Midnight Awakening (Chapter One)

She walked among them undetected, just another afternoon rush-hour commuter trudging through the fresh February snowfall on her way to the train station. No one paid any mind at all to the petite female in the hooded oversized parka, her scarf concealing her face to just below her eyes, which watched the crowds of human pedestrians with keen interest. Too keen, she knew, but she couldn't help it.

She was anxious being out among them, and impatient to find her prey.

Her head rang with the pound of rock music blaring in through the tiny earbuds of a portable MP3 player. It wasn't hers. It had belonged to her teenage son–to Camden. Sweet Cam, who'd died just four months ago, a victim of the underworld war that Elise herself was now a part of as well. He was the reason she was here, prowling Boston's crowded streets with a dagger in her coat pocket and a titanium-edged blade strapped to her thigh.

More than ever now, Camden was the reason she lived.

His death could not go unavenged.

Elise crossed at a traffic light and moved up the road toward the station. She could see people talking as she passed them, their lips moving silently, their words–more important, their thoughts–drowned out by the aggressive lyrics, screaming guitars, and pulsing throb of bass that filled her ears and vibrated in her bones. She didn't know precisely what she was listening to, nor did it matter. All she needed was the noise, played loud enough and long enough to get her into place for the hunt.

She entered the building, just one more person in a river of moving humanity. Harsh light spilled down from fluorescent tubes in the ceiling. The odor of street filth and dampness and too many bodies assailed her nose through her scarf. Elise walked farther inside, coming to a slow pause in the center of the station. Forced to pide around her, the flowing crowd passed on either side, many bumping into her, jostling her in their haste to make the next train. More than one glared as they passed, mouthing obscenities over her abrupt halt in the middle of their path.

God, how she despised all of this contact, but it was necessary. She took a steadying breath, then reached into her pocket and turned off the music. The din of the station rushed upon her like a wave, engulfing her with the racket of voices, shuffling feet, the traffic outside, and the metallic grate and rumble of the incoming train. But these noises were nothing compared to the others that swamped her now.

Ugly thoughts, bad intentions, secret sins, open hatreds–all of it churned around her like a black tempest, human corruption seeking her out and hammering into her senses. It staggered her, as always, that first rush of ill wind nearly overwhelming her. Elise swayed on her feet. She fought the nausea that rose within her and tried her best to weather the psychic assault.

–Such a bitch, I hope they fire her ass–

–Goddamn hick tourists, why don't you go back where you belong–

–Idiot! Outta my way, or I'll friggin' knock you flat–

–So what if she's my wife's sister? Not like she wasn't after me all this time– Elise's breath was coming faster with each second, a headache blooming in her temples. The voices in her mind blended into ceaseless, almost indistinguishable chatter, but she held on, bracing herself as the train arrived and its doors opened to let a new sea of people pour out onto the platform. They spilled around her, more voices added to the cacophony that was shredding her from the inside.

–Panhandling losers ought to put the same effort into getting a damn job–

–I swear, he puts his hand on me one more time, I'ma kill the sumbitch–

–Run, cattle! Run back to your pens! Pathetic creatures, my Master is right, you do deserve to be enslaved–

Elise's eyes snapped wide. Her blood turned to ice in her veins the instant the words registered in her mind. This was the one voice she waited to hear.

The one she came here to hunt.

She didn't know the name of her prey, or even what he looked like, but she knew what he was: a Minion. Like the others of his kind, he had been human once, but now he was something less than that. His humanity had been bled away by the one he called Master, a powerful vampire and the leader of the Rogues. It was because of them–the Rogues and the evil one guiding them in a growing war within the vampire race–that Elise's only son was dead.

After being widowed five years ago, Camden was all she'd had left, all that mattered in her life. With his loss, she'd found a new purpose. An unwavering resolve. It was that resolve she leaned upon now, commanding her feet to move through the thick crowd, searching for the one she'd make pay for Camden's death this time. Her head spun with the continued bombardment of painful, ugly thoughts, but finally she managed to single out the Minion. He stalked ahead of her by several yards, his head covered by a black knit cap, his body draped in a tattered, faded green camouflage jacket. Animosity poured out of him like acid. His corruption was so total, Elise could taste it like bile in the back of her throat. And she had no choice but to stick close to him, waiting for her chance to make her move.

The Minion exited the station and headed up the sidewalk at a fast clip. Elise followed, her fingers wrapped tightly around the dagger in her pocket. Outside with fewer people, the psychic blare had lessened, but the pain of overload in the station was still present, boring into her skull like a steel spike. Elise kept her eyes trained on her quarry, picking up her speed as he ducked into a business off the street. She came up to the glass door and peered past the painted FedEx logo to see the Minion waiting in line for the counter.

Excuse me, miss, someone said from behind her, startling her with the sound of a true voice, and not the buzz of words that were still filling her head. You going inside or what, lady?

The man behind her pushed open the door as he said it, holding it for her expectantly. She hadn't intended to go in, but now everyone was looking at her–the Minion included–and it would draw more attention to herself if she refused. Elise strode into the brightly lit business and immediately feigned interest in a display of shipping boxes in the front window.

From her periphery, she watched as the Minion waited his turn in line. He was edgy and violent-minded, his thoughts berating the customers ahead of him. Finally he approached the counter, ignoring the clerk's greeting. Pickup for Raines.

The attendant typed something into a computer, then hesitated a second. Hang on. He headed to a back room, only to return a moment later shaking his head. It hasn't arrived yet. Sorry 'bout that.

Fury rolled off the Minion, tightening like a vise around Elise's temples. What do you mean, it hasn't arrived'?

Most of New York got hit with a big snowstorm last night, so a lot of today's shipments have been delayed–

This shit's supposed to be guaranteed, the Minion snarled.

Yeah, it is. You can get your money back, but you have to fill out a claim–

Fuck the claim, you moron! I need that package. Now!

My Master will have my ass if I don't turn up with this delivery, and if my ass goes in a sling, I'm going to come back here and rip your goddamn lungs out.

Elise drew in her breath at the virulence of the unspoken threat. She knew the Minions lived only to serve the one who made them, but it was always a shock to hear the terrible depth of their allegiance. Nothing was sacred to their kind. Lives meant nothing, be they human or Breed. Minions were nearly as awful as the Rogues, the bloodthirsty, criminal faction of the vampire nation.

The Minion leaned over the counter, fists braced on either side of him. I need that package, asshole. I'm not leaving without it.

The clerk backed away, his expression suddenly gone wary. He grabbed the phone. Look, man, as I've explained to you, there's nothing more I can do for you on this. You're gonna have to come back tomorrow. Right now, you need to leave before I call the police.

Useless piece of shit, the Minion growled inwardly. I'll come back tomorrow all right. Just you wait 'til I come back for you!

Is there a problem here, Joey? An older man came out from the back, all business.

I tried to tell him that his stuff ain't here yet on account of the storm, but he won't give it up. Like maybe I'm supposed to pull it out of my a–

Sir? the manager said, cutting off his employee and pinning the Minion with a serious look. I'm going to ask you politely to leave now. You need to go, or the police will be called to escort you out of here.

The Minion growled something indistinguishable but nasty. He slammed his fist down on the countertop, then whirled around and started stalking away. As he neared the door where Elise stood, he swept over a floor display, sending rolls of tape and bubble packs scattering to the floor. Although Elise stepped back, the Minion was coming too hard toward her. He glared down at her with vacant, inhuman eyes.

Get out of my way, cow!

She'd barely moved before he barreled past her and out the door, pushing so hard the glass panes rattled like they were going to shatter.

Asshole, one of the patrons still in line muttered once the Minion had gone.

Elise felt the wave of relief wash over the other customers at his departure. Part of her was relieved too, glad that no one met with harm. She wanted to wait for a while in the momentary calm in the store, but it was an indulgence she couldn't afford. The Minion was storming across the street now, and dusk was coming fast. She only had half an hour at best before darkness fell and the Rogues came out to feed. If what she did was dangerous in the daytime, at night it was nothing short of suicide. She could slay a Minion with stealth and steel–already had, in fact, more than once–but like any other human, female or not, she stood no chance against the blood- addicted strength of the Rogues.

Girding herself for what she had to do, Elise slipped out the door and followed the Minion up the street. He was angry and walking brusquely, slamming into other pedestrians and snarling curses at them as he passed. A barrage of mental pain filled her head as more voices joined the din already clanging in her mind, but Elise kept pace with her target. She hung a few yards behind, her eyes trained on the pale green bulk of his jacket through the light flurry of fresh snow. He swung left around the corner of a building and into a narrow alley. Elise hurried now, desperate not to lose him.

Midway down the side street, he yanked open a battered steel door and disappeared. She crept up to the windowless slab of metal, palms sweating despite the chill in the air. His violent thoughts filled her head–murderous thoughts, all the grisly things he would do out of deference to his Master.

Elise reached into her pocket to withdraw her dagger. She held it close to her side, poised to strike, but concealed behind the long drape of her coat. With her free hand, she grasped the latch and pulled open the unlocked door. Snowflakes swirled ahead of her into the gloomy vestibule that reeked of mildew and old cigarette smoke. The Minion stood near a bank of mail slots, one shoulder leaning against the wall as he flipped open a cell phone like the ones they all carried–the Minions' direct line to their vampire Master.

Shut the fucking door, bitch! he snapped, soulless eyes glinting. His brows dropped into a scowl as Elise moved toward him with swift, deadly purpose. What the hell is th–

She drove the dagger hard into his chest, knowing that the element of surprise was one of her best advantages. His anger hit her like a physical blow, pushing her backward. His corruption seeped into her mind like acid, burning her senses. Elise struggled through the psychic pain, coming back to strike him again with the blade, ignoring the sudden wet heat of his blood spilling onto her hand.

The Minion sputtered, grasping out for her as he fell against her. His wound was mortal, so much blood she nearly lost her stomach at the sight and smell of it. Elise twisted out of the Minion's heavy lean and leaped out of the way as he fell to the floor. Her breath was sawing out of her lungs, her heart racing, her head splitting in agony as the mental barrage of his rage continued in her mind.

The Minion thrashed and hissed as death overtook him. Then, finally, he stilled.

Finally, there was silence.

With trembling fingers, Elise retrieved the cell phone from where it lay at her feet and slipped it into her pocket. The slaying had drained her, the combined physical and psychic exertion almost too much to bear. Each time seemed to weigh more heavily on her, take longer for her to recover. She wondered if the day would come that she might slide so deep into the abyss that she'd not rebound at all. Probably, she guessed, but not today. And she would keep fighting so long as she had breath in her body and the pain of loss in her heart.

For Camden, she whispered, staring down at the dead Minion as she clicked on the MP3 player in preparation of her return home. Music blared from the tiny earbuds, muting the gift that gave her the power to hear the darkest secrets of a human's soul.

She'd heard enough for now.

Her day's sober mission complete, Elise pivoted around and fled the carnage she'd wrought.