Acting as a judge for the damned did have its perks.
The pay was good—the healthcare, eh, not so much, but what’s a soul to do? If someone wandered into a church and was spritzed with holy water like a misbehaving cat, well, there wouldn’t be much left worth saving, anyway.
But there were some things that even the Underworld’s staunchest universities couldn’t prepare you for. (And yeah, colleges were no cheaper in the realm of the dead than they were on Earth.)
Namely, the thing standing before me. Not so much a thing as it was a person—a living, breathing (I think) human child. I would rather be a grunt once more, shoveling Cerebos’ shit, than deal with whatever was in front of me.
And I had just taken my lunch break.
“Hello?” The child asked. She lingered in the doorway awkwardly, and I mused to myself, not unlike an untethered spirit. But she was definitely alive. She had the stink of mortality on her. A smell that I worried would infect all of the things in my office; the ancient books lined up with their leather spines facing outward, the red velvet armchair that sat in the corner, collecting a fine layer of dust (I never did like to receive visitors), or the sandwich, that had paused its descent into my mouth as I gawked at the child.
I set down my sandwich, careful to conceal the fluff oozing outside the back. Souls didn’t need to eat, per se; it was a personal choice, and most enjoyed participating in the gastronomical arts. “What are you doing here?” I asked, staring pointedly; the sight of my horns and long, reptilian tail should have been enough to make the small one flinch.
The girl stared at me, moon-eyed. “I got lost.”
An overly simplistic summary of the situation. It wasn’t every day a living creature got stuck in limbo—aside from cats, who had an uncanny ability to slip between the mortal and immortal realms.
As I was trying to think of who was best to pawn the young girl off on so that I could enjoy the rest of my fluffernutter in peace, she approached with surprising quietness. “Can I touch your horns?”
I yelped (in a way that was dignified and befitting of my station). “Personal space, child!” I leapt from my chair, edging away to the corner of the room. My tail lashed. “Good gods, has no one taught you the most basic of manners?”
“And where is she now?”
I needed to find the woman and give her spawn back. Perhaps I would earn a tidy compensation. Though mortal money had no place here, there were other delicacies, things only the human realm could offer.
Deadpan, she said, “I followed her here.”
I swallowed. I had to make it awkward. Though, the awkwardness seemed only to affect me, as the young girl had no idea of the implications of what she had just said. She instead ran her small, grubby, mortal hands all over the spines of my books.
And yet, I made no move to smite her down—as I had my previous assistant, who had encroached too readily on my personal space.
I cleared my throat. The girl glanced at me, strands of her blonde hair curtaining around her face. The only way I could imagine she had made it here would be if she were half-dead herself.
But then—why was she here if she were a soul needing judgment? Why was she not in the waiting room, with all the others whose fates I procrastinated on my lunch break?
“You can’t stay here,” I said.
She frowned. “But why? I like it here.”
“You don’t understand.” I pinched the bridge of my nose. I hadn’t wanted to get graphic with such a small child, but apparently, it was necessary. “There are monsters here who will eat you. Human flesh is something of a delicacy for the more animalistic souls here.”
She didn’t even wince. “That’s okay. You’ll protect me.”
The assuredness with which she spoke nearly knocked the breath (hah!) from my lungs. Of course, I didn’t need to breathe. But the feeling was the same.
“Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to talk to strangers?”
“Yes. I didn’t talk to anyone the whole way here, you know. Aside from some kitties.”
“Then why?” I asked, not really expecting a comprehensible answer.
And she smiled. Smiled! Once more, I felt myself growing unsteady. It seemed as though this young girl possessed a power most dangerous.
“You’re glowing,” she said. “Bright white and yellow! And I can feel your warmth. I just knew… that you’d help me. You will, won’t you?”
I glanced down at myself. My skin was a purple-blue color and my nails were blackened and sharpened to a point, like claws. Even the tip of my tail was barbed. I had fangs for teeth. There was little glowing about me; despite my position as a judge for the damned, I was just as monstrous as all the other souls.
I reached for a brown cloak that hung on my clothes wrack. I tossed it to her, and the weight of the fabric made her stumble. “Come, then. Put that on. We’re going to find your mother.”
I took the young girl to, what I would imagine, is the most scarring part of my job. It was something of a dungeon. The cobblestones were overgrown with moss and mold. The long, winding corridors stunk with humidity.
I always tried to avoid coming down here if I could help it.
We passed rows of cells.
“Tell me if you see your mother,” I said. She nodded. However, her body language did not match the gusto she seemed to be trying so hard to present. She held my hand and sucked on the thumb of her other one. Her hand was warm, and she clung to me tightly as if worried I would slip away.
The souls groaned as we passed. Some threw themselves against the bars, rattling them. Despite her (my) cloak, the torchlight cast her shadow on the ground, betraying her as being Other, a living, breathing creature amidst hundreds who had just lost that privilege.
Hands reached through the bars, with pasty skin stretched so thin it was a miracle it didn’t break over their bones. The voice hissed, “Human… here, here. I won’t hurt you.”
The light caught on their razor-sharp teeth.
The girl pressed close to me. Deciding that was enough, I scooped her in my arms and growled at the soul behind bars.
“Judge! Judge. I didn’t… see you there.”
“I don’t need a trial to determine your fate,” I spat. Then, beneath my breath, I murmured an incantation. With a shriek and a blast of fiery heat, the soul disappeared.
The remaining souls quieted after that.
But their compliance changed little. We walked for hours more, my long strides moving us swiftly, traversing past thousands of souls.
“You still haven’t seen anyone you recognize?” I asked after a time.
The girl shook her head. “No,” she said. And though I couldn’t see her, the tears were clear from the wobble in her voice. “My mother… mama…”
“Hey, hey.” I rocked her in my arms. “It’s okay. Look, here; you can touch my horns.”
I tried not to flinch at the unaccustomed touch as she raised her hand and rubbed my horns with a gentleness surprising from one so young. She giggled. “Pretty.”
And then, she murmured against me, “Sleepy…”
“Wait!” I said, but it was too late. She cuddled against the crook of my neck, the warmth of her breaths beading moisture on my skin. Gross! She was going to drool; she was going to—
Her grubby hand grabbed at my shirt. She sucked her little thumb.
I sighed. Once more, I felt she was a force to be reckoned with, however tiny she may be. Hardly thinking about it, I stroked her hair. I felt her smile.
Being a judge for the undead did have its perks. After all, it led her to me.