Chapter 16

Lilith was all of sudden aware of being awake. Her muscles tensed; she forced herself to remain still and keep her eyes closed, straining to hear whether her captors were near. It was quiet, but they couldn’t be far off.

The surface beneath her cheek was hard and dusty, and a slight wind teased the back of her neck. A draft meant an exit, a possible escape route. Lilith took five slow breaths, then surreptitiously moved her limbs only to confirm what she had already suspected: her hands and feet were tied.

There was a rustle of cloth and Lilith fell limp, breathing slowly and deeply.

“There’s no use pretending,” a man said, amused. “I can feel the churning of your mind even from over here.”

It was a ploy. Lilith kept still, eyes closed despite the pressing urge to peek. The voice had come from straight ahead—even the slightest movement could give her away.

“Would you rather wake up now, or be kicked into it?”

Lilith opened her eyes reluctantly. She was on the ground, still in the room where they’d captured her. The room was all but empty of furniture, the walls streaked with smudges and the floor covered in a thin layer of grit. In the middle of the room was a low black table and on the other side was a sofa that lacked all its stuffing and cushions.

Sitting on the sofa, with a crumpled bed sheet by his side—her sheet, Lilith realised—was the cloaked figure from earlier. His hood was pushed back, revealing close-cropped short dark hair and three blue diamond tattoos on his right cheekbone. His light brown eyes were sharp, assessing. The doorway was behind him; Lilith was glad to see it was open.

“Well?” said a voice from behind Lilith. She flinched, looked over her shoulder. Leaning beside the windowsill was one of the rock-men. He barely glanced at her. “Is she the one we’re looking for?”

“I’m not sure,” the man on the sofa said. “I need to be in physical contact with a conscious person.”

“She’s conscious now,” the rock-man said with a sneer. “And you can touch her all you like. She’s not going anywhere.” Lilith shuddered.

The man stood up, walked over to Lilith. He crouched by her side. His face was young and smooth, but the hair at his temples was starting to turn grey. Most surprising were his eyes, warm and kind and so very human. Even in human form, Wolf’s animal side had shone through. But this man . . . this man couldn’t be infected. Perhaps he was a human like her, Lilith thought with tremulous hope. Perhaps he was an undercover agent, spying on the infected, keeping an eye out for people lost like her.

He placed a hand on her forehead, checking her temperature. Even in the shade of the room the skin-on-skin contact was sticky and unpleasant. Lilith remained still, curious but not alarmed. It was likely the man was checking for fever, to see whether the infection had set in. She opened her mouth to tell him her booster shot would protect her for another three days but the expression on his face stopped her. He looked very focused, as if he could hear something no one else could.

“Did you poison the vampires?” he asked, staring Lilith in the eye. She frowned, confused. The man frowned back. “What’s your name?” She opened her mouth to answer but he shook his head. “I’m not getting anything,” he said, puzzled.

“Try harder,” the rock-man snarled. “We haven’t got time for you to tiptoe around.”

“The mind is a pool of water—if I push hard, there’s no telling what memories will rise to the surface.”

The rock-man shrugged. “It’s your neck on the line,” he said, granite lips twisted in a sneer. “It’s you that’ll have to answer to the Seventh.”

That threat did the trick: the man scowled, pressed his hand firmly against Lilith’s forehead and closed his eyes. Her head began to ache, dull and hollow like a hangover. She blinked away the gathering tears, all of a sudden wished she was back home with a strength of feeling that startled her.

“Your parents,” the man said, and she had a flash of them sitting stiffly side-by side as they watched the television. “They’re divorced.”

Lilith stiffened, barely daring to breathe.

“Your mother cried into a wine glass the day before you moved house,” he continued, voice flat, curiously unemotional. “You were eight. You didn’t tell anyone but you stared at the phone for days wishing he’d call.”

“No.” The word escaped before she could stop it. How could he see into her mind, how could he so calmly mention memories that troubled her still? Lilith tried to jerk her head away from the man’s reach but he pressed down firmly on her head and she couldn’t move. If only Wolf was here—

“Wolf,” the man said. “He gave you his fang in the hotel room. He’d brought you here.”

No! Lilith struggled to clear her mind, to keep out thoughts of Wolf in order to protect him. She had to prove her innocence to this man and so she stared at his face, at the beads of sweat collecting on his upper lip. Her head throbbed with the effort but she had to focus: she hadn’t done anything wrong. She wasn’t the person he was looking for. She was just like him. Lilith put the full force of her will into sending that thought across.

The man jerked away, surprised. “She isn’t the one we’re looking for,” he said to the rock-man as he stood up. “She’s one of ours.”

“One of yours?” the rock-man repeated disbelievingly. “She has no mark.”

“She is one of ours,” the man repeated without offering an explanation. “I need to speak with her privately. Please step outside.”

“I can’t allow that,” the rock-man replied. “She’s a suspect.”

I report to the Seventh, not you.” When the rock-man made no move to leave, the man folded his arms. “This is a Guild matter.”

The rock-man left, scowling, his feet slapping loudly against the floor. The man crouched again and untied her. When her limbs were loose, Lilith sat up slowly, rubbing her wrists. “My head,” she muttered, wincing. Inside she felt raw, vulnerable.

“Sorry, there was no other way.” The man tilted her head, checked her pupils. “The pain will fade. You may experience flashbacks, but those will pass too.” She was about to reply, but the man held his finger to his lips, nodding towards the door.

“You need to leave this city,” he said, so softly that she had to lean forward to hear him. “I don’t trust the trackers not to be under WPL pay.”

He glanced at the doorway, then helped Lilith to her feet. He was shorter than she’d expected, barely taller than her. “There is a lake, north of here,” he whispered. “Find it and follow it around. On the far side is the Statue of Minds. Wait there—someone from the Guild will come for you. Tell them Bryan O’Teel, Third Rank Initiate, sent you.”

Wolf had also mentioned a lake, near the secondary underground entrance. Lilith kept her voice low. “What are you? DEI?” He couldn’t be an infected—he didn’t look like one.

His smile was gently apologetic. “No. A telepath.”

Lilith stared. If she hadn’t just been inside her head, Lilith would have thought he was joking.

A voice called out from the room next door: “We’ve other jobs waiting, teek!”

Bryan pursed his lips. He reached for Lilith’s shoulder, seemed saddened when she flinched. Lilith didn’t apologise: she wasn’t letting him read her mind again.

“Head for the Guild,” he said. “We can help you.”

“You’ll take me home?”

“You’ll be home before you know it,” he promised. Bryan pulled his cloak off and handed it to her. It was a nondescript brown, like those worn by most in the city. “Better than a bed sheet,” he said with a wry smile, reaching into his pocket. He pulled out a small pouch, rifled through the contents, counting. “Fifty, one, two hundred rebels. Here.”

Lilith had never handled paper money, not to mention seen a currency other than credits. She held the notes between her fingertips, grimacing at the grimy texture.

Bryan sighed, took the notes back and separated them into two before handing them back. “One in your pocket, one in your shoe,” he instructed. “Can never be too safe.” He fastened the cloak around her shoulders, then scrutinised her appearance. “Hide the fang; it’ll only raise more questions than it’ll answer.”

Lilith tucked the necklace under her top, uncomfortable aware of its weight against her breastbone. Was it safe to have the fang so close to her skin? Perhaps she should have taken the necklace off entirely, but there wasn’t any time—Bryan was already leading her out of the room.

The rest of the apartment was equally as unfurnished; vampires didn’t need much in terms of comfort. Waiting at the front door were the three rock-men from earlier. They stopped talking when they saw her.

“Downstairs, now,” one of them grunted, turning and leading the way. The others followed without waiting.

Bryan gave Lilith an apologetic look. “Head for the city gates. Turn right out the door, then through the market.” He hurried after the rock-men.

Lilith waited until he was out of sight before following. Once outside, she hesitated. The map, she remembered with a sudden sinking feeling. Without it, re-entry underground would be next to impossible. She could use it to head to the entrance Silver had mentioned, and if all else failed, she could then make her way to Bryan’s Guild.

Decided, Lilith turned left, the cloak’s hood pulled low over her head. The streets were still crowded, the air heavy with churned-up dust that coated all the stalls. As she weaved through the crowd, she could not suppress her growing anxiety at brushing elbows with so many of the infected. But no one stopped her: with the cloak she was invisible. And Bryan had given her money, too—she could get home on her own. She didn’t need to wait around for Wolf to come back, if he ever did. Perhaps he’d abandoned her. She didn’t expect anything more from an animal.

Lilith turned down a familiar junction until she arrived at the grey, ugly hotel with its crooked sign.

She pulled the hood more firmly over her head, made sure the necklace was hidden, then took a deep breath, straightened her spine, and walked into the hotel, heading towards the stairwell without a pause. It was the same tactic she’d used to sneak into nightclubs: walk confidently, don’t look around, and never, never smile. The three lizards lounging in the reception didn’t even give her a second glance.

But behind the reception desk was the Snake, his eyes trained on her. She nodded, kept walking, heart pounding in her chest. When the stairwell door shut behind her without him having said a word, Lilith slumped with relief. She hurried up the stairs to the third floor, walked down the hallway until she stood in front of room 317. The door handle didn’t turn: it was locked.

Lilith cursed, looked up and down the hallway before trying the door handle again, pushing with all her weight. The infected locking system was primitive at best; she’d be able to break in, somehow. Lilith put her shoulder against the door and pushed harder. The door didn’t budge.

“Your key,” said a voice from behind her.

Lilith turned around, heart sinking. The Snake was mere paces away, holding a key. He seemed even taller up close, and despite the long shadows cast by his hood, Lilith could see the glint of sharp teeth. He took a step forward, his clawed foot peeping out from under the edge of his cloak, and dangled the key in front of her. She put out her hand but he lifted the key higher, out of her reach.

Lilith scowled, dug into her pocket and pulled out a wad of notes, half of what Bryan had given her. “Here,” she said. “For the key.”

“No.”

“I don’t have any thing else,” she lied.

The Snake’s tongue flicked out and he laughed, his voice rasping. “Money has no value.”

Lilith pocketed the notes and eyed the Snake cautiously. “So what do you want?”

“My name,” the Snake said, “is Zachal. And I want a debt.” His tongue flicked out again. “A debt to be collected at a later date. Agreed?”

Lilith hid a smirk: the Snake didn’t know she’d soon be out of his reach. “Fine. A debt.” As she spoke the last word, she felt a sharp pain in her arm. Lilith gasped and pulled back her sleeve to reveal a cut across her right wrist, bright red and angry-looking. “What is this?” she said, outraged. How had he cut her without moving?

The Snake smiled. “A reminder.” He stepped around her to unlock the door.

Lilith pressed against the cut to stem the bleeding, weighing up her chances of infection. She had a couple days before the booster shot lost efficacy, but it would probably be best to rinse the cut. Unless the water here was impure? Who knew what lurked undetected in the plumbing. Lilith shuddered.

The Snake opened the door and gestured for her to go in before him. Lilith stepped forward, then halted on the threshold. The curtains were slashed, and the one remaining sheet on the bed had been torn to shreds. The mattress was littered with stab wounds, even the pillows were ruined. Lilith walked into the room, her hands dropping to her sides. This was systematic destruction. But why?

“No blood,” the Snake said from the doorway. “The wolf has not come back.” It wasn’t clear whether he was pleased or disappointed.

Lilith looked around to see if she could scavenge anything from the remains of the wreckage. The safety-box was on its side, but unopened. She bent down next to it and keyed in the code. The lid clicked open. Nothing was missing. She pocketed the map Wolf had drawn.

The Snake watched silently. “What are your immediate plans?”

She couldn’t tell him the truth, or he’d realise she was human. Better to tweak the truth slightly. “I have a map to the pack,” she said, holding it out, her hand strategically covering the X marking the underground entrance.

The Snake gave it a cursory glance. “Roughly drawn, but accurate.” He looked around the room. “Are you done?” When she nodded, he crooked a claw at her. “Come. You will reach the city gates much faster with my presence.”

Lilith trailed after him warily. But she soon realised it was true: walking through the market with the Snake at her side was far easier than Lilith imagined. The infected cowered away. The Snake didn’t seem to notice.

Soon after, they reached the city gates. There was a queue to leave, but the Snake led her past the line of waiting people. The guard waved them through.

Once outside the city walls, Lilith paused and faced her companion. Infected or not, the Snake had helped her. “Thank you,” she said stiffly. “For escorting me to the gates, I mean.”

He hissed with laughter. “The dead cannot owe debts.”

Lilith look at her wrist, was startled to see that the cut was mostly healed, leaving behind only a bright red scab. Perhaps it hadn’t been as deep as she’d thought. “Well, thanks, anyway—” she hesitated, then said his name “—Zachal.” Her wrist twinged.

“My pleasure.” His tongue flickered out to taste the air. “Good hunting.”