Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE)

DAWN WAS COLD and brittle, clouding Tavia's breath as she stood on the stoop of the little house she'd called home until roughly a week ago. Yellow crime scene tape sealed the front door, which was still festooned with a ribboned Christmas wreath and sleigh bells that jangled as she broke the tape and stepped inside.

The house was silent, tomblike. A shell that now felt as empty and foreign to her as the life she'd been living inside its walls.

The lies she'd been living.

Tavia moved through the place with a sense of detachment. None of what was here belonged to her. Not the homespun furniture or cheery fixtures. Not even the photographs on the walls – snapshot collages of another time, a scattered chronology of her childhood and teenage years. Time that had been carefully monitored and manufactured, constructed of countless falsehoods and betrayals.

These mementos of her past had seemed so real once. Her life had seemed so normal until a week ago. She'd been happy for the most part, enjoying her home life and her career, accepting that the world she lived in was the one in which she belonged. How could it have seemed so real for so long, yet been nothing more than a monstrous lie?

It didn't matter anymore.

She let all of it go, here and now.

There was no bitterness as she looked around her, nothing but calm acceptance as her gaze panned the kitchen, its cream-colored floor marred by a ghastly brown bloodstain where the Minion pretending to be her aunt had fallen after taking her own life at Dragos's command. It was only when she thought of him – Dragos, the chief orchestrator of her betrayal, who'd ruined or taken so many other lives through his unconscionable actions – that Tavia felt a flare of rage ignite in her gut. For what he did to her and the others like her, for what he'd done to the Order during their quest to defeat him, for the evil he was certain to be perpetrating even now, she hoped his end was coming soon.

A dark part of her – a powerful, predatory part of her that was becoming more familiar to her than one she'd known for the past twenty-seven years – wanted to be there the day that Dragos took his last breath. She growled with the need for bloody, final vengeance, her glyphs churning with palpable fury beneath her clothes.

But as much as she wanted a hand in Dragos's demise, she couldn't let a personal need for retaliation get in the way of the Order. This was their battle, not hers. The same way Chase's battle with Bloodlust was his to fight. He hadn't invited her help, nor did he want it. A point he'd made abundantly, heartbreakingly clear to her.

She wasn't a part of Chase's world or the Order's, no more than she was a part of the one surrounding her in the cramped confines of this dead Minion's house.

She needed to find her own place of belonging now, wherever that might be. The problem was, no matter how she tried to picture her life going forward, it was Chase's handsome, haunted face she saw in front of her.

She loved him. She belonged to him in every way, and she would for always.

Even if his disease never let him go.

A DEEP FOREBODING had settled over the compound as the morning crept by. The news of Chase and Tavia's conflict and her subsequent departure earlier that day was only another complication in a situation that had everyone sober and on edge.

Dragos was hatching something big.

No one could be sure just what he had in store, but the Order's interrogation of one of his lieutenants in Boston last night had left all of the warriors in a state of grim expectation. It didn't help matters that, at barely ten A.M., daylight would keep the Order hostage indoors for the next five or six hours.

While most of them were gathered elsewhere to run through intel and patrol tactics with Lucan, Gideon and Lazaro Archer sat in the makeshift tech lab along with Dylan and Jenna. At roughly a thousand years old, Archer was one of the eldest of his race, older even than Lucan. Not that anyone would guess the handsome, jet-haired Breed male with the midnight blue eyes was more than a day over thirty.

It was only when he spoke of witnessing the Norman Conquest of England and the Christian Crusades as though they happened last year that the disparity between his staggering life experience and youthful appearance made Jenna's mind boggle.

"So, you think it's possible that the Ancients might've been actively hunting a race that wasn't quite human?" she asked him.

Archer considered for a moment. "Anything is possible. It might help explain the many times my own father – one of the original eight otherworlders – would disappear for months on end when I was a boy. He spoke from time to time of gatherings with his brethren. They could have easily been hunting operations as you saw in the dream."

"Why kill them?" Jenna wondered aloud. "I mean, what was the problem between them?"

Archer lifted one bulky shoulder. "The Ancients were a conquering race. We've seen that in your journals, in the history we've collected from your other dreams. My father and his kind had no humanity in them, even less mercy."

"He's right," Gideon put in from across the room, where he was typing on his computer keyboards, hacking through what had to be thousands of records recovered from Dragos's dead lieutenant in New Orleans. "Before the Order took them down, the Ancients blew through human settlements like locusts. They fed, they raped, they slaughtered. Resist their will, and they would annihilate you."

Jenna nodded, recalling the nightmare of the wave that consumed an entire population. The mention of the escaped queen who'd refused to surrender to the Ancients. Her city had been toppled in response. Her legion pursued with a dogged purpose.

"Let's say all of this is true," Dylan added now, swiveling around in her chair. "Even if there was another nonhuman race of beings on this planet and some kind of supernatural grudge match between them and the fathers of the Breed, that still doesn't mean every Breedmate has an Atlantean father hiding in her closet."

Gideon smirked. "Speaking of which, how'd that hack I wrote for Gabrielle with Department of Children and Families work out?"

"She accessed her records, but there wasn't much to discover," Jenna replied. "Both parents are listed as J. Does. Her teenage mom was too far gone mentally to provide any specific detail when she was committed. As for Gabrielle's father, it's anyone's guess. Her mom mentioned a boyfriend, a seasonal worker who disappeared soon after she became pregnant."

Gideon's brows lifted, his blue eyes intrigued. "Male of unknown origins who disappeared after getting a young woman pregnant?"

"Oh, come on," Dylan interjected. "Don't tell me you actually think this is possible too? Of everyone, I expected you to be the voice of reason."

"There is logic in the notion." He lifted his hands in surrender. "I'm just saying."

"Claire is looking into details about her parents' deaths in Africa," Jenna added. "It's been some fifty years now, but the relief group her mother worked for kept pretty good accounts. She thinks she might have answers in a couple of days."

Dylan stared, still skeptical. "And there's the matter of Tess's father. Dying in a car accident is a pretty mortal way to go."

Jenna shrugged. "I know. I need to get some more information from her about that before I can rule anything out."

Dylan gave a shake of her thick red hair. "Meanwhile, it makes perfect sense to you all that these immortal warriors – this Atlantean legion that serves an exiled queen – have been walking around the planet undetected for thousands of years."

Everyone glanced her way now, three pairs of eyebrows lifted in question. She blew out an exasperated gust of air and threw up her hands. "Yeah, yeah, I know. But the Breed is different. The Breed banded together, colonized. They protect their own. If there's some kind of immortal race out there who's fathering offspring and walking away without ever looking back, then I want no part of it."

"Maybe it's safer for them if they leave," Jenna guessed.

Dylan frowned. "Safer for an immortal?"

"No," Lazaro Archer replied. "Safer for their daughters if they never know who their true fathers are. At least until the last of the immortals' sworn enemies is dead."

Jenna looked at him. "The last of the Ancients may be dead, but his memories and history are still alive and well inside me. Possibly somewhere close to forever, if Gideon's right about my longevity odds."

"Maybe that was the point." Archer's ageless eyes glimmered with shrewd intellect. "He was the last of his kind on this planet. For all he knew, he could have been the last of his entire race. If the Ancient understood his death was coming, ego may have made him seek out some way to keep a part of him alive."

"So, why would he make me choose if I wanted to be his walking, talking memory box?" Jenna asked. "He gave me a choice between life or death that night. What did he mean by that?" Archer grew more serious, grimly so. "Maybe we have much to learn about these immortals. And through you, the Ancient has given us that chance."

As that statement hung over the room, one of Gideon's computers beeped. He swung around and typed a flurry of keystrokes. "You gotta be kidding me. Can it actually be that easy?" While Jenna and the others watched, he jogged over to a table containing half a dozen thick black collars. Ultraviolet obedience collars engineered by Dragos's operation and outfitted on all of his laboratory-raised Gen One assassins. Hunter and Nathan had both worn them while they served Dragos, and they'd both been damn lucky to be free of them without having lost their heads in the process.

As for the assassins who'd once worn the assortment of collars on Gideon's table? Not so fortunate. Hunter had been collecting the devices from every one of Dragos's personal army that he killed. Most of the polymer rings had been detonated beyond repair – a hazard of retrieval.

But there were a couple that Gideon had reengineered. It was one of those he fetched now.

"Thanks to Tavia, I was able to get past some password-protected, encrypted files," he explained as he carried the collar over to a lidded, large metal box beside his workstation and placed it inside. Then he picked up a cell phone he'd jury-rigged as a remote control. He started typing a sequence on the keypad. "If my calculations are correct, this code should reset the detonator to neutral."

The device in the box emitted a low hum in response.

"Ah, shit." Gideon's expression went a bit slack. "Archer, hit the deck!"

Before Jenna knew what was happening, she and Dylan were whisked to the floor beneath the sheltering bulk of two Breed males – just as a beam of intense UV light burst from under the lid of the metal box. It was gone just as quickly, evaporating like a brilliant ray of sunlight doused by shadow.

"Holy hell," Gideon said, rising to let Jenna loose from beneath him. The protection was unnecessary for Dylan and her, but Gideon and Archer were a different story. Gideon raked a hand through his mussed spiky blond hair, giving his geeky genius look an added dose of dishevelment. "Well, I'll be damned. That's a first."

"You've never seen one of those things detonate before?" Archer asked, giving Dylan a hand up from the floor beside him.

Gideon grunted, shook his head. "No. I've never been wrong before." He cracked a cockeyed smile a second later. "But now I know how to blow these suckers up on demand."

Just then, Tess appeared in the open doorway of the tech lab. She glanced at all of them, then looked around the room as if she sensed something recently amiss. "Savannah said you wanted to see me, Jenna?"

"Yeah," she said, meeting the Breedmate's gentle aquamarine gaze. "I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about your father."

"Sure, but there's not much to tell. He died back in Chicago when I was fourteen."

"Car accident," Dylan said from beside Jenna.

Tess nodded. "That's right. Why do you want to know?"

"Are you sure it was a car accident?" Jenna pressed.

"Positive. He was in a convertible, speeding. My father always loved driving too fast." She smiled sadly. "He was larger than life. Utterly fearless."

Jenna felt sorry for the young girl who lost a parent she obviously adored. "How did the accident happen?"

"Witnesses said he dodged to avoid hitting a dog that ran in front of him. He swerved into oncoming traffic. There was a semi coming the opposite way."

Jenna had seen enough head-on collisions in her work as a Statie in Alaska. She could imagine what had happened. But she still needed to hear the answer from the Breedmate herself. "How did he die, Tess?"

"He was decapitated. He died instantly."