Of Telepaths And Witches

Bonus Stories

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


Bryan O’Teel, Third Rank Initiate, was outwardly a very ordinary fellow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The werefox straightened. “Come in!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Embezzling?”

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

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

“Do you know who has?”

Alice shook her head.

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

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

“No, it’s not her.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you stealing from Mr Kitsoon?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello.”

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

“I was only hired to find the embezzler.”

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

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

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

“But he is more trouble than other children.”

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

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

“He’s not a witch, then?” she said.

“No.”

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

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

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

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

The True History

Bonus Stories

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.

A mini-Silver in 3D!

News

Hello, all!

This is a silly little update, but I thought I’d spread the fun.

As you may recall, I ran a blog tour for the print/ebook release of Above Ground last November, with prizes up for grabs.

One of the prizes was a mini foldable character of the winner’s choosing. Onge, the winner, picked Silver.

I had great fun designing the mini Silver online, but it doesn’t compare to how cool it is to see a photo of the final result. Bless his grumpy face.

You’ll have to ask Onge how hard Silver was to assemble. :-)

p.s. I am 99% positive that my NEXT release is going to be a Jake/Fang novella, covering how they met and ended up with the Lakeside pack. I’m already working on it now – aiming to start posting mid-year. Woo!

First Changes

Bonus Stories

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?”

“Okay.”

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.

Win Above Ground Prizes!

News

As you may know, throughout November I’m running a blog tour to celebrate the print/ebook release of Above Ground.

This is the final FINAL version. Revised, refined, polished. I fixed the confusing bit where Emma and Dr Gray get into the car. I changed the scene where Emma goes to meet her friends and made it totally awesome. I rewrote the scene where Lilith walks to Rivton with Fang and Howl . . . 

Also: the print version of the book has a map!

Okay, I’ll stop rambling and get to the point.

If you participate in the blog tour, by tweeting or leaving comments on the various stops etc, you can enter to win a prize in my mystery raffle. The prizes are secret, but it’s stuff I think any Above Ground fan would love to have.

To make things fair, I’m running the giveaway through rafflecopter—see the widget below. A week two recap of all the stops is here.

Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Afterword

It’s been a long journey.

I started writing Above Ground sometime in mid-2009. It was my first foray into the world of webfiction, and the first novel I ever finished.

Writing by the seat of my pants had its downsides, however. In late 2010, I began writing the sequel, Between Worlds . . . then realised just how much was wrong with Above Ground. It was the ugliest first draft in existence.

Disheartened, I abandoned the universe for a while and went off to write about zombies instead. But in September 2011 I bit the bullet and began writing the second draft—which you have just finished reading.

So first of all: thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed the ride.

Secondly, yes, there will be a sequel . . . one day.

Above Ground: the book!

In October 2012 I released what I’m calling “the final FINAL version of Above Ground“. It’s fairly close to the online version, but, well, better.

You can pick up an ebook copy on the Kindle for US $3.50 or UK £2.24.

Or you can get a print copy – which includes a MAP – from Amazon (US $12.99, UK £8.99) and all sorts of other places.

This is the cover:

Above Gruond

Typesetting and design by the wonderful MCM of 1889 Labs. Bewitching artwork by Jeffrey Thompson.

Sequels?

Some of you have already read a few chapters of Between Worlds. Well, it all needs massive revision, but I do intend to continue the series. Probably not for a long while, though.

In the meantime, I’m planning on experimenting with side stories. I also have a few other projects I want to dabble with too.

Keep in touch with me on twitter or on my main website – I love to hear from you all.

Thanks again, all. I couldn’t have made it without you.

Chapter 48

Standing in the tavern reception was the last person Lilith had expected to see.

Well, person was stretching it slightly.

The Snake was standing in the doorway, his head almost touching the frame. When Lilith walked into the reception, his mouth parted, revealing rows and rows of sharp teeth.

Silver was in the middle of the room, fists clenched, muscles tensed, as if any moment he would leap and attack the Snake. Mel was behind him, cowering on the other side of the counter.

“You should have stayed upstairs,” Silver ground out without even looking at Lilith.

“On the contrary,” the Snake said. With his hood up, only his mouth was visible, but Lilith could feel him watching. “Her presence is necessary.”

Lilith pushed back the fear. If she truly was an infected, then there was no point hiding anymore. She stepped further into the room, walked up to Silver. Somehow from the depths of her memory she conjured the Snake’s name.

“Were you looking for me, Zachal?” Beside her, Silver stiffened, but he did not interfere.

A slow nod. “To make sure you hadn’t been contaminated by the succubus.” His tongue flicked into the air. “A third binding could break you.”

How did he know about the bond between her and Silver? Then the number registered and Lilith frowned. Third? A spasm of pain shot through her wrist, enough to make her gasp. It was gone in seconds but the ache remained, dull and persistent.

“Everything is in order,” Zachal said, satisfied.

Lilith clutched her wrist. The scar had healed into a red flat line. The Snake mark, Silver had called it. Its repercussions were only sinking in now. If the bond between her and Silver drew them together so tightly, what would this connection do?

“I owe you a debt,” Lilith said softly, rubbing the scar as if she could wipe it away. She looked Zachal in the eye. “Have you come to collect it?”

“Not this time,” Zachal replied. He nodded at her and backed out of the room onto the porch outside. “You’re not strong enough yet.”

Then he vanished. Lilith rushed to the doorway, looked up and down the street, but he was gone.

The dread inspired by his words stayed with her for a long afterwards.


The Snake’s visit had snapped something shut in Silver. He was as brusque with Lilith as he had been on the first day they’d met, with a permanent scowl on his lips.

He led Lilith out of the tavern onto the street outside, and then down the main road back towards the forest, somehow managing to take two steps for every one of Lilith’s. The sky above was coal-black, rippling with swathes of clouds that half-obscured the moonlight.

“Where are we going?” Lilith called out to him, refusing to break into a jog.

Silver only stopped when he reached the outskirts of the town. He didn’t turn to look at her. “Al wants to ransom you to the Guild,” he said. “You would be safer there.” A pause, and when he turned to face her, his eyes were blazing with emotion. “I could try to get you underground. The further you are from the Snake, the better.”

Lilith caught his wrist. “I’m not going underground, Silver.”

The moment caught, held, the seconds stretching into eternity.

Silver pulled his wrist away and strode into the forest. The trees swallowed him from view, and as she hurried after him, Lilith wondered whether he was trying to leave her behind on purpose, perhaps hoping she would run away to make her way home. But did she even have a home now? If she was an infected, this was her home now.

By the time she’d caught up with Silver, he was no longer in human form.

Lilith froze, eyed his large paws and tense muscles. He stared at her, the tilt to his head almost mocking, then lowered himself to the ground.

“I take it walking isn’t an option,” she muttered, closing the distance between them. She picked up the bundle of clothes by his paws, still warm. Then she climbed onto his back and pressed her face into his soft fur.

Silver trotted forward, weaving through the trees. To the left was the shoreline, the lights of Rivton sinking into the distance.

Lilith relaxed, lulled by Silver’s gentle pace and by the smell of his fur. There was something about being so close to him that made her feel protected, and though she knew it could not last forever, for now at least she could pretend.


Morning came too soon.

It had been late when they’d stopped travelling. Lilith had been far too tired to do anything more than slid off Silver’s back and curl up to sleep against him. But now, as the sun rose and the cold wind off of the lake seeped into Lilith’s bones, she stirred and sat up.

The mountains were so much bigger now, looming overhead. Lilith stared across the lake but could not see the far shore. Overhead the clouds had thickened, flattening the sky into a sheet of grey. Where were they now, and where was Silver, more importantly?

Lilith had the time to stretch and relieve herself before he reappeared in human form, fully dressed. “Come on,” he said, striding past her, towards the mountains.

“Good morning, Silver,” she replied sarcastically.

He didn’t even stop. “We haven’t got all day.”

Lilith scowled and trudged after him. A short distance away was a large clearing. In the middle of the clearing was a life-size dark grey statue of an Affected man, his skin oddly rippled. Lilith approached it cautiously, then realised what was wrong: the statue’s entire body was covered with faces, faces of every race and expression, all with their mouths open as if caught mid-speech.

She shuddered. “What is that?”

“The Statue of Minds.”

The words rang a bell. Lilith cocked her head. Where had she—? Ah, yes, that was it: Bryan had mentioned it to her, what seemed like ages ago. He’d said someone from the Guild would come to help her if she reached the statue.

“What now?”

“We wait. They’ll come for you.”

“How will they know to come?” she asked.

“They’ll know.”

Silver was content to not speak further, standing there and smoking and staring off into the distance as if they weren’t waiting but simply enjoying the brisk air and the far-off rippling of the lake. As if they weren’t waiting for someone to come and take her away from the only tether she had left.

“What . . . .” Her voice choked. Angry with herself, Lilith swallowed and started again. “What will the Guild do to me?”

“They’ll make you stronger.”

“So the Snake can get whatever he wants?”

His gaze was sharp, assessing. “So you can protect yourself from the Snake, if you wish.”

Lilith stared at the statue, at the faces blending into one. Human, infected . . . it was impossible to tell one from the other. “What’ll happen to me?”

Silver’s shrug said it all: he didn’t know and didn’t care. Of course he didn’t: he wanted her gone. For all that Al wanted the ransom money, Lilith knew the real reason Silver was handing her over: the Guild would break their bond, and then he would be rid of her. Stung, Lilith turned away from him, rubbing her arms in an attempt to keep warm.

“Do you regret saving me?” she said, so softly that she wasn’t sure whether he’d heard.

Silver stubbed his cigarette out on the statue, right on the nose of a rather mournful face. “No.” He looked straight at her. “Regrets are for those too weak to live in the present.”

A drop of water landed on Lilith’s hand. She looked up, felt another drop land on her cheek. Then another. Water falling from the sky.

She’d heard about rain, but hadn’t imagined it to fall so gently. Lilith held up a palm to capture a few droplets. The water looked ordinary, smelled ordinary—she stuck out the tip of her tongue and discovered it tasted better than the tap water underground.

Soon Silver’s top was speckled with dark wet patches, like little round fingertips. He looked irritable but did nothing to protect himself, leaning against the Statue of Minds with his hands in his pockets.

Lilith closed her palm on the raindrops. In her hand was water that had travelled untold distances, through every level above and below ground, water that linked them all, infected and affected, despite their outward differences. Standing there in the rain, Lilith looked at Silver and saw all of a sudden a man she wanted to count amongst her friends. For a moment her heart squeezed in her chest as she thought that maybe – just maybe – the infected weren’t as bad as they seemed, and that some of them were even worth knowing, worth loving.

“Will I see you again?” she said.

“Yes.” He sounded reluctant, but the word still made Lilith’s heart skip a beat.

Then a man with five diamonds tattooed on his right cheek came into the clearing, bony cheeks stretched in an easy-going smile. His clothes were wrinkled and ill-fitting. His white long-sleeved top hung loosely on his body, and the arms were a little short, exposing bony wrists and long, tapering fingers.

In his right hand was a cloth bag that clinked with every step—the money, Lilith remembered, feeling a little sick, and all her good feelings towards Silver vanished. The man nodded and handed the bag to Silver.

That’s when it happened.

From the distance came a sound, soft as the wind at first then growing louder, voices melding together in a long, mournful howl.

Lilith pulled out of the man’s grasp, turned to Silver. His expression had gone blank, his eyes unfocused.

A beat of silence, then the howling started again.

“What does it mean?” Lilith grabbed Silver’s arm, trying to get his attention. “Silver, what’s wrong?”

He shook her off, pushed her away. His eyes burned with cold hatred.

“Vera is dead.”

Before she could reply Silver was running. Lilith went to follow him but the man from the Guild grabbed her wrist with more strength than she’d thought possible.

“Not so fast,” he said, staring into her eyes as a drowsiness pervaded her limbs. Lilith couldn’t resist as he took her elbow and led her away from the lake, away from Silver.

“Welcome to your new home.”


THE END.


Did you enjoy the story? Leave a comment.

Thank you so much to everyone for following along!

The final FINAL revised version of Above Ground is available in print and ebook form – would be lovely if you felt the urge to buy a copy. The cover art is beautiful (IMO), and the print version has a map too! Follow me on facebook or twitter for updates.

Woo!

Chapter 47

The silence was deafening.

Emma turned to Liam, noticed now the similarities she’d overlooked. The green eyes so like Ms Gray’s. Lilith’s dark hair, her narrow chin. And he had his father’s nose, stern and straight.

But Lilith had always said she was an only child. Where had Liam been all these years?

With a wordless cry, Lilith’s mother launched herself at Dr Gray. He grabbed her wrists and held her away from his body, but still she struggled to land a hit.

“How could you?” she demanded. “How could you?”

Liam stood there, impassive, his face clear of all expression. No, not impassive—his fists were clenched, his nails digging into his palms. Emma took a step closer and put a hand on his shoulder, but did not know what she could say to comfort him.

“I had to have a back-up plan in case Lilith didn’t work,” Dr Gray said.

“And you didn’t think of telling me I had a son?”

“I was protecting you and Lilith,” he said, ” We’d only be granted the permit for one foetus and I was barely more than a lab technician then, with no clout to change the rules. But you and I knew the experiment better than anyone else. You yourself asked whether gender would influence the results. I had to cover every eventuality.”

“We were together for eight years after that,” Lilith’s mother snapped, withdrawing into herself, her voice going cold.

Dr Gray didn’t answer. His expression was troubled, his shoulders heavy with the weight of so many years. It was the first time Emma had ever seen him show weakness.

“PH shut down the programme a year after you left,” he finally said. “Lilith was two.”

“I remember,” Lilith’s mother said. “You said it was because the genetic modifications hadn’t worked.”

“I lied,” Dr Gray said. “The real reason the programme shut down was because all the other children died. Many in utero, the rest in infancy.” He paused. “We are the only viable couple, Arlene. The only one whose children survived infection. Lilith was safe with you, her paperwork was airtight, but Liam . . . ”

Emma bit her lip, tried to breathe quietly. She was afraid to move, to breathe. It seemed that they had forgotten she was there. And Liam . . . poor Liam. He stood so still he could have been carved from stone, but Emma could see the pulse jumping in his neck. Dr Gray had to be lying: neither Liam nor Lilith were infected.

“Was it worth it?” Lilith’s mother said.

Dr Gray nodded. “Liam is just as gifted as Lilith,” he said. “And better trained.”

And then Ms Gray turned her cool, cutting gaze to Liam and said, “Then you should have sent him to the theatre to die.”

Liam’s only reaction was a quick, pained gasp, almost soundless, but Emma was already stepping in front of him, her fury aroused. “How can you say that,” she said angrily, staring down Lilith’s mother. “He’s your son!”

My son would have gotten in touch with me the moment he knew how,” Ms Gray said coldly, turning to the door. Her high heels clacked loudly in the silence. She unlocked the door. “He is no son of mine.”

The door closed behind her with a gentle click.

“But I did,” Liam breathed, staring at the door as if any moment it would open.

Emma took his hand, threaded her fingers through his. “Come on, Liam. Let’s go.” She had to get him away from here, away from his poisonous parents. Was this what his childhood had been like, forever staring at closed doors? His hand was weak in her own.

“You’re not going anywhere,” Dr Gray said. He narrowed his eyes. “Not yet.”

Emma went cold, thought of the bleak walls of the holding cell she’d been imprisoned in before. “What are you going to do to us?”

Dr Gray ignored her and looked at Liam. “I don’t have to worry about you, do I? The consequences still stand.” When Liam shook his head, he said, “Good. If your sister makes it alive to the Guild, we’ll need you to protect her.”

“Yes, Father.” Liam kept his eyes on the ground, pulling away from Emma. He folded his hands behind his back, out of reach.

“Lilith’s alive?” Emma asked, looking between them. “But . . . ” Her brow furrowed. “She’s infected? What did you do?” she asked Dr Gray. “Modify their genes to make them immune?”

“Quite the reverse,” he said dryly.

“But genetic modifications are illegal,” she protested.

“Which is why you will not tell anyone about what you heard here. Not your friends, not your family, and definitely not the media.”

“Emma will not to tell anyone,” Liam said quickly, “on the condition that her family is granted a permit for a second child.”

It was a devil’s proposition.

Emma stared at Liam, unsure whether to be angry or grateful. It went against every fibre of her being to keep Dr Gray’s secret, to pretend children hadn’t died for some crazy experiment, but then she had a flashback of her mother sobbing at the kitchen table, staring at the sprawl of rejected baby application forms. Emma thought of the hidden stashes of booze, her mother stumbling through life behind a haze of alcohol. If a child could make things right again . . . 

But that was a selfish wish.

And yet, if she exposed Dr Gray’s secret, she’d be exposing Liam and Lilith too. How could she be the one to make that choice for them?

“It wouldn’t be difficult to turn that rejection around.” Dr Gray’s smile was thin and sharp as he looked at Emma. “But if so much as a breath about this comes out, your entire family will vanish.”

“And Lilith?” Emma asked. “When is she coming back?”

“Not any time soon,” Dr Gray said. “But maybe one day, sooner than you expect, humans might join her above ground.”

Chapter 46

Lilith shook her head, backed away. Straight to the Guild? For a moment she even forgot the existence of the nitum, so stunned was she at the thought of never seeing Silver again.

She’d toyed with the idea before, had known that eventually they would be separated, but despite her dreams of going home, the separation had never truly felt real until now. And now . . . the thought made her chest tighten, the panic rising.

Could she truly go home as Sam had offered? What if he was wrong, and the bond didn’t fade with time and distance? What if the bond weighed down her heart forever, shackles that no other man could break? Hers would be a half-life at best. Miserable.

“I need to see Silver,” she insisted, taking another step towards Rivton.

Jake’s jaw tightened. “You can’t,” he said gently.

“You don’t understand . . . I have to . . . I . . . ” Lilith had no choice but to trust them. She reached into her pocket, pulled out the nitum. “I got it for Vera.”

Amber leapt forward, snatched the packet. She held it up to her nose, sniffing. “It can’t be . . . ” She tore one corner open and tilted the packet carefully, shaking out some of the contents. Inside were dried flower heads, dry enough to crumble at the edges and dark in colour, the purple of the underground lakes in Aspin. It reminded Lilith of the potpourri her father had somehow acquired as a grand gesture one Valentine’s Day. Her mother had thrown it away the day he’d moved out, but the scent had lingered for days.

“Dried nitum,” Amber breathed, cradling the flowers in the palm of her hand. She tipped them back into the packet with slow, focused movements, then folded over the open corner and cradled the packet to her chest. “I can’t believe it.” She looked at Jake. “I’ve got to get this to Vera!”

“I’m coming with you,” Lilith said. When Jake hesitated she turned to him. “Don’t you see? You don’t need to sell me to the Guild anymore. You’ve got what you needed.”

“That’s not up to me to decide,” he replied, but from his expression she could tell he was relenting. The cool evening breeze whispered between them as Jake and Amber considered her request.

“I’ll take her,” Amber concluded. “Will you stay here with Howl?”

She didn’t even wait for Jake to nod before she turned to Lilith, her previous anger replaced by a tentative smile. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s go to Vera.”

They weren’t far from the outskirts of the town. In minutes they’d broken through the cover of the trees, and were soon weaving their way down the narrow streets, past closed shutters and darkened windows. Their path was lit only by the dim lights at every street corner, small lamps which glowed without flame or electricity.

Magic. Lilith eyed the lamps, watched her shadow stretch out before her. The darkness lent a sinister cast to the houses; she felt them close in on her.

Amber shivered, leaned closer to Lilith as if huddling for warmth. Under her breath, she said: “Someone is following us.”

Lilith’s heart stuttered. The cloaked figure at the lake, the one that had chased her into the water . . . Fear gave way to nausea.

Amber’s elbow bumped hers. “What is it?”

“Something chased me,” she whispered back. “Near the lake, a monster. I ran into the water to escape.”

Amber gave her a sharp look. “This is no monster. It’s an ewte.”

Ri’ka. Who else could it be? But why was the ewte following her? Perhaps to make sure Lilith carried out its wishes and delivered the nitum to the werewolves, but for what gain? Her few days above ground had taught Lilith to be suspicious of everyone . . . yet, shaken by her narrow escape through the lake, she had accepted the nitum at face value, without question. What if it wasn’t nitum? What if it was poison instead?

If Vera died . . . Lilith would take the blame, and Silver would suffer too. Her heartbeat quickened.

“You know why it’s following us,” Amber said flatly.

“No. I . . . ” She swallowed. “Maybe it wants to steal from us?”

“You stink of fear,” Amber snapped. “When we get inside, you’re telling the truth.” She said nothing more, but her stride lengthened, and the tilt of her head told Lilith that she was still listening for their follower.

When they arrived back at the tavern, only Mel was there to greet them, sitting at her usual spot behind the reception desk. Lilith scanned Mel’s face, tempted to ask for Sam’s whereabouts, but she couldn’t—not with Amber listening.

Amber looked Mel up and down. “Was the buyer happy with the blood?”

Mel nodded, wary. “All clear.”

“There’s more where it came from.” Amber tapped her arm, gave Mel a significant look. “We’ve got a tail. If anyone comes in here, your discretion will be rewarded.”

“Understood,” Mel said, waving them through the side door. Lilith never got the chance to ask about Sam.

They walked up the wooden stairs in silence, their footsteps half a beat out of synch—a broken clock beating double time, hurrying towards the future. Time did seem to move faster above ground, Lilith reflected. That so much could have happened in so few days was almost impossible to believe.

Light seeped through the screened door of Silver’s room. They walked down the hallway towards it, Lilith’s stomach tightening with every step. What if Manda was still there? She didn’t know why the thought should bother her, but it did.

Fang opened the door before they could knock on it. He barred their entry, his smile polite. “You shouldn’t be in the tavern,” he began.

“We got the nitum,” Amber interrupted, holding up the packet. “Well, Lilith did.” She looked past Fang, into the room. “But before we use it, I say we get Silver to squeeze the truth out of her.”

Silence, then Silver joined Fang at the door. His chest was bare, his hair tousled. “Stay here,” he told Fang, slipping out into the hallway. To Amber and Lilith: “We’ll go into the other room.”

Lilith allowed herself to be herded into the second room—her room. She couldn’t take her eyes off of Silver. Did he know that Al had planned to separate them? Worse yet, had Silver agreed with the plan?

She sank onto the bed, her thoughts muddled. The last time she had been in here, she’d grabbed Silver’s arm and felt . . . Felt something, felt a heat unlike she’d ever experienced before. Even the lust Sam inspired was a dim glow in comparison. A part of her wondered if she’d ever feel that way again once the bond had broken, or if her future relationships would forever stand in its shadow.

Silver sat down beside her. He didn’t even have to say anything. He just looked.

Lilith was too tired to lie, too sick of having to decide what to keep secret and what to share in a world where she understood so little. So she told him everything: about her escape from the pub, the monster near the lake, Ri’ka pulling her into the water and then the ewte’s insistence that she should give the nitum to the pack. She was about to speak of Sam’s offer, but then Amber interrupted, her brow furrowed.

“Is that the ewte that was following us?”

“Maybe.” Lilith wanted to voice her suspicions but the words refused to come. What if Silver blamed her? “What is nitum, anyway?” she asked instead.

Silver took the nitum from Amber and sniffed it, then crushed some between his fingers. “An expensive herb,” he said. “No ewte would freely give something it could charge for, yet this smells pure.”

“Is it safe to use?” Amber said.

“I think so. Fang will know for sure.” He handed the pack back to her. “Go ask him. Keep hold of your emotions; Vera is sleeping.”

Amber looked at them both, then nodded and left. When the door slid shut, Silver leaned back against the wall, the sheets rustling under him. Lilith felt her cheeks warm and inched away from him. Her stomach twisted at the thought of him in bed with Manda.

“Why is it so important?” Lilith asked, to take her mind off of his nearness. “The nitum.”

“Nitum stops a werekin from changing,” he said. Silver had his eyes closed. He looked asleep. “Vera is pregnant,” he continued softly. “The baby might not be a wolf. If she changes, the baby will die—and probably take her life with it.”

“I wish you’d told me,” Lilith said, looking across the room. “I don’t think I’d have minded as much being sold to the Guild, if I’d known everything.”

The twitch of Silver’s eyebrow suggested disbelief. “Give up your chance to return home for an infected?” he said.

For the first time, the word made Lilith feel ashamed. She ducked her head, was about to reply when Silver’s hand shot out and pressed against her lips. His palm was warm, soft, and strangely reassuring.

“There’s someone downstairs,” he said tersely.

“Mel?” Or was it Sam? Lilith barely dared to breathe.

He shook his head. His steps were whisper-soft as he moved towards the door. “A friend of yours,” he said darkly. He slid open the door and disappeared down the hallway.

For a moment Lilith sat still, then she rose to her feet and followed. Silver was already out of sight. She tiptoed down the hallway, keeping to the edges of the walls. She had almost reached the end of the hallway when a door to her right opened.

Sam was stood in the doorway.

He looked at her. “Are you coming with me?”

By now Silver would already be downstairs meeting her supposed friend. Lilith looked at the stairs, then at Sam. “Not yet,” she said. “I have something I need to do first.”

“Things have changed. It’s now or never,” he replied. “If we wait any longer, we won’t be able to get you in.” He stepped back into his room, moved over to the window. A rope ladder hung from the windowsill. “Hurry, before the werewolves realise you’re gone.”

But what about the bond? What about Vera? Would the nitum work? Lilith stared into Sam’s fathomless eyes and hesitated.

“Why did you stay?” she asked slowly. “You said you were like me. Why did you give everything up for this?”

Sam was a dark silhouette against the window. “I had to know,” he finally whispered.

Lilith nodded. “I have to know, too,” she said, backing out of the room. And she slid the door shut on her only way home.

Above Ground: the end is nigh!

News

With only 3 more chapters to go until the end of Above Ground, I am neck-deep in getting the story ready for print/ebook release.

Yes, there are revisions . . . even though what is now posted online is supposed to be the rewrite. I’m silly, I know. Most of the changes smooth out scenes, fix timelines and little plot holes. I’ve reworked the first chapter, and will also do whatever my lovely editor, Terra Whiteman, orders me to do. (If you haven’t read Terra’s series, The Antithesis, it’s awesome.)

So I wanted to take a moment and say thank you to my qazyfiction fans, especially those who’ve followed me from the very beginning. This story wouldn’t exist without you.

Which brings me to:

Everyone who has commented, supported me, and been generally lovely is going on the acknowledgements page. If you have a preferred internet handle/name, let me know. Otherwise I’ll go with the name I know you by. :-) (And if you don’t want to be included, let me know too. But it’ll make me sad.)

Regarding the print/ebook release:

  • Estimated publication date is mid-end of October.
  • On October 1st, I will reveal the cover and a special offer to pre-order ebook/print copies to my mailing list only. The ebooks will be signed. Pre-orders will be limited; sign up so you don’t miss out.
  • I haven’t announced this anywhere else yet, but I’ll be running a blog tour throughout November. If any of you have active blogs and want to take part, fill in this form — you’ve got first dibs on dates!
  • If you want to stay on top of the latest news, I’ll be posting about it more on amharte.com, facebook and twitter.

As for sequels to Above Ground . . . One book at a time, eh? ;-)