By, Stephen Oliver
I’m polishing my rusty halo for old time’s sake when I get the summons.
Charatarel’s image appears on the wall, projecting from my crystal ball.
“What?” I ask. “I’m not on duty today. It’s my rest day.”
“Meliacharon is calling in sick, and you’re at the top of the substitutes roster.”
I reflect that Meliacharon is always calling in sick. I wonder whether he has actually been on shift at all in the last millennium.
I certainly never see him at work when I’m on duty.
“Well, Selerastrach,” Charatarel says, his tone impatient, “are you coming or not?”
I grimace and stick the halo back onto its shelf before adjusting my horns.
“I’ll be down in ten,” I promise.
His glowing image on the wall fades away as he closes the connection.
The sigh when I climb out of my nest is heartfelt. I’ve been hoping to have a quiet day with my library.
I shrug as I walk out of my cave and down the passageway to the main cavern. My infrared vision allows me to make my way through the others using it, despite the lack of lighting.
The main area is lit by huge flames from the Pit. The fires appear to be extra active today. As usual, guards are in place to handle the human souls in the area.
For some unfathomable reason, they keep trying to throw themselves into the blaze, claiming that it is their just punishment. Where they get that notion from, I have no idea.
I have to do Pit duty on occasion, and it’s always a pain in the proverbial. Any souls that make it into the fires are fished out with pitchforks and sterilised, before being sent off on their way again. After all, having souls running around stinking of brimstone and smoke is enough to turn anyone’s nose… and stomach.
Even as I’m thinking this, I see a soul I recognise rushing past me; it’s that idiot Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. I scrag him and hand him over to Termeraniech, who’s in charge of the Pit Team today.
“Here, Ter,” I tell him, “another one trying to immolate himself again.”
“Thanks, Sel,” he replies. “That’s the third time today. I don’t know what gets into him.”
I just grin at him. He doesn’t even recognise the soul dangling from his fingers. He’s not a great reader, whereas I can’t get enough of human literature. They certainly have weird and twisted minds.
The rest of the walk to the Ascent Room is without incident. I am assigned to the Summoning Circle Meliacharon usually occupies. I pick up the kit I’m been issued and sling it over my shoulder.
I go to sit down in the middle and wait.
With any luck, nobody will call me up, I think.
No such good fortune.
Barely am I inside the Circle, without even a chance to make myself comfortable, when I feel the electric tingle of a Summoning.
Someone, somewhere, somewhen, is trying to call up a demon.
A spurt of hellfire from the Pit surrounds me as I dematerialise, and I feel a shiver go through me as I shift from Eternity into Time.
The magician stood outside the main circle within another.
I had to smile because he thought it meant that I was trapped, and he was protected from me. None of them has ever realised that the circle was a teleportation receiver focus and nothing more. As for his ‘protective circle’, it was utterly useless.
Since I had no intention of harming him, he was safe enough, though.
He flinched as I appeared out of nowhere in a gush of Hellfire as if entering through a door.
I took the opportunity to have a look around.
We were in a large cave with shadows in all corners. I could hear a faint sound from one direction indicating that the entrance opened onto a beach where the tide was coming in.
The man himself was emaciated, with long hair and a dirty, ragged beard.
From the look on his face when I turned back to regard him, I suspected that he had not believed that the ritual would work. He rallied quickly enough, however. Faster than most of them did.
“G… G… Greetings, great demon,” he began.
I nodded in acknowledgement.
“I have summoned you here,” he continued, “because I seek a boon in exchange for my immortal soul.”
Oh great, I thought to myself. Another one. One more soul cluttering up Hell in a few years’ time. Why do they think we want to buy their souls in the first place? Do they want to blame us for their perverted desires, or something?
I nodded again to show that I understood him.
“What, precisely, do you want?” I asked him. “It must be exact, or it’s no deal.”
He looked at me in consternation, as if he didn’t understand.
“You have to tell me what you want, in detail,” I explained. “I have to know what future you are after.”
I thought he had got the point because he looked down at a piece of paper he held in his left hand.
“I want three things, O demon,” he said. “I seek the power to control the actions of all men around me and the love of all women; I wish for finances beyond all dreams of avarice; I require immortality.”
“That little?” I asked, a sarcastic grin on my lips.
He was taken aback for only a moment.
“It will do for a start,” he replied with a smirk.
I reached into the satchel over my shoulder and drew out a standard contract and a pen, and handed them to him.
“Touch the nib of the pen to your arm,” I told him.
I gave him another grin.
“You’ll see. If you don’t do it, we won’t have a contract. It’s that simple.”
He did as he was told and watched in fascination as it filled up with a couple of cc’s of his blood.
“Now, fill in your wishes in the empty space in the middle,” I continued, “and sign at the bottom.”
I could see him murmuring to himself as he read through the wording. Unless he was a top-bracket lawyer, he wouldn’t understand what it actually said.
Which was basically: “We can’t guarantee anything, and you won’t owe us anything, anyway. You’re basically on your own.”
As I think I may have mentioned earlier, we don’t barter for souls, we don’t collect them, and we most certainly don’t want them. They just make the place untidy and cause a lot of unnecessary work.
Nonetheless, he nodded to himself and began scribbling in the big empty box in the middle. He then signed the bottom with a flourish and handed pen and paper back to me.
I read what he had written, and it said substantially what he had said earlier.
I put the contract and pen, complete with most of the blood it had extracted, back in the satchel.
“Now then,” I told him, “I need you to concentrate and visualise what it is you want.”
“If I wanted to do that, I would have used the Law of Attraction instead,” he muttered to himself.
“What was that?” I asked, grimacing at him for effect.
“Nothing,” he said, blushing bright red.
As he screwed up his face in concentration, I reached into his mind to see what exactly he wanted. Like most humans, he couldn’t really hold a thought for any length of time. Now, we demons, on the other hand, can do it for hours on end. In fact, … Never mind.
What he really wanted was to have revenge on a rival for the hand of a young woman, plus enough money to satisfy their needs for life.
Being an entity of Eternity, I was able to look along his timeline into both past events and possible futures.
I could see that there was but one woman in his past that he was genuinely interested in, and several more men upon whom he wished to visit his revenge. They had all lied and cheated him into prison. The wealth would be little more than a means of achieving these ends. Immortality, of course, was out of the question because he was a mortal, after all. Physical immortality, that is. Like everyone else, he would continue forever after death, just not the way he had been.
Peering into the future, I could see several successful versions of his life, needing only minimal nudges to push him in those directions. Of course, he could always do the unexpected and change the track of his life into something completely different. But that would no longer be my problem.
I reached out with my mind and began nudging realities around until the one I sought aligned with the one we were in.
Once I had achieved the congruence of worlds I wanted, I pointed over his shoulder.
“Look behind you, mortal. There is the beginning of your voyage of love and revenge.”
He took a step back, being careful to remain within the circle he thought was protecting him. When he glanced over his shoulder, I threw a little Hellfire over his head to light up the area.
I heard his gasp of amazement as he saw the open chests with gold, silver and jewels piled high within and spilling out on all sides.
“Is this all mine?” he asked, breathless with fear lest it disappeared again.
“It is yours, to do with as you please,” I told him.
He turned back to face me.
“Then I have no more need for you,” he replied. “Begone foul shade and never bother me again.”
I smiled at him as I took his contract out and read it.
Another spurt of Hellfire surrounded me as I prepared to teleport back into Eternity.
“Goodbye, for now, Edmond Dantès,” I said.
One of the junior imps waits for me as I rematerialize in the Ascent Room.
“Here,” I say as I hand over the contract and pen, “these need to be taken to the Filing Room, in case he turns up here one day.”
“Okay, Sel,” it pipes up. “I’ll take them there right away.”
I smile down at it and pat it on the head.
“You keep doing a good job like that, Olmicharion, and it won’t be long before you’re allowed to do this kind of assignment.”
It grins with pleasure as it trots out of the room.
I sigh as I sit down within the Circle to wait until the next summoning, if any, comes. I am sure that Edmond Dantès will be turning up here one day, having screwed up his dreams. Humans are very good at that.
It is very boring, sitting there, and I regret that I haven’t brought one of my books to read. I have just procured a copy of something called The Divine Comedy by a human calling himself Durante degli Alighieri, who has shortened his name to Dante. It is an interesting parallelism to the man I have seen earlier.
This book is an absolute hoot because, in it, he purports to have visited Hell. I’m not sure what he has been smoking or ingesting, but he has managed to get just about every detail wrong, telling me that he has never been here.
Young Olmicharion is hanging around, waiting for several of my colleagues to return. I am just about to signal to him to run back to my cave and get the book when the warning tingle of another summoning rushes through my nervous system.
I stand up in preparation for teleporting.
The man who waited for me this time was moustachioed and had wild hair. He was quite young, but I sensed that this was an old soul, one that had been around for a long time.
He looked somewhat surprised when I appeared within the very straightforward summoning circle. It was drawn on a piece of paper that lay on the floor as if discarded.
It was the simplest depiction I had ever seen, almost like a doodle, paring the design down to the bare minimum to function as a teleportation focus.
While he was adjusting to my presence, I took the chance to look around.
He sat in a small office, documents piled on his desk and on top of filing cabinets and bookshelves all around. I glanced at some of the titles of the file boxes and discovered that he was in some way connected to the vetting of other people’s inventions.
“Mein Gott, it worked,” he breathed in a heavy German accent, drawing my attention back to him. “I thought that Max was joking when he told me that only the Devil knows the truth.”
I smiled at him.
“I am not the Devil,” I told him. “I am merely a demon.”
“But do you know everything there is to know?” he demanded, completely unabashed.
I was amazed at the speed with which he was able to adapt to a changed reality.
“No one knows that,” I replied. “I suspect that perhaps even God is uncertain, but I am sure that the Devil does not.”
He looked disappointed.
“Then what good is calling you up going to do for me?”
I considered the situation.
“What exactly is it that you want?” I asked him, eventually. “What is your heart’s desire?”
It was his turn to be thoughtful.
“I wish to know how the universe works, all of its laws and functions, every last possible bit of knowledge there is about it.”
This was such an unusual request that I decided to read his thoughts before offering the contract.
As I probed his mind, I realised that here was a supremely intelligent man who really was desperate to know everything he could. He had an intense, existential thirst to understand the fundamental core of reality, with a dedication that had already caused him to reincarnate numerous times. Most people give up on that sort of thing very quickly and decide that they prefer to go to Heaven or Hell, or something equivalent.
The sad thing was, I could see that he would fail on this timeline, despite his incredible imagination and creativity, all because he lacked a single, intuitive jump. With it, he would become the most famous scientist of his time.
“It is not given to angel, demon or human to know all things,” I told him, “but we are allowed to discover our own ways to seek knowledge. I assume you are prepared to sell your soul for that chance?”
He looked taken aback.
“My soul? Is there nothing you would prefer?”
“You mean, you aren’t trying to sell your soul?”
“Not at all. I doodled that design while I was thinking about the problems of the universe, then threw it on the floor in exasperation. The next thing I knew, you were standing there.”
It was my turn to be taken aback.
“You mean, you didn’t deliberately call on me?”
He shook his shaggy head.
“Ach nein. I was thinking random thoughts when you appeared.”
I decided that I needed to return our conversation to the crux of the matter.
“So, you are not trying to sell your soul in return for knowledge. Is that right?”
He nodded, vehemently.
“What would you be prepared to give me in return?”
It took him only a moment to answer.
“You would have my eternal gratitude.”
I felt much cheered by his response. Here, at least, was one soul that wasn’t going to dump itself on our doorstep when he died.
“In that case, I think I can help you.”
I scanned the parallel timelines and found that the one next door, literally, was the one he wanted. The effort to merge them together would require almost less than the minimum amount of pressure that I could bring to bear. In fact…
“I can do as you ask, for no cost at all, other than your thanks,” I told him. As I brought the mental force to bear, I continued, “In fact, I will give you a hint; consider how it must feel to ride a particle of light.”
For a moment, he looked puzzled, then a look of comprehension broke over his features.
“Danke schön, Demon,” he said.
“Goodbye, Albert,” I replied, and prepared to return to eternity.
As I dematerialised, I saw him stick his tongue out at me.
Olmicharion is walking past my Circle as I arrive back in Hell.
“Hey, Sel, you got anything for me?” he pipes up, turning back to me.
“Fortunately, not this time, lad,” I reply. “I could give the man what he wants without having to extract a contract from him.”
“It is indeed,” Charatarel says as he looks up from the desk next to the entrance. He makes a mark on the ledger in front of him. “Do you have a name, just in case he does turn up here?”
“His name is Albert,” I tell him. “There is a problem understanding him because he has such a strong German accent, but I think his family name is something like ‘Onestone’.”
“An unusual name, even for a human,” Charatarel murmurs. “But then, they’re all mad in some way.”
I nod in agreement. All humans appear to be lacking in a certain modicum of sense, unlike us demons. We are supremely logical.
Almost before I can continue with this thought, the tingle of a Summoning percolates through my nerves.
This time, it was a woman waiting for me.
However, my infrared vision detected another figure in the corner, apparently tied up and gagged.
She was completely unfazed by either my materialisation or my appearance, as if she had been expecting the summoning to work.
When I noted her haughty demeanour, I realised that here was a woman who never doubted herself for a moment.
“Hail, foul creature of the Depths,” she began. “I assume that you are here to exchange a soul for some favour.”
Well, she was certainly forthright about it.
“I am,” I replied as I hauled a new pen and contract out of my satchel. “I assume that you know what to do?”
She accepted them and began scanning through the wording, her lips moving as she read.
“This will not do,” she declared, throwing the contract onto the fire in her brazier, and the pen into my face.
Luckily, the paper we use in Hell has a much higher flashpoint temperature than earthly paper. The contract lay on top of the glowing coals and glimmered slightly.
I grabbed the pen out of the air before it hit me and stuck it back into the satchel.
It was apparent that she wouldn’t be frightened of me, so I changed my tack.
“What is wrong with the contract, Mistress?” I asked her.
“That’s better,” she exclaimed. “I said I had a soul to exchange; I did not say it was mine. That contract assumes that I am selling my own soul and not that of another.”
I was taken aback. Some humans believe that it is necessary to sacrifice one of their kind to call us up, of course, but this was the first time that one was trying to sell the soul of another in their stead.
I hoped that she was the only one to come up with this idea, or things might become extremely hectic in Hell.
A quick search of the documents in the satchel located a blank piece of paper that I could use to draft another contract.
I extended it to her along with the pen.
“Mistress, if you would be so kind as to write the contract yourself?”
She took them both and sat down on the floor. She looked up.
“This pen is empty.”
“Mistress, you must fill it with blood.”
She stood up and walked over to the figure in the corner and attempted to draw blood into the pen, without success.
“That will not work, Mistress,” I told her. “It must be your blood because only thus can the magic work for you. Otherwise, it knows not where it is headed. If you use the blood of this person, they will gain the advantages that you seek.”
She turned back and glared at me before returning to her circle.
“Very well,” she ground out with ill grace. “I will do as you say.”
She wrote for ten minutes or more, although I could not be sure of exactly how long since I am a creature of Eternity and have no real sense of the passing of time. Finally, she stood up and thrust the document into my hands.
“The pen, mistress?” I ask her.
“I need the pen back, too.”
She looked as if she intended to refuse, then attempted to squeeze the blood out, instead, without success. In the end, she gave it back to me.
In the meantime, I had been reading the contract.
My, but she was a greedy one. In exchange for the soul of her seventh husband, she was demanding more than I had ever seen before; everything from money to eternal youth and rulership of the entire world. She had so much ambition that I wondered what had happened to her previous six husbands.
While I was perusing her words, she had dragged her husband out of the corner and into the light of the candles around the main circle, interrupting my reading.
She laid him with his head inside my circle and raised her dagger over his throat.
It was plain to see that she was about to sacrifice him.
Time stops around me.
I am used to this, of course, but it is not something I have ever experienced while still within the world.
The woman has her hand poised in the air, ready to strike, while the man stares up into her eyes in terror.
I turn around and see a figure in a black monk’s robe approaching.
As it stops beside us, I bow my head in acknowledgement of its superior power.
It has been many years since my last meeting the Grim Reaper. I remember that it prefers us not to use the word ‘Grim’ in its presence.
“Hail, great Reaper,” I say, my head still lowered. “What brings you here?”
“You may stand up, Selerastrach,” it says, its whispering voice echoing from everywhere and nowhere. “I have come to consult with you.”
“Consult, noble Reaper?” I ask, surprised.
“Indeed,” it replies. “I wish to know what you plan with this woman.”
“You are the hundred and twentieth demon she has called up in an attempt to achieve world domination. Your hundred and nineteen predecessors tried to assist her but were unable to complete their tasks, so she destroyed them.”
“Destroy, Reaper? How does she destroy them?”
“If you had read the contract to the end, you would have found that she added a codicil that gives her your spirit and strength, should you not give her the ultimate power she seeks.”
“You mean, she has destroyed a hundred and nineteen of my kind? Are they anyone I know?”
The invisible head within the cowl shakes.
“Not of your kind, but a hundred and nineteen versions of you, from parallel worlds.”
I am taken aback. I am used to manipulating other realities to coincide with the one I am in, but this is the first time that I have heard of a mortal able to do this.
“It is because she has absorbed you so many times,” the Reaper explains, reading my thoughts. “The first time was an accident, but now she does it deliberately, thus making her effectively immortal.”
“Can you not help me?” I ask in desperation.
It shakes its head.
“I can do nothing. All I can do is give you a hint: look to her past.”
Look to her past? I think. What can the Reaper mean by that?
I scan back along her timeline and see that she has been summoning me, again and again, for decades. It is evident that she has attained the eternal youth part of her wishes, if nothing else.
Each time, she adds that damning codicil while writing the contract, the one that condemns my parallel selves to oblivion.
I probe further back still, to the first time…
As I do so, I discover the fraying effect I usually see when scanning the future.
You must understand that the past is fixed and cannot be changed, but the future contains endless possibilities. The one is a single line, like a broom handle, the other spreads out, like the brushes of a besom.
However, in this case, the past, unlike the way it usually is, is also fraying, showing different possible paths that could have led to the present. I wonder if this is so because of all the alternate selves of mine that she annihilated.
As I am thinking this through, I notice that the Reaper is still here, still waiting.
I have no idea why.
As I examine the first time she summons me, I see a possibility.
She is writing the first-ever contract before murdering her twin sister to sell her soul to the version of me standing in the circle.
There is a probability, small but definite, that she is interrupted by someone knocking on the door. When she refuses to answer, the door is smashed open and police storm in to arrest her and save her sister’s life.
It will take some effort to push that reality into alignment with this one because it is so far from the mainline. Still, I work out the precise mental pressure I need to bring to bear in order to nudge them together.
As soon as I do, the Reaper stirs next to me.
“Ready?” it asks me.
“Whenever you are,” I reply.
The moment Time reasserted itself, I struck.
Before the woman could slash the knife down and cut her husband’s throat, I pushed two realities together into one.
Having stolen my spirit and power, she was immediately aware of what I had done.
But she was too late to do anything about it.
I watched as she changed.
She aged incredibly quickly, her hair turning to white and falling out in clumps. The face wrinkled, and the cheeks fell in on themselves. The eyes rheumed over.
Then, she vanished.
The room was empty, the victim missing, the magic circles unscribed.
“Where has she gone?” I asked the Reaper, who was still standing at my side.
“Where she has always been,” it said. “You have changed her past and present, so that she was never able to kill other people and you, so many times.”
“Why did you wait so long to help me?”
“I have attempted to aid you on numerous occasions. This was the first time that you understood my hints.”
“Where is she now?”
It took me by the hand. There was a momentary rush around us, then we stood in a plain room.
A very old woman, the one I had seen only moments before, lay on the bed, drawing one shuddering breath after another.
I took a look around. A simple toilet in the corner, bars on the window, a locked door with a sliding view hatch.
We were in a prison cell.
“This is where she has spent her life since the court decided that she was incurably insane,” the Reaper explained. “She kept prating about how she was the ruler of the world, and how a demon was going to help her. That was supposed to be you.”
I thought about it all for a moment.
“What about those other selves of mine that were killed?”
Although I could not see its face, I got the impression that the Reaper was smiling at me.
“They are no longer dead and know nothing of what happened to them. All timelines are healed.”
The woman gave a strangled gurgle and ceased to breathe.
The Reaper leant forward and pulled her soul from her body, tucking it out of sight inside its robe. With a nod to me, it vanished.
I had nothing else to do here, so I decided I might as well return to Eternity.
I materialise inside my Circle in the Ascent Room.
Olmicharion comes trotting up to collect the contract and pen.
“Sorry, nothing to bring back today,” I tell it.
“Thank the One,” I hear Charatarel say behind me. “That is another human soul we won’t have to worry about.”
I turn around to see him standing just outside the Circle.
“We have been getting worried,” he continues. “Your absence has been many hours. What is going on?”
“It’s complicated story, Char,” I tell him. “I’ll tell you all about it over a couple of mugs of ichor after the shift’s over.”
Charatarel shakes his head at me, light glinting from his horns.
“It is half a day since shift end. That is why I am waiting here.”
“Oh, okay,” I say with a nod. “In that case, let’s go.”
I step out of the Circle.
“Mind you,” I continue as I hand the satchel to Olmicharion to put away, “I don’t think you’re going to believe it.”
On the way out, we pass Meliacharon, who is just going on duty.