The midday sun beat down on werewolf and girl alike, withering the plants, sucking every last ounce of moisture from the air. Great clouds of dusty red soil swirled upwards with every beat of the werewolf’s paws, and within minutes Lilith’s cheeks were stinging from the heat and the flecks of grit in the air. She pressed closer to his fur, feeling every bump and bounce, certain she would soon fall.
“Hey!” The wind tore the word out of her mouth. “Hey you! Slow down!”
No response. Lilith squinted ahead and saw nothing but open land. A quick glance over her shoulder confirmed her suspicions: they were going the wrong way. She tugged on the side of Wolf’s neck, trying to steer him towards the cliffs, but either he could not feel what she was doing, or he was ignoring her.
“Turn around! You’re going the wrong way!”
Wolf flicked back an ear but didn’t stop running. With every passing moment the theatre—and her only way back home—faded further into the distance. Unless she wanted to remain stranded in the middle of nowhere, it was time for drastic measures. Lilith took a deep breath; this was going to hurt.
She let go of Wolf’s neck, immediately felt herself begin to slip backwards. There was no time to think: Lilith threw herself sideways and saw the ground rush up to meet her. Her eyes squeezed shut as she hit the ground. The air was kicked out of her, dust rising in a cloud as she tumbled across the sandy soil. It took a moment for Lilith to realise she had stopped rolling. Dirt choked the inside of her nose and mouth, and her head was still spinning, struggling to catch up. She kept still, winded. Her shoulder ached and the oppressive heat of the sun made it almost impossible to move. A tall shrub obstructed her line of sight, yet she could feel Wolf looming.
Flex the right leg, then the left. Her fingers curled into the dirt, her shoulders rolled obligingly. Nothing broken. Lilith sat up carefully. Her clothes were streaked with red dust and her palms were stinging. She wiped her hands on her jeans, then stood up slowly, legs trembling. She forced herself to turn around and say, “I asked you to take me home.”
The werewolf ignored her—didn’t understand, more likely. He stood still, ears pricked forward, tail up, staring warily in the direction from which they had come. A vast expanse of barren earth separated them from the theatre, its domed roof reflecting the sunlight. At this distance the building was no longer impressive; it was not, as Lilith had initially thought, reaching towards the sky. Instead it huddled at the base of the cliff face, cowering into the ground.
The enormity of the situation all of a sudden struck Lilith, and she turned on the spot, taking in her surroundings. This was unchartered territory, the heart of wilderness: the land stretched out uninterrupted in every direction, the sky above was a flat, endless blue. Other than Wolf, the only signs of life were the sturdy shrubs clinging grimly to the soil, their sharply-toothed leaves distinctly unfriendly. In all her daydreams of life above ground, Lilith had never pictured this—the emptiness—and somehow that emptiness was worse than anything she could have imagined. A longing for home struck her, so deep and fierce that she had to bite her lip lest the emotion overtake her.
“I’m going back,” she said, more confidently than she felt. “Whether you like it or not.”
The werewolf was still, not even the finest of breezes ruffling his grey fur. He looked as if he had been placed there by the gods, as a warning and a reminder to any humans who strayed out into the sunlight. That Lilith and the wolf shared a common ancestor somewhere in the distant past seemed an impossible feat, and yet he, too, must have been human once. When Lilith thought of the tiny scrap of humanity locked somewhere inside the creature before her, her stomach threatened to betray her. But she had the vaccine; she was safe.
One step towards the theatre, then the guilt settled in that she had a home to return to, while Wolf had nothing. Lilith looked over her shoulder into Wolf’s round grey eyes. “Thanks,” she said, awkward. “For saving me, I mean. I won’t forget it.”
He didn’t respond, not that she expected him to.
She nodded one final time, more for her sake than his, and began to walk back towards the theatre. But she had barely taken ten steps when a staccato outburst of gunfire halted her in her tracks.
A second round of shots, then a third. Then a long ominous silence. Lilith shaded her eyes, squinting, but could see no signs of movement. The seconds crawled past as she hesitated, afraid of being caught in the crossfire.
And then came another sound: the rhythmic thwack-thwack of rotating blades. A section of the cliff face behind the theatre yawned open, and a machine rose out from the dark mouth, up into the air.
“That . . . that’s a copter,” Lilith said slowly, disbelieving, for she had only ever seen toy models of the aircraft before, and it had not prepared her for the sound or the smoothness of its movements. It glided across the open sky as if it relished the emptiness rather than despise it. The thought struck Lilith that the copter had to have a pilot, and the pilot had to be human, and a tremor of excitement and relief quivered in her heart. She turned to the werewolf and saw that he, too, had had the same thought.
The moment of kinship passed and Lilith turned away, disturbed. She began to jump up and down, begging the pilot to notice. “Help! Over here!” she called, waving her arms wildly. “Over here!”
Wolf was growling, deep and low in his throat, but Lilith didn’t care: she was going home.
The copter swung around almost immediately, turning smoothly in the air, its nose dipping as it sped towards them. Lilith cheered and kept waving her arms, already picturing everyone’s faces when she told them of her adventure. None of her classmates would believe it, and Emma would—
Lilith’s arms dropped to her sides. Emma would do nothing. Emma was dead.
The thought didn’t seem real. It couldn’t be real. If she had escaped from the theatre on the back of a supposedly wild and violent creature, surely other miracles could happen. Surely Emma was safely ensconced underground, waiting for her return.
A loud bark jerked Lilith back to the present. She glanced over her shoulder in time to see Wolf lunging towards her with bared teeth. A scream ripped out of her throat as she threw herself forward. Wolf’s teeth only just missed her neck, closing instead on the hood of her jumper.
The next second her collar was pulled tight around her neck and she was moving, her feet dragging against the ground. Wolf was pulling her after him, his neck twisted awkwardly to one side. Her head thumped against his leg as he ran, her feet kicking futilely at the sand as the copter drew closer.
And Wolf . . . Wolf was dragging her away from the copter. He didn’t want her to go home, that was it. Spurred into action, Lilith scrabbled at the zip of her hoodie, struggling to take it off. “Put me down!” she gasped. “Let me go!”
Wolf ignored her, but his grip on her hood was weakening as the material began to tear. She held the collar away from her throat, dragging her heels against the ground, swinging her body as much as she could to try pull out of Wolf’s grasp.
The hood ripped and Lilith once more found herself tumbling across the sand. She leapt to her feet, shaded her eyes and saw that the copter was almost upon them.
“Over here!” she yelled, sprinting towards the copter with Wolf in pursuit. “Help!”
Wolf knocked her to the ground just as the copter opened fire.
Bullets spat out from under the nose of the copter, thudding into the sand, raising a long line of red dust. Wolf crouched over her, tail tucked against his belly, paws on either side of Lilith’s head. She breathed in the smell of him, the sharp muskiness, and for a moment allowed herself to feel safe.
Then the copter was turning around, coming back towards them, and Wolf urged her to stand and climb onto his back. She’d barely sunk her fingers into his fur when he was off again, running straight at the copter, weaving from side to side as the bullets rained down.
The copter passed over them again, the drone of its engines near-deafening as Lilith clutched on to Wolf, bouncing roughly against him with every leap. She glanced back to see the copter flying laterally, twisting towards them, nose in the air as it regained altitude. If only there was a way to contact the pilot, to tell him she was human . . . .
But the copter was coming towards them again. Wolf put on a burst of speed, yet no animal could outrun a machine. In seconds it would be over, and Lilith felt the anger well up that she would die out here, forgotten, unknown, one more body amongst many.
Then the impossible happened: the copter slowed, spiralling off to one side, floating almost gently towards the ground. It rapidly picked up speed, twisting, spinning—the engine had failed!
Wolf skidded to a stop, almost throwing Lilith off, his sides heaving as they watched the copter fall. It skimmed lower, whispering against the sand, then the tips of its blades hit the ground and the copter crashed, churning up clods of dirt and debris.
For a long moment Lilith was silent, staring at the wreckage. When Wolf turned and began to run away from the theatre, she hunched down, clinging grimly onto his fur. They left the copter far behind, clouds of grey smoke rising into the empty sky.