The screaming from the pits always get him, just a little. All the souls he’s responsible for sending to Hell, whether directly through sacrifice, or indirectly through temptation, screaming from those concrete pits, those cells, below him. There are no doors, no windows in the pits, just a labyrinth of precarious paths between, along which he walks, looking for a way out. Sometimes he finds it.
He knows it’s a dream. Always. And sometimes he falls in. The pain is real, when they tear him apart. But the screaming is worse, when they’re screaming right in his ear, often biting and ripping the lobe off.
But not this night. When things have not been going well in the day, sometimes his balance in the dream is poor, or the path is slippery. That’s when he knows it will be one of those nights. One cannot sleep easily when one’s soul is held by a devil. Indeed, these dreams are not merely his own anxiety. They are the direct result of having a soul that has been sold for pacts and powers. A side effect. Perhaps even sent by Vetizzi, the devil who owns his soul. He is reminded every night of what will happen to him should he not uphold his end of the bargain, providing a certain number of souls per year to the devil. And what, despite all that payment, will happen to him when he dies.
He has purchased a longer lifespan – seven times that of his original, though who knows how long that is: seven hundred more years? seven minutes from now? – and a supernatural resistance to damage and disease, but one day, he knows, he will die. And then he will be but another soul, screaming in the pits.
But there are ways out. Ways to buy back his soul, ways to buy a rank of power in the legions of Hell. To be more than a mere soul for torture. To be a leader. A devil.
He has nothing against the gods. The devils do, certainly, for the gods imprisoned them in Hell. They claim the gods are their creations, their slaves, and that those gods threw off the devils through treason, and locked away the rightful rulers of the universe in an iron cage designed to keep all of its inhabitants in a constant state of misery.
And what will they do when the cage breaks? Nothing lasts forever, even the walls of Hell. The cracks are getting wider all the time. Demons, even devils, are becoming easier to summon with each passing year. And the gods ignore it.
One has only to look around to see that the gods of the Insula are in a state of decline. All of the truly great ones, who fought the legions of Hell and imprisoned them, have ascended, gone beyond this world to some fabled realm of contemplation. Or perhaps they have simply died. Those left behind are so weak they have bowed to the demands of their mortal cattle, outlawing slavery, creating the Comita Tributa so the mortals have some tiny say in government, even allowing freedom of religion for the deluded monotheists, mortals who do not even worship any real gods, so that their prayers are wasted.
Even in his nightmare, Margrave laughs. He may himself be a human, but even he can acknowledge the facts: the gods are too weak to enforce their rightful rule over his own kind. And in that case, it is only right and proper to slit the throat of every god. Those who cannot hold onto their power will live just long enough to see it taken from them.
A war is coming. A war that will be between a pack of decadent gods who preside over a mass of resentful mortals, and the forces of Hell itself, who live only to inflict the pain they have suffered for millennia on their captors.
Only a fool would back the obvious losers.
He sees a door. A door made of solid gold, ornately decorated with images of wisdom and learning. He strides confidently toward it, and opens it.
The screaming ends. He is in a library. So many tomes, so many scrolls. Knowledge, his favorite form of power. He shivers with pleasure.
“This?” a voice rings out. Raspy and sardonic, it is instantly recognizable. “This is what you dream about?”
Margrave turns slowly to see Nekh, Archon, crimelord, once one of the most powerful gods on the Insula, sitting in a comfortable chair, looking at him with hooded eyes, his buzzard beak and bald, wrinkled head leaning forward on a long, thin, flexible neck. He is holding in one hand an onion-shaped glass, topped with a small glass cap, filled with amber whisky.
Margrave feels the blood drain from his cheeks. “You are dead. Alma killed you.”
Nekh laughs. “Look at you! One would think you feel guilty about my death. As if, oh, you had withheld information that could have saved my life?”
Dizzy with shock, Margrave feels for a chair and sits heavily. “Why?” he asks. “Why are you suddenly haunting me?”
“Oh I’m just stepping out for a minute, while they aren’t looking. Funny the things you can get up to in dreams.” Nekh chuckles. “While they play around in the dreamlands, I can slip away into others’ dreams. Yours for instance.”
Margrave recovers some of his composure. “You still exist. Some part of your soul at least. Fascinating.”
“Yeah, real fascinating,” Nekh grumbles. “There’s not much time before I have to get back, if I want to continue riding around in a certain murderous death goddess. Oh I’m learning soooo much. Most of it so disgustingly sweet it makes me want to kill her and everyone she knows. So before I go, let me tell you a little about a devil named Azzageddi…”