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Veil of Midnight (Chapter Seventeen)

As Nikolai came awake, he wondered why he wasn't dead. He felt like hell, eyes slow to open in the dark, muscles sluggish as he took a mental inventory of his current condition. He remembered blood and agony, arrest and torture at the hands of a bastard called Fabien. He remembered running – or, rather, someone else running while he stumbled and struggled just to stay upright.

He remembered darkness all around him, cold metal beneath him, drums pounding relentlessly in his head. And he distinctly remembered a pistol being pointed in his direction. A pistol that went off by his own command.

Renata.

She been the one holding that gun. Aiming it at him to prevent him from attacking her like some kind of monster. Why hadn't she killed him like he'd wanted? For that matter, why had she come looking for him at the containment facility in the first place? Didn't she realize she might have been killed right along with him?

He wanted to be pissed off that she would do something that reckless, but a more reasonable part of him was just damned grateful to be breathing. Even if breathing was about all he was capable of doing at the moment.

He groaned and rolled over, expecting to feel the hard floor of the truck under his body. Instead he felt a soft mattress, a fluffy pillow cradling his head. A light cotton blanket covered his nakedness.

What the hell? Where was he now?

He vaulted up to a sitting position and was rewarded with a violent lurch of his gut. "Ah, fuck," he murmured, sick and light- headed.

"Are you all right?" Renata was here with him. He didn't see her at first, but now she was getting up from the tattered chair where she'd been sitting a moment ago. She padded over to the bed. "How are you feeling?"

"Like shit," he said, his tongue thick, mouth desert dry.

He winced as a small bedside lamp clicked on. "You look better. A lot better, actually. Your eyes are back to normal and your fangs have receded."

"Where are we?"

"Someplace safe."

He looked around at the eclectic jumble of the room: mismatched furniture, storage bins stacked against one of the walls, a small collection of artist's canvases in various stages of completion leaning between two file cabinets, a small closet of a bathroom with floral-patterned towels and a quaint claw-footed tub. But it was the shutterless window arranged directly across the room from the bed that really clued him in. It was deep night on the other side of the glass right now, but by morning the room would be flooded with UV light.

"This is a human residence." He didn't mean for it to sound like an accusation, especially when it was his own damned fault he was in this situation. "Where the hell are we, Renata? What's going on here?"

"You were in bad shape. It wasn't safe for us to keep traveling in the supply truck when the Enforcement Agency and possibly Lex as well would be looking for it as soon as the sun set – "

"Where are we?" he demanded.

"A halfway house for street kids – it's called Anna's Place. I know the man who runs it. Or I knew him, that is…from before." Some flicker of emotion swept over her face. "Jack is a good man, trustworthy. We're safe here."

"He's human."

"Yes."

Just fucking lovely. "And does he know what I am? Did he see me…like I was?"

"No. I kept you covered as best I could with the plastic tarp from the truck. Jack helped bring you up here, but you were still sleeping off the tranquilizer I shot you with. I told him you were out of it because you were sick."

Tranqs. Well, at least that answered the question of why he wasn't dead.

"He didn't see your fangs or your eyes, and when he asked about your glyphs, I told him they were tattoos." She gestured to a shirt and black warm-ups folded on the bedside table. "He brought you some clothes. After he gets back from ditching the truck for us, he's going to look for a pair of shoes that might fit you. There's a toiletries kit in the bathroom – part of his welcome wagon for new arrivals at the house. He only had one fresh toothbrush to spare, so I hope you don't mind sharing."

"Jesus," Niko hissed. This was only getting worse. "I have to get out of here."

He threw off the blanket and grabbed the clothing from the little table. He was none too steady on his feet as he tried to step into the nylon pants. He fell back, his bare ass planted on the bed. His head was spinning. "Damn it. I need to report in with the Order. Think your good buddy Jack has a computer or a cell phone I could borrow?"

"It's two o'clock in the morning," Renata pointed out. "Everyone in the house is sleeping. Besides, I'm not even sure you're well enough to make it down the garage stairs. You need to rest a while longer."

"Fuck that. What I need is to get back to Boston ASAP." Still seated on the bed, he slipped on the warm-ups and hiked them over his hips, tugging the drawstring tight to cinch the extra-large waistband. "I've lost too much time already. Gonna need someone to come up here and haul my lame ass back in – "

Renata's hand came down on his, surprising him with the contact. "Nikolai. Something's happened to Mira."

Her voice was as sober as he'd ever heard it. She was worried – bone-deep worried – and for the first time, he noticed the smallest fissure in the otherwise unbreakable, icy facade she presented to any and all around her.

"Mira is in danger," she said. "They took her with them when they came to arrest you at the lodge. Lex sent her off with a vampire named Fabien. He…he sold her to him."

"Fabien." Niko shut his eyes, exhaled a curse. "Then she is probably already dead."

He wasn't expecting Renata's choked cry. The raw sound of it made him feel like a callous jackass for speaking his grim thoughts aloud. For all of Renata's strength and tough independence, she had a very tender spot reserved for that innocent, remarkable child.

"She can't be dead." Her voice took on a wooden edge, but her eyes were wild, desperate. "I promised her, do you understand? I told her I would never let anyone hurt her. I meant that. I would kill to keep her safe, Nikolai. I would die for her." He listened, and, God help him, he knew her pain better than she could ever guess. As a boy, he had made a similar pact with his younger brother – Christ, so long ago – and it had nearly destroyed him to have failed.

"That's why you came after me at the containment facility," he said, understanding now. "You risked your neck to break me out of there because you think I can help you find her?"

She didn't say anything, just held his gaze in a silence that seemed to stretch out forever. "I have to get her back, Nikolai. And I don't think…I'm just not sure I can do it on my own."

Part of him wanted to tell her that the fate of one lost little girl was not his problem. Not after what that bastard Fabien had just put him through at the containment facility. And not when the Order had its hands full with other, more critical missions. Life and death on a massive scale, true do-or-die, save-the-world kind of shit.

But when he opened his mouth to tell her so, he found he didn't have the heart to say that out loud to Renata now.

"How's your shoulder?" he asked her, indicating the wound that had been bleeding a few hours ago in the truck and driving his already weak control nearly to the edge. On the surface, it looked better now, bandaged in clean white gauze and smelling faintly of antiseptic.

"Jack patched me up," she said. "He was a medic for the Marines when he served in Vietnam."

Niko saw the tenderness in her expression when she spoke of the human, and he wondered why he should feel even the slightest twinge of jealousy, particularly when that human male's military service aged him well into his AARP years. "So, he's a Marine, eh? How'd he end up working in a Montreal youth shelter?"

Renata smiled a bit sadly. "Jack fell in love with a local girl named Anna. They got married, bought this house together and lived here for more than forty years…until Anna died. She was killed in a robbery. The homeless kid who stabbed her for her purse did it while he was high on heroin. He was looking for money for his next fix, but he only got about five dollars in change." "Jesus," Niko exhaled. "I hope the piece of shit didn't get away with it."

Renata shook her head. "He was arrested and charged, but he hanged himself in jail while awaiting trial. Jack once told me when he heard that news, that's when he decided to do something to help prevent another death like Anna's, or another kid from being lost to the streets. He opened his house – Anna's Place – to anyone who needed shelter, and gave the kids warm meals and a place to belong."

"Sounds like Jack's a generous man," Niko said. "A hell of a lot more forgiving than I could be."

He had the strongest urge to touch her, to just let his fingers come to rest on her skin. He wanted to know more about her, more about her life before she got mixed up with Sergei Yakut. He had the feeling things didn't come easy for her. If Jack had helped to smooth her path, then Nikolai had nothing but respect for the man.

And if she could trust the human, so would he. He hoped like hell Jack was all Renata believed him to be. It would be a hell of a thing if he proved otherwise.

"Let me have a look at your shoulder," he said, happy to change the subject.

When he moved toward her, Renata hesitated. "You sure you can handle that? Because I'm fresh out of tranq rounds, and it hardly seems sporting to mind blast a vampire in your feeble condition."

A joke? He chuckled, caught off guard by her humor, especially when things were looking more than a little grim for both of them. "Come here and let me see Jack's handiwork."

She leaned forward to give him better access to her shoulder. Niko moved aside the soft cotton blanket she was wrapped in, letting the edge of the fabric slide down her arm. As carefully as he lifted the bandage and inspected the cleaned, sutured wound beneath it, he still felt Renata flinch with discomfort. She held herself perfectly still as he gingerly checked both sides of her shoulder. The bleeding had slowed to a trickle, but even that thin rivulet of scarlet hit him hard. He was out of the woods as far as Bloodlust went, but he was still Breed, and Renata's sweet sandalwood-and-rain blood scent was intoxicating, especially up close.

"Overall, it looks decent," he murmured, forcing himself to pull away. He replaced the bandages and sat back on the edge of the bed. "The exit wound is still pretty livid."

"Jack says I'm lucky that the bullet went straight through and didn't hit any bones."

Niko grunted. She was lucky to have been blood-bonded to a Gen One male. Sergei Yakut may have been a vicious, good- for-nothing bastard, but the presence of his nearly pure Breed blood in her system should hasten her healing like nothing else. In fact, he was surprised to see her looking so tired. Then again, it had been quite a long night so far by any standards. Based on the dark circles smudged under her eyes, she hadn't slept at all. She hadn't eaten either. A tray of food sat untouched on the metal card table nearby.

He wondered if it was grief over Yakut's death that added to her fatigue. She was clearly concerned for Mira, but by all rights, and as hard as it was for him to accept the idea, she was also a female who'd recently lost her mate. And here she was, nursing a gunshot wound on top of all that simply because she'd decided to seek his help.

"Why don't you rest for a while," Nikolai suggested. "Take the bed. Get some sleep. It's my turn to be on watch."

She didn't argue, much to his surprise. He got up and held the blanket for her as she climbed in and struggled to position herself around her shoulder wound.

"The window," she murmured, pointing at it. "I was going to cover it for you."

"I'll take care of that."

She fell asleep in less than a minute's time. Niko watched her for a moment, and then, when he was certain she wouldn't feel it, he gave in to his urge to touch her. Just a brief caress of her cheek, his fingers trailing into the black silk of her hair. It was wrong to desire her, he knew that.

In his condition, at what was just about the worst of possible circumstances, it was probably stupid as hell for him to crave Renata the way he did – the way he had nearly from the instant he first laid eyes on her.

But in that moment, had she lifted her lids and found him there beside her, nothing would have kept him from pulling her into his arms.

A pair of halogen high-beams pierced the blanket of fog that spilled down onto the valley road from Vermont's densely forested Green Mountains. In the backseat, the chauffeured vehicle's passenger stared impatiently at the dark landscape, his Breed eyes throwing off amber reflections in the opaque glass. He was pissed off, and after speaking with Edgar Fabien, his contact in Montreal, he had ample reason to be upset. The only glimmer of promise had been the fact that amid all the recent fuckups and disasters narrowly averted, somehow, Sergei Yakut was dead and, in the process, Fabien had managed to net a member of the Order.

Unfortunately, that small victory had been short-lived. Just a few hours ago, Fabien had sheepishly reported that the Breed warrior had escaped the containment facility and was currently at large with the female who'd apparently aided him. If Fabien's hands weren't already full with the other important business he'd been assigned, the Montreal Darkhaven leader might be getting an unexpected visit tonight as well. He could deal with Fabien later.

Annoyed by this mandatory detour through cow country, what infuriated him the most by far was the recent malfunction of his best, most effective instrument.

Failure simply could not be tolerated. One mistake was one too many, and, like a watchdog that suddenly turns on its owner, there was only one viable solution for the problem awaiting him up this particular stretch of rural backcountry road: termination. The vehicle slowed and made a right off the asphalt, onto a bumpy dirt one-laner. A rambling Colonial-era stone fence and half a dozen tall oaks and maples lined the drive that led up to an old white farmhouse with a wide, wraparound porch. The car came to a stop in front of a big red barn around the back of the house. The driver – a Minion – got out, walked around to the rear passenger door, and opened it for his vampire Master.

"Sire," the human mind slave said with a deferential bow of his head.

The Breed male inside the car climbed out, sniffing derisively at the taint of livestock in the so-called fresh night air. His senses were no less offended as he turned his head toward the house and saw the dim light of a table lamp glowing in one of the rooms, the inane yammering of a television game show drifting out of the open windows.

"Wait here," he instructed his driver. "This won't take long."

Stones crunching under his polished leather loafers, he walked over the gravel to the covered porch steps leading to the farmhouse's back door. It was locked, for all that it mattered. He willed the bolt open and strode inside the blue -and-white gingham-trimmed eyesore of a kitchen. As the door creaked closed behind him, a middle-aged human male holding a shotgun came in from the hallway.

"Master," he gasped, setting the rifle down on the countertop. "Forgive me. I wasn't aware that you, ah…that you w-were coming." The Minion stammered, anxious, and evidently wise enough to know that this was no social call. "H-how may I serve you?"

"Where is the Hunter?"

"The cellar, sire."

"Take me to him."

"Of course." The Minion scrambled past and opened the back door, holding it wide. When his master had exited, he dashed around to lead the way to the coffinlike entrance of the cellar along the side of the house. "I don't know what could have gone wrong with him, Master. He's never failed to carry out an assignment before."

True enough, although that only made the current failure of such a perfect specimen all the more inexcusable. "I'm not interested in the past."

"No, no. Of course not, sire. My apologies."

There was a clumsy struggle with the key and lock, the latter having been installed in order to keep the curious out, rather than as a measure to keep the cellar's deadly occupant inside. Locks were unnecessary when there was another, more effective method in place to ensure that he wasn't tempted to stray.

"This way," said the Minion, opening the steel doors to reveal a lightless pit that opened into the earth below the old house. A flight of wooden stairs descended into the dank, musty darkness. The Minion moved ahead, tugging a string attached to a bare bulb to help light the way. The vampire behind him saw well enough without it, as did the one housed down here in the empty, windowless space.

The cellar contained no furniture. No diversions. No personal effects. By deliberate design, it contained no comforts whatsoever. It was filled with precisely nothing – a reminder to its occupant that he too was nothing beyond that which he was summoned from here to do. His very existence was merely to serve, to follow orders.

To act without mercy or mistake.

To give no quarter, nor expect any in return.

As they walked into the center of the cellar, the huge Breed male seated quietly on the bare earth floor looked up. He was naked, elbows resting on his updrawn knees, his head shaved bald. He had no name, no identity at all except the one that was given to him when he was born: Hunter. The fitted black electronic collar around his neck had also been with him all his life. In truth, it was his life, for if he should ever resist instruction, or tamper with the monitoring device in any way, a digital sensor would trip and the UV weapon contained within the collar would detonate.

The big male stood up as his Minion handler gestured for him to rise. He was impressive, a Gen One standing six and a half feet, all lean muscle and formidable strength. His body was covered in a web of dermaglyphs from neck to ankle, skin markings inherited through blood, passed down from father to son within the Breed.

That he and this vampire shared similar patterns was to be expected; after all, they were born of the same Ancient paternal line. Both of them had the blood of the same alien warrior swimming in their veins – one of the original fathers of the vampire race on earth. They were kin, although only one of them knew that. The one who had been patiently biding his time, living behind countless masks and deceptions while carefully arranging his pieces on a massive and complex board. Manipulating fate until the time was right for him to finally, rightfully, rise to his place of power over both Breed and humankind alike.

That time was coming.

Coming soon, he could feel it in his bones.

And he would abide no missteps in the ascent to his throne.

Eyes as golden as a falcon's met and held his gaze in the dim light of the cellar. He didn't appreciate the pride he saw there – the trace of defiance in one who had been raised to serve.

"Explain to me why you failed to carry out your objective," he demanded. "You were sent to Montreal with a clear mission. Why were you unable to execute it?"

"There was a witness" came the cool reply.

"That's never stopped you before. Why now?"

Those unflinching golden eyes showed no emotion whatsoever, but there was challenge in the subtle lift of the Hunter's square jaw. "It was a child, a young female."

"A child, you say." He shrugged, unmoved. "Even easier to eliminate, don't you think?"

The Hunter said nothing, just stared at him as if awaiting judgment. As if he expected to be condemned and could give a damn.

"You were not trained to question your orders or to back away from obstacles. You were bred for one thing – as were the others like you."

The stern chin came up another inch, questioning. Mistrusting. "What others?"

He chuckled low under his breath. "You didn't actually think you were unique, did you? Far from it. Yes, there are others. An army of others – soldiers, assassins…expendable pawns I've created over a period of several decades, all of them born and raised to serve me. Others, like you, who live only because I will it." He glanced pointedly at the collar that ringed the vampire's neck. "You, like the others, live only so long as I will it."

"Master," interrupted the Minion handler. "I'm certain this was a one-time error. When you send him out next time, there will be no problems, I assure – "

"I've heard enough," he snapped, slanting a look at the human who by association had also failed him. "There will be no next time. And you are of no use to me anymore."

In a flash of motion, he wheeled on the Minion and sank his fangs into the side of the man 's throat. He didn't drink, just punctured the carotid and released him, watching with complete disregard as he collapsed on the earthen floor of the cellar, bleeding profusely. The presence of so much pumping blood was almost too much to bear. It was hard to waste it, but he was more interested in proving a point.

He glanced at the Gen One vampire beside him – grinning as the male's glyphs began to pulse with the deep colors of hunger, his golden eyes now fully amber. His fangs filled his mouth, and it was obvious that every instinct within him was screaming for him to lunge on the sputtering prey and feed before the blood and the human were both dead.

Except he didn't move. He stood there, defiant still, refusing to give in to even that most natural, savage side of himself. Killing him would be easy enough; just a code typed into his cell phone and that rigid, unentitled pride would be blown to bits. But it would be far more enjoyable to break him first. So much the better if breaking him could serve as an example to Fabien and anyone else who might be stupid enough to disappoint him.

"Outside," he commanded the servant assassin. "I'm not finished with you yet."

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