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He lay facedown in the arena, blood dripping into his eyes, blood pouring out of his wounds, blood everywhere on the sandy floor of the pit.
The blood was thick and he couldn't see. Why was he still alive? He should be dead. He had lost. He was beaten. He was no alpha.
This wasn't the way it was supposed to happen.
It was quiet in the arena. He was alone, he was sure. He was afraid to move. What if they thought he was dead? What if someone speared him with a lance if he turned over? He lay still, tasting his blood, metal and salt on his tongue. His body would heal, but for now he was in shock.
During the battle he had heard the jeers of the crowd, felt the disappointment of his den-mates, seen the fear in his brothers' eyes. They couldn't bear to watch. His talent had forsaken him. He couldn't use it. He floundered from the beginning and he knew it was the end. His end.
Why was he still alive?
Romulus raised his thumb, someone answered. He hadn't realized anyone could hear him.
It was tradition to wait at the end of a battle for the general's approval before the winner unleashed the death blow. In all the years, in all the centuries of the pit, no one had ever been spared. Not one. The crowd lusted for death, and death was given to them. He thought death would be sweet compared with what he was feeling now.
But Romulus had raised his thumb. He had let him live.
Don't try to move. You'll only feel worse.
He felt a soft tongue on his brow, mopping up the blood, wiping off the salt and the crust and the grit and the sand that had embedded in his skin.
He turned over and finally he was able to open his eyes. There was a wolf kneeling in front of him, cleaning his wounds. He recognized her. She was from his den. A plain brown wolf with kind blue eyes.
Tala. She was just one more cub in the litter. He did not remember seeing her at the usual watering holes where they gathered. What passed for courtship among their kind was spontaneous, physical, instant. Wolves were able to breed until they were turned, but their offspring was not theirs to raise; cubs were turned over to the masters and assigned to a den. Once they were hounds, they were infertile, soulless killing machines. When it was clear that he would be the one most likely to lead the pack, there had been many who'd wanted to share his bed, but he had resisted. He would breed no cubs for the masters' kennels. He would not give them more wolves to turn. He had succumbed to temptation only once and had vowed never to do so again.
Tala continued to clean his wounds and she pushed him to his feet. She was surprisingly strong for how small she was.
He was shaking from fear, he realized; he was still so afraid. What if the masters returned? What if they took him away? He thought of everything he and Marrok had planned - if he was killed, it would all be for nothing.
He cringed at the sound of footsteps, but Tala shook her head.
They're not coming back. Not yet.
What's going to happen to me?
Nothing. Do not worry. I won't let anything happen to you, I am here.
He wanted to believe her. He knew she was lying to make him feel better. He would be killed, tossed into the Black Fire, left to burn.
But what if he was allowed to live? What then? How could he face his den? His brothers? After this colossal failure? Where would he rank in the pack now?
The taste of defeat was new, unexpected, raw.
How could this happen? He anguished.
You let her win.
He did not argue.
The masters did not come that day; he was not speared and thrown into the fire. Tala helped him back to their den. Life went on as usual, until their escape.
He wouldn't fall in love with Tala until they were on the other side, until they were free. But later he thought that maybe he had loved her even before. That day in the arena, when he had been defeated for the first time, when he was near death, when she had brought him back to life.
Malcolm was sick and Lawson was glad. It meant that they were on the right track, that the hounds were nearby, and that meant they were close to finding the oculus. They were back in Hunting Valley, after having been gone for almost a month following the attack. When they crossed the portal, they had emerged somewhere near the coast, in a small town in Maine. They had learned their lesson by staying in Hunting Valley too long. They'd returned to Ohio the night before to find that even Arthur had changed domicile; the attack had unnerved him and he was living in a cave, of all things. Lawson thought it was a good idea. Stone was fireproof at least. They'd bunked there for the day, and upon moonrise had taken off for their destination, Malcolm's stomach acting as a guide.
"You all right?" Lawson asked from the driver's seat.
"No. Pull over," Malcolm said urgently. The minute Lawson stopped the car, Malcolm yanked open the door, making horrible regurgitating noises.
"Try not to hurl all over the car, all right? Took a lot of work getting this for nothing," Lawson said, keeping his voice light. He'd stolen the car, of course; they could never have afforded it otherwise. They'd have to lose it in a week or two, or once someone got suspicious about that old license plate he'd bolted on it.
Malcolm gave a hollow laugh, leaned over, and threw up his dinner all over the gravel, trying not to get any vomit in their new car.
Rafe gave his brother a sympathetic pat on the back. "Let it out, let it out."
"You're killing him, you know," said Edon from the passenger seat.
"Mac?" Lawson asked. "You sure you can do this? We don't have to," he said, although he knew it was a lie.
Malcolm knew it too. "I'm okay," he said, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. He sat up straighter, regained his spirit. "Keep your eyes on the road, hotshot. Don't worry about me."
"Maybe put your seat belt on too while you're at it," Edon said. It was pitch black outside and Lawson was cruising at just over ninety, headlights off. "No one minds if you hurt yourself, but you might plow into one of us on your way out the windshield. We'd rather not pick glass out of our hair."
Lawson grunted. He gazed at the endless black pavement, no streetlights, just the dark of the sky and the endless road. He drove fast because it was fun and he could always talk his way out of a ticket, and he drove without headlights because it was easier to see hellhounds in the dark.
The oculus couldn't be too far now if Malcolm was so ill. The youngest could sense the hounds' presence, they'd learned; his stomach acted as an alarm that the hounds were near. It had kept them one step ahead of their pursuers.
When they lost Tala, for a while it had seemed they had lost Lawson too. His brothers knew the reason - he and Tala hadn't fooled anybody with their sneaking around. He had shut down, just like Edon had after their escape, if not worse. He did not speak, did not eat; he was barely functioning. His heart was shattered. It was torture not knowing what had befallen Tala, whether she had been killed immediately upon capture, or whether the hounds had let her live. Even if they had kept her alive, it was only a few weeks now to her eighteenth moon day, and he had seen what had happened to Ahramin.
There was little hope of executing a rescue operation. Hell was vast and infinite; Tala could be anywhere. He could spend the rest of his life looking and he would never find her. As the days went by, there was even less chance of finding her alive and unchanged.
She was gone, and that was it.
A few days earlier Malcolm had woken screaming from his sleep, sweat running down his face. "It's him, I can see him!" The "him" was Romulus, of course. The Great Beast of Hell was ever in their minds.
"You saw Romulus? Where?" Edon demanded, his voice rising in panic.
"It looked like he was in the moon," Malcolm said. "He was speaking to someone."
"An oculus," Edon said, wary. He explained that the obscura luminis were beacons that shone in the glom, the dark lights, which the wolves had used thousands of years earlier, during the days of the old empire, to communicate over vast distances. They were scattered all over the globe and the underworld, had been used by the Praetorian Guard to keep track of the packs as they roamed across the universe, but the oculi had been dark for centuries. Now one was lit, and possibly working.
"Where?" Lawson asked.
Malcolm shut his eyes, concentrating. "It looked like it was in that place we first appeared, when we arrived here. That open meadow, surrounded by hills in the valley."
An oculus. Lawson felt the first flash of hope rise in his chest. "I can use it, I can use the oculus to find Tala. It can show me where she is, where they're holding her."
Lawson looked at Edon as if he were a stranger. "No?"
Edon glared at him. "If you use the oculus, you could risk revealing our location to Romulus! Don't you see that? You would put us all in danger."
"I won't - I can do it - I know I can. I'll be quick, I promise. Nothing will happen." He couldn't give up on Tala, not yet. She might still be alive, and if she was, he couldn't leave her to that dark fate; he owed her that much. He thought of his love, the girl with the bright pink hair and the shy smile who sang softly to herself while she went about her chores. He could still see her, lying next to him in bed, could still feel her sweet breath on his cheek.
"Edon - please. Let me do this thing," he'd begged. He knew Malcolm and Rafe would follow, and it was Edon he had to convince.
"No, Lawson. You are a fool if you think you can get her back. It's over. She's gone. You must accept your loss as I have," he said.
"No." He felt a coldness inside him as he looked at his brother. Lawson had not wanted to admit it before, but in his heart, he judged Edon as weak for not having returned to Hell to rescue Ahramin. Weak for letting her sacrifice herself while he ran to freedom. He'd pitied Edon then, and he hated him for it now. That Edon no longer had any hope did not mean it was the same for him.
Tala might still be alive. Alive and unturned. Still the wolf he loved. There was hope. There was an oculus. It would show him where she was and he would get her back. Or he would die trying. Since he'd lost her, Lawson had all but forgotten about Marrok, and the rest of his brothers and sisters in the underworld; only Tala mattered for now.
In the end, Edon had crumbled, as Lawson had known he would. But as they drove toward the oculus, Lawson felt a stab of guilt. He was running in the dark - literally and figuratively. He had sworn to protect the pack and yet here he was, leading them straight to danger. Edon said the oculus was sure to be guarded by hounds, and Malcolm's queasy stomach confirmed this. Even Arthur had not approved of the idea.
"Look, I didn't ask for you guys to come with me," Lawson grumbled now. "I told you I could handle it myself."
"Sure you can, man," Rafe said from the back. "But why should we let you have all the fun?"
"We're only here because of you. Remember that," Edon said. Remember that you are risking our freedom for your happiness.
What if Edon was right? What if Tala was already dead? What if Romulus found them through the oculus? What then? If he failed to use the oculus without being seen, the hounds would be upon them and they would all be dragged back down to Hell, and all would be for naught.
"Fine," he said. "Fine. You win." He began to turn the wheel around. He was asking too much. He would not be able to bear it if one of his brothers lost his life in an effort to save Tala's. Edon was right - this was likely to put them all back in chains.
"No," Malcolm said from the backseat, his voice hoarse. "We need to go on. We already took a vote. We're going to the oculus. We told Lawson we'd help him and we will."
Lawson raised his eyebrow at his older brother, and for a moment, the tension in the car was strung as tightly as a kite string.
Finally, Edon threw up his hands. "Just make it quick, all right?"
"No one's faster than me." Lawson grinned as the car shot forward in the night.
Oh god," Malcolm gurgled, clutching his middle.
Lawson let off the gas. "How far?"
The deathly ill look on the younger boy's face told him all he needed to know. He put the car in neutral and let it roll. With the lights off and the engine out of gear, the car whistled quietly down the steep incline like a sailboat cruising on smooth black water. Lawson watched and listened as they drifted down the slope, studying the trees and tall grasses for any sign of movement. Crickets chirped and fireflies flickered in the distance.
The car slowed until it stopped, and Lawson turned off the engine.
"Where's the guard? Do you see them?" he asked.
Rafe swept the landscape with a pair of binoculars. "They're on patrol, on the other side of the ridge."
"There," Edon said quietly, pointing to a blinking light through the trees.
"I see it." Lawson nodded. "Stay in the car," he told Malcolm. "The rest of you, come with me - you wanted to help, so you know the drill. If you get into trouble, let me deal with them. Don't be a hero. Leave them to me."
"Sure thing." Rafe smiled, his sleepy eyes lighting up. "You get your ass kicked, we'll stay out of it. Let them slap you around a little."
Lawson stretched his neck and cracked his back, flexing his arm muscles, preparing himself for what lay ahead. "I just want to have a little chat. It'll be a cakewalk, I promise." He slammed the door and led the rest of the team closer to the light. No time to think of whether this was the right thing to do now. He just had to make it through the next few minutes. He had to concentrate. Get in and out before those hounds nearby caught their scent. "Ready?" he asked, preparing the boys for the ritual.
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