A grim poked their head through the doorway to his office. Blue fire in the eye sockets of the skull poked out from underneath the black hooded cloak.
Terry Justice looked up from his desk. “Yes?”
“Sorry—sorry to disturb you, sir,” the reaper stuttered. “We… we have a p… a problem and the Eternal General sent me to fetch you.”
“’Fetch’?” Terry echoed. He barked out a laugh, for he was indeed a dog. He was a chocolate tri-colored beagle working in the underworld, as his whole family had. “Is that some kind of play on words?”
The grim sighed, their shoulders falling. “The Eternal General insisted on it, Mr. Justice,” they admitted, their voice a hoarse sounding wheeze.
“Nice.” Terry hopped off his stool and onto the ground. “Take me to her, then.”
The grim started back down the long corridors of the underworld’s main office. The pair passed several other grims, each on their own assignment, each with their own piles of paperwork, and the reaper that Terry was following nodded their head at each of them, choking out a greeting as they walked by. Terry didn’t know how the grim he was following told all their coworkers apart, but they did, calling them by name occasionally. The shape of the skulls must be as different as the snout of a dog, he supposed.
Terry had worked in the underworld all his life and the grim reapers were still a bit of a mystery to him. They did everything from picking people up after death to guiding them to their chosen afterlife to protecting them in life if it wasn’t their time. The group of grims worked for the Eternal General of the afterlife, and so Terry usually only got paperwork from them occasionally, when they needed help deciding where someone was being sent. The fact that the Eternal General was sending for him was not a good sign, really.
He walked into the Eternal General’s office. She passed him a glance in between licking her paw and rubbing it over her head. She was a cat—a large one that towered over Terry, and the grims, and most likely anything that came through the underworld. The Sphinx of Giza was modeled after her. She was the thing legends were made of, and she held herself like it. She was godlike—looked even more so backed by large Ionic columns, doors leading into the entryway to the underworld, all of it lit with the underworld’s blue flames.
“Did you like my joke?” she purred when she saw Terry.
He rolled his eyes. “Yes, yes, it was very funny.”
Her eyes sparkled. “Thank you, Penelope. You can go.”
The grim nodded their head and let themselves out.
Terry hopped into a chair across from the General. “So? What’s all this about?”
“Well, we have a problem. A soul was brought in. There’s no designation—just that he’s the 285th criminal.” She continued to lick, cleaning herself smugly.
Terry huffed. “So, he’s been dead. What’s the problem?”
Normally, a soul with no religious designation was sent through purgatory and, usually, became a grim reaper to work under the Eternal General until they decided how they wanted to pass on or for the rest of eternity. If they were a criminal, it meant they’d haunted the living or committed some other post-life crime. That was normally sent to the legal department for trial, but even that didn’t normally mean that Mister Terry Justice himself had to be called in.
The Eternal General yawned, and Terry could hear her purrs even more audibly than normal. “Well, we have to weigh the soul,” she answered. “Traditionally, that’s your job.”
“Anyone in my department could do it.”
“Yes, and they did,” she said. “The results were concerning, to say the least. So, we’ve called you in to make a judgment.”
“Let’s see him then.”
She nodded and stretched out across the large expanse of her office with an arched back. When she straightened out, she looked back with her large, golden-green eyes to make sure Terry was following as she walked to the side door in her office. He was. She pushed the door open with her head and slinked through it, leaving just enough room for her body. When Terry followed her through the doorway, he pushed it all the way open. No need to make his appearance a secret, he thought, no need to be sneaky about it.
Through the side door was a large auditorium-like room, styled in the traditional way of the underworld. Cold, dark stonework made up chairs and furniture. There was a tall altar that the Eternal General usually stood behind during trials. On top of it was the scale of justice—an heirloom passed down from the Justice family, in use as long as the Justice family was still there. The blue flames of the gods lit the place up with a comfortable glow. In the middle of the room was the soul of a man wearing handcuffs.
As the Eternal General took her spot behind the podium, Terry Justice evaluated the ghost in front of him. There was nothing outstanding. Another queued human ghost with no strong beliefs who, as the grim had told him on the way in, had haunted some extended family. What was so special about him?
“We’re here to weigh your soul,” Terry explained, following the Eternal General up to the front of the room.
The ghost rolled his eyes. “Again?” he asked. “How many times do we gotta do this before you decide whatever you’re gonna do with me?”
Terry turned a fierce gaze on the General. “How many times have you done this?”
“Three,” she answered with a scrunch of her face. “You’ll be the fourth.”
Terry sighed. “Normally, it isn’t like this. You seem to be a special case. Let’s see what’s going on. You should know how to do it. Let’s go.”
There was a chair behind the pedestal that the Eternal General didn’t use, and Terry hopped up into it. The man reached into his translucent chest to pull out a pulsing red orb from inside of himself—the core of his soul. He placed it upon the scale opposite of the feather that Terry Justice laid upon the other side.
The scale didn’t move.
Terry stared at it.
He bopped it with his nose. It jiggled before settling again, perfectly even.
“Ah,” he said.
“See?” the Eternal General said with a laugh. “This has happened every time.”
“Okay, I’ve seen enough.” He nodded to himself. Offhandedly, he said, “You can take back your soul now.”
The man did as he was told, settling the warm object back into his chest.
Terry continued his conversation as if the man wasn’t even there. “Either you put him to work here in purgatory with the rest of the undesignated or we ask for a… sixth opinion.”
The Eternal General purred, licking her paw. “We can’t put a criminal in purgatory. There’s nobody to watch him to make sure he doesn’t sneak off again.”
“Well, we have no reason to run a trial if his soul doesn’t weigh more than the feather.”
“It doesn’t weigh less than a feather, Terry,” she countered. “And he was brought to me by the reapers as a criminal of the afterlife. Penelope should have told you.”
“Yes, yes, they did. The crimes he committed don’t matter. What matters is his soul—whether they maintained or upset balance in the universe or not,” Terry explained. “When he haunted them, for whatever reason, it didn’t upset the balance. Or he did something else to balance it out again.”
“Hm.” She shouted, “Priest!”
A grim entered the room with bones that sounded like a xylophone. Priest was one of the oldest grim reapers in the underworld, always nearby, and the Eternal General’s favorite. Terry tried to see the difference in the faces of this one and the grim he’d been with before but saw none. When Priest spoke, though, he heard it. Priest’s voice was a smooth, confident rumble. “Yes, General?” he asked.
She purred in pleasure. “Can you bring the Soul Accountant here for me? We’ll need her opinion.”
He nodded and left again.
It was just a few moments before they heard the frantic battering of wings. The same tinkling of bones from before opened the door, and a bird rivaling the size of the Eternal General flew into the room. The Eternal General watched the owl as she landed, and they blinked slowly at each other.
Terry Justice rarely saw the Soul Accountant. She ran an entirely separate department, and she ran it alone. She looked over them with her apple-shaped face, her eyes like crescents on the pale white of her feathers. The Soul Accountant was a barn owl, the same kind of godlike that the cat was, the same kind of immortal that Justice was not.
She eyed them, her head tipping on its side. “What was so important you needed to pull me away from Charon and the movement between rings?” she asked.
People rarely paid Charon these days. Terry wasn’t sure, exactly, what the Soul Accountant did. Just that she worked closely with Charon, kept track of what souls were where, for how long, and who would get reincarnated at what time and what they’d get reborn into. There were probably some other specifics there, but Terry didn’t bother with the details.
“We have an undesignated soul that doesn’t weigh more or less than the feather,” Terry reported. “The Eternal General said we should consult with you.”
Having the dark, rounded eyes of the Soul Accountant stare at him was unnerving, to say the least. He felt his fur prickling on the back of his neck. She turned her head sideways, slowly, keeping her gaze on Terry like he was prey the entire time. She cooed softly, somewhere between them all. “Is that so…”
Oddly, the cat beside him had finally stopped purring. She was quiet next to him. When he turned to look at her, her face was complacent and relaxed, watching Terry from the corner of her eyes. He felt played.
He growled. “What’s going on?”
“When was the last time this happened?” the Soul Accountant asked. “A few generations ago?”
“This has happened before?” Terry asked. “If you knew, why did you—”
“Mr. Justice,” the owl began, cutting him off with a sharp click of her beak. “When was the last time someone joined your department?”
He had to think. Not in his time, certainly. It wasn’t unheard of, but it wasn’t very often that someone could be brought into the justice department—to weigh hearts and souls against the balance of the universe. “My grandfather’s grandfather,” he answered, timidly.
The large eyes of the Soul Accountant turned into crescents as she smiled at Terry. “I believe we have a new candidate in the 285th Criminal.”
He yelped, sitting upright. He looked between the owl, the cat next to him, and the soul on the other side of the podium. The human looked bored, disinterested. But… his soul had been equal. Indifference and objectivity that could be molded into the justice of the underworld.
“Mr. Priest,” the Eternal General said, “please take this new soul to the justice department. Unchain him and have one of the others introduce him to everyone there. He should know better than anyone else how to weigh a soul and what crimes are and aren’t against the universe, but there are formalities, after all.”
The same reaper came in and took the criminal ghost, who barely passed the three of them a glance, like he was a customer at a restaurant or something, before being led away.
The sound of the Eternal General’s laughter as she stood up and stretched drew his attention from—from his new employee, he guessed.
“You knew he was destined to be in my department?” Terry huffed. “You couldn’t have just done this from the beginning?”
“Of course I knew.” She preened. “But I needed approval from the Soul Accountant, anyway. And eternity can get so boring. It’s good to have fun every once in a while.”
The Soul Accountant cooed from her perch on the nearby table. “It isn’t often that someone will join the side of Justice. You’ll need to lead him in the right direction so he can change with the times and judge well even when the next Justitia comes along. Congratulations and good luck, Terry.” He nodded, the gravity of the situation settling on his back. This was why Justices didn’t live forever like the others—it was always changing, and it always would. He had a heavy task.