The end of Silence was supposed to create a better world for future generations. But trust is broken, and the alliance between Psy, Changeling, and human is thin. The problems that led to Silence are back in full force. Because Silence fixed nothing, just hid the problems.
This time, the Psy have to find a real answer to their problems--if one exists. Or their race will soon go extinct in a cascade of violence. The answer begins with an empath who is attuned to monsters--and who is going to charm a wolf into loving her despite his own demons.
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Nalini Singh
The Psy hid their evil in the snow. Watch. Be vigilant. Do not allow such heartbreak to happen again.
—Letter from Aren Snow, opened in the aftermath of her death in 2059
Grief hit him with the force of a backhanded punch.
Alexei stumbled, came to a halt under the driving rain—and immediately realized the soul-shredding pain wasn’t his. His eyes burned and his throat threatened to clog, but both the man who ran under the rain and the wolf inside him understood that this grief came from the outside.
Alexei’s own grief remained locked up tight in an airless box where it stayed except for cold midnight hours about once a month when he could no longer hold it inside. Those nights, he ran in wolf form, howling up at the cold moon in pure fury and ignoring the wolf song that responded to his.
His grief was primal, angry and aggressive and stubbornly determined to be a private thing. His packmates didn’t know the meaning of private most of the time, but in this, everyone except the toughest, most stubborn wolves held back. Likely because Alexei would growl them right back inside the den. His grief had claws.
The grief he could sense today . . . it was raw, without shields, naked and defenseless. It was a wounded animal with its paw caught in a cruel trap. A broken creature in a place without light, alone and afraid. A sentient being who had lost all hope.
Both parts of him strained at the leash to find the grieving one, attempt to assuage their grief. He was a dominant predatory changeling, a deep protectiveness toward weaker packmates built into his blood. This person wasn’t pack, wasn’t wolf, but his instincts didn’t make the distinction when so close to such terrible anguish.
Alexei had to force himself to pause, think. Such an overwhelming emotional storm, the roar of it thunder in his blood, it could come from only one type of being. An empath. And not just any empath. A powerful empath who was broadcasting on all bands with no thought to who their pain might hit.
Alexei had only ever met two empaths. The one he knew best had laughed during their meeting and he’d felt the ripple of her happiness in the air, but it had been akin to catching a distant scent on the wind. This was a deluge, but there was no attempt to confuse his own senses.
The E was broadcasting so loudly that he couldn’t help but feel their crushing grief, his already battered and bruised heart aching, but he knew the grief wasn’t his own. The E wasn’t targeting him or making any attempt to hack his mind. The waves of emotion were too uncontrolled and chaotic for that. As a wolf might react at the loss of his mate, throwing back his head and howling his rage and grief up at the sky, uncaring of who else might hear.
This was no Psy trick or trap.
Alexei ran in the direction of the torrent of pain.
Only moments earlier and regardless of his wolf’s edgy need to run, he’d been considering turning back. The sudden rise in the strength of the wind worried him, and the rain had become a pitiless silver sheet that threatened to turn into shards of ice. Though heavy snow yet shrouded the higher elevations, including thick patches in his current location, it had been cloudy but otherwise fine when he left his pack’s central den in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.
Now, turning back was not an option.
The fallen pine needles and snowy leaf litter were fleeting touches under his booted feet, the water that ran over him frigid. Tall green firs thickly dusted with white speared into the granite-colored sky at the start of his run toward the E, but five minutes of loping over the landscape with wolfish speed and the forest giants began to feather out in favor of smaller trees.
Those, too, disappeared not long afterward.
It could get bitingly cold at this elevation even in the summer months, the mountains less than hospitable to large foliage. But they’d had an unseasonal warm snap over the past two weeks. Grass had begun to poke its sharp blades through the snow, and in between the huge shattered rocks that thrust out of the mountain, he spotted tiny rain-bedraggled wildflowers that would raise their hopeful faces to the sun after the storm was past.
The wind slapped at his skin and the icy rain ran down his back, but he didn’t slow, driven to find the empath suffering so terribly that she was threatening to crush his heart.
Yes, the “taste” of the presence he could sense was categorically female. It was as if she were broadcasting part of herself with her pain. As if the slamming waves of emotion held a scent his wolf could catch.
His heart thundered, his lungs expanding and collapsing in a harsh rhythm. Inside him ran the wolf that was his other half—a half without which he could never be whole. Alexei and his wolf, they were one . . . even when it came to the curse that haunted his family and had taken his brother. Primal wolf and changeling heart, Alexei accepted who he was—and the price it demanded.
He ran on, the hunt in his blood.
His packmates didn’t often wander this way—the power substation he’d promised to look in on during this run was a half hour to the west and could be approached from multiple other directions. It was possible no one had spent time up here for months, maybe longer.
In any other part of the pack’s territory, such a gap would be highly unusual. SnowDancer as a pack didn’t take territorial security lightly—but things got complicated in this particular section of their land. When Alexei had mentioned his intended route to his alpha, the other man had narrowed his ice-blue eyes. “I haven’t been through there in too long.” A tension in Hawke’s muscles, his jaw working. “My wolf’s fur always stands up the wrong way there.”
Alexei’s claws had pricked the insides of his fingers at the unspoken reference to the nightmarish past. Hawke had been a child of twelve, Alexei barely four when the Psy attempted to savage the pack with cowardice and stealth. A fringe group of scientists had abducted wolf after wolf, then broken their minds and souls beyond repair, the scientists’ aim to poison the pack from within.
Hawke’s parents hadn’t survived.
His strong, highly trained father had gone missing up here during a routine patrol. Tristan had been found a week later, badly wounded from an apparent fall. No one knew the Psy had twisted his mind until it was far too late and he lay bleeding out on the snow.
Hawke’s gifted artist mother, Aren, had tried to hold on after Tristan’s death, but her heart had been broken into so many pieces that she couldn’t put it back together again; she’d simply gone to sleep one day and never woken up.
It was hardly surprising that Hawke preferred not to roam here.
Odd, however, that other packmates avoided it, too. Even pragmatic Elias had shuddered when he ran into Alexei as Alexei was about to leave this afternoon. “Area gives me the creeps,” the senior soldier had muttered. “Can a mountain be haunted? ’Cause I’m pretty sure that particular section is.”
The E’s grief was a crushing vice around his heart by this point, nails that threatened to puncture his lungs. Gritting his teeth, he continued on, uncaring of the sharpness of the rain, the danger of the uneven and rocky terrain. He was a wolf. He was a lieutenant. He was a SnowDancer. And this was wolf land.
The grief reached a screaming crescendo . . . only to begin to fade as he ran on.
Halting, he backed up until the pitch grated and scraped and told him he was right beside her.
Only there was no one within sight or scent. Rain or not, his vision was acute enough that he could see a hell of a long way at this treeless elevation. The only things in his line of sight were patches of snow, exposed juts of rock, the odd area of grass-speckled earth revealed by the recent warm spell, and, over in the distance, a falcon riding the powerful wind.
A changeling bird. It was too big to be a natural falcon.
But the falcon was no concern. The WindHaven falcons had an agreement with SnowDancer that permitted them flight paths over SnowDancer land. Plus, the falcon was far distant and heading in the opposite direction, nearly a dot by now, yet the pain, the pain, it continued to rise and rise and rise.
Her heart, it was breaking.
His wolf clawed at the inside of his skin. The primal urge rippling through his blood, Alexei’s human hands sprouted claws as he began to hunt among the nearby rocks, on the impossible chance that she was curled up hiding behind one. Impossible because there weren’t many rocks large enough. And because how could she be here? This area was so deep in SnowDancer territory that you’d have to be a teleporter to get in without being spotted.
A teleport-capable empath?
Alexei had never heard of that combination of psychic abilities, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t exist. There was a lot changelings and humans didn’t know about the Psy. The psychic race had kept a wall of cold Silence between themselves and the rest of the world for over a hundred years.
The protocol that had stifled emotion among the Psy race had also severed their bonds with those outside the PsyNet, the sprawling psychic network that connected all Psy on the planet but for the defectors and renegades. For more than a century, the Psy had focused on icy perfection. They had regarded the other races as lesser, as primitive beings driven by basic animal urges.
Things had changed in recent times, and Alexei’s alpha was mated to a deadly cardinal Psy, while one of Alexei’s closest friends was a telekinetic former assassin. But even his Psy packmates and friends didn’t know all of their race’s secrets—Psy leaders had kept the truth from their own people, too. Hidden monsters and predators and psychopaths.
For it was only the pathologically emotionless who’d truly thrived under Silence.
Where was she?
He growled deep inside his chest, his wolf rising to the surface to alter his vision. Had anyone been looking at him, they’d have seen his gray eyes turn a shockingly pale amber shot through with shards of gold, his pupils pinpricks of black.
The effect was startling because of his dark eyelashes and eyebrows—quite unlike the “sun-gold” of his hair—as described by his aunt. Even wet, it didn’t darken much. Thank God the color didn’t translate into his wolf’s pelt; his packmates would’ve never let him live down being a fucking yellow wolf.
Agony, such agony.
Clenching his jaw, he tried to pick up any scent that denoted a living being. He caught hints of a small woodland creature and of a wild bird, but that was it. Only sodden vegetation, snow, and rock.
Hauling himself over a large jut of rock as the rain became a raging waterfall, he dropped down into an easy crouch on the other side. He found nothing but a thick pile of snow protected by the shadow the rock would throw in sunlight. Glancing absently back at the rock he’d scaled, he stilled at the sight of the jagged crack in the stone. Once, as a pup, Alexei’s brother had found a small cave behind a crack just like that one and turned it into their secret hiding spot.
Brodie had always been generous with his kid brother. Maybe because he’d somehow known that, in the end, it would come down to the two of them. Except it hadn’t worked out that way.
Could the empath be curled up in there?
He took extreme care as he went to explore the possibility. That he still couldn’t scent even a hint of her told him his search was apt to be futile, because as far as he was aware, no one had yet discovered a way to cloak their scent from changeling noses. The closest people had come was to soak themselves in a scent that echoed their surroundings, but rain and wet was too subtle a scent to be counterfeited.
Far more likely was interference by the raging wind, the scents ripped away before he could catch them. Not that it applied to the cracked rock—this close, there was no way he’d have missed anyone.
The gap in the stone was barely large enough for his body, even though he turned himself sideways. He knew before he entered that there was no living creature directly beyond. The only smells he’d caught had been of cold and dirt.
Cold had a scent; any wolf could tell you that.
Snow cold was different from dirt cold. And dirt cold was different from night cold.
Grumbling silently in disgust when a lump of snow fell on his face from some ledge it had been hiding on, he wiped it off before managing to squeeze through the narrow opening. His eyes adjusted quickly, his night vision kicking in. The space inside the cracked stone was nothing much; if he tried to spread out his arms, he’d have to stop with his elbows bent at ninety-degree angles. The area wasn’t much deeper, either . . . but there, in the ground.
What the hell?
Alexei crouched down to stare at a depression in the dirt that was oddly square. Water dripped from his body and hair to darken the dirt. No way that was a natural shape, not unless nature had begun walking around with a tape measure and a slide rule.
Taking care not to make sounds that would carry, he began to push the dirt away using his claws. It was hard, compacted. As if it hadn’t been disturbed in years. No question now—there had to be a teleporter involved in this somewhere.
His claws scraped against what felt like iron.
Slowing down, he worked with grim focus until he uncovered what he’d expected: a trapdoor. It was bolted down securely from the outside, the lock twisted in a way that had to have taken telekinesis. Nothing and no one would ever again open that lock. Rust crawled over it, as it did the solid metal hinges on the other end and the thick strips of iron that formed the body of the trapdoor.
The thing was old, possibly old enough to be from the time that had left SnowDancer badly wounded, many of its strongest lost.
Grief, rising and falling, rising and falling. Piercing his heart.
He shook his head to clear it of the empath’s overwhelming pain, his wolf snarling inside his chest. Strands of hair fell across his forehead to drip water down his face. He shoved them roughly back. Despite his rage at finding a living being trapped in a fucking hole in the ground, he didn’t immediately begin to hunt for a way to open the trapdoor. Instead, he sliced his claws back in and took out his satellite-linked phone.
The signal was weak, but his message got through. Should anything happen to Alexei, another wolf would find the grieving empath. And if it was a clever trap to capture a wolf, then his packmates would be warned and armed. He also sent a second message telling SnowDancer not to mobilize until he’d scoped out the situation—no point in more wolves coming out in this ugly weather if there was no lethal threat to the pack.
A return message lit up the screen as he was examining the hinges on the trapdoor: We don’t hear back from you in twenty, we head out.—H.
Putting the phone in a side pocket of his black cargo pants, Alexei focused all his attention on the hinges. They were the weakest point in the entire construction.
And a predatory changeling wolf of Alexei’s size and training was strong.
Far, far stronger than the Psy who’d probably built this thing.
Yeah, it could’ve been a changeling or a human who’d put this trapdoor in place, but he didn’t think so. Such a thing couldn’t be built in so small a space; it had to have been brought in, and no human or changeling could have ever traipsed through wolf territory carrying a trapdoor, or pieces for its construction, without being spotted. Not even at their weakest had SnowDancer let its borders fall to that extent.
Nearly all Psy underestimated changeling strength by a large margin.
Only one problem though—there was no way to get leverage anywhere near the hinges. No gap through which to insert his claws. No twisted or warped area to provide even a minor entry point. He could leave it, ask his packmates to come up with tools, but he’d have to be a psychopath himself to abandon the E. Her crying had become quieter inside his head, even more lost.
She was breaking his heart and he wanted to growl at her to stop it, even knowing his response was irrational. Another part of him wanted to gather her in his arms while he growled at her—Es had that in common with changelings: they liked touch, hurt without it. So he’d promise to cuddle her if she’d just stop hurting.
Wiping away water from his face, he switched focus to the lock.
No way to open it, but the part where it was attached to the main body of the trapdoor was bolted down into rusting metal. Teeth bared, Alexei grabbed the entire lock mechanism and wrenched.
His biceps bunched, his abdomen clenching.
One pull. Two. Three.
A metallic groan as part of the attachment tore away from the base. It only took one more pull to break it fully off. Dropping the entire mass of cold and rust to the side, he inserted his fingers through the small warping in the iron where the lock had been bolted and used that grip to lift up the trapdoor.
It came away with a loud creak.
He halted, but the waves of emotion didn’t stop or blip. No audible alarms went off. No voices rose in a shout. And no new living scents hit his nose.
Opening the trapdoor the rest of the way, he propped it up against the opposite wall. He wasn’t afraid of it falling in. With the lock gone, he could push it open from the inside with only minimal effort.
Blackness greeted him when he first looked inside the space exposed by the opening. But his night vision didn’t let him down and he was able to confirm the floor wasn’t a dangerous distance for a jump.
He dropped down into the hole without further delay, landing silently in a hunting crouch.
A second later, a high frequency hum had the tiny hairs on his arms rising, his wolf flashing his canines. He shook it off, but made a note of what it represented: You didn’t get that hum with newer lights, only the old ones that occasionally flickered and failed. Dust drifted around him, the motes caught in the extremely faint light emanating from some distance away. He followed that light, followed the grief.
A door stood in his way, barred and bolted from his side, with iron padlocks at the end of each bolt.
His wolf ready to kill by now, he looked at the door and saw it was wood. Heavy wood that would’ve stopped most people.
Alexei slipped his claws in under the hinges and pulled.
The first pull created enough space for true leverage. The second gave him room to properly grip the wood.
The grief hitched at last. The empath had heard him this time . . . but there was no spike of fear, no terror, a worrying flatness under the grief. Not a lack of emotion. A numbness caused by constant pain.
Maybe he’d try not to growl at her. It’d be difficult since he’d been in a bad mood for twelve months, but scaring an E wasn’t a thing to be proud of—it’d be like stomping on a kitten.
Heat building in his muscles as he worked, Alexei kept going until he’d created enough weakness in the door that he could tear it off its hinges.
It hit the exposed stone wall of the tunnel with a hard thump.
Light poured out, muted and cold.
He walked in.
Empaths are uniformly seen as good, but no sentient being is a two-dimensional caricature. We all have our light and our shadows—this truth is a core reason why I titled this book as I did. Because even Es aren’t without darkness. How can they be? They often deal with the grimmest and most violent emotions of them all.
—Author’s Note, The Mysterious E Designation: Empathic Gifts & Shadows by Alice Eldridge (Reprint: 2082)
She stared at him from where she sat crumpled on the floor, her tight black curls a wild and matted mass and her dark brown eyes huge and tear-reddened in a triangular face with a pointed chin and lush lips. Her skin was a pallid brown devoid of the glow that came from the heat of the sun, and her clothes hung off her frame: faded blue jeans, a large black sweater, and old canvas sneakers.
Her scent was soap and salt and an intrinsic bite he couldn’t name.
In her arms, she held the body of a gray cat from which Alexei could scent the tiniest edge of decay. Ragged thin fur, a sense of fragility—the cat had been old when it died. A creature that had gone when its time had come, not one whose life had been stolen. The E held it with infinite care, and when Alexei did nothing to approach or startle her, she bent her head over her dead pet and cried again, her grief like waves crashing against his skin.
She wasn’t afraid of him, was too lost in her pain to see the predator in the room. Or perhaps she did . . . and didn’t care.
And he knew: that cat had been her only connection to the world, to life.
Alexei fought his need to go to her, offer her comfort. Before anything else, he was a SnowDancer lieutenant, and their pack had been hurt by the Psy one too many times.
He did a quick but thorough reconnaissance of the entire bunker. It didn’t take long. He found a bedroom, neat and tidy, though the clothes in the freestanding wardrobe made his hand tighten on the wardrobe door. He barely stopped himself from wrenching off the door and breaking it to splinters. A large cat-sized basket sat to one side, complete with what looked to be hand-knitted toys and a blanket. A half-full bowl of water rounded out the items.
No food bowl, but he had a feeling the little E with the big eyes must’ve hand-fed her elderly pet soft foods. She must’ve been so scared as she watched over her pet, knowing that every breath could be its last.
Hand fisting at his side, he carried on in his recon.
The toilet and a tight cubicle shower flowed off the bedroom. Across the narrow hallway from the bedroom was a room that held a small kitchen on one side, and a sofa on the other. The sofa faced a comm screen set to entertainment-only. The communications module, he saw at a glance, had been manually removed.
The kitty litter box sat at the far end of the hallway, close to the door he’d torn off. It was a model that turned the waste into small, odorless pellets that could be disposed of in the trash.
The trash receptacle was similar and connected to a chute that must have been put in place when the water was plumbed in. It didn’t emerge on the outside or SnowDancer would’ve discovered it. Likely, it went to a small recycling or compacting unit concealed behind the wall, a unit that a teleporter could ‘port out and put back when it reached capacity. And since the temperature in the bunker was mild instead of freezing, there was probably a heating and cooling system hidden beside the recycling unit.
It wouldn’t need to be big to service an area this size.
He’d also spotted signs of a ventilation system. It was clearly an excellent one—the air was fresh, with no stuffiness to it. He’d put his money on the intake and exhaust valves being hidden higher up the mountainside. If they were small enough, no one would notice, not among all the shattered rocks.
The original work must’ve been done during the period decades earlier when SnowDancer didn’t have the resources for satellites or the people to run regular patrols up here—the Psy who’d built this must’ve come in with precision plans, done the work at speed. Of course, having teleporters on the team took care of most of the risk.
The entire setup was perfect for a prison the warden didn’t often visit.
And that was it.
No other doors to the outside world. No light but that thrown by the old-fashioned battery-powered strips that hummed and irritated his ear and had nothing in common with natural light. No sign that anyone but the empath and her pet had ever lived here.
Yet this place was old. Much older than the empath. That information was visible in the fixtures and panels used to build the place, and in the wear and tear on the walls, along with the age of the built-in appliances in the kitchen.
Whoever had put the E in here hadn’t constructed the place. But it was the perfect hole in which to imprison a living being. No one would hear you scream, not even a changeling standing right on top of you.
Alexei would’ve either gone mad or broken every bone in his body trying to slam through the only door. The woman he’d seen was nowhere strong enough to have caused even minor damage to that door.
The E hadn’t moved while he prowled around, her tears silent as she hugged her pet to her heart. As a wolf, Alexei wasn’t much of a cat person—the only exceptions were a newborn SnowDancer who promised to turn into a leopard, and her mother. Little Belle would be the only cat with “dual citizenship” in a wolf pack. But no matter his views on cats, Alexei understood what it was to love a pet who’d been a loyal companion for years, and he understood what it was to grieve the loss of that pet.
That the cat had died a natural death didn’t mean the E’s pain would be any less.
Crouching down across from her, at least a foot of distance between them, he tempered his driving urge to haul her into his arms. She wasn’t a wolf. More to the point, he was a large, strange male.
Act civilized, Alexei.
His wolf took a step back while the human half of him tried to look smaller and less like a very dangerous wolf with sharp teeth. At least his eyes were human again. And while he was generally annoyed by his face—he was far too fucking pretty for a SnowDancer lieutenant—it might come in handy here.
The first thing he needed to know was if the teleporter who’d put her in this place was apt to return—and if that teleporter could lock onto faces or just locations. Barking out that question, however, was a bad idea.
“What was your cat’s name?” he asked with every ounce of gentleness he possessed.
The empath went motionless, her body stiff and her shoulders raised as she hunched protectively over her pet’s body.
Alexei realized then and there that he couldn’t hope to gain this trapped woman’s trust rapidly enough to keep her safe; trust took time, took patience. “I’m Alexei, a SnowDancer wolf, and I need to get you out of here,” he said, switching tactics with the speed of the predator that lived under his skin. “I’m assuming it’s a teleporter who brought you here. Can that person lock onto your face?” The latter was a rare ability among teleport-capable Psy, but he could assume nothing.
A long silence from the E, followed by a jagged shake of her head.
“Then we move.” He could take care of himself, his bones tough enough to handle being thrown against a wall by telekinesis. She didn’t have that advantage—and a teleporter could grab and leave with her while he was out of action. There was a reason the now-defunct Psy Council had co-opted telekinetics into their ranks; the fuckers were tough opponents.
Alexei rose, went into her bedroom—to return with a thin blanket he’d pulled off her bed; it was far less luxurious than the cat’s. “You can wrap your pet in this.” He knew without asking that she would never agree to abandon the body, not even to save her own life. “We’ll give him a burial as soon as we’re safe.”
Barely stopping the urge to bare his teeth at her, his wolf wanting to get her to safety now, he said, “You don’t move, the teleporter comes back, you stay in this prison.” When she didn’t stir, he went for the jugular. “So does your pet.”
A burst of ragged motion at his rough words devoid of softness or apparent care. But regardless of her intent, she struggled to get to her feet with her pet’s body in her arms, as if she’d been in that position so long that her legs didn’t work quite right anymore.
“I’m going to help you up.” Alexei waited and, when she didn’t twist away, placed his hands under her upper arms.
He all but lifted her up.
Her bones were like a bird’s. He’d seen food in the kitchen, so her captor wasn’t attempting to starve her—but trapped creatures often gave up on eating. Jaw clenched, he made sure she was stable, then stepped back and spread the blanket over his arms. Her lower lip quivered as she put her pet on it before quickly reclaiming the blanket-wrapped body from him.
Alexei took a second to grab a metal chair he’d seen in her lounge.
He didn’t have to ask her to follow—she did so without a word. Once under the trapdoor, he put the chair directly beneath, illuminating the area using the light from his phone. She didn’t have a wolf’s eyes, couldn’t see in the dark. “I’m going to stand on this,” he told her. “I need you to climb up close to me and allow me to lift you up through the hole.”
He held out his arms for her pet’s body, sorry for this wild creature that may have spent its entire existence in a cage; the only mercy was that it appeared to have been deeply loved. “I’ll pass him through after.”
Her eyes flicked up to the trapdoor, an unexpectedly ferocious determination suddenly vivid on her features. Instead of handing him her small burden, she put it down on the ground with tender care. Alexei used the opportunity to shrug off his jacket so he could give it to the E. He’d looked for her own coat when he’d grabbed the blanket off her bed, hadn’t spotted one. The sweater she was wearing appeared to be her thickest item of clothing.
As it was, he didn’t need his jacket for survival; he’d only put it on because the pack’s very pregnant healer had silently held it out with a “wear this or feel my wrath” look on her face. Alexei wasn’t scared of Lara’s wrath, but neither was he about to stress her out when she was growing a pup inside her. He’d put on the damn jacket and had been glad of it when the freezing rain pelted down.
Even wolves didn’t enjoy being drenched to the bone.
Waterproof and thickly lined, the jacket should keep the E from hypothermia while they were outside. “It’s icy out,” he said when the E hesitated. “You can’t escape if you’re too cold to function.”
She took the jacket, pulled it on, then did up the zipper. He had to help her roll up the sleeves and did so quickly. That done, he got on the chair and hoped it would hold their combined weight. He only needed it to do so long enough to get her out. He had other ways of hauling himself up.
She climbed up to join him, her movements jerky but her jaw set and her eyes raised up toward freedom.
“One, two, three.” He lifted her with his hands on her waist. “Get your arms over the top of the trapdoor.”
She did it in one go, this woman who weighed less than nothing but whose empathic power was a storm; even quiet, her sadness swirled around him. He gave her another lift up to help her out, waited to catch her should she fall. She didn’t. Instead, her small face looked down at him from the trapdoor, her large eyes fathomless.
Dropping to the floor, he picked up her pet, then got back on the chair to lift the small blanket-wrapped body up to her. She leaned in so far he thought she’d slip, but she managed to take hold of the cat without disaster. Yet she didn’t pull back. “Hurry.” It was a rasped whisper that ruffled his wolf’s fur, made it prick its ears. “He likes to hurt people.”
Yeah, she was an empath, couldn’t help looking after others even when her own life was at risk. Like the healers in his pack—who he made a point of avoiding. Sometimes a man just wanted to brood in peace. How Lara had caught him today, he had no idea: his wolf was of the opinion that she and the maternals in the den were in cahoots, probably had a secret comm network.
Today, he had to get this little healer to safety. The predator in him would like nothing better than to lie in wait and tear her teleporting coward of an abductor to shreds, but his priority had to be the E. Stepping off the chair, he repositioned it slightly before moving back all the way to the broken door. A punch of speed, his wolf taking control of his movements as he used the chair to launch his body skyward, slammed the sole of one foot against a wall . . . and grabbed the lip of the open trapdoor.
The E had jumped back when he erupted toward her, watched him in breathless quiet as he hauled himself up. Soon as he was out, he closed the trapdoor before grabbing a large piece of rock he’d noticed in the corner, and weighing the trapdoor down. The weight wouldn’t stop a teleporter, but whether that teleporter had any visual coordinates that would permit him to teleport outside the bunker was a good question.
Alexei couldn’t take the risk, had to move the E away from this location.
“It’s stormy and the rain might’ve turned to ice,” he told the E afterward. “You’ll get wet and cold.”
No flinch, nothing but a steady stare that might’ve been disconcerting if he hadn’t been aware that she couldn’t get into his head unless she was a powerful telepath who wanted to smash his mind open. The latter idea just didn’t sit right—not with the depth of the grief she’d broadcast, and not with how gently she held the body of her aged pet.
Alexei had also never heard of an E who went around doing violence except in self-defense—and even then, they had to be pushed to the furthest edge—so he was going to play the odds and assume she wasn’t an enemy. The whole enemy operative angle made no sense in any case—the “trap” required far too much time and patience with no guarantee of success.
Pulling out his phone, he sent a message to Hawke: I have the E. Taking her to the substation. It was the only secure shelter around for miles. She’s no threat.
The response was immediate. Are you sure, Lexie? Not stated but understood was that the Psy race might’ve left Silence behind, but many of them continued to believe they were the master race, changelings and humans their inferiors to be manipulated and used.
I’m sure, he assured his alpha. She’s more afraid of me than I am of her. The strange flatness was gone; he could taste the sharp bite of her fear below the grief—and yet she’d warned him to hurry when she could’ve tried to run the instant she was out. I’ll message again from the substation—we’ll be slow.
He secured the phone in the side pocket of his cargoes. “We can’t carry your pet’s body far,” he said quietly, very conscious of their relative sizes and making an effort to sound nonthreatening. Before his world fell apart, he hadn’t been apt to growl or snarl except when pushed to it—he tried to channel that distant Alexei. “We have to walk at least a half hour.” No, that was wolf speed. It’d be much longer at her pace.
She clutched her pet closer, but nodded. “In the open.” A whisper. “Under the sky.”
Blood hot with a need to go for her captor’s throat, Alexei nodded. “Under the sky.” Promise made, he exited first to ensure it was safe outside.
The rain was relentless, but it hadn’t turned into snow.
The E came quickly after him, and though the rain soaked her within seconds, she stood staring up at the turgid gray sky with a radiant look on her face, her hair an electric halo that seemed to crackle under the energy of the storm. At that instant, she was the essence of freedom.
His wolf watched her in primal approval. “Let me.” He held out his arms for her pet. “It’ll slow you down and we need to move.”
A glance around at the rocky and inhospitable terrain before she accepted his offer. Her lips were pressed tight and he was sure tears mixed with the raindrops on her face.
Alexei might eschew the type of intimate skin privileges his packmates loved and craved, but he’d never stopped holding packmates who needed touch. It was part of being a dominant, part of being a SnowDancer lieutenant. The E was crying out for comfort—but would likely scream if he engulfed her in his arms. Even the wolf understood they had to go gently.
Gritting his teeth, he hauled his instincts into line.
“Follow me,” he said. “Step where I step.”
The E’s movements were jagged and ungraceful, but she had control of her limbs. He knew she had to be weak—she was too thin and moved with too little coordination for it to be otherwise—but though he kept an eye on her, he didn’t halt until ten minutes later.
He’d taken them on a route that put a slight rise between them and the hidden bunker. No one would spot the two of them unless they came over the same rise. “Here?” He’d stopped at a spot that would be under full sunlight on a clear day.
Her breathing uneven, she nodded and picked up a broken piece of stone, then began to dig. Placing her pet’s body on the ground, Alexei used his claws to accelerate the process. Her eyes widened slightly, but she didn’t stop her movements, and they worked side by side under the chilling rain.
The tiny grave didn’t take long to dig.
She put her pet’s body inside it with gentle hands. Her tears fell like rain as she pushed the dirt back to cover the hole.
When she began to pick up other pieces of stone with fingers that shook from the cold, he realized what she was doing and helped her build the cairn. He made sure it was solid, but before they placed the last stones, he deliberately nicked his finger using a broken stone shard.
The E made a small sound.
“It’s to make sure no animals disturb your pet,” he told her as he rubbed his blood on the inner stones, placing it in enough crevices that the rain wouldn’t wash it away. Every other creature in this area knew that the SnowDancer wolves were the apex predators. The merest hint of wolf scent and any scavengers or curious ramblers would give the cairn a wide berth.
“He’ll be safe,” Alexei told the E while the rain pounded down on both of them. The tangled mass of her hair had lost its buoyancy under the weight of the water, was limp enough that it highlighted both the dramatic bones of her face and the lack of flesh on those bones.
Silently—and with infinite care—she put the last stones in place. “Bye, Jitterbug.” A husky whisper, one hand on the cairn. “Thank you for being my friend.”
Tenderness and pity crashed inside Alexei. The depth of the empath’s grief, paired with the way she appeared so broken, it told him too much, none of it anything but enraging.
Giving her the only privacy he could, he kept his gaze on the rise over which they’d come until she was ready to leave her pet behind. Jitterbug. A name that conjured up a tiny, fast kitten who bounced and played and probably made her laugh.
That cat hadn’t been a kitten for a long, long time.
Shrugging aside the hot burn of his anger, he led the E in the direction of the substation. The Sierra Nevada den was powered by solar energy harnessed by miniature panels scattered throughout their territory—partly to utilize the sun’s energy across the day, but mostly so an enemy couldn’t take out one area and cripple them.
A few of the larger panels hadn’t yet been replaced, but the vast majority were now so small they could be hidden among the rocks on the high slopes of the mountains, could even be placed on tree trunks that got kissed by sunlight at a certain point in the day. Thousands of tiny cells working together to create a jolting current.
The solar grid hadn’t ever let the den down, but SnowDancer also had a small hydro station as backup just in case, and it was this hydro unit the substation serviced.
Beside him, the empath stumbled a third time, almost cracking her knee against a slab of stone. He caught her as he had before, but this time, he closed his hand around her smaller and colder one while holding eye contact. “We’ll get to safety faster this way.”
Her fingers didn’t curl around his, but—despite the acrid bite of her fear—neither did she pull her hand away, and they continued on. He didn’t much feel the chill; changelings had far better cold tolerance than humans or Psy. He’d be even more resilient in his wolf form and could move like liquid through this environment. But the E couldn’t follow the wolf and he had no idea how she’d react to his other form.
Human or wolf, he could tear out a throat with little effort, but non-changelings found it easier to ignore that truth while changelings like Alexei were in their human form.
The E’s hand began to shiver in his not long after they left Jitterbug’s grave. The two of them were under the canopy of the trees now, the rain no longer as hard on their bodies and the snow more manageable, but the weather hadn’t let up at all. In fact, it looked to be getting worse.
Clenching his jaw as he fought the urge to tuck her against him, share his warmth, he kept her hand in his and tried to stay under the canopy as much as he could. When the wind whistled in, he used his body to shield hers. His frustrated wolf grumbled the entire time; the human side of Alexei agreed with the grumbling.
This would go much faster if he could just pick up the E and run.
Only he had a feeling she’d panic and fight . . . or go motionless and stiff. The latter would be worse, revealing bone-chilling terror. Alexei wasn’t about to traumatize her that way, not after some bastard had already put her in a cage.
To his surprise, she kept up with him the entire way. He wasn’t going fast, but neither was he pausing to let her rest—the weather was too cold for her to survive if she stopped; he’d worried she’d collapse partway. But she kept going, one dogged step after the other. Unfettered respect wiped away his earlier pity, his wolf looking at her with new eyes. This was how she’d survived in that bunker.
The woman beside him was a fighter.
The last part of the route to the substation meant crossing an empty field that, in the summer, was a favorite resting ground for wild black bears. Currently, it was full of snow turned into slush by the rain, the substation door barely visible in the gloom caused by the storm and the oncoming night. The gale-force winds almost bent them in half as they crossed that final stretch and, this time, he did put his arm around her. She didn’t attempt to break away, and he got them both to the substation.
As with all the buildings SnowDancer had built in their territory, it was designed to blend in to the environment. Dug out of a small hill, the door was cleverly camouflaged with paint that echoed the surroundings, then hidden under trailing foliage. While the empath waited next to him, her bones all but clattering from the cold, he opened up the concealed entry-panel and used his palm print to unlock the door. He nudged her inside the second the lock snicked open.
She froze, a stone statue glued to the earth.
A scream of pure emotion hit him with vicious force.