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Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX)

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."

"To say nothing of the glyph that's spreading like kudzu from the spot where the chip was implanted."

Tavia met Nikolai's eyes in the mirror. "So, did the Ancient turn her into one of you – one of the Breed?"

"She's not Breed," he replied. "But she's not exactly human now either. Gideon's been running all sorts of tests, and the best he's come up with is the Ancient's DNA is replicating faster than her own Homo sapiens DNA. It's taking over her nervous system and vital organs, even her blood."

"My God," Tavia murmured. "It must be terrifying for her."

"It's no picnic," Nikolai agreed. "But she's coping with it like the trouper she is. Not too bad of a deal, all things considered. She's stronger, faster, healthier than any human could hope to be. And from Gideon's findings, he's guessing her life expectancy has increased exponentially." "Still," Tavia said, unable to keep from relating Jenna's sudden changes to her own unexpected revelations. "It's not easy finding out you're something other than you thought." Renata's gaze was sympathetic. "How are you holding up?"

"I'm okay." She nodded, realizing it was true. "I was scared at first, but I'm glad to finally know the truth."

Nikolai went on. "I think the scariest part for Jenna now is the dreams. Gideon thinks the chip is projecting the Ancient's memories into her subconscious. She's been having wicked nightmares lately. A lot of violent, Armageddon-style dreams. It's really wreaking havoc on her."

"At least Jenna has Brock," Renata said, glancing lovingly at her own mate. "He'll help her get through whatever's still ahead of her. And she has the rest of us too."

Nikolai's returned glance was as heated as it was tender. He reached over and took Renata's hand, lifted it to his mouth, and pressed a kiss into the center of her palm.

"How much do you know about the Breed?" This time, it was Tegan who spoke. He didn't look at Tavia, but his low snarl of a voice drifted from around the other side of Chase. "You mean, other than the fact that there's some kind of alien roots in your history?" "Your history too," the warrior remarked tonelessly.

Right, she thought. It was the stuff of horror novels and science fiction movies, but she might as well start owning it. "Chase has told me a few things. It's a lot to absorb. He's been trying to help me make sense of it all."

Tegan's quiet scoff had a skeptical tone to it. "And here I thought he might've been too busy getting famous with the humans to have time for tutoring. I guess I don't need to ask what else you might have taught her, eh, Harvard?"

The mild jab sent a flare of white-hot anger shooting through her veins – not her anger, but Chase's. She felt his whole body go rigid beside her as Tegan turned a measuring look on him. The warrior watched, expressionless but assessing just the same. For one tensely uncertain moment, Tavia wondered if Chase was going to lash out at the other male for what had clearly been intended as provocation.

Everyone must have wondered that same thing, because they all kept utterly silent. Tentative. On notice for what Chase might do in that next instant.

But he didn't explode like the grenade they seemed to think he was.

Tavia felt him fighting to rein himself in. Even though it seemed dangerous – about as ill advised as petting a grizzly – she reached over to him in the dark cabin of the SUV. His big hand was splayed on his denim-clad thigh, fingers gripped there like a vise. Tavia stroked the tip of her index finger along the back of his hand, a silent reassurance. A signal of her trust in him, her faith.

That she knew he struggled with something powerful and dark, and that she cared.

He didn't look at her, but his fingertips relaxed. He let his hand move down toward hers – the barest skate of contact. It warmed her from deep within, this unspoken connection that had formed between them. It seemed less about blood bonds or the insane circumstances that had brought them together than it did about something deep and meaningful – something profound and precious – that was taking shape within both of them.

She cared about this man – this complicated and haunted, dangerous Breed male. And whether he would ever admit it, she could feel that he cared about her too.

On the other side of Chase, Tegan's face relaxed into nonchalance. He sat back with a slowly exhaled sigh. "We're almost there."

The vehicle had exited the turnpike some time ago and now began a bumping, twisting trek down a rural two-lane that cut between what appeared to be thick, virgin forest. They drove miles into the moonlit darkness before Nikolai eased onto a snow-packed trail that hardly seemed fit for anything more sophisticated than a horse and sleigh. When it seemed the desolate path might never end, the SUV's headlights knifed through the dense woods and swept across the front of a sprawling stone-and-timber fortress. It was rugged but beautiful. Like something out of a Gothic fairy tale.

Beside her, Chase sat up a bit straighter, peering out into the tree-choked parcel. "The Order's new headquarters?" he asked, his voice sounding as dry as ash.

"This is it." Nikolai slowed to a stop and killed the engine. "Home sweet home."

"ARE YOU READY to begin, Jenna?"

She nodded to Gideon and squeezed Brock's hand a little tighter. His handsome face was drawn with concern, his fathomless brown eyes fixed on her. "You don't have to do this if you're not sure. You've already been through enough – "

"I'm sure," she replied, reaching up from where she lay on their bed to caress his strong jaw. "It's just a dream, after all. You don't have to worry about me."

His chuckle was a soft rasp, wry but not relaxed. "Telling me not to worry about you is like telling me to stop breathing. No can do, babe. You knew that when you signed on with me."

"Yeah, I did." Jenna smiled at her mate, wondering how it was possible that her love for him deepened every day. "And you know well enough that I'm as hardheaded as you are – " "More," he cut in, arching a black brow.

She wouldn't argue that. Nor would she let her fear or his concern keep her from seizing this mission with both hands. Because that's what this quest for answers had become to her: a mission. Like any of the dozens of patrols she'd been on as a Statie in Alaska. She was going to give this one her all.

Even if she had to do it shaking in her boots.

"It's only a dream," she told Brock again, and maybe she needed the reassurance just as much as he did. Her nerves were still raw and jangling from the last time the nightmare had dragged her under. The massive wall of water, crashing in from all sides. The screams of the dying rising up on the night wind. So much terror and destruction, hundreds of lives being swept away in an instant. It had felt so real. Horrifically, vividly real. Even now it made her heart hammer in panic, made her palms go damp with anxiety. "It's not real, just a nightmare. I'll be fine, Brock. I can do this."

He frowned skeptically, and for the first time since she'd known her mate, Jenna was glad for the absence of a blood bond with him. She'd been born human, not a Breedmate, and the lack of that tiny red teardrop-and-crescent-moon birthmark had been an obstacle between them in the beginning. But only briefly. Love had been the glue that bonded them as one. Brock might not be able to read her deepest feelings through her blood, but their emotional connection was no weaker for it.

Which is why his frown only furrowed more as he stroked her hand and watched Gideon prepare the light sedative that would help her sleep now and, hopefully, submerge her even deeper into the dream. "I don't like this one damn bit. I don't care if it's only a dream or some kind of psychic echo of the Ancient's memories replaying in your subconscious. I don't want to let you go – "

"Then don't," she said, wrapping her fingers a little tighter around his. "Keep holding my hand. I can face anything if I know you're with me. And I'll have Claire inside to guide me this time too."

They had contacted Andreas Reichen's mate in Rhode Island several hours ago, after Jenna's last bout with the terrifying dream. Claire had agreed on the spot to help in whatever way she could and was currently standing by at her Darkhaven, awaiting Gideon's call. Once Jenna was sleeping, Claire would join her in the dreamscape. Together they hoped to come back with a clearer picture of what the nightmare – and its apocalyptic events – might possibly mean. Jenna pressed a kiss to Brock's knuckles, then glanced over at Gideon. "Let's do this." With an apologetic look at his fellow warrior, the Order's resident genius and part-time medic leaned in with the syringe of sedative. Jenna winced as the needle pricked her, then slowly exhaled the breath she hadn't been aware she was holding. After a moment, a pleasant warmth spread over her slowly, like a fluffy blanket being raised up from her feet to her chin. "Feel okay so far, Jen?" Gideon's voice came at her in exaggerated slow motion, each syllable stretched out and warped.

It took great effort for her to manage even a faint nod. Her eyelids were beginning to droop, feeling as heavy as lead. "I think it's wor – "

She didn't get a chance to finish the thought.

A thick gray fog engulfed her, carried her away from her bed and the conscious weight of her body. She let it take her, too listless to resist. The dark cloud held her aloft as it drifted away from the Order's headquarters … away from everything she knew.

After a long time, eternity, it seemed, the fog began to thin and her feet touched ground. Her eyelids lifted, showing her nothing but darkness. She was alone. No sign of anyone. Only her, standing under a cloud-choked night sky, her bare feet perched on a steep ledge of rock. "Claire?" she called, but the cold wind blew her words into nothingness as soon as they left her tongue.

She tried not to be afraid, but she knew what was coming.

No sooner had she thought it, then the waves crashed in from all directions.

Beneath her perch on the soaring precipice, water swelled and roiled, devouring the valley below. It had been a city down there; she knew that. Knew its entire population was being swallowed up, drowned by the sudden, punishing flood.

"No!" The word exploded in her head, but her mouth made no sound at all. She watched through uncaring eyes as the catastrophe spread, destroying everything in its path. "No! Noo!" Bereft, sick with horror, she hardly felt the soft, warm touch on her arm. The din of chaos and annihilation was deafening. The entire world around her had gone dark and bleak. Empty.

"Jenna."

She startled at the sound of the feminine voice – someone else alive with her in this hellish plane, someone who knew her name.

"Jenna, can you hear me?" Claire Reichen's voice, velvety and steady, coming from the left side of her. "Look away from the carnage, Jenna. See me. I'm here with you now." She did as instructed, amazed to find she had the strength. The racket of the disaster and the death it was leaving in its wake still filled her head, but there was a peace now too. A tether reaching out to her from the dark.

Claire took her hand and nodded. "I found you. Do you want to try to go back to the beginning with me now that I'm here?"

Jenna nodded, unable to command her voice – the voice of whomever she embodied in this dreamscape – to speak. She wanted to go back. She could do this. She had to.

A sudden jerk of motion yanked her backward through the darkness.

The waves retreated at hyperspeed, flood and destruction unwinding in an instant. Rolling her back to the moment she always entered the dream, teetering at the brink of coming destruction. Then back even further.

She looked down from the tall crag, astonished. The moonlit city in the valley below was ancient. Columned white temples and bricked roads spread out in all directions. Massive gates and stone towers, protective moats and water-filled canals that ran like arteries through the heart of a pristine, thriving metropolis. Its beauty was mythical, breathtaking.

She swiveled her head to see if Claire was witnessing the same thing. But before she could glance her way, a sudden bright light flashed on the far horizon in front of her, illuminating the night sky like a newborn sun.

The earth rumbled beneath her feet. The tremor rocked with terrific force, so massive she staggered where she stood, nearly losing her purchase on the jagged mountain ledge. The entire planet trembled, as though about to crack open at its core.

And out over the sea beyond, a great cloud was forming. It billowed high and furious, ashes churning up from a stalklike funnel crowned with a roiling mushroom head. The cloud blew a gale of heat so intense, she had to lift her arm to shield her face from the burn.

Below her in the valley, some of the taller white temples began to shudder and break apart. People poured out of homes and taverns, spilling into the cobbled streets in a din of panic and confusion. Their screams went up on the dry night wind like banshee cries.

The wail and howl of a population experiencing its own sudden, wholesale demise.

As the waves rose up from all directions, Jenna tore her gaze away from the carnage about to take place. She searched for Claire beside her, but she was gone.

Now someone else stood next to her on the cliff.

An Ancient.

There were three others with him, all the same immense height, hairless heads and bared torsos covered in otherworldly dermaglyphs. Their thin-pupiled eyes were catlike in the darkness, raptly enthusiastic as they watched the destruction taking shape before them. They were exultant.

And they had done this terrible thing, she was certain of it.

All at once, the reality of it hit her. Here, in this moment, this awful landscape, she wasn't Jenna. She was one of them. One of these Ancient marauders – the one who implanted his bit of alien material into her human body and made her into something else. A shadow of himself. A vessel to carry his history, no matter how cancerous and ugly it was.

This moment wasn't only a dream. It was memory. It was a past event playing out for her, frame by horrific frame.

In the city below, people screamed and wept. They tried to flee, but the ocean was swelling even more, crashing high onto land. There was nowhere for them to run. No hope for any of them to survive.

One of the Ancients at her side pivoted his unfeeling amber eyes on her. The fools should have surrendered when they had the chance.

Not a voice, but a thought sent deep into her brain.

Another glanced her way, equally unmoved. She will never surrender.

From a third: And what of her legion who escaped with her?

We hunt them down. This voice was Jenna's, yet not hers. A psychic projection of thoughts she wasn't even aware were hers. Because they weren't.

They belonged to him – the one whose alien skin she occupied now, in this nightmare landscape.

She didn't understand the words she was speaking, no more than she could comprehend the reason these creatures had done such a heinous thing to an entire community of people. But the four others standing with her on the cliff were looking to her now for direction, seeking counsel from the otherworldly kindred they saw before them.

Wherever they've gone, however long it takes, said the mind inside her skull, in the alien language that wasn't hers. We hunt them down … until we claim the head of every last one.

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