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"What is it? What's wrong?"
"I'm not sure ..." He paced the room one more time and then turned to Bliss. "Follow me."
He banged the door open and darted down the hallway, brushing past a nurse so quickly that she dropped her tray. "Sorry!"
"Hey! You can't be in here!" the nurse yelled, but he was already at the stairs. He turned back to make sure Bliss was following him. Down. She's down the stairs. To the right.
He caught the scent again from a ventilation duct and tracked it down a long hallway, then stopped at the farthest door. "In here," he said. He put his hand on the doorknob. It wasn't locked. He walked inside.
There was a girl on the bed. She was hooked to a drip line and sleeping quietly. Lawson walked to her side and stared down at the sleeping girl. Her hair looked different; her skin was so pale it was translucent; she looked half-dead. What have they done to you?
Next to him, Bliss read the label on the bag of fluid attached to the girl's arm. "She's heavily sedated. Probably why there's no guard anymore, no need for locks."
Of course not, Lawson thought. No need for locks, not with that industrial-strength dope they're feeding her. She must have really scared the life out of everyone to earn that much of a dose.
He felt Bliss put a hand on his shoulder. "It's okay," she said. "Tala's going to be all right, we're going to get her out of here." He shook his head and he gripped the metal bars on the bed so tightly his knuckles were white.
"Lawson ... what's the matter?"
The girl opened her eyes then. Her bright blue eyes were the color of the sky, but her voice was mocking. "I think he's expecting someone else," she said.
"Ahramin," he said. The girl in the bed was the hound who'd been at their doorstep, the same girl who had bested him for alpha.
The day of the trials, when the gates had lifted, he had expected to see Varg, his strongest opponent. Instead, a lithe figure emerged from the shadows. Ahramin. He'd stared at her, unbelieving, but there was no sympathy in her eyes. She had fought him ferociously and she had triumphed. She had sunk her teeth into his neck. Had lifted him by the hair, displayed his white throat to Romulus, would have torn it, slashed it with her teeth, from ear to ear, but the general had spared him, and Lawson had been able to live.
But Tala was right, Lawson thought. I let her win. The masters had thrown him for a loop. He could not kill her - not Ahramin, one of his own, one from his den. He had been caught off guard and been defeated. He had allowed Ahramin to live, thinking he had made the bigger sacrifice. He had been prepared to meet his death rather than take her life. How could he have foreseen that doing so would mean that one day she would unleash the forces of Hell on his pack and destroy the only home he had ever known?
"Who's Ahramin?" Bliss asked.
"Tell her, Lawson. Tell her who I am. That's what they call you now, is it? Lawson? Strange name. But then again, you were always a little different," Ahramin said. "Nice to see you again, sorry about that house. It looked ... cozy."
Lawson clenched his jaw. He ignored her and answered Bliss. "She was one of us. Tala's sister. But they caught her when we escaped from Hell ..."
"And they turned me into one of them." Ahramin looked at Bliss. "Hello again. So you found wolves instead of hounds, did you? Interesting. I wondered if you would return."
Bliss thought Ahramin did look like Tala; she had the same almond-shaped blue eyes and the same fair skin, the same long face, the same slight build. But she didn't have Tala's round cheeks and a pretty smile. Ahri was taut, lean, and tense. She was like a lioness ready to spring. Dangerous. Untrustworthy.
"You're a hellhound," Bliss breathed. She should have known from the beginning, thinking of the dread that surrounded the room, the strange things that had happened to the nurses, the janitors.
"Not quite." Ahramin's face crumpled and for a brief moment Bliss saw the broken girl from the other day. "You've got to believe me, Lawson, I'm not a hound anymore. I'm not anything. Not even a wolf. I can't shift. I can't do anything. When I failed to bring you to him, Romulus broke my collar." She pulled her gown lower to show them the jagged black line around her neck, an imprint of the collar that used to be there. "He left me in that house to die, left me for dead in that fire we set for you."
"She's a hellhound, Lawson," Bliss warned. "She might have been your friend once but she's not anymore."
"You can't leave me here!" Ahramin cried. "You would abandon me again after everything?" she said, challenging him. "After my sacrifice?"
"Lawson - !" Bliss said, watching with horror as Lawson moved toward Ahramin and began to untie her foot restraints. "Think about it! You said so yourself - there's no going back after the change. You don't know what she's capable of!"
But Lawson ignored her, although Ahramin didn't seem to need any help - she ripped off the needles and wrenched her wrists out of their plastic shackles seemingly without effort. She nodded a thank-you to Lawson and walked out of the room, holding her hospital gown tightly closed. She walked regally, with her head held high, like a queen, the cheap cotton fabric like armor or couture. "Which way?" she asked when they came to the hallway.
"Here," Lawson said, leading them up the back staircase. He seemed cowed somehow, okay with taking orders. Bliss didn't know what to make of it. Maybe he was shell-shocked; maybe he was doing it only out of guilt. But there seemed to be no talking him out of it.
A nurse tried to stop them and Ahramin merely smirked. "I'm taking a walk."
If it was so easy to walk out, why hadn't she done it before? Bliss wondered. Why stay here? Because it was the only place she was safe from the hounds, Lawson had explained. Hallowed ground. Blessed space. Off-limits to underworld scum. There was no way Ahramin could still be a hellhound if she was allowed into St. Bernadette's. Maybe that was why Lawson was so confident that she was on their side? Bliss hoped so.
When they exited the hospital, Ahramin stopped in her tracks. Edon, startled by the noise, turned around and looked right at her. He gaped at her. "Ahri ... Oh my god ... Ahri ..."
Ahramin blinked her eyes. Edon hesitantly moved closer to her, a half smile forming on his lips. But the smile disappeared when he saw the hard, closed look on her face.
"Ahri - I'm so sorry - we failed you."
"Save your apologies, Edon," Ahramin said, her voice cold and flat. "I have no need to hear them."
Edon froze, his entire face red, as if she had just slapped him, and Bliss realized that somehow - without raising a hand - Ahramin had. Whatever had gone on between Edon and Ahramin was over; that much was clear.
"How are we getting out of here?" Ahramin asked.
"I'll get the van," Lawson said. Edon remained frozen, a statue, stricken, lost. "You guys, wait here."
"I'll come with you," Bliss said hurriedly. She ran to catch up with Lawson. "What's the deal, Lawson? Why'd you let her out of there - you don't know if she's telling the truth. Are you sure you're doing the right thing?"
"I can't abandon her. Back in the underworld, she was the head of our pack," he replied. "She bested me at the trials. She was our alpha."
"Well, alpha dog or not," Bliss said, "she's a real bitch."
Ahramin was kinder and softer upon being reunited with Rafe and Malcolm. She ruffled the younger boy's hair and smiled at Rafe. They piled back into the van and decided to drive to find the nearest campsite, Bliss in the back between Edon and Ahramin, who barely said a word to each other, Lawson and Rafe up front, with Malcolm in between, while Rafe drove.
"How did you guys end up hanging out with a vampire?" Ahramin asked, lighting a cigarette and rolling down her window. "You do know that's what she is, don't you?"
"I'm human," Bliss said with an edge to her voice. Where had Ahramin even found a pack of smokes? She'd walked out of the hospital in nothing but a cotton gown, but somehow she'd commandeered Edon's leather jacket and found his secret habit. Bliss frowned. She'd seen girls like Ahramin before, knew what they were like. She wasn't going to let her push her around, alpha or not. "You don't know anything about me."
"Bliss was the one who led us to you - without her, we'd never have found you," Lawson said, his voice firm. "You owe her."
"If you say so." Ahramin shrugged, then coughed noisily.
"How did you survive?" Lawson asked Ahramin, turning around to address her directly. "We all know what happens to a hound without a collar."
"What happens?" Bliss wanted to know.
"They die," Ahramin replied cheerfully. "It's pretty gruesome. The collars become part of a hound's soul, so when they rip it off, it's like ripping your heart out."
"Why are you here, then?" Bliss asked sharply.
"Maybe it's because I held on to a little part of myself, even after the change," Ahramin said quietly. "All I know is that when I woke up, I wasn't dead. Losing a collar would have killed a hound, but maybe it's because I was never completely a hound. When they turned me, I fought the transformation as hard as I could - and I think that somehow, I was able to hang on to a little bit of my soul. Of course, when the mortals found me, the Red Bloods sent me to the nuthouse. They said I was insane and maybe I did go out of my mind a little after everything that happened." She coughed again, a raspy, horrible choking noise.
"Quite a story, it seems awfully convenient," Bliss said. "That there's no going back except for you ..."
"I believe you," Lawson interrupted.
What was he doing? Bliss wanted to punch him. He accepted Ahramin without question - it was maddening. She didn't understand him, and felt a twinge of jealousy. He'd wanted to kill her, but with Ahramin - this hellhound - he was as cowed as a puppy.
"But you want to know about Tala," Ahramin said coolly.
"Yes." The air in the van was tense, and the smoke didn't help.
Bliss could tell how difficult it was for Lawson to hold it together. He'd been filled with hope on the drive to the hospital, and now his hope had been dashed on the rocks. Steady now, she thought. Steady.
"Before I tell you what happened to my sister, first let me tell you what the transformation was like," Ahramin said. "No one ever tells you what really happens in the pen. When they turn us into hounds. They strip you down. Not just to the skin, but to the soul. They make you forget - everything. They plunge the collar into your body, so that the silver leaches inside, becomes part of your blood. It's why all the hounds have silver eyes with crimson pupils. The poison becomes part of your body. You become the poison."
Edon made a strangled noise and tried to reach across Bliss to put a hand on Ahramin's arm but she shrugged it off impatiently, as if to show she didn't need any consolation.
"Then you hear it - all the time - Romulus's voice, in your head. In your dreams. He becomes part of you. It's ... inescapable. Do you know what it's like, being a slave to someone else's will?"
"Yes," Bliss said curtly, thinking of the way Lucifer had used her. "I do."
Ahramin ignored her. "They didn't make me come for you in the beginning. In the beginning I was just another drone. Another hound on a leash. Finally, they said it was time. They wanted to know how we had done it, and where they could find you. They'd tried without me, of course, but had been unsuccessful. Now they wanted my help. I had to track you down, bring you back, or Romulus would have my collar. For a while, like I said, I still remembered enough of my life that I was able to resist them at first."
She tossed her cigarette out the window and lit another. "But I had to give in at the last. It was too painful. You know what they do, you know what they're like. I had no choice. I agreed to lead them to you. We looked for you everywhere. Finally I got the scent. You stayed too long in one place."
"Tala ... I need to know what happened to Tala ..." Lawson interrupted.
But Ahramin continued her monologue. "So she did become your mate. I thought that might happen after she escaped with you. Still, she was such a plain little thing ... you never even noticed her before. You never cared for her in the underworld."
"What happened to her, Ahramin? What did they do to her?"
"They did what you might imagine." She shrugged. As if it were nothing. But her eyes were shining with tears.
Bliss could see Lawson's shoulders slump in the front seat. She glared at the dark-haired girl sitting next to her. "Stop torturing him. Answer the question. What happened to her?"
"Is she dead? Is Tala dead?" Lawson asked, his voice a hoarse whisper.
"No." Ahramin blew another smoke ring. It lingered in the air above them before dissipating, filling the van with its acrid smell. "But she may as well be. She's with Romulus now."
Bliss offered to pay for a hotel. After everything that had happened, everything they had learned, it seemed like a small consolation but a necessary one. No one had spoken in the van after Ahramin's announcement; Lawson had completely broken down, his face turning gray and blank, as if he had been shot, as if he were dead already. Bliss took command then - someone had to; Edon was just as useless as Lawson after Ahramin's rejection, and Rafe and Malcolm looked too frightened to know what to do. She ushered the boys into their own room and placed Ahramin in hers. The "former" hellhound - Bliss still had her doubts - seemed a bit subdued by the reaction to her news and had barely said a word to Bliss before bedding down.
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