For 2022, I’ve been wanting to write more ‘creature features’ and generally improve my short story writing. My partner got me a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual for my birthday so I came up with the idea of writing a story every week based on a different creature from that – All There in the (Monster) Manual. Hope you enjoy!
This Week’s Inspiration: Death Dog
Trigger Warning: Loss of a Pet
Six months after their dog, Henry, passed away, Darrell and Molly are considering getting a new pet but moving on is hard to do. That is until the god of death Hades arrives at their door with a mysterious box.
Of course Darrell missed Henry. Photos of the giant, affable Great Dane plastered the front of their refrigerator to remind him of good times and bad every time he entered the kitchen. With a blue-grey coat, Henry had stood waist-high at the shoulders. In most of the photos, Henry’s slab of a tongue dangled out of his mouth in a goofy expression.
“Maybe it’s time to look at getting another dog, you know?” Molly said, seeing Darrell linger by the fridge.
“Yeah, maybe, but I just wouldn’t feel right about it,” Darrell said. “Not when I was responsible for what happened.”
“You need to stop punishing yourself, we’ve been over this and it wasn’t your fault! The latch broke, it could have happened at any time.”
Henry was a loving and fun dog but he wasn’t smart. Six months ago, when Darrell left for work he’d failed to notice the latch break off as he swung the gate shut behind him. Henry, as he did at every opportunity, got loose. Unfortunately when he ran out on a nearby road he was hit by a bus and fatally injured. Someone called the number on Henry’s collar and Darrell raced him to the emergency vet but there was nothing they could do except ease his suffering. Darrell had wept at Henry’s bedside as he watched the life fade out of his best friend’s furry body.
“You know, it’s amazing that Henry didn’t leave us with any little grandbabies to take care of when he went,” Molly said, trying to lighten the mood. “The way that dog would hump everything in sight.”
Darrell let out a short laugh. “Yeah, at least we know he died doing what he loved.”
As sweet and fun a dog Henry had been, he also had a notoriously high libido. Darrell and Molly eventually trained him out of trying to mate with their legs or hips all the time but woe betide any guests who made the mistake of bending over or showing a bit too much thigh. No single piece of furniture in their house had gone unmolested. When taken on walks, Henry had to be tightly leashed or else he would run off and leap on the first dog or cat he saw. Given his size relative to most pets, the results were often hilarious albeit terrifying for the animals in question. Trees, bushes, park benches, low walls, unlucky children and mounds of autumn leaves had all fallen victim to his reign of humping. According to bystanders, on the day he was hit by the bus the reason he’d run into the road was because he was trying to make time with a halted smart car.
“You’re right, maybe it’s time to think about getting another dog,” Darrell said. “I’ll look at cleaning out some of Henry’s old stuff today.”
It took Darrell a couple of hours to build up the strength to tackle Henry’s old things. They’d moved them all to a rarely used cabinet in the laundry along with a half-empty bag of stale dog food. The smell permeated the walls of the cupboard.
Henry’s leash sat on top of his old bowls and toys. Stuffed in the bottom of the cupboard was the dog bed they’d gotten for Henry when he was just a puppy. He’d quickly outgrown it, and the bed had become a frequent victim of Henry’s early amorous nature. Darrell wasn’t sure why they’d kept it, they should have thrown it out ages ago. But if they were to get another puppy or a smaller dog it might be useful if washed, and provide a sense of continuity. Darrell felt torn. Most of the toys and bowls were too chewed up to keep but he couldn’t find it in him to throw them away.
Darrell picked up Henry’s leash and held it in his fist. “Henry, buddy, I just wish-, I wish you’d known I was there, right there, until the end. I hope you weren’t too scared.”
Suddenly, a loud thud made Darrell jump. It was followed by two more, as if somebody was throwing something against the house. He spun and stuck his head into the hallway.
“What was that?” Darrell shouted.
Molly didn’t reply. She was probably in her office with her noise-cancelling headphones on. The thuds came again, from the front door. From where he was standing, Darrell could see the door shake. It was like someone was trying to kick the door in but they only hit it three times and then stopped and waited.
“Hey! Hey, cut that out! I’m coming!” Darrell said.
Still holding Henry’s old leash, Darrell hurried to the front door. He looked through the peephole before opening it but couldn’t make sense of what he saw. Someone seemed to have constructed a small tower right in the middle of their front yard. Black shapes, like giant insects, flitted around the tower and past the peephole. Darrell unlocked and swung the door open.
“What the hell?” Darrell said.
An enormous figure, at least twelve foot tall, stood in the centre of Darrell and Molly’s front yard. Resplendent black and silver robes draped from their high, pointed shoulders to the ground. Their face turned toward Darrell but was hidden behind an unsmiling mask made of bluish iron, thick and immensely heavy. Yellow fire burned behind the eyes of the mask and across the back of the giant figure’s head.
“ARE YOU DARRELL MALCOLM STAHL, SON OF GEOFFREY MALCOLM STAHL?” The figure asked. “THIS IS SIXTY-TWO MONTAGUE STREET?”
“Uh, yes, yes that’s right,” Darrell said.
Black shapes ripped across the yard in blurs of motion. Now that he was outside, Darrell could see they were small, implike creatures, each less than a foot tall, pure black and all angles, with razor sharp faces and batlike wings. They cackled as they flew around the front of the house.
“I AM HADES, THE UNSEEN, LORD OF THE UNDERWORLD AND GOD OF DEATH,” the giant said, with a voice like stone slabs falling down a mountain. “YOU ARE MASTER OF THE ANIMAL HENRY STAHL, SON OF BOBO?”
“Yes, I am, I was,” Darrell said. “Actually I was just-,”
“THIS IS YOURS.”
Hades gestured with one gloved hand. Glimpsing a bright yellow blaze between the lip of Hades’ glove and his sleeve, Darrell realised the god was a being made entirely of flame, just clad in dark robes and an iron mask. His presence, however, was deathly cold. Darrell could feel himself getting chillier and chillier the longer he stood on the porch.
Two of the implike creatures shot forward carrying a large cardboard box. They slammed it into Darrell’s chest and flitted away, laughing. Although he was carrying Henry’s old leash in one hand, Darrell managed to catch the box before it fell. The container was reasonably heavy, and it writhed and wrestled in his arms as if something inside was trying to get out.
“What, what is this?” Darrell said.
“MY FERRYMAN, CHARON, SAID FROM THE MOMENT OF HIS ARRIVAL YOUR PET, HENRY, WAS A MOST SINGULAR ANIMAL. VERY NEARLY DID CHARON THROW HIM OVERBOARD INTO THE RIVER STYX FOR THE LIBERTIES HE ATTEMPTED TO TAKE. BUT THEY CROSSED TO THE OTHER SIDE WHEREUPON HENRY SET ABOUT DEFILING ALL IN ELYSIUM HE COULD GET HIS PAWS ATOP.”
“That does sound like Henry,” Darrell admitted, struggling to contain the box.
“WHILE THIS BEHAVIOUR I COULD TOLERATE, YOUR HENRY THEN SET HIS SIGHTS ON SEDUCING MY ETERNALLY LOYAL GUARDIAN, CERBERUS,” Hades continued. “WHILE I AM CONTENT THAT SHE COULD MORE THAN DISSUADE HIM HAD SHE BEEN UNWILLING, I REFUSE TO CONTEND WITH THE RESULTS OF HIS ISSUE.”
“I’m sorry, what? What is this?”
“His progeny? You mean they had puppies? But, we had him fixed!”
“AFTER PASSING FROM THIS WORLD AND INTO THE NEXT, ONE FINDS THEMSELVES COMPLETE AGAIN IN BOTH BODY AND SOUL, REGARDLESS OF OCCURRENCES HERE ON THE MORTAL COIL.”
“So you’re giving them to me?”
“THEY ARE YOUR PROBLEM NOW.”
Hades gestured again and another imp shot forward carrying what looked like a small but heavy sack. They dropped it on the porch where it split open at Darrell’s feet. Silver coins spilled out of the opening and rolled in various directions.
“CONSIDER THAT CHILD SUPPORT.” Hades began to turn as if to stroll away.
“Wait, wait! I mean, you’re the actual god of the underworld! I’ve got so many questions!” Darrell said.
“Well, I don’t know about the big questions exactly, but what about Henry? Is he happy?”
“ENTIRELY TOO HAPPY FOR MY LIKING. I WOULD SEPARATE THE TWO OF THEM BUT CERBERUS WOULD NOT ALLOW IT. AND HE REMEMBERS YOU FONDLY, HE KNOWS YOU WERE THERE AT THE END.”
Darrell felt tears filling his eyes. “Can I-, could I see him?”
“YOU WILL. SOONER THAN YOU THINK.”
“Sooner than I think?”
“FOR YOU MORTALS THE END ALWAYS SEEMS TO COME SOONER THAN YOU THINK.”
Hades turned toward the gate as if to leave. His imps swarmed around him. Before Darrell could say anything more, there was a flash of fiery light and a thunderous eruption of sound. The shockwave shook the house. Up and down the block, several car alarms started to squall. When Darrell looked back he saw a large symbol burned into their lawn where Hades had been standing. Its edges glowed for a few moments, singed, before going out.
Darrell went back inside, wrestling with the wriggling box. As he shut the door, Molly came hurrying down from her office upstairs with eyes wide.
“What was that? It sounded like some kind of explosion!” Molly said. “What have you got in that box?”
Darrell carried the box to the kitchen, setting it down on the table where Molly had been sitting earlier. He quickly explained what had happened and what Hades had told him. Eventually he remembered to go back and collect the silver coins one of the imps had dumped on the porch. They all looked ancient, pitted with use. All of them had stamped symbols on one side and stuff like emperors, owls or creatures on the other. As they spoke, the box continued to writhe and make strange mewling sounds on the kitchen table.
“So these are Henry’s puppies?” Molly said.
“And Cerberus,” Darrell said. “You remember Cerberus, right? Monstrous guardian of the underworld with three heads?”
“Well, you remember Henry. He’d hump anything.”
Finally, the two of them opened the lid of the box. It smelled of animal hair and sulphur. Whatever was inside had settled considerably since Darrell put the box down.
“Oh, my God,” Molly said.
Eight puppies no bigger than a handspan in length had been bundled into the box. Some had curled up to sleep. A couple of them wrestled and one kept licking and chewing at the cardboard. All of them were mutts and looked like a cross between Great Danes and some black, shaggy, wolfish breed. Darrell couldn’t imagine how big they would get. And each and every one of them had not one but two heads. A middle ground between their parents.
“Eight puppies, what are we going to do with them?” Darrell said.
“We could give them away, or sell them? They might sell for a lot, they’re a pretty exotic breed,” Molly said. “But after what we were talking about this morning, maybe we should keep one?”
Most of the two-headed puppies continued to ignore them after the lid came off. One, however, jumped and clawed at the edge of the box as if trying to get closer to Darrell. He reached down and scooped it up. Twin tongues worked in unison, lapping at Darrell’s chin.
“He likes you!” Molly said, smiling. “What should we call-, it, them?”
Darrell checked that it was a boy, and held the puppy against his chest. One of the heads looked sleepy, comfortable, and blinked heavily, while the other remained alert. Fur on their back rippled and the lively head belched, letting out a small lick of flame.
“How about Bernie?” Darrell suggested.
“Old Cerberus has four heads, don’t you know that? The fourth’s her maidenhead, and she’s such a bitch no dog can take it from her.”
— ‘The Fifth Head of Cerberus’ by Gene Wolf
Sean: Apparently Henry succeeded.
I always loved Cerberus when it came to mythical creatures, ever since I was a kid. What’s not to love about the thought of a huge, scary, three-headed dog as a pet? The inspiration for this story was the two-headed Death Dogs that I found in the back index of the Monster Manual. I’ll probably try to pull something out of the back index at least once a month. Mine aren’t as scary as those ones though, and probably because the second part of my inspiration was from a kids series I wanted to write a few years ago. It was very much a ‘Spooksville’ pastiche, involved a Dracula type who owned a Cerberus and I intended for her to eventually have puppies with a stray and for one of the two-headed puppies to become the team pet although I’d have to go digging through my notes, wherever they are, to find out what I intended on calling it.
If you’ve lost a pet, as I have, this one goes out to you. It’s never an easy thing to handle especially when you don’t have that kind of closure at the end. Comforts me to think of them as somewhere on the other side, whatever shape that takes.
Next Week’s Inspiration: Ghost
Keep your eyes on my website for more in this series, I fully intend to release one every week across 2022 – totally free. And for more updates you can find me on Facebook and Twitter.