Winter's End (Book Two in the Terminal City Saga)
by Trevor Melanson
Copyright © 2017 by Trevor Melanson
While incredibly rare, spirit-stealing spells may be the most heinous, most unforgivable known to necromancy. For victims, the outcome is worse than death.
—Samuel Benedict, Advanced Necromancy
# # #
KYLE MACDONALD knew that tonight was inevitable. Everything was inevitable.
Dragging his razor over his Adam’s apple up to his chin, Kyle cut against the grain of his stubble, once, twice, then again, shaving until his skin was perfectly smooth. Bleeding in two spots but smooth. He washed the blood away, splashing his face with handfuls of tap water, then pulled a white towel off its rack. The metal bar twirled and squeaked. He patted his cheeks, eyeing the curved corners of his round face, as soft and slippery as a wet melon—as inoffensively bland too. Thirty years to the day, Kyle was, but people often told him he looked twenty. Looked innocent, cordial, unremarkable. Looked like a Kyle.
Kyle, however, was none of these things, though that was hardly his fault. The universe was clockwork, he had learned. Every moment, every birth, every death, every human being the consequence of what came before them. Cause and effect. Kyle was who he was, what he was, and nothing could change that. His future was already written, his victims already chosen.
Next came his hair. With his flat black comb, Kyle meticulously parted each thin brown strand to one side. Finally, he brushed his teeth, and he was ready.
Kyle used to resent his illness. Psychopath: it sounded more like an accusation. People didn’t understand. And then one day he had a life-changing epiphany: it didn’t matter. Nothing did. Free will was a facade, he realized. Humans were mere products of nature, and his nature compelled him to consume, to grow. You can’t blame a tornado for destroying a few trailers.
Or a psychopathic necromancer for stealing spirits.
The first one had been the hardest. First times usually were, but it wasn’t just the chant that proved difficult. More, it was the price: not only a person’s life but their afterlife too. A stolen spirit couldn’t enter the Spirit Realm, couldn’t fade peacefully into nothing. It remained a prisoner within its captor, within Kyle MacDonald. It went against everything his parents, talented necromancers in their own right, had taught him. But each time he grew more powerful, albeit increasingly less so. The returns were diminishing. Though not his desire. Nor the voices in his head, dozens of them now, screaming and begging for release—for a real death.
What’s more, everyday spirits no longer satiated Kyle’s appetite. These days, he had to kill his fellow necromancers. It was the difference between gruel and steak. Necromancers had a special connection to the Spirit Realm, and each spirit was unique. “Like a fine wine,” he often said. Thing was, he could only tap into that special connection if he consumed it, and Kyle needed to grow. That was simply a fact. Simply his nature.
He flicked off the bathroom light and stepped into the living room, a simple space that was clean and overwhelmingly beige. It looked like every other hundred-dollar hotel room. Kyle had stayed in a lot of them over the years. There were only so many necromancers out there, after all, and a bit of traveling was required. Kyle liked to think of himself as a sort of hunter-gatherer, roaming to survive.
He grabbed his blazer off the bed before sliding it over top his freshly ironed dress shirt—appearances were important—then fetched his collar stays from the nightstand. Kyle pushed them in one at a time, checking himself out in the small oak mirror above the dresser. “Your name is Leonard Sutton,” he said aloud and then walked out the front door, locking it behind him.
Kyle made his way to the elevator, politely nodding to an old woman who passed him in the hallway, a smile stretched across his plain face, as ready as ever to face the inevitable.
# # #
“You must be Leonard.” The man was in his late forties but youthfully groomed. His suit looked new—silver, sharp at the edges, and a pretty good fit save for the waist. A modest gut poured over his belt and under a skinny black tie that matched his thick-rimmed glasses. Untailored, his suit, but meticulously chosen. Diego Castillo wasn’t quite as wealthy as he appeared from a distance, but then Kyle wasn’t here for his money.
Diego leaned forward to shake hands. His was rough and tan, but his grip was soft and warm. He smiled before reclining into his seat. Kyle joined him, grinning as he sunk into the leather upholstery. It was a small, intimate table, a candle and two cocktails all that lay between them.
“I hope you don’t mind,” said Diego. Kyle could feel his breath. “I got you an old fashioned. It’s my favorite, so if you don’t want it...” He trailed off teasingly.
“You shouldn’t have.” Kyle took a small sip. “I’m not much of a drinker, but I think I can make an exception tonight. Cheers.”
“Cheers,” said Diego. “To exceptions.”
“It’s not often I meet a fellow, shall we say, hobbyist in Salt Lake City.” Diego eyed the room around them, but the dim hotel bar was mostly deserted.
“It’s my first time,” replied Kyle. “I wish I could stay a little longer.”
Diego looked incredulous. “You wish you could stay longer,” he said, eyebrows raised, “in Salt Lake fucking City?”
“Hah, hah, hah.” When Kyle laughed, he spoke each “hah.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” added Diego. “I grew up here and all that. But let me tell you, boy, as soon as my kids—whom I love to bits.” He took a deep, melodramatic breath. “As soon as those wonderful bastards go off to college, I am out of here. And I mean for good. Being a gay man in Salt Lake City is like being a butterfly in a hornet’s nest.”
“Lucky for me, I found the butterfly.” Kyle feigned a sip of his old fashioned.
Diego rolled back in his chair, guffawing, his whole body rocking as his cheeks grew redder and redder. His laugh was everything Kyle’s was not. “Oh God, Leonard.” Diego wiped both eyes with the back of his hand, one after the other. “You are too goddamn cute.”
“Hah, hah, hah.”
Diego let out a satisfied sigh. “So, you’re in sales, are you? How do you like that?”
“It suits me. I like people. Heck, I even like small talk.” Kyle hated small talk.
“Well, you’re very good at it.” Diego drank down the last of his old fashioned as if it were a shot and then signaled the server for another.
“Your profile said you’re a lawyer.” Kyle was referring to the dating website the two had met on three weeks earlier. For a baby-faced millennial like Kyle, meeting men was hardly a challenge. Meeting necromancers, on the other hand—now that was trickier.
Kyle’s dating profile said nothing of necromancy. It was spotless, cheerful, almost abnormally innocent. He was a fun-loving salesman from Seattle who traveled a lot (“for work AND pleasure”). Leonard Sutton was a cliché. Unless, of course, you knew what to look for. Unless you were a fellow necromancer.
A single line gave him away: “People say I have a lot of spirit—realms of it!” To most readers, it was merely an awkward phrase (Leonard was no master wordsmith). But to necromancers, the words spirit and realm side-by-side stuck out like a blot of blood on white canvas. And sometimes, on those rare occasions, one of them would reach out.
If there was one hole in Kyle’s plot, it was the possibility of drawing unwanted attention, of attracting inquisitors—the religious fanatics who hunted and killed his kind for a living. They were always searching for subtle clues that might lead them to their next target. But Kyle didn’t fear inquisitors. There seemed to be fewer of them these days, and he’d already killed a couple. He was the real predator, after all, the tornado—and he’d swallow up anyone who crossed him.
Diego, on the other hand, was a gentle soul. Kyle could sense that much. He harbored no ill will toward the man, but then he rarely did. It wasn’t about who deserved what, because in Kyle’s universe, no one deserved anything. If people were snowflakes, as they say, then humanity was an avalanche, each individual barreling down the mountainside, a prisoner to physics. And here, in this hotel bar, Diego had hit ground.
Soon, he would melt into Kyle.
“Sad to say it.” Diego rolled his eyes. “I am indeed a lawyer.” He leaned forward on one elbow. “Did you know that seventy-five percent of lawyers regret becoming lawyers?” He poked the table with his index finger. “Seventy-five percent.”
“Wow, really?” Kyle pretended to look surprised, to care.
“Actually, I have no idea.” Diego chuckled. “I think I read that somewhere. Could be true.”
“Hah.” Kyle tried not to overdo it this time. He sometimes wondered what it felt like, having a good laugh. He heard once that some women went their whole lives without ever experiencing an orgasm, mistaking ripples of pleasure for the real thing. Kyle wondered if he was like those women, smirking and chuckling but never truly laughing—never knowing how hilarious life could be.
“You know what I don’t regret, though,” said Diego. Then, under his breath: “Becoming a necromancer.”
A grin spread across Kyle’s face, and for the first time that night, it was an authentic one. “That,” he said, “makes two of us.”
Once more, they clinked glasses.
# # #
“Make yourself at home.”
They were back in Kyle’s hotel room. Diego kicked off his shoes and went straight for the bed, unfurling onto his back, arms outstretched. “Mmm. Comfy.”
Kyle locked the door then headed to the bathroom. “To freshen up.”
“I haven’t been this drunk in some time,” said Diego.
Kyle could see him reflected in the bathroom mirror, rolling and giggling, crinkling his crisp sheets. “There’s nothing wrong with having a little fun,” he replied. “You’ve earned it.”
“Have I, now?”
“Sure,” said Kyle, splashing water on his face—he liked to stay clean. “We all deserve to have what we want. To do what we want.”
“Is that so?” Diego could see Kyle’s reflection too; he was staring back at him, lust in his eyes. “I don’t always know what I want, Leonard—lovely, lovely Leonard—but right now, in this moment, I am dead certain of it.”
Kyle flicked off the bathroom light and stepped out from behind the doorframe. “That makes two of us,” he said.
Diego sat upright with renewed energy, downplaying his drunken demeanor. He watched every step Kyle took toward the bed like a cat trailing a fly.
Kyle sat down beside him, close enough that their hips touched. Diego lifted his hand from the bed, tracing Kyle’s spine, up and down, then in swirls. He leaned in, inhaling Kyle’s neck and cheek before kissing him.
Truth be told, Kyle had never figured out his sexuality. Though he generally preferred women, gender mattered less than the act itself. They were all just bodies, after all, some more pleasurable than others. In a sense, his psychopathy freed him: he felt no remorse, no pressure to be straight or gay. He simply wanted what he wanted when he wanted it—and he would take it without hesitation.
But Kyle did not desire Diego, at least not sexually—he was too old, too drunk. All the same, he was a necromancer. Not a particularly gifted one, granted, but that would only make him easier to consume, to contain. And Kyle was hungry.
“You smell like soap.” Diego chuckled, his hand crawling down Kyle’s stomach, making its way to his belt.
Kyle said nothing, nor did his eyes. His hand, however, moved up to Diego’s throat. Kyle had learned the hard way that if you’re going to attack another necromancer, you best stop them from chanting—stop their ability to reflect your spells, to strike back. So Kyle squeezed.
For a second, Diego seemed to think he was just playing rough. It wasn’t until the air in his throat was cut off like a closed valve that he noticed Kyle chanting. That his eyes were no longer unassuming and kind but a venomous crimson.
Diego took a swing at him, but his fist struck Kyle’s cheek like a pillow, his strength diminished to a child’s. The younger necromancer remained unblemished and unfazed, staring through him with his red eyes, through a man who was vanishing by the second. The spell had already taken hold. The air between them was a veritable strainer, Diego’s spirit being pulled through as Kyle consumed its mangled remains.
Once Diego could no longer move his body, he knew it was over. His gaze said as much, but now Kyle could hear his thoughts. The thoughts of a dying man, because though Diego wouldn’t truly die—held prisoner in the Living Realm, in Kyle—the very thing that made life worth living in his view, his autonomy, would be left behind like his corpse. If Diego had possessed free will, it was evaporating in the space between them.
Kyle, of course, did not believe in such things.
The two men fell to the carpet. Diego’s body landed on its side, Kyle on his ass. He gasped for air, sweat streaming down his pale, round face. Consuming another man’s spirit was like swallowing an apple whole—getting it down was the hardest, if not seemingly impossible, part.
But Kyle had done this many times before and knew that pain was just part of the process. He crawled off the floor onto his bed, clinging to the sheets, his fingers curled into claws.
Sometimes Kyle passed out afterward, but not today. He was getting better at this, growing stronger. His body was adapting, evolving, transforming into an impossible creature.
Impossible—if only Kyle MacDonald were not inevitable.