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.
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.”