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Veil of Midnight (Chapter Twenty-nine)

It was fully dark when Niko and Renata arrived at the coordinates Gideon had supplied for Edgar Fabien's property up north. The Darkhaven leader evidently owned a sizable chunk of wooded land, far enough out of Montreal that the surrounding area remained widely undeveloped: acre after acre of huge conifers and evergreens, not a living soul in sight except for the occasional deer or moose that bolted at the first scent of the heavily armed vampire creeping through their unspoiled sanctuary. Nikolai had been running solo reconaissance on the area for the past few minutes. A two-story house made of logs and stone was tucked into a thick corner of the forest. A narrow, unpaved drive, barely wide enough for one vehicle, cut a meandering path through the trees to the front of the house. Niko skirted that driveway from the cover of the woods, taking note of the two SWAT- garbed Enforcement Agents posted near the halfway mark and the three large black Humvees parked in single-file formation just outside the front door of the place. Three more vampire guards, M16 rifles at the ready, covered the entrance. The east and west sides were each also under watch by an armed sentry.

Although he didn't figure they'd leave the back of the place vulnerable to infiltration, Niko moved around that way to get the lay of the land. He heard the soft lap of water even before he saw the quiet lake and the empty dock at the shore some three hundred yards behind the house. Off the rear of the place another Enforcement Agency duo stood guard. Damn it.

Getting into the site to nab Fabien wasn't going to be easy. Unless he and the Order dropped in from above, if they wanted to pull Dragos's associate out of there, they were going to have to mow down a few Agency guards in the process. And that wasn't even factoring in the unknown group of Breed males who had accompanied the Montreal Darkhaven leader here last night. Yanking Fabien tonight without a lot of civilian casualties might be verging on the impossible. Double that estimate when the problem of rescuing Mira was added to the mix. So, basically the net of his recon was that shit was likely to get very messy in here, no two ways about it.

And then there was the situation with Renata.

One of the hardest things Nikolai had ever done was spend the entire day with her, knowing that he had deceived her. He wanted to tell her – after they'd made love, after she'd honored him with the gift of her blood and the completed bond that now joined them eternally. He'd wanted to tell her a dozen times over, in a dozen different moments, but selfishly, he held the truth back from her for her own protection. He still held on to the hope that she would understand his caution – that she might even be grateful that he made her wait to learn of Mira's location until he and the other warriors had a chance to iron out a solid evac strategy. Yeah, he was going to keep telling himself that, because he didn't want to consider any other alternatives.

Shaking off the regret that dogged his steps and the dread that kept threatening to crawl up the back of his neck, Nikolai moved to a better vantage point in the cover of the woods. He peered through the brushy pine branches, watching several of the house's occupants as they passed a window on the ground floor. He took a quick headcount of the hooded Breed males as they strode as a group toward another area of the place. Five, six, seven…and then another, this one without the black head covering. Oh, Christ.

Nikolai knew him. He'd seen the son of a bitch up close and personal only a few weeks prior, when a mission for the Order had sent Niko to meet with one of the highest-ranking officials in the Enforcement Agency. At the time, the male was going by a long-standing alias – one of two false names the Order had uncovered not long afterward. Now they knew the bastard by his true name, the one his traitorous Gen One father before him had carried as well.

Dragos.

Holy…shit.

For weeks the Order had been searching exhaustively for even the most minute lead on Dragos, all without success. Now here he was, plunked down right in front of them like a fish in a barrel. Motherfucker was here. And goddamn it, he was going down – tonight.

Niko eased back into the thicket, then hauled ass in a southerly direction, where he'd left Renata with their purloined Agency SUV. He couldn't wait to call Tegan and Rio and give them this good news.

Edgar Fabien's confusion and distress over the debacle of his botched gift for Dragos haunted him like a wraith as he and the others followed their newly arrived leader into the conference room of the northern retreat. He knew it was dangerous, generally deadly, to displease Dragos, something he'd avoided very well until recently. But he also knew – as he assumed the rest of the Breed males gathered here for this meeting did – that Dragos had brought them all together tonight for a specific purpose. This was to be a historic night. A reward, Dragos had promised, for their years of covert partnership and loyalty toward a common goal.

After so much time and effort spent currying Dragos's favor these past decades, Fabien only prayed he hadn't thrown it away in that one unfortunate instant down near the dock.

"Be seated," Dragos instructed them as they filed in and he took his place at the front of the meeting room. He watched as Fabien and the six others, all still concealed behind their black hoods, filled the chairs that were gathered around the slab of polished granite that served as the conference table. "Each of us assembled here in this room shares a common interest – that being the current and future state of our race."

Fabien nodded in agreement beneath his hood, as did several others at the table.

"We share a common resentment for the corruption of our bloodlines by the stain of humanity and for the craven way those in power within the Breed have chosen to govern us with regard to the inferior mankind. Since the first seeds of the race were sown on this planet, vampirekind has degenerated into a fat, complacent disgrace. With each new generation born, our bloodlines grow more and more diluted with humanity. Our leaders prefer us to skulk in hiding from the Homo sapiens world, all of them fearful of being found out, and masking that cowardice with laws and policies put in place supposedly to protect the secret of our very existence. We have been weakened by fear and secrecy. It is high time that changed, and a new, powerful leadership is required." Now the nods became more vigorous, the murmured agreements more fervent.

Dragos began a leisurely pace at the front of the room, his hands clasped loosely at his back. "Not everyone shares our desire to reverse the past failings and restore the Breed to a position of power. Not everyone sees the future that we do. Some would say the price is too steep, the risks too great. A thousand excuses for why the Breed should maintain its status quo and not take the bold steps required to seize the kind of future to which we are entitled."

"Hear, hear," Fabien interjected, greed for that future licking at him like a flame.

"I am pleased that those of you in this room understand the fact that bold steps must be taken," Dragos said. "Each of you individually has played a part in advancing our vision to its next level. And you have done it all without question, without knowledge of one another…until now. Our own time of secrecy is over. Please," he said, "remove your hoods, and let us begin the newest phase of our alliance."

Fabien reached up for the black cloth that covered his head, uncertainty making his fingers hesitate. He paused until a couple of the other attendees had pulled their hoods off before he found the courage to remove his own.

For a moment, none of the Breed males said a word. Glances passed around the table, some smug with recognition of known peers, others wary of the strangers who had now, with this admission of willful treason, become their most intimate allies. Fabien knew several of the half dozen faces who stared back at him – all of them high-ranking Darkhaven or Enforcement Agency officials, some from the United States and others from abroad.

"We are a council of eight," Dragos announced. "Just like the Ancients who arrived here so long ago. We are, all of us, second-generation sons to those powerful otherworlders. Soon, once the last Gen One vampire is eliminated, we will be among the eldest and most powerful of our race. Each of you has helped with that effort, either by providing the locations of the remaining members of our first generation or by supplying the cause with Breedmates to carry the seeds of our revolution."

"What about the Order?" asked one of the European attendees, his German accent sharp as a razor blade. "There are two Gen One warriors we've yet to contend with."

"And we will," Dragos said smoothly. "I will be planning direct assaults on the Order very soon. After their recent strike against me, it will be my personal pleasure to bury their operation and see the warriors – and their mates – meet their demise." An Enforcement Agency director from the West Coast of the United States leaned back in his chair and arched his dark brows. "Lucan and his warriors have survived other attacks before. The Order has been in existence since the Middle Ages. They won't go down without a fight – a very hard, bloody one."

Dragos chuckled. "Oh, they will bleed. And if I have my way, they'll beg for mercy and be given none. Not from the powerful army I'll have at my command."

"When will we begin building this army?" someone else in the group asked.

Dragos's smile went broad with malice. "We began fifty years ago. In truth, this revolution began even longer ago than that. Much longer."

All eyes were trained on him as he strode over to a laptop computer he'd instructed Fabien to have ready in the room. As he typed a command on the keyboard, the conference room's large flat-panel monitor rose up from the floor. Dragos entered more instructions and soon that dark monitor blinked on, displaying what appeared to be a research laboratory.

"A satellite link to one of my strongholds," he explained, using the touchpad to remote-control the camera on the other end of the connection. "It is here that I've been putting the pieces in place." The camera's eye roamed toward a wall of coded, cryogenic drums, then past a fleet of microscopes, computers, and DNA storage beakers lined up on rows of tables. In the midst of all this scientific equipment were several Minions dressed in masks and white lab coats.

"It looks like a genetics lab," said the German.

"So it is," Dragos replied.

"What kind of experiments are you conducting?"

"All kinds." Dragos went back to the keyboard and typed in another string of commands. The laboratory camera went dark, only to be replaced with another view, this one a panoramic angle of a long corridor lined with prison cells. Although from the camera's position it was difficult to make out anything but the most rudimentary shapes, it was obvious that the cells contained women, some of them heavy with child.

"Breedmates," Fabien breathed. "There must be twenty or more of them in there."

"They don't always survive the procedures and testing, so the numbers tend to fluctuate," Dragos said in a conversational tone. "But we have had our successes with the breeding process. These females and the ones who went before them are giving birth to the greatest army this world will ever know. An army of Gen One killers who are at my complete command." A hush as thick as a winter cloak fell over the gathering.

"Gen One?" asked the director from the West Coast. "That can't be possible. You would need one of the Ancients in order to produce a first-generation Breed vampire. All of those otherworlders were exterminated by the Order some seven hundred years ago. Lucan himself declared war on all of the Ancients and saw to it that none survived."

"Did he?" Dragos grinned, baring just the tips of his fangs. "I think…not."

With a few more keystrokes, he brought up still another camera view on the satellite connection. This time the focus homed in on a large, heavily secured room, which had in its center a cylindrical cell constructed of light beams. The ultraviolet rays emitting from that cage of tight vertical bars was nearly blinding, even onscreen.

And contained inside that UV cell crouched a hairless, naked creature who would stand likely seven feet tall. His nude body was immense, every inch of him covered in dermaglyphs. He looked up as the camera lens zoomed in on him from somewhere across the room. Amber eyes, pupils all but devoured by the fire blazing out of the sockets, narrowed with lethal awareness. The creature came out of its crouch and lunged to attack, only to be thrown back by the searing heat of the UV bars that held it prisoner. It opened its mouth and let out a furious roar that didn't need to be heard in order to be understood.

"My God," more than one of the attendees gasped.

Dragos turned a deadly sober look on the group. "Behold…our revolution."

Lex's cell phone vibrated on the center console of the SUV. Renata picked it up and glanced at the digital display: Unknown Caller.

Shit.

She couldn't be sure if the call was actually for Lex or if it was for Nikolai, since he'd been using the phone to call back and forth with the Order. She didn't know how long he'd be out running reconnaissance, and she was about to lose her mind cooling her heels waiting for him. She needed to be doing something. At least feeling that they would be making some good progress toward finding Mira soon…

The cell phone kept buzzing in her hand. She hit the Talk button but didn't say anything. Just opened the line and let the caller reveal himself first.

"Hello? Niko – you there, amigo?" The deep voice rolled with a Spanish-tinged accent, as warm and smooth as caramel.

"It's Rio, my man – "

"He's not here," Renata said. "We're in position at the site north of the city, waiting for you guys to arrive. Nikolai's out on recon. He shouldn't be long."

"Good," said the warrior. "We're almost there, ETA about forty-five minutes on the outside. You must be Renata."

"Yes."

"Gotta thank you for saving our boy's ass up there. What you did was…well, he's lucky to have you working on his side. We all are." She could hear the genuine concern and gratitude in the vampire's voice, and she found herself very curious to meet the other warriors whom Nikolai called friends. "Everything okay on that end? How about you? You doing all right, hanging in there?"

"I'm good. Just anxious to get this done tonight."

"Understood," Rio replied. "Niko told us about the little girl – Mira. I'm sorry for what you've gone through, knowing that a sick individual like Fabien is holding her. I know it couldn't have been easy for you waiting around all day to rendezvous with us either."

"No, it hasn't been. I just feel so helpless," she confessed. "I hate the feeling."

"I am sorry about that. We're not going to let anything happen to her tonight when we go in there, Renata. I'm sure Nikolai explained to you that getting our hands on Edgar Fabien is critical to the Order, but we're going to do our best so that the child comes out of this situation just fine – "

A sudden chill permeated her chest as Rio's words sank in. "What did you say?"

"She's going to be fine."

"No…that you wouldn't let anything happen to her tonight…in there…"

On the other end of the line, a long beat of silence ticked by. "Ah, Cristo. Niko didn't tell you about the video feed we have from Fabien's Darkhaven last night?"

The chill in her got colder now, ice spreading from her chest to her limbs. "A video feed…from last night," she replied numbly. "What was on it? Did you see Mira? Oh, God. Has Fabien done something with her? Tell me."

"Madre de Dios," he said on a long exhale. "If Niko did not…I'm not sure it's my place to tell you now – "

"Tell me, goddamn it."

She heard a rumble of rapid conversation in the background before Rio finally relented. "The child is with Fabien and several others we haven't yet identified. We picked up the intel from a security surveillance feed at Fabien's Darkhaven. They left last night and we tracked them to the property where you are now."

"Last night," Renata murmured. "Fabien's been holding Mira here…since last night. And what about Nikolai…Are you telling me that he knew this? When did he hear about this? When!"

"I have to ask you to just hang in there for a little while longer," Rio said. "Everything's going to be all right…"

Renata knew the warrior was still talking, still issuing reassurances to her, but his voice faded away from her consciousness as bone-deep anger and fear – a hurt so profound she thought it might shred her into pieces – engulfed her. She closed the phone, cutting off the call and dropping the device onto the floor at her feet.

Mira was here since last night, with Fabien.

All this time.

And Nikolai knew that.

He knew it, and he kept it from her. She could have been here hours ago – in the daylight hours – doing something, anything, to see Mira to safety. Instead, Nikolai had deliberately withheld the truth from her, and, as a result, she had done nothing. Not totally nothing, she admitted, stricken with guilt for the pleasure she'd enjoyed with him while Mira was only about an hour out of her reach.

"Oh, God," she whispered, feeling sick at the thought.

She was vaguely aware of footsteps approaching the vehicle, her senses lighting up before her mind could process the sound. The blood bond she now shared with Nikolai told her it was him well before his dark form appeared at the window. He opened the SUV door and climbed inside like hell was on his heels.

"It's Dragos," he said, searching the console, dashboard, and seat for the cell phone. "Holy shit, I don't fucking believe it, but it was him. I just saw the son of a bitch inside the house with Fabien and the others. Dragos is here – right in our grasp. Where the hell is that phone?"

Renata stared at him, seeing a stranger as he leaned forward and reached for the cell phone where it lay near her feet on the floor of the vehicle. She hardly heard what he was saying. Hardly cared now.

"You lied to me."

He came back up, Lex's phone gripped in his hand. The adrenaline crackle that had been lighting his eyes dimmed a bit when he met her gaze. "What?"

"I trusted you. You told me I could trust you – that I could count on you – and I did. I believed you, and you betrayed me." She swallowed past the terrible lump in her throat and forced herself to spit the words out. "Mira is here. She's been here with Fabien since last night. You knew that…you kept it from me."

He went quiet, but he didn't even attempt to deny what she was saying. He looked at the phone in his hand as if he just now realized how it was that she had discovered his deception.

"I could have been here, Nikolai. Hours ago, I could have been here, doing something to get Mira out of that monster's hands!"

"Which is exactly why I didn't tell you," he said gently.

She scoffed, heartbroken. "You betrayed me."

"I did it to protect you. Because I love – "

"No," she said, shaking her head to keep from being played for a fool again. "No. Don't say that to me. How can you say that when you used those very words to keep me distracted – to make me believe that you actually cared about me while you and your buddies in the Order made plans of your own around me?"

"It's not like that at all. Nothing that happened between us today – nothing I said to you – had anything to do with the Order. Today was about you and me…it was about us."

"Bullshit!" He reached for her and she drew back, out of his grasp. She opened the door and got out of the SUV. He was out of the vehicle and around to her side, blocking her with his body, all of it happening so fast she couldn't even begin to track his movements. "Get away from me, Nikolai."

"Where are you going?" he asked gently.

"I can't sit here any longer and do nothing." She took a step around him but he was right there again. The gentleness in him was fading fast, replaced by a firmness that said he would keep her there in shackles if he thought he needed to. "I can't let you do this, Renata."

"That's not your choice to make," she fired back, trembling with fear and outrage. "Damn it, that was never your choice to make for me!"

He growled a curse and lunged for her.

Renata hardly knew what she had done until he froze in midstep, clutching the sides of his head in his hands. He hissed, his eyes throwing off amber sparks as he pinned her in a shocked, furious gaze. "Renata. Do not – "

She blasted him again, all of her fear for Mira and her pain at his betrayal pouring out of her in a punishing stream of mental heat. Nikolai crashed down onto his knees, groaning and writhing from the jolt of pain she'd unleashed on him. Renata bolted away from him, into the forest, before she allowed herself to be deterred by the regret already swelling up in her.

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