Alaric flew low through the clouds. The sun couldn’t harm him but it did irritate his eyes, especially since his energy levels had been drained over the past two days retrieving the spear.
In his weariness, Alaric’s focus wavered although his grip on the spear was solid. Its power tingled in his fingers unlocking memories from the distant past. So many memories, some filled with regret and others of satisfaction. It had been the ruthless Muslim Chieftain, Yusuf Saladin, who had taught him to trust again.
The year had been 1187. Alaric had been following the Crusaders through the Holy lands, or more precisely, he was following one of the Templar Knights through the Holy lands.
Alaric carried the cup and spear with him. He had attempted to leave the cup a few centuries earlier with Druids in Britton which unfortunately had not been successful. Stories of the cup had already become legend throughout Europe, the Middle East and Britton exposing it as a beacon of temptation to those who sought instruments of power to achieve their own gains.
The burden of protecting such powerful tools, weighed heavily on Alaric. After so many centuries he no longer knew how to trust anyone. He had created many vampires over the years, most had died in their first few years of having been made. Some died at the hand of others or the sun, and the remainder Alaric had killed himself. The power he protected had easily corrupted the more feeble minded humans and vampires. Eventually he became a recluse, neither seeking out companionship nor trusting those who offered it. That was until he met Saladin.
Alaric had arrived with the Knights Templar in Jerusalem for the Battle of Hattin in 1187. Carrying the Knights Templar banner, the Beauseant, the spear was hidden in plain sight disguised as one of the two pikes upholding the banner. Its black and white standard represented the duality of the world, the dark and evil side and its opposite, that of light and hope. The irony had amused him as he carried it about the outskirts of the camp.
At the Battle of Hattin, his ward, Gerard of Ridefort, had been captured by Saladin and held prisoner for almost a year. Not permitted to interfere directly to save Gerard, Alaric did the only thing left to him.
He befriended the Warlord Saladin to ensure his eventual safe release.
Saladin was indeed ruthless, although he fought not to give himself glory but to ensure the survival of his people. He had no care for material possessions or for tools of power. He already had all the power he needed and much more than he wanted. He understood the responsibility of power and wielded it wisely. Although not a man to be trifled with, he had earned his title of Warlord, he always considered the repercussions of his decisions before acting upon them.
Over the year Alaric came to enjoy his conversations with Saladin. He admired his determination to make a difference to the world he knew and questioned Alaric constantly about those things that were foreign to him, eager to understand.
After Gerard of Ridefort was released, Alaric continued his friendship with Saladin. For the first time in a millennia, Alaric found himself trusting someone.
In 1193 in Damascus, Saladin contracted a fatal illness. Alaric deliberated for days on what to do. He had sworn never to turn another human to become vampire. Every other attempt had ended in disappointment. But Saladin was different. He had a spirit that none of the others had.
In the end, Alaric gave Saladin the choice.
Saladin chose to become a vampire and continue to fight the evil in the world.
For the next three centuries they were constant companions sharing the burden of keeping the spear and cup hidden from the world. After delivering the cup to the Dalai Lama, they had sought a suitable hiding place for the spear.
In the end, as it turned out, it was the Vatican in Rome which offered the best security.
As with all places of power, it had a history of being occupied by men with both the purest of souls and also the most corrupted. The Vatican didn’t discriminate against those who wished to pass through its gates, no matter which side of the moral coin they fell on.
They placed the spear in a damp, musty tomb deep inside the tunnels below the Vatican, securing it with a powerful Druid’s ward, a protection spell which could only be broken by the Druid who cast it or one of his descendants.
Soon after, Alaric and Saladin parted ways. Alaric returned back to Britton, Saladin left to explore the world.
The spear had remained hidden for five hundred years.
Once again, gaining access to Vatican City had been easy. Finding a gypsy with the same Druid linage however, did prove somewhat more difficult.
Beneath the Vatican lay the tombs and vaults just as he had remembered them, filled with all manner of artefacts and creatures, some kept to protect them from the world beyond, and some kept to protect the world from them.
It had been centuries since he had seen the spear, but its power pulsed through his veins, pulling him, leading him through the labyrinth of passages directly to it.
Unfortunately the gypsy he had found, although descended from the Russian Ivanov line, had very little of the power that his Druid ancestors had possessed. It had taken all his own power combined with the gypsy’s to break through the ward.
Crossing the English coastline, Alaric flew with all his speed. Although he didn’t intuit any danger to Cassie and he didn’t sense that she was distressed in any way, there was something wrong, he could feel it. His connection to her had suddenly faded a couple of hours earlier, as though shrouded by something.
Coming in to land by the fountain in Havenswood Manor’s driveway, he stumbled with fatigue.
Before he could take another step, Mrs Philpot’s face appeared in the window, followed a moment later by Alex, his anxious expression mirroring the aging housekeeper’s.
He knew there was something wrong. Where was she? Sending out his senses, he quickly located her. She was at the Elder tree. His anxiety dropped a notch. There was nothing in Savernake Forest that would harm her. That didn’t mean that there wasn’t something else going on.
At least he had time to put the spear safely away.
“Thank God you’re back,” Alex blurted anxiously. “Cassie’s missing. She went out this morning for a walk and hasn’t returned.”
“She’s at the Elder tree.” Alaric advised wearily.
“No. She’s not.” Alex countered. “I’ve just come from there, and I’m telling you, she’s not there. Something’s happened to her, I can feel it.”
Alaric frowned, confused. He could sense her there, although Alex seemed adamant with his conviction to the contrary. Alex didn’t take Cassie’s safety lightly. He would have left no stone unturned in his effort to find her. He also knew him well enough to know that he and Cassie shared a special bond. If he too felt that something was wrong, then there must be. They both can’t be mistaken. His uneasiness began to solidify into a clump of ice in the pit of his stomach.
“Give me one minute.” Alaric disappeared inside the Manor with the spear, appearing again a couple of minutes later.
Wrapping his arms about Alex’s chest, Alaric unfurled his wings once more. “Hold tight,” he warned as the ground disappeared beneath them.
Landing lightly on the ground before the Elder tree, they immediately began to circumnavigate its enormous base.
Nothing. She wasn’t there.
Alaric’s senses buzzed with nervous tension. She was there. He could feel her.
“She’s here.” He insisted, meeting Alex’s conjecture with careful optimism.
Raising his hands toward the tree, he spoke ancient words in a guttural language. The air around them vibrated and like an oasis emerging from a heat wave, the mirage was gone.
Cassie sat peacefully at the base of the tree, deep in some form of trance. The branches of the tree wrapped around her, cocooning her in a protective embrace. The leaves caressed the exposed skin of her face and arms gently and lovingly.
“What the fuck is this?” Alex cursed.
“The Elders have her.”
“I figured that part out for myself, but why?”
“Because of me,” he answered bitterly.
This was the day he had been dreading. The Elders probed Cassie’s mind, harvested her memories and her emotions. Any moment now he expected to be struck by a bolt of lightening and sent straight to the Underworld.
Alaric grabbed Alex by the arm to thwart his attempt to tackle the branches encasing her.
“Wait. The tree will attack you if you try to approach. They won’t harm her.”
“How can you be so sure?” his anger escalating into a tidal wave of fury.
Alaric ignored him, closing his eyes in concentration and drawing in a deep breath. His hands rose again as he spoke in the ancient language once more.
Alex watched in amazement as the tree complied with Alaric’s orders, uncoiling its branches from around Cassie’s still body.
He never would have believed it if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes. A mantra he’d been repeating rather a lot lately, he thought solemnly.
Cassie’s eyes opened slowly, as if waking from a deep sleep.
Alex rushed forward and hugged her. His relief palpable.
Alaric wasn’t sure how he felt, angry, relieved, cheated. He didn’t know how to deal with his feelings. His tempestuous emotions radiated through him, creating waves of turmoil in their wake.
She was safe, but any moment now the Elders would seek their retribution and separate them. He had failed her.
Getting to her feet, Cassie spotted Alaric standing as stiffly as a statue, his complexion was ashen. The pain in his eyes nearly crushed her heart. She never thought anyone could look so defeated, so filled with loss.
Crossing the clearing toward him, he dared not move, dared not touch her. The Elders were watching, waiting for…..for what? They already had all the proof of his betrayal. Why was he still standing there? Did they have some special torture arranged for him before he was banished?
Cassie reached her hand up to cup his face. He shuddered beneath her touch. His pain consumed him. “I’m so sorry, Cassandra,” he whispered hoarsely, barely forcing the words from his constricted throat.
“Shh. Everything is okay,” she reassured him gently, pulling him down toward her.
“No, it’s not okay. I’ve condemned you to a life of misery. I will never forgive myself for that.” His apology and anger suffused in the tone of his voice. He was really good at self loathing. He’d had two millennia to perfect it. Now he would have an eternity to wallow in it, in Hell. He couldn’t bear to look into her eyes, afraid his last memory of her would be her disappointment in him.
“Look at me,” she demanded softly, lifting his face up to her again. Reluctantly he raised his eyes to meet hers.
Her eyes sparkled with all the love and adoration she felt for him. It nearly broke him in two.
“The Elders gave me a message for you.” She began, her breathy voice filled with reverent devotion.
His gaze fixed to hers instantly, his breath hitched and caught in his throat.
“They told me to tell you that, and I quote,” she paused, a smile gleaming in her bright eyes, “You have been forgiven.”
His heart skipped a beat. Did he hear that right?
“They also said, that You have earned your happiness and your family.”
“They’re not going to separate us?” he asked in disbelief.
“No. They’re not,” she answered, her eyes filling to the brim as his rapacious elation melded with her own.
His legs could no longer hold his weight, he slowly sank to his knees on the ground before her. His arms wrapped around her, his Mate, clutching her tightly to him. An overwhelming relief flowed through him. He drew in a ragged breath, releasing his fears as hope and happiness took their place in his heart. The floodgates of his emotions were open, there was no way to hold back the current he was riding. Another ragged breath caught in his throat as a flood of tears washed away his despair.
He hadn’t shed a single tear in two thousand years. Not since the day his wife Jessica had been murdered. This time however, his tears were tears of joy.
Never had he dared to hope that this day would come. He was a cynical creature from tip to toe, and no one who knew him to any degree would argue to the contrary. His mind reeled as his thoughts and emotions struggled to come to terms with his new fortune. Not only had he found his Mate, the one person in all of time and space who made him whole, the other half of his soul, like yin and yang, but he was released from his vow to the Elders. He was free to explore eternity with her.
Cassie smoothed back wind blown hair from his face and kissed the top of his head. Wrapping her arms around him she clutched him tightly to her breast, her own tears flowing freely.
Never one to be outdone, Alex stood beneath the Elder tree, wiping his eyes with his sleeve. He would however deny it if it was ever spoken of. Ensuring Cassie’s future happiness was one thing he could safely cross off his ‘to-do list’. He may not have always liked Alaric but he had grown on him over the past few weeks. There was no doubt in his mind that Alaric would always take care of her. There was nothing that meant more to him that Cassandra.
Rising to his feet, Alaric took Cassie’s face in his hands and kissed her. A soul deep kiss that branded her as his.
“Why didn’t they punish me?” he asked. Now that his personal Armageddon had been averted, he was eager to know the reasons why he wasn’t currently another demon’s new play toy in the Underworld.
“They were going to,” she confirmed sheepishly, “until I convinced them otherwise.”
“What? What did you say to them?” He winced, his stomach churning with apprehensive curiosity. No one ever talked back to the Elders. Those who did were all presently residing in Hell. In this case, ignorance of the possible consequences was a godsend. He had no doubt she would have given them a decent ear bashing. Cassie could never be accused of being shy of an argument.
“Well, first I demanded they tell me what this vow was you made, and why you would be banished for having a relationship with me.”
“And, did they tell you?” he asked timidly.
“Yes. They told me everything. They told me about my ancestors and that you’re my great grandfather, fifty thousand times removed,” waving her arms about in exaggerated movements.
“Being just over two thousand years old, it would be more like sixty,” Alex corrected as he joined them for the conversation.
“Sixty three, to be exact.” Alaric clarified.
“And, what happened?” he asked again. He had to know more. He had to know everything. He still felt like he was balanced on the edge of a rapier. The Elders didn’t let anyone have their way without a But, and there was always a But with the Elders.
“I told them…”
“Hold on,” Alex interrupted. “Back up a minute. You need to fill me in here.”
Alaric looked toward the darkening sky. “I think we should finish this discussion as we walk. It’s going to be dark soon.”
“Can’t you just fly us out of here?” Alex asked.
“Normally, I’d say yes. But I don’t think I have enough energy left to carry all of us. There’s nothing I wouldn’t love more than to get my Mate home and into bed and.…” he began to elaborate.
“You can leave that thought unfinished, thanks. Anymore information on that subject might fry my brain.” Alex quipped. “Now, can we get back to the important topic here?”
Cassie took a closer look at Alaric. His flawless porcelain features appeared hollow, dark rings circled his eyes and even his silky smooth hair appeared dull. He needed to feed, she realised.
They walked along the narrow path, Cassie in the lead since she knew the trail almost by heart, Alex stumbling close behind with Alaric following silently at the rear. The only indication of his presence was his clear voice as he spoke.
“Do you remember when we explained the story of how I became the first Vampire,” Alaric asked Alex.
“Yeah. You drank Jesus’ blood from the cup.”
“Yes. Jesus’ blood contained a gene that he inherited from his mother, Mary. She had this gene implanted into her DNA by the Elders before her birth. Every one of her children inherited that gene. Jesus’ sister, Jessica, was my wife. We had a daughter who also inherited the gene.”
Alex stumbled on a semi buried rock. His training with Narayan had improved his reflexes, but unfortunately it hadn’t made him any less ungainly in the woods.
“I made a vow to watch over her descendants. I wasn’t permitted to directly interfere with their lives but I did help the occasional ones indirectly.”
“There must be thousands of your descendants running around by now.” Alex guessed.
“No. Cassie is the last.” Alex stopped and turned around to face him.
“How’s that possible?”
“The Elders realised that they had introduced something into the human race that could very likely become a weapon against them if it wasn’t carefully regulated. They saw to it that no matter how many children were born with the gene, only one would be permitted to procreate in each generation, thus keeping the number of humans carrying the gene to only a small handful at any given time. The gene remains dormant in their DNA. It can only be activated by the Elders or the cup, so they all live normal human lives, oblivious to the immortality gene they carry.”
“So how is it that Cassie is the last? Who was the carrier before her?” Alex asked. This was a question that Cassie too, was more than a little curious to get the answer to.
“So, what happens now?” Alex asked. “I take it that the Elders have kept the blood line going for a reason. Cassie was supposed to get married to a human and have a family of her own. Pass on the gene to the next generation, wasn’t she?” he very shrewdly concluded. “That’s why you were banned from having a relationship with her?”
“Yes.” Alaric agreed. This was the part that was making him nervous. The Elder’s wouldn’t just cancel their ‘save the world back-up plan’, not when they had spent two millennia cultivating it so carefully.
“They haven’t abandoned that plan,” Cassie shyly acknowledged.
“What do you mean?” Alaric asked apprehensively, the feeling of foreboding increasing.
“I made a deal with them. The Elders. I, um, well, I…” her nervousness began to cut off the blood supply to the part of her brain that allowed for coherent speech.
Alaric approached her, clasping her hands in his, he watched her numbly as she searched for the words that filled in the But, from the Elders.
“Well, it’s like this,” she stalled again. “When they said you had earned your family, they didn’t just mean that you could keep your Mate and your Vampire children.” Cassie removed her hands from Alaric’s and began to fidget.
“What did they mean?” he asked her, his voice barely above a whisper. His heart pounded in his chest.
“It means,…I’m pregnant.”
He was speechless, as was Alex. The two of them stood staring at her, mouths agape. Stunned silence filled the air.
“That’s not possible.” It defied comprehension. “Vampires can’t procreate. They don’t produce any living sperm.”
“Well, it appears that the Elders can resurrect more than crucified men. I still had a few of your ‘swimmers’ inside me from the other night. And thanks to the Elders my cycle has jumped into ovulation, and, well, you can guess the rest,” she answered contritely.
As the minutes ticked by, the memory of her encounter with the Elders began to fade, just as a dream dissolves on waking. She couldn’t remember their faces or names. What remained of her clouded memory was the distinct impression of the energy that surrounded them, wrapped around her. And, the vision of her pregnancy as it was shown to her as a hand was laid on her belly instilling deep warmth in her womb. Even now every cell in her body tingled from the power they had infused in her body to speed up her cycle.
Her chest constricted cutting off her air supply to her brain.
Cassie couldn’t meet Alaric’s eyes. She was terrified of his reaction. It wasn’t every day a man was told he was going to be a father, without his prior consent.
Alaric remained silent, didn’t move a muscle, just stared at her.
She hadn’t expected that her soul mate would turn out to be a vampiric angel, or been prepared for the hierarchy of Elders who dictated the terms of their relationship, and she certainly hadn’t planned to take a leisurely walk in the forest and come back pregnant. Could an inner monologue hyperventilate?
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t let them send you away and I didn’t have the option to talk to you about it first,” she blustered as new tears began to roll down her face.
His arms came around her so quickly she didn’t even have time to gasp.
Alaric felt his heart clenching tightly with emotion, and bent to catch her tear on his lips, treasuring it with all his soul.
She lifted her head to look at him, quietly searching his eyes for a minute.
“You have no idea how happy you have made me,” he declared breathlessly before claiming her lips. His Mate. His Family. He had found Nirvana. In that moment his heart could have burst from the exquisite joy he felt.
“You do realise you’re going to make an honest woman of her, don’t you?” Alex threatened.
“You’re absolutely right I will. Just as soon as we can make arrangements,” he confirmed, picking Cassie up to carry her the rest of the way home.
“Hang on a minute, do I get a say in that decision?” she asked, miffed.
“No.” Both Alaric and Alex answered together.
Right. Well. She could live with that, she thought, as she wrapped her arms around him and nuzzled into his neck.