I never expected to sit out at a siege at my summer job, and in hindsight, I should have asked for a raise. I guess I was so relieved to be alive (well, undead, but you know what I mean) that I wasn’t thinking. 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. I’ve seen what happens to somebodies.
Speaking of somebodies, this was the first time I met my boss in person. Well, consciously, but that’s another story. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that this was the first time she met me.
Threshold, the company I worked for, was under siege by a rival organization. I was, technically speaking, locked in a closet for most of it. But when I say technically, I mean technically the way someone might say they were technically 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 of the moon they were on. That’s how I mean technically.
Really, I was sitting in my boss’s handbag.
My boss, Lily Quill, was the CEO of the most powerful portal company in the world, although from the sound of things outside the handbag, she wouldn’t be for long. Lily had sewn portal magic into the drawstring of the bag, so that the entrance led to what she referred to as a “pocket dimension.” She had wanted a safe place to leave her things, and with her trademark combination of paranoia and brutal competence, had made that space both instantly accessible to her and impossible for anyone else to find. Impossible for anyone to find, and with no way out from the inside.
We sat and waited for the portal to open again. The boss rifled through old papers at her desk in the corner, and know that when I say corner, I mean it in a very loose sense. This was not a world of corners. Odds and ends floated around us in a darkness somewhere between the consistency of air and water. There were filing cabinets full of old leather bound journals. Dragon teeth. A cowboy hat. An antique wooden airplane rested on a carpet that seemed to move further away whenever I neared. A red corvette hummed under a heavy tarp. In a lower drawer of one of the filing cabinets, I found a pile of signed Queen records, and wondered just how carefully she had all inventoried the place. More importantly, would the records fit in my backpack?
I glanced at my boss. She flipped through an old diary, her lips pursed.
“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,” Lily replied.
“So we’re going to die in here, then?” I asked.
“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 said, and 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?” Lily asked. 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 inside 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?” I asked.
“Oh, sure, lots of them. Which one are you thinking of?”
“I see. Okay, so how do we… move out?” I looked around the inside of the bag for some kind of exit, but the only outside light came from what was left of the portal in, the edges puckered like tightened strings.
“Start walking, keep walking.” Lily stood, cracking her knuckles.
“You’re about as reassuring with a plan as without a plan, you know that?” I told her.
“Not your mother. Let’s go, Soldier.”
“I’m a soldier now? Whatever happened to ‘rookie accountant’?” I asked.
“You’ve been temporarily promoted,” she replied.
“Does that come with a pay raise?” My boss laughed. I guess I did ask, after all. “Will there be life risking coming up, then?”
“That depends,” she replied.
“On if we go through heaven?” I asked. I followed her as she walked, although I didn’t see how we would get anywhere. Nothingness extended as far as the eye could see.
“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,” Lily winced, absently touching the scar on her cheek.
“But… if I die, won’t I go to heaven?” I asked.
“Depends. Which one are you referring to?” She asked. I considered. The Christian God would by no means let me in, and Valhalla seemed out of the question.
“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.” The light around us had begun to change, and I had a feeling that we were doing a little more than just walking. I could see stars starting to appear, gradually brightening as though we were passing through a veil, and heat started to crawl over my skin. “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,” I said.
“Well, I suppose… I could give you a distraction. Have you ever heard about The World of Cups?” She asked.
“Never. Is that where you keep your teacup collection?” I asked. Lily was not amused.
“The husband’s the one with the teacup collection, regardless of what he likes to tell you children. The shot glasses are mine.” She paused. “Alright, the Japanese tea set is mine, but I received those as a gift from an ice demon.”
“Yuki?” I asked.
“Why do you think I haven’t given them away?” Lily asked, smiling for the first time since I’d met her. If she were human, I’d have said smiling took a decade off her face, but for her it was probably more like a century.
“Alright, well if The World of Cups isn’t another one of your pocket dimensions, what is it?” I asked her.
“It’s somewhere I stumbled onto, back when I first wandered this way.”
“Spirit plane, or physical?” We had already passed through a few ghost realms by then, and it had not been pleasant. I had no intention of entering another unprepared.
“It’s where the dead go to dream,” Lily replied. “And not the human dead. It was a physical place, but then again, 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 didn’t dare 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.”
“Why’s that?” I asked. I felt a little guilty for interrupting, but I couldn’t help being curious.
“Things with eyes in front generally want to eat you, especially 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?” I asked.
“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,” Lily replied.
“I think he prefers the term ‘guardian’, actually.”
“I heard you called him Dad the other day,” Lily reminded me.
“Must’ve misheard me,” I replied.
“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,” I explained.
“He never did like to talk about that side of his family,” she admitted.
“It’s at war with the English part of him, I’m told, and the French never tend to do well in war,” I said, and Lily grinned.
“It’s all been downhill since Napoleon,” she 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 the West?” I asked.
“Laconic, too, it seems. Were there critters with eyes in the front of their heads?”
“There were, but they mostly kept to the saloons and local establishments,” said Lily. “You could outride them if you tried.”
“Were they hungry?” I asked.
“Humans are always hungry, for something or another. They’ll eat you alive same as anything else,” Lily replied.
“Why come back home, then?” I asked. “You could’ve stayed in the World of Cups, or hell, your pocket dimension.” Lily thought.
“I wouldn’t have gone to hell,” she said, as I realized with a sinking feeling that that, too, might be a very real place. “But every place has its own torments, whether considered a hell or not. 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 liquid, 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 wider than the others. 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? 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 drunk 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 liquid? I had a home to get back to. Or I thought I did, anyway.”
I thought about trying to reassure her on that point, but decided better of it. I was her employee, not her mother, as she liked to say. And when we’d left, her company had been up in flames.
“It’s funny how easily we’re scared by change,” I said instead.
“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 like opal, and on her head a crown of silver leaves. 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?” Lily asked. I shook my head. “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,” I said.
“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.” Lily chuckled.
“Good to know he’s branching out,” she said. “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.” I paused. “How does that work?”
“They can’t touch you, and you can’t touch them.” Lily looked around. “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.
When I opened my eyes, we were in Faerie, and for the first time in five years, I stood in the sunshine without burning.
Around that time, we realized that since I’d been blood-bonded to Charles, we could follow the connection to the nearest portal. I called Coyote when we crossed the border into Alcatraz and he got us both to… well, his idea of safety. His judgement has always been questionable, but it all turned out alright in the end.
And so I stand before you today. From time to time, though, I find myself wondering: what would I have done, if I had been the one in the World of Cups?
The best answer I’ve come up with is that I don’t know. I think I would have tried to do the same thing, but I doubt I would have been able to let go, at least not so quickly. Lily is ruthless. I’m not, not yet, which I know is considered a fault in a vampire. I would have stayed for a long time, until one of the other creatures came along to replace me. I’ve already been changed against my will once, and being willing to change is part of the survival game. I’m not afraid of changing. Why should the undead be afraid of dying?
Why would I be afraid of losing my soul, when I don’t even know if I have one?
If I am safe, the fear is useless. If I can fight, then the fear will distract me when I should be on guard. If I can’t fight, then I will die afraid. And if fear made me run away from something dying, something hurt and broken that needs me, I would not be afraid of change.
If anything, I would be scared of staying the same.