Not for nothing, but this was starting to seem like it may not end well for Marko. The lure of the gate had become even harder to resist then when he first stepped into the cage. Colors were starting to bleed together and his sight was slowly fading in and out of focus. Ben kept vigil over him from as far a distance as he could offer. After a short bout with his hearing Marko realizes that Ben is no longer speaking to him, but through him. The voice was in his head, purely transmitted by some telepathy. “I know you can hear me champion. It will not be much longer now. You have exerted all your own power trying to hold this post, but you alone are not enough the same as I alone am not enough to escape this tomb. The gift will take over to preserve its champion, and then we shall see what sort of gift you have been granted in earnest.” Fantastic, risk my remaining emotions on a whim, how can this not work out for the best? “Have you no faith?” Asks a demon…
Ben isn’t wrong. Another minute into his confinement and Marko hears a pendulum’s swing just before he blacks out. Only he’s not out for long this time, for as soon as he loses consciousness he feels as if a hand has grabbed him by the shoulder. Suddenly he is quite awake and well aware of what just happened. The gift had activated to save his life just as it did before, no difference in the method or the motive. However, Ben was here with him. Something about the nature of the gate has sewn them together by the draw of their powers. Marko is standing beside Ben now; somehow he is shielded from the staggering pull of the hell gate and despite being a little worse for wear he appears to be intact. Across from them, where Marko was moments before stands a figure that was unrecognizable. What is that? “It is you, Marko. You are here only in mind. That is your physical form being armored by the eternals.” Marko has no response. “Very soon, it will have fully observed events and chosen the best manner with which to arm itself. The cage has confused it only slightly. It will, I believe, find a way to complete the task of bringing you to safety even without guidance from Azazel.” Azazel, why not Zadiel? “Because this gift was not given to you by Zadiel, but Azazel.” Marko cannot remember clearly the events that led up to the final confrontation, or much during, but his first distinct memory of the championship is Zadiel placing a hand on Ian, and Azazel approaching Marko. That son of a – “Observe, it is attempting to breach.” The figure they watched looked nothing like Marko. It was his height, thereabouts, but it was also pure white like the tusk of an elephant had been bleached with a thousand whitening strips. It was the color of ivory which all other colors of ivory go to in order to compare. The arms were human, the legs were human, the torso and all of the above except that it had no hair, no face, no ears, and it was like a suit that was skin tight but impossible to see through. This suit also happened to be a walking arsenal so it couldn’t be all bad but now Marko was beginning to see why he could never see before while under the power of the gift, when this thing had no sight. It only took very calculated moves, and they were smooth motions. It slowly felt for the invisible walls that contained them, even placing the side of the face towards one such wall as if to listen to something despite the earless state of being. It turned, assuming that the front facing part of the body was its direction of view, towards Ben and Marko. Can it see me? “It is doubtful.” I mean I get it, no eyes but… “I understand, and stand by what I have said. You are currently a projection of my mind for my eyes alone to see. Now take care to notice the ground he stands on.” What Ben is referring to is that the ground at the ivory person’s feet was not pulling at him like the rest of the cage as it did for Marko. The creature in his place had formed some measure of protection for itself that the portal to hell did not attempt to grab at. In fact the ivory shield seemed immune to any tugging or tearing of forces beyond the gate. The Ivory Man now appeared to admire Ben for a long while. “Fascinating.” Do tell… “I sense his gaze upon me. It is piercing; however it does not focus entirely on me alone. I believe this is some form of measurement.” Measuring what? “My power, it may be that it understands the connection between myself and the gate.” Ben. What if this thing kills you, can either of us get out? “No.”
Not comforted in the least bit by these recent events Marko focused his attention on the Ivory Man. He hoped against hope that some minute detail of this absolutely featureless entity would present itself and from that a strategy could be made. It happens in an instant, Marko is overcome with a searing pain that rips through his chest. Suddenly he is aware of the connection to his own body that was still very much open. The creature was, for the first time, looking inward. He was asking Marko for something. Ben, do you hear that, no do you feel that? “It needs you to sustain it. It is asking for recompense. It knows the way out now it needs you to pay the price.” Anger, fear, sadness, Ben the price of admission is emotion he’s looking for one. “So it is. Deny him.” Marko did just that. Willing his mind to defend itself he turned down the Ivory Man. This proves not to be the best idea. Marko’s image in Ben’s mind falls to its knees. He grabs his head setting free a roar of agony. “It seeks to remove you! You must be returned before it succeeds; otherwise I do not know what will awake in your place. You must fight him from inside; there you cannot be over thrown. Fight him!” There is no response, Marko remains on the floor incoherently babbling to himself. Ben releases him, unsure that anything he just said made it through to the boy.
Even though not in direct contact with him, Ben can sense that the Ivory being has ceased efforts to sever Marko’s link to his own mind. The space they shared in the cage was forging a bond between them, and it was becoming second nature for Ben to infer the intentions of both Marko and the Ivory ghost threatening the boy’s life. In moments the figure kneels, planting both hands firmly on the Earth. Had Marko won? No. The figure changed its shape from the outline of Marko’s form to a much larger and bulkier physique, one that was slowly looking less and less human as the seconds ran on. A brilliant light fills Ben’s eyes, even he, with all that power is forced to look away. As the light fades the figure now resembles a demon, a full demon. It is of the winged variety, it even has a tail. A jagged line draws itself for the mouth and then tears open releasing a violent shriek while teeth grow in place. His hands are now clawed, with the final touch following after: two very dark and very blue eyes. The color quickly fades revealing a hazel pair of eyes encapsulated by a red ring just around the iris. These were Marko’s eyes. He is at last awake, only Ben can’t be sure how much control he has regained. Nor is Ben in any hurry to communicate for fear that he might disrupt Marko’s concentration, all he can do now is wait. The power emanating from the new form is more intense than the previous leading Ben to believe the gift was now showing its true potential.
Marko lifts an ivory hand facing the palm in Ben’s direction. The yank is anything but subtle. A vortex escapes from the hand and threatens to tear Ben in half, with Marko pulling on him one way and the chains of the cage pulling the other. This is the first time the demon lord has been tested in recent memory, and this is a demon with a great deal of memory recent or otherwise. The ferocity long since discarded by Ben is at last resurfacing. His eyes become brighter, his teeth sharper, and the force of his energy is coming to bare. This new form could take the punishment. Further and further Ben went into his old ways summoning every ounce of energy long buried within him. This would not be his end, not trapped like a mongrel. The only reaction from Marko is the same as before, the vortex at his palm continued to pull for Ben who was suddenly aware that for all his efforts he was no longer gaining strength despite the well of energy still within him. He was at crossroads, on one end the price for keeping his existence within the hell gate was being taken at all times, and now Marko was draining the rest, it was a very possible realization that this would deplete Ben of all standing power, something that might leave him a withered shell to be crushed at last by the cage. He could not continue to expend so much of his essence, so rather than feed him; Ben would turn the other way. He would lower is threshold, make himself a weaker form and endure the pull of Marko’s vortex while feeding the bulk of his power back to the gate. But soon as he attempts this, he is quickly shown the futility. Marko had already become too strong. Much stronger than Ben, much stronger than the cage, yet he does not break free. Ben can’t produce the full power of his office as demon lord with the gate shut on him, and he cannot fight Marko without it, and now Marko just stood there having taken enough energy from Ben to surpass him. (This doesn’t take long considering how strong the gift has already made him.) For now the champion had won the muscle flexing contest, yet there is something amiss.
The air shifts again and Ben can finally cool down his presence. He slowly drifts back into his stable form having been released from the tug of war between Marko and the gate. He had been hemorrhaging power, and though it would regenerate he is no longer a threat to the champion or his gift. There is no physical damage to Ben, he will recover but it will be a time before he can muster the strength he used to withstand nearly being torn asunder. Marko’s eyes appear distressed, it could very well be that he alone knows what the Ivory Man running the show was planning, or he could just be coming to terms with how ineffective the struggle is to regain his body. Ben had never experienced this, not even as champion; the gift never did this to him. But then again, it was Zadiel who had made him champion whereas Azazel may not have been so willing to gift from himself.
Marko was steady a long while. Then, in the blink of an eye the air appeared to fracture, like a crack on a glass window. It spread quickly, making a horrid smashing noise. Ben did not know it was possible to open a second gate to hell on top of an existing one, and he was sure he would soon find why the idea was never an enticing one. Marko howls to the sky as he reaches with both hands against the breaking air, this is the realm between Earth and Hell shattering under the weight of a door. He is going to open a gate to free himself, this will mean that Marko in this form would freely be able to go to hell and back. It would also mean that Ben might be utterly destroyed in the process. There was no time to react.
The ground gave way and from beneath it a fire burst spewing forth flames as high as a mountain and as hot as the sun. The tremors that followed would surely be felt in towns nearby. The speed was unimaginable. Not long after the first break it was already over. Ben remained, his cage intact, only now there is an intersection between his and Marko’s gate that was impassable to anyone. A literal dead air permeates the space between. On the outside Marko lay face down in the dirt. His form is mortal again. Ben searched him over with his demon eyes; he betrays no injury, no sign of pain. His heart beats soundly in Ben’s ear. The energy released was immense there is every indication that any creature, man or otherwise that is sensitive to the world around them will now know of Ben’s prison. His old demon friends were no doubt on their way, and Ben was in absolutely no condition to fight them. At best he was only as strong as any second rate demon who possesses mortals, a far cry from his true form.
He had not finished the thought when something advanced on them. It was old, but it did not smell quite demon. “And who are you?” Asks Ben. “Wow. Ben, of Gharr, if I’m not mistaken. I had heard of you but we have never had the pleasure. They call me Tessa.” Ben stares blankly at the woman as she cautiously moves nearer to Marko. “I do not know you Tessa, nor can I see you clearly, despite my vision being without reproach.” Tessa smiles, “Surely a great demon such as yourself would know there are still a few mysteries left in this world.” Ben remains unmoved, his body is still, but his sight searches in every direction. “There will be others on their way. You may not wish to be so close when they arrive. They have all been called by the release of power which has brought you here.”
“No one is coming. I was brought here not by the release of power but by the resurface of this man, who for a time was beyond my senses. You see, I don’t want to make a habit of losing sight of these boys they’re quite dear to me.” Ben is suspicious but he fails to see any further arrivals, something of the magnitude of what just happened would not go so unnoticed that only one passerby would happen across the sight, not when any one of the big bad demon lords could have been there in an instant. The entire event must have been contained. “Tell me, Tessa, by what means do you track the boy.”
“Trade secret Ben. I see that you are bound, but I’m not about to risk divulging our playbook to you, knowing what you are.”
“Then may I assume you are not a demon, given your tone on our kind I suspect you are something that holds them in disrepute.”
“Sure, do as you please. I’m not going to confirm one way or the other. I’m just going to take the boy home and confound you so you don’t see how I do it.”
“It takes a strong essence to pass here so close to a gateway.”
“I count two.”
“Then, Tessa, I am to understand you can see the gateways?”
“Oh dear, you are crafty. Well that was more of a slip up on my part.” Ben grows inpatient. “No, do not misjudge me. I openly seek to find out what you are but for now I am interested in what you see. I do not see into his doorway. What part of hell has he opened? And how is it there has been no great disturbance beyond the confines of my own cage.” Tessa stares almost puzzled at Ben. She looks carefully around them in all directions. All the grounds seem undamaged. “His door is unopened. But there’s something else. I can feel through it, and I don’t feel hell.” Tessa’s features betray a slight cringe of fear and she bends low to pick up Marko. She does so with ease, in terms of physical strength she lifts him as if he weighed little if anything, but she slowly backs away from the site of the doorway as if she feared a sudden movement would rip it open. Ben watches on as she looks to him again and shakes her head. “Now we’re going to see what you’re really made of.” Ben is temporarily blinded, no, that’s not accurate, he is made unable to see around Tessa as she holds Marko. His vision is not entirely obscured but he has no means of comprehending the form of travel she used, and ultimately what exactly she was. He turns back towards his own gate missing the single feather that falls from the sky and lands on the spot Tessa had been standing. As he feels for the chain that had been siphoning his life away into the abyss he watches it disintegrate and slip through his fingers. Marko had opened a hell gate alright, but it had not led to hell. He partitioned himself and opened Ben’s door, but from another side. The cage, once a part of a massive network was now a single cell. This revelation allows Ben to more precisely understand how powerful the champion could be. He knew exactly how much power was taken from him, and he knew how great the power necessary to shift the energies of a hell gate was. Marko, for a brief moment, had been beyond the scale of any Earthly dominion, he had done an act reserved for an eternal. Ben was beginning to understand the scope of what was at stake, if the demons knew how to unlock the powers dormant within the champion, they might be able to do harm to the eternals, and they might be able to hold the power of a champion indefinitely. This was the most pressing matter at hand, and since the entire event was only witnessed by him, not even Zadiel or Azazel were aware of the demon threat to their existence, it fell to him to reach out to Marko and Ian so that they might warn the rest. This was more pressing a fact than that of Ben’s cage becoming unlocked. Can he trust himself to remain as he is now once he steps outside, or will he take that knowledge straight to his former companions on the side of evil? The weight of his bondage was lifting. Soon his blood will boil and even weakened, he will begin to hear the call for violence. Benagar hears no pendulum, but his time is surely running out.