The seatbelt scratched Adi’s bare shoulder when he leaned forward to see over the Indica’s grimy red dash. Summer rays pelted him through the crack in the window, but he was not about to seal off his only relief from the stifling heat. The dusty road rolled out before them like an endless ribbon fluttering through the mountain.
Pravin kept his eyes on the road, though he kept raising one hand off the steering wheel to stroke his scraggly stubble, as if it would disappear if he did not check on it constantly. Adi rolled his eyes and dragged his fingernails against the seatbelt fabric.
“Stop fidgeting, Adi.” Pravin reached for the radio and filled the car with scratchy pop music. “The car does not go faster if you move more in your seat.”
“So wise, brother,” Adi mumbled. “As wise as your beard is long.”
Pravin glowered and turned up the music beyond speaking volumes. Adi sighed, wishing he had convinced their mother to drive him to the shelter instead—but that would have meant asking her if he could go in the first place. With Mamma, it was much easier to convince her to forgive him than to convince her that any idea of his was worth seeing through.
Lost in visions of parental reactions, Adi barely noticed Pravin coax the Indica to take a sharp right, down a steep declining road that took them amongst a cluster of buildings in the valley. When they drew alongside a low, squat building marked “MAGICAL ANIMAL SHELTER!!” and surrounded by barbed-wire fence, Adi snapped back to reality and tugged on his brother’s loose shirt sleeve.
“Prav, this is it. We are here.” His tugging grew more insistent when the Indica did not come to an immediate stop. “Pravin!”
“Ack, OK, sure. We are here, then.”
After the engine was off, the brothers sat silently in the car for a moment, peering through the dust patterns on the windshield at the unfriendly gate and, beyond, the scarred roof tiles and the barred windows.
“I do not like this place, little brother.” Pravin shook his head and pulled his cigarettes out of the pocket of his polo. “Not at all. It looks like shit.”
Adi did not want to admit it, but he agreed with his overprotective older brother—in this instance. To strengthen his resolve, he fished the soft, crinkled printout from his pocket and unfolded it for the millionth time. The dog’s big eyes gazed at him, its look equal parts beseeching and bewitching.
“That is such an ugly dog, Adi.”
“Shut up, Prav.”
The smoke from Pravin’s cigarette filled the car. Stifling a cough against his arm, Adi gathered his courage and pushed the door open, scrambling free of his seatbelt before Pravin could stop him. He crossed the distance between him and the fence in a few long-legged strides.
On closer examination, the gate was not just unfriendly, but demonic. Claws and wings and far too many eyes, cast in bronze, curled all the way up to the top. The eyes stared at Adi, and the claws beckoned and threatened him. Adi found that his throat was dry, but he glanced down at the dog on the printout and then pushed through the gate.
The stifling air smelled heavily of musk and sweat, and the scent grew stronger as Adi neared the hand-painted sign proclaiming the FRONT DESK behind a small door. He knocked, waited, then tried the handle. The door swung open silently, and Adi was reluctantly grateful for the shade and cooler air inside. It still smelled like frightened animals; his stomach churned.
“Hello?” Adi called, softly at first, and then loudly when no one answered, “Hello! I am here to see the dog!”
“Come back,” called a quavering voice.
Adi glanced at the empty front desk, trying to steel his spine but wanting to melt into a ball at the thought of heading into that narrow hallway. A long shadow crept across the light in the back, like a massive, endless finger.
Adi broke into a nervous trot, trying not to think about the shadows to either side. When he reached the light, he found himself standing on grimy tiles in a little storage-like room. An old man with a curled beard perched, legs crossed, on a cushion atop a stool. A single key hung on the wall next to his messy desk.
He narrowed his eyes at Adi. “You are too young to be here.” If his mouth moved, it was obscured by the beard.
“My brother is in the car.” Adi waved over his shoulder, his stomach roiling. If he had come all this way, just to be foiled by an ancient gatekeeper… “Please, I just want to see the dog.”
The man grunted, and his beard wobbled as he studied Adi. The boy gazed back as steadily as he could muster, praying that whatever the elder sought in him would be found.
Adi finally had to look down, and as he did so, his gaze fell on the bold words on the printout. His lips numb, Adi read them aloud, haltingly: “ ‘This dog does not belong at our shelter and will be put down if he is not claimed in the next week.’” He looked up again, projecting every ounce of willpower he had at the old man. “I know the dog’s week ends tomorrow. I want to take him home.”
The man grunted again. He unfolded himself so quickly Adi did not see exactly how he came to be standing beside the stool and put his hand on the bar across the door. “Steel yourself, boy.”
Then he pushed open the door and gave Adi a hearty shove between the shoulderblades with his bony hand. Adi went through and the door slammed shut behind him.
Adi had been to two animal shelters before: one with his older cousin, when she wanted to adopt a cat for her city apartment; and one with his grandmother to the humane shelter to choose a new street dog, after Stumpy tangled with a rickshaw one too many times. This building was not much different in that it was a long hallway flanked by large chain-link cages. But inside the cages were creatures Adi had only seen on temples and in video games.
In the cage to his left paced a slender, horse-like lizard he recognized as a Chinese dragon. It swirled in circles in its limited space, as if chasing its own tail; its scales shimmered and flickered in and out of visibility.
Across the way, as motionless as the dragon was restless, sat a black lion with a white mane and a bell around his neck. Only his eyes followed Adi as he walked past, and these blinked very slowly as his tufted tail swept equally slowly across the floor. When Adi dared to peer closer, he saw stars glittering in the lion’s silky coat.
His heart pounded in his ears, but he told himself to keep walking, keep swiveling his head back and forth so he could take it all in.
Together in the same massive cage, a winged horse with an avian head snapped its beak at a deer-dragon, which pushed against the horse with its half-furred, half-scaled bulky body. Their hooves clattered on the concrete, and when they brought their skulls clashing together in such a casual way that it seemed almost friendly, the chain-link fence rattled with the force.
A wolf’s many heads nipped at each other in the back of a claustrophobic cage and, beside it, an armored-legged panther bared its teeth at Adi as he passed. He shivered and shifted to the other side of the aisle.
The chamber filled with a mighty trumpeting. Adi clapped his hands over his ears and whirled around. His eyes bugged in his head at the sight of the ferocious fangs and mighty trunk and flexing claws of the elephant demon, who pressed its head against the fence and glowered at him with a baleful gaze.
Adi’s heart was swollen with fear. He scrambled past the horned lion, the turtle-demon, the chimera, and the bear-headed fish…
His frightened feet carried him to the smaller, more modest creature in the cage at the end of the hallway.
The dog lay in the center of the cage with his shaggy head on his paws. His dark eyes followed Adi’s face, and he issued a long, low whine as the boy neared.
Adi dropped to his knees, the printout crunched into the concrete, no longer his only link to the dog. The dog lay before him, as rugged and ragged as he’d appeared in the image; but his coat glimmered with stars, or with power, Adi could not tell. Mesmerized, he pressed his palm against the fence.
The dog wriggled forward and pressed his cold, wet nose against Adi’s hand, and Adi knew he had made the right choice. This was his best friend. This was his companion of the ages, the warrior hero he had been paired with since his first life. In this life, all he had to do to be reunited with his brother-at-arms was run back to the old man, press enough rupees into his wrinkled hand, and get back to Pravin and the Indica.
The dog heaved a sigh, and then he blinked—a slow, eternal blink. Adi held his breath as the dog raised his head.
“You aren’t who I expected,” the dog said.
Adi had forgotten about the mythical creatures caged around and behind him. The dog had just spoken to him. In recognizable human speech. Never mind that the first thing his once-and-future best friend had said to him was a veiled criticism.
“You can talk,” he said breathlessly.
The dog woofed, sounding amused at his own joke. “Indeed. Fancy that. Applied education! Almost like anything you can do, I can do better.” Another self-satisfied woof. “Self-taught, my boy. I can speak conversationally in three human languages—good enough for government work. Now. Tell me why you’re here. I’m quite curious what brought you.”
The wire of the fence dug into Adi’s fingers. He was not sure what the dog meant by some of his phrases, but the fact that the animal could talk made him an even more perfect companion. “I want to take you home,” he told the dog. “I will take good care of you, better than the old man does here.”
The dog snuffled. “Hmm. Not who I expected at all. You’re just a kid.”
Adi’s stomach dropped; he was sure the dog would not believe him. He peeled the printout off the floor and pressed it against the fence. “It does not matter. The old man posted on Quikr. See? He is going put you down tomorrow. He says you do not belong here.”
The dog blinked at the paper, and his ears fluttered. In a quieter voice, he said, “I’m a model student, but I’m no reader. Sorry. I can only speak.”
Panic churned in Adi’s stomach. “Please. You have to come with me. I do not want you to die.”
The dog rose to all fours and came to the fence, letting his tongue loll. Adi noticed the swirling stellar patterns in the animal’s muddy, curly coat, and the way his tail swept out behind him like a column of fire. The dog’s eyes gleamed with intelligence, and Adi wondered how someone could ever think to put down such a magnificent animal.
The dog heaved a great sigh. “Listen. What was your name?”
“Adi. Right. Kid, listen. Ninad says I don’t belong here because I’m not like the rest of these creatures. I’m just a self-starting dog who taught himself how to talk. Someone heard me, thought I was a supernatural wonder, and scooped me up. Nah. These guys? They’re truly legends. And they’re the ones who don’t belong here.” The dog’s voice lowered to a growl, and he snarled the last words. “They don’t deserve to be caged.”
Adi gulped. He felt a deep, primal fear of the dog, but he was also drawn to its fierce eyes and protective essence. And still, the thought of that old man Ninad killing the magnificent beast—he shuddered and pushed it away; it was too horrible. “But I have to get you out. I will not let you die.”
The dog sighed. He swiveled his head and paced around the cage, and Adi turned and followed his gaze to the strange and terrible creatures he had passed. They had all grown hushed, pressed to the fronts of their cages, quiet and listening.
“Get us all out,” the dog said softly.
“How?” Adi burst out. He clapped his hands over his mouth. He wanted to, but—
In his mind, he ran down the list of reasons he would fail. “But Pravin,” Adi finished out loud. The dog cocked his head, and Adi added, “My brother. He is waiting in the car. I have to go back with him.”
The dog came close to the wire again, and his ears seemed to beckon Adi closer.
“Tonight,” the dog murmured. “Come back and steal the key. Ninad keeps it where he’s perched, though he sleeps somewhere else in this building. He never leaves this place, the boring old asshole.”
Adi pressed his hand against his chest to feel his heart racing. The dog’s words had set fire to his imagination, and his body could hardly keep up. But he remembered seeing the key on the wall, and he had already thought of a way to keep Pravin in town for a night.
He licked dry lips. “Yes. OK. Tonight.”
The dog paced in place and a whine escaped his throat. “You’ve got a map to this place, right? GPS? Something? Don’t get lost. Hurry back.”
Adi nodded. Then his nerve failed him, and he turned and ran out of the shelter, trying to ignore all the swirling colors and flashing scales and gnashing heads, and most of all Ninad’s startled snarl as Adi ran past.
Night smothered the village like a wet blanket, but it was nowhere near as bad as the daytime heat. Adi locked the door of the motel room and crept out into the street, keeping to the shadows. He had convinced Pravin to visit his on-again-off-again girlfriend Reena for the evening, meaning a stay at a motel in town and a call to Mamma and everything. But Adi was not sure how long it would take her to kick Pravin out, so he had to hurry. He prayed that if nothing else, the pillow and sheet arranged in his bed like a slumbering 11-year-old would fool his love-drunk brother for long enough.
But now that his bare feet pounded the dusty road, Adi’s thoughts deserted Pravin and occupied themselves with the MAGICAL ANIMAL SHELTER!! and all its dangers. He had to get through the fence before he could worry about anything else. Barbed wire at the top meant he would not be climbing; perhaps he could burrow under, but that might take hours. He did not have hours.
Before he could plan further, Adi found he was standing in front of the object of his dilemma. The barbs on the wire jutted like tiny horns against the black sky, tiny cousins to the cruel gate.
Adi grabbed the chain-link fence with both hands, realizing only afterwards that it might have been electrified. It was not. Panting with relief, he followed the fence down with his hands, feeling for an opening. To his shock, there was something—a divot beneath the fence just large enough for him to fit under.
The back of Adi’s neck tingled as he went under the fence. The sensation startled him, and he wriggled through as fast as he could. The tingle continued down his back, his legs, then through his feet. It was connected to the fence, he realized. Perhaps it was why the dog had never managed to escape before.
Adi sprinted to the door marked FRONT DESK and pressed his whole body against the wall, willing his breathing to slow down. He strained to listen for any sounds out of the ordinary—but what was ordinary here? He recognized none of the grunts, whines, and whistles of the sleeping beasts or the nocturnal ones…
Just the soft keening of the dog. And even that was grander than a dog had a right to be, sounding more like a hushed orchestra than a solo performer.
Adi filtered out what he could and listened for the old man. Finally, he caught the sound of a tremulous snore, and waited until he had heard it five times before he carefully tried the door. Somehow, it was unlocked, and swung silently open when he tried it.
So strange. Ninad took no precautions. Not with the fence, or with the door. It was as if he expected no one to come in, and no one to try to leave.
Or perhaps he was just waiting.
Adi tiptoed inside and shut the door, holding his breath. Still, the snoring trilled from somewhere deep in the house. Adi expanded his chest and slowed his breathing, then crept to the old man’s perch in the storage room, navigating mostly by memory.
He found the key on the wall after reaching a few times and tightened his hand around it. The teeth bit into his palm, but he relished the pain; it sharpened his focus.
He readied the key to slip into the lock on the door to the cages, but on a whim he tried the handle. It was unlocked and opened without protest.
Adi closed his eyes and steeled himself. Then he went into the moonlit hall.
The creatures were awake, all of them, but there was no bashing of skulls or flashing of scales. They stood silently in two rows, pressed against the chain-link. Their eyes followed Adi as he turned slow circles down the corridor to take it all in.
At last Adi reached the dog’s cage, and he raised the key. The dog rose to all fours in one silent motion and dipped his head. “You came back.”
“Of course I came back,” Adi said, hoping it would not be obvious how much that statement wounded him.
The dog’s tail began to wag, like a mighty banner on the battlefield behind him. “Get me out, and I’ll free the others.”
Adi did not hesitate, not even at the strangeness of the dog’s declaration. He plunged the key into the lock, twisted it, and wrenched the door open.
The dog walked up to the threshold, hesitated, then raised one paw deliberately and set it over the rut where the door sat. A shudder ran through his whole body. He woofed very softly.
“You did it, boy! The containment spell is gone!”
The dog planted a wet kiss on Adi’s cheek. Then he trotted down the aisle, snuffling and barking and saying things in the language of canines.
Adi stood touching his cheek, his delight fading to awe as the locks glowed, shuddered, and fell open. The gates slowly swung open, and like the dog, the creatures tentatively crossed the threshold before pushing fully into the corridor.
Adi staggered out of the way, trying to avoid being trampled by the bear-headed fish lumbering out of the way of the elephant demon’s flashing fangs, and he found himself standing in the cage where the dog had been a mere moment before. The smell of the creatures’ anticipation was hotter and sharper than their sweat and fear had been that morning, and Adi’s head ached. He pressed his hands to either side of his head, wishing he could take his dog and go home.
The shelter’s hallway was now crowded with very tense but nearly-silent magical beings. The dog came bounding through the deer-dragon’s spindly legs and skidded to a stop in front of his former cage. He woofed and raised his tail and ears.
“Adi, hey, thanks. You’re a lifesaver. Really. But, ah, could you…? It’s just… there’s one more thing. The gate.”
The dog led the creatures through the back door, which was also unlocked, and they streamed into the moonlight. Adi followed a few paces behind and took a sharp turn to round the shelter and head for the gate. He heard the dog’s paws in the dirt behind him.
Adi put his hand against the bronze, still warm from the sun. Or was it from some internal source of heat? The wings fluttered and the claws twitched and the eyes blinked, or at least Adi would have sworn they had.
No matter the source of the warmth, it was the quietly eager presence of the dog behind him that made him hesitate and turn very slowly.
“You…will come with me, yes? Back to my home? I will make sure you get plenty to eat, and—”
Adi knew even before he locked gazes with the magnificent creature, standing there in a perfect patch of moonlight, what the answer would be. The dog whined very softly, and then he huffed in a friendly way.
“Look, kid, I’ve been planning this for a long time. You crawled through the hole, right?” Adi nodded, and the dog flicked a paw towards it. “I might speak more human these days, but I still know how to teach old dogs new tricks. I coaxed a few of the strays around here to dig at that, a little at a time. That escape hatch right there, that’s some serious long game.” The dog shrugged his shoulders in an all-too-human way. “Like I said, you aren’t who I expected. You’re—”
As Adi listened, the tears bloomed hot in his eyes. He blinked them away and tried to keep his voice from quavering as he snapped, “I am what—too young?”
“—small,” the dog finished as if Adi had not interrupted. “Call me crazy, but I’d figured it would take a feat of strength to open a magical lock.”
Adi dashed his tears away on the back of his wrist. “Oh,” he said sheepishly. “I mean, I am pretty strong.”
The dog bowed his head, and Adi’s sense of awe deepened. The gesture was one of genuine respect, executed with the grace of a dancer. “You are, Adi. You’re stronger than hell.”
Behind the dog, Adi spotted the black lion’s mane and tail and the glitter of stars in his pelt. A flicker of scales told him the dragons had joined them too. The creatures kept a respectful distance back from the gate, as if waiting for something. Then Adi realized they were keeping their distance from the dog.
He pushed off the gate and strode right up to the dog so they were nose to nose.
“What are you?” Adi asked.
“A hound of heaven,” the dog said without hesitation. “A celestial dog. A being made of stars, just like you.”
“Why must I open this gate?” Adi marched to the gate and put his hand on it again. This time, the strange creatures wrought in iron lay still under his touch, waiting for the dog’s answer too.
“Because you’re the only one who isn’t under Ninad’s cruel spell who’s powerful enough overcome it. The most powerful magic’s an act of love, kid. Magic for the sake of cruelty, like Ninad’s, causes pain—intense, localized pain. But magic for the sake of love… that draws on every pain that ever was.”
Adi was not sure about the pain of the ages, but his own heart was tearing at the idea of watching the dog glide away into the night with the rest of the menagerie.
Swallowing the lump in his throat, Adi sighed and leaned his weight against the gate. His whole body tingled with the same energy from the fence, and the gate stubbornly held. Then, all at once, it gave way.
Adi tumbled into the dust, grunting. He rolled into a ball, expecting a stampede—but instead, a series of light, cool touches brushed against his arms. He uncurled and found the many eyes of the multiple-headed dog staring at him. The creature gently nuzzled him with each of its noses as it walked serenely through the gate.
Pushing himself up on one elbow, Adi tentatively brushed his hand against the fur on the beast’s coarse shoulder. The dog-heads jerked upright all at once. Tongues drooped and drool spiraled to the ground in little trails, and Adi could not help breaking into a smile at the sight. Then the many-headed dog spun and bounded into the night.
Something bumped against his back. He reached around and froze as his hand found a trunk; but the elephant demon wrapped him in a tender hug before withdrawing as softly as a drifting feather. Adi turned just in time to see the creature rise effortlessly into the sky, curls of cloud forming at its feet as it went higher and higher.
Adi could feel the joy rising off each legendary creature as it stepped free of the shelter grounds and the spells that had bound it, and his own spirit was caught up in it too. He threw his arms into the air and whooped softly as the dragons and the bird-horse took wing, blocking the stars for a glorious moment.
The creatures all came through the gate and stopped to thank Adi, each in their own way. The lump formed in his throat again as he came face to face with the black lion and realized there was only one other captive left in the compound.
The lion shimmered and made an inquisitive noise, nuzzling Adi’s chest. Adi sank his hands into the infinite softness of the creature’s pale mane and sighed. He could not bring himself to look over the lion’s shoulder at the dog, still standing in that patch of moonlight.
“Take care of him for me, please,” Adi whispered into the lion’s ear, choking on the words.
The lion rumbled in response and lapped at Adi’s cheek with a sandpaper tongue. Then they both looked expectantly at the dog.
The dog cleared his throat and turned his head away.
“What?” he asked. “Do you need my permission to leave, Baatar?”
The lion swung his head and grunted, and it sounded remarkably like a laugh. Then he turned and lumbered off, towards the mountains.
Adi stood outside the shelter grounds, and the dog stood inside.
“What is wrong?” Adi finally asked, unable to bear the silence. “Will you not run free with your friends? What use is strong magic if you only throw it away?” He clenched his hands into fists. “I came all this way to save you from certain death, and now you will not even leave your cage.”
“It’s…not that,” the dog said.
“Then what?” Adi’s exasperation faded to curiosity. Hesitation was not what he expected from a celestial being.
The dog heaved a sigh. “It’s just… I’ve always wanted a human. There. I’ve said it. Not very dignified for a star-dog, is it? I really did teach myself to speak your language, that much wasn’t a lie. I hoped someday I’d find someone worth running with.”
Hope rose like a dragon in Adi’s heart, and stars sparkled in the dog’s eyes.
“What do you say, Adi? Mind taking me home?”