Shades of Midnight (Chapter Five)

Kade trekked deep into the frigid wilderness of the bush, leaving the tiny town of Harmony some forty miles behind him. There were only a handful of winter travel options for humans this far incountry: plane, dogsled, or snow-machine. Kade traveled on foot, his duffel and gear slung onto his back, his snowshoes carrying him over the surface of blowing drifts that could swallow a man to his earlobes. The brittle wind sawed at him as he ran up one steep rise then down through yet another gully, his inhuman speed and endurance all thanks to the part of him that was Breed.

It was his Alaskan heart and soul that relished the cold and the punishing terrain, calling to the wildness inside him–the wildness that was quick to rise again now that he was back on the familiar tundra of his homeland.

Following the frozen KoyukukRiver north toward the general location of the Toms settlement was easy enough. Once he got close to the area where the killings had occurred, his acute sense of smell led him the rest of the way. Despite the thick cover of fresh-fallen snow from the storms of the past couple days, to one of his kind, the taint of spilled blood still carried on the wind like a beacon lighting the path toward the scene of the recent carnage.

What he'd seen on the Web-posted video images Gideon had obtained in Boston had prepared him somewhat for his mission. He'd gone to Harmony's airstrip after the town hall meeting to get a private look at the dead who lay on ice in the yard's sole hangar. The wounds had been grisly on the video. Seeing them up close and personal certainly hadn't been an improvement.

But Kade had studied the lacerations–the near eviscerations–with a cool head and an objective eye. He hadn't found any surprises during his visit to the makeshift morgue. It hadn't been either animal or human that killed the Toms family.

Something else had brutalized them … just as the young woman, the pretty brown-eyed blonde named Alexandra Maguire, had insisted in the gathering at the town church.

Now, she, on the other hand, had been a surprise.

Tall and lean, with a simple beauty that needed no enhancements, the female had stunned Kade when she stood up and declared that she had seen something strange in the snow. For one thing, Kade had not been aware of any witnesses, except the idiot who'd recorded the video and had the bad sense to post it online. Locating and silencing that particular problem was among Kade's top mission priorities for the Order, just below the priority of identifying the Rogue vampire–or vampires–responsible for the bloody attack and seeing that justice was served with a cold, swift hand.

But now there was an added complication in the form of this female, Alex. Just one more wrinkle in a situation already full of them. Whatever she saw, whatever she knew about the killings out here in the bush, she was a problem that Kade would have to deal with before things were complicated any further. He could sure as hell think of worse things to do in the line of duty than pump the attractive blonde for information.

One of those worse things loomed ahead of him in the darkness–the shadowy cluster of houses and outbuildings that comprised the Toms family settlement. Kade's nostrils twitched with the scent of old blood beneath the white cover of snow that blanketed the site. From this distance some hundred yards away, the scene looked picturesque, peaceful. A quiet frontier outpost nestled among the spruce and birch of the boreal woods that surrounded it.

But the stench of death clung to the place even in the cold, growing more pungent as Kade walked up to the stout log building nearest the trail. He removed his snow-shoes and walked up the two steps to the porch. The rough-hewn door was closed but unlocked. Kade squeezed the latch and gave the door his shoulder, pushing it open.

A large pool of frozen blood glistened like black onyx in the scant glow of the moonlight spilling in around him as he stood on the threshold of the house. His body's reaction to the sight and scent of the crystallized red cells hit him like a hammer to the skull. Even though the blood was spilled and old, of no use to Kade, whose kind could only take nourishment from the veins of living human beings, his fangs punched out from his gums in response.

He hissed a low curse through those stretching fangs as he lifted his head and caught sight of more blood–more signs of struggle and suffering–in the smeared, dark trail that led from the main room of the cabin toward the short hallway that cut down its center. One of the victims had tried to escape the predator who'd come to kill them. Kade set down his duffel and snowshoes, then followed the corridor. The human had only sealed its fate by fleeing to the back bedroom. Cornered there, the garish splatters on the walls and unmade bed told Kade enough of the brutality of this slaying, as well.

There had been two more lives cut down in this place, and Kade took no satisfaction in piecing together the horrific scenarios of their murders as he walked the rest of the settlement and analyzed the attack. He'd seen enough here. He knew with heavy certainty that the deaths had Bloodlust written all over them. Whoever killed the humans here had done so with a fervor that exceeded anything Kade had ever seen before–even that of the most savage, addicted Rogue.

"Son of a bitch," he muttered, his gut tight with disgust as he wheeled away from the ghostly settlement and staggered toward the surrounding forest in need of fresh air. He gulped it in, dragging the taste of brisk winter deep into his lungs.

It wasn't enough. Hunger and rage twisted around him like tightening chains, suffocating him in the heat of his parka and clothing. Kade tore it all off and stood naked in the biting November night. The chill darkness soothed him, but not by much.

He wanted to run–needed to run–and felt the cold arms of the Alaskan wilderness reach out to embrace him. In the distance, he heard the low howl of a wolf. He felt the cry resonate deep in his marrow, felt it singing through his veins.

Kade threw his head back and answered it.

Another wolf replied, this one markedly closer than the first. In minutes, the pack had moved in, inching toward him through the tight clusters of spruce. Kade glanced from one pair of keen lupine eyes to another. The alpha stepped forward from the trees, a big black male with a ragged right ear. The wolf advanced alone, moving as shadow across the pristine white of the snow.

Kade stood his ground as first the alpha, then the others, walked a slow circle around him. He met their inquisitive eyes and sent a mental promise that he meant them no harm. They understood, as he knew they would.

And when he silently commanded them to take off, the pack bolted into the thick curtain of the starlit woods.

Kade fell in alongside them and ran with the wolves as one of the pack. Elsewhere in the cold, dark night, another predator strode the frozen, forbidding terrain. He'd been walking for hours, alone and on foot in this empty wilderness for more nights than he could recall. He thirsted, but his need was not as urgent as it had been when he'd first set out into the cold. His body was nourished now, his muscles, bones, and cells infused with power from the blood he had taken recently. Admittedly, too much blood, but already his system was leveling out from the overfill. And now that he was stronger, his body revived, he was finding it difficult to curb the thrill of the hunt.

That's what he was, after all: the purest form of hunter.

It was those predatory instincts that pricked to awareness as the quiet of the woods he crept through was disturbed by the rhythmic gait of a two-legged intruder. The stench of wood smoke and unclean human skin assailed his nose as the dark shape of a man wrapped in a heavy parka materialized not far from where the hunter watched and waited in the darkness. A metallic jangle sounded with each step the human took, emanating from the steel chains and sharp-toothed clamps he gripped in his gloved hand. In the other hand was a dead animal held by its hind feet, a large rodentlike creature that had been gutted along the way. The human trapper trudged toward a small log shack up the trail. The hunter watched him walk past, unaware of the gaze that followed him with greedy interest. For a moment, the hunter debated the merits of cornering his prey within the confines of the tiny shelter versus indulging in a bit of sport among the trees and drifts outside. Deciding on the latter, he stepped out from the cover of his observation spot and made a low sound in the back of his throat–part warning, part invitation for the now-startled human to run. The trapper did not disappoint.

"Oh, Jesus. What in God's name–" Fear blanched his bearded face and rendered his jaw slack. He dropped his paltry prize into the snow at his feet, then stumbled into a terrified dash for the woods. The hunter's lips curled off his fangs with anticipation of the chase. He let his prey crash away some sporting distance, then he set off after him.