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Shades of Midnight (Chapter Twenty-three)

Kade had only been gone a couple of hours, but the waiting was driving Alex crazy. Sleep was out of the question, even though she hadn't been getting much of it lately. She had already fed Luna breakfast and taken a shower, and if she walked around her tiny house looking for one more thing to dust or scrub or straighten, she was going to scream.

Maybe she could invite Jenna over.

Better yet, maybe she could go to her house instead. God knew, she could use the distraction of some company while her heart was caught in a vise, waiting for word from Kade, letting her know that he was all right.

Ordinarily, she might have just hopped on her snowmachine and rode over unannounced, but this was the one time of the year that Jenna appreciated her privacy–demanded it, even. The November anniversary of Mitch and Libby's deaths had always been a struggle for her friend, and it hurt Alex to think that Jenna preferred to suffer it out alone rather than lean on her for support during the difficult time. It also bothered Alex that she hadn't heard a word from Jenna since she had seen her last. Going more than a day or two without at least a phone call or quick drop-in was unusual for Jenna, no matter what time of the year it was.

Alex picked up her phone to call her and noticed that the message symbol was lit up. Probably Jenna, Alex thought with a relieved laugh under her breath. She'd probably left a voicemail asking Alex why she hadn't called or come around herself. Alex punched in her access code and waited for the message to play. It wasn't Jenna. One of the clients on her supply route, a new mother with a sick baby and a husband gone some six months doing work on the pipeline, wanted to know if Alex could possibly bring out some formula and more fuel for the cabin's generator. She was just about out of both, and worried that the coming snowstorm would only make things worse. The call had come in yesterday morning. More than twenty-four hours ago.

"Dammit," Alex whispered.

The woman's cabin was only about ten miles out of town, but the thought of venturing outside Harmony before daylight, especially with the knowledge of the savage creature that likely lurked in the darkness, gave Alex more than a moment's pause.

Then again, could she really sit back in her house and leave everyone else to their own devices simply because she was afraid? Hadn't she just told Kade that she was through with hiding and running, cowering in the corner from the evil she had always known existed but had been too cowardly to face?

She had meant it.

Kade had given her the strength to face her fears.

And the fact that he was out there somewhere, right now, fighting for her–for all of mankind and Breed alike–gave Alex an even greater, renewed sense of power. Noble, courageous Kade was her man, her mate. He loved her. With that knowledge buoying her, there was nothing she needed to fear anymore.

"Come on, Luna." Alex gestured for the wolf dog to follow her as she headed for the kitchen and grabbed her parka off the hook. She stomped into her boots, then grabbed the key to her snowmachine.

"Let's go for a ride, girl."

And on the way back from her delivery, she would swing by Jenna's place just to make sure everything was all right with her, too.

"We counted seven Minions patrolling the areas south and west of the site," Kade said as he and Brock came back from a quick reconnaissance of the mining company. "From what we could see, every one of them is armed with semiauto assault rifles and wired with comm devices. No outward sign of the Gen One assassin or Dragos's man, so odds are they're holed up inside somewhere." As Tegan gave a nod in acknowledgment, Chase walked up with his report from the other side of their operation's target. "Four Minion guards at the gate out front, and a couple more staking out the eastern stretch of the perimeter fence. I'm guessing that's not the extent of them. We're going to find more of the bastards once we get inside. Only question is, how many more."

"No matter." Hunter's deep voice held no inflection, only cold assessment. "Minions have inferior, human reflexes. Regardless of their numbers or their weaponry, it is doubtful they can disable us all. They will pose only a temporary obstacle to our mission."

"Right," Tegan agreed, somewhat dryly. "Once we infiltrate the site and get past the Minions on guard, our objective is twofold. Determine if the Ancient is being held inside, and if so, where. Second, we capture the vampire in charge of the site. If he's taking orders from Dragos, then he knows where Dragos is and what he's up to. So, we need to bring the son of a bitch in and make him talk. Which means we need to bring him in alive."

"Doesn't mean we have to bring him in happy," Chase drawled, the tips of his fangs already visible in anticipation of the battle to come. "Just need to make sure his mouth works."

"We go in stealth," Tegan continued, turning a brief, narrowed glance on the warrior before addressing the group as a whole. "We'll split up into teams and clear as wide a path as we can through the mine's security detail–but do it quietly. No bullets unless absolutely necessary. The closer we can get to the mine's entrance without alerting the whole damned place to our presence inside, the better." The group of warriors responded with accepting nods.

"We need a frontline team to move in on the guards at the gate," Tegan said, looking to Kade and Brock. At their agreement, he slanted a look at Chase. "The two of us will search and secure the outbuildings and cargo containers, and make sure Hunter has a clear path to the mine entrance itself. Once the Minion guards are disabled and the outbuildings are secured, we're gonna need all hands at the ready to move in and breach the mine."

"Sounds like a plan," Brock said.

Kade nodded and met his friend's glance through the fine snow that had been kicking up for the past several minutes. "Let's do this."

"All right," Tegan said. "Everyone knows what needs to be done. Lock and load, and we are rolling." The warriors pided into the assigned teams and moved out. Their preternatural speed and agility would benefit their mission, especially since, as Hunter had said, despite the Minions' numbers, they were at the disadvantage in this battle simply because they were human. Their human eyes would not be able to track the swiftness of the warriors' movements as the band of Breed males rushed the perimeter fences and leapt over the nine-foot barrier in fluid, spring-heeled grace.

Kade was the first one to clear the fence. He came down on a Minion who'd been on watch at the shack out front, dropping the guard to the frozen ground and silencing his shout of alarm with a blade drawn instantly across his throat. As he dragged the body into the shack, he glanced over and saw that Brock drawn instantly across his throat. As he dragged the body into the shack, he glanced over and saw that Brock was also inside, the black warrior's Minion target eliminated with a hard, breaking twist of its neck. Together the two warriors moved on to their next point of attack, Kade leaping onto the roof of the nearest outbuilding while Brock disappeared around the corner of another. Kade spotted his quarry on the ground below. The Minion strolled the area between the perimeter fence and one of the corrugated equipment storage trailers, his watchful eyes trained on the empty darkness beyond the fence. He went down with little more than a grunt of surprise as Kade launched himself from the rooftop and put him to a swift death on the ground.

Brock, too, had added another Minion to his tally. He dumped the limp body of his second Minion target beside Kade's.

Up ahead, partially concealed by the flurry of snow that was starting to pick up intensity, Tegan was just releasing the broken, lifeless body of a large Minion guard and stripping him of his weapons. Farther still, toward the pathway that led to the mine's entrance, Kade could just make out the immense form of Hunter as the Gen One male stepped past two freshly dead Minions who lay in slumped heaps at his feet. Kade shot a look around the site for the remaining member of the team and found him up near the cargo containers. Chase had a Minion clutched by the throat, holding the struggling mind slave in a slow and painful death grip, his booted feet several inches off the ground. The Minion flailed and convulsed as he began to strangle.

"End it," Kade muttered in a tight whisper as he watched Chase's expression contort with some kind of wild fury. From beside him, Kade heard Brock growl, a low rumble deep in his throat as he, too, caught sight of the other warrior toying with his prey.

Just then, Chase drew his knife and brought it up, poised to deliver a killing strike. That's when Kade saw a flash of dark movement across the way–another Minion, stepping out onto an exterior staircase of one of the surrounding buildings. The Minion guard had his rifle aimed at Chase, about to squeeze the trigger.

"Goddamn it," Kade snarled, bringing up his own weapon and training it on the sudden threat to Sterling Chase's life. Tegan's warning to hold all fire unless absolutely necessary rang through his head. Fuck it.

He had to do it. If he didn't, in another fraction of a second, the Order was going to lose one of its own.

Kade fired.

The shot cracked like a sudden clap of thunder. Up on the stairwell, an explosion of blood and gore blasted out of the side of the Minion's head as Kade's bullet met its target dead-on. The Minion's corpse toppled over the edge, landing with a hard thump on the ground below. At the same time, an alarm went off inside the buildings. The ringing peal of the sirens echoed all around the exterior of the site, plunging the area into instant chaos.

Before Kade had a chance to regret the move that had spared his brethren's life but possibly put their mission in jeopardy, an army of Minions came pouring out of the place from all directions. Gunfire erupted everywhere. Kade and Brock ped for cover behind the nearest outbuilding, returning fire on the group of Minion guards who moved in on them from across the way.

Through the curtain of thickening snowfall, Kade noticed an additional company of Minions over near the squat brick building that protected the mine's entrance. A dozen of them swept out to fortify the front of the building, while behind them, still more appeared in the narrow windows, which were thrown open and bristling with the long black barrels of high-gauge semiautos.

Bullets volleyed from all directions as Kade and the others tried to mow down the line and clear a path toward the mine's entrance, the obvious nerve center of Dragos's operation there. The warriors took out several targets, but not without a few hits on their side. Although their Breed genetics gave them the speed to anticipate and dodge an incoming shot, in the heat of battle it was easy to lose track–and potentially lose one's head.

Kade took a nasty graze to his shoulder as he fired on the Minions. Beside him, Brock flinched away from one bullet and barely evaded another. The rest of the warriors were under similar attack and, like Kade and Brock, giving back as good as they were getting. Minions dropped from various positions, until all that was left were a few tenacious guards holding the line at the front of the mine's entrance. Then, as if to give the challenge an even finer point, the building's steel door opened and an immense, black-clad shape emerged.

"Assassin," Kade hissed to Brock as the huge Gen One male he'd seen a few days ago with Dragos's lieutenant strode outside to join the fray.

No sooner had he said it than one of the warriors broke out of formation and stalked forward, gun blazing.

Holy hell.

Hunter.

"Cover him!" Tegan shouted, but Kade and the others were already on it, vaulting up from their positions and falling in behind the former assassin to blast at their enemies and storm the mine's entrance in force.

Several yards in front now, Hunter's long, determined strides chewed up the snow-covered ground as he dodged to evade a hail of bullets coming at him from ahead on the right. Another volley answered, and the Gen One took a solid hit to his left thigh. Then another to his right shoulder. Hunter barely flinched as his flesh tore away with the impacts. Head lowered, he threw down his weapon and bulldozed forward in a streak of speed that only Breed eyes could follow. All of his fury–all of his lethal intent–was focused on the other Gen One assassin, the Breed male who had been born and bred the same as he, and trained to be expert in just one thing: dealing death.

At the same moment Hunter shot forward, the assassin released his gun and launched himself into the air in a great leap. The pair of Gen Ones collided in a crash of pummeling bone and muscle. As they went down onto the ground, locked in vicious hand-to-hand combat that would not cease until one or the other was killed, the rest of the warriors moved in quickly to mow down the remaining Minions guarding the mine.

The dual battles were furious, bloody, and seemed to take place in a vacuum of time that was both agonizingly slow motion and spinning out at the speed of light.

Kade and the others converged on the mine's entrance. Blood and bone and bullets sprayed the snowfilled darkness. Minions fell in greater numbers now, their sharp, agonized screams splitting the night as the mine's alarms continued to blare and howl.

And on the ground nearby, Hunter and the Gen One assassin rolled and twisted in an indiscernible blur of movement, hammering each other with their fists. As Kade took out another Minion near the entrance, he saw the flash of the assassin's fangs in the darkness as the Gen One opened his maw and brought his bite down hard on Hunter's shoulder.

Kade had an opening to fire on the bastard, but in the midst of all the chaos around them, it was a miserably thin chance. If he missed, he could put a bullet in Hunter's head instead. He blew out a curse and lined up his shot–just as Hunter grabbed the black polymer collar around the assassin's neck and threw him off. Hunter pounced onto the male's chest. Silent, merciless, he grabbed the vampire's huge, hairless head in both hands and cracked it hard onto the snow-packed ground. Kade felt the skull-crushing thump reverberate in the ground beneath his boots. The assassin's fight slowed then, but Hunter wasn't finished. Hands moving with grim efficiency and ruthless strength, he hoisted the heavy bulk of the other male and sent the disabled assassin flying. The body crashed into the side of one of the cargo containers, the assassin's electronic collar shooting off a shower of sparks as it impacted with the corrugated steel.

"Oh, shit!" Kade shouted, having seen firsthand what those collars could do. "UV blast coming-everybody down!" His command sent Hunter and all the rest of the warriors straight to the deck. No sooner had they hit the ground than there was a sudden, blinding flash of pure white light. The ultraviolet ray shot out from beneath the assassin's head, cutting a clean line through skin, flesh, tendons, and bone. When it extinguished a moment later, the immense Gen One assassin lay in the melting snow in a broken heap, his hairless, glyph- covered head severed cleanly from the rest of him.

Without missing a beat, Hunter drew a pistol from his weapons belt and squeezed off more rounds at the handful of Minions who were staggering around, temporarily blinded by the explosion of light a second ago. Kade and the rest of the group joined in, and, within moments, nothing stood in their way of the mine's entrance except a field of fallen bodies.

Tegan kicked in the steel door and led the push inside the building. The front room was vacant, except for more Minion carnage and a couple of security cameras. At the back of the space was another door, this one steel, as well, but fortified with a heavy latch and turnstile lock, like the door of a bank vault.

"Brock," Tegan said. "Give it a bump of that C-4."

Brock moved forward and swung the black ammunitions satchel off his back. He took out one of the pale cakes of explosive material and cut off a small piece. When he'd pressed it into place on the steel door and set the charges, everyone drew back outside and covered their heads as he hit the detonator and blew the door.

"We're in," he said, as the rolling smoke and dust started to clear. They hauled open the blasted interior door and crept into the corridor on the other side. Bunk rooms lined one side of the passageway, presumably for the Minion guards who manned the place. Farther down was a storage room, a modest kitchen, and farther still, a communications room that looked recently vacated of personnel.

The warriors continued their search, past a spartan quarters that was nothing more than a prisonlike room with no light or bunk for sleeping, just a blanket folded neatly on the floor. On a small stool in the corner sat an open box of rounds and a sheath for a large blade.

Hunter looked inside the room with a dispassionate eye. "The assassin slept here." The cold cell was in stark contrast to the plush living quarters the group encountered a few yards down the corridor. Through the partially open door, Kade glimpsed a lot of dark, polished wood and luxurious furnishings. Behind a gleaming cherry desk a leather wing chair was still spinning, in motion from its recent occupant's apparently hasty departure.

No doubt, this fancy suite belonged to Dragos's lieutenant.

Kade gestured down the passageway, toward the last remaining room before the corridor opened into the mine shaft itself. "Only one way he could have run."

"Yeah." Tegan's green gaze slid to him in agreement. "Right into a trap." He motioned for the others to fall in behind him, then led the way into the shadowy maw of the corridor.

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