Page 35


Mira stared from her seat beside Niko and Renata, her eyes swimming with tears, fingers pressed to her lips. It killed him that she had to know this fear, this dread. This damned feeling of helplessness as they waited for the Council to begin delivering its verdict.


And then that moment arrived, and Kellan steeled himself to face the end of a path he'd been trying to avoid for the past eight years of his life.


Lucan soberly addressed the Council, instructing them to state their individual votes one at a time, calling for either incarceration for life or a sentence of death. "As chairman, my vote customarily would be heard last," he said. "However, as a condition of this private hearing - because it concerns a former warrior under my command as leader of the Order - the Council has required me to recuse myself from today's proceedings. I will not vote on sentencing, and the Council's decision will be final."


Kellan nodded his acknowledgment, then stood at attention as the voting began. There was little deliberation. Each Council member announced his vote, arriving at a surprisingly split tally across the GNC's human and Breed members.


Seven votes, representing both races, cast for his incarceration.


Eight others called for death.


One vote remaining.


The hearing would either end in a tie or a firm decision for Kellan's eventual execution.


It all came down to the councilman slumped at the end of the dais, Jeremy Ackmeyer's uncle. Kellan peered at Benson, sensing something more than simple grief or vengeance in the old man's troubled gaze. He'd been drinking, Kellan suspected now, noting the boneless sag of his shoulders, the glassy redness of his eyes.


"Director Benson," Lucan prompted, sending a glance over at him. "Are you prepared to state your decision?"


The old man grunted, lifted his head to glare in Kellan's direction. When he spoke, the word was blunt, final. "Death."


Kellan heard Mira's sharply inhaled breath. He felt her stricken reaction course through him, jolting his pulse like an electric shock as her worry shot into him through their blood bond.


"No." Her voice in the seated assembly behind him sounded broken, choked with tears. "No! He didn't kill your nephew, Director Benson. He had nothing to do with the fire at Jeremy's lab or his death. You have to believe that! Do the right thing here. You have to show him mercy - "


"Mira, don't." Kellan pivoted to look as she flew out of her seat and started to rush forward in his defense. Alongside him, the four Breed guards went tense. He felt their alarm roll off them, noted they were all readying to draw their weapons.


"No!" Mira cried. "Lucan, don't let this happen, please!"


Kellan saw Lucan's grim look. Understood that the Order's leader had already done all he could. There was nothing more that could be said or done to spare Kellan.


"No," Mira sobbed, dropping her face into her palms.


Her anguish twisted his heart in a stranglehold. He hated that he was putting her through this, just as he'd dreaded all the years he'd stayed away, hoping to avoid this very moment.


At the far end of the chamber, Benson was shaking his head, muttering under his breath. "It's all gone too far," he slurred, his head hung low, face drooping as he spoke. "Too far now. I finally see that, when it's too late to make things right."


Kellan listened, curiosity prickling to attention as Benson rambled, morose and cryptic. There was remorse in the old man's voice, that much was unmistakable. And there was something else, something that made Kellan's blood pound in his temples.


"Too late for Jeremy," Benson murmured, thoroughly swept up in his own private misery. "Such a brilliant life, cut short. He was a pure soul, that boy, incorruptible. A true light-bringer who could've changed the world."


Light-bringer.


An unusual phrase. The very one Ackmeyer had used to describe his unreleased UV technology project.


Holy hell.


Benson was the one who stole the prototype. The realization sank in like talons in Kellan's gut. His blood froze, then immediately spiked volcanic with rage.


"Morningstar," he growled, all of his fury locked on the old man at the end of the Council assembly. Benson's drink-glazed eyes flew wide with guilt and terror. "You son of a bitch. It was you."


On a furious roar, Kellan lunged.


He felt the sudden rush of moving bodies behind him as he sprang airborne for the end of the dais. He heard Mira's scream. Heard the rapid explosions of gunfire going off in his wake.


He felt the sudden hail of pain, an unending volley of rounds, ripping into his torso and limbs as he came down on top of Benson and took the corrupt councilman to the floor.


Mira's voice was a heartrending shriek of anguish. "Kellan!"


He knew she felt the echo of his body's injuries and rage. Her terror merged with his own emotions, but he was too far gone to rein himself in. He gripped Benson around the throat. "Tell me who you gave the tech to, you goddamned bastard. Tell me!"


The human wouldn't talk. He clamped his molars together, drunken eyes fearful, though more for an unseen threat than for the vampire currently choking the life out of him. Kellan's heart thundered in his ears, so loud and labored, it was all he could hear as his blood pumped out of him, pouring from the countless holes perforating his body and limbs. The damage was total; the blood wouldn't stop.


He was dying.


The thought came at him, swift and certain, cutting through the chaos erupting all around him as time raced by in speeding instants.


He shouldn't have been surprised, given everything Mira's vision had predicted. But damn it, the shock of what he was feeling went through him like poison.


"Who killed him? You sold out your own flesh and blood - tell me who you did it for, Benson." With a snarl, he struggled to keep his hands wrapped around the human's neck as his strength began to seep out of him. He had to know, couldn't die like this without giving the Order something to go on after he was gone. If the human refused to choke out the answers Kellan demanded, then he would drag the truth from his mind.


Kellan read regret in the old man. Remorse for what he'd done, bringing about the murder of his nephew and soon the deaths of countless others. So many deaths to come, all under the guise of peace.


Kellan's grip started to slacken. He couldn't hold on. Not even when Benson scrabbled out of his reach and was swept away by GNC and JUSTIS guards. He rolled onto his back and found himself staring up at the hazy shadows of Lucan and the rest of the Order. He tried to speak but only coughed, sputtering blood as pain lanced through every inch of his body.


More than one warrior breathed a low curse as they looked down on him.


"Someone go after Benson," Lucan growled. "Goddamn it. Bring that son of a bitch in for questioning. Now."


"Kellan." Mira's voice was shattered with tears and anguish. She pushed through the warriors and dropped to her knees beside him. She grabbed his hand, clasped it against her breast as a sob racked her. "Oh, Kellan. No!"


Mira folded herself over him, weeping with a raw grief that destroyed him, even more than the bullets or his many past failures. He wanted to tell her he was sorry. He wanted to tell her that he loved her. That he always had, and always would, no matter what waited for him on the other side now.


But she knew that.


She looked into his face and nodded through her tears, her fingers light on his brow, trembling as she wiped the blood from his mouth and bent to kiss him.


Kellan wanted to tell her the words anyway, but there was something else she needed to hear. Something all of the Order needed to hear.


"Opus Nostrum," Kellan murmured, barely a whisper, fighting with all he had for the breath to speak as the space between one heartbeat and the next stretched longer every second. "Stop Opus Nostrum."


Chapter Twenty-Five


NO.


Oh, God . . . no, this couldn't be happening.


"Kellan." Mira squeezed his hand, felt the strength leach out of his grasp as his eyes fell closed. "Kellan? Oh, no . . . No, Kellan, please, stay with me. Don't let go."


But he was already drifting away from her, being pulled by unseen hands that wouldn't release him. She felt their blood bond stretch tight, thinner and thinner, a gossamer strand that couldn't be reeled back in, no matter how hard she willed it.


And then it broke.


She felt the pluck of shock as the connection severed. Felt her heart go numb and empty, set adrift in her breast.


Oh, God. She'd lost him.


Lost him all over again.


"Kellan, no," she cried, choking on hot, stinging tears. "No!"


She couldn't hold back her sobs. Her grief tore out of her, jagged and raw, as she collapsed atop his lifeless body and wept.


Kellan was gone.


Dead.


Just like her vision had shown her.


She wailed his name over and over again, out of her head with sorrow and soul-shredding anguish. She didn't want to believe that he was gone, but his hand was limp in hers, his strong body motionless, drenched in his spilled blood. So full of grievous, terrible wounds.


They'd killed him.


Her love.


Her mate.


Her best friend, her partner . . . her everything.


Gone.


Mira barely registered the hands that came to rest lightly on her shoulders as she clung to Kellan's lifeless body, bereft and sobbing. She barely heard Nikolai's low voice, his careful, quiet tone making the horror of it all seem even more real. "Mira," he said gently.


Renata was with him too, both of them trying to give her comfort. Rennie's fingers caressed the back of her head. "Come on, Mouse. Let him go, sweetheart."


"No," she growled, batting away the hands that had always provided her so much comfort as a child. Niko and Renata had always been able to make things better for her when she was a little girl. They were her parents in every way that mattered, the strong shoulders and loving arms she could forever count on whenever she needed them. But not today. Not now. They couldn't fix this, couldn't make it go away.


"They killed him," she murmured, miserable with despair. "Oh, God . . . They killed him."


She swung her head around to look up at Nikolai and Renata. Lucan and most of the Order were there too, the warriors and their Breedmates gathering solemnly around Kellan's body. Silent, shocked, everyone at a loss for words.


And behind them all, gaping in morbid curiosity, the members of the GNC - most of whom had needed no convincing to call for Kellan's death. They stared now, Breed and human alike, bobbing heads jockeying to get a glimpse of their reviled villain's body. Mira felt venom seethe through her veins at the sight of the Council members. They were as much to blame for Kellan's death as the JUSTIS guards who opened fire on him.


Contempt boiled up inside her, erupting on an anguished roar. "Get out of here," she snarled at the Council. "Get away from him, all of you!"


She launched herself at them, but Niko caught her in a sure grasp, held her back when every cell in her body was screaming for vengeance. Her despairing wail sounded animal, even to her own ears. She sagged into Nikolai's arms, tears flooding her vision.


"Take her back to headquarters," Lucan told Niko and Renata, his deep voice grave but low with sympathy. "See that she's comfortable. Whatever she needs."


Mira couldn't fight the arms that drew her away now. She had no strength, no will. No feeling at all.


Her chest seemed as though it were cracked open and filled with a cold, numbing wind.


Kellan was dead.


Mira walked woodenly, not even sure she was breathing anymore, as Nikolai and Renata led her out of the silent chamber.


Lucan threw a glower at the gawking GNC members as Mira was taken away from the scene. His vision was hot, sparking amber. His fangs felt sharp against his tongue when he spoke, his voice vibrating with lethal rage. "Show's over. You got your pound of flesh. Now get the fuck out of here."


The group scattered, silent and afraid. As they fled the chamber, Dante came in from the back where Benson had escaped. "The director's dead, Lucan. Found him in the rear corridor just now. Shot three times, point blank in the head. No sign of the JUSTIS officers who followed him out."


"Son of a bitch." Lucan raked a hand over his scalp. Benson had known something about Ackmeyer's UV technology. He'd practically confessed as much in the seconds before Kellan leapt at him. Benson had apparently known enough about Morningstar, and whoever now had their hands on the tech, for someone to make sure he didn't get the opportunity to say anything more. But who, and why?


And just how far did this conspiracy reach?


Now there was another question that needed swift answers as well: Who, or what, was Opus Nostrum?


Lucan glanced back at Kellan, at the dozens of gunshot wounds that took the young male down. "It didn't have to go like this, goddamn it. He deserved better. He deserved a chance at something more - he and Mira both."


Dante nodded grimly. "Maybe there's a way to make it right."


The warrior sent a meaningful look to his Breedmate, Tess, who stood with the rest of the Order and their mates. Before either Lucan or Dante could say another word, Tess was in action, picking up on the thought and dropping down beside Kellan to run her healing hands over him. "His blood's still warm, but his heart is stopped."


"Can you jump it?" Lucan recalled an event Dante had described to him from Tess's life before she met her warrior mate. As a young woman, she'd once revived someone who'd passed suddenly from heart failure. Later, in her work as a veterinarian, she'd even cured a sickly little mutt of its cancer and other ailments using her extraordinary Breedmate talent.

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