The sun burned high overhead, unrelenting and unfamiliar against Lilith’s pale cheeks. She sat still in the middle of the clearing, alone, abandoned by Silver once again. The shade under the trees taunted her, but she could not summon the courage to move into the safety of the shadows, not with every werewolf in the pack watching her.
And they were watching her, of that she was sure. Al had made her position clear: she was a prisoner until he decided otherwise. One false move towards the edges of the clearing, and the wolves would tear her apart.
Lilith bent her head and pretended to study the grass. Her predicament was Silver’s fault: he had saved her, he had told her how to find the pack, and now he had left her alone to fend off his wild friends. The nagging . . . attraction—and how it stung her to admit that word!—was little more than hero worship, or lust for the unknown. She was starting university in the autumn, dammit; she was old enough to know better.
Lilith rubbed a blade of grass between her fingertips. It was rough-ridged and tore easily, quite unlike the synthgrass underground. Her feelings were a liability; it was better to deal with Al directly. She would plead her case with him, feed him a family sob story he was sure to swallow, and arrange for an escort back home—assuming she survived her next werewolf encounter, that was.
Scar was approaching her, casting furtive glances around the clearing. Lilith followed his gaze, noticed that Silver and Al were missing, and that Amber was deep in conversation with Rae and two other werewolves she didn’t recognise. It couldn’t be a coincidence.
He edged closer, ran a hand through the short, mousy hair that did little to hide the largeness of his ears. His arms and face were freckled, and his eyebrows were furrowed tightly together, etching three deep lines into his forehead.
“You should leave,” he informed her as soon as he was within speaking distance, quite simply and to the point. “Humans and werekin don’t mix.”
Lilith half-shrugged, uncomfortable. “Al told me to stay.”
Scar flinched, as if Al’s name alone frightened him. He caught the reaction and took a step closer, sneering. “Forget Silver,” he said. “He belongs to another.”
It wasn’t a long stretch to realise that person was Amber. Lilith pushed down the resentment, and nodded. “I know.”
“You know?” He shook his head. “No you don’t. You can’t know about Kara.”
“Kara?” Was that the other female werewolf with Amber and Rae? She looked timid, her shoulders hunched, eyes hidden by a thick straight-edged fringe. No spark or fight in her, none of the vitality that Silver would want. Lilith stood up to better confront Scar. “Kara who?”
“She’ll be back soon,” Scar continued, losing his initial nervousness with each word, as if Kara’s memory alone could strengthen him. “Kara told me. Said to wait for her. To keep an eye on Silver.”
By now, Scar had lost all pretence of furtiveness, glaring, his fists clenching and unclenching. If it came to a fight, she would lose. Instead Lilith looked at Amber, was relieved when the werewolf came to stand between them.
“Back off, Scar,” Amber said. “She’s Silver’s friend”
He bristled. “She’s human.”
“Silver can have as many non-pack friends as he wants.”
The sneer on Scar’s face grew more pronounced, even as his shoulders hunched defensively. “Only as long as the alpha allows it,” he said.
Amber was all of a sudden furious. She bared her teeth and walked right up to Scar’s face, a low growl punctuating her movements. “Al isn’t going anywhere,” she said flatly.
Despite being the taller of the two, it was who Scar backed off, hands in the air. As he sat down near Rae, he looked at Lilith over his shoulder. He didn’t open his mouth, but his expression said it all.
Amber turned to face Lilith. Her nostrils were flaring and her jaw was clenched so tightly it trembled. “Why don’t we go for a walk?”
It was more demand than suggestion. Lilith nodded her assent, fell into step beside Amber with a twinge of concern. She trusted Amber more than she trusted Scar and Rae, but that didn’t mean much. Still, a respite from the constant sunshine would be a welcome relief, and there was always the slimmest chance that she could give Amber the slip and make her own way underground.
Amber did not speak until they were several minutes’ walk from the clearing, heading towards the riverbank. When she spoke, all she said was: “Is it true?”
The dappled sunlight streaked Amber’s hair with fiery gold. Lilith looked at her, at the pale flecks in her hazel eyes. “Is what true?”
“That you did something to Silver.” Amber stopped walking. “Rae thinks you’re a renegade witch, but Al wouldn’t have let you stay if you were. Either way, ever since he met you, Silver’s been acting strangely.” Her expression turned fierce. “Just so you know, anyone messing with Silver is messing with me.”
“I’m not messing with him,” Lilith snapped. She took a deep breath, dug her nails into her palm to bring the emotions under control. “I didn’t ask to be in this situation,” she said, calmer now. “Silver helped me, saved my life. I haven’t done a thing to him.”
Amber studied her. “Good. Just so we’re on the same page.” Then she stepped over a large, gnarled tree root, all traces of aggression wiped from her expression. “Come on, we’re almost at the river. Between us girls, you could do with a wash.”
Lilith looked down at her clothes and winced. Twenty-four hours above ground had taken their toll: she was streaked in dust and mud, and the skin of her forearms was red and slightly tender. And her mouth felt grimy too; her tongue thick and dry, sand grating between her teeth.
She hurried forward as the burbling of the river grew louder, dropping to her knees by the water. Lilith slipped off her phone and dipped her hands without thinking, then yelped at the cold.
“Do what you can,” Amber said, amused. “Hopefully we’ll stop by Rivton tomorrow for a proper shower.”
Lilith dipped her hands a second time, cautiously. No wonder the werewolves were such a ragged group, if this was their main source of water. She wet her forearms, then braced herself and washed her face. Nothing could be done about her clothes.
“Amber,” Lilith began slowly, after she had rinsed her mouth and rubbed at her teeth with a fingertip, “What can you tell me about the WPL?”
Amber didn’t reply for a moment, staring down at the rippling water. “They’re the Witches’ Protection League,” she said, finally. “An extremist coven who want to kill or enslave all werekin.” Her smile was small and wry. “They hate us, but our blood makes their spells stronger. They hate that they need us.
“We—me, Al, the rest of the pack—we’re here to stop them. We keep them contained in Tulkan, stop them from sending missionaries to other covens. Run interference where we can. Otherwise they’d have the entire fief under their thumb.”
Amber sank down onto the riverbank beside Lilith. “It’s why they raped Vera. Our pack is fragile as it is; if we lose our alpha, we’ll probably split up.”
“Divide and conquer,” Lilith nodded.
“Exactly.” Amber sighed. “I can only hope that Vera’s child is a werekin, for all our sakes.” She turned wistful. “I’ve always wanted a baby.”
Lilith nodded again, but her thoughts had already turned to more practical matters. It was too dangerous to pretend being a witch, that much was clear, although being human gave her very little bargaining power. She toyed with her phone, ran a finger across the screen with little hope. It didn’t respond.
“You should bury that,” Amber said, pointing at the phone. “If you’re going to mask as a sipid, that is.”
Lilith froze. “Excuse me?”
Amber raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t think I knew you were a bland? Everything about you gives it away. If you’re going to survive, you’ll need a cover story, and to look the part. Here,” she said, taking Lilith’s phone. With a casual flick, the phone arced through the air and landed in the water. It sank slowly as it was dragged downstream.
“Hey!” Lilith scrambled to her feet, took several steps along the riverbank before realising it was pointless. Her wrist felt bare; a piece of her had been taken away.
“Electrical stuff doesn’t work above ground,” Amber said with a shrug. “You’ll get over it.” She stood, too, and looked Lilith up and down. “Clothes we’ll have to replace later. And nothing but time can fix your skin.”
Lilith crossed her arms, self-conscious. Her fingers brushed against her inside wrist, and she winced. The cut the Snake had given her was still swollen and tender. If she wasn’t careful, the wound would get infected.
Infected. The word brought with it a cold wave of fear. What if this cut was enough? The inoculation lasted only another 48 hours. If she wasn’t underground by then, would she, too, mutate? Or was it too late already?
“What’s wrong?” Amber stepped closer. “Let me see your wrist.” With delicate, hesitant fingers, Amber examined the cut. Lilith scrutinised Amber’s face for even the faintest flicker of emotion, but all Amber did was purse her lips thoughtfully. “Be more careful next time,” she said. “You don’t want any more of these.”
“Why not? Silver didn’t tell me anything,” Lilith added, a touch petulant.
Amber looked uncertain. “The less you know, the better.” She ushered Lilith away from the riverbank. “Come, let’s head back to the others. Al should be back by now.”
Lilith walked in silence back to the clearing, anxiety mounting with every step. By now Al would have made a decision about her. And judging from Silver’s scowling expression the last time they’d spoken, it wouldn’t be good.