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Deeper Than Midnight (Chapter Nine)

Corinne was all the way to the closed gate at the street when Hunter left Victor Bishop to the wreckage of his sins and stepped out of the Darkhaven, onto the frozen lawn. She looked very small, fragile somehow, despite the strength she'd shown inside the house. Now that she was out here, alone in the darkness, he realized just how wounded she truly was. Her body shuddered, weathering a pain he could only guess at as she clung to the black iron of the gate, shoulders slumped, head bowed low.

She wept softly as he approached. Her breath puffed in pale clouds into the darkness. Her sobs were quiet but seemed to come from a place very deep within her. He didn't know what to say as he drew nearer to her. He didn't have any words of comfort, wouldn't have the first idea what she might want to hear.

He reached out his hand, intending to place it on her quivering shoulder the way he'd seen others do in shared moments of distress. Inexplicably, he felt an urge to acknowledge her pain. She looked so alone in that moment, he wanted to show her that he recognized she'd just lost something important to her back in that house: her trust.

She noticed his presence before he had the chance to touch her.

Sniffling, she lifted her head and looked at him over her shoulder. "Did you … do anything to him?"

Hunter gave a slow shake of his head. "He lives, although I don't understand why you would find his death so unacceptable."

Her fine brows bunched into a frown. "He loved me once. Until a few minutes ago, he was my father. How could he have done this to me?"

Hunter stared into her fierce eyes, understanding that she wasn't looking for answers from him. She had to know, as he did, that Victor Bishop's cowardice had proven stronger than his bond to the child he'd taken in and raised as his daughter.

Corinne glanced past him, into the darkness beyond his shoulder. "How could he have lived with himself all this time, knowing what he'd done – not only to me, but to the rest of the family through the lies he told? How could he have slept after murdering that girl and using her death as part of his deception?"

"He is not deserving of the mercy you gave him tonight," Hunter replied, no malice in the statement, only a bleak truth. "I doubt he would have given you the same consideration."

"I don't want him dead," she whispered. "I couldn't do that to my mother – to Regina. He'll have to find a way to answer to her, not me. And not you or the Order either."

Hunter grunted low in his throat, less than convinced. The chief reason Victor Bishop was still breathing was the plea from his betrayed daughter. Hunter had been taken aback when she'd asked him to spare the man. He shouldn't have been. Mira's vision had predicted it, after all. Yet not as flawlessly as he would have guessed. The situation had seemed different. Corinne had seemed different, pleading not with the impassioned desperation he'd witnessed in Mira's vision but a defeated weariness.

And not just that, Hunter reflected. The outcome of the vision had been different than the child seer had shown him. He'd stayed his hand. The course had been altered, and that had never happened before.

It felt wrong, all of it.

Part of him was being drawn back toward the Darkhaven residence even as he stood there. He'd been trained never to leave loose ends that could unravel on him later. Hunter had witnessed a broken man, someone who'd been proven pliable and weak. Those things could be manipulated by someone stronger, as they had been by Dragos all those years ago. While tonight Victor Bishop had seemed an adversary of little consequence, despite his wealth and any remaining political connections, the experienced predator in Hunter twitched with the need to finish his job. Knowing what he did of little Mira and her extraordinary gift, he wondered how it was even possible that he'd not defied Corinne's pleas and delivered that final, preordained blow. He saw her tremble in front of him as a chilling gust blew through the iron of the secured gate.

"I need to get out of here," she murmured, pivoting toward the tall bars. "I don't belong here. Not anymore."

She grabbed hold of the gate in both hands and rattled it, harder and harder, a wordless cry erupting from deep within her throat. She threw her head back and railed at the star-pierced, black sky. "Let me out, goddamn it! I need to get away from this place right now!"

Hunter moved in behind her and placed his hands on top of hers. She stilled, every muscle within her going tense and motionless. Even though she had been shivering, her body felt warm against his chest. The heat was a living thing, an almost unbearable presence that made all of his senses fire up like awakened circuitry.

Corinne must have felt it too. She pulled her hands out from under his and folded her arms in front of her. He realized now how close they were, barely an inch to separate her spine from his chest and torso, her petite body caught before him in the cage of his arms. She was so small and delicate, yet there was a defiant energy that radiated around her. It drew him closer, enticed him to breathe her in, to let his touch return to the impossibly soft tops of her small hands, and to test the silken warmth of her long dark hair against his stubbled cheek. He wasn't accustomed to acknowledging temptation, let alone giving in to it. And so he held himself still in that bewildering moment, ignoring the sudden quickening of his pulse and the heat that kindled in his veins.

When she withdrew and ducked away, Hunter felt a swift relief. Cold air filled the space between his arms. Corinne stood to his side as he moved in closer to the locked seam of the iron gate and wrenched it open wide enough for them to slip out.

Alarms immediately went off back at the house. Floodlights blinked on from all over, spilling illumination along the Darkhaven's entrance and perimeter walls. Corinne looked at him under the pale yellow wash of the security lights. "Get me out of here. I don't care where we go, just get me away from this place, Hunter."

He gave her a grim nod, then motioned for her to follow him to the car he'd left parked down the street when he'd returned to confront Bishop. They ran together, Corinne jumping into the passenger seat as Hunter went around to take the wheel.

He drove off, taking note of the fact that she didn't look back even once as they left the Darkhaven behind them in the darkness. She sat rigidly in the seat next to him, her gaze distant, staring out the windshield but focused on nothing at all.

They rode in silence for more than twenty minutes, until he had navigated to a quiet part of the city and found a place to pull over. "I must report in to the compound," he said, retrieving his cell phone from the pocket of his leather trench coat.

Corinne barely acknowledged him, her vacant eyes still fixed on the far horizon. Hunter called in, expecting to hear Gideon's typical rote greeting of "Talk to me." Instead it was Lucan who answered. "Where are you?"

"Delayed in Detroit," Hunter replied, detecting a note of urgency – of tense impatience –

in the Order's leader. "Something is wrong," he guessed aloud. "Have there been developments concerning Dragos?"

Lucan muttered a dark curse. "Yeah, you could say that. We just found out he knows the compound's location. We assume he knows, that is. A few hours ago, Kellan Archer upchucked a tracking device. Gideon's analyzing it as we speak."

"The kidnapping was a ploy," Hunter said, putting the pieces together. It made logical sense now, the unprovoked attack on the civilians that had taken place over the course of the last week. "Dragos had to ensure the Order was sympathetic to the boy, so he killed his family and razed their Darkhaven. The youth needed to be isolated, leaving little choice but for the Order to take him into its protection."

"We walked right into it," Lucan remarked tightly. "I made the decision to break with protocol and bring the boy into the compound. Hell, I might as well have opened the goddamn door to Dragos and invited him inside."

Hunter had never heard regret from Lucan. If the Gen One elder ever had doubts, he'd not aired them to Hunter before now. That he did so only emphasized the seriousness of the situation.

"I know how Dragos operates," Hunter said. "I've seen the way he thinks, how he strategizes. The Archer youth has been in the compound for more than a couple of days – "

"Seventy-two hours," Lucan interjected.

Hunter had felt Corinne's gaze on him with the mention of Dragos's name. She listened quietly now, her pretty face stricken, bathed in greenish light from the dashboard of the idling sedan. Hunter could feel her dread like a chill as he continued speaking with Lucan. "Dragos had to know the device could not go undetected for very long. He will have already begun organizing for an attack, even before he put his ruse into motion. When he attacks, he will come at the compound in a way that will ensure the greatest damage to the Order."

"He's out for blood," Lucan replied. "My blood."

"Yes." Hunter knew from his time serving the power-crazed Dragos that this battle between him and the Order had turned into something personal. Dragos would seek to annihilate the obstacle standing in the way of his goals, but his rage would compel him to do it in a way that would inflict the deepest pain on Lucan Thorne and those under his charge. The Boston compound was safe for no one now, but there was no need for Hunter to say it. Lucan knew. His sober voice reverberated with the gravity of the situation, but his heavy silence was even more telling.

"There have been complications with my mission in Detroit," Hunter told him, a report that was answered with a deep, ripe curse. He gave Lucan a rundown of what had happened at the Darkhaven with Corinne and her family, from the suspicion he had that Victor Bishop was hiding something, to the revelation that had left Corinne's future in limbo but had netted the Order what could possibly be a lead on one of Dragos's past associates.

"Henry Vachon," Lucan said, testing the name Regina Bishop had given them. "I don't know him, but I'm sure Gideon can track the bastard down. I'm sure I don't need to tell you how important it is for us to exploit any lead on Dragos that we can."

"Of course," Hunter agreed.

"I'll have Gideon run an IID search for Vachon and get back to you with what we find. You should have intel within the hour," Lucan said. "What about Corinne? Is she still with you?"

"Yes," Hunter replied, glancing at her as he spoke. "She is with me in the car right now."

Lucan grunted. "Good. I want you to keep her close. As long as we're in chaos here at the compound, it's not a good idea for either one of you to come back right now."

Hunter scowled, still looking at Corinne's questioning face. "You're putting the female in my custody?"

"For the time being, I can't think of anywhere safer for her to be."

Despite the bad news that had hit the Order earlier that night, Lucan hadn't called off any of the assigned patrols. If anything, the mood around the compound had been stepped up a notch. Or twenty.

To Dante, it seemed as though the countdown clock on a time bomb had been activated in that instant Kellan Archer had coughed up Dragos's tracking device. Everyone understood what it meant, and the anticipation of trouble on the horizon – the expectation of it slamming into them at any moment – had left no one unscathed.

But dread and inaction wouldn't stop the coming storm. They had to get more aggressive, plumb every corner, turn every stone, if it meant bringing them even one inch closer to getting their hands on Dragos. He had to be located, and he had to be stopped – now more than ever. That rationale, and the fury that followed on its heels, was the only thing that had given Dante the strength to leave Tess's side and go out on patrol with Kade that night. His heart was back at the compound, but his head was fully in the game, looking for even the most remote leads on the escaped Agent, Murdock, the presence of Dragos's assassins in the city … anything at all.

And all night, part of him had been keeping an eye out for leads of another sort too.

"Hold up," he said to Kade, who'd just turned the Rover onto a seedy stretch of road down by the Mystic in Southie. "Did you see that guy over there?"

Kade slowed the black SUV and peered in the direction Dante was pointing. "I don't see anyone, other than a couple of overaged streetwalkers with a fondness for Lucite heels and Forever Twenty-One fashion. Classy."

Dante was unable to share the other warrior's humor even though he had a valid point about the hookers trawling the corner at the other end of the block.

"I think it might have been Harvard," he said, all but certain that the large shadowy figure that had disappeared around the other side of an old brick warehouse had been Breed. And by the way the male moved, the way he carried himself, even as he slunk into the gloom of the ratty industrial block, Dante was more than willing to bet it was Sterling Chase. "Stop the car."

"Even if it was Harvard, I don't think this is a good idea, man – "

"Fuck what you think," Dante snapped, concern for his AWOL friend trumping everything else. "Pull over, Kade. I'm getting out."

He didn't wait for the vehicle to cease rolling. He jumped out and started jogging toward the place he'd watched the vampire go. Kade was right behind him, cursing low under his breath, but prepared to have his back regardless.

They rounded the edge of the brick warehouse and found themselves staring at a low-rent rail yard just ahead. A line of orphaned boxcars sat on one set of tracks, the side of one rusted, graffiti-tagged car wedged open just wide enough for someone to squeeze past. A group of humans stood nearby, gathered around a metal drum that glowed and sparked from the rubbish burning deep inside it. They warmed their hands over the container, passing a small crack pipe to one another.

The stoners hardly looked up as Dante and Kade strode past them. Their faces were hollow, ghostly. They stank of narcotics, booze, and rotted clothing. Their hair was filthy, bodies ripe with the stench of the unwashed. Glazed eyes stared off unfocused, their minds decayed, lost to the seductive grasp of their addictions.

"Jesus Christ," Kade hissed, disgusted. "If Chase is slumming around down here in this shithole, he must really be fucked up."

Unable to deny the truth in that statement, Dante felt his jaw tighten to the point of pain. Chase was fucked up. He knew it as soon as he'd heard what happened in the chapel with Elise. The fact that he had skipped out on the Order was just another nail in a coffin of his own making. But Dante wasn't ready to give up on him.

He had to believe that Harvard wasn't lost completely. Maybe if he could find him, talk some sense into him. Give him a wake-up call about the shit that had gone down at the compound a few hours ago and let him know that he was needed.

And if all those options failed, Dante was ready and willing to kick Harvard's selfdestructive ass from now into next week.

"He went this way," Dante said. "He's got to be back here somewhere."

Kade lifted his chin, gesturing toward the open railcar. Dante nodded. It was about the only place Chase could be hiding, although Dante knew as well as anyone else in the Order that if Chase didn't want to be found, his talent for bending shadows would prove effective cover no matter where he'd gone.

Together, he and Kade approached the car. Dante walked up to the gap of darkness that spilled into the big metal box. The fetid stench of more forsaken humans wafted out at him as he hoisted himself up and took a quick look around the gloom of the place. His vision was flawless in the dark, as with all of his kind. He saw no sign of Chase among the sleeping men and women, nor with the small number that huddled under a shared blanket, staring up at him with vacant looks.

Chase wasn't there, not even in the deepest reaches of the shadows.

"Harvard," he said, trying to reach out to him anyway. Maybe if he heard a familiar voice …

Nothing but silence.

He waited for a moment, a part of him saddened by the wasted lives that littered the dirty interior of the railcar and the ones smoking their wits away over the barrel of burning trash. They were strangers, humans, born to live and die in the span of less than a century. But in their lost, hopeless expressions, he saw his friend Sterling Chase.

Was this what lay ahead for Harvard if no one stopped his downward spiral? He didn't want to go there, didn't want to imagine that Harvard might be waging a war with demons of his own. He didn't want to believe that Tegan and Lucan could be right – that Chase might be falling into a blood addiction. There was no worse fate for one of the Breed than succumbing to Bloodlust and turning Rogue.

And once lost, there was hardly any hope of coming back to sanity.

"Goddamn him," he ground out between gritted teeth.

He dropped down from the railcar onto the frozen ground near the tracks. As he landed, he felt the knock of his cell phone shifting in his coat pocket.

He pulled it out and hit the speed dial before he could spit out an explanation to Kade.

"His cell," he said, hearing the first ring begin on the other end of the line. "If Harvard did run this way, then maybe he's got his cell on – "

The words cut short as a soft trill sounded from several dozen yards away. Kade's silver eyes glittered under his raised black brows. "Gotcha, Harvard."

They set off at a dead run, both of them hoofing it across the rail yard toward the muffled ringing ahead.

Dante didn't want to hope, a cold edge of dread warning him that even if he did find Harvard, he might not like what waited at the other end of the bleating line. With tempered expectation, he led Kade away from the rails and between a pair of sorry-looking storage buildings. He had to disconnect abruptly, cursing when the phone went into voicemail. He speeddialed again and the ringing sounded even closer. Holy hell, they were practically on top of him now.

There was no one around. Not a soul, not even the humans.

He and Kade ran farther, faster, until the bleating of Chase's phone was playing in stereo against his ear and from somewhere very close by.

"Over here," Kade said, dropping into a squat near a pile of frozen tarps and cast-off plastic sheeting. He dug into the heap, tossing the shit everywhere as he burrowed toward the bottom.

When he slowed down and issued a curse, Dante knew they'd reached a dead end. Kade held up the cell phone, his face drawn with disappointment but not surprise. "He ditched us, man. He was here, like you said. But he didn't want to be found."

"Harvard!" Dante shouted, more pissed off than anything else in that moment. Worry had his gut twisted, his heart hammering in his chest. He sent his rage in all directions around him, pivoting to scan the area, futile or not. "Chase, goddamn it, I know you're here. Say something!"

Kade clicked off the ringer and slid the phone into his pocket. "Come on, let's get out of here. Harvard's gone."

Dante nodded mutely. Last night, Sterling Chase had walked out on the Order after numerous fuck-ups and excuses. Now he'd ditched the closest friend he had among the warriors. He was turning his back on all of his brethren, and based on what happened here tonight, Dante had to admit that Chase was doing so deliberately.

The Harvard he'd known would never have done that.

Kade was right.

Harvard was gone, probably for good.

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