Water pressed against her skin.
Lilith kept her mouth closed, tried to open her eyes but could only see a rush of bubbles. The water was growing colder and heavier as she was dragged deeper into the lake. She struggled but could not escape. Her lungs were aching. A mouthful of air pushed against her teeth and tongue, and her chest was tightening, tightening—
As she released her last breath, Lilith’s only thought was: Emma.
Then they burst out of the water. The first breath was painful, the second exquisite. Lilith paddled with one hand, kicking her feet weakly as the ewte dragged her to the shoreline. The incline of the bank was steep. Lilith crawled up the slope on hands and knees, didn’t stop until her hands touched grass. Then she lay on her side, too stunned to move, cradling her wrist. The cold water had numbed most of the sting.
The ewte nimbly climbed up the slope and rustled through the undergrowth, retrieving a metal tank. She began to strap it to her chest and fit the tubes over her gills.
Lilith forced herself to stand and move away from the shoreline, squeezing the water out of her clothes. Rivton was to her left, rooftops aglow with the last rays of sunlight. The stone building drew her gaze, but she could not see the figure from earlier; they were too far away.
The ewte made no move to speak nor leave, and the two remained at a wary standstill, intensely aware of the other but refusing to make the first move. Was it the same ewte as earlier? They all looked so similar, it was impossible to be sure.
Water trickled down Lilith’s neck. Finally she told the ewte her name, then, after a brief hesitation, added: “I am friends with Sla’ik.”
The gamble paid off. “I am Ri’ka,” the ewte said. She didn’t quite look Lilith in the eye but shuffled closer, her clawed feet scrape-scraping against the ground. “He told me to help you. Said you were in danger.”
“No, ‘course not. Him. The nameless one.”
False gods, Lilith thought scornfully, but she kept her smile polite.
“He said you travel with werekin, but you aren’t one.”
Lilith’s smile slipped. “I was travelling with them. I’m on my own now.”
“No. You can’t.” Ri’ka’s tail twitched against the loose soil. “You’ve gotta travel with them. He said so. A deal’s a deal.”
“I haven’t made any deals—”
Ri’ka lunged forward and grabbed her right wrist, twisting her arm so that the Snake mark was on show. “You must,” she said. “You promised.” In her free hand was a small square packet, wrapped in paper. She pressed it into Lilith’s palm. “Dried nitum. Give it to the werekin. They’ll forgive you. You must. It’s—” Ri’ka cocked her head to the side. “Someone’s coming.” She leapt down the bank and slipped into the water, leaving barely a ripple in her wake.
“Ri’ka?” Lilith called, but the ewte was gone.
Someone was coming.
The fear set in. Was it the monster from earlier? The trees were a spindly row of dark shadows, too thin to hide behind, and the water was cold and deep. She’d never hold her breath long enough. So Lilith stood her ground and crossed her arms, fighting back the shivers as the cool breeze caressed her wet clothes.
When the new arrival emerged from the trees, Lilith was startled to recognise him.
“Sam?” He looked different dressed all in black, his dark hair ruffled. When she thought of how she had last seen him, her cheeks warmed at the memory.
“What are you doing here?” His face was hard, unfriendly. It didn’t look like he wanted to kiss her now.
“I could ask the same of you,” she snapped. Was Ri’ka still nearby, listening? She glanced at the lake but the surface was dark and still. “How did you find me?”
“The bond.” Sam smirked. “Like moths to flame.” He stepped close enough to touch, his face half-cast in shadow. Ran a finger down her arm. “One shower not enough for you, Miss Gray?”
Lilith froze. “What did you call me?”
“That’s your name, isn’t it? Lilith Gray. I knew you weren’t a werekin, but I never suspected you were a bland.” He stepped even closer, stroked her cheek with the back of his fingers. “There are DEI agents looking for you. I can take you to them.”
“You’re lying.” The words were thick and slow on her tongue, her mind already sluggish from Sam’s influence. “They would’ve contacted me.”
“Not if you were a spy,” he said, wrapping an arm around her waist. There was no space between their bodies now, the curve of her stomach pressed against his. Her breath was short, her mind spun. She tried to move away from him and failed.
“You’re all over the media underground, accused of spearheading a military organisation. Were you sent up here to spy on us, Lilith? To infiltrate the ranks?”
“No.” She tried again to move away, her anger increasing over her helplessness. “It just happened!”
“You just happened to bond with a werewolf? You just happened to be a telepath and secure yourself a place in the Guild?” He scoffed. “I know what the DEI is like, Lilith. Don’t think you can lie to me.”
“I’m not lying!” The anger gave her limbs unexpected strength. She pushed away from him, staggered over to the nearest tree, wrapping her fingers around its slim bark to keep herself upright as the waves of Sam’s influence subsided. “I didn’t ask for any of this, don’t want any of this.” Her voice rose with every word. She took a deep breath, swallowed. “I just want to go home.”
“So you say.”
Lilith straightened, let go of the tree trunk. “I’m not a spy.”
Sam remained where he was. The sun had set; Rivton was a string of pale lights behind him. “Maybe you just don’t know it.”
He moved closer, held up his hands. “I won’t touch you.” For a moment they stood side by side, staring across the lake. The wind rustled through the trees.
“If you’re serious about going home, I can help,” Sam finally said. “I have contacts, friends who can sneak you in and fix your citizenchip—by now the magic will have fried it.”
Lilith looked down, thinking over his offer. Could she trust Sam, or was this yet another infected ploy? On the ground near her feet was the square packet of nitum. She didn’t remember dropping it.
“Why would you help me?” she said.
He looked at her. “Because I was like you, once.” He leaned against a tree, studied her as if he wasn’t quite sure what to say. A slow sigh, then: “I was born underground,” he admitted. “Middle Hall. I joined the DEI as soon as I was old enough, couldn’t wait to come up here and fight the ‘monsters’.” His laugh was bitter. “Didn’t know I was one of them till I came topside.”
Even the wind had quietened for his confession. Lilith stared, but nothing in his body language indicated a lie.
“For a long time, I thought I’d caught the virus. Then I discovered that the virus didn’t exist. Affection is genetic.” He straightened, half-smiled, as if that would soften the blow. “You think you’re not affected, but you are, Lilith,” he continued. “You made the bond with the werewolf; I can sense that much.
You were born affected. You never were one of them.”
“No.” It couldn’t be true. “I would have known if I was infected. There would have been signs . . . ”
“Not underground,” he replied. “Blands are immune to your powers, as they are to mine.”
“No,” Lilith repeated, but the word lacked conviction. If she truly had made the bond between her and Silver . . . Maybe he’d forgive her if she gave him the nitum. It was the least she could do.
“What about the bond?” she asked. “If I go home . . . ?”
“Time and distance might weaken it. No bland will be able to sense it; you’ll be safe. As for the werewolf—” a shrug “—does it matter?”
Yes, Lilith realised. It did matter. Regardless of whether her feelings were only due to the bond, it mattered nonetheless. Now, with the chance to go home within her reach, Lilith wavered. If she didn’t have to worry about the virus, the vaccine’s three-day limit didn’t matter. She could stay above ground long enough to break the bond first. But what about her mother, her friends? Emma’s parents, who deserved the truth?
Sam moved away. “When you decide where you belong, come find me.” He disappeared into the gloom, leaving Lilith to stare into the darkness.