Although Fabien had been a disappointment recently, Dragos supposed the Darkhaven leader deserved some measure of credit for the two-prong approach to this important gathering. While the rest of the attendees arrived last night by car, this evening a speedboat had been dispatched to carry Dragos to the site's small dock out back, after a seaplane had brought him from the city to another inland body of water also on Fabien's property. Following the setback suffered a few weeks ago during Dragos's runin with the Order, he had become far more cautious about how he traveled in the open, among other things. He'd come too far to take chances. Risked too damned much to throw it away on carelessness or the incompetence of others.
He cast a contemptuous eye toward the other passenger seated in the boat with him. The Hunter's face was impassive in the milky glow of the moon overhead, his huge body held perfectly still as the driver turned the wheel and the cigarette boat's prow cut through the water to angle toward the lone dock up ahead on the shore.
The Hunter probably knew that he was heading toward his own death. He'd failed in his mission to kill the Gen One in Montreal, and that called for steep punishment. He would be dealt with tonight, and if Dragos could use that punishment as an additional display of his power before the lieutenants who were gathered to greet him now, so much the better.
The boat's engine downshifted as they came up on the unlit, unassuming wooden dock where Edgar Fabien waited to greet them. Gas fumes rolled up off the water, nauseatingly sweet. Fabien's deep bow and fawning welcome had a similar effect.
"Sire, it is the honor of a lifetime to welcome you to my domain."
"Indeed," Dragos drawled as he stepped off the craft onto the dark wood planks of the dock. He gestured for the Hunter to follow him, and did not miss Fabien's reaction when he glimpsed the size and immensity of the Gen One serving at Dragos's command. "Is everyone assembled inside?"
"Yes, sire." Fabien came out of his bow and rushed to walk at Dragos's side. "I have good news. The warrior who escaped containment has been eliminated. Both he and the female who aided him. One of my Minions rooted the pair out, and last night I sent a team of my best agents to clean up the problem."
"You're certain the warrior is dead?"
Fabien's smug smile grated. "I would stake my own life on it. I sent trained professionals to the task. I trust their skill implicitly."
Dragos grunted, unimpressed. "What a comfort it must be to know that kind of trust in your subordinates."
Fabien's confidence faltered at the jab, and he cleared his throat awkwardly. "Sire...another moment, if you would." Dragos dismissed the Hunter from his presence with a curt wave. "Go up to the house and wait for me. Speak to no one." As the Gen One killer strode ahead, Dragos paused to turn an impatient look on Fabien.
"My lord, I'd hoped - that is, I thought a gift might be in order," he stammered. "To celebrate this important event." "A gift?" Before he could ask what Fabien thought Dragos could possibly need from him, Fabien snapped his fingers and an Enforcement Agent emerged from the shadows of the surrounding trees, guiding a young child in front of him. The girl seemed lost in the dark, her blond hair glowing like cornsilk, her tiny face dipped down. "What is the meaning of this?" "A young Breedmate, sire. My gift to you."
Dragos stared at the waif, on the whole unimpressed. Breedmates were a rare enough occurrence among human populations, that much was true, but he preferred his stock to be of fertile, childbearing age. This girl would not be ripe for several more years, which no doubt was what intrigued Fabien the most about her.
"You can keep her," Dragos said, resuming his trek toward the gathering. "Have your man drive the boat back across the lake while we're meeting. I will radio him when he is needed again."
"Go," Fabien ordered in response, then he was right back at Dragos's side, as eager as a hound begging for scraps. "Sire, about the child...really, you must see for yourself. She is gifted with an extraordinary talent that I am certain you will appreciate. She is an oracle, my lord. I've witnessed it for myself."
Against his will, curiosity pricked to attention. His steps slowed, then stopped. "Bring her."
When he pivoted around, Fabien's eager grin spread even wider. "Yes, sire."
The child was ushered to him once more, her footsteps resisting, stubborn heels digging into the old pine needles and sand that littered the small slope up from the dock. She tried to fight off the vampire guard who held her, but it was useless effort. He simply shoved her forward until she was standing directly in front of Dragos. She kept her chin wrenched down, her eyes cast to the ground at her feet.
"Lift your head," Fabien commanded her, hardly waiting for her to comply before he took her skull in both his hands and forced her to look up. "Now, open your eyes. Do it!"
Dragos didn't know quite what to expect. He wasn't at all prepared for the startling paleness of her gaze. The girl's irises were as clear as glass - flawless mirrors that instantly mesmerized him. He was vaguely aware of Fabien's hissed excitement, but all of Dragos's attention was rooted on the child and the incredible glimmer of her eyes.
And then he saw it...a flicker of movement in the placid reflection. He saw a form moving through thick shadows - a body he thought he recognized as his own. The image became clearer the longer he stared, rapt and eager to see more of the gift Fabien had described.
It was him.
It was his lair as well. Even veiled in dark mist, the images reflecting back at him were intimately familiar. He saw the subterranean laboratory, the holding cells...the UV light cage that contained his greatest weapon in the war he'd been preparing for all these many centuries. It was all there, shown to him through this Breedmate child's eyes.
But then, a moment of stunning alarm.
His pristine lab, so rigidly secured and orderly, was in ruins. The holding cells had been thrown open. And the UV light cage...it was empty.
"Impossible," he murmured, struck with a grim, furious awe.
He blinked hard, several times, wanting to dislodge the vision from his head. When he opened his eyes again, he saw something new in the child's damnable eyes...something even more unfathomable.
He saw himself, begging for his life. Weeping, broken.
"Is this some kind of fucking joke?" His voice shook - both with anger and with something too weak for him to acknowledge. He tore his gaze away from the girl and fixed it on Fabien. "What the hell is the meaning of this?" "Your future, sire." Fabien's face had gone quite pale. His mouth worked for a moment without sound, then he finally sputtered, "The child...you see, she is an oracle. She showed me standing here, at this very gathering, presenting you with a vision of your future that pleased you immensely. When I saw that, I knew I had to save her for you, my lord. I had to offer her to you, no matter what it cost."
Dragos's blood was lava scorching his veins. He should kill the idiot here and now, just because of this insult. "You obviously misread what you saw."
"No!" Fabien cried, grabbing hold of the girl and wheeling her around. He gave her a hard shake. "Show me again! Prove to him that I am not mistaken, damn you!"
Dragos watched as still as stone while Fabien peered into her eyes. The Darkhaven leader's horrified gasp told him all he needed to know. He reeled back, as white as a sheet. As stricken as if he'd just witnessed his own murder.
"I don't understand," Fabien muttered. "It's all changed. You have to believe me, sire! I don't know how she's changed the vision, but the little witch is lying now. She has to be!"
"Get her out of my sight," Dragos growled to the Enforcement Agency guard who held her. "I'll take her with me when I leave, but until then, I don't want to see hide nor hair of her."
The guard gave a nod and removed the child, practically dragging her up to the house.
"Sire, I beg you," Fabien pleaded. "Forgive me for this...unfortunate mistake."
"I will deal with you later," Dragos said, not bothering to couch the threat that rode undercurrent of his words. He resumed his progress toward the gathering, more determined than ever to make his authority - his unmatched power - understood to all.
It was fully dark when Niko and Renata arrived at the coordinates Gideon had supplied for Edgar Fabien's property up north. The Darkhaven leader evidently owned a sizable chunk of wooded land, far enough out of Montreal that the surrounding area remained widely undeveloped: acre after acre of huge conifers and evergreens, not a living soul in sight except for the occasional deer or moose that bolted at the first scent of the heavily armed vampire creeping through their unspoiled sanctuary. Nikolai had been running solo reconaissance on the area for the past few minutes. A two-story house made of logs and stone was tucked into a thick corner of the forest. A narrow, unpaved drive, barely wide enough for one vehicle, cut a meandering path through the trees to the front of the house. Niko skirted that driveway from the cover of the woods, taking note of the two SWAT- garbed Enforcement Agents posted near the halfway mark and the three large black Humvees parked in single-file formation just outside the front door of the place. Three more vampire guards, M16 rifles at the ready, covered the entrance. The east and west sides were each also under watch by an armed sentry.
Although he didn't figure they'd leave the back of the place vulnerable to infiltration, Niko moved around that way to get the lay of the land. He heard the soft lap of water even before he saw the quiet lake and the empty dock at the shore some three hundred yards behind the house. Off the rear of the place another Enforcement Agency duo stood guard. Damn it.
Getting into the site to nab Fabien wasn't going to be easy. Unless he and the Order dropped in from above, if they wanted to pull Dragos's associate out of there, they were going to have to mow down a few Agency guards in the process. And that wasn't even factoring in the unknown group of Breed males who had accompanied the Montreal Darkhaven leader here last night. Yanking Fabien tonight without a lot of civilian casualties might be verging on the impossible. Double that estimate when the problem of rescuing Mira was added to the mix. So, basically the net of his recon was that shit was likely to get very messy in here, no two ways about it.
And then there was the situation with Renata.
One of the hardest things Nikolai had ever done was spend the entire day with her, knowing that he had deceived her. He wanted to tell her - after they'd made love, after she'd honored him with the gift of her blood and the completed bond that now joined them eternally. He'd wanted to tell her a dozen times over, in a dozen different moments, but selfishly, he held the truth back from her for her own protection. He still held on to the hope that she would understand his caution - that she might even be grateful that he made her wait to learn of Mira's location until he and the other warriors had a chance to iron out a solid evac strategy. Yeah, he was going to keep telling himself that, because he didn't want to consider any other alternatives.
Shaking off the regret that dogged his steps and the dread that kept threatening to crawl up the back of his neck, Nikolai moved to a better vantage point in the cover of the woods. He peered through the brushy pine branches, watching several of the house's occupants as they passed a window on the ground floor. He took a quick headcount of the hooded Breed males as they strode as a group toward another area of the place. Five, six, seven...and then another, this one without the black head covering. Oh, Christ.
Nikolai knew him. He'd seen the son of a bitch up close and personal only a few weeks prior, when a mission for the Order had sent Niko to meet with one of the highest-ranking officials in the Enforcement Agency. At the time, the male was going by a long-standing alias - one of two false names the Order had uncovered not long afterward. Now they knew the bastard by his true name, the one his traitorous Gen One father before him had carried as well.
For weeks the Order had been searching exhaustively for even the most minute lead on Dragos, all without success. Now here he was, plunked down right in front of them like a fish in a barrel. Motherfucker was here. And goddamn it, he was going down - tonight.
Niko eased back into the thicket, then hauled ass in a southerly direction, where he'd left Renata with their purloined Agency SUV. He couldn't wait to call Tegan and Rio and give them this good news.
Edgar Fabien's confusion and distress over the debacle of his botched gift for Dragos haunted him like a wraith as he and the others followed their newly arrived leader into the conference room of the northern retreat. He knew it was dangerous, generally deadly, to displease Dragos, something he'd avoided very well until recently. But he also knew - as he assumed the rest of the Breed males gathered here for this meeting did - that Dragos had brought them all together tonight for a specific purpose. This was to be a historic night. A reward, Dragos had promised, for their years of covert partnership and loyalty toward a common goal.
After so much time and effort spent currying Dragos's favor these past decades, Fabien only prayed he hadn't thrown it away in that one unfortunate instant down near the dock.
"Be seated," Dragos instructed them as they filed in and he took his place at the front of the meeting room. He watched as Fabien and the six others, all still concealed behind their black hoods, filled the chairs that were gathered around the slab of polished granite that served as the conference table. "Each of us assembled here in this room shares a common interest - that being the current and future state of our race."
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