Night time fell quick and sudden. Used to the gradual dimming of the underground daybulbs, Lilith was unprepared for the sun’s plunging descent into the horizon. Out here the bare plains were shrouded in darkness—behind her, Tulkan was a soft glow muted by the city walls. She hugged herself and kept walking, head up, scanning her surroundings. In the pit of her stomach was that terrible childish certainty that monsters were lurking in the shadows. Lilith squelched the urge to turn around and go back.
But the night brought with it unexpected comforts: the cooler air reminded Lilith of the climate underground, and with the sky so black it was easy to pretend that she was walking through one of the Lower Halls near the Prime Minister’s headquarters, where small artificial lights glowed softly in the evenings. Stars, they were called. She wondered whether the twinkling lights in the sky shared the same name.
She kept walking until her feet began to ache in protest and every other step was punctuated by a loud yawn. Ignoring the faint rumblings of her stomach, Lilith tried to decide where to settle for the night, but as far as she could see the landscape was unchanging, all scraggly needle-sharp trees and large rocks.
It was then that Lilith realised she was being followed.
The surge of adrenaline made her hands tremble. She kept walking, listening hard, her chest tight with alarm. There it was again: a faint scraping noise. It came from behind her.
A few steps ahead was a large stick on the ground. Lilith walked towards it, felt her heart pound with every step. When she reached it, she paused, bent down, pretended to tie her shoelace. She wrapped her fingers around the stick, hid her movements with the heavy folds of her cloak, mind racing. What infected could be following? A werewolf? A vampire? It didn’t matter. She’d aim for the head.
The moment the stick was firmly in her grasp, Lilith whirled around and ran forward, brandishing her makeshift weapon and screaming at the top of her lungs. Her stalker was crouched behind her, half-hidden behind a large rock. It fell to the ground, curled up, and Lilith’s pace faltered. She strode over the last few steps, waving her stick threateningly to frighten the infected off.
“Don’t hurt me,” the creature whined, cowering into the ground. It looked pathetic.
Lilith lowered the stick but kept her grip tight. “Who are you and why are you following me?” she demanded.
At the sound of her voice, the creature stopped cowering and peered up. “Girl? From the hotel?” It pushed back its hood, and Lilith recognised the reptilian features.
“Sla’ik?” Her grip relaxed; at least she was facing a known quantity. “Why are you following me?”
The ewte looked around. “Where’s your friend?”
“Oh, I got bored of waiting for him,” Lilith replied flippantly, adding just the right touch of nonchalance to make the lie convincing. “I’m heading back to the pack by myself.”
Sla’ik bared a row of tiny, sharp teeth in the semblance of a smile and stood up, dusting off the dirt. “Good thing I found you, then. You’re going the wrong way.”
Lilith frowned. “No, I’m not. I have directions.”
“The pack moved early this morning. They’re about a day’s walk east. They’re near the river now.”
How could Sla’ik tell which way east was, without signs? Lilith put the question away for later. She looked the infected up and down, suspicious; a petty criminal wouldn’t offer help without reason. “How do you know they’ve moved?”
Sla’ik shifted side to side. “News travels fast.”
“Really?” Lilith put both hands on her hips. The fang swung free of the cloak with the movement, and Sla’ik’s eyes were instantly riveted on it. “Tell me the truth!” she demanded, hardening her voice.
Sla’ik cringed away, the words tumbling out. “The Snake found out this afternoon that the pack has moved to just off the north-eastern road!”
“The Snake? You mean Zachal?” Lilith rubbed the scar on her wrist. Zachal seemed well-connected, a much more reliable source than Sla’ik. She looked at the cringing reptile and felt a rush of guilt. “It’s okay, I believe you.”
Sla’ik straightened slowly, darting small glances her way. “’Course you do.”
If the infected chose not to believe her, that wasn’t her problem. Lilith made her way over to one of the larger rocks. She sat down and leaned against it, wrapping her cloak around her to ward off the cold breeze. Sla’ik watched her, then settled down nearby.
“Not following me, huh?” she said.
Even ewtes shrugged. “Safer to camp together.”
When she didn’t reply, Sla’ik turned away and began digging into the ground. Every so often the ewte sifted a pile of loose dirt through long, webbed fingers that seemed better suited to water than land. A headshake, then Sla’ik moved a few steps to the side and began digging anew.
Lilith watched cautiously. “What are you doing?”
A flash of sharp teeth, more a grimace than a smile. “Dinner. Insects.”
Lilith glanced around, picked up a few rocks until she saw something squirming in the soil. She reached and picked it up, long and wriggling—a worm. It had been years since she’d last held one in her hands, since the idyllic summers when she was barely more than a toddler and her father had taken her fishing. She remembered staring down into her father’s tackle-box at the writhing long bodies with fascinated revulsion. The lake had stretched out for miles, the rocks moss-soft under her feet. Her father had waded out into the water with his trousers rolled up, fishing rod in one hand, and she’d made small castles out of pebbles.
When Lilith shook herself free of the memory she realised she was crushing the worm between her fingers. She loosened her grip and held it out towards Sla’ik. “Want this?” she asked.
“What do you want for it?” Sla’ik replied, eyes thin and shining.
“I’ll trade ya.” Sla’ik reached into a pocket and took out a cloth bag, pulling open the strings. “Bread. Food for food. A fair trade.” The ewte waved the bag. “Deal?”
Lilith’s stomach rumbled. “Deal.”
Sla’ik dumped the bag in her lap and snatched the worm, snapping it up with relish. Lilith turned away in disgust, reached into the bag Sla’ik had thrown her and pulled out the bread. It was hard and flat, barely worthy of a Middler Haller, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. Speaking of which. . . .
Lilith brushed away the crumbs. “The new location of the pack,” she said. “Is it difficult to find?”
Sla’ik’s fingers were idly scrapping the ground. At her question, the ewte straightened. “It’s not a difficult path. I pass by the gorge on my way home.”
Lilith thought quickly. She was much more likely to pass as an infected if she travelled with one. “Are you on your way home?” she asked.
“Yeah.” Sla’ik tapped a hand against the metal tank on his chest. “I’m sick of bottled water.”
Lilith nodded, let the moment pass as she planned her next steps. If there was one thing she was good at, it was lying, and she couldn’t let the ewte guess how important her next request was. She kept her voice as cool as the breeze. “How about another deal?”
Sla’ik leaned forward, eager, and Lilith knew she already had the upper hand. “Deal? ‘Course, us ewtes’re always on the lookout for deals.”
“You guide me safely to the pack, and I compensate you for your time.”
The ewte took a deep breath, considering, and the water in the metal tank gurgled in the silence. “Compensate how?”
“In rebels, what else?”
“A hundred,” Sla’ik said.
It was within her price range: Bryan had given Lilith two hundred rebels, but from the little she knew of Sla’ik she suspected the price was an outrageous one. But how much should she offer? She had no clue what one rebel was worth.
“Seventy,” she guessed, keeping her face hard and expressionless. “Half now, half when we get there.”
Sla’ik scoffed. “Ninety-five.”
“Ninety, and that’s the lowest I’ll go.”
“Eighty,” Lilith replied. “And you don’t tell anyone about me.”
A headshake. “Eighty? You gotta be kidding.”
“Do you want the money or not?”
Sla’ik sighed, rubbed a wrist. “I guess it’ll have to be enough. For a friend, mind.”
Friend? Nonsense. Lilith nodded. “Deal.” She turned aside and pulled out the money in her pocket, squinting at the numbers. The money was thick and smooth in her hands as she counted off the right amount—it looked fake, like something out of one of her board games back home.
“Here,” she said, turning to Sla’ik and holding out forty rebels. “The first half.”
Sla’ik counted and pocketed the money quickly. He looked too content—Lilith suspected she’d overpaid him but it was too late to haggle further. She lay down on her side and curled up into a ball, determined to catch some sleep. Sla’ik remained upright, staring off into the horizon.
Right before a wave of sleep fully overtook her, Lilith felt Sla’ik glance at her. “Safe passage, eh?” the ewte said quietly. “Pity.”