Midnight Awakening (Chapter Twenty-three)

Elise awoke just after dawn that next morning, following a fitful night of little sleep. Somewhere during the night, her survival instincts had kicked in and she realized that she could not stay any longer here with Tegan and hope to emerge with her heart intact. She had to leave Berlin and return home to Boston. The few belongings she had with her were packed into a small bag that sat near the door. She was showered and dressed, and had already called a taxi to come and take her to the airport.

She'd insisted on coming here with Tegan in the first place because of her vow to Camden primarily, and because she wanted to do her part to uncover whatever secrets might have been hidden in the old book that Marek had been so eager to have. But she was failing Camden–failing herself–every second she wasted on thoughts of Tegan and the hopelessness in imagining any sort of future with him.

She had accomplished what she'd come to Berlin to do: Petrov Odolf would be questioned, and the containment facility would be expecting Tegan again today, with or without Elise's personal escort. Now her time would be better spent back home, where the Rogues and their leader still posed an immediate, deadly threat.

A knock sounded on her door, followed by the soft female voice of one of Reichen's kin who lived in the Darkhaven. Hello? I don't mean to disturb you…

It's all right. I'm awake. Come in.

Elise crossed the room from the window, where she'd been pacing a track for the past several minutes. She opened the door, expecting to hear that her car had arrived. The young Breedmate waiting there smiled shyly and held out a cordless telephone.

A call for you, she said. Will you take it?

Of course. Elise put the phone to her ear as the other female retreated down the hall. Hello? This is Elise Chase.

There was a moment of silence before Petrov Odolf 's mate spoke. It's Irina–we met yesterday at the containment facility?

Yes, of course. Is anything wrong?

No. No, nothing is wrong. I hope you don't mind that I called. Director Kuhn told me where to find you…

Not at all. Elise moved back inside her guest room and sat down on the edge of the bed. What can I do for you, Irina?

I found something today, and I am wondering if it might be of use to you.

What is it?

Well, I was putting some of Petrov's things in storage and I found a shoebox containing some of his deceased brother's personal effects. They're mostly mundane…photographs, jewelry, some monogrammed desk items, that sort of thing. But at the bottom, I found some old handwritten letters wrapped in a folded piece of embroidery. Elise, these letters that Petrov's brother was keeping…he must have spent weeks writing them, but they're filled with nonsensical ramblings. I can't be sure, but I think it might be the same odd things Petrov had begun writing in the time before he went Rogue.

Oh, my God.

Do you suppose the writings might be of some help to you?

I'd really like to see them to find out. Excitement shot through Elise as she fished a pen and some paper out of her purse. Would you be willing to let me have them?

Yes, of course. That's why I called.

Elise glanced at her packed bag, biting her lower lip. She could leave for the States anytime. This potential new information was more important. I can be in a taxi in just a few minutes, Irina. Give me your address and I'll leave as soon as I can.

A cream-colored Mercedes taxi idled at the end of the gated drive, which had been under Minion surveillance since dawn. From his vantage point several hundred yards away, concealed by the thick green of the surrounding forest and peering through high-powered binoculars, the Minion watched as a slender blond woman hurried out to meet the waiting car.

The bitch appeared to be a perfect match for the video image he'd gotten via e-mail from his Master. To be certain, he pulled the picture out of his jacket pocket and took another look. Yes, that was her all right.

The Minion smiled as the woman got into the taxi.

Showtime, he murmured, letting the binocs swing from the cord around his neck as he clambered down out of the tree where he'd been hiding. He jogged over to his car, ditched on a narrow private lane nearby. He hopped in, turned the key, and rolled out after his quarry.

Irina Odolf lived in a small, tidy town house on a tree-lined residential street on the outskirts of Berlin's west end. Elise was surprised, though not shocked, that the woman had decided to make her home outside the Darkhavens after losing her mate to Bloodlust. She likely would have done the same in her situation.

There were just so many reminders of what I was missing after he was sent away, Irina explained as she and Elise sat down for coffee in the sun-filled dining area. Glass doors shaded by vertical blinds overlooked the community's snow- patched common courtyard that ran along the backs of the houses. Petrov and I have many friends in our Darkhaven, but living there without him was too difficult. I suppose if he comes home–when he comes home, she amended, idly smoothing the lacy edge of the tablecloth. When he comes home, then we'll return there and start our life over again.

I hope that day comes soon for you both, Irina.

The Breedmate looked up with a teary-eyed smile. So do I.

Elise took a sip of her coffee, dimly aware of a slow pound building in her temples. It had been present since she got into the taxi that brought her here, a trip that had taken her through the center of the city, where the din of human thoughts had battered her through the metal and glass of the car. But she used the focus that Tegan had shown her, and the worst of her psychic pain had faded to a manageable level. Being this close to a lot of humanity was certainly a test. Irina's neighborhood was a tightly packed cluster of homes, with a steady stream of cars traveling up and down the street outside, bringing even more noise to the chatter filling her head.

And underneath the general rumble of discontent she was receiving, Elise detected something darker…just out of her reach.

Would you like to see the letters?

Irina's voice snapped Elise back to attention. Yes, of course.

She followed the woman out of the dining room and into a cozy little den at the end of the hall. A man's desk sat across from an inviting reading nook, the masculine furnishings impeccably polished and organized, as though awaiting the imminent arrival of their owner.

Irina motioned Elise over to the desk, where an open shoebox sat next to an old weaving that had been laid flat. A stack of folded papers rested on top. Here they are.

May I? Elise asked, reaching to pick up the collection of letters.

At Irina's nod, she unfolded the first one and glanced at the page. It was filled with a hasty, violently uneven scrawl. The words were barely legible, written in what appeared to be Latin, by a hand that seemed guided by madness. Elise fanned through the other papers, finding more of the same on them.

Do you think it means anything?

Elise shook her head. I can't be sure. I'd like to show it to someone, though. You're sure you don't mind if I take these?

Do what you'd like. I have no use for them myself.

Thank you. Elise glanced at the weaving that lay on the desk. It was incredibly beautiful and obviously very old. She couldn't resist tracing her finger over the intricate stitches of the medieval garden design. This is lovely. The detail is incredible, like a painting done with a needle.

Yes, it is. Irina smiled. And whoever made it had an interesting sense of whimsy too.

How so?

I noticed it when the piece was wrapped around the stack of letters. Let me show you.

She folded the square cloth diagonally, turning up one edge so that the designs on the lower left and upper right corners touched. At the place where they met, the delicate embroidery revealed the hidden shape of a teardrop falling into the basin of a crescent moon.

Elise laughed, delighted by the clever artistry of the work.

The woman who made this was a Breedmate?

Apparently so. Irina carefully smoothed it out again. It must be from the Middle Ages, don't you think?

Elise couldn't answer, even if she had a guess. At that instant, a lancing blast of pain sliced into her mind. It was pure menace, something deathly evil…and it was suddenly very close.

Inside the house.

Irina, she whispered. Someone's here.

What? What do you mean someone–

She held up her hand to silence the woman, fighting through the mental assault as her mind filled with the violent thoughts of the intruder.

It was a Minion, sent on a mission to kill.

We have to get out of here right now.

Get out of here? But I don't– You have to trust me. He'll kill us both if he finds us.

Irina's eyes went wild with fright. She shook her head. There's no way out from back here. Only the window–

Yes. Hurry! Open it and get yourself out of here. I'll be right behind you.

Elise silently closed the room's door, then dragged the bulky leather chair in front of it while Irina worked on opening the ground floor window. The Minion was quiet in his stealth as he prowled farther into the town house looking for his prey, but the savagery of his thoughts betrayed him as loudly as a screaming alarm.

He'd been sent by his Master to kill her, but he meant to drag things out. Make her bleed. Make her scream. That's what he enjoyed the most about his job.

And he was almost giddy with the idea that he'd get to exercise his perversions on two women instead of just the one.

Oh, God, Elise thought, revulsion surging up the back of her throat.

She called upon the power of Tegan's blood inside her and her own determination, working furiously to focus through the chilling knowledge of what was stalking toward her up the hallway.

The window lock is stuck, Irina gasped, struggling in her panic. It won't open!

That worried shriek drew the Minion like a beacon. Heavy footsteps pounded toward the end of the hallway now. Elise grabbed a thick book from a shelf and ran to Irina's side, smashing the heavy binding against the window casement to loosen the sticky lock.

There it goes, Elise said as the mechanism finally gave way. She dropped the book and pushed the glass aside, then knocked out the screen and let it fall to the ground below. Climb out, Irina. Go now!

She felt the Minion bearing down on the room where they hid. His thoughts were malicious, black with menace. She heard his guttural roar the instant before he threw himself at the door. He came at it again, then again. The hinges screamed with the impact, the frame splitting as he came at the thing again with the force of a battering ram.

Elise! Irina shrieked. Oh, my God! What's going on?

She didn't answer. There was no time. Elise lunged for the letters, but as she pivoted with them toward the window and her only hope of escape, the Minion shoved the door open wide enough for him to heave into the room. He threw the obstructing chair out of his way and came at her, brandishing a dreadful-looking hunting blade in his hand. He snarled, and the stretch of his features gave prominence to a vicious scar that cut down his forehead and onto his right cheek. The cloudy eye in the path of that scar was gleaming with malice.

Don't run away so soon, ladies. We're going to have a little fun.

Hard fingers clamped around Elise's neck before she could dodge the Minion's reach. He shoved her onto the surface of the desk and leaned over her. Slapped her so hard with the back of his big hand that her vision swam and the whole side of her face rang with pain. With a powerful drive of his arm, he planted the tip of the blade into the wood next to her head, missing her by a deliberate, scant inch.

His grin was full of sadistic humor as his fingers closed tighter on her neck. Play nice and maybe I'll let you live, he lied.

Elise kicked and twisted, but his grip was unrelenting. With her free hand, she cast about for anything to use as a weapon. The shoebox tipped on the desk, spilling its odd collection of cuff links, pictures…and a pearl-handled letter opener. Elise tried not to call attention to her find, but she was determined to get hold of it.

Let her go! Irina shouted.

You'd better not move, the Minion growled, glancing up at her in warning. That's right, bitch. You stay put, or your friend here is going to eat steel.

Elise closed her eyes as Irina sobbed at the window, paralyzed by terror. But in the moment the Minion was distracted, Elise's fingers closed around the hilt of the letter opener. She knew it would be a sorry match against the knife her attacker had, but it was better than nothing at all.

The second she got a firm grip, Elise brought the makeshift weapon up in a sweeping arc. It struck the Minion in the side of his neck.

The deep puncture sent him rearing up off her with a howl, his fingers clutching at the bleeding wound. Elise didn't realize he had gone for his own knife until he drove it toward her. She rolled away, narrowly escaping his clumsy, irate strike.

The Minion stumbled a bit, pressing his hand to his neck and looking dazed as the front of his shirt went red with spilled blood.

You fucking bitch!

He barreled toward her again, throwing his weight at her and knocking her to the floor. Elise thrashed in an effort to get out from under him, but he was a big man and he was furious now. She managed to roll over onto her back, the letter opener still clutched hard in her hand, trapped between the Minion's arm and ribs.

She saw his knife come up near her face. No, she gasped, sick with the weight of him and the acrid stench of his spilling blood. Damn it, no!

With a blind stab, she stuck the Minion with the letter opener. It went into his ribs, another deep wound that sent him yowling in pain. He reared back, choking and wheezing, giving Elise the chance to get away from him.

Oh, God, Irina gasped, staring in abject horror. What's going on? Who is that man? What does he want with us?

Irina, get out now! Elise cried, grabbing the letters and shoving the other woman toward the open window.

They both hurried out, landing on the frozen grass below. Elise saw the Minion sitting on the floor inside, pale with shock and going nowhere fast. But she didn't dare relax for a second.

We have to get out of here, Irina. Do you have a car?

The woman said nothing, her face going as pale as the snow outside. Elise took her shoulders and met her stricken gaze.

Do you have a car, Irina? Can you drive?

A glimmer of focus came back into her eyes. What? Oh…yes…my car is parked over there. Next to the alley.

Then come on now. We have to go.