Just in time for Halloween, we have a funny, sweet, and slightly skewed short story by Aaron Corwin, an up-and-coming writer from Seattle. All Mathilde wanted for her birthday was a pony. Instead, she got a demon. Sometimes growing up means learning that what you think you want is not always what you need.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by editor Liz Gorinsky.
Mathilde didn’t want a demon. She wanted a pony.
“Ponies are expensive,” Mathilde’s mother said. “How about a nice little demon instead?”
“I don’t want a demon!” Mathilde stamped her foot. “Demons are ugly and creepy and they smell bad!”
“Ponies are hard work,” Mathilde’s father said. “You wouldn’t have time for your homework.”
“I would!” Mathilde said. “I’d work really hard and take good care of him!”
“Well,” Father said. “We’ll see.”
Mathilde knew what “we’ll see” meant. It was one of those special lies that only grown-ups were allowed to tell. When a grown-up said “we’ll see,” it really meant “never.”
It wasn’t fair. Becky Hamilton got to take riding lessons on weekends, and she never stopped talking about them.
Peter Voorhees brought his demon to school once. It was scaly and slobbery, not sleek and pretty like a pony. It got loose in the classroom and tried to eat Mathilde’s hair.
How could anyone think that a demon was better than a pony?
The day before Mathilde’s birthday in September, the sky was gray and drizzly all afternoon and the puddles swirled with little flat rainbows. On that day, something different happened.
“Mathilde?” That was Mrs. Pressmorton, the vice principal. Mathilde looked up from the floor, one galosh halfway onto her foot.
“Mathilde, your parents called to say you don’t have to take the bus home today. Your grandmother is picking you up from school.”
Mathilde’s heart began to beat faster. Nana? She thought. Nana’s here for my birthday?
She tried not to hope. She tried so, so hard, but little bits of hope started to creep in anyway. Nana always brought presents, even when it wasn’t her birthday. And—and this was the deepest, most secret hope of all—Nana lived in the big house in the country; the big house with the old barn and the great big field.
“Oh my goodness!” Nana said. She swept Mathilde up in a great big hug, just like she always did.
“Nana!” Mathilde definitely didn’t peer over Nana’s shoulder, looking for a pony in the back of her car. Not much, anyway.
“Look at you!” Nana said. “My little Matty-Patty’s all grown up! Soon you’ll be as tall as me!”
Mathilde giggled. Nana was almost as tall as Father, but that was another kind of lie grown-ups were allowed to tell. Mathilde didn’t mind. Especially if it meant she was old enough to have a pony.
Nana’s car smelled like grass and old books, but it didn’t have a pony in it, of course. The rain made blurry lines down the windshield while the wipers went squeak-squeak back and forth. Mathilde drummed her heels against the floor of the car and tried to imagine the squeak was the sound of her saddle shifting as she rode her pony through the rain. She was so caught up in her thoughts that she almost didn’t notice when Nana turned left instead of right at the corner with the big yellow restaurant.
“Where are we going?”
Nana smiled. “You didn’t think I’d come all this way and not bring you a present, did you?”
Mathilde took a breath so big she felt like she might burst.
“But my birthday’s not ’til tomorrow!”
“That’s true.” Nana gave her a great big wink. “But I won’t tell if you won’t. Besides, I think this is the sort of present you’d better pick out for yourself.”
Mathilde could scarcely believe it. After all this time and all this waiting, she was finally going to get a pony of her very own.
Becky Hamilton was going to be so jealous.
But when the car stopped, it was in front of a store that didn’t look like it had any ponies inside. The whole front of the store was covered in steel plates and the air smelled just a little bit like rotten eggs. It was very dark inside, but when Mathilde saw the rows of wire cages she knew she had been tricked.
“This isn’t a pony store!” Mathilde said. “This is a demon store!”
Dozens of demons looked over at the sound of her voice. There were little, slithering ones and great big horned ones, almost as big as Mathilde. There were skinny ones with wings and spiky ones with eyes that flashed different colors. There was even one with brightly lit smoke seeping from the sides of its mouth as it chewed on something she couldn’t quite see.
“Well, of course it is!” Nana said.
“But I don’t want a demon!” How many times would she have to say it? “I want a pony!”
“Ah.” Nana knelt down to put her hands on Mathilde’s shoulders. “Demons make wonderful pets, you know. When I was a girl, we had a Belgian Muncher on the farm. They’re smart as a whip if you train ’em right. Some can even talk. But do you know the best thing about demons?”
Mathilde shook her head, her lip quivering.
Nana leaned in very close and whispered in Mathilde’s ear. “They’re great for convincing parents that little girls are responsible enough to take care of a pony.”
Mathilde didn’t know what to make of this. Was it another grown-up lie? “Really?” Her voice trembled.
Nana smiled. “I’ve already spoken with your parents about it. If you prove you can take care of a demon . . . then maybe we can see about that pony.”
Mathilde looked at the nearest cage. The demon inside was walking around on tiny cloven hooves and merrily cracking a little barbed whip. It grinned at her with a mouth full of teeth that gleamed like needles.
“Well, hello there!”
Mathilde jumped a little. Behind the counter was an old man with a checked shirt and large, round glasses. His face became a pile of wrinkles when he smiled. “Are you here for a new demon?”
“No,” Mathilde said.
“Yes.” Nana smiled. “It’s her birthday.”
“Oh.” The old man gave that too-long nod that grown-ups gave when they thought they knew something but really didn’t. “I see! Is this your first demon, miss?”
“. . . Yes.” Mathilde looked at her shoes.
“Then this is a special occasion! What sort of demon were you looking for?”
Mathilde looked back at him. “I want the kind with the pretty eyes and the long, shiny mane!”
Nana sighed. “That’s a pony, dear.”
“Well, that’s what I want!”
Nana gave Mathilde a sharp look, but the old man just laughed.
“Oh, I think I have just the one for you.” He reached beneath the counter and pulled out a small glass cage.
The demon inside didn’t have a long, shiny mane. It didn’t have any hair at all, at least not that Mathilde could see. All she saw was a tiny, black, hooded robe that hovered above the bottom of its cage on a billowing cloud of inky blackness. Its eyes were two red stars that twinkled in the darkness of its hood like distant Christmas lights.
I guess that’s kind of pretty, Mathilde thought.
Nana said, “Oh! What type of demon is that?”
“He’s a Miniature Dark Lord,” the old man said.
Nana clucked her tongue. “A Dark Lord? I thought they had great big horns!”
“Normally they do.” The shopkeeper shook his head. “But this poor little guy was born without any. All the other Dark Lords rejected him. Even his own mother didn’t want to take care of him! Can you imagine that?”
Mathilde could imagine it. She didn’t want to take care of him either. But . . . “What’s his name?”
The old man smiled behind his big round glasses. “Why don’t you ask him yourself?”
Mathilde peered through the glass cage. She looked at the Dark Lord’s tiny clawed fingers, at his dark billowing cloud.
Mathilde thought about her pony. “Hello,” she said. “What’s your name?”
I AM IX’THOR, MASTER OF THE VENOMOUS PITS OF KARTHOOM! The creature raised his arms over his head. He had a voice like the truck that picked up their garbage in the morning, only smaller. BOW BEFORE YOUR MASTER, SMALL ONE!
“How about that!” The old man raised his fuzzy white eyebrows. “He told you his name first thing! He must really like you.”
“Well, I don’t like him . . .” Mathilde crossed her arms. Ix’thor lowered his arms and hung his head a little. “. . . But I guess he’ll do.”
IX’THOR . . . HUNGERS. The Dark Lord’s voice rumbled from within his cardboard box.
“Dad!” Mathilde put her hands on her hips. “Hurry up! He’s getting hungry!”
“I’m sure he’s fine,” Father said. He was kneeling on the floor of Mathilde’s bedroom, carefully hanging the curtains on the big glass cage. “You have to be firm with demons, you know. Give in and they’ll walk all over you.”
IX’THOR DEMANDS SACRIFICE!
“No!” Mathilde tapped her finger on the box. “Be good.”
“All right.” Father stood up and stretched his back with a soft pop, then turned down the light. “You can put him in now.”
Mathilde placed the cardboard box in the cage and pried the lid off. Ix’thor wafted out, his black mist coiling around the bottom of his robe. He floated back and forth a few times, exploring his new cage.
“Here,” Father said. “See the little altar down there? Put one of these on it.” He handed her a small, softly glowing ball, about the size of a pea, from the big plastic bag Nana had bought. The bag said things like “Nutritionally Balanced” and “Now with extra innocence for a healthy glow!”
At the sight of the red pellet Ix’thor raced over to the altar and stood on top of it, his arms outstretched.
“Ah-ah-ah,” Father said. “He has to take it from the altar. Make him wait for it.”
“Shoo!” Mathilde waved her hand toward the demon. “Back up. Back up! He won’t move!”
“Use the flashlight,” Father said. Mathilde picked up the little light that came with the My First Demon book and shined it on the altar. Ix’thor went scurrying off into the shadow of his box.
Mathilde put the pellet on one of the divots in the flat stone and turned off the light. After a few seconds, Ix’thor came out of his box and drifted over to the altar. He leaned over, as if to peer at the pellet, then snatched it up with both hands.
IX’THOR ACCEPTS YOUR SACRIFICE. The Dark Lord bowed his head over the pellet and devoured it. NUM. NUM. NUM.
“Wow,” Father said. “I guess he really was hungry.”
Mathilde glared at him, her eyes wide and her cheeks puffed out. “See!”
Mathilde had a hard time sleeping that night. She was excited about her birthday party, but her thoughts kept drifting toward the pony she would have someday. What color would he be? What would she call him? She knew her pony would be gentle and tame, not pushy like Ix’thor.
How long would she have to take care of a stupid demon, anyway?
When she did fall asleep, she dreamed of ponies with glowing red eyes.
Mathilde woke up to something poking her in the chin. “Mnm.” Mathilde swatted it away.
A moment later it happened again. She opened her eyes to see two red, twinkling stars and dark, clawed hands hovering over her face.
KNEEL BEFORE YOUR MASTER, MORTAL!
Mother came to the door with Father and Nana close behind. When Mother flicked on the light there was a grinding squeal from Ix’thor and the little Dark Lord scurried under her dresser.
“Turn that light off!” Nana said. “Or he’ll never come out.”
Father ran into the room and stumbled around in the sudden dark. “Where did he go?”
“How did he get out of his cage?” Mother asked.
“I see him!” Father lurched to the corner, but when he bent down he banged his head on Mathilde’s dresser. “Ow!”
Mathilde saw a black shape dart under the bed. She grabbed the little flashlight and crawled underneath the springs.
“He’s right here!” She turned on the light.
Ix’thor tried to dart away from the beam, but he was trapped in the corner. When he hid himself in his robe, her hand darted out and wrapped around his leathery body. “I’ve got him!”
But she didn’t have him. Tiny claws slashed at her hand, right between her finger and thumb.
“I hate him!” Mathilde said through her tears. Mother wiped at her face, at the bubble of snot that was hanging from her nose. “I don’t want a demon! I hate demons!”
“Oh, sweetie,” Mother said. “It’s just a tiny little cut. He was just scared of you, that’s all.”
“I don’t care! I don’t want a demon! I want a pony!”
Nana shook her head. “Sometimes ponies bite too, child.”
Mathilde had had enough of this. “They do not!”
“Oh, you think so?” Nana said. “When I was a girl, my best friend, Sheryl, had her finger bitten clean off!”
Mathilde looked up through a blurry curtain of tears. She couldn’t tell if Nana was making fun of her or not.
“You have to be careful with animals, Matty-Patty.” Mother stroked Mathilde’s hair. “Sometimes when they’re scared they lash out. They don’t know any better.”
“But I was being careful!” Why didn’t anyone believe her?
Mathilde looked up at the sound of Father’s footsteps.
“Well that’s that,” Father said. “He’s back in his cage. I don’t know how he got out of there, but he’ll need a cutting torch to do it again.”
“I don’t want him in my room!” Mathilde said. “I can’t sleep when he’s in there.”
Nana sighed. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, Fred. I’m sorry. I’ll take him back to the store tomorrow.”
Mathilde suddenly felt queasy. Too late, she remembered her promise, her pony. “Wait!” Mathilde said. “I didn’t . . . really mean it. He can stay.”
Nana and Mother looked at each other. Nana looked like she was laughing at something, but Mother didn’t look so amused.
“Do you really mean it?” Mother asked.
“Because this is your last chance,” Mother went on. “If you say you don’t want him one more time we’ll give him to someone who does.”
“I know.” Mathilde looked at her knees.
“You have to promise you’ll take care of him, and be gentle with him.”
“I promise,” Mathilde said. “I’ll take good care of him.”
There was cake at the party. It was chocolate with white frosting and candy sprinkles, just like Mathilde wanted. And there were lots of presents, including a camera and a unicycle and eleven different kinds of toy pony.
Mathilde smiled when she opened each present, and because Mother was looking she made sure to say thank you to everyone who gave her something—even Aunt Maggie, who wasn’t actually there. But she wasn’t really happy. Even the unicycle, which she had asked for specially, didn’t make her happy. When Robby Ferguson asked her if he could play with it, she said she didn’t mind.
“This is so cool.” Robby wobbled on the pedals, gripping the back of the couch. “I’m gonna get one for my birthday.”
“I already have one,” said Becky Hamilton. “It’s okay. But I like riding horses better. Daddy says I can have one of my own for my next birthday.”
“Yeah right,” Suzy Feldstein said.
“It’s true!” Becky tossed her hair in her stuck-up, Becky-Hamilton way. “I made him promise.”
“I did get another present,” Mathilde said. The other children all looked at her. “You want to see him?”
“You have to turn the lights down.” Mathilde turned the dial down to a murky gloom. “He doesn’t like light.”
“What’s in there?” Becky Hamilton stepped back. “It’s not a snake, is it?”
“Sh!” Mathilde said, because she felt like it. “It’s not a snake.”
Mathilde opened the curtains around the cage and turned on the special red light in the lid, then stepped back.
The cage had changed since the last time she’d seen it. Ix’thor had moved around the pebbles at the bottom and stacked them up into a high-backed chair. He had taken apart his cardboard box and used it to build a little tower. Another piece of cardboard had been fashioned into a wide, diamond-shaped sword with tiny skulls carved into the blade. In the dim red light, it looked like every pebble in the cage had been worn down slightly to resemble hundreds of itty-bitty multicolored skulls.
WELCOME TO MY DOMAIN, Ix’thor said. FOOLS. DID YOU THINK YOU COULD DEFEAT ME?
“Wow!” Robby said. “That’s cool!”
“What kind of demon is he?” Suzy asked.
“He’s a Dark Lord.” Mathilde felt the first stirrings of a real smile.
“No he’s not,” Becky said. “Dark Lords have horns.”
Mathilde puffed up. “That shows what you know, Becky! This one was born without any horns.”
“Does he do any tricks?” Robby leaned in to peer through the glass.
“Um . . .” Mathilde hesitated. “Not yet.”
BOW BEFORE ME!
“You shouldn’t actually bow,” Mathilde said. “That just encourages him.”
“Oh, man!” Robby was practically hopping up and down. “He’s so awesome! I want a demon too!”
“I can’t have one,” Suzy said. “My mom’s allergic to demons.”
Mathilde smiled at Suzy. “You can come over here and play with Ix’thor if you want.”
“It’s not that big a deal,” Becky said. “It’s just a demon. What good is a demon who doesn’t even do anything? I bet he bites.”
Mathilde’s eyes widened and she pressed her lips together. Why did Becky have to be such a stuck-up brat? Why did Mother even invite her, anyway? Mathilde wanted to punch her, right in her turned-up nose.
FOOLISH MORTALS, Ix’thor rumbled. NOW BEHOLD MY TRUE POWER!
The inky clouds rolling around the bottom of Ix’thor’s robe rolled up for a moment, as if being sucked back into his body. Then, his cardboard sword held over his head, Ix’thor emitted a burst of crimson fire from his hands. The eldritch flame danced along the edges of the blade, licking and curling, but not burning.
Robby looked like he was about to pee his pants. “Wow! You said he didn’t do any tricks!”
“Well . . .” Mathilde tried not to look too smug. “Maybe he’s got one or two.”
It rained a lot in the fall. By the start of October it seemed like it had been raining forever. Mathilde slammed the door behind her and ran up the stairs to her room. She threw her soggy book bag on the floor and flopped facedown on the bed.
Her sobs mingled with the patter on the fog-painted window. In the darkness between the cage’s curtains, two tiny red stars gleamed.
WHAT TROUBLES YOU, MY MINION?
“Shut up!” Mathilde said. “I’m not your minion!”
She lifted her face from the pillow and looked at the dark, wet imprint she’d left there. She wiped her nose.
“We had to make a collage,” Mathilde mumbled. “About animals. And Billy Haggerty . . . he said mine was ugly . . . and he took it . . . and he threw it in the mud! It’s ruined!”
YOUR PLAN . . . WAS NEARLY COMPLETE?
“Yes!” Mathilde squeezed her eyes shut. “Now I have to start all over!”
DESTROY THE INTERLOPER!
“Miss Hoevener says he’s just being a boy. She said . . . that’s what boys do when they like you. She says if I just ignore him then he’ll stop.”
Ix’thor looked down for a moment, then raised his sword over his head. FEED HIM TO THE RAVENOUS TONGUE-BEASTS OF GARAKH’NURR!
Mathilde sniffed. “I would, but I don’t know where that is.”
Ix’thor reached out his little hand. GIVE ME YOUR SOUL AND I WILL GRANT YOU LIMITLESS POWER.
Mathilde smiled a little. “Mom says I can’t have limitless power until I’m older. But you can have a grub soul.”
Ix’thor waited patiently by the altar, his eyes glowing brightly.
On Halloween, a witch came to their house. She had a black pointy hat and a broomstick, green skin and a big, warty nose.
“Nana!” Mathilde ran forward for a hug.
“Oof!” Nana said. “This can’t be my little Matty-Patty, can it? How’s my little angel?”
“I’m not an angel.” Mathilde raised the hood of her robe. “I’m a Dark Lord. Bow before me, mortals!”
“Oh, my! I think I felt the earth tremble for a moment.”
“Excellent. It is just as I have foretold.” Mathilde looked up. “And Ix’thor’s coming with us too.”
Nana looked outside. “Oh, sweetie, the sun’s still out. I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”
“It’s okay. We got him a ball. See?”
Mathilde picked up the crystal ball, which was filled with swirling black clouds. From deep inside its murky depths, two crimson points of light could barely be seen.
“I made him an angel costume,” Mathilde said. “But you can’t really see it.”
SOON YOUR TRANSFORMATION WILL BE COMPLETE. Ix’thor’s hollow voice rumbled from inside the ball.
Mathilde whispered, “I don’t think he knows it’s Halloween.”
“Well then, let’s not disappoint him,” Nana said. “Shall we collect some souls?”
Orange leaves flew across the street in twisted whirlwinds while the shadows of barren trees stretched their fingers slowly away from the sun. Mathilde made her way down the street with Ix’thor’s ball under one arm and her swollen bag of candy in the other.
“That’s an awful lot of candy,” Nana said. “I’m certain we didn’t get that much candy when I was a girl.”
“Ix’thor says fear keeps the peasants in line.”
“Aha. Mathilde . . . you know not everything Ix’thor says is a good idea, right?”
“Well, duh!” Mathilde rolled her eyes.
“Of course. How silly of me. Anyway, I think it’s time we started heading back home.”
“Wait!” Mathilde pulled on Nana’s cloak. “Just one more street, please? Just to the end of the block?”
Nana sighed. “All right, but that’s it. I don’t want you crossing Washington Street. There’s too much traffic.”
MWA HA HA. Ix’thor laughed with a rumble that made Mathilde’s ears tickle on the inside. NOTHING CAN STOP US NOW.
A cluster of trick-or-treaters was leaving the big stone house at the end of the street. Mathilde slowed down when she realized it was Becky and Sally Hamilton. She wanted to look away and cross the street, but Nana waved to them.
“Happy Halloween!” Nana said in her big, witchy voice. “Eee-hee-he-hee!”
“Hello.” Mrs. Hamilton wasn’t wearing a costume, just regular grown-up clothes and a bright orange vest. “Girls, say hello to your friend.”
Becky and Sally were both dressed up in big, poofy dresses with lots of lace and glitter. Becky’s was blue and came with a sparkling tiara, while Sally, who was a few years younger, wore a pale green one with fairy wings and a wand.
“Hello,” Becky said. Sally just mumbled and hid behind her mother’s leg.
“Hi.” Mathilde noted with some satisfaction that Becky’s bag had less candy than her own. “What are you dressed up as?”
“We’re princesses!” Becky straightened her tiara. “What are you supposed to be? An ink stain?”
“Rebecca!” Mrs. Hamilton said. “That wasn’t very nice.”
Becky winced at her mother’s words, but Mathilde just smiled.
“That’s okay,” Mathilde said. “I don’t mind. I’ll just take my revenge when I rule the world. Mwa ha ha.”
For some reason grown-ups always thought that sort of thing was hilariously funny. Both Nana and Mrs. Hamilton laughed out loud. Becky just glared.
“Well, come on,” Nana said. “We don’t want your mother to worry about you. Nice seeing you, Kathy.”
“Goodbye, Mrs. Clark. Say goodbye, girls.”
“B-bye,” Sally muttered.
“Bye,” Becky said.
Mathilde started to walk away. She saw Becky’s foot move, but didn’t know what was happening until it was too late.
“Oops!” Becky said. Mathilde felt the edge of her robe yank, and then she was falling forward, her hands out in front of her. The sidewalk hit her knees, skinning them. Candy scattered everywhere, over pavement and grass.
Ix’thor went tumbling through the air, his ball reflecting the cold sunlight. It bounced once off the curb and once more off the side of a parked car. For one held breath Mathilde thought it was going to be okay, that the ball might roll harmlessly to a stop.
Then her hope vanished in the heavy squeal of brakes and the sound of shattering glass.
Mathilde screamed, trying to stand up, trying to run. Later she would remember Nana’s hands grabbing her, pulling her back from the edge of Washington Street, but, at the time, all Mathilde could see was the tiny shadow on the side of the road, with its crumpled paper wings shining in the bright autumn sun.
“No!” Mathilde kicked and squirmed in Nana’s grip. There was a crowd of people standing around now. A row of stopped cars backed up on either side of the street.
“Cover him up!” Mathilde screamed. She tore her own robe trying to get away. “He needs dark! He needs the dark!”
“Mathilde!” Nana shouted. Mathilde ran to the little body and kneeled over it, trying to give him some shade.
“Ix’thor!” Mathilde sobbed. “Please!”
NO! The little Dark Lord reached one hand toward Mathilde’s tears. THIS . . . CANNOT . . . BE. I AM . . . IN . . . VINCIBLE . . .
“But demons are pretty strong, right?” Father said. “You said they’re almost impossible to kill.”
“Dark Lords are weaker in direct sunlight.” That was the old man from the demon store, with his checked shirt and big, round glasses. “Much weaker. I’m sorry. I did all I could.”
Mathilde sat in the dark of her room. She wondered when they would realize she could hear them through the door.
She wondered if she’d be that stupid when she was a grown-up.
“I’ll talk to her,” Nana said. “It’s my fault that this happened.”
“No,” Mother said. “I’ll do it.”
The door cracked open. It was the only light in the room.
“Matty?” Mother looked around. “Are you in there?”
“You can turn the light on,” Mathilde said from her bed. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”
Mother closed the door behind her and turned up the lights just a little bit.
“His tower fell down,” Mathilde said. “In his cage. I tried to prop it back up, but it just kept crumbling.”
“Oh, sweetie!” Mother sat down on the bed and pulled Mathilde into her lap. Mathilde squeezed her eyes shut. All the tears she had left were hiding in her throat, making a lump.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Mother said. “There was nothing anyone could have done.”
Mathilde thought of Becky, but if it made Mother feel better to think so, then she wasn’t going to argue.
“If . . .” Mother trailed off and tried again. “Father and I were talking to Nana. When you’re ready, if you still want one . . .”
“I don’t want a pony,” Mathilde said. “I want Ix’thor. But I can’t have him back, can I?”
Mother looked like she was about to cry. “No. I’m sorry.”
Mathilde snuggled into her mother’s arms. Mother did cry then, a little. After a while, Mathilde looked up.
“Then . . . can I get a pony with glowing red eyes, and crush the skulls of my enemies beneath his flaming hooves?”
Mother laughed a little and kissed Mathilde’s forehead. “We can find one with glowing eyes, if you want.”
Mathilde sighed into her mother’s embrace, listening to her heartbeat. “It’s a start.”
“Brimstone and Marmalade” copyright © 2013 by Aaron Corwin
Art copyright © 2013 by Chris Buzelli