by Luis Paredes
Luis Paredes is a horror, fantasy, and weird fiction writer living in New York. When not crafting strange tales, you can find Luis tinkering with old typewriters, drawing, or pursuing his other passion—running.
His debut novella, Out On a Limb, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other book retailers. Find Luis on Instagram @luisparedeswrites or on Twitter @Luis_Writes
Out On a Limb: https://books2read.com/u/4AvqVK
Oh, Gods. It’s happened again. I can’t move. My entire body—all three segments, wings, and tail—are paralyzed.
I tell myself to breathe. The last time this happened, I managed to wake up before he appeared. How is this possible?
I’m the sleep paralysis demon!
I try shaking my head, but my neck muscles tense so tightly that the pain squeezes a stream of black tears from all four of my eyes. To make matters worse, the conduit I’m laying on, a huge slab of smooth obsidian, has powered down; the glass now sucks the warmth from my body.
I can’t tell how long I’ve been here. Usually, I close my eyes and appear in the world of the living. My job’s simple: squat on a sleeping human and harvest their fear.
It’s quick and painless. The feeding glands dotting my anus numb my victims into a state of catatonia. I then slurp up my fill, hop off, and make my way back to this chamber where I squeeze out what’s owed to Samael, my boss, and keep the leftovers.
But not tonight. Tonight, I’m going to miss my quota again. At this rate, the boss’ll harvest me. No, that’s not going to happen. I just need to snap out of—
A gust of wind flows into the chamber, extinguishing most of the tallow candles set around the table I’m on. I hear a voice. His voice. The man’s mumbling something in Enochian. His pronunciation is awful, but I catch the gist of what he’s doing—a summoning spell.
A cloud of purple smoke swirls around the stone ceiling. The puffy tendrils reach down and clot on my chest. This is how he makes his way into the Underworld. I can already feel the man’s weight bearing down on my exoskeleton. It’s getting harder to breathe. Slowly, the entire cloud settles on top of me and solidifies into a lumpy shape. It’s him—the poet.
The way my neck is turned and the low light make it hard to see all of the man’s features, but I can tell it’s the same flesh sack that’s been visiting me the past few days.
He’s squatting on my chest, hugging his knees. The plates on my exoskeleton groan as he shifts his bony ass around.
Now I can see my tormentor: pale and thin, he has the look of an accountant—or a mortician. Someone who doesn’t get out in the world or see sunlight too often.
The man’s slick brown hair, parted down the center, looks glossy, almost like a pair of gigantic cockroach wings pasted to his head. A ridiculous painter’s brush mustache graces the top of his thin, upper lip.
“I did it. I’m back,” he whispers in Enochian.
His deep-set brown eyes dart around the room and meet my gaze. Shit. He’s going to start with his poetry again.
The man wipes his nose with the back of his hand and smiles. “Hello, brother. It’s good to see you again.”
I manage a low growl. All I want to do is reach up with my claws and strangle the bastard. He pats my chest.
“It’s ok. I know that you can’t get up. I was hoping I could run a few lines of my new poem for you—”
The candles flare up, glowing red. That means my time in this chamber is almost up. Thank the Gods! Even if I don’t wake up on my own, the clerk outside will sever the link to the human world.
The man’s head drops to his chest. “Ah, I see that you’ll wake up soon. That’s too bad. I shouldn’t have spent so much time making my summoning circle perfectly round.” A garish smile, cast in crimson and shadow, erupts across his face. “Lesson learned!”
The lights go out.
When they flare up again, the man’s gone and I can finally move. There’s a knock at the door.
“Ammun, are you finished? I need to hunt too.”
It’s Janara, one of the most gluttonous demons on this level. A slug-shaped beast with an eyeball in her gaping maw. I slip off the slab and make my way toward the knocking. As I open the door, she slithers backwards. Lords, do I look that bad?
“You look sick,” Janara says. Her bloodshot eye focuses on the center of my chest. “What happened there?”
I look down. There are two oval-shaped dents in the center of my thorax where the man was squatting down on me. That’s never happened before. It wasn’t a dream. The human was in the chamber.
Beads of sweat start pooling between my segmented joints. I glance back at the obsidian slab in the center of the chamber.
“Have you ever had anything come through?” I ask.
“What, from the human world?” Janara asks, confused. “No, that’s absurd. They can’t cross over. Everyone knows that.” She stands there for another moment, as if waiting for me to respond. “What’s gotten into you? Move!”
She pushes me aside and slams the chamber door closed. The door glows purple. She’s already found a victim. I stumble through the corridor and make my way to the exit.
The clerk, a jackal-headed demon, shakes an empty earthenware jug at me. “You couldn’t squeeze an ounce from your trip?”
I shake my head and drop twenty sestari onto the counter. The fee I have to pay for coming back empty-clawed. The silver coins dance across the marble surface. That’s a sound I’ve been hearing too often.
The clerk scoops up the coins with his long fingers. “See you tomorrow, dreamer.”
Instead of going home, I make my way to the Gut, a market run by half-human hybrids—Fauns, Harpies, Nāgas, Jengus, and a host of others.
They make their living selling trinkets, weapons, spells, and potions from their respective home worlds. The wisest of these beasts are the Centaurs. Over the years, I’ve heard that their knowledge of flesh sack anatomy and psychology is beyond compare.
If I’m ever to harvest fear from a human being again, I need to find a Centaur that can help keep my tormentor from visiting me ever again.
But the Gut is a labyrinth of tent stalls stretching for miles in all directions. The sound and smell of meat sizzling on a spit turns my attention. A crocodile, large enough to swallow a hippo, slowly rotates above a fire pit.
Turning the squeaky metal shaft is a Strider, a ten-foot-tall praying mantis demon. The black pupils in his bulbous eyes widen as he catches me eyeing his meal.
He extends his sickle shaped claw and slices off a strip of meat then extends it my way. The creature’s mandibles spread open revealing half of a human mouth.
“Would you like a sample? It’s savory.”
I shake my head. Master manipulators, Striders can make you do just about anything without you knowing that they’ve played you. Accepting a gift is like opening the door to your mind and letting them in.
“No, that’s not necessary. But I am looking for a Centaur.”
The creature’s mandibles snap shut. He juts his beak-shaped mouth to the right. “The horses are over there, cousin.”
It takes me almost an hour, but I finally find where the Centaurs ply their trade at the Gut—a mile by mile square of stalls dedicated to these jovial creatures.
Hoof beats, drums, and laughter fill the air. Even the demons shopping here seem to be smiling. Above every stall are hand-painted signs. Most announce their proprietor’s specialization in the medical and military arts. One sign, however, catches all of my eyes at once. It reads:
Interspecies Medical Arts Master
The owner, presumably Magellan, chats with a customer as I glance over his wares. There are dozens of vials and beakers lining the counter and even more in the crates stacked up behind him. Dried herbs and flowers hang from the rafters along with leather pouches taut with powders and Gods know what other substances.
The Centaur finishes his conversation and turns. The light gleans off the smooth skin of his torso and the slick, brown coat covering his flanks and four legs. His bright, blue eyes light up and he runs his muscular hands over his smooth scalp.
“How can I help you, my friend?”
The Centaur places his fists on his wide hips and turns his head.
“Of course! I am the Underworld’s foremost demon and Homo sapiens expert. There are famous renderings, you know?”
I follow his gaze to a pile of small oil paintings of him in the same pose.
“How may I be of service?”
I grunt. “I have a problem.”
Magellan lifts a pinky and wriggles it in the air. “What’s the matter? Can’t lift the old proboscis for the Mister or the Missus like you used to?”
“No, nothing like that.”
“Then what ails you, brother?”
I rotate my head to make sure no one else is listening. “It’s a human,” I whisper.
Magellan’s eyes widen. He leans down. “Please, explain.”
“Every time I go on a harvest, a human, this man, appears on my chest. Every damn time!” My voice rumbles with anger.
The centaur rests his hand on my shoulder. He squeezes and a sense of calm washes over me.
“Ah, I see. You have a passenger.”
“Is that normal? There’s a term for this? Does that mean it happens a lot?” I stammer.
“No, but there are a few humans out there dabbling with powers that they don’t understand. Occultists I believe is what they’re called. Every once in a while, they make it down here. It’s rare, but it does happen.” The centaur chuckled. “But I’ve never heard of a sleep paralysis demon with his own demon.”
“It’s not funny. This is serious. If I don’t meet my quotas this month—“
“Your boss, Samael,” Magellan says, nodding his head. His tone softens. “Yes, I understand. Even we know that your kind work for a very, very serious entity.” He reaches for a basket on the top of the stall and hands me a small vial filled with blue goo. The liquid writhes within the glass and pushes at the cork as if alive.
“Smear that on your chest before you use the chamber conduit. It’ll prevent the human from crossing over. But make sure you use every drop.”
“You’re sure it’ll work?”
“Yes, trust me.”
“How much then?”
Magellan strokes his long, braided beard. “For you, my friend. A hundred sestari.”
That’s all the money I have left. Still, if this goo works, I’ll be able to cross over. I can make double that amount if I get a hold of three dreamers.
“Fine,” I say, stretching out my claws. The coins materialize on my palms.
The centaur swipes the silver and hands me the vial. I try pulling it away, but his grip is strong.
“Remember, you have to use every drop. If you don’t, the process will backfire and kill you both.”
I nod and rush back to the chamber.
“Come to waste another twenty sestari?”
I ignore the clerk and find an empty room. I sit on the slab and uncork the vial. The cool, blue liquid falls into my palms. I shake the glass to make sure every drop is gone. I rub my claws together and lather the goo across my smooth chest. I pinch the vial between two talons and bring it close to my eyes. There’s nothing left, not even a smear. Good.
I lay down on the obsidian slab and close my eyes.
Someone’s snoring. That’s a good sign. I crawl toward the sound—it’s an elderly man clutching at the sheets. I’m so happy that I want to shout! The goo’s done its job. Now, all I have to do is straddle the man and start sucking out the fear.
The bed’s creaky, but I don’t give the geezer enough time to react. My glands are doing their job already. His head lolls back into the pillow and his chest rises and falls beneath me. Somethings wrong though. Nothing’s coming out from the man. I look over and his head snaps back up. Lords! I’m staring at my own slack-jawed face. This isn’t real. This is a nightmare!
The room spins and I’m back in the chamber.
I can’t move. My tormentor is squatting on my chest again. There’s a wild look on his face. He shimmies his rump in a semicircle. The goo squelches between us.
“Oh, this feels different. This feels…good,” he growls. His eyes roll back into their sockets.
Magellan’s warning echoes in my head: “Remember, you have to use every drop. If you don’t, the process will backfire and kill you both.”
There’s a strange tingling sensation oozing into my body. Then I hear a crack as the man presses his ass down hard on my chest. I yelp as the blue goo dribbles into the wound. The liquid’s immediately vacuumed out as the man squeezes his knees together. Oh, Gods he’s sucking my insides out! I’m being emptied!
I can hear my blood and guts rush into the man. The poet’s body expands like a balloon. The skin around his now bulbous forehead is so transparent that I can see swirls of black fluid dancing behind the taut, pink flesh. Just as he’s about to pop, something strange happens—the man’s body starts turning into stone. He looks like a hunchbacked gargoyle and is just as heavy.
The weight is unbearable. For a moment, the man’s eyes glow red and then go out. My exoskeleton cracks and squeals as the stone figure sinks into my chest and severs me in half. The top half of my body lands on the floor with a hollow thud.
Magellan’s glass vial rolls into view. The last thing I see before everything goes dark is a tiny drop of blue goo clinging to the underside of the cork.