I'm not completely sure of the exact year of my death, but I know that it was sometime around the sixteen hundreds in Europe. Annoyingly, the rest of my comrades tend to look down on me. They see me as a girl of eighteen—young and foolish. They say I'm too emotional in the field, that my hot blood will ruin my missions. That I will "endanger myself".
It's funny, because they aren't really concerned for my wellbeing. They just want a higher position in the Ladies' court, which does make sense. All of them know that I am the most experienced out of all of them. And I'm not bragging when I say I could beat any of them in a fight, even the ones who tower over me.
I think most of them hope I'll be killed by a renegade Joy at this point.
Dying a second time is sad. Especially for us in Misery, who've had a tougher time of it. But I think we handle it better. Joys mourn for an hour before going back to collecting (it's not in their nature to be sad for long). We, on the other hand, mourn for the rest of our lives. Dying twice, however, is miles better than oblivion. They're never forgotten, not ever, so they still exist. It's why, every night I'm back at the Hall (which is about every month) I go to the room reserved for memorials. The serretiere is a room filled with plants, one for each of us that managed to move on—or were killed before they finished serving their time.
I don't believe I'll ever quit. I'd let myself get caught by Joys first, I like to joke to Eloise. My job is too important.
Eloise taps me on the shoulder and points at her watch. It reads eleven thirty-two in the morning, which means we really should get going. I wince at my own forgetfulness. Eloise is new, yet she always remembers our tasks and schedules. It's only been two years since she died alone in a dark alleyway. Eloise told me the story when she became my trainee, and later, my partner. (After all, it's more fun to work in pairs, and easier. Safer.) "You're, like, thirty when it comes to time," I mutter.
She rolls her eyes.
Josephine was the one who found her spirit, a collector who died in her mid-twenties, with dark hair twisted into a conservative bun and thin, delicate fingers. She had been twitchy and nervous for the beginning of the year-long training, but once she realized that the other Miseries were nothing like her abusive husband, she had settled down. Soon she became one of the very best at her job. I like Josephine—she never pushes for a higher spot in court, or tries to persuade me to retire.
Josephine wasn't new at that point, but not as old as me—I'm the senior collector for the darkness. She'd been at her job for around a century and she knew what to do when no Soulkeepers were around.
"What's your name?" she asked gently, taking Eloise's weak hand into her own. This served two purposes, the instructors had taught us: it comforted the very likely confused and distressed ghost, and it made sure they couldn't run away to cause havoc among the living. Eloise had shaken her head, soft brown bangs brushing her translucent forehead wildly. She had been scared almost out of her mind. She was only a year younger than my apparent age—seventeen and dead too young.
Josephine had smiled softly at Eloise and patted her hand. "It's okay," she said. "I won't hurt you." As the spirit studied her, looking for anything suspicious, Josephine slipped the ghostly knife from her fist and tossed it to the side.
"I'm Eloise," the ghost had said shakily. Her eyes darted around to rest on the body behind her. "What is that?" she shrieked, pointing a finger at...well, herself. Josephine placed both hands on Eloise's shoulders to placate the trembling spirit. "That's your body," she said matter-of-factly. "You're dead."
Eloise had sunk to her knees, her hand over her mouth.
"Dead?" she said finally.
"Dead," Josephine confirmed. "You'll be alright. I'll take you to the Soulkeepers, and they'll place you with your ancestors. You'll be placed in their division to fight in the war against Hell and its warriors." Eloise's face fell. "That's what happens when you die? You fight forever?"
"Not forever, not really. Just until you've been absolved for your sins. It's a sort of purgatory, I suspect—it just takes a very, very long time."
"Sounds like dying is just as bad as living," she mutters.
Josephine had hesitated, wondering whether or not to say something. Being a collector isn't for the faint of heart. It's a dangerous job.
"Are you familiar with misery? Sorrow, and all that it entails?" Josephine had asked. Eloise let out a half-laugh, half-wheeze. She gestured to the body almost mockingly.
She nodded sadly. "I see. Then there is another option, for you, at least. You were lucky that a Soulkeeper didn't find your spirit first. They wouldn't have offered you this choice." Eloise had smiled through what Josephine saw were tears. "It's the first time I've ever been lucky in my life," she had whispered.
Josephine had taken her to the Hall of Balance, the first place all the would-be-collectors were taken before training began. Eloise had walked through the twisting passageways paneled in dark wood, gazing around at everything there was to see.
I still remember the first time I walked those passageways.
Everything had been so new, so interesting. Of course, it had looked a lot different than it does now. The Hall changes to meet the time period, as does everything. For me, the passages were stone, with flickering torches on the walls. I had expected tapestries and statue, but the walls were strangely unadorned. .
The Misery who found me, Aria, was kind enough to point out the people that walked by. She was a woman in her fifties who had died as the last of her family with no relatives or friends. It was of some plague or other. I remember she didn't like to talk about it. Collectors seldom do. Even I, who died so long ago, don't enjoy relating my story.
She had pointed out and named several women and girls. I still remember them: Nadia, with her blonde pigtails; Victoria, with her laughing blue eyes; Tori, with her twisted hand; Felicia, with the freckles all over her face. They're all gone now, having worked off their sins. Except for Tori. She died before she could move on in some freak weapons accident.
Both Eloise and I had been taken to the exact same room. It's huge...and empty but for a table in the center.
On the table was a stone scale—the one thing that has never changed. It's the one constant in the changing world. Across from it was another door. This one was barred and locked.
"Never go through that door," Josephine warned Eloise. "Everyone on the other side wants to kill you. And don't cross that line." She pointed at the groove splitting the room in half. Something ominous made the hairs on the back of my neck rise the first time I had seen it, something that made me feel...almost watched.
Josephine pointed at the scale. "This is the most valuable object in the entire universe," she said. "It's what makes sure the earth doesn't collapse under our feet. As long as it remains level, life will go on."
Eloise had darted over to look at the small plates on either end. "What are these?" she asked, extending a finger to touch what looked like bits of purple glitter. Josephine had gently moved her hand away. "Bits of misery," she murmured. "Those," she had pointed at the gold glitter, "are bits of joy. We collectors find them, capture them, and bring them here to be weighed. The joy and misery in each of the worlds needs to be equal, or the balance shifts and everything is destroyed. We go to places where people are angry, and sad, and despairing, and collect these sparks."
"Am I going to be a collector?" Eloise asked, catching on to why she had been taken to this particular room.
Josephine nodded. "If you choose this as your afterlife, you'll be assigned a set of instructors to teach you. Or, if you're lucky, you'll be given one of the senior collectors as a mentor."
Eloise had smiled. "Can I help people, if I do this job?" she had asked hopefully.
"You'll keep the world in balance, and therefore, whole. So yes, you will. Just not in a very..." Josephine searched for a word, "conventional way." Eloise nodded eagerly.
"There are rules, of course. You can only collect misery, for one. I am a Misery collector, and I have taken you to the Misery half of the Hall of Balance. Once you entered here, you couldn't ever go to the Joy half."
"I don't want to collect joy. That would mean I would have to see happy people, right?" She looked up at Josephine for confirmation. Her eyes were sharp, their depths dark and full of writhing shadows. Josephine looked into them and saw nothing she could ever hope to comprehend.
"Yes," she had said.
Eloise had accepted the job.