Ligur woke up in a very large and utterly featureless grey room, which surprised him for a number of reasons.
First, being a demon and having never had an assignment on Earth that lasted for more than a couple of weeks, he had never gotten into the habit of sleeping, so waking up was a new experience for him. He couldn’t say, having now had it, that he’d exactly recommend the experience to anyone else.
Second, the room was quite literally featureless. He could not have said how wide it was, or how long, or how high the ceiling; where the light was coming from; how many corners it had, or if perhaps the walls were curved; even if there was actually a floor. It was profoundly different from either the boring solidity and adherence to stupid things like physical laws and perspective rules he typically encountered on Earth, or the supernaturally cramped quarters and non-Euclidean corner spaces back in Hell.
Third, the last thing he remembered was getting a bucket of holy water dumped on his head in the doorway to Crowley’s flat. That wasn’t something that a demon was supposed to wake up from at all.
COMING AROUND, I SEE, said a voice from behind Ligur’s left shoulder. The lizard’s tail twitched around his chin.
“Well, well,” Ligur said, trying to cover up exactly how startled he was. “You’re still on the job, then. I figured you’d be saddling up already.”
I AM ALWAYS AND EVERYWHERE ON THE JOB, Death answered, WHETHER I AM OTHERWISE OCCUPIED OR NOT. The Final Horseman of the Apocalypse regarded him with what might have been either mild amusement or even milder exasperation. HAVING SAID THAT, THE FINAL RIDE HAS BEEN . . . POSTPONED, FOR A BRIEF BUT INDEFINITE PERIOD OF TIME.
“What? That’s not even possible,” Ligur gasped. “I - wait.” He poked at himself experimentally. “I’ve been discorporated, I can see that. Did we - did we lose?”
FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW, HEAVEN AND HELL BOTH LOST, Death replied, sounding bored with the conversation already. YOU SHOULD REMEMBER WHY YOU NO LONGER HAVE A BODY. IT HAS BEEN ABOUT HALF A DAY SINCE THAT OCCURED.
“Crowley,” Ligur growled.
Ligur patted down his incorporeal form. Other than his body, everything still seemed to be in place. “So are you carting me back to Hell?” he asked. “Got taken out like that, couldn’t get back on my own? Hastur couldn’t be bothered to lend a hand?”
NO, Death said, with what was definitely dry amusement this time. THERE WAS NOT ENOUGH LEFT OF YOU FOR HIM TO TRY, NOT THAT HE WOULD HAVE THOUGHT TO DO SO.
That put Ligur in a rotten mood indeed, even for a demon. He wouldn’t have called Hastur a friend - demons didn’t have friends - but they’d been coworkers for a long time, and he’d have at least hoped for a sliver of respect. Honestly, he was surprised at how bitter he was about it all of a sudden. “Well, are you just going to stand there and be all macabre and mysterious, or are you going to explain things?” he spat back.
I HAD INTENDED THE FORMER, Death said, still clearly enjoying drawing this out, BUT SINCE YOU ASKED SO POLITELY - YOU ARE IN THE PLACE PREPARED IN THE BEGINNING.
Ligure blinked and waited for the end of the sentence. When it became clear that it was not forthcoming, he sighed. “Prepared for what, at the beginning of what?”
HUMAN SOULS. Death reached out a hand. BEFORE THE FOUNDATIONS OF THE EARTH WERE LAID, AND BEFORE HELL WAS CLOVEN FROM HEAVEN.
It was at that moment that Ligur realized there was in fact a floor, and he was still lying on it. It wasn’t particularly cold or uncomfortable, but it did mean he was having to look up at Death at an odd angle. He grasped the bony hand and tried to pull himself up to standing; it was harder than it looked, without an actual body to work against. “I thought the whole point was that human souls went to Heaven or Hell,” he replied, “I mean, isn’t that what we’ve been working so hard for?”
Death looked over Ligur’s shoulder. WHAT DO YOU THINK WOULD HAVE HAPPENED IF HUMANITY HAD NEVER TAKEN THE FRUIT OF THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE, AND THEREFORE HAD NOT FALLEN THEMSELVES?
“Never thought much about it,” Ligur admitted. “I have to hand that one to Crowley, he did a smashing job there.” Was that - admiration? For the demon that had killed him, even?
THE EFFECTS OF THE OTHER TREE ARE NOT PERMANENT, NOR ARE THEY INHERITABLE, UNLIKE THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE, Death replied. I AM INEVITABLE, AND I ALWAYS WAS. AND A SOUL THAT CANNOT BE DAMNED ALSO CANNOT BE EXALTED.
It took a moment for Ligur to puzzle that one out. “So neither we nor the other side would have gotten them, then?”
CORRECT. Death made an expansive gesture. THIS IS MY DOMAIN, WHICH WAS MOULDED AND FORMED BEFORE HELL WAS A SPARK IN MICHAEL’S EYES. HUMANS HAVE GIVEN IT MANY NAMES - SHEOL, LIMBO, THE GREAT BELOW.
“Oh,” Ligur said, nodding. “Okay. I see.” He glanced around at the featureless greyness around him, which had somehow become slightly less featureless and slightly more grey in the interim. He had to admit, despite the lack of local color, it was impressive. “So - why am I here again?”
BECAUSE YOU HAD AN ENCOUNTER WITH A SUFFICIENT AMOUNT OF HOLY WATER TO DESTROY YOUR INFERNAL INCARNATION, Death said slowly, as if explaining something to a child for the third time.
“Right, but isn’t that supposed to destroy an entire demon?” Ligur retorted. “Wipe me right out of existence like a nasty stain?”
THAT’S WHAT YOU LEFT ON CROWLEY’S CARPET, Death replied. SOULS ARE ENERGY. THEY CAN BE SPLIT, FUSED, INCREASED, OR DIMINISHED, BUT THEY CAN BE NEITHER CREATED NOR DESTROYED.
“But we’ve seen demons splashed with holy water dozens of times,” Ligur argued. “They never came back. They’re gone.”
Ligur nearly lost his balance at that. Something leaped in what would have been his chest, something he had not felt in six thousand years and had forgotten the name for. “What? How?”
IN EFFECT, YOU WERE BAPTIZED AND THEN DIED IMMEDIATELY, Death explained. YOU WERE WASHED OF YOUR SINS, WHICH WAS WHAT YOU WERE MADE ENTIRELY OF. THAT MUCH GRACE UNMADE YOU, OR AT LEAST UNDID WHAT YOU WERE.
“Right, following you so far,” Ligur said, although he wasn’t sure he actually was.
THE FORGIVEN CANNOT ENTER HELL. THE FALLEN CANNOT ENTER HEAVEN.
YOUR REMAINING OPTIONS WERE TO WANDER THE EARTH AS A RESTLESS SPIRIT, OR COME HERE, Death concluded. WE’RE TRYING TO CUT DOWN ON RESTLESS SPIRITS DUE TO OVERCROWDING, SO HERE YOU ARE.
Ligur would have swallowed if he still had a throat. “Suppose I should thank you, then.” To his surprise, he meant it. Gratitude, that was that one’s name, he vaguely remembered that one.
JUST PART OF THE JOB, Death assured him. WHICH I SHOULD GET BACK TO. ENJOY YOUR STAY.
There was a flourish of dark robes and whistling wind, and Death was gone.
Ligur glanced around. The place he was in now looked rather like someone had started sketching a very sturdy but still tasteful warehouse, or possibly a minimalist airplane hangar, and had just sort of stopped after getting the basic pencils down. The ceiling seemed to be made of the sort of clouds that promise to get around to raining in a few hours and never actually do.
There was a very large door at the far end, or maybe that wall was never finished.
Acting on a hunch, Ligur spread his wings. He’d expected to see grey, and he wasn’t exactly wrong, but they weren’t the flat, uniform grey he’d been expecting, the one he saw everywhere else here. They looked like they’d been quickly and casually hosed down; the tops of his wings were a light stone, nearly white again; the feathers just below that were speckled with black; and the shade darkened gradually all the way to his pinions, which were dark charcoal with occasional streaks of slate.
Not just grey. Every possible shade of grey.
It had been a long time since he had bothered to consider the possibility of a future other than damnation or redemption. He wondered why. Maybe it was just hard to do in Hell. Maybe it was a lack of imagination.
Ligur squared the memory of his shoulders and headed towards the rest of his eternity.