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One by one the brothers whispered the words that bound them, the pact they had sworn to each other. As they recited their words, a small blue crescent appeared on each of their faces. The sigil of their pack, the pulsing sickle throbbed in time with the beating of their hearts, giving testament to the bond they shared. When the testimony was over, the blue marks faded from their cheeks.
"All right, then," Lawson said, preparing himself for battle.
Next to him, his brothers were doing the same, their shoulders squared, blood pumping, eyes narrowed to squints, ready to attack if hounds appeared. Ready to fight. Edon balled his fists while Rafe cracked his knuckles. They were trained warriors, lean and ready.
The light blinked on and off through the dense forest of trees. Lawson struck out ahead, Edon next, and Rafe pulling up the rear. They fanned out in a triangular formation, keeping just enough distance from each other that they could easily come to each other's defense while having space to get away so that not all of them would be captured if it came down to that.
Lawson left his brothers at the base of the hill and followed a trail to the top until he was standing just outside a dim pool of light centered in a clearing of the trees. Tall shadows radiated in all directions from the circle. The ground was newly cleared, covered with a fresh bed of leaves and ringed with tree stumps.
"I'm going in," he called.
"Go on, then," Edon said.
"Get it over with," added Rafe.
"Relax," Lawson chided. The hounds were far enough away. In the silence he could hear only the rustling of the leaves and the soft quiet slithering of snakes in the moss, the sniffing and scratching of woodland animals.
He stepped into the light of the oculus. Edon had briefed him on how to use it, and it sounded simple enough. Let the light shine on him, and then command it to show him what he wanted to see.
When he entered, the forest and hill and trees disappeared, and his vision filled with a blazing light, white-hot like the center of a star. Lawson shielded his eyes and blinked. At first he was dazzled by the light, surrounded and engulfed by the white glow, but then he felt a familiar sensation and he realized that it was not light he was seeing at all, but its polar opposite. The beacon was made from a darkness that was complete, the darkness of the abyss, his former home. He had grown unused to it since their escape.
Inside the oculus he was overwhelmed by images from every place and time; he could see into the past and the present, into all corners of the universe. He had to make it stop, make it show him what he wanted to see, what he needed to see.
"Show me my mate," he ordered. "Tala of the Wolves, Born of the Underworld, Slave to None."
The whirring images stopped and a vision of a girl appeared.
Was it Tala? Lawson couldn't tell. He squinted into the light. If only the oculus would show him more - but the image remained vague and fuzzy. He was beginning to feel frustrated when it suddenly snapped into focus. He took a sharp breath. There was a girl in front of him. But she was definitely not Tala.
She was beautiful, though, with curly red hair and green eyes. She had a forthright, arresting grace about her, but her eyes looked a bit sad, as if she had been through some hardship.
She stared at him.
"Who are you?" he whispered. Then he noticed the amulet around her neck. The Heart of Stone. She carried the Black Fire of Hell. He jerked away from her, his mind racing. She was not a hound, he knew that much - her eyes were green, not crimson - but the charm she wore marked her as one of the underworld. A spy! Romulus's spy! She had to be a human tracker - he'd heard the masters sometimes used Red Bloods as eyes and ears aboveground.
Lawson cursed under his breath. She had seen him - looked directly at him. He couldn't panic. He had to do something - what? If she was a spy, then let her come to them - Let her find us, he thought. She was close by - he could sense her presence - perhaps only a few miles away.
He sent her a vision of the butcher shop, let her see him as a wolf. He felt her satisfaction. He was right, then. She was looking for them. That much was clear. She answered to Romulus. He released her from his vision.
The darkness returned and the oculus went black. Why had it shown her to him? To warn him? It had to be. But where was Tala? The oculus hadn't given him the answer he sought.
Lawson didn't know what to do. He was wasting time; the longer he stayed in the light of the oculus, the greater the risk that Romulus would see him there. He hesitated, and while he was vacillating, the oculus came back to life and a low, powerful voice rumbled from hidden depths.
"Speak your name, hound." It was a command. Romulus.
Lawson backed away from the light, trying not to panic. The voice filled him with fear and loathing, and it took all his strength not to run. So far, it seemed that Romulus had not recognized him. But he had to get out of there.
"Speak your name."
Think ... He had to say something ... or it would become suspicious ... he could not stall for longer ... he had to do something ... say something ... he waited too long ...
The oculus went dark and as the earth opened up beneath him, he was thrown into the void.
Lawson was falling, tumbling through a dark cavern filled with sharp rock, and when he landed, he crashed hard on the stone ground.
"Ugh," he groaned. He heard the shuffling of feet and looked up to see his brothers standing at the edge of the pit, looking down at him.
"Oh great, just great," Edon said when he saw Lawson lying there. "Did you have to get caught? Did you do this on purpose?"
"Not funny," Lawson said, trying to stand up. Thank goodness his body healed quickly.
"Ah, you'll survive," Rafe said.
"I don't think I've survived this yet, genius," Lawson snapped. "Come on, guys, a hand?" He knew his brothers were enjoying this a little too much. At least he was upright. Now he just needed to get out of this hole. "Where's Mac?"
"You dead yet?" Malcolm asked, peering over the edge.
"I keep trying, but the universe won't seem to oblige. Any ideas on how I can get out of this one?"
Malcolm was quiet for a moment. He disappeared from the edge of the pit only to return a moment later with a broken branch. "Rafe, can you take this? I'm not sure I can support his weight."
Rafe took the branch and held it over the side. "Lawson, can you climb up some of those rocks and then grab hold of this?"
Lawson flexed his arms and legs. Nothing seemed broken, and his bruises would fade quickly. He scaled the walls of the cavern and then grabbed the branch, letting Rafe pull him to freedom.
"We have to get out of here," he said. "Mac, how you feeling?"
"Bad," Malcolm said, and Lawson could see his face was pale, greenish. "They're heading back to the oculus now. A small unit, two or three." Malcolm shook his head and clutched his stomach. "I think I need to puke."
Edon hustled them to the car. "No time. Let's go, let's go. I'm driving."
Lawson didn't argue and took the backseat next to Malcolm. Edon drove the car quietly and carefully back down the dirt road, then gunned the engine once they were out on the highway.
"So what did you see in there?" Malcolm asked when they had put some miles between them and the oculus. The youngest boy had color back in his cheeks, a good sign.
"I heard Romulus," he finally admitted.
"Are you sure?" Malcolm asked, paling at the name of their fearsome general.
Edon whipped around. He slammed his hand on the steering wheel. "Did he see you? Did he know you were in the oculus?"
"I don't think so. He kept asking my name. I don't think he recognized me," Lawson said. He hung his head. "You were right, it was a mistake to come."
"Whether or not he knew who you were, we've got to move." Edon glowered.
"Not yet," Lawson said. "There's something else." He told them about the girl he'd seen, the one with the brilliant red hair and sad green eyes, the tracker, Romulus's spy. "I sent her an image of the butcher shop. She's going there now. Take me there."
"You want her to find us?" Malcolm gaped.
"I want her to find me," Lawson said smoothly.
"Isn't it obvious?" Rafe asked, looking solemn.
"Leave her to me," Lawson said, his jaw set, his heart burning with hatred. "I'll take care of her."
"What about Tala?" Malcolm wanted to know.
"I don't know. The oculus didn't show me Tala." He gazed out the window, his heartbeat finally slowing to a regular rhythm although his back still ached. He had wanted to see her so badly, but the oculus had shown him someone else. The red-haired spy. He clenched and unclenched his fist. He had lured the spy to the butcher shop, where she would meet her death.
The shadows made everything look larger and smell worse. Styrofoam platters and massive rolls of wax paper were stacked on the counters. Hooks from empty meat racks hung from the ceiling, their crooked silhouettes looking even more ominous in the moonlight. Tacked on the brick walls were charts mapping animal bodies, depicting the various primal cuts. Shoulder. Chuck. Loin. Near the entrance were two large glass counters full of steaks and chops wrapped in cellophane.
Bliss took a deep breath and held it for as long as she could, willing her tense muscles calm. She had found the right butcher shop, had driven right up to it, and had seen from the corner of her eye the silver wolf in the shadows, had watched its arched, furry body slink through the back door, and had followed it inside.
She crept as quietly as she could across the wet stone floor. It was lurking somewhere within the darkness, waiting. Her eyes caught a flicker of light in the distance. In the back she noticed the door to the meat locker was open, revealing a carcass swaying like an inverted pendulum. So that was why the room smelled of blood.
She closed her eyes so she could hear. Concentrate. She pinched her nose. The smell was distracting. When Lucifer had taken over her body and had been her only contact to the outside, she'd found she could listen better if she closed her eyes and withdrew from her other senses. So even if she was only human, she was used to the dark. Lucifer had taught her that. She heard a clock tick, the sound of a hook grinding against a chain, the soft click of claws against the concrete - the beast, stirring ... and then there, barely perceptible, was the sound of someone else breathing. There was someone else in the room. Someone other than the creature. But where? And who?
The horrible clicking grew louder, and Bliss heard a snarl, deep and primeval and vicious, and then the sound of breathing became louder, more desperate - then, suddenly, a scream from beyond the doorway. Bliss leapt from her hiding place and ran toward it.
A knife made a loud noise as it hit the concrete to her right. She swiveled in its direction, then stopped. The knife was a ruse, a distraction. The hound was behind her now; it was trying to steer her away from the door. She could see it watching her from the shadows, its yellow eyes burning. Did it think she was that stupid? She might not have her vampire abilities anymore - but it didn't mean she was completely useless. She was still fast. She was still coordinated. She still had the speed and skill of a trained killer.
The beast snorted and raked its claws across the concrete. It was angry and getting ready to jump. Bliss figured it was now or never. She pushed her way toward the open door, clambering onto a table and spraying a dozen knives across the room. The wolf leapt but she was faster, and when she reached the oversized steel door, she grabbed the handle and, using its weight as a pivot, swung around so that she pulled it closed behind her. The freezer slammed shut with a thick, wet sucking sound that made her wonder if this was a good idea. How much air was in here? No time to worry about that now. She picked up a couple of knives that had fallen to the floor, and jammed one into the lock to keep it closed while slipping the other into her back pocket.
She could hear the creature throwing its weight against the bolted door, making the archway shake. It was larger and more dangerous than she had thought. Tame the hounds? She would be lucky if she got out of there alive.
She looked around. There were a dozen or so carcasses hanging from the ceiling. The air was rancid, metallic. She pushed her way through the animal corpses to the back of the room, toward the sound of ragged breathing.
On the floor of the meat locker lay a boy, no older than she was, chained to the back wall of the freezer. Next to him were a cutting board and a band saw. A meat hook, crusted with blood and rust, swung above his head. The tiled walls were splattered a deep shade of scarlet. The boy's skin was blue, his hair caked with filth ... there were ugly red marks around his wrists and neck, where he was bound with heavy iron shackles. Dear god, what was going on here? Bliss wondered, her stomach churning ... If this was what they did to their victims... she didn't want to think about what Jane was going through and hoped that Jane was still alive ...
Bliss shivered, goose bumps appearing on her skin. Now that she wasn't a vampire, her body did not control its temperature as well as it used to. But was it the fright or the cold that had caused the rows of tiny bumps?
She bent down to touch the boy's face. It was still warm, at least. She placed a tender hand on his bony shoulder. "You're going to be okay," she told him, and wondered if she was also telling herself the same thing.
"Yes, but you're not." His eyes came alive then, and before Bliss could blink, the boy had wrapped his fist around her neck and pinned her to the floor, his knees locking against her waist and keeping her arms away from her body. His shackles, Bliss could see now, had not been locked.
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