The midday sun beat down on werewolf and girl alike, withering the plants, sucking every ounce of moisture from the air. Great clouds of red soil swirled upwards with every beat of the werewolf’s paws, and within minutes Lilith’s cheeks were stinging from the heat and the flecks of grit in the air. She pressed closer to his fur, jostled by each leap, certain she would soon fall.
“Hey!” The wind tore the word out of her mouth. “Hey you! Slow down!”
No response. Ahead there was nothing but open land. A quick glance over her shoulder confirmed Lilith’s suspicions: they were going the wrong way. She tugged on the thick fur of Wolf’s neck, trying to steer him towards the cliffs, but either he couldn’t feel what she was doing or he was ignoring her.
“Turn around! You’re going the wrong way!”
Wolf flicked back an ear but didn’t stop running. With every passing moment the theatre—her only way home—faded further into the distance. Unless she wanted to remain stranded in the middle of nowhere, it was time for drastic measures.
This was going to hurt.
She let go of Wolf’s neck. There was no time to think. Lilith threw herself sideways and saw the ground rush up to meet her. Her eyes squeezed shut. The air was kicked out of her, dust rising in a cloud as she tumbled across the sandy soil.
It took a moment for Lilith to realise she had stopped rolling. Dirt choked the inside of her nose and mouth, and her head was still spinning, struggling to catch up. She kept still, winded. Her shoulder ached and the oppressive heat made it almost impossible to move. A tall shrub obstructed her line of sight, yet she could feel Wolf looming.
Lilith flexed her right leg, then the left. Her fingers curled into the dirt, her shoulders rolled obligingly. Nothing broken.
She sat up carefully. Her clothes were streaked with red dust and her palms stung. She wiped her hands on her jeans as she stood slowly, legs trembling. Then she forced herself to turn around and say, “I asked you to take me home.”
The werewolf ignored her—or, more likely, didn’t understand. He stood still, ears pricked forward, tail up, staring warily in the direction from which they had come. A vast expanse of barren earth separated them from the theatre, its domed roof reflecting the sunlight. At this distance the building was no longer impressive; it was not, as Lilith had initially thought, reaching towards the sky. Instead it huddled at the base of the cliff face, cowering into the ground.
The enormity of the situation struck her: she was above ground.
This was unchartered territory, the heart of wilderness: the land stretched out uninterrupted in every direction, and the sky above was a flat, endless blue. Not even the largest of caves in the Lower Halls could compare to the infinity of the sky. Even the air was different, drier, as if someone had left the dehumidifier on all night—but up here there were no dehumidifiers. Above ground, there were only monsters.
Other than Wolf, the only signs of life were the sturdy shrubs clinging grimly to the soil, their sharply-toothed leaves distinctly unfriendly. In all her daydreams of life above ground, Lilith had never pictured this—the emptiness—and somehow that emptiness was worse than anything she could have imagined. A longing for home struck her, so deep and fierce that she had to bite her lip lest the emotion overtake her.
“I’m going back,” she said, more confidently than she felt, “whether you like it or not.”
The werewolf was still, not even the finest of breezes ruffling his grey fur. He looked as if he had been placed there by the gods, as a warning and a reminder to any humans who strayed out into the sunlight. That Lilith and the wolf shared a common ancestor somewhere in the distant past seemed impossible, and yet he too must have been human once.
At that thought, her stomach threatened to betray her. Lilith took a deep breath and touched the tender needle mark on her arm, reassured by the pain. She had the vaccine; she was safe.
One step towards the theatre, then the guilt settled in. She had a home to return to whilst he had nothing. Lilith looked over her shoulder into Wolf’s round grey eyes. “Thanks,” she said, awkward. “For saving me, I mean. I won’t forget it.”
He didn’t respond, not that she’d expected him to.
She nodded one final time, more for her sake than his, and began to walk towards the theatre. But she had barely taken ten steps before a staccato outburst of gunfire crackled through the air.
A second round of shots, then a third. Then a long, ominous silence. Lilith shaded her eyes, squinting, but could see no signs of movement. The seconds crawled past as she hesitated.
And then came another sound: the rhythmic thwack-thwack of rotating blades. A section of the cliff face behind the theatre yawned open, and a machine rose out from that dark mouth, up into the air.
“That… that’s a copter,” Lilith said slowly, disbelieving, for she had only ever seen toy models of the aircraft before, and it had not prepared her for the sound or the smoothness of its movements. It glided across the open sky as if it relished the emptiness rather than despise it. Then Lilith realised that the copter had to have a pilot, and the pilot had to be human, and a tremor of excitement and relief quivered in her heart. She glanced at the werewolf and saw that he too had had the same thought.
The moment of kinship passed and Lilith turned away, disturbed. She began to jump, begging the pilot to notice. “Help! Over here!” she called, waving her arms wildly. “Over here!” Wolf was growling, deep and low in his throat, but Lilith didn’t care: she was going home.
The copter swung around, turning smoothly in the air, its nose dipping as it sped towards them. Lilith cheered and kept waving her arms. None of her classmates would believe her story, and Emma would—
Lilith stilled. Emma would do nothing. Emma was dead.
The thought didn’t seem real. Couldn’t be real. She had ridden a werewolf to freedom; other miracles could happen. Surely Emma was safely ensconced underground, waiting for her return.
The loud bark was her only warning. Lilith glanced back in time to see Wolf lunging towards her with bared teeth. A scream ripped out of her throat as she threw herself forward. Wolf’s teeth only just missed her neck, closing instead on the hood of her jumper.
Then her collar was pulled tight and she was moving, her feet dragging against the ground. Wolf was pulling her after him, his neck twisted to one side. Her head thumped against his leg as he ran, her feet kicking futilely at the sand as the copter drew closer.
And Wolf… Wolf was dragging her away from the copter. He didn’t want her to go home! Spurred into action, Lilith scrabbled at the zip of her hoodie, struggling to take it off. “Put me down!” she gasped. “Let me go!”
Wolf ignored her, but his grip on her hood was weakening as the material began to tear. She held the collar away from her throat, dragging her heels against the ground, swinging her body as much as she could to try to pull out of his grasp.
The hood ripped and Lilith once more tumbled across the sand. She leapt to her feet, shaded her eyes and saw that the copter was almost upon them.
“Over here!” she yelled, sprinting towards the copter with Wolf in pursuit. “Help!”
Wolf knocked her to the ground as the copter opened fire.
Bullets spat out from under the nose of the copter, thudding into the sand, raising a long line of red dust. Wolf crouched over her, tail tucked against his belly, paws on either side of Lilith’s head. She breathed in the smell of him, the sharp muskiness. Then the copter was turning around, coming back towards them, and Wolf urged her to climb onto his back. She’d barely sunk her fingers into his fur when he was off again, running towards the copter, weaving side to side as the bullets rained down.
The copter passed over them, the drone of its engines near-deafening. Lilith tightened her grip but her fingers were slipping. The copter was flying laterally, twisting towards them, nose in the air as it regained altitude. If only there was a way to contact the pilot, to tell him she was human…
But it was coming towards them again. Wolf put on a burst of speed. It wasn’t enough. In seconds it would be over, and the anger gripped Lilith that she would die out here, forgotten, unknown, one more body amongst many.
Then the impossible happened: the copter slowed, spiralling off to one side, floating gently towards the ground. It rapidly picked up speed, twisting, spinning—the engine had failed!
Wolf skidded to a stop, almost throwing off Lilith, his sides heaving as they watched the copter fall. It skimmed lower, whispering against the sand, then the tips of its blades hit the ground and the copter crashed, churning up clods of dirt and debris.
For a long moment Lilith was silent, staring at the wreckage.
If it weren’t for Wolf, she’d be dead twice over. Her every instinct rebelled against trusting him; he was an animal, a savage, an infected… but she couldn’t go back to the theatre. Not like this, not if another copter was waiting. She had no choice but to trust that Wolf would take her home. Lilith closed her eyes, took a deep breath.
Then she looked at Wolf. “Let’s go.”
As Wolf began to run away from the theatre, she hunched down, clinging to his fur. They left the copter far behind, clouds of grey smoke rising into the empty sky.
* * *
Lilith only dared to sit up when Wolf’s pace slowed to a gentle trot. She dug one hand into his fur, raising the other to shield her eyes from the sunlight. A city loomed ahead, tall square buildings stabbing the sky. It was ringed by a stone wall, intimidating and unfriendly, the smooth grey surface curving out of sight.
An over ground city. It should have been impossible. Where had all the stone and concrete come from? The infected were savages; they didn’t have the technology to build a settlement of this size. It had to be a human establishment. With that thought came a measure of hope: Wolf was taking her to safety.
Two hooded men were standing guard at the city gates, their stiff postures indicative of authority. Lilith straightened, planning her speech and what lies she would tell, a nervous excitement building in her chest. How much should she say about the theatre? How could she explain her arrival on the back of a werewolf? The copter was best left unmentioned.
Oblivious to her planning, Wolf trotted straight through the gates, right past the guards who stood there, unresponsive. Lilith caught a glimpse of yellow eyes, of scaled skin, and with a flash of horror realised they weren’t entering a human city. This city—this place—was overrun with infected.
She had no time to protest before they were enveloped by a hubbub of noise. Buildings rose out of the ground like weeds, twisted and broken but enduring, concrete monstrosities cheek-to-jowl with low-stoned constructions of baked mud. Either side of the street was lined with temporary stalls, merchants hawking their wares in cajoling tones. There seemed to be no common thread between one stall and the next: a rock-man with dull grey skin was selling unfamiliar hardware next to a cloaked figure holding tiny glass vials of blood.
The air was choked with dust and spices, the underlying bittersweet smell of sweat reminiscent of the squalor in the Upper Halls. As far as the eye could see were throngs of cloaked figures hurrying to and fro, heads down, steps sharp with big-city impatience. But there was something else at play here, too: the tension in the air was enough to push Lilith down against Wolf’s fur as she made herself as small a target as possible. In tight jeans and a long-sleeved hoodie, she could not have been more out of place; most of the infected were wearing long flowing cloaks with the hoods pulled up, masking their intentions. Any second one of them would realise what she was. And then—
Then they would kill her.
Wolf shared none of her concerns. He trotted forward until they were closed in from all sides, letting the crowd carry them away from the city gates. There was nothing she could do. Lilith grimly hoped Wolf knew what he was doing.
Eventually they turned onto a reassuringly narrow side street, with buildings that leaned towards each other as if to block out the overwhelming emptiness of the sky. It was cooler here in the shadows, and quieter too, the cacophony of the market fading into a distant drone.
Wolf stopped and twitched impatiently until she slid off his back. Then he continued at a slower pace, his head lifted to scan the buildings.
Lilith trailed after him, brushing the dust off her clothes. The street was paved with cobblestones and lines of washing were strung out overhead. For a moment she was startled by how normal everything looked, how human, but then she noticed the small details—the scratches in the walls, the glimpse of glowing eyes through the windows—and her pace quickened until she was right by Wolf’s side, close enough to brush her fingers against his fur.
Wolf stopped, cocked his head. His hind legs gathered beneath him. Then he sprung upwards and bit into a washing line, breaking the rope and bringing the laundry tumbling down. He looked at Lilith and pawed at the clothes.
“That’s men’s clothing,” she informed him tartly, glancing over the meagre selection. She’d look just as out of place wearing those.
He nodded, slowly and deliberately, as if the movement were not quite natural.
For him. Lilith frowned. Weren’t werekin able to disguise themselves as human? “You want these clothes for yourself?”
Another nod, this time followed by an impatient huff, his wide saucer eyes fixed on hers. There were other less friendly eyes watching, too: Lilith felt the telltale itch between her shoulder blades, the back of her neck prickling. Above their heads, the trailing ends of the clothes line swung feebly against the wall.
Lilith sighed and bent to gather the clothes. “Great,” she said. “Now I’m an accessory to theft.” She took a sleeveless white top and a pair of cotton trousers, folding the bundle in her arms. No socks or shoes; he’d have to go barefoot.
“Hey!” A middle-aged man wearing a white tunic emerged from a darkened doorway, brandishing a curved knife. His face was gaunt, his lower chin covered in stubble. “Give me back my clothes!”
Lilith froze, began to apologise, but Wolf stepped forward and growled lowly. The man’s eyes flicked between them, his knife wavering. Wolf’s growl thickened as he took another step closer, his tail straight, his eyes narrowed.
The man relented, his arm lowering. His gaze lingered on Lilith. “Wolf scum,” he said, turning his head to spit on the pavement. He stomped back into the building before they could react.
Fear gave way to anger. “Bastard,” Lilith muttered, glaring at the empty doorway. How dare he insult her as if she were no better than any other infected? She looked nothing like Wolf or the scaly monstrosities guarding the city gates. She bottled up the emotions, satisfied with the knowledge that soon she’d return underground whilst this man eked out his existence here. But as she followed Wolf down the street, a part of her wondered what it would be like if she never returned home at all.
Several streets later Wolf stopped again, this time outside of a tall, ugly building made of harsh angles and grey bricks. Instead of a door there was a large archway, and on one side was a crooked sign in a strange, curving script.
Lilith frowned, shifting the bundle in her arms. “In here?”
Wolf ducked through the archway in reply.
The archway opened onto a rectangular reception room, bare save for a few chairs, some billboards along one wall, and a desk at the far end. Along the back wall were numbered rows of tiny hooks, from which hung identical dark metal keys. It was a hotel. Lilith was pleased with the discovery. She could ask the staff for directions to the nearest police station and they would handle everything from there. Easy.
A tall hooded figure stood behind the reception desk. Shape-wise, it looked human: she could see the outline of wide shoulders and thickly muscled arms. Coupled with the broad-barrelled chest, it had the build of a soldier.
She joined Wolf by the desk and looked up into a cowl of darkness. “Hello?”
A long, forked tongue flicked out of the hood. “Yes?” The word had an odd, hissing quality, masculine in timbre, but at least it was comprehensible. “Would you like a room?”
“Actually I was hoping you could give me directions to—” A flash of white cut her short. Wolf’s muzzle was right by her face, lips pulled back, fangs exposed. All of her carefully planned speech vanished.
“A room?” the receptionist repeated, this time to Wolf.
Wolf nodded, then cocked his head towards the clothing in Lilith’s arms.
The receptionist walked over to the wall and selected a key. “Room 317,” he said. “Get dressed and come back to discuss payment.” He proffered the key to Lilith with a dark green hand that was muscular and covered in tiny scales. Lilith glanced down and saw clawed feet and a thick tail peeking out from the hem of his cloak. She took the key and backed away, repressing a shudder as a thin snake-like tongue tasted the air in her wake.
The receptionist studied her, tilting his head. “Interesting.”
Wolf nudged Lilith towards the door on the far left, at the back of the room.
“You have twenty minutes,” the receptionist called after them.
The door opened onto a stairwell made of dark grey stone that had a colourless carpet running down the middle. The air was musty, the carpet worn thin by the tread of countless guests, and as they climbed up the stairs little clouds of dust circled at their feet. Lilith watched Wolf bound up ahead of her, vowing to get some answers from him… somehow. There had to be a reason why he had brought her here, a plan to get her home safely. The sooner she knew the details, the better.
They climbed up to the third floor and pushed through the hallway door into a long, empty corridor. Room 317 was the fifth on the left. Wolf sat beside it and huffed impatiently.
She ignored him and held up the key. The technology was astoundingly simple—a metal lock and key, no thumbscan required, exactly like the lock she’d had on her childhood diary, which she’d learnt to pick with a paperclip. Did the infected have no concept of security?
She wrestled with the lock for several minutes, the metal key refusing to turn. Finally the door swung open and Lilith hesitated on the threshold, dismayed. The room was bare, with only a double bed in the centre and a small desk in one corner. Directly opposite was a large window with mouldy purple curtains tied up on either side. Sunlight streamed in through the glass, spotlighting the swirling dance of dust motes in the air.
Wolf head butted her and she stumbled further into the room, dropping the clothes on the floor.
“Hey!” she cried, turning around, but the word died in her throat at the sight of the man who’d replaced Wolf. No—not replaced—this was Wolf, looking so human it seemed impossible that he’d been a wolf mere seconds before. Her eyes were drawn to the large scar on his chest, which ran diagonally from his right shoulder to his left hip, a line of thick, pale skin. Then she realised the full extent of his nudity and looked away, embarrassed. He had none of her shame, kicking the hotel door closed before stooping to collect his clothes. Only when Lilith heard the bathroom door close did she dare to look up from the ground. What else could she expect from an animal?
But when he came out of the bathroom—dressed, thankfully, in the loose top and ill-fitting trousers—it was hard to remember he wasn’t human. His blond hair was tousled, and now that she could look without embarrassment, Lilith was startled to realise he had a rough good-looking charm… or he would, if he stopped scowling.
“I’ll just call the police,” Lilith said timidly, tapping at the phone strapped to her wrist, which doubled as a bracelet. The screen remained dark. She tapped again, then a third time. A frisson of unease tightened her stomach. “Weird. It’s not working.”
“Too much magic,” Wolf replied flatly, scanning the room. He moved over to the window and untied one of the curtains, examining the leather cord. “It interferes with electronics. It’s why the copter crashed.” He tied several quick knots in the cord and held it out to her. “Put this on. Keep it visible.”
Lilith could only gape in reply. When Wolf repeated himself irritably, she made no move to take it. “So my phone’s dead?”
“Yes. So take this; it’ll mark you as a werewolf to others.” He walked closer, and now Lilith could see he’d turned the leather cord into a necklace, with a white pendant tied in the middle.
She turned her head away, crossed her arms, letting her hair form a barrier between them. “I’d rather not look like a werewolf, thanks.”
He thrust the necklace towards her. “Now.” His tone brooked no argument, the muscles in his arm tense.
Maybe she’d be able to get more answers if she appeased him. Lilith scowled, took the necklace and slipped it around her neck. The pendant was a fang the size of her pinkie. The cord felt soft around her neck. Lilith met his gaze and summoned the courage to speak. “You saved my life.” For some reason the words sounded like an accusation.
He looked annoyed. “You wanted to die?”
“No! I mean, I’m glad you did.” She shifted nervously; this wasn’t how she’d imagined her first conversation with an infected. “It’s just there were a lot of other people there.” Like Emma, she thought, swallowing hard.
“Don’t ask stupid questions.”
Wolf leaned against the desk, crossed his arms and closed his eyes, as if he could not bear the sight of her. He was frowning, and with every passing moment the wrinkle between his eyebrows deepened.
Lilith sank onto the bed, cringing when the mattress creaked. “So,” she said hesitantly when it became clear Wolf would not speak first. “Where are we?”
That meant nothing. “Tulkan?”
“An over ground city.” Every syllable was clipped and his eyes were still closed, as if she would disappear if he ignored her hard enough.
“Yeah, I got that,” she replied, struggling to rein in her temper. “I meant where as in, how the hell do you expect me to get home from here?”
He opened his eyes and gave her a slow, disapproving once over. “I don’t.”
Enough was enough. She stood, not caring when the mattress protested loudly. “Look, if you don’t want to take me to the police, that’s fine. I’ll go alone.” Despite the strong words, uncertainty seeped into her voice. “Just tell me what street the nearest police station is on.”
He blinked slowly. “There are no streets in Tulkan.”
“Well, give me directions then,” she snapped.
A smirk. “There are no police.”
“What the hell do you expect me to do then? You were supposed to rescue me, not bring me to this godforsaken city!”
Any trace of amusement on Wolf’s face vanished. He took a step towards her, a growl rumbling at the back of his throat. “I expect you to shut up and let me think.”
Lilith refused to be cowed by an animal. She stepped forward, chin lifted. “I don’t know what your problem is—and it’s not that I’m not thankful for you saving my life back there, because I am—but there’s no need to be rude, and if anything, you should be apologising to me.”
He was astonished. “Me?”
“You left Emma behind! I asked you to save her, I asked! But you just turned and ran away.”
“With you on my back,” he growled. “Why didn’t you jump off and try to save her yourself, if she meant so much to you?”
“Because—” Because she’d been so scared she hadn’t been able to move. But she couldn’t admit that. “Because I thought even animals had honour,” she said flatly. “But you don’t, and now she’s dead.”
The next second his hand was around her neck. She cried out, tried to pull away, but his grip was too strong.
“You’re choking me!”
“No, I’m not,” he replied evenly. His hold on her was tight, but not unforgivably so, and as she stopped struggling his fingers loosened even further, until they was just resting on her neck.
She felt it, then—a pulse of attraction so unnatural that it repelled her. Wolf, too, jerked his hand away as if burnt. Lilith turned away, unsettled, and sat on the bed, rubbing her neck. “Don’t know why I expected any better from an infected,” she muttered, loud enough for him to hear.
Wolf ignored her. He turned to the desk and began searching through the drawers until he found what he was looking for: a scrap of paper and a pencil. He leaned on the desk and began to sketch with quick, steady movements. Lilith stood and edged closer, careful to keep a safe distance between them.
He was drawing a map. “The theatre is there,” he said, drawing a cross near the bottom right of the page. “We are here, in Tulkan.” He marked a spot slightly to the left, higher up the page, then added a compass in one corner.
“Is it…” She cleared her throat. “Is it safe to go back?”
“For you or for me?” His face was inscrutable.
“I have to get home somehow.”
Wolf returned to the map, moving the pen to the top right. “North of here is a mountain range,” he said, drawing a series of triangles. “Beneath is a lake, and then a river flowing downstream to the hills.” He marked a spot northeast of Tulkan, beside the river and in the opposite direction from the theatre. “My pack is here.”
Near the lake he drew another cross. “There is another entrance for your kind here.” Disdain dripped from his voice as if she were the infected, not he. “It’s smaller, less secured.”
She pointed to the theatre. “This entrance is closer.”
“And guarded by copters.”
“One. Which crashed.”
“As if they’d only have one.”
That he was right only annoyed her. “Just take me to the police.”
“I told you: there are none.”
“There must be someone. Who’s in charge?”
“Of Tulkan? No one.” He tilted his head to the side, reconsidered his words. “Witches, mostly. They’ve bribed the trackers.”
“And these trackers are like police?”
“Yes. And no.”
He was being purposefully unhelpful. Lilith’s palms itched with the desire to slap him, to shake him out of his calm. How could he stand there so indolently when people had died—and were still dying? How could he look and sound so human, yet be a monster underneath? It had been far easier when he had been in animal form; at least then she’d known how to deal with him.
“Look,” she began, doing her best to keep her voice level. “You brought me here, you can take me back. Drop me off near the theatre and I’ll walk the rest of the way. Without you hanging around, they won’t shoot me. Okay?”
“That won’t work,” he replied dismissively. “If they don’t shoot you—and that’s a big if—you’ll get no further than an Upper Hall prison.”
“Don’t confuse me with the Upper Hall scum you’ve met,” she snapped. “I’ve got my citizenchip; I’ve got rights.” When he didn’t look impressed, she crossed her arms. “They can’t throw me into prison,” she added sullenly. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
Wolf shook his head. “You survived where hundreds died. Is that not reason enough? They’ll shoot you on sight.”
Lilith had no reply. Despite her words, all her bluster, the situation was beyond her. The idea of simply walking back the way she’d come was a half-baked one at best, and even she knew it was foolish. But to use the other entrance meant travelling above ground, and she was unwilling to face the outside world alone. If the DEI—the special police—did not venture above ground without backup, what chance did she stand alone?
“We’ll go to the second entrance,” Wolf said, tapping the spot near the lake, “and smuggle you in.” He took her silence as consent and turned to leave. “I’m going to speak to the Snake. You stay here.”
Right before the door closed behind him, Wolf looked at her. “Stay here. I mean it.” Then the door slammed shut.