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Sometimes it's necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly.
His earliest memory was of the collar around his neck. Itchy, heavy, tight. From the beginning he wanted it off. It reminded him every day that he was born a slave.
He was a wolf, a beast of hell, a captive, but for now his will and his mind were his own. He had family to protect, brothers and sisters from his den who shared his fate. Taken from their mothers at birth, the pups bonded together and as they grew, he led them to think the unthinkable, that one day, they might break free of their chains.
Freedom was a faraway dream, though. The future was far more likely to hold horrors he couldn't even imagine. Every wolf was turned into a hellhound on their eighteenth moon day, as young wolves turned too early ran the risk of death. So the masters waited until they were strong enough for the change. When he turned eighteen, his life would be over. He would lose his identity, his soul. His every thought and action would be controlled by Romulus, the Hound of Hounds, the Great Beast of Hell.
One day during his sixteenth year, Master Corvinus pulled him aside. Corvinus was their battle sergeant, and like the rest of the masters, he was a former angel, banished from Paradise, a veteran of the War of Heaven. Corvinus was the one who exercised them in the pits, who monitored their progress, who put their names on the lists.
Corvinus had noticed his talent at a recent battle, how he had been able to dodge his adversary's blows with graceful precision - as if he knew where they would land before they did, as if he could see one or two or even three seconds ahead - and the fight had been over before the bell finished ringing.
His name was put on the top of the lists, and he made his way up through the tournaments, through the pits. He kept winning. Every round. He beat them all. Gorg the giant, so called because he was bigger than any of them; Odoff the giant-killer, because he was the first who bested Gorg; Varg; Tatius; Aelia, the vicious she-wolf with the long claws; Drusus; Evander. He had just had to win one more round for the top prize.
But to his shock, he was bested at the trials and not made alpha. After his defeat, he waited for them to come and take him away. He waited, but no one came. The masters seemed to have forgotten about him.
Not so. Instead of killing him, Corvinus brought him before the general.
Romulus was a massive creature, fearsome, with glinting crimson eyes and silver pupils; he was more than human yet not quite wolf, a startling combination of both, as all hellhounds were. Romulus studied him. "Regardless of your performance in the arena, they tell me you are the one. That once you've shed the wolf skin for hellhound form, you will be a mighty warrior, one of the strongest Hell has ever known. The Dark Prince himself has seen it. Lucifer has entreated me to make you my heir. We shall not wait until your eighteenth moon day to make you one of us."
Never, he whispered to himself afterward.
Never what? Ahramin asked. She was the oldest wolf in their den, the fiercest of the she-wolves. Beautiful, dangerous.
I'm never going to be a hound. I'll die before they turn me.
And how are you going to do that? She motioned to the collar he wore, the one all the wolves wore. That collar will keep you from self-destructing. The masters don't like to waste a good dog.
Once they were hellhounds they would assume their true form, they would walk upright, they would speak the language of the masters. They would carry black swords and wear armor. They were the dogs of war, Hell's army, and Lucifer, it was said, was preparing a grand campaign.
That was his fate; that was the fate of all wolves.
But there had to be a way out. Since his defeat, he had not been lazy. He spent his time watching the hounds. There's a sword, he told her. I saw it. An archangel's sword. The hounds stole it, but it's here, they keep it at the armory. It can break our collars. We can escape. We can leave this place.
Ahramin looked skeptical.
He spent the next week formulating a plan. Their collars hindered their power and tethered the wolves to the underworld. He was certain that once they were broken and the wolves were free, they could easily subdue the trolls who guarded them, but once they were out of the den, how would they get aboveground? How would they cross Hell's Gates into the land of the living? There were rumors that the Gates were falling, that the archangels' strength had been sapped - but the masters kept them in the dark, and there was no way to know what was true.
The great wolves of old used portals; that much he knew. The Praetorian Guard moved through passages, roads of space and time that allowed them to be anywhere and anytime in history. But the knowledge of the ancient wolves had been lost for centuries. The passages were closed to him and his kind.
But Marrok believed they would open for him. Marrok told him to try. The white wolf was from the den across the river, and his greatest friend. Marrok knew about the chronologs, about the passages, about their long and storied history. Marrok knew about his talent and told him to go, and the rest of them would follow. He hoped Marrok was right.
He waited until a night when the trolls seemed tired, when their guard was down, when the masters were distracted with other tasks, and he gathered the wolves of his den together.
I'm going tonight, he said, looking at their eager young faces. Who's with me?
The wolves looked to Ahramin. She had some misgivings, but ultimately she approved the plan, as he knew she would. She was as reluctant to be turned into a hound as any of them.
He'd stolen the sword earlier that day. It had been easy enough; it was a little thing, the size of a needle, and he'd kept it in his mouth. The locks on their collars broke at its touch. The freedom was almost debilitating; he could feel the power flood through his body, through his soul. Wolves were strong, stronger than the masters once, it was whispered - maybe it was true.
He led them past the trolls who guarded their dens, almost making it out the door when one of the younger wolves stumbled and twisted her ankle. Help! she cried.
She'll only slow us down, Ahramin growled. We'll come back for her.
No! Please! Tala pleaded. Her big blue eyes locked on his, and he didn't see how he could refuse her.
She's coming with us. Tala had helped him when he was down; he owed her this much.
This is a bad idea, Ahramin warned.
She was right.
Tala followed as they left the den, but her slower pace gave the hounds time to realize what was happening. They came, roaring and enraged, salivating at the thought of ripping the wolves apart, and they caught up to them right at the border between the worlds. The wolves were certain to be captured until Ahramin lunged for the master, ripping out his demon throat.
Go! she yelled. Already the hounds were rounding up the others, locking collars on their necks, dragging them back down to the Ninth Circle of Hell. I'll hold them here, go!
No! cried Edon, who'd always loved her.
You know I'm right, Ahramin said. She was so brave, so fearless. Do what you have to do.
More hounds were drawing closer.
In a moment, they would all be captured.
He closed his eyes and without thinking, only feeling, he opened a space between the worlds, breaking through the gate that kept them in the underworld. Before him opened a path, blazing with light and surrounded by fire. Follow me, he called to the pack. Quickly! he yelled, pushing Tala forward.
One by one they jumped over the ring of fire and into the light that stretched far off into the distance.
They fell out onto a forest floor, and the ring closed behind them. He was in agony, and beside him, he heard his brothers howl. Their limbs were stretching; they were losing their fur, torsos lengthened, their facial features receding.
"What's happening?" someone cried, and it was no longer the growl of a wolf but a higher-pitched almost melodic sound. A voice.
He looked down to see hands, bruised and bloodied and covered in calluses.
"I think ..." he said cautiously, finding it strange to hear his thoughts spoken out loud for the first time, "I think we've become human."
The world was ending. The world was on fire. He had never seen anything so bright. So this was the sun. His eyes hurt from its brilliance. He was cold and hot all at once, shivering and sweating, and he realized he was naked. They all were. They were four boys on the side of the road, shuddering from the cold and broken from the heat.
How had they gotten here? He remembered running into the portal, landing in the woods, realizing they'd somehow shifted to human form. They'd been shocked and exhausted, and he wondered if they'd somehow wandered back and been transported somewhere else. It didn't matter now; they just had to figure out how to function in this new world, how to figure out if they'd been followed, if the hounds were on their tail. With their collars off, the hounds would be able to trail them only by their scent. They had some time, he hoped. Time to get used to this new world, time to run and hide, time to plan to free the others.
"Here." He looked up to see Tala standing over him. Unlike them, she was clothed, wearing some sort of black-and-red checked suit, in a material that looked warm. The clothes were huge on her; her small frame was drowning in them. She handed him a similar pair. "Pajamas," she said. "That's what they're called, for sleeping." She was speaking the human language, and he could understand her.
Tala placed a blanket on Mac's shoulders. Mac was the youngest of the brothers, unsure of himself and often scared. Tala seemed to have appointed herself his caretaker, and Lawson was grateful for it.
"There are more back there." She pointed to a small building on wheels not too far away.
He gathered Edon and Rafe with him, Tala, and Mac; the five of them were all that was left of the pack - such a small number - and they walked slowly toward the trailer. Tala had already broken the lock on the door. They rummaged through the drawers in the small beat-up compartment, which was even shabbier than the den they'd left behind. So this was what it was like above-ground, he thought. And here they were, stealing from folks who were no better off than they were.
The clothes were ill-fitting, but covered them. He looked in the mirror, shocked to see his human reflection. It was said among the wolves that Lucifer's curse was what had turned them into animals. Lawson saw that he had dark brown hair, brown eyes, a scrawny build. This was what he'd fought for, a new life, a new beginning, and he realized he wanted a new name to go with it. The old one wouldn't do anymore. Not in this new world. But what? He found a blue jacket on a nearby chair and put it on, grateful that it was warm.
"Lawson," Mac said, pointing to the white tag on his lapel. "Your name," Mac joked. "And mine is Malcolm."
Lawson. That would fit. He could live with that. It sounded brand-new to his ears, and he liked that.
"That's me," Lawson said. "From now on."
Lawson looked around at his brothers. Rafe was large and hulking; Mac, or Malcolm, as he wanted to be called now, was too skinny; Edon, out of all of them, looked almost normal, handsome with his bright golden hair, his features almost like those of the masters, except without their frightening scars.
"You look good," Lawson told him. "But the rest of us ..." He grinned.
Edon didn't look at him, didn't smile, didn't answer.
They had left Ahramin behind, and Lawson wondered if Edon would ever forgive him for that. But he had no time to worry about that now; they had to figure out what they were going to do now that they were up here, now that they were free. His stomach rumbled, a low, almost gurgling sound, and he realized none of them had eaten in at least a day. "We have to find food," he said.
"There's a refrigerator in the kitchen," Tala said. She was slim and small, quiet-looking, almost plain, but her blue eyes were the same as before, kind and gentle.
"How do you know so much?" he asked her. She knew the words for everything. She knew how this place worked.
"Master Quintus would read to me sometimes, books from this world. I was his favorite pet." She shrugged.
They took only as much as they needed: a loaf of bread, a jar of something green, "pickled," Tala called it. He didn't want to take any more, to steal from those who had so little, but he didn't yet know how else they would manage. And they had to survive. So that someday they could go back and save the rest of the wolves. So that someday everyone would be free. Lawson thought of the portal he had left open for the others. Marrok would not come until he had Romulus's chronolog - he had been adamant that they could not leave the underworld without the device - and Lawson hoped his friend knew what he was doing.
After their first week aboveground, they learned. To sleep in the parks, which was easier than sleeping in the woods. To scavenge from garbage cans. To filch a wallet from a back pocket, or a purse from behind a chair in a coffee shop. To steal from those who seemed like they could afford it, shiny people in handsome clothes, three-piece suits and well-cut dresses.
They learned the name of the place they had landed: Hunting Valley, Ohio. And how to adjust to the sun, the noise, the nighttime cold, the daytime heat. And that aboveground was an awful lot like hell; the underworld was just a darker version of the world above it. He was disappointed by this; he'd hoped for more. Tala teased him, told him he was thinking of Paradise, and the wonders of Elysium were not meant for the likes of them. They were lucky enough to have crossed into this world; he didn't have to go and get ambitious all of a sudden.
Like Tala, Mac seemed to have a better sense of what they'd gotten themselves into. In Hell, he'd discovered the secret library the masters kept, and had taught himself to read the books describing things they didn't have down there: art, music, poetry. "There's beauty up here," he told them. "We just have to find it."
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