Edge of Dawn (Chapter Twenty-One)
No sign of Mira or Bowman or anyone else at the old military fort at the far end of New Bedford. The bunker and its collection of underground batteries, which crouched on an outcrop of overgrown, untended parkland banked on three sides by the Atlantic, appeared to have been vacated very recently. They'd missed the rebel bastards.
It was not the kind of report Nathan wanted to have to give Lucan. Hell, it was bad enough reporting it to Nikolai a few moments ago. He hadn't taken it well, erupting in murderous, black fury. Mira's father, in Boston with a small squad of his Order brethren, had been determined that Mira would be going home safe with them before dawn. Now that prospect was looking less and less feasible.
Nathan's team, along with Mira's three teammates, had just completed a full sweep of the purported rebel base and turned up nothing. Just abandoned furniture, tables and chairs, cots and beds, all still in place as it ostensibly had been when the base's occupants used it last. But Mira had been there; Nathan could almost feel her presence in his bones.
"Damn it!" The curse exploded out of him, a reaction too strong to contain. He didn't miss the turn of heads in his direction. The grave looks of his team and Mira's met him through the darkness as the warriors regrouped on the thick, weed-choked grass outside the bunker. Niko and his squad were heading there now too, to see the place for themselves and to strategize the rest of the night's patrol with Nathan and the other men.
"Cleared out fast, evidently," Balthazar remarked, the big vampire's typical humor absent tonight. "Like rats from a sinking ship."
Rafe nodded, grim. "Maybe someone warned them we were coming."
"If they did get a warning we were on to them," Eli put in, "that would mean they hauled ass outta here less than five minutes after our lead came in."
"Didn't take off in a panic," Torin said. He tipped his head back, long braids at his temples swinging against his sharp cheekbones as he read the energy in the air. "They had time to gather everything they needed. When they left – by the fade of it, my guess would be sometime late morning – they left on their own terms."
Jax twirled one of his hira-shuriken between nimble fingers, the metal winking with lethal precision under the moonlight. "Doesn't matter why or when they left. Only matters where."
"And that puts us right back at square one," said Webb, the warrior Lucan had put in charge of Mira's squad after the incident with Rooster not even a week ago. From the sober look on the Breed male's face, it was a mantle he accepted out of duty alone, not personal ambition. "Can't believe she hasn't kicked those rebels' asses single-handed by now and come strolling back to us like it was no big thing. Shit, the way Mira goes into combat?" Webb shook his head, contemplating. "Fucking Valkyrie, man. Doesn't matter she's not Breed; it would take an army of humans to knock her down and keep her there. And I, for one, refuse to believe she's not still breathing out there somewhere."
For what hadn't been the first time, Nathan's thoughts were going down a similar path. What had they done to Mira to keep her captive for so many days? Had she tried to fight back? And what of Bowman? How had he been able to bring her last night into La Notte, a public place, and she not find some way to break free of him?
A troubling scenario was beginning to take root in Nathan's mind.
He didn't like the taste of it. Didn't want to think that Mira might have gotten somehow unwillingly entangled with the rebels and their criminal acts. Or worse . . . could she possibly have allowed herself to be charmed by Bowman?
The last was almost laughable, it was so incomprehensible. There had only ever been one man for Mira, and he was eight years dead and gone. A handful of days in the company of human rebels – a class of individuals she openly despised – would not suddenly turn her away from the Order and her kin.
And yet . . .
It was that last disturbing possibility – the least logical of them all – that proved the hardest for Nathan to ignore.
There was something he wasn't seeing. Something he hadn't yet connected. Something he'd maybe glossed over and dismissed as unimportant amid the urgency of the bunker's search.
He waved off the question without acknowledging who had asked it. His boots were already chewing up earth beneath him, his strides long and purposeful as he stalked back into the damp gloom of the rebel hideout.
He checked each room and corridor again, less rushed this time, sending his gaze over every rustic table, chair, and cot, into every corner and cranny of the place. And he found nothing.
Not until he stepped into the last room, the one situated at the far end of the concrete passageway.
Something crunched under his boot heel. A small piece of broken glass.
He paused, lifted his foot to pick up the sleek, silvery shard. Holding the tiny bit of shattered mirror between his thumb and forefinger, Nathan lifted his gaze and scanned every inch of the lightless room, his Breed eyes keen in the dark.
He cocked his head, narrowing in on an object lying in the center of the tumbled bedsheets. Even now he was tempted to dismiss it. Just a broken mirror, tossed in haste onto the unmade bed as the rebels raced to vacate the premises.
Except they hadn't left in haste.
Nathan had suspected as much earlier, when it was obvious they'd had time to take weapons and equipment, clothing and foodstuffs. Then Torin had confirmed it, reading the energy of the place left in the wake of the evacuation.
Bowman and his rebels had left with Mira on their own terms, not in a panic. They'd had time to sweep up all but one minuscule splinter of the glass that must have littered the floor, yet they hadn't bothered to remove the broken mirror along with it.
And now Nathan's Hunter instincts prickled with cold realization.
The mirror had been left behind, not tossed onto the bed and forgotten.
Placed there deliberately.
He walked over, picked it up. Stared at the intricately crafted design inlaid onto the polished silver back of the piece. The insignia was familiar at once, even though he hadn't seen it in a long time – not since the near annihilation of the family to whom the bow-and-arrow emblem belonged.
"Archer," Nathan murmured under his breath. Then a curse that was equal parts incredulity and outrage. "Bowman."
How could it be possible?
There was only one person he knew who might have this memento. One person who might possess the ability to be running under the radar of the Order, right under their damn noses.
But that person was dead.
Nathan had personally witnessed the explosion that killed the warrior who'd been like a brother to him. He'd seen the flames shoot into the night sky moments after Kellan Archer had gone inside – mere seconds before Nathan and Mira would have followed him into the warehouse to perish along with him.
But what Nathan hadn't seen, he realized now – what no one had ever sought to find in the ash and rubble left behind – was Kellan's presumed remains.
Son of a bitch.
Nathan's grip tightened around the delicate mirror bearing the Archer family emblem. He didn't like this sense of confusion that gnawed at him now, as he tried to logically sort the pieces of a disturbing puzzle he was just seeing for the first time. Could Kellan Archer be alive? All this time, deceiving everyone he knew, living in Boston like some kind of ghost? If so, how had he ended up in this place, with a new name and a band of human rebels under his command?
Betrayal wasn't something Nathan's lethal logic had trained him to combat. He'd never cared enough about something to experience any sense of unfairness when it was gone, but now the unfamiliar emotion roiled in his gut, bitter as acid.
And what about Mira?
As badly as he wanted to deny Kellan's deception, the prospect of Mira being pulled into the equation made the acid churning inside him turn cold. It made the assassin in him go still and calculating, preparing to sever all emotional ties in the execution of his mission.
Nathan considered the shattered mirror clutched tight in his fist. Either Kellan or Mira had left it, knowing – perhaps hoping – it would be discovered by someone who would recognize it. Someone from the Order. Maybe even Nathan himself.
If it had been Mira, perhaps it was a cry for help, some kind of clue to aid in her rescue. Except Nathan knew the Breedmate warrior too well to believe that. Her love for Kellan Archer had endured eight years of absence. If she were reunited with him now, after all that time mourning him, there would be no tearing her away from his side.
As for Kellan, Nathan knew him well too – or thought he did. Still, Nathan was certain the memento was intended to be found, not as a reckless taunt meant to incite the Order's full wrath.
No, Nathan understood now, it had been left behind as an invitation.
A clue meant to lead the right person directly to where Kellan would be found.
It was a token of surrender.
It wasn't so much a sound that woke Kellan but a sudden, quiet sense of expectation. He felt it in the air around him, in the moonlit darkness of the thick forest outside the Darkhaven bedroom's French doors. Silent, stealth, lethal.
They'd been found so soon.
Not that he was surprised.
No, he'd been prepared for this moment from the time he'd left the New Bedford base. Longer still, from the moment he'd found Mira gazing into her own reflection and understood in terrifying terms just how much his delay of the inevitable was costing her.
How much it had taken from her already.
He wanted it all to stop now. For her.
If he wasn't already too late.
Carefully extricating himself from Mira's arms as she slept naked beside him, Kellan slipped out of the bed. He pulled on his loose jeans and strode barefoot to the French doors. Opened them soundlessly and stepped outside to the cool summer night, scented by crisp northern air and dense pines.
A shadow peeled away from the inky blackness of the woods.
Garbed in black combat fatigues and a belted array of blades and firearms circling his hips, the former Breed assassin could have killed Kellan a dozen different ways by now. But he made no move to attack as he approached from out of the cover of the woods. Said nothing as he looked upon Kellan's face for the first time in eight years.
Kellan sent a quick glance in the direction of the surrounding forest.
"I came alone." Nathan's deep voice was quiet, barely a whisper in the stillness of their surroundings, and it held no trace of expression whatsoever. Flat and calm and unreadable. As was the look in his unblinking eyes. "No one knows where I am. I assume that's what you wanted."
Kellan gave a vague nod. "Hoped, yes."
"She's here with you?"
"She's been safe the whole time?"
Kellan could hardly confirm that, especially now, when he wasn't sure if she would ever be whole again. He'd fed her his blood more than an hour ago in the hopes their completed bond would restore her eyesight. She'd fallen asleep in his arms, trusting he would make her better, but it had felt to him like yet another promise he might fail to deliver to her.
"Mira's inside," he told Nathan, unwilling to lie to his old friend yet not quite ready to accept that Mira couldn't be healed. "She's sleeping, along with the three remaining members of my crew, who helped me bring her here."
Nathan grunted. "And you. Not dead, after all."
"I should've been," Kellan replied. "Someone helped me after the explosion that night, took care of me until I had healed. I never intended to disappear the way I did – "
Nathan cut him off, his voice cool, words clipped and efficient. "Explanations are unnecessary. At least as far as I'm concerned. I am not your judge and jury, just the Hunter come to retrieve a traitor."
Kellan lifted his chin, feeling the reply like a volley lobbed at him broadside. "I guess I deserve that, considering we're friends."
"My friend died eight years ago. I don't know Bowman."
"Yet you came alone after finding the clue that would lead to my arrest."
Nathan took a subtle step forward, his face grim. "Call it a kindness for the memory of my dead friend. And for the female who never stopped loving him. A female who deserves better than this, whose heart will be breaking all over again very soon, no doubt."
"Mira's the reason I led you here. She and my friends are inside this Darkhaven. I needed to know they would all be safe when this moment came. Making sure it happened here, like this, was the only way I knew how."
Nathan's eyes narrowed slightly under the ebony slashes of his brows. "How can you be certain of that?"
"Because you came alone," he replied. "And because despite your training, I know you are no killer of innocents. I'm the one you and the Order want. I mean to go with you peacefully. All I ask is that my crew goes free and Mira goes home safely, taking no blame for anything that happened to Jeremy Ackmeyer or for her time spent with me."
Nathan's cool stare pierced him even deeper now. "She doesn't know you're surrendering." Not a question; a cold, accurate statement of fact. "Why would you do this to her?"
"I've hurt her enough. I want this – all of it – over."
Nathan's brows lowered into a scowl. "You care for her, that's obvious enough, even to me. I know she cares for you. Why not run somewhere together? After all, you've lived a lie this long. Why throw yourself on the sword now?"
The irony of it made Kellan exhale a sharp breath through his nostrils. "Because I have no fucking choice."
Nathan cocked his head, studying him. "What is this – some eleventh-hour attack of conscience? Too late for that. If it's a sudden resurrection of your honor after such a long absence, I promise you, it's wasted. This thing has gone too far. It's gone too public now. There won't be any clemency for you – for Bowman. There can't be."
Kellan nodded. "I know that. This will only end one way for me. I've seen that for myself."
"You've seen it." Something cold and suspicious flickered in Nathan's steady gaze now. His voice, which had been carefully schooled and quiet, now notched a bit louder. "You mean Mira's shown something to you. A vision?" A curse, ripe and violent, erupted from between his old friend's lips. "You've used her ability, knowing what that costs her?"
"Jesus, no. I never would've done that," Kellan said. "Not intentionally – "
"Fuck you and your intentions," Nathan growled now. He stalked forward, dangerous in his outrage. "Did you use her? Did you use her gift for your own selfish gain?"
"Kellan . . . ?"
Mira's worried voice sounded from behind him in the dark of the bedroom. He wasn't ready for her to walk into his conversation with Nathan yet. He wasn't ready for her to learn that he'd brought Nathan to them as a means of surrendering without bloodshed or casualties. Everything was happening too fast, a snowball picking up speed as it careened down the side of a mountain.
"It's okay," he told her, sending the reassurance over his shoulder as he heard her start to get up. "Mira, stay. I'll be right there and we can talk."
She kept moving, fabric rustling as she pulled a sheet from the bed and wrapped herself inside it. Her bare feet padded softly, carefully, on the wide pine floor as she made her way toward the open French doors. "Who are you talking to out there? Kellan, what's going on?"
And then a misstep. A halting, hitching movement that made Kellan's heart sink like a stone.
He pivoted and flashed to her side, catching her before she could fall. Her small cry of distress went through him, as sharp and unforgiving as an arrow. "Shh," he soothed her. "Shh, I've got you, Mira. It's okay now."
A low growl at Kellan's back made his neck prickle with warning. "Holy hell. It's even worse than I imagined."
"Nathan?" Mira asked, her pale, cloudy eyes searching in the darkness. "Kellan . . . what's Nathan doing here? Tell me what's happening. Kellan . . . ?"
"You goddamn bastard." The Hunter's voice was pure menace, all of it locked on Kellan. "You've fucking blinded her."