. . . page 2

Chapter 45

An odd numbness had crept into Lilith’s limbs.

The sun had fully set. Rivton was a pale glow on the opposite shore, the feeble light barely bridging the distance. The forest was quiet—haunted—even the rustling of the leaves stilled by the darkness.

She crouched by the shoreline and dipped her hands into the icy water, then pressed her palms against her cheeks. The cold stung. How long had she been here? Her throat was scratchy and her clothes were clammy against her skin. Hesitant, Lilith cupped her hands together and knelt to drink. Was it safe?

Of course it was, Lilith remembered. She was already infected.

The shock had taken its time to set in. Left standing alone in the middle of the wilderness, Lilith had looked around her and all of a sudden realised that if Sam was right, this was her home. If Sam was right, she didn’t deserve to go home to her family and friends. It was then that Lilith’s emotions had scattered beyond the reach of reason. She’d been so focused on getting home and putting everything behind her that there was still so much she didn’t understand, so much that she hadn’t stopped to question.

She sank back onto her haunches, stared at the packet of nitum by her feet. Where did she belong?

Lilith picked up the nitim, slid it into her pocket. Perhaps she was only hesitating because of the implications of the bond. There couldn’t be any other reason . . . 

If only she’d questioned Sam further. What had made him throw away his life underground? What could possibly have appealed to him about living as an infected? She had the bond to blame, but he had been free of influence. What had made him choose a life no one would want?

“Playing hooky?”

The adrenaline had Lilith moving before she even knew what she was doing. She jumped, felt her back connect with a tree as she brought her fists close to her body, ready to fight back. The man looked familiar, but Lilith couldn’t quite place him. He was tall—taller than Silver—with dark hair that fell into his eyes. High cheekbones, feminine lips. But the way he looked at her was all male.

“Who are you?” she demanded.

He held up his hands. “It’s Jake. From Silver’s pack?” A wink. “I’m wounded that you’ve forgotten me.”

A werewolf. Her fists would be of no use against him. Lilith let out a deep breath and allowed her arms to fall to her sides. “You gave me a heart attack,” she snapped, trying to buy herself the time to think.

Jake chuckled. “I have that effect sometimes.” He took a cigarette from behind his ear and placed it, unlit, between his lips. “Ready to go back?” he said.

“Can you . . . give me a few minutes?”

When he shrugged, Lilith knelt by the water on the pretence of washing her face.

Sam’s offer wouldn’t last forever. If Jake took her back to the pack, she’d lose her chance to go home. What if she gave him the nitum in exchange for her own release? Her fingers brushed against her pocket . . . then she realised that if Jake found out about the nitum, nothing could stop him from taking both it and her. For all that she was supposedly affected, she was too weak to fight.

“So, what did he do?” Jake asked. He was leaning against a tree, hands crossed behind his head. “Silver, I mean. He must have done something to piss you off.”

“Isn’t keeping me a prisoner enough?”

“If you really wanted to escape, you would have gotten a lot further than here.” A smirk. “Even walking at your two-legged pace.” His expression softened. “You won’t be sold off to the slavers, you know. Silver, Fang and I wouldn’t have allowed it anyway, but thankfully the Guild’s decided to give us enough cash to buy the nitum.”

Her fingers brushed her pocket again, but she held the truth back. Not here, not to him. Only Silver could be trusted. She would go back with Jake, deliver the nitum, and then leave again to find Sam. It was the only logical course of action. The fact that the bond was skewing her desires only made it more important to return underground, to be safely beyond its reach.

“The Guild treat their own well,” he continued gently. “You’ll be looked after there. I know that living above ground was never your plan, but it’s not all bad. You’d be surprised.”

Infected. She swallowed past the knot in her throat and said, “I don’t think anything could surprise me anymore.” She straightened, kept on Jake’s right to hide the bulge of her pocket.. “I’m ready. Are you taking me back to Silver, or is he still with Manda?” Lilith had meant to sound cool but her voice came out hard.

“Manda’s gone.” He hesitated. “Look, kid, Silver’s got his rough edges, but even he has a heart beneath the jerk attitude. Besides, you can’t judge us all by his actions.”

“Rae wanted to kill me or sell me to the slavers. She’s not the only one in the pack who feels that way.”

He grinned. “Well, I’d never do anything to you that you didn’t want me to.”

“Yet,” she muttered.

Jake didn’t answer for a moment. Then he said: “I hope one day you’ll look at me as a friend.”

They walked the rest of the way in silence.

Instead of leading Lilith into Rivton, Jake took her to a small clearing on the outskirts of the forest. Only Amber and Howl were there; Lilith breathed a sigh of relief when she realised she wouldn’t have to face Rae. But where was Silver?

Amber stormed over, lifting her chin to glare at Lilith. “I can’t believe you ran off!” Her expression was fierce. “What do you think would happen to Vera without the ransom money?”

Jake moved between them, placing a hand on Amber’s shoulder. “Hey, calm down. No harm, no foul, right? She’s here now.”

Even he cringed when Amber rounded on him, nostrils flaring. “There’s more than one life at stake. Who could be selfish enough to put a baby’s life at risk?” She shot a glance at Lilith.

Jake squeezed Amber’s shoulder firmly. “No one blames for your losing Lilith. And anyway, it’s okay now. She’s here.”

“No, it’s not okay.” Amber blinked rapidly. There was a look on her face that . . . It was a look of pure need, as if it were her life on the line instead of Vera’s. Her chin was quivering, and she kept her eyes open unnaturally wide. Lilith had to look away.

Jake pulled Amber in for a hug. He wrapped both arms around her. “Shush, it’s okay.” He ran a hand through her hair, soothing the tangles. He looked at Lilith and nodded towards Howl. She took the hint and made her way over.

Howl was drawing figures in the dirt with a stick. He glanced up when Lilith approached. “Silver’s watching over Vera,” he said, as if knowing what she wanted to ask. “We’re not allowed to visit.”

“But I need to speak to him.”

Howl shrugged, went back to his drawings.

As the minutes ticked by, Lilith felt her anxiety grow. She had to see Silver to give him the nitum and make him call off her ransom to the Guild, but Amber was still crying into Jake’s shoulder. She caught his eye and beckoned, but he shook his head. What if Sam decided to take back his offer? Lilith didn’t belong above ground: of that, she was now sure.

Finally Amber and Jake came over. Amber’s eyes were a little red, but she seemed otherwise fine.

“I need to talk to Silver,” Lilith announced.

Jake shook his head. “We’re camping here tonight.” His expression turned apologetic. “We’re taking you straight to the Guild tomorrow. Al thought it was best to keep you and Silver apart.”

Above Ground Cover: Sneak Peek

News

[Cross-posted from amharte.com.]

In Book Cover Design: Dos and Don’ts, I showcased my own amateur Above Ground covers as a prime example of why it’s better to get a professional on board.

Thanks to 1889 Labs, I’ve bagged an awesome illustrator. Jeffrey has brought my cover to life with some stunning artwork . . . so today I’m sharing a teaser of his work.

Below is one TINY section of the new Above Ground cover—the bottom right corner.

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Woo!

Chapter 44

The passageway to the ring road was empty, their footsteps echoing against the concrete floor.

Liam stopped by a parking stand, swiped his card at the reader and punched in a code. The platform lowered, returning moments later with a motorbike. He slung one lean leg over the bike and pressed his thumb against the scan. The engine hummed to life.

Emma shook her head. “I am going nowhere near that thing.”

Liam’s smile was mocking. “Afraid, Red?”

“I prefer ‘cautious’,” she retorted. “Did you know that 45% of all road incidents involve a motorbike?”

“That’s because the police don’t know how to drive. I, on the other hand, do.” He held out a hand. “How else are you going to get there?” When she hesitated, he added: “You said you’d come with me. For Lilith.”

She’d survived vampires; she could survive this. Emma bit her lip, nodded, then clambered on behind Liam. She’d barely managed to wrap her arms around him before they were tearing down the road, deeper underground, headed for Precision Horizons.

Emma kept her eyes closed, felt the wind sting her cheeks. The tunnel air was poorly ventilated, and only got worse the further underground they went. The motorbike’s electric engine hummed loudly, blocking all chances for conversation. Emma kept her cheek against Liam’s back, her arms locked around his middle. Her stomach flip-flopped unpleasantly each time the tunnel curved.

Finally the motion gentled, the bike slowing. Emma dared to open her eyes in time to see Liam take a turning into an abandoned passageway, weaving the bike around the large no entry signs. Here the overhead lights were flickering or broken, and the painted lines on the ground were faded to a pale grey.

Liam cut the engine, rolled the bike to a halt. He motioned for Emma to get off, then pushed the bike along with his feet to a small alcove in the wall. There was a bundle of tarp on the floor. He parked the bike and covered it carefully.

“Where are we?” Emma said.

A tiny smirk. “Let’s call it the back entrance.”

A little further down the passageway was a air vent. He stretched up to take off the cover, then cupped his hands to give Emma a leg up. His expression was serious, his gaze steady. “Are you sure about this? There’s no going back.”

In answer, Emma placed her foot in his hands.

She pulled herself up into the vent, took the cover from Liam and backed up to let him climb in. As he replaced the cover, she took in her surroundings—a narrow square corridor of aluminium which faded into darkness. The flashlight on her phone did little to dispel the shadows.

“Sometime today,” Liam drawled from behind her.

Emma flushed, crawled forward on her hands and knees, sliding her hands against the cold metal. They crawled deeper into the vent, Emma’s phone lighting only a meagre path before her. With every move she bumped against the metal walls, her legs scraping against the ground. Liam, albeit larger than her, was almost silent.

“Left,” Liam said as they approached an intersection. “Quietly now.”

It wasn’t long before they passed a grate. Emma glanced through the slats, looked down upon an empty corridor. Was this really Precision Horizons? For one of the richest companies underground, it seemed so bare and utilitarian. They crawled the entire length of the corridor, then the vent cut through a wall and opened again onto an empty room. Liam grabbed Emma’s foot to stop her. He eased in beside her, peered through the slats. Then he pushed off the grate and, twisting it sideways, pulled it into the vent. He handed it to her and slid out of the hole feet-first. The drop was two metres at most; still Emma didn’t like the thought of it.

“Pass me the grate,” he said, on his tip toes. He took it and placed it on a table nearby. “Come on. I’ll catch you.”

She’d come this far . . . Emma dangled one foot out of the hole, then the other. She wriggled backwards, her toes straining towards the ground. One more inch. Another. Still Liam hadn’t caught her. Her feet swung helplessly in the air.

A hand wrapped around her ankle and dragged her out of the vent.

Emma didn’t have the time to cry out, her hands scraping against the metal edges of the vent as she fell into Liam’s arms. He lowered her the rest of the way gently, his body warm against hers. For a moment she couldn’t move, her breath catching in her throat, then she pushed away, embarrassed. Liam said nothing, dragging a chair over to replace the grate. Then he was at the door, peering through a crack.

“Let’s go.” When he opened the door, Emma followed.

They emerged into the drab corridor. Liam walked quickly but confidently, further along the corridor and then through a series of doors into a stairwell. “Two floors up are the staff rooms,” he informed her as they climbed the stairs. “Everyone’s on holiday so it should be empty. They’ll be meeting in Dr Gray’s study. We can use the vents, crawl through to his room.” He gave her a look. “Quietly.”

Emma nodded, her hand on the railing, her head down as she climbed up the stairs to avoid her true thoughts from showing. Liam hadn’t just been here before; he knew this place like the back of his hand. Once again Emma found herself wondering who he was, what secrets he was hiding. If Liam betrayed her to the DEI . . . If all his help turned out to be a cruel joke . . . She wouldn’t be able to bear it.

The corridor they exited into better matched Emma’s expectations. The floor was carpeted, the walls painted a rich red. Stern portraits decorated the walls between each doorway, featuring the key figures of Precision Horizon’s history.

“Half of Lilith’s family must be here,” Emma breathed, looking at the names as they passed.

Liam’s response was curt: “More.” He held up a hand to stop her from speaking, and nodded towards the corner just ahead. “Gray’s study is on the left,” he said. “Three doors down.”

But before they could move any further, a door opened and two sets of footsteps came towards them. Liam grabbed Emma’s wrist and dragged her into the nearest room. It was dark inside.

“Where are we?” Emma whispered as the footsteps approached. She squinted, but could not make out more than the basic shapes.

“King’s study,” Liam breathed into her ear. His proximity sent shivers down her spine. “Let’s move away from the door. I didn’t have the time to close it.”

They tiptoed through the room, to the large desk at the back, both breathing shallowly as the footsteps approached.

“We need to talk,” a woman said, stopping right outside the door. Emma and Liam ducked down under the desk as the door was pushed open. “Now.”

She stepped into the room and turned on the lights. The man with her grumbled. “Of course you’d pick in here,” he said.

The voices froze Emma in place. It was Lilith’s parents. From the slim gap under the front of the desk she could see a pair of high heels and a pair of dark brogues. Lilith’s mother was pacing. Her father was standing near the door.

The door clicked shut. The lock turned. They were trapped. Emma glanced at Liam but he was still. His eyes were half-shut, his expression unreadable.

“You’ve gone too far this time,” Lilith’s mother said.

“The vampire attack wasn’t our doing.”

“Is that so?” Lilith’s mother scoffed. “How strange then that it coincides with your plans to kill the infected.”

My plan?” Dr Gray stepped away from the door, towards Lilith’s mother. “Humans belong above ground,” he said. “You know it as well as I do. We can’t live underground forever. The Upper Halls have already sunk into poverty and hunger; how long until the rest of us follow? How long until it is us begging the infected for help?” With each word his voice rose. Dr Gray stepped even closer to her, the tips of his shoes scant inches from her heels. “You believed it once, Arlene,” he continued, gentler now but still so very insistent. “Come back to me. We could shape the future together.”

A pause, then the whisper of cloth. As the silence lengthened Emma felt her cheeks begin to warm. She glanced at Liam again, noticed now that he looked . . . pained? When he noticed Emma’s stare he turned his head away.

“Dan—No. I can’t.” She turned away from him.

“You’re picking the wrong side, Arlene,” he warned.

“And I’d pick it again and again! And however many times I would have needed to pick it to keep our daughter safe.” Her voice grew cold. “Still, it wasn’t enough. You got her in the end.”

“Don’t make me out to be the villain,” he snarled. “It was your idea to begin with. You knew what we would use her for. You agreed to it.”

For a long moment, Lilith’s mother didn’t reply. Then, calmly, she said: “At least you’ve ruined your plans now, haven’t you? Lilith is dead.”

The choked cry escaped from Emma’s lips before she could censor it. Liam’s eyes widened as he turned towards her, but it was too late: Dr Gray had found them. He saw Emma first, his lips narrowing with displeasure, and then he looked past her, to Liam, and froze.

“What’s going on?” Lilith’s mother said sharply. Emma straightened up from behind the desk, her heart racing. But Arlene barely looked at her; she was staring at Liam as he stood up, the colour in her face draining.

She staggered, clutching her chest. “No—!”

Liam lifted his green eyes to hers.

“Hello, mother,” he said.

Chapter 43

Gone.

The word pierced through him. Silver saw in Amber’s expression the expectation for a reaction, for the fury to ripple through his veins—for another indication that he was hopelessly in the girl’s thrall. Amber would never admit to it, but a part of her thrilled in drama, the romanticism of fate and bad decisions. Perhaps she even thought the bond between him and Lilith endearing.

As for Manda . . . She had stood up, was fastening her shirt buttons. He would show her how much importance he placed on dreams.

Silver leant back against the headboard, fighting back the anger, keeping his breathing even. “What do you mean, gone?” Just the right amount of sarcasm. Good.

Amber hesitated on the threshold, eyes flicking towards Manda. “She said she needed some air and stepped outside. I gave her five minutes—maybe ten—but she didn’t come back. When I went outside, she was gone.”

“It’s a small town,” Manda said. “She won’t get far.”

But Amber was shaking her head. “I lost the trail.” A pause. “It ended at the lake.”

Now he straightened, placing his feet against the floor. The ewtes. Nothing happened in the lake without their permission. If they’d taken her to the island . . . 

Then it hit him: nitum grew on the island.

Had she planned this? Lilith had known they’d wanted to use her to negotiate with the ewtes. What if she had contacted them, made her own arrangements? He’d thought the girl too self-absorbed but perhaps she was capable of some small kindness—even if it was only to ensure her safe return home.

After all, he had saved her life, and after the shower incident she’d seemed more amenable. She’d even suggested working together, and had, for the first time, acknowledged the bond. Could she—?

No. The thought was too dangerous to entertain. If she was acting in his interests, more fool her. The bond would be broken soon, in one way or another.

“Get Fang,” he instructed. “Jake too. Circle the lake. Find her.”

“You can tell them yourself,” Manda said, standing at the windowsill. “They’re here.”

Silver stood, joined her side just as Fang entered the tavern. Jake remained outside with Howl, lighting up a cigarette as the boy drew shapes in the dirt. “So much for a quiet night,” he muttered.

Amber backed out of the room. “I’ll go get them,” she said—meaning she’d stall them to give him a few moments alone with Manda.

“There’s no need,” Manda said. “I was just leaving.” The smile she gave Silver was catlike. “We can have a quiet night another time.”

He nodded as the scent of pack drifted down the hallway. He’d made a mistake: he should have slept with Manda, erased Lilith from his mind if only for a moment. It had worked to dull the pain Kara had left in him—the bond couldn’t be much different.

Then Fang appeared in the doorway. It was too late now to ask Manda what she’d been about to say when he’d cut her off. There are . . . what? Other ways to break the bond?

“See you later,” Manda said softly, touching the back of her hand to his. Her skirt swayed as she slipped through the doorway, sliding the door closed behind her.

Fang waited until she was out of earshot. There was a sheen of sweat on his forehead and his usual smile was strained. “Vera is getting worse,” he said finally. “We’re bringing her here and will need to isolate her from most of the pack.” His lips thinned. “Especially Al. He’s too unstable and could trigger a change.”

Amber wrinkled her nose. “I can’t imagine Al being too happy about that.”

“He wasn’t, at first, but—” a self-deprecating shrug “—logic prevailed. Most of the pack is camping on the outskirts of Rivton for the night.” Then he looked at Silver. “I contacted the Guild. They’re willing to pay for Lilith, enough to buy nitum. Al has decided to make the exchange tomorrow.”

“Good,” Silver made himself say. “I’ll have to find her first. Amber lost her.”

“I didn’t—” Amber sputtered, but Fang spoke over her.

“The others can hunt her down. You need to stay here.” Fang squinted out the window at the sky outside. The moon was a pale curve on the horizon. “Vera should be here soon. We need to watch over her.”

“I’ll stay,” Amber volunteered.

“No,” Fang said. “It has to be only Silver and me. Al’s orders.” He noticed Amber’s expression, shrugged apologetically. “You can take over her care once the nitum stabilises her.”

Fang had the best self-control in the pack; it made sense for him to babysit Vera. But Silver? His self-control was better than most, but Silver sensed that it was merely a convenient excuse to get him out of the way. Al wouldn’t want him interfering while they sold Lilith off to the Guild. After everything, Al still didn’t trust Silver to put the pack first. It stung more than he cared to admit.

“Okay,” Amber said, her flat tone indicating it was anything but. Her footsteps were heavy as she walked to the door. “I’ll get the search party started.” She closed the door behind her with more force than necessary.

Silver rolled his eyes. “You do it on purpose.”

Fang smiled. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

They watched Amber, Jake and Howl make their way down the street, heels kicking up dust as they headed for the lake. Silver wondered whether they’d find Lilith, whether he’d get to see her one more time before the exchange. Then he scowled, turned away from the window. It didn’t matter.

“They’re here,” Fang said.

Within minutes there was a knock on the door. Silver slid the door open. On the other side was the incubus, Vera in his arms.

“You hired him?” he snapped.

Fang nodded. “His powers have little effect on werekin, and what little influence he does have will serve to soothe Vera rather than agitate her.”

Silver scowled. “Let’s get this over with.” He stepped aside to let the incubus pass, fighting back a sneer when he detected Lilith’s scent. The incubus lay Vera down on the bed more gently than Silver would have thought possible. When he left the room, Silver stepped closer to the bed. Vera was pale, cheeks gaunt, the bulge of her stomach unnatural against her sickness.

“We can’t lose her,” Fang said, voice soft as he checked her vitals. “Not now.”

Silver didn’t reply. Without Vera, Al was nothing. Without Al, the pack would collapse . . . and if even a fraction of the rumours about the WPL were true, they would need every able-bodied wolf to keep the witches at bay.

If Vera died, everything would fall apart.

Chapter 42

“Are you going to tell her?” Manda asked, rolling over to face Silver properly. She was sprawled on the mattress, long hair fanned out across his pillow, the top two buttons of her blue shirt undone. She looked utterly at home in his bed, which made the stiff way he was sitting all the more awkward.

He adjusted the pillow behind his back, took his time responding. He’d seen the glint in Manda’s eye as they’d left The Where’s Inn, had known the questions were coming. But he’d hoped the situation with Vera would prove a sufficient distraction. “Tell who?”

“Being evasive now, darling?” She laughed throatily. “It’s more serious than I thought.” Then she propped herself up on one arm, smiling. “Surely I deserve to know more.”

He scowled then, turned to glare at her. “I don’t owe anybody anything.”

“You could at least tell the poor girl we didn’t sleep together.” She arched an eyebrow. “Unless, of course, you’re willing to change your mind about that.”

Silver looked away. Any red-blooded wolf would have jumped at the offer, tempted by those lean legs and strong shoulders, and there were other memories tempting him too: the way she squirmed, the taste of her slightly sunburnt skin and the way the dimple near her lower spine deepened when she arched her back. But today he couldn’t be tempted. His mind trailed inevitably back to Lilith, always Lilith, with her pale skin and vulnerable neck.

Lilith had been playing with his mind from the moment they’d met, and then Sam had gone and cornered her in the shower, spouting nonsense about the bond and her needs, and she’d just stood there naked without even trying to cover herself up. He almost wished he hadn’t interrupted.

“It’s none of her business,” Silver finally said.

A pause. Then Manda took hold of his hand and tugged. “Lie down,” she instructed, her voice brooking no argument. She looked like Amber, all mother-like concern, although with none of Amber’s know-it-all attitude.

He grudgingly complied, sliding down the sheets until his head touched the pillow. She curled up next to him, cat-like, eyes wide and curious and unblinking. Waiting, Silver realised, for him to explain.

“She’s not a wolf,” he said.

“Neither am I.”

“She’s done something, created a bond between us.” He sketched over how they’d met. “When I look at her, I want her. But it’s not real. It only exists in my mind.” Concern flitted across Manda’s face, and it was that expression that set him on edge. Silver rolled onto his side, his back to her, braced for the pitying comments, ready to tell her he was not weak. He had no time for weakness.

But Manda didn’t speak, just stayed still next to him, breathing evenly, and then after a few minutes she placed her hand on his shoulder. It was a light touch, unassuming, and while Silver knew he didn’t need anyone to survive—couldn’t let himself need anyone—the fact that for now at least Manda was there brought him some measure of comfort.

“Do you ever have nightmares?” Manda asked. She didn’t wait for him to respond. “You feel so frightened, so helpless. People tell you afterwards that it wasn’t real, but when you wake up, your heart is pounding, you’re breathless. The fear carries over.” Her sigh tickled the back of his shoulder. “If that isn’t real,” she added, “I don’t know what is.”

He didn’t move, kept his back stiff and unyielding.

“This responsibility you feel for Lilith . . . .” Her hand tightened. “Maybe it’s a nightmare, maybe one day you’ll wake up and it’ll have vanished. But for now it’s a part of you, and you have to deal with it.”

“I am dealing with it,” he retorted. “I’m taking her to the Guild, where she belongs.” Where she would be far away from him. And then, hopefully, the distance would dissolve any emotion that remained.

“Oh, honey. I never took you for one who’d run away from his problems.” She pressed her lips against his shoulder blade, traced a line up to his neck.

Silver closed his eyes. “There are more important things to think about.”

“Your happiness,” she breathed into his ear, “is just as important.”

He rolled over to face her. “Drop it.” His tone brooked no argument.

Manda’s lips tightened. She sat up, adjusted her hair. “I can’t help you, Silver.”

He sat up too. “There must be a spell—”

“You’re not listening.” She swung her feet off the bed and onto the floor. “Sam told you the truth: if you refuse to finish the bond, you must break it.”

“By killing her,” he said flatly.

“There are—”

Silver raised a hand to cut her off. A familiar trod was coming down the corridor. The steps stopped right outside the door, but no knock came. Well, Silver thought, glancing at Manda, considering what they could have been doing, the hesitation wasn’t a surprise.

“Come in,” he called out dryly.

The door slid open to reveal Amber, her face flushed.

“It’s Lilith,” Amber said. “She’s gone.”

Chapter 41

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.”

“Who? Sla’ik?”

“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.

Chapter 40

Two steps, then three, the distance stretching into metres. Lilith didn’t let herself look back, steadily placed one foot in front of the other. Forced herself to keep calm as the spot between her shoulder blades itched with the sensation of being watched.

She turned left onto the first side street, then stopped, placing one hand against the nearest wall to steady her heartbeat. Her head felt light yet she forced herself to concentrate. No sounds of pursuit, no cries of alarm. She’d escaped.

No, Lilith thought, as she began to walk again, more quickly now that she was out of sight. She’d begun her escape. It wasn’t over yet.

Small canopies of cloth were strung between the two rooftops, casting stripes of shadow across the narrow side street. The dirt road was trodden flat, the dust barely stirring with Lilith’s steps. She kept her head down, kept close to the wall, eyeing the passersby. Residents, mostly, judging by their sun-worn skin and calloused hands. None were wearing cloaks, and their curiosity about her was quickly smothered when they noticed the fang necklace.

At least it was good for something.

When Lilith emerged from the side street onto another wider road, she slowed. Over the rooftops of the nearby houses she could see the tip of a white dome—the stone building she’d seen in the market. The sky on the horizon was growing darker, the sun behind her sinking out of view.

Lilith’s pace quickened. Back in the forest, Amber had said that she could track Lilith by scent alone. There was only one place she could hide from someone who didn’t need eyes to find her.

She kept the white dome in sight, turning down side streets and alleyways to reach it all the faster. Eventually she emerged onto a wide square, hemmed on two sides by low-storied houses, the third side—directly opposite Lilith—opening onto the lakeside market. All of the stallholders had gone, but their stalls remained there, empty husks, canopies fastened down with rope.

To her left, towering over the square, was the stone building.

It seemed whiter than the nearby houses, the last rays of the sun blinding as they reflected off the domed roof. Lilith approached the wooden double doors slowly, eyeing the large green gross etched into the surface.

She’d remembered why the cross was familiar: it was the same cross that had adorned Dylan’s cheek. The cross of the witches. The WPL.

She took the fang necklace off, was about to drop it onto the ground when some impulse stopped her. Instead, Lilith tucked it into her pocket and walked up the three stone steps to the double doors.

There was no doorbell, no speaker phone. Lilith knocked against the door, softly first, then more firmly. The wood seemed to swallow the sound. Minutes passed with no answer, Lilith glancing between the doors, the sky, and the edges of the square. Amber had to have noticed she was missing by now.

Perhaps there was a side entrance.

She walked to the side of the building closest to the town, then hesitated, scanning the side streets, straining to make out a figure in the darkness. No movement, no sounds. It was now or never. Lilith kept close to the wall as she began to walk around the building, each empty alcove another disappointment. There were no entrances on this side, but perhaps there was one at the rear, or on the other side. There had to be something.

That’s when she heard it: the scuff of feet against the ground. Someone was following her.

Lilith glanced over her shoulder, caught a glimpse of movement. She stayed still, but no one came around the corner. Yet she could feel them watching, waiting. The moment she turned her back, they would strike.

Whoever it was, it wasn’t Amber.

Lilith sprinted around the back of the building, running on her tiptoes. She stopped around the corner, her back to the wall, eyes half-closed, listening, listening . . . 

Another scuff. Closer.

Then silence.

It couldn’t be any of the werewolves. Most of them preferred brute force over subtlety, and for all her cruelty, even Rae lacked the patience to play games.

There were no entrances on this side either. Lilith edged along the wall towards the front of the building, her heart pounding. It had been a mistake to come this way. Across from her was only open space, the waters of the lake dark and still in the twilight. Her only option was to sprint across the open square, where anyone would be able to see her. Unless . . . 

She ducked and ran towards the lake, the dirt beneath her feet giving way to pebbles. Lilith crouched behind one of the market stalls, pressing against the table legs, praying she hadn’t been seen.

For a long moment everything was still. The wind ran cold fingertips across Lilith’s neck, the perspiration sticking to her skin. The sky above the town was a dying blaze of orange, but where Lilith stood it was already dark.

Then it came around the corner. The figure was tall, cloaked, its footsteps heavy. Not human: the shape was wrong, the gait too rounded. Its hood was pulled low, shrouding its features from sight. As it walked around the corner, its head swung from side to side, questing the air.

Lilith stared, for a moment couldn’t bring herself to move.

Then something sharp hit the back of Lilith’s neck.

She fought back a gasp, turned to see an ewte poking its head out of the water. “Quick!” it whispered, extending an arm. “This way!” It was a female ewte. The same one as earlier? It was hard to tell; they all looked the same.

Lilith darted to a stall at the shoreline’s edge. When she looked back, her heart stopped. The figure by the building was staring directly at her. It took a step towards her, then another.

“Hurry,” the ewte insisted, shrinking into the water. “It can’t follow.”

But neither could Lilith breathe underwater. What if the ewte wanted to drown her? She hesitated, the water lapping at the tips of her shoes. Perhaps she could outrun them both, find Silver or Amber—any of the werewolves. Then her wrist flared in pain and she staggered, clutching her arm. The Snake’s mark was burning an angry red.

Now,” the ewte said.

The figure broke into a run.

Lilith didn’t give herself the time to think: she ran forward, took the ewte’s arm, and was dragged deep into the water.

And Above Ground’s cover art illustrator is…

News

As you all know, a (truly final!) print/ebook version of Above Ground is due out this October.

I’m super excited about getting the story DONE so that—after four(?) years—I can finally move on to the next project. I’ve been looking into the possibility of getting signed copies available, although that may be expensivo. We’ll see . . . I’ll let you guys know.

But let’s not jump ahead of ourselves here!

First things first:

Jeffrey Thompson has been signed on to do the cover art for Above Ground. Check out his Tumblr; he does great moody atmospheric work.

So what’s the cover going to look like?

Well, Afifa suggested an awesome idea of having a diagram of earth, stylised to show different levels. But the problem was that I couldn’t make up my mind on the levels and the diagram, so I couldn’t go with that!

In the end I pitched Jeffrey with two ideas:

Kunama suggested having an above-ground town/landscape on the top half, and a more technological-type city on the bottom half. This matched my original ideas too.

Jaid suggested a shot looking up at a sink hole in the ceiling, leading to the outside world. I tried to draw it and failed miserably.

Jeffrey Thompson, being an expert, made excellent mock ups of both, and I’ve ultimately decided to go with Jaid’s suggestion.

I’ll reveal the final cover in Octoberish, so keep an eye out for it!

(Pst, if you sign up for my mailing list, you’ll get to see it before anyone else.)

And lastly: thank you Jaid!

Woo!

Chapter 39

The second drink tasted marginally better than the first.

Lilith lifted the heavy wooden cup, felt the bitter liquid swill over her tongue. It tasted warm and stale, and left an acrid film on the insides of her cheeks. But it was alcohol, and after everything that had happened she deserved a drink.

“Slow down,” Amber said, already on her third. “It’ll hit you if you’re not used to it.”

Lilith took another sullen gulp in reply.

It was childish; she knew it even as she did it. But Lilith couldn’t rid herself of the anger and bitterness, the yearning for a life underground which with every passing moment seemed all the more distant. She missed being careless, fearless, that weightless confidence when she’d go out with her friends. Only three days ago everything had seemed possible. Now nothing was.

She set the cup down, noticed for the first time the deep gouges on the table. Each was the size of her finger, and when she lined her hand up against the marks, the blood drained from her face. Claw marks, large enough to tear her arm to shreds. Who had made them? The bar was half-filled with likely candidates, many of whom looked innocuously human.

Looked being the operative word.

“I thought you liked Silver, ” Lilith said, glancing at Amber.

The claw marks could easily have been Amber’s. As a human, she was hardly imposing: short, with a generous figure and curly red hair. But for a moment Lilith caught a glimpse of something much harder underneath—something sharp and calculating, gone so quickly she could have imagined it.

“I love Silver,” Amber retorted with a sharp glance. Then her expression eased slowly into amusement. “Lilith, he’s my brother.”

Lilith fought not to let her surprise show. “You two don’t look very alike.”

“Different fathers.” Amber pulled a ringlet of hair straight until it reached her shoulder. “Mine was a redhead; his genes trampled over everything else.”

“I always wanted a brother.” Lilith sipped at her drink, let her gaze wander across the room. Amber’s revelation had brought her a small measure of relief. But one big question remained. Stay calm, she told herself. Give nothing away.

“Me too,” Amber said. “I’ve only known Silver a few years. I don’t expect it’s the same as growing up together.”

“Better than nothing,” Lilith said.

There was a commotion at the bar: a man had spilled his drink on another. The first, dressed all in black, was apologising loudly. The second looked ready to kill. Then the bartender slammed his hands against the counter and glared at them both until they sat down meekly.

Amber relaxed, her fists unclenching. “Maybe you’ll find a long-lost brother one day,” she said.

Lilith turned back to her drink. “Here? Not likely.” Another swallow. Almost finished now. “Besides, we regulate these kinds of things. Family planning, child allowance . . . My parents were granted the maximum allotment of three, but they only wanted one child so—” she waved a hand “—here I am.”

It was the civilised way to procreate. Families were judged on income, intelligence, social position, genetic potential—a whole range of factors taken into account to determine their child allowance. Why have children you couldn’t afford to have? Children the government couldn’t afford to feed? It was selfish to only think of one’s own desires.

Instead of looking impressed, Amber was frowning. “And if you’re not allowed to have children?”

A shrug. “Then you don’t.”

“And you agree with this? With having no freedom of choice?”

Lilith finished the drink, felt a growing resentment over Amber’s attitude. “You’re one to talk,” she said, “with your pack rules, obeying every little thing Al says.”

“We choose to follow Al,” Amber replied. “It’s not the same.”

Lilith scoffed. “I choose to follow the law. I don’t see the difference.” She pushed the cup away from her, wondered whether she could stomach another.

“The difference,” Amber began, warming to the debate, but Lilith shook her head, stood up. She glanced at the claw marks on the table, and then across the room at the row of hard, unfriendly faces. They were all monsters here, and she would never belong.

“I need some air,” she muttered, turning to leave before Amber could stop her.

It was almost evening, the sky softened into a burnt orange by the setting sun. Lilith leaned against the wall, tilted her head back, ignoring the other infected standing outside with drinks in their hands. The vast, empty sky left her hollow inside. How could the infected live isolated from the rest of the world?

But that was it, she thought. This was their world. The dusty streets, the sun-worn rooftops, the blood and violence and death . . . they didn’t know anything else. To a dispassionate eye, Lilith’s childhood—so dominated by her parent’s divorce—paled in comparison to the hardships the infected faced. All her life, Lilith had strived to become unbreakable, and now in her greatest moment of weakness, the years of swallowing back tears counted for nothing.

It was Silver’s fault, Lilith thought, letting her head drop to stare at the ground.

The anger boiled up then, impossible to swallow. Why had he saved her and promised to take her home, only to leave her behind like an errant child? And even worse, why had she trusted him? Why hadn’t she gotten off his back and walked back to the theatre, copters be dammed?

Lilith thought of Manda, felt the anger grow with unmistakable jealousy. Jealousy! It was impossible to deny she had feelings for him then. Whatever the bond between them, it was more than physical need. But if Silver could ignore it, then so could she.

“You alright?” It was the bartender, stepping outside for a smoke. He was shorter than her, wiry, his thin moustache tinged with grey.

“Yeah,” Lilith said slowly, then again with more conviction. She pushed off the wall, straightened her shoulders and stared up at the sky, daring it to do its worst. What could it do? It was just empty space.

“Need directions?” he asked.

None of the infected standing nearby looked familiar. None of them were even looking at her, and Amber was still inside, out of sight. She could slip away without anyone noticing.

Lilith smiled, shook her head. “I know where I’m going.”

ASUS ZenFone 3 Laser review

Review android smartphone

The ASUS Zenfone 3 Laser is a good phone; for $200, you get a premium design, excellent battery life, and dual-SIM card support. With that said, there are also some significant drawbacks: the camera performance is just average, performance is bottlenecked by 2 GB of RAM, and the software design appears outdated.

Review Smartphone Android

Sadly, the Zenfone 3 Laser feels more like a downgrade compared to its predecessor. Some aspects like software and display quality remain unchanged, but many others have been downgraded. For example, the display is now coated in Gorilla Glass 3 instead of Gorilla Glass 4, the amount of RAM has been decreased from 3 to 2 GB, the speaker sounds worse, and the camera is not as sharp. Considering that both phones were released at the same price, we’re disappointed that ASUS didn’t pack in more with this iteration.

Tips dan trik android

Also, compared to competing options from other manufacturers, the Zenfone 3 Laser doesn’t really stand out. You may be better off purchasing the Honor 6X or even the Nextbit Robin. If you’re willing to wait a bit, the Moto G5 lineup also might be worth considering.Thank you for reading our written review of the ASUS Zenfone 3 Laser. We’d love to hear your thoughts regarding this device; would you buy it over competing options? Do let us know in the comment section below!

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