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Demon's Mark, or Mark's Prey

The man in the black fedora closes his eyes briefly, then turns to face the demon behind him. He holds his arms out from his sides and tilts his head back, offering himself, his face peaceful, or perhaps resigned.
The man waits patiently for what seems an eternity, arms outstretched, until the demon finally rushes forth with a roar and rakes its claw across the man's throat. The smell of blood enrages the beast further and it slashes again, this time slicing through the man's clothing and across his chest. The man falls to his knees, gurgling as he tries to breathe, but still he keeps his face turned up towards the demon.
The monster's third attack, this time with its other claw, finishes the man, and the beast crouches over his prize for a furtive taste. Once sated, the creature rises and bellows, in rage or triumph or both, then turns and disappears back down the alley. Since it is a dead end, it is unclear where the demon goes, but after several moments of silence, I realize that I'm alone in the alley, with only a corpse for company.
This is, in a sense, your average demon story. Man--or woman, of course, but in this case a man--weak-willed and vain, covetous of the better things in life, seeks an easy route rather than one involving long, hard work for quiet rewards. He may not even know what he's seeking, but the yearning informs every breath that he takes and poisons those things in his life that are good.
And demons, they can smell a mark, sense an easy target. Then they approach, but not in their normal guise. They make themselves attractive, alluring, wearing fine clothes and drinking exotic wine, and offering the same to their prey. When inhibitions are lowered, and the mark has become confident of a sympathetic ear, he explains how he's been cheated out of the best things in life. The demon sniffs and circles, advances and retreats.
At just the right moment, the demon makes the offer.
"I can make you rich/powerful/handsome/beautiful," it whispers. "Long life/youth/money/sex/fame. Tell me what you want, and it's yours."
"At what price?" the man asks. "You want my soul, don't you?" Only the savviest marks, perhaps better able to hold their liquor, remember to ask this question.
"No," snarls the demon. "I don't want your soul, you miserable scum. I want you to find me a worthy soul, a beautiful soul, and feed it to me. If you fail, if you don't bring me what I want in 666 days, only then will I own your soul. And it will be a poor substitute, indeed."
He could do it, the man thinks. He is so very, very tempted. His wife has left him; his father has conferred what remains of the family fortune on the other, favored son. He's down to his last few dollars, and the kind of women he wants to spend time with don't take kindly to a date who pinches pennies. Most women barely spare him a glance these days. He can't take it anymore.
And who could blame him?
"I'll bring you a soul," he promises. How hard could it be, to find an innocent that nobody would miss?
"And if you fail..." says the demon.
"I'll bring you a soul," the man repeats, more firmly this time.
By now you're asking yourself just who it is that speaks to you. Who watches the demon devour whom? The man in the fedora: was he the mark that failed to deliver a soul in the prescribed time, and therefore resigned himself to his fate? Or was he the prey's prey, the beautiful soul that didn't struggle because it didn't need to? Did I bring that man here to fulfill my promise to a demon, or was I brought here by that man because I seemed innocent enough to him, but was ultimately judged unworthy by the demon seeking a heaven-bound, beautiful soul?
It may be both and it may be neither. But either way, before I leave the corpse to whatever scavengers may come, I acknowledge its silent message. I too will be damned to hell, and it is no more than I deserve.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, November 21st, 2016

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