Here’s an excerpt of my novella, Falling Out of Fate. It comes out June 19th! You can look for it here.
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 see him.
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.