Ashes of Midnight (Chapter Ten)

Stripped of their weapons, keys, cell phones, and cash, Reichen left the dead Enforcement Agents where they lay, then motioned for Claire to follow him to the SUV parked on the street outside. "Where will we go?" she asked him as they leapt into the vehicle and Reichen hauled ass away from the curb. "It won't take Wilhelm long to have half the Agency on our heels." Reichen acknowledged that fact with a grim nod. "We can't stay in Hamburg. It would probably be wise if we left Germany altogether." "And go where? He has contacts all over Europe. We can't trust anyone in the Darkhavens or the Enforcement Agency not to turn us in to him the first chance they get."

"We can trust the Order." In his periphery, Reichen saw Claire's doubtful reaction. "The Order? From what I've heard about them, they don't exactly have an open-door policy. Why would a dangerous group of vigilantes from the States be willing to help us?" Reichen resisted the urge to correct her opinion of the Order, one that had been unfairly yet widely accepted among the general Breed population for generations. He slid a glance at her. "I've been working with Lucan, Tegan, and the other warriors for close to a year now. The night my Darkhaven was attacked, I was away from Berlin, following up on a mission for the Order.

We'd been gathering intel concerning a spate of Gen One assassinations and looking into possible links to blood clubs around Europe." "You and the Order… working together?" She got quiet then, considering him in studied silence as he turned the SUV onto a busy boulevard that led out of Hamburg. "There's so much I don't know about you anymore, Andre. Everything about you seems so different now." Not everything, he thought, recalling all too easily how familiar she'd felt pressed against him, her mouth on his in a heated kiss. He felt possessive around her. Fiercely protective. All the things he'd felt with her in the beginning. Time had diffused none of it, though that hardly gave him cause to celebrate. The need to hold her close right here and now was nearly overwhelming. He knew she was basically all right, but just the idea of her being shoved around by the agents–tasered by them, for God's sake–made his blood boil with fury.

The taste of her fear, her pain, still echoed in his veins. Here was one thing that was different about him now: the bond he'd stolen from her with his uninvited bite. Even though Claire had yet to condemn him for it, he would carry the guilt of his actions forever. Especially once he left her widowed and alone, after he crushed the life out of Wilhelm Roth. Some mercenary part of him found the prospect of Roth's imminent death even more attractive when it would free Claire to take another mate. Particularly if that new mate might be him. But regardless of the fact that he had already bound himself to her by blood, Claire deserved something more than what he could ever give her. She always had. "Are you hungry?" he asked her, eager to turn his mind away from all the things he'd done wrong by her, now and before. "You haven't eaten all day. You must be starving." She gave him a noncommittal shrug. "If it's not a good idea to stop anywhere yet, I'll understand–" "You need food," he said, more sharply than intended. "We'll stop." As a Breedmate, Claire's perfect health and ageless longevity depended on the regular intake of a Breed male's blood, but her body still required food to function. It was a hell of a lot more palatable for Reichen to risk the time it would take to get her a sandwich than it was for him to think about Wilhelm Roth nourishing Claire as only her true mate could do. He wondered how long it had been since she'd fed from Roth's vein. Not long, he was guessing, based on how youthful and strong she looked. He wondered how long it had been since she'd lain with Roth. Had she ever loved him? The questions were bitter on his tongue, but he choked them back. He didn't want to know all of the ways that Wilhelm Roth had been with Claire, or how recently.

She wasn't his, and he had better put all thoughts of her aside to maintain his focus on the thing that truly mattered to him now–upholding his promise to avenge the innocent souls whom Roth destroyed. If he couldn't do that, then he was no good to himself or anyone else. Reichen drove for a while without speaking, working hard to ignore the fact that only a small space of leather and plastic separated him from Claire. At least he hadn't gone pyro back at Roth's office. Claire's blood was likely to thank for that small blessing. He'd felt the fires leap to life inside him when he sensed her distress a few blocks away from the place, but somehow, by the time he'd returned to face the agents who were hurting her, he'd managed to keep the flames from erupting. Barely. For all his reassurances that he would keep her safe, he knew that his destructive power posed a very real danger to her. The more he used it, the more slippery his hold on it became. He didn't know how long it might be before the fire trapped within him burned out of his control completely.

He couldn't care less what happened to him, but if the heat should snap its tether while Claire was nearby… Reichen looked at her pretty profile in the milky light of the dashboard. Her head was tipped down as she tried to smooth a nasty snag in her sweater. She concentrated on the imperfection, worrying the loose thread between her graceful, pianist's fingers, her loose ebony hair stirring in the low draft of the heat blowing out of the vent. "What is he afraid of?" she murmured. She glanced over, frowning now. "What is it that Wilhelm feels he needs to protect from you?" Reichen shook his head. "I don't know, and frankly, I can't say that it matters to me now. I don't care why he did what he did. All that's left is the fact that he must pay." She pivoted in her seat, her dark eyes shining, stubbornly suspicious. "He's threatened by you, Andreas. Not because of anything that happened these past two nights, but before that. Why else would he take such a drastic step and order an attack on your Darkhaven?" "I suppose he didn't appreciate me digging around in his affairs. He felt he needed to send a strong message to me." Claire nodded grimly. "And just what did he think you might find? I can't believe it had anything to do with that missing girl from the club. Not to warrant the kind of retaliation you described." "So, you believe me now?" he asked. She gave him a frank, unflinching look. "I don't want to, but after talking with Wilhelm tonight… it's harder for me to doubt you than it is to trust anything he says. You scared him, Andre. He's still afraid of what you might know or what you could do to him. The question is, why?

What is he protecting… or whom?" A knot of coldness formed in Reichen's gut as Claire spoke. He'd never asked himself why Roth came after him. He'd assumed it was due to a mix of old animosity and new opportunity when Reichen had unwittingly sent Helene into Roth's crosshairs. The why of it really hadn't seemed important. Not when rage and grief had been the only things Reichen had known in the aftermath of the slaughter. He'd been blinded by his fury. By the need for vengeance. He'd never stopped to consider the simple truth that Claire had just laid out for him so plainly. Roth had something very significant to hide. Something that went much deeper than his whispered gangster alliances with the crooks and politicians who tended to gravitate toward the Enforcement Agency. He was protecting a monumental secret. Something worth spilling the lives of more than a dozen people without a moment's hesitation. Worth even more than that, Reichen was certain now. As he stared ahead at the dark ribbon of road, a name crept into his mind like a serpent: Dragos. Good Christ. Could the two of them be connected in some way? Had he gotten too close to uncovering some kind of alliance between Dragos and Roth? If he'd had cause to contact the Order in Boston before, now he couldn't reach them fast enough. Reichen leaned on the accelerator, his thoughts flying as black as the night landscape zooming past the windows of the SUV A few minutes out of the city, he spotted an Internet caf?. He turned off the road and headed for the place, praying like hell that his instincts were wrong about Roth and Dragos being in league together. If his instincts were right? Ah, fuck.

If they were right, then he had just nailed the lid shut on not only his coffin, but Claire's, as well. He brought her inside the caf?, to an empty workstation and table as far away from the rest of the patrons as he could find. Using some of the euros he'd lifted off the dead agents, Reichen bought Claire a bowl of soup and a sandwich, and purchased himself an hour's time on the computer. While she went to work on her meal, he opened an Internet browser on his rented workstation and brought up the secured emergency access site address that belonged to the Order. It was a generic-looking page, basic black, with an unlabeled prompt blinking on the screen as it waited for input. Reichen typed in an access code and password that Gideon back in Boston had given him some months ago, when he'd first begun his remote work for the Order. He hit the enter key and waited, uncertain if the unique ID he'd been assigned was still valid, as the prompt disappeared and he was left staring at the empty black screen. "What's it doing?" Claire asked, leaning close to him. Reichen shook his head, guessing that the warriors might have written him off as dead in the three months he'd been out of contact since the destruction of his Darkhaven. "This site links up to the Boston compound. It's fully encrypted and continuously monitored by the Order. Once I'm verified, we should get a response from Gideon." No sooner had he said it than the prompt reappeared, asking for method of contact. Reichen typed in one of the numbers from the Agency cell phones, advising that the line was stolen, most likely compromised, and far from secure. Gideon's response was instantaneous: Acknowledged, and not a problem. Calling on a scramble right now. The cell phone started ringing. Reichen answered, speaking his name and a string of security words at the computerized request that stated simply: Identify.

"Guess it's a damn good thing I got lazy and kept your access data in the system," Gideon said as the call connected. "Jesus. Good to hear your voice, Reichen. Word out of Germany was we'd lost you. I see you're calling in from Hamburg. What the hell's been going on over there?" Reichen tried to condense the past several weeks into a succinct explanation of events, laying it all out, from the attack on his home by Wilhelm Roth to the systematic, often fiery payback he'd been delivering on the vampire and his known associates ever since. He told him that Roth and his Enforcement Agency cronies were on his tail and that the situation had just gotten even more complicated now that Claire was on the run with him. And he couldn't leave the subject of Claire without confessing to what he'd done to her in Roth's office. "For crissake, Reichen," the warrior hissed on the other end of the line. "She's his blood-bonded mate. You know he'd be within his rights to kill you for that. Hell, he could take your head in front of every Darkhaven leader in the whole vampire nation and no one would condemn him for it." "Yes, I know." He couldn't keep from looking over at Claire and thinking how far south her life had gone in the couple of days since she'd been in his company.

"I don't care what Roth might try to do to me. It's Claire who needs protection right now. Roth is more than upset, and I wouldn't put it past him to take his anger out on her. Just tonight his agents tried to haul her into custody on his orders. One of them hit her with a taser before I had a chance to disable him." Gideon blew out a sharp sigh. "Jesus. This Roth is a real prince, eh?" "He's about as dirty as they come," Reichen said. "And there's more. I'm beginning to suspect he might be involved in something much bigger than his usual shady dealings. There's a possibility he could be mixed up with Dragos." "Ah, fuck… you got proof, or are you going on your gut?" "Gut for now, but it sure as hell wouldn't surprise me." "Okay," Gideon said. There was a sudden clack of fingers flying over a keyboard as the warrior in Boston spoke. "First things first, we have to get both of you out of Hamburg. I'm arranging for your pickup right now, but unfortunately we won't be able to get wings on the ground over there until tomorrow night.

You got somewhere you can hole up in the next few hours before sunrise to wait for your ride?" Reichen considered his options, which were few to nonexistent. "Nothing solid over here right now, I'm afraid. Roth's got his fingers in the pockets of too many people. Any one of them could turn us in to him." "Understood. All right, listen. You're only about three hours by train away from Denmark. If we arrange safe haven for you there with a friend of the Order, do you think you can handle making the trip on your own?" "We'll make it," Reichen said, determined that they would. His gunshot wound was mending rapidly now, and his strength was on full power. If he had to make the trip to Denmark on foot, carrying Claire in his arms, by God, he'd do it. More typing clatter sounded in the background. "I'm sending the message out to our contact as we speak," Gideon said. "Should only take a minute or two to hear back." "Gideon," Reichen broke in. "I cannot thank you enough." "No thanks necessary. You've had our back more than once. We've got yours now." There was a slight pause on Gideon's end, then a low chuckle. "Okay, we just got confirmation out of Denmark. Your contact will meet you at the train station in Varde. She knows to watch for you. Look for a statuesque blonde with a toddler son on her hip. Her name is Danika." Reichen listened, then gave Claire a reassuring nod. "All right. We're on our way there now." Dragos jolted awake from a nightmare, cold sweat beading on his brow. He sat up in his bed and blinked at his surroundings, relieved to find that he was still in his lavish headquarters. Still lord and master of the hidden, underground domain he'd had carved out of a large tract of Connecticut granite and bedrock more than a century ago. It was all still here. The nightmare wasn't real. Not yet, anyway. And never would be, if he had anything to say about it.

In the several weeks since he'd first glimpsed the vision of his humiliating defeat–a vision that had been revealed to him in the witchy eyes of a young girl presumably now ensconced with the Order–Dragos had been plagued by nightmares. He couldn't shake the sight of his lab lying in smoke-filled shambles, all of his precious equipment shattered and destroyed… and the UV light cage empty, its monstrous occupant–Dragos's secret weapon–no longer held inside. Worst of all was the pitiful vision he'd seen of himself: beaten, begging, on his knees pleading for mercy. "Never," he bit off sharply, as though he could banish the child seer's revelation with his fury alone. He got out of bed and threw a silk charmeuse robe over his naked body as he stalked out of his bedroom to the adjacent study. A large touch-screen computer monitor sat on an antique, ornate desk that had once belonged to a human emperor. Dragos ran his finger over the smooth surface of the screen, bringing up a video feed from his laboratory. Ah, yes, he thought, disturbed by the depth of his relief Everything is still there. The glow from the tightly spaced vertical UV bars stung his hypersensitive eyes, but he didn't care. He zoomed in on the lethargic, half-starved creature contained inside the cell–the creature who shared the same bloodline as he. The lethal otherworlder who was, in fact, his grandfather. Not that bloodlines mattered to him personally. The Ancient's powerful blood cells and DNA, on the other hand, had proven instrumental to Dragos's goals. After decades of work, after centuries of patience spent in hiding, arranging his pieces just so as he waited for the right time to make his move, Dragos's crowning hour was almost at hand. He'd be damned if he was going to let the Order snatch it out of his grasp before he had a chance to seize the glory that was meant to be his. Steps were already under way to prevent the vision he'd witnessed from coming true. He was making a few changes to his operation. Taking expensive and somewhat drastic measures to protect his assets. And he wasn't at all content to sit by and let the warriors in Boston continue to disrupt his work. The Order was a problem he did not need–one he could not afford to risk when he was so close to knowing victory.

They'd invited war when they raided his gathering outside Montreal this past summer, sending him and his private inner circle of high-ranking Breed associates fleeing into the woods like rats off a sinking ship. It had been a public sucker-punch that undermined his authority, not to mention cost him precious time. He would see the warriors pay for that. But Dragos had another problem, too. He brought up the teleconferencing program on his computer and dialed Wilhelm Roth's quarters at the other end of the stronghold. The German vampire, a hard-edged director of the Hamburg Enforcement Agency, was doubtless unaccustomed to playing the subordinate, and Dragos took some amusement in the notion that the midmorning wakeup call would grate the male. To his credit, he picked up the call before the second ring, efficient as always. It was one of his saving graces as far as Dragos was concerned. That, and the fact that Roth was ruthless in his ambitions. "Sire," he said, his face moving in front of the monitor in his chambers.

"How can I serve?" "Status," Dragos demanded, staring hard at his lieutenant. Roth cleared his throat. "Everything is arranged. The operation's first strike began last evening. It should not be long before we have engagement." Dragos grunted his approval. "And the other matter?" There was a moment's hesitation, but that was all. Dragos wondered if Roth knew that his honesty right now was the only thing keeping him alive. Roth cleared his throat. "I am dealing with something of a… a personal situation in Hamburg, sire." "Yes," Dragos said, no need for coyness. He'd heard all about the devastating assault on two of the German's residences from other contacts overseas. He'd also heard that Roth's Breedmate was missing. After a confrontation with Enforcement Agents at Roth's private office in Hamburg, she was presumed to have been abducted by the vampire who evidently had something of a bone to pick with Roth. A vampire with rumored ties to the Order. Dragos's jaw went tight with anger as he considered the many ways a scenario like that could land a lot of troubles on his doorstep. "What do you intend to do, Herr Roth?" "It will be handled, sire." "See that it is," Dragos hissed. "I'm sure I don't need to tell you that the female is a liability now.

If she's in enemy hands, then she is nothing more than a weapon to be used against you. And against me." Roth stared, his shrewd eyes narrowed. "She has no idea where I am. I've never confided in her about anything of importance. Besides, she knows her place when it comes to my affairs." "And how long do you think it will take her captor to find you through your blood bond with her?" Dragos asked. "If they use her to find you, they find me, as well." "That won't happen, sire." "I require a permanent solution to this," Dragos said, knowing what he asked of the male. "Are you prepared to carry that out, Herr Roth?" The German smiled coldly. "Consider it done, sire." Dragos nodded. "Good. Obviously, so long as the female is breathing, your presence is poison to this operation. Remove yourself to Boston until you can assure me that you've eliminated this problem. Be gone by sundown, Herr Roth." The vampire inclined his head in a deferential nod. "Of course, sire. As you wish."