Epilogue – 6 months later
Amber was leaning back against the sofa with her feet up on a stool and feeling really frustrated. Ever since she hit her second trimester, Draven and Eian had cornered her into what felt like house arrest and she resented it. Amber needed to work; keep her mind off the uncertain future of her baby and more importantly, keep busy enough so her memories would return at a controlled pace –not in torrents each time she relaxed.
And she was just too goddamn relaxed at home right now that she wanted to throw things around just so she could clean up the mess –not that Draven would allow her to do any housework either and there was no use lying to a mind-reading mate.
“I’m pregnant, not bedridden!” she yelled into the empty house. Eian had it built within a month after she was discharged from the hospital and while it was a lovely split level family accommodation, Amber felt really lonely in it since there was practically no one inside but her.
Rubbing her tummy absently, Amber got up from the sofa and decided to rummage through her kitchen for the tenth time that morning.
“Why are there no chocolates when you need them?” she muttered then turned to look at the wrappers in the sink. “Oh! Guess I –no, I mean we ate them all,” she laughed, patting her tummy. Craving unfulfilled, she trudged back to the living room to sit on the sofa.
Then she started to cry.
“I’m fat,” she moaned. “I ate all the chocolate in the house –including the secret stash I keep in my desk drawers. And that’s not all! My ankles are swollen, my breasts are aching and I keep peeing every few minutes! With my body temperature so high, I feel like a walking oven and what can I do? Nothing! I am going to die from inactivity!”
As pregnant and frustrated as she was, Amber knew that her Alpha’s orders were meant for the safety of the pack. She was a high ranking wolf; she should understand the sacrifice that she has to make. Didn’t Fiona make the same sacrifice too? She had to stop going to work and stayed home pretty much all the time until she gave birth a month ago.
But Fiona had no complications during her pregnancy or delivery. She didn’t even have cravings or swollen ankles or ugly stretch marks on her pretty white skin! And her mate was with her all the time! It’s so unfair.
Amber didn’t want to sulk. It wasn’t really her fault that her mate happened to be a Vampire right? And it wasn’t her fault that he had to be a Pureblood sitting on some important sounding Council either.
“It’s all his fault,” she nodded to herself, feeling slightly better. “If he wasn’t, he’d be here massaging my feet and spoiling me and suffocating me…” she sulked.
Right at that moment, she felt a strong kick and vaguely saw the bump against her tummy where her baby’s feet had kicked. Amber stopped sulking immediately.
“I’m so sorry sweetheart. Mummy’s feeling cranky and neglected. I didn’t mean that of course. I wouldn’t have you if I hadn’t found my mate…” she tried to soothe the baby, rubbing her tummy constantly. Although she couldn’t remember how it was even possible for them to mate safely, this child inside her was truly a gift and she would do everything to protect it.
Amber had pretty much remembered who she was, what her position in the pack was and how she ended up being mated to a Vampire but that tiny puzzle of how they could mate still gnawed at her mind. Draven must have bitten her during mating but why wasn’t she dead?
Closing her eyes, Amber tried to relax; knowing that the moment she stopped being agitated, her mind would clear up and she’ll begin remembering things.
In an office far away, someone else was also puzzling over the same question as Amber.
Meanwhile, Draven was thinking of Amber as he sat in his office poring over the daily reports from the various Council departments. He didn’t like the idea of leaving her at home with guards at the door and had contemplated being absent from work for the next few months. However both Eian and his parents had advised against it.
It was normal for the Pureblood on the Board of Elders to be on hiatus as and when he or she liked but Draven’s absence in particular would raise red flags because of his association with a Werewolf mate and the MacFarlane pack. Draven hated it but he knew this was necessary. It was the only way he could keep his mate and his baby under the radar of whoever it was after them.
Every fortnight, for the past six months, he had kept his participation to the minimal and made sure he read the minds of his fellow Elders at every opportunity he could. However, it was no easy feat seeing that most of them were older than him –not just by the centuries but by millenniums –their minds were capable of blocking even his strongest penetrating focus.
So, in other words, he learnt nothing.
A knock on his door jerked him out of his thoughts and when it opened, he was not surprised to see Patrick walk in.
“How are you doing?” he asked kindly. And she?
Draven smiled at the mental question and nodded. “Close the door Patrick and sit down.”
After doing as he was told, Patrick looked at Draven in the eye and started delivering his report.
Rogue Hunter Unit received orders from the Intelligence Unit seven months ago to keep a watch on Elder Benedicta for suspicious misdemeanor. The order was to terminate effective immediately.
Draven raised his eyebrows in genuine surprise. It was no wonder that the loss of Benedicta hadn’t caused much surprise or outrage amongst the Council ranks. However, he had a feeling that everyone had assumed that she was taken out by one of the Rogue Hunters as ordered. But that would mean that everyone already knew she was being targeted and yet gave her no advice. Or…
Patrick, is the source legitimate?
Patrick gave a smile and shook his head. Even amongst us there are those who look down on the common-level Vampires and it is truly their loss. We’re invisible and ignored so when they talk, they don’t care if we’re around because they think nobody will believe us. But I know you believe me Draven. One of the common-levels working in the RHU told me something very interesting. Apparently, that specific order was only added recently but was made to look like it had been scheduled seven month ago.
But whoever placed that order made the mistake of not conscripting our unit’s assistance.
I agree Draven. No assassination is allowed to be executed without the Damage Reversal enforcers on standby. Hunters never bother to dispose of the body or worry about witnesses. I feel like their freaking cleaning crew sometimes.
Draven smirked at Patrick’s response. Did your source say who drafted that order? Or who manipulated the system?
No Sir. He only told me that the Head of RHU was unhappy when he was approached by one of the Elders regarding Benedicta’s assassination. The Head was sure that the order hadn’t been there seven months ago and they had a big argument about it.
Draven frowned. Now that Benedicta was out, there was no use asking if it was a male or female Vampire who argued with the Head of the RHU.
Is that all Patrick?
Okay, then you’re free to go.
When Patrick had left, Draven leaned back in his seat and considered his next move. If he approached the Head of RHU right away, it might alarm whoever that argued with him. The Elder might run and Draven would have no actual person to interrogate. But whoever it was that argued with the Head is not necessarily a suspicious character. He could have seen the discrepancy and wanted to find out the truth.
Sighing to himself, Draven picked up his phone and called the Head of the RHU in. He’d take the chance for this was his only lead.
An hour later, Draven was sitting in Elder Leon’s office; mind focused to penetrate the Vampire’s mind the moment he let his guard down.
“Young Lord, what brings you here today?” asked Leon kindly. Draven always thought the Ancient was very gentle but the fact that he argued with the Head of RHU made him a suspect.
“Leon, how many centuries have you served on the Board?”
Leon frowned at the strange question but answered politely, “Close to nine, my Lord. Are you… dissatisfied with my services?”
“Do you consider yourself the head of the organization somewhat? That you have perfect right to interrogate Heads of departments and send termination orders without discussing with the others?”
Leon’s eyes widened partly in fear and partly in shock. Blinking guiltily, he looked away for a minute before lowering his head humbly.
“Young Lord… I have looked after this Board and this Council for almost a millennium and I consider every one of our staff as a part of my family. And never… never in all my centuries of service has one of my own been assassinated without my prior knowledge. There are proper channels to correct misbehavior –termination of life is always the last.”
“What are you saying Leon?”
“Pardon me, young Lord… but I fear that something has slipped past my awareness; right under my nose even and I sought to right a wrong…”
Draven raised an eyebrow warily. “You don’t trust me.”
The Ancient’s eyelashes fluttered rapidly –a sign that Draven was right.
“I… I stood up for you young Lord during the voting. But now I do not know… Benedicta had many disagreements with your position on the Board and her sudden death makes us all suspicious of you. Please forgive me young Lord… but I had to know the truth.”
“So you went to RHU and argued with the Head?”
Leon nodded slowly. “I wanted to know for sure who sent the orders…”
“And only a Pureblood could override any orders in the system,” replied Draven with understanding. “Well then, Leon… I will tell you who killed her if you let down your guard and let me read your mind. We both want the truth don’t we?”
Leon widened his eyes and hesitated. He was much older and stronger but Draven was a powerful Vampire in his own right too…
“I won’t obliterate your memories. I promise,” assured Draven. He had seen the fear in the Ancient’s eyes and understood. “We’ll ask your secretary as witness. If I do more than read your mind, then she has the authority to demand my removal and termination effective immediately.”
Leon nodded and buzzed his secretary in. A moment later, he relaxed; dropping his guard down as Draven gently placed his fingers at the side of the Ancient’s temple.
Images after images flooded Draven’s mind, almost pushing him backwards and out of the Ancient’s head.
So this is what it feels to read the mind of someone so ancient…
Draven had to scale through the many centuries worth of memories; glimpsing occasionally at the members of the Board and seeing how they’ve been elected or replaced accordingly. It was a tiring process but Draven finally narrowed the time line to ten years ago; the day Aramis Culzean took office as the Pureblood representative on the Board.
Benedicta had been there and while she was as vocal, she never raised her voice when Aramis spoke. Draven rifled through the memories of what Leon saw or heard and was feeling upset that he found nothing useful… until he noticed Benedicta at his wedding announcement ball. She shouldn’t be there. Apart from Leon and the Enforcers, the ball was strictly for Pureblood families.
Draven tried sifting through for instances of contact between Leon and Benedicta and eventually found it. His father was talking to Leon about security when a tall, handsome Vampire came up to introduce himself. Draven read Leon’s assessment of the Vampire as being a Pureblood from the New World families; possibly some of the earlier families who moved from Europe to America.
That didn’t surprise Draven. His father had wanted him married to a Pureblood so desperately that inviting American families wasn’t out of the ordinary. Draven saw the Pureblood introducing his sister to Aramis and Leon, quoting her talents and abilities and ensuring them that she was of a fine stock. However, what interested Leon, and Draven too, was the Vampire standing slightly behind the Pureblood.
It was Benedicta –the Pureblood’s wife.
Draven didn’t think much of it at the moment and continued leafing through Leon’s other memories –in particular the ones just slightly after Draven’s induction into office and after Benedicta’s death. Leon was telling the truth after all. He had been doing his own investigation regarding her death and was convinced that it was not an ordered assassination.
Taking his hands away from Leon’s temples, Draven stumbled back slightly and took a seat. That had drained him considerably.
“Leon, who am I and who is this?” asked Draven, pointing to the secretary.
“You’re the newest addition to our Board; young Lord Culzean and that is my secretary Trina.”
“I assure you that I did not remove any memory of yours. Trina, you were my witness right?”
“Yes my Lords…” she nodded her head and waited to be excused.
Once she was gone, Draven looked over at Leon and admitted, “I killed her… but not for the reasons that you think.”
“Young Lord! How could you!”
“She nearly killed my mate Leon. And I am not accusing lightly. She stalked and attacked my mate and almost ripped her abdomen out.”
Leon covered his mouth to hide his horror. “But… but why didn’t you just tell us young Lord? Why did you pretend it was an assassination by the Rogue Hunters?”
“I had a hunch that she was doing it under the order of someone stronger within the organization. Benedicta was a smart and vocal Elder but she does not do grunt work like stalking after someone. We have trackers for that and they are much more qualified and efficient.”
“I apologize Draven,” Leon looked sad. “How’s your mate? Did she…?”
“She managed to survive. Benedicta went against our basic law with regards to the other races. As the strongest race, we were told not to attack humans and Weres unless in dire circumstances and trust me Leon, my mate did not even leave a scratch on Benedicta. Not one. And you know what she did to make sure of that? She broke my mate’s wrists. Broke it Leon! How inhumane is that?”
“But the orders… if they didn’t come from you then who? Any override in the system needs the seal of the Pureblood in order for it to go through.”
“You mean like this?” asked Draven, pointing to the signet ring bearing the Culzean crest.
“Yes,” said Leon and for a moment the two of them stared at each other before rushing out towards the Rogue Hunter Unit department.
Draven and Leon took the documents with the seal and went back to Leon’s office. They did not say a word to each other until they were within the safety and confines of his office.
“Whose seal is it?” asked Draven. “As you can see, it is not mine.”
“It’s not a European seal,” he muttered, laying out the family crests of all the Pureblood families under the Council’s tutelage. Draven looked at them and frowned.
“We couldn’t possibly have allowed anybody to just… wait. Did Benedicta wear her family crest with her?”
Leon frowned, “Nobles do not carry signets around. Surely she would know that.”
“Yes but she’s married to a Pureblood isn’t she?”
“You think her husband came here to cover up her own death? That’s such a terrible thing to say!” exclaimed Leon.
“If she was wearing it, anyone could have had access to that signet and place that order.”
“That surely enlarges the pool of suspects now young Lord…”
“Yes but I need you to check if her husband was here recently. He must have come to arrange for her body.”
A moment of silence passed between them.
“I’m afraid Lord Russell did not make the trip young Lord. He gave instructions to return Benedicta’s remains to her family and to give her a Noble’s burial.”
“Benedicta is married to the Pureblood running the American council?” asked Draven in surprise.
“Well… she’s his second wife if I’m not wrong young Lord. After his first wife died, he left for America and has been there ever since. He even left his son here with his brother-in-law and hardly came to visit.”
“Leon… we need to know who sent that false order. Whoever sent it has to be the one who gave orders for Benedicta to follow my mate. I want to know what exactly they wanted from Amber.”
“I understand my Lord… We shall have to bring this up during our Board meeting tomorrow. Only the Elders are allowed into the RHU system.”
“Yes… I think that’s what we should do. And Leon? This time, I want Enforcers outside the doors and at all exits while the meeting commences. Can you help me arrange it?”
When Draven finally reached home that evening, he was exhausted but feeling hopeful that the meeting tomorrow would yield some answers. After relieving the two guards standing outside his home, he entered to find Amber asleep at the sofa with her feet up on the table.
She looked so fragile lying there but upon closer inspection, had an annoyed expression on her face. Draven had a feeling that he had put it there.
“Guess I’ll have to kiss it away then,” he mused, tiptoeing closer to his mate. Even though she was wearing an oversized tattered t-shirt, with her hair messy and unkempt, he still found her sexy. Rubbing his nose against hers, he roused her slowly with gentle kisses on her lips.
“Can I have sex now?” she murmured, waking up and stretching slightly. “I’ve been bored and waiting all day,” she complained, blinking her eyes to look up at him.
“What?” he replied in surprise. “Aren’t you getting too big for that honey?”
Her eyes widened immediately and she sat up in anger. “Are you calling me fat? Oh god you just did didn’t you?” she squealed before pushing him away.
“No! That’s not what I meant!” he protested but she was already yakking about her ankles, chocolate and a host of other complaints as she waddled away from him. Her hands were flagging around and Draven was sure that if he came too close she might accidentally smack his face.
“Shower with me,” he suggested as he leaned against the wall behind her. Amber stopped complaining to turn around and look at him.
“Why?” she asked suspiciously then started to sniff at herself.
“Come here,” he laughed as he took her by the hand and walked up towards their bedroom. “I want to see you naked so you’ll know I still love you.”
Amber stopped resisting. “You’re using the ‘L’ word to get away with it.”
“Yeah but it’s working,” he smiled as he took off the t-shirt from her body. As expected, she wore nothing underneath.
“I’m a burning oven and I was alone at home…”
“I didn’t say anything!”
“Oh please. You’re my mate. I can read your mind like an open book.”
Draven nipped her neck lightly as he helped her into the bathroom. “I’ll draw a bubble bath to soak your tired body okay?”
“Or I can soak and you can shower. There’s no space for the three of us.”
“There will be,” he said firmly as he began to undress. “If not, you can sit on top of me.” He winked playfully. “But for now, I want you to soak and relax, while I wash away this grime in the shower. I won’t be long, I promise.”
He made sure she was comfortably settled in the tub –which was built for two –before he headed to the shower. Keeping his eyes on her through the glass door, he took the quickest shower in his life; scrubbing the dirt and sweat off his body as quickly as he could.
When he joined her a while later, Amber was glowing happily at the feel of the bubbles and jet spray massaging her body. Draven had been warned by Pearl that pregnant Werewolves were easily agitated and get emotional over very minute things. They were also territorial and would bite anyone daring to come close –which was why her guards stayed outside their home.
“How was your day?” she asked sweetly when he slid in. But before he could answer, she told him about hers. “Can we please get more chocolate? I want to get out for some fresh air too. I didn’t do anything today except read and sleep and watch tv. I did some exercise too but nothing strenuous but I have too much pent up energy Draven… I’m dying for a run.”
He hooked an arm around her and kissed the top of her hair.
“You can run all you want after the baby’s born okay? But I’ll take you out later to get your things and maybe we can swing by Eian’s house to see the baby okay?”
She nodded and leaned her body slightly against his broad chest. Using his free hand, Draven rubbed it gently over her tummy.
“Does the baby kick a lot?” he asked.
“Not really. Only kicks when I’m whiny,” she laughed.
“Don’t you want to know if the baby’s a boy or girl?” asked Draven.
“No… I want it to be a surprise.”
Amber had been adamant on that point although both of them could already scent the gender of the baby but she was right –a little surprise would always be nice. Their fingers linked each others’ as their hands lay on her tummy.
“Draven… do you think that if you and Fiona hadn’t taken that blood pill, Weres and Vampires can still mate?”
Draven looked down in surprise at her question. “Did you just remember that?”
She shrugged. “The memories come back whenever I’m relaxed and I’m too relaxed these days.”
“Well… I’m not sure Amber sweetheart. Our bites are lethal to each other but conception is another different thing. Mating is about the bond you build with another person; not just about marking each other… although I think your wolf loves being marked,” he teased.
“I do too. Scent marking is very important Draven… especially when you have pups. They’re born deaf and blind and rely only on their sense of smell. They need to recognize their parents’ scents; not their individual one but the one that links the mates together. It reassures the baby because they smell exactly like that mating bond and it’s unique only to each couple.”
Draven was impressed. Amber was beginning to remember more things these days and he was really grateful to his brother for it.
“I love you so much,” he whispered; trailing kisses from her ear down her neck. “And I want our babies to always know our scent.”
Amber giggled as Draven bit lightly at her collar bone before lifting her up on his thigh. “Are we having sex now?”
Pushing her hair away from the back of her neck, he grinned, “Yes.”
“Thank god,” she moaned, reaching underwater to claim her prize.
When they finally got out of the house, it was already dark and the air was cold. Draven draped his coat around Amber and wrapped his arm around her shoulder, despite her protests. But he couldn’t help it. She was his mate and he was protective over her and his soon to be born child. Amber wouldn’t admit it, he knew, but she actually enjoyed being coddled and was just pretending to get annoyed over it.
“I thought you promised me chocolate?”
“Yes I did and we’ll get some soon.”
“At Eian’s house?” Amber wrinkled her nose suspiciously. “Are you up to something?”
Draven grinned and nipped her lips playfully. “Of course not.”
Amber was not convinced. She had a feeling that he was going to distract her with cooing over Fiona’s baby and talking about pack stuff till late into the night instead of heading down to the nearest convenience store to satisfy her sweet tooth.
“Stop scowling sweetheart. The baby can sense when their mummy’s grouchy,” murmured Draven as he bent forward to kiss her pouty lips until she began giggling. “That’s my girl,” he beamed before knocking on Eian’s door.
The moment the door opened, a loud “Surprise!” echoed from inside, causing Amber to actually jump back slightly in shock. Thankfully, Draven was there holding her or she would have collapsed.
Eian held the door as Draven ushered Amber in. Familiar faces greeted them –Josephine and Aramis, Alaron and Erika, Dominic and Sydney, Big Mike, Pearl and their three pups –Clara, Mira and Alex.
Amber was still in shock when Fiona came up to her a minute later.
“It’s our baby shower! Do you like it?” she almost squealed out the question. “They’ve brought gifts. Come on. I’ll let you open the first one.”
Amber blinked at Fiona then broke out in laughter. “Oh my god! A baby shower!” She took in deep breaths to calm herself down then asked, “Is there chocolate cake?”
“Yes there is sweetie,” said Pearl from the opposite sofa. “I’ll go get you a slice.”
Amber nodded mutely then looked at Fiona. “Do I get to choose which one to open first?”
Fiona laughed and tugged gently at Amber’s arm to lead her to the nursery where all the presents were stored. “Go on. Pick one,” she encouraged.
Amber stared at her. There were so many presents! But one stood out –unwrapped, except for a small bow –it was a beautiful carved rocking chair.
“Oh Fiona,” sighed Amber, hugging Fiona tight. “Are you sure I get to choose first?”
“It’s yours,” said Fiona gently, giving Amber an encouraging push into the room. “Try it.”
Like a dream, Amber walked towards the chair and settled herself in, feeling her body moulding into its curves. Then she started to rock… and all her worries and tension seemed to ebb away.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“I’ll get the girls and we can all unwrap the other presents. Would you like to hold my baby?” asked Fiona before she left. Amber nodded and watched as Fiona walked towards the cot and lifted baby Keona into her arms. “She’s a quiet little thing. Hardly cries,” she smiled. Amber could hear the joy and pride in Fiona’s voice and felt her own heart skip a beat at the thought of holding her own baby soon.
“Hey there sweetheart,” murmured Amber as Fiona passed Keona into her arms. “I’m afraid we’ll have to share some space here,” she joked as she laid Keona against her chest, resting the baby’s feet just above her bulging tummy.
Amber was humming and rocking when she heard soft footsteps coming into the room. She needn’t turn to recognize the innocent scent of young pups and their curiosity.
“Shouldn’t you three be downstairs?”
“Aunt Fiona said we could help open the presents,” said Clara.
“Actually, she said we girls could help open the present but Alex wanted to come along,” chimed Mira.
Amber turned her head to the side and smiled at the three of them. “Want to see the baby?” she asked, gesturing them to come closer. “Her name’s Keona.”
The three of them immediately rushed to her side. The girls were tiptoeing to get a better look and were giggling with each other at the sight of the baby.
“She looks ugly,” said Alex, the youngest and smallest of the three. Even on tiptoes he couldn’t see a thing so he had climbed up Amber’s lap and was looking down at the baby with a disgusted look on his face. “And she smells funny.”
Amber couldn’t help but laugh. “You look just like that when you were born too and you smelled funny all the time.” Alex gave her a scandalous look like he didn’t believe her. At that moment, baby Keona belched right at him and Alex jumped off Amber’s knee in alarm.
“I don’t like her,” he huffed.
“Alexander MacFarlane!” At the sound of his mother’s voice, Alex ducked behind his sisters but Pearl managed to grab him by the scuff of his neck even as he shifted into a fluffy puppy to try and run away. “You’d better apologize to Aunt Fiona right this instance!” she chided.
Behind her, the other women were laughing. “Don’t be so hard on him Pearl. Just look at those eyes. They’re so cute and innocent,” said Fiona. “And I’m sure he didn’t mean it, did you, Alex baby?” she cooed, taking him away from Pearl’s hands to cuddle him.
“So have you come up with the baby’s name?” asked Fiona as the women settled around the presents.
“I have an idea for her name,” she replied with a grin. “But it’s a secret.”
“Oh come on! Dish!” said Erika excitedly.
“Yes come on Amber!” chimed Sydney.
Amber laughed and shook her head at the two of them. “When are the two of you going to get pregnant already?”
Sydney and Erika looked at each other and laughed.
“Well…” said Sydney looking around sheepishly.
“Oh my god! My baby brother’s going to have a baby too?” squealed Pearl, rushing over to hug Sydney. “Now Erika, the pressure’s on you to catch up.”
Rather than feeling pressured, Erika actually laughed and patted her tummy. “Maybe I should hang around more in the compound. This pregnancy thing might actually be contagious!”
The women burst out into laughter. Presents were unwrapped, cake was being passed around and last but not least –when women get together –they talked about men.
The men in question were seated at the dining table, away from the prying ears of the women, except for Josephine, who had chosen to be in the room with them while they discussed. She’d promised Fiona to join the women as soon as she was done with the men and it gnawed at her each time she heard the squeals of laughter coming from the nursery.
Even though Amber is a Werewolf, Josephine made no distinction between them and loved her as much as she loved her own children. Furthermore, Amber is her natural son’s mate and there was something about that inexplicable bond that linked the three of them together.
“She’ll be fine love,” whispered Aramis into her ear, gently rubbing her arms to rouse her back to their discussion.
Draven had just shared what he had learnt earlier during the day and was delivering his plans regarding the meeting with the Board the next morning.
“I’ve ensured that the entrances and exits are secured so no one can attempt to escape during the meeting,” he added.
“You have to be prepared for an attack should the perpetrator gets desperate and turns on all of you,” said Alaron. “Then… should we all be there for back up?”
“Not all of us,” said Aramis and Eian at the same time. The two men looked at each other then nodded. Eian spoke first. “My presence would alert any others in the Council of the Were’s involvement and our top priority at this moment is to keep the pack out of the problem. The children need a safe and stable environment to grow up and I am not willing to risk it unnecessarily.”
Everyone concurred by nodding or grunting in reply. Only then did Aramis speak.
“I will be there –not in the boardroom itself but close enough to lower everyone’s defenses…”
“Why?” interrupted Draven.
“I may be out of practice, but I can put them in a relaxed and calm state long enough for you to penetrate their mental shields. From what you’ve told us, you’re far too young to be powerful enough to read their minds.”
Draven pondered over his father’s words. He wasn’t sure exactly how Aramis’s abilities worked but according to his mother, his father could tweak emotions and manipulate them according to his will. Draven had never seen that in action but he’d have to trust his father on this.
“Draven, how sure are you that it’s one of the Elders who’s responsible for what happened?” asked Eian. “It could have been anybody in the Council.”
Everyone turned to look at Draven expectantly. Making sure everyone was paying attention, he began to explain.
“All termination orders have to go through either of two channels. Through the first channel, a consensual decision by the Board has to be made regarding a Vampire’s termination. Only then can the Pureblood on the Board pass his or her family seal of approval. The order will then be sent to the Judicial and Disciplinary Unit for review and at this time, any Pureblood in the Council can appeal to reverse the order and override the system.”
“With your permission?” asked Eian.
Draven shook his head. “I know the system sounds flawed but the Council was set up with the purpose of protecting the Pureblood population and the younglings. If a termination order is seen to compromise any Pureblood’s personal of financial interests, then the JDU will permit the override.”
“I don’t understand…” said Eian, clearly confused now. “How does this relate to how you know one of the Elders is involved?”
Draven smiled. “See, the second channel for termination is reserved for non-forgivable cases such as attempted or actual murder of innocents. When the Intelligence Unit reports this to the Board, we send an immediate termination order to the Rogue Hunter Unit see? So there are no appeals or override.”
Eian nodded slowly. “And this order as you said was sent directly to the RHU right?”
“Yes,” said Draven. “Only someone on the Board could have been given authorization into the RHU system.”
“But you still need the family seal to activate the order right?” said Alaron.
“Yes. And any family seal recognized by the system will pass through. The Pureblood doesn’t have to be personally there to activate the order. The document bearing his or her seal would be enough.”
“You guys seriously have to work on security,” said Alaron. “And not to mention improvements on the archaic methods.”
“Thank you Alaron,” said Aramis, glowering slightly at his son. Alaron looked like he was about to say something but Josephine shook her head and he kept quiet. Draven and Eian exchanged looks before bursting out in laughter.
“We shouldn’t be so serious guys. The women can sniff our distress a mile away,” said Dominic for the first time during their discussion.
“Yes, in fact we have a nosey fella hiding behind the doors right this minute,” said Big Mike jovially. “Come out Alex. I know you’re there.”
A naked toddler peeked shyly from behind the door; his eyes roaming the room to see who was inside. At the sight of his Alpha, he gave a gasp and shut the door.
“You’re too scary,” said Dominic to Eian. “I’ll go get him.”
Dominic got up from his chair and opened the door to find a fluffy wolf pup curled into a ball with his tail covering his eyes.
“Come here little fella. Why aren’t you with your sisters?”
Alex peeked from behind his tail. Clara says it’s for girls only.
“Geez that sucks.”
Alex nodded. Will you please have a baby boy Uncle Dominic? Pretty please with cherries on top?
“Uh. I’ll try. Can’t promise you though little buddy.”
The pup bowed his head down sadly.
“Talk about guilt trip,” muttered Dominic, passing Alex to his father. Big Mike took Alex in his arms; the small furry puppy looking even smaller against his father’s huge chest. Anybody who didn’t know Big Mike wouldn’t have guessed that he was the gentlest person ever.
“Alright then, I guess we should join the women soon or they’ll wipe out the entire food supply,” mused Eian before turning serious once more. “But for now, we will all remain on standby and wait for Draven’s findings tomorrow.”
Draven tried not to be too nervous as he entered the board room that morning. His father was in the room directly below them while Alaron was somewhere in the building in case any of them got mortally hurt.
But Draven wasn’t counting on getting hurt.
“Young Lord, how nice of you to finally join us,” said Aiden as Draven took his seat. The other Elders were already seated and waiting for him to begin their meeting.
“My fellow Elders, I have two things on my agenda today,” began Draven. “The first is to suggest a suitable candidate for the position previously held by Benedicta. We’ve mourned her loss for six months now. I am sure it is time we move on.”
“I agree young Lord. Do we send in our nominations to you or shall we just let the departments elect someone?” asked Anthony, the head of the Administrative arm of the Council. It wasn’t surprising to hear him suggest efficient ways of electing an Elder.
“What do the rest of you think?” asked Draven instead. Everyone started talking at the same time.
“We should pick the best candidate not the most popular one.”
“We should let the departments decide. That’s the fairest way.”
“Why don’t we just leave her place vacant for the time being my Lord?” Aiden’s voice was clear amidst the mayhem. “Our Board is still able to function and the odd number would come in useful during voting don’t you think?”
Draven considered his answer. It was true what Aiden was saying because previously with six Elders, they often had a tie on certain issues which made resolution difficult to achieve.
“Then we cannot have two permanent and two electoral positions Aiden. It would create an imbalance,” said Leon. “As permanents, we were mentors and advisors to two Elders each remember?”
“Are you saying I should step down?” asked Aiden angrily. “Why don’t you? You’re too old to be on this Board anyway.”
“Aiden,” warned Draven. “Leon was merely pointing out the imbalances. And while I think your idea of the odd number voting is really good, I think we should also have at least a female on the Board. I might even suggest a lesser Noble or Common-level to take up the position.”
“Young Lord!” gasped Henry and Anthony. Draven knew it wasn’t the suggestion of a female that shocked them but the idea of a lower status Vampire as an Elder than rendered them speechless. Draven took their momentary state of shock as a chance to delve into their psyche.
Henry was the easiest to read. His shields weren’t so strong because he spent most of his time in the engineering labs and at that moment, his mind was too focused on his shock; allowing Draven to skim through his thoughts and memories.
Anthony was a different story. Even though he was shocked, Draven encountered many layers over his memories as though he had placed fake memories over them. Draven didn’t think that was possible unless someone with Fiona’s abilities managed to hoodwink the Elder into believing things he otherwise wouldn’t. Draven almost managed to go down to the last layer when he was interrupted.
“Lord Culzean?” Leon was calling him. “Are you alright?”
Draven had to snap out of his concentration to answer Leon. “Yes.”
“Aiden and I think that we will compromise on a female Noble but nothing less my Lord. It would send the wrong message to the community should we let a common level on the Board. I… I am not demeaning their worth young Lord. The blood given by the Pureblood is what keeps order in the society. We cannot simply go against that.”
Draven kept quiet for a minute then nodded. “I hope things can change someday but for now, I will accept that. We will each give a nomination but give it to Henry. He will collate and present at the next meeting.”
Henry widened his eyes but nodded to acknowledge the responsibility given to him.
“Very well then. My next agenda is very simple. I would like to know who arranged for Benedicta’s things to be returned to her family.”
“That would be I,” said Anthony; much to Draven’s surprise.
“I see. And did you happen to find her family signet ring or pendant amongst her belongings?” he asked carefully.
Anthony frowned, as though trying to recall something then shook his head. “She shouldn’t even have a Pureblood’s family seal with her. Nobles aren’t allowed to carry them.”
“Young Lord, why are you asking us such trivial questions?” asked Aiden. “Let the woman rest in peace.”
Draven almost lost control at Aiden’s words. Rest in peace? That woman didn’t even deserve to die by mere beheading. She should have been staked and baked in the sun.
“What do you know about her death Aiden?”
“I know nothing of it young Lord. You were the one who drafted the order to have her terminated. I’d say you’d know best.”
Draven was about to say something when he felt a strange buzz in his mind. It felt like someone was trying to read his mind except that Draven knew it wasn’t. Mind readers glided through memories and thoughts almost invisibly –not with a buzzing sound and definitely not with this uncomfortable feeling.
“Young Lord, if I may suggest, perhaps you could read all our minds and see for yourself what we know about Benedicta’s death,” said Leon. Suddenly the buzzing sound stopped and Draven was able to blink his eyes.
“I have nothing to hide,” said Henry. “Draven has worked with me for centuries. I trust him.”
Draven managed a smile even though his head was starting to hurt.
“Wait… why should he read us when he was the one who sent the orders to terminate her? Shouldn’t it be the other way round?” asked Anthony perplexed.
“It wasn’t the young Lord,” said Leon quietly. “The seal of authorization was not his…”
Anthony blinked in confusion then looked at Draven. “It was me… I did it.”
Draven forced himself to push away the headache and concentrate. “Did what Anthony?”
“I used her seal…”
Everyone exchanged uneasy looks. Then the doors opened and the Enforcers stormed in to take Anthony away from his seat.
“No! Wait!” ordered Draven. Alaron, come up here now. Something doesn’t feel right. Hurry!
Everyone stared at Draven but the Enforcers did not let Anthony go. Meanwhile, the Noble looked so forlorn and wasn’t resisting one bit. It was like he believed he deserved to be punished.
“Sit everyone. Right now. I want to know the truth and I want it now.” Draven sent a mental instruction to the remaining Enforcers to stand behind each of the Elders to keep them in their seat. “Anthony, tell me. Why did you draft that termination letter and when did you submit it to the system?”
The Noble looked up and sighed. “Not too long ago… I did it… for you.”
“What!” exclaimed a few people in the room.
“What do you mean for me?”
Anthony looked exhausted. Telling the truth shouldn’t be exhausting unless it wasn’t coming from him. Draven was about to push him for more answers when Alaron came into the room.
The atmosphere in the boardroom was extremely tense but Draven wasn’t going to give away why Alaron was there. No one knew of his brother’s recent ability except the family and he was going to use that to their advantage right now.
I need you to see if his mind was like Amber’s. I tried to read it earlier but saw too many superimposed layers.
Alaron nodded and came closer; placing two fingers at the pulse throbbing on the Noble’s neck.
“What’s he doing?” asked Aiden. “Are you killing him before he tells us the truth?”
Keep working Alaron. Don’t get distracted by what I’m about to say.
Draven looked at Leon for one brief second before turning to Aiden. “Benedicta killed my mate so I killed her.”
From the corner of his eyes, Draven saw Henry covering his mouth in shock.
“Then why is Anthony saying he sent an order to have her killed? I don’t understand…” said Henry. “And why didn’t you tell us?”
He’s messed up Draven. The layers are even more intense than the ones in Amber’s mind. They create deep and almost realistic images that seem irreversible.
Draven looked at his brother sharply, understanding the seriousness of what was happening.
“Lower your shields Aiden,” said Draven softly. “You’re the only one whom I have not read. You have nothing to fear now that Anthony will be charged right?”
“No! I will not!” said Aiden defiantly… then he relaxed almost against his will –Aramis’s doing. Draven didn’t waste another second but delved straight into Aiden’s mind to see what actually happened.
But Aiden’s mind was a labyrinth. Draven had never seen anything like it before. These were constructed memories –most of them fake but unlike what he had seen in Amber and Anthony’s mind, this maze was created inside Aiden’s mind, possibly by Aiden himself.
Draven continued moving; each time coming up against a dead end. The mental labyrinth looked almost impossible to maneuver and the more he pushed through, the narrower was the ‘pathway’ leading towards the centre.
He’s resisting me Draven… hurry before he puts his shields up again!
Draven heard the voice of his father in his head and began to move faster. In all his years of experience, he had never come across a mind as intricate as this. However, his instinct was warning him to hurry. If he didn’t get out in time, he might actually get trapped inside someone else’s mind.
Then it hit him. Draven wasn’t just a mind reader! He could erase memories too! Draven tried nevertheless even though he was unsure whether it would work on pseudo-memories.
He was getting tired but he managed to break down one wall. It was much easier than actual memories because these were just illusions and a few minutes later, Draven could see the actual core of Aiden’s mind not too far away.
Each time he came across a difficult path, Draven thought of Amber and his baby girl and it made him push on. He didn’t want them to live in isolation or in fear. He wanted the only worry for him to be when boys start to notice his girl. Other than that, he wanted her to be able to run free in the forest or play with her packmates without being afraid that someone would kill her.
There –he was almost at the core now, just a reach away…
Aiden’s memories were organized to the precise date and time. It was an amazing contraption and Draven was actually impressed by the Noble’s ability. Selecting the date of his inauguration, Draven began investigating.
Benedicta had approached Aiden a few days after Draven was placed on the Board where she expressed her unhappiness at Draven’s alliance with the wolves. Many Vampires were supremacists and she wasn’t spared.
Aiden wasn’t as interested in who Draven was mating with as he was interested in the ‘how’ and ‘what’s next’. Benedicta felt the Council was disproportionately pro-Culzean and she resented that so she asked if there was a way to get rid of him.
Aiden had said no. Killing Purebloods would result in her termination. Instead, he had asked her to watch Amber. He was convinced that perhaps they have not mated; have yet to draw blood from each other and wanted to know the moment there were reports of her death.
The two of them argued quite a bit about the issue but she quickly relented, albeit unwillingly, as though it was suggested for her to do so.
“So this is what Fiona’s abilities might develop into…” thought Draven to himself. It was then he realized the possibility that every member on the Board could have been manipulated to some extent by Aiden.
Draven was about to continue when he heard the sound of something crashing behind him. Like dominoes, the walls of the maze began to collapse on itself; self-destructing –and by the looks of it, moving faster and faster towards him. Draven was contemplating whether to keep on digging when he literally felt someone yanking him backwards and out of Aiden’s mind.
Have you gone mad? Alaron was glaring at him.
How’d you know I was in danger?
I’ve been freaking holding his hand for the past half and hour.
Draven gave his brother an apologetic smile before turning to Aiden. The Vampire was looking up at him; his face serene and innocent.
“Why do you want to know about my mate?” asked Draven.
Aiden raised his eyebrows, almost in amusement and shrugged his shoulders. “I thought the high and mighty Pureblood would have gotten his answers by now.”
“Tell me!” demanded Draven, clamping his fingers around Aiden’s throat but the Noble simply laughed.
“I have nothing to tell you. By the end of the hour, every shard of memory that I ever possess would have been destroyed. You may choose to enter my mind again if you’d like… but I can’t promise you’ll survive,” he said with a broad smile on his face.
“Why you…” Draven had raised his hand to smack the insolent Noble but Leon stopped him.
“That is enough! You have what you need, young Lord. Entering his mind would kill you this time.”
Lowering his hand slowly, Draven took a deep breath and calmed down. Leon was right. He had failed to get the answers because he was not fast enough…
Don’t beat yourself up for it Draven…
Draven looked at Alaron for a minute before gesturing for him to tend to the other three Elders. At the same time, he sent an Enforcer to get more healers to help Alaron then made the necessary arrangements for Aiden’s termination.
“I sentence the Noble Aiden Lazure to a century of imprisonment for the misuse of his abilities in manipulating his fellow Nobles and for the intentional policing of a Pureblood’s mate without his prior knowledge.”
“You should just kill him!” spat Anthony whose mind was slowly repairing itself with the help of the healers.
“Beheading would be too kind a punishment,” said Draven. “There is a chance that his mind can rebuild itself again and I want to be there when that happens. Killing him brings me no answers.”
“We will put him in our most secure and isolated chambers,” said Leon sadly.
Draven nodded at the Ancient Elder’s words and turned to the remaining Enforcers to give his last instructions:
“The Condemned has a very powerful ability to manipulate your mind so I want all Enforcers to work together. Natasha, you’re in charge of ensuring that everybody’s shields are intact. His mind might be disintegrating but his powers might not be. So keep watch.”
“Isn’t this punishment too cruel young Lord?” asked Leon.
“He did not commit murder Leon… but for treachery and plotting to harm my mate –this is the kindest punishment I could give.”
True to Aiden’s words, his memory had been wiped completely clean within the hour such that he could not even remember his name or what he was doing in the boardroom. A quick scan of his mind showed that he was literally just a shell that was empty… and yet Draven did not trust him.
The Vampire Noble’s hands and feet were bounded on a metal pole; a stake driven through his heart while he was left to bake in the sun for the entire period of his imprisonment –a century. The stake would stop his heart from beating and eventually his body would die from lack of nutrients as he could not feed. In Draven’s mind, a century was far too short a time but without blood to replenish his bodily functions, Aiden would wish he was dead within a year.
But for now, it seemed that he and his family can rest in peace. Aiden can no longer pose a threat to them. In time, Draven hoped to piece together the rubble left by his memory-destruction and learn to strengthen his own abilities.
He had a feeling that while the future was still uncertain, at least now he could go home and tell his mate that it was finally safe for her and their daughter to live freely.
And while the children grow up, they, as parents will always keep a watch over them to ensure that they’ll always be safe and protected from harm.