The Innocence of Death: NaNoWriMo 2018

The Innocence of Death: NaNoWriMo 2018

Have you ever had a time where you thought things were going really well and life could hardly be better? Lies.

I’ve met Life. She delights in being unfair and favours only those who fight her and… well, perhaps I’d better start at the beginning.

My name is Cal Thorpe. Of Harcourt Marketing? I had just finished up a highly-successful marketing campaign for a sports medicine doctor who had written a book about some journey in some foreign country where he discovered the secret to life or some such nonsense. It was an overdone idea, but I had marketed it and done fantastically well. I was just that good.

Anyways, I was walking through the park on a shortcut to a celebratory dinner. Old lady Harcourt, the widow of the original owner, was being generous enough to treat me and a few of the other executives at a steak house across the city. When you got in with her, you were in. I could see a vice presidency in my near future. I was making money faster than I could spend it. I was practically rolling in new clients. Even now, my phone was vibrating with requests from people to take them on.

I was on top of the world.

And then, I wasn’t.

“Give me your wallet.” A pressure in my side. I panicked. There was a man mugging me in the middle of the park. He had a gun. “Give it to me!”

“A-alright,” I said, holding up my hands. All the success in the world couldn’t stop them from shaking. I reached into my jacket pocket and tried not to pass out.

“No funny business,” the man growled, pressing his gun deeper into my side.

“N-no o-o-of course n-not,” I stammered. I was reaching into my pocket when a dog barked from not far away. My mugger cursed violently and jerked against me. I felt time slow down. Then, there was a spectacular roaring clap and I was certain I was going to die.

“Good evening, Mr. Thorpe.”

I gaped at the figure in the three-piece suit. He had a hat on and it shaded most of his features. All I could see was that he was tall, slim, dressed in clothes that cost more than my last pay check, and that he was floating two inches above the ground. Oh, and he hadn’t been there two seconds before.

“I’m dead,” I said stupidly.

“No, not yet,” the figure said, striding casually forwards. His hands were in his pockets, completely relaxed and at ease. Didn’t he realise that there was a man with a gun right here? That I had been shot?

“I’ve been shot!” I’m fairly certain my intelligence had flown out the window.

“No, you are about to be shot. There is a difference.” His voice was kind and gentle, not at all judgemental for my panic an incoherence. “Look. See.”

I jumped away from my attacker and stared, mouth open like an idiot. The mugger — hood up, jeans torn, gun shining — was perfectly still, desperation twisting his features. Where I had been standing, was a single piece of metal. A bullet, suspended in mid-air, not moving. Had it continued on its path, I would most certainly be dead.

But I wasn’t.

“Am I hallucinating?” I asked carefully.

“That depends,” the figure shrugged, “how creative are you?”

“Uh-huh. I’m lying on the ground, bleeding out and this is what my brain comes up with to make it all better.”

“If you like. How about we go sit on that bench and have a talk.” He nodded to a spot not five hundred feet away. “This might make things clearer.”

“Alright,” I agreed. It wasn’t as though I had much else better to do. I was never going to make my dinner. Somehow, I doubted that the old bat would take dying as an excuse. Oddly enough, though, I didn’t really mind.

We sat on the bench. The light from the lamp post filtered down so that my companion’s face was still completely in shadow. I could see his hands though. They were long, elegant and black as charcoal. It seemed an unnatural colour, not quite human. I had known plenty of black men and women and had never seen someone whose skin seemed to just absorb light.

“I have come to offer you a job,” the figure said. I blinked.

“Really? My hallucination offers me a job?”

“I would like you to be my publicist or marketing specialist or whatever the term is.” He ignored my dig about being a hallucination. I wasn’t sure what that meant.

“You want me to be your PR guy?” I scuffed my shoe over the concrete, flattening a few blades of grass that managed to spring through the tough material. “Are you having image problems? Bad publicity can kill a career, you know.”

“Oh, I know.” I got the impression that he was smiling. I wanted to see his face, but the part of me that had learned good manners wouldn’t ask. So I just nodded blithely.

“You sure picked a bad time to ask me to represent you,” I jerked my head back to where the mugger stood, frozen.

“It was the only time I could ask you. I am bound by certain rules. But here, in my domain, I can do as I wish,” the figure said. I frowned. His domain? I was beginning to think that I wasn’t hallucinating. I wasn’t nearly this creative. I had failed my creative writing course during my undergraduate degree. And it was supposed to be impossible to fail that course.

“Who are you?” I asked, a bit rudely.

“You don’t want to guess? No? Very well.” He reached up with those long fingers and removed his hat. Some part of my mind started screaming, but I was too well trained in image preservation to do more than raise my eyebrows in surprise.

Like his hands, his skin was blacker than black. Shadows seemed to wreath around him, keeping the light away. His face was thin, gaunt almost, and he had a pleasant smile, though his teeth were not showing. He had no hair, no eyebrows or beard or anything. But that wasn’t the most startling thing. No, it was the fact that he had no eyes. Not just skin where eyes should be, but empty sockets. The darkness was vast in those two holes, and if I stared far enough for long enough, I would probably start seeing the end of the world. As it was, I saw my own life flash before my eyes. Except it was ending in several different ways.

Shot.

Diseased.

Car Accident.

Drunk.

Drugs.

Violent murder.

Suicide by jumping.

Drowning.

I gasped and forced myself to blink, breaking whatever hold this thing had on me. He just raised his brows, an unusual expression in what was basically a skin-covered skull. “Do you understand, now?” he asked kindly.

“Why don’t you spell it out to me,” I gasped, my heart racing. There was no doubt in my mind that I was not lying on the ground bleeding out after being mugged. Whatever this was, it was horrific and far too real.

“I am Death,” he said gently.

“Ah,” I said. I fought the urge to put my head between my knees and breathe slowly. “I see.”

“Do you? So many have a difficult time accepting this,” Death replied, obviously pleased. I swallowed down a whimper.

“I can’t believe I’m sitting here with Death, being offered a job,” I muttered. I could believe it, actually. I just didn’t want to.

“Yes, now you see my problem. Why I want to hire you?” Death folded his hands neatly in his lap.

“You definitely need a PR specialist,” I agreed. My heart was racing, I was probably seconds away from passing out, and I was talking calmly with Death about marketing. Maybe being shot was the better option. “I… I can’t just take you on as a client through Harcourt, you know.”

“Of course not. Your world is not ready for such things,” Death scoffed, brushing some imaginary lint off his knee. “No, you would have to come with me. You will be well compensated. I can offer you a place to live, staff, resources, whatever you need.”

“But I’d have to leave,” I said. “I couldn’t just… freelance for you?”

“Unfortunately, that is not how this works.” Death’s voice grew colder. He nodded over to the frozen mugger. “I stopped you in the Instant of Death. I have only two options. Either I take you into my employ, which means that you are bound to me and my realm, or I return you to die. That is how this works. That is all I can offer.”

I swallowed, feeling a pain in my chest. “I’d never get to come back here?”

“Not as you were. I could, occasionally, allow you back under a special dispensation, but you would not be as you are now.”

“Why not?” Great plan, Cal. Ask stupid questions. If I go with Death, of course I wouldn’t be the same. Well, I could hope, couldn’t I?

“Because I will have removed you from the fate of the world. I could not simply let you return, to play havoc with fate. You would be separate, removed. And that requires certain changes.”

I swallowed again, leaning back against the bench and looking at the sky. There were no stars. It was just shadow, reflecting the lights of the city. It might be my last time looking at the sky, and there weren’t even stars to look at. “I don’t want to die.”

“Not many do.”

“I mean, I’ve just gotten to the good part of my life. I’m doing well. I’m a success! I have a purpose and a reason to get up in the morning,” I pleaded. Death looked at me and I suddenly felt very, very small. Okay, sure I wasn’t as tall as he was. I was an average person, with an average life and average looks. My hair was even an average shade of brown and I wore glasses. But it was my average life. I was doing well at it. I didn’t want to give it up.

“You would still have a life,” Death pointed out. “You would still be marketing, still have a purpose. It would just be in a different place. With wonders to occupy your every moment. And magic most people never even dream about.”

“But I would have to give up everything I have here,” I said.

“Yes,” Death nodded. He paused, then, “Well, not everything. I could let you take your belongings with you.”

“But everything else. Friends. Family. All gone.”

“Yes,” Death nodded again, still infuriatingly calm. “Though it does not much matter, really. Your choice is not between a life working for me and a life working for Harcourt. Your choice is between life and death, as it were. No pun intended.”

“Mmmm,” I smiled weakly. I took a deep breath and tried to be reasonable. Think logically. My options were death or Death. Obviously, there wasn’t much of a choice. “Alright,” I said. “But I have to tell you, there are a few things. First, I’m your PR person. All your decisions that might be seen by anybody, you run through me. I’ll be needing as much information as possible about your activities. That way, I can make sure they’re painted in a good light… Do you have social media wherever it is we’re going?”

“Indeed,” Death said, frowning. “It is a pervasive thing to spread so far from this realm.”

“Good. I’ll get started on your accounts first thing.”

“So you agree?”

“Didn’t I just say I did?” I snapped. Snapping at your new boss, Death or no, is probably never a good idea. I was having a bad day.

“Very well,” Death smiled again. “Then I insist we shake hands.”

He held out his shadowy appendage and I could feel the raw power coming off of his skin. I coughed nervously. “Is that strictly necessary?”

“Actually, yes,” Death said. “It binds you to me and seals the contract. It will not kill you.”

“Ha ha,” I replied drily. But I took his hand.

Power flooded through me, touching every nerve ending I had and setting each and every one of them on fire. I was pretty sure I screamed, but my brain was too overwhelmed by whatever was happening to take note. I saw colours swirling around me that didn’t exist in nature. There were sounds running through my head, somewhere between a scream and a song. I could see Death, as calm as ever, sitting there, looking not at all regretful about what was happening.

Then, I passed out.

When I woke up, everything hurt. Not in the, “oh, let me take stock of what is still functioning” way. In the “I think I’m going to die and I can’t tell anyone because I can’t breathe” way. My limbs were on fire and there was some sort of pointed hammer pounding in my head. A weight lay on my chest and I was fairly certain I couldn’t move my toes.

Somehow, I managed to exhale and let out a low whimper. That made everything hurt more.

A figure appeared in my line of sight and I realised that I could, actually, see. The figure slipped my glasses on my nose and the world became clearer. Everything was white. Startlingly white, like a brand new hospital with all the lights turned on. Except this figure. It was small and misshapen. Its head resembled a squat pumpkin, except it was a strange shade of green. Its eyes were bright yellow bulbs with slits like a goat and its ears pointed outwards from its head like some sort of weird elf.

“Ah, you are awake,” it rasped, showing an unhealthy number of pointed teeth. I whimpered again and somehow managed to avoid a new wave of excruciating pain. “And you made the transition surprisingly well. Not many humans can stand to have their life force ripped from them.”

“Urghlgrlgl?” I tried to ask. The creature spread its lips in a grin, showing even more teeth.

“Yes, you’re doing very well indeed! Most wouldn’t be able to speak for days.” The creature moved out of my line of sight. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t move my head to follow it, so I listened. There was clinking, scraping over wood. I thought I heard the sound of claws at one point. None of this, whatever it was, made me feel any better. In fact, I’m fairly certain I was about to be drawn into the throes of a panic attack.

The creature appeared again, this time much closer than it had been. I screamed — or groaned, which in my state was much the same thing — and the creature grinned wider. “Now, now, none of that. You’re in good hands, you are. Old Doctor Graveltoes will take care of you. Best in the Elsewhere, that’s right.”

Nothing in that speech made any sense to me. I opened my mouth to protest louder and hopefully draw someone else’s attention. The moment I did, this Graveltoes poured a warm liquid down my throat. It tasted of dirt and spoiled potatoes. I gagged, but considering I was completely prone, had no choice but to swallow it.

The effect was immediate. The tingling in my limbs lessened and my headache lessened. I felt that I could actually move my joints, though not far. The world suddenly seemed clearer.

Which was about the point that I remembered just what I had done to bring me here.

I had made a deal with Death.

I couldn’t go back to my life. Everything I knew was gone. I was way, way out of my element.

“Yes, you’re understanding returns,” Graveltoes nodded sagely. I turned my head to look at the spindly creature and it nodded. “Good, good. Another dose in an hour, and you’ll be right as rain. The Master wants to see you. Sent me in to make certain you were fit for visiting.”

I struggled to sit up and take some control of the situation. Graveltoes clucked like an old woman and helped me. “Where…?” was about all I could manage.

“Give it time, human,” the creature said, rolling its bulbous eyes with impatience. “Always rushing about. You’d think you were going to die at any moment.”

Graveltoes started laughing violently and had to go support itself by the white wall to keep from falling over. I frowned, wanting to roll my eyes myself. My head still hurt too much for that. Thankfully, we were interrupted before the creature could make any more terrible jokes, or pour any more foul liquid down my throat.

The door — one I hadn’t noticed before, on the opposite wall — opened, letting Death in. Maybe it was because the room was so white, or because we were in Death’s realm, but his skin seemed blacker than usual. Shadows wreathed themselves around him and trailed behind him. He still wore the immaculate three-piece suit. This time, though, I noticed the Italian leather shoes and the neat red pocket square. Death, believe it or not, was a dandy.

“You are recovering,” he said, striding into the room.

Graveltoes grovelled at Death’s feet, twisting his shoulders while looking at Death in some sort of strange, twisted bow. “I have given the human the draught. He improves.”

“Good. You may go,” Death waved a hand. Graveltoes bowed deeper and slipped out of the room, closing the door. It was probably a sign of my mental disturbance that I found being alone with Death more comforting than that gremlin-goblin creature.

Death pulled a chair up and sat beside the bed. I was fairly certain the chair hadn’t been there before, but I wasn’t going to say anything. Not that I could say anything. My throat continued to remain closed.

“I trust you are improving?” Death said, as though he didn’t know.

“What… happened?” I staggered out, my voice sounding rough even to my own ears. I really wanted some water, but there was none in sight. Only more of that dreadful liquid.

“I stripped you of your life force, replacing it with my own power. You had to be bound to me in order to enter my domain without issue. Most immortals would have few problems, but humans are notoriously fragile.”

I glared. He could have warned me.

“If I had warned you, it would not have made things any more pleasant,” Death said. Great, now he was a mind reader. “You made the deal willingly. That will lessen the aftereffects greatly. Another few hours and you should be able to walk around. I will send someone for a tour, then.”

“Am I… dead?” I managed. Death smiled and shook his head, the shadows moving with him.

“You are not dead, per se. You are not alive, either. You have, essentially, become an immortal without having magic in your blood. Were I a master of Time, then you would be simply… stuck. As it is, you simply are. No more, no less.” Death waved his long fingers and I felt the last traces of myself quaver.

I wasn’t dead. I wasn’t alive. That meant I couldn’t die, either. I couldn’t age, couldn’t be killed. That was, in some sense, very cool. It was what so many people dreamed of. What doctors worked for. But it was also the only part of my life I still had. I couldn’t visit my friends, my family, any of it. I might as well have never existed. And now my humanity was being taken from me, too.

I clenched my jaw. No. I might not be mortal anymore, but I was still human. I had to be. Right?

“I can see the implications of our deal were not quite fully realised upon sealing,” Death said, turning his vacant eyes on me. “There will be a period of adjustment, I would imagine.”

“Where… are we?” My voice was slightly clearer.

“This room is part of the hospital. Dr. Graveltoes oversees the patients. Given that he mostly has to deal with such creatures as do not get sick or die, he was quite eager to meet you,” Death said. I waited, not encouraged that I was a source of curiosity to Graveltoes. “As to the rest, we are in Elsewhere.”

“Sorry?” I coughed. Death waved his hand and a glass of water — with a straw, even — appeared. I took it eagerly, doing my best to ignore the strain as I moved.

“Elsewhere. It is the land of the immortals, of magic and everything that humanity has forgotten. Some call it Avalon, some call it the spirit world, but it is all the same place. My realm occupies but a small portion of Elsewhere.”

“But you’re Death,” I said, sipping more water. “Shouldn’t you control all the souls? Like the Underworld or the afterlife or whatever?’

Death threw back his head and laughed. The sound was highly unusual, like receiving an electric shock. All the hair on my body stood on end and I was fairly certain that my heart stopped for a moment. It wasn’t beautiful. Nor did it fill me with a feeling of joy or pleasure or elation. It was, frankly, mildly terrifying. “My dear human,” Death grinned, pulling a finger under his empty eye socket as though he were wiping away tears. “I am not responsible for the souls of those who die! I only cause death. I am a ferryman, if even that. What happens afterwards is something far more complex and personal and powerful. Even I am not privy to the mysteries of that!”

He chuckled for a moment longer and I tried to force my heart rate down. This job was going to be a lot more complicated than I thought.

“I’m sure you have more questions, but I have duties to attend to,” Death flicked his wrist, almost like checking a watch. He wasn’t wearing a watch. “I will send your assistant to you and she can get you acquainted with your duties and the Elsewhere. I will have transportation sent once Dr. Graveltoes decides you are fit.”

“Uh.. okay,” I said, suddenly feeling very tired. Death nodded and rose, striding to the door in his strange, graceful glide. He didn’t turn back as he left. I wasn’t sure I wanted him to do so.

I woke some time later with the uncomfortable feeling that I was being watched. I opened my eyes and adjusted my glasses, blinking to clear the blurriness away. I yelped.

Sure enough, I was being watched. Closely.

This creature was built along the lines of a runningback: massive shoulders, thick neck, a head that could probably go through a brick wall. The creature’s skin was a deep grey colour, pebbled with what looked like beads that made a shimmering effect under the white light. It was completely bald and had oversized, twisted features. A squashed nose, blinking great eyes reflecting bright green, a brow line that would have looked suitable on a sculpture of early man. I saw all of this in great detail, but could see no more of the creature because it was leaning disturbingly close to my bed. And my face.

After I jerked away with my yelp, the creature straightened and grinned, revealing an incongruous set of perfectly straight teeth. “Ah, you are awake! I wasn’t sure how long you would sleep. How long do humans normally sleep?”

“Er, about eight hours a night,” I replied. Honestly, how do you reply differently to that question. “Sorry, who are you?”

“I am Yolanda. Your assistant. Death assigned me to help you,” the creature said, nodding firmly. I took another look and sure enough, this creature was built along the lines of a female. A massive one. I closed my eyes and swallowed, taking a moment.

I looked at Yolanda again, “Sorry… I don’t mean to be rude, but what are you?”

Yolanda laughed, the sound doing nothing like what Death’s laugh had done. There was some relief in that. “You are not rude, human, you are ignorant. There is a difference. I am a troll.”

“A troll,” I repeated somewhat weakly.

“Rock troll. Not like those cave trolls. They’re nasty, they are. They think anything that walks above ground is a waste of space. And they’re mean when they can’t find enough food,” Yolanda rolled her eyes. My goodness, she sounded almost exactly like my old assistant Rachel. The same gossipy conversation, the same amount of overinformation. It was so bizarre.

“Right,” I tried to smile, but it was about as weak as my voice. “Um, I’m Cal. It’s good to meet you.”

Yolanda took my hand and shook it firmly, which felt like all my bones were being squished together. “You think I’m ugly and scary. Most humans do. But you will learn. There are things that are far more dangerous than a troll. And I’m a good worker. I know all about computers. Python, Java, web design, all of it. I even hacked into the vampire wifi once, just to see if I could.”

I let out a chuckle, surprised by the honesty of the sound. “Yolanda, I think we’ll get on just fine.”

She beamed at me.

Graveltoes approved me for duty about ten minutes after Yolanda woke me up. I swallowed down another of those vial draughts and my headache was nearly gone. Yolanda helped me out of bed and we tottered down to the street, where Death said his transportation would meet us.

I had sort of expected a ghostly carriage with spectral horses, perhaps with fire coming out of their noses or their skeletons showing through. If not that, then maybe a hearse, driven by a solemn and probably dead chauffeur. What I did not expect was a 1920s style Rolls Royce phantom, with a lean looking chauffeur leaning against it. This chauffeur looked perfectly normal: black suit, shoes, human face and body.

Maybe it was that one instance of normality, but I nearly sagged to the ground in relief. I wasn’t in a world surrounded by monsters and inhuman things that I had no name for. I was in a place that was different — wildly so — but still had things like cars and perfectly normal chauffeurs. For all I knew, he was another human like me, dragged to this world at the Instant of Death.

Then, the chauffeur lifted his head and I saw his eyes. Empty with twin blue flames were the eyes should be. It wasn’t like Death, where the emptiness held power and vast amounts of it. They weren’t even truly empty sockets. There was just fire where the eyes should be. And it was with hunger that the chauffeur looked at Yolanda and myself.

I let out a whimper, barely audible, as we slid into the back seat of the car. At least, I thought it was barely audible. The chauffeur lifted his eyebrows in surprise and Yolanda just shrugged her massive shoulders, patting me on the leg. “He’s human. New to Elsewhere. Doesn’t know a troll from a goblin.”

“I see,” the chauffeur said. His voice was like ice, sending a shiver up my spine. I took a deep breath. I had to be polite. I had to win these people over. How could I be a good marketing agent if I couldn’t even do that? That was my job, now. My purpose. My only tie to everything I had left behind.

And I failed miserably. I couldn’t manage a smile or a polite nod of the head. All I managed to do was stare, wide-eyed, at my hands. I could barely control the trembling. The chauffeur, thank goodness, didn’t seem bothered by this. He just closed the door and walked around to the front of the car.

“Wraiths are always a bit difficult,” Yolanda said, patting me on the knee again. “They have such a hard time controlling their hunger.”

“Hunger for what?” My voice came out as a squeak.

“Life,” she said with a shrug. “That’s why they work for Death. No one else would have them. But they’re not all bad. Yggdral there is one of the nicest I know. Well, except for that lapse on Christmas. The staff was never quite the same after that.”

I was silent. What could I say to that? I was trembling in my shoes and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Only thing was, I had to figure it out quickly or things were going to look very badly indeed for the late Cal Thorpe. What happened if I accidentally offended someone because I didn’t know what was going on? Would that offence result in my actual death? Could Death even stop that? If I were so stupid as to do something like that, I wasn’t certain Death would stop it.

“Yolanda,” I said slowly, looking up from my hands about ten minutes into the drive. “Is there some sort of guide I can read to Elsewhere?”

Yolanda tilted her head. “No one’s ever bothered to write it down. Or been allowed to. Lots of races have their little secrets, you know, and they don’t like others knowing about it. Take us rock trolls. I don’t mind telling you, because you wouldn’t use it against us, right?”

“No, of course not!” I widened my eyes to reassure her. As far as I was concerned, trolls were about the nicest people I had met so far.

Yolanda smiled, revealing those strangely straight teeth again. “Well, rock trolls love salt. Salty food, that is. The crystals are useless when they’re not in food. Not even very pretty to look at. You can get some of us to do almost anything for salty food.”

“Like popcorn?” I tried cracking a smile. I don’t think it broke my face or anything.

“Exactly like popcorn,” Yolanda said with a fluttery sigh. “But they don’t make it very well here. So many things hate salt in Elsewhere. So we have to sneak over to the mortal realms and steal as much as we can. We get into a lot of trouble that way.”

“Trouble? Like with the humans seeing you or something? Surely they couldn’t hurt you,” I laughed weakly. Yolanda took the joke and laughed louder, the sound shaking the car.

“Humans hurt a troll?! Ha! You are so funny!” she shook her massive shoulders and threw her head back. “No, we have to look out for the Guards. They keep the Elsewhere separate. They’re like your, ah… lawyers? People who arrest you and lock you up?”

“Police,” I corrected. It occurred to me, with that small lapse, that I had no idea how all these creatures knew English. Or so much about the human world. The vocabulary. If the Elsewhere had Guards to keep people separate, surely they didn’t cross over much. Did they?

“Right, police,” Yolanda nodded. “Anyways, the Guards keep things separate. They have a pretty good grip on things. Of course, there are places where they have no authority at all. The ones whose magic is still connected to the mortal realms, for one. Or whose magic is old enough to stretch back before the split between the realms. There aren’t many of those about anymore.”

“Er, does everyone have magic here?” I asked, alarmed. How was I meant to defend myself against a world of magic?

“No,” Yolanda snorted. The normally chatty troll kept quiet long enough to tell me that was the end of that conversation. Instead, I busied myself with looking out the window.

I nearly threw myself back into a state of panic.

It was almost like the real world. The mortal realms, I mean. There were trees and plants and walls and roads and even buildings that looked vaguely familiar. But it was so much more, too. The trees were taller and seemed more aware than anything I had ever come across. The plants were vibrant colours that never existed in nature. The buildings were all from a world that was hundreds of years gone. They looked like a reconstruction of a medieval period, but everything was in perfect order and I doubted had ever been subject to the ravages of time.

We were moving too fast to see any real detail, but I did see a massive shape off in the distance that could have been a dragon. There were shapes that looked like people, but with wings stretching behind them, or curling horns sprouting out of their heads. Some shapes didn’t look like people at all, but more like Yolanda or Graveltoes. There were things walking on four legs that looked like no animal I had ever seen. I wanted to take it all in, to ask questions about everything. We kept driving, though.

For the rest of the drive, I had my nose pressed to the window. Maybe I was still hallucinating. Maybe I was in a hospital in a coma and would never wake up. Maybe all of this was real. But whatever it was, it was amazing.

“Is everything like this in Elsewhere?” I asked as we turned off the main drag.

Yolanda looked out the window and gave a casual ‘huh’. “Not everywhere. Some places are much nicer. There’s the Icelands, of course, for beings of Winter. And there’s the Lakes, for the water creatures. I like Death’s lands, myself, but I’m biased.”

I was about to ask what Death’s lands were like, but I saw for myself. It was as if we had suddenly leaped from one place to the next. The colours shifted, changed to a more silver and grey and blue spectrum. There were still plants and trees, but it was as if they were ghosts of the things. Yet they were more vital, pulsating with a shadowy power. I did not see any houses along the road. There were no creatures moving about, no animals, no sign of civilisation at all. Like the lands were holding their breath.

Beautiful, yet. But deadly and haunting.

“The Lands of Silence,” Yolanda sighed, like a weary traveller returning home. “Welcome to your new home, Cal.”

This was going to take some getting used to.

The rest of my day and the next one after that seemed completely normal by comparison. I was given access to a very large house that held my living space and my offices. There was even a sign outside the door: Cal Thorpe Marketing.

The house itself was far larger than anything I could have even considered affording in the city. I was pretty certain it was original Victorian style, and it had all the stones, slate roof, carved reliefs and crawling ivy to match. Only, the ivy was a silvery grey, the reliefs all showed images of people dying and the house looked like it had never been lived in before. At least the interior was modern.

The inside was split into two separate sections. The front of the house held my offices. They were done in the most modern minimalist fashion, with greys and whites everywhere, the furniture of black leather, the decorations of steel and glass. My desk, though, was curiously old fashioned: heavy, solid wood with hand-carved detail and drawers that locked with skeleton keys. I had all the newest computers to play with and Yolanda fairly squealed over her alcove and desk, set slightly away from the reception area.

The living space was a study in contrast to the office. Where the office had been modern, the living space was old fashioned. Dark, heavy colours, swooping bookshelves, wooden furniture that one person couldn’t lift on his own. It was a little oppressive, to be honest. Thank goodness, though, someone had thought ahead about plumbing, heating, cooling and every other modern convenience.

The weird part was that all of my belongings from my apartment back in the real world was there. It had been unpacked and put away exactly as I would have done, down to the towels in the linen closet. There was even human food in the kitchen — all the best products.

After a day of puttering around, exploring the area and seeing where, exactly, my toothbrush had been stowed, I was permanently wearing a confused and stunned expression. I shuffled into my office, wearing slacks and a sweater that had been brought over and put in my closet.

“You look funny,” Yolanda said, swivelling in the oversized office chair behind her desk.

“Do I?”

Yolanda nodded. “Yes. Are we going to start working, now?”

I looked around. This was the whole point of my being here. To work. To market Death. I could stall by doing research on Elsewhere, about the creatures I was likely to interact with, but that would be denying the obvious. My life had changed. It was time to get over that and start doing what I did best.

“Alright,” I said. “I want you to set up social media accounts. Pintrest, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr. Not Facebook. They’ve had enough problems recently without adding Death to the mix. Are there any others you can think of?”

“WhoWhere,” Yolanda said. I blinked. “It’s an Elsewhere-specific service. Like Facebook and that one a few years ago…”

“Myspace? Linkedin?” I asked.

“Google!” Yolanda grinned. I struggled to wrap my mind around the two concepts merging into one and failed. “I will set them all up.”

“Great. Do we have access to pictures? For the profile. And I’d like to get following some of his friends or associates before we do any posting. Is there anyone I can interview that has worked closely with Death? Or friends? I’d like to get a sense of him and what he does. How he interacts with people. I need a strategy and I need a sense of Death to work out what I need to do.”

Yolanda screwed up her face in thought. “I do not know his friends. I do not interact with him, only work for him.”

I scowled. “There has to be somebody. Marketing campaigns are personal things. I’m selling a person, dealing with his public appearances, making sure people like him. Want to work with him, or recognise him. He said he needed image help. But why? What have people been saying about him?”

Yolanda shrugged, looking a bit wary. “There are a couple of associates I could, ah, call in…”

“Do it,” I nodded. She blinked and hunched her shoulders, but nodded, turning to the computer and phone on her desk. I left her to it and went to my own desk, pulling up the same social media sites I had mentioned to Yolanda. My old life didn’t exist anymore, so I needed to start from scratch. And no good marketing agent didn’t market himself.

I spent the next two hours figuring out my social media platforms. I had to take new pictures of myself with my phone and scowled at the result. It would have to work for now. I trolled — no pun intended — the platforms for information about Death and made a few notes. Basically, everyone was terrified of him. I noticed this because the pictures where Death showed up were at almost ritualistic formal events, and everyone’s expression was tense. Or, I think they were tense. It was hard to tell when half of them didn’t have humanoid faces. Death didn’t appear in the comments or tags at all.

I was so engrossed in the new platform WhoWhere, which, surprisingly, did exactly what Yolanda had said, when someone knocked on my door. I jerked, flew backwards into my chair and held a hand to my heart. “Don’t do that!” I scolded Yolanda.

She looked sheepish, but cleared her throat and stepped aside. “Cal, this is Mercy, from the Order of Silence… she’s an, ah, associate of Death.”

I stood up as quickly as I could manage and plastered a smile on my face. I hardly noticed the features of the person who glided in. “Welcome! How good of you to come. Please, have a seat.”

Mercy moved forwards and I finally noticed her beyond the haze of my excitement. She was exactly what I had expected immortal, magical beings to look like. She was tall and slender, with no small amount of muscle under her medieval dress. Her skin was the colour of caramel and her hair was a shade of white you saw in television. Her face was sharp and solemn, and her eyes shone an iridescent blue. She was beautiful. Inhumanly beautiful. I felt my knees wobbling and the purely male part of my brain sat up to attention.

Mercy moved forwards until she was standing before the chair opposite my desk. She appraised me a moment, eyes piercing. Then, moving more gracefully than most professional dancers, she sat.

“Thank you so much for coming,” I said, sitting as well. Yolanda hovered in the background, shifting from foot to foot and looking extremely uncomfortable. I didn’t know why. “So, you work with Death?”

“I… contract with him as the occasional calls for it,” Mercy said. Her voice was like a whisper of silk over sin and I shivered. “My primary work is with the Order of Silence.”

“Er… the Order of Silence?” I asked.

“It is not for you to know, mortal,” Mercy sniffed. I swallowed before I started salivating.

“Okay,” I agreed readily. Perhaps too readily, but there was plenty of time for me to poke around later. “So, what do you do for Death?”

She raised her chin, revealing the smooth lines of her neck. “I am Mercy.”

“It’s a beautiful name,” I agreed. She frowned, the movement not marring her looks at all.

“You do not understand,” she scoffed. Yolanda widened her eyes at me and tried to make some sort of gesture with her hands. I had no idea what she was doing, but I wasn’t going to be distracted from my conversation.

Mercy flicked her eyes to mine and held my stare. It was mesmerising at first, then a pressure started building behind my eyes. I tried to move away, tried to blink, speak, anything, but I was completely frozen. And I could feel myself needing to beg for release. If I didn’t, I would surely endure more pain than I had ever endure before. I would break; nothing would be left of me but a shell. Mercy blinked and curled her lip.

“I am Mercy,” she repeated. “It is not my name, human. It is everything I embody.”

I managed to swallow down a whimper, but barely. Instead, I sat back in my chair and folded my hands in my lap to keep from trembling. I looked at Yolanda in desperation, hoping that she would have some sort of explanation. The troll woman shuffled forwards, dipping her head respectfully to Mercy as she came within the woman’s line of sight.

“She is Death’s swiftest,” Yolanda said, keeping her eyes fixed firmly on the floor.

“Swiftest what?” I asked. My voice came out in a sort of squeak.

“Assassin,” Mercy said. Her voice held the impersonal, emotionless tones you would expect of a stranger passing you in the street. My panting attraction and lust shrivelled up, only to be replaced by a healthy dose of fear.

“I.. ah, I see,” I said. Mercy raised her eyebrows and blinked slowly. “Death can’t do all the work, I suppose.”

Mercy coughed out a small laugh. I could see the disdain on her features. “Foolish human, Death does not kill.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I was a bit stunned by this revelation. “Uh, what? He’s Death, of course he kills.”

“No. Mortals kill. Disease kills. I kill. We are tangible. We can affect the world, bring about change,” Mercy explained slowly, like I was a child. At this point, I was grateful for any help I could get. “Death is an act. An event. A facilitator.”

I nodded, typing out my notes furiously. “And that’s why he hires you.”

“— and me!” a new voice called. A person, just as stunningly beautiful as Mercy, appeared in the doorway. Where Mercy was cold and distant, this man was effusive and almost absurdly cheerful. His colouring was almost the opposite of Mercy’s, too, with pale skin and dark brown hair. And, unlike her kirtle and gown, he wore the latest style: slim slacks, a white t-shirt and scarf over that, draped artistically over his shoulders. The odd thing, though, was that where Mercy had eyes that nearly glowed, this man wore a blindfold over his eyes.

“You started without me,” he complained, striding in with the same grace as Mercy. He paused beside her chair and gestured to the one in the corner. With a burst of air, it flew over to him and settled down. There was no hint that he couldn’t see because of the blindfold.

Yolanda shifted farther away from the pair of them and muttered something under her breath. “What?” I asked and she blushed. It was an interesting thing to see, on a troll. Her cheeks turned a bright shade of green and if she had been remotely human, I would have thought she was going to be ill.

“Don’t worry,” the newcomer said, flicking his hand dismissively. “Trolls and sylphs don’t often get along.”

“Sylphs?” I was beginning to feel like a child thrust into a college economics class.

“Air spirits. Not quite angel-class, but more than mere faeries,” the stranger smiled. He leaned forwards and extended his hand. “I’m Justice.”

That explained the blindfold.

“Ah, Cal,” I said, shaking his hand. His skin was like ice, and tingled with electricity. I tried to discreetly shake my hand under cover of my desk, but I’m fairly certain I failed. “You… you’re an assassin too? With the, what is it, Order of Silence?”

Justice threw back his head and laughed. Mercy regarded him with something akin to distaste. It was the most emotion I had seen from her since our meeting. “The Order? Please. Those superstitious old bats are so boring. The only good thing about them is dear Mercy here.”

“You disrespect the oldest keepers of Rituali in Elsewhere!” Mercy said, her voice heated even if her face didn’t show it. Justice made a noise in the back of his throat.

“If you must know, Cal, I don’t attach myself to anyone. I work for Death occasionally, but sometimes I work in the legal system. I float around, mostly. Dealing out people’s just desserts,” he flashed his teeth in a predatory smile. I decided that of the two, Mercy was probably my favourite. Justice scared the living daylights out of me.

“Oh, ah, how interesting,” I said politely. Marketing, Cal. Public relations. You must keep on these people’s good side. “So, I asked you here to get a sense of Death. You know he wants me to be his marketing agent. And to do that, I need to know what he’s like.”

Both Mercy and Justice gaped at me. Mercy stared with her eyes boring into me and Justice just looked like a fish. “You want to know what Death is like…” Mercy said slowly, as if trying to confirm what I was saying. As though the words coming out of my mouth were absolutely insane.

“Marketing campaigns are all about the personal touch,” I said, my smile a touch more forced than it should have been.

Mercy choked back a sound and Justice just continued to gape. I was just about to launch into my strategy for marketing, starting with my own experiences and what I had gathered so far, when the world simply shuddered.

I clutched the arms of my chair in desperation. There was a noise like fingernails on a chalkboard, or bad violin players. I clapped my hands over my ears and promptly fell out of the chair because of it. A moment later, and everything stopped. Silence fell over the room like a heavy blanket.

“What,” I panted, clawing my way back into the chair, “was that?”

Yolanda swallowed audibly. Justice looked like a wolf, baring his fangs just before eating. Mercy’s eyes shone the brighter. But both sylphs also trembled. Whether in fear, or excitement, I never did find out.

“We’d better get over to the main house,” Yolanda said, her voice shaking.

“Why? What’s going on?” I asked. What I really wanted to know was whether I should be running away.

“His wife,” Yolanda squeaked.

The four of us went to the main house as quickly as possible. Which is to say that Mercy and Justice ran ahead, leaping and running as if they were floating. Yolanda and I took a much slower path, jogging lightly behind them. I was so shocked by the idea that Death was married that I hardly had time to feel awe over the massive mansion looming in our view. It, like everything else here, was from another time and perfectly preserved. That wasn’t important.

What was important was that Yolanda was looking like someone had threatened her. She was obviously terrified. And if someone could scare her, then my own weak, human, killable self should be running away.

“You’re a troll,” I said, panting, “shouldn’t you be offering to protect me from this?”

Yolanda shot me a wide-eyed look, “Trolls may be scary to humans, but in Elsewhere, we’re not the biggest, baddest ones around. I would have thought Justice and Mercy would have clued you in to that.”

“Yeah, but they’re trained,” I pointed out. We caught up to the two sylphs as they were slowing to the front door. They’re steps were calm and collected, as if they hadn’t run here on the back of the wind. “Surely most people here—”

“You would do well to take heed of the troll’s fears, human,” Mercy said, smoothing the skirt of her dress. Justice just grinned wolfishly again and knocked three times on the massive wooden doors. I gulped.

Yolanda patted my shoulder, making my already-trembling legs buckle. “Death will protect you.”

Yes, because that was a comforting thought.

The doors swung open with no one to open them and we stepped inside. The interior of Death’s mansion was even more grand than I could have imagined. It was reminiscent of one of the old opera houses or theatres, with marble floors, grand carvings, staircases that spun and twisted magnificently upwards. There were sculptures in many nooks along the wall, some smaller pieces by famous artists. There were paintings on the walls and I was fairly certain that I would never have been able to afford a viewing here, while I was alive.

“This way,” Justice said, turning down a hallway set behind a hidden door. After we had gotten away from the main room, the house became decidedly more ordinary. The floors were done in hardwood, there were simple paintings on the wall and the furniture was well-used and comfortable. The front of the house was a sham. A facade. And whoever was here — wife of Death or not — was familiar enough with my boss to push right past it.

I definitely felt like I didn’t belong.

Blind Justice led us through a maze of corridors until we wound up in a simple living room of sorts. There were couches and club chairs arrayed near the windows, all done in tasteful leather. The floor boasted a well-worn rug before a massive fireplace. Two of the walls had floor-to-ceiling fireplaces. This was a room for comfort and privacy and never needing to see people you didn’t want. It was not a place for the tension I could feel in the air.

Death was sitting in one of the club chairs, one long leg crossed over the others. He was being confronted by a woman who put Mercy and Justice’s beauty to shame. She was tall, full-figured and had an aura of vitality that was impossible to miss. I couldn’t tell you what colour her hair was, or whether her skin was light or dark. All I knew was that she was stunning and regal. You wanted to fight for her, be with her, experience her moods and interests. I didn’t know what Yolanda was about. This woman wasn’t terrifying. She was intoxicating.

Then, she turned around. Her eyes were bright and flashed with more colours than I could name. I felt my heart beating faster. Sweat broke out on my skin. Then, she smiled, showing predatory fangs and hitting me with a wave of pleasure.

“Husband,” the woman crooned, glancing over her shoulder at Death, “aren’t you going to introduce us?”

Death appraised me and I’m sure he saw how I felt about this woman. But he did no more than sigh and nod slowly. “Very well. My dear, this is Cal Thorpe, my new marketing agent. Cal, this is my wife. Life.”

For a second, I couldn’t quite process the name. I thought he was just being poetic. Then, I realised, he was being literal. Just like Mercy and Justice, this woman embodied her name. I didn’t think she was a sylph, though, some creature who had adopted the attributes enough to encompass her identity. No, like Death, this woman was Life.

“A pleasure,” she purred, holding out her hand. I reached for it and, with a blur of motion, found myself being thrown backwards into a chair. Death was on his feet, hands clenched into fists, features twisting into an expression of anger.

“Do not touch him,” Death hissed. Life laughed, the sound tinkling and beautiful.

“So possessive,” she said. “There’s no reason to be. After all, you stole him from me, did you not?”

“Uh, what?” I asked quietly. Yolanda sidled up to me and held a finger to her lips. Got it. Watch, don’t interfere. These were heavyweights and I was about as light as a feather by comparison.

“How could I have stolen him from you?” Death asked, regaining his calm. “I took him at the Instant of Death, which is my domain. He was no longer yours.”

“But I can feel it,” Life said, frowning. “You took his life-force from him. He is immortal, now.”

“He works for me,” Death replied, sitting back in his chair.

“Oh, please, may I have him?” Life pressed forwards, falling to her knees and draping her hands over Death’s knee. The picture of a docile and submissive wife. “Humans are so vital, so full. And this one can never die.”

“No,” Death said in a tone that brooked no nonsense. “He is bound to me.”

Life snarled and flew backwards, curling her fingers into claws. She drew her shoulders up and I could feel the raw power of hers crackling in the air. Death frowned, the shadows around him writhing. He raised a hand and dispelled the power, leaving an empty feeling in my chest. No matter that I was bound to Death, I really, really wanted to be with Life.

“Enough of this,” Death said. He gestured to a chair and Life huffed, sitting. “Tell me what it is that brought you here. As you can see, I am rather busy.”

Life glanced casually over Mercy and Justice and ignored Yolanda completely. “Yes,” she snorted, “I can see that. Your hired rabble is here to play.”

“And your hired rabble,” Justice smiled, bowing at the waist. “After all, dear Life, I work for you a good deal of the time.”

Life curled her lip and turned her head away. “I suppose. Though you are hardly that helpful. Those pitiful mortals demand justice, demand that I be fair. Foolish, wouldn’t you agree?”

Justice flushed and said nothing. Mercy, to her credit, reached out and touched him gently on the arm. Her face still betrayed no emotion. I still found the two of them terrifying, but they suddenly didn’t feel like the biggest gun in the room. Whether that was my boss or his wife, though, I didn’t know.

All I wanted to do was marketing. Couldn’t I just be left alone to do that?

“My dear, please. Your presence is disruptive to my entire realm,” Death flicked a piece of dust off his knee, the picture of the long-suffering. “What have you come to say?”

Life huffed, indignant. “Very well,” she said. “I want to know why you killed my warrior.”

“Your warrior?” Death asked.

“Magnus.” Life let out a little sigh at the end of his name. “I went to spend the day with him and found that he had died. You knew I liked him.”

“Magnus? That Norwegian chap? Oh, for goodness sakes, I didn’t kill him,” Death said. He held up a hand, “Nor did I contract out with anyone to have him killed. Disease made no motions and I would have known if there had been an accident.”

Life surged to her feet, seeming to grow taller. Her power crackled around her again, pushing the air out of the room. This time, even Death seemed stunned. Mercy blinked and raised her eyebrows in shock. Justice curled his shoulders forwards. And Yolanda, bless her, stepped slightly in front of me. I just stayed slumped against the couch, deciding that it was probably best I stayed quiet.

“You liar!” Life screamed. Her voice split the air and the ground shook again, just as it had in my office. Death clenched his jaw and everything stilled, but there was distinct trembling beneath my feet. “Magnus was dead! His belly cut open as he slept! How can you sit there and say you did not kill him?!”

“Because I didn’t!” This time Death stood. He faced Life down, his shadows dispersing throughout the room. I felt some of the tension disperse and a piece of me relaxed slightly. Death’s power, I realised. I was bound to him, so I felt it.

“Don’t think I don’t know why you did it,” Life stepped forwards, baring her teeth.

“I haven’t done it, so stop saying I have,” Death growled. He didn’t move forwards to counter Life; he just became more solid while everything around him faded slightly. “How can you question this? I am Death. Magnus can’t be dead if I didn’t play a part. And I didn’t play a part!”

“I know you’re lying,” Life snapped. “But of course you would deny it, Husband. Don’t you hate me enough? Do you have to ruin everything I have, too?”

“I am perfectly happy with our arrangement. You stay away from me and I stay away from you. We only have to meet at official functions. If you think I hated you that much, then why would I do something that would bring you here?” Death stood taller, but he still looked up to the engorged figure of Life. She snarled a wordless sound and spun around, pacing the room.

“Because I loved Magnus,” she said, turning violently as she stalked towards the other end of the room. “And you couldn’t possibly stand to see me happy.”

“That is ridiculous,” Death scoffed. “Why do I care if you loved him? The mortal would have come to me in the end. They all do.”

Life screamed again, lunging for death, nails poised for raking. Death just extended one hand and Life stopped in her tracks, completely immobilised. His mouth tightened into a thin line and the empty holes of his eyes darkened with shadow. “Do not presume to test me,” he said, his voice low and furious. “I have listened to you ranting about your lost warrior, but no more. I tell you I did not do it.”

“Bastard,” Life hissed as he released her. She clenched her fists and looked like she was about to burst into flames. Then, her nostrils flared and she turned to me. A cruel, ruthless smile curled up her features. “Fine. If you can prove that you didn’t kill Magnus, then I’ll accept your word. If not, then I will do everything in my power to destabilise your realm.”

“And how would you suggest I prove this?” Death said softly, incredulously.

Life jerked her head in my direction, “You hired a marketing agent to protect your image. Use him.”

Then, she did burst into flames. Actual flames, bright enough that even after I closed my eyes the afterimage burned. When I could open my eyes again and see, the living room was still in one piece. There was a scorch mark in the rug, but it was being slowly healed.

Death sighed and sat back in his chair. He said nothing for a moment, then, “I really didn’t have anything to do with the death of her warrior.”

Mercy said nothing. Justice opened his mouth, then changed his mind and shrugged. “How could you not have? You’re Death. Anything that dies or crosses over or whatever is part of your domain,” Justice said.

“It is not an easy task,” Death said, “but it is possible. It has been done.”

“Really?” I asked. Everyone turned and looked at me. Okay, not a great time for asking questions. “Sorry,” I muttered.

“No, you have a right to know,” Death said. “You will be the one responsible for solving this… murder.”

I blinked. I looked up at Yolanda, who blinked. I blinked again. “You can’t be serious,” I said.

“Perfectly serious,” Death replied. “My other employees have a, hmmm, vested interest in my line of work. You are the only one who does not. And, being human, you have a free license to go anywhere and ask questions.”

“Like an idiotic foreigner who can’t find his way to the bus stop,” I said. Death smiled, though the smile didn’t reach his empty eyes.

“Precisely,” he said.

“You do realise I’m not an investigator. I’ve never had training, never worked on anything remotely close to an investigation. I don’t even like cop shows!” I said.

“Yolanda will render her assistance,” Death said.

“I haven’t had training either,” Yolanda said, though the words were hardly more than a whisper.

Death sighed and leaned back in his club chair. “I would not ask this of you unless I were desperate. My wife cannot actually kill me or do me direct harm, but she can make it very difficult for my subjects and my realm. And if she starts challenging me on every circumstance of a mortal dying, then I will have to take drastic action.”

“Drastic action?” I asked before I could clamp my mouth shut over the question. I really didn’t want to know, but sometimes my curiosity is a lot faster than my brain.

Death looked into the fireplace. The flames took on a black tinge and the temperature plummeted. “The last instance resulted in World War II.”

“Ah,” I said weakly. I looked up at Yolanda. She looked stunned. In fact, she looked so stunned that she stomped over to the other end of the couch and sat down. My end rose off the ground about a foot or so and I slid into her.

“I think this is going to be a lot of trouble,” she said frankly.

“I think you’re probably right,” Death agreed. The both of them looked at me.

I replied with a half-smile, “I guess your social media pages can wait.”

“I have no idea what I’m doing,” I said nearly an hour later. Yolanda was sitting across from me, holding a notebook on her lap. “I mean, where do you even start to investigate a murder?”

Yolanda tapped her mouth with the end of a pen. The writing instrument was dwarfed by her enormous hand and yet her handwriting still managed to be neater than mine. Some things just aren’t fair. “Well, the people in the television shows usually start with information about the victim.”

I latched onto her words like a lifeline. “Yes! Yes, we’ll do that. How do we do that? I mean, are we assuming that someone supernatural had something to do with this or that it was someone in my world. I mean, the mortal realm?”

“Well, if Death didn’t know about it, then someone from Elsewhere had to be involved,” Yolanda pointed out. I felt like an idiot. Of course some big baddy had to be involved.

I leaned back in my chair. “You want me to put together a marketing campaign, no problem. Deal with smear tactics against my clients? Sure, easy. But this? My goodness, it’s like a completely foreign language!”

Yolanda shifted in her chair and said nothing. I sighed.

“Alright, fine. I suppose we’ll have to go make a visit to Life and ask her about Magnus,” I said. Yolanda licked her lips nervously.

“We could… go talk to…” Yolanda struggled to come up with another person we could talk to.

“Face it,” I said, feeling a ball of nervousness in my stomach, “we’re going to have to talk to Life. She was the one who cared.”

“I don’t like leaving Death’s realms,” Yolanda whispered. I, on the other hand, was very interested to see what was beyond my boss’ lands. So far upon arrival, I had been poked by unidentified creatures, talked to assassins who probably wouldn’t hesitate to kill me, and been handed a job I couldn’t understand nor did I want. And this was only my second day here. I wanted to see those things I had glimpsed outside the car’s windows on my trip here. I wanted to learn more about Elsewhere.

But Yolanda was obviously scared. So, like the sympathetic boss I am, I nodded in understanding. “I’m afraid we’ll have to, though. How do we get around? Is there a way to contact Ygg… Egg…. the chauffeur?’

“Yggdral works for Death,” Yolanda rubbed her foot over the floor, not meeting my eyes.

“And what does that mean?” I asked slowly. Yolanda frowned and looked studiously at the floor.

“We’ll have to take… we’ll have to go by wyvern,” she said.

“Uh… what?”

“Wyvern. They’re trained to carry up to seven people,” Yolanda grumbled. “They’re the most reliable way of transportation if you don’t have a car and you don’t have magic.”

I knew she was unhappy, but I couldn’t help myself. I pushed my glasses up my nose and grinned.

It became apparent almost as soon as we got to the wyvern station why Yolanda hated it. First, the seats were made for people of relatively normal size. Yolanda was quite a bit bigger than that. But, more than that, we were sitting in the open air, barely strapped in. The wyvern wasn’t like a bus, either. It moved. It was extremely disconcerting to be jostled up and down or side to side every time the wyvern shifted.

They were fascinating creatures, though. I climbed up the steps and sat in the seat next to Yolanda. “Are all dragons this big?” I asked. I must have said it too loudly, because nearly everyone froze and turned their heads to look at me.

“Cal,” Yolanda said quietly, tying the leather straps as tightly as they would go. “Wyverns and dragons are not the same thing. Wyverns have two legs and are a lot more, ah, bestial in nature. Dragons are magically gifted and would slaughter you alive — slowly — for comparing them to wyverns.”

“Why? They’re just animals,” I said. I shrugged, “Okay, they’re really cool, magical animals, but still.”

Yolanda bared her teeth in what was closest to a grimace, “Don’t tell any dragon that. Ever.”

“Indeed,” a voice said. A person sitting in front of us turned and looked at me with thinly disguised contempt. He was pasty white with dark hair and eyes shadowed by a large fedora. He wore a white suit, which somehow managed to clash with his skin, and gloves on his hands. In fact, every part of him was covered by something. And, if that weren’t obvious enough, when he smiled at my ignorance, there were fangs showing. I didn’t bother asking Yolanda any questions, but I figured I’d wait and see what happened. We wouldn’t want me reduced to a pile of dust because I’d mistaken a goblin or something for a vampire.

“Dragons are some of the most intelligent beings known in Elsewhere,” the man continued in a smooth drawl. “They only resemble wyverns in looks. They’re certainly not related.”

“Thanks for the tip,” I said, doing my best to maintain my polite smile. These people had nothing on Old Lady Harcourt, I thought.

“You must be new to be so stupid,” the man said. “Or were you brought along for the troll’s snack?”

“Actually, I’m marketing agent for Death,” I said cheerfully. I held out my hand. “Cal Thorpe. And this is my assistant, Yolanda.”

For some strange reason, this introduction caught the man’s attention. He perked up and took my hand eagerly, “A pleasure, Cal. May I call you Cal? Oh, wonderful. I’m Prince Thaddeus Bartholomew Yannick Wentworth, of the House Vampyr. You’re a marketing agent, you say?”

“I am,” I nodded. “I deal with pretty much anything my clients need. Public relations, image boosting, general marketing campaigns. I can find the best way to make a person look fantastic at events. I’ve done poster design and advertisements and… well, I mean that’s what I used to do. It’s a bit different, here. I’m not doing much marketing at the moment.”

I didn’t want to get too involved in my current problems. Who knew what the people in Elsewhere would say when they learned of what had happened. I didn’t even know if this sort of thing was normal? Did people know about the broken marriage of Life and Death? Did people care about supernatural occurrences that were far from normal? I realised, just then, how much research I had to do. It was like starting my entire understanding of the world from scratch.

“That’s such a shame,” Prince Thaddeus said. “If you ever want to get into marketing, then please let me know.”

“Er, okay?” I said, slightly confused.

“It’s so difficult to get a good idea of who we are when you can’t even take a picture of us! No social media updates except boring text. And who wants to read that when they could look at a picture? And not to mention that we can’t even look in mirrors to figure out if what we’re wearing looks good on us. We have to rely on everyone else to tell us,” Thaddeus complained, waving his hands dramatically.

I exchanged a look with Yolanda, who shrugged.

“There was this one time that my aunt Margery had to be at a Faerie Solstice ball and ended up the butt of everyone’s jokes. Her brother — not my father — had decided to tell her that she looked wonderful in a bright yellow monstrosity. It was horrible.”

“I imagine,” I said. I must have looked extremely confused, because Prince Thaddeus threw back his head and started laughing. I noticed that when he did, not even a little bit of his skin touched the sunlight. That was quite the hat.

“You must be confused,” he said, purring like a cat. “But the fact is, most of the mortal stories have it wrong. Yes, we’re put off by garlic and wooden stakes and crosses and all that, but we’re also incredibly vain. It’s a by-product of not being able to see what you look like in a world of beautiful things. We want to be beautiful as well. So people like you — who deal with image and perception — are like jewels to us.”

“That is both gratifying and terrifying,” I said with my best cheerful smile. Yolanda nudged me with her elbow. I winced and glared at her. She widened her eyes, probably as a warning.

“Oh, don’t worry,” Thaddeus said. “We don’t kill people like you. You’re too valuable.”

I was about to say something more, expressing relief, when Yolanda cut in, her voice sharp, “But you can enthral them.”

I recoiled and looked up at my assistant in shock. “Enthral?”

“They used to require a taste of your blood,” Yolanda spat, “but now it is easy enough to mesmerise with the voice. A whisper here, a word in the ear there and your free will goes away.”

Thaddeus looked like he was about to say something when the wyvern lurched. Two flaps of the enormous wings out to either side and we were airborne. The wind, thankfully, became too loud for any real conversation. Yolanda did lean over and shout something in my ear, “Try not to get eaten! Death would be very unhappy.”

Ah, yes, well.

After about thirty seconds, I discovered another reason why Yolanda hated wyvern-travel. It was appalling. Unlike an airplane, the ride was not smooth at all. You jerked up whenever the creature flapped and back down on the upstroke. The leather straps felt frighteningly insecure in holding you in place. You couldn’t hear anything and I’m fairly certain that if you opened your mouth, a bug would fly in at the wrong moment. If there were even bugs in the Elsewhere.

That was a cheering thought, which made me smile for much of the remainder of the trip.

Yolanda sat next to me with her hand pressed firmly over her mouth and looking far more green than she normally did. I really hoped she wasn’t going to be sick.

Finally, we landed. I lurched from the seat as quickly as I could and fell to the ground with all the grace of a dying cat. Yolanda, at least, wasn’t any more graceful. Thaddeus and the other passengers, however, descended with immortal elegance. The vampire prince helped me to my feet.

“I promise not to enthral you,” he said, holding up his hands in innocence. “You work for far to powerful a being to risk it. Just…”

“Just what?” I asked, feeling my own stomach settle back into place.

“If you don’t mind taking on a few more clients… or if you have any tips?”

I will say this: the poor vampire looked desperate. And given the fact that his suit clashed with his very skin and his hair sported an unusual shape, even under the hat, I couldn’t blame him. I sighed and looked around, making sure Yolanda wasn’t going to sneak up on me. She was still a ways off, resting her head against a tree. “Alright. Fine. I will say this: have you considered hiring an artist?”

“An artist?” Thaddeus looked shocked.

“Sure. Digital technology lets some artists paint photo-realistic images. You get enough of them and you could create a whole slew of portraits. It wouldn’t be as fast as a picture, but even a five-minute sketch would be something.”

Thaddeus widened his eyes and grinned, showing off those fangs again. I took a step back. He shook my hand vigorously and marched away, looking like I had handed him a gold medal.

Yolanda reached me at last, scowling in distaste at the wyvern. “Welcome to the Land of the Living,” she grumbled, waving an arm.

I looked around and whistled in appreciation. It was almost the mirror image of Death’s lands, but where everything there was grey and silver and white and black, here there was colour everywhere. The leaves on the trees sported a more vibrant array of greens than anything I had ever seen. The sky was intensely blue and everywhere I looked, life thrived. Birds sang. Deer grazed on the grass next to the resting wyvern, completely unconcerned by its presence. I was fairly certain I saw people dressed in green and brown flitting through the trees.

“Wow,” I said. “It’s —”

“Saturated,” Yolanda said in distaste. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s go find the palace.”

I put my hands in my pockets, kicked my feet over the blades of grass and happily followed my angry assistant to go find the Halls of Life.

The house was even more grand than Death’s, which would have seemed impossible had I not witnessed it. There were turrets and enormous stained glass windows and, except for the fact that it was too modern, I would have called it a castle.

Inside, there were people hanging about in various stages of partying. I saw small people with angel’s wings laughing together by a fountain pouring out champagne. Yolanda sniffed and said, “Cherubs. All drunk.”

There were vampires dancing together in a candle-lit room. I only knew them as vampires because they were dressed extravagantly and had absolutely no sense of fashion. That and I thought I caught a glimpse of Prince Thaddeus whispering excitedly with a short, squat woman. Then there were beings of extreme grace in various colours — pale white, green, brown, blue — and an aura of power about them that I studiously avoided. There were elves with their pointed ears and cat-slanted eyes. I even saw a being that looked very similar to Graveltoes, if he had been twice as tall.

Everyone was either laughing or drinking or dancing. There were musicians playing and games going on. The music style changed as you went from room to room, leaping through jazz to disco to country. My ears started pounding by the time we made it through the front area. I was handed a drink by a laughing woman with curling goat’s horns, the smile on her face too broad to be natural. I saw people sleeping happily on couches and others carrying plates of food. The entire house was one long, never-ending party, I discovered. People coming and going as they chose. It was full of life.

And it was too loud.

Yolanda and I managed to snag a haggard looking footman and were directed to a long gallery at the back of the house. As soon as the doors closed behind us the sounds from the rest of the house faded away completely. The gallery was lit only by whatever sun streamed through the windows. The light fell upon portraits done in a number of styles. I looked at one of them and blinked in surprise.

It was of a human.

She was beautiful, in a perfectly ordinary sort of way. Her hair was bright, vibrant red and she wore clothing that was probably early Native American. Next to her picture was one of a man wearing the clothes I would attribute to early Scottish. And another, next to his. All the way down the gallery, enormous pictures covered the walls, all of humans.

Frankly, it was a little creepy.

Yolanda and I found Life standing before the last portrait in the gallery, next to a door gilded with gold paint. She stood there with a quiet fury radiating out, her arms wrapped around her and her very breath making the air crackle.

“So he sent you, then,” Life hissed, not turning her attention away from the picture for a moment. I risked stepping a few inches forwards to get a good look. The picture was of a man in modern dress: jeans and a fisherman’s sweater. He had blonde hair, green eyes and the look of someone who could get into trouble just by smiling. A trickster, if ever there was one.

“Is this… ?” I asked.

“Magnus,” Life said, her voice sharpening over the second syllable. “My beloved warrior.”

“Warrior?” I frowned. He looked more like a boater to me. Maybe he had some sort of hidden martial arts talent.

Life curled her lip and deigned to glance in my direction. I immediately wished she hadn’t. Her gaze flattened me, literally. I fell to the ground and struggled to breathe, to move. Yolanda let out a strangled sound and I could see her also struggling against some invisible force. After half a minute or so, Life clicked her tongue and shook her head. The pressure lessened enough to allow me a gasping breath.

I coughed and spluttered my way into standing and moved quickly to go stand by Yolanda. It seemed safer to be far away from Life.

“You wouldn’t know what it is to be my warrior,” Life sneered. “Not when you gave up so easily on your own life. Don’t you know most people survive a single bullet wound? And it was on your right side. You would have been rushed to the hospital. Who knows, you might have lived. But you chose instead to give up.”

“Uh, what? How do you know about —”

“Just as my husband,” Life spat the word, “knows when people die, or are near to dying, so do I know when people give up on me. On life. My warriors, though, fight for it with every last breath in their body. They want to experience the world. They want to live with their entire soul. They are my favoured ones.”

“So you give them an unfair advantage?” That just seemed like cheating to me. “Give them what they want?”

Life tilted back her head and let out a single bark of laughter. “You are ignorant if you think that is how I work. Don’t you know Life isn’t fair? That when something bad happens, people have to pick themselves up and say ‘that’s Life?’ Life is a cruel mistress. But Life is worth pursuing. And my warriors, no matter how cruel or unfair or wrong I may be, woo me anyways. And I love them for it.”

That was a little disturbing. “You only favour those who fight you? That seems a bit… conflict-oriented,” I said. Life flashed her teeth in a smile I now realised was cunning and cruel.

“You finally understand, human,” she said, turning away from the picture to prowl towards me. Yolanda let out a quiet whimper and drew back a few steps. I didn’t blame her. Life stopped mere inches from me, invading every bit of personal space I had and setting off alarm bells in my head. I was pretty certain that if I fled, though, this whole discussing Magnus thing could be thrown out. Life drew a hand down my arm, the touch feather light. My hands started to shake.

“If I am not conflict, then what am I?” Life whispered in my ear.

“Terrifying,” I said, before I could stop myself. Life laughed and stepped back enough to let me breathe.

“You are amusing. I see why Death picked you.” Life turned back to her portrait. It was a pretty clear dismissal. Only, I hadn’t gotten what I came for and I really, really hated that.

“Actually, we came to ask you about Magnus,” I said. An instant later and the air was sucked from the room. The light outside the windows darkened and Yolanda squeaked in terror. Or maybe that was me.

“You dare,” Life snarled, tendrils of light swirling about her just as Death’s shadows did. “You, an emissary of the one who took Magnus from me!”

“But that’s the point,” I said, barely managing to speak the words. “Death didn’t do it. And he wants me to prove it. So I thought the best way to do that would be to get to know the victim.”

Life hissed through her teeth. She drew herself up, fairly towering over me. “You wish to know Magnus? Very well, then.”

Life moved towards me, hand stretched out. Yolanda let out a cry of alarm and I could hear her thudding steps as she moved towards me. I was entranced, though, and couldn’t move. Life just got closer and closer, until her index finger was a breath away from my forehead. With an angry laugh, Life touched me and the world fell away.

The first thing I noticed was pain. This was like what had happened when Death shook my hand, except I didn’t think that I was being separated from my life force. No, this time, I was fairly certain that Life was encouraging the pain. Any prolonged contact with her and I would probably go mad.

The pain lessened and I took in great gulps of breath. I was standing on a hill, the grass short and interspersed with rocks. It wasn’t quite right, though. Wherever I looked, things were just a touch translucent. I reached out a hand and touched the ground and, sure enough, it passed right through the blades of grass.

“It is a memory, idiot human,” Life’s voice rang harsh in my ear, echoing inside my head. I straightened and saw her standing on the hill next to me. She was looking down the slope to where a form was sitting, hunched over an object in his lap. I recognised the man from the portrait. This was Magnus.

He was wearing all black and had a black balaclava sitting on the ground beside him. Life walked towards him and I followed. We circled around Magnus until we could see what he was doing. I was struck again by his mischievous looks. Like a child who snuck cookies from the jar and didn’t get caught. Or a man dating two women simultaneously without them realising it. Or, as it turned out, a jewel thief.

Magnus was sitting on an outcropping of rock and had spread an array of jewellery out before him. There were three necklaces with diamonds and emeralds and sapphires and rubies, a collection of bracelets, some rings and earrings and two watches. Magnus was grinning widely, stroking a light hand over each of the pieces.

“You and I, we’re going to go places,” he said. Well, sort of. What he actually said was in a different language. Norwegian, I guessed, since that was what Death had said. But the words that my brain actually processed were English. It was like a little translator lived in my ear, whispering the words. Actually, it was sort of like watching a news interview with someone speaking a different language.

“We’re going to find a nice place for you to go and I’m going to live like a king. Those idiots in the police don’t know anything. They think it was an inside job. Ha! As if any of those buffoons could come up with something this clever.” Magnus laughed, the sound echoing off the hills around him. We were in the middle of nowhere and there probably wasn’t a person around for miles. Not to mention a road. No wonder he hadn’t been caught.

“He was the most clever thief,” Life sighed. “Pitting his intelligence against some of the great detectives and technology of this age. And never once did they even suspect him. He fought tooth and nail for what he wanted, doing everything in his power to be better than everyone else. Smarter. Faster. More nimble. More capable. He was one of the best of my warriors.”

I think I understood, though it made my stomach roil. Life was like those Roman emperors who thrilled to see the gladiators fighting it out in the ring. They cheered as the blood spilled and lives were lost. And those who made it to the top were rewarded.

I decided to speak up before Life snapped out of her little swoon over Magnus. “Uh, I hate to, you know, but… how did he die?”

There was another burst of pain and we were suddenly somewhere else. Life threw her arm out and gestured, face twisted into a bestial snarl. “Like this,” she said.

We were standing in a cabin. At least, it looked like a cabin. The walls were made of wood and stone and the roof was too low for modern comfort. There was a fireplace in one corner, the flames still flickering. A bed was close to the fireplace with a table and small stove on the opposite side of the room. There was a door and two windows, and that was it. A simple life, meant for getting away from the world. Perfect for camping or hunting or running from the police.

Magnus’ body was sprawled across the threshold of the door. He was lying on his back, his eyes staring in horror at something long gone. His mouth hung slack jawed and his blonde hair was splattered with red. There was no more mischief in his expression. Only pain and fear.

I looked a little farther down the body and felt my stomach recoil. Magnus had been eviscerated. Literally. His intestines and stomach and other organs were strewn across him, the blood died and turning brown. His legs were sticking out at awkward angles, as if he had tried to turn and run and found nowhere to go. Flies were gathering on his body in a dark cloud.

I turned back into the cabin and tried not to retch. This was just a memory, I told myself. There was nothing here that could harm me. Heck, I couldn’t even smell the body. I tried to tell myself it was just a movie. A really bad movie. But no movie I had ever seen had a body that looked quite so real.

“I found him like this,” Life said, her voice dry, her face twisted with disappointment. “If I had come earlier, I might have seen who killed him. But I can only show you what I found.”

“I’m sorry,” I managed, looking anywhere but at the body. “Really, I am.”

“And yet you still persist in this fallacy that my husband was not involved,” Life scoffed. She waved a hand and the world fell into pain once again. When I came to myself, I was leaning against the wall, gasping for breath. Yolanda was keeping me from falling to the floor completely, a scowl on her features.

“You should not have touched him,” she said to Life.

“I merely showed him the truth,” Life lifted a single shoulder in a shrug and turned back to her portrait. I saw her mouth tighten at the corners and knew she was trying to rid herself of the image of Magnus’ body. I doubted she would be able to do so.

“It’s alright, Yolanda,” I wheezed. I pushed myself off the wall and straightened, one arm supported by my assistant. “I think I got all the information I could.”

“Do not return unless you wish to denounce my husband,” Life said, voice cold. I ducked my head in some sort of respectful nod and turned away. Yolanda helped me totter back down the long gallery and we never once looked back.

The troll woman spoke after we closed the door behind us and the noises of the house had returned in full force. “What did you learn?” Yolanda asked in a low voice.

“I think this is going to be a lot more complicated than I thought,” I said just as softly. I waited until we were well away from that gallery before I told Yolanda what had happened. She tugged on an ear nervously and looked around.

We were alone — or as alone as you could get in a house as busy as Life’s. We were in a room floored with marble, with high ceilings and furniture strewn about in random formation. There was a female satyr draped over a couch, giggling incoherently at another satyr’s words. Three diminutive faeries were dancing around in circles, shrieking in delight. Music came from a corner where some hunched figure was leaning over an honest-to-goodness jukebox.

Yolanda and I sat on one of the couches and put our heads together so we wouldn’t be overheard. Though I doubted that anyone in the room would want to bother with us.

Yolanda shook her head, “I don’t like it.”

“Well, there’s not a whole lot I can do about that. I didn’t get any clues as to who killed Magnus. He was a jewel thief, but evisceration seems a little extreme.”

“It is a common happening, when the immortals get angry at mortals. You are so fragile,” Yolanda said. Gee, way to make me feel better. “No, she touched you. That is very, very bad.”

“Why? I mean, it hurt. A lot. But I’m not dead. And there are no lasting effects, right?” I tried to smile encouragingly, but Yolanda was worrying me.

“Life and Death hold more power than any other being I have ever known,” Yolanda whispered. “Even the immortals must fall to their power. There are very few who don’t have to worry about truly dying, and therefore need not bother with Life interfering in their existence.”

“So I should be a burnt-up crisp on the ground, is what you’re saying,” I said flatly. Yolanda plucked at her shirt and grimaced. But she nodded. “Oh, good. Well, I’ll worry about that later. Right now, we need to figure out who killed Magnus. Then we can get as far away from here as soon as possible and I can go on with my marketing.”

“But, Cal —”

“No,” I held up a hand. “You are my assistant and must do what I say. I say we’re going to figure this out. Got it?”

Yolanda huffed, “Fine.”

“Good. So. If we can’t figure out who killed Magnus based on his apparently-common wounds, then we’ll have to go about this another way,” I said. I mulled the thoughts over in my mind and watched the satyrs pour wine down their throats, dizzyingly drunk and stupidly alive. “Who would want to hurt Life badly enough to kill her warrior? Or, was it Death they were after?”

Yolanda may have looked like a creature who wouldn’t be able to do much math, but she was incredibly quick. “Figure out why Magnus is killed.”

“Exactly. Who do you know that has a grudge against Life? Or Death,” I added as an afterthought. This seemed more like a direct attack at Life to me, but I supposed I couldn’t rule the other side out. I was way, way behind any understanding of any Elsewhere politics.

“If someone is subverting Death’s power, then the balance is affected,” Yolanda said. I gave her my best confused expression. She cleared her throat and took another look around the room. The hunched figure by the jukebox swayed in time to the music — a jazz rendition of the BeeGees — and the faeries had spun themselves into a stupor. We were being ignored completely.

“The balance,” Yolanda explained, “between Life and Death is crucial. Without Death, Life would go on everlasting.”

“Isn’t that what the immortals are doing?” I asked.

Yolanda shook her head, “The immortals can die. They don’t die of old age or minor disease, but they can die. They can be actively killed. They can be brought down by a plague on their magic. They can fade into nothingness when their existence is forgotten by even themselves. It seldom happens, but it is possible.”

“Okay. So everlasting Life means that everyone just keeps going. No chance of Death. Wouldn’t loads of people want that?” I asked. I mean, really. Human doctors had been trying to figure out how to keep from dying for ages. Look at the rise in plastic surgery, if you had any doubts.

Yolanda’s mouth tightened at the edges. “It would be… bad. The conflict that Life provides would rise to exponential scales. There would be war without end. No matter how many times you killed a soldier, she would keep rising from the ground. Elsewhere and the mortal realms would become nothing but endless carnage and temptation and revelry.”

“People would go mad,” I said softly.

“So there is balance. But, if Death becomes the stronger, then society would be culled. Populations would plummet and entire species would cease to exist,” Yolanda said.

“The world could start over,” I breathed. Yolanda nodded and looked at her hands. I had this impression that she was always too nervous. That things surely couldn’t be that bad. She jumped at every unusual noise, freaked out during my interactions with Mercy and Justice, was terrified of Life. But whenever she explained things, her nervousness made perfect sense.

I hated it.

“Okay, fine,” I leaned my elbows on my knees and stared at the room. It was as though I didn’t even exist. The moment the creatures moved in my direction, some invisible force turned them away. I wondered if this was something to do with my being bound to Death. Life’s presence in his realm had caused an upset. Could my presence in Life’s realm be doing something subtler?

I took a breath. “Who would want to cause an apocalypse? Who would benefit if everyone started dying off?”

Yolanda shrugged, “I don’t know. I’m only an assistant. I don’t have any experience in this sort of thing.”

“You’ve given a whole lot of theory so far,” I pointed out.

“That’s just general knowledge. Everyone knows that,” Yolanda said.

“Okay, then we’ll have to talk to someone who knows these things,” I said. Yolanda’s eyes widened and her grey-blue skin paled to a frightening degree. She shook her head violently. “Surely you know of someone who could help.”

“No,” Yolanda said firmly.

“So you’re just going to let this happen. Cause an apocalypse,” I said. “The end of everything.”

She bit her lip, showing off her teeth. I watched her, not looking away and giving her a chance to consider another option. I had to have this information. Yolanda would just have to get over it.

“There is… a sage. Of sorts,” Yolanda started. She furrowed her brow and looked at me desperately. I said nothing. “He lives at the top of a mountain near Death’s realm. It is not hard to find.”

“So why are you so scared, then?” I straightened in the chair, fixing Yolanda with my best stern-boss stare. She shuddered, the movement going straight from her head to her toes.

“Because of the cost,” she murmured. “He will ask a price. And you must be willing to pay it.”

“And if I’m not?” I said carefully.

“Then he will kill you for wasting his time,” Yolanda said, her words barely a breath in the air. Ah. Well.

“Then I’d better be willing to pay the price,” I said. Yolanda let out a small cry and the satyrs looked distastefully in our direction. “Look, I know that you’re scared. But we need this information. Or, besides the end of the world, we’d be letting Death down. He hired me to help protect his image and that’s exactly what I’m going to do. You don’t have to come, if you don’t want.”

“I’d rather not,” Yolanda said. She clapped a hand over her mouth and looked at me, pained. “I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s alright,” I put a hand on her knee in comfort, though I’m not sure it worked. “You just tell me where to go and what to do and I’ll take care of it.”

“It’s just… my cousin went to ask him a question once,” Yolanda said, looking at her hands in her lap. “The price he asked was the use of my cousin’s right hand. Three days later, his right hand strangled his wife.”

I was pretty sure my mouth fell open. “Okay then. I understand why you don’t want to go.”

“But you’re going to do it anyways.” It wasn’t a question and I didn’t give an answer. Just shrugged. Yolanda nodded and we left the drunk satyrs and dancing faeries in peace.

It wasn’t hard to get on the wyvern again, knowing that what was coming was far worse than flying. True, it was still pretty horrible. But the ride felt like it was over too quickly. We were maybe a few hundred metres from Death’s realm when the wyvern landed. I could see the silvery trees and a part of me wanted to go and shelter under them. I could tell Death whatt I had learned and he could make the bargain with whatever sage this was. I could go focus on my marketing.

And fail in the first real task I had been set. I would ruin Death’s chance at maintaining his image before I even started. I didn’t think I was really that cowardly. And I was probably more curious about this sage than was healthy.

Call it a condition, curiosity.

Yolanda hiked with me to the base of the mountain. It wasn’t an enormous mountain, more like a slag of rock that had been driven from the ground during a volcanic eruption. The troll pointed to the path that would take me up and took two definitive steps back. I started forwards.

“Good luck, Cal,” Yolanda said.

“Thanks,” I smiled over my shoulder and went to go face this mysterious sage.

Now, I have been walking around cities my entire life. I have done many miles at a time, especially when missing the late bus from work meant either spending money on a taxi or sloughing it home. More often than not, I sloughed it. I wasn’t a runner. I didn’t do cross-fit. But I considered myself in reasonable shape. Certainly I could do a three hour session of yoga without falling over completely.

All that being said, climbing up that mountain left me gasping and wheezing and all around exhausted. I staggered to the top and fell to the ground in agony. My muscles were both burning and twitching. It took me a full two minutes to catch my breath and my head was still spinning when I did. When someone handed me a glass of water, I guzzled it without thinking.

“Thanks,” I said. Then froze. I turned slowly to look at the person standing next to me.

He was innocuous as far as things went. He was almost human-looking, with fair skin and bright red hair, a pleasant expression and no obvious horns or tails or wings. I half expected him to be wearing a kilt or some such, but he wore an embroidered robe. The edges were a bit frayed, but the embroidery was still gleaming and in one piece.

The weird thing was that the pattern was of a fish. Over and over and over again, a fish. Big, small, swimming, dying, it was the same fish.

“It’s a salmon,” the man said.

“Sorry, what?” I handed him back the glass of water and wondered if I was going to pay for it later. I knew there were all sorts of rules about eating and drinking at various supernatural tables. I hoped this wasn’t one of those situations. Then again, we were talking about salmon, so maybe it was just my imagination.

“It’s a salmon,” the man repeated. “The Salmon of Knowledge.”

I tried to keep a straight face, I really did, but the laugh just sort of slipped out. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

The man made an annoyed sound in the back of his throat, “No. I am not kidding.”

“What in the world is a Salmon of Knowledge?” I asked, my laughs still slipping through.

“In Irish mythology, there was a salmon who swam his way into the Well of Wisdom. Into this well fell nine hazelnuts, which the salmon ate. The salmon then gained all the knowledge of the world. But the salmon was still a fish and it was caught by a poet. He knew of the salmon’s knowledge and gave it to his servant to cook, so that he might gain the fish’s knowledge. The servant was accidentally burned by some of the fat from the salmon and stuck his finger in his mouth. The salmon’s knowledge passed instead to the servant, for the first person to eat of the fish’s flesh would gain all the knowledge of the world.”

“So you are…” I said.

“The servant. Fionn,” he introduced himself with a flourish. I raised my eyebrows and shrugged.

“Sorry, not familiar with the tale,” I said. Fionn’s face grew flushed and he scowled.

“Have you never heard of the tales of Fianna? The legendary warriors?”

“No, sorry,” I said. I probably shouldn’t have sounded so cheerful about the fact, but the story was a bit ridiculous. I mean, really. The Salmon of Knowledge?

“What of Taliesin? Or Sigurd?” Fionn asked. Now them I had heard of.

“You’re them?” I sat up straighter, eager.

“No, but the principle is similar,” Fionn grumbled. I deflated again. Well, there was nothing for it, I supposed. I didn’t need to know who this Fionn character was to get my knowledge from him.

“Well, that’s alright. I’ve come to ask you a question,” I said. Fionn sniffed and straightened his shoulders.

“All who find themselves on my mountain have questions,” he said, adjusting his robes.

“Okay, great! So how does this work? I ask my question and we see what happens?” I said, then winced. “Those don’t count as my question, by the way.”

“Most of the people who come up here at least know the lore,” Fionn grumbled. I got the impression that he didn’t much care for me.

“Yeah, well, I’m new to this,” I said. “All I got was you borrowed a troll’s right hand and strangled his wife as payment.”

“Interesting,” Fionn murmured. “You don’t look the sort to be consorting with trolls.”

“You don’t look the sort to strangle by proxy,” I retorted. Coming to Elsewhere must have messed with my mind, because I wasn’t usually this combative. Maybe it was the fact that this guy had terrified Yolanda. She was bigger than me, stronger than me and had a whole lot more knowledge about the world. But she was my assistant and I had to stick up for her. I also had to get answers to my questions.

Fionn wrinkled his nose as he appraised me. He stretched out his legs and leaned against an outcropping of rock that I was pretty certain hadn’t been there moments ago. He looked comfortable, like he had all the time in the world. Thank goodness I hadn’t upset him too badly.

“What do you wish to know?” he asked.

I considered, “You have all the knowledge of the world.”

“I do. I am also bound by certain restrictions. I can only know the answer to the question you ask,” Fionn said, looking at his hands absently. “I cannot answer any question that would ruin the journey for you. I cannot give you the meaning of life, because each person must figure that out for themselves.”

“But if I were to ask you who killed Magnus, you could tell me?” I said.

“Is that your question? You only get one,” Fionn brushed a hand over one of the salmon embroideries on his robe and fixed me with a very piercing stare. My heart started beating faster.

“Yes, alright. My question is, who killed Magnus? Life’s Magnus, you know. The warrior-slash-jewel-thief that she was so fond of. Not some random Magnus.” The words came out in a rush and I hoped I had made it sufficiently clear who I meant. I also really hoped I hadn’t bungled the actual question. Maybe I should have come up with something more specific, like “who wants to cause an imbalance of power between Life and Death?”

Fionn glanced at me, then nodded. He opened his mouth and, before I could exclaim in surprise, bit down on his thumb. He didn’t bite hard enough to sever the digit, but there was definitely blood drawn. He hissed and tossed his head back, eyes widening and pupils contracting. There weren’t any bells ringing or wind blowing. It was just Fionn looking a little stunned. A moment later and he was fine, blinking off whatever had happened.

His thumb was also healed.

He turned to me, a cunning grin on his face. “Well, I have the knowledge. Now we come to matter of price.”

“Shouldn’t we have figured out price before the question?” I asked. I had sort of hoped that he forgot. Silly human, I sighed to myself. These magical beings didn’t forget that sort of thing.

“What point would there be to setting a price before I knew what the answer meant?” Fionn asked.

“Alright, how much is it going to cost me?” I winced. “I only have a few thousand in the bank and I’d have to get permission to access it and—”

“I want your life,” Fionn interrupted. I choked on my words.

“Uh, what? You can’t.. that’s not…”

“I now know how valuable this information is,” Fionn examined his robes carefully. “So my price must be made accordingly. I cannot let this get out into the world. Therefore, my price is your life.”

“No!” I said. “You can’t kill me!”

“Very well, if you refuse my price, then I must kill you,” Fionn said evenly. I felt my eyes bugging out in astonishment.

“So you were going to kill me either way?” I spluttered. “That’s just not fair!”

“Life isn’t fair,” Fionn said with a grin.

“No,” I agreed, “she isn’t.”

Before I could blink, the Irish sage had drawn a knife from the inside of his robes. He lunged for me. I scrabbled backwards, but I was still tired and stiff from climbing a mountain. He was fresh as a daisy and probably had some immortal powers lending him strength. He got me once on the cheek and I flinched away. I held up my arm to block Fionn’s next blow, but the sage was a whole lot faster than me. He slipped past my guard and drew the blade across my throat in a death-blow.

Things went black. Then they weren’t black.

I found myself exactly where I had been. My neck was tingling and I was very much not dead. “Holy crap!” I said.

“This is not possible!” Fionn said, driving his knife towards me again. This time, I had the good sense to roll away. While I was running from a madman with a knife, my mind was working.

I wasn’t dead. I should really have been dead. My throat had been cut and now it wasn’t. I could still feel blood trickling down my cheek, so I knew I wasn’t a ghost or impervious to injury. I certainly wasn’t impervious to pain. So what the heck was going on?

Things clicked. Death had removed me from my lifeforce. That meant that I wasn’t actually alive to be killed. Life had said I was immortal. I just figured that Death had kept me from ageing or disease. And, after Yolanda explained things, I figured I was just like the other immortals. Alive, but just extended, not actually immune from death. Apparently, I was wrong. I wasn’t actually alive at all. Did that mean I would never die? Was I even human anymore? The thought was profoundly disturbing.

All the while my brain was puzzling this out, Fionn was still racing after me with his knife. I flopped onto my back and squealed as he bore down on me with the knife. I squealed and raised my hands in a desperate attempt to stave him off. Maybe I had just gotten lucky and he had only scratched my throat.

But on the off-chance that I wasn’t lucky, “I’ll pay your price!”

Fionn halted. His eyes were blazing and his skin was flushed with anger. His robes were stained red where my blood had splattered on them. “What?” he hissed.

“I’ll pay your price. You can kill me and I get your answer,” I said. My voice wavered. I really hoped I was making the right decision, here.

“You… but… no,” Fionn said.

“You set the price. I’m willing to pay it. We have a bargain,” I said. Oh, please, let me be doing this right. Fionn snarled in wordless rage and raised his knife. I screamed again, the sound high pitched and absolutely terrified. Fionn plunged his knife directly into my heart. This time, the scream was from pain.

Again, things went black. And again, they became normal. I was exactly where I was, assuredly not dead. Fionn was looking at me in disgust from a few feet away. “You tricked me,” he said.

“Honestly, I didn’t,” I said, sitting up.

“The price is honestly paid,” Fionn spat. “But know this: if you ever set foot on my mountain again, I will use all my knowledge to find away to tear you from this world.”

Somehow, I managed to get myself standing. I felt wobbly and probably wouldn’t be doing a whole lot of moving for the rest of the day, but I was in one piece. I think. “So, can I have my answer, please?”

“Very well,” Fionn snapped. “Magnus was killed by an Ennedi Tiger.”

My mouth dropped open, “That was what you had to kill me to protect? Are you insane?”

“Get off my mountain,” Fionn raised his knife again. “I may not be able to kill you, but I can cause you great pain.”

“Right. Got it. Thanks so much. Good luck with all this,” I said, backing away. As soon as my feet hit the path, I was running down it as best I could. I managed to get down the mountain in some sort of running slide that didn’t tear too many of my muscles and only left me with half my skin scraped off.

I hit the end of the trail and sprinted towards Yolanda like a rabbit. She had been pacing, apparently. A small trench was worn in the soft ground where she had walked. The troll took one look at me and rushed forwards.

“Cal! Are you okay? Where are you hurt? What happened?” Yolanda asked. She patted my limbs, looking for the wound that had spouted so much blood. I pushed her away with a trembling arm.

Panting, I asked, “Yolanda, what in the world is an Ennedi Tiger?”

Yolanda took one more look at me and opened her mouth to speak. Before she got there, the day’s activities and lack of oxygen rushed up to me and I fell to the ground. Yes, the great human fainted.

Sheesh.

I woke up in a very familiar setting. The walls were glaring white, everything hurt and I really didn’t want to ever have Graveltoes peering into my face again. The creature blinked its enormous eyes and grinned, showing off pointed teeth.

“You are awake again!” Graveltoes exclaimed. I groaned and sat up.

“Why am I here?” I complained. At least this time I could talk. Sure, every bone in my body felt like it had been pulverised, but at least I could talk.

“Because you fell over,” Graveltoes said as though it were obvious. I sighed.

“No, I mean why am I here and not in my house in Death’s lands?” I was fairly certain that being in my really comfortable bed in a place that, while still unfamiliar, was my own, would be better than this.

“Ah. Because the troll did not know what was wrong with you,” Graveltoes nodded sagely. I looked around and found the room empty but for the good doctor and myself.

“Where’s Yolanda?” I asked, perhaps a bit pointedly. Graveltoes may have been a doctor and doing his best to heal me and make me feel better, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t resent him for it. And I had questions for Yolanda.

“I will go send her in,” Graveltoes clambered off my bed and gave me a disapproving shake of his head. “You humans, always so impatient. Pah.”

Human. Was that what I was? After being not-killed by Fionn — twice — I didn’t even know if I could be considered human. Could I be killed? Was I an immortal? If not, then was I something else? More? Less? Maybe most people would have been grinning widely and jumping out of airplanes at the discovery that they couldn’t die. I felt more like curling up into a ball and never coming out again.

The whole point of my taking the agreement with Death was that I didn’t want to die. I still had life to live and I wanted to live it. That didn’t mean I wanted to be turned into some super-powerful being that would never die. I wanted to live. I wanted to get my promotion and do well at my job. Heck, I even wanted to fall in love. Have family. A life.

Death’s offer made it seem like I could at least have part of that.

But what had I lost?

“You are well,” Yolanda slipped into the room and greeted me with a big smile. I nodded. The troll put my bloodied clothes on a chair. She looked at me then started fiddling with her thumbs. “I am glad you are alive.”

“Am I?” I asked. “Alive? Because Fionn killed me, Yolanda. He cut my throat. Stabbed me in the heart. I should be nothing more than a corpse on his mountain.”

“No,” Yolanda shook her head violently. “You were separated from your lifeforce. You are an immortal, now!”

I scoffed, “You told me yourself that immortals can be killed. I’m pretty sure cutting my throat should have killed me. Unless, what, I’m some sort of vampire?”

“You are human,” Yolanda said. She paused and took a shaky breath, “But you are right. You are not alive.”

“So I am some sort of vampire or zombie or whatever,” I said. Bile rose in the back of my throat and for a second, the room spun.

“No,” Yolanda said. “Vampires may not be dead, but they are not undead. It’s complicated. They… they’re bound to the blood. They take on the lifeforce of other beings through their blood. This gives them life. They are technically alive, though they had to die first to become as they are.”

“Right, that makes no sense at all,” I said. I was happy to accept that I wasn’t a vampire. I wasn’t feeling any weird urges to drink blood, so that must mean I was alright. Right? “So I’m some sort of zombie?”

Yolanda actually snorted in derision at that. “Zombies are animated corpses. They have no connection to either Life or Death because they are held together by pure magic. They do not think or experience. They only do what they are told.”

I tugged at the sheets on the bed, “So then what am I?”

“Human,” Yolanda replied firmly. I frowned. “It is the truth. You were separated from your lifeforce, therefore you are not alive. But because you are bound to Death, you cannot die as such until he either releases you or is killed himself. Which won’t happen.”

I choked quietly at Yolanda’s words. Something in my chest tightened and wouldn’t let me breathe. I felt tears gathering in my eyes and looked away from my assistant.

“Most would be revelling in their new power,” Yolanda said, sounding confused. I took off my glasses and blinked furiously while pretending to clean them.

“I never wanted immortality,” I said. “I just wanted a nice life.”

“But you shook Death’s hand! You made the bargain for this. This escape from dying. For immortality,” Yolanda said. There was an edge to her voice, like if I was rejecting this, I was rejecting her. I couldn’t stop the hurt and the panic, though.

“I didn’t think it through,” I managed to whisper. My throat closed and all that escaped me were sobs that shook my shoulders.

“You are still human, Cal,” Yolanda said, voice soft. Comforting. She lay a hand on my arm. “Don’t forget that. So what if you can’t be killed. At least you still have your humanity.”

“And what is humanity if not being short lived enough that we must appreciate what we do have? And you know what? I didn’t do that. I never realised what I had and what I actually wanted. Now it’s gone,” I snarled. “Life told me so herself. I was never a warrior. I never fought for life. I just… gave it up.”

“You’re not dead, Cal,” Yolanda said firmly. “And you are still human.”

“Yeah. Sure. I’m not alive, but I can’t die,” I said. I shook my head and decided to change the subject. It wasn’t going to help either of us to fall out. Not when I still had work to do. I stretched and felt my muscles complain loudly in protest. “Why does everything still hurt?”

Yolanda shrugged, relief flickering through her eyes, “This I do not know. A part of your humanity? You still feel hunger and thirst, so why should you not feel pain? Everyone has limits they must adhere to.”

“That is not encouraging at all,” I grumbled. The sarcasm and good-natured cynicsm was a lie, a facade, and it hurt to wear. “Am I going to grow old? Get sick?”

“I don’t know,” Yolanda said. “My knowledge of the situation is very limited. I only know what Death told me and what I have experienced of his powers. You could ask him.”

“And he’ll give me another one of those not-quite answers that got me into this whole situation,” I said. “I should have just taken the bullet. It would have been far less work.”

“But not nearly as much fun, right?” Yolanda smiled, flashing her white teeth at me. I gaped at her.

“Seriously? You think this is fun? You, the one who is scared of your own shadow, not to mention every being we’ve encountered. Including the guy you work for, by the way.” I sat up a bit more and winced at the pain. This was really, really bizarre.

“But you are not dead and we have some information, no?” Yolanda clapped her big hands together and looked at me eagerly.

“Um, right. The, ah… Ennedi Tiger,” I said, pinching the bridge of my nose. “I’ve never heard of it, but Fionn seemed to think that it was important enough to kill me over.”

I explained what happened on the top of the mountain and Yolanda nodded, looking serious. “Yes, it is bad.”

“I don’t even know what this tiger-thing is,” I said. “Can it be that dangerous, trying to pit Death against Life and changing the balance of the world and what not?”

“The Ennedi Tiger is not the one seeking to destroy the balance,” Yolanda said. “It is just a beast. Dangerous, but no great intellect.”

“Seriously?” I complained. “I went all the way up to that mountain and got attacked by a bitter has-been and all I got out of it was the murder weapon?”

“No, you do not understand,” Yolanda said, still sounding annoyingly eager. “The Ennedi Tiger is a sacred animal of the Order of Silence!”

For a moment, her words meant nothing to me. I closed my eyes and tried to think, then jerked forwards, “Wait. The Order of Silence? Like the people that Mercy worked for? The assassin?

“Yes,” Yolanda agreed with a broad smile. “We will go talk to them!”

“Hold on,” I said, shaking my head. “Shouldn’t you be, I don’t know, quaking in terror at the prospect? You nearly had a panic attack when Mercy showed up at the office, and that was just to get information on what Death is like. I’m pretty sure that invading their stronghold and demanding to know why they had Life’s warrior killed is going to be a whole lot worse than that.”

Yolanda frowned and shook her head, “You do not know anything, do you?”

“No, not about this, I don’t,” I snapped.

“We will make an appointment,” Yolanda said slowly, as though I were a child. I shot her a look. “The Order of Silence is bound to do no harm when you make an appointment. We will be there in an official capacity.”

“Seriously?” I asked. “These people are bound by the sacred nature of appointments?”

Yolanda nodded, smiling again. She handed me a clean set of clothes and I took them. Reluctantly. “You dress, we will go. It will be good.” She tromped out of the room, the ground shaking slightly in her eagerness. I looked at the black slacks and black t-shirt. They were in my size, but was the “I work for Death” vibe really necessary?

I sighed and climbed slowly out of the bed, my muscles still sore but slightly less painful. Still, it took me far longer than it should have to dress, and when I did, I couldn’t help but glance at my subtle reflection in the mirror. I still had a cut on my cheek and some of the bruises had risen to great purple splotches. I looked terrible.

“Right, well, you’ll have to work on your image later,” I told my marketing-conscious self. “Because you’re off to the sacred land of lawyers. Goodie.”

I huffed at myself and shuffled to the door. Somehow, I managed to get down to the street. I half-expected Iggie — because, really, I couldn’t remember his name — to be waiting with the Rolls. Instead, I looked around and found an empty street. No Yolanda, no Iggie, no nothing.

I looked around, the hair on the back of my neck prickling. I spotted a side street and wandered in that direction, wondering if maybe Yolanda had just gotten tired of waiting and went for a coffee. Instead, I found the troll standing stock still, her arms pinned to her side by some sort of mysterious force, her eyes wide and her mouth forced shut. She struggled against whatever was holding her in place and stared at me pointedly. I got the message loud and clear: run.

Maybe if I were more heroic, I would have stayed and done my best to fight off whatever was holding my assistant. But I had no special skills to fight anything and even though I was immune to death, that didn’t mean I couldn’t be hurt. A lot. And I was fairly certain that I wouldn’t be any help to Yolanda if I stayed. Not to mention that whatever was going on, she wasn’t being hurt. She was being held. Logic told me that she wasn’t the target, I was.

So I did the only thing I knew how to do. I ran.

I didn’t get very far. Almost as soon as I emerged onto the street, a shadow solidified in front of me. A moment later, two more surrounded me. I turned, looking for a way out, and found nothing. The shadow took form and I found myself facing Thaddeus, Prince of the House of Vampyr.

He was dressed in a very expensive but sloppy pair of slacks and grey shirt. He still had his hat to protect him from the sun and his hair stuck out at odd angles. The vampire grinned at me, flashing his over-long canines. “Cal Thorpe! It is so good to see you again!”

“Uh, hi, Thaddeus,” I said. “Look, I’m a little busy. I haven’t had the opportunity to talk to Death about your proposal…”

“No matter,” Thaddeus said, taking a step forwards. I instinctively backed up and found myself being held by an equally-pretty and unkempt female vampire. “We’ve decided this is too important to leave until later.”

“Now hold on a minute, you can’t just —” I started to protest, doing my best to pull away. The vampiresss was exceptionally strong, though.

“Oh, but I can,” Thaddeus’ pleasant smile turned a bit brittle. He nodded sharply to the other vampires and in a second, we were nothing but smoke and shadow.

I screamed. At least, I thought I was screaming, but there was very little air and I couldn’t hear anything. I thought I saw features passing us by — a shape that looked like a tree, possibly a house or two — but everything moved too quickly for me to be sure. After what felt like ages, we solidified again.

I staggered around, trying to gain control of my feet. My brain and my stomach moved at different times and I barely managed to make it to a planter before emptying my stomach. I groaned and clutched at my stomach. “Seriously, let’s never do that again,” I said.

“You will become better equipped to handle such things,” Thaddeus said, his voice terrifyingly close. I jumped and my still-spinning brain couldn’t move fast enough to catch my balance. I fell over. Thaddeus tsked, drawing my attention.

What also drew my attention was the enormous castle behind him. Okay, having been to Life’s mansion and Death’s manor, you would think maybe I’m being a bit judicious in my use of the word. But seriously. It was a castle. A gothic castle straight out of Eastern Europe, complete with stones bigger than a standing man, towers and turrets, and walls for soldiers to stand on.

We were standing in a courtyard that came straight out of a film. I mean, really, what castle actually had a bubbling fountain in the centre, let alone perfectly sculpted hedges in planters, sculptures and romantic trellises with roses? I had figured Thaddeus to be a little obsessed with image, but this was ridiculous.

“Welcome to House Vampyr,” Thaddeus spread his arms wide and did a little bow. The other vampires that he had brought with him crowded close. The female peered closely at me and I crawled backwards away from her. She licked her lips.

“Can I have a taste, Highness?” she asked, voice deep and throaty. “Just a little one?”

“No!” Thaddeus’ voice whipped out and I saw the female flinch away. She cowered a little at Thaddeus’ feet, whimpering. “No. Cal is far too valuable for that. He is going to help us refine our image.”

“Seriously, this is not the time,” I said, clambering to my feet. “Death is going to be mighty peeved that you—”

“Death is too busy with his marital troubles,” Thaddeus waved his hand dismissively. “Besides, why would he bother with a human like you? No, we appreciate your skills far more than he ever would. We have already started implementing your suggestions!”

Thaddeus grabbed my hand and dragged me along behind him. I stumbled. His superhuman strength and determination kept me from falling completely on my face. I was pulled into a side yard where four people were sitting behind easels. Before the easels stood four vampires, all holding some sort of ridiculous pose, all looking rather the worse for wear. It wasn’t the vampires that startled me, though, it was the artists. They were bleeding.

There were various puncture marks on the side of the artists’ necks and from what I could tell, the blood wasn’t clotting. I saw one girl’s hand shaking so badly that she could hardly draw a straight line.

“What are you doing?!” I cried.

“We got artists to draw our pictures,” Thaddeus said as if it were obvious. “We found them in a beautiful little art institute in Paris.”

“They’re bleeding!” I gestured to the man closest to me, who was breathing heavily.

“I know,” Thaddeus said in distaste. At least, I thought it was distaste. His nostrils were flaring and I could see his pupils dilating in pure desire. “It is sometimes necessary. They were not cooperating. We had to bleed them a little to make them more compliant.”

I don’t remember much from the Dracula book, but I did remember that being fed upon by a vampire was bad news. It made you addicted. You craved it. And they grew stronger while you suffered and died. And maybe became one of them. I had to get these artists out of here or they were going to die.

And they were still the breakable, killable sort of human.

“Let them go,” I snapped.

“Why?” Thaddeus chuckled. “It was your suggestion.”

“I suggested you hire an artist! Not coerce them into working for you. You can’t just take people from their lives and force them to work for you,” I said, more than a little desperate. “I mean, that’s just slavery, plain and simple!”

Thaddeus looked at me for a moment, his mouth splitting into a wide grin. “You really are that naive, aren’t you?”

I took a step back.

“We’re predators, Cal, that’s what we do,” Thaddeus smirked. “I mean, really. What did you expect we did? Live on tomato juice and steak? We are hunters. And we hunt humans. These artists have a particular skill, or they wouldn’t be alive. They’re the lucky ones.”

I took another step back. “You’re keeping them as slaves, though! And you’ve addicted them to whatever it is you do. How can any of that be useful?”

“It does lower their life expectancy, but what is a few more days when all humans are so short lived?” Thaddeus rolled his eyes at the inconvenience. Anger flared in me and I balled my fists at my side.

“Let them go,” I snarled. “Or… or you’ll never get me to do any marketing for you.”

Thaddeus just laughed at that. One of those annoying, two note, mocking laughs, too. He looked at me like I was an idiot. I really wanted to knock his hat off. I also really wanted to run away. But I wasn’t going to do either. I needed to get those artists out of there.

“Cal, I had hoped we could do this without any undue… difficulty,” Thaddeus shook his head, putting his hand over his heart. “But you’re being uncooperative.”

I started to throw back snark at him when Thaddeus surged forwards. He moved faster than I could track him, becoming nothing more than a blur in my eyes. I felt something slam into my throat and then I was being pushed back until I hit a wall. Thaddeus stood there, his hand grasping my throat tight enough to make me see spots. I gasped, but nothing came out. My lungs started burning and the spots grew bigger.

Then, surprise surprise, Thaddeus drew back his lips and sank his fangs into my neck. The first sensation was one of panic. Then there was almost no sensation at all. It was like floating. It wasn’t unpleasant but it wasn’t pleasant either. It just sort of was. I didn’t feel like I was going to be addicted to whatever this was. At least I couldn’t die from it, I supposed.

Thaddeus pulled back from me with a cry. He blurred until he was standing nearly twenty feet away. His mouth was covered in my blood and his eyes were wide with shock. “What… what is wrong with you?” he breathed. I frowned, confused. Then Thaddeus began to cough. With each cough, his already pale skin move more towards pallid, then grey. He started wheezing and gagging. I could see the desperation in his eyes when he lunged for me again. Before he could get anywhere near me, Thaddeus crumbled to dust.

The vampires in the small courtyard started screaming. The sound was like a pack of very large predators doing their best to tell everyone to stay far, far away. The vampires spontaneously turned into smoke or ran as far from me as possible.

I leaned back against the wall, trying to control the shaking in my legs. The artists all turned to look at me like they were coming out of a drug-haze. I saw the young girl blink a few times and frown deeply. “Well, hi,” I said, trying to sound friendly and non-threatening. “I’m Cal Thorpe. PR agent for… you probably don’t need to know this. How do we get you back to Paris?”

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