Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR)

LUCAN HIT THE GROUND and shielded his eyes along with the rest of the Order as soon as they heard the sudden, tandem hum of the UV collars on the army of attacking Gen One assassins. Still, the impact of their detonation came as a shock.

The emitted light was so bright – like a bolt of lightning taking out the entire offensive assault in one fell swoop.

When it was gone a moment later, the remains of dozens of Hunters lay where they'd fallen, their heads cleanly separated from their bodies by the shearing power of the collars that ensured their loyalty – and their indenture – to Dragos.

"He's dead." Dante jogged out alongside Rio and Renata, the latter being swept into a fierce embrace by Nikolai as soon as he saw her. "Dragos is dead."

"Chase and Tavia?" Lucan asked, glancing back toward the house when neither of them came out.

"She's in bad shape, Lucan." Dante's tone didn't hold a lot of promise. "By the look of her – the way she's acting, the pink spittle around her mouth … I've only seen that kind of reaction one time before."

"When the Order was asked to stop the Crimson dealer who was ruining all those civilian kids' lives," Lucan finished, recalling that night – and the uptight Enforcement Agent who came to them reluctantly a year ago and had somehow become an integral member of the Order. A member of the extended family that Lucan would protect with his life. Seeing how deeply Chase cared for Tavia Fairchild, recognizing their bond, that made her a member of that family now too. "We need to take her back to the compound, find a way to help her."

Dante nodded, but there was worry in his gaze, not only for Tavia but for Chase as well. "If she doesn't make it …"

"Then we'll have to make sure she does."

Lucan's cell started ringing. Gideon, phoning in from headquarters. "Since you're taking my call, I'm gonna go out on a limb and guess that my hack of the detonation codes worked." "It worked," Lucan confirmed, nodding to Tegan and the others who'd just witnessed the same miracle of Gideon's genius and were coming to join the rest of the group. "The worst of this war with Dragos is finally over. Now we have to deal with the fallout."

As he spoke, a large black SUV with flashing headlights and a military vanguard escorting it came roaring up the drive toward the house. Lucan felt his brethren tense around him, readying themselves for a continuation of the battle.

"Stand down," Lucan advised them coolly. "We must show the humans we are their allies, not the enemy. Hopefully they'll afford us that chance despite everything Dragos has done to undermine it."

Dozens of soldiers ready for combat surrounded the Order as the SUV came to a halt a few yards away from the gathered Breed warriors. A gruff-looking man in military uniform came out of the back and walked crisply toward them. Four embroidered stars rode down the front insignia pad of his camouflage army fatigues, another set of stars ran across the visored camo cap that covered his high-and-tight, graying hair. As the officer made his approach, shrewd eyes scanned the unexplainable destruction and body count that littered the grounds.

"General," Lucan said, giving him a slight nod of greeting.

The human remained silent, gauging the situation. "Where is the vice president?"

"He's dead. You'll find his body inside, along with that of the one responsible for everything that's happened here tonight." Lucan held the high-ranking officer's appraising stare. "The one who orchestrated all the carnage in this city and others around the world will do no more harm. My brethren and I destroyed him. But evil is still running loose in your streets and there is more work to be done to stop it. Work that needs to be done by all of us together, mankind and ours." The general's eyes narrowed. "Your kind. Just what is your kind? Savages. Vampires, slaughtering our citizens. Spilling blood all over the world, feeding on us like parasites, for God's sake."

"My kind is called the Breed," Lucan replied evenly. "We have lived among you for many hundreds of years. We are not monsters. In fact, part of us is human, not so different from you." "I've seen no humanity in the killings taking place over the past couple nights." Lucan nodded, unable to deny it. "There were some among us who felt mankind should serve us, instead of sharing this world together in peace. Their leader is now dead."

The general stared, hardly convinced. "After what we've seen, how can we ever trust any of you?"

Lucan let the contempt and suspicion wash over him without reaction. He wasn't blameless, after all. The fear that had been stricken into the humans' hearts the past couple of days could take years to assuage. It could take centuries to rebuild some sense of order now. It could take longer still to achieve any kind of peaceful coexistence between their races. But they had to try.

For the future of everyone.

For the future of all the unborn children of the Breed and humankind alike.

"I know that trust will not be an easy thing," Lucan said. "But for the good of all, we need to try."

The general started to say something – a protest, judging by the hard look that entered the old soldier's eyes. But at that same moment, he paused to listen to the communication device tucked into his right ear. "Yes, sir," he murmured quietly. "Of course, Mr. President."

He stepped to the side as the back door of the SUV opened and another man climbed out.

Lucan drew in a breath, watching cautiously as the military detail parted to clear a path for the most powerful man in the United States.

The president stood before Lucan, dressed casually in street clothes and a fleece-collared, dark olive bomber jacket. He looked haggard, as if the weight of the world rested on his shoulders. Lucan offered a faint, knowing smile as he inclined his head in greeting. "You say the one who caused all of this is dead?"

"Yes, sir," Lucan said with a nod, realizing the president must have been monitoring the conversation with the general from inside his SUV.

"And you and these men – this woman too," the human leader added, glancing at Renata, who looked every bit as fierce as the rest of the warriors. "You say you had a hand in taking him down?"

"We did," Lucan replied.

The United States' commander in chief fell silent, considering. "I've seen scattered reports of a group of soldiers – a group of vampires – who've been saving human lives since the carnage began here two nights ago. I've seen photographs, video clips. Do you know anything about this group?"

"They are my brethren," Lucan replied, pride swelling in his chest. "We are the Order. And I am their leader, Lucan Thorne."

The president studied him now, for so long Lucan wondered if a new war would begin right here, in that moment. Then the human slowly lifted his hand and held it out to Lucan in greeting. In thanks. "We owe you a debt, Lucan Thorne. You and your Order."

Lucan accepted the offered show of trust. He pressed his bloodstained, combat-hardened hand to the human's palm and gave it a firm shake.

TAVIA FELT TOO WARM in his arms, fevered, even as she shivered.

The Crimson had a strong hold on her, too strong. She was sinking into it, drifting further and further out of his reach. "Stay with me, beautiful. Don't let go."

"So tired," she murmured, her lips cracked and parched, the corners of her mouth coated with pinkish foam. "So thirsty …"

"I know," he whispered. "I know you are, but blood can't help you now. It will only make it worse."

She moaned, and in that broken, needful sound he heard echoes of his own struggle. How ironic that it should be Tavia facing Bloodlust, just when he felt he might actually stand a chance of beating his.

How cruel to think that she was suffering as he had, all for her desire to help him and the Order defeat Dragos.

And she had helped.

Without her risking so much, her life itself, there was no telling how far Dragos would have been able to take his twisted plans.

Outside the din of combat had settled. The bright explosion of light that Chase had seen several minutes ago had left a strange calm in its wake. No more close gunfire or fighting. Dragos's assassins were no more either; Chase knew that had to be fact. As for the Rogues who remained uncaged and loose in the cities around the world, the Order would continue taking them out until the last one was ash in the street.

The world would be better tomorrow, thanks to Tavia's courage and that of his brethren. There was so much to look forward to – so much hope for a better world for all. He didn't want to imagine that world without Tavia in it. He refused to think it could be possible. He would nurse her back to health, even if it took locking himself up with her until the fever of her hunger finally passed. If it passed.

He would gladly trade his life for hers right now, if he could turn back the clock and take the deadly Crimson in her place.

"No," she murmured, her voice thick around her fangs. Even through the ravages of the drug, she must have felt the depth of his emotion as he held her in a careful, despairing embrace. She gazed up at him, her feral amber eyes sad and moist with welling tears. "Leave me here, Chase. Go with your brethren."

"No." He shook his head once, then again, more fiercely. "No. I'm never leaving you. Not ever again." His voice cracked, too full with the emotion he felt for this woman. His woman. His mate. "I love you. You are mine. In my heart, I knew that from the beginning. You are my beloved, Tavia, my only one."

"Chase," she whispered. Her tears spilled over now, streaking down her cheeks and chin. "I love – "

A convulsion racked her as the Crimson burrowed deeper into her blood. Chase felt it, hot and seething in his own veins. And he felt her love. Running under the current of the thirst that was savaging her body, Chase felt the strong and steady beat of her heart … and it was filled with love for him.

It was all he needed to know.

It was all the hope he required.

She would get better.

She would heal.

And she was his, forever.

He gathered her up into his arms. He kissed her parched mouth, then rose with her and carried her out of the house, away from the carnage, and back to the warriors who were his kin. "I'm taking you home now, Tavia."