He took his seat at the head of his long conference table, facing the wall of monitors mounted in front of him. Four screens showed the faces of his lieutenants: Arno Pike of the Enforcement Agency in Boston; Ruarke Louvell, longtime Agency director from Seattle; reporting in from Europe was Moric Kaszab of the Agency in Budapest; and, last, Nigel Traherne, a well- connected, well-heeled Darkhaven leader from London and the only one of Dragos's surviving circle not intimately associated with the Enforcement Agency.

There had been three others in this cadre at one time, ultimately unworthy males who'd met their ends in various violent ways. Dragos had personally seen to that. The names - Fabian, Roth, and Vachon - hardly registered to him now. They were dust under his boot heels, insignificant.

What the eight of them had shared in common, Dragos and his inner circle of seven loyal foot soldiers, was their second-generation bloodlines and, more crucially, the unshakable belief that it was the Breed - not humankind - that deserved to rule this orbiting clump of rock. For many long decades, they'd worked together, plotting and conspiring, secretly fueling the operation's vision with materiel, personnel and funding, intel and support. Everything Dragos asked for, including their unwavering allegiance.

The four standing by on video now still held to the belief that Dragos's vision for the future was the only acceptable one. They believed in him as their leader. Their eventual king. So long as they did, and until they proved to be ineffectual or a liability to his goals, Dragos would permit them to live. He might even make good on his promise that they would enjoy some of the spoils soon to come.

Very soon, he thought, hardly able to contain the excitement that coursed through him when he considered the chaos he was about to deliver on the world.

"Gentlemen," he said, giving them each a nod of greeting. "We have waited a long time for this moment. But no more. I've summoned you all tonight to let you know that our triumph is finally at hand."

Cold smiles and eager gazes met the comment. Dragos let the current of dark excitement settle in for a moment, reveling in his power. Although his decision earlier tonight had come on the heels of outrage and vengeful impulse, he'd had time enough to consider all the ramifications of the Armageddon he was about to enact. If it had seemed a fitting solution before, now, with a cooler, more calculating head, he was even more convinced it was time to throw down the gauntlet.

"Each of you in this meeting was brought into my trust because of a common resolve. A dream we all shared, to design a world around our own ideals. Our own liberties and laws. We are close, my comrades. Close enough that it would be unthinkable that our vision for our world - for the future of our very race - should be derailed by the Order or the fools who would ally with them." He scanned the faces of his lieutenants, pleased to see the rancor simmering in more than one pair of narrowed eyes. "With victory in our grasp, we cannot afford to let it slip through our fingers. Our time of hiding and planning and waiting is over." Dragos slammed his fist on the table in front of him as he rose out of his chair. "I'm sick to death with all of it! The time has come to make this goddamn world bleed!"

Three of the four Breed males staring back at him gave assenting nods at this explosive declaration of war. Dragos's breath sawed in and out of his lungs, rekindled fury making his veins prickle with violent impulse. That smoldering aggression deepened when he looked to Nigel Traherne and found the Londoner frowning, his fair-haired head shaking slowly in quiet dissent.

"You have something to say, Mr. Traherne?"

Nigel cleared his throat, looking suddenly uncomfortable. As well he should. "If I am correct in assuming what you have in mind, sire ..."

The words trailed off, unnecessary to complete. Everyone assembled in this room understood precisely what he was suggesting. It had been the operation's worst-case scenario option all along.

"An act of this magnitude cannot be undone," Traherne cautioned. "I have to wonder if, perhaps ... sire, I fear that recent setbacks in your endeavors to acquire the American senator and clear the path into other areas of human governments may be pushing you into somewhat rash thinking."

"Rash thinking." Dragos grunted, his fists braced on the table, knuckles crushing the polished wood. He fumed over the challenge to his authority. The foolhardy dissent. But he refrained from lashing out. Barely. "Do I seem rash to the rest of you?"

One by one, the other three lieutenants weighed in with their support.

"I'm more than tired of waiting." Obedient, bloodthirsty Pike spoke out first. "I trust you to guide us, sire, as you've done all along. I am prepared to strike on your command."

"I'll be honest," added Louvell. "I've often feared it would come to this. But I'm on board, whatever is decided. I've come too far to turn back now. We all have."

Kaszab grinned a nasty smirk, his dark eyes gleaming. "Mankind has held the reins of power for long enough. I, for one, am more than ready to see the Breed rise up to rule the night as is our birthright."

Dragos looked back to Traherne's uneasy expression and shrugged. "Clearly, you are alone in your concerns, Nigel."

Dragos held up his hand and gave a mild shake of his head. "I understand, of course. Decisions like this - like many of the ones necessary to have brought our operation to this pivotal moment and the victory that awaits on the other side - are not for the squeamish or the meek."

"Sire, I've gone along more than willingly on everything else thus far. I still believe in the cause - you must know that." Fear had crept into the vampire's voice now, and a note of something else. Sorrow, Dragos hazarded to guess, watching the proud male's face collapse into a hopeless sag. "Sire, my Breedmate is expecting our child any day now. My two older sons have given me more than a dozen grandchildren - fine boys who will come into adulthood in the world we create. I agree that the Breed should seize its place as the dominant race on this planet. I only hope there is a better way to ensure that happens."

Dragos crossed his arms over his chest, waiting for Traherne to exhaust his problematic, eleventh-hour attack of conscience. Behind the male, the assassin assigned to ensure his security kept his gaze fixed on Dragos. A leashed but lethal hound awaiting his master's command. "I've long had my reservations about bringing a civilian into this circle," Dragos stated evenly. "But you've proven valuable, Nigel. You brought me Breedmates for the breeding and genetics programs. You located some of the brightest human scientific minds to become the Minion staff of the operation's laboratories. You poured in hundreds of millions of dollars over the decades to help outfit the facilities, and you provided valuable intel from both a social and political standpoint among the European branches of the Breed nation."

"Yes, sire," he agreed eagerly. "And I did all of that because I have faith in you, in your vision."

Dragos's anger hadn't ebbed a bit. But he smiled, his mouth feeling tight with the presence of his emerging fangs. "I've never doubted your faith, my good Mr. Traherne. You've had the heart and the means. You even had the malice, when it was called for. What you've always lacked, however, was balls." With the faintest flick of his eyes, Dragos signaled to the Hunter who stood behind Traherne. "End him."

The kill was swift and clean. On the video monitor, Traherne's eyes bulged as his head fell forward, twisted at an unnatural angle on his broken neck. His skull landed with a hard thump on the desk in front of him.

Dragos barely paid the death even a second's notice. He let the dead lieutenant remain on- screen as he turned his attention back to the three other members of his unholy alliance. "We have ventured where none before us has dared," he told them without missing a beat. "Now we begin preparations to take the ultimate step toward securing our rightful place in history."

THEY HEADED NORTH in a large black Land Rover SUV, hours out of Boston and deep into the state of Maine.

Tavia hadn't wanted to go anywhere with anyone, least of all a group of three heavily armed Breed males and a leather-clad woman who seemed equally dangerous with or without the guns and blades that bristled from her weapons belt. But Chase's promise that she would be safe with them - safe at the Order's haven, which was where they headed now - was reassurance enough for her to accept.

He sat in the backseat of the vehicle, sandwiched between her and the apparent warrior in charge of their retrieval, a formidable male with unforgiving gem-green eyes and a mane of shaggy, tawny hair. His name was Tegan. Nikolai and Renata sat up front, the fast-talking, quick- witted blond warrior behind the wheel and his ebony-haired mate next to him in the passenger seat.

Riding in the jump seat behind Tavia, Chase, and Tegan was a stoic giant of a male with close-cropped, light brown hair and piercing golden eyes. Of all the vehicle's occupants, it was this one who put Tavia most on guard. Cool, detached - everything about the male called Hunter was measured and in control. All business and lethal efficiency, like the killing edge of a blade. Which wasn't surprising, considering his former profession.

Tavia wanted to know more about him, particularly considering the fact that they had been spawned from some of the same DNA in Dragos's labs. But there had been little time for questions or conversation at Mathias Rowan's house. The ride north hadn't exactly been filled with chatter so far either.

Chase hadn't said a word the whole time they'd been driving. His chin was dipped low toward his chest, but even under the tousled hank of hair drooping over his brow, the ember glow of his eyes was hard to miss. The glyphs on his bare forearms still seethed with dark hues. Her own body had resumed its normal state before they'd even left Boston, but Chase's seemed to be coming down a lot slower. His rage, which had exploded back at Mathias's place, still simmered like a poison under his skin.

The psychic pain Renata had dealt him also lingered. Tavia felt the echoes of it in the blood bond she was still trying to get accustomed to. God, she'd been so alarmed - bone-jarringly terrified - the moment that jolt of mental fury slammed into Chase's skull. She'd reacted on pure instinct, leaping over the banister railing without a thought for the human impossibility of the move and sailing down to the foyer below. All that had mattered to her in that instant was Chase. Her relief at finding him alive, seeing him come to his feet beside her, had been so deep and complete, it defied description.

As did the warmth that cocooned her when she heard the protective rage in his deep, booming voice as he'd bellowed for his friends not to harm her.

Now his brooding silence - his very presence in the close confines of the SUV - seemed to put everyone on guard. Pressed up against her, his rigid body radiated heat and banked aggression. Maybe she should have felt some of the same apprehension about him that his friends did, but the warmth of his thigh was a comfort against hers. His bulky shoulder was firm under her head as she rested lightly on him, her gaze trained on the dark landscape blurring past outside the vehicle's windows as the miles fell away behind them.

When she glanced up, she found Nikolai's wintry blue eyes looking at her in the rearview mirror. It wasn't the first time he'd flicked a curious, scrutinizing peek at her. This time, Renata reached over from the passenger seat and gave his shoulder a light cuff. "Stop gaping at the poor girl, Niko. She's not a sideshow, for crissake."

"Sorry," he said, and swore something in what sounded like Russian. "It's just gonna take me a while to get used to the idea."

Renata rolled her eyes at him, then swiveled around in her seat to face Tavia. "Forgive him. I think we're all trying really hard not to stare. I mean, Mathias told us about you, but actually seeing you for ourselves ... and back at the Darkhaven? Well, wow." She sent a look to the others in the vehicle, then shook her head, making her chin-length black hair sift fluidly at her jawline. "Between Jenna and Tavia, things are going to get really interesting around here." "Who's Jenna?" Tavia asked. "Is she ... like me?" She felt a prickle of hope at the thought, even though she wasn't sure she should wish her life - and all the betrayals that came with it - on anyone else.

"Jenna's human," Nikolai replied, glancing at her once more in the rearview. "Or she was, that is. Until a few weeks ago."

"Jenna's still human where it counts." Renata turned to her mate and tapped the center of her chest. "She may be changing physically and psychically, but inside she's still Jenna." "What happened to her?"

Renata glanced briefly to Tegan as though asking permission before she explained. "Jenna was attacked a few weeks ago in Alaska, where she used to live. The creature that did it was an Ancient - "

"The one Dragos had been holding in his labs," Tavia finished, recalling what Chase had told her about the last of the Breed's alien forefathers. "I thought the Order killed him." "Yes," Renata said. "But before they caught him, the Ancient had broken into Jenna's home. He terrorized her, held her hostage, and fed from her. And before it was all over, he embedded some kind of alien technology into her skin, at the top of her spinal cord. It also contained strands of his DNA."

Nikolai nodded. "After we brought Jenna to Boston with us, she was unconscious for days. When she woke up, things about her started changing."

"What kind of changes?"

"Inhuman strength, for one thing," Renata said. "Overnight, it seemed, she had incredible speed and agility. Her body started learning to heal itself from injuries. The kind of things you definitely don't see in your average human being."