Ashes of Midnight (Chapter Thirty-Two)

Reichen staggered back on his heels at the realization that he was hurting Claire as he took his hatred out on Roth. Like the heavy, Bloodlust-induced sleep that had muted his own bond to her earlier that day, his pyro now had obliterated nearly all his senses. It had stripped him of nearly everything but his fury, and the fire that rose along with it. "Why did you do it?" Reichen demanded roughly. "Why did you need to have Claire?" Roth's smile stretched tight behind the cracking skin of his scorched lips. "Because you wanted her. And because she couldn't see that I was a far better man. You were nothing compared to me. You never were. I even removed the one obstacle that prevented me from pursuing Claire in earnest–"

"The female you'd already taken as your mate," Reichen growled. "The female you had the audacity to coddle after I'd put her in her rightful place." Roth was staring at Reichen as though he should remember the event he spoke of. Reichen thought back to his dealings with Roth… and suddenly recalled a timid Breedmate sitting outside a Darkhaven party on a rain-soaked balcony. "I brought her inside and gave her my jacket," he said, picturing her stricken face as he'd shown her that small kindness. "She was freezing and crying, so I sent her home with my driver." "You humiliated me in front of my peers. Even worse, in front of my subordinates. You and Ilsa both humiliated me that evening." "So you had her killed?" Reichen snarled, incredulous.

"Attacked by a Rogue vampire," Roth said lightly. He shrugged. "No one questioned me about the incident, since it was my close associates who took the report." "Out of spite, you killed an innocent woman who trusted you above all others. Then you took Claire as your mate to get back at me." "I did more than that." Roth sneered. "I arranged to get rid of you, as well. You vanished for a year without a word of excuse. Everyone wondered if you were dead. And yet Claire still wanted you." He practically spat the word. Jealousy and pride, Reichen thought, sickened that something so petty had caused so much pain. Roth's stare was sharp, cuttingly so.

"I suppose after I realized that, my hate for Claire exceeded even the hate I had for you. I would have enjoyed killing her, Reichen. Just as I enjoyed ordering the deaths of your Darkhaven kin and turning that human whore of yours into my Minion." Reichen roared with fresh anguish and outrage. He was through with Roth now. Sick to death of the bastard's ugly words. He brought his hands out before him and felt the fires travel from his core through his limbs.

Out to his fingertips that stretched toward Wilhelm Roth. "Die, you sick fuck," he snarled. And then he released a double-barreled blast of flame and heat at the face of his most treacherous enemy. Roth's death was instant, a mercy Reichen granted only because of Claire. Reichen was still screaming with animal fury, still torching the empty floor where Roth's ashes had piled up, when he felt the first rumblings of the explosion building under the soles of his feet. The walls around him trembled. Then the earth heaved violently with the force of the lab's detonation.

Claire knew the precise moment that Wilhelm Roth took his last breath. It came to her as a sudden flood of peace–an impossible sense of freedom that lit up her veins and gave her limbs a renewed strength to carry her forward as she raced the few remaining yards toward the old barn where the warriors had just spilled out. Roth was dead. Andreas was alive. God… could the hell of the past several days, of the past several decades that she and Andreas had been separated by Roth's machinations, actually be coming to an end? She wanted to believe it. Needed to believe it. Claire clutched hope close, even as the ground beneath her feet gave a prolonged, bone-rattling shudder. "Jesus Christ!" shouted a low male voice up ahead of her in the dark. "Did you feel that? This son of a bitch is about to blow!" Claire kept running, denying what she was hearing. It couldn't be true.

It could not be happening. Not when Andreas hadn't yet come out to safety. "Get back, get back!" Rio's rolling accent sounded from somewhere close. The big warrior came crashing through the trees with Renata, Hunter, and a couple of others from the mission. Rio reached for Claire, tried to pull her along with them, but she dodged his grasp and kept on running. There were more shouted warnings, more urgent movement in the night-dark woods, as the shudder deep within the earth rumbled louder. There was a violent jolt, then a deep, thunderous boom! Strong arms and a warm, hard body wrapped itself around Claire, twisting her around to cushion her fall as the percussion blasted her backward, off her feet. She screamed but could hardly hear her own voice as the forest shook and roared with the force of a seemingly endless, ungodly explosion. "Stay down, Claire." Tegan's voice blew hot against her ear. "I promised him I'd get you out of here in one piece." "Noo!" she cried, beyond caring if she lived or died, watching in horror as the derelict barn blasted skyward in a blinding mass of flames and heat and thick, roiling smoke. The plumes of fire shot out in all directions, showering large chunks of splintered wood and burning embers down onto the forest.

More heat erupted from out of the hole bored into the earth beneath the barn, the entrance to the bunker from which Andreas had yet to escape. "Oh, my God… no! He's still down there! Andreas, no!" She vaulted to her feet. Tegan's hold was firm on her arm, but she shook him off with a desperate cry. "Let me go, damn you!" Adrenaline and despair sent her flying over the debris-strewn ground, through the thick growth of trees that was illuminated with unearthly orange light from the fire that seethed where the old barn had stood not a minute ago. She felt Tegan following behind her. The other warriors were moving in, too, silent and cautious. One of the Breedmates murmured a soft prayer for Andreas, tender words that Claire could hardly bear to hear. She walked closer to the roaring heat. It was overwhelming, hitting her like a furnace thrown open in her face. Still, she kept moving toward it, transfixed by the earthen crater of rubble and smoldering ash that had collapsed inward with the blast. "Andreas," she called softly.

Then louder, hoping he could hear her. Hoping for a miracle. "Andreas!" When she would have gone even closer, close enough that the flames would have touched her, Tegan's hands came down gently on her shoulders. "Come on, Claire. Don't do this to yourself." "Andre!" she cried, stubbornly refusing to give up. A new plume of sparks belched upward from within the molten core of the crater, making the rubble shift and groan. She felt the warrior's grasp on her tighten, and she knew he was prepared to carry her out of there if she delayed another second. But Claire didn't budge. She called to Andreas again, her voice hitching on a sob as another deep rumble sounded from belowground. Then she noticed something odd about the smoldering pit of cinders and churning flames … Deep within its core, something was moving.

"Holy hell," Tegan said, obviously spotting the same thing she had. "Holy fucking hell. It can't be–" "Andreas," Claire gasped, awestruck and incredulous, and so very, very relieved. She watched the rubble give way and melt around him as he climbed out of the center of the inferno and rose to stand on the edge of the crater, his body aglow with the white-hot power of his extraordinary, terrifying gift. Smoke billowed above him in great black clouds. Flames roared and undulated from behind him like a seething volcano, yet he stood there unscathed. "Thank God," she whispered, her heart soaring. But then she realized something about him was terribly wrong.

The heat that enveloped him–the same heat that had proven impervious to bullets that first night she'd seen him like this–might have been the only thing that spared him from the killing force of the explosion, but the glow that surrounded him was brighter than ever. Hotter than the fires that roared all around him from the blast. His gaze was vacant as it traveled from Claire to the others gathered there. Light poured out of his eye sockets, searing and inhuman. Merciless. Claire took a step toward him, hesitant now. "Andreas? Andre…can you hear me?" That flat, burning gaze swung back to her now. Heat blasted her, pushing her several paces in retreat. He wasn't looking at her, she realized, but through her. He didn't see her there, no more than he saw the rest of the warriors–his friends–standing before him in stunned silence. Claire recognized the danger he posed like this, even if he was too far gone to recognize it for himself now. She had to break through to him. "Andre, it's me, Claire. Talk to me. Tell me you know me. That you're all right." He snarled, low and deadly, in the back of his throat. She didn't let it scare her. Keeping her eyes locked on his, she took a step toward him.

"Jesus Christ," Tegan hissed from nearby. He moved to block her path. "Claire, I don't think you should–" A fireball sailed through the air, crashing into the ground at Tegan's feet. "Andre, no!" Tegan leapt out of the way of the assault, taking Claire with him. Andreas roared then, and let fly a sudden hail of flaming orbs. Chunks of dark earth ripped loose as the baseball-size blasts hit the ground, driving everyone back. Claire screamed for him to stop, and for a moment she thought he would. He looked at her, then suddenly lifted his hands to the sides of his head and staggered unsteadily on his feet. The glow around him dimmed as he pressed his palms hard against his temples, his face contorting in a grimace of pain. When Claire glanced beside her, she saw the reason why. Renata held him in a fixed, unblinking stare.

As the Breedmate had done to the Gen One assassins a short time ago, now she blasted Andreas with the power of her mind. He went down on one knee, the rippling heat that traveled his body flickering like a strobe. When she let up, Andreas was panting and shuddering. But the glow still enveloped him. And as he lifted his head, the roar that ripped out of his mouth shook the entire forest with feral, deadly fury.