Lilith only dared sit up when Wolf’s pace slowed to a gentle trot. She dug one hand into the thick fur of his neck, raising the other to shield her eyes from the sunlight. A city loomed ahead, tall square buildings stabbing the sky. It was ringed by a stone wall, intimidating and unfriendly, the smooth grey surface curving out of sight.
An over ground city. It should have been impossible. Where had all the stone and concrete come from? The infected were savages; they didn’t have the technology to build a settlement of this size. It had to be a human establishment. With that thought came a measure of hope: perhaps Wolf was taking her to safety after all.
Two hooded men were standing guard at the city gates, their stiff postures indicative of authority. Lilith straightened, planning her speech and what lies she would tell, a half-terrified excitement building in her chest. How much should she say about the theatre? How could she explain her arrival on the back of a werewolf? The helicopter crash was best left unmentioned.
Oblivious to her planning, Wolf trotted straight through the gates, right past the guards who stood there unresponsive. Lilith caught a glimpse of yellow eyes, of scaled skin, and with a flash of horror realised they weren’t entering a human city. This city . . . this place was overrun with infected.
She had no time to protest before they were enveloped by a hubbub of noise. Buildings rose out of the ground like weeds, twisted and broken but enduring, concrete monstrosities cheek-to-jowl with low-stoned constructions of baked mud. Either side of the street was lined with temporary stalls, merchants hawking their wares in cajoling tones. There seemed to be no common thread between one stall and the next: a rock-man with dull grey skin was selling unfamiliar hardware next to a cloaked figure holding tiny glass vials of blood.
The air was choked with dust and spices, the underlying bittersweet smell of sweat reminiscent of the squalor in the Upper Halls. As far as the eye could see were throngs of cloaked figures hurrying to and fro, heads down, steps sharp with big-city impatience. But there was something else at play here, too: the tension in the air was enough to push Lilith down against Wolf’s fur as she made herself as small a target as possible. In tight jeans and a long-sleeved hoodie, she could not have been more out of place; most of the infected were wearing long flowing cloaks with the hoods pulled up, masking their intentions. Any second one of them would realise what she was. And then . . . .
Then they would kill her.
Wolf shared none of her concerns. He trotted forward until they were closed in from all sides, letting the crowd carry them further away from the city gates. There was nothing she could do. Lilith pulled her hood up and grimly hoped Wolf knew what he was doing.
Eventually they turned down a reassuringly narrow side street, with buildings that leaned toward each other as if to block out the overwhelming emptiness of the sky. It was cooler here in the shadows, and quieter too, the cacophony of the market fading into a distant drone.
Wolf stopped, twitched impatiently until she slid off his back. Then he continued walking, but at a slower pace, his head lifted to scan the buildings.
Lilith trailed after him, brushing the dust off her clothes as best she could. The street was paved with cobblestones and lines of washing were strung out overhead. For a moment she was startled by how normal everything looked, how human, but then she noticed the small details—the scratches in the walls, the glimpse of glowing eyes through the windows—and her pace quickened until she was right by Wolf’s side, close enough to brush her fingers against his fur.
Wolf stopped, cocked his head. His hind legs gathered beneath him. Then he sprung upwards and bit into a washing line, breaking the rope and bringing the laundry tumbling down. He looked at Lilith and pawed at the clothes.
“That’s men’s clothing,” she informed him tartly, glancing over the meagre selection. She’d look just as out of place wearing those.
He nodded, slowly and deliberately, as if the movement were not quite natural for him.
For him. Lilith frowned. Weren’t werekin able to disguise themselves as human? “You want these clothes for yourself?”
Another nod, this time followed by an impatient huff, his wide saucer eyes fixed on hers. There were other less friendly eyes watching, too: Lilith felt the tell-tale itch between her shoulder blades, the back of her neck prickling. Above their heads, the trailing ends of the clothes line swung feebly against the wall.
Lilith sighed and bent to gather the clothes. “Great,” she said. “Now I’m an accessory to theft.” She took a sleeveless white top and a pair of cotton trousers, folding the bundle in her arms. No socks or shoes; he’d have to go barefoot.
“Hey!” A middle-aged man wearing a white tunic emerged from a darkened doorway, brandishing a curved knife. His face was gaunt, his lower chin covered in stubble. “Give me my clothes back.”
Lilith froze, began to apologise, but Wolf stepped forward and growled lowly. The man’s eyes flicked between them, his knife wavering. Wolf’s growl thickened as he took another step closer, his tail straight, his eyes narrowed.
The man relented, his arm lowering. His gaze lingered on Lilith’s chest. “Wolf scum,” he said, turning his head to spit on to the pavement. He stomped back into the building before they could react.
Fear gave way to anger. “Bastard,” Lilith muttered, glaring at the empty doorway. How dare he insult her as if she were no better than any other infected? She looked nothing like Wolf or the scaly monstrosities guarding the city gates. She bottled up the emotions, satisfied with the knowledge that soon she’d return to the comforts of life underground while this man eked out his existence here. But as she followed Wolf down the street, a part of her wondered what it would be like if she never returned home at all.
Several streets later Wolf stopped again, this time outside of a tall, ugly building made of harsh angles and grey bricks. Instead of a door there was a large curved archway, and on one side was a crooked sign in a strange, curving script.
Lilith frowned, shifting the bundle in her arms. “In here?”
Wolf ducked through the archway in reply.
She hurried after him. The archway opened onto a rectangular reception room, bare save for a few chairs, some billboards along one wall, and a desk at the far end. Along the back wall were numbered rows of tiny hooks, from which hung identical dark metal keys. This place was a hotel, Lilith realised, pleased with the discovery. She could ask the staff for directions to the nearest police station and they would handle everything from there. Easy.
A tall hooded figure stood behind the reception desk. Shape-wise, it looked human: she could see the outline of wide shoulders and thickly muscled arms. Coupled with the broad-barrelled chest, it had the build of a soldier.
She joined Wolf by the desk and looked up into a cowl of darkness. “Hello?”
A long, forked tongue flicked out of the hood. “Yes?” The word had an odd, hissing quality, masculine in timbre, but at least it was comprehensible. “Would you like a room?”
“Actually I was hoping you could give me directions to—” A flash of white cut her short. Lilith looked out of the corner of her eye and saw Wolf’s muzzle right by her face, lips pulled back. All of her carefully planned speech vanished.
“A room?” the receptionist repeated, this time to Wolf.
Wolf nodded, then cocked his head toward the clothing in Lilith’s arms.
The receptionist walked over to the wall and selected a key. “Room 317,” he said. “Get dressed and come back to discuss payment.” He proffered the key to Lilith with a dark green hand that was muscular and covered in tiny scales. Lilith chanced a glance down and saw clawed feet and a thick tail peeking out from the hem of his cloak. She took the key and backed away, repressing a shudder as a thin snake-like tongue tasted the air in her wake.
The receptionist studied her, tilting his head. “Interesting.”
Wolf nudged Lilith towards the door on the far left, at the back of the room.
“You have twenty minutes,” the receptionist called after them.
The door opened onto a stairwell made of dark grey stone that had a colourless carpet running down the middle. The air was musty, the carpet worn thin by the tread of countless guests, and as they climbed up the stairs little clouds of dust circled at their feet. Lilith watched Wolf bound up ahead of her, vowing to get some answers from him somehow. There had to be a reason why he had brought her here, a plan to get her home safely. The sooner she knew the details, the better.
They climbed up to the third floor and pushed through the hallway door into a long, empty corridor. Room 317 was the fifth on the left. Wolf sat beside it and huffed impatiently.
She ignored him and held up the key. The technology was astoundingly simple—just a metal lock and key, no thumbscan required, exactly like the lock she’d had on her childhood diary, which she’d learnt to pick with a paperclip. Did the infected have no concept of security?
She wrestled with the lock for several minutes, the metal key refusing to turn. Finally the door swung open and Lilith hesitated on the threshold, dismayed. The room was bare, with only a double bed in the centre and a small desk in one corner. Directly opposite was a large window with mouldy purple curtains tied up on either side. Sunlight streamed in through the glass, spotlighting the swirling dance of dust motes in the air.
Wolf head-butted her and she stumbled further into the room, dropping the clothes on the floor.
“Hey!” she cried, turning around, but the word died in her throat at the sight of the man who’d replaced Wolf. No—not replaced—this was Wolf, looking so human it seemed impossible that he’d been a wolf mere seconds before. Her eyes were drawn to the large scar on his chest, which ran diagonally from his right shoulder down to his left hip, a line of thick, pale skin. Then she realised the full extent of his nudity and looked away, embarrassed. He had none of her shame, stooping calmly to collect his clothes. Only when Lilith heard the bathroom door close did she dare to look up from the ground. She sighed. What else could she expect from an animal?
But when he came out of the bathroom—dressed, thankfully, in the loose top and ill-fitting trousers—it was hard to remember he wasn’t human. His blond hair was tousled, and now that she could look without embarrassment, Lilith was startled to realise he had a rough good-looking charm . . . or he would, if he stopped scowling.
“I’ll just call the police,” Lilith said timidly, tapping at the phone strapped to her wrist, which doubled as a bracelet. The screen remained dark. She tapped again, then a third time. A frission of unease tightened her stomach. “Weird. It’s not working.”
“Too much magic,” Wolf replied flatly, scanning the room. He moved over to the window and untied one of the curtains, examining the leather cord. “It interferes with electronics. It’s why the copter crashed.” He tied several quick knots in the cord and held it out to her. “Put this on. Keep it visible.”
It was the first time she’d heard his voice. Lilith could only gape in reply. When Wolf repeated himself irritably, she made no move to take it. “So my phone’s dead?”
“Yes. So take this; it’ll mark you as a werewolf to others.” He walked closer, and now Lilith could see he’d turned the leather cord into a necklace, with a white pendant tied in the middle.
She turned her head away, crossed her arms, letting her hair form a barrier between them. “I’d rather not look like a werewolf, thanks.”
He thrust the necklace towards her. “Now.” His tone brooked no argument, the muscles in his arm tense.
Maybe she’d be able to get more answers if she appeased him. Lilith scowled, took the necklace and slipped it around her neck. The pendant was a fang the size of her pinkie. The cord felt soft around her neck. Lilith met his gaze and summoned the courage to speak. “You saved my life.” For some reason the words sounded like an accusation.
He looked annoyed. “You wanted to die?”
“No! I mean, I’m glad you did.” She shifted nervously; this wasn’t how she’d imagined her first conversation with an infected. “It’s just there were a lot of other people there.” Like Emma, she thought, swallowing hard.
“Don’t ask stupid questions.”
There was an awkward silence. Wolf leaned against the desk, crossed his arms and closed his eyes, as if he could not bear the sight of her. He was frowning, and with every passing moment the wrinkle between his eyebrows deepened.
Lilith sank down onto the bed, cringing when the mattress creaked loudly. “So,” she said hesitantly when it became clear Wolf would not speak first. “Where are we?”
That meant nothing. “Tulkan?”
“An overground city.” Every syllable was clipped and his eyes were still closed, as if she would disappear if he ignored her hard enough.
“Yeah, I got that,” she replied, struggling to rein in her temper. “I meant where as in, how the hell do you expect me to get home from here.”
He opened his eyes and gave her a slow, disapproving once over. “I don’t.”
Enough was enough. She stood up, not caring when the mattress protested loudly. “Look, if you don’t want to take me to the police, that’s fine. I’ll go alone.” Despite the strong words, uncertainty seeped into her voice. “Just tell me what street the nearest police station is on.”
He blinked slowly. “There are no streets in Tulkan.”
“Well, give me directions then,” she snapped back.
A smirk. “There are no police.”
“What the hell do you expect me to do then? You were supposed to rescue me, not bring me to this godforsaken city!”
Any trace of amusement on Wolf’s face vanished. He took a step towards her, a growl rumbling at the back of his throat. “I expect you to shut up and let me think.”
Lilith refused to be cowed by an animal. She stepped forward, chin lifted. “I don’t know what your problem is—and it’s not that I’m not thankful for you saving my life back there, because I am—but there’s no need to be rude, and if anything, you should be apologising to me.”
He was astonished. “Me?”
“You left Emma behind! I asked you to save her, I asked! But you just turned and ran away.”
“With you on my back,” he growled. “Why didn’t you jump off and try to save her yourself, if she meant so much to you?”
“Because—” Because she’d been so scared she hadn’t been able to move. But she couldn’t admit that. “Because I thought even animals had honour,” she said flatly. “But you don’t, and now she’s dead.”
The next second his hand was around her neck. She cried out, tried to pull away, but his grip was too strong.
“You’re choking me!”
“No, I’m not,” he replied evenly. His hold on her was tight, but not unforgivably so, and as she stopped struggling his fingers loosened even further, until they was just resting on her neck.
She felt it, then—a pulse of attraction so unnatural that it repelled her. Wolf, too, jerked his hand away as if burnt. Lilith turned away, unsettled, and sat back down on the bed, rubbing her neck. “Don’t know why I expected any better from an infected,” she muttered, loud enough for him to hear.
Wolf ignored her. He turned to the desk and began searching through the drawers until he found what he was looking for: a scrap of paper and a pencil. He leaned on the desk and began to sketch with quick, steady movements. Lilith stood up and edged closer, careful to keep a safe distance between them.
He was drawing a map. “The theatre is there,” he said, drawing a cross near the bottom left of the page. “We are here, in Tulkan.” He marked a spot slightly to the right, higher up the page, then added a compass in one corner.
“Is it . . . .” She cleared her throat. “Is it safe to go back?”
“For you or for me?” His face was inscrutable.
“I have to get home somehow.”
Wolf returned to the map, moving the pen to the top right. “North of here is a mountain range,” he said, drawing a series of triangles. “Beneath is a lake, and then a river flowing downstream to the sea.” He marked a spot to the north-east of Tulkan, halfway to the river and in completely the opposite direction from the theatre. “My pack is here.”
Near the lake he drew another cross. “There is another entrance for your kind here.” Disdain dripped from his voice as if she were the infected, not he. “It’s smaller, less secured.”
She pointed to the theatre. “This entrance is closer.”
“And guarded by copters.”
“One. Which crashed.”
“You don’t think they have more?”
That he was right only annoyed her. “Just take me to the police.”
“I told you: there are none.”
“There must be someone. Who’s in charge?”
“Of Tulkan? No one.” He tilted his head to the side, reconsidered his words. “Witches, mostly. They’ve bribed the trackers.”
“And these trackers are like police?”
“Yes. And no.”
He was being purposefully unhelpful. Lilith’s palms itched with the desire to slap him, to shake him out of his calm. How could he stand there so indolently while people had died—and were still dying? How could he look and sound so human, yet be a monster underneath? It had been easier when he had been in animal form; at least then she’d known how to deal with him.
“Look,” she began, doing her best to keep her voice level. “You brought me here, you take me back. Just drop me off near the theatre and I’ll walk the rest of the way. Without you hanging around, they won’t shoot me. Okay?”
“That won’t work,” he replied dismissively. “If they don’t shoot you—and that’s a big if—you’ll get no further than an Upper Hall prison.”
“Don’t confuse me with the Upper Hall scum you’ve met,” she snapped. “I’ve got my citizenchip; I’ve got rights.” When he didn’t look impressed, she crossed her arms. “They can’t throw me into prison, anyway,” she added sullenly. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
Wolf shook his head. “You survived where hundreds died. Is that not reason enough? Are you really stupid enough to think they’ll let you get close enough to scan you?”
Lilith had no reply. Despite her words, all the bluster, the situation was beyond her. The idea of simply walking back the way she’d come was a half-baked one at best, and even she knew it was foolish. But to use the other entrance meant travelling above ground, and she was unwilling to face the outside world alone. If the DEI—the special police—did not venture above ground without backup, what chance did she stand alone?
“We’ll go to the second entrance,” Wolf said, tapping the spot near the lake. “We’ll smuggle you in.” He took her silence as consent and turned to leave. “I’m going to speak to the Snake. You stay here.”
Right before the door closed behind him, Wolf looked back at her. “Stay right here. I mean it.” Then the door slammed shut.