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Steven knew the end was coming when the pale, skinny man dressed smartly in a tux started appearing everywhere he looked. He turned onto his side on the bed, and the man was leaning against the doorway, peering at him with undisguised amusement. He hobbled to the kitchen; the man was sitting placidly in a kitchen chair, lacing his long white fingers together. He took a walk around the neighborhood; when he looked back the man was always quietly trailing him. Steven never made an attempt to shoo him away or engage him in conversation, as he knew exactly why the man was suddenly showing up.
Today, however, Steven felt a deep sense of unease when he limped down to the kitchen. Carefully observing the man in the corner of his eye, Steven pulled a bowl of unsweetened oatmeal and buttered toast toward him, cautiously taking a sip of his poorly made babycino. He could hear the rustles of the rest of his family waking up, somewhere in the house.
The man winked at him, one white eyelid sliding over a cool grey eye, and clapped once. Steven’s confusion morphed into horror as darkness closed about him, and he slid off his chair and onto the floor.
Steven snapped to conscious abruptly; he was lying in a clean white bed, surrounded by beeping machines and women in white dresses. It took him a moment to realize he was at the hospital. He tried to move his limbs, tried to open his mouth to speak, but somehow he could not do any of these actions.
Lydia, his beloved daughter, stepped forward. She looked exactly like her mother, Julia, who had died a few months ago. Her face was streaked with tears, the drops staining her rather expensive velvet dress, bought with hard-earned money from her prosperous academic tutorial program business.
On the other side of his bed was his son, Calvin. Calvin was the second child of Steven, and had matured to look awfully similar to his father. Tears flowed down his cheeks as he grasped Steven’s other hand and wept silently. The grandchildren, anxious looks painted across their faces, crowded around the bed.
One of the nurses finally came over and took a glance at the machine. “I’m sorry,” she said sadly, addressing toward Lydia and Calvin. “Your father has sustained a severe head injury, and at his age, is unlikely to survive. He will most likely slip into a permanent coma, and pretty much impossible to emerge again. We can unplug the machines, but that will be the-“ she swallowed, “-the death of him. I’m so, so sorry.”
Lydia stopped sobbing and gazed at the nurse. “Keep him on the machines,” she commanded, her body shuddering, “There still might be a chance.”
“A small chance,” the nurse said firmly, “but a chance it is.”
The room slowly emptied, the people almost robotically trudging out of the door. Steven felt hollow inside. He was going to die, and he would never see his grandchildren grow up. And he had to face him…
As the thought popped into his mind, there was a faint brushing sound, and the man materialized out of nowhere, perched at the end of the bed.
Lucifer surveyed over Steven, the remorseless, gray eyes boring into his soul. Even though he could not move, Steven felt himself recoil into the pillows. Just go away, he though. Just leave me alone and let me die in peace.
“I hope you haven’t forgotten our agreement?” Lucifer spoke, his voice a dry, croaking sound. “The agreement you sworn your soul oath to?”
Steven closed his eyes. “That was years ago, why does it matter now?” He sat up straighter. “I’m going to Hell, isn’t it?”
Lucifer smiled slightly. “If you fail.”
“Fail? Fail what?”
“Well, Mr. Watson, instead of banishing you to Hell like I do with my other clients, I noticed that you would like to raise your grandchildren, yes?”
Steven felt a lump in his throat. “Yeah.”
“You see, Mr. Watson, I have many other things to do besides discussing death matters with a mortal man. I’m a little bit busy these days, and I haven’t had the time to mess around with you.”
“So you’re letting me go?” Steven was hopeful deep inside, his heart beating furiously inside him.
“Yes and no. Of course, I can’t just let you go. I was hoping that we could play a little game…just a little one.”
“No, I won’t play it. You’ll put my soul through torture and then you’ll cast me into Hell. I’m not stupid, no, I won’t do it.”
Lucifer released a chuckle. “So you won’t play it? Even if I say that if you win, you’ll be resurrected back to life in the same shape and state you were in, and you’ll spend time with your kiddies again?”
Steven blinked. “You’re setting me up.”
“Why would I set you up? As I have said, I haven’t the time to frolic about with mere humans like you. My realm is a bit…crowded these days and there isn’t always room to spare. Besides,” he added, wearing a superior smile, “we had a pact that you’ll do anything I tell you, yes? Would you like to break it, right now, in front of me?”
A burning sensation washed over Steven, and he forcefully held back the gasp of pain springing up his throat.
“No,” he moaned.
“I thought so,” Lucifer said, now casually observing his grayish fingernails.
“When do I start?” Steven choked out.
“Well, Mister, it depends on what time you want it to start. You have an hour or so to determine the time, for you will be dead soon. Once you have slipped from the circle of life, it matters not whether you play, for I cannot reverse the flow of life and death crossing each other.”
“You can’t resurrect me?”
“I can. But it is slightly tedious and will require an insufficient amount of energy and simply a waste of time for me.”
“Why do you want me to do this? I bet it’s a trap, you think I’m so dumb-“
Lucifer stared directly at him, and Steven realized his eyes were no longer the monotonous shade of grey, but rather, a pale, yellow cornea with a single black dot for a pupil and no irises. Steven let out an exhalation of shock and tried to hastily scoot backward.
“I want to see you suffer, Steven Watson. I want to see you try to win the game and lose; I want to see you beg for mercy. Do not push me too far. I can snap your neck at this moment and leisurely pull out your organs. I can drag you back to my empire and make you feel the worst the universe has ever created. You may ask, ‘Why am I allowing you to have a second chance?’ It was not my preferred choice of any, for had you not touched the Pool of the Divine, I will easily incinerate you to ashes. As thus, the pool has guaranteed you a second chance at anything, and not even I can go against the will of the Lord.”
Steven suddenly felt a rush of relief. He remembered trekking miles and miles in fields and valleys, how at the brink of death he had drank from that pool. He almost allowed a sigh to escape.
“You have an hour, no more or no less. When the time is up you will succumb to your injuries. Your fate will be in my hands. And I assure you, it will not be pleasant for you. If you wish to summon me, think my name.” Lucifer vanished.
For thirty minutes Steven laid in agonizing silence. He knew that the moment he died his soul would be the plaything for Lucifer. On the other hand, he subconsciously knew that whatever game the Devil was planning, if he failed, he would have begged for Hell. Steven shuddered underneath his blankets, drew in a deep breath, and thought as hard as he could: “LUCIFER.”
Instead of him popping out of nowhere, he felt fog covering over him. His vision grew blurry. He glanced back and saw his comatose body peacefully resting in the hospital bed, a serene expression planted on the face. Steven forced his morbid thoughts down and started walking through the darkening fog, occasionally nervously looking side to side.
After some time of walking, the fog began clearing, slowly fading away to small puffs and wisps. Steven blinked a few times before surveying the scenery around him.
He was on a long stretch of road, a very ordinary looking sidewalk-style road, apart from the fact that he could not see the end of it. The road seemed to be floating, as around him were simply expanses of darkness, a gaping chasm of the void. Peeking upward, a blood-red sun glared down at him, a single light shining in the ultimate shadows.
When Steven had returned his gaze to the road, Lucifer was standing a few meters from him. He smiled menacingly, showing small, pointed teeth.
“So is this the game?” Steven asked.
“What do I do?”
“A quite simple task. Just walk to the finish line.”
“But there isn’t any-“
“No need to be so ignorant, Mr. Watson. The concepts of time and Infinity do not exist here. Nothing exists here, except you and me. You will walk to the finish line, and if you cannot make it, you have failed. You will be under my control.”
“And if I make it?”
“Then I will place your soul back into your body and raise it from the coma. You can live peacefully the rest of your years, and when you die you will travel to whatever blasted afterlife you believe in. There will be no debts to pay, nothing of me to cling. You will forget this whole ordeal, including the bargain we made. Satisfied?”
“Why did you come now for me? Why not any other time?”
“Oh, so you want me to play it when you are at your oldest, weakest state? Where you can barely walk, pitifully dragging one leg behind the other? Where every few steps you feel the most immense amount of pain? Where your joints will creak with arthritis and osteoporosis and your spine nearly unstable? Be glad that I chose now and not later.”
“This seems way too easy, just walking to a finish line.”
“I assure you,” Lucifer mused, “it is easy. Begin now.”
Automatically Steven’s legs began propelling him forward, causing him to stumble face-first onto the ground. Sputtering, he pushed himself up again and started walking.
It was rather easy, Steven thought to himself. I just have to walk to the finish. No biggie. I’ve done plenty of races before, plenty of marathons. Shouldn’t be too hard.
But, another voice spoke in his mind, this is a game Lucifer made for you. Do you really think he would make it this simple? There has to be a catch somewhere. Maybe he’ll rip off your legs and you have to start crawling-
Shut up, said the other voice.
A long time later, Steven felt a searing pain shoot up his legs, and he doubled over, gasping for breath. Immediately Lucifer appeared before him.
“Giving up already?”
“No,” Steven wheezed. He felt light-headed and dizzy. “You said this walk had a finish line! But I’ve been walking for like forever, and there isn’t one on sight-“
“There is one, Mr. Watson. You just haven’t reached it. Would you like to continue walking?”
“Yeah, yeah, sure.”
“Wonderful.” He disappeared. Steven gritted his teeth and kept plodding forward, one foot slumping in front of another. Cramps were now forming on his sides, and he paused way too frequently to catch his breath.
What seemed like another eternity to him, his knees buckled, and he collapsed, panting and coughing. He heard the sound of Lucifer’s footsteps draw near.
“Already failing? What a shame.”
“No,” Steven wheezed, clutching his chest, “No…”
“Mr. Watson, you do realize that this game is rather close to finishing. You can either stay down here or get up. Your choice. “
Gnashing his teeth together, Steven pushed himself upward. The cramp in his chest was pounding painfully against his ribs and he swayed slightly, his legs sour. Cramps had wracked his sides constantly and his face screwed up in agony.
Come on, Steve, he told himself. You can do this.
Just put one foot in front of another.
His foot reluctantly stepped forward, the body weight crashing down onto the heel.
I don’t think I can-
Too much pain-
There is no finish line-
Oh god, please save me-
He was alone in the house, with all lights off save for a small candle, glowing a warm yellow. The room had dropped several degrees a few minutes ago, and he covered himself with a blanket, unable to stand the cold.
A dark silhouette appeared on the other side of the candle, and as it stepped forward into the light its features were more defined. A tall, imposing man, dressed smartly in an average tux, with grayish skin and eyes. It drew out a chair nearby and gracefully sat down in it.
“Well, Mr. Watson, what do you want from me?”
Steven thought hard. “I want to marry a great woman and have a successful life. I want to get into a good college and an excellent job. I want lovely, dedicated children and an honorable bloodline. I want every one of my line to have a good life.”
“Is that all?”
“Alright then. Time to seal the agreement.”
“Agreement? What agreement?”
“Did you not read the instructions carefully? I will allow your desires to become true, but in return you must seal your soul to me after you die.”
“So you would want to throw away this perfect dream? Spend your life regretting and sulking in misery? You are free to do that, but I’m offering you a chance.”
The teenage Steven drew a deep breath, pondering over the words, before hesitantly sticking out his hand. “Deal.”
“Ah, marvelous.” Lucifer smiled slightly, and Steven could have sworn to see a yellowish glint in his eye-
“No…” Steven moaned. His steps were slowing as Lucifer came the third time.
“My patience is waning, Mr. Watson. The next time I show up, you lose.”
“Please…there…isn’t any…finish line…”
Lucifer threw out a chuckle. “There is a finish line. You mortals are always far from it until you realize how close you are.” He faded away.
The pain was unendurable now. It was taking all of Steven’s will to keep moving forward. He could not think straight anymore, a drowning sensation overtook him, every limb ached torturously, throbs and stings smothering him, his whole body plagued with it, his sight starting to become hazy-
He wearily plowed through the swamp, the murky water staining his pants, the sharpest of weeds reaching to pierce him. His face was smeared with mud and filth, his hair greasy and unclean, his skin letting off strong odors.
He wondered how long he had to go. The instructions were: “Go east, and if your heart and mind is in the right place, the Pool will appear before you.” He had not been able to stomach the idea of allowing his soul to Lucifer, and was looking for the Pool of the Divine, where it could possibly rescue him from Hell. He had been traveling for almost a week, his supplies depleted, forced to live off wild berries and small birds.
His stomach was growling loudly now, but why matter? He was not fit to find the Pool, he was going to die in the wild, and his body would never be found. Thirst and hunger gnawed at him, and he scooped up a handful of swamp-water, and drank it, choking on the little bits of silt that had swirled into his throat.
Alas, he emerged from the swamp, where the blazing sun offered him no comfort. The sky, a patronizing blue, seemed to mock him. No clouds obscured the sun’s heat, no shade to provide him protection.
Now he was aware of moving upwards, still heading east, according to his compass latched onto his watch. Long, sharp grass stabbed at his ankles, and he winced, still trekking up.
For hours he walked, his lips parched and cracked, his skin turning a dark red blemish. He was dehydrated, and he knew he could not make it back to the swamp. The backpack on his shoulders were becoming a burden, dragging him down, cramps shooting all over him. He continued going up, constantly halting to catch his breath.
When twilight began settling, he knew he was a goner. His body was so weak, so deprived of energy, and he felt he could not take another step, He was at the top of the hill, but it didn’t matter, he was going to die. He made his eyes open one last time, admiring the low red disk over the horizon, the purpling sky, with flashes and bellows of orange, red, and pink, and the gorgeous lake ahead of him-
A lake. He rubbed his eyes with gritty knuckles, to ensure he was not hallucinating. But there it was. A lake.
The want for water made him crawl forward, pushing with his hands and feet against the grass, which were no longer prickly but rather soft and cool.
He heaved himself forward, until he was on the shorelines of the lake. He clumsily tugged out his water bottle from the pack, first dipping his sunburnt hand into the water. It was not freezing cold, but comfortably refreshing, and he sighed happily, splashing himself with the water, much better than the lukewarm, revolting swamp water. He filled the bottle to the brim, but just before taking a gulp he glanced out at the lake’s surface. A ripple of colors streaked across the calmness, a wave of dark orange, and there was a flash of bright light as a humanoid figure materialized.
He was so exhausted that he did not start, only made a sound of surprise. The figure was now strolling to him, and he had a good look at the arrival.
Its face seemed to have no gender, blank, emotionless. It was wearing extremely simple clothes, so simple it was hard to describe, but one could say “a white shirt and pants.” Auburn hair was piled on the scalp, the body itself was skinny and lean, the eyes a wise, pale blue, but that was not what was so fascinating about it.
Instead, it was the two massive wings that sprouted from its back. Two perfect crescent curves, so pure, clean, that mesmerized Steven, staring at it, mouth wide open. He then knew that this was an angel, and that he was at the Pool of the Divine.
The angel was where he was now, and sat down beside him, looking pointedly at the bottle. Steven tilted the bottle back and gulped all the water down.
It was a curious feeling. The water flowed inside him and he felt better immediately, as though all his sins were gone. The throbbing and cramps were also gone, and delicious energy went through him, making him feel joyful and euphoric. He no longer felt exhausted anymore.
The angel smiled at him for a moment before a wash of sorrow crossed its face. When it spoke, it was of a seraphic choir, all chanting at once, a holy, heavenly sound.
“You have agreed with Lucifer, have you not?”
Steven now felt guilt. Terrible, bubbling, boiling guilt. “Yes.”
The angel sighed. “Since you have willingly consented, the Pool cannot clean it away entirely. However, it is lenient. It will give you a second chance after death, so you may still escape from grasps of Hell.” It leaned forward to whisper in his ear: “Your greatest enemy will tell you your victory, and of his downfall.”
The angel then touched him on the shoulder, and any existing weariness disappeared. Light, floaty fog surrounded him, and a few seconds later he found himself in front of the old apartment complex he lived in. Shaking his head, he wondered if it was all a hallucination, until he saw he was still holding the bottle of divine water.
He took another sip of it- Steven stood up.
It sloshed through him-
He knew why Lucifer wasn’t appearing. Light-colored fog had swarmed around him, strengthening him, and he thought he saw the outline on a single figure, with what seemed like two crescents sticking out of its back.
“Don’t give up, Steven,” the voice echoed, and died away.
He was so tired. He wanted to lie down right now and drift off into sleep. Thinking of his children, his grandchildren, and the wonderful feeling of the water gushing into him, he walked.
You mortals are always far from it until you realize how close you are.
Your greatest enemy will tell you your victory, and of his downfall.
He now knew what the angel meant. Lucifer had said it casually, expecting Steven to lose any moment, but he hadn’t known that those words would be his downfall.
Steven inhaled deeply, the air stabbing at his lungs.
“In two steps I will cross the finish line.”
As soon as those words left his mouth a faded, crude, yellow line appeared.
His leg seemed disembodied; eerily floating as it crunched onto the road.
One more step.
Never had he pushed himself so hard. He could feel it in the air-the very rage of Lucifer, pressing at him with sickening pain.
His other foot slammed into the ground, and he fell over, but deep inside a fierce sort of pride burned in him, making him tremble. He had beaten the Devil at his very own game.
As dark fog enveloped over him, he heard Lucifer’s scream of fury and anger; his wrath would be unbearable. The scream struck Steven like a battering ram, but he pushed himself upright-
And he was gliding across nothingness; his sore feet touched nothing, he felt nothing. Closing his eyes, he allowed the feeling to bathe him, soak him-
With a gasp he opened his eyes, and found himself looking into Lydia’s tear-filled ones. She gawked at him for a moment before letting out a shout of joy.
“Daddy! DADDY! You’re-you’re alive!”
Calvin, who had been sitting silently at the bedside, now jumped up with a cry of happiness and rushed over to grasp his father’s hand.
“Dad! I-I can’t believe- I was so scared-“
Steven smiled, and sat up, his children and grandchildren smothering him with hugs and kisses. A nurse unhooked him from the machines, stammering “It’s a miracle, I swear he was a goner-“ and he picked up his youngest grandchild while the others swarmed and crowded around him. Supported by both of his children, he stumbled toward the door.
When he had reached the door, he turned around to look back at the room. He swore to himself he saw an apparition of a generic-looking person, only hindered by the two perfect, white curves that arched out its back. Smiling to himself, he inclined his head at the vision before walking out the door with his family.
Written by RisingFusion