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Bliss peered through the peephole. Inside she saw a young girl perched at the edge of a long flat mattress. Her toes were curled around the bottom and dug into the foam. Her head hung down at an odd angle, swaying slightly as if broken. Her dark hair was shorn to the scalp, and Bliss felt a chill at seeing how skinny she was. Skeletal, with dark bruises on her arms.
The girl looked up straight at Bliss's eyes through the porthole and Bliss jumped back, startled by the girl's arresting stare. There was something wrong with the girl's eyes - Bliss was sure she saw a flash of crimson, but when she looked again, they were just a normal blue.
Just then the orderly unlocked the door. "She's all yours. Buzz when you're done."
"You're locking me in there ... with her?"
"Rules. You signed the waiver."
Bliss kept her face impassive as the door locked noisily behind her. She leaned against the wall and crossed her arms. The girl never took her eyes off Bliss. "You're not scared of me," she whispered. Her voice was soft and weak.
"Should I be?" asked Bliss.
"They're all scared of me," she said softly, picking at the mattress. It was pocked with holes, Bliss saw, and lacked sheets, even a pillow.
"I heard." Bliss looked around the bare room. There was nothing in the space except for the mattress on the floor. No books, no pictures, not even a window. How long had the girl been living like this? "What's your name?"
"Fifteen." Her voice was quiet and subdued, defeated and sad.
"That's what they call you."
"What's your real name?"
"I don't know." She shook her head. "If I did I wouldn't be here."
"Why are you here?" Bliss checked the records. The fire had been only a month earlier, and the girl had been in the hospital since then, with little change or progress in her condition.
"There was a fire," the girl said. "It burned everything."
"You were in the house. What happened in that house? What happened to you?" Bliss asked.
The girl put clenched fists to her eyes. "I don't know. I don't remember."
"I want to help you," Bliss said. "Please."
"No one can help me. Not anymore."
"Look, I know what you're going through - I've been in a place like this. I was in a mental institution once. I know what it's like. You don't have to be here. You don't have to hide. Let me help you," Bliss said, fiddling with the charm around her neck that held the Heart of Stone. She had taken to wearing the dark talisman, wanting to keep it close, as if the glittering amulet could draw the hounds to her, help her on her journey. She moved closer to the girl. "I think I know what happened ... I know about the hounds. They're the ones that attacked you that night, isn't that right?"
At the mention of the hounds the girl scrambled to the far edge of the room, as far away from Bliss as possible. "I don't know what you're talking about. Leave me alone."
Bliss removed a dusty notebook from her bag and read from it. "'They will come for us, and when they do, we must be ready. We have protected the house, but will we be able to protect each other?'" She looked up at the girl. "This is your journal, isn't it? You wrote these words. What does it mean? The hounds were coming for you? But the house was protected somehow? Who are the others? Where are they?"
The girl shrugged.
"What did they want with you? Why did they come? How did you survive?"
"I don't know. I told you, I don't know what you're talking about," the girl said, growing more and more agitated.
"I was hoping you would help me ... I am ... looking for them. I need to reach the hounds," Bliss said, feeling as she uttered the words that it was a hopeless enterprise her mother had set her on.
The girl began to shake and rock back and forth, whimpering a little, like a wounded animal. "Get away from me ... get away ... "
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry ... please believe me, I don't want to hurt you," Bliss said. "But I need to know about the hounds."
"The hounds!" the girl screamed suddenly, her eyes blazing, looking directly into Bliss's green ones. "Why do you seek the hounds? Beware! No one hunts the pack!"
They stared at each other in silence. Then the door opened. Time was up. Bliss left the room.
"So. What'd you think?" the orderly asked as they walked back to the lobby. "Hard nut to crack, right?"
Bliss did not answer, trying to convince herself that the girl in the room had no idea what she was talking about, that she just wanted to scare her. But Bliss had seen a lot in her lifetimes. She didn't scare that easily.
The girl's words had unnerved her, but Bliss managed to stay calm as she hurried across the hospital parking lot. She had faced monsters tougher than hounds. After all, they were merely her father's attack dogs and she wasn't going to be scared of a few mangy mutts no matter what that spooky-eyed girl said.
She dialed Jane's cell phone, needing to hear her aunt's friendly voice, and was disappointed when the call went to voice mail. Bliss left a message. "Hey, it's me. It's her all right, but she was uncooperative. Really uncooperative, if you know what I mean. I'll tell you more when I see you. I'm on my way back to the room. See you in a bit."
Traffic was slow and it was dark when Bliss rolled into the crowded parking lot. The Bedside Inn was more apartment house than motel; too late they had discovered it served as a halfway station for people who couldn't make first and last months' rent or pass a credit check. When Bliss exited the elevator she found the doors to several rooms open on the floor, tenants chatting in bathrobes and wet hair, swapping stories and gossip. Kids ran from one room to the next as if the whole complex were their playground. She had experienced a moment of panic when she first saw the small, ugly room. There was graffiti on the pillows and the bedspread looked like it had last been cleaned in the Reagan era.
As Bliss made her way to her room, she nodded to her neighbors and leapt over their kneeling children, but the other tenants were cool to her; no one returned her nervous smile, and some looked outright hostile. It was with some relief that she finally reached her door. She knocked rather than using her key, just to let Jane know she was there. "Aunt Jane? It's me." She waited for her to open the door, but nothing happened. Could Jane still be sleeping?
She'd have to open the door herself. She slid the key-card into the reader and the light flashed green. She turned the lever and pushed the door open. The room was completely dark. She hated to wake up Aunt Jane, but she couldn't see a thing.
As soon as she turned on the light, she wished she hadn't. Furniture was tipped over, the room in disarray from a clear sign of a struggle, and the walls were raked by claw prints. There was no sign of Jane anywhere.
No one hunts the pack, the broken girl at the asylum had warned.
A few hours later Bliss sat in her rental car in the motel parking lot, unable to move. None of the residents or staff at the motel had seen or heard anything. She had answered the questions posed by the police and the motel security and waited until they had cleared her alibi, thanks to the clinic's visitor log. Finally, the detectives dismissed her for the night. She meant to take a little break, maybe pick up something to eat, although she wasn't hungry. But she needed to get away from the chaos and fear for a bit, to be alone so she could think. She bit her fingernails one by one. The hounds knew she was looking for them. She was in danger unless she stopped, unless she gave up her pursuit.
They wanted her to give up, and they had taken Jane as a hostage. But why? Did they know Jane was the Watcher? And what did the hounds know of Bliss's quest to find them?
Bliss knew she was on the right track; she was so close now. She had to keep going. She couldn't be scared, even if she had seen what they did. Her mother had given her a task; she had to see it through. She had known what she was getting into when she began. She had to keep searching for the hounds, and she couldn't leave Jane - her dearest friend in the world - in their hands, she could only hope she was still alive.
She looked out across the pale gray parking lot. The sun had vanished and its orange light was now replaced by a row of sodium lamps on tall posts. The lights cast a grainy yellow that made everything look as though it were one color: the trees, the distant traffic. A half mile away she could see a drugstore glowing brilliant white and a road trailing off to the west.
If she'd still had the vampire sight, she would have been able to see the curtains on the window of a house many miles away. But she was human now, with human limitations. She could no longer listen to a conversation conducted across the room; she could no longer lift objects five times her body weight. She could no longer do any of the things she had taken for granted when her blood was blue. Since the purging of her vampire self, she had not attempted to use any of her old powers. What was the use? She didn't want to look back and wish for something she could not have. But now she wondered if maybe some of her power had remained, if she could still enter the glom. The hounds are creatures of shadow... Why hadn't she thought to find them that way before?
She closed her eyes and relaxed her muscles, letting her mind go blank, letting her consciousness expand beyond her and her physical limitations, allowing her to leave the tangible world. It felt as if she were slipping into a pool of warm water. When she opened her eyes, she was in the glom, in the world of twilight and specter, phantom and mirage.
Bliss moved cautiously through the empty landscape. The world of the glom had a slightly different tinge than she remembered. She did not know if it was because she was no longer a vampire, but for the first time, she felt alone and vulnerable.
Suddenly, a light in the glom, bright, like a spotlight, shone on her. She cowered from its brilliance, shielding her eyes. With a start, she saw there was a boy in front of her. He was dark-haired and handsome, with a high forehead, a strong jaw, a fierce and noble visage - but his face was anguished. He stared at her - and she stared back.
Who are you?
Bliss wasn't sure who was speaking, him or her, but it was clear they both had the same question on their minds. She saw his gaze linger at the stone around her neck, his eyes growing hard, and she put up a hand to cover it, and before she knew what was happening -
She was thrown backward and when she recovered she saw she was somewhere else. A butcher shop. She saw the meat hanging on hooks, the white paper, the bloody shanks. Then a wolf stalked out of the darkness. A silver wolf with flat yellow eyes.
It was a hellhound; she was sure of it.
It leapt at her and Bliss felt herself pushed out of the glom and back into the real world, shaking and struggling to breathe.
She was still in the motel parking lot; next to her a family was unloading their luggage from a minivan.
Who was that boy? What was that light? No time to think about that now. The glom had given her the answer she needed. It had shown her a Hound of Hell. She had spied the address of the butcher shop on a paper bag. She would go there immediately to find the hound. She would follow wherever it led. And if she discovered Hell, well, she had already been there once.
To murder my love is a crime But will you still love A man out of time
Elvis Costello, "Man Out Of Time"
It was the dawn before the trials. He crept back into the room through the hole he'd made in the wall. The masters didn't know he could do that. Escape. Push things around with his mind. Create a space where there wasn't any. They didn't know that he could travel outside the dens, that once he had even gotten all the way out to the first circle, as far as the borderlands, before turning back. The masters locked them in at night, steel meeting steel with a heavy clang. It didn't matter. He could go anywhere he wanted. But there were the others to think about, and he couldn't leave them behind.
The next day would mark him as the finest warrior of the pack. If he succeeded in besting his opponent, he would call the pack his own. He would be alpha. He had prepared for this all his short life.
All around, he could hear the sounds of his brothers sleeping next to him: their steady breathing, Rafe's gentle snore, Edon's nose whistle, Mac's quiet whimpers. He looked up at the ceiling, feeling ill. It was hot in the room. He couldn't sleep, thinking about the next day and what it would bring.
The next day began the same as any other, with rations at the commons, a plain, thick gruel that tasted and felt like lead. Fuel. He barely touched his plate; he saw his youngest brother eyeing it and pushed it toward him. There was never enough; the masters kept them fed but not satiated - they liked them lean, hungry, all the better for fighting. He watched Mac finish the rest.
Nerves? Edon asked.
He shrugged. Maybe.
You'll be good. Mac reassured him. They don't have anyone who can fight you. The youngest wolf had taken it upon himself to be his trainer, his coach. All the days leading up to this one, Mac had been on the sidelines, yelping, cheering him on, helping devise strategy, teaching him how to breathe when he had blood in his mouth, when all the muscles in his body were screaming for release, advising him how to push through the pain to victory.
They ate in silence and he watched.
Luck. Edon nosed him.
Ditto, Rafe added, doing the same.
He growled his thanks. This was it. This was what he had been waiting for. This was what he'd planned, what he'd trained to do. He would win and he would lead, or he would die.
The fight was short and brutal.
Over almost before it began.
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