Ashes of Midnight (Chapter Twenty-Nine)

Wilhelm Roth turned away from the old barn's hidden closed-circuit cameras after the Order had mowed down the handful of Minions posted as guards at the ground-level entrance of the lab. The Minions were expendable, nothing more than an obstacle for appearance sake. After all, the Order might be suspicious if he and Dragos had rolled out a red carpet to welcome them. Let them think they had to expend some effort for their prize.

Lull them into believing they were actually the ones in control, when their arrival had been anticipated–indeed, encouraged–all along. Now that they had all gained entrance to the underground facility, it would be only minutes before the group of warriors and Andreas Reichen found their way down the bunker's earthen catacombs to the heart of Dragos's headquarters. A few minutes more than that before they realized the trap they'd entered and understood there could be no escape. Just a matter of minutes before Roth had the distinct pleasure of killing them all in one fell swoop. He smiled with genuine glee as he motioned to the half-dozen Gen One assassins gathered with him in the control room. "Two of you come with me," he said, not caring which of Dragos's homegrown, highly trained killers accompanied him since they were all born and bred to deal in death.

"The rest of you head up to guard the entrance. Make sure no one gets in or out." As four of them moved to carry out his command, Wilhelm Roth walked out of the control room to await his moment of triumph over Andreas Reichen and his doomed companions.

Tegan and Nikolai were the first ones down the dank, dark tunnel that had been carved deep into the earth and fortified by concrete and carbide steel supports. A few seconds after they'd descended, Niko came back up and signaled an all-clear to Brock, Kade, and Reichen. Hunter and Renata stayed on watch outside, covering the search party's exit. Once they'd removed the Minion guards from the entrance, Reichen and the others had moved into the old barn, which, they soon realized, wasn't so old after all. Nothing about the hidden bunker was as it seemed on the outside. At the other end of the sloping tunnel, easily some several hundred feet below, the bunker expanded and spread out as wide and long as a gymnasium. Fluorescent lights washed the place out in a pale white glow, illuminating cafeteria-style tables and chairs that had been stacked neatly against one wall.

A hinged door with a round window at eye level appeared to open into some sort of kitchen and service area, also empty and evidently closed for business although the odors of recently cooked food still hung cloyingly in the air. "Guess who's coming to dinner," Kade drawled under his breath. Brock scowled as he nodded. "Humans." "Minions," Tegan corrected with a snarl as he sniffed derisively. "Helluva lot of them, too. Dragos keeps plenty of staff down here." Nikolai grunted. "Yeah, but for what?" "Let's find out," Tegan said, motioning the group forward with him as he moved through the empty space to the corridor that let out on the other side. They crept soundlessly past multiple spoking hallways and door after door of vacant dormitory-type rooms with basic twin cots, shared toilets, and a decided lack of personal touches.

"Jesus," Kade whispered. "How many Minions does one twisted bastard need at his beck and call, anyway?" "Enough to man a very expansive clinical endeavor," Reichen said, pausing in front of a pair of steel doors that he'd pushed open a crack in order to peer inside. Beyond the doors was a massive laboratory with half-emptied cabinets and gaping file drawers, clumsily cleared work spaces, and a polished floor littered with pieces of equipment broken in what appeared to have been a hasty evacuation. The warriors entered cautiously, taking note of what little assets remained. There were a handful of toppled microscopes and cracked slides, and sundry other items that looked like they'd once starred in a chemist's wet dream. "Check this out," Kade called from the far side of the lab. He indicated a lidded stainless steel drum that looked like a giant pressure cooker.

"Now, what the hell do you suppose this thing does?" Reichen and Tegan walked over with Brock and Nikolai, glancing inside the large cylinder as Kade popped the seals on the top and opened the lid. It was no longer plugged in, so the temperature inside had warmed considerably from the deep freeze maintained while the unit was operable, and the contents had all been removed. Still, there was no mistaking the machine's purpose. "It's a cryo container," Reichen said. Tegan nodded grimly. He jerked his chin toward another nearby room, where a skewed fleet of clear Plexiglas boxes like one might expect to see in the maternity wing of a human hospital had been parked haphazardly along the far wall. "Incubators. Jesus Christ. Dragos is running a fucking breeding factory down here."

"Or was," Nikolai said. "He obviously cleared out in a hurry." "Maybe he knew we were coming," Brock suggested. "Can't speak for anyone else, but I'm starting to get a real bad vibe." Kade gave his buddy an affirming look. "I don't like it, either. Getting in was too easy. This could be some kind of trap." "All the rats do seem to have fled this ship," Nikolai added. "Maybe they were on to something. Dragos wouldn't leave a facility like this vulnerable to attack unless it was deliberate. I'd bet my left nut that he's long gone from here, and took everything of value with him." "Dragos may be gone," Reichen said, "but Wilhelm Roth is in here somewhere, and I mean to find the son of a bitch." Anger spiked as he dismissed his own sense of unease to focus on a more immediate, crucial goal. "Turn back, if you want. I won't begrudge any of you for it.

But I'm going to push on." Tegan's green eyes glittered dangerously. "Too many unanswered questions down here to turn back without covering every square inch of this hellhole. Fuck you very much, if you think we're gonna let you do this on your own, Reichen." Reichen held that verdant stare and knew a deep appreciation for the kinship he'd formed with this warrior. With all of the Order, in fact. The rest of the warriors didn't hesitate to nod their agreement with Tegan, or to fall in beside Reichen and him as they headed deeper into the empty facility. Just when Dragos's secret operation seemed it couldn't get any more disturbing, Reichen caught his first glimpse of a long wing of prison cells, just as Claire had described from her dreamwalk with Roth. Except none of them contained captive Breedmates, a fact that gave little comfort when it was obvious from the condition of the cells that they'd only recently been evacuated. "Holy hell," Niko murmured as the group of them strode into the area to see them up close.

"There's got to be fifty cages here. If these were occupied with imprisoned females, what has Dragos done with them all?" "Moved them, no doubt," Tegan said. "Possibly to the same place he relocated all of his staff and equipment, although he might be splitting up his assets now that he's been forced to leave this location in a hurry." "That is one sick fuck," Brock remarked as he peered inside one of the cells and ran his big hand over his skull-trimmed head. "You ain't seen nothing yet." Kade had walked over to a heavily bolted door perhaps a bit too conveniently unlocked now. He stepped into the room on the other side and blew out a low whistle.

"What. The. Fuck." Reichen and the others followed him inside. A shocked and prolonged silence fell over each of the Breed males, from the youngest of the group to the centuries-old Gen One whom Reichen had never once seen rattled beyond words. For within the space on the other side of that door was a broad platform raised slightly off the floor. And on that platform was a large, pivotable chair rigged with heavy restraints built for an inpidual of immense size and strength. Ankle braces as thick as a woman's thigh. Shackles for powerful wrists that must have supported hands big enough to crack an average human's skull like a walnut.

"This is where he's been keeping the Ancient," Tegan said, the first of them able to form words. "Holy shit. He's had the Ancient under his control all this time." "How?" Nikolai asked, then glanced down near their feet and exhaled a sober curse. "Ultraviolet light bars. Check the floor. The ceiling, too. The entire perimeter of this platform is circled by an array of UV light fixtures. When they're activated, the UV bars would contain the Ancient inside better than the strongest, thickest kind of metal." The words were barely out of Niko's mouth before a sudden, odd hum rent the air around them. Intense light exploded from all directions, so bright and hot, Reichen and the others had no choice but to cover their eyes with updrawn arms. He smelled the acrid taint of singed skin. At first, he worried that his pyro had awakened from out of nowhere. Then he realized this was something even worse. Reichen squinted beyond the piercing blast of light, upward, toward a glassed-in viewing area he hadn't noticed above the Ancient's holding cell until that very moment.

Inside that viewing area stood Wilhelm Roth, grinning with smug satisfaction as Reichen, Tegan, and the rest of the warriors who'd come with them were hemmed in tight by the lethal vertical beams of ultraviolet light that surrounded them on all sides. Roth motioned to a pair of big males–black-clad, hard-eyed, and bristling with automatic weapons. Both males bore thick black polymer collars around their necks, their shaved heads and bare throats covered in Gen One glyphs, every massive, muscled inch of them seething deadly purpose. The two assassins exited both sides of the viewing area to twin landings at the top of a double flight of stairs. They took aim on Reichen and the others trapped inside the UV light cage, then opened fire.