Edge of Dawn (Chapter Twenty-Three)

MIRA SAT ON THE EDGE OF A SOFT BED IN A ROOM THAT smelled of roses and lemon wax, surrounded by the love and support of the women of the Order.

She was home. Reunited with her parents, family, teammates, and friends – all the people who mattered in her life. And yet she'd never felt so adrift. So alone.

Because the one she needed most was the one farthest out of her reach now.

By his own choice.

Kellan had promised he wouldn't abandon her ever again, but he had. They might have stayed in the old Darkhaven in the Maine woods for weeks longer – a precious handful of months, if they were lucky. Instead, he'd willingly put an end to their time together.

She would have stayed with him as long as possible.

Instead, he'd let her go.

The warrior in her refused to accept this defeat. Blinded or not, she wanted to leap up and fight her way to wherever Kellan was being held. She wanted to demand he stand with her and take on his problems together. Take on the whole bloody world together, if they had to.

But it wasn't the Order or mankind or the world that stood between them.

It was fate.

Destiny had made a claim on Kellan's life eight years ago. Now it was coming to collect. And in her heart, she knew no amount of fighting, no amount of running, could ever be enough to win out over an enemy as powerful as that.

But that didn't make the prospect of what lay ahead any easier to accept.

Although she could see none of the Breedmates gathered in the room with her now, only shadows on shadows against a field of darkness, Mira heard their voices close to her. Heard more than one of the women quietly sniffling back tears after she had explained everything that happened during her all-too-brief reunion with Kellan.

"I'm glad it's gone," she murmured into the quiet room. "My sight. If losing my sight is the only way to mute my visions, then it will have been worth it."

"Don't say that, Mouse. You don't mean it." Renata sat beside her on the bed, holding Mira's hand in a comforting, protective grasp. The Breedmate who had rescued orphaned Mira when she was a little girl, taking her under her wing as her own child, was as skilled a warrior as any – the first female to fight alongside the Order as one of their own. Tough and deadly, impossible to break, Renata had hardly said a word in the time since Mira's arrival with Kellan and the others.

She was afraid. Mira felt it in the pregnant Breedmate's silence and the soft trembling of her fingers as she held Mira's hand.

Where Nikolai had been furious and vocal in his concern for Mira and his contempt for Kellan's part in all that had transpired, Renata's quiet, heartsick fear was even harder to take.

"Look at all the hurt I've caused," Mira said. "My vision is to blame for everything, Rennie. It was a curse that never brought anything good."

"No," Renata replied. "That's not true." Gentle fingers on Mira's chin turned her face toward the sound of her mother's voice. "You showed Niko that he and I were destined to be together, remember? And before that, your gift gave Hunter a glimpse of hope that not only saved your life as a result, but his as well. There's been good with the bad. Don't wish that all away too."

Mira didn't resist the tender, loving arms that drew her close. She rested her hand lightly on the swell of Renata's belly, smiling in reluctant joy when she felt the strong kick of a tiny foot against her palm. Her soon-to-arrive baby brother, already jealous of the attention he might be forced to share with her.

She wanted to see that child one day. She wanted to see Rennie and Niko holding their newborn son, who would no doubt be every bit as adventurous and bold as his parents.

And she wanted to see Kellan again.

He wasn't in the mansion anymore; Renata had informed her that JUSTIS had taken Kellan into custody a short while ago, but Mira's blood bond told her in a more visceral way that he was no longer under the same roof with her. Being separated from him now was torment enough, but if her eyesight never returned – if she didn't get at least one last chance to be with him, to see his handsome face . . .

She didn't realize she was crying until a small, jagged sob tore out of her throat.

"Mira," said a gentle, nurturing voice from somewhere above her. Not Renata, but one of the other women of the Order. Dante's Breedmate, Tess. "I'd like to help you, if you'll let me?"

Mira had known Tess nearly all her life, had seen her talent for healing firsthand on more than one occasion when the Order had been headquartered in Boston. Trained as a veterinarian before she met Dante and bore their son, Rafe, Tess was still adept in traditional medicine and procedures. But it was her other healing ability Tess meant to employ now: her extrasensory gift for healing with the power of her touch – even the most grievous injuries and diseases.

"Close your eyes for me," Tess instructed as Mira sat up to let her assess the damage.

She did as she was told, feeling the other woman's thumbs come to rest lightly atop her closed eyelids. Tess's palms cupped her face, fingertips spread across her temples, creating slender bands of warmth. The heat from her touch fanned up and out, palpable energy running in tiny currents across the top of Mira's scalp.

And where Tess's thumbs hovered over her closed eyes, a stronger heat bloomed. A core of soft light began to flicker there, twin points of minuscule illumination that slowly ignited into a piercing bloodred glow. Mira flinched as the brightness blossomed behind her lids, glowing so intensely she thought her corneas might smolder.

"Am I hurting you?" Tess asked quietly. She drew her hands away, taking their power with them. "If it's uncomfortable, I can stop if you wish. We can try this another time – "

"No," Mira said. She shook her head vehemently. "No, please, keep going. Something was happening."

Tess resumed her work, and Mira weathered the unnerving heat and light that swamped her entire field of vision, filled her entire skull. She held on to Renata's hand like a lifeline, her other hand fisted in the silk coverlet on the bed.

The power of Tess's touch was lightning in her veins, in her bones and cells. Exploding behind her eyes. When she thought she couldn't take another second more, the intensity doubled. Then doubled again.

And then it was simply . . . gone.

Cool white calm settled over her, like a turbulent night storm giving way to placid daybreak.

Mira slumped forward, panting, wrung out. She felt the weight of each Breedmate's gaze as she struggled to catch her breath, slow her racing heart rate.

Tess lifted her chin on the edge of her hand. "Open your eyes."

Her lids felt like they'd been glued together, but as she carefully peeled them open, the yellow glow of a bedside table lamp seeped into her vision. Shadows took on crisper form, then cleared away altogether. She blinked up at Tess, astonished. She could see again!

She stared in total awe and gratitude, drinking in the sight of the lovely Breedmate's aquamarine eyes and halo of long, honey-blond curls. Tess nodded, holding her gaze as Mira struggled to absorb the fact that she was no longer blind.

"Oh, my God." Mira's voice was little more than a whisper, lost for words. She leapt up and pulled the healer into a tight hug. "Tess, thank you."

Dante's mate nodded, something wistful about her little smile as she stepped back to give Mira space to breathe.

And she needed it. Because all at once, she found herself caught in a round of joyous, relieved embraces from the other Breedmates in the room. Renata was first, her jade green eyes moist with tears as she hugged Mira fiercely. One by one, the rest of the women followed, showering Mira in so much love, her heart felt ready to burst.

She was so overcome, it took a moment for her to realize her eyes were bare. Not only did she risk undoing Tess's work, but her terrible talent was open to everyone in the room with her. "My lenses," she blurted, panic rising. She immediately sent her gaze downward to avoid making unintentional eye contact. "Does anyone have my lenses?"

"Here they are," Tess replied. She placed the case in Mira's hand, her voice quiet. "But I don't think you're going to need them anymore. At least, not to protect your eyesight."

"What do you mean?" Regardless of the reassurance, Mira put the contacts in before she glanced up to meet Tess's placid gaze. "Are you saying you healed me permanently?"

"I restored the sight you'd lost, but it's the blood bond that will make your gift thrive. It's been the same for all of us," Tess explained. "Kellan's blood couldn't reverse the damage, but the bond is strong inside you, enhancing your power." Tess smiled warmly. "I know you feel it."

She did feel it.

It hardly took any effort at all to recognize the steady hum of awareness that told her Kellan was alive, feeding her senses, connected to her through the powerful bond they now shared. She felt his strength living inside her, and hoped he could feel the same from her.

Tess gave Mira's hand a little squeeze and started to turn away.

"How do you know?" Mira murmured, just now realizing the impact of what the Breedmate had told her. "Tess, how can you be sure that I won't lose my sight if I use my ability now?"

And then she knew.

All of the elation Mira had felt a moment ago leaked back out of her. Her heart sank with immediate regret.

"Oh, God. Tess . . . just a few minutes ago. You were looking into my eyes."

She waved off the concern and that of the other women who had now shifted their focus onto the healer. Tess had seemed oddly quiet, reflective in the moments since Mira's sight had been restored. Now Mira understood why.

"Tess, I'm sorry." She'd be devastated if her vision had been reawakened only to wound the woman who'd helped her. "What did you see? Tell me it wasn't something awful."

"No," Tess replied, calm and kind. "Not awful at all."

"You would tell me?" Mira couldn't quell the worry that still fluttered in her breast. "Because if I hurt you just now – "

Tess shook her head slowly. Her mouth curved softly behind the fingers she brought to her lips. Her eyes kindled with a secret smile. She reached out and took Mira's hands in hers. "Your gift is extraordinary, Mira. Not a curse. It may not always be kind, but sometimes . . . sometimes it's beautiful." Tess hugged her then, warm and unhurried. Her mouth close to Mira's ear, she whispered, "Thank you for showing me the incredible family my son will have one day. I only wish my gift could bring you the same kind of miracle yours has just given me."

"Me too," Mira said, hugging Tess back.

Her flawless eyesight began to blur again . . . not with blindness, but with welling tears.

GNC director Charles Benson had to fight his way through a mob of shouting protesters camped outside the gate at his house when he returned home from the early morning press conference announcing the apprehension of the rebel leader responsible for Jeremy Ackmeyer's abduction earlier that week. Bowman's swift, covert capture by the Order had been welcome, timely news, particularly coming on the very day of the peace summit.

But it was the other revelation regarding the rebel's arrest – the discovery that not only was this villain Breed, not human, but that he was a former member of the Order besides – that had taken everyone aback, Benson included.

The public's outrage had only doubled upon that news. Outside Benson's home, the protesters' signs called the summit a mockery; some proclaimed it a deal struck with the devil himself. Other, more troubling posters were aimed directly at Benson, depicting him as a puppet dancing on the end of strings held by a caricature of Lucan Thorne, long fangs bared and slavering, catlike Breed eyes wild with mad glee.

As soon as the crowd spotted Benson arriving home, the volume and animosity of their taunts went from a healthy rumble to a skull-splitting din. Didn't they realize he was on their side? Didn't these people understand he'd been willing to sacrifice anything – too much, as it turned out – in order to ensure true peace for everyone who shared this planet with him?

Benson hurried out of his car, ducking his head to avoid the jeers as he hustled quickly across the cobblestone driveway, into the house. Once inside, he heaved a long sigh. Let his spine sag against the heavy oak front door.

The picketing was a new problem. Oh, he'd been aware of the Order's constant throng of chanting malcontents at their headquarters in the District, but to have the unrest and vitriol spread to other members of the GNC – to have it come to roost on his front stoop – was trouble he didn't need. Nor did he want that kind of negative spotlight aimed at him.

Not now. Not when he felt little pieces of his once-simple world beginning to crumble all around him.

As he collected himself, he heard his wife call to him from the kitchen, asking if she could make him a late breakfast.

"I can't right now, dear," he told her, trying to adopt a casual tone and still be heard over the ruckus outside. "I have a video conference to attend in a few minutes. I'll be in my office for a while. I don't wish to be disturbed."

His obedient wife of the past forty-six years wouldn't dream of interrupting his work. He loved that about Martha. Loved that she trusted him unquestioningly to manage all of the important things in their marriage and household, the same way she trusted him to be steadfastly moral in the business of his political office, devoting his life to ensuring the stability of the free world.

To Martha, even balding, gray, and wrinkled, he was a god. Not the puppet dangling at the end of someone else's strings.

Not the man whose conscience lately was a leaden weight becoming harder and harder to bear.

Benson crossed the gleaming foyer of his home and headed for his office down the hall. Instead of entering, he closed the tall double doors to make it appear he was sequestered inside, then ducked down the stairwell to the secret second office tucked behind a false wall in the wine cellar of the grand old house.

Inside this room was a private workstation, intended for a single purpose. He opened the computer and typed in the access code, waited with unblinking eyes as the security program scanned his retinas to confirm his identification. Once it had finished, he was connected via comm feed to a prearranged meeting with his colleagues. Not the GNC, but another, more recent, group of colleagues to whom Benson reported.

This group, totaling thirteen powerful men from both the human and Breed races – heads of state, business magnates, religious leaders – were stationed in all corners of the globe. Together they formed a secret cabal who called themselves Opus Nostrum.

Although he was openly known to them, Benson wasn't privy to their names, had never seen their faces. Anonymity was key, plausible deniability a must. Their goals were too important to risk. Their methods often too severe to reconcile.

As was the most recent decision, the one that prompted his emergency call to the brotherhood.

Benson sat back anxiously in his chair as a world map filled his monitor, then, one by one, the members of Opus Nostrum linked in from their various locations. Several reported in from North and South America. Others from Europe and Asia, even one from Africa. On-screen, each member was represented by a point on the map, their voices digitally masked.

Benson, however, was displayed to the thirteen men on video camera, his identity fully exposed. He knew this was intended to remind him of his vulnerability to the cabal, and it worked. They owned him now. After what he'd done for them in recent months, Opus Nostrum owned a piece of his soul.

One of the North American members was the first to speak when all thirteen positions had turned active on-screen. His computer-altered voice was pitched unnaturally low. "A most enjoyable press conference this morning, Director Benson. We are pleased to know the GNC has their villain in custody and the public will soon have the justice they crave. So much the better that the Order finds it's dragged into the fray by one of its own." A chuckle rumbled out of the computer's sound system. "We couldn't have laid a better snare for Lucan and his warriors if we'd planned Ackmeyer's abduction and killing ourselves."

Benson hoped his shaky smile didn't betray his unease. The other piece of public knowledge was the fact that Benson had enlisted the Order's protection for his nephew in the days leading up to the kidnapping. Benson had been worried about Jeremy's safety, fearful that something untoward might happen to the scientist – perpetrated by the faceless power brokers now waiting for his reply.

Benson cleared his throat. "I am . . . relieved that the brotherhood is pleased with how things have progressed. And I share Opus Nostrum's vision for a peaceful future for the world. That's why I gave you my nephew's ultraviolet technology."

"And you were handsomely rewarded for it," replied the one who always seemed to lead the others in these assemblies. "I trust you and the missus have been enjoying your prestigious new address these past several months."

Benson didn't answer. Fact was, he had been enjoying the stately residence in the District's most exclusive neighborhood. The keys to the mansion and a cleared deed, paid for in cash, had been delivered to his office by anonymous courier the morning after he'd turned over Jeremy's prototypes and data on the unreleased Morningstar project. Accepting the house in reward for stolen intelligence was one thing; living under a roof bought with the blood of innocent lives was another.

"You did the right thing, giving us the tech," said the detached, emotionless voice through the computer. "Tonight's event at the summit gala would not be possible without it."

"Yes, but . . ." Benson's voice went rusty, threatening to fail him altogether. In the silence, he could almost feel the weight of thirteen pairs of eyes trained on him, ruthlessly assessing him from within the secret, scattered lairs of the organization's far-reaching membership. "It's just that I thought . . . I never intended for Jeremy to be harmed, that's all."

"Is that why you contacted the Order to arrange for his private escort to the summit?"

Benson knew he blanched at the question, inevitable or not. "He was innocent, as innocent as a child about most things. I didn't want my involvement with Opus Nostrum to impact him in any way. I was afraid the brotherhood might have considered him some kind of liability. I was afraid something might happen to him – "

"So you thought it wise to betray our trust instead."

"No," Benson replied, shaking his head vigorously. "No, I didn't betray you. I wouldn't. I asked the Order to bring Jeremy safely to the peace summit, that's all."

And once arrived, once Opus Nostrum's mission for the summit had been unleashed and the world attempted to set itself to rights under a new paradigm of rule, Benson had planned to send his nephew deep into hiding, along with Martha and the rest of his family.

There was a long silence before the one in charge responded. "You sought to keep your nephew safe, yet it was your own actions that dictated his death. His abduction only made him a greater liability to the cause than he already was. Compound that risk when you factor in that it was a former member of the Order who held him. Why did these Breed-led rebels want him? What might he have told them?" The distorted voice had gone thin and low with menace. "These are troubling questions, Director Benson. Be thankful we were given a chance to correct part of your mistake. Your nephew's death is the only reason you and the rest of your family are being permitted to breathe right now. And the additional technologies we gathered from his laboratory before we razed it will further Opus Nostrum's goals for years to come."

Benson swallowed past the fear that sat like a cold stone in the back of his throat. These men would not be stopped. Nor was any one life worth more than an instant's notice if it stood in the way of their plans. He should've known that from the beginning, when they first approached him with their anonymous invitation to be part of a new, powerful vision for the future.

He should've known it three months ago, when men loyal to Opus Nostrum killed an unarmed, innocent Breed civilian in Boston, gunning him down in the street as a field test of Jeremy's ultraviolet technology adapted for use in weaponry.

"We are united in our purpose to usher in true, lasting peace," said the voice of Opus Nostrum. "Our goal is to bring about a new dawn, something that cannot be possible so long as the Order is in the picture. With them we run the risk that Lucan Thorne and his ever-expanding army of warriors can bring down their fist on anything Opus Nostrum puts into play. I'm sure none of us needs a reminder of how, just a decade ago after the accident in Russia, Lucan took it upon himself to eradicate all chemical and nuclear weapons facilities around the world."

"Accident," one of the brotherhood scoffed. "I wonder if we'll ever know who was responsible for turning that large swath of earth into Deadlands."

"Human or Breed, it doesn't matter," said the one in charge. "The lesson learned for us is that Lucan Thorne can never be permitted to exercise that kind of power again. How long do you imagine he'll be content to labor under the political yoke of the GNC? How long before he and his warriors decide diplomacy and negotiations have run their course? Is that a risk any of you here are willing to take with the future of our shared world?"

A round of supporting responses sounded from all thirteen members, and Benson gamely joined in, knowing that to disagree now would only put Martha and the rest of his loved ones in danger. The tentacles of his past actions held him trapped in this alliance now, and he had little choice but to play along.

After the group quieted once more, the first member spoke again. "The Order must be eliminated. And what better way to demonstrate Opus Nostrum's might than to take them down in one fell swoop at the gala tonight, in full public view around the globe?"

Benson didn't bother to point out that the plan to kill Lucan and the rest of the Order would also mean the deaths of every Breed diplomat and civilian in attendance. The members of Opus Nostrum surely understood that fact, both the humans among the thirteen and those of them who were Breed.

No doubt they also realized that an annihilation like the one they had planned for the summit gathering could very well incite full-scale war between the vampire nation and mankind.

War that could last for decades. Or longer.

"No sacrifice is too great for the ultimate cause of a lasting peace," the leader of the conspirators reminded them. "A true peace that can only be had with the Order out of our way."

The group answered in unanimous agreement. Then someone began to chant the cabal's motto: "Pax opus nostrum."

One by one, each member joined in, until the phrase rumbled so loudly, Benson worried Martha might hear it through the walls of his secret hideaway in their ill-gotten abode. But he knew all eyes were on him, so he picked up the chant too, murmuring the Latin phrase that proclaimed "Peace is our work."

"Until tonight, my brethren," said the synthesized, inhuman voice Benson would hear in his nightmares for probably the rest of his days. "And a word of advice, Director. The eyes of Opus Nostrum are everywhere. Don't even think about betraying our trust again."

Benson nodded. He waited until the group signed off, then he closed his computer and exhaled, collapsing in a boneless heap onto the top of his desk. "What have I done?" he moaned into the crook of his elbow. "God, forgive me. What have I done?"