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Taken by Midnight (Chapter Twenty-six)

The entire second floor of the gutted apartment building was a chaos of flying bullets and coarse shouts from both the Order and Mathias Rowan and his men. The three immense guards in the room with Kellan Archer returned fire, shooting wildly into the shadows, taking out two of Rowan's Agents within moments of the surprise confrontation.

The third went down with a howl of pain, his kneecap shot out from beneath him just before another round silenced him for good. The relentless fire continued, Brock narrowly dodging a bullet that whisked past his head.

In the confusion and scuffle, the fat pillar candle being used for light in the room with Kellan was kicked over. It rolled underfoot of his captors, its small flame fizzling out on the floor and plunging the place into darkness.

The slim light extinguished, Brock hardly noticed its absence, nor did any of his companions. Dragos's men, however, seemed momentarily disoriented in the dark.

Brock took out one of them with a dead-aim shot to the head. Tegan nailed another not even a second later. While the last remaining assassin showered the air with round after round from his automatic rifle, Brock moved in from the side. He ped low, scrambling for the chair where Kellan Archer sat, now frantically struggling to break loose of his restraints.

The warriors and Rowan closed in on the third black-clad assassin, every weapon trained on him in tandem. There was a frenzied hail of gunfire as the target was swiftly obliterated and fell to the floor in a savaged, bloodied heap.

Brock grabbed Kellan Archer's narrow shoulders, calming the boy's terrified screams. "It's okay, kid. You're safe now."

The sudden, unexpected whiff of hemoglobin from somewhere nearby took him aback.

What the fuck?

His fangs tore from his gums, instinctive physiological response, as his Breed senses detected the presence of fresh-spilling blood. He threw an abrupt look at Tegan and the others and saw that they, too, had picked up on the scent of coppery red cells.

"Humans," Tegan muttered, his transformed amber eyes narrowed on the three dead guards lying in bloodied pools on the floor nearby.

"No collars," Brock added, realizing only now that below their black head coverings, Kellan's captors did not wear the UV-rigged obedience devices of Dragos's true Hunters. "Holy shit. These aren't the Gen One assassins who abducted the boy."

Kade and Mathias Rowan both came over at the same time. They stooped down to remove the masks of the felled men. Kade lifted the closed eyelids of one of them and hissed a curse. "They're Minions."

"Minions meant to make us think they were Gen One assassins,"

Brock added, removing the last of Kellan Archer's restraints and helping him to his feet. "This was some kind of setup."

"Yeah," Kade said. "But for what purpose?"

"Jesus Christ." Chase stood behind the group, having just arrived that very moment. His eyes threw off a blaze of amber, pupils narrowed down to thin, feral-looking slits, his fangs huge behind the curl of his upper lip. He stared, attention rooted to the bleeding humans. "What the hell happened in here?"

Tegan rounded on him. "Where are the Archers?"

"They're outside," he replied, his voice gravelly. It seemed to take some effort for him to wrench his focus back to Tegan. "I left them back there with Freyne and his men when I heard the gunfire up here."

A look of sudden dread washed over Tegan's normally impassive face.

"Holy fuck, Harvard. I told you not to let them out of your sight."

Hunter made no sound at all as he returned from his perimeter check of the construction site. He raced back, having heard the racket of weapons fire pouring out of the apartment building, but at the moment he was more interested in the single gunshot that rang out near the Enforcement Agency vehicles in the street.

Through the snow flurries that swirled through the dark night air, he spotted the agent called Freyne holding a smoking pistol in front of the open backseat window of the Agency's black sedan. In that same instant, Freyne's companions opened fire on the car, as well, shooting from all sides.

Hunter sprang into a vaulting leap, traveling the several yards that separated him from the scene in barely the blink of an eye. He came down on Freyne. As he took the vampire to the ground, he glimpsed the gore of an exploded skull fouling the interior of the sedan. The stench of gunpowder and death filled the air as the other two Agents continued their assault on the vehicle's occupants.

Freyne roared beneath Hunter, flailing, trying to throw him off.

Hunter clasped his hands on either side of the vampire's head and gave a sharp, efficient twist. The struggle ceased. Freyne dropped lifeless to the curb, his sightless eyes staring at an unnatural angle over his shoulder.

At the same moment, a rumble shook the car. A howl vibrated the ground, and then the door on the other side blew off its hinges. It sailed several feet before crashing down on the pavement.

Lazaro Archer erupted from within, his coat and face splattered with blood and bits of bone and brain matter.

He launched himself at one of the traitorous Enforcement Agents, catching the other male's throat under the sharp daggers of his enormous fangs. As the pair flew to the ground in a deadly embrace, Hunter jumped over the hood of the sedan and grabbed the last of the assailants, disabling the Agent as easily as he had Freyne.

He cast an apathetic eye on Lazaro Archer and the Breed male whose throat now gaped open, spurting blood from a vicious, lethal bite. Archer wasn't finished, even though the Agent pinned beneath him was surely as good as dead. He was savage in his fury, lost to a pain on which Hunter–

raised devoid of emotional attachments–could only speculate.

Hunter stood and glanced into the vehicle, where Lazaro's son lay slumped and lifeless on the floor of the backseat, killed by the bullet Freyne had fired point blank into the side of his head.

Tegan's dread inside the building hadn't been misplaced. In fact, what awaited the group as they rushed outside with young Kellan Archer was even worse than they could have imagined.

Death was ripe in the street where the Enforcement Agency vehicles were parked. One of them–the one that had held Lazaro and Christophe Archer–was riddled with bullet holes and shattered windows. On closer look, Brock could see that the opposite side of the sedan was torn wide open, the entire backseat door ripped off its hinges.

There had been an ambush of the car's occupants, a cowardly attack from outside the vehicle. No question who had perpetrated it … nor how it had ended. Freyne and the other two Agents lay broken and blood-soaked, lifeless on the pavement. Hunter stood over them, impassive, his keen golden eyes scanning the surrounding area for new trouble and ready to take on any threat single-handed.

And seated just inside the sedan, his head and torso bent over a lifeless form sprawled across his lap, was Lazaro Archer. Even at this distance, Brock could see blood and bits of tissue flecked on the Breed elder's dark coat and caught in his hair. The huge Gen One was weeping quietly, grief-stricken over the loss of his son.

"Jesus," Chase whispered from next to Brock. "Oh, Jesus Christ …

no."

"Freyne," Brock snarled. "That bastard must have been working with Dragos."

Chase shook his head, scrubbed a hand over the top of his scalp in obvious misery. When he spoke, his voice was airless, flat with shock. "I shouldn't have left them with him. I heard the gunfire inside the building, and I thought … ah, fuck. It doesn't matter what I thought. Goddamn it, I should have known Freyne was not to be trusted."

Probably so, Brock thought, though neither he nor the rest of the group voiced any blame aloud. Chase's anguish was written all over his face.

He didn't need anyone else to tear into him over the lapse in judgment that had cost Christophe Archer his life tonight. The typically cocky Harvard seemed to pale a bit, disappearing into himself as he wheeled away from the carnage and walked deeper into the shadows of the vacant construction lot.

As for Brock and the others, a grave silence had settled over the living in the face of so much bloodshed and death. Lazaro Archer's grandson had been rescued from his captors, but the price had been steep. Lazaro's son lay horribly slain in his arms just a few yards away.

While the group absorbed the weight of the night's grim turn of events, young Kellan Archer suddenly roused from his own state of shock.

He came around from behind Brock, apparently just then noticing Lazaro seated in the sedan up ahead.

"Grandfather!" he shouted, tears choking his youthful voice. He pulled out of Brock's grasp. Then, limping, he started to break into a weak run.

"Grandfather! Is Papa with you, too?"

"Hold the boy," Hunter called out evenly. "Do not let him near."

Brock caught Kellan by the arm and wheeled him around in the opposite direction, shielding him from the carnage with his body.

"I want to see my grandfather!" the boy cried. "I want to see my family!"

"Soon," Brock said. "Just be strong right now, my man. You're gonna be with your family very soon. We've got to take care of some things first, all right?"

Kellan's struggles lessened, but he kept trying to get another look around Brock. Kept trying to see what it was they were hiding from him inside the shot-up sedan on the street.

"Come and wait over here with me," Kade said as he moved in and corralled the youth, draping his arm around the thin shoulders as he guided the boy farther up the curb, away from the bloodshed at the other end of the street.

After Kellan was safely out of earshot, Mathias Rowan muttered a quiet curse. "I had no idea that Freyne or the others with him were corrupt, I swear it. My God, I can't believe what happened here tonight. All of my men, Christophe Archer … all dead." He grabbed for his cell phone. "I have to call this in."

Before he could touch the first key, Tegan clamped his hand around the Agent's wrist and gave a sober shake of his head. "I need you to keep this as quiet as you can. Can you delay your report while the Order looks deeper into the abduction and the ambush?"

Rowan inclined his head in agreement. "I can delay it for a few hours, but anything more could prove difficult. Some of these Agents had families.

There will be questions."

"Understood," Tegan replied. His grasp on the Agent's wrist didn't let up, and Brock knew the Gen One's talent for reading a person with a touch would tell him if Rowan was truly an ally to the Order or not. After a moment, Tegan gave a faint nod. "I know you've been Chase's contact on the inside of the Agency for a while now, Mathias. The Order greatly appreciates your help. But no one is to be trusted now, not even your best Agents."

Mathias Rowan inclined his head in agreement, his gaze solemn as he took in the destruction then glanced back to Tegan and Brock. "If this is an example of what Dragos is capable of, then he is my enemy, too. Tell me what the Order needs, and I will do whatever I can to help you bring this son of a bitch down."

"Right now, we need time and silence," Tegan replied. "I don't believe Dragos is finished with Lazaro Archer and his family, so their protection is paramount. I'm sure Lucan will agree that the rescue tonight seemed too easy, despite the casualties. Something doesn't sit right about any of this."

Brock nodded, having had the same feeling when they'd discovered Kellan's captors were Minions and not the trio of Gen One assassins who'd been witnessed abducting the boy. "The kidnapping was a ruse. Dragos has something more up his sleeve."

Tegan's look was grim. "That's what my gut is telling me, too."

"I pray you're both wrong," Rowan said, his sober gaze drifting over to the sedan where Lazaro Archer still held his dead son. "These past few hours have been bloody enough."

"We should vacate the building and the street and clear out of here,"

Tegan said. "It's too risky to let either of the Archers stay out in the open any longer."

"I'll get started on the evidence cleanup," Brock offered.

As soon as he turned to walk toward the apartment building, Rowan was right beside him. "Let me help you, please."

They strode across the construction site, but hadn't even gotten halfway there when Rowan's cell phone trilled with an incoming call. He held it out in front of him, as though to ask Tegan's permission to take the call. The Gen One warrior nodded.

Rowan put the phone to his ear, and Brock watched in a state of mounting alarm as the Enforcement Agent's face blanched. "There must be some mistake," he murmured. "The whole Darkhaven … Good Christ."

Brock motioned to Tegan, feeling ice begin to settle in his gut as Rowan said a few more words of disbelief, then woodenly disconnected the call.

"What's going on?" Tegan demanded, having jogged over on Brock's signal. "What the hell just happened?"

"Lazaro Archer's Darkhaven," Rowan murmured. "It burned to the ground tonight. There was an apparent gas leak and a massive explosion.

There were no survivors."

No one said a word for a very long while. A light flurry of snow swirled under the wintry starlight, the only movement in a night gone suddenly cold and dark as a grave.

And then, across the way, young Kellan Archer buried his face in his hands and began to cry. Great, racking sobs of raw anguish. The boy knew what he'd lost tonight. He felt it. And when he glanced up with tear-filled eyes that flashed with furious amber sparks, Brock saw the rage that was already smoldering in the young male's heart.

As of tonight, the boy he'd been was gone. Like his grandfather, who sat several yards away, covered in his own son's blood, Kellan Archer would never forget–or forgive–the death and sorrow dealt so treacherously tonight.

"Let's get this place swept and get the fuck out of here," Tegan said finally. "I'll put the boy and his grandfather in the Rover. They are now under the protection of the Order."

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