Xander watched the bacon bits sizzling in the pan and sighed. He had to cut off the mouldy parts, since there was little else in the fridge. If he didn’t sell a painting soon, he’d be on the street. It had all been so different years ago, when he was the toast of the art world. He specialised in disturbing dreamscapes that recalled Dali but were even more fantastical. Monstrous creatures roamed his canvases, and critics loved his ‘glimpse into the eerie world of the grotesque’ as The Times put it.
Lately he sold hardly anything. The world had moved on, and it was harder to surprise the modern generation.
The ketchup bottle was almost empty too. He squeezed the last few drops onto stale bread. He spread it out in a pleasing pattern with his finger, thinking it looked like an ancient sign of some kind.
“Hmm, what was it he said on Demon Hunter? Something like congregandum eos coram me? Not that you can believe a TV programme.”
He turned to get the bacon and almost screamed at the apparition in the corner.
“No, you’re not going mad, yes, I am real, yes, you did summon me. By accident, apparently.” The creature spoke with a weary inflection to its deep, rumbling voice. It folded its huge, leathery wings with a dry, crackling sound.
Xander backed away clutching his chest, sandwich forgotten. “What the hell? How did you—”
The creature interrupted. “Look, I don’t have time to waste here. You traced my summoning mark upon the food offering, so I will grant you a single wish, usual rules. No wishing for wishes, no wish that affects another person, blah blah.”
Xander swallowed. “Fine. And your payment? I’m not stupid.”
“Of course not, dear boy. I’ll take that sandwich when you’ve finished making it.”
Xander examined the demon. It towered over him, holding flaming swords in the upper pair of its four arms. White hair flowed around its goat-like face, while smoke trailed from a mouth armed with rows of sharp yellow teeth. A single horn curved back from its high forehead. The body was vaguely humanoid but immensely muscular, and a red orb pulsed slowly in the centre of the abdomen. Its dark glossy skin was bare apart from a black loincloth.
The most unusual thing was its eyes, or rather the lack of them. Where Xander expected to see red pupils, instead a black void hovered under its forehead. Heat seared his skin. This was a hundred times better than anything he had ever dreamed up.
“Come on, get on with it,” the demon said irritably, twitching his wings.
“Sorry, you are most wondrous, er, sir, and I am just admiring your fearsome appearance.”
“Whatever you say.” The demon growled and pointed one sword at Xander’s chest. “You have but one minute more. Wish, or it will go ill with you.”
Xander was stumped. What did he want, what? Not immortality or riches beyond the dreams of avarice, there was always a catch. He had to be smart. His gaze landed on the canvases and half finished works stacked around the studio. Yes, this he could do.
“I want to be able to sell my work for millions of pounds, so I can enjoy my life on my own terms.”
“I don’t hear a wish in there. You must be,” the demon chuckled, “specific.”
Xander took a deep breath. “I wish for the skill of perfect execution.”
“What will that profit you?”
“My imagination is great, and my work will be astounding. I will name my price.” He finished the sandwich and presented it to the demon. “Thank you, sir.”
“It is done.” The demon vanished, leaving a faint acrid smell of smoke and scorch marks on the ceiling.
Xander rubbed his eyes. Did that really happen? Maybe it was a dream. But the sandwich was gone. He made some toast, and wondered.
In the middle of the night he sat bolt upright. He knew what to paint. He ran downstairs, set up a new canvas, and began work.