firm, his stance relaxed despite the spitting, snarling fury in his clutches.

Carpathian studied it a moment. It was female, definitely, and human from the waist up. Below she had the stocky hindquarters of a goat, complete with hooves and a tail. On her head, rising out of the filthy, matted hair were two gently curving horns about eight inches long. She was clad lightly in a tattered blouse, like her skin and fur caked with dirt.

Elmo smiled serenely. “Where would you like it?”

 

ELMO

 

“Who are you?”

It spat and made a blasphemous suggestion, but said nothing more.

“Enough of that now,” Carpathian said sternly. “I ask again…who are you?” They were inside the house now. He sat in the large stuffed chair in the living room, Elmo and Haggatha behind him. The creature huddled on the floor, glaring at them.

“What do you think it is?” whispered Haggatha.

“I dunno…maybe a Minotaur?”

Haggatha looked at him, eyes widening. “That's amazing!”

“You think that's what it is?” Elmo asked excitedly.

“I have no idea. I'm just astonished you know what a Minotaur is!”

“Friends…” They turned; Carpathian looked up in gentle reproach. “You're truly not helping.” He turned back to the creature. “We're waiting.” It still didn't reply, but her orange eyes glittered as she looked Carpathian up and down.

“Very well,” Carpathian said calmly, rising to his feet. “If you do not see fit to answer, then you may leave this place.”

The creature blinked, then sat up, back on her haunches. Carpathian gripped his staff a little tighter, keeping his eyes on their guest. The creature blinked again, then covered her face with her hands. She gave out a high-pitched squeak, and Carpathian realized with surprise that she was crying.

I'm so sorry,” the thing said through her tears. “I didn't mean to hurt anyone. I was just so scared.”

“Who are you?” Carpathian asked a little more gently, still watching her warily.

“Kuzibah,” she said, still sobbing slightly.

“Well, Kuzibah…and what are you?”

Kuzibah sniffed loudly and rubbed her eyes. Her tears had left clean streaks in the dirt on her cheeks. “I'm a devil,” she said softly.

“A devil!” Haggatha exclaimed. Kuzibah flinched away and raised her arms protectively. “Oh, but I'm a nice devil!” she said, her voice now high and petulant.

“Uh, huh ,” said Elmo. Kuzibah hissed back at him.

“Enough,” Carpathian said. “There will be no more fighting. From anyone .” He glanced at Elmo.

Kuzibah smiled up shyly. “I'm sorry.”

“What are you doing here, my Dear?”

Kuzibah sniffed again. “I've been watching this place. I see all kinds of things living here – ghosts, monsters, and other creatures. I don't have any place to live. I thought…” She stopped, then shrugged. “I thought…you might let me stay here too.”

“Where do you come from?”

Kuzibah looked away, her expression evasive. “A long way away.”

“Where?”

Kuzibah's eyes flashed an angry orange, and in her expression Carpathian again saw the wild thing that had attacked. “I said a long way someplace. I don't want to talk about it! All right?”

“We know where devils come from,” said Haggatha sternly. Kuzibah glared at her.

All right,” said Carpathian. “We'll let that go for now.”

Kuzibah spoke suddenly. “I'm ver hungry.” Carpathian smiled, in spite of himself. He thought a moment, then nodded to Haggatha.

She sighed. “Come with me. We'll get you fed.” Kuzibah's hooves clopped across the floor as she followed Haggatha out of the room. Carpathian looked at Elmo, a questioning expression on his face.

“What?” said Elmo.

“I'm gauging your opinion.”

“I don't know,” said Elmo, after a moment. “Who ever heard of a nice devil?”

“An interesting concept, true.” Carpathian shrugged. “Yet here we have vampires, werewolves, witches, ghosts and ghouls…all living peacefully. Who would imagine that?”

“Hmmmm. I guess.” So we give her the benefit of the doubt?”

Carpathian nodded. “For now.”

 

KUZIBAH

 

Kuzibah had caused an immediate stir among the house's residents, as she sat at the dining room table, a huge plateful of food before her. Carpathian found her wolfing the food down with both hands. He sat down opposite her and looked her over carefully.

Finally she stopped eating and wiped her face over her arm. “Have you eaten enough?” he asked.

Kuzibah nodded. “Yes. Thank you.”

“There is a bathroom upstairs. I think you will want to wash, and we have some fresh clothes for you. Once you are clean and dry, I would see you in my study.”

Kuzibah was licking her fingers. She stopped mid-lick and smiled. “No problem.”

 

KUZIBAH

 

Kuzibah cleaned up good.

Carpathian looked her over as she stood in his study. Her hair was a dark walnut and hung nearly to her shoulders. Her skin was very fair, and the fur below her waist was soft and glossy. She wore a plain white shirt, belted at the waist, and black boots covered her cloven hooves.

Carpathian gestured to an easy chair. “Please sit down.”

Kuzibah lowered herself into the chair and smiled confidently. Carpathian studied her further. She seemed young, but he knew, like most supernatural creatures, her appearance could be deceiving. She also seemed much more certain of herself than earlier, and Carpathian was a bit disconcerted by this.

“I want to make a few things clear,” he began. “You are welcome to stay here, if you wish, but we have rules I expect you to follow.”

“Naturally,” Kuzibah agreed.

“First, I will tolerate no violence toward any member of this household.”

Kuzibah set her mouth defiantly. “I said I was sorry.”

“That is another thing,” Carpathian continued, leaning towards her, his voice stern. “I insist you be polite. We are many different kinds of creatures here. Each has their own temperament. We get along by respecting one another, even if we have to sink our fangs into our tongues at times. You will follow suit.”

He sat back. “I am not certain it is wise to have a devil in the house, and if you stay you will have to earn our trust. Do I make myself understood?”

“Perfectly,” Kuzibah answered quietly.

“Very well. Come with me, then, and I will show you to your room.”

He led her down a hallway and up a flight of stairs to a small third floor bedroom. A bed had been draped with a flowered coverlet and a lit candle stood on a nearby bureau. The shutters and drapes had been closed against the coming dawn.

“If you need anything, “ Carpathian said, “let either myself or Haggatha know, and we will see to it.” He turned to go, and Kuzibah spoke softly.

“Carpathian…I want to thank you for all you have done for me.”

“You are welcome,” Carpathian answered, then smiled. “Do not give me cause to regret.”

“I promise,” she answered. But Carpathian left with a nameless apprehension in his mind; a weight that was not there before.

 

Carpathian was relaxing in his study; evening was very still, and he sighed contentedly. He crossed to his gramophone, wound it and lowered the needle onto Saint-Saens' Danse Macabre . He eased himself back into his chair, letting the violin melody wash over him.

Suddenly the record squealed discordantly. Carpathian sat up, snatching at the needle. He carefully lifted the record to the light and saw the deep scratch that ran across the surface. He frowned and rose, striding out of his room.

He stormed into the rumpus room. Cobweb, Kuzibah, the ghost children and a young monster named Cudgel all looked up from their Monopoly game in alarm.

Carpathian held the scratched disk in front of him. “Who was using my records?”

“Not me,” said Cudgel.

“Cudgel, I didn't ask who wasn't using them; I asked who was .”

“Maybe Elmo did it,” Cobweb suggested.

“Or Haggatha,” Kuzibah said mildly.

“No,” Cobweb shot back.

“Enough,” said Carpathian. “One of you used my gramophone. And now one of you is lying to me.” He shook his head sadly. “I am a patient spirit. I do not consider myself unnecessarily harsh, or a taskmaster. I can tolerate carelessness, foolishness, selfishness…” He gave the five a hard look. “What I will not tolerate is deception. I will forgive much. I will not forgive lying. Now…would any of you like to reconsider your answer?” He thought he caught Cobweb glancing at Kuzibah, but Kuzibah was gazing up with all innocence.

Carpathian sighed heavily. “Very well. We will leave it at this for now. But I will discover the truth.” His eyes narrowed. “And I would think you all know me well enough to realize that I am more than able to accomplish this.” He was mildly surprised to see four (save Kuzibah) avert their eyes guiltily. He sighed again and left the room.

 


GHOST CHILDREN

 

Cobweb was sitting on her bed, watching nervously as Kuzibah looked through the contents of her closet, occasionally pulling out some item and holding it up to herself for size.

“You have such beautiful clothes, Cobweb.” Kuzibah sighed. She held up a pretty lace blouse. “I'll bet you don't even wear half of these clothes. You wouldn't mind if I borrowed a few things, would you?”

“Well…” Cobweb said uneasily.

Kuzibah looked at her sharply. “I thought you were my friend. That's what you said.”

“I am,” Cobweb said. “But…didn't Carpathian and my mother get you some clothes?”

“Oh, a few things. But nothing as lovely as these.” She checked a flowered vest against herself in the mirror. “You know, it's only fair,” she said casually, “After all, I kept your secret about the record.”

“It was your idea,” Cobweb said quietly.

Kuzibah laughed, a nasty snicker. “But I didn't even touch the gramophone. You did. And you scratched the record.” She took a full shirt and two brocaded vests out of Cobweb's closet. “These will do just fine. Thank you so much.” Cobweb watched helplessly as she left the room.

 

COBWEB

 

Kuzibah and Cobweb were sitting in the garden. Kuzibah was drawing a long comb through Cobweb's thick heavy curls and arranging them into a sophisticated upsweep. “You're so lucky,” Kuzibah said, “to have such beautiful hair, and no horns to get in the way.”

Cobweb smiled. Her uneasiness around Kuzibah had grown quiet, and the two spent much time together. Kuzibah was so nice; always complimenting Cobweb's looks and cleverness. And they shared so many secrets; some she had not even told her mother.

“What are you doing?” Both girls looked up to see Cudgel.

“None of your business,” Kuzibah snapped, so sharply Cobweb jumped. Cudgel stopped short, a look of hurt crossing his face. He stood motionless, as Kuzibah added, “Who invited you anyway? Get lost.”

“But…” Cudgel stammered, on the verge of tears.

“Tell him to go away,” Kuzibah whispered in Cobweb's ear. “He'll listen to you.”

Cobweb swallowed hard, the uneasiness returning. But Kuzibah was her friend, wasn't she? “Scram, Cudgel,” she said quietly, her heart heavy.

“Tell him,” Kuzibah whispered again, more insistently. “He won't go if he doesn't think you're serious. We don't want to be bothered by a dullard like him, do we?”

It made sense when Kuzibah said it that way. “Beat it, Cudgel,” Cobweb said. “Don't be a little dummy!”

The youngster's lower lip curled into his mouth and large, wet tears flooded his eyes. Crying, he turned and ran.

“What a baby,” Kuzibah whispered into Cobweb's ear. “I'm glad we're not such whiners. We're much more mature than that.”

Cobweb drew a deep breath. She did feel proud, far superior to a creature like Cudgel; more intelligent and worldly, like her friend.

“Come with me,” Kuzibah said even more quietly. “We have to stop him before he tattles on you.” Cobweb's skin chilled. Her mother would be furious when she heard Cobweb had insulted a child. But she followed Kuzibah. Her friend was smart. She would think of a way out.

They entered the house and could hear music playing down the corridor. “Good,” Kuzibah said. “Carpathian's here. Go tell him Cudgel ruined his record.”

Cobweb stopped short. “But that's a lie.”

“But he'll believe you,” Kuzibah said reasonably, “and we'll kill two birds with one stone. The heat will be off you about the record and Cudgel will be so upset he'll forget all about the insult.”

“I don't know…”

“Who's it going to hurt?”

“Cudgel, of course,” Cobweb shot back.

“Oh please ,” Kuzibah said dismissively, “A little thing like him. He'll get a slap on the wrist, if that.”

“What if someone finds out,” Cobweb said softly, her resistance ebbing.

“Who could blame you for lying?” Kuzibah soothed. “You've had such a rough life. No father around to raise you; displaced from your home and come to live with strangers. They would expect a bit of trouble from you. And it's such a little lie.”

Cobweb's eyes brightened. “You're right. I've had enough go wrong for me. It's time I did for my own life.”

“There you go,” Kuzibah said. “Show some strength. Take control of what happens to you.”

Cobweb set her mouth sternly. “I will.” And she marched down to Carpathian's study.

Kuzibah crouched down on her haunches to wait. A few minutes later, Cobweb returned. “So…did you tell him?”

“Of course,” Cobweb said boldly. “Why should I have to be punished? Hasn't my life been hard enough as it is?”

“So,” Kuzibah said, “you're satisfied with what you've done?”

“Absolutely,” Cobweb declared.

Kuzibah smiled, licking her lips over her sharp white teeth. “Come then; we have very important things to discuss…” She took Cobweb's hand and lead her upstairs.

 

CUDGEL

 

Carpathian sat alone in his study, thinking very dark thoughts. Something was very wrong within his house.

Cobweb had come to him and accused young Cudgel of playing his gramophone without permission and ruining his record. That she had been lying completely was patently obvious; Carpathian did not even need to question Cudgel to know this was so. Then Haggatha had come to him, telling him Cudgel was weeping in his room. When she asked what was wrong, he replied through wracked whimpers that Cobweb was angry with him for some reason. It took some time for her to calm him.

The questions fell one after another. Why did Cobweb lie? Did she ruin the record? If it had been an accident, why bother lying? He certainly was not vindictive. Why was she cruel to Cudgel? And did her growing friendship with Kuzibah have anything to do with the change in her?

There was more, things he could not quite put his finger on. There seemed to be a general malaise in the place; a growing sense of dissatisfaction and annoyance, of creeping apathy and quiet despair. There seemed to be no cause to it, save one inarguable fact: it had begun when the young devil had joined the household.

Carpathian pressed his fingers to his temples and massaged them gently, his eyes closed. He was not ignorant to the basic nature of devils; he knew they practiced deception and treachery. He knew them to be tempters and instigators, rarely taking direct adverse action themselves, but leading others into mishap and misery. He was aware, as he and Elmo had discussed from the first, that there would be risk in letting Kuzibah into their makeshift family. Yet he had sensed a rough sincerity in her desire for a home and sanctuary. Had he been completely wrong, mislead by a crafty enemy?

He didn't know. But there was a strong possibility that he had invited a terrible menace into his house. The question, of course remained: what action to take? Was Kuzibah acting deliberately, consciously; or was it a byproduct of her upbringing? If it was deliberate, the most sensible thing would be to turn her out, but he didn't feel comfortable loosing an unrestrained evil onto the neighborhood. He preferred to keep it here, under his watchful eyes and control.

Assuming, of course, that it could be controlled…

He leaned back in his chair, shaking his head. Had it been this complicated before, in the other house? He smiled ruefully as he recalled Jastin and her attack, of the spell of humanity, of the sacrifice of young Nettlebur and the bravery of his companions, both human and spectre. Oh yes; it had been quite complicated then…

There was a knock on the door, and before he could answer Elmo poked his head inside, a somber expression on his face. “Sorry to bother you, but I think we have a problem…”

Carpathian sighed, nodded, and rose.

 

A CAUTIONARY TALE

 

There was a crowd gathered around Cobweb's door. As Carpathian approached, Haggatha stepped forward. Her eyes were red and filled with tears, her shoulders and hands shaking. “It's Cobweb…” she whispered. “Kuzibah…please…”

“Shhhhh,” said Carpathian, “It will be all right. I promise.” He looked at the others. “Everyone. Go along, back to your rooms.” He watched as they slowly stepped away. Carpathian gestured, and Elmo gently lead Haggatha aside. He looked at the door to Cobweb's room, then pushed it open.

Kuzibah was reclining on Cobweb's bed, leafing through one of her magazines. Cobweb stood nearby, her beautiful hair pulled back in an unflattering bun. A plain smock had replaced her normally stylish clothes. Carpathian recognized it as one of the pieces originally given to Kuzibah. Her hands were held in front of her, and Carpathian frowned as he saw the rough pair of iron manacles around her wrists, held closely together by a silver chain.

Kuzibah was watching him intently, her eyes flashing orange. “Hello, Darling. What can I do for you?”

Carpathian didn't speak. He moved across the room to a small chair and sat. His expression was neutral. Kuzibah grinned broadly and gestured around her. “How do you like my new digs?”

Carpathian's voice was calm, almost friendly. “I think there may be a mistake. This is Cobweb's room.”

“Oh, no ,” said Kuzibah wickedly. “It's mine.”

“Indeed? I assume she traded rooms with you for some reason unknown to me?”

Cobweb spoke hoarsely. “Carpathian… please …”

Kuzibah turned on her with a hiss. “Did I tell you you could speak?” she snarled. She turned back to Carpathian. “There was no need to trade anything. Everything in this room is now mine.”

Carpathian's expression didn't change. “It occurs to me I may have been negligent. I assumed some of the house rules were self-evident, but I suppose I should have been more explicit.” He nodded towards Cobweb. “You see, we frown on indentured servitude. I find it…unseemly.”

Kuzibah clucked her tongue. “That's too bad. You see, the room, the girl…it's sort of a packaged deal, you understand.”

“No. I don't, actually. Why don't you explain it to me?”

“Of course.” The pleasantries in Kuzibah's speech were fading fast, being replaced with a gloating nastiness. Carpathian was reminded of a cat toying with its prey. “I own her. Lock, stock and barrel. She gave her soul freely to me, and I would be remiss to refuse such an attractive offer.” She stretched on the bed. “It was ridiculously simple. She practically begged to be led, to be corrupted, to be owned.”

“She had a small bit of help, I imagine. A nudge or two…from you?”

Kuzibah shrugged. “Perhaps.”

Carpathian's tone remained even. “Hardly hospitable.”

“What can I say? I am what I am. I must find my way through the world, and do what's expected of me. My father,” she drew out the word and let it hang heavily in the air, “demands souls. And I must collect them.”

“Even from those who've welcomed you; showed you kindness?”

Kuzibah chuckled to herself. “You're a storyteller, spirit. Do you know the one about the lady and the snake? It's an old tale. A woman is walking in the snow, and she finds a little snake, almost frozen. ‘Oh woman,' it says, ‘please pick me up and warm me.' ‘Oh no,' the woman says, ‘for you will bite me and I will die.' ‘But if you don't warm me,' says the snake, ‘I will freeze to death.' So the woman picks up the snake and carries it in beside the fire. She clutches it to her, trying to pass on some of her warmth. Slowly the snake is revived. And then, as it is finally warmed, it sinks its poisonous fangs into the woman's breast. As the woman sinks down, dying, she cries out to the snake, ‘But I saved your life!' ‘Ah yes,' says the snake, ‘ but you knew what I was when you picked me up.'”

Carpathian nodded. “Yes. We discussed that when you first came to us.”

“And now you've been bitten.”

“So it seems.”

Kuzibah stood and began pacing before Carpathian, rubbing her hands together. “I think there will have to be some changes here. I think I'll have to take a…more active role…in how the household is managed.” Her smile was nasty. “I'm sure you won't mind.”

“I don't believe that will be…acceptable.” Carpathian's voice was as steady as before, but there was now a steely quality to it.

“Ahhhhh…well then. I don't want to cause any undue distress. If I'm no longer welcome here, I'll be more than happy to leave. Of course, I'll have to take my property with me.” Cobweb gasped softly, then silenced as Kuzibah shot her a warning glance. “I know my father will be happy to receive me bearing him such an honor.”

Carpathian nodded, then rose. “I'm afraid I can't allow that. This is my house. I have final say on what happens within these walls. Cobweb has her own will. She will not be taken.”

Kuzibah stepped close to him; her eyes fixed firmly on his, the violence shining behind them. “Do you really think you can stop me, spirit?”

“That's isn't the question, devil,” Carpathian spoke softly. “What you should ask yourself is: are you absolutely certain I cannot?” For the first time since the encounter began, a new look passed over Kuzibah's face. For the first time since Carpathian entered the room a shadow of doubt momentarily forced the sneer from her features, and hesitation rose behind her eyes.

And then she forced it down inside her, smiling once more. “Now…we don't want to do anything rash, do we? Certainly we can resolve our differences calmly…with civility?”

“I agree,” Carpathian said evenly. “Any other way might prove…unfortunate.”

“So…what do we do?”

“This is my house…and all within are under my protection…therefore I challenge your claim on Cobweb.”

Kuzibah's eyebrows rose sharply. “You challenge me ?”

“I do. With a contest to settle the matter.”

“What kind of contest?”

“Anything you choose.”

“I already have the girl,” Kuzibah said ominously. “What will you put up against her to make it worth my while?”

Carpathian looked hard at her. “Myself.” Cobweb gasped.

You?

“Indeed.” Carpathian's voice was ice. “Let us not play games, devil. This was your intention from the beginning. You used Cobweb as a catspaw; a lure. I'm the one you really want. My soul, my history, my wisdom, my powers are what you truly desire to possess.”

Kuzibah inclined her head in acknowledgement. “And if I win…you're mine completely. No argument, no appeal, no tricks.”

I am not the trickster, devil.”

"Touché". Kuzibah licked her sharp teeth eagerly. “All right. I agree. When?”

“One hour. In the dining room.”

“I choose the game.” Carpathian nodded.

“Carpathian…no…” Cobweb murmured. Kuzibah glared, but Carpathian held up his hand.

“Be still, Cobweb. It will be all right.” He nodded to Kuzibah. “In one hour then.”

He turned and stepped from the room, closing the door behind him. Haggatha and Elmo were staring at him wide-eyed; they'd heard the entire conversation. Elmo stepped forward. “You can't be serious…” He stopped as Carpathian shook his head.

“Please clear the dining room table. Try and keep everyone away, particularly the younger ones. I'll be in my study; I must think.” He turned and walked slowly down the hall to his room.

 

When the hour was past, Carpathian made his way to the dining room. Kuzibah was already there, seated at the table, Cobweb standing pitifully behind her. Elmo and Haggatha were there as well, and Carpathian was distressed to see that most of the household peered in from the gloom of the adjoining rooms. He sighed. Well, what did I expect? This is a rather huge event.

Haggatha was weeping silently into her handkerchief. Elmo left her side and walked over to him, shaking his head. “I sure hope you know what you're doing.”

“That makes two of us.”

“That's a devil you're dealing with. Nothing she says or does can be trusted.”

“You are a fount of information, Elmo. Now…” Carpathian put his hand on Elmo's shoulder and lead him a distance away from the others. “I have a favor to ask of you…”

Kuzibah was watching closely, suspicious. She called out to the two of them. “I'm waiting.”

“And another moment will do you no harm,” said Carpathian sharply. He turned back to Elmo as Kuzibah glowered at him, her hands toying with a deck of playing cards still fresh in their seal.

After a minute Carpathian stepped to the table and sat down. In his hand was a gold coin that he carefully rolled through his fingers. He turned his gaze towards Kuzibah. The other Creatures crept closer to the table.

“We have an audience,” Kuzibah sneered. “How touching.”

“Ignore them. I am your opponent.”

“Yes.” Kuzibah stared hard at him. “Are you ready?” Carpathian nodded, and Kuzibah broke the seal on the cards. “The game is Poker.”

Carpathian nodded again. “I accept.”

Kuzibah removed the cards from the deck and began to shuffle them.

Her hands were a blur, and the cards flew through her fingers; kings, queens, jacks, hearts, clubs, diamonds, aces; all folded and parted and returned to the deck. Carpathian watched, his only movement the coin in his hand; he was flipping it skillfully and slowly through his ectoplasmic knuckles.

Kuzibah stopped shuffling and held the deck out to him. “Cut?” she asked, her face all innocence.

Carpathian's voice was silk. “I trust you.”

Kuzibah smirked and began dealing the cards, one by one. “ Five card draw. One draw. Nothing wild.” Carpathian inclined his head slightly, and watched as Kuzibah placed the deck on the table between them. They picked up the five cards before them and studied them for a few moments.

Carpathian picked two cards from his hand and placed them face down on the table. “I'll take two cards, please.”

Kuzibah nodded, and picked up the deck, sliding two new cards across to him. She smiled wickedly and placed one card from her hand into the center of the table. “Dealer takes one,” she purred. Carpathian's eyes narrowed, but he said nothing. Behind him he could hear dismayed murmurings and a sharp intake of breath from Elmo.

 


QUEEN

 

Cobweb stood by silently, her face a mask of misery as Kuzibah slid her new card from the deck and arranged it in her hand. There was another moment of silence as she looked at her cards.

Carpathian spoke up suddenly. “I believe I'll raise.”

Around him he heard the snap of attention of the others. Kuzibah's eyebrows threatened to climb off of her forehead to the ceiling. “I beg your pardon?”

“I would like to raise the stakes. I believe that's standard in poker after the first draw.”

“And what could you possibly have that I would be interested in?”

Carpathian gestured to the room around him. “My House. Everything I own within these walls. My books, my writings, my collections…everything here that I possess.” He heard the gasps of the spectators and ignored them.

Kuzibah gave a nasty chuckle. “How sad. You must be terribly distracted by all this…mayhem surrounding you. If you'll remember, we're playing for your soul. When I have you , I have your House.”

Carpathian smiled and shook his head. “No. I'm afraid not. You see, before I sat down to play with you, I sold it and all inside to Elmo.”

Kuzibah's eyes widened. “What?”

“I'm responsible for all who reside here. I wouldn't have them endangered by our contest should the cards be against me. So I sold everything in my possession, including the House, to Elmo for this gold coin.” He took the coin and flipped it into the center of the table. “That way it would be beyond your touch.”

Kuzibah's eyes flashed with barely suppressed rage. When she spoke her voice was taut. “It appears as though I underestimated you, Spirit. I shan't make that mistake again.”

“Oh, I doubt that sincerely,” Carpathian countered smoothly. “However. Elmo and I had an agreement before I started that, should my hand look promising, he would be more than delighted to…I believe the expression is…'stake' me?” He looked over at his fellow spectre. “Isn't that correct, my Friend?”

Elmo looked anything but assured, but he answered steadily. “Yeah. Whatever you think best. I'm willing to throw in with you.”

Carpathian turned back to Kuzibah, his hands spread before him. “There. Perfectly legitimate, I assure you. All according to Holye.”

Kuzibah snorted. “Fine! Whatever! Let's get on with this.”

“Agreed. Now…” Carpathian stared hard. “There is still the matter as to your bet.”

“All right,” Kuzibah almost shouted. “What do you want?”

“I would think that obvious, my Dear. As I am wagering my being. I expect you to do the same.”

Once again Kuzibah's eyebrows prepared to take flight. “What?!”

“I want you to put your soul, your freedom, your will, against mine. That will be the bet.” He gave a low laugh. “Winner take all, in every sense.”

Kuzibah snapped her sharp teeth. “Have you gone mad?”

“I understand your hesitation. It is a very expensive pot on the table. If you find it too rich for your blood, simply fold your hand, and I'll take my winnings.” He nodded towards Cobweb.

Kuzibah hissed at him. “You think you're clever, spirit?”

“I have my moments.”

“I haven't done all of this just to let you bluff me; cheat me of my winnings!”

Carpathian shrugged. “The decision is yours. But I suggest you call or fold,” he said, his tone was tempered steel. “I grow impatient for this game to be at an end.”

Kuzibah hesitated a moment, then: “Very well. I accept.”

Carpathian leaned forward, his words like daggers. “On your word as a Devil.”

Kuzibah slammed her hands down flat on the table, making everyone save Carpathian jump. “All right ! On my word as a Devil and a dweller of Hades! Satisfied?”

“Perfectly.”

Kuzibah drew a deep breath and slowly calmed herself. She picked up her cards that she'd thrown down and fanned them in her hand. “All right. Raised. And call .” Her eyes flashed orange as she glared across the table. “Show me your cards.”

Carpathian looked blankly at her for a moment. Then a sly smile spread across his features. “It appears that Lady Luck is seated by my side this evening.” He carefully laid four of his cards down in a straight line:

Ace of Hearts.

Ace of Clubs.

Ace of Diamonds.

And last, the Death Card; the Ace of Spades.

“Four aces. A hand to beat.”

He nodded towards Kuzibah, who stared at the cards on the table. Then she threw her head back and shrieked with laughter. Gleefully she threw her cards on the table.

“What a coincidence! It appears I also have four aces!”

All stared at the cards in front of her. Ace of Spades, Ace of Hearts, Ace of Diamonds, Ace of Clubs.

 

KING

 

There was a long moment of shocked silence. Then the room exploded in bedlam.

“What the hell is this?” Elmo roared.

“You cheated!” cried Haggatha.

“She can't do that!”

“You can't have eight aces!”

Everyone in the room was arguing loudly. Only Carpathian stayed silent.

Kuzibah shot to her hooves and faced the residents. “Of course I cheated, you idiots! I'm a devil! What did you expect me to do?” She jabbed her finger at them. “But you knew what I was when you sat down to this game with me! You knew how I would play! You knew my nature! Once again you picked up the snake and got bitten! You can't chide me for not playing fair, because I never play fair! To protest this now only makes you a bunch of whiners!”

“That's ridiculous!” said Elmo.

Then a voice called out above the rabble. “No,” said Carpathian quietly, raising his hand. “Kuzibah is right.”

The spectres gasped. “Are you crazy?” cried Elmo.

“No…she's correct. I knew what I was getting into. I should have suspected trickery. I won't protest the hand.” Haggatha and Cobweb looked stricken, and huge tears rolled down Cobweb's cheeks. The other creatures backed slowly out of the room under the baleful watch of Kuzibah, who smiled smugly and sat down again.

“A very wise decision. No sense in crying over spilt milk. What's done is done. The hand stands as it is. Agreed?”

“Absolutely.”

“You're a worthy opponent, spirit, I must admit. I commend your playing.”

“High praise.”

“Indeed. I'm enjoying our contest. It will be a shame when it has to end.” She reached for the cards. “So…the hand is a draw. We play another round.”

Carpathian spoke softly. “No.”

Everyone froze.

Kuzibah looked at him sharply. “What?”

“I said no. We won't play another hand.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You're forfeiting the game?”

“Not in the least. The game is over.”

Kuzibah stared in uncertainty.

Carpathian chuckled. “According to the rules of Hoyle, when players have the same hand, the round is decided by the high card.” Carpathian carefully lowered his remaining card, which he had held in his hand the entire time, and placed it beside the others. “And I believe this one will be sufficient.”

The King of Hearts looked up at the astonished audience.

Everyone glanced across the table to Kuzibah, studying her fifth card.

The Eight of Clubs.

Kuzibah looked down at the table, mouth open, stunned. When she found her voice, it came out as a hoarse whisper. “How…?”

Carpathian gestured across the table. “You were so quick to gloat over your own cleverness that you laid all your cards on the table at the same time. You had no further opportunity to cheat.” He smiled. “You showed your hand too soon…in more ways than one.”

The murmurs from the corners of the room grew in volume as all realized what had happened. Haggatha was weeping again, but her tears were joyful, and she held her hands before her mouth to hide her smile. Elmo laughed with delight.

Kuzibah continued to sit at the table, head down. In a small voice she said, “It's not fair,” which made Elmo laugh all the louder.

Carpathian stood and looked down at her. “On the contrary, devil. It's most assuredly fair. We both accepted the hand as played, remember?” He leaned in towards her, and there was anger in his voice that was rarely, if ever heard. “Playing your game of choice…playing by your rules…with your cheating…I have still won.”

He strode over to Cobweb, who stood with her manacled hands in front of her, crying tears of gratitude along with her mother. Carpathian raised his hand high and brought it down sharply on the handcuffs with a loud slap! The chains shattered like sugar candy, breaking into a hundred shards that dropped to the ground and splintered further.

He called out over the celebratory hubbub. “Everyone!” After the silence he continued. “Now…a number of things. Cobweb; go upstairs and take off those ridiculous clothes and put your room back in order. Haggatha; please clear away everything and prepare the table for dinner. Elmo,” and he scooped the gold coin up from the table and tossed it over to Elmo, who caught it easily, “I would like to buy my House and possessions back. Thank you.” He stepped over to Kuzibah and spoke sternly to her. “As for you…you will come with me. Not much has gotten done today with all the excitement, and I have several chores for you before supper.”

He turned and walked from the room. Behind him Kuzibah followed meekly, head bowed and eyes turned towards the floor.

 

JOKER

 

It was some time later that Carpathian was standing once again on his widow's walk. Below him, Kuzibah was pushing a lawn mower around the yard. She worked without complaint or rest, carefully trimming the grass.

Carpathian watched her. She carried out every task he set for her, and he had seen no evidence of her being anything less than obedient. She spoke to no one unless spoken to, and when he made her sit with him in the evenings, listening to his teachings on goodness and behavior, she gave him her full attention. The others had turned a cold shoulder to her, still angry about her trickery and wary of her nature. This did not seem to bother her, and he had warned his housemates against any retribution or cruelty to her. His edict was law, and so the others were civil, if a trifle cool.

He didn't really want a subservient creature in his care. He would have preferred Kuzibah to be good out of her own desire. Still, she was living up to her end of the bargain; that would be sufficient for now.

Wouldn't it?

Elmo stepped over to him and looked down on Kuzibah working. “Everything all right?”

“Yes,” said Carpathian, although he didn't sound very certain.

“I have to admit: she's surprised me.”

“Oh?”

“She does everything I ask without comment. She's behaving perfectly. She's accepted her loss completely.”

“It's more than a matter of honor with devils. Any bargain struck, on either side, is an unbreakable bond.”

“Makes you wonder, doesn't it?”

“It does indeed,” Carpathian spoke softly.

Kuzibah had completed her mowing and was now raking the grass into the corner. “Time for our lesson,” said Carpathian, and he turned from Elmo and went to his study.

 

HAGGATHA

 

Kuzibah sat in an armchair next to Carpathian's desk. “Now,” said Carpathian, “why is stealing wrong?”

“Because it deprives another of what is rightfully theirs,” Kuzibah answered.

“But what if it is something the person won't miss?” Carpathian went on. “For instance, is it wrong to take an apple from an orchard?”

Kuzibah bit her lip in concentration. “I think so. But…I'm not sure why.”

Carpathian shook his head. “Kuzibah, I don't know how to make you understand that goodness is its own reward. I don't know if you can ever understand. I do not want to direct your every action, but how am I to trust you if you parrot back answers you do not believe?”

A little of the old light rose in Kuzibah's eyes. “Truthfully,” she said, a little bitterly, “I am compelled to obey not only your direct orders, but any and all implications of those orders, by your definition and understanding. So when you instruct me to ‘behave', I am compelled to rise to your highest standards of behavior.” She drew in a hissing breath. “Apparently you wish total frankness, so I am able to speak freely.”

Carpathian nodded thoughtfully. “And if I were to release you from your bondage, would you return to your evil ways?”

Kuzibah sighed. “I would have to. I would revert back to my father's control, and he demands I abide by infernal law. It is our nature.”

“We all have natures, many of which we must rise above. Yet we are more than our natures. We have also our dreams, our goals, our consciences. If you did not possess any of these; if you did not wish to be more than you are, you wouldn't have gone to all that trouble to intentionally lose our card game.”

Kuzibah stared at him, her mouth dropping open, her eyes wide with disbelief, and not a little fear.

Carpathian leaned back in his chair. “Let us not insult each other, my Dear. You deliberately lost the game. Even the worst player, overcome with their hubris, could not have forgotten such a basic rule as high card takes all.”

He paused, then spoke softly. “When you first came here, I discussed your nature with the others. I knew the devils' way was one of trickery and deceit. Yet I felt that there was sincerity within you, and your request for sanctuary. But your thoughts are those of a trickster. How could you trust me? What if I should change my mind some day and go back on my word? So you set about making certain you couldn't leave.

“You tempted one of your fellow housemates into wickedness, something that was certain to get my attention. You knew I wouldn't abide it, and would challenge you. You chose a game, and set about purposely losing it, to become my servant.” He chuckled. “So much trouble…and all you had to do was trust me.”

Kuzibah said nothing; she simply looked at Carpathian. Then, two huge tears began to roll down her cheeks, followed by many more. She was sobbing now, shoulders heaving; not a false show of emotion but honest misery wrenched from her. “Yes. But you don't understand. Part of me did enjoy tricking Cobweb. It felt… good . And challenging you. I lost but…I liked the game. I'm sorry…”

Carpathian watched for a long time, until the tears stopped and her cries were whispers; then he said, “Now. I ask you again, as at the start. Why do you want to stay here? What are you hiding from?”

Kuzibah took a deep breath. “My father is a devil, as you know. But my mother was a mortal woman. I was born when she was quite young, and she managed to conceal me all her life. When she…died my father came for me. He told me I must serve him as one of Hell's army. Carpathian,” and her words came in a rush, “my mother is not with my father. She was a good woman, and she wanted me to be good too. I want to be, but I don't know how.”

Carpathian leaned forward. “But will you try? As hard as it may be to contradict your nature, will you try?”

Kuzibah bit her lip, thinking hard. Finally, in a quiet voice, “I'll do my very best.”

He smiled at her. “In this house, I can ask no more of any of my guests. Very well. I hereby release you from your debt, and restore your will freely and completely. You can go where you will, do as you will. The offer is the same as before. You may stay as long as you like, provided you follow the rules. Agreed?”

“Oh yes!” she said, and tears came to her eyes again. “Thank you, Carpathian,” and she threw herself into his arms and buried her face in his shoulder.

He held her for a long moment, then whispered, I know you will make me proud.”

 

KUZIBAH

 

Of course, Carpathian's conversation with Kuzibah didn't remain a secret for long, although he never told anyone else in the house. Still the group was close knit, and soon all knew the true reasons behind Kuzibah's actions. Slowly the others warmed to her, treating her a little more kindly, and each were happy to find their kindness returned with genuine affection. Even Elmo and Haggatha began to talk more frequently to her, and helped to settle her into the household, gently reminding her of the rules whenever she seemed to waver, and pleased when they found their councils heeded without rancor.

Cobweb and Kuzibah began to form a new friendship; quite tentative at first, then stronger when it was clear that the old behavior wouldn't be repeated. Soon Cobweb was helping Kuzibah with her fashion sense, and lending her clothes without being asked. They argued from time to time, but these were arguments between new friends growing close together, and they didn't seem to last long. All ended with smiles and apologies on both sides.

Kuzibah after a fashion began to become more involved in the day to day activities of the other members of the household. She was patient with each of them, never caring should an old suspicions flare briefly. She was aware that she had to earn the others' trust, and set about it with a new sense of purpose about herself. She was particularly good with young Cudgel, even letting him tease her and gently pull on her horns when he thought she wasn't looking. This act of sweetness, as much as any other, won over the rest of Carpathian's company.

For his part, Carpathian's meetings with Kuzibah slacked off, which he had expected, but they hadn't ceased entirely, and this pleased him. Their tone had also changed, becoming more of a dialogue on the nature of good and evil. She seemed to particularly enjoy his company, and Carpathian took her gently under his tutelage, teaching her some of his stories, which she took to naturally and eagerly.

And so, calm and good will once again reigned in the House of Carpathian, and all was peaceful. Or, at least as peaceful as things ever were there.

The only one not entirely pleased by the events was Carpathian himself. He couldn't seem to disabuse himself of the notion that this calm was simply a respite before one final horrendous storm that was threatening on the horizon. It was quite distant, but he felt it was definitely coming.

As in many times past, he was correct.

 

Carpathian was in his study when Kuzibah stuck her head in. “Busy?”

“Not really.” Carpathian motioned her to enter. She came in and stood beside the desk.

Her style had transformed again, he noticed. Her hair was ‘done' in a 60's-style flip, and her bangs were back. She wore a crisp white shirt and a sharp black jacket. Her fur was clean, but not as slick and glossy as before; it was softer and more ‘lived-in'. “We're watching a movie in the rumpus room. Haggatha made popcorn, and I thought you might like to join us.”

“What movie is it?”

'The Valley Of Gwangi ' ,” Kuzibah said. “My favorite!”

“Again?” Carpathian wrinkled his nose. “Why do you like it so much?”

“It's almost perfect! It's got cowboys and dinosaurs!” Kuzibah said, as if it should be the most evident thing in the world.

“Ahhh…of course. I don't know what I was thinking. I believe I'll pass for now. Perhaps I'll join you later.”

“I hope so,” Kuzibah said, and she left the study, smiling.

Carpathian returned to his journal, smiling to himself. He began to write when suddenly the air above him erupted.

Hot, stinking fumes poured into the room and there was a great ripping sound. Howling and hissing filed the study, and as Carpathian leapt to his feet, four devils writhed in the space between the desk and the door.

The largest devil, who seemed to be part man and part centipede, turned its gaze on him. “Are you the spirit Carpathian?” its mandibles clicked. Carpathian nodded. “I am Shidah, Kuzibah's Father.”

Carpathian's voice was calm. “What do you want?”

Shidah laughed mockingly, and his three attending devils echoed him. “I have come for my daughter, of course. She has…displeased me. I have come to take her for some …discipline.”

“I'm afraid I cannot allow that. She is here as my guest, under my protection. I do not believe she wishes to go with you.”

A low rumble came from Shidah's chest, and Carpathian spoke more forcibly. “Please spare me the pyrotechnics. You are in my home. I did not invite you in. You have no power here. Your threats and boasts are sound and fury only.”

He thought the demon would explode in rage. Its face turned bright scarlet, and its veins in its head bulged outward. But, with some effort, Shidah closed his eyes and swallowed his anger. When he spoke, it was almost a whisper. “Bring her to me.”

“I told you…” Carpathian began.

“I want to talk to her, you imbecile!” Shidah exploded. Then, more civil: “Please…” The word settled distastefully on its centipede tongue.

Carpathian slowly exhaled the breath he'd been holding. It had been something of a bluff. True, the demon had not been asked into the house; its abilities were therefore severely limited. But it was still a fantastically powerful creature. Carpathian didn't know if he was strong enough to defeat it, and he would prefer that the question remain academic.

“Why didn't you say that in the first place?” Carpathian said easily. He went to the door and called. “Kuzibah? Could you come up here please?”

 


SHIDAH CENTIPEDE

 

The young devil burst into the study, then stopped short when she saw Shidah. “Father!” she gasped. “What are you doing here?”

“Is that any way for a girl to address her dear Papa?” Shidah sneered. “I've come to take you home.”

Kuzibah looked wildly at Carpathian, who shook his head. “It shall not happen. I will not allow it.”

Shidah snarled. “Spirit; I warn you…”

“Stop it!” Kuzibah snapped. “I can't believe you, Father. We both know you can't defeat one who has not has summoned you, and you can't take me from a place of sanctuary. Stop this ridiculous posturing!”

“Enough,” Shidah said. He turned to the other devils. “Leave us,” he said, and the three vanished in a goat of brimstone. “You too, he said to Kuzibah, who set her hands defiantly on her hips.

“I said, LEAVE US!” Shidah screamed.

“Kuzibah, why don't you wait downstairs; your Father and I should talk. It will be all right,” Carpathian said softly. With one final snort at her Father, Kuzibah left the room. As the door closed, the air shimmered and Shidah transformed into a young man with golden skin and eyes, wearing a long linen robe.

“You have courage, Spirit,” he said with honest respect. Carpathian inclined his head modestly. “May I also take it that you are a creature of your word?”

“Indeed.”

“Has my daughter told you anything about her Mother?”

“She told me her mother was a mortal,” Carpathian said. “And that she was not with you.”

Shidah smiled ruefully, “Oh no,” he said. “With her dying breath she rebuked me. Kuzibah's mother…her name was Magdalena . She was not merely mortal, but highly virtuous. She planned to dedicate her life to the service of others. My Lord, Lucifer, sent me to corrupt her, to tempt her, or, failing that, to defile her.”

Shidah paused, searching for words. “But my Lord underestimated her. Her virtue and innocence turned the heart of a devil, and it was I who was corrupted. I felt…” He groped for words again, “…ashamed. Guilty for what I had done. I returned to Lucifer, and for seventy years I was punished in the torments of Hell.

“ Magdalena took herself away from society, and bore Kuzibah alone. She hid herself and the child her entire life, and Kuzibah remained a child in many ways.

“There was one of those shifts in power so common in Hell. Lord Astaroth arose, and I was released. I learned of my child, and her Mother's passing, sought her out, and brought her into My Lord Astaroth's court. I conscripted her into Hell's army. As my child, she had to obey me.” He sighed. “But she hated it. She never said a word, but I knew. Her Mother had raised her well. Although she has half my nature, she is her Mother's child. When she fled the depths of Hades, I let her go. I wanted her beyond Astaroth's reach.”

After a long moment, Carpathian spoke with quiet authority. “You didn't come here to take Kuzibah. You came to make certain she was safe and protected. You came to see if the threats of Hell could move me to rescind her sanctuary.”

Shidah smiled. “My only hope to assure her safety is to acquire my own power, and gain some measure of freedom. The lines of authority are constantly being redrawn. Half the battle is guessing which general will be victorious and currying his favor. Lucifer is gathering his forces now, and other petty devils are hoping to seize control of their own districts.” He closed his eyes. “In my own way I loved Kuzibah's Mother. I would do anything to keep my daughter from Astaroth.”

“What of the three who accompanied you?” Carpathian asked. Shidah smiled, and some of his former wickedness crept into his expression.

“Have no fear of them. They are hateful creatures, and I feel absolutely no mercy towards them. They will be silent. ” His face grew somber again. “So, Spirit; I leave you with two burdens: my daughter and my weakness. Have you the strength to bear them both?”

“I believe I can,” Carpathian said. “I'm quite fond of your daughter. As well as I am able, I will continue teaching her right from wrong, and keep her from harm.”

“Fair enough,” Shidah said. “I leave her in your care. You have not seen the last of me. I will check in on you both when I can.”

“Come as a friend, and you will be welcome.”

Shidah's expression was melancholy. “And please…speak kindly of me to her.”

Carpathian nodded. “I will. I know she thinks of you as well.”

“Thank you, Spirit.” Shidah turned to go, then looked Carpathian over one final time. “I must admit…you impress me. Few would have the confidence to gamble on my having a…conscience, or compassion.”

“Not such a gamble, really.” Shidah's eyebrows raised in question.

Carpathian smiled. “After all…at one time long ago, you were an angel.”

Shidah stared in astonishment. Then he began to laugh; not the evil mocking from before, but a deep, full-bellied roar of good humor. His laughter grew louder, and he slowly began to disappear, leaving only his wide, laughing smile floating in the air before Carpathian.

Then it too was gone.

 

SHIDAH Golden

 

Carpathian stood alone in his study for a long time. He knew intellectually that all of Shidah's words could be lies. And yet, he believed the demon.

Perhaps I'm becoming adept at understanding devils.

He found Kuzibah in her room, staring out the window, her brow furrowed with deep thought. She turned as Carpathian entered and her face opened with relief. “You were able to fight him off, then,” she said, less a question than a statement.

“Not exactly,” Carpathian said. “But he has agreed that you should remain here.”

Kuzibah bowed before him, taking his hand and kissing it. “Thank you,” she said, repeating it quietly over and over.

“Stop that,” Carpathian said, lifting her to her feet. “Your Father wants you here. I judge him to be an honorable creature. You need not fear him.”

Kuzibah looked doubtful. “I'm not sure you understand the ways of devils, “she said. “You must never trust them completely.”

“Not even you?” Carpathian asked, teasing.

“No,” Kuzibah replied solemnly. “Not even me. We're just not capable of really understanding certain things. And we're most dangerous when we tell the truth. You must always be careful.”

‘I see,” said Carpathian. “I will keep that in mind. Of course,” he added easily, “it's best to remember that spirits, particularly card-playing ones, have been known to be a bit untrustworthy themselves…”

He turned to go, but not before he caught the expression that crossed Kuzibah's face; a look he would come to know and treasure in the years to come: a mixture of amused exasperation and cautious anxiety.

 

CARPATHIAN & KUZIBAH

 

There was a quiet knock on the study door, and Carpathian turned from the window. Kuzibah stepped into the room. “Am I bothering you?”

“No, not at all.” Kuzibah crossed the room and stood beside him looking out at the night.

“You left the party early.”

“Not from any distress. I just wanted to get away from the mad crowd for a moment. Besides, Elmo's one-man rendition of the entire Friday The Thirteenth film series was becoming a bit much.”

Kuzibah giggled, then reached into her coat pocket. She pulled out a particularly well-handled deck of playing cards. “This was quite an unexpected present.”

Carpathian chuckled. “I thought they seemed remarkably appropriate, all things considered. I found them the other day inside my desk. I thought you'd enjoy them.”

Kuzibah placed her arm in Carpathian's and lay her head on his shoulder, positioning her horns carefully. “I do. I had almost forgotten.”

“I've been remembering of late. Did you have a nice birthday?”

Very nice. Thank you.” She looked up. “Later we're all going to watch a movie.”

Carpathian looked askance at her. “Which one?”

Valley Of Gwangi , of course.”

“Again!?”

“It's almost perfect! It's got…”

“…cowboys and dinosaurs. Yes, I know.” He shook his head, smiling. “I think I'll pass this time, my Sweet. It's been a long, raucous evening, and I think I'm due for a good night's rest.”

“All right,” said Kuzibah, sounding disappointed. They stood together for a silent moment; then Kuzibah spoke softly. “Thank you. For everything.”

Carpathian inclined his head. “It was my pleasure.”

“You're my best friend in the whole world. You know that?”

“Indeed. And you are a fine apprentice, and a true companion, and I care for you dearly.”

Kuzibah reached up and kissed Carpathian, hugging him fiercely. “Have a good night. We'll try not to be too noisy.”

“Have no fear about that. Enjoy yourself.”

“All right. Goodnight.”

Kuzibah slipped quietly out of the room, closing the door behind her. Carpathian stood in the study listening to the muffled sounds of the party coming up through the floor. He laughed softly, shaking his head, then sat and stretched out on his couch. He lay back, closed his eyes, and fell into a deep sleep, dreaming all the while of devils both large and small.

 

FINIS.

 

 

 

© 2013 Patient Creatures Ltd.