The thread glinted red in the midmorning sun, as thin as a strand of hair. Even in the bright light, it was invisible to humans, but Kyon saw it. He could find it with his eyes closed if he had to. His senses detected the pulse of power and the faint vibrations as Fate’s fingers found the string and got ready to pull the soul on the other end out of the living world. Kyon would play catch, snatching the flying little ball of fleshless energy before it fled. If he didn’t catch it, the soul would be lost and unable to find the way to the next life. Kyon didn’t like having to chase after souls. It felt terribly undignified, even if the humans on this plane couldn’t see him.
Fate’s thread vibrated again, and Kyon slid a little closer to his assignment. The woman washed her children’s clothing at the edge of the lake, the ends of her bright green sari soaking up the water as she scrubbed at rough cotton. A few dozen others had gathered close by with baskets and clothing and tiny children, sharing jokes and laughing over the splashing water. The woman didn’t participate.
Her movements became slow and jerky. Kyon skirted around four older boys squatting around a pile of shirts and found himself right next to her, ankle-deep in the lake as the sun scorched his shoulders. Kyon’s silk pants dragged down in the water as he crouched in preparation. Who knew which way her soul would fly, once released?
The woman convulsed and fell. Her head struck a sharp stone as she landed in the water. Those clustered nearby cried out, and a few ran her way, but it was too late. Kyon felt the tug, red thread tightening and straining, and for a moment Kyon wondered if it would snap off the soul.
The little ball popped out of the body as one of the boys reached her.
Kyon reeled it in, twisting the now-loose thread around his fingers. Fate no longer held on to the other end. She’d cut the soul’s thread after she pulled it, relying on him to bring it home. Kyon soothed the soul with soft humming until it came closer, and he plucked it from the air with practiced fingers.
He’d barely gotten hold of the soul when his body was yanked into the space between worlds. His long-term commitment called him, dragging him in with violence. Kyon clenched his fist around the soul, keeping it safe as he sped through the blackness and reappeared outside an ornate house, just outside the living room window.
This particularly needy assignment involved keeping an eye on a local politician with an increasingly unstable personality. Peter Reid was a politician, a moneymaker, the kind who always got his way and lorded it over the rest of the world. He’d hidden the extent of his issues from his family and friends, but his mind was rapidly deteriorating. He posed the most danger to his wife, an obsessive-compulsive woman with a flair for social niceties, but Kyon worried more for their son.
The boy, Patrick, was all gangly limbs and freckles, timid and easily spooked, though he had a fun-loving personality that came out when nobody else was around. Kyon had been calling him polos
--foal--in his mind since the day they’d first seen each other, many years ago. Patrick had grown up without learning to make a single decision on his own, and he obviously resented it, though he’d done well to hide his rebellion from his father. Patrick had turned eighteen a few days before and still had a solid week until Kyon collected his soul, but his father acted unpredictably. If Patrick died before his time, he could find himself trapped forever in the same world as Kyon. The soul collector had his work cut out for him, keeping the kid fully entangled in the complicated web of Fate.
It was nearly midnight here, and the lights from inside made the dark feel thick and impenetrable. Patrick sprawled on the floor, one hand pressed to his nose. His school uniform soaked up the dripping blood, leaving splotches of scarlet on the white polo shirt. His school bag sat at the foot of the stairs, and he had yet to take off his shoes. He’d been out late.
His father towered over him with clenched fists, chest heaving, eyes wild. “You will not see him again!”
“He’s at the top of the class, father. You had no problem with him when he tutored me in geometry.” Patrick’s broken nose warped most of the words, and his hand muffled the rest. His father took another swing at the boy. Patrick scrambled out of reach in time to avoid a fist to the cheek.
“He is not friend material, Patrick. He’s a bastard child of a whore. If I hear that you’ve disobeyed me, I’ll make life hell for him, and God knows what I’ll do to you.”
“He’s not a bastard.” Patrick’s voice shook.
“You heard me. I don’t want you to see him again. The wrong friends led your sister down a dark, dark road. I don’t want you to fall into the same trap she did. This is for your own good.”
Patrick curled up next to the couch, his back to the expensive white upholstery. Kyon shifted to get a better view of his polos, and the movement drew Patrick’s gaze to him. That first jolt of awareness always made Kyon uncomfortable. Humans weren’t supposed to see him unless he wanted them to, but Patrick had always been a little different. His polos could
It was the reason Kyon always stayed outside the house.
In the beginning, when Patrick was much younger and not yet disenchanted, he had wanted Kyon to do something about the violence. The reaction was logical. That first time, Kyon had been towering over the physical fight like a boxing referee. When Patrick realized that nobody else could see Kyon, he’d stopped the accusatory stares. Instead, Kyon became something of a talisman to the boy. When he showed up, Patrick smiled and waved at Kyon if he wasn’t the focus of the fight. Kyon would nod back. He wouldn’t let himself do anything more. He couldn’t afford to care more than he already did.
Reid stalked off to his office on the other side of the house. Patrick kept his eyes on Kyon and attempted a bloody smile as he staggered to his feet. A bang and crash from the direction of the office sent Patrick scrambling for the stairs. He disappeared into the questionable safety of his room. Kyon wanted to follow, to comfort, to care for the injury, but work waited for him. He went to check on the subject of his assignment.
Kyon saw the office clearly from the outside window. Mahogany furniture filled the large room, and a giant television hung on one wall, the sleek flat-screen playing a muted twenty-four-hour news channel. A bottle of Scotch sat on the desk, and Reid held a full whiskey tumbler. He swore at the television, leaned back in his leather chair, and drank. The gun was still locked in the top drawer of his desk. He was occupied. He wouldn’t go after Patrick again tonight.
Kyon left the human realm before giving in to the desire to stay with Patrick. He had unfinished business with the near-forgotten soul still vibrating in his fist. He appeared in the midst of thick gray fog. Wisps of musty air swirled around Kyon as he stalked toward the towering stone walls. The ever-present haze almost completely hid the ancient castle.
Kyon pushed through the shadows of his broken comrades as they drifted across the dim landscape. He could have appeared in the hall of Death itself, but he wanted a reminder of what he didn’t need to become.
The oldest of the broken Unfated had become cloudy mist in the air, their numbers high enough to pollute the entire valley with dense gray fog. The more recently broken remained a bit more solid, existing as shambling opaque forms, still recognizable as they passed through the smoky remains of their brethren, always moving, always dancing through the world their minds made for themselves when they couldn’t cope with reality any longer.
Kyon had known a lot of these shadows before they’d slipped away into slow delusions, before their minds utterly destroyed themselves. Now they drifted, entirely oblivious to the rest of the world. This was his future, to wander the dreary landscape trapped in his own broken mind. He’d come to terms long ago with working alone, without another soul to shore up the cracks in his own.
Kyon had never really minded his position as an Unfated, hadn’t minded serving Death. His place in the Gray Realm gave him far more satisfaction than his life as an Athenian slave had. He’d continued to renew his contract with Death every five hundred years. He had nothing better to do. He’d become integral in managing the others, thanks to his love for organization. Death was forever thankful for someone else to help with paperwork. Kyon liked his job, even if Fate hadn’t found his partner. Even if his daily routine had long ago gotten dull and his soul had grown tired.
He’d done well, staving off the shadows for as long as he had. The oblivion of madness always called out to him, but he still fought. Only the barest traces of soul-rot had found him, and he took pride in lasting so long. Death worried. Kyon’s coworkers constantly watched him. They evaluated every word, every deed, just waiting for his mind to cave in on itself. They feared what would happen when he broke. He took the trickiest jobs, and Death relied on him for so much.
Kyon had long ago resigned himself as part of the unlucky 50 percent of Unfated who didn’t have partners or broke before they found and bonded with their other half.
Kyon forced his feet to move. His thick-soled boots sank into the earth and left deep tracks in the dust. Walking on the ground in the Gray Realm was like walking on clouds, or feathers, or those silly-looking yellow mattress toppers Death had handed out to all his workers as a holiday bonus quite a few years before. Kyon had loved the feeling of sinking down into the earth when he’d first come here. Now he no longer cared. Instead, he worried over the politician’s son. He’d been worrying ever since he met Patrick, and he’d continue to worry until the boy died. Then he’d take the soul of his polos and send it on and try to forget.
Worry spread faster than plague in the Gray Realm.
Kyon had done everything he could to avoid the disease, but Patrick had become special to him. Kyon worried about his own reaction to Patrick. The boy had become a man practically overnight, and Kyon found him more desirable with each passing day. His polos had starred in one of Kyon’s more erotic dreams last night, and the potential implications terrified him. He’d invested too much emotion into this assignment. Now he wondered if taking the boy’s soul would trigger his inevitable madness. Bringing the boy into the afterlife was supposed to be a joyous event, but Kyon could no longer imagine the human world without Patrick somewhere in it.
The hall of Death sat in the densest, foggiest part of the Gray Realm, austerely marking the exact location where the land of the living touched the wall of afterlives. The stone and slate building loomed large in the fog.
Kyon pushed open the great stone doors and walked into the cavernous hall, where everything smelled musty and the air was just cool enough to be uncomfortable. A vaulted ceiling disappeared in the darkness, and hundreds of flickering torches lined the gray stone walls. Two obscenely long wooden tables stretched down either side of the hall, little stools and chairs and benches scattered along the rough, scarred lengths. Normally a couple dozen men and women sat at the tables, drinking from earthenware mugs and nibbling at large plates of food. This time the usual occupants gathered around the front of the hall.
Death stood in front of his ancient walnut desk on the plinth at the far end, and over a hundred off-duty soul collectors congregated before him. The boss man looked like white trash in tight, worn jeans and an athletic tank--fancy dress, for Death--and mesmerizing black swirls and lines covered the revealed skin. He had two days’ worth of blond stubble covering his scalp and jaw, and more dark markings showed through the fuzz.
Kyon had four sections of tattoos along his right shoulder, upper chest, and arm that looked nearly identical to Death’s, each representing a completed contract, but they were nothing compared to the ink the boss man had. Rumor had it that Death had no unmarked skin. Anywhere. It would take Kyon at least ten thousand years of service to accumulate that many tattoos.
Kyon let the crowd absorb him, moving forward until he could see the two soul collectors kneeling on either side of Death while Fate hovered behind them all with a clipboard in her hands. It was a soul-binding ceremony, a public merging of two broken souls in the hopes that they would seal each other’s rough edges and keep the rot out. If the souls fit perfectly, the bonding would heal past damage as well as prevent future disintegration.
Kyon hadn’t been given any warning that there was a soul-binding ceremony scheduled today. It must have been a rush job. Maria, a woman Kyon had been working with for most of the last thousand years, knelt on a velvet pillow to Death’s right. On Death’s left knelt a black-haired man Kyon had never seen before. The man had to be brand-new. Brand-brand-new, like he just fell out of Fate’s web that morning. Otherwise Kyon would have known him. They’d be introduced eventually, but not until the honeymoon week was over. Then Kyon would have the opportunity to ask questions, learn about the new collector’s strengths and weaknesses, and analyze the man’s personality. If the new collector could handle the pressure, Maria and her new partner could be scheduled for larger and more complicated soul-collecting missions, and Kyon would have one less soul collector to surreptitiously worry over. Maria would be safe from the shadows once the ceremony was completed. Her partner would never know the seductive allure of oblivion.
He was a lucky, lucky bastard to be spared that siren’s call.
“Maria, are you sure you want to meld your soul to this yokel for eternity?” Death’s dark, melting voice dripped into and drowned out the low hum of the audience.
“Of course, Death. I wouldn’t have suggested this otherwise. Now get on with it,” Maria said. Death grinned and turned to the black-haired man.
“What about you, Tom? Do you want to be stuck with this bitch for the rest of eternity?”
Fate reached up and slapped the back of Death’s head.
“Okay, maybe she’s not that bad. Bonding isn’t a negative thing, kid. The two of you will share sensations, feelings, and bubbly-happy-flowery shit,” Death said.
“Uh, yeah.” The man nodded at Death, and Maria beamed at him. If that Tom character could get Maria to smile, Kyon wished them luck. Maria could be a surly bitch at the best of times.
“Oh, good,” Ronan said from Kyon’s side. “Now Death will have someone new to pop in on. He’s been catching me during every one-night stand I have. It’s... Well, it’s kind of hot, but really unnerving at the same time.”
“You just need to stop screwing everything with two legs and a penis, Ronan. He’ll leave you alone once you turn boring like me.”
“Fate, if you’d do the honors?” Death stepped back, and the tiny figure with a complexion darker than the night sky stepped up to fill the gap. Her white, fluttering robes never stopped moving, though the air was perfectly still.
“You will each sign the contract in blood. Tom, this is just like signing your initial soul-collecting contract. All you need is a little scratch on the back of your hand--that’s it, just like that--and now dip the quill. Get the tip nice and covered. Make sure it’s legible. Yes, that’s good. Your turn, Maria.”
The paper signed, Death and Fate stood behind the pair and murmured the indistinguishable chants that would bind Maria and Tom for eternity. The chanting part of the bonding ceremonies was one of the rare times Death and Fate didn’t bicker. The air heated under the intensity of their combining power and then cooled rapidly when the incantations came to an end.
“So help me, Death, you will leave them alone until they’re comfortable with each other,” Fate said, arms crossing as she planted herself directly in front of him. Maria stood and pulled her new partner up to his feet.
“Will you keep me from my only form of entertainment?” Death asked innocently.
“For a few weeks, at least.”
“Fine. I get to watch you instead. No complaints.” Death took great delight in Fate’s scowl.
“Bastard,” she said as she headed out the front doors. Fate had a cottage resting on the peak of the only mountain in the Gray Realm. She saw the living and the dead from that vantage, and she wove, connected, and disconnected their threads without distraction. She decided when each human was born and when each died. What happened in between was the person’s choice.
The rest of the soul collectors broke away, scattering along the tables and reaching for dinner. Kyon pushed through the last of the crowd and climbed up the stairs to Death’s plinth. The boss man had settled back behind his desk and donned his thick-rimmed glasses. The lenses had been removed, but Death thought the black frames made him look distinguished. He was already lost in the ever-present pile of paperwork. He didn’t even look up as Kyon approached, soul in hand.
Kyon stood before the great wall and closed his eyes. This was the choke point, the place where Death’s collectors sorted each soul into whatever afterlife it would inhabit for the rest of eternity.
Kyon waited for the soul to speak to him, to show him what it wanted. It sent him a vision of red clay and bright saris. Earth. Reincarnation. The woman had been Hindu.
Kyon held the soul up to the imposing wall of afterlives. The glyphs marking the afterlife most suited to the soul’s desires glowed brightly, accepting the offering. The soul seeped into the wall and through the portal.
Carved markings and symbols covered every inch of the wall, each representing a different afterlife. Some souls ended up in an afterlife of paradise, complete with chirping birds and harps and golden streets. Several, like the woman he’d just delivered, found themselves in a world almost identical to the one they left, minus diseases and natural disasters. A few got their virgins, and others had all the knowledge of the world. Whatever a human imagined about the afterlife, Death had a place for them. There was even a hell, for those who desired their own eternal torture. Death hadn’t been particularly fond of that concept when it had been first introduced to society, but he complied, as he always did, and he added an escape clause for the poor souls who’d requested hellfire and brimstone.
Kyon tried to avoid that part of the wall. It smelled like sulfur.
Death was scary as shit when he meant business, but Kyon thought his boss was a bit of a pushover when addressing the eternal desires of the soul. Kyon wasn’t about to say anything, though. Pissing off Death meant ending up on the performing end of his voyeuristic tendencies.
Kyon filled out his report and signed it neatly with a sharp-tipped quill. Each report had to be filled out and signed in blood, and the cut on the back of his hand sealed up almost immediately. He added his report to the incoming pile as unobtrusively as he could.
Leave it to Death to demand everything written in blood. One report wasn’t so bad, but Kyon’s hand always stung like hell after he created the weekly schedule or filled out extensive forms on abnormalities. Death kept records of everything, and bureaucracy had proved to be a physical pain.
Kyon left Death to his paperwork and went to look for Ronan.
The long wooden tables were nearly full after the ceremony. The single soul collectors sat at one table; the other contained paired couples. Partners always sat together, just as they always slept together, woke together, and worked together. The couples always seemed to be touching, as though they had an unconscious need to make their bond visible to the rest of the realm. Kyon used to think being partnered would get annoying. Now he wished the other half of his soul even existed.
“Hon!” Ronan called from the singles’ table. Kyon nudged a space open between Ronan and another man so he could sit. “How’s the latest assignment going?”
“His wife and son lived to see another morning.”
“I hope they live to see all their mornings,” Ronan said with a dramatic sigh and a toss of his long red curls. He was frozen at nineteen, a fresh recruit with only twenty years of soul retrieval under his belt, and he had been taken from a good life. He’d been in Tokyo as a foreign exchange student when a man had pushed him in front of a subway train on a whim. There hadn’t been enough time for Fate to reorganize things and save him before he hit the rails. He mourned his lost life a lot more than most Unfated, and had a tender heart for potentially young recruits. He was also perpetually horny, as well as a stubborn little spitfire, and nobody to date--not even Death--was able to get him to stop calling them by pet names. Hearing the boss respond to “cutie” sent the rest of the hall into quickly suppressed snickers every time.
“You do remember you have three collections in less than an hour, right?” Kyon asked as he sat and reached for a mug filled with mead.
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll get there. I have time, hon. It’s not like I’ve got a long commute or anything.” Ronan grinned and flicked Kyon’s nose before turning back to the rest of the group. Kyon leaned back and sipped the sweet liquid, listening to Ronan complain about Death walking in when he was fucking his latest conquest. Other collectors constantly interrupted Kyon with questions about the evening schedule. It was an average night, except for the bonding ceremony. The normalcy grounded Kyon, made him feel less morose and more like himself as dinner dragged on.
“Kyon, hon, want to bend me over Death’s desk and give the cutie a real show?” Ronan asked with an obscene wiggle of his eyebrows. He came on to everyone, and Kyon hadn’t taken him up on his offer since the first night. Even so, Ronan never stopped asking, and Kyon didn’t feel bad saying no. Inevitably Ronan would find someone else, and Kyon would hear the sounds of Ronan begging whoever he’d caught to fuck him harder before Kyon fell asleep. The boy was a bit of a slut, and Kyon didn’t have the sex drive of a human anymore.
“You have less than half an hour before your first assignment, Ro. Besides, you need to stop soliciting me for public sex. It’s not going to happen.” Not like that would make any difference to Ronan.
“You crush me.” He gasped, clutching his hands over his heart. He fluttered his eyelashes for a moment. “You never said anything about not soliciting you for private sex. How about it?”
“Go earn your immortality, tramp,” Kyon said, and Ronan stuck out his tongue at Kyon before taking off for work. Kyon followed suit after a few minutes. He had schedules to make and a few more souls to collect before his evening was over. Then he’d take a nap until the violence from his polos’s father pulled him back to the realm of the living to stand watch.
Everything was normal. He wouldn’t turn into shadow for a while yet.