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Shades of Midnight (Chapter Seventeen)

In one instant, her world had suddenly shifted on its axis.

Alex walked away from Kade, surprised that her legs were functioning when her mind was spinning with the illogic of what she'd just witnessed him do–not only to Skeeter Arnold, but also to Fran Littlejohn. Was it some type of hypnotism he'd used on her, or something more powerful than that to make the woman bend so easily to his will?

And Skeeter …

What did he mean, saying all those strange things to Kade, talking about how he was carrying out orders from his "Master"? It was crazy talk, and yet Skeeter hadn't seemed crazy. He'd seemed very dangerous, no longer the small-time drug dealer and all-around loser she knew him to be, but something deadly. Something almost inhuman.

He wasn't really alive anymore … just a shell.

He had killed Big Dave in cold blood, and Kade had snapped Skeeter's neck with his bare hands. Oh, God. Nothing was making sense to her.

There's more to your monsters than you know, Alex.

Kade's warning echoed in her head as she stepped out into the lightless cold of the afternoon. How could any of this be happening? It couldn't be happening. How could any of this be reality?

But she knew it was, just as surely as she had always known that what had happened all those years ago in Florida was reality, too.

Trust no one but me now.

Alex wasn't sure she had any choice. Who else did she have? What Kade had just done–everything he'd just said in the clinic–had left her with more questions than she was prepared to ask. She was terrified and uncertain, more than ever now. Kade was dangerous; she'd seen that for herself only a minute ago. Yet he was also protective, not only of Alex herself, but of Fran Littlejohn, too–a woman he didn't even know. In spite of all he'd said and done just now, Kade was a solid anchor in a reality that had suddenly cast Alex adrift. It was his strength and trust that buoyed her as she stared at the small crowd still clustered in front of the clinic. The dozen-plus faces she had known for so long now appeared to her as strangers as she unobtrusively slipped past them. Even Zach, who glanced over when she had just about made it to the outer edge of the throng, seemed less a friend than a source of doubt and unwanted complication. His eyes narrowed on her, but she kept walking, desperate to get out of there. "Alex." An arrow of sudden, cold panic stabbed her. Zach was the last person she needed to see right now. She pretended not to hear him, walked a bit faster.

"Alex, hold up." He pushed his way through, catching her by the sleeve of her parka. "Will you wait a damned minute?"

Given no choice, she paused. It was a struggle to keep her expression neutral as she faced him. There was no containing the tremble that swept her body while Zach scowled at her in the dark.

"Are you all right? Your face is white as a sheet."

She shook her head, jerked her shoulder in an awkward shrug. "I'm just a little wrung out, I guess."

"Yeah, no shit," he said. "Listen, I'm sorry I was short with you before. Things seem to be going from bad to worse around here lately."

Alex swallowed, nodding. He didn't even know the half of it.

Trust no one but me now … Tell no one what you saw in here, Alex. Promise me. Kade's words drifted through her thoughts as Zach watched her expectantly. "So? You've got my unpided attention, for the moment at least. What did you want to talk to me about?"

"Um …" Alex fumbled for a reply, feeling oddly unsettled by the way Zach seemed to peer at her in speculation, maybe even suspicion. "I just … I was concerned about Big Dave, of course. How is he? How do you, um, think he's doing?"

The questions felt clumsy on her tongue, especially when her heart was still banging from everything she'd witnessed in the clinic.

Zach's expression turned a bit more scrutinizing. "You saw him yourself, didn't you?" She shook her head, not sure she could deliver a convincing lie.

"Didn't I see you go inside–you and your, ah, new friend?" He leaned on the word, unnecessarily hard. "Where is he, anyway? Still inside?"

"No," she said, all but blurting it. "I don't know what you're talking about. Kade and I were out here the whole time. He just left."

Zach didn't quite seem to buy it, but before he had a chance to press her further, the clinic door opened and Fran Littlejohn came out onto the stoop. "Officer Tucker! Where's Zach? Somebody call Officer Tucker right away!"

Alex stared, weathering a rising feeling of dread as Fran's head bobbed, searching the crowd.

"Over here," Zach called. "What is it?"

"Oh, Zach!" The clinic technician heaved a sigh, her thick shoulders slumping. "I'm afraid we lost him. I'd just given him another dose of sedative, and I turned away for what couldn't have been more than a minute at most. When I looked back just now, I saw that he had passed. Big Dave is dead."

"Goddamn it," Zach muttered. Although he spoke to Fran, he shot a tight glance at Alex. "No one else with you in there, Fran?"

"Just me," she said. "Poor Dave. And poor Lanny, too. God bless them both." As a wave of soft murmurs and whispered prayers traveled the crowd, Alex cleared her throat. "I have to go, Zach. It's been a long day, and I'm really tired. So, unless you have any more questions–"

"No," he said, but the look he gave her was guarded, filled with a reluctant acceptance of everything he'd just heard. "Go on home, then, Alex. If I need you, I know where to find you." She nodded, unable to dismiss feeling oddly threatened by his comment as she turned and walked away.

Some five miles out of Harmony, deep in the frozen wilderness, Kade shrugged the burden of Skeeter Arnold's lifeless body off his shoulders and dropped it down a steep ravine. He stood there for a moment, after the Minion's corpse had tumbled out of sight, letting the bitter cold air fill his lungs and steam his breath as he stared out at the vast nothingness all around him. The sky was dark overhead, the snow-covered ground glowed midnight blue under the afternoon starlight. In the distant woods, a wolf cried, long and lamenting, summoning its pack to run. The wildness of his surroundings called to Kade, and for one sharp instant, he was tempted to give in to it. Tempted to ignore the chaos and confusion that he'd left behind him in Harmony. Tempted to run from the fear he'd put in Alex, and the unpleasant business of the truth that he would have to deliver to her when he got back.

Would she despise him for what he had to tell her?

Would she recoil in horror when she came to understand his true nature?

He couldn't blame her if she did. Knowing what she'd endured as a child, and now, having seen him kill a man before her eyes, how could he possibly hope that she would look at him with anything more than fear or revulsion?

"Ah, fuck," he muttered, dropping down into a squat on his haunches at the edge of the ravine.

"Fuck!"

"Problems, brother?"

The unexpected voice, the unexpected familiarity of it–here, of all places, now, of all times–shot through Kade like a current of raw electricity. He vaulted to his feet and spun around, his hand reaching automatically for one of the blades he wore on his belt.

"Easy," Seth drawled slowly, inclining his head to indicate the precarious edge of the ravine directly behind Kade. "Better watch your step."

Kade's fury spiked as he took in his twin's unkempt, shaggy appearance. "I could say the same thing to you … brother."

He kept the knife gripped in his fist, pivoting around, cautiously following Seth as he strolled toward him to peer into the ravine. Seth grunted. "Not the most savvy way to dispose of a kill, but I suppose it won't take long for the scavengers to find it."

"Yeah, you know all about that, don't you?"

Seth looked at him, Kade's own silver eyes–his own face–staring back at him as if in a mirror. Except Seth's short black hair hung limply in dull, matted hanks, his cheeks and jaw sallow, the skin shadowed with grit and grime. His face was leaner than Kade recalled, on the verge of gaunt. He looked strung out, and there was a feral glint in his heavy-lidded gaze.

"Where the fuck have you been?" he demanded. "How long have you been carrying out your sick killing games?"

Seth chuckled, dark with amusement. "I'm not the one dumping a human into a snowy grave."

"Minion," Kade corrected him, though why he felt the need to explain was beyond him.

"Really?" Seth arched a brow. "A Minion, all the way out here in the bush … interesting."

"Yeah, I'm all atwitter," Kade said. "And you didn't answer my fucking question." Seth's mouth curved at the corners. "What would be the point, when you already know what I'm going to say?"

"Maybe I need to hear it from your own lips. Tell me how you've been stalking and killing humans ever since I left Alaska last year–hell, it's been going on for a lot longer than that, hasn't it?" He ground out a sharp hiss of disgust. "I found something you might recognize. Here–" He dug the bear tooth charm out of his pocket and tossed it at his twin.

"Now you have a matched set," Kade said. "This one, and the one you took off the Native man when you killed him last winter."

Seth glanced into his palm at the braided strip of leather and the long, pale tooth attached to it. He shrugged, unapologetic, curling his fingers around the prize. "You've been home to the Darkhaven," he murmured. "Going through my things. How rude of you. Very devious and underhanded, Kade. That's always been more my style than yours."

"What happened, Seth? Single kills weren't getting you off anymore, so you've had to graduate up to wholesale slaughter?"

Kade watched the dispassionate mask of his brother's face quirk with confusion. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Now you're going to stand there and try to deny it? You're unbelievable," Kade scoffed. "I've seen the bodies, or what was left of them. You slaughtered an entire family–six lives in one night, you sick son of a bitch. And today you added two more to your fucked-up tally when you attacked those men from Harmony."

"No." Seth was shaking his head. He had the balls, even, to look insulted. "You're wrong. If there have been kills like that, as you claim, they're not mine."

"Don't lie to me, damn you."

"I'm not lying. I am a killer, Kade. I have a … a problem, you might say. But even my perverted morals have their boundaries."

Kade stared, sizing him up. Even after a year away, he knew his twin well enough to see that Seth was telling him the truth.

"I've never taken a whole family, nor am I responsible for the two men you say were attacked today." Kade felt a cold pit opening up in his gut. Twisted though he may be, his brother was being honest about this. He hadn't killed the Toms family. He hadn't killed Lanny Ham and left Big Dave Grant for dead. If not Seth, then who?

Kade had long abandoned the idea that Rogues might be responsible–not without reports of missing Breed males from the region's Darkhaven populations or some other indicators that there were vampires in the throes of Bloodlust running loose in the area.

So, what possibility was left?

Could it be the vampire who'd made Skeeter Arnold his mind slave? And if so, why would a powerful Breed elder prefer to hunt in the remote, sparsely populated wilds of Alaska when he could choose from countless cities teeming with humans instead? It simply didn't add up. But none of that excused Seth's crimes, or his unrepentance for his actions.

"What happened to you?" Kade asked him, staring into the face that was so like his own, the brother he still loved, despite everything he'd done. "Why, Seth? How did you allow yourself to lose so much control?"

"Lose control?" He laughed, shaking his head at Kade. "When else can we feel more in control than during the hunt? We are Breed, my brother. It's who we are, it's in our very blood. Killing is what we are born to do."

"No." Kade spat the denial as Seth began a slow prowl around him.

"No?" he asked, cocking his head in question. "Isn't that why you leapt at the chance to join the Order? Tell me you don't enjoy your license to kill on behalf of Lucan and your brothers-in-arms in Boston. Say it, and I will be the one standing here calling you a liar."

Kade clamped his molars tight, admitting, at least to himself, that there was some truth in Seth's words. He joined the Order to escape what he was becoming in Alaska, as much as he had joined to feed the wildness inside him with something that had some degree of honor in it. But there was a higher purpose in his work for the Order now. With the enemy they had in Dragos, his work for the Order had never been more vital. And he wouldn't let Seth cheapen that with the comparison to his own sick games.

"You know that this cannot continue, Seth. You have to stop."

"Don't you think I've tried?" His lips peeled back from his teeth, baring the tips of his fangs. "In the beginning, when we were young, I did try to curb my … urges. But the wildness kept calling to me. Doesn't it call to you anymore?"

"Every minute that I'm awake," Kade conceded quietly. "Sometimes even in my sleep." Seth sneered. "But of course, you, the noble one, can resist it." Kade stared at him. "How long have you hated me, brother? What could I have done differently to make you see that it was never a competition between us? I didn't have anything to prove with you." Seth said nothing, merely stared at him in bleak consideration.

"You've made mistakes, Seth. We all do. But there is still some good in you. I know there is."

"No." Seth shook his head vigorously, the agitated twitch of a festering mind. "You were always the strong one. All the good went into you, not me."

Kade scoffed. "How can you say that? How can you think it? You, the favored son, the hope of the family. Father never made a secret of that."

"Father," Seth replied, exhaling sharply. "If he feels anything for me, it's pity. I have needed him, where you never did. You're just like him, Kade. Can neither one of you see that the way that I can?"

"Bullshit," Kade said, certain in his rejection of the idea.

"And then you went off and joined the Order," Seth continued. "You were gone and I sank deeper into your shadow. I wanted to hate you for leaving. Hell, maybe I do."

"If you need an excuse for what you've done, then so be it," Kade ground out savagely. "Blame me, but you and I both know you're only looking for a way to justify what you're doing." Seth's answering laughter was little more than a growl, deep in his throat. "Do you really think I'm looking for justification? Or for any kind of absolution? I kill because I can. I won't stop, because it is part of me now. I enjoy it."

Kade's gut twisted. "If that's true, then I feel sorry for you. You are sick, Seth. I should put you out of your misery … right here and now."

"You should," Seth replied without inflection. "But you won't. You can't, because I am still your brother. Your own rigid morals would never let you harm me and we both know it. That's a line you would never cross."

"Don't be so sure."

As he said it, the wolf howl he'd heard a few minutes ago sounded once more, from somewhere nearby. Kade glanced over his shoulder, toward the thick knot of pine and spruce in the crouching darkness, feeling the wild summons coursing through his veins. As it must have been for Seth, as well. Even though he should hate his brother, he couldn't.

And although his threat was well deserved, he knew in his heart that Seth was right. Kade could never bring himself to harm him.

"We need to sort this shit out, Seth. You have to let me help you–" When he swiveled his head back around to face his twin again, all that greeted him was the empty winter landscape … and the bone-deep, bitter understanding that any hope of saving Seth was gone along with him.

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