Midnight Awakening (Chapter Three)

Tegan wiped his bloodied blade on the dead Rogue's jacket and idly observed the swift disintegration of the last body in the alley. The postmortem cleanup was courtesy of Tegan's titanium weapons, a metal that acted as poisonous acid to the diseased cellular makeup of Breed vampires gone Rogue. The three bodies dissolved in the snow, reducing flesh, bone, and clothing to nothing but dark spots of ash against the pristine white.

Tegan blew out a curse, his senses still quivering with the heat of combat. Battle- sharpened eyes lit on the knife Elise had lost in her struggle with the Rogue who'd attacked her. Tegan walked over and retrieved the weapon.

Christ, he muttered, picking the blade up from the snow. It wasn't some dainty dagger a lady might carry for protection but a serious-looking bit of hardware. Seven inches long, serrated near the upward jut of the tip, and, unless he missed his guess, the metal was not your basic carbide steel but Rogue-eating titanium.

Which only begged the question again: what the hell was the Darkhaven female doing out on the streets alone, covered in blood, and toting warrior-grade weapons on her person?

Tegan lifted his head and sniffed at the air, searching for her scent. It didn't take long to find it. His senses were always sharp, predatorially acute; combat lit them up like laser beams. He pulled the heather-and-roses scent of the Breedmate into his lungs, and let it guide him deeper into the city.

The scent trailed off at a shit-hole apartment building in one of the seedier sections of the low- rent area of town. Not at all the kind of place he'd expect to find a genteel Darkhaven-raised female like Elise. But without a doubt, she was inside the graffiti-tagged, brick-and-concrete eyesore; he was certain of that.

He stalked up the steps and scowled at the feeble door with its broken lock. Inside the vestibule his boots scuffed on ratty, stained carpeting that reeked of urine, filth, and decades of neglect. A battered wooden staircase rose to the left of him, but Elise's scent was coming from the door at the end of the first-floor hall.

Tegan moved past another apartment door on his right, the thump of music vibrating the floor and walls. He could hear a television too, a deafening barrage of background noise that seemed to swell as he neared Elise's place. He rapped on the door and waited.

No response.

He knocked again, dropping his knuckles hard on the scarred metal. Nothing. Not that she could hear anything inside the place with all the racket going on in there.

Maybe he shouldn't be there, shouldn't get involved in whatever it was that brought the female to this place in her life. Tegan knew she'd had a rough time since the disappearance and later death of her son. The Order had learned that Camden was killed by Elise's brother-in-law, Sterling Chase, when the kid showed up at the Darkhaven in full- on Bloodlust. From the account Tegan heard, Camden had been about to attack Elise when Chase gunned him down with several titanium rounds– right in front of her.

God only knew what witnessing her son's death might have done to the female.

Not his concern, though.

Yeah, not his fucking problem at all. So why was he standing in this rank tenement house with his dick in his hand, waiting for her to come around and let him in?

Tegan eyed the array of locks on the apartment door. At least these were in working order and she'd had the good sense to set them once she got inside. But for a Breed vampire of Tegan's power and lineage, tripping the locks with his mind took all of two seconds.

He slipped inside the apartment and closed the door behind him. The decibel level in the small studio was enough to make his head shatter. He glanced around the place with narrowed eyes, taking in the odd decor. The only furniture was a futon and a bookcase, which housed a quality stereo system and a small flat-panel television– both on and blaring.

Next to the futon, in a space that might have held a table and chairs, was a treadmill and a resistance-training machine. Elise's bloodstained parka lay on the floor there, and on the sorry- looking yellow kitchen counter was a cell phone and an MP3 player. Elise's decorating style left a lot to be desired, but it was her choice of wall covering that Tegan found most peculiar.

Crudely nailed to all four walls of the one- room living space were acoustic foam panels– soundproofing material. Yards of the stuff, covering every square inch of the walls, windows, and the back of the door too.

What the fu–

In the adjacent bathroom, there was a metallic squeak as the shower abruptly cut off. Tegan turned to face the door as it opened a moment later. Elise was pulling a thick white terry- cloth robe around herself as she glanced up and met his gaze. She gasped, startled, one slender hand coming up near her throat.

Tegan. Her voice was barely audible over the din of the music and TV. She made no move to turn them down, just came out of the bathroom and stood as far away from him as was possible in the cramped apartment. What are you doing here?

I could ask you the same thing. Tegan let his eyes drift around the meager living quarters, if only to quit looking at her in her state of near undress. Shitty place you have here. Who's your decorator?

She didn't answer him. Her pale amethyst eyes stayed fixed on him as though she didn't quite trust him, nervous to find herself alone with him. And who could blame her? Tegan knew that by and large Darkhaven residents held little affection for members of the Order. He'd been called a stone-cold killer by more than one of the sheltered class of civilians that Elise was a part of–not that he cared. His personal reputation was simply stated fact. But while he could give a shit what others thought of him, it irked him that Elise looked at him now in fear. The last time he'd seen the female, he'd shown her nothing but kindness, deference paid the young Darkhaven widow out of respect for what she was going through. It hadn't hurt that she was a breathtaking beauty, as fragile as a frost flower.

Some of that fragility was gone now, Tegan noted, seeing the lines of muscle definition in her bare calves and arms. Her face remained lovely, but not as full as he remembered. Her eyes were still alive with intelligence but their sheen was somehow brittle, a characteristic made more pronounced by the trace shadows beneath the generous fringe of her lashes.

And her hair…Jesus, she'd shorn off the long blond waves. The cascade of pale spun gold that used to fall to her hips was now a crown of thick, silky spikes that rose around her head in pixie-like disarray and framed the lean oval of her face.

She was still stunning, but in an entirely different way than Tegan ever would have imagined.

You forgot something back in the alley. He held out the wicked hunting blade. When she moved to take it from him, he drew it back out of her reach. What were you doing out there tonight, Elise?

She shook her head, said something too softly to be heard over the din filling the apartment. Impatient, Tegan mentally shut the stereo down. He glanced to the television, about to silence that device as well.

No! Elise shook her head, wincing, her fingers clutching her temple. Wait–leave it on, please. I need…the noise soothes me.

Tegan scowled his doubt, but left the TV alone. What happened to you tonight, Elise?

She blinked, shuttering her gaze and tipping her head down in silence.

Did someone hurt you out there? Were you attacked before the Rogues discovered you in the alley?

Her answer was long in coming. No. I wasn't attacked.

You want to explain all that blood on your coat over there? Or why you're living in a part of town where you feel the need to carry around this kind of hardware?

She held her head in her hands, her voice a rough whisper. I don't want to explain anything. Please, Tegan. I wish you hadn't come here. Just, please…you have to leave now.

He exhaled a sharp laugh. I just saved your sweet little ass, female. I don't think it's too much to ask that you tell me why I had to.

It was a mistake. I didn't mean to be out past dark. I know the dangers. She looked up, gave a vague lift of her slim shoulder. Things just took…a little longer than I anticipated.

Things, he repeated, not liking where this seemed to be heading. We're not talking about shopping or coffee with friends, are we?

Tegan's gaze went back to the kitchen counter, to the familiar design of the cell phone that lay there. He scowled, suspicion coiling in his gut as he walked over and picked it up. He'd seen dozens of these things lately. The phone was one of those disposable jobs, the kind favored by humans in league with the Rogues. He flipped it over and disabled the built-in GPS chip.

Tegan knew if he took the cell phone into the compound lab, Gideon would find it contained just one number, super-encrypted and impossible to break. This particular phone was spattered with human blood, the same shit that soaked the front of Elise's coat.

Where'd you get this, Elise?

I think you know, she replied, her voice quiet but defiant.

He turned to face her. You took it off a Minion? By yourself? Jesus Christ…how?

She shrugged, rubbing the side of her head as if it pained her. I tracked him from the train station. I followed him, and when the chance was there, I killed him.

It wasn't often that Tegan was taken by surprise, but hearing those words coming out of the petite female hit him like a brick to the back of his head. You can't be serious.

But she was. The level look she gave him left no doubt whatsoever.

Behind her, the television screen flashed with a live breaking-news bulletin. A reporter came on, delivering word that a stabbing victim had been discovered a few minutes before:

"…the deceased was found just two blocks away from the train station, yet another killing in what authorities are beginning to suspect is a string of related murders…"

As the report continued, and Elise calmly stared at him from across the room, Tegan's blood ran cold with understanding.

You? he asked, already knowing the answer, incredible as it seemed.

When Elise didn't respond, Tegan stalked over to a footlocker on the floor near the futon. He yanked it open and swore as his eyes lit on a large assortment of blades, guns, and ammunition. A lot of it was still brand-new, but others had been used and had the wear to show for it.

How long, Elise? When did you start this insanity?

She stared at him, her slender jaw held rigid. My son is dead because of the Rogues. Everything I loved is gone because of them, she said finally. I couldn't sit around doing nothing. I won't sit back and do nothing.

Tegan heard the resolve in her voice, but that didn't make him any less pissed off about what was going on here. How many?

Tonight wasn't the first, obviously.

How many times have you done this, Elise?

She said nothing for a very long time. Then she slowly walked over to the bookcase and knelt down to pull out a lidded crate from the bottom shelf. Her gaze on Tegan, she lifted the top and calmly set it aside.

In the bin were more Minion cell phones.

At least a dozen of the damned things.

Tegan dropped his ass onto the futon and raked his fingers through his hair. Holy hell, woman. Have you lost your goddamn mind?

Elise rubbed her palm over her forehead, trying to ease some of the throbbing that was battering her from within. The migraine was coming on fast, bearing down hard. She closed her eyes, hoping to stave the worst of it off. Bad enough she'd been discovered tonight; she didn't need the humiliation of a psychic meltdown that would leave her unable to function, let alone deal with the Breed warrior in her living room. Do you have any idea what you're doing? Tegan's voice, though level and without a hint of anything beyond basic disbelief, boomed into Elise's head like cannon fire. With the box of cell phones in hand, he started pacing off somewhere behind her in the small studio, the sound of his heavy boots on the worn, grubby, low-pile carpet grating in her ears. What the hell are you trying to do, woman, get yourself killed?

You don't understand, she murmured through the drumming of pain behind her eyes. You couldn't…could not possibly understand.

Try me. The words were curt, sharp. A command issued from a powerful male who expected to be obeyed.

Elise slowly got up from her kneel beside the shelving unit and moved to the other side of the room. Each step was a chore she worked hard to disguise, relief coming only when she was able to lean her spine into the wall for some much-needed support. She practically sagged into the acoustic- padded plasterboard, wishing Tegan was gone so she could collapse in private.

This is my own business, she said, knowing he probably heard her shortness of breath, which she was unable to fully conceal. It's personal.

For crissake, Elise. It's fucking suicide.

She flinched at the warrior's profanity, unaccustomed to hearing rough language. Quentin had never uttered anything harsher than an occasional damn in her presence, and then only when he was in the worst of states over frustration with the Agency or restrictive Darkhaven policies. He'd been a perfect gentleman in all ways, gentle even though she knew that as one of the Breed, his strength was immeasurable. Tegan was a crude, deadly contrast to her departed mate–one she'd been raised to fear growing up as a ward of the Darkhavens from the time she was a young girl. To Quentin and the Enforcement Agency he'd been a part of, Tegan and the rest of the Order were considered dangerous vigilantes. To many in the Darkhavens, the warriors were simply a cadre of savage, medieval-minded thugs who'd long outserved their purpose as defenders of the vampire nation. They were merciless–some would say lawless–and even though Tegan had saved her life tonight, Elise couldn't help feeling wary of him, as if there was a wild animal loose in her home.

She watched him thrust his big hand into the box of Minion communication devices, heard the clatter and slide of plastic and polished metal as he inspected the collection.

The GPS chips on these are already disabled. He leveled a narrow, dubious look at her. You knew to shut them off?

She gave a faint nod. I have a teenage son, she replied, then winced as the words left her lips. Lord, it was still so automatic to think of him alive, especially at times like this, when her body was weakened from psychic fatigue. I had a teenage son, she corrected quietly. Camden didn't like me being able to keep tabs on him, so he used to turn off his cell phone's GPS when he went out. I learned how to reactivate it, but he always found me out and shut it back off.

Tegan made a noise in the back of his throat, something low and indistinct. If you hadn't crippled these tracking devices, there's a real good chance you'd be dead by now. Better than good– it's a fucking certainty. The one who made the Minions you've been hunting would have found you, and you don't want to know what he is capable of.

I'm not afraid of dying–

Dying, Tegan scoffed, cutting her off with a sharp, exhaled curse. Dying would be the least of your worries, female, trust me. You may have gotten lucky with a few careless Minions, but this is war, and you're way out of your league. What happened tonight should be evidence enough of that.

What happened tonight was a mistake I won't make again. I went out too late in the day and took too long. Next time I'll be sure I'm finished and home before nightfall.

Next time. Tegan pinned her with a sharp scowl. Jesus Christ, you really mean that.

For a long while, the warrior only stared at her. His steady gem-green eyes were unreadable, unemotional. The schooled lines of his face gave no indication of his thoughts. Finally, he gave a shake of his tawny head and pivoted away from her to gather up the collection of Minion cell phones. He stuffed them into the pockets of his coat, his rough movements flashing a staggering array of weaponry that he wore beneath the folds of the black leather.

What are you going to do? Elise asked as the last of the devices disappeared into a deep inside pocket. You're not going to turn me in, are you?

I damn well should. His flinty gaze raked her dismissively. But what you do isn't any of my concern so long as you keep your ass out of my way. And don't expect the Order to ride to your rescue the next time you get in over your head.

I won't. I don't…expect anything, I mean. She watched him head for the door, feeling awash in relief that she would soon be alone to contend with the tidal wave of pain that was roaring up on her swiftly. As the warrior opened the door and stepped out into the ratty hallway, Elise summoned what remained of her voice. Tegan, thank you. This is just…something I have to do.

She fell silent, thinking of Camden, and all the other Darkhaven youths who'd been lost to the poison of the Rogues. Even Quentin's life had been cut short by a diseased member of the Breed who'd gone Rogue and attacked while in custody of the Agency.

Elise couldn't bring any of the lost lives back; she knew that. But each day that she hunted, each Minion she eliminated meant one less weapon in the Rogues' arsenal. The pain she suffered for the task was nothing compared to what her son and the others must have endured. True death for her would be in being forced to sit within the shelter of the Darkhaven and do nothing while the streets ran red with the blood of the innocent.

That, she couldn't bear.

This is important to me, Tegan. I made a promise. I mean to uphold it.

He paused, slid a flat glance over his shoulder. It's your funeral, he said, and pulled the door closed behind him.