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"Who are you?" she asked, spitting out the words with difficulty, recoiling from the boy's viselike grip. Bliss turned to her assailant, surprised to find she had seen his face before. He was the boy she'd seen in the glom. The boy with the same flat yellow eyes as those of the hound she had been tracking.
"I think the correct question is, who are you?" His voice was low and tinged with malice. "You are from the underworld, do not deny it, why else would you carry this?" he said, tugging the thin leather rope that held the Heart of Stone. "You are one of Romulus's spies!"
"I have no idea what you're talking about, but if you think I'm going down like Jane, you're wrong," she said, stretching her arm and reaching into her back pocket for her hidden blade. Her fingers shaking as she struggled to get a handle on it, she wriggled it out without him seeing, her heart beating too fast.
Quick as a flash, she stabbed him in the thigh with the knife.
He yelled in pain and she was able to push him off her and scramble away, but her freedom was short-lived, as she felt his hand wrap around her ankle and pull her back to him.
She screamed and kicked, thrashing wildly to get away, but he was too strong. Before she knew what was happening, he had his hands wrapped around her throat again.
He began to squeeze the breath out of her and she panicked, struggling and fighting to breathe; it was useless - he was so much stronger - but as she looked into the boy's curiously yellow eyes, an image flashed in her mind.
She saw Lucifer - her father - standing inside an elaborate palace, surrounded by magnificent columns of gold. A cast of thousands was gathered, and Lucifer stood at the top of a marble staircase, looking down at a creature of exquisite beauty. It was a man, but it was taller than a human male, with a certain otherworldly magnificence, wild-eyed and ferocious, with the same dazzling golden eyes.
The image did not come from her memory but from Lucifer's. When she had been captive to his spirit, when he had taken over her soul, fragments of his memories had drifted into her consciousness. Triggered by random events, memories she'd never had would suddenly pop into her mind. She closed her eyes to recall the scene once more. She could hear Lucifer speak. The language was unfamiliar, its words harsh and convoluted, but she knew she could speak them as if they were her own.
"Release me!" she cried in that strange and foreign tongue. The room froze as the boy stared at her in surprise. He eased his grip and fell away, gaping at her in amazement and confusion, as if he could not quite understand why he had let her go.
But it was too late - she'd lost too much oxygen; everything went black - and Bliss felt the life seep out of her.
Lawson steered the car away from the butcher shop, through the busy streets of town and out to the old gravel roads. The rumble of the tires against the rock was a comforting noise, like the soft roar of ocean waves, and if he wasn't careful, it would lull him to sleep. The girl was still passed out on the backseat. Malcolm said she was fine, he'd felt her pulse, and she would wake soon enough. The youngest was sitting next to her, monitoring her progress. He'd learned her name from her identification card in her purse.
The trap had worked. Malcolm had shifted, the markings of his wolf form the closest to Lawson's, and led her inside the shop, where Lawson lay in wait. He'd sent Edon and Rafe ahead to protect Arthur, in case she came with a pack of hounds. But now Lawson hoped he hadn't done much damage. He'd meant to kill her, but when she spoke to him in the ancient language of the wolves, the words that had been lost to them since Lucifer's curse, he knew she was not an enemy. Speaking Hroll was punishable by death. So it meant that maybe, just maybe, Bliss Llewellyn was even a friend.
His mind raced. If she was not one of Romulus's trackers, what did she want? Why was she looking for them? Why had the oculus shown him her image? It slowly dawned on him - he had asked the oculus to show him Tala, but it had shown him Bliss instead. There had to be a connection between the girls. But what was it? Could Bliss lead him to Tala in some way? There had to be a reason for the oculus's answer.
It didn't help that when he looked at Bliss, it was as if his insides had turned to jelly. The oculus had masked the full effect of her beauty, and now that he didn't regard her as the enemy, he was unprepared for the reaction her presence stirred in him, and had even as he had meant to kill her in the butcher shop. Instant. Physical. Painful, even. He shook the feeling away; he had to ignore it. He wasn't that kind of wolf anymore.
"She is awake," Malcolm called from the backseat.
"Where are you taking me? Who are you guys? What have you done with my aunt Jane? What the hell is going on?" she demanded.
"Lawson said you speak Hroll. This means you can't mean us any harm. He's sorry about what happened back at the shop. I'm Malcolm, by the way," Malcolm said sweetly. "And that's my brother. Lawson."
"Pleased to meet you both," Bliss said, her tone sarcastic. "Now why don't you tell me where you're taking me?"
Lawson caught her eye in the rear-view mirror. "I'd like to, but I need to know who you are first. I don't know what to make of you. I thought you were a tracker, but you speak our tongue, which means you aren't, but if you're not a spy, then what are you? But I'm getting ahead of myself. First things first: what do you know about Tala? Where is she?"
Bliss furrowed her brow. "Tala? I don't know who that is, I've never heard of her. I told you, I'm looking for my aunt Jane."
Lawson's heart sank. He'd had a feeling it wouldn't be as simple as he'd hoped, but there was still the possibility that Bliss could lead him to Tala, even if she didn't realize it herself. He just had to figure out how. He cleared his throat. "Next question, then - what are you? You're no ordinary mortal."
"I guess not. Seeing that I used to be a vampire," she snapped.
He hadn't expected her to say that. Malcolm yelped from the backseat.
"Easy there, Mac," Lawson said, looking back at Bliss. "You're one of the Fallen." He was not pleased. The Fallen were no friends to the wolves. They had left them to their fate, to their curse. The wolves had a role to play in their story, Arthur had told him, but Lawson wanted no part in it.
"I used to be. It's a long story." She looked away.
"I've got time."
"There was ... something wrong with me. I killed myself. Or at least I killed the vampire part of me. What-ever I was ... I'm not anymore. I'm just human now."
And she expected him to believe that? He wanted to laugh. "No one's just human. Especially not the Fallen."
"Maybe you're right," she said. "But that's my story."
"Not all of it," he said. "Why were you looking for us?"
Bliss paused, and Lawson wondered if that meant she was about to lie. "I wasn't looking for you exactly," she said finally. "Like I told you already, I was looking for my aunt Jane. She's missing, and I think ... the hounds have her."
"Hounds? Why do you think that?"
"From the way she was taken."
"And how was that?"
She described the room: everything torn up, as if raked by sharp claws, the whole place - bedspreads, curtains, sheets, pillows - shredded to pieces. "There was blood everywhere, and strange claw prints on the wall."
Lawson felt the hair on his arms rise as he listened to her tale. The hounds were afoot and had taken other victims, it sounded like. But why? Who was this Bliss Llewellyn and what was her connection to the hounds? Was he still right in thinking she would lead him to Tala somehow?
"My turn to ask questions now," she said. "What are you?"
"I'm a wolf," he said proudly. "We were once the Abyssus Praetorium."
"The Praetorian Guard," she whispered. "The guards of the abyss. The keepers of time, guardians of the passages."
"You know our history." He was pleased.
"Yes I do. Lucifer's dogs. The Hounds of Hell," she whispered, her face paling.
"Never call us by that name!" Lawson roared. The car veered to the side of the road and stopped abruptly. Bliss was thrown against the front seat, and blood trickled from her forehead. She was shaking.
Lawson turned and glared at her. Malcolm cringed. "Lawson, please," his brother begged. "She doesn't know."
Bliss stared back at the two of them angrily. "Know what? Wolf, hound, all the same, isn't it?"
"No!" Lawson shook his head. "Never." He looked down at the steering wheel, at his white knuckles. "My brothers and I escaped from the pack a year ago, and we've been hiding and running ever since. We'll never be hounds, not if I can help it." He thought of Tala for a moment, wondered if those were empty words, remembered all his friends who were still left behind. "The masters turn wolf cubs into hellhounds on their eighteenth moon day. We had to run before we were turned."
"Right," Bliss said, and her tone of voice told him everything he needed to know. She didn't believe a word he'd said. That made two of them. Ex-vampire indeed. He gunned the engine and steered the car back to the road, and no one spoke until they reached the cave.
"Arthur says it's a show cave from the 1960s," the younger boy - Malcolm - was telling her. Bliss followed them out of the car and inside a dark cavern. She didn't see that she had a choice for now. She was their hostage, even if the older one - Lawson - didn't want to admit it. She only hoped he would take her to Jane; at least they would be together.
Bliss wasn't sure she believed his story about not being a hellhound. Even though she'd witnessed his wrath at being called such, she knew he'd meant to hurt her back at the butcher shop. Hellhounds are uncontrollable, violent, and vicious - yeah, he'd been all that.
Lawson. She hated him a little for being so strong - she was jealous, she supposed. She used to be a vampire, immortal, powerful; now she was just an ordinary girl with two broken legs. Bliss was annoyed with herself as well, for even noticing that he was attractive - handsome, with a strong jaw, a high forehead, and thick, dark hair. He was a killer - she'd seen it in his eyes. He was dangerous, brutal. She would have to watch her step around him - why had she told him so much about herself? Best not to reveal anything more, she decided.
The cavern was one long space that wound in an arc like the crescent of the moon, with a makeshift kitchen in the middle and a few scattered and dark utility rooms off to the side. Bliss followed Malcolm, who was still talking. "Arthur said back then they didn't care about preserving natural beauty, instead they put in linoleum and charged admission, whatever that means. But they've got some cool exhibits in the back."
"Who's Arthur?" she asked.
"He sort of ... takes care of us - he moved here after the attack. Thought it would be safer if the hounds returned."
"The hounds? They attacked you too? Why?"
Bliss noticed Lawson giving his brother a hard look, and Malcolm grew quiet. She looked around at her new surroundings. The whole place smelled of mold and dust; it made her nose run and her eyes water. The cavern was cold and humid, like a basement with a broken steam pipe.
"We're back," Lawson called as they approached three figures sitting by the fire. "This is Bliss Llewellyn. We found her in the shop. That's Arthur," he said, pointing to an old gentleman in the corner, who smiled at her gently. "That's Rafe," he said, pointing to the stockier boy. "And that's Edon."
Bliss greeted them with a nod. None of them seemed to be surprised to see her. They must have known about the trap back at the butcher shop. She gazed at the four boys together. There was something savage and untamed about all of them, but something fierce and splendid as well. If Lawson was handsome, with the rugged good looks of a frontier cowboy, Edon was beautiful - his features were just a little finer, with an aristocratic cast, deep violet eyes and golden hair. Rafe was olive-skinned and almond-eyed; built like a rock, his body looked as if it could stop a Mack truck, but he had a sweet smile.
The boys were dressed appallingly. Their clothing was dirty, too small or too big, mismatched, and oddly chosen. Malcolm was wearing a yellow hooded sweatshirt, green corduroys, and pink Crocs. Rafe wore a flannel shirt and worn tuxedo pants. Edon, for all his hauteur and aloofness, was wearing a silly boy-band T-shirt and surfer shorts over long underwear. All their clothes were holey and worn, dirty and torn. Not even thrift stores would take them; they looked like things they had found in the garbage.
Rafe shook her hand while Edon appraised her coolly. "So this is the ex-vampire," Edon said. His voice was beautiful as well, smooth and melodic.
Bliss started - how could he know? The wolves must be able to communicate without speaking, she realized, able to use the glom just as the vampires did. "I like to think of myself more as newly human," she said, smiling thinly. "So you guys are wolves, are you? Escaped from Hell, Lawson says."
"Lawson says a lot of things," Edon said. "Why should we believe that you no longer have your fangs?"
"The same reason you want me to believe that you no longer do the work of the devil," Bliss retorted.
"We never did his work. We ran before we could do any harm. Do not speak of that of which you know nothing," Edon threatened, his voice a low and chilling growl.
"So what kind of name is Bliss?" Malcolm asked, changing the subject. "Is it a family name?"
"No." She shook her head. "The people who raised me weren't even my parents. Bliss isn't even my real name. At least, not where it matters. I found out that my real name is Lupus Theliel."
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