More detail for question nine… Alright, give me a second… Have I ever experienced a challenge at a previous job, and how did I deal with it? Ah. Well, I suppose my answer is a bit… concise… but the siege went on for four days, and I was, speaking very, very technically, locked in a closet for most of it. What do I mean by technically? Well, I mean technically the way someone might say they were in Australia when really they were in Australian airspace, or the center of the earth directly under Australia, or in America when they were really on the moon, staring at the American flag as they froze and/or burned to death, depending on the side they were on? That’s how I mean technically.
I never expected to sit out at a siege at my summer job, and in hindsight, I should have asked for a raise afterward. I guess I was so relieved to be alive (well, undead, but you know what I mean) that I wasn’t thinking straight. What can I say? I was young. Naive, even. Whiny and melodramatic, which, as I’m sure we can all agree, I am not today. Nobody’s perfect, and I fully intend to be a nobody for as long as I can manage it. I’ve seen what happens to somebody’s, and I have every intention of staying out of the limelight.
Speaking of somebody’s, this was the first time I met my boss in person. Well, consciously, but that’s another story.
Threshold, the company I work for, had just been invaded, and I was sitting the whole thing out with my boss, inside her favorite handbag. Yes, I know I’m small, but not that small. My boss, the CEO of the largest portal-running company in the world (we were being sieged by the other, so perhaps not for long), had sewn portal magic into the string of the bag, so that the entrance led to a pocket dimension. She had wanted extra space, and as the paranoid creature she was, had wanted it instantly accessible and completely hidden.
We sat and waited for the portal to open again. The boss rifled through old papers at her desk in the corner, pursing her lips.
“Any luck?” I asked.
“Luck would suggest I were looking for something, which would suggest I had a plan,” she replied. “Don’t be so hopeful.”
“I’m not your safety blanket. That’s Charles’ vocation, and my understanding was that he’d switched to part-time.” I sighed.
“So we’re going to die in here, then?”
“Time doesn’t exist here, so no, we’re just going to be very bored for a very long… well, we’ll experience it as time. I was never really clear on how that whole perception versus passage thing worked. My husband would know.”
“Great.” I laid back on the nothingness below me. “Why can’t you just rip your way out of here, like you did on TV?” The boss frowned at her stack of papers. “We can’t stay here forever. You aren’t… planning on staying here forever, right?”
“What did I say about plans, Diana?” I smiled slightly.
“Are you going to retire, and become a genie?” I asked. “You’re strong enough to be one, from what I hear.”
“If you think that’s true, then you’ve never met a genie,” the boss replied, chuckling. “I’m not sure they exist, frankly. Djinn, definitely, and I’ve kicked a djinn’s ass once or twice, but…” She paused, tapping her pen against the surface of the table. “If we use the main entrance, we’ll come out precisely at the time we went in, which gets us both dead… But if we use the back door, and keep walking… Well, who knows anymore? I haven’t been here in centuries. But if we move out of the pocket dimension, we have a fighting chance of going back to Earth, or at least Faerie. We’re close to home. As long as we don’t have to cross through Heaven on the way, we should be fine.” She winced, sucking in her cheeks.
“You piss off God or something?”
“Oh, sure, lots of them. Which one are you referring to?”
“I see. Okay, so how do we… move out?” I asked.
“Start walking, keep walking.”
“You’re about as reassuring with a plan as without a plan, you know that?”
“Not your mother. Let’s go, Soldier.”
“I’m a soldier now? Whatever happened to ‘rookie accountant’?”
“You’ve been temporarily promoted.”
“Pay raise?” My boss laughed. I guess I did ask. “Will there be life risking coming up, then?”
“On if we go through heaven?”
“You’ll die either way if we go through heaven. If the air doesn’t kill you, the light will. It’s a nasty kind of a place.”
“But… if I die, won’t I go to heaven?”
“Depends. Which one are you referring to?”
“Where do you go if you have a nutty trickster god on your side?” My boss paused. She tilted her head slightly.
“Ask him,” she decided. “I don’t think your boy’s ever had a worshipper before. He might not know where to put you when you die.”
“So very, very reassuring. Would he come here, if I called? Or died?”
“Too far, even for him. Maybe… well, I don’t know.” I frowned, and Lily shrugged. “There’s no point in worrying. If we stay safe, it’ll be useless. If we run into something we can fight, it’ll distract you when you should be on guard. If we run into something we can’t fight, then you’ll die worrying.”
“I’d stop if I could help it.”
“Well, I suppose… I could give you a distraction. Have you ever heard about The World of Cups?”
But we’re running out of time, and I haven’t told you anything I could use on the job! We spent the next four days wandering through dimensions, flitting between planes as we went, trying to avoid angels, who were nearly everywhere, oddly enough, and apparently have a “Kill on Sight” sort of an arrangement with my boss. At the end of the four days, we landed in Alcatraz, nearly killed a family of raccoons on the way out. In short… I handle stress well, can work well with… well, you’ve heard of the woman, you know what she’s like. Aand—well, I feel like I, uh, really… demonstrated… the ability to both work with difficult people, and perform with calm grace in difficult situations. Is there anything else I can answer for you?
Oh. Well, sure, if you don’t mind me going over-time. I don’t know how well I remember the story, but I’ll do my best.
“Never. Is that where you keep your teacup collection?”
“The husband’s the one with the teacup collection, regardless of what he likes to tell you children. The shotglasses are mine. Alright, the Japanese set are mine, but I received those as a gift from an ice demon.”
“Why do you think I haven’t given them away?”
“Alright, well if The World of Cups isn’t another one of your pocket dimensions, what is it?”
“It’s somewhere I stumbled onto, back when I first wandered this way.”
“Spirit plane, or physical?”
“It’s where the dead go to dream,” Lily replied. “And not the human dead. It was a physical place, but the spirit world seems physical when you are in it.
The sky in the World of Cups is a deep royal blue, and if there are stars it is too bright to see them. The earth of the world is white, pocketed but smooth, as though the moon were a living, breathing thing, and the ground were its skin. It is a small planet, if it is a planet, and you can see the curve of it on the horizon, if you care to look. None of the inhabitants ever did.
They were pale, and I would have thought they were misshapen if I had compared them to humans. They had long, curved necks, and huge wide eyes, like the sky above them. I cannot remember if they had nostrils, but I remember thinking their faces were, for the most part, like marble masks. I did not dare to touch them, but they looked as though they wore their bones on the outside. I was not afraid of them, though. They barely moved as I walked among them, and only one of them looked at me.
Each of the creatures stood by one other, their hands clasped together between them. When I stopped to look, I realized that clasped together, their hands made cups, and that these cups filled with water from below. As I walked farther and farther, I would sometimes see them drink from the cups. Not that I ever saw them move, mind you—they would be bent over the cup, halfway to it, or have their white jaws at the brim.
From time to time I saw a creature standing on its own, its hands clasped together before it. From the cup came the same liquid, which I realized after a while was not water at all but something thicker. There was less of it when they stood on their own, but they sipped it all the same. Sometimes when I stopped I would see one of the creatures with its hands outstretched to another. Once I saw two about to put their hands together, the liquid rolling off of their hands, silvery and as slow as smoke.
I had crossed half the world by then, and I was tired. I stopped to rest near the end of the herd of creatures, reassured by the fact that their eyes were on the sides of their head. Things with eyes in front generally want to eat you when you’re wandering between worlds. They’re always hungry, and they usually prey on the soul, which heals a good bit slower than the body does and has a way of scarring.”
“Reassuring,” I said. “Blissfully distracting from our current plight.”
“Relax. Vampires are safe from attacks on the soul.”
“And why is that?”
“Last time I guessed at the answer, I got a verbal slap in the face from your pseudo-sire himself, so I’ll leave the guesswork to you.”
“I think he prefers the term ‘guardian’, actually.”
“I heard you called him Dad the other day.”
“Must’ve misheard me.”
“I’ve never seen him look so proud and so flustered at the same time. He may have actually blinked.”
“It’s the French in him. They’re very emotional, you know.”
“He never did like to talk about that side of his family.”
“It’s at war with the English part of him, I’m told, and the French never tend to do well in war.”
“It’s all been downhill since Napoleon,” Lily agreed. “He was quite a man. You know he wrote down the name of every person he met, just so he would remember?”
“Did you know him?” I asked. Lily chuckled.
“We were technically contemporaries, but I was out West around his time. The Revolutionary War soured me for violence.”
“How was that?”
“Were there critters with eyes in the front of their heads?”
“There were, but they mostly kept to the saloons and local establishments. You could outride them if you tried.”
“Were they hungry?”
“Humans are always hungry, for something or another. They’ll eat you alive same as anything else.”
“Why come back home, then?” I asked. “You could’ve stayed in the world of cups, or hell, your pocket dimension.” Lily thought.
“Every place has its own torments,” she replied. “I stayed in the World of Cups for a long time, although a long time is not so much in the spirit world and even less in the dream world. Sometimes the other way around. It was very peaceful, and I didn’t need to eat while I was there. I was on my way back from the realm of the angels, and I was tired of people and the wars they made.
I wandered between the different groups that covered the surface of that world. They were mostly all the same, but sometimes their groupings changed. Groups of three, four, one, but mostly twos. One day as I was walking I came upon one standing off apart from the group. It was smaller than the others, its ribcage more pronounced, shrunken and bent. Where the others held up both hands to bring the water, it only held up its one, offering it to each creature that passed by. It moved more quickly than the others but still slowly, inching along like the second hand on a clock. Its blue eyes seemed more huge. This was the only of the creatures to look at me, and, freakishly for its species, it looked at me with both eyes at once. Eyes in the front, like I said.
I was curious. I stayed. I watched as it grew frailer and frailer, as it started to collapse forward, its front legs bending forwards inch by inch. Finally, when its blue eyes began to close, I reached out my hand and put it against the creature’s palm.
At first nothing happened, but then I began to feel the edge of my hand sticking. My fingers started to merge, painlessly, bone-colored skin running over them that just barely stopped at my wrist. Our hands made one cup, and the liquid started to flow out of the bottom. I stayed the time it took the creature to drink, and then I took a knife out of my bag and with a slice cut between our hands, splitting the flesh that had grown onto my hand and started up my arm. It hadn’t reached my spine, so it didn’t hurt to remove the first few layers, but I had to cut more deeply than that.
The creature could stand, but it was still very weak. I struggled with it, trying to push its hands together. It fought me, and moved in that frustratingly slow way they do, but I was able to force its hands together. They drew apart every time I removed my hands, so I took cloth from my shirt and tied its hands together. I waited until I saw the creature drink and I was satisfied with the condition of my arm. I considered leading another one over there, to tend to it, but I was… unsettled… by the whole affair. Every time I looked at my hand, the bones there seemed longer, the skin paler. Sometimes I thought I felt it sweating, as it never had before.
I kept walking. I don’t know what became of the creature or what it was when it was awake. I don’t know what they were doing, if it was good or bad for the dreamer or themselves. Who knows? Maybe I set that world into ruin, by accident. Perhaps it was some kind of alien purgatory where you have to die before you can be reborn. I don’t know. But I couldn’t watch it die, and so I did what I could.”
“The World of Cups,” I repeated. “Did you ever drink any of the water? The liquid, I mean?” Lily shook her head.
“I thought about it,” she replied. “I’ve drank a lot of odd things in my time. But if all it took to change me was touching pinkies, why the hell would I drink the water? I had a home to get back to. Or I thought I did, anyway.”
I thought of reassuring her, but her company was under fire and her husband was missing. I was her employee, not her mother, as she liked to say.
“It’s funny how easily we’re scared by change,” I told her.
“It’s funny what we’ll do because we’re scared,” Lily replied. We were, by this time, in the spirit plane of Faerie, and she had finally caught her breath. When she walked here I could see wings behind her, shimmering and rainbow, and on her head a golden crown. I didn’t ask.
“Does the fact that you can see me in the spirit world prove that I have a soul?” I asked her.
“You ever hear the story of the Tin Man?” Lily asked.
“Sure, I’ve seen The Wizard of Oz.”
“The books. On the tin man’s way to get a heart from the wizard, he spends half his time watching the ground, because he’s trying so hard not to step on a single bug. The scarecrow without the brain tricks the trees into feeding them lunch.”
“Charles likes to tell me not to psychoanalyze him, sometimes.”
“And to leave him alone and let him read his book, I’m guessing.”
“Sometimes it’s to leave him alone and let him paint, actually.”
“Good to know he’s branching out. And you’d be burned to a crisp in the spirit world, too, if I weren’t actively protecting you. A human wouldn’t be.”
“Safe from spiritual attack, averse to spirits, got it.”
“They can’t touch you, and you can’t touch them. It’s only fair. You ready for the switchover?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be.” I sucked in my stomach, closed my eyes, and waited for the shivery nasty nauseating experience that taking physical form so often is. Like being squeezed out of the womb, if the womb were an equally shivery nasty nauseating place that had a tendency to set you on fire when Lily got too caught up in her story to pay attention. I don’t travel well.
Around that time, we realized that since I’d been bloodbonded to Charles, we could follow the connection to the nearest portal. Coyote arrived when I crossed the border in Alcatraz got us both to… well, his idea of safety, which like most of his judgment is pretty questionable.
And so I stand before you today. I don’t know what that tells you about me, but you’ve learned a little about the World of Cups, which must be of some interest in your line of business.
What would I have done, if I’d seen it?
I don’t know. It sounds kind of ghastly, but I think I might have done the same thing. I don’t think I would’ve been able to let go, though, at least not so quickly. Lily can be ruthless. I’m not, not yet, which I know is considered a fault in a vampire. I think I would’ve stayed for a long time, change or no change, until another creature came along and took over. I’ve already been changed against my will once, and being willing to change, to submit, it’s all part of the survival game. I’m not afraid of it happening again. Compromise is the cost of living forever.
Oh? Oh, you’d heard of the siege? Of course, word gets around. You were there? Oh I see. Fighting. You disarmed a bomb? Okay then. Courageous. Brave.
I’m fine, that’s just my blush. Yes, vampires can blush, although I’ve only ever heard of it happening to me. Shame: the gift that keeps on giving. And you work for my ex-boss’s husband? What’s he like? Do I have a soul or not, then? Three fifths of one. I… Alright, I’ll have to follow that one up. I hope I kept the better parts.
That was actually sweet. I’m not surprised. No, I’m not, I just… Okay, fine, you’re seven feet tall and you have horns, it’s a little intimidating. I was raised Christian. It’s one of my many flaws. No, the glasses help, I didn’t mean to put you on the defensive. You’ve been a lot of fun to talk to, and I’m honestly touched that you kept me so long past the end of the interview time. Yes, it is, isn’t it? She’s an interesting woman. Doesn’t compromise. Is she really? Sweet Jesus, no wonder she’s so cranky, she’s older than dirt! Probably getting whatever the elvy equivalent of arthritis is by now.
You’re older than she is? Hey, I have an idea. How about, instead of me finishing this job interview, we just take me out back and shoot me? You’d have fun, it wouldn’t quite kill me, we’d all leave with our pride relatively unscathed.
I got the job? Are you sure you haven’t had too much of that whiskey? Oh thank you, I’d love some. Yes, damn it, I really am over twenty one, and don’t you dare card me again, you know how old I am. Is this revenge for that age comment? I mean, how was I supposed to know? You don’t look a day over a hundred, and you seem really cool for a…
So that take me out back and shoot me idea? Oh, we’ll be shooting whiskey? And from the look in your eye, I’ll wish you’d taken me out back and shot me when I wake up tomorrow. Thought so. I’ll pour your cup if you pour mine.