“I don’t know how tall nine feet is,” Rian protested. “Is that like... two cars?”
“You know what, close enough,” Liesel said. “But this one. The new Toyota Corollas ones are taller.”
“Duh, of course I was picturing this one. How old is it anyways?”
“1996?” Liesel guessed.
“Okay, so two 1996 Toyota Corollas tall,” Rian said. “Big black robes. That’s all you’ve got for me?”
Liesel’s eyes flashed up to the rearview mirror where she could see Breath of Thanatos sitting in the backseat. He was tall enough that his berobed knees covered up where a normal person’s chin would be. But since Breath was neither normal nor a person, it just left what she supposed was his neck out of view.
“His head is sort of shaped like a spade. And it’s... black.”
“Just sheer black? No hood, no glowing eyes?”
“Dark grey? Maybe with a warm or cool tint?”
“Okay, okay, black. Geeze. Maybe you should draw him for me,” Rian suggested.
Liesel gave Rian a sideways glance. “You’ve seen my sketches.”
Rian’s nose wrinkled up. “I swear it looked like a-”
“I’m not eight,” Liesel interrupted. “And your mother would kill me twice over if she ever thought I was going around showing her son an eight-year-old boy’s kind of drawing.”
Rian shrugged. “You’re gonna be dead anyways.”
That was a pretty hard point to argue with.
The Mojave Desert flew past on either side. Liesel was actually going the speed limit. Nevada police loved to pick up tickets from anyone foolish enough to think they were alone in this forsaken stretch of earth.
Night was setting in. She could see a small dusting of stars where the sky was darkest above them. The desert was turning into silhouettes of cacti and far-off mountains, tinged with the faintest golden beige. Anyone driving from LA to Vegas could see that.
Liesel could see so much more.
As stars twinkled into existence, so did sets of red eyes. They glowed from behind brush and boulders, slithering through the sand around them. Just when Liesel’s headlights should have fallen on their owners, they blinked out of existence again.
Between the stars fluttered bats. Gliding between the bats were other creatures entirely, just barely darker than the deep blue sky. In the road, on the side of the road, far off in the distance, there were figures. Pale grey, faintly glowing. Wailing, screaming, moaning, drifting. Ghosts who had died here and there. One got shot as Liesel drove past. Someone else was crushed by something--possibly a carriage that belonged to centuries long faded away. Another was struck by lightning, one by a flash flood. One, dying of dehydration, fell to her knees in front of the car, her blank-slate eyes stared deep into Liesel’s. She vanished as soon as the grill hit her in the chest.
And of course, curled up in the backseat was Breath, impossibly tall, impenetrably dark, unbreathing and definitely not living.
“I wish I could see,” Rian pouted. “I wanna know what they look like.”
Another creature, even taller than Breath, had stilt-thin legs and arms, with wide hands and thin fingers. His face turned to watch the Toyota trundle past. There was nothing inherently threatening about him--no claws or fangs or eyes like voids. But there was a wrongness about him that, even after all these years, left Liesel actively fighting her heart’s impulse to race. So tall, so thin, always staring.
“Count your blessings, kid,” Liesel muttered, slowing as she reached the beginning of traffic ready to enter Las Vegas. “None of this was ever meant to be seen.”
“Still.” Rian looked over his shoulder again, as though thinking that Breath might magically become visible to him.
“Why does he believe you?” Breath asked.
His voice was deep, but muffled. It was like it wasn’t coming from inside the car, but being transmitted from far, far away.
“Hey Rian, tell Breath why you don’t think I’m tripping and or drunk.”
Rian looked politely at where he assumed Breath’s not-a-face was. “Aunt Li doesn’t lie,” he said. “And she drives too well to be drunk or on drugs, I guess. And besides, she’s right about... the feeling, y’know?”
“Most mortals can sense even what they cannot see,” Breath said. His spade-shaped head gave a single nod, although that might have been from a rough portion of the road. Liesel couldn’t decide what parts of mortal physics affected Vassals.
“Why do you think we’re all so damn scared of the dark?” Liesel said. The lights of Las Vegas were visible now. She could see the Luxor’s light beaming into the sky, causing the stars to fade.
Rian faced forward again in his seat, adjusting the flat-brimmed ball cap he always wore and brushing long bangs out of his eyes. “When you said that fae thing was in my room, I could tell where,” he said. “I couldn’t see it or anything, but I didn’t want to walk right there, you know? I never even noticed until you pointed it out. I never walk in that corner.”
“That wasn’t fae,” Breath said.
“Yeah, no. That was a wraith,” Liesel said. “Not fae. Don’t swap the realms or you’ll piss off both Titania and Henthaer.”
“Wraith, right. Realm of Shadow,” Rian said, correcting himself quickly. “I tried to draw it like you described.” He bent down to rummage in the glovebox--which he had claimed for his own as soon as the trip had started--and pulled out a small and battered sketchbook. He flipped on the light, immediately making it that much harder for Liesel to see out the dust-coated and bug-spattered window. She glanced at the page.
Breath shifted in the backseat. “Tell him it’s not so solid,” he said. “More like strips of grey that fade away at the wraith’s feet.”
“Wraiths don’t have feet,” Liesel protested.
“I didn’t draw feet,” Rian said, brow furrowed.
“Breath,” Liesel reminded him. “Looks good, kid. Breath says it’s more like cloth. Like strips, y’know? But gray.”
“Warm gray or cool gray?”
"Gray.” Liesel reached up to turn off the light so that she could avoid rear-ending the Chevy Chevelle cruising in front of them.
They drove in silence for a little longer. Liesel appreciated that Rian didn’t have to fill the quiet with noise. He liked conversation but didn’t require it. That worked out fine for her. He could be mature in the weirdest ways, childish in others. But Liesel hadn’t quite been a normal fourteen year old either, so she figured it wasn’t too strange that her nephew took after that.
Breath didn’t like that Rian had come. Liesel didn’t know if he thought it was irresponsible to bring a minor along--which it certainly was--or that he just didn’t like the extra company.
“Why bring him?” Breath had asked in that deep but tinny voice.
“He needs out of his mother’s house for a while,” Liesel said gruffly. She didn’t add that she’d found bruises on Rian’s arms and legs. Breath would have seen those too.
“Rian’s mother is less dangerous than the life you lead,” Breath said.
“He can’t even see the realms,” Liesel protested. “He can’t get into that much trouble. And if something happens to me prematurely, he knows how to get home. The boy’s flown himself to his dad’s since he was about five.”
“What do we stand to gain from Rian’s presence?” Breath asked.
Liesel had looked down into her drink. It was a cocktail, something akin to a Negroni but with ingredients so cheap she hesitated to call it by the same name.
“I dunno,” Liesel said. “Maybe some human company before I die. I haven’t had much of that, you know. Not to cheapen my friendship with you.”
Breath didn’t answer, but Liesel was fairly confident that she hadn’t hurt his feelings.
As she drove through the mountains surrounding Las Vegas, Liesel wasn’t quite so sure anymore.
From here, the city almost looked normal. As normal as Vegas could be. Suburbs glowed yellow in their neatly planned grids, dipping into darker splotches where the ghettos stood. Then there was the Strip, like a neon scar crowning the city-filled valley. Dark mountains surrounded it on either side like a bowl, as though it could contain the famed debauchery and gambling.
Liesel used to wonder why an oasis of tackiness and artificial luxury had ever been set up in the middle of a desert. Something to do with the Hoover Dam, maybe. But then, why throw a massive dam in a place like Boulder City?
Well, historians had their answer. Liesel had hers. This little basin was one of the places where the Realm of Dream most securely touched the mortal world. Mare, the Sovereign of the Realm of Dream, probably hadn’t intended on this being the result. But mortals had a funny way of perceiving the unseen, and Las Vegas was the result of that.
Hopes, dreams, chance, nightmares. Las Vegas had become all that Mare’s realm represented. If it had Titania and the Realm of Fae who touched this place, humans would have reverently and fearfully erected some sort of monument, some American sort of Stonehenge. Then they would have avoided it, particularly in the dead of night.
But this place belonged to dreams. It belonged to the night, and mortals belonged to it.
And perhaps most importantly, Mare had inflicted upon this place his love of a good drink and drug trip. And a good drink was exactly what Liesel needed. The drug trip, she reflected, could be done without.
“Are we gonna stay in a casino?” Rian asked as they descended into the suburbs.
“No reservation, not much cash. I think not.”
“Darn. But we’ll be on the Strip, right?”
“There’s a Motel 6 we can try,” Liesel said.
“Aesthetic,” Rian said, approvingly.
Liesel shook her head. Either that word meant something entirely new now, or he was being a sarcastic little chump.
“Hey, does Breath sleep?” Rian asked.
“Not that I’ve ever seen.”
“I do not,” came the voice from the backseat that only Liesel could hear.
“He does not.”
As they drove down the Strip, Rian moved around to peer out every window possible. His grin and delighted exclamations left Liesel feeling less crusty than usual. Even the dim flickering of the Motel 6 sign didn’t put a damper on her new mood.
“Room for two,” Liesel said. She tried to look a little older than she was. Maybe a little frazzled, like her sister usually did. Rian was doing his best annoying-fourteen-year-old impression, which mostly consisted of complaining that his mom didn’t let him drink Red Bull like his dad did. Liesel wasn’t entirely sure if he was acting or if he was actually just complaining.
“$57 for two doubles,” said the man behind the counter. He had looked nothing but bored when they walked in. Now there was something nervous to his actions, the whites of his eyes just barely widened. That was the usual reaction when Breath was present in a room.
The total ended up being $64.61 with taxes and fees. Still, it was cheaper than some options by a long shot. And Liesel only had about nine months to spend money anyways.
In the room, Rian began pulling out a computer and a tangle of cords from his backpack.
“What the hell is all that?” Liesel asked.
“Gaming. Duh. What else am I gonna do in here?” Rian asked. “Oh, geeze, the wifi sucks.”
Liesel stared for a moment. “Whatever. Breath, keep an eye on Rian. I’m going out for a drink.”
“Wait, you’re gonna do tourist crap?” Rian asked.
“No. I’m going out for a drink. Don’t leave this room.” Liesel left. Rian’s complaint was cut short when Liesel shut the door.
Liesel went into the lobby.
“Cheapest drinks?” she asked.
The man didn’t even judge Liesel for her apparent bad parenting skills. “Fremont street.”
“Don’t advise it.”
“Is it a long walk?” she asked.
“Just kinda dark out, you know.”
“Alright, thanks.” Liesel headed out the door.
It was just cool enough that she wanted a jacket. The cool desert night might have been relaxing if it weren’t filled with neon and cars. She walked briskly towards Fremont Street.
Maybe if she’d grown up like a normal girl, Liesel would have been scared. Maybe she should have been. Just because she had survived creatures a dozen times more dangerous than a human didn’t mean humans were any less dangerous. But Liesel just couldn’t bring herself to be scared. She’d suppressed fear for too many years.
And facing an inescapable death put perspective on things.
Liesel found a dive bar called Hogs & Heifers. A blues song with a country twang droned on inside. She shoved open the door. Honky tonk wasn’t exactly her theme, but it suited her better than the retro space-age theme of that Atomic place. And it wasn’t too crowded.
A woman in a black bikini top was leaning on the bar. Liesel sat down.
“Boulevardier,” she said. “Whiskey on the rotgut side.”
“Sure thing, hon. Can I see some ID?”
Liesel didn’t comment on the fact that she was probably older than the bartender. That was when she realized she might not be. But damn, if she didn’t feel it. Liesel dug her wallet out of her back pocket and handed the ID to the bikini woman. The bartender nodded and handed the card back then got to pouring.
There was a band setting up in the corner. They didn’t look too worried about hurrying up. The jukebox was doing just fine for the three patrons inside.
The drummer had jet-black eyes.
Liesel took her drink.
“Wanna open a tab?” the bartender asked.
“No thanks.” Liesel passed over a few bills. “Rest is tips.”
Liesel watched the band set up. The drummer paused to look up and smile, flashing sharp teeth. They all curved outward. The inside of his lips were torn to shreds.
“How much longer?” the drummer called across the room to her.
“You know her?” asked one of his band members quietly.
Liesel took a long drink of her boulevardier. Then she set it on the bar.
“Nine months.” Her voice was steady. That was good.
“So sorry, Champ,” the drummer said.
Liesel chuckled. It sounded like an innocuous pet name. Little did the mortals know.
“Good place to spend it, though,” the drummer said. “I like this town.”
“Not staying long,” Liesel said. “Got too much to do.”
“Shouldn’t have procrastinated,” the drummer said. He shook his head. A drop of blood slid out the corner of his mouth. He wiped it away carelessly. The other band members didn’t notice. “You’ll never train someone in nine months. Hell, good luck finding someone in nine months.”
Liesel went back to her drink.