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Authors: Kelly Gay

Hell's Menagerie

BOOK: Hell's Menagerie
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“Hell's Menagerie”
A Charlie Madigan Short Story
Kelly Gay

W
hy did I let her talk me into this? Why, why, why?
“Your mother is going to go ape shit. Total ape shit. I'm so dead. And she won't be swift about it, either. She'll drag it out, enjoy it with that maniacal gleam she gets in her eyes. She'll—”

“Rex.” Emma turned, stopping Rex in his tracks. “Focus. Mom is in Elysia for the week. She'll never know.” Her gaze went narrow and suspicious; funny how she could do that—go from big brown-eyed innocence to shrewd and calculating. “Unless you slip up and tell her.”

“Yeah. Right. Not going to sign my own death warrant, kid.”

But he probably already had.

If Charlie found out he'd allowed her only child to track a kidnapper to
hell
of all places . . . Christ. He rubbed a hand down his sweaty face. He was in deep, deep shit. This fatherly role was
way
more complicated than he thought it'd be. Who knew that little piece of work walking in front of him could worm her way inside of him like some adorable little parasite and make his heart go all mushy and weak-willed at the first sign of a lip tremble or tears?

Weren't fathers supposed to be stern and solid as rocks? Unmovable as mountains? Sounded way better than being whipped by a twelve-year-old kid.

Emma was just like her mother, too. Headstrong, brave, powerful. But she had a long way to go before holding her own like Charlie. Charlie was trained, had years of experience dealing with the off-world criminal element in Underground Atlanta, and she knew pain, death, and loss on an intimate level.

Emma knew loss, too. Her father, Will, was gone for good, his spirit set free to go to the Afterlife while his physical body remained, a true home for Rex's jinn spirit to take over, to become something more than a simple Revenant who possessed one body after another. Something permanent, in body and in Emma's life.

Rex would be damned if he'd ever let Emma experience the things her mother had gone through—what she
might
be going through even now as she scoured the heavenly world of Elysia to find her partner, Hank. Imagine Charlie coming home to learn he'd allowed Emma to traipse into hell,
hell
, to recover a bunch of kidnapped hellhound pups.

Puppy-napped.

Jesus.

He hadn't really let her ‘traipse', though. Em's journey was more of a stealthy escape through a bedroom window, unlocking Brimstone's kennel, then breaking into the League of Mages headquarters and using the portal to Charbydon (aka hell). And he hadn't exactly
let
her do that, now, had he?

He'd been blameless right up until he caught up with her and her hellhound in the capital city of Telmath, where the portal had taken them. Where Emma had cried, completely heartbroken in his arms.

And he was a world-class sucker.

In his defense, what the hell was he supposed to do?

The pregnant hellhound Charlie had found in the warehouse district a couple months ago should have been sent back to Charbydon and set free in the wild. But there were issues with her pregnancy, so it was decided she'd go after the pups were born. The pups arrived, the shelter breached, and Momma and her pups were taken.

Easy pickin's for someone looking for a few exotic animals . . .

Emma had learned that two other kidnappings had occurred in the area, all of exotic animals, all supposedly taken by some traveling circus/menagerie. The things kids learned at school. Little eavesdroppers. In a school full of arcanely gifted children, there was no doubt in Rex's mind that if they put their minds and talents to it, they'd find the culprits and recover the animals.

Emma, however, had taken it personal. The rescued hellhound living in their home, Brimstone, meant more to her than anything. The fact that she could communicate with the beast added another layer of intimacy and loyalty when it came to the breed.

“We look around,” he reminded her, sticking close in the crowded city street. “If we find them, we let the authorities know.”

She didn't answer. Just kept walking down the dark avenue, in the direction of the three big-top tents they'd spied from Telmath Station's high vantage point.

Charbydon was Rex's place of birth, where he'd fought as a jinn warrior long ago in the war with the nobles. But that was before he died and spent the next few thousand years as a spirit, before he met Emma's father and made a deal that would change both their lives.

The familiar scents of warm tar and stone were heavy in the hot Telmath air. The old city was tucked inside a gigantic cavern in the mountainside. Its buildings were made of thick timber beams and beautifully carved gray stones, and they clung to jagged out-croppings along the cavern walls or were packed together on every
available surface where the cavern floor didn't drop off into nothingness below. Bridges linked one area to another, and high above in the cavern ceiling, veins of raw typanum ran through the rock, casting its violet glow onto the gray city below.

This world was the basis for humanity's notion of hell. The beings here—ghouls, goblins, jinn, darkling fae, and nobles—had been the inspiration behind legends of monsters, demons, dark gods, and fallen angels. Heaven and hell had come out of the closet over a decade ago, and now all three worlds—heaven, hell, and Earth—existed in what was usually a very lawful coexistence.

Usually.

Rex glanced up to the sight far across the cavern where an enormous spear of rock jutted up from the cavern floor. Its height was dizzying from where he stood. He'd once stood upon that rock, a place called the City of Two Houses, where the houses of Abaddon and Astarot ruled this world from their dark obsidian temples and palaces.

A cold shiver snaked up his spine as they moved deeper and deeper into the heart of Telmath. He could feel Emma's excitement and awe, but, wisely, she kept silent; she was already in enough trouble and did
not
need to be enjoying this little excursion.

No longer able to see the tents, they followed the music, a slow, beckoning melody that flowed down the streets and alleys like a cool refreshing welcome—tempting the mind and heart.
Come. Come to the carnival
. It wound through the congested avenue, a marketplace where open fires burned in barrels, goblins hawked their wares, cloaked ghouls kept to the shadows, and darkling fae moved their lithe gray bodies in and out of the throng. Rex spotted a few humans and mages, a noble or two, and a small group of jinn warriors standing around a fire.

Brimstone stuck by Emma's side, his hairless gray back coming to her elbow. She placed a hand on his thick neck. Thousands
of years ago, hellhounds had trained as warhounds, companions to the hulking jinn warriors who once ruled Charbydon. Then the nobles came, fought for dominion, and the use and training of hellhounds was forbidden. The warhounds were killed and the young ones were turned out into the wild. It wasn't uncommon to see the beasts lurking around populated areas, hunting for scraps of food, or the weak . . . Having Brim with them drew some curious looks, but not enough to slow them down. Not yet, anyway.

Above the crowd, they caught sight again of the tents. They loomed in the distance, their dark, ragged flags limp in the stale air, their black and white stripes dirtied with the dull, dusty gray that made up much of Charbydon's landscape.

“Hurry,” Em said over her shoulder, increasing her pace, darting in and out of foot traffic, not stopping until the avenue ended and a massive square opened up. She found a spot under the eaves of a corner shop. “That's it. That's the carnival.” Her voice was breathless and low, determined, but with a small note of trepidation.

Rex had a few spotty memories of small faires and festivals in his first life, but nothing like what rose up before him. This was wild, dangerous, and chaotic, a spectacle of fire and darkness, shadows and light.

Freak shows, menageries, performers . . . Jinn strongmen performed feats. Darkling fae used their thin bodies to twist and bend and tumble on wires strung taut above the square. Some wielded fire and blades. Death matches were advertised outside of the larger tents. In the arena, one could pit oneself against beast or being to win prizes. This wasn't any carnival the human world would ever allow.

Ghouls with faces painted white—stark within the frames of their dark cloaks—weaved through the crowd, taunting, advertising,
luring spectators. To Rex, their mannerisms and presence seemed more predatory than not.

Rex stepped closer to Emma. Alert and protective, he scanned the crowd. His thoughts and senses went sharp as his warrior traits surfaced with blinding speed.

Emma did that to him. Being her protector, her caretaker, did that to him.

He placed a hand on her small shoulder.

—

REX'S HAND ON
her shoulder pulled Emma out of her awestruck daze. She glanced at him, his profile grim. A muscle flexed in his jaw as he surveyed the crowd. A lump formed in her throat and her heart beat wildly.

Oh God. She was in
so
much trouble!

Her hand shook as she stroked Brim's neck, his presence helping to calm her and remind her of why she'd come here, why she'd done something so monumentally crazy . . .

If the League found out she'd used their portal, she'd be expelled from their school. If her mom found out, she'd be expelled from the world forever. Grounded forever. Guilt had a firm, almost painful grip on her chest ever since yesterday.

Just get in, get out. Save them.

She knew the pups were here. She knew it because Brim knew it. All she had to do was sink into his thoughts and she could feel what he felt. And right now he was still, almost frozen, as his mind weeded through the sensory overload of the carnival. Through the sights, the scents, the sounds . . .

He'd find the female and those pups. They were his, after all.

Emma had visited the mother in the kennel and had gone again when the puppies were born. Three of them. Two males, one female. Three tiny, gray, hairless, short-eared, no-tailed pups with
wrinkly skin and thick, heavy bones. One day they'd be as big as tigers, with jaws like pit bulls' times ten. They were intelligent, loyal, and brave. But wild and deadly and feared. Hellhounds were banned from the human world. If one was found illegally imported or, worse, got loose in her world, it was killed. Her mom had pulled some major strings to get the pregnant hellhound slated for the trip back to Charbydon instead of something worse, and she'd pulled even bigger strings to get Brim an official permit to stay with them under some bogus research K-9–type training allowance.

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