Chapter FOUR: Beta late than never
The next morning I stand outside the gym, the door open a crack as I watch Max pound on the punchbag. He’s back in the same hoodie he was wearing yesterday, or at least I assume it is because its the same dark shade of blue. My father has his back to us, his arms are crossed and given how stiffly he stands he’s not happy with Max. Which, to fair, seems to be happening a lot recently.
“Come on, Maxwell. I know you can do better than that.” Dad growls at Max. Yep. He’s definitely pissed.
“Are you sure about this, Ellis?” My soon to be third Beta mutters, rubbing at their arm with uncertainty. They’re dressed ready to begin their training, in a camouflage patterned tank top, and beige shorts. I’m positive they’re the right choice for me, now I just have to convince my father and Max.
“You’ll be fine.” I smile encouragingly as I push the door all the way open and lead them inside. Our bare feet slap against the polished wood floor, alerting my father to our presence.
“You’d better have a good reason for being late, Ellis.” Elijah turns to face me. He opens his mouth ready to lecture me, but snaps it shut when he spots who’s stood beside me. His eyes dart over their body sizing them up, my father is clearly confused.
“I do.” I reply slightly smugly. “Tony and I agreed that I should have a third Beta, so I brought someone to start training with us.”
“What the-?” Max stammers having turned from the punchbag to watch our exchange. “Steph can’t be a Beta she’s a girl!”
He crosses his arms over his chest, his eyebrows furrowed as he eyes Steph with uncertainty. She steps out from behind me, her nerves suddenly forgotten as she square off against Max. She’s tiny compared to the three male wolves in the room, but what she lacks in muscle and height, she makes up for in strength, stubbornness and determination. Steph’ll make the perfect addition to my Betas.
“Brilliant deduction there, Sherlock.” Steph replies also crossing her arms. She cocks an eyebrow at Max, daring him to continue.
“I hate to sound sexist,” my father sighs exasperated, interjecting before Max can retort, “but Max is right. We can’t have a she-wolf as your Beta, Ellis.”
Steph’s shoulders slump, her head dropping slightly as my father’s scrutiny washes over her. I’m unperturbed by his comments.
“That’s funny, because Tony’s read through all of our grandfather’s journals and there’s not a single rule against a she-wolf being a Beta.” I didn’t tell Tony I was choosing Steph until this morning, but he’d found out all the information we needed during the night. It’s almost as if he’d read my mind, or he knows how much having Steph as a Beta is going to wind up Max. I’m sure he’d give anything to be here right now to see Max’s reaction first hand. He’ll certainly get a good laugh out of it when I tell him later.
“Steph’s already proven she can take care of herself,” I continue, crossing my fingers behind my back for luck. “We should at least give her a chance at training.”
“Ellis, I really think you should reconsider-” Dad begins, massaging his temples.
“I’m the one who gets to choose my Betas, Dad,” I interrupt him crossly, “and I want Steph to be one, she-wolf or not, she’s capable, Dad. Let us prove it to you.”
I cross my arms as I stare at Elijah, almost daring him to defy me. I expected my announcement to be met with resistance from Max - him and Steph have quite a colourful history - but my father, that surprised me. Elijah stares at us, rubbing his chin pensively with thought. I know he understands my angle. He wants the best wolves in his pack to be protecting their future Alpha, but years upon years of repeating the same processes are difficult to break. She-wolves are lean and strong fighters, but they tend to be a liability if they have a mate and pups to defend. I don’t have to worry about that with Steph for a few years yet, if ever. She’s not exactly the maternal kind of she-wolf.
“Alright, Son, we’ll give it a go.” Dad eventually concedes.
“You can’t be serious?” Max’s nose twists upward in disgust.
“You’re actually agreeing with me?” I exclaim at the same time, genuinely surprised that my father has agreed to let Steph train with us. I was half expecting us to be disagreeing all day about it.
“Not one hundred percent, Ellis,” Dad clarifies sternly, “but I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, Steph.” He turns to face her, their gazes locked evenly. “You’re a strong she-wolf, but you have a tendency to act out of impulse. I need to know you’re going to be giving Ellis your utmost attention at all times.”
“Absolutely.” The corners of Steph’s lips twitch as she tries not to smile, her legs shake with excitement. She wants this as much as I do. “I promise not to let you down, Alpha.”
“I hope not, young lady,” Dad grins, “otherwise I’ll terminate your training faster than you can morph into wolf form.” Steph stiffens as she nods soberly in agreement of his terms. “Now that that’s all taken care of, we’ll begin your training with some cardio.” He continues as though we never disturbed him.
“You have got to be kidding me.” Max mutters, rubbing his eyes with the forefinger and thumb of his right hand. He was run ragged yesterday, and I have no doubts he was hoping for an easy session today. Not a chance, Max. I smile internally.
“You can always quit if this is going to be a problem to you, Maxwell.” Dad throws in his direction, having heard his mumbled protest. Max snaps back to attention with all eyes focused on him. He briefly looks to me for assistance, but I ignore his plea.
“N-No problems here, Alpha.” Max stares down at the ground his feet shuffling against the ground.
“Good.” Dad exclaims satisfied. “Everybody outside. We begin immediately.”
He leads us outside to where he instructs us to run laps through the forest that backs onto our territory. Max and Steph follow me as I set our pace, but it quickly becomes apparent that one of them is going to try and outdo the other, as Steph takes the lead first, then Max. Sometimes I’m back in front, but for the most part it’s my Betas which is how it should be. A good Alpha always walks towards the back of the pack so he can keep an eye out for stragglers and to keep any opposing wolves from launching any surprise attacks. I should probably call Max and Steph back into line, but as it’s our first training session together and we’re going to be testing one another’s limits anyway, I might as well leave them to get on with it.
We must be nearing our fifty-third, or fifty-fourth lap when Steph tears ahead of Max and I. He’s still in front of me, growing slower and slower until he stops suddenly and I almost collide directly with him.
“Whoa, Max, be careful.” I throw up my hands, catching his shoulders to keep me upright as I skid slightly to the left to avoid a head on collision. Max turns and stares back at me with hands crossed tight over her chest and eyes narrowed.
“Are you... Okay?” I raise and eyebrow at him. I’m aware of Steph overtaking us, but Max seems unconcerned.
“Really, Ellis?” He growls as though I’m supposed to know what he’s thinking. I’m normally pretty good at reading Max’s emotions, but something seems... Off... about him today. “Of all the wolves in our pack, why did you choose Steph?”
“We’ve already talked about this, Max.” I sigh, pinching the bridge of my nose between the forefinger and thumb of my left hand. I feel as though we’ve taken one step forward and five steps back with this conversation over Steph becoming my Beta.
I get that Max and Steph don’t always see eye to eye, but they’re two of the most friendly and loyal wolves in our pack. I didn’t have many friends growing up, and these two were the ones who made the most effort to break me out of my shell. They were also there for me during my darkest days when I didn’t have Tony to turn to, and I’ll always be indebted to them for it.
“No. You and your dad talked about it.” Max jabs a finger into my shoulder startling me. “You and Tony talked about it.” He jabs me again, but this time I’m anticipating it, and slap his hand away before he can make contact. ”Nobody talked to me about it.”
He crosses his arms firmly against his chest. His eyebrows are furrowed and his lips twitch up revealing his tightly clenched teeth. I’ve never seen Max this pissed before.
“Look, Max, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” I reply calmly as Steph runs past us again, “but I’m not sorry about my decision to make Steph a Beta. Whatever is going on between you two, you need to sort it out or at least learn to be civil around each other.”
“There’s no such thing as being “civil” with Steph.” Max screams throwing his hands up in the air exasperated. “You have no idea what you’ve let yourself in for, Ellis.” He stares back at me, his chest heaving and hands shaking with rage. I’ve never seen him act so out of character before. The morning after our visit to the New Moon Club excluded of course.
“I can hear you two talking about me you know.” Steph skids to a stop beside us, crossing her arms tight over her chest as her gaze shifts between the two of us. Or more specifically at Max. At least he has the decency to turn away, shuffling his feet sheepishly as he stares at the ground.
“We should get back to it.” I shrug when it becomes apparent that Max isn’t going to respond to her.
We’re off running again, leaves crunching and twigs snapping beneath our bare feet. Another benefit of being a wolf - the soles of out feet are tough. It will take more than a few stones or broken twigs to make us bleed. Birds nesting in the trees twitter out a merry tune from us to train to. The Wind whips past my left side, its Steph overtaking me again. Damn, she’s fast!
I pass Max. He’s panting heavily with sweat dripping from the loose strands of hair curling above his forehead. I pass him again, and again, a fourth and a fifth time before I realise he’s stopped. His hands rest on his knees as he draws in desperate breaths of air, looking almost like Tony when he has a dyspnea episode, but Max’s situation is far less severe.
Seriously though, how out of shape can one werewolf be?
“What’s the matter now, Max?” I ask irritated as I stop beside him. Steph passes us again, and I swear I hear her laughing at Max’s expense.
“I’m just... A little... Warm.” Max fans himself frantically with his right hand.
“Take your hoodie off then.” My right eyebrow rises as I stare disbelievingly at my best friend. I don’t know why he’s wearing it in the first place. Our werewolf metabolism keeps us warm in the cool weather. We tend to only wear coats and hoodies in the presence of humans to keep our secret lives safe, but we seldom ever run across humans, so it’s rare for us to have to dress up warm.
“I... I’m good.” Max pants defensively.
"He doesn’t want you to know about the tattoo.” Steph hisses in my ear loud enough for Max to hear. He jumps slightly at her sudden presence. Her eyes shift in his direction, a smug smile tugging at her plush lips.
“DAMNIT, STEPH!” Max screams angrily, his hands balling into tight fists. He’d probably punch her if I wasn’t caught between them. I just hope he doesn’t try it. I don’t want to fight him, but I don’t want to get sucker punched either.
“You mean that flower tattoo on your arm was permanent?” My face twists into a mixed look of disgust and amusement. Max’s eyes widen and his mouth flops open and closed like a gasping fish out of water. Steph giggles unhelpfully behind me.
“Well... Yeah, I-” Max stammers when his words finally stop eluding him. “Wait! You already know?” He exclaims, his nose turning upward as a look of repulsion crosses his face. Steph and I burst out laughing.
“It was hard not to notice when you had your arms wrapped around me.” I manage between my outburst of hysterics. “I didn’t realise it was permanent though.”
"Fuck me.” Max buries his face in his hands, redness slowly creeps across his cheeks and neck. I can’t say I’m surprised that he doesn’t remember his little outburst in the front garden yesterday, or how he practically came onto me with his flirtatious remarks and obsessive embraces. I don’t say a word about it to him now though my, he’s embarrassed himself enough as it is.
He doesn’t drop his hands until Steph and I stop laughing at him, but even then Steph is still struggling as she subtly wipes tears from her eyes with the back of her hand.
“Seeing as you both already know about it, I won’t need this anymore.”
Max pulls off his hoodie. He’s not wearing a top underneath and his skin is red and coated in sweat from being overheated. My eyes are instantly drawn to the intricate artwork permanently etched over his right bicep. Bright pink, purple, yellow and blue flowers woven into green leaves and vines stands out horrifically against his pale skin. Max must have seriously been out of it to have chosen that to mark his body for all eternity. Which for us will be a long time to come.
I try, and fail, to hold back the second wave of laughter as it explodes from within me. Steph’s just as bad, clutching at her stomach as she doubles over in a fit of hysterics. It’s probably not as funny as Steph and I are making it out to be, but we just can’t help ourselves. And we can’t say that Max doesn’t deserve a little retribution for his actions.
“You’re both assholes.” Max growls. He crosses his arms and attempts to hide his tattoo beneath his left hand, but it peeks out tauntingly from between his fingers causing Steph and I laugh harder.
“I was wondering what was taking you all so long, and now I know why.”
The sound of my father’s voice sobers us in an instant. We stand to attention as we turn in unison to find him stood several feet away, arms crossed over his broad chest and a fierce scowl etched upon his unimpressed face. His jaw twitches as he grinds his teeth. To say he’s pissed with us would be an understatement. From what he’s just witnessed, we’re showing a lack of discipline and focus on our training.
“Sorry, Dad.” I apologise having recovered from my outburst at Max’s expense. Max and Steph shift uncomfortably beside me, neither of them able to meet my father’s intense gaze.
“I expected better of you, Ellis. You too, Max.” Dad continues, staring disappointedly at each of us in turn. “Steph, this is not a good way to start convincing me you’re good enough to be a Beta.”
She inhales a deep breath. “Sorry, Alpha. It won’t happen again.”
“Two hundred more.” Elijah commands firmly. “As soon as you’ve finished the last two hundred I asked you to run.”
I groan internally, unsurprised by his punishment. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve completely lost count of how many laps I’ve done. We’ll probably be running laps well into the night at this rate.
“Yes, Alpha.” We course as one, and then we’re off running. At least now Max can keep pace, but I can’t help the smile that tugs at my lips whenever I see his tattoo flash in my peripheral vision.
That’ll teach him to get drunk.
I’m so bored I’d rather be dead. The Sun shining through the crack in my bedroom blinds is taunting me so much I crack, and throw a book at it. Childish, I know, but it does make me feel a little bit better.
I decide to visit Gramp’s library instead. If I’m going to spend an eternity inside reading, I might as well get a change of scenery while I’m at it.
I love my grandfather’s library. It’s wall to wall shelves chocked full of books and dust, with a musty smell that you’d think would disrupt my dyspnea, but surprisingly it doesn’t. Stained exposed floorboards give an ancient, but vintage look to the room. And the best part is that it’s off limits to any member of our pack without my grandfather’s permission. Meaning I can read in peace without constantly being badgered by the minor issues circulating our pack, or being asked a million questions about where a certain book can be located. Just because I’ve spent a lot of time here recently doesn’t mean I know where every book lives.
Pushing open the grand Oak doors a crack, I peer inside. Gramps is sat in one of the plush grey upholstered armchairs with his head buried in a book, his glasses sit low on the bridge of his nose as he reads over the top of them. A steaming mug of coffee rests untouched on the low table in front of him. He turns the page lazily, oblivious to my presence. I push the door open wide enough for me to squeeze through without aggravating the squeaky hinge. I’m suppose to be on bed rest, and even though I know Gramps will never tell Dad what I’m up to if he catches me, I don’t want to get caught. My grandfather is also the pack doctor, and I know he’ll have no issues in giving me a lecture that will make my father’s one look like a casual chat.
I tiptoe slowly into the room, being careful to step over the floorboard that I know creaks obnoxiously loudly and head towards the farthest bookshelves. The ones where my great-grandfather’s journal’s are kept.
“What are you up to, Antonio?”
I stop startled. I turn my head slowly to peer at my grandfather over my shoulder. He’s still in his seat with his eyes focused on his book, but there’s a broad smile on his face as he turns the page, taunting me.
“How did you know it was me?” I cross my arms as I face my grandfather properly, my right eyebrow cocking with suspicion. There’s a slim chance he looked up without me noticing, and now he’s just teasing me.
“I’m your grandfather. I know these things.” He replies over his book, pushing his glasses back up his nose as he stares at me with a knowing glint in his eye. Yep, he’s definitely messing with me. “That doesn’t answer my question though, Tony. Why are you here and not in bed?” He closes his book, and placing it on the table beside his coffee mug he rises. “I advised you to rest as both your grandfather, and this pack’s doctor.”
“That’s just it; you advised me.” I smirk. “I can’t help it if bed rest is boring.”
“You sound just like your father.” Gramps chuckles.
“As if Dad was ever forced to stay in bed.” I mutter unconvinced. Dad’s such a bad-ass Alpha I can’t even begin to imagine him spending long periods of time in bed.
“Just because he doesn’t like to talk about it, doesn’t mean it never happened.” Gramps shrugs nonchalantly. “Like how he got that scar on his eye,” he taps his chin thoughtfully in remembrance, “that one’s a doozy.”
I always wondered about how my father got that scar cutting through his right eye, but every time I quiz him about it he either brushes me off or quickly changes the subject. Gramps is equally as evasive, telling me I need to ask my father about it, knowing he won’t tell me. I’m sure he gets some sick amusement out of it.
I scoff, feeling a burning in my chest as I inhale.
“You should get back to bed, Son.” Gramps’s eyebrows pull together in the center of his forehead, his skin wrinkling as he watches me carefully. I’m trying to hide what’s going on from my grandfather, but it’s not often you’ll be able to fool Giovanni Croffdale. He wasn’t listed as one of the greatest Alphas that ever ruled for nothing.
“I’m fine, Gramps.” I manage to draw in a deep breath. “I’m not going to get better so what’s rest going to do to help?”
“Actually, there might be-” Gramps is cut off suddenly by the first of many coughs that crosses my lips. I try to reassure him with a glance, but fail. My chest feels like it’s on fire. I can’t inhale a decent breath. Gramps realeses I’m struggling and comes around the coffee table separating us. “Come, sit down.”
Taking my elbow he guides me to the armchair beside his whether I like it or not. It makes little to no difference if you’re sitting or standing when you can’t breath, but I suppose Gramps is worried about me collapsing if I remain upright for too long. Satisfied that I’m not going to drop to the ground the second he moves away, Gramps returns to his own chair. He perches on the edge of the seat cushion ready to spring up if I need him.
“Sorry, Gramps, didn’t mean to worry you there.” I say with sincerity, the moment having passed. Gramps watches me with a look that’s a cross between concern and bitter disappointment. He’s used to my stubbornness, after all he’s been through it all with my father Elijah, but there’s something in that look that tells me my grandfather is hiding something from me. Something I need to find out what it is.
“You don’t need to be sorry, Tony, you can’t help what’s happened to you I know, but you need to be more willing to listen to those trying to help you.” He explains sternly leaning back slightly as he crosses his arms over his stomach and tipping an eyebrow at me.
“Believe me when I say I’m trying.” I draw in a deep breath and exhale a sigh, choosing my next words carefully before I continue. “It’s getting harder, Gramps. I asked Ellis to choose a third Beta and he agreed with me. If that’s not the wake up call I need to get something - anything - done to help me I don’t know what is.”
I feel my anger rising within me like steam from a boiling pot of water. Even though I was the one who suggested it, it still hurt when my brother came to me this morning with his decision over who his third Beta should be. It’s not unheard of for an Alpha to have more than two Betas, but two is the most common. Once I’m gone I don’t want Ellis to be stuck with just Max, no matter how much my bone headed brother likes him, he needs someone more capable to protect him should he need it.
“I’m afraid that if I carry on the way I am I won’t live long enough to see Ellis ascend, and I’d never be able to forgive myself for letting my little brother down.” My fingers curl into tight fists on my knees and I dip my head so my grandfather can’t see the disappointment I’m sure is evident in my face. I love Ellis. I want him to be a successful Alpha, and I want to be there to protect and advise him for as long as I can. But love and affection won’t change the fact that I’m dying.
“You could never let Ellis down, Tony, he understands that life for you is difficult all things considered.” I shudder when my grandfather’s hand drops lightly atop my left fist. I’m not one for showing much physical affection, but his touch is warm and comforting. “Have you told him the truth yet?”
I lift my head to meet his gaze evenly. My grandfather is referring to the silver-fox poison coursing through my veins. I haven’t told Ellis because I know my brother will go out of his way to find a cure for me, even if it means getting himself killed in the process. Although a fair number of our pack know about my dyspnea, only my mother, father, grandfather and grandmother know about the silver-fox poisoning.
“No. I... I wanted to, but-” My chest tightens suddenly. It’s as though the mention of the poison flooding my veins has brought it on. I clear my throat as my eyes dart away from my grandfather’s for a second, but it doesn’t escape his notice. He squeezes my clenched fist reassuringly.
“I don’t know how much longer I can fight this, Gramps.” I explain defeatedly. “I’ve read through all of our ancestral Alpha’s diaries and there’s nothing mentioning a cure for silver-fox poison. That’s why I came in here, to see if there was anything more.”
“And you could have asked me instead of sneaking in here?” Gramps smirks at me.
"Uhhh... Yeah, I guess I could have,” I rub the back of my neck sheepishly with my free right hand, “but I didn’t know if you’d want to help me.”
“Why wouldn’t I want to help my eldest grandson?” Gramps questions, almost scoldingly. His gaze piercing my own as sharply as a freshly forged silver dagger.
“There was one entry that mentioned an Enchantress-” I hiss the word so quietly Gramps has to lean in to hear it “-And something about a full-moon ritual. Do you know anything about it?”
“Well... Yeah, but there’s something you should know, Tony.” Gramps begins, almost avoiding my question. He glances briefly over his shoulder, looking as though he’s afraid that somebody might be listening jn. Satisfied that we’re alone, he continues. “We already tried reaching out to the Enchantress five and a half years ago.” I feel my eyebrows pull into a sharp scowl, but I keep silent as Gramps carries on. “She might be an all powerful being, but she’s not invincible. There’s only so many spells she can preform before she too wears herself out.”
“So, what you’re saying is I’m screwed.” I embrace my bitterness like a familiar blanket. Sliding my hand from beneath my grandfather’s I cross my arms defensively. I hate this feeling of helplessness, and I’m more than willing to do whatever it takes to get better, even if the situation is only temporary.
“Not screwed exactly.” Gramps’s eyebrows pull into a straight line. “Just because she wouldn’t come here for us, doesn’t mean she won’t come here for you.”
“You want me to summon the Enchantress?” I exclaim, my eyes growing wide in surprise. I can’t believe what my grandfather is asking me to do. Summoning mages is dangerous, almost deadly, but to summon the Enchantress? I have no knowledge of the witches and absolutely no idea where to begin with how to summon one, let alone attempting to call upon the most powerful witch in their realm. If it involves scented candles or a blood sacrifice I’m definitely better off struggling with my dyspnea.
“I... I don’t know if I’m strong enough to do it, Gramps.” I admit, albeit a little hesitantly. “The more I lean on my wolf, the weaker he is becoming. Sometimes he acts on impulse and sometimes I wish he wouldn’t.” I draw in a deep breath and let it out slowly, my heart races inside my chest with worry. “What if the Enchantress refuses to help me?” I growl. “I could use up all my power over nothing and you know what happens if I do.”
Gramps, who has been sitting silent and pensive throughout my emotional outburst, rises from his seat.
“Come with me, Tony.” He commands bluntly as he passes me, heading deeper into his library.
“Where are you going?” I twist in my chair trying to see where he’s going, but he’s already disappearing behind a bookcase out of my sight.
“I might have something that could help us.” He calls back loudly.
Scrambling to my feet, I race after my grandfather. I don’t want to get my hopes up. The Enchantress will either help me, or she won’t.
If she answers my summons first that is.
“I’m pretty sure your dad’s out to kill us, Ellis.” Max complains for the umpteenth time today.
“Just shut up and get on with your push-ups.” Steph grumbles in response.
They’ve been bickering back and forth for hours, ever since Dad caught us standing around talking in the woods and we completed our laps. I had to eat my lunch outside of the dining room just to get away from them for an hour. And even then it wasn’t enough of a hint to get them to stop.
“I wasn’t taking to you, Steph.” Max retaliates.
“Max, shut up and get on with your push-ups.” I shout losing patience with the pair of them. If they don’t stop soon I’m going to seriously consider finding somebody to replace the pair of them.
“Isn’t there some law against this kind of punishment?” Max rises from the ground defiantly.
I try my best to ignore him, but it feels as though his eyes are burning a hole in the back of my skull he’s staring at me that hard. Groaning internally I sit back on my heels and meet his gaze head on. He’s stood with his arms crossed tightly over his bare chest, his floral tattoo made bolder against his strained muscles. Its still a humourous sight, but I’m not in a laughing mood right now, so I easily ignore it.
“No, because what we’re doing isn’t illegal.” I emphasise, catching the subtle roll of Max’s golden eyes before getting back to my exercises.
He drops back to the ground, pushing himself up, down, up, down, up, down. Steph grins smugly at Max just before she stands, planting her hands on her hips as she watches Max with interest.
“What the hell, Steph?” He screams after several push-ups.
“What? I’ve finished.” Steph shrugs one shoulder indifferently. As Max stands again I focus on the wooden floor beneath me, determined to block out their bickering, but failing miserably.
“What...? How...? You have got to be kidding me?” Max splutters much to Steph’s amusement.
“Max, chill out. It’s not a contest.” I intervene before Steph says something that’ll really upset Max. He’s running on a short fuse enough as it is already and I don’t think my pounding head can take much more punishment. In all honesty, I’m about ready to smack their heads together just to give them a taste of what I’m experiencing right now.
“She’s beating us, Ellis.” Max throws his hands up in the air in exasperation. “How can a she-wolf be better than two kick ass males?”
I don’t even know where to begin grilling Max for his comments. Just because there’s no rule against she-wolves becoming Betas, it doesn’t mean that they can’t be. It’s a fairly uncommon sight for them to be selected over their male counterparts, but in rare cases like with my choosing Steph over any other wolf in the pack is because the ascending Alpha has decided that they would make a powerful aid in battle. A good Beta needs to be strong, confident and loyal, but a great Beta is also trustworthy; a trait not often found amongst wolf kind.
“Maybe it’s because I’m not a whiny bitch like you.” Steph beats me to the punch. She’s clearly agitated by Max’s remark, her hands shake beneath her folded arms and her right heel taps incesantly against thr ground.
“Guys can we please not start this again? We’re gonna get our asses kicked again if we don’t.” I massage my temples with the forefinger and thumb of my right hand, my headache threatening to become a full blown migraine if I have to endure their bitching for much longer.
“I’m going to do more than kick your asses in a minute.” My father growls startling the three of us.
"Ah crap!” Max mutters into his hand as he bows his head, taking the words right out of my mouth.
Dad stands in the open doorway, arms crossed so tightly against his chest his bicep muscles ripple beneath his skin. His eyes are narrowed dangerously, his jaw twitching as he grinds his teeth audibly. On the upside, Max and Steph are finally silent. If I’d have known earlier that this was all it took to keep them from going at each other I would have asked my father to come back and supervise us hours ago.
“All of you in my office. NOW!” He bellows with finality.
Turning on his heel, Elijah storms from the gym faster than any of us can blink. Max shuffles his feet and Steph rubs at her arm as they both turn sheepishly to face me. If they think I’m going to say something comforting they’re sadly mistaken.
“Thanks a lot guys.” I mutter as I pass between them, following my father’s fading footsteps into the corridor. I’m only vaguely aware of Max and Steph shuffling along behind me, glad that they’ve at least agreed to remain silent as we make our walk along Death Row.
My father has left his office door open; ominous and inviting. Swallowing back my fear, I square my shoulders as I lead Max and Steph inside before closing the door behind us. Elijah leans against his desk, arms crossed and eyes narrowed as he watches us as we form a line on the circular rug in front of him. We stand in silence, Max and Steph shifting uncomfortably under my father’s scrutinising gaze. Only I’m brave enough to meet his eye.
“What the hell is wrong with you all today?” My father explodes without warning. His voice bouncing off the magnolia painted walls makes us all recoil in alarm. He begins pacing the floor in front of us, looking us each in turn as he goes, his gaze probing us like a hungry lion eyeing a weakend gazelle. “I give you simple exercises to complete, and all I find is you standing around conversing. Would any one of you care to explain themselves?”
My father’s words are met with silence. We’re all either too frightened, or too embarrassed to speak up. I can feel Steph fidgeting nervously beside me. It’s her first day of Beta training and she has already blown it. I know she’s been trying her best to prove herself worthy of the title, but she’s gotten herself caught up in mine and Max’s bad habits.
Max can barely look my father in the eye knowing he’s already on thin ice with the Alpha, and one more slip up means sinking deep into the freezing abyss. I sigh internally, finding myself at an impass. They’re my friends, but they’re also supposed to be my Betas.
My father’s words roll through my head ”learn to reel them in, or they’ll walk all over you“. I guess I have a lot more to learn before I can ascend as a great Alpha.
“Dad, I-” I begin.
“It was my fault, Alpha.” Steph blurts surprising Max and I. Even my father cocks an eyebrow at her uncertainly. “I was trying too hard to prove my worth and I ended up distracting Ellis and Max.” She breathes in and exhales a deep sigh. “If you wish to terminate my training, I’ll understand.”
“I see...” Dad mutters thoughtfully once Steph has finished. She stares down at the ground, tapping the toes of her right foot against the rug.
“Actually Alpha... It was... Me.” Max speaks up hesitantly. Dad’s eyebrows rise so high they’ve disappeared beneath his fringe. I squint at Max, trying, and failing, to understand his motives. Why does he suddenly feel that now is a good time to stand up and be responsible? Especially given how consistently he and Steph have been going on at each other today. I chance a glance at my best friend. He stands tall, with his back straight and facing my father with a confidence I never knew he possessed. Is this going to be the moment where Max finally grows up and takes responsibility for his actions?
"What are you doing?” Steph hisses from the corner of her mouth. She glares sideways at Max, equally as stunned and confused as my father and I am.
“What I should have done a long time ago.” Max shoots back. He stares down at Steph, his eyes shimmering with what looks like sorrow and maybe regret in his golden eyes. As he continues I realise his words are more for her than me or Elijah. “Ellis asked me earlier to either sort things out between us, or to try and be civil.
“I know I’m not the easiest person in the world to get along with, and I’ve made my fair share of mistakes in the past-” he turns back to face my father, squaring his shoulders and finally looking like the mature Beta I know he can be “-But I’m not going to let Steph take the fall for something she didn’t do. So, if anyone should be given the boot, it should be me.”
Silence follows Max’s words as my father absorbs what he’s said. Elijah knows Max as well as I do. He’d never willingly surrender his higher position in the pack without a good reason, and the fact he’s come to Steph’s defence when he’s been doing nothing other than arguing with her all day is surprising to say the least.
Something is definitely going on between them.
“Ellis, do you have anything add?” Elijah turns to me, his face an emotionless mask once again as his gaze pierces my own.
“You know I was about to take the blame before either of these two spoke up,” I start bluntly, not dropping my gaze from his Alpha stare. If he thinks he can unnerve me so easily, he’s sadly mistaken. A good Alpha meets every challenge head on.
“And I still am.” Max and Steph stare at me. Max’s eyes are practically bugging out of his head and Steph is shaking her head, almost like she’s trying to tell me to quit while we’re ahead. Squaring my shoulders I blank out my Beta’s attempts to stop me.
“On the day you told me I became the ascending Alpha, you asked me to choose Beta’s who I could trust not only to protect me, but the entire pack as well.” I glance sideways at Max. He stares back at me evenly, but doesn’t say anything. “I put my faith in Tony and Max, and now that Tony’s too ill to take part in training I’ve placed that faith in Steph’s capable hands.” I look down at her, she’s trying not to smile back at me.
“You also told me-” I turn back to my father, cutting off whatever he was about to say. His eyebrows furrow slightly, a sign he’s unimpressed with me interrupting him, but he let’s me continue regardless “-That what makes a good Alpha isn’t a man’s strength, or his willingness to never give up, but rather his readiness to admit when he’s made a mistake.
“I didn’t make a mistake by asking Steph to become a Beta. My mistake was NOT TAKING CONTROL OF THE SITUATION.” I raise my voice slightly to emphasise my words. Max and Steph recoil slightly, more in shock that I’ve practically shouted at the Alpha more than my raised voice. Dad remains unaffected.
“My Beta’s didn’t fail me. I FAILED THEM.” Both Max and Steph open their mouths to protest, but they’re stopped by my father who lazily raises his hand. He can tell I’m not quite finished yet and he’s intrigued to hear what I have to say next. “If anyone deserves to be punished, it should be me, and me alone. Do your worst, Dad. I’m ready for anything.”
Dad watches me pensively. I stand as tall as I can, meeting his gaze defiantly. My arms are crossed over my chest, more to hide the fact that I’m shaking with adrenaline than being defensive. Behind us the clock on the wall tick-tocks lazily.
“Are you sure that’s what you want, Son?” Dad cocks an eyebrow at me.
“Yes.” I reply without hesitation. I’m ready for him to shout at me, to scream at me, to threaten me with any and every punishment at his disposal. For him to tell me that he’s stripping Max and Steph of their Beta duties and reassigning someone of his choosing. For him to hype up my training regeme so that this incident never happens again. Whatever it is, I can take it.
“Very well then...” His eyes sweep from me, to Steph, to Max and back to me. His lips peel back flashing his teeth in one of the biggest smiles I’ve seen my father wear in a long time. “You passed. Congratulations.”
I was not expecting that, and judging by the stunned look on both Max and Steph’s faces neither were they. They look between my father and I waiting for someone to say something to confirm that what my father has just said is genuine and not some bad joke he’s going to throw back in our faces.
“Wai... What?” I stammer, unable to make any words form. Elijah chuckles half-heartedly.
“You heard me, you passed.” He confirms what we had suspected. We hadn’t misheard him, my father has been testing us. “Never in all my years of being Alpha have I ever seen a team pull together as well as you all have today.” He looks at each of us in turn. “You were all willing to share the blame instead of pointing the finger and letting a solo member burn down in flames. For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.” He quotes, beaming at us proudly.
“I can’t believe you were testing us this whole time.” I massage my temples with the forefinger and thumb of my left hand. If I didn’t have a headache before I have now, and my father has just made it ten times worse.
“Don’t worry, I used to pull the same trick with Tony, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll-” His desk drawer begins to ring. “Excuse me for a minute.”
Walking around his desk, he opens the top right hand drawer and retrieves his phone. He frowns as he stares at the caller ID, a mix of confusion and anger crossing his features. He answers the call on the third ring.
“This had better be important I’m-” He growls, stopping midsentece as he listens intently to whatever the person on the other end is saying. I try not to listen in, but I’m curious as to who would be calling my father. Aside from my mother, he doesn’t get many phonecalls, our pack lives within easy walking distance of our house. If they have an issue to discuss with their Alpha then can just come in whenever they please, and judging by the way he’s scowling he wasn’t expecting anything either.
“HE DID WHAT?!” My father screams making us physically jump. If he was pissed at us for talking all though our training sessions, this is nothing in comparison.
“Dad, what’s wrong?” I question concerned. My father races from the room without an explanation.
As the door slams shut behind my father, I exhale a deep breath. We remain standing in his office, pensive and uncertain what to do with ourselves. Should we wait for him to come back? Should we continue our training without him? Whatever is conspiring it has angered my father to a point I’ve never seen him reach before. Something really bad must have happened.
“What do you suppose that was about?” Steph shrugs with uncertainty. She and Max look to me expectantly, but I have no answers for them. I could check the list of incoming calls on my father’s phone to see who he had been talking to if he hadn’t taken it with him when he fled.
“Only one way to find out.” I give Steph a knowing look. She grins back at me, but before I give her the chance to say something, or give her and Max the opportunity to follow me, I chase after my father, slamming the door to his office behind me.
The night is calm and unnaturally warm for Autumn, up until the point my grandfather and I step into the darkest recesses of our territory. Clouds roll ominously through the sky obscuring our view of the stars above us, and a light fog seems to creep slowly across the ground towards us. I shudder involuntarily. The scene eerily similar to the time I was poisoned. The fog wraps around my calves caressing me, but not burning like the poisoned smoke had.
“There’s still time to back out, Tony.” Gramps slides up beside me, sensing my hesitation. “We could always dig a little deeper through those journals.”
“I’ve read and reread those journals so many times through, Gramps. You’re going to have to trust me that there’s nothing else in there to help me.” I reply a little more snidely than I intended. Gramps sighs almost defeated.
“I trust you, Tony, but the witches...” My grandfather trails off suddenly, his anxiety as obvious to me as a billion stars in a clear night sky. He has every reason to be weary. There’s no telling if I’ll be able to summon a witch, or the Enchantress, or if they’ll even be willing to help me should I succeed.
At the mention of the word witches, the temperature around us seems to drop several degrees. The coolness stings my lungs making me feel as though I’ve plunged headfirst into a pool of ice rather than being stood in the garden with my grandfather on what should be a clear Autumn night. A shiver runs down my spine making me shudder involuntarily as goose flesh rises on the exposed skin of my arms.
“You shouldn’t be out here in this cold, Tony.” Gramps eyes me chastisingly. I’m still dressed in the T-shirt and sweatpants I’ve been wearing all day, and I’m barefoot. In retrospect I should have grabbed a jumper, or my trainers, but I’m trusting my werewolf blood to keep me safe.
“I’m okay, Gramps. I’ve been out in worse.” I’m lying through my teeth. Even the most powerful weres in our world are smart enough to wear a coat and shoes when the weather gets too cold. Not every wolf has adapted to survive in the ice and snow.
“I’d better get on with it.”
We push through the trees until we reach a clearing. The area we’ve chosen to preform the summoning ritual is in a secluded corner of the garden, well out of sight of the house. There’s an old gazebo here in need of some extreme TLC. Its foundation contains faded scorch marks; a memoir from the time my family attempted to contact the Enchantress the day I was poisoned.
Gramps waits by the treeline as I approach the gazebo. My heart races within my chest. Just because I’m not afraid, doesn’t mean I’m not nervous. The gazebo is just a gazebo. It’s made of blue-green stone with a rounded hexagonal base, raised three steps from the ground. Five of the pillars supporting the domed roof are covered in ivy, the sixth has collapsed and litters the floor in large blocks. The long grass folds beneath my feet, tickling my ankles where is rises up my trousers. I stop about two feet away from the structure, and reaching into my pocket, I draw out a folded piece of paper.
Unfolding the paper, I read the incantation my grandfather has copied out for me, implanting as much of our combined Alpha authority into my voice as I can muster. The words are foreign as they roll from my tongue, but there’s an ancient power buried deep within their meaning. At first it appears as though nothing is going to happen. Other than the light twittering of birds nesting in the trees, and the gentle brush of Wind through the grass there is silence.
As I’m about to turn back to my grandfather, defeated, a flash of red light catches my attention in my peripheral vision. I face the gazebo again, watching in awe as a speck of red light illuminates from the centre of the platform. It expands, spreading like cracks until it reaches the edges. Then the light grows, filling the spaces between the pillars with blinding crimson. I have to shield my eyes to protect them, but once the light dims and I can see again I’m met with an astonishing sight.
A girl - I mean a witch - appears in the middle of the gazebo. She’s young, around nineteen years old if I had to guess, and slim but with an accentuated waist. As she rises from her crouch I see she’s only a little taller than myself, five-foot-eight, or five-foot-nine. She’s wearing a body hugging black dress made of silk and lace, it covers her modestly. A black silk choker circles her delicate neck, silver stars attached to it dangle lightly in the air as she moves. Her hair is as dark as the night, flowing in waves down to her shoulders. She has a heart shaped face, with slightly concaved cheeks and almond eyes. Her irises are bright green and focused directly at me. Her black painted lips are pulled into a thin line as she looks me up and down thoughtfully. There’s an unusual smell to her. She smells like violets and cinnamon, but with a hint of something stale beneath it. Like raw meat that has been resting in the Summer Sun. But the most remarkable thing about her is the pair of black freathery wings that protrude from her back, fluttering loosely behind her making her look like an angel of death.
“Who dares to summon me?” She demands, crossing her arms lazily beneath her chest. Her voice is like a siren song, deadly and alluring. Her eyes narrow slightly as she continues to stare at me.
“Holy crap it worked!” I gasp. I can’t believe I actually did it. I summoned a witch.
“Be careful, Tony.” Gramps calls in warning. I hear leaves crunch as he takes a step closer to us. The witch’s wings twitch slightly as she turns in his direction. He hesitates under her intense stare.
“Are you the Enchantress?” I ask drawing her attention back onto me.
“Do I look like an Enchantress to you, you foolish little mongrel?” Her nose turns upwards slightly in disgust, her lips peel back revealing her clenched teeth. I’ve struck a nerve with her, but not as badly as she has with me calling me a mongrel.
“You look like a ghost from where I’m standing.” I shoot back, crossing my arms defiantly. She’s semi-translarent, but I don’t know why. Either I wasn’t quite strong enough to pull her through thoroughly, or she’s holding herself back from crossing into our realm.
“TONY!” Gramps’s name rumbles through the air like thunder. I should probably quit while I’m ahead, but there’s something about her, this witch, that’s rubbing me the wrong way. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s almost as though I have control over what I say.
“This conversation is boring me.” She waves her left hand lazily through the air almost dismissively. “Get to the point of why you summoned me mutt, I don’t like having my time wasted.”
The air around me seems to waver, warming considerably as the witch continues to stare straight at me. I feel my wolf stir deep within me. He hasn’t been this agitated in a long while. There’s no doubt in my mind that she’s doing something to me, but I can’t seem to back down.
“I didn’t mean to summon you.” I exclaim before I can stop myself, feeling my heart beat rapidly inside my chest as my wolf threatens to break free. I restrain him as best I can, but I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to keep him penned in. “I need the help of the Enchantress. Can you tell her where to find me?”
The witch throws back her head and laughs, or should I say cackles. It makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, my hands clench into fists and a deep growl rumble from my chest.
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that, furball.” She glowers. “Not only have you wasted my time you have now insulted me.” Her eyes narrow dangerously, and I swear her irises flash black. “You men are all the same. Demanding whatever you please from us. Not this time.”
She raises her hand, the air in front of her palm wavering as a smokey ball of red and black light materialises out of thin air. It grows and grows until its larger than her hand, pulsing like a heart and sparking like a storm cloud. I’m rooted to the spot, paralysed and unable to move. My wolf howls, tugging at me mentally trying to get me to move, but I can’t seem to. Whatever spell she’s cast, the damage has already been done. I can hear her cackle like a drill inside my brain taunting me.
I’m only vaguely aware of Gramps racing towards me as the witch casts her spell. His hands press into my shoulders hard, knocking me to the floor and breaking whatever trance the witch had me under. I blink rapidly trying to clear my head. Gramps cries out as the witch’s spell collides with him instead of me. There’s a flash of red light before he’s sent flying back into the trees. I hear him hit the ground some distance away with a heart wrenching thump.
“GRAMPS!” I cry as I scramble to get my feet underneath me. I’m vaguely aware of the air rippling around me as I race in the direction my grandfather flew. I almost make it to the tree line when something slams into my back, right between my shoulder blades and the worst pain I’ve felt in a long time vibrates down my spine.
My scream and my wolf’s howl of agony combine into an inhuman sound as I’m thrown to the ground. The witches cackle is wild as I land heavy on my hands and knees. Red hot pain spikes through every nerve and muscle in my body. This pain is equal to, if not worse than the time I was slammed into the fireplace. My arms shake uncontrollably as I struggle to remain upright.
Eventually my arms tire, and I wind up led face down on the unforgiving ground dazed and writing in agony. I can hear my grandfather calling my name in the distance. Thank the Lord Lycaon he’s alright. My body convulses, my gut chelching as my body threatens to eject all the vital organs I need to live. Whatever spell this is, it’s strong.
Just when I think I can’t take anymore, the pain recededs as quickly as it arrived and I’m left a panting sweaty mess. To tired to move, I feel my heavy eyelids drop of their own accord. A flash of red against my closed eyelids, and the sudden warmth in the air are the only indications I have that the witch has left. Whatever her intention for me was, she’s succeeded.
I barely hear Gramp’s call as he crashes through the underbrush heading towards me before the bittersweet darkness of unconsciousness claims me.