Standing in the tavern reception was the last person Lilith had expected to see.
Well, person was stretching it slightly.
The Snake was standing in the doorway, his head almost touching the frame. When Lilith walked into the reception, his mouth parted, revealing rows and rows of sharp teeth.
Silver was in the middle of the room, fists clenched, muscles tensed, as if any moment he would leap and attack the Snake. Mel was behind him, cowering on the other side of the counter.
“You should have stayed upstairs,” Silver ground out without even looking at Lilith.
“On the contrary,” the Snake said. With his hood up, only his mouth was visible, but Lilith could feel him watching. “Her presence is necessary.”
Lilith pushed back the fear. If she truly was an infected, then there was no point hiding anymore. She stepped further into the room, walked up to Silver. Somehow from the depths of her memory she conjured the Snake’s name.
“Were you looking for me, Zachal?” Beside her, Silver stiffened, but he did not interfere.
A slow nod. “To make sure you hadn’t been contaminated by the succubus.” His tongue flicked into the air. “A third binding could break you.”
How did he know about the bond between her and Silver? Then the number registered and Lilith frowned. Third? A spasm of pain shot through her wrist, enough to make her gasp. It was gone in seconds but the ache remained, dull and persistent.
“Everything is in order,” Zachal said, satisfied.
Lilith clutched her wrist. The scar had healed into a red flat line. The Snake mark, Silver had called it. Its repercussions were only sinking in now. If the bond between her and Silver drew them together so tightly, what would this connection do?
“I owe you a debt,” Lilith said softly, rubbing the scar as if she could wipe it away. She looked Zachal in the eye. “Have you come to collect it?”
“Not this time,” Zachal replied. He nodded at her and backed out of the room onto the porch outside. “You’re not strong enough yet.”
Then he vanished. Lilith rushed to the doorway, looked up and down the street, but he was gone.
The dread inspired by his words stayed with her for a long afterwards.
The Snake’s visit had snapped something shut in Silver. He was as brusque with Lilith as he had been on the first day they’d met, with a permanent scowl on his lips.
He led Lilith out of the tavern onto the street outside, and then down the main road back towards the forest, somehow managing to take two steps for every one of Lilith’s. The sky above was coal-black, rippling with swathes of clouds that half-obscured the moonlight.
“Where are we going?” Lilith called out to him, refusing to break into a jog.
Silver only stopped when he reached the outskirts of the town. He didn’t turn to look at her. “Al wants to ransom you to the Guild,” he said. “You would be safer there.” A pause, and when he turned to face her, his eyes were blazing with emotion. “I could try to get you underground. The further you are from the Snake, the better.”
Lilith caught his wrist. “I’m not going underground, Silver.”
The moment caught, held, the seconds stretching into eternity.
Silver pulled his wrist away and strode into the forest. The trees swallowed him from view, and as she hurried after him, Lilith wondered whether he was trying to leave her behind on purpose, perhaps hoping she would run away to make her way home. But did she even have a home now? If she was an infected, this was her home now.
By the time she’d caught up with Silver, he was no longer in human form.
Lilith froze, eyed his large paws and tense muscles. He stared at her, the tilt to his head almost mocking, then lowered himself to the ground.
“I take it walking isn’t an option,” she muttered, closing the distance between them. She picked up the bundle of clothes by his paws, still warm. Then she climbed onto his back and pressed her face into his soft fur.
Silver trotted forward, weaving through the trees. To the left was the shoreline, the lights of Rivton sinking into the distance.
Lilith relaxed, lulled by Silver’s gentle pace and by the smell of his fur. There was something about being so close to him that made her feel protected, and though she knew it could not last forever, for now at least she could pretend.
Morning came too soon.
It had been late when they’d stopped travelling. Lilith had been far too tired to do anything more than slid off Silver’s back and curl up to sleep against him. But now, as the sun rose and the cold wind off of the lake seeped into Lilith’s bones, she stirred and sat up.
The mountains were so much bigger now, looming overhead. Lilith stared across the lake but could not see the far shore. Overhead the clouds had thickened, flattening the sky into a sheet of grey. Where were they now, and where was Silver, more importantly?
Lilith had the time to stretch and relieve herself before he reappeared in human form, fully dressed. “Come on,” he said, striding past her, towards the mountains.
“Good morning, Silver,” she replied sarcastically.
He didn’t even stop. “We haven’t got all day.”
Lilith scowled and trudged after him. A short distance away was a large clearing. In the middle of the clearing was a life-size dark grey statue of an Affected man, his skin oddly rippled. Lilith approached it cautiously, then realised what was wrong: the statue’s entire body was covered with faces, faces of every race and expression, all with their mouths open as if caught mid-speech.
She shuddered. “What is that?”
“The Statue of Minds.”
The words rang a bell. Lilith cocked her head. Where had she—? Ah, yes, that was it: Bryan had mentioned it to her, what seemed like ages ago. He’d said someone from the Guild would come to help her if she reached the statue.
“We wait. They’ll come for you.”
“How will they know to come?” she asked.
Silver was content to not speak further, standing there and smoking and staring off into the distance as if they weren’t waiting but simply enjoying the brisk air and the far-off rippling of the lake. As if they weren’t waiting for someone to come and take her away from the only tether she had left.
“What . . . .” Her voice choked. Angry with herself, Lilith swallowed and started again. “What will the Guild do to me?”
“They’ll make you stronger.”
“So the Snake can get whatever he wants?”
His gaze was sharp, assessing. “So you can protect yourself from the Snake, if you wish.”
Lilith stared at the statue, at the faces blending into one. Human, infected . . . it was impossible to tell one from the other. “What’ll happen to me?”
Silver’s shrug said it all: he didn’t know and didn’t care. Of course he didn’t: he wanted her gone. For all that Al wanted the ransom money, Lilith knew the real reason Silver was handing her over: the Guild would break their bond, and then he would be rid of her. Stung, Lilith turned away from him, rubbing her arms in an attempt to keep warm.
“Do you regret saving me?” she said, so softly that she wasn’t sure whether he’d heard.
Silver stubbed his cigarette out on the statue, right on the nose of a rather mournful face. “No.” He looked straight at her. “Regrets are for those too weak to live in the present.”
A drop of water landed on Lilith’s hand. She looked up, felt another drop land on her cheek. Then another. Water falling from the sky.
She’d heard about rain, but hadn’t imagined it to fall so gently. Lilith held up a palm to capture a few droplets. The water looked ordinary, smelled ordinary—she stuck out the tip of her tongue and discovered it tasted better than the tap water underground.
Soon Silver’s top was speckled with dark wet patches, like little round fingertips. He looked irritable but did nothing to protect himself, leaning against the Statue of Minds with his hands in his pockets.
Lilith closed her palm on the raindrops. In her hand was water that had travelled untold distances, through every level above and below ground, water that linked them all, infected and affected, despite their outward differences. Standing there in the rain, Lilith looked at Silver and saw all of a sudden a man she wanted to count amongst her friends. For a moment her heart squeezed in her chest as she thought that maybe – just maybe – the infected weren’t as bad as they seemed, and that some of them were even worth knowing, worth loving.
“Will I see you again?” she said.
“Yes.” He sounded reluctant, but the word still made Lilith’s heart skip a beat.
Then a man with five diamonds tattooed on his right cheek came into the clearing, bony cheeks stretched in an easy-going smile. His clothes were wrinkled and ill-fitting. His white long-sleeved top hung loosely on his body, and the arms were a little short, exposing bony wrists and long, tapering fingers.
In his right hand was a cloth bag that clinked with every step—the money, Lilith remembered, feeling a little sick, and all her good feelings towards Silver vanished. The man nodded and handed the bag to Silver.
That’s when it happened.
From the distance came a sound, soft as the wind at first then growing louder, voices melding together in a long, mournful howl.
Lilith pulled out of the man’s grasp, turned to Silver. His expression had gone blank, his eyes unfocused.
A beat of silence, then the howling started again.
“What does it mean?” Lilith grabbed Silver’s arm, trying to get his attention. “Silver, what’s wrong?”
He shook her off, pushed her away. His eyes burned with cold hatred.
“Vera is dead.”
Before she could reply Silver was running. Lilith went to follow him but the man from the Guild grabbed her wrist with more strength than she’d thought possible.
“Not so fast,” he said, staring into her eyes as a drowsiness pervaded her limbs. Lilith couldn’t resist as he took her elbow and led her away from the lake, away from Silver.
“Welcome to your new home.”
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The final FINAL revised version of Above Ground is available in print and ebook form – would be lovely if you felt the urge to buy a copy. The cover art is beautiful (IMO), and the print version has a map too! Follow me on facebook or twitter for updates.