Ooof. Alex hit the mats with a hard thud expelling what little air he had left in his lungs.
"Again," Alex croaked as he struggled to draw breath into his winded body. His body was slick with sweat soaking his clothes. His normally shiny black hair hung limply in damp strands and clung to his forehead, his face flushed from the exertion of his training session with Narayan. "I'm not stopping until I get this right."
"You're persistence is a credit to you, but I think we are finished for today," Narayan replied.
"No. Once more, then I'll let you call it quits," his determination clearly showed in his eyes even if his body was ready to collapse.
"Very well. Once more." Narayan grinned with a mischievous slant to his mouth. He had something special up his sleeve, Alex could feel it way down to his toes. He'd spent almost every waking hour over the past week with Narayan, when Abby wasn't visiting that is, and was quickly learning the monk's idiosyncrasies and enjoyment of sly trickery and artful deception. All in the name of training, which usually meant Alex was most likely to finish his session exactly where he was right now, flat on his back, only with a few more bruises and a little less pride. It was worth it if he could master this manoeuvre. He'd spent enough time recently memorising the pattern of the mats while his face was plastered to them, pretty soon he would introduce Narayan to them as well, he thought with enthusiasm.
Alex was a fast learner and had thrown himself into his studies with Narayan with much more clarity of understanding and maturity than Narayan had expected. He suspected that Alex's outward appearance of a short attention span and shallow personality was a ruse. There was depth to him that belied his young years and Narayan was determined to push him to the point where he would reveal his true self. And, he would have fun doing it.
"Up, little grasshopper," his grin broadening.
Alex stumbled to his feet unsteadily planting his feet far apart in a ready stance. "Again," he wheezed as he gulped down another desperately needed lungful of air.
Alex made his move towards Narayan just as the door to the gym opened.
Oh crap. A second later Alex was slammed back into the mats, Narayan's hand clasped about his throat.
"Little grasshopper, never lose your focus."
"But nothing. Your enemies will seize every opportunity to defeat you in a fight. Only, if they get the upper hand it'll be 'that's all she wrote', 'good night Irene'. Do you understand?"
"Yes." Alex flashed a look to Abby, her seductive leer made him burn inside, sending a fresh rush of blood to his groin and simultaneously deepened the flush to his cheeks.
"You have added a couple of new phrases to your repertoire, Narayan. Where did you pick them up?" the Professor asked as he stepped into the room.
"I have watched a lot of American television, there is not a lot else to do at the monastery besides training," his eyes sparkling as he chuckled.
Alex gained his feet once again, his expression sobering quickly. He hadn't expected Abby to visit tonight and the Professor had never come down to the gym before. It made him nervous.
"What's up?" he asked cautiously.
"We had confirmation that Ahriman is looking for the Spear," Abby responded.
"Well, we assumed he would since he already has the cup. From what you've told me he needs both to become the world's ugliest monster. So why come all the way out here to tell us? Why not pick up the phone?" he asked as he grabbed a towel and dried off his face.
Abby's eyes never left him for a moment. Alex was already lean with good muscle definition but with his recent exercise program she could see evidence that his body was rapidly filling out with fuller more powerful muscles. His wet T-shirt clung to his torso outlining every ripple of his abdomen and his bike shorts did nothing to cover the bulge beneath them. She closed her lips tightly to cover up her descended fangs. She was still a baby vampire and hadn't yet learned how to control her fangs under the influence of strong emotions. She smiled tightly at Alex and looked to the Professor to answer for her.
"We couldn't take the risk of any bugging devices since Alaric is one of only a few people who knows where it's been hidden. We've learned that Ahriman is sending a team to find it, but we couldn't discuss the subject over the phone, just in case," he replied. "If Ahriman is so boldly looking for the spear, he either has someone passing him insider knowledge, or he's hoping to cause the Alliance to panic and inadvertently lead him straight to the spear themselves."
"So, have you talked to Alaric about this yet?"
"Yes, he needs to make a few arrangements but he's going to retrieve the spear himself. He might be gone for a few days." The Professor ran his hands through his thinning hair, his expression tightening momentarily. If Alex wasn't watching him so carefully, he would have missed it.
"Does Cassie know?" Alex asked in a more subdued tone. Alaric had avoided all contact with Cassie for the past week and in that time he'd watched Cassie become more withdrawn and pale, as though a part of her was slowly withering away. Alex hated to admit it but the pompous self-absorbed vampire seemed to brighten Cassie's spirit. She seemed more content and happy when he was around. This past week had eaten at him to watch her slowly wither away before his eyes and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it.
"Alaric is talking to her now," Abby replied gently, knowing Alex's concern for his cousin and his tendency to over react. She too had been disturbed by the sudden decline in Cassie's health. Although her telepathic gift gave her an insight into Alaric's mind also. His body didn't change, but mentally and emotionally he wasn't faring any better than Cassie. The control it was taking for him to stay away from her was destroying him.
Cassie stared at the darkened forest just beyond the kitchen door and gardens of which she stood at the threshold of, hugging her sides tightly, holding in her sadness, a sadness which had grown a little more each day over the past week. She'd never been one to dwell on unrequited love or let it affect her mood, but somehow this felt different. Alaric had made it clear he had no intension of pursuing any kind of relationship with her, but her heart and body had other ideas. Her mind was clear about letting it go but each day she felt his absence all the more acutely.
Over the past week she and Alex had found their own routines to fill in the day and night. While Alex spent the majority of his time with Narayan learning martial arts and techniques to kill vampires, which he studied with exuberant enthusiasm, he balanced this with evenings learning meditation to improve control of his mind, body and soul. Cassie on the other hand found herself spending her days in the forest, exploring new areas but always managed to end up at the Elder tree, initially for a couple of hours but each day she extended her stay beneath that tree longer and longer. The tree had a comforting presence about it like a mother's nurturing embrace which she found heartening especially since the rest of her world seemed to be falling apart.
Alaric stood in the doorway between the dining room and kitchen watching her silently. She appeared different to him, she seemed to be less than whole, fragmented somehow. He couldn't explain what he saw but it resonated deep within his own soul.
Cassie felt his presence like a tap on the shoulder and her heart beat doubled its pace as she turned to face him. Her cheeks were hollow, her eyes shadowed and flat. Her spark of life faded.
"What are you doing here?" her hurt tone grating at his conscience and his heart.
Alaric took her soft delicate hand as she instinctively reached for him. Her slender fingers slid into his palm with natural ease as he lifted it to his lips. His eyes closed in rapture, drinking in her sweet scent as if it was the elixir of life itself, letting it fill every cell in his body, rejuvenating his soul. His lips brushed her fingers lightly as he raised his gaze to her face. Her pale skin flushed to radiate its natural peachy cream complexion and the blue tinge to her lips faded, replaced with the dusky pink that drove him crazy for a taste.
The change in her was dramatic and instantaneous.
Was it possible that their symbiotic bond extended further than their emotional exchange? Surely he was misreading things. Unlike vampires, humans reacted to their emotional state he reminded himself.
Doubt lingered in the back of his mind. This was unknown territory. He had never formed a blood bond with one of her kind before. She was unique in this world, the last of her line, so it would stand to reason that a bond with her would also be unique.
If things weren't complicated enough already.
"You haven't told me what you're doing here," she demanded dryly. Her body may have received a jolt of new life with his contact but her heart remained broken.
"I live here." Smiling his cheeky lopsided grin that usually managed to make her melt at his feet, but this time she seemed immune to his light hearted quip. She pulled her hand from his as though his touch stung her.
Cassie pinched her lips tightly together to hold her tongue but the promise of a verbal backlash was etched in her scowl if he didn't hurry and get to the point. In this moment his presence caused more pain to her than his absence did. He was so near and yet so far. The need to get closer to him tore at her soul but he might as well have been on the other side of the world for all the good it would do her. The hole inside her remained raw and gaping, and growing steadily wider.
Her emotions raked through Alaric with the effect of a thousand razor blades.
"I've come to tell you that soon I'll be going away for a few days. I won't be gone long, two or three days at the most."
"Why are you telling me? You've already avoided me quite well for a week. If you left for a month I probably wouldn't notice any difference," she snapped angrily.
Alaric bowed his head, forcing his hands into his pockets to stop himself from grabbing her in a comforting embrace. He took a deep breath before raising his head to look her straight in the eye. She could see straight to his soul, he knew she could, as hard as he tried, he couldn't hide his feelings for her, which of course was the whole point of avoiding her for the past week.
"Ahriman and the Guild are going after the Spear. I have to make sure they don't find it." Despite his calm words and body language, his anxiety was growing, forming a hard knot in his stomach. Ahriman already has the Cup, if he got his hands on the Spear he would have two of the three elements he would need to become immortal. All that was left was the key to make it work.
Alaric swore an oath to himself that he would give his life a thousand times over before he would ever let Ahriman get his hands on the key. Fortunately the Cup and Spear on their own are useless to him but none the less dangerous in the wrong hands. The key was his biggest worry.
Alaric's heart skipped a beat at the thought, his breath caught in his throat.
Cassie's heart began to race and her chest felt tight and short of breath.
In a panic she opened the kitchen door and made a dash outside to draw in a few deep breaths of the cold night air.
Alaric followed close behind.
"I'm sorry. I don't know what happened. I just became really anxious all of a sudden," she said, an expression of bewilderment on her face. She had nothing to feel anxious about, maybe it was a symptom of her looming insanity causing her to hyperventilate.
Alaric took her hand and led her further into the shadowed verdant spread of the gardens. He'd been afraid of this. It was his anxiety she was feeling. Their connection flowed both ways between them. Not that he was going to tell her that though.
Cassie shivered, her track pants and long sleeve t-shirt were no match for the early winter's breeze. Alaric put an arm around her shoulders, pulling her close against him to protect her from the wind, an automatic reaction which he regretted as soon as he'd done it.
She turned to face him, tipping her head up toward his. The air between them actually seemed to sizzle and spark. But only for a moment. Alaric removed his arm from her shoulders and took a sudden step backwards away from her.
What was the problem? She couldn't understand it. For something that felt so right, why then, was he denying himself and her, the chance to explore the possibility of being together. She knew they both wanted it.
Whatever the reason, he wore his secret like a suit of armour, pressing heavily down on him.
"I don't know what the problem is. Every time I get near you, you freeze and run away. I'm pretty sure you know how I feel about you," she said taking a small step, closing the distance between them. "And, you're giving off all the signals that you feel the same about me," she said, taking another step in his direction.
"I can't. As much as I want to, I can't." he replied miserably, appealing for her to understand a reason that he was both unable and unwilling to explain, which only upset her all the more.
"Kiss me. Just this once. Kiss me the way you really want to," she pleaded, staring deeply into his tormented eyes. She held her breath for the longest moment waiting for his response.
She watched him. Her knowing gaze, as sharp and direct as arrows, but infinitely more arousing. He felt his already hard cock strain for her attention.
He watched her with hunger. A hunger that was fast putting something other than his brain in the driver's seat.
Slowly he raised his hand to her face, sweeping a long curl behind her ear, his fingers raking into her hair as he cupped her face, his thumb stroked her cheek gently and lovingly. She could see signs of chinks developing in his impenetrable armour as he waged an internal battle between his head and his heart.
"Please," she whispered, placing her own hand over his, holding it against her cheek.
Her eyes flashed with frustration and impatience, and what he interpreted as the first hint of certainty. She thought he was weakening.
And, God help him, he was. His foundations were fracturing beneath him.
Taking a step, he closed the remaining distance between them. He bent his head and kissed her, tentatively at first with feather light kisses. The sweet taste of her warm lips lured him in for more. The memory of her dream which he'd shared so intimately with her, crumbled the last piece of his self imposed barricade and his body responded. Just this once, he told himself, as he released his inhibitions completely and kissed her deeply. It was long and slow, a soul-deep kiss filled with passion and longing, tinged with his tormented sadness. This kiss would need to last him throughout eternity.
He held her against him in a possessive embrace. His tongue traced the soft fullness of her lips, parting them to explore the recesses of her mouth. She moaned softly as their tongues melded, seeking one another intimately. He drank in her sweet scent until every breath he took was of her, wrapped around his very soul.
She tasted every bit as good as he imagined, as sweet as honey mead and just as intoxicating. His body was burning from the inside out.
His hands traced the length of her back, feeling every curve beneath his fingers. Slowly they moved across her ribs, the pads of his thumbs gliding circles across the outskirts of her breasts, edging ever closer to her hard ripe nipples. With a groan, she relaxed further into his embrace, urging him on to continue his exploration.
He was close to crossing the line of self preservation. He had to stop. Stop now.
With painful effort, Alaric gently pulled away from her. The look on his face told her all she needed to know. He loved her, every bit as much as she loved him.
A litany played in his head, small and weak. A plea for his own sanity.
Then his armour fell back into place.
"There can never be anything between us," he said sadly.
"You keep telling me that, but you never explain why. Why?" raising her voice in temper and frustration.
"You're not going to let this go are you?" his own self pity and misery making him sound angry.
"No. Not now that I know you love me," defiantly standing her ground, her own voice hoarse with emotion. "You can deny it all you like but I know it's true… I, I can feel it."
He felt trapped. His desire for her was too strong to ignore but she was his forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden. He was her protector and until he knew for sure that she was no longer in any danger, she had to remain in his home, tormenting him with her scent, her voice, her smile, her warmth. Everything about her drew him to her. His impoverished soul was doomed to be incessantly plagued by forbidden desire.
Maybe this was his punishment for all his crimes as a vengeful vampire he committed over the years.
In his early years he'd been angry for being made a vampire. He watched his family die one by one and had wanted to join them but that was not a choice he had been given. Instead he had inflicted his retribution on any and all those souls that crossed his path until the river of blood he had created finally washed away the darkness in his soul.
His mind was made up.
He would retreat back into solitary confinement once again, however pointless that might turn out to be. No matter how much distance he put between them, he feared he couldn't escape the constant torment of their connection. Fortunately, he thought, as yet she hadn't wised up to the depth of their bond, but feared it was only a matter of time. She was smart, she'd soon work it out and he had to prepare himself for the inevitable repercussions.
"Cassie, I'm sorry."
He avoided eye contact with her, his posture stiff and tense. A moment later, Cassie stood alone in the garden, a vacuum of wind pulled her off balance in the direction he disappeared, forcing her to take a step forward to stop from falling over.
A solitary tear escaped her eye as a flood of emotions bombarded her, some of which seemed so foreign and out of place to her. She knew in her mind and her heart what she wanted. Him.
So, why did she feel so torn?
She wasn't torn. That's how he was feeling, not her. Come to think of it, she'd had a few unusual feelings lately that she hadn't been able to quite discern. Why did she hyperventilate earlier when they were discussing the spear?
The full moon rose high above the trees filtering light through the bare branches of the forest below. She wandered from the garden into the thicket of trees.
She didn't want to go back inside, not just yet. It was peaceful out here and she needed to get a handle on the quagmire of emotions she was wading through. Her feet followed one after the other deeper and deeper into the forest. The further she got the denser the foliage, blocking out the moonlight. Unaware of how far into the forest she wandered she continued her slow meander along the narrow beaten path.
An assortment of thoughts rolled through her head, tangling incoherently together.
Up ahead she could see a faint glow. Towering over the rest of the forest in front of her was the Elder tree.
Oh, dear. She'd definitely wandered too far. She was in the heart of the forest. Looking behind her, the path she had followed seemed to blend into invisibility.
This wasn't good. She had to get back to the house. The temperature had dropped a few more degrees and was bordering on freezing. Her light weight clothes weren't going to do her much good if it continued to plummet.
Damn. Why hadn't she been paying attention to where she was going.
Because her mind was so corrupted with thoughts of Alaric, she couldn't think straight.
No point dwelling on it now though. She had to get back.
Turning, her foot caught under a tree root, wrenching her knee and twisting it. An audible pop and tearing sound broke the silence of the forest, her head coming to blows with a rock as she fell heavily. Pain ripped through her as she grabbed her knee and a trickle of blood flowed down her forehead, dripping into her eye.
Now she really was in deep shit. Why the hell did she come into the forest at night anyway. She needed her head read,… and stitched, she thought numbly.
Pulling herself up, she took a tentative step on her injured knee. A jolt of pain roared through her leg, giving out beneath her and landing her exactly where she'd started. Crawling, she pulled herself over to the Elder tree, bracing her back against its trunk.
"Help. Can anyone hear me?" she cried.
Her answer was the rustle of trees and a deep rumbling growl.
Whipping her head around in the direction of the growl, two glowing golden eyes assessed her from the body of a wolf the size of a small horse on steroids.