Taken by Midnight (Chapter Twenty-seven)

Lazaro Archer stoically refused the Order's offer to take him past the remains of his Darkhaven for a final good-bye. He'd had no wish to see the rubble of his life, which had claimed nearly a dozen innocent people, including his beloved Breedmate of several long centuries. Although the official report out of the Enforcement Agency had attributed the blaze to a gas leak, everyone in the Order–and Lazaro himself–understood the incident for what it truly was. A wholesale slaughter, carried out at Dragos's command.

Archer's grief had to be profound, but by the time he arrived at the compound he was the picture of emotional control. Showered now, his gore-caked clothing thrown away and replaced by a set of fresh black fatigues from the Order's supply room, Lazaro Archer seemed transformed, a darker, more formidable version of the civilian Breed elder who'd stood in the tech lab just a night before, desperate to find his grandson. Somber, subdued, he appeared determined to rally his entire focus around the health and welfare of his grandson and sole surviving heir.

"Kellan says he doesn't remember much about the abduction itself,"

Lazaro murmured as he and Lucan observed the boy through the window in his infirmary recovery room. The youth was cleaned up and resting, at the moment being kept company by little Mira, who'd taken it upon herself to read to him at his bedside. "He says he woke up in that rat-infested building, freezing cold, held at gunpoint. The beatings didn't start until he was conscious. He said the bastards told him they wanted him to scream and suffer."

Lucan's jaw tensed as he listened to the abuse the youth had been subjected to. "He's safe now, Lazaro. You both are. The Order will see to that."

The other Gen One nodded. "I appreciate all you're doing for us. Like most civilians, I know the Order values its privacy, particularly when it comes to your headquarters. I realize it cannot be easy for you to permit outsiders into the compound."

Lucan raised a brow in acknowledgment. He could think of only a few rare instances, beginning with Sterling Chase and Tegan's mate, Elise, more than a year ago, followed most recently by Jenna Darrow. For more than a century before them, there had been no exceptions.

As much as Lucan disliked having his hand forced, he wasn't such a coldly rigid leader that he would turn his back on someone in need. A long time ago, perhaps–before he'd met and fallen in love with Gabrielle. Before he'd come to know what it was like to have family and a heart that beat out of devotion to another.

He put his hand on the Gen One's broad shoulder. "You needed a safe house, you and the boy both. You'll find no more secure shelter than this compound."

As for any concerns Lucan might have had about entrusting the compound's location to Archer or his young grandson, Tegan had assured him that both males were free of duplicity. Not that Lucan had suspected either one of being anything less than honorable.

Still, he was careful not to place his trust blindly. He had to be careful.

Every time he looked around lately, he felt the weight of so many lives resting on his shoulders. It was a responsibility he took seriously, all too aware that if Dragos wanted to strike at the heart of the Order, he would do so at this very location.

It was a thought he didn't like to dwell on but one he couldn't afford to ignore.

He didn't think he could bear it if the Order–his family–was dealt a blow as staggering as the one that had come down on Lazaro Archer tonight.

All the Gen One civilian had left after a thousand years of living was the battered young boy in the infirmary bed and the bullet-ravaged body of the son that Tegan and the rest of tonight's team had brought back with them to the compound.

Lucan cleared his throat. "If you would like to hold funeral rites for Christophe in the morning, we will make the necessary preparations."

Lazaro gave a somber nod. "Thank you. For everything, Lucan."

"Accommodations here at the compound are limited, but we can rearrange a few things to make space for you and Kellan in one of the bunk rooms. You're welcome to stay for as long as needed."

Archer held up his hand in polite dismissal. "That's more than generous; however, I have personal holdings elsewhere. There are other places that my grandson and I can go."

"Yes," Lucan replied, "but until we can be certain that you and Kellan are not in imminent danger from Dragos, I'm not comfortable releasing you from the Order's protection."

"Dragos," Archer said, his face hardening with restrained fury. "I recall that name from the Old Times. Dragos and his progeny were forever corrupt. Devious, conniving. Morally decayed. Good Christ, I'd thought the entire line had died out long ago."

Lucan grunted. "A second-generation son remains, hidden for decades behind multiple aliases but not dead. Not yet. And there is more, Lazaro.

Things you don't know. Things the civilian population would not wish to know about Dragos and his machinations."

Grim, ageless eyes held his stare. "Tell me. I want to understand. I need to understand."

"Come," Lucan said. "Let's walk."

He guided Archer away from his grandson's infirmary room and along the quiet corridor outside. The two Gen Ones strode in silence for a short distance while Lucan considered where to start with the facts they knew about Dragos. At the beginning, he finally decided.

"The seeds of this war with Dragos were sown centuries ago," he said, as he and Archer progressed up the white marble hallway. "You must remember the violence of those times, Lazaro. You lived through it the same as I did, when the Ancients ran unchecked, driven by their thirst for blood and the thrill of the hunt. They were our fathers, but they had to be stopped."

Archer nodded gravely. "I do remember how it was then. As a boy, I can't tell you how often I witnessed my own sire's savagery. It seemed to escalate over time, growing more feral and uncontrolled, particularly after he'd return from the gatherings."

Lucan cocked his head. "The gatherings?"

"Yes," Archer replied. "I don't know where he and the other Ancients met, but he would be gone for weeks or months at a time. I always knew when he was back in the area because then the killings in the human villages around us would begin again. I was relieved when he finally left for good."

Lucan frowned. "My father never mentioned gatherings, but I know he roamed for long periods. I know he hunted. When he killed my mother in a fit of Bloodlust, I knew it was time to put an end to all of the savagery."

"I remember hearing what happened to your mother," Archer replied.

"And I remember your call to arms to all Gen One sons to band with you in war against our alien fathers. I didn't think it possible that you would succeed."

"Not many did," Lucan recalled, but he wasn't bitter, not then or now.

"Eight of us went up against the handful of surviving Ancients. We thought we'd killed the last of them, but we had traitors in our ranks–my brother, Marek, as it turned out, and the Gen One father of Dragos, as well. They plotted in secret and built a hidden mountain crypt to house the last of the Ancients. They'd claimed he was dead but kept him protected in hibernation for centuries. He was later removed from the crypt, and survived under Dragos's control until only recently. Dragos kept him drugged and starved in a private laboratory. We don't know the extent of Dragos's madness, but we are sure of one thing: Over some decades, he's used the Ancient to breed a small army of Gen Ones. These offspring now serve Dragos as his personal, homegrown assassins."

"Good God," Archer murmured, visibly stricken. "I can hardly believe all of this is true."

Lucan might have felt the same at one point, but he had lived it. He thought back on everything that had occurred in the past year plus. All the betrayals and revelations, the explosive secrets and unexpected tragedies that had stabbed deep into the fabric of the Order and its members.

And the fight wasn't over. Not even close.

"So far, Dragos has managed to elude us, but we're getting closer to him every day. We've driven him to ground by destroying what was likely his primary location. He lost another key piece when the Ancient escaped some of his men in Alaska. We tracked the creature down and took him out.

But a lot of the damage has already been done," Lucan added. "We don't know how many Gen One assassins Dragos managed to create or where they might be. We intend to find them, however. And we have one working with us now. He joined the Order not long ago, after freeing himself from Dragos's bonds."

Archer's face drew into a cautious look. "Do you think that's wise?

Placing your trust in anyone who's been so closely linked to Dragos?"

Lucan inclined his head. "I had the same reservations at first, but Hunter has proven more than worthy of the Order's trust. You've met him yourself, Lazaro. He was there tonight with you, and helped to kill Christophe's assassins."

The Gen One exhaled a quiet curse. "That warrior saved my life. No one could have acted swiftly enough to save my son, but if not for Hunter, I would not be here, either."

"He is an honorable male," Lucan said. "But he was bred and raised to be a killing machine. Based on the descriptions we received of Kellan's abductors, we're all but certain that it was three of Dragos's Hunters who took him from your home."

"I thought I heard some of the warriors tonight say that the captors who were killed inside the building earlier were humans–Minions."

Lucan nodded. "They were. For some reason, they'd been made to look like the same inpiduals who took Kellan, but the Minions were part of some larger scheme. As was the attack on your Darkhaven, I have no doubt."

"But why?" Archer murmured. "What did he hope to gain by taking nearly all of my family and reducing my home to ash?"

"We don't have that answer yet, but we won't rest until we do." Lucan paused in the corridor, crossing his arms over his chest. "Dragos has given us a hell of a lot to deal with lately, and my gut tells me we're only seeing the beginning of what he's capable of. We've recently discovered that he's got Minions embedded in at least one human government agency, as well.

No doubt, there's more bad news where that came from."

Archer cursed, low under his breath. "To think all of this has been taking place right under our noses. Lucan, I don't know what to say, other than I regret not giving you my support sooner. You can't know how sorry I am for that."

Lucan shook his head. "It's not necessary. The fight belongs to the Order."

Lazaro Archer's expression was grim with purpose. "As of now, the fight is mine, as well. I am in, Lucan. In whatever means that I can serve you and your warriors, if you'll accept my offer–belated as it is–then I am in."

Dragos's black limousine pulled up to the ice-crusted curb where his lieutenant waited, huffing and shivering under a streetlamp in his dark cashmere coat and low-brimmed hat.

As the Minion driver braked to a stop, Dragos's man came over to the back passenger door and climbed inside the vehicle. He pulled off his hat and gloves, pivoting to face Dragos beside him in the backseat.

"The Order was tipped off about the building where the boy was being held, sire. They showed up tonight just as we'd anticipated, along with Lazaro Archer and his son and a unit from the Enforcement Agency. The Minions who'd been guarding the boy were killed within moments of the confrontation."

"Hardly a surprise," Dragos said with a mild shrug. "And Agent Freyne?"

"Dead, sire. He and his men were killed by one of the warriors as they were attempting to carry out their mission. Christophe Archer was eliminated, but his father still lives."

Dragos grunted. If one of the Archers had to survive the assassination he'd arranged, he would have much preferred Lazaro dead over his society-bred son. Be that as it may, the multipronged assault he'd orchestrated tonight had still been a success. He had watched from a safe distance, secure in his limousine, as Lazaro Archer's Darkhaven exploded into the winter night like a Roman candle.

It had been glorious.

A total annihilation.

And now he had the Order precisely where he wanted them–confused and scattered.

His Breed lieutenant went on, ticking off the rest of the evening's outcome. "The fire at the Darkhaven claimed all lives within, and I have reports that Lazaro Archer has not been seen or heard from in the hours since. Although I've not had confirmation, I suspect that both the Gen One and the boy are in the Order's custody as we speak."

"Very well," Dragos replied. "As Lazaro Archer is still breathing, I'd hardly call this a flawless execution of my orders. But then, if I expect perfection, I should have to do everything myself."

His lieutenant had the gall to look affronted. "All due respect, sire, but had I known the Order now counts one of your Hunters among them, I might have taken extra precautions concerning Freyne's role in the mission tonight."

Dragos had lived long enough that surprises rarely had the power to take him aback. But this news flash–this disturbing bit of intelligence–

actually made his pulse knock a bit against his sternum. Rage filled his skull, a cold fury that practically had him spitting the curse that leapt to his tongue.

"You didn't know?" asked his lieutenant, crowding against the door in an effort to put as much distance as possible between them.

"A Hunter," Dragos replied, amber sparks flashing in the darkened cabin of the limo. "Are you certain this is true?"

His man nodded soberly. "I had surveillance cameras trained on the construction site from more than one location nearby. The way he moved, the sheer size of him, and the precision of his kills … sire, there could be no mistaking the warrior for anything but one of your Hunters."

And there was only one of his specially bred, ruthlessly trained killers who had managed to connive his way out of Dragos's control and make his escape. That he had allied himself with the Order was a shock, plain and simple.

Dragos had assumed the Hunter had escaped the bonds of his obedience collar and fled into obscurity, a stray dog, lost without its master.

On some level, he'd assumed the fugitive assassin had ended up dead or Rogue by now.

But not this.

And no, he reflected now, not this particular Hunter.

He had been different from the start. Chillingly efficient. Coldly intelligent. Relentlessly disciplined, yet far from submissive. That was a lesson he'd never been able to learn, no matter how mercilessly it had been drilled into him.

Dragos should have had the son of a bitch put down, but he'd also been the best assassin in his personal Gen One army to date.

And now he'd apparently sided with Lucan and the warriors in this mounting war.

Dragos growled with outrage at the mere idea.

"Get out of my sight," he snarled to his lieutenant. "Await my orders to begin the next phase of the plan."

The other Breed male scrambled out of the car without another word, slamming the door behind him and hurrying off in the opposite direction of the street.

"Drive," Dragos barked to the Minion behind the wheel.

As the limo sped off into the hustle of Boston's evening traffic, he straightened the lapels of his Italian silk tuxedo and smoothed his hand over his meticulously styled hair. In the dim glow of the highway lights, he withdrew an embossed invitation from out of his jacket pocket and read the address of the political fund-raiser he had just attended downtown.

A small droplet of human blood stained the lower corner of the ivory paper, still fresh enough to smear under the press of his thumb.

Dragos chuckled under his breath, recalling how pleased the group of city officials had been with the generosity of his donation.

How stunned they had been just a few minutes later, when they realized what each of them would be surrendering to him in exchange.

Now he leaned back and closed his eyes, letting the hum of the road lull him as he savored the buzz of power still swimming in his veins.