“Tell me a story, Papa.”
He chuckled to himself, and patted the boy on the head. Already he could feel the nubbins where his horns were beginning to make themselves known.
“A story? Surely you have a devilish enough imagination to come up with the most entertaining stories on your own.”
The boy stamped his small cloven hoof. “But I want to hear one of your stories, Papa!”
“All right, no need for such displays. Come, sit beside me and I’ll tell.”
Beelzebub then took his only son to his private chamber, cozy and dark save for the ring of fire, and there he began his tale.
“It was many years ago that I made the acquaintance of the son of a powerful landlord. This landlord was indeed feared by many who had no other choice than to live in one of his hovels. And, not to toot my own horn”—he laughed at the old family joke—“but I am the reason for his success, or at least what he chose to call success.”
“He offered his soul?”
“Yes, when he was but a young man. And a fine soul it was, too.”
The boy frowned. “He had a son. The son was born to a man who had sold you his soul? How is that possible?”
“Oh, it is, my boy. In nearly all cases, a soul is given anew to each at birth, and when they grow up, it is each mortal’s choice to do with it what they will.”
“But isn’t that quite painful for mortal children? To have a father who has bargained away his soul?”
“Yes. Quite. At least from what they tell me. Maybe that’s why the landlord’s son…oh, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Anyway. The man made himself a tidy business of our transaction. He asked to become rich beyond his wildest dreams, and when he married and reproduced, to bequeath his wealth to his family. He indeed grew as rich as a king, purchased more of his distasteful properties…and willed his fortune to his son.”
The boy’s eyes widened. “Just as he wished!”
“Yes. Just as he wished.”
“So, all should have been well for him in the end. But I’m getting the idea that this story is not quite over.”
“No, indeed it is not. Many years later, and of his own accord, mind you, I made the acquaintance of the son. He was about as young as his father had been, but his request was very different. He claimed he had all the riches he needed. What he most desired, though, was love. He wanted the love of beautiful women, he wanted love from his future children, he wanted love from every mortal in the land. But what he wanted most was the love of his father.”
“So it was painful for him,” the boy said.
Beelzebub nodded. “So very painful that he signed away his soul without another thought. And I monitored his goings-on, as I do with those who have struck the bargain. See, I blame myself in part for what resulted. Because his father had honored the bargain, and because foolishly I felt a little sorry for him, I gave the son the benefit of the doubt. I waived my due diligence and chose to collect at a future time. He did have the love of beautiful women…who all eventually left him. He had the love of each child in turn, until they grew old enough to fear and distrust him.”
The boy looked up hopefully. “And his father?”
He shook his head.
“How very sad,” the boy said.
“That’s when I started having a bad feeling about the deal. So I paid the son, now a man getting on in years, a visit. He was not happy to see me. Not for the usual reasons mortals fear my return. He was angry, and he gave me a right chewing-out, blaming me for all the misfortunes in his life.”
Beelzebub sighed. “That’s when I knew. What I should have known years ago. What I now check for in advance of any signature on the dotted line. And what you should too, when it’s time for you to reign by my side.”
“The man, despite all trappings to the contrary, had no soul to give.”
The boy, as his father had imagined, looked thunderstruck. “He cheated you! Did you strike him down on the spot?”
“No.” He set his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “No, I figured it would be more of a punishment for him to live out the remainder of his days. But I did exact one price for his deception.”
The boy looked up, his red eyes all questions.
“His children, my boy. His children belong to us now.”