“It’s like a game, Siskenet. You like games?”
After a pause, reluctantly, Siskenet nodded.
“Right, so if you want a really excellent, super-satisfying game, what has to happen?”
Siskenet answered right away. “You have to win?”
The man laughed heartily, holding his belly. “Well,” he sniffed, wiping his eyes, “that does help.” He blew his nose into a shiny red handkerchief, then looked down again at Siskenet. “But if you are a true gamesperson, you can have an excellent game even if you lose.”
Siskenet nodded. “That’s true.”
“And what determines that?” The man waited, as still and patient as a fox outside the rabbit hole.
“You play your best?”
“Exactly!” the man cried in delight. “You play your BEST!” He smiled, as if they had just answered the Mystery of Existence or something.
“Okay,” Siskenet shrugged. “That’s true.”
The man continued smiling at him. They stared at each other for several long seconds.
“Okay fine, I don’t get it.” Siskenet looked intently at the ground.
“It’s okay, Siskenet.” The man’s voice was surprisingly gentle. “Let me just ask you one more question. Ok?”
“What do the other players have to do in order for you to be pushed to play your absolute best?”
“They have to play their absolute best,” Siskenet answered immediately.
The man smiled again, spreading his hands like he was the host welcoming them to sit at his table.
“So….” Siskenet paused, gathering his thoughts. “So you’re telling me that the world you want is one in which people are able to perform at their absolute best?”
“Yes,” the man replied, solemn. “I want a world of excellence.”
“But….” Siskenet steeled himself. Well, he’d come this far.
“But your armies! I’ve seen….” Siskenet looked at the ground again, that old, murderous rage rising in his breast; he choked it down, turning cold, letting the hot anger transmute back into his commitment for vengeance. He had swallowed this anger many times; he could do it one more. “I’ve seen what they do,” he spat. “How is this a better world?”
“It’s not better,” the man agreed, remarkably unperturbed through all Siskenet’s anger. “Not at all. What happens during war is terrible, Siskenet. Terrible, but necessary, until the Hierarchy establishes itself and stabilizes things.”
“The Hierarchy?” Siskenet scoffed. “You mean like, until you control everything, right? Like, things are ‘stable’, because everyone who was fighting against you is, what, dead?”
The man shook his head. “No Siskenet. Hierarchy should never be imposed. It should evolve naturally. It’s like they say, ‘the cream rises to the top.’ Right? So, with people, with life, success begets those who deserve it, who work for it and dedicate themselves, who commit. People who are half-hearted about their lives, who never fully apply themselves, success flees from those people. I know it sounds harsh when you’re used to emphasizing feeling compassion for people, but the truth is, people’s suffering is their own choice. Fundamentally, they need to take responsibility for themselves.”
He smiled, reaching over against to give Siskenet’s shoulder an affectionate squeeze. “I know it’s a lot to take in. It boils down to being responsible. If you’re responsible, if you apply yourself, you’ll reap the rewards.”
Siskenet brushed the hand off his shoulder, still angry although the man was actually sounding quite reasonable. “Then why the army? Why the killing? It doesn’t make sense.”
“It is the natural struggle for dominance in the Hierarchy, Siskenet. War continues until those who deserve it are at the top, and those who benefit from serving the vision of their superiors, know their place in the order of things. This is the best way. Just like cutthroat players make for the best game.”
“So the violence isn’t your choice? You expect me to believe that?”
The man spread his hands again, this time a gesture of helplessness. “I don’t have expectations either way. What you choose is up to you. I know my place in the order of things.”
Siskenet frowned. This did kind of make sense. You ARE responsible for the outcomes of your life, and if you work hard and commit, you WILL be more likely to succeed. There was just…. There was something about this that just felt wrong. But he couldn’t put his finger on it.
He looked over at his friend, still blank, like he was present and far away at the same time. Poor Faeruz. I’ve got to get us out of here.
“Ok, we’ll do it.” Siskenet tried to smile warmly, although he knew it probably looked more like he was constipated. “You’re telling me that people have got to stand up for themselves, battle for their position in the Hierarchy. So, here we are, standing up.” He looked over at Faeruz, feeling guilty about what he was volunteering both of them for. “And then you get us home.”
The man nodded. “Good choice. I’m proud of you son.” In a puff of acrid smoke, he disappeared.
“I’m not your son,” Siskenet muttered. He felt angry, and confused. This Demon was trying to tell him it just wanted a better world, a world in which people were responsible for themselves, worked hard, had integrity. This didn’t seem “evil” at all. Siskenet found himself agreeing with him even more as he rehashed the conversation. It did make sense.
But still, there was something off about it.
Maybe I just don’t want to take responsibility for myself.
He laughed, out loud, looking toward the horizon, a red undertone to the darkening sky.
“Come on, Faeruz. Snap out of it man. We’ve got some ground to cover before nightfall.”