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Her appreciation of the architectural beauty of it quickly turned to panic, though, as she realized that it would be impossible for her to reach even the lowest of the nest-like enclosures. She was about to ask Lawson what she should do, but discovered with a start that when she turned her head, the hive formation was gone.
She turned back to look at it and found it unchanged, and turned to Lawson again, only to see it all disappear.
Lawson noticed her confusion and smiled. "It's an old wolves' trick," he said. "Using humans' peripheral vision against them. This camp is only visible to humans if they look at it directly, and even then, they probably won't believe what they see, especially if it disappears when they turn their heads. It's a way of hiding in plain sight."
"Clever." She nodded.
He helped her climb the trees, teaching her where to place her feet, how to lift herself up with her hands. Marrok climbed ahead, leading them to a platform balanced precariously on the top of the boughs.
"What is this place?" Bliss asked.
"It's where I was supposed to meet Marrok, when we first escaped from the underworld," Lawson said. "I thought he would come out at the same place we did, and it turned out I was waiting at the wrong place. It looks like they've been here for a while."
On the platform, a meal had been prepared. "I hope you don't mind an early dinner," Marrok said. "Since we gained our freedom, we've tried to keep some of the old Roman traditions alive, so our main meal is the cena, the late-afternoon meal."
"I'd eat anything at this point," Lawson said.
They sat cross-legged in front of a basket of bread and a plate of roasted meat. For a while, no one spoke as they focused their attention on eating.
Lawson finally pushed his plate away. "I gave up on you," he said. "I thought there was no hope."
"I'm sorry we were a bit delayed. We had some trouble," Marrok murmured.
"We were not privy to the details of your escape, we did not know that Ahramin had been captured. The hounds sent her to our den. We trusted her. But she was already one of them. Luckily one of us noticed the crimson around her pupils and we told her nothing. When they realized she was useless as a spy, they sent her above-ground. We only managed to escape after she'd gone. We tried to find you when we got here, but kept missing your scent. I'm glad you found us."
"I thought we were alone," Lawson said. "I thought we were the only ones who made it out. But then we found Ahramin, and she said there were other free wolves. I didn't know what to believe; I thought it might be a trick, I wasn't sure what I would find when we got here."
"Ahramin ..." Marrok shrugged. "She is a traitor. We have been looking for her since Romulus unleashed her on us."
"She says Romulus broke her collar, that she is no longer a servant of the beast," Lawson said. "She led us to you. I would never have come back otherwise."
"She might be playing a more complicated game with you. With us."
Lawson reached for a piece of bread and tore it with his fingers, crushing part of it into a yeasty ball. "If you release her to Edon, I can promise that he'll keep an eye on her."
"Edon, who loves her so desperately he won't leave her side? I think not."
"She's part of my pack," Lawson said.
"Ulf, you are my friend, but I'm sorry," Marrok said, "there's nothing she can do that will make up for how she betrayed us."
Lawson sighed. "You have the chronolog?"
"It wasn't easy," Marrok said as he broke off a piece of bread and nibbled on it.
"Fenrir raise his ugly head?" Lawson asked. "Is that how you got it?"
The light-haired boy shook his head and smiled. "I'm telling you, that's a myth."
"Who's Fenrir?" asked Bliss.
Lawson explained that there was a legend among the wolves that one day the great wolf Fenrir would return and free them from slavery. It was something wolf cubs told each other, especially during those last desperate days before they would be turned into hounds ... that one day they would return to their former glory ... that one day, someone would come ... someone would be sent ... to help them ... to free them. "Just another old wolves' tale," he said, smiling. "Obviously we didn't need anyone to free us from the underworld. We freed ourselves. How many more wolves managed to escape?" he asked Marrok.
"Not as many as we'd like, much less than we'd hoped," Marrok said. "A centuria at most."
"Where are they?"
"Scattered. The hounds hunt us day and night; many of us have been captured and sent back."
"How many are here?"
Marrok shrugged. "Fifty, sixty at most. You saw the entrance to the passages, I assume? The serpent mound?"
"Yes." Lawson nodded.
"The dark roads have returned to us," Marrok said. "The power of the wolves is growing"
"So it would seem," Lawson said.
Marrok took a long drink from his goblet. "There's something more you should know. We have been tracking the hounds as well, to avoid their movements. One of our spies found this in the remnants of their camp. I think it belongs to you?" He handed it to Lawson.
Lawson stared at it in his palm. It was a small gold chain with a heart locket, engraved with a crescent moon. A trinket from the mall, a cheap little thing, but Tala had wanted it and he had given it to her. She always wore it; she never took it off. Someone must have pulled it off her neck, must have broken the chain.
"It's Tala's, isn't it?" Bliss asked.
"Yes." Romulus was taunting him, Lawson thought; Romulus knew the wolves were tracking the hounds, and he'd meant for someone to find it, to bring it back to Lawson. Romulus wanted Lawson to know he held her life in his hands. Wanted Lawson to come to him to rescue her. Wanted Lawson to show himself, wanted to bring him closer.
"Tala, who escaped with you?" Marrok asked.
Lawson nodded. "But she did not get away the second time. When the hounds returned."
"We did not see a wolf in their midst, but we could be wrong. Their numbers are great. Our spies tell me that Romulus's pack is making its way here. They will be upon us in a day or two."
"They are close, then - that must have been why Malcolm felt ill," Lawson said.
Marrok continued. "He is gathering his hounds for Rome, to the beginning of the empire's founding, as Lucifer wanted. The loss of the chronolog hasn't changed or slowed his plan, but I don't understand how he presumes to navigate the dark roads without one. Without a chronolog to guide them, the passages are useless. He must know something we don't."
Lawson ruminated on the news, still holding the small gold chain tightly. "Let him find the passages. Let him come."
Marrok frowned. "What are you saying? I've sent a call to the wolves to defend the passages from him."
But Lawson was adamant. The light was back in his eyes, and his voice was confident. "When Romulus and his hounds arrive, we will let them inside the passages. Let them go to Rome. I will take my pack after and follow him inside."
"What?" Bliss cried out.
"I'm with her," Marrok said. "Why?"
"Outside of Hell, Romulus is vulnerable. Especially in Rome, he will have to retain human form. He will be weaker. Don't you see? We can kill him, Marrok. I know we can. We must strike now. This might be our only chance."
"Kill an ancient wolf? You forget he is immortal. Only we new pups die like ants crushed beneath a heel."
"I did not forget," Lawson said. He removed a small velvet pouch and showed them the needle inside it, which had unlocked their collars in the underworld. "I still have this." Before their eyes, it grew to the size of a sword, shining golden in the moonlight.
"That is Michael's sword," Bliss breathed. "An archangel's blade. But it was broken," she said, remembering how the glass she had held had shattered into a million pieces.
"A heavenly blade is never broken, the masters found it after a great battle aboveground," Lawson explained. "It was the deadliest weapon in Hell's arsenal. It carries the White Fire of Heaven." The Hand of God, it was known as among the creatures of the underworld.
"It can kill that which cannot be killed," Bliss murmured, thinking of the blood the sword had shed. Of how it had been used for ill gain. Of the vampires who had fallen to its power. It was the sword that had killed Lawrence Van Alen. It was the sword that she had plunged into her own heart, breaking her father's hold on her spirit.
"It can kill Romulus and it will," Lawson said, gritting his teeth. "I swear it."
At the end of the meal, Marrok bid them good night. "You will be safe here," he promised. "Until daybreak, then."
Lawson left Bliss as well to check on his brothers. She found a few worn blankets at the edge of the platform and settled down to rest, although sleep did not come easily. Lawson's plan worried her. He was so certain he could bring down Romulus and maybe even rescue Tala. Was Tala in a position to be rescued? Bliss thought of the ugly black scar on Ahramin's neck and shuddered. Lawson was filled with hope now, and it was driving his decisions, but that didn't mean his plan had any chance of succeeding. And if it didn't succeed, Lawson and his brothers were headed for either death or captivity. She wasn't sure which was worse.
On top of everything else, Bliss had a larger purpose for finding the pack in the first place. She was supposed to tame the wolves, to bring them back to the fold. How was she going to do that if her friends - and even though she had just met them, she knew they were her friends - were captured or dead? Jane was still missing too, and they weren't any closer to finding her.
Bliss sat up with a start. It had just occurred to her how Jane was connected to the hounds. What was it that Marrok had said about the passages?
I don't understand how he presumes to navigate the dark roads without the chronolog.
Then it occurred to her. The answer wasn't what Romulus would use; it was who. She had to find Lawson and tell him immediately. She scaled down the trees, finding her footing in the dark. She followed the murmur of familiar voices and found Lawson, Rafe, and Malcolm huddled in a lower enclosure.
"Hey, Bliss," Malcolm said, smiling. "Cool to be around all the wolves, right? Almost feels like home."
"Edon still with Ahramin?" she asked.
"Yeah, he won't leave her even though they're not holding him in a cage. We just checked on them. They're both fine," Rafe said. "A bit irritable, but that's to be expected."
"I was about to go up," Lawson said to her. "You climbed down all by yourself?"
She nodded. "I couldn't wait. I figured out something important."
"You told them what Marrok said? About Romulus's plans not changing?" she asked. The boys nodded. "Okay. It's about Aunt Jane. She was the Watcher. The Pistis Sophia," she said. "The Immortal Intelligence of the Blue Blood Coven. She's a seer. Marrok said he didn't know how Romulus planned to make his way through the passages without the chronolog. Well, after Marrok stole the chronolog, Romulus stole something too; he stole Aunt Jane. He's planning to use the Watcher to navigate through time. It's why the hounds took her. It has to be."
"You never mentioned that before," Lawson said. "The Watcher, huh? What does that mean?"
"I'm sorry ... it's complicated." Bliss explained, as quickly as she could, Jane's various incarnations, among them the sister of Lucifer, and how she'd now returned in the form of Jane Murray, the woman Bliss called Aunt Jane. "I thought the hounds took her to keep me off their scent," she said. "But now I think they took her because of who she was, not because of who I am."
"Have you heard about this Pistis Sophia?" Lawson asked Malcolm.
"No, but that doesn't mean anything," Malcolm said. "But I'm guessing it's most likely because this Watcher is something the vampires keep a closely guarded secret. An oracle who can predict the return of the Dark Prince is not something they would reveal to the rest of the world."
"So ... this Immortal Intelligence can make the chronolog unnecessary?" Lawson asked.
"I'm not sure, but I'm guessing yes, it could."
"I can see where stealing her would be easier than getting the chronolog back from Marrok," he mused. "Can they make her do it, though? Would his powers work on someone like that?"
"I don't know," Bliss admitted. She wasn't sure what Jane was capable of, didn't know how long she could resist them.
Lawson must have seen the distress on her face. He reached over and put a hand on her shoulder. "We'll find her," he said softly. "If she's been through that much in her many lifetimes, she'll make it through this. We'll find her, and we'll bring her back to you."
"Thank you," she said.
He smiled at her, looking handsome and regal even as he was sitting in the dirt, leaning against the tree. He began to empty his pockets, just like a boy, Bliss thought; they always removed their wallets and phones when they sat down. He tossed a stack of pictures held together by a rubber band on the ground.
"Could I see that?" she asked.
She picked up the stack and looked through the pictures. In the middle was the postcard she had seen before. It was the image of a painting showing a riotous struggle between an army of Roman centurions and a defenseless crowd of women. One figure, however, stood motionless and calm at the top of the scene. He wore red robes, carried a staff, and held a single hand aloft.
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