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As if she had read his mind, Ahramin spoke. "I wonder what Tala would say if she could see you now. With Bliss." She hissed the name, then almost choked from a fit of coughing.
"I'm not 'with Bliss,' so she wouldn't say anything," he said, trying not to sound defensive. "There's nothing to see. Nothing to say."
"Right. I noticed she didn't sleep in her bed last night."
He crushed his coffee cup. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"You're such a bad liar, Lawson. You always were," she said. "But your secret's safe with me."
"I don't have any secrets," he said shortly.
Ahramin raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
"What are you guys talking about?" Bliss asked, returning to the van. "We're all set. We can go."
"Where are we going?" Ahramin asked Lawson. "Marrok is a day's drive from here, and we'll have to hike the rest of the way through the canyons. We should be there by nightfall. If he hasn't moved his pack, that is."
Lawson had to make a decision. "You will take us to the white wolf. If what you say is true, we have wasted too much time already. If Marrok is here, he will need our help."
The group dispersed to the restrooms before the drive, but Lawson noticed Bliss hanging back. He turned to her. "You want to ride shotgun?"
She nodded and looked as if she wanted to say something more. She hesitated, then finally asked, "Are you sure about this?"
"I know what you're thinking. You don't think we should trust Ahri," he said.
"No, I don't. You told me when you were hurt that wolves never get sick, that disease and infection have no effect on you guys - but she coughs all the time. It's not just from the smoking. What's that all about?"
"I noticed it too. I don't know." He crossed his arms. "But I believe she's not a hound anymore, Romulus broke her collar. You saw the scars on her neck."
"If you say so," Bliss said.
"She's still one of us," Lawson said. "I have to believe that."
"During our escape from Hell, Ahramin sacrificed herself so that we would be free." He cleared his throat. "She gave herself up willingly, and I have to honor that sacrifice. I have to believe ... that what she says is true, that there is still wolf in her." He took a deep breath. What he had to say would pain Bliss, he knew. She had stopped them from taking things too far the night before because he had a feeling she had wanted it to mean something more, something that he was not yet prepared to give, given the circumstances. He stared at the ground, at the gray gravel in front of him, not able to look into her eyes. "I have to believe Ahramin is still a wolf. Because if Tala has been turned, if she is a hound, I have to believe that she can return to me."
Bliss took a deep breath. She patted his arm. "Of course. I would feel the same way if ..." She was thinking of the boy she had once loved, Lawson knew. "But let's just ... be careful."
He smiled at her. They were a team now, and he marveled at how quickly they had formed a deep understanding of each other in such a short time, from combatants to lovers to friends. "Always."
Bliss couldn't recall ever seeing a sky so black or stars so bright, with the moon hanging so low over the trees. The drive had been long and wearisome, and as they'd been warned, the hike was steep and treacherous. They had locked Arthur's van and left it at the base of the mountain, off the road, hidden in a copse of trees. Ahramin led the way as they walked through the woods, following a road up a long valley, over a pair of hills. Edon tried to keep up with her pace; Rafe and Malcolm followed them, with Lawson and Bliss at the rear. In the moonlight she could see that Lawson looked troubled. He had not spoken very much on the drive, and now she saw he had retreated deeper into himself, his brow furrowed, as he put one foot in front of the other, trudging along. They reached the crest of the first hill and looked down at the valley below, and Bliss heard Lawson suck in the air through his teeth. She turned to him and saw his face pale under the moonlight.
"What's wrong?" They were looking down at a strange formation on the ground below, with the body of a snake, an oval shape at its head.
Lawson squinted and shook his head. "I have a strange feeling. Mac," he whispered to his brother up ahead. "What is that thing? It looks familiar, like I've seen it before."
"You have," Malcolm confirmed, making his way back to them. "An old diorama of it, anyway. There's one in Arthur's show cave. It's a serpent mound." He explained what he knew, that the serpent mound was of Native American origin, built more than eight hundred years ago by an unnamed Paleo-Indian tribe. Its shape was made to celebrate the solstices, the body of the serpent aligned with the positions of the summer and winter suns.
The Indian burial mound was a man-made hill covered in dense grass, and Bliss could see that the serpent had three parts. It started with the tail, a winding spiral in three arcs that straightened near the head, which was triangular and made to look as if the snake had its mouth open. Inside the serpent's jaw was an oval pit dug into the earth. In the center of the excavation was a black rock.
"That's not it ... there's something more," Lawson said. "That serpent mound ... I'm pretty sure it's an entrance to the passages. The wolves must have found it and dug it out."
Malcolm whistled. "The dark roads? The Via Obscuris? Here?"
Lawson nodded. "The portal was supposed to bring us close to it when we crossed from the underworld ... Marrok had a feeling it would be here. It looks like he was right. Do you notice the circle and stone inside the snake's mouth?"
Bliss and Malcolm nodded.
"I'm pretty sure that conceals an entrance to the passages. The earthwork was a warning, built to ward off anyone who might disturb the site, to keep the portal closed."
Ahramin led them down the mountain toward it. Their footsteps crunched on the dirt and gravel. It was slow going; the path twisted and turned, and the slippery grass made it hard for them to keep their balance. Bliss felt her legs ache from the strain of keeping herself upright on the down slope. There was no sign of movement in the trees, no sign of wolves. If Lawson was right and the serpent mound concealed an entrance to the passages, what did it mean? Wasn't Romulus searching for this? Could it mean that the hounds were nearby? Bliss was more and more worried that Ahramin was leading them into a trap.
The silence was broken by a loud, rasping cough and Bliss startled.
"I'm okay," Malcolm said, turning around. "Sorry to scare everyone."
They picked their way through tall grasses that flanked the narrow path that wound down the steep incline, and they found themselves surrounded on both sides by high stone walls that shadowed the night sky. The cliffs were easily a hundred feet high, but only a dozen feet apart. The path between felt like an alley between skyscrapers, dark and tight. It was hard to move and impossible to see around the next corner. The serpent mound was at the end of it, Bliss realized, the gorge forming a natural protection.
If the wolves were here, they had chosen a good hiding place. Anyone who approached would need to wade slowly through the narrow passageway. The crackling shale floor slowly disappeared beneath a thick coat of watery muck. Bliss felt her feet sinking into the mud and was glad she'd worn boots that laced tightly. She heard Lawson curse as he tried to walk but found that his boot was stuck. When he pulled up his foot, he was shoeless.
"Everything all right back there?" Edon whispered from the vanguard.
"Miserable place for a midnight walk," Lawson muttered.
Bliss couldn't agree more. She was knee-deep in the coarse muck, unable to move as freezing water poured over her legs. It flowed through the mud and dripped down the loose shale walls. There was only the sound of water dripping.
Then Malcolm dry-heaved.
She exchanged stricken glances with Lawson, who stood frozen, still holding his shoe. "No one move," Lawson whispered as he pushed his way toward her through the mud, retrieved boot in hand.
Bliss held her breath as Lawson looked right, then left. What was it he'd told her earlier? Hellhounds faded in the sunlight. They were easier to see in the dark. She squinted. She couldn't see anything. "Where are they?" she asked.
"I don't know ... I can't hear them. Malcolm?"
The youngest boy shook his head, wiped his mouth with his sleeve. "I'm not sure. I thought I felt something ..."
"Where's Ahramin?" Lawson demanded, noticing they were missing one member of the group.
"She was here a moment ago ..." Edon replied. "You don't think ..." He shook his head, his forehead crinkling with worry. "No ... she couldn't ... she wouldn't ..."
Before anyone could answer, there was a scramble in the darkness. A roar, a growl, a flash of teeth in the dark. "There!" Bliss cried, seeing the dark girl appear out of the shadows. Lawson leapt, turning into a wolf to chase her down, but someone else got there first.
There was a flash of white, and Ahramin lay on the ground, paralyzed. Edon ran to her but he was shot down just as easily.
Bliss looked around as she and Rafe shielded Malcolm behind them. All around them, in the darkness, dark shapes began to emerge from the shadows. But the beasts did not have the telltale silver and crimson markings of the hellhounds.
"Wolves," she breathed. They were hiding in the earth, blending in with the black mud of the riverbed. She could see them now as they moved out of the darkness. Their lupine forms changed into human features, until they stood in front of them as boys and girls in ragged clothing. She could see their resemblance to Lawson and his brothers.
The group parted and a boy walked between them. His hair was platinum - Bliss realized he had been the white flash they had seen - and his eyes were strangely colorless, not quite silver or white, but clear. Marrok, the white wolf. He made his way to where Ahramin was lying next to Edon.
Lawson was kneeling by them, breathing heavily, but Marrok did not see him. He went straight to Ahramin and looked down at her with contempt. "Why, Ulric, you were right. It is Ahramin of the Hounds. Romulus's favorite huntress."
Bliss gripped Malcolm's hand tightly, but no one said a word; they were all trained on Marrok.
Ahramin struggled against the invisible restraints that held her. "Marrok - please. I wore a collar then. I understand your anger, but you must listen to me," she begged, coughing and gurgling.
"Why? So you can seduce me again? So you can lie and trick me into spying for the masters like you did in the underworld?" He placed his foot on her chest, but he didn't appear to be bearing down on her; he was merely making sure she was still unable to move.
"I was only doing as I was told. It was not my fault, just as you had no choice when you slew your own kin when you escaped."
In answer, he spit on the ground by her feet. Marrok turned to his wolves. "Ulric, Blaez, take this garbage away. Before she alerts the hounds to our presence." Then he looked around, as if noticing the rest of them for the first time.
"Marrok, my friend," Lawson said, a tense smile on his face.
"Ulf!" Marrok said. "What took you so long? And what are you doing with this traitor?"
If you're lost you can look and you will find me.
Cyndi Lauper, "Time After Time"
"It's Lawson now," he said as Marrok helped him to his feet.
"New world, new name," the white wolf said. "Makes sense." Marrok nodded as two large, burly boys picked up Ahramin and Edon and took them into the forest.
"Where are you taking them?" Lawson asked. "One of them is my brother."
"Do not worry, no harm will come to him, but I cannot promise the same for the hound." Marrok turned to Rafe and Malcolm. "There is food and drink in the camp. Go and find your friends. There are many from your den with us."
Marrok was striking, Bliss thought, but his beauty was marred by an ugly raised scar that bisected his face.
"A gift from Romulus," he said when he caught her eye.
"I'm sorry - I didn't mean to stare," Bliss said as Marrok turned his head to reveal the full scope of the burn that ravaged his face and neck.
"It's a wound that will never heal, but it reminds me not to take things for granted. I wear the mark with pride." He clasped his hands together. "Come," he said. "There is much to discuss, but we must have a good meal first." He looked at Bliss with narrowed eyes. "Your mate?" he asked Lawson.
"No - just a friend," Lawson replied while Bliss looked away, trying not to blush.
"You were like one of the masters once," Marrok said, studying her face. "Yet you are one of us now. You have a wolflike quality about you. Why is that?" He did not seem bothered by her, only curious.
"It's a long story," she said. She couldn't help staring at his strange, colorless eyes. He was pale, almost like an albino.
"Perhaps you will share it with me someday," Marrok said, and his tone of voice suggested he would like that very much.
Lawson smirked. "Stop flirting, you old dog. Get us something to eat."
Marrok led them past the serpent mound toward a group of trees that seemed tall enough to block the sun. Bliss found it difficult to know where to look first - the wolves had managed to create some sort of architectural miracle that seemed almost like an optical illusion. She was reminded of some M. C. Escher drawings, with their staircases that looped up and down, twisting and turning in ways that weren't entirely real. The wolves seemed to have woven the leaves and branches into a community of nest-like shapes connected with rope ladders that looped up and down and around the trunks of even the tallest trees.
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