This story is by Ichabod Ebenezer and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
In Marco’s defense, until that moment, he hadn’t fully believed that a demon summoning would work.
He watched the beast pull itself up through the planar rift. Its head was a nightmare, an animal’s skull with razor sharp teeth and spines ringing its eye sockets. The flames that burned dark inside those sockets regarded Marco, dancing with amusement and ridicule, as the creature rose from the unfathomable depths.
The body that followed was a mockery of human form, with elements that were both reptilian and insectile. Its spine protruded through the scaly skin of its back, its corded muscles visible underneath, though its chest was encased in an exoskeleton, as if it were wearing the rib cage of a larger creature. The tail came last, no trace of skin attached to it, looking sharply vertebral, with a dagger-like point at the end.
As the beast curled up inside the circle that protected the outside world from this denizen of Hell, the tail poked and prodded at the edges, and the invisible dome of air that was its prison.
Despite being unsure, Marco had been careful. In fact, he’d fastidiously worked to ensure every detail was correct.
He’d spent the last few days working in this abandoned warehouse, clearing the space necessary, measuring everything precisely, mixing his own ink from raven’s blood and graveyard dirt. He spent hours working on each sigil, reproducing them in exact detail from the ancient texts, and he’d tracked down scholars from around the world so that when he spoke those long-dead tongues, it was as a native would have. He was as safe as any mortal had ever been in this situation.
“You dare to summon me by name, mortal? I will suck the marrow from your bones as you watch!” A molten glow formed beneath its chest plate as it spoke, and its words sounded like they were produced by machinery normally reserved for crushing boulders.
The beast’s name had been an important part of the ritual. No other creature would hear the call, nor would they be able to find their way to this plane. Which was good, because the circle would not bind them either. The barrier was only sealed by the one-way knowledge of names.
“You have no power over me demon, for I know your name, and you do not know mine. You are bound by the sigils, and by the contract until its conclusion.”
Those words were also prescribed in the ancient texts. They weren’t actually part of the ritual, more of an informal ‘handshake’.
So. Demons were clearly real, as were souls. And they were obviously precious. Suddenly a little thing like Amanda’s affair with Marco’s boss paled in scope.
Going through it in his mind, it sounded so petty now. Was any of that really worth his soul?
The question took Marco by surprise. It was casual, even conversational, and the voice behind it sounded close to human. Though it still had a timbre that hit Marco just behind the ear, like the sound of chains scraping together. “Pardon?” he said.
“Well, you’re all first-timers, aren’t you? I mean, you’ve only got the one soul to sell, am I right?”
The demon sat down cross-legged. Its tail came forward to scratch idly at its chin. “Do you mind if I offer you some advice?”
Marco didn’t say anything. He was entirely unnerved by the demon’s sudden change in demeanor. He was also still trying to come up with a better wish. Mostly to buy himself some time, he nodded.
“I might be speaking out of turn, but I couldn’t help notice. It looks like you’re doing a lot of thinking. I’ve got to tell you, that usually doesn’t end well.”
“W-what do you mean by that?” Marco asked. His voice sounded weak in his own ears. He suddenly realized that thumping sound he’d been hearing was his own heartbeat. He’d need to calm down if he was to get through this.
“Well, generally, you’ve got two kinds of summoners. Those that have huge plans, rulership over empires, and that kind of thing. They’ve done a lot of thinking beforehand, and when they get here, they’re ready. The other sort, they’re working on adrenaline. Somehow, they managed to get the ritual right, and when the moment comes, they just blurt something out. No thinking involved. Both those kinds of deals go just fine. The first sort generally get their soul’s worth, and the second sort not so much, but the deal concludes, and both parties go home happy.
“Then there are the outliers. The ones that have to think about it. Those sort are filled with regret, and let me tell you, nothing weakens a mystic barrier like regret. You understand?” He put both clawed hands against the air beside him and pressed, ever so slightly.
“Now, I don’t really want to drag you to Hell without a deal. You look like a decent guy. How about you just tell me what you want, the bargain gets sealed, I go back, alone. You get your wish, and many years from now — God willing — you die, and I collect your soul.”
“No, you misunderstand,” Marco said. Weak-kneed, he too sat down cross-legged. “It’s not about regret at all. It’s just that I thought I was in that first category, the well planned out one? But now I’m thinking I might be in the second. My wish was really not soul worthy.”
“Can I ask what it was?”
Marco’s eyes narrowed.
“Look, I promise not to grant that wish unexpectedly just to steal your soul. I’m only curious.”
Marco still wasn’t sure, but he did it anyway. “My girlfriend is pregnant with my boss’s baby. I wanted the child to have horns and a tail that won’t show up during any ultrasound. Despite the painful birth and hideous child, she would find she loved it, so she’d be stuck caring for it. Percy though, would be repulsed, and leave her for the next woman to come along. A crack addict, who would lead to his financial ruin.”
The demon nearly doubled over laughing, a sound that surrounded Marco, seeming to brush against his skin and leave a chill in its wake. When it recovered, the demon wiped a lick of fire from the corner of its eye socket. “Oh, yeah. You’d be amazed how often we see something like that.”
“And now I’m thinking maybe my soul is worth more than any other thing I might wish for,” Marco confided. “Maybe I don’t want to sell. Now, from what I read, if I cancel the deal, the barriers come down, but you get pulled back to Hell. You’re going to try to take me with you, but what happens, hypothetically, if I run?”
The beast shook its terrifying head. “No, you don’t want to go that way. Like I said, you mortals only get one shot at this. I’ve done this a thousand times. I’ve heard stories of demons that returned to Hell without either soul or plaything, but those are rare, and it’s never happened to me.”
“Look, I’ve got no skin in this. I showed up. At this point, I’ll get what I want. If you make a wish, I get your soul. Otherwise, I get to torture you for eternity. It’s nothing but upside for me.
“But if you end this deal, and I don’t have the keys to a shiny new soul, I will drag you back with me and I will take it out of your hide. And I’ll let you in on a secret that’s not in the manual. After a few years of constant torture, most people will sign their soul away for a glass of tepid water.”
“Okay. I get it.”
A devilish thought occurred to Marco. “What would you wish for?”
“Well, the temptation to cheat the system would be overwhelming, wouldn’t it? Most of that is covered — the whole ‘wishing for more wishes’ and all that — but I’d come up with something tricky.”
“That’s it!” Marco said.
“You’ve got something? Okay, let’s hear it.” The beast rubbed its claws together.
“Alright, I was thinking that I’d wish to instantly know the true name of any demon, devil, imp or infernal, seen or unseen, that came into my presence, so that I’d always have power over them.”
The beast’s lip curled in a horrifying smile. “That’s good. That’s real good.” It uncrossed its legs and got to more or less a standing position. “Now, make it official. Say, ‘I wish,’ and put all that negative emotion into it, Lust for power, Pride, Gluttony — you know, Deadly Sins sort of stuff. Oh, and good luck. I truly mean that, uh…”
“Marco. Marco Servantes.”
A chill went down Marco’s spine. He realized his mistake just as the beast stepped out of the formerly protective circle.
“And that’s why they call me Defiler of the Wise.”