Alaric pulled into the car park at the Drunken Duck where two heavily armed Lycans waited anxiously at the door.
"Mr Neumann, we're so glad you could make it," Oliver Harlow, Brian Harlow's younger son greeted as he quickly ushered them towards the building, through the crowded pub and towards the Alpha's private quarters below. Mrs Philpot and Marcus remained upstairs in the company of what appeared to be the entire clan.
The air was thick with grief and tension as he passed by the crowd. The sound of muffled voices and discrete sniffles was a stark contradiction to the jovial melee of the night before.
The small bedroom was cramped with family members and Clan Council, every face grim.
"Alaric, thank you for coming." Hobbling over with a solemn greeting, Damon's mouth was drawn into a thin line. Worry and pain from his own injury taking its toll. The wound on his calf continued to ooze through his bandaging. Under normal circumstances as a Lycan, he would heal completely from his injuries within a matter of hours, no matter how bad the wound. Unfortunately the use of liquid silver in the bullet had muted his ability to regenerate.
Lycans, like vampires were supernatural beings, but there was nothing in this world which did not conform to the laws of the universe. Nature had seen fit to create them with a weakness in their design. They may live well beyond human years and be immune to mortal susceptibilities but they were not infallible, and in the case of the Lycans, their supernatural abilities were only available to them under specific conditions.
For a Lycan to become the Clan's next Alpha, he must be given that privilege directly from the current Alpha or, in the event that the Alpha dies before passing on the mantel, the contending Lycans must fight to the death. The last one to remain alive receives the Alpha title and the gift that comes with it. His normal Lycan abilities: speed, strength and healing, all become heightened. An Alpha must choose his successor wisely. If the wrong Lycan succeeded him, all that power could be disastrous for the Clan.
Alaric levelled his gaze at Brian. His frail body barely clung to life.
The old man's face broke into an awe struck, reverent smile. "I've known you my whole life, and I've never seen you before," he said, reaching for Alaric's hand, fascinated by the angelic glow that surrounded him.
Alaric was a vampire first and foremost. But, before that he was Sammael, an Angel of Death performing the duty of sending souls into the next world at the time of their death. His body may have been human at one time, but his soul was always that of an angel. Becoming a vampire had fused his soul to his human flesh to become the perfect exoskeleton. His flawless soul gave him an unearthly radiant appeal to his appearance, and although his angelic wings once again became an integral part of who he was, they were only visible if he willed them to be. However, his angelic glow was clearly visible to those whose souls had begun to loosen from their earthly body, just prior to death.
"Alaric, could I ask you a favour?"
"Will you help me cross over? Can you still do that?"
"It would be my honour, old friend," Alaric reassured.
Brian Harlow relaxed back into his pillows, his strength foundering.
"Where are the Council members?" Brian asked, waving them to come closer as Alaric took a step aside.
"We're here, father," Damon answered him, stepping up to take Alaric's place at his side, joined by his younger brother, Oliver and four other Lycans. Each man crowded around nervously, anxious for their Alpha's decree.
Brian looked each man in the eye as he addressed them.
"Each one of you have leadership qualities and could fill the role of Alpha," he began haltingly, a soft rattle in his lungs. "It has not been an easy decision for me to make but I believe I have chosen correctly."
He coughed weakly, a trickle of blood escaping the corner of his mouth.
"Damon, Oliver, give me your hand."
The two men did as instructed.
"Damon. You are an excellent military leader and tactician. You have proven yourself many times in combat and you are greatly admired by your men. Your skills and your sharp analytical brain are likely to be needed with increasing frequency in the times to come.
"Oliver. We are moving into dangerous times. The Guild and Ahriman bring a threat that we haven't faced in a very long time. The Lycans need a leader who is strong but level headed and who is not afraid to make the tough decisions. It is likely that the Lycans will be called upon not just to defend and protect our own kind, but also the world in general. The next Alpha is likely to encounter a greater diplomatic role than ever before."
Brian coughed again through a groan of pain, taking a few deep rattling breaths before continuing.
"You will both be needed to defend and lead us in your own way, but only one of you can be Alpha." With that, he drew Oliver's hand toward him, biting down into the soft tissue between his thumb and forefinger and into his palm, marking him as Alpha.
Damon and Oliver exchanged a look of surprise which Damon quickly covered with a congratulatory smile. Everyone had expected Damon to be chosen. He was the older brother, a Captain in the Special Forces and a natural born leader.
Brian drew his older son's attention. "Damon. You see everything as black and white. You deal with every situation with a great deal of gusto, best suited for the military. But, Oliver sees the shades of grey and understands the subtleties of dealing with the general public. He is the better diplomat. If I could make you both Alpha I would, but my decision is final. Oliver will be Alpha."
"Of course father. I fully support your choice. Oliver will make a great Alpha." He removed his hand from his father's grip. He needed some air. "Please excuse me for a moment."
All eyes watched as Damon strode from the room and marched upstairs. He had not been prepared to be overlooked as the next Alpha. He had spent years working to prove himself to his father and the Clan.
Taking the back exit from the pub, he sat on an empty keg by the door. He was happy for his brother. He'd meant what he said, Oliver would make a great Alpha. The decision had just come as a shock. In a few weeks when his leg had healed, he would return to his Command and it would be as if nothing had changed, he reassured himself.
Right now he just needed some space and some time to process everything.
A short while later Alaric joined him, placing a consolatory hand on his shoulder.
"Your father has died."
"Yes, I know. And, Oliver is now Alpha."
"The other Council members are with him now, helping him while he receives his Gift." It was a very painful process. Nobody understood how the process worked exactly, but assumed that while the human half of the Alpha passed on, the wolf half of him is transferred to the new Alpha, doubling his natural abilities.
The two men stared out at the woods, neither seeing what was in front of them, each lost in their thoughts.
"Alejandro Delgado. Cassandra McLennan. It's a pleasure to finally meet you," Ahriman greeted in a jovial manner, as though he was meeting a long lost relative or family friend.
"Can't say I feel the same." Cassie replied, her eyes locking onto Lilith.
No wonder they kept running into dead ends in their search to find Ahriman, The one person with access to all the Alliance's Intel, was planting false information and passing onto Ahriman and the Guild everything the Alliance was doing, everything they suspected, subverting them at every turn.
Cassie had reached the point where she considered bitch-slapping an acceptable form exercise. If she could just get her arms to move.
"Fucking slapper. Isn't there somewhere else you should be?" Alex addressed Lilith. "The kitchen? The sewer? The fires of Hell?"
"You take that back!" she demanded. Her fulminating glare and tone so saccharine, it should have tipped him off that his testicular health was in serious peril. "Apologise now."
"You will apologise." She ordered again, her fists clenching tightly, her eyes narrowing into deadly slits of barely controlled rage.
"No," he repeated in a slow, deliberate tone, one might use on a very irritating small child. "Disappointment is a bitch, get used to it."
Lilith took another step towards Alex, her trailing knee launching a direct blow forcefully into his groin.
"I'm sorry," he bit out through gritted teeth, the pain sucker punching him with every breath. "I meant to say: Shouldn't you be back in the lab getting your bolts tightened, you fucking whore bitch?"
Lilith raised her hand but was stopped mid swing by Ahriman's grip. "We want him whole and unharmed." He reminded her calmly.
Lilith was seething, itching to make him pay for his insults. "Prick!" she yelled at him.
"Yes, well. I have to admit it Lilith, of the two of us, you have the bigger dick."
Lilith thrashed in Ahriman's grip, a snarling growl of anger and hatred tearing from her throat.
"Now, now, pumpkin. Calm down. We don't have much time here. You can have your fun with him another time," he promised.
Lilith paced the room in circles to rein in her hostility.
"That was really smooth, very mature." Cassie chastised Alex.
"I thought so," he rasped through gritted teeth, unable to move his hands to rub the pain from his balls.
"You're funny," Ahriman laughed. "Isn't he funny?" he asked Lilith, moving to stand over Alex, eying him as one would do a new species of bug.
"Side splitting," she answered dryly, one hundred and fifty percent unamused.
"I think I'm going to enjoy having you around for a while."
"What the hell are you talking about, dumb fuck?"
Ahriman tsk'ed Alex. "Come now, I think you'll agree, I'm hardly dumb. But, you're not as smart as you think you are," Ahriman drawled in a malevolently gentle intonation. "I know something that you don't," he declared only inches from Alex's face, his finger tracing the length of the angry red welt on his cheek.
Alex and Cassie shared a look, both dubious and intrigued.
"If you behave yourself and play nice, I won't hurt your sister too badly. Misbehave and she dies. Do you understand?"
Ahriman's cold eyes conveyed the chilling truth. This was no empty threat. He would carry out his promise with callous satisfaction.
The synapses in Alex's brain misfired. "What did you say? Sister?"
"You didn't think I rescued your things from your apartment and replaced your toothbrush, cleaned your hair brush and bought you a new razor, because I wanted to do something nice for you, did you?" Lilith mocked as Cassie's jaw flapped open.
"Lilith has been my most loyal supporter," Ahriman confessed, drawing her closer for a peck on the cheek. "She has collected DNA samples from each of you."
"That's why you were going through my toiletries and my underwear." Alex deducted, dividing his anger between Lilith and himself for having not suspected her earlier for the depth to her perverse deceit.
"Your DNA showed conclusively that you shared the same father. Alaric's blood sample that Lilith collected, also showed him to be a blood relative of yours. So naturally, when it was confirmed that Alaric is actually Sammael…"
"Are you shitting me?" Alex cut him off.
"You're lying, I can tell, your lips are moving." Cassie accused. "Alex, you were justified in all your comments about Lilith. My only criticism, I don't think you were harsh enough."
Could it be true?
Despite all their lies and deception, could Ahriman and Lilith actually be telling the truth?
It made sense. Disregarding the different skin tones, hair and eye colours, they had numerous physical and personality characteristics too similar to be explained away by having been raised together.
For their entire lives, Alex and Cassie had been led to believe they were merely cousins, and not even blood related cousins, due to the fact that Cassie's father had been adopted into Alex's mothers family as a child. They knew that Jonathan McLennan and his adoptive sister Renata were close, since she had lived with Jonathan and his wife Anna, raising Alex and Cassie together like brother and sister.
Did Anna know of the affair her father had with Renata? Cassie thought. Was it an ongoing affair or was it a once off drunken tryst from which Alex was the result? These were questions to which she would never learn the answers.
The past was irrelevant. What mattered now was that Alex was her brother, not her cousin.
She had a brother.
A tear of happiness escaped her eye, closely followed by a tear of despair. If Alex was her brother, then he also carried the immortality gene. Ahriman now had two of them to fulfil his demented 'take over the world' plot.
Panic seized her. The drug they had been given robbed her of her ability to move, to struggle. Her pulse spiked. She could do little but watch with dread as each second passed and Ahriman advanced on her, his surgical knife glinting in the morning sunlight.
They needed help and they needed it fast.
They had no way of reaching Narayan or Abby, sleeping in the lower level of the Manor, or the safety of the underground tunnels that led into Savernake Forest and Cadley.
Alex yelled a string of curses at Ahriman as he fought against the paralysis in his limbs. His fingers moved, then his toes. He shuffled a foot as he watched the unfolding horror in front of him.
He couldn't protect Cassie, his sister.
"Where is the spear," Ahriman demanded.
"I have no idea," Cassie answered, her eyes clenched shut as she felt the edge of the knife slice into the skin of her forearm. "I swear. I don't know where Alaric took the spear," she whimpered.
Blood welled in the cut, overflowing, dripping into the chalice Ahriman's henchman held against her arm.
Ahriman's gaze shifted to Alex. "I'll ask the question again. Where is the spear?"
Alex growled. His rage had pushed him beyond the point of inventive insults. "Let her go, arsehole. We don't know where it is. Let her go. My blood's as good as hers. Take mine, let her go" he pleaded.
"I would consider your proposal," Ahriman said, "except you seem to be lacking in the blood department right now, thanks to that incompetent….what was it you referred to him as?" he quizzed, searching his memory for the term. "Fuck knuckle. Besides, I have other plans for you, Alex."
Ahriman dragged the blade across Cassie's arm once again. A second line of blood flowed into the cup, slowly filling it.
Cassie's scream tore a hole in the Professor's soul. How could this have happened? How had he not seen Lilith's deception? Was he so blind to a pretty face and a kind word that he couldn't see the truth when it was staring him in the face. With hindsight he recognised all the clues. A fat lot of good that did them now.
"I will ask this question one last time," his dark eyes shifting menacingly to the Professor. "Where is the spear?"
"Only Alaric knows where it's hidden."
Cassie screamed as the knife sliced through her arm a third time.
"You won't get away with this?" The Professor seethed, his gaze locked onto the full cup of blood in Ahriman's hand.
"I already have!" His malicious chuckle, cold and callous, sent shivers down their spines.
Ahriman lifted the cup to his lips and drank down every last drop of Cassie's warm blood.
"Not yet you haven't." The Professor promised him defiantly.
The drug was beginning to wear off. Feeling and movement was coming back into their hands and feet, quickly spreading up their arms and legs.
Just one more minute.
Ahriman dropped the cup, scuttling beneath the lounge as he collapsed onto all fours, his body shaking violently.
His transformation was beginning.
Ahriman's face turned toward Lilith, his eyes turning a crimson red, his whole body seemed to shimmer in a hazy aura.
"Take them, now," he ordered the two goons standing close by, his voice dry and raspy. Power radiated from him in increments, the intensity increasing by the second.
Cassie fought weakly as she was hefted like a bag of wheat over one goon's shoulder, her muscles still failing to register her brain's command to move more than the barest of margins.
Alex let out a vicious war cry, focussing all his energy into making his body move, thrashing to break the grip of the second goon's hold, dropping him to the floor with a painful thud, landing on the point of his shoulder and face.
"Fucker," he groaned, spitting blood from his cut lip in time to see a fist heading straight for his face.
"Alex." Cassie cried. His limp body was dragged out through the French doors, across the patio and lawns, towards the awaiting helicopter. Lilith smiled sweetly and waved as the chopper lifted off.
To her right Ahriman began chanting, his body radiated waves of malevolent energy, the magnitude so intense she began dry retching, in turn inspiring the goon carrying her to drop her in case she actually puked down his back.
Ahriman continued chanting until a circle formed on the lawn, filling with a murky haze, swirling lazily within the confines of the ring.
Cassie watched in horror as the repugnant mist smothered the lawn beneath it, the grass withering and dying on contact.
"I'm bait now? You want to blackmail Alaric into giving you the spear so you can complete your transformation, is that it?"
"Of course. What other need would I have to keep you alive?" Ahriman drawled, his voice much deeper now, closer to a gravelly hiss.
"It won't work. He'll never give you the spear," she fumed.
"Of course he will. He would do anything to save his Mate"
"I really don't like you." Cassie confessed.
"I'm glad we've got that out in the open. Put her in the circle," he hissed.
"No," she screamed. Cassie crawled to her knees, her arms and legs shaking with the effort to get away. Terror flooded her senses as thick strong arms lifted her at the waist and tossed her towards the circle. Adrenaline burst into her blood, blinding panic overcame her every thought. She prayed with every fibre of her being that Alaric could feel her distress.
The Professor watched from the doorway. He had ingested less of the poisoned tea than Cassie or Alex and was regaining the use of his limbs. Turning, he stumbled his way back towards the study.
He couldn't allow Ahriman to get his hands on the spear. Very soon he would be unstoppable, stronger and more powerful than even Alaric, and he would stop at nothing to find it, and use it on himself. The result then, was too frightening to even contemplate.
There was only one thing left to do.
The world around Alaric snap froze instantly as his power exploded. Cassie's terror bombarded his senses, overwhelming him with pain so intense he couldn't see straight, before it abated as quickly as it had struck.
He cursed himself for leaving her. What in the world had he been thinking?
He sent out his senses. Where was she? Nothing. He got nothing.
Panic mixed with rage.
Why couldn't he sense her?
His wings unfurled as he leapt into the sky. His power lashed the land and skies leaving behind him a path of falling snow, a frozen landscape and one stunned Lycan.