It’s not as much fun as it sounds.
Ever since the magical apocalypse that those of us in the great city of Portland, Oregon, like to call “just another Thursday” slapped the crap out of our city and made balloon animals out of the rules of magic, my life has gone from handbasket to hell.
And today wasn’t looking up.
“Don’t make me throw water over your head, Shamus Flynn,” Terric Conley said from where he’d settled down on the crappy chair next to my bed.
I don’t like Terric. This is a problem because Terric and I not only have to work the same damn office job together, but are also tied by the only magic I can’t break.
About an hour ago, I’d stumbled into my room here at my mum’s inn and managed to unbutton my pants and belt and throw my jacket somewhere on the floor. From the sweaty weight on my feet, I hadn’t gotten my boots off yet.
About fifteen minutes ago Terric had shown up, cheerfully yelling over the top of my hangover and pulling back curtains to let the light in.
Daylight, for shit’s sake.
“Get out of my room,” I mumbled into the pillow on top of my face.
“You said you’d come to work today, Shame. The meeting’s today. No option. Not this time.”
“No option?” I pushed the pillow off my face. Oh God, the light. It was blinding, even through my eyelids. “I’m the boss—remember, mate? I work when I say I work.”
“No, we are the boss. We, Shame, not you. Not you alone. Which is good because you haven’t worked for a year and a half.”
Gut punch. Not that he was wrong. I’d put in a solid year of civic-mindedness before deciding I am not a people person and am more suited for darkness, destruction, and the slow madness of trying not to give a damn.
Plus, there was the whole death-touch thing, the constant hunger to kill, to consume, that made me count the pulse beat of every living thing around me. After a year, that had gotten so bad I salivated whenever I was in a closed room with people, plants, or combustibles.
I needed life. Needed to drink it down, lap it up. Food helped, so did smoking, drinking, and other unsavory recreations. But none of it pushed the hunger away for long. I needed life, to consume it, burn it out, extinguish it.
So of course someone thought it would be funny to put me in charge of a city full of angry magic users. A desk job, people. Customer service. Paperwork and complaints about every magical glitch that happened in the entire damn city.
A lot of people were alive right now because I’d had the brains to stop punching the time clock. Not that I’d told Terric about it. Not that I had to. He knew me better than almost anyone. That came from half our lives spent together growing up in the Authority, which used to be the, well, authority on magic, chasing down illegal magic and deadly creatures like it was all one big game.
Until I almost killed him. And he repaid the favor.
We have what is known as a difficult relationship.
“Shame.” This time he shook the bed with his foot.
“Have I said fuck off yet?”
“I’ll drag you out of here.”
I huffed out a laugh. Terric had spent the better part of a year going out of his way to keep his hands to himself. Well, to himself and his boyfriend of the month.
“I’d like to see you tr—”
Terric was up out of that chair, his hands around my ankles so quick I didn’t even hear him move. He yanked on my boots and I dragged me half down my bed before I could finish insulting him.
Eyes snapped open: Jesus, the light! Every damn window poured full-watt sunlight into the room. It was daymageddon in here.
I glared up at him.
Terric was nearly my opposite. I had dark hair, eyes that were sometimes black and sometimes dark green, rarely bothered to shave, and lately, I’d been running a good twenty pounds under my fighting weight.
Terric was taller than me, which I hated, and built like a guy who might need to jump on a jet and hit the catwalk at any moment. His hair was white-silver even though he was on one side or the other of thirty and his eyes were blue and set in a face that could knock Hollywood’s leading man off the marque. We used to be best friends before I’d almost destroyed his ability to use magic.
After that he’d moved to Seattle and become a graphic designer and gay, although he insisted he’d actually always been into both those things, I just never noticed.
“Shame,” he said, almost gently. His hands were at his sides, fingers stretched out wide as if he’d just touched something filthy. “You can’t keep doing this. Not this way.”
“What? Get some sleep? No, apparently I can’t. Because you won’t leave me the hell alone.”
I knew what he really meant. With that one small contact, he’d realized I was starving for life. The Death magic inside me demanded to be fed life. Any life. Mine, if there was nothing else to devour. It grew stronger, more uncontrolled the more I denied it.
I hadn’t killed anyone for over a year, and that had been an accident—I’d passed out in an alley and woken up next to a dead bum. I hadn’t destroyed, drained, demolished a living thing since. Sure, I consumed. Some. A little. Enough. Just enough. Maybe a plant withered and died, maybe a bird fell out of the sky. But not as much life as I wanted. Not what death craved.
I’d always wanted to be a superhero, well, maybe a superneutral. But Reaperman? No.
It was a fucked-up and damn slow death, staying as far away from the living world as I could. To starve myself and offer up my life to the Death inside me. But it was my death, not someone else’s. And it was under my control.
Terric opened his mouth, then shut it on whatever lecture he’d been about to launch into. He tipped his head and there was, briefly, sorrow and desperation in his eyes that made my heart stop beating.
I hated when he looked at me like that. I hated that I could make him look like that.
Even though I don’t like Terric, it’s not because he’s a bad man. Quite the opposite: I am.
“Why don’t you take a shower?” Terric said in that calm and easy tone he always used when he didn’t want to let on how he was really feeling. “We have time.”
“You’re not my boss.” I shoved up on my feet. “Not even my friend.”
“I’m not leaving.”
“Then close the blinds.” I crossed the floor to the bathroom and shut the door behind me. “And don’t touch my stuff.”
I stripped, pissed, then got in the shower. Turned the water on as hot as my skin could stand it. I let it pound down over my back while I washed my hair. The inside of my mouth tasted like gutter runoff, so I stepped out of the shower and dripped on the floor while I grabbed my toothbrush and toothpaste.
Took those with me into the shower and scrubbed until I could feel my teeth. Then I applied soap and a washrag. Got that done, got out, even though both me and my headache wanted to linger awhile.
I didn’t bother to shave.
Took all of three minutes from start to finish; then I wrapped a towel around my hips and barefooted it to the bedroom.
Terric was standing there, a mug from the restaurant downstairs in one hand. “Coffee.”
“Apology coffee?” I asked as I stepped over a week’s worth of dirty clothes on the way to my dresser.
“No, just coffee.”
I pulled on boxers, blue jeans, black T-shirt. Then I added a black sweater and dug for socks of similar color.
“Have you eaten at all this week?” Terric asked. I could practically feel his gaze scraping over my ribs, spine, and shoulder blades.
“Yes. Also? None of your business.”
There were four heavy rings on my dresser. Made of metal and Void stones, they looked like brushed steel with stones inset in their flat, square surfaces. I slipped them on each finger of my right hand, the red stone, the black stone, the amber, and the white, and shivered at the slight ease from the push of Death magic they gave me.
I curled my fingers into a fist, the rings lining up like brass knuckles.
“How about you drink this?” Terric said.
I turned. He held the coffee out.
“Why? Did you poison it?”
That, finally, got a dazzler of a smile out of him. Yep. Leading man material. “And ruin a good dark roast? Please.”
I took the cup, which meant he and I were standing pretty close together. I could feel the Life magic coiled around him like a second skin. Just as Death magic had changed me, Life magic had changed him. He carried it inside his body, just like I carried Death. This close, I could feel Life magic reaching out to me like a cool breeze. It made my mouth water.
I took the cup. We both ignored how bad my hand was shaking.
“We could solve this,” Terric said. “Use magic together, you and I. Cast a spell. Life, Shame.”
“I don’t understand why you won’t.” He lifted a hand but didn’t touch me. “I’ve respected that you want space and time. An entire year and a half. We’re still Soul Complements. We can use magic like no one else, break it so that it’s just as strong as it used to be. Why fight that?”
He was right about magic. It didn’t have the delightfully dangerous “use it hard and it will use you back harder” kick like the days before the apocalypse. We’d forced dark and light magic to join and mingle together, diluting the strength of both. Magic had been gone soft. Limp. Light spells were a dim glow, Illusions were thin as glass, and a knock- you-senseless Impact spell was no worse than a polite pat. The price to pay for those spells had lessened too. No more weeks of pain and agony in exchange for powerful spells. The best you could hope for was a barely discernible spell that might give you a case of gas.
And while I found it hilarious that people who used to do very bad things with magic were now raging to find the magical equivalent to Viagra, I was simultaneously just a little terrified about what magic could do in my hands.
Well, in my hands and Terric’s hands. Magic might be neutered, or “healed” as Terric likes to remind me, for other magic users . . . but not for us. Soul Complements, or Breakers, as some people like to call us, meant we could make magic do all those powerful things.
As long as we used it together.
I could have told him all that. But he had heard it before. He knew why I didn’t want to cast magic with him.
I took a drink of the coffee. Whatever snappy comeback I was working out died on my lips at about the same moment the coffee came alive on my taste buds. I didn’t care that it was hot enough to scorch. I gulped it down all in one go.
“You know you need it,” Terric said. “Need me. Need Life magic. Just like that coffee.”
I tipped the cup down. Was going to ask what the hell he was talking about. But then I got it. He’d put something, a spell of some kind, in the coffee.
“You spiked my coffee.”
“I spelled your coffee.”
“Health. A little Life will do you good, Shame. Nothing you say will change my opinion on that.”
I dragged my tongue over the roof of my mouth a couple times. “Gritty.” Truth was, I felt a hell of a lot better. Sure, I was still hungry, sure, I was still hungover, but at least there was something—coffee and magic—in my belly. Something to stave off the death growing in me.
I hated to admit that Terric could do something to make my hunger and need go away.
Because every time he cast magic with me, every time I admitted I needed him, magic tied us closer together. I’d watched it happen with other people like us, other Soul Complements.
I knew what my future held. Either I would become a killing monstrosity like Jingo Jingo and other Death magic users before me, or I would die, consumed by my own hunger. Since the whole monstrosity thing was just too cliché and would make my mum cry, I’d made my choice.
There was no need to drag Terric down with me.
“There’s a meeting today?” I asked.
He nodded slowly. “The Overseer called. He’s flying into Portland. Says it’s urgent?”
“I knew this?” I kicked pants, shirts, and half a dozen random cheeseburger wrappers out of the way, looking for my shoes. My room was a mess of clothes and broken things—a pile of burnt matches on the dresser, the phone book I’d compulsively shredded page by page for six hours straight that overflowed the wastebasket, and six dead potted plants that had been alive the day before yesterday.
I could draw life out of almost anything. And I did. The furniture in my room wasn’t antique; it had gone frail beneath the incessant picking of Death magic. My jeans weren’t faded and shredded at the edges for fashion’s sake.
“Yes,” I realized Terric was saying, “I told you on the phone yesterday. I told you at the bar the day before. And I told you by e-mail the day before that. You’re not listening to me, are you?”
He sighed. “Your boots are in the bathroom.”
“Right.” I pulled my coat off the bottom of the bed and shrugged into it. “Where’s the meeting?”
I walked into the bathroom and sat on the edge of the bathtub to tie my boots. Ever since the four wells of magic under Portland had turned out to be five—the hidden fifth well crystallized beneath St. Johns—a lot of magic users saw it as some kind of sacred ground. Neutral territory, peaceful land of blessed magic users mumbo-in-the-jumbo.
Not that magic users had much in the way of fighting one another anymore, other than traditional guns and violence. Which, sure, could be handy, but lacked the particularly satisfying backstab–double-cross–kill-you-dead-without-anyone-knowing that magic used to offer.
Since Healing magic had included restoring people’s memories that those of us in the magic-oversight business had worked hard to take away, well, both the government and law enforcement agencies and the magic-ruling Authority were pretty twitchy about the role magic played on all levels now.
Or at least that’s how it had been the last time I was paying attention a year ago.
“. . . be there,” Terric was saying. “Are you listening?”
“Yes,” I lied. I walked out of the bathroom.
Terric lounged by the front door, staring at his nails. “Liar.”
I grinned. “Only when I’m conscious. Ready?”
“Waiting on you.”
But I wasn’t talking to Terric. I was talking to the ghost who was hovering near my half-filled bookshelf.
Eleanor Roth. She had long light hair, an athletic twentysomething body, and a smile that transformed her from pretty to pretty please. She had wanted to date me once.
But now she was a ghost, tied to me and the magic I wielded. She was a constant reminder of what happens when I lose control over the Death magic inside me. I had consumed her. Put my hands on her and drunk her down.
I’d taken her life, but somehow she hadn’t quite gotten death out of it either.
Like I said, I can break anything.
And I regretted what I did to her more than anyone would know.
She pointed to a book on the shelf. I strode over, pulled it out, glanced at the front cover. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. It was probably a gift from my mum. I didn’t remember reading it.
“I don’t think you’ll need reading material at the meeting,” Terric said. “It won’t be that boring.”
He couldn’t see Eleanor. Not without working magic specifically to look for her. I made it a point not to mention her. Ever.
Over the last three years of being haunted, I’d found out Eleanor liked to read. So I helped out with that, tried to get to the bookstore once a month so she could pick out new books, turned the pages so she could read.
It was the least I could do for what I’d done to her.
I pocketed the book. Eleanor smiled and floated along beside me.
“Everything about this job bores me,” I said to Terric.
He just shook his head. He didn’t believe me.
Who could blame him?