This story was originally written way back in the 90s. That version got lost somewhere in the many moves I made since then, so when I dug the idea up again for an SFF World contest, I had to pretty much re-write it from memory. The details probably don’t match, but the gist is the same, and I’d like to think I was a better writer this time around than when I first wrote it.
Garrow spat and glared into the bright sky. Next to him, Hemket’s gnarled hands worked a crude spade. “How much deeper do we have to dig this bloody thing?” Garrow asked of one of the impossibly bright figures watching over them.
“Until it is deep enough,” it answered in a flat, emotionless voice that seemed to come from everywhere at once.
“It would go faster if you stopped asking so many questions,” the other said, his tone just as bereft of feeling.
“I still don’t see why you can’t do this yourselves,” Garrow said bitterly as his own spade bit deep into the earth.
“It was you who made the mistake of rebelling,” the first figure said.
“No,” Garrow said, “we made the mistake of losing.”
“And thus are in no position to complain over your treatment.”
Garrow’s eyes narrowed, but he bit back his retort. He did make sure his next throw of dirt landed closer to his overseers than it needed to, though.
“You see, Ulariel?” one of the shimmering beings said. “Laid low, toiling in defeat, and still not a scrap of penitence in them.”
“I’m sorry,” Hemket said softly.
“Sorrow and penitence are not one and the same,” Ulariel answered. “You are sorry to be defeated, to be punished, but not truly penitent for what you did to come to this end.”
His companion nodded. “Father was wise to banish them.”
Garrow laughed. “But not wise enough to see it coming, was he, Abalim?”
“Garrow!” Hemket hissed. “Bad enough they’ve got us doing this! Don’t make it worse!”
Abalim’s brow furrowed. “I do not understand your bitterness. We expected you would be grateful for this time away from your exile.”
“Yes,” Garrow said with mock sincerity, “this brief glimpse of freedom will be so comforting once we go back the abyss your master prepared for us.”
“Your master as well,” Ulariel scolded, his wings twitching.
“No!” Garrow shouted, throwing his spade down. “If he didn’t stop being our master when we took up arms against him, he surely stopped when he cast us out!”
Hemket leaned in close. “What are you doing?”
“Really, Garrow?” Abalim said. “Surely one rebellion was enough.”
“We will not be weak and miserable for your amusement,” Garrow said evenly. “Ever to do ill shall be our sole delight.”
“THAT IS ENOUGH!” Hemket shrieked and fell to the ground as Ulariel’s voice crashed down around them like a thousand thunders. “You will not profane our presence with his words!”
“Or you’ll do what?” Garrow roared back, unbowed. “Throw us down again? Not much further we can go!”
Whimpering, Hemket gathered himself and began furiously digging. “I never wanted this,” he sobbed. “I only followed because he made me believe, because he made so much sense.”
“He lied,” Abalim said. “But the choice was still yours as to whom to follow, and you could not have chosen more wrongly.”
“Leave him alone,” Garrow snarled. “You know full well not everyone was equal in what we did, but that didn’t matter to him, did it?”
“This impertinence grows tiring,” Ulariel said, “and this hole grows no deeper.”
“Garrow,” Hemket pleaded, “please. Let’s just finish so we can go back. I don’t want to have to look at them anymore. They’re so beautiful. I … I can’t bear it…” He choked back another sob.
Garrow’s look softened, but his voice remained firm. “Hemket, if we bow down now, we’ll be on our knees forever.”
“You idiot!” Hemket cried, unable now to stop his tears. “On our knees? We’re already on our bellies! And no matter how tall you think you stand, you’ll never be as high as them again! Now, I beg you, let’s finish this before the sight of them blinds me! Already their image remains when I close my eyes. I won’t have their light with me forever.” He bent back to his digging.
And after a long moment, Garrow joined him.
“Hold,” Abalim said. Garrow paused and looked up to the edge of the hole, now a good foot above him. “This is now deep enough for our purposes.”
“So we can go?” Hemket asked weakly.
“Of course not,” Ulariel said. “Your job is only half done. Climb out of there.”
“And quickly,” Abalim added. “They are coming.”
As they scrambled out of the hole, Garrow saw a haggard figure approaching, struggling with an awkward burden. Hemket gasped.
“That’s a man.”
The man staggered closer, his weathered, bearded face pale and drawn. Garrow could see that he carried another man, who, save for his bare jaw, bore a strong resemblance to the one who carried him. This second man did not move, and no breath seemed to move in his chest.
Abalim flew forward, until he floated before the man, who stopped and cast his gaze down, unwilling to look Abalim in the eye.
“I came as the raven told me to,” he said heavily.
“I shall take your burden,” Abalim replied, easily lifting the unmoving figure. “And now you must go. ”
“Anywhere but here.”
The man nodded slowly, then turned and walked away, never once looking back.
Abalim gently placed the other man in the hole. “Who is that?” Garrow asked Ulariel.
“Someone who knows more of reverence than you do,” Ulariel said, “and whose soul has gone to the Father. From this day forward, all whose lives end shall thus be returned to the earth. Now, cover him.”
Garrow stared. “We just spent all this time taking the dirt out, and now you want us to put it back in?”
“Are we going to start this again, Garrow?” Abalim rumbled.
“Fine,” Garrow said, beginning to heave the earth over the man. Hemket simply stood, crying. “What’s the matter with you?” Garrow asked.
“He gets to go back,” Hemket said.
Hemket pointed at the man, his shoulders slumped in misery. “He gets to go back. They’ll all get to go back. And every time we look up, towards the one place we long to return to, we’ll have to look up through all these holes, filled with those who’ll go where we can’t.”
Garrow shook his head, then fixed a glare on Abalim and Ulariel. “He’s right, isn’t he?”
Abalim smiled, a terrible thing to behold. “Of course. For what else is Hell but to be removed from His presence?”
Garrow nodded and went back to his work, hoping the shadows cast by the setting sun hid his own tears.