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Shades of Midnight (Chapter Twenty-four)

The snowstorm that had started as a teasing flurry was worsening into heavy, persistent flakes as Alex and Luna were riding back from making the delivery out to the bush. Alex was glad to have been able to help the young mother who'd been counting on her today, but she fretted that she hadn't yet been able to touch base with Jenna. She took out her cell phone and tried calling Jenna's cabin once again. No answer.

The niggle of worry she'd been carrying for her friend had only increased in the time Alex had been out, turning into a full-fledged jab of concern. What if Jenna was taking things harder this year than before?

Alex knew that she struggled, that she despaired still, over the loss of her husband and child. What if that despair had deepened to something worse this time?

What if it had become something dangerous and she'd harmed herself?

"Oh, God … Jenna. Please let me be wrong."

With Luna running alongside her, Alex gave the sled more speed as she perted from the game trail that would eventually lead into Harmony. She headed away from town instead, toward Jenna's cabin a mile outside.

She was still an easy fifteen minutes away when she saw something moving in the trees up ahead of her. She couldn't quite make out the shape in the dark, but it looked to be … a person?

Yes, it was. Someone crashing through the snow-laden underbrush of the forest. Incredibly, in spite of the bitter cold, he was utterly naked.

And he wasn't alone.

Several other shapes materialized from the shadows to run alongside him, four-legged, dark forms … a pack of half a dozen wolves. The sight of the man and wild animals together didn't so much shock her as it confused her.

Kade?

Alex cut the gas and slowed her sled to a crawl, Luna drawing to a pause at her side.

"Kade," she called, his name rushing out of her mouth on a breath of pure instinct. She felt a brief moment of elation to see him, but then logic crashed down on her like a cold hammer. Kade had left hours ago to meet the other warriors from Boston. What would he be doing out here, like this?

Something about him didn't seem quite right …

It couldn't be Kade.

But … it was.

The headlight of her snowmachine pinned him in its beam. The wolves scattered into the forest, but he stood there now, alone, one arm raised to shield his brightly glowing amber eyes from the glare. His dermaglyphs were so dark they seemed black against his skin, and something almost as dark–something her mind refused to acknowledge at first–slickened his naked body from head to toe. Blood.

Oh, Jesus.

He was injured … badly injured, by the horrific look of him.

Alex's heart gave a sick lurch in her chest. He was wounded. His mission with the Order must have gone terribly wrong.

"Kade!" she cried, and leapt off her sled to run toward him. Luna circled in front of her, blocking her way as she barked in a high-pitched whine, a warning to her, or maybe even the dog could see that something was very wrong with him.

"Kade, what happened to you?"

He cocked his head at her and stared as though transfixed, his black hair wild about his head and slick with wetness. Even from the hundred feet that separated them, Alex could see that blood splattered his face, streaked off his chin in gory lines.

Why wouldn't he answer her?

What the hell was wrong with him?

Alex paused, her feet suddenly refusing to move. "Kade? Oh, my God … please, talk to me. You're hurt. Tell me what happened."

But he didn't utter a single word.

Like a creature of the forest himself, he bolted away from her, vanishing into the dark woods. Alex called after him, but he was nowhere to be seen now. Her sled's headlight cut deep into the trees where Kade and the wolves had been. She took a couple of hesitant steps forward, trying to ignore the knot of dread in her gut and the low, tentative warning of Luna's growl beside her. She had to find Kade.

She had to know what had happened.

Alex's uncertain steps became a jog, her boots dragging in the snow. Her heartbeat was racing, lungs squeezing for each breath as she ran through the frigid darkness, following the piercing beam of her snowmachine's headlight.

She sucked in a gasp when she saw the bloodstains in the snow. So much blood. Kade's footprints tracked it everywhere. So had the pack's many paws.

"Oh, God," Alex whispered, feeling sick, about to retch, as she ventured deeper into the forest, following the trail of gore.

The snow was stained almost black the farther she went. Blood as she'd never seen. Far too much for Kade to have lost and still be able to stand upright, let alone run off as he had when he'd realized she was there.

Alex walked numbly, all of her instincts clamoring for her to turn around before she saw something she would never be able to purge from her mind.

But she couldn't turn away.

She couldn't run.

She had to know what Kade had been doing.

Alex's feet slowed as she reached the place where the carnage had begun. Her vision swam as she stared down at the bloodied aftermath of a vicious attack. A vampire attack–worse than any savagery she'd witnessed before. Another human being, another innocent person, brutalized by the monstrous killers of her nightmares.

By Kade, though she never would have believed it had she not seen him with her own eyes. Alex couldn't move. God, she could barely feel a thing as she stood there, numb with shock and a horror so profound she couldn't even summon the breath to scream.

Kade felt the oddest sensation in his chest as he and the other warriors pushed farther into the corridor of the mine's shaft. He crept forward in the dark, weapon held at the ready, trying to dismiss the chill feeling that was knotting up tight behind his sternum.

Jesus, had he taken a chest hit in the earlier fracas?

Surreptitiously, he felt around for a wound or the stickiness of spilling blood but found nothing. Nothing but the phantom ache that seemed to want to suck a lot of the air out of his lungs. He shook it off, struggling to keep his attention on the pitch-black cavern that stretched out ahead of him and the other warriors.

The alarm sirens continued to wail from behind them; nothing but quiet awaited in the depths of the mine shaft. Then–the most minute scuff of a footstep came from somewhere deep within the shadows. Kade heard it, and he was certain all the rest of the warriors had, too.

Tegan held up his hand to halt their progress in the passageway. "Looks like the damn place is empty," he said, fishing for Dragos's lieutenant as he cast the line into the murky abyss ahead. "Hand me some of that C-4. Let's blow this mother–"

"Wait." The detached voice was begrudging and arrogant, an airless grunt of sound in the dark. "Just

… wait, please."

"Show yourself," Tegan ordered. "Walk out nice and slow, asshole. If you're armed, you'll be eating lead before you take the first step."

"I do not have a weapon," the voice growled back in reply. "I am a civilian." Tegan scoffed. "Not today. Show yourself."

Dragos's associate came out of the darkness as instructed, but only barely. Dressed in tailored gray pants and a black cashmere sweater, he looked to be more of a boardroom strategist than a military tactician. Then again, from what the Order had seen in the past of Dragos's handpicked associates, he seemed to recruit his lieutenants based on pedigree and aptitude for corruption more than anything else. Hands held up in surrender, Dragos's man hung back near the shadows of the mine shaft. He moved with slow deliberation, his carefully cultured expression not quite able to mask his fear as his eyes took stock of the five Breed warriors holding him in their killing sights.

"Who are you?" Tegan demanded. "What's your name?" He said nothing, but his gaze seemed to slide almost in-discernibly to his side.

"Is there anyone else left inside?" Tegan asked. "Where is the Ancient? Where is Dragos?" The male took a hesitant step forward. "I would need some kind of assurances from the Order," he hedged. And there went that quick, telling dart of his eyes again. "I would require sanctuar–" A gunshot exploded out of the darkness, cutting short his words as it blew away a sizable chunk of the vampire's head.

"Assassin," Hunter snarled at the same sharp instant, but his warning was eclipsed by more gunfire blasting out of the shadows.

Dragos's lieutenant–the vampire who might have given the Order their best lead on their enemy-was collapsed on the floor in a pulpy, boneless heap. Kade and the four other warriors opened fire on the black maw of the mine shaft, peppering the area with rounds as they dodged the gunfire coming back at them.

"Take cover!" Tegan shouted as the incoming bullets showed no sign of stopping. Kade and Brock ped into the nearest chamber in the corridor of the shaft, Tegan right behind them. Chase and Hunter took posts farther up on the other side of the passageway, returning fire on the relentless hail of bullets that ripped out of the darkness.

"Brock," Tegan said, his fangs gleaming in the darkness. "Throw some boom down the corridor. We'll shoot it from here and set it off."

Brock put down his gun and grabbed a pack of C-4 from his satchel. Working quickly, he stuffed a blasting cap and a small detonator into the pale cake. When it was done, he gave Tegan a nod. "Gotta hit this shit pretty square. If we miss the embedded detonator, we get no spark." Kade caught the warrior's dark gaze. "No spark, no boom."

"Right."

"Toss it," Tegan said.

Brock moved to the opening of the door. He threw the C-4 in a high arc, and as it disappeared into the shadows of the mine shaft, the three of them opened fire. It was hard to tell if they'd hit the cake, until a spark cracked brightly in the darkness. Then the material exploded with a shuddering blast. A billowing cloud of smoke and pulverized rubble pushed forward like a tsunami, blowing bits of concrete and choking dust into the room where Kade, Brock, and Tegan had taken cover. And then, charging through the blinding wave of debris, came the Gen One assassin. He was nothing more than a blur of motion and momentum, all of it crashing forward like a cannonball. Tegan leapt out to intercept him, and soon both Gen One males were engulfed in a deadly fight. The darkness and the churning cloud of debris swallowed them up as the struggle intensified, weapons clanging against the stone floor, fists crunching against flesh and bone.

The sudden, pungent scent of blood rose up from the confusion of movement. A roar of fury–Tegan's low bellow of rage … then silence.

Someone found a light switch and flicked it on. Fluorescent tubes lit the corridor in a hazy fog of bluish-white light.

And there was Tegan, his thigh bloodied from a deep wound, his serrated titanium knife slipped between the assassin's thick neck and the black polymer collar that ringed it. "Slowly, now," he cautioned Dragos's homegrown killer. "Stand up very carefully."

The bald Gen One growled, his eyes flashing pure hatred. "Fuck you."

"Get up," Tegan commanded. "Careful. It's real easy to lose your head in a situation like this." Grudgingly, radiating menace, the assassin rose to his feet. With Kade and the others holding their weapons on the vampire, Tegan slowly walked him into the nearby chamber. The room's function was familiar enough to Kade since he and the Order had encountered a similar one when they'd raided Dragos's headquarters in Connecticut just a few weeks ago. It was a holding cell, the cylindrical cage at its center, with its electronic restraints and computerized control panel designed for the containment of one particular captive.

"Where is the Ancient?" Tegan demanded as he guided the assassin over to the heavy-duty restraints that had been built to hold the otherworlder. Tegan glanced at Kade and Brock. "Lock this son of a bitch down."

They each took a hand and slapped the shackles around the Gen One's wrists. While they secured his arms, Chase walked over and fitted two more cuffs around his ankles.

"Where is the Ancient?" Tegan asked once more, his words tightly clipped. "Okay, how about this. Where's Dragos? He's obviously persifying his operation now, moving his pieces around instead of keeping them all together in one place. So, he moves the Ancient into cold storage up here, but what about the rest of it? Where is he hiding now? Where are the Breedmates he's holding prisoner?"

"He won't know." Hunter's deep voice cut through the din of the alarms outside and the tension mounting inside the Ancient's containment chamber. "Dragos tells us nothing. As his Hunters, we serve. That is all."

Tegan snarled, looking like he wanted to snap the assassin's collar then and there. Keeping one hand on the blade that pressed against the UV collar, he put his other hand on the assassin's brow and pushed the big head backward. "Motherfucker. He knows something."

The assassin's mouth curved with private amusement.

"Start talking, you lab-spawned piece of shit, or you go up in smoke right here and now." The assassin's gaze was glacial. "We are all about to go up in smoke," he hissed through his teeth and fangs.

Kade glanced at the control panel on the opposite wall, only just that second realizing that there was a digital timer counting down on a five-minute clock. On top of the gnawing cold that was still chewing away at his chest, now a sick sense of deja-vu gripped him as he watched what had to be the mine's selfdestruct mechanism ticking off seconds. "Shit. He's already dropped the switch. This whole place is gonna blow."

Tegan growled, low and deadly, as he withdrew the knife from under the assassin's chin and left him standing in the Ancient's holding cell. Kade and the others stepped back as he strode over to the control panel and punched the button that operated the ultraviolet light bars. The vertical beams of light went live, circling the Gen One assassin inside and imprisoning him more securely than any amount of metal could.

"Let's get out of here," Tegan said, stalking out the door. The rest of the warriors fell in behind him, Kade and Brock at the rear.

Brock paused to give the captive assassin a broad smile. "Don't go anywhere now, you hear?" Ordinarily, Kade would have gotten a good chuckle out of his partner's grim humor, but it was damned hard to appreciate anything when his heart was hammering like he'd just run a hundred miles and his veins were lighting up with the same odd chill that had made a home in his chest. He ran with the rest of the group, out of the mine's building and into the main yard of the site, which looked like a war zone. The alarm sirens howled the loudest outside, screaming into the night. The snow was coming down at a furious pace now, blanketing the field of dead Minions and dropping visibility to next to nil.

"We need to adios these bodies, make sure there's nothing left to identify once this place blows," Tegan said. "Come on, let's drag them inside one of the outbuildings and send them off with the rest of that C-4."

"On it," Brock said.

Kade joined the rest of the warriors as they worked to clear the yard before the self-destruct clock wound down to zero. It was getting hard for him to breathe now, his blood throbbing with alarm sirens of its own, awareness seeping through the wash of adrenaline and battle focus that had swamped his senses for much of the combat at the mine.

As he and his brethren dragged the last of the Minion dead into place, and the first rumblings of the coming explosion began to shake the ground, the cause of his internal distress hit him broadside. Alex.

Holy hell.

Something had happened. She was upset, shaken. Something had terrified her … horrified her. And he felt her trauma like his own now, because he had taken her blood into his body, and it was that blood bond that had been clamoring in his own veins.

Her name was a plea–a prayer–as the ground beneath him gave a mighty shudder, and the mining company blew sky high behind him.

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