A single tear escapes him as the reverie is broken by a violent shaking. What it was that conjured that tear, Marko remembers, but he feels it no longer. Any lingering emotions regarding his lover disappear the moment his eyes are open. Somber is barely and adequate word for his present state. It’s night outside the plane as it traces a crooked path around the storms besieging the seas below. Frankly Marko was cranky from the rude awakening, so he closes his eyes again and whispers to the heavens. It only takes a few seconds until he hears a reply. Distant sounds of thunder seem to fade away as parting clouds form a lane for the aircraft. That should hold us for a bit, thought Marko. There is some nagging feeling about a hazier portion of his memory. Something from the most recent dream that sounded relevant. He suspects he won’t remember, after all it happens all the time. That part of the night you want to hold on to most always is the one that slips away.
Landing followed shortly after Marko successfully nodded off again signaling an end to his last opportunity to rest. Disembarking took far too long. The airport was not totally crowded making it easier for him to scrutinize the onlookers. Humans all around, a good sign no one had followed. Outside, local taxi drivers put on their game faces as the small groups of passengers exiting the airport passed by with some exchanging poorly spoken phrases from pocket dictionaries making a yeoman’s effort at communication. There are no cabs to where he is going; no shortcuts would ease the burden. The hike is arduous; of course it is, outside the city this place is mountains on mountains. Marko has to kindly remind himself that using magic to travel here (on top of showing his hand) wouldn’t work because of what he did. Penance, this is penance, he thought. “How true that is, you may never know.” The sound of this disembodied voice crashes into Marko from beyond a tall walk of trees. He arrived earlier than anticipated and for a very brief moment the deep inhuman voice legitimately startled him. “This place grew back nicely,” says Marko as he walks towards the voice. The hillside stretched and curved in every direction in the most unruly manner possible. To the untrained eye, a quick glimpse of the mountain range would reveal an uneven patch of land just around the middle of a lengthy ridge, like the tops of these behemoth hills were torn off by an excessive amount of force that erupted from beneath them unexpectedly like a volcano. The untrained eye in this case deserves some credit, as that’s precisely what happened almost a decade ago. Now as Marko takes his first steps into the heart of the decapitated mountain, he is face to face with a figure seven feet in height, whose skin is a pale blue, and whose eyes of crimson read the soul like it were a map. This was the second demon Marko ever witnessed who walked the Earth in its true form but he remembered this one the most.
Marko did not speak right away. As soon as he could break the gaze of the monster in front of him he checked the ground carefully for signs of decay. A thin ring presented itself in a wide ellipse that he could not see fully. It wasn’t difficult to see considering how lush the green hills were when all of the sudden a line of zero growth traced around the demon. To his left in between him and the creature was a chess board sitting atop a waist high tree trunk. It was some four feet from the dead perimeter. “The cage grew,” says Marko blankly. “To your surprise as well as mine; I fear we may never finish the game we started,” says the demon while speaking to the chess board which Marko had been admiring. “Ben. I need your help.” The demon had not moved since Marko arrived, he stood patiently offering his undivided attention. “Events have transpired, things are in motion and I need to know why,” says Marko. Ben nods. “I believe I understand. It is doubtful I can be of much help on any events that have come to pass since my time here.” Now Marko nodded. “That’s what you can help me with right there. How did you get here?” Ben saw through the surface of the question, asking, “You are looking for an answer beyond the fact that you put me here?” Marko replies, “Yes, that’s it.” The otherwise motionless Ben nods again. “The you whom I met before was arrogant. He believed that he was the reason I am sealed here and that was sufficient. But I see much in you has changed and I am truly in wonder as to what could bring you here that you would admit a possibility wherein it was not you alone who trapped me. My eyes inside this cage are wide open. They can see a great distance away, although I never looked but this one time, I could see you coming here. I knew at first glance that you are not whole. Something has been taken from you. You will tell me of this when I have answered your question?”
“That seems fair.”
“Very well. To the demons a man is a chalice, the demon a well. To walk among you they must convince the chalice to carry them. Should the chalice become overfilled the water will spill and the demon will lose his power. This is what makes possessed humans powerful, yet still limited. Should a demon exert too great a power through their host, much of that power may spill into this mortal realm and be lost to the demon forever. For this reason the most powerful of demons choose not to possess men for fear of losing that power. Instead the demon lords open the gates of hell just long enough to pass through unhindered. This is hazardous to the demon and not performed often or without true strength. They may only return from whence they came, and by the same doorway which spawned them in this realm. We keep our gates secret so that rivals may not trap us. Before my descent you became aware of my presence and traveled here to confront the power you sensed. You, a child, would do battle with a full demon lord. It was inadvisable and though I imagine you took on this task not knowing the brevity of events to follow, you were made quickly aware that this fight would be your undoing. I was fortunate to have lured you here, for it had to be done right here,” Ben pointed at the exact spot he stood upon. “A lesser man would have run, but a stubborn child would not. I exposed a weakness in my ritual allowing you to close the gates of hell on me and bind me to these very grounds. No one but you and those you told would know of my prison for I am invisible to those that do not know of me. As you had said before, this solitary cage is penance. I wished no longer to walk in either world. Not hell, not Earth. I allowed this.”
“For what? You could have crushed me with a thought; I sense that for the first time now and I don’t understand.” Silence followed. “Alright then, my turn,” continues Marko. “They took my emotions. Not all of them, not yet I mean. We call them eternals; they judge the world every so often. Judgment came for us. We endured, in fact we won. It came at a price but mankind was gifted for their efforts and myself and another were awarded the titles of champion. Since the first time I used my gift I felt less and less like myself. One of yours came to us and hinted that this new power is the cause. I don’t know why or how yet. Does that satisfy?”
“I am beginning to understand. You met with Zadiel and Azazel.”
“Yes… Ben, you sound familiar with them.”
“You are not the only champion that ever was.” Suddenly Marko’s thoughts drift to a world under the thumb of this beast. How the Earth might have looked during his rule. “How deep have the emotions been severed?”
“Deep. I think there is something that happens when I dream like for a brief moment the memory remains. But it’s over the second I wake up. What do you know about them, the eternals?”
“They are older than us. I first heard of them when I was still a human. As a man my grasp on the mortal coil was far more limited than even your own. I walked in a world none have seen since before the days of old, where all that mattered to me was kings, wars, and nothing that followed. I believed in mortal kings once and I followed them to the day when a likeminded king sought to fill his court. He arrived promising a strength and unity unparalleled in all the world. Only, he was no king of men but a demon lord. He soon promised our lineage power and longevity. This was all the promise we needed. There was a champion then too, it was invincible until just before the next reckoning had come. The demon lord knew this and he seized on it. There were once hundreds of dragons that filled the air at any given time that you might look to the sky. When their champion was diminished, I was called. One by one I rid the world of them; I drank of their blood and was beside myself. There was clarity in the world that followed, and when my task was finished my kings were all slain. The demons had no need for kings, they asked instead for me to stay as I was, a fledgling demon lord in my own right. I did not follow monsters, I followed men, but they were dead. They died the moment they changed into demons and were destroyed in earnest not much later. I would have nothing more to do with the lot. I stayed here willing myself to remember what I was, all the while knowing there would be no return, not even as champion. It took centuries but I filled these hills with a dark power and unleashed it so that one might come to face me. You understand know perhaps, why I allowed you to be the one to defeat me. You also followed kings until they fell, and now like me you became a champion. More proof that I was right about you.”
“No, you were dead wrong. I wouldn’t have won without help. I didn’t even know it was coming; only a handful of humans did. Your kind long ago made a pact with the other baddies to keep us out of the contest. My love put the pieces together almost literally on the eve of Armageddon. I had no idea what was going on at the time but she mad a sacrifice, you see, she was possessed. The story you were so kind to tell me rings a special truth in my ear because that sounded very underhanded to have you exterminate the dragons so they couldn’t have another go at the title. Reminds me of the recent strategy by the demons where they invalidate my champion status and now it’s going to happen again. We’re going back in so that we can fight man versus demon.”
“I trust you are not surprised to find this is not the first time the sect of hell has tried to sabotage others. It would sound as though they intended for you to win so that you would fight their battle for them. They are stronger than you and fear not open warfare in another contest with mankind alone.”
“We’re not holding back our efforts to repay them for the undermining. We have focused our efforts on groups of demons that might be formidable competitors.”
“You will not be able to reach their most powerful. One of the lords will face you in this contest. There is scarcely a creature in existence that might be their match.”
“This is why I’m glad I came. You can tell me what creature that might be.”
“They will not be of help to you. Angels have not walked your Earth since before the dawn of dragons.”
“That was a long shot Ben. I’m not really sure it’s hit me that you said dragons and angels just now either. I got nothing else going for me in this fight. It may just be that the next few days we make a lot of noise but don’t manage to hurt the bad guys in any way.”
“You are correct mostly. Your efforts will not stem the tide. I suspect fear prevents you from using your gifts to further these goals?”
“The eternals forbid our interference with one another. It’s a lot easier for us to make a mess without using that power source. Worst still, I think they can see through us when we do use it or at least that seems to be the only time they are looking into our realm. And a worst still on top of the previous one, I have no control over that ability whatsoever and I’m less eager to try when more emotions leave me without permission.”
“You fear power and wrongfully so. There is an answer in this that will allow you control over the gift. However, you were the champion of another power long before the eternals made you one.”
Marko half frowned at the idea before speaking. “It’s not the same. I can do a parlor trick here or there make the rain go, write in the sky with some clouds. It’s not even comparable to the skill I once had with water.”
“There is yet another prevalent matter here. The tactics you employ against your enemy will be damning to your soul. You are intent on descending to their plane, you will be no better than the evil that runs through my veins. Do you not believe a just man should be taking up this charge? I suspect this would better preserve the human race should he become champion.”
Marko did not wait or pause to answer he just went for it. “No. When I’m done navigating through hell a just person can take the reins and do as they please from there.”
“Very well, then if you are ready to learn exactly how one navigates hell, step into the cage.” As a testament to the remaining emotions left inside of him, Marko’s heart stopped for a full second before the news was processed. The giant hell gate that was pinning an immensely powerful super demon was definitely the last place anyone would go poking around. There was sickening feeling in his gut when Marko realized that he did not fully understand how the cage worked; he might not be able to just walk back out, maybe Ben would even be able to escape. He seemed civil with the bulk of his power being siphoned back into hell but could Marko abide setting this monstrosity back into the world with the faculties of his mind altered by power and the fleeting humanity left in him snuffed out when he reached his peak. Nothing about this scenario was inviting so he is at a complete loss for words when he finds that during his inner struggle he had stepped over the line calmly and completely of his own volition.
The landscape had changed. The view from this side of the border line was more like the sight of the mountain on the day Ben was sealed. The surroundings stripped bare of foliage and devoid of life, the heat from the sun amplified at the base of the hillside. Beneath him the ground was shattered and even a little charred. In front of him Ben seemed taller; a chain of pure darkness was taunt, leading from his ankles into a rupture of the air, framed in space by some invisible border, just above the ground. It pulled in a spiral like wind for Ben, groping at his power, and now for Marko. In this field Marko could witness half of Ben’s total power, not even close to the single iota that pulled at him in his youth to travel here. This was crushing evil that threatened to keep his lungs from ever grasping another breath.
The air shifted away from Marko, he was able to breathe again, and he quickly understood why. Ben had moved closer to the rupture; close enough so that when he touched it, it would turn solid, pulling on the chain at his feet ever more despite this. He was forever trapped.
“Use your gift that you might escape, Marko. It is your only way out of the mouth of hell.”