"Up ahead, elder."
John gave Tibor a tight nod and scanned the derelict buildings with the binoculars Mark had loaned him.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Michael asked the old lycan.
"Not at all," John answered.
"Then why don't we wait for reinforcements?" The hybrid asked. "You have ten packmates Lecoq. Selene is there as well, we can gather our forces and hit these guys…"
"And convince Lecoq that we're a couple of helpless children," John interrupted him. "Look son, I'm concerned about Selene as well. Not as much as you are, but I'm still concerned. The pack with her is my kin and I don't like the idea that I haven't heard from them. The most important thing is that we know we can meet up with them in Budapest but we want to learn a little more before we get there. We need to find out why this bunch decided it was a good time to quit the sniping and go to all-out warfare with their neighbors."
"I'd think that'd be obvious," Mark commented, approaching the two. "No Lucian around to keep the packs in line anymore, is there? You've got another reason for wanting to take out this pack. What is it, punishment?"
"Not exactly," John admitted. "Whoever's leading this pack should have been smart enough to not be so obvious. He was thinking with his aggression, not with his reason. That's probably a lycan's biggest disadvantage in the underworld war, the change makes us aggressive to the point we don't think. Anyway, he still should have known better than to make this all out attack."
"So you are punishing him." Mark insisted.
"No, I want to know why he did it and he's the one to answer me. If he's an idiotic, aggressive leader, I need to eliminate him. On the other hand, if he was running from something, I need to know what that something is. In any case, he probably knows a thing or two about the surrounding packs. Can you think of a better way to get information fast?"
"Not off hand, no," Mark admitted.
"So how are we going to do this?" Michael asked.
"First off, we wait for the sniper Mark sent out to report in," John answered, then smiled at Mark's surprised expression. "Yeah, I saw you do it. He'll be able to tell if they have a scout on the surface or not."
"That makes sense," Michael admitted.
"He's also an insurance policy," John told the younger man. "If one of us three get some wild ideas about turning on our normal friends, we'll get a silver bullet for our troubles." John looked to Mark. "Will he put it in our center mass or will he go for a head shot?"
"I have to keep some secrets, don't I?" Mark huffed.
"Fair enough but I want to do this while it's still daylight."
"Elder?" Tibor asked, in shocked tone.
"We have normal allies," John explained to the other lycan. "And we immortals are outnumbered. At the worst, if we go into the mine and the other pack forces us to flee, they'll be vulnerable to our normal allies' firepower when they come after us."
"I'm not going into the shaft," Tibor told him.
"You've already told me this," John reminded him. "I'm not asking you to be a hero."
The small party waited for almost an hour before Mark received a signal on his radio.
"My sniper has spotted a sentry," he reported. "In the place where Tibor claims his pack always posted one."
"It makes sense," John nodded. "The pack will find the best place for a sentry. Can your sniper take him out?"
"At pretty much any time," Mark confirmed.
"Okay, we'll use our first plan." John informed his companions. "Have your sniper take out the sentry then make sure nothing escapes the shaft. Mark, you and the rest of the cleaners will accompany Michael and myself far enough underground that we can make our changes. After that, retreat to the surface."
"I still think this is a bad plan," Mark told the elder. "You'll be outnumbered in the pit."
"Sometimes, you have to take chances," John told his ally. "I'm willing to bet that this pack hasn't faced an attack since seizing this den. Surprise is the key; we lycans don't react well to surprises. I just wish there was a way to give the sentry a chance to surrender."
"If we give him the chance, he may warn the rest of his pack," Mark reminded him.
"I know," John shrugged. "We might as well get this over with."
John, Michael, Tibor, Mark and two other Cleaners walked down from the ridgeline, where they had been observing the old mine. Once back on the road, they climbed into a pair of cars, looking like a group of businessmen inspecting property before deciding to purchase it. Mark got on his radio while the other Cleaners drove the cars. The timing was almost perfect; even John's lycan-enhanced hearing barely picked up the sound of the silenced sniper rifle, fired just as the lead car approached the old property gate.
"Sentry is down," Mark reported, as Michael jumped out of the lead car with a set of bolt cutters. The hybrid cut the padlock and pushed the gate open. The second car, carrying John and Mark, passed the first while Michael jumped back inside the first.
The time for stealth had passed. The two cars roared up the pitted, rutted track as quickly as they could. They skidded to a halt once they reached the abandoned buildings and everyone piled out. Tibor led his new companions through the buildings, keeping out of sight as much as they could, until they reached the old mine shaft. Here, Tibor hid while Mark and the other Cleaners donned night vision goggles. Michael remained unarmed while John strapped a holster, containing several silver spikes, onto his waist. The five men shared a look before entering the shaft.
The Cleaners were well trained, if maybe a little out of practice. They advanced down the shaft in bounds, with one man moving while the other two covered him. There were no signs of any other living being in the shaft until one of the Cleaners stumbled over some rubble and fell. While the clattering sound wasn't very loud, everyone in the party could hear the snarls and growls that echoed up the shaft in response.
"We're close enough," John whispered to Mark. "We can change. Get out of the mine, you don't want to get caught down here."
For a few moments, John thought that Mark was going to argue with him. John couldn't really blame him since Mark hadn't known him long enough to really trust him. Added to this was a soldier's reluctance to leave a comrade when danger approached. Still, the logical arguments the men had shared before embarking on this adventure won out. Mark nodded and the Cleaners retreated up the shaft the same way they had entered, with one man moving while the other two covered him.
The two immortals could hear scurrying footfalls approaching from deeper in the mine. Clearly, the pack could hear the Cleaners retreating and were determined to stop the intruders. John unbuttoned his shirt's top two buttons and set himself, dead center in the shaft. Michael embraced his change, preparing for the confrontation to come. He didn't have to wait long.
Michael heard and smelled, more than saw, the lead lycan hurl himself upon John. The elder stood perfectly still, as if he couldn't sense his oncoming doom. At the last possible second he stepped into the oncoming monster, driving his elbow up under his opponent's muzzle. The great jaws were force shut with an audible 'snap' and the stunned beast flew completely over the elder. The lycan didn't remain stunned for long; as soon as it hit the ground it spun around and lunged at John again, leading with a clawed forepaw. This time, John stabbed the sweeping appendage with his silver spike. A savage howl, which morphed into a man's shriek of pain, burst from the lycans mouth as the silver forced it into a man's form. John didn't hesitate; he smashed his elbow into the side of his opponent's head, dropping his now human opponent to the ground. Before the stunned lycan could recover, John made use of his own lycan strength and bent the spike, wrapping it around his opponent's forearm so he couldn't simply pull it out.
Michael experienced a moment's panic, remembering his fight with Victor. For a few, brief seconds he recalled how the terrifying elder had bettered him, despite the young hybrid's superior speed and strength. For a moment, he recalled the feeling of helplessness he had felt, knowing that the arrogant vampire was going to kill him simply for being…him.
More footfalls, (or were they clawfalls?) echoing up the shaft jolted him out of his unwelcome reverie. John was not Victor and they were in a dangerous situation. Michael stepped forward and met the next lycan head on. The hybrid didn't have the elder's experience and finesse and neither did his opponent. Michael simply charged his opponent, burying his shoulder into the oncoming lycan's midsection. The werewolf yelped in pain and shock when it suddenly found itself slammed down on the mine's stone floor. Michael managed to hit his dazed opponent twice, in the head, before another lycan plowed into him. The two tumbled across the mine's floor, clawing and biting at each other.
John noted how quickly his companion had taken one of the lycans out of the fight. What the young hybrid lacked in skill and experience he made up for in intelligence, strength and speed. Two more lycans rushed past the elder, clearly wanting to waylay the retreating cleaners. Sure that the three, trained, armed men would be able to handle them, John pulled another spike out of his holster and hurled it at the last of the lycans, impaling the beast through a hind leg. The monster fell flat on its face, rising as a human again. While John's Hungarian was out of date, he understood most of his opponent's allegations towards his ancestry.
John didn't have the time to formulate a response. His opponent, shrieking in pain and anger, pulled the spike out of his thigh and hurled it at the elder. John didn't give him the time to return to his lycan form. The elder dodged the spike and closed in on the angry man, punching him in the face and driving him back against the shaft's walls. John pinned the man against the wall and kneed him in the groin. Then, he dragged the unresisting man to a support beam and pinned his hands to it with a pair of silver spikes.
"Don't go anywhere," he told the man, not caring if he understood the English.
By now, Michael had overpowered his second opponent and didn't know exactly what to do with him. The hybrid didn't want to kill the lycan but he didn't know just how much damage he could inflict. Too little and the lycan would recover and continue the fight. Too much and the lycan would die. John solved his dilemma by seizing the lycan, flipping him onto his belly and fixing his wrists together, behind his back, with a tie-wrap. The elder then pierced the lycan's wrists with a silver spike, guaranteeing that he wouldn't be able to assume his werewolf form and break the tie-wrap.
Michael and John shared a quick nod, communicating what they were about to do. Michael overpowered John's first opponent, who was trying to pry the silver spike out of his arm, so that the elder could bind his hands behind him. After this, they bound and pierced Michael's first opponent, who was just recovering from the beating the hybrid hand inflicted upon him. With four lycan's neutralized, the two Americans made their way back up the shaft to see what had become of the two lycans that had bypassed the struggle. They didn't have to travel very far.
Much as John had suspected, the Cleaners were perfectly capable of handling themselves in the open. Michael and John met the two lycans, who retreated back towards the mine entrance. Moments later the two Americans heard bullets striking stone followed by the lycans retreating back down the shaft. Michael resumed his human form, so that he could issue a challenge.
"You're trapped," he called out to the two lycans. "If you come down this way, you have to face us and if you try to leave, you'll face the armed men outside. You're close enough to the entrance that you can't embrace the wolf. Why don't you just give up now and save everyone a great deal of trouble?"
As Michael expected, the two lycans argued about it for a few minutes but realizing that they were in a hopeless situation, gave up. John and Michael bound them and led them up and out of the shaft, where the Cleaners hustled them into one of the buildings. John and Michael returned to the mine and led the other four lycans outside, where they couldn't change. After that, the Cleaners handled things with military efficiency. Alexander Corvinus's former employees separated the lycans, so that they couldn't listen to each other's stories, then questioned each, with John, Michael and Tibor close by. Afterwards, Mark met with Michael and John.
"It's pretty close to what I suspected," John told the other two. "That leader saw a better den and moved to seize it. His hold on the other five is strong, so I'm going to have to fight him for leadership."
"Why you?" Mark asked. "From what I've seen, your companion is a pretty tough customer in his own right."
"They might not accept him," John explained. "We lycans don't always take kindly to an outside force dictating our actions. If I defeat the leader in fair combat the others might…and I stress might, follow my instructions. If a normal human or a hybrid were to come in, kill their leader and start ordering them around, they'll probably try to escape."
"He's not saying another reason," Michael interrupted. "I wouldn't know how to lead a lycan pack. I've been an immortal for less than a year. John's been there, done that and the lycans around him know it."
"So why won't the packs get shook up if you're allied with normal humans, a hybrid and even vampires?" Mark asked.
"It's a subtle but vital difference," John explained. "I'm a lycan so they'll accept me. If I'm able to establish my leadership, the other lycans should consider my allies to be my responsibility."
"So are you going to have to fight every pack leader out there? There must be dozens of them."
"The word should get around. If I can take a few leaders out, we should be able to forge some alliances and do things that way. We should have some busy days ahead of us but it will be worth it in the end."
"When does this fight take place?"
"Tonight," John answered. "We do this as lycans."
"Very well," Mark nodded. "I'll report the developments to Mr. Lecoq."
"Do you think those two are telling the truth?" Selene asked Tanis. The vampires' historian and the former Death Dealer had just stepped out of the coven's safe house, where Lecoq continued to speak to the two vampires the pack, with Selene, had captured.
"I find it likely," Tanis shrugged. "Those two are minor functionaries. They were caught away from the mansion when Marcus destroyed it, so they fled to the only safe haven they could find. When their supply of synthetic blood ran out, they had to find an alternative." The historian chuckled. "It's rather ironic, really. The coven invented synthetic blood and formed a company to manufacture it. This company made a great deal of money by selling it to hospitals throughout Europe. It also delivered a steady supply to the mansion, which the elders distributed amongst the coven members. It was a way that they kept control over the European vampires. This very control could now threaten our species' survival."
"That's not what I was talking about. I'm sure that the distribution system has broken down but I was asking about them not realizing that they could feed upon cattle."
"It's not that surprising. Those two were in their twenties when they were turned and they've been vampires for less than two decades. They've lived in cities all of their lives. Selene, not everyone can recall when horses were high performance vehicles and mules were utility vehicles. Those two have probably never been close to a cow in either their lives or their unlives."
"Very funny Tanis, they still should have known better."
"Remember that they've spent their entire immortal existences under Kraven's stewardship. He didn't have Victor's dedication to racial survival."
Tanis went silent upon seeing Selene tense and scowl upon hearing her former patron's name.
"Very well," he said. "Perhaps this would be the proper time for me to bring up another potential problem."
"It seems that everyone has one of those, these days."
"I suppose you must expect such things when you establish yourself as a faction," Tanis smiled at her. "But mine is probably more serious than you'd think. Do you find it curious that the only word we've had from your companion and the lycan elder is that they've encountered a rogue lycan band and are attempting to subjugate it?"
"Perhaps they're more than a little busy," Selene suggested.
"Perhaps; but don't you find it odd that John would have no instructions for his kin or that Michael would have no endearing messages for you?"
"That did irritate me a little."
"I suspect that we're not hearing the full story," Tanis commented. "It would seem logical for Mr. Lecoq to only give us selected parts of the communications. Right now, he's the two groups' only link between each other so if I were him, I'd exploit the position."
"So that's your crises? Lecoq may be playing us against each other?"
"Oh heavens no! If I got shook up every time someone acted less than honestly, I'd never be able to get up in the evening. I'd be shook up every time I looked in the mirror…in a way, it's a pity we still have reflections."
Selene snorted at the old joke about the mortals' belief about her kind and mirrors.
"No," Tanis continued, in a much more serious voice. "I'm concerned about what Mr. Lecoq has told us about Michael and John and about what Mr. Lecoq is doing."
"Everything seems to be going according to plan."
"For the most part," Tanis agreed. "But the subtle differences trouble me. The fact that we've split into two groups doesn't seem so bad… until you take into account that the lycan elder and the closest thing we vampires have to an elder are now operating independently from each other. This troubles me."
"I don't see why."
"Okay, let me spell it out to you. We have Mr. Lecoq who, by the way, has decided to not punish the two coven members for poaching. While Jeff and his companions are not howling in protest, pardon the pun, they are resentful. Anyway, Mr. Lecoq has decided to move directly into Budapest and reestablish the synthetic blood's distribution system."
"Of course," Selene protested. "The European vampires are either poaching or living off the last drops of their emergency supplies. We have to rebuild the food distribution network as well as other facilities. We have to repair the infrastructure, if you will, and Mr. Lecoq has the contacts and credentials to do it."
"Of course," Tanis nodded. "Which will, conveniently, leave him with a group of vampires who owe him their very lives. Don't you think this might result in intense loyalty?"
"Do you really think that the coven can be manipulated so easily?" Selene's well-known scorn filled her voice. "Do you really believe that Lecoq can simply show up, distribute a little synthetic blood and command unquestioned loyalty?"
"How silly of me!" Tanis's legendary sarcasm, honed over centuries, easily matched Selene's scorn. "Of course we immortals are immune to such simple ploys! Next, I'll believe that an elder might command such loyalty that one of his underlings could…I don't know…imprison the coven's historian for recording the truth about the elder?"
All of Selene's anger and defiance evaporated in a moment. "You make your point," she murmured.
"No sense in getting all worked up," Tanis's voice now oozed false sympathy. "What's done is done and Lecoq is only half of the equation."
"You suspect John?"
"If we're to believe the admittedly revised reports from the other group, John's attempting to subjugate the scattered packs. On the surface, he's fulfilling his end of the bargain, bringing the packs under control and ending both the pack-on-pack and the pack-on-coven violence. On the other hand…"
"There's a chance he's forming his own force," Selene concluded. "A powerful band of lycans under his control."
"With the coven the weakest it has been in centuries," Tanis added.
"That doesn't make sense," Selene protested. "John maintained his pack in secrecy for centuries! If he wanted to strike down the vampires, why didn't he launch a sneak-attack years ago, when we weren't even aware of his existence?"
"I've asked myself the same thing, of course. The only conclusion I've been able to draw is that he has a very long-term outlook. Certainly, he could have struck at the New World Coven. Like you've undoubtedly concluded, such a surprise attack would have probably succeeded. However, the established, European Coven would have become aware of his existence."
"And he would have had an all-out war on his hands," Selene nodded. "It makes sense but I still don't think he's planning treachery. I'll admit that he's in a position, if he moves boldly, to eliminate what's left of the European Coven but that leaves the New World Coven untouched."
"How strong is the North American Pack?" Tanis asked. "We saw a couple of his facilities and some of the pack but we really don't know just how many lycans he can muster or what resources he commands. While we know that he still maintains hidden dens throughout North America, we don't know how many or how large. Certainly he is here, in Europe but back in America?"
"He could have a trusted lieutenant ready to move on the coven," Selene concluded. It was very easy for her to picture; the lycan elder could form a strong band of lycan fighters in Hungary. Certainly, such a band would have been incapable of striking down the coven when the coven was at its peak but that was hardly the case. After Victor's death and Marcus's homicidal temper tantrum, the coven was weakened, scattered and leaderless. While Lecoq would be able to reconnect some of the sundered fragments, many of the coven's Death Dealers had been killed during the savage melee in the lycans' Budapest lair. Most of those who survived had died at Marcus's hand. Selene hated to admit that Tanis was right but John was in a position to crush the European Coven. Once he did that, a simple phone call and the North American Pack could launch an attack against the unsuspecting New World Coven.
What made the situation even worse was that she was separated from her only true ally, Michael. Back in Ireland, Selene herself had declared herself and Michael to be a third faction, the hybrids. It was John who suggested that she accompany Lecoq while Michael accompanied him. Now most of the lycans were here, with the vampires, where they could crush any attempt to reform the coven. John was with the fourth faction, the Cleaners, where he could be forming an alliance. Finally, the hybrids were separated and vulnerable. She hadn't heard from Michael since the separation; was he still alive?
Selene shook her head. Although she had only known John a short time, she had read his personality. He wasn't the plotting and scheming sort. He was honestly concerned for his people and looked upon Michael as a sort of foster son. John was a simple man; not simple as in foolish but simple as in the opposite of complex. Tanis, on the other hand, was a scoundrel and a master manipulator.
"Just what do you gain by warning me?" She demanded. "Even if the pack were to crush the coven, certainly you would cut a deal and remain alive."
"If the pack crushes the coven, I will do so," Tanis admitted, with a shrug. "If the coven crushes the pack, I will cut a deal. I make no secret of the fact that I'm in this whole adventure to save my own, precious skin."
"However…" Selene prompted.
"However, my own precious skin will be easier to save if there's more than one faction to deal with. If the lycans win, utterly, they will have no use for a go-between. If the vampires win, they may just decide to employ a less objective historian. I want to be able to play factions off against each other, acting as a go-between and information broker, for the next several centuries."
Selene nodded, knowing that in at least this case, Tanis was telling the truth. She honestly thought that John was trying to bring peace to the immortals' war and that Lecoq was doing the same, while assuring a strong position for the covens. However, Tanis's innuendoes had made her aware of one thing; she was going to have to watch both lycan and vampire carefully in the days and weeks to come.
A/N: Sorry for not updating last week but real life has really been jumping on me lately. I promise to update when I can and to not abandon this story until it's done. Thank you very much to every one of you who has been reading my humble offering and especially those of you who have taken the time to leave me a review and/or a private message.
Until my next update, best wishes,