Chapter 18

“Wake up, girl,” a voice whispered in her ear. “Wake up.” A hand wrapped around her shoulder and shook her gently.

Lilith blinked groggily, then bolted to her feet when she remembered where she was. The sun was already burning fiercely, making her eyes sting and water. In either direction was a vast empty stretch of land studded by trees only slightly taller than her; now in the daylight Lilith could see the branches were covered by sharp green needles. Even the scattered outcroppings of rocks looked sharp and jagged—the landscape above ground was as aggressive as its inhabitants.

Sla’ik was half-crouched beside her, eyes wide with surprise, one hand still outstretched. The ewte had touched her. Lilith’s skin crawled with the memory and she had to fight down a sudden surge of nausea. The vaccine still protected her, but it wouldn’t last forever; she’d have to be careful if she didn’t want to end up an infected herself. What if she was already tainted? The thought tugged on the edges of Lilith’s mind, and for a moment she was certain there was something she was forgetting. Yet she came up blank.

“Let’s go,” Sla’ik said, straightening, “before the sun gets higher.”

Lilith nodded and stood, stretching, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. Her stomach rumbled; even the flat bread from the previous night would have now been welcome. And she was thirsty, too, her throat thick and dry with every swallow.

“How much further?” she asked as they began to walk.

“Should get there by mid-afternoon.” Sla’ik turned off the small trail she’d been following and struck out through the unmarked red dirt. “Most folks take longer,” the ewte said, “but ‘course I know shortcuts. You’re lucky to have me.”

Lilith agreed noncommittally, senses on full alert—she couldn’t discount the possibility that Sla’ik was leading her astray. She scanned her surroundings for landmarks. There were mountains on the horizon ahead of her, and behind her was a small smudge that she assumed was Tulkan. If only she had a compass! She had never gone orienteering without her kit. Underground, at least, she could have marked the cave walls. Here there was nothing but the crumbling red dirt beneath her feet, and scattered trees and rocks.

She stared at the trees, wondering what could grow out here in the wild, without government caretakers. Despite all odds the land seemed to be getting greener the further they walked, the trees thicker, and soon there were even small hardy bushes with tough, long oval leaves. If anything, that was a clear indication they were heading towards water, and that Sla’ik was being honest. All she had to do was keep an eye on her surroundings. After all, Sla’ik wouldn’t betray her, right?

The sun was high in the sky by the time they came upon a larger, well-worn trail. Sla’ik corrected his course to follow it. Lilith kept pace with him, immediately more comfortable. A trail had to lead somewhere. If they encountered anyone, she would just pull her hood back on and keep her head down.

Lilith fingered the rough material of her cloak and wondered whether to pull the hood up now as a precaution. But she was already hot as it was, her throat dry, her clothes stifling. How Sla’ik kept entirely covered up was beyond her. Even the red dirt beneath her feet was dry and powdery, raising up in small clouds as she walked, streaking the bottom of her cloak. She looked back the way they had come, then frowned when she realised there was only one set of footprints—hers. Sla’ik’s tail swished back and forth with each step, erasing all signs of the etwe’s passage.

Lilith pushed her cloak further off her shoulders to let it drag on the ground behind her. When she looked back a second time, her trail of footsteps was gone. As if I never passed through here, she thought, momentarily delighted. Then she remembered the stories of people vanishing above ground and her mood plummeted. It would be so easy for her to disappear and never return home.

Sla’ik stopped abruptly. The ewte peered into the distance, pushing back the cloak’s hood to get a better view. Then Sla’ik let out a frightened squeak and pushed her off the trail, towards a clump of bushes. “Quick, quick!”

She resisted, staring down the trail to see what had frightened the ewte. There! People approaching, a large group of them. Not people, she remembered, her gut tightening, infected. “Who are they?”Watch Full Movie Online Streaming Online and Download

Sla’ik looked grim. “Slavers.”

After that she let Sla’ik lead her off of the trail. They crouched down behind a semicircle of bushes that was growing nearby. It was such pitiful cover, but there was nothing else. She squinted through the sharp-edged, waxy leaves, but couldn’t discern much. They were coming closer.

Slavers. It was a childhood nightmare made real—everyone had heard the stories of young children kidnapped and forced to work deep underground, below even the lowest of halls, digging and carving as they wasted away. And those were underground slavers. Who knew what infected slavers would have in store?

As the slavers approached, Sla’ik tensed, almost coiled to jump. For a brief horrifying moment, Lilith was sure the ewte was going to jump out onto the trail and sell her out. But he only shifted, clutching his right wrist as if in pain. He breathed shallowly and relaxed his body, only then releasing his tight grip on his arm. Lilith didn’t ask, afraid to make any noise that would give their position away. Still, she kept an eye on Sla’ik, preparing herself for the worst.

There were four slavers in total: two in the front and two in the back, with a row of slaves chained together between them. The slaver leading the group looked a lot like Sla’ik, lizard-like in appearance. But as he walked past, Lilith noticed several differences. His skin was rougher, scalier, and as he walked his cloak flapped open to reveal a bare chest; he didn’t need a water tank like Sla’ik, either.

Walking next to the lizard was a woman with four arms, her features and skin oddly dark, her black eyes round and unblinking. The white of her eyes was either hidden or missing. “I could’ve sworn I saw someone,” she muttered, peering around suspiciously.

“That’s because your eyesight’s shit,” the lizard snapped back. He tugged sharply on the chain in his hand, sneering when the slaves in the front stumbled forward.

Lilith shivered. The slaves were all wearing ragged clothing, not one cloak amongst them. There were eight of them in total, chained together in a line, six boys and two girls. None of them looked infected. Their faces and bodies were human; tired and gaunt, but human nonetheless. Perhaps they were all weres, Lilith reasoned, although from the dull gazes she did manage to see, none of them had a tinge of animal in their eyes. Was there another type of infected she hadn’t heard of, that outwardly looked entirely human? It seemed unlikely.

The slaves shuffled past, the two slavers at the back bringing up the rear. Both of them were definitely weres, they had the lithe, quick movements she had noticed in Wolf, as if a great store of energy was bottled up inside. They did not speak to each other, content to poke and prod the slaves at the end of the line if they moved too slowly.

The line of slavers moved past them, then, slowly, the shuffling of feet grew fainter and fainter. Sla’ik poked his head out of the bushes cautiously. Then he stepped back on to the trail and beckoned her out on to the path. They resumed walking. Lilith glanced behind her, but the slavers were out of sight.

She turned to Sla’ik, curious. “Those slaves. They all looked—” she stopped herself from saying ‘normal’ just in time “—like blands.”

His head twitched towards hers briefly. “What else would they be?”

Lilith picked her words carefully. “I didn’t realize that slavers could sneak underground and catch them.”

“They can’t!” Sla’ik laughed, a series of excited yelps. “Half of those slaves probably came above ground themselves, hoping to become Affected. Some kind of superhero delusions.” He shook his head. “As if that would work.”

Though her mind was reeling, Lilith restrained from asking any further questions. It was safer to keep her utter ignorance a secret. In the hotel, Sla’ik had said the dust—the substance that had irrevocably altered the infected—was in the air, not the blood. Yet now he was suggesting that, despite prolonged exposure to unfiltered air, there was no risk of becoming infected. It was a reassuring thought, but it contradicted what she had been told her whole life: those who spent more than a week above ground were bound to become infected. She didn’t particularly want to test the theory.

Sla’ik was peering behind them with an almost longing expression on his face, rubbing his right wrist absent-mindedly.

Lilith wondered what the going rate was for slaves. Didn’t prices tend to soar quite high? Yet Sla’ik had made no attempt to take advantage of the situation, to hand her over to the slavers. He really mustn’t have any suspicions of her humanity, Lilith concluded, smug.

They didn’t encounter anyone else on the trail, and continued walking until the sun was a fiery ball directly above them. Lilith copied Sla’ik and kept her hood up, covering her face, uncomfortably hot. Her tongue felt dry and heavy in her mouth, her throat scratchy. She seemed to be faring better than Sla’ik, though; he was breathing quite quickly, the water in his tank gurgling as it travelled through the pipes in an endless loop.

The ground beneath their feet began, slowly but surely, to slope downwards. She stumbled several times as she made her way down the slope, the rocks loose and slippery beneath her feet.

The rushing of water came from ahead; the sound made her mouth feel even drier. Tall, lush trees rose on either side of them, offering much-needed shade. They were, Lilith realised, in the gorge Sla’ik had mentioned. The pack would be close by. She glanced around. There was no sign of any weres in either direction, but the vegetation was rather thick.

Eventually they reached the bottom of the ravine. The river lay just ahead, the surface rippling and churning, surprisingly pale in the sunlight. Sla’ik dropped to his knees by the side of the river to refill his tank. Lilith followed his example, crouching down a few steps away to drink some water. The water was cold, burned a line through her chest and sat heavily in her empty stomach. She drank her fill, then washed her face and arms.

When he finished replenishing his water supply, Sla’ik stood, pointed upstream. “The pack is camping in that direction.” Then he looked away, to the left. “The lake is further on.”

“Okay,” Lilith replied, taking a step in the direction he had indicated. She paused when Sla’ik didn’t move. “You’re not coming with me?”

Sla’ik shook his head. “I’ve done my part. For the rest of the way you’re on your own.” Her scowl didn’t affect him. “You can’t really expect me to take you all the way there. They’d kill me!”

“And you’d think I’d stand by and let them?”

He looked her up and down, deliberately assessing. “A cub like you? All bark and no bite.”

There was little point in arguing. She gave him the rest of the money and watched him walk away eagerly. Damn ewtes, she found herself thinking. They only care about money. Then Lilith realised the infected stereotypes were rubbing off on her and her mood soured. When had she begun to think of Sla’ik as something slightly more than an animal, something almost human?

Lilith had just enough time to scowl before she was pulled backwards, a hand wrapped tightly around her neck.

One response to “Chapter 18”

  1. Kunama says:

    “After that she let Sla’ik to lead her off of the trail.”
    to lead -> lead

    The bit where she thinks he’s so sure of her identity.. it feels kind of out of place. Not sure why.