He was an idiot.
Silver slammed the hotel door shut behind him, startling dust motes into the air. He breathed in the dust and the stale stench of previous visitors. The fact that the third floor was reserved for werekin didn’t make the smell any more palatable.
He was an idiot.
He clenched his fists, took another deep breath, toes curling against the carpeted floor. No sound escaped from the room behind him but Silver could feel the girl in there, the warmth of her, the weight of responsibility. His inner wolf was close to the surface and hungry—excited—for what, he wasn’t sure.
He was an idiot.
The girl’s disguise as a werewolf wouldn’t last long. The necklace was only a temporary measure; anyone with a decent nose would sniff out her humanity in minutes. And when that happened, how would he explain the presence of a human, let alone a worm?
Silver glanced down the corridor, sniffing for trouble. Business was slow: out of the sixteen rooms in the hallway only two others were taken. He detected the scent of a couple wererats and a hyena, but nothing worth worrying about—his lingering scent at the door would warn them away. If the girl left the room, however…
If she did, then she was the idiot, and not worth protecting.
He strode down the hall towards the stairs, running through his options. The most likely explanation for the girl’s presence was that she was his slave, a bed warmer, although why a wolf would sleep with anyone who wasn’t pack remained questionable. Besides, the girl was too conspicuous, too wide-eyed and innocent to play the role convincingly. It was best she remain hidden in the hotel.
How he would pay for the room was another matter entirely. His earnings from the theatre were back in the dressing room with his clothes. The previous hotel receptionist had let the pack run a tab, but the Snake was the type to take advantage of the situation and make demands of his own.
Silver padded down the stairs, scowling. He couldn’t simply abandon the girl. She’d end up a slave, or worse—dead—instead of back underground where she belonged.
He needed time. Hell, he needed black market contacts, but those were near-impossible to find in Tulkan. His only option was to negotiate a deal with the Snake, a prospect he didn’t relish.
Silver’s mood soured further when he opened the door leading to the reception only to be greeted by a blast of noise. A flock of tera crowded the room, chattering nervously, their wings wrapped tightly around their bodies. Meat, his inner wolf thought. He smirked in agreement, showing more tooth than necessary. The tera nearest to him edged away. Giant bats, the lot of them.
Over by the reception desk, two tera were squabbling for the Snake’s attention. Both had the curved leathery ears and black button noses of their kind, but the similarities ended there. One was short, with dark fur and skittish movements. The other stood a good half a head taller and had red-tinged fur.
Silver scanned the room a second time, now noticing its boundary—the red-furred tera on the right, the black-furred on the left. That explained the clamour and the arguing: the bats were territorial to the point of stupidity.
He reined in the impulse to shove through the crowd, pressed his tongue against his teeth to stop the fangs from coming through. As much as he hated to admit it, he couldn’t risk antagonising the Snake—not yet, at least. But the smell of so many fluttering pulses sent his heart racing. It was better to wait outside.
The fresh air was soothing. The cigarette he got off a passerby was even better. Silver leant against the wall and glared up at the narrow strip of washed out sky. His mind kept looping back to the girl with frustrating, illogical intensity. How had she managed to get under his skin so quickly? He flashed back to the sight of her, trapped in that cubicle in the theatre, eyes wide and pleading. What had she said? He couldn’t remember the exact words, lost amidst the clamour and the carnage. The words hadn’t seemed that important, anyway. It had been the sight of her, and the odd, sudden feeling that she was pack.
He still couldn’t shake that feeling, the stubborn certainty that, despite her humanity, she was his. Where had the conviction come from? She looked nothing like his previous lovers, her body vulnerable and fragile to touch. No doubt her skin would bruise easily. And she was young, in her early twenties at most, probably younger. Still, an insidious voice suggested, making his body thrum with excitement, he was only twenty-four: the age gap wasn’t a problem.
Silver cut off that line of thought immediately, grounding the cigarette under his heel with more force than necessary. There was little point in comparing the girl to his past lovers. He wasn’t interested in her in that way; she was a worm, an underground human, the lowest of the low. By saving her life, she’d become his responsibility. That was why he kept thinking of her. There was no other reason.
From inside the hotel came the sounds of struggle—the two tera at the front desk were flapping their wings in a show of intimidation. How long would it take the Snake to calm them? Ten minutes, twenty? Probably long enough for him to get money and avoid entering into dangerous negotiations. Silver looked at the sliver of sky peering into the alleyway. It was early afternoon. There was only one place his pack would be in this city at this time: The Brewer’s Wharf.
He pushed off the wall and turned right, glaring at any who dared cross his path. No one challenged him but whispers trailed in his wake. News of the massacre had already reached the city. The sooner the girl returned underground, the better.
The Brewer’s Wharf was at the end of the street, straddling the corner of the intersection. Its rounded brick architecture was at odds with the concrete square buildings on either side, but Tulkan was a mismatched city, too far from the Empire’s capital to be brought under control. The city’s actual population was incalculable: Tulkan was a place of constant movement, of hooded runaways and temporary black market stalls. Only in the centre was there a strong contingent of permanent residents, and the centre was somewhere even Silver did not venture, for it was the stronghold of the WPL—the Witches’ Protection League.
Silver paused just inside the door of the pub, lifting his head slightly as he inhaled. The stench of beer, sweat and lingering smoke assaulted him. Beneath it all was a trace of muskiness—the smell of wolf—with the underlying familiar scent of pack. By the time he spotted Dev and Rae in the corner, they had already noticed him, their noses acclimatised to the surroundings. Silver wasn’t the only one glancing their way: Rae’s lean, toned body and pale skin had aroused the interest of other men in the pub, whilst Dev’s solid bulk of muscle discouraged them from approaching.
He made his way over to their table, bare feet sticking to the floor. He kept his eyes down to avoid antagonising Dev. Rae was curled up on the wooden bench beside him, all purring and pleasantry, wearing tight shorts and a skimpy top.
Silver slid into the seat opposite and grudgingly kept his eyes on the table. Dev wasted no time on preliminaries. “You’re early.”
He kept his voice flat. “The job fell through.” It wasn’t safe to say anything more. Not here.
Dev’s hand clenched, pressing down on the tabletop. “Fell through?”
Had he not been clear the first time? Silver thought of the girl and forced himself not to snipe back. “Yes.”
“There’s still time,” Rae huffed. “Go get yourself another job. We need the money,” she added, as if he didn’t know. She tucked her blonde bob behind her ears, eyes trailing across the men in the room.
Dev sighed. “He can get himself another job tomorrow.” His gaze flicked over to Rae. “We all can.” When she only shrugged in reply, he stood. “Let’s get out of this city ‘fore they close us in.”
Silver didn’t stand. He kept his eyes on Dev’s chest. “I’m staying here tonight.”
“You…?” Dev sat back down. His voice was hard. “Why? Selling us out?”
He sneered. “As if I’d talk to the WPL. I’m just staying for the night.” He hated to ask but had no choice: “I need money.”
Dev growled. “Dammit Silver, d’you care about our pack or not?”
Forget about being polite. Silver met Dev’s gaze full on. “I care.” He let a hint of menace creep into his voice, a reminder to them both. To his credit, Dev didn’t look away, but neither did he challenge Silver. He looked at him as an equal, one beta to another. Except Silver wasn’t a beta. Not anymore.
Perhaps a little honesty would help persuade Dev. “I need a hotel room,” Silver said grudgingly. “Just for tonight.”
“Why?” Rae demanded, breaking the stand-off between them. “Why not come back with us?”
Silver kept his eyes on Dev and forced one word through gritted teeth: “Please.” He couldn’t explain about the girl; they wouldn’t understand. Shit, he didn’t understand.
“Why?” Rae asked again, tapping her long nails on the tabletop. “Got some cheap whore lined up? A non-wolf again, I bet. Dare I ask what? Another witch?” She leaned forward so that he could see down her top. “I personally don’t know what you see in non-wolves,” she said. “Don’t you remember the benefits?” Her mouth curved in a sensual smile.
“Whatever.” He didn’t want pack. He hadn’t for a long time.
Rae shifted away from Dev, lowered her lashes. “Kara left a long time ago, and there are others in our pack who’d be very happy to satisfy your… urges.” She glanced up, tongue darting out to lick her lips, her attempt at seduction so obvious it was laughable. Dev had gone still beside her, stiff with ill-concealed possessiveness, the muscles around his neck bulging.
The conversation was going nowhere. “I saved someone’s life today,” Silver told Dev evenly, ignoring Rae. “Her life is mine.”
It came as a relief when Rae sat back sulkily. Dev turned business-like. “She wants to join the pack?”
“She is… confused.” And human, but he couldn’t say that.
Dev frowned. “D’you want her to join the pack?”
“Yes.” The utter conviction in his voice was infuriating. A human, joining the pack? The idea was preposterous, but he needed to keep her safe and could think of no other way.
Rae looked amused. “Well, well, well.”
“Rae,” Dev said, a hint of warning finally creeping into his voice.
“What?” She batted her eyes innocently, her left hand slipping under the table as she leaned against him. “Silver’s got himself a mate. Who would’ve thought the abstaining loner would get caught?”
Silver let a hint of teeth show. “I’m not abstinent, I just don’t sleep with you.”
“Enough!” Dev grabbed Rae’s hand and placed it firmly on the table. “You too, Rae.” He scowled until they both dropped their eyes, then turned to Silver. “You’ll need Al’s permission for her to join.”
Silver nodded. “I’ll ask tomorrow.”
“No. You come with us now and ask him today. That’s my condition.” He raised an eyebrow in challenge. “If we leave now, you’ll make it back before nightfall.”
Rae was smug, Dev stoic. All three knew it was a pointless condition, solely meant to reassert Dev’s authority over Silver.
Silver said nothing. Satisfied, Dev passed over two creased twenties. “Meet at the gates in ten.”
As he walked away, Dev called out after him, “She better be worth it!”
He didn’t acknowledge the comment. What could he say? Silver knew she wasn’t.
* * *
The tera were gone by the time Silver returned to the hotel, but in their place was someone far more dangerous.
The stranger had his back to the entrance, his hands on the front desk as he spoke to the Snake. It was his clothing that gave him away: the stranger was wearing tracker insignia.
Officially, the trackers were Empire soldiers sent to Tulkan to govern the city and oversee the saltpeter mines. But as the mines had dried up, Tulkan had lost the Empire’s favour and fallen into obscurity. The trackers had hardened with the city, their loyalty wavering, until now they were little more than guns for hire. Whilst there were thousands of reasons why a tracker could be in the hotel, most of them were in the WPL’s pocket. And if the WPL was planning something, the pack needed to know.
Silver moved over to the left wall, staring at the bulletin board advertising Tulkan’s black market attractions. Most of them were written in code but he didn’t bother to decipher them, angling himself so that he could see the reception desk.
The tracker gestured with a granite-grey hand: he was a stein, a race of affected with nigh-indestructible skin. “You’ll be rewarded for useful information,” he said.
“Your reward is of little interest.”
There was a faint grinding noise as the tracker shifted positions, his rock-like limbs rubbing against each other. Silver kept his eyes on the board, running his fingers over a flyer as if deciphering a code.
“What if—” the tracker’s voice was even lower than before “—the reward was being offered by the Guild?” Not WPL business, then. What information would the Guild be after?
The Snake’s tongue flicked into the air. “Continue.”
“There have been… reports of an incident at the theatre,” the tracker said, leaning in close. “One or more blands escaped, possibly accompanied by a werekin.”
Silver stiffened. If the Snake said anything… Pack rules be damned, he’d have to take the girl and run.
“There are no blands here,” the Snake replied. His head lifted slowly, until he was looking at Silver. “But over there is a werekin.”
The tracker glanced over. Silver gave up any pretence of disinterest and stared back impassively. He was a werewolf: to show weakness would only arouse suspicion. A second of silence, then another. The tracker’s eyes lingered on Silver’s bare feet.
Finally the tracker turned back to the Snake. “Let us know if you see anything suspicious,” he said. When the Snake didn’t reply, he nodded and left. Silver waited until his footsteps had faded before approaching the front desk.
The Snake gave him a long, measuring look. “You’re late.”
“Sorry,” Silver replied, although it was clear to both he wasn’t. “I was getting money for the room.”
“Money is irrelevant. The girl, on the other hand…”
His eyes narrowed. “What about her?”
“Who is she?”
“What do you care?”
“Just curious,” the Snake replied, drawing out the final s.
Silver didn’t believe that for a second. He pulled out the cash Dev had given him, placed it on the desk. “For the room.”
“Unacceptable. Your answers, or nothing.”
Silver hesitated. The chance to save money was too good to ignore. “My answers as payment for the room,” he confirmed. There was no way he’d let the bastard trick him into a debt.
“If you answer truthfully, yes.” The Snake tilted his head back so that the hood no longer obscured his mouth. His fangs gleamed as he spoke. “Who is she?”
Silver wasn’t fooled. “How many questions?”
The Snake paused, considering. “Ten.”
“Deal,” the Snake said, so quickly it made Silver suspicious. “The first question remains the same: who is she?”
“She is mine.”
“That does not answer the question.”
“It’s the truth,” Silver replied flatly.
The Snake inclined his head in acknowledgement. “Where is she from?”
It was too obvious a question: the Snake might as well have asked whether the girl was a bland. “Not from here.”
The Snake’s tongue flickered out, tasting the air. “Interesting.” He placed a hand on the counter and tapped one finger thoughtfully, the dark nail clacking against the surface. “When did you meet?”
“Recently.” Only two more questions left. This was easier than Silver had expected.
“Why are you travelling together?”
“Convenience.” Which was true: there was no easier way to ensure the girl’s safety.
The hand on the reception desk stilled. “What is she?”
“A girl.” Silver immediately realised his mistake. The omission made the girl’s nature obvious: she wasn’t a werewolf. “That’s your five questions,” he said curtly, turning to leave. He had barely taken three paces when the Snake spoke again.
“The trackers have offered a large reward for useful information,” he said, almost idly.
Silver pushed down the sudden urge to shift. He turned around slowly. “And?”
“What is silence worth to you?”
“I don’t need your silence.” The lie fooled no one. After a moment Silver scowled. “What’s your price?”
Silver’s scowl intensified. “No.”
“More information, then.”
“I don’t know anything else.”
The Snake dragged his claws against the desk, gouging in the surface. “Those are the only two offers.”
“I’ll know more about the girl when I get back,” Silver said, picking his words carefully. It was a half-truth; he’d only know whether he could take her to the pack or not. “I could tell you what I know then.”
The Snake tilted his head to the side. “When do you return?”
“Her presence will not be reported to the trackers until tomorrow.”
It was long enough. Silver nodded curtly. “Okay.”
The Snake didn’t respond. His head turned sharply to the staircase door. Seconds later, Silver heard the sound of shuffling feet, the faint drag of a tail. The door opened and an ewte—an aquatic reptilian race of affected—traipsed in. He eyed Silver cautiously as he approached the front desk.
Silver turned to leave, glanced back when he reached the exit. The Snake and the ewte were conferring in tones too low for him to eavesdrop and he hesitated, wary. Then the Snake looked up and hissed a warning.
Their deal was far too tentative for Silver to push his luck. With no other choice, Silver stepped out into the alleyway. He looked up at the third floor, wondered whether he should tell the girl his plan. Then, disgusted by his unexpected concern, he stalked off without a backwards glance.
* * *
There was a long queue at the city wall, a line of hooded people fidgeting impatiently. Silver scanned the crowd. Small fry, all of them, simple men and women who had come into Tulkan for the day and were anxious to return home, their business concluded. But the main gates were barred shut, and the only exit was a small pedestrian gate on one side, slowing the afternoon rush to a trickle. Neither Dev nor Rae were in sight.
Silver joined the queue. The main gates were never barred shut during the day—it hurt business. The trackers would only have closed them for someone with deep enough pockets, and out here that could only be the WPL. Then he remembered the tracker in the hotel and felt his muscles stiffen. What if this had to do with the events at the theatre?
The queue moved forward and it was then Silver realised he was standing in the first of a series of queues. A tracker was guiding the crowd. Those sent to the left joined a smaller line and made their way slowly through the pedestrian gate. Those sent to the right had to wait on one side, backs to the wall, under sharp supervision. All those sent to the right, Silver noted with growing wariness, were werekin.
He couldn’t let them stop him for questioning. He ran through his options as he neared the top of the line.
“Right. Left. Left. Left.” The guard hardly glanced at Silver. “Right.”
Silver ignored the instruction and strode straight over to the tracker standing by the pedestrian gate, a measly squama whose lizard-like face shone dully in the afternoon sun. He had his hood pushed back and he straightened stiffly as Silver approached.
“Hey! There’s a queue for a reason, y’know,” the guard said in a coarse inner-city accent. “You best—”
Silver cut him off brusquely. “What’s going on?”
“Emergency procedures.” The guard blinked once, slowly. “All werekin leaving the city got to be questioned.”
Emergency? Who was he trying to fool? “How long will this take?”
The guard made a show of eyeing the growing queue, scratching the heavy ridge above his eye. “An hour or two. You best join the line.”
Silver reined in his temper. Nice way first. He kept his voice low. “How much?”
The guard stared, playing dumb. “I already said. An hour or two.”
Whoever was paying them was paying big.
“I don’t have that time.” Silver kept his body stiff, staring down the guard. Squama were animals, after all. They understood body language as well as any werekin did.
The guard squared his shoulders. “Rules are rules. Any werekin leaving the city get interrogated.”
“I don’t have that time,” Silver repeated, now letting the wolf shine through his eyes. It made his pupils flash yellow like a wolf gone feral, and that was generally enough to frighten others into submission.
But this tracker didn’t budge. His hand edged under his cloak to grasp the handle of his blade, the white scales on his chest taking on a red tinge. “I don’t care. Wait your turn or stay in the city. Just move away from here.” There was a rasp of metal as he began to unsheathe his sword.
Silver glanced at the queue of werekin. He spotted a few dogs, some minor predators, and a lot of prey, but none worth notice. There were only three trackers in sight, hardly enough to handle the wrath of a wolf. He turned around and smirked. The tracker’s underbelly flashed red; whether out of fear or aggression, Silver wasn’t sure.
He made to push past, through the small gate. The tracker took half a step forward, sword aloft. Silver met the tracker’s eyes with a direct, unblinking stare.
The tracker looked away first. “Fifty rebels,” he said. “Not a penny less.”
“Too late.” Silver tensed his legs and shifted his weight forward, as if he were about to attack.
The squama crouched, brought his sword up again. For a moment the air was charged with intent, then the tracker’s sword drooped uncertainly. He straightened and sheathed his sword with studied casualness, then turned away and called forward the first werekin in line, as if Silver wasn’t worth his notice. Silver didn’t care. He strode through the city gates and out into the late afternoon sunshine.
He should’ve threatened the tracker to begin with, Silver mused, navigating his way through the small crowd gathered outside the city walls, all of them hooded, the hems of their robes streaked with sand and dust. The trackers were interrogating the new arrivals, too—getting back into the city was going to prove difficult if the blockade lasted for much longer. If only he’d brought the girl with him… but it was too late for regrets. Besides, he still didn’t know how to explain the situation to his pack.
Dev and Rae were waiting on one side of the well-worn trail that linked Tulkan to the next closest settlement, Rivton. The passing travellers were giving them a wide berth, eyeing Dev’s shaved head and bulging biceps. Little did they know it was Rae, all coquettish as she shaded her pale face from the sun, who was the more vicious of the two.
“Something’s wrong,” Dev said when Silver joined them.
“I know.” They didn’t ask for details, so he didn’t give any. When they started to strip, Silver quietly followed suit.
Rae nodded at the gates. “Did you pay the guards?”
Dev’s lips tilted upwards. “Us, neither.”
As soon as they had shifted into wolf form, Dev took the lead, pointing his muzzle to the east, towards the riverside. Silver had the sudden urge to return to the hotel and take the girl with him. But he couldn’t, not with blockade at the city gates… and not without knowing how the pack was faring. If the situation had worsened, bringing the girl with him could have proved even more dangerous than leaving her behind.
Silver allowed himself one last glance at Tulkan, fading into the horizon. If the girl got herself into trouble he was going to be very, very angry.
Want to find out what happens next? Buy Above Ground today.