Obviously, the woman had no idea she was in danger. But she would. And soon, if Alex had the situation sized right.
He’d been on a parallel course with her for the last ten minutes. She and four dogs traveled down an isolated trail that snaked the mountain from its peak to the pitted road below. She trudged, head lowered, her focus elsewhere. No more than a hundred paces away, Alex and Caleb moved through the trees like shadows. Alex was aware of every snowflake that blustered in the wind, but she hadn’t noticed either one of them. Fortunately, neither had the dogs.
Alex glanced at the bloated sky pressing between the towering pines. It rode low to the ground, spewing fat snowflakes that stuck where they landed. What was the woman doing up here so close to dusk? With a blizzard chasing the encroaching dark? Alone?
And why did he care?
He wasn’t here to protect humans. He was here for the hellhouAnds. His number had been called to protect the secrets of the Beyond. He’d come to serve.
Assuming, of course, he could find the cursed creatures.
“Not very smart, is she?” Caleb muttered, drawing his attention. The cold made a plume of his breath.
Alex didn’t like that Caleb watched the woman, too. And he didn’t like that he didn’t like it.
“No,” he answered grimly.
She’d blundered into a situation she probably wouldn’t escape. He and Caleb had been told that most humans couldn’t see the hellhounds or hear their disturbing howl. Most, but not all. If she was one of the rare few that could, she’d have the advantage of knowing what came after her, but even if she avoided being eaten, she’d still have to die. No witnesses could be allowed.
Alex knew the rules. What soldier didn’t? But he didn’t like to think of this innocent female dying under either circumstance.
He watched her in bursts of color through the trees. Blue and pink and golden hair. Dressed in a puffy, sky-blue parka and a pink polka-dot cap with a yarn ball on top that bobbed as she walked, she looked like some sweet treat that would melt in the mouth.
Except for the rifle she carried, but that might be just for show. Odds were good that she didn’t even know how to use it. She certainly didn’t look like any killer Alex had ever seen, and he’d seen more than a few.
She probably felt safe, with her big dogs and the gun.
“I can’t believe they haven’t picked her off already,” Caleb said, mystified.
Alex couldn’t believe it either. He wanted to shake her, tell her to pay attention.
A loud crack came from a nearby tree and at last her head came up. She slowed, wiped her eyes, and focused on her surroundings. Had she been crying?
Why do you care?
The sun hovered low on the horizon, gathering deep shadows as it crept away, but the last rays shone valiantly bright. They silhouetted her in gray and evergreen.
Alex knew the moment she spotted him among the trees. She froze for an instant, then glanced away, her chest rising with an agitated breath. Quickly, she started walking again, this time with purpose. Good. Maybe she’d get out of here, away from the coming danger. He let out a low breath of relief, but at the same moment, the dogs caught sight of him and Caleb. They raised an alarm that could be heard for miles.
“That’ll do the trick,” Caleb said under his breath.
In answer, a hellhound bayed a long and blood-chilling warning. They were coming.
The woman wouldn’t know that because she couldn’t hear it. The dogs did, though. All four stilled for a heartbeat before they renewed their barking with rabid fervor. One enormousdog with a square head and a booming bark bounded off in the direction of the sound. The other three weren’t so big or eager to follow. They lagged behind, letting every predator on the mountain know where they were.
“Belle!” the woman called after the horse-dog and then, before she could catch her breath, the other three decided to go after it. “No!” she cried. “Come back!”
“Quiet,” Alex whispered, feeling the wind shift. In the icy blast, he smelled sulfur.
Her head whipped around as if she’d heard and she stared at him, wary. Her gaze shifted to Caleb in the background, then returned to Alex. Indecision flashed through her. She straightened her spine and squared her shoulders. A human gesture, learned from nature. When in danger, try to look big.
It wouldn’t help her.
Her rifle came up, but she was too flustered to take aim. She glanced at the dogs disappearing up the trail, then back to the men who may or may not present a threat, then down at a small, furry thing at feet that begged to be picked up.
Another bay echoed from the forbidding peaks. Hungry and vicious.
“Here they come,” Caleb said.