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She stood in a seductive curve, her body sinuous and snakelike, her hand on her hip, jutted out like a fashion model. Her thick dark hair moved with a life of its own, swaying like satin ribbons around her face. Like Medusa, she had a cold and dangerous beauty, the beauty of a cobra or a lioness. She was dressed for battle, her black armor glinting in the twilight.
Lawson stood motionless at the door, unable to shake her gaze. His heart dropped into his stomach; he couldn't breathe.
No. No. Not now. No.
"Lawson!" Tala's voice snapped him out of his daze. "What's wrong? Who is it?"
When he didn't answer, she pushed him aside to look through the peephole. "Oh no," she whispered. "Lawson!" she cried. "DO SOMETHING!"
Her voice shook him into action. "THEY'RE HERE!" Lawson yelled. He could smell the hounds now. They'd be on them in an instant, coming from all directions, ducking through shadows and hiding in trees, making their way toward the house, bringing fire and ash.
"Make sure Edon doesn't see!" he said, grabbing Tala's arm. Lawson began to barricade the door, tossing everything he could find against it - the chairs, the kitchen table. "Get everything we need! We're not coming back!"
Tala nodded and ran to secure the treasures of their pack.
"RAFE!" he cried. "Everyone to the middle, get ready to jump!"
"I've got it!" his brother yelled, hustling Malcolm toward the living room.
He was so frightened he couldn't think, but he had to concentrate if he was going to get them all out of there, if they were going to survive this.
"It'll hold," Lawson said to Malcolm, who was shaking. "They can't get in the house."
Wordlessly, Tala pointed to the windows, her eyes wide with fright and despair.
He turned to see. Outside, flames ringed the perimeter. If the hounds couldn't enter the house, they would burn it to the ground.
The circle of flames was still far enough away that Lawson could see the snow-covered grass in between the fire and the house. But it wouldn't be long before the fire gained energy and started moving closer. All his planning, all his nights of worry wasted. The first home they'd ever had, about to be destroyed. His biggest fear was upon them, and he hated himself for thinking they'd been safe even for a moment. He slammed a fist hard against the wall.
Tala grabbed him by the shoulder. "Don't. We'll find another home. We built this one together, and we'll build another."
He swallowed hard, kissed her forehead brusquely. Thank god for Tala.
The scent of smoke made its way into the living room.
"Where's Edon?" Rafe asked.
Lawson knew where he was. He exchanged anguished looks with Tala. "I'll get him," she said.
"No - let me," Lawson said.
He ran to the kitchen.
Edon stood transfixed at the front door, peering out through the peephole. "You didn't tell me," he said without moving; he must have heard Lawson's footsteps behind him.
A low, throaty voice whispered from the doorway, "Come to me, Edon ... I've missed you so much."
"It's not her," Lawson said. "Not really. Not anymore. You know that." He'd seen her eyes, seen how their blue had turned a deep reddish-black. "Ahri's one of them now." Ahramin had been turned. She was no longer a wolf; she walked upright; she carried a black sword; she was an extension of Romulus's will. A Hound of Hell.
"Edon, open the door so we can be together again ..."
"I have to open it," Edon said.
"I can't let you do that." Lawson pushed Edon away from the door as Ahramin began pounding on it so hard that it made the walls shake and the light fixtures swing wildly. The pummeling was relentless, and it felt as if not just the door but the whole house would collapse from the fury of her blows.
The girl's taunts turned to screams as the door held. "EDON!" she thundered as Lawson pulled his brother back into the living room. "EDON, IF YOU STILL LOVE ME, LET ME IN!"
Now that Edon was with them, the circle was complete. Edon sat dazed between Lawson and Rafe, who each held on to him in case he tried to make a run for the door.
"Can they follow us?" Malcolm asked, his eyes red and nose dripping.
"The hounds can't come through the portals," Lawson assured him. "At least the ones I make, I'm pretty sure." He didn't know how he knew; it was just instinct, but it felt right. "Close your eyes, and focus your hearts and minds."
Lawson waited until everyone had their eyes closed, and then began to open the portal with his mind. It would be a much more dangerous jump than their escape from the underworld; their souls would have to cross first and their bodies would follow, unlike in Hell, where their spirits and flesh were one. Around them, the windows cracked and glass shattered. Dust drifted down from the ceiling. The smell of smoke was overpowering. Outside the sky was an eerie charcoal, and smoke billowed around the house. He could see the first wisps of flame edging toward the window. And then it was upon them.
The room turned a dull orange as strips of flame shot across the old carpet. The heat was unbearable, but familiar: the black fire of Hell. The ceiling glistened and blistered.
Lawson felt the passage open, felt the universe expanding to create this space, a space for them to be safe. In his mind's eye, he watched as one by one the brothers crossed over, even as he kept his actual eyes open so he knew what was happening in the room.
Tala was waiting for him. Go, he urged her in his mind. Go now.
Only with you, she sent back. A charred beam fell from the ceiling and struck her. She fell backward, unconscious. Her mind lost its connection to his.
TALA! TALA, WAKE UP! WAKE UP! Lawson screamed as he stood at the border between the worlds. But there was no more time. Through the red-hot skeleton of the house, he could see dark figures gathered. Hellhounds, hunched in anticipation.
No. He couldn't lose her. He began to break the connection and the portal started to close. Their bodies were frozen in a circle, asleep and oblivious to the fire that raged around the room, as walls ripped open with flame.
His brothers began to yell. LAWSON! HURRY!
He reached out again for her mind, but he couldn't find her. For a few desperate seconds, there was nothing. Then, suddenly, the spark between them returned.
GO! Tala screamed. GO! YOU DON'T HAVE TIME! LEAVE ME!
I CAN'T, he screamed back. I WON'T!
The boys stood by the open passage, waiting while the room burned. Soon their bodies would be sacrificed to the flames and all would be lost. But still Lawson did not move. He was as paralyzed as Edon had been earlier at the door.
Tala, no ... I won't leave you the way Edon left Ahri. I can't let that happen. I won't.
Go ... Her voice was weaker now. But when she saw that he was hesitating, her voice recovered the ferocity he knew and loved so well. Remember the pact! Go!
But she pushed him away with her mind, and before he knew what was happening, he had joined his brothers on the other side. The portal continued to close and he heard her scream as a whip cracked in the flames.
TALA! Lawson's heart broke in anguish and fear. TALA!
In one instant the brothers were sitting in the burning living room; in the next, they had disappeared. The house shuddered, heaving its last gasp, and collapsed, the hounds storming the ashes of what they'd left behind. But Lawson and his pack were gone, save one.
Bliss Llewellyn waited at the airport for Aunty Jane to pick her up from the bonding she'd just attended. Aunt Jane wasn't really her aunt; she was the latest incarnation of the Pistis Sophia, the Immortal Intelligence, what the Blue Bloods called the Watcher. She had been Lucifer's sister in an earlier cycle and since then had been destined to foresee the return of the Dark Prince from the underworld.
Bliss scanned the cars, looking for her aunt's Honda Civic. Sturdy and reliable, just like the form the Watcher had taken in this life, she thought. Jane Murray was a short, sensible-looking woman of late middle age who favored brightly colored wool cardigans, plaid skirts, and brown moccasins and was known to quote from Austen or Shakespeare when the mood struck.
She wondered why Jane's powers didn't extend to making them look more like relatives. Though the Watcher hadn't managed it the last time, either; when she'd taken the form of Bliss's sister Jordan, everyone always remarked they didn't look like sisters. Bliss herself was tall and rangy, with long, thick hair that fell in russet waves down her back. She'd even been a model once, back in New York, in another life. A life that had probably ended with the bonding she'd just left. When would she see her friends again? she lamented, thinking of Schuyler, Jack, and Oliver. She missed them so much already.
As Bliss wandered up and down the sidewalk outside the airport, her hand slipped under her shirt, and her fingers traced the long, ugly scar in the middle of her chest, a rumpled ridge of skin, bumpy and coarse. She tried not to pick at it, since it just made it worse when she did, but it was hard to stop.
The scar was a reminder of the girl she had been, dark history marked on her pale flesh. Lucifer's daughter. Devilspawn. Silver Blood: a corrupted vampire who fed on the souls of its own kind. A Dark Angel cursed to live the rest of her immortal life on earth, reincarnated through the cycles to perform her father's bidding. The Dark Prince had been using her as a way to seek revenge on his enemies, to wreak havoc and terror.
In the end she had managed to fight him and regain control of herself, her body, her memories. There was some cold comfort in knowing that it was all behind her, that there was nothing left of her father's malice except for a faded purple gash where she had plunged a knife into her own body rather than murder another innocent victim. Bliss had been ready to face death, ready to make the ultimate sacrifice. But she'd been blessed with another chance, a new life, a new way forward to redeem the past and forge a new identity.
But now that she was no longer Senator Llewellyn's eldest daughter, no longer a student at Duchesne, no longer a cheerleader from Texas, she didn't know who she was supposed to be. Was she still immortal? Her mother, Allegra Van Alen, had told her that she was human now, and that her true name was Lupus Theliel. Wolfsbane. But Allegra hadn't told her what it meant. She'd only told her to find the wolves. They are demon fighters and we will need them in the final battle with the Silver Bloods, she'd said. Tame them. Bring them back to the fold. She hadn't said anything else - not where to start, not where to go, nothing at all about how this task was to be accomplished. Bliss had managed to put it out of her mind so she could enjoy her friends' bonding, but now that she was home, she needed to get to work.
Finally, Aunt Jane pulled up to the curb. "Hop in," she said. "We've got a long drive ahead of us." Bliss thought about how much her friends would make fun of her if they could see her with this woman in this car.
"Where are we headed?" Bliss asked. Before she'd left for Italy, they had been investigating a case in Chicago, but Jane had told her to take a return flight directly to Ohio instead.
"Hellhounds in Cleveland?" Bliss said, smirking a little.
"Maybe," Jane sighed. "Allegra must know something I do not if she thinks you can bring them back to our side. Hellhounds are uncontrollable, violent, and vicious, creatures of shadow. This is a dangerous proposition she has laid on your shoulders. We will have to exercise utmost care."
"But Allegra said they stood with the Blue Bloods once ... that they've just been estranged," Bliss said.
Jane explained. "The hellhounds are Lucifer's Dogs. When the Dark Prince was known on earth as Emperor Caligula, they were his guards, the best soldiers in the vast Roman army. But the hounds turned tail, betraying their master to stand with the Blue Bloods during the Crisis in Rome, helping Michael to send the demon king back to the underworld. They disappeared soon after. Some say they were punished for their actions, and once again do Lucifer's bidding. The Repository isn't clear on this, though."
"Aunt Jane," Bliss said in a small voice. "If the hounds are with Lucifer, that means we'll have to go down to the underworld, doesn't it ... to find them? Down to the Ninth?" She shuddered at the thought of it. She had no desire to see her father again, much less to fight him for command of his dogs. Why had Allegra put this on her shoulders? More importantly, why had she accepted? She'd done it to repent for her actions, Bliss reminded herself, because whether she had been aware of it or not, she had been the vessel for her father's malevolent spirit in mid-world. She had accepted this task to clear her conscience, to do a bit of good in the face of impossible evil. She only hoped she was strong enough. She wasn't a vampire anymore - just a mortal girl now, with a middle-aged mortal to help her.
Her aunt's forehead crinkled. "I truly hope not. I hope that's not what Allegra had planned for us. Let's see what we can accomplish on this side of the fence for now."
"What's in Cleveland?" she asked.
"Not Cleveland exactly, but a place called Hunting Valley," Jane said. "There's a burnt house with a strange story. I think something happened there that might lead us to find what we seek."
"How was the bonding?" Jane asked as Bliss studied the papers on her lap and they drove deep into the night.
Bliss put down the newspaper clipping she was reading about the fire. She smiled a little, thinking of the happiness she had been part of so recently, which felt already as if it had happened many years before, as if the memory was already as worn as a sepia-tinged photograph. She thought of Schuyler's shining face and Jack's proud one. "It was wonderful," she said, blinking back tears, feeling a deep longing and an ache for something she knew she would never have. Love throughout eternity.
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