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"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.

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