Invitation Accepted Chapter Seventeen

You can read the story from the beginning here

Rhys tried to remember when he had last slept. He’d crawled into bed around 2am this morning, but had tossed and turned, his mind racing, until he fell out of bed around 3am. He’d got into fur and gone for a run on the damp, cold pavements, loping for miles in the dark before trotting back to the pack house as the place started to stir.

Breakfast was tense. Rhys sat in Mark’s place at the head of the long table, next to the empty decorated chair set in memory of Claire. The place was already overflowing with visitors, and Rhys kept a diplomatic smile on his face as he forced down an excellent breakfast. Then he mingled as well as he could, accepting expressions of sympathy and excusing Mark’s absence as due to him guarding Claire. Stella and the ladies kept the food going, but the atmosphere was keeping everyone’s fur on end.

Rhys caught up with Stella’s husband. “Keith, I just wanted to let you know how grateful I am for all the work that Stella has been doing,” he said. “She’s been a wonder, and I don’t think that we could have managed without her.”

Keith looked at him thoughtfully. “We seem to be managing without Mark,” he said. He looked Rhys over. “Stella says that you’ve always been respectful.” He paused for another long look. “I know your reputation, but I’ve seen you with Stella. I know that nothing’s going on. Thank you.”

“I won’t tread on another man’s tail,” Rhys said. “Besides, I’ve seen how Stella adores you. I don’t think that she notices me.” He shifted a little and looked around the room. “These are tough times, and I wanted you to know that your wife has been amazing, feeding whoever turns up and leading the crew in the kitchens. There’s nothing more to it than that.”

Keith nodded and clapped Rhys on the shoulder. “You’re a good man,” he said. “And you’ve been out here, making sure that we’re all okay, talking to everyone, just like a…” Keith paused carefully. “Just like a good man should. I’m right behind you. He glanced over to Stella who had just come in with a tray of cups. “I’ll just go and give the wife a hand.”

Rhys watched him walk away, a chill in his heart. He didn’t need talk like that. Mark must be mad to abandon the pack at a time like this. A sudden pang shot through him. And he missed Claire. She would have been everywhere today. She would have been talking with all the women, charming the visitors and putting everyone at their ease. And she would have smiled and been a light as everyone came to her for comfort. His heart sank further as Lord Marius and Steve Adderson walked in, together with a contingent of a dozen hard faced elfen. That was all that he needed.

Lord Marius ushered Rhys inexorably into a smaller room and Steve shut the door firmly behind them. A flick of Steve’s wrist and Rhys could feel the enchantment hanging over the door.

“You should have asked,” Rhys said. “It’s not nice to use magic in someone else’s home.”

“We can’t be overheard,” Lord Marius said. “Besides, we should be asking permission from the leader of the pack, and Mark is strangely missing.”

“Where is Mark?” Steve asked, lounging casually in the corner. Rhys eyed him warily. The slim man may look ineffective, wearing a suit that cost more than most of the cars parked outside the pack house, but Rhys was under no illusions. He may currently be mortal, a normal if you liked, but he was half elfen and a ridiculously powerful sorcerer who had lords up and down the land owing him favours.

“Mark is guarding Claire,” Rhys said. “Does Phil know that you’re here?”

“I didn’t ask what he was doing,” Steve said coolly. “I asked where he was doing whatever it is. Where is he, Rhys?”

“This isn’t a joke,” Lord Marius said. “We need to know.”

“I don’t have time for this,” Rhys said. “I’ve got most of the local packs turning up tonight, together with ambassadors from half the country. And I’ve still got a business to run.”

“That’s telling,” Steve said. “You’re talking about you running the business, not Mark. But let’s be honest, you’ve been running it for at least the last year, haven’t you?”

“Your loyalty is admirable,” Lord Marius said. “But we need to know – where is he?”

Rhys looked coolly at the two men. “You have some nerve, walking in here while we’re grieving, snapping out orders and making demands. Now is not the time. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and greet the guests as Mark’s deputy.”

“Mark has been failing as the pack leader for some time,” Lord Marius said coldly. “I’ve watched from a distance and refrained from interfering. Your loyalty has kept him going for months, and I respected your efforts. But it’s no longer enough.”

“This is pack business,” Rhys said. “You can’t interfere.”

“I’m the Prince of Leeds,” Lord Marius said. “And I will always interfere when my domain is at risk. The last thing I need is an attack on our werewolf pack because it’s perceived as weak. Do you think all of the visitors are here because it’s good manners? Do you honestly believe that they are here to pay their respects to Claire? They’re here to check out how strong you are, where your weaknesses lie and how easy it would be to take you down.”

“That’s a damned lie,” Rhys snapped.

“Is it?” Steve said from the corner. He straightened and moved over to stand next to his father. “The pack at Wetherby have had their eyes on Scarcroft for some time. You know that they have some business interests that they’d like to develop there.”

“And the new pack that has taken over in Otley and around the Yeadon and Guisely area has already nibbled away at your territory,” Lord Marius said. “Not that you were taking much notice over there. It’s been a neglected area for some time and I’m sure the new prince will do well.”

“You’ve lost territory to them,” Rhys said. “What are you doing about it?”

“I’m not arguing with a paladin,” Lord Marius said. “I do not challenge the Fates. But I do not wish to have that lout Coulson stepping into Scarcroft, any more than I wish to deal with Elliott or Craven or any of the others sniffing around.” He leaned forward, looking hard into Rhys’s eyes. “You are running this pack in every way that matters. You are making the deals, sorting out problems, and I know of at least four occasions where you’ve stepped in to prevent trouble. The only thing that you don’t have as pack leader is the title.”

Rhys flinched. “I’m loyal,” he said. “I’m not some stray sniffing around every lamppost. Mark is good to me…” He trailed off as the lack of conviction in his voice told its own story.

“Mark was good to you once,” Lord Marius said. “I remember when your parents died and he behaved as he should. But that was a long time ago, before he met Claire.”

“Claire did nothing wrong,” Rhys said softly. “She was a blessing on the pack.”

“She was,” Lord Marius said. “She kept Mark in check, encouraged him to work for his pack and brought everyone together.” He frowned. “I remember Mark when he was a pup – a violent, obsessive, unpredictable pup. I considered taking action against him when he took over the pack. Then he met Claire and everything changed.” Lord Marius looked away, thoughtful, as he remembered. “She was a star to him, to faithfully follow. And he did. He wanted to be the best mate and leader for her. He poured everything into her. I was worried about what would happen as she died, and, again, perhaps I should have acted.”

“You can’t just talk about this like it’s nothing,” Rhys said. “This is a man’s life at stake here, and the safety of our pack. It’s not like sorting out a dripping tap or creaking door.”

“It’s absolutely more than nothing,” Steve said. “Where is he, Rhys? Where has he gone?”

“You have no right to come in here and talk like this,” Rhys said as cold fear ran over him. “We are dealing with things in our pack.”

“Why do you think that I came here with my strongest guard?” Lord Marius asked. “Do you think I’m so fragile that I would need them for a little chat with the next leader of the pack? Mark has the Orache Stone.”

Rhys looked between Steve and Lord Marius. “That’s not possible,” he said. “He was there. Fang killed Violet and fled. Fang has the damned stone.”

“Bron found Fang,” Steve said. “And now he’s looking for Mark. And he is in the mood to send a message.” Steve started pacing. “I’ve heard too much about Bron to feel comfortable about that. We need to manage this. We need to get to Mark before he starts turning up in very damaged, very small pieces.”

“I remember Bron from the old days,” Lord Marius said. “He was incredibly effective. If it wasn’t for the potential trouble from the Orache Stone, I’d let him… play.”

Rhys shrugged. “Mark has always been able to take care of himself,” he said.

Lord Marius smiled maliciously. “Bron was almost effective enough to count as an elfen,” he said. “We feared his imagination. In these new times, he has been coaxing drug people to fight each other while he plunders their money without them noticing him. Now he has Gareth whose imagination is firing up the sales for that mill. The combination would be intriguing. Again, it is a strong temptation to wait to see artistry in revenge.”

Steve shot a quick look at Lord Marius. “But we need to track the Orache Stone,” he said. “It seems to be calling to werewolves, and if it got a hold in the middle of this gathering, it wouldn’t be pretty.”

Rhys felt sick. For all his brave words, Mark was out of condition and out of practice. He was older now, as well. And he had felt the steel will in Bron and Gareth. It was always unnerving. One minute he would be speaking with the shy youngster who was quietly working miracles with the advertising or the older, sardonic but kind older spirit, then there would be a problem like Kidder or Fang and both Bron and Gareth would be – something. Like a force of nature, or a mythical hero. Mark wouldn’t have the sense to run, would never back down no matter how stupid he was being and wouldn’t ever be able to talk his way out of a tough spot. “Are you sure about the Orache Stone?” he asked.

Steve nodded. “Fang was… interrogated. There wasn’t much of him left to ask questions. The stone had left him a shell. As it was, it’s clear that he didn’t have the Orache Stone. I managed to track it back to here, but there’s some sort of interference and I can’t get a clear fix. We need to deal with this in force. So we are asking you now, politely, where is Mark?

Rhys took a deep breath. The implications were tumbling through his mind and he had never felt more out of his depth. “I don’t know where he is,” he whispered. “He’s been gone a day without any news. His phone has been turned off and he took the tracker off his car. No-one has seen him.”

“How about the guards on Claire?” Lord Marius asked. “Has he been visiting them? I know that you don’t like to leave your dead alone, and Mark would never allow anything to happen to her. I thought this would be the best chance, as the cremation is tonight.”

Rhys swallowed as he pulled out his phone. “I got a call from Mark yesterday,” he said. “Claire isn’t being cremated tonight,” he said. “He’s taken her remains and…” Rhys moved slowly around to behind the desk and sat carefully in his chair. “What can this Orache Stone do?” he asked as he tapped on his phone, unlocking the messages. “I mean, it sounds powerful.”

“They never found the limits,” Lord Marius said. “But it has power, more than any can imagine.”

“I won’t take the Orache stone on in battle without a team at my back,” Steve said. “From what I saw, the power can be channelled almost by will alone. So far it’s been used for gaining leadership and as a weapon, but the glimpse I had seemed to make it an incredible power source.” His eyes narrowed. “Why do you ask?”

Rhys pulled up the picture that Mark had sent. “Mark has taken Claire’s body somewhere,” he said. “And he sent this guy to get Claire’s clothes and stuff.” He held out the phone to show the picture to Lord Marius and Steve. “When he got here, he was polite.” Rhys couldn’t stop the shudder running through him. “But there was a wrongness about him. I had all the kids hidden and the women as well as he gathered the things and left. We all felt it, especially the ones in fur. It was like a dirty kind of storm, all twisted and snarled up.” He bowed his head, weighed down by the worries. “And Mark was talking like a mad man. I always knew that he wanted to get hold of the damned stone to heal Claire. I knew that he was trying to do a deal with Violet. But now I think he may be thinking of other things.”

Steve checked the image on the phone. “I know him,” he said quietly. “He’s a sorcerer like me,” he half shrugged. “I hope not too much like me. He’s…” Steve exchanged a glance with Lord Marius. “He’s willing to do dark deals.”

“If Mark has the Orache Stone, he won’t give it up easily,” Rhys said. “You know how stubborn he can be.”

Lord Marius smiled in reluctant admiration. “But that’s the loophole, isn’t it?” he said. “I also recognise him. Last time we met, he used the name John Smith, but we all know him as Edragor. He was born a normal, but it was a long time ago. He’s cruel enough to be an elfen and coldblooded with it.” He pulled a chair out and sat gracefully. “It’s perfect. Mark owns and controls the stone – losing what little sanity he has left in the process. Edragor controls Mark. Thus Edragor controls the power of the Orache stone without any of the inconvenient side effects. And when Mark is destroyed, as he will be, by the stone, I’m sure that Edragor has some poor, weak-willed fool ready to take Mark’s place.”

There was a long, charged silence. “We need to find the Orache Stone,” Steve said finally.

“We need to remember Claire,” Rhys said quietly. “But tonight, after the memorial, the pack will start looking properly for Mark, and I’ll ask around the visitors as well.”

“I’ll call in a few favours of my own,” Lord Marius said. “We’ll start searching now.”

“And I’ll be in touch with the Knights Templar,” Steve said. “I can’t imagine anything good coming out of this.”

2 thoughts on “Invitation Accepted Chapter Seventeen

    1. I’m really glad that you’re enjoying this. I’m having so much fun writing this, and I’m glad that the fun is being shared.

      Thank you for commenting.

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