OF TELEPATHS AND WITCHES

Bryan O’Teel is the empath who helps Lilith in Tulkan. This occurs sometime before the events in Above Ground.


Bryan O’Teel, Third Rank Initiate, was outwardly a very ordinary fellow. He had a pleasant smile, his smooth features suggestive of a coddled upbringing. His clothes were neat and unassuming, and his dark hair was cropped short in a rather boyish style for a man on the steeper side of his thirties. He still looked boyish, and moved with the spritely step of the young; the only sign of his age was the greying hairs at his temples.

Yet Bryan was no ordinary man. The three tattooed diamonds on his right cheekbone proclaimed his birthright: he was an Affected. Something which his employer seemed to have forgotten.

“I don’t see why we haven’t just called the ewte in first,” his employer grumbled. He was leaning against the desk in the corner of the room, arms crossed, a wizened werefox with a sharp glare. “It’s bound to be him that’s stealing from me.”

“If you were certain about that, I wouldn’t be here.” Bryan kept his hands folded in his lap. Every available surface in the staff room was coated with dust and grease. Assuming the kitchens were in a similar state, it was a wonder the restaurant was still open.

The werefox scowled. “It has to be him. Everyone knows what they say about ewtes.”

Everyone knew what was said about werefoxes, too, but Bryan didn’t mention that. “You’ll have proof of the culprit soon enough.”

A knock on the door. The next employee had arrived.

The werefox straightened. “Come in!”

The door opened slowly. A young woman stood in the doorway, the green cross tattooed on her left cheek marking her as a witch. Even from across the room Bryan could sense her anxiety.

“Sit down, Alice,” the werefox said, pointing to the chair beside Bryan. “The Guild man has a few questions for you.”

She closed the door behind her and sat beside Bryan, her hands tucked into the apron pocket, eyes focused on the tattoos on his face as she tried to judge the extent of his abilities.

“I’ll need your hand,” Bryan said softly.

Alice reluctantly unfolded her arms, placing one hand palm-down on the dirty table. Her fingers tensed when Bryan placed his hand over hers.

He dipped into her mind, testing the waters. Alice was a weak witch, capable of lightning small fires, brewing common cures, and little else. Useful enough skills for a cook, he supposed.

“I’m going to ask you a few questions.”

“Okay.” Inside Alice was thinking it wasn’t okay, that the nice-looking man was going to use his powers and discover that she’d been stealing food from the restaurant, and that it wasn’t fair; how was she meant to feed two kids on her salary? Especially when her eldest—

Bryan’s smile didn’t falter. “Are you embezzling Mr Kitsoon?”

“Embezzling?”

“Stealing money.” He only put the slightest emphasis on the second word, but she picked it up all the same.

“No,” she replied, relief slumping her shoulders. “Never stolen any money in my life.” The food wasn’t money, she reasoned. Business was slow and the food would have gone to waste anyway.

“Do you know who has?”

Alice shook her head.

Bryan took his hand away, breaking the mental connection. He gave her a small nod and dismissed her.

When the door closed behind her, the werefox raised an eyebrow. “Not her, is it? Might as well get the ewte in.”

“No, it’s not her.”

The Guild rules on confidentiality were strict. Bryan had been hired to find one particular culprit; all other misdemeanours were of no consequence. Besides, there was something intriguing about Alice’s eldest child . . .

The next employee knocked on the door. A lizard entered without waiting for a reply, sneering when he spotted the tattoos on Bryan’s face. He nodded at the werefox as if they were friends rather than colleagues, and sat beside Bryan, arm outstretched.

Bryan put his hand on the lizard’s arm without a word of warning.

Not going to work on me, the lizard was thinking. Just keep calm, play innocent. Strongest spell in the kingdom, the woman said. All I’ve gotta do is smile and nod.

“Are you stealing from Mr Kitsoon?” Bryan said.

“Why would I?” The lizard bared his teeth in a smile. If anything Kitsoon’s the thief. Slave driver. Long hours, little pay. Times are hard, he says. Don’t see him washing up the dishes now, do I?

“Are you stealing from Mr Kitsoon?”

“Of course not. I’d lose my job now, wouldn’t I?”

Beneath his words was the glimmer of a lie. Bryan grabbed hold of it, brought the thoughts closer to the surface.

They’ll never find the money. It’s in the kitchen vent. They’ve got no proof I did it. Don’t think about it, the woman said. Gotta stop thinking. Kitsoon will fire the ewte and I’ll lie low. Bastard had it coming anyway.

Bryan let go of the lizard’s arm. He met Kitsoon’s eyes and nodded.

“You can leave, Pi’ton,” the werefox said.

The lizard stood. “Should I send the ewte in? Never did trust him myself.”

“You misunderstand,” Kitsoon replied. “You can leave this restaurant, right now, with your own two feet. Or I can drag you out by the tail myself.”

The lizard whirled to face Bryan. “You fucking liar! You can’t read my mind!”

“The money’s in the kitchen vent,” Bryan replied.

The lizard hissed, tensed for an attack. Kitsoon straightened, his wizened fragility instantly disappearing. He snarled, teeth gleaming, and advanced on Pi’ton, driving him towards the door.

“Don’t you ever come back,” he growled, stepping outside the staff room. He eyed the rest of the staff, huddled in the hallway. “The rest of you, back to work.”

By the time Kitsoon came back into the room, Bryan had written a signed Guild-certified document justifying the lizard’s dismissal. Kitsoon handed the money over grudgingly.

On his way out of the restaurant, Bryan took a detour into the kitchen. Here, at least, order reigned. The kitchen was old and weathered but scrubbed clean. Perhaps he would stop for lunch after all.

Alice was near the back. She’d tied back her hair and was chopping vegetables.

“Hello.”

She froze when she saw him. Alice wiped her hands on her apron, her movements stiff. “Did you tell him?”

“I was only hired to find the embezzler.”

Her relief was palpable. While humanoid Affected were generally easier to read, this woman was a clearer projector than most. She ducked her head. “Thanks.”

“Your eldest son,” Bryan said, watching her stiffen once more. “He’s troublesome, isn’t he?”

“He’s eight.” She shrugged, keeping her eyes averted. “They’re all trouble at that age.”

“But he is more trouble than other children.”

She couldn’t deny it. Bryan fished through his robes and pulled out his card, handing it to the witch. “When the Sweepers make their rounds, make sure they see your son. Give them this.”

Alice cradled the card as if it were priceless. To her, it probably was. Entry into the Guild was seen as a p privilege, a ticket to a life of comfort. Little did they know how hard one had to work for that comfort . . .

“He’s not a witch, then?” she said.

“No.”

Alice tucked the card into her apron pocket. “The Sweepers never check my house. I live far out of town.”

“He’ll need training before he gets much older. You don’t want any accidents to happen.”

Accidents. The word hung between them, heavy, nuanced by years of horror stories before the Guild had been established.

Alice nodded once, slowly, and patted her pocket. “Yes, of course.”

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