It was difficult to reconcile a race of beings that could show so much humanity yet belong to the same ruthless, otherworldly line as the creature that had killed Zach and so many others in recent days. Or the blood-addicted Rogues who'd killed her mom and little brother. Or the twin Kade had been too ashamed to admit he had until Alex had seen Seth's savagery for herself.
But Kade and the other Breed males he'd introduced her to were different. They were good men, regardless of the genes that made them something other--something more--than men. They had honor.
Kade did, too. And now, as she flew him and his brethren of the Order through a patch of gusty air, toward the jagged crag of the mountain and an imminent battle with a creature not of this world, she only hoped that she and Kade would have the chance to sort out the tangled mess of what they meant to each other. She could only pray there would be some kind of future waiting for them on the other side of the danger that lay ahead right now.
"Luna's tracking the Ancient's scent up the base of the mountain," Kade said from beside her. "Ah, shit ... it's rough rock and it's damned steep. Son of a bitch is escaping up the ridge. We're gonna lose him on the mountain."
"Just tell me where Luna's heading," Alex said. "I'll worry about getting us there." She flew the plane along the dark ridge, following Kade's directions, straining to see through the windscreen as the fine flakes of snow danced and rolled in her line of vision.
"Damn it," he snarled a moment later. "The scent is gone. It just went cold. Luna's circling around on the ledge below us, but she can't pick up the Ancient's scent anymore."
"Because he leapt from that point," Hunter remarked evenly. "The Ancient is now either above the animal, or below her."
"We're close enough to pursue him on foot," Tegan said. "The Ancient can't get far now without us right on his ass. But we need to set this plane down now."
"Okay, here we go," Alex said, and peered through her window, seeing limited options for anything more than the shortest of short landings.
She aimed the little plane toward a small patch of pristine snow on the rocky tableau, and began the descent.
Kade had seen Alex in action behind the controls of her plane before, but it didn't diminish his awe for her as she brought the small plane down onto a narrow, snowy ledge on the mountain. It wasn't until they had landed that Kade noticed she'd successfully touched them down into a gentle glide that left barely a few feet of room for error on any side.
None of the warriors uttered a word as the single-engine growled into idle and the plane came to a delicate rest on the ridge.
Not even Hunter, who sat stock-straight in the cargo hold, his face imperturbably calm, even though his knuckles looked a bit white for their grip on the netting above his head. Finally, Chase muttered a ripe curse.
Tegan chuckled low under his breath. "Hell of a landing, Alex."
"Hell of a woman," Kade said, looking across the cockpit at her and taking a personal pride in her that he probably had no right to feel. But her gaze was soft on him, although brief, and it gave him a surge of hope that maybe he hadn't lost her completely.
Maybe there was a chance for them yet.
As the group climbed out of the plane and suited up with weapons and ammunition, Luna came bounding up the sloping incline and straight into Alex's open arms. For a moment, Kade selfishly held onto his telepathic connection to the wolf dog, letting himself savor the warmth of Alex's love for the animal. When he broke the link, Tegan was standing next to him, armed for war. "We're going to split up: Hunter will take the incline, Chase and I will cover the ground below," Kade gave him a grim nod. "Where do you want me?"
Tegan glanced over at Alex, who was talking in low, praising tones to Luna. "Stay here and make sure your female is safe. That's more important than anything else you can do, yeah?" Kade considered the comment, feeling duty spurring him to say that the mission was the most important thing right now. That nothing mattered more than his pledge to the Order, his brethren, and their goals. Part of him believed that. Part of him knew without the shadow of a doubt that he would give his life for any one of the warriors, just as they would lay down their lives for him. They were family, as tight as any bond he'd ever known.
But Alex was something even more.
She owned his heart now. He wouldn't even attempt to deny that. And he knew that when Tegan spoke about her, the mated Gen One warrior drew from a point of personal experience, as well.
"Yeah," Kade admitted to him. "Without Alex ... ah, Christ. Without her, nothing else would matter." Tegan nodded, mouth pressed in a thin line. "Maybe you ought to make sure she knows that." He cuffed Kade on the shoulder, then gestured to the other warriors to fall in and begin the next leg of their pursuit. When Hunter had vaulted up to the next ledge and Tegan and Chase had dropped to the one below, Kade strode over to Alex.
"I guess the three of us make a pretty good team," he said, reaching out to scratch behind Luna's ears only because it distracted his hands from reaching for Alex instead.
She wrapped her arms around herself. "You're not going with the others?"
"Tegan wanted me to stay behind and look after you. He knows how much you mean to me, and he knows it would kill me if anything happened to you."
A small line formed between her brows as she looked at him. For the longest time, there was only silence between them. The quiet of falling snow and the faint cry of a wolf baying low in the distance. When Alex finally spoke, her voice was barely above a whisper. "I wanted to hate you. When I saw you in the woods, covered in blood--"
"Not me," he reminded her. "It wasn't me, Alex. It was Seth, not me." She nodded. "I know that. I believe you. But it was you I saw in that moment. It was you, Kade, seeming just as monstrous as the Rogues who killed my mom and Richie. I wanted to hate you in that moment ... but I couldn't. Part of me refused to let go of you, even then, when you couldn't have seemed more hideous and evil to me. I still loved you."
He exhaled a relieved sigh and pulled her into his arms. "Alex ... I'm so sorry for what you thought. For what you saw. I'm sorry for everything."
"That's what scared me the most, Kade. That I could love you even if you were a killer. Even if you were a monster, like...
"Like my brother," he answered softly. "I'm not him. I promise you that. You never have to be afraid of me. I love you, Alexandra. I always will."
Gingerly he took her beautiful face in his hands and kissed her. She felt so good in his arms, against his lips, he could have kissed her forever.
But behind them, Luna's throaty growl put Kade's combat instincts on high alert. He felt the slightest shift in the air as he drew away from Alex and moved her behind him on reflex-Just as a large, dark shape dropped out of the sky. Several yards away from them, the Ancient landed with fluid grace on his feet in the snow. Baring his teeth and enormous fangs, the deadly creature fixed his amber gaze on Kade and hissed with murderous intent.
Terror clenched her as the Ancient's glyph-covered legs contracted into a low crouch, amber eyes bathing Kade in awful light.
"Alex, get out of here."
She swallowed on a throat gone bone dry. "W-what?"
"Go!" Kade ordered her, his eyes rooted on the threat in front of him. "Get back in the plane, take off. Get as far away from this rock as you can. Go now!"
Fear poured through her veins, but her legs refused to move. She couldn't abandon Kade like this, no matter what he said. No matter what he faced. They would face it together. "I'm not leaving. I won't--"
"Damn it, Alex, go!" he snarled, reaching for one of the big semiautomatic pistols holstered under his parka.
He moved with a speed she could hardly follow. One second his hand was slipping into his unzipped coat, the next he was holding the gun in front of him, squeezing off a hail of several rounds. But the Ancient was faster, even than Kade.
He dodged the gunfire, and then his powerful legs pushed off the ground in a lunge that would have sent him crashing into Kade--should have, if not for the sudden blur of movement that was Hunter. The immense Gen One warrior careened into the Ancient from the ledge above, tumbling them both to the snowy ground in a confusion of tossing, rolling chaos.
They struggled together, nearly an even match in terms of strength and power, both of them fighting as though prepared to battle to the death.
Kade moved into the fray just as Hunter took a severe swipe to the base of his neck and shoulder. Blood spurted from his wound, which only seemed to make the Ancient grow more frenzied, its eyes wilder now, fangs elongating further. It reared its great head back and opened its jaws on a furious howl. Kade fired a shot, and instead of the Ancient striking again at Hunter, he had to spend precious effort dodging Kade's bullet.
Alex blinked, which was all the time it took for the Ancient to have his fingers wrapped around Kade's pistol. Metal crushed in his fist, then, using a power she could hardly fathom, the otherworlder flung Kade bodily through the air. He landed at the sheer edge of the cliff, his head split open on the rock, bleeding above the temple.
"Kade!" Alex cried, heart freezing to ice.
He tried to get up, but it was a clumsy, disoriented attempt. He slumped back down with a groan. One misstep and he would be lost.
"Kade! Oh, God--don't move!"
Snow swirled all around, the storm having worsened to near blizzard conditions since they'd landed. She could just make out Hunter's large shape as he came up off the ground to lunge at the Ancient again. On a vicious hiss, the creature wheeled around and thrust the big Gen One away from him. Then the Ancient began to prowl toward Kade at the edge of the cliff's steep drop. Alex's heart wanted to explode out of her breast as she inched her way nearer and nearer to her plane. She wasn't about to run, not even now. She was scared as hell, more than she'd ever been in her life, but she had to do something--for Kade, and for his brethren--no matter how insignificant her actions might prove to be against this threat.
be against this threat.
She grabbed the loaded rifle she kept in the back of the plane.
Raised it as the Ancient stalked closer to where Kade was now trying to drag himself up once more. She couldn't let the creature reach him.
Alex pulled the trigger.
The gunshot cracked like thunder in the snow-tossed darkness.
The Ancient hadn't seen it coming. His large hand was pressed to his chest, but blood seeped through his fingers.
The otherworlder curled his lip back and snarled. Then he started prowling forward again ... no longer toward Kade, but toward her and Luna near the plane.
Alex heard the howl of wolves from somewhere close. So many voices. At least half a dozen or more. She heard them, and could almost hear the beat of their paws rising up through the bitter cold of the storm and the chilling terror of the situation playing out on the ledge.
Alex knew the wolves were near, but she hadn't been at all prepared for the sight of them, suddenly rushing up from the craggy slopes below. The pack charged en masse, leaping in tandem at the same target: the alien creature who roared with outrage as the eight predators attacked.
And as the wolves bit and tore and jumped at the Ancient, another adversary came over the ridge from below.
Alex's breath caught as the Breed male who looked so much like Kade emerged out of the shadows and the swirling chaos of the storm. He didn't seem so much identical to Kade now as he did a mirror image--reversed somehow, as though he were the wilder, more dangerous half of the Breed male she loved. Seth's huge fangs gleamed as white as bone. His eyes threw off a feral amber light that seared like lasers. Alex swallowed as he gave her a brief, sidelong glance. She thought she saw an apology written in the stark expression on his face. Perhaps some measure of remorse.
But then, with a battle cry that made her blood run cold, he surged into a powerful leap and threw himself onto the Ancient.
They were too close to the edge of the cliff.
The forward momentum was too great to be stopped.
Alex's eyes flew wide when she realized what was about to happen. She squeezed them shut an instant later, as Seth and the Ancient careened over the ledge together.
Kade shouted his brother's name, the cotton in his head from the blow he took having cleared instantly when he saw Seth locked in battle with the Ancient. Horror choked him not a second later, as they sailed past him at the cliff's edge and plummeted into the darkness.
There was a great rumbling that seemed to come from all around him, like the roll of thunder, only he felt it in the ground beneath him. Above him, too.
Then, the violent crack of ice and hard-packed snow giving way from the rocky crag overhead. The avalanche roared off the cliff, tons of crushing snow and ice, sweeping like a tidal wave past Kade's head and down, into the mountain's steep cleft below. A blinding, choking cloud of fine, powdery crystals rose up in its wake, chilling Kade's face and forcing him to look away from the snow-filled crevasse where the Ancient and his brother had fallen. Nothing could survive the suffocating weight of that much snow.
Kade felt soft hands coming around his shoulders, the warmth of Alex's body catching him in her embrace, holding him close. And behind them on the ledge, he heard the low sounds of voices. Hunter, Tegan, and Chase, a hush of murmured disbelief for everything that had just occurred.
"Kade," Alex whispered, her tone quiet and comforting. "Oh, God ... Kade." All he wanted was to wrap his arms around her and accept the love she offered him now, but his heart cried out for his twin. The thought of losing his brother raked him; Seth's sacrifice was too difficult to process. Too terrible to be real.
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