Cold comprehension washed through Rowan like a river of ice.

"Son of a bitch." Rowan was inside the server room now. He had his weapon raised, aimed at the back of the human's head. "Get up before I decorate this room with your gray matter." The man came up slowly, hands raised in surrender. Rowan wasn't surprised at all to find himself staring into the dull gaze of a Minion.

Behind Dragos's mind slave, the countdown clock on the bomb's detonator was speeding in fractions of seconds. Not even ten minutes to go.

"Shut it off," Rowan snarled. He put the gun right up in the Minion's face, already feeling the points of his fangs emerging with his anger. "Do it now, asshole."

The Minion just stared, unblinking. Unmoving. Unfazed. "Pull the trigger now or watch this place erupt around us in less than nine minutes. It makes no difference to me, vampire. Either way, my Master's orders are fulfilled."

Rowan's lips peeled back from his fangs on a growl. He wanted nothing more than to waste this soulless bastard and wipe the smug look from his face with a whole lot of gunpowder and lead.

He wanted it so fiercely, he didn't hear the other Minion creep up behind him until it was too late to fend off the coming blow. Something hard and cold smashed across the side of his head. Stunned, he felt his legs go out from under him.

Dropped on all fours, he turned his head and saw the length of steel pipe swinging down at him again, a direct hit aimed at the center of his face.

MOTHER OF GOD, Chase thought as he stared at the massive Gen One male in front of them. "Back the way we came," he ordered Tavia. "Find Rowan. Get out of here."

But before she took the first step, even as he told her to go, he knew it was too late for any of them to run and hope to get away. Too late to open fire on the Hunter, a highly specialized weapon, born and bred in Dragos's labs for a single purpose: to kill.

The assassin saw the gun in Chase's hand and sent it flying from his grasp with the power of his mind. It hurtled into a framed watercolor on the near wall, pistol and painting crashing to the reception area floor.

Chase glanced past the bulk of the assassin in front of him, gauging the odds of getting Tavia out through the shattered window, their only viable exit. They'd never make it. And behind them in the clinic was nothing but silence. For all he knew, Mathias could already be dead, whether from more Hunters like this one or some other threat, Chase could only guess.

He knew one thing for certain: There would be no mercy here, only unfailing execution of Dragos's orders.

The assassin's dark gaze skimmed past Chase to settle and lock on Tavia. There was pure menace in those unfeeling eyes, clear and cold, unswerving. A sniper's sights trained on its target. Chase understood the message at once. It was Tavia this Hunter had come for; Chase was merely standing in the way.

The assassin took a bold step forward, broken glass crunching under his black combat boots. "Release the female."

Chase snorted at the command. "Like hell I will." He tightened his hold on Tavia's wrist, feeling her tendons go taut against his fingers as he wheeled her behind him. No way would this laboratory-raised killing machine get anywhere near her so long as Chase was breathing. He felt the feral stirrings of Bloodlust coming to life inside him, and instead of fighting the savage part of him, he welcomed it. "You want her," he growled at Dragos's homegrown killer, "then you're gonna have to come through me first."

The assassin didn't so much as blink at the threat. Nor did he reach for his own weapon. No, these killers were trained to disarm and end an opponent even more swiftly using bare hands and brute Gen One strength. Chase had seen more than one of them in action before, knowledge that made his own muscles twitch with instant battle-readiness as the Hunter lowered his chin and strode forward.

The assassin made a grab for Tavia, a long-armed swing that Chase blocked with a downward thrust of his elbow. As the Hunter's reach fell away - a moment's distraction that was all they could hope for - Chase turned a wild look on Tavia behind him.

"Run!" he shouted, his transformed irises gilding her stricken face in a fiery amber glow. "Get out of here, any way you can!"

The words were barely out of his mouth before the assassin's hands took hold of him. Suddenly he was airborne. He smashed into the sliding, opaque windows that separated the waiting room from the receptionist's workspace on the other side of the wall. Beaded safety glass exploded all around him with the impact.

As he dropped to the floor amid the raining debris, he saw the Hunter stalking toward Tavia. The punishing hands came down on her shoulders, yanking her into the killer's grasp.

"No!" Chase's rage poured out of him on a roar. He got to his feet and vaulted through the air in one furious leap.

The assassin staggered as Chase plowed into him. He lost his grasp on Tavia, snarling as she jumped out of his reach. But the Gen One bastard didn't go down. Chase slammed his fist into the side of the male's jaw, a repeated assault that cracked bone and teeth, yet hardly registered in the cold nonreaction of Dragos's trained Hunter.

And damn it, Tavia wasn't running as he'd ordered her. She had precious little chance of getting away as it was, and every second mattered. If this fight ended him here and now, she was finished too.

He started to bark another command at her to get the hell out of there, but her raised voice interrupted the thought.

Her warning drew his attention to the assassin's free hand, which was coming up with a nasty-looking blade. He dodged the swift slice of the weapon, but the defensive move cost him. Still clinging to the Hunter, still landing blow after blow as the Gen One heaved beneath him like a wild horse, Chase didn't have time to react before the blade came at him again. This time it connected - a stunning blast of cold and pain stabbing into the side of his rib cage.

Agony exploded behind his eyelids. His punctured lung wheezed out a sharp gasp, the edges of his vision going gray and murky. The assassin threw him off like the dead weight he'd suddenly become, then pivoted around to finish him off.

"Chase!" Tavia screamed. She started running toward him, even as the Hunter raised his huge dagger over Chase's body, poised for the killing strike.

Chase's protective instincts warred with the pain and injury that had taken him down. He couldn't fail her like this. He couldn't let Tavia face the wrath of Dragos's killing machine all alone.

He bellowed past the anguish of his searing lungs and the dense fog of unconsciousness that was rising up to engulf him. In the split second the Hunter moved in above him for the kill, Chase rolled out of the blade's path and came up fast to his feet. The assassin swung toward him, dagger about to strike again, cold eyes narrowed in the open space of the Hunter's black head covering.

And there was Tavia too, standing behind the massive Gen One in the blink of an eye. Her bright green irises glittered with flashes of amber now. The smooth angles of her face were drawn tight across her delicate bones. Chase saw the purpose in her transforming gaze and tried to dissuade her with a subtle shake of his head.

Lips parted over the elongated tips of her fangs, she reached out with lightning-quick speed to grab the Hunter's upraised hand. She caught it in both of hers and wrenched it, a savage twist of motion. Bone and tendons gave up with an audible crack. As his blade tumbled to the floor, the assassin hissed, whirling on her like a viper.

His useless hand drooping at his side, the Hunter lashed out with the other and took hold of Tavia by the front of her throat. Only then did the cold assassin's training slip its tether. His fangs punched out from his gums as he bore down on Tavia, his fingers clamped ruthlessly around her neck.

Chase's own rage went nuclear. The sight of her gasping and sputtering, clawing at the punishing vise that was squeezing the life from her, put him in motion like nothing ever had before.

He lunged for his dropped pistol and came up firing, his arm steady despite the pain in his chest and the feral roar of his veins. Merciless, Chase plugged round after round into the Hunter's head. The skull splintered, spraying Tavia with blood and gore as the big Gen One staggered under the assault and, finally, dropped in a motionless heap at her feet.

TAVIA STARED at the dead Breed male, inhaling on shallow gasps, all she could manage after the bruising hold that would have crushed the life from her if not for Chase. She could taste blood on her lips, could smell it in her hair and on her skin and clothes. It turned her stomach, but at the same time it roused a dark power deep inside her.

If she had wanted to deny it before, now there was no room for doubt.

She was one of them - one of the Breed.

She felt that power living within her, a power that gave her strength to stand by without flinching as Chase stalked forward and chambered the last round in his pistol. He eyed the assassin with contempt, toeing the ruined head to expose a thick black collar that ringed the dead male's neck. Chase took aim on that collar and fired the final bullet at it, point blank.

A flash of light - impossibly bright - exploded all around them. Immediately Tavia felt Chase's body shielding her, his strong arms wrapped around her as the nimbus of pure white light shot out then vanished just as quickly. Chase's heat lingered only a moment longer than that, safe and comforting. Then it too was gone.

"Are you okay?" he asked, his voice rough, urgent.

She looked down at the head that was now severed from its body and smoldering. "I'm all right," she said, even though her throat felt raw, her voice a sandpaper growl when she tried to speak. "Wh-what about you?"

Her fangs throbbed at the scent of his spilling blood, which leaked from the stab wound in his side. Chase shrugged off his injury with little more than a grimace. "I'll survive." He grabbed her hand and steered her away from the carnage.

"That light," she said as she ran along beside him. "What did you do? What came out of that collar?"

"UV rays. Dragos makes his Hunters wear obedience devices around their necks. Any tampering or damage trips the ultraviolet detonator."

"Good to know," she said, still astonished and shaken by all she'd witnessed. She took one last glance behind them as Chase guided her into the corridor with him. "How many Hunters does Dragos have?"

Gunfire sounded from somewhere near the back of the clinic, a rapid hail of shots that echoed all the way into Tavia's bones. "Mathias." Chase swore under his breath. "I won't leave him behind."

He didn't argue this time. Together they raced down the long corridor of the clinic.

They found Mathias Rowan limping out from a back room, fresh blood smeared in a trail behind him. His head was bleeding profusely, and his left leg dragged stiffly as he hobbled toward them. "Get out! Get out now! There's a bomb in the server room," he shouted, waving them back. "I killed the two Minions who set it, but the timer is counting down fast. We have to get out of here now!"

They ran for the front window of the clinic and had barely cleared the building before a low rumble stirred deep underground. It expanded, in both vibration and roar, growing stronger as the three hurried across the snow-filled meadow.

The blast that followed was bone-rattling.

Fire lit the night sky as Dr. Lewis's clinic - and all its decades of secrets and lies - erupted in a ball of flames and smoke and flying debris.

THE ANTIQUE CHAIR in Dragos's island lair had been in his possession for more than a century. An uncomfortable monstrosity, it was a throne carved of six-hundred-year-old Wallachian hardwood and acquired from an old church in the southwestern Transylvanian Alps. Legend had it that the polished seat and dragon's-head arms had once held the weight of a bloodthirsty medieval ruler whose name instilled fear in most humans even to this day.

Dragos normally found such folklore amusing at best. Tonight, he envied the mortal dread the chair's former owner had inspired in his subjects.

Tonight, Dragos longed to mete out that kind of raw, unholy terror - not only on those who served him but on the world as a whole.

His rage had started earlier that day, when the vice president had failed to show at Senator Clarence's memorial service. A last-minute security concern had forced the human government official to cancel his appearance in Boston. As for Dragos, the wasted daylight trip and an hour lost waiting among the throng of human mourners hadn't done anything to improve his mood. Nor did the fact that now his calls to the politician's office were being routed to lackeys who politely brushed him off with offers to check the vice president's calendar for availability to meet again sometime later in the year.

Dragos snarled just thinking on it.

His fingernails dug into the wooden arms of the Impaler's throne as he watched the news coverage of a fire raging out of control in a private stretch of land in the rural town of Sherborn. It wasn't the loss of Dr. Lewis's clinic that had Dragos's fury escalating; the destruction of the building and its collected data had been on his command, an order issued soon after he'd been made aware of his Minion doctor's demise.

It was the fact that his dispatched Hunter had not reported back with Tavia Fairchild that had his temper simmering toward a full boil. He'd sent the assassin to fetch her at nightfall, suspecting that she'd end up back at the clinic sooner than later, curiosity about her true past certain to carry her right back into her creator's hands. Dragos had been so looking forward to schooling beautiful Tavia in all the ways she could please him, now that the facade of her mortal existence had been stripped away.