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?”


“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.


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.


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.”

Previous || Next


A common werewolf children’s story, as told to Howl by Fang. The origins of this story are unknown.

Back when the stein hadn’t emerged from the caverns, and the ewtes trembled and hid underwater, the werekin roamed wild and free over all the lands. And of all the werekin, it was the wolves that were the most feared and respected.

Amongst those wolves were many heroes, such as Wawa the Wise, James the Just, and Eric Ironside. But I’m not going to tell you a story about our heroes. This is the story of a wolf led astray by the guiles of a fox.

It is the story of Barke the Betrayer.

Barke’s birth was foretold by our ancestors, whose spirits appeared to his mother and made her promise to consecrate her son to them. In return, Barke was blessed with extraordinary powers—strength, speed, and dominance—and was destined to become one of the greatest alphas, guiding the pack to glory.

And so it was that with every passing year, Barke grew faster and stronger, moving up the pack ranks until he was beta. All of the pack respected him, and it was clear that, when it was time, Barke would take over as alpha.

Now, Barke had a deep, dark secret: he was terrified. All of these high expectations everyone had for his future frightened him immensely, and instead of letting his wolf side take responsibility, he indulged in his human weaknesses. He worried about being a bad alpha and about letting his pack down. Barke told no one of his fears, and it was this fact that ultimately led to his downfall.

One bright summer afternoon, Barke was so weighted by fear that he went alone to a hidden field, so that he could cry without anybody seeing him. He lay in the thick grass, head on his paws, and wept.

“What should I do?” he said to himself. “I wish someone would help me.”

In that moment, the spirits appeared to Barke, for they had been waiting to answer his summons. “Believe in yourself,” they said. “Believe in the pack. You are not alone.”

But Barke didn’t believe them. “I am alone!” he said. “You have made me so. I know what was foretold; I am to lead the pack.”

“You are not alone,” they repeated. “An alpha is never alone.”

Unwilling to listen, Barke changed to human form so the spirits could not reach him. “I’m alone now,” he said angrily, feeling a dark thrill of satisfaction.

But he wasn’t alone. Barke all of a sudden became aware of a faint humming, the soft melody of a mother’s lullaby. He followed that trail of music through to the other side of the field, where there was a small stream.

By the side of that stream was a beautiful female in human form, with the brightest red hair he had ever seen. Her face was narrow and delicate, and when she lifted her head to look at the sky he noticed that the skin of her neck was pale and smooth.

She was surrounded by picked flowers and was taking them one by one and stringing them together to form a long chain. Soon, she was finished, and she wrapped the chain around her neck, laughing prettily as she examined her reflection in the stream.

Barke was captivated. She was the first non-pack female he had seen, and he could not help but feel a stirring in his loins at the sight of her. He followed her, careful to stay hidden, ducking into every shadow. He followed her down a trail leading into a dark part of the woods, far away from his pack. He could tell she used this route often, for the scent of her was thick in the air, a musky sweet smell that was not quite wolf, but similar.

Finally, she stopped by a small den, and sat on the ground amongst the fallen leaves. From the bones in the clearing he could tell this was her home. But where was her pack? He took a step closer, and stepped on a twig.

The snap of the twig frightened the woman. She leapt up, changing to her animal form. She had wiry red fur, small, study legs and a short snout. She was a werefox, and she was looking right at him.

Barke stepped out from behind the tree, hands in the air, and apologised for startling her. “I am just curious,” he said. “I mean you no harm.”

The fox changed back to her human form so they could talk, and he learnt that her name was Delia, and that she lived alone. Barke couldn’t help but feel sorry for her, unable to fathom a life without family. And her voice was so sweet and tender; she clearly wasn’t a loner by choice.

Every day, Barke returned to that small clearing, and he would speak to Delia for hours, about his fears and misgivings, things that he had told no one else. Delia listened, did her utmost to cheer him up, often distracting him into playing games of chase. As time passed Barke grew more and more attached to Delia. If only there was someone like her in the pack, maybe he wouldn’t be so frightened about becoming alpha.

One evening, on his way back to the pack after spending three entire days with Delia, Barke was approached by his alpha. The alpha expressed concern over Barke and Delia’s relationship, and his words instantly sent Barke into a fury. He lashed out.

The alpha had no choice. His heart heavy with the sorrow he had to cause his pack mate, he ordered Barke to avoid Delia.

Barke was furious. He struggled under the weight of the alpha’s orders, trying to force his legs to cooperate so that he could run away and meet Delia. It was no use. There was no way he could disobey his alpha and remain part of the pack. And no wolf in their right mind would abandon the pack, for the pack was family.

But Delia, the wily cunning Delia, snuck over to Barke in the middle of the night and whispered to him lovingly, convincing Barke that he didn’t need the pack. He only needed her.

So Barke renounced the pack and became a loner. He lost the protection and companionship of his family, to marry Delia.

For a time, they were happy.

But soon Barke missed the companionship of his pack and began to pine for his old home. When Delia found him spying on his old pack, she did her utmost to hide her jealousy and fear.

“You don’t need them,” she said. “They abandoned you, remember?” For in her web of lies, Delia had convinced Barke that it was the pack who had rejected him, and not the other way around.

“Yes, yes, you’re right.” Barke turned away and followed Delia back to their den, but she could sense that his heart was still heavy with longing.

“We’ll start our own pack,” Delia said, although she knew it was taboo. She so desperately wanted to keep Barke by her side, that she was willing to risk it all.

Barke was initially reluctant, but he had been lonely for too long, and with a little bit of pressuring he agreed.

Soon Delia’s stomach swelled with the first bloom of motherhood, and then, a few months later, she gave birth.

When the pups were born, they were neither wolf nor fox. They were halfers, failed weres who never managed to gain control of their change. Ashamed of their condition, they quelled their animal side and passed themselves for human.

Desperate, Barke and Delia continued to have children, and their children had children, and their children had children. By then their blood was so diluted they didn’t have the energy to change. And so, over time, they forgot who they were, and came to think that they were simply human.

But in their veins, a trace of were blood remains, a spark of energy begging for release. A great-great-great-grandson of Barke and Delia realised, quite by accident, that if he focused his attention just so, he could use that energy to cast a spell.

And that is how the first witches came to be.

Previous || Next


Set shortly before the events in Above Ground. A little insight into the life of a werehorse.

He never noticed the dirt caked under his nails, the streaks of black dust on his arms and legs and no doubt on his face as well, until he stood at the front door of their cottage and reached for the handle.

Each day he’d pause, hand outstretched, and smile ruefully. There was something about the gleaming polish of their wooden door that made him realise how dirty he was. But it was to be expected: being as a blacksmith was hardly tidy work.

Thor pushed the door open and kicked off his black boots to avoid trekking mud into the corridor. His shoes hit the ground heavily, loud enough to wake the entire household. It was just as well they were already awake, and—judging by the giggling—in high spirits.

The sound made him feel guilty. Perhaps his news could wait.

He followed the noise to the kitchen, and paused by the doorway. Addy was cooking, hair tied up to expose her neck. Rose was in her high chair. She kept banging her spoon against her plate, and then laughing at the sound.

Addy noticed his not-so-subtle approach and waved a wooden spoon threateningly. “Hands!”

“I love you, too.” He grinned and scrubbed his hands clean in the kitchen sink, splashing his face for good measure. Then he planted a kiss on Addy’s cheek, sprinkling her with water. He ducked out of the reach of her spoon just in time.

Addy shook her head. “How was work?”


Rose gurgled happily as he sat at the table, waving her plastic fork. Her chestnut curls bounced like little springs.

“Only okay?”

“A townie came by. Thought it’d be funny to ask me to shoe his horse with silver horseshoes.” Then Thor smirked. “He stopped laughing when I told him the price.”

“You didn’t do it though, did you?”

“He couldn’t afford it.” He saw the disapproval on Addy’s face and hastened to add, “I’d have worn gloves. The poison doesn’t carry through them.”

“I’d prefer it if you didn’t take the risk, honey.”

“I know,” he said soothingly. Him and Addy never met hoof to hoof on this; she didn’t understand that horse-owning humans saw werehorses more as oddities than as people. Which reminded him. . . . But not now. He’d tell her later.

Addy brought over two plates of vegetable stew, setting one down in front of him. She took Rose’s plate and added a small amount of vegetables as well, checking to make sure the food was cool.

Rose dug into the plate happily enough. Most of her food ended up on the table. When a spoonful actually made it to her mouth, Rose sucked on the plastic with stubborn determination.

Thor took his daughter’s cue and dug into his own plate, shovelling down the contents at a pace just slow enough to still be considered polite.

“Like father, like daughter,” Addy muttered with a smile.

They’d just about finished dinner when it happened.

Rose’s face screwed up in abrupt confusion. Then she sneezed all over her own plate. When she looked up, her ears were no longer round or even human; they poked out of the sides of her head, two foal ears, pricked to attention.

Addy clapped her hands together. “Her first change!” She rubbed the tips of Rose’s ears affectionately, reciting the popular rhyme: “First the ears means many years.”

Thor smiled. “Looks like she takes after me in colouring, too.”

“Yes, she’s a real daddy’s girl,” Addy remarked wryly, clearing the plates. She winked at Rose. “Your daddy is going to spoil you rotten, I can tell already.”

Heck, he’d be spoiling Rose even now if they had the money for it. He watched Addy put the dishes in the sink and his smile slipped. Now. He had to tell her now.

“Angus was in touch.” Thor forced his voice to stay light.

Addy froze, her shoulders tense. “What did he want?”

“The usual.”

She turned, then, wiping her hands on her apron. “What about the dressing rooms?”

“He . . . he can’t do anything about it. There’s only enough space for one room per act; you know how popular the theatre is.”

Addy’s frown deepened. She grabbed a cloth and moved towards him. “I don’t like it,” she said, wiping down the table. “They’re asking for trouble, rooming you with a bunch of predators.”

“I’m not saying I like it, either, love. But it’s good money.” And then, in an attempt to reassure her, Thor lied: “He’s offered me a pay rise.”

She straightened slowly, glanced at Rose. “Really?”

They needed the money, even Addy knew that. There were no werekin schools nearby, and the humans would need bribing to accept Rose into their ranks. Then they’d have to pay for uniforms, which Rose would quickly outgrow or rip to shreds as she began learning to change.

Thor pushed away the guilt. It was only a white lie, after all; he would be getting extra money, just not from Angus. All he had to do was make sure everything in the theatre went as planned. He wrapped an arm around Addy’s waist. “It’ll be fine, trust me.”

Addy didn’t look convinced. “If you say so.”

Rose, oblivious to the conversation, interrupted them with a loud yawn. Her ears had changed back to human without their noticing. No wonder she looked exhausted; the first few changes always took their toll. Addy moved towards Rose, but Thor stopped her, grateful for the interruption.

“I’ll put her down for the night.” He placed a gentle kiss on Addy’s forehead, then plucked Rose out of the high chair. He cradled her to his chest as he walked out of the kitchen, smiling at his daughter.

As Thor walked up the narrow stairs to the second floor, he couldn’t quite rid himself of the guilt. But they needed the money. He would have to go to The Affected Parade.

Previous || Next


A glimpse into the world of the ewtes, an aquatic race of infected… Plus a little background on Sla’ik and the Snake.

Some suicides were never recorded.

Attempted suicides, however, were an entirely different matter. Three pairs of hungry eyes watched Sla’ik tie a rope around his waist, webbed hands struggling with the knot. He checked the rope was secure, then coiled the loose end around his arm, the sodden fibres scratching against his scales.

Up above, the shoreline was quiet, secure. No witnesses.


Sla’ik curled his tail beneath him, then paused, smiling—closed lips, ‘course. His companions were ewtes like him, money-hungry and crafty. One of them, Sy’nop, was twitching his tail back and forth, keen.

Sy’nop smirked. “Not skipping out, are ya?”

“‘Course not.” Sla’ik lifted the rope as evidence. “A deal’s a deal.”

Li’sso nodded, but Ri’ka looked nervous, her pale brown scales dull, shoulders hunched. She was half-turned away, head tilted as she weighed up the odds.

Her hunched posture only highlighted the curve of her spine, the two dark lines on either side. Sla’ik eyed her back appreciatively, then hid a scowl when he realised the other two ewtes were ogling too. Li’sso seemed particularly enthralled—then again, his spots were coming out, his stomach faintly patterned. Mating season was close for him. Boy was he going to get a shock when the females here didn’t respond like he was used to back home.

“Ri’ka,” Sy’nop said. “You in or out?”

Sla’ik made small ripples in the water with the rope. “I’m ready here.”

She turned, reluctant. Her gills fluttered out of excitement—or nerves. “I’m in.”

Money won out. It always won out.

Sy’nop swam closer. “No way are you gonna last even five minutes out there.”

And maybe he would have been right, had Sla’ik not secretly been practising for days.

“I’m in, too!” Li’sso nodded enthusiastically, then winked at Sla’ik when no one was looking.

It was a shame that Ri’ka was friends with Sy’nop, or he would have roped her into the plan instead. Li’sso was untrustworthy even in ewte terms, mountain-bred and soft. But few would suspect collaboration with an outsider, and Li’sso was—quite definitely—an outsider.

Sla’ik nodded, said, “Right,” to make himself look nervous. Handed the end of the rope to Ri’ka in a casual move that fooled no one. Syn’op’s scowl, if anything, showed that the symbolism of the gesture hadn’t gone unnoticed.

Time to make some money. Sla’ik swam up to the shore, stopped just beneath the waterline. He could feel the ripples of the waves, see the sun lance through the water. Sla’ik inhaled deeply, then released the water through his gills, pushing and pushing until there was nothing inside.

One tail flick and he was above the waterline. There was no shore here, only a steep bank, rising sharply into the sky. Sla’ik scrambled up the dirt wall, pulled himself onto the grass, mouth partially open. Shallow breaths. The dry air was bitter and sharp.

Careful, now. Couldn’t let his mouth dry out completely.

He stood, claws digging awkwardly into the sandy soil. When he looked back down into the water he could see three blurry shapes far below. Sy’nop was the most recognisable, his stomach a bright yellow.

Sla’ik tugged the rope twice to let them know he was up. Then he walked further away from the water, holding the rope so it did not snag. He sat by a large rock, settled down to wait. Shallow breaths.

The sun beat down mercilessly here, without the balm of water to protect. His scales were drying, itching, but that didn’t matter. It was his gills that Sla’ik was worried about, his gills and his throat. The flaps of skin on his neck fluttered weakly in the air, all but ineffectual.

Once, Sla’ik knew, the ewtes had been creatures of both water and land. Upon maturity, ewtes would leave the pool to forage in the trees, slipping between habitats like a snake changed its skin. Only the very young and very old would remain in the water, sheltered from danger.

Somehow over the years, ewtes had involved. Their lungs shrivelled, then failed. What little oxygen they could draw from the air was pulled through the lining of their throat . . . and only if the lining stayed moist.

When Sla’ik felt his mouth begin to dry, he reached behind the rock, one eye on the shoreline in case any of the ewtes got it into their heads to check up on him.

His hand met air.

He patted the area more thoroughly. Nothing.

Sla’ik dropped all pretence of casualness. They were gone. The stockpile of water he’d left behind the rock a few hours earlier was gone.

Had Sy’nop guessed? Had Li’sso betrayed him? Or had some land walker come across the stockpile and claimed it? Sla’ik felt his chest tighten, his breathing quicken. He couldn’t afford to lose the bet, was in enough debt as it was.

“Looking for something?”

Sla’ik turned his head slowly. Standing behind him was the Snake.

His stomach dropped, he shielded his eyes briefly out of respect. “No, no, I’m not,” he replied, barely moving his lips. Keeping his hand concealed, he tugged on the rope twice. Pull me down, he begged, but nothing happened.

Sla’ik crawled backwards on his hands and knees, edging towards the waterline. The Snake just watched, head cocked to one side. Amused.

Too late Sla’ik realised he’d been breathing deeply, mouth wide open. His throat was almost dry, the ground swam before him as the dizziness set in. Sla’ik tugged on the rope again, harder, panicked.

There! They were pulling! Inch by inch he was dragged closer to the shore. He dug his claws into the ground, pushing himself along as best he could, but his limbs were heavy and the soil slipped beneath his feet.

Then the rope around his waist came undone. He felt it release its hold, whip past him into the water.

The water was so close. Just his mouth. That’s all he needed. He pushed with his toes, with his chin, barely moving more than an inch. The edges of his vision were blackening now, and Sla’ik thought: this is it. At least he wouldn’t have to pay off his debts.

But the Snake had other plans. He grabbed Sla’ik by the ankle, pulled him close, away from the water. Sla’ik struggled, yelped, his voice cracked and strangled. The Snake was too strong. He pried Sla’ik’s mouth open and shoved something inside—a tube of some sort.

Sla’ik gasped, something hit the back of his throat, and he swallowed.

The rush of oxygen was an instant high. Sla’ik stilled, felt the water dribble out of his gills and down his neck. He sucked on the tube again.

Water. Fresh water.

His mouth regained sensation, his head stopped spinning. When the Snake let him go, Sla’ik sat up slowly. The tube in his mouth was attached to a metal container.

The Snake stood over him. “I saved your life.”

Business instincts kicked in: never pay for anything you haven’t requested. Sla’ik took the tube out of his mouth long enough to say, “You didn’t have to.” Still, his voice came out timid.

“Correct,” the Snake said, amused. “But the life debt exists regardless.” His fangs gleamed white in the sunlight.

Sla’ik swallowed past the lump in his throat. “Ah, ‘course I do, yes, ‘course.” The moment the words left his mouth, a sharp pain burned across his wrist. He yelped. Three parallel cuts lined the inside of his right wrist, bright red droplets of blood oozing.

He almost dropped his tail in fright. As it was, Sla’ik began to scramble back towards the safety of the water.

A clawed, muscular hand closed around his wrist, directly over those cuts. He tumbled backwards, looked up to find the Snake hovering above him, ready to strike. Without conscious thought, Sla’ik dropped his tail.

“Leaving so soon?”

“I . . . I . . . ‘Course not.”

“Good. There are things to discuss.”

When Sla’ik finally slipped back into the water, thee pairs of eyes stared at him. He swam towards the other ewtes awkwardly, off-balance without his tail. It would be several weeks before his tail would grow back.

As soon as he reached them, they all covered their eyes fearfully with their right hands, a sign of respect that almost made Sla’ik forget his previous fear.

“You were dead,” Sy’nop said, with none of his previous bluster.

Sla’ik didn’t correct him. He nodded, trying to calculate whether he could double his earnings.

“He brought you back to life,” Li’sso said, eyeing the waterline.

Again, Sla’ik nodded. “About that bet . . . .”

* * *

The air was dry in Tulkan, and bitter too, heavy with sand and dust that clung to his scales like an extra layer of skin. Sla’ik took a shallow breath through his mouth, grimaced at the taste. However much the Snake had taught him to be a landwalker, his true home remained water.

He waddled down the alleyway, tail scraping against the stones. The metal container strapped to his chest was warm against his skin, and the water inside was even warmer. He sucked up some water through his gills, held it a moment, then released it back into the tank, listening to the familiar gurgle. He’d need fresh water soon.

Eventually he reached the hotel. Sla’ik stopped outside, slid one hand under his cloak, between the tank and his stomach. Yes: the bag was still there. Good.

He walked in, nodded at the man in reception and walked past him without a word, through the staff door and into the maze of corridors. Sla’ik walked up to the second door on the right, knocked.

“Come in.”

He pushed the door open, nose crinkling at the pervasive smell of dust, earth, something else, sharp and acidic. The room was bare: there was only a half-filled bookshelf against one wall, and a large table. The Snake stood by the window, looking out.

Sla’ik walked in and placed the bag on to the table, trying to bluff his way through his nervousness. “Here. We’re even now.”

The Snake turned around and laughed, a rasping sound. “A life debt isn’t repaid so easily.”

Sla’ik felt the initial stirrings of anger. “I got the were blood, just like you asked.” The Snake wasn’t going to go back out on the deal, was he?

The Snake moved closer, picked the bag of the table. He looked inside and counted the bottles, tongue flicking into the air. “So you did.”

Sla’ik held out his right arm, wrist up. It wasn’t bothering him much now, but he hadn’t forgotten the burning, the sharp sting of pain when he had tried to substitute the were blood with his own. “A deal’s a deal,” he said. “I want these gone.”

“Is that all your life is worth?”

The question threw him off. “What?”

The Snake hefted the bag, the contents clinking together. “Eight vials of were blood?”

“I did what you asked.”

The Snake gestured at his wrist. “You want them gone.”

“Yeah.” He held his wrist out.

“Very well.” The Snake set the bag down gently, then rolled his shoulders, stretched his arms. He straightened, hands half-curled, mouth parted to reveal a row of gleaming teeth.

Sla’ik took a step backwards, arm dropping to his side. “What are you doing?”

“What you requested. Your death annuls the debt.” The Snake moved forwards, claws extended.

Sla’ik dodged out of his grasp. “No!”

The Snake swiped at his neck, missed, his claws trailing a line of fire across Sla’ik’s collarbone.

“Stop! Please! I don’t wanna die!”

“Well, then—” the Snake’s smile was vicious “—you’re stuck.”

Previous || Next



Set many years before the events in Above Ground (in fact, around the same time as Belonging), this story will give you a few clues about the origins of the infected/human divide.

The bodyguards, satisfied with their inspection, retreated into the hallway, leaving the office door wide open and taking up their stereotypical stance: legs akimbo, hands clasped by their belt within easy reach of their guns.

They were not his bodyguards. Precision Horizons had more than enough safety measures in place to make a human’s heavy-handed fumbling entirely unnecessary. But by now Edric was used to their brusqueness.

He stood and walked over to the side table, where a kettle of just-boiled water was waiting. He brewed two cups of tea, one black, for himself, and one with a dash of milk, his every movement under heavy scrutiny. He took the sugar, added a teaspoon to both teas. The bodyguards made no move to stop him. They were very thorough men, but—and here Edric allowed himself a small, secret smile—not thorough enough.

As he was placing the two mugs on his desk, someone knocked on his door. Rufus stood just beyond the threshold, briefcase in hand, wearing his usual sharp black suit. His black-framed glasses were pushed up high on his nose, doing little to hide the smallness of his eyes and the lines etched deeply around the corners of his mouth.

Rufus looked old—older than when they had last met—his hairline receding sharply, his eyebrows a little thin. His cheeks had begun to sag, and it seemed only the tight set of his lips kept them from sagging further. He looked, all in all, like a stern grandfather, dressed up for some important event.

Despite his outwardly harmless appearance, Rufus was not a man to be messed with, but, then again, neither was he.

Edric waved him in. “Rufus, to what do I owe this honour?”

“This is no courtesy visit, Doctor. I’m here in my official capacity.”

Edric shook his hand, then gestured for the other man to take a seat. “Very well,” he said, sinking into his chair. Two could play that game. “What can I do for you, Prime Minister?”

“You can tell me what Precision Horizon’s mission is.”

“That is common knowledge, Prime Minister, hardly worth a visit in person. We are an organisation researching for the betterment of mankind.”

“And what, exactly, does that entail?”

“Ah.” Edric placed his elbows on his desk, steepled his fingers together. “That is something I cannot divulge. I’m sure you’re aware of the relevant confidentiality laws.”

Rufus shook off his reply irritably. “The number of reported cases is growing. The media is working the public into a frenzy. I need to have something to tell them.” And then, with some effort, his face smoothed into placid, friendly lines. “Perhaps we could come to some agreement? For old times’ sake? The Treasury will spare no expense for a cure…”

“I’m afraid there is no cure, Prime Minister. Evolution must simply take its course.” He took a sip of his tea, surreptitiously eyeing the untouched mug across from him.

There was a long, heavy silence. Rufus swallowed heavily, pulled a handkerchief out of his suit pocket and mopped his brow. “Then you leave me with no choice.”

He took his briefcase off of the floor, rested it gently across his knees. Edric slipped a hand under his desk, fingertip resting on the hidden button that would shoot tranquillisers into his guest. When Rufus pulled out a few documents and reclosed the briefcase, Edric relaxed.

“And what choice would that be?” he asked as Rufus replaced the briefcase on the floor.

“I am doing what every world leader must,” Rufus said, grim. He placed the documents on the desk, the word ‘contract’ big and bold in the header. “I am appealing to Precision Horizons, requesting that you open your doors to the general public, for the common good and continued prosperity of our country.”

Edric pushed the documents away without looking. “I apologise, but we are not equipped to handle a mass influx of people.”

It clearly wasn’t the expected response. Rufus stiffened. “This . . . this epidemic is your fault,” he snapped, his voice hard and cold. “It is therefore your responsibility to protect those still uninfected. I’m sure you will find the terms more than palatable.” And then he smiled, not his cheerful public smile, but a vicious little expression. “And the penalties more than disagreeable.”

Edric returned the smile with one of his own. “Even if I allow the general public access to the underground quarters, I cannot promise they’ll remain uninfected. Our underground facilities were not built for quarantine purposes.”

Ah! Rufus’ left eye was twitching. He was nervous. He reached for his tea—finally!—and took several long sips, stalling for time. “Are you insinuating that Precision Horizon’s quarters will provide no protection from a situation of their own making?”

“Of course not, Prime Minister. Just that we are not infallible.” Edric spread his arms out expansively. “But we could have several security measures installed. For exampe, we could arrange blood tests for every individual seeking to enter the compound.”

Rufus nodded at the documents. “It’s one of the conditions, clause seventeen if I’m not mistaken.” He drank more of his tea. It was half-empty now.

Edric picked up the documents, gave them a cursory glance. “This extends to all PH outposts in all countries?”

“In all those listed on page thirteen. They’ve already extended individual appeals to the respective heads of PH in their countries.”

He waved a hand dismissively as he leafed through the pages. “None of them will sign without my consent.” There were twenty-four pages total, the last five dedicated entirely to boilerplate clauses in incomprehensible legalese. “My lawyers will need a month to review this.”

“You have two weeks. Evacuation will begin in a month’s time, and your facilities will need restructuring before then. We’ve already contracted someone to do the works – the details are in the contract.”

“How very… confident of you.” Edric tossed the contract onto his desk.

Rufus’ lips thinned. “As said, the penalties for non-compliance are more than convincing.” He set his mug down. It was empty.

“Very well.” Edric stood, and Rufus followed suit. “ I’ll have my lawyers read through the contract and give you my response as soon as possible.”

Rufus shook his hand. “By all means, send in your response at your earliest convenience.” His tone was dry. “Thanks for the tea. Over-brewed, as always.”

Edric shrugged. “It’s best to be strong in times like this, wouldn’t you agree?”

Rufus paused at the doorway, looked back, and for a fleeting moment seemed so vulnerable that Edric wished they were children again, and friends. “Edric . . . there’s really no cure?”

“No, Rufus. I’m sorry.”

Rufus bit his lip, nodded curtly. He strode away without another word, his bodyguards in tight formation around him, his back a stiff line of worry. It couldn’t be helped, even though Rufus had nothing to worry about. He was immune to the virus now; Edric had made sure of it.

Edric sat back down and took another sip of his lukewarm tea, smiling down at the contents fondly.

Previous || Next