The petitioner, called by the name he had taken in Heaven, looked up from his weaving, with a little regret. How wonderful it was to be absorbed so perfectly in a task, he thought, to have no need of rest or food or the other necessities of the body, to have all the time in all the worlds to learn the most careful precision, to be given the purest materials, to construct something in service of the highest purpose. But when the angels called, there was a reason. "That's me."
"Aven, you are called."
"How may I serve?"
"Recalled to life."
That was a shock to the core of his being. "Resurrection?"
"Yes." The angel produced from its folds a glass orb in two halves, held together by golden threads wrapping in a lattice of knots about it and rising to a woven handle. Within it hovered an octahedral crystal, glowing purple. "You must choose whether to answer the call."
The purple crystal turned gently within its sphere. Like a little sun, he thought, within the crystal sphere of a Prime, the golden threads of the stars around it. Perhaps there was a reason that was so. "I... I don't... remember..."
"We know. You must choose without knowing. Take the orb: you need not open it yet. It will tell you what soul calls you, and why."
Aven gingerly grasped the handle. The aura of the crystal licked across the golden threads, and he felt the presence of a stern, kind man. He felt that he had been friends with this person. He sensed several motivations: regret at the loss of a companion, a driving mission, need of arms -- arms? Aven looked up at the angel. "He wants a fighter. But I'm a weaver."
The angel ruffled the multitude of cords which made up its visible presence. "You clearly had a wish to be one when you arrived here."
Aven looked down at his just-started project. Its knots lay mostly quiescent, save here and there where an angel's fringe fluttered gently in an unseen wind, awaiting further devotion to bring it to the life of the one hovering before him. He yearned to become absorbed in the task again. Life... life was so distracting. You had to run helter-skelter every which way, tugged by the threads of fate, hardly ever focusing on what you really wanted, or what could really make a difference. And besides: "Ulrich gave me this task. It would be wrong to give it up, wouldn't it?"
"You don't want to go? You don't have to."
He looked down at the orb again. "But it's also wrong to abandon a friend in need, isn't it?"
"To die for one's friends is not to abandon them in their later hours," said the angel. "The ethic is different now. The dead are not obliged to come to the aid of the living so directly. If you choose to do so, it is charity beyond anything that Fate Herselves would ask of you, for you are free now of those threads. This, you choose without compulsion."
"But the spell... he's a good man, I can feel that. It's a justified spell?"
"His god must believe he has the right to ask. Only ask."
The angel seemed to be emphasizing his lack of obligation. Was it to be scrupulously clear, or more? More, he thought. "You want me to stay, don't you?"
"My only wish is to protect you and guide you toward your ideal," said the angel. "If you return to life, there is always the chance of..." its knotwork quivered, unable to bring itself to utter the words. A bad choice. Damnation.
Aven considered. For a moment he thought that the spellcaster was waiting a long time for him to choose, but he realized that time was holding its breath, waiting on him. Heaven was generous in ways like that. This was Paradise... how could anyone give that up?
Urgency. The call was urgent. This stern, kind friend he had known, he must have a good reason. Surely the mission was just. "Life is precious and short," Aven said, "but the living have ways to serve that the dead for all their eternity do not, don't they?"
"I should go. I want to stay, but... I should go."
"I will assist. And since you have so chosen, a gift. When your life force and memories are reknitted from their scattered dwellings," said the angel, "the process is never entirely complete. A little of your spirit must remain here in Heaven. If you wish, then with my assistance we can weave for this little portion of your spirit a form, and it can remain here to await your return, then for the two of your parts to rejoin one another."
"Working?" Aven said eagerly.
"It can certainly continue your task, albeit with more patience than inspiration. Its completion will take the full attention of one who is wholly present here."
"Yes! I'd like that. It would make it easier to return to life, knowing that part of me had not abandoned my work here, I think."
"Very well," said the angel. "Simply open the orb and touch the crystal. The spell will take hold."
Aven laid the glass sphere on his work table and opened the netting flat. When he lifted the top half of the sphere, the smell of lavender and violets and mountain laurel filled the room, pulsing with blooming life. Vines grew outward from the cystal, at the same time that threads thinner than spider silk came floating towards them on the wind, twisting together into the cords of fate, the strands of memory, and the sinews of a body. The angel unfolded itself to swirl among them, diverting just a few here and there, while the vines and the cables knotted together around Aven.
As the vines closed over his eyes and the smell of a Prime world grew strong in his nostrils, the last thing the petitioner saw was a childhood version of himself taking shape, looking back at him from the weaver's bench. Lucky kid, he thought, and then the memory of his moments in Paradise were buried under the rush of recollection and the sound of a sudden breath.
The soul had a moment to scream. It chose to take a deep breath instead, steeling itself against the next wave of pain.
The spinagon's hand clamped itself over his mouth before he could do anything else. "You should have screamed," it said, and it claws began to dig. More blood spattered the processing room's floor.
The thumping of hooves came down the hall outside, and stopped outside the opening of the chamber. "Vengeful-Ambition-of-Exploited-Children, processing Kriv Frege?"
"The first name is mine," hissed the spiny devil. "I don't remember his. I'm processing the one they sent me." It kept its hand clamped over the soul's mouth, and squeezed a little tighter again lest it have hope that this interruption meant reprieve.
"Yes, well, it's the correct name," said the harvester devil. "And I'll have to speak to him."
Silently, the spinagon removed its hand from the soul's mouth. As the once-human thing gasped and coughed, the devil cranked a chain, lifting its legs, and went to work tearing apart the soles of its feet.
Ignoring the gritted teeth and occasional whimpers from the soul, the falxugon glanced at its papers. "Soul shell of irrelevant number, property of Overweening-Might-of-Stolen-Wealth, you were once known as Kriv Frege."
"Yes! That was me! I still remember my name!"
The spined devil briefly paused engraving curses into the soul's soles to poke a sharp finger between two of his lower ribs, interrupting him forcefully. "Don't speak unless you're asked a direct question."
The falxugon continued as if nothing had happened. "A spell has been cast on the Prime Material. It appears someone wants you resurrected."
This was bizarre enough that even the spinagon stopped its torture momentarily, as the falxugon pulled out of its robes an iron cage firmly restraining a glowing red gem the size of a hen's egg.
"Yes! Get me out of here!" The soul struggled, its limbs bound too tightly to reach out.
The spinagon cut open one of his cheeks. "You still weren't asked anything."
The harvester devil continued. "By law you will be given the opportunity to sense the spell, which will give you information on the personality and motivation of the spellcaster. You may choose to accept or refuse the spell." He hung the iron chain of the cage around the soul's neck.
Hungrily, the soul looked down at the gem. He still could not flee through its power, not without touching it, swinging just inches from his chest, but he could feel it. The caster was doing his duty to... someone... he hardly knew or cared for Kriv, but they... what? Yes, there had been an agreement. It looked like Kriv had prepaid for life insurance with a trustworthy caster. He began laughing, painfully, brokenly, through his slit face.
"You will perhaps wish to hear our counter-offer," said the falxugon. "You may now converse with me."
"Why?" asked the soul. "What could you... possibly..." the consonants were slurred, but clear enough... "offer me to stay?"
"An end to your torture, of course."
"I get that... if I go."
"And immediate promotion to merregon. In the casual naming, legion devil." The falxugon looked him over disdainfully, and glanced at his papers. "The typical course for a newly arrived soul... such as yourself... is to have all possible divine energy extracted, after which the usual destination is the Maggot Pit, for final digestion into lemure form. That, would, of course, mean the complete destruction of your intellect." He looked back at Kriv. "Our analysis gives us little anticipation that any activity you could further undertake while alive once more will improve your assigned disposition upon your second return."
"I... could... save myself..."
The spinagon and the falxugon both laughed derisively. "Historically," said the falxugon, "we find this to be so exceedingly unlikely that we encourage the possibility's dismissal in the name of clear thinking. Any indication that it appears to be occurring would be met with nearly insurmountable temptation and other opposition." He came close to the soul's face. "No, human, do not hope for escape that way."
He straightened up. "You may try to improve your lot with acts of great depravity and cunning while alive, acts which surpassed your abilities previously, or you may take our offer now. You will have several advantages other merregons do not: shards of your living memory; shreds of divine energy not yet extracted. Should you survive your Blood War encounters, these are likely to open your lines of promotion." He curled the tip of his tail around, carving a red line up the soul's side. Through his fangs, he added, "There is, also, the matter of... our price, if you choose to exit."
"What Hell claims, it never yields whole. Part of you will always be with us, calling to you. Another reason not to suspect you will find salvation in a new life." The falxugon looked over at the carved stone tablets embedded in the wall, infernal names dimly glowing with the power being extracted from the soul's tortures. "The proportion which we have a right to keep is fixed by law. The equivalent of a year or so of study and practice, perhaps. But... if you choose to stay, this tax will not be taken from you. You will henceforth have the same claim on Baator's collections of divine energy as any other devil. Acquit yourself well, and you will profit beyond the extraction made so far today."
The soul looked down at the gem again. Through the pain and fear, he thought as hard as he could, and he remembered one thing: the only reason a devil would make an offer is that the offer ended up better for the devil than not.
"Just because it's better for me," said the devil quietly, "doesn't mean it's not better for you as well."
Maybe. But... "I'll take my chances."
"You will find," said the falxugon as he unlocked the gem's iron cage, "that Hell leaves very little to chance." He dumped the gem onto the soul's back, and iron chains began to wrap themselves more and more thickly around his bound body. The light in the room slowly dimmed to the background torches as the divine energy from the tablets drained back into Kriv's new body.
Not all of it, though. Dark light writhed in the flickering shadows the soul cast on the walls, a remnant of his presence. This the falxugon addressed. "Mark him for me," he said in a cruel tongue, and the shadow disappeared as the chains fell empty.
"Immediate merregon, huh?" said the spinagon. "Not a bad deal. Beats being a lemure."
"Actually," said the falxugon, "his resurrector was serving their shared lord. He was a dutiful servant, and his lord keeps his promises. I only described the typical soul's fate. Had this one not been resurrected, then once he was processed here he was due to immediately be promoted to narzugon."
"The knights of Asmodeus!" shouted the spinagon. "So you were offering him less than he'd earned?"
"Other than retaining a few memories, yes, and at some level he probably felt instinctively that I was lowballing him," said the falxugon. "He would have been a fool to accept. The excess divine energy from the difference in promotions would have been used to promote some other merregon to narzugon." Some more experienced merregon, with a little change left over for the harvester devil himself. "No, he was doomed the moment the spell came in. Either he was effectively demoted, or we get to keep the tithe, and then more likely than not his remaining chance at life will only lead to him setting a further infernal example for others, and when he returns he'll be brimming with divine energy again."
"And what if we do lose him to Chaos -- or worse?" asked the spinagon.
"The statistics tell us precisely how deeply rare that is," said the falxugon. He put the file back in its proper folder, and turned to go. "I shall just have to see to it that it remains so." Or he would pay far more than the tax he had just extracted today.