Short Story Winner: "Familiar" by Callum Pearce
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
May we present, our third-place winner for February's monthly contest! Want you see the top two, just pop over to our patreon account for all the monthly winners.
We hope you enjoy.
One of the first rituals a witch usually enacts is the tethering of her familiar, in which a Demon is summoned and then bound to an animal. Cats are often chosen, as they have the instincts and behaviors that suit such a purpose. They can listen unseen as they act as the witch's ears, and they can watch from a hiding place as they act as her eyes. They can fight their way out of unexpected situations, and many can run so fast that they seem to disappear in an instant. The most important part of the ritual was stripping the demon of its name.
Names hold great power for witches, hence why a demon without a name is under the witch’s control. With no name he has no purpose, other than serving the witch's whims. It is important that, after the ceremony, the demon must never find out his name. He must never hear it spoken or see it written down, otherwise all that you end up with is a demon who remembers being a cat. All of the cat's spite and cunning, plus the demon's barely-hidden, pent-up rage, is what you get if you have an untethered demon.
One particular familiar had found himself a very foolish witch, since only a fool would write the demon's name on a scrap of paper and stuff it into a stolen textbook. The witch was arrogant, and filled with a belief in her power. No other witches could tell her what to do, or how to do it. She may have gotten away with it too, if the poorly-treated cat hadn't one day turned her home upside down in a flash of fur and claws. Another rule of keeping a familiar is that you must always treat the animal with respect. It was an unwritten rule; no witch believed it needed to be put to paper since it was commonsense.
A witch's connection to her familiar should be a powerful one, and if the rules are followed it will aid them until the day they die. The demon's name, if protected until then, would sail from their mouth on their dying breath so the demon and cat could be released. This foolish witch had never liked animals, and she saw the creature as a servant and treated it cruelly. This, in turn, affected the behavior of her familiar. No matter what spells you use the body will still remember it's a cat, and the cat's instincts will often overrule the demon's presence.
The cat had found itself in the path of the angry witch as she stomped about the house. She stood on his tail, causing him to screech and scratch at her exposed ankles. The scratches stung and filled the witch with rage, and with a swing of her foot she kicked it hard in the ribs. As she reached down to grab him by the back of his neck his body twisted around, and his claws went deep into her arm. The witch threw him against the wall and staggered back.
The cat watched her stumbling around, angrily shouting words he had no hope of understanding. Then she ran at him again. Hurting him the first time had filled her with excitement, and it had lit a powerful feeling in her stomach. The anger she had felt upon waking was a burning-hot rage now, and he shot out of the way as she tried to swing her foot at him again. The cat's hasty retreat caused her to bang her shin on a small table; the witch's face turning as red as a beetroot as she screamed curses at the frightened animal.
One hard slap against his already-bruised ribs was what sent the cat across the shelves. Books rained down all over the floor, and bottles of spells fell and smashed. At the end of the shelf he jumped onto the curtains, frantically scratching his way toward the open window.
After he had been gone for a while the witch started to replace the books and clean up the bottles. The torn curtains would just have to stay as they were for now, and they would serve as a good reminder of her hatred for that awful creature. Staring at the damaged curtains would remind her just how angry she had been today, and they would pull her back into that rage the next time she got ahold of the little black cat. She tidied the books away, grumbling and complaining the entire time.
She hadn't noticed the small slip of paper that had fallen from between the leaves of one of her stolen textbooks. In all of the frantic madness of the cat's escape the slip of paper had slid under the couch, settling down into one of the cat's favorite hiding places. Something so important, long-forgotten on the shelf, was now lying in the very worst place it could end up.
It was late at night when the cat crept back to the house. He hopped into the front room through the same window he had left from, happy to hear the witch snoring from upstairs. He went first to the kitchen, to the dripping tap that the witch had never got around fixing, and lapped at the cold, clean water. All the time he listened for any noises from upstairs that may suggest that the witch was out of bed, but all he continued to hear was her pig-like snoring.
When he'd had enough water he went back into the living room and squeezed himself under the couch to sleep until morning. The paper was in his way, so he batted it with his paws and then leaned in to rip it to pieces with his teeth. The symbols on the page burned in his mind, and when he closed his eyes he still saw them. His cat-mind didn't know what to make of them. Something important was on that paper, and the cat wondered briefly how he understood what important was. He was unused to such ideas, but the demon inside him was slowly awakening.
As the witch slept the demon roamed the house in the cat's body, still groggy from the enforced sleep. Even the few times he had been briefly awakened by the witch, to assist in some spell or task, a part of him had remained in hibernation. Now that his name burned in his mind he could feel his old memories seeping back, crawling forth from wherever the witch had hidden them. He had known about witches, and the evil trick that they did with their familiars. Binding a demon's magic and trapping them inside a cat was a cruel, wicked thing to do to both the animal and the entity.
He remembered Hell, and he tried to focus on the purpose that he was born to. Rankar was his name, in the ancient language it meant 'Comeuppance'. The cat grinned whilst the thoughts of the monster that dwelt inside filled its mind with images. Comeuppance was both his name and his purpose. He and the cat, whose body he still had to occupy, enjoyed thinking of ways he could put his newly-recalled purpose to use with the witch upstairs. He needed to be careful though. Arrogant and foolish she may be, but she was still a witch. He would have to work quietly and stay hidden in the cat's body a little longer for his final revenge to work. For now he would just gently nudge the cat, who's mind was already filling back with ideas of its own.
The witch woke, startled awake by her familiar sitting on her chest with its mouth next to hers. She felt as though it had been sucking the air from her lungs. She threw off her blanket, flinging the cat to the other side of the room as she gasped for air. The cat ran out of the room, but a tiny, invisible thread now stretched between the mouths of the witch and her familiar. The cat and the demon could see the sparkling thread they had created, but human eyes were made differently.
Cats, like demons, can see into realms that we can not, which is why the demon was content to stay within the animal whilst he worked on his plan. Anyone who has spent any time around a cat will have seen them jumping and running around, chasing the ghosts of long ago conquered rodents. You will know the cold, clammy feeling that creeps over you as a cat stares for too long at whatever invisible thing is leaning over your shoulder. Then there's that feeling of dread when the cat runs away, terrified of whatever it had seen.
There is no worse feeling than being left alone with something so horrific that your cat can't stand to look at it, yet it remains invisible to you. You can only imagine it's dripping fangs, or the hungry, black eyes boring into you. Its sharp talons are only visible in your worst nightmares. You just have to sit and wait until you feel its hot breath against your neck, then you run and hope you're as fast as the cat.
The demon read the witch's thoughts through the connection he had made. She was an arrogant person, born with some natural power. She had been used to the world adapting around her, changing to suit her whims, and at first she had thought that it was because she was rich and beautiful. She imagined that people just fell over themselves to make sure things turned out the way she wanted, and by the time she had realized that there was something more magical to her influence she was already thirty-two. She had no desire to go back to school, even to learn magic.
Originally she had found the Wiccan covens as they practiced their magic openly. The Wet Wiccan Women, as she called them. She had felt the power that burned inside them, but they were content to just pull at tiny threads, gently manipulating the world around them. They seemed obsessed with balance and justice. After that she had tracked down the darker witches that dabbled in demonology. This was after stealing as many books from the Wiccans as she thought she could get away with, but the new coven was no better. They were mumbling, mad old creatures hiding in the dark.
They were content manipulating meaningless lives, and they were terrified to embrace the power inside them. It seemed most of their spells were about taming their power, seeking that all-important balance. She was sickened to see such magic-filled creatures working minor spells for local nobodies. They called her "Girl" as well, never using her name. The demon noted that this had infuriated her. Again she stole as much as she could, this time deciding to teach herself. It hadn't occurred to her why such powerful women, in both covens, would allow her to steal so much.
Perhaps it should have. They say that people who represent themselves in court have a fool for a client, and you can imagine what they say about somebody who has themselves as a teacher. It occurred to the demon that there was no way those old witches hadn't seen this coming. When they allowed her to steal the books they must have known that this day would come. She had no protection, and even if she could drop her pride enough to ask for help she wouldn't receive it.
This was going to be fun.
He crept into the bathroom where the witch was applying makeup to her beautiful face. He sent a thought along the thread and watched from the doorway. The witch took out a dark red lipstick and started to apply it, and as she ran it along her lips it started to look untidy, the color seeping into the cracks in her skin. Cracks that hadn't been there before. The grey, cracked skin spread out across the whole of her face, and she saw an old, dried-out creature staring back at her from the mirror. She looked like the ancient witches from the dark coven. With the tips of her fingers she pulled and stretched the skin, trying to see anything of the woman she knew she was.
The skin ripped at her fingertips, black slime oozing from the wounds. She wanted to scream, but the tongue in her mouth felt hard and dry. The slime was already drying on her skin, making her face feel stiff and immobile. She watched in horror as the top layers of skin and flesh turned to dust, crumbling away to reveal bones. She managed to turn and run from the room, stumbling over the cat on the way out.
"Bloody animal!" She could speak again, barely.
The cat ran out of the way, and the witch reached up to gently caress her face. Everything seemed normal, but she was terrified to look in the mirror. She felt her soft skin and patted her hair; all seemed well. Breathing a heavy sigh of relief she went into her front room, taking some books from the shelf. The cat strolled nonchalantly into the room and sat cleaning himself under the coffee table, while the demon watched the witch carefully. He was astounded. He had never seen a witch actually searching through books to find a spell.
This one clearly hadn't made her book of shadows yet.
Could she truly know so little? A book of shadows was like a witch's memory. The most important spells and rituals would be written in them, and a witch need never open the pages as the books became an extension of their creator's mind. This witch was frantically turning pages, sweating and shaking from shock. She knew that she was under attack, but she had no idea that her attacker was sitting calmly and licking himself under the table as he amusedly watched her.
She found and enacted a protection spell over her home, hoping to block any outside influences and protect those in the house. The demon and cat grinned as her protection washed over them. The witch decided that she would stay in the house, at least until she had found a way to deal with the coven of old hags. The face in the mirror had reminded her so much of them that it hadn't occurred to her that anybody else could be behind the attack. It couldn't be the wet Wiccans, and nobody else had the power. She had stolen from them, and she feared that now they sought to punish her.
If they had shown a bit more of this type of attitude when she was with them then she might have stuck around a bit longer. Vengeance she could understand, and punishing enemies would have kept her interest, at least a little while longer. Rankar was thrilled. Never before had he been in the presence of someone with such power, coupled with absolute ignorance. She had imprisoned herself with her attacker, by choice. The protection spell ensured that even if the old coven did decide to help he was fully protected from them.
He allowed the witch a couple of days of thinking her spell had worked. The only thing she noticed out of the ordinary was that, every so often, a gap would appear on her bookshelf. When she would look again the book would have returned, and another gap would appear somewhere else. As the demon absorbed as many stolen spells as he could the witch moved about the house burning sage against spirits.
After the brief respite the demon began to work on his final plan. One night, about a week after the initial scare, the witch again woke as she gasped for air. She felt as though she was trying to breathe through cotton wool. Banging herself on the back, hunching forward on the bed, she tried as hard as she could to cough something up. When nothing came she reached into her mouth with her fingers, and she scratched the back of her throat with her long nails. The frightened witch couldn't find anything to pull out, even though she felt as though she had a ball of hair in there.
When she vomited on the bed all that came out was a little bit of saliva and blood. She was practically barking now, forcing herself to cough as she continued to struggle for breath. She could hear the cat making noises in the next room, and suddenly her throat cleared. Rushing from the bed she opened her bedroom window, something she hadn't done since she had enacted the protection spell. Gulping in the fresh air the witch started to calm down. As she left the bedroom she noticed the cat had vomited up a load of food, hair and plant matter on the landing. She would clean that up later, and no doubt punish the cat for it in some way.
Later that morning she collected a letter from the mat next to her front door, and she vaguely noticed that they hadn't put her name above the address. It couldn't be anything important, so she threw it into a bin. She hated junk mail, and had often wondered if there was a spell against that. She wasn't worried about the environmental cost, she just believed that her life was far too important to be bothered with trivial things.
The cat walked casually into the kitchen as the witch prepared her breakfast. The smell of fried eggs and fish filled the cat's nose, and he strolled over to brush himself against the witch's leg. Part of him imagined her recent ordeals would have softened her, and he hoped for an offering of scraps. No such thing came, just a shove from her feet and a careless trampling of his tail as she brought her food to the table. The cat hissed and ran to the other side of the room.
As the witch went to stick her fork into the egg it blinked.
Dropping the fork and standing up she looked on, horrified, as the fish started to burst open. It filled her plate with maggots, and every time the egg blinked the eye became more human-looking. Soon she was staring in terror at a human eye peering out of a sea of maggots. She ran from the room screaming, a frantic needed to find the protection spell coursing through her. She thought that maybe opening the bedroom window had somehow broken the previous one, but as she stepped out of her kitchen nothing in her home felt familiar. She didn't know which way to turn, or even what she had been looking for.
Stumbling into the front room the witch sat on the floor, waiting for her mind to clear. The cat jumped on to the couch and watched her silently. She could see the cat's shadow next to it, but it was stretching and reshaping itself. Slowly colors faded into view, filling up the outline until she could see the demon she had trapped. Its skin was like blackened, burned wood, and it had what looked like veins of liquid lava running through its whole body. Its eyes burned like a campfire as it stared gleefully at the witch.
"Hello GIRL, allow me to introduce myself," Rankar grinned, bright-white, pointed fangs filled his mouth. He had particularly enjoyed watching her wince as he called her girl.
"My name is Rankar. What's yours?"
The witch searched her mind for those two important words, but she couldn't find them. She grabbed old letters from the coffee table and stared at the text on the page. Every single letter contained only an address, and not one of them had her name on. She struggled to remember if this had always been the case. Had she ever even had a name?
"Stealing a person's name from them is a terrible, cruel thing to do." Rankar laughed.
"Well, I'm a little more thorough and well-read than you. I have taken your name from the world completely. No sudden revelations in your future, GIRL!"
The witch hissed at him and tried to stand up, but her tired legs were useless beneath her.
"It will never be found in your deepest memories, amongst your family or from those who fear you. It's gone, as though it was never there to begin with. People may tell stories of you, but your name will never pass their lips."
The witch wanted to scream, but she couldn't. She longed to run, but she couldn't. The demon was holding her here for his entertainment, and she would be released when he was finished. Her name was stolen, and her will had been tied to his, and it hadn't escaped her notice that this is what she had done to him. But he and the cat were dumb beasts, and she was…Who was she?
She absentmindedly licked her paws as she glared at the demon sitting on her couch. Then she turned to the witch who sat next to him, where the cat had originally been. Her tail flicked angrily as the urge to jump and scratch rode up her spine. Part of her recognized the woman in front of her, but not a lot made sense anymore. She could hear rats or mice scratching in the walls, and she desperately wanted to run and find them. She could smell the fish in the kitchen as the scent called out to her hungry stomach.
In her new cat body her senses were heightened, but her brain was becoming foggier.
The urge to dart took over, and the witch ran toward the smell of the food. The cat, in his new human body, was unaware of the strength he possessed. He did the only thing a cat can do when it sees a smaller creature darting past it. He pounced, his new body feeling awkward and clumsy. He was too strong though, and an audible crunch of bones could be heard.
The cat's fun was over pretty quickly. The witch lay dead on the ground, which annoyed the demon. He had planned to have more fun with the witch, but he patted the cat on the head and allowed it to rub its face against his legs. He fished in his mind for a glamour spell from the stolen texts, and then he set off into the world looking like quite a dapper chap. He had so many people to play with, and the purpose that had once been stolen from him was returned.
People who once feared the witch now pitied the woman that thought she was a cat. People turned up to feed, and sometimes pet, her. Mad as she was she was really quite sweet. Whatever had happened to her poor mind had certainly improved her nature. Nobody knew or cared about the cat that once thought of itself as a woman, and that poor creature lay buried in the back garden.
Callum Pearce is a Dutch storyteller, originally from Liverpool. Lover of the magical as well as the macabre and about to appear in a few anthologies and drabble collections. He lives in a foggy old fishing town in the Netherlands with his husband and a couple of cat shaped sprites.
Twitter: https://mobile.twitter.com/Aladdinsane79 Facebook: https://m.facebook.com/calmpeace13/