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Veil of Midnight (Chapter Eight)

Nikolai pulled one of Renata's daggers free from the thick wooden post where she'd thrown it. He had to give her credit; her aim was dead-on. If he'd been human, not Breed, cursed with a human's sluggish reflexes, Renata's strike would have surely skewered him.

He chuckled at that as he placed the blade on its elegant wrapper with the other three of the set. They were beautiful weapons, sleek and perfectly balanced, obviously hand-crafted. Niko let his gaze stray over the tooling on the carved sterling silver hilts. The pattern appeared to be a flourish of vines and flowers, but as he looked closer he realized that each of the four blades also bore a single word engraved lovingly within its ornate design: Faith. Courage. Honor. Sacrifice.

A warrior's creed? he wondered. Or were they the tenets of Renata's personal discipline instead?

Nikolai thought about the kiss they'd shared. Well, to say they had shared it was a stretch, considering how he'd descended on her mouth with all the finesse of a freight train. He hadn't meant to kiss her. Yeah, and just who was he trying to kid? He couldn't have stopped himself from doing it if he'd tried. Not that it was any excuse. And not that Renata had given him any chance to fumble through excuses or apologies.

Niko could still see the horror in her eyes, the unexpected yet obvious revulsion for what he had done. He could still feel the sincerity of the threat she delivered just before she hightailed it out of the building.

The dented part of his ego tried to soothe him with the possibility that maybe she really did despise males in general. Or that maybe she was just as cold as Lex seemed to think, a sexless, frigid soldier who just happened to have the face of an angel and a body that called to mind all manner of sins. Too many sins, each more tempting than the last.

Nikolai had an easy charm when it came to women; not a total boast, but a conclusion he'd reached based on years of experience. When it came to females, he enjoyed easy, uncomplicated conquests – the more temporary the better. Chases and struggles were amusing, but best saved for true combat, in bloody battles with Rogue vampires and other enemies of the Order. Those were the challenges he relished most.

So why was he fighting such a wicked urge to go after Renata now and see if he couldn't thaw some of the ice that encased her?

Because he was an idiot, that's why. An idiot with a raging hard-on and an apparent death wish.

Time to get his eye back on the damned ball. It didn't matter what his body was telling him – no more than it mattered what he saw in Mira's gaze. He had a job to do, a mission for the Order, and that was the only reason he was here.

Niko carefully wrapped Renata's daggers in their silk-and-velvet case and placed the small bundle on the bale of straw to await her return for them and her discarded shoes.

He left the kennel outbuilding and headed into the darkness to pick up his search of the lodge grounds. A crescent moon hung high in the night sky, veiled by a smattering of thin, coal-gray clouds. The midnight breeze was warm, sifting gently through the spiny firs and tall oaks of the surrounding woods. Scents mingled in that humid summer air: the tang of pine pitch, the musty stamp of shaded soil and moss, the mineral crispness of fresh, rolling water from a stream that evidently cut through the property not far from where Niko stood.

Nothing unexpected. Nothing out of place.

Until…

Nikolai lifted his chin and cocked his head slightly to the west. Something very unexpected drifted across his senses.

Something that could not, should not, belong here. It was death he smelled now.

Subtle, old…but certain.

He jogged in the direction his nose led him. Deeper into the forest. Some hundred yards away from the lodge, the thicket dipped sharply. Niko slowed as he reached the place where his nostrils began to burn with the stench of aging decay. At his feet, the leaf-strewn, vine-tangled ground dropped away into a steep ravine.

Nikolai glanced down into the cleft, sickened even before his eyes settled on the carnage.

"Holy hell," he muttered, low under his breath.

A pit of death lay at the bottom of the ravine. Human skeletal remains. Dozens of bodies, unburied, forgotten, simply dumped one on top of another like rubbish. So many, it would take time to count them all. Adults. Children. A slaughter that showed no discrimination or mercy in its victims. A slaughter that might have taken years to accomplish.

The pile of bones glowed white under the scant moonlight, legs and arms tangled together wherever the dead had fallen, skulls staring up at him, mouths agape in ghoulish, silent screams.

Nikolai had seen enough. He stepped back from the edge of the ravine and hissed another curse into the darkness. "What the fuck has been going on out here?"

In his gut, he knew.

Jesus Christ, there wasn't much room for doubt.

Blood club.

Fury and disgust rolled through him in a black wave. He had the instant, overwhelming urge to rip the limbs from every vampire involved in the outlawed, wholesale killings of these people. Not that he had that right, even as a warrior member of the Order. He and his brethren didn't have a lot of friends among the Breed's governing branches, least of all the Enforcement Agency, which acted as both police and policymakers for the general vampire populations. They considered the Order and the warriors who served it to be on the far outer fringe of civilized society. Vigilantes and militants. Wild dogs just begging for an excuse to be put down.

Nikolai knew he was out of bounds on this one, but that didn't make the itch to dispense his own brand of justice any less tempting.

Even though he seethed with outrage, Niko willed himself to calm. His fury wouldn't help any of the lives that were scattered below. Too late for them. Nothing to be done, except show them some bit of respect – something they'd been denied even after death.

Solemn now, if only for a few needed moments, Nikolai knelt down at the sharp drop of the ravine. He spread his arms wide, calling upon a bright power within him, a Breed talent that was uniquely his and, in his line of work particularly, of little use to him. He felt that power kindle in his core as he summoned it. The power grew in force and in light, spreading through his shoulders and down into his arms, then into his hands, twin orbs that glowed beneath the skin at the centers of his palms.

Nikolai touched his fingers to the earth at either side of him.

Vines and bramble rustled around him in response, green tendrils and small forest wildflowers waking up at his beckoning. All of it growing at accelerated speed. Niko sent the burgeoning shoots into the ravine, then stood to watch as the dead were soon draped by a blanket of soft new leaves and blossoms.

As a burial rite, it wasn't much, but it was all he had to offer the souls who'd been left there to rot in the open. "Rest in peace," he murmured.

When the last bone was covered over, he headed back toward the lodge at a hard clip. The storage barn where he'd smelled blood earlier now drew his eye.

Just to confirm his suspicions, Niko stalked over and willed the lock loose. He pushed open the door, looked inside. The barn was empty, just as Lex had told him. But then again, the steel cages built inside weren't constructed for any kind of permanent storage. They were tall pens, locked holding cells designed for one purpose – human prisoners of the temporary sort.

Live game to be released for illegal sport here in the remote woods of Sergei Yakut's domain.

With a growl, Nikolai left the barn and stalked into the main lodge.

"Where is he?" he demanded of the armed guard who leapt to attention the second he flew through the door. "Where the fuck is he? Tell me now!"

He didn't wait for an answer. Not when two other guards, both posted outside a closed door off the great hall, took on a sudden battle stance. Behind them, Yakut's private quarters, obviously.

Nikolai stormed over and shoved one of the steakheads out of his way. The other brought a rifle around and started to level it on him. Niko smashed the weapon into the guard's face, then tossed the stunned vampire into the nearest wall.

He kicked in the door, splintering old wood jambs and breaking oiled iron hardware clean off their fixtures. Nikolai strode through the showering debris, ignoring the shouts of Yakut's men. He found the Gen One half dressed on a leather sofa, sprawled possessively over the bared throat of a dark-haired female who was caged within the vampire's arms.

At the disruption, Yakut lifted his head from his feeding and looked up. So did his blood Host…

Renata.

No fucking way.

She was blood-bonded? Could she possibly be a Breedmate to this monster?

All of the accusations Nikolai was prepared to hurl at Sergei Yakut died a sudden death in his throat. He stared, his already roiling Breed senses ratcheting tighter at the sight of the female's blood on Yakut's lips and dripping from his huge fangs. The scent of it carried across the room, slamming hard into Niko's brain. He wouldn't have expected such an odd contrast to her chilly demeanor, but her blood scent was a warm, heady mix of sandalwood and fresh spring rain. Soft, feminine. Arousing.

Hunger coiled in Nikolai's gut, a visceral reaction that he had to fight damn hard to hold back. He told himself it was simply his Breed nature rearing up. There were few among his kind that could resist the siren's call of an open vein, but when his eyes locked on to Renata's unblinking gaze across the distance, a new heat flared to life inside him. Even stronger than the primal thirst to feed.

He wanted her.

Even while she was lying beneath another male, allowing that male to drink from her, Nikolai hungered for her with a ferocity that staggered him. Bound by blood to another or not, Renata made Niko burn to have her.

Which, by even his own flexible code of honor, lowered him to something close to Yakut's despicable level.

Niko had to mentally shake himself loose of the disturbing realization, yanking his focus back to the trouble at hand. "You've got a serious problem," he told the Gen One vampire, hardly able to contain his contempt. "Actually, I'm guessing you've got about three dozen of them, rotting out there in your woods."

Yakut said nothing, but the glow of his transformed, amber gaze darkened to one of defiance. A low growl curled out of him before he turned his head back to his interrupted meal. Yakut's tongue slid from between his lips to lick at the punctures he'd put in Renata's neck, sealing the wounds closed.

Only then, as Yakut's tongue swept her skin, did she look away from Niko. He thought he saw something quiet, something resigned, pass across her face in the seconds before Yakut stood up and released her. Once free, Renata moved to the corner of the room, tugging her clingy shirt back to some semblance of order. She was still dressed in her clothes from before, still barefoot as she had been outside.

She must have come straight here after what happened between Niko and her.

Had she run to Yakut for protection? Or for simple comfort?

Jesus.

Niko felt like even more of an ass when he thought about kissing her the way he had. If she was blood-bonded to Sergei Yakut, that bond was sacred, intimate…exclusive. No wonder she'd reacted as she had. Nikolai kissing her would have been insult and degradation both. But he wasn't there to apologize now – not to Renata or her apparent mate.

Nikolai turned a hard look on the vampire. "How long have you been hunting humans, Yakut?"

The Gen One grunted, smiling.

"I found the holding pens in the barn. I found the bodies. Men, women…children." Nikolai hissed a curse, unable to contain his disgust. "You've been running a goddamn blood club out here. From the looks of it, I'd say you've been at this for years." "What of it?" Yakut asked blithely. He didn't even attempt a respectable show of denial.

And in the corner of the room, Renata remained silent, her eyes rooted on Niko but showing no shock at all.

Ah, Christ. So, she knew about it too.

"You sick fuck," he said, looking back to Yakut now. "All of you are sick. You won't be allowed to continue this. It stops right here, right now. There are laws – "

The Gen One laughed, his voice warped from the transformation to his more savage side. "I am the law here, boy. No one, not the Darkhavens and their vaunted Enforcement Agency – not even the Order – has any say in my affairs. I invite anyone to come here and try to tell me otherwise."

The threat was clear. Despite the fact that everything honorable and just screamed for Nikolai to launch at the smug son of a bitch with weapons flying, striking to kill, this was no ordinary vampire. Sergei Yakut was Gen One. Not only gifted with strength and powers exponentially greater than Niko's or any other later-generation Breed, but a member of a rare class of individual. There were only a few Gen Ones in existence – fewer still, following the rash of recent assassinations.

As abhorrent as the outlawed practice of blood clubs was among Breed society, attempting to kill a first-generation vampire was an even bigger offense. Nikolai couldn't raise a hand against the bastard, no matter how badly he wanted to.

And Yakut knew as much. He wiped his mouth with the hem of his dark tunic, dabbing at Renata's sweet-scented blood.

"Hunting is in our nature, boy." Yakut's voice was deadly calm, utterly confident, as he strode toward Nikolai. "You are young, born of weaker stock than some of us. Maybe your blood is so diluted with humanity, you simply cannot understand the need in its purest form. Maybe if you had a taste of the hunt, you'd be less sanctimonious of those of us who prefer to live as we were meant to be."

Niko gave a slow shake of his head. "Blood clubs aren't about hunting. They're about slaughter. You can shovel your bullshit however deep you want it, but in the end, it's still bullshit. You're an animal. What you really need is a muzzle and a choke collar. Someone needs to shut you down."

"And you think that you or the Order is up for that task?"

"Do you think we're not?" Niko challenged, some reckless part of him hoping the Gen One would give him a reason to draw his weapons. He didn't expect he'd walk away from a confrontation with the elder vampire, but he sure as hell wouldn't go down without a damned vicious fight.

Instead, Yakut backed off, amber eyes blazing, their elliptical pupils tiny slivers of black. His bearded chin came up, head cocked severely to the side. His lips parted with his savage, fang-baring grin. Like this, it wasn't hard at all to see the alien part of him – the part that made him and all the rest of the Breed what they were: blood-drinking predators not quite belonging to this mortal, Earth-born world.

"I told you once that you were not welcome in my domain, warrior. I have no use for you, or for your proposed alliance with the Order. My patience is at its end, and so is your stay here."

"Yeah," Niko agreed. "I'm fucking gone from this place, and gladly. But don't think this is the last you'll hear from me." He couldn't help glancing over at Renata as he said it. As contemptuous as he found Yakut to be, he couldn't muster the same kind of fury for her. He waited for her to tell him that she didn't know about the crimes taking place on this patch of blood- soaked land. He wanted her to say that – to say anything to convince him that she wasn't actually a knowing party to Yakut's sick practices.

She merely stared back at him, her arms crossed over her chest. One hand reached up to idly finger the healing wound on her neck, but she remained silent.

Watching as Nikolai stalked out of the open door and past Yakut's befuddled guards.

"Return the warrior's personal effects and see that he leaves the property without incident," Yakut instructed the pair of armed men outside his private chamber.

When the two set off to carry out the command, Renata started to follow after them. Some unbalanced part of her hoped she might be able to catch up to Nikolai privately and…

And what?

Explain the truth of how things were for her here? Try to justify the choices she'd been forced to make? To what end?

Nikolai was leaving. He would never have to return to this place, while she would be here to her dying breath. What good would it do to explain any of this to him, a stranger who probably wouldn't understand, let alone care?

And still, Renata's feet kept moving.

She didn't even get as far as the door. Yakut's hand clamped down on her wrist, holding her back.

"Not you, Renata. You stay."

She glanced at him with a look she hoped was devoid of the queasiness she was trying so hard to tamp down. "I thought we had finished here. I thought maybe I should go along with the others, just to make sure the warrior doesn't decide to do anything stupid on his way off the property."

"You will stay." Yakut's smile chilled her to the bone. "Tread carefully, Renata. I wouldn't want you doing anything stupid either."

She swallowed the sudden lump of cold unease in her throat. "I'm sorry?"

"You will be," he answered, his grip tightening on her arm. "Your emotions betray you, beauty. I can feel the rise in your heart rate, the spike of adrenaline that's running through your veins even now. I felt the change in you from the moment the warrior entered the room. I felt it earlier as well. Care to tell me where you were tonight?"

"Training," she replied, quickly but firmly. Giving him no reason to doubt her, since it was essentially the truth. "Before you sent Lex to call for me, I was outside, running through my training exercises in the old kennel. It was a taxing workout. If you felt anything from me, that's all it was."

A long silence stretched, and still that hard grip stayed latched onto her wrist. "You know how much I value loyalty, don't you, Renata?"

She managed a brief nod.

"I value it as much as you value the life of that child sleeping in the other room," he said coldly. "I think it would destroy you if she should end up in the boneyard."

Renata's blood seemed to freeze in her veins at the threat. She stared up into the evil eyes of a monster – one who grinned at her now with sick pleasure.

"Like I said, dear Renata. Tread very carefully."

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