There was an odd clicking coming from the door.
Lilith sat up, flattening her hair, smoothing the bed sheets on either side of her. She felt drained, her stomach tight, the heat in the room pressing down upon her skin. She hadn’t opened the window—hadn’t wanted to stare out upon the infected city outside—and hadn’t dared drink from the bathroom tap, fearful of contaminated water. But Wolf was back, now. She could make him take her home.
The door handle turned slowly. The door eased open. The cloaked stranger who entered was too small to be Wolf.
Lilith jumped to her feet, heart pounding. “Who are you?”
The stranger froze, then reached up to push back its hood, its fingers thin and green, tipped with dark nails. The hood dropped to reveal a reptilian face: pebbled skin and wide-set yellow eyes. Its nose was curiously flat, its lower jaw long. Two tubes connected to either side of its neck, disappearing into the front of the cloak.
It was an infected. Despite the vaccine, Lilith could not suppress a shudder of disgust.
It kept its hands half-raised. “Sorry. Thought ‘twere empty in here.”
Lilith gaped. It—he, for the voice was unmistakably masculine—sounded so human. She shook off the surprise, put her hands on her hips to look more intimidating. “You didn’t answer my question: who are you?”
As she moved, the necklace Wolf had given her swung free, drawing his attention. He cringed, hunching his shoulders. “Sorry, miss. The name’s Sla’ik.” An odd name, the second vowel long and drawn out. “Didn’t mean to intrude, only needed to top up my tank.” He pulled the cloak aside to reveal a metal container strapped to his chest.
She forced herself to step forward, bluffing through the fear. “Do it in your own room.”
He ducked his head. “Don’t have a room here. Just . . . passing through.”
His alien features were indecipherable. Was he a fugitive? A thief? Or—and she shuddered as the thought struck her—some kind of rent boy? Whatever the case, he was an infected and she should steer clear. Except she couldn’t quite suppress the thrill of knowing she was speaking to a real life infected, a monster, an anomaly. The very type of creature she wanted to study at university. In Wolf’s presence, Lilith had felt off-balance and wary, but now with her humanity so clearly superior she couldn’t help but feel curious. But was it safe?
The creature seemed to notice her indecision, for he held out his palms. “Only to top up my tank. Don’t want trouble with you nor your friend.”
Curiosity won out. “Go on then,” Lilith said. She sat back down on the bed, angling herself so that she could see into the bathroom.
“Mighty kind of you,” he said. “Us ewtes, we’ve got a bad rep for no reason, I tell you.”
He walked across the room, his gait slightly awkward and duck-footed. He had clawed toes and a long, thin tail which poked out the back of the cloak. The receptionist also had a tail, she remembered, and similar reptilian skin. Perhaps the two were related.
He left the bathroom door open without her asking and stood by the sink. He pushed off his cloak and unstrapped a pouch from his waist, placing it on the ground. Then he leaned over the sink as he unscrewed a slot at the base of the metal tank strapped to his chest. Water gushed out. Was the tank a recycling unit? Lilith looked at the dusty curtains, at the slivers of sunlight pouring in through the edges. Perhaps water was scarce, evaporated by the heat.
When she turned back around, the creature—the ewte, she supposed—was screwing the slot back into place. He turned on the tap, detached one of the tubes from the side of his neck and bent to put it under the stream of water. On the side of his neck were three odd folds of skin, slightly paler than the rest of his body. They flapped open and closed like tiny mouths as Lilith stared, fascinated and repelled.
Eventually the ewte re-attached the tube to his neck, straightening as he adjusted the tank. He took a deep breath and the tank gurgled in response. He looked at her. “When’s your friend back?”
“Soon,” Lilith lied. If only she’d thought to ask Wolf more questions, although it was doubtful he’d have answered; he seemed to have the slenderest grasp of common social norms. It was strange to think that this ewte—so inhuman in appearance—was behaving more courteously than Wolf.
The ewte hovered awkwardly on the threshold of the bathroom, the tip of his tail flicking back and forth. He was just as nervous of her as she was of him, Lilith realised, relaxing at the thought: infected or not, Sla’ik wasn’t dangerous. She leaned back on her elbows and returned his timid stare with a raised eyebrow. “Well? Are you done?”
He shifted nervously. “You being so kind and all, I was asking myself if maybe I could just stay in here a while, ‘course only until your friend comes, or even before that. You see, there’s someone in the corridor who doesn’t like me much.”
“Why doesn’t he like you?”
“Ah, um . . . ” His pupils flickered. “A misunderstanding. We were business partners.”
The infected were organised enough to have companies. Lilith filed that away for future reference, almost grinning at the thought of returning to school and giving her old history teacher a lesson or two. “Fine, you can stay,” she said. His thanks were so enthusiastic she decided to humour him by using his name. “You can sit at the desk, Slake.”
“It’s Sla-eek.” He moved quickly, setting the pouch on the desk, then pulling out the chair. Once settled, he jerked his head towards her. “Your first tooth?”
Lilith looked down at the necklace Wolf had given her. “What else?”
That’s when Sla’ik smiled, slow and unpleasant, as he leaned back in the chair. For a moment Lilith was sure she’d given herself away, and that he knew of her humanity. But no: Sla’ik was just getting comfortable. He nodded at her. “You keep that tooth right visible. The trackers are tearing up the city. Barred the gates, too.”
She grasped on to the fang. “Why? What do they want?”
Sla’ik tapped the base of his jaw smugly. “You haven’t heard? There was a huge uproar several miles northeast. Someone fed the vampires some bland blood. They killed at least a hundred before they were put down.” A wistful sigh, then: “Wish I’d seen it. Blands must’ve been terrified.”
“Blands?” The question slipped out before she could censor it.
“Your first time in the city, huh?” Sla’ik blinked slowly without closing his eyes; he had a second eyelid underneath the first. “Blands are what you wolves call worms. The undergrounders.”
Lilith blanched. Sla’ik was talking about the theatre! A hundred people killed, and she had left Emma behind. What if Emma was among the dead? What if Emma was gone and it was all her fault? Lilith turned away from Sla’ik on the pretence of plumping up her pillow. She swallowed hard. “What happened to the other pe—worms?”
“Taken underground, ‘course.” The chair creaked as he shifted his weight. “And all of them checked out by a doctor in case they were affected, as if they didn’t know the dust’s in the air, not the blood.”
That had to be wrong. Everyone knew the infected virus was transferred by blood. The chances of airborne contagion were microscopic. But it didn’t matter: she’d been vaccinated that morning, she was protected for another seventy hours at least. Surely that was enough time to get home. . . .
“Anyhow, that’s not the best bit.” Sla’ik leaned forward, grinning. “Some blands are missing, and they’ve put trackers on the trail. They think they’re here. That’s why the gates are barred. Trying to catch ‘em if they escape.”
That didn’t sound good. “Do they have any clues?”
“Nah. I figure half the ones missing are dead, shredded by the vampires. ‘Course they’re most interested in finding the blands who got away alive.”
“To take them home?”
Sla’ik chuckled, waggling a finger at her. “To find out who they work for, of course.”
“Sure. Those upper ones do anything for money. They have it worse than we do. I bet they didn’t know what they were getting into, though.” Sla’ik laughed, the metal tank gurgling in symphony. “The trackers’ll probably give them to the vampires as punishment. Bad stuff, bland blood. No surer way to drive a vamp crazy, other than killing one of their coven, ‘course.”
Sla’ik rubbed his hands together. “There’s a bounty, too. Two hundred for any information. And five for a living bland.” He tapped his tank affectionately. “Just as well I got this. Wouldn’t want anyone mistaking me for a bland in these times, eh?”
Lilith agreed half-heartedly. With his flat, reptilian features, it was unlikely that Sla’ik would ever be mistaken for a human. Her face, on the other hand, stood out. Even Wolf, who looked the most normal, had an animalesque cast to his eyes and movements. She’d be in danger if anyone spotted her—that much was clear.
Sla’ik stiffened, rubbed a wrist anxiously. “Going to check if the coast is clear,” he said, standing up.
He barely opened the door, peering through a thin crack at the hallway outside. Satisfied, he widened the gap till he could stick his head through and peer in both directions. “Someone on the stairs,” he said softly. He glanced at her. “I’ll be right back.”
Lilith barely had the time to nod before the ewte had left the room, the scratch-scratch of his nails against the floor steadily growing fainter. He’d left his cloth pouch on the desk, its sides bulging with whatever junk an infected carried. Lilith stood, slowly approached the desk. When she picked up the pouch, its contents clinked gently.
She was about to open the pouch when Sla’ik hurried back into the room. He snatched it from her hands. “Hands off!” he snapped, but there was little bite to his voice. The tip of his tail was twitching as he peered out into the hallway once more. “I was right,” he told her. “There was someone on the stairs: trackers. They’re searching every room.”
Lilith froze. “Searching? Why?”
“For the blands!”
“Then why are you leaving?”
Sla’ik looked sly. “You think they’ll see an ewte like me and say I’m not a thief?” Shaking his head, he strapped the pouch around his waist. “Don’t know what those blands were thinking of, coming here. Everyone knows you can’t sneak anything past the Snake.”
The receptionist! Hadn’t Wolf gone down to speak to him? She fought back the nausea. What if something had happened to Wolf? What if the Snake had turned him in to those dreaded trackers? He was her lifeline; without him she had no guide to lead her through the masses of infected and back underground.
Sla’ik pointed at her necklace. “A werewolf has little to fear from trackers.” Then he hurried out of the room and Lilith was left staring at the closed door, panic rising. She was in the middle of an unknown infected city, her only contact most likely imprisoned, and about to be caught herself. She had to act quickly.
Lilith strode over to the window and opened the curtains, squinting at the sunlight. She pushed the window up, stuck her head outside. There was no way down, no fire escapes. The street was far below; jumping was out of the option. And there was no one she could call out to for help—everyone shuffling below was an infected, cloaked and suspicious, dangerous.
Cloaked! Lilith turned to the bed and pulled the bed sheet off, wrapping it around her, making sure to cover her face. She went into the bathroom and examined herself critically. The effect was slightly ridiculous, but perhaps the disguise would last long enough to get her outside the city gates. Lilith paused, considering, then tugged the necklace free from the sheet so that it was clearly visible. It was the best she could do.
From down the hallway came the sound of marching feet. Tendrils of panic squeezed her stomach as Lilith stuffed the room key into her jeans pocket. She eased the door open, glanced outside. Four men were at the other end of the hallway, near the stairwell. Three looked human, although their skin was dull grey and rock-like. They had the stiff, self-confident movements of men who weren’t afraid to use their fists. The fourth was hidden under a cloak.
They moved down the right side of the hallway first. Thanking her luck, Lilith slipped out of the door, closing it softly behind her. She didn’t have the time to lock it. She slipped down the hall and heaved a sigh of relief when she reached the stairwell without being noticed.
It was only as she began to descend that she realised she’d no idea where Wolf had gone. They needed to meet: there was little chance she’d return underground without him. And he was expecting to find her here. She’d have to go somewhere, come back to the room when the trackers were done. But she couldn’t leave the hotel: Sla’ik had said nothing escaped the receptionist’s notice.
Lilith forced herself to keep moving. If she couldn’t leave the hotel, she could hide until the trackers were done, and where better to hide than on a floor they had already searched? She descended to the second floor, pushed open the hallway door and slipped inside, looking back at the stairs fearfully. Then she turned around and froze. A hundred eyes stared back at her.