Then again, despite his unlined face and tall, muscular build, which aged him in the vicinity of his early forties at most, only the Breed male's thick pattern of swirling, inter-locking dermaglyphs tracking down his bared forearms gave any indication that Yakut was an elder member of the Breed. As a Gen One, he could be a thousand years old or more.


"Warrior," Yakut said darkly, his stare unwavering, twin lasers locked on target. "I told you not to come. You and the rest of the Order are wasting your time."


In his peripheral vision, Niko caught the exchanged looks of surprise that traveled between Yakut's son and the rest of his guards. The female especially - Renata, she was called - seemed completely taken aback to hear that he was a warrior, one of the Order. Yet as quickly as the surprise registered in her gaze, it vanished, gone as though she had forced all emotion from her features. She was placid calm now, cold even, as she stood a few feet behind Sergei Yakut and watched, her weapon still in hand, her stance tentative and ready for his any command.


"We need your help," Nikolai said to Yakut. "And based on what's been going down near us in Boston and elsewhere within the Breed population, you're going to need our help too. The danger is very real. It's lethal. Your life is at risk, even now." "What would you know about that?" Yakut's son scowled at Niko in accusation. "How the fuck can you know anything about that? We've told no one about the attack last week - "


"Alexei." The sound of his name on his sire's lips shut the younger Yakut up as if a hand had been clamped over his mouth. "You do not speak for me, boy. Make yourself useful," he said, gesturing toward the vampire Nikolai had shot dead. "Take Urien up to the warehouse roof and leave him there for the sun. Then sweep this alleyway clean of evidence."


Alexei glared for a second, as if the task were beneath him but he didn't quite have the guts to say so. "You heard my father," he snapped to the other guards standing around idle with him. "What are you all waiting for? Let's get rid of this worthless pile of rubbish."


When they started to move off at Alexei's bidding, Yakut glanced toward the female. "Not you, Renata. You can drive me back to the house. I am finished here."


The message to Niko was clear: He was uninvited, unwelcome to stay in Yakut's domain. And, as of now, summarily dismissed.


Probably the smartest thing to do would be to check in with Lucan and the rest of the Order, tell them that he had given it his best shot with Sergei Yakut but came up empty, then leave Montreal before Yakut decided to hand him his balls on his way out. The short-tempered Gen One had done worse to others for far lesser sins.


Yeah, packing it in and heading out was definitely the wisest course of action at this point. Except Nikolai wasn't accustomed to taking no for an answer, and the situation facing both the Order and the whole of the Breed - hell, humankind as well - was not going away anytime soon. It was growing more volatile, more distastrous with every passing second.


And then there was Alexei's careless blurt about a recent attack...


"What happened here last week?" Nikolai asked, once it was just Yakut, Renata, and himself in the dark alley. He knew the answer but posed the question anyway. "Someone tried to assassinate you...just as I warned would happen, isn't that right?" The aged Breed male swung a glower on Niko, his shrewd eyes flinty. Niko held that challenging stare, seeing a long-lived, arrogant fool who believed himself beyond the reach of death, even though it had likely been knocking on his door only a few days ago.


"There was an attempt, yes." Yakut's lip curled in a mild sneer, one thick shoulder lifting in a shrug. "But I survived - just as I assured you I would. Go home, warrior. Fight the Order's battles back in Boston. Leave me to look after my own."


He jerked his chin at Renata, and the wordless command put her in motion. As her long legs carried her out of earshot up the alleyway, Yakut drawled, "My thanks for the warning. If this assassin is idiot enough to strike again, I will be ready for him." "He will strike again," Niko replied with total certainty. "This thing is worse than we first suspected. Two more Gen Ones have been killed since you and I last spoke. That brings the count to five now - out of less than twenty of your generation still in existence. Five of the oldest, most powerful members of the Breed nation, all dead in the space of a month. Each one apparently targeted and taken out by expert means. Someone wants all of you dead, and he has a plan already in play to make it happen." Yakut seemed to consider that, but only for a moment. Without another word, he pivoted and began stalking away.


"There is more," Niko added grimly. "Something I wasn't able to tell you when we spoke on the phone a couple of weeks ago. Something the Order discovered hidden in a mountain cave in the Czech Republic."


As the elder vampire continued to ignore him, Niko exhaled a low curse.


"It was a hibernation chamber, a very old one. A crypt where one of the most powerful of our kind had been tucked away in secret for centuries. The chamber had been made to protect an Ancient."


Finally Niko had his attention.


Yakut's steps slowed, then stopped altogether. "The Ancients were all killed in the great war within the Breed," he said, reciting the history that had until very recently been accepted by all the Breed as irrefutable fact. Nikolai knew the story of the uprising as well as anyone else of his kind. Of the eight savage otherworlders who had fathered the first generation of the vampire race on Earth, none survived the battle with the small group of Gen One warriors who'd declared war against their own fathers for the protection of both Breed and humankind alike. Those courageous few warriors had been led by Lucan, who to this day retained his role as leader of what was to become the Order.


Yakut slowly turned to face Nikolai. "All of the Ancients have been dead for some seven hundred years. My own sire was put to the sword back then - and rightly so. If he and his alien brethren had been left unchecked, they would have destroyed all life on this planet in their insatiable Bloodlust."


Niko nodded grimly. "But there was someone who disagreed with the edict that the Ancients should be destroyed: Dragos. The Order has uncovered proof that instead of taking out the creature who fathered him, Dragos instead helped to hide him. He made a sanctuary for the creature in a remote area of the Bohemian Mountains."


"And the Order knows this to be true?"


"We found the chamber and saw the crypt for ourselves. Unfortunately, it was empty by the time we got there." Yakut grunted, considering. "And what about Dragos?"


"He is dead - killed in the old war - but his line lives on. So does his treachery. We believe it was Dragos's son who located the chamber before we did and freed the Ancient from his sleep. We also suspect Dragos's son is the one behind the recent assassinations among the nation's Gen Ones."


"To what gain?" Yakut asked, arms crossed over his chest.


"That's what we intend to find out. We've got some good intel on him, but it's not enough. He's gone to ground, and it's going to be harder than hell to flush him out. But we'll get him. In the meantime, we can't afford to let him make any progress with whatever plans he's got in motion. That's why the Order is reaching out to you and the rest of the Gen Ones. Anything you might hear, anything you may have seen - "


"There was a witness," Yakut said, interrupting Niko with the abrupt admission. "A young girl, a member of my household. She was there. She saw the individual who attacked me last week. In fact, she startled the bastard enough that I was able to break away and escape."


Nikolai's head was spinning with this unexpected news. He doubted very much that a child could scare off a seasoned, skilled assassin, but he was interested enough to hear more. "I need to talk to this girl."


Yakut nodded vaguely, lips pressed flat as he glanced up at the dark sky overhead. "It will be dawn in a few hours. You can wait out the daylight at my home. Ask your questions, do your business for the Order. Then, tomorrow night, you leave." As far as cooperation went, it wasn't much. But it was more than he'd had even a few minutes ago from the cocky Gen One vampire.


"Fair enough," Niko replied, as he fell in beside Sergei Yakut and walked with him to the waiting black sedan that idled at the curb.


Chapter Four


Renata had no idea what the blond stranger might have said to persuade Sergei Yakut into inviting the outsider home to his private compound north of the city. In the two years since Renata had been introduced to life as a member of Yakut's personal guard, no one outside the vampire's small circle of servants and private security detail had ever been permitted on the secluded woodland grounds of the lodge.


Suspicious by nature and reclusive, cruel to the point of tyranny, Sergei Yakut's world was one of scrutiny and mistrust. God help you if you crossed him in any way, for when the fist of his rage came crashing down, it came down like an anvil. Sergei Yakut had few friends and even fewer enemies; neither seemed to survive long in the chill of his shadow.


Renata had come to know the male she served well enough to sense that he was not exactly amenable to the notion of uninvited company, but the fact that he hadn't killed this interloper - this warrior, as he'd referred to him back in the alleyway - seemed to indicate at least some small degree of respect. If not for the warrior himself, then for the group he belonged to, the Order.


As she swung the armored, custom Mercedes up to the entrance of the rough-timbered main house at the end of the long drive, Renata couldn't resist flicking a glance in the rearview mirror to the two vampires seated in silence behind her.


Ice-blue eyes met her gaze in the glass. He didn't blink away, not even as the seconds stretched beyond curiosity to that of bald challenge. He was pissed off, his ego no doubt still bruised by the fact that she had duped him in the alley and led him into a trap. Renata feigned polite ignorance as she broke the heavy hold of his stare and brought the car to a halt in front of the lodge. One of the Breed males on guard at the entrance came down the wide plank steps to open the back door of the sedan.


Behind him a few paces stood another guard, this one holding a pair of leashed Russian wolfhounds. Their bared teeth gnashing, the big watchdogs barked and growled like savages until the moment Sergei Yakut came out of the car. The animals were as well trained as the rest of the vampire's household: one look from their master and they fell into an instant, submissive silence, massive heads held low as he and the warrior stalked into the house.


The guard standing near the car closed the open back door and shot a questioning glance at Renata through the tinted glass of the window.


Who the hell is that? was the obvious look on his face, but before he could motion for her to roll down the window so he could ask it, she put the sedan into gear and tapped the gas.


As she eased the car off the gravel drive and took it around to the garage in back of the lodge, the pain and tension she'd been feeling earlier began to creep back into her body. She was tired from the whole confrontation tonight, her limbs and mind equally wrung out. All she wanted was her bed and a long, hot soak in the tub. She really didn't care which came first.


Renata had her own small quarters in the lodge, a luxury that Yakut did not afford any of the males who served him. Even Alexei bunked with the other guards in common quarters, sleeping on fur pallets spread out on the floor, like a garrison straight out of the Middle Ages. Renata's room was only fractionally better than that: a narrow space big enough only for the twin bed, nightstand, and the trunk that held her meager clothing. A bathroom with a footed tub was located down the hall and shared with the only other female in Sergei Yakut's charge.


The amenities were rustic at best, as was the rest of the hundred-year-old log compound, and the furnishings were sparse. Not to mention a bit revolting.


Although Yakut once told her he and his household had only been living there for the past decade, the old hunting lodge was filled with what seemed to be half a century's worth of animal pelts, stuffed game, and mounted antlers. She assumed the taxidermy decor had belonged to the previous owner, but Yakut didn't seem to mind sharing his home with all the morbidity. In fact, he seemed to relish the primitiveness of the place. Renata knew the Siberian vampire was older than he appeared - much, much older, as those of his kind often were. But it didn't take a lot to imagine him clothed in skins and furs, armed with steel and iron, and wreaking bloody havoc on the defenseless villages of Russia's remote northern regions. Time hadn't smoothed away any of his edge, and Renata could testify firsthand to Yakut's deadly nature.


That she could serve someone like that made her gut twist with regret. That she was pledged to protect him, to be loyal to him, both in thought and action, made her feel herself a stranger in her own skin. She had her reasons for staying - especially now - but there was still so much she wished she could change. So much still to regret...


She pushed aside the thoughts that were too dangerous to even let form in her mind. If Sergei Yakut were to sense the slightest weakness in her allegiance to him, there would be swift, severe repercussions.


Renata closed her door after she entered her room. She unfastened her weapon holsters and laid the guns and knives neatly on top of the old trunk at the foot of the bed. She ached all over, muscles and bones screaming from the earlier tax on her mind. Her neck was stiff, full of knots that made her wince as she tried to massage them away.


God, she needed some peace from the pain.


A gentle scratching noise started up on the other side of the wall. It grated in her ears like nails on a chalkboard, her head feeling as fragile as a glass bell.


"Rennie?" Mira's girlish voice was soft, just a meek little whisper coming through the gaps in the logs. "Rennie...is that you?" "Yes, mouse," Renata answered. She moved up to the head of the bed and rested her cheek against the rounded timber of the wall. "It's me. What are you doing still awake?"

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