For the last two hundred and fifty years, Malm had been almost entirely tongue. In the complete darkness of his cave, there had been no need for eyes, so he had reabsorbed them. Smells and sounds were nearly nonexistent, so he had let those go away, too. He had kept his mouth, so he could chew the occasional insect that wandered down to him, and a lump of brain with which to tether his consciousness, but the rest of him was giant, bumpy, triangular, pink tongue. Malm spent his days, slithering like a snake across the living rock, tasting every bump and crevice, reveling in the grit of sandstone, the mellow of obsidian, the sharp tang of the few stones of ore littering the floor. Every few days he slept, curled in a wet, pink curl.
When he felt the explosion, Malm wasn’t sure what it was or if he had just imagined it. He had been poking in a crack that had widened from his probings over the last decade, and stopped to listen. His brain had grown so small, he forgot he had no ears, so he waited for an hour, straining for sounds he could never hear.
After a few hours, he felt the barest vibrations, tiny shocks that came rhythmically through the rock to him. He puzzled about them, what they were, why he couldn’t hear them, and in doing so his brain grew; tiny neurons pressed the tiny bump of his head outward. Malm suddenly remembered lost parts of his past: who he was, the reason he had hidden in a cave millenia. He remembered ears and made himself one, playing with the auricle’s shape until he decided on a simple spiral.
The sensations his ear made nearly paralyzed Malm’s tiny brain, forcing it to grow so quickly that it cracked his skull. He grew a second ear and oriented on the sounds. They were coming from a ledge high above him. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Footsteps. They were the footsteps of a creature with two feet.
Malm puzzled over the sound, slowly realizing (with another burst of skull-cracking brain growth) the footsteps didn’t come from an insect, but a heavy, two-legged creature. The last creatures with two legs that had come to him had been a trio of human miners who ventured into his cave hundreds of years ago. Malm salivated all along his five-foot-long tongue at the memory of those miners. He had had to corner them one by one, chasing them down with his nearly vestigial legs, but the result had been worth the exertion. The men were succulent and bloody, each of their organs popped with exquisite fluids. Later, when Malm had realized the enormity of his crime, he had sealed the tunnel entrance and dropped down to this, lower cave, drawing inside himself in his regret.
Malm could barely remember that regret, but the luscious taste of human intestines was easy to recall. He formed two visual buds on the top of his head and inflated them with vitreous humor until they became eyes. He was rewarded with a sense of light coming down from above.
Another noise came, softer now. Something had fallen down from the light and was caressing the cave floor. Malm reached out to the thing and curled his tongue around it. It was long and slender, flexible and rough. It tasted like nothing he had ever encountered. Eventually, he recognized it as a taut rope. It twitched as he held it, and Malm realized someone was coming. He pushed his eyes out on to eyestalks, then pivoted them up to see the light coming down the rope.
Malm slithered back into the shadows and waited. After a long while (time was meaningless in the eternal black of the caves) a man crawled down the rope and landed heavily on the floor. The man was stooped and scarred. As he turned and looked around the room, shining the light from his backpack into the gloom, Malm saw he was blind in his right eye and was missing several fingers from his left hand.
A gurgle of hunger overwhelmed Malm, and he charged forward, forming a giant maw filled with teeth to devour this epicurean morsel. Inches away from his meal, Malm was stopped by a jolt of pain. Blue sparks swam in front of his new eyes, and he squinted down at the frail man rummaging through his pack, unaware Malm was behind him. Then, Malm sensed it, the magic surrounding the man. It was a protective spell, a kind of ward to defend against attacks. For human magic, it was complex and powerful. Malm formed an arm and swiped at the spell, popping it like a bubble, and leaned forward again to eat the man.
“Hello?” the man said, looking up from a map he had unrolled on to the cave floor. “Is anyone here?”
Malm stopped again, sat back on his haunches, and watched. The man listened as his own voice echoed back from the walls, and looked back at the map.
“No, this has to be right,” he said, muttering to himself. “I’m in the lowest chamber of the southern shaft. There’s the twist I passed yesterday and the blast marks from the lost team. Hm.”
The man took a deep breath and cupped his good hand around his mouth.
“I say hello! My name is Magnus. I’m looking for… Well, I’m looking for a bloody great demon. No? Nobody here but the rocks?”
Malm formed a voice box and placed it high in a crack on the cave wall. Then he crawled back behind the man, leaving two sticky tendrils behind him.
“Why?” Malm said through his new organ, pleased at how deep and loud his voice came out from it.
The man jumped and turned to face the darkness.
“I met a man in the library who had merged with a demon. He gave the demon the smallest finger of his right hand, and the demon became that finger. The man and demon merged, became one. The demon was the body, and the man was the purpose. Can you do that?”
“Can I do that? Do you know who I am? I am Malm!”
Magnus gave a small smile that Malm, behind him, didn’t see.
“All demons are named Malm,” he said. For the first time in nearly a millennium, Malm knew an emotion other than desire, but he was so unused to feelings, he didn’t know what to make of it.
“I am the first Malm,” Malm said. “I am the progenitor of the demon race. I crafted this world from nothing, shaped it as to my whims, and spat you frail creatures upon its surface to serve me. You ask if I can do the paltry magic you describe?”
If Malm had been in front of Magnus, he would have killed the tiny man for the smirk of distain on his face.
“All demons say that, too,” he said, and Malm remembered the name of the emotion: shame.
“Yes,” Malm said quietly. “Yes, I can do what you describe, but I didn’t sequester myself here, under a thousand feet of rock, for no reason. I have a powerful enemy who would strike me down if she saw me. So, once again: why? Why would I risk my life to merge with you? Why shouldn’t I just kill you and be done with it?”
Magnus jerked with surprise and peered into the gloom, sweeping his light back and forth across the living rock of the walls, but saw nothing. Finally, he regained his composure and, heartened by the fact he was still alive, straightened himself as if giving a lecture and spoke.
Magnus had written and rewritten his speech and practiced it over and over again in front of a mirror, for weeks. He spoke of power, of the feeling of control over life and destiny. He spoke of respect and honor. He spoke of bending the world into a better place. Magnus’s practice paid off; he spoke with clarity and conviction.
Malm heard none of his words. Instead, Malm heard about the world on the surface that he hadn’t seen since it was a rough and barren place. He heard about the millions of people who now lived there, laughing, singing, eating, fighting, fucking. He heard of towering buildings of glass and stone, sculptures of bronze and clay, countless beauties that made his newly formed eyes tear. Malm could almost see this world that Magnus hinted at between his sentences. When Magnus finished his speech, Malm drooled with desire and quickly shrank his tongue and pulled in his voice box so he could close his mouth.
“Do we have a deal?” Magnus said after a moment of uneasy silence.
“Yes,” Malm said through his mouth. “We have a deal.”
Magnus, hearing the voice now coming from right behind him, spun around. The light from his pack fell upon the demon, standing only a foot away. Magnus gasped as Malm, huge, with enormous eyestalks and a gaping maw larger than his whole body, appeared from the darkness.
“Do you know what you are asking for? What the process entails?” Malm said, stepping forward with one spindly leg.
Magnus backed away, but quickly found his back against a wall of rock.
“Yes,” he said, his voice a squeak. “The wizard I met gave Malm, his Malm, his pinky, a little part of his body for a little magic.”
Malm sniffed Magnus with slitted nostrils.
“And what part of your body,” Malm said, “will you give me?”
Magnus swallowed drily.
“All of it.”
Malm smiled. Then, snaking out a roughly jointed arm, he grabbed Magnus’s leg with one thorny paw. Magnus yelped as he was hoisted high up into the air, to dangle upside-down above Malm’s open mouth. As he looked down at the pincushion of teeth, Magnus stared in disbelief. The teeth were moving. They shuffled around in Malm’s mouth like shoppers in a bazaar. Their shapes changed; some became thin points, others fat, jagged blades, a few twisted into barbed corkscrews.
For one brief moment, Magnus realized that the teeth had tailored themselves into a perfect instrument for utterly obliterating his body. Magnus opened his mouth to scream, but, before he could draw breath, Malm dropped him in.
There was a crunch as Malm’s mouth shut. He chewed for a moment, and then sighed with pleasure.