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"I can help," Malcolm said, and showed Bliss how to set the chronolog again.
Again they moved through time, but more quickly. Probably because they didn't have far to go, Lawson figured. The passages finally landed them where he wanted to be.
"Where are we?" Bliss asked. "Is this where we're supposed to go?"
"That's the house," he said, pointing to an ordinary-looking brown house at the end of a familiar cul-de-sac. There was a foreclosure sign on the front lawn. "Look, we'd just arrived, the curtains aren't up yet. Remember those, Mac?"
"I remember," Malcolm said quietly.
"Lawson, we need to keep moving," Bliss said. "Marrok might need our help."
"Hold on just a moment," he said excitedly. "See, we can change what happened. I can leave a message - tell them to run. Tell myself to run. So they won't stay here. Then the hounds won't come and Tala will be alive. She'll be alive." Lawson turned to them, his eyes shining.
But his brothers just shook their heads. Ahramin was mute, hesitant.
"Bliss ... you understand, help me. Help me do this."
"No, Lawson." Her tone was kind, but firm. "You know the rules. You're a Praetorian. You can't change the past. You can't change what's happened. Time must be allowed to flow, and the course of history must remain unchanged. You told me that."
"No, not in this instance. No."
"You've got to let her go, Lawson. It's the only way you're going to be able to move forward," Bliss said. She put a hand on his arm. "I know you loved her, but you've got to say goodbye."
Lawson closed his eyes. Bliss was right. Of course she was right. He couldn't change what had happened, not if he wanted to remain true to what he was, to what Tala had loved about him from the start.
With tears in his eyes, he watched as the door opened and Tala appeared in the doorway. He felt his heart swell with love and sadness.
Tala looked across the way, almost as if she were looking right at him, but he knew she couldn't see him.
She had a smile on her face. She was happy. They'd been happy for a while in that little brown house. A bright and peaceful happiness after the darkness of their life in the underworld. It hadn't lasted very long, but Lawson would treasure that love; he wouldn't let his love destroy him. He would let it make him stronger.
She was so beautiful and kind. She loved him so much.
Every moment in time happened all at the same moment. That was the way of it in the Passages of Time. There was no past and no future, only an endless present. And in this moment, Tala was alive, and Tala was happy. He would have this moment forever, he realized. It was not lost; he could return to it, again and again, in his memory. It would sustain him. He thought of Bliss, who had suffered a loss as well. I lost someone too, and he's gone, she'd said. I have to let go. He would be strong for her, he thought. He would move on, like she had.
Tala, I love you. Goodbye.
Why, Lawson, where are you going?
He recoiled. She had heard him. She looked out into the darkness with a frown on her face. Then she turned around and there he was. The Lawson from the past was standing behind her. He put his arms around her and they kissed.
Lawson remembered that kiss.
It had been a good one.
"Lawson, we've set the coordinates," Bliss said. "We're ready to go."
He turned away from the house and followed his pack down the passage.
This time they landed in the dark, underground, deep within the earth. "We must be under the serpent mound," Malcolm said.
"Start walking," Rafe said.
Lawson led the group through the narrow tunnels, limping a little. Finally they reached the end of the tunnel; the sun lit the exit, and they rose out of the ground, one by one, until they were all standing next to the serpent mound. Lawson signaled the team to remain behind him. He looked down at the ground. It was covered in blood, a dark red stain on the dirt and grass.
"Marrok?" he whispered.
What had happened here? He felt a sickening lurch in his stomach, a knot of guilt forming at the thought of what he'd left the wolves behind to do.
"Hounds?" Bliss asked.
Malcolm shook his head. "I think they're gone," he said. "I feel fine."
Rain began to fall, lightly, in cold drops. The sun remained in the sky but its light faded, though not enough to block the sight of a body, just steps past the entrance. It was Ulric, the big wolf. He'd been gutted from belly to throat. It made sense that he would have been the last to fall; Lawson remembered from the pits he'd been a fierce warrior. It appeared the wolves had held off the hounds as long as they could, but ultimately they had lost. The field was strewn with the corpses of dead wolves, some in human form, some in their wolf skin. There were dead hounds too; Lawson noted with satisfaction that the wolves had taken down many of them, more than he'd expected them to.
"Ulf," a voice called.
Lawson saw Marrok lying motionless in the damp earth. A black sword was wedged in his chest. The rain had begun to wash the wound clear, but Marrok had lacked the strength to remove it. The metal glistened in the faint sunlight.
Lawson removed the blade. Marrok began to heave with pain. The rain grew stronger and poured over his face, welling in his eyes and nostrils. His skin was pale and still, almost lifeless. Lawson pressed a firm hand to the cut and dark blood flowed outward through his fingers. He said the words that Arthur had taught him, and prayed that Marrok would heal.
"It's no use," the fallen wolf said. "The hounds' swords carry the Black Fire. Nothing can help me now."
"Marrok ... brother ..." Lawson said, feeling tears form in his eyes.
"We held them off as long as we could," Marrok said.
"You fought bravely," Lawson said, and everyone else nodded behind him. "It was not in vain. We made it to Rome and averted the massacre. The timeline is intact. Romulus is dead. The Great Beast of Hell has been silenced."
Marrok smiled and coughed; dark blood dribbled from his chin.
"What can I do for you, my brother?" Lawson asked. "How can I ease your passage?"
Marrok closed his eyes, and Lawson was afraid he had already lost him. Then, with some effort, he opened them again. "Promise me again what we promised back in the underworld. That you will free all of our people, that you will not rest until we return to our former glory, as guardians of the abyss. Use your power to restore order and keep the timeline pure. Now that the passages are open, time is vulnerable. You must guard them, protect against their misuse. It is imperative that they do not fall into the wrong hands. Even as Romulus has been defeated, there are others who will use the passages for their own gain. The Dark Prince ..."
"You have my word," Lawson said, clasping his hand.
They sat there together for a long time, long enough that Lawson thought maybe Marrok had been wrong, maybe there was a chance that he could make it. The rain continued to fall, washing the dirt from Marrok's white hair, mixing with the tears now streaming from Lawson's eyes.
Edon, Malcolm, Rafe, and Ahramin all knelt down on the muddy ground, encircling the fallen wolf. Bliss knelt with them, next to Lawson, pushing his wet hair off his forehead and then placing her hand on his back. The feel of her palm steadied him as he watched Marrok fighting the pain. Was it possible? Was there any hope?
Marrok lifted his head to look Lawson in the eye. "It's been an honor, Fenrir," he whispered. Then he closed his eyes. His skin went gray, then black as the fire of Hell consumed him.
"Goodbye, my friend," Lawson said.
Lawson regarded his pack. His brothers: Malcolm, Rafe, Edon. Ahramin, who had returned to them. Bliss, the vampire in their midst. He turned to her now. "The Fallen need us for this task, you say. To help them in this war against our masters."
He nodded. "We will go with you. We will help you," he said. He had meant what he'd said; he should never have doubted her for a moment, regardless of her parentage. Bliss Llewellyn was his friend. Maybe more, if he would let her be. It was too soon to think of that now. His feelings were too new, too painful after discovering what had happened to Tala. He thought of what the oculus had shown him. He had asked it to show him his mate, and he had seen Bliss in the light. Did they have a future together?
"You have a wolf's name, and like us, you are a creature of the underworld. If you take the pact, you will be one of us," he said.
"I'll say the words, if you will lead," she said softly.
Together they formed a circle and began to recite the words that bound them to each other.
We are wolves of the guard, soldiers of the light.
Hunted and haunted, by the beasts of the night.
Friend to all and foe to none,
Love and loyalty bind us as one.
Time and tide shall heal all wounds
Memories and madness shall not consume.
To death and despair we shall never surrender,
The pact never to be forsaken, or torn asunder.
Lawson laid a hand on Bliss's cheek. When he removed it, her skin glowed with a pale blue crescent sign.
He turned to the other girl. His onetime rival, his onetime alpha. "Ahramin, you have returned to us, and we accept you as our sister once again."
"I am proud to run with you once more," Ahramin said. She felt her cheek in wonderment. "My sigil - it's returned," she whispered.
Then slowly, one by one, the six wolves walked back into the forest.
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