Shades of Midnight (Chapter Twenty-seven)

Alex flew as fast as she dared through the snow and wilderness on the way to Jenna's cabin. She could still hear Zach behind her, gaining on her. Cutting a hazardous path back and forth, praying she might lose him in the nearly blinding storm, she hoped that the gun he'd pulled on her in town had just been a momentary lapse of good sense on his part.

But she'd seen the dangerous gleam in his gaze. He was furious, and he was desperate to protect his secret. Probably most of all from Jenna. But would he be desperate enough to kill Alex in the process?

secret. Probably most of all from Jenna. But would he be desperate enough to kill Alex in the process?

The knot of dread that was lodged in her throat said he would.

Alex's heart was beating like it wanted to leap out of her rib cage by the time she reached Jenna's property. She skidded into an abrupt halt and killed the engine. Luna jumped off with her and the pair of them started running for the cabin's front porch.

"Jenna!" she called. "Jenna, it's me!"

Almost to the steps, Alex heard Zach's snowmachine grind to a halt behind her. "Don't take another step, Alex."

Oh, God.

"Jenna!" she cried. "Are you there?"

There was no answer. No movement of any kind came from inside the cabin. Behind her, the soft click of the pistol's hammer.

"Goddamn you, Alex." Zach's voice sounded wooden, utterly devoid of emotion. "Why are you making me do this?"

"Jenna," she called again, quieter now, realizing the futility of it. The cabin was silent. Jenna either would not, or could not, hear her. What if her earlier dread for Jenna's wellbeing was accurate? Alex hardly dared imagine it.

Nor would she even have the chance, because Zach was apparently out of his mind and Alex was likely about to die here and now.

Then, from within the stillness ahead of her, Alex heard the faintest sound–a small moan, barely audible even as close as she was to the door. Alex's heart gave a hopeful stutter.

"Jenna?" She braved the smallest step forward, one foot on the bottom step of the porch. "If you can hear me, please open–"

The gunshot rang out like a cannon blast behind her. Alex felt the heated whisper of the bullet as it sang past her head and lodged into the wooden doorjamb not even three feet in front of her. Oh, Jesus. Oh, holy Christ.

Zach had shot at her.

Alex's body froze with shock and a fear so deep and cold it left her shaking all over. She exhaled a shuddering breath and slowly pivoted her head, not about to let Zach shoot her in the back. If he was going to do it, then, by God, he was going to do it looking her in the eyes.

But no sooner had she turned than there was an explosion of movement behind her. Something huge blasted out of Jenna's cabin in a blur of speed, splintering the door right off its hinges. Zach screamed. His gun went off again, the bullet ripping audibly through the thick, snow-laden canopy of pine boughs overhead.

Alex grabbed Luna and hit the ground, her face buried in the warm fur of the wolf dog's neck. She didn't know what just happened. For an instant, her mind struggled to process the guttural snarl and the sickening, wet sounds that followed.

Then she knew what it had to be.

Slowly she raised her head. The scream that crawled up to her lips died as her gaze locked onto a deadly creature that eclipsed anything she'd ever seen before.

The Ancient.

Through the steady fall of snowflakes in the darkness, his amber gaze burned laser bright, searingly savage. He was naked, hairless, covered from head to toe in dermaglyphs so dense and intertwining they all but concealed his nudity. His enormous fangs dripped with blood–Zach's blood, taken from the gaping hole that had once been his throat.

A terrible thought slammed into her: Had this monster also gotten to Jenna?

Alex closed her eyes, whispering a prayer for her friend and hoping desperately for some kind of miracle that might have spared her from the brutal savagery that had just befallen Zach. Luna growled in Alex's arms and the creature cocked its head at an exaggerated angle, staring at the animal. He started to prowl away from Zach's lifeless body, a low growl ticking in the back of his alien throat.

Alex's lungs compressed, squeezing out what little air was in them. She thought for certain the Ancient was about to kill her, too, but its questioning stare lingered for an agonizing few seconds. Time during which the distant buzz of more snowmachines carried on the wind.

Alex sent a nervous glance toward the sound.

When she looked back again, the Ancient was gone, nothing but the sway of a few low-hanging branches at the edge of the forest to tell which direction he'd fled.

The knowledge of Alex's fear hit Kade like an anvil driven into his gut. He and the other warriors were hauling ass on their snowmachines, nearly to Harmony when the feeling gripped him that they were moving farther away from Alex, not closer. He quickly redirected the group, leading the way along a game trail that rambled to the west of town.

Fresh sled tracks told him he was on the right path, but no more so than the homing strength of his blood bond to Alex, which pulsed more powerfully as his snowmachine chewed up the trail, heading toward a small log cabin up ahead in the dark a few hundred yards.

Kade's heart soared that he had reached her, only to crash an instant later when the copper stench of human blood tickled his nostrils. It wasn't hers–he'd know her honey-sweet bloodscent anywhere–but the idea that Alex was near any kind of death sent fear arrowing through his veins. Kade goosed the throttle of his sled, but the damn thing was still too slow for his liking. He steered off the trail and ditched it, vaulting in a fluid leap before hitting the ground running, using every ounce of his Breed agility to reach her.

"Alex!" he shouted, speeding past the carnage in front of the cabin and glancing around only long enough to note the brutalized corpse of Zach Tucker and the splintered ruins of what had been the cabin's front door. "Ah, God … Alex!"

He ran inside and found her on folded knees beside her friend Jenna, who lay on the floor of the darkened cabin. Kade flicked on a lamp, not so much for himself as for the two women. Jenna seemed confused, her eyes drowsy, her voice groggy as though she were just coming to after having been unconscious.

"Alex," Kade murmured gently, his voice breaking with emotion. She turned to face him then, and slowly rose to her feet. She took one hesitant step forward, and that was all he needed. Kade went to her and pulled her against him, wrapping her in his arms. He kissed the top of her head, so damned relieved to see that she was unharmed.

"Alex, I am so sorry. For everything."

She drew back and glanced away from him. He could read the emotion in her eyes. The quiet uncertainty that said she wasn't sure she could trust him fully yet. It crushed him to see that doubt in her eyes. Even worse was knowing that he was the one who put it there.

She led him away from Jenna, who was still murmuring incoherently, in and out of wakefulness. Alex's gaze held his with bleak calm. "It was the Ancient, Kade. He was here." He swore, though he was unsurprised, given the condition of the body outside. "You saw him? Did he touch you? Did he … ah, Jesus … did he do anything to you at all?" She shook her head. "He must have been hiding in Jenna's cabin when Zach and I arrived a few minutes ago. He exploded out the front door after Zach tried to shoot me–"

"What?" Kade's blood went from the icy chill of his fear to the boiling heat of rage. If Tucker wasn't already dead, Kade would have torn his lungs out. "What the hell happened? Why did that son of a bitch want to hurt you?"

"Because I realized what he was up to. Zach and Skeeter were in business together, dealing drugs and selling alcohol to the dry Native settlements in the bush. I knew something was wrong when I saw Skeeter's cell phone and a lot of cash at Zach's house today. He tried to lie about it, but I knew."

"He picked the wrong person for that, eh?"

Her smile was faint and fleeting. "I don't want Jenna to see …" She gestured toward the front yard as her words trailed off. "She'll have to know the truth, of course, but not like this." Kade nodded. "Yeah, of course."

As they spoke the rest of the warriors roared up to the cabin on their sleds. Kade went out to intercept them, informing them that the Ancient had been there just a short while ago and that the victim outside was the brother of Alex's friend.

Chase and Hunter fell in to perform a discreet cleanup, while Tegan and Brock walked with Kade back inside.

"This is Alex," he said, making quick introductions to the two warriors. It was difficult not to touch her as he explained what had occurred before they arrived, just to reassure himself that she was whole and unharmed.

"Are you and your friend all right?" Tegan asked, the Gen One's voice deep with respect despite the fact that he'd come there to assess a situation that had gone from mildly screwed up to fucked up beyond all recognition.

"I'm okay," Alex replied. "But I'm worried about Jenna. I didn't see anything wrong with her, but she doesn't seem quite right to me, either."

Tegan glanced at Brock, but the big warrior was already heading over to have a look at the woman across the room.

"What's he going to do to her?" Alex asked, worry creasing her brow.

"It's all right," Kade said. "If something is wrong, he can help her." Brock smoothed his hands over Jenna's back, then gently swept aside her hair and placed his dark fingers against the wan paleness of her cheek. "She's been tranced," he said. "She's coming out of it, though. Gonna be fine."

Chase and Hunter strode into the cabin and looked to Tegan. "The yard is cleared. The two of us can start searching the area for the Ancient's trail."

Tegan pursed his lips, blew out a sharp sigh. "He's miles away from here by now. A needle in a haystack. We'll never catch him in this wilderness. It's not like we can track the son of a bitch across the whole damn interior in this blizzard."

Kade felt Alex's gaze light on him. "What about Luna? If you used your talent with her, would she be able to help us track the Ancient?"

Tegan eyed the wolf dog that had come over to nuzzle Kade's hand. "It might be our best shot, man."

"Yeah, I can do it," he said, "but what about the rest of you? Are we all going to run with her, fully loaded with weapons in case we catch up to the bastard?"

"I can fly you," Alex suggested.

"No way." Kade shook his head. "No fucking way. I'm not going to put you any farther into this whole thing than I already have. That's a risk I'm not willing to take."

"I want to do it. I'm not going to leave Luna, and I can carry all of you in my plane while she tracks the Ancient on the ground."

"It's dark, Alex," he bit off harshly. "And it's snowing like a bitch."

"I'm not seeing your point," she countered. "And the longer we stand here arguing about this, the farther that creature can run. That's a risk that I'm not willing to take." Tegan leveled a questioning look on Kade. "She's right. You know she is." Kade slanted his gaze to Alex, seeing in her eyes all of the courage and determination that had made him fall in love with her in the first place. The fact was, the Order needed her right now. He was proud of Alex and petrified at the same time. But he exhaled a low curse and said, "Yeah. Okay, let's do this."

"What about the human?" Chase asked, gesturing toward Jenna. "We'd better scrub her before she sees anything more than she already has."

When the ex-Enforcement Agent started to walk toward her, Brock wheeled his head around, fangs gleaming behind his lips. "Back off, Harvard. You don't touch her. Got it?" Chase paused at once. He gave a negligent shrug and withdrew as Brock turned his attention back to the human female.

As the tension in the cabin subsided, Alex kneeled down beside Luna and wrapped the wolf dog in a loving hug, whispering something to her before she looked up at Kade. "All right, she's in your hands. Promise me you'll be careful with her."

"I promise," he said, meaning it completely.

As Alex moved away, Kade took Luna's chin in his palm and met her intelligent gaze. He established his connection with the canine's mind, then gave her the silent command to show him where the Ancient fled.

Alex had her arms crossed over her chest, one hand pressed to her mouth, as Luna took off running from the cabin and into the swirling snowstorm outside.