Midnight Awakening (Chapter Eight)

Tegan came out of a brief, light doze, fully recharged, as footsteps approached the apartment door from outside. He knew the sound of Elise's soft but determined gait even before a key slid into the lock announcing her arrival.

She'd been gone almost two hours. Another two and the sun would finally be gone, and he'd be free to get the hell out of there, back to his business as usual.

Seated on the floor with his elbows resting on his knees, his back against the foam-padded wall, he watched as the door opened cautiously and Elise slipped inside. She didn't seem as eager to singe him with the waning light from the hall; now she was focused on her own movements, as if it took most of her concentration just to remove the key and carefully close the door behind her. A lumpy plastic grocery bag swung from her tightly fisted left hand.

Find what you needed? he asked her as she rested a moment with her forehead pressed against the door. Her weak nod was her only reply. Another headache coming on?

I'm fine, she answered quietly. As if marshaling her strength, she pivoted around and with her right hand up at her temple, she headed for the kitchen. It's not one of the bad ones…I wasn't out very long, so it will ease soon. Without dropping her grocery bag or shedding her down vest, she walked past the treadmill into the narrow galley. She was out of his line of vision now, but Tegan heard the tap running, water filling a glass. He got up and moved so that he could see her, debating whether to offer her the comfort of the trance again. God knew, she looked like she needed it.

Elise drank the water greedily, her delicate throat working with every swallow. There was something fiercely basic about her thirst, her need so primal it struck him as absurdly erotic. Tegan considered how long she'd gone without blood from one of the Breed. Five years at least. Her body had begun to show the lack, muscle groups going leaner, skin less pink than pale. She would be able to better cope with her talent if she was nourished by Breed blood, but she had to know that, having lived among the vampire race for any length of time.

She drank more water, and after her third full glass, Tegan saw some of the tension drain from her shoulders. The stereo, please…will you turn it on?

Tegan sent a mental command across the room and music soared to fill the quiet. It wasn't blaring like she preferred, but it seemed to help her take the edge off a bit. After a moment, Elise began putting away the supplies she'd brought home. With each second that passed, her strength renewed before his eyes. She was right; this wasn't nearly as bad as what he'd walked in on last night.

It's worse when you get close to the Minions, he observed aloud. Being exposed to that level of evil–having to get close enough to touch it–is what brings on your migraines, and the nosebleeds. She didn't try to deny it. I do what I must. I'm making a difference. And before you tell me that I'm of no use to the Order in this fight, you might be interested to know that the Minion I killed last night was in the middle of an errand for the vampire who made him.

Tegan froze, eyes narrowing on the petite female as she turned to look at him at last. What kind of errand? What do you know?

I tracked him from the train station to a FedEx store. He was there to pick something up.

Tegan's brain went into instant recon mode. He started firing questions at her one after the other. Do you know what it was? Or where it came from? What exactly did the Minion say or do? Anything you can remember might be–

Helpful? Elise suggested, her tone nothing but pleasant even though her eyes flashed with the spark of challenge.

Tegan chose to ignore the slight goad. She may want to grind that tired axe with him from the morning, but this shit was too critical. He didn't have the time or interest for playing games with the female. Tell me everything you recall, Elise. Assume that no detail is insignificant.

She went through a basic recap of what she observed about the Minion she'd hunted the night before, and damn if the female didn't make an excellent tracker. She'd even gotten the Minion's name, which might prove useful if Tegan decided to locate the dead human's residence and dig around for further information.

What will you do? Elise asked as he formulated his plan for the night.

Wait for nightfall. Hit the FedEx store. Grab that goddamn package and hope it gives up some answers. It won't be dark for a couple more hours. What if the Rogues send someone to get it before you have the chance?

Yeah, he'd thought of that too. Damn it.

Elise cocked her head at him, like she was measuring him somehow. They might already have it. And because you are Breed, you're stuck here waiting for the sun to set.

Tegan didn't appreciate the reminder, but she was right. Fuck it. He needed to act now, because the odds were good there wouldn't be a later.

What street is the delivery place on? he asked her, flipping open his cell phone and dialing 411.

Elise gave him the location and Tegan recited it to the computerized prompts on the other end of the line. As the call connected to the FedEx store, he prepared to hit whoever answered with a little mental persuasion, level the playing field while he had the chance. The line picked up on the fifth ring and the voice of a young male who announced himself as Joey offered a disinterested greeting.

Tegan latched on to the vulnerable human mind like a viper, so focused on wringing information out of the man he hardly noticed Elise coming toward him from the kitchen. Without a word, she dropped a weighted plastic grocery bag down in front of him, a rectangular box at the bottom of it clopping on the counter.

Through the yellow smiley face Thank You logo stamped on the bag, Tegan saw an airbill addressed to one Sheldon Raines–the same Minion that Elise had killed the day before.

Holy hell.

She couldn't have– He released the FedEx clerk's mind at once and cut off the call, genuinely astonished. You went back for this today?

Those pale violet eyes holding his surprised gaze were clear and keen. I thought it might be useful, and in case it was, I didn't want to risk letting the Rogues have it.

God. Damn.

Although she didn't say it, Tegan could tell that Elise's Darkhaven-bred propriety was the only thing keeping her from reminding him how not a few hours before he'd assured her there was nothing she could do to help the Order in this war. And whether it was stubborn defiance or courageous savvy that sent her out today, he had to admit–at least to himself–that the female was nothing if not surprising.

He was glad for the interception, whatever it might prove to yield, but if the Rogues– particularly their leader, Marek–were expecting the package, then it must be of some value to them. The question remained, why?

Tegan pulled the box out and sliced open the tape seals with one of the daggers at his hip. The return address appeared to be one of those shared-office corporate types. Probably bogus at that. Gideon could verify that fact, but Tegan was betting that Marek wouldn't be so careless as to leave a legitimate paper trail.

He tipped the box and the contents–a thin, leather-bound book sealed in bubble wrap–slid into his hand. Peeling the cushioned plastic away from the antique, he scowled, perplexed. It was just an unremarkable, half-empty book. A diary of some sort. Handwritten passages scrawled in what appeared to be a mixture of German and Latin covered a few of the pages; the rest were blank except for crude symbols doodled here and there into the margins.

How did you manage to get this, Elise? Did you have to sign for it, or leave your name, anything?

No. The clerk on duty wanted identification, but I don't have any. There was never a need for anything like that when I was living in the Darkhaven.

Tegan fanned the yellowed pages of the book, seeing more than one reference to a family called Odolf. The name wasn't familiar, but he was willing to bet it was Breed. And most of the entries were just repetitions of some kind of poem or verse. What would Marek want with an obscure chronicle like this one? There had to be a reason.

Did you give the delivery station any information that might identify you at all? he asked Elise.

No. I, um…I traded for it. The clerk agreed to give the box to me in exchange for Camden's iPod.

Tegan glanced up at her, realizing just now that she'd made the trip back to her apartment without the aid of music to block her talent. No wonder she had seemed out of it when she came in. But not anymore. If she felt any lingering discomfort, she didn't let it show. Elise leaned forward to inspect the book, focused wholly on the task at hand with the same interest as him, her mind totally engaged.

Do you think the book might be important? she asked him, her eyes scanning the page that lay open on the counter. What could it mean to the Rogues?

I don't know. But it sure as hell means something to the one leading them.

He's not a stranger to you, is he. Tegan thought about denying it, but allowed a vague shake of his head. No, he isn't a stranger. I know him. His name is Marek. He's Lucan's elder brother.

A warrior?

At one time he was. Lucan and I both rode into many battles with Marek at our side. We trusted him with our lives and would have given our own for him.

And now?

Now Marek has proven himself to be a traitor and a murderer. He's our enemy–not only the Order's, but all of the Breed's as well. They just don't know it yet. With any luck, we'll take him out before he has a chance to make whatever move it is he's been planning.

What if the Order fails?

Tegan turned a hard stare on her. Pray we don't.

In the answering silence, he flipped through more of the journal pages. Marek wanted the book for some reason, so there had to be a clue of some sort secreted in the damn thing somewhere.

Wait a second. Go back, Elise said suddenly. Is that a glyph?

Tegan had noticed it at the same time. He turned to the small symbol scribbled onto one of the pages near the back of the slim volume. The pattern of interlocking geometric arches and flourishes might have appeared merely decorative to an untrained eye, but Elise was right. They were dermaglyphic symbols.

Shit, Tegan muttered, staring at what he knew to be the mark of a very old Breed line. It didn't belong to anyone called Odolf, but to those of another Breed name. One that had lived–and died out completely–a long time ago. So what reason could Marek have for digging up the ancient past?

Screams carried into the drawing room of an opulent Berkshires estate, the howls of anguish emanating down from a windowed attic room on the third floor of the manor house. The chamber boasted a wraparound wall of windows with unobstructed views of the wooded valley below.

No doubt the scenery was breathtaking, bathed in the day's last searing rays of sunlight.

The vampire being held upstairs by Minion guards certainly sounded impressed. He'd been treated to a front row seat of the UV spectacle for the past twenty-seven minutes and counting. More screams poured down the central staircase, agony giving way to the weariness of sobs.

With a bored sigh, Marek rose from a fine Louis XVI wing chair and crossed the room to the double doors of his dimly lit private suite. Other than the attic interrogation room, the rest of the mansion's windows were shaded for the day by sun-blocking electronic blinds.

Marek moved freely into the hall outside and summoned one of his Minion attendants who waited to serve him. At Marek's nod, the human dashed up the staircase to instruct the others that their Master was on the way and to ensure the windows were covered for his arrival.

It took only a moment for the captive vampire's bleating to dry up. Marek climbed the wide marble steps, up and around to the second floor, then up and around again, to the smaller flight of stairs that rose to the attic. As he progressed, fury kindled to life in him again.

This was only one of several frustratingly exhaustive interrogations of the vampire in his custody the past couple of weeks. Torture was amusing, but rarely effective.

There was little amusing about the day's developments back in Boston. The Minion courier dispatched to obtain an important overnight delivery for him had instead turned up at the city morgue–a John Doe stabbing victim, according to Marek's contact in the coroner's office. As he was killed in broad daylight, that ruled out the Order or any other Breed intervention, but Marek still had his suspicions.

And he was very interested to learn that the package he'd been expecting had gone missing from the FedEx store that very day. The loss was serious, but he intended to reclaim it. When he did, he would take great pleasure in personally questioning the thief who had it.

Up ahead, at the top of the attic stairwell, one of the Minions on guard opened the door to permit Marek entry into the now-darkened room. The vampire was naked, strapped to a chair by chain links and steel shackles at each ankle and wrist. His skin was smoking from head-to-toe burns, emitting the sickly sweet odors of sweat and badly seared flesh.

Enjoy the view? Marek asked as he strolled in and looked on the male with revulsion. A pity it's still winter. I understand the colors up here are amazing in the fall.

The vampire's head was dropped low on his chest, and when he tried to speak, the sound was nothing more than a sputtered rasp in the back of his throat.

Are you ready to tell me what I need to know?

A pitiful moan slipped past the male's blistered, swollen lips. Marek crouched down before his captive, offended by both the stench and sight of him. No one would know that you broke. I can give you that, if you cooperate with me now. I can send you away to heal, ensure your protection. That's easily within my power. Do you understand?

The vampire whimpered, and Marek sensed a possible teetering of conviction in the pained sound. He had no intention of making good on the lies he fed his captive. They were merely tools meant to bend him where torture and suffering had not.

Speak it, and be free of this, he coaxed, his tone quiet and unhurried despite the urgent greed swimming in him to have the answer. Tell me where he is.

There was an audible click of the prisoner's throat as he attempted to swallow, a vague tremor in his head as he struggled to lift it from its slump on his ravaged chest. Marek waited, eager with hope and uncaring that the Minions standing around him could probably feel that hope vibrating off him.

Tell me now. You don't need to carry this burden any longer.

A hiss began to leak from between the vampire's lips, a drawn-out, rattling exhalation. A shudder overtook him, but he gathered himself and tried again, expelling the start of his confession at last.

Marek felt his eyes widen in anticipation, his own breath ceasing as he waited for the words that would begin his destiny.

Ffff… One eye peeled open just a crack behind the vampire's seared lids. The iris was bright amber from the prolonged suffering, the pupil a thin slit of black that found Marek's own gaze and burned into him with hatred. The captive drew in a breath, then spat it out on a low growl. "Fff…fuck…you."

With an utter calm that belied the storm of rage that swept instantly to life inside him, Marek rose and began a deliberate stroll toward the attic stairs.

Open the blinds, he instructed the Minion guards. Leave this worthless offal to the sun. If he doesn't perish by the time it sets, let him bake up here with the dawn.

Marek quit the room, not so much as flinching when the first terrorized screams cranked up again in his wake.