He Does Not Sleep

A Halloween special writing prompt from io9. Image credit to Michael Macrae.

He does not sleep.
He does not eat. Or speak. Or even breathe. He just sits in his old chair, hollow gaze fixed on the door.  Almost as if he’s waiting for someone. Or something.
She is his only companion in that frigid waste. She had come here many months ago, leaving her own life behind, to care for him. He was getting old, but refused to admit it. Every morning, he would rise and go hunting to bring back food. She was a more than capable hunter herself, but he was an exceptionally stubborn man, and so she stayed home, carrying on with her daily chores and cooking for the both of them. She would ask him about the hunt when he came home, and he would tell her, adding his own embellishments where necessary.
That morning, she had felt something wrong. It was colder than usual, with strong, icy winds slicing through the air. Even the fire would not warm their little cabin. She had told him not to go out; they had provisions to last them another week. But he was stubborn as always. The hunt was an almost sacred ritual for him. So he had left in the dim gray light of the day, and when darkness came, it did not bring him back with it.
She was anxious. What had happened? Had he gotten lost? Fallen somewhere? The weather would not have been kind to his old bones. She gathered up some supplies and decided to go in search of him. She had to find him, whatever the risk. As she was preparing to leave, she felt a wave of uneasiness pass through her, followed by a horrific, rotting stench. The door of the cabin opened and he entered. She would have rushed to help him, to inquire about where he was, to see if he was alright. Instead she stood in place, petrified by the sight in front of her.
He had come home, but he was not the same man, if he was still a man at all. His skin was dried out and leathery, stretched tightly over his bones, as if he had been mummified for centuries. His face was gaunt and skeletal, mouth contorted into a ghoulish rictus. And his eyes, his brilliant blue eyes that seemed to twinkle when he told one of his hunting tales, were gone. Empty sockets stared at her listlessly, and yet, she felt they saw more than she could imagine. She wanted to scream, but her voice was buried deep inside her. As she fought the nausea that was threatening to overtake her, he latched the door, walked over to his old wooden chair and sat down, eyeless gaze fixed on the entrance of the cabin.
That is how it has been for the past three days. She tries to search for some sense of normalcy, carrying out her daily chores and cooking meals for both of them. She leaves a plate for him at the table. But he does not eat. She tries talking to him, trying to understand what has happened. But he does not speak.
He just sits in his chair, hollow gaze fixed on the door. Almost as if waiting for someone. Or something.
He does not sleep.
She dares not sleep.

The Demon Cat

Science and science fiction site io9 has a weekly writing prompt where they ask their readers to come up with a short story based on an image or illustration. A recent prompt about the ‘Demon Cat’ caught my eye and inspired me to spin a little yarn. Today seemed like an appropriate occasion to post it.

(Image credited to Patrik Björkström)

Horatio looked at the cat with a great sense of disappointment. He consulted his summoning book again, thinking that he must have made a mistake. The creature certainly looked fearsome enough, with its luminous (yet oddly lifeless) eyes, wild black fur streaked with silver, claws like little daggers, and the twin pairs of steer-like horns that appeared to be jutting out of its back. But it was still, Horatio noted sadly, just a cat.
The cat merely glowered at him, its tail swishing languidly like a snake with a full belly. Horatio checked the spell once more:
Izzhgo Akr’al Bezral Belegha. This incantation is to be chanted five times after the proper rituals have been completed to summon the demon lord Bezral, Harbinger of Doom and Devastation, Devourer of Souls, and Master of Infernal Sciences.”
Yes, he’d certainly liked the sound of that. A touch theatrical, perhaps, but a Harbinger of Doom was exactly what he needed. Horatio Pendleton was an assistant manager at the Fixwell Hardware Store. He was a slight, timid man with eyes that always looked nervous and a smile that was far from reassuring. For the past year or so, he’d had an eye on the general manager’s nametag. But a promotion would be difficult to get, what with current manager David’s exemplary work ethic. Horatio’s only chance at climbing the corporate footstool was to remove David from the picture entirely.
He could have done the job himself, or hired someone to do it for him, but that would inevitably become a hassle. Some sort of evidence was bound to turn up, as it always does, and the police would no doubt find a reason to question him. Horatio was not a man of fortitude, and repeated interrogation might force him to accidentally confess. But supernatural creatures wouldn’t leave any evidence behind, especially not demons. They were a careful sort. No one would connect him to a demonic killing, and if they did, he could just summon his demon to kill them as well. It was brilliant!
So it was that Horatio had found himself at the old bookstore on the corner that always smelled like mothballs. After much research, he’d finally found what he’d been after: Hell’s Coming To You! – The Layman’s Guide to Demons and Summoning Spells. He’d thumbed through the book, finally settling on a suitable demon for the job (that demon being the Dread Lord Bezral, Harbinger of Doom and Devastation, Devourer of Souls, and Master of Infernal Sciences). As directed, he had collected the necessary ingredients for the summoning spell: the ashes of an oak branch, three drops of virgin blood (Horatio wasn’t very popular with the fairer sex), a piece of white chalk, and a tuna sandwich (he was rather hungry). With everything prepared, he had headed off to the nearest cemetery to start the ritual. At the first stroke of midnight, Horatio chanted the words, his voice shaking with excitement, mind swimming with visions of an all-powerful lord of hell that would impale David with deadly claws and drag him to eternal damnation.
And after all of that effort, he’d wound up with a cat perched on a tombstone.  A demonic cat, but then how was that really different from a regular one?  
Horatio shifted uncomfortably, watching the cat as it, in turn, watched him. He cleared his throat loudly and decided to address the beast.
“Er…evening, your, um, Lordship,” he began, lowering his gaze in an attempt to be reverent. “Welcome to, uh, to our world. Hope the trip was…pleasant?”
The cat continued to stare impassively.
“Now, ah, you might…you might be wondering why it is that I have summoned you here, “ Horatio continued, starting to feel extremely stupid. “Well, you see, there’s this favor that I, uh, that I need from you.”
If the cat were the least bit interested in what was being said, it was doing a good job of hiding it.
Horatio wondered if the spell had failed. Maybe he’d just come across a feral cat that some crazy person had glued horns onto. Were they even horns? Now that he looked more carefully, perhaps they were just tangled branches that were distorted in the moonlight. He laughed, nervously. Of course that’s what happened! He’d come here all worked up and ready to see a demon, so he’d fixated on the first living soul that came into sight. Horatio shook his head, still laughing. Demons. What a ridiculously fanciful idea.
He started to walk out of the cemetery, book tucked firmly in his pocket, when he heard a loud yowling noise behind him. The sound stopped him cold. He turned around, a cold chill running down the back of his neck, to see the cat leaping toward him; curiously, it no longer looked like a cat at all. Certainly not any he’d ever seen. Voice rising to a squeak, Horatio Pendleton managed a feeble “Your Lordship..?” before he witnessed the horrific success of his summoning spell firsthand.
************************************************************************
It was a crisp Monday morning, and David Eddings, general manager of the Fixwell Hardware Store, flicked on the switch for the neon ‘Open’ sign in the window while whistling a jaunty tune. “Ah, good morning, Horatio!” he said in a booming and almost unnaturally cheerful voice as his mild mannered assistant walked in.
Horatio smiled back mechanically, as if practicing that expression for the first time.
“You alright?” David asked, noticing the dark circles under Horatio’s eyes and the unusual (or was it, really?) pallor of his skin.
“Oh yes,” came the flat, monotonous reply. “Just fine.”
Now David Eddings wasn’t always the sharpest tool in his store, but he had a vague notion that perhaps everything wasn’t ‘just fine’. Before he cold press the matter any further, however, David felt a sharp, burning pain in his chest. He noted with no small measure of surprise that the source of the pain was Horatio’s hand, which had sunk wrist deep into his body. Some sort of portal had also opened up under David’s feet, and as he contemplated its sudden appearance, he felt himself get sucked into it, much like a speck of dust getting sucked into a vacuum cleaner. The only proof of his presence was a nametag lying on the floor with the words ‘General Manager’ inscribed on it.
 Horatio stared at the floor, fascinated, then picked up the nametag and pinned it on his shirt. He marveled at how he had allowed himself to endure such a subservient existence for so long. But that didn’t matter anymore. Now he was in control of this dismal establishment. And soon enough, he would be the Supreme Overlord of the Mortal Realm.
But there was plenty of time for that. Horatio allowed himself a contented purr and walked toward the manager’s office, licking the back of his hand thoughtfully.