It comes rushing in like a freight train, the worst part of waking up. That brief lucid moment between sleep and awake, the moment where you can see through your eyelids. Tremors rack the once placid landscape of flesh as your eyes roll around in their sockets. Looking and knowing you didn't wake up yet.

As soon as you realize this, consciousness takes over. Your eyes fly open...the sight fries your pupils like eggs in a pan.

A nightmarish void of suffering. And He is waiting.

"Fuck!" and eyelids slam closed like vice grips. Slowly, they open again to reveal familiarity.

There is no better time for a smoke.

You don't need to get dressed, you slept in your clothes...again. It just might be the last outfit you will ever wear. You carefully select your victim from the ranks of slender white soliders, place the filter to your lips and deliver the verdict. Death by fire. The irony isn't lost on you. This is the inevitable truth to dealing with the devil.

The last three weeks have been spent on the road, searching. The mission is clear but that doesn't make it easy.

1. Immortality
2. Win your soul back

The first option is a crapshoot. Why the hell did you even put that on the list? Teeth grit together with the effort but you can't bring yourself to scratch it off. A slow drag from the cigarrette strengthens your resolve. Watching the smoke ooze out of your lips, you see the faces of loved ones. They drift in the cottony white and stretch to terrible proportions, each one glaring at you with a hatred that chills your bones. After all, the devil doesn't enter into contests lightly and there always has to be a wager. You sacrificed them one by one, betting them against your own soul, your salvation.

You lost everytime. Even when you thought you were so clever, when you thought that you had a trick up your sleeve. Your grandmother first, she was getting old anyway right? Plus, you were crafty, she would be fine and afterwards you were sure she'd forgive you. But you lost. And a medic who had been on the job for thirty years, a guy who had seen it all lost his lunch when they found her. A body wasn't meant to twist that way, or be in that many pieces. It was nothing compared to the suffering on the other side.

After that it got easier, but He would never bargain with random souls. It always had to be someone close, someone that mattered. The contract always written in blood and signed with love. Your mother was the worst, He made you watch. He breached the planes and let you watch her suffer, let you stare helplessly and the demons dragged her into the abyss. Unable to turn away and forced to look into her eyes. She stared you down and that hatred washed over you in waves. Your own mother, the one who nourished and raised you. The one person guaranteed to love you unconditionally. She had been there for your highs and lowest lows, always comforting and always proud of you. And now here she was, spouting obscenities and fighting against them, to get to you.

Even if you could win now, would it matter? Your mothers mouth yawns wide and her sharp teeth head for your face, a wave of your hand and she scatters and drifts away. You don't care if he is the prince of darkness, this is a serious character flaw. "At least let me enjoy a smoke" you grumble at the sneaky bastard. Of course it matters, failure is not an option. After witnessing the unspeakable terror of the other plane, salvation is the central point of your universe. Like a desperate rabbit in a trap, even gnawing off your own leg is worth it when the coyotes are coming. Anything is better than the alternative.

Besides, this time the plan was foolproof. For the thousandth time you went over it. Visualizing every move, preparing for every contingency. This was perfect. And when you won, you would save the others you had damned. You would demand their release be part of the deal. It's the least He could do, since you would be wagering your soulmate. This is the point you had hoped it would never come to. The final reckless endangerment, and if she was gone, there would be no reason to live anyway. You would resign yourself to the fire.

But first, you had to find her. She was smart, she knew what you were doing and she dissappeared.

You toss your cigarette butt to the ground and smash out the embers underneath the toe of a weathered sneaker. The last offering of a lost soldier leaves your lungs and takes off for the stars. Muscles stretch and joints pop as you get up from the park bench. The rumble in your stomach will have be settled before you get down to business. The gas station across the street looks like a good candidate and you set off at a brisk pace to fight the morning chill.

The bell tingles as the door thumps shut behind you. You are halfway to the candy rack when the hair on the back of your neck stands up. This odd feeling is thick in the air and you notice that it is much too quiet. You turn to the cash register and realize you picked the wrong gas station. A man in a black mask is standing behind the counter, shoveling money out of the register and into a backpack. Sprawled out on the counter next to him, face down, is the cashier. Or at the least to say what's left of his face is down. There is a large puddle of blood seeping from the bullet wound in his skull. It drips onto to the floor in time with a morbid metronome. Drip. Drip. Drip.

You are transfixed, silent. Fight or flee. In the microseconds it takes your instinct to sort out this puzzle, the man has looked up from his money and noticed your intrusion. You see his hand come up and the flash of silver as time slows to a crawl.

Fuck. No! Not like this!

There was a plan. It was perfect. Redemption was just out of reach.

You know that you are going to die. And you know what awaits you. Your spine turns to ice and the edges of your vision condense with blackness. You breath draws short and your heart is pounding. Cold sweat on your palms. Every fiber of your being screaming out against the inevitable, begging for mercy.

Why are his pupils red?

The last sound to ever reach your mortal ears is the deafening rattle of the gun discharging. The reverberating echo is the laughter of a creature from the blackest pits of Hell.

And they are here. And they have been waiting.

Noxious odors rise from fissures in the earth. fear