Midnight Rising (Chapter Thirteen)

One of the Order's black SUVs was waiting inside a private hangar as the small jet out of Berlin taxied in from a corporate runway at Boston's Logan Airport.

Rio and Dylan were the only passengers aboard the sleek Gulfstream twin engine. The jet and its human pilots were on round-the-clock retainer for the Order, although as far as the two flyboys knew, they pocketed their sizable cash salaries on behalf of a very private, very wealthy corporation that demanded – and received – complete loyalty and discretion.

They were paid extremely well to not so much as lift an eyebrow when Rio had carried a dead-to-the-world, psychically tranced woman into the aircraft in Berlin, nor when he took her off the jet in the same condition some nine hours later in Boston. With Dylan resting soundly in his arms, her backpack and messenger bag slung over his shoulder, Rio headed down the brief flight of steps to the concrete below.

As he crossed the short distance to the Range Rover idling in the hangar, Dante got out of the driver's side, jacking one elbow up on the open door. He was dressed in night patrol gear – long-sleeved tee-shirt, fatigues, and combat boots – all of it as black as his thick, shoulder-length hair. A black semiauto pistol was holstered under his left arm, another gun strapped to his thigh, but it was the two curved titanium blades sheathed at his hips that Dante never left home without.

One of the Order's newer members was with Dante too, riding shotgun. Ex – Darkhaven Enforcement Agent Sterling Chase, also garbed in combat gear and loaded for bear, gave Rio a nod of greeting from inside the vehicle. Chase looked as hard-ass as any warrior, his razor-cut golden hair covered in a black skullcap, steel blue eyes hard and steady in his lean face, the shrewd gaze a little emptier than Rio recalled it from a few months ago. Now there was hardly any trace of the uptight, holier-than-thou bureaucrat who'd showed up last summer asking the Order for help and then laying down his own rules of how he expected the warriors to work with him. Dante had not-so-affectionately dubbed the Darkhaven Agent "Harvard," a nickname that stuck even after Chase left his old civilian life and joined up with the Order.

"Jay-zus," Dante said, cracking a broad smile as Rio approached with Dylan lying slack in his arms. "Talk about going off grid, man. Five months is a helluva vacay." The warrior chuckled as he opened the SUV's back door and helped Rio get Dylan and her gear situated inside. When they were settled, Dante shut them in, then hopped back behind the wheel. He pivoted around to face Rio. "At least you came home with a nice souvenir, eh?"

Rio grunted, flicking a glance at Dylan sleeping on the backseat beside him. "She's a reporter. And a Breedmate."

"So I heard. We all did. Gideon told us all about your run-in with Lois Lane back there in Prague," Dante said.

"No worries, man. We're gonna clamp a hard lid on her story and her pictures before any of that shit goes public. As for her, calls have already been made to find her a place in the Darkhavens if that's her choice after all this is over. It's as good as handled."

Rio didn't doubt a word Dante said, but he couldn't help wondering which way Dylan was going to go in the end. If she chose the Darkhavens, it would only be a matter of time before a savvy Breed male convinced her that she needed him and ought to be his mate. God knew she'd have no shortage of candidates. With her unusual beauty, she would be the flame they all converged on, and the thought of her being pursued by a bunch of sophisticated, smooth-talking, mostly useless civilians set Rio's teeth on edge.

Though why he should give a damn what she did or with whom, he didn't know.

He had no claim on her, other than the immediate goal of thwarting the disaster that her presence was stirring up. Or rather, the disaster he'd invited by wallowing in his own misery instead of blowing that damn cave like he'd been entrusted to do. Being back in Boston only made him wish he was back on that mountainside, pressing the detonator and watching as a ton of rock sealed him in for good.

"What were you doing over there all this time?" Chase asked, a casually phrased question that didn't quite mask the male's suspicion. "You told Nikolai that you were going to secure the cave and take off on your own for Spain. The way he told it, you'd up and quit the Order. That was five months ago and no word out of you until now, when you show up bringing bad news and trouble. What the fuck gives?"

"Chill it, man," Dante advised, throwing a dark look across the front seat. To Rio he said, "Feel free to ignore Harvard. He's had a hard-on all night because he didn't get to play with his Beretta."

"No, really," Chase said, not about to give it up. "I'm curious is all. What exactly happened over there with you since February when we left you on that mountainside with a duffel full of C-4? Why'd you wait this long to do the damn job? Why the change of plans?"

"There was no change of plans," Rio replied, meeting the measuring gaze of the warrior in the passenger seat. He couldn't be offended by the challenging tone. Chase had every right to question him – they all had the right – and there wasn't much Rio could say in his defense. He'd let his weakness own him these past several months, and now he had to set that to rights. "I had a mission to carry out, and I failed in it. Simple as that."

"Well, we're not exactly batting a thousand on this end either," Dante put in. "Since we found that hibernation chamber outside Prague, we've been running leads on the possible existence of an Ancient and they've all come up empty. Chase has been doing some covert internal digging with the Darkhavens and the Enforcement Agency, but those sources aren't turning up anything useful either."

In the passenger seat, Chase gave an affirmative nod. "It doesn't seem possible, but if the Ancient is out there, the son of a bitch is deep underground and laying very low."

"What about the Breed family from Germany that was linked to the Ancient back in the Middle Ages?" Rio asked.

"The Odolfs," Dante said, shaking his head. "No survivors that we've found. The few who didn't go Rogue and end up dead from Bloodlust over the years turned up missing or dead of other causes. The entire Odolf line is no more."

"Shit," Rio murmured.

Dante nodded. "That's about all we've got. Just a whole lot of silence and dead ends. We're not about to give up, but right now we're looking for a fucking needle in a haystack."

Rio frowned, considering the difficulties in hiding the existence of an otherworldly creature like the one the Order hunted now. It would be damn hard not to notice a nearly seven-foot-tall, hairless, dermaglyph -covered vampire with an insatiable thirst for blood. Even among the most savage dregs of Breed society, the Ancient would stand out.

The only reason the Ancient had gone undetected for as long as it had was because of the hibernation chamber that housed it on the remote mountain in the Czech countryside. Someone had freed the Ancient from its hidden crypt, but the Order had no way of knowing when, or how, or even if the bloodthirsty creature had survived its awakening.

With any luck, the savage son of a bitch was long dead.

The other alternative was a scenario no one, Breed or human, would want to imagine.

Dante cleared his throat in the long stretch of silence, his tone going serious. "Listen, Rio. Whatever your deal was these past months you've been AWOL, it's good to have you back in Boston. We're all glad you're back."

Rio nodded stiffly as he met the warrior's eyes. No sense telling Dante or anyone else that his return was only temporary. The last thing the Order needed was a liability like him in the ranks. No doubt they'd already discussed that subject when Gideon alerted them about Rio's return.

Dante met his gaze in the rearview. "You ready to roll, amigo?"

"Yeah," Rio said. "I'm more than ready."

The metallic clack of a lock being freed echoed like a gunshot against the tunnel of rough-hewn granite walls. The door was old, the oiled wood as dark as pitch and as aged as the stone that had been hollowed out of the earth to create the long tunnel and the locked chamber secreted at its end.

But here was where the primitiveness of the place ended.

Beyond the stone and wood and crude iron locks was a laboratory equipped with the finest state-of-the-art technology. It had evolved over the years, employing the best science and robotics that money could buy. The staff of humans operating the facility had been collected from some of the most advanced biological institutions in the nation. They were Minions now, their minds enslaved, loyalty unquestioningly ensured.

All for one purpose.

A single inpidual, unlike any that existed in all the world.

That inpidual waited at the end of the tunneled corridor, behind the electronic quadruple-bolted steel door. Inside was a cell constructed specifically to hold a man who was no man at all, but a vampiric, alien creature from a planet far different from the one he inhabited now.

He was an Ancient – the last remaining forebear of the hybrid race known as the Breed. Many thousands of years old, he was more powerful than an army of humans, even kept as he was currently, in a managed state of near starvation. The hunger weakened him, as intended, but it also pissed him off, and rage was always a factor when it came to controlling a powerful creature like the one lifting its hairless, glyph -riddled head within the cell.

Bars of highly concentrated ultraviolet light caged the cell in two-inch increments, more effective than the strongest steel. The Ancient would not test them; he'd already done that years ago and nearly lost his right arm from the resulting solar burns. He was masked to keep him calm, and to protect his eyes from the intensity of his UV prison. He was naked because there was no need for modesty here, and because it was crucial that his keeper be able to monitor even the most subtle changes in the dermaglyphs that covered every inch of his alien skin.

As for the robotic restraints on the creature's neck, limbs, and torso, they were in place as preparation for the day's assorted fluid and tissue extractions.

"Hello, Grandfather," drawled the one who held the Ancient prisoner for the past fifty-odd years. He himself was very old by human standards – easily four hundred if he was a day. Not that he kept track anymore, and not that it mattered in the least. As one of the Breed, he appeared in the prime of his youth. With the Ancient kept secretly, and successfully, under his control all this time, he felt like a god.

"Yesterday's test results, Master."

One of the humans who served him handed him a file of reports. They didn't call him by name; no one did. There were none around who knew who he truly was.

He'd been born the son of Dragos, his sire a first generation Breed male fathered by the very creature contained within the UV prison cell built in this underground lair. Birthed in secret and sent away to be raised by strangers, it had taken him many long years to finally understand his purpose.

Longer still to get his hands on the prize that would lift him to greatness.

"Did you have a pleasant rest?" he idly asked his prisoner, as he closed the file of test results and readings.

The creature didn't answer, just peeled its lips back and breathed in slowly, air hissing through the large, elongated fangs.

He'd stopped speaking about a decade ago, whether from madness, anger, or defeat, his keeper didn't know. Nor did he particularly care. There was no love between them. The Ancient, despite being close kin, was primarily a means to an end.

"We'll begin now," the keeper told his prisoner.

He entered a code into the computer that would command the robotics in the cell to commence with the extractions. The tests were painful, plentiful, and prolonged…but all necessary. Body fluids were collected, tissue samples harvested. So far, the experiments had yielded only minor successes. But there was promise, and that was enough.

By the time the last specimen was retrieved and catalogued, the Ancient slumped with exhaustion in the cell. Its huge body quivered and spasmed as its advanced physiology worked to heal the damage inflicted by the procedure.

"Just one more process left to complete," the keeper said.

It was this last one that was most crucial – and most primal – for the vampire recuperating behind the UV light bars of his cell.

Locked within another, more rudimentary prison, was a heavily sedated human female, recently captured off the streets. She too was naked, her dyed black goth-styled hair cut away entirely to better expose her neck. Her eyes were unfocused, pupils dilated from the drugs injected into her system a short while ago.

She didn't scream or struggle as she was led out of her confinement by two Minions and into the main holding area of the laboratory. Her small breasts jiggled with each shuffling step she took, and her head lolled back on her shoulders, revealing the little teardrop-and-crescent-moon birthmark she bore underneath her chin. Her bare feet moved listlessly as she was placed into stirrups on an automated seat that would carry her past the UV barrier and directly into the center of the Ancient's cell.

She hardly flinched as the chair tipped back, positioning her for what was to come. Inside the cell, the restraints on the huge male loosened slightly, freeing him to move in on her like the predator he was.

"You will feed now," the keeper told him. "And then you will breed on her."