Last night had been raunchy and raw and more graphic than any fantasy she'd ever experienced before. In the light of day, it shocked even her.
It felt so real. She could taste him, feel his powerful arms crushing her to him, feel his dexterous fingers and skilled tongue whip her into a frenzy, could smell the sweet spicy scent she loved about him, and the orgasm he gave her had definitely been real. She woke from her dream still shuddering from the aftershocks.
Closing her eyes, a delicious tightness coiled between her thighs as she remembered everything in exquisite mouth-watering detail.
If Alaric ever knew she'd had such en explicit dream about him, she would die of embarrassment. But her fantasies were private, hers alone to enjoy without fear of being rejected by her dream lover. She could fantasise about anything and anyone she wanted. As often as she wanted.
She wanted to recreate that dream, again and again but she had a feeling it wasn't going to cure her of her growing infatuation for Alaric. If anything, she suspected it would only make things worse. He'd already made it plainly clear last night that he wasn't interested in her romantically. She really didn't need to make the situation worse for herself, did she.
Heading down stairs, the sun had just crossed the horizon. The tiles on the foyer floor were awash with brilliant colour from the stained glass windows beside the front doors. Further down the hall she heard the creak of the study door closing.
"Ah, you're up." Mrs Philpot called in her usual jovial manner, her friendly smile fixed in its permanent position. How anyone could be so chipper at this hour of the morning was beyond comprehension.
"Good morning Mrs P." she answered distractedly.
"I'll have some breakfast ready shortly," she stated equally enthusiastically, sweeping Cassie into a fierce motherly embrace giving her a case of the warm and fuzzies.
She could easily get used to living here. The Professor could be her surrogate grandfather and Mrs Philpot could be her surrogate grandmother.
There was nothing wrong with fantasising about her ideal world, was there? In her mind at least, her fantasies were preferable to her cold stark reality.
"Thanks. But I think I'll pass this morning. I'm not very hungry," she said apologetically. "I thought I'd take a walk through the woods this morning. I need some fresh air. I feel like I've been cooped up so long I'm developing mothballs".
Mrs Philpot's hearty laugh reverberated through the cavernous foyer. "Well good for you love, just don't…."
"Cross the boundaries. Yeah, I got that." She reassured with a smile.
How was it that even just a few minutes with the vivacious housekeeper could buoy her spirits so effectively.
"Mrs P, do you know what time Alex came in?" she asked, a note of anxiety in her voice.
"He and Abby arrived back only an hour or so ago." Her subdued response set alarm bells ringing. Cassie's heart began to beat double time and goose bumps rose on her arms.
"What happened?" she asked, feeling her momentary calm equilibrium shifting on is axis.
"Now, don't worry yourself pet," patting Cassie on the hand which fidgeted nervously in front of her. "They ran into a little bit of trouble last night but they're fine."
"What do you mean, trouble?"
"Unfortunately the Guild got to the cup before them. They killed a couple of the Custom's Officers and injured a few others. Alex's friend was shot and Alex and Abby stayed with him at the hospital until they knew he was out of danger."
"Matt was shot? Oh my God." Suddenly the supposititious cloud of danger she had been living under for the past week became all too real again. It solidified into an icy block in the pit of her stomach. Until now she hadn't taken it all as seriously as maybe she should have. Now, people were getting injured and dying, people she knew. What if one of those people was Alex, she couldn't bare it if anything happened to him.
"Matt's going to be alright isn't he?" she asked again, a part of her brain clung ambiguously to doubt.
"Yes, dear. I believe he is going to be fine. No doubt Alex can fill you in on the details when he wakes. I can't imagine that will be for a few hours yet though, he looked exhausted, the poor dear." Reassuring Cassie once again with her kindly and magnanimous style.
"Well, in that case I'll be back around lunch time." Cassie smiled weakly, giving Mrs Philpot a quick peck on the cheek before heading for the door.
"Yeah, I know." Don't cross the boundaries, she finished to herself as she closed the door leaving Mrs Philpot as she industriously went about her business again.
She may have considered ignoring that rule before. Despite her run-in with Jarvis, she was still struggling to get her head around the idea that anyone would find her a threat worth eliminating. Her, an almost reclusive, unemployed Uni student. The most dangerous thing about her was her caramel fudge slice which was guaranteed to cause a heart attack or diabetic coma with every bite. But events at the airport served as a reality check she wouldn't easily disregard. The threat was real whether she liked it or not.
Dew clung to her shoes, dampening the fabric and soaking her socks as she crossed the lawn. The impregnable blanket of darkness saturating the forest had begun to lose its heaviness as diffuse light began to breach its interior allowing the browns and grays of tree trunks to become slowly visible. As the light grew stronger, the mostly naked treetops suddenly glowed in a green-gold light, illuminating the forest carpet of grass, fallen Autumn leaves, moss covered logs and evergreen shrubs. Traces of mist left the occasional spider's web bejeweled and sparkling as stray sunbeams flickered here and there through the echoing halls of tree trunks swaying in the gentle breeze.
Cassie followed the lightly beaten path through the forest, marveling at the magnificence of the richly vibrant woods, the smell of fresh air mixed with damp timber, and a multitude of birds chirping their early morning calls.
For all its beauty, she was a little disappointed. For an enchanted forest, it seemed quite regular. She hadn't expected streams made of chocolate or trees covered in forbidden ambrosia fruit or anything, but she had expected…more.
Her stomach started to grumble. Maybe she should have eaten breakfast before she left. A quick check of the time showed it was 11:00 am. She'd been wandering out here for four hours and she'd covered less than half the forest.
Turning around she made her way back the way she had come. With any luck by the time she reached the Manor, Alex would be up and she could find out more details about what happened at the airport.
Cassie looked in the direction of the call.
Through a thicket of shrubs she could just make out Alex's lean form, forcefully thrashing his way through the dense undergrowth. She couldn't keep her bemused laugh silenced. Thank goodness he was never a boy scout. He would probably be the first one ever to fail to achieve even the most basic wilderness survival badges. A dolphin would look more at home in the woods than Alex. If nothing else his zealous effort was entertaining.
"Alex, stop. Back-up. There's a path about six feet to your left." She snorted garishly, trying unsuccessfully to stifle her snicker as he appeared in front of her with what looked to be half the forest still attached to him. Her snicker erupted into a peal of laughter that sent tears rolling down her cheeks until her sides ached.
His pride be damned. She hadn't seen anything so funny in ages.
"I'm glad I amuse you," he retorted irascibly as she picked a particularly obstinate stick from his hair.
"You do," she said, reining in her mirth, "But, what are you doing out here. Have you come to check-up on me? I haven't crossed the boundaries, as you can see." Waving her hand in an arc to show she was deep within the wood and nowhere near its borders.
"If you must know, yes. I'm not comfortable with you being out here on your own." Memories of the fight with the Guild vampires at the airport were still fresh in his mind. It sent a shiver through him to know that they might still be looking for Cassie. Not might. Were. From what he'd seen, the Guild didn't leave loose ends.
"Besides that though," he continued, "Mrs Philpot insisted I bring you some food. She said you didn't eat breakfast." Pulling a small bottle of juice and a couple of pastries from his backpack he handed them to her.
As he turned, Cassie saw a dark purple shadow beneath his sunglasses, which like the rest of him were completely out of place in the shadowed forest.
"What happened to your eye." She asked. He was going to be obstinate and ignore her if he could. She planted her hands on her hips, her hazel eyes flaring with impatience.
"Take off your glasses and tell me what happened." She repeated tenaciously.
He heaved a reticent sigh. "Would you believe I was Mike Tyson's sparring partner?"
"No." She crossed her arms over her chest, her foot tapping out her irritation at his avoidance.
"How about a run-in with a vampire with a bad attitude," he answered again, a little more timidly, expecting her furious response.
What? Are you serious?"
"Yeah, actually I'm very serious," wincing as she tentatively pressed a finger lightly at the fringes of the puffy dark mark that framed his eye.
"You could've been killed." A sick feeling rolled through her, looking about for a log to sit down on as her legs began to shake.
"I was doing my very best not to," he assured her. "And, as you can see, no serious harm was done."
She wasn't buying it but there wasn't any point in arguing with him.
"Ah huh." She scrutinized him carefully probing for other signs of his fight with this vampire but could see no other injuries. Fortunately. "Well, since you're out here, would you like to explore the rest of the forest with me?" she asked, much more calmly that she felt, assuming he'd decline the offer and retreat back to the Manor and his laptop.
"That sounds great."
You could have knocked her over with a feather. "I was planning to explore the far side of the forest this afternoon, over near the little village, Cadley. You sure you want to come?"
"I'm up for it."
"Alright then," she answered, giving him a disbelieving sideways glance. "Let's get going."
"Lead the way."
They walked in silence for a few minutes, each brooding about their own concerns. Not surprisingly both their thoughts involved lascivious thoughts about vampires of the opposite sex, the beneficiaries of those thoughts currently resting the day away somewhere within the walls of Havenswood Manor.
Cassie replayed her dream over and over in her mind. Each time her heart raced a little more. There was something so… so compelling about Alaric. Something that felt so intimately connected to her. She barely knew him but she felt as if she'd known him all her life.
Alex likewise languished in his thoughts of Abby. He never thought a woman who fought like a demon could be sexy, but sexy she was and the steamy look she gave him when he came to with his head in her lap, almost drove him out his mind with the need to touch her, taste her and fuck her until she was screaming his name. He could feel the growing sexual need tightening in his abdomen and pounding in his brain. He wanted to shake his head, push the thoughts away in an attempt to make sense of it. He had never known a reaction so intense, so immediate to any woman. His jeans suddenly felt too tight again as his hard cock threatened to burst the zipper from the pressure behind it.
"Goddamn it." He grumbled to himself.
"What?" she responded indifferently.
"Nothing. Ah. You'll be pleased to know that Narayan killed Cain last night, but unfortunately Mira got away with the cup." He gave her a casual glance as she came to a stop and turned to face him.
"It turns out she had her escape all planned. She had a charter flight to France waiting for her on the tarmac."
"Why didn't you tell me this before?"
"I'm telling you now."
Cassie huffed and sighed, throwing her arms in the air as she mumbled how insufferable he was and stomped a frustrated pace further into the forest.
A couple of hours had passed by the time they reached the far side of the forest. The narrow track they'd been following opened up to a wider, more frequently used path. As the vegetation began to thin, they could see thin trails of smoke rising from the chimneys of nearby buildings and traffic noise filtered through the usual forest noises. It was the first time in nearly a week Cassie had heard a car. Funny though, she didn't miss it. She'd enjoyed the peace and quiet.
Rounding a bend in the path Alex pulled Cassie to a stop. "I think this is close enough to the boundary." Fifty metres ahead the old wooded forest came to an abrupt end, opening out into a small park and the main road of Cadley. A tall, older but still well muscled man approached, his grey hair had vacated the top of his head, leaving unruly tufts at the sides blowing about in the breeze.
Looking behind him, he whistled, followed a second later by a young Irish Wolf Hound. "Tilly. Come." He yelled as the dog bolted past the man and headed straight for Alex and Cassie, its tongue hanging out the side of its mouth and tail wagging furiously. "Tilly. Come!" He yelled again, putting a bit of speed behind his steps to reach the dog before she could reach the cousins. Unsuccessfully.
Alex stepped in front of Cassie as the enormous dog rushed them, jumping up on Alex leaving a paw print the size of a saucer in the middle of his chest, switching between barking and licking his new found friend.
"I'm so sorry." The man apologised, pulling the dog back and putting it back on its leash. Alex and Cassie laughed as the great dog with its grey wiry coat fought its owners grip to reach the cousins again for another pat, whining and barking, crouching and springing forward to get to them, all the time its tail wagging madly.
"Tilly. Down." The man growled. "I'm really sorry about that. Matilda is still young and not very smart I fear. She's a very slow learner," growling once again at the lively canine.
"You called your Wolf Hound, Matilda?" Alex asked bemused, giving the dog a scratch on its head. Its fight to slip its leash curtailed under the new attention.
"No. My wife called her Matilda. I call her Tilly." He answered gruffly. Obviously Alex and hit a sore point there. "The names' Harlow. Brian Harlow," holding out his hand in proper greeting.
His grip was unexpectedly strong for someone who looked to be in his 70's, Alex noted.
"Pleased to meet you Mr Harlow," he grinned. "I'm Alex and this is Cassie," gesturing to Cassie who had taken over scratching Tilly's head.
"You visiting these parts or new neighbours?" he asked curiously.
"We're staying at Havenswood Manor." Cassie told him. Alex shot her a warning glance but Cassie couldn't see the harm in telling the older man. He seemed quite a nice chap, she didn't get any threatening vibes from him or his energetic dog.
"Havenswood you say?" his interest in them increasing. "Mr Neumann's a good man, a bit reclusive mind though, but there's not a soul in this village who'd speak a bad word against him."
"You know Alaric. Ah, Mr Neumann, sir?" Cassie asked.
"Yes love," his warm smile reflected memories, neither happy, nor sad. "We go back a few years we do.
"If you don't mind me saying, if you two are planning to get back to the Manor, I suggest you get going," he said, checking his watch. "It's a hefty walk back and light is getting thin. You don't want to be out here in the dark."
"Why is that Mr Harlow?" Alex asked. "So we don't get lost out here, I'm assuming."
"Well, yes, there is that. But, besides the obvious, there's a reason none of the locals will come out here at night," his sharp brown eyes took on a more serious tone, his brow furrowed and his lips thinned to a narrow slit as he pressed them firmly together. "Folks in these parts believe these woods are haunted."
He waited a moment for either of them to scoff at his claim but as neither showed anything other than curiosity, he continued.
"Some folks have come into these woods and never come out again. Just vanished like they never existed. Some nights a green misty light can be seen in the centre of the forest and some folks have said they have heard the trees talking to them."
"Thank you for the warning Mr Harlow," Cassie replied politely. "We'll be sure to be out of the forest before dark. It's been a pleasure to meet you." She added, smiling thoughtfully.
Alex and Cassie each shook his hand and gave Tilly another scratch on the head before turning around to head back to the Manor.
"I think the old codger's got a screw loose, don't you?" he whispered when they were far enough out of ear shot.
"Think about it Alex. We've already been told that this forest is protected by fairies," she sighed. "I can't say I believe what he was saying but I'm willing to keep an open mind, and so should you."
"Yeah." Again, his fight with the vampires the night before sprang to mind. "Nice dog though." He muttered, his mind already switching subjects. One of the side effects of having such a high IQ, his brain moved from one topic to the next, processing each thoroughly at twice the speed of everyone else. Cassie used to tease him that he had the brain of a computer, the only program missing was 'common sense'.
Lost in conversation, neither of them noticed that the trail they followed seemed to have diverted. Deep in the heart of the forest they came to an abrupt halt, both gasping in astonishment.
"Fuck me! Where did that come from?" Alex breathed the words almost inaudibly.
Cassie had expected to find something special in an enchanted forest, and she believed she had definitely found it.
Directly in front of them, stood the largest tree she had ever seen. It would take the arm span of at least twenty very large men to circumnavigate its base. In contempt of the early winter chill, it retained its vibrantly green leafy branches, successfully camouflaging the top of the tree which stretched to a lofty one hundred metres into the sky, at a conservative guess.
Despite its height, its lower branches were almost low enough to touch, dipping gracefully, allowing their dexterous ends to move softly in the gentle breeze. It sat idly in a clearing, no other tree or shrub grew within ten metres from the ends of is longest branches which stretched a good fifteen meters from its trunk, almost as if to do so would be an insult to its beauty. Lush green grass carpeted the ground between its roots.
"Wow. I've never seen anything like it." Cassie's broad grin beamed on her face.
"Vampires, Fairies and enchanted forests. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it all with my own eyes."
"You saw a fairy?" she asked incredulously.
"No. But I'm sure if we hang around here long enough we will."
Couldn't dispute that.
"We'd better be heading back." Alex said, his eyes still riveted to the enormous tree. "What's the time anyway?"
"Where's your phone?" she asked.
"It died last night." He answered nonchalantly.
"During the fight or from the usual causes?" The usual causes for Alex meant a short circuit in the phone. He seemed to produce an unnaturally high amount of static electricity which tended to short out phones and digital watches. Analogue watches tended to either lose time or gain time when he wore them. Needless to say he had a box filled with dead electronic gadgets.
His unusually high static electricity also made him more sensitive to electrical currents around him, and right now, every hair on Alex's body stood to attention from the energy pulsing through the air around the tree, like an electrical heart beat. The feeling was so intense it set his teeth on edge.
"The usual cause I'm afraid. I think I'm going to have to start buying them in bulk. Maybe I can get a discount if I buy them a dozen at a time." He'd find it amusing if it didn't cost him so much money, so regularly. At least he was always guaranteed to have the latest model phone.
Cassie looked up between the tree tops. The light was definitely beginning to fade.
"I'd like to come back here tomorrow." She announced as they headed back up the obscure trail.
"Sure. We can do that if you like." He answered a lot less enthusiastically. He had a distinct feeling of being watched making him itch to get away as quickly as possible.
"You don't need to babysit me, you know. We've been told this forest is completely safe. You are allowed to have your own life. Besides, you have studies to do, just like me."
"I've deferred my Doctorate until everything is back to normal." He announced, dodging her questioning look. "I can't concentrate on my research if I'm worried about other things. Besides, like you I'm not allowed near the University and without access to the lab, I can't complete my research." He quickly added for clarification.
"Well, I'm determined to not let all this interfere with me finishing my course. I've only got one semester left. I'm going to bring my books down here to study." The tree had such a friendly, relaxed vibe about it, she thought. She didn't feel the electrical buzz that pulsed in its vicinity. "I'll get a lot of work done under its shady branches."
"I get the impression that underlying all that soothing, relaxed vibe you describe, is something more than just an enormous tree. There's strong energy coming from it that isn't altogether harmless. To be honest with you, that tree gives me the heeby jeebies."
They'd only walked twenty feet or so from the tree, but when she turned to look back at it, it was no longer visible beyond the general forest foliage. A tree the size of the Eifel Tower seemingly disappeared before their eyes.
"Come on, we'd better hurry." The shadows in the forest had stretched to blend together until there was more darkness than light and they still had a couple of kilometres to go.
Only a few minutes and they'd be free of the forest. The temperature had dropped considerably over the past half hour as the sun sank deeper onto the horizon. The breeze had dropped, leaving an unnaturally still silence. Their previously muted footfalls through the forest bed now echoed loudly about them. The birds had fallen silent as if holding their breath. The hair on Alex's arms began to prickle.
The feeling of being watched surrounded them, engulfing them both.
Through the advancing darkness, they could see the lights from the Manor.
Only one hundred meters to go.
With each step through the undergrowth, their agitation increased. A sense of foreboding, of something just out of reach of their vision waited for them, stalked them.
Their funky jitters catapulted into a cold sweat as panic gripped them.
"Alex, do you hear that?" Cassie asked nervously.
"Yeah, I do."
"Oh, crap. I was hoping it was my imagination." She squeaked.
Echoing around them in all directions the silent trees whispered their names.
Cassie's heart beat a staccato rhythm against her ribs, her feet taking flight of their own volition, running effortlessly through the last confines of the suddenly oppressive trees, breaking free of their cloying spectral shadows. Her hand clutched tightly in Alex's grip.
They bolted for the Manor.
From the cover of the trees, a pair of glowing golden eyes watched them flee.
The voices stopped the moment they crossed onto the lawn but neither of them slowed to look back, colliding into one another as they reached the back door to the kitchen.
Bursting through the door together, all hell broke loose in front of them.