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Deeper Than Midnight (Chapter Seventeen)

The human female screamed when she saw Chase emerge from behind the cover of the large oak. Her face bathed in the amber light of his transformed gaze, she sent up another bloodcurdling shriek and veered sharply in an attempt to avoid him. He could have felled her easily. He might have, but in that next instant the woods erupted with the oncoming rush of the blood club in pursuit of their fleeing game. From out of the darkness at the humans' heels, a vampire descended from a great, airborne leap to tackle one of the running men. As he sank his fangs into his prey's throat, three more Breed males emerged from the shadows at great speed, all of them converging on the terrified humans like a pack of slavering wolves. That's when Chase spotted a face he recognized.

Murdock.

The son of a bitch.

Chase had heard rumors of the male's perverse interests during his time in the Enforcement Agency, so he supposed it should come as no surprise to see Murdock bounding out of the gloom to grab hold of the little boy in the bloodied shirt.

But it did surprise Chase. It diverted his attention from his own blood thirst more effectively than a good hard dose of midday sun. It enraged him to see Murdock after the altercation a couple of nights ago in Chinatown – time that seemed a hundred years past to him now.

And it repulsed him to watch Murdock seize a hank of the child's hair in his fist as he threw him to the ground, prepared to wrench the delicate neck into a better angle for him to feed. Chase flew at the vampire with a savage roar.

He knocked Murdock off the struggling, weeping boy. As the young human made a frantic escape, Chase tumbled with Murdock into the snow and bramble. He drove his fist into the vampire's jaw, reveling in the vicious crack of shattering bone beneath his knuckles. One of Murdock's blood club pals noticed the intrusion. He dropped the human he had caught and leapt onto Chase's back. Chase bucked him off. The vampire crashed hard into a nearby tree.

Murdock started struggling, about to get away. Before he could get the chance, Chase grabbed a fallen branch of jagged oak and smashed it into Murdock's kneecap. He howled in agony, rolling away to cradle the shattered limb while Chase turned his attention to the other vampire, who was coming right back at him, hissing through bared, bloodied fangs. Chase pivoted up from the ground with the hard length of oak gripped tightly in his hand just as Murdock's companion was charging up on him. Chase thrust the jagged branch out in one swift, furious motion – staking the bastard through flesh and sternum, right into the heart. The remaining two blood club participants seemed to lose interest in their sport when they saw one of their own fall deadweight to the ground, blood gushing from the gaping wound in his chest, and another writhing in anguish in the frozen bracken nearby. They froze where they were, slackened grasps letting their horrified prey loose to escape.

Chase swung toward them, his eyes shooting feral amber beams into the dark woods, his gore-slickened weapon clutched in his hand, ready to do more damage. Without a single word, the pair of law-breaking Agents bolted in opposite directions, disappearing into the night.

The woods fell silent once again, except for Murdock's pained groans. Chase drew in a cleansing breath. Intellect and reason slowly filtered in through the dark fog of his fury and the nagging thirst that still rode him. The situation he now found himself in was hardly ideal. One dead Agent bled out on the ground. Two more on the loose, certain to identify him as having attacked them unprovoked. Given his reputation lately, there would be few who'd believe him if he said he'd stumbled upon an illegal blood hunt and only did what he had to in order to break it up.

And then there was the problem of the escaped humans, the runners. He knew as well as any of his kind how dangerous it was to allow humans back into the general population without first scrubbing their memories of all knowledge of the Breed. Centuries of careful coexistence could be wiped out in an instant if enough hysterical humans were to scream the word "vampire."

Chase snarled, torn between responsibility for his race and the deeper, more personal need to wring Murdock for any information on Dragos.

Chase knew the right thing to do. He took a step away from Murdock, ready to fall in behind the escaped humans and contain the situation.

The wail of distant sirens, growing louder by the second, gave him pause. He could be too late already.

He glared down at Murdock.

With a muttered curse, he hefted the injured vampire up onto his shoulder, then bounded off into the thicket with him.

There was enough gas in the tank of the pimp's purple El Camino to carry them a good distance out of the city. This far from New Orleans's revived central hub, the homes were small and sparse, many still in disrepair or derelict from the ravages of the hurricane that had blown through years prior.

As Hunter drove, he kept a calculating eye on the eastern horizon where day was soon to break. Already the deep blue quiet on the other side of midnight was giving way to the pastel shades of morning. He glanced at Corinne, who sat silent in the passenger seat. Her split lip was swollen and bruised. Her eyes were trained on the empty road ahead. She seemed weary, her delicate shoulders trembling from either shock or chill; he wasn't sure which.

"We will stop soon," he said. "You need to rest, and dawn is coming."

Her nod was vague, little more than a tremor of acknowledgment. She inhaled a shaky breath. Blew it out slowly. "Did you know him?"

Hunter didn't have to ask who she was referring to. "I'd never seen him before tonight."

"But you and he …" She swallowed, then ventured a sidelong look at him. "You fought the same way. Neither one of you would have stopped until the other was dead. You were both so vicious, so relentless. So unemotional as you went about it."

"We were both trained to kill, yes."

"At Dragos's command." He felt her stare fixed on him as she spoke, saw her stricken expression in his peripheral vision. "How many are there?"

Hunter shrugged, uncertain. "I could only guess at our numbers. We were never told about each other. Dragos kept us isolated, with only a Minion handler to look after our basic needs. When we were called into service, our work was always done alone."

"Have you killed many people?"

"Enough," he replied, then scowled and shook his head. "No, it won't be enough until I see Dragos dead and gone. Even if I have to take down every one of the others like me in order to get to him. Then it will be enough."

She turned her gaze back to the road, quiet and contemplative. "What was the thing you used to kill the assassin back at the airport? He was wearing some kind of collar. You took it when we left, and I saw that you were aiming for it when you shot him. The explosion from it was blinding."

Hunter could still see the piercing blast of light in his mind. There were times when he could still feel the confining bite of his own collar, the one he'd shed the night he joined the Order. "It's an obedience device of Dragos's design. Inside, the collar houses concentrated ultraviolet light. It cannot be tampered with or removed without triggering the detonator. Only Dragos can deactivate the sensor."

"Oh, my God," she whispered. "You mean it's a shackle. A lethal one."

"Effective, certainly."

"What about you?" Corinne asked. "You don't wear a collar like that."

"Not anymore."

She watched him carefully, her eyes rooted on him as he turned off the main road and followed a side street toward what looked to be an abandoned row of houses. "If you used to wear that awful device too, how did you manage to get free?"

"Dragos had little choice but to release me. He'd assembled a meeting of his allies last summer at a private location outside Montreal. The Order discovered what he was up to and moved in to attack. Dragos commanded me to provide the sole cover while he and his men fled out the back."

He felt Corinne's grave understanding in the quiet way she listened. "He was sending you out alone against how many of the Order? He meant for you to die."

Hunter shrugged. "It only showed me the measure of his desperation, and his contempt for me. He and I both knew that if I didn't charge out to confront the warriors in those next few moments, he and his associates stood no chance of escaping. I told him I would go, but only if he released me from my bond."

It had been a long while since he'd thought about that night in the forests outside Montreal. In truth, his journey toward freedom had begun even earlier that summer – the night he'd stolen into the private lodge of a Gen One vampire named Sergei Yakut on orders to kill from Dragos and found himself staring into the mesmerizing, mirrorlike eyes of an innocent little girl.

"It was Mira who gave me the courage to demand my freedom," he said, a warmth opening in the center of his chest at just the thought of the child. "She is a seer. She has the gift of precognition. It was in her eyes that I saw myself released from Dragos's control. If not for her, I might never have known it was possible to live any other way."

"She saved your life," Corinne murmured. "No wonder you care for her like you do."

"I would lay down my life for her," he answered, as automatic as breathing. And it was true. The observation jolted him on some level, but he couldn't deny the fondness he had for the little girl. He had become fiercely protective of her, just as he was coming to feel protective of the beautiful woman seated beside him now. But where his affection for Mira was a soft warmth, his regard for Corinne Bishop was something altogether different. It went deeper, burned with an intensity that only seemed to grow stronger every moment they were together. He desired her; that much had become evident when they'd kissed earlier. He wanted to kiss her again, and that was a problem. As for the other feelings she stirred in him, he didn't know what to make of that. Nor did he want to know. His duty was to the Order, and there was no room for distractions. No matter how tempting they might be.

It took Corinne a long while before she responded. "Every child deserves to have someone willing to do whatever it takes to keep them safe, to ensure their happiness. That's what family is supposed to be, isn't it?" When she looked at him now, her expression seemed troubled, haunted somehow. "Don't you think that's true, Hunter?"

"I would not know." He slowed in front of a dark little shotgun house with boarded windows and a sagging front porch. It looked abandoned, as did the rest of the meager homes that still stood after the waters had receded years earlier. Cracked, weed-choked cement foundations marked the places where other houses had been. "This one should suffice," he told Corinne as he put the vehicle in park.

She was still staring at him oddly from across the wide bench seat of the El Camino. "You never had anyone at all – not even when you were a child? Not even your mother?"

He killed the engine and took out the key. "There was no one. I was taken away from the Breedmate who bore me in Dragos's laboratory when I was still an infant. I have no memory of her. The Minion handler assigned to me by Dragos was responsible for my rearing. Such as it was."

Her face had gone pale and slack. "You were born in the lab? You were … taken away from your mother?"

"We all were," he replied. "Dragos engineered our lives from the instant we were conceived. He controlled everything, to ensure we became his perfect killing machines loyal only to him. We were born to be his assassins. His Hunters, and nothing more."

"Hunters." The word sounded wooden on her tongue. "I thought Hunter was your name. Is it your name?"

He could see her confusion. Her frown furrowed deeper as she quietly processed all that she was hearing. "Hunter is the only thing I've been called from the day I was born. It is what I am. What I will always be."

"Oh, my God." Her soft exhalation trembled a bit. Something else flickered across her face in that moment, something he could not place. It looked like sorrow. It looked like fresh, dawning horror. "All the infants born in Dragos's labs were taken away. They've all been raised like you were? All those innocent baby boys. That's what became of them all …"

It wasn't asked as a question, but he answered her with a frank, solemn nod. Corinne closed her eyes, saying nothing more. She turned her head away from him, toward the dark glass of the passenger window.

In the suddenly awkward and lengthening silence, Hunter reached down and opened the driver-side door. "Wait here. I'll go check the house and make sure it's suitable shelter."

She didn't answer. She didn't even look at him, her face now tucked into her right shoulder. As he walked away, he thought he noticed tears sliding down her cheek. Corinne all but vaulted out of the vehicle as soon as Hunter had gone into the house. The prolonged drive in the confining space would have been enough to spike her anxiety, all the more so considering what she'd witnessed at the airport tonight. But it was something far worse that sent her fleeing the car for the dank, predawn outdoors.

Fear and horror gripped her, threatening to turn her stomach inside out as she stumbled toward a concrete slab in the derelict yard next door. She sank down onto the damp foundation and buried her face in her hands.

In all of her many nightmares over what might have become of her son, never had she imagined the brutal fate Hunter had just described to her.

Hunter.

Good lord, it wasn't even a true name. Just a label for an object, no different from one that might be used to refer to a blade or a pistol, or any other tool manufactured for the sole purpose of destruction.

Insignificant.

Expendable.

Inhuman.

She wiped at the tears that had begun falling even before Hunter had left the vehicle. Her heart ached for his past suffering, but it tore apart in her breast at the realization that her baby boy – the beautiful, innocent child she'd loved instantly on sight – was still trapped inside the ugly world of Dragos's making.

A sob rose in her throat as she remembered the sweet face of the squalling infant she'd delivered some thirteen years ago. She could still picture his tiny fists flailing as the Minion nurse carried him across the labor room to wash him and wrap him in a plain white blanket. She could still see his eyes – almond shaped and bluish green, like her own, his dermaglyph- covered scalp crowned with a smattering of silky black hair, the same color as hers. Her son would have her sonokinetic ability too, inherited genetically from her the same way he would inherit his Gen One strength and power from the creature who'd sired him. The talent Corinne gave her son was something Dragos could never take away from him. That ability would forever stamp him as hers, no matter what Dragos had done to him in the years he'd had to bend him to his twisted missions and ideals.

Her son had a name as well. Corinne had whispered it to him in that first moment their eyes had met and locked in the delivery room. He'd heard her, even at a scant few minutes out of her womb, she was sure of it. And he'd heard her cry for him as the Minion nurse carried him away an instant later, never to be seen again.

God, how many days and weeks and months – how many years – had she mourned his absence from her life? And now, to think what he'd been born into. It made her sick with anguish to imagine what he might have become in the thirteen years Dragos had controlled him. Hope churned desperately within her. Maybe he wasn't living that awful existence, after all. Maybe he'd been taken away from her for some other purpose, not shackled to Dragos's whims by a deadly ultraviolet collar. Not forced to exist as a killing machine without knowing who he truly was, without anyone to hold him or nurture him or love him. And if he was one of the many Gen One boys Dragos bred as assassins in his labs? Maybe he'd somehow escaped his horrific enslavement as Hunter had. Maybe her son wasn't living at all anymore. For one shameful second, she wished him dead, if only to spare him the bleak existence Hunter had described.

But he was alive. She knew it the same way every parent must know, regardless of how much time or distance separates them from their child. Deep in her marrow, she was certain her little boy was still breathing.

Somewhere …

The hopelessness of finding him when she didn't even know where to begin looking pressed down on her as she sat alone on the concrete slab, staring out at the vast, empty wasteland of what had probably once been a pleasant neighborhood on the outskirts of New Orleans. Now there was next to nothing left of it. Displaced families, homes in neglect and ruin, countless lives rent apart by a force they had been powerless to stop. She had weathered her own storm in the decades Dragos had imprisoned her. He hadn't beaten her yet. He hadn't won. Nor would he, so long as she had breath in her body.

She could only pray that her son was equally resilient.

Hunter had managed to get away and start a new life, after all. But then, Hunter'd had the Order there to help pull him out of his previous existence. He'd had Mira to instill that muchneeded glimpse of hope that he might have a chance, a way out. What did her son have?

He didn't know there was someone who loved him and wanted him to be free. He couldn't know there was hope, slim as it was, that someone longed to find him and give him the life he deserved.

As for Corinne, she didn't know where her son was, let alone if he could be salvaged. And then there was Hunter and the Order. To them, her son was just another of Dragos's deadly assets. One they were all pledged to destroy – most of all Hunter, who knew better than anyone how dangerous the others like him were. The Order had declared war on Dragos and all who served him, and for good reason. They would view her child as an enemy. Although she didn't want to think it, there was a terrified part of her that worried they might be right.

Corinne wiped the back of her hand across her damp cheek as Hunter came out of the house next door. He saw her sitting there and strode over through the ragged, mud-choked grass. He was darkness against the dim shadows of the approaching dawn, his big black combat boots chewing up the turf as his long, muscular legs carried him nearer. His coat flapped behind him like a black leather sail with each rolling stride.

He scowled as he drew close. "Why did you leave the vehicle?"

She dashed away the last of her tears. "I don't like tight spaces. Besides that, it's been a long night, and I'm tired."

He paused in front of her, staring down at her in question. "You are crying."

"No." The lie was likely too brisk to be convincing, but to her relief, Hunter didn't press the issue. His gaze was rooted on her mouth, his brows furrowing deeper.

"Your lip is bleeding again."

Instinctively, she darted her tongue out to find the small cut she'd sustained earlier that night. She tasted blood – only a faint trace, no cause for alarm. But Hunter's eyes were fixed on her still. His pupils narrowed. Amber glinted in the gold of his irises.

"Dawn is coming," he said, his voice a low, raspy growl. "Come with me. The house has been vacant for some time. It will provide us adequate shelter."

She got up and followed him. The abandoned residence smelled of mildew and the sour tinge of brine and dried mud. Hunter walked ahead of her, pulling together the stiffened drapes that still hung over the broken window in the living room. Above their heads, a ceiling fan drooped like an upside-down tulip, its wooden blades warped from the floodwater that had risen to engulf them for God knew how many days before it had finally receded. Only a few items of furniture remained in the place amid the smashed mementos, peeled wallpaper, and dust-covered debris that littered the floor. Hunter stepped over it, navigating the best path for her. At an adjacent, open doorway down the hall, he paused to motion her forward.

"I've cleared a spot in here where you can rest a while."

Corinne walked to him and glanced inside. Most of the floor space was empty, swept clean of the filth that plagued the other areas of the house. A thin, mud-stained mattress had been shoved upright on its side against the far wall, held in place by a substantial but storm-wrecked chest of drawers.

Hunter took off his long leather coat and spread it out in the center of the cleared floor.

"For you to sleep on," he said, when she turned a questioning look at him.

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